An Incandescent Coming of Age


Erin Eileen Almond headshot

Erin Eileen Almond


— Former Philadelphia Stories Nonfiction Editor, Julia MacDonnell talks with Lanternfish Press author Erin Eileen Almond.


Erin Eileen Almond’s debut novel Witches’ Dance, just out from Philadelphia’s Lanternfish Press, is as riveting and intricate as the Paganini violin solo for which it is named. It’s one of those ‘curl up in a chair’ with tea or wine kind of books, the type the author herself, in a recent interview with Philadelphia Stories, said she loves to read.  Thanks to its trio of main characters, Witches’ Dance is rich and edgy, and interwoven with enough suspense and sex to keep the pages turning.

Hilda Greer is an incandescent teen-age violin prodigy, as passionate as she is confused, torn between her love of classical music and her desire to become a rock star via the heavy metal band Devil’s Advocate.

Her beautiful, narcissistic mother Claire is a dance teacher whose career as a ballerina was cut short by early motherhood.  Claire, who subsists on cigarettes, merlot, and a string of lovers, has raised Hilda alone after her jazz guitarist husband departed for the West Coast with one of his own young students.

Finally, there is Philip Manns, a virtuoso whose career as an internationally acclaimed violinist was ended by madness, in particular by an episode during which he believed that he’d become Paganini himself, the 19th century Italian virtuoso. Eventually Manns, reduced to teaching at the fictional Cambridge Conservatory, becomes Hilda’s teacher and mentor, with the alluring and troubled Claire forever hovering nearby.

In lustrous prose, and alternating among the points of view of Hilda, Claire, and Philip, Witches’ Dance ponders artistry and madness, and the tenacious if evanescent connections between creativity and insanity.  Its publication is the culmination of 10 years of hard work for Almond, a decade during which she not only rewrote the novel ‘from scratch at least three times,’ but also gave birth to her three children, the youngest now in first grade.  Not surprisingly, she put the novel down for ‘long stretches of time.’

“A more reasonable person might have just moved on to a different project at that point,” she says, “but I couldn’t seem to shake these characters and this story. I needed to write this book.”

Witches’ Dance reflects Almond’s own intense artistic journey, and her transformation from musician to writer.  She began playing violin in elementary school, switched as a teenager to heavy metal guitar, but, ever ‘obsessed with virtuosity’, returned to violin, eventually matriculating in violin at the Hartford Conservatory, planning a career as a performer and teacher.

“That experience was very eye-opening for me,” she said, “and essentially confirmed what I’d long suspected – that I just didn’t have the talent, or maybe even the confidence, to really go for it as a professional musician.” Hence, her creation of the unforgettable Hilda, whose labile emotions find their truest expression in the music she plays.

“The story really began with Hilda, my teenage prodigy…” who, Almond speculates, represents “my own grief at realizing that I would never be a professional violinist.”

Christine Neulieb, editorial director at Lanternfish Press said, “I was captivated by the character Hilda: the conflict between her fierce desire to be a rock star and her prodigious talent at classical violin; her strained relationship with her immature mother; the bewildering vortex of inspiration and insanity she encounters in her violin teacher. In the midst of all this she has to sort out where to pin her self-worth as she finally comes into her own. I was rooting for Hilda from page one.”

Almond recently answered some questions about her writing life, about her marriage to another writer, and about publication by a small independent house, Philadelphia’s Lanternfish Press.


JM: If Witches’ Dance is an indication, your knowledge and love of music is a major force in your life. When or how did you realize that writing, not music, would be the focus of your creative life?

EA: Music has definitely been a big part of my life for a long time! I started playing the violin in elementary school … and I studied it pretty seriously until I got to high school and gave it up for heavy metal guitar. (My parents were duly horrified.) But, even as a terrible lead guitarist for bands with names like The Virgin Saints, I was obsessed with virtuosity. And eventually that obsession led me back to the violin, because violinists – especially Paganini who was obviously a big inspiration for Witches’ Dance – were the original rock stars.

After I dropped out of the conservatory, I enrolled in classes at my local community college. And that experience was eye-opening for me in a different way, because although I’d always known that I wanted to write a novel, no one had told me that you could go to college to study fiction writing.

JM: When or how did you know that novel writing would be the best expression of your creativity – assuming, from the quality of Witches’ Dance, that it is? 

