Jones had said good-bye sometime after I started reading. I barely noticed him leave, but in the morning, I wished I had been nicer to the old man. I felt embarrassed, a bit ashamed of myself, but not nearly so devoid of hope as I had been the evening before. By nightfall, I had finished George Washington Carver and was so tired that I slept until the next morning.
That day, I washed boats at the marina and thought constantly about what I had read. I also kept an eye out for Jones, but I didn't see him. Gene, the marina manager, said he knew Jones well. He told me that the old man had been coming through town for years. "In fact," Gene said, "Jones was old when I was a boy. And I'm fifty-two."
I read Will Rogers within the next twenty-four hours, but it wasn't until several days later that I saw my friend again. I was throwing a cast net in the lagoon, trying to catch shrimp and mullet minnows to sell for bait, when the old man slipped up behind me. "Doing any good?" he asked.
"Hey, Jones!" I exclaimed. "I didn't hear you come up! Where've you been? I already read the books!"
He chortled at my enthusiasm. (Actually, I was a bit surprised myself that I was so glad to see him.) "Slow down, slow down! Let me comment." He grinned. "You didn't hear me come up because you were splashing around so much you wouldn't have heard me if I was riding an elephant. As for where I've been? I've been around—even seen you a couple of times—but didn't want to be a bother. And I'm glad you finished the books. Like 'em?"
"Yes, sir," I answered breathlessly. "I really did."
"Good. I figured you were through with all three by now. I hope you don't mind . . . I stopped by the pier and got them. And I left three more."
"Really?" I said, surprised. "Thanks." "You're welcome. I'm getting them from the library. But I'm picking them out special for you." Jones then held up a plastic bag. "You hungry? I got lunch."
"I'm always hungry," I said. "Lately, I've been a 'one-meal-a-day' kind of guy, or what my mom used to call an 'opportunistic eater.' "
"Well, come on," he said. "Get out of the water. I have a feast." The "feast" turned out to be Vienna sausages and sardines. I was hungry, so I ate, but I wasn't exactly thrilled with the fare, and Jones knew it. I wondered later if that's why he brought it in the first place.
We had settled under an oak tree on a high dune, the beach in front of us and the deep-blue lagoon at our backs. I wore old tennis shoes, blue jean cutoffs, and no shirt. Jones, in his usual casual attire, had coiled a blue bandanna around his head. The blue of that headband seemed to make his eyes glow. From where we sat, we could hear the crashing of the surf, and there was just enough breeze to make the summer temperature bearable. "So, what are you eating?" Jones asked, peering at me with a smile. I looked up, puzzled. Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I swallowed and said, "What? You know what I'm eating. Same as you."
"Really?" the old man teased, with a sly look. "Somehow I doubt it. But let's see . . ." He leaned over to glance at my food, then looked back at me. "What are you eating?" he asked again. "And where are you eating it?" Seeing that I was now more confused than ever, he added gently, "It's not a trick; just answer the questions."
I raised my eyebrows and said, "Well . . ." I held up my hands as if to say, I still don't know what you're getting at, and said, "I guess I'm—"
"No, don't guess. Just tell me."