Mystery novelist is just Michael McGarrity's latest career. The Santa Fe author who recently concluded his 14-volume Kevin Kerney detective series with the publication of Head Wounds worked for more than two decades in criminal justice as a police officer, prison program director, law enforcement educator and other jobs in New Mexico.
As he spoke in a recent event online at Collected Works, McGarrity was beaming from a pat on the head he'd received in the form of a positive critique in the New York Times Book Review.
"You can't ask for more than that, when you write a story, to find out there is an acceptance of what you're doing," he said, noting later that one of his secrets lies in his busy past. "I was able to dip into the wellspring of experience for -real-life situations that I could wrap around my protagonist."
Even though he's already starting on a spinoff series that centers Kerney's wife as its new lead, McGarrity agreed to serve as this year's SFR fiction contest judge.
SFR asked writers to consider the topic "pivot" in their short works. They must also include the words "pinnacle," "mask" and "distance," which we chose to reflect the world of late. The pandemic has required changes in direction and outcomes in our jobs, schools and leisure activities—as well as our perspectives. At press time, the state is midway through a second week of strict public health orders intended to "reset" behavior and blunt the spread of COVID-19. We can only assume the contest entrants drew on their personal experiences, even in fantastical fiction.
D.D. Sherinnford, a local teen who uses a pen name, takes readers to a conversation that follow the ultimate change in first-place winner "White Roses and Headstones."
Matters of romance and friendship are at stake in "Lessons Unlearned," by Greg Wagner.
And previous contest winner Jennifer Edelson returns with a dark twirl around an ice rink in "Momentum."
Nonfiction winners will be published in next week's edition.
White Roses and Headstones
By D.D. Sherinnford
Rain rumbled through the funeral rites.
Marion appreciated the deluge. Having the heavens split open and spill forth, rattling the temporary tent shelter with chilly tears, loaded onto the prevailing mood of grief. The fact that the rain was coming down in torrents despite the day having dawned clearly and temperately struck her as morbidly funny. Fortunately, being at a graveside was sobering enough to drain the humor from her thoughts.
The priest finished whatever it is priests do at burial services, and while the final prayer was being sniffled through, Marion looked around for her aunt. She saw Elizabeth standing on the other side of the semicircle of mourners. Once the prayer ended, Marion made her way to the older woman.
Elizabeth looked up as her niece drew near.
Marion stopped beside her. "How are you holding up?"
"Oh, about as well as can be expected, I suppose." Elizabeth offered Marion a wan smile. "There's not really a good or easy way to bury one's father, you know."
Marion nodded supportively.
Elizabeth's smile saddened. "I appreciate your sympathy, my dear. I won't keep you any longer, however."
A guarded look of appreciation flashed through Marion's eyes. "I'll help neaten up a bit before leaving."
Knowing better than to argue, Elizabeth merely nodded. "Thank you for everything you've done to help with today."
Marion hugged her aunt. "You only ever need ask."
Marion drew away from Elizabeth and walked back toward the fresh grave. She started to fold the chairs and gather up the flower arrangements.
She nestled the armload of flowers against the newly engraved headstone. They did little to mask the morbidity of the setting, although they did help to alleviate some of the gloom, their snowy petals vibrant in the rain. Standing back, Marion was struck by their fragility, and found some comfort in it. The statement of pale persistence in spite of inherent fragility was a far more fitting eulogy for the dead man than her prepared words had been.
Half an hour later, she pulled into her driveway, taking the left fork that led to the comfortably sized and furnished guest house nestled in the southern corner of John Dietrich's estate. The two had met each other ten years before when Dietrich Publishing Co. had hired her to design and illustrate its new quarterly literary review. They had hit off, worked together well, and fast became close friends. They'd stayed in contact through the years, periodically seeing each other when work brought Marion to New Mexico or John to New York. A year and a half ago, when Marion had been looking to move back to the Land of Enchantment to be nearer to Elizabeth who had practically raised her, John had been more than happy to rent the guest house to her. He had spent most of his life as a loner, but was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed Marion's proximity and company, so the living arrangements worked amicably for the two of them.
