I keep a claim ticket beneath my bed for a silver watch of my grandmother’s that was pawned. She didn’t know I had it, or that I had found it. I suppose I was where I shouldn’t have been. Maybe my grandfather had actually pawned the watch. It had, as its cutoff date, September 27, 1965. It is now September 01, 2005. I suppose that it is probably gone by now. The pawnshop is probably gone by now. I certainly know that my grandmother, and my grandfather, are gone by now. Maybe I should look for the watch. Maybe I should look for the shop. Maybe I should not be looking in places that I do not belong. I know where and what I am from, but I cannot possibly know where it is that I am going without some answers to all these questions.
Grandmother cut hair for a living. She put my grandfather through pilot’s training by the price of multiple dead cells from the scalps of gossips. She did their nails, also. They took full advantage of the stereotype of the hairdresser as counsel. She would return home with stiffened, gnarled hands; she winced while washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, sewing, cooking, parenting, and such; basically anything you could add an ing to, they sucked and sucked. All these tasks, all these people, everything, sucked my grandmother dry. She did not even bleed when she died, because there was no life left in her.
My grandfather was a maintenance engineer, which is a fancy name for a janitor. He was actually a pilot, bent on crop dusting, but there were so many pilots that returned from the war who wanted an American daredevil job that my grandfather was shit out of luck. So, because he could not have what he wanted out of life, he was hell-bent on no one in his immediate family having what they wanted either. Bitter. He never took to drinking. He never verbally abused anyone. His abuse was silence: no advice, no support, and no substance to his character. He was utterly and completely non-participatory except when it came to securing his own financial well-being. My guess is that he would have thought nothing of pawning that watch. He had no concept of “sentimental value,” or anything relating to the passing on of a legacy. Come to think of it, he most definitely had no idea of “value” past how much a dollar was worth. This is why I never liked him.
I believe my father starved for the first eight years of his life. He said that when he went over to his friends’ houses, the first thing that he did was raid the fridge. He constantly came home with food poisoning, unable to discern between what had been there a week and what had been there a day. He could never ask and, he said, his buddies always found his vomiting amusing. Today, my mother and I are the only ones who do not seem to find his struggles amusing. He scrapes and scrapes away at the pot, trying to eke out a living, trying to support his family and trying to keep from being sick from the stagnant and bitter aftertaste of the soured milk and honey he’s been fed throughout his life. He is the most hopeful and hopeless person I have ever known. It is very hard to think of my father in this way. It sometimes makes me cry. It never makes me laugh.
My mind constantly wanders away to the questions surrounding the watch. I am not even sure that it was my grandmother’s. It might have been my grandfather’s. It could have been a pocket watch, engraved to his father, or even to my great great grandfather. Who cherished this watch? I cherish this watch, because it links me to them, if only through questions. I cherish this watch. I love this watch. Maybe a new person cherishes it now. I wonder if it still sits in the shop waiting for me to come and bring it home where it belongs, with me.
I work at the Route 61 River Mart selling gas, and milk, and cigarettes, and Lotto tickets. I’m doing my part to contribute to my community. I give people what they need. Or, at least what they think they need when I set it out by the counter … like an afterthought. (I think my managers call it impulse buys, but I call it the Stupid, Because I’m Drunk and Don’t Know What the Hell I’m Doing But I’ll Buy It, Eat It, Smoke It, Pretend That It’s My Girlfriend, Cry On It, Hope That If I Ignore It, It Will Go Away purchase.)
