On a Tuesday morning, I checked the day’s gold price. A handful of bookmarked websites warned me against gold sharks offering cash at only scrap prices, anyone asking me to mail in my gold, and places that would not test for purity on site. After reading a dozen online reviews and watching a few videos on their asymmetrical website, I decided to take my mom’s gold to Vincent’s Jewelers, which promised to respect its customers, regardless of their reason for selling. They provided educational articles about the difference between consigning and selling; they explained buying for resale vs. buying for scrap; they linked to gold buying websites with real-time graphs of the day’s price. In not so many words, they promised not to prey on your desperation. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking for a place with a little compassion. Though a decent looking pawnshop sits three blocks from my house, along with a dozen jewelry stores right here in the city, I was about to drive forty minutes into the county to avoid any judgment because that day, two weeks before Christmas, I bagged up my mom’s treasure and slunk out the door like the worst disgrace of a Chinese daughter.
In a red silk bag, I had stuffed over a dozen of my mom’s bracelets, rings, pendants, and chains. Some were gifts especially for me; others were pieces that had belonged to both sets of grandparents. Some were pieces I wore as a child for luck and protection, in the ears my mom pierced when I was an infant, on the soft wrists I flicked constantly as I practiced the piano. Some had a weight my muscles still haven’t forgotten, that my fingers still reach to fidget when I am bored.
This year has been expensive for our family. Our second daughter’s birth in October left us with a several thousand dollars owed after insurance; then, right after six huge repairs, I wrecked our old Volvo in an ice storm. We had two kids in daycare, three months of unpaid maternity leave, and the second floor air conditioning to install before summer arrived. I worried about money all year, even after we refinanced the house and switched to cheaper health insurance. I added up next year’s potential tax return, the escrow return from our original loan, a few editing job paychecks, and summer teaching paychecks. I subtracted the cost of two family weddings and overnight babysitting. No one in our family, I reminded myself, was out of work, sick, hungry, or hurting for toys. I thought of my community college students battling to keep their lights on or pay for post-op medication. I thought of the Rwandan woman who sits in front of us during Mass, rocking and licking her palms. I went on worrying.
My parents socked away money instead of buying nice things, and they taught me the same pride in wealth gained through self-denial. We bought only what we found on discount, and we chose only restaurants for which the Orange County Register ran a coupon. My parents hate both salad and potatoes, but they gobbled up the awful steak dinners at Sizzler on Tuesdays because that’s when seniors ate for 50% off. Fifty percent, Nui. That means everyone else pay double what we pay for our same food. We eat our cheaper food right in front of them! My mom would purse her lips with glee at her stealth. My lesson: neither your enjoyment nor your satisfaction matter. What you enjoy is the discount. You enjoy the freedom and hope and possibility of everything else you can spend the other fifty percent on. Only, that spending never comes because saving money isn’t a series of choices leading up to a payoff; saving money is a mindset, a mantra, and a deep fear—of what, exactly, I wasn’t sure. It’s not my parents’ act of saving that I can’t understand. It’s the micro-savings that never add up. It’s eating only free ketchup packets so you never have to buy a whole bottle from the store, setting every table and cleaning every spill with misfit take-out napkins so you can use as many as you want, taking a fistful of KFC honey packets when you hate honey. Since my mom became a lunch lady at the local elementary school, her first job outside the family restaurant that closed after my grandfather died seven years ago, my parents’ fridge sits full of the half-pints of milk my mom gets to take home every Friday.
My mom loved my gifts more if she knew I had gotten a great deal. And she always asked. Her pride in my thrift seemed to make up for many ill-fitting shirts and sunglasses, useless bags, and flimsy gadgets. “I like anything,” she assured, combing for the brand label and calculating any discounts she had memorized from that store’s weekly ad. She clucked her tongue if she determined the cost had been too dear, and then she would wear whatever it was with guilt and you shouldn’t have in her eyes. My mom always said she wanted “the best” for me, so I thought that’s what I should give her; but I also knew “the best” did not make her happy. Making her happy wasn’t about knowing what to give; it was a mysterious jackpot of a keen eye coupled with timing, luck, and exhaustive hunting that should pay out ten-fold, not at all unlike striking gold. So I never learned, and still don’t know, what my mom actually likes. And because she taught me to value a sale more than one’s own tastes, I never learned what something was worth to me.
