Palo Alto Weekly 32nd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

Worm Farm

By Patricia Fewer

About Patricia Fewer

Patricia Fewer has never been someone who sticks to a single path: Fewer has been a Peace Corps volunteer, a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, a volunteer bus driver, a substitute teacher and a textbook editor.

"Sometimes I just fall into things with people I know, or someone suggests something," she said.

Growing up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco as the oldest of six children, Fewer said she "really wanted to get out in the world, not stay home and help my mother."

Her adventurous attitude has taken her to many places and into many professions, and it has also given her an impetus to keep track of the things she's come across. Fewer has long loved to experience the lives of others, both through reading and observation.

"I've always just read and I've always kept notecards. If I think something is pretty terrific, I just write it down," she said.

When it came time to retire, Fewer was at a loss for what to do. She remembers standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window and pondering that question. Fewer decided to return to her notecards and begin writing, devoting herself to her short stories.

For Fewer, writing isn't an agonizing process -- it's an opportunity to bring together her diverse and entertaining life experiences.

"For me, (writing is) joyful. It just flows. I have a film in my head, and I don't ever make outlines," she said, adding that neither does she keep a schedule nor impose writing deadlines on herself.

Fewer's first-place story, "Worm Farm," is based on her cousin's actual farm, which was destroyed in a rainstorm. Her own experience raising three children was the inspiration for her story "You've Gone and Done It, Ivy," which won third place in the Short Story Contest in 2016.

Fewer advises new writers to be keen observers and create a database of quotes, people and events for inspiration. She keeps a plastic box filled with index cards on categories like family and humor and always has a notebook in her bag.

Fewer said she's still passionate about her writing and plans to continue drafting short stories.

"I'm going to keep working. I'm very stimulated. I'm wired," she said.

— Tara Madhav


Judge's comments

In this gentle and delightful story, nothing and everything happens, as the reader is carried along by the current of this skilled writer's subtle, evocative prose, passing from one major area of concern to another: accepting loss, confronting old age, anticipating childbirth, facing displacement, going to the mall, and contemplating a not altogether friendly future.
— Tom Parker

Hannah jumped the curb and skated down the empty street, straight down the middle, her arms pumping, her knees slightly bent. The skeletons of new homes, replacing acres of fruit trees, stretched along either side of her. Three months earlier, when her mother-in-law had died, leafless trees stood in long rows. Today, a Sunday afternoon, her iPod played Tom Waits singing about his wild youth and the wife who was dragging him down. Hannah propelled herself forward, crouched low, and glided past the rose bushes and "Worms for Sale" sign and on down her father-in-law's driveway. The concrete ended at the back of the two-story white-shingled house, and she stopped.

Her husband, Joey, was where she had left him, his bare back gleaming in the sun. She whistled at him. He waved without looking. She shaded her eyes with her hand and watched him sifting topsoil, picking out small stones and hard clods. He wiped his arm across his brow and poured peat moss into the wheelbarrow with the topsoil. The peach trees that surrounded him were in bloom.

Joey straightened around and looked at her. She grinned and shook her backside his way. He flapped his ear with one hand and she turned the iPod off. "Don't you look like something from outer space," he hollered.

Hannah looked down at her T-shirt, fanny pack, iPod, cutoffs, kneepads, red skates. "Not half bad," she thought.

"How about let's go over to the mall, Joey babe?"

"Nope." He shoveled horse manure into the mixture. "That's what teenagers do."

"I want an ice cream cone," Hannah said, sitting on the concrete and unlacing her skates. "We're on vacation."

"There's ice cream inside in the freezer." He pushed the wheelbarrow over to a coffin-like pine box and filled it halfway with the mixture.

"You're a whole lot of fun, Joey," Hannah said, standing up and hanging the skates over her shoulder.

"I'm just trying to keep you down on the farm." He opened a large Styrofoam tub and dumped a knot of earthworms into the soil, transferring worms from a crowded box into a fresh box. They slithered around, separating. Hannah grimaced at the wiggling mass. Joey placed wet burlap over the top of the mixture and closed the box.

"When I skate out of your life, you'll be kicking yourself for not going with me to the mall."

He threw a clod of dirt at her leg, followed with, "I love ya, Hannah."

She turned her iPod back on, and Tom Waits was singing about a sick little dog he had to live with. She looked at the stacked, filled pine boxes and went in the back screen door of the house, turning her iPod off.

Old Joe sat at the vinyl-covered kitchen table. He was playing solitaire and drinking hot water with fresh lemon. "I never knew a woman dressed like you, Hannah," he said smiling, his face unshaven. "I guess you never go to the mall either," said Hannah, putting her skates and kneepads in the broom closet by the National Geographic magazines.

"What's that?" Old Joe asked. He turned up cards from the top of the stack.

Hannah held the freezer door open, fanning herself. "Just kidding, Joe. Want some ice cream?" Her earphones hung around her neck.

"No, not me. Joey got that for you." He drank from his tall glass.

"I'm happy to share, Joe." Hannah served herself two scoops of fudge ripple ice cream and sat across from him.

"Got time for gin rummy, Hannah?"

"Time?" Hannah said, eating fast. "I've got lots of time."

