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Once again I find a story in which tobacco and cigarettes make more than just an appearance. One might actually consider them to be a literary motif. In Pinckney Benedict’s “Town Smokes”, the fifteen year-old male narrator walks from his recently buried father into town for cigarettes. During the short journey, his mind fills with memories and he encounters a brief conflict with pig hunters. But the goal is the cigarettes.
One memory of his father is particularly interesting:
The Gideon’s is old and slippery in my hand and missen many pages. My daddy has used it for a lot of years. The paper is thin and fine for rollen your own; if you are good you can get two smokes to the page. As I say, he was not a heavy smoker and he is not even gotten up to the New Testament yet, just somewhere in Jeremiah.
The cigarettes are something other than an addiction for Benedict’s narrator. For better or worse, good or bad, they give the narrator purpose. Ending the story with the boy sitting on a bridge smoking, contemplating the tragedy of his world, makes for one of the nicest scenes I’ve read in a while.
I’ve never smoked and don’t have any plans to start but smoking can provide quite the emotional impact to a story. This is another one vying for favorite of the year. It is included in Pinckney Benedict’s anthology of the same name which I borrowed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Nine of Clubs for Week 31 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.
Deal Me In – Week 48
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With all of it’s beauty, livestock and fences, a wintery rural West Virginia takes center stage in Pinckney Benedict’s short story “Mercy”. The fence provides an interesting parallel for the human divisions in the story. The father is a harsh, hard-working cattle farmer while his young son, just as hard-working, is a day-dreamer and a fence fixer.
The neighbor on the other side of the fence has bought miniature horses to be raised as pets which contrasts, at least to the father, with the cattle that is being raised for beef. The idea of a pet horse is useless to the father even though he understands his son is interested in one:
When they had satisfied themselves, for the moment at least, the horses began to play. I searched among them until finally I found the sorrel. She was racing across our field, her hooves kicking up light clouds of ice crystals. She was moving more quickly than I had ever seen her go, but she wasn’t chasing another horse, and she wasn’t being chased. She was teasing the impassive angus steers, roaring up to them, stopping just short of their great bulk; turning on a dime and dashing away again…She yearned to charm them. She was almost dancing in the snow.
While the story never gets far enough for the reader to find out whether the son actually gets a pet horse, the story’s title gives a clue to the unexpected turn of events that occurs in the story’s final sentence. The way this plot twist works is a testament to a great story teller. I’m going to want to read more of Benedict’s work.
I read this story when I drew the Three of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2015 short story project. It’s included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.