Fiction · 02/16/2011

Still And Gilded

The jeweler made jewelry for mothers, grieving mothers. They were the sort of bereft who sit alone in bedrooms, closets, dining rooms, who put on brave faces and stare at stationary objects. Eggshell colored walls. Abandoned winter coats. Gifted flatware. Each mother wept, sat — howled.

They were wolves.

The jeweler didn’t know the mothers. Yes, he met them, touched their shoulders and expressed his sorrow, his deep and earnest sorrow. Yes, he knew their names and read their order forms — but he didn’t know anything else, their circumstance, their income, the years of attempts and failure, the years after those years. He did not pretend.

The mothers were quiet, reserved. They did not discuss abusive (now ex) husbands or offer explanations for their purchase. No mother questioned the cost and all paid in excess. A tip, they thought. They did not want to apologize to the jeweler, did not want to feel guilt or shame. This new person would have been beautiful, they thought — can be.

Each mother conducted herself professionally — as one might when contemplating the purchase of a Persian rug. It is an expense, a life-long commitment.

The mothers ordered jewelry.

The jeweler made it.

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He made a femur into a pendant. Shaved and sharpened, coated in platinum, it hangs on the neck of one mother.

He made a thirty-second week ribcage into a cuff. Bone painted with white gold, gaps between ribs filled with rows of Tahitian south sea pearls, he used a piano hinge under the spine. It opens and closes, clasps over a sternum inlaid with diamonds. When he finished, the mother put on her bracelet, pressed it to her neck and was, for the first time, consoled. She said something inaudible.

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The jeweler threw out the first few letters assuming that they were junk. He thought they might be personal injury lawyers, lawyers who specialize in Mesothelioma cases, lawyers sending out mail en masse. They weren’t. When he finally opened one, he was sitting behind his work desk, two halves of a clavicle in front of him. Please cease, the letter said. Please desist. He looked at the clavicle, opened more letters. More said cease. There were many. The lawyers writing them never mentioned specific laws or injured parties, but they used terse and pointed language.

Your practice will be subject to seizure, possible criminal investigation.

The letters were watermarked, and the jeweler, convinced, said, I don’t know anymore — too many. But one of the mothers was a lawyer too, a wealthy lawyer. She wore a polished patella as the stone on a band one might mistake for a wedding ring. She said, don’t listen. These are bullshit. Use them to line your birdcage. I don’t have a birdcage, said the jeweler, or a bird. But he was talking to himself. She was out the door, on her phone, walking and talking about some other animal, some other beast.

The door closed.

The jeweler sat in her wake, his silence. The shop was small, lined with dark wood and marble. Three order forms sat in a file tucked vertically next to the register, the clavicle still on his desk. He knew the names on those order forms. He knew how far away each mother lived.

A necklace, a brooch and the front plate to a locket.

The jeweler returned to the clavicle, made this jewelry, accepted new order forms, continued to touch the shoulders of mothers who waded through his door and up to his counter.

The letters from lawyers abated, gave way to an angry and well-penned citizenry. None of the new letters had impressive letterheads and intimidating signatures like their predecessors. In fact, all were left unsigned — no real names or coy pseudonyms: no Dawn Lowrey, no Father Joseph Keller, no Perturbed in Poughkeepsie, Frenzied from Phoenix or Sad in Saskatchewan. No anyone. The jeweler wished for names, return addresses, someone to whom he could respond.

He wished for more than he had.

He read every handwritten word, every typed death threat. Secretly, he hoped for a message constructed from cut magazine letters, but it never came — a forgotten form of anonymity relegated to twentieth century ransom notes and bomb threats. A few of the new letters spelled his name wrong. Even more invented false lives for him.

One threatened sexual violence to daughters the jeweler did not have. Our God is a vengeful God and I am his hand, read another, one that proposed to burn down a two-story home in Philadelphia, a home that wasn’t the jeweler’s but was owned by a man who shared his name. Most letters cursed him with infertility, a tired and wasted curse. He did not want fertility, had no use for it. Even if the jeweler had a partner, he would never grow fat, seeded and pregnant — this biology had long been conceded. Already an affront in every sense, the jeweler reveled in the letters’ promised damnation.

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He buffed vertebrae into beads, snaked sterling wire through the naturally formed holes and wrapped agate between each bone. This mother clicked her teeth and made fists when the jeweler stepped behind her and clasped the necklace; this mother said I can’t — anymore. They told me — Thank you, she said.

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Word diffused itself. Mothers came. More came. One brought her sister, a journalist. The sister was writing an article, describing the mother’s loss, her complications, detailing the procedure, her doctor, her corporate mortician, their procedures. After meeting him, she wrote about the jeweler. They stood on opposing sides of a glass display case.

He mentioned the letters.

The police officer assigned to protect the jeweler wore a standard blue shirt covered by a black bulletproof vest, a belt with handcuffs and an occupied holster. The jeweler didn’t know if he was supposed to tip the officer or thank him — maybe ignore. He waved and bore his clenched teeth in greeting.

His nerves burned.

The police officer’s arms could be the legs of a fat fifteen year old, could stop crime, could move buildings. His arms were those of a man and the jeweler stared at the lines formed by overlapping muscles.

At the officer’s request, the jeweler gave him a tour of the entire store — the showroom, the rear workshop, the mailbox, the emergency exit to the alley, the dumpster, the bathroom. The tour ended there, in the bathroom — the two of them smashed together in harsh lighting. This has been very helpful, said the officer. The jeweler touched him on the shoulder like he was a mother, too. The officer softened. Thank you, one of them said.

The jeweler noticed that the officer wore no jewelry, not one ring.

Well, you’re helping, said the jeweler, so I’ll do anything I can. He squeezed the officer’s shoulder and both became aware of their proximity. Close.

The officer spoke to the mothers, most of them. He asked them questions and held out his arms like I-beams. The jeweler watched through his shop’s glass door as the officer hugged the mothers, as he breathed in and squeezed tighter. Kind. The jeweler wished he’d known a sadness to be folded underneath those arms — against that bulletproof vest.

The officer drove by, sat outside in his car, came in with an extra coffee. They give it to me for free, so no use in wasting it, he would say. He leaned both elbows on one of the glass cases, trace dust on its surface, familiarity. When the jeweler was in his workshop, the officer bent around the corner. The jeweler invited him back, said, You can come watch.

It’s not disgusting, said the officer.

The jeweler said no. No, it isn’t.

Months passed, more mothers sought out the jeweler. The officer became a fixture, must have been neglecting some other duty. The jeweler thought this, about him. He thought, there must be a reason for him to come here — he must want to be here. The jeweler brought pastries. At Christmas they exchanged gifts. They hadn’t discussed it beforehand, hadn’t set a price ceiling or planted hints. Both thought their gifts would be met with only surprise and thanks — a need to reciprocate later. Both were wrong.

The jeweler made the officer a ring. It was sterling. In case you decide to wear one, he said.

The officer gave the jeweler his gift — the good book, one of the good books. In case you want to read it, he said.

The jeweler held the book, considered its implications. Thank you, one of them said.

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Some were not made for lives with yards and fences built to block in offspring. Some will never stand with hands laid on children’s shoulders, posed for soft lit family portraits. The jeweler had illusions about the officer, but he never believed them, never let the idea sweep him away. He knew mothers who painted rooms and planned parties. They bought books filled with names. They continued.

The jeweler made jewelry. The mothers grieved. People everywhere were outraged at what other people do for love.

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Patrick Allen Carberry is an MFA candidate at Northwestern University and teaches at Harper College. His fiction has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, PANK Online, Word Riot and others. You can see him monthly in the Chicago-based reading series “The Encyclopedia Show” where he occasionally falls down and regularly sobs.