Litter Entries

Litter Entries

By Dog Cavanaugh


Days 1 and 2

On the first two days, we did what they called shadow dumps. Several of us were in training. We followed people around outside different government buildings and watched them pick up litter and trash. When there was a big enough pile of bags, we helped carry them across the street to the compactors behind City Hall. Sometimes people talked to us about what they were doing, but mostly it was all about watching. Someone told us they did things this way because too many people baled on the job in the first week. Why spend so much effort training people who decide they’re too good for trash? We definitely felt like shadows.

No one knew anything about my background. They hadn’t asked for a résumé, or even a list of references. I figure I got the job because I appeared young and strong and at least semi-social and presentable. I was also actually interested enough in the work to ask questions during the interview — like why are some trash bags black and others this kind of clear blue?

Lorenzo Doxley is the crew chief for the City-wide Clean Team (CCT). Most people call him Dox. He worked his way up from ditch digging on an asphalt team to rubbish truck driver to crew chief. Dox wears CCT badge #0031. I became badge #0974. We all wear official forest-green tee-shirts that say CCT on them, except for Dox who wears full button-down twill work shirts and a walkie-talkie on his belt.


Day 3

On this, the third day, Dox pulls me aside and says I’m with him. He will turn me loose “when it seems apparent.” LOVE Park is going to be my beat — across the street from the Municipal Services Building, caddy-corner to City Hall.

“Okay now,” Dox says. “Need you to watch. They’s three of ‘em over there.” He swings a finger to the side without looking. I see a woman in an over-sized white tee-shirt — dirty bare feet, unwashed legs, swarthy brown skin, long gray matted hair. I also see a Black teen with big popping hyperthyroid eyes, matchstick arms and legs, bucked teeth, a shaved head, baggy jeans, and a tunic-like black 3X sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. There’s also a shiny amber-skinned guy near a corner of the park. He’s round and fat and his jeans stick somehow just near the base of his butt. You can see a yellow-gray pair of boxers. His tee is two sizes too small for him, pinching his arms, making them look like loaves of rye bread. His skin is only slightly darker than mine.

All three slowly rotate their heads from side to side, staring at the ground, stepping carefully. It looks like an early morning martial art they’ve invented. The woman stops, squats, picks something up, puts it to her lips, and stands. It’s a two-inch stub of cigarette. She lifts the hem of her giant tee-shirt and slides a hand inside a tight pair of workout shorts. An orange lighter comes out pinched between the tips of two fingers. She ignites the stub, inhales, then closes her eyes. A half-smile tugs at her pursed lips. Smoke trails from her nose. She leans back and turns slightly towards the sun. Ripples of heat swarm the smoke around her face. She takes another deep pull and seems like she’s in ecstasy.

Dox nudges me and points again. Two older people, a man and a woman, stand over a trash can. “They looking for the easy ones.”


“Folks smack out smokes with they foot, then actually put ‘em in the trash. Like Good Samaritans.” He smiles, then produces a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. I watch him light up, then turn my face enough so that I won’t be forced to breathe his smoke. A big slap of heat flashes against my cheek. Someone walking close by says, “You could light a smoke with that bitch sun.”

“Just want you to know,” Dox says. He’s looking at the two people still digging through the trash. “Always give time in the morning. They do your work for you. And not just smoke butts. They take care of half drinks and leftover food, clothing, newspaper, stuff like that.”

I let my vision swim out and over the whole park. Dox takes another shot off his cigarette. “Gotta watch careful. Some of ‘em know to put shit in the cans. They the long timers. Pick up around here just because it’s something to do.”

His cigarette is only half spent, but he bends down from his seat and carefully nudges the ember out on the cement. I figure maybe he’ll slide it back in the pack for later in the day. Instead, he gently lays it on the bench and stands.

“Give twenty minutes more. Most of ‘em be up and do what they do. Then get in to your day.” I stand and stretch a little like I’ve just gotten out of bed. He gives me a chuckle. “Strange, huh, how you feel like them when you watch too much?” Before I can answer he says, “Come on then, I show you where we keeps the bags and pokes and brooms and other tools of trade you gonna need.”

We head around the perimeter of the park. “If you feel like all this is making you a little crazy, let me know. Remember, too, they changes up the people sometimes. We don’t know from days who we got. And just for the record, I do not know what happens to anyone.”

I should have paid more attention to those words, but I am too busy watching a beautiful blond woman in sunglasses and a tight business skirt strutting through the middle of everything on her way to work. It is surprising how much stuff I ended up collecting that day. I remember very well beginning to wonder about counting stuff and keeping a decent enough record of what I was doing.


Day 9

Dox declares to us at lunch today that LOVE Park is a jewel in Philly’s crown, but he also says it’s not officially called LOVE Park. The nickname comes from the statue of the word “LOVE” mounted on a rack at the park’s east corner. The real name is John F. Kennedy Plaza.

LOVE is spelled out as a block of four letters, two to a row, the big, gaping, sloppy O swung sideways. The fountain beyond the letters, in the center of the park, sprays water into the light-blue sky that streams off into the city’s white summer haze.

Beyond the LOVE statue and the fountain is Ben Franklin Parkway, which looks like a long, straight river flowing away from the center of things. The Art Museum of Philadelphia bobs off in the distance at the top of the hill ending the Parkway, with its famous Rocky steps from the movie. Jean Brown, who was in my shadow dump group, got assigned as the sanitation specialist in the Art Museum area. Dox told us she’s got more space than I do but less people who spend the day. He said that for some reason when the tourists are down there they don’t litter much. They like to run the steps and take photos with the Rocky statue off to the side at the bottom of the steps, but they take care of their litter.


Day 22

I collected 76 sections of newspaper today and 19 magazines. I also picked up 37 plastic bags blowing around, 11 hoagie wrappers (after the partially eaten sandwiches were devoured by my people), 103 plastic beverage containers, 19 Styrofoam™ salad clamshells, 7 empty pizza boxes, 6 glass bottles, 24 foam and/or paper coffee cups, and 143 cigarette butts. We have special blue bags for paper and plastic bottles. I tried talking to Dox about recycling the glass, but he said it was too dangerous. If you break any of the glass in a bag of recyclables, it means you have to throw everything away. Cardboard is a funny thing for us to deal with. People use it to sleep and sit on. We usually leave it. Somehow it takes care of itself.

I didn’t happen to count the clothes I picked up, nor the shoes that appear and then disappear. These are left by all the homeless people in the park when church groups arrive with bags of donated clothes. What gets left by one person usually gets picked up fast enough by someone else. The only clothing I had to deal with was drenched with body odor or was partially coated in some indeterminate kind of liquid.


Day 41

Today is hotter than yesterday. A few old men play chess, shirtless in the heat. A group of six are focused on a card game in the shade. A man and a woman lie together spooning on a bench in another shade patch. He is unshaven with long hair straggling off the back of an otherwise bald head; she has a severe gap between her two top front teeth and wears pink polyester slacks. I can tell she’s braless in her tee-shirt that says “Coca-Cola” in that famous stylized lettering.

Every once in a while, the man adjusts behind her and slips his hand under her shirt. I see him playing with her breasts. Two spent McDonald’s sacks lie on the ground in front of them along with wrappers and cups. I don’t know if this mess is theirs or not, but I don’t move to pick it up. They’re junkies without doubt because yesterday I watched them score whatever it is they put in themselves at this same bench. They gave each other double high-fives and kind of danced around a little, then they started making out to the point where sex was inevitable. I turned away. A few other people did, too. Now they are strung out sleeping.


