Pawn by Starr Davis
The narrator of Starr Davis’s essay “Pawn” is struggling—with financial insecurity, with protecting her daughter and herself, with the consequences of earlier toxic relationships. She feels like a chess pawn in her own life. Davis makes use of the multiple meanings of pawn, and these meanings, literal and metaphorical, lend nuance and depth to her narrative of reluctantly pawning her laptop at a pawnshop in the neighborhood where she grew up.
In her author’s note, Davis tells us: “To live in Black communities, where pawning is a savage, sacrificial act, is to survive war casualties.” In many ways, the narrator of “Pawn” feels that she is a pawn, a mere foot soldier, in a series of emotionally (and sometimes literally) violent encounters. “No one ever taught me the difference between being loved and being used,” the narrator tells us. She saves herself and her daughter but at a price—“We escaped violence but fell into the hands of poverty.” Her daughter is used as a pawn in a custody battle, leading Davis to employ blacked-out lines that her ex might use in court. Living with financial insecurity leads to the trip to a pawnshop. Davis brings the pawnshop alive through dialogue and vivid descriptions of the place and people. In the “gallery of guns and television screens,” jewelry and toys and valuables locked behind glass, she sees “a museum for the poor.”
Interwoven with the pawnshop scenes and her traumatic struggles with poverty, potential violence, and homelessness, is an ongoing story about learning how to play chess. A chess master in Union Square in New York City teaches the narrator that pawns protect the “royals.” Pawns must move forward, just as life itself does. He shows her that she’s also a queen who can move all over the board. She can be both pawn and queen, powerless and resilient. “Pawn” is a moving essay about poverty, loss, self-determination, and fighting to survive in a hostile world. —CRAFT
I am on the East Side of Columbus, Ohio. One street over from Lev’s Pawn Shop is an abandoned storefront where I met my ex-lover when we were in high school. He cuts hair now in a barbershop on the same strip. The blood of another boy I knew is growing flowers on the corner of Livingston Avenue where he was shot and killed. I was with him the day before, sharing french fries and my tongue. I find a strange sense of comfort while driving into this area—I never feel out of place in the hood. My silent aunties and uncles all come off the streets with their things. I am on my lunch break in a tweed jacket and ankle heels. Outside my SUV, I become just another woman from the neighborhood, not too far removed from everyone else. I grab my computer from the backseat. Its weight feels too much like my toddler on my hip.
An older Black man stops to look at me, his eyes resembling a man I played chess with once in Union Square. It was the summer of 2014, and I was wearing a white ruffled tank top from Plato’s Closet. I walked off the L-train from Brooklyn, up the metal steps, and came face-to-face with the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. I stood there, tourist-like, feeling both poor and rich, when a man interrupted me.
“Aye babygirl, why don’t you sit and play a game with me?”
“I don’t know how to play.”
“So? Sit and learn.”
I sat down, a little hesitant, a little curious. He had a gray prickly beard, and long silver locs that wrapped around his feet. He smelled like sweat and a sweet smoke. I listened as he named all the pieces: the knights, bishops, rooks, the king and queen.
“And this little motherfucker is a pawn,” he concluded, holding up a smallest piece. “Ain’t shit really, but you need this okay?”
The fact is, I need my computer for work, but I need money to move. We live in a lakefront apartment surrounded by trees. When I drive onto the property, it feels like we are escaping to the forest and this sense of sheltering makes me feel safe. I am easily seduced by seclusion. Even though I knew early on that I could not afford it. In the mornings we walk around the lake and feed the geese. My toddler-girl throws rocks into the water and sometimes at the geese, and I laugh while she runs in terror from their squawking. This is our third apartment since she was born. I think she likes this one the most, and I am determined to keep it. But the rent has increased. And I am sinking in debt from fighting in custody court against my child’s father ███████ ██ ██████, a man I can’t describe because he uses my published words against me in court. Court: another fake-safety.
Since having my tongue taken in family court, I have not written anything on my computer. It has started to feel like a tapped phone line. Each day there is a new email, threat, or message from my ex. I try my best to stay away from my computer whenever I am logged out for work. Sometimes, late at night, I fantasize about slipping my daughter into her own bed and sitting down to write. But I can never face myself in the screen light of its interrogation. My eyes burn. My hands freeze. The computer says: Who are you and why are you writing? I…I…I am a writer, I whisper over and over to myself in tears. Nothing ever comes. I eventually go back into my daughter’s room, put my hands under the warmth of her back, and cry.
