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

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

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.”


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.


Frank Ewing only ever lets me into his place because he has to. It’s right there in the lease.

“I ain’t ever signed off on that,” he tells me through the crack of his door the first time I knock. “You show me where it say that.”

Autumn Treescape 1 by Stefanie Silverman

I pass a copy across the threshold and point to where the Housing Authority mandates monthly visits from me, his new case manager.

He looks at the paper for a long time. In a few months, he’ll start to let me help him with his mail, and I’ll come to understand he can’t read.

“Boy they kill you with the small print,” is all he says about the lease.

He never learned how.

He is seventy five and has a long enough history of homelessness that the city pays me to provide whatever support he needs to stay housed, now that he’s finally housed.

“It’s not like an inspection or anything,” I add. “I’m not here to get you in trouble.”

He opens the door and lets me in. The place is always the same: clean enough, with some cowboy show on the TV, mattress on the floor, unopened condoms on the windowsill, and nothing in the fridge.

“Want some help with food?” I ask. “There are some places I know about that could help you out a little.”

“Don’t need no help. See you next month. Seventeenth, right?”

On the seventeenth, I bring back a loaf of bread. One of the pieces of mail I help Frank review is from the Housing Authority, threatening eviction. He hasn’t paid his rent once in the six months he’s lived there. I ask why not.

“How much I owe?” he says. “I’ll pay them next month.”

He doesn’t. I explain the situation to my supervisor, and at first, she assumes Frank’s using, but then when I mention the condoms, the pieces fall into place for her.

“So, he’s tricking, too.”

Next time I see Frank the lights don’t work. He lets me call PECO to work out a payment plan, but the thing about it is he has to actually pay. Both the rent and electric payments are so small it’s like they’re symbolic. It’s like:

You want this place? Give up something for it. We know your pension is modest, we understand things are hard. We’re not asking for much, just give us something.

He doesn’t give them anything. Maybe it’s symbolic for him, too.

On the day I visit Frank to tell him he’s being evicted, I meet the woman he’s been spending all his money on. She’s leaving just as I get there, and in lots of ways, she’s not what I expected: she’s older, in her sixties maybe, and beautiful in the way that mothers and grandmothers are, wholesome. Her hair’s done up, she’s wearing scrubs, she’s off to work, she tells me. We talk for a minute, and she calls me baby in that way that older women sometimes do that I love. Her name is Prudie.

“So that’s her,” I say to Frank once she’s gone. I’ve been coming to see him for almost a year at this point, so I should know better. It’s the wrong thing to say. He darkens, says it’s none of my damn business, and points to the door. I show him the notice to vacate.

At eviction court, the lawyers compel Frank to either submit to a representative payee—someone to handle his finances, pay his rent, budget his spending—or vacate the unit in thirty days.

“Please,” the lawyers appeal to me in private. “Try and talk some sense into him. You know how many people would kill to have what he’s about to throw away?”

I do. I get it, but for the whole meeting, all I can think about is Prudie in her powder pink scrubs, and I don’t try and convince him one way or the other.

After he’s evicted, I go and see him in the shelter, see what he’s paid back this month. When the balance is zero, he will be awarded a new Section 8 voucher, judge’s ruling. He hasn’t paid a cent, and the staff at the shelter are frustrated with him.

“Every month it’s the same thing. He leaves out the first—payday—and comes back on the fifth, broke as a joke. It’s been four months, and he hasn’t paid back a dime towards his balance. It’s like he doesn’t even care about getting back home. And it’s not like he’s even getting high—we’ve tested him. Addiction we can at least try to treat. There’s funding for that. But this? And don’t think we don’t know exactly where his money’s going.”

“To love,” I say, and it helps, they laugh. I’ll never tell them about Prudie, and Frank will never give her up. I try and press him a little, though. The shelter is a hell of a place to be seventy-five years old.

“Just give them a little bit. I mean don’t you want to get the hell out of here?”

He laughs. “I sure do get the hell on out, every first of the month, don’t I?”

I don’t know where it is he meets Prudie every month for those few days, and I know better than to ask. I get it. Wherever it is, it’s the one place none of us can touch.

Before I leave we play a game of chess in the day room. I’ve never played anyone as good as Frank. He seems to wake up when we play, like he’s thirty years younger, moving quickly and slamming the pieces down, “There.” He talks smack, he laughs at most of my moves, and he uses his queen in ways that would make me nervous.

“You putting her on that pedestal ain’t doing you any good, neither,” he tells me.

I laugh, he’s right. “I’d just be scared of losing her.”

“Shit,” says Frank, and he darkens like he does. “That ain’t love.”

Patrick McNeil has worked in Philadelphia’s homeless sector since 2011. His work has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Apiary Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the organizer of Philly’s own Backyard Writer’s Workshop, and founder of the Writers Residency in Tufo, Italy.


Blue Haired Girl by Tilda Mann

Grace and I met six months ago. Mutual friends who had been conspiring to get us together finally succeeded.

We decided to meet at a popular local diner for coffee. I arrived early and sat on a fake leather bench in the cramped lobby with others who were waiting to be seated.  I nervously tapped my feet on the floor.

The anxiety of this first date must have also shown on my face. A middle-aged lady sitting next to me to my left asked, “Blind date?”

I turned toward her, sheepishly grinned, and answered, “Yes.”

“That’s how we met, almost ten years ago,” she said, and motioned with her head to the man sitting to her left. The hostess called their name. As they stood, she looked back at me, smiled, and said, “Good luck.”

