Going into the pawnshop was a mistake. I knew it the same way I’d known two months before that Stacey was going to leave me, some nagging sense of unease deep in the pit of my stomach. On the day she’d left, I’d stopped on my way home and bought dinner because a little voice in the front of my brain chattering away like a chipmunk refused to believe that sense of impending doom. It insisted that chow mein and sweet and sour pork would make Stacey smile and everything would be all right.
Of course, the chipmunk had been stilled to silence by the empty house and the note on the bedroom door.
The chipmunk, however, never learned. Today my inner rodent had prattled on, reminding me Stacey’s birthday was in two days. I couldn’t not get her a present, it reasoned, not after all the time we had together. Worse, how could I pass up a chance to win her back?
Of course, I was looking to buy said present at a pawnshop. This was new desperation even for the chipmunk.
I opened the door of the pawnshop but stopped dead when I got a good look inside. The neon lights outside flashing “BUY - SELL - PAWN” should have tipped me off as to what kind of atmosphere I’d find, but I’d never actually been in a pawnshop before, and it was far worse than I’d anticipated. It was dirty and cluttered and sad. Discarded items—mostly TVs, stereos, and BluRay players—lay dead on the shelves. An entire wall held musical instruments, silent in the absence of their owners. The smell of cigarette smoke and something else lingered in the air, something I couldn’t identify. Something that reeked of failure. I was overwhelmed by the same sense of helplessness I felt at the animal shelter, all the animals behind bars, wondering why nobody loved them anymore.
I almost turned and walked back out, but the man sitting behind the counter was watching me, his booted feet on the glass display with a half-smoked cigarette drooping between his lips.
“Can I help you?” he asked, and I marveled at the way the cigarette stayed stuck in the side of his mouth.
I shoved my hands into my pants pockets. “I’m looking for jewelry.”
He took the butt out of his mouth and smiled at me as he stood. “You’ve come to the right place, my friend.”
I doubted that, but I chose not to contradict him. The “right place” would have been the jewelry store down the street, its windows full of gold and diamonds, but I sure as hell couldn’t afford that. One of the downtown art galleries had beautiful glass pendants, but the chipmunk had protested. They were colorful, but twisted glass wouldn’t win Stacey back.
The owner led me around the shop through a faint haze of cigarette smoke, past glass cases full of iPods and cameras, GPS navigators and laptops, to one along the back wall that held jewelry. The selection was crazily eclectic. Giant turquoise bracelets and dainty gold chains, wedding bands and strings of pearls.
“You looking for anything in particular?” he asked.
That was a good question. What should I buy? Not a ring. I’d already given her one of those. Never mind that it was currently sitting in a bowl on my bedside table. Not a bracelet. She didn’t like them because they got in her way when she worked.
“A necklace?” I asked.
“Don’t sound so sure of yourself.” He stuck what was left of the cigarette in the side of his mouth, squinting against the ribbon of smoke that rose past his eyes as he unlocked the cabinet and began to pull out the displays of necklaces. The smoke curled around the coarse twists of his hair.
“Are you allowed to smoke in here?” I asked.
He glanced up at me, almost smiling. His black hair was shaved short on the sides and in the back, but the top was longer, spiked straight up in a way that hinted more at laziness than style. He was one of those casually cool guys, I realized, who were naturally put-together and suave, who found everybody else slightly amusing. And slightly stupid. “My store.”
“Yeah, but aren’t there city ordinances or something?”
He took the butt out of his mouth and leaned both hands on the edge of the glass counter to look at me. He was taller than me. Thin, though. Not bulky at all, but he still managed to make me feel small. “Pretty sure I’m the only honest pawnbroker in town. As long as I’m not fencing, cops don’t exactly care about my personal vices.”
“I see.” I tried to hide my embarrassment by looking down at the necklaces.
“Is this for your mom or a girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend,” I said, deciding he didn’t need to know about the “ex” part of the equation.
“In that case, I’d say stay away from pearls and Black Hills gold.” He shrugged and rubbed his hand over the hair at the nape of his neck. “They’re sort of old school. Opals, too.”
“She likes sapphires.”
