Horace Poor, Horace Mint

Horace Poor, Horace Mint

Accidentally, my father turned me against the law. He swayed me against any kind of life of manual labor at the same time, over a two-month period. This occurred during the summer before I entered college, when I wandered jobless at age eighteen. He’d mentioned more than once, from about the time I hit puberty, that he’d like for me to go to college, study history, go to law school, and “join my team.” What team? I thought. Didn’t he work in the public defender’s office? Each morning I watched him leave in a cheap polyester coat and tie, carrying a stuffed briefcase. Did he keep a change of clothes—a baseball or basketball uniform, say—in that Samsonite attaché? I don’t want to say that I was a cynic, or mute, but remembering back I see myself plain staring at him, with no answer or head movement. My mother—what a patient, open-minded, calm woman—might’ve said, “Now, Glen, leave Drew alone,” or “Let him make up his own mind!” or “I’ve always seen Drew going to college, then working out in Hollywood, maybe as a gaffer, or grip, or best boy.” She said, “Caterer,” maybe because I’d learned to use the gas stove early on.

I stared at my mother oftentimes, also.

“I got you a summer job with Rufus,” my father said about a day after I graduated high school. “He’ll pay you five dollars an hour, which is over the going rate. I’ll buy you the work boots and gloves.”

This took place one afternoon when he came home drunk, having gotten his client off a DUI charge. They’d gone out to celebrate at a bar called Hatchet Granny’s—I learned later this was a nickname for Carrie Nation, the famous temperance movement woman known for smashing up bars while singing hymns. Anyway, I said to my father, “What?”

He said, “Rufus Rue needs a responsible man to work for him. I told him you were responsible enough.”

Rufus Rue owned Rufus Rue Roofing. My father had known Mr. Rue for some twenty years, for he, my father, defended Rufus’s employees about once a month, whether it be for public drunkenness, drunk and disorderly, failure to pay child support, trespassing, peeping tomming, speeding, driving with a suspended license, or obstructing justice. Rufus Rue advertised in the local newspaper, LET RUFUS RUE ROOF YOUR ROOF. FREE ESTIMATES! in little two-by-two inch squares, right there in the Classified section. Every time I watched that dog speak on the Scooby-Doo cartoon, I thought of my father’s friend. I might’ve been watching such a cartoon when my father came in to an announce my prospective employer.  Domestic abuse, theft, littering, possession of marijuana, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, possession of stolen goods, intent to distribute, fraudulent checks, second degree sexual assault, indecent exposure, prostitution. My dad took on everything. He came home half-smiling, maybe so I’d see him and think he worked a decent job. Failure to stop for law, arson, carjacking, failure to return rented video cassettes, ill-treatment of animals, swindling, purse snatching, resisting arrest, cockfighting, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, scalping tickets to a pro wrestling event.

I tried to imagine myself wearing gloves and boots. I said, “Okay.” Not that I saw myself as a pussy—a word I wouldn’t  be able to use in twenty years, so let’s say a “wimp,” or a “baby”—but I didn’t see myself ever going out to work in the film industry.

I saw myself studying art, what with my name. It seemed as though I’d been predestined to draw. Or maybe I’d end up working behind the bar at an ale house, manning the taps. There’s no telling how my life might’ve turned out had my parents named me Butler, Mason, or Peter.

Anyway, I showed up on that first Monday, at a two story house with a steep roof. Already the men up top worked, or at least stood. I said to Rufus, “I’ve never done any roofing before.”

He said, “Have you ever bent over to pick something off the ground?”

I said, “Yes sir.”

Rufus stood about five-six, that’s all. He didn’t have a neck. His jet-black hair might’ve been best described as “tornadic,” and at some point a nail gun might’ve backfired into his left eye, which caused him—maybe self-conscious—to hold his head sideways when holding a conversation. He said to me on that first day, “Good,” and pointed to what I learned to be a magnetic sweeper. He said, “Your job is to push this thing around the perimeter of the house, picking up nails that fly off the roof. Also, you’re in charge of gathering all the shingles in that there wheelbarrow”—he pointed—“taking them over to this here flat-bed with the side bars, and heaving them in. Can you drive?”

