The lady who pawned her father’s dentures made me the promise that he did not need them anymore. She did not, however, say that this was because she had been decreasing his food intake over the course of a year in order to encourage his end.
She didn’t say. But I heard it all the same.
I’ve always been able to do this, look past the things people tell me to the words unspoken. The things no one wants to say. It’s not telepathy, but it doesn’t make people comfortable.
A man pawns his trumpet for rent money. It’ll all go into his arms instead. A woman brings in her husband’s golf clubs because he never plays it anymore. He doesn’t do anything anymore, he hasn’t been home in months. She cries on the inside.
When I was eleven my grandfather handed me a penknife in a handkerchief, said it was given to him by a fellow soldier during the Korean war. Actually he’d taken it off an enemy combatant after stabbing him in the ass, the man had been at a bathroom break and my grandfather ambushed him. He made the man watch as he took it and then slit his throat. I told my grandfather as such and he cracked my orbital socket with a frying pan.
This was my first lesson in discretion.
I don’t look for these things. If I had a choice between silence and sadness? I would choose to be deaf.
I don’t repeat the things I learn about people. But that’s not to say I never find a use for it.
A girl brought in her father’s class ring, said it was a cheap trinket bought by an ex. I knew that it was her father’s, I knew he valued it, and I knew she was pawning it to give her boyfriend enough cash for a motorcycle and a ticket out of town. I picked up a phone after she left, and gained the fifth hand yamaha that caught the boy’s eye for a much lower price. A week later I got a cell phone, a game console, and a whole heap of clothes from her father. A black eye and swollen wrist floated in his mind.
After my mother killed herself, my father got me a job at Kenny’s Pawn Parlor. He said it was to keep my mind off grief, although both he and I knew that I was never going to graduate high school. I’m not someone who ever had a shining career ahead of them. I’m good at this. I know where to press, I know how to get the best price for trinkets that have only sentimental value.
Susan, a girl I used to sit near in chemistry. She didn’t recognize me, but there was no mistaking that bust. She had it wreathed in cheap jewelry and spit-marks as she juggled a wailing toddler and a phone. I shorted her on the cash for her wedding ring, but I don’t think she noticed. When she left I took it out of the box and smelled it. Regrets, love, empty promises. If I held it right, I could smell cherry lemonade and homework.
People think I buy old junk. I don’t. I buy memories, something infinitely more valuable.
It feels like I’ve stood on the same spot for the past thirty years. I have everything in this shop, the child’s first shoes to the retiree’s final pair of bifocals. Other people have lived around me while I never picked up the talent for it.
This guy brings in a bag of shoes. He says they’re his wife’s. There is no band line on his finger. He’s never been married in his life. There’s something wrong with his smile, something writhes behind it like worms. I can smell the chaos on him, and placate him until he leaves me satisfied. I burn the shoes.
People don’t get it. It’s not that I’m a bad person. It’s that I never got the opportunity to be a good one.
No one’s ever proud of a pawnbroker. No one calls a toast at a party for a child going into hock. The only thing they can say about it is at least you’re not a burglar. But you know they would almost prefer that.
No one from my family ever pawns anything here. They go to Sol, all the way across town. I think they all know, in their own way. It’s nothing personal. I understand. I understand better than anyone.
The day I started work, my father came in. it was the only time, before or since, he had ever come to see me. He held his hands in his pockets and looked down on the ground, almost guilty. He talked to the carpet, asking me if I was having a good first day. I told him I was having a day, that was it.
He said that was good. But that wasn’t it.
There was something behind that.
He took something from his pocket and unwrapped it. He said that he had taken care of everything else in my mother’s estate, all that was left was a cut-glass ashtray. My mother didn’t smoke, it had been her aunt Phyllis’s. I told him I could go twenty-five percent above market value and my father said, no, that was alright. He didn’t look at me once as I rang up the sale. I gave him the cash and he handed me back a couple bills. For the trouble, he said. Like a tip.
And all the time, the words behind his words ran:
“Why did I let you live?”