Having moved with her teen daughter Ruby to the secluded village of Zamora, Kate Ryan hopes to embrace an uneventful life among the Spanish farmers of northern New Mexico in this gritty, southwestern thriller. When Kate invites the wrong drifter into her home and life, the delicate peace of her domain shatters. But when the drifter is shot and Ruby disappears, the quiet village erupts with confusion and fear. As the Spanish farmers camp outside the Ryan house and offer their quixotic and profound support, everyone in town—including the sheriff, the local doctor, Ruby's friend and his mother, and the clinic's nurse—has a different theory on Troy's assailant, Ruby's kidnapping, and the discovery of an unidentified corpse. Written in prose as stark and beautiful as New Mexico's landscape, this stirring novel is filled with ominous surprises as it travels the back roads from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to Idaho’s Bitterroot Wilderness.
About the Author
Summer Brenner is the author of I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex; Ivy, Homeless in San Francisco; and My Life in Clothes. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Read an Excerpt
By Summer Brenner, Janine Herisson
PM PressCopyright © 2012 Summer Brenner
All rights reserved.
From a hundred yards down the Zamora road in the back of a rusted wheelless and faded turquoise pick-up on the only way in and out of the village, Ruby Ryan lay shivering under a cotton blanket. Going to the fields, the Spanish farmers passed the human form in the truck. It was Ruby, Kate Ryan's teenage daughter. That, they knew. Accustomed as they were to the shape and stupor of alcohol and drugs in their own families, they paid little attention. They climbed the paths behind the gas station to the precipitous arid plots of land where they surveyed their rows of green chile and squash, the trickling water in the irrigation ditches. They crossed themselves.
"With water life is not bad," they concurred. Then, crossed themselves again.
They believed they were fortunate it was Taos, not Zamora, that artists, anthropologists, tourists, and Texans discovered decades ago. Zamora had remained poor and shabby, an inhospitable village on a serpentine back road. Neither quaint nor friendly, it had a reputation as a place travelers should pass through quickly. Nothing típico of New Mexican charm had been put on display. No strings of red chiles on the doors. Or terra cotta pots of flowers under whitewashed porticos. Or hand-painted signs to the old church or ruin, the glassblower or weaver.
Only once in recent memory had an intruder violated the village's unspoken rule and erected a road stand for his raku pots. Sales were not only nil but the village storekeeper refused his business. A month later, his trailer was burned and he fled.
Afterwards, ominous stories about Zamora spread to other members of the nomadic white tribe looking to attach themselves to authentic identities and cheap land. Zamora was authentic and the price of dry earth cheap, but the atmosphere was hostile and tough. Only gringos with something to hide took delight in its dilapidated houses and rusty junk.
Ruby lay on a piece of smelly foam, her head on her denim jacket. Tossed around the truck were her cowboy boots, socks, a dingy brassiere, a few empty cans of Coors. Since her mom's new boyfriend arrived, Ruby spent more nights in the truck than at home.CHAPTER 2
"Well, how about it?" Troy growled, his look suggesting Kate was welcome to make his coffee.
Kate ignored him. For two days, her opinion of Troy Mason had concentrated solely on his departure. When he charmed his way home with her from a bar in Española, he needed a place for one night. So far, he'd hung on for four weeks.
He growled again.
"I don't think so," Kate replied, her eye glancing at his naked body that now bored her to contempt.
He stretched and scratched himself like a happy pet. He guessed he'd have to get his own coffee.
"Did you try the pick-up?" he asked, trying to fake an interest in Kate's pain-in-the-ass daughter.
"I didn't get that far down the road."
"She's probably there with August."
"Probably," Kate said.
"What you got going today?" he asked, ever familiar and easygoing. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
"Besides kicking your ass out?" she winked.
"I still got the rings to finish." His own wink slow and suggestive as if everything about a car suggested a woman's body.
Kate had to admit mechanics were the centerpiece of her sporadic romantic life. In the mountains, they vied with underground chemists as the most important of the practical arts.
"There's a mess in here to clean up." Kate's gaze swept the room past the hanging bed, wood stove, sink. Everything needed dusting. Always. The rugs needed beating. A load of wash waited to be run and line-dried before the rain. Another pile, board stiff from sun, needed folding. Her work table, a solid door on two sawhorses, was in disarray.
