Posted by: Tom Triumph | November 4, 2013

Absentee List: An Old Horse Mystery

Over two years ago I began reading mysteries.  It was not something I would have predicted I would have done, and it was the result of a whim sparked by a display at our local library.  Not particularly inspiring, the librarian had simply propped up a wide selection of mystery novels.  For whatever reason, I picked up The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. This is the lurid cover of the Vintage Crime edition:

I read the Introduction by Jonathan Frazen, something I rarely do (both read Introductions and things by Frazen, although this was one of the more endearing pieces I’ve read by him–I’ve never gotten over the slight he gave Oprah, even if she did), and then the book.  It was captivating, for many of the reasons Frazen states in his short piece.  For both of us, mystery novels of any sort were not the type of things we would choose, yet Frazen was ill and house bound while I was bored.

That summer, I went through the other nine books in the Martin Beck series.  I can’t really describe them, but the books are not really about the mysteries.  But they are.  Throughout much of them, nothing really happens.  Yet, it does.  The authors, a husband and wife team, had laid out all ten in advance and meant for them to be a social commentary on Swedish society.  By many standards, the books shouldn’t work at all.  But they do.  Without writing a dissertation, I cannot do them justice–go read one (start with this one).

And I was bitten by the genre.  Actually, I was bitten by a particular sub-genre: Scandinavian crime novels.

For the record, I did not like the “Girl With…” books–too violent and graphic, although the movies made for Swedish television are quite good.  People think Larsson is where my interest must have started, but it was with Martin Beck.  It so happened that, after that first Beck book, my family was planning to travel to Iceland.  I tried “Jar City”, featuring Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik murder squad.  Arnaldur Indridason was my second find.  I have been picking my way through the genre for a few years, now. Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren and Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q novels are worth tracking down.

Any location with snow or horrible weather tends to produce good mysteries, but the limitations on the number of titles in this sub-genre that have been translated has forced me to scramble south a bit. 
For non-Scandinavian titles, let me recommend Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond (Bath, England) and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus (Edinburgh, Scotland) series.

Which lead to my writing my own crime novel: Absentee List: An Old Horse Mystery

It is a series, and the protagonist is an old teacher.  For years I had hoped to write the great American novel, boring a number of friends and family with stories and novels that didn’t quite pop.  A few years ago, I turned to YA novels and produced something a bit better.  You can find that here:

But that genre didn’t completely satisfy.  I think I was writing too much for students.  Daniel Pinkwater said he writes books he wished had been written for him as a child.  I did a bit of that, and it was fun, but I could never stop lecturing at my reader. In thinking about my audience (middle schoolers) I could not turn off the teacher voice completely.

Mysteries, though, opened up something in me.  My writing was for me. It was a puzzle and a character and humor and mood; all of the things I wanted when I began writing.  It is satisfying to do, and I’m a bit proud of the result.

Below is a link to the book, if you want to buy it on Amazon.  And below that link in this post is the second chapter, where you meet the teacher, Horse, and get a feel for what it would be like to spend a few hours with him in a book.  Take a chance.  At the very least, you can charge it to your school as an education text.

Shameless Self Promotion

Chapter 2

“What are you in for?”

A man just shy of fifty and a boy of twelve sat on a wooden bench in the main office of Grace Haven Elementary School.  It was the man who asked, and it was the first time they had ever spoken to each other.  They didn’t know of the other much, except that one was a teacher and the other a student.  Grace Haven was small—fewer than three hundred students walked the halls—so each knew the other by face, but the boy often kept his head down and the teacher concerned himself with his own students unless they were causing hallway mischief.  From his reputation, the teacher was mean or awesome depending on who you asked, or if you first met him because of a project or getting in trouble.  Less was known about the boy by the teacher; the kid was a seventh grader—his own grade level—but in the other class.

“I don’t know,” the boy replied, before looking down at the floor. 

Horse, the name the students had put on the teacher years before, gave the boy his quiet solace and looked at the receptionist, Ms. Binnis.  Busy with work, she ignored him.

Horse. 

