We’re not your typical cash for gold place. This is what my boss tells me as he shows me around the new store, brightly lit and smelling of fresh carpet. The Gold Estate, he says, gesturing to the four plywood walls enclosing us, is a customer service experience. We’re not like those pawn shops in so many strip malls, a paper banner stuck above the door with CA$H 4 GOLD written in bold capital letters. We have leather couches. We have an area rug from Younker’s. We have a mini-fridge filled with Perrier bottles, and I pass the time by drinking them, one after another, while I lie on the couch that no one ever sits on and stare up at the ceiling, wishing I were someplace else.
I got this job through my boyfriend’s sister, Kim, who used to nanny for my boss and is now co-manager of our three stores. I had just graduated from college, and she offered to hire me. The position was so much more dignified than my last job at my college’s cafeteria, manning the Grilled Cheese Station. For four hours every day I would stand over a cauldron of butter, using tongs to lower slices of bread inside while I scanned the dining room for anyone who might recognize me, my Burge Cafeteria cap pulled low over my eyes. The Gold Estate paid a lot more, too—more than I had ever made in my life—and Kim said that after work, we’d go out for margaritas together. Plus, I wouldn’t have to wear a hairnet.
The Gold Estate is in a suburb near my college town, facing a main road that runs past the mall and a Hy-Vee grocery store. Usually I get a few customers. Some days I don’t get any, which is fine with me because I’m trying to be a writer. All afternoon I sit behind my computer and type stories about my family and the past I want to leave behind. Or I stare out at the empty parking lot and pick my underwear in front of the camera that hangs on the wall behind me, its little red dot aimed like a sniper at my head. When my eyes start to ache with boredom, I go into the back room, where the cameras don’t follow, and touch myself or take a short nap on the rug, so soft and cool against my skin.
A car pulls into the lot. Quickly I spring up from the rug and gather my supplies: price sheet, scale, jeweler’s loupe.
“Welcome to The Gold Estate,” I say to the thirty-something woman who enters—usually it’s a thirty-something woman. “Can I offer you a Perrier?”
She looks me up and down, frowns. “Is it free?”
“It’s complimentary,” I say, and her face brightens. “Help yourself.” She takes a bottle from the mini-fridge and sits opposite me. First I hold up her ring—usually it’s a ring, but we get watches and coins and gold fillings, too—and use my magnifying loupe to peer at the inside of the band, looking for the karat stamp. At this her smile falls.
“That’s real gold,” she says, in the tone most women here use on me, defense mixed with embarrassment.
I look up from my desk and take a quick snapshot of her with my eyes: long, manicured fingernails; Pilates-toned arms; Coach sunglasses pushed up onto a pile of white-blonde hair, the roots beginning to show. Standard look of the upper middle-class, Midwestern divorcee—the clientele pool The Gold Estate is designed for. These are the women I’m supposed to talk to about our Sophia Gold parties. Sophia Gold is a character my boss made up, and the voice of our Facebook page:
Ladies, need extra money to pay for kids’ baseball or softball pictures? How about some cash for that graduation coming up? Book a Sophia Gold party today and have your friends over for a night of sophisticated fun with America’s #1 Gold Party!
I went to one with Kim when I first started here. The host led us down a long, gleaming hallway to the kitchen, where six of her friends stood drinking white wine and picking idly at little cubes of cheese. Each held a sandwich bag filled with jewelry, which Kim instructed them to empty onto the counter. While we tested it all, I strained to catch pieces of their conversation, snippets about ex-boyfriends and husbands slicing the air like darts. Eventually the noise gave me a headache. I glanced over at Kim, who had been busy all night and still managed to look perky as always, blonde hair bouncing at her shoulders, charm bracelets clattering along her wrists as she gestured to the other women, making them laugh. She talked and joked easily with them, seeming at home in her body in a way I had never been, and secretly envied. I leaned closer to her. “I’ll be back,” I said, and tried not to feel hurt when she nodded absently. In the bathroom, glass perfume bottles lined the vanity. I splashed some on my wrists and sat on the edge of the porcelain tub, writing in my notebook: A PETTY LIFE IS WORSE THAN DEATH!!!