EA: Well, unless you count the terrible poetry that I was filling up notebooks with for most of my teen years, the novel was the first literary form that I ever tried to write. (I wish I could find and thank Donna Garden, my high school English teacher, who so sweetly read the chapters of my first novel attempt, ripped out of a spiral bound notebook, and encouraged me to keep going!) I adore short stories and poems and memoirs and essays, but I’m at my happiest as a reader when I’m engrossed in a long, complicated, and well-written novel. So, I always knew that, if I were trying to write the kind of book that I would most want to read, it would be a novel.

JM: When you first set out to write a novel, what did you think becoming a novelist would be like?  What do you think about it now that you have been published? Does the reality match the fantasy?

EA: Back in my earliest days of fantasizing about being a published novelist, I had a very old-fashioned sense of what it would mean to be putting books in the world. I assumed that it was the perfect profession for an introvert because I could just write the books and not worry about having to go out in the world and promote them. That would be someone else’s job. (You can stop laughing now.) But I realized that wasn’t the case long before I published Witches’ Dance.  Even though I’m still more comfortable alone in a room with my characters, than I am with public speaking, I’ve grown to love that part of it, too.

JM: How did you find the experience of submitting it to agents and publishers?  What can you tell us about Lanternfish Press?

EA: I was lucky in that I connected with my agent, Danielle Bukowski, of Sterling Lord Literistic pretty quickly. I found her online and submitted to her because she listed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke as one of her favorite novels and it’s also one of my very favorites. Danielle really understood what I was up to in Witches’ Dance and was able to suggest some very smart revisions before she submitted it to editors at major publishing houses. But, even though it found a couple of editors who really loved it, those editors weren’t able to sell it to the marketing teams at their big houses.

At that point, since I had already started my second novel, Danielle and I talked about whether I was going to put Witches’ Dance on hold and maybe try to sell it as a second novel or submit to smaller independent publishers. And I’m so glad that I decided to search for an indie press because Lanternfish Press has been such a great home for Witches’ Dance. They’re interested in literary works that also includes elements of speculative or sci-fi fiction, and they’re not interested in playing it safe or mimicking the trends of the big presses. I’ve been super impressed with all of the books they put out and am so grateful that Witches’ Dance is in such good company.

JM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process – like, when do you write?  All on computer or some handwriting?  Do you share your drafts with other writers?  Who first gets to read your work in progress? 

EA: Well, I can give you my ideal process and then I can tell you what it’s really like on the ground… ideally, I would write every day, first thing in the morning, before my mind gets distracted by all the mundane logistical tasks that I have to deal with as a parent and homeowner. But, of course, before I can even sit down at my desk, there are three kids to get off to school and there are definitely days when, despite my best intentions, a kid stays home sick, or there’s a doctor’s appointment, or the car breaks down… But that’s the struggle for everyone, I think, even writers who aren’t parents have to figure out how to fit in their creative work in between the work that pays the bills and taking care of their loved ones. My guiding principal is to get to my fiction writing as early in the day as I can because by the time the kids go to bed at night I need to fill the well, and I’m only good for reading, not writing.

I do a lot of handwriting in journals when I’m developing an idea – that feels more conducive to the kind of loose, dreamy thought that works for me at that point in the process – but then I’ll move to my laptop when I’m ready to start composing scenes. I definitely outline before I begin, although that outline constantly morphs when I’m working on a first draft.

After Witches’ Dance, I swore that I wouldn’t show a novel draft to anyone until I had a first draft done, but then I almost immediately went back on that promise to myself early on in the process for my next novel. It’s just so hard to know that you’re on the right track once you get deep into a new project, and I’m really lucky to have a handful of writer friends whose opinions I trust and respect. Sometimes all you need is a little encouragement – yes, this is a viable project – and sometimes it helps to have someone point out an obvious flaw, early on, before you’ve spent four hundred pages writing yourself into a corner.

JM: Your husband Steve Almond, the original Dear Sugar, is a well-known writer of fiction and journalism.  What’s it like to live with another writer?

EA: Ha – how much time do you have? It’s amazing to be married to another writer because no one understands the struggle like someone else who’s in it, too. But it’s also difficult because we’ve often had to negotiate – this was especially the case when our older kids were babies – who gets to write and who has to be the support person holding down the fort with the house and the kids. And because Steve was (and still is) the more established writer, as well as the writer whose work actually pays our bills, I’ve often felt guilty about prioritizing my own, mostly unpaid, work. That’s changed a bit in the past couple of years – putting out my first novel, definitely helps, but I’ve also started taking on manuscript consulting and publishing non-fiction pieces, and so now I’m learning how to balance creative work with what Steve calls “money-work,” too.

