The Rock Wall
– Nonfiction by Emily Zarevich –
It was another one of my Dad’s many projects that never materialized. I know that now, looking back. I also know that I’m in no position to judge him.
I’m a chronic procrastinator myself, in my adulthood. I have an ever-thickening stack of unfinished poems, short stories, and could-this-become-a-novel chapters crammed into my desk drawer. An evil, impish demon whispers “You can always do it tomorrow” with a nasally little voice whenever I even consider pulling something out to work on. Dirty dishes pile up on me too. Laundry goes unfolded, counter tops unwiped. My bathroom walls need to be repainted, but I haven’t even picked out a colour yet, let alone pick up a brush. Occasionally, I even forget to pay a bill.
And yet, years ago, I was an anxiety-ridden mess of a child who couldn’t even fathom the idea of leaving something unfinished. I was convinced that real, grownup life was just like school, where every assignment, every project, every worksheet had to be handed in on time and in full or else you got an F, and the teacher called your house. My elementary school was strict. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could ever be late, or else it was stamped on your report card and on your subconscious forever. The idea of abandoning a project just wasn’t something my perfectionist, teacher-pleasing student’s mind could comprehend, so I was confident that my Dad’s rock wall would be built eventually. He had to build it, or else…well, I wasn’t sure who would call the house. The adult-ing police, perhaps?
Our summer cottage sat on a steep, mossy hill overlooking a narrow crescent court of green-brown water, spreading out into the wider bowl of the lake. Dad wanted to build his wall at the very bottom of said hill, down which a set of ancient, creaky, half-rotten wooden stairs descended like rollercoaster tracks from the foot of the cottage to the lakeshore It would be built about ten feet away from where the water hit the land, stretching across our property until it reached the very tips of the neighbours’ territory on both sides. It would not be made of cement or planks of wood, though. Dad wanted rocks. And not just any rocks would do. The rocks my Dad wanted—hard, strong, sturdy rocks—could only be found at the bottom of our lake. Nature’s Home Depot, I call it now, because it had all the building materials Dad wanted. The rocks it produced were the perfect size and had a nice, solid oval shape. Best of all, they were free and his for the taking, because who else on our lake needed rocks for a wall? No one.
Rome wasn’t built by one man, though. And a humble rock wall couldn’t be raised from the ground up by a single person either. Dad had other important duties that kept him from gathering rocks, like repainting the outside of the cottage, fixing the smoky, unreliable barbecue, driving all of us into town for ice cream, rushing out for Benadryl when the mosquito bites trumped the medicine cabinet stock, and burning all the debris that he and my former farmhand grandfather could get their hands on, including, once, an entire chair. And I mean the whole chair, not sensibly chopped into bits, but burned in one single piece. I can still hear Mom and Grandma’s screams as the chair was swallowed whole by explosive flames that threatened, sinisterly, to lick the cottage walls. It was like one of my mean-spirited elementary school classmates licking something so that no one else could touch it ever again. The cottage only narrowly survived because Dad had the good sense to hose it down while the bonfire lived and partied hard and died.
Poor Dad was completely booked. So, to help him out, I took it upon myself to become a professional, certified rock hunter. I recruited as many people as I could to join me in my enterprise. Thus, Rock Hunters Inc. (as we called it then) was born, and though we didn’t offer a salary, a pension plan, or dental coverage, we still dedicated ourselves wholeheartedly to the challenge set before us. Why did we do it? For fun, I suppose, and purpose. Our brains were disconnected from the routine of school and homework and we needed to plug them in elsewhere, even if the only outlet available was a small and improbable architectural scheme.
So, during our summers at the cottage, me and my cousins and my friends who visited made it our personal mission to collect as many rocks from the lake as we could, for the wall that would never happen. If you asked any of us today if it was worth all that effort, all those wet and strenuous hours plunging under, we’d probably say no, of course not, but it’s different when you’re a kid. When you’re that young, and bursting to a breaking point with undirected energy, you’re grateful for any activity that makes you feel accomplished.
We had a system set up. One or two people were drivers, of the wobbly old paddleboat with chipped blue paint, and one or two people were divers. There were always arguments about who got to be what, with rock-paper-scissors providing the method of resolution each time. If you lost rock-paper-scissors, you were a driver. If you won, you dove. It was as simple as that. Luck and chance, not skill. It gave us an early taste of what adult life would be like