Where Past Meets Present, edited by James B. Hemesath

Review by Martha Quillen

Short Fiction – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Where Past Meet Present – Modem Colorado Short Stones
Edited by James B. Hemesath
Published in 1994 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN: 0-87081-331-5

A collection of short stories (with two poems thrown in for variety), Where Past Meets Present held my interest from beginning to end.

But I especially liked Steve Rasnic Tem’s surrealistic tale about unemployed cowhands and ranchers who just can’t seem to get excited about anything anymore. Tem’s story begins like your basic introspective, region-conscious, slice-of-life, Harper’s or Atlantic piece. But with a real Kafkaesque twist, it ends in the Twilight Zone.

“Clare,” James B. Hemesath’s story set in the San Luis Valley, isn’t bad, either, but like many modern short stories, it leaves you hanging. Basically, the story is about a couple transferred into the Valley. She wants to leave, but he doesn’t, and her situation is made more difficult by health problems that require further testing — testing she doesn’t want.

Written in diary form, Hemesath’s story gives you a good picture of a couple facing frightening problems in an unfamiliar new place. It ends, however, by letting you know only whether they go or stay. The diary stops before giving the reader a clue as to whether Clare lives or dies, or whether her marriage survives. It’s enough to make you long for old-fashioned stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” — a story which resolves absolutely everything.

Thomas Zigal’s story about a thinly disguised Aspen gives the reader something to contemplate, and a ghost story by Manuel Ramos employs the la llorona legend to good effect. Altogether, this is a good selection of stories which shed light on how different types of people look at Colorado.

Thus at first, the idea of presenting various images of modern Colorado life seemed like a nice concept — until I got to the story set in Salida.

Gladys Swan’s “Backtracking” wasn’t about Salida. Swan calls the town where the main character steps off of a Greyhound bus, into a station redolent with exhaust fumes, fluorescent light and restaurant clatter, “Salida.” But it isn’t.

After arriving at a bus terminal that sounds busier than any Salida ever boasted, Jason, the main character, crosses the Arkansas River to Victor Street and walks on into his old neighborhood which he can scarcely recognize because there’s a new filling station, a new hamburger stand, and all new houses — except for his own, a white frame house which stands “like a relic.”

This return of a native son, decades after his departure, to a town that’s changed beyond recognition certainly isn’t about the Salida Historic District. It’s annoying that Jason’s house would have to be perched precariously on Tenderfoot Hill, along with dozens of others, somehow situated between our big white S and our new Christmas lights.

But geography isn’t all that’s wrong. The characters aren’t Salidans, either. When the down-on-his-luck drifter returning home to claim his inheritance, meets with his overworked, weary sister who pines for the good life California can offer her children — it’s impossible to believe.

Just how many born and bred Salidans dream about moving to California? Well, OK, the weather’s great in California, so maybe some do. But they would never, ever admit it.

Strangely enough, “Backtracking” isn’t a bad story. As a tale about down-and-out people from a place that’s seen far better days, Swan’s story has its good points.

But as a tale about alienation, loss, and change, “Backtracking” is set in a McMurtry Texasville sort of place with a “Last Picture Show” feel to it. And that place isn’t Salida.

Salida’s more like Mayberry or Peyton Place. The people here are more smug, more content, more thrilled not to be going anywhere than the people in Swan’s Salida.

I don’t know a single person who sits around thinking California would be an improvement over Salida. And so Swan’s story is about strangers, people as foreign as Rocky Balboa and Bella Abzug.

But the problem with Swan’s story is that it makes you wonder about the validity of a Colorado collection.

Swan, who’s from Silver City, N.M., obviously didn’t have a very intimate knowledge of Salida, so how can the reader be sure that any of the other authors included knew the towns they write about?

Most of the other stories seemed more solidly grounded in place, but how can I be sure? I’m not in those other places. And that, Of course, is the problem.

In this instance, all of the short stories were chosen because they were about Colorado places. But those places aren’t really Colorado places if some authors just borrowed their names from a map.