And Norma Nelson Turned Over

It’s the third day in May, and after another crush of people trying to make rent, our shop is bursting at the seams again. I set about rearranging the jewelry – an intimate act for these particular items that didn’t officially belong to the shop. Not yet. Even though the customers here weren’t the kind who could produce the money to repay their loan, it never felt right manhandling their gold necklaces and rings. So, I rotate them gently, and rotate the watches too, knowing sun damage down here was about as likely as a buyback.

The owner appreciated my delicate touch. When he passed, his son, Mateo Jr., took over. Mateo thinks I waste too much time on things that don’t belong to anyone anymore. But when I think about what I would pawn if I ever had to, and I think about Mateo’s hands fingering my grandmother’s typewriter, I rotate another watch.

We see familiar faces down here, but even then, the chit chat is kept to a minimum, our interactions just as transactional as the deed itself. I guess they’re too embarrassed as they sell things off for quick cash – even our repeats. Mateo says people just have too much to do. But the lack of conversation doesn’t bother me because I’m not sure which is more embarrassing: pawning your stuff or low-balling someone in need. Silence is a mutual arrangement.

For whatever reason, Wednesdays are our slow days, so I take the time to get things in order, even though my attempts at organization usually fall apart within a week. Mateo didn’t care if the keyboards were displayed beside the toasters and vacuum cleaners, said people would find what they were looking for. That’s how the shop ended up with a blended electronics and household items section, and a heap of distressed watches cheaply glittering under stacks of gold chains in a double-locked case.

Our first customer of the day walks in at half past two. A smallish woman with a kid in tow. She obviously isn’t here to pawn her kid, but the thought gets me wondering if anyone’s ever tried to, and that gives me chills.

This place makes you wonder what people are truly willing to part with when they’re desperate. On slow days, you wonder what the limit is, and you find there is none because you’re surrounded by things people were too broke to hold onto, and too broke to buy back. No one came back for their stuff. The initial denial was the worst part. Even when we tell them they’d make more if they’d just sell outright, people always took the loan, thinking they’d repay it one day. And then when they did come back, it was always with more stuff to sell. Every transaction began the same way, with the customer clinging to some grand idea that their path would be different. That they could pass down their precious things to their children. But working here taught me that only rich people got to pass things down to their children or donate stuff for tax breaks. Poor people had to pawn just to pay their bills on time.

Mateo invented a game where we try to guess the item being pawned by the appearance of the customer. I’m ashamed to admit I play along, but I can’t help myself. Is the beefy dude with the Mavs jersey pawning jewelry? Or did he pull off a stunner and bring in something more obscure, like a first edition Charizard Pokémon card in mint condition. Probably the gold. Or a watch. We get a lot of watches.

I take stock of our customer now, the woman with her kid, and try to guess her pawn. She makes a beeline for the counter, dragging her kid along, and goes straight for Mateo. Probably thinking he’d give her a better deal for what she was selling. My valuations were typically in line with his, though, and on the rare occasion we didn’t know something’s worth, our system would spit out the number. Everything went through the same process. It’d make no difference who she picked in the end.

She doesn’t have a backpack, so her pawn can’t be big. My guess is a ring. Probably a fake diamond some ex told her was real just so we could be the ones to tell her it wasn’t. I’m glad Mateo has to do it. I don’t feel like being in the way of someone paying their light bill today and Mateo never cared much about stuff like that.

After telling her daughter she can’t have the red roller skates, the woman pulls out a small box from her purse. Mateo and I exchange glances to confirm that we’re both right. After years, we’d developed some handy non-verbal cues: elbows on the counter meant keep an eye out for lifters, handshakes were for repeat customers, a flat hand on the counter meant get the strap just in case.

Today Mateo has half a pretzel in one hand and a plastic tray of cheese sauce in the other, so any hand signals would likely be messier. He puts the sauce down when the woman offers something that belonged to her mother. He has a tough time opening the case, so he shoves the wet end of the pretzel into his mouth to free his hand.

And then he makes a face I’d never seen before. He doesn’t remove whatever it is, but instead turns the box this way and that to try and catch it in some better light. At one point, he even bothers to take the pretzel out of his mouth, giving the pawn his full attention.

He tells the woman he needs time to run it through the system, saying something about finding the proper category, and then tells her she’d probably make more if she just sold it. But the woman says it’s only for a loan – short term – and that she’ll be back for it. Mateo nods sideways, the box at eye level. He slaps the lid closed and flags me over. He never flags me over.

He places the box in my hand with a shrug and returns to his lunch. The box has a weight to it I hadn’t expected, and I too struggle a bit to pull the lid open. But when I finally do open it, the air gets shoved down my chest. I have no words for what I see nestled there atop the cotton fluff. I have no image to recall and no name to go with it, but my tongue feels big like it was starting to crowd my teeth. I strain like Mateo to get the right angle, but the more I strain, the less it shows. I end up turning it round and round just like him until its weight seems to double, and I swear to God if I’d been brave enough to touch it, it would have been hot.


This one, the other, it didn’t really matter. Him of the greasy fingers or him of the lazy eye that forced all the way open when he saw. She made sure her daughter paid attention. No time for skating today. She needed her to see this exchange. Made sure the girl watched the way this one’s voice stalled and seized in his throat. This one knew. Blink and miss the way his hand trembled. Or the careful way he set the box down and took two steps back, like he knew he shouldn’t touch what he had no numbers for—disbelief and labored meditation clear in his one-and-a-half eyes. She reminded him again that she’d be back for it, even though she was sure he knew that too.


 Parrissa Eyorokon is the queer, mixed race (Black and Persian) daughter of two immigrants. As a recent graduate from Bowling Green State’s master’s in English program where she also earned her creative writing certificate, Parrissa is taking time to dedicate more to her craft. She has no previous publications.