A story that had turned to myth and now legend, older than his current students, the nickname was started years ago by a sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Black, who remarked that the eponymous character of the Oliver Andresen short story they were reading, “Old Horse”, reminded her of Mr. Boch.  She had pushed the point, even marking up a Venn diagram noting his long face and caustic wit.  Also, Mrs. Black noted, one meaning of the German word boch was horse.  These same sixth grade students, fearful of spending their seventh grade year with a man often described as “mad”, repeated it as a kind of talisman.  Years later, few students or adults could remember his real name without looking at the nameplate on the classroom door.  Students simply called him Horse, occasionally Old Horse, and he answered. 

It stuck.

Sitting there in the office, the boy began to wonder why Horse was sitting there at all.  ‘He’s an adult,’ he thought.  With the innocence of a child he thought, ‘He can go as he pleases?’  He noticed the ceramic mug in his hand, and that what looked like coffee inside was not steaming.  World’s Best Teacher was printed on the side, but the boy was pretty sure it was Ms. Saxon’s, his old fifth grade teacher, because of the chip on the far edge that he remembered from when he was her student.

Did he steal Ms. Saxon’s mug?

Horse took a sip.

He was the topic of conversation at the boy’s recess, again.  Many of the kids debated at lunch who was the better seventh grade teacher—Jones or Horse—when one class was doing something that seemed more interesting than the other.  The interesting lesson was usually Horse’s, but they also debated when their work was really hard—usually Horse’s, too.  Jones’s work was easy, the boy knew.  ‘I made honor roll,’ the boy thought.  Not all of Horse’s students could claim that in their first semester.  Or second.

The boy looked down harder and thought and hoped Horse was not going to speak to him again.

“Peter, right?” Horse asked.

The boy looked up.

“Yes.”

“Your dad cut a hole in my foundation a few years ago for a new heat sink.”

Peter gave a weak smile, eyes not looking at the teacher.

“He’s Dan, right?” Horse added.

The boy nodded.

“How’s he doing?”  When the boy didn’t answer, Horse returned to his original question.  “You must have an idea of why you’d be in the office on the first day back from a three-day snow day?”

Peter looked down harder, before his head popped back up again.  He made a queer, unconscious grimace with his mouth.  A tic, Horse noted to himself.  Stress induced, he wondered.

“I think so.”

Then the two again sat in silence.

Peter wore jeans and a navy blue hooded pullover sweatshirt.  Both were worn, but clean.  Grace Haven attracted a hardscrabble population.  In his years of teaching, Horse noticed that clean clothes were a better predictor of a conscientious home than new ones.   Anyone can buy clothes, he had once argued at a faculty meeting.  No one likes laundry, but you do it if you care about your kid.  Not everyone agreed with the analysis, but all took an inventory over the next week of who consistently had clean outfits and whose were new.  Peter’s blue indoor soccer shoes were a size too large, and the white laces too long.  Horse thought about that, too.

In contrast, Horse had on a pair of worn khaki pants and an olive green sweater pulled over a red T-shirt.  Because his lack of hips allowed the waistline of his pants to drop and inch, the bottom of each leg dropped, too.  He also had a slight gut. “It’s like putting a belt on an egg,” he’d once said.  As a result of the drop, the back of his cuffs were frayed from being stepped on.  At the top of his stomach the sweater had a hole about the size of a dime.  A worn tweed jacket hid the holes in the sweater’s underarms.  Although both were dark, Peter noted that Horse’s socks did not match, not so much in color, but texture.  His left sock, the boy finally figured out, was inside out.  That day he wore leather boat shoes, which Peter thought odd as snow was deep and they offered little protection, even in crossing the parking lot.  What he didn’t know was that Horse suffered from corns and needed a loose shoe with a large toe box just to be able to walk.  “The ravages of age,” he had told the clerk at Danforth Shoes.  Horse’s real concern was that the corn was a sign of an imminent diagnosis for diabetes.

“You wore the same pants before break,” Peter observed.

“I have a closet full of khaki pants,” Horse replied.   Taking a sip of his lukewarm coffee, he said, “All khaki.  It just looks like the same pair.”

“You have three pairs.  One with a blue pen stain that seeped through the front pocket (size of a nickel), one without cuffs, and this pair.”

