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The Oldest Rock in Mud Pony Lake (TGWP 1)

April 11, 2016

The Rock 1

From the novel This Game We Play, by Greg Blake Miller

Prologue

It was bad enough that my father was older than me. When I found out my older brother was older than me too, I knew I had a thing to contend with. When Simon was 11, and I was just six, he took to playing afterschool basketball with a pair of big boys down the street, and I was not invited. It was winter; my father was on the road and my mother was tired. I think she and I shared a sense of being left out. In any case, we spent those afternoons together in a drowse of suspended anxiety. She’d lie down and let go the tension of being as good in our small world as Dad was in the big one, and I’d lie down with her, my head on her belly, and listen: Bubble, gurgle, plink. I thought it was the sound of calm, and whenever I heard it the prospect of my never making it down the street to play ball with the big boys seemed a whole lot less troubling.

The sound, though, was not as portable as one might hope, and I spent most of that winter wondering at my smallness and edgy with the desire to amount to something special. I monitored the world for ballplayers with my name and stories where the younger son made good. I did a semblance of pushups on my bedroom floor. I developed a taste for genie myths and swords in stones and the idea that there were very, very old things that, when stumbled upon by the pure of heart, would share the secrets of the ages. By springtime my father was around more and I thought about these things less. But I still thought about them. I was thinking about them, in fact, that first hot Saturday as we rumbled to the lake in Dad’s cozy old shoe of a tan Ford sedan.

The down-the-street neighbors were waiting when we got there. Those two big boys came rushing at Simon waving some magazine like a captured flag. “Check it out! Check it out!” Their big father snatched it from them, though, and grinned at my parents through a mask of sunscreen. He shrugged. He waved a meaty paw. He slapped my father on the back. My mother, he hugged. The two boys put each other in headlocks and punched each other in the arms and set to emptying our car. They pulled the cooler from the trunk, and the bucket-and-shovel from the back seat, and the Nerf football, and the flying disc, and the small plush giraffe I’d brought in the car but hadn’t intended anyone to see…

+++

If you turned away from the two cars in the little dirt lot and looked into the baking distance, everything seemed wild and untouched. Mud Pony Lake was a good 20 minutes of raw southwestern desert from anyone’s house; it sat sheltered from the city on the far side of jagged-backed Mud Pony Mountain, the tallest and barest peak in Zantrum Valley. I’d heard somewhere that the mountain was almost as old as Earth itself, and that it used to be twice as tall before a quake shook the top half into the lake. This, of course, intrigued me, and I left the big boys playing Frisbee and the grownups talking business and went searching for a rock from the beginning of time.

Mostly I saw ovals; they were pink and gray and neat and smooth and they all looked a little too new. I picked one up, admired it, put it back with whispered respects, ambled on in shallow clear water, eyed the stones each sloshing step, let the lake keep them, looked for the one that measured years not in millions but billions. Then I saw it, brick-like and fist-sized beneath a half-foot of water, and I took it and I turned it over in my hand and I knew I’d found the rock from the very start. Nothing so pretty, but it had a slick plane that broke off at a wounded spot and showed the time-striped insides, and I told myself, This is the one that’s weathered all the adventures. The rock was cool and wet on my fingers. I stood there moving my thumb across the jagged edge and feeling big and small at the same time.

One of Simon’s friends tromped toward me in the sand, dragging his big bare feet and spraying grains up in the air and into my eyes. He asked me to see my rock and gave it a good once-over and told me, It’s good for skipping, and I, not sure what he meant, said, It is?

“It sure is,” he said, and he side-armed it out into the still blue water. I watched it bounce at 20 feet, 40 feet, 60 feet, gone.

“Isn’t that cool?” he said, and I understood he’d meant no harm, but I felt harmed. I nodded and walked away.

Simon came up to me, sun-browned and snake-slim, quick on his feet, no sandsplatter, just the quiet approach of authority, big hard brown eyes full of reason and justice and the will to make things right. A sense of responsibility. Simon could be relied on to put straight the things others let slide. He’d taken one look at me from across 10 yards of sand and coolers and he knew he was needed.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I shrugged.

“Don’t gimmee that. What’s wrong?”

“He threw my rock.”

“Where?”

“Out there.”

“What did it look like?”

I told him.

“I’ll get it,” he said, and walked off into the water like a god with gills.

My father had overheard us.

“Don’t go that far, Simon!”

Simon kept going.

“Come on back, big fella!”

Dad had a sandpaper throat and a warm, smoky tone, though he’d never smoked. I loved that voice; I gave myself sore throats trying to make it come out of my mouth.

“It’s too far out, Simon!” my father shouted. “We’ll find another rock!”

But Simon was gone, under the blue, way under the blue, holding his breath or breathing the water or whatever the heroes do.

Simon!!!”

Simon wasn’t listening.

Dad tousled my shaggy yellow head. Sand fell into my eyes.

“Simon’ll get you that rock,” he said. “Don’t you worry.”

“It could have lived at our house,” I said.

My father took a deep breath and let it go and squinted out at the lake. “It may yet,” he said.

Now my mother was shouting:

“For God’s sake, Al, go get him!

“He’s fine!” my father said. He was suddenly cleansed of his own concern, or pretending it well. My father was most always a cool customer, but never more so than when my mother was worried.

“He’s too far!Mom said.

“He’s getting Tucker’s rock.”

“Why doesn’t Tucker get another rock?”

“That’s the one I picked,” I said.

My father looked at my mother and shrugged. “That’s the one he picked,” he said.

I looked at my mother and shrugged just as Dad had, and my mother smiled at me and put her hand up over her brow and looked out at the water. She was calmer now. I think she wanted very much for Simon to find my rock.

Simon!!!” Dad shouted.

+++

A slick brown head, eighty feet out. A sunbrowned arm punches out of the water in triumph, something shiny clutched in strong fingers. Simon rises on the water, his bony back glints in the sun, and he’s under again, on his way to me…

The rock is not mine. It’s the most beautiful rock I’ve ever seen. It’s blue and green and yellow and red. It’s oval as an egg and smooth as glass. But it’s not mine.

Twenty-five years later I keep the rock on my hutch right next to the other good stuff—a picture of Priscilla from the month we met, an old bit of basketball net, a six-month portrait of my little blond boy. I treasure this rock but long for my rock, the rock I found, the one I picked, the one from the beginning of time. I wish I’d taken it upon myself to disappear into that water and find what was mine. I don’t even remember what color it was. I’m not sure if I’m imagining here a completely different shape when I try to describe my rock. I don’t remember much about it at all. Only that it was mine, and then it was gone…

+++

Mud Pony Mountain went pink and then purple in the afternoon light. I did not let go of Simon’s rock all afternoon. Those big boys didn’t bother me anymore. We piled in the car and headed home, grimy and exhausted as the city lights rose up to meet us. Simon looked proudly at the rock in my hand.

“It’s even better, isn’t it?” he said.

I shrugged and smiled and looked him in the eye and thanked him.

Continue reading: TGWP Section 2: “Tucker on the Mountain.” 

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