author bio

Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay drips, image for storyfor This

Benjamin Percy

David works for the city, the water division. He spends his days driving around Pine, Oregon, in a pumpkin-orange Chevy Astrovan. He’s done the math: every day, on average, he puts a hundred and fifty miles on the odometer. That’s an eight-hour day, five days a week, for the past ten years.
      He clocks in at seven each morning. He drives around until ten. Then he selects a hydrant and cranks it open, letting its water rush into the street. This is called hydrant flushing, and it’s necessary because rust and sediment settle at the bottom of the pipes that interlace like veins beneath the ground. He does four or five hydrants a day, and each job takes only ten minutes or so. While the water roars—thousands of gallons coming out brown, then yellow, then white, then clear—he waits in the van, reading the newspaper. He reads every page, even the classifieds. When David wrenches off the water, a hush falls over the street. The only sounds are the drip and gurgle of water, the distant blaring of car horns, and the squeak of his shoes as he returns to the van and settles his weight into it. Depending on the time, he may hunt down another hydrant, or take his lunch break, or just drive around some more.
      It’s a job. And at fifteen dollars an hour, it’s a good one, giving him more than enough to cover the rent and pay for the Coors that runs down his throat every night when he sits in front of the TV, watching nature shows where big animals tear apart little animals.
      Joe is his supervisor. He’s an old guy, closing in on seventy, with a pack-a-day habit and too much weight piled on his small frame. His nose and eyelids are a mess of broken blood vessels and his cheeks permanently carry the beginnings of a white beard. For four years he’s been threatening to retire. Instead he sits in his office with the blinds closed. He smokes cigarettes and reads old copies
of Field & Stream and listens to talk radio.
      Today he waves David into the fluorescent buzz of his office. David hesitates a moment, and winces. The last time he went in there was nearly six months ago. It looks much the same. Stacks of newspapers yellow in the corners. A nudie calendar, several years old, hangs from a nail. On a desk in the middle of the room there’s an unfinished game of solitaire, a Yosemite snow globe, and
an ashtray piled high with cigarettes.
      Joe pulls out a rumpled pack of Marlboros. “Smoke?”
      David shakes his head, no. He is wearing a Trail Blazers ball cap and he pulls on its brim, bringing a shadow to his face. Then he sits in a chair facing Joe and spreads his hands flat on the tops of his thighs. Out of nervousness—wondering why he is here—he drums out a song with his fingers.
      Joe shakes out a cigarette for himself, lights it, and says through a cloud of smoke, “You know Johnny Franklin, right?” He’s talking about the fire chief, a broad-shouldered guy with gray mutton-chop sideburns.
      “He’s got a son,” Joe says. “Just finished a twelve-month deployment with the Army National Guard in Iraq. Now he’s back. Johnny asked me to do him a favor. I said I could help.”
      “You’re letting me go?” David’s voice comes out as a croak.
      “No, no.” Joe neatens the cards on the desk and smiles. “I’m giving you a
      David leans back in relief, and when he raises his hands their sweat leaves two gray prints on his jeans. He smiles, but the smile fails a little when he realizes that he will have to share his life with another. He feels like an only child whose parents have announced the imminent birth of a brother. “Thing is,” he says, “with the work I’m doing, I don’t know that I need somebody—”
      Joe cuts him off. “I told him to show up at seven-thirty.” Smoke tusks from his nostrils. “Should be here any minute. You’ll show him the ropes for me, yeah?”
      “Sure.” David nods his head and mumbles through his lips. “I can do that for you.”
      “That’s good.” Joe gets up heavily from his swivel chair and they shake hands.

