The Happy Man in the Lemonade Suit
The idea was to be a vision -- a curiosity, to be sure.
Being an inconsequential oddball wasn’t the goal, though.
Rather, it was all about becoming a difference maker who inspired envy and soft waves of warmth.
Yes, Wendell Wykowski would prompt onlookers to think one clear thought: “There goes a self-assured person who just wants to spread a little sunshine.”
The mission would be accomplished with a crisp, lightweight suit that radiated the promise of bright summer days.
The jacket’s large stripes were colored forest green and banana yellow.
It was the yellow that stood out, especially since Wendell’s sharply creased pants were a solid color that flashed the hue.
Topping off the jaunty look was a Gay ’90s straw hat with a wide white band.
The inaugural stroll around the neighborhood in his finery took place on a glorious early June day that reminded him of his youth.
The smell of warm grass beneath bare feet … the cardinal’s chirp … the glint of sun off an iced-tea pitcher -- it all harkened back to nostalgic days long ago.
Deep down, Wendell knew he was trying to recapture the buoyancy of those times with his new, colorful ritual.
One block over from his house, a young woman washing her sporty car in the driveway offered the very first feedback.
“Nice suit,” she beamed, giving Wendell a playful thumbs up as he passed by.
“Thank you my dear,” Wendell smiled back. “That’s one fine Mustang you’re washing.”
The words came out in a slight British accent.
It wasn’t intentional -- or was it?
Wendell laughed to himself: He was a blue-collar Hoosier trying to be pithy in an oh-so English way.
The imitation of a proper gent would be quickly axed.
Mr. Wykowski was, after all, much more steel-mill Midwest than cosmopolitan London.
His face screamed that.
It was weathered, slightly puffy around the eyes, and accented by a bulbous nose reminiscent of actor Karl Malden.
Wendell felt enlivened by the success of Malden.
Wendell shared the same type of distinctive nose.
Malden won an Oscar and starred in the television series “The Streets of San Francisco.”
A giant nose didn’t stop Malden from becoming a star: Wendell called up that fact often.
Overall, Wendell thought he was the owner of a face that was not unattractive.
There was strength there, just like in Malden’s face.
And there were rich brown eyes that didn’t require glasses.
Before heading out on that first morning of the first walk, Wendell gave himself one final look-over in the full-length mirror on the closet door of his bedroom.
The jacket was fine, but what to wear under it?
It was warm out; a T-shirt would do, but not the pedestrian white ‘T’ he had on.
“Here, try this. This will work underneath,” said his wife, Millie.
She thought his outfit -- and transformation -- was silly, but had gone out to The Gap and bought a young man’s dark-green T-shirt to go with the suit.
Millie couldn’t bear to add more garish yellow to the mix.
After donning his wife’s purchase, Wendell completed the ensemble with lemon-colored socks and pearly white shoes that boasted silver buckles.
“Those are very senior citizen,” Millie drolly said as she gently squeezed her husband’s shoulder on his way out the front door.
“Hey, I’m 62 -- I can’t totally escape the ol’ geezer duds,” Wendell replied, giving a wave without looking back.
The plan was to get out of the house on a regular basis to amble down the streets surrounding him, and show off a bit.
In addition, he would dish good cheer, and a good deed, if the situation arose.
About 20 minutes an outing; that’s what it would take, alternating between mornings and afternoons.
Feel-good moments would be amassed, both for him and for those he encountered.
This, he believed, would keep him active.
Wendell was retired.
The boredom, it turned out, was killing him.
On this first of days for the new venture, he already had it in his mind to buy a treat for a lucky kid, if the quaint little ice cream truck was puttering about in the vicinity.
“Hello Stanley,” he shouted to a pal who was mowing his lawn. “Your grass is very healthy. It’s a nice sight.”
Stanley wiped his brow and honed in on Wendell’s dapper outfit.
“Hey, Wendell, are you in a barbershop quartet?” he queried.
“Nope,” Wendell replied. “Just thought I’d wear something fun on this glorious afternoon.”
The concept of accenting his style with a stately walking cane had been briefly entertained, but dropped due to the hunch that it would be an over-the-top bauble.
