As part of this year’s One Read program, we challenged writers to tell a story beginning with “There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met,” the opening line from Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” We received tales of unknown mothers, forgotten movie starlets, dementia and incredible loss. Thank you to everyone who entered. Our overall winner was James Forr, and Becky Greer received an honorable mention.
We are pleased to share with you their stories.
1st Place: James Forr
There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, a woman who never was. My wife and I dragged that photograph and the medical reports that went with it from hospital to hospital, specialist to specialist, hoping. But nobody could help her. She was just too sick. It is a grainy little ultrasound snapshot from when she was barely 20 weeks along, so you would not be able to see very much. For that, you should feel lucky because I see all kinds of things. Sometimes I see her at the end of her awfully short life. There is my little girl, so still, so blue, so alone; her quilted, pink blanket softly shielding her from the lacerating chill of the morgue’s steel table, protecting her like I never could. Other days I stare at my wall and see an image of what should have been. That is when the woman appears. Her name is Anna – or Victoria, maybe. We hadn’t decided. Just look at her up there. She is confident, caring, and strikingly beautiful. Smart, too; she definitely would have been smart. Of course, no one is perfect, but she looks perfect to me. That’s all I can see. That’s all I have. Do you know what I appreciate most about seeing that woman? It’s that in her past she had a father who held her and kissed her. He read stories to her. He sang her lullabies. He never had to say goodbye.
Honorable Mention: Becky Greer
There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met. I wouldn’t say she is strikingly beautiful, but her dark eyes are compelling, even seductive. She was here when I moved in. I live in an old renovated tenement house in Brooklyn. Not exactly hip, but affordable. The lady came with the place, and by the looks of it, she’s been here a long time.
I took her down once, but found no identification on the back of the photo. There was a perfect oval on the wall, a silhouette of the frame. Strange, I thought, they painted around her. I asked the building super about her. He grumbled, “She’s just always there. Tenants come and go, she stays. The old lady only rents this room to men. Maybe they just don’t care.” And he left.
Mother came over, once. After scrutinizing the photo, she said, “Keep the frame; toss that photo. I find her unsettling.” I ignored her advice, of course.
My girlfriend, Liz and I spent one lazy afternoon in my bed, entertaining ourselves with wild scenarios about the mystery woman. Maybe I was too creative. Leaving, Liz said, “She makes me jealous.”
I’m moving today. She watched me pack.
“I’ve come for your last month’s rent.” It’s Mrs. Luciano. Old, stooped, impeccably dressed. “She’s still there, isn’t she?” Her intense, dark eyes met mine. One yellowed tooth bore a lipstick stain.
“Yes,” I said.
Why, Mrs. Luciano, you do keep a watchful eye, indeed.