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West Side Pawn

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 know.”

‘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?”

“Vinny’s dead.”

“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.




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