The Poetry Stand
Lawrence Colton is having a terrible day. He hopes a little girl's lemonade stand will offer a little relief, but that turns out to not be what he expected either.
Song: Memories by Eisley
Hot, that's what it was. Hot, humid, and horrible. The sky was wide and pure blue, the clouds burned away by the heat like cheap, used tissue paper. The chime of cicadas—a sound he usually enjoyed out on his veranda with a tumbler of winking amber whiskey in the evenings—were an annoying, screaming pitch that suffocated the atmosphere as much as the sticky air. Their crispy husks were littered all over the place like abandoned coats: on the road, on the sidewalk, on the trunks of the tree rows, on the windows and roofs of the suburban houses. The lawns were green, well-tended, perhaps cared for by some adolescent neighborhood boy that went around and did it every Saturday in exchange for a few dollars for his savings jar, but the grass was beginning to wilt and yellow where it met the sidewalk.
Lawrence Colton paused and pulled out his handkerchief: a straight, strict square of ivory-colored silk, his initials embroidered in a corner in deep, shiny green. He drew it over his sweat-beaded forehead and through the thin, sparse hairs atop his shining head. His scalp was sure to sunburn until was it was as tender and pink as a filet of salmon. He wished he'd brought a hat, but he hadn't expected to be walking around outdoors today. In fact, he wished he hadn't gotten out of bed at all today, because everything seemed to be going wrong. The water heater had failed this morning during his shower, and at breakfast he had spilled his entire cup of coffee on his best pants, having underestimated how hot the cup was. Then he was late to meeting the lovely young couple looking to buy one of the houses he was trying to sell—a real beauty; a hilltop house in the Victorian style, small, but not too small—and they ended up driving off with one of his rivals instead. He'd have pulled his hair out at the roots if he'd had enough of it left to fist his fingers in. To make the day worse still, his car had broken down and he'd had to leave it on the side of the road and start walking. He considered himself too dignified a man to jut his thumb out and hitchhike, and he was frustrated enough that calling a tow truck hadn't occurred to him.
So, here he walked down the empty lane of identical houses and identical trees and identical lawns and identical driveways. He had only ever driven through here, and it was minimally less boring on foot than it was by car, which wasn't saying a whole lot. The sun beat down on him, his jacket hanging over his forearm like an enormous shed cicada skin and his briefcase just seemed to get heavier with every step, as if some sort of impish spirit was putting invisible stones in it. His tie hung loose around his thick, soft-with-age neck. His late wife's wedding ring was being branded into the knuckle of his pinky finger. He was hot. He was tired. He was thirsty, and he wanted to go home and take that cold shower he had so despised this morning.
Through the cicadas' electric screech, Lawrence heard soft humming. Dragging his eyes from the weed-stuffed cracks in the sidewalk, he looked up to find a rickety lemonade stand sitting under the spotty shade of a rail-thin maple tree. Lawrence licked his dry lips eagerly and picked up his pace a bit. Oh, he was so thirsty! Finally, something good! He would buy this child's entire pitcher of lemonade!
Lawrence's steps slowed and halted in front of the wooden stand, and his arms dropped as he stared in bewilderment at the sign at its top.
A little girl sat in a pepper-red plastic chair, swinging her legs and reading out of a thin, blue book. Stacks of books, like teetering cake layers, surrounded her on both sides. Some books were as thin as tiny children's books, others were immensely thick, and they came in every shade and color. He noted with relief that there was a pitcher of water and a lonely yellow cup along with an ocean-blue Bell jar with a single dime in it, but there was no lemonade as he had thought.
A poetry stand! Who had ever heard of a poetry stand? Ridiculous! What was this child doing, tricking good people into thinking she was providing some mild relief from the heat when all she was doing was reading? What little kid spent her summers reading books, anyhow? Didn't children frolic around and cause mayhem during summer vacation? That was how he remembered things from his youth, at least. Everyone sat still and read all day during the school year then when summer vacation came they threw those musty old books in the closet in a scattered, page-crooking pile and didn't think a thing about them until September.