“Show me a woman who doesn’t.” He knocked the cherry off his cigarette onto the concrete floor, rubbed it out with his foot, and tossed the butt in the trashcan before pointing to a necklace in the center. It had a stone so dark blue it was almost black. “This is the only sapphire I have right now, but if you want my opinion, it sort of screams 1995. Now this,” he pointed to one near the end, “this one is new. Platinum’s all the rage, you know.”
“Platinum?” I touched the necklace. It looked like silver to me, but I wasn’t exactly an expert on jewelry. The stone appeared to be a large rectangular diamond, surrounded by a bunch of smaller round ones. “It looks expensive.”
“Looks being the operative word.” He smiled and crossed his arms over his chest. “The platinum is real, but the diamonds aren’t.”
“Cubic zirconium. Just as pretty, but way more affordable than the real thing.”
I wasn’t sure about giving Stacey imitation stones, but it was definitely the nicest necklace he had. Even used, it was more than I could really afford, but that chipmunk in my brain was enamored with it, positive it was the only thing Stacey would want.
“I can pay you half in cash and half on my card. Is that okay?”
“No personal checks, but cash and credit both work.”
“Do you have some kind of nice box or something it can go in?”
He laughed, revealing perfect teeth that seemed extra white against his bronze skin. “No, I’m gonna give it to you in a Ziploc baggie.” I wasn’t really sure what to say that, but he laughed again. “I’m kidding. Yeah, I got a box around here somewhere. You think I’m running some kind of second-rate establishment?”
The way he said it, it wasn’t a challenge. He seemed to be mocking himself more than anything, admitting that of course this was a second-rate store. That was, after all, the entire idea of a pawnshop. Second owner. Second hand.
I hoped very much that in my case, it would mean a second chance.
El watched the necklace-buyer leave, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The whole thing had “long-term disaster” stamped all over it. Sometimes his customers were desperate. Sometimes stupid. This one? Mostly he’d seemed perpetually confused.
When his cell phone rang, El was still smiling, thinking about Clueless Joe as he answered. “Tucker Pawn.”
“Aren’t we all bright and cheery this evening?” Denver Rogers’s voice was rough, full of drawl that didn’t quite come from the South. “If my ears don’t deceive me, you might actually be smiling. You take someone home and get snuggly last night?”
“I don’t snuggle.”
“Well, something’s got you sounding like Suzie Sunshine.”
El smiled at the image of the necklace-buyer as Suzie Sunshine. Oddly, he kind of was. “Just a customer.”
“Oh?” There was a world of innuendo in that single syllable.
“Just a customer.” Brownish-red hair, pale skin, little freckles across his nose. El couldn’t help but imagine the soft, white skin in the places that didn’t see the sun. “He was damn cute, though.”
Denver whistled through his teeth. “Well, goddamn. Somebody call the Tucker Gazette. Emanuel Mariano Rozal is showing signs of humanity. Next thing you know, he might settle down and start collecting cats.”
“So we on tonight, or what?”
“Looks like or what.”
Denver’s huff belied his irritation, and El could picture him scowling. The two of them had a weekly “date” at the Tucker Laund-O-Rama, which wasn’t nearly as kinky as it sounded. It had nothing in the world to do with sex, and everything to do with having somebody over the age of twenty-two to talk to while their socks ran the spin cycle.
“What is it this time?” Denver asked.
“I told Rosa I’d watch the kids.”
“Come on, man. Your entire fucking family, and she picks you?”
“Miguel’s on call for the fire department, and his wife can barely deal with their own kids. Rosa’s fighting with Lorenzo’s wife—”
“I’m doing my best not to know.” If there was one thing El had learned, it was not to get involved in family drama. Especially when it came to the women. Especially when it came to his little sister Rosa, who made the stereotype of the fiery Latina woman look like Tinkerbell. “She’s been leaving them with her neighbor, but she got busted for possession—”
“That leaves Abuela, and she’s too old to have to deal with those little shits on her own.”
“What about your mom?”
Leave it to Denver to notice the person El had left off his list. “Look man, it’s me. I said I’d do it.”
Denver sighed. “Someday, you’re going to wake up and wish you’d gotten out from behind that counter a bit more.”
“And you’re going to wish you hadn’t bulked up on ‘roids.” El was pretty sure Denver didn’t actually use steroids, but when a man was built like a fucking barn, he could take a bit of ribbing.
“Why can’t you bring the kids along?”
“Why not? They might liven things up a bit.”
