Paradise Pawn by Meg Richardson
This opening chapter of Meg Richardson’s Paradise Pawn is the first-place winner of the 2019 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, judged by Naomi Huffman.
Meg Richardson’s Paradise Pawn deals deftly with human desire, exploring the delusions that inform our fantasies and how we try, and fail, to afford things that are difficult to obtain—intimacy, compassion, actual wealth. Teenaged Jackie is learning the skills of the perfect pawn beneath the supervision of her father, who manages the titular shop. She’s hyper-observant, frank, and funny, capable of predicting the patterns of desperate behavior. Still, her impressionability remains intact, and it is through her eyes that the customers of the titular shop are fully realized: down on their luck, bitter, and beseeching. She watches as they exchange belongings both treasured and tawdry for quick, cold cash, alleviating the sufferings of their impoverishment—but only temporarily. Charged with supervising the front counter during a “Christmas in July” layaway promotion, Jackie and her best friend Rubina encounter a customer with a high-end sex doll. Their curiosity piqued, they accept the doll and plan to hide it from Jackie’s father.
Thrumming with the anxiety of people pushed to the edge and the curiosities of an impressionable protagonist, Paradise Pawn is funny and emotional and propulsive—the perfect conditions for a finely crafted and entertaining novel.
We make a ton of money off Christmas in July, because customers have too much hope. It’s not their fault. Me and Rubina feed it to them. We decorate Paradise Pawn with tinsel and lights. We smile and hold up the chains they want for their babies, the hubcaps they want for their husbands, the iPads they want for their mothers, and we say:
“Just ten dollars for layaway, mami.”
“Just ten dollars, man.”
“Just ten dollars, my friend.”
Then they follow us to the counter. We keep talking to them in low, cheerful voices. We scan their passports. We take their ten-dollar bills and stack them in the cash drawer with Queen Elizabeth’s head face down. Then we print out their contracts. They real-smile as they sign their names and we fake-smile. Later, they will miss payments. They will yell at us over the phone and lean on our counter with tears in their eyes. We will fake-frown and blame head office in Miami. In December, right before real Christmas, we will sell their chains and hubcaps and iPads to rich people, but until the end of Christmas in July, they will be happy.
The first day of Christmas in July is also me and Rubina’s last day of year eight. We have to leave the school party early to get to Paradise Pawn. Rubina is sad to leave. Tianna and Soleil and Narissa kiss her cheeks and cling to her jumper. Boys who like her stand on the picnic table and throw pretzels at her. I wait by the bike rack.
Everyone else will be back here for year nine, except for me and Rubina. We are going to St. Bridget’s, the best private school in Grand Cayman. We will wear mint-green pleated skirts and tiny silk scarves. We’ll go on field trips to places off-island with malls. Our friends will have yachts and English accents and dads who work in the glistening banks downtown.
I catch Rubina’s eye and tap on my watch. She nods. Then she peels Narissa’s fingers off her jumper, blows kisses to the boys, and runs to me.
“We’re done!” I yell.
“I guess we are,” Rubina says, still waving to Narissa. I climb on the handlebars of my bike and Rubina pedals. Her legs are longer than mine, so she bikes the uphill until the Hard Rock Cafe and I bike the rest of the way to Paradise Pawn.
Even though we’re late, we have to make our usual stops one more time. We will never bike this route again. Next year, we will ride to and from school in a green and white bus with air conditioning.
We feed our sandwich crusts to the baby chicks who live under the helicopter pad, then we get guineps from Rubina’s uncle who plays dominos by the pier. Then we bike past the Marriot. We laugh loudly, like little girls in a movie, and the Marriot people scuttle up from their towels and take pictures of us. We smile and pose for them. Then we tell them to pay us. They pull on the strings of their bathing suits and look at the ground and hand us bills smeared with their sunscreen. We have made CI$450 off of them since year six.
We bike past the beach and slide into the Paradise Pawn car park. Remy is outside wearing a Santa hat. Remy is our favorite guard. We think he’s cute. He has a bullet stuck in his arm, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, and it’s useful, because when we need to test metal detectors in the store, we don’t have to bury stuff on the beach, we just use Remy’s arm. His girlfriend, Sherra, works at a bakery in a hotel and sometimes she brings us cupcakes that are too old to sell to tourists.
