An off-the-cuff short story that in a way inspired my novel Pawnbroker. I hope it makes you smile!
I'm a pawnbroker. Forget what you've seen on TV. I don't sit behind a cage. No stubby cigar. No glasses with the swingaway jeweler's loupe on the right side. Or left. I don't wear glasses, okay? And please, please, please--for the love of all that's good and right--forget that Men In Black pawnbroker who grows new heads! Sheesh.
I'm in the South. Remember what you've seen on TV. I do have an inordinate number of customers with double-decker names: Jimmy Lee. Lula Mae. The ubiquitous Billy Bob, who happens to be the first customer this morning. Has a wife named Jo Lee. Oh please, I know what you're thinking. Try to grow up.
I raise my coffee cup, take that first glorious sip, the fresh steam blessing my nostrils. Billy Bob pushes on the front door. The one with the foot-tall fluorescent orange letters: P U L L.
"Five bucks on three," Lung Fao says. Lung Fao is the assistant manager. Real name John Harris. I call him Lung Fao because I like the way it sounds.
Billy Bob peers through the glass to see if we're open. Checks his watch. Ten past, so we should be open, the look says. He could see a lot better if not for them dang letters. P. U. L. L. "Five on five," I say.
"Y'all so mean to Billy Bob." This would be Gloria Hightower, the soft-hearted clerk who thinks we shouldn't make book on how many attempts it will take William Robert Larkee to open the door. Boys being boys. Leave us alone. Thank you.
Billy Bob will not be denied and pulls to glory on the count of four. The door chime sounds its melodious tones--it's made by the Melodious Tones Door Chime Company, Inc.--and in he comes. He's carrying two bulging plastic bags, a blue one from Wal-Mart, a white one that says THANK YOU three times. Lung Fao leans in close. "Buck says he needs to get the lights turned back on."
Billy Bob's moving slow this morning, giving me time to work, so I scan the bags from a distance. Wal-Mart buys good bags, the kind you can't see through in order to identify their contents from thirty feet away for gambling purposes. That really chaps my cheeks.
The white one, though, now that's a bag, Chief. Flimsy. One split seam already. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU. No, thank you, Mr. Bag Maker. Loaded with videotapes. Not Disneys, either. Just plain old run-of-the-bourgeois-mill VHS, one of Billy Bob's staple collateral pledges now that we stopped taking his Betamax movies. Betamax was actually a better format, I'll give you that, but it's another story for another day, a seedy tale of marketing blunders and corporate arrogance by Sony. Blunders, hell. More like an evisceration. The point is, Billy Bob is reluctant to embrace new technology. And to take baths.
VHS. Video Home System. At least fourteen tapes, no more than twenty. There'll be a Jean Claude Hot Damn in there, maybe two. Stephen Seagal will be well represented. Bet your gravy and biscuits on that.
Speaking of betting, that opaque Wal-Mart bag is quickly becoming the bane of my existence. I can just see some smarmy Wal-Mart Bag Buyer in his office, sitting on the edge of his desk, sample bags in his sweaty, hairless, puffy, pale clubs, rubbing them back and forth between plump thumb and plumper forefinger while some skinny Bag Seller sits there hoping he'll choose the thicker one because his commission will be $14.88 per month higher if he sells the thick bag, by gosherino, and then he'll be able to bowl in the league, baby. Selfish jerk.
I'm disappointed to the nines, I won't lie, but I don't make blind bets. For a fleeting moment, I get the urge to let go, be a man on the edge, take Lung Fao's bet anyway. Something in my gut says he's wrong. It's not getting the lights turned back on. DUI ticket? Maybe. Bail out Jo Lee? Could be. Medicine for the grandbaby? Strong possibility there. I can almost smell the Keflex. But I manage to contain myself. Discipline. That's why I own the shop, Sugar.
"How's it going, Billy Bob?" Lung Fao says.
"Come in, Billy Bob!" Gloria sounds thrilled to see him. Gloria is a black woman about the size of a Volkswagen, always Bubbly Happy in her acres of Spandex. Pisses me off sometimes, like when I've been out all night and my eyes are all bugged-out feeling and my brain is too big for my head and I puked in the Dumpster out back, but I don't let it show. That D-word. Key to success.
Billy Bob plops his bags down on the pawn counter. For the briefest flash of a moment, I consider acting on my fury toward the Wal-Mart bag. My Kimber is locked and loaded and I can pump eight .45 slugs into that Mystery Mother of a Day-Ruiner quicker than you can...well, pretty quick. The compulsive need to take this action passes within a minute or two. See above.
