In May, when my father went in for a colonoscopy at Waterville Memorial Hospital, they discovered that his lower intestine looked like a spotted cow. A dark archipelago of blotches on one end, pink smooth on the other. At least it appears isolated, the bald doctor had said, in the butt end of the colon. He smiled to himself and walked over to hand the images of the lesions to my mother and me. “It looks more like burnt pizza cheese,” she said, handing them back. My father inhaled and wiped his mouth as if smearing ketchup from his face. I looked at him. He looked at my mother. My mother twirled the rings on her finger. “How bad is it?”
In May, I was skipping class, missing exams, and sleeping under my bed because the hard floor felt good on my back. My roommate jumped when she first saw me there, pale white toes peeking out from under the foot of the bed, and asked what was wrong. I could have told her a mountain of things. A county dump worth of things. How I sat alone and stared at chipped tile. How I couldn’t bear to read the cards my grandmother sent. And how, five minutes prior to my crawling under the bed, my mother had called to tell me my father had a sick colon and needed a surgery we couldn’t pay for. But, instead, I told my roommate nothing. She hated her parents, who were divorced, busy, and owned speedboats. What’s wrong? Nothing. I tapped the floor with a flat hand and said to my roommate, it’s just wonderful to feel the support.
In May, I left college for home, taking only a duffel bag and a box of pretzels for the road. I had no plans to go back. My father was on leave and my mother had gotten a job as a cashier at the local grocery store to pay for the surgery. She never went to college. She always told me that she was dumb and understood only two things in her life: people and mindless work. Sliding boxes across a black rubber belt and smiling, she said, were two things she had become very good at.
After the surgery, my mother and I stood by my father’s hospital bed, watching him sleep. “Lola,” my mother whispered. My father’s mouth hung open and he snored softly. “I need to go home and take the dog out. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” She picked up her purse and slipped out the door, her sandals scuffing as she went. I looked at my father’s face. Placid. Quiet. White. Stubble shaded his upper lip. It looked strange and changed the composition of his entire face. My father had never had a mustache—he was a health inspector who liked a good hairnet—and I didn’t want him to grow one now. He seemed foreign to me.
I looked at the lunch tray sitting on the table beside his bed. The nurse told me that he needed to eat something when he awoke. I walked over and unwrapped a set of pre-packaged utensils and began to peel away the tops of containers. I would be ready with a plastic white spoon and Styrofoam cup of green Jell-O to feed my father.
I listened to the nurses pad up and down the hallway in their white shoes and tapped the container in my lap, waiting for him to wake. My father hardly ever slept. Every morning at 5:00, our dog Lily would stick her long nose into his ear and snuffle until he would throw his legs over the side of the bed, take her outside. Every night at 6:30 he ate dinner on the hassock. He filled out forms from the day’s inspections and often fell asleep somewhere that wasn’t his bed. At 11:30, he’d get up and trundle to his room, white tube socks half off his feet. For as long as I can remember, my parents never shared a bed. My mother said he snored too loud and so she slept on an air mattress in the corner of my room. My father complained he never slept, but I knew he liked when Lily shoved her wet nose into his ear. He must have liked the way she needed him, the way she chose him to turn the doorknob and let her out.
The phone rang. It was my mother, sobbing. Someone had broken into the house. They took a soup can of quarters, a twenty-dollar bill, and two handfuls of jewelry from my mother’s jewelry box, leaving only a small, gold Italian horn charm wedged between the box’s beige cushions.
“It’s gone, all gone. Everything I ever had, everything I ever got. Jesus Christ, it’s all gone.”
The Jell-O cup trembled in my hand. Something heavy and greasy settled in the pit of my gut and I felt like moving, like shaking it off. Instead, I watched my dad. The corners of his mouth were pinker and rawer than the lips. His eyelids creased like a show curtain. And then I thought of my mother’s jewelry. I thought of all my mother’s stories, gone.
She had always told me things straight and without frosting. It wasn’t storks; it was sex. It wasn’t fine; it was shitty. Life’s hard, move on, next question. In high school, when a dark haired boy with ambitious hands dumped me after twenty days of heavy kissing, my mother had knocked a many-ringed finger against the kitchen table and told me about all the men she once knew.
There was Pete, my mother’s high school boyfriend with the long, straight hair. He worked at the local record shop and took calculus before most finished algebra. “He screwed himself up, though.” She told me about him every time a Cat Stevens song came on the radio. Now he owned a car dealership in western Iowa and had a young child with a woman half his age. “What a waste.”
There was Leo, who loved my mother and called her chula. He drew pictures and worked with his father at Metaltek making stainless steel tubes. Leo spoke Spanish softly and had a cat named Zapata. My mother loved him as a friend until he died of testicular cancer when he was 23. She kept his obituary from the paper in a yellow envelope hidden under the Christmas silverware in the closet.
There was Richard, rich Richard, who owned a rendering plant in northern Michigan. His factory ground dead cats, flattened coons, and the unwanted animal parts from slaughterhouses into meat-bone meal for cattle and lard for lipsticks and sticky glues. He took her to Vegas, Phoenix, Crater Lake. Richard had a twelve-year-old daughter my mother never saw and an ex-wife she never met. “He was crazy,” she told me with the flick of a hand. “I’m glad I realized it when I did.”
Pete was starfire topaz. Leo was rose gold. Richard, an amethyst ring. My mother walked around the house with holes in the heels of her socks, drinking and eating out of chipped coffee cups. The rings were the only nice things she owned. They were her past, her stories. She had told me that one day, they would all be mine. I would know them all.
It wasn’t that my dad didn’t want to buy jewelry for my mother, it was that he couldn’t, or didn’t know how. He bought important things: dog food, apples, toilet paper, cheese. Buying only things we needed would help in case something bad happened, like a car accident or colon surgery. He saw things in terms of unchecked or checked boxes, like the empty and filled spaces of a health inspection form.
Once in a while, he would have to fly out for a public health conference or a state meeting. Sioux City, Bloomington, Omaha, Eau Claire. He went to learn more about pool pH, or to keep up to date on the most effective ways to control termites. He’d call my mom in between lecture sessions, and she’d sit on a hard chair in the kitchen, her monotonous mhmm and oh really? barely moving the air. She’d then pass the phone to me and go to take the dog out. As my dad talked about Italian food, bad gas station coffee, and the wind in Nebraska, she stood outside, watching the dog raise its tail and shit.
He always brought gifts home. Normally, a candle or a fancy jar of salsa for my mom, a t-shirt for me. It was always too big and something I didn’t really like, but the way my dad had it bunched in a plastic bag beneath the clothes in his suitcase made my chest squeeze. Once, he had gotten me a gaudy shirt studded in sequins, a souvenir from Atlanta. When he had gone to bed, my mother came into my room to fold a stack of clothing. “Are you really going to wear that, Lo?” she had said, making sure my father’s pants creased on the pleat. She stood in her slippers, make-up-less and in a thin blue nightgown. She had just gotten done washing dishes and her hands were red and dry.
“Yes,” I remembered saying, hugging the t-shirt close. Objectively, it was an ugly t-shirt. Too flashy. But my dad had gotten it for me, and I was going to wear it, even if it was under a sweatshirt.
My mother shrugged and continued folding, nightgown brushing against her calves. She hadn’t opened the candle on the counter and wouldn’t until the next morning.
When I slept under the bed in my dorm, there were times I thought about my father sitting alone in his hotel room, white tube socks pulled up high, a cheap, light beer in hand, and I would cry. I thought about him walking store to store, thinking about what to get my mother and me. I thought of him sitting on a hot bench in Atlanta, calling my mother up as he shielded the sun from his eyes, grinning. In those times, I dug out the sequined shirt from my dresser and used it to muffle my sobs.
Of course my father knew about Pete, Leo, and Richard. He just didn’t know the whole story. He didn’t know what they meant.
My mother leafed through the yellow pages and called all her friends. Recovering from surgery in his bedroom, my father searched his own stack of phone books to help her. On a small pad of hotel stationery, my mother recorded all the places from Waterville to Morrison that bought and sold jewelry. “Hey Lo, there’s one here in town. Vic’s Gold N’ Tan,” she said, warming a can of tomato soup for my father. I felt that greasy feeling again in my gut, the one I felt when she first called me in the hospital. The half-moons beneath her eyes were deep and nearly mauve; it was she who now got up at 5:00 to let out the dog, to give dad ice chips and popsicles. In that moment, I wanted her to have back whatever those rings and necklaces meant to her. My mother didn’t have a lot, and now she had even less. After I gave my father the soup, we drove to Vic’s Gold N’ Tan.
Vic had a fat diamond ring on his pinkie that glittered when he moved his hand. He tapped it against the counter when he was thinking, when he was emphasizing, when he was telling you how sorry he was that your jewelry had been stolen. He wanted you to know, above all else, that he could afford the platinum band that choked his pudgy pinkie finger.
“Let me tell you how this works.” Vic walked to a small safe behind the counter and rifled through a ball of keys in his pocket. He found the right one and opened the safe. “As a jeweler, I have to keep what people bring to me for three weeks before I can do anything. It might be hot. The cops come in. They take it.” He clicked the safe closed and paraded back, reminding me of a little Napoleon. He set a freezer bag of jewelry in front of us. “I lose money.”
Vic leaned forward and pointed to a few pieces with his pinky. “There’s a gold band, there’s a topaz, not a starfire, though. Anything you see in there, honey?” My mother was almost nose-to-nose with him, engrossed in the pile of gold. Vic’s cologne wafted across the counter. He sucked his teeth and stood up straight. Even then, I was taller than him.
“Have you gotten anything with amethyst?” I asked. Vic looked up at me. Perhaps he thought the daughter didn’t speak.
“Did they take something of yours, too?”
“No.” I had in mind a gold ring with an amethyst stone Richard had bought my mother. She had worn it nearly every day.
“Oh. You have to look.” He waggled his pinkie at the bag. Vic didn’t call me honey.
“Lo, help me here,” my mother said. The bag was closed, but she jostled it until all the pieces lay evenly dispersed inside it. I sidled up to my mother and leaned over, looking for Pete, Leo, or Richard. After she had poked every one, turning it over in the plastic to see the etching on the bands, the type of stone in the mount, she sighed and peeled herself up from the counter.
“Nothing?” Vic had been watching us, occasionally glancing back at the receptionist sitting behind the tanning counter snapping her gum. The pops punctuated Vic’s respectful, reverent silence. “Diana. Diana.” Vic ran a tanning parlor inside the jewelry store. That’s why the place was called Gold N’ Tan.
My mother sighed and pushed her sunglasses further up to the crown of her head, causing her maple-colored hair to splay out on the sides. “Nothing.”
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” He held the bag with two hands like a ring bearer and placed it back into the safe. “I really am.” Click. “I’ll tell you what, though.” He oozed back over to where we stood. “I never buy stolen jewelry because I have this sense. I can tell when it’s not theirs. When they’re junkies trying to get a buck. But I don’t let them know that.” He slashed the air with his right hand. “I lowball ‘em. Offer a dirt price. They tell me all but to shove it up my ass—the guy in Morrison offered them more.” Vic raised his eyebrows. “Have you heard of him?”
Vic took out a gold-tipped business card from his lapel pocket and turned it over. He wrote the name down. “American Pawn. I’ve heard of him plenty of times. Crooked.” He flipped the card back over to the side that said Vic Antonopoulous, Jeweler. “If I were a thief, I’d take it to Illinois. They have no regulations on this stuff. Might be worth a visit. That’s not saying he’d give you anything back.”
My mother took the card and held it in her hand. “I had no idea. Thank you.”
Vic waved his fingers in the air. “No problem.” He stuck both hands in his pockets. “My name is on the front if you need anything.”
He walked with us to the door.
My mother turned around. “Vic, thank you for all your help. Really,”
“Sure, sure.” He flapped his hand again. The ring looked like a falling meteor. “There was another guy out there doing the same thing. But he got into a scuffle with some bad folks, you know? Shot him dead on his porch.” He pushed the door open and the bells chimed.
“I’m a Christian man, but between you and me, what goes around, comes around, I say.”
My dad hand-wrote the directions from Waterville to Morrison. He moved to the couch so he could watch history documentaries and football games. He analyzed a map, sucking on an orange popsicle, not caring if it dripped into his beard. Popsicles were one of the only things he could eat after his surgery. “Okay, this shouldn’t be too bad.” He sat up gingerly to write it down, careful not to bend too far. “Here we are,” he said, almost like a yawn. My mother took the sheet of paper and slipped the directions into her purse.
Our van was old. We listened to David Bowie cassettes and chewed on the hard candy my mother always took from the basket at the bank. Since I was at college, she had hoarded quite the stash. She always saved the green ones for me.
We crossed the Mississippi and entered a flat expanse of corn and soy fields. We were to look for a big park. Like a fairground, my dad said.
“There.” I pointed. Across from Morrison Field, Home of the State Tractor Pull, was a big warehouse, long and white and plain with an aluminum roof. Some crippled farm equipment—a dulled disk harrow, the broken trusses of a center-pivot sprinkler—protruded from an island of tall grass like rusty, twisted vertebrae.
We pulled in and parked. Just above the door, I saw the sign. American Pawn. A stoic looking eagle soared in the top right corner.
“Are you going to lie?” I said, turning to look at my mother. We debated whether she should tell the owner her story or not, whether she should just keep quiet and look.
She raked her front teeth across her bottom lip, as if to shear it off. “I don’t know.”
“You should know what to say. Know your story.”
My mother pulled down the visor and looked at her face in the mirror, took an index finger and brushed it underneath each eye, dusting away the dark dried particles of her mascara. She pushed the visor back up and looked out the windshield toward the thick, windowless, door of the warehouse.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
American Pawn looked like an underground bazaar—dimly lit and expansive. I expected to see women hawking pomegranates and curry spice, pulling at your sleeves. There were shelves and stacks and piles of things everywhere—endless rows of VHS tapes, boxes of books, old radios, amps, and guitars. Brusque men in canvas jackets stood with their arms crossed and legs wide in front of a fleet of ATVs in the back corner.
“Can I help you find anything?” A fat man with suspenders lurched up to us and gestured to the array of crock-pots, slow cookers, small engines and coffee makers around him. He set both hands on his hips and breathed hard, eyes darting between my mother and me. I could tell he was the type of man who ate TV dinners, kicked barking dogs, and fell asleep on the couch.
“No, just looking for now,” my mother said. The man nodded and walked off to the counter, behind which stood a massive, wooden grizzly bear and metal file cabinet.
“Where’s the jewelry?” I asked my mom. I saw no glass cases, no boxes of costume beads or rhinestone brooches.
“I don’t know.” We did a lap around the floor, weaving in and out of aisles.
I saw a door in back. The suspendered man walked out with a box and took it up front. “That looks like a back room or something. Maybe they keep the jewelry there. You’re going to have to tell him your story.”
We walked back up to the front counter, which looked like a big, steel hotel dresser. The man wore a red t-shirt with a pocket on the breast and was sorting through the knot of cords he’d carried over in the box. “TODD” was scrawled in black pen above the shirt pocket, on the actual shirt.
“Hi,” my mom said.
Todd looked up from his work. “Hi. Yes.”
“Do you sell jewelry here?”
“I buy a lot.”
“So, do you have any to look at?”
“No, don’t show my jewelry like that. Don’t know what might happen to it.” He tilted his head down back to the cords.
“Well, but you say a lot of people bring theirs in.”
“Okay.” My mother bounced the butt of her fists on the counter and cocked her head, thinking. “I was robbed a few weeks ago and all my jewelry was stolen. I thought that, well, this is a pawnshop. Someone might bring it here.” She squinted her eyes to read the name scrawled above the breast pocket of his shirt. “What’s my next step, Todd? How are we going to do this?”
Todd cleared his throat—it sounded like a gurgling gunshot. “What are you looking for?”
“My jewelry. All of it. I have a list.” My mom slipped a hand into her purse and pulled out a folded wad of yellow legal pad papers. On the pages were forty-four hand drawn pictures and forty-four hand-written descriptions. She started to unfold it when Todd stabbed his fat digits into the counter, tapping the glass that covered the steel.
“No, no, no.” He shook his head. “Do you have specific pieces? We can’t go through a list right now.”
I looked at his hands. They were hairy and dark; a wiry tumbleweed covered each knuckle.
My mother slowly folded the creased tome back together, rectangle by rectangle. Her cat ring, her gold bracelet, her silver bear earrings disappeared as she tucked each sketch under another successive pleat of yellow. In my mind, I saw her in her coffee-stained cotton nightgown crouched over the kitchen table, an array of cheap black pens taken from bars, appliance stores, and pharmacy counters spread before her. I remember how she sat there and stared at the yellow legal pad, rotated the wedding ring on her finger and cried. I looked at her now. She sheltered the wad of paper in her palm and was silent.
Todd looked behind her to a lanky boy loitering by the firearms. “Otherwise, I can’t help you.”
My mother slid the sketches back into her purse and looked at Todd. “Yes, I do.” Her voice was quiet. “A ring. A gold ring with a heart shaped diamond.” I looked at my mother. I never saw her wear this ring. The only diamonds she had were in her hoop earrings, which were spared, being in a wet-bottomed Dixie cup in the bathroom at the time of the intrusion.
Todd grunted. “That’s pretty general. I get a lot of rings like that.”
“The diamond is big. The size of your fingernail.” She hesitated. “A wedding ring. Hardly worn.”
I looked at my mother, who was looking at Todd. A wedding ring? Was she conning him? My mother was never married; she wore one gold band on her ring finger, and that was from my father. It had roman numerals etched into the side, which were usually caked in with a layer of white soap.
But she continued. “Etched on the inside of the band is ‘To J from R.’ Fancy, cursive lettering.”
A heavy stone settled somewhere deep in my gut, and I wanted to go back, go back to the car. An urgency, a frenzy, a desire to run fast and far buzzed in my limbs. I didn’t know what my mother was talking about, but she certainly did. She always told things straight, and this was a story she kept.
Todd cleared his throat again in that gunshot way. “No, no. Don’t think so. I’d have to look to make sure.” He leaned back from the counter and added, “But give me your sheets, maybe. I’ll take them in back.”
My mother’s hand drooped into her purse and handed them to Todd.
“Where did you say you’re from again?”
My mother told him. She gave him her name, the number of the police department, the officers who were working on her case. She might as well have told Todd the color of our mailbox, that our dog, Lily, didn’t bite, that my father was lying on the couch with a heating pad on his stomach, sipping tomato soup through a straw hoping his intestines didn’t leak. Todd slipped the notes into his pocket. They would be used later to identify and melt down the blue topaz ring, the rose bracelet, and the amethyst ring. They would be used later to know when to lie, when not to pick up the phone.
As we left, Todd headed toward the lanky kid eyeing up the guns. He didn’t stop. He took the mass of keys hanging from his belt loop, unlocked a door on the far wall and disappeared.
The sky had turned apricot, bathing the island of decrepit farm equipment in a warm glow. Soon, the horizon would be bleeding out. I walked ahead of my mom to get to the van. Someone parked a rusted white car a few spots down from us. One of the front headlights was covered in duct tape and a pink plastic rosary hung from the rearview window. The driver got out, holding a paper bag. He set it at his feet and dug in his pocket, procuring a pack of cigarettes. He was tall, thin, and concave. A jeer came from the back, something about going inside.
The driver pounded his fist on the top of the car. “Hey, hey, hey. Don’t get your undies in a fuckin’ bundle. Just give me a sec.” He stuck his face in the rear window. “Johnny, give me a light.” A disembodied hand appeared and lit the cigarette.
My mother came up and unlocked the door. We both got in and sat down, watching the driver of the white car blow plumes of smoke into the air. She put the key in the ignition and then set her hands in her lap, picking at the hem of her red cloth shorts, rolling it and flattening it with her fingers. I felt suddenly old, suddenly foreign. The driver flicked his cigarette to the ground and extinguished it.
My mother spoke. “I was married to Richard for three months. I told you he was crazy. That I left him.”
She didn’t look at me. Instead, she watched the junkie hitch up his pants and walk toward the windowless door of American Pawn, carrying the brown paper bag.
“Well, he blew his brains out at the rendering plant. All over the factory floor.”
It was night. We drove along a desolate county highway not knowing where we were. I rolled down my window and listened for the chorus of crickets on the edges of the cornfields.
My mother clutched a wet handful of tissue against the driving wheel. The wind blew her hair into a snarling mane. She sniffed. “I don’t know where we are. I don’t think I followed your father’s directions.”
I said nothing and thought of road kill, of dead cats and flattened coons.
She pulled over to a roadside bar. A neon sign screamed the name BUCKSNORT above a faded banner hanging from the eaves that said “Welcome, Riders.” Four pick-up trucks sat in the parking lot.
“I’m going to call your dad. See if he’s awake.” She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and dangled her arm out the window. She looked to the bar.
“Goddammit.” She snapped it shut and rubbed the heel of her palm across her forehead. “He must be sleeping.” I pictured my father passed out on the couch, a carton of melted ice cream on the floor, a sticky popsicle stick wedged between the seat cushions. He would be tired because of the painkillers. He would have forgotten to put those things away, the lure of sleep too strong. “I guess I’ll go in the bar. Ask for directions back to the main road.”
My mother pulled down the visor and looked in the mirror. Her face was red, and running mascara accentuated the cushions of tired flesh beneath her eyes. She wiped it away with a finger, then with two, and then a fist, smearing the colors of her face like a watercolor palette. Unsalvageable.
“Who gives a fuck anymore,” she muttered. She flipped the visor up and grabbed the cemented clump of wet tissues that had fallen to the floor. She slipped her purse onto her shoulder. “You want to come in with me?”
I thought of my father sleeping on the couch at home. I thought of the thirty-two silver staples on his smooth, shaven stomach that kept his innards in and not out. I thought about how his wife left him there. How his daughter did, too.
I looked at my frayed sandals. I did not care to see the taxidermied buck head above the bar, the glowing dartboard, or the men who owned those trucks. I didn’t care to see the way they looked at my mother when she blew in, a messy hot breeze from the August night. I wanted to go home and make sure my father was sleeping, just sleeping. That he had shaved. I wanted my mother to be a mother and not a woman like me—a girl who slept under beds just to feel the hard floor push back.
“Okay.” My mother nodded and eased out the door, with a soap-crusted ring, in a t-shirt too big for her and shorts too thin. I watched her go. Wrists bare, neck bare. The cicadas catcalled in the dark.