The Man Who Rolled Rocks: A Short Story

An empty beach, cleansed by waves and the hands of man.Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

I wanted to know why my life felt so empty. I felt my job was the culprit, but I wasn’t sure. Then I met this man down on Third Beach.

“What a crappy day? I think I’m going to go nuts if I stay at that job much longer.”

I hadn’t given Jenny time to sit down, before I’d started in on my favorite frustration. She plopped in her seat and sighed as she pushed her coat off her shoulders and onto the back of her chair. Freed from it, she waved a waiter toward us.

“Well that’s a hellavu start to the end-of-the-week happy hour. What’s got in your craw?

It was 5:00 Friday evening. The noise in the Downtown Bar and Grill was merely a burble at this early hour in the ritual end-of-the-week unwinding the establishment hosted. Jen and I often spent Friday evenings here letting the quiet jazz and the friendly crowd ease the week away. Arriving early gave us a chance to talk. With a beer in front of her, Jenny settled in her chair and stared at me like Mother Superior waiting for my confession.

“I’m sitting in my cubicle today. Even that word, think about – cubicle. Like a cell or stall or pigeonhole. Well, I was sitting in my cubicle at the bank keeping the numbers in the correct columns, receivables, payables, all of us trying to stay awake more than anything. Just then, a wailing siren screams past the building making the next moment just a fraction different from the last. I swear, every head in that room lifted and stared in the direction of that sound as if paying silent tribute to it for its momentary reprieve. That’s my life. Crappy, empty, pointless, meaningless. Do you ever feel like that down on the waterfront?”

“The harbor’s a bit different scene from a bank, Abby. There’s a certain mystique to international shipping. Besides, administrative work there isn’t so bad and there are some damned fine-looking men from foreign shores that traipse through that office.”

“I guess you just answered my question, Jen. A little flirting, a lot of typing, that’s all you expect from life?”

“It’s not all that bad…”

Christina Carson

“Let me stop you there. Is ‘not all that bad’ all you expected from life? That’s my question, I guess. What do you expect? What were you hoping for when we graduated and went out into the world?”

“I think I was hoping that I’d never have to spend another night studying. I wasn’t the greatest student. Not the educational bright light you were. So, I think I was hoping for something that wouldn’t tax me, something I could walk out of each night and have the rest of the time to myself.”

“To do what?”

“Watch TV. Go to the pub. Occasionally I have a date, and I keep hoping to find Mr. Right. I don’t know, maybe I don’t have any big dreams or need much in the way of meaning.”

“Could you do thirty more years of that? What then?”

Jen sighed loud enough to make her exasperation with me evident and gave her attention to the carnival-like atmosphere of the bar and grill. A burst of laughter came from one corner. At the center of the room, a table of ladies, who had arrived earlier and were now finished their meal, watched as a huge birthday cake with burning candles headed their way. It caught the eye of most of the patrons. Two waiters sang an operatic version of Happy Birthday that silenced the entire room for a moment. Everyone cheered the singers and the birthday girl, after which the crowd quieted into talk and eating.

Jen looked at me. “What’s the matter with this? It’s fun here. The energy is pleasant, though it might be better if I had a happier date.” She eyed me dolefully.

“But, Jen, this is called vicarious living, sort of what leeches do—live off someone else’s blood; or parasites like mistletoe that live off other plants’ resources? We’re just jetsam on their sunny beaches.”

“Abby, I think your drink isn’t quite stiff enough tonight. You need help.”

The food we ordered arrived and made the silence that had settled between us feel less onerous. I noticed that Jen had started eyeing a guy two tables over, flirting in between forkfuls of fettuccine alfredo. By the time Jen had finished her plate, the fellow stopped by and invited us over to his table, which already hosted a few of his friends. I had barely eaten my supper and decided to do the world a favor and spend the rest of the evening at home.

The fellow made a point to ask me as well, but Jen butted in and said, “Leave her be. She’s in one of her philosophical moods. Trust me she could dampen the joie de vie of Mardi Gras when she gets like this.”