I said, “Well, yeah.” I pointed at my used Toyota. “I drove here.”

“You might end up having to drive the truck to the dump, seeing as both Perry and that other guy don’t have licenses.” Over my two month employment, there might’ve been forty “other guys,” but Perry always remained on the job. Perry told me more than once that one of his legs was three inches shorter than the other, which made it easier for him to stand on a roof. He also told me that cows living on steep slopes up in the mountains had two legs shorter than the other side.

I said, “I’m your man, sir,” to Mr. Rue.

Rufus Rue said, “I’m counting on you. Your daddy Benton’s a good man most of the time, so I know you’ll do okay. I’ll pay you in cash money every Friday afternoon. Benton’s okay as far as I’m concerned. You tell him I said that, will you?”

I thought about getting that two hundred dollars, and what I could buy. I thought about how, if I saved my money, I could go to college with over two grand, and take a date out every weekend to one of the better restaurants in Chapel Hill, or at least afford nice sketchbooks.


I’d taken two years of Latin in high school, because my father thought I needed to know some phrases in the field of law: pro bono, quid pro quo, ad hominem, caveat emptor, affidavit, compos mentis, corpus delicti. I underwent classes with a man named Mr. Napolitano, who held a love for Latin in a way that wasn’t natural. He quoted Horace non-stop, pretty much. So there on the roofing job, I thought Perry, too, studied Latin earlier in life, seeing as he said, daily, “Horace always says it’s better to work a plan than plan to work,” or “Horace always says it’s better to roof in the fall, than fall off a roof.” I tried to translate these little dictums, but couldn’t.

On about the third day I said, “Hey, Perry, are you talking about Quintus Horatius Flaccus, that Horace?”

He looked down at me beneath the eaves. He said, “What?”

I said, “You keep mentioning Horace. Which one are you talking about?”

I might need to mention that Perry had a hair style somewhere between halfway through chemo, and distracted barber. It was as if he’d had his scalp polka-dotted, with sets of inch-wide sections randomly plopped atop his scalp. Some time around July, working at a real estate agent’s roof-compromised office, he told me he had “kind hair—the kind of hair that grows on a monkey’s ass.” Perry, if anything, had a sense of humor.

He said, “Horace Beasley. He used to work for Rufus, until he fell off and broke his back. He was my main man. I learned everything I know from Horace.”

I stood there holding the one-handled magnetic sweeper. I thought dramatis personae, erratum, ex post facto, functus officio and habeas corpus. The one-handled magnetic sweeper could hold up to thirty pounds of nails, and I seemed close to the limit. I said, “Oh, that Horace,” because I felt sure I’d heard my father mention the name at supper, maybe something about representing him in a workers compensation lawsuit.

“Damn right.” Perry looked over to the other roofer and said, “Hey—I forget your name—do you know Horace Beasley?”

The other guy kind of slid on the asphalt shingles. He’d made the mistake of wearing a wife-beater t-shirt, which meant his skin would begin to bubble around two o’clock. He said, “I’m partial to lemon meringue pie,” apropos of nothing.

Perry turned his back on me and said, “We need to replace this piece of plywood. That’s gone cost more for these people.”

Horace once wrote, “Don’t think, just do.” He also wrote, “The pen is the tongue of the mind,” and “Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.” That’s why I thought Perry quoted the Roman, not an ex-roofer with a broken back. There’s nothing more “roofer” than a man acting fool while concocting serious plans.

I thought, in extremis, and in flagrante delicto, and nolo contendere. During my short stint on that job I thought, over and over: mortis causa, which meant the right of death.

