Gilded pain in the heart of New Mexico

A new collection of short stories offers a portrait of people on the fringes.

 

“‘People are hurting’: that was something she’d heard the governor say on television, in conceding that New Mexico had officially become the poorest state in the Union, behind Mississippi. They weren’t being hurt, they just ‘hurt,’ passively, intransitively.”      

“The Sand Car,” from which the above quote is taken, is the final story in José Skinner’s new collection, The Tombstone Race. It encapsulates both the bitter pain and the transient glory radiating from two new volumes of short fiction by New Mexico writers.

Skinner’s 14 stories travel the state from Taos to Clovis, Chimayo to Fort Sumner, while all 10 narratives in James Terry’s collection, The Kingdom of the Sun, take place in Deming, offering a multifaceted portrait of the Southwestern town of 14,000, close to the Mexican border. Skinner’s protagonists include the poor, the addicted, the struggling-to-survive — among them several gay characters, both in and out of the closet. Most are Hispanic, some from the descendants of pre-statehood families, including possible Conversos — Spaniards who fled the Inquisition in the 16th century, whose genuine, possibly Jewish backgrounds may be unknown to their 20th century descendants.

A luminaria burns and flickers in the dark.
Christopher Holden/CC Flickr

Terry focuses more on the non-Hispanic population, but he excavates a similar stratum of wounded humanity: lonely men who ache for compassion, usually settling for unsatisfying sex instead of connection; an off-the-grid pregnant woman alone in her trailer while her husband hunts for rocks in the heat of the day; the old-timers who wistfully recall the days when Deming’s railroad hub was supposed to transform it into a bustling “New Chicago,” a destiny never realized.

Short story collections generally offer their strongest works as bookends, and both writers adhere to this custom. “The Sand Car” illustrates many of Skinner’s strengths as a chronicler of New Mexico’s below-the-radar population. Its protagonist is an elderly artist, Bettina Dixon, who fled the East, and her husband, decades earlier for the open light of the desert — a woman in the tradition of Georgia O’Keeffe, though she never achieved the fame of that iconic painter.

Bettina (who shares the surname of New Mexico’s great landscape painter, Maynard Dixon) has spent her career charting the deterioration of a wrecked 1930s Chrysler in the arroyo outside her home. Once, these paintings drew praise, but now, her working life cut short by arthritis, she has been forgotten: yesterday’s news. A young junkie, Rudy Romero, hangs around her property. “She encountered him crouched on top of the old car, drawing something into his syringe from a spoon. … When she looked again, she saw the needle fall from his arm and his head loll back in bliss, the lines in his face smoothing over like silt after a gentle rain.” 

This scene epitomizes the juxtaposition of beauty and horror seen in both writers’ works. The old woman resents Rudy’s literal occupation of what she perceives to be her property: the “cannibalized car” and the land itself:

The arroyo contained other castaway human things besides the old car, though these did not appear in her paintings. The earliest litter consisted of little piles of tin cans, deeply rusted, perhaps left by the WPA crews who built the arroyo’s caged-rock gabions. Later came aluminum and plastic and the empty aerosol paint cans used to paint rune-like graffiti on the sides of the bridge. Most recent to appear were spent condoms and hypodermic needles. Now, as she made her way gingerly down the slope by the ridge, a condom appeared in front of her face, hanging from a Russian olive branch like some kind of revolting seedpod.

But Rudy is also an artist, full of talent and troubles, and Bettina reluctantly recognizes herself in him. Skinner directs the story to a surprising and ultimately satisfying end concerning the possible loss of the arroyo and its unlikely creative cargo.

“Luminarias,” Terry’s closing story, offers a very different transient beauty. “All along the street the luminarias were going out en masse, the bags sagging from the wetness and weight of accumulating snow. Those that continued to burn seemed to burn all the brighter for the darkness deepening around them.” In this story, the old families are dying out — literally — while the young protagonist, Margot, who fled Deming years before for the brighter artificial lights of New York City, finds herself pulled back to the yearning core of her New Mexican childhood. “She could never pass the library without feeling again something of the magic she had discovered there as a child. All those beautiful worlds she had escaped into were still there behind the walls of that little stucco building.”

Like Margot’s beloved library, these two collections house multiple magical worlds, each story containing its own aching heart, artfully reflecting its own complex vision of modern-day New Mexico.

Kingdom of the Sun: Stories
James Terry
206 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2016.

The Tombstone Race
José Skinner
191 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2016.