THE PAWNSHOP was northeast of the mall, a block east of Nick’s office. I found the owner sitting in exactly the same spot—feet on the counter, cigarette drooping from his mouth, magazine in his hand. He raised his eyebrows at me.
“I’m afraid so.” I pulled out the box and placed it on the counter. “I need to return this.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and rubbed the back of his head with his other hand.
“I don’t normally take returns. That’s sort of counter to how pawnshops work, you know?”
No, I didn’t know. I felt a blush creeping up my cheeks.
He took his feet off the counter and tossed his magazine aside. “Lucky for you, I have a soft spot for gingers.”
That made me blush even more, and I automatically reached up to touch my own hair. I’d described it on my driver’s license as light brown, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been called a redhead.
He seemed unaware of my discomfort. He reached out and took the box, opening it to check the necklace.
“Girlfriend didn’t like it?”
“It’s probably more accurate to say that she doesn’t like me. Not anymore.”
His eyebrows went up again, and he stared at me, not as if he were unsure what to say but as if he had several options and was debating between them. I rubbed my forehead and wished I could take the statement back. Nothing like blurting out uncomfortable truths to total strangers. “Can I get a refund or not?”
“I’m going to do you one better than that, my friend. I’m going to buy you a drink.”
THE PAWNSHOP owner had long legs and an even longer stride, and I had to hurry to keep up with him. “What’s your name?” I asked as we turned the corner and headed east.
“Emanuel. But this ain’t Walnut Grove, my friend, so don’t even think about calling me Manny.”
“My friends call me El. You the kind of guy who’s gonna freak out if I take you into the gay bar?”
“No.” I’d never been in one, but that didn’t mean I was opposed. “I don’t dance, though.”
He laughed. “Good. That makes two of us.”
Lights Out stood at the end of the block. It wasn’t the only gay bar in the Light District, but it was certainly the loudest. Rainbow flags flew above the door, and the bass from dance music boomed when he opened the door and led me in. Inside was a bouncer who made the Jolly Green Giant look like a sprout. He flexed arms the size of fire hydrants as he smiled at El.
“Look who got out from behind the counter, and not to do laundry.” He pounded Emanuel’s shoulder with a hand as big as my head. “Must have had a rough day.”
“Not me. Him.” Emanuel hooked a thumb my direction.
Paul Bunyan looked back at me, first in surprise, then with obvious curiosity. He smirked and raised a questioning eyebrow at Emanuel.
“Don’t even start,” El said.
The big man laughed and moved aside to let us in. He didn’t take his eyes off me, though. I was sure I could feel myself shrinking as I squeezed past him into the club.
It seemed like a meat market, which worried me a bit. I hadn’t wanted to seem rude about being taken to a gay bar, but now that I was in one, I felt more than a little exposed. It was one thing for someone to mistake me for gay by accident—which had happened, even when Stacey and I had been out together—but to be at a gay bar seemed to invite speculation I wasn’t interested in courting.
I was trying to think of an excuse to leave, but El led me up a flight of stairs before I could work up to the act. The second floor was quieter and a lot smaller, with only a few patrons visible, each of them with local all but stamped on their foreheads as they hunched over their drinks at the bar.
El motioned to the bartender, who was chatting with a customer at the other end of the bar. The bartender came over and grinned at El, extending his hand. “Good to see you, El. What brings you out of your dusty old shop today?”
El shook his hand and gestured between us. “Paul, this is Jase, who owns this firetrap of a bar. Jase, this is Paul, who’s had a very bad day.”
“Pleased to meet you, Paul. What are you drinking?” Jase asked me.
“Uh….” I hardly ever drank, and I had no idea what to ask for.
El waved his hand at me dismissively. “Two 90 Shillings for me, and whatever guys like him drink.”
The bartender looked me up and down with an appraising eye that made me blush. “He looks like the rum and Coke type to me.”
El looked me up and down too. Unlike me, he seemed completely unembarrassed. “Better make it a tall.”
The bartender laughed, and the next thing I knew, I had a drink in my hand.
“Patio open tonight?”
“For you, it’s always open.”
Emanuel handed him a ten-dollar tip. “Thanks, Jase.”
I followed him away from the bar, down a narrow hallway, past the bathrooms, through a door marked Employees Only, then up a dark, steep flight of stairs and through a doorway.
We emerged onto the roof of the bar. The beat of the music was still discernible, more as a vibration against the soles of my feet than a sound in my ears. The Light District spread out below us, and the bright white lights of downtown seemed perfect under the orange glow of the sunset.
There were two small round tables, each with a couple of metal patio chairs.
“The smoking ordinances in this town are almost enough to make me quit.” He pulled his pack out of his shirt pocket and grinned at me as he sat down. “Almost.”
I sat down opposite him and watched as he lit a cigarette and slipped his lighter back into his pocket.
“So,” he said as he propped one booted foot up on the table, “tell me about your girl.”
My cheeks burned. Why was he asking about that? I’d only just learned his name. It seemed a bit soon to be talking about Stacey, but he was staring right at me, his expression guarded, though not unfriendly. He seemed interested, and yet not in a nosey kind of way. I suspected he was older than me by a few years, though most of that came from the impression he gave of having seen everything at least once, like nothing in the world could surprise him.