Anyway, I did my job for a couple weeks. I loaded up the pick-up truck with nails, screws, and old shingles, drove them to the town dump four or twenty miles away, and unloaded them with a wide, flat-blade shovel normally used in one of the more northern or midwestern states during snow times. I drove about twenty miles an hour to the dump—I had to do so, seeing as the back end almost dragged the asphalt what from the weight—and maybe ten miles an hour back, after stopping by Felton’s, on Rufus Rue’s demand, to get a twelve-pack of the cheapest beer for day’s end celebrations, a convenience store that didn’t check IDs.

“If you’re old enough to work roofing, you’re old enough to drink beer,” Rufus said to me on the first day. I have to say—by the end of that second week, roofing looked like a viable alternative, at the time, to going to college, studying history and more Latin, becoming a public defender, wearing polyester suits, marrying a woman who put up with me only, and siring a smart-ass, delusional child with little ambition. I thought to myself, What’s better than not having to think much, rolling a magnetic device around people’s perimeters, off-loading rubbish, then drinking beer? Later on I would ask that question to my friends and colleagues, and they had zero repartee. One of my co-workers drove a garbage truck one summer, so he nodded, but I got nothing else from everyone else there at my shop, Drew’s Coin and Bullion.


On Fridays, my father went to the bank and bought one hundred dollars’ worth of pennies, dimes and quarters—like a hundred rolls of pennies, six rolls of dimes, and two rolls of quarters. Sometimes he switched it off—five rolls of quarters, and so on. He always said it depended on a feeling. On Saturdays, he made me sit there at the kitchen table, unrolling coins, then looking through them for wheat pennies or silver Roosevelts and Washington quarters. I flipped pennies over, looking for those stalks on the back. As for dimes, I took out a loupe and scoured the dates, in hopes of finding something pre-1965. I didn’t know it at the time, but he wanted to discover a rare 1944-D Lincoln penny, a 1914-S Lincoln penny, some kind of 1969 Double Die Obverse coin, and so on. Then there was the elusive 1932S quarter, not to mention all the ones from the 1800s that went for thousands of dollars, as if we’d find one. My father ventured to discover a number of coins. He said there was some kind of “Barber dime” that could fetch more than a million dollars. I didn’t listen that much, and wasn’t sure why he trusted me to take my index and middle fingers on my right hand, go two-two-two-two, then set fifty coins aside to replace in a paper sleeve that held either fifty cents or five dollars or ten dollars for him to return.

I did not think of my future. I thought about sergeants in the Army ordering useless privates to dig a hole, then fill it back up, over and over.

On that first Saturday after I got paid cash money, plus the beer, my father said, “If we find one of these, Drew, we can retire. You and your mom and I can move to Myrtle Beach, goddamn it. Do you know how nice it would be to no longer represent people who don’t have a chance in life?”

I said, “I didn’t want to mention it, but that magnetic sweeper thing might not work so great. I stepped on a nail walking right behind it. And these boots might not be all that great. Do I have a recent tetanus shot?”

He didn’t hear me. He said, “Oh, man, I have an idea. When Rufus isn’t watching too close, why don’t you run that magnetic sweeper around people’s back yards, you know, acting like you’re just taking a little walk. A lot of people around here—especially old timers—buried coins on their land. They’d put them in coffee cans and such. A giant magnet would pick that up.”

I thought, That’s some really great advice, Mr. Public Defender. I flicked a plain old regular 1958 wheat penny his way, to add to the other two found out of, what, five thousand?

I said, “If it turns red, I’ll take my foot down to the emergency room.”

“You know, you should take your pay down to the bank, turn it in for coins, and do what I do. Save the rare and valuable coins, squirrel them away for later, and go turn the rest of the regular change in to your bank. Then start over. Over and over. If there’s one thing I want to impart on you, Drew, it’s ‘over and over.’ That’s the best advice I can give, in regard to life. Ad infinitum.”

I said, “How much is that wheat penny I just added?”

My father looked at it. He said, “Two cents. That’s double your money, Drew. Double your money!”

I thought to say, “Who’s going to buy it, though?” but didn’t.

My mother came into the kitchen and said, “It’s good to see you boys working together. Brenton, honey, I told your little story to the girls today, playing tennis. They didn’t think it was funny at all.”

