Sweet Spring

by Scott Cannon

Sunday, 10 a.m.: checkout time at the Benton Place Inn. Time to go home. It was always cool with Rebekka if you left a little later than that. She was as easygoing as anybody in Eureka Springs, and had two other suites besides ours to clean in her B & B. We were ready to leave anyway; just like always before, we had done our Eureka weekend thing and were now relaxed and ready to go back to Fayetteville to face the real world again.

We had packed and paid, chatted with Rebekka a few minutes, and picked out a friendship rock from her garden. Now we sat in the car for that fine moment before you start for home after a sweet weekend getaway. We said something about how great it had been to come back here after all this time. Before I put the car in gear we looked at each other and both of us knew we were thinking the same thing. You said it first.

“We never did go to Sweet Spring.”

“I know. So many other things to do.” And we had done them all, just as we had done once or twice almost every year for thirty-six years together. Dined at DeVito’s on their own farm-raised trout, smelled the leather in the leather shops, admired the art in the art shops, bought a new piece of river rock jewelry for you, a new knife for me, fudge and caramel apples for the both of us to eat playing Scrabble on the bed with the TV on, tired and aching from a day of walking up and down the steep sidewalks of the town.

“I was really glad Jerry Yester is still at the Stone House.”

“Yeah. What’s that song I like so much from when he was in the Lovin’ Spoonful?”

“Darling Be Home Soon?”

“It was good to hear that. He had ‘em going with Wooly Bully, too.”

“They were pretty drunk. Remember that one old broad?”

“‘Just Yesterday Morning! Play Just Yesterday Morning!’” We laughed. Jerry had too, and obliged her with Fire and Rain. Jerry had settled somewhere in the Ozarks near enough to be able to play a Friday night set at the wine and cheese place most of the year. This fall, the weather was perfect and we had listened to him on the big patio outside while we sipped our wine and lingered over our platter. A group of dressed-up drunken tourists had been out there too. Naturally, most of the old fools had felt the need to try to dance. It had been fun to watch while our own wine buzz came on and your pain pills kicked in. Thanks, honey. I know you get them for your back, but by then my knees weren’t feeling too good either.

That made me wonder why I thought of the woman with the loud voice who didn’t know the right name of her favorite song and all of her dancing friends as old fools. They looked to be the same age as we, just more dressed up and drunker, that’s all. We were a couple and they were a group, but a group of older singles, I thought, from the way they were dressed and the vague, desperate-to-look-like-they-were-having-fun feel I got from them. They made me glad to be married.

“So you think you’re up for Sweet Spring?”

“I can make it if you can, old man! How can we not, the first time we’ve been back in five years?”

“We don’t have any champagne.” We still could not believe that when we first discovered Sweet Spring, leaving town after our honeymoon, we had drunk a bottle of champagne and gotten high up there before driving back. But it was 1981 and we were young. You did that then.

“We’ll make do without it,” you said. So I put away my doubts and at the bottom of Benton Place turned left instead of right, winding our way back up to Spring Street instead of down to the highway and gone. Up past the Flatiron Flats and the New Orleans Hotel, where we had honeymooned more than half a lifetime ago, around this corner and that, and we were there.

Across the street, the grotto carved into the hillside with the spring and the stonework and the sign, no one there, the stone and cement staircase leading up and up to one side. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” I said. That weekend for the first time we had both needed to rest halfway up the great wide stair leading up from Main to Center Street. “Be sure; you’re the one with the back.”

“And you’re the one with the knees. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got my meds for the drive back.”

“Yeah, and I’m driving,” I said as we got out and crossed the road. I always drove.

“Poor baby.”

We threw pennies in the spring basin and began the climb up to our place on the hilltop.

“Wonder if we’ll find anything in Rachel’s tree this time?” I said.

“First time for everything,” you said, with what breath you had from several steps above me.

We didn’t speak the rest of the way up the hundred-step staircase. An unsaid agreement: we would make the climb without stopping to rest, just like the first time, as if we were not now in the last half of our sixtieth decade and the car wreck had never happened. It took a long time, but we made it.

A few moments passed after we sat on the concrete bench facing the wooded hilltop at the top of the stairs before we could communicate with anything other than groans. I saw you trying to hide the pain that must have been shooting out of the armature that held together your low back. I was trying to do the same with what I felt in my wrecked knees.

