Rock Life

I came across this post a while ago  and knew there was a story in  it somewhere. This is the tale, of Kyle, and Duck and Rockridge.

He was just Duck. Kyle didn’t know why, had never asked.. The sky was blue, grass was green and the old guy on the corner was Duck. Kyle had heard just about every legend concerning the man in the blue overalls, bowler hat and toeless shoes. Not sandals, but shoes with the toe cut out to show unexpectedly manicured nails. Come whatever season, Duck would be on the corner, a hand-rolled cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, three days worth of stubble prickling the air and a fluff of grey hair straying from under the bowler hat. Kyle knew it couldn’t be the case, but that cigarette always seemed to be at the exact degree of burned down and the stubble had the equally mystical ability to remain unchanged.

Kyle had lived in Rockridge for all of his twenty-five years. He’d toddled past Duck, hand in hand with his parents, scooted by on his trike, his bike, eventually sauntering along with a girl on his arm, his own cigarette thrusting jauntily into the world. He’d come to share a nod and sometimes a wink with Duck by that stage although they hadn’t progressed to words. There was something reassuring about Duck’s permanence. Kyle often thought he was a little like the ravens at that Tower place. Some teacher had told them the myth about the Tower falling if the ravens should ever leave. Kyle could easily imagine Rockridge becoming a ghost town, slowly crumbling back into the desert should Duck take it into his head to move on or – gods forfend – die.

That day was different. Kyle had slouched his way down to the corner, slightly concerned that the cigarette ash gathering at his shirt pocket was not giving the ‘cool’ effect he aimed for, when a rusty scrape of sound snapped his head up.

“Young man?”

For a long moment Kyle’s brain refused to process the input. Duck didn’t speak; at least not to anyone under the age of sixty. He took an occasional beer with the codgers from the bowling league, could sometimes be seen discoursing with the old professor who’d retired to Rockridge and, once in a blue moon, he would attend the weekly tea dance at the community centre and stun the over 60-s into silent adoration as he whirled blue rinse after blue rinse around the polished boards with the effortless grace of a prima ballerina.

“Sir?”

Kyle stopped, hovering a good six feet away, not wanting to appear a fool if he had misheard.

“Care to buy me a coffee and hear some advice?”

Kyle didn’t like the sound of that. When people of Duck’s age mentioned advice it usually started with ‘Back in my day’ and ended with ‘… and that is what’s wrong with you young folk today.’ But this was Duck; Duck the legend who had – for some obscure reason – chosen to talk to a young person, to Kyle. Deciding it was an opportunity too rare and exciting to miss, Kyle shrugged and gave a bit of a nod, desperate not to appear overeager and gauche.

They idled to Betty’s cafe, Kyle’s heart beating a shade too hard, grabbed a corner table and ordered strong black coffee. Kyle failed utterly to suppress a grimace as he sipped the thick brew and Duck shook his head, uttering a creaking chuckle.

“Lesson one, kid, be your own person. Why did you order coffee when you don’t drink it?”

“I… How do you know I don’t?”

“There’s not much in this town that gets by me, kiddo. Go order something you want to drink and don’t let me see you pandering to someone like that again.”

Kyle ordered a mineral water, and admitted to himself that this wasn’t what he had expected. Not that he had ever had a real idea of what might happen, but whatever it was it wasn’t this.

Seated once more, Kyle glanced up and was pinioned by the faded grey gaze. He was being considered, weighed, judged and he urgently prayed he would not be found wanting. Duck gave a nod, sat back and smiled, revealing a set of gleaming white dentures.

“I’ve waited a long time for you, Kyle.”

“Me?”

“Uh-yup. I have something to teach you and something for you to do when you have learned.”

“I’m not so great at the whole learning thing. I …”

“You dropped out of school at 14. You just about learned to read. Numbers still elude you. You haven’t got the patience or will to hold down even the most menial job. You bounce from girl to girl, drug to drink, and have a string of debts as long as a lone-shark’s baseball bat. I told you, there isn’t much I don’t get to know in Rockridge.”

“So what use am I to you?”

“Follow me and discover your purpose, Kyle.”

Duck got up, flipped a handful of coins onto the table and left. Kyle had the beginnings of a suspicion concerning Duck, old time religion and enforced atonement, but he scurried out of the cafe and caught up to the old man as he turned the corner. He had a surprising turn of speed for someone bent over with age and often seen using a cane and hitching his left leg. In silence they trod the familiar pavements but Kyle noticed heads turning, even a car slowing and a gaping face behind the glass of the driver’s door. Would this garner him respect in the town? Here he was, strolling along in the spring sunshine, stride for stride with the legend that was Duck. Surely people would have to see him now, give some attention to the man who was the chosen of Duck?

