In the spring of my junior year, my college literary magazine, The Experimentalist, published "The Stone," my first work of fiction to go public anywhere. It begins with a boy named Jimmy exploring a quarry near the neighborhood his family recently moved into. "He moved along the ridge in anxious exploration, the fringe of his imitation buckskin outfit flapping as he walked. He held his flintlock tightly in his fist and pushed back his furry cap with the imitation-coonskin tail when it started to slide down his forehead. Halfway around the rim he stopped." Already in the first paragraph I remember where these details come from.
The house I grew up in backed up to a city park with a playground, two softball fields, a log cabin, tennis courts, and a vast winter ice skating rink. Neighborhood kids and I often pretended to subdue imaginary villains there while dressed like favorite comic book or movie heroes. For a western adventure, we might costume ourselves like the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid, the Black Rider, Black Diamond, the Lone Rider—we preferred masked heroes; once I spent so long dressing up like the Ghost Rider that most of my friends tired of the game before I entered it. In "The Stone" Jimmy clearly is dressed like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett; I once photographed my brother wearing a costume like that in our front yard.
The second paragraph introduces the title object: "On the ground before him lay a white stone. Jimmy picked it up and examined it. It was smooth and even, a pure white oval. Jimmy looked upon it like a jewel. He was many minutes examining it, and then he began to look around for others. There were many stones with white but none so immaculate as the thin stone in his hand. When he could find none to match it, he sat down on a boulder and gave all his attention to it. He looked up when he heard voices."
The voices come from some neighborhood boys, strangers to Jimmy, also sporting toy rifles. Somewhat reluctantly they invite him to play on one of their teams in a pretend gun battle. Only one boy, Jerry, stands up for Jimmy when another boy cheats on him and he later fetches him out of hiding when the game ends without his knowing. Climbing out of the quarry a couple boys kick stones at Jimmy and call him dopey; Jerry alone dawdles behind the departing others long enough to say something apologetic to him. Jimmy scrambles up the hill to show Jerry the stone he found and urges him to keep it, then invites him to look for more stones with him the next day. Jerry is reluctant to commit himself; when, trying to hide his tears, Jimmy asks, "See ya tomorrow?" Jerry shrugs. The story ends with this paragraph:
"Jimmy's tears came faster and sobs rose in his throat. He tried to smile, but he couldn't. His facial muscles had to stay tight, or else he would bawl. The first time he said, 'See ya,' it came out choked and muffled. He called it again, and Jerry said, 'Okay.' Then Jimmy waved. He turned and disappeared over the rim, trying to reach the bottom of the slope before his sobs overtook him."
I suspect that the stone shows up early in the story to suggest something of Jimmy's personality beyond the frontier costume he's wearing and, at the end, it intimates the depth of his loneliness —he gives away something he values in hopes of persuading another boy to befriend him. I have mixed feelings about the final interchange between the two boys at the end, uncertain if it's intended to be more positive than it appears or to be construed as open-ended. Jerry doesn't actually commit to seeing Jimmy the next day, only acknowledges that he might see him sometime.
Reading the story now, a half-century after it was written and published, I'm aware that its setting is a familiar one, a quarry my friends and I sometimes played in along the banks of the Erie Canal in our hometown. I can't be sure there wasn't some background conflict among us then that spurred the narrative—by the time I wrote the story I was no longer in touch with anyone from that neighborhood. But I also recall that William Melvin Kelley, a visiting novelist who taught the fiction workshop I was taking, found the ending too sentimental, too positive—he thought my sympathy for my characters made me resist a more realistic, more unsettling outcome. His critique haunted me each time I reviewed my later fiction. I wonder now how much of me was in the story—was in Jimmy.
Notes: Bob Root, "The Stone," The Experimentalist. Volume XI (Spring 1965): 27-32.