My rent has increased, my income has stagnated. My mother warned me against breaking another apartment lease. I responded, “You think I am afraid to break things after what I’ve gone through, Ma?” My mother’s silence confirmed she understood her statement was out of line. Knowing that I had escaped a violent relationship and left all my possessions behind just to save my life and my child’s, she changed the subject. She grabbed her pack of Newports and made her way to the balcony that faces the bluish-gray lake. “Well, wherever you go just make sure it’s safe,” she concluded.
But where was safe? To her, safe neighborhoods were places where white girls jogged down the streets with their Dobermans. I have lived in a luxury suburb before, in one of the nicest apartments I ever rented with marble countertops and stainless-steel rainfall showerheads. I paid for it in the blood I spilled on the floor, dodging his hands and other objects. My objects. The Swarovski pen my mentor gave me at graduation. My porcelain vase from Montreal. He would scan with a pirate’s eye, targeting what he knew meant most to me. And that day, with my mother’s back toward me and the baby jumping up and down to Cocomelon, I looked around my apartment with a different eye—for profit. We only had two TVs, both too old for any real money, which only left two choices: I would have to sell my computer, or sell myself.
As I walk into the pawnshop, I am met with the musty kiss of all things desperate as my hand grips the steel-barred door. The signage out front is a poem: We buy guns, we buy gold, and cherishables. I do not think that last one is a word. Cherishables, like treasure, your secret heirlooms, the trinkets you aren’t supposed to sell or pawn. Might as well say: We buy spirits, we buy blood, and dreams.
My survivor’s mind says: I have a phone, I have an iPad, I have a notebook—all enough to convince me to blink away my tears and keep my place in line. I awkwardly stand there, shifting my weight when looking to see why the appraisals are taking so long. The Black guy behind me has two shoe boxes in his hand, reminding me of the time I stood in line with my child’s biological father as he pawned his Yeezys to pay our electric bill. █ ███ ████████ ████ ██████ ███ ██ ███ █████████ ██ ████ ██ █████ ███ █ ███ ███ ██ █ ██████ ███████ ███ ██ █████ ██████ ███ ███ ███ ████ ███████ ██ ████ █████ ██ ███ ██████ █████ ██ ██████ ██████ ██ █████ █████████ ████ ███ ██████████████ ████ ███ ██ █████ ██ ██ ████ ████ ███ ████████ ██ ████ ████ ███ ████ ██████ ███ ████ ██ ████ ███ ██ ██████████ ███ ██████ █████████ ███████ ██ ███████ ██████ ██ █████████ █████████ █████ ███ █████ ███ ███ ███ ██ ██ ███████████
The man looked at me with soft eyes and sighed heavily before agreeing. I knew nothing about pawnshops then, but I knew the term pawn to mean the foot soldier in a game of chess, the one you use to get closer to the goal. And so I was happy when my ex received the extension at the pawnshop. I was happy when I attended places with him and saw the way he got lower rates, discounts, and top service at the stores because of me, his pregnant girlfriend. No one ever taught me the difference between being loved and being used. I had a wild adolescence of dating dangerous men who manipulated me into committing small crimes, both against the law and my body. I could never tell the difference between someone who really cared about me or cared only about themselves.
Here I am again, unable to decipher the importance of needing my computer and wanting my computer, which to me, is the same as needing a meal but wanting it hot. Looking back on that memory has caused me to panic. I glance around to see if someone sees me, my real worth.
Suddenly, I feel sick.
“You alright?” the Black guy with the shoes asks me. I cannot look into his eyes, too afraid he will love me, or worse, use me in this moment.
“Yeah I’m good,” I say to the ground.
Against the walls is a gallery of guns and television screens—a museum for the poor. I have been to this place many times, in my dreams. Not this place exactly, but a similar trove. I imagine it like a superstore of all my treasure. There are greeters at the front smiling, laughing really, welcoming me inside. All of the shopping carts have wobbly wheels making them hard to push. None of the prices make sense. All the good stuff is in the back, and none of the staffers want to retrieve it for me. The things I need the most are locked behind a plastic glass at the front:
- the MacBook my younger sister sold behind my back to pay her cell phone bill,
- my mother’s fur coat I begged her for when I came back from college but sold at a consignment shop for groceries,
- an ex-boyfriend’s gun that he left at my apartment as a parting gift,
- another computer a job never asked to be shipped back to the company,
- another laptop that crashed but held 200 pages of a book I had been writing since high school.