“That you’ve seen,” Horse added.

Peter ignored this.

“This pair has mud stains on the back of the cuff.  They had the same stains last week.  I think you got it reffing the touch football game by the monkey bars, where the grass never seems to completely dry.  You haven’t washed them since.”

Horse shifted his body to face the boy.  He sat taller by a foot, so looked down at the top of his head.  “So, you think I’ve been wearing the same pair for at least a week?”

“No.”  Peter looked up at him.  “If you had worn them outside in the snow we got this weekend, the mud would have faded or washed out.  I think you wore something else, like jeans.  Or perhaps you never got dressed all break.  But you didn’t wear them.  And you didn’t clean them.”

“I never got dressed,” Horse admitted.  He looked up to find Ms. Binnis looking at him.

“How’d you dig out?” Peter asked, suddenly more curious about an adult who didn’t shovel out—that’s what people do—than a stained cuff.

“I have a neighbor who likes to use his snowblower.”  Horse looked at his coffee, fiddled a bit, and then looked back at Peter.  “He has a thing for machinery, but a short driveway.  I give him a quart of maple syrup in the spring as a thank-you gesture.”

“My dad and I sugared last year,” Peter said, again changing the subject.  “You sugar?”

“No.  But I buy it in bulk from a guy in Wolcot and pour it in canning jars,” Horse explained.  “A quart of maple syrup is much cheaper than hiring someone to shovel me out every time it snows.”

Peter thought about this, unsure if he should believe him.  While the boy was silent, Horse looked him over.  Gangly.  In the midst of a growth spurt.

 “You missed the hair on the back of your neck,” Peter said.

Horse felt the back of his nearly fifty-year-old neck.  There were long hairs.  Those on his head and what was generously called a beard were nearly gone, but where he should have been clean shaven—on the back of his neck—the hair was over an inch long.  Before he lost electricity in the storm, Horse had gotten his old Oster electric razor from under the sink and taken it to his head.  He missed the neck.  Just as he put down the Oster, the power went out.  A day later, the power returned, he had forgotten to finish the job.  Horse rubbed his chin before moving his hand over his head and, again, touched the long hairs. 

“I guess I missed it.”

“Do you do it yourself?”

“Most of the time.”  Horse absently looked again at Ms. Binnis, who was busy answering the phone.  “Saves money.  I used to go to the barber once in a while to get a shave, though.”

“Why’d you stop?”

“Barbers don’t do shaves anymore.  Insurance costs.  I guess insurance companies think an old man with shaky hands scraping a four-inch blade across a person’s neck might be dangerous.”  Horse’s voice trailed off.

Before either of them could break the silence again, Mr. Wells, the principal, stuck his head out of his office and called for Horse.

“Wish me luck,” Horse said, disappearing behind a closing door.

 

 

 

“Nice kid,” was the first thing Horse said, loudly, before the door was closed completely.  “Bet he can’t read.”

“Peter?” Wells stated, thinking about who was in the seats of the main office.  “Good kid,” he said, but he hadn’t quite put the name with the boy’s history.

Then he looked around for a place to put down the files in his hands.  The Grace Haven principal was the only person who might be referred to as Horse’s friend, not that either of them would say it.  He was also one of the few people who had been at the school longer than Horse, most of those years as his direct administrator.  At six-two, Wells was an inch shorter than Horse but had more bulk: useful for keeping hot-headed parents from pushing too far.  Not particularly loved, he was familiar and comfortably liked.  ‘We could do worse,’ was the reaction of one school board member when his previous contract came up for renewal.  Still, there was a lot of sympathy in the community for Wells, especially when he made decisions that were necessary, but that no one else wanted to make.

Wells himself measured his success by the students and where they wound up years after leaving Grace Haven.  ‘It’s a foolish strategy,’ Horse often told him.  ‘The kids you’re most successful with leave.  It’s the failures that stay around and breed and carry their grudge into a second generation.’  But Wells didn’t often make the prudent choices about the short term, ultimately serving the children well.  As he told Horse, ‘I guess that makes us twins in questionable decision-making.’  Neither would have it any other way.

He stood holding the files.  Having spent the morning sorting his office with an eye on paring down his paper, Wells had used every flat surface to organize himself, including the four chairs that surrounded a small round table and his black leather couch.  There were piles on the piles.  Horse picked up those on the couch and tossed them onto the table, causing minor disarray.

Humph, Wells released.

“But he can’t read?” Horse asked of Peter.

“What makes you say that?”

“He’s too observant.  Hypersensitivity?”  Horse looked around for something to eat.  Wells often had snacks.  That year he had been promoting healthy local foods and a bowl of apples had sat prominently on a filing cabinet all fall, but Horse saw that it was empty.  “I’m thinking he looks at a page of text and sees every letter at the same time, so he can’t focus on a single word at a time.”

“So you think he can’t read because…”  Wells began rearranging his files, only half listening to Horse.  Often, when Horse dropped in with no reason, half of his attention was all Wells felt he could handle.  Too much to do.

“He noticed the uncut hairs on the back of my neck.”

“You’re a natty shaver.  Good diagnosis.”

“… And that I haven’t changed my pants in a week.”

“Everyone notices that.”

The office was twelve-by-sixteen with a window that looked out at the front of the school—where the busses dropped the kids off and picked them up each day—and a second window in an interior wall that looked into the main office, and let everyone see him.  ‘The fishbowl,’ Horse called it.  Wells lowered himself into his chair.

“I’ll concede the pants.”

“It’s true,” Wells admitted.  “Peter struggles with reading.”

Horse laid back in the worn mostly-black leather couch and thought about the boy.  The couch was low and deep and students and parents could not get out of it easily; like a fly stuck in a web they often found themselves forced to listen to Wells’ rationalizations to whatever problem the parties faced.   The sinking couch had brought solutions to contract negotiations and calmed parents upset about suspensions.  In the end, everyone bargained their indignant anger for escape.  In Wells’ first year as principal, he had gone with Horse to Bucks’ Furniture in Wolcott to find these very characteristics.  The marks they had made on the wall struggling it into place had been painted over five times since, along with the rest of the office.  One of the seat cushions was a dark brown, having been stolen by Horse five years prior and replaced, by Wells, with a usable pillow from a couch at the dump.  For House, the couch’s true value lay in that, positioned as it was, Horse could lie down and no one in the main part of the office could see him.

“PTSD?  Abuse?  Physical abuse at a young age?” Horse asked.

“No.  His dad’s great.”

“Something caused that hypersensitivity.”  House looked out the window.  From his perspective, now lying on the couch, he could see only sky.  “And it’s from before he was supposed to learn to read.  Early childhood trauma.”

“He was in a car crash at age five.”

“Was he hurt?”

“No,” Wells replied.  “His father was pretty banged up.  Mother died.”

Horse thought for a moment.

“No.  Too old.  Something happened earlier.  Toddler age.  PTSD needs to happen while the brain’s still forming.”

Wells flipped through some files on his desk, thought twice about saying something, and decided on nothing.

“I’m sure Jones is cracking that nut,” Horse said sarcastically, referring to the other seventh grade teacher.  Peter’s teacher.

Wells changed the subject to Horse.

“I’m still getting questions about your so-called teaching…” he said, rolling his eyes as he drew out the last word.  Horse looked at him as if to say, ‘that could be any number of lessons.’  Clarifying, Wells continued, “Your field trip two weeks ago.  The school board wants to know…”

“I explained that.”

“To Aubuchon Hardware…”

“There is a lot to learn from modern business and industry.”

“I didn’t find you at Aubuchon’s.”

“It was all in the field trip form I filled out months prior.”

“You signed my name.  I never saw it.”

“I did not sign your name.  I scribbled something on the line, which, if you had bothered to read it…”

“If I could read it…”

“… read Sign This.  You should have done so and come to me with your objections.  Anyway, the trip was on the school calendar.  You should read the calendar.”

“When I found you, your students were building a garden shed behind your house.”

“So?”

“So, it took a lot of soothing before Jenny Matthews’ mother stopped screaming about her daughter’s split thumbnail.”

Horse made a dismissive face, rolling his eyes.