We’ve also had to learn how to be good readers for each other – we’re constantly sharing and discussing our work – and that was harder for me in the early days because I had a much thinner skin. I’ve learned that, for me, it’s better to show Steve work when I’m pretty sure that it’s done, whereas he’s more comfortable letting me see his prose much earlier. But the overall dynamic between us is extremely supportive – we’re definitely each other’s biggest fans. And I know that when I’ve written something that Steve really likes that it’s got to be good, because he’s a tough critic, and he’s always given me his honest opinion.

JM: How do you manage all those amazing characters in your imagination with all those actual characters – a husband and three kids!! – in your home? Any tips on how to shut off the creative flow and transition from writing fiction into being a mom?

Well, I would say that, for me, the difficulty is the other way around – it’s much harder to shut off the mom-brain and focus on my characters and my creative work! I mean, the kids’ needs (and sometimes the husband’s – ha!) are so immediate and tangible, whereas the characters, well, let’s just say that no one’s going to starve if I don’t make it to my writing desk on any given day. That’s another reason why I really try to prioritize doing my creative work as early in the day as possible, because once I’m ticking through items on my to-do list, it’s really hard to shut that off and connect to those dear people who exist only in my imagination.

But there are practical reasons to prioritize creative work, too – because I’m much more pleasant to be around when I’m working on my fiction. That is a real, tangible need, for me, at least, to feel creatively alive and effective in that way. And when I feel that I’m neglecting that part of myself I can become irritable and short-tempered and just, in general, unpleasant to be around. So, in a way, making sure I have time to do the creative work that feeds my soul also makes me a better parent and partner.

JM: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Witches’ Dance?

EA: I hope that readers will come away from the book curious about classical music – if they don’t love that music already! – and also of course, the violin, which is one of the reasons why I included a list of recommended recordings at the end for all of the major pieces mentioned in the book. I also hope readers appreciate the complexity of what all my main characters are up against: Hilda, in her quest to establish her own artistic identity, Phillip, in his struggle with the double burden of virtuosity and madness, and Claire with her maternal ambivalence and broken dreams.

JM: What do you love (are most proud of; most satisfied with) about your debut novel Witches’ Dance?

EA: The best part of the whole experience of putting Witches’ Dance into the world has been to connect with readers. There were many moments when I doubted it would ever see the light of day as a published book. Not because I didn’t think it was worthy of being published, but because I have enough writer friends to know how subjective the gatekeepers often are, and how difficult the publishing process can be. It’s very, very satisfying now to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed Witches’ Dance and who connect to the characters and their struggles.

Witches Dance Cover image


Excerpt From Witches’ Dance by Erin Eileen Almond

Paganini. What do you think when you hear that name? If you know classical music, if you’re lucky enough to be a fan of the violin, you might think of the Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), widely recognized as the father of modern violin technique. You might know that Paganini was the first instrumentalist to tour widely as a solo act. You might have heard the legends about how he sold his soul to the devil. Or how, mischievously fueling those rumors, Paganini arrived for his concerts in funeral carriages, dressed all in black. None other than Goethe saw Paganini perform in Hamburg in 1828 and swore he saw a little man standing in the shadows to the left of the violinist, directing his fingers and bow. But because you belong to the modern age, an age in which devils have become passé, or at least predictable, it’s possible you prefer a scientific explanation for Paganini’s ability to play three octaves across four strings in a single hand span. Well. There’s always Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that often afflicts its sufferers with long fingers and extreme flexibility.

But say you are none of these things. Not a twenty-first-century reader, not a casual admirer of the violin. Say, instead, that you are Phillip Manns, a twenty-three-year-old savant about to solo with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Say you are at the end of a long tour, run-down, ready to return to New York with your manager, Anna Zedzevsky, for a well-earned rest. Say you hate the guest conductor, Georg Domini, an arrogant prig who interprets according to whim and who wears entirely too much product in his hair. Say that tonight’s program is Paganini’s Concerto no. 1 in D Major, and you are considered the world’s greatest interpreter of Paganini.

