Last of the Big-Time Spenders
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“Last of the Big-Time Spenders,” New Era, Sept. 1979, 32

Fiction:

Last of the Big-Time Spenders

Four months after his mission, Kevin Jensen had earned enough money to barely get him through one semester at State College, provided that he room in the basement of his 63-year-old aunt’s home and that he work part-time in the morning as a custodian at the college. There was no money for non-essential items, and with his younger brother now ready to go on his mission, there was no hope for financial assistance from his parents.

On a cold January morning, he left his family, got on a bus, and shivered the 300 miles to the college town. His aunt, who didn’t have a car, had talked a neighbor lady into driving her to the depot to pick him up.

The next day was Sunday. Kevin walked his aunt to church and found himself being introduced to other retired and widowed friends of his aunt, while the Young Adults seemed to be always on the other side of the chapel.

The chorister for Sunday School was a girl his age with a smile that lit up the room, at least for Kevin. Although a common complaint of choristers is that people never look up from the hymnbooks, on that day Kevin didn’t look at the book at all but happily kept his attention on the chorister. Referring to the Sunday School bulletin, he found that her name was Jenny Wells.

On Monday, Kevin registered for classes. Afterwards he went to the college bookstore to buy books. One look at the prices and he decided to check them out of the library.

While in the bookstore, he saw Jenny buying some books. He waited until she got in the long checkout line and then stepped in behind her.

He was still rehearsing in his mind how to start a conversation when she dropped one of her books. He bent over to pick it up for her. Unfortunately she bent over at the same time and they bumped foreheads.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “You stay there and I’ll get it.” He bent over and picked it up for her.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

“This sounds corny, but I think we’re going to be good friends.”

“Are we?” she smiled. “Why?”

“Because we’re both LDS, and we’re both going to college here.”

“You’re LDS? Have you been to church before?”

“Yesterday. I didn’t get to the Young Adult class because the bishop wanted to talk to me. I just got back from my mission.”

“Oh,” she smiled, “that is interesting.”

He walked her home to the dorm. Their breath made little puffs of clouds as they walked.

“Do you like to walk?” he asked.

“Yes, why?”

“In a minute I’m going to ask you out. If you say yes, you should understand that I don’t have a car, so we’ll be walking wherever we go.”

“I definitely like to walk.”

“Good. There’s one other thing. Money is a little tight now, but I’ve budgeted a dollar a week for dating. This means I can either go out once a month and spend four dollars, or go out once a week and spend one dollar. So you need to decide if you want the four-dollar date or the one-dollar date.”

They stopped on a small bridge to look at the icy patterns made by a small stream that meandered through the campus. He turned to look at her, and for a second their eyes met, and he felt they both were communicating much more with their eyes than either of them would dare vocally.

“You’re nice to look at,” he said softly.

“Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you,” she said.

A little embarrassed, they continued walking again.

“One other thing,” he continued. “I can’t buy you a hamburger after our date, so eat a big supper before we go out.”

“Do you want me to eat my vegetables, too?” she teased.

“Whatever you’ve been eating in the past will be fine. It’s done wonders.”

“Are you ever going to actually ask me out?” she laughed.

“Okay, will you go out with me?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want the four-dollar date or the one-dollar date?”

“The one-dollar date.”

“For the one-dollar date we can go to the art exhibit on campus, or we can go to a seminar on aging, or we can watch the swim team practice, or we can go to the library and read old issues of Life magazine. If you want more action, we can go to the last hour of a dance at the student union building.”

“The last hour?”

“After they quit taking tickets. It’s up to you. The world is at your feet, all for a dollar.”

“I’ll take the art exhibit and the dance.”

“An excellent choice.”

Although they were joking, he found himself more enchanted by her each moment. He thought about just stopping and telling her that he was falling in love, but he was afraid to do that. Besides, the joking was fun.

“Afterwards we can stay on campus and buy a cup of hot chocolate for a quarter a cup, or we can pick up an entire box of hot chocolate mix for 89 cents and go back and mix up two cups in the lobby of your dorm. Your choice?”

“Have you ever worked for Burger King?”

“No, why?”

“I keep expecting you to break into singing, ‘Have it Your Way.’”

It was snowing on Friday night as he walked to her dorm. When she came out of her apartment, he was again taken back by her beauty.

