fiction, poetry & more

First Prize
$1,000 Award


by Nancy Ludmerer

1. Secure your gear. “Shalom! Welcome to B’nai Hayim!” The ponytailed teenage usher asks you to leave your camera bag in the cloakroom; photography is forbidden during the service. You promise to hide it under your seat but explain you can’t risk losing it. She frowns; who would steal a camera during a Bar Mitzvah? Still, she relents.

2. Prepare for the unexpected. Why did Harry and Sarit turn to you when their professional photographer bailed? You didn’t even own a camera until yesterday (a point-and-shoot from B&H, fully refundable). You’re pondering this question while the rabbi speaks about punishment and forgiveness in Adam’s Torah portion. Do the sinning Israelites have a future? Harry and Sarit sit on velvet-upholstered chairs flanking the rabbi; Adam beams in his blue suit; the seven-year-old twins disrupt the first row, mugging, chatting, ignoring the shushing. They are your secret loves.

3. Capture memories as well as moments. Your sister claims Harry said you were a true memoirist, the best photographer in the family. Really? You haven’t photographed him in 16 years; blurred black-and-whites, an antique Polaroid. Then again, Harry’s standards were always low, his murmured On your knees, darling. You push away these thoughts, the reason you see your family only once a year.

4. Consider a collage using old photos. Sixteen years ago. Late afternoon. The sun-dappled foyer of your parents’ house in Philly. You and Harry have driven from Ithaca; everyone assumes you connected on Cornell’s ride board. Meeting your beautiful older sister Sarit, Harry comments what good company you were on the five-hour trip. The months you spent together, the handsome grad student teaching the avid freshman to fellate him just so, your post-coital bodies braided like warm challah, fragrant and glistening with moisture. Good company.

5. Anticipate the weather. Outside the shul, thick alabaster clouds, no trace of blue. With an opaque white sky as backdrop, everything increases in intensity; colors flame; emotions flare; rain threatens.

6. Remember to tell a story. Sixteen years ago, leaving the clinic, you focused on a whited-out sky, skirting the kneeling women praying for your salvation, taunting: Boy or girl, mama? At seventeen, you believed the time would come when you would no longer recall that day, much less the softly falling, unforgiving snow.

7. The rule of thirds (“avoid the bullseye”). At the outdoor buffet, you wolf down franks-in-blankets; perhaps your only chance. You circle the tent. Adam, flanked by grandmas, lighting a candle. Check. Grandpas, hands joined over the challah. Check. Adam, Harry, and Sarit hoisted in chairs, requiring several takes because you keep chopping off Harry’s head. Check. Adam and the twins. Where are the twins?

8. Don’t leave anyone out. At the kids’ table, 12-year-old girls with half-purpled hair vamp in tiny dresses; Adam and his best buds play poker; smears of mustard, chocolate, grandmas’ lipstick. You snap them all. You ask Adam if he’s seen Josh and Jake. “Sorry, Aunt Leah,” he says, silently begging Please don’t make me find them. At the old people’s table, everyone smiles, coffee cups aloft, Sweet & Low packets ripped open or secured, in handbags, against future bitterness. Your grandma, the prettiest of them all, with the bluest eyes (inherited by Sarit and Adam), points to the house. “Harry’s punishing them.”

9. Let family squabbles run their course. Here, you must disagree. Away from the music and tumult, the house is quiet. Except for Jake. How long has he been crying? An hour? Two? You wrap him in your arms, tell him you love him, that he is the best boy in the world; one day he will know that. You speak to him but also to the one who isn’t there, the boy you sometimes think about, though you never confirmed it was a boy. Eventually Jake relaxes, calms in your arms. Josh, pretending nonchalance, looks up from the latest Redwall. For weeks they’ve heard about the candle-lighting, the chairs, the cake. What about their memories? You feel bad for the boys having Harry for a dad.

10. Be bold—go for the shots you want. You hold out your empty hands, the camera dangling from your neck. “I’m sure there’s chocolate cake left.” Their dark curls are askew; their skinny arms fragile in white short-sleeved dress shirts. Josh murmurs, “But Dad said . . . .” You tell them not to worry about Harry. Outside the music has died except for a mournful sax playing “Unforgettable.” They race to the empty seats at your grandma’s table. She looks at you and understands. Not all of it but enough.

11. Change your perspective. The light has changed, the clouds shifted, a glimmer of rainbow on the horizon suggests it rained nearby. You change the setting on the camera the way the B&H guy showed you. “Where were you, Leah?” Sarit asks. She hasn’t noticed the twins, not yet. She is not a noticer, your sister. “The Millers’ table hasn’t been photographed. People are starting to leave.” She hesitates. “Thank you for all this. Harry and I owe you big time.” You tell her no problem. You tell her you’re on it. You don’t say, you’re welcome.

12. Images, even mistakes, can be manipulated. Because you are the photographer, there will be no pictures of you. Is a future even possible in which you reclaim your position in the family, or at least a position? Go from being Aunt Leah on Thanksgiving to something else? Help the boys flout their father’s edicts, their mother’s cluelessness? And then what?

13. Take a deep breath. You’re getting all the tables, the last dance, when you know he’s there, Harry, standing behind you. You don’t have to turn and look. It’s his smell. Dial Soap and Balkan Sobranie and his sweet dark messy hair, which he is lucky at 41 to have in abundance. He is lucky and you say a prayer, your first real prayer of the day, that his boys end up lucky, too.


Nancy Ludmerer has fiction in Kenyon Review, New Orleans Review, Electric Literature, Mid-American Review, Best Small Fictions 2016 (a River Styx prizewinner), Litro, The Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications. Since 2020, her stories have won prizes from Carve, The Masters Review, Pulp Literature, and Streetlight.

In July 2021, Nancy was a Peter Taylor Fellow with the Kenyon Review workshops. She dedicates this story in memory of her mentor, workshop leader, and friend Nancy Zafris.

Nancy lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and their recently-adopted 13-year-old cat, Joseph. Twitter: @nludmerer

February 2022