Day 44

By far, the worst part of this job is picking up cigarette butts. They’re everywhere and somehow they’re also almost always separate and alone on the ground. No other litter gets near cigarette butts. So, they’re a pain to pick up, especially when they’re flattened after a heal crushing. I collected 154 today. They’re like little exotic dead roachworms. That makes about three hundred in two days. It’s insane, I know, but I’m going to keep that tally going. And, no, I am not saving them or anything like that. Also, I’m only talking about real butts here. I occasionally pick up stubs and halfies, but generally I leave them for the homeless and others.


Day 47

A short dark woman with a crew cut of copper-colored hair, missing a few front teeth, wanders up to me. She wears a seersucker smock thing and carries yellow foam rubber flip-flops in her left hand. I anticipate being asked for some kind of help or money, but I’m sure I’ve seen her around some, which might mean that she knows not to ask me. Regardless, I prepare myself.

“Do a nice job, boy.”

“Thanks,” I say. She gives me a big grin. I’m thinking fast. “I got nothing for you.” I intend to sound decisive, maybe even authoritative. It comes out like I’m an asshole.

“Can’t you take a compliment?” She puts her hand to her chin, looks from side to side. “But, okay. Give you a nice blow?” she whispers. “Take my teeth out.” She places her right thumb and forefinger in her mouth and removes her top teeth.

I try to laugh. “I’m fine.” Except, I’m also an asshole.

She shakes her head almost like she can read my mind, but also forgives me. “Been watching you.” She moves her index finger in and out of her mouth, then comes to a stop and raises her eyebrows. “I’m Emma. Pretty good when ain’t no teeth in.”

Emma might be in her late thirties, but her face is aged in too many directions. She could also be in her late fifties. I realize I can’t really tell whether she’s Latin, Italian, Black, or some kind of Asian. Probably other options, too. Maybe she’s some of everything like me. Everything and nothing, I think. How easy for people to do to me what they have to her.

“I’m sorry, Emma. I already have a girlfriend.” I offer this excuse as politely as my embarrassment will allow. I had a girlfriend, but I was moving too fast with my emotions and showing my vulnerable side a bit too much.

Emma takes a step back and shakes her head. “I dint say I’d bone you, boy. That’s different.” She puts her teeth back in and begins to rummage around in the pocket of her smock.

My confusion and embarrassment probably looked pretty funny from any vantage point in the park. “Hey, I just work here,” I manage.

“Wanted to share my gratitude is all.” I watch her move down the walkway. She’s got a full cigarette between her fingers and a blue lighter in her other hand.

A few hours later, I see Emma sitting in the shade of a trash bin I’d just emptied. She was staring down at the blue lighter in her hand, crying.


Day 55

I’ve taken to smoking sometimes when Dox offers me one. Sometimes, too, I find good stubs on the ground. I should probably leave them to people who need them, but somehow I’m getting that itch and it feels normal. Maybe everyone should see what I see.


Day 61

They’re unfolding stands all around the park today, getting ready for tomorrow night. I was told to be extra vigilant with all litter. Dox and I steam-clean the two piss areas on the north edge of the park. One is for men (it’s worse and more public). The other is for the women.

I’ve seen Emma crouching behind a large boulder with some of the other women, talking and wiping with beige napkins — mostly from Subway and Starbucks. Seeing women wipe themselves is very touching. They all have different ways of doing it. Some are quite decisive and swipe kind of hard. Some are quick and nonchalant, using one or two flicks and then they’re out of there. Others dab carefully. Emma keeps her eyes on the ground in front of her. A lot of them don’t. They look around to see if anyone is watching. I know I’m an asshole for making myself aware of any of this, let alone writing it down, but I mean it when I say it’s touching.


Day 62

“Gonna be difficult today,” Dox says, looking down JFK Parkway to where they’re constructing a stage at the base of the art museum steps. The stage is next to Rocky. Someone has put a flag or a robe on him. This is all nearly a mile down the parkway, but I can see red white and blue on Rocky, a flowing cape with sparkling stars, even from such a long distance, like they’re ignition buttons for a whole bunch of things that are going to happen soon enough.

I ask Dox why it’s going to be a hard day.

“Gotta keep ‘em from pissing here until tomorrow ‘round noon when new folks begin to arrive.” He waved his hand at the whole park. “You know any of ‘em yet?”

“I…well, yeah, some….”

“Get the word out, then. Tell them not to piss in them corners. Go down to the subway. I got it cleared with SEPTA. They leave ‘em alone. But keep your eye out. I hate cleaning this shit up, then having folks piss on it again before an event. ‘Specially because they’re probably getting replaced.”


He squints out at the park and shakes his head. “I told you, kid. Don’t worry about it. Who knows what? Just take it all on for me.”

I stage myself, switching back and forth between the two piss areas for a while after Dox leaves. When they amble up looking like they held it long enough, I step forward and point to the train station steps. “Gotta stay clean for the celebration. Subway’s cool for you today. We got permission.” People head down, but they look uncomfortable with what I’m asking them to do, more uncomfortable than seems normal.


Day 66

I drift around LOVE Park with my broom, my pan, my spike, and a black plastic bag tied to my belt. I follow free newspapers blowing all over slabs of granite wall. I have a special net I use to spoon things out of the fountain.

I didn’t make it down here over the weekend so I don’t know what happened, but today the homeless, even the regulars, are nowhere to be found. We have beautiful summer weather and a nice breeze. It’s not too humid. People of all kinds — except the homeless — mill around. Jetting a thick column of water a good fifteen feet in the air, the fountain alternates from red to blue to foamy white. Mothers and kids sit around, eating lunch, wading, throwing coins, and making wishes. A few younger professionals take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pants. They sit with their feet in the water eating lunch, talking on their cell phones. Two of them look like cleaned-up versions of the amorous junkies I’ve seen doing their thing. These two are dressed like young lawyers or investment bankers, but they’re being highly physical. Some people glance at them, amused, others are clearly perturbed. The coins will be gone by morning if my homeless people return.


Day 67

It’s the next day and a lot of my people are back, although I don’t see my girl Emma. Somehow, they’re more subdued. They seem oddly hung over, or run over, or something. A lot of them keep yawning. After the lunch hour, most of the office workers having come and gone, nearly all of my people are napping in the shade. A number use several layers of flattened cardboard for cushioning and their shoes for pillows.


Day 73

A new kid named Miggy has taken to sleeping all day on a subway grate. He appears to be pretty young, maybe sixteen. He wears baggy jeans, no shoes, and a dark blue tee-shirt too small for his belly which sags onto the grate when he rolls on his side. Cool air spins up from underground, but it smells like a mixture of Pinesol and piss. Miggy wakes up, talks to himself, heads off to the piss area, then comes back and lies down, curling one arm around the top of his head and the other under his face as a pillow. I find a piece of foam rubber in the trash late in the day and clean it off as best I can. When he gets up to pee I place the foam on the grate where he sleeps. He comes back, stares at the foam, then tosses it onto the sidewalk.

When he talks to himself sometimes, I hear, “I am not a toy. They can’t do that.” He whispers a good amount, but he also says those words over and over again out loud. “I’m not a toy.” It’s not like he’s actually mad, or annoyed even. It’s more like he’s trying to convince himself that he isn’t a toy. And that it actually shouldn’t be possible to make him feel like one. “They can’t do that.”


Day 78

I picked up my 10,000th cigarette butt today. I’ve been averaging a bit more than a hundred twenty butts most days. I started collecting lighters and matches people leave behind or drop, but I gave up counting those and pretty much everything else. I leave the good butts in small groups on different walls around the park. Some of the population here has become so accustomed to their situation that they skip my good butts and simply light up filters to smoke. That’s a nasty and probably deadly habit if ever there was one. These days, a lot of filters are made of plastic and fiberglass.



