Everything Was Beautiful, and Nothing Hurt

His hand dug into the pocket of his faded blue jeans and passed a solitary crumpled dollar bill to the gas station attendant. She unfolded it, staring George Washington in the eye, and frowned slightly, as if the extraneous amount of energy expended by placing the bill in the register didn't equal up to the tiny monetary amount she made indirectly through the Shell Station's gain. He could read her like an open book; it was something he'd always been good at, and on days where he felt particularly nonsensical, he liked to half-believe that it was some innate ability that he alone possessed. It wasn't all that special, really. The smug look on her face would have given her irritation away just as easily as intuition had, if not easier.

She looked to be college age, and was gaining more weight than was healthy, which Sparks unconsciously attributed to a diet of stolen Shell Station snack cakes. He watched his tired image in the reflection of her thick glasses for a moment, and then turned towards the door, wondering why she looked perpetually annoyed.

For the last year and a half, he'd been paying for his gas that way — in one-dollar increments. One dollar represented one trip from his apartment to the downtown area and back. It represented another job opportunity that he would inevitably blow. And so, on a larger scale, one dollar represented another late rent payment, the decay of his economic stability, and his eventual fate as a homeless, jobless, car-less, gas-less human being, perhaps stealing Shell Station snack cakes when Jane Impatience was too busy feeling jaded to watch the aisles.

In the 80's, his 1968 Camaro convertible was a gleaming trophy of coolness. Heads turned when the forest green automobile slid into a parking space at the local Sonic, hair-band music blasting from his primitive sound system. He'd earned the name "Sparks" then, when he accidentally started a small chemical fire during his fourth period chemistry class. Sonic waitresses didn't wear roller-skates anymore, and that disappointed him. Now, his car served as even more frustrating source of disappointment. Rusted and constantly belching dark smoke from an exhaust system that likely didn't measure up to current regulation specifications, its coolness had completely faded. Now, he just got wet when it rained.

He pulled out of the Shell Station faster than he needed to, his discolored metal bumper scraping against the concrete as he hit a speed bump on his way out. The highway was by far the quickest route back to his apartment, but at night he preferred to go a longer route, through a system of back roads that took him past seemingly endless fields. Though farmers grew limited amounts of crops on some of them, they were primarily fallow, large tracts of slowly dying brown grass rippling against the wind. While everything else fell apart, he took comfort in the fact that he could stop his car on that lonely stretch of road and just sit for a while, staring at the stars, and listening to the wind trying vainly to move the tall grass. The grass always bent in reply, waiting for the wind to give way to calmer conditions. His ability to appreciate things in that manner gave him hope that perhaps he wasn't too far gone.

Or, he thought, as he pressed down the gas pedal, maybe he wasn't gone at all. People around him had this habit of labeling him as a slacker (or loser in general) simply because he was between jobs, drove an old car, lived in a trashy apartment building, and listened to an unhealthy amount of Foreigner's music. He liked Foreigner. That would never change. Nor would his shoes.

Back in the day, his Converse All-Stars had been a symbol of social status. They had been part of the winning combination of personality traits and material possessions that granted him access to the "popular table" in the lunchroom. Things hadn't bothered him then, when his largest worries in life were centered around whether or not The Fantastic Four would be able to keep Dr. Doom from destroying the planet. Back then, everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

Where'd he gotten that phrase? The answer came to him soon, after a few minutes of frustrated mind searching: Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut had written it in Slaughterhouse Five. Billy Pilgrim was sitting in the middle of the worst war in human history, and the best advice offered to him was to accept that the world is a tough place, and that he should try thinking about happier times. Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

Sparks didn't buy that. He decided, as he rounded a sharp corner, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes, that ever fixating on a time in that way was as false as the leather in his car, which had replaced his old leather at some point during college. A series of teenage cigarette burns and accidental tears had left the original upholstery in a less than desirable condition.

Why things other than himself had always determined his happiness was something that had endlessly confused him. It wasn't until his life (at least in terms of wealth) went downhill that he realized that his image and assets could never make him happy. And still, he was a slave to the inevitable proletariat evolution of school, followed by work, and then being placed on a statistical scale of worth based on total net worth and popularity among co-workers at Christmas parties. It wasn't that he was dangling from the end of that scale that frustrated him; it was that he was subservient to a view of self-worth that he despised in the first place. He pushed the gas pedal down harder, and that product of stylishness and mass production, a manufacturing masterpiece crafted through the patient work of countless pieces of machinery, accelerated steadily down the lonely midnight stretch of road.

He didn't want to stop. It had become too frustrating to try and live outside a set of pressures an entire society forced upon him. He pushed the gas pedal down harder, the little orange arrow on his speedometer sliding to the right increasingly fast. Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt. He would go as fast as he could, and the next sharp back road curve would be met with no turning of the wheel. He would sail through the guardrail and off of the road, into the fields of ever-swaying grass, where he would meet his untimely end. Family members would realize they hadn't heard from him a few years down the road, at which point a curmudgeonly police officer would explain to them over the phone that an elderly man on a tractor had found him several days after the accident. He would offer false condolences, and then curse as he spilled coffee on his lap for the third time in the same morning.

He saw the next curve coming, the Camaro's pedal pressing firmly against the floor of the car. He closed his eyes, waiting.

He opened his eyes when the car began to slow dramatically before coming to a gentle rest against the road's guardrail. Apparently, one dollar's worth of gas couldn't get him back to his side of town when he was rocketing down the road at a smooth 97 miles per hour. He cursed loudly, yelling into the empty night air. His fist pounded against the steering wheel, which replied with a synchronized series of obnoxiously loud honks. He stepped out of his car, violently slamming the door shut, and began to walk down the road.

The nearest gas station wasn't as far away as he originally had remembered it being. Within twenty minutes, he had reached it. Within fifteen, he'd been able to see the glowing red "Conoco" sign, and just under it the "Open 24 Hours a Day" sign. That was reassuring. He approached it, already mentally preparing the story he would tell to explain why he'd gotten stranded. Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

The lights went out. A short cashier stepped out of the store through the glass doors, turning to lock the doors behind him. The cashier, hearing footsteps, turned around in a startled manner, inhaling sharply. "Excuse me? Can I help you?"

Well," Sparks began, reciting the first few lines from the rehearsed lie he'd had twenty minutes to devise, "I had a…gas leak." He was forgetting it all with every word he spoke. "And I patched it up, but I need some fuel." It occurred to him for the first time that he had no way of getting the aforementioned "fuel" back to his car. He was too busy thinking about middle school, when he'd played football. Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

"Sorry, we're closed." The glowing red 'Open 24 Hrs. Day' sign above his head seemed to scream irony, and Sparks glanced up at it, sighing, before looking back down at the cashier, who was tapping his foot impatiently. As if he had something good to go home to.

"But the sign says you"re open 24/7."

"Yeah, at midnight the shifts switch. Another person will be in here in 45 minutes."

"So really, your sign should probably say 'Open 23 hrs and 15 minutes a day,' right?"

"I guess so. I don't run the place. Just wait."

Sparks scratched his head. Here was another one, just like him, struggling vainly to carve himself a little bit of happiness out of a shelf-stocked existence, only this guy was clueless of the flaws inherent in the system. He would probably work at Conoco for years to come, perhaps clawing his way to lower management, which would mean a 15 cent pay increase and the right to take as many smoke breaks as he felt like.

Sparks tossed him the keys to his car, sighing once again. "Just up the road is a car. You can have it. I don't want it anymore."

The cashier raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly, sliding the keys into his pocket. "Why don't you want it? Is the car stolen or something?"

"I'd rather walk." It was really as simple as that.

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

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