Kate's work wasn't dependable or lucrative. The best you could say about growing medicinal plants was the satisfaction it brought her. Although the mainstay of her scanty livelihood, gas to Santa Fe and Albuquerque and a bite of lunch too often devoured any profits. If the car broke down, it put her in debt for months. In the fall, she would have to reconsider other options.
"I got stuff to run to Old Town," she said.
Troy was amused. In general, women amused him, especially those with modest schemes for success.
"What stuff?" he indulged her. He found women quaint.
"Sage, borage, mint, black cohosh, broom, it's the car holding things up."
"It'll be finished this morning. You want things done right?"
"Shit," she sighed.
"You know what's holding me up, baby? It's something bigger than an engine." Troy's cloying complaint. "With what I'm waiting on, you can buy twenty cars."
Kate's lips twisted. Having to listen to Troy's bullshit was part of the penance of having listened to it in the first place on a starry night at Shorty Stack's Bar and Grill, aided and abetted by a few margaritas. She'd believed him. It was the same bright-eyed hopefulness that endeared her to the farmers of Zamora. She believed.
The drifters who appeared from time to time in Kate's life wanted to fix her car, chop her cords of wood, build a shelf or shed, work in the garden. It was barter economy. Her end was shelter, food, sex. For a brief while, it was a pleasure to have reminders of adult male company. Occasionally, the man confessed to love her, hoping for an indispensable place in her domestic life. Within weeks, Kate had tired of the arrangement. "Intrusion," she called it. "Invasion" if it got bad.
Without qualms, Kate asked them to leave. Sometimes, there was a feeble protest but rarely trouble. After all looming in her backyard were the vestiges of Coronado's royal loyal army. If it was a question of logistics, she gave them a ride out of Zamora to Santa Fe and loan of a few dollars. Loan was a misnomer. None of them ever paid her back.CHAPTER 3
Ruby drowsed in the back of the truck, wishing she could plunge into a body of water. A warm gulf, vast ocean, becalmed sea, river. Specifically the Salmon River, where her aunt had a house. Her happiest memories were on the river.
But Ruby's fate was landlocked. Dry dusty ground, scrubby plants, monotonous blue skies, and panoramic vistas of the same shit in all directions. A desert prison, emblematic of thirst, filled with brown barren mountains, brown dirt fields, brown adobe houses.
"Water," she smacked her lips. A reminder it was time to go home. She zipped her jeans, stuffed her bra in a back pocket, grabbed her boots, and headed down the dusty road.
"Hey, you!" Kate called from the garden.
Ruby sauntered across the yard, her breasts high and firm on her statuesque torso. Her sturdy curvaceous rump swinging side to side. At sixteen, she was four inches taller than her mother and outweighed her by twenty pounds. She wasn't as dark as other hippy kids who weren't all gringo. They were regarded as Hispanic, Latino, Indian, Native, but not Ruby. Mulatto used to be the word but no one said that anymore.
"Where you been, Ruby Ryan?" Kate's voice trilled. As usual, she was trying too hard.
Ruby hated when her mother made their encounters seem like normal happy events. Kate's cheerfulness in the ruins of their existence was an insult to common sense.
"In my penthouse, n'est-ce pas?" Ruby sneered, ambling to her mother's side and planting a desultory kiss on her cheek. A loveless gesture that passed as affection in Kate's mind.
"How about breakfast?" Kate cooed. She was coddling but she'd be delighted to make huevos rancheros with tortillas, homemade green chile, fresh-squeezed juice for her girl.
"I'd puke," Ruby said.
Kate swallowed her words. A critique would run Ruby into her room or back to the truck. Instead, she turned to the mountains and sky. Zamora was a place for gods if there were gods.
"Been drinking?" Kate couldn't resist.
Sucking the ends of her hair, Ruby stumbled around the chickens and flats of seedlings, entered the door, and slouched to her room, avoiding the toxic dump site called Troy Mason.CHAPTER 4
"Your little girl don't like me much," Troy said.
"She doesn't like anything," Kate said.
"She'd like me if I had money to throw around." He rolled from underneath Kate's Dodge Power Wagon and shaded his eyes from the sun.
"Ruby doesn't give a damn about money," Kate retorted.
Troy whistled. "Spoiled all the same," he said, taking his time like a windup pitcher. "You got a piece of top-grade filet mignon you left out the fridge. You left it so long it turned gray and stinky. Spoiled so bad, it rotted." In his opinion, spoiled from the get-go by a nigger dad.