Day 86

Dox and I are doing what he calls tree bagging. The dry, gray-leaved oaks that Dox says don’t grow no matter what, collect plastic grocery bags. It’s easy to pick the low-hanging ones out, but inevitably some float high into the treetops and sit there for weeks and weeks until we liberate them.

Sometimes, too, bigger black plastic bags get caught high up. If you come by here during a rainy summer day, a lot of these people are still out playing cards and sipping beer wearing trash bags and using battered umbrellas abandoned by commuters in windstorms. I don’t know where the other people go who don’t have plastic bags or broken umbrellas. It’s like they just evaporate.

We use a telescoping pole with both a grappling hook and a pincher on the end to get the easy bags. Later in the morning Dox shows me how to change the hook and pincher for a pruning shear and how to run rope through the eyelets on the pole and then cut the branches where bags are too tangled for easy extraction.

“It’s always about sharp,” he says.

I wait between Dox’s cuts, watching the ground. Sometimes litter is nearly impossible to see. You need to wait for the wind to move it. But litter wants you to find it. This I’ve learned. It waits for the unification of a patient mind and the powers of nature. Sometimes clouds dull sunlight down to visible pulses and reduce the spectral register enough so that what was invisible under the usual sun can be glimpsed long enough to make it into your litter-hunting brain.

Dox keeps working the trees. “Sharp cuts through branches.” I watch him as best I can, but litter on the ground continues to move around. I need to know where it’s going in order to pick it up later. Sometimes I feel like the only person left to want the things I pick up.


Day 98

Weirdness is going on here. I’m picking up a lot more trash. Lots of Chipotle stuff. I’m not even sure where the nearest Chipotle is. There are some Taco Bell wrappers, too, and a lot of paper bags mixed in as well. Also, pizza boxes up the yin-yang. Doesn’t make sense.


Day 99

I hear the word “watch” everywhere. It’s coming out of new and different mouths. Younger people growing in numbers by the day. They make signs on the ground. They sit in large groups with one person standing and speaking. They talk about New York and Washington and the Presdient and the “ninety-nine point nine.”

Besides “watch,” I hear versions of words sprayed around like “envero,” “cleansion,” “banksy,” “justeece,” “force,” and “tentacles.” They wear black tees with big block white lettering on the back that says “WATCH.” I have no idea what this means and realize I don’t pay enough attention to TV anymore. Even though I collect them for a living all day, I haven’t read a paper in weeks. And I can’t remember when I did anything on the internet with my phone.

Late in the week, about a dozen cops show up on horseback. They wear knee-high, shiny black boots, silver helmets kind of like football ones without the faceguards, and black leather gloves that go half-way up the forearm. Most of these guys have on mirror shades. They just show up and sit astride their trusty steeds in what I figure has to be called a formation, looking down on the fountain area where the WATCH people make their signs. The kids converse in low voices, doing their best to ignore the cops and their horses. I understand something political is happening, but I honestly don’t have a clue what. It’s obvious I need to watch TV sometime soon. I stand on a bench at the periphery of things and realize I’m probably going to be okay if a riot breaks out because I’ve got my green CCT tee-shirt on. As I look out over the scene, though, I realize that all the homeless have completely disappeared again.


Day 100

This morning on TV, they showed people refusing to leave a park in New York City. They kept talking about “watching the center” and “big banks,” and “corporate interests.” Even though I was finally watching TV, I was still a bit confused. News coverage isn’t like it used to be. Everyone’s aware of the way cameras and commentators don’t go deep inside things anymore. These days it’s not so much fake as it is just really, really ambiguous and incomplete.

They interviewed a young Black man with a goatee who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a black polo shirt with an arrow pointing up on the left breast. “To be in the one-tenth,” he says with disgust, “you need to have twenty million or more. There are nearly one hundred and thirty thousand American citizens in that group. A whole city. I don’t know if we see them as evil so much as we just want them to help out and pay more in taxes. They have as much wealth as the bottom ninety-percent of the country. It’s very sad. Heartbreaking even.”

The news woman seemed a bit amused by this. She kept talking about the Vietnam War protests and Occupy Wall Street. I kept thinking about the civil rights demonstrations my mother used to tell me about. But I could also see that trash was really building up on the edges of that park in Manhattan. Horizontal planes push pieces of life no one wants out to the edges and corners. And yet, stuff people throw away is still connected to them until it is carted off to the landfill or burned in an incinerator.


Day 104

My job could very likely be coming to an end. I realized that about two hours into the morning. You can’t clean up trash fast enough when six hundred people are camping on granite slabs, surrounding a fountain in the heart of your city. I was sitting with a dark-skinned girl named Mallory who is one of the Watchers. She was eating tuna out of a can with a twig. Her hair was spun into alternating dreadlocks that were colored dark brown and a caramel shade that was almost golden in direct sunlight. She had a rainbow bandana around her neck. It was a warm morning. She said she liked how her black tee-shirt was heating into a fire. I was drawn to her because she was so cheerful and positive on such a hot morning.

“What do you do here?” she asked, swirling her stick around the edges of the can.

“Pick up litter, mostly.

She let her chin pop out, then snorted.

“It’s not funny,” I said. “Someone has to do it.”

“No. Sorry.” She looked me in the eyes and put her hand on my knee. “It’s just that….” She glanced out across the park. The fountain was spraying dark blue water straight into the air. “Sorry. Really,” she went on. “It’s just that we aren’t going to leave.”

“You aren’t?”

“No. That’s what watching means. We’re here to pay attention and observe. We’re going to grow. This is where everything will be watched. You are going to have a little city on your hands of people paying attention to everything around them. You can’t handle all the trash we’re going to create. We won’t let you. That’s part of everything.”

I stared at the dark blue water tumbling around in mid-air and wondered if any of the girls and young women I had tried to love in my life would understand what she was saying. This girl named Mallory seemed so much more in tune with life. Things really felt like they to mattered to her. She was definitely superior to me. I imagined she had studied the history of social movements. She was waiting for me to say something. The best I had was, “You all are the new Occupy, then.”

“Not Occupy,” she smiled, then shook her head somberly. “That was too confusing. WATCH is permanent until those clowns in Washington get rid of that regime of idiots.”

We sat in silence. I tried to focus on my breathing. There were people everywhere. You could smell butane camp stoves, frying food, the stink of hard-boiled eggs, and the heavy scent of coffee.

“Are you really a trash guy? I mean…sorry to say this, but you seem a bit too intelligent for that.” She leaned forward to catch my eyes again. “Plus, really? Picking up trash? For the man? Isn’t that a stereotype for someone like you? How about fighting global warming at least, or something important?”

I bobbed my head up and down, more like I was ducking than agreeing. “I was going to start grad school next semester,” I said, “but I think I could maybe stick with this through the fall. I’ll probably quit in December, take the month off, and then shift gears in January. I needed ground level, you know? Life the way no one thinks about it because no one cares.”

She put her tuna tin down next to me, then threw the twig into some bushes. “Wow. Grad school.”

“What do you do? I mean, where do you go?”

“I live with my parents and take classes at Temple. I make money waitressing sometimes. I’ve been thinking about starting a catering company. It depends….”

We both watched the blue water flowing into the air, then falling back into the pool, a roil of foam and dark noise. It was a column of something trying to get into the future. I wanted to say that to her. Instead, I said, “That water is the only non-human thing in this park that can move. It’s clean and innocent.”


“Pure,” I say. “Doesn’t have a shred of intelligence.” We sat in silence with that. I admit that I felt profound.

As I turned to see her face again, it passed through my mind that I might be able to fall in love with her. But she was gone. I didn’t even see her walking away.