The best part of this dream is when I make it past the greeters with the items I managed to steal: my mother’s old cast-iron pan, a childhood book I had forgotten about, a homemade card that my dad sent me from prison.
Back at the pawnshop, what I want more is the courage to walk out with my computer. I have only had this computer for two years since starting all over again. It was the second item I purchased after the baby’s crib.
I stand in my skin and wait at the end of the line of people waiting for a price estimate. The line is long but moving fast. In a matter of minutes, the appraiser can bring the value of your life down to size. Brand-new items no longer in style are offered at half their price. Gold rings that have survived wars and crossed the seas are only worth $100-$200. Guns are the most expensive. Even a compact handgun, like my grandmother’s .22, which sits comfortably between my thumb and index finger, is sold at $250-$500. It brings truth to what they say about a little fire going a long way. Guns hold their value because, unlike jewelry, killing never goes out of style.
I stare at the hunting rifles, television screens, and automotive rims twinkling under the faded lights. There are toy-size motorcycles and kid’s luxury cars in front of the jewelry display case. I peer over, curious. I wonder about the odds of me spotting my mother’s sterling-silver crucifix necklace, the one she claimed she lost when I was ten, the one I know she was too embarrassed to say she pawned. I remember walking in on her once emptying my penny collection on her bed, counting out enough to buy herself a pack of cigarettes. I remember leaving that scene, an ashy-legged middle-schooler with tape around my glasses, in tears. My older sister, who was my biggest bully but also my only protector, had told me if I collected 1,000 pennies, I would have $1,000. I started collecting coins. I would pick them up off the ground, from the sofa cushions, and whenever my mother had extra change, she would give it to me to add to my collection. “Save it for college,” she told me once, and so I put a piece of masking tape across a Crisco jar that said “college.” That money is all gone now. I never saved for college, but I went anyway, the first in my family to have a college degree. I took out loans in hopes that college one day would save me. But college will never save me.
In a single-parent home, I learned quickly that every penny mattered, even the ones from our piggy banks. My mother would tell us that heat, electricity, and food were all gifts for Christmas. We hated that response. I still hate that response. But it is a single parent’s only true response to the absence of luxury. I used to tell myself, When I am a parent, I will never take money from my child. When my daughter was born, I started a savings account, in which I stashed a couple hundred dollars to start her up. I was so proud to be one of those parents who saved money for their kids’ futures. But a month before this day at the pawnshop, after weeks of the car-loan representatives harassing me for payment, I cave from fear of repossession and withdraw money from my daughter’s savings account. All of it. Down to the last penny.
It was hard times growing up with a single mom, especially one who in a drunken rage would often tell my sisters and I that she regretted having us. Your life is over once you have kids, she told me once. Can’t go anywhere or do anything, won’t ever have any money. Two years ago, on the day I learned I was pregnant, I cried at the news. I remembered my mother’s words. I maxed out a credit card for an abortion pill I would not swallow. Half of me knew my mother was right, but the hopeful half, the other half that has me standing here in the pawnshop, is determined to prove her wrong. I set out like a lioness, juggling two jobs to keep the comforts of our lives, no matter the sacrifice.
The boy behind me smells like vanilla and Tom Ford cologne. I appreciate the opposing scents bullying each other to overpower the imperial stench in the walls. We inch closer to the appraisal counter, and all the people’s faces in line are hanging from their eyelids like worn curtains. I balance my computer, caressing the cardboard box like a child under my arm, wanting to whisper, It’s going to be okay. I have a habit of clinging to things—all things living, all things dead. I bought this computer to replace the one I had left behind in the apartment I shared with my child’s father. The websites for domestic violence victims advised me to create a safety plan before leaving ██ ██████:
- Have a bag packed.
- Have a place to go.
- Take all your personal papers.
One template stated in bold letters: DON’T TAKE ANYTHING HEAVY OR OF VALUE THAT WILL SLOW YOU DOWN. IT ISN’T WORTH YOUR LIFE.