I know how to value things. By things, I am referring to family, goods, services, and ideas. Money is only valuable in theory. My friend, Bob, who comes in to see me at the Route 61 River Mart, thinks the same way I do about money. Bob is a good fifty years older than I am. He comes in for his cigarettes, because we are located around the corner from his home at the assisted living care facility. He’ll buy his pack, I give him a book of matches with the Route 61 River Mart logo, and he’ll talk with me for a little while if I am not busy. After our talk, he’ll limp out front to the ashtray by the door and proceed to smoke at least half the pack, one after the other, with no break except to pull another from the pack and strike another match. After he has smoked his fill, he will come back in, give me the remaining half of his pack and the remainder of the book of matches, and tell me to take them to the bar with me for some down and out person. The finale is what I look forward to most, his parting words of wisdom. Two weeks ago was the one that I was referring to about the money, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it sure can put a lot of misery in escrow.” Ain’t that the truth! I wonder if all of these sayings come directly out of his head, or if his family passed him these words to entertain his listeners. His conversations help my shift go by faster and more pleasantly. This easy conversation reminds me of my high school friend Lizzie.
When I was fifteen, I was not supposed to wear make-up. My mother wouldn’t let me, but I snuck out of the house and put it on at school. My friend Lizzie and I liked to hang out at the dock. If we were not on the small, dockside beach, we were at the arcade where her boyfriend, Leonard, hung out with his crowd. Leonard was so very cool and he had a lot of cute friends that seemed to like me. He had one friend who lived next door to him, but Mel didn’t even give me the time of day. I swam under the dock with Mel once. He called me Hannah. I had to correct him with “ my name isn’t Hannah, it’s Teresa.” He said, “Whatever.” He didn’t even care that he got my name wrong. That hurt me deep, but I still liked him. Somehow, I felt I’d been robbed of something, but damned if I can’t nail down what it was.
I wonder how badly my grandparents needed the money. Why did they so needlessly pawn it? The reason I say needlessly is because it couldn’t possibly have been that bad, so bad I have nothing but this ticket. Bob’s grandkids make sure that he is well taken care of at the home. He tells me about their visits. I would have taken care of my grandparents. I could have picked up extra hours here at the store. If the watch kept correct time, I would never be late. I bet the pawning of that watch killed them both. I sometimes have a picture in my head of my younger grandmother standing outside the shop, staring at the silver watch with the sapphire on the stem wrapped delicately about her swollen wrist, watching the minutes tick by with her tears keeping the seconds, and wishing, wishing that my grandfather would run up to her and tell her not to go in. He would have done something like this when they were boyfriend and girlfriend because, when they were dating, they had been in love. What happened to that connection that Bob always talks to me about, the one line of thought for two minds, which seems so easily established with the right person, even in the wrong environment? I’ve never felt this type of connection. I would believe that this type of relationship was a farce, a myth, or the stuff of urban legends, had Bob not told me, very emphatically, that this is what he had shared with his beloved Lilly. Lilly is the flower that blooms constantly in his conversation. She blooms in his memory.
What’s in a name? Currently, my boyfriends generally have run-of-the-mill names like Kevin or Jack. Names never seem to develop and bloom in my mind, although I try to ensure they never have the name John. Ever since I found out that a John is a guy who sleeps with hookers, that name just gives me a funny feeling. So, I won’t go out with anyone who is named John. Maybe that’s weird, but I know you understand. Sometimes, people develop quirky traits that only hold rhyme and reason for them.
When I was eighteen, I met Pal. It sounds like a dog’s name, but it’s not, he was a boy, a man, actually. His five-o’clock shadow worked abrasive and deep, and his bodily attentions worked better than pumice at scraping off dead skin, unneeded skin, until it was raw with pleasure. He was my first and I was his … oh gosh! I have an idea I was probably off the fingers and toes list. I was the one that was “The One” that was going to change him, but he didn’t know that. Pal met another girl, a woman, actually, and dumped me for her. I was broken, so I wrote him a song that went something like this:
I’ve got what you need … you confused and lonely boy.
I’ve got what you need … I’m not like her. I’m no decoy!
I’m real … I’m everything she’s not.
Don’t you understand that I got what she ain’t got?
