My stomach hurt for a week after my cat Boots died. She arrived as a gift on my first birthday, and ten years later, she was gone. A year after that, we had more death to cope with. But unlike with Boots’s death, we rarely talked about what happened next door at the Moores’. Whenever we spoke of that summer of 1979, what we discussed was the lemonade stand, not the murder-suicide that triggered the estate sale where my sister and I made a fortune.
Julie (my sister) and I sat at the kitchen table eating cereal while my mother whistled Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” as she unpacked her brown leather tote bag from the weekend retreat, from where she and my father had returned the night before. She has always been one of the best whistlers I know. She can draw her fingers to her lips and let out a whistle that can be heard blocks away. On this day, she was casually whistling with just her lips, not typical, but it sounded nice. She pulled a candle from her bag and placed it on the dining table next to a silver bowl I’d never seen her use. The candle was in a tall glass votive decorated with two overlapping yellow circles above which, inside a red heart, were the words “Marriage Encounter.” She lit the candle and walked back to her bag to finish emptying it. Julie and I slowly ate our cereal, weary from the long weekend with our “fun” babysitter. I couldn’t remember going anywhere, which meant we had been home the entire weekend.
So when the sirens sounded in the distance that morning, our dog barked, but the rest of us didn’t bother to notice. It was only when the police cars came down our street and stopped right outside our house that my stomach began to feel funny. My mom called for my dad, and he ran from upstairs, through the main floor, and out the front door in a flash. Mom carelessly set her tote on the kitchen stool. “Stay here,” she said as she followed him out the outside.
We waited for the screen door to slam before we ran to the window to witness two police officers speaking to my father in the street as my mother stood motionless on our front lawn. The blue and red lights took turns painting her face. I could tell something was wrong by the way she pressed her lips together. Minutes passed. What could my father be telling them that was taking so long?
Suddenly, the officers and my father turned to walk towards our next-door neighbor’s house. We remained pressed against the window, watching and waiting. Usually chatty, my sister and I said not a word to each other. Mrs. B from across the street had walked over and now stood with my mother. She was half dressed for work. She had her hair in hot rollers and wore a pajama top over her fancy skirt. Most of the other neighbors were also out standing on their lawns watching.
No sign of my father or the officers.
My father shoveled the Moores’ sidewalk every time it snowed, and maybe it’s just me, but it seemed to snow a lot more when we were kids. Mr. Moore was capable, but after his wife got sick, my father did it as his show of support. He was also the one that buried Boots. He’s also someone that can leave keys in doors or tools in the yard, but that was for my mother to notice. But he always tried to help. That weekend he wasn’t there though. Had the sirens waited for my dad to come home?
My father finally walked out of the Moores’ house with the officers. The two policemen hastened over to their cars while my father stood there, staring into nothingness. I watched as the world seemed to stop in front of him. For the first time in my life, he looked unsure. As he approached my mother, he whispered in her ear and pulled her into his arms. My sister and I sat frozen, silent. Something terrible had happened, and my stomach started feeling funny again.
My parents hugged a few neighbors, then turned to come inside. My sister and I ran back to our places at the table and waited for the front door to open. With her voice cracking, Mom ordered us to grab our swim bags and announced she would be driving us to the pool. We quickly changed out of our pj’s and into our swim team suits and gathered our towels and bags from the laundry room. I stopped at the refrigerator to grab our packed lunches, hoping we would get to stay all day like we usually did when we walked. Mom grabbed her tote bag, blew out the new candle, and followed us out the back door.
There was no eye contact on the way to the car, and we drove down our street in silence. When an ambulance passed us without its lights on, my sister and I turned to watch it pull in front of the police cars at the Moores’ house. I desperately wanted to ask what had happened, but something made me hold back. I can’t say why, but it felt as if I would be in trouble for asking what the ambulance was for.
My mother said nothing.
As she pulled in front of the pool, Mom handed me ten dollars before driving off. My sister glanced at the money, then at me. We both knew what it meant. We could stay until the streetlights came on.
My sister and I were the oldest kids in the neighborhood, and therefore, no one would dare have a lemonade stand on our street without asking us to participate. You could say we were the Lucianos of the block. The Gottis of the neighborhood. We would recruit neighborhood kids to hold signs on each busy street corner down from our house.
But this day would be different.
