It’s hard to see the pawn shop unless you need it. You must’ve gone past the shop a hundred times before, but it’s only today that you really see it there, hunched in the shadow of the tall buildings like a fungus on the roots. There’s a big storefront window, but you can’t really see past it for the iron bars. The only advertisement is a mean, little neon sign blinking Sal’s.
You stand in front of a door with locks running down it like buttons on a shirt. You want to walk on by, to leave this ugly place behind, but the need stops you. You can feel it there, prickling under the skin and pushing out your eyes, expanding in the space just behind your ears. The need changes sense perception, let’s you see things you forgot were there and turns all the rest into static. It’s what let you find Sal’s in the first place. It’s what won’t let you walk away.
Handle squeaks; bell buzzes.
Inside are mysteries and treasures of the American orient: cheap tobacco hangs on the air like incense, somewhere a radio is speaking in sport statistics. Here a dented trumpet with a valve missing, there a camcorder painted with pink peace symbols. A couple bags of golf clubs, handles polished to a smooth sheen. Used rifles line the back wall. The glass case with the register on it holds a bed of hocked engagement rings; hard white fluorescence falls from a dangling light bulb and shatters into rainbows on the rocks.
Sal leans over the counter chewing an unlit cigar and leers through the smoke and broken colors at you. His arms are huge and coiled, and there’s a single thin slick of brown hair stretching the scaly, bald gulf separating his temples.
“Come in, young man, come in,” says Sal, taking out his cigar and grinning with a mouth full of gold. “What have you got for me?”
You heft the guitar case from your shoulder and lay it on the counter. You unzip and unveil your sleeping teal Les Paul. Sal tears it from the case by its neck and squints at it, gnarled old claws twanging the strings and twisting the dials.
“Only the guitar?” Sal asks.
Only — the word hurts a little, but the need numbs you to it. You nod.
“I’ll give you 100 for it,” Sal says.
“What, did I say something funny?” Sal asks. “100, take it or leave it.”
“I need more than that, man.”
“Well you won’t get more.” Sal dumps your guitar back in its case. “At least not for this. Got anything else to sell?”
“Just my soul.”
Sal laughs. Loudly. “Nah, I don’t think I can make that turn over. Need something a bit more real, more… meaty. You ever consider selling a hand?”
“Your hands,” Sal says, tapping your left where it rests on the counter. “You don’t really need both of them, do you? Hold on a second.”
Sal goes into the back, his voice calling muffled from behind the shop’s clutter. “Lots of accidents in the kitchen and on the lawn, big market for replacement fingers. And hey, if no one buys them, I can always throw them in a pan and fry ’em up with some peppers and onion for dinner.”
More loud laughter comes stabbing at you.
Sal comes back with a butcher’s cleaver, a wooden cutting board, and a roll of paper towels. “I pay 150 dollars per digit, and I’ll throw in an extra 100 for the whole hand. So what do you say?”
“You’re a monster.”
Sal smiles his gold-capped smile, cleaning under his nails with the edge of the cleaver. “Only need one hand to hold a pipe.”
You zip up your guitar and turn to walk out; the need won’t let you go out the door. You pause there and pretend to think it over, but you know the decision’s already been made for you. You think Sal knows it too.
You lay your left on the waiting cutting board.
Sal grabs you by the forearm, claws digging in. “The whole hand then?”
“I guess. So do I get a shot or something?”
“What, do I look like a doctor to you?” Sal raises the cleaver.
You wake up sprawled on the floor with what remains of your left arm mummified in paper towels. You get up, become lightheaded and trip, and then get up again, careful. Sal’s counting.
“250, 300… welcome back… 350, 400…” he says, laying out slices of green paper on the counter.
You lean on the display case, trying to keep conscious. Amidst the engagement rings you see a hand resting palm up, a price tag tied to each finger.
“750, 800, and 850,” Sal says, putting down the last bill. “Good doing business.”
You stare at the paper. “And the guitar? Will you still buy that?”
“Ah yes, sure,” says Sal. He takes the guitar case and lays down another 50 with the others.
“You said 100 for the guitar.”
Lips peel over golden fangs.
“A guitar is worth less to a one-handed man,” says Sal.
A.J. Rocca is an alumnus of Western Illinois University and a fervent disciple of the three Rs: Reading, writing, and running… he dropped math class for track. He writes short stories and critical essays, and he creates video essays for his YouTube channel, BlueMorningStar. His work has been published at the Prairie Light Review and Oddville Press.