Walter Bumpus was forty-three days shy of his eighty-first birthday when his calendar finally ran out. His last words were less than poetic.
“Not too shabby,” he said, placing his empty dish on the counter. “I think I’ll have that again for dinner. Leave it out and I’ll fix another plate when I get hungry,” he told wife number three, as he shuffled across the linoleum floor stabbing the tile with his cane for traction and stability. His wife nodded in faint recognition of her husband’s declaration and went on violently scrubbing a casserole dish over the sink as if it had done her harm in a past life. Theirs was a relationship built on good housekeeping and very few words.
Dora had been the Bumpus family’s maid for more than thirty years and only married Walter twelve years prior after wife number two lost her bout with cancer. Dora continued to look after Walter, and he included her in his will. That was the deal. He knew Dora had never had a retirement plan before and that she found great comfort in this arrangement because Walter had a green thumb when it came to growing dollar bills. He joked in front of his friends that Dora was sharing a bed with her 401k.
“Mr. Walt is nice enough and much too old to get frisky, so it’s not so bad,” she often said in her defense. “He provides good. Besides, he always make me laugh.”
In 1953, Walter Bumpus opened Bumpus Pawn with his older brother Harold. Seven years later, he bought Harold out and became the sole proprietor. The business flourished under Walter’s personable demeanor and keen eye for a deal. He was a world class haggler and could whittle down the financial dreams of the poor and desperate with the best of them. He felt no guilt or shame. It was business—nothing personal.
* * *
Earlier that morning at precisely 7 a.m., Walter arrived at the shop, struggled to park and exit his ‘65 Lincoln Continental, and waddled to the door where he would fumble through his keys until finding the right one to start the day. He’d been doing the same thing every single day, except for Sundays, for as long as he could remember and it never dawned on him that today might be his last.
When the key finally tripped the mechanism, Walter entered with his usual lumbering stagger, shutting the door behind him, and making his way to the alarm system. The sound grated on him as he strained to see the tiny numbers on the keypad and defuse the blaring noise. It reminded him of the war—not the sound, but rather the tension it created inside him. He took a deep breath once it had ceased and settled into his usual spot behind the old pine-top desk. Hidden among the file cabinets was a small dorm fridge containing what remained of the previous day’s thirty-pack of Miller High Life. He took one out, wiped off the lid, opened it, and carefully poured its contents into a coffee mug that bore a picture of a dog that had been dead for over a decade.
He loved that dog.
He sat in the dark sipping from his mug for the next thirty or forty minutes until Lyndle arrived with his own coffee mug full of beer. Lyndle Wells was a middle-aged honky-tonk musician and Texas outlaw who worked part time at the shop to pay back his various loan tickets. Walter enjoyed his company and valued their friendship, and even saw Lyndle as the son he’d never had. Of course, Walter would never tell him any of this. A thing like that might go to the boy’s head. They spent the next few hours chatting about politics and the crosswords and pausing, occasionally, to sip from their mugs. In these moments, Walter felt closer to Lyndle than anyone else in the world.
At around 10:30 a.m., the store got its first customer of the day. It was a skinny nervous kid with an old Rickenbacker he was eager to sell—almost too eager. Walter’s first assumption was that the guitar was stolen, but after talking with the boy he decided that the deal appeared to be on the up and up.
“So, you’ve decided to go a cappella?” he joked.
Lyndle gave the old man a slight courtesy laugh, most likely wondering how many times he’d heard Walter tell that same joke. After a few minutes of haggling, Walter conned the poor boy out of the guitar for a few hundred dollars. He’d be sure to turn a profit on it, if only he had the time to do so. Meanwhile, Lyndle found a place in the window for the shop’s newest treasure and set it out on display. The guitar’s cherry red sunburst shimmered like an angel from a dream. In a few hours the sun would reflect perfectly off it and temporarily blind anyone who crossed its path as it called out to be played.
That was about all the action the store saw that morning, with the exception of a moderately priced accordion Lyndle managed to sell to a young Mexican woman who had excessively high hopes of Tejano stardom for her unsuspecting fourteen-year-old son. There’d also been a couple of well-dressed Mormons who stopped by on their mountain bikes to peddle their version of God to the two men sipping High Life from their coffee mugs.
“Son, you’re wasting your breath,” the old man said, refusing to accept the boys’ copy of The Book of Mormon. Walter was raised Baptist but had recently started accompanying Dora to the Sunday Mass at St. Michael’s on Third. He didn’t really know what he believed but found some comfort in the concept of God, figuring it had to be better than the alternative. Still, he was naturally suspicious of all religions and especially of anyone trying to sell him on one.
“But, sir, don’t you care about salvation—about a better life?” the blonder of the two boys asked.
“I think it’s a little late for that, son. Let’s just say the milk is already startin’ to smell funny.”
The boys looked at each other. The fluorescent lights of the shop seemed to echo off their straw-like hair as they exchanged looks of bewilderment.
“He’s pretty well past his expiration date, ya dig?” Lyndle added to clear up the confusion.
“But that’s all the more reason to open your heart, sir. We’ve felt the spirit, and it’s our mission to bear our testimony and show others the light. The Kingdom of Heaven is—”
“Crowded?” Walter stood up from behind the desk and began to approach the boys. “At least, that’s what I hear. I know all about how y’all think there’s some kind of limited space in Heaven, and how it’s reserved only for your chosen few. And if that’s the case, then why the hell are you here trying to recruit me? If there’s limited space in Heaven and I knew about it, I’d be keeping the key to salvation all to myself—not telling a soul.”
“But, sir, that’s not—”
“No shit, Walt! Can you imagine wasting your whole life trying to be good and righteous only to walk through the Pearly Gates and find out the place is packed asshole-to-bellybutton with blond headed kids on bicycles wearin’ their starched white shirts and clip-on ties? Man, that’d be the cruelest joke of all.”
The boys were becoming agitated. “Sirs, it’s not like that. You’re thinking of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We’re—”
“Look, son, it seems to me you kids have gotten yourselves all tied up in some sort of pyramid scheme here. And I know it’s not your fault. You were born into this, but that’s no reason to go around preaching something that was read out of a hat. The whole thing is science fiction, if you ask me. Now I’ve got work to do, so you boys best move it along and sell your version of Jesus elsewhere, ‘cause we ain’t buying.” Walter worked his cane like a cattle prod as he ushered the two young men out the door of the shop.
"Wally, I think you might be confusing The Church of Latter-day Saints with that crazy Scientology shit them movie stars are all into,” Lyndle said once the missionaries were safely out of earshot.
“Nah, I know the difference.”
“And what’s that?”
“The difference is there ain’t no difference. Scientologists are nothin’ more than fancy space Mormons, that’s all. It’s all based on hierarchy and recruitment. Those at the top prosper and those at the bottom do all the work. They might as well be selling knives door-to-door instead of God or salvation. That’s the problem with all religions.”
“What’s the problem?” Lyndle asked.
“People by nature are greedy. They all want more—more power—more money—more of God’s sweet blessings and this corrupts’m completely. It’s the same reason socialism continually fails and the pawn business is always booming. People want more than they can afford. Personally, I don’t know how God puts up with it, but it’s certainly kept food on my table the last fifty some-odd years.”
“And how does that have anything to do with what we were just talking about?” Lyndle grinned.
The old man did not. He had had enough. “Ah, you can go to hell for all I care, Lyndle Wells, ‘cause I’m going to lunch. Keep an eye on the shop and don’t go borrowing anything.” Walter gathered his things and began making his way towards the door. “Especially that Rickenbacker,” he barked over his shoulder.
“All right, but you gotta pick up another thirty pack on your way back. This one is about done-fer.” Lyndle opened the second to last beer in the fridge and leaned dangerously back in his chair. There was a slight crackle in the wood and a momentary battle for balance before Lyndle regained his cool.
The old man smiled at this and shook his head. “Well, we’ll just call you Grace from now on.”
“I don’t care what you call me, just don’t forget the beer. I’ll pay ya back.”
“I’m old—not senile or stupid, Lynn.”
“Coulda fooled me.”
“You keep talkin’, boy, and I’ll come swat you outta your roost and have me a big ol’ laugh when you bust your ass.”
“Careful. I’m not sure you could stand the excitement, Walt. Better play it safe and just go grab your lunch and maybe a nap afterwards. It might do you some good—put you in a better mood.”
“Hell, I always take a nap after lunch, like I always buy your beer, and neither has put me in a better mood, yet.”
“Well, maybe you could pick yourself up some wine coolers and some of that Mormon literature you seem to like so much. You know, to brighten your perspective.”
“My perspective will be plenty bright the day you start buying the beer ‘round here, Mr. Wells.”
“That hurts, Walt.”
“Truth always does.”
Walter let the door swing shut behind him as he teetered slowly towards the factory blue Lincoln that had spent the morning baking in the West Texas sun. The suicide doors were opened to allow the heat to escape quickly while accepting the old man’s briefcase and cane into the rear of the vehicle. Walt wiped his forehead with a blood-stained monogrammed handkerchief that had been a gift from wife number one on a birthday too far in the past to recall. He eased himself down into the driver’s seat and positioned himself behind the wheel. The engine roared with American pride. The car was handling its age far better than the driver. The Lincoln would be around for a long time to come.
* * *
After lunch that afternoon, Walter took his dessert on the porch swing. It creaked under his weight as he rocked back and forth. The breeze was cool in the shade and the pecan pie was rich. His mind wandered for a few minutes. He thought about two dead wives, a couple of good dogs, the Baptists of his youth, Lyndle’s hell raising, Dora’s Catholicism, and the blond boys with their mountain bikes and clip-on ties and limited space. Could Saint Peter really be that picky? And if he was, then wasn’t it all a crapshoot, one religion versus another? How could anyone know? It was like picking a horse at the races. All anyone can really do is just look at the stats sheet and weigh the odds. All bets are placed with faith.
Before dozing off for a short spell, Walt pictured a blue-eyed Jesus on the cross. He looked young but weathered. His crow’s feet reminded him of Lyndle, and so did his smile. Nailed at the wrists with just enough room to give, the Savior’s right hand seemed to beckon the old man forward. When Walt awoke a half hour later, he returned his plate to the kitchen, informed his wife of his dinner plans, and sluggishly disappeared down the hall. Lyndle Wells would have to buy his own beer from now on. Dora’s 401k was cashed out.
The ad in the paper the following week was simple and to the point:
Clearance Sale at Bumpus Pawn—Prices Slashed—Everything Must Go!
Doug S. Haines is a Texas-born musician and writer. His work has appeared in SLIPPERY ELM, DOWN IN THE DIRT MAGAZINE, WEST TRADE REVIEW, and REED MAGAZINE. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Fayetteville Tech in North Carolina, where he is the Fiction Editor for UNBOUND.