From behind my office desk, I try to mimic Kim’s smile, wide and friendly. “The value test,” I explain to woman with Pilates arms, “is only protocol.” This seems to relax her, and she leans back in the chair, unclasping her bare fingers from her purse. How proud she must have been to wear this ring, I think, to look down and see it shining there on her slender finger as she drove to work or pushed a cart around the grocery store. At twenty-two, I don’t know how it feels to have anything valuable. My jewelry is all from Forever 21 and stains my skin mold-green.
The karat stamp isn’t visible with the loupe, so I open my desk drawer and take out the drill. The drill is my favorite part of the job. It reminds me of the scene shop in the theater building, where serious art students bend over wooden tabletops, sawing and painting. The scene shop is also where I met Ryan, when I was a sophomore and he was a senior. It made me crazy, how he always sat slouched in his chair in the back of the room, not even trying to stay awake for the professor’s lecture on tool safety as his curly head plunged toward his chest, loud, defiant snores escaping his mouth. When called on, his eyes flew open behind black glasses. He spit out the correct answer through a yawn, making both the professor and me wild with jealousy.
One day I was assigned to work with Ryan on a sewing project. I left my seat at the front of the room and joined him in the back. He cracked jokes about our wild-haired professor and made me laugh too loud, in that high, self-conscious way of any twenty-year-old who wants to belong somewhere, who hasn’t yet learned the dangers of confusing admiration for love. As Ryan sewed on our button, his fingers moving easily where mine had fumbled, I tried to get his attention. “All I know how to make,” I joked, “is a mess.” He looked at me and smiled, my whole body flushing.
At my desk, I plug the drill into the adaptor. The blade spins as I lower it to the ring.
“Is that really necessary?” says Pilates, her voice sharp with alarm.
I switch off the drill and look up at her. “It’s only protocol,” I repeat with a tight smile. “Do you want to come back another time?” If the customer refuses the drill test, we aren’t supposed to buy from them.
Pilates chews her thumbnail, a small chip in the coral polish. After last year’s economic recession, not many customers end up walking out on us. “Go ahead then,” she sighs, her mouth a thin pink line.
I switch my drill back on and make a small cut inside the band, feeling like a burglar in a heist movie. Kim was the one who taught me to use the drill; placing her hands over mine, she demonstrated a firm but light touch, gently correcting me when I pressed too hard. Though only one year older, Kim has always had my back like I imagine a big sister might, inviting me out for drinks or to the mall with her friends when I struggled to make my own in college. For me, those four years were lonely. I was too nervous at parties, so I stayed in the kitchen, where there was usually a bowl of chips or cookies, some place to put my hands. Sometimes I would look in the pantry for the inevitable box of Easy Mac and cook it on the stove, mixing the chalky orange powder with butter like I did at the Grilled Cheese Station. This would bring people in to talk to me, four or six new best friends who slung their arms, heavy with liquor, around my neck. Wet mouths found my ear, screaming that they loved me.
But with Kim, I feel at ease. She’s the toughest person I know. At the bar last New Year’s Eve, she cursed in a girl’s face for pushing me on the dance floor, both of us laughing so hard after we could barely walk home. Kim is The Gold Estate’s top buyer because she never overpays customers like I do, hoping to avoid an argument. Last week, when she refused to negotiate on a set of sterling silver flatware, a woman cried, “Bitch!” and flung her Perrier at the wall, driving off before Kim could call Adam.
