The potential buyer nodded, swishing the pearl around in his mouth. “You’re right,” he said. “It still tastes like clam.”
"That's how you know it's good," said Pierre.
"I just swallowed it," said the buyer. "And I can't pay for it." He turned and walked away, hitting his chest with the heel of his hand.
Pierre had only been at the Multioak Arts and Crafts Street Fair for an hour, but he already felt discouraged enough to pack up the pearls, go home, and spend the rest of the day playing video games in the basement. He had thought that a folding table and a poster board sign that said “Quality Local Pearls” would be enough to draw customers to the booth, but looking around at the way the other vendors had arranged their crafts in elaborate displays and decorated their booths with streamers and ribbons, Pierre realized that he must look kind of pathetic with nothing but the sign and an old jewelry box with twenty pearls in it sitting on the table in front of him. Usually the the word “local” was like a spell that separated the citizens of Multioak from their money, but with local vendors and products on all sides, the local pearls booth drew little notice.
Pierre had told Ernie he’d be at the booth all day, but it was clear from the public’s complete lack of interest that they needed a different strategy if there was to be any hope of making money on the pearls. Pierre stood up and walked around to the front of the table, tearing the sign loose from the tape that held it to the plastic table top.
“Whoa, hey, Pierre, where are you going?”
Pierre looked up to see Ernie walking toward him in his blue and silver Ready Right Hardware Store uniform. Ernie was shorter than Pierre and had thick black hair that he foolishly parted in the middle. He also had a job, which was why Pierre, with ample free time on his hands, had been brought into the pearl business in the first place.
“I’m going home,” said Pierre. “People aren’t interested.”
“Where’s my cut?” asked Ernie, casting accusing glares at the people perusing the other booths.
“There’s nothing to cut,” said Pierre.
“How many did you sell?”
“Zero,” said Pierre. “That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Did you have them taste the pearls?” asked Ernie. “Could they taste the freshwater pearl mussel on the pearls?”
“Well, I accidentally called them ‘clams’ again,” said Pierre. “Sorry.”
“They’re freshwater pearl mussels,” said Ernie pressing the palms of his hands against the sides of his neck. “That’s the whole thing!”
“One guy said he could taste the clam,” said Pierre. “But then he swallowed the pearl on accident.”
“You didn’t charge him?” Ernie shook his head in disbelief.
“I couldn’t,” said Pierre. “It was my idea for him to taste it. I’m just glad he didn’t choke on it.”
“Whatever,” said Ernie. “Go home then. I was just coming to check on you on my lunch break. I shouldn’t have bothered.”
“Sorry,” said Pierre, not feeling sorry at all.
“You’re not sorry,” said Ernie and he walked down the street to the elephant ear stand without giving any of the booths he passed along the way a second glance.
When Pierre got home, his dad was in the back yard mowing the lawn and his mom had left a note on the kitchen table saying she was babysitting Pierre’s cousins for the afternoon. Pierre opened the refrigerator and stood in front of it for a while, mentally rejecting each of the items it contained one by one. He went down to the basement empty handed and, not bothering to turn on the light, felt his way to the couch and sprawled across it, calculating how much he’d made as Ernie’s business partner so far. Once he’d added up the gas money, the poster board and marker he’d used to make the sign for the street fair, and what Ernie had referred to as an “initial investment fee,” not to mention the loss of free time to which it was impossible to attach a monetary value, Pierre determined that he was…well, he was definitely in the red. At least fifty bucks down. If his parents hadn’t supplied him with every one of those fifty dollars, Pierre would have bailed on Ernie long ago. They weren’t even very good friends. They’d known each other for a long time, but their shared history was filled with bitterness and acrimony, scuffles and shouting matches and slander.
After graduation, Pierre and Ernie had an on-and-off friendship that had been in the midst of a long “off” stage after a fight over a girl who was interested in neither of them when Ernie broke the silence by calling Pierre and asking him if he wanted to sell pearls.
“Pearls from where?” Pierre had asked.
“All local,” Ernie had said. “I have a huge supply from a local, natural, local source. I just need you to help me move them.”
