June 3, 2016

Fiction by Howard Richard Debs: "The Watch in the Pawnshop"

Howard Richard Debs is a poet, writer, photographer, sometime artist, musician, singer/songwriter. At age 19 he received a University of Colorado Poetry Prize; after some 50 years in the field of communications with recognitions including a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Educational Press Association of America, he resumed his creative pursuits. A finalist and recipient of the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards, his latest work appears in Blue Bonnet Review, Yellow Chair Review, Crack The Spine, Silver Birch Press, InkStain Press, Scarlet Leaf Review, and Clear Poetry Magazine 2015 Anthology, among others. 
Author listing Poets & Writers Directory: https://www.pw.org/content/howard_debs
Author website: http://communicatorsandcommunications.com/muse-ings/

Photo credit: Taxis in Manhattan, early 1950s; oldnycphotos.com used by permission.

The Watch in the Pawnshop

It was that time of the month. He was due. He didn’t have the money he hoped to set aside to pay to ransom his previously pawned belongings, his grandfather’s bejeweled necktie stickpin, a gold religious medallion given to him by his wife which he had worn around his neck throughout the war, and another family heirloom, a ring with an amethyst stone, sizable and deep purple, “good quality” the pawnbroker had admitted, “worth at least a few bucks.” He would have to pay the interest, keep the loan going, hold out for another month. But how?

He needed a job after coming home from fighting in the Pacific, just like all the others returning from World War II. So he used his muster out pay and was able to obtain a hack license. After all, he had a family to feed. His wife gave birth to a baby boy, 7 pounds 8 ounces, all 23 inches of him, while he was overseas. Somehow he got a picture which came one day in the mail call. He was proud as all get out. He took the picture around to his buddies, “I’ve got a son” he boasted.

It wasn’t exactly like he thought it would be. Pats on the back don’t pay the bills. So he drove a cab. It was an honest living, but it hardly made ends meet once the rent was paid, and the groceries bought, the electric taken care of, and this past month, a new dress for Sarah, his wife. She hadn’t had anything new for quite some time. He wanted to do this for her, so he hocked his stuff, and now he was paying the piper.

He parked his cab outside the Canal Street Pawnshop at Canal and Eldridge Streets on the Lower East Side. He was looking for Ernie, but Ernie was out to lunch. He was stuck with Ernie’s boss. “Hey I’m due tomorrow. I don’t have it. How’d this be?” He took a photo out of a manila envelope.  

“My buddy was one of the marines that hoisted the flag on Iwo Jima. He gave me this picture and signed it too. Its gotta be worth what I owe ya.”

“Look pal, how do I know who signed this photo. You need cash on the barrelhead my friend. You got 24 hours, now scram.”

Dejected, he walked along Canal Street to the Cup & Saucer diner he frequented, and went inside. He sat at the counter.

“Hey Gladys can I get a cup of joe?

“Sure, you look pretty blue, what’s wrong honey?”

“I need some green, I’m kinda in a jam.”

“Here’s your coffee, on the house. Just keep pluggin’ away, you’ll figure it out.”

“Thanks, I owe you big time sweetheart.”

He went back, started his cab and began cruising the streets looking for a fare. He had his share that night. Actually it was better than he had expected. At the end of his shift he went to clean out the back of his cab. Somebody had left the Daily News on the floor and he found an empty Camel cigarette pack crumpled in the corner of the back seat and right by the door he saw it. A pocket watch. It was gold for sure. One of his fares left it behind no doubt, maybe it fell out of a pocket or a purse when the passenger went to pay.  He knew he should tell the cab company and turn it over. Someone would be calling and asking if it had been found. But he needed that watch. It was his ticket to get his stuff out of hock. He didn’t think twice. He thought to himself, it was meant to be.


The notice appeared in the New York Times Lost and Found classified ads within days:

Lost—Gold pocket watch, unusual design, in Lower Manhattan. Finder please return and receive liberal reward. Return to Hotel Astor.

Clem Darling was head of the city's pawnbrokers association. It was nearly 6 a.m. He was on his way out to breakfast after a rough night. He had his hands full the night before. A knife fight, a stolen painting, and a bunch of counterfeit bills, just for starters. He loved to read, fiction, poetry, you name it, and he was great with words. He remembered “hock” was from the Dutch, meaning a miserable place like a pen, a sty, a prison. As he headed towards the door to his office thinking of bacon and eggs he heard the phone ring again. He wasn’t going to answer, and then relented. Some hockshop needs my help he thought.

“Mr. Darling, this is Detective King, from the 9th Precinct. I don’t normally get involved in this kind of thing, but the higher ups asked me to handle this one personally. You get my drift? We’re looking for some lost or stolen property. It’s a watch. A gold pocket watch. It’s actually pretty special. You can tell time in the dark with it. I want you to see if that watch is in one of your pawnshops?”

“Who’s the rightful owner, can you say?”

“I’m afraid I can’t divulge that information Darling. Just give us a hand here, we cover for you all the time, now it’s your turn.”

“No problem, I’ll ask around and get back to you right away.”

He started making calls. He knew what was at stake. The police were the lynchpin in the pawnshop world. Like the bird that picks bugs off a bull gets a free ride and protection as its reward. A cop on the beat had dropped off a detailed description of the watch sent over from Detective King. So far he had phoned about twelve pawnshops and nobody remembered anybody bringing in such a watch. He decided to send around a flyer to some of the pawnshops in the area involved by courier. A day later, he got the call.

