This is a story about a kid, and a rock. The kid was about six years old, one of the many strays wandering my inner city street. His name was DeVonte and he lived with his siblings in the drab rental house next door with a disinterested woman he said was his mom. A smear of snot always seemed to be hanging on his upper lip. Last November the kid showed up on my porch with the usual stained T shirt and bare feet but this time the snot was thick and green with a rattling cough in his little chest. I marched him back over to the rental house and banged on the door. After a long time a slack-faced woman shuffled out of the gloom and stood behind the plastic-covered door frame. But all I’m seeing is her stained T-shirt and the green snot on her upper lip. “He’s cold,” I say. She jerks him inside yelling, “What the fuck did I tell you about goin outside now git your ass upstairs.” That was the kid.
The rock was a concrete footing encased around an old steel clothesline post that I had dug out of my backyard. Not the usual manageable cement plug but a monstrous thing that had heaved up out of the ground on a chain behind my truck. Whoever poured it years ago must have had extra cement laying around. I studied it, laying there like an ugly meteor. It was immovable. I’d have to break it up. I found my ten pound sledge hammer and gave a mighty swing. But a tiny chip just clicked off my house siding, mocking me. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Just then a little voice behind me said, “Whacha doin?” It was the kid, looking through the pickets of my fence gate. “Nothing,” I said. “I hep you?” the kid said, already inside my yard. He picked up the sledge and nearly fell over backwards. I came back with a hammer. “What dat?” he said. “A hammer,” I said, realizing he’d never seen one. I held it out to him. He lifted it with both hands, and dropped it on the rock. Clink. Ok, that’s it, I thought. Time to go in. But the kid picked up the hammer again. Clink. And again. Clink. By dusk, he had generated a small handful of concrete chips. “Time to go home,” I said, eyeing the dark rental house.
The next evening I came home from work and there’s the kid, squatting on the rock and whacking it with the hammer. A speck flew up and hit him right in the eye. He rubbed it and I got out the safety glasses. “Wear these,” I said. He put them on and grinned, just as that woman’s voice came shrieking from next door. “Devonte! Get the fuck back over here before I kick your ass.” “You okay over there?” I said. He didn’t reply, and shuffled off.
But every night I get home, the kid is hammering on the rock. Like a little John Henry. Clink. Clink. Clink. Small stones would occasionally dislodge and fall to the dirt, but then larger ones were revealed even deeper in the concrete. And eventually the worst one of all, a granite field stone the size of a pumpkin emerged, embedded in there till the end of the world. “This is hard,” said the kid, wiping sweat and snot from his face. “Yeah, it is,” I said, watching the woman glare at me from hell.
I left town for vacation. Two weeks. I was carrying an armload of sleeping bags back around the house after we returned when I stopped. The concrete meteor was gone. Only a circle of rock dust remained in its place, littered with stones and in the center, the big granite pumpkin rock. I smiled. He did it. Dang. I’m gonna go hug that kid. Buy him and his scary mom a pizza or something.
I went over to the drab house but the front door with the plastic was hanging open, and the house was vacant. Just a filthy mattress, some Burger King trash and a big flat screen rental TV sitting on the stained carpet. They’d disappeared. Off the grid of the school corporation, child protective services and church youth groups.
I think about that kid, every time I see the big pumpkin-sized granite stone now sitting in the center of my garden. I don’t know if he’s okay. But I know one thing. I’d hate to be whatever big thing gets in his way in life. Because that kid’s got a hammer swinging in his heart that would make Sonny Liston run and hide.
(closing music: Dire Straits’ Song for Sonny Liston. See a YouTube clip of Mark Knopfler performing it live at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euMvfLIii7o&feature=related)
Broadcast on May 16th, 2008 public radio station 88.1 WVPE Elkart/South Bend, Indiana.