His lemonade was left standing in the tallest glass, but he was slumped, a fragile body over the counter, askew. He was an old man, but never before had he shown it. He walked the joggers’ route, ate more cayenne pepper than I could, and built marvelous sandcastles that never got to see the light of day. The water knew they were meant to touch.
(I only know that because my life revolved around the boardwalk. I practiced my swimming there so my mother didn’t have to pay for lessons. The sunshine was brighter, but the artificial light in the evening shone like magic.)
He never looked old until the last time I saw him. It was an odd moment where he seemed absent in his presence. His counter was the newest thing around, younger than me if I remember.
Every other stand, kiosk, and booster faced toward his business. It could be argued that everything that surrounded the stand made more money. The wine gallery was well dressed. To prove it, a velvet shade surrounded it, as if hotels were built by puzzle pieces and that bit was left outside. The keychain kiosk glowed like warm flesh, but it was just wood, with straw fringe around the top of it, like a tiki bar for locksmiths. I guess because we were on the East Coast, it made it look exotic. Kids would gather around it all the time; those cheap keychains were Christmas presents, birthday presents, or a little joy to save the day for their distressed parents. The other one, just around the lemonade counter, was a fabric and cloth counter, which I found peculiar on a beach, but it worked. It wasn’t surprising that it looked like a half-made tent, fabric on top of fabric was almost all you could see, colonies of printed cotton, pastel chiffon and dyed silk. Older women loved to go there and showcase the dresses that they had made the week before, an offering to the sun.
The lemonade stand was the husky, determined Boy Scout equivalent of all the stands around it. The lemonade stand was the one to listen to, the one to be afraid of, and the one to learn from. It was a simple counter—but enormous. The stand looked like a kitchen pantry.
Lemonade filled jars of all sizes, shapes, and tints stacked on tiered shelves. People swarmed to it like a beehive. Something about that lemonade was different. Not too sweet. Not too tart or bitter. Not too pulpy. Not too watered.
The last day I saw him, Mr. Micah leaned over the counter, semi-upright. He worried me. My head rattled with worst-case scenarios. I had never seen someone decay in front of my eyes. His age suddenly defined him.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with Mr. Micah?” I thought aloud, not meaning to voice the question for fear it would come across as judgmental.
“Oh nothin’, hon. He’s a little tired from time to time. Been on this beach forever, bless his heart. He’s got true passion for what he does.” She mildly rubbed my left shoulder as I placed my head on the corner of her hip. What happens after forever?
The next time I returned to the East Coast, to the boardwalk, my mother accused me of negligence. “Bless your heart.” She had to reach to rub my shoulder now. I embraced her to dissolve the feeling that I was too invested in myself. When I released her, I asked if I could tell her about school over my favorite drink.
Her smile began to wilt. “Is that why we’re here?”
I didn’t understand. “What’s wrong, Mom?”
We reached the end of the boardwalk. As if the boardwalk was a cigarette, this end had been flicked off. The remaining counters held “For Rent” signs, and no one had any rent. The fringe of the keychain kiosk was almost completely gone. It moaned silently in the wind about losing its hair, and one support beam was broken. The small, mobile wine gallery was anemic with dark purple and red stains. The fabric and jewelry market was charred from the sun, wood splintered like kindle. It was all melancholy.
My childhood at the boardwalk flashed before me; all of my chore dimes and nickels were lost to the dust.
An alarm rang in my head. “Mom, should I even ask?”
“It was gone, almost as soon as he was,” she answered my unasked question.
The lemonade stand was nowhere in sight, and neither was Mr. Micah.
I went there the next day to find where the stand had stood. It intrigued me, a counter I once had to push past tanned of metal and wood. I didn’t understand.
I started on the right side of the boardwalk instead of the left side, where my mother’s new condo stood before the disaster.
I knew that everything had been destroyed. I was too stubborn to believe it.
I started up the steps, and something caught my eye. I thought it was it was a rock, but it was flat and long. Then, it hit me.
I was stuck, but not physically. I didn’t know whether to go back down the steps and risk disappointment or to put it behind me and head home. I was exasperated.
I found a place to lean on the frail keychain kiosk, and pulled my mouth taut.
I’m here for nothing. The past is the past, right? The past is the past.
I thought about the last thing Mr. Micah had said to me, the last day I saw him.
That day, the lemonade stand was not swarmed by people. In fact, nobody but Mr. Micah stood there. It felt wrong.
Fifteen cents in my hand, I walked to his counter, trying to wipe the sand off my wetsuit at the same time. I stepped towards the aging Mr. Micah as if I approached the ageless one.
He was surprised, and so was I. I’d never seen his face change. I was a runt, so I barely saw his face regardless, but when I did, he seemed coin-operated. He would pass paper cups and roll quarters almost simultaneously.
This time, he turned as if he had rusted, a coinop left in an unroofed, abandoned building.
“My, my. Lookie here, a customer!” He wheezed out a laugh. He rarely spoke. I think I replied by nodding.
“You made my day. I’ll never forget you. As long as I live.” He escaped in an awkward laughter behind the counter and rose up again, setting my glass on the counter next to a lollipop. “Here you go, kid. Know something?” He handed me the glass and lollipop together. “Always try new things, but never forget the old.”
I cocooned the lollipop in my hand, squeezing it from the center of my palm to the top of my fist. “Cayenne pepper flavored. 100% Organic. 100% delicious.”
Never forget the old.
Something faulty clicked in my head, and I did the oddest thing. I ran too close to the edge of the boardwalk. By the time I stopped, it was too late to break my fall.
A structure caught me on my top, and as the buttons snapped, I hit the ground. I hit hard, but it could have been worse. I got up to see what had spared me.
There, at the edge of the rail, the extravagant Boy Scout that had enticed me years ago had me at its mercy again. The chunky, linoleum covered counter lay in halves. One half caught my eye, and the other, well, caught me.
Like the hands that had handed me lemonade on the hottest of days past.
about the author
Carolyn Hunter is a senior at Stivers School for the Arts. She studies visual arts and creative writing. She enjoys eating chocolate and drawing comics. She has four blogs and explains that writing is her form of therapy.