“Have you seen it?” Wells asked.  “Black and blue.  Swollen.  There’s puss.”

“She needed to learn how to hammer.  I think she knows that now.”

“I’ll tell the lawyer that.”

“She’s suing?”

Wells ignored this question; it went without saying.  Parents were quick to call lawyers in a fit of indignant anger; just as quickly they were called off, usually when the first bill was hinted at.  More than others, Horse seemed to provoke this response in parents.  Rising from his chair, Wells crossed his arms and looked out the window at the empty bus lane.  Snow.  Beyond the parking lot, scraped to pavement and littered with rock salt, the entire field in front of the school was covered with snow.  He could not see the road beyond.  In the background lay only snow-covered trees and gray sky.

“We got dumped on,” he said, exhaling.

“Are we still talking about the hardware store?” Horse asked.

“I have half of the parents wanting their child with you…” Wells said, a philosophical tenor in his voice.

“Great.  Problem solved,” the teacher said, looking at his watch.  He knew students would be returning to his room, soon.  Horse leaned forward, as if to get up.

“… and half of them threatening legal action if I place their child with you.”

“That’s a lot of litigation.  I didn’t know we had so many lawyers in the county.”

“Oh, I hear from lawyers in Montpelier, Burlington, and even Massachusetts.”

“That Nelson kid’s cousin?”

“That Nelson kid…  That Nelson kid you hectored years ago.  That Nelson kid is now an adult with a kid in seventh grade.”

“Obviously, he can carry a grudge.”

“Obviously.”

“What was that?  Twenty years?  He wasn’t even my student.”

Wells exhaled.  “But you decided to teach him, anyway,” he said.

“It was a teachable moment.”  He sat silently with a light smile on his face, and then leaned back.  Wells ignored him.  “It worked out.  Nelson, Jr. is with Jones,” Horse reasoned.  “There are plenty of placement opportunities for these kids here at Grace.”

“There are two teachers for this grade.”

“Exactly.  Half and half.”

Raising his fifth cup of coffee since he had sat down that morning, Wells took in the aroma before bothering to respond.  ‘Why bother,’ he thought.  ‘Horse will ignore me.  He’s always ignored me.’

“As your administrator I would like a bit more wiggle room in terms of placement.”

“Not my problem.”

As expected.

Wells headed to the door.  Hand on knob, ready to hear the complaints of the part-time art teacher, he stopped at Horse’s beckoning.

“Ten by fifteen feet.”

“What?”

“My shed.  Ten by fifteen feet.”  Horse said it as if the dimensions explained it, but knew that it begged for an explanation.  He gaped at Wells with a strong hint of mockery.

“So?”

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately.”

“So?”

“You don’t recognize it?  Thoreau.  From Walden.  I thought you were an English major?”

“Ah, the lesson.”  It was Wells’ turn to be snide.  “Of course.  You weren’t using child labor to build a garden shed.  A garden shed, I should mention, whose supplies you bought with the money kids paid to go on the field trip.  No, this wasn’t exploitation.  You were teaching them about American Transcendentalism.”

Exactly.  Now you get it.”

“Very Victorian.  The children in the workhouses are learning a valuable trade.  I think Blake wrote a poem about it.”

“He wrote several.”

“Great.”

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

“I feel like I’m the bone.”

“Why is that?” Horse asked rhetorically.

Wells said nothing, left and pulled the door behind him, leaving Horse laying on the couch

Horse yelled at the closed door, “By the way, Jenny Matthews speaks a lot more in class and seems to have more confidence.  Not that anyone seems to care!”

 

 

 

Ten minutes later Horse emerged from Wells’ office.

A county sheriff was speaking with Peter.

“So,” Horse said, siding up to Ms. Binnis.  “What’s up?”  He nodded towards Peter.

“Something that doesn’t concern you,” she replied, smiling.

“Still…”

Listening, Horse shuffled over to the faculty mailboxes, and then flipped through the flyers and forms that had come over the snow break.

“Where is your father?” the sheriff asked.

The obvious question.

Peter looked down at his feet.

No answer.

An aide entered the office carrying Peter’s coat, hat, and gloves that she must have gotten from his locker.


 

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