Adam is my boss’s thirty-nine-year-old brother and Security Specialist at The Gold Estate. He works in the main office in the next town over, sitting all day in the back room and monitoring the cameras for our three stores. Kim told me he was fired from Home Depot last month after his wife left him and he stopped showing up to work, so my boss gave him this job. Several times a day, Adam calls my cell phone to tell me to stop checking my email or sitting on the couch, always an angry edge to his voice. Kim complains that he creeps her out, but he just seems sad to me. At our monthly meeting, he sits with arms folded over his gut, not speaking to anyone. His skin smells of beer and Old Spice, and his eyes are always the watery-red of Kool-Aid.
The closest I came to conflict was when a middle-aged man—navy polo t-shirt, khaki pants, gently graying hair—brought in two burlap sacks filled with ten thick gold bars each. I didn’t ask where he got them. I stacked the bars uselessly on top of my desk and bent close, pretending to examine them as I tried not to feel his gaze on me.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he said.
Eyes down, I nodded yes. Ryan and I have been dating for three years; he’s finishing his master’s degree in art. He makes funny videos about defunct technology. His apartment is filled with VHS tapes we find at Goodwill, piles of extension cords, and broken VCR players taking up space on his futon. After work, I drive to meet him in the basement of a local homeless shelter-turned-art gallery, where we eat a free dinner of chips and hummus and study abstract sculptures. Or we watch as his classmates rub paint all over their bodies and yell into microphones, everyone clapping and cheering together. Still, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that I don’t exactly belong, that to everyone else, I’m only Ryan’s girlfriend, a college student and not a serious artist. After the show, I hover near the snack table and listen with envy to Ryan and his friends gossiping about the professors in their art program, adding a smile or laugh, as if on cue. I want to know how it feels to be one of them—a real artist—even if I’m not sure what that means to me.
Across my desk, over a pile of gold bars, I felt Polo Shirt eyeing me. “You’re just a baby,” he said, his gaze making me flush. I hoped for once that Adam was watching me on the camera.
“I need a price quote,” I said, and called my boss. He sounded excited—the more gold we buy, the greater our profit—and told me to write a check for ten thousand dollars, an amount so big it made my palms sweat.
I said, “Okay,” and glanced at the man sitting across from me. He smiled wider, teeth white as Styrofoam. I looked away, down at the gold bars stacked on my desk. I imagined how it would feel to pick one up and smash it into his perfect teeth, if he might still think I’m a baby then. “You’re sure?”
On the other line, I heard my boss roll his eyes. “Come on, Amy,” he groaned. He was still upset about the other week, when I got so restless that I walked to the Kum & Go gas station across the street and forgot to lock up the store. Kim is mad at me, too. A few days ago she came by the store to ask why I was embarrassing her, but all I could do was stare down at my desk, trying not to cry. Even Ryan is upset. The other night, we sat on opposite ends of his futon, the TV on low between us. At our feet was a stack of VHS tapes, and on top was The Sound of Music, which we’d watched on this same futon during one of our first dates. While Rolfe twirled young Liesl in his arms, Ryan and I got slowly drunk on Captain Morgan, slurring curses at the TV when, two hours later, Rolfe betrayed her and her entire family to the Nazis.
I issued Polo Shirt a check for ten thousand dollars, typing quickly while he watched my face. “Just a baby,” he repeated, his eyes sliding over my bare arms and making me shiver with both fear and excitement. I thought about how it would feel to pull up my skirt and climb on top of him in the chair, press his hands to my chest, my skin. Quickly I checked his finger: no ring. He grinned at me. I dropped my eyes to my keyboard and typed faster. The air felt close.
Finally, the printer whirred to life. I snatched the check from the tray and handed it to him. He folded it into his shirt pocket, catching my fingers in a long squeeze as he stood to leave.
“Bye, baby,” he said, and looked me deep in the eyes. Grinned. For the rest of the day I sat motionless at my desk, watching the locked doors with a fist pressed into my crotch so I wouldn’t have to get up to pee and lose sight of the parking lot.