My father smiled. He said, “It’s supposed to be a joke.”

I said, “What joke?”

My mother said, “No,” and went to take a shower.

I said, “What?”

My father said, “I guess it wouldn’t be all that funny to Christians. I came up with this one myself: ‘If Mary were truly a virgin, when Jesus came out, he should’ve been, you know, eight or nine pounds as usual, but about four feet tall and skinny, like he came out of a clay extruder, or a pasta maker, what with her being a virgin.”

I didn’t get it. I looked down and saw a steel penny. I said, “I don’t get it,” though I did.

My father said, “Neither did a judge I told it to. Maybe it’ll be a better joke around Christmas time. You’ll get it after you go to college.” He said, “I know you didn’t ask, but I can go to a number of coin shows, or flea markets after I retire, and someone will buy a wheat penny, no matter the year, as long as it’s Fine or Extra Fine, like this one is. Hell, they might pay two cents for a Poor, Fair, or Good, just to shove into their loafers.”

My foot hurt, I thought, but later on in life I realized that I suffered from a certain hypochondria. I figured out my father’s supposed joke—something about an overly-tight birth canal. And although my high school psychology teacher said to never use this word—he might’ve been the very first person ever to show signs of being politically correct—I said, “Or maybe Jesus should come out of the womb as a pinhead,” instead of using the term used nowadays, whatever that might be. Something between microcephalic and hydrocephalic.

“I can’t wait for you to come join my team,” my father said, which made me proud, oddly.


Once an old roof got scraped over the eaves and the roofers tap-tap-tapped new shingles on, there wasn’t that much for me to do for, say, one working day. Oh, I continued to roll that magnetic sweeper around, and sure enough found stray nails I’d somehow missed. I found scraps of old tar paper, but not much else. So, with my father’s voice in my head, I did, indeed, start walking around people’s back yards, feigning to go pee off behind a Leyland Cypress or wherever. I don’t know how strong a magnetic sweeper’s field may be, but twice over the summer I pulled a collar out of the ground that once belong to a buried dead dog. I thought, Man, people around here are of the “shallow grave” mold, and, feeling bad about it, shoved the collars back into the hole.

“Horace always said, ‘Leave some of the tar paper scattered around in case someone needs to use it for toilet paper,’” Perry said about once an hour on these days, tap-tap-tapping. I tried to translate this mantra into Latin, but couldn’t. Charta. Papyrus. I never could figure out the word for “toilet,” and then got stuck wondering where Horace, or Cicero, or all those others relieved themselves. Probably wherever they wanted, kind of like roofers.

I found horseshoes. I found lost screwdrivers, one key, more than one pocketknife, old barbed wire fencing, what may or may not have been part of a chastity belt (according to my dad), the mouthpiece of a cheap tuba, one of those old-timey fountain pens, a few fishing lures that I guess flew off when someone practiced casting, pull tabs from the 1960s, sharp tuna can lids, and so on.

“You might want to get a check-up,” Perry said at least once a day. “You ain’t drinking beer on the job, are you? I’ve never seen a boy pee so much. Horace said he always peed down a chimney doing winter roofing, if the owners built a fire that smoked him out.”

And I said, always, “Parva vesicae,” for I’d looked up how to say “small bladder.”

Then, finally, sure enough, I found that old Folger’s can filled with nothing but silver coins. I’m talking Morgan dollars from the 1880s, and Walking Liberties from the 1920s. I didn’t even have my magnetic sweeper with me—I’d actually gone off wandering behind a giant oak tree, wasting time, and caught a glint below my feet. One of the tree’s roots had shoved the can upward, it appeared.

I took the can and put it in the trunk of my car. I thought, I wonder if my father came onto this job site and hid this cache, testing me.

The new roofer, not Perry, walked past me soon thereafter, his right hand filled with scrap pieces of tar paper. I said, “There’s already a nice hole to use, behind that oak tree over there,” and pointed.

He said, “Lots of squirrels on this property. I might come over here later with my .22.”

