The Power of a Simple Photo:
Excerpt from SKATING ON THE VERTICAL by Jan English Leary

“I see myself in the two of them–my mother’s prominent front teeth, the crease between her eyebrows that makes us look worried even when we aren’t. My father’s hairline with the dip in the middle, the wide spacing of his dove-gray eyes.” ~ from “Wedding Photo” by Jan English Leary

Every photo tells a story, and often it’s the tiny details within the framework that reveal more than one may expect. The same is true in writing and reading short stories; character, place, and emotion can be explored to great depths, even within a limited word count.

In the excerpt of Jan English Leary’s story “Wedding Photo” (below), we glimpse how details in a simple photo, once studied, open the door to a greater understanding of past and present. “Wedding Photo” was first published in Cease, Cows (Nov 2013) and Sunset Drinking the Black Ocean (2016) and now appears as part of Jan English Leary’s new collection, SKATING ON THE VERTICAL from Fomite Press.

Small Press Picks calls her collection “profound” and says the stories read of “soul-searching, self-doubt, and mistakes that are natural—sometimes inevitable—during times of change, difficulty, or discovery.” Sample a story from Jan’s collection in the excerpt and enter the book giveaway for a chance to win a copy (with thanks to Fomite Press and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity).

This is the second in a series of book giveaways from last week through December, with one more giveaway from Hidden Timber Books in a few weeks–gifts for you or your favorite book worm!

Wedding Photo

by Jan English Leary

          My parents are standing on the steps of the church, squinting into the sun on the day of their wedding, nearly twenty-five years ago. My father’s smile is confident. He’s sure of his decision, eager about his new responsibilities. He holds her arm as he guides her, his new bride, from the church. My mother is looking off to her right and up a bit, away from him. At what? A well-wisher? A curious passerby? She doesn’t smile. Some people might blame wedding jitters, but I know she is swallowing back the nausea of morning sickness, my six-week self nestled inside her, a secret to be revealed later. She is only twenty-four but feels her choices narrowing, believes my father is her best chance and maybe her last. And of course, I am the real reason they’re doing this. I look to see if I can discern any hint of her future unhappiness, of her dissatisfaction with the marriage she finally dared to leave after more than twenty years together. All I can see is two young people, shy and hopeful, strangers to each other.
The three-quarter profile shows off her straight nose and her brown hair, over-permed for the occasion. She is wearing her mother’s satin dress with a high collar and covered buttons down the front—a full skirt under a peplum jacket, not yet tight, but snug. Beneath her skirt, the toe of a platform shoe peeks out. She told me her feet hurt that day, but she couldn’t take off her shoes because her dress was too long. Besides, without her shoes, she’d throw off the stair-step alignment of the heads for the wedding party photos.
My father is wearing a cutaway coat and vest. He is rugged-looking, not tall, but solid. In the sun, his eyes are nearly closed. He is twisting his new ring with the thumb of his left hand. His right hand clutches her satin sleeve, wrinkling it, probably leaving an eager, sweaty palm print.
I see myself in the two of them—my mother’s prominent front teeth, the crease between her eyebrows that makes us look worried even when we aren’t. My father’s hairline with the dip in the middle, the wide spacing of his dove-gray eyes. Eyes that chose not to see what was in front of him all those years. Eyes that still can’t see that his wife has changed. What features might I pass on to a child? How will I be viewed in future photos? What will I see in them?
In the upper corner of the photo, I see for the first time what caught my mother’s attention, drawing her gaze away from my father. A flash of white. A pigeon. Not a love bird or an eagle, or even a phoenix. A pigeon. The image is blurred as if the pigeon were attempting to escape the camera but was captured in mid-flight. From my perspective, it looks like the pigeon has been shot, halted on its way to freedom. Maybe my mother only saw the flight and all that it promised. In a way, we’d both be right.


In Jan English Leary’s collection of sixteen short stories,we meet characters who are at their most vulnerable—lonely or grief-stricken, tackling change or revelation. For instance, on “Eunuchs,” a boarding school teacher empathizes with her foreign student’s alienation, but his dramatic rejection of the institution makes her realize how alienated she is, and in “Skin Art,” a cutter finally discovers a way to appreciate her body—even though her husband is critical.

With her unflinching gaze and deep compassion, Leary’s stories reach to the very core, making SKATING ON THE VERTICAL a haunting, deeply powerful book.


JAN ENGLISH LEARY’S short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, Long Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. She has received three Illinois Arts Council Awards and taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School and Northwestern University.  Her first novel, Thicker Than Blood, was released by Fomite in 2015. Skating on the Vertical, just released by Fomite, is her first collection of short stories. She lives in Chicago with her husband, John, an artist and former teacher. More information at

DON’T FORGET: enter the giveaway by Tuesday, December 12th,
for a chance to win a copy of SKATING THE VERTICAL.

About Christi Craig

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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One Response to The Power of a Simple Photo:
Excerpt from SKATING ON THE VERTICAL by Jan English Leary

  1. Beth Hoffman says:

    Such a moving, beautifully written story. Thanks so much for sharing!

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