"Shut up, Troy!" Kate said.
"Spoiled don't mean what people think. People think you give too much to a kid like toys and shit, it spoils them. That ain't what happens. What happens is the kid don't get taken care of like put in the fridge until it's time to eat. It don't get disciplined or told right from wrong. That's spoiled. What's sad is the kid was born okay." He paused to make his consummate point. "But the parents went and spoiled it."
Kate walked to the cottonwood. It was almost cool under the parasol of leaves.
"Time to go, Troy," she said decisively.
"Spoiled is when people believe they owed. Like deserve to go to heaven because they believe in God. You know what I think? I don't think anybody is owed nothing."
"Meaning everyone is owed something," Kate laughed nastily. "Or no one is owed anything."
"You acting prissy?" Troy skipped a lug wrench across the ground. "Cause it don't take a real high IQ to live in a dirt house, Kate. You live up here doing nothing and think somebody owes you for doing such a good job. You left your fancy family, your fancy college, and slummed it up. You fucked some rednecks and niggers."
"You had a little bastard girl and bought a piece of dirt in a dirty dirt town in the middle of goddamn nowhere. But like everybody else, you ain't owed a goddamn thing. Everything I got I had to work for it."
"What you got?"
"You talking to me?" he spat.
"I asked what you got."
"I got my condo on Maui. I got my silver Porsche 550 Spyder, same year as James Dean. I got a mahogany sailboat in San Francisco, sleeps eight. I got beautiful kids, you seen them. I got it all, but I'm just hard up right now. I ain't been on this side of the fence since the war."
"I heard," she said.
Halfway up the mountain from Shorty's, Kate stopped believing Troy after he took out his wrinkled photos of cars, houses, yachts, a few blond kids and smoothed them on her dashboard.
"You doubting me?" he asked.
There was no answer. Out of confusion, guilt, cowardice, compassion, Kate didn't want to confront the man with the fact he was a liar. Maybe born that way, maybe not.
Ruby emerged from the house.
"Hey!" she said.
It was the friendliest sign Kate had had in days.
Ruby wanted a ride to town. She wanted to go swimming.
"Car ain't ready," Troy said, pleased to disappoint her.
Ruby stared at him. She hated Troy more than anything.
"Not doubting but you still have to go," Kate said.
"After Iraq I wanted to get to Libya, Syria, Egypt, all those rag- head places." Troy's voice swelled.
"And what?" Ruby sniggered. "They wouldn't send you?"
"By the time your daddy made it there, they were fucking desperate."
Ruby jumped on Troy's back. She hooked her arm around his throat and squeezed his ribs with her thighs. "You piece of white ignorant scum!"
"Get off before he kills you!" Kate yelled.
Troy cursed and bucked Ruby to the ground, spun around, and planted his foot on her throat. Kate lifted the shovel and charged. The shovel he seized and threw across the yard. Then, twisting both women's arms, he marched them into the house, one small and sprightly like an Arabian, the other unbroken and brown.
Across the road, the Spanish farmers watched the fight. They knew Kate Ryan was a woman who kept to herself when a man was around. They appreciated that. They also knew she wasn't a drunk or a crazy. Their wives liked her homemade jams and homemade bread. Almost daily, they recalled she stanched an artery at the scene of an accident and saved one of their own. They knew her daughter to be out of control like their own teenagers. Uniformly, they did not trust the newcomer, Troy.
"We're making a few rules here and now!" Troy raised his fist and banged it on the wall.
"Like your rules?" Ruby's eyes rolled.
"Shut up!" he roared.
"My house! My rules!" Kate declared.
Kate tried to move, but Troy grabbed her neck and threw her into a chair.
"I ain't saying you can leave," he said.
"He's crazy," Ruby whispered.
"No telling what I'll do," Troy snarled.
"What do you want?" Kate asked coolly.
Ruby had never seen her mother so cool.
"Take me to the bank. That's what I want."
"Don't give him our money, Mom! Please don't give it to him!"
Troy swatted Ruby's cheek, leaving a trickle of blood.
"Don't you dare touch her!" Kate lunged for Troy's wrist. "Or I'll call the sheriff!"
