Cliff had a small gun collection. I don’t remember how many weapons were stored in the locked gun cabinet with the glass front. There were three shotguns including a Browning pump action 16 gauge. A .30-.06. A regular .22 and a .22 magnum. Two Winchester .30-.30’s, one with a low serial number meaning it was a collector’s gun. There were other rifles I don’t remember and a couple of pistols. A big silver revolver that looked like it belonged in a Western movie and a snub nosed Smith and Wesson .38 suitable for a private dick. The guns were rarely used but kept oiled and cleaned and beautiful in their own gun-way.
Cliff liked to hunt but worked too much to practice the sport with much regularity. Depending on the season, there might be venison or rabbit in the freezer. Sometimes quail. Occasionally squirrel, my least favorite because the meat is dark and oily. A squirrel is basically a rat with a cute tail.
Speaking of vermin, Cliff and I would sometimes go to the dump which was an open pit filled with refuse – stained mattresses, broken furniture and appliances, tin cans, scraps of food and other garbage. Garbage disposal wasn’t easy and convenient in the country side in those days. We’d sit on a rock or the hood of the car or the back of my uncle’s pick-up truck and use the occasional emerging rat for target practice. A .30-.06 could pretty much disintegrate a rat. I have to admit it was a good time but I had less of a fondness for hunting deer and small edible animals. I had no qualms about eating them however.
As I said, Cliff went hunting rarely and I went with him even less frequently. I was more interested in baseball and books and girls.
Cliff was an N.R.A. member but I never heard mention of the 2nd Amendment or gun rights of any kind or the need to protect ourselves from criminals or an oppressive government. I also never heard of mass shootings at schools and churches and other gatherings. Maybe these things happened back then but, if they did, it was most assuredly with less frequency and media coverage since I don’t remember them at all. Most people weren’t angry and afraid and strident in their beliefs except for the local Baptist Minister who insisted we were all going to hell but nobody paid him much mind.
Cliff was a trucker and also belonged to the Teamsters. Belonging to a union and the N.R.A. was no contradiction in those days. Cliff was a conservative who always voted Democrat but behaved like an Eisenhower Republican. In those days the two major political parties had differences in philosophy but shared an interest in governing for the greater good. As a result, the nation experienced the greatest prosperity it ever had or likely ever will. Did I mention that unions were strong and had built a middle class that drove the economic engine with buying power that allowed a truck driver to live a good life, buy a house, drive a good car and help send his son to college? The advantaged, the privileged, the economy elite, the wealthy, however they acquired their wealth, paid very high marginal tax rates and that was viewed as the appropriate order of things.
Bad things had already taken root and would soon fester like an untreated wound. The Vietnam war. The Moral Majority. Supply side/trickle-down economics and a philosophy that greed is good with a sort of resurgent Calvinism that preached that the poor and oppressed were getting exactly what they deserved through God’s will.
Cliff didn’t live long enough to witness the worst of it. And, in a way, I’m grateful for that.
Cliff was my father.
In research and repair mode. Four flawed stories that aren’t ready to be shared. One is a story without an ending. Nothing seems to work. I tried the surprise ending but it felt stupid and contrived. I tried the French film, “What? It’s over? What just happened?” ending?. But I’m not French, though I sometimes wish I was. Another story has a hook and an ending but no body. It’s more an outline. The last one may not be a short story at all. It’s at 6,000 words with no end in sight. I’ve learned what to do in these circumstances. Set all aside and try again later.
So. Your humble narrator hasn’t much to share with you.
The MLB playoffs are here. The hated Yankees lost to the Astros last night. Yay! Not that I’m much of an Astros fan because Houston is a shit hole and is in Texas which needs to be given independence or returned to Mexico. The Pirates play the Cubs tonight, I think. I like both cities but Cubs fans, for all their Quixotic charm, can be assholes so I’m rooting for the Pirates. Pittsburgh is a lovely town, a mixture of Cincinnati (size and topography) and Cleveland (eastern European heritage). Mets vs. Dodgers. Ugh! Which has the higher payroll? Dodgers. OK Mets then. Rangers against Blue Jays. Blue Jays, obviously. And not just because of the Texas thing. Who was it that said living in Canada is like having a really nice apartment above a crack house?
