By Margaret Kelliher
Kids called my little sister Lemonhead. Her close-set eyes, burrowed into puffy cheeks on a wide face, earned her the nickname. A cowlick above her forehead corralled her bangs into a tuft that hung over the bridge of her nose, creating an unfortunate resemblance to the face on the candy box.
I called her Lemon because of her hair, yellow with a satin sheen like the bright skin on citrus. Lemon had long arms and legs and dainty, long fingers just like Mom. I told her that when she grew up, she would be beautiful. She liked that I called her Lemon; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.
When I was Lemon’s age, most people mistook me for a boy. I was stocky, and my thin hair never wanted to grow past my neck. I shrugged it off, saying I looked like my dad, even though I hardly remembered what he looked like.
“Which ride next?” I broke off a piece of the elephant ear she gripped in her sticky fingers.
The sun had gone down an hour ago. The carnival lights illuminated Lemon’s face and made her hair shine pinkish-gold. The night was as hot as the day, unusual even for mid-July in Chicago.
Lemon sucked powdered sugar from her thumb. “Tilt-a-Whirl.”
“Again? How about something different, like bumper cars? Last chance, Lemon. The carnival’s leaving tonight.”
“I always get stuck,” Lemon said. It was true. Lemon almost always got the bum car. Then all the kids would zero in on her car like bulls charging a matador’s flag.
I counted out tickets. We had enough for one ride each. The couple of dollars in my pocket could buy Lemon one more ride ticket after that or play a game. I asked Lemon what she thought.
“Tilt-a-Whirl, then Pick-a-Duck.”
“Let’s go to the Tilt-a-Whirl, then.” She swallowed the last of the elephant ear. Good thing Lemon never threw up. But I wished she had forgotten about Pick-a-Duck. I wasn’t sure how Mom would react if Lemon brought home a goldfish again.
When you’re on the Tilt-A-Whirl, the world disappears. You spin and spin until you’re dizzy. The sound of laughter, screams, and your car running along the track drowns out all the noise. I focused on my little sister’s laughter as I spun the car as fast as it would go.
When the ride ended, Lemon announced, “Pick-a-Duck, then we go home to Mama.”
“Okay, but you know what she’ll say if we win a goldfish.”
“Keep it. That’s what she’ll say.”
Lemon slapped her money on the game counter, enough for three ducks. The first two she lifted from the center of the pool didn’t win a prize. She screwed up her face and concentrated, then carefully chose one from the edge of the pool. This one had a little star painted on its bottom.
“Congratulations, young lady. You go home with a new friend tonight,” the attendant said.
We walked home, Lemon balancing the bag carefully in her hands. The little fish darted around inside. The air was so thick with heat it stuck to us. I wondered if Mom would let us sleep outside tonight.
“What have we got there?” a voice called from the front steps of a house.
We stopped and let Mr. Marcus, our elderly neighbor, come and look at Lemon’s prize.
“A goldfish! You know the trick to those. Put them in their baggie in the water they’ll be swimming in. Let ‘em get acclimated before you set them free in the bowl. That way they don’t get shocked by the temperature change. We’re not the only ones who can’t handle a shift in the weather sometimes.” He mopped his forehead.
Lemon nodded. “Thanks, Mr. Marcus.”
“You two stay cool. My son Joe’s coming over to fix my air conditioner tonight. Don’t know what’s keepin’ him.” Mr. Marcus scratched his head and looked down the street, as if he half-expected Joe to come strolling his way. “Summer of ‘95’s turning out to be a hot one.”
At home, Lemon took down the glass bowl and the old container of fish food from the last goldfish. She added water to the bowl, then plopped in the baggie with the fish still inside, like Mr. Marcus had said.
“Mama, how long do you think it takes for the fish to ogglemate?” Lemon asked.
“What’s that?” Mom wasn’t paying attention to the new pet. Her eyes were glued to the television. The story about lines of ambulances filled with heat-related deaths was playing.
“Mr. Marcus said the fish’s got to ogglemate.”
“What will they do with all those bodies?” Mom asked. The news reporter answered that question, saying they would have to roll in refrigerated trucks. Yuck.
Lemon made pucker faces at her fish. “Hello, Whirly,” she whispered.
I fanned my face with a piece of junk mail. “I hope Joe fixes Mr. Marcus’ air conditioner.”
Mom made a noise with her mouth that she usually followed with the phrase, “Not in this life.”
“Help me bring your sister’s mattress down. We’ll sleep in the living room with the windows open tonight,” she said.
We hauled down our mattresses, then turned off all the lights and opened the windows wide. Lemon joined us after she let her fish into its new watery home. Still, I couldn’t fall asleep. I rolled around, my sweaty hair sticking to the back of my neck.
The next day, Lemon and I checked in on Mr. Marcus. His front door gaped open. We knocked and called out Mr. Marcus’ name, but he didn’t answer.
We stared into the house.
“What do you think, Lemon?”
“I’m thinking what you’re thinking.”
We marched inside. Mr. Marcus kept every window shut tight and shade drawn, making the house hot and stuffy.
“I guess Joe didn’t fix the air conditioner,” I said.
“Mr. Marcus?” Lemon called in a voice much softer than when we were outside.
Why didn’t he answer? We walked all the way to the back of the house. A film of dust covered every surface, the carpet dulled gray by a coating of filth. A dining room table covered with newspapers and unopened mail was pushed against the back door as if Mr. Marcus wanted to keep burglars out.
“Maybe he’s in there?” Lemon pointed to the single bedroom in the house, its door slightly ajar.
The ambulances from last night’s news flashed through my mind. “I don’t want to go in there, Lemon.”
“Look at that!” Lemon grabbed my hand and pulled me into the kitchen. An old aquarium sat on the kitchen counter. “Do you think he had fish once?”
“Maybe a long time ago.”
“I’ve never seen something like that before.” Lemon pointed to a plastic Ferris wheel in the aquarium. “Just like at the carnival.”
“Mr. Marcus really likes the circus,” I said. The wallpaper in the kitchen had drawings of Ferris wheels, old-fashioned strong men, and circus tents. Beside the aquarium, a framed newspaper article told the story of a traveling circus that had shut down more than thirty years ago.
The front door slammed just then.
“Dad!” A man’s voice yelled.
“Joe!” I whispered.
Lemon’s eyes went wide. Mr. Marcus was always kind. His son was anything but. He almost never came around the neighborhood. When he did, he was always angry.
“Quick, in here!” I pulled open the pantry door next to the aquarium. We crawled inside and tucked ourselves sideways underneath the bottom shelf. I wedged my finger in one of the door slats and pulled it closed. Joe rounded the corner and brushed past the pantry cabinet doors, his shadow obscuring the light that filtered through the slats. I hugged Lemon tight.
We could hear Joe opening and slamming drawers in the kitchen.
“Where’d you put it, Dad?” He muttered and swore. Lemon looked up at me. I put my finger to my lips.
Then the pantry doors opened. Lemon and I stared at Joe’s filthy boots. He pushed cans and cereal boxes aside above us. Lemon’s body shrunk into me. The two of us were soaked with sweat.
Joe slammed the doors so hard the slats rattled, then stomped off into the bedroom. We could hear the muffled sounds of drawers opening. I nudged the pantry door open and saw Joe leaning his head against the bedroom doorframe.
“You never bothered with banks. It’s here somewhere.” He stepped into the hall bathroom. He left the door open, so we both heard him unzip and start to pee.
“Now!” I said to Lemon. We tumbled out of the pantry and bolted for the door. Luckily, it was a long enough pee and Joe didn’t see us. We didn’t stop running until collapsed on our front lawn.
“Joe didn’t care that his dad was missing. He was looking for money,” I said when I could breathe again. “Still, someone’s got to be looking for Mr. Marcus.”
But there was no story on the evening news about a missing man on the south side. Instead, the reporters were all talking about what to do with the unidentified bodies at the morgue.
Mom turned off the TV. None of us said a word, but I knew we were all thinking about Mr. Marcus. So many of the people who had died were old and lived alone, just like him.
“We should make missing person flyers,” Lemon said.
Lemon and I stayed up late that night, creating a flyer. We made copies at the library the next day. The librarian let us make copies for free and praised us for what we were doing.
“It was Lemon’s idea,” I told her.
Lemon beamed like sunlight.
After we posted the last flyer, the two of us stopped under the tree across from Mr. Marcus’ house. This time the front door was shut. We crowded under the dappled shade, the leaves above us hissing like rattlesnakes in the hot breeze.
“Do you think he ran away with the carnival? I heard they were going to Wisconsin next. It’s not that hot up there, right?” Lemon asked.
“Maybe.” I looked at Lemon, her bangs damp with sweat and flattened to her forehead.
All summer long the neighbors talked about Mr. Marcus. No one knew where he’d gone to, and he never came home.
Autumn came, and Joe put his dad’s house up for sale, but not until he replaced the air conditioner, grumbling all the while about how much it cost him. He swore he hadn’t heard from his dad since the night Mr. Marcus called him about the air conditioner. They didn’t talk much, after all.
Meanwhile, Lemon’s flyers faded in the sun, then tore up in the October wind and rain. She didn’t bother making new ones, insisting that Mr. Marcus wasn’t really missing.
A whole year passed. Lemon grew taller and started wearing headbands to keep her hair off her face. Her pet goldfish grew so big that at Christmas I convinced my mom to buy a tank and filter I saw in the window at Goodwill.
The kids in my grade stopped calling my sister Lemonhead. I guess they grew bored with it. That didn’t mean they became my friends.
We saved up all summer for the carnival. Lemon set aside change for Pick-a-Duck, insisting that Whirly the Goldfish was lonely.
One humid evening in July, our pockets empty but with a new fish in hand, we started making our way toward home. As we reached the end of the carnival grounds, Lemon wandered over to a clown with a balloon stand. A moment later, she returned, a balloon in one hand and the baggie with her new pet in the other.
“You were holding out on me. Where’d you get the money for a balloon?” I asked.
Lemon smiled. “He gave it to me for free, as long as I remember to make sure my new goldfish ogglemates.”
Margaret Kelliher lives in the Chicago suburbs with her family and a cockapoo who thinks she is a big dog. Urban folklore embroiders most of her childhood memories; sometimes a stray thread comes loose and weaves its way into her stories. She teaches writing and participates in the La Grange Writers Group, whom she would like to thank for their insight and inspiration.