The Soda Stand

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

She was nobody, not much more than a kid, maybe she’d make a handy replacement for the business owner’s young cousin, Tom, who’d known her from school.

Tom was insistent.

“She’s looking for a job, real nice, and her mother–you know, that small lady who always wears that straw hat?– is very strict with her. That’s all I got,” he said as he packed up his pitiful old Ford. “Theresa. I’ll have her stop by.”

“I don’t know about girls, I need a hefty guy to run this soda stand. It takes work to do this job right, plus you can get all kinds of odd customers.”

Tom snorted. “It takes someone who can count change and likes people enough to put up with them. Theresa would do just fine.”

“You have a thing for her?”

Tom rolled his eyes up at the water-blue sky. “Monty, I’m off to Dallas! I’m trying to help you out here. Take it or leave it.” He started off, then pivoted. “She’s probably too good for me, if you want to know. Sweet and real smart. Just interview her.”

Monty had invested in the cold drinks place the previous spring. Montego’s Soda Stand, he’d named it. Tom thought that sounded too uppity but that was his last name, so why not. He’d done fair for a first year but it could still go either way. He was cautious rather than optimistic when it came to making money. There was a longtime refreshment stand a block away by a great Mexican food cart; that made him nervous when he passed by and saw the line up. But winter months had been slow on account of the chilly rains. Now the cherry and magnolia blossoms were about to burst and that meant more customers. It was a good location just as Monty had determined, a few blocks from county buildings where food carts kept popping up. A nearby week-end arts and crafts market thrived in summer. Monty felt this could be a winning season.

Young Tom had been a decent salesman; things were done right most of the time. Now he was heading to Texas to work construction. Monty might need to take over until he found a replacement. That would be a pain since he had his restaurant to look after.

He met with the candidate at the stand. She acted like they had met since they both knew Tom. She stood by while he looked at her short resume, her hands folded in front of her. Monty agreed she was polite, and also pleasant to look at.

“First of all, I’ve sold clothes and eggs,” Theresa said, looking over his shoulder at the stand with a smile. “I can sell drinks.”


“For my grandmother, years ago. She lived outside of San Juan. Puerto Rico,” she emphasized, in case he didn’t know where it was. “We did well. But I worked at the thrift store here for two years. I have two letters of reference. I’ve also volunteered at the food co-op.”

She held up the letters but he didn’t acknowledge them.

Her voice was a bird’s breath in the breeze and Monty had to incline his head to catch her words. Not a good sign. She would have to compete with traffic and bustling crowds.

“I don’t know. I was looking for someone….older and beefier, if you follow.”

She looked at him until he met her gaze, then spoke right up. “I’m wiry. I’m responsible. How about a trial run for a week? I guarantee I can sell soda, water and juice, Mr. Monty.”

He winced at the way she addressed him but felt it was an attempt to please. And her smile unfurled across her cinnamon brown face like a small victory flag. It threw him off, made him feel less certain about his conviction that an older guy used to standing long hours in the damp and heat was the right way to go. She looked about nineteen, a couple years younger than Tom, and maybe sturdier than he’d thought. She did seem to have a combination of friendliness and propriety. He told her it was just minimum wage though he had paid Tim a couple bucks more. They were second cousins, after all.

“I’ll manage if that’s what you can do. I need to work.”

She held up the letters again and he took them, scanned the recommendations: “Theresa is unfailingly polite”; “carries out duties without complaint”; “great team member”; “great personality.” How could he say no for now? He had to have help pronto.

“You’ll be alone most of the time. I’ll stop by occasionally, more the first weeks but I’m a busy man. But it can get boring. You can’t leave except for two, fifteen minute breaks and lunch–though I wish you’d bring your own–and you have to lock things up if you leave. It’s a hassle.”

“Maybe so. I’ve done lots of things on my own. When could I start?”