In that case, the year must be 1984. And although your given name is Phillip Manns, you must believe, despite how crazy it sounds, that you are Niccolò Paganini, or at least his reincarnation. It is your greatest pride, and your greatest secret—you’ve told only your manager, and she’s warned you not to tell another soul.



Community & Tradition in There, There

There There image

The annual collaboration between Philadelphia Stories and One Book, One Philadelphia celebrates the symbiotic relationship between reading and creating. When we read we gain grist for the mill that produces new work. We find connections between our experiences and those of another.

This issue of PS holds iterations of the themes of community and tradition found in Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, the 2020 One Book, One Philadelphia featured selection. One Book is a Free Library program that fosters citywide civic dialogue by encouraging everyone in Philadelphia to read the same novel—you can find a copy of There There at any neighborhood library, and from January to March, attend one of dozens of discussions and programs diving into the book. Talk about why it knocked you down, talk about what surprised you, talk about what you found difficult—just talk about it. And listen about it.

A Cheyenne-Arapaho novelist, Tommy Orange writes polyphonically in the voices of 12 Native characters living in present day Oakland, California. Their communities in many ways are fractured, split open by the U.S. government’s historical violence against Indigenous peoples. The modern impacts of the campaign to erase the original inhabitants of this land, including choking resources and attempting to ban religious and cultural traditions, echo throughout the characters’ lives.

And yet the message of Tommy Orange’s novel is crystalline. His characters say: we are still here. Across the gentrified city of Oakland, they find one another. They tell their stories. They drop deep, deep into themselves to find the traditions that have been passed down to them, and they live. They live in ways that are new and complex and digital and ancient and together.

This book evokes big questions about community and tradition: how do they stay alive in the face of violence? How do they evolve over time, and how are they perceived by others? How are legacy and inheritance—learning about one’s own community traditions—a privilege? How do history and the present interact?

I imagine those questions are different for each person, depending on who their community is and what its traditions are. I’m excited for the responses that unfold through the pages of this magazine, with each writer and artist contributing their own sense of belonging and of what has been passed on to them, what they want to pass on.

Brittanie Sterner
Director of Programming, One Book, One Philadelphia
The Free Library of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Stories Winter Issue Launch: Community & Traditions
Monday, February 24, 5:30 p.m. exhibition opens, 6:00 p.m. reading
Walnut Street West Library, 201 S. 40th St., 215-685-7671

Celebrate the launch of the One Book–themed issue of Philadelphia Stories magazine with readings by local writers and a pop-up show of visual works featured in the issue.

Willa on North Broad Street*

Yvonne final headshot 2

from The School of Clara Ward


Who made beauty, I ask you. God or the devil?

When I first touched a piano, the keys twinkled

Like heavenly stars. All over me they sprinkled

Some kind of thrill. Just a child, I was no rebel.

But Mother got down on her knees and swept

The stardust up—from every corner, every bed—

Pulled me out of school—Fearing what filth I read?

She stuffed her pockets with stardust and wept.

Mine is an old humble house with good solid bones.

Such weeping and laughing! The still of nights and dawns!

I chose my own voice and wore my own gowns.

They threw me out the church! For teen love songs.

I sing. Beauty! God made, but the devil stole it.

Mother vowed to get it all back. Every little bit.


*Aretha Franklin’s mentor, Clara Ward spawned innovations in singing, composing, and arranging for decades in Gospel music while her sister Willarene sang backup for Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, Frankie Avalon, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Dion, Fabian, and her protégé Dee Dee Sharp.

First poetry editor of pioneer feminist magazines, Aphra and Ms., Yvonne has received several awards including NEAs for poetry (1974, 1984) and a Leeway (2003) for fiction (as Yvonne Chism-Peace). Recent print publications include: From the Farther Shore (Bass River Press), Home: An Anthology (Flexible), Quiet Diamonds 2019/2018 (Orchard Street).


Momma House*

Yvonne final headshot 2

from Rosetta on the Bus


Touring is a kind of homelessness,

The price the body pays as the soul takes wing.

Fans brought to their feet, the faithful to their knees!

Yet meals on a tray in her lap left its sting.

Under the spinning stars on a midnight bus

Sleep came and washed away the heaviness

Of the heart. Sleep and the wisdom of dreams.

Miracle child with flowers in her voice

And in her fingertips unquenchable flames—

Did she ever have a choice?

Echoes awake and bend laggard legendary.

Momma, beloved Marie, a far galaxy.

The end of the line. Everybody’s got one.

Same old same old. For decades, no tombstone.


*In 2011 a marker at the corner of 11th and Master Streets in the Yorktown section of North Philadelphia was set to commemorate where Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived in a modest rowhouse from the mid-Sixties until her death in 1973. She is buried in Northwood Cemetery.

First poetry editor of pioneer feminist magazines, Aphra and Ms., Yvonne has received several awards including NEAs for poetry (1974, 1984) and a Leeway (2003) for fiction (as Yvonne Chism-Peace). Recent print publications include: From the Farther Shore (Bass River Press), Home: An Anthology (Flexible), Quiet Diamonds 2019/2018 (Orchard Street).

Impermanence Alight

Risa Pappas final headshot

The little church that is the morning

the stillness that allows (at least)

for breathing—we are to be alive

and Holy and pour forth into the day

of trials both as the fire punching

birds into the sky and as the water

to make of the world a cleansed

nest once more. Almost cruelty

each day in dawning a sermon

of hope cresting the trees and we

by breakfast cleft into apostle

and disciple. Even the doves

can only hold aloft for so long.

By sundown we roost into one again

united by the exhaustion of both

wings beating.

Risa Pappas is a poet, filmmaker, writer, editor, audiobook narrator, and public speaker. She has most recently been published in bluntly magazine and Black Fox Literary Magazine and is a senior editor at Tolsun Books. Risa received her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She currently resides near Philadelphia.

The Journalist

Ann Michael final headshot

What is it you observe? Maybe traffic

because you are in your car so often

it’s an extension of self, a familiar

surround, while you keep an eye on

the blue Subaru creeping up on your

right and you know the light will change

at about the time that rental truck

reaches it, so you move into the left

lane. But what do you notice, beyond

what must be noticed? Do you register

a wedge of geese struggling against

headwinds or a paper wasp nest in a

poplar’s bare bough? What about

those small events in the cosmos

beneath notice? You notice them.

Not on the screens which scream look look

but through your eyes: plastic bag, empty,

pirouettes across a lawn, and you don’t

know who lives in that house but likely

they have children—swing, slide, tricycles.

And here, streets littered with walnuts,

the black walnuts of your childhood, so

that now what you observe is yourself

in recall mode and thinking of a winter

many years ago, the only time in your life

you ever saw a snowy owl in the wild—

the shock of admiration that pushed out-

ward from your chest cavity, outward

and into the wholly brilliant world

where you walked, trying not to twist

an ankle, on the bitter shells of walnuts.

Ann E. Michael resides in PA’s Lehigh Valley. Her previous books include Water-Rites and The Capable Heart. Her forthcoming chapbook, Barefoot Girls, will appear early in 2020 from Prolific Press. Website & blog:

Kirkman’s Schoolgirl Problem


If fifteen young ladies in a school

walk three abreast for seven days

in succession, how would you


arrange them each day so that none

would walk twice abreast?

This problem of combinatorics


was first proposed by Thomas Kirkman

in 1850, in his query number VI

in Ladies and Gentleman’s Diary.


If you want to know the answer

you should ask the middle aged man

in the front of room playing Bach


on the baroque flute. He solved it

120 years later, a Caltech undergrad

to great career-making acclaim.


Ask him, too, if he can he come up

with an equation to graph the movements

of the Philadelphia Hallahan Catholic


girls on their last day of school

lined-up in the halls three abreast, who

when the bell rings its dismissal


break free and surge into the streets,

bolting across the Parkway to swarm

The Love Fountain downtown.


They leap over the mid-day smokers,

noshers and sun-soaking secretaries

into the warm water, screeching.


They splash and shove, topple and dunk

each other, until their loosened hair

and shabby uniforms are thoroughly soaked.


And then, as they emerge onto the hot

concrete plaza, leave perfect dark droplets

in glomerations of 16th notes.

Leonard Kress has published in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. Recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems, and Craniotomy as well as his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. He lived in Philadelphia for the first 40 years of life.

Fooling the Angel

Ken Fifer final headshot 2

When my grandmother was sick

her parents changed her name

in order to fool the Angel of Death.

They gave her an orange,

not to cure her, but to let her taste

light and warmth once

before the Angel returned.

And as she ate, her parents said,

Oh how worthless girl children are,

trying to avoid the Evil Eye.

Then they sent her to New York,

near Yankee Stadium, a place

an Angel might not look right away.

In her first American photos,

two weeks off the boat, she paid

to pose with a buffalo herd and

teepees painted on a screen

behind her. The fringed buckskin,

the beadwork boots,

the cowgirl hat and leather chaps

seemed to her, at sixteen,

neither wasteful nor strange,

but a necessary expense,

her most likely defense,

better than the rental

white-handled pistols.

She returned to Houston Street

a buckaroo,  no longer a green horn.

just another Yankee with two names,

one for real and one to say,

hoping to find Miss Liberty, too,

while trying to evade an Angel’s gaze.

Ken Fifer’s poetry collections include After Fire (March Street Press) and Falling Man (Ithaca House); he has edited three anthologies of poems by children. His poems and translations have appeared in Barrow Street, New Letters, Ploughshares, The Literary Review, and other fine journals. He has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from The University of Michigan. He was a 2019 finalist for the Gunpowder Press Book Contest.

Ode to Gliders

Kathleen Shaw final headshot

1950’s turquoise totems

escape providers on countless

porches, not grandmotherly

like rockers, more kinetic

than lawn chairs, gliding

hypnotically, going nowhere

on cricket-studded summer

nights. Where did you end up?

Rusting silently in far-off

dumps, next to train sets

and Spam cans, as obsolete

as the clothes we wore

and the things we used to


Kathleen Shaw is retired from teaching at Montgomery County Community College. She now works as a writing tutor there. Her poems have been published online as well as in Anthology, Derailed, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and various other journals.

McPherson Square

Sharon Christner final headshot

A tiny girl cupped her eyes against a tree and yelled numbers as fast as she could remember them. “Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…”

Seven kids screamed and scattered in seven directions. Seeing nowhere else to go, they huddled together behind the large white trailer marked “Police Mobile Command.” “Ready or not, here I come!”

The park was theirs again. That summer McPherson Square had been cleared of squatters and, largely, of heroin use. ‘Needle Park’ was still littered with weeds and trash, but no longer with bodies or needles. Users had been forced elsewhere.

The McPherson Square Library crowned the center of the square. Its Ionic columns and vaulted central rotunda distinguished it from the cramped rowhomes facing into the park. The path to the library steps was lined with slanted benches where people once blacked out. Now three homeless men sat and shared a benign cigar. A prostitute waited at the Kensington Avenue edge of the park and accepted a sandwich from a church outreach volunteer. Across the street, another prostitute stared her down. Every six minutes the El screeched by.

Father Murphy and Father Devlin, dressed in lay clothes, set up a folding table for an altar between the police van and playground. Sister Anne brought over a box holding the elements of communion, holding it aloft to keep fifty curious fingers from appropriating the chalice and hosts inside. Two men in the brown robes of Franciscan friars sauntered up the lawn, unstrapped guitars from their backs and began to play softly while a volunteer fiddled with microphones.

The ever-growing throng of kids swarmed a volunteer named Judy as she set out water bottles and a Philly Pretzel Factory box in the back of the lawn. When Judy mentioned summer bible camp, 9-year-old Imani became serious. “I saw Jesus before,” she said, mouth full of pretzel. “He was walking downtown. He had one of them cane things.”

No one had the heart to tell her about the renowned street performer, Philly Jesus.

The kids plopped down on the clover-filled lawn. The younger ones, still leery of the grass at Needle Park, sat on towels and bags and shoes.

A man decked out in Phillies garb came by on his bike. “What’s going on?”

“Mass,” said the kid on the Trader Joes bag.

“What they givin’ out, pretzels or something?”

The kids nodded in unison.“Imma be here,” he said, taking off again. He stopped and looked back at the little congregation. “Not for pretzels, but for the Lord.”

Small groups of abuelas came up the lawn armed with beach chairs and besos for everyone. They shuffled over to the table and made sure everyone had a pretzel in hand. A couple of grandmothers from the suburbs came too, a little older and a little quieter. This wasn’t their neighborhood, but their sons or grandsons had come to Kensington to get high and never came home. They waved away gnats and nestled into their lawn chairs under a large maple. Addiction specialists, volunteer musicians, and recovering folks chatted like old friends. Imani carefully wrote “JEASUS LOVE YOU” on sticky notes and handed them to strangers.

Father Murphy, Father Devlin, and a deacon reappeared in their green and white vestments. It was a gracious September afternoon, and rustling oaks and sycamores forgave some of the park’s less appealing features. A single couch cushion rested on the path at the edge of the green, not far from an unexplained pile of meatballs and spaghetti sauce. The grass still held thousands of orange needle caps, each one a reminder of syringes past. But everyone talked and laughed freely; everyone was at ease. It had more the atmosphere of an outdoor wedding than of a mass for those affected by addiction.

Father Devlin staked the wooden crucifix into the ground behind the altar. “Okay we’re getting close guys,” Judy whisper-shouted to the squirming kids. “We’re getting ready for the quiet time.”

Mass began. The microphone popped on and off as Father Devlin led the opening prayer, but the little congregation still knew when to respond with “Christ have mercy.” As Father Devlin read from Ezekiel and Romans, an irreverent ice cream truck bleeped out a shrill melody from a block away. This was countered with an upbeat ‘Alleluia,’ and the bassist friar rocked out with a subtle head-bang.

Cackling erupted from behind a fence across Clearfield Street. A group of young men were coming in and out of a rowhome and adjacent lot, openly exchanging cash and small packages on the sidewalk. Two slick black cars with tinted windows were parked outside. An old man in worn clothes shuffled past them, blasting “Ahora Dice” from a portable stereo.

When the rap faded, Father Devlin read from the Gospel of Matthew.

“… if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Father Murphy began the homily by referencing an Inquirer article by Mike Newall, who had covered opioids in Kensington all summer. There was a murmur of approval at the mention of St. Mike, who had become more involved in the community than any other reporter. Mike’s brother John died of a heroin overdose in 1999. Father Murphy relayed the “detox, rehab, soft love, hard love” that Mike’s parents had tried to pour into their oldest son. As he described the familiar, draining life of an addict’s family, the grandmothers and the abuelas seemed to age a few years. A middle-aged couple in matching tan polos stood, his hands on her shoulders, staring vacantly into the trees behind Father Murphy’s head.

“Mike saw his brother not as an addict but as a person, a brother. That, and the love his parents showed– that sums up completely the readings for today.”

Neighborhood kids were shrieking on the playground now, climbing the chain link fence that surrounded the rear of the library. Behind them, the rowhomes on E street had their doors wide open, and matronly figures leaned on doorposts to watch their wards on the jungle gym while the mass in front of them reached the height of its homily.

“If we’re going to love like Jesus, sometimes love is going to have to be really practical and concrete and tough. But it’s always with love, and it’s always with a purpose of bringing a brother or sister back to the fullness of love.” The ice cream truck returned and accompanied Father Murphy with the Mister Softee Jingle. “This is Recovery Awareness Month,” he concluded. “We’re here because we have hope.”

The musicians sang a peaceful communion song in English and Spanish. Father Murphy prayed over the bread and the wine, lifting them up toward the police trailer as if invoking a saint inside. Meanwhile, ten teenagers from the park descended on the unmanned pretzel table behind the congregation. At some point during the homily, a photographer from the Inquirer had arrived and was now aggressively snapping close-ups of congregants receiving the holy sacrament.

The kids sitting with Judy had gotten bored and squirmed away. Five of them were chucking extra water bottles at the front of the library building, trying to balance them on top of the doorframe. The priests’ words were punctuated by the sound of bottles exploding on the brick terrace. “The body of Christ.” Ksshh.

Father Murphy invited a man forward to speak. His navy suit jacket and pristine silver wristwatch made him stand out among the hoodies and cargo pants of McPherson Square. He was Bernie Parent, a Flyers retiree, NHL Hall of Famer, and longtime recovering alcoholic. The audience instinctively clapped and whooped at the mention of a Philly sports team despite the heavy topic at hand.

Bernie called alcohol “the little bastard on my shoulder” with a glance at Father Murphy. It had driven him from the NHL Championships to rock bottom. He impressed on his listeners that “it takes a team to recover” and thanked them for being that team for the addict they love. Then, what everyone was waiting for: “It’s been 37 years.” The crowd erupted with applause.

As the priests came forward to conclude the mass, a shirtless man appeared at the park edge. He had a joint tucked behind each ear, and dozens of needle-welts in each arm. He stumbled past without accepting a pretzel or a prayer.

“The Lord be with you, go in peace.”