I’ve been thinking about the ingredients for a healthy, happy and successful (not in terms of money and possessions) existence. Here is my tentative list. I intend to explore each item in turn in future posts. If you have additional suggestions or elaborations, please, let me know. Here goes:
- Observant/Mindful. Observing is not the same as seeing. Paying attention is not the same as being aware.
- Curiosity/Open-mindedness. One of the chief ingredients of intelligence, I think. If you aren’t forever curious it means your mind is made up. Only the truly stupid believe they have it all figured out.
- Flexibility/Roll-with-the-punchedness. Probably a by product of curiosity.
- Passion/Lovingness. If you’re not in love with the world it should divorce you. Sooner than planned.
- Fearlessness/Risk-taking. No one is, nor should they be, completely fearless but if you’re terrified of failure you’ll fail in the most extreme, existential sense.
- Humor. If you can’t laugh, nothing else really matters.
My list is predicated on the assumption that each of these characteristics can, to some degree, be cultivated unlike raw intelligence and height. I was about to add attractiveness among the uncontrollables but realized that would be a falsehood in the extreme. Some of the most attractive women I have known have not been beauties in the physical sense.
Great quote of the day:
“Being disintegrated makes me very angry. Very angry indeed.” – Marvin the Martian
I don’t eat sweets. Have no appetite for them. I give my morning Dojo caramel at Findlay to Amy at Market Wines. I am a sucker, however, for salty snacks. Cheddar and Sour Cream potato chips. Salt and Vinegar. Barbecue. Ranch. You can get potato chips in almost any flavor, except the one I want. Maybe freshness is the issue.
I’m still working on number 5.
A thick, humid day gave way to rain in the evening which intensified all through the night.
In the morning when Spence steps from his car, where he had slept upright behind the wheel, the air is dry and much cooler than the day before. Tongue of cotton swabbing and wrinkled suit. Tie tossed into the back seat at some point. His back aches. He is too old to be sleeping in cars, he decides.
He stretches, steps around to the curbside of the blue Volvo and opens both front and back doors, steps between them, shielded from view. He stretches, unzips and relieves himself, watching for pedestrians or passing patrol cars. It is early. He has the immediate environs to himself. The bar across the street, where he had over-imbibed the night before, is closed. It will not reopen until 4 p.m.
Back into the car. The key still in the ignition. All he gets is click, click, click. Lights and the radio left on overnight. No-one around to offer a jump. An expired AAA membership. Calling a garage would probably cost most of the cash that he is carrying. He hasn’t a clue where his cell phone is anyway. Maybe in the bar.
Nothing to do but walk. Spence doesn’t know the neighborhood well but he knows it can go from safe to dicey within a block. He wishes he had a change of clothes. Despite the poor condition of his suit, it is expensive and gives off an incorrect impression that he carries meaningful money. In a few blocks he comes across West Side Pawn. Open at ten. A pawn shop is an indication of decline. He may have ventured in the wrong direction. He looks at his watch, a Christmas gift from Jill that also broadcasts false fortune. 7:25 a.m. He is about to turn around, retrace his steps and head back to the Volvo when he sees a man exiting a building a block ahead. Signs of life from what appears to be a bar. He presses on.
As he draws closer he sees the sign. Rook. Picture of a black bird like from the card game. As he reaches the corner to cross the street, waiting for the light to change, he hears a voice behind him.
“You could buy me a drink.”
He hadn’t noticed the woman seated on the bench at the bus stop. A hooker most likely but, if so, given her condition, new to the trade. Clean and with a bright, wholesome smile. A tiny waist, he notes, as she rises from the bench. An hourglass figure though a lot of sand has settled to the bottom. Spence looks her over, trying to guess her age. He could easily err by a decade or more.
“Come on,” he says, crossing the street with the changing light without waiting for her.
Light on her feet, she skips after him. Grasps his elbow like a Prom date when she catches up.
Spence leads her to a bar stool rather than to a table. They sit at the bar with three old guys who look like they haven’t left the Rook in years.
“Whassup Sandy?” says the old bartender.
“Dan!” she responds.
Sandy orders a shot and a beer. Spence only a beer. A little too early for whiskey, though back in the day he’d often greet the morning with a Plain Dealer breakfast – a raw egg plopped into a glass of beer – after working the night shift. The total comes to $15. Spence hands Dan an American Express card that may or may not be valid. The silver haired bartender, who walks with a pronounced limp, frowns and shakes his head. Spence takes a crumpled ten, a five and three ones out of his pocket. Dan is gleeful over the tip. An uncommon occurrence, Spence surmises.
