A Stick and a Stone

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When I saw him standing six-foot-six in the sun-light glare of the Texarkana Greyhound station, I thought, That must be how other people see me, so tall. Except this kid was ten years younger, had long blond hair spilling out of a pony tail and wore frayed jeans and a tee-shirt with a faded print of an owl in flight. From under his shirt, he pulled out a Guatemalan passport bag that hung around his neck, took out his ticket, then slid the bag back under his clothes. He looked like the travelers I'd seen on the streets of Bangkok during one of those package tours I took through Asia a few years ago.

By my twentieth birthday, a decade ago, I'd reached the same height he was. It always bothered me, sticking out like that, knowing people were staring at me. I wondered if this guy felt the same.

I was in Texarkana for an old college friend's wedding—the bride was from Arkansas—and I was heading to Dallas to stay overnight for my aunt's funeral, before flying back to Chicago. The two events just coincided like that. A few days before the wedding, I'd gotten the funeral call while I was at work. I'm a teller at a bank; if I'd finished my degree, I would probably be selling house mortgages or something more interesting, but I quit a year early. Anyhow, I called the airline right away to see about flying on to Dallas from Texarkana, but it was too expensive to change.

My friends at the wedding thought I was crazy, taking the bus to Dallas. One even offered me his car but I'd already paid the bus fare by then. I hadn't ridden Greyhound since coming home to Cypress, Illinois for college breaks, so I was almost looking forward to it. Something old and familiar.

The bus was late. It was scheduled for half past two in the afternoon, and the station clock read a quarter to three. I sat in the station, half reading an Arkansas paper abandoned on a row of plastic seats. Occasionally, I'd glance up to look at the tall kid. He stood by the windows a while, then sat on the floor, leaning against his backpack. His jeans looked almost stiff from dirt. I pictured him coming into the bank and the other tellers placing their feet over their floor alarms, prepared. At work, we picked out suspects like that, and later, over drinks, joked about them. Everyone else always picked minorities, or the guys dressed like the homeless, but I figured it would be some three-piece suit who'd be the one to pull the real heist. I imagined they would come in, unsuspecting, and just start shooting. I'd of course be the tallest target.

About a half hour after the bus was scheduled to depart, there'd still been no announcements, but people began lining up at the door—in blind faith, I suppose. I knew if I wanted a good seat I should get in line, but I waited until the tall guy went up. I don't know why. I usually kept to myself. Maybe because of the height thing, or because I was in the middle of nowhere, between a wedding and a funeral.

"Going to Austin?" he asked.

"No, Dallas," I said.

"Alright," he said, taking that in.

He said he was going to Austin; from what I'd heard of the town, that seemed like his kind of place, funky. A Mexican woman and her three children slid their bags up behind us, and then two more people lined up behind her. I figured the bus was going to be pretty full, if it ever showed.

"I've always wanted to go Austin," I said. "Is it nice?"

"Yeah," he said. "There're bats there, thousands. At night."

"Really? Bats?" It didn't seem like enough of a response, so I added, "Cool." I never said cool anymore, but I knew it would fit in with the tall kid.

He smiled and touched the string of his passport bag, as though it were a ring he'd worn for years. "I'm Elum," he said.

"Elum?" I said. "I'm Jake." There was a silence. I rolled the sleeves up on my shirt and untucked my shirt tails. I wasn't at work or at a wedding any longer after all; I could relax. "I'm going to a funeral," I said. "My aunt's."

"Oh, I'm sorry." His Adam's apple slid up and down like a pebble beneath the skin of his neck as he talked.

"We weren't close, really," I said. "It's just a formality. She was pretty old. But I'll see some family there."

"That's good," Elum said, nodding his head. "Family can be good."

I didn't know what to say to that. I wasn't actually close to anyone who'd be in Dallas, but they had all come to Mom and Dad's funeral, almost ten years ago, so I felt I should go to this one. You'd think they'd be important after I'd lost my folks, but really, I couldn't find the energy to get close to any of them. My folks were killed in a car wreck on a rainy evening in March;I found out over the dorm hall phone. I took the bus home that night, dropped out of school that semester, dealt with selling the house and everything, and took the bank job just as I was running out of money. A friend of the family had offered it to me at the funeral. I thought to leave it in a year, but then they gave me a raise, and it was hard to find other work. Now it's been ten years. I have my own apartment, my own car. I've had girlfriends, off and on, but since my folks died, I never really pictured myself as anything but single. I have learned to take care of myself, which is really all I want.

