Previous StoriesAli and Old is Best
Hurrah for Mr. Davis, Hurrah for Mr. Lincoln
Cave of the Oilbird
My Old House
What if Cats chased Dogs?
Cricket Magazine has graciously allowed me to post some of my stories here.
Current Story: The Suit
from Cicada, March/April 2010 with permission
The windows of the pawnshop are long boarded up, but the three brass balls, sign of the trade, still hang from a metal bar over the door. I stop by the side entrance. Narrow, dark. A bit of filthy linoleum lies half tacked over the stoop.
I know where this entrance leads so well I need not shut my eyes to see the boy of eight weighted down with his father's only suit-pawned each Tuesday afternoon, retrieved each Saturday before sunset. For three months of Tuesdays and Saturdays, like some kind of ritual. Done with such dispatch the father never suspected the journey his garment made before it was restored to him, brushed, respectable, in time for a Saturday night visit or, more rarely, a church service on Sunday.
I was that boy, bewildered. For each time my mother sent me to claim the shabby blue serge pinstripe, I paid Mr. Wiltshire a tiny bit more money. "Just till the paycheck, end of the week, love." My mother bent to kiss me. She saw my face. "And just till he gets his raise. It's coming, Johnny love, in a few months. It's coming."
"Back again, Johnny?" Mr. Wiltshire never smiled, but I knew his voice. The words were meant kindly. He peered down at me over murky half-glasses. Mr. Wiltshire was bony - tall, with a long, gloomy face, a blue-veined nose, and a thin, turned-in mouth. His wife, Jane, cared for the front shop, where the items left over three months were sold off. If Mr. Wiltshire was a broomstick, Jane was the broom, encased in a dress that tented about her, sweeping the floor as she moved.
I see everything. She smiled easily, her wide red mouth breaking high above rather large, protruding teeth. She lisped, but her voice was soft. I liked the sound of her s's. It was comforting. I don't know why, thinking about it now, but it was.
"Back again," Mr. Wiltshire kept muttering this particular day. "Your mum's a regular one, she is. If she'd stop smoking and . . ." I turned away, the tips of my ears burning as they are now. The man glanced at me, then suddenly moved to the back of the counter, busying himself with the garment.
"Must check it out for moths and stains and tears." He shook the trousers and, drawing the legs far apart, stared into the crotch.
He was embarrassed. I could feel it. But he was fond of me. I could feel this also. Perhaps that's why I accepted the errand. Something pleasant came over me when I entered the shop and Jane smiled at me and Mr. Wiltshire peered down at me. Something pleasant and comforting, bewildered as I was.
He laid a hand on my shoulder this particular afternoon.
"Come have a sweet, Johnny." Nodding, I dug out a chocolate toffee from a crumpled brown bag.
"It's your mum's way. Look here." He waved an arm around me. "Bits and pieces of the whole neighborhood is what I've got. I'm packed with 'em. Everyone comes here, one time or another, lad. Everybody gets hard up, one time or another. Everybody, Johnny. Everybody."
Mr. Wiltshire's voice dropped far down into his long form. He had a curious look as he repeated the word. But his hand was still on my shoulder, firm and warm. That night my mother forgot to turn off the gas jet high on the wall to the left side of my bed. It fascinated me, the blue-cold flame. The myriad shapes it assumed were the first tenants of my childhood imagination. What other shapes could there have been?
There were no tales of dragons and trolls and horses with wings and kings with cobras on their foreheads. I had none of these. Only my blue-white flame. The pipe came straight out from a plaque, then looped high and down, an inverted U. At the end should have been a mantle, but it had long broken and, as with everything else in the house, had never been replaced. The threadings had burned away from the raw flame. It would have been impossible to repair.
This night, on my back, hands under my head, the flame became a blue serge suit. It danced, headless, without hands and feet, on the end of the pipe. The movements were accompanied by a clanking. Suddenly the noise ceased, the pockets began to bulge, and the suit collapsed like a puppet off its strings. From the crotch came a stream of pence and ha'pence. And I knew, I could never stand again before Mr. Wiltshire, my hand extended for the coins he placed in its palm. Saturday was coming. This would be my last journey.
I trembled beneath the thin coverlet as the flame returned to normal size and shape. This would have to be the last such journey I would make.
Crossing the street late Saturday afternoon, I found the pawnshop closed, the door grille padlocked. No light, no sign of either Mr. Wiltshire or Jane. Right now, I feel in my limbs the same weakness panic has brought on me since I was very young. I stood before the door like the collapsed suit of my daydream the night before. Every sound around me inten-sified while whatever was within my vision blurred. There had been a drenching rain all day, and a car sprayed me with gutter water. The icy drops oozed down my neck from the back of my head.
Mr. Wiltshire hadn't told me he'd be closing early this Saturday. He hadn't told me. I began running towards home, the words screaming in silence through my head. Mr. Wiltshire was my friend. Jane was my friend. They hadn't told me. I always brought the suit on Tuesday and collected it on Saturday. I always paid what was asked. Always paid . . .
I was in front of my house. How I got there, I'm not sure, with the weakness in my legs, my eyes with tears as hot as the drops of water down my spine were icy cold.
"Eh, Johnny!" I heard a voice that should have been coming from behind a counter, and a hand, firm and warm, was laid on my shoulder.
"Just had a lovely chat with your mum. Brought back the suit while I was about it. How'd you like to work in the shop after school on Tuesdays and a bit on Saturday? Not much I can pay, but enough . . ." And he peered down at me through his murky half-glasses. I'm not sure if he was smiling or not.
The windows of the pawnshop are long boarded up, but the three brass balls, sign of the trade, still hang from a metal bar over the door. My parents still live in the same house. The gas jet in my old bedroom has no mantle.
I worked in the pawnshop till I was seventeen and went off to fight in Suez. When I returned, Mr. Wiltshire and Jane had gone up north somewhere. The neighbors didn't really know.
I never knew what Mr. Wiltshire said to my mother. She never mentioned the visit. I never asked. The journeys stopped for me and for the suit.
But I'd like Mr. Wiltshire to know, somehow, I'm stopping here, by the side entrance, narrow, dark. I'd like him to know I've not forgotten. He hasn't . . . I'm sure.