Thomas Ridley spent his last night in the house where they’d lived for over thirty years….Hannah’s dream house. He’d barely dressed when the estate sale agents rang his bell. They stripped the bed and tossed the sheets in the washer.
An hour later, they planted the signs, one on the corner of the block, one on the front lawn. The people streamed in and filed through the rooms. They remarked freely on the accumulation of the lifetime of a happy marriage, a collection now dotted with removable price tags.
He shuffled from one room to the next with his hands clasped behind his back and watched and listened. Tall, lean, and once quite handsome, gripping his hands was the only way he could keep from punching them in the nose.
A woman commented on the chandelier in the dining room, “Isn’t that the ugliest thing you ever saw?”
He remembered when he and his wife honeymooned in Venice. After a gondola ride, they strolled through the shops and stopped at one where a craftsman sat in the window blowing glass through a long tube. He worked with globs of emerald green, her favorite color. “Let’s go look,” she said.
Inside, the shelves were lined with jewel-tone bowls, vases, and statues. The ceiling hung with chandeliers that glittered in the reflection of the overhead lights. One in particular made her catch her breath. “Oh, Thomas! Isn’t it beautiful?”
The pendants were elongated, brilliant-green teardrops, and the frame made of small flowers and stems was plated with real gold. He looked for a price tag but found none.
“It is beautiful,” he told her. He asked the clerk, “How much is that one?”
When he heard the price, a thousand dollars…American dollars, he was the one to catch his breath. He ached to present it to Hannah as a wedding gift.
He thought about the booklet of American Express Traveler’s checks in his pocket. In the days before unlimited credit doled out by a plastic card, the checks were the only way to travel and not carry cash.
He wondered if he was expected to haggle but didn’t want to be The Ugly American if he mistakenly offered a lower amount. Buying her the chandelier would seriously curtail the amount they had left for dinners and entertainment.
He ventured a question, “Is that your best price?”
The clerk hesitated. “Signore, it is a one of a kind piece, a work of art.”
The hesitation told Thomas he might have an advantage. He made an offer of five hundred.
The man shook his finger. “No, no, Signore.”
Thomas turned away and took Hannah by the elbow. The clerk pleaded, “Signore, signore, we are a small business. Would you consider eight hundred?”
Thomas met Hannah’s eyes. She silently pleaded with him. He smiled and whispered, “This means we dine on the cheap for the rest of our stay and skip the tour of Florence.”
“That’s fine with me,” she said.
He turned back to the clerk. “Seven-hundred.”
Thomas turned his back.
“Signore, seven-hundred-fifty, and we will ship it for you.”
It became his wife’s most prized possession. Throughout the coming years, people who knew what they were talking about told her it was a museum piece that couldn’t be given a price tag.
He made a good living for them. His greatest delight was in giving her anything her heart desired, and hers was not a greedy heart. She was often captivated by a department store bracelet as much as she was by one from Tiffany’s.
They moved a few times before they settled in her dream house. Each time, the chandelier was replaced before they put their home on the market and rehung in the new house. Fifty years later, Thomas wondered what it would be worth in today’s “American dollars.”
“Isn’t that the ugliest thing you ever saw,” the woman had said.
Thomas gripped his hands tighter and walked away.
He shuffled to the family room where a man flipped through a stack of Hannah’s beautiful watercolors as if they were a Pinochle deck. On the other side of the room, a child plunked on the keys of her carved-walnut Bosendorfer baby grand.
In their second year of marriage, she’d said, “I think it’s time for us to start our family.”
He wanted anything she wanted, but it wasn’t to be. “Nothing wrong,” the doctors said. “Keep trying.”
“Do you want to adopt?” he asked.
“No.” She smiled and patted his hand. “The doctors said to keep trying.”
She devoted herself to him first, and then to her music and her charities and her art. She did brilliant watercolors, scenes of children on the beach, children playing with a dog, children in a yard with roses planted all along the fence.
For a while, she was partner in a gallery that sold almost everything she hung on the walls. When arthritis bent her fingers, she put away the watercolors and took up acrylics that did not demand strict control.
The estate sale had another four hours to go. Thomas watched one woman examine a piece of Hannah’s less expensive jewelry. Closely watched by an agent, she slipped a ring on her finger and gave it back. “Too old fashioned,” she said.
The torture would be over eventually, and Thomas would drive to his new home, a suite in the assisted living facility. He would sleep in his own bed with his own pillow, moved there only this morning.
“If I’m lucky,” he thought, “I won’t wake up.”