I never got a chance to sing him that song because he ran off and married that tart (I like this old-time terminology for a wanton woman, or a woman who is loose, or, a most contemporary of terms, a slut) that he thought was so fantastic for her long nails and salon-tanned skin. I’m very glad that I never did, because she had a baby eight months after getting together with him and he was stupid enough to believe that it was his. He never was very adept at keeping track of time.
Except for Bob, men seem to easily forget what it is that makes a good thing, don’t they? Pet you here and compliment you there; it’s quite all the same to them in my eyes. I lapse into my old self at any point and then, quite promptly, forget what myself is about. My self keeps changing and I can’t keep up. My men keep changing in foul conjunction with myself. My current list never gets long enough to necessitate the use of an Oxford Comma. “What is an Oxford Comma?” you ask. Well, this comma comes before the and in a list of three or more. So what I get is: one was nice and smart; another was handsome and rich; yet another was everything and more; and the last was nothing and knew it. I’m never left breathless.
The last relationship I had that even remotely resembled a boyfriend/girlfriend type of connection was with Grant. This felt so very wrong for the last three months we were together, only because he was more like a brother than a boyfriend. We laughed, we cried, we did the crossword together. He got all the answers and I agreed with him. The passionate embraces we had experienced in the beginning were exchanged for bouts of pouting on opposite ends of the couch in his apartment. He teased me mercilessly about my taste in art and music. He said I lacked the fundamentals. He went limp every time we were nude. My nakedness somehow distressed him. I began to stress on his distressedness. I began to write new lyrics in my head that had the hero running far, far away from the heroine, intentionally, to spare her the agonies of his issues. He dumped me, thank goodness, and thoroughly disappeared from my day-to-day habits. I think that he might have been gay.
I only date now. I talk with the friends that I want to talk to. I avoid the people that I don’t want to talk to very much. I never want to marry. I don’t want my husband to pawn my things that I worked so hard to get. I don’t want my potential husband to forget my name is Teresa, or leave me for someone who looks good on the outside, but is really some gold-digger. Tracking my life. I feel as though I’m following the footsteps of a life I have already led. Repeating History, as they might say. I’ve inherited this. This seems to be the legacy I am to have, which I certainly cannot pawn off on to someone else.
Now I just go out with my girlfriends to the clubs and dance with strange men until it feels like my back is snapping in two, right at the hips. My friends constantly have to save me, because I am the quintessential moron magnet. I’m not saying that the guys are bucktoothed, or that they smell bad. All I’m saying is that their personalities leave much to be desired. Maybe, they are a little too clingy right off the bat. Or, they get too far into my personal space with their mouths constantly open, jabbering away about nothing particularly interesting at volume ten because of the music, their dental work flashing like a mirrored disco ball. I should not complain so much, because I see quite a few women hovering around my encounters with these losers with jealous, wilted looks on their faces. If they only knew the half of what was coming out of those mouths they would not be quite so jealous, I guarantee it. The guys who don’t seem to me to be losers sit at the bar and watch me suffer. I find questions begin to beat in my mind with the rhythms of the music and the steps of the people … and this syncopated questioning keeps time. Grandma probably stared mutely at her watch, observing the minute hand continue to tick, bypassing minutes where every one of them escapes, making it harder and harder to believe that her situation might somehow change. She probably never understood that you have to make change happen. You have to educate yourself.
I spend all of my truly quality time with myself, reading or thinking, remembering how things used to be and thanking Fate that it is not that way anymore. I’ve always enjoyed these activities. Even when I was a kid, my favorite place was my neighbor’s attic where his family kept every book ever bought by anyone as far back as, from what I can gather, the 1860s. There was no room for anything else in that space. It had ceased to be a space and had become like a collection of ant mounds. It was a maze, but I learned my way around in it all better than any member of his family ever did. I loved that attic; it was better than my home. It’s where I learned all the things my friends call “BIG WORDS” and the various bits of literary trivia that I dish out, sporadically, amongst those I feel can comprehend the ideas I wish to impart. If I judge my social repartee by Bob’s standards, my knowledge is a veritable plethora of trivial information mixed with the common sense of a true street thug. This is all that I think is really needed to relate to people: the trivia for entertainment value, the thuginess to strong-arm the listener, and the ability to mix the two into the golden flow of conversation. Conversational alchemy. It’s all rather academic, really.