Day 106

After Chinese take-out, I turned on the TV tonight. They were showing my park. Night shots: horses and glistening police; sharp red blurs; smoke, something more; people covering their faces, running; a few police on foot, dropping riot shields, batons out, long mesh fence-like contraptions used to surround groups of people; another group of cops using police bicycles to push people into corners near open vans. My best thoughts were about my people and how I was glad they were nowhere to be found. I also knew I needed to go back to school sooner rather than later.


Day 129

I said goodbye to Lorenzo Doxley today. I also said goodbye to Emma and handed her a twenty-dollar bill. It was the least I could do.

“This a tip?” she asked. “I dint do nothin’ for you.”

“No tip,” I said. “I just thought you could use it. I’m moving on, Emma.”

She folded the money into a tiny package and put it somewhere under her shirt. “Well, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You know what I’m a do with it, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“So, thanks as much as you can take.”

“You’re welcome, Emma…as much as you can take.”

“Where you goin’?”

“Back to school. It’s a little late in September, but they’re taking me anyway.”

She dropped her jaw, then bobbed her head and let her mouth stay wide open.

“Is that funny?” I asked

She shook her head. “Nah. Kind of sad more like. You going away to some school place and we be here same as ever looking to do what we want.” She took out her teeth. To tell the truth, it was kind of sexy the way she did it. “Little sugar for your long road?”

I shook my head and stood to go. “Emma, I truly don’t know if you’d be doing that for me, or if I’d be doing it for you. Either way…” I shook my head slowly back and forth, “…either way, we’d both be sad as hell when it was over.”

She put her teeth back in carefully. “You right.”

I turned to leave.

“Hey, you ever wonder what happens to us when other people come along?”

I thought for a moment. “Yeah. I do. I mean, I figure there have to be a lot of places you all know you can go to….”

She shook her head. “Not hardly. God is cruel and unknowing, Mr. Litter Man. You either take part in that or you miss out. And when you miss out, you might as well not even be living.” She gave me her big sly grin, then started to walk away. “Have a good enough life,” she said as she half turned back to me.

I raised a hand, then bent down to pick up a very nice, long cigarette stub. In the end, though, I left it lying on the edge of the walkway and went in the opposite direction. A few seconds later, I turned to see if Emma was watching me. There she was, picking up the stub I’d left, her blue lighter in her other hand.

Dog Cavanaugh is an Afro-Irish American author. He and his wife are based in Philadelphia.

REVIEW: Nancy L. Davis, “Ghosts”

Courtney Bambrick

Review of Nancy L. Davis, Ghosts

(Finishing Line Press, 2019)

By Courtney Bambrick

In her collection Ghosts, Nancy Davis presents a changing and challenging American landscape. Her poetic terrain is in turn at odds and at ease with history and wilderness. The first poem in the collection, “Sanctuary,” offers a glimpse of the layers of earth and time:

the dead are buried here.

contaminated fish bones compressed into

strata of an unintended geological age… (5).

Throughout the collection, we dig through that strata and examine the bones Davis unearths in poems that connect modern living to a pervasive but opaque past:

Like a mole, blind in its star-starved

pursuit of light–a tuberous longing

for air…


Far up the hillside, a mausoleum

of memory haunts. Children play

in the dirt… (“Ghosts” 11).

Setting poems in both domestic and untamed places — gardens, forests, cities — allows Davis to reflect on the interactions of time and place and the uneasy balance between:

in the lake house on the bluff

a woman opens her door

peering out somewhere between

dusk and remembrance… (“Into the Garden: Dreamscape” 17-18).

Davis shows us a land that is as scarred and aching as our own bodies, and as vulnerable. Birth and death are visceral and natural — shocking, but expected. In the garden, for instance, new life may be possible:

…mounds of freshly shredded mulch:

hardwood pining for resurrection,

redemption (18).

While in the poem “Desire” Davis describes a bear, she might be describing the unconscious or the way memory asserts itself unexpectedly and without welcome:

All at once it appeared: barreling out of its musky secrecy,

voracious demeanor, ambling with surprising speed and grace

up the hillside. clawing madly with one massive, capable paw

at the foliage caught in its thick, black pelt (27).


The “invasion” is jarring to the poem’s speaker and to the reader, reminding us of the dangers we don’t often see beyond the edge of our backyards. The bear reminds us of other bears we’ve seen or read about in the news or in fairy tales: “…bear stories circled the valley/like hungry hawks.” They are familiar and foreign, “the most terrifying and exuberant,” and like our memories, they threaten damage, but might pass quietly if we are lucky.

As it expands personal memory to cultural or political memory, the poem “Firestorm: Checagou” connects histories and peoples to the physical earth through work and violence. Industrial and natural imagery vie for attention through the poem as through the collection. The dangers evolve and transform as time passes and the landscape reflects human manipulation.

A clear-eyed and open-hearted reflection on our place in the American landscape, Ghosts helps the reader navigate a relationship with the relentless but fragile natural world and reminds us of our proximity to both danger and safety.


Homage to John Coltrane


Homage to John Coltrane

Times when it got too tough to tame my toddler daughter,

we drove out to a place she called the indoor playground,

because it was—a gilded age mansion, mansard roof

and all, gutted and filled with toys, dolls, board games, fully

stocked, itty-bitty kitchens, soporific gliders.

The basement was jammed with scooters and trikes and big wheels,

bumper-to-bumper around oval lanes, casualties

off to the side bawling. It had my favorite things,

she said, as we motored through the city neighborhood

called Strawberry Mansion, turning on 33rd Street,

cruising by the onetime brick row home of John Coltrane,

the cynosure of a dilapidated quartet—

marked by a plaque visible only from the porch stoop.

Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy will appear this fall. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens Community College in Ohio.

After Analysis

Jon Todd_poetry

After Analysis

What I meant to say was clear /


Like, look at this comp


Says, no it’s late.

Eyes betray me, look I gave agency to flesh,

But what I meant to say was I exhausted myself

To pass out, to pass the time,

Twirling a cigarette to hail the darkness.

Always picturing movement,

Because what I’m trying to say is still / silence.

As if motivation is a secret,

Sugar secreting from a pear.

What I mean to say is two things coming together like a glance,

Like a glass of milk.

What I wanted to say was whiskey,

Sound of a crack opening bottles.

What I really mean is a door has multiple parts engaged in function.

What I really mean is I’m apart,

Indivisible sections laid out on a rug.

What I mean is some part of me would see these pieces, another part would just

bang them together to make sparks.

This reminds me of the wild,

& this is me not admitting it,

& this is isolation of myth,

& this is my exit.

Jonathon Todd is a poet and musician, living in South Philadelphia. His work deals with observations mainly written between breaks, trying to find humanity outside of and within labor. His work has been featured in Philadelphia Stories, The Lower East Side Review, and Shakefist Magazine among others.

Breaking 200


Breaking 200

 “There is no time to think or savor the thrill of speed. And as you go down that strip, you don’t see anything. It is a no-man’s land.” – Don Garlits


Did it? Did it? Didn’t it? It did! By God, it did. Don Daddy did it. Big Daddy broke hot rodding’s barrier with a bam and a bale of smoke, barreling down the straightaway. Cheers from the bleachers. The rocket speed shock of the year we’d all been waiting for.


Did The Greek do it earlier in Illinois? All’s I can say is today the Chrondek clocks called it. In Great Meadows, at the Island Dragway, Big Daddy Don Garlits did it.


But it happened so fast—couldn’t see a damned thing. A shroud of fumes. Let’s pause. Take it back. Slowly now, back up the quarter-mile belt of tarmac. The Swamp Rat back across the starting line. The amber bulbs blaring again.


Now our rare hour—clear the area!—Daredevil Don, engine revving, raring to tear track. Slower, now, watch how the slick-wedge car’s back tires stir a whir of smoke, burning rubber. How, like an arrow, this 2000 horsepower nightmare dragster blasts down the blacktop, shatters the barrier, buries its challenger in vapor and exhaust.