 A birthmark obscures the right side of David’s face. His whole life, when he walks into a room, it seems like everybody swings around at once to give him a long stare, heavy with curiosity and disgust, the way you might look at a broken leg or a homeless man shouting at a cat. The purple skin is raised and coarse. It looks like blood spilling down his cheek from a gash in his forehead. He walks around with his head ducked, his ball cap pulled low, trying to keep his face hidden. It’s a little like being held hostage, riding in the Astrovan with the right side of his face exposed.
      The man seated next to him, Stephen, has a boxy jaw and a blackish buzzcut that glistens like a wire brush. His skin is deeply tan, and his shoulders are rounded with muscle. They’ve been tooling around Pine, with the radio filling the silence between them. David isn’t used to talking. He is used to driving. So he answers most of Stephen’s questions in an abrupt barking way, concentrating on the road before him as if this were an unfamiliar city.
      “So this is it?” Stephen says, all the vowels stretched out in a Central Oregon drawl, each word a lazy sort of song, clipped off by a hard consonant. “We just drive around? Every now and then flush a hydrant?”
      “Pretty much.”
      David tends to notice the ugly things about people, itemizing them in his head, creating a checklist that brings him some kind of comfort. Now he takes note of Stephen’s hands. The palms are yellow and callused, the tops hairy, knotted with veins. They look like hands you might dig up in the desert, long buried.
      Stephen studies David too—not so subtly. “You ever watch any of those Dr. Phil shows?” Stephen says.
      David jerks his head to look at Stephen straight on, wondering if this is the lead-up to a joke, but Stephen appears sincere, his forehead puckered with concern. “That’s one of the things I missed most. TV. No TV over there. Ever since I got back, I watch everything. I can’t get enough of it. Even the Food Network. Can you believe that shit? I don’t even cook. The other afternoon, I’m watching that Dr. Phil show and I see somebody had the exact same deal as you. They zapped him with a laser, cleaned him right up.”
      David feels his hand, like something separate from him, rise to his cheek. He traces his fingers along the birthmark, shielding it partially from view. “Really?” he says in a half whisper.
      “Just like that. Clean as can be.” Stephen’s hand polishes an imaginary spot from the air. “Like they wiped wine off a counter.”
      David isn’t sure how to feel, until he realizes that no one has ever been so direct with him. It puts him at ease, unlike those people who look at him out of the corner of their eye, their mouths pressed into self-conscious frowns. He glances at the road just long enough to say, “Could never afford something like that,” and then his eyes shyly meet Stephen’s again.
      “It’s free. The show does it. Can you believe that shit? And hey, hope you don’t mind, but you should look into it. You’re not an ugly guy, you know. Under all that.”
      David says, “You think?” but Stephen doesn’t hear him. He’s talking about some guy named Cody—a first sergeant from Tennessee. “Prettiest man alive. Truly. Looked neat even in his fatigues. Anyway, one day, routine patrol, IED rips his Humvee to shit. Flames everywhere. Humvees look tough, but they burn like crazy. Thirty seconds and you’re up in smoke. That’s what happened to Cody. Poof. God knows how, but he ends up living. Third-degree burns—or whatever the worst degree is?—first-degree maybe. You know what I mean. The kind of burn where you can’t tell muscle from skin. I went to see him in the CSH. Downtown Baghdad. Dude was fucked up. Looked like a skeleton glopped with red paint.” He goes quiet for a minute, and when he speaks again, his voice comes out soft, gray-hued. “What I’m trying to say is, you got a birthmark, so fucking what? You know?” Stephen punches David in a desperately friendly way. “You know?”
      David feels his mouth curl into a smile, tentatively, and he gives Stephen a tiny nod, the smallest of movements.

