NEA Literature Fellowships

Karen Mockler

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(2008 - Prose)

From novel-in-progress Bad Priest

On the mainland, the possibilities for sin or something like it seemed endless. We made two sorts of journeys there: trips and excursions. Trips were for taking care of business. We all made an annual trip to the dentist, for instance, and while any trip to the mainland was interesting, these were not enjoyable, as a rule. Excursions always were.

Since each of our birthdays called for an excursion, we were ensured an annual minimum of three. Over the years we had gone to the zoo, the circus, the miniature golf course, the movies, the carnival. In addition to birthday excursions, we had visited the museum, attended the ballet, and even gone trick-or-treating. Some of these trips were magical, and from cotton candy to soft ice cream to corn dogs, the food was unforgettable.

Father did not dress as a priest on these outings, but as a layman. He wore a funny crushed hat, blue jeans, and depending on the season, a thick navy turtleneck sweater or a worn black t-shirt with a faded red tomato on the front. He looked like any father, but slimmer and more handsome.

His idea, I think, was to deflect attention from a priest with three growing girls, a strategy that both worked and failed. What people saw instead was a handsome single man with three young daughters and no wife. His fine-featured face wore a grave look much of the time that I found particularly compelling. He was a good listener, and a heavy thinker. When he smiled, I always felt as if I'd earned it and this, in turn, made me feel clever and deserving. Maybe grown women felt the same. At any rate, Father was not just attractive to me, but to them. Always dignified, he seemed not to notice when waitresses hovered, or to mind when they found some pretext to touch him. Father took it all in stride.

We girls did not.

"That woman wanted to jump his bones," Kathleen hissed to us on her eleventh birthday outing. After a visit to the bowling alley, we had stopped off at a local hamburger joint for dinner and found the waitress overly attentive. She had even brought Father a butterscotch milkshake, on the house.

I did not know what Kathleen meant, precisely, but I sensed that she was right. From the moment we left the island until the moment we returned, I caught actual and metaphorical whiffs of something that struck me as slightly dangerous and some of this danger swirled around Father.

I didn't always mind that feeling, but the following summer, for my ninth birthday, I asked for a different sort of outing. I didn't want to travel south to the civilized mainland but north, to those mysterious mountains the sun never set behind.

Kathleen lobbied against it. "Boring," she pronounced. "Weird."

But though it involved a complicated journey, Father did not deny me. We couldn't take our little boat north across the water -- the trip was too far -- and there were no ferries on our lake at all. There was nothing for it but to head into town and rent a car.

The drive was a novelty in itself for me and for my sisters, who had only ever ridden our boat and town trolleys. We drove three hours before the scenery outside our car windows began to change. Flat fields slowly gave way to foothills, and tall trees with soft green leaves that fluttered at the slightest breeze. When we stopped for lunch I walked right up to one of these trees, out behind the roadside diner. Its bark was smooth, like parchment, and some of it had fallen on the ground. The biggest pieces I gathered up and kept. I used them later to write letters to Cardinal Testa, although the postage to Italy was steep.

After lunch the trees became a forest, and that is where we camped, in a clearing off a single-track dirt road. We gathered wood and built a fire and Father cooked us cocoa in an old tin pot. I went out walking and picked some of the squishy red berries that grew on prickly green stems all around our campsite. Father told me they were raspberries, and that if I gathered more, we could put them in our pancakes the next morning. So Irene and I and even Kathleen went to work harvesting the ripe ones, past sundown, until we almost lost our way. We slept that night in an old tent Father had dug out from one of the unused rooms.

Later that night, long after ghost stories and teeth brushing and settling in, I heard the cry of a bird traveling through the dark. It was a haunting sound, forlorn, with none of the charms that the forest offered in daylight. Still, I welcomed the bird's cry, which sounded three times before the silence set in again. I welcomed the haunting, though I could not say why.

Karen Mockler was born and raised in Omaha. As an adult, she has lived mostly in the West: Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming. In 2001, she and a coworker quit their jobs to move to Spain, but instead bought a Volkswagen Westphalia and toured this country on the cheap, writing madly in the dark each night until their cheap laptops ran out of juice. She married her coworker and now lives with him and their young daughter in Billings, Montana. MacAdam/Cage published her first novel, After Moses, in 2003.

Photo by Mike Stark

Author's Statement

Like many writers, I assume, I live a double life. There is the responsible everyday me who meets my obligations to the world sanely, competently, faithfully. She treats demands on her time as reasonable - she regards her time as dispensable. Otherwise she might be left, at day's end, feeling desperate or at least resentful.

Then there is the other me. The writer. She sits right now and looks into the backyard, where big, gorgeous flakes of snow are falling fast and thick outside our window. The writer takes time to do this, and other irresponsible things, such as walking around with nothing but characters in her head, feeling what they feel and thinking what they think, about snow or the nature of God or whatever. The everyday self is kind and patient and nondescript. The writer is honest and selfish and occasionally fierce. Because these latter qualities are rarely in demand in our regular life, the writer stays in hiding a lot these days.

This fellowship allows the writer to come safely out of hiding for awhile. For this, the writer is deeply grateful. Actually, the other self is grateful, too. She gets to take a break from humbly bowing to life's demands. For once, she can use the word "art" in a sentence concerning herself without an apologetic blush. She can sit back and let art make demands on the writer.

The fellowship means that instead of saying something here that's concise, professional and impersonal, like my other self does every day, I can say this instead. What I really mean.