NEA Literature Fellowships

David Philip Mullins

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(2016 - Prose)

from "Arboretum"

I reached into my back pocket and brought around the bottle of schnapps, a pint. I handed it to Kilburg, and he uncapped it and sniffed the contents. He made a face, crinkling his nose, then caught himself and smiled. “Just what the doctor ordered,” he said. “All we need are some chicks and we’d have a party on our hands.”

“Tell me about it.”

He took a long pull, wincing as he lowered the bottle. Kilburg rarely discussed his health, and at the time I wasn’t sure if having diabetes meant that he shouldn’t be drinking. I had never seen him test his blood sugar or inject insulin, nor had I ever thought of his illness as life-threatening. He seemed, at any rate, to have a high tolerance for alcohol, or pretended to. Kilburg would do almost anything for attention. Just above the knee joint, his prosthetic leg opened into a kind of cup, and it was from here that he would drink my father’s whiskey. Into the cup fit a concave socket, attached to which was a leather sleeve that laced up like a shoe. The sleeve slid snugly over his stump—the stump resting inside the padded socket—and when the laces were tied the leg was supposed to remain attached. But if Kilburg took a clumsy step as we crossed the uneven terrain of the desert, the socket would come out, popping like a cork, and he would pitch forward into the dirt. What’s more, the knee and ankle joints—crude-looking mechanisms that bent in accordance with a complicated arrangement of pins and bearings—creaked when he walked, and his stump itched and perspired and developed weekly blisters, causing him to grimace and complain. He moved with the lopsided gait of an arthritic old man. At school, kids tormented him, particularly Todd Sheehan and Chad Klein, two boys in our class who wore baseball caps and chewed tobacco. They were thuggish and athletic-looking—as big as Kilburg—and they called him Peg Leg and Gimp, tripping him whenever they had the chance. Even so, I thought, back then, that there were other, smaller kids on whom Kilburg took out his frustration.

“College chicks,” he said, taking another pull. “That’s what we really need.”

We were still in junior high school, and I wondered if Kilburg had ever even met a college-aged woman.

David Philip Mullins grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is the author of Greetings from Below: Stories, which won both the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the International Walter Scott Prize for Short Stories. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his fiction has appeared in The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. He has received awards from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Yaddo. Mullins lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Creighton University. He is at work on a novel.

Photo by Erin Giannangelo

Author's Statement

To date, the two most challenging things I’ve done in my life have been parenting my three children and writing a novel. As one might guess, they’ve also been the most fulfilling. Common to both parenting and writing is persistent self-doubt. In each domain, I always hope I’m performing to the best of my abilities—making wise choices that will lead to positive outcomes—but who ever knows for sure? Being awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts has been a big, much-needed boost to my morale as I near the completion of my novel-in-progress. (If only there were such a fellowship for parenting, offering the same amount of support and encouragement!) I’m honored to have been selected from a pool of so many talented and dedicated writers.