“I’m ready,” she said breezily. “I ate a good supper, I ate all my carrots like a good girl, and I’ve got warm clothes.” She stopped as she saw he wasn’t smiling. “Is anything wrong?”

“You’re such a classy lady. You deserve better than this.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself because you’re not rich?”

“If I just had a car and a little more money.”

“I like you fine the way you are.”

As he helped her on with her coat, she noticed the clipboard he had brought with him.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a clipboard.”

“I know that!” she laughed. “But why did you bring it?”

Suddenly the fun was back with them again. “You don’t know about clipboards?” he asked.

“What’s there to know?”

“You’ll see,” he grinned.

They walked to the art show on campus. It was the first night of the exhibit. Hanging up their coats in the lobby, they entered the exhibit hall and stood in front of the first painting.

“I like the overall balance in the picture, don’t you?” Kevin said, with an official ring to his voice.

“Yes.”

Kevin made a point of writing something on his clipboard. Up and down the exhibit, people respectfully observed them, believing they were the judges for the exhibit.

Kevin stepped back, his hand touching his chin. “Notice how the brush strokes create a definite lifting effect.”

Jenny was blushing a crimson red. A few people came closer to hear what Kevin was saying.

They walked to the next painting, called “Bird in Flight.” It looked as if someone had put paint on tricycle wheels and ridden over the canvas. There was nothing to indicate a bird, or flight, and the entire canvas was one blotch of yellow, red, and blue.

Kevin assumed the art judge pose, hand stroking his chin, and said finally. “Oh, yes. I see the bird, don’t you?”

By this time there were six people directly in back of them, straining to see a bird in the blotches.

Kevin stepped to the canvas and began to randomly assign separate sections of the canvas to parts of the bird, saying with great authority, “This, of course, is the beak, and this is the left wing, and this is a tree, and this is a lake, and this is the right wing.”

None of it, of course, made any sense, but people began to whisper, “Oh, yes, I see.”

Jenny’s face was bright red, and she fought to avoid breaking down with laughter. With some difficulty, she whispered, “May I have a word with you privately?”

They walked quickly out of the exhibit area and up one flight of stairs. There they broke down with peals of laughter.

Finally she gasped, “They think we’re art judges.”

“Why should they think that? I don’t know anything about art.”

“It’s your clipboard, isn’t it?”

“Yes, the magic of a clipboard.”

“That was so funny.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“But is it the right thing to do?”

“I don’t know. We never said we were art judges.”

“No, that’s true.”

“And if somebody came up and asked us if we were, we’d tell them no.”

“Still,” she said, “we’re LDS, and we need to set a good example. Maybe we should go back there without the clipboard.”

“Whatever you say.”

They left the clipboard with their coats and returned. As they passed “Bird in Flight,” someone who had watched Kevin was now pointing out enthusiastically to others the various parts of the bird.

At 11:00 they walked to the dance. As Kevin had predicted, the people taking money had long ago shut down. They danced until midnight, then walked to a small store that stayed open all night, bought some hot chocolate mix, and returned to her dorm.

At 1:00 he got up to leave.

“Jenny, thanks. You’ve been a good sport.”

“I’ve enjoyed it.”

“The only expense was for the box of hot chocolate mix.”

“Oh, I’ll get it for you,” she said. “You can take it home.”

“How about if I left it here and we used it on another date.”

“That’d be fine.”

“Would you like the three-dollar-eleven-cent date? That’s how much is left for the month.”

“A certain young man,” Jenny began, sounding like a teacher, “can spend four dollars a month on dating. He can go out twice a month and spend two dollars a date, or four times a month at one dollar. How many times can he go out with the same girl at fifty cents a date?”

“Eight,” Kevin answered.

“At a quarter a date?”

“Sixteen.”

Jenny stopped and smiled. “I’ve never enjoyed mathematics so much.”

Kevin left the dorm and started to walk home, still in a trance. He went over in his mind the way she was, and the excitement and fun he felt just being with her, and the way they had looked at each other a few times during the evening.

“Hey, Kevin, is that you?”

Kevin looked over to the car that had pulled over to the curb. It was Harly Mitchell, a former missionary companion.

“Want a ride, elder?”

Kevin got in the car. “Harly, I didn’t know you were here!”

