Deb Olin Unferth, guest judge for the 2017 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, says that her favorite short stories “ask big questions, sometimes in the smallest spaces,” but try to avoid providing easy answers. “Like life,” she says, “in a good story there are no simple solutions.”
All five of this year’s finalists asked the big questions in a small space — after all, our word count maximum is 2,500. But following Deb’s dictum, the solutions are far from simple… if they exist at all.
Throughout September we’ll publish three of the four runners-up, leading up to the winning story, which will appear in our October print edition and then online.
First up is Kim Henderson’s “Malena,” set in a small New Mexico town. After the story, Henderson explains to us that “Malena” has its genesis in a newspaper article about her own hometown being named the fastest-shrinking city in the United States.
Big questions in a small space that’s getting smaller. Sounds up our judge’s alley.
My town is a blip on the map I can guarantee you’ve never heard of, but it was graced with a beautiful girl for a while. You won’t have heard of her, either, but if you’d seen her back in ’96, walking into Rio Puerco Middle School for the first time in her plaid shirtdress, black army boots and John Lennon sunglasses, her wild, curly black hair glistening in the sun, you would have thought for sure she was somebody, that you were someplace important.
You wouldn’t have yet spotted the disease sprouting on her wrists that was to stain her skin like spilled bleach, and you wouldn’t have pegged her as a girl who would never leave town. You wouldn’t have lumped her with the rest of us, not with those California white teeth, that light brown Hollywood skin, those Audrey Hepburn eyebrows that arched in beautiful contrast to our thick, unplucked strips.
Though just one state stood between us and California, it was a place we’d only dreamed of, a place of trendsetters and movie stars, notorious gangsters, rappers with mansions, girls who got yanked off the streets to become supermodels. We didn’t know a thing about her hometown, and though Barstow wasn’t the prettiest-sounding place, not like Topanga or Pasadena or Malibu, it had to be a million times better than Shullman, New Mexico, identifiable only by the dried-up oil wells and gas tanks dotting the barren bluffs, reneging on the promise of wealth and stability that had drawn our grandparents here.
We imagined that in Barstow they had things like three-story malls, water parks with super slides, ice cream shops on every corner and, always, the sound of the ocean. There were golden-haired surfer boys everywhere you looked, and movie star sightings were as regular as the tide. In our minds, the sun-bronzed people of Barstow passed their days on rollerblades, at the beach, at one of the many theme parks, sometimes donning business suits and pencil skirts and disappearing into tall buildings where they did things that mattered. Maybe there was a neighborhood like on Cops that got hit with a nightly drive-by, or a streetful of homeless mainlining heroin, but even then, people had at least heard of the place.
Malena said it was actually pretty far from the water, and from Hollywood, and from Disneyland, that practically no one wore suits and that it was dusty and flat and not really like we described at all. She tried to go on but we interrupted her to talk about how Shullman’s one nightclub had been shut down again after another stabbing, how we’d lost our youth baseball league because the lady who ran it embezzled all the money and skipped town, how the one time we were supposed to have a real concert, Dwight Yoakam got one look at our little town and told his bus driver to hit the gas. We didn’t even have a local newspaper, we said, because nobody cared enough to write the stories. “You couldn’t have picked a worse place to move to,” we told Malena, smiling.
No one knew exactly what had happened to Malena’s mother, but somehow she had died and Malena’s father had moved her to our shitpit because his sister was here and could help raise her. Since there wasn’t much work in town, he made the two-hour drive to Rico for a foreman job he’d landed at the coal mine, overseeing a lot of our dads. To make matters worse for Malena, shortly after her mother died the white spots appeared on her wrists, announcing the disease that would systematically sully her smooth brown skin. She lifted her sleeves and showed us the white Rorschach splotches that, when she pressed her forearms together and opened and closed them, formed a butterfly, or a glowing nighttime moth. “My dad calls me Polilla Tigre,” she said as she flapped its wings.