The next few weeks, things get better, not all at once, but incrementally, so that the change doesn’t really register with David, like the air that slowly cools as September turns into October. He doesn’t feel happy, not precisely, but he does feel something new, a sting, a want.
      They drive along North Avenue to Seventy-sixth Street, to Kenwood, and up into Pharaoh Butte, where retired Californians live in three-story homes, set back in their own spaces of lawn with wraparound porches and American Beauty rose gardens surrounded by Japanese maples. River-rock pillars flank the front doors. Chandeliers hang in the entryways.
      “You ever visit Saddam’s palaces?” David says.
      “Nah,” Stephen says, as if he wishes he had, not wanting to disappoint. “Drove by one once. Real nice place.”
      “A regular Taj Mahal.” Stephen nods at the homes sliding past their windows. “So what—lawyers, doctors—what do you think these cocksuckers do?”
      “Don’t know,” David says. “Important stuff, I guess.”
      They turn around and drive along Grand Avenue to the Parkway, to Mayfair Road. They dip under a rust-stained bridge and zip past the dump, where seagulls and crows circle the pale wash of the sky. In Moccasin Hollow, a collection of trailers hidden among the pine trees, Dobermans, tethered to the ground by chains, bark when they pass. Children in soggy-bottomed diapers throw pinecones as if they were grenades. A three-legged deer leaps awkwardly across the road and they swerve to avoid it.
      They know a week in advance what hydrants they will flush, and part of their job is contacting local businesses and residents, letting them know the water pressure will drop, advising them not to do laundry during this time because stirred-up rust can stain clothing. This week they’re assigned to the Moccasin Hollow neighborhood. They knock on doors and talk to a bloated woman with five squalling children, a war vet with a mechanical hook attached to a putty-colored stump, an ancient man with hair growing off the end of his nose, and a big Indian who chases them off his porch with
a ball-peen hammer.
      “Jesus,” Stephen says at the end of the day, “I hear Baghdad’s nice this time of year.”

Time passes, and like a couple settling into a marriage, they figure out a routine. They flush a hydrant. They stop for coffee at 7-Eleven. They flush a hydrant. In the back of the van they set up a makeshift bed, a pillow and blanket. Stephen takes a nap while David drives, then David naps while Stephen drives. They flush a hydrant. They eat lunch at the Bald Butte Drive-In, where they down Cokes and eat mushroom-and-Swiss burgers and waffle fries, a cold splat of mustard along the edge of their plate. They flush a hydrant. They swing through the ExxonMobil, and when the attendant asks, “What’ll it be?” they say, “Fill it with premium,” and smile at each other like kids getting away with something. They flush a hydrant. Every now and then, they steal construction barricades and set them up in the rich neighborhoods of Pharaoh Butte, Horse Back Butte, and Paiute Creek, blocking off streets and driveways. In the background, always, music plays—KICC 100 and 95.5 The Oink mostly—making them nod their heads and purse their lips in a whistle,
filling the space between their conversations.
      These are the kinds of things they talk about:
      “Did you know hydrant pressure is indicated by the color it’s painted?” David says. Red, yellow, and green, with green being the most powerful, letting loose one hundred pounds of pressure, enough to knock a man down and blast him across the street if he isn’t careful.
      “No shit?” Stephen says. He brings his hand to his mouth and chews at the callus beneath his forefinger, then peels it away with his teeth and eats it, seeming to pleasure in the salty taste. “Did you know a whale penis is nine feet long? Did you know a pig orgasm lasts ten minutes? Did you know before 1850 golf balls were made of leather and stuffed with feathers?”
      “No shit?” David says with laughter in his voice, the laughter cut short when Stephen says, “Did you know I once shot a man in the face?”
      His smile is not a smile. His eyes are dark-circled. One long minute passes before he continues. “It was at a traffic checkpoint. Everybody was supposed to stop, but he didn’t stop. He kept coming. Even after I shot out his tires, he got out of the car and kept coming. He was yelling something, crazy Arab gibberish. I didn’t even realize I did it. Pure reflex. You get to that point. A jet flying overhead sounds like a bomb, a car backfiring sounds like a bomb, a bomb sounds like a bomb. I was jumpy. So I shot him. His head jerked back and his hands went up to it and came away red. His jaw wasn’t exactly gone—but basically. I could see all his teeth and into his throat, and he kept coming toward me, going nuuuh, nuuuh, nuuuh.”
      Behind them a truck honks. David sees that he is going only ten miles per hour. He stomps his foot down on the gas and the van growls back up to speed. “Did he have a bomb strapped to his chest or something?”
      “Wouldn’t you think that?” Stephen massages the bridge of his nose, sorting through the memory. “No. He didn’t.”
      David says nothing. He thinks the conversation is over. But Stephen says, “I guess he was just mad,” and his hand falls from his face and turns up the volume on the radio.

