Bottom Shelf

Jill Talbot


Back then, a bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay cost me around ten bucks. I'd buy the big bottle, the 1.5 liters, the magnum. Or I'd pick up Yellow Tail in the same size, a few dollars more. Always at least one of them in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator by dusk. 

The EZPawn—a small building with tinted windows and a bright blue sign—stood less than a mile from the duplex where my daughter and I lived for two years in a city that could have been anywhere but felt like nowhere. Back then, I always had a pink receipt, a pawn slip, folded and tucked into a pocket of my purse. My daughter had a small, pink bicycle. 

What stands out from those years not so much a story as the shadow of one. 

One night I drove home from the liquor store with a bottle—Barefoot, I remember the blue label—ready to settle behind the heavy curtain that always lowered after half a bottle (I never could leave a bottle until empty, so the curtain grew thicker, darker). It wasn't the first time I had tried to open a bottle only to break the cork in half, most of it wedged in the neck, so I grabbed a knife from the drawer and started digging, slipping the tip into my left hand so deep I dropped the magnum and stood inside the shattering, the spilling across the tile. Cheap white wine spreading under the refrigerator, pooling at my feet, its sour stench a scolding. 

During those years, I was on a Visiting Professor salary, thirty or thirty-three, I don't remember, but I remember the struggle, the way a rare trip to a restaurant with my daughter felt like a special occasion, the way I'd stretch that direct deposit as far as I could, usually making it to the 25th before the account dipped to around seventeen dollars. No savings (what would there be to save?). 

Five days to go, or three, or even one, which meant I always needed between ten and fifty bucks to make it to the first.

We had food in the house and all the bills paid, but I needed booze. 

So I'd set my white MacBook on the counter at EZPawn, where a brick-red-haired woman in bifocals tested gold on a magnetic plate or plugged in a boxy TV to check its picture. A group of different-sized TVs already lined the floor against the back wall, most of them tuned to cartoons or talk shows or a TBS movie. It was the lanky black clerk I preferred. He always sipped from a Carl's Junior cup and acted glad to take what I could stand to part with for a week or two.

Sometimes I cannot bear to think of the woman I have the capacity to be. 

My silver iPod. Twenty bucks. Our TV. Forty. A new camera, a gift. Thirty-five. Once, the computer monitor from my desk at school, smuggled out under a quilt in case I ran into anyone in the elevator. I don't remember how much I got for it, only the sigh of relief as I walked out of the store with wine money and a folded pink receipt.

My MacBook ended up on a shelf along the back wall above the hum of the TVs. 

I am listing these things, trying to remember all of them, trying to avoid what I pawned, more than once, to get through the month without giving up wine.

That night in the kitchen, my daughter sat on the couch in the living room. When I dashed out the door, I told her not to go into the kitchen, I'd be right back.

I've written about the EZPawn before, in an essay about artifacts—about what we leave, what we leave behind, where we really go when we go back. In the essay, I placed that pawn shop in Arizona—as if I could hide what I did by relocating the shop to another state. I wrote about "heavyset men behind sunglasses lugging boxy stereos and their speakers to a clear space on the counter" and "reed-thin cowboys peering through the smudged glass of the jewelry case." I wrote that "it was the cameras in glass cases that fascinated me, the way people could, or had to, let go of the way they had once seen the world."

Glass, glass, glass. 

Such shattering—a hint at the woman who had to let go of the way she had once seen the world because she could no longer see it, because all she saw was a pawn shop on one street, a liquor store on another. 

One afternoon not long before we moved from that city, the end of the month crawling to its close, I walked my daughter's pink bicycle, the one with the white basket with flowers, into the EZPawn. 

I got fifteen bucks for it. 

But that night in the kitchen, I spread bath towels on the tile and wrapped a napkin around my hand and I drove back to the liquor store. 

My blood obvious, seeping. 

I set another magnum on the counter.