“Merry Christmas in July!” Remy says. He gives us each a fist bump. “Last day of school, huh?”
“Yes sir,” Rubina says.
“Congrats, man. Now get in there and do some layaways. Yeah?” Remy says.
“Yes sir,” we say, and he buzzes open the door.
The store is swarming. My dad is fingerprinting a lady with a glass eye. Rubina’s dad, Clovis, is showing a power drill to a man jiggling a baby. Our dads are best friends, just like Rubina and me. My dad has more money than Clovis, but Clovis is twice the size of my dad. They look like Pooh and Piglet when they walk around together. My dad is the store manager and Clovis is a sales associate. Clovis wears a ten-karat Gucci link chain and my dad wears a fourteen-karat Cuban link. I wait until Dad is done with the customer, then I give him a hug.
“Hi baby. Hi Rubina,” he says. Then he kisses my hair. “Done with year eight. Jesus. How’s it feel?” Before we can answer, a man dumps a bag of PlayStation controllers on the counter. Dad turns to him and fake-smiles. “I’ll be with you in a minute,” he says. Then to us he says, “Hurry and get dressed. We need you out here.” We run to the storeroom, lock the door, and peel off our tights and jumpers.
“Goodbye forever!” I say, and kick my jumper across the floor. Rubina folds hers and puts it in her locker. We pull on our Paradise Pawn shirts and lean over the broken jewelry mirror. Our shirts are size extra small, but mine is still too big for me. I hate the way it sticks to my chest. Rubina has been wearing a bra since year seven. She says I’m lucky I don’t wear one yet. She says they’re uncomfortable, but I think she’s lying to make me feel better. Even if bras were uncomfortable—even if they were made of broken glass—I would wear one to make my shirt fall over my chest like Rubina’s shirt does.
My shirt has two little bumps poking out of it like I’m a tree with a disease. I’m waiting for Dad to notice that I need a bra, but I’m worried he never will. He just tells me not to cross my arms when I’m talking to customers, but I can’t help it. I can’t calculate layaway payments or make someone buy a dishwasher when I can tell they’re looking at the bumps under my shirt and not at my eyes. Rubina sprays us with her body mist that smells like cucumbers. I twist my hair into a bun. Rubina pats her braids.
I used to wear my hair in braids too sometimes. When we were five, a few days before starting primary school, Rubina came over to my house with star-shaped beads at the ends of her braids. They clacked together when she turned her head. I cried when I saw them, and didn’t stop crying until Rubina’s mom gave me braids with stars in them too. I watched two and a half movies while she did them. For years after that, Rubina’s mom braided Rubina’s hair and my hair for the first day of school, until this year. White girls in year eight don’t wear braids unless they’re from the States and on cruise ships. Dad knocks on the storeroom door.
“Let’s move it!” he yells. We tuck in our shirts, yank on our Santa hats, and run out of the storeroom and behind the counter. “Took you long enough,” Dad says.
“Sorry,” we say.
“Don’t say sorry. Just don’t be slow next time. Now go get some stuff on layaway. Hustle,” Dad says, and we hustle. I sell topaz earrings for a customer’s sister in the Philippines, an amplifier for a wife in Cuba, an Xbox for a boyfriend in Honduras, a bracelet for a baby in Trinidad.
“Just ten dollars today. Don’t worry about next month. Think of how happy they’ll be on Christmas,” I say, over and over, like a talking Burger King toy. My Santa hat gets heavy with sweat and I squeeze it out into the trashcan.
Then the rain starts—thick, sloppy, hurricane season rain. We hold Paradise Pawn umbrellas over customers and run with them to their cars. Then the store is quiet. We flop in our chairs. The dads and Remy go in the storeroom to do tool inventory and we are in charge of the counter.
