Blind Your Poniesby Stanley Gordon West
Hope is hard to come by in the hard-luck town of Willow Creek. Sam Pickett and five young men are about to change that.
Sam Pickett never expected to settle in this dried-up shell of a town on the western edge of the world. He's come here to hide from the violence and madness that have shattered his life, but what he finds is what he least expects. There's
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Hope is hard to come by in the hard-luck town of Willow Creek. Sam Pickett and five young men are about to change that.
Sam Pickett never expected to settle in this dried-up shell of a town on the western edge of the world. He's come here to hide from the violence and madness that have shattered his life, but what he finds is what he least expects. There's a spirit that endures in Willow Creek, Montana. It seems that every inhabitant of this forgotten outpost has a story, a reason for taking a detour to this place--or a reason for staying.
As the coach of the hapless high school basketball team (zero wins, ninety-three losses), Sam can't help but be moved by the bravery he witnesses in the everyday lives of people--including his own young players--bearing their sorrows and broken dreams. How do they carry on, believing in a future that seems to be based on the flimsiest of promises? Drawing on the strength of the boys on the team, sharing the hope they display despite insurmountable odds, Sam finally begins to see a future worth living.
Author Stanley Gordon West has filled the town of Willow Creek with characters so vividly cast that they become real as relatives, and their stories--so full of humor and passion, loss and determination--illuminate a path into the human heart.
Elegiac but hopeful novel, originally self-published, about the redemptive power of people—and, of course, roundball.
Sam Pickett is a mess of a man. He has a good excuse, having witnessed his wife's murder in a fast-food joint back in the big city, with bits and pieces of her "spattered on the wall, shrapnel from her head, small bits of brain and bone, skin and hair, sailing down the stainless steel on a sea of gore."Yuck, you may say—and so does he, dropping everything, only to rediscover himself in a small town in Montana, tucked away in a valley surrounded by tall mountains and only a single paved road. "It was hard to tell where the fields and cow pastures ended and the town began,"writes West (Finding Laura Buggs, 1999, etc.), making it a fine place for Pickett to leave the world behind. Alas, no such luck, for in his new role as high-school teacher and emissary from civilization, he finds himself called on to make Willow Creek a better place by giving its residents something to live for in the form of a decent basketball team. He recruits an improbable Scandinavian exchange student ("Olaf, you're the most dangerous center in the tournament...a Maalox Moment for all opposing teams"), rounds up a few other sports fans, enlists the townies and works his way through angst, a sort of outtake from Hoosiers without the DTs. The story almost begs to be layered in cliché, but West steers clear of it and of sentimentality; his characters act and speak as real peopleas they maketheir way toward the satisfying conclusion.
Worthy of a place in Montaniana alongside Ivan Doig and Deirdre McNamer, this is a modest tale, elegantly written—and, in the bargain, there are multiple sightings of Man of La Mancha for the Dale Wasserman fans in the audience.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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BLIND YOUR PONIESa novel
By STANLEY GORDON WEST
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2011 Stanley Gordon West
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLooking back, Sam Pickett knew the trouble began that day at the state fair, when the madness winked at him. Even as a ten-year-old, he had a sneaking suspicion that, somewhere in that shrouded realm where fates are sealed, his life had been irrevocably jinxed.
On a late August afternoon, while students still enjoyed summer vacation, Sam hunched over his desk, polishing details on a lesson plan for November.
Use movie version of Man of La Mancha for section on Cervantes's novel Don Quixote ... first half of movie this period with time for discussion. Assignment: Read first 18 pages on life of Cervantes. Introduce theme: The problem of appearance and reality.
Sam glanced up from his dog-eared lesson plans. The sun had worked its way around and sunlight slanted in through the large, west-facing windows of his classroom, signaling the passing of another day. He was still surprised at the strangeness of his life, teaching high school in the fly-over town of Willow Creek, Montana.
A rattletrap farm truck hauling hay bales backfired as it chugged past the school, startling him. That damned muffled discharge! The feeling came over him with a choking sensation, and he fought for breath. He stared at the blackboard where the sun, coming through cottonwood leaves, left a dappled pattern.
He thought back to that day, to that Friday afternoon. He'd picked up Amy at the school where she taught. They were both high-spirited and happy, looking forward to the weekend together.
