We met in a shadowed hallway, both of us discarded on a wooden bench outside of Doctor Langdon’s office, white knuckles clasped on our laps, skirts bunched about our cold feet. As the doctor had asked to speak first with my parents, I’d taken the seat next to a woman who immediately turned to me. She declared, all in one breath, that she had to see the doctor today, that something felt amiss. With eyes wide and unblinking, she said she had questions. Since her arrival three weeks ago, twenty-six teeth and her tonsils and sinuses had been extracted. Tomorrow, April 7, 1908, would be her fourth wedding anniversary, and the day that the doctor would root out her internal womanly organs, the true source of her madness.

I had some difficulty understanding the woman at first but soon became accustomed to her moist slurring, her carefully enunciated mouthing. Adept with a lavender-scented handkerchief, Elizabeth Granger caught driblets from her pale lips before they soiled the bodice of her pretty silk dress. I am quite sure she had once been beautiful, before her bruised mouth had crumpled, before her bloodless cheeks had withered. Before the bridge of her nose had collapsed.

“I wish that Doctor Langdon would have spoken to me before scheduling the operation,” Elizabeth slurred, “but he does know best.” Her eyes grew large. “Do you know how famous he is? He’s cured so many people and only 34 years old.”

She paused to apply the handkerchief to her weeping mouth. “He assured me that, this time, I would positively be cured of my silliness.” As her shoulders fell, she disappeared in the shadow of the wide stairway near our bench. “I call it silliness, but my husband has decided that I am mad. Mad as a hatter.”

“That’s what my parents say about me, though I, too, am not crazy. Surely, there is no harm in hearing voices and dancing in the moonlight.”

“There is not,” Elizabeth said. “I myself have angels that protect me from harm.” She took my hand, her cheeks tugging her ghastly mouth into what may have been a smile. I didn’t tell her how uncomfortable I felt with her sodden handkerchief pressed to my palm.

philadelphia stories
Along the Creek by Deborah Northey

“I apologize if this offends you, but I feel that I may speak openly. When my husband drinks, he takes advantage of his marital privileges.” She dropped my hand and fussed about with her skirt, then looked back at me. “It is at these times that the angels wrap me in their wings to keep me safe, and I no longer have to abide his crudeness.”

She honored me with another grimace. “I don’t know what he will say when he learns that I cannot bear him a child. He has wanted a son for so long.” Her gaze sought the dark hallway. “I hope that my sanity will be sufficient for him. I must trust in the doctor’s treatment.”

What could I say to my new friend? I knew nothing of husbands and married life. “Friends can always confide in each other,” I offered.

I don’t believe she heard me. Her thoughts appeared to be elsewhere. “Have no fears for me. By tomorrow, I will be cured and can return to my husband, my silliness eradicated, once and forever.”

This last surgery would cure Elizabeth of her lunacy. Doctor Langdon had promised.

I was introduced to the doctor ten days after my 19th birthday. Ten days after my mother explained that she, my father, and I would be making a short journey from our farm outside Bordentown to the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton to meet the celebrated Charles R. Langdon, the doctor who would cure me of my visions and fairy friends.

I understood that my parents would never acknowledge my fantasies and midnight revels. In their world, young women did not converse with imaginary beings or remove their clothing to leap about in the moonlight. Likewise, I appreciated that some gentlemen and their fastidious mothers might perceive my behavior as odd, and this was not to my liking. A young man, a neighbor of sorts, had recently expressed an interest in visiting me on a future Sunday afternoon, and I had no wish to alienate his attention. I agreed to visit with Doctor Langdon.

At a summons from the doctor, I sprang from the bench and walked into his office, abandoning Elizabeth to her solitary vigil. Doctor Langdon introduced himself while I gathered my skirt about me and took a chair in front of his desk. I smiled politely and refused to notice that my mother held a handkerchief to her eyes while my father patted her arm.

It was quite touching the way my elderly parents, James and Sarah Miller, begged the doctor to accept me as his patient. My very large father fell to his knees, a difficult place for him to be. My mother sobbed and pleaded as she hammered her fists on top of the desk. With much patience, Doctor Langdon assured them that I could stay until he’d had a chance to observe my behavior. Until he had cured me. Simply a matter of locating the seat of madness in my body and removing it.

After he led my parents from the office, the doctor settled behind his desk and, with fingers interlocked over his black waistcoat, described his state-of-the-art cure for my insanity. He informed me that he’d studied infection-based psychological disorders in Europe with all of the finest doctors and was well regarded. There was, therefore, no doubt about his ability to cure me. He talked at length but asked no questions.

At last I found an opportunity to speak. “Thank you, Doctor. I am very grateful for your attention.” My mother had implored me to be polite. “Don’t always act the fool, Gracie,” she’d scolded.

Doctor Langdon came from behind his desk to take the chair next to me. “I will take good care of you, Miss Miller,” he said, reaching for my hand.

Green, his eyes were green.

“May I call you Grace?” Beneath his thick mustache, so like Teddy Roosevelt’s, his lip was plump and red.

I licked my own lips, which felt unexpectedly dry. “Of course, Doctor.”

“Well, Grace, one little extraction, and you’ll be cured. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”

I inhaled his odor of tobacco and mint. “Oh, yes, Doctor,” but I recalled Elizabeth’s face and added, “though I am concerned about how I might look like afterward.”

He leaned close. “You’ll be fine, my dear. No harm will come to you, I promise.” As we stood, his gaze swept over me, from my carefully-pinned hair, down the puffed bodice of my new mauve blouse to my belted waist, and at last to the tips of my boots. With one side of his mouth curled under his moustache, he gave me a crooked smile. “I will see you soon, Grace.”

A nurse the measure of my father conducted me up a wide stairway sun-bright with ranks of tall windows and onto a dimly-lit floor with numerous closed doorways, our heel-taps echoing in the empty corridor. As we passed the wooden doors, I heard muffled thumps and once a sharp bang, and then something that sounded like “hello” but may have been “help.” I paused and looked to the nurse, but she maintained her stride, pulling me along in her wake.

