Cover Story: Almost There

Mercantile Library Short Story Competition Winner

Editor's Note: Jack Kerley's story is one of dreams sought and found. The Northern Kentucky writer wasn't directly searching for a book contract when he entered the Mercantile Library Short Story Competition. He simply submitted a piece on a dare from a friend in the Cincinnati Writers Project.

Aspirations of agents and publishing houses had been dancing in Kerley's head for the past seven years (and probably longer) as he toiled away at his craft. The best that Mercantile's small but prestigious contest could provide Kerley with was tuition and transportation to the 2003 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, a $300 cash prize courtesy of CityBeat and publication of the winning entry in CityBeat's Annual Literary Issue. (Thom Atkinson's "Moving Target" darted into second place, and Christine MacConnell's "Leopard Park" stalked third place.)

Kerley did his best and then some. He landed an agent just before the conference began, and by the time he returned to the Tristate he'd scored a $500,000 book contract with Dutton for a debut novel, The Hundredth Man, to hit shelves in summer 2004.

It's an encouraging example of persistence and patience rewarding our searches. The same holds true for Kerley's narrator in his winning entry, "Almost There."

Or does it? A finder of lost objects must locate, well, even he doesn't know for sure.

Curious? The answer won't be spoon-fed to you. Search for yourself. Go on. You're "Almost There." — BRANDON BRADY

Yesterday a farmer wanted me to find his long-dead dog. Sixty years ago, when the farmer was fifteen, he'd buried the dog, Patches, at a far corner of his family's farm.

"That dog was the only critter ever loved me without a reason," the farmer told me, pausing a long moment before adding, "People are critters, too."

The farmer was ill and wanted to be buried with his dog beside him. I met him at his farm and we walked beside an old fenceline to a far corner of the property. He led me to a stand of apple trees beside a dry creekbed. Fallen fruit lay at our feet and the smell of sugary rot hung in the air.

"I never stopped thinking about that dog," the farmer said. 'I thought I'd get old and he'd go away, life would hand me other things to think about."

I said, "It didn't?"

"Life handed me plenty to think about. Never stopped thinking about that dog, though."

Disease had shrunken him and his overalls drooped in folds. It wasn't unusual, most people who call me are old, or sick, or both. He stood beneath the trees with his hands in his pockets and kicked at the dry land under his boots. I held my shovel and listened; it's how I always start.

"I nearly came looking for him a few times," he said. "But it seemed like Patches was where he needed to be, underground, where it was safe. And if he was safe, well, I didn't want to mess with that."

I wandered the area until something felt right and started digging. A few minutes later I knelt to finish with my fingers. There was little left, a brown skull laced with white roots, but the farmer cradled it in his hands as if it were the sole relic of a neglected saint.

···

I've found much in my forty-two years. Rings. Watches. Lockboxes of letters. Last week I found a picture locket for a ninety-year-old woman. The heart-shaped locket revealed a fair-haired man who'd died on a beach in France in 1944. The man was smiling as if his life knew no horizons. The woman had buried the locket two days after his death and needed to touch it before she could acquiesce to hers.

I don't know why I find things so long gone. Some people have perfect pitch, others draw with the accuracy of photographs. Maybe finding things is like that.

···

The first thing I found was a spoon. I was five and lived with my mother in a slouching shack on a tenant farm. My little cousin took the spoon outside and lost it. But it wasn't any spoon, it was my great-grandmother's baby spoon, the only object that followed our family from County Cork, Ireland. My mother spent days scratching through the weeds, but there were acres where that spoon could hide. I've lost us, she wept, and told me family stories that stretched thousands of miles, reciting long-dead names like holy writ. For days it was all she could do. I listened with a child's ears and heard nothing beyond fairy tales. Still, the telling calmed my mother and I ached for the spoon to return to her, to us. One afternoon a feeling took me and I bent and scraped the spoon from the dust.

Just like that.

One person believed I'd found that spoon simply by wanting to: my mother. I can't recall her face very often, but when I do it's shaped in that moment of belief when the spoon fell from my hand into hers. I found it Mama; it called me. I have few memories of her after that; another life came calling and she met it with a suitcase under her arm.

