Struggling writer Dan Fortenberry takes an old TV to a pawn shop and gets a better deal than he could ever have hoped for; by Lou Antonelli.
I exhaled and then coughed weakly. "Heck, I was hoping I wouldn't have to lug this thing back," I said.
Suddenly we both heard a little ringing sound, like a small silver bell, from the far end of the counter where an old man stood. He wore an old-fashioned vest and had a haystack of silver-gray hair over a jowly face.
The pawn store employee took a step back from the counter, obviously startled at the sound. I looked at him, and then at the man down the counter, who had pulled out a brass pocket watch and was staring at its face intently.
The man across the counter from me called out to the older man. "I haven't heard that ring in years!"
The old man smiled, and then looked at me. "It's only for special occasions," he said with a smile. He slapped the lid shut and walked behind the counter towards us.
He rested his hands on the counter and leaned towards me. "Whatcha trying to do, son?"
"I wanted to pawn this TV, I'm out of work and could use a few bucks," I said. "But he said you can't take televisions over ten years old."
The old man winked at the employee, who stepped back, turned and left. "True, but we can buy it outright," he said. "Or better, trade for it."
"Trade for it?" I asked rather dully.
"Yes, I will trade you this pocket watch for your television," he said.
"Is it broken or something?"
"No, not at all," he said with a big smile, "it works just fine, has for the past sixty years, which is how long I've owned it. It's worth a whole lot more than this here dusty old television set."
"Then why do you want to give it up?" I asked.
"Son, I saw you as soon as you walked in, huffing and puffing and carrying this old TV, in a dirty t-shirt, your sneakers all scuffed up. You look like you are having a hard time." He pushed the ornate watch towards me across the counter. "This watch has always brought me good luck, great luck," he said. "You need good luck more than a few bucks."
I scraped the sweat off the bottom of my chin with the back of my hand. "That's true, I suppose," I said weakly.
The old man looked me in the eye. "You're hungry and light-headed. Listen, you don't have the strength to carry this TV away again, so take the watch, but..." he said as he reached over and popped open its lid... "let me show you something."
It was a beautiful watch, a genuine old-fashioned clockwork analog timepiece, with a brass body, mother-of-pearl inlay dial and golden hands with what looked like small rubies at their tips.
He circled a finger over the watch face. "Back when this watch was made, there was no internet, there were no quartz watches, so it was designed to do many different things," he said.
The face had four extra dials, at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock. Each small dial had a window beneath it.
"This dial shows you the phases of the moon," he said, pointing to the one at 12 o'clock. The dial showed a silver circle and in the window there showed a very neatly lettered indicator that read "FULL".
"This dial indicates how much time is left wound up in the spring," he said, pointing to the one at 3 o'clock. The little dial was calibrated to indicate 48 hours, and it had one hand. It was almost at zero, and beneath the window it read "REWIND".
"This shows any other time zone you want," he said pointing to the dial at 9 o'clock. That dial read 12 midnight, and in the window it read "GREENWICH".
"Wow, this must have cost a fortune when it was made!" I said as I stared. I pointed to the last dial, right above 6 o'clock. I noticed it really wasn't a dial, but a small enameled circle in a gold and white pattern.
In a moment I realized it was the Taoist yin and yang symbol. "This is strange," I said as I looked up at the old man.
"This watch was originally made in India a long time ago," he said. "I think it belonged to an Englishman named Clive, whoever he was. It's been passed along since then - always to strangers who need good luck."
"This little window is the unique feature," he continued as he pointed to the symbol, "as you can tell, the symbol is painted on. You need to watch the window."
He grabbed my hand, opened my palm, and put the watch in it. "This is where the luck is. If you ever hear that special ring, like you just did, read what it says in the window."
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off. "And do it! Whatever it says, do it!"
I looked at the watch in my palm and peered. I realized it said "TRADE" in the window.
He looked at me, still holding my hand from beneath. "If you always do what the watch says, you will have good luck, your life will always be good."
I must have looked very puzzled, because he laughed. "I don't know what to say!" I replied.
"Say, 'Thanks for trading me this valuable antique watch for a crapped out Sony television, nice Mister Pawn Broker!'" he said, with a deep chuckle.
"Yes, all that," I said, rather stunned. My gut told me I was being conned, but it was a beautiful antique, and well, as my last girlfriend once told me, maybe sometimes I think too much.
