The first he sees of her is the back of her hand. It is white and not quite clean, which is usual for his pawnshop customers in this part of town. He does not raise his eyes to her, not yet. He waits to see what is under the hand. When it lifts, it reveals a white-gold wedding band. It is what he thought it would be, and he is simultaneously pleased at his own skill, as if he had guessed right at three-card monte, and disappointed at her predictability. Experience breeds cynicism.
Now he looks at her. A dishwater blonde stands on the other side of the counter. She is still pretty in a way, but far too thin for real good looks. Her face is nervous and unsmiling, which is also usual for most customers. Her skin is pale and freckled, the freckles cast evenly over her face and neck and arms, down into the opening of her shirt. Her nails are bitten to the quick. She would be utterly unremarkable if it were not for the odd tawny color of her eyes, which are golden as wheat.
He waits. He knows she will speak first. Women, in his observation, have very little patience when they are in need of money.
“How much can you give me for this?” she asks abruptly.
He gives it a cursory glance: eighteen-karat, average mass. “Eighty dollars, young lady.”
“Don’t you young-lady me,” she says, flushing. “I’m thirty years old.”
“That is a wicked lie,” he says in his precise accent.
“What?” She cannot believe it. She makes a move to take the ring from the counter, but clenches her fist instead and brings it to her side. “What did you say?”
“I said that you told a wicked lie. If your driver’s license says that you are older than twenty-three, I will give you one hundred and sixty dollars for this ring.”
She flushes, turns pale, opens her mouth. Closes it again. Finally says, “How did you know?”
He shrugs. Appraisal is his job. “Eighty, then. I am sorry to have made you angry.”
“I’m not angry.”
“That is another wicked lie.” How her color betrays her! He is interested despite himself, watching the blood come and go in her face and the skin visible at the deep opening of her shirt. “You should not tell so many. I can see that you are accustomed to it, but that is really no excuse.”
“Just give me my eighty bucks, okay?” Her face is hard now, tight-lipped. She wants only to leave his shop, to get away.
“Why don’t you show me the other ring?”
“What other ring?” she asks.
“The other ring you brought with you to pawn,” he says patiently. “The engagement ring. The diamond.”
“I didn’t bring another ring,” she says, and he doesn’t have to say it, because this time her pale skin is not pink, it is not flushed. It is bright red, like hibiscus flowers. He merely looks at her.
Her golden eyes are bright, as if with fever. She fishes in the pocket of her tight shorts, hooks something with one finger, brings out a flashing object that she clenches in her fist for a moment. Then she holds it out to him on her palm, which is white and not quite clean. He looks at her curiously. She is looking not at him but at the ring. In her face are wistfulness, passion, sorrow, fury and something not very far from lust.
“It’s the only diamond I ever had,” she sighs, and he doubts very much she knows that she has spoken. It is the first true thing she has said since entering his shop.
He takes the ring from her palm in his finger and thumb. He is an experienced appraiser and a cynic, and as he settles the jeweler’s glass in his eye he can already imagine what he will see: nearly a carat of wishful thinking. He scrutinizes it carefully, much longer than he needs to, then looks up at her.
“Oho,” he says. “I have found another wicked lie, but this time it is not yours.”
He thinks for a moment that she may pretend not to understand him, and he is prepared for this disappointment. Instead she reaches across the counter and takes the ring from his fingers. She looks him in the eye, spots of bright color on her cheekbones.
“Can I ask you a question?” He nods. “Is this glass? I mean, if I step on it, will it break?”
“No. It is cubic zirconium. The setting is worth a little, perhaps forty dollars. The stone is worth, shall we say, another five? I am sorry to have to tell you so.”
She stands for a moment, staring at the ring in her hand. He can see now that his news was not a complete surprise, though it must have been a blow. She is thinking hard about the money she needed badly enough to sell that diamond, and years in the pawnshop business allow him to follow her every step of the way. She has brought him what she had to sell, and it has turned out to be trumpery trash. What else does she have? How can she get what she needs? He sighs inwardly, and can guess her next words before she snaps them out.
“What about me?” she asks. Her voice is too loud. She is still holding the ring in front of her, as if offering him ersatz engagement. “What am I worth to you?”
It is his turn to decide whether or not to pretend to misunderstand her meaning. Will she prefer genteel misunderstanding, in five minutes or ten? Will she be embarrassed at her own naked need? But he sees the offer for what it is. No pawnshop transaction is ever as straightforward as it appears, but it is his policy to treat it so: it simplifies his life.
She misunderstands his hesitation. “I’d really like to fuck you,” she says, leaning her elbows on the counter and trying to smile. The lines of her face look like parentheses around her mouth. He can see the tops of her small breasts in the opening of her shirt. He cannot tell whether or not she is wearing a bra.
He shakes his head again, a little sadly. “That is a wicked lie,” he says. “You are very angry and you would like to fuck someone, almost anyone. You would rather it were not me. But you need money, and I have money.”
Tears spring into her eyes and she wipes them away furiously with the heel of her hand. “Fuck you,” she says. The bell over the door rings agitatedly as she wrenches her way out and flings herself down the steps and into the street.
Before the door can settle closed, she pushes it open again. Her face is sullen and beaten.
“Eighty dollars,” he says, to see what will happen, and the angry life returns to her eyes.
“Eighty? I’m worth the same as the wedding ring my jackshit ex-husband gave me?”
He holds out his palms in a wordless shrug. They are smooth and brown and perfectly clean. Take it or leave it, he is saying. I have a living to make here.