A laugh rushed from the pit of his abdomen as he ripped the phone from the wall. "Call him, Kate. Tell him I hit your little girl. And then," Troy doubled over, "tell him I'm taking money you got growing plants with your bare hands."CHAPTER 5
The farmers of Zamora were not Mexican, Hispanic, Chicano, or Latino. They were Spanish. They traced their ancestry directly to the latifundia grants awarded by the King of Spain to Coronado's men for their explorations and conquests as they ventured north from the Sonoran desert toward El Dorado, trudging over a thousand miles, invading and disrupting the peaceful sedentary farm life of the Pueblo Indians.
Two hundred years after the soldiers were granted huge tracts of land, it was appropriated by gringo ranchers and thieves, leaving most of the Spanish dynasties destitute. Generations had farmed in the Sangre de Cristo mountains since their ancestors chased gold through the New World. As it turned out, gold was the place itself. The poor soil that had to be nourished, the limited water that had to be conserved, the common bonds of hardship.
For the second time that year, Hector Trujillo entered Kate Ryan's yard. The first was to shoot a large white rooster that chased Kate to the shed where she'd flung herself on the roof, waiting for the bird to wear himself out. Kate gave him the carcass to take home for green chile stew.
That was May after a late snow. A week of omens and incidents. Hector's daughter ran off to Las Vegas. His water pipes burst. His youngest brother slipped on the frozen ground and cracked his head.
When Hector entered Kate Ryan's yard this time, he knew he was trespassing into a private matter. A lover's quarrel, no business of his. It would cost him. It would likely bring trouble on his head. Everything led to trouble, he knew.
Nevertheless, he told himself, "A son-of-a-bitch is a son-of-a-bitch." The simple truism gave him courage to walk across the yard to Kate's window.
Through the glass, he spotted Kate's daughter, Ruby. He never failed to notice how devilishly pretty she was, the color of cocoa like his daughter, a color heightened by unruly red-streaked hair, green eyes, and an insolent vaginal-colored mouth. There was fresh blood on her cheek.
Troy stood in profile, calm and composed. Hector recognized his calm. It was the satisfaction of a man whose demands have been granted through superior physical strength. He had the same look whenever he beat his kids.
Kate Ryan was not in sight. Whether she was hurt or unconscious, he couldn't be sure. Noiselessly, he backed away from the house and crossed the yard to the road. When he reached the edge of the field, he began to trot. Dust and globes of dry sagebrush scattered by the wayside.
"Hector, I ain't seen you run in a hundred years," Marcos shouted as village dogs started to bark.
"Kate Ryan," Hector said breathlessly. "Get your gun."
Marcos was younger and thinner. He could sprint. The sight of two men running, whose habit of slow pace was known as key to a long healthy life, sent an alarm through the village.
"What's wrong, Marcos?" a neighbor called.
"Tell me, man!"
The brothers were too excited to speak. At the entrance to his adobe house, Hector collapsed into his wife's arms with Marcos right behind him. By this time, the Martinez twins and Juan Pedro had joined them.
"Hector says Kate Ryan killed."
Hector nodded in a way that neither denied nor confirmed.
"The girl taken hostage."
Hector nodded but the meaning was unclear.
The men of the newly formed posse looked into each other's eyes, eyes that were brown, weathered, aroused. Their expressions were confident with purpose. As proud descendants of the first conquerors of the New World, they would exact justice.
"Call the sheriff," Hector's wife pleaded. "We have the telephone."
"Too far" was the consensus.
"I will call the sheriff," Marie Luisa announced. "After you kill this man you say killed Kate Ryan, the sheriff will come and arrest you! They will take you away to prison. Hector! Your own children will starve!" she screamed, pulling her husband's hair and pounding his chest.
Hector's oiled cleaned loaded 22-gauge shotgun was mounted behind the wooden door. Marcos had a gun too. The Martinez twins and Juan Pedro retrieved hoe, sickle, and scythe from the tool shack by the corner of the house.
The women did not bless or smile on the little band. Instead, they prayed for lightning to spark a fire in the field. Or flip a truck on the road. Or crash a plane into the mountainside. They prayed for a miracle to stop Hector, Marcos, the Martinez twins, and Juan Pedro from entering Kate Ryan's yard.
Their prayers went unanswered.
The men marched on with a pack of dogs yapping after them.
Excerpted from Nearly Nowhere by Summer Brenner, Janine Herisson. Copyright © 2012 Summer Brenner. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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