We Buy Gold
by Venita Blackburn
Flowers and Eddie became recent regulars at Jonathan’s shop. Jonathan treated Flowers like wallpaper carefully chosen by someone else important, while anyone that knew Eddie knew to take him seriously. The shop wasn’t always for gold. First there was a haberdasher, then a barber, then a psychic reader, then a watch repairer, and then a dry cleaner. The barber strangled the haberdasher before the courts learned to care. The psychic gave up the shop after finding Christ only to lose Him soon after. But before that Jonathan raised his family in the city. Compton, California was neither urban nor suburban anymore. It had stretched out in a flat wrinkled pattern like an old suit that had been ironed, folded, smoked up, muddied, vomited on, hugged, sold, donated, adopted, washed, and ironed again and again. The city was stylish, young once. Heirs and heiresses to legacies of poverty were born there, sold their birthright, and made fortunes. Somehow the fortunes never came back to the city. No matter how many celebrities gave money or time to after school programs the weary buildings stayed ghostly and unchanged. Jonathan invested in his own business fixing watches. His father fixed watches. His grandfather fixed watches. His great-grandfather fixed watches, and his great-great grandfather made them. They had a talent for time passed down by mothers and practiced in sons. Watch repair is specialized business, meaning now it’s mostly just for fun. After Jonathan’s third child with his wife Azucena, she said no more fun. “Oro, oro, oro” she told him. Gold. The chant, an alarm clock, awakened Jonathan to the prospect of middle class living. He began buying and selling gold from the shop, and they made money for the first time. In the poor neighborhoods like Jonathan’s the signs on the shops were huge and red and yellow and electrifying. In the wealthier neighborhoods outside of the limits the signs were discrete and demure, salacious, and platinum.
The last customer of the day, Flowers, entered the shop while Jonathan peered through the layers of magnifying glasses propped up over his work station. Several years ago she vowed never to be seen without nail polish. Her artificial nails arced over her finger tips like those of a goddess summoned in the talon scratches of extinct tropical birds. Flowers and Eddie traveled together. He was the brother of her former lover that snatched chains for Flowers. Eddie was a dwarf with full dexterity in his hands and brown hair. He waited for her outside as usual. Flowers entered with scarcely the sound of healthy lungs and soft soled shoes. She noticed Jonathan working diligently on a watch and took off her sunglasses. She put them in her purse along with whatever urgency brought her in the shop to begin with. The moment wasn’t made for interruptions, for speaking. All of the tools and papers and lights and shelves of cups brimming over with miniscule gadgets fascinated and diminished her. She saw Jonathan’s face and witnessed the obligation a man could have to a single tiny thing, and then it all seemed funny, grave, incomprehensible like a child looking into her father’s wallet for the first time.
Jonathan’s Doberman remained silent and unperturbed, being one of few species able to recognize malicious intent. Waist high glass display cases divided the shop in two. Customers remained on one side, Jonathan and his dog on the other. In whatever seconds passed the three of them were content sharing that space in the absence of language. With such a delicate presence added to the shop Jonathan couldn’t pull his thoughts away from their usual cliffs. He did not ponder small wires and clock hands. He considered there must be some truth to the talk of heaven. What else keeps humans from running away from each other screaming? If it is love, then why have such a variety; there are parents and children and lovers and siblings. Even a victim is loved by a killer, some version of love that is. Something keeps one sex from overpopulating the other. How do our bodies know when to make a girl instead of a boy or on occasion both at once? If tall is recessive and causes envy, why haven’t armies of short limbed people exterminated their elongated enemies? Why haven’t there been centuries without brown hair? These are the things that kept Jonathan awake at night and dreaming in the day.
Hi, she said.
Jonathan dropped a pair of needle-nosed pliers and looked up. She put a clear plastic zip lock bag full of gold jewelry on the counter, mostly fragments, gifts from family, some from an ex-boyfriend. With certainty she believed it was all property of the dead or robbed. She was looking to sell, not pawn, which broke the inertia of the hour and made it final. Each piece of jewelry had to be scraped on a flat stone to leave a streak of dust. The dust was then touched with a drop of acid. The pure gold particles shone brightest while the worthless bits of metal dissolved in the clear wet poison.
The exchange of money for product occurred. Jonathan looked at her license and paused the way most people pause when they see her real name: Flowers Brown. Her parents gave her a name half Disney pet and half Blaxploitation vixen. Anyone called Flowers Brown should spend late nights kicking open crack house doors with buoyant upper breasts exposed between leather hot pants and an afro the size of all things magnificent and impossible. In reality, Flowers delivered the plain and gentle wherever she went, which is why she was chosen to go in the shop that day. Her parents didn’t give her the name they really wanted, something pretty and more specific. They weren’t the kind of people that knew the names of plants or how to raise a daughter.
In the bartering Jonathan and Flowers spoke the way best friends speak when they will eventually become lovers then grow so old that the sex they have doesn’t look anything like it used to, and in public they still laugh with so little effort that people smile at their marriage with hope and jealousy or mistake them for the special sort of siblings, the kind that are friends. Jonathan complained that his wife won’t learn English. She can, but she won’t. She watched judge shows on television and thought American women had it all figured out. Her lazy complacency confused him. Then he admitted that he hadn’t been faithful to her since their first child, but without his wife he would have been lost. They smiled together. There and just there, desires overlapped. Both wanted freedom that required incalculable steps to achieve. Jonathan’s desire to flee the constructs of his life ebbed though he would gladly fix antiquated watches, surrendering to lovely acts of irrelevance any day.
