Of the many unusual things for a fifth grader to find on the playground, things like a sock in a tree or a diaper in a tire swing, I found a magic rock. I remember this rock more clearly than I remember anything else that year such as learning how to spell ocean or how to paint stick figure families for Mother’s Day. At different times, this rock was scalding hot and also pinky freezing cold. It rested small enough to fit into my nose, and at other times it became so large that it could weigh down a stack of papers. At all times, it granted me anything I could hope for.
“What you got?” my classmate, Marcus Mort, asked just as soon as I picked it up.
I don’t know how we knew I had something incredible, but we did.
His shoes were not on. His toes perfectly blended with the playground pea gravel as if he was some sort of a red headed rock monster. It puzzles me that this barefoot heathen eventually went to college and became quite successful, especially considering that so many of my class ended up fastening plastic pieces on the same Quake Three Wheeler assembly lines as their parents before them.
“I got nothing,” I said, putting the rock behind my back. Despite all of the other things I came to recognize and expect from it, I will always refer to it as a rock simply because that is what it was when I found it—a silver grey rock amid a bed of brown.
Mort’s skinny arms dangled strangely low. He rarely looked people in the eye, and I never would have expected him to attack me for it, but he did. We wrestled a little, and then he, of all people, pried my fingers open to take it away.
It was not until the rock flew beyond the top of our heads that I awakened. I looked at his dirty clothes, not much more than paper sacks, and then at my polo shirt and khakis. Mort’s jeans rode the tops of his ankles, pulling tightly around his knees when he bent over to search the ground. My shirt was tucked in; my body beneath it was lean. Mort’s parents couldn’t afford to buy him decent things because my parents owned the Quake Three Wheeler Industry and didn’t feel obligated to give out raises.
Mort fell to his knees to dig in the gravel when I pushed him away and punched him in the nose for good measure.
“Mort, what’s wrong with you?”
“Where’d it go?” he asked.
I looked down to where I had dropped the rock, but it was gone. Not until he turned away to rub his nose did it reappear before my eyes, a single silver twinkle catching my attention. As I scooped it up, he saw me and shouted, “Come on. Let me see it!”
The question of whether it had been invisible or if it had traveled somewhere else and returned would have to wait. I stashed the rock into my pocket even as our teacher, Missus Pratt, shouted from somewhere out of sight. It was time to get ready for the big vocabulary test on Friday, which we only had four days left to study for. To Missus Pratt, everything was big and important, even the most pitiful 30 seconds we stood to lose if she had called the roll using both our first and last names. She blew a whistle for us to return to class.
“Well what is it?” Mort asked, now following me like scalded water that peters our behind a boat.
“You can’t have it,” I said, wondering if this was how Bilbo felt about the One Ring. “It’s mine.”
Two days later, I had yet to learn the first of my vocabulary words, much to Missus Pratt’s annoyance. Instead, I sat tight in class, flipping my new discovery over and over inside my desk to unlock its many powers. Sometimes it was a rock and sometimes it was not because it had one, two, or perhaps infinitely as many sides as I could imagine. It all depended on which way I turned it, on the lighting, and on how far the edges were from my eyes.
I turned it again and again, trying to understand how it worked but always coming out at a loss. It did not strike me as true magic, at least, not in the traditional unicorns and rainbows way. But it wasn’t as comprehensible as the many extensions of a Swiss Army Knife either. Somehow, it hid between these two extremes, dancing like the excitement I felt during my first encounter with a Magic Eight ball before I learned that Magic Eight balls only contain six possible answers. If I tried long enough, I thought I could learn all the rock’s secrets too. However, each time I felt that I had seen everything there was to see, a new design appeared, and I was puzzled all over again.
On top of this, I did not have a shred of evidence that anyone else could see any of these things in the first place. Every time the different sides disappeared and I had gotten nowhere, this idea of the imagination bothered me more.
Eventually, I could take the suspense no longer.
“Denise,” I said to the prettiest girl in the classroom. “What do you see?”
I held up the rock—because it was a rock at the time—, and Denise looked, for a moment so excited that she may well have thought I was going to give her a picture of a stick figure family with us on it. Then she shrugged.
“What about it?” she asked. She wore multiple handmade bracelets, natural blond hair reaching her shoulders, and her IQ around her ankles, almost as low as mine.
“Can you see it?”
She leaned closer. “See what?”
