Claire passes a lemonade stand. A small girl and boy with a cardboard sign stand over a pitcher of sparkling yellow liquid that looks like piss or bottled sunshine, depending on the day. Last week it would have been half empty, resembling piss. Today it is half full of bottled sunshine. To the homeless guy on the street corner, it looks like gold. Claire’s wallet contains a faded library card, an expired Visa, and a Super Cuts card waiting to be punched a tenth time for a free haircut.
She pats her pockets for loose change — they are both empty — and sighs. She can’t even muster up a quarter for a Dixie cup of liquid sugar. She strains her eyes to see the slanted handwriting on the sign: fifty cents for a small cup, seventy-five cents for a large. It reminds her of how she and her brother put out a card table and sign on their street corner when they were kids. They only charged fifteen cents for a small cup, twenty-five cents for a large. Like everything else, the cost of lemonade has inflated.
Claire shrugs at the kids and pulls at the fabric of her pockets to justify passing. They gape at her with big eyes and cock their heads to the side as though she is a spectacle. When she glances back, they are waving their arms in the air to flag a passing car. The driver does not stop. Even selling lemonade in these strained economic times is difficult.
Claire returns to her studio apartment with a headache and heats tomato soup on the stove, even though her living space feels like a hotbox in the September heat.
At night she is used to the city — sorrowful sirens, confident car engines, mellifluous music from the lovers next door — but tonight a helicopter searchlight circles her neighborhood in the magnified echo of a bleating lamb. She wonders whose body they search for this time — a drowned baby, a kidnapped seven-year-old, a faceless man lying in a ditch.
Claire’s inability to sleep is tied up in mothers and fathers worrying over their lost children, whether small children or faceless adults, or both, are lying in ditches. Everyone is someone else’s baby. It is too hot to sleep clothed, so she strips down, and tosses cotton onto the floor.
She gets out of bed and paces her square studio, certain that if she resists the urge to draw back the curtain, she will remain safe from the world.
She thinks briefly of her sixteen-year-old high school student who said the other day, “I’m proud of myself for not being pregnant again.” Somehow this student’s face crosses Claire’s wires of emotion and she is stuck sitting naked on the living room floor, trying to assemble its meaning.
The bleating lamb helicopter gets louder and she is sure there must be a missing child on her own street. Curiosity asserts itself and Claire forgets she is naked until she pulls back the curtain and the searchlight exposes her pale, naked skin to the obscure night.
She lingers by the window, inhabiting the searchlight slashing across the wall. Even the moon hides from artificial light. The mechanical bleating condenses and lengthens, moving closer and then farther, coming and going.
Finally, Claire figures that she must be that missing child and the sweeping searchlight doesn’t know she’s right under its gaze, spying on it naked in the dark. She climbs back into bed and pulls the thin sheet over her headache.
In the morning, Claire gets in line with the early coffee goers at Starbucks. Customers spread tragedies out in newspaper headlines: Housing Market in the Hole, Earthquake Devastation: Haiti Relief Aid Crucial, Eight Year Old Girl Kidnapped Two Blocks From Home.
At the front of the line, she asks for plain coffee with room for cream; the barista fills the cup with a flat expression. Steaming, copper liquid fills the paper cup. Claire pays a dollar eighty-five for her caffeine fill, then stops at the Chevron station for gas before pulling onto the 101 South to wait in traffic to get to her teaching job. Her teenage-mother student is waiting for her to share her wisdom, but what Claire really wants to say is that the world will impregnate her with its tragedy.
When she burns her tongue on the coffee, Claire thinks of how she’d much rather have spent fifty cents on lemonade and supported the hands of kids squeezing lemons instead of machines grinding coffee beans at Starbucks. But then she remembers that those coffee beans were also plucked by the hands of children who work for one lousy dollar a day in the heat of the summer sun, and she hopes her dollar eighty five for coffee will somehow make it back to their dusty village. Perhaps the search for truth resides in lemonade stands.
Brittany Michelson‘s short work can be found on: Flashquake, The Citron Review, and In the Know Traveler. She is an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.