Near the end of the hall, she jangled a collection of keys held at her waist by a heavy leather belt. Choosing a large key, she unlocked the door in front of us, and we entered a room that was smaller and darker than my pretty bedroom at home. I felt the chill and dampness and hesitated before stepping to the middle. The room held an iron bed with coarse-looking linens, a dresser that had seen use, a small desk missing its drawer, and a chair near the only window.

As she settled my valise by the dresser, the nurse said, “Here we are then, miss. Now rest a bit and someone will come at 6:00 to show you to the women’s dining room.”   She grinned, displaying widely-spaced teeth, and walked out, closing the door firmly behind her.

My heart clanged. The room was dismal and smelled like a washroom. Where was this odor coming from? I wanted my own bedroom and my mother and laughing father. Why had they left me? How could I stay here? I allowed tears to come for a minute or so, but then, taking charge of myself, dragged my chair to the window.

With elbows spread wide on the sill, I observed the park-like setting below. The hospital grounds were beautiful and much care had been taken. In addition to fertile blossoms and softly flowering cherries, I saw a generous garden, raked open, waiting to be seeded, and laundry exhibiting itself in heaving lines spread wide in the spring sun. And scores of budding sycamores and elms and maples on whose waltzing tops I would twirl. When I turned back, I was pleased to find that my books had been stacked upon the desk. I would see how things progressed and whether I would decide to stay.

Then shouts from the hallway and someone baaing, like a lamb, and much frenzied laughter. I was frightened. Where were my fairies? Why had they not come to make me feel better? I sat on the creaking bed and rocked back and forth, calling my fairy folk to me. And they came! They came and joined me in a celebration of this new venture. Falling back on the bed, I slept until summoned by loud raps upon my door.

She was a different nurse, boney and small, and I raced her quick steps down another stairway. As we hurried through a long green hall, a girl, younger than I, glided soundlessly toward us on delicate bare feet, her head nodding as if in perfect agreement with a companion. She was quite pretty, with fine features and a graceful manner, and passed without a word, her head nodding still. I was embarrassed to notice that she smelled strongly of her monthlies.

The nurse gave the girl no attention. As I followed her, she explained that this part of the hospital contained the kitchen and dining rooms and the separate floors for men and women. Two other wings, spread wide to catch fresh air and sunshine, held the operating theatres and doctors’ offices. With almost 400 patients, the hospital was full. “You’re a lucky girl to see Doctor Langdon. He’s our youngest physician, won’t be 35 ‘til November.” She giggled. “Ain’t he a looker?”

Noise burst from the cavernous dining room as we stepped inside, and I surveyed a commotion of women of various ages and appearance. The room, heaving with chatter and squeals, sounded, if I am truthful, like pigs at a trough, and smelled of boiled meats and something not unlike our barnyard after the fall slaughter. I couldn’t stay here, much less eat amidst this calamity.

As I turned to walk from the room, the nurse, stronger than she looked, took my elbow. “Here you are, miss.” She sat me abruptly next to a portly lady of approximately my mother’s age with ferociously dyed red hair and an immoderate barrage of lavender about her satiny evening frock. She ate with a great deal of enjoyment and attention, only turning to me after she’d exhausted her bowl of oxtail soup.

She introduced herself as Mrs. Lavinia Howard from far off Newark. Scratching her scalp with a crooked finger, she told me that she’d arrived at this fine hotel only two days ago. And wasn’t it a grand and lively place, she insisted. She was enjoying her visit, thought the food lovely, and had danced last evening with every handsome captain at the ball given in her honor. In fact, she whispered, she had been asked for her hand in marriage by no fewer than four of the young gentlemen! Wouldn’t Mr. Howard and her daughters be surprised, she laughed, and what was I wearing for tonight’s ball?

Elizabeth, the woman I’d met that afternoon, took a seat to my left. When I looked to her, something fluttered in my throat as I raised my hand to cover my lips. Her swollen, bruised mouth was exaggerated by her pale complexion, and she appeared older than she had a few hours ago. What was happening to her? She explained, slowly and carefully, that she wouldn’t be eating that evening, her appetite was so little, and that she was somewhat uneasy about tomorrow’s operation. Before I had a chance to ask about her visit with the doctor, she admitted to a slight headache and left the dining room.

I longed for a quiet dinner, but, as I reached for my fork, something struck my cheek. Startled, I looked up. “Got you,” garbled a slender woman. She threw back her head and, laughing delightedly, readied herself to throw another piece of bread when an attentive nurse caught her arm. I brushed my burning cheek and prayed to my fairies for deliverance.

Did I want to be cured? Did I seek sanity to find a husband, as my mother hoped? Was that reason enough to lose my beautiful visions, my lovely fairies, my celestial choirs?

I was beginning to find that I would like to be married. My sister was not unduly sad or prodigiously beaten, and my brothers’ wives appeared happy enough, although often looked weary with four children apiece. I considered how happy I’d be to have a man to love me, comfort me. A baby would be wonderful, too, I’d come to believe, and I could almost feel that blissful weight in my expectant arms. Yes, I very much wanted to be healed and decided to give Doctor Langdon’s theory a test. After all, what was one tooth?

I did not expect to see Elizabeth at breakfast the next morning as she was scheduled for her final surgery. The one that would cure her. Of course, she could no longer bear a child, but I was sure that her husband, once he had his wife back home, sane and happy, would forgive her for the sinful state of her womb. She was still a beautiful woman if you viewed her from an angle, and, when she had a visit to the hairdresser, her blonde curls would shine again.

Elizabeth also missed lunch, but Mrs. Howard inquired, as she speared a boiled potato on her fork, whether I had enjoyed last night’s ball. Before I could reply, a starched nurse touched my elbow. “Miss Miller? Doctor Langdon will see you now.”

His office was dark and less cheerful that afternoon. Heavy clouds obscured the sun, and I keenly felt the lack of warmth. As I took my accustomed seat and straightened my skirt, I smiled politely. “I’m sorry, Doctor Langton, but I am feeling a little unsure about my surgery.”

“Think nothing of it, my dear.” He smiled back. “It is hardly surgery, after all. One simple extraction. We have discussed this.”

I studied my intertwined fingers and fumbled for words. “Yes, of course, doctor. As you say.” I thought again about Elizabeth. “But, about Mrs. Granger,” I said, then stopped as his lips pursed.