“Beautiful,” one of us finally said. And it was. Our backs to the street and stairs, we took in the scarlet-gold glory of the Ozark fall before us.

“Here’s to it,” the other of us said, and we touched Fizzo water bottles before drinking deep of the “pure Ozark spring water” the labels said they contained. Then we sat in silence, the sounds of the street distant below, listening to the bright leaves whisper in the breeze, watching them spiral down. No hiker intruded on the trail that ran in either direction between us and the woods; not even a deer disturbed the moment.

“Wonder if Rachel still lives here? She wasn’t at the herbacy.”

“Bet she does. We could have called.”

“We’ll do that next time.”

Rachel was the only ES local we knew, and that only because she moved here from Fayetteville, where we both knew her before we knew each other. We first ran into her here some years earlier, working at the herbal pharmacy. It was funny because we didn’t know she had moved to Eureka, and I had just had a dream with her in it. Either that or she had just had a dream about us. She was so excited to see us she stamped her foot, so maybe it was she who had the dream. We got caught up a little bit, exchanged contact info, bought bath salts from her, and agreed to get together the next time.

We had dinner with Rachel the next two or three visits after that. We learned she’d been living in Eureka fifteen years or so, doing what people do to get by there, working at the Herbacy and other places, cleaning a couple of houses. She lived in a cute three-room house backed into a hill halfway up from downtown.

From Rachel, we learned the local lore of Eureka Springs: who were the rich people who owned a lot of it; what eateries their brat kids ran; why they ruined Chelsea’s by doming over the outdoor patio bar. She told us about the tree at the top of the Sweet Spring staircase. Time was when the cave under its roots was a communal pot depository, where weed was given according to ability and dispensed according to need. That sounded like the coolest thing ever, and we always checked it out during our Sweet Spring stop on the way out of town. The tree was easy to find, but though we had searched for hidden treasure every time since, we never found anything in the chambers beneath it.

The cold of the concrete bench was seeping into our bones and joints and rods and screws. We needed to move.

“Shall we?”

“How can we not?”

Rachel’s Giving Tree was an ancient red oak with a big boll a few steps to the right on the edge of the trail, part of the old growth forest that surrounded the town. Its roots on this side, some as thick as my waist, had been exposed when the trail was cut, and grasped the bank like a great gnarled hand. Rain had made a many-chambered little cave within.

 

Sweet Spring Giving Tree

“Maybe this time?”

“Then we can get high on the way back. Just no champagne.” You peered into the root cave on the far side, and I bent to look in from the other.

“Probably just as well.” It was dark within, but I thought I saw something pale in the heart of it. I was shoulder deep in the roots when I heard you ask if I found anything. My hand closed on something cool and smooth, and I drew it out.

“Look at this.” I brushed the dirt off a heart-shaped piece of flat white stone about as big as a silver dollar.

“Well isn’t that the sweetest thing! Somebody left it just for us. How romantic!”

I rubbed it on my jeans and held it in my palm between us. It was the color of ivory, with tiny specks of silver that sparked in the sun. It warmed quickly in my hand. I held it up between thumb and forefinger. It had no sharp edges.

“The perfect end to a perfect weekend. And I bet you can find a perfect place for it.” We hugged and kissed and walked back toward the top of the stairs and the long walk down.

“I wonder what kind of rock it is?”

“I’ll ask somebody in the Geology Department.” I put it in my pocket as we started our descent to the car. “Too bad it’s not weed.”

“You don’t need any weed,” I heard from above and behind me. “You have a class tomorrow.”

“That’s exactly why I need it.”

The way down was not as hard as the climb up, but it was steep and you had to be careful. We kept our hands on the iron pipe railing and took our time. It wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. When I reached the bottom I turned and was surprised to see you still so many steps above.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get so far ahead.”

When you caught up we took a moment before crossing the street. “You’re pretty spry today for an old fart,” you said.

An hour later and we were home. I unpacked the car and you unpacked the luggage, and we had Korean carry-out for dinner. After a couple of hours of TV, you were ready to turn in. I was in the middle of a translation of a first novel by a young French author, and decided to stay up for a while working on it. A filmmaker who had won Best Foreign had optioned movie rights, and I read the book at my agent’s suggestion. We thought it might be a thing if the movie got made.