The real estate agent sighed and ground his finger in his ear. Lips pinched thin he walked up to the stand, digging his wallet out of his back pocket.
"I know you're selling poetry, not lemonade here, but how much for a glass of water, little miss?" He asked, his voice a deep, croaking bass, thickened by saliva.
The girl looked up from her book and Lawrence found he was rather stricken by her beauty. She was a gorgeous child with a fair, freckled, oval face, dark eyes and dark curly hair, and surprisingly stern eyebrows for one so young. Her eyelashes were long and fanning, and her lips were a budding rose, red with the blood of adolescence. She stared at him for a moment, her deep eyes seeming to suck in every bit of light and detail, and he had to resist the urge to fidget nervously under her gaze. The jar found its way into her hands, and she tipped the dime out onto her book and poured the glass full of ice water. The glass immediately began to sweat.
"It's just water. It's free." She said with a slight lisp.
The aging man gulped it down like a dehydrated frog, exhaling sharply as the last sweet drop slipped down his gullet. Common, unclean tap water never tasted so good.
"Thank you," he said, returning the glass to the tabletop. "How much?"
The child's brow furrowed, though she didn't look back up from her book. Goodness, she would make a mean librarian when she grew up, or worse still: a teacher!
"I said it's free."
"Really, I must insist."
"You really don't."
Stubborn as a mule, that little thing! He suddenly recalled why he and his wife never had children: snotty noses, messy bedrooms, temper tantrums. He was a non-confrontational character, thankyouverymuch.
Lawrence wagged his head, dispelling the foggy wisps of memory and took two nickels out of his coin pouch and plopped them onto a pile of books, where they rung melodically and whirled for a few seconds. He began to walk away, one scuffed black leather shoe in front of the other, pushing down the soft, wilting grass.
"Time, You Old Gypsy Man, by Ralph Hodgson."
"I beg your pardon?" Lawrence stopped short, turning around. The girl was standing tall, holding her little blue book up and was reading aloud from it. She glared at him sourly at the interruption.
"You paid ten cents. You get a poem," She said haughtily, tossing her curly hair like a spirited mare. "And that's that, mister." She continued her reading.
For one so young her voice was enchanting, whispery with her lisp like windblown leaves, but her face and her body's stance was strong, and it gave her words strength too. Lawrence found himself standing before her again, not quite sure just when he'd walked back, his drooping eyes staring curiously down at the crown of her perfectly round head.
She verbalized through a dozen or so more lines before flopping back into her chair. She used her legs and arms to hop the chair forward so that her skinny, girlish legs were nestled under the wood again. Her fingers curled around the edges of the book, holding it open, and she buried her nose in it once more.
"You're very good," he said, his tone tinged with wonder.
"Thank you," the child responded curtly.
"Could you…" he swallowed nervously, but filled with intrigue. "Do you take requests?"
"Hhh-yup." She popped the p like an old-fashioned bottle cap being opened. She finally looked up. "What do you have in mind?"
He thought for a moment, mouth twisting into a landscape of wrinkles. "Charles Dickens?"
She mouthed the name silently back at him, imprinting it on her mind, and leaned forward in her chair so that she could turn the spines of the books toward herself. She gave each pile a quick scan, but didn't spot what she was looking for.
"Wait, that's right, he's down here…" she muttered, ducking under the table legs first so that her dress scrunched up around her middle and one lightly freckled arm laid awkwardly across the top as she maneuvered her head under.
"Mmm… HA! Gotcha, booger!" she squawked and surfaced again a moment later, curly hair in such disarray that one would have thought she'd stuck her head out the window of a moving vehicle. "What poem do you want?"
"Ah, well… I seem to recall a song about worms or such that I heard a long time ago…"
He wasn't sure if it was just a flicker of shadow, or if her eyelid had twitched. "I can do a lot better than Gabriel's Grub Song."
