I’ve never been good with money. Mama knew this, teased me about it all the time, but Mama liked her cigarettes too much and now she’s in a box in the ground, so she doesn’t tease me about anything anymore.
I was 19 when I went into the pawn shop for the first time. Bills were coming due and I’d already taken my extra clothes to the resale shops. It was December, I remember that clearly, because the utility company had already threatened to shut off my heat once or twice but this was the first time I was really scared about it. All I needed was a few more shifts at the bar to make the cash but you know, around the holiday everyone needs extra cash, so I went through the boxes on my dresser until I found what I was looking for: Mama’s wedding ring.
I know. I know it’s shitty. Your mama dies, you don’t pawn her wedding ring. But do you have any idea how cold it gets in Ohio in the winter? Big winter storm was fixing to come through and I couldn’t go without heat. You gotta understand.
Besides, you get it back. You know? You borrow the money, you pay the interest, you get it back. That was the plan.
I walked into the pawn shop, feeling small under the tall shelves of old VHS tapes and chipped Disney glasses from McDonald’s. Went up to the counter, put Mama’s ring down on the glass, and told the lady at the register I needed money.
“How much?” She picked up the ring and looked at it closely.
“I was hoping you’d make me an offer,” I said, smiling, but she just grabbed a weird little thing that reminded me of mad scientists and scrunched her eye around it. She looked at it closer.
“I can do 80.” The lady didn’t look at me, just kept squinting through that funny thing.
80? 80 dollars for Mama’s ring? Felt like a slap in the face.
“It’s worth more than that,” I argued, pointing under the lens of her eyepiece at the stones. “It’s got three diamonds in it, nice-sized ones, too. Daddy saved almost a year for this ring, back in the day.”
The lady jerked back from my jabbing finger and looked at me, really looked at me for the first time since I walked in. Seems like people do that an awful lot these days, avoid eye contact. I like making eye contact with people, there’s more chances to smile.
I smiled now. She did too, but hers looked like she felt sorry for me.
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“We don’t buy the diamonds. Just the gold.” The lady paused for a moment, then pulled out a little jeweler’s scale and set Mama’s ring on it delicately. “See, if the pawn defaults, we just melt the whole thing down.”
“And what do you do, just throw the diamonds away?” My smile was faltering. I suddenly felt like I’d done the wrong thing in coming here. What kind of place would rip Mama’s ring apart and throw away the diamonds?
She sort of ignored me and squinted at the numbers on the scale. After a minute she sighed.
“Okay. I can do 200, but no more. And you’ll have to be in on time to make your payments. Okay?”
My utility bill was $140. What was I supposed to do? I told her yeah, okay. $200.
She took Mama’s ring from me and put it in a little plastic bag. I watched as it went into a drawer with other things that once meant so much to people, probably meant the most until rent came due or a gambling problem reared its ugly head.
She handed over 10 crisp, clean $20 bills. I said thank you, because Mama always taught me to be polite, even when your heart is breaking.
I left with the cash. I paid my bills. My heat stayed on, the winter storm came and went. Eventually I picked up enough shifts at work to make the money back, but every time I thought about handing over all that money at once, I got sick to my stomach. So I made payments instead.
Not smart, right? I told you, I’m not so good with money. I kept paying that interest and Mama’s ring stayed in that plastic bag.
Until one day I called the pawn shop to let them know I’d be late to make my payment. I explained to the elderly man on the phone that a shift had popped up at work, one I needed to take, but I could pay extra the next day. I gave him my address to look up my account.
“I’m sorry,” he told me, and I could hear papers rustling in the background. “Your account came due yesterday. Your pawn has defaulted, I’m afraid your item is gone.”
My stomach plummeted through the floor. I asked him to repeat what he’d said, but the words didn’t change.
I’d forgotten a payment. My pawn had defaulted.
Mama’s ring, her beautiful three-stone emerald-cut ring Daddy bought for her back when they were young and in love and not bones in boxes under the ground, melted down for scrap. Diamonds in the trash can, for all I knew.
I asked him if there was any way to make it stop, to get the ring back before it went wherever it went to get melted. He said no, the guys always came and picked up defaulted items first thing in the morning.
I called into my shift at the bar because I couldn’t stop crying. I felt so stupid. Mama’s ring gone for a lousy $200. She’d always told me I was bad with money but this was real bad.
When I got home I had a few drinks of McCormick’s before going right to bed. Lying there, dozing off under the somehow comforting haze of the whiskey, I thought of a game me and my cousins used to play when we were little. When we wanted to make a wish. We’d go outside, no matter how cold or late it was, and look at the stars. Whoever could count a hundred stars first, well, their wish would come true. Sure, we cheated and counted a lot of the same stars over again, but it still held some sort of magic, whether the wish came true or not.
