11 March 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 1
I first saw Priscilla at the pawnshop, as the Arizona sun reddened the sky with a rash. It was just before closing. She looked Jamaican to me but maybe I was homesick. Still, something was familiar about her—the gapped teeth, the regal posture, the locked hair she'd tied in an upsweep that resembled a bird's nest. Respectable is how she struck me, unlike our usual female customers with the belly out and the low-rise jeans that show the top of their underwear, underwear that ain't even real, mind you, but the G-string chicks wear these days. When I first come to the States, only erotic dancers wore that sort of thing. Today, even the college girls that I've dated wear panty strings.
But Priscilla's skirt come to her knees. Her blouse was modest, a button-down loose-fitting deal which you never see on women today. That let me know it was not brand new. So I think, maybe her money is a little tight, maybe she spends her money on drugs. Carney, the shop owner, says this about many of our customers.
See the one with the dirty hair? he'll say leaning in close, She's a tweaker. She's here getting money to buy crystal meth.
He says that Phoenix has a huge meth problem, that everyone uses it. He read that in the newspaper. So now he judges them that come in and look like they might use. But he doesn't really know. And the truth is this: drug addicts are damned good for the pawnshop business.
What can I do for you? I asked her. The other employees had all gone. She looked in my eyes trying to appear fearless but her eyes were soft, which I liked.
I'm interested in selling some jewelry, she said.
Let me see what you have, I told her.
Carney was counting money behind the darkened glass. It was almost time to go home.
She pulled out a zipper sandwich bag and inside of it were two rings made of white gold. One was a simple band made for a man, and the other one was a woman's ring with a clear, round diamond. She watched me as I turned the gold circles between my fingers. I could feel her tremble inside, deep down where she thought nobody could see. It's all a performance, you understand. I pretend to assess the value, and the customer, if she's wise, will begin to talk up the value by telling me the jewelry is an heirloom or whatnot. None of this matters. What matters is whether we'll get more money from a loan or from resale. This requires a quick reading of the customer. I could tell that Priscilla would sell at a low price.
I pretended to note imperfections in the diamond but I didn't use the jeweler's loupe because that seems over the top to me. I mean, come on, I'm not a jeweler; I don't look like one. I get Dude, you look like Ziggy Marley, because of my dreads and reddish complexion but I could never pass for a diamond expert, you see. Besides, I'm nearsighted and to use the loupe you must remove your glasses and I can't see a thing without them. Carney's got bad eyes too, but he says he's getting laser surgery. He'll do anything to make the girls think he is young.
I asked her to wait while I went in the back. You gotta see these rings, man, I said.
Carney peered at Priscilla through the one-way glass. Just offer her two and let's go, he said with his typical Irish bluster. But before I could do that, he brushed past me and walked to the counter in the store. He looked at the rings. He cleaned the diamond, measured it, weighed it. I can loan you four-fifty, he said. Priscilla laughed. She had a real sensuous mouth, wide and protruding.
I have appraisal papers, she said. They say the diamond ring is worth thirty-four hundred dollars and the other ring is worth five hundred. She pulled out squares of paper and held them in her hand.
Yeah those are inflated figures, Carney said, appraisers do that shit all the time.
She was silent because she was not a dealmaker, you understand. She knew that she needed to negotiate but she didn't know how to do it. I have a sick child. I don't have time for this, she said.
Carney sighed. Are you looking for a loan or to sell?
I don't know. What's the difference?
Seven-fifty to sell. Four-fifty for a loan.
Okay, she said, let's do a sale. Carney walked to the back office.
What's wrong with your child? I asked.
There's always something with him.
The thing about this business is I see all kinds of people. Musicians. Students. Addicts. Housewives. I try to put a story to each customer. What made them come in? Why are they pawning a camera? Sometimes I wonder if it's even their camera but I don't ask questions because the law does not require it unless I know the object is stolen. So I just do my job each day but in my head, you know, I'm trying to figure out what has happened and why this person needs a loan at this time.