There was enough going on.
The strolls were meant to be an almost daily occurrence, with one or two days being skipped each week.
No need to overextend a good thing.
When Wendell returned from his initial outing, Millie was at the kitchen sink, washing a baking pan.
“How did it go? What kind of looks did you get?” she asked, not looking up from the pan.
“It was positive, all positive; felt good,” Wendell replied.
Millie was relieved, although careful not to show it.
She had been worried her husband would be seen as crazily eccentric to the neighborhood, rather than well-meaning.
But he seemed genuinely pleased with the trial run. Millie sensed that in his tone of voice.
In fact, Wendell hadn’t realized such a level of contentment for … well, several years.
Retirement from a construction job had come many moons ago.
His only child -- a daughter named Rose -- was well into a marketing career that forged her independence from mom and dad.
Loneliness, and a sense of aimlessly drifting, had been enveloping Wendell.
He never dreamed he’d miss being a bricklayer so much.
He often cursed the job -- dreaded it. But it turned out such work actually constituted the good ol’ days.
Wendell just didn’t know it at the time.
Millie had been growing increasingly concerned about him the past couple of years.
He was developing strange habits, such as spending too much time making sure the front door was locked at night.
He would stare at the deadbolt lock for a few seconds, walk away for a bit, then return and stare at it again.
That ritual was repeated several times before Wendell could finally ease into his recliner for the rest of the evening and watch TV.
He would also spend an inordinate amount of time washing his hands and washing dishes in the kitchen sink.
Millie feared her husband was on the brink of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
His metamorphosis into a spry ambassador of goodwill would hopefully fill a void in his life.
Millie prayed that the loud suit and new persona would spin him into a better place.
So far, it was working.
On one walk, he let Mrs. Krylock know where he had just seen her missing dog.
Mrs. Krylock found Bentley at the corner of Oak and Lincoln -- just where Wendell said the beagle had been.
“Thank you so much,” she told him. “And, by the way, I love your outfit. We need something colorful to shake up our block.”
He tipped his hat to Mrs. Krylock and continued his walk.
The good feeling didn’t last for long, though.
As he moved under a birch tree, Wendell remembered the time he had missed Rose’s high school basketball game because he was too tired from work.
He really was tired, but regretted not sucking it up and getting to the big game.
She happened to play well that evening, scoring 15 points.
He should have gone.
The memory made him wince.
Missing her game wasn’t the first time he had blown an opportunity to experience a quality moment with Rose.
A nagging notion that he certainly could have been a better father often surfaced -- like it was doing today, on his walk.
The worst part was the possibility that he might have been selfish with his time, at his daughter’s expense.
Selfish -- that stung.
He lost his concentration and almost tripped on a bumpy piece of sidewalk in front of what used to be the old corner grocery store from this youth.
While brushing off the scuff mark from his pearly white shoe, a little girl who had been playing jump rope approached him
“Hey mister, I like your lemonade suit,” she said with a broad smile.
“Well, thank you young lady,” Wendell responded. “I like your pretty top with the purple polka dots.”
He asked her name.
“Beatrice,” she answered.
“Such a lovely name,” Wendell said, bending down to say the words at her eye level.
The girl couldn’t have been more than six years old.
She made his day.
Wendell loved the term “lemonade suit.”
The eye-catching yellow stripes of his fine, fine jacket certainly made an impression on Beatrice.
She interpreted the suit in a spontaneous, childlike way.
It was cute.
It was nice.
It gave credence to everything he was trying to do.
Running his fingers down the buttons of his jacket to ensure that all were buttoned up, the merry man in the lemonade suit resumed his walk, taking one last glance back at Beatrice. The lass had resumed jumping rope by herself on the sidewalk in front of her house, near the shuttered grocery store.
Beatrice had put a spring in his gait.
Mr. Wykowski carried on the next day, this time with a pink carnation in his lapel.
There was more good cheer in reserve, waiting to be dispensed.
Wendell tipped his straw hat to a mailman, who was parked at a mailbox.
“Where’d ya get the outfit?” the postal worker shouted, making sure he was heard outside the confines of his vehicle.