I gave a half-hearted smile in return and mouthed the word, “Thanks.”

Although Grace and I had no idea what each other looked like, other than vague descriptions our friends gave us, we instinctively recognized each other when she walked through the door. She had a smile like Annette Bening, and that was all I could see.

It was six p.m., the height of the diner’s dinner trade, but we managed to corral a window booth. Grace and I bonded and trusted each other immediately. We talked over coffee for five hours. I left the waitress a generous tip for allowing us to rent her table. Now in our sixties, Grace and I decided we didn’t want to go through life alone anymore. Two months later, she moved into my apartment.

One night, as we lay in bed, Grace asked, “How would you describe our relationship, Lewis?”

She has a knack for asking these weighty questions at the most inopportune times. It’s always when I’m ready to fall asleep. Somehow, she knows that’s when I’m most vulnerable.

“What?” I asked incredulously as I rolled onto my right side to face her. She had already turned off her lamp. My eyes squinted as I tried to focus on her, aided only by the broken bands of light from the street lamp sifting through the blinds behind her.

“How would you describe our relationship? It’s a simple question.” The muffled sounds of midnight traffic rose from the street two floors below our apartment.

Perhaps for her the answer was simple, but not for me. I was no more prepared to answer that question in my sixties than when I had to answer it forty years ago in my twenties.

“Not at this hour, when I’m exhausted and want to sleep. And why would you ask that particular question now?”

“Because this is the perfect time to talk—when we’re together and have no distractions.”

She’s right, partly. With our schedules, it’s probably one of the few times we get to talk to each other. I still work a full-time, modified, second-shift job. I rarely get home before ten p.m. and, by then, I just want to vegetate. Grace is retired, but teaches both a day and evening English as a Second Language class on a volunteer basis.

“You mean other than attempting to get some sleep before I have to wake up in six-and-a-half hours?” I asked.

“Well, that’s an hour longer than me. I’m up at five-thirty.”

“That’s out of habit and your choice, Grace, not mine. Good night,” I said as I rolled back facing away from the window.

“And where are you going?”

“Hopefully to sleep, please?”

“You’re not answering my question, Lewis.”

“I thought I just did,” I mumbled into my pillow.

“I heard that, and it’s not the answer I was looking for.”

Lord, help me. Exasperated, I turned on my nightstand lamp, rolled over once again to face her—like a dog learning a new trick, propped my pillow up against the headboard, and sat upright. “Christ. You really want to know?”

Grace is a pebble compared to my boulder-like build. She inched closer to me, reclined, placed her left hand under her head as a prop, and said, “Yes. I really want to know. And don’t bring Him into it. I asked you, and He’s not going to help you answer the question.” I’m Jewish. Grace is Catholic, and she doesn’t take kindly to me using her Lord’s name cavalierly.


“Why He’s not going to help you?”

“You know what I mean, Grace. Why do you want to know?”

“Because by knowing what you think and feel, I believe we can make our relationship better, stronger.”

“Okay. That’s a valid point, I guess.” I was doing my best to appease her.

That may have been her goal, but from what I know about Grace’s past, I believe the question stems from insecurities about where she stands in a relationship. I struggle with those same doubts, as perhaps most people do when embarking on a new association, whether it’s personal or business.

She’s had two marriages. Her son and a daughter were from her first—which lasted only six years, and was fraught with her ex-husband’s infidelities. The second was almost four times longer and ended when she became a widow. That was seven years ago.

I had only one marriage that endured longer than both of hers combined before I called it quits. With my ex, what I did was never enough. Never enough money, affection, attention. My worth, to her, was ultimately reduced to what I could give her. Our three children have the same mindset. My relationship with them is strained, at best.

Grace and I have shared morsels about our past relationships, her more than me. I’ve lived my life on a need-to-know basis; the truth comes out in dribs and drabs at my convenience. Perhaps—no, not perhaps—I know that was one of the many reasons my marriage ended in a heap of hot, smoking ash. I reluctantly shared that with Grace. She asked me to promise her that I would do better in our relationship. I said I would, and I always do my best to keep promises.

I’ve managed most of my insecurities: not being a good enough provider or father and husband, which stem from my previous marriage. There are probably also a few that I’m not conscious of, or willing to admit, but I still feel their effects. Those are buried so deep that some shrink attempting to excavate them, like an archaeologist digging for the bones or artifacts of an ancient civilization, would likely first find Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Most of Grace’s questions are innocuous and odd, but somewhat humorous. She can be so endearing, but it’s when she asks questions about us that those entombed skeletons uncover themselves and rise to the surface. I don’t know why I’m unable to keep them interred.

I tried to deflect. “So, let me ask you the same question. How would you describe our relationship?”

“I asked you first, Lewis. I’m calling your hand.”

I took a long pause and slowly shook my head. I don’t see any way out of this. “It’s like when I was in ’Nam, on the river boats.”

“How so?”

“It was hours, sometimes days, of boredom split up by moments of sheer terror. You just never knew when the next attack was coming, or from where. Like now.”

She responded matter-of-factly, “So you’re equating my question to an attack?”

“Kind of. Not a frontal attack, mind you. Just coming out of nowhere.” I wasn’t smiling, and my tone was dark and anxious.

“Interesting,” she said, staring at me.

Every time she says that and gives me that stare, I know she’s thinking of another question, and each succeeding question gets more intense, more focused.

“Then does my question scare you—terrify you?” she asked.

“No. Not exactly.”

“Then what?”

“It’s damn annoying. It frustrates the hell out of me.”

