“Can you take the bus tomorrow? I need to use your car,” Jenny said, as everyone sat down to dinner.
“Yeah, sure. What’s wrong with your car?” Madison asked.
“It’s stuck at the shop for another day.”
“Transmission?” Phil asked.
“Yeah. I’ve had it with this car. I don’t know how I’m going to swing this. The guy said it’ll be nearly two grand. I don’t have two fucking grand.”
“Why not?” Madison asked.
Jenny looked at her with a puzzled expression.
“I mean,” Madison continued, “you have a decent paying job. More than one, actually. I honestly don’t understand why money is always so short. I’m not trying to be mean or anything. But… where does it go?”
Jenny sighed. “I ask myself that question every damn day. Where does it go?”
“Debt mostly, right?” Phil asked.
“Debt?” Madison asked. “How come?”
“Ah. Well that’s a long story. It starts with your dad. You know he was an addict.”
“Yeah… Like drugs, right?”
“Drugs, booze, gambling. Whatever people get addicted to, he was there for it. And when he disappeared—you were just three or so—he owed money to some very scary people. I maxed out my credit cards and refinanced my car to get the cash to make them go away. And then after the accident when you were five, my insurance sucked, and so I ended up in hock to the hospital on top of it.”
“But that was more than 10 years ago,” Madison said.
Jenny shrugged. “Once you get behind, the system is rigged to make sure you never get ahead. They let you just pay the minimum, knowing that you’ll be paying them forever. They don’t want you to catch up. Ever.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Madison said.
“The people with the money and power make the rules, not people like us.”
“Ever consider bankruptcy?” Phil asked.
“I can’t. I still want to buy a house some day. I’m going to need a loan for my next car. My credit score isn’t good, but it isn’t terrible. They like that I manage to pay my bills on time. Bankruptcy would destroy my credit,” Jenny said. “Things will be better come tax season. That extra income helps a lot.”
“So how do you get out of it?” Madison asked. “If bankruptcy is off the table, what other way is there to pay off the debt so you aren’t just falling further and further behind?”
“Hitting the lottery helps,” Phil suggested.
Jenny slumped in her chair. “I wish I knew, sweetie. I pay stuff down a little here and a little there. That’s all you can do. And scrimp and save, so you don’t make things worse by needing to borrow even more.”
“Maybe dad will show up and give you fifteen years of back child support,” Madison said with a little smile.
“Can you imagine? What would that be?” Jenny paused as she did the math in her head. “Nearly two hundred grand.”
“Plus interest,” Phil said.
“I included interest,” Jenny replied.
“Of course you did,” Phil said.
“That’d cover it, right?” Madison asked.
“Oh definitely. Yeah, that would pay everything off and leave us enough to go to Denny’s.”
“Denny’s closed,” Madison said.
“Really?” her mother asked.
“Yeah. The last one in the city is gone. We’d have to go to IHOP instead.”
“Breakfast all day?” Phil asked.
“All damn day and all night, too,” Madison replied.
“I can’t remember the last time we went out,” Jenny said.
“Don’t look at me,” Phil said. “I suggest it all the time. You always say no.”
“It feels like such a waste. The food isn’t as good as what we have at home. Not at the places we can afford, anyway,” Madison said.
“I agree,” Jenny said.
“It’s funny,” Phil said. “The guys at work are constantly complaining that their wives and daughters spend too much money. And I have the opposite problem. You guys are so frugal.”
“Frugal?” Madison asked.
“It means we don’t like to spend money,” Jenny said.
“Oh. I’m not frugal. I love to spend money,” Madison replied. “It’s just I don’t have any. Everything I make goes into my car or my college savings.”
“Keep that up, kiddo, so you don’t end up in my situation,” Jenny said.
“And don’t let an addict get me pregnant.”
“Definitely don’t let an addict get you pregnant,” Jenny agreed.