It unsettles me to look at Billy Bob. He has a bulbous nose that rides a shrunken mouth that is for the most part devoid of teeth. Oh sure, you might find a molar in there somewhere, perhaps even an incisor if you looked long enough and the batteries in the flashlight endured, but I think you could call Billy Bob toothless and win in court. That's all I'm saying. He has a perpetual three- to five-day supply of stubble, and his jowls are sort of "hangy." None of these things bothers me.
But those eyes. In a word? Disconcerting. Noncommital. Beady. Frightening. One of them may be pointed your way, but the other one is just as likely to be aimed at the Taco Bell across the street.
You know those paintings--think of the Mona Lisa for a moment, not the buck-toothed smile or even those silly ears, just the eyes, stay with me now, Homer--in which the eyes seem to follow you wherever you go? You know how freaky it was when you were pawing at your first girlfriend and you looked up and saw Dead Grandma's eyes looking down at you, right there on the couch? Billy Bob's eyes aren't like that, but they're still freaky.
"Need a little money," he says.
No duh. Thought maybe he came to visit, with his fricking bags. Geez. I eyed that Wal-Mart bag. I could feel the presence of Smarmy Bag Buyer and Mr. League Bowler, who couldn't bowl 200 if his life depended on it, the kind of man who'd waste a dollar running a ball that didn't even belong to him through the ball washer while his kid eats peanut butter for lunch instead of bologna. "How much you need?" I say.
"Got to get a tie-rod end put on the van," he says.
Tie. Rod. End. I shake my head. Billy Bob Larkee waltzes into my shop, me running on one pathetic sip of Dunkin Donuts freshly-ground, and clips my wings but right. I glance at Lung Fao. He was hurting too, can't deny the pain on his young face, but he's a five-year man who still brings the diamond loans to me. I've been doing this for twenty-dadgum-four years.
"How much you need?" I repeat. So what if my tone was a little cold? As much as I don't want to, I raise my eyes toward his.
The left one acquires lock on me for a moment, releases, goes off in search of a new target. Righty shoots up, down, up, down, makes me think of Wilt Chamberlain dribbling on that court with the pretty hardwood squares--I always thought that floor should've been in Madison Square Garden, but I don't think it is--and eventually saunters up toward mine, only a little off-center.
Here we go. I may get him out by lunch.
"The part's seventy-eight dollars..." He pauses, looks up, wants to be sure he has my attention, which is to say he wants to be certain he's making my life as hellish as possible without killing me outright, then continues, "and the mechanic wants sixty-six dollars to put it on."
So there it is. Laid out naked as a french whore. Billy Bob wants a hundred and forty-four dollars. I yank open the Wal-Mart bag. It's filled with DVDs. Raw shock hangs in the air, not unlike the moment when another Billy Bob declared--with an admirably courageous dose of candor, I think you'll agree--that he aimed to lay open Dwight Yoakam's skull with a lawn mower blade. I process the implications of one American owning Smokey and the Bandit on Betamax, VHS, and DVD.
"You know I can't loan that much on this," I say.
"One-twenty?" Lefty's all over the place.
"Quit smoking weed. Fifty."
"Eighty? I'll put it on myself."
Yeah, right. Like he can install a tie-rod end in the first place. And like I don't have all his tools in the pawn room anyway. Good grief.
"Forty-five," I say.
"You said fifty."
"You didn't want fifty."
"Give me the fifty."
This is how our business works. Day after week after millenia. Gloria checks the tapes. Where Corvette Summer should be, she finds The Spirit of Seventeen-Seventy-Sex, a triple-X that features George Washington interrupting Betsy Ross while she tries to sew Old Glory. Shows how the Minutemen and Pocahontas really got their names. Things like that. So I've heard.
Gloria shoots him a look. "I ought to tell Jo Lee on you, you nasty old buzzard." Ha! Who's being mean to poor old Billy Bob now? Right to his face, too. One DVD is scratched. I should re-think that fifty, but I'm feeling generous and let the transaction proceed.
The licensed pawnbroker of record is required to sign each pawn ticket in Alabama, so Gloria slides it over to me. I pull out my Mont Blanc and do the deed: JOHN WAYNE LARKEE.
"Thanks, son," Billy Bob says as I hand him two twenties and a ten.
"Thank you, Daddy," I say. "Give my love to Mama."
Web Site: Pawnbroker, a Thriller by Jerry Hatchett