Bensalem

You take Street Road back to the world,

pine needles fall nearby.

These places still exist, revisited

like a box of wilted baby pictures in a storage locker.

On a Sunday, you take Broad to Vine to I-95

and you take the exit to Pain and Mercy

and go to the places that kill you.

It all stands before you confident as ghosts.

320 Pine Court is still there and you drive slowly

and out of the passenger side window you see yourself

sprinting out the door

and you see yourself

walking behind Holly

over the pine needles

to the bus stop and the third grade

and your Oldsmobile is not where mom parked it

and a steakhouse replaces the woods you rode your bicycle through

and a wrought-iron gate keeps Street Road from Beech Court

and you want to call Kourtney Melendez and tell her she was the best friend you ever had

but you know that Cyprus and Spruce and Willow

are not to be revisited today.


Greg Probst is a teacher, writer, and filmmaker. He is the recipient of the Pam Perkins-Frederick Memorial Scholarship for the Marriage of Art and Poetry and the Dr. Allen Hoey Memorial Scholarship for Short Fiction. His writing has been featured in The Centurion, The Temple News, Hyphen, Rathalla Review, and through the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia. Probst is currently pursuing an MFA degree at Drexel University where he will be teaching first-year composition and creative writing.

Free postcard from the saint shrine

Deliciously dark confession

booths and big lightless

pupils with golden

grapes and dead guy

in a glass box. Everyone

so so still. So silent.

Backs of their heads

devotional. Guy restocks

the votives. Clink,

clink, the color glass.


Mary Zhou (they/she) is an artist based in Philadelphia. Their poetry is also forthcoming in Oversound and Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson’s Healing Verse Poetry Line. Poetry, both read and written, has carried them through the last two years. You can find them online at marzhou.com.

’69 Mustang

To read ’69 Mustang by Joshua Barnes, click HERE.


Joshua Barnes was born and raised in Boyne City, Michigan, and is now a Philadelphia transplant with a career as a Nurse Manager. His poetry has previously appeared in Kairos Literary Magazine, The Bloom, and has been featured on the Lake County Arts Council website. He’s been a devoted comic book nerd since he was ten. When not writing or working, he can be found reading poetry and horror fiction, perfecting his handstands, or binge-watching Drag Race.

Kulikitaka

Dominicano soy!
Dominicano soy!
Dominicano soy
in a city of cold.

‘toy cruz’ao
in my heart.
My body, made of bark,
and hair of mango fibers
is rooted to the orderly lines
painted on perfect concrete.

Mi sangre de zapote
doesn’t move with
easy mountain river speed, here
in the
fluorescent white
banks of
fluoride streams.

No puedo bailar
como los arboles de palma en la brisa,
because in the mirror
I see a rigid oak tree
wearing a stiff shirt with tight collar—pero

Dominicano soy!
in the choking alleys
of montaña tall skyscrapers.

Dominicano soy!
barred outside the wide
finca de arroz bright
fashion avenues and high
art boutiques and white
spaces.

Dominican soy!
morenito con sol
in the cold.

Dominicano soy!
while American.


Michael Angelo Abreu is a leaf. He takes frequent walks through the Wissahickon woods, musing about life and its many particulars, such as love, happiness, suffering, and spiritual growth. These kaleidoscope ideas find themselves splashed across his poetry. Through his exploration of writing, he seeks not only to further develop his voice but also to obtain a deeper understanding of who or what he is.

Authors’ Tea

In school we learned that there are four types of sentences

classified by their purpose:

To tell, to command, to exclaim, to ask.

I decided that I would not make demands of the world—

even my statements lacked the confidence of a real person.

Even they were a kind of asking.

 

There’s always one crayon that won’t fit back in the box.

I learned to take up the least amount of space,

saving room for the others.

I wanted to erase myself like a misspelled word

rubbing the paper so hard it tears

leaving nothing behind but pink crumbs.

 

The teacher wanted our best work for the authors’ tea,

but I knew my writing was asking too much.

So I wrote a new story, one that was a little charming,

a little funny, but not a lot of anything.

I used as few words as possible

to shorten the length of my voice against the gnawing silence.

 

In my retelling, I stand as tall as an exclamation mark.

I look you all in the eyes and I ask you—

no, I command you

to place your hands on my shoulders, gently, and tell me that one day

I will learn to use my voice to put out fires,

and also, to start them.


