Become a Fan
By Peter Cooper
Friday, September 19, 2003
A retiring jeweler remembers the moment that decided his career.
Spare light struggled through the gauze curtain and Juan Miguel turned his head toward the window, meeting it halfway. How funny that this pale gold should arrive after the brilliant silver of the previous night's full moon. Like this weak sun, he barely had the energy for this last day. But like the sun, he too must rise, cross the surly hours that lay ahead. He knew he would make it to the evening, but he had little ambition.
He pushed apart the curtains, looked up at the flat, cloudless blue split by a pair black electric lines that linked his small shop and apartment to the rest of the town. Last night, the nearly full moon has rested for the longest while there, a canny tightrope walker pondering his next trick. And just like the circus, that old moon had sat there, building up the anticipation of its singular audience, before catapulting away, skimming the top of that black canvas of night.
Juan Miguel, tired after a full day of the close-out sale, had closed the curtain and gone to bed. Like waking and sleeping, every journey started in the east ends in the west.
Rising, he pulled the night shirt over his head and walked to the toilet. He leaned over the small basin and splashed water on his face, smiling at his enduring wonder over the miracle of hot and cold running water. There had been a time when a cold mountain stream was his only source of drink and cleanliness. Scrubbing his manicured fingers, he appreciated the smoothness of his skin, sure signs of his hard won gentility. These same hands had once been tough as claws, scratching and invading the dark walls of the mines in the wilds of Chile -- another place of beginning and ending.
Dressing carefully, he glanced at the small assortment of rings on his dresser, decided against them. True, a jeweler should be an example to his customers -- an inspiration -- but this was his last day in business. He would leave as humbly as he arrived.
Besides, there was only one ring left to sell, and he had even toyed with the idea of keeping it as the final momento of the shop. There had been so many people yesterday, descending like piranhas on the flesh of his going-out-of-business. He had been struck by the fact that only this one clear opal on a silver band remained when he closed at five. Mildly superstitious, he had struggled to find the meaning of this lone orphaned gem. Was he to take it to the ocean and toss it in, a repayment to the gods for giving him the small bliss of wealth that would see him to the end of his life? Or was he to keep it as a reminder of his days as a merchant?
Watching the moon the night before, he thought he understood. Closing the shop, he had noticed the opal, hidden in a fold of black velvet on the empty display. One bright reminder of the lifetime of diamonds that had once sprinkled the shelf like stars, each now carried away by a thirty-year continuum of lovers. For three decades they arrived, hands knotted in terrified anticipation, hopefully grazing the silver and gold bands adorned by celestial slivers which Juan Miguel had so lovingly set in place. He had understood his role, a priest of the earth bestowing this mineral blessing on their desire to be together forever, linked by precious strands and gleaming chunks of night sky.
Living in this town for so long, he had watched them engage, marry, gather children around them, and grow old. As they passed his window, he was saddened by the fact that they never again held hands as when they selected their rings. Though once, when he had gone to the small hospital to have stitches put in a cut, he had seen two of his customers. The man lay on a gurney, dying from a heart attack. Too young, both he and his wife carried that same terror in their faces as when they first entered his shop. They clutched each other's hands, the confusion of this awful ending so similar to their hopeful beginning.
He had hurried out, taped up his ankle. It healed on its own.
But he could not fault them. He too had been such a fool as to believe in the eternal possibilities of love. Shaking his head, he walked down the narrow steps to the silent shop. Hard to believe that he had once been a boisterous youth, tanned and vigorous in the Guadalajara sun. Back then, he had existed on the other side of jewelry. A ring meant romantic possession, not commerce. He and his friends would sit on the long wall that led to the plaza, watching the pretty girls becoming women, dreaming of putting a ring on one of their fingers. They had become experts at seeing left hands from a hundred yards, searching out the glint that said they were already taken, or the absence of sparkle, which meant... so many things to a young, hungry heart.
Carefully pouring the coffee grounds in the water pot, Juan Miguel reached to turn on the burner. He had never lost his taste for camp coffee, finding filtered brew too weak and sophisticated for his taste. Another reminder of his years in Chile where the miners slept out under the stars, then threw the coffee into the boiling pot of water. It was a hard taste, but their life had been hard. Wrestling with Mother Earth to steal a few minor treasures took courage and numbing perseverance. Her guardians were the hot sun and frozen winds, and digging a new shaft was not unlike making love to a dangerous virgin. There was no way of telling when she would crush you by closing her legs, or take a hand, arm or leg in payment for her favors.
He skimmed out the grounds and sat down with his cup, reaching for a cigarette. That had not been his first ambition. As a town boy, he was schooled well enough in numbers and words to become a clerk. Indeed, his mother and father had been so proud when he landed that first job at seventeen, cleaning and stacking the shelves at the small pharmacy. The "Doctor" was so impressive in his white lab coat, mixing the magical powders in such exact proportions.
Now, Juan Miguel understood that the man was just another kind of clerk, trading his packets for pesos. But to a boy with little money and shallow prospects, the Doctor was a mystical shaman. Whenever the medicine worked, the patients would come and bless him for his assistance and knowledge. When the medicine failed, they would all shake their heads.
"Even the Doctor cannot save those whom God has decided to call home."
Juan Miguel, too had believed in the power of the man, the wisdom of God. He had been no different. He would watch, leaning on his broom, as the customers came and confessed their ailments, looking up hopefully at the Doctor, waiting for his dispensation.
But a real priest did not have children, and while the Doctor was a widower, he did have a daughter. Her name was Luna, and she was bright as her name, nearly as mysterious. Juan Miguel would watch star-struck whenever she entered the store to deliver her father's lunch. Sitting on the long wall that led to the plaza, he was never embarrassed about his simple clothing, his ordinary looks. But when she came to the pharmacy, he would blush with shame at his very existence. And she teased him.
"Your face is sunburned, Juan," she told him. "You must be careful when you go outside."
And the red would increase.
"Have you burned your tongue? You never speak when I am here."
He would turn away miserably, shaken by the way love could cut so easily.
For a year she teased him. Outside the shop, he listened for news of her everywhere, finding ways to introduce her name into conversation, hoping someone else would know of her intentions in life. But all he heard were tales of her laughter at parties and sly hints about unchaperoned dates.
One afternoon he was cleaning the back room when he heard two women idly chatting by the counter while they waited for the Doctor to fill their prescriptions.
"He is such a good father," the older one sighed. "It is a shame that he had to have such a bad daughter."
Juan Miguel moved to the edge of the back door.
The other woman crossed herself. "Imagine, to become pregnant and not know who the father is? The Doctor must be terribly ashamed."
"They say he still doesn't know. How could he with no wife to watch her?"
"Still, someone will have to step forward. She surely won't have the child without some kind of husband."
"But who would marry her? What man wants that kind of girl?"
The Doctor stepped from behind his glass cage and the two ended their conversation abruptly. Juan Miguel leaned against the door jamb. As stunned as he was by the malicious information, he also realized that God had given him an opportunity. If no self-respecting man would marry her, maybe she could consider marrying a lowly clerk like him.
That next morning, he took his savings from a small box in the bottom of the dresser. One hundred and fifty-six pesos, three pesos a week for the whole year he had worked. He rolled the bills into a ball and tied it with string. He felt funny walking to work, the lump in his pocket seemed too conspicuous, and everyone he passed seemed to notice. Brushing aside their imagined glances, he slipped into the pharmacy, on time as usual.
"Doctor," he said. "May I have a few minutes this morning to run an errand for my mother?"
"Of course, Juan Miguel," the doctor said from behind his glass cage. "But be quick. I'm expecting many customers today."
Juan Miguel hurried up the street to the jewelry store. The old man behind the display cases squinted at him.
"Can I help you, boy?"
"I need a ring."
"Ah, a token of friendship for a girlfriend?"
Juan Miguel shook his head. "An engagement ring."
The squint rounded, the old man brushed his hands. "You are very young, boy, for such an important step. You should wait until you can at least grow a mustache."
If there were another jeweler in the town, Juan Miguel would have left immediately. "The mustache can wait. I need a ring today, this morning."
Sighing, the old man pulled out a tray. "Here are some very nice rings, and not very expensive."
"I have one hundred and seventy-five pesos. I'm not worried about cost."
Chuckling, the man replaced the tray with another. "These are better, they come from Chile, stones that are very hard to find."
"I want a diamond. She must wear a diamond."
"Diamonds are good, it's true ," the old man said. "But they can be too bright. Sometimes they blind the person who wears them. All stones come from the earth, each with their own song. Do you want her to see you or the ring?"
Juan Miguel blushed. How did this codger know so much? "Please, I have to hurry back to work."
"So fast." the old man clucked his tongue. "If I were your age again, I would go to Chile, work the mines, and find the perfect stone, one that expressed exactly who I was.. I would take months, maybe years. And when I found just that stone, then I would come back and find the right woman -- one who wanted exactly that stone, because it reminded her of me."
Gritting his teeth, Juan Miguel pointed through the case to a small gold ring with a single diamond. "How much is that one?"
Miguel shook his head. "How about that one?"
The old man put his hand on the counter. "Wouldn't you rather look at the first tray? If that is all your money, how will you live? Getting married costs more than the price of the ring."
"I know that, but I have no time. Please, I have to get back to work. Show me a diamond I can afford."
Reaching into the display, the old man took out a small diamond cluster. "This is the only one I have, I'm afraid."
"Then that's the one I want."
Miguel gave him the money, then took the small box and hurried back to the pharmacy. He cleaned furiously, looking constantly at the clock. At twelve-thirty, Luna entered, swinging her father's lunch nonchalantly. The Doctor took the box and walked out back to the small table behind the store. As she headed for the front door, Juan Miguel stepped forward to intercept her.
She turned, flashed a bright smile. "Ah, I see your tongue has healed. You can speak."
Juan Miguel fought his embarrassment, slipped his hand into his pocket to hold the ring box for courage.
"Yes, I can. May I speak with you for a moment?"
"So formal?" She placed her hand on her hip, tilting her head back. "Yes, you may speak."
"I -- I know you're in trouble."
Her eyes darkened. "What trouble?"
"I know. I just know." God, give me courage. "I would like to help you. I would be honored to help you."
He pulled out the small box, pushed it toward her.
She took it, opened it slowly and frowned.
"But this is a ring." She closed the box. "Why do I need a ring?"
"I would be happy to marry you."
Her eyes widened.
"They are all saying that no one would marry you, but they are wrong. I would marry you today, this very minute. I would like to help you prove them wrong."
A glint of laughter invaded her eyes, but she pushed it away.
"What makes you think I want to get married?"
"For the baby, of course." He blushed. "I do not care if you don't know who the father is, I would be a very good father."
"What makes you think there is a baby?"
"They are wrong! They talk and talk and talk, and you listen and listen. You are a fool, Juan Miguel with the burned tongue." She threw the box at him. "I liked you better when you didn't talk, at least then I didn't know how stupid you are."
He caught the box, jammed it into his pocket.
"You tell all those crows who have nothing to do but squawk that they can talk about someone else, because I am not who they think I am." She jammed her finger into his chest. "And I am not who you think I am either."
Ashamed, Juan Miguel watched her go. Fool! Fool! He ground his fists into his temple. How could he be so stupid?
That day, he barely finished his cleaning. As he walked down the street, two women pointed at him and laughed. Then several children seemed to be making a joke of him as well.
He was able to get to the jeweler just as the old man was closing his doors.
"Please, Old Man, I need to--"
With sad eyes, the man nodded, motioned Juan Miguel inside. He took the ring and handed him the ball of pesos, still tied.
"I'm sorry it didn't work out for you, but I knew." He shook his head. "I hate knowing."
The next morning, Juan Miguel packed his clothes into a canvas bag and made his way to the train station. He never went back to Guadalajara.
Pulling open the shutters, Juan Miguel's hand trembled. It was indeed silly to open for just one gem, but what better did he have to do with this day? As he gazed up the empty street, he suddenly noticed a young farmer heading toward the shop. Juan Miguel quickly went back behind the counter, watched as the young man peered in through the window, then opened the door.
"Do you have nothing left?"
Juan Miguel shrugged. "Just one ring."
"Can I see it?"
They both looked down at the shimmering opal, so much like the moon on the black velvet sky. The young man reached into his pocket.
"Is this enough? I must have it today."
Juan Miguel chuckled. "If I were your age, I would take myself to Chile and work the mines. Find the stone that represented exactly who I was -- then I would come back and look for a woman. Not the other way around."
The young man looked up. "That is good advice, I will remember it when I begin to look for a wife."
Flustered, Juan Miguel looked at his last customer. Then he saw it, a terrible sadness in the young eyes.
"I am sorry, my friend. I thought you..."
He nodded, though there was water in his eyes. "It is for my grandmother. She raised me after my parents died. She had a hard life, never married herself. But she was very proud, even right to the end." His voice cracked. "She never wore jewelry, but I thought if I could slip a ring on her finger before she went to God, then maybe he would bless her. She was a very good woman."
He offered the money. It was moist and dirty, but honestly earned. Juan Miguel folded it back into the man's hand.
"This is my gift to you and your good grandmother."
Astonished, the young man put the ring in one pocket, the money back into the other. He cast about for a moment, needing to tell this kind merchant something more for his generosity.
"She refused to go to the hospital. She said it was a waste of money." His voice cracked. "She told me 'Even the Doctor cannot save those whom God has decided to call home.' And now, God has called her."
He turned and started toward the door. Then stopped. "May I know your name, sir. I would like to tell her of your kindness."
Juan Miguel shook his head, smiling sadly. "She is in heaven, so she already knows it."
Alone again, Juan Miguel sat for a few minutes, then rose to close the shutters and lock the door. He smiled as he glanced out at the street, noticing the tall church steeple at the end of the block. He was pretty sure the woman was not his Luna, but he thanked God for showing him that he had not been such a stupid boy after all.
Inside his chest, he could feel the moon rising, growing fuller and fuller. It smiled with him.
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