I like to work in the relatively stress-free environment that I have built for myself. I just jet home from my job, change clothes, and wander wherever my feet might take me. Most times it is to the bar down the street, where I take all of Bob’s half-packs of cigarettes. My neighbors congregate there to talk about their various sexual exploits or to create new ones. I have partaken in a few of these myself, but they leave me feeling spent when whatever conquest of the night before wanders into the Route 61 River Mart in search of edibles (or, more likely, my attention), like this guy, Doug.
Doug will come by and promise me anything he thinks that I might want as a woman — cars, jewelry, and trips to Cancun — if I’ll just be with him on a regular basis, that is, when he’s in town. Doug’s a busy guy. He’s a salesman for a national frozen food company. He’s not in town very often, but he lives here. Whenever he comes to the bar, he sits in my seat so I’ll know he’s back. I was only with him once, but that was enough. Doug travels too much. I would need my man to stick around. I’m not a book to be checked out or shelved. I don’t want some guy to have to blow the dust off me in order to take me out.
Sometimes, I go to the bookstore. I never go to the library, because I want to own the book; I want it to be mine. It won’t wander off and fall into the wrong hands only to be abused and then discarded. I want to create my own attic for little children to play and learn in. This will be my legacy to pass on to my neighbors’ kids because, as I said, I do not intend to marry. That means that I do not intend to have children of my own.
I want to talk about legacies. The books, Bob’s wisdom, and a lot of questions about my own background would be the only tangible, and intangible, things that I have to pass on. I am comfortable with this on the one hand, but on the other, I believe that I might somehow fail society in only contributing these things. This is what I truly and deeply consistently worry over. I want to make a difference. I do not want to leave a claim ticket full of questions as to what I thought, knew and loved. I do not always want to be known as the seller of impulsive thoughts. I do not ever want people to think that I gave up trying to understand where I came from and where I was going. Conversely, I do not want them to somehow conclude that I tried to make a better life for myself by shedding the skin of my past. I am happy being passive and I am very gladdened when I think that my passiveness can be of some use to meet some end (such as with my job at Route 61 River Mart, with the customer service and all). But, you can’t leave a legacy of passiveness. It’s too static. It does not transmit. It sits like a rock embedded in the shifting sands of my personality. One day, the perfect wisdom to address this issue of my passiveness will be emitted from Bob’s mouth and I will be there listening.
I bet the shop is filled to the rafters with people’s disinherited legacies. Time probably coats the items with the fine dust of the forgotten. The tickets for all pawned legacies have journeyed from booklet to pocket to mirror crevice (where it sits for months, maybe years, contemplated, cried over, crumpled, and nicotine stained) to landfill. The money exchanged was probably placed into the hands of loan sharks (or groceries, or hardware stores, or offspring, or girlfriends and so on). This is the only time I wish that I was rich. I would go to that store that one of my grandparents exited with a claim ticket so long ago and retrieve not only my watch (stopwatch, wristwatch, pocketwatch, pinwatch), but also all the other orphaned items cast out and banished from the hope chests intended for future generations. I would adopt them all as my own. I would place them in reliquaries to be turned to in times of crises as harbingers of the miracles of family and place of belonging in the world. I want to fill my attic with them and pile them up like ant mounds into constructions of productive and collective life. I want to use them as bookends to uphold and support knowledge and History. I want children to not be afraid to touch them and learn what it means to be part of a community — a larger family than just Mom, Dad, Bro, and Sis — and to feel the presence of the blood that beats its time into their sense of self, so that they may feel the strength of their descendents’ influences.
