“I’ve got this rock I need some help with,” my dad said. He wagged his eyebrows. “It’s big.”

When my brother Matt and I asked him about the rock’s location, he was vague. Near the tracks, he said. Sort of in a field. Whose field? He waved his hand at our trifling. He just needed some help getting it in the car.

My dad is a rock guy. Big rocks, little rocks. Unless he’s taking them home for his personal collections, he kneels where he finds them and gets to arranging. He stacks the rocks at difficult angles and builds them into mounds and entwines them with other found treasures like glass and wire and choice pieces of twisty wood. On a big (insane) family trip to Sicily this past spring, he spent the majority of his days fitting a hundreds-of-years-old olive tree with reddish local rocks, working them into the ancient bark’s knots and crooks, circling the roots with a low halo. He keeps his old bones busy.

Keeping busy is the heart of the rock work—that and an earthly connection and the worth of making something. My dad kept himself busy this way long before reaching his eighties. He had always loved rocks—buying split agate from roadside stores out west on road trips, polishing Petoskey stones in a little electric tumbler when those were cool for a minute—but thirty years ago, when he purchased some country swampland an hour from our house to have somewhere else to go, he discovered a calling.

Farmland surrounds my dad’s property, and the fieldstones culled over the years by farmers had been heaved over his borders. He began making little piles along the paths he cut, and as they grew in size and complexity, he began looking for bigger and bigger rocks. And there were some big rocks. We pulled one out of the ground that took two heavy-duty come-alongs, several crowbars, and a team of paid teenagers. Why?

Because it beats playing out your days in front of the television.

Because outside trumps inside.

Because it was a little crazy.

Because it pushes Miller Time to its proper time.

You can bet Matt and I had that system of pulleys and teens in our minds when we answered the call for help with the “big one” and pulled up to my parent’s house on a summer night a few years ago. The fact that my dad had requested a nighttime rendezvous also seemed suspicious.

Upon arrival we were surprised to find my dad’s cousin Billy would be joining us. Billy, just a few years my dad’s junior, had a chronic degenerative muscular disease that no one has ever named in my presence, but that badly cramped and weakened his body. His voice came out like his vocal chords were made of sheet metal, and I struggled to understand him at all when I was little. He visited us often, as my dad represented one of the few of our extended family who would never turn Billy away.

Some of the family attitude toward Billy seemed shameful, but he did wear people out. He loved to talk, despite the struggle to tear out the words. And he was funny, often darkly so, and a little lecherous. When my beautiful cousin Teresa from my mom’s side told Billy she wanted to give him a hug at my brother’s birthday, Billy’s eyes sparkled wickedly and he barked out, “Better not!”

You had to help Billy around, more and more as the years passed, and he was not at all a light man. And he was frightening to watch eat. And he smelled increasingly like pee. And he refused to be swept under the carpet. Billy outlasted most of his generation in our family. He did a lot of this outlasting at our house, dropped off each time by an unexplained (at least to me) younger woman, who would go off to do her own thing for the span of his visit.

So on this visit, after we put some shovels and a come-along and a crowbar or two in the Buick’s huge trunk, my dad, my brother, and I spent about twenty minutes stuffing Billy into the passenger seat. Two guys kept Billy upright while one hoisted his left leg and we tried to sag and push. When we had one butt cheek planted we struggled to get him any farther. We sweated and yanked and apologized. We joked about using the come-along. I wondered if Billy’s aide had a special car for him these days. I also wondered if Billy would raise the white flag on our efforts, but it was clear that however this process made him feel, he was fucking going.

“Like putting a pearl back in the oyster,” he told us, and the third or fourth time we made him say it, I could make it out. Billy seldom complained about having to repeat himself, but I would sometimes pretend I had understood so he didn’t have to. I think he could tell.

Four Gross boys finally cruised the Buick, following my dad’s directions, to the spot where the rock was rumored to lie. We turned off the street onto a gravel drive. We asked how or why my dad had come through there, but he didn’t give us an answer, and as he was fond of shortcuts on his many long walks, I chalked it up to that.

Then we passed a hand-made sign that said, “Rocks For Sale.”

What the fuck, Dad? Are we stealing a rock?

“Oh,” he said. “Well. Who can really own a rock, anyway?”

We gave him grief as Billy laughed his grunty laugh and we had to stop the car in front of a metal chain hung between two low concrete pillars.

“It’s just past that chain!” my dad said.

Despite the sign, and despite the chain, Matt and I got out of the car to go look for the rock, which was reputed to be lozenge shaped, large, and close to the middle of the drive, keeping our eyes out for the imagined Doberman or Rottweiler. We tried to keep our flashlights off and in the moonlight found what had to be the rock in question, but it was much smaller than we’d imagined. The two of us easily lifted the rock and hauled it back to the car, where my dad had the trunk open to get out the equipment. He looked shocked to see us appear with it—and we did have the right one. He said it had looked a lot bigger sitting there.

We chucked the stolen rock in the trunk and got out of there. When does theft go from adventuresome and petty to just wrong? Is there such a place? I don’t know, but as a character says in Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Emperor Jones, “For de little stealin’ dey gets you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you emperor and puts you in the Hall o’ Fame when you croaks.”

Back at home, extracting Billy from the car proved to be the night’s second toughest job. When we had done so, we left the rock in the trunk for the time being, and my dad, a little sheepishly, thanked us for our help. We laughed about the rock’s smallness and congratulated each other on a job well done. My dad put his arm around Billy. Matt and I watched two survivors shuffle in the moonlight toward the door.

*I used my dad’s swampland as a setting for a piece of flash fiction published in SmokeLong Quarterly, one of our favorite journals. http://www.smokelong.com/flash/josephgross34q.asp


The “Rocks” issue opens with Tina Schumann’s poem, “Consider This,” because it flat out rocks, crashing beautifully down the page, a juggernaut of momentum and enjambment. Schumann’s eye is precise and ruthless and hungry, a “heart/clattering its tin cup/along the bars of its cage.”

“Love Exactly” by Alison Swan captures how the warm roar of comfort finds purchase in us. This subtle poem seems to expand with each reading—the shift in cadence from childhood memory to adult thought, the sneaky themes joining hands. Lovely.

The retiring rock of an advertising company fails to relate to a new generation in “Craftsman with a paunch” by Steven Ray Smith. Smith’s own attention to craft is evident here, achieving a vibrantly clear narrative voice while each line sings its rush of syllables, the sad disconnection at the poem’s heart set against a spirited delivery.

Michelle Reed’s “It’s Sylvia’s Birthday,” summons the spirits of two literary greats and examines the way we look to our idols in the search for self. The balance of danger and admiration reflect Reed’s sinewy rhythmic mix, her playful syntax and harrowing imagery.

The Well,” flash fiction by Christopher DeWan, features the type of strong descriptive prose required by magical realism. The source of the magic in question, whether imagined or not, asks compelling questions, as does the well itself. The resonance of this piece feels bottomless as the central image.

The transcendent quality of a performance that truly rocks, especially when unexpected, drives Matthew Fogarty’s “Open Mic and Drafts on Special and All the Players are Local and Bad.” The speaker’s charged, reverential tone and evangelical imagery give this piece the raw energy of a revival, its ordinary setting and focus on the crucial moment reminiscent of Caravaggio’s early Baroque paintings.

“Before the wind picks up, I take off my pants and open the front door.” Anna Ryan-Punch had us intrigued from the first sentence of her flash piece, “Human Surface.” What follows is a free-wheeling display of literary verve that crackles with observation throughout.

Robert Earle returns to Atticus Review with his story, “A Little About Love.” We’re glad to offer his sure hand again—his protagonist, the octogenarian, London-schooled, sharp-tongued Constance won our hearts. About her deceased husband Constance muses, “Old men on their deathbeds have such sweet, watery defenseless looks.” She helps us see, among other things, the permanence of our youthful impressions and our often-hidden motivations to connect across boundaries.

Timmy Reed’s marvelous story, “Pebble,” concludes our “Rocks” issue. This is a generous piece, offering the narrative drive of a quest, sharply drawn characters, memorable dialogue, and a thoughtful treatise on mortality. Beneath these layers lies the knowledge that simple caring redeems our brave, comical, sometimes selfish attempts at meaning-making.



Photo By: Geoff Stearns