“TheTreasure of Lemon Brown”
ByWalter Dean Myers
“I had to leave school when I was thirteen,” his father had said; “that’s a year younger than you are now. If I’d had half the chances that you have, I’d…” Greg had sat in the small kitchen listening, knowing the lecture would end with his father saying he couldn’t play ball. The principal had sent that letter saying Greg would probably fail math if he didn’t spend more time studying.
Now he was sitting outside. His father’s words still rumbled softly in his ears. It was beginning to cool. Large drops of rain splashed onto his jeans. Down the block there was an old house that had been abandoned for some months. Without much thought, pulling his collar up as high as he could, he made a dash across the street. He let himself in. He entered the room, frowning at the musty smell.
Silence followed, but ended unexpectedly after only a few moments. He thought he had heard something that sounded like a scraping against the wall. He listened carefully, but it was gone. Could he have been imagining the sounds? “Don’t try nothin’, cause I got a razor here sharp enough to cut a week into nine days!” Greg stood stock-still. The person who had been speaking moved a step closer. Greg turned, holding his breath, his eyes straining to see in the dark room. “Who are you?” Greg hardly recognized his own voice. “I’m Lemon Brown,” came the answer. “Who’re you?” “Greg Ridley.”
He was an old man. His pants were bagged to the knee, where they were met with rags that went down to the old shoes. Greg relaxed. He had seen the man before, picking through trash on the corner and pulling clothes out of a collection bin. There was no sign of the razor that could “cut a week into nine days.”
“What are you doing here?” Greg asked. “This is where I’m staying,” Lemon Brown said. “What you here for?” “It is raining out,” Greg said. “Ain’t you got no home?” “I got a home,” Greg answered. “You ain’t one of them bad boys looking for my treasure, is you? Because I told you I got me a razor.” “I’m not looking for your treasure,” Greg answered, smiling. “What do you have, gold coins?”
“Don’t worry none about what I got,” Lemon Brown said. “You know who I am?” “You told me your name was orange or lemon or something like that.” Said Greg, slightly bored. “Lemon Brown,” the old man said, pulling back his shoulders as he did so, “they used to call me Sweet Lemon Brown.” “Sweet Lemon?” Greg asked. “Yessir. Sweet Lemon Brown. They used to say I sung the blues so sweet that if I sang at a funeral, the dead would commence to rocking with the beat. You mean you ain’t never heard of Sweet Lemon Brown?”
“Afraid not,” Greg said. “What… what happened to you?” “Hard times, boy. Hard times always after a poor man.” ” Sorry about that. How come you gave up singing the blues?” Greg asked. “You don’t give up the blues; they give you up.” “ Eeeh.. I guess so”, replied Greg. “You really have a treasure?” “What I tell you? Didn’t I tell you every man got a treasure?” Lemon Brown said. “You want to see mine?” “If you want to show me,” Greg shrugged. “Here, you hold this.” Lemon Brown gave Greg a flashlight. He sat on the floor near Greg and carefully untied the strings that held the rags on his right leg. When he took the rags away, Greg saw a piece of plastic. The old man carefully took off the plastic and unfolded it. He revealed some yellowed newspaper clippings and a battered harmonica.
“There it be,” he said, nodding his head, “There it be.” Greg looked at the old man, saw the distant look in his eye, then turned to the clippings. They told of Sweet Lemon Brown, a blues singer and harmonica player who was appearing at different theaters in the South. One of the clippings said he had been the hit of the show. All of the clippings were reviews of shows Lemon Brown had been in more than fifty years ago. Greg looked at the harmonica. It was dented badly on one side, with the reed holes on one end nearly closed.
“I used to travel around and make money for to feed my wife and Jesse – that’s my boy’s name. Used to feed them good, too. Then his mama died, and he stayed with his mama’s sister. He growed up to be a man, and when the war come, he saw fit to go off and fight in it. I didn’t have nothing to give him except these things that told him who I was, and what he come from. Anyway, he went off to war, and I went off still playing and singing. ’Course by then I wasn’t as much as I used to be, not without somebody to make it worth the while. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” Greg nodded, not quite really knowing. “I traveled around, and one time I come home, and there was this letter saying Jesse got killed in the war. Broke my heart, it truly did. They sent back what he had with him over there, and what it was is this old mouth fiddle and these clippings. Him carrying it around with him like that told me it meant something to him. That was my treasure, and when I give it to him, he treated it just like that, a treasure. Ain’t that something?” “Yeah, I guess so,” Greg said. “You guess so?” Lemon Brown’s voice rose an octave as he started to put his treasure back into the plastic. “Well, you got to guess, ‘cause you sure don’t know nothing. Don’t know enough to get home when it’s raining.”
“I guess... I mean, you’re right. “You get on out of here and get yourself home. I’ll be watching from the window, so you’ll be all right.” “You sure you’ll be OK?” Greg asked. “Now, didn’t I tell you I was going to East St. Louis in the morning?” Lemon Brown asked. “Don’t that sound OK to you?” “Sure it does,” Greg said, the wrinkles about his eyes suggesting a smile. “That I’ll do.”
The night had warmed and the rain had stopped, leaving puddles at the curbs. Greg didn’t even want to think how late it was. He thought ahead of what his father would say and wondered if he should tell him about Lemon Brown. He thought about it until he reached his stoop, and decided against it. Lemon Brown would be OK, Greg thought, with his memories and his treasure. Greg thought of the lecture he knew his father would give him next, and smiled.