“Is what they think so important to you, Kyle?”

His stride faltered for a second, although Duck didn’t miss a beat. Damn, the man could read his mind!

“Don’t be a fool” Duck shook his head, “Reading people’s body language, watching their eyes and the thoughts in their faces isn’t supernatural. It’s a trick anyone can learn, even you, Kyle.”

They continued, Duck silent, his footfalls purposeful, Kyle silent but his mind a whirl, his footsteps uneven, distracted. He was considering Duck’s words. Was it so very important that he have respect, or at least some recognition, from the people of Rockridge? He couldn’t deny it was, but why? For all his life, Kyle’s thoughts had been shallow, flittering things which never settled or had gravitas. Something about walking with Duck, this strangeness, this jerk out of normality, had acted as a weight and pinned down one particular answer; because he was a no-one, a nothing, a man of no importance with only the most tenuous bindings. Rockridge barely knew he existed and that caused a stirring in his core, a ruffling and a yearning to be someone and have people look at him, not past or through.

He was still digesting this sudden revelation when his body registered a change of atmosphere. A hot wind gusted through his hair and his feet fought harder for purchase. They’d hit the edge of the desert and even early spring was several degrees hotter than was comfortable. Sand shifted restlessly under his sneakers and he cast a quick glance at Duck but there was no break in his stride and they moved ahead for another thirty minutes accompanied by the screech of raptors overhead and the riffle of sand drifting in the wind, building and destroying dunes.

They crested a rise and Duck stopped abruptly. Kyle came up beside him and followed his line of sight. A shallow valley lay before them with only two striking features. One was a small tent, canvas thrown roughly over four corner poles which faced across the valley from a point ten feet away. The second was a set of graduated rocks which strung in a slate grey chain across the area before the tent. Kyle counted ten rocks growing from roughly the size of a hen’s egg to the largest, easily the girth of a tractor tire.

“What’s this about?” he asked, but Duck walked steadily down the slope and disappeared into the tent. Kyle was forced to follow.

Inside the tent he found Duck, a three-legged stool and a lidded box. Duck lifted the lid of the latter and showed Kyle an array of bottled water, tinned food and a can opener. He then sat on the stool, leaned forward and pulled back a square of the tent fabric which revealed a small window onto the valley beyond.

“This is where you will learn what I have to teach. Watch. Look out the window.”

Duck stilled, sitting upright and yet completely relaxed. Kyle couldn’t pick out a single twitch of tension as he concentrated on Duck then transferred his attention to the small window cut into the tent. Sand shifted, rippling, flattening, piling, blowing in sudden swirls. No clouds cast shade, no creatures moved and the stillness caught Kyle off-guard. Out of nowhere the smallest rock began a slow slide. It dragged a groove through the sand, cutting a path away from the tent. Kyle stood, mouth agape, his mind searching for explanations. Rocks did not move by themselves but there was nothing out there, no-one out there and the damn rock was moving, now picking up speed, scything forward at an easy walking pace. Kyle turned to Duck, a question forming on his lips, but Duck’s eyes were close and he seemed in deep thought, unaware of Kyle’s presence. Over the next ten minutes all ten rocks moved, a creeping army heading out into the desert with unspecified purpose.

Kyle slipped from the tent, approached the smallest rock, now a good twenty feet away from the tent, and put his foot on it. Despite applying all his weight he could not stop its inexorable forward motion. He flung himself against the largest rock, trying bodily to halt its progress but with equally impossible results; they could not be stopped.

Back inside the tent Duck had risen and was stretching out his back with a great deal of audible pops and cracks. He grinned at Kyle on the younger man’s slow, stunned return.

“Haven’t sat there in many a year. These old bones don’t appreciate the abuse. So, kiddo, impressed?”

“I am, but I don’t know why… or how.”

“This is the bit where I need you to put words like impossible, unbelievable and tricks out of your mind; preferably before I explain. Just accept that what you saw and what I am about to say are simply the truth and we will get along much faster.”

“Oh…kay.” Kyle was hesitant to give up his power so readily but he needed an explanation.

“More years back than I wanna think about there was an old guy in town called Axel. Dunno where he came from. In the end, I dunno where he went. In the middle he taught me how to shift those stones”

“What for?”

Kyle couldn’t help it, the words tumbling over his lips before he could clam his mouth shut. Duck frowned, rolled his eyes and continued.