“Aren’t you tired from all that walking around?”

“No, not really.” I felt alright, all things considered, and there was another email from my agent asking how the project was coming along. I wanted to report progress. At midnight I sent her a reply saying it was coming along fine.

You were at work at the bursar’s office by the time I dragged myself out of bed at eight the next morning. My titanium and Teflon knee was working fine, but the other one hurt and wanted to lock up. Had I really gone down the stairs yesterday like you said? Fool. What was I trying to prove?

My first and only class of the day was French II at ten, so there was no rush. We lived ten minutes from campus and I just needed to be there before the students. A good thing, for I was feeling slow and creakier than usual even for a Monday morning. I spent too long drinking coffee and reading the paper over breakfast, and after a shower had no time to waste on which Hip Old College Professor with Tenure ensemble I would wear that day. I put on the same jeans from yesterday with a random shirt and jacket and pulled into faculty parking with just a few minutes to spare. I had to hustle, but I was in my seat pretending to study Les Bâtisseurs d’empire when the first student arrived. The class would present the play at the end of the semester, and it was time to start picking out the ones with the best accents to put it on.

Neither of us called the other about lunch, so I got something at a sandwich shop close by. Normally I would have driven, but the sun felt so good when I got outside I walked instead. It was only a few blocks. The place was full of students so I got it to go. On the way back I decided to eat outside. I found an empty bench with a view of an ad hoc soccer game some of the kids had put together. As I ate I admired the easy grace of their chasings to and fro and thought of how like them I was as an undergrad with literary aspirations but no talent except for a ready understanding of foreign language and mimicry of accents, working on a double major in English Lit and French.

I sighed and stood to go. As I started back the soccer ball came sizzling across the grass on an errant pass, straight at me. Without thinking I put my foot to it and watched it sail in an arc back into their imaginary pitch in the green. A few of them applauded and laughed. I smiled and waved, thinking, Idiot. The kick was perfect, but I had made it with my non-bionic leg. I set off determined to hide any hobble in my step.

There was no need. I felt no pain in that knee or the other, and just then realized that since leaving the house that morning I had felt none of the aches in any of the parts of me where age had begun to creep in. No grinding knee pain, no shoulder pops, no dull thrum at the back of my belt line, no grunts or groans even, getting out of the car, stooping, sitting down, standing up. Maybe I wasn’t that much older than the soccer-playing sophomores. They only had about fifty years on me!

Some of the smile I gave the kids was still on my face when I got back to Kimpel Hall for the afternoon’s meetings with students and faculty. The sudden awareness of the absence of physical discomfort from my sensorium hit me like a couple of your pain pills washed down with a glass of Stone House wine. No, not that: this was not a feeling but the absence of a feeling, and I tried to think of where I’d read that relief from pain is the ultimate high.

Our Eureka Springs weekend must have been a tonic, not the trial I expected to remind us we were in the last fourth of our lives and pretty soon it would be all downhill from there to the leave-taking we had seen our four parents go through one by one over the last ten years. We had done the full spa treatment in the basement of the Palace Hotel, including an hour-long massage following a whirlpool bath in the magic waters of what Native Americans had called the Great Healing Spring, the reason for the town’s very existence. The Victorian-era buildings in Eureka, many still standing, had sprung from that remote spot in the Ozarks over a century ago for no other reason, after local folk legend was validated by notable European settlers who claimed the spring waters cured their eye ailments and crippling diseases. By the late nineteenth century, the town’s bathhouses were the engine of its economy. Now, instead of a retirement community for the wealthy, the town was a weekend getaway destination for exhausted Okies, fat old white men on Harleys, and tourists from all over, according to the guest book in our suite at Rebekka’s B & B. There were only a couple of bathhouses left, but maybe there was still some magic in the waters of the spring.

Or maybe the weekend had nothing to do with it, and I had just been blessed with a good day. I knew it couldn’t last, but I couldn’t wait to get home and tell you we definitely had to go back again, next year’s spring at the latest.

I finished early that afternoon. When I got home you were already there, kicked all the way back in your recliner, the heating pad set to high under your back. “I’m not sure I can handle Eureka Springs anymore,” you said. You had come home because you could hardly move at work.

