A Change of Lifestyle (around March 24, 1928)
by Julie Bihn
"What did you just say?" Mother had completely lost her composure for the first time in recent memory; she was gripping her chair's armrests like death, and biting her lip so hard Libby feared she'd bleed.
"Our money's gone," Libby said quietly. "Almost everythiug Father left me." She slouched, looking at her feet. "They're taking the house next Wednesday. And everything left in it."
"We--we can't lose the house! We can't be poor! Think of what everyone will say!"
"I know, Mother."
"And what about Denny? How will we keep his nurse?"
"Perhaps you'll have to take care of him, Mother."
Mother looked at Libby as though she had suggested she sell herself for money.
"You are his mother," Libby said.
Mother sat back in the armchair. "How did this happen?"
"Our stocks failed, and our advisors were embezzling. But there's nothing we can do now. The advisors have left the country."
"How could stocks fail? How could all our stocks fail?"
"When I let crooked advisors decide which companies to invest in, it was to be expected."
Mother's eyes grew small and dangerous. "You've brought shame to the Williamsons. And you have until Wednesday to remedy that."
"I'm not leaving my house! You will find a way to keep it. That Adams gentleman likes you well enough--"
"You think I'd marry for money?" Libby yelled.
"You'd rather see your mother and brother living on the streets, begging for scraps? And yourself?"
Libby shuddered. "No, Mother, of course not," she said softly. "But--"
"You have until Wednesday," Mother said, leaving the room.
Mother was right. She couldn't let the family live on the streets, penniless. It was her duty to take care of them.
But even if she was willing to marry for money, there was still Ethan. She wasn't sure if she'd fall in love with him, but she liked him, she felt nice around him, and she owed it to him, and herself, to see if it lasted.
But how else could she get a million dollars?
Suddenly she knew how. The only other way to help her family. Her body went cold, and she leaned back and wept into the back of the velvet chair.
Saturday, she went to Coney Island, as usual. They'd find her body before Wednesday, and then Mother would have two million dollars. Enough to live on and take care of Denny, forever.
And she put on a front, for Ethan and Becky, as she did everything she loved to do, everything she'd wanted to do on her last day alive. They rode the Thunderbolt, ate at Nathan's one last time... She had wanted to stay with them until nightfall, but realized if no one saw her fall in, her body might be washed out to sea and never seen again. Or just as bad, her death might be ruled a suicide, and the insurance wouldn't pay for it.
So she went off to the edge of the long pier, alone. She stood near the edge, and made herself tumble over the railing.
The water was so cold it made her limbs tense up and took the breath from her body. Her muscles wouldn't move. She couldn't swim, even if she wanted to live. And she didn't want to live, she told herself. Even if God never forgave her, she had to do this. For her family.
She finally breathed in as much seawater as she could, through her nose and her mouth. The sensation made her want to cough, but she couldn't.
And then everything started to turn black. The pain in her lungs, in her chest, in her soul, started to fade, and she saw no more.
She woke up on the pier, coughing, and so cold she thought she would turn into a block of ice. Then she saw Ethan, soaking wet himself, and worried. He must have saved her. And Becky was crying, pitifully.
They were sad. They were concerned. For her.
She was sorry for doing this to them. She was wrong.
She was so, so sorry...
She came home without her hat, wearing an ugly borrowed dress, and shoes that didn't fit. Her hair was still damp.
"You look a fright," Mother said, not sounding concerned, just--disgusted, was it? Perhaps ashamed.
"I'll take a bath later." Libby put her hands behind her back, nervously. "Mother, sit down."
Mother obliged, rearranging the folds in her skirt.
Libby took a deep breath. Breathing still hurt her chest, and felt funny, but she was glad she could take in air again. "I...I tried to drown myself today, Mother."
"Elizabeth!" Mother yelled. "That's so undignified! If you were going to end your life, we've plenty of pills, or liquor, in the house."
Libby stared. "Mother?!"
"Don't think I haven't thought about it myself. But you're so irresponsible, Denny would probably be put into an asylum if I left him to you."
"Mother...your daughter almost died."
Mother nodded. "It makes me sad, of course, but also proud."
"Like those Japanese nobles disemboweling themselves rather than being captured by the enemy. Or those brave men on the Titanic who went down with the ship."
"I...I almost died," Libby said, hre voice shaking. "And you're not worried at all?"
"You wouldn't have been the first to kill herself over money. Even in our family."
Tears stung Libby's eyes. "I thought you might care a little! I'll bet if I had died, you'd just be wondering if the payoff on my insurance would come soon enough to save the stupid house!"
"This was your father's house," Mother said mildly. "Don't speak ill of it."
"No," Libby agreed. "The house isn't stupid. I am! I--tried to kill myself for your sake, so you could live comfortably. But you've been living off what Father left me since he passed away! And you never--never even said 'thank you'! You kept me believing that it was my duty to keep you rich, even if it killed me! And you don't care about me at all!"
Libby suddenly ran towards her room.
"Elizabeth! Where are you going?"
Libby didn't answer.
Libby laid on her bed, face down, crying. It took her quite a while to sit up again. She picked up the picture of her father, the one in the military uniform. He looked proud, and aside from his short hair, looked just how she always remembered him.
"Father," she whispered, "I'm so sorry. I was a fool...I lost your money...I lost everything..."
Don't give up, the noble picture told her.
"But...I'm poor now," Libby said. "I don't know what I'm going to do..."
Yes, you do, her father replied.
Libby wiped her eyes.
I don't care about the money. And your mother can take care of herself. I just want you to be happy.
'With my friends,' Libby thought. "But...there's no way...the show won't make much money, no matter what we do."
It might make enough.
Libby sighed, then smiled. "Well, I always did like Coney Island...guess I'll be spending a lot of time there now, won't I?"
The picture looked as though it smiled back at her. You can live on frankfurters.
And Libby laughed.
She knew if she stayed here tonight, she'd lose her nerve. So Libby packed as many clothes as she could fit into her suitcases, along with two sets of sheets and her oldest doll, the one Father had given her when she was three. And her photographs of him--the one in his uniform, and one of the two of them riding on a stopped carousel.
There was room in the back room at the Freak Show, room for two beds. There was a sink and a toilet in a small room next to it. Perhaps if she pawned some of her jewelry, she could have a bath put in. Or she could ask to use Ray's. Or just use the sink.
She hoped Becky wouldn't mind.
It was already 10 PM.
"I'm leaving, Mother," Libby said, heading towards the front door, carrying both suitcases.
Mother didn't look up. "Don't waste away the last of our money in some speakeasy."
"I won't." Libby waited until Mother finally turned her attention to the door.
"Where are you going?" she asked mildly.
"I've already paid for the place on Coney until September. By then, I should have enough money to rent it for the off-season as well."
"You're going to live there?"
Libby nodded solmenly. "I'll see if I can get my friends to help me move the beds and anything else I'll need tomorrow. Don't worry; I'll return the car when I'm done."
"Elizabeth! You'll move your things on a Sunday?"
Libby stared at Mother coldly. "You didn't seem worried about me killing myself without confessing it. At least I can ask forgiveness for moving, later. Or do you not believe in the doctrine of the church?"
Mother fell silent.
"On Monday you may sell anything I've left behind, if you wish, before they take the house. You might as well; the bank will auction them if you don't. Perhaps you could sell some of your old things; if not, make sure someone else keeps them safe for you, because if they're here, you'll lose them on Wednesday. If you sell some things, you should be able to get enough to keep an apartment for a few years, and by then, perhaps you'll have found a job."
Again, that look of horror on Mother's face, as though Libby had suggested she become a gangster.
"Well," Libby mused, "perhaps you could marry someone. That nice Jacobs gentleman is always saying how pretty you are."
"I've been taking care of you for the last decade," Libby said softly. "But I'm not going to ruin my life--or die--just so you can live in a nice house." She opened the door. "If you want to stay rich, you have until Wednesdtay to think of something."
Libby closed the door hard, and went around back. Daniel was already waiting in the back seat of the car. Libby put her suitcases in the trunk and drove away.
"You won't have a bed, will you?" Daniel asked, after Libby had explained that she was moving. How he knew people slept in beds, Libby didn't know.
"I'll bring them tomorrow," Libby said. "I'll be fine for one night."
Daniel paused. "You can use me for a pillow tonight, if you want."
Tears suddenly stung Libby's eyes. "Thank you," she said softly.
And she knew she was going where she belonged.
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