Holes to China

Chad Pelley
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Published on November 13, 2009

People gathered at the Johnson Geo Centre in St. John's for the announcement of the winners of the 2009 Cuffer Prize.

Published on November 13, 2009

Russell Wangersky, The Telegram's Editorial Page Editor and one of the Cuffer Prize judges, addresses the crowd.

Published on November 13, 2009

Josh Pennell, first-place winner in last year's Cuffer Prize competition, reads from his story, "The Last Haiku," which is featured in "The Cuffer Anthology," now available in bookstores.

Published on November 13, 2009

The Telegram's story editor Pam Frampton, and editor of the "The Cuffer Anthology," the short story collection created from entries to last year's Cuffer Prize competition, speaks during the event.

Published on November 13, 2009

Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey encourages writers to start working on their stories for the 2010 Cuffer Prize competition.

Published on November 13, 2009

Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey presents the third place award to Josh Pennell of St. John's for "Songs My Grandfather Taught Me." Creative Publishing editor and marketing director Donna Francis reads at the podium.

Published on November 13, 2009

Creative Publishing editor and marketing director Donna Francis addresses the audience at the Johnson Geo Centre during the event.

Published on November 13, 2009

Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey presents the second place award to Jillian Butler of St. John's for "The Fairest Season."

Published on November 13, 2009

Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey presents the first place award to Chad Pelley for "Holes to China."

Published on November 13, 2009

The Telegram's story editor Pam Frampton, and editor of the "The Cuffer Anthology," discusses the event with award winners Chad Pelley and Jillian Butler.

Published on November 13, 2009

Published on November 13, 2009

Telegram publisher Charlie Stacey chats with first place award winner Chad Pelley.

The 2009 Cuffer Prize Winner

I heard China was down there and I wanted to believe it, because I had to believe in something that week.

Anything.

Five foot four and a heavy breather. Smoked cigarettes. Wore a plain red baseball hat, which is not something you see many 50-year-olds doing. I could say he was bald on top with a halo of grey hair, too, but it wouldn't matter. What mattered was that he never told me China wasn't down there. He let me believe it for a week. I'd get home from school, walk right through the house, out the back door, and just start digging. Half the time I still had my blue-and-red bookbag on. Blue bag with red zippers. I heard China was down there and I wanted to believe it, because I had to believe in something that week. Anything. So I dug. For hours. With a little red plastic shovel that rocks and hard patches more or less bit pieces out of. The edges of the red plastic were jagged, scuffed white, and when the handle cracked, tape wouldn't hold it back together. So Ted, the red-hatted neighbour, lent me his gardening tools and promised me a shovel when I got in deep enough. And when I got even deeper, his headlamp, so long as I promised to grab him a few fortune cookies while I was down there.

I heard China was down there and I wanted to believe it, because I had to believe in something that week.

Anything.

Five foot four and a heavy breather. Smoked cigarettes. Wore a plain red baseball hat, which is not something you see many 50-year-olds doing. I could say he was bald on top with a halo of grey hair, too, but it wouldn't matter. What mattered was that he never told me China wasn't down there. He let me believe it for a week. I'd get home from school, walk right through the house, out the back door, and just start digging. Half the time I still had my blue-and-red bookbag on. Blue bag with red zippers. I heard China was down there and I wanted to believe it, because I had to believe in something that week. Anything. So I dug. For hours. With a little red plastic shovel that rocks and hard patches more or less bit pieces out of. The edges of the red plastic were jagged, scuffed white, and when the handle cracked, tape wouldn't hold it back together. So Ted, the red-hatted neighbour, lent me his gardening tools and promised me a shovel when I got in deep enough. And when I got even deeper, his headlamp, so long as I promised to grab him a few fortune cookies while I was down there.

I'd go to bed dreaming of getting even halfway there, hundreds of feet deep into dank, damp darkness, with Ted's headlamp on, just as close to Signal Hill as I was to some samurai den in China. It was unfair that I lived on Signal Hill, it tacked an extra 200 metres on to my journey.