I decided it was not the best time to tell you about my fabulous soccer ball kick or how remarkably well I’d been feeling all day, and thought I should wait until you were feeling better to bring up another Eureka Springs trip. I asked if you needed anything: yes, a pain pill and a Coke, and carry-out for dinner again tonight; other than that, leave you alone. I retreated to the translation in my study.

I felt guilty about feeling good, watching how you moved around the rest of the day. You went to bed early again that night and were asleep by the time I turned in. I tried to be quiet getting out of my clothes. Emptying the pockets of my jeans, I found the heart-shaped white stone in my hand. We had forgotten all about it. I put it in your purse where you’d be sure to find it in the morning. Maybe it would give you a lift.

Next morning you said you were better, but I wasn’t sure if you were telling me the truth or what you knew I wanted to hear. I didn’t care quite as much as I should have either, because I woke up feeling like I’d been run over by the truck that t-boned and rolled us on the way home from a Razorbacks basketball game five years ago. I was a little pissed off at the pain I felt had tricked me into making a fool of myself with the soccer ball the day before. It had gone away, but was just hiding around the corner, waiting to jump me again when my guard was down.

“I was thinking yesterday that we should go ahead and pick a weekend next spring to go back to Eureka. Now I’m not so sure. I think it caught up with me today.”

“Let’s just wait and see. We don’t need walkers yet. Maybe we’ll have a golden years rejuvenation.”

“Yeah maybe. And maybe whoever said these are the golden years was full of shit!” What your mother used to say. We had a laugh at that.

On my way in you called to let me know you found the rock in your purse. Hearing the sound in your voice, I marveled once more at what delight you could take from the smallest of things. When I got home I found you getting dinner ready. How was your day, we asked each other. Was your back any better? Much, you said, and told me something funny someone said at work. Then you wanted to know if anything was wrong.

I didn’t know; maybe I was just feeling sick of putting on that old Vian play year after year, even though I didn’t have the French II class that day. At least it wasn’t the soul-crushing Godot. The students hated standing around on the stage for two hours with nothing to do but talk while they waited for God knows what. As the Empire Builders, they knew what was coming but had something to knock around for a while before it got there. They always wanted to play the Schmurz, maybe because that role had no lines and takes a lot of shit, but gets some good payback at the end.

You asked if I wanted another glass of wine after dinner. Yes, and a couple of ibuprofen. You never miss a thing.

I was tired and didn’t feel like watching much TV or working on the translation either. You thought you’d stay up for the news. I put my hands on my knees and pushed myself up from the couch.

“Did you find a place for our rock?”

You took it out of your pocket and looked at it. “I’m still thinking,” you said.

Next morning you had left for work when I woke up. A French II class day. I was there before the first student, but it had been like wading through molasses to make it in time. By now they had read the play, and understood its dialogue, if not its meaning. And all of them wanted to be the Schmurz. Zenobie, the teenaged daughter with an attitude, was second pick for most of the girls.

As always, it was still a wonder that these millennials thought this nearly sixty-year old play was funny. We were in the middle of a read-through with one group of the class when a student raised her hand.

“Dr. Stewart,” she said, “it makes me uncomfortable when the Father makes fun of the mayor and calls him a pederast. The way he’s supposed to go all limp-wrist when he does it. Hasn’t anyone ever said that’s offensive?” She looked around.

No, not until just now. I put on a stupid clueless face and in a voice said, “What’s a pederast, Walter?”

The girl blinked and stiffened her back. She didn’t get it, but some of the others did; I heard tittering, and saw one kid lean over to say something that made his buddy laugh. I couldn’t hear what he said, but knew it was Shut the fuck up, Donny.

The girl looked around. “I don’t think it’s funny at all,” she said to the class. Apparently she wasn’t a Coen brothers fan, and my flip response was an immature indignity. She had the immature part right, anyway. I put my professor face back on.

“Look, Melissa, that line always gets Father a big laugh. From the French people in the audience.” I looked at a couple of likely candidates for Father. “Don’t you want Father to get his laugh?”

“Not if it’s by calling gay people pederasts.” She sat back in her chair, arms crossed, glaring.