So, the night before my escape, I touched all the belongings that I could not take: the books on the shelf, my plates, coffee mugs, Keurig, velvet chairs, pens, notebooks, throw pillows, canvas paintings, Oriental rugs, bath towels, and my desktop computer. I have no idea where I learned to shop with my heart, but all those household items were delicately chosen to be in my life. Those things had traveled with me from apartment to apartment, state to state, across years of adolescence into my womanhood. So, no matter where I was in the world, if I was with my things, I was home.
The day I left with my infant, it was a beautiful day for running. It was a windless, sunny day down there in Texas. Her diaper bag was packed with as much as I could carry on my back. Her soft body was strapped to my chest. When the window of opportunity came, I finally took it without looking back at my possessions. That day, I did not know that I would be inducted into a league of women who mastered the ability to leave their possessions to save their lives and the lives of their children. We escaped violence but fell into the hands of poverty.
Just as my arms start to weaken, an appraiser calls me. Standing there with my computer on the counter, I try to recall what my ex-lover told me about appraisals. He was the first man I dated after leaving my ex. My ex-lover schooled me on pawnshop etiquette. I recall his advice: Have a number in your head, and do not let go of that number.
I knew dating as a single mom was going to be challenging. My fairy-tale standards were expecting someone to see my child’s bright eyes and immediately desire to protect us, love us. Since high school, he had always made me feel safe. It could be the angel wings tattooed across his shoulders. Or that he once was a practicing Buddhist, who taught me how to meditate and release my thoughts. He insisted I call him lover, since the word boyfriend felt too much like husband, and fuck buddy, too insincere. There had been instant fire between us ever since we were teens. I was frozen in that teenage fantasy. When he looked at me, all those years since high school, he said I was different from all the other women he was dating. My hair was wrapped in a brown scarf. I was far from the girl I was in high school, but still I was still touching her in some way. I was still blushing from compliments only aimed at my physical appearance. No one had whispered a soulish thing to my spirit. At the present moment, I’ve never felt so much like flesh. I look at my computer, knowing how it feels to be inspected for value, and longevity.
He and I have not spoken in the weeks since I told him I cannot be with a man who enjoys being with other women. When I call him now, his voice instantly eases my nerves. “You doing what you got to do for you and your baby,” he says. We breathe together for a second before hanging up. He will always be the man who helped heal me from the man who abused me. This is why I let him go. He became a God, but I needed a real God.
I am having a hard time understanding what is important. It seems I am always sacrificing myself for intimacy, and my household items for money.
I remember being back in Union Square with the old Rastafarian chess master, who told me again and again to know my enemy. His wrinkly hands lifted each piece and slammed it back down with force, like we were playing a rough game of dominoes and not a studied game of chess. I admired the way he navigated the board. It preached to me.
“Ya know these pawns gots to move forward, like life be movin’ forward. You move these motherfuckas to protect your royals, got it, baby girl?”
I nodded. Still unsure. Still afraid of making the wrong move.
“So what piece can I move anywhere?”
“You, baby,” he said, pointing to the crowned piece. “Queen moves all round, this her board, baby.”
That was the first time anyone had referred to me as a queen.
“And my pawns protect her?”
“Yes, pawns protect her from the enemy, that’s why they important. They sacrifice for her, but hey, so do all the other motherfuckas. But your pawns,” he lit a joint, inhaled, and exhaled a cloud over us, “your pawns got to move and make the way. Set them motherfuckas in front of the enemy, you know who the enemy is, right?”
I shook my head no.
“Aww baby girl, babyblacksista.” He laughed heartily. “The enemy is all these pieces, all the ones in front is going to try to stop you. Anything trying to stop you is the enemy.”
I played my first game of chess that day and lost. But I am grateful to have this bit of wisdom to soothe my thoughts about selling my computer. I must sacrifice in order to move forward.
The appraiser is dangerously silent as he looks at the computer from every angle. I start to perspire through my blouse. He waits for me to announce my price. My mouth is dry. I do not know if I can sell another device. I panic. My ex-lover left this part out. The part that required me to be cunning, confident. I remember that I never came up with a price. In all my life, I never had a price. No man has ever given me one.
“How much you looking for?” the appraiser asks.