He pulled into the long line waiting for drive-up service. Amy said she could get the French fries faster at the counter, so she blew him a kiss and hurried into the building. It was a race to see who'd get the food first, and he hoped she'd win just so he could see the enchanting expression on her face and be rewarded by her childlike laughter. He felt a rush of happiness when he thought of the games they oft en played, like hide-and-seek in their apartment, in the dark, naked.
From the car, he heard the muffled sound, and then it came again, and again. A backfire? Not inside a building! He ran from the car and collided with terrified people stampeding out the door, fleeing the Burger King. Inside, it was bedlam, a madhouse in which people screamed, crawled under tables, and dove over counters. He frantically searched for her face, and then he saw her. With the bag of French fries still clutched in one hand, she had been hurled onto the tile floor, but not all of her. Parts of her were spattered on the wall, shrapnel from her head, small bits of brain and bone, skin and hair, sailing down the stainless steel on a sea of gore.
He knelt beside her and gently pulled her long black hair over the mutilation, as if that might heal her shattered skull. He took her hand in his, the hand that clung to the French fries she had playfully insisted on getting for him. Amid the chaos a white-haired man knelt beside him.
"She didn't appear to be afraid," the man said, slowly shaking his head. "She looked right at him and said, 'No, please.' Then he pulled the trigger."
Sam looked into the man's watery blue eyes as if asking for understanding.
"Was she your wife?" the man kneeling in her blood said.
Sam nodded. He couldn't breathe, the room was spinning. Five minutes ago his life was full of joy and anticipation. "Oh God, oh God," he moaned.
The man put his hand on Sam's shoulder.
"Why did I turn on Elliot? We could have gone another way, stopped some place else."
It was as if Amy had been drawn to the shotgun blast by some irresistible fate, and he had been helpless to prevent it. He stared at the grisly scene, the blood, the bits of flesh and bone.
The chaos continued, but he stayed beside her on the floor. He felt no fear, hoping the maniac would return and with one more pull of the trigger send him off to be with her. He heard the words from somewhere deep inside, The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Was it God who nudged him to take a different route home? Was it God who stoked Sam's impatience with the heavy traffic? If God had any hand in this, then life was a slaughterhouse.
When the sadness erupted over his happy life, the abyss opened beneath him and he fell. In this headlong plunge he instinctively reached out and grabbed hold of something, he didn't know who or what. He hung there, trying to catch his breath, trying to restore his heartbeat, dangling over the darkness.
The city he loved turned gray: green trees, the waterfront, his classroom, friends, the concerts and plays, the lovely boulevards and buildings, all gray. The sadness overwhelmed him. He left everything and fled.
At present, he was hanging on, but he knew he had to identify what it was he clung to, and he knew he had to find some reason to continue to hang on or he would give in to it, let go, and fall into the great dark void and be lost.
The voice startled him, jolting him from the trance. Truly Osborn stood in the doorway. Sam caught his breath.
"Hard at it I see," Truly said, as he stepped smartly to Sam's desk.
"Yes," Sam responded, standing, slightly unbalanced.
"I wish a few of the other teachers were as conscientious. When I was running the school in Great Falls, well, things were different, I'll tell you."
Truly glanced at the walls Sam had cluttered with quotations and posters depicting films and books and musical plays.
"Had seventy-six teachers under me, seventy-six. Could account for every paper clip. Can't expect discipline in this outpost."
He twitched his nose as was his habit.
"Is all this necessary?" he said, waving a hand at the wall. "It's so ... unorganized."
Without allowing a moment for a response, he turned his gaze on Sam, who had settled back into his chair, his heart still racing. He swallowed and tried to pay attention to his superintendent.
"Now then, the other night the school board nearly did away with the basketball program. John English expressed the frustration and embarrassment we all feel because of the team, but due to the persistence of that foolhardy Wainwright and his lackey Ray Collins, they decided to go one more year. Can you imagine?"
Sam glanced down at his lesson plan and his eyes focused on The problem of appearance and reality. He was lost. Somehow, Amy's voice came softly and calmly.
Truly continued to talk, and finally his words penetrated.
"... However, they realize how hard it has been for you to coach these past five years, the time and travel for what, heaven knows, is little extra money. We're prepared to assign the task to Mr. Grant, our new math teacher. Hopefully it will only be for one more year. Might as well pass the misery around."
Sam wanted to protest, wanted to volunteer for another year. If nothing else, the basketball program filled many hours during the winter months, and he didn't know how he'd handle that much unscheduled time.
"Oh, and the board asked me to convey their gratitude for the way you've stuck to it, even though you never did manage to win a game."
