The Rock and the Cloud
“Billy, that's it!” My brother's skinny arm pokes from the back seat and he points straight ahead at the rock looming out of the desert. He's been sleeping for hours and I see in the rear-view mirror that his eyes are dumb and his hair sticks out on top like a blond knife.
“Yeah, that's it, ain't it?” I say. We've been looking for the thing for a week and I saw it about half an hour ago. The road is a straight dust track, and from a long way off the rock is the only thing there is to see, rising up out of the sagebrush. It stands about two hundred feet high. The desert is buff colored around here and the rock doesn't match. It's dark gray. As we get closer I'm totally sure this is the one. I see the split partway up where one side is rounded off and smooth and the other side is jagged and sharp. It was that jagged side where me and Dad climbed up.
Tom-o squeezes himself into the front, dragging his sneakers over the metal box taped between the seats. “Damn,” he says as he leans back against the vinyl. It's hot and we don't have shirts on. His chest is striped with ridges from the blanket on the back seat.
I shove an open box of Oreos across the dash. “Want a cookie?”
He doesn't answer. I can tell he's remembered he's mad at me. He sticks his head out the window to look all around at the sky. He's looking for the cloud we've been following, which is more or less how we get from one place to another. That's how Dad used to travel.
“It's gone,” I say. “It dissolved. But it was right over here somewhere.”
“Oh,” he says.
“Tom-o, have a cookie.”
“Thomas,” he reminds me. Last week he decided he wants to be called Thomas but I usually forget. He takes the last three Oreos in the box.
“Thomas,” I say. Making peace, I hope.
I'm breathing easier now that we've found it. I've always remembered this place but it was three years ago when we camped here with my dad, and I didn't really know how to get here. This rock has something special and secret, and Dad and I found it. I don't plan to get to see it this time, but just being here feels good to me.
When we came before Tom was only six and I was thirteen. Back then Tom always sat in back and I rode shotgun. We drove up this same dirt road then in the same old Jeep Cherokee and Dad said, “Hey, Billy, which side is sundown?” I pulled out my compass and told him to go around the right side of the rock to about one o'clock, one-thirty. That should line us up with sundown. We always camped on the sundown side of anything that was big enough to keep you in its shadow for quite a while when the sun came up. My dad didn't want to wake up too early because he said he was on vacation, which wasn't quite true. I didn't want to because I'm usually up most of the night and when I fall asleep just before dawn I like to stay asleep for a while. Tom was little and he liked to go along with what me and Dad wanted.
Dad dangled his arm out the window and banged on the door with his fingers and sang, “Oh, she jumped in bed and covered up her head and said I'd never find her! Da-da da da da, da-da da da da, so I jumped right in behind her!” He always sang that.
I hum the same song now as I pull around and park right where he did. I turn off the engine. Like before, we are the only ones here. It's dead quiet except for insects. Tom jumps out and starts to unload the back. I sit for a minute looking at the steam coming out from under the hood. It wasn't even a climb but just the hot sun got it going.
It's time to get rid of this Jeep. Dad used to trade cars a lot but he kept this Jeep Cherokee for a long time. “One of the first SUVs ever made. V-8 juice.” We painted it once in a while with rollers and gallons of house paint, and a few times he changed license plates with junked cars he found, but he wouldn't give up the Jeep itself. I like it, too. This Jeep is what I learned to drive on, a couple years ago. Good thing I did.
But it's hell to sleep in. I've always been big for my age but I'm probably too big to sleep in any car now. Before the Jeep, when I was about twelve, we had a green Datsun station wagon where I could lie in the back and it was long enough for me. It felt good to feel my brother breathing so close to me. Dad slept across the front seat. Back when I was about nine or ten we had a Chevy El Camino. I hated sleeping under that low tarp.
I asked him why he got so many old cars. He told me he always bought something from 1974, the year he was born.
Tom's already got the cooler and sleeping bags hauled down the slope into the locust trees to the same spot as before. He comes back to the Jeep and climbs on top and unties the chairs and hands them down to me. He carries them and I carry the box of pots and dishes and the box of food on top of that and we go back down the hill to the camp. Not too many people must ever come here because it looks about the same to me. There are the stones ringed up for fire, some logs to lean on and the two big flat rocks for fixing food. Three years ago Tom and I slept under a tree where somebody sometime had hung up a string mop, and the mop is still hanging there. I look at another tree and see the wooden bowl I fixed between some branches to give water to the birds.
We make the fire and I start peeling potatoes and boiling a pot of water. I bring it up again. “You gotta go to school sometime.”
Tom is breaking up dead sticks for more fire. “Nuh-uh.”
“Yes you do.”
“Do you even remember school? It's fun. You can screw around a lot with a lot of kids.”
“I never went to school.”
“Yes you did.” Once we stayed at Aunt Laura's and Tom went to kindergarten. I got put into the fourth grade with kids a lot smaller than me. We left in early spring so neither of us finished.
“I know everything I need to know,” he says. “I can read and write, better than you. I'm good at math. Dad taught me everything I need. There isn't any reason to go to school.”
“You can't read better than me.”
“I didn't say that. I said I write better.”
We both laugh because it's true.
Tom falls asleep before dark and I pull my pouch out from my underwear and count the money. There's about enough left for one more tank full of gas. Used to be when Dad got down that low he got some work for a while. I can do that too. But Dad never saw gas get up to four bucks. It was over a year ago that he didn't come back one day after he walked into town in Barstow, California. I'm pretty sure he got arrested and that's what I told Tom.
I never traded a car but I'm going to look for a little station wagon. A Toyota or Honda, or another Datsun. From 1992, my year.
Finally I lie down in my bag. It's dead quiet, but after about an hour a wind picks up. I can hear it out across the open space before it gets to us. The branches above us start waving. The light sky between the branches is like a moving lace curtain. Once or twice the handle on the string mop clunks against the tree and I watch to see if it is going to get knocked down but it just bangs around. Out on the southeast horizon the moonlight is starting to shine. It glows around the edges of the rock like a halo. The place Dad and me climbed up is on the moon side. I could walk over there right now and it would be lit up so bright I could see well enough to climb it again. But I'm not going to, tonight or tomorrow either. I can do most things by myself but that's something I can't do without him.
I watch the moonlight grow and make everything bright. Even the Jeep, which is blue, looks bright white in the moonlight. The orange paint over the rusted places looks like strange letters. A small cloud is moving across the sky at a good clip. If it was morning and we were ready to drive, we'd start off chasing it. That's what Tom wants to do. He wants to go here and there and follow the clouds and not care where we end up, like we did with Dad.
But I know something he doesn't: Dad didn't really do it that way. He only said he did. Sometimes he did that for fun, but most of the time he had some things in mind about where to go. And so do I. Yesterday's cloud just happened to bring us to the rock we were looking for, and I'm thinking there's a cloud coming up pretty soon that might end us up at Aunt Laura's around the time that school starts, for a nine-year-old. That will be just around the time of my seventeenth birthday, which is when they will let me into the army. Tom might be mad at me for the rest of his life but you gotta do what you gotta do, Dad would say. Problem is, I don't really know what to do. The thought of dropping my brother off at some schoolhouse makes me sick to my stomach. The wind picks up and the mop handle starts banging louder. Just before I fall asleep I think about Dad in prison. I'll bet he's thinking about us.
I wake up to the sound of birds singing. I come up from way down in my bag and pull the hair out of my face and look around. Tom is over in the sun just outside the big shadow of the rock, writing in his notebook. I get up and pee and drink some water and start to sing: “Oh, she jumped in the lake to get away from a snake and said it would never find her. But the snake jumped in and the girl couldn't swim, so da-da da da da daaa da.” I wash up and look in the mirror to see how my beard is coming along. I had sunglasses on yesterday at the hot springs and there's a light band across my eyes that makes me look kind of wild this morning. My eyes are so light blue they look like they've been bleached all summer like the rest of me. I brush my hair. It's almost white blond and goes nearly down to my shoulder blades. I put it in a ponytail for the hot day.
Tom comes over and shows me some pictures in his old notebook. “Remember this, Billy? It's the Indian writing.” Of course I remember. He drew them when we were here before, from me and Dad telling him what we found up at the top of the rock.
It was on the second day we were here. Tom was playing with a toy horse and cowboys and I was watching a wasp skittle along the ground covering up a hole with little stones. Dad was sitting in a chair, until he got up and came over to where I was. “Hey, Bill.”
“I got something we ought to do.”
“You're not gonna like it.”
He crouched down next to me. “You and me need to climb up this rock.”
My dad knew I am afraid of heights, but I could tell that nothing I would say would make any difference. “Come on, Bill. You'll be allright. “ He told Tom we'd be back soon and to get in the Jeep if anything happened. He'd seen a good place to start up, and we put gloves on and he brought a long rope and we started to climb.
The way looked worn, like maybe other people had done it before, but it was really steep. The sun was glaring and the Jeep's rear bumper was shining out below like a mirror. When my bare arm touched the rock, and one time my cheek touched it because I was holding so close in, it burned my skin. My heart wouldn't settle down and I was sick to my stomach. I was holding on so tight my hands and arms got tireder than they needed to. Dad looked down at me pretty often.
After a long time it got flatter and easier, and then I came up over a little rise and Dad was sitting looking at me with a big smile. He was in a very small cave, and all around and above him on the dark gray rocks were white pictures, pecked out one little dot at a time by some people a zillion years ago. “Hey,” he said.
I whistled and sat down and looked at the pictures. There were square box patterns and other squares made up of rows of big dots, each big dot the result of a lot of tiny pecked dots. There were wavy lines, and rows of wavy lines. There were stick figures of people with their arms up. There were lightning looking lines, and footprint looking lines, and snake looking lines, and rainfall looking lines. There was one footprint with six toes. There was one deer or antelope. All of it was clear but really worn into the weathered rock.
I took off my gloves and rubbed my arm where I'd scraped it. It would have been good to bring water but we didn't. Dad lay down and hung his knee over a rock. I sat back against the wall trying not to lean on any pictures. Looking out, I could only see sky. Clouds had built up over the whole southwestern sky but the sun still blazed where we were. The clouds were moving closer and getting darker and there was some lightning on the horizon. It seemed very far away.
Even though we were way up above the ground I felt like I was down underneath it, down inside a cave that was underneath everything. I kind of wanted to get up and go look at the pictures, but I couldn't quite move. The place I was sitting in was a little seat made just for me. It seemed like I belonged there, and the whole world was up above pressing me down with all its weight.
Dad finally sat up and scooted over to the edge. He sat there for a while and then he turned around and smiled at me and wiggled his eyebrows. “Let's go, pardner.”
I could hardly get up but I did. We started down and I got nervous again, especially when we turned a bend and I saw how the Jeep looked like a toy car down below. About halfway down the clouds closed in above us and it got very dark. Then we were almost down but at a tough spot when thunder nearly broke my ears and lightning flashed close. Dad got past the hard part and was moving on but I couldn't get past it and started to panic. I kept turning around trying to go down backwards like he had but feeling too scared, and then I would turn around again and just look down. I heard and saw and smelled rain splattering over the ground not far away. Dad had reached an easy part and was waiting, looking up at me. I must have turned around five or six times and finally said the hell with it and dropped my foot onto something I hoped would hold me, and it did. I kept going, scraping my elbows and banging my forehead, and reached the easy part. Dad grabbed me around the shoulders and kissed my head and we went the rest of the way down and ran together into camp just as the rain hit. My brother was already in the Jeep and we piled in too, and it poured.
“We'd have been down sooner, Tom-o. But Billy had to do quite a dance on this one ledge.”
“He must have done a rain dance,” Tom said.
We slept in the Jeep that night because everything was wet. Right before I fell asleep I heard my dad singing. “Oh, she climbed up a rock to get away from a jock and said he'd never catch her. Da-da da da da, da-da da da da.” The next morning Dad and me drew all the pictures we could remember in the mud to show Tom, and he copied them into his notebook.
Looking at the pictures now, I feel like I remember every handhold and every footstep coming down the rock. I remember each step of that rain dance.
Tom is looking at me. “You want to climb the rock with me, Billy?”
“I don't think you're big enough.”
“Yes, I am.” He walks over and puts his notebook in the Jeep.
I move the chair more into the shade and sit down. When I look up Tom's headed for the rock. “Hey,” I call out.
Of course he ignores me. He disappears out of my sight around to the other side.
Going over to look for him I walk past the Jeep and see the ground is all wet underneath the engine. I raise the hood and take off the radiator cap. There's some water in it but it's way down. We used up the Stop-Leak a few days ago. I walk around and get a jug of water from the back. “Tom-o! Thomas! Help me with the Jeep.” I wait to see if he'll come. He doesn't, so I pour some water in and close the hood. Then I crunch up through the rocks and around the corner.
Tom's climbed up about fifteen feet and looks to be stuck. Even that low, he looks small against the rock. He makes a few false starts and waves some bug away from his face and then starts stepping backwards down. He slips the last bit and he shouts and I hear his head crack on the rock. “Shit,” I say, and hustle up to where he is standing, bending over holding his head with one hand and his knee with the other.
I turn him towards me. He's crying and blood's running down his face. I don't have a shirt on so I pull his off over his head and press on the right side of his skull. A dark spot comes through and spreads slowly. I take the shirt away and rumple through his hair and look. It's only a couple scrapes, not too deep. “It's not too bad, Tom-o. Let's go wash it.” We walk back. Passing the Jeep I see the ground is all muddy under the engine.
Tom takes a nap and then we eat peanut butter and potatoes. He goes to sleep again and I go over and look at the Jeep. There's no water in the radiator. I go back to sit in the chair and watch the sky turn orange and red and gold as the sun goes down. The rock turns red and gold, and so do the trees, and after a while it all gets gray. The temperature drops and I want to lie down in my bag but I go over to the Jeep instead.
I get out our packs. We've got seven or eight gallons of water left, so I top off the five-gallon jug and load it into the center of my pack. I wrap my jeans and three t-shirts and underwear around the jug. My coat will sling over the top. I stand in front of the Jeep with no clothes on and pour some water over my head and rub it over myself and stand there shivering while the air dries me. The moon's not up yet and the Milky Way is like a swath of silver paint over the top of me.
I put on my shorts and my long-sleeve shirt and shoes and sit in the tailgate of the Cherokee and sort through our stuff. Pots and dishes we'll leave. Three Snickers bars and the peanut butter and a bag of dried milk I stick in my pockets to take. Knife, rope, flashlight, batteries, all go with us. Cigarette lighter and matches. I find the envelope of important papers. All of that I put in the bottom of Tom's pack, along with his notebooks and pens and his extra pants. I take the package of weed out from the wheel well. It looks to be worth about three hundred. I wrap it in Tom's extra shirt and put it in his pack on top of the rest, and stuff his jacket over all of it. His jacket is my old green one. I hold it up before I put it in. I can't remember when I was small enough it would fit me.
I sleep for a while and then wake up my brother. We roll up our sleeping bags and tie them onto our packs and put quart bottles of water into the side pouches. Tom writes a note “Help yourself” to put on the box of pots and dishes, and a note “Keep out” to leave on the Jeep's dash. We lock it up and split a Snickers and drink big drinks of water. Then we take off walking.
It's peaceful tonight, not windy at all. When the moon rises we'll have bright light all night and maybe we'll reach the highway by dawn. There isn't a cloud anywhere. I'll have to figure where to go without one, but fortunately there is only the one road out.
© Judith Day, 2008