Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Thousand Words to Tell the Tale

The pawnbroker used a short stepladder to reach the silver-framed photograph I'd asked for. He held it two-handed as he stood atop the ladder and didn't let go, even when the ladder wobbled as he descended to the floor.

He let loose a shaky rattle of a breath when the slick soles of his scuffed loafers settled on the beige-flecked tile of terra firma, but he kept the frame clasped to his chest. Like it was worth something. Like it wasn't just some cheap family tchochke great aunt Amity's junkie nephew had stolen and pawned to get a fix.

In this neighborhood, the drugs changed, but the story never did.

"How much?"

"It's hard to say." The pawnbroker scratched his liver-spotted scalp with one careful finger, as if he still had hair and was afraid of messing it up.

"There's a tag on it, ain't there?"

He flipped the frame over and squinted at the yellowed bit of paper pasted on the black cardboard flap stand. The old man squinted at the hand-written price, but I could read it just fine.

"Fifty cents. I'll take it."

"Not so fast." He held out a hand, like the Supremes telling me to Stop! In the Name of Love, but he couldn't get his knobby elbow straight. The palm of his big-knuckled hand was crisscrossed with more lines than a Los Angeles freeway map.

I wondered if he’d ever had his palm read. I imagined the fortune-teller—some turban-topped charlatan with kohl gumming up the wrinkles round her rheumy eyes, and a sham accent that sounded like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Pepe LePew.

“You vill die young,” she would have said, her smoker’s wheeze adding a shadow of death to an otherwise rote recitation of impending doom. “I see it in your lifeline, yes?” She stabs her stubby finger into the center of his hand like she means to pound it through to the table beneath. “Very short.”

He would have laughed it off. I could see him as a young man, thick hair slicked back, blue eyes bright with confidence—no, arrogance. He would have been a looker. Before his wrinkled lids started to sag like curtains falling on an empty stage, he would have had bedroom eyes.

He would have been the kind of man who made you think he could see through your clothes when he looked at you across the room. And then the flash of smile, the slow wink when he caught your glare that made you think he was mischievous instead of perverted. That made you think it might not be so bad if he did see you naked.

He still used that look now, only it didn’t work with wrinkles and false teeth. He’d given me that look when I walked into the store, and I’d curved my hand into a fist at my side because I’d wanted to slap the smile off his face. Stupid old perv.

But then I’d seen the photograph, faded gray in a tarnished silver frame. It was sitting in a decade of dust on the shelf above the brass-backed cash register. I’d asked for it, and held my breath as he’d hobbled up the old stepladder to retrieve it.

Which brings me back to now. And the old perv telling my tits—and, by association, me—that the price was higher than what the tag said.

“Five dollars.” His hand still wavered in the air above the counter, like he’d forgotten it was there.

“Nah-uh.” I shook my head. “State law says you got to charge the prices as marked.”

“I haven’t hand-priced a damned thing in this store for twenty years. The price on the tag’s just out of date.”

“That’s your problem. I’ll give you fifty cents.”

He raised his chin so he could look up at my face from beneath those hound-dog wrinkles. “What do you want it for, anyway? The frame’s silver-plate, and the people in the photo are ugly.”

“Some salesman you are.”

“Just curious.”

I shrugged. “I’m a writer. I collect things—pieces of other people’s lives. It helps me imagine stories.”

“And this picture?”

Too late, I saw where he was going. “It’s interesting.”

“Is it worth a thousand words?”

“I try to stay away from clich├ęs. Bad for business, you know?”

“Like writer’s block is bad for business?” His cloudy eyes narrowed. “You’re out walking after dark in this neighborhood. It snowed last night, and the wind is cold enough to freeze the slush to solid ice right now. It’s a good night to be inside, writing.”

“It’s invigorating. I like the cold air.”

“And the crime.”

“That, too.”

“Come off it. You want the picture or not?”

“Sure.” I reached into my pocket. “Here’s fifty cents.”

“Nah-uh.” The non-word negative sounded strange coming out of his mouth. Childish, and just a little mean. “Words are tough to come by right now. How much would you pay for a thousand ‘em?”

I pulled out my wallet and slapped down a five. “All right. Five dollars.”

He just let the bill lay there like the half-dead rat a cat brings in when it’s feeling generous and wants to share. The cat thinks it’s impressive, but all you can think about is the best way to get the rat into the trash without touching it.

“Ten dollars.”

I glanced over at the photo. A stern-faced mother with a fresh permanent in her graying hair and a too-tight rayon dress stared out of the frame like a Vaudevillian staring down a heckler. A little girl with a square jaw sat in a wicker chair beside her. The girl was an unwilling, unlikely Shirley Temple; sturdy and solemn, smothered in bows and ruffles, her thin hair tortured into limp curls.

There was a story here.

I slapped down another five and snatched the frame.

“A thousand words,” he yelled as I rushed out through the grubby glass door and into the cold, dark night.