McPherson Square

Sharon Christner final headshot

A tiny girl cupped her eyes against a tree and yelled numbers as fast as she could remember them. “Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…”

Seven kids screamed and scattered in seven directions. Seeing nowhere else to go, they huddled together behind the large white trailer marked “Police Mobile Command.” “Ready or not, here I come!”

The park was theirs again. That summer McPherson Square had been cleared of squatters and, largely, of heroin use. ‘Needle Park’ was still littered with weeds and trash, but no longer with bodies or needles. Users had been forced elsewhere.

The McPherson Square Library crowned the center of the square. Its Ionic columns and vaulted central rotunda distinguished it from the cramped rowhomes facing into the park. The path to the library steps was lined with slanted benches where people once blacked out. Now three homeless men sat and shared a benign cigar. A prostitute waited at the Kensington Avenue edge of the park and accepted a sandwich from a church outreach volunteer. Across the street, another prostitute stared her down. Every six minutes the El screeched by.

Father Murphy and Father Devlin, dressed in lay clothes, set up a folding table for an altar between the police van and playground. Sister Anne brought over a box holding the elements of communion, holding it aloft to keep fifty curious fingers from appropriating the chalice and hosts inside. Two men in the brown robes of Franciscan friars sauntered up the lawn, unstrapped guitars from their backs and began to play softly while a volunteer fiddled with microphones.

The ever-growing throng of kids swarmed a volunteer named Judy as she set out water bottles and a Philly Pretzel Factory box in the back of the lawn. When Judy mentioned summer bible camp, 9-year-old Imani became serious. “I saw Jesus before,” she said, mouth full of pretzel. “He was walking downtown. He had one of them cane things.”

No one had the heart to tell her about the renowned street performer, Philly Jesus.

The kids plopped down on the clover-filled lawn. The younger ones, still leery of the grass at Needle Park, sat on towels and bags and shoes.

A man decked out in Phillies garb came by on his bike. “What’s going on?”

“Mass,” said the kid on the Trader Joes bag.

“What they givin’ out, pretzels or something?”

The kids nodded in unison.“Imma be here,” he said, taking off again. He stopped and looked back at the little congregation. “Not for pretzels, but for the Lord.”

Small groups of abuelas came up the lawn armed with beach chairs and besos for everyone. They shuffled over to the table and made sure everyone had a pretzel in hand. A couple of grandmothers from the suburbs came too, a little older and a little quieter. This wasn’t their neighborhood, but their sons or grandsons had come to Kensington to get high and never came home. They waved away gnats and nestled into their lawn chairs under a large maple. Addiction specialists, volunteer musicians, and recovering folks chatted like old friends. Imani carefully wrote “JEASUS LOVE YOU” on sticky notes and handed them to strangers.

Father Murphy, Father Devlin, and a deacon reappeared in their green and white vestments. It was a gracious September afternoon, and rustling oaks and sycamores forgave some of the park’s less appealing features. A single couch cushion rested on the path at the edge of the green, not far from an unexplained pile of meatballs and spaghetti sauce. The grass still held thousands of orange needle caps, each one a reminder of syringes past. But everyone talked and laughed freely; everyone was at ease. It had more the atmosphere of an outdoor wedding than of a mass for those affected by addiction.

Father Devlin staked the wooden crucifix into the ground behind the altar. “Okay we’re getting close guys,” Judy whisper-shouted to the squirming kids. “We’re getting ready for the quiet time.”

Mass began. The microphone popped on and off as Father Devlin led the opening prayer, but the little congregation still knew when to respond with “Christ have mercy.” As Father Devlin read from Ezekiel and Romans, an irreverent ice cream truck bleeped out a shrill melody from a block away. This was countered with an upbeat ‘Alleluia,’ and the bassist friar rocked out with a subtle head-bang.

Cackling erupted from behind a fence across Clearfield Street. A group of young men were coming in and out of a rowhome and adjacent lot, openly exchanging cash and small packages on the sidewalk. Two slick black cars with tinted windows were parked outside. An old man in worn clothes shuffled past them, blasting “Ahora Dice” from a portable stereo.

When the rap faded, Father Devlin read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“… if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Father Murphy began the homily by referencing an Inquirer article by Mike Newall, who had covered opioids in Kensington all summer. There was a murmur of approval at the mention of St. Mike, who had become more involved in the community than any other reporter. Mike’s brother John died of a heroin overdose in 1999. Father Murphy relayed the “detox, rehab, soft love, hard love” that Mike’s parents had tried to pour into their oldest son. As he described the familiar, draining life of an addict’s family, the grandmothers and the abuelas seemed to age a few years. A middle-aged couple in matching tan polos stood, his hands on her shoulders, staring vacantly into the trees behind Father Murphy’s head.

“Mike saw his brother not as an addict but as a person, a brother. That, and the love his parents showed– that sums up completely the readings for today.”

Neighborhood kids were shrieking on the playground now, climbing the chain link fence that surrounded the rear of the library. Behind them, the rowhomes on E street had their doors wide open, and matronly figures leaned on doorposts to watch their wards on the jungle gym while the mass in front of them reached the height of its homily.

“If we’re going to love like Jesus, sometimes love is going to have to be really practical and concrete and tough. But it’s always with love, and it’s always with a purpose of bringing a brother or sister back to the fullness of love.” The ice cream truck returned and accompanied Father Murphy with the Mister Softee Jingle. “This is Recovery Awareness Month,” he concluded. “We’re here because we have hope.”

The musicians sang a peaceful communion song in English and Spanish. Father Murphy prayed over the bread and the wine, lifting them up toward the police trailer as if invoking a saint inside. Meanwhile, ten teenagers from the park descended on the unmanned pretzel table behind the congregation. At some point during the homily, a photographer from the Inquirer had arrived and was now aggressively snapping close-ups of congregants receiving the holy sacrament.

The kids sitting with Judy had gotten bored and squirmed away. Five of them were chucking extra water bottles at the front of the library building, trying to balance them on top of the doorframe. The priests’ words were punctuated by the sound of bottles exploding on the brick terrace. “The body of Christ.” Ksshh.

Father Murphy invited a man forward to speak. His navy suit jacket and pristine silver wristwatch made him stand out among the hoodies and cargo pants of McPherson Square. He was Bernie Parent, a Flyers retiree, NHL Hall of Famer, and longtime recovering alcoholic. The audience instinctively clapped and whooped at the mention of a Philly sports team despite the heavy topic at hand.

Bernie called alcohol “the little bastard on my shoulder” with a glance at Father Murphy. It had driven him from the NHL Championships to rock bottom. He impressed on his listeners that “it takes a team to recover” and thanked them for being that team for the addict they love. Then, what everyone was waiting for: “It’s been 37 years.” The crowd erupted with applause.

As the priests came forward to conclude the mass, a shirtless man appeared at the park edge. He had a joint tucked behind each ear, and dozens of needle-welts in each arm. He stumbled past without accepting a pretzel or a prayer.

“The Lord be with you, go in peace.”

Ksshh.

Look Away

Brooks_CNF photo

Look Away

While talking to the colonel about how to administratively process Nicole’s death, I volunteered to walk through the house where she was murdered. We started the conversation sitting on opposite sides of the executive desk in his office. A bookcase stood against the wall facing us. Plaques from his previous commands and a rack filled with dozens of commander’s coins that he’d been awarded over his multi-decade career sat on the shelves. He had a large, hovering presence even while seated, but the power dynamic between us was the least of my concerns. Nicole was all I could think about.

“Contact HRO,” the colonel said, “to find out who Nicole’s next of kin is.”

“I’m sure it’s her sister,” I said.

“I think you’re right. When we know for sure, we can reach out and walk her through the benefits she’s eligible for.”

“Ok—”

“And someone will have to go to the house to see if we can get any of her equipment back.”
When Nicole joined the Army National Guard, she borrowed a laptop, a load-bearing vest, a rucksack, and other tactical gear, which must have been somewhere in her rental home. I didn’t understand why the supply sergeants responsible for maintaining accountability of our equipment couldn’t file Nicole’s gear as a loss. The U.S. government wouldn’t miss a couple thousand dollars of stuff. But it seemed the colonel wanted someone to go anyway.

“I want to do it,” I blurted.

“You’re too close to the situation to have to see something like that,” he said, “especially if you’ve never seen anything like that before.”

As a second lieutenant, I should’ve said, “Roger that, Sir.” I knew walking through a murder scene wasn’t the type of experience I could prepare for, but I was certain I was strong enough to see whatever was on the other side of Nicole’s front door. I had to defy the indirect order. “Sir, I can handle it,” I said. “I’ll be okay.”

“Alright then,” he said pensively. “Take a battle buddy with you so you’re not alone.”

When I walked out, I thought about the gravity of what I had asked, maybe a little unsure after all. I wondered how anyone would see something like that for the first time. I suddenly realized that on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where some of my coworkers had been more than once, death is forced into a soldier’s line of sight, and then it’s forced into their nightmares. I had never gone to war. I had never seen the kind of battle that spilled a friend’s blood.
I didn’t want to look away from Nicole’s murder because I wanted to test the depths of what I was capable of feeling. When I was four, my brother’s sudden death knocked my world off its axis. Weeks before his high school graduation, he died from a form of heart disease, of which death was the only symptom. I spent my entire life living in the shadow of a dead boy. Death was an ordinary part of my life. I thought about it often and anticipated its arrival. As a kid, the joy of getting a new toy quickly evaporated the moment when I realized that I could die at any moment too. The deaths of my grandmother, cousins, and uncle equate to more dying than most people will ever experience, but for me, those experiences were as ordinary as seeing shadows cast from moonlight.

Two decades later, one of my closest friends was dead. Nicole’s death, unlike the others, was hard to believe. I could still see the blonde strands falling from her bun as she zipped around our office building from one errand to another. I could still see her bunny teeth as she chattered in laughter about a new guy she was dating. I felt pain now in ways that I’ve never felt before, but I thought it might be a fluke. Experiencing the death of my brother so early in life taught me how to die before I learned how to live. I was afraid my reflex would kick in, and I would get over the loss as quickly as the people who had only known of her. A part of me hoped seeing the crime scene would make my pain last.
Within a few days, the Burlington County police released the crime scene, so a coworker and I hopped into a government-owned vehicle and drove 30 minutes west from Fort Dix to Mount Holly. The South Jersey towns we drove through moved from sweeping farmland to suburban expanse. The houses we saw along the way looked like Monopoly pieces spread across green islands.

