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Refresh, Refresh: Stories

Refresh, Refresh: Stories

5.0 3
by Benjamin Percy

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The war in Iraq empties the small town of Tumalo, Oregon, of men—of fathers—leaving their sons to fight among themselves. But the boys' bravado fades at home when, alone, they check e-mail again and again for word from their fathers at the front.

Often from fractured homes and communities, the young men in these breathless stories do the


The war in Iraq empties the small town of Tumalo, Oregon, of men—of fathers—leaving their sons to fight among themselves. But the boys' bravado fades at home when, alone, they check e-mail again and again for word from their fathers at the front.

Often from fractured homes and communities, the young men in these breathless stories do the unthinkable to prove to themselves—to everyone—that they are strong enough to face the heartbreak in this world. Set in rural Oregon with the shadow of the Cascade Mountains hanging over them, these stories bring you face-to-face with a mad bear, a house with a basement that opens up into a cave, a nuclear meltdown that renders the Pacific Northwest into a contemporary Wild West. Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy is a bold, fiery, and unforgettable collection that deals with vital issues of our time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Percy's second collection (following last year's The Language of Elk) traces lives led in rural Oregon's fractured, mostly poor communities. The title story (selected for The Best American Short Stories 2006), presents Josh, a young man from small-town Tumalo who watches as men who signed up as Marine reservists for "beer pay" leave to fight in the Iraq War, including Josh's father. As Josh's unreliable first person details a deer hunt, the escapades of the town recruitment officer and the less-and-less frequent e-mails from his father, tension slowly builds. Set during a blackout, "The Caves in Oregon" follows geology teacher Becca and her husband, Kevin, as they explore a network of caves beneath their home, grappling to understand each other in the wake of a miscarriage. "Meltdown" imagines a nuclear disaster in November 2009, while the menacing "Whisper" opens with the accidental late-life death of Jacob, leaving his brother, Gerald, to care for Jacob's stroke-impaired wife. Percy's talent for putting surprising characters in difficult contemporary settings makes this a memorable collection. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Stories of war, hunting, murder, and loss are all set in rural Oregon, in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Perhaps the most striking one, "Refresh, Refresh" is the heart-wrenching tale of a small town in which all of the fathers-coaches, teachers, barbers, UPS deliverymen, deputies, etc.-have been deployed to Iraq. The boys who are left soon become the men their fathers were, fighting, drinking, and eventually enlisting in the army. This story sets the tone for the dark, depressing existence of the mostly lower-middle-class male characters. Blood runs through many of the tales. In "The Caves in Oregon," the red soil from the nearby volcanic caves leeches its way into the house, reminding the main character of his bloody wisdom teeth extraction. In "The Killing," a Vietnam veteran murders another man and watches as "some redness joined the yellowness of his beer," and in "When the Bear Came," two mauled girls are found in a tent "that looked less like a tent and more like an organ excised by blunt scissors." While the stories are riddled with death, they are consistently and beautifully written and will no doubt appeal to older teens. Percy's visceral writing promises to remain with readers for a long time.-Jennifer Waters, Red Deer Public Library, Alberta, Canada

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ten stories about otherwise ordinary lives haunted by violence and death-Percy's second collection, following The Language of Elk (2006). All the stories are set in the high desert country of central Oregon; the harsh landscape defines the characters. The men are hunters and raise their sons to hunt, not always successfully. In "The Woods," Justin resents his father for the hunting lessons; years later, on a scary hunting trip involving two mysterious corpses, roles are reversed as son consoles fearful father. Josh and Gordon, high-school students in the prize-winning title story, love to hunt deer, but their fathers, National Guard reservists, have left for Iraq. In a story that pulses with violence, the local army recruiter is the bad guy. Memories of killing Iraqis surface in "Somebody is Going to Have to Pay for This" and "Meltdown"; Stephen and Darren, in almost identical circumstances, killed Iraqis at point-blank range. The puzzle is why the latter, near-future story, a study of Darren's anomie, needs the spectacular embellishment of a nuclear reactor meltdown. In two stories, "The Caves in Oregon" and "The Faulty Builder," death happens in the womb, with troubling consequences for two married couples. Less troubling for Jim, the lonely old hunter and taxidermist in "The Killing," is shooting his daughter's abusive boyfriend: "His entire adult life he has been surrounded by dead things." Another lonely old man, Gerald, has always lusted after his brother's wife ("Whisper"). It's unfortunate that this credible tale of sibling rivalry should take a sudden turn into melodrama. Blood swirls through these stories. Even a blackberry pie looks "a little like congealed blood," so it's nosurprise that Joey, the young dairy farmer in "Crash," considering suicide after his wife's accidental death, visualizes the blood pouring out of him. Percy does well by his trapped, uncomprehending men, but his endings are messy and inconclusive.