Watch the parachute burst from the back. Watch the car break to a halt. Watch Don Garlits turn the wheel, drive back, rattling down the strip, his parachute dangling limply behind, his white glove waving from the glittering mist, already clearing it.

Sydney Doyle grew up in the Great Meadows mucklands near the Delaware Water Gap. She received her MFA from Johns Hopkins University and is currently a Doctoral Fellow in English/Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Her poems appear in The American Journal of Poetry, Canary, Waccamaw, and elsewhere.


Paternoster Lakes

Ryan Halligan_poetry

Paternoster Lakes

looking down on the Grinnell Valley, Glacier National Park, Montana


Five blue pools of water in the mountains

sewn together by strings of icy streams—

half-decade of the rosary, or full

if each bead counts twice.

Dammed by moraines dropped by moving masses


of ice, each could be its own mystery.

Above the green and red strips of sediment

lies a lonely frozen tarn that showers

the four beads below.

Snow drifts block its path from unsure footfalls.


But glacier lilies finish the prayer,

trail receding ice, lift the spring up slopes

with their golden crowns, delicate heads bowed

until dormancy,

when they’ll store the spark in bulbs.

Ryan is a writer living and working in the Philadelphia area.  He holds an MA in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University and writes poetry and creative non-fiction. 

Greased Lightning

Lori Widmer_poetry

Greased Lightning

It’s like old times

the way we are laughing in

this dive bar, the smell of

stale fry oil soaked into

the wooden tables our

elbows stick to.


My friend is telling us about

the day the upper-class boy

popped her cherry—


only the details now are hilarious

and not heart-racing like

it was then, but the

way we are laughing, it’s


as though the decades hadn’t gone

anywhere and we were

those nubile, smooth-limbed does

burning simultaneously with

embarrassment and promise


when the world was at our

feet and we were too unsure of

how to tread—


The papers that year marveled at

balloon angioplasty and test tube

babies and the first successful

transatlantic balloon flight


and Jim Jones would change the way

we look at Kool-Aid forever—


but we were inventing our own vocabulary,

racy admissions whispered behind

hands, our heartbeats and the

ache between our legs matched the


hard rock thrums vibrating from the

muscle cars driven by boys with wild

hair and no inhibitions—


they’d drive by slowly, trying

out their best Kenickie come-ons,

we’d respond with Rizzo taunts

then turn away and lock arms, laughing


just as we are now, drunk on

the reflection we see

every time we close our eyes.

Lori Widmer is a full-time freelance writer and editor who writes for businesses and trade publications. She was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in various publications, including TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tipton Poetry Journal, and Philadelphia Stories.

Our Roof is the Nose of a Rocket


Our Roof Is the Nose of a Rocket

Our entire building hums,

as a beetle does before it takes to the air.

We break bread and give thanks and make things

with such frequency and repetition

that our awareness of time passing

is telescoping inward.

We’ll demand innocence,

but we know the hum,

this static-white-noise

in the field of our mind

is to remind us that

the ratio of life lived

to life left to live

has shifted

the first of many times.

Climb six flights of pre-war stairs

open the hatch to the roof so we

can drink green wine from flea market crystal.

It takes so little work to unhinge

there is little doubt that we are living doors.

We can calculate how concrete makes

geometric shapes between cities.

There is a cold front,

and coats are thin so we

cast a gaze across the skyline,

a play’s curtain.

Audacious, we cut holes

through and peek at the actors.

From the roof of that building

with it’s wild hum

like buzzing wings

we dopplar out

convinced that, tomorrow

we will lift avenues

and blocks and all

with only our will.

Christa Pagliei is a writer and media producer from Wyckoff, NJ living in Brooklyn, New York. A published poet and fiction writer, she co-created the podcast Lost Signal Society- a series horror/fantasy/sci-fi plays. Additionally, she’s a Film and TV professional working on shows like Succession, Sneaky Pete, Mr.Robot and many more.

Look Away

Brooks_CNF photo

Look Away

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

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

“I’m sure it’s her sister,” I said.

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


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

“I want to do it,” I blurted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camp Vampire Kids (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)


Camp Vampire Kids

Mom and I are driving to camp and playing the game where we think of jobs I could one day have that won’t compromise my condition. That’s how she phrases it. Mom and I spend a lot of time avoiding things that might compromise my condition.

“What about a blackjack dealer in Vegas?” I say.

Mom groans in that way that makes her nostrils flare.

“What’s wrong with that? There are no windows, plus casinos are busier at night.”

“So are emergency rooms. You could be a doctor.”

“You always say that,” I say, then turn and stare out the window. We pass a field and some white cows that look purple through the protective tint. “I could be a bouncer.”


“At a strip club.”

Mom takes her eyes off of the road just long enough to look me over¾all elbows and knees and reedy angles. “Who are you going to bounce?”


She smiles and blows me a kiss.

The game continues. Mom and I go back and forth, suggesting jobs that are noble and practical (hers) or silly and adventurous (mine). What we don’t say, what we never talk about, is that I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to do any of them.

Mom pulls the car onto an off-ramp. “We need gas. You coming inside?”

I nod.

“Then get your gear on.”

“I don’t need it. I’ll just run from the car to the store. I won’t get burned.”

Mom hits me with the full wattage of her pleading gaze. “Can we please not do this? Not again?”



Mom and I also stopped at a gas station the first year we went to camp. We were lost and went inside for directions. I had my gear on then too—the gloves, the jumpsuit, the face shield. I remember the man behind the counter, the way he stared at me even when Mom started speaking to him.

“Craryville?” he finally said, dragging his eyes from me to Mom. “What do you want to go there for?”

“We’re headed to Camp Fun Without the Sun,” Mom said, and when the man asked what that was, she told him about the camp and the kinds of kids that go there.

“Yeah?” he said, a smirk stretching across his face. “Like little monsters? Little vampires?” He turned to me, brought his fists to his mouth, and made fangs with his index fingers. Then he hissed.

Mom lost her mind. Truly. There was a moment of micro-insanity where she just screamed questions at the cashier—What the hell is your problem? What kind of person are you? Can’t you see he’s just a little boy?—things like that.

The man didn’t know any of the answers.

Mom put a hand on my shoulder, steered me towards the door. Then she stopped, turned around, and kicked over a display of Cool Ranch Doritos.

She was still fuming as we bounced along the camp’s gravel driveway and entered the clearing in the Craryville forest. The other mothers took us inside, sat Mom down, poured her a jelly jar of white wine. They told her how they’d all been there before, how they’d all heard some version of judgment and cruelty spit at their kids. How people follow them through stores, snapping not-so-surreptitious pictures with their phones.

“Some jackass asks if my son is a vampire at least once a week,” one of the mothers confessed. “Which is just so stupid. So ridiculous.”

And it is. When I met Cameron a little later, he was, with his chubby cheeks and ginger crew cut, the least vampire-looking kid I have ever seen.

We’ve also been called Midnight’s Children, Children of the Moon, Children of the Night, Shadow Kids, Nightwalkers, and Night Dwellers. Other people simply point or stare, exchanging whispers and laughter in a classless language all its own. But the most common attempt at creativity, the pejorative we hear again and again, is Vampire Kids.

I wish it were accurate. Imagine a vampire. Now take away the strength and the speed and the immortality, and what are you left with? A pale guy with a terminal reaction to the sun. That’s who I am.

That’s who we all are.

We’re all born this way, but our genetic disorder lays dormant for a while. Depending on the particular variant, we’ll get anywhere from four to six years of day living before it kicks on. Four to six years of pool parties and playgrounds. Of normalcy. Of friends.