“I believe what frustrates you is that you know the answer and are afraid to face it.” Her tone softened, and she smiled. “You’ve gotten so much better at opening up, Lewis. I truly mean that. Just answer the question, please, and we can both go to sleep.”

Her smile was convincing, and I bought it. I wanted to buy it. It was the same smile that beguiled me the first time we met.

I’ve learned that Grace was a damn good prosecuting attorney in her life before retirement. It showed at times like this. She used her charm before asking those final piercing questions, which felt like the last thrusts of a dagger into some woefully unprepared witness.

“No. That’s not the way it works with you, Grace, and you know it,” I said, even more agitated. “You’ll have twenty more questions. You always treat me like a hostile witness in these bouts, and I know I won’t be excused from the witness chair until you’re finished with me. But truth be told, I mostly feel that you’re prosecuting some ghosts—not me—and it’s not fair.”

She didn’t directly address my anxiety. Instead, she said, “I promise this time I won’t. Answer the question and we can both get some much-needed rest.”


“I promise.”

Once again, I was sold like some buyer on a used car lot being told that the car I was about to purchase was only driven to church by a little old lady.

“Fine.” Here it goes. “Living with you is like residing in a fireworks factory where they allow smoking. It’s not if there will be an explosion, it’s when.” The explosion was coming from within me. This is my previous marriage all over again, I thought, always having to prove myself.

That retort apparently got her attention, because she now sat upright, no longer assuming the pose of a Roman emperor eating grapes and sipping wine. Her dark, brown eyes narrowed and focused directly on me. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we’re combustible, Grace. Your questions are like an open flame around gunpowder.”

“Bullshit, Lewis! We’re not combustible. You’re combustible.” She pointed her finger at me, and said as emphatically as she could, “This isn’t about me. This is about your ex. Isn’t it? Just admit it.”

“I’m not admitting to shit, Grace, because that’s not true,” I groused. “This has absolutely nothing to do with her.” But it did. More so, it had everything to do with me believing I wasn’t good enough for Grace.

“The hell it doesn’t. It’s always about her when it comes to us. Talk about living with ghosts!” She rolled her eyes, smirked, and shook her head.

I was losing ground and Grace knew it. She was about to unsheathe that dagger.

“Well, here’s what I really mean, Grace,” my voice elevating to match her finger pointing. “You ask these off-the-wall questions…”

“Oh. So, questions about our relationship are now off the wall?” she cut in.

“No. You’re twisting my words. I mean I just never know when those questions about us are coming, and that’s what terrifies me!” What really terrified me was that Grace might believe I’m not worthy of her, and I didn’t have the courage to say so. What if I wasn’t?

“There you go, Lewis. It’s only when I ask those questions about us. Thank you for finally admitting it. And it really doesn’t matter when I ask them, does it?” She paused. “DOES IT?”

Grace folded her arms across her chest and looked away. She wasn’t fishing for a response. Like any good prosecutor, Grace never asked a question to which she didn’t already have the answer.

I took a deep breath, collected my thoughts, and added sullenly, “I’ve fought one war in my life. I’m not going to fight another one. This relationship, like my marriage, is beginning to resemble Vietnam. Except in ’Nam we used bullets, not words. But the effects are the same: the walking wounded.” I sighed deeply, and I said, “There’re only so many conflicts a person can fight, and I want to be done with all of them.”

Grace turned her head toward me, her arms still folded. I couldn’t decide if the look in her eyes was hurt, anger, or confusion. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if I cared. I just wanted the discussion to end.

“What do you mean, Lewis?” Gone was the confidence in her voice.

In hindsight, I did care because I tried my best to limit the damage of that combustible moment. I gently slid my hand to touch her arm. “Grace, I’ve learned over the years which battles to fight, and fighting to keep us together is one endeavor I’m more than willing to undertake. I’m not a conscript in this battle. I’m a volunteer. But please, stop treating me like a combatant. Start treating me more as a medic.” I just wanted to be someone who stopped the bleeding and saved the patient, but I wasn’t sure if the patient was me, her, or us.

I asked Grace to look at the sign that I made which hangs by our bedroom doorway. It reads: “I would rather be crazy with you, than sane without you.”  Then I leaned into Grace and said, “Why can’t you just accept that I love you—that I’m in love with you—and that I want us to work?”

I could see the corners of her mouth turn upward ever so slightly. Then she spoke. “I suppose I like fireworks, Lewis.” She kissed me and then said, “Now go to sleep, sweetheart. I know I will. It’s late.” Grace rolled away from me.

I turned off my light, realizing that our conversation ended the same way it began—with me in the dark.


L.D. served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 67, his life is quieter now. He lives in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania and is a member of The Bold Writers group.

His short stories have been published in, among others: Red Fez, Indiana Voice Journal, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Slippery Elm, Cobalt Review (Print), and Evening Street Review (Print). He has had several public readings at Albright College in Reading, PA.

L.D.’s website is:

The Fix

Guardian Angels by Lois Schlachter
Guardian Angels by Lois Schlachter

Nestled in the back corner of my classroom, perfectly adjacent to my much nicer, high-back teacher chair, is a tattered, blue office chair. Before the chair’s sad and shabby state, it lived in my extra bedroom, the room I temporarily deemed an “office,” while patiently awaiting a whitewashed cradle, changing table, and pastel rocker that were never needed. The chair comforted me and took a beating as I immersed myself in the life of an English teacher and was transported from new house to new house before permanently residing here, in its cinderblock, academic abode, for the past fifteen years.