I raised my eyebrows and my hands as if to say, guilty. I pushed my chair back, folded my napkin and left it on the table as I told her I’d get the check in penance. As he was directing Jen toward his table, he looked back at me and mouthed, “Maybe another time.” I shrugged encouragingly and left.

Walking out into a perfect spring evening, I decided to stroll home. Even amidst the cherry blossoms and plate-sized rhododendron flowers, my dismal mood continued to thrive. The soothing scent of cedar from the silent forests surrounding downtown finally brought a touch of respite. It was a beautiful place to live, but my life didn’t feel like it was doing it justice.

As I climbed the stairs to my third-floor apartment a view west toward the ocean emerged over the rooftops and included the tail end of a flaming orange sunset. I sat on the landing and let the night close around me. What was it that was missing? I had a nice place to live, good friends, fine health and a beautiful city, so I almost capitulated to Jen’s sentiment. Maybe I was making life too complicated, for it seemed I should be nothing but grateful. But gratitude didn’t offset the emptiness I felt.

The early light of the next morning found me on Third Beach. It was my favorite contemplation spot. At this hour, the beach belonged to me and the gulls. I sat on a wet log, one that had escaped from a logger’s boom somewhere up the coast and had found its way here. I was enjoying the unpeopled landscape when a stocky man, carrying a length of two-inch diameter iron pipe and a seven-foot-long iron bar, walked onto the beach. I heard myself hiss out, “Damn it.” I so wanted seclusion.

He walked purposefully and stopped at a shady spot, pushed his suspenders aside and removed his outer shirt leaving him in a long underwear-type top. He pulled his suspenders back up and pushed his sleeves to his elbows. He tucked his thermos and lunch bucket behind some driftwood, covered them with his shirt and stretched himself, first side to side, then tall. With that, like a man starting a day’s work, he picked up his pipe and bar and walked over to the closest large rock. I wasn’t sure where these rocks came from—off the jetty or in with the tide—but they were always showing up on that beach and were much too big to pick up. Between the pipe and the lever, this man began to roll the rock back to a place in the jetty. I watched amazed. The rock was almost four feet in diameter and yet he moved it. The work was so strenuous that he was soon soaked with sweat. His unusual activity kept me fixated such that the arrival of the first couple of the day around 9:00 went by without my customary irritated response. He gave them no notice either. He was busy with his third rock. They too watched for a bit, curious, but soon lost interest and lay down in the sun. I hadn’t moved. This man’s endeavor intrigued me. Nothing I could come up with could explain why he was there involved in that activity. When he broke for lunch, I walked over to where he sat eating a sandwich and drinking his coffee.

“May I talk with you while you eat?” He nodded and I went on. “This is incredibly tough work. What possesses you to do this?

He smiled patiently as if he had answered this same question often. “Hit a bad patch some time back and ended up on the dole. I’ve never felt right about taking something for nothing, so I decided to tidy up the beach and shore up the jetty each day in return.”

“Every day?”

He nodded his head.

“Is it interesting to you? I mean do you get tired of doing it sometimes?”

He looked at me as one might look at a child who had just asked a question beyond their scope to understand. “Do you mean do I like it? Does it satisfy me?

“Yes, I guess that’s what I meant?”

“Why wouldn’t it?”

His question stopped me in my tracks. “Well I just thought it might get boring, doing this daily.”

“Something so mundane and without much of a point? Is that the rest of your thought?”

I felt my certainties slipping away. Me, the great philosopher, had suddenly met a graduate of the school of life. “That’s how I’ve been feeling about my work. So, I guess I assumed most people feel like I do.”

He didn’t reply, so I trudged on, my thoughts tumbling out with no regard to how they were embarrassing me. “Yesterday, I complained to my friend I felt empty, and yet couldn’t imagine life was meant to feel that way. The answer feels bigger than just changing jobs. And now listening to you, I get a sense that a job may have little to do with it.” I stopped, feeling like I had just stripped down naked in front of someone I not only didn’t know but to whom I would never imagined baring my soul.