“Just a trial, now. Guess I’ll show you the ropes tomorrow. And bring an apron–you got one that’s full-length? I can’t find the ones Tom used, the crook.”

Theresa suppressed a snicker, then reached for and pumped his hand. By her grip, he thought she might just be able to lift a wooden delivery flat of bottles but worried she’d complain. He had his restaurant; he couldn’t be running over here every time she had a little fuss or even crisis. And Monty was feeling roped in.  Tom’s suggestion might work but he’d run an ad in the weekly, anyway.

“This is just probationary status.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Monty.”

The first day was a surprise. Theresa paid attention but didn’t ask many questions. He showed her how to open, unlatching the plywood shutters that lowered to cover the open areas each night. She was his shadow, watching him wait on people, doing the little he asked. He told her the premium temperature for the refrigerator, how to check and order stock, set up bottles to entice customers, where to keep the cash box so it blended in with other boxes– strictly cash for transactions. He explained how he would have ice delivered weekly for the freezer compartment and pointed out how the clear plastic glasses had to be stacked and kept dust- and dirt-free. Mostly they’d want the cold glass bottles opened and then folks would be off.  Water cost more than some sodas and was always kept in a tall ice barrel.

“Aren’t you going to take notes?”

“I keep it all here, can’t lose it that way,” she said, tapping her temple with her forefinger.

“Huh! Words of the young and foolish.”

“But I did wonder if you were going to make a new menu this year. You’re selling some gourmet flavors with regular ones. A nice menu would be eye-catching. And if you thought a plastic table and chairs might be good.”

He looked up. The erase board was neatly lettered and numbered in black, easy to read. There wasn’t much to say about drinks. You named them and the prices. Some of them were fancier than others and costlier.

“You doing all that thinking already? No changes. Hey, we’re not a restaurant, I don’t think a cheap cafe look would make a good difference, fancy sign or not. If they’re hungry send them over to Chicken Al Fresco, that’s my place.”

“Right.” She cleared her throat. “I’ve never eaten there. Al fresco, that’s nice. Can I ask–when it rains, then what?”

“The outdoor patio has a roof over it, right? And heaters if needed. It’s the Northwest, right? Any other questions?”

“No sir, all set. I was just thinking out loud, is all.”

“Alright, good to have ideas but better to just learn and do the job. Tomorrow you’ll be on your own most of the day. Make that money and we’ll do alright.”

He watched her as she sold some sodas and waters. She was an accurate and fast counter of change, an almost lost skill these days. That was admirable.

Still, he’d rather find a guy with some real experience. Theresa was figuring it out but she was too slim to hoist loads. And she could be cheeky. She’d worn a dress and didn’t have the right shoes. He noticed they were flimsy floral print flats. Her arches would kill her in a day. Maybe she didn’t own sneakers and jeans. But he couldn’t take it back yet, sure couldn’t seem prejudiced against her. He’d call Tom and tell him if even one slip up happened this week his dream girlfriend would be out. Then Monty could move on to a more preferred employee.

He planned on stopping by earlier the next day but there had been a huge lunch rush, then a meeting. It was nearly four o’clock when he got to the stand. Theresa was waiting on a customer; three more were in line. She was chatting with a big woman who kept jangling her keys, listing the choices as if the woman couldn’t read, asking her about her day as she finally rang up three sodas.

The next customer was an old man who was bent over and wielding a cane. He put his hand to his ear and leaned up close. Theresa put her forearms on the counter and spoke up.

“Yeah, orange crush your favorite? Oh, I loved that as a kid. We have Mandarin Orange with Hint of Lime. And Simplest Orange tastes like some sort of happiness. Alright, keep it easy, Simplest Orange, coming to you fresh and cold.”

The gentleman stood there after he paid for the soda, relishing small sips. “Ahh, this is it. This is it! You’ve got the best orange I’ve had in a long while.”

Theresa had started to wait on a businessman, black suit with a silvery tie, but paused to respond to that comment. “Want to take a load off, grandpa–want a seat?”