Sam caught the not-so-subtle sarcasm. The superintendent twitched his nose like a rabbit.
"They appreciate your ... fortitude. Mr. Grant can carry on the ridiculous comedy with the boys."
He slung a hand toward the classroom wall.
"See if you can't neaten this up a bit."
Then he turned and scurried from the room.
Pompous ass, Sam thought.
He stood, teetering slightly, still finding it hard to breathe. He pulled the shade, darkening the room. Truly's cruel reference to the team's efforts as "comic" had made him wince, and he admitted that deep inside he had wanted to win just one game, for the boys, for the town. Though the furthest he'd gone with basketball was playing on his high school team, Sam believed he was a capable English teacher. As a basketball coach he was 0-87. Wasn't that some kind of a world's record, a Guiness Book oddity? And even better, the team was 0-93, having lost its last six the season before Sam arrived. It would be exceedingly difficult to lose ninety-three in a row without some law of nature kicking in to bring the odds back into balance, something like an entire opposing team coming down with trichinosis in the middle of the third quarter or their eyes going crossed for all of the second half.
What Truly viewed as a ridiculous comedy actually had taught Sam something about heroism. Heroism wasn't playing hard with a chance to win, a chance to receive the acclaim and praise of victory. True heroism was refusing to quit when there was no chance to win. True heroism was giving your all in the face of absolute defeat. He thought that these boys, who were pitied by some, were learning life's lesson sooner than most, learning that life is a series of losses.
Sam gathered several folders off his desk and worried about how he would fill this new block of free time. He regarded the lesson plans for a moment, then dropped them on the desktop. He picked up his tattered copy of Don Quixote and left the room. He'd read the eight hundred and some pages again; that should occupy him for several days at least.
He raced down the hall and a flight of stairs, then ducked out the front door. The basketball court in front of the school stood empty in the late aft ernoon heat. The mountains shimmered to the west and the sweet aroma of freshly-cut alfalfa filled his nostrils as he headed toward his rental house. The town stretched along the road for about eight blocks, with the school situated on the south end, and Sam's one-story home—for which he paid two hundred dollars a month in rent—in the middle.
Rip, the oldest resident in Willow Creek, shuffled along the street toward Sam. The skeletal-looking man's suspenders appeared to be pulling him further and further down into his pants.
"Hello, Rip," Sam said, slowing as they passed.
"Hey, Coach," Rip said, flashing a toothless smile. "We're gonna do it this year, by golly, ain't we?"
"Yeah, sure," Sam said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
It still amazed Sam that Willow Creek—with an entire high school enrollment of eighteen or nineteen students, and with a senior class last year consisting of three—somehow managed to maintain a basketball team and compete in the state-sanctioned conference. The school, whose greatest athletic achievement was fielding five standing, breathing boys, hadn't won a basketball game in over five years, spreading a pall over the lives of those who identified with the community and its team. It was a virtual bloodletting, sanctioned by the Montana High School Association.
He turned in at the walkway to his house, mentally planning the evening ahead: run and walk the loop over the Jefferson River bridge, shower, supper, an hour of television, read until he fell asleep. He stepped onto the creaking porch, shoved the ill-fitting door open, and prayed he could hold off the afternoon's vision until he escaped into the murky shadows of sleep.
Though he hated to admit it to himself, he was afraid to go to sleep, and he dreaded waking up in the morning to the memory of his relentless dreams. Somewhere in his mind, Amy's voice played back at random times throughout the day and night.
He was also haunted by the Indian legend he first heard when he came to Montana. Members of the Crow tribe were camped along the Yellowstone River near present-day Billings. Warriors, returning from a long hunting trip, found the camp decimated by smallpox. Their wives, mothers, children, were all dead. So overcome with grief, sure they would join their loved ones in another world, they blinded their ponies and rode them off a sixty-foot cliff.
Five years after losing Amy, Sam still identified with those Crow warriors who couldn't bear life without their loved ones. He would never admit to anyone that, on a daily basis, he entertained the thought of blinding his pony and riding off the cliff to be with her.
Excerpted from BLIND YOUR PONIES by STANLEY GORDON WEST Copyright © 2011 by Stanley Gordon West. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Stanley Gordon West has made a name for himself by selling his books single-handedly from bookstore to bookstore, in the process gathering a large and devoted audience. His earlier novel, Amos: To Ride a Dead Horse, became a made-for-TV movie starring Kirk Douglas. He lives in Minnesota.
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