Marion had driven from the cemetery and up to the house in silence. Now in her living room, after putting her purse and keys down, she put The Cure's Disintegration into the CD player and cranked the volume high.
Four harmonious yet melancholy Cure songs later, Marion was lying on the couch staring at the ceiling and thinking of nothing in particular. "Love Song" had faded into silence when there was a gentle knock on the front door. Marion pushed herself up and opened the door slightly to find John standing on the porch.
John held up a six-pack of Negra Modelo. "Since you're home early, I figured I'd offer you some beer and company…"
A ghost of a smile touched Marion's lips. "Beer and company? How can I resist?" She swung the door fully open, and ushered John inside.
"Last Dance" was in full swing as John put the beer on the coffee table. "The Cure? That's the soundtrack for tonight?"
Marion shrugged. "The Cure is good music for melancholy evenings spent rapt in thought."
"I can't argue with that." John opened two of the beers and handed her one.
They lapsed into comfortable Cure-filled silence.
Two songs later, Marion spoke. "You know what's fucked up about funerals?"
John considered. "No, what's fucked up about funerals?"
"The weight attached to the ceremony and formality of them."
John raised an eyebrow. "I hate to break it to you, but the seriousness of the ceremony and formality is kind of the point of them…"
"Sure, the need for closure requires that. But what I mean is, how are you supposed to do the service justice? Someone you know, and even liked, is dead, and any attempts to do their memory justice will always fall short."
"People don't go to funerals to evaluate the speeches."
"No, but that doesn't make a eulogy any easier." There was a short pause. "Do you know what I said today?"
"Ignoring how blatantly rhetorical your question is, I'll answer simply: No, what did you say?"
"Despite having been retired for fifteen years, James remained a pillar of the community. Unafraid to go any distance for someone in need, his passing marks the pinnacle of his philanthropy…" Marion opened another beer. "Pinnacle, John. Of all the words available in the English language. I went with pinnacle."
"While pinnacle isn't the most poetic of words, it's fitting." Marion raised a doubtful eyebrow. "I'm being serious. What's really bothering you about the funeral?"
Marion sighed. "Not counting the priest, there were just eight of us there. The people he knew and mattered to are scattered so far and wide that travel would have limited attendance under regular circumstances, but not this badly. We could only gather the people who lived in state. Do you know what it's like to know how well loved he was, but not be able to let the people he mattered to come together? Not to mention that I felt like an imposter dressed as a mourner. He was my grandfather; I respected him, and I know he loved me in his distant way, but I can't say we really knew each other. And yet of all the people he mattered to, I happened to be able to pay my last respects at the service because I live here."
"These are changing times we live in, Marion. It won't always be like this."
"What will it be like, when we're through this?"
"I don't know. Until we get there, putting one foot in front of the other is enough."
"It better be."
D.D. Sherinnford is a 19-year-old androgynous dragon, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, although she fantasizes regularly about moving to the Scottish Highlands. She spends her time preparing to be an eccentric and cranky recluse, reading books, watching movies from the '80s, listening to a wide array of music, and talking to her dog.
By Gregory L. Wagner
Jonah stares at the answer to problem twenty-one in the back of his organic chemistry book. Staring doesn't change the answer. He looks at the notebook page to his right. His conclusion doesn't agree with the book. Calculations litter the page like confetti after a homecoming parade. Jonah cannot follow his own attempts at logic. Paper crinkles in the stillness of the library as he turns his wirebound notebook to a fresh page.
Jonah hears the pine-snake hiss of a nylon windbreaker being shrugged off, the telltale snap of metallic zippers hitting the tile floor of the main library hall. He writes down the basic equation and the information from problem twenty-one for the fourth time. The dark gray strokes from the pencil are clean and precise on the ruled page. He begins again.
"How's it going?" The voice is hushed. It's Saturday early afternoon. Anyone in the campus library today is here to work.
Adrenaline surges through Jonah's chest. His hand twitches in a move to cover his notebook. He succeeds in keeping his hand still.
Claire leans over his arm to look at the notebook page. "Problem twenty-one? That one's not too bad. Problem forty-three sucks."
She slides out the chair next to him and sits down. Metal pegs on the bottom of the wood chair legs screech on the tile as she shuffles up to the thick slab table.
"Great." Jonah cringes. He looks at Claire out of the corner of his eye. A ray of sun from the overhead cupula's windows highlights her blonde hair. "Problem -twenty-one is kicking my ass."
She leans sideways to look at his notebook. Her left shoulder comes to rest against his upper arm. "May I?"
The crinkling paper is conspicuous as she turns back to his previous attempt. He feels the blush surge over his cheeks.
"Okay," she nods quietly, "I can see what you were doing." The weight from her shoulder increases as she reaches over with her right hand to point at the beginning of the messy page. "This is right. You totally had it. But," her finger traces down to the next line on the page and she twists her head to look at him. Her shoulder remains in contact. "Why did you go here?"
He doesn't meet her gaze. He shrugs.
"Silly," Claire nudges him. "You need to trust yourself."
She sits up straight. Jonah feels the loss of contact. His back slumps slightly.
Claire opens her math book. "You keep making the same mistake, Jonah. You get it, you know how to do it right. You just need to trust in yourself."
Jonah takes a deep breath and starts back in on the problem. He finishes in less than five minutes. The answer agrees with the book. He stares at the notebook page and the clear, obvious solution.
Claire turns, settles her arm over the back of his chair and leans in close, looking at his calculation. She smells of flowers and autumn leaves. She turns her face to his, only inches away.
"Told you." She smiles.
He meets her gaze. Claire's powder blue eyes sparkle in the sunlight. His smile is shy. "Thanks."
She sits up straight and pulls her math book and her own wirebound notebook closer to the edge of the table. "God, I hate differential equations."
Jonah shakes his head and chuckles lightly. A student at the table next to theirs turns and glares at him. Jonah cringes dramatically and mouths "sorry." The student looks at Claire, rolls his eyes and turns back to his work.
He leans in close to Claire. "How can you breeze through organic chem and have trouble with diffy Q?"
Claire tilts her head in his direction, her eyes on the math book. "How can someone breeze through diffy Q and stumble on organic chem?"
"Touché." He sits up straight.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Claire smile. "Good study buddies," she says softly. "That's why I came here today. Figured you'd be hunkered down."
A wave of warmth washes over Jonah. "Was hoping you'd stop by." He feels the blush redden his cheeks. "I needed some organic chem help," he says in a hurry.
Claire's smile widens. The space between them narrows.
They work quietly next to each other.
"Okay, members of the Robert Owen Housing Co-Op, it's that time again."
The room quiets. Metal folding chairs groan and scrape on the cement floor as everyone turns to face Meredith.
Meredith grins. "Starting off this week's rota, is, by popular demand, bathroom detail." She looks at her clipboard. "Mathew K, Sierra, Malik and Jackie."
"Seriously?" Mathew groans. "It's Burrito Monday and Spicy Asian Thursday this week!"
Cheers greet the complaint.
Meredith's expression hardens. "Stop your bitching. We all share all the tasks."
"We work together for the betterment of all," Georgia says by rote.
Georgia sits to Jonah's left. He turns and gives her two thumbs up. She bows in her chair.
Mathew turns around and glares at Georgia. "Your gastrointestinal peculiarities are definitely not to my betterment."
Georgia shrugs. "Hey, I'm unique. I relish my personal, distinctive characteristics."
"Enough," Meredith says loudly. She reads from her clipboard. "Georgia, you and Jonah have grounds detail."
Georgia grimaces. "Leaf season," she says quietly. "Serves me right."
Jonah reaches over and pats her arm. "It's okay, Peaches."
She rolls her eyes at him.
Meredith continues to hand out assignments.
Jonah leans over to Georgia and speaks quietly. "How's the foundry project coming? You make any progress today?"
"Great progress," she says. She leans her head on his shoulder. "Right up to the end. I was trying to smooth the wax on my mold and totally miffed it. Have to start over tomorrow." She sighs. "That sculpture is forty percent of my grade. There goes my Sunday."
"Sorry. That sucks."
Jonah smiles. Things aren't too bad if Georgia calls him Goober. She gave him the moniker their freshman year. He and Georgia were in the same group touring the campus as high schoolers. When they saw each other in intro to Sociology, they started talking. Georgia is the best friend Jonah's ever had. And vice versa. But then, her taste in boys is questionable.
Meredith raises her voice. "Lastly!" Jonah and Georgia turn back to Meredith. She glares at them. "This evening is the Nu Mu Psi Fall Social."
Georgia swears loudly. Her profanity is lost in a cacophony of boos and groans.
"Now now, people," Meredith claps her hands. The room quiets slowly. "They are our neighbors and school mates." A mask of disdain and annoyance settles over her face. "Even if they are Greeks."
Georgia sits up straight in her chair. "Our entitled, do-whatever-they-want-to-ensure-their-entitlement neighbors," she says loudly.
Jeers and catcalls echo around the room.
"Everything they do is for themselves," Ben, a junior in architecture, yells. "They can't be bothered with the welfare of other people."
"Unless you have money," Georgia responds. "The dues to live in their entitled, self-promoting little enclave is more than our tuition!"
"People! People!" Meredith takes back control of the meeting. "They have their philosophies and we have ours. And," she raises her voice as the grumbling grows louder, "we will hold to our beliefs and conduct ourselves accordingly."
The rusted steel wheelbarrow clangs as the two leaf rakes strike the bottom. Jonah grasps the worn wood handles and pushes it out of the small gardening shed. He wheels it around the side of the co-op and to the front lawn that borders College Street. The pungent fragrance of dry fall leaves fills the crisp late-afternoon air. Maple and oak leaves crunch under the wheelbarrow's front tire. Jonah sets the wheelbarrow down on its wooden legs and extracts one of the rakes.
"Work from the street backward?"
He turns and smiles at Georgia sauntering toward him. A motorcycle accelerating in the distance briefly drowns out the swish and crinkle her hiking boots make in the leaves.
"Sure," he says. "I brought the fifty-gallon garbage bags the kitchen uses for recycling."
Georgia tugs on the ends of her long sleeve shirt in demonstration. "Ready for stuffing."
They begin raking backward from the street toward the co-op. The muscles in Jonah's forearms start to burn. His upper back begins to ache. It feels good. They work as a team from the edge of the block to the wrought iron fence that marks the boundary with their neighbor. The iron chimes as the rake's tines strike the bars.
"Are you going to jump in the leaf piles? How fun!"
Jonah looks through the iron fence at the sorority girl. She is wearing a black minidress and holding a steaming cup of Starbucks coffee. Their lawn is green and perfectly trimmed. The hired gardeners finished earlier today. Three more girls get out of a car behind her.
Jonah's stomach turns to lead.
"We're not out here raking for fun!" Georgia's voice drips with sarcasm and disdain. "It's called work." She points to the poured-cement housing complex behind her. "It's a co-op?"
The three girls join their Sister. A tall brunette steps to the front. She stares at Georgia. Her expression is calm and serene. "C'mon, Britany, we have more than a hundred guests to prepare for."
"Right," Georgia says, "your fall soiree of the haves and want to keeps. What's the entrance fee for that?"
"One hundred dollars," the brunette says. She is composed in the face of Georgia's disdain.
Georgia shakes her head slowly. "You really do believe your little sorority is the pinnacle of society!"
"The sisters of Nu Mu Psi have amongst the highest placement rates of any order in this country. We support each other in the pursuit of women's advancement into professional, well-paying careers."
The brunette turns on her heel and walks away. Two of the girls join her. One remains. She steps up to the iron bars.
Jonah can feel her proximity. Gravity strains to pull him into the earth.
"The Fall Social is a fundraiser, Jonah," Claire says. "All proceeds are donated to the city's food shelf." Her eyes lock with his.
"Oh?" Georgia's eyebrows raise, her face contorts in disbelief. "You two are friends?"
Jonah breaks from Claire's gaze. He looks at his rake. The tines have brushed the soil. Isolated blades of green grass mix with the dried leaves. He begins raking.
"Always the same mistake, Jonah," Claire says. She turns and walks away.
Greg Wagner is a farmer by birthright, physicist by education and writes out of necessity. He lives in Santa Fe where he's just trying to get some of this stuff out of his own, obsessive head.
By Jennifer Edelson
Slick ice, gleaming after one last sweep of a Zamboni, shines beneath my silver blades, glistening accusingly. Second place, it whispers cruelly.
A basso thumping pours from the speakers overhead, but I can't appreciate the rumble that moves through my limber body. She glides by, her deep purple leotard a bruise that blights the rink, and at this moment, all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to end her reign. Put her in her place. Rip the evil mask from the plastic, lying face that her fans cling to and make her grovel.
Once upon a time, the ice was magical. People united here, weaving around the arena like distinct threads in pursuit of the perfect tapestry.
Before she swayed the Skating Association with her lies and family money, we embraced our differences. First place never mattered as much as being there for the thrill of skating, for the freedom. Collaborator, cooperator, mediator, ally—that was me. Especially out on the ice, where everything but my love of team and rink fell by the wayside once the music started.
Now, adrift in her storm, we are static objects and discarded ideas, fractured by the broken light shining off her sequined ensemble as she whooshes by, waving grandiosely like a streamer. Stunted by the cheers her devotees reserve for her deceptive footwork, and afterwards, disingenuous curtsies. Stunted by our tarnished standing.
As long as she exists at the top on her own sullied pinnacle, we will always be members of her marginalized court; inferiors who live off scraps and waning optimism.
Trembling, I turn and gaze over my shoulder at all the faces in the stands, absently tapping my toe-pick on the edge of the rink, the divide between ice and rubber. Staring from the precipice into the maw of our collective dread. Maybe bargaining with the devil.
Those disillusioned people on the periphery; standing stiffly beside the cascade of cold benches or perched on the ends of their aluminum seats next to her cohorts—the ones not smiling—are they with me?
Glide. Backward skate. One foot up. Spin.
The truth is a hard pill to swallow and now it's choking me. She's basked in undeserved light for too long, bewitched crowds, divided our team, twisted rules so steadfast it's hard to remember what our rink looked like before she rose to fame here. Before. When people knew her parlor tricks and lazy sportsmanship for what it is — all smoke and mirrors. Most of the people in the bleachers now, they're lemmings. Blinded by brokered fame, captured by the rosy veneer she casts on our club with each successive, jury-rigged triumph. Glamoured by the idea that her self-serving ways are for the good of our crew.
"Focus now," Coach says from a nearby bleacher. "You need to be a team player."
But I don't want to be a team player anymore. I want my rink back. And I want to win.
"Start with a Salchow and move into a Lutz. Sit spin into a Beillman spin, and then kill it with an Axel."
Glide. Backward skate. One foot up. Spin.
Kill it. Could it really be that easy?
My heart pounds arrhythmically, my pulse speeding up with each arrogant move she lands as she glides by, ending her set with a self-important pass around the rink, making sure to mark the ice as she winds between lesser skaters. I've done everything right, followed the rules, but under her thumb the only thing that works around here is ass-kissing and idolatry.
Just look at the way they cheer for her.
Overhead, the florescent lights dim, tendering in the free skate hour. Mindful of the newbies entering the rink, I inhale and step out onto the ice along with groups of giddy children, gliding seamlessly toward the middle of my once perfect oval. A disco ball drops from the arched, beamed ceiling, sending prismatic fairy lights dancing across the rink. The air smells like an immaculately disinfected freezer and the scratchy sounds of razor-sharp blades against smooth ice add to the rink's disharmony. I close my eyes, letting it all sink in. Just years ago, this arena was my home. All these varied faces my people.
"You'll need a lot more speed to really nail that Scratch spin." She slithers by, grinning as if she doesn't know I'm a thousand times more competent than she'll ever be. Like she doesn't know she'd be nothing but for her rich Daddy. "Of course, not everyone's me."
"Bitch," I mutter.
I dig my toe into the ice and push out, testing the limits of my strong leg muscles as I crisscross the rink. Muscles I've worked for years to build, skating day and night just to earn the right to be here.
"Jump!" Coach yells across the ice.
Backward skate. One foot up. Toe pick. Spin.
We circle the rink from opposite ends, facing off every time she skates past, like stalk-eye flies on a pile of garbage. It makes me cringe. All her posturing.
"I don't mean to brag," she says on a round, rotating sharply so our eyes lock as she skates backwards away from me, "but we both know you could learn a thing or two from my technique."
Backward skate. One foot up. Spin. Toes down. Repeat.
"What the hell was that?" Coach yells again from the bleachers. "And watch out for the class over there. You almost ran over a preschooler."
"It's a fact. You'd be nothing without me," she smirks, skating within inches as I attempt another spin. "None of you would."
My blood boils as the middle of the rink clears, making room for the storm I plan to unleash.
Backward skate. One foot up. Spin. Toes down. Repeat. Drop. Left leg out. Spin.
"Again!" Coach yells, now standing at the edge of the rink.
She glides by, too close, antagonizing me as she measures the distance between my left and her right, eyeing my method.
Backward skate. One foot up. Spin. Toes down. Repeat. Drop. Left leg out. Spin. Circle the rink. Right foot high. Jump. Spin at dizzying speeds.
Despite her proximity, I land my Axel, earning my salt if I ever did. It's an incredible skate full of exceptional footwork. And I know she knows it's extraordinary. But that smug look on her face that tells me she'd bury a hatchet in my back before she ever let me knock her from her pedestal, does me in. I'm off the deep end of the rink.
Toe pick. Forward thrust. Right foot out, left tucked in. Jump.
I add a leg extension mid-air, swooping out long as I tilt.
She lets out a piercing, horrific, gratifying scream.
As good a marksman as I am a skater, my blade slices through her opaque tights, cutting deep into her thigh. She drops, hitting the floor as the crowd jumps to its feet. Wailing, her pale face matches the ice beneath her, tainted now by the steady stream of blood leaking from what I hope is her femoral artery.
Scratch spins are my hallmark. I'm known for finishing my sets with them, like gilding gold with platinum. But it's more than good footwork; I'm addicted to the centrifugal force the spin exerts on my limbs, the momentum, compacting everything into a tight package that holds me together. For ten seconds, I am as complete as I'll ever be and moving too fast to think.
Speeding up, I skate circles around her writhing body, throwing my arms high above my head as I dig my toe into the ice and pivot, turning on point, mounting my spin. She's a blur now, blending with the fuzzy rink and indistinct bleachers as I rotate. Faster and faster. My cheeks smart against the cold, and the hissing air twisting around my frame drowns out her screams.
In my head, a crowd cheers, pummeling the bleachers' aluminum floors with their feet.
It's my best goddamned skate ever.
Exhilarated, I peel sideways on both blades, shredding ice when I throw my arms up as high as my smile is wide, statuesque like nobody's business. The queen has been beheaded. The rink has finally been liberated.
Jennifer Edelson is a local writer, artist, former attorney, pizza lover, and hard-core Bollywood fan. Her award-winning young adult novel, Between Wild and Ruin can be found online and at all fine bookstores.