Only a girl like Malena could make such a thing beautiful. Someday, though, huge swaths of white might spread across her limbs, possibly even her face — it could frost her thick black eyelashes snow white or even suck the brown from her irises, and the blatant time bomb of her beauty made her hard not to love.
We centered our sleepovers on Malena’s favorite games, pizza toppings and ice cream flavors. If she left town to visit her grandparents, you didn’t have your birthday party until she got back. We read from the stacks of fashion magazines that had been her mother’s and traded our heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick for the subtle look the models wore. We prepared for her visits, hiding our fathers’ backyard piles of beer cans and begging our mothers to stock the kitchen with name-brand Coke and Oreos. We would blow our birthday money no questions asked on a fresh-delivered pizza and a pack of Little Debbie’s Star Crunch for a Friday evening spent with Malena.
Despite occasional bullying from boys who were enraptured by her, she mostly floated through school, her big mess of hair bobbing behind her, vitiligo spots more or less covered by a dozen friendship bracelets and the names of her favorite bands she had doodled during class. We could have hated her for the ease with which she moved through the world, even with her tragic disease and dead mother, could have wanted to mess her up worse than her stupid spots ever would, but even the most jealous of us went soft at her perfectly glossed smile as she waved at us and made her way to our lunch table.
Some of us started going off with boys, and our sleepovers gave way to coed evenings spent on top of rusty gas tanks at an abandoned well site, drinking malt liquor or somebody’s dad’s beer, watching the boys tag their gang names on the tanks below and ranking them in terms of attractiveness, coolness, brains. To our relief, Malena didn’t give any of our Shullman boys a chance. She said she was saving herself for Leonardo DiCaprio, and we tapped our bottles in toast.
We were only fifteen when things really started to change. Some girls were already getting pregnant, and a few had moved in with older guys and were counting the days until they could quit school, get married and stay home with their babies. We were getting into troubled relationships with the sort of boys who beat stray dogs and carried guns in their pants, boys who saw their fathers’ lives and dreamed of early, valiant deaths. We were drinking on weeknights and huffing away our worries on cheap weed, gas and, some of us, crystal meth. We still loved Malena, for her tragic beauty and the genuine friend she had become to us, but mostly for the shot we hoped she’d take on getting out of town. “This place is a trap,” we would say when she went out with us and nursed a beer while we chugged can after can and passed a joint around, sometimes something more. “You fell into something bad.”
“Maybe I am the something bad, bitches,” Malena would say, catching us off guard as she took a hit off our joint and stared hard into the distance while exhaling, looking enough like us that we didn’t bother teasing her.
After those nights, I always felt terrible and would make myself get up at dawn and run until I puked, run until I believed in myself again, because I secretly hoped that if Malena could get out on her looks, maybe I could get out on something else. While she blended in more and more with our group, I imagined myself apart. One of those nights, when a tipsy Malena wobbled down the gas tank ladder to join the gold-faced paint sniffers below — the worst of our lot — I told her to get home, that she wasn’t one of us and never would be. I was tired of seeing her treat what she had like it was nothing. I called her a poser, a wannabe — ridiculous, I knew, coming from some small-town New Mexico nobody.
But she didn’t contest, and she ripped the mood ring I’d given her for her birthday off her now almost completely white hand and threw it to the ground, walking away.
When Starla Sakizzie, who read The Coronado Sun to her blind grandfather, saw that some film company was coming to shoot a movie in Albuquerque and was holding auditions for minor roles, we told Malena to go for it. We even pooled our money and got Starla’s older brother to agree to drive her there in exchange for a case of Bud Light. By then, she and I were speaking again. She had joined cross-country to keep up her figure, and I had joined because running was the only thing I was good at besides cooking, which I’d picked up spending Saturdays with my grandma when my parents were both working. Also, my dad had set a long jump record in high school that was still unbroken and I wanted to leave a mark like that. We would sprint up and down Shullman Hill, or pace ourselves on long runs down overgrown oil field roads, watching the red-hot sunsets brought on by spring wildfires and feeling proud of the desolate beauty no one but us got to witness.
