NEA Literature Fellowships

Jennifer Percy

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Demon Camp

Portal, Georgia, which lies between Statesboro and Swainsboro, has 562 people, one streetlight, one restaurant called Pepper Jack's, and a beauty pageant for infants called Baby Miss Turpentine. Dead armadillos are all over the roads, shining dull like how I imagine diamonds look when you pull them from the earth. The center of Portal is the Church of God. It's dry and full of sun and shaped like a colorless Pizza Hut.

In Portal, there are dirt roads with signs pointing down more dirt roads. Many of them say Church. Some of them hold messages in plastic display cases: Life is short. Eternity Isn't. I wouldn't be caught dead without Jesus. Go to church or the devil will get you. Prayer is the key to unlock Jesus. For the hopeless Jesus is the only hope. You think it's hot out here? Try Hell. Be happy with yourself. God loves you. Come in, God has a plan for you. You have one new friend request from Jesus, Accept? Reject?

The minister and his wife live in a trailer fifteen minutes outside Portal. It's a double wide, down four dirt roads, in the middle of a field that, they say, used to be ocean. Fossils were dug from the ground; polished remains of giant sharks and things with necks longer than a house. Annie says it was the Flood.

Brent says that ninety-nine percent of people who come to the trailer return to the trailer.           

He puts me in the windowless guest room with thin floral sheets and a porcelain angel. The angel has her hands raised in a nice way but her lips are painted wrong. They are on the side of her face, near the cheek, looking more wound than lip.

The minister is watching TV in the living room, on a leather chair with gold trim and a foldout footrest, demanding things from his wife. She didn't buy the right ice cream. He wanted vanilla but not the kind with all the fruit in it. His wife has long blonde hair that falls to her hips. Her shirt says WILD WEST and her boots click softly on the blue linoleum. The kitchen is a spread of raw food, waiting for evening.

The minister unpauses the Tivo. "We have visitors here all the time," he says. He doesn't turn his neck but moves his entire torso in my direction. "It's like a hotel. Help yourself to anything." His face breaks into a wide grin and the yellow ceiling light spills onto his forehead, making him glow along with the screen.

There are photos of Roy Rogers in the bathroom and a saddle in the living room. A green carpet darkens the hall.

The phone rings. He leaves the chair for his bedroom, answers, listens, sighs, embraces his wife in the light near the porch doors. "A poverty demon is in Portal," the minister says.

Brent watches TV and I go outside, onto the porch, where a woman's drinking something yellow, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Her name is Pam. She's forty- years-old and she's "the adopted child." Pam followed the minister's family to Georgia from their previous home in upstate New York. Her body spills from the chair. I hear her breathe. Some of her hair is curly and some straight. She kills ants with her feet.

"I worked at AT&T for twenty years," Pam says. "Nothing to write home about."

The minister has four children and fifteen grandchildren. They all live in Portal. His oldest child lives a dirt road away. By late afternoon all fifteen grandkids, all between the ages of two months and nine years are in the yard, jumping on the trampoline, screaming, running naked. One pisses on the ground, facing me, as close as possible without hitting my feet. Another picks ants out of the portable swimming pool and eats them. A red-head named Amaryllis comes up to me, opens her mouth. I feed her.

A few veterans wander the yard fixing cars: Iraq, Somalia, Vietnam.

A hundred yards out, past the lawn chairs facing nowhere, past the pool full of dead ants, past the fallen children's toys, the grass turns to field, boulders break from the earth and sunflowers stand leaning like the silhouettes of men. The field darkens at the curve of the earth, until it is eaten by the sky.

Out there, a dog, big as a colt and matted like it's just been put through the wash, is digging. He and the minister's dog Hoss make love at night and everyone can hear their violence made public by the clear air. Hoss comes home in the morning, bloody and smiling.

Black clouds rise over the eastern sky and Pam takes me inside where the air is dense with the smell of butter and children. The minister's wife cuts lasagna into neat squares and passes them among us. The children sit at a long oak table, the adults in the living room.

Dessert is passed, the power goes out. The children scream on cue and the mothers laugh, lighting candles. The men put on work boots and head outside. Lightning made a gash in the earth, they report. Smoke rises from the ground and hail replaces rain.

I ask Abbey if we need to worry about anything.

I feel the room go quiet behind me and when I turn around everyone is staring at me, forks stopped mid-air, mouths open.

"Georgia gets tornados," she says, crossing her arms. "But this property doesn't."

I excuse myself to the living room. They stop talking to me. I pick the smallest
infant to hold.

Brent joins me, touches my back. "Don't worry," he says. "They're not being rude. They just don't think they're talking to you. They think they're talking to your demons."

Jennifer Percy grew up in rural Oregon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, the Indiana Review, AGNI, Best Women's Travel Writing, among others, and has been featured on National Public Radio and BBC"s World News. Percy has won a number of awards for her writing, including scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the first place award in American Short Fiction's Story Contest, and multiple academic fellowships. She is currently a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and received an Iowa arts fellowship from the nonfiction writing program. She recently sold rights for her first book Demon Camp, which is due out from Scribner/Simon &Schuster in 2013.

Photo by Nina Feng

Art Talk with Benjamin and Jennifer Percy

Author's Statement

I'm deeply grateful to the NEA and to this year's fellowship judges for their support and good faith. It means that for the next two years I will be able to focus entirely on my creative work. The award comes at a crucial time, too, when the question of how to afford to keep writing had been consuming and haunting my days. It brings great relief -- I can now complete research and travel for my book, as well as begin work on my second. Looking at the current and past list of NEA winners, I'm amazed to see how many authors of importance to me are on that list. It's such an honor to be celebrated along side them.