“I’m lookin’ at the watch you’re after Clem.” It was Ernie from the Canal Street Pawnshop.

“Is it in good shape?”

“Perfect, not a scratch. Now what do we do? I’m out a bundle.”

“There’s a pretty good reward involved I think. That should make it right.”

“What about the customer information, how do you want to deal with it?”

“We’ve got to turn everything over as usual, that’s that.”


He sat in the police station interrogation room, cold sweat beading on his brow. His hands were shaking. He kept thinking he should have turned over that damned watch in the first place. He got his stuff back alright, Ernie at the pawnshop snatched up the watch like it was one of the keys to the kingdom. “Never seen anything quite like this” was what Ernie said, he didn’t ask any questions. But Detective King asked questions.

“I’ll ask this just one time, and I expect the truth. Did you swipe that watch?” The detective had steely eyes that pierced right through the taxi driver’s gut when he asked this.

“I didn’t steal anything. OK, I found it in my cab after I finished for the night. I should have brought it around to the cab company. I used it to redeem a pawnshop loan. I had some family stuff I hocked, that stuff meant a lot to me. Look, I let my emotions get the best of me, I admit it. It was wrong. Now what’s gonna happen, whatcha gonna do with me?”

“You lucky bastard, nothing is going to happen to you. The owner isn’t going to press charges. Now get the hell out of here and keep your ass out of trouble you hear me!”


Charlie, the dispatcher at the cab company called him over as soon as he came into the garage.

“Get over here I’ve got something important for you to do.”

“What’s up Charlie, I start my shift pretty soon.”

“It’ll have to wait. You’re to go to the Hotel Astor for a pickup and delivery. It’s all in this note. Don’t screw up, this is V.I.P. stuff.”  

He left his cab at the cab stand outside the hotel, walked in the lobby and presented the note from Charlie to the front desk clerk. “Just a moment,” said the clerk. He picked up the house phone and made a call. “Go on up, room 1102, the elevator’s around the corner, take it to the top floor.”

He got off the elevator on the 11th floor and walked down the hall until he found the right room number. He knocked on the door. The door opened and an older woman greeted him. “Come right in please, she’s been expecting you, she wanted to meet you.”

They met for half an hour. He explained everything. She let him know she understood. He was immensely relieved and grateful. He had brought the picture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. He wanted her to have it as a token of his appreciation for not pressing charges against him, it was all he had of value. He told her the copy of the famous photo had been signed by a fellow marine buddy who had been one of the flag raisers. He wasn’t sure she’d accept it but she did and then she asked him to do her a favor. “Anything, just name it,” he said in almost a whisper. She handed him a small bound volume and asked him to take it to the office of the head of the pawnbrokers association in Manhattan.

By the time the taxi driver arrived at Clem Darling’s office it was late in the afternoon. “Here, these are for you.” He gave Darling the book he had been given along with a note. It was a thank you note. The book contained a poem of some length, it began:

Come walk with me, and I will tell
What I have read in this scroll of stone;
I will spell out this writing on hill and meadow.
It is a chronicle wrought by praying workmen,
The forefathers of our nation—

Darling thumbed through the pages, back and forth, stopping at the dedication page. He started reading:

When I began The Song of the Stone Wall, Dr. Edward Everett Hale was still among us, and it was my intention to dedicate the poem to him if it should be deemed worthy of publication. I fancied that he would like it; for he loved the old walls and the traditions that cling about them.
As I tried to image the men who had built the walls long ago, it seemed to me that Dr. Hale was the living embodiment of whatever was heroic in the founders of New England. He was a great American. He was also a great Puritan. Was not the zeal of his ancestors upon his lips, and their courage in his heart? Had they not bequeathed to him their torch-like faith, their patient fervor of toil and their creed of equality?
But his bright spirit had inherited no trace of their harshness and gloom. The windows of his soul opened to the sunlight of a joyous faith. His optimism and genial humor inspired gladness and good sense in others. With an old story he prepared their minds to receive new ideas, and with a parable he opened their hearts to generous feelings. All men loved him because he loved them. They knew that his heart was in their happiness, and that his humanity embraced their sorrows. In him the weak found a friend, the unprotected, a champion. Though a herald and proclaimer of peace, he could fight stubbornly and passionately on the side of justice. His was a lovable, uplifting greatness which drew all men near and ever nearer to God and to each other. Like his ancestors, he dreamed of a land of freedom founded on the love of God and the brotherhood of man, a land where each man shall achieve his share of happiness and learn the work of manhood to rule himself and lend a hand.
Thoughts like these were often in my mind as the poem grew and took form. It is fitting, therefore, that I should dedicate it to him, and in so doing I give expression to the love and reverence which I have felt for him ever since he called me his little cousin, more than twenty years ago.
Helen Keller
Wrentham, Massachusetts,
January, 1910.

Author’s Notes:
  1. Quoted matter of Helen Keller’s The Song of the Stone Wall is in the public domain and taken from the Project Gutenberg eBook version available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12093/pg12093.html

  1. Helen Keller’s “touch watch”, the prized possession on which this short story is based, was temporarily “lost” during a trip to New York in 1952. For further information about this special timepiece visit The Smithsonian web page: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_851873

  1. Photo credit: Taxis in Manhattan, early 1950s; oldnycphotos.com used by permission.

    ~Howard Richard Debs 

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