The Boy Who Loved Horses

Years ago I studied in Appalachia and met some amazing people. The Boy Who Loved Horses came from my time spent with them.

It’s had a long publishing history: Pulphouse May ’94, Tales Told ‘Round Celestial Campfires 2016, and Allegory May 2020.

Enjoy.

The Boy Who Loved Horses

I was born in a town like this. Mine’s on the eastern ridge and closer to Raleigh. My town had the same dirt roads, the same one-room wooden church, the same old store where you asked for things instead of getting them yourself, the same people but with different faces, the same old men carrying coon rifles, girls getting married when they’re thirteen and younger, having kids before they’re through being kids themselves, the same sense of what’s ours and what’s not. I left my town and got educated. Made it into the extension service. Decided to come back and help others in towns like mine. My education didn’t take all the hill out of me, though. Knew enough to carry a gun in case I got too close to a still. But it did take some of the hill away. I forgot about towns like this.

I came here about a year ago; my big, state-issue Buick all shiny as it passed suspicious eyes. The state needed a count of school age children to qualify for funding and I came to count the children in this town.

Hill’re wary of anything new. They saw my car and suit and whispered “city” as I passed. It was true. When I come to this town, I acted like I was an educated man and everybody was suspicious of me. I went into the general store and bought a pop, sat down and tried to talk with some of the folk. Took me a while, but I got a nod, then a wink, then a smile. Turns out some of us had kin.

Eventually had to tell them why I came. They got quiet after that. I asked if there was some place I could spend the night. Nobody said. I should’ve left. I know hill. I known the signs. One of the men, Burt, left. The rest of us talked some more and, when there was no more to say, I thanked them all and left.

I saw Burt as I drove out of town. He was walking, two steps forward and one step back, and I could tell he was tasting squeeze since he left the store. Should’ve kept on driving. Should’ve known. Hill’s got mysteries they need to keep. “Hey, Burt, you need a ride?” I opened the door for him and he winked and handed me his bottle getting in.

Burt lived in a cabin up a short, rutty, old road about a mile out of town. We drove there talking hill, talking kin. By the time we got to Burt’s cabin, he was smelling like a coon’s been rolling in ‘shine. There was another jug on his table. He offered me more but drank most of it himself. “They won’t tell you about the boy,” he said.


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The Bone and the Bear

I originally wrote The Bone and The Bear in Dec 1999. I thought it a good, simple, fun children’s (YA?) story and nobody wanted it. One editor wrote that the protagonist wasn’t solving his problem on his own and I laughed; the protagonist made use of the tools at hand and solved his problem without violence.

But I never explain my stories to people. Especially editors. I may discuss issues if a rewrite is requested to make sure I understand the issues under consideration, but otherwise don’t defend, don’t argue, don’t explain. Listen. Is the reader’s mistaken impression of a story due to a story weakness? Fix it. Is the reader’s mistaken impression due to the reader’s weakness? Move on.

I sent the first version of The Bone and The Bear to an anthology listed as accepting YA. The response was they loved the story, but it didn’t fit the anthology’s SF/Fantasy/Horrorish mood.

Okay, not a problem. I edited (note: not rewrite, only edit) the story to make it SFish and sent it back (they didn’t ask for a rewrite) and explained I’d edited the story to be SFish. Hey, the loved it when it wasn’t SFish, would they still love it and accept it now that it was SFish?.

I heard back in less than a week. Yes. They’ll take it.

Below are the two versions. I’m a strong believer in stories being about people/character. Here’s an example of a core, character driven story being slightly modified to change tone and mood while the core story remains.

Enjoy!

The Bone and the Bear (original)

My heart sank when Dad called us into the kitchen. It had to be bad news. Bob knew it, too. He’s older than me, so maybe he’d been through it more than I had. But there we sat; Dad, Mom, Bob, and me. Dad smiled at us and, just like two years ago, said, “How’s the world treating my two men?”

Oh, no, I thought. What now?

“Bob, Danny, I’ve got something to tell you.”

Yep, just like before.

“You remember when the plant closed down and money got pretty tight around here?”

Bob and I nodded. That was the first “kitchen table talk”.

“Remember how Mom and I were really snappy towards each other and especially to you.” Boy, did we remember that. They were impossible. “Well, things got better, didn’t they?”