“One more year.”

“Do you still go to church? I was there Sunday and didn’t see you.”

“We were visiting my in-laws. Showing off our baby.”

Harly enthusiastically told Kevin about his wife and baby and what a financial struggle it was to stay in school. He was just then returning from a night job at a gas station.

“And what about you?” Harly asked. “Why are you up so late, elder?”

Kevin told him about Jenny.

“Do I hear wedding bells ringing?” Harly teased.

“No, we just like each other. Besides, I’m not going to get married until I’m out of school.”

“Famous last words.”

“I can’t afford to be married.”

“Who can? Say, why don’t you bring Jenny over to our place for dinner next week? It’d give us a chance to talk some more.”

Kevin accepted the invitation, but because of previous commitments to home teach on Harly’s night off from the gas station, he had to schedule it for two weeks later.

On Wednesday of the next week, Kevin phoned and asked Jenny to go with him to a movie.

“Can you afford it?” she asked.

“Don’t worry. I’m a big spender.”

On Friday, the auditorium in the Agriculture Building was still only half filled as Kevin and Jenny sat down.

“Our first film tonight,” a man in a western suit shyly announced, “will be ‘Your Modern Poultry Industry.’” Kevin pulled out a large bag of homemade popcorn and shared it with Jenny.

“I’ll never look at a chicken in the same way,” Jenny joked as they left the auditorium after the movie.

Later they went to a dance for the last hour. Once after a song was over, while they still faced each other, he reached over and took hold of both her hands. Their eyes met and he felt himself wondering how he could stand to ever be apart from her again. He felt a sensation as he looked into her eyes of being allowed into a place in her heart she’d never let anyone else enter.

Fighting his feelings, he broke the spell by turning away and making a joke about the band.

“Are we going to talk about it?” Jenny asked quietly.

“About what?” Kevin asked nonchalantly.

“About what’s happening to us?”

“What’s happening to us? We’re just learning about chickens.”

She started to cry.

They stood on the edge of the dance floor, watching others dance. And then the dance was over, and they were alone except for those in the band carrying away their instruments.

“Why won’t you talk about it?” she finally asked.

“I’ve got three more years of school, Jenny. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded her head.

On Saturday he took her to visit her aunt. They helped make bread. When it was finished, they sliced a loaf and had the warm bread with butter and honey and a glass of milk.

Sunday after sacrament meeting they went to a Young Adult fireside.

“I talked to my parents on the phone today. They’d like to meet you.”

“Oh.” He felt himself tense up.

“They like to meet all my friends,” she quickly added.

“They’ll be in town Wednesday, and they’ve invited us out to dinner.”

“What does your father do for a living?” Kevin asked.

“He works in a bank.”

“Teller?”

“Vice-president.”

They ate with her parents, who were not members of the Church, at the most expensive restaurant in town. At the end of the meal, they sat and talked.

“This isn’t too bad a place, is it?” Jenny’s mother said. “I think it was all rather decent food, don’t you?”

“Actually, Jenny and I have been here before.”

“Oh, what did you have?”

“Nothing,” Kevin answered. “See that sign on the wall that says, ‘Ask to visit our kitchen’? Well, that’s what we did.”

“With a clipboard,” Jenny said with a smile.

“But surely you must have had something.”

“Kevin’s on a very tight budget,” Jenny added quickly.

“Oh.”

Kevin was angry at the way he felt. On one hand, he wanted to impress her parents. But he resented the feeling that he was being looked over as a possible future son-in-law. Then, too, he still felt it was ridiculous to even consider the possibility of marriage until he was out of school, and so there was no reason why he should try to impress them at all. Let them see just how poor he was.

“Yes,” he said, “do you suppose I could get a little bag to put the extra food in. That is, unless you want it?”

Aware that he was probably losing points with Jenny’s parents, but angry about their obvious wealth, Kevin dropped every spare morsel of food on the table into the bag the waitress had brought him. Once he looked up from his efforts to clear the table of food to see that Jenny was hurt by what he was doing—trying to discourage her parents from liking him.

A few minutes later, Jenny and her mother left the table to visit a store in the building.

Jenny’s father ordered a second cup of coffee. “How do you think I got to be a banker?” he asked Kevin.

“I don’t know.”

“Hard work. I had to struggle through college the same as you. Don’t ever be ashamed because things are tight.”

Kevin found himself looking at Jenny’s father with new admiration.

“It’ll sharpen your goals and make you ten times more effective than if things had been easy.”

“I appreciate you telling me that,” Kevin said.

“Second, I don’t think you’re in any position to marry, do you?”

“No sir, I don’t.”

“Of course, Jenny hasn’t mentioned it, but after spending all these years studying people who come in for a loan, one gets a little skill in observation, and I’d say you and she were in love.”

“Yes.”

“Marriage now isn’t something I’d recommend. Maybe in a couple of years.”

“I feel the same way,” Kevin replied.

“Good. Don’t make the same mistake we made. We were both headstrong and in love and got married when I was still in college. Can you picture me selling cookware on weekends and mopping floors in the morning? Or my wife working as a seamstress in a clothing store? She’d hate to admit it now, I think. Yes sir, don’t make the same mistake.”

“No, sir.”

“Still,” he said, his eyes wistful, “in some ways those were our happiest years.”

A few days later, Kevin and Jenny went to have supper with Kevin’s former missionary companion and his wife and baby. Harly and Janet Mitchell lived in the basement apartment of a home. The apartment had been hastily built a few years before, when the college appealed to local citizens to help meet the housing needs of a growing student enrollment. The furnace room was stuck in the middle of the apartment, and the ceiling was filled with air ducts carrying heat upstairs. A shower spout stood outside the bathroom in the kitchen, with only a plastic curtain and a drain. Harly explained that they also mopped the floor after every shower.

They had a casserole of macaroni and cream of mushroom soup, a plate of carrots, a bowl of peas, and a jello salad. But the hit of the evening was their six-month-old baby who stole the show.

“Oh, she’s precious,” Jenny said, holding the baby in her arms. “It’s such a nice outfit for her, too.”

“Thanks to grandparents and friends,” Janet said. “Because of them, she’s taken care of for clothes.”

A few minutes later, Harly asked the inevitable question. “What about you, Kevin? About time you got married, too.”

“After I finish college,” Kevin said firmly, his jaws set tightly.

Kevin and Jenny walked home afterwards at a quick pace.

“They have a beautiful baby, don’t they?” she said.

“Every shred of clothes it has came from relatives,” Kevin snapped.

“So?”

“So, I’m never going to be in a situation where my children have to depend on other people for clothes.”

“Funny, the baby doesn’t seem to mind,” Jenny observed quietly.

“They are in no position financially to have a baby!” Kevin said, stopping to confront her.

“The General Authorities counsel that married couples shouldn’t postpone having children, not even for schooling.”

“Then they shouldn’t have married until he was through school.”

“They love each other. Doesn’t that count for anything? I’m sure they didn’t want to wait for two years.”

“What if the baby gets sick? What then?” Kevin asked harshly.

“Then Harly might have to quit school and get a job.”

“And just throw away his schooling?”

“You’re not really that concerned about the baby, are you?” she shot out.

“No, and this conversation’s not really about them either, is it?”

She looked at him for a long time and then said, “No, I guess not.”

“Jenny, I’m going to finish school in three years. Nothing’s going to stand in my way.”

“I see.”

He didn’t kiss her when he said good-bye at the dorm.

He didn’t call her for three days after that.

Finally, unable to stand being apart, he phoned her and asked her to go with him to a Young Adult party that Friday night.

Everything went fine Friday until it came time for the entertainment. The girl in charge gathered everyone close to her in the cultural hall and announced a game. She asked the young people to take off their shoes and put them in a pile.

Kevin got up and quietly walked into the hall.

A minute later, Jenny joined him in the hall.

“Is anything wrong?” she asked.

“I have holes in my socks,” he said quietly.

“Oh.”

“I can’t even afford a pair of socks.”

Jenny touched his hand.

“All I’ve got for shirts are white shirts from my mission, but they’re falling apart. This shirt has a big hole in the sleeve where my elbow has worn through, so with this shirt I always have to wear a sweater, and never take it off.” He pulled the sleeve of the sweater to show her the ragged shape the shirt was in. “I’ve got slacks where the back is getting so thin that I have to wear a sport coat to hide the seat of the slacks.”

“I love you, Kevin, not your socks.”