Sarah Mills is a former English teacher who now works as a freelance writer and editor. Originally from Delaware, she received her bachelor’s degree in English Education from the University of Delaware and her master’s in Literacy and TESOL from Wilmington University. Her poetry has appeared in Glass Mountain. She is currently writing a YA novel. You can visit her at sarahmillswrites.com.

Her Body Lines

You should have stayed friends with her. You shouldn’t have learned about her death through social media when your yoga teacher posted a picture of her smiling on the yoga mat, looking pale and dreamy as the sun hit her face. Rest in peace.

You made a beeline to the bathroom at work and hyperventilated in the corner stall. You didn’t have permission to feel the way you did; you were the one who cut her out of your life. All of those friendships after her, you strived to find someone like her to get that close again. You had yet to match it.

Grief has a way of making things feel like yesterday. Memories that were inaccessible in the subconscious become unlocked and flood your mind. Suddenly, you were eighteen again when she took you to your first yoga class. She drove you to class in her tan Chevy Malibu that resembled a grandmother’s car and trembled when the ignition turned on. She liked to drive with the sun visor down, not to protect her eyes from the glare, but she slid the mirror open to look at herself as she drove, finding her own vanity hilarious. You bent and flexed your bodies together and trembled in the poses.

She got better at yoga. Her body could withstand the demands of the poses and the heat. Her moves were untouchable, and she made everyone stare. You watched the yoga teacher give her more adjustments in class, and you craved the touch she received, or maybe you wanted her all to yourself.

You would give her a ride to the train station for her Vinyasa training. She’d wear leotards with high-waisted leggings and leg warmers into the city.

“On the train, I feel like Nina in Black Swan,” she said as she refreshed her makeup in your rearview mirror. “Remember that movie?”

You remembered. You’d watched Black Swan together. She envied the ribs that protruded out of the ballerina’s leotard, and you remember the throb radiating between your legs when Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis had sex. You didn’t know you could get so turned on from watching women together. You wouldn’t know that you were bisexual until much later.

Once, after a few drinks, she kissed you outside of a bar. Her long and devilish tongue hooked into the roof of your mouth. You grabbed her thick hair in your hands and pulled her close.

“Do you remember last night?” You whispered the next morning with your bodies interlocked on the single mattress in your parents’ house. You could hear your blood pulse.

“Nothing,” she had said as she rolled off the bed, out of your reach.

***

A psychic had warned you, after all. He had told you someone you loved would die in an accident. You were angry at the news. This psychic had broken a code. You were a trained clairvoyant, and you would never reveal such detrimental information during a reading. You only read the good things or harmless things like past lives and forcefully tuned out the bad. What good was it to tell someone that death was coming? Death was coming for all of us.

***

You ran into her mother at the grocery store.

“Do you still keep in touch?” she asked with an arm full of produce.

“No, unfortunately.” We had a falling out. Her Chevy Malibu broke down, and she would come over to your house but then ask for a ride to her boyfriend’s house. The habit kept reoccurring: each time she arrived, only for you to drop her off with disappointment. You eventually told her you couldn’t do it anymore. You couldn’t keep watching her leave. You wanted her to stay, and that’s what ended things. But you never told her you loved her. You never knew if that would have changed anything or everything.

“She moved to Philly to teach yoga. She followed her dreams,” her mother said with a proud smile.

Eventually, you moved into the city, too. You meant to go to her yoga class to reconnect, but you never did.

Now, you can’t stop thinking about her body lines as she hung onto the man’s back on his motorcycle. He didn’t have an extra helmet for her, so her long black hair danced in the wet summer night. You wondered what the stars looked like that night when the storm rolled in after a dry summer day and made the streets wet and slippery. When the biker made a turn, she ejected into the sky. The lines her body made in the road when she landed, forever marking her end in asphalt unworthy of her perfection.


Leah Mele-Bazaz is a proud Philadelphian and the author of Laila: Held for a Moment. Excerpts from her memoir were shortlisted for the Eunice Williams Nonfiction Prize (2021) and a finalist for The Southampton Review Nonfiction Prize (2020). Her writing has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal Online, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2021, she won Barren Magazine’s December Instagram Poetry Contest. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Drexel University, where she also teaches Rhetoric and Composition. You can often find her at one of her two favorite places in Philly: the Schuylkill River Trail or her local library.