I've shared some of these stories with Tran. When I first met Priscilla, Tran lived in the apartment above mine with her husband and seven-year old son. They were immigrants, too, had moved here from Hanoi. They'd been here fewer years than me so I'd help them with questions they'd have about American customs. That's how I met Tran. The manager had just shown the family an apartment and had given them a contract to sign. I was coming in with groceries when Tran asked me to please explain the legal jargon that was in their agreement.
Tran visited when she was off work, I was off work, and her husband was at work, which wasn't often because we all worked most of the time. Tran worked at a bakery in the Willo district and a nail salon on 16th and Indian School. Back then I worked for Carney during the week and on weekends I bartended at a restaurant near the Biltmore. I had a few other hustles, too, nothing I liked to admit to or that I believed I'd be doing forever, but I was swindled by a business partner when I first come here and I was struggling, you know, to get back on my feet.
You know what I was thinking, Trevor? Tran says one day. I have nothing I can pawn. If I needed money right away I have nothing I can pawn.
You could sell the drum set, I said. Her boy's Rockwood Jr. sprawled in the front room of their apartment. It took up more space than their furniture.
He would cry, she said.
You could sell the DVDs.
Tran's husband collected movies. They were mostly gangster flicks but there were also bootlegged karate movies and the 1978 version of Dawn of the Dead.
How much I get for them? she asked.
Forty, maybe fifty bucks.
That's all? Tran said, That's not enough.
And this is true; we never give a customer what she hopes to receive. I see it all the time. The disappointment and compromise. The questions about what one is owed, what to keep, and what one can part with forever.
The deal with Priscilla, I guessed, was that her old man was away, that he'd hit bricks or maybe dude died, but in any case she was left to sell the one thing of value that she owned—their wedding rings. Probably thought she'd never part with them, that they would be wearing them on the Judgment Day. That's why she appeared contrite that night in the shop because that is what a hard decision does, it humbles you. I remember how she'd confessed her innocence to us, I don't know. What's the difference? she'd asked, and we'd taken advantage of her anyway, selling the rings for eighteen hundred dollars two weeks after her visit. First rule in this business is never show vulnerability. I wish she'd known that. These rocker kids—the ones with gauges and tattoos, addict pimples all over their face—they bluff a macho stance for cash all day long. They make me sick. Then along comes a woman who offers rings during a difficult time and she is so open about what she needs that it shook me up.
She returned in the fall when the weather was cooler and such. She wore a shapeless dress that day but it failed to hide the thickness of her hips and backside. Her hair was down which flattered her face and I could see the occasional gray hair tangled in a few of her dreads.
I was helping a samfi-man, some joker trying to pawn fake Rolex watches. Brother, these have no resale value, I told him then I made my way down the jewelry counter to her.
There are some women, like the ones I've served at the bar, who are fully aware of their power. Their faces are made up like peacock feathers and with every twitch of their barely-covered bodies, they entice the men who are always watching. These girls are fun to talk to. Then there are the ones like Priscilla. They enchant through sheer understatement.
Didn't expect to see you back in here.
I need to sell a guitar.
She showed me an acoustic Fender that was pretty in a slick, mass-produced sort of way.
Not anymore, a little bit in college.
Can I ask where you're from?
She raised her eyebrows to let me know that I'd invaded her privacy. I shrugged as apology. I thought you were West Indian maybe Jamaican, I said. You look like the women I knew in Kingston. It's the way that you stand. When I saw you the first time, I wanted to do whole puppalick.
She looked down at the floor. I was wrong. She wasn't Jamaican.
Puppalick means somersault like in celebration, I explained. Anyway, we can give you twenty dollars for the guitar. You could get more from Zucker's Guitars on Third. You should check with them, let me know if you get a better offer.
I wrote the store's address on a slip of paper. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Carney making his way over to where we were, to make sure that I wasn't stealing. He is paranoid that way. He thinks we want to steal money from him all the time, that we cut deals with the customers and take money off the top or that we have fences for friends and we direct his customers to them. Carney has a biker friend who wears his sideburns cut into crazy designs and Carney brings this guy in as a scare tactic when he thinks somebody is stealing. The guy never found reason to get in my face but that don't stop Carney from keeping an eye on me if I talk to a customer for too long.
