1989: An Engagement Ring

Today at the mall, instead of walking past the toy store so I can visit Malibu Barbie, we immediately walk into Littman’s jewelry store.

Dad says to the clerk, “Hi. My wife wants a marquise diamond. Could you show me something nice?”

While we’re waiting, I notice that Littman’s is special because you don’t have to walk in a door. The store carpet and mall tiles join together. Separated only by several large rectangular marble pillars. I lean against one of the cool pillars and notice how the white grey marble swirls together with the darker grey parts. One day you will build your whole house out of marble. It will be a castle. And daddy can live there too because he loves marble so much.

The salesman pipes up, “Okay sir. This is a one of our most popular one carat settings in 14 karat gold.”

Dad nods his head, “Beautiful. How much does that one run?”

“It’s $8,188.”

Oh my gosh. I’ve never seen $8,000. How could we ever get that? Is that what my mom needs to be happy? Will this make her love my dad and want to live with us?

Dad assures the man, “That’s not bad. I could buy it today.” Patting his pocket, dad says, “ I have the cash on me now, but I want to make sure this is the one my wife really wants.”

Later that night, Dad calls California from our motel efficiency room. It’s another temporary place to live while Dad waits for an unemployment check. We’ve been here for a month now after the owner of a motel a few miles up the road kicked us out for not paying rent.

I lay belly down on the bed beside Dad while I color on the back of a hotel brochure so he won’t realize how much I want to listen to their adult conversation.

Dad pulls the beige rotary motel phone from the nightstand to the bed, “Deborah? It’s Thomas.”

Mom’s high pitched voice is easy to make out. “Tommy? Where are you calling me from? Where’s Jenny Penny?”

“We’re here in Lake George. I got us a nice efficiency.”

After doodling all over the brochure, I pull out a picture taken 2 years earlier, when I was 6. It’s the only picture I have of my mom; she’s holding me and beaming. We are seating around the convent kitchen behind 3 enormous lemon meringue pies that my dad baked.

“Oh ok. Well I hope you are not feeding Jenny Penny candy and soda.”

I glance back at our small table where dinner awaits: two Slim Jims, a pack of Twizzlers and a Crunch bar. We don’t drink anything but soda. Usually grape, cream, or root beer. 

Dad assures her, “Nah. Don’t worry about that. I called to tell you that I found the diamond ring that you want today…the marquise.”

“Thomas, get real. You don’t even have the money to buy a decent car. You’re not going to buy me a diamond ring.”

“No Deborah, listen to me. I know that you still love me. I can always tell by your voice. I took Jenny today and we saw the ring. I already spoke to the man about it. It’s $8,188. But don’t worry, I will have the money.”

I turn the picture over. I take a black felt tip pen from the nightstand and write 8188 on the back of the photo. This is our new goal.

Silence.

“Come on Deb. Come home and I promise to make everything right! See you’re crying. I knew that you still loved me.”

1991: A Glorious Summer

Dad and I rumble up to the First National bank in the red and white Chevy Malibu.

“Jenny, the bastards owed you and Daddy this ten-thousand. It’s retroactive, you know. Poppa will never forget the look on the judge’s face when I took my shirt off right in court to show him these bumps all over my body.”

Glad that I was in school that day.

 “That judge said to your Father, ‘Mr. K, I’m granting you your social security disability because I can see that you’re not fit to work.’”

Not because of the bumps, though!

“And that’s what Daddy’s trying to teach you. Never say you can’t. And never ever give up!”

After we open a checking account and get a wad of cash, Dad heads to the apartment complex where we were supposed to live with my mom.

Dad phones the rental office, “Hi, this is Tom. I called about moving to a two-bedroom apartment with my wife. Well, she left, so I’ll only need the one-bedroom now.”

We pick up the apartment keys at the construction office near the airport. Dad enjoys flipping off some crisp hundred-dollar bills for the apartment manager. $700.

“Well, Poppa’s little girl. Looks like we’re going to need some furniture. Better go blow some of this cash. Then, maybe Daddy will still have time to bet the late double.”

Furniture? Oh yeah! We’ve never owned that before.

When Dad pulls into the most expensive furniture store in town, I know he feels like celebrating.

We stay for an hour, and spend a couple grand.

“Well Jenny, Pops thinks you did good for your first time picking out furniture. That Broyhill set we bought for your bedroom is excellent quality. You’ll have it for your whole life.”

I have my own bedroom furniture! It even has a matching desk and chair set. This is my favorite part.

Dad, realizing the time, blurts out, “Shit. We haven’t eaten all day. Let’s get our asses to Wendy’s and get four of those 99-cent junior bacon cheeseburgers. Maybe even a milkshake, if you want it. No cheapening ourselves today, Jenny Leigh!”

I pinch myself to see if I’m still alive. It can’t be happening. We’ve never had more than two 99-cent cheeseburgers and a Coke to share.

 I wonder what else is going to change now that we are rich?

 The next week instead of stocking the fridge with frozen mystery meat, dad buys real fruit, and chicken breasts, and lettuce.

We get cable, but not just any cable. HBO. The first night the new couch and entertainment center arrives, we stay up until 2 am watching Pet Cemetery. That night, I’m too scared to sleep.

 Okay, so some things never change.

 The following month, I turn 10. Dad throws me my first birthday party. It’s at East Field, the park across from our new apartment. The theme is Barbie. My friends from school are invited. Even the girls that I don’t like. But that’s only because they’re snobby.

“Jenny, you have to invite everyone because that’s the way Daddy’s raising you. You’re no better than anybody else. You might be raised better than them, and have more respect for yourself. But, I always want you to do what’s right.”

The next day he takes me to a marching band concert in the park. When we get to the gate, they say, “That will be $30 each.”

I see Dad’s eye flicker a bit, but he hands over the $60.

This time I don’t pinch myself. You’re living in a fairy tale. I fully expect Cinderella’s mice to appear and break out in song at any moment.

This is the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life. And this is the best summer ever.

 I feel like the puppet, Pinocchio, except I was just turned into a real little girl.