On a dreary winter afternoon in the early 1980’s, I walked into a pawn shop in Pine Bluff, Arkansas with the only thing of value that I owned, a .22 rifle. Eight months earlier, my father had stood in the doorway of my office and said, “I gotta eat.” That was his way of telling me he could no longer afford to pay my salary. He said more than that, of course, the man is not illiterate, but those three words are what I remember. It’s a tough pill to swallow, being fired by your own father, but his business was in the toilet and I understood that he had no choice.
By the time I made the decision to pawn my gun, my unemployment insurance had run out, we had no savings, and we were trying to scrape by on my wife’s meager salary as a private-school teacher. Our TV was broken, and we badly needed the escape it gave us from our lousy circumstances. We didn’t have money to get it fixed, since nuisances like food and heat had to come first, and we couldn’t go to our parents because we had asked too much of them already. The rifle had sat in a corner of my closet for several years, just gathering dust, so I thought, why not.
The pawnbroker took my gun and held it up to a light on the ceiling, studied it for a second, turned it over, studied it some more, then he set it down on the counter and offered me his terms. I didn’t really understand how pawn shops worked, but I sensed it was a take-it or leave-it offer, so I told him I would take it. He filled out a ticket while he explained what was required of me to reclaim my gun, but I knew I wasn’t coming back. Then he tore the stub off the ticket and handed it to me, along with a twenty-dollar bill.
I left the pawn shop thinking about the Christmas morning the rifle had become mine. I was fourteen. It arrived as a gift from Santa Claus, because there were still believers in the house, and also because it would have been a bitch to wrap. It was a Springfield with a lustrous maple stock and a blued barrel. As I fawned over it that first morning, I could tell by the pained expression on my mother’s face that she was not happy. She was deathly afraid of guns. They ranked right behind motorcycles on her list of inevitable child killers. Something horrible was bound to happen, and if the worst thing I did was put out an eye, she would have happily embraced it as a small victory. I imagined the lively discussions my parents must have had leading up to that morning, because there is no way my mother agreed without a fight. But my father must have fought harder, believing it was somehow important, and this time he prevailed, but not without a compromise. I had asked for a .22 automatic. The gun Santa brought was a single-shot.
Two blocks south of the pawn shop, located on the ground floor of an old Victorian house, was Roger’s TV Repair. It was my next stop that afternoon. I parked in the gravel lot and went inside with my new twenty dollar bill and twenty-three additional dollars I had managed to scrape together. Five minutes later I walked out with our TV. After I got it home, I turned it on and sat down to watch, and I felt no satisfaction whatsoever in my accomplishment. What I felt instead, as the gravity of what I had done with my gun sunk in, was a creeping sense of loss.
The hours I spent in the woods behind our house, shooting at bottles and cans and an occasional bird, were some of the happiest of my childhood. I preferred cool, overcast days, when low clouds hovered above the bare trees. Except for the bird-songs and the rustling of the wind it was strangely quiet, but I loved the solitude, where I could be alone with just my gun and my imagination. I loved how the crack of the rifle shot echoed through the trees. I loved the scent of gunpowder that lingered in the air long after the report of the shot had faded away. I loved the sense of security the gun gave me. I was confident I could meet any challenge, as long as it could be met one bullet at a time. Encountering a pack of hungry wolves would have been problematic. After a day in the woods I would sit on my bed and carefully take the gun apart so I could clean the barrel with oil. I cleaned it inside and out, then I rubbed the stock with furniture polish until I could see my reflection in the shine. I performed this ritual every time, without fail.
Not long after the TV came home I found another job and our situation improved dramatically. One Saturday while I was watching a football game, the television that had cost me so dearly flickered once, popped twice, then went dark forever. I went to Sears at halftime and bought another one. True to my first instinct, I never went back to the pawn shop, because I was certain my rifle wouldn’t be there, and proving it to myself would just make me feel worse. Almost thirty years later I still think about that gun. I’ve had few regrets in my life so far, but my decision to part with something that meant so much to me for a few extra months with a dying old television is one of them.