By Kathleen McFall
Inside the pause, before I answer, I savor for an instant the arrow of another life colored sweeter by a lonely lie whose telling would last less than a sugary breath.
But I am not a liar, and so I tell my father the truth.
His face emits a shade of gray, as he is whipped by my news. Did I know when I sold Mona Gordon’s ring that my father would feel betrayed? I don’t remember, but I guess I didn’t consider the action from his point of view. Maybe this makes it a grander betrayal, but only if they come in different sizes, which they probably don’t.
“I want to buy it back,” he says.
“It’s not going to be there anymore,” I say.
“Trace the buyer. There must be records. I don’t care how much it costs.”
“Dad, it won’t be there. Too much time has passed. Years.”
“Take me to the place you sold it. Tomorrow. The moment it opens."
"I am disappointed in you," he says.
The story of this ring starts with a busted marriage.
Long ago, when my parents divorced, my father moved out, giving my mom the Palisades mid-century colonial with a wrap around front porch where I was born, the Buick and a guard dog German Shepard puppy we named Deena. Dad had his sights set on an MBA at Harvard and a woman he met in Portugal. Mom got busy earning a teaching degree, found a therapist to help unravel her crazy chicken farm childhood in Amish country and joined the singles group Parents Without Partners.
My two brothers and I visited my dad, who remained devoted to us, every other weekend in his new home, a barely-furnished Georgetown studio. I remember parquet floors and vanilla white walls and a porcelain pedestal sink stained metallic green from a faucet drip. A noisy broken exhaust fan over the two-burner stove. A couch that unfolded into an uncomfortable bed. My brothers and I stored our toothbrush and pajamas in a corner of the bottom drawer of his dresser. Mine was red, the pajamas flannel with polka dots of yellow sunflowers.
The childhood weekends of canned soup and boxed macaroni and cheese passed quickly, and the gods of real-estate, also known as gentrification, smiled on my father. The value of the studio skyrocketed. Dad smartly leveraged the step down bachelor pad, and bought a townhouse off of DuPont Circle, one with real bedrooms and a parking space, leaving the studio up for rent.
He advertised the rental in the local newspaper. Mona Gordon, an elderly childless widow with persistent watery eyes that flowed over paper-thin skin, won out. She filled the small space with antiques and family china and cedar-smelling woolen slacks, and that would have been that, he would never have seen her again, until she moved out or died.
But that first week, Mona Gordon wrote a rent check to my father for ten years. Ten years. This queenly gesture summoned his hibernating curiosity, compelling him to stop by the studio from time to time to spackle a hole, hang new curtains, or clean a spill Mona Gordon couldn’t quite reach.
After a few years of these occasional drop-ins, Dad accompanied Mona Gordon to the racetrack, one of her favorite pastimes. They planned their outing meticulously two months in advance but Dad didn’t tell anyone until that morning when he dryly announced he’d be gone the whole day. I imagined my father escorting her to a private box, placing bets on her behalf, loping back and forth between this widow and the wagering window. I was visiting from college by then.
My father was very happy after the trip to the racetrack, buoyant even. He laughed telling us that Mona Gordon chose her horses based on the rhythm of their names and never bet more than five dollars. As we listened to his stories from the day, it dawned on my father’s new wife (not the woman from Portugal, but the next one) and us kids that he had become genuinely attached to Mona Gordon.
Their mutual affection continued to grow over the years and became especially touching after his mother died after being struck violently by a car. She was walking on Main Street in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, after a trip to the corner store carrying peanut butter and white bread and apples and milk in a brown paper bag. The murdering hit-and-run driver was never found.
Dad had not spoken to his mother in six years, and he refused to tell us why. After her death, it got worse, and he completely clammed up about his mother. I told myself a story that he had been digesting his childhood, coming to terms with the wrongs, seeking to balance them with the rights. The kicker for him was that his mother died before he finished his digestion. I don't think he meant to leave it undone.
He repaired his wounded child heart with Mona Gordon, becoming even more doting. He did for her everything he wished he’d done for his mother. In return, she began to treat him as a son, playfully mocking him, occasionally chastising him, but mostly finding joy in his frequent visits and pride in the simple fact of his existence.