It’s a comfortable swivel chair—cushioned and adjustable, with just the right give for teenagers rocking themselves into a state of peaceful, if somewhat resistant, contentment. That chair has held students struggling with college essays, and students fighting with parents. It’s heard stories of learning disabilities, failing grades, unexpected A’s, and unplanned pregnancies. The dingy armrests and faded upholstery have supported the most confident and most vulnerable—those reveling in their teenage years and those contending with them.

Somehow, I became a mother to many of the chair’s inhabitants. Give me a kid whose problems I could solve with the skills acquired through my English degrees, and I’ll give you my new project. Family struggling financially? Have a seat and let’s open a Google Doc. We’re going to have fun writing scholarship essays. Math teacher giving you a hard time? Let me take a trip downstairs and schmooze him a bit. First love break your heart? I have tissues, chocolate, and a free afternoon of grading procrastination. I hold their hands, wipe tears from their eyes and snot from their faces, and love them as my own. This is the side of teaching they don’t tell you about—the side that makes the headaches, heartaches, and the dual caffeine-wine addiction worth it.

My own son, Evan, a grown man now, spent many childhood years watching me compose research papers, literary analyses, and later, lesson plans in that very home office and from the tattered, blue chair. He recently graduated from college with a degree in vocal performance, and he’s trying to adjust to the life of a young, struggling artist. My husband, Ryan, and I, having had him at the oh-so-grown up age of nineteen, sometimes wonder where this child came from. He was a funny little kid of intellect and creativity, but also possessed an introverted nature that embraced the adult world, dismissing childhood frivolities.

As he got older, Evan became increasingly contemplative. He’s a skeptic—a thinker and a worrier. He holds his cards close and most days you need a chisel and a pickaxe to reach his softer side.  But, it’s there. In moments of either sheer happiness or extreme disillusionment, when only a mom can suffice, he lets me in. And I love it. These moments are rare though, so when I come across students who I connect with, students who need me, students whose doubts and fears spill out from the safety of that chair, I can’t help but make them my own.

I never believed I was supposed to be a mother. How I got pregnant in the first place, the odds were ridiculous! I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear of all the fertility treatments my friends have had to endure, while Ryan, in his dashing potency, barely sneezed on me and low and behold, it’s a boy! As we juggled the new and peculiar responsibilities of young parenting in a sea of our own college antics and anxieties, we treated Evan as more of a sibling than our child. He attended concerts and parties with us, watched Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights, insisted on calling us Jen and Ryan during his entire second year of life, and learned to tap a keg at the age of three. Even in our youthful naiveté, he was loved, intellectually stimulated, and a tad spoiled. But I was also the mom who forgot about show and tell, felt frozen chicken nuggets qualified as a suitable dinner, and spent more time on my career than playing in the yard.

Despite our unconventional parenting style, Evan was still a sweet boy. I read everything to him, from Mother Goose to Shakespeare. He’d climb onto my lap as I worked, sucking his pacifier, curling my hair around his fingers, and ask me to read what I was writing. “Well, you see Evan, once upon a time there was an old king, King Lear, who really wanted people to tell him how great he was. Two of his daughters lied about how much they loved him so that they could get his land, but the third kind and lovely daughter remained loyal and true.” His brown eyes would glance up to my face to gauge my seriousness. I’d wink, and he’d go back to weaving his chubby fingers through my hair.

My career progressed and years seemed to merge, along with many student faces. I devoted the majority of my time to them, whether it was helping with assignments, attending their games, or listening to their problems. Time passed. At the age of thirty-four, my window was closing. I knew if I wanted another baby, I couldn’t wait. I read books, I talked to other mothers, and I went off the pill. But instead of a baby, doctors found a ten-pound tumor in my uterus—a mass slowly taking over my body, and destroying a decision I had put off for years.

It hasn’t been until recently, after turning forty, when I started pondering that closed window once again, paying attention to this older body, hearing the whispers I’ve tried to block out—aged eggs that I still possess haunting me from the very ovaries I decided to keep when the surgeon took my uterus. I can hear them, small baby voices, ticking off every hour, every day, every year, trying so hard to team up with errant sperm. Those baby-ghosts love to whisper, hypnotizing me every time I smell a newborn’s head or look at Facebook posts of toddlers splashing in bathtubs and playing in pumpkin patches. But the truth is, those whispers are small echoes of a life that wasn’t supposed to be, a life I unknowingly abandoned when I stepped foot in a classroom and used my time to start caring for other people’s children.

Those whispers taunt from some innate, ancestral, maybe even mystical place of wonder that, surely, I’ll never understand. What I do understand is the transformative value—how to use those voices to repair others and bring meaning to my life. For every Chloe, Anna, Brian, Andrew, and Alex rocking in that blue chair, I have purpose. I am able to fix the naïve transgressions of young motherhood with a kind of cosmic redo. I take in their doubts, their pain, their love, and relish their comfort and happiness when I console and dole out advice. They hug me, and thank me, and tell me that I’m the one who got them through.

I laugh. If only they knew.

If only they knew that at night, when I contemplate all of my inevitable graduation goodbyes, all of my children who will leave me, I wind up curled in Ryan’s arms. He strokes my hair and reminds me that I’m loved, that there will be other kids who need me, that this isn’t the end. If only they knew that in the dark hours of sleepless mornings, I sometimes find myself sitting in my home office, the room I had hoped would be a nursery, and I stare out the window thinking that while I do love my students, all 2,323 of them, I’m no hero. I’m just a mom looking for a way to quiet the echoes.


Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jen holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently finishing her MFA with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has been published in BUST Magazine, The Sigh Press, Role Reboot Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. Jen lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and two tiny dogs.

The 2017 Contest

The work submitted to Philadelphia Stories for this year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry was ambitious and exciting. Poems were beautifully crafted, deeply felt, and provocative. In discussing many of the poems that he selected, judge Lamont Steptoe referred to the way that they interacted with history and with our current moment. At times sharp and pointed, at others lush and expansive, this batch of poems shows readers how vital and powerful poetry can be to navigate the heartbreaks and frustrations of life as well as to celebrate its great and small glories.

The winner of the 2017 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry selected by judge Lamont Steptoe is Chicago-based poet Nancy L. Davis for her sprawling poem “Firestorm: Checagou.” Collaging song and poetry excerpts, Davis pits progress against exploitation in a broad, sweeping poem. Steptoe writes that the poem “resonates with origin/history/past present and future.” Nancy L. Davis receives $1000 and an invitation to join us at the LitLife Poetry Conference at Rosemont on April 1, 2017.

Runners up receive $100 each as well as an invitation to join us at the LitLife Conference. They include Los Angeles poet Alejandro Escudé for his poem “Content Warning: Pantoum,” Liliana Lule of Skokie, IL for the poem “adoctrinado,” and E.A. Bagby, also of Chicago, for the poem “Extinction (I).”

Judge Lamont Steptoe also selected as honorable mentions the poems “Duffey” by Will Jones, “The Diameter of a Ringling Bros. Circus Ring” by Gail Comorat, “Changes to Your Itinerary May Affect Your Fate” by Hayden Saunier, and “Northbound Train” by Kathleen O’Toole. These poets are also invited to join us April 1 at Rosemont College. Their poems can be found on our website at

In addition to the winning and placing poems selected by Lamont Steptoe, we are also publishing “editor’s choice” poems from finalists Carlos Gomez, Harvey Soss, Maggie Lily, and Scarlet Gomez. These, too, can be found at We hope that some of these poets will also join us in April.

More than two hundred poets sent us poetry submissions for this year’s Sandy Crimmins Prize. Our poetry board sifted through the submissions narrowing down the bounty to about eighty individual poems from which I selected a few dozen for judge Lamont Steptoe to select winners. It is a long, but rewarding process. We at Philadelphia Stories appreciate the poets who generously share their work with us and encourage local writers to continue to do so. We thank Joe Sullivan for his continued support of this contest. We also thank Nicole Mancuso, contest coordinator and assistant poetry editor, for everything she does to keep the contest moving smoothly.


From Lamont Steptoe:

WINNER: “Firestorm: Checagou” — “resonates with origin/history/past present and future.”

RUNNER UP: “Content Warning:  Pantoum” — “documents our current history of ethnic profiling and it’s tragic outcome. 

RUNNER UP: “God is hiding at the corner of my mouth” — “opens up discussion about spiritual and ethnic identity  and a as well as where we find ourselves in history.” 

RUNNER UP: “Extinction (I)” — “ is fascinating for it’s ability to explain existence from our subatomic origins to our modern day world global in its vision.”

HONORABLE MENTION: “Northbound Train” — “speaks to how the act of traveling can elicit memory and history and resolutions for the future.”

HONORABLE MENTION: “Changes to Your Itinerary May Affect Your Fate” — ”brings up issues of fate destiny and history.”

HONORABLE MENTION: “Duffey” — “speaks to the issues of veterans returning from war and how they face post war issues of health and aging.”

HONORABLE MENTION: “The Diameter of a Ringling Brother’s Circus Ring” — “Given the fact that this circus will perform here in Philadelphia for the last time this year and the concern which has resulted in the sensation of elephants in circus acts [this poem] speaks to humanity’s growing empathy with other species and how humans do not have all the answers and must now and forevermore be more attuned  to what nature has to teach us.”

On the Divine Lorraine and Falling in Love

We lived in the ethereal shadow of the Divine Lorraine only for a year, but it stands out in my head, still as bright as the neon lights dancing underneath its towering signage. An abandoned, graffitied, majestic husk of a hotel, it dominated the skyline where we lived at 15th and Fairmount. In particular, I remember the way the setting sun illuminated it from behind, oranges and pinks seeming to emanate from the building like a halo. My future husband and I began to build our relationship under the spell of this iconic Philadelphian landmark. Then and now, the image of the Divine Lorraine is a sense memory calling to mind the magic that is a fledgling relationship.

We’d met at the end of June at the former Grape Street Pub in Manayunk. He was in the band. I was watching the band. During a break, he offered me an Altoid. I quoted Chuck Palahniuk. We were immediately infatuated with one another. But then, in early August, I had to leave for graduate school, a Ph.D. in my far future and my new boyfriend (hopefully not) in the past.

He was in Philadelphia, playing bass for a rock band, writing solo pieces on the piano, and otherwise immersing himself in music. I was at the University of Illinois, an accelerated Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy. Distance does not make the heart grow fonder. Homesick, miserable, and increasingly unmotivated as time went on, I missed viscerally what was waiting for me in Philadelphia: My boyfriend, his rescue Doberman named Max, an elderly cat, and a cocoon of unconditional love without the pressures of academia.

Despite wanting to succeed, unceasing loneliness wore away at my resolve to finish the degree. My physical and emotional health suffered. I burned out. I dropped out of the program, packed my car, and headed to Philly. I didn’t exactly show up unannounced on his doorstep with all my belongings and my cat; I gave him at least twenty-four hours notice that I’d be showing up on his doorstep with all my belongings and my cat.

