Grampa said she was just an old sourpuss. Mom said she was a lonely old lady. I had an idea that Grampa was right, but that didn’t keep me on our side of the fence. Mom was at work most of the time, and Grampa couldn’t hear half of what I said. Summer was dragging by and there were no kids on our block to play with. A twelve-year-old boy didn’t have much in common with a 75-year-old lady, but at least old lady Carson would talk to me - even if she did grumble about everything.
It was seven a.m., and I had my chores done. I was sitting on the porch, tossing pebbles at an empty bird nest when I heard her screen door squeak. I stood up and stretched my neck so I could see over the hedge. She was kind of strange, and I never knew what she’d be doing next. She hobbled across the yard with a trash sack, muttering something about dogs.
“Hi, Mrs. Carson.” I called cheerfully. “Want me to carry your garbage out for you?”
She had dark blue eyes that had white rings around the pupils, and when she’d look at you, her eyes always looked like they were about to pop out of her head. She glanced my way, and when she spoke, her voice sounded like she was fixing to choke.
“I’m not so old that I can’t carry out my own garbage. If people would keep their dogs at home where they belong, I wouldn’t have to waste another bag. I wonder if that trash truck is going to be on time today. You can’t depend on anybody these days.”
I glanced over my shoulder through the open door of our house. Grampa was in his favorite chair; his head tipped back and his mouth hanging open. He was already asleep. I wandered over to the hedge.
“Are you going to plant some more flowers today?”
She frowned at me. “I can’t afford to go buying flowers all the time. It’s hard enough finding the money to pay the water bill.” She glanced up at the sky. “We need rain, but my flowers will probably die before we get any.” She wandered off, shaking her head.
I turned away from the hedge. Yep, it looked like another long boring day. I kicked at a clod of dirt a mole had pushed up. I was hoping the neighbor’s dog would get lose again. I had some chicken bones set aside for him from supper last night.
Over my head, some birds set up a commotion. I glanced up, and I was standing at just the right angle to see another bird nest. “Cool,” I said as I headed for the trunk of the tree. Maybe there were some eggs in this one.
I was halfway out on the limb when old lady Carson hollered at me.
“Leave that bird’s nest alone,” she said, shaking a crooked finger at me. “Those birds never did you any harm. Why do you boys always want to destroy things?”
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” I lied. “I was just going to see if there were any eggs in it.”
She stopped in the middle of the yard and closed her eyes. I was fixing to hear a lecture. She stood there a few minutes and then opened her eyes again. She stared at me. “Well, get down from there before you break a branch out of that tree.”
I didn’t have to mind her. It wasn’t like she was my baby-sitter or anything. Still, there was something about her …. I slid around on the branch and hung by my hands a few seconds before I dropped to the ground. I picked up a little twig and walked over to the hedge again. “What kind of birds do you think those are?”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Nothing you can eat,” she answered in a sour tone.
Now there was an idea. I glanced up at the nest, wondering what a bird egg tasted like. “I wouldn’t eat that bird,” I assured her. “Besides, I couldn’t catch it anyway.” I tapped at the hedge with the twig and watched it shudder.
Mrs. Carson groaned. “I wish I had half your energy.”
I peered over the hedge at her. She looked pale and old today. “Are you tired?”
She smiled, revealing crooked yellow teeth. “I get tired just watching you play.”
Play? I hadn’t had anything or anyone to play with since last week when Grampa took me to the park.
About that time I heard voices out on the sidewalk, and two boys darted by on skateboards. I raced to the front yard and watched them glide down the hill. “If I had a skateboard, I’d never get bored,” I said under my breath.
“If you had a skateboard you’d get your head cracked open - just like those boys are going to one of these days.”
It was Mrs. Carson again. Didn’t she ever have anything good to say about anything? I tossed the twig aside. “Yeah, but at least I’d have something to do.”
She gave me a funny look. “Do you really want something to do?”
I stared at her for a few seconds. When Mom said that, I always wound up cleaning my room. “Something fun,” I amended.
She beckoned with a wave of her hand. “Come here a minute.”
I didn’t need much coaxing. Anything beat standing around poking a stick at things. I followed her into her house. Old newspapers were piled everywhere, and I was afraid she was fixing to ask me to move them. Instead, she led me up some squeaky stairs to an attic room lit only by a round window. It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dim light.
“Over here,” she said, pointing at a large chest.
“I can’t lift that,” I informed her right away.
She gave me the hawk eye. “Can’t never got anything done. Lift the lid.”
Inside was a strange contraption with a big round barrel and a belt hooked to an electric motor. Sacks of something that felt like sand were packed around the machine. I glanced up at her.
“What is it?”
“A rock polisher,” she answered as she stroked the thing as though it were a dog.
I stared at her. “Who would want to polish a rock?”
She pointed at one of the sacks. “Lift that up and look under it.”
I tugged the sack out of the box. A small hinged metal box lay on the bottom of the chest. I reached down to lift the lid.
“Bring it downstairs where you can see them in the light,” Mrs. Carson instructed.
I lifted the heavy metal box out of the trunk and followed her back down the stairs. Great, this time I was stuck here looking at rocks with her. I’d rather look at her old pictures again.
She made me haul that heavy box clear out on the porch before she told me to put it down. “Now look inside,” she said as if it were something really cool.
I lifted the lid to expose shiny pebbles of all colors. They were cool looking. I picked one up and held it up to the light. It was pink and you could almost see through it. “Mom would like this,” I said.
“That’s pink quartz,” Mrs. Carson said. “I picked it up on our trip out west. Each of those stones is from another state.”
“Cool,” I said. I could imagine Mrs. Carson hobbling around the country, poking rocks out of the ground with her cane. “Where did this one come from?” I asked, picking up a small black stone that looked like glass.
“Apache tear drop...obsidian,” she said. “We found that one in Yellowstone back in the 40’s.”
“40’s?” I echoed. And who was we?
“Yes,” she said with a dreamy look in her eyes. “Nineteen forty-five. That was the year we were married. It was our first stone.”
Married? Mrs. Carson? “Where is Mr. Carson now?” I asked.
Her eyes focused back on me. “He passed on a few years back.”
Maybe Mom was right. Maybe she was lonely. I was dying to know if that was why she griped so much, so I sorted around for some clever way to ask her. I pushed my finger around in the stones. “Are you mad at him?” I finally asked.
“Mad?” Her voice was sharp. “What would make you think that?”
Yeah, I had her eating out of my hand. “Well, you sound like you’re mad sometimes.”
She blinked at me. “I’m not angry with him,” she finally said. She took another stone from the box and held it in the palm of her hand so that it sparkled in the sunlight. “Pirite” she announced. “Fool’s Gold. Utah.” She closed her eyes and balled her hand up around the stone.
I figured she must be really mad. I wondered what that stone reminded her of, but I was afraid to ask.
Finally her fingers went limp and her eyes opened again. She looked real tired when she spoke to me. “You can have them.”
“All of them?” I asked.
She nodded. “And the polisher too.”
“But I don’t have any stones to polish.”
She shook her head. “This place is full of rocks. I saw you throwing some at a bird this morning.”
“I wasn’t throwing them at a bird,” I said. Did she see everything I did? “Anyway, it was just an old rock. It wasn’t shiny like these.”
She plucked out a shiny green rock. “I found this one in our back yard.”
I stared at the beautiful stone. “I don’t have any like that in my back yard.”
“Sure you do. Pick up a bunch of stones in your backyard and we’ll put them in the rock polisher. You’ll be surprised at what you find.”
That night I picked up a bunch of rocks. I knew those rocks weren’t like the ones she had in her box, but I didn’t have anything else to do. She had me haul that old rock polisher down to her back porch. I measured out some of the sand and put it in the barrel, along with some water, following her instructions. I have to admit, those rocks did look a little better when they were wet, but they were still just rocks. She even had me break a few of them in half, and that was kind of fun.
It was three days before she let me shut off that rock polisher and look inside. The rocks looked a little smoother, but they were still just rocks. Then she had me put more sand and water in, and we waited some more days.
Each time we took the rocks out of the barrel, they looked better, until finally they were shiny, like her stones. I was holding the stones in my hand when those two boys came by on their skateboards. One of them pitched a rock at the house and they both laughed.
Mrs. Carson’s face turned red, and she started for the street, waving her cane at them. “You boys go back home.” She stared after them mumbling something about kids being no good nowadays.
I picked up the rock the boys had tossed and examined it. “Look at this,” I called to Mrs. Carson. “It’s got some green stuff all through it.” I found another rock and broke it open. “I think this will make a pretty rock, don’t you?” I glanced up at Mrs. Carson.
Her face was white, and she was leaning on the cane real hard.
“Mrs. Carson?” I asked anxiously. “Are you going to faint?”
Slowly she opened her eyes. “No, boy,” she said in a weak voice. “It’s the arthritis. Sometimes it hurts so bad that I can hardly move.”
I stared at her. I remembered banging my head on the corner of the cabinet this morning. It hurt so much that it made me mad. No wonder she was mad so much. I handed the stone to her.
“Here, you can have this one.”
She shook her head. “No, you’ve got the bug now. Nothing will ever be ‘just a rock’ to you again. Take the machine and build some memories for yourself.”
I took that machine, and I spent most of the summer polishing rocks I found in the park as well as any other neat place we went. When school started, I had a bundle of memories to share with the class. I learned something else that summer. Mrs. Carson wasn’t a sourpuss or a lonely old lady. She was my friend.
This story can be purchased in the collection of short youth stories "YOUTH YARNS."