Authors: Benjamin Percy
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
Benjamin Percy was raised in the high desert of Central Oregon. His stories have appeared in
, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and many other publications, and the
awarded their Plimpton Prize to his story “Refresh, Refresh.”
He is the author of another collection of stories,
The Language of Elk
. He teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Also by Benjamin Percy
The Language of Elk
Copyright © 2007 by Benjamin Percy
Publication of this volume is made possible in part by a grant provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota; and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art. Significant support has also been provided by the Bush Foundation; Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
Paperback ISBN 978-1-55597-485-5
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-015-4
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3
Library of Congress Control Number: 2007924769
Cover design: Kyle G. Hunter
Cover art: © Image Source/Corbis
Grateful thanks to the editors of the publications listed below for first publishing the following stories:
“The Caves in Oregon” :
“The Woods” :
“The Killing” :
Salt Hill Journal
“The Faulty Builder” :
“Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This” was originally published by
The Paris Review
(Issue 180, Spring 2007).
“The Whisper” :
The Cream City Review
Western Humanities Review
“Refresh, Refresh” was originally published by
The Paris Review
(Issue 175, Fall 2005) and later anthologized by
Best American Short Stories 2006
The Pushcart Prize XXXI: Best of the Small Presses.
“When the Bear Came” :
American Short Fiction
Other names deserve to be on the cover.
My parents, Peter and Susan Percy, for starters. If I can ever afford to buy you a cabin on a mountain, as a result of a Lotto scratch ticket or a book deal, you’ll get it. You made this happen by making me fall in love with words. And over the years, when I screwed up, you smacked me on the back of head, helpfully, deservedly. Thanks.
To Fiona McCrae, Katie Dublinski, Mary Matze, and the Graywolf staff, I feel very lucky to have joined the pack. Thank you for lighting the way. I hope to do you proud.
Thanks to Katherine Fausset, super agent, the smartest in the business.
Thanks—a million times over—to Philip Gourevitch, Nathaniel Rich, Radhika Jones, and the rest of
The Paris Review
crew for believing in my work and curing it of its inadequacies and sharing it with the world. Corny as it sounds, I love you guys. Really.
Thank you to Ann Patchett. I still owe you that pitcher of whiskey.
To Isaiah Sheffer and Sarah Montague at Symphony Space—to Jay Nicorvo at CLMP—to Jane Hamden at WUWM—for their very generous support of my work.
To James Ponsoldt, a hell of a talented guy, for giving “Refresh, Refresh” a new life and audience.
To Michael Williams, Pablo Peschiera, and all of my colleagues at UW-Stevens Point.
Thank you to those who helped me, in small ways and big ways, write these particular stories, through criticism, encouragement, inspiration, friendship, and beer. My sister—the current rock star in residence at Iowa and an all-around genius writer—Jennifer Percy. Dean Bakopoulos. Mark Gates. Peter Straub. Tim Machan. CJ Hribal. Larry Watson. Dan Wickett. Tyler Cabot. Tom Chiarella. Paul Yoon. Laura van den Berg. Daniel Woodrell. Tom Groneberg. Dave and Lynn Dummer in particular, but the larger Dummer and Spielman clans in general. Tim and Jana Dolan. Mark Ranum and Craig Bodoh. Dan Levine. Amant Dewan. Matt Santiago. Allison Joseph. Chad Simpson. Gillian King and Clint Cargile. Mark Vannier. Billy Giraldi. Steve Stassi. David Medaris. David Jasper. John Hennessy. Kris Babe. Dave and Cynthia Moore.
And finally, most importantly, to Lisa, blue-eyed Wisconsin girl, for everything. This one’s for you. They’ll all be for you.
When school let out the two of us went to my backyard to fight. We were trying to make each other tougher. So in the grass, in the shade of the pines and junipers, Gordon and I slung off our backpacks and laid down a pale green garden hose, tip to tip, making a ring. Then we stripped off our shirts and put on our gold-colored boxing gloves, and fought.
Every round went two minutes. If you stepped out of the ring, you lost. If you cried, you lost. If you got knocked out, or if you yelled, “Stop!” you lost. Afterwards we drank Coca-Colas and smoked Marlboros, our chests heaving, our faces all different shades of blacks and reds and yellows.
We began fighting after Seth Johnson—a no-neck linebacker with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks—beat Gordon until his face swelled and split open and purpled around the edges. Eventually he healed, the rough husks of scabs peeling away to reveal a different face than the one I remembered, older, squarer, fiercer, his left eyebrow separated by a gummy white scar. It was his idea, fighting each other. He wanted to be ready. He wanted to hurt back those who hurt him. And if he went down, he would go down swinging, as his father would have wanted. This was what we all wanted, to please our fathers, to make them proud, even though they had left us.
This was Tumalo, Oregon, a high desert town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. In Tumalo, we have fifteen hundred people, a Dairy Queen, a BP gas station, a Food-4-Less, a meat-packing plant, a bright green football field irrigated by canal water, and your standard assortment of taverns and churches. Nothing distinguishes us from Bend or Redmond or La Pine or any of the other nowhere towns off Route 97, except for this: we are home to the 2nd Battalion, 34th Marines. The 50-acre base, built in the 1980s, is a collection of one-story cinder-block buildings interrupted by cheatgrass and sagebrush. Apparently conditions here in Oregon’s ranch country match very closely those of the Middle East, particularly the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and Northern Iraq, and throughout my childhood I could hear, if I cupped a hand to my ear, the lowing of bulls, the bleating of sheep, the report of assault rifles shouting from the hilltops.
Our fathers—Gordon’s and mine—were like the other fathers in Tumalo. All of them, just about, had enlisted as part-time soldiers, as reservists, for drill pay: several thousand a year for a private and several thousand more for a sergeant. Beer pay, they called it, and for two weeks every year plus one weekend a month, they trained. They threw on their cammies and filled their rucksacks and kissed us good-bye, then the gates of the 2nd Battalion drew closed behind them.
Our fathers would vanish into the pine-studded hills, returning to us Sunday night with their faces reddened from weather, with their biceps trembling from fatigue and their hands smelling of rifle grease. They would use terms like ECP and PRP and MEU and WMD and they would do push-ups in the middle of the living room and they would call six o’clock
eighteen hundred hours
and they would high-five and yell “Semper Fi!” Then a few days would pass and they would go back to the way they were, to the men we knew: Coors-drinking, baseball-throwing, crotch-scratching, Aqua Velva-smelling fathers.
No longer. In January, the battalion was activated, and in March they shipped off for Iraq. Our fathers—our coaches, our teachers, our barbers, our cooks, our gas-station attendants and UPS deliverymen and deputies and firemen and mechanics—our fathers, so many of them, climbed onto the olive green school buses and pressed their palms to the windows and gave us the bravest, most hopeful smiles you can imagine, and vanished. Just like that.
Nights, I sometimes got on my Honda dirt bike and rode through the hills and canyons of Deschutes County. Beneath me the engine growled and shuddered while all around me the wind, like something alive, bullied me, tried to drag me from my bike. A dark world slipped past as I downshifted, leaning into a turn, and accelerated on a straightaway—my speed seventy, then eighty—concentrating only on the twenty yards of road glowing ahead of me. On this bike I could ride and ride and ride, away from here, up and over the Cascades, through the Willamette Valley, until I reached the ocean, where the broad black backs of whales regularly broke the surface of the water, and even farther—farther still—until I caught up with the horizon, where my father would be waiting. Inevitably, I ended up at Hole in the Ground.