Here at Dawn’s, the women exhume their jewelry, exposing it in the bright light for repairs. As they reach deep into purses and pull out wrinkled Ziploc bags, I brace for the explanations and apologies, the self-scoldings: “This is cheap. This is outdated. This is silly,” they say. “I’m sorry you have to touch it. I’m sorry you have to disentangle it. I’m sorry you have to restring it.” A head shakes and says: “It’s not real.” Then they lean over the counter and present it to me with both hands, like a gift. Sometimes there is a story to help explain their attachment: “It was a coming-of-age gift.” Or: “My mother wore it every day, whether or not she left the house.” The display case, with its hot, buzzing light, provides a barrier of decorum between us, gives me the immunity to touch their nostalgia. I rebreak the necklaces, then set them like bones.
A woman hands me a silk pouch. I reach inside and pull out a half-strung pearl necklace by its dirty string. I can feel the object’s nocturnal quality, how it would’ve been content to coil into the velvety dark corners of a jewelry box. When I dump the loose beads onto a felt pad, flakes of pearlescent coating snow down onto it. Barely breathing, I arrange the imitation pearls by size with a tweezers.
“We need to substitute three 5-millimeter freshwater rounds,” I say, indicating the gap like a doctor analyzing an X-ray. The customer’s knuckles are white from squeezing the glass case. As I reach for the calculator to quote her a price, I suddenly wish I looked older than my twenty years. Professionalism puts them at ease.
Another day, we set to work wiring a tight silver cage around the edges of a small black shark tooth, while its owner waited at the coffee shop across the street.
When the woman returned, she dangled the pendant in the crook of her palm, examining it at eye-level. Her wet brown eyes glistened.
“Do you like how it turned out?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head briskly as if to rid her eyes of tears. “I’m getting sappy. I found this when I was a little girl, so it has sentimental value.”
I thought about that conjunction. So. That something could be valued simply because it had been picked up and weighed in your smaller, younger hand.
I remember a little glass sailboat that was flat and clear like melting ice, that fit snugly in my palm. It was the only object my mom rescued from her grandparents’ Wisconsin farmhouse before the auction. Years ago, in one of the sloping bedrooms, the sailboat had hung from a ceiling fan by a ribbon. As a child, my mom stayed in that bedroom, listening to the distant wash of cars on the highway. I filled in the rest with my imagination: when their headlights reeled into the room for just a second, they lit up the sailboat. Picturing her tucked in, safe, I felt nostalgic. At twelve years old, I worried that I would never own an heirloom or find an object that demanded I carry it through the years. As I rubbed my fingers over the sail’s clear grooves, I thought about the farm it came from, as though it had sprung like an arrowhead from the turned soil. I wanted my childhood to be written on it, too.
Inside Dawns Hide & Bead Away, one exposed brick wall is covered with stones of all colors. It takes at least ten paces to drag my fingers through the strands, all the way from garnet to onyx. Brushing against each other, they make a sound that’s heavy and light at the same time, like a carton of BBs being shaken. Today, I am learning how to “spectrumize”: incorporate the newly priced stones into the spectrum at exactly the right hue. I hold a strand of peachy-red sunstone at arm’s length, hovering between the hard-candy-orange of carnelian and the diluted lemonade of citrine. I place it cautiously on a hook. Later I will move it one shade left.
The rest of the store consists of loose beads in glass dishes. Like a shell-covered beach, the bead store produces an air of destiny. A massive inventory offering the tiniest merchandise. Customers do not pick up the first bead they see. They deliberately overwhelm their senses and resurface triumphant, saying, “I found this bead, and it is mine.” It is the same gesture at the beach. When they pluck a shell from its outline, they are preselecting sentimentality. It is a small leap, then, to convincing themselves that their bodies were meant to be their frame, their background, their proper home.
Only one woman uses layaway at our store, her name neatly printed at the top of an otherwise blank chart. She’s in the process of buying a geisha, carved from a chunk of tomato-red carnelian. We keep the figurine rolled up in a brown paper bag under the front counter, and the woman comes back weekly, not to make payments but to visit. We blush and hand over the bag for a few minutes. “She just speaks to me,” the woman says. “She’s so dainty; she has to be mine.” She stands in front of the mirror, pressing the stone against her freckled chest as if to shelter it. I watch her, wondering if I should speak up.
“That stone isn’t drilled,” I say one day.
She blinks at the mirror and recenters the stone-girl. “Then how will I wear her?”
My coworkers Kaitlyn and Mallory and I understand that to wear an object is to consummate it.
Whenever possible, we indulge that feeling, raking our fingers through piles of beads. We line them up lovingly on the backs of our hands, in the grooves between our fingers. “We must have been crows in another lifetime,” Mallory says. Kaitlyn caws, and I giggle. But it’s not just the sparkle. It’s the fact that they bear the tiniest holes. Imagine the drill bit!
We love the days of Swarovski crystal shipments because they come in discreet packages with specific net weights.
“It’s like drugs,” Kaitlyn swoons. The unassuming parcel gives no indication of the color it contains, just the Swarovski swan in the corner, if you know to look for it. We take turns unwrapping them like expensive chocolate bars, like the family from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Under a layer of card stock, the paper scrapes open and we catch a glimpse of color, a flash of magenta or deep, kelpy green: thousands of four-millimeter crystals in a shapely mound. We are supposed to be counting out piles of one hundred, but for now we can only paw through them in ecstasy. Dawn looks up from her work desk, catches us, and smiles to herself.
At the register, customers often joke uncomfortably about the size of the bag they walk away with. They watch us divide the metal clasps into piles of five, lips moving in a silent count. They hear the cash register gurgle its response, multiplying. They blink as we parse the beads into a one-inch Ziploc, bewildered when we hand them a flat brown bag. Often it appears empty, as if it could ride aloft on a breeze.
“I spent fifty dollars, and this is all I get?” they exclaim in a self-mocking tone. It’s not just the money; the bag seems too light, too small to hold inside of it the Saturday afternoon they just spent. But it no longer surprises me what can disappear into those bags. I’ve thought about how my entire set of loose teeth could fit inside a two-by-two-inch Ziploc. You could press the air out, seal the bag, fold it in half, and snap it into the trifold of a wallet. It would be lighter than a handful of quarters.
Though my fondness for stone and crystal and bali silver and gold vermeil is immediate, months go by before I begin to fall for the organics—the bone, wood, horn, and coral that fill Mancala trays on a woven tablecloth in the middle of the room. At first, I attribute this to their drabness—the muted whites and browns—but something else makes them difficult. Their realness, the very thing that makes them magic, is hard to internalize. It must be projected onto them. Because each organic object has a lookalike that never breathed. I misplace the iridescent beetle wings, the ones Kaitlyn fashions into earrings, with the foil enamel across the room, or the ancient tree-harvested amber with the dyed yellow stones. Later, when I discover my mistake, I will try once more to really feel the object’s heightened status as former living tissue. I hold it and think alive, alive, alive. Goosebumps appear on my arms, a bodily recognition. I cannot tell if the feeling emanates from the thing itself, or from me.
In my interview for a sales position at Dawn’s, I told them I was anxious to learn the stones’ names. Dawn and Jen, the owner and manager, nodded their heads with restrained approval, like a couple screening a babysitter. Now, months later, I have learned that my role is one of Metaphysical Consultant. I read passages from The Stone Bible aloud: “Malachite clears the way to attain goals,” I say, holding up a strand of green stones. “Do you have anything in particular you’re trying to achieve right now?” When I cite the book, no one questions my beliefs.
Once, though, a man with cloudy glasses came in and was immediately drawn to a rock-sized piece of quartz. He called me over, placed it ceremoniously in my hand, and stood back.
“What am I supposed to feel?” I asked, noticing his sharp blue eyes.
“Okay, just wait,” he said. “You need a grounding rod. Is there a metal pipe anywhere?” We found a copper one hugging the brick wall behind the register. Holding the quartz chunk in one hand, I wrapped my fingers around the thin copper pipe.
“You feel it,” he said, wiry eyebrows twitching. It was more statement than question. “The vibrations. Try closing your eyes.”
I closed my eyes for a second, then snapped them open, suspicious that this might be an elaborate robbery plot. But he was just standing there, hoping.
“No,” I said, knowing it might wound him.
Later, a woman in a red coat presents us with a bracelet made of human hair.
“It was my great-grandmother’s.” She sighs—an apology—and sets it on the counter between us. Her own dark hair is cropped close, earlobes sporting go-with-everything gold hoops. Kaitlyn and Mallory and I lean over the bracelet, examining the spot where the coffee-colored braid has come unglued from the clasp. When our not-touching becomes conspicuous, I pick it up. It feels exactly as I thought it would: waxy, like fishing line. “Completely ordinary,” I think, but my hand feels limp.
Mallory produces a repair form, pen hovering between “restringing” and “weaving.” She draws her own box and checks it. The woman folds the order form in half and leaves with a flourish of long coat hems, heeled boots clicking out the door. We wait for the bells to stop jingling before turning to each other.
Mallory turns to us, incredulous. “Sure, we can braid your great-grandmother’s nasty hair, no problem!” she says with a “can-do” swing-of-the-arm.
“On three?” I suggest, holding out my fist in my cupped palm for a round of Rock Paper Scissors.
When we tire of repairs or spectrumizing or Windexing the endless glass surfaces, we wander into Dawn’s bead-making studio through the French doors in the back of the store. Dawn teaches classes here and sells studio time to the public, but her only customer is Ivy, a retired blonde woman with a fondness for clogs and puffy vests. Ivy buys eighty hours at a time.
I find her bent over a flame at one of the work benches. She looks up at me through her safety goggles, smiles at my interest. She adjusts the flame and touches the melting end of a glass rod to a metal stick, rolling the metal stick slowly so the glass drips onto itself, thickening.
“You have to turn it consistently,” she says, noticing my interest. “Rotisserie-style.”
I watch her pinch white powder from a tray and sprinkle it into the molten bead. “What’s that?” I ask, pointing.
“This is my friend’s mother,” she says without hesitation. “Her ashes, anyway.”
Ivy returns the hot blob to the flame. “Eventually, I’m going to do the same thing with my mom. She’s been waiting in my locker for months now,” she says, clicking her tongue as if to say, “Can you believe my procrastination?” I watch her swirl the flecks of ash on the bead’s surface with a hooked tool. It looks like Jupiter, a little glass atmosphere.
“Ah,” I say. “It’s beautiful,” then wonder if I should have said “She’s beautiful.” I make an excuse about work waiting for me in the front of the store and hurry to the register to tell Kaitlyn.
“I’m spooked,” I whisper.
“I’m going to think about it every time I pass her locker.” Kaitlyn shudders.
We both look toward the back of the store.
“Would you want an ash bead?” I ask suddenly. “I mean a…mom bead? When your mom…”
She squeezes her lips together. “Maybe if someone else made it. I couldn’t touch the ashes. Would you want one?”
“I don’t know,” I say, but a little glass sailboat glides into my memory.
It’s a Saturday morning in March when I notice a girl my age consulting with Kaitlyn in hushed tones at the back of the store. Her hair is long, the color of cinnamon, and her hands flutter with a Kleenex as she explains something to Kaitlyn. Something about her floral-print skirt, paired with cold-weather leggings and a windbreaker, makes me inexplicably sad. She drifts toward me at the register with a single packet of precious metal clay, a substance that non-jewelers can use to sculpt their own charms. She stares at her cracked hands as she pays, doesn’t hear me ask if she wants a bag.
When the door jingles shut, Kaitlyn approaches me, slightly dazed. “She’s taking it back to the funeral home with her,” she says. “To get her grandmother’s fingerprint.”
Of course. The floral print skirt. I had worn a similar one to my grandfather’s funeral, despite the cold weather.
Within fifteen minutes, the sepia-haired girl returns. She’s balancing the clay on a napkin with great care, like a ringbearer. When she gives it to Kaitlyn, I can see that it’s been flattened into a white disc, bearing a deep thumbprint.
We carry the clay back to the studio, then pause in front of the kiln, reverent. With a pair of tongs, Kaitlyn places the silver clay on the rack. I wonder whether the clay is warm or cold, whether traces of the girl’s own arches, loops, and whorls mark on its surface. Kaitlyn shuts the door and turns on the two-hour fire. We leave the room before the tiny porthole floods with flames.
I imagine the water burning away, the silver thumbprint being born. Afterward, you could press your thumb in her imprint, transfer your warmth to the cool metal. You could project, and it would be real.