I was lucky. I was eight when my immune system could no longer protect my body from the sun. Cameron jokes I was a late wilter. Then, I was young enough that Mom could coax me into my gear by playing to my imagination and sense of make-believe. She’d remind me that my UV-protectant jumpsuit was the kind astronauts wore. She called it my “special costume,” and, for a while, it did make me feel special. Unique. Now it makes me feel like a freak everywhere I go. Everywhere but here.


Mom and I are one of the last families to arrive. We park beside the camp’s main building: a long, single-story structure with dorm rooms on each side, and a kitchen and dining hall in the center. Us kids bunk up on one side of the building so we can stay up all night, watch movies, and play video games. The moms stay on the other side so they can talk, and drink wine, and sometimes cry and hug each other when they think we’re not watching.

It’s always pretty dark in here. Shadowy patches are intermittently interrupted by the faint glow of a few Edison bulbs. The building has plenty of windows, which are covered with a UV-protectant film, but they’re also draped in a coal-black fabric with the heft and thickness of Victorian theater curtains. Dan and Karen don’t like to take any chances. Mom and I have the same tint on our windows back home, but she, too, takes the curtain precaution. Our house doesn’t get a lot of light either. All of our plants are plastic.

I shed my gear, and when my eyes adjust, I race down the hallway to my room and find Cameron. He’s sitting cross-legged on his bunk amid piles of clothes and DVDs and video games. Cameron and I have been roommates at camp for the past four years, and since then, his method of “unpacking” has been to just dump everything on his bed, retrieving items as needed.

“Check it out,” he says, holding up his copy of Time Fighters II. “You will soon succumb to the awesome power of my Mayan warrior.”

“Yeah? Not if my knight’s broadsword has anything to say about it.”

“You two are a couple of dorks.”

I look over and see Hannah lying on my bunk, her black hair fanned out on my white pillowcase like inverted starlight.

I met Hannah last year, her first at camp. A bunch of us were in the game room, flopped on beanbags, watching a movie. She came in and sat on the small square of available carpet beside me. I noticed the faint band of cinnamon-colored dots that run under each of Hannah’s eye and over the bridge of her nose. “I like your freckles,” I said, which, admittedly, is not the smoothest line ever uttered in the history of mankind (it’s probably not even the smoothest line in the history of that game room), but even so, Hannah smiled, brought a self-conscious hand to her face.

“Thanks,” she said. “The result of my moonbathing I guess.”

I know she was joking, but I still couldn’t help myself from picturing Hannah in her backyard, in a bikini, supine in a band of silver light. I almost fell off my beanbag.

And now here she is again. After the grim limbo of home-schooled loneliness, she’s back in my room, on my bunk, grinning that she’s caught me in a moment of unguarded nerdery. It’s fine. Hannah can criticize our video game obsession all she wants, but we all know that she’s logged more hours in the Time Fighters arena than Cam and I put together.

When the rest of the kids and moms have settled in, Dan and Karen gather everyone in the dining hall.

“Helloooo campers,” Dan resounds with his usual showman flare, smiling through his beard that’s gone grayer since last summer.

The lighting from the Edison bulbs lends a theatrical glow to the dining room. It’s an affect Dan embraces. It’s a behavior Karen tolerates.

“Karen and I happy to see a lot of familiar faces and to welcome some new families.”

I look around and spot some new kids, maybe five or six years old, most likely recently diagnosed. I envy them. They sit beside their mothers, giddy at the prospect of a week filled with games and playmates, and no such thing as a bedtime. They don’t yet know how camp also offers a break from the outright judgment or veiled pity of strangers. They haven’t yet come to depend on it.

Dan continues his speech. He runs through the schedule of field trips and nocturnal activities, the ways in which all of us will spend the week “embracing the night.” Then Dan introduces Katie, his and Karen’s daughter, and the reason they started this camp.

Katie is the oldest person with our condition. Not just here at camp, or in the country, but in the world. When I first came here, I didn’t think much about that, or maybe I thought it was cool. But now I sometimes lie awake and think about how difficult and lonely that fact must be. Katie is the living embodiment of all of our hopes and, at the same time, all of our fears.

She’ll be twenty-five in August.

Katie is in charge of the junior counselors, and now that we’re thirteen, Cameron, Hannah and I are old enough to qualify. She welcomes each of us back, reminds us of our various duties and responsibilities. She tells us the Assignment Board will be finished after dinner. Then, while the rest of the campers finish unpacking, the moms head to the kitchen to prepare a feast.


It’s mainly moms that accompany us kids to camp. Some of the dads who live close enough and can get away for the weekend drive up for the last two days. Those days are always hard for Mom.

Dad didn’t take my diagnosis well. He always enjoyed a beer or two after work, but the day we came back from the doctor’s, I watched him pull a bottle of bourbon from the top of the fridge and drink from it straight. He started going out more and more, staying out later and later. One night, he climbed into the back of a police car and demanded to be taken to an establishment called “The Tit Mouse.” When the officer informed Dad that was he not a cab driver, and his cruiser was not a taxi, it was then that Dad became what would later be described as “insolent.”

So, some Thursday night/Friday morning, this cop knocked on our door only to find the sleep-smeared face of an eight-year-old on the other side. Mom was working nights then.

“You here all alone?” he said.

“My dad is supposed to be watching me.”

The cop spent the next few seconds looking at me, and then over at his cruiser where Dad was slumped against the window, asleep in the backseat. The cop had this look on his face, as if the effort of turning from me to his car was causing him a deep and mysterious pain. Eventually, he let Dad go, saying that he wasn’t going to arrest him because Dad had no priors. Which I didn’t understand. At the time, I thought “priors” was police slang for priorities. It turns out that cop and I were both right.

Mom tried to defend Dad, telling me that he was just scared and confused. She said that, given time, he would be back to his old self. But less than a year after that night, Dad left us and moved to Phoenix, a place that averages 351 days of sunshine a year. So enough about Dad.


As I’m finishing my second helping of Karen’s lasagna, I see that Katie has somehow intuited my most secret of desires, or it’s just a stroke of amazing fortune, but either way, I’m overjoyed when I check the Assignment Board. Hannah and I have been assigned Lifeguard Duty for Midnight Swim.


Dan and Karen buy glow-in-the-dark items in bulk. I sit on the dock, watching a lake teeming with phosphorescent beach balls, Frisbees, and pool noodles. Neon green inner tubes glowing like giant radioactive doughnuts. Campers splash around, and luminescent blues and greens and yellows reflect and ripple in the dark water, the colors pulsing and undulating like some submerged aurora borealis. Hannah sits beside me, our legs dangling off the edge of the dock, our feet in the water. Our knees nowhere close to touching.

I think about mentioning my aurora borealis comparison to Hannah. Things haven’t been going as well as I’d hoped. I’ve spent the majority of our shift trying not to stare at Hannah, then smiling awkwardly and quickly looking away when she catches me. Instead, I tell her about the Ipomoea Alba, how it’s a night-blooming morning glory. I don’t tell Hannah I know this because it was the topic of my botany paper. Mrs. Sedota, my online science teacher, let me choose it. When I admitted I selected that flower because I thought Hannah would like it, that it would give us something to talk about, Mrs. Sedota said I had “admirable foresight.”

But now as I hear the words spill from my head, I realize that only someone who doesn’t really interact with other people would think their science paper a suitable source of flirty banter.

“It’s commonly called the moonflower,” I say, “because when its alabaster petals unfold, they resemble a full moon.”

“That’s . . . cool,” Hannah says. Then she raises her eyebrows, offers a slack-tightrope smile.

Even in the dark, I can tell it’s a look of forced interest. I wish one of the campers would start drowning and save me.