Probably a twitch then. He wrung his soft, knobby hands. "I confess to not being the most well-read man around. I don't read much at all, actually. I rarely touched literature after my graduation from university and forgot much of what I learned in those classes, though my late wife read often. But… I don't know what she read, or what she was most fond of. I was never interested." A hard, oily lump filled his throat: grief. He should have paid more attention to his dear spouse. He had grown into a bitter man without her to soften his edges. She would always read to him in the evenings after dinner and they were settling in for the night with each their favored alcohols: whiskey for him, champagne far her—"Drinking stars," she had called it, France being her passion, though she never learned to speak more than two shaky sentences of it in all her few decades—he ought have paid attention to her more.
"What about… what about, ah, Lucy's Song?"
She pushed the Bell jar toward him, in which swam three watery coins like silver fish scales.
That pulled a small smile from him and he brought his wallet back out. "A business woman, huh? A gal after my own heart." The new dime clinked against the bottom of the glass. "There you are."
She stood again, wriggling a bit as she moved her dress back into its proper place. Her little armpits were stained with yellowish-white sediments of sweat, though Lawrence supposed his were much worse. He discreetly sniffed at himself and suppressed a wry grimace at the salty smell. Not pleasant.
She stood again, balancing the fairly large book in her skinny arms, and read. Her downy voice was nearly drowned out by the cicadas humming, but it made him have to focus in order to listen and he had a feeling that she was doing it on purpose for that very reason. Her voice ebbed and flowed, words birthing from between her lips like she had been doing it for several lifetimes. She painted a world of sound for him to hear and visualize. In the time that it too her to recite "Lucy's Song," he felt as if the heat lessened for a moment, the beads of sweat on his skin becoming droplets of morning dew.
Then the poem ended and the spell was broken. The real world flooded back to drown him.
"How old are you?" Lawrence asked.
"Nine, but I'll be ten on Tuesday."
His grey eyebrows lifted. "Well, tickle me impressed. If fifty-two and I don't think I could recite those poems half as well as you do."
She yawned a little, covering the circle of her mouth with her hands. Her knuckles still dimpled. "Thanks."
"Do you write your own poems?"
"Sometimes," she admitted, setting her elbows down and planting her round, rosy cheeks in her palms. "I'm not as good as Dickens, though, or Fitzgerald, or Shakespeare… or my teacher."
"I'd like to hear one of yours."
"Ten cents," she said, already unfolding her gangly limbs upward again.
Another coin fell into the jar. "You don't have to stand on my account, little miss."
She glared at him, clasping her hands behind her back. "I have manners, you know. Ahem. Dandelion, by me.
"Dandelion, dandelion, bright and sunny,
"When I try to smell you my nose feels funny.
"One day you are the sun,
"But when the real one goes down, away do you run,
"Hiding your face like a baby playing peekaboo.
"Then when the next day comes, open up again you do.
"White like the moon now, but your hair is thin and you are old,
"Your color all gone, no longer so bold.
"A little breath can blow you away,
"Oh, dandelion, I wish we could still play."
She made an awkward little curtsy this time, nearly falling forward as her arms outbalanced her. Lawrence lightly clapped his slippery hands.
"That was lovely."
"Thank you. I wrote it for English class last year. Mrs. Robbards sent it to a competition and I won ten dollars and a journal."
"That's really something. Do you write your poems in that journal?"
"No, I had to get a new one last Christmas—I ran out of pages."
Impressive, this child! She was still only a baby, really, but was extraordinarily bright for her age. The girl was destined to go places, he was sure. Perhaps, once she was older, she would be someone worth sponsoring. Lawrence found the idea quite appealing. Goodness, why hadn't he and his wife ever had a child?
"Do you only write poems, or do you write things like stories and songs as well?"
She leaned back in her chair, crossing her firm-fleshed arms with an incredulous expression. "Mister, this is a poetry stand, not MTV."
He laughed, quickly covering his open mouth with the back of his hand. Such sharp wit!