Sandy downs the whiskey in a single gulp, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
Spence excuses himself to go to the bathroom for a discreet place to check his funds. Two twenties, a five and four ones. Enough for a few more rounds or a battery jump but not both. On the way back to the bar he notices a pay phone, a rarity these days. He slips in the change and calls Jill’s number. She doesn’t answer, the call goes to voice-mail. Spence doesn’t leave a message. He knows he hasn’t much to report that would elicit interest or sympathy at this time in the morning.
When Spence reclaims his stool he sees Sandy with a fresh shot. He’s guessing it’s on his tab. As a test, and because he wants another, he orders a second beer. Dan doesn’t ask him to pay at the point of delivery. There’s the answer.
Another unanswered phone call to Jill. He leaves a message this time about his stranded condition and the number of the pay phone. Jill’s parents are in town. Spence is, no doubt, the main topic. The potential son in law, once considered a promising asset due to his good job is now an object of doubt and derision. His failure to make good on the marriage proposal fresh in their minds. Fancy footwork in his rope-a-dope relationship strategy. After he got fired, Spence moved in with Jill until he could get back on his feet. That was four months ago. The job search is not going well because a hunter needs both sufficient prey, weaponry and motivation. He spends most of the day driving around the rundown Near North neighborhood, exploring a city that had been a mystery. Jill’s job and apartment are in the ‘burbs. She refuses to deal with the dangers and inconveniences of the urban core, where “they” live, although she never explicitly says who “they” are.
Spence has been scouting the drinking establishments where “they” live. Dives, like The Ruby and Rook, where the booze and food are cheap and the characters plentiful. Funds are chronically low. Spence has sold off stereo equipment and most everything else of any value. Jill grows increasingly reluctant to extend loans.
Spence checks his watch again, is about to tell Sandy that he needs to be on his way, whatever way that is, when the thought occurs to him.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. He studies Sandy’s face as he lifts himself uncertainly from his stool. Acne scars on her cheeks like constellations. Like a target at a BB gun shooting range. Punctuation without sentences. Indications, perhaps, of deeper scars within from a pustular adolescence.
“Where are you going?“ Sandy asks with alarm. Dan looks at him with equal concern.
“Here,” Spence says, emptying his pocket to settle for the drinks, removing suspicion and buying Sandy another round. “Give me 15 minutes,” he says.
Spence exits the Rook, crosses the street where he sees a girl on the bench in Sandy’s previous position with the same lonely but hopeful visage. He walks the block to West Side
The pawn guy seems fidgety and uncertain as he hands Spence the money.
Spence returns to the Rook sans watch but with two crisp one hundred dollar bills in his pocket. Much less than the timepiece’s value but more than he expected. No one has has phoned during his absence, he is told.
He noticed that the girl on the bench has moved on.
Dan places two upside down shot glasses in front of Spence and Sandy.” Ben has your next round,” he says pointing to an elderly gentleman at the other end of the bar who wasn’t there when Spence left. The old man doesn’t turn when Spence says “thank you” in his direction. The old man stares at the shelves of cheap whiskey behind the bar as if communicating telepathically with old friends. Ancient Age. Jim Beam. Old Overholt.
Sandy walks over to Ben. Plants a kiss on the old man’s cheek. He smiles and pats her on the rump.
Spence thinks about the girl who was sitting on the bench across the street. Younger and prettier than Sandy. “Do you have a roommate?” he asks Sandy.
“How did you know?”
“Just a hunch.”
“She’s upstairs. She’ll be gone in a little while.”
They redeem the shot glasses for their gift drinks. Spence goes to the restroom, steadying himself with the juke box on his way. After he’s through with business, Spence dials Jill’s number but hangs up after the first ring. A slurred noontime conversation will not further his ambitions.
Yet another drink? Phone a garage while he still has sufficient funds? Try to reach Jill one last time? Spence’s muddy mind fails to give traction. He loads the jukebox. Sometimes decisions are made for you. He turns from the jukebox in time to see a tow truck pass by dragging a blue Volvo. He sighs.
“We’ll have one more,” Spence says to Dan. To Sandy he says, “After these do you want to go upstairs?”
She smiles and and awaits her drink.
I’ve abused you lately with my short fiction. Many of you prefer my memoirs and off-the-cuff observations. I’ll try a more balanced approach in the future though no-one has ever accused me of being balanced.
I strike while the iron is hot or, to abuse a saying, at least while it is plugged in (a story there, I’ll try to get to it soon). Because of the realities of my productivity, or lack thereof, I must write what’s in my head at the moment.
About one in ten of my short story ideas result in an actual story. One in ten actual stories are worth sharing. One in ten of the shared stories, I consider to be good. One in ten of stories I consider good, probably, actually are.
Nevertheless, I’m going to offer advice based on my experiences though I lack credentials to do so. Think of this as, not a sermon from the Mount but, a plea and a confession from the gallows.
1. Write. A lot. Even if most of it is bad which it will be. Most of the stuff you think is good will be bad if you wait a day or two to reread it. By the way, that last step is critical. Make sure you destroy the bad stuff so it is never accidentally discovered after you pass so you don’t suffer embarrassment posthumously. Note: don’t drunkenly burn the manuscript in the bathtub and set off the fire alarm as I once did.
2. When you’re not writing. Read. Read good stuff. Reading crap will cause you to write crap. Danielle Steele – crap. George Saunders – good. Got it? The good stuff is not just literary classics. There are a lot of great contemporary writers out there but you’re unlikely to find them on bestsellers lists. Incidentally, if you’re writing to get rich and famous you are a bigger fool than I am and I’ve set the bar pretty high. You’re better off playing the lottery.
When I was living in Cleveland, in my twenties, hanging out at Publix and Kay’s bookstores downtown, among other places literary, I developed a process inspired by my book reviewing work. Caveat: this requires a bit of pre-knowledge about the lions of literary fiction. If you’re a reader and writer of genre fiction, I can’t advise you but I can pray for you.
The process: You should no more buy a book for its cover graphics than a bottle of wine for its label. Instead read the reviews on the back of the dust jacket. Not so much the content of the review as the name of the reviewer. If Philip Roth says a guy is great, even though you’ve never heard of him, he probably is. If you find he is truly worth reading, read all of his work. Pay attention to the reviewers on the dust jackets of all the books and follow the trail. It’s a form of social networking that existed before the computer.
In summary so far: write, write, write, read, read, read.
3. Learn where and when you write best. I work best early in the morning or in the evening. The afternoon is a wasteland for me. I’m engineered for siestas, perhaps. I can’t write in solitude or complete silence. I lie. I once could. I can no more. Vacuums fill my head with messy apartment thoughts. Messy relationship thoughts. Messy business thoughts. I need white noise. I wrote an entire novel at Arnold’s bar. Not a good novel. Not a publishable one. I’m just saying I cranked out 64,000 words over four months amid the chaos that is the bar scene. I didn’t destroy the failed novel. I am parting it out like a car in the back yard. A piece here, a piece there. As short stories.
Carry a journal at all times. Keep it by your bedside. Take it to the bathroom. Don’t get confused and wipe your ass with it. There’ll be plenty of shit in the journal as it is.
4. Experience life. If you can afford to travel, by all means, do so. When I was flush, I went to Europe every year (sometimes twice a year) to se-set my mind (I also learned that America is #1 only in all the ways that don’t count).
If you can’t travel physically, travel in your head. Find ways to stimulate your imagination. One way, of course, is to read. Other ways are through new music (don’t listen to the same stuff all the time). Find unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people. I’m a creature of habit like everybody else and I have to work hard to follow this rule.
If you starve your imagination, it will die. A writer with a dead imagination is a typist.
5. Be courageous. Non-writers and amateur readers often confuse the writer with his fiction and may judge you harshly. Fuck them. Experiment. Insult and offend. If you’re afraid to explore, hire a P.R. firm and a focus group and get the hell out of my way. Write for yourself and hope you reach others as a result. If you write for a target audience you’ll never find yourself. Better safe than sorry is terrible advice for a creative writer. During my corporate years (the only period I truly regret although it provided the money for travel) I self censored. Trying to fit in corporate America is to be a part of a hedge where bits of your personality get trimmed off everyday. If your goal is safe, pleasant conformity you are not and never will be a writer.
6. To have the time to write and read and live and successfully piss people off you need to turn off the fucking t.v. Sell it if it’s worth anything. Use the money to buy a good bottle of Scotch or a night on the town or a hooker or to play the ponies. Or buy a rueben which would still represent a good deal. If you forget or choose to ignore everything else I’ve said, remember this: Nothing in life is worth less than a television.
Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.
Sometimes he thinks he would like to return to his home planet. The world that has derogatorily been referred to as the West Virginia of the solar system. A world ravaged and impoverished. Undeserving of its Ultra Planet moniker. Like a suburban street with no foliage named Elm Street. Still home is home and sometimes he dreams of Ultra Planet and all he left behind to champion justice here.
Life has been difficult of late. Aging is uncomfortable even for the most well endowed and the competition has grown more fierce. Plaxar, Ultra Man’s evil nemesis is, frankly, younger, more virile and better looking. Let’s face facts. And only a few days ago he was alerted to a rumor that Plaxar had been seen in the company of Ultra Woman.
Super villains and heroes, have always offered one another certain accommodations. Ultra Man allows Plaxar to practice evil on a limited scale so long as he succumbs when appropriate and Ultra Man’s friends and relatives remain off limits.
The Lodge is a demilitarized, neutral zone for all super heroes and villains. The Lodge, sponsored by the The United Association of Super Heroes and Villains, is where they meet to socialize and gossip while they drink and play pool or cards.
One of Ultra Man’s super powers is extra sensory perception. His limited ability to read minds is a powerful advantage in the game of euchre but not at all helpful while shooting pool where Ultra Man’s less than perfect eye-hand coordination and grasp of geometry have prevented him from mastering the bank shot. In fact, Ultra Man hates pool but is occasionally goaded into a game.
His pool partner this evening is Mirth Man who can leave you writhing on the floor with laughter, holding your aching stomach muscles, tears streaming down your cheeks and with no will to resist the assault. The opposition tonight is Plaxar and Mirth Man’s twin brother, Dr. Tragic, who inspires suicide among his opponents who can’t tune out his tales of woe and misery. Mirth Man and Dr. Tragic always work alone, never as a team where their powers cancel each other out.
Ultra Man faces a difficult shot.
“3 ball. Corner pocket. Off the 15,” he says with all the confidence he can muster.
“Yeah. Right,” says Plaxar dismissively.
The cue ball hits the wrong side of the 3 and caroms off to stroke the 8 into the side pocket. Game over! Plaxar guffaws. Mirth Man and Dr. Tragic neutralize one another’s reactions.
Saved by an Ultralert. Someone is out there creating mayhem. Ultra Man looks among the Lodge gathering, trying to determine who might be at large before rushing to the changing room to don his tights and cape from his locker. Damn! A gravy stain on his cape. His auxiliary cape is at the cleaners. He hopes. He lost the ticket and can’t remember how long… The cleaners donate clothes unclaimed after 30 days to charity. Ultra Man imagines a homeless person parading about on the hot streets wearing his blood red cape. Using it to wipe snot and whatever else from his syphilitic nose. A humiliating thought. Oh well. Up. Up. And away.
“We need to do something about this. It’s been weeks,” Ultra Woman says from her side of the bed. Ultra Man is unable to delve into Ultra Woman’s thoughts, nor she his. It’s why they’ve been able to stay together for so long. He knows what she’s talking about anyway. He’ll pretend he doesn’t.
“You know what I’m talking about. Your ultra dick.”
“Honey, it was always so ultra…” She reaches over and touches him. Shifting tactics.
Ultra Man will have none of it. “I’m tired. I’m under a lot of stress.”
“You say that every time. You could see a doctor.”
“Word would get out. I’d be the laughing stock.”
“I don’t care. My ultra pussy needs action.”
“Is that the reason you’ve been hanging out with Plaxar?”
No response. Ultra Woman rolls to her side, her back to him. She turns out her light.
“Tomorrow. I promise,” Ultra Man says. He returns to his trade magazine, Super Hero Quarterly, but realizes he has to go to the bathroom again. It’s the second time within the hour due to his enlarged ultra prostate.
Another Ultralert. Ultra Man rises from the bed careful not to wake Ultra Woman. Into his tights and gravied cape and away he goes. He has a premonition. It’s Plaxar.
The city is quiet. The air rushing past, mussing his graying hair, is crisp and dry. His cape flutters like a flag as he scans the streets from above looking for the crime in progress.
When Ultra Man touches down Plaxar is busy, outside the violated bank, loading sacks of cash into an old Econoline. He has a hostage bound and gagged. A woman of the night who had happened on the scene and alerted authorities.
“This is the end of you Plaxar. You’ve gone too far,” Ultra Man says.
“Says you,” responds Plaxar as he rushes Ultra Man and hurls him against an SUV parked across the street activating the car alarm. Sirens wail in the distance.
Ultra Man picks himself up. He is able to tune into Plaxar’s thoughts. Knows his next move.
Parry. Thrust. Ultra Man delivers a series of vicious blows. Wham! Pow! Zowie! Thump!
Plaxar is finished. Crumpled on the sidewalk when the police arrive.
“You’ve done it again Ultra Man,” says Sgt. Sullivan. “Good work.”
Ultra Man releases the prostitute from her bondage. She runs away from the familiar policemen.
Ultra Man issues a salute as he rises into the air. On the flight home he feels a stirring in his loins. An ultra erection.
Cliff answers only because he recognizes the number. Jerry calls only occasionally. When he needs a drinking buddy or company at the track. Jerry likes to play the ponies. Cliff always take his calls. Jerry’s rich or, at least, he spends like the rich. Cliff is poor and spends like the poor which means not at all. Jerry is always good for a few drinks. Sometimes more. If Jerry gets really hammered Cliff can ask for a loan that he won’t remember in the morning.
Most other phone calls Cliff doesn’t answer. Invariably they are salespeople trying to sell something he can’t afford. Or bill collectors trying to collect something he doesn’t have. Or pissed off women demanding something he won’t understand.
“Cliff. This is Jerry.”
‘I need your help.”
“In what way?”
“I’m in Chicago with Lulu.”
Lulu is Jerry’s latest squeeze. Cliff doesn’t remember her real name but it doesn’t remotely suggest Lulu. Lulu is a homely girl in the face. Thin lipped. Little teeth showing lots of gums. Eyes too far apart. But she’s got a pair of legs that make you drop to your knees and pray. Jerry says she’s the best lay he’s ever had. That she likes it from behind and talks dirty into the carpet all the way through it. Cliff’d try to get some of that if he wasn’t afraid of Jerry.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Cliff says.
“I need you to mind the store today.”
“Kinda short notice. Where’s Vinny?”
“How do you mean?”
“As in not breathing.”
“Jerry I know what dead is. What happened?”
“He dropped dead in the store yesterday. Massive coronary occlusion. Doctor talk for a heart attack. Lanny stopped by and found him face down. Lucky for me.”
“Lucky that Vinny is dead?”
“Lucky that Lanny happened by with Vinny still warm. A stranger would have come in and cleaned me out.”
“That’s terrible news.”
“It gets worse.”
“What’s worse than dead?”
“Lanny took Vinny’s keys before they hauled him away. To move his car off the street so it wouldn’t get ticketed and towed.”
“Okay. Vinny wasn’t likely to be driving anyway.”
“Right but Lanny took Vinny’s car to his apartment complex. He knew where it was. He’d dropped Vinny off a couple of times when he was too drunk to drive. Lanny went inside to take a piss. Guess what he found?”
“Watches. Electronics. A wad of one hundred dollar bills. Vinny was ripping me off.”
“Vinny the thief is worse than Vinny the dead?”
“From my perspective.”
“Why can’t Lanny open the shop?”
“Lanny has to go to his real job. Besides Lanny don’t know shit about pawning.”
“Neither do I.”
“I know but you’re my last hope. Nobody else is available.”
“Thanks for your confidence.”
“Just do what you did last time. Don’t buy anything. Just treat it like a retail gig. Prices are clearly marked. I’ll make it up to you, you know that.”
“I haggle up to twenty percent, right?”
“Yeah. I buy at ten cents on the dollar. Usually. Don’t make a habit of discounts. I don’t want to get a reputation.”
“You’re in Chicago. I don’t have keys.”
“Lanny will meet you there before he goes to work.”
Cliff sits behind the counter on the high stool and looks around. Jerry has a lot of cool merchandise. Cliff decides he wouldn’t mind sitting on the high stool as a habit. He’ll ask Jerry to teach him the pawn business which involves being able to differentiate the good stuff from the junk and feeling okay about taking advantage of people’s desperate circumstances.
A guy walks in causing the door to make a loud, annoying noise. It’s important for a pawnbroker to know when someone has opened the door. Your survival depends on being aware. There’s a loaded 9mm under the counter. You need a sense of when you might need the gun. That sense usually comes the moment the door opens.
The guy carries a small box. He opens it on the counter. It contains a small collection of earrings. They have embedded gems that look expensive but Cliff can’t tell a diamond from zirconium.
Cliff tells the earring guy that he isn’t buying because he’s filling in for the regular guy who died of a heart attack yesterday. Earring guy doesn’t give a shit about some dead pawnshop clerk. He starts to carry on about the earrings.
Cliff tells him again about the “no buy” situation. The guy keeps spouting off about the earrings. Frustrated, Cliff asks him how much he is asking for the earrings.
That doesn’t sound like much. The earrings look nice. “I can do $100.”
“$150,” the guy comes back quickly.
Cliff opens the drawer and takes out the money. The guy knows the drill. He already has his driver’s license on the counter so Cliff can write down the information on the sheet in case the earrings are stolen merchandise. The door screams again and a woman walks in as Cliff is counting the money onto earring guy’s outstretched palm.
The guy splits. The door howls again as he leaves. Cliff tapes the buy sheet to the small box of earrings and puts it in the space under the shelf behind him.
The woman is pretty. Dark eyes and short cropped hair. Bright smile. Good legs. She is looking for a birthday gift for her boyfriend. Maybe a watch. “Danny likes watches,” she says. All the good ones have boyfriends, Cliff is thinking.
Cliff shows her the watch section in the glass case. He comes around from behind the counter to stand beside her and see the watches from her perspective. He is unfamiliar with the merchandise.
She’s focused on the high end of the watch collection. She asks about one of the more expensive watches. Cliff goes back behind the counter, plucks the watch and rather than offering it across the counter carries it to her so he can stand with her again.
She puts the watch on her tiny wrist. Cliff doesn’t know why. Maybe it’s just something you do instinctively with watches. He smiles and reaches for the watch. He puts it on his own wrist which he has always considered handsome. It also gives him the opportunity to lightly touch her. After modeling the watch he hands it back making sure he can brush her warm hand again in the process.
“I like it but I don’t think I can afford $500.”
“I can go $400.” Jerry wouldn’t be happy. This isn’t haggling, this is a high school girl in the back seat giving it all up from the get-go.
She has moved closer to him. He can feel her hip against his. They are close to the same height. He can smell her. Not a chemical fragrance but the essence of her under her fragile spaghetti strap sundress. Thin material. He can’t detect bra or panty lines. Cliff tries not to stare. It’s hot outside. She still glistens with sweat. Little bumps start popping out on her bare arms from the shop’s air conditioning. He already has a plan in his head. He’ll offer her a sweet deal in order to get her name and information. He’ll make it up on other sales by pretending he offered other discounts when he didn’t. That involves fudging the sales slips but it will all net out the same so it isn’t cheating.
“That’s still a little steep.” She says what Cliff expected her to say. Her voice is like melting butter. A bit of a southern twang that might be faked. He pretends he’s Stanley Kowalski in A Street Car Named Desire. Not the perfect role model but the only one that comes to him on the fly.
“I can do $300 but that’s my final offer.” He realizes he’s being ridiculously generous. Beautiful women will do that to you.
“That’s sweet of you. I’ll take it,” she buttered at him.
She hands him a credit card. He was hoping for cash so it would be easy to manipulate the sales slip. He’ll think of something else. Maybe swap price tags with a lesser priced watch in the case and hope Jerry doesn’t notice. The advantage of the credit card is he has her name already. Amanda.
Cliff runs her card. Puts the watch in the nicest box he can find. She signs the slip. Now for the punch line.
“If you give me your email I can add you to the list so you get notified of specials.” There is no list. There are no specials.
Amanda looks at him doubtfully but surrenders her email on the pad of paper Cliff placed on the counter in front of her. Maybe she knows the score and decides to play anyway. Perhaps the game is on.
She exits through the angry door. He watches her shimmy away and hopes that her boyfriend pulls a full Vinny before she gets home.
For the next two hours, nothing. Cliff remembers this from the last time he worked West Side. It’s a feast or famine business. You’re parched or soaked. They arrive in clusters or not at all. The rest of the day is sporadic. He’ll do $1500 in sales. All at a discount. He wonders how Jerry will feel about that.
Jerry calls as Cliff is locking up. Cliff tells him it was a decent but not great day. He doesn’t tell him about the discounts. He doesn’t tell him about the purchase of the earrings but Jerry wasn’t calling to ask about business. He asks Cliff if he can cover the rest of the week, until he can get back in town for the weekend. Jerry always works weekends himself. They are the busiest days and he can stay connected to the business. He’ll soon find a replacement for Vinny, Jerry says. Cliff doesn’t ask for the job over the phone. He’ll wait and do that in person after a few successful days that show his mettle as a pawn guy.
That evening, Cliff is tempted to email Amanda to thank her for her business or some other bullshit excuse. He doesn’t because he has been drinking and knows that phone calls and emails under the influence are almost always a bad idea. Besides she’s probably getting her brains fucked out in exchange for the watch.
The next couple of days at West Side Pawn are indeed better. The business more brisk with fewer discounts. Cliff doesn’t buy anything though he is tempted. A bracelet that would have been perfect on Amanda’s slender brown wrist, for example. He still doesn’t know how Jerry will feel about the earrings. He wonders if there is a way to shift money around so he can take the earrings off the books and give them to Amanda. The pawn business, he is learning, is character warping. The shadiness and desperation of most of the customers is contagious. Like the kid in grade school who passes his lice around.
He sees her even before the door squeals with delight. Amanda is wearing an even prettier sundress. She seems sad and nervous as she approaches the counter. Cliff is nervous too. Maybe the watch failed or wasn’t what it appeared to be. A fake. A cheap Chinese knock-off. Instead the news couldn’t be better.
The watch in its box on the counter. “I wonder if I could return it? I’m afraid I don’t have the receipt.” Her voice is somewhat tremulous.
“Is there something wrong?” Cliff asks.
“Not with the watch. With him.” Amanda attempts a smile. It’s like a light bulb that shines one last moment when switched on before burning out.
Cliff knows better than to probe. “Of course. We offer a 30 day buy back guarantee.” The sign on the wall that says all sales are final confirms this as a lie. He takes $400 from the drawer.
Amanda thanks him. Her teeth seemed whiter. Her hair shinier. Her wiggle more pronounced as the door squawks her departure.
She’s long gone before he realizes his error. So captivated is he that he had forgotten that she only paid $300 for the watch. Cliff will find a solution later. Maybe she’ll realize the error and return with the hundred bucks.
That evening Cliff sends Amanda an email wishing her well and hoping things worked out for the best. She doesn’t respond. The email probably went into her spam folder. Cliff is nothing if not an optimist.
Later, after a few beers and shots, he thinks maybe she’s dodging him because of the hundred bucks. He texts again to say he didn’t text her earlier because of the refund and not to worry about the hundred bucks.
Even later after more beers and shots he emails Amanda again to ask for a date.
Shit, here it goes, he thinks. He turns off the computer so he isn’t tempted after the next round.
Jerry returns. Cliff had a good week. He expects praise and the offer of a job.
Jerry emerges from the office. “Okay. Two problems.”
“Too many discounts?”
“Three problems then. We’ll talk about the discounts later. The earrings are garbage. Dime store crap. And the drawer was short $100 in cash.”
Cliff recovers quickly. “I took a chance on the earrings. It’s how I’ll learn.” He’d forgotten about the extra $100 refund to Amanda. He doesn’t go into it because any refund violated policy and only would made a bad situation worse. Instead he says he’s not sure went wrong. Cliff goes into his pocket. Counts out ten twenties and five tens. Hands them to Jerry, refunding most of what he had earned for the four days of work. Cliff doesn’t want the job as much as he wants Amanda. West Side Pawn, he thinks, is his only hope. His and Amanda’s Paris. She’ll be back. He’s sure of it.
Jerry takes one of the twenties and hands it back to Cliff, saying that’s what the earrings are worth. Puts the rest in his pocket. “Let’s go play the ponies.”
“Okay. About Monday. Work.”
Jerry doesn’t respond.
Whatever you’re doing
you’ll get caught
Too much thinking
too much drinking
Driving too fast
Eating cured meats
Having unprotected sex
with other men’s wives
Smoking in bed
Putting on weight
down dark alleys
Brandishing loaded firearms
Enjoying illegal substances
Camping among carnivorous wildlife
in your stool
or piss or semen
Something will get you
Your choice or not
Whatever you’re doing
You’ll get caught