···

Today my client and I met along a road between farm-field and forest. The sky was rumpled gray, rain giving way to late afternoon's heat. A woman pushed from a tired sedan pockmarked with rust. In her late fifties, I guessed, wearing a flame-yellow dress cut too high at the bottom and too low at the top. Icepick heels punctured dirt with every step. Her hair was dusty straw and her voice mingled hard with soft, like buckshot shaken through buttermilk. She pulled herself into my pickup and pointed down a dirt lane. We drove the rutted road and my picks and shovels clattered in the bed. She said, "Tell me about the first time you found something."

"I was five. I dug up a spoon a couple weeks lost."

"Two weeks ain't nothing when it comes to time. A spoon's no big deal, neither."

"Depends on what it means to the one looking for it," I said.

She stared at me a long moment and then waved me to pull over. 'It's around here."

I slipped a shovel from the bed and tapped its point against the ground.

"Is it hard?" she asked.

"A bit. But the rains have kept it —"

"Not the ground, you. Is it hard to be a person's last hope?" She leaned against my truck with arms crossed and hips pushed out like women I'd seen on city corners late at night.

I said, "I don't picture myself a last hope."

The buckshot came to her voice. "I didn't want to call you, not at first. I heard about you from Junell Flanders at the Women's Prison in Nashville. She knew a man who knew a woman you'd found something for."

"I don't know Junell Flanders," I said.

"She'd heard of you; that was enough."

The shovel bit, lifted a clod; nothing called from beneath it and I moved several feet. Her sad, buttermilky voice said, "I pretended I wouldn't have to do this, that I could push it from my mind and never look at it again."

I scratched the dirt a bit more, then rested the point of my shovel on the ground. "What am I looking for?" I asked.

She said, "No rule says I got to tell you. You just find it. Isn't that what you do?"

I shrugged and went back to digging. An hour passed and I had twenty shallow divots in the soil. "A little help here," I said, raising an eyebrow her direction.

"You want to know what you're looking for? A soul. Maybe that's what it is."

My shovel faltered, then continued. "I've never dug for a soul before. I'm not sure I'd recognize one."

She dropped to her knees beside the hole and peered inside. "I don't see it," she said. "Keep digging."

I worked another hour. "Maybe it's not here," I said.

She laughed, cold and raw. "Like it was stolen, maybe? No one'd steal that soul, mister. Trust me."

I dug until the moon rose bright and gibbous and my arms ached. "Let's come back tomorrow," I said, and went to my truck for a drink of water. When I returned she'd gone. I saw her in the distance, moving quickly away, the yellow of her moonlit dress glowing as it disappeared down the lane. My voice seemed small when I called out to her, but she didn't turn. I started filling holes I'd dug and a few minutes later heard her car start. I shrugged and began filling the last hole. When the shovel tucked into the mound of dirt I saw a glint of silver in the moonglow. Crouched, I whisked aside soil to find a spoon so small it didn't fill my palm from side to side. It shone as if recently polished. I stared at it a long time, then dropped it into my pocket and started to climb into my truck.

Suddenly — like guided by a map, or following a plumb line snapped tight between deep-sunk nails — I knew where my great-grandmother was. Where my grandmother was.

Almost.

I stood with my feet in the dirt and the moon so bright the ground seemed haunted by light. I remembered the names of all the faces in my mother's stories and felt their weight like stones in my palm. Though it had long ago turned to dust, I smelled the split-pine walls of that shack and walked its sloping floor.

I finally understood where my mother was: in a rusty car on the road between hither and yon, closing on yon and atoning for hither.

Almost.

I touched the spoon through the fabric of my pocket but something seemed wrong. Then I recalled how the old farmer held his dog tightest while it slept underground, and dropped the spoon into the open earth. It chimed as it hit bottom. I knelt and buried it, leaving a soft hummock the rain would soon level. The moon burned white over my back as I drove away.

···

The spoon is underground again. Enflooded by roots and encircled by worms, it waits safely in the dark. No matter how distant I am in time or space, I will almost — almost! — know where it is. A long time from now, perhaps, when years scythe hard against my days and time is measured from behind, I will return to find what I once found for others: pieces of the past awaiting those ready to understand. One last time my shovel will sift the darkling layers. I will kneel. I will touch bright metal. And for one still and ringing moment, I will know — beyond a doubt — where everything is. ©

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