Some hidden corner of my subconscious remembers his concerns that we hadn’t been together long enough (about six weeks before I left for school, to be precise), that we’d break up if we moved in together too soon (we’ve been together for eleven years now, by the way), that the cats wouldn’t get along (they didn’t).

I, however, was too caught up in the flurry of discarding my current life and driving fourteen hours straight to share those concerns. So with my cat and everything I owned, I moved in with my first real boyfriend. I decided upon entering his tiny apartment, a clichéd bachelor pad covered in animal fur, that I would just hope for ‘happily ever after.’ I dumped all of my metaphorical eggs (and the literal ones, too, I suppose, given that we now have a son) into the fragile basket of a relationship that had existed for less than two months. Blind optimism, it seems to me in retrospect.

The truth is, we started living together before we knew each other. I was young enough that our seven-year age difference seemed insurmountable. He was cynical enough that he didn’t see the point of legal matrimony. We disagreed about a number of fundamental issues and ideas. We were taking an immeasurable risk.

I’d arrived in the dead of winter. The Divine Lorraine greeted me, a beacon of beauty in what was then a less-than-charming neighborhood. My car was broken into within a week of my arrival. After dark, I couldn’t walk around outside without Max, his Doberman. It was an alien environment, and my naiveté was immediately apparent. The sight of the Divine Lorraine, steps away, offered me a sense of comfort and wonder in a sea of anonymous strangers and unfamiliar sights. It towered above the cacophony of street noise and angry voices, above the homeless

men on the corners and the litter in the gutters. It was haunting, and lovely, and made me glad to be outside in its presence.

My boyfriend and I joked about it, christening it the “Divine Shannon Lorraine.” I suspect the name we share is a large part of my fascination with the structure. But the rest is due to my fondness for a dark, eerie, Tim Burton-esque beauty. It’s easy to imagine a time when the hotel must have stood proudly, windows like glass eyes watching over old-time Philadelphia. Back in late 2005 when I moved to the city, however, it was a glimmer of its former self.

We started walking around at night together, passing by the Divine Lorraine on our way in and out, two insomniacs with a dog in tow. Part of it was the pull of the building, part of it was the thrill of the dark, and part of it was the sheer joy that comes from falling in love with someone for the very first time.

We learned about one another slowly, taking longer and longer walks around the neighborhood. I came to realize, as I’m still coming to realize every day, the depth of his character and his capacity for kindness. I learned that he is empathetic to a fault, practically a musical savant, someone protective of those he loves and those in need. I heard about his effusive Jewish family, his band, his former cats. I learned who he truly is with the Divine Lorraine as our sentinel, standing guard.

After all the months apart, a relationship birthed of phone calls and letter writing, it was surreal to be in one another’s presence, to have as much of the other as we could possibly want. The Doberman wasn’t even necessary as we started walking longer distances, to neighborhoods with trees and window boxes and silent statuesque houses. Our conversations were all over the spectrum, ranging from our hopes to our phobias, never following the same path twice. We talked about anything and everything, posing endless questions and thought experiments.

He would ask, “What’s your favorite movie?”

I would say, “Probably A Clockwork Orange. What’s your favorite movie?”


“If you were on a deserted island and could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?”

“When would I ever possibly be in that situation?”

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t know, probably ice cream.”


“Wow, did you see that bat?!”

“I know! I saw it!”

Those nights around the melancholy old hotel marked the learning curve of our relationship. Through our walks and talks, we stumbled through painful baggage, but also discovered our shared sense of humor. Looking back, my sheer innocence shocks me. When I’d moved in, we were, essentially, strangers.

In the shadow of the Divine Lorraine, we began our life together. We’ve been through euphoric highs and rock-bottom

lows. As the Doberman sadly passed on less than a year after those urban midnight hikes, we’ve since acquired more cats, in addition to the baby. We’ve stressed about making ends meet. We’ve had health scares and stretches of unemployment, but we’ve somehow, miraculously, managed to stay as enamored with one another at the end of the day as we were in those early months.

Even with all the memories of our nights together crowding my skull, I still remember, quite distinctly, my favorite one from very early on. It was a cold spell in February 2006. Me being perpetually freezing, I was cloaked in layers and a down coat, my hands shoved into his pocket, exhaling clouds of smoke as my breath met the frigid air. We were walking by the Divine Lorraine in a peculiar silence most unlike Philadelphia. We had the dog walking contentedly next to us and Wawa coffee and no iPhones to distract us while in the other’s presence.

It was very, very late, the kind of stillness that can only be experienced while the rest of the world is asleep. The moon was very nearly full, either waxing or waning; I tried to be mindful and present, to take a visual photograph of the moment, to remember how it felt to be loved on a beautiful night in (what I was slowly starting to view as) a beautiful city.

Against the silhouette of the derelict edifice, he looked at me, and I knew suddenly what was about to happen seconds before he spoke. He took a deep breath, and then validated my decision to uproot my life, forego my Ph.D., and take this huge gamble with three short words.

“I love you.”


Shannon Frost Greenstein resides in Philadelphia with her soul mate, their son, and several spoiled cats. She works for a non-profit organization in Center City while attempting to author the Next Great American Novel. Her interests include writing, theater, ballet, and philosophy, and she harbors an unhealthy obsession with Mt. Everest, the Hill Cumorah Pageant, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the summer Olympics. Shannon’s goals are to eventually pay her way out of debt with her writing, to raise a child who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and to acquire even more cats. Her work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Philadelphia City Paper, WHYY’s Speak Easy, the Metropolis literary magazine, and the elephant journal.