“Holler if you need anything,” Dad says. We take off our hats and rub hand sanitizer into our foreheads so we won’t get pimples. We stack rings on our fingers. We Windex the jewelry cases. I fold a fortune teller out of an old pawn ticket. Then we hear a tap on the window and I buzz the door open. A man stumbles in carrying a wet cardboard box. He drops it on the floor and grunts. He is soaked. White, wet hair sprouts out the sides of his pink neck. He’s wearing a tank top and swim trunks that are almost the same pink as his skin. His eyes dart around the store. Rubina swings open the counter and puts on her customer-smile.
“Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Paradise Pawn. How can I help?” she says.
“You? No, no thanks,” he says. He looks from his sandals to his box. He’s breathing fast. “Is the manager here?”
“The manager had to step out for a moment, but we would be glad to assist you,” Rubina says.
“There’s nobody else here? Nobody older?”
“We’re in charge, sir. Here, let me help you with that,” Rubina says. I open the counter and run to help her lift the box. It’s heavy. There’s something rolling around in it—maybe a metal detector. The man looks like the papery-skinned British guys who walk up and down the beach with metal detectors.
“Look, there’s no need,” the man says, wiping his face with his shirt. We keep walking and set the box on the counter.
Customers often get nervous and sad while they walk from the door to the counter. You can see it in their bodies. They slouch. They hold necklaces from old boyfriends or trumpets they never learned to play close to their chests like kids hold their blankets. Then me and Rubina smile at them and make them do whatever we want them to do.
“I really don’t think you girls should be helping me with this,” the man says. I pretend not to hear him.
“Rainy out there, isn’t it?” I say, just like Dad does. Rubina peels a piece of tape off the box and I lift up the flaps. Inside is a giant Barbie doll. She’s beautiful. She has wavy blond hair down to her waist. She’s wearing a shiny red dress. I touch her arm. Her skin is squishy like real skin.
“We love dolls!” Rubina says to the man, even though less than a week ago she told me we’re too old to play with dolls. The man’s face relaxes. He smiles.
“Yep. She’s just a very fancy doll. I paid a load of money for her—£1,500 when she was new. I’d expect to get a substantial loan on her. She’s hardly been used.”
“We’ll do an evaluation and come up with an arrangement in just a few moments. Have you heard about our Christmas in July layaway promotion?” Rubina says.
“Just ten dollars to put any item in the store on layaway,” I say.
“Not today, thanks,” the man says, blowing his nose on a soggy Kleenex.
We lift the doll out of her box and set her down behind the counter. She’s as heavy as a real girl. I slip my hand under her head. She looks so real that I don’t want to make her lie on the cold tiles. Her long eyelashes fall closed. Her breasts bounce up and down. I’ve never seen a real person with breasts that big. I touch one of them. It feels like a water balloon. I wonder if mine will feel like that someday. I reach into her box again. There’s an instruction manual and a tube that looks like part of a pool noodle. We kneel beside her and I open the instructions.
“Meet the love of your life, Cherí,” I read in a whisper. “Cherí’s body should be thoroughly cleaned every thirty days by bath or shower using a mild, antimicrobial soap. Feel free to shower with her, but do not let her head or neck submerge under the water.”
“Wait, ew. Don’t read the next part. Ew.” Rubina says. She grabs the manual.
“Hey!” I say, forgetting to whisper, “give it back!” Rubina looks like she’s bitten into a lemon. “What?” I say. “Are you okay?”
“Look,” she says, pointing to the next paragraph.
“Always use a water-based lubricant when entering the vaginal, anal, and oral canals to prevent tearing of the skin,” I read in a whisper. “Vaginal as in vagina?”
“I think so,” says Rubina, chewing on her sleeve.
“What’s anal and oral canals?” I say. Rubina sucks a deep breath in through her teeth.
“I don’t know.”
“Geez,” I say. There’s a diagram of Cherí’s vagina on the next page, and a chart with pictures of guys wrapping themselves around her in eleven different ways. We lift up her skirt. Her vagina has flaps and an opening, like a real vagina, but there’s no hair on it. Then I pull her dress down as far as it will go, which isn’t very far. I reach for her hand. It’s cold and rubbery. Her fingernails are pink and smooth. I wish my fingernails looked like that. Some corner of my brain still believes dolls have feelings, so I squeeze her hand and whisper, “Don’t be scared,” as softly as I can. Rubina doesn’t hear me. She reaches for a highlighter on the desk and starts highlighting the manual.
