Worth More Than Its Weight In Gold
I walked into his jewelry store looking for my friend Marie. We were selling ads for a newspaper in the small town of Margaretville and, as it was getting colder and darker, we split up to try as many places as possible. The bells on the door jingled when I pushed open the door. It was warm and quiet and so small you could hardly turn around. Every possible space was covered with jeweled items. It was like standing in the middle of Aladdin’s cave. I didn’t see the man at first; he was seated on a stool behind a low counter and the voice, when it came, startled me. “Can I help you?” My inner voice said no; but I replied: “I was wondering if you had seen my friend.”
A man stood up and came toward me. He smiled and said, “Your friend was here five minutes ago and left.” “Oh I missed her,” I replied. “Well, I’ll keep going and I’m sure to run into her.” But I didn’t move.
I wanted to stay in his curious shop for a while. I felt chilled and it was warm here. A clock was ticking somewhere.
To make conversation I said, “Are you the owner?” “Yes, my son and I,” he replied. “Have you been here a long time?” I asked, for I could see he was an elderly gentleman. “Yes,” he said, “a very long time, 49 years.” “Oh,” I thought “my exact age. I was being born and this man had come to this small town to start a little business with a family perhaps already begun.”
As if he could read my mind, he pointed to a picture behind him and said, “That’s me.” It was a wonderful photo and told me a lot. He was kneeling with two men on either side of him; all were smiling, all in uniform. He was in the war he told me; special forces, a parachutist, and the men in the picture with him were his two very best friends. They all three looked young, strong, and capable. I pictured them for an instant floating gently down from the sky, their parachutes collapsing around them. “What happened to them?” I said, curious about their fate. He was silent for a long moment, “They were killed on a hill—half my company was killed that day, I lived,” he said. “Oh, no.” I cried as if it had happened in the recent past instead of 60 years or more ago.
“It must have been a terrible battle if half your company were killed.” “Well,” he said, “We couldn’t dig in, the ground was volcanic rock and only when a mortar shell fell were we able to dig in a little.” I tried to picture this and could only see smoke, chaos, and men digging for their lives.
“What happened after, after the war?” Gus smiled then; that is his name, Gus. I smiled back. “I got married,” he said, “and had a family, and moved here. What about you?”
My heart began to ache then, as it always does when someone who doesn’t know me well asks that question. And although I often pretend to strangers, I felt comfortable enough with Gus to reply truthfully. “I have a 19-year-old daughter who lives in Colorado now, and my husband, well he died last year. We were childhood sweethearts and had never been apart, and now I find I’m lost without him.”
It was Gus’ turn to say how sorry he was and because I was so near to tears, I quickly changed the subject by saying, “Tell me about your store, and how you came to start it?” Gus, taking my queue, promptly began to speak about living here for 49 years, making a living and having a good life.
I started looking around then—feeling I had taken up a lot of his time. I thought it would be nice to buy something, a reminder of our meeting. I asked him, “What is your favorite piece of jewelry here? What in all this fabulous treasure do you like the best?” I added, “I’m looking for something that will change my luck.” He stood still for a moment, then reached into a cabinet and pulled up the locket. Instantly I could see it was exquisite. A rare, one-of-a-kind piece not in my price range. “I always liked this,” he said. “It’s been here since the day I opened; no one ever bought it.” He put it on the counter between us and I was afraid to even touch it. It looked magical, a round locket with a tiny pearl (a pearl apple on a tiny tree). I could never hope to have such a special necklace and anyway, it would not “fix” what was wrong with me. The despair that seemed to grow worse with each passing day, the wish to be with him as I always was, even under a stone beneath a cedar tree.
I must not have spoken or maybe I did for I said to my new friend, my distress clearly visible, “Will I get by it someday? Will I forget and feel there is something out there for me to hope for?” I waited, anxious for him to reply. Slowly, as if pulling up a memory from a long ago time, Gus said:
“When I was 15, my father died. He had come down with an infection after surgery, went into a coma, and within the week was dead. You always feel the same pain for the one you lost, but you live with it as a part of you, not hide it away as if it wasn’t there. You live with it and go on.” And as I looked at Gus the years fell away from him and it was a young man who was speaking to me, pouring a kind of strength into me.
Bad things happen in each life, sometimes very bad things, but you must fight that giving-up feeling, fight it like an enemy.
The door jingled with Marie, rosy cheeked and wind blown, “Lisa, you’re still here? We are almost done and soon we’ll be on our way. Meet you at the car.” And she hurried out.
Turning to Gus, I said, “Thank you so much. You have been very kind to me, and I’ve liked meeting you.” “But what about the necklace?” he said.
“Oh, it’s very beautiful, but I couldn’t possibly afford it. I’m sure it’s very expensive.” “It is,” he said, and looking very serious he pulled out a scale, measured the weight, and said what it would be worth in today’s market. It was a lot. “Try it on,” he said, “and see how it looks.” Like a dream I did just that and it felt like it looked heavy, strong, and solid. He went and brought a mirror out and told me to look at myself. He showed me how it opened and said, “You could put a picture inside of it, a picture of someone you loved.”
There was a long pause and then he said, “Tell you what, I’ll sell it to you for what I paid for it when I first opened the store.” Stunned, I said, “Why, why would you do that for me, a stranger to you?” “I like your face,” he said and laughed; “I like you. I’m an old man, I could die tomorrow. You,” he said, “have a life to begin again. Do you want it?” he asked. “Oh, yes,” wanting to weep again, this time at his generosity.
He made out a slip and I paid, and like the gallant young man I knew he had been he kissed my hand and wished me well, and I left his store with a priceless gift. It wasn’t the locket.