When Bill Berner walked through the door as the first customer of the
day, I should have read it as a dark omen, a signal from fate itself, a
stern warning to lock the door and head back to the house in abject
surrender. Don't get me wrong: Bill's not a bad guy, and I doubt he has
an evil bone in his body. But he is one of the most irritating people on
the planet. The kind of customer you'd rather encounter mid-day. Not in
the dream melt of morning, and certainly not before you've armor-coated
your psyche with caffeine. Not the end of the day when you're
brain-fried, either. Mid-day.
Like many of our regular pawners, Bill is unemployed. He lives on a
confusing amalgam of government checks, government programs, and the
occasional nuisance settlement from his portfolio of lawsuits. It's
disconcerting to look at Bill because one eye points vaguely at you
while the other targets the Taco Bell across the street. They're a bit
beady and they ride atop a fat nose and shrunken mouth that is for the
most part devoid of teeth. He has a perpetual three- to ten-day growth
of stubble, and he shaves and bathes with the same frequency.
"Come in, Bill," I said, the resonant tones of the door chime still
hanging in the air.
"Need to borrow a little money." He had a greasy hydraulic jack in his
left hand and a plastic bag stuffed with videotapes in the right, a
typical Bill Berner pawn. Low dollar items trending toward junky, the
sort of things a metro pawn shop wouldn't fool with. In the small towns,
though, we have to be a little less selective. Bill ambled to a stop and
put his goods on the pawn counter.
"How much?" I said.
One eye swung my way, overshot the mark, then pulled back and drifted a
bit before settling down and targeting my forehead. "I need fifty."
"You need coffee."
I said nothing.
"Twenty bucks, Bill. Just like last time. And the time before that."
"It's a nice jack."
"It's a butt-ugly piece of crap with no handle and not another pawn shop
in Mississippi would take it."
"Does too have a handle."
"Rusty screwdrivers don't count. You want the twenty?"
"You said twenty!"
"You didn't want the twenty."
"Give me the twenty."
This is the way the pawn game is played, day after week after
millennium. They want to borrow more. I want to loan less. They have sad
stories, most of which contain about as much truth as an Oliver Stone
movie. We haggle and moan, and a transaction takes place more often than
Twenty years ago, friends and family called me crazy for choosing the
pawn business. I had a bachelor's degree in business administration from
Ole Miss, and had gotten several good job offers coming out of school,
but none of them appealed to me.
"Those things are nothing but fronts, places where people take stolen
goods so they can buy their dope," the esteemed Judge Grayson Bolton,
aka my father, had proclaimed. He never approved any idea that wasn't
his own, and his scorn only cemented my resolve. It was also the
beginning of the end of our relationship.
"They take advantage of the poor. Unconscionable, just unconscionable,"
was the summary from my Uncle Walt, professor and dean of some obscure
philosophical curriculum at some arcane little New England college.
A litany of similar warnings flowed in from up and down the family tree
and all around the circle of friends, but I've never been one to let
others do my thinking. I did my research and decided it was a business
as legitimate as any other, and one with the potential to provide a
semi-lucrative living right here in Montello, where I wanted to be. To
top it off, it looked like a hell of a lot of fun.
And it was.
Then the routine set in. The Bill Berners. The countless others like
him, the same handful of perpetual hard-luck tales wrapped in slightly
different circumstances and regurgitated ad nauseum. Milk for the baby.
Medicine for dear old Mama. I used to smile and shake my head as they
walked the milk money into the liquor store across the street. It wasn't
funny anymore, just very boring.
I keyed Bill's loan into the computer, and handed him the ticket to
sign. I made a point to do everything really fast, trying to project the
message that I was oh so busy this day. He took his copy of the ticket,
worked his toothless mouth around a bit, and re-acquired me with that
eye. Bill loves to tell jokes, none of which are funny. No, it's worse
than that. They're so un-funny you can't even make yourself laugh. He
was determined to tell one that morning, and I was just as determined
not to hear it. Showdown. He opened his mouth, drew a breath--
DING DONG, said the door chime as another customer walked in. "Come in,"
"Come in, sir," LungFao said. LungFao's real name is Larry. LungFao is
blond, caucasian, and tall, and my reason for calling him LungFao
wouldn't make the slightest sense, so I'll not get into that. He's the
assistant manager of Gray's Green Cash, Montello's finest pawn shop.
Bill's face sagged in defeat and he shuffled toward the door, no doubt
shooting the newcomer a look with one of his eyes as they passed.
"Can I help you?" I said to the newcomer, a guy I'd never seen before.
It was early, I hadn't had so much as a swallow of coffee, and I had
already done business with Bill Berner. All those elements combined to
weaken my senses, and I had just made the worst mistake of my life.
Excerpted from "Pawnbroker [Kindle Edition]" by Jerry Hatchett. Copyright © 2012 by Jerry Hatchett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.