How would you tell the story of the empty lot? Would you start with the butterflies, so slow and tawdry as fuzzy, tirelessly hungry caterpillars until an August morning split each cacoon just enough, just a slit for the first resplendent black and gold wing to poke through, to free what the children couldn't have known to call a Monarch butterfly? Would you describe the smell, faintly of lilac and dirt, wild chamomile and the sweet sweat of children? Or describe the shade that mass of butterflies made the August morning it crossed the empty lot, crossed between the children and the sky, how the shade had the texture of Tariq's old torn and lost blanket? How it was the first time Tariq had thought of that blanket since the beginning of summer? How would you describe what happened when Kirby called the resplendent, mechanical-looking but beautiful fluttering mass as it grouped in the air for a flight even he couldn't guess the length of, "a flock of Monarchs"?
Or would you start with the sofa that sat at the north eastern edge of the lot, deposited by who knows whom, whatever trace of intimacy or quotidian goings-on that it couched lost a little during each winter's clawing freeze, each summer's drizzles then baking warmth? How would you describe that summer night the couch got turned around, how Rob stopped at Junie's house, since it was right next to the empty lot, and got his help but wouldn't say why he wanted the couch to face away from the street? How about that Rob lay there, from 6:00 on a hot July night, all through the long dusk and pressing heat, all the way to dawn? Or how Junie went home and called the other children, called Kirby and Tariq, and once it got dark each of them snuck about their homes collecting candles and christmas lights and extension cords, and brought light to Rob as he sat on the couch crying? And how they didn't talk to him, no one questioned why he was crying, they simply sat and tended whatever light he might need, eating graham crackers?
Or would you simply say there was a night spent there, a planned night two weeks after Rob's night, when along with running shirtless through the neighborhood and empty lot, the children had a contest to see who could best chew a graham cracker like the shape the moon made that night, which Tariq won, and no one was tired until Kirby started singing and then everyone slept as Kirby slowly lowered his volume until he just hummed to himself? Would that be enough to tell the story?
You'd tell about Junie leaving and never coming back, wouldn't you? You have to. You can't talk about the empty lot or that summer or those children without saying that Junie, not so long after Rob's night of unspoken grief, left the empty lot, and the neighborhood, and eventually the group of children. His father got a new job in a new bank because a new town had been built and new people needed money. Tariq never did bring himself to say how he felt, did he? Never said that the same old people who used to need money still did and that the new people should have to wait their turn, life should be more like a lunch room line, shouldn't it?
And then what happens? How do stories go on at all, with someone always leaving, someone always ready to cry or having just cried, someone else always confused and wanting to help but confused about how?
There are only so many graham crackers and so many moons.
Right, that's what happens next: Kirby meets a girl. Of course, that's always what happens next. But how do you tell that? About the first time the three children were there with her, with Katherine, and how Tariq and Rob were there for hours before Kirby showed up with her? Does it matter that the boys waited while hiding in the ravine underneath plywood boards they'd dragged from a nearbye construction site and had made a new rule that no girls were allowed in the ravine that stretched from the south east corner of the empty lot to the marshlands beyond?
Rob liked her more than Tariq liked her, who liked her more than Kirby did anyway. Kirby had just answered a yes/no question ("do you want to close your eyes and get a fun surprise?") and was hoping the lot would scare her off. Remember how he thought that since there was a sign, nearly five years old but repainted every year to fight aging, at the north west edge of the lot, announcing its salability, she'd hate it there? He thought they'd been right that summer, that day they'd buried frogs and toads and grasshoppers and caterpillars and listened as Tariq convinced them that girls wanted to own stuff, always wanted whatever they could get their hands around, that's what his dad told him. Which would you tell: how disappointed Kirby was when Katherine didn't run away as soon as she saw the sign; how Tariq didn't really want her at the lot in the first place, didn't want anyone else in the empty lot ever again except Junie; or how happy each of them were when they got to leave and Katherine stayed with Rob, sitting, almost touching elbows, on the couch and watching the sun droop red and slow from the sky toward the scavenging, runty trees past the dusty edge of the lot?
And then what? Trees, always trees at the edge of things to give the moon and sun scraggly arms to emerge from and to give all children something to do. Remember when they started climbing trees, around the summer's halfway point, as the threat of school clopped down the dead-end street, almost audible? Remember how no matter what happened Tariq could climb the highest and Rob never climbed higher than maybe ten feet and Kirby eventually chipped his ankle jumping from tree to tree? He never did get a cast, but Rob and Tariq signed his leg instead, passing a Sharpie and, after writing each of their names, forged Junie's name in bigger letters than either of them had written their own.
Would you mention the quiet August brought with it, with the only noise the occasional chatter of what kind of folders the children wanted, or a recollection from earlier in the summer, usually about Junie? Would you call what they were doing mourning? What made that silence? Was it just some awkwardness that came with the three children not running anymore since Kirby couldn't run with his ankle hurt, his handicap becoming the group's? Was it that no one ever spoke of Katherine again, Rob as always staying silent and Tariq hoping his grandma was right and that people usually just needed someone to be quiet and near and Kirby not really caring one way or another, what with his ankle and all? Was it that the insects of the empty lot, even the crickets, seemed to sense their own autumns slinking in, like heavy elements seeping from soil to plant? Was it that the caterpillars that'd been so fascinating were all cacooned, their pods stuck like spit-balls along the tall grass that never swayed like they did in pictures?
They never did talk much, did they? They never did, not even for untalkative kids. Junie talked, could bring that out in all of them, and when he left...is that what it comes down to? The children had a way to talk and then, suddenly, had none? It makes what happened with the butterfies easier, doesn't it?
Wouldn't it be nice to say that Kirby called them a flock of Monarchs, and that Rob and Tariq simply stared as the insects fluttered the first of their two thousand, five hundred mile journey? Wouldn't it be wonderful if that's how stories worked, if what's true and what's correct could be the same thing? It's easy enough, if you imagine, to remember those three children staring, mute in awe, not a word further spoken and the summer's magic kept, perfectly, distilled forever.
But the summer had to end and Tariq had to ask, of course he had to, what Monarch meant, and of course Kirby knew, Kirby always did. Rob did too, sure he did: Kirby said "King" right as Rob closed his eyes and began to shake his head. Didn't he shake his head? Do you remember tears? Perhaps tears. How would you describe the scene as Tariq and Kirby turned to see Rob shaking his head with his eyes closed, and as he opened them, looked at the two other children and then at the sky? Define summer. Define end. What would you have said once Rob said, slowly, with a hitch in his voice he couldn't have predicted, "It means goodbye"?
How would you tell it?
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