The sign in the storefront's window took my friend Marty and me by surprise. Its large red letters said: Going Out of Business Sale.
"No way!" Marty exclaimed in his squeaky voice, above the noonday noise of the traffic rumbling by on the busy city street.
"No way!" I echoed. "Come on."
In we went, through the open door and into the cool quiet of a store we'd been to a thousand times before. Sugar's Variety was a second home to just about every kid I knew, certainly on our block. More than anything, Mr. Sugar, the elderly proprietor who also lived by himself upstairs, liked to have kids around.
How did we know? Easy. You could tell by the way his face lit up in a toothy smile whenever we came barging in, in search of candy, magazines, gum, knickknack, or sodas out of the old-fashioned "ice box" he kept in back. "My favorite customers!" he was always saying. Or, "Glad you boys showed up." Or, "What took you so long?" Then he'd give his funny laugh.
We found him on his usual stool behind the counter, but instead of greeting us cheerily, or tempting us with free cookies he'd baked himself, he looked the way my father sometimes does when worries wrinkle his brow and cloud his eyes.
"I see you saw the sign," he said to us.
He could probably tell by our frowning faces.
"What's wrong?" Marty squeaked.
"Yeah, Mr. S.," I said hurriedly. "You can't close down. Where will we go when it rains, or when we need something after hours, like ice cream? Or a bag of chips? Or advice?"
For some reason, my words made him smile.
"Simon, there are other stores," he said with a wave of his hand. "Plenty - even in this neighborhood. And as for advice, you all have parents, teachers. Adults who'll more than gladly help out. You don't need me."
Marty and I just stared at him, our mouths open. Didn't Mr. Sugar know how we felt about him? What he meant to us kids?
"But why are you closing?" Marty asked him.
The elderly man gave a shrug, "It's just time."
"Time?" I didn't understand. Neither did Marty.
"Boys," Mr. Sugar said slowly, "I've owned this variety store for more years than I'd care to say. I knew your folks when they were younger than you two are. A person gets tired. I wish I could say something tangible, such as the rent's gone up, or I'm not making ends meet, or I could use some help, but that's not true. I need a change. Even an old-timer looks for newness now and then."
It was just like him to talk to us so honestly, even though I was kind of young - 11 - to know exactly what he meant. Newness?
"You mean, like a vacation?" Marty asked.
This had Mr. Sugar smiling again.
"A long one," was his answer. "With lots of time to spend on things I've been promising myself for years. Studying chess and painting. Maybe some gardening. And travel - visiting places I've never been to."
Then it hit me: He wasn't just closing the store, he was moving away. We'd never see him again. My glasses started to fog up, and I had to blink back the tears.
Mr. Sugar could've been my grandfather.
"It'll be all right, Simon," he said to me kindly. "You'll get over it. Wherever I end up - maybe Florida, where it's warm - we'll keep in touch by writing. Marty, too. And some of my other closest friends. Your parents...."
He stopped when a group of people came in all at once, chattering away in surprised voices about the "out of business" sign in the window.
Marty and I left.
"What're we going to do?" I wondered aloud.
"Dunno," Marty squeaked.
The two of us were shaking our heads.
That night at my house, the closing of Sugar's Variety was the talk at the dinner table. My parents were as surprised as I was, but they understood what Mr. Sugar had told Marty and me that afternoon.
"Everyone needs a break," my father said with a sigh.
My mother agreed. "But it'll sure be strange without Mr. Sugar around," she admitted. "We'll all miss him - the whole neighborhood."
"Life's full of changes," she told me that night, sitting on the edge of my bed. Her voice was soft, optimistic. "The two of you can be pen pals. Maybe, wherever Mr. Sugar ends up, we can go visit. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"No," I said stubbornly. "There must be something we can do. To make him change his mind, I mean. Stay put."
She brushed the hair back from my forehead.
"Maybe it's for the best, Simon," she told me.
"But this is his home," I persisted. "We're his family. He doesn't have anyone else; he told me so himself."
My mother's advice?
"Say a prayer for Mr. Sugar's happiness," she told me on her way out the door. "And try to be strong for both of you."
I don't know why, but I stayed away from Sugar's for a whole week after that. Maybe I didn't want to see the sign in the window, or all the treasures disappearing from the store. Even from across the street I could tell the place was emptying out. And the curtains came down from the second-story windows: Mr. Sugar's apartment. No one seemed as upset as I did, not even Marty.
The day came when a moving van arrived out front. Sugar's Variety was to be no more. Mr. Sugar was leaving for good.
"Mr. S. wants to see you," my dad told me. "Says he has something for you - and he needs to tell you something."
"Like what?" I said bitterly.
"Go and find out," my dad said with a wink.
It was the wink that got me going. Dad winking meant that all wasn't as bad as it seemed, or was it?
The store was almost empty. A tiny Mr. Sugar, with glasses perched at the end of his long nose, was out on the sidewalk, supervising the movers as they loaded his belongings into the van. He gave me one of his toothy smiles. I felt like crying.
"Simon," he said in his kind voice. "I'm glad you came. Your not being around made me think hard about a lot of things: mostly about what I'd be giving up by being away from everyone I've gotten to know - especially you kids. You're the closest thing I have to family.
"I'm sure I'd make friends down in Florida, but it just wouldn't be the same. I'd rather be close to those who care about me, and who I care about, than living far away by myself. Does that make sense to you?"
"But what about the moving van?" I said, puzzled.
He put his arm around my shoulder. "Here's what I'm going to do," he told me. "Yes, I've closed the variety store. Yes, I'm moving. Yes, I'm taking a vacation to Florida. But only a vacation for a month. When I return, I'll be the owner of a new store: Sugar's Florist, down the street. You know how much I like gardening and flowers. And I'll be living upstairs. You'll have to walk an extra block if you want to see me, but there I'll be. New business, new home. How's that?"
It was the best news I'd ever heard.
"But Mr. S.," I teased him, "I don't know if I'll ever need to buy flowers. I mean, flowers are for adults."
At this he gave his funny laugh.
"Boy, have you got a lot to learn, Simon. There'll still be my homemade cookies. By the way, here's a box of them I want you to give your family. Oh, and I'm starting a chess club. You and Marty are old enough to be members. See you when I get back from my trip."
He pushed me gently in the direction of my building.
"So long," he said.
"See you soon, Mr. S.," I said happily.
Wow! Wonderful how things sometimes work out just the way you want them to. But even so, for some reason my glasses were fogging up again.