The Narrow Door: Remembering Denise Gess

[img_assist|nid=20678|title=Narrow Door/Lisicky|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=194|height=140]The late novelist Denise Gess, a native Philadelphian and editorial board member of Philadelphia Stories, lived a life rich in irony and contradiction.  She was a writer of great talent and immense ambition who devoted large parts of her life to other things – searching for the perfect love, searching for the perfect writing table. 

Now, six years after her death, at 57, from cancer, comes Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door, which meditates upon their long friendship, and, with it, the greatest irony of all:  that Gess is likely to be remembered more enduringly for her mentee’s experience of her, captured with grace and breathtaking precision, in the pages of The Narrow Door, than for her own writing.

Gess’s two novels, Good Deeds and Red Whiskey Blues, both published with some fanfare, by major publishers, in the ‘80s, have long been out of print; had been at the time of her passing.  Her third, Trespasses, never found a publisher, a deep wound for Gess, and one that never healed.  That manuscript is packed away, wherever Lisicky and her daughter Austen, Gess’s literary executors, have stored it.  During her final illness, between chemo and radiation treatments, Gess worked with mad determination on a fourth, and on more essays and stories.  These manuscripts, too, are packed away in archival boxes in climate- controlled storage.  (A third book, the nonfiction narrative Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, co-written with her ex-husband William Lutz, published in 2003, remains in print, and was optioned for a film.)

The Narrow Door, out in paperback from Graywolf, isn’t only, or even primarily, about Gess, my colleague and friend, and the first essay editor of Philadelphia Stories, though her ‘great shimmering aura’ is felt throughout the book.  Rather, The Narrow Door is about friendship and love, both sexual and otherwise.  It’s about ambition and success and failure.  It’s about pairing and coupling; competition and betrayal.  Most of all, The Narrow Door is about the at times harrowing journey into and out of the self – as played out through life’s most bewildering entanglements.

Given Lisicky’s own complexity (a gay man raised in the suburbs of South Jersey in a family of deep Catholic faith), and the depth and breadth of his aspirations in The Narrow Door, it’s no wonder readers are denied a straightforward chronology.  Instead, the story loops around in time, patterned by experiences that repeat, echo, or interrogate each other.  Whisked into this mix are compressed, lyrical set pieces on volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, oil spills, even the backyard fish pond outside his home in The Springs, East Hampton, which he shared with his Beloved, ‘M’.  These set pieces, most of imagistic beauty, buttress or advance the book’s many interlocking themes.  A passage from the home in Springs:

 The pond is skimmed over with ice…Just where the pump flows back into the water, there’s an opening in the ice.  What must it be like to look up through that opening, no wider than a foot or two?  The smaller younger fish draw to it, their mouths hitting the moving surface as if they’re gorging on oxygen.  Or maybe it’s nothing as extreme as all that.  They’re curious.  They want to see what’s up there, on the other side:  the sky with its rushing clouds, the sun, the geese that fly overhead.

As charted in The Narrow Door, the late aughts are a time of reckoning for Lisicky. By then he’s published two acclaimed books, the rambunctious bildungsroman Lawnboy, and the memoir Famous Builder.  But, despite critical acclaim and many honors, he’s yet to achieve financial stability.  He loses his mother, first to dementia, then death. The novel that he hopes might earn some money is rejected many times before being published by an indie press with no advance. He loses Denise first to an estrangement, and then, after their reconciliation, to cancer.  His marriage to the Famous Writer he calls ‘M’ (M is the poet and memoirist Mark Doty, a luminary in American letters, with whom Lisicky shared his life for 16 years.) begins to come apart.  ‘Some joy has been lost in our relationship,’ M tells Lisicky, though ‘this comes as news’ to him. An anguished Lisicky wonders if the ‘gauzy thickness’ of his grief over his losses has driven away his Beloved.

Lisicky was named after his mother’s twin brother, killed at 17 in a car crash, and he wonders if he will always be compelled to ‘live up to a ghost.’  Early in the memoir, he acknowledges his position as a replacement in M’s life, for his previous partner Wally, whose death from AIDS is recounted in Doty’s radiant memoir Heaven’s Coast. 

 “W has been gone for sixteen years, but M’s attachment to that fact does not shift or diminish.  Death shadows his face.  It draws him away from me…. I have learned not to think: replacement—I am not his great love.  The love coming at me is the love intended for the lost.”

Lisicky was in his early 20s when he became friends with Gess, a beautiful divorce and single mother whose first novel Good Deeds, ‘was poised to make a splash.’ Both were teaching assistants in the graduate English program at Rutgers Camden. Back then, Lisicky says, ‘I wanted to become myself, but there wasn’t even a self to work with.’

Gess takes Lisicky under her scintillating wing, her needy wing.  He becomes ‘an outlet for her obsessions.’ Years of long late night and early morning phone calls; of lunches, dinners, caffeine powered gab fests, follow.  Ages of Platonic intimacy before Lisicky comes out to her, to anyone, though he wonders ever after about his reticence, about ‘the costs of bandaging, of mummifying myself’ for so long.

The most intense period of their relationship occurs through her writing of Red Whiskey Blues, though the novel is not named. Lisicky isn’t merely in her thrall but serves as her first reader, a privilege and obligation he’ll repeat later in his life with ‘M.’

