Things were different before the Wal Mart. I marched against it, me and all the other elementary school sons and daughters of progressivist veterans. Oxford, Mississippi was smaller in the early 90s. Less corporate. Fewer condos. More goats inside the city limits (mine was named Nanette). Writers in town wrote without contending with the self-awareness that now comes with writing in Oxford. The literary and cultural cottage industry was humming along nicely, recognized for its merits but not branded and co-opted and parceled out.
The town was entrepreneurial and pioneering (and had been long before we came along). Independent recording studios and booksellers and toy stores and places that made no business sense but were allowed to hang around. Unaccompanied minors were the most loyal patrons. If not in dollars spent then at least in hours logged. We loved the shopkeepers and they loved us. We had nowhere else to be.
My classmates and I were business owners, too. We cornered the lemonade market all summer. Four to five stands dotted the downtown Square. Our ambitions put a dozen other kids to work. Each location appeared to be a rival outfit, but we were all part of the same conglomerate. A boy assigned to the stand near the sporting goods store expanded his retail inventory with a selection of Beanie Babies he'd stolen from his brother. You could grab a rare Princess Diana bear for sale for a cool sixty bucks.
Lemonade was our gang's most lucrative fundraising activity, more fruitful than our dumpster dives looking for discarded Playboys; our only real success came at the trash heap outside the public library. Photos © Tom Rankin
My neighbor Beck was the treasurer. He zipped between the stands, collected coins, gave orders. He had no specific plans for the money. Only to stash it in a hole in a tree in his backyard where he could visit it after dinner and hold the bills in his fist.
A boy named Faulkner was a year younger than the rest. He eschewed the idea of earning any money from his work. He was our valet. Content to be in our company. Lightning on a bicycle. His father also owned a downtown law office where we mixed the strawberry.
Duke and I wanted the same things out of our loot: Baseball cards; Star Wars figures; more m-80s for fire ant wars; bottle rockets and a bag of toy army men to send into space.
We heard a commotion at the Princess Diana stand. “You’re awful! Out of control! Disrespectful!” A woman yelled at our franchisee. “You better make this right. Your brother loves those animals. He just ran off in tears and now I have to find him before he gets picked up by some sex offender!”
The franchisee nodded reflexively at his mother. She was single and overwhelmed, two boys and a law clerkship that kept her up nights. The lady who bought the Diana bear turned the corner by the bank. She had been thrilled to see the coveted plush. “My granddaughter will love me forever,” she cooed. The boy lumbered after her in no real hurry. He stopped at a planter and pretended to smell some flowers. After too long, he caught up.
We dismissed, like generals might, a second kid who'd been manning the stand. He grabbed a final cup of lemonade and ran off to other adventures. The franchisee returned with the bear. He wasn't happy about giving back the money. We had long thought this of the boy, and perhaps it was holding true, that he didn’t have a proper conscience. Born without. Never instilled. “I have to go,” he told us. “Yeah,” I said. “We’ll tally up the money for you.” I handed the Tupperware till to Duke. We left the stand vacant; no salesman, no Beanie Babies, no follow through. Just warm lemonade with flies and pointed signage that said BUY FROM US NOT THOSE OTHER KIDS.
In the end, we made five hundred dollars in two weeks. Duke and Beck and I counted it up on Beck’s bed, on top of a comforter with a map of the world, beneath a poster of the Italian national soccer team. Our child employees hadn’t signed any contract, Beck explained. They weren't unionized with the Elementary Age Lemonade Sellers Federation and didn't have a leg to stand on. “Possession is nine tenths,” he added, regurgitating a movie line. I wasn’t clear on it but I got the point. They weren’t here. The money was. That made it ours. We counted it on a Friday night. Beck stashed it in the tree inside of a Pringles can for safe keeping. It rained. On Saturday morning, we met on the porch. He came out with the container. The wad of bills was damp from the moist cardboard..“Close call,” I said.
We have to take precautions,” Beck replied.
"We'll store it in the house, in a dry place, high enough so the dogs can't get it - " Duke began. Beckett said no. That wasn't what he had in mind. It would never be safe. Nothing is permanent.
We spent it, redistributed every dime at a dozen stores on the Square. We were a roving stimulus package; disbursements all around. We bought stickers for our notebooks and new CDs. We ate food from the Lebanese restaurant and loaded up on books that diagrammed military weaponry and garb through the ages. We pocketed brand new Zippos for our “dads” from the laissez faire hardware store man who gladly bestowed upon us eternal flame. We made a run on toys from a funky toy shop that stocked things we'd never even seen at the mall in Memphis. We were precious about a few of the things we bought. Others we blew to smithereens.