“We should do a loan on her,” Rubina says.
“But would someone buy her secondhand?” I say.
“For the right price,” Rubina says, combing her fingers through Cherí’s hair. I nod. “Plus we need to know this stuff,” Rubina says, tapping her highlighter on the manual.
“We do?” I say. Rubina looks at me like I’m stupid.
“Yes,” she says.
Before we loan on an item we’re supposed to type the model number into eBay and look at the prices. I find Cherí’s model number stamped into her neck and I read it out loud to Rubina. We click through pictures of other Cherís, then pictures of dolls named Angel and Lolo and Cherry—pictures of their plastic faces and vaginas and breasts. The guy wasn’t lying. They are expensive. Rubina scribbles numbers in her notebook. She’s in Advanced Maths.
“Maybe we shouldn’t tell the dads about this,” I say.
“But they’ll see that the money is missing,” Rubina says.
“Not if they let us count the cash at the end of the day,” I say.
“That won’t work,” Rubina says. She loves to tell me my ideas won’t work. “I’ll think of something else.” She goes back to her notebook and I am quiet. Then Rubina says, “Okay, let’s give him CI$500 and put in the system that she’s a really nice chainsaw. We can leave her in the box. We’ll just make sure the dads are distracted when he comes to redeem her.”
“Wow,” I say. Sometimes I get annoyed by how smart Rubina is. “How do you know he’ll come back?” I say.
“It’s just N.E.H.A.” she says. N.E.H.A. is how you decide how much money to loan to somebody. It stands for Need for cash, Emotional attachment to the item, History of paying loans back, and Ability to pay. “Right?” Rubina says. “He’s rich, clearly, and I’m sure he has an emotional attachment to Cherí, because he, you know, he does it with her.”
“True,” I say. “Okay.” We lift Cherí back up onto the counter. The guy is looking at phones. Rubina swings open the counter and he jumps. I count the phones to make sure he hasn’t stuck one in his swim trunks. He hasn’t.
“We’d be pleased to offer you a loan of CI$500 for this item,” Rubina says, smiling a perfect customer-smile. The man wipes his mouth on his shirt.
“That’s all?” he says.
“You won’t find a better deal anywhere on the island,” Rubina says.
“Shit, whatever. Alright,” he says. “Pardon my French.”
Rubina signs into MasterPawn and types up a loan for a chainsaw. I scan the guy’s passport. His name is Ian Burger. His face is thinner in the passport picture and his hair is brown instead of white. We press each of his fat fingers into the fingerprint reader. He’s wearing a wedding ring, which means we’re supposed to ask when his anniversary is, so we can send him reminders to buy jewelry for his wife every year, but we don’t ask.
Rubina prints a contract for him to sign. His writing looks like a little kid’s. Rubina counts out CI$500 from the drawer and hands it to him.
“It’ll be CI$650 to pick her up next month, sir,” Rubina says. We stick out our hands for him to shake, but he doesn’t shake them.
“Sorry about that,” he mutters.
“Nothing to be sorry for, Mr. Burger,” Rubina says. “Thank you for coming in.” We buzz the door and he runs away through the rain. Rubina prints out a barcode sticker for Cherí’s box. I feel bad putting her away on the floor of the storeroom where she’ll get cold.
“I’m going to put my sweater on Cherí,” Rubina says. It’s like she can read my mind.
“Good idea,” I say. “I’ll make her a little pillow.” I fold a rag from the jewelry cleaning room into a rectangle and slide it under Cherí’s head. Only one button on Rubina’s sweater will close around Cherí’s chest, but it’s better than nothing. We slide Cherí’s box into the storeroom as quietly as we can.
“Everything good?” Dad says, and we jump.
“Yes sir,” we say. Then we sit under the counter and study Cherí’s manual.
“Would you want to look like Cherí if you could?” I ask Rubina.
