Any pair you want, my goldsmith grandfather says.
I am his oldest grand girl, the spitting image of his oldest girl, who is a spitting image of himself. My fingers smudge his sparkling glass countertops. As my grandfather sets up shop for the day, I peer greedily at pairs of gold earrings – hearts, stars and tiny balls, the size of peppercorns – like the ones his other grand girls wear, gold shimmering in their black hair. Unlike me, they grew up near him, their ear lobes pierced by his steady fingers in his younger days. I spot a pair of pearl studs with gold posts, quiet and small like lady bugs. None of the other grand girls have these earrings.
When I point them out to my grandfather, he nods briefly, still busy setting up. I watch him take out pieces of jewelry from a locked chest. He bounces a necklace in his right palm four times. He thinks for a moment and writes the weight and price on a small white tag tied to the necklace by a red string. He does this for a child’s bracelet and an anklet, bouncing each piece in his right palm quickly twice, then twice again more slowly. When he takes out a man’s ring, he pauses. As he turns it around, studying its different angles, I notice the thick gold band, the ancient Chinese characters etched on its surface, and the shape of a dragon head at its crest.
That looks valuable, my grandmother says, coming from the living quarters in the back of the jewelry shop.
Will you charge a lot for it? she asks, handing me a steaming red bean bun.
My grandfather smiles mysteriously and shakes his head. It’s not worth much, he says.
How do you know just by bouncing it? I ask.
Your grandfather can capture the weight in his hand, especially with the most valuable ones, my grandmother answers for him.
My grandfather bounces the ring in his right palm, but this time he doesn’t stop shaking it after four times. At first I think he is being facetious, because his hand looks so comically clumsy. But after his hand jerks unnaturally ten, twenty, then too many times to count, I know it is his Parkinson’s disease acting up. My grandfather fights to gain control of his hand, but he can’t stop it from trembling. Quietly, my grandmother crouches and takes out a scale wedged between the floor and the counters. It is a steel contraption with two tin saucers dangling from a standing rod. One saucer holds several shiny weights in varying sizes, like a tic tac, a thimble and a cork. She cups my grandfather’s right hand with her hands, as if to appease it. When his tremors finally stop, she takes the ring from his palm and puts it on the scale.
You are right, she says cheerfully, look how light it is. How sharp you are!
My grandfather says nothing as he prices the ring and puts it on a black velvet spike in the window display.
Could I have some tea? he asks my grandmother. Then, when she has disappeared into the kitchen, he turns abruptly to me. Are you ready, he asks, urgency in his voice. I pause, reaching for my right ear lobe with my sweaty fingers. The soft tissue feels cool. I press my thumb and forefinger against it, squeezing the vulnerable flesh. Then taking a deep breath, I nod. Let’s do it now, he says, before your grandmother comes back, before you leave to America for college, before anything else interrupts us.
My grandfather settles me in a high stool. He maps an elegant silk road through the crescent universe of my left ear. Swiftly and expertly with the piercing gun, he threads a passage. I feel a sudden sting, followed by a dull ache. Holding me steady, he walks slowly to my right. His left forearm is bony, the protrusion of numerous veins creating snaking hills and valleys against his thin skin. He carefully cleans the needle point of the gun. I notice his hands, brittle branches of an old tree, kept alive by the strength of the stubborn sinewy roots coursing underneath.
As he reaches for my right ear, his hand suddenly starts to tremble. As if possessed, it flails like a broken chord, ripping the smooth pieces of silk into disconnected neuron pathways. Confused, the piercing gun chokes in mid stroke, refusing to budge from my quivering flesh. I feel a sharp sting. When it doesn’t go away, my eyes start to burn. I widen them and blink quickly.
My grandfather calls for my grandmother who comes briskly from the back living quarters, and when she realizes what is happening, she stops cold.
I can’t believe you are doing this, she says.
Just hold the gun steady for a minute, he says.
My grandmother, a woman who spreads her joy easily by flapping her apron strings in the wind, who has been everything my grandfather needed her to be at each moment in his life, is at a loss.
I don’t even know what to do, she cries.
Come closer, so you can take the gun, he says.
She moves in, but I can feel how nervous she is.
Stay calm, he says.
She tries to hold the gun, but now her hands are shaking more than his.
Hold it steady, he says.
I am trying to, she says, but she is too upset to hold still.
You are making it worse, he says.
I don’t know how to help you, she says.
You don’t need to do anything, just hold on, he says.
They argue like this, while I feel their emotions, the gun and the vibration all concentrating on my ear.
It’s okay, I say, don’t worry, it really doesn’t hurt.
This silences them. We wait together for my grandfather’s tremors to ease away. When his hand slackens, he releases the gun from my ear. Quickly, he stakes out a higher spot, where the flesh gives away smoothly.
Afterwards, I sit still on the stool, as my grandfather dabs my ear lobes with alcohol and applies an ointment that makes my lobes tingle. My grandmother brings me a cup of tea.
Drink this, it will relax you, she says.
I think she needs the tea more than I do, but I sip it anyway, moving my head as little as possible. My grandfather cleans the piercing instruments, his hands trembling on and off.
Why did you insist on doing it when your hands and fingers are no longer your own, my grandmother asks.
Don’t say anything, it’s done, he replies.
Couldn’t you tell you were hurting her, she presses on.
I had to do it, he says, while I still can.
She could have gotten them done somewhere else and still wear your earrings, she continues.
Earrings come and go; the piercings stay with her, he says.
The tingling from the ointment begins to wear off, and I feel the weight of my grandfather’s last words on my lobes.
I can tell my grandmother is still angry, so I call out to her.
Ah-Ma, I say, don’t you think my new earrings look great on me?
She turns away from where my grandfather is crouched near the floor, putting the piercing tools back into a box. She looks at me, my ears red and greasy from the ointment and bandaged where the gun was stuck earlier. She is quiet for a moment. Then she sighs.
There is nothing like them, she says softly, but she is no longer looking at me. Her eyes are back on my grandfather’s hands.