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  • In the Time of Rocks
  • Toni Jensen (bio)

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once upon, in the time before, in the days of that summer, there were rocks. Rocks in the yard; rocks at the edge of the sycamore; rocks under the front porch and the back porch and the side porch; rocks stacked high on the Formica countertop between the range and the wheezing refrigerator; rocks along sofa creases, in the silverware drawer, tucked next to knives; in the [End Page 174] medicine cabinet; in shoe boxes and in the butter drawer and behind every curtain—it was the time of rocks.

It was summer, too, my twelfth year, and Alde and I came and went from the house at the canyon as children do or maybe as children did back then. Alde was eleven, and I was not in love with him—I was not in love with him yet. I had almost a year on him, and I stood half a foot taller. Both made me unreasonably superior.

We could not have known it would be the last summer at the canyon. But there is no way now to think back on those days in any other way, to see the rocks as objects only: to be moved or left lay, to be cleaned or left dirty, to be argued over: brown or gray or some other color we could not name. They were from the depths of the earth, seemed to take on as much life as the mesquite and prickly pear. They were igneous. They were metamorphic. They were from everywhere my grandfather had been or would go. And, yes, they marked the beginning of the end.

That June morning, Alde skipped rocks through the dust of the cotton field between our houses. We lived one mile apart by road, less by field, so we took the field. We lived seven miles from town. We were each other’s closest neighbors, just our houses and the cotton fields stretching out to Blanco Canyon. Our part of West Texas, the Llano Estacado, the high plains, the South Plains, the Caprock escarpment—no matter what you called this region, all of it then and now was easiest to describe by what was missing, by lack: people, grass, trees, rain, most of all, rain. Last year had been labeled the Year of the Drought, but there had been even less rainfall this year so far. We were going to have to come up with some new names.

The dust rose from the field, from all the fields. Even though everyone had their cotton in, it didn’t matter. Nothing but dust would grow unless it rained.

From the kitchen window, I could not yet see Alde crossing the field, only the dust he raised with his rocks. It was our signal. Tie your shoes. Finish your breakfast. Brush your teeth if you must, but be ready, be waiting outside by the sycamore.

Usually, I saw the signal from my spot near the tree, where I’d fill the birdfeeder and wait. Sometimes a woodpecker tapped his signals on the side of the house. Most times the flycatchers and cactus wrens fluttered near the feeder. Once or twice, a roadrunner strutted across the field before Alde came into view, like they were in some sort of oddball race.

But today I lingered in the kitchen, deciding. In front of the toaster lay my grandfather’s newest offering: six metal stakes with orange flags, and the rock, red-brown and striated, rivaling the toaster in size. I didn’t so much look at it—I beheld it. Beautiful, grotesque, a force. [End Page 175]

Grandfather had left bigger rocks before: one against the front door that time. It had taken both Alde and me to roll it aside, to gain entry. Another time, a rock-boulder hybrid in the bathtub that I showered around for weeks. It left as it had arrived—at grandfather’s whim.

Those rocks had not been beautiful, though, and they had not held down a pristine sheet of notebook paper whose message I both badly wanted and did not want to read.



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pp. 174-185
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