Old Joe took up his solitaire layout, watched Hannah watching him riffle-shuffle, and spread. They each drew a card. "My deal," Old Joe said. Hannah cut the cards and Old Joe dealt out ten each. They screened their hands from each other.

"This is the life, Hannah, wouldn't you say. Cards and ice cream." Old Joe fanned his hand. Hannah scraped her bowl and put it aside.

"Good combination, Joe," said Hannah.

"The wife and I always played cards." He licked his thumb to separate two cards.

Hannah squinted over her hand. "I'm sorry. It must be awful lonely for you, Joe."

Old Joe drummed his fingers. "Your play, Hannah."

Joey stomped his feet before coming through the screen door into the kitchen. He washed at the sink, lathering his hands and rubbing the soap up his arms to his elbows. "Hannah, we can do some harvesting first thing tomorrow, okay?" He dried himself with the towel hanging from the refrigerator door handle. Then he poured himself a glass of iced tea.

"Pour one for me, too, will you, Joey?" Hannah said.

He put his down in front of her and filled another glass.

"Harvesting, Hannah," he said close to her ear.

"I knew it was coming. I'll be ready to separate parents from babies."

The day after the funeral, they had worked with Old Joe, emptying pine boxes, one at a time on plastic sheets, removing worms by hand from the compost, packaging 500 adult worms per container for market. Then it was a short drive to town to the Bait and Tackle Shop. Their biggest customer.

"The best possible livestock," Old Joe had said then. "They don't make noise, don't bite, and require little care."

Hannah remembered them slithering and curling around her fingers as she tried to figure out if they were long enough to be called adults.

Now Joey turned a wood chair around and sat in it backwards. Hannah put her socked foot on top of Joey's shoe and picked up the top card from the stack.

"Have you brought it up?" Joey asked Hannah quietly, leaning towards her. She looked at him blankly with her mouth open.

"All right, all right," Joey muttered. In a louder voice, he said, "We've got to talk more about what we're going to do here."

"Not good etiquette, talking during cards, Joey," said Old Joe. He winked at Hannah who was still looking at Joey. "I think, Dad, you're not going to like being here anymore when these new houses start filling up. You're going to have cars coming and going and kids on skateboards and women with strollers. People will be barbecuing and probably stealing your peaches."

Old Joe laughed and discarded a card face down. "There are more than enough peaches for me."

Hannah tapped her foot up and down on Joey's.

"We don't think it's good for you to be alone in this big house, Dad," continued Joey.

"But, this is my house. You are not to worry about me," Old Joe said, putting down his cards. "I have lived here since your mother and I married. I planted the trees out back." He rubbed his face with one stubby hand, starting at the forehead, going over the eyes, nose, and mouth, and stopped on his chest.

"This is my life, Joey. When I die, the developers can have it all, but not before." He pummeled his chest with his fist.

"Dad, think of this." Joey leaned in closer to the table. "Sell the place and go in with Hannah and me on a duplex. Our apartment is too small, but we could be right next door to each other in a duplex. We'll plant fruit trees and move the worm business."

"No good, Joey. Not for me," and Old Joe looked off out the screen door.

"You can help raise your grandchild, Joe," said Hannah.

"What?" asked Joey, letting the chair fall back.

"It could be, Joey. I'm not sure," said Hannah.

"It could be? And you're out on skates?"

Old Joe laughed out loud. "Now you're talking sense. Get me some water from the stove, Joey, and squeeze my lemon in." He reached across the table and held Hannah's hand. "I wish Joey's mother was here to hear this. She'd be pleased."

"So, you'll move with us, Joe?" asked Hannah, holding his hand with both of hers.

"No, no, if I leave here, I will die faster." Old Joe looked at the glass Joey offered. "Put another squeeze in there, Joey."

"Don't talk like that, Joe," said Hannah. She scraped together some toast crumbs from breakfast with the side of her cards.

"What makes more sense is that you kids move here with me instead of paying out money somewhere else," Old Joe continued.

"And do what, Dad? Our jobs are in the city," said Joey, cutting a lemon in half at the sink. "I want to know what you know, Hannah, about our baby," he added.

"Joey, really, I haven't been to a doctor yet. It is just a feeling." She blushed.

"You kids could do here what you could do somewhere else in a duplex," Old Joe continued. "And we could put up peaches together."

"Hannah likes cities, Dad," said Joey. "I promised her when we got married that I wouldn't be a farmer."

"Joey, don't put the blame on me." Hannah swirled her tea in the glass. "You're the one with nightmares of worms crawling out of boxes during the night and taking over the neighborhood."

"Hannah," Joey said, sputtering. "That was private information."

"Never mind, Joey. I have been lying awake with the same thoughts and gone out to the boxes with a flashlight," said Old Joe, laughing.

"But you think so, that you might be." Joey coaxed her.

"I've never been before so I can't be positive."

"You either keep a spotlight on the boxes at night, so they think the sun is out, or you keep the lids closed. That way they won't get out."

Hannah laughed softly. "If you'd take me to the mall, I could get a test kit and tell you."

"It's no life for a baby living in an apartment," said Old Joe.

"You still trying to get to the mall?" Joey asked her, cocking his head. He stood behind her chair, kissed the top of her head, and put both his hands on her belly.

"You smell like lemon," she said.

Old Joe pushed himself away from the table. "If you two are going to live here, you have to learn card-playing etiquette."

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