I slid the address across the glass counter to show Carney that I had nothing to hide. I am smarter than him. I've learned to be smarter since the swindling.
Your kid better? I asked.
Sort of. We were in urgent care the other night, though.
Carney walked up to us wearing this disco-era shirt, his attempt to be a retro hipster.
Everything cool here? he asked.
We're cool, Boss Man, I said.
At the end of the evening only me and this Mexican kid, Skee, were left. Skee was new and Carney made him do shit work like dust the display merchandise and kill scorpions. Carney had locked the doors, and he and I were counting money in the showroom so that he could keep an eye on Skee.
Trevor, who was the broad with the guitar?
She was here this summer with the wedding bands. Remember?
I know that. Why was she back in here?
I don't know Boss Man, because she needs money?
You know what, Trevor? You're a dick.
You know, Carney, you should grow one.
Skee ambled about in his skinny-legged jeans trying to stay above our poppy-show.
I don't trust her.
I laughed. Like you trust anybody, I said.
At a quarter to eleven, we pulled iron gates over the doors and windows and set the alarm. Carney was weird about who could stay at closing because he didn't want everyone to know how the security system worked. I heard talk that the place had been robbed years ago when his father was the owner and that Carney had not been the same since then. Skee stood around biting his nails as Carney and I turned off lights and got the place right. When we finished, Carney let us out the back door.
Skee and I walked onto an empty parking lot that was next to an alley. Dude, Skee whispered to me, You skim money when you're counting? That's bad-ass.
He knew. Skee apparently had 20/20 vision. Hell no, I answered unswervingly, and Carney will fire your ass for thinking about stealing from him.
This made sense to him; he'd seen how paranoid Carney could be.
I unchained my bike and started the ride home. I like bike riding during the cool months because I get to see the desert close-up in a way that I never do when riding in a car. Besides, it saves me gas money for about seven months of the year. In central Phoenix, the avenues and neighborhoods are cramped and flat but there are fields near the mountains that are undeveloped, where the earth becomes hilly and the dust and gravel crunches under your wheels as you pedal along. There aren't any real paths only areas where the sagebrush or cactus don't grow, and that's where I ride, following the open spaces between the low lying shrubs, the mountains dark and silent all around.
I could see light coming from Tran's apartment. She'd taken the shade off the lamp again and from outside, the window framed a ball of white light that was muted by gauzy drapes she'd hung in the window. I locked my bike and climbed the stairs two at a time. My place was a mess inside. I'd forgotten to wash the dishes and the smell of dried spaghetti sauce was thick in the air.
I grabbed a beer and flopped onto the sofa. There were footsteps above me and muffled sounds from Tran's television. She agreed that we needed to stop seeing each other before shit got scary. Still, it was weird hearing her move around and not being able to see her or to smell the citrus oil that she wore.
She'd come by the first of October and we'd shared coffee and cigarettes together, trying to be friends. She loved her husband—I knew that—and honestly, I didn't like sneaking around, especially with her kid and all because he was intelligent, you know, you could see it in his eyes and who knows what he thought about me, what he saw when he looked at me, or what he would remember about me and his mom when he became a big boy and some random memory came floating up and caught him unaware.
Priscilla returned to the shop in late November. Zucker's had given her a better deal for her guitar and she was grateful.
She said she'd just stopped by to thank me and that she had to go because her son was waiting in the car. Through the window I could see a boy leaning on an old but clean Toyota. He had that lanky, fourteen-year-old look. He hadn't grown into his lips or feet yet, and his baggy shorts exposed his twiggy shins.
I'd imagined her son to be little, maybe because she'd spoken of him like he was defenseless, but he was clearly a teenager and he was listening to music, reciting words the way kids do, his cap perched at a cocky angle. He looked normal from a distance.
You like coffee?
You offering? She was smiling.
I don't make good coffee. I make good martinis because I bartend on the weekends. But I'd like to buy you a cup of coffee, you know, when you have the time.
Priscilla was an office clerk and I liked the way her tongue looked through her gap when she said the l's in her name. We linked up at a coffee shop one afternoon. The following week, we walked for hours through a shopping mall. I was embarrassed that our dates were so low budget but she didn't seem to mind. She wasn't a fussy girl, which I'd already known.
