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Publisher Thomas Nelson
eBook Kindle Edition
A man with a painful past. A child with a doubtful future. And a shared journey toward healing for both their hearts....
It begins on the shaded town square in a sleepy Southern town. A spirited seven-year-old has a brisk business at her lemonade stand. But the little girl¿s pretty yellow dress can¿t quite hide the ugly scar on her chest. The stranger understands more about it than he wants to admit. And the beat-up bread truck careening around the corner with its radio blaring is about to change the trajectory of both their lives. Before it¿s over, they¿ll both know there are painful reasons why crickets cry... and that miracles lurk around unexpected corners.
She was small for her age. Probably six, maybe even seven, but looked more like four or five. A tomboy's heart in a china doll's body. Dressed in a short yellow dress, yellow socks, white Mary Janes, and a straw hat wrapped with a yellow ribbon that trailed down to her waist. She was pale and thin and bounced around like a mix between Eloise and Tigger. She was standing in the center of town, at the northwest corner of Main and Savannah, yelling at the top of her lungs: "Lemonaaaaaaade! Lemonaaaaaade, fifty cents!" She eyed the sidewalk and the passersby, but with no takers, she craned her neck, stretched high onto her tiptoes, and cupped her hands to her mouth. "Lemonaaaade! Lemonaaaaade, fifty cents!"
The lemonade stand was sturdy and well worn but looked hastily made. Four four-by-four posts and half a sheet of one-inch plywood formed the table. Two six-foot two-by-fours stood upright at the back, holding up the other half of the plywood and providing posts for a banner stretched between. Somebody had sprayed the entire thing yellow, and in big block letters the banner read Lemonade-50 Cents-Refills Free. The focal point was not the bench, the banner, the yellow Igloo cooler that held the lemonade, or even the girl, but the clear plastic container beneath. A five-gallon water jug sat front and center-her own private wishing well where the whole town apparently threw their loose bills and silent whispers.
I stopped and watched as an elderly woman crossed Main Street beneath a lacy shade umbrella and dropped two quarters into the Styrofoam cup sitting on the tabletop.
"Thank you, Annie," she whispered as she accepted the overflowing cup from the little girl's outstretched hands.
"You're welcome, Miss Blakely. I like your umbrella." A gentle breeze shuffled down the sidewalk, fluttered the yellow ribbons resting on the little girl's back, and then carried that clean, innocent voice off down the street.
Miss Blakely sucked between her teeth and asked, "You feeling better, child?"
The little girl looked up from beneath her hat. "Yes ma'am, sure do."
Miss Blakely turned up her cup, and the little girl turned her attention back to the sidewalk. "Lemonaaaaaade! Lemonaaaaade, fifty cents!" Her Southern drawl was tangy sweet, soft and raspy. It dripped with little girlness and drew attention like fireworks on the Fourth.
I couldn't quite tell for sure, but after Miss Blakely set down her cup and nodded to the child, she dropped what looked like a twenty-dollar bill into the clear plastic water jug at her feet.
That must be some lemonade.
And the girl was a one-person cash-making machine. There was a growing pile of bills inside that bottle, and yet no one seemed worried that it might sprout legs, least of all the little girl. Aside from the lemonade banner, there was no flyer or explanation. Evidently it wasn't needed. It's that small-town thing. Everybody just knew. Everybody, that is, but me.
EARLIER THAT MORNING, CHARLIE-MY ACROSS-THE-LAKE-yet-not-quite-out-of-earshot neighbor and former brother-in-law-and I had been sanding the mahogany top and floor grates of a 1947 Greavette when we ran out of 220-grit sandpaper and spar varnish. We flipped a coin and I lost, so I drove to town while Charlie fished off the back of the dock and whistled at the bikini-clad girls screaming atop multicolored Jet Skis that skidded by. Charlie doesn't drive much but, ever competitive, he insisted we flip for it. I lost.
Today's trip was different because of the timing. I rarely come to town in the morning, especially when so many people are crowding the sidewalks, making their way to and from work. To be honest, I don't come to town much at all. I skirt around it and drive to neighboring towns, alternating grocery and hardware stores every couple of months. I'm a regular nowhere.
When I do come here, I usually come in the afternoon, fifteen minutes before closing, dressed like a local in faded denim and a baseball cap advertising some sort of power tool or farm equipment. I park around back, pull my hat down and collar up, and train my eyes toward the floor. I slip in, get what I need, and then slip out, having blended into the framework and disappeared beneath the floorboards. Charlie calls it stealth shopping. I call it living.
Mike Hammermill, a retired manufacturer from Macon, had hired Charlie and me to ready his 1947 Greavette for the tenth-annual Lake Burton Antique and Classic Boat show next month. It'd be our third entry in as many years, and if we ever hoped to beat the boys from Blue Ridge Boat Werks, we'd need the sandpaper. We'd been working on the Greavette for almost ten months, and we were close, but we still had to run the linkage to the Velvet Drive and apply eight coats of spar varnish across the deck and floor grates before she was ready for the water.