The stranger poured another cup of coffee, secured the top back on his thermos and stared at the sand in front of his boots. Emotion was rising in me. Hearing what I’d been stuffing down for so long come blurting out, left a frightening sense of desolation behind.

The older man looked at me pointedly. “You are right. It isn’t specific jobs that give life meaning, much as people think. In fact, interesting work can often hide the fact that your life is empty. Whatever you do, however you live, what matters is if you feel at ease within yourself. It’s not about your life providing meaning, or fulfilling you. It’s about being in touch with the inner resources we’re born with—curiosity, playfulness, an inclination toward joy. Such awareness results in deep contentment. I am content when I roll rocks, as well as when I leave to go home and live out the rest of my day. It wasn’t always that way for me. But it is now. What stops you from living contentedly?”

I had no answer for him, nor did he appear to want one. He put his used wax paper back in his lunch bucket, dripped out the last drops of black coffee from his thermos onto the sand, folded his shirt back over both, stretched again and walked over to the last rock on the beach.

The beach was crowded now. A few people stopped to watch him, some offered encouragement, some, veiled ridicule. What I saw now was what I’d missed earlier. Thinking it was sheer determination that got him through his day, the contentment he exuded had alluded me. I still didn’t understand, however, how he could face that commitment every day. Did contentment really offset no seeming glamor or excitement or prestige?

A week later, I stopped in at the Downtown Bar & Grill for some good music and a bite. I had taken to spending most of my time off-work, alone. My friends didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps I had become more annoying than I’d realized. I was still working on the old man’s question: What stops you from being contented? I looked first at my work. All week long I argued for my position. When I asked, what stops me from feeling content at work, an angry, resentful reply poured out of me: ‘The fact that it is useless, boring, non-creative, uninspiring and unchallenging. Where is contentment to be found in that?’ But that effort took me nowhere.

After the waiter took my order, I sat quietly allowing a tiny crack to occur in my great wall of defenses. With that softening, as if someone was talking to me in my head, I heard: What the man who rolled rocks was trying to explain was that work is not the problem. What you bring to it is. You bring nothing but resentment.

I sat stunned. I had never thought about it that way. What if I treated a friend that way? I staggered mentally backward for a moment when I realized I probably had. What if I treated a pet that way? Then, I’d probably dub the furry little creature as the problem preventing me from living a full life. It was so obvious once I was willing to see.

At that moment, the fellow who had invited Jen and me to his table the week before was standing at mine asking to join me. I felt idiotic for a second as I tried to offer a simple reply. I was still so immersed in what I had come to understand, I couldn’t get my mind to focus on much else. He looked at me, his face a question.

“What’s happening here, Miss tongue-tied? Was the philosopher in you deep in thought or were you just trying to remember my name?” His smile was kind, so I trusted his sense of humor.

“I never knew your name.”

“Ah, so you didn’t. Peter Sonntag”

“And yes, I had just stumbled onto something I had been thinking about all week, Peter.” I indicated for Peter to take the chair.

He sat down and joined the conversation, saying, “I hang out in bars because I get lonely, but truth be told, I prefer exploring ideas. My father was a professor of philosophy, and though he and I talked about hockey and football, we also talked about what he called the big questions. While he was still around, our dinner table was an exciting place for me as a kid.

“While he was still around…?”

“He left us, walked out one day. I was fourteen and no one ever told me why. Not having someone to talk with was the least of my worries then. I was quite lost.”

Silence enveloped us both as we sat staring into our drinks, each in our own thoughts.

Peter broke the quietude. “If you would, I’d like to hear what you were thinking about that so miffed your friend.”

I stared at him for a few moments wanting to be sure he was sincere. I was exposing something as intimate to me as lace lingerie. It was his quiet attentiveness that convinced me to go on.

“I wanted to know why my life felt so empty. I felt my job was the culprit, but I wasn’t sure. Then I met this man down on Third Beach. He was doing the most peculiar thing. He was rolling rocks; clearing off the beach by relocating those huge rocks that keep ending up there. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do that on a regular basis, so I asked him.”

“Third Beach?”

“Yes.”

Peter seemed caught in his own thoughts for a moment. Then he asked, “What did he say?”

“He said contentment was what we needed, not meaning. Then he asked me the question I couldn’t answer: What keeps you from being content with your work? Just as you arrived at the table, it came to me. Nothing comes with its own meaning. It’s what we bring that creates our experience of it, the meaning it has for us. And to my job, I bring only resentment. So simple yet so profound. Think about it. The man rolling rocks, his work I tagged as meaningless and boring, I sense has changed my life.”

Peter’s face was a collage of emotion. I had no idea what was going on and didn’t feel I knew him well enough to ask. So instead I suggested, “Why don’t you meet me at Third Beach tomorrow morning about 7:00 AM. I’ll introduce you, and you can ask him about whatever is going on with you right now.”

He stared off into space. I counted the seconds. Then he swallowed hard and looked at me squarely. “I’ll do that,” he said. “Tomorrow at 7:00, Third Beach.” He then rose and left. My record for keeping men around hadn’t improved, but I looked forward to seeing him in the morning.

I was there a tad before 7:00 as this had been the first morning in years I had wanted to get out of bed. I sat on the same log, dried out a bit but wet with dew this time. Seven o’clock came and so did the man who rolled rocks. He nodded at me and then went about his pre-work ritual. Eight o’clock came and went. No Peter. Then at eight-thirty, the old man traversing to his next rock, looked toward the walkway and stared for a few moments. I turned out of nosiness and saw Peter up there staring back. When he saw me looking at him, a shudder went through his body. Slowly, he made his way down the hill toward me. He sat down without a word, turned and nodded at me, looking unsure and nervous. I sensed he didn’t want to talk, so we spent the morning in unsettled quiet. When lunch time arrived for the man who rolled rocks, I said, “Let’s go over to him. I want to tell him what I’ve learned.”

I walked the short distance with Peter trailing behind. The old man saw me coming but continued unwrapping his sandwich and pouring some coffee. I squatted down to be at his eye level.

“I got the answer. There is no inherent meaning, only what we bring. I’ve brought resentment. I’ve brought anger. I’ve brought pity, even. But I’ve never brought contentment.” Realizing even more profoundly what I owed him, I choked up, and my thank you rasped out as a whisper.

He said quietly, “Now you understand.”

It was only then his gaze shifted to the man standing behind me. He asked of him, “Now, do you understand as well?”

No answer followed that question, and I rose and turned to see what was happening with Peter. He stood steadfast, his face tense. Rather than the self-assured man of last week, he was now a man summoning courage. Finally, he replied. “I do… yes, finally I do.”

The old man crumbled his used wax paper and once again put it in his lunch bucket, drained the last drops of coffee from his thermos, and packed them both under his shirt. Then he stood and stuck his hand out to Peter who stepped forward and took it in both of his. They stared at each other, their eyes meeting across more than the space that separated them. With an almost imperceptible nod, Peter released the man’s hand and dropped his to his sides.

I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing. Peter watched the man leave and then dropped his head, not with the finality of endings, but in the deliberation of a man still deep in thought. It did not feel right to speak or move. So, I stood still caught in the awkwardness of sharing an obvious intimacy with basically a stranger.

Finally, Peter turned to me and indicated he wanted to walk. We began to walk the periphery of Stanley Park and walked a mile more out its exit through the West End before he stopped and turned to me.

“Thank you for your consideration. I have much to sort out, and it felt more likely to come to fruition in the circle of your company. Do you mind walking with me as far as it takes to get to the place where I can perhaps explain?”

Being a walker in the face of personal dilemmas, it was easy for me to go along. I smiled at him and said, “If we get to Seattle before you’re ready, promise you’ll feed me?”

That brought a chuckle from him. He stopped, turned to me and winked. It proved a long and comforting walk for us both. We didn’t get all that far south, but we did skirt English Bay and crossed the inlet on the Burrard Bridge, then hugged the Bay’s south shore walking long enough that an early evening meal was in order. We looped back around until we had Granville Island in sight with its quaint shops and eateries. “You hungry?” he asked. I nodded vigorously.

That evening, when we finished our meal, Peter shared an all too familiar story about parents who believe they have failed themselves and their families through some misdeed, when their actual failure lay in their misguided belief that their mistakes would cost them the love of those who meant the most to them. Thus, those left behind had only whatever they made up about why they’d been abandoned. Children take it the most personally, and Peter had been no exception.

“Can I ask you a question, Peter?” He nodded. “How did today change that history for you?”

“That was my father on the beach.”

I sat stunned.

Peter continued. “I saw him once before on Third Beach. That’s why your mention of it caught me off guard. But I was still too…too hurt to approach him. I guess the time was finally right when I met you. My father was a brilliant philosopher. But he was also a hardened gambler. It was a lie he lived, and when he couldn’t drop the addiction, he tried philosophically to justify it. Strangely, it was his failing as a philosopher in that attempt that brought him to ground rather than the financial disaster that followed. Nothing he could conger could justify a habit like that. He used to advise us: ‘When you bring all of yourself to your life, wade into it up to the bottom of your nose, then life knows you’re for real, not merely an on-looker or a passer-by. What it offers then is Reality. Not the stories we create in our minds about it, but membership in the actual moment we’re in. The moment, he said, restores us to the unpretentiousness we knew as a child, the contentment and sense of belonging.’”

“He was so sure he understood life, but when he couldn’t work his addiction in with his theory, couldn’t make it part of any truth he’d found, he felt disgraced as a philosopher and a man. I see that now. And becoming the man who rolls rocks apparently was his hair-shirt. But unexpectedly, in the process, he found the truth he’d sought all along. Whatever it was, he saw the fallacy in his theory.”

“Why do you think he never returned to explain all this, especially to you?”

“I can only speculate. Being a professor was a most esteemed position for a man of his humble origins. When he came to realize that rolling rocks was as powerful a place to learn as academia, he may not have wanted to confuse or influence me.”

“He told me he rolled rocks to repay his acceptance of the dole,” I said.

“I think it started out that way,” Peter rejoined, “but ironically, the balance sheet shifted in his favor. He became an even deeper thinker. That’s what I sense happened.”

“Do you resent him for how he chose to deal with his problems?”

Peter was quiet for a while. “Some part of me wanted to, but I just couldn’t make it stick. As you discovered, the meaning is ours to assign. But it’s only now that I realize how much a fool I would be, if I made this mean something deprecating about him. Please understand, I may well not have made that choice had I met him alone today. But instead I met you first, and the part you played in this, your example of forthrightness and your kindness, has made all the difference.”

Do we meet by chance, I wondered or do we meet by design? I had pondered that more than once in my life, but I’d never reached any conclusions. Experiences like this, however, their unique timing, their capricious results have me weighing in more on the side of the arcane than the commonplace. Tales of wonder – that’s what I have called them for years.

As we talked, we walked back toward Third Beach. Midnight was behind us signaling a new day in many ways. When we arrived, we took off our shoes and continued walking on the cool, damp sand. The tide had all but left, and as our eyes grew accustomed to this dark corner of the park, we noticed two large rocks had settled just our side of the tide line. Peter looked at the rocks and then canted his head toward me with a side-long glance. Sensing the question he was likely entertaining, I continued to look ahead while chuckling. “Don’t ask me,” I finally said. “But I do love a good mystery.”

Christina Carson is the author of Dying to Know. Please click HERE to find the novel of life, love, and death on Amazon.

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