The Folsom Boys

by Matt Barrett


Once, when we were kids, we sat in the quiet darkness between our homes, our pockets stuffed with other people’s things, jewelry from our neighbor’s house and cash from my mother’s dresser, and with our heads in the grass, we looked up at all those little stars, so many miles away from here, and wondered how far we’d get if we got up now and ran, and in those quiet, twinkling hours, before the sun peeked over the hills, we saw two versions of our future: one where we lived as runaways and one where we were stuck, turning the same dirt over in the same small town, so when we got up and ran, we wondered whose choice it even was, and I think we saw ourselves living long in old saloons and lying beneath the moon on sandy desert lands, but when we reached the edge of our high school, which my brother once tried to burn down, we paused for a moment and thought who are we to run? No one in our town ran. Not my brother when they found him with matches in his hands, not my mother when she lost her job. Not even our neighbor whose jewelry went missing, a few pieces at a time. We wondered where the men went, but rumor was they disappeared. When we found ourselves on baseball diamonds or on stage singing our lungs dry, our daddies’ seats were empty but not because they ran. They went poof one day, like a magic act, after they’d had enough children or lost enough money or forgot the boys they used to be. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t grow up like that—wouldn’t dissolve into that summer air, wouldn’t evaporate into the clouds. We’d stick our feet in the ground and plant ourselves like a great white oak so when the sun tried sucking us up, we’d use its rays to photosynthesize and grow so large we’d shade our mothers when the days turned hot. Yeah, we spent their money on cigarettes now. And lizard skins to wear so we looked cool. But when they searched our pockets for the things they’d lost, we took their hands in ours and said, We promise you won’t lose us.


Matt Barrett is a writer from Pennsylvania. He teaches creative writing at Gettysburg College and holds an MFA in Fiction from UNC-Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun Magazine, The Threepenny Review, The Baltimore Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Best Microfiction (’22 & ’23), Best Small Fictions (’23), and elsewhere.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “The Folsom Boys”?

I think there are two potentially interesting things about the way I drafted “The Folsom Boys.” The first is that, like in all of my work, I try to write an exciting first sentence, something that hints at the story to come. When I began writing the opening sentence, I liked that it didn’t want to end, which gave me the idea that the boys would decide to run. Just as the sentence runs on and on, these boys would have to run, too. But when I realized the sentence was nearing its end, I knew the boys would have to stop, too, that they were going to think things through more methodically, slowly, and turn back around for home. So, the decisions they made were based, in large part, on the form the prose was taking. The second thing that might be interesting is I didn’t have a title for the story until a Johnny Cash song came on my radio and he was singing about the Folsom prison. And I thought, what if that’s that backdrop here, that these boys are growing up in Folsom, and for this fleeting moment, they have a chance to run but don’t take it. Are they just going to end up in that prison someday, or are they actually going to do as they imagine and make their mothers proud?


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