Jerry returned from the stockroom with a bin full of NES cartridges. "It says on the boxes that the memory batteries only last five years," he said, "but a lot of these should still work okay."
He set the box down on the cashwrap in front of an old man and a boy of about six. This time, he listened to what I'd told him about slamming things around - the box came down so softly none of the games shifted. He made sure to give me a look as he did this.
The old man wore a guayabera with ironed creases running vertically down each side of the chest. He had big hands and you could tell he'd spent a lot of years in the sun, but the ultraviolet seemed to have fortified his skin rather than toughening it. He was almost without wrinkles. You could see his age only because of the white hair fringing the sides and back of his head and curling up on his chest.
For the last three years, he and the boy had been coming to the store - once in December, once in August - each time buying one game. The boy spoke with us exclusively, since the old man knew no English. He only frowned and nodded where appropriate.
He said something to the boy in Spanish; "How much?" the boy relayed.
"Depends," Jerry said, looking at the old man. Jerry knew Spanish, but he didn't want to exclude the boy. "Really we price it on how much we have in stock," He continued. "Mostly we have unpopular titles here, that don't sell, and those go for cheap." He glanced down at the kid. He translated. The old man frowned.
"The popular ones, we have less of, and they cost more," Jerry added.
For the dozenth time, I made a mental note to have a word with Jerry about talking the merchandise up instead of down.
I'd opened "Fun & Games" across from the city library eight months before, after a protracted trek through lease agreements, fire codes, God knows what else. I let Miranda handle the hammer and nails of it. Three hours into our first day Jerry walked in wearing a Misfits t-shirt and a pair of jeans with a hole in the crotch and asked me if I was hiring. Most of the time I was glad to have him around. Most. He was a wizard when it came to old games. He could tell you release dates, licenses, everything. But he could not find it in himself to be positive about the products.
"I would avoid that one," Jerry said as the boy took a copy of Wizards & Warriors. The boy's fingers worked into the cartridge's grooves for a moment, and he returned it without a word. "That one froze on me, on the last level."
"Jerry was using the machine in the breakroom when that happened," I explained, which was true. "It's taken a lot of abuse, but for having been manufactured almost twenty years ago it's in pretty good shape. We have fresh machines in the display over there."
The old man frowned again.
"I already have a Nintendo," the boy said.
"That's fine," Jerry said with a smile. "You know, most kids your age won't take anything less than an XBox. You must be a pretty good little videogame coinneseur to be looking at this old stuff."
Jerry didn't realize that the kid had become uncomfortable.
"Most of the people who shop here are a little older, like my boss here. They say that the old-time games are the best, and I think they're right."
It was true - most of my customers were hipsters, gen-exers and the like. Folks who grew up with this stuff and wanted to keep playing it. For them, the money wasn't an issue.
The old man and the boy had been coming around now every December and August for the last three years, each time buying one game. December was for Christmas. Christmas, and a birthday.
There was silence; then the old man spoke for the first time.
"I buy him games here because they're cheap," he said, quietly. His English was fluent. Jerry looked a little like he had just witnessed a tree talking, but he kept his smile.
"I didn't realize you could speak English," he said finally. "Why'd you let me translate between you and your son?"
"He's my grandson," the old man said shortly. "He wants an XBox, but it's easier to buy him this when I pretend I can't speak English. Understand?"
Jerry didn't. He stared at the old man for a few seconds, his mouth working. The kid stared at the floor, like he'd been caught stealing. Jerry didn't understand, but I did.
"Here," I said, handing the kid the copy of Wizards & Warriors. His cheeks were apple-red, but I don't think there was anything I could have done about it by then. "It's on the house. Jerry, just leave a note for Miranda to take it out of inventory when she closes tonight."
I didn't realize until after they left - the old man didn't meet my eyes - that I'd probably made things worse.
I haven't seen either of them since.