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Refresh, Refresh


By Benjamin Percy

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2007 Benjamin Percy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-015-4


Refresh, Refresh

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.

Many years ago a meteor came screeching down from space and left behind a crater five thousand feet wide and three hundred feet deep. Hole in the Ground is frequented during the winter by the daredevil sledders among us, and during the summer by bearded geologists from OSU interested in the metal fragments strewn across its bottom. I dangled my feet over the edge of the crater and leaned back on my elbows and took in the sky — no moon, only stars — just a little lighter black than a crow. Every few minutes a star seemed to come unstuck, streaking through the night in a bright flash that burned into nothingness. In the near distance the grayish green glow of Tumalo dampened the sky — a reminder of how close we came, fifty years ago, to oblivion. A chunk of space ice or a solar wind at just the right moment could have jogged the meteor sideways, and rather than landing here, it could have landed there, at the intersection of Main and Farwell. No Dairy Queen, no Tumalo High, no 2nd Battalion. It didn't take much imagination to realize how something can drop out the sky and change everything.

This was October, when Gordon and I circled each other in the backyard after school. We wore our golden boxing gloves, cracked with age and letting off flakes when we pounded them together. Browned grass crunched beneath our sneakers and dust rose in little puffs like distress signals.

Gordon was thin to the point of being scrawny. His collarbone poked against his skin like a swallowed coat hanger. His head was too big for his body and his eyes were too big for his head and the football players — Seth Johnson among them — regularly tossed him into garbage cans and called him E.T. He had had a bad day. And I could tell from the look on his face — the watery eyes, the trembling lips that revealed, in quick flashes, his buckteeth — that he wanted, he needed, to hit me. So I let him. I raised my gloves to my face and pulled my elbows against my ribs and Gordon lunged forward, his arms snapping like rubber bands. I stood still, allowing his fists to work up and down my body, allowing him to throw the weight of his anger on me, until eventually he grew too tired to hit anymore and I opened up my stance and floored him with a right cross to the temple. He lay there, sprawled out in the grass with a small smile on his E.T. face. "Damn," he said in a dreamy voice. A drop of blood gathered along the corner of his eye and streaked down his temple into his hair.

My father wore steel-toed boots, Carhartt jeans, a T-shirt advertising some place he had traveled, maybe Yellowstone or Seattle. He looked like someone you might see shopping for motor oil at Bi-Mart. To hide his receding hairline he wore a John Deere cap that laid a shadow across his face. His brown eyes blinked above a considerable nose underlined by a gray mustache. Like me, my father was short and squat, a bulldog. His belly was a swollen bag and his shoulders were broad, good for carrying me during parades, and at fairs, when I was younger. He laughed a lot. He liked game shows. He drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes and spent too much time with his buddies, fishing, hunting, bullshitting, which probably had something to do with why my mother divorced him and moved to Boise with a hairdresser/triathlete named Chuck.

At first, when my father left, like all of the other fathers, he would e-mail whenever he could. He would tell me about the heat, the gallons of water he drank every day, the sand that got into everything, the baths he took with baby wipes. He would tell me how safe he was, how very safe. This was when he was stationed in Turkey. Then the 2nd Battalion shipped for Kirkuk, where insurgents and sandstorms attacked almost daily. The e-mails came less and less frequently, with weeks of silence between them.

Sometimes, on the computer, I would hit refresh, refresh, refresh, hoping. In October, I received an e-mail that read, "Hi Josh. I'm OK. Don't worry. Do your homework. Love, Dad." I printed it up and hung it on my door with a piece of Scotch tape.

For twenty years my father worked at Noseler, Inc. — the bullet manufacturer based out of Bend — and the Marines trained him as an ammunition technician. Gordon liked to say his father was a Gunnery Sergeant, and he was, but we all knew he was also the battalion mess manager, a cook, which was how he made his living in Tumalo, tending the grill at Hamburger Patty's. We knew their titles but we didn't know, not really, what their titles meant, what our fathers did over there. We imagined them doing heroic things. Rescuing Iraqi babies from burning huts. Sniping suicide bombers before they could detonate on a crowded city street. We drew on Hollywood and CNN to develop elaborate scenarios, where maybe, at twilight, during a trek through the mountains of Northern Iraq, bearded insurgents ambushed our fathers with rocket-launchers. We imagined them silhouetted by a fiery explosion. We imagined them burrowing into the sand like lizards and firing their M16s, their bullets streaking through the darkness like the meteorites I observed on sleepless nights.

When Gordon and I fought we painted our faces — black and green and brown — with the camo-grease our fathers left behind. It made our eyes and teeth appear startlingly white. And it smeared away against our gloves just as the grass smeared away beneath our sneakers — and the ring became a circle of dirt, the dirt a reddish color that looked a lot like scabbed flesh. One time Gordon hammered my shoul-der so hard I couldn't lift my arm for a week. Another time I elbowed him in the kidneys and he peed blood. We struck each other with such force and frequency the golden gloves crumbled and our knuckles showed through the sweat-soaked blood-soaked foam like teeth through a busted lip. So we bought another set of gloves, and as the air grew steadily colder we fought with steam blasting from our mouths.

Our fathers had left us, but men remained in Tumalo. There were old men, like my grandfather, who I lived with — men who had paid their dues, who had worked their jobs and fought their wars, and now spent their days at the gas station, drinking bad coffee from Styrofoam cups, complaining about the weather, arguing about the best months to reap alfalfa. And there were incapable men. Men who rarely shaved and watched daytime television in their once-white underpants. Men who lived in trailers and filled their shopping carts with Busch Light, summer sausage, Oreo cookies.

And then there were vulturous men, like Dave Lightener — men who scavenged whatever our fathers had left behind. Dave Lightener worked as a recruitment officer. I'm guessing he was the only recruitment officer in world history who drove a Vespa scooter with a Support Our Troops ribbon magneted to its rear. We sometimes saw it parked outside the homes of young women whose husbands had gone to war. Dave had big ears and small eyes and wore his hair in your standard-issue high-and-tight buzz. He often spoke in a too-loud voice about all the insurgents he gunned down when working a Fallujah patrol unit. He lived with his mother in Tumalo, but spent his days in Bend and Redmond, trolling the parking lots of Best Buy, ShopKo, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Mountain View Mall. He was looking for people like us, people who were angry and dissatisfied and poor.

But Dave Lightener knew better than to bother us. On duty he stayed away from Tumalo entirely. Recruiting there would be too much like poaching the burned section of forest where deer, rib-slatted and wobbly legged, nosed through the ash, seeking something green.

We didn't fully understand the reason our fathers were fighting. We only understood that they had to fight. The necessity of it made the reason irrelevant. "It's all part of the game," my grandfather said. "It's just the way it is." We could only cross our fingers and wish on stars and hit refresh, refresh, hoping they would return to us, praying we would never find Dave Lightener on our porch uttering the words, "I regret to inform you ..."

One time, my grandfather dropped Gordon and me off at Mountain View Mall and there, near the glass-doored entrance, stood Dave Lightener. He wore his creased khaki uniform and spoke with a group of Mexican teenagers. They were laughing, shaking their heads and walking away from him as we walked toward. We had our hats pulled low and he didn't recognize us.

"Question for you, gentlemen," he said in the voice of telemarketers and door-to-door Jehovah's Witnesses. "What do you plan on doing with your lives?"

Gordon pulled off his hat with a flourish, as if he were part of some ta-da! magic act and his face was the trick. "I plan on killing some crazy-ass Muslims," he said and forced a smile. "How about you, Josh?"

"Yeah," I said. "Kill some people, then get myself killed." I grimaced even as I played along. "That sounds like a good plan."

Dave Lightener's lips tightened into a thin line, his posture straightened, and he asked us what we thought our fathers would think, hearing us right now. "They're out there risking their lives, defending our freedom, and you're cracking sick jokes," he said. "I think that's sick."

We hated him for his soft hands and clean uniform. We hated him because he sent people like us off to die. Because at twenty-three he had attained a higher rank than our fathers. Because he slept with the lonely wives of soldiers. And now we hated him even more for making us feel ashamed. I wanted to say something sarcastic, but Gordon was quicker. His hand was out before him, his fingers gripping an imaginary bottle. "Here's your maple syrup," he said. When Dave said, "And what is that for?" Gordon said, "To eat my ass with."

Right then a skateboarder-type with green hair and a nose-ring walked from the mall, a bagful of DVDs swinging from his fist, and Dave Lightener forgot us. "Hey, friend," he was saying. "Let me ask you something. Do you like war movies?"

In November we drove our dirt bikes deep into the woods to hunt. Sunlight fell through tall pines and birch clusters and lay in puddles along the logging roads that wound past the hillsides packed with huckleberries and the moraines where coyotes scurried, trying to flee us and slipping, causing tiny avalanches of loose rock. It hadn't rained in nearly a month, so the crabgrass and the cheatgrass and the pine needles had lost their color, dry and blond as cornhusks, crackling beneath my boots when the road we followed petered out into nothing and I stepped off my bike. In this waterless stillness, you could hear every chipmunk within a square acre, rustling for pine nuts, and when the breeze rose into a cold wind the forest became a giant whisper.

We dumped our tent and sleeping bags near a basalt grotto with a spring bubbling from it, and Gordon said, "Let's go, troops," holding his rifle before his chest diagonally, as a soldier would. He dressed as a soldier would, too, wearing his father's overlarge cammies rather than the mandatory blaze orange gear. Fifty feet apart we worked our way downhill, through the forest, through a huckleberry thicket, through a clear-cut crowded with stumps, taking care not to make much noise or slip on the pine needles carpeting the ground. A chipmunk worrying at a pinecone screeched its astonishment when a peregrine falcon swooped down and seized it, carrying it off between the trees to some secret place. Its wings made no sound, and neither did the blaze orange hunter when he appeared in a clearing several hundred yards below us.

Gordon made some sort of SWAT-team gesture, meant, I think, to say, Stay Low, and I made my way carefully toward him. From behind a boulder, we peered through our scopes, tracking the hunter, who looked — in his vest and ear-flapped hat — like a monstrous pumpkin. "That cocksucker," Gordon said in a harsh whisper. The hunter was Seth Johnson. His rifle was strapped to his back, and his mouth was moving, talking to someone. At the corner of the meadow he joined four members of the varsity football squad, who sat on logs around a smoldering campfire, their arms bobbing like oil-pump jacks as they brought their beers to their mouths.

I took my eye from my scope and noticed Gordon fingering the trigger of his thirty-aught. I told him to quit fooling around and he pulled his hand suddenly away from the stock and smiled guiltily and said he just wanted to know what it felt like, having that power over someone. Then his trigger finger rose up and touched the gummy white scar that split his eyebrow. "I say we fuck with them a little."

I shook my head, no.

Gordon said, "Just a little — to scare them."

"They've got guns," I said, and he said, "So we'll come back tonight."

Later, after an early dinner of beef jerky and trail mix and Gatorade, I happened upon a four-point stag nibbling on some bear grass, and I rested my rifle on a stump and shot it, and it stumbled backwards and collapsed with a rose blooming from behind its shoulder where the heart was hidden. Gordon came running and we stood around the deer and smoked a few cigarettes, watching the thick arterial blood run from its mouth. Then we took out our knives and got to work. I cut around the anus, cutting away the penis and testes, and then ran the knife along the belly, unzipping the hide to reveal the delicate pink flesh and greenish vessels into which our hands disappeared. The blood steamed in the cold mountain air, and when we finished — when we'd skinned the deer and hacked at its joints and cut out its back strap and boned out its shoulders and hips, its neck and ribs, making chops, roasts, steaks, quartering the meat so we could bundle it into our insulated saddlebags — Gordon picked up the deer head by the antlers and held it before his own. Blood from its neck made a pattering sound on the ground, and in the half-light of early evening Gordon began to do a little dance, bending his knees and stomping his feet.


Excerpted from Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy. Copyright © 2007 Benjamin Percy. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Benjamin Percy is the author of The Language of Elk and The Wilding. He has been awarded the Plimpton Prize and a Whiting Writers' Award, and has been included in Best American Short Stories. He teaches at Iowa State University.

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Refresh, Refresh 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
SavageBS More than 1 year ago
Percy's love of family & the outdoors are ever present throughout the book, each story draws you in.

Out of the ten stories in the book, five are really, really oustanding!

Refresh, Refresh
The Caves in Oregon
The Woods
When the Bear Came

I randomnly came across this book at B & N and took a chance on it, it paid off, highly recommended!

This is Benjamin Percy's 2nd novel of short stories, his 1st book, "The Language of Elk" is also very good!!

I've never read anything with the type of vivid descriptions that Percy uses in his stories.

He is a young, very talented writer who isnt really well known (yet) and I will definitely read his next book....
Author_RichardThomas More than 1 year ago
Benjamin Percy is one of my favorite authors writing today. He's able to mix genre fiction with literary fiction to create captivating, eloquent stories. Loved this book. Also, check out his book, The Wilding: A Novel, which was fantastic.
SiobhanMFallon More than 1 year ago
Scrappy young men fist fight for fun in order to stop themselves from worrying about their dads deployed to Iraq in title story Refresh, Refresh, and the tension doesn't stop there. Remarkable stories, violent and beautiful, about the America of today and the place we might become. Percy is a master and it's no wonder this collection catapulted him to deserved critical fame.