“Got it in Florida, on vacation,” Wendell said.
He remembered the day well.
He and his wife had stopped in a quaint clothing store in a beachfront town.
The store sold some novelty clothes, such as Nehru jackets and super-flared women’s pants.
The striped jacket and yellow pants that Wendell eventually bought were on a mannequin in the back of the place.
He liked the size of the stripes -- a little over an inch long. Big and bold.
The bands were sun-colored and deep green.
He grabbed a sleeve to feel the cotton material. The suit had the seersucker look that he loved.
His wife sensed he had a growing attachment to the vibrant monstrosity on the mannequin.
“You don’t actually like that, do you?” Millie asked in disbelief.
“As a matter of fact, I kinda do,” Wendell confirmed.
Cash was paid for the suit and pants.
Total: $165, and some change. Well worth it.
For the first three weeks of his mini-journeys, things went swimmingly.
Some folks may have did double takes because of the dynamic duds, but most seemed to surrender to their allure.
It was June 15th when Wendell developed a theme song for his excursions.
He would play it in his head for that extra bounce.
Dating back to the 1960s, the tune was called “Hello Hello,” by a forgettable band called Sopwith Camel. But the song was perky, ranking as a vaudevillian’s delight.
There also was some English flavor, as if it could find favor as a sing-along in a pub across the Atlantic:
I like your smile.
Shall we talk awhile?
Would you like some of my tangerine?
I know I’d never treat you mean … .
The song first entered his noggin on that overcast June 15th.
He happened to look up through a maple tree and suddenly saw shards of sunlight in the tiny breaks of the leafy canopy.
The solar surge lifted his spirits, while “Hello Hello” meandered onto the scene in a true case of a melody fitting the moment.
Life was better; not perfect but better.
There were still many hours during the week that needed to be filled.
His “Mr. Lemonade” persona certainly helped. But Wendell thought about getting a part-time job -- maybe even bagging groceries.
In the meantime, he wasn’t tiring of his summer shuffling that, hopefully, radiated merriment in the neighborhood.
Before heading out the door on one particularly humid day, he stuffed some bite-sized pieces of wrapped taffy into a suit pocket to hand out to any children he might see along the way.
Such an opportunity arose at the Cape Cod-style home of Ann Beastings, who was hosting a swimming pool party for her 8-year-old son and some friends.
It was nothing big. The fun was taking place on the front lawn in a small inflatable swimming pool.
“Here you go, kids. Come and get some treats,” Wendell called to the children while reaching in his suit pocket for the taffy.
The children ran to him, cupping their hands as Wendell filled them will several pieces of candy.
“What do you say kids? You tell the gentleman ‘thank you,’ ” Mrs. Beastings yelled from the front door.
She had seen Wendell handing out candy from her front-room window and hurried to the door to make sure the kids thanked him.
Mrs. Beastings knew Wendell.
They had sometimes talked about home maintenance before he became the guy walking her streets in attention-grabbing yellow .
She liked him, although the new clothes and personality transformation made her think Wendell was kind of “losing it” in his advancing years.
Her feelings were mixed: Still a sweet guy, mind you, but maybe he was developing a case of eccentricity that some seniors experience.
After Wendell left the pool-party kids, he was several houses away from Mr. Beastings’ home when a harsh yell jolted the peaceful atmosphere.
“Hey weirdo, you gonna hand out candy at schoolyards next?” hollered a teen boy.
It was Kyle Tinecki.
He stood with two or three guy friends who were laughing across the street from Wendell.
Flustered, Mr. Wykowski stopped walking and merely stared at the boys in dazed confusion.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you; you’re a weird dude in a weird suit,” Tinecki shouted.
The whole confrontation was surreal for the Lemonade Man.
He was hurt.
“What do you mean?” he yelled back at the tormentor.
The words came out in a wavering voice.
“You’re strange; that’s what I mean,” the teen shot back. “You keep walkin’ around here in that ugly costume.”
Wendell didn’t know what to say; he just didn’t.
He was mad, but was much more depressed than mad.
Taking a deep breath and nervously adjusting the buttons on his natty suit, Wendell started moving.