The slanted light of early evening is coming in the windows, and on the television a lion gnaws on a gazelle while hyenas slink about, waiting for their turn at the corpse. David squeezes an empty beer can. It crumples grudgingly, the metal splitting open in places, slicing the skin beneath his thumb. He places the can on the floor, among four others, similarly deformed, and then brings his hand to his mouth, sucking the blood absently while watching the screen.
      He punches the remote until he lands on a triple-digit network airing a Dr. Phil repeat. He has never seen the show before and he listens now as the doctor—a big bald man with a heavy Texas twang—yaks it up with a young couple experiencing sexual problems. At first he makes small talk with them, joking around, hoping to make them forget about the cameras so they’ll trust him, so they’ll open up and he can get down to business and solve their problems by offering advice in a loud no-nonsense voice. “What you need to do is,” he says, “you need to move away from where you’ve been and toward a new beginning.” He likes this advice so much he repeats it, motioning from left to right with his hands: “Away from where you’ve been and toward a new beginning.”
      The audience applauds and Dr. Phil says to the camera, “Don’t you go nowhere, you hear? Be back before you know it.” The screen goes blue with white lettering—listing a Web site and a California studio address—while a baritone announcer’s voice says, “Would you like Dr. Phil to solve your problems? Send an e-mail or letter to the listed address for the opportunity to be on our show.”
      David gets up, dodging through the beer cans and dumbbells, and goes to his bookshelves, where he pulls down the phone book and flips through the white pages until he arrives at F. His finger runs down the names, pausing and tapping Franklin, Stephen. David writes the address on the back of his hand, where the ink looks a lot like stitching.
      The drive takes ten minutes. He has trouble, with the beers in him, focusing on the numbers hanging above doorways, and he circles the block several times before spotting the ranch house with the chain-link fence around it. He parks a hundred yards away, on a side street. When he gets out of his truck and walks steadily toward the house, his snow hat, pulled down low over his face, makes him feel invisible. The houses all around him appear scorched in their darkness.
      The living room window is an orange square of light. Inside it Stephen sits in a green recliner, drinking a beer, watching Fox News. The screen flashes between Bill O’Reilly speaking forcefully into the camera and insurgents who shake their fists and throw stones at soldiers and fire rifles into the sky.
      David creeps up the porch for a better view. A few minutes pass, and a woman appears next to Stephen, her blond hair in a ponytail. She wears gray cotton shorts and a tie-dyed tank top and she spreads her feet and puts her hands on her hips in a Wonder Woman pose. This is Stacy. David knows because Stephen talks about her nearly every day, sometimes saying things like, “She’s got this peach of an ass. I just want to shove my dick in there and break it off,” and at other times saying things like, “Swear to God, she never stops nagging. I thought I was done with taking orders. But look at me, saying I’m sorry about drying shit of hers that shouldn’t get dried, getting my pubic hair all over the bathroom floor. I mean, Jesus.”
      They met a few months before his battalion was activated, and when he asked her to marry him she surprised him by saying yes. When he came back alive, she was the one surprised. Now she says something that makes Stephen stand up so forcefully the recliner nearly tips over. They yell at each other and make stabbing motions with their hands until Stephen throws his beer bottle against the wall. It explodes in a star of foam and glass that quickly loses its shape, trailing to the floor.
      From where he stands David can barely see the flattening of her lips as she says, “Fuck you,” and stamps her foot down, grinding it into the carpet as if crushing out a cigarette. Then she leaves him, disappearing down a darkened hallway. Stephen stares after her for a time before settling into the recliner again. He brings his hand to his mouth and begins to gnaw at its calluses, spitting shreds of skin onto the floor.
      A moth bangs against the window before fluttering off into the night. The noise draws Stephen from his recliner, his black silhouette filling the window. David crouches down and stays perfectly still, so close he could punch his hand through the glass and grab Stephen by the wrist.

