By RICHARD J. BUDIG
If you think a snapping turtle can hold on until it thunders, try a customer who wants money now! Almost nothing will deter him — not even the pawnshop proprietor shooting himself in the hand in the middle of the transaction.
It happened a few months after I had purchased a pawnshop in South Omaha. It had always been a small neighborhood shop. In the three or four years before I bought it, the business suffered due to the declining health and final death of its previous owner.
He left the shop to three buddies, none of whom wanted it. They decided to sell it and divide the proceeds. But it took a year to find someone — me — who wanted to buy it.
In the meantime, the former owner’s hired man was left in charge. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it so much as it was that he had no incentive to keep the place going. So, when I bought it, it was suffering from inattention. It was up to me bring it back.
I was bending over backward trying to please folks, trying to get the word out that “Dick’s a pretty good guy,” and that I was anxious to make loans. I had probably doubled the business by the time this happened.
It was near the end of the day and I was feeling pressed for time when Van came in, but I made an effort to take my time and to try to accept whatever he had for collateral. He had been in a few times before. I thought that he would become a regular if I treated him right.
He plunked down a high-powered, gas-operated pellet pistol. “Can I borrow $15?” he asked.
It was almost new, and I was sure I would loan him the money if it worked. It had become my habit over the years to pull the hammer back, point the barrel into the palm of my left hand, and pull the trigger. How hard the puff of escaping gas hit the palm of my hand told me whether the gun worked.
Of course, being a guy, I knew that only an idiot assumes a gun is unloaded, and only a blithering idiot would fire a gun at himself without first discovering whether it was loaded. (Read with irony, ridicule, and scorn!)
So, following my code of guy stuff, I asked, “Does it have a cartridge in it?” meaning, does it have a CO2 cartridge in it — that big thing about the size of a finger containing compressed gas.
Van thought I meant did it have pellets in it — those little projectiles that come out the barrel. Yes, he said. It also had the gas cartridge in it. It was fully loaded, ready for action.
I was going to follow up my gas cartridge question with a question about pellets, but there was something so reassuring about the way Van answered — one of those all-knowing “Yes’s” that reverberate guy stuff — that I committed my first-ever guy-stuff gun error. I assumed it was safe.
Before Van could say another word, I pointed the pistol at my left hand and pulled the trigger.
As I think back, I remember that the crack from the escaping gas had a particularly deep-throated sound that day — similar, I’m sure to the sound that must come from the crack of doom, whenever it is that doom decides to let loose with a crack.
I saw the hole appear near the heel of my palm, with a sudden loss of feeling in my entire hand, followed closely with a sharp pain that ran up to my elbow. Then the blood flow started. It was black and foamy. It splattered on the floor at my feet.
Finally, it sank it: I had been shot.
Worse, I had shot myself.
At last, I came back to the moment, plunked the gun down on counter and grabbed a wipe rag. I was surprised that I couldn’t grip the rag with my wounded hand. All the while, Van stood calmly, a patient look on his face. Not worried. Not concerned. Just patient.
At last, I got the towel wrapped around my hand so that I wasn’t dripping blood on the floor.
Van took this as a sign that things were returning to normal.
“Well,” he said at last, “I have some nice speakers in the truck . . . want me to get ‘em?”
I nearly lost it. “Damn it, Van!” I exploded. “No. I don’t want to see them.”
“No?” he asked, a deep question in his voice, the consternation on his face slipping into real concern. After all, he needed a few bucks, and he needed them now.
“Van,” I said, “I gotta go to the hospital. I have a bullet in my hand.”
Still optimistic, Van asked, “Want me to wait?
“Van,” I said, trying to keep what little cool I had, “I won’t be back today.”
Through all this, I’m running around, unplugging things, snapping off things, all with one hand while trying to keep my bullet-riddled left hand above my head to keep bleeding to a minimum. Van’s following me around: “When should I come back? Will you be in the hospital long?”
I felt like giving him $20 just to get rid of him.
Finally, I said, “Come back tomorrow, Van . . . Okay?”
Van eyed me suspiciously, as though this was a ploy to get rid of him.
“I promise, Van, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Okay,” he grumped. On his way out, he stopped at the door as if uncertain, like he might stay after all.
Next on my agenda was to get myself to the hospital. I was new to Omaha, so once I got Van out of the shop, I had to paw through the phone book looking for the closest hospital.
That done, I headed for my car. By now, I had begun to understand why God gave us two of almost everything. It’s possible to live with one hand, but it’s difficult.
It’s amazing how much you use your left hand for driving. First, it hurt too much to be useful, and it throbbed so steadily that I begged God to show me a way to hold it so it wouldn’t hurt so much. Whether it was God or just my need, the idea of sticking my hand above my head occurred to me.
But I was in a car, driving erratically through five o’clock traffic. My only alternative was to stick my hand out the window in order to raise it above my head.
People riveted their attention to the red rag wrapped around my hand. Its loose end trailed behind like a bloody flag of surrender. It was full of liquide. It could hold no more. The blood began trickling down my arm and streaming onto the car door.
Te not-so-observant thought I was just a good natured guy going down the street waving. They waved back.
Finally, I spotted the hospital. I pulled in.
At last, I thought. The sweet tender ministrations of perky little nurses, the sure and steady hand of a doctor. Salvation was moments away!
The first thing they wanted was for me to fill out a form.
“But I’ve been shot,” I protested.
The lady at the desk looked, and picked up the phone while motioning me through a door.
Inside, the perky nurse in my fantasy directed me to a curtained off area and a gurney. At last — help.
She told me to sit on the gurney, and when I did, she closed the curtain and left.
I sat alone, a bullet in my throbbing hand, bleeding into my new jeans, the sick sweet smell of blood choking my nostrils, muscles tighter than a fishing line holding a 12-pound large mouth bass, and who walks in — a doctor?
A police officer!
He had a pad in his hand and an official look on his face. He was gentle, but in an official way. He began asking how I felt.
“It hurts,” I said.
Well, he didn’t mean that, exactly. How did I feel — you know — in my head. Was I angry about something? Had it been a long, hard day?
The light came on.
He wanted to know if had botched a suicide.
“With a pellet pistol?” I asked.
“Well . . .”
“For God’s sake, man,” I said, “I own a pawnshop. I have at least a dozen large caliber hand guns. I could certainly do better than this if I was going to kill myself.”
He smiled and put down his pad.
“What happened?” he asked.
I told him.
He tried not to laugh. Finally he left, and in a couple of seconds, the doctor was taking a look at me.
They never got the bullet out. They said it was too close to nerves that could cause loss of hand function if they dug around in there.
So I have this small lump between my little finger and ring finger of my left hand. It hurts like a toothache every now and then. It brings an odd sadness upon me.
Not that I foolishly shot myself. It’s that anyone who has ever been shot remembers the moment with crystal clarity. Time slows to a crawl. All your senses come up to levels of awareness you never thought possible. You see, smell, feel and hear like never before. For a moment, for a brief moment, you’re alive. Really alive.
The sad thing is that you’ll probably never be that aware again as long as you live — unless you decide to shoot yourself again.
As for Van, he came back a few days later with a man’s yellow gold ring with a quarter-carat diamond. We’ve been using that as collateral ever since. I haven’t found a way to hurt myself with it — yet.