“But don’t you see, things aren’t going to get any better for three more years.”

“It’ll be okay.”

“Look, Jenny, I know I’ve avoided talking about us. I’d ask you to marry me, but how can I? I couldn’t even afford the license.”

She snuggled against him. “I’ll chip in a couple of dollars,” she whispered. “It’s for a good cause.”

“Your father doesn’t want you marrying a guy who can’t provide for you.”

“It’d only be for a little while. I could quit school and work.”

“You should finish your education.”

Jenny stayed close to him, and he felt a tear fall from her cheek on to his hand.

“There are too many shoulds in all this,” she said.

“It’s going to torment us all the time now,” he said, stroking her hair. “I can’t stand being away from you, and now I can’t stand being with you. If we could just put things on hold for two years and then start it up again.”

“How do we do that?” she asked.

As gently as he could, he said, “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other for a while.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No, but let’s try it for a while.”

He walked her to the dorm, said good-bye, and left.

The days that followed were terrible. He’d sit down to study and find himself looking at her picture 20 minutes later. Whenever he saw a phone, it haunted him, and he had to rush by so he wouldn’t break down and phone her. He’d sit down to outline a chapter and find himself going over the figures estimating how much money he’d need to be able to marry her. The answer was always the same.

In church they could hardly stand to be in the same room. He offered his services to the bishop, hoping to be called to teach a Sunday School class so he wouldn’t have to be in the Young Adult class with her.

Once he rounded a corner in church and found himself facing her.

“Hi, Jenny,” he said brightly. “How are you?”

“Just fine,” she countered quickly.

“Fine,” he said breezily, but then his depression seeped out across his face. Instead of moving on, they stood there silently in the hall, staring at each other, both of them in agony.

“It’s tough, isn’t it?” he asked. “Unbelievable,” she replied. Then he walked away.

He fasted and prayed. He called his father collect and asked for advice. Strangely enough, the answer came in a personal priesthood interview with his elders quorum president.

“Oh, Kevin, before you go, would it be all right if we gave you another family to home teach? I just found out that Bill Morrill is graduating in May, so we need someone to pick up a couple of his families.”

“Sure.”

“Thanks. Boy, he’s really had a good job while he’s been in school. It’s been perfect for him and his wife.”

“What job is that?”

“Managing a motel.” Kevin pressed for more details, phoned up Bill Morrill at the motel, visited with him the next day, and applied for the job. The owner hired him, starting in May.

Kevin phoned Jenny from a pay phone next to the motel, but her roommate said she’d gone away for the weekend and wouldn’t be back until Sunday night.

He nearly went crazy waiting for Sunday to end. Between church meetings he spent his time writing a long list of ways to save money. Every possible idea was there. They’d drink straight powdered milk. They could get a free Christmas tree by asking some students in the dorm if they could have their tree when they went home for the holidays.

They’d save money for a room because a small apartment went with the job at the motel. At night all he had to do was man the desk and switchboard. He could get a lot of studying done at the same time. They’d never be able to afford a car, but they could get a small wagon to carry home the groceries from the store. They’d ask his aunt if they could help her with her garden during the summer in exchange for some vegetables.

Sunday evening after sacrament meeting he phoned her again.

“Hello,” she said.

“We can get married!” he shouted.

There was a long pause, and then she said quietly, “I bet this is Kevin. Right?”

“How many other guys have you got about to propose?”

She laughed, and he said he’d be right over.

When she opened the door, he handed her his ten-page list.

“It’s all there. We can do it.”

She sat down and went over the list with him.

“It’s very interesting,” she said.

“That’s all you can say?”

“What should I say?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Yes to what?”

“Yes to my question.”

“I didn’t hear a question.”

“WILL YOU MARRY ME?” he shouted, causing couples in the dorm to stop their conversation and stare at them.

“Yes,” she laughed.

He kissed her.

A few minutes later they left the dorm to walk to their bishop’s home.

“We’ll be poor,” he warned.

“No we won’t,” she said. “Not us. We won’t be poor. We just won’t have any money.”

They walked quietly, holding hands, happy with the world.

“Wait a minute!” he said. “You haven’t told me where you’ve been this weekend.”

“I went home. My mother taught me how to mend socks.”

Illustrated by Preston Heiselt