“You mean do I want to be white? No,” Rubina says.
“No, like her body. Her fingernails and her boobs and stuff,” I say.
“Yeah, probably. I could make guys buy me stuff.”
“Cause they would all want to do it with me.”
“Oh,” I say.
“What do you think it feels like?” Rubina says, flipping through the diagrams in the manual.
“What, doing it?” I say.
“Ew. I don’t know,” I say. “Don’t be gross.”
“You know we’re going to do it someday.”
“What? It’s a part of life! How do you think you got to be born?” she says. I slap her arm. I hate thinking about my parents doing it. It’s basically all they ever did together. They met at a bar in Orlando. Mom was in Law School. Dad was in the Navy. There was a fish pond in the bar and they sat by it and fed Oreos to the fish. They talked about the Iraq War and mothers, because it was Mother’s Day. Then they did it at a Hampton Inn and they made me.
A few weeks later, Mom realized I was inside her. She called Dad and he said he would quit the Navy and take care of me. Mom wanted to name me “Grace,” but Dad wanted to name me “Jacqueline” and call me “Jackie,” and since Dad was going to be saying my name a lot more than Mom, he got to pick. Sometimes, when I go to the tourist smoothie places and they ask for my name, I tell them it’s Grace and they believe me.
Mom didn’t want Dad in the hospital room while I was being born, so while Mom was pushing me out of her, Dad was getting a tattoo on his chest. It says “Jackie” in swirly blue letters. They gave him 20% off when he told them his daughter was being born at that very moment.
Dad’s great-uncle who had no toes and no kids died the same week I was born, and he left Dad his condo on Grand Cayman. Dad and I moved here when I was three weeks old. Dad got a job at Paradise Pawn, where he met Clovis and I met Rubina. The dads used to put us in baby backpacks and take us jet skiing.
Mom has come to visit me in Cayman twice—once when I was three, which was a waste, because I barely remember it, and once for my tenth birthday. Both times she stayed at the Comfort Suites on Seven Mile Beach, which is where medium-rich people stay. She said I could sleep in her hotel room for the week if I wanted to, but I get scared of sleeping anywhere besides my house or Rubina’s apartment. She gave me the tiny shampoos and lotions from her room, because she uses special shampoo from her hairstylist. I still haven’t used them. I just smell them sometimes.
Mom moved from Orlando to Naperville, Illinois a year ago because of her boyfriend, Maxwell. Maxwell is a lawyer, just like Mom. He wears gel in his hair and a necktie, but he doesn’t wear a chain. All the houses in Naperville are beige with lots of bedrooms and carpet. Sometimes I look at pictures of Naperville on the Internet before I fall asleep. Rubina reaches for my hand.
“Hey,” she says. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be mean.”
“You weren’t,” I say, and I squeeze her fingers.
We read Cherí’s manual twice and then quiz each other. It’s like studying for an exam, tucking information into our brains like rings into a ring pad. The exam will come when we have boyfriends.
At 5:30, the rain stops and waves of colored polo shirts and nametags come crashing through the door—Ritz Carlton blue, Häagen-Dazs red, Margaritaville pink, Kirk’s green. Me and Rubina hide the manual in the printer and run to the people in shirts. They have just finished a day of fake-smiling at people and they are hungry for someone to fake-smile at them.
I show a pearl ring to a lady in a Westin shirt.
“My ring size changed since coming here. Too much scrubbing,” she says. Her friend in a Margaritaville shirt whispers in Tagalog and they laugh. “Too small for me. Maybe for my daughter,” the Westin lady says. She opens her phone and shows me a picture of a girl about my age, holding up two fingers and grinning. “She’s in the Philippines,” she says. I nod. “Show me earrings,” she orders, and I do. “Clip them on,” she says. Her earlobe is fat with tiny hairs on it. I lean over the counter and push a gold hoop into it.
“Tell me if it hurts,” I say. Her hair smells like ironing and tea. I fasten the earring but I don’t move. For a few more seconds I stay there, with my fingers on her hair and my face close to hers, smelling her. I wonder if her daughter remembers how she smells. I want to whisper to her, “What does sex feel like? Can you move while a guy does it to you, or are you supposed to stay still like a doll?” but instead I lean back and say, “You can put these on layaway for just ten dollars.”
She clicks her tongue and says, “Not today. Maybe when I get paid.” I shake her hand. It is hard and warm.
I want to keep talking to her, but Dad needs me to test a gold bracelet. I spill a drop of eighteen-karat acid on my palm as I watch the Westin lady leave. My hand will be yellow and flakey soon. The bracelet is plated. I whisper to Dad and make him break the news to the lady with a little boy on her shoulders.
At 7:00 we pull the grates down over the windows. We pile the jewelry and phones and laptops in the safe in case we get robbed. We wheel the bikes inside. The broken ones make a soft ticking noise, like the sound of the moms at Rubina’s church when their babies cry. Dad counts the cash and whistles “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Then he clicks through the computer.
“Y’all did a pawn on a chainsaw?” he says. My hands shake. I crawl behind a TV and pretend to be looking for something.
“Yes,” I say, the word like Styrofoam in my mouth. A part of my brain wants me to stand up, run to him, and tell him that we lied, but my knees stay stuck to the ground. If Dad can’t trust me, he will have almost no one left to trust. Customers lie to Dad for ten hours a day, every day but Sunday—they tell him a chain is eighteen-karat when they know it’s ten-karat. They say a violin belonged to their grandfather when they took it from a tourist’s hotel room. Head office lies to Dad too. They say they’ll send new diamond testers and uniforms and pens. They say they will promote Dad to Regional Manager, but they never do. Dad’s friends lie to him too. His friends are other people’s moms. He finds them at the cruise ship bars. They have sunburns, windbreakers around their waists, bright toenails, and wrinkles on the sides of their eyes. Sometimes they sleep with Dad. Sometimes, after that, they eat breakfast with me. They ask me what I want to be when I grow up and what my favorite color is, as if it matters to them. They don’t look at my eyes. They say they’ll come back to Cayman as soon as they can. They say they sure wouldn’t miss the snow in Denver or Boston or Toronto or wherever they’re from, but we know they are lying. I would never want Dad to love anybody more than me, but sometimes I wish he could trust somebody more than he trusts me.
I turn off the Cash for Gold sign. I watch the tiny bulbs fade from red and blue to clear. Then Remy sets the alarm and we all walk out to the parking lot together. Dad’s truck and Clovis’s car are parked side by side. They were pawned by the same guy a few years ago and they have the same weird smell—like horses and rice. I hug Rubina.
“I’ll miss you,” I say. I really will miss her, even though I’ll see her tomorrow.
“I’ll miss you too,” she says. There is so much we need to say that we can’t say in front of the dads and Remy.
“Happy last day of year eight,” I say. Then I climb into Dad’s truck and wave to Rubina out the window until we turn the corner. Dad turns on the soca station and drums his fingers on the steering wheel. I think of Cherí, alone in the storeroom. I wonder if she misses Ian Burger and if he misses her.
The puddles on the road glow like watch faces. The sky turns star fruit–orange and melts into the ocean. The cruise ship families are out, dressed in all blue or all white, grinning at photographers. Even if they have spent their cruise yelling at each other, like they do in the store, they’ll have pictures of themselves looking happy to hang in their houses—like certificates that they were nice to each other on a boat for a whole week. We drive past the golf course. Dad turns down the music.
“Anything on your mind, baby?” he says.
“No,” I say. I roll down my window and make my hand dive in and out of the wind like a dolphin. Then I feel Dad raking his fingers through my hair the way he does when I can’t fall asleep. I lean my head on his shoulder and watch the truck swallow the yellow lines on the road until we are home.
MEG RICHARDSON is a writer living in New York City. She is a Creative Writing Teaching Fellow at Columbia University, where she is earning her MFA in writing and translation. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, Lit Hub, Chaleur Magazine, and elsewhere. Her translation from French to English of Marie Robert’s book When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher was published by Little, Brown and Company in November of 2019. More of her work can be seen at meg-richardson.com.