Flowers’ desire grew in a more steady outward expansion. Then there seemed to be time again. That infinite clock that began when Flowers came in rewound. There was time to hold and be held. He told her she would be happy for fourteen years. She asked if he were a fortune teller, but he was not. He only knew time. The seriousness in his face made her believe him, and suddenly fourteen seemed frightening. Fourteen consecutive years? The thought of being happy that long without end alarmed her. How would she get anything done? Then the alarm turned to mourning. Fourteen seemed insufficient. Fourteen out of how many more years? Twenty? Eighty?
Cute pic, he said and returned her ID.
He’d never said that before. Jonathan wasn’t tall and had an accent associated with gin drinking sociopathic hoodlums in B movies. Still, he had the rare and valuable kind of sexy that men get when their hands can make one thing into another. She asked how long will he be happy? To that he never had an answer.
Thank you, Flowers replied and left.
If she could have said one thought about the afternoon she would have said, “I’m sorry your dog is going to be killed.” When a murderer approaches a dog with a gun the dog doesn’t bark at the gun. The dog barks at the heartbeat, the sweat, and the eyes. This is why Jonathan’s dog didn’t bark at Flowers. She was just a gun.
Flowers had the bones of a queen and disposition of a fast food drive-thru operator, welcome, what can I get for you? And this isn’t because she lacked intelligence or cunning. She needed all of those talents to perform. She simply lacked any will of her own the way blenders lack will when they have no electricity, when they have no fingers to touch the on and off switch. There are people that are always waiting, the way Flowers is always waiting, patiently and harmless until a switch is flicked and everything inside is suddenly and violently unrecognizable.
The ex-boyfriend slammed Flowers’ left hand in his car door to prove a point she already knew. Flowers once arrived late for a delivery, a business deal stalled in the night. Despite her unwavering yield to her boyfriend, his crew accused him of losing control. It was their duty of course, a chorus of hooded alto-tenors chanting their warrior into action. The boyfriend’s duty was to act, pain and humiliation his weapons. Her shame was public as is common for women. He went to prison for something else altogether, but the middle fingernail refused to grow back. Then there was Eddie. He drove Flowers to the hospital the night she lost her fingernail forever in the car door. In the emergency room they made an agreement. They agreed to never like each other but to never leave each other and by any means clip the snags of their existence.
There is one thing truer than most others here. There is one essential thing to understand. Flowers and Eddie came to rob Jonathan. They came to rob him together. She nodded to Eddie as she walked out of the shop, just a nod. So he went inside.
In his peripheral vision Jonathan saw Eddie and remembered a man that tried to make him laugh. The man said “so a dwarf walks into a gay bar and says put ‘em where I can see ‘em. One guy says they’re already at eye level.” The man laughed and spit and cried a little but Jonathan just wondered. Better, he thought, is if the dwarf plans to rob the gay bar, which would give his statement some credibility. Actually, the bar should be next to a bank, so the robber makes the mistake of thinking the bar is the bank. Beyond that the robber should be blind because a blind dwarf in a gay bar is funny due to the fact that populous thinking is crude and insensitive to minorities, gay or little or disabled. Ultimately, a blind dwarf goes to rob a bank, but the bank turns out to be a gay bar. The punch line remains unchanged as stated before.
Eddie walked into the shop with the deliberate steps of a man carrying a chilled heart for transplant. In his hand where the heart might have been he carried a fast food bag instead. The ubiquitous letter M in the company logo gleamed like godly elbows. Frying starches such as potatoes produces carcinogens, Jonathan thought. Heat oil to unbearable degrees and apply. A harmless, nutritious vegetable is then chemically altered to include a cancer causing substance. The taste is beautiful, accomplished only through significant damage. Jonathan didn’t feel the bullet just the sound, the wreckage of their calm. His dog collapsed on the second gunshot.
Eddie entered the shop and met Flowers’ eyes right before shooting Jonathan through the French fry bag. They looked at each other and through each other and somehow beyond all plausible futures with the intensity of a couple considering parenthood at midnight. Somewhere in a city with green hills and no curses they would have many children because Eddie seemed the insatiable type. Their children would be of average height, and in the teenage years one day Eddie would be lifted from the ground by their oldest son and hugged close, and they would all know the hour they paid for, the grand moment had just been achieved and lost.
Before the light went out of him Jonathan wondered what could be different. Instead of a gun Eddie might hold a scarab. Instead of being human Jonathan might be a ram, a ram of some impossible color like water or space. Instead of Swiss watches there might be sun dials or water clocks, which were notoriously inaccurate: one drip for one second. Flowers and Jonathan looked at each other in the last moments of life and knew they were the same species grown from the ambitions of every other thing. Flowers ushered Jonathan to the altar where Eddie waited, an elevated place for union and sacrifice, a flat rock where the afternoon sun is gentle and dogs refuse to bark