“The Photograph”: Part 1

The following is the first in a series of installments through which I’ll be posting a short fiction story I wrote for my final project in an honors class this semester (is it just me, or does this sentence have way too many prepositions? Sorry about that). There will be four installments, each consisting of roughly five “pages” (although it’ll just be one long blog post on here).

The class was called “The Art of Translation”, and throughout the semester we analyzed various works of art that have either inspired a new translation or been inspired by an original work. For example, we read Gregory Maguire’s novel “Wicked”, went and saw the musical, and discussed the differences (there were a lot, by the way. As in, entirely different ending).

The Assignment: To create my own translation of a work. I chose to translate a photograph into a short story. My inspiration was a photograph by New Mexican photographer Miguel Gandert (I may post it on here, but I need to get Miguel’s permission first).

The Process: I wanted to hone my creative writing since most of the writing I do for school is, well, academic. I began this project with a lot of anxiety and insecurity; every time I sat down at my computer, I criticized every idea as dumb, and I anticipated certain failure. After a while, though, I began to trust myself a bit more, and after a few 2-3 page drafts that ended up in the trash, I settled on a protagonist, basic plot and conflict, and let myself explore from there.

I was fascinated to see where my imagination went, and how my story evolved, and it’s incredible to think that this little story, flawed as it may be, would not exist if I hadn’t written it. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about creation of any form; every work of art reflects its creator by virtue of its very existence.

The End Product: See below! I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. While I may revise it in the future, I want to let it resonate for a while.

Feel free to leave feedback in the comments. By the way, anybody know how to indent things on here?

THE PHOTOGRAPH

BY SARAH PARRO

© all rights reserved

My mother was a strong woman. She was loyal, dependable, and made many sacrifices for her family. She wanted her daughters to have a better life than she did. She loved everyone, and was loved by everyone.

These are some of the statements from the eulogy at my mother’s funeral. It was a small, closed-casket service, and it was also one of the first time in a long time that I could remember my family being in the same room without fighting.

I had arrived in Clovis, New Mexico the day before the funeral. I drove my shiny rental car out of the Clovis Municipal Airport, after barely bypassing an argument with my father over the phone.

“Don’t waste the money,” he had said. “I’ll come pick you up. For heaven’s sake, Tammy, it’s only ten minutes away!”

I decided to ignore the childhood nickname I had tried so hard to shake off in adulthood; I only ever introduced myself as Tamara. Old habits die hard, I reasoned, and let it go. Instead, I said, “I want to have a car of my own, Dad. It’ll make things easier. You know, if people need a ride to the service or something.” My real reason was that I wanted to avoid any prolonged close-space encounters with my father at all cost. Since Mom had gotten sick, we just couldn’t seem to get along. It’s not as if we fought a lot; I just always seemed to find myself enduring long, awkward silences. I didn’t know how to talk to my father anymore.

I had forgotten how much I loved the sky in the Southwest. Between the airport and the old family farm, I pulled to the side of the road to enjoy the weather and have a smoke. The day was hot, but thankfully not windy; a light breeze was blowing through the leaves of the few gnarled cottonwood trees on the roadside, and there were some large, dark clouds on the horizon. My younger sisters, Cara and Grace, had grown up in Clovis, as had my parents and grandparents. I remembered riding one of the three horses my grandparents had; over the years, they had each been sold, and even though the farm was kept in the family – my parents had inherited it after my grandparents died – it wasn’t really a farm anymore. Just a large house on a large plot of land. The surrounding fields were still pretty, though, in the summertime when the grass grew tall and yellow. At least, that’s what Cara or Grace would tell me when they’d call now and then to catch up. My busy job as the assistant editor of “Explore Los Angeles”, a tourist magazine, gave me adequate excuse for not coming to visit as often.

I stood by the driver’s door of the rental car and looked around. I was still on the outskirts of the town, an agricultural community that, compared to L.A., was nothing more than a few little farms in the middle of the desert. That’s how I would describe Clovis to friends back in California when I’d mention the place where I’d spent the first eighteen years of my life.

My mother had finally died of the lung cancer she tried to smoke away. My father excused her on account of the addiction, but I didn’t know if I could ever forgive her. My mother’s addictions had done enough damage in the life of our family. One of my most vivid memories I have of Clovis is a Thanksgiving dinner, must be more than ten years ago, at my grandparents’ small farmstead on the Northern edge of town. My mother had begun drinking early in the day, before the turkey had even been stuffed, and she and I had ended up in a shouting match over key lime pie. I wasn’t entirely sober myself, but someone had to stand up to her. I was always the one to stand up to her. That was something else I wasn’t sure if I could forgive.

