BY JAMES MARKERT
“Go on now, before the ice melts.”
The man called Jeb had a face, like his clothes, wrinkled and dirty, like desert hard-pack, cracked and sunbaked. If not for the stark blue eyes she might have thought him dead. She’d served tea to enough on the wrong side of life to know the difference. She didn’t know what he’d been through or from where exactly he’d come—she never asked—but come they did, men and women alike. Jeb looked more troubled than most, and untrusting as any, but he appeared thirsty enough to try anything, which was why she couldn’t understand his reticence.
“Take a sip, Mr. Jeb. You’ll see.”
“I’ll see what exactly?”
“That the sign out there on the road don’t lie.”
“The sign just says Sweet Tea?”
“But if you look at the fine print, Mr. Jeb, you’ll see it says more.”
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, staring at the drinking glass on the wooden table between them. Her glass rested there as well, but she didn’t fill it from what remained in the pitcher. Instead, it stayed empty, and that seemed to bring back his distrust. Breeze whistled through the porch screen, and Jeb’s right eye twitched. Out in the yard, a blue-bird fluttered at a feeder that hung from a live oak that resembled a splayed hand.
The glass was sweating, so when he put his nose to the rim to sniff the dark, amber contents, the tip of it came back wet. “What’s the fine print say? On that sign?”
“That it’ll cure whatever ails you, Mr. Jeb, and I don’t need to know what that be.”
“What’s it cost?”
“What’s the greatest gift you can give another person, Mr. Jeb?”
“No. Your time. Just a little bit of your time is all that drink costs.”
He tapped the round face of his wristwatch. “The hands ain’t moving. Must have broke out on the road.”
“It ain’t broke, Mr. Jeb. It just paused. Now drink up.”
He brought the glass to his lips and swallowed a gulp. Ice clinked when he lowered it. Tension eased from his shoulders and a smile soon followed. He drank until the glass was half-full, and before he knew it he was twenty minutes deep into a story that got both of them laughing. He’d long past finished—with his tea and the story—before he’d even thought of asking what was in it. “I mean, I never tasted anything so good. So sweet and refreshing.”
She said, “It’s a secret, Mr. Jeb, but just know it’s a labor of it.”
“Labor of what?”
“Labor of love. And a whole lot of my special sugar.”
“What’s special about it?”
“It’s extra sweet.”
He grinned, leaned forward again. “Well, you weren’t lying. Once heard a man say everyone gets broken out on the road, eventually.”
“Do you feel better now?”
“Better than I have in a long time.”
“Like I said.” She leaned back in her rocking chair, her confident slouch edging toward cocky as she nodded toward at Mr. Jeb’s empty tea glass. “Cures what ails you.”
“How long will it last?”
“Until you need a refill.”
He sucked on an ice cube, as if trying to get every remnant of that sweet tea from the glass. “Will you still be here? Will that sign still be out by the road?”
She looked forlornly through the live oaks, out toward the dusty road that seemingly had no ending. “I don’t know. I guess that depends.”
“On what?” After waiting a beat for an answer that never came, he said, “Some say you’re waiting on somebody in particular. That true?”
“Can’t? Or you won’t?”
And she didn’t. But they eased into more stories until the sun began to set, and despite the laughs they shared and their growing camaraderie, as was typical at the onset of dusk, she grew melancholy.
He eyed her with suspicion. “How old are you?”
She smiled. “Not so old hope can’t still fester.”
“And you always dress like that?” he asked. “Like you come from a different era. Like from back when brothers went to war with their own brothers.”
She smiled, but offered no more. Instead, she nodded toward his arm, his watch. “I believe it’s time to go, Mr. Jeb.”
He noticed the tiny watch hands ticking again. “Well, I’ll be.” He stood, offered his hand, which she kindly shook. He nodded toward the two glasses on the table, both empty, his from having been had, ice and all, hers from having never been filled.
“Why didn’t you drink with me?”
She offered nothing.
“And I don’t owe you anything?”
She held up her empty glass. “Paid in full. My cup runneth over with your time, Mr. Jeb.”
Mr. Jeb placed his dusty hat on his head and moved on toward the dusty road.
She watched him walk until he was a fuzzy blip on the horizon, and then she retired upstairs to their bedroom for the night, where she changed from her pink chiffon dress into her bedclothes and undid the pins and ringlets in her hair. A man’s suit hung from the back of the bedroom door. She stared at it, imagined the war never happened. She caught a glimpse of herself in the vanity mirror and looked away. She drank from the empty glass she’d brought with her from the porch, from her time with Mr. Jeb.
She drank down every minute of it, until she felt she’d consumed enough to go on for another day. She placed the glass on the bedside table, crawled onto her side of the bed, and went to sleep, hoping. One day the neighboring pillow would be warm again.
In the middle of the night, the door opened downstairs.
She sat up in bed.
A voice said, “I’m home.”
James is also a USPTA tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC. Learn more at JamesMarkert.com, Facebook: James Markert, Twitter: @JamesMarkert.