Oh wow. First off, I love LeVar Burton Reads, mostly as it exposes me to short fiction from genres I’m not likely to pick up. I’m pretty much a reader of queer short fiction and spec-fic or romance (or the wonderful intersections thereof), but I nabbed a subscription to the podcast and I’ve been happily wandering in and out of my comfort zones of short fiction ever since.
So. “Goat.” Printed in Five-Carat Soul, “Goat,” by James McBride, makes you think it’s going to zig, and then zags. At its heart, it’s about a tween boy and his feelings for his teacher, even though the main narrative (and the title of the story) are about his friend, who everyone calls “Goat,” who can run like nobodies business. The boys are from a very, very poor area, and are very country (to use their own vernacular), black kids with prospects that look to be more-or-less limited to following in the footsteps of their parents with the hope of finding jobs to help pay the bills.
But Goat is fast. And the well-meaning teach the narrator boy has a crush on realizes this can be an out. Goat could get a scholarship if he wins medals in track, but to win he has to compete, and to compete he needs his birth certificate to prove his age, and for that, the teacher has to get involved with Goat’s family, and that’s where everything goes askew, as the teacher might have crossed some lines (accidentally or not, well-meaning or not), and the boy is about to learn more than he wanted to know. It’s a brilliant tale that manages to speak of such stark cultural realities of poorness with total respect. This story stuck with me for quite a while after I finished listening to it.