“Make it a hundred,” she says. “We’re not just talking a blow job.”
He feels his cock stir at the words, and he can see in his mind that thin-lipped mouth wrapped around his prick. “Ninety,” he says, and he knows he has her. It will be valuable to her if she is worth even ten dollars more to him than she was to her ex-husband.
He comes around the counter to turn the window sign to “CLOSED,” and he barely has time to pull down the blind before she is on him. “Let’s get this over with,” she murmurs. Although it is not the most romantic thing he has ever heard, it is remarkable for being only the second thing she has said to him with perfectly unmixed motives.
“Yes,” he whispers back, and his hands move under her shirt to find her breasts. She is not wearing a bra, and her nipples are small and hard beneath the tips of his fingers. He has never touched breasts so smallhis wife is a comfortable, plump womanand he thinks for one disconcerting moment that it is like caressing an adolescent girl. He forgets this thought when she utters a low moan and presses her hips against his erection.
“Keep doing that,” she says, and he does, rolling the nipples between his finger and thumb, stroking them, circling them, tugging them gently. They feel hard and hot in his palms. Her quick breath is warm and moist on his neck, and her hands fumble at his waistband. “Oh,” she says, as if she has thought of something, and she slips one hand down into his pants and wraps it around his cock. He groans. Her other hand is spread like a starfish on the small of his back, pressing him to her.
It only takes a moment for him to pull her shirt off over her head. He can see her ribs in the light that comes slanting in between the blinds. He reaches out to touch thembump, bump, bumpand then bends to take one of her small pink nipples into his mouth. He is fascinated by the flush on her skin, her thighs, pressing together, the lazy way she is stroking his cock, as if she has forgotten about it. He bites her nipple gently, and she makes a Hah! sound and presses his head to her chest. Her skin smells pleasantly of sweat. She is not wearing perfume, for which he is grateful as he continues to suckle at her nipples, left and then right.
“Now,” she says, without warning, and pushes him away. He blinks at her, his cock feeling imprisoned in his pants. She kneels down quickly, before there can be any misunderstanding, and takes his cock out. She holds it for a moment between her palms, as if she is appraising it, and then she slides it into her mouth. He feels her tongue, hot and wet, swirling around the head of his cock, and looks down to see those thin lips moving on his dick. Her eyes are closed.
“Oh, God,” he says, and rests a hand on her blonde head. She is sucking now, firmly and steadily, her hands on his ass, and it is like heaven. His wife has never done this. He feels the head of his cock scrub against the roof of her mouth, bump against the back of her throat. She swallows, her tongue undulating against the length of his cock. He feels with a lurch that he may come too soon, and hastily pulls back, out of the hot haven of her mouth.
“You want to fuck me,” she says from her knees, in a tone of voice that admits no argument. He cannot say that it is a wicked lie, though it is not precisely the truth either. He wants to come, however. This much is undeniable. His cock feels like iron. He nods. What else can he do?
She scrambles to her feet. In one quick movement, she pushes her shorts to her ankles. He can see the sparse blonde hair between her legs and a glimpse of the pink, wet lips beneath. Her hips and thighs are more appealing than the rest of her, to his taste: a little more rounded. He imagines that she hates them. He presses her up against the counter, his cock throbbing, and moves his hands over that smooth flesh: hips, thighs, ass. He can smell her nowthe rich, heavy scent of pussy. She is leaning backward, her palms on the counter, her arms rigid. Her wheat-colored eyes meet his for a moment, then slide away, and she moans. He puts his hands under her ass, lifts her slightly, pushes forward between her splaying legs, and slowly pushes his cock into her.
He begins thrusting into her now, sliding into her pussy and pulling back out, grunting slightly with the effort and the sensation. She is making some high-pitched sound, too, gripping the edge of the counter tightly, her eyes shut. He can feel her pussy squeezing around him. She is very tight, and he hopes he is not hurting her, because he doesn’t want to stop now, not for anything. His eyes close. He is going to come, going to comeand he is coming, coming hard, sweat breaking out on his back, holding her hips more gently now. He can hear her sobbing, panting breath in his ear.
“There,” he says, meaninglessly. “There, there, yes, thank you.” His cock slides from her. Wetness. The smell of sex fills the shop. She is pulling on her shorts, casting about for her shirt. Her small breasts seem very pale in the dusk of the room. All he must do is zip himself back up, and everything appears as it was before. That is a wicked lie, he cannot help thinking.
He goes to the cash register, opens the drawer, and removes ten twenty-dollar bills, a ten and a five. He stands for a moment and watches her as she puts her shirt back on. She is still pink from the exertion. Her hair is tangled, and she takes a careful moment to smooth it down before she turns impassively to him.
“Eighty for the wedding band, forty-five for the engagement ring,” he tells her. “Here is your claim ticket should you wish to come back and get the rings. And,ninety.” He lays the money on the counter, three neat piles.
“I guess I don’t get a claim ticket for that,” she says, and he thinks of telling her that she is a born appraiser and cynic. Instead, he shakes his head.
“What would you come and claim?” he asks. She makes a little snort of laughter.
“My virtue?” she suggests. “No, wait, don’t tell me. That’s a wicked, wicked lie.” She is mimicking his precise accent now, but the mimicry is without real bite. He smiles politely, but she does not. She takes the money, counts it, and leaves without a word. The bell over the door rings as she opens it, and the light pours into the dark shop. The last he sees of her is the back of her shorts, which are white and not quite clean.
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