The marbles were dirty, so I put them in my mouth to get the grit off. I'd eaten a lot of dirt in the last couple of months -- I'd survived the bad dust sickness -- and a little more wouldn't hurt. But that bug-eyed kid standing in front of me looked at me funny.
"Where you from, anyway?" I asked him, my mouth full of glass balls. There were four of us playing. There was nothing else to do in the camps. We were too young to go out and work. A boy has to be at least twelve to go out on the trucks and do the picking. None of us kids were over nine.
"Far away," he said. This kid, his name was Petey. He was a queer one. He drank juice all the time, piss-warm apple juice. His ma always chased him around with the juice. But it wasn't the juice that made him queer, it was everything put together.
My dry tongue pushed the marbles out of my mouth one by one, until all three were in my palm. "Farther than Little Rock?" I asked.
"So far that you wouldn't even know the name of it," he said quietly.
I sucked up and spat, mostly to get rid of the dirt and stuff in my mouth. "How do you know what I know?" I got up real close to Petey. He was taller than I was, but most everyone was taller than me, even the girls. "We're sick of hearing about how perfect it is where you're from. If it was so good, how come your family's Okies too?"
Petey flinched; his clear blue eyes squinted underneath his dark brow. Okies was what people from California called us. But most of us weren't from Oklahoma. Like my family, we're from Kansas, a ways out of Dodge City. But then the dust storms came, and the worst one, the Black Sunday storm, wrecked the land and killed the cattle. There wasn't anything left to do after the banks foreclosed but leave.
"They're back!" One of the other boys we were playing marbles with pointed, out over the ridge that led to the entrance of the camp. A black, coughing flatbed truck clanked along the trail. In the back was my pa. He'd been one of the lucky ones picked that day to go out and pick fruit -- "lucky" because too many days had passed without him on the truck. But now Pa and the truck were back. They were going to be getting off right where we were playing.
I jiggled my marbles and shoved them into my overalls. Petey was already gone. With bare feet, I stomped out the playing circle I'd drawn in the dirt. Pa wouldn't like knowing I was fooling around. As I turned to find Pa, I stumbled right into a giant man -- almost smacked into his thigh. I stopped and looked up at him. I must have made a noise because he started laughing and in a big booming voice he said, "Hey there, boy!"
I could barely see up as high as his chin, but I could tell that he had black hair. I couldn't see much more about his face. He ruffled my hair with a hand at least twice as big as Pa's. I couldn't help it: my mouth was hanging open. He wasn't normal. He just wasn't normal at all.
Then Pa and the giant shook hands. Even Pa didn't come up to his chest. Though Pa was a small man, he had a big handshake. That was his way of making up for his size.
The big man's voice boomed again. "That your boy?"
Pa looked down at me. I think it must have hurt his neck, starting looking up at the giant and ending down so low at me.
"Yup," Pa said, putting his arm around my shoulder. "This here is my son, Johnnie."
"Sir." I offered my hand.
The giant laughed. His paw swallowed my arm clear up to my elbow. His voice sounded kind of like what I imagined God's voice would sound like coming down from the heavens, deep and music-like. "Did you meet my boy? Peter, where are you?"
The giant dropped my hand and looked around. I think I must have groaned out loud. Petey? He was likely off somewhere sucking up his juice or on his hands and knees finding his special rocks.
I followed Petey out.
I was bored and all the men were off working. It was a good time to be working. California was just like they said it was: Paradise. Not a dusty dirty place like Kansas.
Ma was busy cleaning our garage. I wasn't supposed to call it a garage, but that's what it was. She worked so hard to keep it nice. It was handout money, government money, that let us live there. We were some of the oldest people in the migration camp, which was why we had a garage. Petey and his family were still living in a tent. I didn't know how his pa slept in there.
I didn't like to be around much when Ma was cleaning, because I always ended up on the floor scrubbing. So I wandered around the camp some, until I found Petey. He was carrying around a Mason jar full of juice. Like I said before, Petey was all the time drinking juice. I followed him around a spell. I think he was trying to lose me.
"Where you going, Petey?"
Petey mostly just made circles around the camp. He'd stop here and there and check out some rocks on the ground. After a while, he'd pick one up and put it in his pocket. I watched him and followed him to where the ground was really rocky. I tried stepping in the same spots as him. It was easy to see where he was stepping because he had shoes on and they made tracks. I hadn't owned a pair of shoes since I was six years old. That was back in Kansas. A long time ago. . . .
Petey was wearing long pants and a long shirt, too. It was queer since it was so hot. Most of the time I didn't even wear a shirt. His face looked like he'd been spooked; he wore that face pretty much all the time. He needed a haircut. He almost looked like a girl, especially with those light eyes and curly lashes.
Petey stopped walking around when he reached the edge of the camp. I could look up and see the foothills. We weren't supposed to go out any further, at least I wasn't. I don't know what kind of rules Petey had -- his parents were so much stranger than mine, chasing him with juice and all.
Petey drank the rest of his juice and sat down. He wasn't acting very social. I didn't have anything better to do than bug him, so I stuck around.
I sat down on the ground next to Petey. There was an anthill and I grabbed a twig and poked at it some. The high noon sun beat down and made my hair and face hot. I looked over to Petey and he was sweating pretty hard.
"Petey, where you from?" I didn't know what else to ask him. I wanted to ask him how come his pa was so big but that wasn't really a polite way to start a conversation.
"I forgot the name. I've been away so long." Petey sighed.
I didn't say anything. He was thinking hard and I didn't want to mess up his remembering. I poked at the ants coming out of their home.
"Sometimes," Petey said, "I close my eyes real tight and then I'm flying. Except there's no clouds, and no trees, and there surely isn't any dust. There's just free and open space. No one had to leave on trucks and everyone had a real place to sleep. That's what it was like at home." He looked down into his empty Mason jar. "We're going back soon."
"You mean you close your eyes and dream? I do that at nighttime," I said. I looked down at the poor ants I had forced away from their home; I swallowed hard. I knew how they felt. I threw my twig back behind me.
"Just is." Petey got up and started walking away from camp.
"I'm not allowed to go any further," I said. I got up.
"Me neither," he said. He didn't stop walking. He headed out toward the foothills and I followed him.
Birds were chirping and the sun was climbing higher and higher up in the cloudless sky. We were pretty far from camp. The rough ground tore up my feet. There were a lot of sharp rocks littering the path we were climbing. The air thinned out and Petey was having a hard time of breathing. He was getting red in the face.
I'd never been so high up, except for the truck ride from Kansas. But I'd still been recovering from the dust sickness then, so I slept most of the trip.
As I walked with Petey, I'd sneak peeks down over the camp. I could see people down there moving about. They were getting ready for the singing and dancing that would go on after the sun went down. They were all Okies like us, running away from the dust and failed crops. If we'd had some hills, the dust storms would've never wrecked our land and I wouldn't've been in stupid California looking for stupid rocks.
"The rocks is part of us getting home."
Petey stopped and picked up a rock. "I don't really know." He showed me the small rock. It was more like a pebble than a rock. It wasn't much bigger than my thumb. He plopped it in his jar.
I showed him a rock. Petey shook his head.
"Thanks, but it has to be a little smaller."
"Petey?" I pitched the rock behind me. "Do you want to go home real bad?"
Petey looked at me, with watery eyes.
"Yeah, it's all I think about," Petey said. He kept staring at me. "Don't you want to go home too?"
I didn't know what to say. I thought for a few seconds and then nodded. "I can't really remember much about home before the dust storms. I just remember we were all happy."
Petey looked back down at his handful of rocks. "I want to go home so bad it hurts. It hurts my ma too."
"The rocks will get you home?" I asked.
Petey threw one pebble on the ground and stuffed the rest into his Mason jar. "Yeah, they will."
"Petey?" I asked. "Will they get me home too?"
"If I tell you they won't will you still help me?"
I thought about that some.
Petey turned away from me. "Leave if you want."
I looked down on the ground and there was a bright rock staring back at me. I picked it up. It was the color of chalk. I walked over to Petey and showed him. It must have been the right size because Petey looked at me for a second, like he was going to say something, but then he didn't. Instead, he held out his jar. I let the rock slowly roll off my fingers and plink into the jar. Petey and I looked at each other for a second and then we went back to our searching.
I have to say it was hard finding rocks that size. There really weren't many the right size. Petey said no to lots that I offered him.
It was real hot and I was getting thirsty. My eyes were stinging from the brightness. I didn't want to stop until Petey did.
"Johnnie?" Petey said. We were both squatting down over a pile of rocks we'd stumbled across.
"We friends?" he asked. His voice was hopeful.
I didn't look up. "Sure we are. I'm looking for your rocks, right?"
I didn't tell him I was out there killing time because I didn't want to be home cleaning. I did like him, so it wasn't an all-out lie. I think having a friend was another one of those memories I'd tucked so far back into my head that I was near forgetting it.
"Why do you need the rocks?" I asked. I stopped digging. I had to squint to see him in the fierce sun.
Petey wiped his sweaty forehead on his sleeve. "They have to be exactly the right size," he said. He held a handful of them out to me. "We need them for our engine."
"Like a truck engine?"
"Yeah, except our engine isn't in a truck and we need rocks instead of gasoline," he said.
Petey turned and started digging around a bush. He thought I wasn't looking. He tipped his head toward the jar, like he was listening to the rocks. I don't think he heard anything because he shook his head and looked mad. I looked at the rocks in my own hand. I jiggled them around. "Why don't you just use marbles?"
"It has to be rocks. A lot of rocks, more rocks than probably all the marbles in California. I don't know why."
"Were those rocks saying something to you?" I asked, not looking at him.
For a while Petey didn't say anything. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him picking up rocks and pitching them over his shoulder. Maybe he didn't hear me, but I didn't repeat it. Finally, he said, "They'll get loaded into the engine and sing. It's a soft hum. I can't hear them sing now, but I still kind of wish I could. I'd know I got rocks the right size."
"Like church singing?" I asked.
"Like a lullaby," he said quietly. "Think back when you were a kid, before you got stuck here, when you were home. Think of being in bed and hearing that song softly in your ear."
I thought about it. When I was back in Kansas I remembered when it rained and how the raindrops on the roof made me sleepy. I remembered how everyone in the house slept better knowing the rain was feeding the crops. The rain was my lullaby and I had an idea how the rocks singing made him feel.
"Petey?" I asked. "Why do you save the rocks in Mason jars?"
Petey and me were out scavenging for more rocks. It started to be a daily job we did after the men left for work. My ma and his ma would get together and start talking and jabbering. They'd shoo us away and we'd go out and fill our pockets with rocks. When Petey finished his juice, we'd put the rocks in the juice jars.
"Pa likes to see 'em. Sometimes he can spot a rock that isn't the right size smack dab in the middle of a jar. Back home he was trained to know which rocks were the right size."
I looked up to the sky; it was another real hot day. Petey was wearing the same long-sleeved shirt he always wore. I wasn't wearing a shirt. The days just ran into each other. Beautiful cloudless California days that seemed to get hotter and hotter. I was glad we weren't in Kansas eating dust.
Before we left, Petey's ma handed me Petey's juice jar and made me promise that I'd make Petey drink his juice while we were out hunting for rocks. I got thirsty after a spell and I took a sip of the juice. I almost spit it out. It wasn't apple juice at all. It was something else, like Pa's beer or something stronger. I didn't say anything to Petey, I just carried the Mason jar around.
When Petey's pockets were full and there wasn't any place else to put rocks, he took the jar from me and dumped it out before I could say anything. The juice spilled out onto a big rock and the hot sun dried up the puddle.
"Don't tell Ma," he said quickly. We were out further than we were allowed and I broke a promise to his ma. I shook my head. With soft clinks, Petey emptied his pockets into the juice jar. I shoved my hands into my own pockets; they weren't full yet. I wasn't as good as Petey was at finding the rocks, but I wanted to show him that I was working so I emptied what few I did have into his jar.
"You just keep helping me. Is it because you believe me? About the engine and the rocks?" Petey asked out of nowhere.
I didn't answer him for a while. I didn't quite understand it all but I knew that it was something pretty important or Petey wouldn't be wasting his time. Finally, I stopped my digging and took another handful over to him. I let them run out of my hand and into his almost full jar. I wiped my hand off on my overalls and held it out. "We're friends. If one of us can go home that's better than both of us being stuck here."
He took my hand and shook it and smiled real big. That was the first time I ever saw him without that spooked look on his face. He was awful red from the sun.
"Petey, you must be really hot in all those clothes. Maybe we should get back."
"Yeah, we probably should." Petey wiped his brow with his long sleeve. We had a Mason jar full of rocks. They looked like gray and brown marbles.
Petey and I started back. I led the way. My feet were sore and cut. I was looking forward to a nice swim in the cold lake.
We weren't too far from camp when I heard the clatter of a Mason jar falling. When I looked behind me, Petey was lying on the ground.
I watched the giant pick his son up off the ground. Petey's ma wasn't too far behind us. She had juice jars with her. Guess his falling and getting knocked out had something to do with not enough apple juice. They were in such a big hurry to get Petey back to camp that they didn't see his Mason jar. I was kinda surprised that they didn't since it was so almighty important to them getting back to home, so I grabbed the cracked jar and picked up the scattered rocks. I followed really slow behind Petey's parents. After Petey started making some noises in the giant's arms, his ma stopped her crying and made him drink some juice. I stood there, scared. When his ma looked over and saw me she gave me a big hug. The Mason jar got in the way. When she looked down and saw the jar, she smiled.
I offered the jar to her and with great big tears she took the rocks and didn't say anything more.
"He's okay, right?" I asked her.
Petey's ma nodded. She looked back at her boy. She took my hand and squeezed. "He's going be just fine. Thank God he's got a friend like you."
I was still worried about Petey. When I got to my place, my own ma took me in her arms and hugged me tight. That's when I realized I wasn't gonna get hit for running off where we weren't allowed and for not making Petey drink his juice.
"That must have been scary for you. Glad your friend's gonna recover." Pa looked down at me. He looked concerned. Ma hadn't let go of me yet.
I didn't know what to say. So I just nodded. After all we'd been through -- the dust, the storms, the foreclosure -- my friend getting sick didn't seem like a big deal.
"Son, I wish to God that you didn't have to miss out on having a normal childhood. When the rains come to Kansas, we'll go home."
I thought about what it was like before the dust storms, before we had to sleep with rags over our mouths, before we moved. I didn't know what normal was anymore, so how could I have missed it?
I shrugged. "I got more than some kids -- at least we're all together."
Pa didn't get picked to go out on the flatbed truck. Guess there wasn't much fruit to pick that day. Pa was fussing at Ma a lot and I was finding ways not to be underfoot. Things were hard all around camp.
Petey's pa, the giant, he was picked to go out. It wasn't a big surprise. He almost always got picked on account of his size. Pa mumbled about how size doesn't mean squat since it's speed that counts. The giant spent most of his time bending over and tying his shoe and picking up rocks or other nonsense, or so Pa said.
I decided it was time to call on Petey. Since we were friends and all. I didn't want him thinking I was avoiding him, and his ma hadn't let him out since he fell down. I'd been collecting rocks on my own. Ma'd given me some of her jars -- she didn't even ask me why I needed them.
Petey wasn't doing so good. His ma let me in the tent, then left. They had a bed all made up for him. I sat on a crate next to it. There wasn't much else inside the tent. Petey's family didn't have a lot of stuff --even their car was pretty empty. They traveled light for Okies. The tent wasn't very big; there was barely enough room for the two beds and a short table.
Petey looked mad that he was stuck there. He wasn't talking. He wasn't even looking at me. His face was all red from sunburn and he was sweating.
I quietly sat there a spell with a jar of rocks on my lap.
"Umm," I said. I didn't know what to talk about. He probably had all the same migrating stories I had. I tried to think of something good. "In Kansas, we didn't have much grass. There were all these jackrabbits. . . ." I swallowed hard. There was a bitter taste in my mouth. "These jackrabbits, they ate everything around. Including the grass. Since there wasn't much grass the dust storms came and made everything worse."
Petey's red face turned towards me. He groaned. I held out my Mason jar. He just stared at my face. He didn't care about the jar even though I'd brought it to cheer him up.
"We all got together at the church then walked out holding hands. We made a giant circle. It was real big, like a mile." I licked my lips, tasting the Kansas dirt on them. "We all walked together until there was all these rabbits in the middle. Then we beat 'em. We beat them with clubs and sticks. There was just squealing bunnies and blood." I paused. Remembering was hard. "Dying all around. Everyone was killing them. Except me. I cried. Went home crying like a sissy girl to my ma."
I blinked. Then I was quiet.
Petey just looked at me, straight-faced. I knew I was blushing, but I didn't care. Telling Petey that story was important to me 'cause I didn't want him feeling like a sissy for being sick.
"I knew why they had to die," I added. "I just didn't want them to die, I was tired of dying . . . dying trees and dying grass. They deserved a chance to try and live."
He nodded. Petey understood it was more than just a dumb bunny story.
"Like leaving Dodge City. I know why we had to leave but I didn't want to. Is that the way it was with your family?"
Petey shook his head. He pulled up his blankets. I wasn't wearing a shirt on account of it being so dang hot, but he pulled up his blankets. "We left because we wanted to."
"It was bad there?" I played with the rocks in the jar.
"It was perfect. . . ." Petey reached out and took the jar. He poked around and picked one out. He threw it near the tent opening.
"Why did you leave, then?" I asked. It was an old question. I'd asked him lots of times before.
Petey held out the jar and as I took it, he pointed under the cot. I lifted up the sheet that was draped over the cot. On the dirt floor of the tent were Mason jars. There were Mason jars stacked up three high. There must have been over a hundred under there.
I looked back and forth between him and the jars.
"We were migrating," Petey said. "Migrating to where the stuff we needed was. We ran out of all the stuff we needed and had to find more. Then something happened to our ship and we got stuck here."
"You came in a ship? There ain't much water where I'm from," I said.
"Nah, not a ship like a boat. One that sails in the air, not the water."
I didn't understand and I didn't ask. It was stuff a dumb Okie like me didn't learn because I never went to school. I tried to put the jar under the cot, but there wasn't enough room.
"We got more jars in the car."
"More than this?" I asked.
Petey nodded. "In the trunk."
I thought some. "When will you be done migrating?"
Petey looked at me and then down at his hands. He looked like he was counting on his fingers. I didn't want to hear his answer. I didn't want to know when Petey was leaving.
"When it rains?" I blurted out. That was always what Pa said whenever I asked him when we'll get to go home.
Petey looked at me funny. "Rains here all the time. . . ."
I got up to leave. "Something my pa sometimes says," I mumbled.
Pa was fuming. We ate lunch at home. Pa was out of work all that week.
"He's a good man," Ma offered.
Pa didn't say anything else. He'd been talking about the giant and how he always went out on all the trucks. We really needed the money, Pa said. Money and rain, he always came back to those. I knew better than to shoot my mouth off. I wasn't gonna make him madder.
I gulped my lunch -- leftover squirrel stew that Petey and I had hunted last week. We were going hunting again. We'd hunted every night for a month. Petey was a really good hunter, not making any noise at all when he moved. So as long as Petey brought his juice, our mas, they'd let us out so they could talk to each other. Petey's ma was homesick; she'd usually end up crying.
"I'll walk Johnnie over to Peter's," Ma announced. I think she just wanted out of the garage. She gathered up the dishes, but then she smiled and took my hand. With her free hand, she grabbed some empty Mason jars.
It was a dark day out and I wasn't wearing my shirt. There were fat rain clouds and some droplets leaked out of them. As we walked across the field of tents, I closed my eyes, though my feet were still going. Ma squeezed my hand. Even close-eyed, I knew the way to Petey's house like it was my own.
I breathed in real deep. I could almost smell the wheat swaying back at the homestead. I closed my eyes tight and for a second, I was flying through the air. The smell of damp earth filled up my nose. And there was rain; big fat clouds full of rain sprinkled down on me. I could see my tire swing swaying, and the tractor, and no dust. No dust at all. I felt the touch of a rain jacket on my back and tight leather shoes on my feet. There were memories coming alive behind my closed eyes. Memories of long ago. Memories of grass and a farm never touched by dust storms. I opened my eyes and smiled.
Ma must have been thinking the same thing, because when I looked at her, she was smiling too. She squeezed my hand. We were walking to our friends' place and everything was all right.
When we got close to Petey's tent we could hear screaming. Ma left me and started running towards the tent.
When I got there, Petey was inside the tent holding onto his ma. They both hovered over the giant, who lay very still.
Ma and I stood in the doorway. Ma nudged me. "Go get your pa."
I stood there in the light rain staring at the still man, and then I bolted for home.
Ma finally came home. I'd been home for a while, trying not to think of how scary Petey's pa looked. Pa sent me back as soon as I took him to the tent. The giant had passed on. Guess he found a real bad sickness. Pa said he just worked too hard. The giant wasn't a mule, he said, even though he worked like one. It all happened in a couple of hours.
Ma sent me to bed when she got home. We didn't even have dinner. Inside the garage, she tucked me in, and with tears in her eyes she told me that Petey and his ma were staying in their tent. She didn't sound too pleased that they were alone.
I was in bed listening to my folks talking low. There was just a sheet up dividing the garage. Ma cried some. They talked about Kansas. They talked about leaving camp. I waited a long while until Ma stopped crying, until the only sound left to hear was rain hitting the tin roof of the garage. I thought of Petey's singing rocks.
In my bed, I sat up and listened very carefully for Pa's deep sleep breathing. I waited, breathing in the musty smell of the garage. I waited longer and then I got up.
Pa was sleeping in his bed on the floor. Ma was gone. I couldn't wait anymore. I knew they would understand I had to go see my friend. I crept out of the garage.
It was dark outside and I could hardly see. There were a few fires outside of some of the tents. There was enough light from them to see my way. But I didn't need any light -- I knew the way. There was some light rain on my bare back. It was warm.
When I got there, I found Ma sitting on a crate. She was next to Petey's cot. On the other side of the tent, the giant was lying very still, looking like he was asleep. Petey and his ma weren't there.
As I stood in the tent opening, Ma looked up and gave me a sad smile. She lifted up the sheet that hung over Petey's cot. There was nothing underneath. All the jars were gone. I turned and looked through the tent's opening at the giant's car. The trunk was opened and empty.
I looked back at Ma.
She put her head down on Petey's cot. I watched her for a few seconds.
"We're going back to Kansas, Johnnie. We're going home, too." Her head rose. She was playing with something in her hand.
She tossed it to me. A pebble. One exactly the right size.
It was warm from her holding it. As I held it, tears -- slow and gentle drops like from a quiet plains storm -- started flowing down my face.
It was raining.
We were all going home.
Copyright © 2001 M. L. Konett
M. L. Konett lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her family. A 1997 Clarion graduate, M. L. has a story coming out in Aboriginal Science Fiction.