When we pulled up to Nicole’s street in Mount Holly, I looked out the passenger window, realizing I still had a chance to look away. The houses on the block looked different from the others I’d seen on the way. Here, the houses lay nearly on top of each other, divided only by mismatched fencing. They had the same vinyl siding and over-flowing gutters. The sidewalks were broken and ripped up in places where weeds sprouted. Although it was February, it didn’t seem like greenery lived on that block in any season.
I thought about being at the house a few weeks prior. That night had been one of the few times when Nicole and I made plans that we actually kept. Before heading to a local bar, I stepped inside to meet her boyfriend and her father. Both men were polite and soft spoken. We exchanged a few pleasant words, and then Nicole and I left, not knowing that in a few weeks two people would be dead, and the other would be the murderer.

At the bar, Nicole and I shared drinks, laughed, and took a few photos. One image is tattooed in my memory. We sat cheek to cheek, smiling ear to ear. The background was a cacophony of vibrant reds, blues, and greens. I could still hear the clattering glasses and drunken conversations. We were both safe from jealous boyfriends, troubled parents, and the grind of everyday life because, in the moment, none of that mattered. Nicole didn’t have to complain about her boyfriend’s rage and I didn’t have to wag a finger at her insisting she leave him. We both felt free.

Staring at Nicole’s house now spoiled the sweet memory. A feeling of dread hung onto my shoulders and weighed me down. I walked up to the threshold knowing that on the either side of the door Nicole’s boyfriend had bludgeoned her and her father with some object the police wouldn’t name, while her teenage sister lay asleep in the attic. She woke up the next day, walked downstairs, and found her family laying in pools of blood. Nicole’s boyfriend was still in the house. When her sister saw him, she ran outside with her cell phone and called the police.

At the door, Nicole’s family-friends greeted us. They had been at the house for hours, getting rid of trash and recovering personal items the family wanted to keep. There was no turning back now. The front door opened into the living room. The couch where Nicole’s body was found sat in the middle of the room. Blood was splattered on some of the cushions and soaked into others. Heaps of clothes were strewn across the floor. This is when I realized the police don’t clean up crime scenes; they just take what they need and leave the rest for someone else to figure out.

I followed the narrow hall that connected the living room to a stairway on the left followed by a small bedroom and then the kitchen. A headboard leaned against the wall on my right. It came from the room where Nicole’s father slept. The headboard was pale green and had splatters of painted flowers and blood.

I walked up the misshapen steps to the second floor. I was careful not to graze the walls. In Nicole’s bedroom, there was blood splatter on the walls and on light fixtures and soaked into the carpet and into blankets. I didn’t know the details at the time, but after the murders were complete, Nicole’s boyfriend walked up to the bedroom with a knife and tried to kill himself too.

I stood in silent horror. My coworker walked in from behind me. He cursed under his breath, disgusted by the damage done to an entire family. I wished he would keep quiet. The moment we were standing in was already horrible. No one needed to speak the obvious truths. I don’t believe in god, but I needed silence—to pray, or, to just send as many loving thoughts to Nicole as I could. I had no room in my heart for anger toward the murderer. Instead, I wanted to fill that space with love for Nicole.

After sifting through a dresser to see what we could find, we walked to the closet. The door was ajar, so my coworker opened it. Nicole’s military gear spilled out. We realized we would have to trash it all. The equipment was blood-stained. I couldn’t believe the splatter reached inside the closet. There was nothing about Nicole’s murder that made sense.

That night, as I lay in bed, my thoughts rattled in my head. I wanted to know the particulars about Nicole’s murder. I told myself that knowing the why and the how would somehow help me find peace. I believed knowing would be better than wondering. I realized that, after learning the truth of my brother’s death, I had nightmares. I saw my brother’s heart, like armed guards, blocking his blood flow. The blood had nowhere to go, so in a desperate rage, it strangled his lungs, forcing out his last breath. I still can’t look away from that painful knowledge. I suddenly understood I didn’t need war to prepare me for anything that doesn’t already haunt me.


Susette Brooks is writer, editor, and educator. She is a graduate from the MFA in Nonfiction program at Goucher College and is the former Creative Nonfiction Editor at Philadelphia Stories. Susette is working on a memoir in essays about the lies she’s told as defense against childhood traumas. Visit her website: www.susettebrooks.com.

My Cousin’s Love Affair with Slime Mold

 OnaLauren_CNF photo

It started innocently enough. A hike in the Oakland woods after a heavy rain. The ground still wet, the dense foliage sated and glistening. She hiked for exercise, to meditate, to escape the demands of a job in graphic design. It was a routine, an enjoyable way to recharge.

But then, fungi! That was the beginning, the gateway. Suddenly, she noticed them–there, and there, and there–as any of us might do in our own yards: mushrooms. The kind we, and even our pets, sense would kill us with one bite. Yes, my cousin, Lauren, noticed the fungi before anything else. Sprouting up overnight, matted in the dirt, tangled in the weeds, clinging to bark. Varying in placement, infinite in color, size and shape. The more she looked, the more she saw, a modern day Thoreau peering into a seemingly bottomless pond. Fungi. Orange and red, spotted and striped, top heavy and skinny, clustered and solitary, all of them called to her, and she responded with awe—and her camera. Obsessed, evangelical, her images were stunning, her enthusiasm contagious.

And yet, this was only a prelude to something deeper, something both smaller and far more vast. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose profundity grew as he shrank and ultimately merged with the universe. For despite their beauty, their endless photographic potential, fungi were discrete, had limits, the hunt for them a beloved, but self-contained, hobby. Slime mold,  well, that was something else. That was a passion. That was love. That was the meaning of life.

My cousin and I are like sisters. I’m three years older, perfect for corrupting her early, which I did. I taught her about cutting class, forging signatures, and especially about boys, leading her astray before our parents knew we were gone. But she taught me a few things, too: about driving ninety miles an hour in the Hollywood Hills, about smoking low tar cigarettes, about the possible side effects of immersion in another culture. After a few months in Paris, she returned unable (or unwilling) to speak English, requiring me to rely on my high school French to communicate with her.

More than anything, however, Lauren taught me about nature, the appreciation of which began in her childhood home. Both of our dads were physicians, but hers was also a naturalist, her house a kind of urban zoo. In the backyard was a giant tortoise so big you could ride him, although I never did. The den was a dedicated aquarium, with built-in viewing spots for my uncle’s rare collection—vipers, lion fish, poison dart frogs from the Amazon among the most exotic.  Sadly, some of them didn’t make it. But none went to waste. In the guest bathroom medicine cabinet were jars filled with the pickled unlucky, a surprise if you happened to be looking for an aspirin.

I’m sure there were other unusual pets lurking around. No animal living at my cousin’s was mundane–even the dog. Duchess was her name, and she looked and acted the part: lithe and regal, a descendant of royalty. So when she went into heat, my aunt celebrated the bitch with a wedding and a canine gown that would put “Say Yes to the Dress” to shame.

When her daughter was young, Lauren followed in her father’s footsteps, harboring a menagerie of rats, mice, preying mantises and enough crickets to feed an army. Today, however, she only has a cat, to which I’m deathly allergic. She likes dogs, although, maybe because of Duchess, not enough to own one. Moreover, because of her aversion to interspecies mingling, she nearly pukes seeing me swap spit with my collie and two rescues—something to do with what occurs on the molecular level.  But slime. Slime is another matter.

“First,” my cousin says, “slime molds aren’t mold at all. They may seem more closely related to animals than fungi if you see them in their creeping phase. Because they’re so unlike anything else, science has found slime mold difficult to classify. They transform dramatically during their life cycle going from an on-the-move feeding phase to a fixed reproductive phase. Some of the fruiting bodies I witnessed through my close-up lens were stunningly alien and beautiful; pink elongated jelly beans on stalks, fuzzy netted puffballs, geometrically spaced iridescent orbs, tiny blueberries hanging from delicate threads.”

Also, although they are only one-celled, like amoeba, slime mold change form and possess striking intelligence. Indeed, they can solve mazes, optimizing information so efficiently, that scientists are studying them in connection with research on transport systems. All that from the tiniest of entities, something that one can confuse with “dust, dog barf or insect eggs.”

And they can be mercenary, too. Take the Badhamia utricularis, for example, a slime mold predator that “feeds on the poor fungi unable to make a run for it.” It may in fact be the slime mold’s superiority to the fungi (at least in this case) that is partly behind Lauren’s fascination with the creature. Not that she’s abandoned her first love—fungi, in all their wondrous glory, will always hold a place in her heart. But slime mold may lead us to more answers about our own existence. And that, for someone like my cousin, is head turning.

See, Lauren is an atheist, who believes that while there’s currently a limit to scientific explanation, it’s ultimately science, not a god, that’s more likely to tell us who we are. So slime mold, being part animal as well as plant, is a closer model. According to nature writer Adele Conover, even though in some ways slime molds are “like aliens from another planet,” they can help us understand our bodies as “great aggregations of once separate and independent organisms,” metaphorically as “communes.” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2001, Hunting Slime Molds.) In other words, we might have more in common with slime mold than with fungi, and thus the knowledge acquired from them is  more relevant.

But what can slime mold do for me? I’m non-committal, indecisive, one of those pesky agnostics. Science is science. The earth is round, climate change is real, vaccinations work. Yet somewhere in me is a space all that data can’t fill, a space I cherish. Call it the fancy, the supernatural, the shadows. It’s where mystery lives, a space that lets me believe that my deceased grandmother helps find my constantly missing eyeglasses. It’s where I go to hope the things I hope for are true, to create worlds of my own making, to counter despair.

“What do you do to escape the madness?” Lauren recently asked me. She meant politics, madness being the code word for the person whose name we refuse to utter. What do I do? I’m a writer so I tell her I wait for rejection notices. “What do you do?” I said, already knowing the (slimy) answer by her adoring tone.

But maybe I’ve been too hasty. Maybe slime mold is more than its name, more than the sum of its parts. Maybe in its ability to thrive in chaos, to transcend temporal concerns, it exceeds its classification, becoming part of the mystery I hold as sacred.

Maybe. But it could be that I’m just jealous. Like back in the day when my cousin got the cute guy. It could be that I’ll never be into slime mold because it’s just not that into me. At the very least, I wonder if she’s thought this relationship through . I warn her that she might get hurt, that the slime might overtake  her, like the Blob. But she waves me off, heading straight for the woods, certain that the romance will last.


Ona Russell is the author of three award-winning historical mysteries and has been published in a variety of other venues, including previously in Philadelphia Stories. Ona holds a PhD in literature from UC San Diego, where she also taught for many years. She considers herself a Philadelphian once removed—her mother was born there, her brother lives in Narberth, and her great uncle, architect Louis I. Kahn, had a little something to do with the city. For more info, please visit onarussell.com.

 

 

 

Seaming

Seaming

by Kara Petrovic

Kara_Petrovic_Profile

My mother holds me down, her hands locked around my wrists as I am screaming, writhing in pain. It is midnight, or sometime after. The fluorescent lights of my room feel too bright, they burn against my skin, cursed with hypersensitivity. I can hear my mother cooing at me, gently whispering it is time to stop. Covered in cold sweat, my skin is slick, and my hair sticks to my forehead. This is a snapshot of my life at its lowest, which happens more often than I care to admit. It is a panic attack, or something similar, some days I cannot tell the difference. Yet, with unyielding patience, my mother hears my screams and we go into our usual song and dance: where my hands are scratching at my skin as if I were digging for gold, and her hands are petting my head, snaking their way around my body to make me still.

My mother never really understood mental illness, not when it first crept into my bed and made itself a home. She thought I was attention-seeking, the youngest child tired of raising their voice just to be heard, that this was the newest of my attempts to gain her affection. My mother thought she could shake it out of me, that if she grabbed me by my shoulders enough times or slapped me across the face hard enough I would snap out of it and be the child she had envisioned.

I am 22 years old now, and I have a cornucopia of diagnoses, all of which seem to be trying to outdo the other. In my youth, I was a lost soul — to put it kindly. A fire raged in my chest while a demon followed my every footstep: I was enamored with death.
If death was a man, with sickly grey skin and bones for fingers, he followed me throughout my adolescence, before I even knew how to correctly spell suicide. At 12 years old, I would write notes to my mother and leave them on the threshold of her bedroom, apologizing for being the way that I was, stating I knew she would be better off if I were dead.

I would watch her read these notes, hidden behind the pillars in the house. With the scoff of a laugh accompanied by a quick roll of her eyes, her staple response to my behavior, she would crumple the paper up. To her, this was a cry for attention, and I suppose in some way it was. It was also a cry for help, one she would make me wait several years to receive.
Meanwhile, I played surgeon with myself. I seemed to believe that if I cut deep enough I could find the source of my sickness and remove it from my skin. Since I had to eradicate this on my own, I had to navigate without a sense of direction. I would lock myself in my room and map out the corners of my brain, go hunting in the depths of my subconscious to try and locate the cause of my misery. At the dollar store, I would buy razors, take them home and break apart the safety barriers. I would mark up my arms, my legs, my stomach. I experimented at first, marking Xs all over my skin, but it quickly became methodical lines and, each new session, I challenged myself to dig even deeper.

A therapist once told me that the pain I carry is liquid gold, and it fills up the cracks inside of me and creates a new work of art each time— I stare at my pain and try to see the beauty in it, in its curves and twists, the knots in my forearms and the scars on my body. All I see are cracks. White lines that look nothing like gold. I trace my fingertips along the hypertrophic scars and, suddenly, I am engulfed in loneliness and vulnerability. Though I want nothing more than to hold on with an iron fist, I let go of the abyss and tell myself the wounds have healed. Yet they burn each time I see someone trying not to stare.

My mother believes pain can be expunged, as if my pain and I should separate. My mother says happiness is a choice. I promise I am trying to choose happiness every day, but maybe the words stick in my throat, maybe I’m so used to excelling as her disappointment that I can no longer tell the difference.

I am fifteen years old and I have been living with an unnamed illness for three years. It’s November, 2011, and my sister and I are setting up the Christmas tree. My parents are still together, out for the evening at a concert, desperately hoping this date night will save their marriage. At some point in the evening, my lungs and heart plummet in my chest and my mind repeats one track. I sneak into my parents’ bedroom and find my father’s sleeping pills I had stumbled upon several weeks prior. I read the label with care, noting all the warnings. “Do not operate machinery. Take with food. Do not consume with alcohol.”

Do not consume with alcohol.

Before I know it, I’m standing in front of the liquor cabinet, 26 pills in hand. I look through my options, and settle on the one with the highest alcohol content: tequila. I down the pills, chase them with the tequila, in seconds. The alcohol burns my throat, my body contorts in protest and I shiver as it enters my stomach. For a moment, nothing happens.

I walk upstairs into my bedroom. I pick out the outfit I would like to be found in: I change my shirt. I put one leg into my favorite pair of jeans.
When I wake up, I’m in the hospital. My mouth is black, covered in charcoal, and there are light burn marks on my chest. My mother sits across the room from me. Her thumbnail is in her mouth. She has been crying but when she realizes I am awake, her face hardens. I can hardly hear anything; the world is muted. She draws near and kneels by my bed. Her brown eyes I inherited are cold. “Listen,” she says, “there will be a psychiatrist who comes to see you. You must listen to me. You must lie. You must not tell the truth. If you do, you will be hospitalized and this will ruin your life.”

Ruin my life.

She coaches me, over and over, on the things I have to say. I stand up groggily and stumble towards the bathroom. She follows me, stands behind me, watching as I wash my face. She follows me back into the room, saying, “This was a mistake, an accident, you didn’t know what you were doing.”

“This wasn’t an accident,” I say, wincing as the words make their way from my throat.

“Don’t be stupid. You must tell the psychiatrist, ‘no, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.’”

When the psychiatrist visits me the following day, I say,  “I made a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I answer, “No, I don’t have a history of this type of behavior.”

When my 24 hours are up, I am released, and the next day I go to school as if I hadn’t just died two days prior.
This becomes a standard play for us. The following year I make the same attempt. I steal painkillers, head to the liquor cabinet, swallow tequila. Again, I wake up in the hospital and follow the same script. When it happens again, and again, and again, we eventually manage to avoid going to the hospital, and it is my mother’s turn to play doctor. As she wraps gauze around my wrists when I am 17 years old, her lips in a hard line though the rest of her face has softened over the years, I note her expertise: it had always been second-nature to her, healing my physical wounds in ways she could not mend the disorders in my mind.
Somewhere along the way, without much notice or declaration, everything changes. I have moved out and am living an hour’s drive away. We see each other on weekends. Some weekends I skip. I ignore my mother’s messages, her phone calls, and the more I do, the more they increase in frequency. No longer does she look at me with disdain. On this visit, I am 19 years old, sitting on the porch and smoking a cigarette with my mother. Even when we are the same, both smokers, we are different. She smokes thin sticks, I smoke 100s.

She asks, “How are you doing?”

I say, “Better than I have in years.”

I look toward the setting sun as she flinches. I flick my cigarette away. The conversation is strained, painful, and I’m checking my phone at five-minute intervals; waiting for when I can take my train to a home that is no longer with her. She sends me care packages, tells me not to worry so much, kisses my forehead, and I realize this is the most attention I have gotten from her in years. Except now, I think, I no longer need it. I am independent, grown, away from her. I am eating healthy, sleeping well, saving money. For all intents and purposes, I am well and stable.
But I am not cured.
The illness returns.

I find myself coming home more and more. My mother welcomes this. We have a family dinner every Sunday, just the two of us, and I can see the happiness etched into her face. I feel her warmth for the first time in years, and I suddenly begin to loathe when it is time for me to return to my house.

At the end of the year, I move back home and nestle myself into her. She calls me baby, and reminds me that the world is not my enemy, and neither is my mind. I realize, then, that finally: neither is she.

My mother never understood mental illness, no, but she grew to accept me. We had lived in parallel, traveling in the same direction, never once touching. In the years that followed my first splitting of skin, I learned to come to terms with my mind. My darker inclinations left shadowy traces on me that I have filled with gold. My body is a work of art I cherish, each mark a reminder not of my lowest, but of what I have survived. I fell out of love with my own melancholy. In ways unclear to me, my mother did the same.


My mother holds me down. After a few minutes, my breathing evens out and my tears dry themselves on my face.

That night, we sleep together, cocooned around each other and still.


Kara Petrovic is 23 years old and is currently living in Toronto, Ontario. They are a survivor of trauma three times over and are living with a variety of mental health disorders. They have been writing poetry since they were 8 years old. In 2017, they self-published a collection titled beyond rock bottom. Their poetry has been previously published by CONKER magazine. In 2018, they were selected to read for Toronto’s Emerging Writers Series. They are also currently writing a book of fiction with a co-author who lives in Belleville, New Jersey. Philadelphia holds a special place in their heart, as their father and youngest sister live there. They identify as genderfluid and pansexual.

Lost Novella

Lost Novella

by Stephen St. Francis Decky

Stephen_St_Francis_Decky_Lost Novella

In 2004 I stopped reading books. I had just stopped smoking. I’d stopped smoking because I’d nearly completed writing a novella when my laptop sputtered and died. The data, despite some effort, was unrecoverable. I grieved like someone dear had died.

I’d been smoking since I was a Junior in high school. At that time, I was homeless; In a rare fit of mercy, my dad had kicked me out of his house that summer. Which left me free. But homeless. I spent the first night in a blur in the woods with a fire and some people I didn’t know. I was free, and lost, and after a week, going through some sort of withdrawal from the anti-depression meds I’d left home without. That home had become a pressure-cooker of threats and hostility. There was no going back.

Instead, I stopped at a convenience store in Woodbury, New Jersey and for the first time in my life bought a pack of cigarettes. I lit one up outside. The jitters and withdrawal pangs softened in seconds; the relief was immediate and palpable. As the fog of anxiety faded, I sat down on the curb, opened a notebook, and began to write.

I smoked for 19 years. I’d been writing stories and painting and drawing since I was a child. But the smoking was to my fiction like canned spinach to Popeye: instant confidence and focus. I wrote obsessively, I made it a habit. I smoked upwards of 2 packs a day.

Later I published a couple short stories. They went nowhere but it didn’t matter because I hadn’t written my best piece yet. That one was still coming, and when it came, at the height of its formation – mid-delivery – it vanished.

Smoking did little to numb the despair. I’d begun seeing its effects in the mirror as well: I looked very mid-30’s, smoker. This visual prompted me to take a day off from smoking. In the 19 years I’d been smoking I’d never gone an entire day without a cigarette. But I was going to take a day off. 24 hours. Instead of smoking I would eat cookies and ice cream and drink martinis and pretty much devour anything I craved except cigarettes.

That night I drank 4 and a half martinis. I woke up the next morning on the floor beside my bed. I felt bludgeoned but ecstatic: I’d just gone an entire day without a cigarette. I figured I’d wait a few hours and then have a smoke and a cup of coffee and resume my life. But mid-afternoon passed and evening arrived and I wondered what would happen if I somehow found the audacity to try the martini trick again.

It worked: I woke up the next day in my underwear on the porch, 48 hours smoke-free. It felt like the fabric of my life had been ripped. That’s how I quit smoking.

Eight months later, the pack I’d been working on when I quit was still in my backpack – a subconscious Emergency Kit – with 11 unsmoked cigarettes inside. I remembered this as I was leaving a convenience store on King Street in Northampton, Massachusetts. Embarrassed, I pulled the pack – Marlboro Reds, the ultimate sellout – out of my bag and tossed it into a trash can.

During the aforementioned 8-month contingency period, I climbed Mt. Washington in less than 2 hours, did upwards of 300 push-ups daily, and started painting with renewed energy. I’d never painted with a purpose or audience but I could feel the possibility of one forming. Images began replacing text in my creative workflow. My written output dwindled until I was left with little more than Beckett-like, self-subsuming paragraphs of anti-fiction. The great novella was lost, and in its wake, my writing had become the literary equivalent of autolyzed yeast.

A side-effect of not writing was a burgeoning inability to read long-form works, i.e. books. The two processes had somehow been intertwined, and I was finding it impossible to focus on either.  It was deeply worrisome, as I’d been a voracious reader for many years, and a battle at the intersection of inspiration and creativity seemed to be waging inside me.

At a bookstore in Philadelphia, I found and purchased a copy of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger in the original French. I’d studied French in high school and retained some knowledge with occasional tutors, but reading literature en français was a new and suddenly necessary challenge: It forced me to concentrate at a level that had become second-nature in English, and the constant need to check my stack of French-English dictionaries satisfied – albeit faintly – the now-missing physical and gestural aspect of smoking.

I finished l’Etranger, some grossly pretentious Sartre plays, then le Deuxieme Sexe, all with a slowly increasing sense of ease. Later that year I travelled to France and found a copy of Le Tour de la France par Deux Enfants in Lyon, a Marivaux compendium in Chamonix, something by Nathalie Sarraute in Nice. I could understand Molière and Colette but couldn’t keep up with anything modern: My comprehensive abilities were antiquated, and I developed a ready-made excuse in my perpetually-lagging conversational French:

– Je parle comme un enfant parce’que je pense comme un enfant en français

(I speak like a kid ‘cuz I think like a kid in French)

Over the next 12 years, the only books I read in English were Houellebecq translations and systematically timed re-readings of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I read Marguerite Duras, Radiguet, La Fontaine and others in the original French, but with the sense I’d been trapped in a Robbe-Grillet loop of limited literary mobility.

 

Early in 2017, while recovering from surgery – and as if loosed from a longstanding fog – I began writing again: Mostly short and spastic stories and eruptions, but enough to open the door to reading in English again. It started with Marc Augé’s Everyone Dies Young, then Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle. I re-discovered Nawel El-Sawaadi’s Woman at Point Zero, then the suddenly/weirdly inspirational Cicero, then old favorites like Angela Carter, Mohammed Mrabet, Zora Neale Thurston, etc.

I started listening to audiobooks as well. While they were clunky and rare in 2004, they’ve become both accessibile and abundant in the interim, often reaching true eloquence. Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates reading his own Between the World and Me after the chorus of voices reciting George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo was deeply revelatory.

Still, there’s nothing like the presence of a book, and that physicality lingers in perpetuity: I can almost feel the de Beauvoir text I bought in Geneva early last summer and lost on the Broad Street Line in Philly; that copy of Le Tour de la France from Lyon still rests on my desk, ever-visible from the corner of my eye.

 

It’s been nearly 15 years since I quit smoking. I stopped taking prescription anti-anxiety and depression medications soon after. At that time, I felt – fleetingly – freed from the narcosis of short, long-term, and acceptable addictions. A slow-building ecstasy of heightened mental clarity whisked away many of the fears and worries that had been stifling my confidence since my earliest years. It was obvious, though, even as it was coursing through me, that the ecstasy wouldn’t last; The feeling itself was strained by an array of side-effects, but like the addictions – and later, the literary anomalies – these eventually subsided, shifting from the harrowing insistence of the present to the fading but temporal archive of memory.

The novella is now but a blip in a long line of lost plans and ideas, but its influence on my story has been manifold. The future may have changed many times over, but I’ve learned that the potential for new creative prospects – even if temporarily obscured – is always there in some way, shape or form.


Stephen St. Francis Decky is a multi-media artist and writer whose paintings and films have appeared in festivals, collections, and museums both nationally and internationally, including The New Britain Museum of American Art and The Museum of Fine Arts, Nagoya, Japan. He has taught Animation and Digital Media classes at several schools, including Tufts University, Moore College of Art and Design, and Lycoming College. As a technical consultant and collaborator, he has worked on multi-channel video installations in Boston, New York City and Montana. Stephen received his MFA from Tufts University and The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and currently lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

Clarion Street

Farrell.Nancy.Photo

Clarion Street

By Nancy Farrell

It was mid-summer, 1972, when I was 12 years old, that my parents sold our small row home on Clarion Street in South Philadelphia. They bought a finer row home in a suburban development dubbed Briarcliff, which rested in the Delaware County town of Glenolden. My father, Charles, was excited to own his first garage, while my mother, Violet, looked forward to the neighbors being less close at hand, albeit only a tad less. With the South Philadelphia and Briarcliff agreements of sale both signed, the clock began to tick toward our last day as South Philadelphians. That day would arrive in October, 1972.

My father had been struggling to keep his home goods business afloat. Progress was not on his side. My father’s customers were the housewives of South Philadelphia, but their numbers were dwindling. It was the dawn of the shopping mall. The drapery that my father stored in his car and carried into houses could not compete with the variety at Sears, Roebuck and Company. In 1972, the remaining housewives continued to open their doors to my father, but it was because he was a sociable, homegrown fellow. They desired coffee and conversation with him, but his home goods, not so much.

Undeniably, it was my mother’s office job at the Bell Telephone Company that enabled our move to Briarcliff. The job was a 20-minute walk from Clarion Street, and something she accomplished in sensible heels and strictly on time. The residue of my mother’s stern upbringing gave rise to her handling stacks of Bell Telephone Company paperwork with speed and competency.

Once the news of our upcoming move spread, I was forced to fathom the unfathomable. I laid in bed at night as one realization after another turned my stomach. Clarion Street would never host another of our holidays. The aroma of my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, cooked each Sunday after Mass at the Annunciation BVM Church, would fade from the kitchen. The days of the overhang outside our back door sheltering my bike were numbered.

Life began to shift, as my mother collected ideas for modern decorating from Good Housekeeping magazine. Briarcliff would be her chance to start fresh. Meanwhile, my father declared that Briarcliff would be cleaner and safer than South Philadelphia. I felt insulted on behalf of our home, as I watched one room after another turn to dust and echo. Briarcliff-worthy knick-knacks were boxed up, while unworthy ones were placed in the trash.

The most troubling part of the move was the inescapable loss of my Clarion Street friends. There was my closest pal, Bridget, with whom I shared a birth year and every juvenile notion, such as whether a song she made up, “Little Brown Jug,” might someday be recorded by The Monkees. With her perpetual pixie hairdo, Bridget had a pureness of heart epitomized by her habit of chalking “I’m sorry, let’s make up” on the sidewalk outside my house following our rare spats.

And then there was Brenda, who was the same age as Bridget and me. Brenda was pretty and being hip came as naturally to her as breathing. When the bullies from around the corner turned up, Brenda remained unfazed. Always with a bottle of Coca Cola in hand, Brenda liked to deliberately spill dribbles onto the street, simply for kicks. Bridget and I occasionally hitched ourselves to Brenda’s hijinks because it was exciting, but we typically favored the comfort and trust of our twosome.

There was Anthony, as well. He was one year older, and our informal leader on Clarion Street. He wore his hair long and he had a drum set in his basement, where he played Led Zeppelin songs. Bridget and I found Anthony charming, even though his rock star persona was undercut by his family’s laundry, which continually drooped on a clothesline above his drum space. We believed we had a love triangle parallel to Betty, Veronica, and Archie in the Archie comic books that we purchased at Bertolino’s Pharmacy.

My last summer on Clarion Street passed much like the prior ones. We roller skated, played tag, twirled hula hoops, and told spooky stories, all the while devouring cones of ice cream from the Mr. Softee Truck and Broadway Licorice Rolls from Jean’s Grocery Store. We fell into bed at night sticky with sweat and sugar, confident that all of those things would be within reach again when the sun came up.

The gang knew that my family’s house had been sold, but this turn of events was unfamiliar. All of us had only ever lived on Clarion Street. I longed to confess my heartbreak, but instead talked up the spacious MacDade Mall/Eric Movie Theater complex located near Briarcliff. What I should have announced was that nothing could top Clarion Street. There was the Mummer’s Parade that took place every January 1st just two blocks away, and it wasn’t just the lively music and magical costumes that made the parade extraordinary. It was the neighborhood families who opened their doors in welcome to all, offering escarole soup and crumb buns. Our parents lost track of us on New Year’s Day, but never worried about our being cold, hungry, or safe.

There was also the 37-foot statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, that sat atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, which was visible, opportunely, from the flat rooftop outside my bedroom. And then there was the lunch counter at nearby Woolworth’s, where the price of an ice cream sundae was determined by whichever balloon a customer chose from the day’s balloon assortment. The balloons dangled colorfully above the lunch counter and contained within each was a slip of paper that was a price tag. When a balloon was chosen by an ice cream sundae customer and then popped, the treat’s price was revealed.

In October, 1972, when my family’s last day on Clarion Street landed, I felt a helplessness equal to the weight of the moving truck that rested in my line of sight. My friends watched curbside, while I leaned on our wrought-iron railing, as our forest green sofa and television were carried out sideways and stowed. I knew that my parents intended to comfort me, but were busy with last minute tasks. There were closets to be checked one final time, and keys to be collected.

With the last of our possessions amassed in the moving truck, the metal door was slammed down and the tarnished latch secured. This was my family’s cue to climb into our blue Rambler Ambassador and to begin following the moving truck to Briarcliff. I rolled down my back-seat window, and my friends peeked in to wave goodbye. I sat in the car, stricken, and closed my eyes, as our car proceeded to the corner of Clarion Street. To lessen the ache, I pretended that we were headed instead to our yearly vacation at the Lamp Post Motel in Wildwood, something I treasured. “It will be okay,” my mother said from the front seat.

And my mother’s prediction was true. Time passed, and I did gradually become accustomed to the suburbs, and to the new friends and happenings that filled my days in Briarcliff. There were stumbles, to be sure, like when I was stung on my forehead by a bumble bee as I walked to my first day at Our Lady of Fatima School. Or when my mother signed us up at the Glenolden Swim Club, where I sat glued to the pool’s ledge, filled with the terror of a non-swimmer. And then there was the ill-fated, week-long Girl Scouts camping trip I took to Sunset Hill, when I was commanded by the leader to wear a wash cloth bobby pinned to the top of my head because I had neglected to pack a hat.

Despite those missteps, I grew to accept that dipping my toes in creeks and fishing for minnows at Glenolden Park were reasonably worthwhile pastimes. And I developed a great affection for the group of Briarcliff girls who took me in. We moseyed to the MacDade Mall, where we shared pizza at Italian Delight and bought David Bowie albums at Wee Three Records.

But my memories of Clarion Street never fell away completely. One of my first visits to the block as a grownup was on a date to The Victor Cafe, an eatery that borders Clarion Street, where the servers are budding opera singers. The date was with the Briarcliff man that I would one day marry. He walked patiently alongside me down Clarion Street, past my old house, which then featured dark red awnings and a polished front entrance. Just as I had done back on moving day in 1972, I paused and closed my eyes, and I felt a tenderness borne of nostalgia, and a melancholy borne of a spell forever gone. Impulsively, I decided to ring the doorbell of my old house. Perhaps the current owner would be sympathetic to my story, I thought, and I could take a peek inside, but no one answered the door.

A decade later, I revisited Clarion Street, this time with my young daughters in tow. I held their hands, as I told them about pushing doll coaches with Bridget down the sidewalk. I told them about Brenda and her penchant for mischief. I pointed out the house where Anthony played his drums.

The friends I left on Clarion Street had never been far from my thoughts as the ensuing years rolled from one to the next. About a year after my family’s move, Bridget became a boarding school student at the Charles E. Ellis School in Newtown Square, an institution for fatherless daughters. My mother dropped me off at the school to visit Bridget one brisk, Sunday afternoon. Bridget and I strolled through fallen leaves to a nearby McDonalds, where we caught up, and where we realized that our bond had not waned. Afterward, as I sat in Bridget’s dormitory room, I worried that she might be lonely, but the opposite was true. She revealed that she was comfortable at the boarding school, and that the other girls were nice. Living at the Charles E. Ellis School was a continuous sleepover party, Bridget disclosed.

Thereafter, despite spans of time when we unintentionally overlooked one another, and when the tides swept Bridget in one direction and me in another, our relationship endured. When Bridget was married in 1981, I was by her side, and when it was my turn in 1984, she was by mine.

Brenda’s family also moved away from Clarion Street. They bought a home in Springfield just four miles from my family’s. At the time, my father and Brenda’s father, Ray, developed a companionship. They were Delaware County transplants who, in spending time together, found a way to hold on to a bit of South Philadelphia. As a result, Brenda and I saw one another from time to time, and she spoke of Springfield contentedly. A decade later, I would coincidentally acquire work at the same Center City law firm where Brenda’s sister worked, which circumstance renewed our families’ link.

With an expanding Internet at our disposal, Bridget and I, then in our 40s, decided it was high time that we discovered what had become of Anthony. Utilizing social media, we discovered that Anthony was a professional drummer in a band called Splashing Violet, and in another known as The Flip-N-Mickeys. We wasted no time in messaging Anthony, and he wasted no time in agreeing to meet us.

On a balmy, early spring evening, Bridget, Anthony and I had our reunion at the Triangle Tavern in South Philadelphia. Open since 1933, the Triangle Tavern, with its Italian grandmother-style cuisine, had prevailed despite several bouts of new ownership and an assortment of renovations. I parked my car outside the Triangle Tavern, and I kept an eye out for Bridget, as it dawned on me that Bridget and I had chosen the ideal place to meet. After all, what was our relationship, if not something that had prevailed despite many years and many changes?

Anthony was inside when Bridget and I entered. His back was to the door, but when he heard us, he leapt from his seat. He hugged Bridget and me in a warmhearted way that belied our lost decades. Anthony, who had remained boyish in appearance, wore a black t-shirt and jeans indicative of his career, and his hair still rested past his shoulders,

Over pizza and beer, we kicked around memories of the 1960s and early 1970s. Anthony recounted the innumerable times we had been scolded by our elderly Clarion Street neighbors for misdeeds as small as dripping ice cream onto the pavement, or as big as bumping a parked car on our bikes. And we nodded in agreement over the incomparable thrill of the Whip Truck Ride that passed through our neighborhood in summertime.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I thought about what I would say if I could speak to that girl who had sat, stricken, in the blue Rambler Ambassador in 1972. I would tell her that hurdles and teary nights spent over her diary lie ahead, but that in time her self-confidence would grow, and like the South Philadelphia knick-knacks her parents once deemed worthy or unworthy, she would discover what to hold on to and what to let go.

Present day Clarion Street thrives in the revitalized Passyunk Square district. My small row home, purchased by my parents in the late 1950s for $5,500, would sell today for over $300,000 at current market prices. The former mom-and-pop grocery stores are now trendy businesses, and The Victor Cafe is a Philadelphia tourist destination. Still, when I visit, I recognize the kids outside. They do not notice me as they play with their Barbie dolls and their Nerf Super Soakers. I sigh, and then I smile, and I know it’s time to go.

 

Nancy Farrell is a lifelong writer with a focus on autobiographical works. She spends most of her free time with family, including a darling rescue mutt. The library is her favorite place. She works as a legal assistant in Media, PA.

To Start A School

Music to read by: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” Shelly Berg Trio

When John Thompson Morris of Philadelphia turned forty-four, he took early retirement from the presidency of his father’s Iron Works to pursue other interests. Morris, unlike his father and uncles, preferred the role of benefactor, one who reaches into the past and buys up rare objects, then donates them for public edification. While still in his thirties, Morris took on this role by embarking on three significant tasks: amass an impressive quantity of objects of antiquity from around the world, create the most excellent pleasure gardens in Philadelphia, and serve—with tenacity and candor—on boards of civic organizations. After retiring in 1891, he was able to give unlimited time to these interests. Morris was no different from other benefactors of the Gilded Age. They too set for themselves similar tasks, those prosperous, ambitious Philadelphians with famous surnames . . . Wharton, Pennypacker, Stotesbury, Wanamaker.

When it came time to draft his will in 1909, Morris was fully aware that much depended on him—he was the last male in his immediate family. All his life, Morris had been a good steward and it was up to him to ensure the future of many things. Through trust funds, Morris provided a gracious plenty for his household servants, for charitable organizations, like the Philadelphia Home for Incurables, and for cousins (he being unmarried, his siblings being without heirs). After taking care of all these, he bequeathed his family’s ancestral home, Cedar Grove, which he considered a colonial treasure, to the Society of Colonial Dames of America.

But Morris’s will makes it clear that he had one more task in mind, an ambitious task that required all of his residuary estate and depended on close cooperation of several organizations. He wanted to start a school.

In a 12-page treatise in the middle of his will, Morris designed his school and its two supporting auxillaries. He named it “The Morris Botanical Garden, School and Museum.” And, in typical founder-itis fashion, Morris didn’t leave any aspect to the notions of others. He outlined the major goals and defined the complex administrative and fiduciary relationship between the garden, the school and the museum. He specified a corporate-type Board of Managers, to be composed of representatives from three institutions, Haverford College, The Academy of National Sciences of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. He then launched into the curriculum, a program to suit the hybrid institution he envisioned—a trade school with a scientific foundation.

Morris set parameters for entering students (16 years of age, proficient in basic school subjects, male, possibly some females), for methods of instruction he deemed most appropriate, housing, and rules of decorum. He went so far as to state how students should spend their weekends, adamant that they attend church on Sundays. As for tuition—it was free. Room and board—free. Clothing—free. Students only needed to render service on the grounds while attending school. Plus they would receive a $100 honorarium at the end of their four-year course of study to help them launch their career.

This school/garden/museum was no pipe dream. In fact, a few years later, Morris plucked his dream out of his will and decided to carry it out during his lifetime. He had done this before, when he jumped ahead of his will by commissioning the Morris Infirmary for Haverford College, and afterwards changed his will, canceling the bequest. He sensed a pent-up demand—there were so many country estates in the region and so few practical gardeners.

All Morris needed was the perfect property for situating his school. And he found it within waving distance of Compton, his country home in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Morris purchased Bloomfield Farm in 1914 for just this purpose. Located on the Wissahickon Creek across the road from his estate, Bloomfield came with a couple of houses, a mill and history traceable to the 1740s.

With property in hand, the dream could be turned into bricks and mortar. Morris did his homework, coached by a consultant who traveled anywhere there was a training program attached to renown gardens—England, Scotland, Germany, Holland. A highly qualified consultant whose surname was Bartram (as in descendent of John Bartram, Father of American botany). Frank Bartram’s task was to scope out what other gardening schools were doing and return to Philadelphia with a plan for something even better; something that grafted the practical onto the academic.

Morris most certainly took to heart the words of President James A. Garfield, promoter of all things agricultural, whose memorial monument had been unveiled in Morris’s beloved Fairmount Park a dozen years earlier, “At the head of all sciences and arts, at the head of civilization and progress, stands—not militarism, the science that kills, not commerce, the art that accumulates wealth—but agriculture, the mother of all industry, and the maintainer of human life.” But to Morris, although farming may be necessary, it was not the raison d’être of his school.

It mattered a lot to Morris that a horticulturalist was proficient in plowing and cultivating. And that a greenhouse manager knew about plumbing and steamfitting. And that a gardener understood accounting procedures. It all mattered to Morris because his goal was to produce “competent and useful gardeners” who gained most of their experience outdoors, not in classrooms, and whose credential was a diploma, not a degree. He believed he was onto something very few were doing except at a handful of U.S. schools and at botanic gardens on the Continent, like Edinburgh, Glasnevin, Frederiksoord and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (the ne plus ultra of the day).

A call for practical training had grown out of the 1889 national convention of florists, landscapers and horticulturists. It was a vociferous call that named names and laid blame: “Let us have a great horticultural training school, where the professors are not afraid to stain their fingers in laboratory and garden nor ashamed to don a blue apron and lead a class with skilled fingers in any line of practical work . . . one such school, well endowed and properly manned will do more for American horticulture than all our agricultural schools will ever do . . . to correct much that is now erroneous and ridiculous.” It was time to end the “great farce” of teaching horticulture without getting dirt under the fingernails.

In all likelihood, Morris paid close attention to this dispute. And when it came time to plan his own school, he could probably name all the practical work schools on the East Coast. But as with all Morris’s prior projects, he was aiming for the very best—a distinctive school with its roots firmly in the past and its hope in a new profession of practical gardening.

Now that he had a charter and a location, Morris turned to physical facilities. He favored the functionality of the I-shaped Pennsylvania Hospital. Could something smaller be designed for the north corner of Bloomfield Farm, leaving the center open for greenhouses and fields, he asked Bartram?  Regardless of architecture, he knew exactly how the school should operate—just as it had during his school days at Haverford College. He informed Bartram of this, more than once.

In early July, 1915, Morris told Bartram to start on the next project—designs for practice greenhouses with plenty of space for plant propagation. Together, they reviewed sketches and Bartram took notes as Morris approved this, nixed that. Though news of the war in Europe was taking up more and more space in Gardeners’ Chronicle from London, Bartram drew Morris’s attention to reports of a new professional diploma in horticulture. Could this program be refashioned for Philadelphia? How quickly could they get the course of study designed and the first class enrolled? Several well-respected horticulturalists had already offered to leave their positions and come to Philadelphia. Morris debated whether to go ahead and engage them.

The U.S. Commissioner of Education was ready with names for the Board of Managers; an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture was scouting potential faculty. Morris told Bartram he was willing to open the program with a small group of day students, even before buildings were constructed. Yet despite the approval of virtually all the leading agencies and institutions akin to the project, Morris reversed his decision: “Mr. Morris feels the school cannot open before 1916,” Bartram noted in February of 1915. Apparently, Morris felt a school wasn’t a school without dormitories and classrooms.

In August, John Morris and his sister Lydia vacationed at their usual place—the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. And Morris continued working on a myriad of design details, sending Bartram sketches and comments on student accommodations, dining hall, lecture hall, labs. On August 10th, Morris had a better idea about fixtures for the dormitory bathrooms, so he wrote another “long epistle” jammed with his latest thoughts on the administration building, auditorium, seed collection room and dormitory bathrooms. And why, he queried Bartram, hadn’t he received a response to his previous letter about the bath sinks. Time was marching on. He had a lot to attend to—permissions, contracts. “I am ready to go ahead at once if data is presented to me for consideration,” he wrote. That was Morris’s final letter. He died of acute kidney failure August 15, 1915.

Morris’s determination to start a school did not die with him. Lydia Thompson Morris picked up where her brother left off by commissioning Edgar V. Seeler to design the educational buildings and greenhouses at Bloomfield, and to draft a plan for converting the Compton mansion into a museum. Seeler began work with a trip to Boston to meet Arnold Arboretum staff, who provided positive feedback—the location was ideal, the demand for gardeners was high, the time was right.

Many in the world of horticulture were eager to see what would become of this “interesting proposition” of a school: “Its development will be watched with peculiar interest by all in the horticultural and floricultural business,” proclaimed the editor of The Florists’ Exchange. But as harvest season came and went, there was no further word of progress on John Morris’s vision. No press releases, no interviews, no small-scale models.

Frank Bartram finished up his journals and turned them over to Miss Morris’s staff. Then in the spring of 1917, as young men began leaving farms to enlist in the military, Bartram took on the resulting farmer shortage by joining a regional committee. The following spring, Edgar Seeler submitted drawings of Bloomfield buildings and Compton renovations then he, too, turned to war-related tasks. His next commission was to create a new community of 500 homes in Ridley Park to alleviate the housing shortage near war-related industries.

Miss Morris had her own tasks to attend to. Once the U.S. entered the war, she gave liberally of her time and money to the social welfare of thousands of sailors and marines stationed at the Navy Yard.

For these necessary and laudable reasons, the Morris Botanical Garden, School and Museum, as envisioned in the pages of a will, remained a vision . . . until 1929. That was the year Miss Morris updated her will and by then much had changed, economically, culturally and institutionally. Several attempts had been made in the early 1920s to establish cooperative gardener education programs, including the Massachusetts Agricultural College’s arrangement with the National Association of Gardeners. But the American system of gardener education has always leaned toward the scientific and theoretical. And most practical work programs did not survive long.

In 1929, when Lydia Morris was faced with how best to carry out her brother’s vision, she understood that his approach to gardener education was not in keeping with current trends. At the dawn of the 1930s, it was more important to conduct botanical research and disseminate that knowledge to the world than to prepare head gardeners for country estates; to offer advanced courses for students whose preliminary education was done elsewhere; to build offices and research labs rather than dormitories. And thus, under these terms as specified in Lydia Morris’s will, Compton and Bloomfield became the responsibility of the Botanical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, hereafter known as The Morris Arboretum.

~

This essay was made possible by original sources at the Morris Arboretum Archives.


Joyce Munro’s work can be found in Broad Street Review, Hippocampus, Minding Nature, Poor Yorick, The Copperfield Review, WHYY Speak Easy and elsewhere. She writes about the people who kept a Philadelphia estate running during the Gilded Age in “Untold Stories of Compton” on the Morris Arboretum blogsite. 

 

Trail of Ghosts

When I was a junior in high school, I got a job at a flower shop. I worked there for almost five years, scraping money together for SATs and prom dresses. On the weekends I roamed South Jersey roadways and highways in the shop vans. Both vans, big or little, had filthy cupholders full of pennies, center consoles stuffed with fast food trash and business cards, broken starters, funky brakes, and were my chosen form of escaping home.

Being on the road was addictive. The vans were high above the pavement, where the echoes of my father’s death, the debt he left my family, and its strain on my mother, couldn’t reach me. I was secure in the way roller coasters feel secure when you’re strapped in, just before the drop.

Big Bertha was my favorite van. From its height, I could see down into any car below. Maybe it was the feeling of control or maybe it was the feeling of breathlessness, that as high as I was, as far as I was from my problems below, I was still moving. As a restless teenager, this was a peaceful feeling.

The first time I drove Bertha was a few weeks after I got my license. I was 17. I grabbed the key from the shop and trekked across the street towards the parking lot. I didn’t think I could handle a vehicle of her size, even if only to drive her across the street to the shop-front. I was used to smaller vehicles, and looking into other drivers’ eyes, not the tops of their heads. Climbing upwards to reach the driver’s seat was new territory for me. The seat was so far from the pedals I had to sit on the edge of the cushion to reach both gas and brakes. It would be months before I learned to move the seat forward.

The next time I drove her was also my first time delivering funeral flowers. I knew the location well. It was where my father’s funeral was held ten or so years prior. My boss did the flowers for my father’s service too, which meant they were delivered in the same van, Big Bertha.

I pulled into the driveway, set far back from the road by a hill jutting awkwardly above the street below. I braced myself for the flashbacks to come: four vases with a blue flower to represent my brothers, one vase with a pink flower for me. My mother crying. Sitting in the front row, the cremated remains of a former half of me resting in a box at the front of the room.

Before I entered the funeral home, I sat in the van, counting off arrangements, matching flowers to delivery slips, making sure none were forgotten.

I opened the side door, arms full with a funeral basket so large I couldn’t see over it. I watched my feet, making sure to avoid tripping on any steps and destroying the flowers of mourning. After setting the arrangement down, I stood up to find myself facing the casket.

It was open and the corpse inside looked puffy and waxen. I averted my eyes though they kept gravitating towards his body. I couldn’t look at him, yet I couldn’t look away. His gray hair was slicked back perfectly atop his balding head. Years of living well had carved smile lines deep into his skin. His mouth had permanently set into a smirk.

I shifted my focus and found the carpet and wallpaper matched that of my memories. Dark floral patterns on the walls clashed, or perhaps meshed, with the deep green of the carpet. Behind me, the rows of chairs matched my memory too. I turned to see the chair I sat in the last time I was in the room, fifth from the left, front row.

My mother had been seated closest to the wall, first in line to receive guests, my brothers and I following her, positioned chronologically. Before us, instead of a coffin stood a table bearing the box of my father’s ashes, and the five tiny vases.

Everyone had worn black as they huddled around pictures of a man no one would see again. I had smiled at them, awkwardly attempting to offer joy, failing entirely in that attempt.

That day ushered in an era of silence, of quiet tears spilt alone late at night. I don’t remember much of what happened immediately afterwards. My mom finally finished the kitchen renovation they’d begun long ago. We went to Florida for our first vacation without our father. Eventually, money became tighter. My brothers and I became closer, conscious then of the ease at which a person goes from being there, to never being anywhere other than in the past tense. We were deeply connected to my mom too. As a unit, we spent no time looking back.

Maybe it had been too easy to walk out of that room. Maybe I had never really left it.

I left and came back with more flowers. Trip after trip, van to funeral home and back again, until finally it was over. I brought the final arrangement in and set it gently on the carpet  in front of the casket. I looked at the silent and peaceful man and wondered how he would feel if he knew I was looking at him. I imagined his laughter and his hugs during the stories he would tell his grandchildren during the holidays.

I ran from the room without shutting the door. Bertha started on the first turn in the ignition, a rare feat, and I drove off so quickly I almost tipped her on her side.

Away from the room and the man and the memories, I wanted to go back to sit with him for a while but I had other deliveries to make. Birthday balloons, bridal flowers, “I’m Sorry” bouquets awaited.

Soon, I would learn how common it is to see corpses in the flower industry, how often it is not the flowers of the living, but rather casket decorations and peace lilies. How, more often than not, I would carry flowers whose recipients are in the process of being forgotten: silent arrangements, ones no one calls the sender about, as opposed to the flowers of the living.

In the hours before the services would begin, funeral home directors accepted the flower deliveries. After a while, these deliveries became quiet, peaceful places for me to be with the dead. Knowing I was one of the last people to share their private time with them, I began reading the obituaries, not just glancing at delivery dates and times, to glimpse who they were: veterans, nurses, teachers, students. I could learn how they died based on the wording, Passed Suddenly usually meant overdose or suicide, while Is Now At Peace usually translated into cancer or some other illness.

They were sometimes young, oftentimes old, and their loved ones were always listed at the end of the obituary. There, I learned how these people lived and who they left behind. People who were losing life partners, children, grandparents, mothers, and fathers. Then I would bring in the flowers ordered by those loved ones, and set them at the base of the caskets.

Quick and clean, in and out, bouncing around South Jersey, leaving a trail of ghosts behind, I’d strap myself into the safety of the van after each delivery. I’d blast NPR, or music, or both as I drove.

At the end of the night, I would park the van at the shop, hang the keys on the wall, then lock the door and leave, forgetting the names of the bodies I’d seen that day. I would trade their faces for those of the living and abandon the dead until my next shift.

I still notice when I’m near one of the funeral homes I used to deliver to. The familiarity of the routes have ingrained into my subconscious, next to the wallpaper patterns and obituaries, and ghosts of those whose funerals I’d crashed.


Devon James is pursuing an accelerated BA/MA in Writing Arts and Writing respectively from Rowan University in Glassboro New Jersey. She grew up in Southern New Jersey where she spent time exploring the surrounding area’s diverse landscape. From forests to farms to Philadelphia, she is grateful to have grown up in an area with such unique offerings. When she is not writing, she enjoys hiking, needlework, and tending to her many plants.

The Lucky Ones

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Lemonade by Constance Culpepper

On my last day of radiation, I sat eagerly awaiting my release from six months of treatment. In anticipation, my eyes scanned the fluorescently lit, crowded waiting room of Abramson Cancer Center. As I waited for my name to be called for the last time, I thought about the young girl—about five years old—who I noticed in the waiting room the prior week. Her head was bald, and a yellow mask protected her small face. She sat in a wheel chair, which was too big to accommodate her tiny frame despite being made for children. The ill-fitted device called even more attention to what I was thinking: She shouldn’t be here. None of us should be in this waiting room but especially not her.

I thought about how lucky I was when I was six. The humid Philadelphia summer evenings of my childhood had been spent eating cherry popsicles in my parents’ backyard and running through the sprinkler, feeling wet, squishy grass beneath my feetWhen dusk settled into darkness, I would walk around a white flowered dogwood tree and catch lightning bugs.

 I hoped the little girl I saw spent more days playing in her backyard than confined to a waiting room filled with yearning. All of us were waiting for the day we didn’t have to feel scared and uncomfortable anymore. We were waiting for life to resume. She didn’t appear to be burdened by this same longing, I realized, as her eyes connected with mine. She sat serenely in her chair while I impatiently tapped my leg, wishing I could be anywhere else. I knew I couldn’t have handled a cancer diagnosis at her age with as much grace.

I remembered the girl’s mother had wheeled her towards the exit of the waiting room. Please let her ring the bell. Please!  I held my breath as she passed near the silver bell that hung from a wooden pedestal. Ringing the bell was a rite of passage for any patient who completed their treatment. The girl’s mother stopped at the bell, and I saw a small arm reach up and forward to grab the wooden clapper that was attached to a string. Thank God. Sound permeated the room, and everyone applauded.  The girl’s eyes hinted at a smile under her mask and her body sat a bit taller in her chair, projecting the same pride as if she were the winner of a spelling-bee contest.

My name was finally called, breaking my train of thought, and I walked back to the changing area. Once I was gowned, I stepped out into the patient waiting room and stood in the doorway, peering out into the hallway periodically to ensure I wasn’t missed for treatment.

In the emptiness of the room, I wished for the company of a woman with breast cancer who had become a familiar face and a comforting maternal presence. When we spoke, deep lines hugged the corners of her mouth, suggesting she laughed often. We met on my first day of treatment, and I recalled our conversation when she glanced at me as I sat in a chair facing her.

“What are you here for?” I asked.

“Breast cancer,” she replied, “full mastectomy.”

I winced. “You look good,” I told her. This was one of the only compliments many of us paid to one another. If you looked good, your treatment was going easier than most.

“What are you here for?” she asked.

“Lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s,” I replied.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“I’m thirty-one.”

She shook her head vigorously then stopped and fixed her eyes on me again.

“My daughters are in their thirties. I’m so glad it’s me here and not them,” she moved back further into her chair.

I realize now that the look I saw in her eyes on that first day of treatment is the same look I must have given the little girl weeks later. She was relieved she wasn’t me. She was relieved her daughters were not me. How lucky, she must have thought, that she was healthy as a young woman.

The definition of luck evolves after a cancer diagnosis. What used to be a simple dichotomy – lucky or unlucky – stretches into a continuum that is flanked by the number of blissful moments before cancer and the number of moments to be lived after cancer. Luck used to be finding a quarter on the ground or free parking in the city or winning anything more than a dollar on a scratch-off lottery ticket. Now, luck was a good day feeling like you used to or that moment when you first wake up and, for a few unburdened seconds, forget what has happened to you. It is lucky to see a sunset or feel the embrace of someone you love. And, it is still very lucky to catch a lightning bug.

A woman in her mid-forties entered the waiting room, returning from her treatment. She had thick hair that fell to her chest and was pinned haphazardly in the front with a small clip. I looked with envy at her as she passed through the room. How lucky is she to be done for the day.  How lucky is she to still have her beautiful hair. Although I lost my hair months before radiation, feelings of discomfort would rise every time I caught my hairless reflection in the mirror or a car window. I would have given anything in that moment to experience the sensation of placing my hair behind my ears or threading it together carefully into a braid.

My name was called again, and I was ushered back to the treatment room to receive radiation. Technicians secured me to the hard, cold table with my radiation mask and placed a breath hold tube in my mouth. The breath hold apparatus mimicked a snorkel with goggles, a mouth piece and a nose clip. Every day during treatment, I pictured myself diving into clear blue water searching for fish to ease the claustrophobic panic that set in when my entire upper body was restrained. As my treatment began, I thought about how luck’s definition becomes even more complicated when examining its relativity.

Cancer is generally classified as an unlucky disease yet even that is relative. Some people find luck in having a particular type of cancer or early disease staging. It can be lucky to have fewer side effects from treatment or have the support of loved ones on good days and bad days. Luck can also be measured by quality of the time before and after cancer. Luck can be remission and luck can be acceptance. Relativity shatters the dichotomy – it seems you can be both very unlucky and very lucky at the same time.

To prove my own theory of luck’s relativity, I turned towards another recent memory. Midway through my chemotherapy treatment I lost my dad who had been a steady beacon of light in this world. Extended family and friends approached me at his funeral with teary faces and said, “How unfair this is. How unlucky you must feel dealing with your treatment and your father passing.”  What they didn’t know is that I am the luckiest person in the world. My cancer was caught accidentally and early, and because of this, my treatment plan was shorter than most people diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I would also rather embrace every moment of grief I experienced from the loss of my dad than spend one day not being his daughter. I had a wonderful dad for thirty years. When I was six, it was my dad handing me a popsicle in the backyard on a warm summer evening and my dad holding me close when a game of hide and seek became too scary. Our memories together play like a montage through my mind and soul every day. How many children in this world never know that kind of love?  How many children, like the girl in the waiting room, experience a childhood with undeserved hardship? I am a lucky person.

My treatment ended unceremoniously with the technicians freeing me from the radiation mask. I thanked them and walked down the cold, white hallway back to the changing rooms. As I dressed, I rationalized that luck is always with us, we just have to want to find it. Even in the darkest night, if we search the horizon until our eyes are strained, we might find a small beam of light in the distance to guide us forward.

After I changed out of my gown, I walked slowly into the general waiting room and made my way towards the bell. I paused to take in the room exactly as it was that day. I wanted to remember what it was like to be there in that capacity, in that moment. I reached for the bell clapper and pulled it towards the mouth. The quiet room erupted in applause as the first sound of the bell pierced the air. I stood facing the bell, listening to its echoing sound, and felt both relieved and guilty. The bell only rings for the lucky ones.


Kara Daddario Bown is a writer who lives outside of Philadelphia. Her writing focuses on her experiences with illness as well as being a Philadelphia native. She has performed at The Moth and is a StorySLAM winner.  Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Belladonna, The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Penn Review.  She holds a Bachelors in English and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania.  

Pictures of You

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Send in the Clowns by Rosalind Bloom

Hearing Big Audio Dynamite or Tori Amos, I’m transported to the passenger seat in my brother Manny’s golden pickup truck when he drove me to Ithaca for a college interview. I was 26. He was 23. On the highway, two state troopers pulled us over alongside a stretch of browning cornfields.

One trooper eyed Manny’s hair, which was pulled back into a low ponytail and banded with a scarf. He asked to see the ashtray. I grew quietly concerned.

Manny asked, “What’s the problem, officer?”

“Just let me see the ashtray, son.”

Manny pulled out the ashtray. It was full of potpourri. The officer poked his finger in it and searched its dried petals and leaves.

The other officer asked, “What is that?”

“Something like pot-pour-ree, I think.”

“Pot-pour-ree?”

They smelled it. With thinly disguised smirks, they regarded Manny anew. “Why do you have tinted windows, son?”

“Florida sun,” Manny said.

“You’ve got Pennsylvania plates.”

I explained that our mother and sister lived in Miami and that Manny visited them for long periods.

After the troopers cleared Manny, they let us be and drove off.

Manny turned to me and said, “That was close.”

He patted the marijuana in his pocket, half-winking at me and chuckling, “Pot-pour-ree.”

I shuddered and, after a moment, laughed.

We drove, listening to the big, upbeat sounds of Big Audio Dynamite and the haunting lyricism of Tori Amos, artists I had never heard before. I bought their CDs when I returned home and they became my favorites. I would remember the car ride to Ithaca, Manny in the driver’s seat with his long hair, his marbled scarf, his denim cut-offs, his arm draped across the steering wheel, and the white line of the highway leading us onward and away.

 

When I was in fifth grade, I entered into a severe depression and attempted suicide several times. I remember little from this time, and I don’t know if there was a particular incident that caused my despair. Perhaps my hopelessness arose from my father’s physical abusiveness, my mother’s emotional frigidity, and the favoritism they showed Manny.

He was the sole male child in a Cuban-American family, and thus received significant cultural privileges via more affection, material possessions, attention, and freedom. Too often, I would stand by the checkout line as Father bought Manny a train, while he wouldn’t buy me the purple-haired troll I wanted. These experiences, however, had nuances too subtle for a child to appreciate. Manny would have been too young to understand my feelings, and I was too young to understand that those ostensible gifts were mainly intended for my father’s enjoyment.

Two years later, I emerged from my depression with a strong will to change—and live. Music played an important role in my early attempts at self-determination. Seeking solace and inspiration, I listened to the Beatles, Olivia Newtown-John, Kiss, The Knack, Fleetwood Mac, and The Cars. I would write in a journal with song quotes peppering the entries. I developed a new identity.

I also began making friends, something which, for once, I had and my younger sibling didn’t. Whenever Manny tried to tag along, I’d rebuff him and glance back in conflicted triumph as he stood on the tree-lined sidewalk staring at me. Once, Mother forced me to take Manny along to a pool with my best friend. At the pool, I ignored him completely. When we returned home, he told my mother who then pressed a lit cigarette into my hand.

Manny could not know how jealous I had been at the attention he received, which, I realized later, was significant only in comparison to the neglect I had experienced. I knew Manny was lonely at school, taunted by pejorative nicknames and bullied. At home, my father was physically and verbally abusive towards his sensitive son. I sympathized with my brother and, sometimes, felt pangs of remorse. But, as an adolescent, I could also easily tamp those pangs. Life owed me, I thought, and Manny was one of the reasons why.

My perspective changed when, late in his high school career, Manny discovered the Scorpions, then the Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, and Morrissey. I’d open my bedroom door and listen to the music emanating from his room below. Once, I was compelled downstairs to listen more closely and found myself sitting on Manny’s bed. We listened to U2’s October. I became an avid fan, of the music and of my brother.

Manny had changed. He grew his hair long, wore hippie-surfer-dude-cool-enough-for-goth styled clothes and developed a tender handsomeness emphasized by his sidelong glances and quiet chuckles. Suddenly, he seemed always ready to flee, so he would. After high school, he would drive away and stay in unknown places for indefinite periods of time.

When Manny graduated from Lower Merion High School, my parents divorced, and my mother and sister moved to Miami. I would visit annually. During one visit, Manny unexpectedly asked me if I wanted to go to a club. I was thrilled by this rare offer. I freshened up in the bathroom quickly and then examined the clothes I’d packed with trepidation. With full appreciation of their inadequacy, I displayed my two best options for the evening: a blouse with white capri jeans or a tie-dye cover-up. Manny shook his head. No way.

Instead, he gave me one of his black t-shirts and his black jeans. I wore them with giddy delight. We drove out in his truck and parked near warehouses by an empty beach. We walked onto the beach, and the ocean breeze pressed the fabric of his black t-shirt and his black jeans against my skin. The air was delicious against my face and neck. Though I had not smoked weed in years, I couldn’t resist when Manny offered me his joint. We alternated tokes as we walked. I imagined I inhaled the moonlight. Being with Manny, I felt new. Remade in his clothes and the salty air. The moon high, its light a shimmering ray on the rippling ocean. We meandered along the water’s edge, listening to the crest and fall of the waves.

When we finished smoking, we walked back up the beach to the Kitchen Sink, a club with glowing cutlery hanging from the black ceiling. Sipping our drinks, we leaned against a high table watching people dance below multicolored spot lights amid the twirling flatware.

Then, Pictures of You by The Cure played.

The steady snare accentuated the twangy bass in a hypnotic rhythm. Manny set down his drink and walked to the dance floor. He headed right to the center. His shoulder-length hair was loose, his Adam’s apple prominent. Manny closed his eyes and tilted his face upward towards the white bulb above. Under the spotlight, space all around him, all else in the shadows, arms limp at his sides, fingers slack, he swayed.

 

Manny and I tried to maintain a relationship in our adulthood, but it never coalesced into steady contact. Even after Manny had settled in Pennsylvania, no matter how many times I would visit him, the interval of time before our next get-together increased. He pursued a career as a sound engineer and met and married his wife; meanwhile, I pursued my academic studies, worked as an administrative assistant, and met and married my husband. We lived an hour’s driving distance from each other, but traffic along the intervening King of Prussia corridor could lengthen the commute significantly. Manny could not endure the gridlock.

Despite my efforts to connect with Manny over the years, I was the one who broke our relationship. At 42, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and I asked Manny not to tell anyone in the family. I feared their indifference, and I knew Manny would keep that promise.

When I first told him, Manny answered with stunned silence. I held the phone to my ear, staring at the crumbs on my kitchen counter, waiting for him to say something empathetic. He never did. He called me the next day and said, “I talked to this guy at work. He had testicular cancer. He told me it wasn’t too bad. You’ll be alright.”

I understood his words had an aim, except the target wasn’t the deep place I needed. He had meant, I believe, to lessen the scope of suffering, if not mine then his. Doing so may have mitigated his obligations towards me—after all, if cancer was not “too bad,” it did not then warrant any special effort on his part—but it may have relieved him of some anxiety for me. Still, I wanted Manny to visit me. I needed to know he loved me enough to visit me one more time, just in case.

Instead, he would call every week. He began each call with a polite inquiry about my health, but if I told him about my fears or my pain, he said little except, “Stay positive and it’ll be alright.” I learned to withhold the information I wished to share with him. Mostly, Manny would talk about the used cabin cruiser his wife had purchased for him. The boat needed repairs and he related these in detail: techniques, costs, the difficulty finding replacement parts, the complicated business of docking. I tried to imagine the intricate maneuvers of exiting or parking the boat at the dock as he described. But I found it difficult to maintain interest, especially given the daily struggles I was experiencing. With each call, I’d swallow more confusion. I’d remind myself the calls themselves were proof he cared, but how could I continue to interpret the content of these calls as heartfelt concern? I wanted so much more.

About four months into my treatment, I was leaving the cancer center and walking across Washington Square when I listened to a voice message from Manny. Our sister’s husband was having dizzy spells, and the doctors were unable to determine why. Our mother who previously had few kind words for him was flying down to help care for him. Manny was worried, saying he “felt really bad” and calling our brother-in-law “a poor guy.” He thought I needed to know.

I had to sit down on a bench and breathe. All the concern I wanted for myself, Manny had just expressed for our brother-in-law. How much time had they actually spent together?

I couldn’t handle the lack of our interactions anymore. I was overwhelmed enough by cancer. I emailed Manny a request:

“Dear Manny, the things that you’ve said and, even more, the things that you haven’t done have been so incredibly hurtful. I need you to just not contact me for a long while—at least until I’m over what is such a difficult time. How about if I call you when I’m ready? This is not to make you have a guilty conscience. I love you, but let’s face it, if you’re not going to be there for me as family or as a friend when I have something like cancer, what is the point? Take good care and have a good summer.”

 

Later that afternoon I was at work when Manny left me a message. He yelled, “I have never known anyone—ANYONE—who pushes her family away! Don’t you know family is all you have?” He explained, “You told me not to tell anyone, and my wife doesn’t know, so how could I visit you? I know that you’re sick, but it doesn’t give you any excuse to behave in this way!” After a pause, he yelled, “Fine! Be that way!”

I completed my treatment in the fall, but I did not call him. I was deeply hurt he had not contacted me again. For a few years, I wondered what I could want from a future relationship with Manny, if that was even possible. It was a long time before I could understand that, in order to have a relationship with Manny, I could not expect any satisfying emotional reciprocity. He had become more emotionally removed than I had ever known him to be. I would have to accept what he could give: calls, visits to him, or meeting points.

In recent years, I have tried contacting him to no avail.

For most of my adult life, I was afraid of the suicidal child I had once been. I believed she resided in me, waiting to return, waiting to test my family, longing for their sympathy. I imagined she waited inside me, hoping an illness would solicit their attention and prove that, yes, their love would materialize before I died.

This secret wish threatened my survival.

If Manny were to have proven their love by visiting me or offering tangible concern, perhaps my familial longings would have been assuaged. Instead, he confirmed my family’s truancy. Though his response was egregious to me, it was, if not life-saving, ultimately liberating. Later, I would come to realize I had been suicidal as a child because of my family’s dysfunction and not because of an organic psychological flaw as I had always believed.

I think about the unspoken confusion and discomfort of our last interactions. I think of how much I wanted to feel close to Manny. How much I wanted to lose my perpetual awkwardness with him. How much I hated that nothing, not even cancer, could remedy our disconnection.

 

Watching Manny dance that night at the Kitchen Sink, I almost laughed. To me, his sway-dance was one arm-movement away from standing. I did not laugh. My admiration for him, maybe even my love for him, held me for another minute. Perhaps I knew even then, I needed to safeguard this image of him.

I joined him on the dance floor, shuffling and bobbing in a subdued manner I hoped would match his style.

I see it clearly now.

Dancing together, brother and sister, knives and forks dangling overhead.


Adriana Lecuona is honored to contribute to Philadelphia Stories. A native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona’s work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Somos En Escrito, and others.