I said, “We haven’t met officially. I’m Drew.”

He stared at me about three counts and said, “Squirrel ain’t bad if you cook it right.”

I said, “It’s about time for me to go get the beer.”

“It’s Friday,” Squirrel Guy said. “We get paid. I’ll have about three dollars left over after paying child support.”


Of course I got out my dad’s latest issues of  COINage, Coins, Numismatic News, Coin World Weekly, and those other ones. If my father set aside the money he used to subscribe to these magazines, he might be able to buy at least a condo down at Myrtle Beach. As it ended up, that coffee can held a hundred silver dollars and another hundred fifty-cent pieces. All of the coins—not that I owned any kind of appraisal-worthy abilities then—showed wear, from barely to somewhat. None were uncirculated. Just on the price of silver alone—at the time—I could turn these things in to a number of pawn shops and get upwards of anywhere from, hell, I couldn’t do the math. I might’ve known some Latin after graduating high school, but there was a reason I scored nearly perfect on the Verbal part of the SAT, and only 490 on the Math section. I fucking knew that, in Latin, the word for “silver” happened to be “argenti,” but I didn’t know, without a calculator, 150 ounces times .90 for silver content, times going rate of silver.

But I knew enough about math to know about poker, and to know about “tells” and “bluffing,” so when my father came home in his polyester suit, sparking static electricity on anything he touched from doorknob to metallic martini shaker, I said nothing. I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for him to unleash his rolls of coins. My mother stood in the den, looking at a goldfish bowl that offered no activity, though she’d sent off to get a pack of those shrimp, or sea-monkeys. During my childhood we’d had one dog and one cat, but both ran off, I think because they didn’t like to be shocked on the nose when my father tried to pet them.

I waited for him to say, “Did you find anything? Hmmmm?  Hmmmmm? Hmmmm?” like that.

He didn’t. Instead, he said, “Man, it was just like Perry Mason! Out of nowhere this guy sitting there stood up and said, ‘I did it, I did it!’ You know, while my client was on the witness stand saying how he was up in Asheville, touring that Biltmore House during the murder. How often does that happen? Answer: Never. Well, the judge banged her gavel and said, ‘Case dismissed,’ I think. It happened so fast. Anyway, my client’s free for now. Oh, he’ll probably mess up in the future, but still. Do you know him, Drew? He used to work at Rufus Rue Roofing. Guy named Horace.”

I shook my head No. I didn’t feel like going into all the things I’d known Horace to say, even though I’d never met him. I said, “Good.”

My father made his drink and came to the table. He said, “How’s everything going?”

“Fair,” I said.

“Man oh man. It’s days like these that make me know, more than ever, that you should join my team in about seven years.” My father swirled the shaker in his left hand. He said, “If you become a lawyer, Drew, do you know what you’ll never be?”

I thought for a minute. I had a lot of smart-ass answers, ranging from “moral” to “suicidal.” I said, “Poor.”

He said, “Well, yeah, probably.” He cleared his throat. He said, “I forgot what we’re talking about.” Then he asked me, “Your mother told me you got a letter from your roommate-to-be. How’s he?”

I said, “Fine.”

Then I realized he was on to me. He asked me questions that I could answer solely with numismatic grades: Poor, Good, Fair, Fine. I almost wanted to hear what he’d ask that might prompt me to say “Extra fine” or “Mint.” So I said, of course, “You were right! I found a coffee can filled with silver dollars and half-dollars.” Then I ran to my room, went to my closet, pulled off my extra quilt from the floor, opened a cardboard box, and pulled out the can of coins. Back at the table, I spilled them out slowly.

From the look on my father’s face, I could tell that he’d not planted them for me, earlier. No, more than anything his face offered a look of divine helplessness—like he realized he’d wasted every Friday night, and sometimes Saturdays, in search of a worthy penny, dime, or quarter, and never found one worth more than my worst Walking Liberty. He said, “Goddamn,” which could’ve been one of the coin grades, either most worn or better than uncirculated. My father said, “Please tell me this won’t make you want to be a roofer for the rest of your life. Or a landscaper. Where’d you find these?”

I told him. He said, “Don’t tell me you might want to be a tree surgeon after college.”

My mother showed up from the non-existent sea monkeys, still dressed as if she’d been to a garden club, bridge club, whatever—and saw my bounty on the table. My mother looked a lot like one of those wives on a 1950s sitcom. Later on in life, I would notice a number of “tradwives” who came into my shop, wanting to purchase sets of Proof coins for their children from whatever year the kids got born. She said, “Y’all found all those in a roll of pennies?”


The job came to an end at the end of July, for Rufus Rue had no more roofs scheduled. At the house where I’d found the can of silver, I scoured all around the oak tree, only to find that Perry’s helper used it for a bathroom more than a few times. He might’ve suffered from large intestine problems. It didn’t make me want to go to college and later become a gastroenterologist.

I did my regular tasks on that last day, and I came across nothing worthwhile scouring the people’s yard. I took my last paycheck in twenties, and drank beer with my co-workers per usual. Rufus said, “You done a good job, Drew. Next summer, come see me if you want to sign on again. I’m hoping for a number of tornadoes and hurricanes between now and next May so we’ll be flush with insurance work.”

Perry said, “Horace said, ‘On the last day of any job, you should drink more than normal.’”

So I did. I stood there in the driveway of a house owned by rich people who’d already moved to their beach house for the Fall and Winter, and I slammed six PBRs, one after another. In less than a month I’d be up in Chapel Hill, I thought, doing the same with my new roommate, who promised to bring some kind of quadrophonic stereo system, complete with Old School turntable.

Soon thereafter, on the side of the road after trying to drive home, a highway patrolman shined his flashlight in my eyes even though it wasn’t dark outside. I realized that I wouldn’t go to college, study history, go to law school, then get out in order to take on a life as some kind of rehab specialist. I’ll go ahead and jump to when I had to go to court, with my father defending me.

There on the roadside, I knew that I’d have to pay some court fees, that I’d have to take my silver down to a pawn shop—as it ended up, silver’d gone up to twenty bucks an ounce, so I had just enough money to pay what the judge thought necessary instead of my going to jail a week before the entire scheduled orientation.

When I handed over my silver, I thought only E Pluribus Unum, I swear.

As we walked out of the courtroom, my father said nothing. I thought, Is this how things will be in the future? Will I get jobs, only to save money that’ll be lost later on? Would it be just like all these poor, sad folks who finally saved enough money toward retirement, only to spend it on a damaged roof?

My mother waited for us out in the courthouse’s parking lot. She didn’t smile, but she didn’t shake her head sideways, either. Later on, she’d tell me that she thought how much sons become their fathers. Later in life, after my father’s tragic death caused by his ramming into—get this—the back end of a Brinks truck stopped to deliver or take money from a bank, my mother told me how she thought, There’s no way Drew is going to get a job in Hollywood.

I felt bad about letting down my parents, certainly. But I didn’t think of much else. No, for some reason I daydreamed about my very first history class I’d take in college. Somehow I knew that the professor would start right off, after passing out syllabi, with that quote from Santayana about not remembering the past, and being condemned to repeating it. I kind of foresaw the professor actually quoting it in Latin, for some reason, and asking if anyone present understood what he or she meant. And then I’d raise my hand quickly and hard, maybe find a way to bring up how Horace once wrote, “Make a good use of the present.”

Or I might think it necessary to bring up how I’d never want to step on a nail again.


About the Author

GEORGE SINGLETON has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of advice. In the Fall of 2023 he'll publish a collection of stories titled the Curious Lives of Non-Profit Martyrs, and a collection of essays titled Asides. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Playboy, Story, One Story, Zoetrope, the Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He's had non-fiction in Oxford American, Garden and Gun, Best Food Writing 2005, and elsewhere. Old Guggenheim fellow. Received one Pushcart. Member of Fellowship of Southern Writers. Still living in South Carolina, fighting the god fight.


Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash