Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

“I need an interesting character in a difficult situation in order to write.”

So said novelist and short story writer Bonnie Jo Campbell during her master class at Rosemont last October, the day before the Push to Publish conference.

 “Then,” she continued, “I develop the situation to make the best use of that character.”

Those of us lucky enough to be there were treated to a five-hour long ‘up close and personal’ session with one of America’s finest writers.  This on the eve of the publication of her fifth book, the story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, glowingly reviewed that Sunday in the New York Times.

What a rare and wonderful experience!  Bonnie Jo’s ‘master class’ was less an inspirational lecture than a warm challenging conversation among equals, all of us engaged in the ambitious and arduous task of laying great words down on the page in such a way as to move and hearten and enlighten readers.

Bonnie Jo (she’s a first name kind of woman; the honorific Ms. Campbell is too formal; it just doesn’t fit!) proved to be as down-to-earth as her best-known characters; at once humble and self-confident, generous, and passionately interested in everyone and everything around her.

She suggested, and I, for one, agree, that writing fiction is mysterious, one of the most mysterious of creative endeavors; that it’s impossible to pin down exactly how to make it work; to write a playbook that will guarantee success.  Amen to that, Bonnie Jo. 

To me, her most compelling piece of advice:  “Write from the specific knowledge that you have that nobody else has.”  Bonnie Jo, who grew up and still resides in Kalamazoo, has made her career doing this.  She grew up on a farm, learning how to milk cows and castrate pigs.  She rides, she runs, she rows.  She has traveled with the Ringling Brothers Circus, hitchhiked across country, and organized cycling tours throughout Europe.  In other words, she has plenty of specific knowledge to use as material. 

She practices what she preaches, as proved by her new story collection. Here’s my review, published first at

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new collection of short stories, her third, is anything but a page-turner.  Readers who gobbled her 2012 novel, Once Upon a River, should, when opening Mothers, be warned to adjust their expectations.  For that novel’s main character, the orphaned sharp shooter Margo Crane, 16, kept readers in her grip from the moment she, after a sexual misadventure with an uncle, and the murder of her father, flees her home place in a canoe with a stolen rifle.

The varied and marvelous stories in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters are a different breed of narrative.  They ask for, no, demand, slow contemplative reading and rereading, and they reward this effort with their wisdom, wit and grace; the abiding wonders of their language as it pirouettes from the profane to the lyrical in a sentence or a paragraph. For example, Buckeye, who sells cotton candy, in “The Greatest Show On Earth, 1982:  What There Was,” feels more than she can think, “her hip in short shorts touching his hip, her body filled with desire, filled with more than desire, her body and heart and mind all full up with Mike from loving him on his bunk last night, ready to love him again despite the heat, despite Red showing up.”

Campbell made her reputation as a writer of ‘rural noir’ with her first novel, “Q Road,” and her acclaimed second story collection “American Salvage.”  By no means does she abandon the hard-working, lovelorn women that are her forte, or the troubled men who insist upon residing on the edges of their lives, but Mothers, Tell Your Daughters also stakes out new territory in such stories as “My Dog Roscoe,” “Natural Disasters,” “Daughters of the Animal Kingdom,” and “The Fruit of the Paw Paw Tree,” with their smart, well-educated sassy women, their narrative loops and switchbacks – you can’t ever tell exactly where they’re going or how they’ll get there.  Like the best stories of Alice Munro, these leave in the mind’s eye fascinating contrails that demand a second or third look – with a deeper understanding gleaned each time.

Mothers also offers fresh perspectives on familiar Campbellian characters. Sherry, the lonely put-upon mother in “Somewhere Warm,” at last achieves serenity when she realizes, “love was not something you created for the reward of it.  Loving was as natural for a good person as shining was for the sun, and the sun shone whether the plants appreciated it nor not.  Some people could return your love, and others could only absorb it, the way a black hole took in all the light and gave nothing back, but that didn’t diminish the shining.

Or Marika, the phlebotomist in Blood Work, 1999,” which moves toward magic as she comforts a horrifically burned teen-age ICU patient: “More gunshots or fireworks sounded in the distance.  As if switched on, the thing in her hand came to life, pushed back against her palm, pushed and swelled.  Even without money she could alleviate suffering, and maybe she could infuse with life that which seemed lifeless.”

The title story, sixth of the 16, serves as the fulcrum around which the other stories spin.  Simple in conception, brilliant in execution, Mother, Tell Your Daughters, offers the bitter sweet wisdom of a mother in hospice, one silenced by a stroke, longing to tell her more sophisticated and better-educated daughter everything she’s never told her before, spilling out for the reader a profound, life-shaping mother/daughter bond that was never soft or easy.  “…Pretty soon,” she warns, “I’ll be dead and you’ll wake up and realize you’ve got your fist clenched around nothing.”  P. 99.  This mother is a signature Campbell character, a rural woman confined by lack of education and near poverty, but impelled by her tremendous energy and an abiding love hunger. “I never had the luxury of looking back at you—I had to keep my eyes on the horizon to watch out for what was coming next,” she imagines telling Sis.  “You complain about the way I raised you children, but I only wanted to survive another day.”

Slowly, the story reckons with their multiple mutual betrayals, not one of which begins to fray their bond.  At last the mother, considering her daughter’s worldly achievements, thinks, “You should’ve had a daughter of your own.  That would’ve been a bone for you to chew on all your life.  I guarantee, though, you wouldn’t win any award for raising a daughter.”

These stories made me laugh and cry and several of them wrung me out. They offer rare  and provocative insights into how some women have to live, and what we, who don’t have to live like that, share with them anyway. Maybe, for Campbell, this is a transitional work, one foot in the past, the other stretching forward.  If so, I can’t wait to read what’s coming next.

Julia MacDonnell is the Nonfiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories and the author of Mimi Malloy, At Last!

The Bad Outside

On the day the others left, we’d all been watching from inside the gates. They didn’t open anymore, and even back then, they had been rusted shut at the seams of their locks. They made our hands smell like blood. The others, maybe ten of them, climbed under the gates where swampy trees had uprooted the concrete where the soil was soft and new. They didn’t look back at us from the outside, holding hands, and their Nostalgia Town t-shirts were stained with sweat and dirt. They disappeared into the parking lot, and we hadn’t seen them since.

Once Petey disappeared, though, everyone started to act funny. They talked about going outside the gates to look for him, because that’s the only place Petey could’ve gone. A lot of them would talk about what would be on the outside, about leaving the inside. I couldn’t let that happen because we were safe here. Our Moms and Dads left us here because we would be safe. We’ve been safe.

We could’ve been worse off. We could’ve lived somewhere cold, or too hot, but we’re lucky. A swamp can never fool you: It’s just a swamp. Nostalgia Town, where we’ve been living, is surrounded by a thick marsh. We’d taken shelter in-between mossy roller coasters and rusting whirly rides. The park used to be lit up and loud, always screaming – happy. Now the rides ache and howl against cool, marsh breezes at night – moaning, and we all cry with them. We used to cry for something, for someone. Maybe for all the Moms and Dads, but I don’t think we know why we’re crying anymore. Maybe it’s just nice to cry sometimes.

We didn’t go on the Outside. That’s where The Bad lived. In the Before Time, we all used to live on the outside. We used to go to school, and we had friends. We used to go on vacation to fun places like Nostalgia Town, or we went to the mall, bought new clothes and shoes. We had video games and dolls and plastic dinosaur action figures. On the inside there were only memories and us.

Only a few of us lived in Nostalgia Town. We’d all been in the same class together at school, so we were sort of friends before The Bad Time. We were grateful for that.

There were several of us left.  There had been more, but after a while in the sun, our faces sweaty and oily, the others decided to go on the outside. They went looking for their parents by themselves, because the seven of us didn’t want to go out there. It was still early on, when The Bad was new, and Nostalgia Town was less rust colored.

But we didn’t bring that up anymore.

Our timekeeper, Peg, used to put up one mark on the back of a popcorn shed at the beginning of each day. The wood on the shed was full of slashes and checks, for each day, each month, each year. We’d almost run out of space, but Peg was the only one who seemed worried about it. I don’t think anyone thought about it anymore. No more Christmas or Halloween. No more tooth fairy, or Easter bunny, or summer break.  We made things fair by having one birthday for all of us at the end of Peg’s calendar. The swamp was bad at telling time, and we all had just turned thirteen, so we weren’t interested, either.

Darla, Peg, Francis, June, Petey, Bug and I, we were family. We’d watch each other’s backs. That’s what a family does.  We gave each other jobs to so we woudn’t be bored, hungry, or dumb. We’d sleep inside of the old First Aid building on bunks with worn, wool blankets. Despite everything, the park keeps us safe from the wind and rain. The spider web moss clinged to the water-warped boards and gives us shade. Some of the rides still moved if we tinkered long enough. We could be safe here, and we all knew that we should’ve been – no, that we were definitely grateful for Nostalgia Town. We just wanted to make this work.

Francis and June were twins, real smart, and they did all of the scavenging because they were good at finding things. The swamp had tiny flowers and berries for us to eat. Petey was our cook, mostly because he was the only one who knew how. His Mom had to work all the time, he said, so Petey and his brother would make themselves dinner. He’d take the scavenged things from Francis and June, canned food and un-popped popcorn kernels, cotton candy sugar, uncooked pretzels, and the like, to make us two meals a day. If we wanted a snack we decided it was best to forage on our own. Sometimes Francis and June would talk about growing plants, but we could never figure it out. We would eat wild flowers and stale M&M’s, but everything always changes—stuff ran out.

Bug made us fires, and had already built some of the other stuff that we needed or wanted. He made us a table once, and chairs, too, and he always had a magnifying glass. Bug really liked to catch ants on fire, and we’d do that too, when the sun was hot. Lately, he was teaching everyone how to sew so that we could mend blankets and clothes, all of which were starting to become worn.

Then there was Darla. She had said once that we were lucky to all be friends. Darla liked to remind us that we could always be alone, or worse off, and then she liked to give us hugs and shush our crying.

If we didn’t get along together, or someone said something not nice, she’d say out loud, “No Mommies. No Daddies. No friends,” and that scared everyone just enough.

After a while, everyone decided it was just easier to help out, to stay friends, to be here rather than leaving. The outside was where The Bad lived, and we knew that nothing could be worse than that. We’d been managing, though. Like I said before, we’re a family, and family is important. That’s what they didn’t understand. They said that finding our real families, going home, that would be most important. They never asked what was most important to me. We never talked about it out loud, but I knew that the Bad would swallow them whole.


The day before Petey disappeared, we were all standing underneath a mushroom cap. The mushroom cap had moss on the top, and vines growing up its metal trunk. I remember it felt cool, listening to everyone breathing out hot air, picking at the ground like you would a scab. That’s when they brought it up again.

“But, maybe The Bad is gone now.” Bug said idly, his lips were chapped.

“They said that they’d come back, Bug. My Mom and Dad said so,” Petey had a knife in his hand, and had it stuck inside of a lizard, but nobody said anything when we all saw it move, “I just don’t think our Moms and Dads are even out there.”

Darla shot Petey a look. “That’s not nice to say,” she scolded him. Petey didn’t say anything, finally killing the lizard and wiping the blade on his shorts – red guts outlined his pocket.

“Well, if our parents said that they’d come back when The Bad is gone, then they’re gonna come back. They never lied to us.” Darla always said stuff like this, always rung her index finger around a curl in her hair, like she was sure.

“They lied about Santa, and The Tooth Fairy, too,” Francis looked up finally, and June met his gaze, looking at Darla. Bug, Petey, and Peg were all looking too, for an answer, or for Darla to get upset, or say that he was wrong. Darla smiled at all of us, a knowing smile, “They wouldn’t lie about the big stuff,” and with that it was decided we would stay.

It was a real hot, sweltering day when we realized that we hadn’t eaten yet. Petey hadn’t made us anything, hadn’t rung the bell for us to meet up for lunch. Darla and Francis were teaching us to wash clothes. I walked up on Peg, Bug and June setting ants on fire near the mossy water slides. Petey’s normal spot was around the bend in the first bunch of food stands. That was where he was able to use the burners and stuff as long as he made the fire first. It was empty though, the smell of grease and potatoes hung around. I kicked rocks around the overhang in the shade, wiped sweat from my forehead, but I didn’t say anything about Petey being gone. It was normal for some of us to go out and wander. It was good to wander because sometimes you found stuff, or sometimes you thought about stuff. Maybe Petey just had a lot to think about. When the others found out he was gone, though, they weren’t happy.

June tied her hair back in a messy ponytail, her forehead crinkled and beading, mud outlining the creases; confused. “Where’s Petey?” As I looked around, I realized that all of our hair was pretty long, and maybe we should’ve learned to cut hair.

After a while everyone got the same look on their faces, shielding their eyes from the sun, looking towards where I was standing in the shade.

“Elliot…” Darla’s voice carried well into the humidity.

“Yeah, Elliot, where is Petey? Is he over there with you?” Peg rubbed his stomach, kicking a piece of gravel away.

“If he was over there, h-he would’ve heard us,” Bug glared at Peg underneath a ratty dinosaur hat, one from the before time, “Elliot, he isn’t there, right?”

“No. Maybe Petey took a walk, to think about stuff.”

That seemed to rile them up. They shuffled amongst one another, and I found my place in their group circle. June began braiding her hair, a nervous habit, I thought. Bug and Peg were kicking dirt onto one another, while Francis and Darla exchanged a look.

“You haven’t seen him.” Darla reminded me of what my Mom might’ve been like for no particular reason, “June? Francis?” Her head swung to meet me, but I was quiet, my thumbs running over the dry cracks in my hands. They decided to look for Petey for the rest of the day, only coming back when they were worn out and tired. They then decided that maybe Petey went on the outside. Maybe Petey found a way out. I said that maybe The Bad was starting to come on the inside, but June told us that Petey would come back; he wouldn’t have left without telling us, and that helped everyone go to sleep that night.


June was the next to go. It had been a few weeks since Petey had gone, enough time for us to feel comfortable again, even if we were sad. We checked the insides of cabanas near the green tide pool, the ride houses, the offices near the front gates. All the windows were boarded up or broken because we liked throwing rocks or playing stickball, but otherwise the park was empty and abandoned and creaking as usual. Nostalgia Town never kept secrets from us.

Francis had been real upset about it, tugging on his fingers until his knuckles were red and raw. He and June had never been apart before, and Francis was half of a whole now. Darla was upset, too; the only other girl was gone, her best friend. Bug had lost his magnifying glass and we couldn’t figure out fires. Peg lost track of the days after he ran out of space on the back of the shed a few days ago.

“She wouldn’t have just left,” Francis’ eye twitched, “She would’ve said something to me. Darla, she would’ve said something, and if she wanted to run away she would’ve taken me too. We would’ve gone and looked for our parents together.” Francis kept running his hands through his thick hair, kept licking the corners of his lips. Bug and Peg stood silently. Darla looked to me again; her brow was stern, like a mother who wanted to scold you.



“You’ve been real quiet.”

“I don’t have anything to say.”

“Why not? Aren’t you sad that June and Petey are missing?”

“Well, yeah of cour –“ Darla grabbed Bug’s hand, who grabbed Francis’ hand, who grabbed Peg’s hand, and I grabbed my own hand.

“You’re the one always talking about family. How we gotta be a family, and I don’t see you sad. Francis lost his sister, Elliot!”

“I am sad!”

“Oh, yeah? Sure seems like it. You’ve been real quiet.”

“I just am sad and I don’t have anything to say. I don’t gotta say something all the time.”

“You always got something to say,” Darla tugged on the connected hand chain, and Bug spat on the ground in front of me while Francis and Peg began to cry. She looked back at me with something similar to disappointment, “If you were really sad, Elliot, you’d say something.”


That night the wind was bad. The carousel horses spinned and groaned, and the fallen Nostalgia Town mascot in the middle of the park whistled as the breeze caught in his neck. A piece of Sky Tower, the biggest roller coaster in the park, fell off and made a loud thud into the muddy waters of the swamp. The huge bang gave Bug, Francis, Peg and me a reason to climb into a nest of blankets. Our blanket nest was warm and comforting while the windows rattled and shivered, plush toys littering the inside. We briefly mentioned that Darla had gone. In between strands of Bug’s hair, my eyes caught onto her empty bunk. June’s empty bunk. Petey’s empty bunk.

It became more of a problem when we woke up in the morning and Darla wasn’t back, and Peg had gone, too. Francis hadn’t stopped crying, his lips were chapped and his face was red-stained, caked with snot and dirt. Bug started to rip off pieces of his shirts and I could feel my stomach get hungry and nauseous. We walked outside, leaving the safety of the blanket nest of the night before, and out into a cool humidity. The willow trees had shed much of their dead growth; branches had made homes out of the upturned gravel and muddy swamp silt. Planks of wood had fallen from the windows in the surrounding village buildings. Bug and Francis stood opposite of me, holding hands and shaking, and not just for lack of food.


“What, Bug?”

“Where is Darla,” We were all standing around kind of stupid-like, “Darla wouldn’t have left us.”

“Peg, too,” Bug chimed again.

It was true, and a good question, but it was too hot. Francis was crying so hard his body shook and no tears were coming out. I shrugged them off. Bug spat at the ground in front of me again, t-shirt threads hanging from his fingernails.

“El-Elliot we gotta find them,” Francis stuttered.

“I know that.”

“Well, you know how Darla said yesterday you’ve been real quiet. You have, ok! You have!” Francis picked himself up out of a crouching position in front of me; his nose and my nose were real close. Bug looked up from a hole in his shirt.

“You’ve been real quiet, Elliot.”

“And all you’ve been doin’ is crying,” I shoved him.


“No, you hey!

“Seems real funny that you’ve been quiet. You don’t care, do you?” He shoved me back.

“Francis! Sto-stop!” Bug pulled on him; pulled him so hard he almost made him fall. Francis’ face was real red, and Bug’s knuckles were white. My fists felt like bricks against my sides and I said, “You wanna say what Darla said, fine! I hope you disappear just like her,” He shoved me back again, I was spitting, “You can disappear just like Darla and June, Petey and Peg. Ok! I don’t even care.”

Bug had pulled Francis towards him and the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder in front of me. We were all sweating, mad and hungry and sad.

“You care, Elliot.”

“Oh yeah, funny. Cause it was just you saying I didn’t.”

“Shut up. You aren’t funny or cool,” Francis kicked dirt at me.

“You better take that back.”

“No, Francis is right. You’re being mean.” Bug doesn’t have anything left to spit at me now.

“I’m not trying to be cool or funny or anything at all. You all won’t stop.”  I couldn’t stop tugging on my fingers. The others hadn’t moved. They were united against me.  All I could do was whisper, loud enough for them to almost hear, “I hope the Bad gets you!”


The blanket nest was lonely with all of the empty bunks and stuffed animals hanging around. A storm had picked up early yesterday afternoon, and it hadn’t stopped raining. The thunder shook the entire building; the lightening was the only source of light. Bug and Francis hadn’t come back last night, and instead the shadows kept me company, while somewhere outside I felt like The Bad lurked. I was too afraid to go out in the rain by myself, but I had to look for them now that they were all gone.I kept thinking about Darla, how she said they’d never lie to us about something this big, and it was true. Our parents always said they’d be back, “Once the bad is gone, Elliot. Mommy and Daddy will be back. Before you know it!”

I think I made that part up. I don’t know. It’s so hard to remember. It was pouring rain and sticky, but it felt good, like a really hot shower. It soaked through my clothes as I made my way past the calendar shed, the mud getting under my toenails. I knew where I had to go because there was one place in the whole park that would give me the answer.

When I made it to the gates, the rain seemed especially hard, almost like hail. It was coming down on me so hard that I had to keep my eyesclosed for a little while. I just stood in front of the gates with my eyes closed for a long while. I knew that when I opened them the answer would be there, I would just have to see it, but it made my head hurt. The rain slowed down, though. I was soaked through my clothes, but my eyes were open.

Everything looked the same. The same empty parking lot. The same empty park. The same rusty lock that kept the gates together, that sealed out The Bad outside, and the answer. My fingertips were orange, everything smelled like blood. Rust just smelled like that when it was wet, someone told me that once. Maybe it was Petey. I was looking for their footsteps, truthfully. Looking for a sign that they had left willingly, or at all. The mud around the gates was too sloppy now to tell.

Maybe they were just playing a prank on me, hiding somewhere deep in the park where the grass is waist high. That’s what it had to have been, one big, fat joke. They wanted to make a point. I didn’t talk enough. I didn’t stick up for them. I was mean. I didn’t look for Petey, or cry about Darla or June and now they had to play a prank on me because of it.

Maybe they had all gone on the outside. They thought Petey had gone there, and maybe that was where everyone went. My foot squeezed between the iron gates, but I stopped. My hands were shaking, but if they were out there, I needed to be, too. For a brief moment I thought about how they would’ve told me, or should’ve told me. Maybe they didn’t want me with them. I began to slide through the opening in the gate; I remembered a time when I couldn’t do this. I stopped.

“Guys?” It was still raining, but my voice echoed pretty far, “Hey, guys. Are you out there?” It was just a prank, they knew The Outside was bad, “This isn’t a funny joke, ok.” I’m saddled between two iron bars, not even sucking in, “I’m sorry, ok?” Nothing. Not even swamp noises, just rain and the smell of blood, “Darla…June…Francis…” I listened to the quiet, sucking on my bottom lip until I tasted blood too. I felt like crying.

“Petey? Bug?” There was mud in between my toes, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I didn’t cry. I’m sorry I didn’t try harder….” The Bad was close. I could feel it on my right side, the side out of the gate. “You can come back now. I’m sorry…” A thick fog had come up from the ground, swallowing up the rain and the parking lot with empty cars and vacant ticket booths, “I’m sorry, please, please, I’m sorry.”

I slid myself through the rest of the way, on the outside of Nostalgia Town. It felt like static on the outside. The pavement had started to crack from dandelions and new grass, “Hey, you guys…” No answer still, just the rain and the fog and the whistling from the wind against the rides. Maybe I’d go back inside. Maybe I’d wait for them and they’d turn up.

My bare feet felt raw on the pavement, hot. My stomach ached, and my wet t-shirt was covered in orange rust. I started to cry as I leaned my back up against the gates and shouted for them. They were my family. The fog settled, and the sky continued to spit rain. I slid down the bars, sat in the mud. “I’m sorry,” was all I could say.

I waited for The Bad to tell me what to do.

A current student at The University of the Arts, Emily is also a writer for Halfbeat Magazine, an online music publication, as well as an editor for Underground Pool. She is available for contact at

It Is Not About the Stuff

“Mommy, wanna play Kings and Queens?” It’s my older son asking in his five-year-old speak if I want to play his version of chess. Which I don’t. I will anyway, however, because in the end it’s not folding the laundry that’s important. It’s my little guy. And the chess set is my reminder.

The wood inlay set came from an estate auction a few years ago, found when I was rifling through a blue storage tub full of board games looking for bargains. The tub and I were on the front lawn of a house in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb—a house I’d never been to before, belonging to a family whose story I didn’t know, beyond their curious decision to dissolve their assets through an on-site auction, opening their home to strangers like me so we could search through their belongings for hidden treasures at rock bottom prices. Like the aforementioned chess set that cost me three bucks.

The newspaper ad promised “Cars, Tools, Furniture, Clothing, etc.,” and along with it, “Real Estate,” which consisted of a three-story house with a backyard that included a swing set for the kids and an oversized shed for Mr. Mysterious and his lawn tractor.

Arriving early to survey the scene, I spied three cars in the driveway along with several boxes on the lawn filled with random utensils, mismatched plates, and bric-a-brac. Slipping around back, I saw garages and sheds full of tools and outdoor paraphernalia. Stepping into the rear of the house through the kitchen door, I found furniture on every floor, with each of the “4+ bedrooms” housing a full- or queen-size bed, a night table or two, dressers, bureaus, and armoires. Throughout the house were end tables and coffee tables, kitchen chairs and desk chairs, floor lamps and table lamps, and all of it—everything you could see—was for sale.

As I looked around, however, it seemed increasingly odd that all of it was for sale, that everything was up for bid, especially since it appeared the family didn’t take anything with them. For example: the kitchen cabinets were stocked with bags of rice, boxes of baking soda and cans of beef broth. And those dressers, bureaus and armoires were full of socks and underwear, suits and dresses. Even the jewelry collection appeared complete.

Back outside, the auction began on the front yard. The bid-caller was auctioning those randomly-filled boxes when, in my periphery, a brightly colored bouquet of silk flowers caught my eye. Like something a magician would pull out of his hat, they protruded from a shrub by the front of the house—gauche for a neighborhood like this, but I was too engrossed in the auctioneer’s chatter to give it much thought.

The vehicles were next—a Honda accord, a Toyota Camry, a Ford van—items for which I had no budget. I took this time to scope out the basement. In my experience, it’s those tucked away corners of a property where the real deals are. That’s where you find those hidden treasures you can get for a steal, like the Shop-Vac I bid on later and took home for a cool five dollars.

Near the Shop-Vac was a cardboard box with gold trophy heads poking out, and next to that, more of those blue storage tubs. I peeked inside hoping to rescue some long-forgotten stamp collection or maybe rare coins. Instead I found family photos. In a photo that appeared to be from the 1980s was the man I presumed to be Mr. Mysterious, about 45 years old. And there he was again, this time with Mrs. Mysterious, posing with smiles. Another taken in the backyard (I recognized the shed). The tub was full of images of every day moments; glimpses into this family’s private life, all captured for posterity, and all, it seemed, left behind.

The laundry area was under the basement stairs where bottles of detergent and cleaning supplies sat on a shelf. That’s right: bottles. Plural. Like someone stocked up at a buy-one-get-one sale and expected to be around for a while to use up all of that Tide and Mr. Clean. Nearby, the spare fridge was still running, keeping tilapia filets frozen for some future meal.

Now the auctioneer was inside, too. I tracked him to a third floor bedroom where, on one of the double beds, was a cross-stitch marking the birth of the Mysterious’ son. Like the family photos, it seemed odd this keepsake had been abandoned, with its embroidered pink and blue clown happily presenting the boy’s name and his birthday in 1987.  Again I lamented for the family at having deserted such a memento.

Then I found a second cross-stitch, nearly identical to the first, differing in name but not date! The Mysterious Family had been blessed with twin boys.

Crossing the front lawn, with an igloo cooler in one hand and a barstool in the other, I glanced at an unsold bin of household goods in the grass, my eye catching a commemorative plate that read, “My First Communion,” engraved with the name of one of the sons. I slowed as disparate images and details of the day came together in my mind. Like a Magic Eye puzzle, perceived chaos transformed into a clear image, telling the sad story, not of things that were carelessly left behind, but of a family that had built a life filled with love, a life tragically cut short.I traveled with him as the auctioneer worked his way through the house. I added a coffee table and a pineapple-shaped lamp to my growing list of deals. Eventually it was time to pony up. While waiting to pay I noticed the door jamb in the kitchen was covered with dozens of marks and dates indicating the heights of the two boys and of “mom” and “dad.” I was eager to take home my new-to-me possessions to escape the vicarious feelings of loss I was having for the family.

“My god,” I thought, standing by the driveway. “This is the house where the boy killed his twin brother and their parents.” I was certain of it. It had happened only months before and had been all over the news. The way it was reported, on a Saturday in March, 2011, a young man of 23 years, who lived at the property I was now departing, used a sword to kill his twin brother and their parents. In their home. Surrounded by their stuff. Some of which was now mine. And that young man was now serving three mandatory life sentences behind bars.

This explained the framed diplomas, the unexpired coupons, and, sadly, the half-used bottle of hand soap. The magician’s flowers confirmed it, lovingly left to honor the deceased, like a makeshift roadside memorial.

Suddenly I wasn’t so thrilled with my bargains. I felt nauseated. Had mother read to son under the pineapple lamp? Had father and son (which son?) played board games on my “new” coffee table? And at what point in the recent past—and for what purpose—had that Shop-Vac been used?

The idea of furnishing my home with these possessions now felt dangerous, like they might be contagious with madness and mayhem. Maybe those fears rose in me because, like Mr. and Mrs. Mysterious, I, too, live in a Philadelphia suburb with manicured lawns sporting purple and white petunias in the front yard and swings in the back. I, too, have an oversized shed where my husband keeps his lawn tractor. I, too, have two boys, preschool age, like those boys were years ago. Maybe when they were little the Mysterious Brothers liked to run around the yard, giggling, with milk moustaches and banana stuck to their eyebrow, just like my sons.

It was all a little too relatable. And yet no mother wants to blame the child. I can understand why that boy’s mother probably didn’t believe he was capable of what he was doing, even while he was doing it.

I spoke with a friend about my unwitting participation in the aftermath of this triple murder. I wondered what I was going to do with my adulterated possessions. She was pragmatic. “Shit happens,” she said. “Not to be heartless, but it’s the story of some other family. It’s not your story and it’s not your family. And the stuff you picked up is just stuff. It’s not them, and it’s not suddenly going to become you.”

She was right, of course. The sordid past of some coffee table was not the cause of the horrible decisions made that day. Stuff is “just stuff.” It gets left behind, lost, broken. It does nothing more than exist. Conflicts arise not from stuff but from people. Because, unlike stuff, there is mystery around people. They have emotions. They do more than just exist.

Now that I’ve been to that house, I have an idea about who used to live there. I know their story—or at least part of it. I know the parents loved their sons from the minute they were born and they celebrated their accomplishments throughout their lives. I know they filled their lives with opportunity and indulgence when and where they could. And I know that in a fleeting moment one of those sons made a tragic decision that ended it all.

I also know their stuff had nothing to do with it.

So now I’m going to focus on my sons—love and celebrate them and give them as many opportunities as I can. And at this moment I’m going to play Kings and Queens with my older boy over this nice wood inlay chess set I picked up at auction.

Editor’s Note:  In August 2014, Joseph McAndrew Jr. of Upper Merion, was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder, but mentally ill, in the deaths of his mother, Susan, his father Joseph, and his twin brother, James.  He attacked them with an 18-inch sword. All three were found in the kitchen with multiple wounds. The murders occurred March 5, 2011 in the family’s Gulph Mills home.

When a person is found guilty but mentally ill, they are sentenced to prison, but evaluated to determine if they should be sent instead to a mental health facility for treatment.  When and if that person’s mental illness is deemed to be under control, he must serve the balance of any sentence in prison.

Estelle Wynn is a creative non-fiction writer whose work has been published in Main Line Ticket, Island View, and Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. Previously an urban dweller, she now resides in a 100-year-old farmhouse in a suburb of Philadelphia with her husband and two young sons.

Review: The Word of the Day by David Kertis

David Kertis begins his first full-length book of poems, The Word of the Day, by letting us in on his secret, that is, most of life is hidden, secret. His poem, Starlings, begins with an ordinary voice, a voice a reader might imagine is in black and white not color, or perhaps the voice of Everyman:

The day’s no longer bright, the sky

full of clouds moving in

from the mountains or the lake.


            Okay, we think, this is a common description, right?  But then Kertis tells us:


The light appears

to have no source.


The distant row of trees

is where the birds are hidden.

They burst out flying, fearing

my approach, all at once.


            Suddenly, this bucolic scene offers up more than we expected.  There is the mystery of the light with no source.  There are the hidden birds fearing him, the human being.  Now readers, we have entered his signature lyricism intertwined with the narrative. 


In his poem, Adult Books, Kertis begins, once again, with the ordinary:


The first book I had

that was made for adults

was a field manual, a bird book

small enough for my hands.


            Okay reader, we all had a first book, right? 

            And what child hasn’t been bored, as the lines below suggest?


            But note his choice of line break at “and” and the next two lines “by the dark/ reading of scripture.”  Kertis is not going to shout out his intent, so listen carefully to how he breaks his lines and walks you through his world.  


I brought along the book

when my grandmother

took me to church.  I thumbed it quietly

in the pew, bored by the music and

by the dark

reading of scripture.


             Then Kertis makes his signature shift, moving ever so slightly from the ordinary, the most ordinary moment, into his obsessions—

the delicacy of humans, the delicacy of everything in this world of ours, the secrets it holds that he is resigned never to know.  And time.  …a lifetime to drift/ and nearly to fly…


Birds are not

the right way to think of souls.

My soul that they spoke of

in church, I knew was smoke,

                        or the air rising

and warming as it left the damp

earth, to take a lifetime to drift

and nearly to fly,


upwards over the earth.


            Kertis tells us in his poem, Elegy: The ash trees were planted/ to last a lifetime by the side door/and you were there longer.  Later in this poem: Cold windows showed the sky outside—/ it seemed/ as everlasting as the blue in a book of hours. 

            In spite of time’s obstinate procession, Kertis ends this poem with modest optimism that seeps through all of work.


            Small windows, but we knew the rooms

            were filled with lights you always left on,

            like the sparrows out there somewhere

            in the dark, all heart wrapped in feathers

            and kept warm.


            Kertis’s poems do suggest he is both outside of the world and inside, simultaneously.  The consummate outsider and the man who wants to live fully, embracing his world.  His poems are like great photographs, and he, a photographer.  In his poem, Vocals, he begins:


The city is made out of voices

I live there

in a half-furnished room

but I’m not anonymous.

I’m part of the babble but what I utter

might be called song.


            Yes, these remarkable poems are songs, the kind we hum to without thinking.  The good news is that Kertis’s work is no longer a secret. 

The Word of the Day by David Kertis, Winner of the Second Joie DeVivre Book Award Sponsored by Mad Poets Review


Publisher: Infinity Press 2015

ISBN 978-1-4958-0698-8


As If

Are there any topics we cannot write poems about? Can we write about love or death or the soul or suicide or any other abstraction when Shakespeare and Dickinson and Frost and Plath have covered that territory so well already? Can we write about the funeral of our grandmother with her cold hands folded as if in prayer? About losing one’s virginity under a barnacle infested pier with Randy Tempoco? Can we write about walking down a sandy beach at sunset with seagulls squawking after having broken up with a partner who is a total shit heel? Can we use the term “shit heel” in a poem and still be well-regarded by our peers?

I say yes to all. I say yes, but under one condition: we do not write to impress. Often, much of my writing time is taken up not by writing, but rather by daydreaming about how blown away so-and-so might be with the breathtaking, new way I’ve described a man’s nose, sagging as if it were an eggplant on a vine. Or the reaction of the reader to a poem about the death of  beloved pet, how his eyes will cloud until a single tear rolls saltily down his cheek. That’s when I know I am stalling, because instead of focusing on the blank page, I am thinking about how amazing it will be, once it’s actually written.  At the same time, I have to remind myself that much of what I write will get whittled away in revision. The important part of writing is the act itself, at least in the beginning. For this reason, at the start of a project, I can write whatever clichéd nonsense gushes forth, using tired language and imprecise imagery and leaving out the details that matter. Write, write, write.

Then, I leave it for a few days, or move on to another piece that needs work. In revisiting the writing, I’ll often find that it’s better than I remembered, and also worse. I will have described someone’s face as withered and prune-like, or relied heavily on abstract words instead of concrete descriptions. That’s when the hard work begins, first with the act of cutting away the flourishes or trickery, and then getting back to the subject’s precise essence. The fish’s scales are not like rainbows, of course they are not, they are “like ancient wallpaper,/and its pattern of darker brown/was like wallpaper:/shapes like full-blown roses/stained and lost through age” (from Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”).

It is as if I cannot get to the good stuff without first writing the bad. I cannot write about the death of my grandmother without telling of wilted flowers and the head-ache-making smell of magnolias and the flickering candles and the clicking of rosary beads. So, I start there. Instead of trying to force it to be great for my invisible reader, I strive to remember the details of moment, such as the cranky toddler in front of us who sprawled across the pew, showing us her flowered underwear during the Hail Mary’s. This description might not make it into the final piece, but it will be the start of getting to the heart of the moment, so that I can remember it exactly as it was, and not how I think it’s supposed to be.

Interview with Author Gary Lee Miller

Museum of the Americas, Gary Lee Miller’s debut story collection, published in 2014 by Fomite Press, ponders love and longing and loss and redemption through the experiences of highly unconventional characters, the kind of people who, says Miller, “nobody pays much attention to.”

Steve Almond called the collection, ‘vivid and arresting.’ The stories, he said, “have a gentle fabulism that grows darker as Miller plumbs the human psyche.” 

Miller’s new short story “The Salted Leg” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s currently working on a novel, which he hopes to complete in September during his second residency at the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony in Woodstock, NY.

Miller grew up in the 70s and 80s, in Eldred, Pennsylvania, a tiny town of about 800 that sits along the Allegheny River, in what he recalls as ‘a storytelling culture.’

“My dad was a drinker and when I was five years old I was sitting next to him at the bar drinking orange pop, listening to all the hunters, fisherman and factory workers tell their stories. Storytelling was a big part of life there and these guys had it. They had timing, they knew what to tell and what not to tell.  They had irony and description.

“I sat and listened to them and it was fantastic. I ended up going to college to be a wildlife biologist but I was terrible at math and chemistry.”  Miller, who worked to pay his own way through college, struggled for three years before dropping out because he ran out of money.  “I was living in upstate New York and couldn’t find a job… I didn’t know what to do. My roommate said, ‘Look, you don’t have to be in college to learn stuff. Go to the library and read books.’”

Miller took that advice, going through the fiction section in the local library book by book.

“I loved it. Within a few months I was writing. I came back as a senior, changed my major to English. I did the entire English major in a year. I got straight A’s…I had a teacher who said, ‘You know you have a little talent and if you work harder, you can do something with it.’ That guy, that one person, was the first person in my life to say, ‘You can do something. You’re a good writer.’”

Miller went on to earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where he resides with his partner and his teen-age daughter.  Miller says he has had great teachers, Steve Almond and Ellen Lesser among them, but he credits his writing passion to ‘growing up in a culture with people who loved to tell stories.’

Many of Miller’s stories are set in rural Pennsylvania.  His story ideas “come from things  I’m obsessed with or things that happened to me. I don’t ever really tell a straight story of something that happened to me … I just take a little kernel of it and create a completely different story.”

In the title story, “Museum of the Americas,” which displays curated samples of earth, ‘I was driving through Vermont and decided to take a back road. I drove by this place and there was a sign that said ‘Museum of the Americas’. There were two cars sitting out front and I thought, ‘What a bizarre thing, a Museum of the Americas on this little tiny road in the middle of farm country.’ I made a promise to myself that I’d never go and see what was inside. I’d just make it up.”

In the resulting story, Tom Grant owns a decrepit and mostly forgotten museum displaying, in rows of Bell jars, earth samples from all over the Americas that he inherited from his father. He also inherited a set of rigid ‘Christian’ values and terrible memories of abuse. When an elderly couple visits the museum, on a mission to connect with their dead son through a particular earth sample, Tom’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. Tom at first refuses them, but their quest eventually forces him to confront his own shortcomings and longings.

“In His Condition” explores the emotional and psychological ravages of alcoholism as the narrator, on a seven-week long bender, ponders his uncle’s addiction and that man’s recovery through his devotion to collecting butterflies. He is home, in the house where he grew up, searching for his own “saving thing” as his mother, downstairs, calls doctors and “drunk farms”, hoping to find a placement for him.

Several of Miller’s stories, set so carefully in place and time, edge toward the magical, while others, including Night Train, Killing Houdini and Certain Miracles weave lyricism into traditional realism and historical events. Afficionados of short fiction may detect whiffs of Russell Banks, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell in the work of Miller, but Miller offers a bit more lyricism in his prose, along with a tad more tenderness in his resolutions.

Even so Miller’s route to publication was full of disappointments and rejections.  Before assembling his story collection, he’d written two novels and signed with ‘a very high-powered New York agent, top of the line.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Gary, I’m going to tell you something right now. There is going to be a happy ending to your story. These books are going to be published.’”

For two years the agent did everything he could to “make it happen but he couldn’t…That was a devastating time. I didn’t write for another two years.”

Finally, he sent one of his novels to Fomite Press, a small publisher in Vermont that describes itself on its website as “a post-capitalist operation in which the authors get almost all profits, and Fomite gets little or nothing beyond expenses. We have no plans to make money with the press, only to serve the writing community by bringing out high-level literary work and making it available.”

The publisher, Marc Estrin, got back to Miller quickly.  “He said, ‘You’re a good writer but I don’t like this book…Do you have anything else?’ I sent him my story collection and a day later he emailed me back and said, ‘I love this book and I want to publish it. Will you please let me publish it?’ I said yes.”

With his first collection published and a novel in its final stages of creation, Miller has this advice to young ambitious writers: “Don’t wait for the world to tell you when you’re a writer, just write. Start writing, send your stuff out. Form relationships with magazines and with other writers and read all the time. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Find a book you like and try to figure out how it works. Go through the book, write all over it, make notes, and underline sentences you like.

“Persist, don’t give up, just keep writing and don’t ever be afraid. Find a newspaper, find a blog that will let you write for them and get your work out there. Just start being a writer. Say it now, say you are a writer right now and be one. That’s number one. And persist is number two. Every minute you’re not writing, somebody else in competition is.”


In The Box Marked Sunday

Danny wouldn’t drop that fantasy of his. He jabbered at Maggie over breakfast, at the laundromat, when they were buying tires for the car that now needed a jolt of whatever made the air conditioner work. It was heartily blowing warm air that only fanned her annoyance.

“Would you want to get married on a beach in Jamaica?” he said.

“Why, when there are beaches here?”

“That mean you want to get married?”

“Please,” she said.

“Why not the mountains of North Carolina?” he said.

“Ticks, Danny, that’s why not.”

“San Francisco, then.”

“I’m not getting married in a raincoat.”

He was wearing sunglasses with mirrored lenses, so when his attention shifted from the road and he turned to face her, she saw only herself, slightly distorted.

“Do I make you the least bit happy?”

“Of course you do,” she said, “and please get your eyes back where they belong so we don’t die before we reach my mom’s house.”

“Your mom could use some cheering up, being a new widow and all,” he said.

“That’s a reason to get married, to cheer my mother up?”

“At least the timing would be good.”

 Maggie wasn’t mean enough to tell him to shut up, so she answered in a way that bought both time and relief and left room for clarification later.

“Let’s just say I’m leaning in the direction of yes.”

Danny slapped the steering wheel as though he was high-fiving it. “We can at least tell her that,” he said.

“We go every Sunday now, Danny. Maybe next time, we’ll tell her.”

The road was rising slowly, and when they reached the top, Maggie saw again what never bored her—the still-surfaced blue Intracoastal that curved narrowly between the Florida mainland and the beach. Enormous houses on stilts rose from behind the mangroves that lined the water, and now and then between, rows of mobile homes appeared, white as piano keys lined up on narrow black-topped streets. In a few minutes, after they pulled into Sunrise Isles, if Maggie stuck her head out the kitchen window of her mother’s mobile home and cocked her head just so, she would see a bit of the water. Maggie would never be caught dead living in a mobile home park, but she envied her mother this slice of a view. Her own view, from the apartment she shared with Danny, was the flat tarred roof of a tiny strip of stores, an eye doctor, a tanning salon, and a lawyer who specialized in DUIs.

Catherine Murray came to the door waving a black-handled hammer that she swung triumphantly in the direction of the wall above the TV. Maggie stopped. The Sunday before, the wall was a wall. Not now. In the center was her parents’ wedding picture. Circling it were a dozen more, all of her father, all by himself, in what seemed like an infinite number of celebratory poses: holding a freshly-caught fish, a bowling ball, a winning poker hand. In another, the skeleton of a roller coaster was behind him as he bent down, in the direction of what Maggie knew to be her legs, as she ran away from him. He was smiling, trying to coax her, meaning well, to ride it with him. She was eleven. She hadn’t been on a roller coaster since.

“What happened?” Maggie said.

Danny had settled himself in her father’s corduroy lounger. “I like it. Why don’t you like it?”“Nothing happened. I just did a little rearranging.”

“So when you rearranged things, where did everything else go?”

The photographs of her that had been on the wall— in middle school, in high school, on a cruise she and Danny had taken—were piled on an end table.

“I’ll put them in the hutch.”

The hutch was stacked with never used China and a collection of souvenir spoons from every place they had ever visited. The hutch was standing room only.

Danny ran his palms along the worn arms of the recliner. “I remember that one,” he said, pointing to the wall.” The one where he’s holding the fish. Bigger than what I brought in. Your dad was something, a good something. It must run in the family. I’ve got a good something, too.”

Danny was gooey about families. His had been miserable, so he thought every other one was enviable. When Maggie said she believed she didn’t particularly matter to her parents, Danny insisted that couldn’t be true, not at all.

Her parents did love her. That, she knew, but they never looked at her the way they did at each other. Even as an adult, when she stood between them, and that didn’t happen often, she swore she felt an electric crackle pass over her head.

“So,” Danny said to Catherine. “Maggie and me want to ask you a question. I mean we want to tell you something.”

Maggie had taken a place standing next to him in the lounger.

“What kind of fish was that, Danny? I don’t remember,” she said.

“Of course you do. Grouper. You’re the one who grilled it.”

“Good eating, it was,” Catherine said, “although your dad thought you made it a bit dry.”

“I thought it was just fine,” Danny said.

Maggie flicked her fingers across his shoulder, as though she was getting a bug off his shirt. She didn’t need any defending. She was used to this habit of her mother’s, to run interference so Maggie could get only so close to her dad, to suspect she wasn’t good enough. It was one of the ways her mother made sure that nobody came before her relationship with him. Her mother was possessive as hell.

“Married love. It’s a beautiful thing, Catherine, isn’t it?” Danny said. Now he was patting his pocket. You and Dick were regular experts. I’d sure like something like that.”

If he ever got it, he’d be the oddest man out among his friends. Maggie didn’t know anyone whose marriage lasted more than ten years. Her own, soon after high school to a man who rented her a car when she smashed up her parents,’ barely got past one. Puppy love, they called it, and they refused to accompany Maggie and the car rental guy to the courthouse.

“Here’s how you get it, Danny,” Catherine said. “You believe in your vows. People your age don’t even say the words we said. You make up your own.”

“They’re just trying to be special,” Maggie said.” What’s wrong with that?”

Danny patted the arms of the lounger as though he owned it. “I’m sure my parents said them, but they were just words. Me, me and whoever I married, they wouldn’t be words to us.”

Catherine placed the hammer on the dining room table. “Somebody here thinking about getting married?”

“Not this week,” Maggie said in her best imitation of her mother’s upbeat voice and then leaned into Danny’s ear.

“Get up. I’ve got to talk to you.” He was peering into his shirt pocket. “What are you looking at?” she said.


She pushed open the front door. He followed her into the carport. Her parents had once hung a ceiling fan overhead, but its motor had long ago burned out. Whatever air they might have moved was wet and close. “It’s miserable out here,” he said.

“It’s worse in there.”

“Let’s tell her. She could use a boost.”

“Tell her what? That we don’t have the money to buy a house? Isn’t that what you do when you get married? We don’t even have the money for a house.”

“So we’ll keep renting.”

“We haven’t even talked about kids. I don’t know if I want kids. I’m too old. What if I don’t get pregnant?  What if I do get pregnant?”

“Kids are nice. But they aren’t a deal-breaker for me,” he said. His voice had risen. For a moment, it was just a little too high for a man.

“You think it’s simple. It’s not simple.”

He stepped forward and put his arms around her. She felt his heart thumping, serious and slow. “It’s okay, baby. We don’t have to tell her today.” She opened the screen door to go inside and looked back at him. He was patting his pocket again. She rubbed her eyes. Enough sweat had gathered at her hairline to run down her forehead and make them burn.

Catherine was calling Maggie from the bedroom, asking for help, not panicking, just asking. Her mother was usually the master builder of cheerful fronts; when Maggie entered the bedroom, the front her mother maintained in the living room was gone. The curtains were nearly drawn, and the bit of sunlight that they did not conceal was a harsh interruption that made her eyes ache. Maggie reflexively turned away. An unruly pile of clothes was heaped on the bed.

The pile constituted the only answer to the question she’d had for two months, about where her father went after he had been rendered into a bony, gray powder and hurled from the sea wall that protected the park. Her mother told her to put the pants in one spot, shirts in another, socks, belts and shoes in another. Everything was going to Goodwill.

“You’re throwing him out,” she said.

Her mother worked quickly, as though she was sorting laundry she had sorted a thousand times before. “Somebody will find his things just right for them,” she said. “One day, I’ll see a man who reminds me of your father coming down the street.”

“And that won’t freak you out? It would freak me out.”

“Not in the least. He’ll still be in the world. Not gone like that damn dust.”

Grief quieted her mother, as it did then, but tears missed their cue. She had turned on a light and was matching the socks and tying them into pairs, one after the other. Maggie picked up her father’s walking shoes. The heels were uneven, a lace was missing, and the toes were scuffed from his daily walk up and down the streets of the park.

“Forty-five years. You were with him forty-five years and you never got bored with each other.”

The pair of socks her mother had just tied made a soft thump when it dropped into the pile. “Of course, we got bored. Sometimes we even enjoyed not having anything to say. The silence was a comfort. We didn’t expect to be thrilled by each other all the time. You do.”

Maggie felt vaguely accused, like she’d been caught lingering, which she sometimes did, in front of one of those bridal magazines racked in the grocery check-out line. She had believed that those magazines, in which the future came in shades of pink and ivory with a fair amount of crystal thrown in, were overdone to cheer up the women who bought them and who pretty much already knew the future would likely end up a deep olive drab. They were wisely pessimistic. So was she.

Her mother had stopped pairing the socks. “You’re all children, people your age.” she said.

She was 35 years old and two inches from indignation. Danny was the childish one. He believed in horoscopes and every stock tip he heard at the bar where he tended of late, he had trouble making his half of the rent. She tossed the shoes in her mother’s direction and walked out.

The TV in the living room was playing some show about dumpy places to eat when you have to stop on the highway. Danny was always promising that they’d just get in the car one weekend and go someplace, nowhere planned, and eat in one of the dumps  on the show. The volume was up. He didn’t stir when she walked past the recliner, and she didn’t hear her mother follow her, after a few minutes’ delay, into the room.

“Can’t you turn that down?”  Maggie said.

Danny leaned down to pick up the remote that was kept in a side pocket of the lounger. He did as he had been told. The TV went silent.

“My,” her mother said. “Would you look at that?”

“I couldn’t help it,” Danny said. “It fell out of my shirt pocket. I swear.”

A tiny silver circle was on the carpet. A pull-top of a can of beer, maybe. Not a ring. It better not be a ring. It was a ring. A small stone. A flicker of bright light. He didn’t get it for her. He did. But not now. Not yet. She would tell him when she was ready. She would know when she was ready because that buzz of failure she carried within her, in every circumstance, would finally stop.

“You promised me,” she said.

“I like the sound of that,” Catherine said. “Just like in sickness and in health. Those are promises. They sure are.”

Maggie spoke to Danny, and Danny only. “Out there. On the carport. You promised.”

“So things went wrong, if you think they’re wrong. I don’t.”

He reached down and picked up the ring. When he rose, she saw that his face had reddened. That was so like him. He was lousy at hiding his feelings.

He held the ring between his fingers and extended his hand. The diamond was bigger than she had imagined. And she had imagined it. Yes, she had. She imagined a dress and maybe Hawaii for a week. She had never seen Hawaii. After that, though, the screen went blank.

If the ring falling out of his pocket was an accident, it had to also be true that if the fool in a suit she was waiting for one night at a bar had not stood her up, Danny would have picked somebody else, and he would have been just a bartender working to run up her tab. And that middle of his, in ten years, that middle would be so big he wouldn’t be able to see his feet. They’d be one of those couples who eat in restaurants without speaking.

“Maggie,” her mother said.

She’d already bought some time and relief once that afternoon.

“Well, I did say I was leaning in the direction of yes.”

 Danny went down on one knee before her.

“Get up, will you? You look ridiculous down there.”

“He does not.”

Danny began to slide the ring on her finger. What if it got stuck on her knuckle? What if it was like a dress in a store you were sure would fit until you couldn’t get it over your hips?

The ring fit nice and snug, as though it had been custom-made. Custom cost money, maybe half the rent, wonderful him, sweet him, forever him, damn him for playing on her wishes.

Catherine launched into chatter about who at Sunrise Isles she would tell first. Dick would be so happy, she said, and scurried to the kitchen. She returned with a plastic tray that contained beers and pretzels, ice tea and cookies. “You’ve got me so excited, I couldn’t decide.”

Danny sucked down a beer. Her mother’s chattering resumed. They had to pick a date, but it couldn’t be too soon, and the park clubhouse was available because weddings were expensive, they had to be practical.

Maggie promised her mother they’d figure out the details later and told Danny that he’d have to wait for home if he wanted another cold one. She didn’t make a regular habit out of kissing her mother, but she kissed her then, on the cheek. Catherine kissed her back. Her breath held the sourness of age. As they left, she stood in the doorway, waving furiously her goodbye.

The car was hot. Stinking hot. Worse than the ride over, that Sunday afternoon. Danny turned on the radio. He liked oldies, doo-wop so old he wasn’t even alive when doo-wop was the thing, and some song about convertibles and starry skies was playing. He said some people thought words were just words. He said he knew. She figured that it might take a few days, but eventually he’d understand that she would have said anything to escape her mother’s house. Anything.


Mary Jo Melone is a writer in Tampa. Her work has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, 2 Bridges Review and Crack the Spine. She is a Philadelphia native and a former journalist. Early in her career she was an anchor and reporter at KYW Newsradio.

The Narrow Door: Remembering Denise Gess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Black American Gets Her Travel Fellowship and Goes Abroad

I. an exercise:


the positionality of placeholders

                                                   there is something that wants to be said

                                                   there is something that wants to be said

                                                   there is something that wants to be said

there is something

that wants the dark birth

of words.

she is on a line

the passport holds her up

little blue woven book

little blue book

little blue



the empire machine is dreaming. the empire machine rolls over. the empire machine wakes up. the empire machine stretches. the empire machine does not have a lover. the empire machine makes coffee. the empire machine goes to work.



I promise you,

that girl she looked

just like my sister

cousin daughter

niece comadre

you know –

la morena

who lives next

to the colmado

that always smells

of raw meat and



III. what she says:


one day I dream myself

on the outside of a flying plane.

I grip a rope twisted through

a loop on the wing, and the

wind scoops everything

out of my mouth.


inside my bones an unborn

old woman is stretching and dancing.

my skin feels too tight.


I return

swallowing Spanish.

Border Control squints



finally says

welcome home.


I am overflowing

and the taxi driver sees.

ah, you miss your country?

his eyes are soft.

I cannot speak.

(and regarding a bra Made In ______)

I wonder what woman with

a transatlantic face like mine

has worked calluses into her

fingers for the comfort of

nude-colored breasts. nude

being khaki, as in fatigues

or nude being cream, as in

of the crop.


try wearing:

a river

barbed wire



dried blood

a harvest

lost languages

a seam

I mean a border

and how will you find

your way home?

and how will you find?

and how?

will you find?

and you how?

how will you?

how you?

how you.

home will find

you and how.

Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and author of the poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press). Her poetry, prose, and photography can be found in The Caribbean Writer, The Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Extract(s), Diverse Voices Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, HEArt Journal, and elsewhere. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Callaloo fellow, a Fulbright scholar, and currently is an editor of the humanities section of the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Irène is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Poetry Prize; her first full-length collection entitled orogeny will be published by Trembling Pillow Press in 2016.

Semantics of The Dead and Living

We drive up to the graveyard

on the hill toward the top

of town just to see the evening

sun. “I don’t think people

call them graveyards anymore,”

you say. You say, “I think

a graveyard is part of a church.

People buried in the yard

of a church.” I suppose you’re right.

This is not a church, but it’s not

without ritual. We drive up

to the cemetery filled with

graves on the hill toward

the top of town. A new section

has been cleared of trees,

a toothless pocket ready

to be filled. We park and

pretend the sun will set beyond

the ridges spilled with green

into the ocean instead of more

Midwest. Turkey vultures circle

in the pines, their shifting like

a sail’s dry flap in a falling wind.

Below we watch three deer leap

headstones and then open space

making for the redrawn edge

of the cemetery separating something

from something from something.

Patrick Swaney lives in Athens, OH, where is completing a PhD in poetry. He is the editor of Quarter After Eight. His work has appeared in Conduit, Indiana Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere.