(Originally published as a blog for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers on Jan. 6, 2014.)
Short-story anthologies can be tricky affairs. Collecting short stories in one volume from multiple authors can end in a patchwork mess. Not the case with Crossing Colfax, a sweeping collection of writing from the ranks of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. The only rule was that each story had to touch on Colfax Avenue—a long, heavily stop-lighted street that runs east-west across Metro Denver. Not surprisingly, most of the stories take place in the grittier sections of the city itself in the dark (and frequently paranormal) shadows. Surprising to me, these stories offer consistently high quality of prose and story-telling. There is a solid composure to the entire volume.
Herewith a brief recap and review of each story, a sort-of “consumer guide” to would-be readers. A caution that I don’t read much paranormal stuff and this collection includes a healthy sample from that genre.
In Angie Hodapp’s “Seven Seconds,” auto mechanic Billy Shump possesses a common superpower. But it comes with limitations. He has the ability to turn back time. But only for, well, see the title of the story. That is, for not very long. It’s useful, but how much? Billy has his eyes on the alluring Kyra, a picture of female “poetry.” Billy gets a chance to save the day, but at what cost? Tricky bargains force Billy to a dangerous crossroads. The old cliché is “only time will tell.” Not only does time tell, it turns out, it takes care of everything. A clever idea and a well-written appetizer for this anthology.
You’ll learn a lot about farm equipment in “Hay Hook,” right down to branding irons and cattle prods. A genteel start to Margaret Mizushima’s story—a veterinarian checking a horse with digestive issues—turns Ugly with a capital “U.” Diamonds are not a horse’s best friend. I liked this story’s jolt from pastoral setting to tense crime drama.
Thea Hutcheson’s highly atmospheric “A Full Moon Over a Desperate Plain” begins with this gritty image: “The air on Colfax Avenue roils with the thick smell of sweet half-burnt gas coming off the finned behemoths rolling along this asphalt river.” Our first-person narrator Mike is a man with no dreams and the keen ability to sense the hopes and dreams in others. “No one ever notices that I’m more—or less—than they are, never know the hunger that pushes me into their company.” He is searching for connections and has an eye on Jenny, a waitress at a diner. Think nobody notices you, Mike? Maybe, maybe not. The sun just might rise one of these days.
We’re in the future in “Crossing the Uncanny Valley,” Martha Husain’s gripping sci-fi yarn that starts in a shuttle careening over western Kansas that soon crashes near Colfax Ave. in Denver. Or what’s left of Denver. But the Mile High City is now rubble. The earth is blackened. “Not a soul” alive. The band of survivors fear the “Mechs,” the artificial intelligence machines that have declared war on the human race. The shuttle crash takes one life and our narrator, Kaleb, sets out with horny Hutch and Gothic Punk Jo to find a way to get to a safe colony at Cheyenne Mountain, sixty miles away. An encounter with an in-stasis cyborg named Corinna could be the answer—or mean all kinds of danger. Corinna can answer certain human needs, but may have her own agenda. You better know the difference between your zombies and your cyborgs, that’s for sure. By the end, you’ll be eager to find out what happens on the road trip for the two who are still standing when this rollicking story ends.
Kate Lansing’s “Colfax, PI” features a Jewish vampire with a problem. His thirst for blood “makes it impossible to keep kosher.” His personal assistant, Lilah, needs help. Lilah’s sister has been murdered. It may be a case of tainted heroin and a vampire’s finely tuned sense of the way blood should taste certainly comes in handy. When push comes to shove, Colfax has the fangs to get his way. A fun twist on a familiar paranormal trope.
Zoltan James shades “The Man in the Corner” in noir. It’s got a cool, Chandleresque vibe. But a blizzard is blowing in and things are going to get even colder in the “sticky one-roomer” that is the watering hole called Dominic’s. All eyes on the bartendress, Beatrix. She can “out-tough any bitch or bastard who walks through her door.” Our narrator is a private eye with a patch over one eye. He’s an ex-L.A. SWAT guy, too, and has a thing for “Trixie.” There’s an odd stranger and then a cop takes a stool. It seems Beatrix knows a thing or two about some missing money and soon the bullets fly. Blood splatters “like an abstract drip painting.” Old habits do indeed die hard. Zoltan James turns up the heat even on the coldest killers.
“Blurg,” “Meh,” and “Snarf” are the first three words we hear Mable say in the ultra-brief short story “Allyah” by Rebecca Rowley. (You could read this one between sips of coffee.) Mable has just woken up from a weird dream about giving birth. She has an unusual job and the story is so brisk and efficient I don’t want to give too much away. Mable likes her clients to follow directions. She also likes specificity. Payments for her services are received via wire transfer to an account in the Cayman Islands. Well, Mable’s not her real name. Probably not a good idea in this line of work. This is a short story that asks a ton of questions and answers them in a few quick brush strokes—and detailed touches—at the end.
In “The Case of the Woman Who Sewed Her Silence,” B.K. Winstead introduces us to two Denver detectives on the hunt for a missing baby. They don’t have much to go on. A woman is found in a coin-op laundry in the processing of attempting to stitch her lips together (if you don’t believe that’s a possibility, you haven’t spent much time on Colfax Ave.) She’d previously been seen with the baby but now the baby is missing. The story weaves in some thoughtful takes on faith. You could almost envision a whole novel or a television series featuring the contrasting views of Detectives Davis and Diaz. Prayer, after all, “is not a gumball machine where every time you put in a coin, you get a prize.” There’s fine contrast and good banter between these two cops, a bit reminiscent of the nihilistic chatter in “True Detective.”
That kitschy cheesy “Mexican” restaurant Casa Bonita is the springboard of inspiration or Zach Milan’s “Stolen Legacy,” a tale of magic, missing children and professional redemption. Viktor goes from suspect to crime solver. He’s good at understanding misdirection and knows what to watch for behind the velvet curtain.
L.D. Silver’s “That’s Love, Baby” introduces us to a hooker whose life “has crumbled.” She has special healing powers and she hears a voice she’s named “Colfax.” A trap is waiting that might end her days plying her special trade or might provide a chance to escape. It might all come down to the voices inside her head. Like many good short stories, Silver leaves behind a few nifty puzzles for readers to ponder.
“Colfax Kitsune,” by Emily Singer, is a semi-steamy paranormal tale that places a Trickster from the Flipside trying to find her way through modern Denver. Yuri isn’t comfortable completing missions alone and would much prefer to have the company of Piccolo, who has ditched her, briefly, for a tramp. Yuri’s sense of smell and sound are, in a word, extraordinary. A stray miniature sphinx has slipped through a hole in the wall between Earth and the Flipside and Piccolo and Yuri must send it home “before its magic starts acting up.” Despite the terror in her veins, Yuri knows she can’t fail again. The hole is closing, the edges “curling in on itself like a burning piece of paper.” Time is running short. Over a coffee at Starbucks, it’s Yuri who will deliver one last message.
Autumn Leaves is the owner of Tea Leaves, a teahouse that sits next to a pot shop on Colfax Avenue in Laura Kjosen’s “Phantom brew.” Yes, Autumn Leaves is her legal name, as she tells the cops when they come around to investigate after the pot shop is ransacked. The story slips gently into poltergeist territory as Autumn works to conjure the ghost of Jack Kerouac with assistance from an acquaintance at a paranormal investigation society. Teapots fly and screams come in full Latin as this wild tale wraps up.
In “Take me to Your Leader, Jackie Smack,” Warren Hammond gives us a brisk and funny story featuring a pair of alley-crawling bums, Jackie and Darrell. Darrell tells Jackie that aliens come for him “every Tuesday,” an event that Jackie yearns to witness. Hearing Darrell’s stories, Jackie considers himself lucky to have found this particular alley and decides on the spot that smack and aliens go well together like “nachos and cherry Slurpees.” If given the opportunity to meet the aliens, he thinks, “he’d jump up to shake hands and say, “How’s it hangin’?” (A great line straight out of an early Seth Rogen flick.) This is sharply-told tale of delusion (and relative grandeur) with a back-to-reality twist ending.
Drugs also play a bit role in T.J. Valour’s “Ghostly Attraction, featuring Dina “who has been dealing with ghosts and their manifestations since she was five.” Dina considers herself “the most abstinent personal escort in history” though she’ll do whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied. One customer is a full-blown sitophilic (yes, I had to consult Wikipedia). Now a ghost is trying to take over her entire being and she’s seeing utterly creepy sights, like the maggots dripping out of her cop friend’s mouth. Dina blames the hit of smack for intensifying the hallucinations. Dark shapes are following her. “They clung to the shadows of the parking lot across from the police station, absorbing the meager light radiating from the street lamps.” The story shifts points of view with a smooth, confident style in an edgy paranormal tale that deftly weaves together romance, unusual forms of lust and themes of professional and personal jealousy.
“Charlie’s Point of View,” by Linda Berry, wraps up the collection with fanciful story told from the point of view of the life-sized fiberglass and plaster sculpture that is seen to this day at the Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax Ave. Charlie, with his highly realistic gaze focused squarely on the newspaper in his grip, observes more than you’d think. A couple of bag ladies “get into a situation” out on the street. As Charlie notes, the store isn’t on the worst stretch of Colfax, “but you still need to be alert for trouble.” Not everything—or everybody—is what it appears to be. What’s real? What’s not? Charlie knows he’s got the best seat in the house. Maybe the whole city.
(Note: full disclosure that I’m an active member of RMFW.)