Feeling frustrated, I pulled out a cigarette and lit up. You’d think that watching someone in your family simultaneously die from cancer and stubbornly refuse to quit smoking would turn a person off to cigarettes. But I was pretty stubborn, too. Aside from sharing a first name, I guess my mother and I have more in common than I’d like to admit. I threw the butt on the ground and put it out with the toe of my tall black boot. Old habits die hard, I guess.

When I pulled up to the old family farm, everything looked exactly the way it had the last time I had been there, which had been three months earlier when my mother had taken her final turn for the worse, and my father called us all back home to stand by her bedside for a week. The farmhouse stood tall and robust, if obviously aging and old: three stories, if you count the attic. The front porch swing had long been broken, and it just hung there, lopsided, a bizarre metaphor for how death and decay had stricken the family. The large tree in the front had stretched even higher than the house, and another guarded the back yard and still had the old tire swing that had defined most of our childhood summer afternoons.

In a strange way, my mother’s illness seemed to have done something good for our family. It had united us in a way we hadn’t been for a long time. We felt close to each other in our anxiety, even in our anger – at each other, at how things had turned out for Mom. I cried as I hugged her goodbye the morning I flew back to L.A., and I think I knew it was the last time I’d see her alive. I wasn’t surprised when I got the phone call from Dad, and part of me was glad I wasn’t there in the end. I had never been good at handling emotions.

I got out of the rental car and walked up the front steps, feeling nervous, and let myself in.

The house was quiet. I didn’t see anybody as I entered the front hallway; the stairs directly in front of me led up to the bedrooms my sisters and I had occupied as kids. I set my purse down on the first step and made my way right, to the kitchen; it smelled like somebody was cooking dinner. I stepped through the doorway and saw my youngest sister, Grace, standing at the stove, slowly moving a wooden spoon around in a large, steaming pot. She must have not heard me come in, because she didn’t turn around. Instead, one of Cara’s little boys hopped off of a chair at the table where he had been coloring and ran to me, yelling, “Auntie Tammy!” He flung his four year-old body against my leg, and I smiled and patted his small, blonde head. Grace turned around. She was still in her prime, young and pretty at twenty-two years old, although she looked tired. She smiled, but not exactly warmly, and came to hug me. George let go of my leg and returned to his crayons.

“I didn’t hear you come in. You caught me daydreaming.” Grace was a few inches shorter than me, and when she hugged me I could smell the lavender shampoo in her light brown hair. “I thought I’d get dinner started. When did you get in?”

“Just now,” I said. “Where is everybody?”

“Cara’s with David out in the yard. Dad’s over at the funeral home, getting things sorted for tomorrow.” I sat down at the table across from George.

“Are we the only ones here? I was expecting more people.”

“Not tonight,” Grace said, getting a jar of tomato sauce out of the refrigerator. “Dad wanted it to just be immediate family before – ” her voice caught, and she let out a sigh. I looked away, embarrassed. “Before tomorrow.” She finished. She looked at me, her brown eyes wet with tears. I felt like she wanted me to say something, but I couldn’t think of anything. “It’s just so hard to believe,” she said, pouring the sauce into another pot on the stove.

“Well, it’s not like this was any surprise,” I said. Grace looked at me, obviously hurt.

“How can you say that so lightly? As if it’s not a big deal or something?”

“Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” I said, not wanting to start a fight within my first five minutes of being home. “I just meant…you know, with her cancer and everything…” I trailed off. Grace softened, and sat at the chair next to me.

“No, I’m sorry. I know what you mean. It’s just been so hard, to watch her fall apart like that. And being in this house – ” she broke off and looked around the room. George was still coloring contently. From what I could make out, looking at his work upside down across the table, it was some sort of large animal, but it looked like it had two heads, and it was bright green. “It’s all so lonely,” Grace finished. “I mean, I know we haven’t lived here since we were kids, but maybe that’s why it’s so hard now. The last time we were all here…when we really lived here together…we were a family.” Her last words were cryptic, as if to imply that we somehow weren’t a family any longer. I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t sure if I could disagree. We sat in silence for a few moments, until the sound of people talking drifted in through the open window over the sink. Grace got up and returned to the stove. “That must be Cara coming in, and sounds like Dad just got back.”

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