At Thanksgiving, my mom told me how, with gold prices so high, she had just sold some of her jewelry. It was then that I snapped out of my half-listening of mmm-hmm and nods. My mom finds a story and tells it several times, marveling and repeating it again, as if she’s making herself believe it all. She never looks up to see if you are following. That day, she narrated my cousin’s quickie divorce, changing her pitch and register for dialogue, but never using a “he said” or “she said” to help the listener out. To wit: “He so in love, he cannot see that she only want his money. Oh, but I love her! She so classy! Ugh, not thinking! His mom so mad. Why my son buy her a house when she the one with a better job? Oh, sister-in-law, well, kids now so different from our time, you know. No good she! No good for my son! So, I tell you, Nui, they never tell your cousin’s father about divorcing because nobody want him to die unhappy. Oh, but I love her so much! Ai-yah, Peter!”
But then, somewhere in the weekend of stories about another cousin’s profligate wife in China, and an American nephew’s shameful arrest for larceny, I found myself showing my mom the contents of my rosewood jewelry box. We were putting away some pendants she brought for my daughters—delicate glass octagons etched with each girl’s zodiac animal. My mom turned over the various pieces I had strewn in careless piles, recognizing each, but admitting she was no longer exactly sure of its story.
“Oh, you have this one,” she said. “I don’t remember I give it to you. Ah, this one, too.”
Then she put out her wrist and dangled a white gold and diamond bracelet.
“Look,” she smiled. “You like? I get this after I sell some gold I don’t want anymore. You want me to leave it for you to borrow? For the girls?”
“Wait, what? You sold what?”
“Gold is high now. I sell mine this summer when even higher than now.”
She beamed with her market savvy.
“Oh,” I replied. “Wow.”
My mom used to let me sift through her jewelry box whenever I wanted, usually after she had come home late from the restaurant, greasy and exhausted. While she showered, I crept into her closet and lifted the gray lockbox from the shelf behind her coats. I fished the key from the pocket of her never-worn purple wool trench, and creaked open the heavy lid. Some jewelry was carefully swaddled in pouches embroidered with dragonflies and fish. Many were separated in the compartments of a weathered plastic pencil box. Removing the top shelf of stud earrings revealed heavy gold and pearl pendants, jade bracelets, and yard upon yard of gold chains. Spreading them across her dresser, I would memorize the pieces. As she dressed for bed, my mom would stop and point at one or another and tell me whom it had belonged to. Most were her mom’s, carried over first to Hong Kong in 1959, then all the way to Sacramento in 1965. Some pieces were from my dad’s mom, some were wedding gifts from old aunties. My dad’s wedding ring was always somewhere in the pile because he complained it was uncomfortable. Some were modern diamond pieces my mom could finally afford for herself in America. A few sweepingly romantic pendants were from my dad for an early anniversary or birthday. I knew all their rough and smooth surfaces, their dents, and the bitter, mothy smell the box exhaled each of the hundreds of times I dove in.
Somewhere around middle school I stopped waiting up for her because I had homework to finish or a new episode of something to watch, and because we never had much to talk about. My mom spent long days cooking in my grandfather’s restaurant, coming home after nine o’clock closing to shower and collapse into bed. My dad would come up a few hours later, drowsy from the television. She listened to me chirp about my day, but she was desperate to get clean and comfortable at last. Some nights I watched TV on her bed until she emerged from the bathroom, lotioned her knotted hands, and told me to turn it off and go to bed. The only time she would delay her lying down was if I was looking through the jewelry, and even some of those nights she would merely sigh, gather the pieces, and put them away without any stories.
By the time we were done going through my own jewelry box, my mom had moved on to talking about how we’d cook the turkey. I didn’t ask which gold she had sold, or how she had chosen which pieces to part with. But she certainly seemed happy with her new bracelet, which flashed as she wiped off my counters and reheated a bottle I had just made for the baby. I adjusted my pants, as I was always doing those days, over my C-section scar, and divided the hospital bill into the twelve payments.