“Mrs. Granger is doing very well, although I should not be talking about other patients.” He stroked his moustache and continued. “I can tell you that she is now completely cured and ready to go home.” I clapped my hands, as I thought he would expect.

Our meeting went on for perhaps an hour. Doctor Langdon, his voice captivating, told me that he would start with an examination. As he explained how my physical examination would be undertaken, I began perspiring. My heart beat extravagantly, and I felt a bloom creep up my chest and over my face, something that didn’t happen unless I danced with my fairies. Under his intense gaze, I grew quite heated and rocked back and forth at the edge of my chair, my breath rapid. I began to hum, waiting for the celestial choir to join me in my celebration. I rocked faster.

Doctor Langdon’s head jerked back. “Grace, you forget yourself.”

I stopped, and my gaze cleared as I blinked. It would not do. I pretended to faint.

Once in my room, I shut the window against the cold rain sleeting the panes. I ached with the chill, and my heart bled for the fragile petals and blossoms crushed and battered in the garden below. What had I done in the doctor’s office? I didn’t often rock like that. My mother said it wasn’t seemly, that good girls didn’t do such things, but sometimes my feelings overcame me. With numbed fingers, I wrapped myself in blankets and slept, waking only at dawn.

Amidst the raucous crush at breakfast, an ashen specter that looked like Elizabeth was carried into the dining room in a wheelchair. Her back rounded, her shoulders huddled over her waist, she appeared to be in pain. “Dear, how are you?” I asked, although I needn’t have. I could see. There was nothing wrong with my eyesight.

As she adjusted a blanket over my friend’s lap, the nurse reported that Elizabeth needed only one small colonic surgery in order to realize a perfect cure. It was guaranteed. Elizabeth bowed her head, looking like one of the tulips beaten by yesterday’s sleet. She did not speak while I massaged her lifeless hands.

“Elizabeth? Elizabeth, dear?” I said as the nurse walked away.

She raised her head. “They’re gone.” She slipped her hands from my clasp and brought her fingers to cover her face. “My angels are gone,” she mumbled. “I am not well.”

“What’s wrong, Elizabeth? Why are you not better?”

My surgery, a small tooth extraction, would be my first and only surgery. Doctor Langston was positive. I was so close to a cure that the one tooth extraction would eliminate my madness. I was apprehensive, especially after what I’d seen of Elizabeth, and troubled by her words, unsure what I should make of them. My breakfast curdled and rose to my mouth.

After the surgery, there was a tender gap in my lower jaw where the doctor had had to perform not only an extraction but an entire root canal. I was in some pain, though Doctor Langdon proclaimed me quite sane and ready to go home.

“Doctor, are you quite sure? My jaw aches, and I don’t feel at all well. The voices and my fairies are crying for me.”

He rose, squeezing my shoulder. “Ah, my dear. I now believe that the source of your infected brain rests in a different tooth. But, no matter,” he huffed. “Tomorrow I will address this with another simple extraction, and you will be cured.”

I thought to protest but could only smile. My second operation took place before Elizabeth’s colonic extraction, and I came away fatigued. My jaw and mouth throbbed after the extraction, this time the third molar on the top left side of my mouth.

By evening, I had a temperature. While freshening my pillowslip, a rather brash nurse told me that this was normal. “Why, Mrs. Granger is also running quite a temperature, let me tell you, but we’ve packed her in ice. She’ll be fine.” I must have looked distressed because she stopped her prattling. “Now, don’t fret, dear,” she soothed. “It’s to bring down her fever. Happens all the time.”

Such information was too much for my fevered brain. Throughout the night, my dreams ran violently with scarlet explosions and screams that must have been mine, although to that I could not attest. I woke frequently, the smell of copper rich in my nostrils, and again slept most of that day, taking only watery soups and teas.

I entered the dining hall the next morning feeling as though my head had been thumped about. I hurt all over and wished only for the comfort of my home. Why was I not feeling like myself? Why couldn’t I speak to Doctor Langdon? Ask him questions? I’d never been afraid to speak up to my mother or father. Why was I allowing this to go on?

As I walked to my accustomed seat, I realized that the normally riotous dining room was quiet. Three nurses whispered near the coffee urn, their hands buzzing through the air, and the other women bent over their oatmeal and eggs, eating softly, barely talking. As I took up a spoon, one of the nurses noticed me and put her hand to her lips, as if to catch her words. She came to my chair.

Thus I learned that my friend had passed on. She’d been 23-years-old. The nurse told me that Elizabeth’s infected brain had spread its poison overnight to her colon. Amidst the smell of eggs and toast, I choked on my oatmeal and threw down my spoon. It clattered in the dish, alarming the women who sat near, but I felt nothing for them. Elizabeth had died. Her husband would be bereft. I wrenched myself from the nurse’s solicitous hand.

Again in my room, I sat by the window and mourned my friend, though I hadn’t known her for more than a few days. Why had she died? Why hadn’t the doctor’s cure worked for her? I cried and rocked, but nothing eased my sorrow. Poor Elizabeth, I whispered, holding myself tight, hunched over on my chair. Then I was struck by a thought. Would this be my fate? Would I look like Elizabeth? No, surely that could not happen. After all, I was only 19 years old and would soon be going home. I wouldn’t die here alone, not like Elizabeth. Would I?

The day stretched long, enlivened only at night by a full moon, and my dancing feet soon allowed me to forget my troubles. But, as I slipped into my room through the window at daybreak, I remembered that I had another surgery scheduled in the afternoon. This time, Doctor Langdon had promised, he would absolutely find the infected tooth, and I would be cured. Guaranteed. I had asked the attending nurse to find me a lace handkerchief.

philadelphia stories
Waterbed by Stephanie Kirk

Doctor Langdon found the source of my illness in my top left canine tooth. “Mad as a dog,” he laughed, “but now completely cured!” Although my jaw ached, I mustered a polite smile but couldn’t form a query about Elizabeth. The words would not come. I’d seen how she looked, remembered what she’d said. The doctor must have understood because he said that her death had been such a misfortune, especially since he’d discovered the infected organ and she’d been cured. “Right at the second of her expiration, when it no longer mattered.”

It mattered to Elizabeth, I wanted to say. It mattered to me. But I kept my sore mouth closed, lace handkerchief to my lips. He was the doctor.

The next morning, he shook his head. I’d just explained how I’d been up again until dawn, dancing on the treetops, and was too exhausted to get up. I wanted to discuss things with him, but, again, something prevented me. I found it strange that he wouldn’t want to know more about me. What I thought or felt. For a medical man, he seemed to be more interested in finding a cure than in discovering why I dreamed so fancifully.

Then I had a fourth, fifth, and sixth extraction, and somehow I lost count of the surgeries. With my tongue, however, I could still number my remaining teeth. Eighteen. Of the 32 teeth I had when entering the hospital, I now had only 18 straggling throughout my hollow mouth. In distress, I took my meals in my room. Turning my mirror to the wall, I refused to open my mouth and talked to no one but Doctor Langdon and a few of the more charitable nurses who were patient with my mumbling tongue.

The following Monday afternoon, Doctor Langdon came into my room and told me that he’d written to my parents to explain that he’d finally discovered the source of my malady. It was in my tonsils, of course, and he’d be taking them out tomorrow morning. Now, wasn’t that a happy surprise. He said he was sorry that he’d misdiagnosed some of my teeth. “Some!” I gasped but he went on. This time he promised complete success. By tomorrow afternoon, if not the following morning, I would be cured.

“Isn’t that how Elizabeth’s cure progressed? Didn’t she lose many of her teeth and then her tonsils and sinuses?” I carefully dabbed my mouth. “Doctor, I’m frightened. I’d like to go home, please.”

“Now, Grace. You know I possess the most thorough and up-to-date knowledge. We have discussed this, my dear. I am an expert.”

I began rocking. Something I couldn’t name was wrong.

“Stop this at once,” he called as he walked from my room. “It is settled. Tomorrow is your tonsillectomy.”

It felt as if the doctor had scratched out my tonsils with his fingernails.  Every breath stung, and my throat and my nose throbbed. When I closed my eyes, I saw pulsing flashes of red and purple, and when I opened them, all was obscured by a bloody veil. Even my eyelashes ached.

“You’re looking well today, Grace,” Doctor Langdon boomed.

I tried to nod but only managed to rustle the pillowslip.

“You will be most happy to hear that I found the source of your illness.” His chest appeared to broaden. He’d certainly gotten taller. “As I suspected, it was your tonsils. But I removed them, along with your sinuses, of course, just to make sure. You, my dear, are now completely well and sane.” His smile could not have shone brighter.

He waited for me to speak, but I would not open my mouth. I was cured, but at what cost? I’d turned my mirror right side around and knew how I looked. I’d once been a pretty girl, I’m bold enough to say, but was now not that same young woman. After the tonsillectomy and the removal of my sinuses, I resembled my deceased friend Elizabeth. The bridge of my nose, red and swollen, would no longer have that proud Miller Bump, and my mouth was an inflamed sore that concealed my shrunken gums.

I sent away my fairy friends and the celestial voices that had seen me through years of sadness. I was alone. No man would look at me except in pity or disgust, and I could not abide the thought of either their kindness or their repugnance.

Most days I kept to my room, reading or sewing, staring out the window at our dull barnyard, existing on soups and watery grains. I’d grown thin. After much thought, I considered sending a letter to Doctor Langdon to explain my feelings, but I never wrote. After all, how does one calculate the loss of a husband? A baby, a family? A life?

At times throughout the cold, stormy winter, I contemplated taking my life, especially during that blizzardy February. It would have been easy to do, living on a farm, but I didn’t. My parents had done what they believed was right. Neither said a word about my appearance

In three weeks, I’d be 20 years old. I was cured, the rest of my life before me.


Born in Brooklyn, Edna McNamara grew up near the Delaware River and has chosen to spend most of her life along its banks. She spent too many years writing only in her head but eventually put fingers to her keyboard. She credits two of her teachers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and all of the many writers whose work she admires.

When the Leaf Bug Bites I’ll Be Looking Out the Window at You Smoking in the Rain

On the hotel room balcony, Luke stood smoking cigarette after cigarette as I put the kids to bed. Their excitement at being in a hotel, at sharing a room with us, had them popping up like the moles in that arcade game where you hit ‘em with a mallet. I can’t deal with this, he told me as he closed the sliding glass door behind him. I watched him as he leaned against the railing, his hip pressing into the soft, splintering wood, his long torso leaning out into the crickety night, rain falling softly behind him, drops catching the light of the bare bulb every so often like falling stars against the black sky beyond.

Philadlephia Stories - marge Feldmas
Thunder by Marge Feldman

Esme fell asleep on my arm, which began to prick with pins and needles after a while. She always slept with her mouth open like a goldfish reaching for air. Every time I tried to move my arm, she stirred. Eventually I gave up and lay there, staring at the stained popcorn ceiling. In sleep as in life, Henry fidgeted, which was the reason I’d never let him sleep in bed with us at home. It always meant getting kicked in my belly or my back, and being half awake all night. Now he made little noises as he tugged the stiff floral bedspread on the opposite bed. Was he imagining himself a superhero? Or were his dreams as mundane and frustrating as my own, wrestling with toothpaste tubes that never released their goo or continuously sharpening pencils which would never write?

I wrestled my arm free from Esme and went over to kiss Henry’s smooth forehead. He smelled of baby sweat, damp and sweet. I could smell my own body, too, as I leaned over, a deeper, pungent smell that comforted me in this strange environment. Luke, being what my parents call a real American– which is their way of saying an Annie Hall kind of WASP, is afraid of body odor. In fact, he is afraid of any odor. He generally strives for the neutral in his life – except in me. But maybe he strives to have it in me, too.


The hotel called itself a resort. It had an indoor pool housed in a room so over-bleached all the white was yellowing. There was a game room with checkers and a pinball machine, a bar that actually played Frank Sinatra (no irony) and only Frank Sinatra the whole time we were there, and a swing set with a slide in the back. It was Labor Day weekend, we had driven up from Philly to the Poconos on a whim, and this was the only room available for miles around. Our original plan had been to stay home Saturday and Monday, but spend Sunday at the Jersey shore with friends. At the last minute, Luke had suggested the mountains instead. I really preferred the beach, but I didn’t say so. I was afraid it would lead to yet another fight and ruin the weekend. Our fights were usually about how I always had to get my own way. “I just have to get out of the city, Liz,” he’d said, and I had agreed, tired of looking at my grimy basement filled with mismatched toys and socks. But we both knew what we really meant was, “We have to get away from each other.”

There were a million things left unsaid between us these days. We used to argue like all get-out. There were broken glasses, spilled cans of paint, even a vacuum cleaner down the stairs one time. I still didn’t have all the attachments. But we’d started to hold it together when the kids came. Luke was never a fan of direct expression; he preferred the silent treatment. And all my screaming just made me seem like the crazy one, so I started to pull it together, to hold it together, to hold it in. And when Luke reached out for me – when his father died, when he got layed off from the bank – I was too busy holding myself in to reach back.

In the morning, Henry captured a leaf bug on the balcony and brought it inside where it pinched him. Surprised, he dropped it and it floundered, panicked, around the synthetic brown/orange carpeting. It was still drizzling and fuzzy outside, but the sun was peeking through the clouds and beginning to burn off the blur. Henry ran back to the balcony to show Luke the drop of blood jeweled on his finger, and Luke let him lean against his leg awhile, the smoke from his cigarette mixing with the rising mist.

We had taken the kids to the pool as soon as we got to the place the day before. They drank in the chlorine like sugar and had emerged only for dinner, eyes red as potheads, drowsy and cranky from their efforts. Now, they wanted to go back. Once they got in, I knew we’d never get them out. “It looks like it’s clearing up,” I said. “Let’s hit that waterfall I was reading about last night. It should be really close by.”

Esme’s knees started to buckle as she braced for her oncoming tantrum. “No Mommy, noooo!”

“Come on, Liz,” said Luke in his timbred voice that meant he was going to win and he knew it. “They can go for a little while can’t they?” It was a cool sound, an unworried sound, such a contrast to my clenched one whenever we had a standoff, which lately was every day. He sounded like he was flicking a cigarette away and it turned my mind hot and red. The kids jumped on the beds, squealing.

Luke was the good parent now, but I knew what would happen. I’d spend the day inhaling chlorine as my hair frizzed while Luke watched TV in the room, smoked on the balcony, and made a quick appearance to dunk them in the pool just as I would be about to lose my mind refereeing yet another fight over whose turn it was to wear the goggles. Meanwhile, the world outside would become beautiful and sunny, a perfect day for a late summer hike, and I’d have to watch it fade into pink from inside the peeling, steamy room.

“It’s going to rain later,” I tried in a practical voice. “I think we should go now. You know how they get once they start anything. Anyway, we can hit the pool when we get back, before we leave.”

“Noooo!” yelled the kids from the beds.

“Come on, Liz. Why do you always have to be such a hardass?”

Now, the whine crept into my throat, clawed at it like a little troll that lived in my larynx and had made its way up to my vocal chords. It wanted out. “We drove all the way up here. We didn’t go to the beach. I want to get out of this crappy place and see some goddamned waterfalls!” I turned to the kids, trying to win them over. “Who wants to see waterfalls with Mommy?”

“No!” They yelled in unison, the traitors. “Swimming!!!!” But they were joyous, tossing their heads back, their hair flying in the air as they descended back to the mattress from the air, the rough sheets pooling at their feet. “Daddy! Daddy!” yelled Esme, “Tell Mommy we want to go swimming!”

“That’s right. Mommy doesn’t always have to get her way, right guys?” He looked at me as he said this.

“Yeah, yeah! Mommy always gets her way,” Esme cried delightedly, punctuating each jump with a single word, but Henry, though he kept jumping, gave me a sad look, his eyes tender. I pinched my mouth into a smile for him, raising my eyebrows to show it was okay. He smiled back an unsure smile that broke my heart. I turned to look at Luke hard. “Later,” he announced. “As soon as we get back from seeing the goddamn waterfalls.” He looked right back at me.

We struggled the kids into all manner of clothing and sandals and sunscreen. Packed a knapsack with water and granola bars and an extra pair of underwear for Esme, just in case. We were walking out the door, the kids rushing ahead, racing down the hallway when Luke said, “You know, I’m kind of tired. Maybe I’ll just stay back and rest. Then I can meet you down at the pool.” His hand went up to his hair, his nervous move. He knew he wasn’t going to get away with this one.

“This is supposed to be a family weekend. I don’t want to tramp around the Poconos alone with two kids. God, sometimes I feel like I’m already a single mother.”

“It was your idea to do this stupid hike,” he shot back.

“It was your idea to come up here!”

“Shhhh!!!” he scolded. We were standing in the orange carpeted hallway. It wasn’t even 8:30.

I said it again in a whisper, the kind of yell whisper whose peaks are tinged with throaty anger. “It was your fucking idea to come up here! I would have been very happy to go hang out with the Shermans and eat crabs and swim in the ocean. At least I would have had another adult to talk to.” I turned away from him then and ran after the kids who were arguing over who could press the elevator’s down button. I didn’t even look behind to see if he followed.


Linnie kerrigan-greenberg philadelphia stories
Rainforest by Linnie Kerrigan-Greenberg

Luke and I met in college. He wore flannels and bobbed his head to Pearl Jam, pumping the keg and handing out red cups, rarely taking one himself By the time Nirvana would be wailing away in the background, and everyone else had either hooked up or had passed out on dirty couches, Luke would be ready to go take a really good look at the stars. He’d get a Mexican blanket. He’d take me by the hand. He’d say the names of the constellations: Pleadies, Cassiopea, Saggitarius. He’d point to them, he’d kiss me, the ground would be wet under the blanket and seep into the seat of my pants, go cold beneath my shoulder. I wouldn’t care, not even if there was a rock under my hip. He would kiss me, and I could see the stars.


Despite being called the Nature’s Wonder Resort, there was no breakfast included or available, so we grabbed food from the gas station across the street. In the car, the kids munched on their stale soft pretzels, and I sipped hot, bitter coffee that burned my tongue in a not unpleasant way, the steam fogging up my glasses. Luke had followed, grudgingly.

From his booster seat in back, Henry told a joke. “What does an elephant get when he sits on a marshmallow?” he asked, already giggling at the answer.

“What?” I turned around in my seat, smiling.

“A mushy tushy!” Henry announced, and he laughed so hard that pulpated pretzel fell in a wad from his mouth, into his hand. He held it up with a big grin as we passed dark green trees, a Girl Scout camp, a boat launch, posters announcing state game land. This got Esme going, and the three of us couldn’t stop laughing.

“Ewe!” I said finally, “Give that to me.”

I held out my hand for the sticky bread and knew I was his mother in an intimate, physical way. I plopped it into the plastic bag with the rest of the wrappers and straws and sugar packets from the gas station.

“Isn’t that funny, Daddy?” Henry demanded when he realized Luke was silent. But Luke was lost in his own world. “Daddy? Daddy!” There is no cover from children, and Luke was forced eventually to join us back in the car. “Daddy – a mushy tushy! Isn’t that funny?”

“Hmmmmm….” Luke nodded, his eyes still focused two car lengths ahead. I shook his shoulder, and he gradually turned to me, his face changing rapidly. It reminded me of this doll Esme had; the head spins around to show different faces, each with a different emotion.  His face settled into an expression with flared nostrils on his aquiline nose, his ears cocked, making the wiry gray hairs at his temple stick out, as if he’d smelled something bad. His eyes locked into mine, I sucked in my breath at the hate I felt radiating from him in that moment. “What?” he finally asked, his voice like metal.

“Henry told a joke,” I managed, but I turned my eyes to the trees, the leaves, the trees, the leaves, the forest for the trees. I wanted to say something, say anything, but no words came to mind. I knew it was not his fault that our marriage was falling apart. It was my silence and my fear. I was trying to hold it together by not arguing back, to make each moment okay, but it was all rotten underneath, and I knew it.

Luke sucked in a breath, and that seemed to flip a switch. He became Dad again. His shoulder straightened, a playful smile came to his lips, his eyebrows raised inquisitively. “Tell it again, son,” he prodded in a warm voice as he turned around slightly in his seat, his hands still on the wheel. “I wasn’t paying attention.” Son – what a WASP-y thing to say. I could hear my mother in my ear – Oy! Americans! Everything on the surface.

As we trudged up the hill towards the stream, each of us with a child, and then switching children, we hardly had to talk to each other. I squeezed Esme’s fat little belly and her skinny bug legs wiggled around in glee and that was enough. The sun went in and out, changing the light dramatically as we made our way beneath the canopy of Eastern trees, blackberries still ripe on the vines just beyond the edges of the trail. The children ran up ahead as they began to hear the faint trickle of water. I smiled, and in my gentlest voice pointed out how lovely the mountains were, even as the summer was fading. Luke just made a guttural sound to indicate he’d heard me, but otherwise didn’t respond.

When we passed a side trail, Luke announced, “I think I’m going to go off this way for a bit. I want to be by myself for a while.”

“Really?” I couldn’t keep the anger out of my voice. I stood sweating and stunned, gnats buzzing in my ear. I swatted them away.

“What’s the problem, Liz?” Luke’s shoulders sank. He asked the question not, of course, because he wanted to hear what the problem was, but because this was the routine.

I felt my throat clench and the voice that came out sounded high pitched. “You’re going to leave me alone? With the kids? Now? Again?”

“You seriously can’t handle them for half an hour in the woods? Jesus, you’ll be fine. They’re not babies anymore. I’ve got a lot on my mind.” He turned to walk onto the green trail.

You always do, I thought as I started to turn my back, to walk off without explaining. I was the demanding, control-freak wife who had no sympathy for a man who’d lost his job and was just getting back on his feet at a new one with a salary reduction. I knew I was being an overgrown brat, but something in those woods, something about being in that run-down motel that my husband and kids seemed to enjoy so much, something about being away from the piles of dishes and laundry and bills and dust bunnies and birthday parties and deadlines at work and phone calls that Luke was going to be late again and issues with the day care and the kindergarten and passive aggressive phone calls from his mother and wet beds at 3 in the morning and crayon all over our newly painted dining room walls and a back turned away from me in our giant, lonely bed made me face him and call him back to me. “Luke!” I shouted.

“What?” His voice like a razor, he turned his face back to me, but his body still pointed up the adjoining hill, into the darkness where the trees swallowed the path.

“It’s not about the kids.” I tried to keep that horrible, whiny sound out of my voice. I took a breath. “It’s about me.” I looked at my feet, at the mud drying back into dirt and a fuzzy red and brown caterpillar making its slow way to a leaf just beyond the toes of my worn out sneakers. My face felt hot and my fingers were prickly. I tried to take another breath, but my chest felt blocked. When I looked back up, Luke had turned fully back to me. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to be with me. To be with me. Here, together.”

He looked wistfully up the trail, and I looked away. I said what I needed to say. I breathed in and out, sending oxygen to the places in my body that were gasping for it. I wiggled my fingers and turned to go toward the kids and the goddamn waterfall and the crowd of people surely photographing it and daring each other to dunk under it and eating hummus and peanut butter sandwiches on large flat rocks next to it. He was beside me suddenly, his long arm caged around my shoulder. He pulled me into him, and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding as my narrow shoulders crushed into his ribs. He didn’t say anything and neither did I. We just walked in step down the trail.


Driving back to Philly on the highway, we passed over the state park. “Look down there – I think that’s where we were hiking,” I announced. The kids sucked on candy and stared out their windows. Luke nodded. Satisfied with what I could get out of him for the moment, I looked at the cars parked below, the incredible green of the trees. The other trees, the ones lining the highway seemed dusty, lighter, tired, closer to being ready to shed their leaves for fall, to rest.

“Take a look at this,” Luke said suddenly, handing me his iPhone. “I signed up for this thing; it’s a service. You pay 10 bucks a month and you can program in any album you want.” He touched the app and an array of choices popped up. You could look by artists or song or genre. I had a radio feature on my phone, but you could only choose one song on it – then you were stuck with whatever the invisible DJ in the device chose next. This, he explained, would allow you to choose whatever song, whenever you wanted to hear it.

“Neat!” I said, handing it back to him.

He put on The Steve Miller band. He liked to point out all the jazz influences. “Listen to that bass line,” he would normally say. But this time, he surprised me. I was half listening, half wondering what we were going to make for dinner, when he said, “When this song is over, do you want to pick something?“

“To listen to?” I turned toward him.

He smiled back at me, “Yeah, to listen to.” He said it gently, and I remembered him kissing me under the stars all those years ago. I took the phone back from him as Steve Miller finished wailing away. What did I want to hear? It had been the better part of a decade since my musical choices had ranged beyond “ohn Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” or the local alternative station as default aural wallpaper as I drove to my job as a social worker. Usually, I just listened to the news and numbed out.

Now, with the gadget in my hand, I felt electrified. The hairs on my arms perked up. My fingertips tingled as I scrolled through my choices. I glanced at Luke, who was responsibly looking 10 seconds down the road. The sky was again dreary. The answers were nowhere around me. And then it floated to me: Julianna Hatfield – that’s who I wanted to hear: her blunt lyrics, her raw voice, the bare guitar behind her. That was how I had felt in college. The yearning, the anticipation, the new connections to people, ideas, art. I had been truly myself then, interested in the world and eager to join it. I was unapologetically angry: at my parents, at God, at men who called to me on the street, at the idiots in Washington. I used to picture myself on a kibbutz, in the deserts of Arizona, swimming in the rocky blue grottos of the Baja Peninsula. And then I’d met Luke, and for a while, we were alive together, talking through the night and making love on dirty bedspreads or a couch in the hallway, it didn’t matter. Once we stayed up an entire night together, each reading a novel – and they weren’t even novels for class. I read Trainspotting, flipping back and forth to the Scottish-American glossary. I don’t remember what Luke read, but it didn’t matter. We lay head to toe on my long, twin, dorm room bed, our legs wrapped around each other. In the morning, we skipped class and listened to The Pixies.

Julianna crooned about about hating her sister through the speakers as the early evening sun fought its way through the clouds. I had forgotten how breathy she sounded, how like a grown baby. “God,” Luke looked over at me, smiling, “remember her?”

“Yeah, I know. Remember all those baby trends – the little barrettes, the pacifiers?”

“Oh my god, yeah,” He drew out the last word and looked off into the distance, but his hand found mine on the center console as the opening cords of the next song crashed and popped on our puny car speaker. “Sleater-Kinney,” Luke acknowledged the band. “You really liked these guys, didn’t you?” The kids were crashed out in back by now, and I checked briefly to make sure the heavy bass didn’t wake them. Esme drooled, openmouthed onto her car seat. Henry’s head hung down, his blond curls bobbing with the rhythm of the car and the occasional lift from the air conditioner.

Philadelphia Stories
On Kreeger Pond by Stephanie Kirk

The singer’s staccato lyrics rang through their angriest song, “Monster,” the anthem of all the fights I’d once had with my mother. I listened for a minute, letting the pure thrill of her anger wash through me.

“I was so angry with my mother then. With both my parents, I guess, but mostly with my mother. I always felt like I could never be good enough for her. I don’t know. I guess everyone feels that way about their parents.” I thought a minute as the beat pulsed through my whole body. It felt so freeing, just as it had back then. “It’s funny, you know?”

“What is?” he asked. And it felt so good to be asked. To feel that he was really listening. Lately, he always seemed to answer any of my deep thoughts with “Uh-huh,” before going off to make himself a sandwich.

“Well, I think they still have all of these expectations of me, and they are disappointed in me for not becoming a lawyer and marrying a good Jewish doctor. They’d never say that, of course, but it’s there. It’s funny because it just doesn’t make me angry the way it used to. I guess they’ve softened. I guess I have, too.”

Luke appeared to consider this. He’d always had such a mild relationship with his own parents. Not a very deep relationship, but a pleasant one. I wondered if he could understand. I squeezed his hand as the song ended. “When we get home,” he began as a new song started. I leaned in, wondering what he would propose for us. Maybe ordering a pizza and watching a Disney movie all together before bedtime. Maybe getting the kids to bed early so we could hang out together. “I gotta run into the office for a bit.”

I sat stunned, my hand still under his. I pulled it out and my chin jutted forward. I looked over, but all I saw was the long side of his face. His eyes were on the road. “What? Luke, it’s Sunday evening. And tomorrow is Labor Day. Can’t it at least wait until tomorrow? I thought we were having a family weekend.”

“Calm down,” he answered, ducking my question. “It’s no big deal. You can handle one night of bedtime.” I hated when he told me to calm down. I felt the pulse of “Monster” in my blood again. “You know I have to get my numbers up. I’m the new guy there. I need to get back at least to where I was.” There was just no arguing with that. I wanted to pull him out into the middle of the pulsing crowd and get him to jump, jump, jump! But he wasn’t that guy anymore and the crowd had long since gone to law school and gotten 401K plans. I stared out the window at the high sun, which hung like a yellow egg in the sky. Luke kept looking at the road, barely in the car at all.


Rachel Howe runs a tutoring program that brings Temple University students into North Philadelphia schools. She has taught writing at Rowan and Temple Universities as well as the Community College of Philadelphia. She also runs creative writing workshops for kids at local recreation centers and libraries. Her work has been published in Dark Matters, The Philadelphia City Paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and a variety of radio programs. Ms. Howe holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Temple University. She lives in South Philadelphia with her three children.

An Hourglass Full of Snowflakes

It’s rare for a man to have true peace of mind. Or maybe that’s too negative. Maybe a man has peace of mind the majority of his life, but only notices it once it’s gone, when turmoil is magnified, during times of stress when one looks back enviously on calmer waters. These were the thoughts running through Peter Bloom’s mind as he drove through a flashing red light down the snowy Main Street of Charter Shores.

philadelphia stories
Blue Spruce by Mary Gilman

There’s not much to say about Charter Shores. The town was founded in 1892, according to the wooden sign that greets summer visitors as they cross the bridge to the island – that is, if you could even call it an island. Charter Shores is a glorified sand bar off the coast of New Jersey. Lots of people visit in the summer. No one visits in the winter. That’s why as the snow fell on Main Street, Peter Bloom wasn’t concerned about stopping at that flashing red light. He wasn’t worried about kids running across the street. All the shops were closed. No one was walking back from the beach. The welcome mat of the five and dime, which usually offered a dusting of sand, was now covered in snow. As Peter passed by the five and dime, he thought about the sand versus the snow, and for some reason, pictured an hourglass filled with soft snowflakes.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Peter pulls his car into the only open store within a mile, the gas station at the end of Main Street. The snowpack crunches beneath his feet as waves crash on shore a few hundred yards away.

Peter is 18 years old. He’s in love. The snow, the ice, all is romantic. The air smells like saltwater mixed with gasoline. It’s perfume to his senses.

Peter enters the store. A pile of hamburgers wrapped in foil sits under a heat-lamp. He’s got no appetite. Hasn’t for days. He read somewhere that when you’re in love you release chemicals or hormones that are like a drug. Pheromones or endorphins or something like that. They kill your appetite. Peter likes the feeling. He hopes it never goes away.

From behind the counter, a young blonde girl offers him a smile.

“Can I get you anything, sir?”

“Why don’t you just run away with me?”

“Excuse me, sir?” Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail with a white rubber band. Or a hair tie. Peter doesn’t know what it’s called. But he loves it. He loves how the end of the ponytail touches her fair skin. The scent of her shampoo drifts across the counter.

“Let’s just get outta here. You’ve got no customers. Let’s just go.” He leans against the counter and fiddles with a pack of cigarettes. She grabs his hand and puts the cigarettes back.

“I can’t just leave. I’ve gotta finish my shift.” The girl pauses and leans back on the wall behind her. “It’s only another hour.”

He’s enamored with how confident she is. She acts so natural around him. She doesn’t seem to have as many thoughts running through her head all the time. Like he does. They’re both 18 years old, but Peter feels as if she’s more mature.

“We should go somewhere tonight, then. Like the city.”

“In the snow? You’re crazy.” She takes out the rubber band, or tie, or whatever, in her hair, and lets it fall. Then she puts it back into another ponytail. “We should stay inside. Watch TV or something. You can come to my house.”

Peter loves going to her house. Everything about it seems exotic. Her baby pictures on the wall. The cat always sleeping on the couch.

“OK, your house it is. We should spend as much time together as we can before you move.”

“Don’t make me sad.” The girl pouts, jokingly pushing out her bottom lip. But her eyes betray her. There’s seriousness in her casual tone.

“Oh, come on, you shouldn’t think like that. We’ve got, like, two months.”

Peter grabs the cigarettes again and flips them high into the air.

Snow falls on Main Street once more. But Charter Shores feels different. Peter Bloom is 54 years old now.

philadelphia stories, Betsy wilson
Five Pears by Betsy Wilson

When he took the exit for Charter Shores off the Turnpike, he’d tried to remember how long it had been since he’d driven down Main Street. Years. He rarely even drove through South Jersey anymore, and he certainly wouldn’t have been in the area if Harold hadn’t moved offices at the last minute. Whatever the reason, when Peter saw his headlights illuminating the green exit sign through the snow, he’d taken the off ramp. The dark pines, the lack of moonlight on the marshland, something about it had made him think of his youth. Made him drive down the causeway to the bridge. The snowstorm held no romance for him now, at least not in the present. There was a glimmer in his past, though. One simple, frozen sliver of a moment in a gas station 36 years ago. It was the only moment Peter could pinpoint where he had peace of mind. Calmness. On that particular evening, in the near dead of night, it was the only moment of happiness he could remember.

Is the glass half-full or half-empty?

The wooden sign for Charter Shores has a fresh coat of paint. Main Street is lined with new stores. National chains. The five and dime, however, is still in business. Bittersweet memories of buying sand toys there as a child mix with memories of buying his own kids sand toys there two decades ago. Peter’s mind isn’t interested in those two dots in time, though. Right now he’s looking to pinpoint a spot somewhere in between.

Peter pulls into the gas station at the end of Main Street. The convenience store’s facade looks different, with yellow stucco incongruously suggesting the Southwest. The neon logo of the current owner casts a glow on the snowy asphalt. Although the exterior is unfamiliar at first, Peter guesses the steel tanks deep beneath the ground are probably the same ones from his youth.

The shop door shuts with a jingle, blocking out the noise of the ocean. A young brunette with stenciled eyebrows and big hoop earrings stands behind the counter. Her complexion is dark, olive, Mediterranean. Peter nervously browses the three short aisles of the store, occasionally glancing at the shoplifter mirror hanging in the corner. He makes eye contact with the girl’s reflection. Peter quickly picks up a bag of potato chips, absentmindedly reading the ingredients before placing it back on the shelf. Finally, grabbing a bag of pretzels, Peter approaches the register.

“Two dollars, fifteen cents,” the girl says.

Peter doesn’t answer.

“Two dollars, fifteen cents.”

At that moment, something inexplicable comes over him. A dark, hollow feeling. An emotion that’s been welling within him for days, that forces its way to the surface. He swallows dry air as the girl looks at him inquisitively. A strange old man, breathing a bit too heavily. She speaks up again.

“Is that all? Can I get you anything else?”

He looks directly into her eyes.

“Why don’t you just run away with me?”

The brunette steps back.

“What?” She’s not sure she heard him correctly. He doesn’t answer. “What’d you say?”

Peter stumbles. A bit dizzy. His throat tightens.

Almost instantly a man with a tattoo on his neck appears from the back room.

“Hey, you all right, man?”

Peter steadies himself on the counter.

“You OK?” the girl asks.

Peter struggles to answer, his eyes on the floor. He finally speaks.

“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Peter almost loses his balance entirely, catching himself on the counter.

The tattooed man steps around a display of candy bars to help. Peter pushes him away and rushes outside.

The snow falls harder. Peter’s hands shake as he fumbles with his car keys. The door finally gives way and Peter throws himself into the driver’s seat. His ears ring with adrenaline.

He knows what do to, once his hands stop shaking. He’ll call Harold and tell him to rip up the papers. He’ll go back to his wife, ask for forgiveness. Everything will be fine.

In the distance, frigid waves crash on shore. The sound echoes off the gas station for a moment, then dies away between the falling snow.


A.E. Milford was born and raised in Delaware, spending much of his youth at the Jersey Shore. Now based in Los Angeles, Milford co-wrote both the awardingwinning short film “Another Day, Another Dime” and the documentary film “Who Is Billy Bones?” — which recently began airing nationwide on the cable network LinkTV. His fiction has been published in the Schuylkill Valley Journal. Milford is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and is married with one daughter.