I’m not a little kid anymore but I closed my eyes, pictured the stars, and tried to count a hundred of them, whispering the numbers like a prayer. I wished not to be so stupid. I wished for Mama’s ring to come back.
That night, I dreamt of Mama. She was right there at my bedside, stroking my hair so sweet just like she used to. She kissed the corner of my mouth. She told me I was beautiful.
When I woke up the next day, her ring was on the bedside table.
I stared at it for a real long time, not even daring to move in case it was just a dream and I’d wake up after all, but finally I got the courage to reach for it. Felt real enough under my fingertips, the diamonds shining so pretty, the yellow gold bright and beautiful. It looked even cleaner than when I last saw it.
I hadn’t believed since I left the hospital without Mama for the last time but that morning I got down on my knees and thanked God, thanked Jesus, I even thanked Saint Anthony – I remembered from my picture book I got for confirmation that he was the patron saint of lost objects. My favorite had always been Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, but I didn’t tell Mama that because I knew it would make her sad. It’s weird what you remember when so much else just falls away.
Anyway, I thanked Saint Anthony and all the other saints and even the angels in heaven because what this was, it was a miracle. I put the ring on my right hand middle finger and swore to myself I’d never lose it again, I’d never pawn another thing in my life because Mama had been back to visit and she’d brought her ring, and chances were if she had to come back again she wouldn’t be so happy with me.
I felt so blessed, so carefree. I picked up a shift at the bar and my attitude must’ve been contagious because I made double my usual tips that night.
The next morning, I reached to the nightstand and felt for Mama’s ring. My fingers closed around it, but I felt something else too.
I sat up and looked. There was a real pretty locket next to Mama’s ring, a gold heart with what looked like a ruby set in the center.
I didn’t recognize this necklace. Something about it made me nervous. I quietly put it away in the drawer of my nightstand. I tried to forget it.
But they kept coming. Every morning, a new treasure that wasn’t mine.
A brooch with green glass stones. A little knife with a mother-of-pearl handle. Earrings that dangled what were probably opals at some point, gone milky-white with age.
Was it Mama? Saint Anthony? It didn’t seem much like a miracle anymore.
It didn’t stop until I took a real late shift one night at the bar. We did this special, dollar Jaeger-bombs, that drew in college kids by the pack. They drank lots and stayed late. One of them threw up in the corner that night and it took me half an hour to clean it off the floor.
So I was late getting home, you know? Usually I got back around midnight but that time it was almost 2am. I hopped off the bus and started for my apartment when some little voice in my head, one that sounded an awful lot like Mama, whispered, “Don’t.”
I stopped on the street, not sure what to do, when I saw it. The window of my second floor apartment. The curtain, it pulled back for just a second, then snapped back closed, like someone had seen me looking.
I went straight to the payphone on the corner and called the police. They notified my landlord and I waited, shivering, on the bus stop bench outside while they went upstairs to check it out. I think they thought I was silly, a young dumb girl spooked by the dark, but they had their guns drawn anyway.
It wasn’t until later I found out that she’d been breaking into my apartment almost every night since December. She used a lockpick kit that had been pawned a while back and just sat forgotten in their stock. My address, it was easy enough, all she had to do was look up my account.
I guess it was sweet, in a scary sort of way. She saved Mama’s ring from the melter. But then, you know, she kept going. Brought me other things that had been left behind. The locket, the brooch, other pretty little items someone had once loved and let go.
She told the police we were lovers, but we weren’t. I saw her when I made the payments. That’s all. But I guess I smiled at her a lot. I smile at everybody.
She smiled at me when they took her away in handcuffs. It was the same smile she gave me the first time she looked up from her work and actually saw the desperate girl in front of her, a stupid naïve girl who was bad with money and needed some fast.
It happened a long time ago, but I can’t help thinking about her sometimes. Just laying under my bed, waiting with some new treasure clutched in her hands until I fell asleep so she could place it gently on my nightstand, stroke my hair, call me beautiful.
It’s not just things that get lost, you know?
As they pushed her into the cop car with its swirling red and blue lights, she called out to me.
“I used to count stars, too,” she cried, just before they shut the door, “and every night, I wished for you.”
So when I lie awake at night, thinking about that woman and what desperation can drive us to, pawn shops and diamond rings and counting stars, I keep coming back to one thing.
How did she know what I was counting?