Pearl Webster was one of my mother’s friends when I was in the eighth grade. Pearl was a retired veterinarian assistant with a blunt but forgivable edge to her character.
“Don’t waste ten bucks downtown. Save your money. I’ll pierce your ears for free,” Pearl promised, her medical background the basis for appointing herself head surgeon in my procedure.
“Nothing to it,” she said. “Trust me.”
Desperate for pierced ears like my friends, I was thrilled to win my mother’s approval as soon as Pearl got involved. We left our house early one Saturday morning for Pearl’s big two-story brick house with a sprawling veranda. My brand new surgical steel studs were in my jeans pocket along with a new pack of chewing gum. Mom carried her puffy blue topped sewing basket in one hand, a fresh cigarette in the other. As a part-time seamstress, Mom possessed a great number of needles which she was well accustomed to forcing through fabrics of various resistance and thickness.
“Your ear lobes,” she said, “will be a cinch.”
Already four inches taller than my petite mother, I could easily see over her head but questioning her judgement under any circumstances was unadvisable. Luckily, we had reached Pearl’s house before I could voice any concerns about the menacing images of needles I couldn’t help envisioning.
In Pearl’s cozy kitchen, I sat down where she motioned me to, in a yellow vinyl chair with chrome legs next to the matching table. Pearl’s 100 pound Shepherd cross dog, Shane, lumbered over to me. He braced his front paws, one on each of my knees, his foul breath forcing me to hold mine while the loosed hairs from petting him wafted lazily through the coffee spiked air.
“Get down off of her,” Pearl said. Shane moved slowly, eyeing Pearl for a change of heart.
The familiar olive ceramic lamp of a rearing donkey sat on the kitchen table by the window. I’d spent many a lamp lit night with my elbows parked on that yellow flecked arborite earning pocket change by beating Pearl at cards games she taught me.
“Would you like something to bite on?” Pearl asked.
I nervously glanced at Mom who was intently sorting through her needles. Her fingernails were always so naturally long, strong and white. I curled my hands into fists to hide my short, weak nails.
“I’m alright,” I said.
The truth held for a few more seconds.
“Hold still, Judith,” my mother said.
Determined nurses tending captive patient, the two women fastened wooden spring hinged clothespins on each of my ear lobes. Pearl’s insistence that my ears would numb wasn’t doing much against my unravelling resolve. Heat blazed first from my ears to my cheeks, then flooded my entire head. I started panting just like Shane when he gets excited. And that was when Pearl jammed a lit cigarette between my lips.
I reached up to remove it but she shoved my hand back down.
“We know you kids all smoke,” Pearl said, one hand on her hip like she wasn’t taking no for answer.
Again, I looked at Mom but again she was fixed on my ear lobes and didn’t say a word in my defense.
Coughing and sputtering now, I reached up again but Pearl beat me to it, bringing the cigarette to her fuchsia lipsticked mouth for a good long drag before speaking.
“It’s okay, kid, you don’t need to pretend,” she said. “Your mother won’t get mad. A puff’ll get your mind off your ears.”
Barely catching my breath, I found the cigarette stuck between my lips a second time. Choking immediately, my passages seared painfully from smoke that proved Pearl right. My burning ears were forgotten.
Ice cubes followed clothespins and by the time the needle appeared, I was beyond caring. The piercings were quick and smarted far less than my breathing passages. I didn’t even notice the stinging from the alcohol that my friends had warned me of.
“For good measure,” Pearl claimed.
“To stop infection,” Mom said. But infection didn’t sound so bad just then.
“Have a smoke,” Pearl said, extending her king-sized cigarette pack through a perfectly executed smoke ring.
“But I’ve never even smoked before,” I said.
“Come on, kiddo. No need to lie anymore,” Pearl said. She smiled, her gold tooth flashing me encouragingly.
“But I’m not,” I said. I had tried smoking with my friends in the school ground but it choked me and made me so dizzy, I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to do such a thing. Ever.
“Take one,” Pearl urged.
“Mom…” I started.
“Go ahead. It’s alright,” she said before I could utter more than her name.
Holding back her drug store blonde shoulder length locks, Mom leaned into Pearl’s flaming match to light her menthol brand cigarette. My mouth felt unhinged and fell wide open but all I got out was breath. Pearl shook the match and tossed it into the ashtray on the table.
“What? You don’t want one?” Mom asked.
“No,” I said.
“Well, who could blame you with two new holes in your head, huh, kiddo?” Pearl said. Her raspy laugh unleashed a smoke cloud right at me that set me coughing again.
“Uh oh. She might be sick. Some people throw up when they get nervous,” Pearl said.
She rested her cigarette in the ashtray that matched the dark green ceramic donkey lamp and got a pail out from under her sink.
“It’s alright. We have to get going, anyways. Tell Pearl thanks,” Mom said.
Mom’s closed sewing basket was back in her hand with a fresh cigarette in the other by the time we reached the street.
“Don’t think you can go around smoking just because you got away with it today,” she said.
“Jeez! Nobody believes a thing I say,” I muttered.
“Don’t be lippy. I don’t approve of teenagers smoking,” Mom said, inhaling a goodly belt of nicotine before mashing the butt out under the toe of her sandal on our driveway.
“Don’t let me hear that you’ve been smoking, missy. Not ever,” she said, her face locked in stern mode as she jabbed the house key through the air in my direction.
“You won’t,” I said.
I extracted the gum from my pocket and held a stick out. It was her favorite flavour, spearmint.
“Thanks,” Mom said, her face softening.
“Your ears must hurt like heck.”
“Nah,” I said.
They weren’t sore enough to stop me from thinking about what all my friends would say at school on Monday morning. Or to keep me from wondering how many card games I’d have to beat Pearl at to buy myself a pair of silver peace-sign earrings.