A first collection from the winner of the 1995 Willa Cather Fiction contest: 15 stories, some having appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Seventeen, and The Oxford Review, by a southern writer who excels at charting the minor victories that briefly relieve dreary lives. Though stories about the poor, the hopeless, and the psychically maimed have by now become as commonplace as Cheever's suburbia, Spence invests these particular tabloid lives with an appealing freshness, and, neither condescending nor partisan, she writes in beautifully weighted prose about the blighted lives of small-town men and women. In the title piece, the most accomplished here, Spence describes in but a few pages the conflicting response--from gossip to sleuthing--evoked by the disappearance of three women in a tiny community where, eventually, the lost women come to live in people's dreams as ""bones cooling in the dark green woods."" In ""Meals Between Meals,"" a young woman dating a convict is trying to lose weight, but when a cousin's pity for her plight becomes unbearable, she suddenly finds she's no longer hungry; in ""Once Removed,"" a shy data-processor gets up the courage to help an unhappy co-worker. The story that appeared in Seventeen, ""Isabella and Violet Are Good Friends,"" tells of a mother who, as a recovering alcoholic, briefly reconnects with her alienated adolescent daughter. Elsewhere, Spence chronicles the growing understanding between a mother and her addicted son's lover, an older woman (""She Waits""); the anguish of a grandmother who's worried by her troubled granddaughter's relationship with an unsuitable man (""The Water Man""); and two misfits who tentatively begin to make a life together (""A Nice Man, a Good Girl""). Short stories that write of life as it is, in language measured and sure. A promising debut.