Website: www.leahmelebazaz.com   

Don’t Trust Reflections

It’s been weeks since I had seen my face.

It feels so strange now, Kevin sat across from me in our small tent, a chessboard sat on the floor between us. He looked down before making his first move, moving his king’s pawn forward one space. Nobody knows how or why they started appearing, all we know is that while reflections are the only way to see them, reflective surfaces are also the only way they could get you. When the news broke, people panicked. Anything reflective was smashed and thrown away. The lucky ones got out; Kevin and I were able to get some camping supplies together and make it out to the woods before the worst happened.

“At least we have each other, and….” I paused, I knew the silver lining in all this, but it just felt wrong after everything that happened. I took a breath and matched his move, moving my king’s pawn forward one space.

I looked up to meet Kevin’s eyes with my own. “It’s okay, Caitlin, you can say it.” I let out a deep sigh, and a light cloud formed as my warm breath met the cold air.

“At least we are together, and, in a way, looking at each other is the closest we have to see our own reflection, kind of. Well, it’s more than most people can, at least.”

My twin looked me directly in the eyes before looking down and considering his next move. Despite being born only mere seconds before me, Kevin was always the more protective of the two of us. When I would get myself into trouble, he was always there to help bail me out. We did everything together, and he was my brother as well as my best friend. “Guess there is a silver lining in that, but-”

“Stop.” I cut him off. We were both thinking the same thing, but I couldn’t bear to hear it out loud right now. “It’s your move.”

Kevin let out an understanding sigh as he glanced at the opaque water bottle beside him. We had barely managed to fill it before things really got out of hand. We were the lucky ones, far enough outside the city and some supplies to keep us alive, at least until things calmed down. Although we both knew in the back of our minds that there was no way to know if it would ever be safe to return to our home and find some semblance of normal life. There were only a few sips of water left, going down to the nearby river felt too risky, and neither of us knew when it would snow next. Instead, we sat in this tent, day after day, playing chess and just talking.

He looked down at the board again, his hand drifting over each piece as he considered every possible move. Eventually, his hand settled on the pawn in front of his queen and moved it forward one space as well. After so many games of chess between us, it often came down to who made the first attack; One simple mistake could snowball the entire game, so it became a game of patience. I placed my hand on my queen pawn and moved it forward one space.

We continued on in silence, move after move. Kevin would make a play, and I would copy it. There was only the rustling of the forest as animals scurried through the grass, and birds flew through the trees and called out to each other.

The peace was only occasionally interrupted by a gunshot ringing out, leading to a moment of silence as if the entire forest briefly held its breath. It hoped that the sound was simply someone hunting for food but knew all too well of the much more likely alternative. Sanity and resources were both in short supply these days. The further you could get from other people, often the safer you would be.

The game continued on; nearly every piece had been moved, the board still in perfect symmetry as I matched each of my brother’s moves, neither of us willing to take the first piece.

We both glanced at the board, each contemplating our next moves in the game. In tandem, we lifted our heads to look directly at each other. When our eyes finally met, we froze and then spoke at the same time.

Kevin whispered, “Caitlin.”

I whispered, “Kevin.”

For what felt like a lifetime, the two of us stared at each other. Neither of us moved, and I wasn’t sure if we even could if we tried. The forest fell silent, and the world seemed to disappear around us. Quickly there was nothing left but me, my brother, and the small chess board between us. In the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement. Then everything went black.


Andy Pressman grew up in suburban Philadelphia and has been attached to the city since he was born. He grew up always loving telling and sharing stories and writing short stories has been the best way to share that love. Writing has become a comfort activity for Andy, as it’s a wonderful escape from normal life into endless fantastic worlds, and he takes extra joy in sharing those worlds he creates with others.

Journey to the Mangrove

There they are again, far below Elaine’s 20th-story window sitting on a bench outside the adjacent building—a newer senior residence, not as tall as hers. She’s noticed them for several nights now as she rises from bed to go to the bathroom. They linger, ensconced in the white glow of an outside lamp. Beyond them a tiny patch of mangrove hugs the shoreline of the bay. This dwindling strip of wetland trees is currently shrouded in darkness, but Elaine knows it well from her more mobile days when she wandered there often, hoping for a glimpse of sea turtles or dolphins, or possibly even a manatee floating among the tangle of stilt-like prop roots. A small piece of wild that miraculously persists in the midst of rapidly multiplying high-rises.