I asked my father about the watch. He had no recollection of ever having seen either his father or his mother with any sort of timepiece past two alarm clocks on their respective bedside tables (they slept in separate rooms as far back as he could remember) and a wall clock with a face to which several gnats hung dead and a stray bit of lint floated atop the hour hand, nothing dislodging with the slow pace of movement from one hour to the next. He quickly feigned loss of interest in my questions. He does not like to talk about his parents. I can certainly understand in that I do not particularly feel any degree of comfort in discussing my dad’s life with others.
I wanted to call the number on the claim ticket, but the number was from a time when you were connected through an operator, and they prefaced the number with a name, or a word. This has been scratched out on the ticket. Possibly, the storeowner had erased most of it. He might have ordered all these tickets from the printer at a reasonable discount, forgetting that the time of connection, rather than information, operators was coming to a near close, and his number would soon be changing. I can just make out a word that looks like “Wilbury” and the numbers are incomprehensible.
One day last week, I was in the office at work and I decided to look up the shop’s name in the online yellow pages. There was no listing. My thought is that the shop could have changed hands. It is conceivable that a son-in-law, or a daughter with a married name, could have taken over the shop. When I went onto the Internet to a site that had maps, the street came up as no longer in existence. It had been renamed, or built over. My next step will be to look into the city planning and zoning, provided that I can figure out exactly what neighborhood that shop had been in. There has got to be a history online somewhere for the naming and renaming of city streets.
My questions are not being answered. Whenever I reflect deeply on my relationships, and my upbringing, the questions multiple out squared and cubed. I wonder if there will be time to pursue half of the answers. Most times, I just wonder whether it’s even worth it. My passiveness takes over at this point. There is no railing against the “need to know” because the questions will ultimately repeat themselves until they do not seem to matter so much. The one thing that I cannot possible remain passive about is the claim ticket. It whispers to me in an unintelligible and incoherent language that I am beginning to doubt that I might ever understand.
Words Pass Over the Counter At the Route 61 River Mart
Bob has more than a bit of swagger still left in his frame. He is confident, learned, stable, and kind. Everyone he interacts is potentially enlightened to the possibility of a lengthy and epic life. The friendly conversation (that his demeanor dictates he conduct) passes on to the listener cliché, after epigram, after noteworthy quote. Most people want to learn something from Bob; that is why they listen so intently. Teresa is one of those that want to be enlightened, but is somehow unwilling, or unable to get past the words that churn within her mind. She reveres Bob’s outlook, but her attempts to understand it have come to naught.
Teresa has thought of or mentioned the watch and the claim ticket three times to Bob. The first was when Bob told her that his wife, Lilly, had come from a family that had been destitute. Lilly’s extended family had to rob Peter to pay Paul in order to keep them afloat. Teresa could relate to this mode of survival. Teresa did not say anything, but stood at the counter entertaining the idea of morphing into Robin Hood.
The second time the claim ticket came to Teresa’s mind in conversation with Bob, he had just finished telling her that his own family were bushbeaters. When she asked him what that meant, he said that his family beat the bush while another took the birds. The perplexed look on her face prompted Bob to tell her, “Look! I came from a family of farmers who didn’t own their land. They never saw a penny of profit off of the corn and alfalfa they grew to fatten someone else’s cows and the landowner’s wallet. The only thing we had on that farm to feed us was the henhouse. I’ve eaten one plain, soft-boiled egg for breakfast every day of my life, even when I could afford a little Hollandaise to go with it.”
Teresa then told Bob a little about her father’s situation growing up. She told Bob that her father rarely talked about growing up poor, but that she had evidence. This is when she told him about the claim ticket and that she was unsure of where it had come from or what kind of watch it had been. Bob asked, “Would you be willing to bring it in for me to take a look-see? Maybe, I can help. Lord knows, I have seen a few claim tickets in my time.”