 “Over the phone, her sentences speed past me like meteors, and I can feel Denise listening to me as I am listening to her…. she is listening for laughs, pauses, silences after lines that are supposed to be jokes. She is listening for changes in my breathing.  The enormity of this responsibility wipes me out sometimes. “

An indefatigable friend, the kind Gess demanded, Lisicky sees her through the devastation of her editor’s first terrible response to the novel, and her subsequent frantic months of revisions.   Both obsess for hours over the chosen cover. They hate it. To Gess, it signifies a terrible but necessary capitulation to the exigencies of publishing.   The novel, as published, Lisicky says, is a replacement for the dream book.  Others will never see the dream book, but she’ll always have it in her head.  It will pulse like a jellyfish, dangerous, blue…’If only’ she’ll say years later, punishing herself for walking away from it.

‘Listening to Denise was my real education,’ Lisicky says, though he’ll go on to earn his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place Denise yearned to go but never sent in her application. She got to the mailbox with it before she turned away, one of several unsolved mysteries in Denise’s life.

Lisicky, driven by his own ambition, his talent, moves out to Iowa. He takes the steps etched on tablets for writers of great promise who also believe in themselves and their own talent:  He goes to Bread Loaf, in one way following in Denise’s footsteps, but, in another, cutting his own path.  For Denise, at Bread Loaf, had fallen crazily for a Famous Writer, (John Irving, unnamed) a relationship, or whatever it was, that ended terribly and publicly outside Bread Loaf’s famous Barn, an incident Gess believed forever after caused her banishment from the garden. She was never invited back.

Lisicky, paired with M, makes his way into the heady upper reaches of American literary life. Gess remains rooted in Philadelphia. No surprise, then, that Lisicky soon surpasses Gess in achievement and acclaim.  But their role reversals create a perpetual tension between them, and, however obliquely, their eventual falling out. 

The book’s title is taken from a homily Lisicky heard at mass during his deepest period of grief after Denise’s death.  The narrow door is the one all of us must pass through to reach salvation.  Its main story and the side bars are replete with pairings, couplings of many kinds:  Vincent VanGogh and Paul Gaugin; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell; Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell – a talismanic figure for Lisicky and Gess, both for her artistry and for the way she lived her life. 

The end of Lisicky’s marriage to M is played out in the context of these other couplings, his shattering realization that M is seeing someone else:  There is a person in my house, at my chair at the dining room table.  In my refrigerator, on the toilet seat, feet on the bathtub, hands on the sink.

They have lived well, the two of them, Lisicky and ‘M’, with an apartment in Manhattan, a second home on the water.  They’ve traveled everywhere together, to visiting writer gigs, readings and festivals, other fine literary events. Lisicky agonizes, ‘Who will I be if I have to leave him behind?’

In the early 2000s, Gess accepted a tenure track position in creative writing at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. This would turn out to be the last chapter in Denise’s life, though nobody had any reason to think so at the time.  We were thrilled to have finally hired her after trying for many years. (By then she needed a regular paycheck and benefits.)  She was no longer the literary star she’d set out to be.  And yet, and yet, she radiated confidence and glamour.  

Gess showed up in an ancient beater, a Civic handed down to her from her pharmacist brother, but she might as well have been driving a golden chariot, so regal was she. As slender as a ballerina, she enchanted students and colleagues with her erudition, her classroom performances, her barks of rowdy laughter.  She soon traded in her stilettos for leopard print flats, but lost none of her allure.  Among her most memorable qualities: Her skill articulating her ideas and theories; her uncanny ability to see exactly what students were trying to achieve and to help them move their work forward to fruition.

Gess became a great friend, generous, intuitive, smart and funny.  She was on board with Philadelphia Stories from the start, devoting her considerable energies to the magazine’s success.  She was, as Lisicky describes her, a ‘firestorm’, forever ‘surging forward.’ That’s how, I’m certain, she made it through the narrow door.

In this memoir Lisicky practices what Gess, a demanding teacher always preached:  that making art out of lived experience requires much of the author: an arduous and dispassionate dive into the self and the casting out of all taint of sentiment and melodrama; surgical precision with the sentence as it incises one’s own life and the lives of others.  

At considerable risk to himself, Lisicky satisfies the highest of the Gess’s high demands.  His prose crackles with energy and heat, exploding Joan Didion’s infamous proclamation that writers are always selling someone out.  Instead Lisicky, with a consciousness as sensitive as a tuning fork, opens his own life and the lives of his loved ones, to a rare and resonant form of empathic examination.  Lisicky surpasses the empathy exam.


Julia MacDonnell has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last! was published by Picador in 2014, and in paperback in 2015. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, Many Mountains Moving, North Dakota Quarterly Review and others magazines. She is the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories. She has a master’s in journalism from Columbia, and one in creative writing from Temple, and is professor emeritus at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. where she taught workshops in fiction and creative nonfiction for many years.

Holiday Card 2015: The Story Behind the Photo

[img_assist|nid=20638|title=Mercer Oak Tree|desc=|link=node|align=middle|width=491|height=491]

This image, which appeared on our holiday greeting card, is by Kevin Hogan, a native Philadelphian whose work involves the use of his iPhone and mobile image software in a process called app smashing. He submitted this photograph, titled “Mercer Oak,” for the holiday card because of its historical connection to the season. This large white oak tree stood on the site of the Battle of Princeton, fought on January 3, 1777, where British soldiers surrendered shortly after Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River. The 300-year old tree fell in March 2000, and in May 2000, an 8-foot sapling grown from a Mercer Oak acorn was planted inside the stump of the former tree.