It’s men like these, warn my female customers, I need to watch out for. They lean forward in their chairs as if to tell me secrets, the drill’s soft whine lulling them into memories: Men who left, men who were never there in the first place, men who slept with sisters and friends, men who took everything—everything—but this ring I’m drilling into, too painful for them to wear now. One woman, her skin tanned to the reddish-brown of silt, tells me about her ex-husband, who she caught in bed with her best friend’s younger daughter. “That girl was all of seventeen,” she says, and pauses, her eyes narrowing in on my face. “How old are you?”
“I’m thirty,” I She looks relieved. While she talks to me about her ex, I remove a small vial of acid from my desk drawer, squeezing a drop into the cut I’ve made in the band. If the ring is gold-plated, it will turn green and hiss. If the gold is real then the color won’t change, and I can weigh it and type out a check, feeling mean when she lights up at the amount. I will not end up like these woman, I promise myself, left behind and living in some suburb. I will not be anyone’s baby. I will be a real artist instead, a writer. I will move far away from suburbs and strip malls and buy cigarettes and a leather messenger bag, stay up all night in coffee shops having hushed, brilliant conversations. Until then I will keep working at The Gold Estate, but only to save money, this job just a layover until I figure out what’s next.
I’m sitting on the couch at work one afternoon, drinking Perrier and staring out the window as usual. It’s a beautiful Friday in June, and I haven’t had a single customer all day. Everyone is out on errands, the roads teeming with cars. Across the street, people swarm in and out of Hy-Vee. They push shopping carts full of charcoal and hot dogs and economy-sized bags of Doritos, their happy chatter stifled by the glass doors I’m looking out of.
I feel it again, that itch to leave the store. I stand and switch the radio station from soft jazz to pop. Sit back down, open my notebook, feel restless and close it. I check my phone to see if Kim has replied to my text about post-work margaritas—nothing. Just a missed call from Adam that I ignore. I finish my Perrier and start a text to Ryan before I remember he’s busy this weekend, helping an artist friend with his gallery show. I go back to my notebook. On the radio, the DJ’s voice punctures the silence with its high, forced enthusiasm, straining to be heard. My throat goes tight.
I close my notebook and walk outside. The hot noise of summer greets me, grocery carts clattering across pavement, people laughing, trunk doors slamming shut. Above, there’s a blue Windex sky. Birds drift inside it, open-winged.
When I get to my car, I turn and look at the store, think briefly about going back inside. I put the car in reverse.
My right foot trembles on the accelerator. I roll the windows up and down, up and down. In the cup holder, my phone vibrates furiously—Adam. I should go back. Go back, Amy.
I pull into the mall’s parking lot, panic and glee mixing in me like colors in an artist’s palette. Inside Forever 21, techno throbs. I’m in back, browsing the clearance aisle, when my phone rings. I dig in my purse to silence it but accidentally hit accept.
“Where are you?” yells my boss. He’s in Florida this week with his family; in the background, I hear pool noises. “The police called me, the alarm’s going off, and—is that music?”
I speed back to The Gold Estate, my heart thrashing like a hooked fish. In the parking lot, two navy-suited police officers await me, leaning against patrol cars. Next to them, Adam stands beside his own car, a white Oldsmobile with scabs of rust on the doors. Even through the windshield his eyes burn me, intense, accusing.
A cop walks over to me and leans on his elbows in the open window. He’s youngish, with freckles and sandy brown hair that falls into his eyes, Leonardo DiCaprio-style. I want to touch his hair, want to swirl my finger inside each of those tiny freckles and scoop them all into my mouth at once. I want him to arrest me, haul me off to jail, put me in my place. Just get me out of here.
His eyes dart around the inside of my car, taking in the crumpled Starbucks cups and plastic yellow Forever 21 bags on the floor. I see his face relax: not a threat. I’m a little disappointed.
