The old man brightened considerably when we both ended up in front of him. Why, here we were, side by side and we had already given him something to talk about for the rest of the week. The next few moments would certainly fill up the month.
Standing next to Jeff felt like waiting with an old friend. Neither has to say a word because you've spent years creating the circle you share, but when Jeff spoke, he was a stranger. All of us have run behind a familiar coat, grabbed an arm and gasped at an unrecognized face.
"I didn't mean to put you off," I said. "You were just trying to be friendly."
He looked down at me, pupils almost black. "No, I wasn't trying to be friendly." He bit the final word. "That wasn't what I was trying to be ... friendly." He snapped off the end.
I turned white hot in that betrayal. "Congratulations then," I retorted. "You didn't compromise yourself."
He threw his head back in a belly laugh so loud and sudden that I was afraid he couldn't hear me.
"You're going to drop your groceries!" I gasped.
As Jeff doubled over, I looked helplessly to the old man.
"You can't tell him anything," he announced cheerfully.
Jeff tightened his grip on his hand basket and panted for breath. "Please go in front of me." He swooped his arm, grinning. "You deserve it."
"No," I hesitated. This man was too unpredictable to show my back.
"I've got to get my jug out of the Jeep. Please." Jeff stretched out his arm, ushering me to the cash register before bounding out the door.
A jug for water, I wondered, like we did in the city?
"Lemonade," the old man read me. "We sell it by the gallon. Got to bring your own container."
As I stuffed my change in my purse, Jeff returned with a dented plastic milk jug. "You'll spring a leak in that," the old man said.
Jeff shook his head, "No, I won't."
The old man eyed him for a long heartbeat and started filling.
I had just turned on the ignition when Jeff jumped off the porch, holding the jug up to his face. He squinted at the bottom, watching one drop ooze out, then another. I turned off the engine and scooted down in the seat to watch over the dashboard. I peeked out just as a fine yellow stream broke free and arced true across the front of his shirt.
Jeff stood in disbelief as a tiny, but ever-widening river coursed down his jeans leg, puddling on his tennis shoe. He jumped back, drop kicked the jug across the dirt, picked it up, both of them drenched now, and made a rim shot into a rusty trashcan. When he looked at me triumphantly, he was sixteen years old again.
"Who are you again?" He grinned.
"I'm the only one here who doesn't have lemonade in my shoes." I rolled down the cab window.
"You're the one who tells people's stories." He sauntered over like a teenager who had won the fight and rested his hand on the window frame near my elbow.
"Not this one." I dimpled, pointing to the grimy living room window where the old man watched. "He's got first dibbs."
Jeff looked down at my arm and the lines in his face deepened. "Most people's stories aren't true, Emma," he said quietly. "We think we're telling the truth or at least part of it when we talk to each other, but mostly we don't."
He studied me, older than I was. "What do you think, Emma?"
I wanted to trace the creases in his face until they disappeared. "I think you have to let people tell you whatever they can when they're ready," I whispered. "Otherwise, they'll lie without meaning to."
He glanced at the sky and then grabbed the door handle.
"Tell the truth, Emma. Do you want to see my work tomorrow?"
I sagged against the seat, and touched the keys in the ignition. Outside the truck's front window I could see a swallow circling the field behind the store. It was joined by a second in mid-turn, and they arced together, gathering their own before a storm.
I pulled out a pen and wrote Jean Plymal's phone number at the bottom of the grocery list. "Call me." I took a breath, smelling rain, "We'll talk about it."
He slipped my note in his wet shirt pocket, patted the truck's door and walked away without a word.
The afternoon rain stayed past dinner, so I sat by the window under lamplight with Jean's diary. I couldn't tell her that Sam would be true to his word, or that what she would become enough for him for the rest of his life, and she couldn't tell me that she had left behind a prayer needing an answer.