“That’d be real fine.”

He looked around, as did Tom who spotted green plastic chairs stacked inside the low walls. Theresa yanked one free and carried it out the swinging half-door. She positioned it just so in the soft shade for her customer.

She finished an order for the businessman, two sparkling red currant sodas.

“Come back, sir, and tell me if those are as good as they look.’

The man turned back and stuffed a five dollar tip in a big blue ceramic mug. “Great attitude–I’ll be back!”

“What’s going on?” Tom asked. “I like money coming in, keep that flow going. But your ideas need to be corralled.”

“It’s been busier today, must be the sunshine. We sure could use these chairs.”

The old man nodded and sipped, took out a book.

“I thought I’d just bring chairs my mom has. She doesn’t like the plastic anymore so she splurged on two bamboo chairs with coral cushions. Comfort and style over utility, I guess.”

“I said no chairs. No changes.”

The seated customer looked at him as though he thought Monty had to be slight on brains, as many people would enjoy a chair when savoring a cold, tasty drink. He opened thin lips, then shut them again, tapped his book. The novel seemed a prop to Theresa but she didn’t mind. He might be lonely, who didn’t need a little contact with others, some simple entertainment?

“See that I got some flowers? Right at the corner stand. Now that’s a business I’d enjoy. Fragrance and beauty have to make people feel right with the world again, you know?”

There was a tall bouquet of daffodils and a bunch of white lacy flowers with greenery in a slender milk white vase. Her mother was probably missing that as well.

Monty stared at the vase. Was Theresa for real? Had he found an employee who had a secret addiction to dime store decorating? Would he come back and find sheer purple curtains or glass chimes or a miniature village scene with cavorting cats she’d found at the thrift shop? The possibilities stirred up a panic that constricted his throat.

“Look, I don’t like change that I don’t approve first. I’m the investor and owner, right? I do like flowers but not at my soda stand.” He picked out a daffodil, twirled it in his fingers. “Next thing I know you’re going to make it into a chic garden spot and want pricey tables and chairs, set out a big bowl chips and salsa or have veggie burgers on rye, music piped in–and I’ll be competing with my own self!”

The man with the book frowned at Tom. “She’s very nice, a fine gal,” he mumbled. “A garden spot might do some good.”

Theresa eyed a potential customer who started up to her, then checked her watch and rushed off. Her happiness at finding this job began to evaporate.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made a mistake. I just thought…I like color and enjoy chatting with customers. I wanted to give it some spark. Flowers aren’t much.”

“Are you selling soda or having a creative experiment here? Not going for it. I think we should consider this your last–”

A full-figured woman with two battling boys pushed around Monty to the counter.

“Hello there!” Theresa’s cheeks had darkened with distress but she smiled cheerily. “I can tell I’m selling just what you need, ma’am. What suits you?”

“Well, look at that, limeades. I’ll take one for me and raspberry sodas for the kiddies. Hush, Craig or no treat!” She looked around. “Got any more chairs? I’m about ready to collapse after my errands. Love to sit in the sun and take a break. And do you have any crackers or chips? Love to have a snack with cold drinks.”

“No food, sorry, but let me get you fixed up.” Theresa took the last three chairs and set them apart from the elderly reader who had closed his book.

The lady scrutinized the book cover. “I just read that. I couldn’t put it down at two in the morning. My, you read thrillers at your age?”

The two began an earnest gabfest about books they had read. The two boys were pacified now that they were slurping and burping away.

Monty kneaded the back of his neck. It had been a long day at Chicken Al Fresco and he realized he was bone tired. “Get me a root beer, then I have to get back to work. I’ll stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk.”

“Can I keep them? The flowers and chairs?”

“I don’t know yet. You’d have to pay for any flowers, that’s for sure.”

Theresa shrugged, neat and elegant. Smiled generously as if this was nothing to her, she had a big Mason jar at home full of money set aside just for flowers.