Over the speakers a woman made an announcement no one could make out. The Mexican woman stepped forward, holding a string of beads in one hand wrapped twice around her wrist. "What she say?" she asked us.

"Not sure," Elum said, shaking his head, his hair rolling against his shoulders. The woman asked if we were brothers, and we said no, but Elum smiled, like we were sharing a joke. Because we were the same height, we looked right in each other's eyes, without any angle or distance.

I smiled back, though I didn't know really what he was smiling about. "You six-six?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "it's nice, eh?"

"Yeah," I said back, though I'd never thought of it that way. I guess in some ways it was. Our height in any case made us seem like members of the same group. The station door opened then, and the driver began taking tickets. Elum and I didn't talk as the line shuffled forward. On the bus, he took a window seat half way back and patted the chair next to him. "You can sit here, my friend," he said.

I could have tried to get my own seat, but I put my leather bag on the rack over his head, figuring it was going to be a full one, either way. "It's going to be a full one," I said.

Pretty soon, the bus was loaded up and pulled out of the station.

We began passing rows and rows of one-story houses. I was happy to get out of Arkansas; the sun was too hot and the wedding had been nothing special. I had to explain to people I hadn't seen in years why I'd dropped out of school, what I was doing in Chicago at a bank. The whole thing was like being in college again: lots of drinking, except everyone was dressed up and it was daytime. And there was cake.

To get my mind off it, I asked Elum what he'd be doing in Austin.

"I'm going to plant trees, then go camping," he said. "Out in the desert. My twenty-first birthday."

"Nice," I said. "It should be cool out there now."

"Yeah, but no matter, just being with the Mother is enough."

At first I thought I misheard him, but then I caught on. Mother nature. "Right," I said and blinked my eyes hard. I thought of how people back in Chicago would laugh. It was a little funny, I had to admit, but I didn't laugh. I had been like that in college, before my parents' accident. I spent weekends and summers traveling with friends, hiking, skiing. I was an Earth Science major, but I had no idea what I would do with it. I don't remember a thing from classes now.

"Once I was sleeping underground," Elum said, "in lava caves in southern Idaho. They're like alien space ships, with all these little chambers. I had a candle, but the black rock just ate up all the light. I could barely see my hands. It was like I was in the belly of the Mother, you know?"

"Yeah," I said in a whisper. I wondered if he really believed that. But then I thought, why not?

"I was in caves once," I told him, "on the coast of Thailand. We all thought our flashlights were broken it was so dark. Couldn't see a thing." Truth was, I had walked to the entrance, shined my flashlight into the giant opening, but didn't go in. The ocean shot jets of water onto the cave floor and one of the other people on our tour had slipped and gashed his leg open the day before.

"Wow," Elum said, "Thailand. What's that like?"

I talked about the landscape, the food, all the temples, but it was nothing like Elum's story. I didn't mention the tour, how the bank had arranged it for employees at a discount rate. Team building through quality leisure time, was how the executive explained it. I told Elum how friendly the Thai people were.

"Yeah, that's it," Elum said. He turned toward me, and I saw how bright his eyes were. "We're just a part of the Earth, you know?"

"Yeah," I said, but I whispered it and then coughed. I looked around to see if anyone else were listening.

"I love that feeling," he said, "just losing yourself, like you're a wing of a bird."

I could imagine what the other passengers would think, but they all seemed to be sleeping or listening to headphones. The Mexican woman was two seats back, busy feeding her kids sandwiches she'd wrapped in foil. Outside, there were mostly fields and a lonely house or two set back from the road.

"Once," Elum said, "I was swimming off the coast of California, and I saw these seals. And, man, they came up and started swimming beside me. I felt like I could have gone under water with them and never come up for air."

"Right," I said. "I know that feeling." At least, I could imagine. I told him how I used to wade in the water of this lake until the fish would come right up to my legs. Sometimes I could almost pet them." It wasn't exactly like that, I suppose. What happened was my friend Rick and I dropped pieces of napkin in the water and the fish came, thinking there was food. They'd suck the paper in and then spit it out. That was when I was little, ten maybe.

Elum started telling me about another camping trip, I didn't hear where. "Every color was out there in the sky that morning," he said. "Then two deer came into the field. I sat still, until I became invisible."

