May 4th, 2008
The air stank of stale fish, decaying animal carcass, putrid nicotine, and sweat. The dimness of the room took some time to adjust to, but the smell was always unbearable. The customers did everything not to gag at the horrible smell, not wanting to offend the swarthy owner of the much-sought after pawn shop. It was formally and legally a pawn shop, though a lot of things happened behind those closed doors. Druggies sold their drugs, prostitutes advertise themselves, illegal immigrants were suddenly converted into citizens, poker was played, fights broke, alcohol was brought in, trouble-makers (skilled at handling a kitchen knife) graduated from that place), and per the most recent gossip, money laundering occurred. But above all, it was a pawn shop; and Alice Solent’s only family income.
The little murky shop stood receded from the street flanked on both sides by equally dilapidated buildings. One was abandoned, the other one served as a bar (and not a very good one, but beer was cheap and women abundant). The neighborhood was a ten minute walk from the main streets, and this neighborhood did not often receive a lot of visitors. It was considered the hell-hole of New York City. The police that patrolled the area turned the other way when crime was committed, gingerly pocketing the money they earned for their silence and indifference. Mr. Rykes, the pawn shop owner, was a very generous payer.
Alice Solent stood in front of the pawn shop; she was wearing her school uniform, her white shirt had loose threads where her pocket should have been before she ripped it off along with her school emblem. She didn’t want these people to know anything about her, though she’d have to stitch it back when she gets home. Something that made her decide to pawn the objects she brought to Mr. Rykes was that he did not ask any questions. He just took the valuable piece and slid money to her.
She dreaded the first time she walked down the sidewalk of this forsaken neighborhood, determined to get some food home that night. She was eyed by everyone, wolf-whistled, and worst of all, someone tried to grab her. She had strong legs and quick reflexes; she ran to the pawn shop as fast as she could. She was panting once she was inside the shop, her heart racing. Mr. Rykes was amused by her presence and bark the junkies that were trying to get close to her to back down. She took three deep breaths and blinked hard at the tears that were welling in her eyes. She didn’t want to be here. However, she had to, her family depended on it. Alice squared her shoulders and walked to the counter, dropping an expensive leather wallet on it. It was empty, of course, because she took the money and buried the id and credit cards and ripped the photographs.
“I came to pawn this,” she said and locked eyes with Mr. Rykes. “How much can I get?”
His eyes were hard, as were hers. Then he threw his head back and laughed. “You have the guts to come to this neighborhood and pawn that wallet? I assume that doesn’t belong to you, hey?”
Alice narrowed her eyes. “It was a family heirloom. It has no sentimental value though.”
Mr. Rykes chuckled. “I see.” There was understanding after he unmasked her lie. “I can give you something; maybe one of the whores is going to like it. I’ll give you fifty dollars.”
Alice protested, but was silenced immediately.
“One piece of advice, young lady: walk upright with your head held high, shoulders back. Your eyes an expression of coldness and boldness. Nobody will bother you that way. Next time, bring me something more useful, like cellphones or watches. Now go, a nice girl like you won’t like our nightly extravaganzas.” He laughed loud and hard.
Alice exited and ran to the nearest busy street, with the money held close to her chest. That night, she treated her family with meat. And from then on, whenever she went to the pawn shop, nobody bothered her anymore. She knew how to twist an arm and kicked some groin.
The sun was going to go down the horizon soon. Four months later, Alice still came to Mr. Rykes to pawn objects, now with much more caliber and expertise on her side. She pulled her uniform skirt down a little, hiding her knees. She shouldered her school bag and entered the pawn shop. It was as much a dingy space as when she first entered four months ago. The smell never changed, just the people and the activities. There was a couple, their bodies pressed together and uttering disgusting moaning sounds in the corner, and one junkie passed out on the floor, with a needle beside him. Alice went straight to business. Need had roughen her. She dropped a wallet and a cellphone on the counter. Mr. Rykes eyed the objects with disinterest.
“I will give you something because you’re a valued customer,” he said, winking. “But wallets and cellphones aren’t sought after anymore!” He slammed two twenty dollar bills on the counter.
“Forty dollars for both the wallet and the cellphone?” Alice complained. “The cellphone costs more than that! I saw an ad.”
“Then pawn it elsewhere, or sell it by yourself.” He leered. “Of course, you’ll have to provide your name and address and everything. I’ve been doing a good job by not asking any personal information from you, or the real source of the objects.” His malicious gaze was poison.
Alice took the money.
“Bring me some jewelry or watches next time if you want better payment.” Mr. Rykes said.
“Do you realize people actually wear them?” retorted Alice. She had never attempted to take anything somebody else was wearing on them. Too dangerous.
“Or we know the other alternative…” Mr. Rykes voice trailed off. “You’re not so young anymore, and if so, just lie about your age. Everybody does. I’m sure I can hook you up with someone and you’ll get paid ten times more than pawning some jewelry.”
Alice felt his gaze on her legs, traveling further up and ending in her small chest. She unconsciously crossed her arms across her chest, staring daggers at him. “Never,” she hissed and exited the shop furiously. Even though she was one block away, she could still hear the booming laugh from Mr. Rykes. She didn’t know if she was confident enough to return to his business.
On the trip to the bus stop, she wondered miserably, where would a seventeen-year old high school student with a missing father, a depressed mother, and a younger brother dying from leukemia end up?