Sometimes Malena would have a couple dollars from her dad and after our run we would split an order of McDonald’s chicken nuggets or sopapillas with honey from Doña Maria’s. She told me about her mother’s world-class tamales and cinnamon rolls, how fat and glad her mother used to be and how scary-skinny she got at the end. I asked her what Barstow was really like, and she told me about the spring winds that blew so relentlessly everyone developed a permanent lean, the scary flash floods that tore through town, the truckers who would give her the eye and idiots from L.A. on their way to Vegas asking around for cocaine. When she started in about the bums that haunted all her favorite hangouts, I interrupted her. “Bet you don’t have as many fifteen-year-old moms as we do,” I said, and when I laughed, she laughed, too.
We became close again, at least I thought, and would fantasize about moving to L.A. together and sharing an apartment, she pursuing an acting or modeling career, me getting a job as a cook in a nice restaurant and going for long morning runs along the beach.
But when all of us offered her our pooled money for the trip to Albuquerque, she shook her head. “It’s too fucking late,” she said, leaning close to show us the little white mark below her eye, then tugging her shirt down to reveal her appaloosa chest. We couldn’t deny that, although she was still beautiful to us and we had grown accustomed to her unique look, perhaps the rest of the world wouldn’t agree. Without Malena and her door-opening looks, I couldn’t imagine how I would get to California, though the truth was, I had feared we’d never get past Barstow.
As her marks inched outward and upward, she gave up on Leonardo and a guy came along, a nurse’s aide from the place in Coronado where she went for blood draws, who was old enough not to be intimidated by a teenager’s beauty. While we ate frozen pizza at her kitchen table one afternoon, she patted her skin and told us he called her white splotches beauty marks. Then she said she had to get changed because he was taking her all the way to Valley Verde in his El Camino for the night. We helped her pick an outfit and do her hair up nice and big, but were secretly shocked that she would fall for such an easy line. Didn’t she know she was beautiful for so many other reasons; hadn’t we told her a million times?
After that guy confessed that he was married with two kids, brokenhearted Malena started dating Johnny Ruiz, who had actually been to California once and claimed to be a real Blood, and who was also the biggest drug dealer in town. It wasn’t the kind of stardom we’d wanted for her, but there was no denying it was small-town celebrity of sorts, and it was clear that she fully intended to soak in it while it lasted. She quit cross-country and rarely went to school, started wearing Johnny’s flannels over tiny tank tops and baggy jeans. She introduced me to one of his friends and I tried out that crowd for a while, but was relieved when my mom begged the owner of Doña Maria’s to give me a job, and she took a chance on me as a dishwasher.
One night at a party, Johnny’s friend Pancho tattooed “Polilla Tigre” in Old English cursive along Malena’s original Rorschach butterfly, but he left out the g so it said “Polilla Tire” instead. She started with the heavy eyeliner and black lipstick, and eventually Johnny got her meth-skinny and then chipped one of her teeth in a fight.
We were bummed, and then glad. It made sense. Our town was a trap. We had all fallen in. We could drink to that.
Kim Henderson on “Malena”
A couple of things came together to inspire this story: First, I read a news article about my hometown being the fastest-shrinking city in the country, and it brought back memories of growing up there and all the years of hearing that New Mexico was one of the worst-ranking states in the U.S. (if not the worst) in terms of poverty, teen pregnancy, drunk driving and education. What I was mostly thinking about was the way we kids reacted to the news of our crappiness. Around the time I read that article, I gave my high school students an assignment to write a story in which the narrator tells another character’s story, and I began a draft of “Malena.” But it didn’t fully take off until later, when I was thinking about my father’s vitiligo — I am nearing the age he was when the spots first appeared on his skin — and realizing how devastating that disease could be for a teenage girl, especially if she had brown skin, especially if physical beauty was one of her only sources of power and opportunity.