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The Spirit Bird

The Spirit Bird: Stories

Kent Nelson
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    The Spirit Bird
    Book Description:

    Winner of the 2014 Drue Heinz Literature PrizeThe flight path ofThe Spirit Birdtraces many landscapes and different transitory lives. A young man scratches out a living from the desert; a woman follows a rarely seen bird in the far reaches of Alaska; a poor single mother sorts out her life in a fancy mountain town. Other protagonists yearn to cross a racial divide, keep developers from a local island, explore their sexuality, and mourn a lost loved one. The characters in this collection are compelled to seek beyond their own horizons, and as the stories unfold, the search becomes the expression of their desires. The elusive spirit bird is a metaphor for what we've lost, for what we hope for, and for what we don't know about ourselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8022-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. ALBA
    (pp. 1-24)

    ÚLTIMO VARGAS HAD BEEN IN HATCH, New Mexico, only six months, since March, and already he owned his own business to compete with Netflix, delivering compact disc movies and video games to ranchers and people who lived within twenty miles of town. He had worked out a deal with Señora Gaspar, who owned the video store, to pay him 90 percent of the delivery fee, and if he took out more than fifty videos in a week, a premium on the extras.

    Último had a moped, which made it feasible. Gas prices were high, and the delivery fee saved customers...

    (pp. 25-39)

    THE TURBOPROP KING AIR DESCENDS from the clouds and cants low over the sea, around the snowy block of Sevuokuk Mountain—the sacred place—and there’s the town of Gambell: lines of shacks strung out on a stark gravel bar, with the lake behind, still frozen at the end of May. Some of the shacks have red roofs, some blue, some shiny tin, and each house has a four-wheeler beside it. There are no trees. I see only one large building, the aluminum-sided school at the edge of town toward the mountain, but otherwise, no brick post office, no granite...

  3. RACE
    (pp. 40-67)

    HAKIM WOKE EARLY THE MORNING OF the half-marathon—6 a.m.—the last Saturday in August, though the race didn’t start until 7:30. Sarah, his renter, had to be at the Yeast-I-Can-Do at five, so she made coffee before she left, though never strong enough, and he added a spoonful of instant to the carafe. Sarah had an upstairs room—renting, for Hakim, was an experiment whose verdict was still out. The house was too big for one person, and Hakim liked having the extra money for utilities, which in a small town were expensive. He didn’t mind Sarah’s peculiarities. She...

    (pp. 68-107)

    “WE ARE CONSTANTLY LEARNING.” BILLY Prioleau told me that years ago, but day to day the education was murky, halting, and unheralded, and it never felt like learning. In the end, looking back, we thought we’d made progress, or at least that we’d changed, which wasn’t the same as progress. I liked to believe change was good; it kept us alive and thinking about what we should do next.

    In the thirty years since my father moved us out here, the island had accreted on the north and eroded on the south. People on the north end built more houses...

    (pp. 108-127)

    IT’S DARK AS EVA BAENA LEAVES HER apartment, but light is seeping up over the hills to the east. Her daughter, Marisa, not quite a year old, is sleeping, and Eva hates to abandon her, but what can she do? It’s Tuesday, her roommate Jenny’s day off—she’s sleeping, too—and Eva at least doesn’t have to rely on her mother, who lives across town. Eva shoulders her backpack, descends the steps from the second tier, and walks past the nursing home, the acupuncturist’s office, and the gym, aiming for the fluorescent light above the Phillips 66 station on Townsend....

    (pp. 128-153)

    I’M NOT SURE WHEN IT FIRST HAPPENED—maybe the evening of the Other Ones Dead show in Ashland, Oregon—thousands of people, guys with electrified hair wrapped in bandannas or straight hair put in ponytails, wearing T-shirts with Jerry on them, or shirtless with tattoos of peace symbols and body paintings, shorts unbuttoned with one-eyed snakes hanging out,unreal, and chicks, in all manner of getups or non-getups (getdowns?), their eyes like comic book XXX’s, barefoot a lot of them, their breasts swinging and their hair all sweaty as they danced. I’m talking about2002, one of the rare palindromic...

    (pp. 154-163)

    THE CIRRUS ARE SHRINKING BUT STILL white, high above the desert. The thicket darkens. The sun has fallen through the leaves of the single cotton-wood at the pond, and the water is blue-gray and rose from the reflection of the sky. Near the slough the air is muggy, but the quiet is what makes me uneasy. As Ellen and I follow the animal path around the water, I’m conscious of the pall that rises from the silence. A towhee’s scratching among dead leaves is the only sound.

    We’re twenty miles from paved road, thirty from Lukeville, though from where we...

    (pp. 164-185)

    THE EVENTS THAT LED TO MY SECLUSION on Ocracoke Island began a little more than four months ago at a weekend family reunion in Panama City. During the weeks earlier, in May, I’d had orders for custom cabinets, a dining room set with six chairs, and a bureau of cherrywood, and I was finishing two of my own table designs I wanted to get into a furniture gallery in Atlanta. Wood is irrational and can’t be rushed, so when the reunion occurred (if that’s what it was), I was more impatient than usual. That’s what Emma said. “You weren’t yourself,...

    (pp. 186-212)

    ANSON HEMPKIN BELIEVED IN JESUS Christ, and every night, while Faye put the kids to bed, he got down on his knees and prayed to the plastic statue on top of his television. He prayed his roofing company would prosper, the weather would be good, and Enrique and Pablo would show up for work. He prayed the city council would grant a variance for the megahouse on the bluff, the roof for which he had a contingent contract. He prayed for his children’s welfare and Faye’s, and that she would lose weight. He prayed he wouldn’t get caught marking up...

    (pp. 213-237)

    MYRON DIDN’T KNOW WHERE THE IDEA came from. It wasn’t born of desire or need, but more from wondering about what he hadn’t done, like laying bricks or wiring a house or living on the coast of Maine. Was he missing an experience that might have enriched him? How would he know? He’d been married to Julia for thirty-three years, lived in Globe for twenty-six of them, and had two daughters who’d graduated from Arizona State—one, like Myron, a pharmacist who lived in Tucson, and the other an elementary art school teacher in Fresno, cohabiting with her boyfriend. Myron...

    (pp. 238-258)

    THERE WERE TWO OLD GRINGOS AT THE bar with two young Costa Rican women in short dresses, and the bartender was pouring shots of Wild Turkey for five, thinking, I suppose, he was in on the action. The taller gringo stood between the barstools where the women sat. He was lanky, tan, gray hair in a ponytail, and he wore a blue flowered Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals. The other was balding, paunchier, and had on a tan safari shirt. The bartender was young, also American, though now and then he threw in Spanish words when he made jokes to...

    (pp. 259-266)

    THE WINDROWER LURCHED LEFT, AND Joan raised the cutting bar to slide over what she knew was the unseen mound of a gopher hole under the dry alfalfa. The earth in the dark shadow was damp still from rain days before, and the windrower veered sharply until Joan caught the wheel and brought it back. She imagined the gophers underground, frightened—as she had once been as a child when a jet fighter flew overhead so close the ground shook—scurrying away from the new light the cut hay shed on them, down into their burrows into blackness, into damp...

    (pp. 267-294)

    THE ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN CAUSED by George W. Bush’s arrogance, incompetence, and malfeasance threw Glenna Wolski’s work schedule at Olson’s Saab into turmoil. People weren’t buying cars, but they weren’t maintaining the ones they had, either, and Randy, the service manager, had let two mechanics go and restructured the others’ time. Fred and Alvin liked four-day weeks; Geoff wanted overtime; LaTrell and Leviticus preferred eight-hour days with a half-hour for lunch. Larry and Glenna didn’t care. According to Randy’s estimate of customer satisfaction and employee efficiency, Larry was the best service technician, but Glenna was up there close, which, as the...

    (pp. 295-318)

    THE PAINTING CLASS STARTED SATURDAY morning at ten and lasted until Gabriella decided she’d had enough. Gaby Schiavoni was my father’s friend from the past, not a lover, with whom he stayed when he visited my half-sisters, Ottie, who was ten, and Sal, who was seven. I’d graduated from Haverford the previous June and wanted to travel in Asia, but was saddled with student loans. My parents weren’t about to let me escape earning a living (or paying off my debt), so I’d taken the straw my stepmother Charlotte waved at me—she’d get me to Berkeley if I’d au...