Downward Spiral: an Interpretation of “Ordeal by Cheque”


He had it all: a stable job, house, car, and money. That is, of course, until he met his future wife. This short story is my interpretation of “Ordeal by Cheque“, a story by Wuther Crue written entirely with checks. In the beginning, the wealthy Lawrence Exeter Sr. and his wife had a son, Lawrence Exeter Jr., who had everything a little boy could want from his adoring parents. When he grew up and went to Stanford University, he met and fell fast for a girl, Marie Wharton. However, (spoiler alert) that all changed when Marie turned out to have married him for his money, and quickly spent it all before divorcing him a few months after their marriage, leaving Lawrence without his house, car, wife and in debt — all while the Great Depression was going on. Finally, grief-stricken and heartbroken, he had a heart attack, leaving his father the only Lawrence Exeter once more.

“That’’ll be $148.50. How would you like to pay?”

Lawrence Exeter took out his checkbook, neatly filling in ‘August 30, 1903’ before the words: ‘Goosie Gander Baby Shoppe’. Then, signed his name with a flourish before walking out with his purchases.

Lawrence approached the front desk of Hollywood Hospital, his coattails flapping behind him, “My wife’s here for her appointment — it should be booked for September 2, our doctor’s name is Dr. David McCoy.”

The nurse nodded once, then stiffly replied, “One hundred dollars please.”

“Everything seems normal,” Dr. McCoy told Lawrence and his wife, “the baby should be here in around a month. If any complications arise, feel free to contact me.”

Mrs. Lawrence Exeter rubbed her belly, trying to soothe herself in preparation for the arrival of her very first child.

“Wh-wha-whaaaaaa.” Lawrence Exeter Jr. had finally made his entrance into the world on October 3, 1903 at 5:09 a.m., after a long and tiring experience for his now beaming, proud parents. It was a day of firsts for everyone — Mr. and Mrs. Exeter’s first baby, Lawrence Jr.’s first look at the world, and the very first time in his life Lawrence Exeter signed his name with a ‘Sr.’ at the end. 

Lawrence Exeter Jr. had a happy childhood; a giant house to play in, doting parents, and all the toys he could ever want from California Toyland, Co., bought by his indulgent, wealthy father. When he turned six, he started going to the Palisades School for Boys, as all the well-off families did with their sons, away from the World War that was going on at the time that had prompted Lawrence Sr. to donate the tidy sum of $2150 to the Columbia Military School.

Years passed. Finally the day came when Lawrence Jr. had to leave his family and the Palisades School for Boys and go to Stanford University, which, of course, his father would be paying for. As a celebratory gift, his father decided to buy him a Cadillac, not knowing that his son would wreck it and be forced to bring it to Wilshire Auto Repair Service only four days later.

While their only child was away, the Exeters’ grew bored and lonely with nothing to keep their days occupied. As husband and wife started to drift apart, Lawrence Sr. decided to win his wife back. His first move started the very next day, “Instead of getting a new car for myself, I’m going to give the $25000 to your youngest sister, Daisy,” he told his wife, who stared disbelievingly at him, “I’m sure you think I’m crazy, but she has to support her little daughter all on her own, even though she can barely keep herself fed and dressed.”

A beat of silence passed, then Mrs Exeter burst into tears, “How did you even find out? Daisy is too proud to ask anyone herself, and she needs a lot more money than I dared would have asked from you. Thank you so, so much, I’ll have to tell her right away.” After that he left for a business trip to France, where he placed calls at the University Club Florists to deliver extravagant flower arrangements each day while he was gone, which brightened Mrs. Exeter’s lonely days at home without her son or husband. Lawrence Sr.’s next step was to buy a brand new house for the two of them from, as well as hire the Renaissance Interior Decorators for his wife so she would have a new purpose in her days. Finally, he bought her an exquisite diamond necklace at before booking them on a surprise cruise from Hawaii Steamship Co.

As Lawrence Exeter Sr. worked on fixing his marriage, Lawrence Exeter Jr worked on a new marriage. While at Stanford, he had met and fallen hard and fast for Miss Marie Wharton, who he planned to propose to in the most romantic way possible, by bringing Marie to Paris to live for a year, even though they had only met each other a few months ago. Though his father was not very pleased with him wanting to marry a girl he had known for such a short time, Lawrence Jr. had sworn again and again that he knew what he was doing, so had reluctantly given him $200,000 to use for a house in Paris for him and Marie, as well paying for the hotel and flowers for their future honeymoon.

Once they went Paris, he bought her everything she asked for without abandon, from sweets at the Cocoanut Grove Sweet Shoppe, to gowns at the Parisian Gown Shoppe again and again. He signed check after check as money drained away quickly, yet Marie continued to ask for extravagant things, revealing more of her true character the longer he got to know her. When their stay in Paris came to an end and they returned to California, he checked his bank account and realized the wild spending sprees in Paris had caught up to him and he had to borrow money in order to have enough to buy a diamond ring for Marie, as well as a house they could live in after getting married. Knowing that his father wasn’t doing very well during the Great Depression that had hit him as well, he borrowed the money from bookie Tony Spagoni. Though Lawrence Jr. tried his best to cover what he owed, he found that the most he could get at a time was $126, which wasn’t even a fraction of the debt he owed. Buying the cheapest diamond he could for Marie was a giant disappointment for her, and she didn’t try to hide it, saying snidely, “Well Lawrence, I really thought you could do better than this. Back when we were in school everyone said your family was so rich, I mean, you bought me all those beautiful things in Paris, yet you can’t even afford a diamond bigger than a speck of dust?”

Lawrence Jr. now knew what kind of person she really was — even though she was the main reason they were in such debt, she continued to blame it all on him. When they married on June 29, 1930, it was a small affair with none of the lavishness they had originally expected. As their unhappy marriage continued for six months, the last straw finally happened. Marie had gambled away more money than they even had while Lawrence Jr. was at work, causing her to owe Miss Flossie Wentworth $50,000. Her excuse for the gambling was that she wanted to make some money back for them, and it wasn’t her fault her luck was so bad. Lawrence Jr. had no choice but to borrow even more money from Tony Spagoni to pay Miss Wentworth back.A few days after that, he visited Wally & Smith, Attorneys at Law, where he ordered the divorce papers between him and Marie. To make her agree to leave, he sold his car and the house they had lived in and gave her the money, in addition to half of what he had in his bank account.

With his life headed in a downward spiral, without a wife, house, car, and more money owed in debts than he could ever make back, all the worrying and stress got to him —on July 5, 1931, his father visited to find Lawrence Jr. lying unconscious on the floor from a heart attack. Though he immediately sent a distressed call to Hollywood Hospital, there was nothing they could do. And in that very same hospital where he had signed as Lawrence Exeter Sr. for the first time 28 years ago, he signed it for the last time. Right before the day he visited his son at Hollywood Mortuary as Lawrence Exeter.

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