What These Boots are Made For, fiction by Matt Prater

Ten years and more had passed, and Joy was now a Ms.

That part of it was not as hard as she’d been told; the good things in a bad man weren’t so much, she’d found, that the loss of them would dent more than a year in your life. What had been hard, though, was that still, when so much of her friends had moved or bought homes or had kids, had found a guy or girl to get hitched up with, had got knocked up or been to jail or fought in wars or won or lost at some great thing—or died—or had just found a job in Cave Spring or, hell, in Big Stone Gap, what had she done with her nose in books, eyes set on New York, life?

Taught at the same school she’d went to as a girl.

Drove the same car her Dad bought her in high school.

Broke up and moved on, but lost her best good dog.

And, yes, moved on and up from Ms. Joy to Ms. Wells when Rose Call died and no one else at the school asked for her job. Four years out of Tech, the one big win she’d had was a job she still might not have got had Coach Null’s wife, or the new flirt aide from the beach, had asked for it.

Kate had known—known all of it—when she and Joy were best friends and still in school. Had seen the whole damn thing. Kate had told her to leave and not look back. Kate had told her not to date Jeff, that he was a scrub. Kate, in fact, had said to go with her to the Air Force—or, if she was so bent on Tech, to join the Corps while she was there. There was cash in that, at the end; school all paid for, moved to a new town, skills for a job—and, yes, the risk—but Kate had said the risks of home were just as bad. More girls like them had died from pills than died in wars.

But now ten years had passed, and Joy was still here, still stalled, still what she was; while Kate had came back home with cash and scars and chest pins, with a way to walk in and know how to hold up her sharp dress blues. Had it all been smooth? Of course not. Joy’s friend had been there, in the worst place to be in a long dumb fight, and in the worst of all times to be there. Kate saw the Surge, and the Surge did not change things. Kate’s job had not been to fight, but at some few times she had to, and had done it well. She hauled a big gun then, and when she had to shot it with some skill.

All of these things, of course, weren’t things Kate or Joy would give much talk to. Joy, for her part, had made sure that when Kate came home she came home in her mind. Not that she could make it that way, but at least she tried. Kate, for Joy, was a girl to keep up and off the tramp of frat boys and frat men who saw her in boots and a bun, and for those things did not see her at all; or men who did not see her boots or sharp dress blues at all since she was just Kate—Kate the flirt or Kate the drunk or Kate Bob’s kid or just plain Kate that girl.

You look so nice with your hair grown out,” Joy would tease her. “Grow it out, I want to braid it. Pweeze.”

When I grow it out it just gets caught in stuff and gets pulled.”

You don’t like it when I pull your hair?” Joy would wink at her.

Girl, you’re a goob.”

These things, on top of all the rest, were why Chris had pissed Joy off so much when, when he saw them out, he just walked up and asked Kate to come talk to the kids on war, as if that was a thing you asked. Joy did not like it when guys talked to Kate re the war or the Air Force – not a one failed to ask some dumb thing on guns or trucks or what girls did or why or if they could. At least Chris was just the type who thought Kate’s butt looked good in blues…but still, just…ew.

And worse that it was Chris. Chris, the king of frat boys, had no years on Joy but had come from the next town up, and was a guy, and had played ball in school (and coached it now), so he was the one they’d picked to run the school. In fact, in the just two years he’d taught a real class, Chris had been the king of screens; and now he seemed to think all things could be solved with prep tests, screens, and drills. So Kate kept clear of him when she could help it; and on days she had to, showed just a bit of boob.

Chris was not just the kind of guy who thought tests told the truth, or who thought the sharp knot of his tie (or the cell phone clip on his belt) made him right, who thought he could count up all the kids just like ghosts on the head of a pin; but, on top of that, he was the kind of man who sat in rooms with an odd count of men and made votes—the kind of man who did not think the count of those men, nor the count of men, was odd. In short, Chris did what he liked and liked who let him do it. This year, Chris liked the war, or at least he liked the folks who fought it, and he thought it would a good thing for the kids if they liked them, too. What the school should do, he’d said, was to have a big Red White & Blue day for the troops! Bring them in, feed them cake, and have them tell the kids why it’s great to serve.

This had made Joy, back of Chris and Kate’s talk, a bit qualmed to start with. “I think this would be a great thought for the High School,” she said.

I meant we should do it here.”

Oh, I know, it’s just…”

I mean if you don’t think you have time—” which was his way to call her slack.

No, it’s not that. I just think we need to think how best to do it—” which was her way to call him an ass.

What do you mean?”

I just mean, how do we talk to eight year olds so they get War?”

Well, we just tell them the truth.”

And what if their folks don’t like that?”

Eh, I don’t think they’ll mind. Who here won’t vote for Mitt?”

Well…I know a few.”

See? All the more why we’ve got to do this big!”

As Joy was want to say, it makes an ass of you and me. But still, as in all things, Chris got his way. And since Kate liked Chris for who knew why, Joy kept her mouth shut. And the day was big. They made a whole big brunch: red ham, white eggs, and blue fruit, with gold hash browns on the side. Then they all went to the gym and said the pledge and heard the high school choir sing “She’s a Grand Old Flag” and “This Land is Your Land” (sans the last verse or so). Then they heard the third grade champ read his state DAR third place work, “It Is Not Free To Be Free,” in which he wrote of his dad’s two tours and one Bronze Star. His dad was there, had his Star on, and cried. Some of the kids cried, too. Then there were more songs, and a short speech from Ms. Stone (who taught first grade, but used to be in the Air Force, too), and then they all went back to class.

It still turned out to the good though, all in all. Kate got to spend the whole day with Joy’s kids, and talked to them less on war and more on what girls could do, and how girls were just as good as boys (and she got one of the boys to face off with her in push ups in the gym, and beat him, which made him and all of the boys love her), and then when they got back to class, for the last hour of the day she said she’d take on all they could ask.


            “What kind of shoes do you like best, high heels or boots?”

I don’t wear boots, just pumps now. You know I’m old now, right?” she winked.

You’re not old!” some of them yelled.

Well, high heels hurt more than boots, but they look good. Does that help?”


            “Ms. Kate, will you look at my boots?”

Well, those sure are cute boots! Where’d you get them?”

At the store.”


            “Ms. Kate, what did you do when you got scared?”

When we got scared we worked. We train a lot, so that when things get hard we just do what we know. We don’t say can’t.”


Do meal packs taste good?”

Ya’ll want to see one? We learned how to make them from the folks who flew in space,” she said, which was kind of true, as she pulled one (pork rib) out of her bag.


Ms. Wells says that fights are bad? If that’s true, why did you do it?”

When you fight for folks when they get hurt and need help, that’s a good thing. We helped a lot of kids, just like all of you, boys and girls whose schools had been closed down. We fixed their schools and got them food and books.”


Did you get shot?”

Nope,” she said. “But I did get to blow up a bridge, though. That was cool.”

Un-uh!” some of the girls winked at her.

Uh-huh!” she winked back.


            “Um, I don’t think girls can blow things up,” John said.

John…” Ms. Wells said.

Hell yes we do!” Kim yelled back at him.

Kim! We do not say that word in school,” Ms. Wells cut in.

Well let’s play house, cause what he said was dumb.”


Dude, my bad,” John said.

I’m not a dude.”

I just meant girls help out in war; they don’t fight.”

Yeah, right.”

Well, Kim, John is right,” Kate said. “I was with the Corps, and we built things. My job was to tear down old sites so we could fix them up. So when I blew up things, it was with a charge, not a bomb. But, John, Kim’s right too. Girls do fight in war, and some get hurt.”


Did girls die there?”

Yes, they did.”


We wish you worked here, Ms. Kate. We like you a lot!” two girls came up and told her and hugged her on the legs when she was off to leave at the end of the day.

Aww, I like you all, too. I’ll be back,” she said, and held up the Scout sign. The girls gave Kate the Scout sign back.

Kate did need new work, in fact, now that she was home. That she had trained well in her field had not meant she had been hired well in her field when she came back. Girls blew up and built the world at war; at home, well, some folks still thought not so much.

Will you come play with us? Do you have to go?” they said, and dragged her towards the field.

Yes, I can stay and play with you.”

Can we play, too?” a few of the boys ran up to ask.

Kate knew the hearts of boys at ten, who played games that starred guns, and who were turned by that play to men who fought and men who screwed down the world’s taut chains. When she was ten, Kate, too, was a mud faced girl and played with mud faced boys. Good boys who joined the Corps or Air Force; good boys who served; good boys who, some of them, had fought with her; and good boys who did not come home. How could she share with them the strange weight they took home, all of them, this thing which could least by said or known by those who loved them most? At times it seemed no one who did not know could help, and that no one who did know was less hurt or of more use.

And yet they span in loops, each of them their own moon, the lot of them a score of moons, lit by what words did not need to prove was the same fracked heart. In their light, which came from the light which gives all light to the world, the red leaves that fell that day, and the cold creek near them, where the stock trout gorged and slowed so as to keep with the year of the Lord, the fruit of the earth and the fall of that fruit (which makes up the year of the Lord), on a day which—save the day of fire which comes next time to clean up the world from the world—as all days the fruit will come and fall and come back in its turn for all time, a day with no need to be mourned or dried or stored or kept. Kate spun in heels and the oak leaves fell, while small girls and boys in rain boots laughed and spun, who did not need to know at all the things they knew how to cure.

You could do that for a job, you know that right?” Joy said, that night, the two of them tucked in close.

Phh­ht. No way. I’m not near as good with kids as you are.”

Yeah, you are.”

I just play with them. I don’t have to teach them.”

Well, I still know they like you a lot more than they like me.”

Oh, that’s not true. I’m just the new toy.”

No, no. It’s more than that.”

Dude, what’s up with you? You’re not a mope kind of girl.”

Yeah, this time I think I am.”

What’s up?”

They can smell it on you, you know?”

Smell what?”

The stuck. They smell the stuck on you a whole mile off. They don’t know what it is, but they can smell it.”

What do you mean, the stuck? Don’t whine. It’s not cute.”

I’m…I…it’s just…I don’t know.”

What? What? Girl, do you know what I would have done to have been stuck here with you?”

I know.”

No, you don’t know. You don’t know. So stop your whine.”

Please, please don’t bite my head off. I just…I just thought I could talk to you.”

Of course you can. But you know what I’ve got to say.”

It ain’t so bad?”

It ain’t so bad.”

But Kate, I can’t change things. I do things, I try things, and things don’t change. The kids don’t change. Their folks don’t change. My house don’t change. It’s all the same and all the time and it. just. does. not. change.”

What Kate could try to say, but what she could not say – some of them did go to save the world; and some did go to kill folks they’d been told, that they had long been made to think, been shaped to think, were not real folk at all. But these ways were true, in truth, for so few of them in their clean dress greens and boots. Kate had not gone to fight; she went to work. She had not gone to go out and see the world and the strange lands in it. She went to get the ghosts of coal and cow out of her life. There was cash and a house on the base, and the cash and the house were her own. And the job was her own, too. And there was more pay when she went to fight (though since she was a she, no one could say she had gone to fight), and less risk, in truth, than with coal or lots of jobs they had back home. A few short years, and one long tour, and you weren’t a kid from the sticks no more. In green and blue, you could be from all the towns, all the main streets, all the big shows where all the big things in them could be yours. And now she was back; with all of that, now she was back.

Does it have to?” was all she could say.


Joy? Would you have been here, with me, ten years ago?”


Would you want to have been?”


Well, then that’s changed. And don’t you like that that’s changed?’

Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do.”

If you build it up right, the roof of your life is flat. To make it slope up to a point, as if the rain won’t crush you in the end, well that’s just pride. Let some kid come and build her shed on top of yours, and if she don’t know that this smooth floor she lies on was once the place where you lined out the shapes of stars, it’s just as well. Let the barn fall down in its slow way with its drix. Let the last storm come and flash while you sleep through it. Spell out the words on the board in your dream of school: squelch, dearth, thrutched, schmaltz, horse. Let the horse in your dream run hard, let it take you home. Let it be the home you’d have if you could choose. And when you wake up and it’s not, go out in spite of that in your own strange way, and let your bad self dance and turn like the bright pocked moon you are. These things did not pull the weight back off from her. There’s no soft way to add the world up straight. She was still all the things she was, and some that some had made her out to be. And yet, she was still the spun hung moon that says: here comes the soft, white light of a long, slow snow with its clouds, in the pit of the world, which does not know it is the first long night of Spring. We learn, through the hard fight, how the mind can turn Fall from brown to gold, though the earth’s tinge does not change. With that, for that, what more is there to say?

praterMatt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Win­ner of both the George Scar­brough Prize for Poet­ry and the James Still Prize for Short Sto­ry, his work has appeared in a num­ber of jour­nals, includ­ing Appalachi­an Her­itage, The Hon­est Ulster­man, The Moth, and Still. He is cur­rent­ly an MFA can­di­date in poet­ry at Vir­ginia Tech.

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