“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I can see that.”
Our desks were arranged into squares of four. The seat beside me belonged to Denise. I had planned this from the first day of class when Missus Pratt let us choose where we wanted to sit. The spot across from me went to a boy who was out sick with chicken pox. And the one across from Denise was occupied by Mort, who had requested to switch into our section that morning.
Denise looked away, returning her attention to Mort. Together, they pasted vocabulary words to an activity handout that Missus Pratt had concocted.
“Can I see it?” Mort asked about the rock, but I put it into my desk cubby.
Mort moaned and plopped his head down on his desk.
However, when Denise realized that her smart little word partner was useless without first seeing the rock, she ordered me to give it to him. Those two had been working together all day, but her new determination and betrayal surprised me. Mort peeked up at us to see what would happen, a word drifting from his forehead onto the desk again.
“But it’s mine,” I said and pushed the rock to the back of my cubby.
Denise reached into my personal space and snatched a ruler to bribe me with.
I reached into my desk and retrieved a spare ruler to show that I didn’t care if she took the first one.
She swiped my tape, certain that this time I would have no more tape to glue my vocabulary words onto their respective definitions.
I stuck my tongue out and got out another roll.
She took three more things: a sharpener, a crayon box, and a pair of scissors. Then she crossed her arms in defeat.
I don’t know how I came up with those things so quickly. I only know that it worked, that anything I needed, perhaps even anything I wanted, was there for the taking, all because of the rock.
She said, “Weirdo. How much stuff do you have in there?”
Mort followed Denise’s lead, his grubby fingers swiping the word ocean from my desk. He put the word into his mouth and devoured it.
“There,” he said. “I bet you don’t have any more of those.”
Denise slapped the table. “Stupid, you can’t bribe him after you’ve already eaten it.”
Mort turned red even as I reached into my desk and got another identical word. He spat the tiny wad of paper on the floor and did not ask to see the rock again.
Mort and Denise silently brooded against me for the rest of the week. It was not until during our big vocabulary test that Mort made his next attempt.
“Let me see the rock,” he whispered. I noticed that my pen was gone only a second before he flashed it through the air to taunt me.
I said nothing. What was I supposed to do? Make a mold to prove that the teeth marks on the pen matched those in my own mouth?
Denise looked up from her test, impressed by the turn of events.
Slowly, I reached into my desk and came out with a new pen.
Denise rolled her eyes and resumed testing.
Mort’s cheeks bunched together, lips tightening into a wad at the center of his face. He tossed the pencil across the room while Missus Pratt wasn’t watching.
Of course, it didn’t really matter if I had a way to write because I didn’t recognize any of the words either way. Every time Missus Pratt had taught us our vocabulary, I had been too distracted by the rock to listen.
Pathetically lost in the test, I finished and found myself staring at Denise, a habit I succumbed to more and more often. Oddly enough, she repeatedly looked at a place on the board behind me. Mort kept doing it too, so I peered over my shoulder and gasped because Missus Pratt had forgotten to erase half of the words before beginning the test. My fingers slid pointlessly across the ink on my page. I was now destined to miss every single question when everyone else, even the boy who had been out all week with chicken pox, would receive at least a 50.
I waited for Missus Pratt to take up the papers when my mind wandered back to the rock in my pocket, to the slick grey texture along the bottom of it, to the tiny flecks of grey that occasionally drifted free from it. I retrieved the rock and fondled it aimlessly.
Denise was still determined to complete the other half of the vocabulary words, but Mort had already finished and saw me immediately. As he watched, I rubbed the rock across the test, so that all of my old guesses where now miraculously erased for my recovery.
Mort gasped as I filled in the correct answers.
I looked at the bottom of the rock, where the word ocean was now printed across it.
I stamped the rock down on the page into one of the remaining blanks.
The word on the rock was different when I brought it up to reexamine it.
I stamped again and again until I finished the test.
When Mort watched me return the rock to my pocket, there was a hunger in his fingers. They stretched across his desk toward mine like kudzu. His eyes glowed with a need to escape his current lifestyle that I would not understand for many, many years.
Some 30 years later, Denise Foyer enters the rear break room in our little hometown of Gravity, North Carolina. Her enormous hips tip up onto one leg, and she sighs. Grease covers her knuckles just as it now covers mine. The year that three wheeler productions were illegalized was also the year that my parents lost control over the company. Their plant is now Ludwig Auto Line where we make nothing but windshield wipers.