 The next morning Stephen comes to work a paler color.
      “Something wrong?” David says after they snap their seat belts into
      Stephen regards him with eyes that are only partially lit. “Rough night is all. Didn’t get much sleep.” He gives a smile that appears to ache from the effort of making it happen. “Mind if I smoke?”
      “I didn’t know you did,” David says. “Smoke.”
       “What do you know about me? I’m not asking that. I’m asking if you mind.”
      “Be my guest.”
      David turns up the heat and puts the car in gear and drives through the back lot. Gravel pops beneath his tires when he crawls past the postal jeeps and school buses and orange construction vans and trucks parked there. He pulls onto the highway and clears his throat. “It’s your girl, isn’t it?”
      “The fuck do you know?” Stephen’s mouth curves into the shape of a scythe.
      “I said it’s nothing and it’s nothing. Mind your own business.” Stephen stares at him very closely, hardly moving, with a look of obvious disgust on his face. David feels a familiar panic grip him, hating to see someone seeing him that way.
      “Sorry,” David says and pulls his hat a little lower on his head. “I was just—sorry.”
      For the next hour, Stephen stares out the window while David drives, stealing glances at him. Then, all of a sudden, Stephen brings his fist down on the dashboard and says, “Bitch.”
      David darts his eyes between the road and Stephen, not knowing whether to say anything.
“Yeah,” Stephen says, as if they have come to some sort of agreement. His face brightens. “You know what? Fuck her.”
      He playfully punches David a few times in the shoulder, saying, “Fuck her,” with every punch. The touch of his hand sends a charge through David that burns inside him and makes him say, “You know, if you ever need a place to crash, you can always crash with me.”
      “Yeah. Whatever. I mean, I’ve got plenty of room.”
      “We’ll see,” Stephen says, but he sounds contented.
      In the middle of Pine, there is a cinder cone, Bald Butte, dotted with sagebrush and rabbitbrush and the occasional stunted juniper tree. A poorly paved road swirls around and around it, all the way to its summit, where teenagers park at night and tourists snap photos during the day and the city fires off fireworks on the Fourth. This morning David drives there and pulls out of the glovebox a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels.
      “Breakfast,” he says, and they each throw back a mouthful of the dark liquor. It tastes like gasoline, but it seems right to drink, as if they are celebrating something, or mourning something. They get out of the van and climb onto its roof and watch the town redden under the sun, the shadows dissolving, while they pass the bottle back and forth for half an hour. “You must be pretty bored,” David finally says. “After all you’ve been through—over there—this job must bore the hell out of you.”
      They sit there, comfortably silent for a long time, before Stephen says, “Actually, that’s not the case at all. It’s kind of familiar. The driving. Feels like that’s all I did over there. Drive. And wait. Wait for somebody to shoot at me, wait for an IED to go off, wait for my commanding officer to tell me some bullshit.” His voice has that sincere wistful quality men normally reserve for taverns and locker rooms. “Being over there, it’s just a job—with bullets, of course—but still, it’s just a bunch of sitting around, trying to figure out what’s next, what the fuck’s the point.”