There was an effort to be unhurried, so some dignity would show.
However, Wendell felt rotten.
In about 30 seconds, everything had come crashing down.
The walk home seemed endless.
Wendell took one last look at the intruder from about a half-block away.
Tinecki was still there in his white T-shirt, blue jeans and long, scraggly hair.
He was wiry, with thick eyebrows and piercing eyes.
He seemed to be just staring at Wendell.
There were rumors in the neighborhood that Tinecki had gotten suspended from high school more than once.
Now, Wendell was experiencing for himself what school officials were facing with the troublemaker.
At dinner that night, Millie easily sensed her husband was in another world.
“You all right?” she asked over roast beef and mashed potatoes.
“I’m fine,” Wendell lied, managing a tepid smile.
“Something go wrong on your walk today?” Millie knowingly asked.
“Nah, I guess I’m just kind of tired and crabby,” he replied.
Millie took the napkin from the lap of her housecoat with the floral pattern.
Supper was over.
“You do look tired; get some rest,” Millie said as she started clearing the kitchen table.
Wendell went to bed early that night.
Just before his head hit the pillow, there was a glance toward the folded jacket and pants draped across an easy chair in the corner of the bedroom.
The suit’s stripes didn’t seem as radiant.
The straw hat on an adjoining ottoman seemed silly, as did the pearl-white “senior citizens” shoes on the floor, right below the hat.
Was he a doddering old fool?
Wendell was hoping the answer would ultimately turn out to be “no.”
Sleep didn’t come easy that night.
The following morning, an unexpected rush of energy got him out of bed earlier than planned.
Wendell attributed it to the fact that he was a fighter.
His dad used to say, “When you fall off the horse, get right back on it.”
It was now July, and Wendell was forcing himself to don the happy suit and get outside in the toasty weather.
About 10 minutes into his jaunt, he spotted some neighborhood kids knocking a tennis ball around the street with rackets.
The tennis ball kick-started a memory of him using the bouncy thing for something quite different.
“Hey, you want something new to play with that ball?” he said, entering the street for an up-close-and personal talk.
“What do ya mean?” asked Chester Klapdon, an 11-year-old whom Wendell had greeted on previous walks.
Asking for the ball, and then having it tossed his way, Wendell intended to give a demonstration.
“When I was a kid like you, my friends and I used to play a game in which you threw the ball downward at the point of the curb, and have it fly off,” Wendell explained. “It was just a matter of hitting it against the curb.”
Little Chester was roped in: “What was the game called?”
“We just called it hitting against the curb,” came the answer.
“That’s pretty dopey,” the boy chuckled.
Wendell saw the humor.
“Yeah, I guess it wasn’t a very creative name,” he said with a grin.
“Let me see if I still have the knack,” Wendell said as he took off his jacket and handed it to one of Chester’s friends to hold.
The senior citizen could toss the ball much better in just the bright-white T-shirt he wore underneath.
Winding up his right arm, Wendell bent down to chuck the tennis ball at the apex of the curb.
He hit the curb’s top, point on.
The ball flew all the way across the street, landing on a band of grass bordering the roadway.
“We’d have an outfielder standing on the sidewalk, way across on the other side of the street; if the ball went over his head, it was a home run,” Wendell told Chester. “There was also an infielder in the street. If the ball came off of the curb skittering along the ground, the infielder would have to catch it cleanly or else it was an error. Sometimes it was a line drive right at him.
“No baseball gloves; you caught the tennis ball barehanded.”
Chester and his buddies seemed fairly impressed at the primitive, but intriguing, game from yesteryear.
Putting his jacket back on, Wendell was leaving with mild optimism that Chester and
company would eventually be seen trying out his suggestion on a summer’s day somewhere down the road.
But mocking chatter could be heard a few yards away.
It was Kyle Tinecki and his cohorts.
The bully from the local high school was back.
“What a dumb game,” Tinecki said in a voice that he made sure all around him could hear. “That game is from the Stone Age.”
Wendell’s bounce-back moment with Chester was ruined.
He said good-bye to Chester and his mates, before heading home, not looking back at Tinecki.