The third time the claim ticket was discussed was when Teresa brought the ticket in for Bob to take a look-see. He turned it over and over in his hand as though it were a Fabergé egg. He put on his half glasses and tried to read the blurred writing. If one were to have witnessed Bob and Teresa in this scrutinizing process, one would see a very old man and a young, attractive woman head-to-head on either side of the Route 61 River Mart counter fingering a slip of paper that looked like a receipt. “Well, young lady, I’m not quite sure why they didn’t put a description of the watch on here. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? But, I suppose that’s why they call them pawnbrokers and not professors. And, what’s more, there is no way of telling from this ticket who is the borrower and who is the receiver. Obviously, someone needed the money. That is a situation that you — a bright, industrious, and pleasant young woman — may never have the misfortune of having to endure.”
Teresa was severely disheartened with Bob’s seemingly dismissive attitude. It made her depressed that her last hope of discovering the mystery of the ticket had been dashed by the one in whom she had held faith to enlighten. Bob merely voiced a string of proverbs that held no meaning for her: whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad; while the grass grows, the steed starves; and give a thing, and take a thing, to wear the devil’s gold ring. He did not bother to explain any of them and, for once, she did not bother to ask. She just did not care. Bob’s wisdom was falling on deaf ears.
I had a visitor at the Route 61 River Mart this morning. Bob brought this guy in that he knew from his the farm. This guy’s name was Charley and he had been a feed salesman. Charley said he and my grandfather had been neighbors and good friends. Charley wanted to know if my grandfather was still living and, if so, where he could contact him. I told him that my grandfather had passed away several years ago. Charley then asked after my grandmother. I had to tell him that she, too, was dead, and that she had actually passed on before my grandfather.
Charley looked at me kind of funny, like I was a ghost, like I was floating away. He kept looking at the ceiling. I looked also, but I didn’t see anything up there. Bob was very quiet, so quiet. I wondered what the heck was going on. Charley gave me his condolences and headed for the door. I had never met anyone who’d known my grandparents. I couldn’t let him just leave. It would have been wrong of me to simply let him walk out without saying something.
Right as the bell was ringing above the doorframe, I asked Charley if he knew my father. He came back to the counter and told me that not only did he know my father, but that his own kids and my grandparents’ kids had grown up together. Charley said that my grandmother took care of his children, while he and his wife were at work, and my grandfather took care of his kids at the school where my grandfather was a janitor. Charley said that my grandparents fed, clothed, and financially supported his family for a good four years. Why? Because they were old war buddies.
I had never known that my grandparents were supporting two families. It did not ring true. I asked him if he had known my grandparents when they were poor. He told me that, back then, they were all poor, some more than most, but people who really cared took care of each other. They took care of each other in ways that might bring shame and disgrace upon themselves, like when he had my grandfather pawn his things.
I tell you, I was floored. How? Why? Watch? This wasn’t my watch! This was Charley’s watch! I just had to ask him why he had my grandfather doing the pawning. I was embarrassed and I know I should have probably thought about the sense in asking this question before I went and just blurted it out. I was rude and angry. Charley stammered and blushed when he answered me. He said that he had been a feed salesman who could not have his clients knowing he was flat busted. My grandfather offered to do the deed for him. My grandfather saved his family from starving.
Why did my grandfather have this ticket? Did he steal it from Charley? Did he keep it as a kind reminder of the suffering that can be inflicted on one family to save another? These were new questions, ones that I was not comfortable in asking myself, ones that made me feel ashamed and hurt that I had wasted so much time asking the wrong questions.
This all happened this morning, so I suppose it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Charley gave me his number for my father to call. I think I might call him myself to find out more about my grandparents. There are so many wasted questions I am mentally tossing out with the trash. I need to identify my legacy. For now, I believe my legacy is to be my good name, because a good name is better than a golden girdle according to Bob. This I understand, unquestionably.