NEA Literature Fellowships

Benjamin Percy

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from The Locksmith

In eighth grade he dressed up as an ape for Halloween. He had a fullbody suit with shaggy black hair and a mouthful of teeth. No one knew who he was at school. He would walk up to girls and stare at them and say nothing and they would press their backs to their lockers and hide behind their friends to give him wide berth. Some people laughed but with a nervousness that made their laughter come across as forced and wheezy. It was the first time he felt powerful.

He kept the ape suit in his closet and sometimes he would put it on and stare at himself in the mirror and thump his chest -- once, twice -- while breathing heavily into his mask. He did not know why but it gave him an erection. Normally his father would not return from work until dinner time, so he felt safe to walk around the house in the ape suit and watch television and do his homework at the kitchen table, but one day his father came home early and because Brian had the television volume up he did not hear the growl of the engine or the crunch of gravel or even the rattle of keys. When his father pushed open the door to the garage with a pizza balanced in one hand, Brian sprang up from the couch. This startled a yell from his father and he dropped the pizza box on the floor where it opened as a cardboard mouth blurping cheese and pepperoni. Moths -- Pandora moths the size of hands -- fluttered in from outside while his father leaned against the open door and observed Brian with hooded eyes that revealed his curiosity and disappointment. "What's wrong with you?" he finally said. The ape suit went in the garbage that night, but Brian hasn't stopped thinking about it -- the way an amputee will never stop thinking about a lost limb -- remembering the sense of power that came with it.

Over the past few months he has trapped weasel and pine martens and coyote and beaver and even a wolverine. For all except the beaver, which required an open-cut dissection, he sliced around the hind legs below the hock and sliced up the back of the hind legs to the anus and from there stripped the pelt off the hind legs. He removed the tailbone by slicing from the anus along the bottom side of the tail to its tip and then worked it free from the bone. He pulled the skin delicately off their pink bodies, as if pulling a damp nightgown from a woman, pausing at the head, where he had to cut through their ear cartilage and around the eyes and through their lips to slip off the pelt completely.

Then came the fat, the flesh, the gristle -- scraping it off -- and then washing the pelt with soap and water and patting it off with a towel. He keeps several wooden stretchers in the garage and he centered the pelts on them and pulled them taut and waited a day for them to dry and then turned them and waited another day and then wetted their underside with vegetable oil to keep them pliant and brushed their fur with a dog comb so that they appeared fluffy, shiny.

From the Goodwill he bought a mannequin to use as a frame. He had learned how to sew in the service, but never with leather. The Internet told him everything he did not already know, such as how to keep the holes clean by lightly dampening the stitch groove and polishing the diamond awl blade with a block of beeswax before every punch. With a waxed fivecord linen thread that runs from a thousand-yard spool, he used a saddlestitch method, pulling snug so as not to break the thread or rip a stitch. He made the leggings first -- from four gray-furred coyotes -- and then puzzled the rest of the pelts together to match his upper body, binding the variant furs and their colors to make a patchwork coat that hung from him loosely and would not tear if he ran and contorted himself oddly when climbing a tree or leaping across a canal.

And now he is nearly done, tying off the final stitch for the helmet or mask -- he isn't sure what to call it -- made from the beaver he trapped the other day. He is in the living room -- seated on the same lumpy couch and watching the same wood-framed Mitsubishi television as he was when his father surprised him so many years ago. Wheel of Fortune is playing. Pat Sajak is making small talk with a contestant, a man from Kentucky who has a wonderful wife and dreams of one day taking a cruise to Alaska. His hands are deformed. They look like fleshy lobster claws. Another contestant spins the wheel for him. The sun has set. The curtains are closed. The mannequin stands nearby, draped in the hair suit. Its blue eyes stare into a void and its pink mouth puckers into a dead smile. On television the wheel is spinning, and in the living room Brian is biting off a loose thread and knotting its end. The category is Action and the puzzle is three words. Brian sharpens a pair of scissors over a whetstone, then holds his fist inside of the furred mask to brace it as he scissors two eye holes and carves open a slit for breathing. The wheel is rattling its kaleidoscope of pie-wedge colors, glittery numbers. It nearly comes to a stop on bankruptcy but clicks forward another notch to the silvery promise of a thousand dollars. "Touching you naked," Brian says to the television. And then, more loudly, "It's touching you naked, you idiots."

The man closes his eyes and lifts his deformed hands as if in benediction. A moment passes before Brian realizes the man is crossing his fingers. "Thumbing your nose," the man guesses. Lights flash. Bells ring. The audience claps and Pat Sajak smiles and the man does a little dance and throws back his head and opens his mouth to reveal a black cave of laughter that seems to swallow up the screen when Brian punches the remote and everything goes dark.

Brian stands from the couch and approaches the mannequin. He stares into its blank blue eyes a moment before fitting the mask over its head. He surveys his work as a tailor, tidying a sleeve, brushing his hands across the fur, petting it. A musky smell rises off the suit, somewhere between a groin and a wet dog -- a smell that surrounds him, minutes later, when he strips naked and steps into the pants and tightens their belt and then pulls on the jacket and finally the mask. The noise and the heat of his breathing surround him and he experiences that old familiar feeling of power and excitement. An erection throbs to life. It is his first in months.

He walks from the living room down a narrow hallway and into his bedroom. There is a full-length mirror mounted on the closet door and he studies his reflection in it. The only source of light is a 40-watt bulb glowing above him. It has about the same effect as a flashlight to the face in throwing long shadows that squirm all over his body when he moves. He likes the way the mask fits snugly to his face, like armor. He pulls on a pair of white tube socks and then his combat boots, shined to a black gleam. "I'm going out," he yells to the house and pauses a moment in the doorway as if awaiting a reply.

All his life he has lived in this house -- this three-bedroom ranch with the lava-rock chimney and the red cinder driveway -- located in Deschutes River Woods, a thickly forested development on the outskirts of town. There are no streetlamps here. Only the stars spiraling above him, the moon staring through the trees like a scarred eye from another world. For a moment Brian stands in his driveway, letting his eyes adjust, before loping off into the nearby forest.

(Published by Graywolf Press, 2010)

Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon (forthcoming from Grand Central/Hachette in 2013) and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have been published by Esquire, GQ, TIME, Men's Journal, Outside, the Wall Street Journal, and the Paris Review. His honors include the Whiting Writers' Award, the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics.

Photo by Jennifer May

Art Talk with Benjamin and Jennifer Percy

Author's Statement

Every time my birthday approaches, my wife asks what I want -- and I always say, "Time." There is never enough time, not when you have kids to raise, a house to renovate, classes to teach, deadlines to chase. The NEA has given me the gift of time. Time at the keyboard. Time in the library. Time to interview sources and time to travel for a book project I could not have undertaken without this assistance. I'm humbled and grateful and excited to share the work the NEA has made possible.


Benjamin Percy

NEA Literature Fellow


Audio Tabs

In his current novel, Red Moon, Ben Percy serves up a hybrid of horror and literature to tell a story about our lives today. [35:10]

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