The young mother looked at her reflection in the door of the microwave and shook her head. “Um . . . because it costs a lot of money.”
“But why does it cost a lot of money?”
“Well, I don’t know. I think maybe the people who own the gas are just greedy. I saw in the paper just a few weeks ago how they made something like thirty billion dollars in profit in like the last three months or something. You’re telling me with all that money they can’t afford to sell gas for a little bit less? It’s just greed. They know we all need gas, and that they can make a lotta money by making people pay an arm and a leg or it, and they don’t care that people like you and me have to suffer because of it.”
“That’s not very nice,” said the child.
“No,” said the young mother, “it’s not.”
The child pirouetted and walked out of the kitchen. “Mommy?” the child called from the living room barely ten seconds later. “Can I call my friend to say I’m not coming?”
She put down the wooden spoon. “No . . . just come sit at the table, baby. Your soup’s almost ready.” She took two bowls from the clean side of the sink and filled them with hot soup.
Her child took a seat. She grabbed two spoons from the silverware drawer and sat down across from the child, placing a spoon in one bowl and sliding it across the table. She watched as her child glumly slurped the soup from the spoon. “Finish your dinner, and maybe we’ll ride bikes to the park down the street. You can swing on the swings.” She leaned forward and rested her chin on the table. “Okay?”
The child thought it over a second. “Okay.”
Smiling bittersweetly, the young mother watched as her child finished the entire bowl of soup.
. . .
Somewhere else at roughly the same time, a finely dressed older man reached his hand out the window of his car and took the copy of the day’s newspaper his driver had just purchased for him inside the gas station. He opened to the business section, read a bit, and let out a groan.
“Bad news?” asked the driver from the front seat as he snapped on his seat belt.
“Do you know . . . I remember when crude hit eighty dollars per barrel, we all thought that was high. Now it drops to a hundred twenty per barrel, and we all shout ‘hosanna!’”
“I guess I shouldn’t let you see the receipt for today’s fill-up, then,” said the driver as he drove out of the parking lot.
“How much was it?” the old man asked, looking up from his newspaper.
“A hundred twenty-seven.”
The old man winced. “Well, thank God I can afford it, eh?”
The driver chuckled. “Yes sir.”
“Look at this,” said the old man, reading further on down the page, “the speaker and the president still refuse to call Congress back into session to vote on an energy bill. If you ask me, the whole gang should be run out of town.” He put the paper down in his lap. “You know, I always hear about all the money the oil industry has given in campaign donations to all these politicians. I just have to wonder what the hell we’re paying for.”
“Certainly doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of good,” said the driver.
“All of this, this so-called energy crisis, how worthless the dollar is, it’s all the fault of these so-called public servants. They tax and regulate the petroleum industry into oblivion, and then when it still manages to turn a profit despite it all, they want to take that, too.”
“There are more taxes driving up that gasoline price than anything the industry has done! And now they want to throw on a windfall profit tax on top of it? What is a ‘windfall profit?’ Do you know what a windfall profit even is?”
“Profiteering, maybe,” said the driver. “Charging more than is necessary in order to maximize earnings.”
“But isn’t that what a business is supposed to do? What — shall I call up my broker and tell him to only buy stock in companies with razor-thin profit margins?”
“I don’t suppose that would make a lot of sense.”
“You don’t suppose right!” The old man lifted the paper, but lowered it again a moment later. “Eight percent. That’s how much profit the oil companies are making, their all-time record profits. Eight percent — did you know that?”
“I might have heard something . . .”
“If that’s a windfall profit, what about all the industries with ten, or twenty, or thirty percent profit margins? What about Coca-Cola, or those fiends who make cigarettes? Shall we impose windfall profits on them as well?”
The driver sighed. “You never hear much about that, do you?” After a few seconds of quiet, the driver said, “Maybe someday the industry and the government will reach a compromise that benefits everyone.”
“HA!” the old man ejaculated. “Which country are you from?” Grumbling, he went back to the newspaper. “When is that hybrid Escalade being delivered?” he asked off-handedly as he turned to the sports pages.
“Let’s hope I’ve got enough left to pay for it, eh?”
The old man laughed. His driver chuckled weakly, and eased his foot onto the brake pedal as he approached a yellow light.
. . .
At that moment in another part of the country, a man in his early thirties who worked as a member of the maintenance staff at a truck stop wiped down the walls of a public shower stall with a ragged towel. When he had nearly finished cleaning the stall, his boss’s voice summoned him to the front office over the public address speaker.
In the office, the boss jotted a number on a small piece of paper and handed it to the maintenance man. “Need you to change the gas price.”
The maintenance man looked at the paper. “Going up again?”
The boss shrugged.
“This ain’t right,” the maintenance man said, letting the hand with the paper drop at his side. “I feel like shit, changing the sign and making the price go up all the time.”
“This is ridiculous. Who can afford to pay this much for a tank of gas?”
“I don’t know.” The boss sat down in his rolling chair, leaned back and folded his arms. “I wish it were up to me, but it’s not. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
The maintenance man snorted cynically. “You right. Lemme see, should I write a letter to the oil company CEO that just made himself thirty million dollars off people like me having to pay four bucks for a gallon of gas, or should I write a letter to my representative who doesn’t give a shit because that CEO is financing his re-election campaign?”
The boss shook his head. “Yep. It’s a pretty pitiful situation.”
“And you know, everybody knew this was coming for years and years, and you couldn’t bother any of those guys to do a damn thing. Now that we’re all taking it in the wallet and starting to complain, all they can do is make excuses. ‘Oh, we just want to drill for more oil, that’ll fix everything.’ Or, ‘oh, we need to go to alternative fuel, and solar energy,’ all that shit. Sure would’ve been nice if somebody had just done something these last — what, twenty years — wouldn’t it?”
“You gotta figure something would’ve been better than nothing.”
“Would’ve been better than four dollars a gallon, I’d bet you that much.” The maintenance man looked at the price written on the paper again. “I mean, if all we need is more oil, why aren’t they drilling on all that land they’ve already got they ain’t even explored yet? They’re all jumping up and down, drooling on themselves, waiting to get into some nature preserve in Alaska — what about all that land they’ve got right now? You telling me they’re pulling out every last drop they possibly can? Come on.”
“Nah, that’s just politics.”
“Politics. There’s the whole thing right there. Politics. The other side says we need ethanol, we need all these renewable things — well, why’d they wait until now to start pushing for it? Everybody’s known as long as I remember that the oil was gonna run out eventually. Why ain’t we been building solar panels and windmills and making ethanol this whole time?” The maintenance man sighed. “I’d love to hear someone answer that question.”
“Yep,” said the boss, nodding. He swiveled toward his computer. “You’d better go take care of that sign. I need to change the price on the pumps.”
“Right,” said the maintenance man. He turned and left the office.
He carried a stack of Lucite numbers out to the sign, and changed the gas price. He glanced to his right at one of the pumps on his way back to the building. The most recent transaction, still visible on the digital display, had been for ten dollars’ worth of gas. Whoever that was, the maintenance man hoped they didn’t have far to go.
. . .
Now then . . .
Shortly thereafter, through a stupendously unlikely confluence of events, the heroes of our three stories met their demises at almost the same moment. They found themselves standing together just outside a gleaming golden gate. With nothing else to do while they waited for something to happen, they soon found themselves in conversation with one another.
“So, what did everyone do for a living?” the old man asked.
“I was barely making ends meet as a waitress at this crummy local barbecue joint,” said the young mother. “I hope my baby will get along all right without me . . .”
“I worked at a truck stop,” said the maintenance man. “What about you?” he asked the old man.
“A maintenance man, really? I was a custodian many years ago, when I was even younger than you. Later, I got lucky, made quite a bit of money in the oil business.”
The young mother looked away and grunted.
“I beg your pardon?” asked the old man.
“Nothing,” the young mother told him, smiling, shaking her head. “I guess it shouldn’t matter now. I was just going to thank you for all those overpriced tanks of gas I had to buy in order to hold down my dead-end job.”
“Now just a second,” the old man said, “that wasn’t my fault. It’s a shame there isn’t a dead congressman or senator around at the moment. You could take it up with him.”
The maintenance man snorted. “Man, it was you guys and them guys in it together — that’s what pushed gas prices up. Listen to you, standing there saying it wasn’t your fault, like you were the victim. From the look of that suit, I’d say you never had to sweat gassing up your fucking limo.”
A bald, bearded man in a white robe whom all three of them took to be St. Peter emerged from a smaller door to the left of the great gate, and took his position behind an oak lectern a few feet in front of them. He regarded the trio and instantly sensed the tension. “Am I interrupting anything?”
They exchanged glances. The maintenance man turned to St. Peter. “No. Nothing, sir.”
“The ‘sir’ isn’t necessary,” St. Peter said as he paged through a sheaf of paper. “Well, the good news is, you all made it in.” He looked up at them and smiled. “So, congratulations.”
“Thank you,” they each said in turn, though none of them could still quite believe what was going on.
St. Peter clasped his hands and rested them atop the lectern. “Now, this being Paradise, we try not to let things get too heavy. So, if any of you have anything to get off your chest, any burning eternal questions you need answered, out with them now. I don’t want you going through the gate with any residual ennui and bumming everybody out.”
“Well,” said the young mother, glancing at her two companions, “now that you mention it, we were just arguing about . . . this will sound stupid.”
“No, go right ahead,” said St. Peter. “Believe me, I’ve heard stupider. You should’ve heard the shit D. James Kennedy was asking . . .”
“Okay. Well then, why were gas prices so high before we died? I mean, whose fault was it?”
St. Peter took a step back and looked behind his lectern. He pulled out a thick stack of paper bound with brass clips and tossed it to the young mother, who caught it awkwardly. “Those,” he said, “are the names of every person who was directly or indirectly responsible for the price of gasoline in your country, right up to the moment of your deaths.”
“I don’t think this is really what we were looking for,” said the maintenance man.
“Yes, I think we just wanted something like . . . that it was the fault of politicians,” said the old man.
“Or greedy oil executives,” said the young mother.
“Or maybe both of them,” said the maintenance man.
“Something a bit less specific, in other words,” said the old man, gesturing to the stack of names.
St. Peter grinned. “Less specific? What — did you really expect me to tell you it was the fault of the petroleum industry? Or the government? Or some collusion between those two?” St. Peter laughed. “As if anything is ever that simplistic! Which universe are you from?”