“Don’t worry Mr. Wykowski,” Chester said as he ran up to Wendell. “That idiot has bullied me before. I don’t let it bother me.”
Wendell appreciated the support.
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “You’re a good kid.”
Chester was chubby, with a thick tuft of red hair that matched his exuberant disposition.
“By the way, how did that kid bully you?” Wendell asked, as he stopped and turned back toward Chester.
“He called me fat,” the boy answered. “Then he threw a rubber ball at my head, and it broke my glasses. I didn’t let it bother me.”
The man in the lemonade suit offered support, although he sensed Chester was strong enough on his own: “You’re not fat; he’s just mean. … So long.”
After rounding a corner at the end of the block, Mr. Wykowski started feeling sorry for himself.
“Why am I getting picked on?” he wondered.
Life was unfair.
That was a truism he always came back to.
His deep thoughts were interrupted by something he felt hitting his upper back.
He looked back and saw a huge, wet piece of wadded-up chewing gum on the ground.
Then, he heard laughing and glanced over to see Tinecki running away from behind some shrubbery along the side of a ranch home.
Wendell could only muster a feeble retort after becoming the target of the tossed gum.
“Stop it; just stop it,” he yelled with a cry in his voice.
Wendell felt way too vulnerable.
He hated it.
Taking off his jacket, he notice a wet spot on a yellow stripe where the pink gum had struck.
It was a sickening feeling.
The suit was kept immaculate.
There was nothing to do but go home and gather himself.
Right after coming through the front door, he cried.
He wondered if the gum stain would come completely out.
There must be a way to get it totally it out, he concluded.
That resolution made him feel slightly better.
Sitting down at the kitchen table, Wendell bemoaned how something that started out great had flipped over into something that seemed freakish.
A kid throwing stuff at him; that was a new low -- something to feel dirty about.
His hands trembled.
He was afraid to go out anymore, for fear of running into the bully.
A couple of weeks later, Kyle Tinecki found himself wondering where the stupid guy in the yellow suit had gone.
Tinecki had roamed the blocks around his home to inflict more torment, but the old dude was not to be seen.
On a Saturday in the beginning of August, Tinecki was going to head out again.
His mother spent half of the morning yelling at him; chiding him for not doing his homework, for staying out too late the night before.
Tinecki thought she didn’t like him much.
Words of praise from her were a foreign concept.
Perhaps his father would have treated him better.
But Dad was gone; he had problems with alcohol, and deserted the family when Tinecki was only 9.
Tinecki dwelled on his absentee father for a few minutes before rummaging around his messy bedroom for a halfway-clean T-shirt.
He found one on the floor beneath a poster of a swimsuit model.
Looking into a dresser mirror, the youth pulled the hair back off his forehead to reveal two or three more pimples that weren’t there yesterday.
“Crap,” he said to himself in disgust before hitting the streets.
The day was sunny.
Tinecki’s disposition wasn’t.
It would get even worse when he made it to Lilac Avenue, where Wendell Wykowski lived.
Tinecki gazed up in astonishment at a banner strung above the street, tied to lofty tree branches.
Its hand-painted lettering read: LILAC AVENUE BLOCK PARTY -- MR. LEMONADE SUIT DAY
Then, the noise of the party came into focus.
Oldies rock ’n’ roll playing.
Picnic tables being moved into position … .
Smoke wafted from grills. Mrs. Krylock could be seen holding Bentley -- the pooch found by Wendell.
Tinecki couldn’t believe what was unfolding in front of him: People were liking the aging fool!
The very idea of that made the young man reel.
Tinecki’s day was ruined.
There wasn’t much happening in the boy’s life.
Savoring the rush that came with bringing other people down was about all he had going.
This coming together of the neighborhood on behalf of a foe was a major blow.
It stung. It burned inside Tinecki’s brain.
The block party was Chester’s idea.
Well, actually Chester planted the seed for the party; his mother firmed up the concept.
Chester told her he felt bad for Mr. Wykowski because he was getting picked on.
Chester said all Mr. Wykowski was doing was trying to make people happy.
He said Mr. Wykowski should have a party to lift his mood.
Chester’s mother said it should be a block party.
On this Saturday in August, a lot of neighborhood folks had turned out to party on the blocked-off avenue.
They were backing Mr. Lemonade Suit.
As Tinecki stood a few yards from the happy bustle of the bash, he felt like an outsider.
“Hey young man,” said a voice from behind.
Tinecki snapped out of his mental fog.
The voice belonged to Wendell Wykowski.
“Just wanted to tell you that it’s depressing being a bully,” Wendell said calmly. “Don’t waste your time hurting people. It’s poison -- for them, and for you.”
Wendell didn’t wait for a full reaction from Tinecki.
Instead, he waded purposefully into the brunt of the street-party commotion.
Not looking back, Wendell heard a clipped retort from his adversary: “Go on, get out of here, old man. I don’t need … .”
As he got farther from Tinecki, he tried to be steadfast, reminding himself that the gathering in front of him was in his name.
It was a godsend. He needed it. No excursions by the Lemonade Man had been taken in recent days. Rather, Wendell moped about the house.
The stain from the wad of bubble gum came out of his suit, though. On one rainy night -- while sitting in the living room recliner -- Wendell got the mark out with a bit of laundry detergent on a wet washcloth. He rinsed with another washcloth that was just wet -- no detergent.
Removing the stain helped bring some peace of mind. The block party helped even more.
Wendell came to it a crimson polo shirt and uncool plaid shorts.
But Millie showed up, carrying his yellow-and-green jacket.
“Here, slip this on: How could you not wear this?” she mildly scolded.
Her husband did indeed put it on, although the colors clashed with his deep red shirt, and didn’t fit those Bermuda shorts.
After some reconsideration, Wendell felt that his public still wanted to see him. The Lemonade Suit Man was not dead.
The whole day gave Mr. Wykowski a chance to be accepted. He didn’t need to be widely loved, just accepted.
As for Tinecki, the partygoers noticed him standing just outside the block party, following his encounter with the Lemonade Man.
Tinecki hung out for several minutes trying to figure out what to do.
He muttered “screw it” to himself. A swell of frustration washed over him.
Then, emptiness. That feeling was unsettling. Tinecki slowly moved away from the block party.
He wanted to angrily kick one of the wooden traffic barriers.
Instead, he dropped his moist chewing gum on a nearby sidewalk in hopes it would stick to someone’s shoe.
It was a last act of meanness.
Tinecki turned his gaze toward the street party a final time.
He saw Wendell Wykowski laughing with neighbors -- having a good time.
The old man won.
Tinecki was furious, depressed and restless -- all at the same time.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight.
As Tinecki left the area, Wykowski tossed a yellow tennis ball against a curb.
“Ya gotta be careful how you throw the ball against the curb, or else it will go backward, and not forward, and you’ll have to shag it,” Wendell was telling Chester and some other assembled boys.
Chester interrupted the tips from Wendell.
“I’m gonna egg Tinecki’s house,” Chester said proudly.
“Do what?” Wendell asked.
“Throw eggs at his house. He deserves it,” Chester said earnestly while tightening his shoelaces.
Wendell was ashamed that -- just for a few seconds -- he thought raw eggs on his tormentor’s home would be a good idea.
“No, you can’t do that,” he reconsidered. “Promise me you won’t do that.”
Chester didn’t protest much. He liked the old guy standing in front of him.
“Nah, I won’t do it,” he assured.
“Why do you think Tinecki is such a bully?” Wendell asked the boy.
The senior citizen was hoping a child’s view could shed light on the matter.
“I don’t know … I think he’s just miserable,” Chester shrugged.
“That’s a pretty good explanation,” Wendell said.
He actually did think it was insightful, and cut to the core.
He still held the tennis ball in his hand.
“Go on: Try to put it over our heads for a home run,” Chester urged.
“I don’t think you can do it,” the kid teased.
“Oh yeah -- watch this,” came the declaration as Wendell loosened up his arm.
It was game time again.
Zeroing in on the curb’s peak, Wendell hurled the ball down at it.
There was clean contact. The ball bounced high into the royal blue sky.
It ascended until meshing into the sun’s golden glow.