COTTON MOUTHED AND CURIOUS, I CROSSED THE STREET AND dropped fifty cents in the cup. The girl pressed her small finger into the spout of the cooler, turning her knuckles white and causing her hand to shake, and poured me a cup of fresh-squeezed lemonade that swam with pulp and sugar.
"Thank you," I said.
"My name's Annie," she said, dropping one foot behind the other, curtsying like a sunflower and looking up beneath my hat to find my eyes. "Annie Stephens."
I switched the cup to my other hand, clicked my heels together, and said, "For this relief, much thanks; 'tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart."
She laughed. "You make that up?"
"No." I shook my head. "A man named Shakespeare did, in a story called Hamlet." While most of my friends were watching The Waltons or Hawaii Five-O, I spent a good part of my childhood reading. Still don't own a television. A lot of dead writers feed my mind with their ever-present whisperings.
I lifted my hat slightly and extended my hand. "Reese. My name's Reese."
The sun shone on my back, and my shadow stretched along the sidewalk and protected her eyes from the eleven o'clock sun that was climbing high and getting warm.
She considered for a moment. "Reese is a good name."
A man carrying two grocery bags scurried by on the sidewalk, so she turned and screamed loud enough for people three blocks away, "Lemonaaaade!"
He nodded and said, "Morning, Annie. Back in a minute."
She turned back to me. "That's Mr. Potter. Works down there. He likes his lemonade with extra sugar, but he's not like some of my customers. Some need more sugar than others because they ain't too sweet." She laughed at her own joke.
"You here every day?" I asked between small sips. One thing I learned in school, somewhere in those long nights, was that if you ask enough of the right questions, the kind of questions that nibble at the issue but don't directly confront it, people will usually offer what you're looking for. Knowing what to ask, when to ask it, and most important, how are the beginnings of a pretty good bedside conversation.
"'Cept Sundays when Cici scoops the live bait at Butch's Bait Shop. Other six days, she works in there."
She pointed toward the hardware store where a bottle-blonde woman with her back turned stood behind the cash register, fingers gliding across the keys, ringing up somebody's order. She didn't need to turn around to see us because she was eyeing a three-foot square mirror on the wall above her register that allowed her to see everything going on at Annie's stand.
She smiled and pointed again. "Cici's my aunt. She and my mom were sisters, but my mom never would have stuck her hand in a mess of night crawlers or bloodworms." Annie noticed my cup was empty, poured me a second, and continued. "So, I'm here most mornings 'til lunch. Then I go upstairs, watch some TV, and take a nap. What about you? What do you do?"
I gave her the usual, which was both true and not true. While my mouth said, "I work on boats," my mind drifted and spoke to itself: But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
Her eyes narrowed, and she looked up somewhere above my head. Her breathing was a bit labored, raspy with mucus, marked by a persistent cough that she hid, and strained. As she talked she scooted backward, feeling the contour of the sidewalk with her feet, and sat in the folding director's chair parked behind her stand. She folded her hands and breathed purposefully while her bow ribbons danced on the sidewalk wind.
I watched her chest rise and fall. The tip of a scar, outlined with staple holes, less than a year old, climbed an inch above the V-neck of her dress and stopped just short of the small pill container that hung on a chain around her neck. She didn't need to tell me what was in it.
I tapped the five-gallon water jug with my left foot. "What's the bottle for?"
She patted lightly on her chest, exposing an inch more of the scar. People passed on the sidewalk, but she had tired and was not as talkative. A gray-haired gentleman in a suit exited the real estate office five doors down, trotted uphill, grabbed a cup, squeezed the spout on the cooler, said "Morning, Annie," and dropped a dollar in the cup and another in the plastic jug at my feet.
"Hi, Mr. Oscar," she half-whispered. "Thank you. See you tomorrow."
He patted her on the knee. "See you tomorrow, sweetheart."
She looked at me and watched him hike farther up the street. "He calls everybody sweetheart."
I deposited my fifty cents in the cup when she was looking and twenty dollars in the jug when she wasn't.
For the last eighteen years, maybe longer, I've carried several things in either my pockets or along my belt. I carry a brass Zippo lighter, though I've never smoked, two pocketknives with small blades, a pouch with various sizes of needles and types of thread, and a Surefire flashlight. A few years ago, I added one more thing.
She nodded at my flashlight. "George, the sheriff around here, carries a flashlight that looks a lot like that one. And I saw one in an ambulance once too. Are you sure you're not a policeman or a paramedic?"
I nodded. "I'm sure."
Several doors down, Dr. Sal Cohen stepped out of his office and began shuffling down the sidewalk. Sal is a Clayton staple, known and loved by everybody. He's in his midseventies and has been a pediatrician since he passed his boards almost fifty years ago. From his small two-room office, Sal has seen most of the locals in Clayton grow from newborn to adulthood and elsewhere. Tweed jacket, matching vest, a tie he bought thirty years ago, bushy mustache, bushy eyebrows, too much nose and ear hair, long sideburns, big ears, pipe. And he always has candy in his pocket.