“Yeah,” I continue, like an idiot. “Even though many people consider the moonflower beautiful during the day, it’s at night when they really come alive. Kind of like—”

You. Like you. Like you. Just say it. Why can’t I say it?

“Kind of like.”

“Mushrooms,” Cameron yells as he rumbles past us, leaps from the end of the dock, and cannonballs into the lake.

Later that night, Cam and I are in the game room, slumped on beanbags, awash in the kaleidoscopic glow of Time Fighters II. The Time Fighters franchise allows players to choose warriors from various epochs and then battle to the death. Mom doesn’t care for the violence, but it’s not like she can tell me to go outside and play either. Currently, my medieval knight is getting his gallant ass handed to him by Cameron’s Mayan warrior.

“You should just tell her how you feel,” he says. “Let her know how infatuated you are.”


Cam is good enough at Time Fighters to turn away from the screen, to stare at me and through my bullshit while still fending off attacks from my knight. If there is a perk to a life spent indoors and with little social interaction, it is that we are all excellent at video games.

“Yeah, fine, I like Hannah. But I wouldn’t say I’m infatuated with her.”

“You spent all of last summer writing her that poem. Comparing her skin to . . . what was it . . . midnight snow?”

It was moonlit snow, and I only spent half the summer working on it. Not like it matters. Not like I gave Hannah the poem, or even finished writing it.

Cameron nails my knight twice with his Jaguar Claw Strike before I can parry with my broadsword.

“Either way, you better get moving,” he says. “Her mom told my mom they might not being coming back next year.”

“What? Like not coming back to camp? Why not?”

Cameron shrugs his shoulders. Then his character catches mine upside the head with his obsidian war club. There are cartoonish bursts of bright red gore, and I’m a goner.


The next afternoon, I roll over from a nap to find Hannah standing over my bed. She’s backlit by this soft, ethereal white light. She looks like an angel, and I must be dreaming.

“You have a lot of drool on your pillow,” she says. “Like, more than seems normal.”

“What?” I sit up. “What’s happening?”

“Check it out,” Hannah says, and then steps aside to reveal the window, its curtains drawn, and beyond them a sky choked with clouds the color of dirty cotton.

I can’t decide which is more beautiful—the view from the window or the smile on Hannah’s face. These shadowless gray days have, over the years, come to represent one indelible thing: freedom. The freedom to be outside during the day, to feel, however briefly, like ordinary kids. By the time we scramble to the door, Mom is already there, measuring the UV index with her solar meter. It’s a 0.8, the lower end of the potential threat spectrum. Still, Mom groans.

“I’ll wear a hat.”

“And long sleeves,” she says.


I change clothes, and Mom warns me not to smile at the sky so my braces don’t get struck by lightning. Then she laughs. Because yes, as if having an extremely rare and deadly allergy to the sun wasn’t enough of a genetic kick in the dick, I also have crooked teeth.

I return to the clearing just as Cameron and Katie have almost finished picking teams for kickball. Cameron has snagged Hannah. It’s between me and Jacob, one of the new five-year-olds, who is running around chasing a grasshopper. It’s Katie’s pick. We lock eyes. I try to project a neutrality, to suppress all emotion, but my face must not be cooperating because Katie shoots me a sly, knowing grin. Then she picks Jacob.

Cameron places Hannah in centerfield because she possesses an athletic grace, a seemingly effortless speed. Cameron sticks me in far leftfield because I do not. Just as we’re about to run to our positions, Hannah removes her hoodie. She’s wearing a white tank top underneath. Even with the cloud cover, this is a careless and dangerous degree of exposure. I think about saying something. Then I notice how Hannah’s tank top allows some of her black bra strap to wink through, and I keep my mouth shut.

Instead, I think about what Cam said.

“Dan told me they might put in a zip line next year,” I shout across the outfield. “That’ll be pretty cool, huh?”

“Yeah. Maybe,” she shouts back.

“Maybe. Why maybe?”

Hannah points toward home. Mom is up. She does a little shimmy at the plate, rubs her toes in the dirt like a bull about to charge. Then she smiles and waves to me.

“Move back,” Hannah says. “She’s got a good leg.”

“What? No she doesn’t.”

But Hannah shakes her palm at me, urging me farther back, farther away. I walk towards her.

“Hey. You’re coming back next year, right?”

“Maybe. My mom is still deciding.”

“Deciding what?”

And then, sure enough, a deep, rubbery whomp rings out across the field, and Mom sends one flying into the gray sky.

Hannah sprints across the field, gets underneath the ball just in time to pluck it from the air. She throws the ball back to the pitcher but doesn’t jog back to her position.

“Deciding what?” I shout once more. And then again.

But Hannah just stands there, staring at home plate, not answering.

Just as we get our third out, the clouds begin to dissipate, and the sky shifts from gray to blue like battlefield smoke, and we all run for cover.


Hannah’s been assigned Dish Duty for all of dinner, and I don’t see her again until we’re all headed to the fire pit. Dan builds a bonfire, and we sit around it, listening to the crickets and cicadas, staring at light-drunk moths that fly too close to the flames. We listen to Dan’s scary stories about the spectral inhabitants of nearby farmhouses or the variety of monsters that lurk in the woods. His stories are silly, or dramatic, but overall ineffective at inducing fright. None of us kids are afraid of the dark. As someone starts strumming a guitar for a sing-along, I see Hannah stand up. She walks halfway around the fire pit, nudges my foot with hers.

“Wanna go for a walk?”

We head into the forest. A summer breeze swirls through the branches, the leaves, making their moon shadows flutter. We arrive at the lake, shed our shoes, and walk around its bank. I feel the cool hug of mud around my feet.

“Sorry about this afternoon,” Hannah says.


“It’s just that my mom didn’t want me to say anything until we knew for sure.”

“That you’re not coming back?”

“That I’m getting better.”


We stop walking. Hannah stares at the moonlit lake, its inky shimmer. Then her face breaks into a huge smile. “It’s actually kind of amazing.”

Hannah tells me how her dermatologist has been incrementally increasing her exposure to UV light, and that, so far, she hasn’t been burned.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her, because I don’t.

“I know, right? I think my doctor is even more excited than my parents. He says I’m like one in a million. Can you believe that?”


“We’re still being careful, making sure I respond well to the treatments and that my tolerance is increasing, but if it’s true, just think about it.”

I do. I imagine Hannah outside during the day, walking along a beach, playing in a park. I imagine her with other kids, and while their faces are blurry, nondescript, I clearly see them basking in the sun’s warm glow. They are unharmed and unafraid. They are not me.

I feel my face flush, and my vision goes watery with tears. I wipe my eyes before Hannah notices, grateful, once again, for the dark.

“So you’re not coming back to camp then?”

“Well, I mean, not if I’m getting better. Mom thinks we should give the spot to someone more—”


“Deserving.” Hannah cocks her head and what’s left of her smile falls. “Are you mad at me?”

We just stand there for a second. Fireflies blink on and off. Sounds from the sing-along drift through the silence. This Little Light of Mine. I never minded that song, if I even thought about it at all, but now the lyrics sound sickeningly sweet.

“No. You would be missed is all. Cameron and I would miss you.”

“Aww,” Hannah says, leaning in for a hug. “I’d miss you guys, too. You two are like my best buds here.”

And while I’m so grateful to be this close to Hannah, to feel her body against mine, to have her arms wrapped around me, I’m even more grateful that she can’t see my face.


Later that night, we all load up into a rented school bus. Dan stands at the front, tells us we’re getting a special midnight tour of the Albany Zoo. Whoops and cheers bounce around me, echoing throughout the bus’s metal interior. We wander through the Reptile House, staring at snakes and lizards indifferent to our curiosity. We see zebras asleep in the middle of a field, huddled together in a herd of black and white. The grand finale of our tour is the tiger exhibit. A crescent moon of moms and campers belly-up to the enclosure’s concrete railing. Soon there’s the clang of an unseen gate, and a group of tigers slowly pad out into the night. Everyone is instantly captivated—by the deep orange of their fur, their stripes as black as a new moon night. By the two cubs that drink from a makeshift watering hole, the pink wink of their tongues. Even Cameron nudges me in the side with his elbow, points to a massive tiger raking his claws along the length of a log.

A zookeeper tells us that most of these tigers were born here, which means in captivity. Which means they are forced to ignore their nocturnal instincts, to conform to the zoo’s daytime schedule and perform for its sunlit pageantry.

That’s what I see anyway. I see a group of animals who look angry and annoyed at being awakened to entertain some sick kids. I see their orange fur turned a sickly yellow in the light of the zoo’s sodium arc lamps. I see one tiger rub its head along the side of another, both of them making a low, repetitive, guttural sound. The zookeeper tells us this is called “chuffing,” that it’s the way tigers greet one another.

Tiger chuffing sounds like Mom blowing her nose when she has a cold.

Over in the far corner of the enclosure, I spot a medium-sized tiger. She stares right at me, narrowing her eyes, and flashing her fangs. Then she turns her back to me, lifts her tail, and shoots out a jet of pee.

On the bus ride back to camp, I take one of the seats in the back, sprawl out, and feign sleep so no one can sit next to me, so no one will bother me. It works for a while (I use the bus’s occasional bumps to sneak a peek). We hit what feels like a pretty good pothole, and I peak Hannah’s legs beside my seat. She must know that I’m faking, that I’m not really asleep, because she stands there for a really long time. I force my eyes all the way shut, and when I crack them open again, she’s gone.

At some point, my sleep feigning must work because I doze off. The next thing I know, Mom is shaking me awake. We’re back at camp, back just before sunrise, the sky purpling, a red thread of light on the horizon. Everyone scurries inside and gets ready for bed.

Maybe it’s because I napped on the bus, but I have trouble falling asleep. I’ve spent the last few hours tossing and turning or staring at the ceiling. Finally, I sit up. I pull the curtains aside. Sunlight streams in through the tint, lending a lavender glow to the room.

               Why does Hannah get to be better? What makes her so special? I think, even though I could answer that question a hundred different ways.

But maybe it’s not just Hannah. Maybe the rest of us can get better too, can start being normal again. Maybe we already are.

I get up and dig through the dresser for some clothes. Cameron rustles in his sleep, cocooned among his treasures like some Egyptian Pharaoh. As I ease the door closed and make my way through the hallway’s shadowy emptiness, I think about my odds, the way hope can quickly devolve into delusion. I know I’m not getting better, and I hate that Hannah is. I want her to be sick and weird, like me. With me. I’d rather Hannah be sick and with me, than healthy and with someone else.

Maybe that cashier all those years ago was right. Maybe I am monster.

I grab the handle of the front door and take a breath.

Maybe if this doesn’t work out, I deserve what I get.


Some kids have said getting burned feels like being stung by a cloud of bees; others imagine it’s like getting pierced with hundreds of arrows—an invisible assault that is both localized and all-encompassing. But when I step outside and into the clearing, all I feel is the sun’s warmth on my skin. It’s a sensation that, after years of dormancy, ignites so many memories. Picnics in the park. Fourth of July parades. Dad and I at the beach, playing in the waves, and then secreting some seawater back to the sand to pour on Mom’s back.

But then something happens. The warmth grows hotter and hotter, almost as if someone is turning a dial, exponentially increasing the output of sunlight. My memories get eclipsed by a searing pain, the sun’s needle teeth tearing into my arms and face. I have trouble catching my breath. It feels like I’m drowning in heat. I try heading back towards the safety of the building, but doing so makes me dizzy. Pockets of nausea bloom and burst in my throat. My vision goes blurry. The cars in the parking lot and the woods beyond melt into one another.

The sky swirls, or I do, but either way, I stumble and find myself on my hands and knees. The waxy blades of grass feel cool to the touch, and there is a blink of relief as my face is out of the sun, shielded by the back of my head. The pull to stay like this, to somehow crawl inside the safety my own shadow, is too strong, and my body goes limp.


I wake up in my room. A dull but persistent heat pulses from my body. I can feel my heart beat behind my eyes. Mom sits on the edge of my bed, applying aloe to my arm, which is swollen and blistered and the raw, inflamed color of a glazed ham. Mom must feel my eyes on her because she stops, lifts her head. Her face is puffy and slick with tears. Her eyes are as red as my arms.

“Hi,” I say.

“What the hell? What were you thinking?”

“I’m sorry.”

“No,” she yells, startling us both. Two new tears leak from her eyes and trail down her face. “That’s not good enough. You have to give me more than that.”

So I tell her about Hannah. About how she’s getting better, and how envious and angry and scared that makes me.

“I don’t understand,” Mom says. “Aren’t you happy for her?”

“Yes. And no. Not completely. If Hannah gets better, she’ll start a different life. She’ll no longer need us. She’ll leave and she won’t come back.”

“What makes you think she’d do that?”

“Dad did.”

Mom goes silent. The wrinkle between her eyes deepens, and her mouth moves as if to say something, but nothing comes out.

I place my hand on her balled fist, give it a squeeze. “How long was I out there?”

“Two minutes. Maybe less. Katie saw you go outside.”

“Is she the one that—?”


“Oh shit,” I say, and Mom’s eyes widen. “Sorry. Is she okay?”

“She got some minor burns. She says you’ve heavier than you look.”

We just sit together for a while. Then Mom finishes applying the aloe and bandages my arms. She gives me some aspirin, tells me to get some rest.


The throaty rumble of the bus’s engine wakes me up. Dan and Karen are taking everyone to Mega-Fun Zone, a bowling alley/arcade that touts the largest Laser Tag arena in upstate New York.

When they’re gone, I decide I need some air. I get up and get dressed, wincing with each movement. I shuffle down to the fire pit, ease myself down in one of the Adirondack chairs. A breeze blows in from the clearing, cooling my skin and stinging it at the same time. Birds—or if you believe Dan’s stories—bats flit through the trees.

I hear the rustle of leaves and swing my flashlight to the source, illuminating Katie’s face. She shields her eyes, and I kill the beam.

“You didn’t want to go bowling?”

“Nah,” she says. “The used shoes gross me out.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’m sorry you got hurt.”

“No big thing.” Katie waves off my apology, but I can see her hand is bandaged. She sits beside me.

“Still. Thank you.”

“Of course. You know this morning was the first time in almost nineteen years that I’ve felt the sun on my skin. With each birthday the doctors and reporters return, marveling at another year, another record set. They all want to know what I’m doing, how I’m outwitting our disease. But in all of these years, none of them ever bothered to ask if I’m happy.”

“And are you?”

“I am today. I felt needed. Instead of just hiding in the shadows, waiting for the sun to set, I got to save you from doing something stupid.”

I pick up a twig, toss it into the pile of ashes and charred logs. “I wasn’t trying to hurt myself. I just—”

“Wanted to feel normal? To feel like an ordinary kid and not a freak?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“I get it. You liked someone who didn’t necessarily feel the same way?”


“And in the anger and confusion of your heartache you did something foolish?”

“I suppose so.”

Katie stands and smiles. She pats me on the shoulder with her burned hand. “Well then, you’re in luck. Because that’s about as normal as it gets.”

Joe Dornich is the author of The Ways We Get By (Black Lawrence Press, December 2020). His stories have won contests and fellowships from The Master’s Review, Carve Magazine, South Central MLA, Key West Literary Seminars, and the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Joe lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee.