‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ opens with a disappointed young man, Greg Ridley, sitting on the front steps of his apartment building in Harlem, New York. A storm is coming, and the narrative emphasizes that the dark weather and emerging winds reflect Greg’s own frustrated mood. The story almost immediately flashes back to a scene two nights before between Greg and his father. Greg’s father had just received a letter from the high school principal notifying him that Greg is in danger of failing his math class. Because Greg is already a year older than his father was when he dropped out of school, apparently because he had to work, his father is frustrated. Greg seems to be wasting a precious opportunity for an education.
Greg is angry because his father has told him he can no longer play basketball. He hasn’t been allowed to play for his school team, perhaps because he did not make the team, or perhaps because his father will not let him devote so much time to sports. But Greg has been invited to play for a neighborhood community center team known as the Scorpions, and his father had told him he could do so as long as his grades are good enough. The letter from the high school has just made that impossible. His father tells him that the idea of him playing basketball now ‘‘must be some kind of a joke’’ and insists that Greg head to his room and study.
The story returns to the scene of Greg sitting on the stoop two nights later, reluctant to go inside to where his father and his math book are waiting. Instead he goes for a walk around his neighborhood of Harlem, in New York City. Harlem has been the heart of the African American community ever since southerners started migrating there from rural communities in the early 1900s in search of jobs and better lives.
When lightning starts to cross the night sky, Greg decides to take shelter in an abandoned building called a ‘‘tenement,’’ aseveral-storied apartment building designed to house many families at once. Tenements were built in the Harlem boom years of the early 1900s, but this one stands vacant and ‘‘graffiti-scarred,’’in‘‘grimshadows.’’Thoughsome might find this scary, Greg has a different association. He was outside the building recently for a tournamentofcheckers,agameAfricanAmericans have traditionally played outdoors in Harlem and elsewhere as a way of socializing. He remembers that the door was open then and decides to head back to get out of the rain and stay away from his father.
inside, spends looking around at his surroundings. The room is filled with abandoned furniture and what seems to be a pile of rags on the floor. Sitting on an old couch by the window, he watches the flashing neon sign of the bodega, a corner grocery store, down the street and thinks again about his argument with his father. Greg is tired of his father’s lectures about how hard he has worked to get where he is today. As the wind and rain continue outside, Greg realizes that he hears something ‘‘breathing’’ and then hears a voice, ‘‘high and brittle, like dry twigs being broken,’’ threaten him with a razor. Greg turns to see that the pile of rags in the corner is actually a person, an old man with ‘‘a black, heavily wrinkled face. .. .surrounded by a halo of crinkly white hair.’’
To his relief, Greg recognizes the man, whose name is Lemon Brown. Greg has seen him before leafing through clothes left out in a donation box for the Salvation Army, a charity. Greg tells Lemon he is only looking for a place to wait out the storm; Lemon questions why he does not go home and asks Greg if he is there to steal his treasure. Greg doubts that Lemon has a treasure, but Lemon ignores this and starts to tell Greg about his life as a blues musician and about the son he ‘‘used to have’’ who reminds him of Greg. When Greg asks Lemon how he ended up homeless, Lemon tells him that ‘‘hard times caught up’’ with him.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of three men who come into the house trying to steal the ‘‘treasure’’ they have heard Lemon talk about. Greg and Lemon hide at the top of a flight of stairs and watch the men come in. One of them holds a piece of pipe as a weapon. As they call out in search of Lemon, they claim they don’t want to hurt him, but Lemon rightfully fears that they mean to do him harm. He grasps Greg’s hand as they hide in the shadows, clearly trying to protect the young man. When one of the intruders starts to climb the stairs, Lemon steps forward with his arms raised, forming ‘‘an eerie sight, a bundle of rags standing at the top of the stairs, his shadow on the wall looming over him.’’ Greg helps scare the men away by howling, to make it seem as if the house is haunted. Lemon throws himself on top of the man who is approaching, who gets up and runs away with the other men.
When Lemon and Greg look out the window, they see that the man who approached Lemon may be slightly hurt, at least enough to leave Lemon alone for a while. Lemon tells Greg he is not hurt any more than usual, which makes Greg think he has had a hard life.
Lemon then takes out his ‘‘treasure’’ from its hiding place underneath the rags covering his legs. It turns out to be nothing of monetary value, as the thugs hoped, but rather just a bundle of old newspaper clippings, reviews of Lemon’s blues performances as a young man, as well as the old dented harmonica he used to play. Lemon explains that he gave his son this bundle when he went off to war (presumably World War II) because ‘‘if you know your pappy did something, you know you can do something too.’’ The clipping and harmonica were sent back to Lemon after his son was killed. ‘‘Him carrying it around with him like that told me it meant something to him,’’ Lemon explains. ‘‘That was my treasure, and when I gave it to him, he treated it just like a treasure.’’
Greg reacts to the treasure without much enthusiasm at first, finding it hard to believe that Lemon risked his life against the thugs for these seemingly worthlessthings. Lemon scolds him, asking ‘‘What else a man got ’cepting what he can pass on to his son?’’ Lemon then sends Greg home, since the thugs are now gone, and tells Greg not to worry about him. He will be leaving for East St. Louis, a city in Illinois, in the morning, so the thugs will not find him if they return the next night. Greg walks home around the puddles, trying not to think about how angry his father might be. He considers telling his dad about Lemon but decides to keep it a secret, perhaps because his father won’t approve. Greg rings his doorbell so his father will let him in. The rainstorm has passed, and so too has Greg’s anger at his father gone away, because Lemon has encouraged him to consider his father, who has worked hard and loves Greg very much, in a new light. With a smile, Greg anticipates the lecture his father will give him, realizing that such lectures are how his father tries to help him to live a good life. The pride Mr. Ridley is trying to instill in Greg now seems more like a treasure than a burden.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Walter Dean Myers, Published by Gale Group, 2010