"I should hope not! All right, no songs then. Let me introduce myself: I'm Lawrence Colton, realtor. I'd shake your hand, but I don't think you'd like to shake my sweaty mitts. What is your name?"
She stuck her hand out into the air and wiggled it, mimicking a handshake. "Julia. Julia Jenkins."
Lawrence's mind drew up short, his breath catching on a fishhook stuck in his chest—a small but painful, bleeding wound.
He released the breath shakily, mopping his brow with his damp handkerchief to hide his burning green eyes. "I'm sorry. My wife's name was Julia, you see, and…"
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said rather insincerely, but he took little notice.
"Don't be, Miss Jenkins, it's no fault of yours, it was nobody's fault, it…" He pinched the words off before they could escape, stuffing them back down, deep, deep within his heart. "It was a tragedy, that's all." Suicide was always a tragedy, the kind he used to scoff at. The passing years had not healed or soothed the wound, the heartbreak—only allowed him to numb it enough to forget about it once in a while. "Julia is a fine name, a fine, fine name. You take good care of it." With shaking hands he drew out several dimes and nickels and a blackened old quarter, and funneled them all into the jar with his fist.
"Tell me a poem." He said solemnly.
"What kind of poem?" Julia Jenkins asked, her eyes wide and glistening up at him.
"Anything," he breathed. Come to think of it, Julia Jenkins resembled his wife Julia a bit. The dark eyes and dark hair, the little snub nose, and the way one side of her upper lip was just a bit higher than the other—it made her look like she was on the verge of smiling or sneering, he couldn't quite be sure. "Anything at all. Yo-your favorites, how about those? Just-just read to me, please." And in his mind, he added: 'And I promise to listen this time.'
The girl-child stood and spoke. She waxed poetic about the sun and the moon, about frolicking rabbits and naughty young boys, about a cold winter and a kingdom of fairies, something Shakespearian that he couldn't make heads or tails of, and Lavender Blue. Seven more poems to join the three he'd already been given, making ten. Lavender Blue—a rhyme so very old—brought tears gushing through his lashes, and he swiped his handkerchief across his face to hide them. Had he ever allowed himself to truly grieve for his wife? Her funeral had been such a grim, professional affair, the casket, half-hidden under piles of red and white roses, kept closed to keep anyone from witnessing the fruits of her sin. He had been more ashamed than aggrieved.
Julia finally sat down again. She looked at him curiously, untouched by empathy. She was so very young that understanding grief was beyond her comprehension. Lawrence was willing to bet that she had yet to loose a grandparent to old age or illness. The maple's leaves spread purple shadows across her full-cheeked face like bruises.
"Thank you, Miss Jenkins," he said softly. He toyed with his Julia's wedding ring, spinning the gold band and citrine jewel around and around his finger in an endless loop—she had never liked diamonds, called them common, everyone had diamonds. Once he returned home he knew he would fall back into his own routine loops: work, whiskey. Smile; frown. Nothing is wrong; nothing is right.
Julia Jenkins nodded, silent.
"Wi-will you be doing your poetry stand again this summer?"
Her shoulders bounced. "I dunno. Maybe. My mom is the only person besides you who bought a poem."
"I will keep an eye out for you then. I should like to hear you recite again sometime."
"I'll ask my mom."
He doesn't say goodbye. He can't, not even after ten years.
The cicadas were screaming.
Julia Jenkins stared at her lonely customer's retreating back, her head slightly cocked to one side. She turned back to her books, twiggy arms folded and her flyaway hair creating curtains around her face.
"Julia! Your friend Joy is on the phone for you!" Came her mother's wailing voice.
Julia leapt up excitedly, a grin playing across her mouth, and ran into the house, leaving her red chair lying on its side in the grass and books piled on a plywood tabletop.
Feedback is, of course, greatly appreciated. I didn't expect the story to go in the rather grim direction it did, it just kind of wrote itself against my will, and I'm not sure I'm completely satisfied with the ending.