Two weeks before I actually went out to Vincent’s Jewelers, I emptied all my mom’s pieces onto the bed. I picked out the heavy chains orphaned of pendants, some bracelets and oversized coin charms, and four rings—only the ones I had never worn. I heard my mom saying, This one a gift when Daddy born from his own grandma in China. This one from my brother, Ah-Mein, for my wedding. He always spoil me like his own daughter. This one your Ah-Ngen give to me instead of her own daughter. Oh, she give her many pieces, but she save this one for me special even though I am only daughter-in-law, because I work so much for her. This one Ah-Hoo take from China when we come together, hiding it in secret pocket because she know she going to have to pay someone to get us out…
I have two pieces my mom had made in Chinatown when I was a baby: a necklace ending in two rows of diamonds, hooked at the ends so they fall one above the other into the shape of a crescent, which reminded her of a mouth thrown open in laughter, though it looked to me like a sparkling hammock; and a bracelet made of fat gold letters that spelled HAPPY. I imagined her as a new mother, calling all of this happiness to her, trying to capture it in the right design. At his little store, her favorite jeweler, Raymond, might have felt her joy and agitation as she described the pieces she wanted and watched them emerge in his sketches. He would have understood her need for them, for both the display and invocation of happiness molded into 24 karats. These, my mom told me many times, were the best pieces; you tell by their softness, the way they melt against your body’s heat, that they are pure. Until she passed them on to me, both stayed in her locked box.
Eventually deciding to leave behind the happy necklace and bracelet, I stuck the swollen bag of jewelry in my purse before work. Somewhere between end of semester meetings and running Christmas errands, I figured I would find an hour for this chore as well. At the end of that day, I dug the bag out and returned it to the box. Every morning for two weeks, I left the house with the jewelry bag, waiting for some time to open up. I stared at my purse hanging in my office or sagging on the passenger seat, thinking how stupid it was for me to be toting around such valuables. I clutched my purse closely, enjoying the company of the secret weight inside.
It was when he said, “Oh, what a nice little ring. I like this one. We’ll probably resell it as is,” that I changed my mind.
Vincent’s Jewelers was in a long strip mall, northwest of the city. Huge glass display cases mazed across the vast floor. The cool lights made the gems blink and the metals glow. Another woman walked in just ahead of me and I swore that if I had to wait my turn awkwardly in the store I would just go home. I made my way back toward some men in suits standing around. One stepped in front of me and smiled. He made eye contact and waited, without a word.
“I wanted to…I brought some jewelry for appraisal,” I began. I gestured to my purse to show him where, exactly, said jewelry was. I am bad at telling people what I want, couching my demands as favor requests, with apologies for the inconvenience. I have also gotten used to sales people jumping in, reading my mind, and whisking me toward what they already know I want. I want to be brought offerings to accept or decline, and pretend it is by free choice and startling generosity that a salesperson tries to win me over. So I hesitated, to see if this one would nod knowingly, give me a yes I have exactly what you need and a right this way.
But he waited. He looked at me, not unkindly, as if to say, I know you haven’t yet finished, so go ahead.
“Uh, you buy gold, right?”
He nodded and pointed me to a boxy little alcove off the side of the store, with three walls covered in thank you notes and pictures of brides and grooms. There was no door. A desk cut the space in half, and I sat with my back to the store and its gleaming cases. The man in the suit inched around to his side of the desk. Between us were a scale, some paper and pens, and a box of tissues.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“Wait, how does this work?” I asked, not wanting to offer the first move. “Do you pay the gold price, a melt price, or resale price?” In one breath, I had just used up all my research.
“We do all of those,” he replied. His voice was quiet; he was palpably calm. He started a fresh sheet in his steno pad with the date and time.
“What’s your first name?”
As he wrote, he passed me a form with his free hand.
“Here’s what we use.”
At the top of the page was the price of gold that day: $1,253 per ounce of pure gold, the same number I had seen on goldprice.org. The chart below broke down what they would pay for 22, 18, 14, and 10 karats, as well as for something they could resell as-is. There were no dollar signs next to the numbers.
I emptied my bag onto the table and pushed the pile toward him. He untangled the chains and laid them in a row, then made a pile of pendants and rings, then a row of bracelets. With a jeweler’s glass, he examined the clasps and hooks. Then he left, returning shortly with an iPhone and a fat pen on a cord. He opened an app, plugged the devices together, and touched one chain with the pen’s battered tip. Numbers flashed on the screen, like a digital scale calibrating. He touched the gold over and over, looking for a good reading spot, adjusting his glasses as if that would help with accuracy.
I watched the chains register first at 18, then 22 karats. In its fluctuations, the meter would, for a second, linger on 24, but it always came down again. None of the pieces were, as my mom had told me, the pure gold that you could only get in China fifty years ago, before merchants started sneaking in other metals but still charging the same price. These pieces were not the great secret treasure of our family, hoarded away from the swindling American market. You could not, it seemed, tell by weight and heft and an old Chinese vendor’s word, what the true value was.