I felt my shoulders slump. Of course. “Can’t we deal with this later, Melissa? We’re just auditioning for parts now.”

“I think we should deal with it now.”

A sudden irritation took me by surprise. “Okay, we’ll get rid of it then.” The class went wide-eyed at the change in my voice. “Everyone find that page and mark out that line right now. ‘J’aime suis pédéraste.’” Bewildered, they complied. “We may have to strike out some more so it still makes sense. But we’ll deal with that later, okay?”

Melissa looked confused.

You too seemed puzzled when I told you about it that evening. So was I. I had a social justice warrior in French II who’d found something to take offense at in a minor sixty-year old French absurdist play we’d been doing in French II forever, and had taken offense myself. C’est l’absurde! That wasn’t me at all. “Not feeling too good again today Dad?” you asked.

“Yeah, you know.” I wanted to change the subject. “Did you find a place for our rock?

“Well it has to go in the shrine.” You took the white stone from your pocket and we went to look at the hammered tin shadowbox hanging below the clock on the wall covered with milagra and icons: crosses, sacred hearts, a seeing eye, the Lady of Guadalupe, angels. Our iconophilia wall, we called it, though other such objects were everywhere in the house. The shrine was the centerpiece of this display, topped with the face of a miniature Frida Kahlo selfie with winged shoulders worked from the flat metal, the ornate box beneath draped and filled with memorabilia and tiny icons.

You opened the glass door and placed the heart-shaped stone here and there among the saints medals, the lock of tail hair from a beloved dog long gone, a sachet of dirt we took from Jimi Hendrix’ grave. Finally you closed the door. “That doesn’t look right,” you said.

“No? Well give it a day or so. It’ll find its own place.”

“I wonder what kind of rock it is?”

“I’ll ask them to have a look at it in geology. Maybe we could Google it first.”

“I already tried. Couldn’t find anything I was sure of.”

“I’ll give Avery a call sometime this week. He’s a real rock hound; he’ll love telling me something we couldn’t find on Google.”

You laughed at the thought of old Avery. “Do that,” you said.

Next morning I looked at the heartstone in the Frida shrine before leaving. You were right; it didn’t look right. I took it out of the tin shadowbox and put it in my pocket. Maybe I could show it to Avery that day.

Somehow I never got around to it. Instead I graded some French II essays, written in student French, about any subject they chose from Les Bâtisseurs d’empire. Some wrote about the Noise; some more about Zenobie, and most about the Schmurz. “The Noise represents the collapse of society,” wrote one. “The Noise is the impending decay and death that awaits us all,” wrote another. A female student said Zenobie’s ever-growing teen angst was understandable and justified in the midst of her parents’ petty bourgeois paranoia, and that it was cold and cruel of them to abandon her, but just what you would expect from people like that. At least I thought that’s what they were trying to say. When it came to the Schmurz, I didn’t try too hard to understand them; they were all over the place.

I had lunch by myself outside, watching the students cavort about in the dry crisp of the fall air, warmed in my jacket by a bright sun in a blue sky. I took the afternoon’s meetings with unusual grace and cool. I went home free of any weight of the day, light of body and spirit, looking forward to digging into the translation again later the evening.

You were there before me, in your recliner with the heating pad again. “Where’s the rock?” you said.

“Oh I took it with me to ask Avery to look at it.”

You pressed a button and the recliner became a chair in a long whirring motion. “Did you? Take it to Avery?”

I felt an unaccountable warmth in my ears and my embarrassment at it drew the flush into my face. “No.”

You held out your hand. I found the piece of stone in my pocket and put it in your palm. Your fingers closed over it, and you closed your eyes and relaxed back into the chair. I could have sworn I heard a small sigh.

As I looked at your face a sense of lightheadedness took me with a sudden torrent of thought fragments, feelings, images: you in your recliner, you fixing dinner when I got home, the soccer ball, the stone in the Frida shrine, the stone a paleness in the heart of the roots of the tree. The smooth, heart-shaped, silver-specked ivory stone.  A roaring noise washed over me, and I felt a quick stab of wonder and terror and for an instant I couldn’t see. I found my way to the couch and fell into it.

You leaned forward, eyes wide now. “Honey, are you all right?”