The old man used his free hand to close the lid and then clasped my hand and the watch between both his hands. "Now go with God, and have a good life, kid," he said, adding, "I certainly have."
Somehow what he said seemed very final and very serious. I nodded and turned to leave without another word.
When I stepped onto the sidewalk the Dallas summer heat hit me like a blast from a convection oven. I suddenly realized how hungry and light-headed I was.
I sat down on the bench in the nearby bus shelter, and leaned back. "What am I going to do for food?" I thought.
I still had the watch in my closed hand. That alarm rang.
It sounded so much louder now that it was in my hand. I popped open the lid and looked at the special window on its face. It said "TWEET".
Even as addled as my brain was, I knew that was strange. It certainly wouldn't have known about Twitter back in the last century. Maybe it meant I should chirp like a bird?
In addition to being light-headed the hunger had made me irritable. "Screw it!' I muttered. "I will do what the watch says to do."
I pulled out my smart phone and pulled up Twitter. I tweeted that I was at the bus stop at Main and Ervay waiting to catch a ride home.
I tucked the watch in one pocket and the smart phone in another other, and leaned back to wait for the bus. In a minute, I got a tweet back.
"Turn around," it said.
I did, and saw a friend of mine, Andy Bailey, was sitting at the window of the Burger King behind me. He waved for me to come in.
I walked inside. "What are you doing downtown?" he asked. "You don't look like you're on a job interview."
"Actually, I was at a pawn shop," I said, "I'm dead broke."
"Shit, man, that sucks. You eat lunch yet?"
I shook my head.
"Listen, let me buy you a burger, you can owe me," he said. "I know I'm lucky to have a job. It's my good deed for the day."
"Thanks, I really, really, appreciate it," I said.
As I snarfed a triple Whopper - with cheese - I thought about what the old man at the pawn shop had told me.
"Whatever it says, do it!"
That afternoon, when I got back to my apartment I found a meager royalty check for a small collection of short stories I had published a few years ago had come in the mail, so I had enough money to buy some groceries.
Like so many struggling authors, I had an "eating job", but now that the job had gone away, the eating went away, too.
I had thought about dropping Internet service to save money, but now that I didn't have a TV I just couldn't see how I could do without it. As I ate a cheap microwave pizza I realized just how little my check had bought.
The watch - which was sitting on my old Salvation Army vintage coffee table - gave out with a loud "DING DING DING" like it had that morning. That startled me and I dropped a slice of pizza on the filthy carpet.
I picked up the watch and popped open the lid. The window read "BLOG".
"OK, now this is creepy," I thought. I know there was no Internet when this watch was made, how does it know to ask me to do things that didn't exist when it was created? But... it may have been a fluke, but the tweeting certainly worked. So I grabbed my laptop and logged onto the Internet.
I hadn't updated my writer's blog in over a week - what could I say, "I'm broke and unemployed and slowly starving to death alone in my apartment?" - so I had to think a while to come up with something to say.
I decided to give a status report on my latest effort at writing a book, and in the process I went over the highlights of the outline. The book was only three-quarters finished, so I hadn't felt comfortable with discussing it earlier, but, well... I really didn't know much else to talk about.
I had finished the pizza and was watching Hulu on the laptop like a lonely zombie when my messaging alert went off. It was Gloria Gorzinsky, an editor at one of the Top Four s-f book publishers in New York. I had no idea she followed my blog.
"Dan," she wrote, "we are planning to start up a Space Opera romance line, and your book sounds like exactly what we will be looking for. Can you send me your outline and the first 10,000 words?"
Can I? Are you kidding?
I went into the kitchen and put on a fresh pot of coffee, and stayed up until eight the next morning. I emailed her the outline and sample chapters by noon.
It was nine months later, and I had used my advance check to buy a new car. I was test-driving it in downtown Dallas when I realized I was about to pass the pawnshop where I had been given the pocket watch.
I pulled a quick right turn and parked in an adjacent alley. The watch alarm hadn't gone off since that night when I got the message from Gorzinsky, but things had certainly taken a turn for the better from that day forward.
As I walked into the store, it occurred to me I had been so busy getting my writing career on track that I hadn't given the old man who gave me the watch a second thought. I felt guilty as I looked around the shop for him.
"Can I help you?"