“Stacey and I met in college,” I said at last. “At CSU. We were only nineteen.” She was the only woman I’d ever been with. In fact, other than a few nervous fumbling high school encounters with one of the neighbor boys, she was the only sexual partner I’d ever had at all, but I didn’t feel compelled to share that with Emanuel.
“She’s an artist. A welder. She makes these big metal sculptures, and she wanted to move here—”
“Of course she did. What artist doesn’t want to move to Hacktown?”
I blinked at the derogatory nickname for the Light District, having only heard it a few times, usually from locals making fun of it. It surprised me coming from El, because I wouldn’t have suspected him of disliking art. Then I realized he was disliking Stacey more than anything. I couldn’t decide if that made me feel defensive for her or pleased that he was dissing my ex.
He waved his hand to send his cigarette smoke floating the other way instead of into my face. “So what happened?”
“We broke up. Two months ago.”
“I take it that wasn’t your idea.”
“No. She left me for somebody else. He’s an art professor at Tucker U.”
I stopped and took a giant drink. El continued to watch me. The fading orange light from the west glowed against the side of his face and left the other side in shadow.
“I gave her everything,” I said. It seemed stupid to reveal so much to him, and yet suddenly, I had to say it. I longed to tell somebody my side of the story, not to justify anything but to get it out. To purge it. I hadn’t yet told my parents that Stacey had left me. I’d been too embarrassed to talk to Nick about it in any kind of detail. Every other person I knew in Tucker Springs was more Stacey’s friend than mine. There’d been absolutely nobody for me to talk to about it. Until now.
“Nothing was ever good enough. I planned to be a veterinarian, and she liked that. Somehow that was respectable, I guess. I did fine in undergrad, but I failed out of vet school, and everything went downhill from that point on.” Looking back, I wondered if she’d decided right then that I’d never be good enough. Maybe she hadn’t even quite been aware of it herself, but I was pretty sure she’d never felt the same about me after that.
“She’s one of those people who grew up playing tennis, you know?” I went on. “And golf at the country club. And she wants that life, but she wants to be an artist too, which means she has to marry well. And I no longer qualify. So now I’m stuck here, with eighteen months left on a lease in a house where I can’t have pets. Every credit card I have is maxed out because she had to have every damn thing she ever saw. I still have student loans to pay back, which I can’t help but think would be less or already taken care of if we hadn’t been so busy paying for everything she wanted. And for some goddamn stupid reason I can’t even explain to myself, I still want her back.”
I tipped my drink back and gulped it all down. I didn’t look at him. I set the glass on the table and stared at it rather than face whatever might be in his eyes. “That’s why I bought the necklace.”
He was quiet, but after a few seconds of contemplative silence, he took his foot off the table. For one second I thought he was going to stand up, but he didn’t. He crushed his cigarette butt out in the ashtray between us, then leaned his elbows on the table to stare at me. “You know what the root of all evil is?”
I blinked at him, trying to figure out where he was going with the question. “Money?”
“No, man. It’s stuff. Possessions. Things. All that crap money buys. All the shit we tell ourselves we need. You have any idea how many people come into my shop every week and they got to trade in some gadget so they can pay the rent? The thing is, you ask them, ‘Did you know rent was due?’ Of course they did. ‘Did you realize you didn’t have another payday between now and then?’ Yeah, they knew that too. ‘So why’d you decide to drop nine hundred on an iPad?’ And they don’t got an answer, and if they do, it’s something ridiculous. It’s new. It’s hip. It’s shiny. It’s loud. Their neighbor has one, or their sister, or their boss, and they can’t stand to let others have things they don’t. They’re so afraid of what others might think. Their kid is sitting there in a dirty diaper and a T-shirt two sizes too small. Thirty degrees outside and they didn’t bother to put pants on the poor kid, let alone socks and a jacket, but they drove right down to Best Buy the minute it opened to buy the newest Xbox, and now they’re scratching their heads wondering why they can’t pay for heat.
“You fell into it, Paul. Into the mindset. Into the lie. But it’s not just you. Not just Stacey either. It’s almost every other red-blooded American out there. Now you’re at the end of it, and you can’t beat yourself up. There’s no point in punishing yourself, because it’s over. The thing is, now you know the way out.”
“I do?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if it was the alcohol or him that had me confused.
I sat there, stunned, baffled, a bit amused. I had several questions I wanted to ask, not least of which was “What the hell are you talking about?” What I ended up saying was, “Why are you doing this?”
“Hanging out with me. Buying me drinks.”
“Is it that much of a mystery?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
A ghost of a smile played over his full lips. He raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not worried about the fact I brought you to a gay bar?”
Alarm bells went off in my head, but I chastised myself. Surely he was just teasing me. “Should I be?”
This time he really did smile, a mischievous one that caused butterflies to take flight in my chest. When was the last time somebody had bothered to flirt with me? Even as a joke?
Emanuel slid one of his two untouched beers my way. “Here,” he said as he leaned back to light another cigarette, “have another drink.”