Priscilla and her son Jamal lived near South Mountain in a house on a weedy lot. Jamal's dad had been the sort who came and left as he pleased, but the previous year Priscilla had told him not to return. She had no idea where he was now. There was evidence of his time in the house—a couple of fist-sized holes in the wall.
Her boy had a limp that was caused, as far as I could tell, by one leg being shorter than the other. Priscilla said the leg was a congenital disorder but doctors weren't sure about other symptoms that he had. They were thinking food allergies, now. She could talk endlessly about his battles with digestion, headaches, common colds, and how he struggled to be a normal kid. One night, awakened by noise, I found her in the bathroom double-checking Jamal's medicines and prescriptions. Vials and bottles covered the bathroom counter. She looked scared.
I have to make sure he has all of his doses for tomorrow. If he misses just one, it could be a bad day, she said.
I loved how fiercely she protected Jamal, how she'd found the nerve to walk into Carney's pawnshop in order to provide for him. I'd met Carney during my bad years, too. I knew the courage that it took to sell your possessions.
When the holidays ended the pawnshop entered a sales slump. To keep busy, Carney made Skee go around spraying glass cleaner on the jewelry counters, store windows, glass door, but mostly we just hung out and talked a lot of shit. Skee was young but he was smart. On his days off he hung out at the public library reading blogs and downloading documentaries.
It began to rain for days in a row and plants were blooming in tiny bursts of color. As I'd ride through town I'd see yellow shoots from the Agave, and the tight, red buds of the Joshua Tree. Rainwater collected in fields creating muddy pools of water that I tried to dodge. Sometimes I'd hit these puddles head on; I wouldn't see them because my glasses were fogged from the weather. When I'd get home, I'd have to spray my bike with a hose to remove the red dirt. I'd wash the bike, take a shower, and then I'd go out again to meet up with Priscilla.
I was spending a lot of time away from my apartment so I didn't notice the messages at first. I had two voicemails that were a week old when I finally played them. The woman's voice was pleasant despite the official tone and her name, Marisel, I liked. But when she said she was with the State of Arizona, I deleted both messages before she could finish.
As I erased messages, rain fell outside in a steady drizzle. I could hear Tran's boy practicing a swing pattern on his drums which meant that his old man—who hated the noise—wasn't there. Soon, Tran was at my door to borrow cigarettes. Her hair looked like she'd just washed and blown it dry.
Sorry, I'm out, I said. I stood in my doorway so as not to invite her inside.
That's not like you to run out of cigarettes.
She fiddled while I stood. I let her remark dangle.
Sometimes a customer at a bar gets drunk enough to tell me his story. What he says is not true, in fact, it is always bullshit because drunkenness does not inspire honesty but bravado. And so the insurance adjuster becomes a corporate executive or the music teacher brags about playing at The House of Blues which may be true, but the story of who they really are, of how they struggle to pay their phone bills, gets left out of the storytelling.
One time a guy come into the Biltmore bar saying that he knew the answer to that unsolved mystery—who shot Biggie Smalls?—and he was dressed like a rapper, you know, had large diamonds in his ears and the platinum and such and this is a bar where mostly professionals hang out after leaving the office so they were awed that this guy could buy several rounds of drinks and they listened to him and asked him questions and he left the bar with a chick who had silicone tits.
What I see in Priscilla is the opposite of all that. I don't care what others may think about her. I see how adversity has made her more authentic, more beautiful. It has warped her, too, as it has me, but no one makes it through life without some harm.
The phone rang early on a Saturday and I answered thinking it was Priscilla. It was Marisel again. She said she was Jamal's caseworker.
—Is he in some kind of trouble?
—No. I'm assigned to keep track of Jamal's circumstances. Are you available to answer a few questions?
—How'd you get my number?
—Priscilla Johnson, his mother. She didn't tell you?
—She may have told me and I forgot.
—You won't mind giving me a minute of your time then?