I hesitate before I answer. “Uh, at least $500.”
“Google says it’s only worth half that, so $250.”
“No, that’s not true,” I fire back, “it’s going on eBay for $680.”
“Yeah, but it’s also up for $445. So that’s not even half.”
“This computer is brand new, sir,” I say shakily. “It’s been wiped and placed back in its original box and everything. The mouse, the wireless keyboard,” I choke, “I barely used it.”
“It’s up on the Facebook marketplace for $800.” He does not take his eyes off the computer screen while he talks to me. “Why don’t you sell it there?”
“Because I am here.”
“I don’t want to short you, miss. If you can get it for more somewhere else, do that. Here we might give you half what you can get on Facebook. Would you settle for $300?”
“Let me go talk to my boss.” The man gets up and walks to the back. I feel the heat on my neck from stepping inside myself to defend my computer. I touch the cold body of the screen and breathe.
There is a bigger game being played at a pawnshop—the oldest game between the rich and the poor. If you have something of value, they will give you a direct sale price to buy the item from you. They can also offer you a loan, which allows the shop to hold the item for a certain period, and by the expiration date, you either return to retrieve or forfeit the treasure. The type of person who usually returns to the shop is someone whose heart is still there. As I wait, I wonder how many hearts are still here, if it is as the scripture says: Where our hearts are so our treasures will be also.
“We can let you pawn it for a loan of $500, but you will have to make payments or come back and get it.”
“So I’ll need to pay y’all back for the computer?”
“Yeah, or you can take the $250 and leave it here.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You’re getting more if you pawn it.”
“But I’m not, because I will owe you.”
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of how it is.”
When the court first ordered me to exchange my daughter for visitation with the man who ███ ██████ ██, I wished he would take me instead. I learned that a child is used as a pawn in court to bring the parents together. The goal is to not break the family bond but to better the child’s life. No one, especially a man, wants to have his power taken away. ██ ███ █ ████ ████ ████ ████ █ █████ █ ███ █████ ███ ██████ █ ███ ████ ██████████ ██ ████ ████ ██████████ ███████ ███ ███ █████ ██████ ██████████ ███████ The day I faced him to exchange her, I whispered in her ear, I’ll be back, I promise. She bent her spine in defense as he carried her away. My friends texted me, She is with her other family. My child’s father and I are both products of single-parent homes. We know nothing about family. And so, we were never family. Since the case, our survival is costing me everything I own. This computer is my family, but also another pawn, like my child, and myself. Tiny tools of war. My body knows too much about war. Though it is science that the law castles kings and topples queens, I am making an adventure out of surviving.
The appraiser handed me $250 for a computer that I loved and needed.
“You can always come back to get it, we usually keep a lot of computers in stock.”
“Do people usually come back?”
“Yeah, all the time.”
Ever since I can remember, I have known how to walk away from pieces of myself. And now, my cherishable is gone, and I dream of returning to get it. I’ll be back, I promise, I want to say to my computer as I wind my way out of the pawnshop. Back out into the street, and all the hood welcomes me hungrily—all of them notice my empty hands and long face. I move quickly so no one will rob me for the little money in my pocket. I’ll be back, I promise, I want to say to the lakefront apartment, as we move into a lower-income unit on the other side of town, where there are no white joggers, only liquor stores and pawnshops on every other corner, calling out seductively for more and more of me. I’ll be back, I promise, I say to myself.
STARR DAVIS is a writer and devoted mother whose works have been showcased in numerous literary platforms, including The Kenyon Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, The Rumpus, and Catapult. She has been awarded fellowships from The Luminary, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and PEN America. Starr serves as the creative nonfiction editor for TriQuarterly and also as a columnist for “Mama’s Writing” at Raising Mothers. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York and a BA in journalism and creative writing from the University of Akron. Starr’s personal-political writing has garnered accolades and landed her reviews in Longreads’ “The Top 5 Longreads of the Week.” She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry and creative nonfiction, Best of the Net, and Best American Essays. Starr resides in Houston, Texas, where she actively advocates for justice and volunteers with organizations that empower women. Her first book of poetry, Affidavit, won the Hanging Loose Founders Award and is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press in the fall of 2024. Find her on Twitter at @starrdavispoet.
Featured image by Sasun Bughdaryan, courtesy of Unsplash.