Who are these night dwellers on the bench? Residents? Employees? Sweethearts? Friends? What are they saying? Elaine glimpses them again just before sunrise when she makes yet another bathroom visit. She maneuvers her walker to the window for a better look, silently cursing her decline from women’s tennis champion back in college to this. She can’t make out their gender, age, or other identifying characteristics. No facial features or hair or flesh, only the general shapes, maybe an arm or leg. They curl toward one another like vines to sunlight, spellbound in rapt and soulful conversation.

Every night it’s the same scene: huddled figures on the bench, always illuminated within the encircling blackness beside the night-covered mangrove, like actors spotlighted on stage. Elaine watches over and over again from her audience perch high above, as bewitched by them as they are with each other. How is there enough in the world to talk about hour upon hour? She’s never had enough interest in anyone to sustain a dialogue that long. And yet here’s proof it can happen. Perhaps her mother was right: she should have developed social skills expected of her instead of concentrating so single-mindedly on her education and career teaching science at a private Long Island girl’s school.

Elaine plays with possibilities and finally concludes the figures below must be lovers, ancient and creaking like herself, meeting in the wee hours for a rendezvous, grabbing at one last chance for connection. It’s a radical interpretation that energizes her. She’s been hoping to die.

Nothing but misery now, aching knees and old crab-like fingers barely supple enough to grasp a fork or cup. Not a shred of love left. Marvin and Ben—two husbands gone. Not that either would have communed with her till dawn. Disappointments, both, in too many ways to inventory, certainly incapable of such cozy intimacy. She never was able to change either one. Nor Daniel, her only child, shared with Marvin. All that’s left between them now: a brief once-a-week Sunday phone call filled with just enough terse sentences to call it conversation.

Not much different from the residents of her building, most of whom nod if they must rather than greet her outright. Certainly, she hasn’t offered many greetings herself in the ten years she’s lived here, but that’s not her fault. Most of them are dull and spent, focused more on their pains and petty gripes and what’s for dinner than discussing anything remotely intellectual—the future of globalization, ocean warming, the promise of artificial intelligence, even something innocuous like new book recommendations or the latest sculpture exhibition downtown. It’s a source of profound frustration for Elaine that she shares so little in common with her fellow residents, or anyone if truth be told. It’s been that way for most of her ninety-two years. If only there was someone now to talk to. About anything at all. Even for a bit.

####

At nightfall, Elaine applies plum-colored lipstick and combs her thin, white hair for the first time in days, then inches out of her apartment with the help of her walker toward the elevator. She’s forced to stop every few steps to catch her breath and regroup. Her knees are on fire. She trembles from the effort to stand as she rides down to the lobby, and exits the elevator into utter silence, as if the world has ceased living. The grand overhead chandelier barely casts enough light to make out the marble floors or tastefully placed planters filled with philodendron and bromeliads. She shuffles past the mousy night woman manning the front desk. Elaine doesn’t remember her name, and the woman barely glances up before gazing back down at her phone. Not even a nod of acknowledgement. The place looks like a luxury hotel—they could certainly act the part, too.

“Rude,” Elaine mutters, but then her anxiety inundates her thoughts. What if her fresh adult diaper doesn’t last the trip? Or she can’t muster the energy to get back? Why has she been consigned to such loneliness in this world that continually falls short?

Oh, never mind, she chides herself as she hobbles out the front entrance toward the building next door, impatient with the gloom that continually permeates her mind. She’s determined to see these lovers up close and join them. Surely, they’ll invite her to sit.

The air carries a hint of cool but it’s not unpleasant on Elaine’s skin. She can feel the sea breeze gently sweeping in from the Gulf across the boulevard from her building. It’s been years since she’s gone out after sundown. How lush the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, and so quiet without the constant hum of daytime traffic. No moon or stars, but the sky is luminescent as if lit from behind by some soft flame. Against it, Elaine can make out the silhouettes of towering coconut palms, the branching trunks of gumbo limbo trees planted in a row along the walkway, and even the giant crown of the majestic banyan tree that stands near the parking garage with its magnificent twisting braids of aerial roots. How exotic and alien compared to the red oaks, cedars, and sugar maples on Long Island, where she lived her entire life before moving here.

Elaine rounds the back of the building, stopping again and again along the dimly lit walkway to muster more strength. It seems it’s already taken hours to get this far, and every muscle and joint throbs from the grueling effort. But, oh, how she’s missed this beauty, the sweet touch of nature, the only part of life that has ever neared perfection in her estimation with its orderly almighty interconnectedness. So, unlike the human world, which has resulted in nothing but a cascade of disappointments.

Elaine gasps at the sight of two luminous figures ahead on the bench. They look different than they do from her tower window. They don’t move. Their low voices don’t fill the darkness as she imagined they would. She can’t make out their features any better than on high. She inches nearer and nearer—until they’re completely indistinct. In fact, they disappear.

Elaine lowers herself slowly to the bench—their bench—nestled in their soft light. Perfectly alone. “My god,” she murmurs, running her hand across the cool seat. No one has been here tonight. Were they ever?

####

Elaine sits for some time by the hidden mangrove, weighed down by hurt so deep it seems impossible to soothe. It pounds down her entire length from crown to slack belly to old misshapen toes. “Why?” she groans.

She gathers strength to rise, falls back to the bench and strains up again, over and over. If only this were her time to go, be done with this. It’s all too much, these disappointments. Please, she pleads silently, but, of course, the end never comes. Why is she made to keep living?

Elaine finally manages to steady herself upright, clutching her walker and steeling herself for the exertion and patience she’ll need to get back home. As she’s always done in life—maneuvering through moments that displease her by sheer force of will. Too many ordeals to count.

And then she hears it. Something she can’t identify in the mangrove. Not an actual sound exactly; it’s more like a low-level rumbling that isn’t truly audible. She feels it in her gut calling her, something like the sudden sensation of being watched when no one’s in sight.

“Nonsense,” Elaine mumbles and turns for her long shuffle home. Likely just her increasingly odd and unpredictable imagination, which has somehow convinced her that lovers sat here only moments before. Or a hallucination brought on by exhaustion—it’s well past her bedtime after all. Or faulty hearing that’s misconstrued the very real rustling of a marsh rabbit seeking nocturnal shelter, or an osprey arranging its feathers for sleep, or a drowsing alligator. Or perhaps even a … what?

Next, you’ll be imagining mermaids. Elaine bristles at this ridiculous thought as the rumbling calls again. She sinks back to the bench, alarm prickling her skin. A name floats in. Bonbibi. From a teacher’s training workshop on coastal ecology she once attended. Goddess of the vast mangrove forests of eastern India, revered by villagers for her protection against man-eating tigers. But Bonbibi’s defense comes with a catch, one that still strikes Elaine as quite sensible: No one is to take more than they need from the mangrove. Greed mustn’t upset the splendid balance of nature, which provides for all needs, something Bonbibi is sworn to uphold.

You’ve been greedy. The weight of these words is like a slam to Elaine’s head.

“It’s not true,” she cries. Why must she imagine goddesses when she’s in the dark, by herself, far from bed, at her age? She feels leaden, all of her—her thoughts, her bones, life that refuses to depart her burdensome body—so weighty a thousand muscled men couldn’t keep her from sinking into the bowels of the world. How will she ever rise from this bench?

“One of your heart chambers is empty,” Marvin had once shouted, the only time he ever raised his voice. “No amount of giving ever fills it.”

“No!” she hisses, pounding her fist on the bench. What did Marvin know anyway? He, who never dressed quite right, mostly cheap polyesters and poor-quality cottons, made worse by his lazy posture. His lack of geographical knowledge and disinterest in international affairs. His disregard for art and theater. His preference for ballgames—baseball, basketball, football, golf—he loved them all and nothing else nearly as much. An ill-informed man in most regards. Oh, she loved him despite all that. She could never explain it. Yet she never lost an opportunity to remind him of his deficits, left him magazine articles about politics and dragged him to art galleries, told him to sit up straighter and use his brains, all in hopes that he’d finally better himself. I push you because I love you. She used to say this to him. Surely, he knew she cared. It felt like love to her—nurturing him to cultivate his best self.

You’ve been greedy.

Heaviness tugs harder at Elaine. She had said the same thing to Ben, whom she loved slightly less but still did love. Also, a disappointment—unable to read the veiled motives and desires of others, making it impossible to discuss friends and family because he lacked useful insight. Indifferent to her urgings that he be more aware of those around him, live less on the surface, develop his powers of perception.

