By Daniel Galef
I was either seventeen or seven years old. All I remember is it was a prime number. I had twenty dollars in my pants, a ten and ten ones, which was more than I was accustomed to carrying on account of it was more money then than now. One of the ones was in the other pocket, on its own with a cereal box decoder ring and a conversion knife. Like I said, I don’t remember seven or seventeen, it could have been either. I never paid attention to that sort of thing.
I wasn’t from a bad home, but I liked to pretend I was. I had friends who wouldn’t have respected me had they known. I got myself from books then, which is also where I got the game I was taking to the pawn shop now with the taped-up window. It was close and I was sure enough they sold illegal numbers chits that I thought they wouldn’t ring the police.
The game was to ask for a full ten for ten dollar bills, after picking up something cheap, letting the ask fall casual. Keep hands in pockets, use timing and body language to wait to hand over the stack until after you take the ten from him.
But you don’t hand back ten ones. You hand back nine ones and a ten. He counts them out, Hey!, what a kind fool! You gave me nine extra bucks, here, take it back. But you find the other one in your left pocket, say well now here’s another buck, plus the ten makes twenty. Just give me that. And he does, and you still have the ten, too. The gem in it is that how could it be a trick when you’re the sap handed over nineteen whole dollars?
He was taller than when I “scoped” the joint after school before. And he had a nose like a cigarette end. His head was shaved, which could have been television or it could have been something else. I spent too long ambling for something to buy, just the excuse for the trick but vital for the psychology of the thing. I spent a long time looking in the glass case he was at. There were knives in the case. A lot bigger than the one I had, which I had never used and never would.
I chose something blind, and bought it with two sweaty dimes. It turned out later to be a broken pen. I stood there after, him just looking at me and me looking at nothing at all. Finally I asked if he had a ten for ten ones, and he punched the drawer and fingered out the bill without me doing the body language or anything. I felt a surge of confidence. Little did he suspect!
The sheaf I handed back was too neat. The hidden ten was on the bottom. Was it too obvious a setup? Too neat? Maybe it should have been in the middle. I stood frozen as the monster counted out the bills. He thumbed over every single one. If he had suddenly cried “villain!” and flicked one of the great knives from the case I couldn’t have lifted one foot to bolt.
He took a time in counting. My mask of indifference must have been grotesque. Hands in pockets, shoulders scrunched, eyes everywhere in the room but in my head. For Christ’s sake, I almost whistled. In my pocket, I couldn’t feel the difference between the little knife and the little pen, whose rusty nib I slit my finger on. I was of such a focus, though, held up by the tension of a line straight up and down my backbone, that I didn’t but widen my eyes a little at the pain.
His eyes were slitted, untrusting, not personally directed but alone in the shop there was no other target. He was still counting. How was he still counting? And then he was done counting, and he put the sheaf in the cash and punched the drawer shut again, and crossed his arms, and his chin was pointed at the door. He saw every one. All nineteen. Must. I swear to God he smirked. I had no business left to keep me. I muttered two words and ducked, turned to run out.
I later realized, slowing down the summer street home, that he’d left me with the dollar in my other pocket, a clean one-twentieth of my original capital. That’s five percent, and that was a reasonable moral fraction.