October 25: “Alba” by Kent Nelson

What’s happening, Story366? Me, not much. Today I did some straightening up around the house, went to the grocery store, attended a parent-teacher conference, mailed some stuff from the office, made some calls. You know, normal stuff. I made chicken with Shake ‘n Bake for dinner, rice and salad on the side, and might watch The Flash later on tonight.

Oh, and I’m watching the Chicago Cubs play in the World Series.

You know, normal stuff.

For today’s post, I read from Kent Nelson‘s collection, The Spirit Bird, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I’ve known Nelson’s work for a while, plus I got to know him just a bit when he was the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green my last semester there, Spring 2012. Kent’s a cool dude and a talented writer, so I was happy to see him win the Heinz award, to see his book come out, and now, for me to read it for Story366.

Cubs up by -3 so far. Nail biter. More updates soon.

I read the first few stories in The Spirit Bird (which is a massive and gorgeous book, by the way) and I liked them all. That included the title story, “The Spirit Bird,” and I could have written about that piece very easily, as I love how Nelson builds tension in that story, how patient he is in getting to its end. I like the first story, “Alba,” a bit better, though, so here we go.

“Alba” is about Último Vargas, a kid from Mexico who has made his way to New Mexico to strike his fortune. Actually, he never sets out to strike a fortune, but to survive, more or less. His mom and one sister are in one Mexican city, another sister is in his hometown, and his dad is somewhere in California, so he’s not getting a lot of family help. What he does have is a lot of ingenuity, moxie, and relentlessness. He works three jobs at a time, never sleeps, and often finds himself living in caves, in cars, and in abandoned houses. What he can do, however, is save and invest (plus send money home to his family). Most of all, Último is good at making friends, mostly through his job as a video store deliveryman, a position he invented himself at one of his jobs. He drives his moped—which he saved for—out into and around the desert, often staying to chat, even have dinner, at the ranches and trailers where he delivers the movies.

Último’s smiling face and hard work eventually pay off, as people start to help him out. One patron gives him an old pick-up truck. Another lets him live on abandoned piece of land, in a ramshackle house where tires hold down the tin roof. Women come on to him, too, including young Isabel, who becomes his lover, but only after he impregnates and marries Brenda; two weeks after the wedding, Brenda finds the pregnancy is only a scare and disappears with another man, leaving Último with her debt and an apartment he can’t afford.

No matter what kind of strife Último endures, he always bounces back. At one point, for example, the video store burns down (not his fault) and he’s out that job, so fundamental to his life and the story. That frees Último up, more or less, and he starts to get serious about bettering his situation. That shack he lives in becomes a prime piece of real estate, but only because he gets it for almost nothing, tracking down Brenda and extorting her for the down payment, Brenda marrying some other guy, in effect, living as a bigamist. Último plans to use the land to grow chiles—what every farmer in the area grows—but he insists he’ll grow the best chiles, and by this point of the story, you just believe him: Último can do anything he sets his mind to, simply by willing it so. Even when it takes him weeks to pick the rocks out of the land, we never even consider that Último will fail.

So, “Alba” is an American success story (not that I’m giving the ending away), illustrating how hard work, persistence, and creativity can lead a person from even the most humble beginnings down the road of prosperity. All of that, however, leaves out a major part of “Alba,” Alba, the young woman with whom Último was in love back in Mexico. Alba is religious and chaste, and as young Último sets off for America, she refuses to sleep with him. She does, however, agree to reveal herself, and one day, in the back room of their church, she undresses, letting Último take her in, swearing he’ll remember her forever. Even while he’s with Brenda and Isabel, Último keeps his promise, as she appears to him, a glowing, majestic figure, at key points in his life in New Mexico. Maybe Alba is guiding him, maybe she’s inspiring him. In any case, she’s there, a big part of the story for Último and a bold inclusion for Nelson.

Okay, so the Cubs are still down, in the seventh, 3-0, though they’re getting some good swings and playing well (aside from not having any runs). As I head into my concluding paragraph, that’s your World Series update. Hopefully, by the time I’m back at you tomorrow, or even by the time I post this, I have better news.

Kent Nelson has been writing and publishing for a long time and The Spirit Bird is just another accomplishment in a distinguished career. I love how much I know about Nelson’s characters by the end of his stories, their actions defining them so well, Nelson creating interesting predicaments and choices for them to face. His detailed settings are a nice complement to his people, together making for some great fiction.