In a way, I thought. But Dad had to take a job two hundred miles away, in a place called Porterton.

“I got that job out in Porterton. And its a real good job, boys. Very secure. Lots of work. That place isn’t going to close.”

At that point I spoke up, “Does that mean we’re still only going to see you every other weekend?”


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Sunset at the Red Arrow Grille

Let me know what you think about this one. I share a first reader’s comments at the end of the piece.


Sunset at the Red Arrow Grille

Angie watched the old couple take booth 7. They sat on either side of the table, reached across and held hands.

She smiled. Limited income. Probably just got their checks. This is their big time out this month. Make ‘em smile. “Hi. I’m Angie. I’ll be helping you today. What can I start you with?”

The old couple smiled. They kept one hand out to each other.

The old man looked up, nodded. “Coffee. Extra cream, please.”

The old woman’s eyes smiled as she looked up. “Do you have ice tea?”

“Sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Unsweetened. I’ve got my own sugar right here.” The old woman patted the old man’s hand.

“Aw,” he said.

“Aw,” she said.

Angie returned with their drinks. The menus remained unopened on the table.

The old woman tipped a sugar packet into her tea and swirled it with her straw. “We know what we want.”

“Go ahead.”

“I’d like some homemade macaroni-and-cheese. Do you have that?”

Angie nodded, wrote the woman’s order, and looked at the old man.

“A meatloaf plate. Got one?”

“Sure do.”

The old man dumped two creamers in his coffee. “Met in a diner. Years ago. Saw your sign, stopped in.”

The old woman squeezed his hand. “Yes. Diners always have good, simple, stick to the ribs food. We have a long way ahead of us and don’t want to stop until we get there. That’s why we pulled in here.”

“Where you folks going?”

He sipped his coffee. “Reservoir. One town over.”

Angie drove a mental map. “That’s not far, is it?”

The old woman pointed out the window. “We want to be there at sunset, when the sun’s going over those mountains. All the colors of the mountains and setting sun reflect off the water.”


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Why It Works for Me – Mark Hayes’ “The Strange and the Wonderful”

The Why It Works for Me series are my opportunity to share with others particular pieces of writing which stand out (to me) and why (as in “this piece of writing taught me something about writing, encouraged me to be a better writer, engaged me, captivated me, educated me, …”).

As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s one thing to know something is good, it’s a better thing (in my opinion) to know why it’s good and then be able to copy what’s good about it, to learn from it so you can be as good and (hopefully) better.

This time out, Mark Hayes’ “The Strange and the Wonderful” in Harvey Duckman Presents Volume 7.

 

 

The Last Drop

The following piece started life as an exericise in mood, atmosphere, and tone.

I’m waiting for some first readers to get back to me on it. One first reader offered, “I got a sickening chill when I got to the end.”

Hurray! I won!

Let me know what you think.


The Last Drop


People use to come from miles around to watch my father pour gas. He could pour gas through the eye of a needle into a siphon-tank without spilling a drop. They’d come, their near empty gas cans on the back of their buckboards, the cans braced all around so they wouldn’t fall over, spill, slosh around.

There were special gas pouring days back then and dad was the only one in our country who had a license to pour.

It was a wondrous thing to watch. He’d put one can on the ground in front of him, walk around it a few times, maybe put his hands on his hips or cross them over his chest and lift one hand to stroke the stubble on his chin, considering. Real difficult pours, he’d get down on his knees and hands, put his head down at ground level, looking around the can, checking for balance; would the can teeter as it filled? Would it slide as it neared full?

Then he’d start with a single, small, drop. A “test drop,” he’d call it. Everybody held their breath. He’d check the neck of the can after the test drop, make sure there was no spillage.

Warm days were the worst. Everybody’d have to stand back lest the fumes got inhaled. Couldn’t have that. Other pourers weren’t as careful as my dad. The fumes would escape and everybody’d have to go see the magistrate, explain what happened. Why weren’t proper precautions taken? My father never had to face that, never had to worry about asking the community to make a decision; make them decide what value would this person bring us? Is their contribution moving forward worth the gasoline fumes now resting in their lungs, in their blood? We can extract the fumes, reconstitute the gasoline, but the person would die.


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