Pierre had agreed more out of boredom than any belief that he and Ernie would actually get rich selling local pearls. But he hadn’t foreseen the amount of work Ernie expected him to do. While Ernie was busy holding down his hardware store job until the pearl business became profitable enough to pay his rent, he seemed to believe that Pierre should be running all over town busting his hump trying to get people to buy the pearls, wheeling and dealing, knocking on doors, stopping strangers on the street like, “Pardon me, ma’am, but I couldn’t help but notice that the only way you could possibly look any lovelier would be with a string of locally harvested pearls around your neck. Of course, you’d need to string them yourself.”
Pierre didn’t have the personality for that kind of thing. Nor the energy. Nor any motivation outside of Ernie’s needling and a vague, distant feeling that a little extra pocket money beyond that which his parents dispensed to him upon request might be nice.
The most irritating aspect of the whole arrangement was how secretive Ernie was about where he was getting the pearls. All he’d say was that was that the pearls were coming from freshwater pearl mussels, he was harvesting them himself, and it was very difficult work that definitely justified his taking sixty percent of the profits if any profits were to ever materialize. Pierre figured Ernie was probably telling the truth since a well-crafted lie would have been a better way to keep his pearl source a secret than were his repeated flat refusals to share. But Pierre hated feeling like Ernie had something over him, he hated feeling like Ernie’s subordinate, and the longer Ernie willfully kept information from him, the less Pierre felt inclined to help him.
Resentful and simmering, Pierre fell asleep on the couch. He woke up two and a half hours later to his cell phone chirping in his jeans pocket. It was Ernie. “We need to come up with a strategy for you,” said Ernie. “We’ve got to move these pearls.”
“I want my initial investment fee back,” said Pierre, sitting up on the couch in the dark and wondering how such a sour taste could have developed in his mouth while he slept.
“That’s spent already,” said Ernie. “The best way to get it back is to sell some pearls.”
“Then sell some,” said Pierre.
“I supply them,” said Ernie. “You sell them. Or you’re supposed to.”
“I don’t believe you harvest them yourself,” said Pierre, knowing how sensitive Ernie was about his credibility. “There’s no such thing as local pearls around here. You’re running some kind of scam, and that’s fine, but don’t pretend like you’re doing all this work when I know you’re not.”
“I am!” Ernie shouted through the phone. “I dive for the freshwater pearl mussels, I pry them open, and I extract the pearls!”
“Where?” asked Pierre. “Where do you dive? Show me where. I’m not helping you sell one more pearl unless you show me where you get them from.”
“You haven’t helped me sell any,” said Ernie.
“Show me where they come from and I will,” said Pierre.
“How do I know you won’t start harvesting them yourself?” asked Ernie. “How do I know you won’t just cut me out?”
The thought hadn’t even occurred to Pierre until Ernie said it. “I won’t cut you out,” said Pierre. “Why do you think I’ll cut you out?” It made him angry to discover that Ernie thought of him as a potential double-crosser. Pierre might not have been the most committed pearl salesman, but he’d never given Ernie any reason to suspect him of back-stabbing.
“All right,” said Ernie. “I’ll show you where I harvest them. But you cannot tell anyone else. And then we have to talk sales strategy.”
“We will,” said Pierre, getting to his feet in the pitch black of the basement. He hung up the phone and felt his way to the stairs thinking that if he were to choose people to betray based solely on their degrees of self-important condescension, Ernie would be, without question, his first target.
The sun had just sagged below the trees as Pierre and Ernie emerged from the woods and stood on the bank of a still, small lake, no more than fifty yards across, but quite deep in the middle according to Ernie. They were way out in the game preserve and had hiked off trail for the last twenty minutes, Pierre complaining of burs and thorns while Ernie shouted at him to stop whining. “I don’t know why I worried you’d try to come out here behind my back,” said Ernie as Pierre kneeled near the water’s edge and plucked burs off of his socks. “Even if you could find it by yourself, there’s no way you’d ever be able to drag yourself out here to resupply.”
By the time Pierre had removed the last bur, Ernie had stripped down to his vertically-striped boxer shorts. His discarded clothes were piled on top of his shoes. He stood ankle deep in the water and muck, his pale chest lightly pimpled, his collarbone looking a bit wrong from a skiing accident when he was in middle school.
“I’ll watch from here,” said Pierre, and he sat back on the long damp grass as Ernie waded into the lake up to his waist, swirling the water with his hands, splashing it up onto his narrow torso. Then, taking a deep breath, Ernie plunged forward and disappeared from sight, the water rippling out from the spot where the lake had swallowed him. He was gone for a long time. First Pierre wondered if Ernie was in trouble. Then he wondered if Ernie, in his paranoia, had led Pierre to the wrong lake, swum underwater to surface out of sight among the tall weeds in the shallows, and snuck away through the trees. Then he wondered if Ernie had ever been there at all, if he’d somehow imagined Ernie leading him out to this lake, or if he’d been led by a spirit that had taken the form of Ernie and had now vanished. And then Ernie broke the surface of the water, gasping for air, his black hair plastered to his forehead, his arms filled with freshwater pearl mussels. With water cascading down his body and his chest heaving, Ernie waded to shore and dumped the mussels on the grass. He flopped back on the bank and looked up at the purpling sky while he fought for breath, his arms extended and limp, his fingers curled in on his palms. Pierre crouched next to him, awed and quiet.
“How do you hold your breath that long?” he finally asked.
“Practice,” said Ernie between breaths. “It’s the only way.”
Pierre looked at the heap of glistening gray mussels. “How do we open them?” he asked.
Ernie rolled onto his side and reached for his jeans, eventually retrieving a Swiss army knife from one of the pockets. “Here,” he said, handing it to Pierre. “Pry.”
Pierre picked up one of the mussels, rough and wet, and jammed the blade of the knife into the slit that divided the two halves of its shell. He jerked down on the handle of the knife and the mussel cracked open in his hand. There, nestled on a bed of gray slime, was a round, white pearl. “I found one!” said Pierre.
He split open another mussel and was rewarded with another perfect pearl. “This one has one too!”
“They all do,” said Ernie.
“Amazing,” said Pierre. “That’s amazing, right?”
Ernie nodded, finally mustering enough strength to sit up. “They’re supposed to be much rarer. One in two hundred, one in five hundred, I don’t know.”
“How did you find out these were here?” asked Pierre, cracking open another mussel and plucking out the pearl. He touched it to his tongue. It tasted like freshwater pearl mussel.
Ernie didn’t answer Pierre’s question. He reached into his jeans pocket again and pulled out a Ziploc bag. “Put the pearls in this,” he said. “We should hurry before it gets too dark to find our way back to the car.”
Pierre continued to pry open the mussels and deposit the pearls in the bag while Ernie got dressed, pulling his jeans on over his soaked boxer shorts. The split mussels were scattered around Pierre on the grass where he’d dropped them to die. Unless they were already dead. He didn’t know how to tell.
He pried open the last freshwater pearl mussel. “Weird,” he said, holding out the mussel to show Ernie, who was kneeling to tie his shoes. There was no pearl.
“Did it fall out?” asked Ernie, the laces of his left shoe wrapped around his fingers in mid-bow.
“No,” said Pierre. “There was nothing in it. This one was empty.”
Ernie shrugged, finished tying his shoe, and stood up. “Not every freshwater pearl mussel can have a pearl.” He said it like he expected Pierre to pull out a notepad and jot it down so he wouldn’t forget it.
Pierre glared up at Ernie. He looked damp and tired and wise, but not that wise. Not wise enough. Pierre tossed the empty mussel into the water where it made a feeble splash. It was not a dignified way to return home: Pried open, found empty, tossed back.
In Ernie’s car on the way home, Ernie turned to Pierre and said, “Are you holding your breath?”
Pierre let the air out through his nose in a long sigh.
“Why were you doing that?” asked Ernie. “Why were you holding your breath just now?”
“I don’t know,” said Pierre. “I didn’t even notice that I was.”
“Were you practicing for something?” asked Ernie, his brow furrowed with suspicion.
“Of course not,” said Pierre, and the blatancy of the lie sent a thrill through his nervous system that raised the hairs on the back of his neck.