 Weeks pass. Fall deepens. The birch trees go gold, and in the failing light the world seems to take on sharper angles. In early November a water main breaks. Joe comes on the CB and sends them over to help. It is one of those new neighborhoods where all the houses look like they came from the same box and BMWs crawl the freshly paved roads.
      When they park at the end of the block, a guy wearing a yellow polo shirt tucked into his khakis bangs open his front door and starts down the driveway. He moves with a prowling intensity that betrays his anger before he starts yelling. They can hear him from where they stand across the street as if he were right next to them. “I called two hours ago,” he says.
      He spells it out for them: a) he tried to take a shower and now he smells like somebody else’s shit; b) he started up the dishwasher and now his plates and glasses are streaked with mud; c) he just put sod in and now his front lawn is a fucking swamp.
      He is wearing boat shoes—no socks—and he brings down his right foot for emphasis. A crown of water splats up around it. “Somebody is going to have to pay for this,” he says.
      David could probably break the man over his knee if he wanted, but he presses his mouth into an apologetic frown and casts his eyes downward, toeing through the grass until he finds the cap to the water valve. He flips it open and goes to the van to retrieve the key, a long metal rod that reaches deep into the earth. He fits it into place and spins it, and with a rusty creak, the water ceases to flow.
      A truck full of Mexicans arrives. They wear jeans and orange reflective vests spotted with flecks of tar. One of them sets to work with the jackhammer while the others huddle around and watch it bite through the asphalt. Then a semi pulls up with a backhoe resting on its trailer bed. One of the Mexicans climbs into its cab, and it growls to life with a clattering of metal and diesel. It rolls down the ramp, and its shovel peels away the blacktop, the gravel, and the dirt just a few inches at a time, taking care not to strike a gas line. “It’s guesswork,” David explains to Stephen, his voice nearly lost under all the noise. “Nobody really knows what’s underneath us.”
      Once the shovel strikes metal—with a cling—the backhoe quits digging and scoops up a ten-by-ten steel brace to lower into the soggy square hole it has fashioned. This is to keep the walls from caving in on David and Stephen and the rest of the men when they climb down and set to work with their shovels, exposing the main so they can apply a clamp over the crack.
      David digs deep with his shovel, dragging the blade through the mud, tossing it over his shoulder, enjoying the damp smells of the earth. In the cool November air his breath puffs out of him in short-lived clouds, and his sweat gives him a chill. The effort feels good, the blood burning through his body. It feels substantial, like his job is a real job.
      While they work, the polo guy paces back and forth, smoking his way through more than a few cigarettes—menthol, by the smell of them. When David and Stephen climb out of the pit for a water break, he says, “Done? I hope so. For your sake.”
      He flicks his cigarette in their direction. It arcs through the air and lands on David, on his forearm, just long enough to burn him. He brushes it away hurriedly and says, “What’s wrong with you?” his voice coming out genuinely hurt.
      “What’s wrong with your face?”
      David looks at him uncertainly for a second, and then at Stephen, who does not return his gaze but squints across the expanse of mud at the man as if at a target.
      Then Stephen leaves them standing there and climbs into the backhoe. He keys the engine and fiddles with the levers, not so different from the levers of a tank. With a roar, the backhoe comes alive. It crushes a path across the sidewalk, the driveway, the lawn, eating up with its tread the grass and mud.
      When the man tries to intervene, waving his arms in a fury, the backhoe swings around like a scorpion, its shovel knocking him down. An accident, everyone agrees.

 The first day of deer hunting season in the fall is an unofficial holiday in Deschutes County. Stephen invites David to hunt on his father’s property, out near Sisters, twenty acres of big pines that run up against the Black Butte wilderness area. They set off early in the afternoon, wearing jeans and blaze-orange jackets. The sky is a copper color, and the air is sharp enough to make their breath ghost from their mouths.
      The forest swallows them, whispering and snapping, before disgorging them in a clearing of fireweed and browned strawberry beds. They head toward a cluster of thick-waisted junipers that surrounds what looks like a clubhouse on stilts. Ten or so feet off the ground, it has a slanted steel roof and a camouflage paint job. This is a high seat, the penthouse of tree stands. Beneath it is a trough, baited with salt licks, rotten apples, corn.
      They climb a ladder and push through a trapdoor. Inside there are army cots, a cooler filled with Coors, a wood bin, a wood stove, and aluminum chairs set before sliding-glass windows. On the wall is a poster of a big-breasted woman in a bikini bent over the hood of a Camaro, both the woman and the car oozing with soap suds. And next to the poster, the charred corpse of an animal is nailed to the wall. It is the size of a small child, its legs curled up against its torso and its teeth visible in a small snarl. When he was eleven or twelve, Stephen explains, he baited a steel-mesh cage with jerky and trapped a raccoon that had been getting into their garbage. He released it, but only after dousing it with gasoline and sparking a match. There was a foomp sound, and the coon took off like a comet, zigzagging through a dry field of crabgrass, setting it aflame in strange orange designs Stephen stomped out with his foot.
      When his father discovered what he had done, he nailed the coon to the wall of the high seat as a reminder. “That way maybe you’ll think twice before you pull the trigger.” Never firing off a round out of boredom—at a jaybird, a jackrabbit, a doe—hungry to kill something, anything, as boys often are.
      “Jesus,” David says.
      Stephen breaks the silence by kicking a folding chair. “Best seat in the house,” he says. The chair faces a window that opens up into the forest. “All yours. Just keep your eyes on that game trail.” He winks. “Fish in a barrel.”
      They take their chairs and cradle their rifles in their laps. They don’t speak for a while, their silence deepening with the shadows in the woods. Then Stephen gets up to pull a beer from the cooler and offers one to David, who pops the tab and, after slurping at the foam that comes boiling out of it, says, “Hey, did you know a whale penis is nine feet long?”
      Stephen gives him a blank look. “I’m the one who told you that, man.”
      “Are you?”
      “Oh. Sorry.” David feels his grip tighten around his beer, the metal giving way. “Things any better with Stacy?”
      Stephen returns to his window and looks out it. “So-so.”
      “Just so-so?”
      “Let’s put it this way,” he says, keeping his voice at a low volume. “Are you still good on that offer? If I needed to, I could crash at your place?”
      “Sure.” David tries hard to control his voice. If there is too much excitement in it, he can’t tell.
“Just in case,” Stephen says. “You’re always welcome. Stay as long as you like. There’s plenty of room.”
      Stephen twists the tab on his can until it snaps off. “Good to know.”
      They fall silent again. David finds it difficult to concentrate on the woods and throws a glance over his shoulder every few minutes to check on Stephen. It feels different, sitting here with him and not moving, not listening to the engine hum, not watching the world slide by. It feels good—permanent.
      Time passes and his vision blurs and the forest falls away as he imagines the two of them as young boys, dirt under their fingernails, carrying in their hands slingshots and BB guns, darting through the trees, headed toward where they heard a chipmunk chattering minutes ago. The false memory makes him feel so close to Stephen, his friend, he wants to reach out and touch him.
      He glances over his shoulder then, just in time to see Stephen snap off the safety and bring the 30.06 to his shoulder. He rises from his chair, slowly, the metal complaining only a little. David follows the line of Stephen’s rifle. There, at the edge of the meadow, less than thirty yards away, a buck untangles its antlers from the forest and moves cautiously toward the trough.
      Halfway there it pauses. It swishes its tail. It raises a hoof and puts it down again. Maybe it smells them, or maybe it smells the blood in the grass. David holds his breath, anticipating the shot. When it doesn’t come, he says, “What are you waiting for?”
      “I don’t know,” Stephen says.
      David gently pushes him aside and nestles the stock against his cheek and sights the buck through the scope. Right then it raises its head and looks at him. The blood in his ears buzzes, like a wasp loose in his skull. The rifle kicks against his shoulder. The gunshot fills the world.
      The buck jerks its head around in a half circle, as if curious where the shot came from, and then it collapses and a flock of swallows swirls from the forest, over the meadow, dappling it with shadows.
      A few minutes later, they stand over the body. When David nudges it with his boot, its hind leg quivers, then goes still. Since the gunshot, the air has gone quiet except for the rhythmic knocking of a woodpecker’s beak against some distant tree. The woods are softly colored with the gloom that comes with twilight. The hole David has blown in the deer’s side is big enough to put his hand in, and he does. Hot, moist. It reminds him, with a sick kind of pleasure, of a woman. When he withdraws his hand, gloved in blood, it steams a little. He smears its redness against his left cheek and says, “There. Now I match.”
      Stephen laughs as if he is trying not to. “I’m glad you took the shot,” he says, his smile fading. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
      “Nothing’s wrong with you.”
      Some blood oozes into David’s mouth and he spits it back out. It occurs to him then—with blood on his lips and the woods darkening all around them—that he has never been happier.

 The next Monday morning, David arrives at work fifteen minutes early and waits for Stephen on the loading dock, an elevated concrete platform with a steel ramp leading up it. Nearby, a poplar, stripped of its leaves, shakes against the wind that comes howling down from the Cascades. A rime of frost coats its branches. With the sun still low in a sky full of torn clouds, the air has a gray quality that carries little warmth. David paces back and forth and stamps his feet, trying to keep the cold out of them.
      Eventually Stephen pulls up in a Chevy Cavalier with an Army National Guard sticker on its bumper. Rather than park along the chain-link fence, next to David’s truck, he kills the engine at the bottom of the ramp and hops out.
      “Hey, Stephen,” David says, and Stephen says, “Hey.” He steps onto the ramp and pauses there with David hanging over him, obscuring him with his shadow and a big breath of mist.
      “Something wrong?” David says.
      Stephen brings his hand to his mouth and chews hungrily on it. “Maybe.” He sighs deeply, and in a halting voice that seems bothered—by nervousness or excitement—explains that he has been asked to be part of a task force. He and fifteen other soldiers will work as an embedded training team to mentor the Iraqi Army.
“What do you mean?” David says.
      “I mean I’m not working here anymore,” Stephen says. “I’m going back.” He examines his palm. Blood and saliva dampen it. He wipes it on the handrail. “Next week, I’m on active duty. I just came to say my goodbyes and pick up my paycheck.” He studies David a moment and irritation creeps into his voice. “Well, aren’t you going to say anything?”
      David doesn’t know what to say, so he says, “What about Stacy?”
      “What about her?”
      “You can’t just leave her again, can you?”
      “What do you care?”
      “I don’t know.” His voice has a fine crack in it. There is a pain in his forehead. It makes him think of insects eating away at the space between his eyes. He squeezes the bridge of his nose.
      “I better go talk to Joe,” says Stephen. He moves up the ramp another two steps, and from here David can see the redness in his teeth, the blood from his chewing.
      “I’m in your way, aren’t I?” David says and steps aside and makes a motion with his hands, ushering Stephen onto the dock. “Sorry.”
      Stephen doesn’t say anything else, but just before he pushes through the double doors, David yells after him to wait a minute. Stephen pauses, half inside, half out, as David takes a few lumbering steps toward him and offers his hand. It hangs there a second, then Stephen shows off the blood on his hand like an apology before disappearing inside.

 Without Stephen, driving feels different, the roads as routine as an old network of veins that has pumped the same blood along the same path too long. David yearns for conversation but there is only the grumble of the engine, the hiss of the tires spinning over the blacktop, the voice of Hank Williams yodeling through the radio.
      He swings by Stephen’s house once, and then again, looking for a car in the driveway, a light in the window. The third time, when he passes the house at a crawl, he catches sight of his reflection in the living-room window—the Astrovan and his dark shape inside it. Without really thinking about it he raises his hand, and it is as if his hand and the hand in the window are trying to reach across those many feet of space to touch.
      At the end of the block, he doesn’t turn around to drive through the neighborhood again but instead continues through town until he merges onto Route 20 and drives toward Sisters, then past it, to the plot of land where they went hunting.
      He parks the van on a logging road and hikes through the forest to the meadow. His hands are shoved deep in his pockets, the smell of pine drifting all around him. The low rays of sunlight pick out a little red in the soil, the place where they gutted the deer. He kneels there, and though the ground is hard with frost he manages to finger his way into it and pull away a handful of dirt, still the reddish color of blood. He puts it in his pocket, and later in a Ziploc bag, to keep.

Author Bio

Ben PercyBenjamin Percy is the author of two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction appear in Esquire, Men's Journal, The Paris Review, Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, and many other places. His honors include the Plimpton Prize and a Pushcart Prize. He teaches in the MFA program at Iowa State. In 2009, Graywolf will publish his novel, The Wilding.

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Photo by Jennifer May