A Penny Named is a Penny Saved
Vi named her daughter after her Aunt Penny. Aunt Penny had once taken her along on a road trip across the country when Vi was ten years old—such an impressionable age. They journeyed by mule to the bottom of The Grand Canyon and camped beside The Colorado River, rode horses at a fancy dude ranch in Texas, dined luxuriously and stayed in a fine hotel in New Orleans, and upon reaching their ultimate destination on Pleasure Island in North Carolina one bright summer day, they plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in wild abandon. Vi tasted salt-water taffy for the first time. During the course of those glorious two weeks spent in the company of her eccentric aunt, Vi came to relish her role as sidekick to a madcap heiress. She loathed returning home to her run of the mill existence. By the time she turned thirty-eight, that road trip remained the highlight of her otherwise pitiful life. No other vacations compared, not her father and mother’s two or three day camping treks to a dusty spot outside of Bakersfield, nor her miserable one-day outings taken as an adult, to Knott’s Berry Farm and several other over-rated Southern California amusement parks with her own husband and child.
Aunt Penny was a very cosmopolitan woman. Over the course of many years, Vi received postcards from all over the world. Places like: Paris, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Moscow, and New Zealand. What a contrast to Vi’s dreary Suzy Homemaker existence, her itty-bitty shit-box house in West Covina, or her sterile loveless marriage to the most boring man in America. According to family lore, Aunt Penny was extremely well healed; both her second and third husbands had passed, leaving her wealthy. In later years, Aunt Penny retired to St. Louis Missouri, of all places, where she became reclusive in her waning years.
Vi made a trip to St. Louis one year by bus, bringing her daughter Penny (Aunt Penny’s namesake) along. The girl had been six or seven at the time. If Vi’s calculations were accurate, the old gal had to be well past seventy. Vi viewed the naming of her daughter after her wealthy aunt to be a clear stroke of genius, as her aunt had never been able to have any children of her own.
“My goodness Violet,” Aunt Penny declared when she saw her. “It’s been years. And so, this must be Young Penny?” Aunt Penny leaned down and touched Young Penny’s shoulder gingerly. “Come on in,” she said, leading them into her Victorian house. “Why don’t we get reacquainted?”
Vi noted that her aunt’s home was beautifully furnished, complete with gleaming hardwood floors, Oriental carpets, marble-topped credenzas and the like. Things were extremely well kept. “My but you keep a clean house,” Vi told her aunt. “I have help,” she replied. Aunt Penny informed Vi that she employed a woman that arrived every morning at eight sharp to help her get dressed for the day, five days a week. On the weekends Aunt Penny had to make due on her own, which proved to be so difficult she often stayed in her pajamas until Monday. The hired women’s name was Lupe and she also ran errands and cooked meals.
“Lupe’s preparing lunch,” Aunt Penny announced. “And I told her no Mexican food. I’m sick to death of Mexican food. We’re having egg salad sandwiches!”
Young Penny sat prim and proper with her hands in her lap, and kept her blue-gray eyes glued to Aunt Penny at all times. It suddenly occurred to Vi, the child hadn’t been exposed to many elderly people. In fact, Young Penny had never been so up close and personal with anyone that ancient before.
Aunt Penny’s skin had become papery and translucent with age; spidery vein clusters tinted her temples purple. Still, she was dressed impeccably well, and her bright copper hair (Thank you—Miss Clairol) was done up in a current style. “Why are you ogling me child,” Aunt Penny asked. “Am I the oldest crow you’ve ever met?”
Regrettably, Young Penny nodded her head.
Mortified by her daughter’s rudeness, Vi tapped the child on the knee and admonished her, saying, “Honey—must you be so impolite?”
Young Penny hung her head.
“She doesn’t talk much—does she?” Odd, considering she’s my namesake. I’ve always been such a chatterbox.”
Suddenly, Vi realized what a dull ordinary child she’d given birth to. Young Penny just sat there like a bump on a log, so sullen, with her wispy blonde hair and that pale complexion. “She’s shy,” Vi admitted, feeling somewhat apologetic. “I’m afraid the child takes after my husband Saul—looks like him too.”
“My sweet sister was shy and withdrawn,” Aunt Penny told Vi. “Do you remember your Aunt Flo?”
In an effort to appear vivacious, Vi threw her hands up in the air and declared, “Oh yes. I do remember her.” What she did remember was her mother discussing Aunt Flo’s atrocious halitosis, and to make matters worse, the poor thing had a habit of standing too close to people and practically whispering every spoken word, which usually ensured that the foul odor of her breath would be propelled straight up the nasal passage of whatever unfortunate soul she might be addressing at the time.
“It’s an old-fashioned term, but face it, my little sister was a wallflower. She never married. Lived with Mama until she came down with encephalitis and died at the age of thirty-one. What a tragedy.”
“I remember going to her funeral,” Vi said. “We drove the station wagon all the way out to Chicago. Daddy gave the eulogy for his little sister, and the casket was open.”
A gloominess passed across Aunt Penny’s features, but she seemed to shake it off when Lupe threw open the door to the kitchen and wheeled in a cart displaying a full tea service. Aunt Penny clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “How divine.” Considering Young Penny, she inquired sweetly, “Would you care for tea my dear, or would you prefer that Lupe fetch you a little grape juice?”
Out of habit, Vi spoke for her daughter. “The juice,” she said.
But, apparently Young Penny disagreed, and cried, “I want tea. Tea please!”
Aunt Penny’s face broke out into a huge grin. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Marvelous.”
They had a tea party that afternoon. An old-fashioned tea party. And Young Penny entertained Aunt Penny with a tale about a girl named Annabelle in her class that could sing like a bird. It seemed that any old song that the children or the teacher would name—Annabelle would know the melody and all the words. She could sing anything. Vi couldn’t recall ever hearing her daughter express herself with such zest and zeal. Her small fingers cupped the bone china cup, and Young Penny sipped her hot tea as if she’d done so on many occasions—which had not been the case.
“Do you like the egg salad?” Aunt Penny asked Young Penny, after lunch had been served.
“Very much,” the child replied, as she brought her napkin up primly and dabbed at her thin pink lips.
“I’m shocked to hear that, she won’t eat my egg salad,” Vi snapped.
“Do you use real mayo, or do you use salad dressing?” Aunt Penny asked her niece.
“Well, there you go! Lupe uses homemade mayonnaise; the difference in taste is significant. Don’t you agree Penny?”
Young Penny smiled. “It tastes good—if that’s what you mean—and there’s no crust. I don’t like crust.”
“Birds of a feather flock together!” Aunt Penny declared. “I’ve never cared for the crust!”
A letter addressed to Penny arrived in Vi’s mailbox. Penny had seen fit to run away from home two weeks before her eighteenth birthday, so she could shack up with a car mechanic named Bo. Vi had been to their apartment out in Colton on one occasion. They lived across the street from a Chevy dealership, and the boisterous voice of the woman calling to the salesman and the service department over an intercom rang through the room clearly, although the windows were closed. Vi had angered Penny by calling attention to the rough neighborhood and nappy wall-to-wall carpeting. Penny had become hysterical, and subsequently Bo had escorted Vi out of the apartment. The man was a goon.
Vi immediately made a phone call to inform Penny that a letter had arrived that afternoon, addressed to her, and she made sure that her rebellious daughter understood that it just happened to be from a lawyer. “What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into?”
“I’m not in any trouble,” Penny said, then she up and snarled into the receiver, so hard that Vi wondered if she’d left spittle.
“I can’t imagine a letter from any attorney at law being good news,” Vi said. “Do you want me to open it?”
“No,” Penny said adamantly. “When Bo gets off work I’ll have him drive me over. And Mother, don’t steam it open either. I’ll be able to tell if you do.”
Drat! That’s just what Vi was about to do as soon as she hung up. She’d never had a reason to steam open any letter before, but it seemed like a good plan. But…what if the girl could tell? After pacing back and forth, and worrying herself sick about how she was going to wait four or five hours for them to show, she set the envelope against the windowsill, crouched down, and tried to read the type. Vi’s vision had never been the best, and she hadn’t bothered to update the prescription on her eyeglasses since 1999. Her efforts to make out anything proved futile.
She hurriedly telephoned her ex-husband Saul. “I just thought you should know—you’re daughter received a letter from an attorney today. She doesn’t want me to open it, they’re coming by this evening, her and that Bo character.”
“Vi,” he said, in that droning deadpan voice of his, “mind your own business.”
“How can I?” She snapped, “The letter came here, to my house.”
“Our house,” he said. “Which I’ve been meaning to remind you, is supposed to be on the market. The judge ordered it sold, remember?”
“Don’t you dare go there Saul,” she warned, “I’m upset enough about my only daughter receiving mail from a lawyer’s office in Beverly Hills.”
“Leave it be, she’s an adult. You can’t run her life anymore.”
“She’s barely eighteen you nincompoop!” Vi hung up on him. Saul had kept count—the woman had just hung up on him for the six-hundredth time since he’d begun dating her some twenty years earlier. On the nose. Six hundred exactly.
When Penny knocked on the door, Vi invited her daughter inside. “No,” Penny said. “We aren’t coming in. Just give me my letter!”
“I will not! Now,” Vi opened the door very wide and extended her arm out to indicate her gracious invitation, “please, do come in. I made fresh lemonade.”
Penny rolled her eyes.
Bo waited to see what his girlfriend’s mother was going to do before he proceeded to move a muscle.
“Fine,” Penny said, rushing inside. “But we can only stay a minute. Bo has an engagement.”
Vi resisted the urge to make a snide comment. What kind of an engagement did Bo have? Poker night? Beer bongs? She led them into the kitchen, dropped some ice into three glasses, filled them to the brim with the lemonade and handed them each a drink.
“Well Mother,” Penny said. “Cough it up.”
The letter was in her bedroom, Vi left to retrieve it.
When she returned, Bo had drained his glass and was busy refilling it. His fingernails were rimmed in black. She remembered Penny telling her that no matter how much soap he used, or how hard he scrubbed, his nails would not come clean. “This lemonade is fantastic Mrs. Kaplan,” Bo told Vi.
Vi handed Penny the letter.
“We better get going,” Penny said.
Bo drained his glass once more and set it down on the tile counter with a clink.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to open it here?” Vi felt faint. What had she done to deserve this sort of uncharitable treatment? Didn’t Penny know how bad she was dying to find out what this lawyer business was about?
“It’s none of your business.”
“Come on Penny,” Bo said, “don’t be so mean to your Mom. Open it. What’s the big deal? You said yourself—you aren’t in any trouble. For all you know it could be good news!”
Vi grinned. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. He was so polite, and look, he’d actually stood up for her! What a shock—Bo was growing on her.
“Whatever!” Penny cried. “Fine!” She ripped the envelope open, practically tearing it in half. She scanned the letter momentarily and then simply said, “Holy crap,” before sitting down.
“What?” Vi asked.
Bo rushed to Penny’s side. The little color she possessed had just run right out of her pale face. “Aunt Penny put me in her will,” she squeaked. “I’m to go to this guy’s office on the 8th.”
“My Aunt Penny?” Vi reached out and took hold of the back of the sofa for support.
Penny read the letter once again.
Vi put her shaky hand to her forehead, gasped, and then asked breathlessly, “What about me? Does he mention me?”
“Nope. You’ll probably get your own letter.”
“Well, I certainly hope so,” Vi said. “I’m the one that went on that trip with her so long ago. You’ve only met her once.”
“Was that my fault?” Penny asked. “You never brought me back. I asked but we never went back to see her.”
Vi rushed to the key locker and grabbed her mailbox key. “Maybe I didn’t check properly, maybe my letter is still in the box, way in the back.” She took off.
“Oh God,” Penny said. “I have a bad feeling.”
Aunt Penny passed away the day the letter was sent. Young Penny learned that her great aunt had been sick with cancer for some time. Hearing the news saddened her. Aunt Penny had profoundly influenced Young Penny. Even though she’d only met the woman one time, she’d always held the memory of the elegant tea party close to her heart. The Beverly Hills lawyer had been instructed to read the will to Young Penny. Turned out he was an old friend of Aunt Penny’s and she hired him to handle the trust. Young Penny sunk down in to the big leather chair in Phil Morrow’s office, she’d driven Bo’s pick-up truck quite a distance west down the Santa Monica Freeway on her own, and had splurged on a new outfit and a pair of heels in order to make a fine impression. The will declared that Aunt Penny’s estate would pay all her namesake’s living expenses, provided Young Penny enrolled in college immediately. When and if Penny graduated at the end of four years, she would receive one hundred thousand dollars. On her thirtieth birthday, she would receive five hundred thousand more. On her fortieth birthday she would come into the entire fortune.
“I guess I’m going to college after all,” Penny said, her eyes full of tears.
The lawyer smiled. “Looks like, Miss Kaplan. On another note, I’d like to offer some advice. Your mother, she seems like a very persistent…may I say, headstrong woman, well she keeps pestering me, and I made it clear that it’s impossible for me to divulge any information about the contents of your great aunt’s will to her. But…she seems to think that she has something coming. And your great aunt didn’t leave her a dime. May I offer a suggestion—a solution of sorts?”
“Certainly,” Penny said. “I could use some constructive advice. My head’s spinning right now.”
“If I were you,” he said gently, “I would tell my mother that your great aunt offered to pay for you to go to college. Don’t tell her about the rest of the money. You my as well get your education out of the way and pretend that’s the extent of it. If I were you, I wouldn’t tell my boyfriend either. Don’t tell anybody.”
Penny sat still with her slender hands folded in her lap, nodding her head. “Yes,” she said. “That’s good advice. I see what you mean. Very good advice. I can do that.”
Penny met her mother and father at their favorite Italian restaurant, near her childhood home out in West Covina. She told them exactly what Phil Morrow had suggested that she tell them, and not a word more than that.
Vi fiddled with her earring while she listened to her daughter’s news, and let out a perturbed, “humph.”
Penny’s father congratulated her. “That’s terrific,” he said. “But Cupcake, you didn’t graduate from high school.”
“No biggie,” Penny said. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you, but I passed the test a few weeks ago, I have my GED now. So I’ll enroll in a community college and then transfer after two years.”
“So…what will you study?” Vi asked. “You’ve never seemed interested in much—except boys.”
Saul shook his head. “Stop it Vi, Jesus Christ.”
“That’s okay Dad,” Penny said. “I want to be a nurse. I have for a long time.”
Vi sipped her martini and feigned disinterest.
Saul leaned forward and patted his daughter on the shoulder. “This is great news,” he said. “I’m sorry our little family blew up and your life’s been so topsy-turvy kid.”
Vi crossed her arms. “Topsy-turvy, the only topsy-turvy has been her own damn fault.”
“I’m on the right track now Mother,” Penny said. “I’m going to school to be a nurse, thanks to Aunt Penny.”
“That old bat,” Vi snapped, “what a disappointment. I name you after her—and what do I get—the finger. Figures. My whole life has been one major disappointment after another.” She looked at her husband and child. “Look at you two,” she then snarled, “the worse disappointments of all!” Vi snapped her fingers at the waiter, “Another martini please, I need to drown my sorrows.”
Under the table, Saul reached for his daughter’s hand, when he got hold of her hand he gave her an affectionate squeeze, winked, and smiled sweetly. Young Penny was fantasizing about all the ways she might be able to improve her father’s lot, once she finished her education and came into part of her fortune.
Vi had no clue that the two of them were conspiring behind her back to find happiness. True to form, she was too busy seething with resentment.
All Rights Reserved. © 2009 by Elizabeth Bradley.