Roger Emile Stouff - December 05, 2011

On my desk, at this little small town daily newspaper by which I've made my living for more years than I care to admit, are notes from city council and port commission meetings, police reports, phone books, press releases.

There are a couple coffee cups and drink can insulators. One says "a bad day fishing is better than a good day working." The other is some financial company propaganda.

There's a stack of books to my right, all by Harry Middleton. My photo bag is behind me to the left, my trusty Pentax and lenses safe within.

But right near my hand, where my can of diet Community Iced Tea with Lemon sits, is a small stone.

A rock. Sandstone. It's about the size of a walnut. I keep it there, just within reach, all the time.

In the last month, my fiancée and I had to put down our old dog. Daisy was fourteen, black as midnight, classic Lab in build and temperament. She came to live with me seven years ago when Suzie had to move away temporarily. She became my best fishing bud. But the years caught up with her, and our beloved old girl couldn't walk one morning. She had just made fourteen a few days earlier. I never went through that before, and I've cohabitated with a lot of dogs. When she took her final breath there on the sterile table in the vet's office, we were with her. How could we not be? Not when she needed us most. I kissed her flat forehead and told her she was a good, good girl.

The little rock on my desk was in my hand when I wasn't typing all that week. Talking on the phone, to walk-ins at the paper, just browsing the 'Net for research. Word came soon that a fellow newsman, a very good friend for more than thirty years, had put a gun to his chest. Ended his life of fifty-three years just like that. No one knows why. He left behind a wife and daughter and many questions never to be answered.

Then a few days later, another friend hung himself in the shed back of his home. No idea why. And a week after that, a family member of one of our circulation managers was hit by a car and killed, as a pedestrian, and his toddler son severely injured, but mercifully survived.

If I could have typed with that piece of sandstone in my hand, composing the news stories like I had for three decades, but sometimes they hit so close to home…I would have.

And even later, another friend died when cancer, long in remission, reared its ugly head with a vengeance and quickly, impossibly quickly, took his life. The wife of another friend learned just a few days before that that she has stage four cancer.

Just last Friday, farm hands found a body stuffed into a 120-quart ice chest near a little village just south of here. Our lifestyle editor's son – my godson – made the gruesome discovery.

Lesser men might have turned to drink, and while I do enjoy a good scotch and a microbrew now and then, I don't use them for a crutch.

It's the little stone on my desk. That's what I use.

What's in it? Lots of things. When I hold it in my hand it is coarse, like pumice, and I can feel grit and smooth, water-rounded lobes. It came from a stream in central Louisiana, a magical place unlike any other in this state of bayous and marshes, like it was picked up out of Missouri and dropped there, four hours north of where I sit holding a little stone from its bottom in my hand.

I do not, as a strict rule, remove rocks from rivers. I didn't take one in Montana, or Tennessee or Arkansas. Why I took this one, I am still not sure. Perhaps because I knew I would need it. I remember we were sitting beside the stream, resting, and I was tumbling it around in my hands. When we rose to leave, I tucked it into my pack without thinking about it, and it wasn't until I returned home that I found it again.

Or maybe the little stone knew that I would need it. I don't know. Only that I am glad it is here. But when despair piles high and threatens to suffocate me, when grief shadows the sun even in the bright glow of autumn, I put it in my palm and hold it.

There's rivers in that little rock, and I can feel them flowing over it, shaping it. I am soothed by it. I know the timeless millennia of water's relentless pursuit of its course, and at least from where this little stone came, remaining unfettered and unabridged. Unedited and uncondensed. Stored in its porous sedimentary structure is every happy moment I've spent on not only that little oddity of a stream in Louisiana, but also every other creek or river or branch I've had the good fortune to know. More: all the hills, mountains, bayous, lakes, trees, bluffs, valleys, prairies, all the wild places where newsprint and ink and the dark underbelly of humanity seem far, far away.

I don't claim to be much of a church-going man. I don't "witness" my beliefs and I rarely even engage in discussion of them. I am neither prophet nor evangelist. But there's something else in that little stone on my desk: the creator of all things, finite and infinite, weak and omnipotent, here then gone. In the palm of my hand, rolling between my fingers and thumb, I draw strength to keep going.

Day to day, as I grind through the remaining years before I can retire from this sordid business, hopefully to a little house on the side of some windswept mountain, as I write about drug arrests and violence and, from time to time, take on the hard task of composing the obituaries of friends, that coarse stone keeps me tethered to a place, in generality and specifically, where exists the truest, most complete solace I know.

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