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Shelley Widhalm

Story Samples

Pumpkin Patch

I live on Fifth Avenue next to a rotting pumpkin patch. The smell of old pie, raw and sticky, reminds me of walks Pa and I took in the late summers. He knotted his fingers over my hand, engulfing it in his strength. I was his toy pulled along by stringy arms. If I stumbled, I had to be the one to balance while running to make up for lost steps.

I grew. My gangly limbs gained strength as my body expanded. My Pa did not explain to me why my body changed.

I became tall, taller than he, and on our walks, he stopped holding my hand.

But he still talked.

“God damn corn this year. I ain’t gonna get a crop.”

“What about the pumpkins?” I asked, breathless as I ran.

He walked steadily. “They are weeds,” he said. “They were here when I got this here farm.”

What about me? I wanted to ask.

In my house on Fifth Avenue, I paste photos of Pa and me in my album. I close the book and look out the window. My husband is outside pulling a dandelion out of the ground, engulfing it in his strength.


The Undeveloped Photos

I am afraid to develop the photos in my camera. I have six left and don’t want to use them up, knowing I would be inclined to start a new roll and forget what the photos had meant being there.

I took the camera with me wherever Paul and I went, particularly on trips out of the city, to family gatherings or on special occasions. Now, the camera sits in the back of the closet next to my more expensive camera equipment from my days as a professional photographer.

Paul’s clothes hang neatly in the same closet, the suits I love to drift my fingers over, imagining his gym-honed body filling out their flat stillness. As I touch the suits, I begin to realize I have become too much like my mother.

When I was a child, my mother promised that when my younger sister Emily started kindergarten, she would return to work. But Emily, who has dyslexia, needed help with her schoolwork. My mother didn’t have the energy for Emily and cleaning the house, taking care of two girls and working, she said.

My father consented, though he argued the family needed the money for our college educations, to build a savings account, to get ahead.

I think my mother was happiest at home with us, where she could be more productive than in an office, flipping paper and sorting through office politics.

At night, I kept my mother up with my colic and napped during the day. My sister kept her up once we were in school. She cried with a book open on the kitchen table as my mother patiently moved her index finger under each line of text, urging her to pronounce the individual words.

My mother used flashcards. She relearned phonics. She brought home teaching aids. And my sister kept crying.

I remember once reading in bed after bedtime, and I heard a thump on the kitchen wall. My sister’s voice rattled my chest.

“I can’t do this,” Emily yelled.

I turned out the light, feeling my ability to read above grade level burn my cheeks. Emily would glare at me if she saw me with a book at the kitchen table in her designated homework spot. I would close it and leave the room, feeling like the younger bullied sibling, though I was four years older. We didn’t fight and argued little, at least verbally. It was all with a look or a sigh.

As I think about my sister, I am ironing the last of Paul’s freshly cleaned shirts, wondering if there is any use in my work. I had finished with my own shirts, the striped and plain colored button-ups that I wear when I take my notebook, and sometimes my laptop, to the library or a coffee shop while Paul’s at work.

I tell Paul I’m writing a novel, that I found my true calling after being laid off from a newspaper. I tell him I no longer liked photography and being told when and where to take photos.

I got into photography after my father bought me a camera for my thirteenth birthday, and I continued because my mother let me use the kitchen table to show her my photos. She gave me advice about framing a shot, capturing light and manipulating shutter speed. I didn’t know it at the time, but she began reading about photography to teach me about it, like she had been teaching Emily how to read.

I reveled in my mother’s attention, and, for her, I tried to be more grownup by not letting Emily’s sighs and glares get to me. I was relieved when Emily learned to read in fourth grade, a year after I got my camera. Emily started carrying a book with her wherever she went, like I do. She went to college, taking five years to graduate, and became a teacher for students with special needs.

Just before the weekend began, I was talking to Paul about Emily.

“I swear, it’s like she never had dyslexia, and yet, having it helps her really understand her students,” I said.

“That’s interesting,” Paul said as he flipped through a newspaper, sitting on one of the kitchen island chairs.

“I used to be so jealous of her. Now, I realize I’m lucky to have not had to struggle through school,” I said, hoping that Paul would put the paper down.

“You’re struggling now?” he asked or said, I couldn’t tell which.

“Yes, you know that.”

“It can’t be too hard to find a job.” Paul dropped the paper.

“Paul …” I said. “I’m writing.”

He stood up, stretched and walked over to the front closet to get out his briefcase and suit jacket. It was then that I noticed he had on a tie.

“I didn’t know you had to work,” I said, following him.

Paul set down his briefcase. “So tell me, what’s your book about?”

“Paul …”

“Remind me.”

“It’s about Emily.”

“Is that okay with her?”

“It’s not a memoir. It’s fiction. It’s based on Emily growing up with dyslexia.”

“Sounds interesting. Tell me more, later,” Paul said. “I’ve got to get to the office.”

“It’s Saturday,” I said. “Can’t we go somewhere, forget about work?”

“That’s easy for you.”


“How long has it been? Six months? It doesn’t take that long to find a job.”

“I’m taking a timeout, and I’m writing.”

“A timeout?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Have you taken any photos, Emma? At all?”

“No, not since work, but we haven’t gone anywhere.”

“Not my fault.” Paul glared at me.

“I think it is,” I said. “Just go!”

He shook his head, said, “You wouldn’t know, would you.” The door slammed.

* * *

I iron another shirt. Paul has been gone for two days. I imagine him having an affair, or leaving to think over asking for a divorce. Or it could be that he is angry and has to run away for awhile, like a six-year-old boy running down the street until he gets hungry or tired.

I smooth my hands over the cotton, remembering how the shirt felt on top of his muscles before I could get underneath. He blames me for getting fired, for not finding a job. I don’t want to tell him I like being at home. That I’m one month pregnant and worried about having another miscarriage. That by taking photos of the building where I had worked I couldn’t take any more.

I know I’ll get a job, but for now I need to write and to remember. And I can’t do it through photography.

* * *

On Monday, Paul calls to tell me that he’s sorry. He had to get away to think, he tells me.
I tell him to come home. I have his baby in me, a reason enough to try.

“Paul, let’s get away, just us,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, his voice soft and kind.

I decide that I will pack my camera, the professional one with the adjustable lenses.

“Paul,” I say before he can hang up.

“Don’t say it,” Paul says, cutting off my apology and my “love you.” It’s as if he wants the words to be in a place where we can touch each other’s clothes and what is underneath, where we can begin again, where I can tell him about our baby.

I walk to the closet and take out both cameras, realizing that I had let my layoff scare me from finding a new job like Emily had been scared of books, two big unknowns hiding possibilities.