And Daniel, poor Daniel. How she loved her son most of all. Struggled to toughen him up, as any mother would, pushed him to pay attention in school and perfect his manners, act right, stop falling short. “Please try harder and be your best,” she’d beg. How else to succeed in a world where everyone judges you? I push you because I love you. Daniel finally closed up and hunkered down until he could flee for good.

Slumped on the bench, Elaine sees it all so clearly. The horror she’s wreaked—the truth of her greed. Not greed for clothes or furniture or jewels or land, though she hasn’t lacked for any of these. But greed for control. For life to be just as she wants it with every book and objet d’art in place, no unexpected complications to mar her days, no traffic jams, loud noises, dirt, spills, or telemarketers interrupting dinner. No unruliness or unpredictable behavior from family or acquaintances, especially after she’s laid down her preferred conduct.

Her greed has demanded more of others than can be expected of any human soul. Greed driven by fear. All-consuming fear that life won’t provide for all her needs—particularly her innermost yearnings to belong, to matter. That people will leave if she doesn’t keep them in line. That they’ll hurt her, fail her, disappoint her. That their imperfections will show her in a bad light. What a thing to consider at her age when her time is almost up. Too late to rectify. But she had to take matters into her own hands.

“I’m sorry,” Elaine moans. She’s never uttered those words before. They nearly choke her.

These three men were terrified of her, terrorized. She sees that now. They were good men, flawed like anyone. Yet what if they’d expected perfection of her like she did of them, withholding full loving acceptance until she vanquished every defect and weakness? How miserably she’d have failed—has failed—at being perfect. She sees that now. Her demands have resulted in exactly what she’s always feared most: Abandonment. No one loves her, not a soul in the world.

“Forgive me,” Elaine pleads. A scorching despair spreads through her like poison, nearly intolerable. And just as her endurance is almost exhausted a profound sense of protection envelopes her. Perhaps death has come finally, providing a painful though necessary review of her years on earth before ushering her to the next world.

“I’m sorry.” It seems the easiest thing to say in the velvet sanctuary of beautiful love that’s gently escorting her from life toward longed-for death. “I’m sorry,” she proclaims again to the night. She means it now with all her being, from her deepest recesses. As if Bonbibi’s protective grace has arrived to remind her she’s a beloved part of life, loved just as she is, in a way she’s never loved anyone. No need for greed and control. No need for fear. As if she herself is a goddess with infinite capacity for forgiveness and love—for herself most of all. Why was it so hard for ninety-two years? How easy it is now.

####

“You broke your hip falling off that bench,” the nurse’s aide says.

Elaine contemplates the young woman bearing a food tray, dressed in maroon scrubs with a cartoonish bunny tattooed on her right wrist and the word “SMILE” scrawled across her left. Entirely banal. “I didn’t know,” Elaine whispers tentatively, unsure if this vapid woman is merely a dream. “I thought I died.”

“Not your time.” The woman smiles, a kind but not wholehearted smile, something you offer a stranger in need. Definitely not a dream, just another young woman like so many Elaine taught—women with significant potential—filling silences with empty conversation and their empty skin with hackneyed images. No originality. “Must be a reason you’re still here,” the woman says.

Elaine mines her brain, scouring through folds of gray matter, into the nooks and crannies of memory, rummaging through all that appeared so vivid and certain in the pre-dawn hours, hungering for that feeling of peace and belonging—that glimpse of heaven. Surely that’s where she was headed. Why is she still here?

“Thank you,” she says as the woman sets the tray before her. It’s been years since she’s uttered those words. They fill her like warm soup. She can be kind, even to someone so insipid. But only for a moment. Already love’s fine embrace is fading, its nighttime caresses nearly beyond remembrance. Whatever she encountered by the mangrove—so profound and massive and beyond explanation—no longer feels so true under the fluorescent lights of her hospital room.

Elaine lifts the cover off her plate: Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, soggy green beans, and chocolate pudding in a disposable plastic cup with peel-off foil lid. A wave of displeasure churns inside her. She doesn’t want to see through fault-finding eyes. If only those lenses of joy, compassion, and gratitude from earlier would return, affirming that she lacks for nothing, that she’s blessed to be alive. Elaine samples the pudding and spits it into her napkin. Surely this could be better; they could try harder. She rings for the aide to remove her tray.

Panic grows when no one comes right away. It mounts with each minute she waits. How long must she stay here? Why doesn’t anyone care?