My dig to China was coinciding with cancer digging its way through my father. Carving him from the inside out. Esophageal cancer. No one gets out alive. Thing is I didn't realize that at the time. I was eight. I had freckles and chewed Hubba Bubba and no one ever found me when we played spotlight. Dad took me to my soccer games in the summer and I'd score a few goals because he'd taught me how to play so well. I was eight and thought I'd end up a professional soccer player and Dad would love me for it. Life was that simple and nothing was supposed to change that. Dad died and I saw the other side of life, or at least the bounds of it, the margins, the lack of infinity and simplicity. It was all there in the way Mom put on 10 pounds from all the take-out, fell asleep on the couch most nights, and always walked around with mascara-smeared eyes, liquid blackness, like her pupils exploded and dripped down over her face. When that got exhausting, I distracted myself with the trip to China. Ted the neighbour must have known that. The why of the dig.

On day two or three, when the hole was deep enough that I could drop a dinky down there and not quite see it, Ted started showing a real interest in my trip. He didn't tell me I was wasting my time. All he asked me was, "How do you know it's China down there, not Australia or the South Pole?" I explained, he nodded his head. He handed me some things from his greenhouse to give Mom. Tomatoes, cucumbers, "Enough to whip up a quick salad. You are eating, right, Jacob?" His way of making sure Mom hadn't completely fallen apart?

By the end of that week he'd taken to leaning on the fence between our yards. As I dug, we talked for so long that when he took his arms off the fence to walk away, there were long rectangles indented into his forearms that lined up with the tops of each fence board. Usually in the same places.

Saturday it rained. My hole was a puddle, a shallow muddy pond. "Throw some fish in it," he said, "so it won't have been a total waste of time. They are low-maintenance pets, you know?" It didn't matter anyway. I'd hit pure rock on Friday, and not even Ted could bust through it. He dinged up the end of a shovel so I'd be sure it was a no-go. There might have even been a spark. The sharp metal point of his shovel now a U folded back onto itself.

"Well, the truth is, Jacob, the world over, there's a few feet of soil and then pure rock. But it is important to believe that anything is possible, so, on Sunday we start hole two. Behind my shed if you'd like?" As we peered into my glorious puddle on that rainy Saturday, he watched me toss the shovel and snap my arms folded. Said, "Hey, rocks aren't so bad you know! Go ask your Mom if I can take you up to my office at the university!"

He taught geology and had an office full of rocks and minerals from all over the world: purple ones, pointy ones, valuable ones, bland ones. He got most excited about the bland ones. Talked about each one with flailing arms and his eyes bursting from their sockets. Every one of those rocks was his own personal hole to China. So I took one, when he went to the bathroom. Amethyst: it looked like purple glass, an octagon slowly coming to a point. Diamond like, but more like something out of a fantasy novel.

For the next two weeks or so I could fantasize all about the stone. Secret powers. Mystical origins. Then I got bored with it. The guilt set in. I pictured Ted getting reprimanded at work. Two months later there was a for sale sign on his house, and I thought of the ways it could be connected to the chunk of amethyst underneath all the socks in my dresser. Like, he got fired for losing it. So I talked to him less from across the fence, afraid it would come up, and our conversations stopped lasting long enough for the rectangular indents to form on his arms. The day he moved, he dropped by with the rest of his greenhouse goods in bags for Mom: unmarked, white plastic bags with green foliage spilling from the tops and poking through the bottoms. He was making small talk with Mom in the porch, but I could see his neck bending and lurching to peer around walls and upstairs to spot me. To say goodbye. I stayed right where I was, spying from above, like a hawk.

I kept the thing in the back of a drawer right up through university. A month ago I was in Afterwards on Water Street buying a used psychology textbook. The cash is lined with clear plastic bins full of gems. Two dollars each. There was a bin full of amethyst points. Two dollars each. The whole bin wouldn't have cost more than a hundred dollars, and I'd spent age eight feeling like a thief who cost a man his job. I never did say goodbye, or see him again: the man who ruined his shovel so his kid neighbour would spend life always digging.

Chad Pelley is an award-winning writer from St. John's and sits on the board of directors for the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador. He currently works in editing, and sells photography. His first novel, "Away from Everywhere," was published in September. He enjoys writing fiction and music, most red wines, and everything about books.

2009 The Cuffer prize Winner

Organizations: Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: China, Signal Hill, Australia South Pole Water Street St. John's

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