I didn't respond but she jumped right in, running through the usual social worker stuff. I gave her the friend-of-the-family angle. I even hinted that I was mentoring Jamal. I was careful on this last part, though. At a bar when a customer is lying his story has too many details.
But nothing seemed to impress her and that concerned me a bit.
—Marisel, I have to tell you, Jamal is a pretty happy kid.
—And you base that on?
—The usual stuff. His mom does right by him.
Upstairs I could hear Tran's family making their morning sounds. Running water. Television. Clink of dishes. Tran and her husband were arguing in Vietnamese, a language that I don't understand.
—And Jamal's health?
—What about it?
—From what you've observed, any protracted illnesses, maybe missing school a lot?
—Maybe a day here and there. He does have the leg thing, you know.
—Of course. Would you consider his mother's concern appropriate at these times?
It was a good question.
—There's nothing Priscilla wouldn't do for her son, Marisel. Every kid should have a mother like her.
I hung up.
I suppose I could have become anxious about the phone call or what I imagined was in Jamal's file. Instead, I felt struck as if by the familiar. So Priscilla wasn't like women from home after all. She was like me: broken in a very serious way. I sat and watched the rain, which comes during one season if it comes at all.
Later, Tran came by to return a borrowed cooking pot. She said her husband suspected our affair.
We're moving to Glendale because of it, she said.
I touched her shoulder. I wanted to say something that would redeem us but there were no words for lives like ours. We had cheated to feel fortunate for once.
The next day I took Priscilla and Jamal to the racetrack near Gila River Casino. The sun was out. You could see the snow-capped mountains and it was one of those days when the desert feels like a blessing. We watched the cars race around piled tires, the sun beaming down on their neon-colored frames, the engines like a swarm of bees in our ears.
Jamal climbed the spectator stand swinging his bum leg. He looked like an old man. He was headed to the top but his mother didn't want him that high.
What's wrong with watching from here? she asked him.
'Cause I don't wanna sit that close.
I don't think you should climb all the way up there.
You'll be talking about your leg bothering you.
He'll be okay, I said.
There weren't many people who showed up, maybe thirty in all. They were relatives of the amateur racers or people like us who had little else to do on a Sunday morning. Most of us clumped together in the midsection of the stand but Jamal stayed at the top, listening to his music. After a while, other boys joined him and I could see them, when I glanced over my shoulder, sharing their headphones and talking smack the way young boys will do.
Who is he talking to? Priscilla asked at one point.
I pulled her hand to my mouth and gave it a playful bite. The boy's alright, I said, Give him some space. She smiled. I could see how hard it was for her to let go.
I took them home after the race and then rode my bike to work. I mentioned the caseworker in a conversation with Skee. I told him how she seemed to question Priscilla's motives for doting on Jamal. I described his various medicines. Skee said he'd seen a documentary about a woman who'd sent her kid to the hospital sixty-two times before someone suspected that something was wrong. It was some sick shit, he said. I mean, this woman actually poisoned her daughter sixty-two times. Maybe your lady-friend is poisoning her kid, Skee laughed.
Yeah, that's it, I said with false irony.
I knew then that I'd stay with Priscilla. I'd help her get a hold of her life and see that Jamal was her one good thing. I figured that I could be valuable to her in time. I would change jobs, earn more, settle a bit.
Carney interrupted us, told us business was slow and that we should go home early. Any other day I would have cussed Carney good for cutting my hours without notice but that day I just left, grabbed my bike, and hooked it to the front of the Valley Metro bus that I would ride home. As the bus got crowded I offered my seat to this rocker kid.
When I got home, I washed dishes and folded clothes that were piled on my bed. I felt inspired to clean the apartment and so I did, throwing out the inexpensive, secondhand objects I'd collected over the years. When Priscilla came by later that evening she found me there as I'd promised. We ate leftover pizza then we made love on the couch. The rough fabric scratched our knees and elbows. It left raw spots that would scab by morning.
About the author:
Renee Simms was born in Detroit, has lived in L.A. and currently resides in Phoenix. A former Cave Canem fellow and PEN Center fellow, she has published extensively in literary journals and anthologies. She leads writing workshops for educators and underserved students in Arizona.