Written by Katherine Tomlinson
Illustrated by Mark Satchwill
Gillis Montgomery didn’t like his wife working at the North Hollywood pawn shop. It was the biggest one they owned, but it was a trouble magnet, especially after a guy got shot trying to pass stolen goods while Orla was there alone.
But Orla knew jewelry inside and out—“All those years of dress up,” she liked to say—and people were coming in every day hoping to exchange their valuables for enough money to pay their electric bill so they could keep the A/C on. Gillis could value most items with a cursory glance but he was clueless about bling.
Or so he claimed.
In truth, he hated dealing with jewelry. The misery was just too intimate when a woman came in to pawn her engagement ring, or a man brought in his father’s turquoise-inlaid cufflinks as collateral for a loan. The baubles were rarely worth much and the shame and despair of the people offering them up was like a wave of body odor—you couldn’t see it but the smell was so strong it could knock you off your feet.
Orla was better at dealing with the emotional stuff than he was.
Or so he liked to think.
When Martin Prentice walked through the door, Gillis heard Orla sigh.
Prentice was one of their regulars, a veteran who came in a couple times a month to pawn bits and pieces he’d scrounged from different places. Orla had asked him once where he came by all the things and he’d told her he kept an eye out for moving vans because people who were moving would often leave things behind because they didn’t have room for them or they wanted to buy new stuff. Orla thought that was a disgrace—throwing away perfectly good items that weren’t worn out seemed like a sin to her—but she was happy Prentice could get some profit out of them himself. He brought them lots of ugly lamps.
In the beginning, Prentice had parked his clapped-out Toyota in front of the shop, and it had been clear he was living in it. Back then, the stuff he brought to the shop were household things he’d apparently taken with him when he moved out—picture frames and flower vases and some fancy wine glasses.
Both Orla and Gillis knew there was a story there, and over the months they’d pieced together a picture of PTSD, marital infidelity and an apartment lease that was in the faithless woman’s name.
At first, Prentice had lived in a series of rented rooms but after a few weeks dealing with Prentice’s night terrors and argumentative ways, the landlords had usually tossed him out. Prentice had eventually gone mobile, living out of the trunk of his car, parking it at night near the Hollywood Bowl.
The Toyota had died around the new year and since then Prentice had been living on the street, preferring to sleep in the parks and alleys rather than the crowded shelters where he felt closed in and vulnerable.
These days when he came into the shop he was often grubby, his hair unwashed, his clothes stained. Orla worried about him. He was a reader and when he saw her with the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, he’d suggested she might enjoy Isaacson’s biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. He’d told her Benjamin Franklin was his favorite of the founding fathers.
Despite his protests that he was “just fine,” Orla had contacted the Veteran’s Administration on his behalf and been frustrated and angry that all they could offer seemed to be group therapy. After seeing homeless advocate Gene Burkhart on television, she’d contacted him and he’d assured her that he would reach out to Prentice, see if he could get into housing.
Prentice hadn’t liked Burkhart and told Orla that although he appreciated what she was doing he preferred she mind her own business.
Orla had been embarrassed and she’d backed off, but that didn’t stop her from worrying about him.
Gillis had heard Orla sigh when Martin Prentice came through the door, so he’d stepped up to help him.
“Afternoon, Mr. Prentice,” he’d said and Prentice had nodded his head in return. Then he’d reached into his pocket and pulled out a small blue box. Inside was a pin-backed scrap of ribbon with a star-shaped gold and silver medal dangling from it.
Gillis knew what it was instantly.
His grandfather had earned a Silver Star in France during “the Good War.”
“That’s a Silver Star,” he said.
“Yes sir, it is,” Prentice agreed.
They don’t give those out for hangnails, Gillis thought.
Orla came over to the counter to look at the medal.
All three of them stared down at it for a moment, then she picked the medal up, turned it over, and read the inscription. “For gallantry in action.”
She looked up at Prentice a question in her eyes.
“I’ve got no use for jewelry,” he said to her flatly.
Gillis picked the medal up and put it back in its flat box.
“Mr. Prentice, I can’t give you very much for this.” He tried to hand it back. “Not near what it’s worth.”
Prentice refused to take it.
“I don’t need but a few dollars,” he said.
Gillis nodded. “Okay then,” he said and pulled out his receipt book.
“Twenty dollars do you?” he asked, knowing that really he should only offer ten.
“Appreciate it,” Prentice said.
He took the money with a hand that had black grime embedded in its wrinkles but clean fingernails.
As the door closed behind him, Orla picked up the blue box and headed after Prentice.
“What are you doing?” Gillis asked her.
“We can’t take his medal,” she said.
“We can’t take his pride,” Gillis said.
Orla nodded her head like she understood but kept moving toward the door.
Prentice was in the parking lot, talking to a neatly dressed balding man who was holding out a greasy bag from Jack in the Box. He was talking low and smiling and offering the bag to Prentice, who eventually took it and walked away. The man called after him, “See you around,” and got back in his car.
Orla came back into the shop with the medal, which she put on a shelf below the counter.
“We’ll just keep it for him,” she said to Gillis, who knew when not to argue with her.
That night as they were eating dinner in front of the TV, Gillis nearly choked on a forkful of trout meuniere he’d prepared using Emeril's recipe.
“Oh my God,” Orla said a second later as Martin Prentice’s photograph flashed up on the screen, followed by a live shot of an attractive Hispanic detective from the LAPD serial killer task force giving a statement at the scene where his body had been found.
At the bottom of the screen, a crawl offered a tip line phone number.
Orla turned to Gillis, tears in her eyes.
“That son of a bitch,” she said.
“Prentice?” Gillis asked, confused.
“The guy with the fast food bag.”
She put down her plate, wiped her eyes and picked up her cell phone.
“Read me that number,” she said to Gillis because she was too vain to wear glasses.