"Invisible?" I said. I was only half listening, because I was thinking about Rick and me, how when it got cooler, we would run all through the wooded lot beside my family's house. We'd hide behind trees and swing sticks like swords at imaginary people, pretending we were fighting battles. We spent all day there, every day. We even talked of building a tree fort, though we never got around to it.

"The deer came ten feet from me," Elum said, "and didn't even notice me. I was just a part of everything."

"Oh," I said, "I see." I sat back. We sat there silent for a while, and I started thinking of the day I came home from school and the woods Rick and I played in were gone. They'd been cleared by a bulldozer, the trees plowed under in dirt. Big muddy boulders had been pushed into a pile at the back edge of the land. I walked through the lot, stumbling over the branches sticking up from the ground. When I reached the boulders, I fell down against one and started crying. I didn't know why, but it was the worst thing I'd ever felt, until I lost my parents.

Soon, my friend Rick found me. "What you crying for?" he said and started laughing. I pressed myself against the surface of the boulder, unable to talk. "Get up," he finally said. I was a lot taller than he was, even then, but I didn't say anything, didn't move. "There'll be new houses here soon," he said, angry, as if they were going to come any minute. "You better get up." I still didn't move, so he kicked me. I fell over onto the ground and stayed there, still crying. Rick kicked me once more, said, "You're so stupid," then walked away. After that day, we weren't friends anymore.

Rick was at the wedding, but he didn't seem to recognize me, and I didn't try to go up and talk to him. I stayed away and drank beers by the pool out back from where the reception was.

Elum started telling another story, about camping in Montana for three days without food. "That second night," he said, "I hiked back to my tent and found this, right on top of my sleeping bag." He pulled his passport bag out so that it lay on top of the owl on his T-shirt, then unbuttoned the flap of the bag.

"Here," he said and lifted out a stone. It was an ordinary looking river stone, smooth, about the size of a mango pit.

"How'd it get there, in the tent?" I asked.

"Well," he said. He was talking very slowly. "I figure it must have come from God."

I sat up a bit. "From God?" I said. This is too much, I thought.

I thought about my parent's funeral. It'd been in a small stone church back home in Cypress that I'd never been in before. The minister talked about how mysteriously God worked, but it didn't mean much to me. Why would a God kill someone's parents? What's the mystery in that? It's not that I didn't believe that the minister thought what he was saying was true, but there must have been some better explanation for it all.

My aunt had fallen a month ago, broken a bone in her leg. A small chip of bone had lodged in her muscle and gotten infected. The infection had spread to her brain before they caught it, and she died, just after turning seventy. What was God's purpose in that?

"Do you want to hold it?" Elum asked, offering the stone.

"Hold it?" I said, pulling back.

"Yeah. See, I have this book." He reached in the bag again and pulled out a tiny cloth book, the color of leaves. "I write down the names of all the people who touch it."

I looked around again. No one was looking at us. No one seemed to be listening. Elum's head and mine were the only ones that rose above the seats.

"Here," Elum said, holding the stone out to me with both hands.

I looked down at his hands. They were young, but cracked, like those National Geographic photos of lakes evaporated by droughts. In them was the stone, dark green and gray, nothing special. Maybe he was crazy, I thought. Still, I could see what the stone meant to him. I wasn't sure I could take it. I mean, it was just a stone, but I didn't know how to hold a thing like that. And what would the people back at the bank think if I told them about this? Or the people at the wedding? I could picture Rick laughing. I could imagine one of the tellers saying the stone probably was full of germs.

Elum brought the stone closer to me.

I felt my eyes burning around the edges and looked away. What was wrong with me? Why was I afraid just to hold a stone? This is stupid, I thought, it's just a rock.

Elum set the stone in my hands. "See," he said. "Can you feel it?"

I wanted to say yes, but I didn't feel a thing. Except I felt small. So small, I wanted to disappear. I looked past Elum, out the window at the barren fields. We were in Texas by now and it was near dusk. There were no houses anywhere, no trees. I thought of my aunt, about to be buried underground and my parents long ago there. I didn't care anymore who might be watching. I wrapped the stone in my hands and brought it to my chest, like it might escape. I could feel the weight of it in my hands and the heat of it, from Elum's body. I brought it up to my lips and brought it to my tongue.

Elum was quiet for a while. Then he opened his book and said softly, "What's your name again, my friend?"

"Jake," I tried to say, but the word was stuck. Only breath came out. It tasted like dirt.

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