We came up with the idea that morning and needed to be set up in the backyard in less than an hour. I rode my bike to Safeway to buy the lemonade and cups while my sister set up our card table and organized our cash box. We scribbled on the largest piece of paper we could find—“Lemonade for Sale”—and taped it to the front of our card table. It was 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity at 10 a.m.—typical Omaha summertime awfulness—when the estate sale and live auction began in the Moores’ backyard.
Their backyard and our backyard created a sort of common area. It was the 1970s, so few of the houses had fences. The chairs and auctioneer podium were set up like a show at the county fair. Fancy ladies with arm handbags dabbed their brows with their silk handkerchiefs while their husbands stood in line at our stand for lemonade. We didn’t even have time to write the price on our sign.
Julie handled the transactions. She was always extraordinary at math, even at nine years old. Any adult who paid attention was amazed at her speed and accuracy. She would later work at a bank in college. I remember the first time I saw her through the glass window at the bank drive-thru. She was wearing my mom’s blouse with a tied bow near her neck. She was their youngest employee. She was also business savvy at a young age. So, that day in our backyard, when a big shot whipped out a twenty-dollar bill and apologized for not having something smaller, she not only scoffed but right there raised our price to a dollar without him knowing the person before paid twenty-five cents for the same cup. She counted out his change faster than he could tally. He paused, looked at the scattered bills and stuffed them in his front pocket. The next customer put his dollar bill down, took his cup, and walked off. From then on, we were making more money in just a few hours than we had made all summer.
By lunchtime, we were in over our heads and needed help. But instead of recruiting the neighborhood kids, our greed set in, and we recruited our parents. My father kept our cooler packed with crushed ice, and my mother ensured we had backup pitchers of lemonade cooling in the refrigerator. My main job for the day was to keep us from running out of product. I rode my bike to Safeway three times. Each time I balanced paper bags filled with plastic cups and cans of lemonade mix in the basket hooked on my handlebars. I’d taken some of our earnings and bought us each a Kit Kat candy bar and a can of RC cola on my last trip.
I peeked down the lemonade line, following it as it wrapped around the edge of the crowd while they listened to the auctioneer begin the bidding for the greatest prize—a 1967 GTO. It looked brand new. I had only seen Mr. Moore wash that car, never drive it. The car had been pulled out of the garage and was parked in the driveway with all the doors open, and the hood propped up. Someone must have just washed it. It glittered in the hot sun like a jewel. My father stood with my mother near our table, talking to the neighbors, when I overheard my mother tell them she felt bad we had built our deck in the backyard the year before. This was a beautiful deck; my dad built it. It was the width of our house and had ten-foot wood panel walls with gate, lock and latch. Mr. Moore’s view of us, our comings and goings, was blocked. We had built a fence in a neighborhood with no fences.
Once the GTO sold, most of the swanky people left, and our lemonade line dwindled. My sister began to count the money. We’d had no lunch break, hadn’t stopped to run through the sprinklers with the neighborhood kids, and hadn’t even thought about going to the pool. We were exhausted, but in our minds, we were rich. We walked away with $35.75 each.
As we packed up our card table, I glanced over to the now empty yard where the sale had taken place. Even the chair Mr. Moore sat in every day on the screened-in porch was gone. Mrs. Moore had a chair too, but she never sat in it. In fact, I didn’t see her much at all except on Sundays when they came back from church, when Mr. Moore would pull into the driveway, help her inside, then come back out and pull his car in the garage next to the shiny GTO.
One morning later that summer, long after the police lights and lemonade stand, my mother and father revealed to my sister and me what had happened next door. They told us Mr. Moore shot his wife first, then himself. They sat patiently, waiting for a response from us, but we didn’t say a word. My father told us Mr. Moore had been acting strange and before they left for the weekend retreat had said something like, you’re not going to have to worry about us anymore.
A young couple with a kid moved in their house a couple of months later. I always wondered how they could live there, knowing what had occurred. I would walk quickly by every day on my way to school. The couple had planted bright yellow flowers in pots on the front porch, and they had a cat that sat in the window, but nothing could lift the darkness that existed there for me.
After Mom and Dad told us what had happened that day, they hugged us. No one cried afterward, and our family never spoke of it again. We do, however, often talk about the lemonade stand.
Wendy Garrett is an emerging writer who came from the theater and dance world. Her storytelling was taught through music as a dancer and later developed as a creative producer at Walt Disney Imagineering. She currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she has found writing to be the gift that got her through this crazy year.