“Hush up, son; just listen. I’m now gonna teach you, because one of Axel’s last conversations with me included the instruction that I was to pass it on when I found the right person. For whatever reason, the vibes say you are it. For however long it takes, you are gonna sit in this tent and learn until you can shift those stones in your sleep without giving it a single thought. You will listen to my instructions, I will leave, and I will only see you again when you come back to town. That return will be down to you, Kyle. You can fail at this, like you have done so often before, or you can stick it out and come see me when you can prove you learned the lesson.”

“Then what?”

“That’s for then. For now, go sit on that stool.”

Feeling more than a little like a kid on a naughty step, Kyle sat and waited. Duck considered him for a long moment and then uttered a single line.

“Tell those stones to move.”

With that he turned and walked out of the tent. By the time Kyle had quit spluttering and thought to get up and chase down this jester of a man, Duck had disappeared. Kyle realised two things; first that he had no idea where he was, and second he had even less about how to get back to town. He felt in his jacket, hauled out his mobile and swore fluently. No signal at all. He spent the cliched amount of time wandering around, aiming his phone at various parts of the open, empty sky, swore some more and retreated inside the tent.

Seated on the stool, sipping absently from a bottle of water fished out of the lidded box, Kyle found himself facing an uncomfortable idea. Not only had the stones returned to their original position, without so much as a sigh of effort from Duck, presumably, but he had no idea how to get them to move. Tell them to move? Seriously? Damn crazy old geezer! For a while Kyle considered the notion that Duck would leave Kyle out there until nightfall then come get him, chuckling, feeling full of himself for his little ‘jest’, but night bled into the empty sky and Kyle understood he was on his own.

He slept, restless, on the sandy tent floor, woke still tired and plonked himself back on the stool, idly nibbling at a snack bar. He stared at the stones, wandered around the tent a few times waving his mobile about, sat and stared some more, ate a tin of beans, found a can into which he was clearly meant to relieve himself, stared, sat, slept.

A week later, Kyle had given up on the mobile and had taken to simply sitting. He had become convinced that copying Duck’s posture when he had first moved the stones would somehow be the answer. He did this for another week.

By week three he had occasional thoughts about where people must think he was, if they thought at all, but most of his attention was given to the stones. He was beginning to understand their stillness, their dense, solid, permanent nature.

Week four brought a small revelation, as well as a vague awareness of dwindling water supplies. Although the stones were hard and heavy, the sand beneath was akin to a river, rippling, flowing, ever in motion.

On the first morning of week five Kyle gave his attention to the sand beneath the smallest rock. He watched it shift, swirl, move, and silently began a crooning chant aimed at the recalcitrant rock sitting in the sand stream;

“Let go. Be weightless in the stream. Learn to flow.”

He repeated and repeated and repeated the line. Two days later, he reached frantically for water he had neglected in his mediation, swallowed it slowly, and gazed at the smallest rock with a happy smile. He watched it gently slip away from the tent, smoothly carried in a stream of sand. He looked away, eyed the next stone and resumed his gazing through the window of the tent.

On the next Sunday evening, a smidge before his days kicked into week seven, Kyle left the tent, turned toward Rockridge and spoke silently to the sand.

“Take me home.”

Beneath his feet the sand shifted, drew away and a clear path of deep grey stepping stones led him back to the edge of the wasteland, left him where his feet regained familiar territory. Kyle wandered slowly to the corner, Duck greeting him with a proffered cigarette and a nod.

“Done?”

“Done?”

“Understood?”

“I hope so.”

“I’ll be gone when you wake.”

Kyle nodded, aware of sadness, tinged with smiles, accepting the key Duck slipped into his hand. Duck leaned back against the wall, Kyle companionably beside him, both staring into the streets of Rockridge.

“I’m leaving my place to you, Kyle. You better look after it, the town more tan my trailer. I don’t wanna think about how many years you’d screw up if you get it wrong.”

“I won’t.”

“Ya know, I think that’s the truth. Be strong, Kyle.”

Kyle nodded, touched hands with Duck and watched him walk away. The baton was passed. Now it was Kyle’s job to keep Rockridge ticking over. He understood. He saw why this little backwater was so peaceful, so lacking in crime, and violence, so filled with down-home happiness and goodwill. It was a wellspring. People grew in Rockridge, they were nurtured, taught, guided, and when the time was right they were gently shown where to go in the world, to the places where love, friendship and happiness were most needed; pebbles in the stream of life, rolling and rubbing up against all the other unhappy, misguided pebbles and putting things right, one rock at a time.

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