“You left the door unlocked,” he explains. “A customer came, got scared, and hit the alarm.” Even he looks confused. I sort of feel bad for him. As I sign my name to the official report, my fingers shaking slightly, another cop walks over. He stands behind the first cop and peers at me through wide sunglasses, shakes his balding head.
I follow them inside. While the second cop resets the alarm, I shuffle papers around on my desk and avoid Adam’s eyes. He looks like a nightclub bouncer in his black t-shirt, standing near the doors with arms folded tight over his chest. He glares at me and I look away.
“Sorry for the trouble, fellas,” he says to the officers on their way out. Once their patrol cars disappear from the lot, Adam turns the lock. He faces me.
“Sit.” He points his finger and I obey, my legs gone soft. I wind them together under the desk. Adam crosses the room in three steps, stands over me for a minute before slowly lowering himself into the chair opposite me, where customers sit.
“Look at me.” The blood leaves my body. I focus on the desk in front of me, on the stack of hot pink Sophia Gold business cards I never give out. In one toothpick hand Sophia Gold holds up an obnoxiously plump diamond. The other rests jauntily on her size 00 hip, all red lips and blonde hair and sass, sass, sass: $ell Today, Nothing Gold Can $tay!
Adam leans closer. I smell the sweat under his t-shirt, the beer and Tic Tacs and liquid fury on his breath. He follows my eyes to the narrow silhouette of Sophia Gold, a sneer tugging at his mouth.
“I said,” he spits out, “look at me.” This, I realize, is what he wants, what we both want, really—to be seen. I look at him.
“You think you can just walk out on me?”
“No,” I say. It isn’t really me he’s talking to, I see that now. In his bloodshot eyes there is wet, angry pain. There is a woman who, somewhere down the road, learned it was better to be the one who hurts others instead of the one who gets hurt—that it kept her safer somehow, smarter. I see her, too.
“No,” I say again, softer now. Adam slumps back in his chair as if drained, uses his hand to wipe the spit from his lips. Neither of us speaks.
“I’m sorry,” he finally says. Abruptly he stands and slams out the door.
I sit frozen at my desk. The same DJ is still on the radio, still heaving his voice into space but I barely hear him over the blood pumping through my ears, loud and hot. Somewhere far off my phone rings, over and over, but I ignore it. I can’t move, my stomach bucking at the sight of Kim’s name on the screen. Finally I turn on the computer and start a resignation email to my boss.
The Gold Estate will close six months after I quit. When the market takes a sharp plunge, the value of gold also drops, and stays so low that my ex-boss can’t afford the leather couches anymore, or the electricity to power the mini-fridge. And summer means fewer divorces, which means less gold.
It will be a year before Kim and I talk again, and two after that before Ryan will propose to me with the ring she picks out for me, a simple gold band offset by a small princess-cut diamond—the most popular shape for engagement jewelry. Later, I will learn Kim purchased the diamond at a discount from my ex-boss after The Gold Estate went under. She didn’t tell him who it was for. Maybe this is why, when I look down at the band that claims my finger, I’ll think of the old safe and all those discarded rings inside, unable to shake the feeling that my own ring still doesn’t look quite right on me.
I start leaving it at home in its little gold box on my dresser. When Ryan finally confronts me I will look into his face and lie—It’s too valuable; I’m afraid to lose it—the same way I lied to my customers, writing checks for more than I had to give. I will watch myself hurt him, and I will hear again the voices of all those women at The Gold Estate, hear again their pains and betrayals that I once thought so trivial, and I will know that they were wrong, it isn’t men I need to watch out for.
At my desk, I finish the email to my boss and hit send. I sit and look out at the empty parking lot for the last time. In the window, my reflection stares back at me until I don’t recognize myself anymore, my face as clay-colored and strange to me now as the abstract art at the homeless shelter. Outside, afternoon steals quietly into evening. I wait until six o’clock before I rise from my chair and turn off the lights, grabbing one last Perrier on my way out the door.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.