Sal shuffled up to Annie, tilted back his tweed hat, and placed his pipe in his left hand as she offered him a cup. He winked at her, nodded at me, and drank slowly. When he had finished the glass, he turned sideways. Annie reached her hand into his coat pocket, pulled out a mint, and smiled. She clutched it with both hands and giggled as if she'd found what no one else ever had.
He tipped his hat, hung his pipe over his bottom lip, and began making his way around the side of his old Cadillac that was parked alongside the sidewalk. Before opening the door, he looked at me. "See you Friday?"
I nodded and smiled.
"I can taste it now," he said, licking his lips and shaking his head.
"Me too." And I could.
He pointed his pipe at me and said, "Save me a seat if you get there first."
I nodded, and Sal drove off like an old man-down the middle of the road and hurried by no one.
"You know Dr. Cohen?" Annie asked.
"Yeah." I thought for a minute, trying to figure out exactly how to put it. "We ... share a thing for cheeseburgers."
"Oh," she said, nodding. "You're talking about The Well."
I nodded back.
"Every time I go to see him, he's either talking about last Friday or looking forward to next Friday. Dr. Cohen loves cheeseburgers."
"He's not alone," I said.
"My doctor won't let me eat them."
I didn't agree, but I didn't tell her that. At least not directly. "Seems sort of criminal to keep a kid from eating a cheeseburger."
She smiled. "That's what I told him."
While I finished my drink, she watched me with neither impatience nor worry. Somehow I knew, despite the mountain of money at my feet, that even if I never gave her a penny, she'd pour that lemonade until I either turned yellow or floated off. Problem was, I had longer than she did. Annie's hope might lie in that bottle, and I had a feeling that her faith in God could move Mount Everest and stop the sun, but absent a new heart, she'd be dead before she hit puberty.
Her eyes traveled up me once, then back down again. "How big are you?" she asked.
"Height or weight?" I asked.
She held her hand flat about eye level. "Height."
"I'm six feet tall."
"How old are you?"
"People years or dog years?"
She laughed. "Dog."
I thought for a minute. "Two hundred fifty-nine."
She sized me up. "How much do you weigh?"
"English or metric?"
She rolled her eyes and said, "English."
"Before breakfast or after dinner?"
That stumped her, so she scratched her head, looked up and down the sidewalk and then nodded. "Before breakfast."
"One hundred seventy-four pounds."
She looked at me another second. "What size shoe do you wear?"
"European or American?"
She pressed her lips together and tried to hide the smile again; then she put her hands on her hips. "American."
She looked at my feet, apparently wondering to herself if I was telling her the truth. Then she straightened her dress, stood up straight, and pressed her chest out over her toes. "Well, I'm seven. I weigh forty-five pounds. I wear a size 6, and I'm three feet, ten inches tall."
My mind whispered again: O tiger's heart wrapp'd in a woman's hide.
"So?" I asked.
"You're bigger than me."
I laughed. "Just a bit."
"But-" She stuck her finger in the air like she was checking the direction of the wind. "If I get a new heart, my doctor says I might grow some more."
I nodded slowly. "Chances are real good."
"And you know what I'd do with it?"
"The heart or the few extra inches?"
She thought for a moment. "Both."
"I'd be a missionary like my mom and dad."
The thought of a transplant recipient traipsing through the hot jungles of Africa, hundreds of miles from either a steady diet of medication, preventive medical care, or anyone knowledgeable enough to administer both, was an impossibility that I knew better than to hope for or believe in. "They'd probably be real proud of that."
She squinted up at me. "They're in heaven."
I said nothing for a moment and then offered, "Well, I'm sure they miss you."
She pressed her thumb into the spout of the cooler and began filling my cup again. "Oh, I miss them too, but I'll see them again." She gave me the cup, then held both hands in the air like she was balancing a scale. "In about eighty or ninety years."
I drank and calculated the impossibility.
She looked up at me again, curiosity pouring out of the cracks around her eyes. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
I drank the last sip and looked down at her. "Do you do this to all your customers?"
She placed her hands behind her back and unconsciously clicked her heels together like Dorothy in Oz. "Do what?"
"Ask so many questions."
"Well ... yeah, I guess so."
I bent closer, drawing my eyes closer to hers. "My dear, we are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams."
"Mr. Shakespeare again?"
"Nope. Willy Wonka."
She laughed happily.
"Well," I said, "thank you, Annie Stephens."
She curtsied again and said, "Good-bye, Mr. Reese. Please come back."
I crossed the street and picked through my keys to unlock my Suburban. Key in hand, I stared through the windshield, remembering all the others just like her and the magnetic hope that bubbled forth from each, a hope that no power in hell or on earth could ever extinguish.
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