I turned and saw the man who had first greeted me when I walked in before.
"Hey, remember me?" I pulled the watch from my pocket.
The man put his hand to his forehead. "Oh, you're the kid that Old Max gave the watch to!"
"Yes, and he was right, I've had nothing but good luck since then. I've even bought a new car, and I was taking it out for a drive. I just thought to stop and thank him!"
The pawn broken grimaced. "Yeah, you can't do that," he said. "Max died in his sleep that night." He nodded at my shocked expression. "Yep, he must have felt it coming, that's why he gave it to you. An old man had passed it on to him in the 1950s, when he was just a teenager, down on his luck in Abilene."
I put the watch back in my pocket. The man's gaze followed my hand. "He told me that when he first heard it ring, he looked and it said "DANCE". He thought that was strange, but the old man who gave him the watch told him, just like he told you, to always do what the watch says."
"He was standing on the corner, waiting for the bus to Dallas, but he followed the watch's advice and improvised a few jitterbug moves. As he began to dance on the sidewalk he moved away from the curb, and right at that moment the bus came up and jumped the curb, killing everyone standing there. Its brakes had failed."
"Yeah, Max always did what the watch told him." He raised his eyebrows. "I never knew whether to totally believe him or not but just looking at you, and thinking back to what you looked like when you came in here last summer, I know it must work."
A look crossed his face I didn't quite like. I patted the watch in my pocket. "Well, he certainly did a good deed," I said. "You have a great day."
I listened as the pawnshop door closed behind me, and as I walked down the sidewalk I heard a beeping as the door opened again. I didn't look back, but I thought it would be a good idea not to go back to the alley where I parked. I crossed the street to a pocket park where a gourmet trailer served up food and drinks.
I was looking up at the menu overhead when the watch went off in my pocket. A pretty girl in front of me turned and smiled at the tinkling sound before turning back around. I pulled out the watch and popped it open. The window said "KILL".
I sucked in my breath, and then began to look around, hoping my face didn't show my panic.
"Shit, this isn't fair!" I thought. "I knew there had to be a catch!" I snapped the lid shut and clasped the watch tightly in my hand, thinking for a moment to smash it on the ground.
As my gaze wandered around, it stopped briefly on the back of the neck of the pretty girl in front of me. I saw a big fat mosquito land there, rub its legs, and...
"Hey, what the hell!"
I had reached forward and slapped the mosquito dead.
She turned and faced me. "What are you doing?!"
She looked like she would kill me!
"I'm sorry, there was this big mosquito ready to take a chunk out of you,' I said. I realized I felt something on my hand. I raised it to show her a splash of blood and smashed bug. "I'm sorry, it was instinct!"
Her expression changed instantly. "Omigod, I'm terribly allergic to mosquito bites. Thanks a million!"
She smiled at me. "I owe you, err..."
"Dan, Dan Fortenberry," I said. "No, I owe you, I just shouldn't just smack somebody without warning. Can I buy your lunch, miss...?"
She smiled again. "Marianne Welsh," she said. "I'd be honored. I'm killing time waiting for a job interview. It's nice to have someone to eat with."
After we got our food we sat down at a table. "I hope I'm not keeping you from anything, am I?" she asked.
"I'm not in any kind of a rush," I said. "I have all the time in the world."
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the watch. "In fact, I have it here in my hand!"
"Oh, that's a great old antique. Can I look at it?"
"Sure, I'm very proud of it."
She took it and after a little fumbling, popped open the lid. "It's very beautiful," she said as she gazed at it, "and it's a real piece of craftsmanship. It has extra dials. She pointed with a dainty finger. "What do they all mean?"
I grabbed my pita sandwich. "Let's eat first, or else our sandwiches will get cold. It will take me a little time to explain."
"That's a good idea," she said as she gave the watch back to me. Before I had a chance to put it back in my pocket it went DING DING DING!
"There's that pretty alarm!" she said.
I looked at her, and popped open the lid. The window said "SMILE".
I exhaled in relief, looked at her, and then gave her the biggest unselfconscious smile of my life.
"You look very happy!" she said with a laugh.
"I'm a very lucky man, to meet such a pretty girl," I said. "It's the watch, it brings me good luck."
"I want to get to know this marvelous watch, and you, better," she said.
"Sounds great to me," I said. "Like I said, I have all the time in the world."