A half empty candy wrapper is smudged across the opposite booth seat, so Denise squeezes down beside me.
Whenever our break periods align, we often speak of fifth grade because we have no other years in common, and because it is always on my mind. It is for this reason that she probably thinks I am gloomy.
“Just like old times,” I say.
“Except you’ve got less hair.”
I am not amused by this.
She tries to smile. “Fifth grade’s a big turning point. It’s the last year before middle school, and it’s the first year that you’re big enough to be handed your futures.”
“Don’t you remember?” she asks. “Missus Pratt used to say that a hundred times a day.”
“That’s why I didn’t recognize it,” I say. “I never heard a word the woman said.”
We sit in silence except for the sounds of Denise munching on a candy bar identical to the one in the other seat. Once she finishes, she adds, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you. You won’t believe who I saw painted on the side of my bus last week.”
“Marcus Mort,” she says. “Did you know he owns an industry for eco-friendly cars?”
I am not sure why Missus Pratt never paid any attention during recess. My khakis dripped with rain water as I sat down on the side of the railroad-tie perimeter of the playground. We should not have been out in the rain in the first place, yet there we were amid gravel craters filled with brown water and a slide suddenly so slick that no one was brave enough to ride it.
I relocated to a swing and turned the rock in circles. There was a dull side for erasing, a sharp side for cutting, a heavy side for stamping, a pointed side for writing, a side for making wishes, and an accompanying side for obtaining those wishes. I found a side with a groove that I could use to sharpen a pencil if I already had one, a side that I could remove napkins or any other small paper objects from, and a side with tiny speaker holes that operated like a megaphone or a telephone. Another side with a button sprayed deodorant though I was too young to need it, and yet another side squirted out some sort of an awful scent that reminded me of a skunk that our school bus once hit. There were many more sides that I could not begin to explain, especially a soft fleshy side that contained a moist opening unlike anything I had ever seen.
On the far side of the playground, Mort and Denise met by the monkey bars, no doubt to figure out how to get the rock away from me. Their hands came together briefly. They smiled. Mort imitated snatching the rock out of mid-air. Denise stepped closer to him. Their hands met again, and this time remained joined. Mort’s hand also carried one of Denise’s bracelets.
Seeing that bracelet on Mort’s wrist created a rage in me unlike any I had ever known. My arm cocked back like a catapult, and the rock whizzed through the air from behind them. The light glinted off its side as it pierced the rainfall to locate its target.
Before, the rock had been invisible to Mort. This time it was definitely a rock.
He stood beside Denise and then dropped to the ground. Blood quickly covered his face, so she screamed, and then Missus Pratt hurried over to help them. A tremendous bruise already crept above Mort's eye, the kind that surrounds split-open skin that never fully heals, especially when a child’s parents cannot afford a visit to the doctor for stitches.
I got away from there fast, thinking that I could avoid punishment and retrieve the rock later. Until then, it would become invisible or teleport away as it had briefly done when I first found it. I watched Missus Pratt spinning to find the culprit of this crime, but she did not, and no one else had seen me either.
I eventually approached the scene of the accident after Missus Pratt hurried Mort and Denise inside to find the school nurse. But the rock was nowhere in sight. I was sure they didn’t stoop to pick it up, so I searched the playground thoroughly for weeks, sifting through the endless gravel first with my shoes and later with my hands. I checked in the trees to see if it had bounced off Mort’s head and snagged in the crook of a branch. I reached inside the tire swing and dyed my fingers brown in the squishy interior of the stiffened diaper that had remained untouched all year. I wasted the rest of fifth grade, but it never reappeared.
I can only assume that Mort must have gotten it after all. Sometimes, especially when I’m with Denise in the break room, I can’t help believing that the only reason I found the rock in the first place was to deliver it to its rightful owner during that rainy recess.
I think about the last time I saw Mort a few years ago. In no story have I ever witnessed a rock monster make so much of himself. He rested comfortably on one of those smart channels—CNN or FOX. He wore a suit and promoted his business and the environment all at the same time, his red hair cut and combed to the side. Depending on which way he looked, a knot stood out on the side of his head, the size of a golf ball.
It's a crazy idea, but I can't help believing that I know right where the rock went all those years ago: it buried itself inside his head with some sharp, torpedo-like side that I'll never get to see.