Slowly, the salesman made his way through the gold, documenting each piece’s purity, weight, description, and price—that last column was starting to add up to several thousand dollars. I settled into the idea that Vincent’s Jewelers was not a scam operation, that their technology was not rigged against my mom’s stories. As he worked, I felt a space free up in my head. Suddenly the air conditioning project seemed less extravagant and more necessary; the car felt like a happy upgrade instead of a tragic expense. The jewelry, too, felt like a weight about to be lifted, to be given over in exchange for some breathing room.
And then he admired the ring my mom had made to house some tiny, loose diamonds saved from other broken pieces. She had chosen a modern, white gold band, and a large square setting to encrust all those diamonds in tight rows. She gave it to me right after I got engaged, the same way she had given me stove cleaner, a camera, and wedding earrings—right after she had seen what I had chosen for myself. The salesman hadn’t commented on any of the jewelry until then, not the old fashioned or mismatched gold, not the other three rings with their dulled opals and topaz. But he liked this ring that I had never worn. The thought appeared before I could catch myself: Someone else would buy it as-is, and she would wear it not as admonition, but just a ring. I would not let her have such an easy time of owning it. As soon as he added the resale price of the ring to my payout column, I decided to leave. I was sorry to have taken up nearly an hour of his day, but he didn’t know who I was, and he would still collect a paycheck. I could go home, put it all back, and give it to my daughters like I had always, if only in the abstract, intended. All that financial peace of mind slipped away.
But then I thought, maybe I could keep my newly freed mindset and the jewelry; it would only take a little effort on my part to have a better attitude, remember to count my blessings, and stop worrying about problems that didn’t even exist, especially if those problems seemed so neatly erased with money. Where, I wondered, was this refreshing perspective last week when I was making yet another budget spreadsheet with tuition at a school our daughter could attend two and a half years from now? Surely a little cash in hand wouldn’t suddenly balance my life and quell my anxieties. Surely I wasn’t so easily bought.
Between this stranger and me, my mother’s jewelry sat like a blameless pet I was about to relinquish. I had learned from a few online videos what happens to scrap gold: how metallurgists take an acetylene torch to a crucible of random piles, how it takes several minutes to melt under the blue flame. The glowing, molten gold is then poured into a bouillon mold and covered, like batter in a waffle maker. In one shot, you can see air bubbles escaping, popping out bright orange like some liquid night sky. The bar takes only a minute to harden, then is plunged in water that instantly turns boiling. Any debris is chiseled away. I knew this would be—though with far less ceremony than even a YouTube video—the fate of my mom’s pieces: strewn with various strangers’ grit and body oil and happiness, reduced to something pure at last.
But I stayed in my seat. I let the salesman, now misted in sweat from our hour in his suit, finish his tally and present me with a final total of just over four thousand dollars. Whether inertia propelled me to hand over my driver’s license, or the taste of a minute’s freedom from worry allowed me to sign the sales agreement, I’m not entirely sure. When he left to print my check, my nose stung as if I had been punched, and my face crumpled. I shook out a tissue and sobbed into the already dissolving square. The spasm in my chest and the drum in my sinuses felt like some kind of assault from the outside. I could not release the contortion of my face or my shoulders. At this moment, my whole body was surging with regret, betrayal, embarrassment, and some other kind of ache. I didn’t want to do this, but I didn’t want the jewelry. I wanted to hear my mom tell stories again, but I wanted to forget how lonely I had been as a kid. I wanted so many things from my mom instead of a new pile of old jewelry every time she visited. I thought to put on my coat so I could leave the minute we finished.
I was blowing my nose, and so didn’t hear him return with my check and all the jewelry neatly gathered on a numbered tray.
“Oh, Miss,” he said.
“I’m sorry.” I turned away my leaking face.
“I was just going to show you this sheet,” he said gently, “that says you have seven days to change your mind.”
He counted on his fingers: seven business days meant I had until next Thursday to return.
“You would give me everything back? After all that work?”
“You have to come back with our check first,” he said. “And then yes, we’ll give it all back. People change their minds all the time. Seven days. It’s the law.”
On their testimonials page, one customer thanked Vincent’s Jewelers for her granddaughter’s breathing machine, another for a month of food after his workman’s comp payout had ended. People thanked Leo, Chris, or Charlie for their kindness. I wondered which one of them was my salesman, why he had never said his name, why I’d never thought to ask.
I folded the check into my purse, still sniffling. The jewelry sat in the tray like a collection of spiny little sea creatures.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I know those pieces meant something to you.”
A small laugh escaped me as I put my empty red bag into my purse and snapped it shut. But then I nodded. I smiled at his kindness and shook his hand.
“They did,” I said.
One of my recurring fantasies is cleaning out my parents’ overstuffed house. I dream of the Dumpsters I would fill with wobbly discount lamps, endless logo-branded blankets, and sample-sized cereals. Room by room, I gut the house to its corners; I open every window and can almost feel it float away on the Santa Ana winds. I have been having this same daydream since I was in high school.
I grew up in a room half full of my dad’s old college stuff; among the relics, a never assembled model human digestive system, an unstrung guitar, and every toy won at a raffle, carnival game, or fishbowl drawing. Prizes, no matter how cheap or useless, were hoarded as emblems of luck and success. A four-foot tall, plush, and menacing Pink Panther lurked in my closet, by far the biggest we had ever taken away from some casino dart game. When I asked my mom if I could put it on the Goodwill donation truck that came by regularly, she said absolutely not. Years later, after I had packed for college, I found her removing all the “valuables” from a donation bag I had stuffed with toys and outgrown clothes. My parents imbued objects—whether free pens, extra condiments, or animals snared from a Denny’s claw machine game—with the power to capture fortune and cast it into our futures. If we won candy or a bottle of wine, we could not waste its power by consuming it. Around us, they rooted down free stuff like the poles of an electric fence; inside we lived in a mausoleum of ourselves chasing after every scrap of luck and happiness and bounty.
With the four thousand dollar check in hand, I was suddenly afraid the jewelry had become just another thing I needed to get rid of for the sake of annihilating clutter. Had I been unable to see its value because all I see in my parents’ things are fear and defense against the unknown? Back at Vincent’s Jewelers, I had wished for two things: to have a pressing enough need to sell the jewelry, and to be unable to sell it. I wished for genuine conflict, but the necessary attachments didn’t exist—neither to the jewelry nor my mom, nor the time in our lives when the jewelry was the one thing we shared.
I let the seven-day return deadline pass before I deposited the check. After a few more days, I finally took the empty jewelry bag out of my purse and dropped it into an always-growing donation bin in the basement. We installed the new air conditioning, and have already spent many nights rocking our girls under its impressive breeze. I still worry about our spending and saving. Sometimes I count the number of things I could buy or pay off with the jewelry still in my box, all that happiness sitting in the dark. I think of how my mom would tsk because, rather than solicit bids, we just let a local company install our air conditioner. I think, each time I wipe my sleeping girls’ sweaty brows and click on the cooling hum, each time I shop without coupons, and each time I force myself not to order the cheapest item on the menu, how extravagant my mom finds my life, how it grieves her that we are, again and again, letting the world get one over on us.
I haven’t yet found a way to tell my mom about the jewelry I sold. I don’t know if she’ll ever ask, or if I’ll admit that it was she who gave me the idea in the first place. On her next visit, she will bring more, carried on the plane inside a vitamin bottle. Her relief when I take them will be obvious, these charms and talismans now charged with protecting my family hundreds of miles from her. Because I am not afraid, I don’t wear her pendants like armor. I let my good fortune walk around in the bodies of my husband and daughters. My attachments now are in tiny outgrown sleep sacks, a box of my husband’s cards and letters, and a shelf of odd snow globes we collect for each other. All things I love because I love how we have lived with them, how they have held some of our greatest risks. The collection of our moments, some so sweet I can hardly form the words for them, is starting to outgrow the many other stockpiles we keep. I am stashing away the furtive delight of walking out to dinner after both of us had promised, then forgotten, to defrost something; I am storing up each taste of the immoderate number of dishes we order, and the chain of our grubby hands sustaining the endless grace we say. I have loved that in our life we have been caught off guard and unprepared, that we have overpaid and under-bought. We have taken our luck when it came, and then we have let it go.
Melody S. Gee was born in Taiwan and raised in Cerritos, California. Her first poetry collection, Each Crumbling House, won the 2010 Perugia Press Book Prize. Her second collection, The Dead in Daylight, is forthcoming in 2016 from Cooper Dillon Books. Recent poems and essays appear in Meridian, The Los Angeles Review, The Book of Scented Things Anthology, Spillway, and Copper Nickel. She teaches developmental writing at St. Louis Community College, and lives with her husband and daughters in Missouri. Find her online at melodygee.com.