El thought about Rosa’s three kids running around the laundromat. They’d scare away any little frat boys in a heartbeat, no doubt about it. “You’re on. Eight o’clock?”
“I don’t snuggle.”
He laughed. “Fine. But I take back that ‘signs of humanity’ remark. You’re as much of an asshole as ever.”
El had thought he was watching the kids because Rosa had to work, but when he showed up at her house at 6:30, he found her wearing tight black jeans and high-heeled boots and displaying a whole lot of cleavage. Not exactly the sort of thing she’d wear to wait tables, not even at Giuseppe’s.
“Christ, Rosa. Put on a sweater or something.”
She hooked her hands under her breasts and lifted them a bit. “Fuck off, bro.”
“You didn’t tell me it was a date.”
“You didn’t ask.”
True enough. The fact was, the less El thought about what his sister got up to, the better. He was sure the feeling was mutual. “Who is he this time?”
She turned away to study her hair in the mirror. “Somebody I met.”
“No shit, Captain Obvious. Where at?”
He sighed and sat down on her couch. “You got three kids by three different dads, and not one of those sperm donors is worth a damn. When you gonna learn?”
“Just because you don’t date doesn’t mean I can’t.” She pinched her cheeks and reached for a tube of lipstick. “I ain’t cut out to be a nun.”
Which meant El was a monk. Which wasn’t entirely off the mark, which annoyed the hell out of him. “Do you ever stop to think about where you’re going and what you’re doing? Do you ever think of the future? Your kids’ future, maybe with a stable male role model in the picture?”
She bared her teeth at him in the mirror. “Oh, but sweetheart, if they need a male stick-in-the-mud, they can look to Uncle Emanuel.” She yelled down the hallway, “Let’s go, kids. I got places to be.”
“And men to do,” El said under his breath.
The only acknowledgement El received was a middle finger flipped his way.
“What do you care that she’s on a date?” Denver asked El two hours later as they loaded clothes into side-by-side washing machines.
El glanced around to make sure Rosa’s kids weren’t listening. They weren’t. They were running around the laundromat, playing hide-and-seek among the tables and chairs. The only other person around was a young woman wearing skin-tight sweatpants with Greek letters across her ass. She had on headphones and was handily ignoring the world.
“It’s not that it’s a date,” El told Denver. “It’s that she’s being an idiot.”
Denver slammed the door to his washer and glanced sideways at El as he thumbed quarters into the machine. “You’re the most judgmental person I know.”
“It’s not my fault people are stupid.”
“Am I included in that assessment, Mr. Genius?”
El sighed and slammed his own washer shut. “Look. When she’s hurt and crying because another loser has left, she comes clean and tells me what she really wants. She says she wants a nice guy who’ll settle down with her. Take care of her and take care of the kids. Come to family dinners and help Abuela when she needs it. Somebody who’ll be part of the family.”
“Makes sense.” Denver shrugged and glanced down at the floor, his voice gruff as he added, “Nothing wrong with wanting that.”
“I’m not saying it’s wrong. But look at it this way: you work at Lights Out. Biggest, gayest club in town, right?”
“And you’re standing here saying you wouldn’t mind finding somebody to settle down with, right?”
Denver’s jaw tensed and he took a step back. “I never said—”
“My point is, you have a couple hundred gay boys to pick from every night. But you don’t.”
Denver relaxed a bit, probably because he knew El wasn’t about to hound him on the settling down thing. “Club’s nothing but college boys looking to get laid.”
“Exactly.” El turned away to put his money into the slots. “Men in the straight clubs are no different. She meets these guys at the bar, takes them home within a week, then wonders why they turn out to be losers.”
“Where’s she supposed to meet them?”
“I don’t know. PTA meetings. Church. The grocery store.” El waved his hands to indicate the walls around them. “The fucking laundromat.”
Denver snorted. “I take it she don’t go to those places?”
“She does, actually, and guys ask her out, but you know what she says? She says they’re old or they’re fat. Or maybe they’re going bald. So she keeps choosing these drunken asshats at the bar, then wondering why they don’t turn out to be Mr. Right.”
“You think Mr. Right’s hanging out at Tucker Laund-O-Rama?”
Of course, when he said it that way, it sounded pretty stupid. “Maybe. Yeah.”
Denver raised his eyebrows. “Do me a favor, El. Let me know when he walks in the door.”