The next three days were busy for Monty and Theresa. He stopped by each day late afternoon for a few minutes. He always found her engaging with customers, selling more sodas than he had ever seen Tom sell before summer hit. He’d check her cash drawer and count his money, tell her he’d be back tomorrow. He was busy thinking things over; he felt ill at ease even as he felt better. Things were not as he had expected. This employee was altogether too fanciful and bold with decisions and opinions. Too confident.

But on Friday he didn’t come by. Theresa didn’t know what to think. At closing time she shuttered the place and looked up and down the sidewalk and street, even over at the park across the way. No Monty. She did see a young woman half-running in high heels, waving at her. When she reached Theresa, she was panting and her hair was a mess of curls stuck on her sweaty cheeks. She smoothed her hair and straight pink skirt.

“Theresa, right? Monty sent me–I’m Carrie, hostess at his restaurant. He says to tell you to come to the restaurant next Monday and he’ll have you sign the papers.”

“You mean–wait, I’m officially hired?” She heard the beginning of a shriek in her own voice so hand went to mouth.

“Yeah, isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Why, yeah, I do. I guess I do, I just can’t believe it, he was very  skeptical.”

Carrie put her hands on hips and chortled. “Yeah, welcome to Monty’s gang, we’re a crazy bunch but you’ll get to like us. But you’re kidding, right? He can’t stop talking about you! ‘Theresa has a ton of ideas, Theresa is such a natural saleswoman and is going to make me a mint!’ He says Tom was holding out– he would have hired you long ago!”

“Tom? Tom who?”

Carrie touched Theresa’s arm lightly. “You know, Tom, his cousin. Tom Wilton, you’re his friend, right? That’s what got the ball rolling.”

“I don’t think I know a Tom Wilton. Wait a minute. This Tom is supposed to have referred me to Monty, you mean? My mother told me she heard about it from a neighbor lady. The soda stand was looking for help, that’s all. I was looking for anything I could get.”

The other young woman shook her head, curls springing back from her forehead, eyes dancing with pleasure. “Wait ’til I tell Monty! You missed getting to know Tom Wilton? Too bad. He was one heck of a guy. Now he’s in Texas and you have his job. I mean, it’s not all that fabulous but still, wow, thanks to someone you never even met.”

“How weird and wonderful…and I really do like it so far. But we need chairs and tables with umbrellas. That place is too dreary.”

“I know that, girl, I so agree. Good luck with that, though, ole Monty is a pretty hardheaded boss. Maybe by June you’ll get a couple since he likes you already. And a raise, I hope.”

They split up, promising to have lunch some day. Theresa felt stress release her. She might be able to save up for a tidy room in a shared house, finally get out on her own by winter. It was time to expand her horizons, think more about college. She was so ready to grow up even if her mother would like her to stay home another ten years. Mother with her straw hat and baker’s magic and foot-aching, backbreaking work at the factory. Her love like a lighthouse all these years. But Theresa had to find–become–her own North star. In the meantime, she had sodas and water to sell to the crowds that would soon fill up the streets.

Anticipation tingled up to her neck, just the thought of all the fascinating people she’d meet. Mysteries unfolding in every passing life. Her good fortune was surely being able to help and mingle with folks. And she had enough good will to hawk all season whether anyone asked for it or not. Because she knew one thing for sure and that one thing powered her every day and gave her rest at night, helped her do what she had to do, even sell sodas at a humble stand in the city: what everyone truly wanted was kindness. Just a smile and a few good words, easy dashes of kindness. That, she could give at no charge. Even Monty had that coming; goodness knows he sorely needed it.

And that curious stranger, Tom? Maybe he’d circle back around before winter arrived with the rains and they closed up shop. She could properly thank him for his secret assistance. They could settle back with a blackberry fruit drink, swap tales about working at Montego’s Soda Stand.


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