Elaine squeezes her eyes shut, wringing out agitation, commanding muscles and thoughts to uncoil. Nothing’s ever right, but panic is useless. So are tempting visions she obviously can’t sustain. They require too much. She must go on. And with that, she expels a sigh, discharging everything she saw and understood on the bench by the mangrove. No more torturous reckoning of past wrongdoing—of what must change and grow, of what could still be. Elaine releases it all to the familiar comfort of habitual disenchantment. Beyond the reach of self-scrutiny and remorse. Beyond enlightenment.


Sidney Stevens is an author with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories are forthcoming or have appeared in literary journals, including Oyster River Pages, The Woven Tale Press, Scribble, Hedge Apple, The Wild Word, Bright Flash Literary Review, OyeDrum, and The Centifictionist. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, The Dillydoun Review, and Nature’s Healing Spirit. She lives in Coopersburg, PA.

REVIEW: Present Imperfect by Ona Gritz

Review of Ona Gritz, Present Imperfect. Poets Wear Prada, 2021.

by Liz Chang

As grammarians know, the “present perfect” verb form is used for actions that began in the past and continue into the present moment or those that occurred at an indefinite time. A sense of playfulness with time—or its collapse into the present moment—reverberates throughout Ona Gritz’ new collection of essays. I’d describe this as “playfulness,” even though the subjects in these essays are serious and often quite tragic: a difficult childhood, the end of a marriage, the narrator’s experiences with disability and identity while growing up, and the eventual murder of her sister’s family. As the title implies, this narrator remains keenly aware of how imperfection can increase the value of a memory. She speaks with a gentle self-deprecation, not shrinking from those instances where she wishes she acted differently. At the end of an essay about the heady days of finding new love, she admits: “Here is the part I don’t like telling. While we were kissing in public places, someone else loved me too” (40). The voice of this narrator gains our trust through her willingness to look at herself directly, in all her human fallibility.

Although these essays are poignant, the surprising treat when one reads them is that they do not weigh us down. There’s a delight we feel in looking over the shoulder of this, at times, slightly unreliable narrator (due to her naïveté). In those moments, however, the omniscient present-day voice steps in to let us know how this recalled moment fits into the larger pattern. As a result, the essays feel as though they are telescoping through time, like those delicate papercut accordion books where you stretch the scene out in front of you to keep seeing more detail, as if you are the vanishing point. Halfway through the essay that makes up the heart of the collection (“It’s Time”), about retracing her sister’s last steps and learning more about her and her family’s horrific end, the sister/detective speaks directly to her deceased sister’s grave: “You taught me how to be happy.” Then the narration switches from the distanced second person pronoun to a reclaiming “I”: “Here is where I finally cry. Because, of course, this isn’t your story, but mine…” (76). The courage of this moment is astounding.

Gritz’ nonfiction work is influenced by her poetic practice as well. She has the ability to bring two images together to create a breathtaking magnetism, such as when she describes the heart of the cover image, a mother and child in silhouette, taken by a new photographer (her ex-husband): “…the negative space, its one border made by my chin and my child’s ear…doesn’t it resemble an open-winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?” (34). There are moments that could verge on the sentimental, but Gritz carefully dances away from the edge in a way that avoids this danger. In all, it is the imperfection of this narrator, how she underestimates herself and her insights throughout—while maintaining a tone of open invitation in her voice, to pull up a chair next to her, like a dear friend might—that is the true accomplishment of this beautifully rendered collection.

 

The Cross Section – ONLINE BONUS

my heart is an ever-expanding forest

singing songs of the wind

jumping like a deer

across cold water streams

at the first bloom of spring flowers 

 

still…my heart is full of concrete jungles 

city lights over the highway 

a sea of red

accompanied by a music fest 

of honks and screeching tires 

the city never sleeps

when iron giants look on

great and unblinking

 

my heart is a world

is a work in progress

but most importantly 

my heart is my home

my family’s garden

 

i am everything yet nothing 

at the same time

a poem written by ancestors before me 

i am history


Evan Wang is a freshman at  Upper Merion Area High School. After picking up the pen two years ago, he’s never let it down. He currently resides in King of Prussia, PA with his parents who support his poetry despite not understanding a single word. Evan loves reading, listening to music, journaling, and diving into some watercolor and colored pencils from time to time. His biggest inspirations are Amanda Gorman, Savannah Brown and his life.