I nodded, leaning elbows on knees, hands dangling between. The hot flush had spread all over me in a sort of full-body pulsar buzz. When I could speak I said, “You’re going to think this is crazy.”

“No!” You smiled. “I would never think that about anything you said.” Like you were trying to straighten a picture frame on a wall, trying to talk someone down from a panic attack. Breathe, I expected you to say next, and without thought everything that had pushed me down on the couch came pouring out.

“The stone.” My throat clamped down on the word. “The stone!”

You opened your hand and looked at the white heart in your palm. “What about it?”

“It’s – there’s something – we – “ As I stammered I saw concern edge into your curious look, and realized I was leaning forward now, looking at your face framed between my splay-fingered hands that had come up as if to comb the air for words. Breathe, I told myself for you, and clasped my hands together. When I thought I had my voice under control, I went on.

“Just – just hear me through, okay, and promise you won’t run out screaming before I’m through?” You nodded, your smile still in place. “Okay. Okay. Now listen.” I looked down at my hands, one clenched, the other wrapped around it. How to express the insane notion that had taken hold of me? I raised my head. Your eyes had not left my face.

“How have you been feeling today?”

A surprised frown replaced the smile. “Like hell,” you said.

“I thought so. I knew it, as soon as I came in. Home early, heating pad. . . Pain pills?”

“Three.”

“A forty-five milligram day then. And your back is killing you, you  still feel like shit?” An uncertain nod. “Like normal shit, or like worse?”

“I don’t know! Maybe some worse than normal. Where are you going with this? What’s it got to do with the rock?”

I heard the irritation you were trying to hide in your voice and felt I needed to hurry with what I had to say. It was too late to stop even if I could have. “Well I felt really good today.”

“That’s great. I’m so glad.”

“”No, because yesterday I felt like shit. And not like normal bad. Worse. How did you feel yesterday?”

Your look turned inward. “Good,” you said. “Yesterday was a good day.”

“Just a normal good day for you, or. . . any pain pills?”

You turned that over in your head. “No,” you said with some surprise. “No pain pills. So I guess it was a great day, all right? So what’s this -”

“And the day before, Tuesday?”

“Another good day?” You were getting impatient. “Another great day. I still don’t -”

“I thought so. I can tell. You can tell with me too. Tuesday and Wednesday, for me they were shit. Knees, shoulders, back, all aches and pains present and in formation. You could tell, right?”

“Of course. I think I asked you, one of those days.”

“You did! Now, Monday. . .”

“The day after we came back? You know I was all beat up from Eureka.” I could almost hear the wheels turning, like the sound your chair made. “And you,” you said with a sharp look, “ I suppose you’re going to say -”

“I almost ran to get to class on time! I walked to Hammontree’s, I was thinking it was only a couple of blocks, I got a grilled cheese, I walked back and ate outside. I kicked a fucking soccer ball! You should have seen it. And I came home, it was like the wreck never happened, like I was thirty years younger, and there you were in the recliner on the heating pad.”

I was hoping I saw a flicker of understanding in you, but at that the irritation was back, closer to anger now. “I’m sorry.” You sounded hurt, confused. “I wish our good days and bad ones matched up better. It must be a real buzzkill, to come home feeling that way and find me -”

“No! No, let me finish, and then get mad and tell me I’m crazy.” I waited to be sure, then went for it. “Now, what. . . thread do you see running through all those days from then until now?” Your stare was blank, but I thought I saw it again, that flicker, way back behind your eyes. “What did we find when we were leaving last weekend, under Rachel’s tree?”

Your eyes dropped to your open hand, then slowly came back to me. “Yes!” I jumped to my feet and pointed. “The rock! The heartstone! Don’t you see? I had it with me Monday. You had it with you Tuesday and yesterday. Today it was with me again. And whoever has it -”

You cut me off. “Is Dorian Gray for a day? So you’re saying this -” you held it up “- is like the One Ring or something?”

“Yes. I mean, no. I don’t know what it is. But you must see what I’m saying. This is more than coincidence.”

“How about let’s open a bottle of wine before dinner.”

“Yeah sure.” I headed for the kitchen, thrilled at making my point. “What do you think?” I called back as I opened the bottle.

“I think you’re crazy,” you said. I wondered if you might be right. You always are.

The next morning I got up when you were in the shower and we had breakfast together. We had spoken no more of my mad idea, though I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought you had decided to deal with it by pretending it had never come up, until you were getting ready to leave and said, “I’m taking it with me today.”

I nodded. I didn’t need to ask what “it” was.

“I’m going to show it to Avery.”

I felt a sudden alarm. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea anymore. What if he wants to keep it, says he doesn’t know what it is, needs to do some kind of analysis, and -”

“And you never see your Precious again?” Ouch. “It’s just a goddamn rock, and I want to know what kind. He won’t need to run any tests to tell me what it is, and I’ll let you know when I get home. Gollum.”

I had half-risen from my chair as you went out the door. “Call me?” I said, my voice plaintive. But you were gone.

The French II class didn’t know what was going on when I handed out some rote translation exercises to work on instead of The Empire Builders. I ignored Melissa’s pointed stares and hid behind my laptop and books while I texted you about lunch. No can do, you texted back, you were going to pop in at the Geology Department and have a word with Avery. And settle this nonsense once and for all, I thought.

It was raining and I wasn’t very hungry anyway, so I had an apple and some yogurt for lunch while I did paperwork in my little office. I slogged through the rest of what had to be done for the day and bolted for home as soon as I got the chance. Waiting for you, I was a knot of frazzled nerves, aches and pains. There was some wine left over from the night before, but I didn’t want to start drinking in the middle of the afternoon and have you smell it on me when you got home with your big news. And now I was hungry as well as nervous, so for a mid-afternoon snack I tablespooned out a dollop of peanut butter and ate it with a crushed up Vicodin I swiped from your pill bottle. Your recliner invited me to sit down and relax, and there I was with your heating pad under me and a bag of ice on my knee when you got home.

I must have dozed off because the thud of your purse on the coffee table gave me a start. I looked up to see you standing over me. “Jesus,” you said, “really?” Like I was putting on a show to prove a point.

I let that pass and motored up out of the recliner and moved to the couch. I wanted to know what Avery said. You sat beside me.

“He didn’t know what it was. He said it didn’t look igneous and it didn’t look sedimentary, blah blah blah. You know how he goes on. He wanted to run some kind of spectro-test on it.”

I felt a sick hollowness in my chest and said “No!” louder than I meant to. “You didn’t -”

“I didn’t.” You took the stone from your jacket pocket and put it on the coffee table. “He really wanted me to leave it with him though. I almost had to pry it out of his hand to get it back.” We looked at it together for a moment while my breath came back to me.

“And so you’re not feeling too good again today Dad?” You didn’t need an answer. “Well guess what, I felt like singin’ and dancin’ in the rain all day.” I looked for some sign that you were putting me on. “I mean it,” you said. “I paid attention. As bad as I was yesterday, that’s how good I felt today. Better than good even. Great.” We both looked at the white rock with its silver sparks. “So this little dementia of yours, is it contagious? Maybe we’re both crazy?”

Were you just humoring me now, playing along to get me some professional help? “I know some good clinicians in the Psych Department,” I said, to find out. “Or I could get a referral.”

You shook your head. “I have a better idea,” you said.

We did our own experiment, collecting and analyzing our own data. It was entirely subjective and unscientific, but it was simple, easy, and best of all, private. I found a .jpeg of a hospital pain chart, with ten emoji faces expressing all states of being from weeping in agony to beaming with joy, copied and pasted fourteen of it onto a word processor document with dates for the next two weeks, put your name at the top of one and mine at the top of a copy, and printed them out. We took turns having the stone every other day, and in the evening we each circled the appropriate faces. We kept our daily data to ourselves, and called it a double blind study. The results will never be published and could not withstand peer review, the control group of two being too small for validation of any hypothesis, because letting go of the rock was out of the question. We didn’t have a placebo rock, and knew our findings were flawed in many ways, including failure to rule out delusional behavior by the subjects and other shortcomings we couldn’t think of. But they were enough for us.

If anybody hasn’t guessed, we found what we were looking for. The correlation was exact; a happy face for each date with a heart drawn beside it, a sad one for each day without. As we compared our emoji data, we noticed another thing: day by day the happy faces got happier and the sad faces got sadder. It didn’t take long to max out on the happy side, but neither of us went all the way to weepy on the sad side, though we may have wanted to.

As we looked at the faces happy and sad, we wondered again if we were crazy and decided it didn’t matter. Whoever had the rock on a given day thought they felt better, while the other thought they felt worse. Were we imagining this, or was the white stone a work of heart-shaped magic? It made no difference. Pain is subjective, and as they say it’s the thought that counts. I think both of us preferred to vouch for the magic business over delusional pathology. I know I did anyway, and you once wondered aloud who left it there for us. Maybe it was elves, I said.

When our double blind emoji study was over, we had to confront the problem that had become so clear. There was only one rock, and there were two of us, and if one was walking on sunshine, rock in pocket, the other was groaning through the day, and the one knew it, and the other knew that the one knew it, and so on. And I don’t know if our mundane aches and pains were really getting worse without the rock or it just seemed that way in contrast to the narcosis of relief from pain, and that didn’t matter either. We tried to be selfless, and betrayed ourselves and each other in the attempt. Honey, you had such a bad day last time, you take it again today, I can handle it; no it’s your turn, I’ll be fine. Sometimes we got a little testy over who could be the most selfless, and some days we even argued about it and would both leave the stone in the Frida shrine, and some of those days the one who got home first would find that the other had come back for it, but would never say anything because both of us had done the same thing. On the weekends it was worse still.

It couldn’t go on, but we didn’t know what to do. We talked about giving it over to Science, but couldn’t think of how we would explain why Science should want it without word spreading through the faculty and administration and student body of the university that we were losing our minds. A burn ward or hospice care service or just a nurse, same problem. We spoke of putting it back where we found it, but how to know if it would work for someone else, when we found it as if it had been left just for us, in our tree, in our spot, in our little weekend getaway vacation town. It was our magic rock, our problem, and we had to be rid of it.

Finally one evening in late November after a particularly grueling day for one of us – I can’t remember whom, but the one who’d spent the day with an empty pocket was snappish and crotchety, the other smothered by guilt – we knew we had to do something. What, we still didn’t know, but it could be put off no longer.

We were sitting side by side on the stools at the bar in the kitchen, and had been staring at the gleaming white stone for some minutes since our talk had run dry. Both of us looked up from the stone and into each other’s eyes, and something passed between us. My hand found the smooth cool curve of one side of it at the same time that yours found the other, and our fingertips met in the middle. We felt it warm to our touch as we held it together, until it seemed the warmth might have been coming from the stone and not our fingers. We looked down at it again, and perhaps squeezed ever so gently, and it split neatly, perfectly in two without a sound.

We each carried our half hearts around for a few days, but half-heartedly, because the spell was broken and the magic was gone, as we knew it would be. We were again the sixty-seven and sixty-four year old car wreck survivors with titanium and Teflon and rods and screws inside us along with the ordinary aches and pains heralding the onset of the golden years. And whoever said that was full of shit.

We stopped carrying the pieces around with us after a while. We put the perfect halves of the stone back in the shadow box on the milagro wall, but found it heartbreaking to see them there  in the shrine of Frida Kahlo, goddess of pain. There was only one thing to do.

Rebekka was surprised to hear from us again so soon after our first visit following such a long absence, and glad too because fall was finished and the winter holiday season yet to begin. Of course the Memories Suite was available that weekend.

On that gray Sunday we climbed the hundred stairs to the concrete bench at the top of the Sweet Spring grotto, again without stopping, and sat with our breath puffing out little clouds in the cold.  All the leaves were down, and Rachel’s Giving Tree stood before us, massive and naked, its heart open.

“Well here’s to it,” one of us finally said, and we touched Fizzo water bottles and drank. Then we went to the tree and each in turn placed our half of the stone in the deep dark of the root cave where we found it. I made sure the edges of it lined up as if it were whole again before we started our slow and careful way back down. We stopped at the top of the stairs to look back, and just at that moment the clouds split open to bathe the tree in a golden light, and I imagined the wink of a silver spark from deep inside the hollows of its roots.

On the drive back one of us asked if we still wanted to go back in the spring. Hell yeah, the other said, we don’t need walkers yet.
*******
Scott Cannon’s most recent story for us was “Yacht Party.” 

oak tree scott story

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