Mona Gordon enjoyed my father’s chatter about his three children and occasionally would request that one or the other of us pay her a visit. But never alone, always, always, my father would accompany the chosen child. It was fun to see my father in servile mode, to return to the little apartment in which I had spent so many weekends of my childhood, to witness the transformation of a familiar physical space by another life.
I remember the last time I was summoned. Perched on a settee sofa upholstered in a woodland print fabric, smiling, I worried I might drop the delicate Wedgwood teacup. Mona Gordon asked me to recall scenes of my childhood from inside the studio walls. I obliged; the memories were close to the surface. I was in the middle of a memory about Thanksgiving describing how my newly-divorced father served us a pressed turkey log which we all vomited up three hours later in that very bathroom over there, I pointed, when she interrupted me by opening her hand and asking me if I liked what I saw. Inside her gnarled fingers was a diamond ring with a flawless stone the size of my pinky fingernail surrounded by six smaller diamonds nestled elegantly in a platinum setting.
She said she wished me to have it, explaining that she could never wear it again, arthritis had wreaked permanent havoc on her thickened and gnarled knuckles. She wanted me to wear the pristine stone. I thanked her profusely, looked at my father for guidance but his eyes were locked in the ornate pattern woven into the floor rug. I told her that I could not possibly accept such a gift although I was flattered. Mona Gordon sighed.
Again, my eyes sought out those of my father. This time he met mine and said quietly that he had tried to talk Mona Gordon out of this gesture but, and he smiled at her, she is stubborn and once she makes up her mind … just take it, he told me, and save us all a bunch of useless words.
I did. Three weeks later at my wedding reception I wore it and understood why men traditionally give women diamonds. Eyes that normally would have gazed at my pregnant cleavage instead stole secret glances down to the rock on my finger. To protect the stone from theft, or perhaps to keep my own erotic wanderings in check, after the wedding I rented a safe-deposit box and hid the ring away.
Six months later, my father found Mona Gordon dead in the kitchen of the Georgetown studio. He wept, a child suddenly unmoored within an adult body. In the middle of the next month, I gave birth to a daughter and a week later, my eye blackened, I gave up the nascent hope that my shotgun marriage would transform my new husband into a caring man.
Over two days, I made the rounds of fancy jewelers up and down Connecticut Avenue, the ones without advertisements, to sell Mona Gordon’s ring.
This was the flavor of a typical excursion: I dress up in my best Goodwill suit. I smooth my hair. I put on drugstore mascara. The door to the shop is locked, and inside the stiff sales attendant eyes anyone who attempts to enter the fortress. He (always a he) buzzes me in by pushing a button beneath the display case of glittering rocks. Once inside, my appearance is more critically, and unfavorably, scrutinized. However, my place at the table, my power, is instantly acknowledged when I pull the bundle of tissue from my pocket and unwrap Mona Gordon’s ring. A flush of excitement on his face betrays his outward composure. It is an erotic desire to possess the gem, which I have felt and thus can appreciate. He draws on years of experience to control this spontaneous reaction, gracefully nods and, with deference and discretion, requests to examine the ring. Maybe he clears his throat once or twice. Politely, as if simply to make conversation, he then asks the question. Always the same question, but never in quite the same words. I give no real answer but stutter enough monosyllables with downcast eyes to allow the conclusion to be drawn as I desire — I am selling the ring my fiancé gave me before he jilted me for another woman. These men of commerce don’t need to know my marriage is shattered, that I am determined to save the future of my infant daughter.
I am shocked that no one in any of the jewelry fortresses offers me more than half of the appraisal price.
I have made the decision to sell the ring. With the money, I will hire a nanny for my new baby and rent my own studio apartment. For all of these things, I could ask my father for money. But I will also leave my husband, the father of my child. I cannot ask anyone to shoulder this cost. Mona Gordon’s ring, the now priceless gift from an old woman, will give me money to step out but it must be a fair transaction, my new life cannot be a disposition of guilty desperation.
Nearly no one attended Mona Gordon’s funeral. Mona Gordon had outlived her life. The room was scattered with neighbors and professional funeral home mourners and a half dozen or so modest flower bouquets with sad notes from long-lost, far-away friends and relatives. The few attendees deferred to my father as the primary mourner. He gave an eloquent eulogy about love before they took away her body. My father did not go to his own mother’s funeral. I went to his mother’s funeral, my grandmother. There was almost no one there either. And no eulogy.
I found a pawnshop on M Street. Well, not really a pawnshop of the seedy type the name conveys, but rather a jeweler with all the right displays but to my, by this time, seasoned eye, a vulgar place, a place to strike a deal. The signs were everywhere: the big, imposing safe in full view, the tags brazenly listing prices like a department store closeout sale, the crowded diamond shelves, the simple bell over the door instead of the class-conscious buzzing security guard. But mostly it was the man who defined this pawnshop.
When I walked in, he ignored me. He was a big man, with broad intimidating shoulders, shimmering, invisibly filling the compact space. When he finally turned, deigning to address me, he seemed more bear than man. I drew back, fearfully. On each finger, even his thumb, he wore fat rings with colorful, fruity gems.
“What do you want?” he asked. His voice was a deep, husky growl.
I thought of my daughter and pulled out the ring. He pawed at the diamond gently, cleaning off bits of pocket lint and tissue. He peered at it with an eye scope. He did not ask me why I wanted to sell the ring or how Mona Gordon’s ring came into my possession. The bear-man looked me up and down, but not in the condescending way of the salesmen in the fancy shops. In his ursine stare, I felt small and a little bit pitiful. Finally, yellowed ground-down teeth splashed widely across his face in a smile, and he offered me very near the full appraisal price. I accepted on the spot.
Although this bear-man is forever burned in my memory, not even the tiniest glimmer of recognition stirs from his narrow eyes when my father and I return to his shop. I describe the ring, I tell him emphatically, with as much drama as I can muster, that we simply must find Mona Gordon’s diamond. My father stands behind me, not speaking, judging the effect of each of my words as they spill onto the glass counters beneath which are tears and tears of jewels. He shrugs. He asks when I had been in. He shrugs again and says after so many years there is no telling where it is and that in all probability, the stone has been removed and set in a new ring or necklace or bracelet or even cuff links.
“Is there nothing I can do? I’ll pay anything to get the ring back,” my father says.
The ghost bear stares at my father. A heavy moment passes. Finally, he asks if we are related.
“Yes,” my father says, “I am her father.”
The man-bear sighs.
“I have a daughter too,” he says. “She is about the same age as this one.”
His proud shoulders slump. He growls quietly to himself. I remember his stare so long ago, right before he offered me almost the full price of the ring. How had it ever made any profit off of that sale, I now wonder.
And then he speaks directly to my father, bear to bear, his voice flowing above my head. I am no longer part of this story.
“This is what I can tell you about the ring. I can tell you without hearing another word that your daughter has done something wrong. I can tell you that the ring should have remained in your family forever. I can tell that this breaks your heart. But I can also tell you that the ring is gone, the deed is done. The past cannot be altered. Forgive your daughter.”
The bear man turns and lurches into his cavernous back room. My father turns and walks out of the pawnshop, into the city, alone. I stand in the middle surrounded by glittering diamonds and gems, none of which are Mona Gordon’s ring.
Through the glass, I watch my father pace back and forth on the sidewalk, until finally, he beckons and I follow him curbside.
“Your daughter should have worn that ring one day, and her daughter. Your lack of foresight is shameful."
"I'm sorry, Dad."
"Mona Gordon loved you.”
I think he meant to say Mona Gordon loved him. Or maybe he meant to say he loved Mona Gordon.
We stand next to each other on the street. He turns and walks away from me. I am not broken, but a crack in my heart widens. I watch him getting smaller, wishing I had not sold the ring, but knowing I had no choice.
A half-block away, he stops and looks up at the gray, cloudless sky. His lips move. He walks back to me.
“Mona Gordon would have said that your reason for selling the ring was good enough. And she would have scolded me for doubting you.”
I understand now. He meant to say he loves me.
The parallel lines of the alternate lives of truth and untruth merge into a single forward reaching arrow. We walk side by side, without talking, down the street. A taxi drives by. He tells me about a new apartment building he may buy. He asks if I’ve had breakfast. We look for a coffee shop.