Pushcart XLI: Erin McGraw, “Priest” from Image #87

When Father Tom comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him. At wedding and funeral receptions, he sits at the table with the great-aunts. He is the necessary conduit, but he frightens people who hear “priest” and imagine no house, no family, no sex. “You must have started so young!” a parishioner recently said to him. “I’m always surprised when young men….”
She faltered, and Father Tom was moved to pity. “Me, too,” he said.
He didn’t start especially young. He went to college, got a job as a loan officer, and tried to understand the misery that swept over him every morning when he cinched up his tie. He had a girlfriend and met his car payments. There was no reason for him to find himself standing in his apartment garage with a rope and instructions he’d downloaded for tying a noose.
“I’m glad you didn’t follow through,” said the priest Tom talked to later, because a priest was cheaper than a therapist.
“Bad at knots,” Tom said.
Complete story available online at Image

Subtitle: Tom stumbles into a career as a priest. Is this the way it usually happens? I’ve seen vocational tests that suggest a set of choices based on your particular personality, and “clergy” usually fits in with teaching and social work as a helping-oriented job, but isn’t it supposed to be something more? Or am I hopelessly idealistic? Can you tell I’ve never had a deep conversation with anyone in the clergy?

Priests can make incredibly rich fictional characters. All that baggage, all those stereotypes, expectations, sacrifices. A priest is made of delayed gratification, enabled by faith and organizational structure. What happens when the faith erodes? When structure tarnishes, turns out to be constructed out of smoke and mirrors? How does the human remain subordinate to the priest?

This is the second McGraw story I’ve read. The other, also encountered through Pushcart, was “Punchline” and also featured a confused, disaffected priest. I see I felt like I’d missed something along the way. This story seems more like a character sketch than a story, so again I feel like I’ve missed something, something that was important enough to be repeated, and I’m a little confused myself.

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Pushcart 2013: Erin McGraw, “Punchline” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011

Linda Gibbons: "Black Bird" © 2011

Linda Gibbons: “Black Bird” @ 2011

When Father Phil Castor counseled his parishioners, he advised them to pay attention to the things they didn’t want to think about – the shadows, the echoes, the uneasy feelings. “That place where your mind skids away? The thing you won’t even get close to? That’s where your trouble is. That’s the thing to notice.” Seeing the complacent look seep across the face of whoever sat in his office that day, Phil would bear down. “Don’t imagine that you think about everything. You don’t. No one does. And your downfall is going to come from that thing you don’t want to see.”

I don’t seem to do well with stories featuring priest protagonists.

Tim O’Sullivan’s Father Olufemi in the 2012 Pushcart didn’t do much for me; neither did The Rules Are The Rules by Adam Foulds in 2011’s POH. Or, now, “Punchline.” It’s not that they’re bad stories, not at all; they read well, they’re well-structured, they have interesting characters and situations and emotional scenes. I just don’t feel like I quite get what the author is going for.

Father Phil’s felt a little off lately. Parishioners mention lines from sermons he doesn’t remember saying: a reference to “a trickster God,” “our lives as stained as glass,” and “the loss of innocents” which he’s sure was “innocence” though he doesn’t remember it at all. It started after someone brought up the topic of his beloved sister Louise, dead at 14 from a water-skiing accident; he’d been 9, and was devastated, and even now the mention of her name feels “like letting cold air onto a wound.”

He decides the problem is that he’s been improvising during his sermons:

It just happened lately that while he was giving his prepared remarks, something would occur to him – a useful example, a demonstration of a principal. Not an inspiration, nothing like that, but the tardy arrival of an idea that should have occurred to him when he was writing out his notes two days before. A thing, you might say, that he hadn’t been paying attention to.
He had not thought much about these on the spot additions until parishioners started quoting back to him words he had no memory of using. Louise, for instance. Or what had apparently been a pretty long analogy involving mortgage debt. Or, now, a trickster.

So he’s sticking to the script from now on. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, his life doesn’t stick to the script: a boy in a youth outreach group dies of an overdose, and his brother is in a serious car accident. The mind – or God, or the universe, depending on your inclination – has ways of forcing you up against yourself.

The connection is of course what the mind is avoiding; his long-buried grief for Louise is coming out sideways in his sermons, and it seems he’s a bit peeved with the trickster God who allows the loss of innocents, leaving our lives as stained as glass. There’s some hint that he’s wondering if his vocation has been a sham.

The climax comes in the form of another car accident, this time between strangers, in which no one is injured at all. And a mockingbird. I get those connections: this trickster God who takes some people and not others, mocking his loss. But… is that it? Because it seems rather superficial for a Pushcart story. So I’m wondering if I’m missing some deep symbolism that takes it to another level.

I’m interested in many elements of the story: where does a priest go for solace? What do you do when your priest appears to be having a nervous breakdown from the pulpit? The whole notion of the trickster God brings to mind the Native American totem of the Raven, a symbol Westerners associate not with tricks but with death. Some will think of Loki, but I missed that phase. But most powerfully I think of the speech from one of my favorite movies, They Might Be Giants – not to be confused with the rock band I’m unfamiliar with but who, by sheer coincidence, is coming to Portland in February per the sign I just saw the day before I read this story, and don’t you just love a good coincidence – but back to the movie (which I just discovered is on YouTube):

I think if God is dead he laughed himself to death.
Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong — we never left the Garden.
Look about you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I’ll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools.

But that has nothing to do with the story, does it? I wonder what it is I’m trying not to think about.