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Little Band of Gold

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He had to get rid of the ring. He had wanted to do that ever since he came back East. He couldn’t get a fresh start, regrettably he knew there was no such thing outside of advertisements selling slimming cream to middle-aged women and over-priced cars to middle-aged men. And still, giving the ring away would have meant the end of something, and the beginning of something else, even if that something else was just the portion of his life spent without a second-hand diamond ring burning a hole into his pocket.

It was not his to keep, it was even less his than his name. He got the name off a dead man who no longer had any use for it, but the ring he got from a living woman, to give to another. And where were they now? Dead and gone. That is to say, one of them dead, and the other gone. The name was for using, and he did use it, even if he made nothing of it, nothing but three children he hardly saw and a host of taglines he never believed. But the ring was for giving, and so far, he failed to give in a permanent way. It wasn’t his fault Megan gave it back – well, it was. But it wasn’t his fault Anna died before he could return it to her, or that Stephanie outright refused it. When he first got back to New York, he was seized by the idea of giving it to Peggy, but of course that would have been unforgivably stupid. Peggy was the woman he didn’t give jewellery to, that was the entire point of her. She wouldn’t have misunderstood the gesture, wouldn’t have taken it as an attempt at romance, she knew better than that, but she definitely would have refused it, trying and mostly succeeding to keep the embarrassed pity out of her eyes.

Embarrassment was nevertheless in store for him, he knew, and maybe pity as well. Sally sat next to him in his car, his newer, cheaper, greyer car, and she stared out at the bleak rows of houses passing by. She said nothing. Her hair was damp with rain where it peeked out from under her grey cap, her face seemed a little pale, and Don thought she should look older, more grown-up, but she didn’t. She looked like a sad and scared young girl who was holding it together reasonably well. It had been two weeks since Betty’s funeral.

It was obvious by now that she had to get the ring. She was his first-born child, his only daughter. She was the first one to take his name, barring Betty, who had her own name before him and Frances’ name after him and had no need for names anymore. Sally Draper was the first and best child to grow up with Don’s ill-gotten name, and it stood to reason that she should take his ill-kept ring as well. And if she refused, what then? Nothing of consequence. He might just drop it in the street. But he had to ask.

He parked in front of a diner, not a particularly good one, just one that was close. He didn’t want to have this conversation in a house that belonged to Henry, and he didn’t want to bring Sally into the serviceable but sparse one-room apartment he was renting in Manhattan. He moved to open the car door for her, but he was too late, she was standing on the sidewalk by the time he rounded the car. He thought to make a show of opening the diner’s door for her with a broad gentlemanly flourish, but dismissed the idea. He did not want to annoy her more than he automatically did. Instead, he walked in after her, followed her to a table she chose, seemingly at random, and meekly sat down opposite her. When she ordered a coke, he did the same. The jukebox was playing something old-fashioned, but not old-fashioned enough for him to recognise.

‘So?’ asked Sally, and it didn’t ring like her old brittle bravado. She sounded impatient but resigned, a busy young woman who hardly has time for all this nonsense.

‘I wanted to give you something.’ He began, then, seeing her open her mouth to speak, he added ‘It’s not money, I know you wouldn’t take money.’

‘I know it’s not money’ retorted Sally. ‘It would be below your dignity to give little, so you will give none, seeing that you’re unemployed.’

‘I’m freelancing’ he corrected her automatically, then sighed, letting it go. ‘This is what I wanted to give to you.’

He pulled out the ring – no box, no wrapping, just the golden circle with the little round diamond set in it.

‘Megan’s engagement ring’ said Sally tonelessly.

‘It’s not hers, she gave it back. And it wasn’t hers to begin with, it belonged to – to the other Don Draper. He used it to propose to his wife, and she gave it to me, later, after he was gone.’

Sally was silent, her face blank. Don was hit by the thought that the ring he was giving her was something he had torn off the body of a dead man, just like the dog tags were, that the smell of charred human flesh still clung to it, that he was giving her something foul, tainted – but the childhood he had given her was not immaculate either, neither was the name. He pushed on.

‘I wanted to give it back to her, but by that time, she was already dead. So I thought you should have it.’

‘Will you want it back when you find someone you want to propose to?’

He saw something in her eyes then, it was not quite an accusation, not quite a challenge, just the resigned knowledge that his marriage to Betty fell apart, the knowledge that he couldn’t keep, or didn’t even want to keep Megan, that he cheated on her, on both of them, that if he asked for the ring back to propose to some new wife-to-be, he might return it within two months. He shook his head, acknowledging all she graciously didn’t drag out into the light of the diner’s uncomfortable neon glare.

‘Still’ she continued. ‘What would I even do with an engagement ring?’

‘You could wear it. If someone bothers you, you can hold it up like so: sorry boys, I’m engaged, and to someone so much better than you. When you do want to be bothered, you explain that it’s just a family heirloom you’re awfully fond of.’

Sally looked dubious, and in the ensuing silence Don realised he had been using his best voice, his pitch voice, his spine had straightened, his shoulders settled and all his words rang true, cajoling and convincing.

‘I knew a woman who used to do that, wear a wedding ring to work.’ He added defensively, then tried not to cringe, imagining what Sally would extrapolate from the word ‘knew’, and how right she would be.

‘Or you can just give it to someone you’re fond of.’

‘It would look silly on a man.’

‘Not if he has small hands. It could be a pinkie ring or something.’ Don pulled the ring onto his little finger. It did look silly.

He tried to yank it off, but it did not come easy, it took a few moments of undignified wriggling before he could drop the ring back on the tabletop. He knew he’d been asking for far too much, he knew he’d been asking her to do more than just accept an expensive trinket, he’d been asking her to… to what? To take all that he had given her, the name, the money, the family, such as it was, all the things he had wasted or misused, and to make something of them, something better, something really real. It was humiliating to realise how desperately, transparently he was waiting for an answer to a question he wouldn’t begin to know how to ask. A question she couldn’t begin to understand, let alone answer. She looked down at the ring, and remained silent.

‘You can pawn it for all I care’ he said, and he could hear the false, forced note in his voice.

‘I’m not gonna pawn it’ she said, and there it was, the old childish petulance in her voice, the sulky lilt with which she used to insist that she had already done her homework and that it wasn’t her fault the magazines were missing from the coffee table and cut into snowflake patterns.

Sally picked up the ring, brought it closer to her face, turned it round and around in her fingers, examining it with loving but judgemental care.

‘Pawning it would be dumb. A pawnshop would give me half the market value, at best. If I decide to sell it, I’ll get it appraised first, then I’m going to go to a proper jeweller, and I’ll ask the full price of a well-crafted diamond solitaire engagement ring, and not a penny less.’

Don could feel the smile spread over his face, helplessly, nonsensically fond. His firstborn child might throw away the gift he had given her, but she wasn’t going to throw it away for cheap, at least. That was a comfort.

‘It’s yours, then’ he said, and Sally was already taking the ring, sinking it unceremoniously into her jacket pocket. She didn’t say thank you daddy, but she gave him a little nod, and now, he did look grown-up to her, a young woman with grief and responsibility on shoulders, with steel and spite in her spine.

***

They never talked about the ring again. They did talk about other things, not often, and not regularly, but still, they kept meeting and calling over the years, even after Sally left for college, after he moved to the West Coast again, after she got her degree in psychiatry, after he found himself a third wife and two step-children. He sometimes wondered if she still had the ring, but he never saw it, and he never asked.

More than a decade later, Don found himself in Boston on a business trip, and after he pitched his ideas on to make how yet another type of brightly coloured candy seem somehow special, he decided to take a cab to Brookline and look in on her. The apartment building that housed both her practice and the apartment she shared with a roommate was a handsome thing of red brick and bay windows. He knocked on her door – third floor, number fourteen, as she had made him repeat into the phone – but it was her roommate who answered, a tall woman with her hair tied up in a lopsided bun.

‘You must be Don!’ she exclaimed, gesturing him in. ‘Sally told me so much about you! Well, she told me some. Anyway, my name is Shirley, nice to meet you.’

She grabbed his hand and gave it a firm, friendly shake. As she gestured for him to come in, Don saw a bright glint on the ring finger of her left hand, and he didn’t have time for surprise or confusion or disapproval before he was bowled over with a wave of celebratory, Christmas morning joy. She had kept it, and she had used it well. He stood there, dizzy and shaken, leaning against the doorway, hearing Shirley’s increasingly worried questions through a loud buzzing in his ears. He didn’t think this feeling could exist, he thought he had made it up to sell watches and seaside trips, but it was real, it had been real all along, he was a real father looking into the full and true life of his real firstborn child, deeply and selfishly proud.