Woundedby Percival Everett
Time Out Chicago, Top 10 Book of 2005
Winner of the 2006 PEN USA Literary Award for Fiction
Training horses is dangerous—a head-to-head confrontation with 1,000 pounds of muscle and little sense takes courage, but more important, patience and smarts. It is these same qualities that allow John and his uncle Gus to live/p>/b>/b>/b>/i>
Time Out Chicago, Top 10 Book of 2005
Winner of the 2006 PEN USA Literary Award for Fiction
Training horses is dangerous—a head-to-head confrontation with 1,000 pounds of muscle and little sense takes courage, but more important, patience and smarts. It is these same qualities that allow John and his uncle Gus to live in the beautiful high desert of Wyoming. A black horse trainer is a curiosity, at the very least, but a familiar curiosity in these parts. It is the brutal murder of a young gay man, however, that pushes this small community to the teetering edge of intolerance.
Highly praised for his storytelling and ability to address the toughest issues of our time with humor, grace, and originality, Wounded by Percival Everett offers a brilliant novel that explores the alarming consequences of hatred in a divided America.
“An unsettling look at intolerance and its logical end in violence.” The New York Times Book Review
“Starts rhapsodically and rewards the reader with so many moments of love and laughter--Wounded is full of shocks and surprises.” Los Angeles Times
“While it's tempting to compare Wounded to something by Cormac McCarthy or Walter Van Tilburg Clark, in which a brutal landscape makes for brutal men, this book is more about men who resist such pressures with all the humanity they can muster.” Time Out Chicago, Top Ten Book of the Year
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By Percival Everett
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2005 Percival Everett
All rights reserved.
BY DEFINITION a cave must have an opening large enough to allow a human to enter. The cavity can be wind- or water-eroded. It can be miles and miles deep. But it must let a person enter. And that is what is scary about caves, that one can enter.
My heeler's ears cocked. I was holding the left hind hoof of my antsy mare. The bay kept leaning on me and swishing her tail in my face. She was a good horse, had good manners, but she was a little old and she got cranky when asked to hold up her foot for too long. I was rasping smooth a notch near her heel, trying to use long, efficient strokes, and wondering if I needed to put shoes on her. The break was nice and round and she had decent wall, so I wasn't too worried. I wasn't riding her much anyway, just a couple spins around the arena once a week to keep her in a semblance of good condition. My dog's ears perked again.
"Is that you, Wallace?" I asked. I didn't bother to look up. I continued to work, making another long rasp. I used my knife to whittle down to live hoof. I rubbed the smooth, white surface with my thumb.
"Yeah, it's me."
"You know, it's hard to sneak up on a man with a dog."
"I wasn't sneakin'."
I gave the hoof a last long look. "I guess not. Something wrong with the tractor, Wallace?"
"Why does something have to be wrong because I'm here?" I let the horse's foot go and stood up straight, my bones cracking. I considered that I felt like the horse and felt bad for having her hoof up for so long. My joints never used to complain like that, I thought. I watched the horse's foot settle back to the ground and gave her aging haunch a firm scratch. "You getting a little arthritic, old girl?" I asked her. Then, to the man, "Okay, what's the problem, Wallace?"
"Ain't no problem."
"Then, Wallace, why aren't you mowing the pasture?" I looked out the barn doors at the trees alongside the field.
"Takin' a break." Wallace shuffled his long feet, then stopped, his dusty boots together, pointing his toes straight ahead, awkwardly. "Thought I'd stop for a while."
"That's reasonable, Wallace. It's really hot out there. I was thinking about taking a break myself." I pushed my sleeves back up my arms, pulled out my kerchief and wiped my neck.
"Why don't you like me?" Wallace asked.
I looked up and down the barn alley. "Wallace, I'm afraid I'm having trouble following you, son."
"Why don't you like me?"
"Wallace, I like you fine. I hired you, didn't I?"
"That don't mean nothing."
I called my dog over and rubbed at her ears. Zoe groaned and leaned into the attention. "Wallace, I like you just dandy, okay? I don't want to go to town with you and dance and get drunk, but I like you."
"Very funny," Wallace said. "You're always making fun of me. How come you say my name every time you say something to me?"
"Wallace, it's your name. I didn't think you'd respond to Cisco or Fred."
"No, I mean every time you say something, you say my name. Every single time."
"Do I, Wallace?" I caught myself as I said it.
"I'm sorry, Wallace."
"What's that all about?"
"I'm sorry. I wasn't doing it on purpose." I blew out a breath and watched the man. He was tall, wiry, and what my father would have called a finger sandwich shy of a picnic.
Wallace shuffled in his tracks for a second time. "The mower blade broke," he said.
"Didn't I ask you if the tractor was okay, Wallace?"
"Yes, sir. The tractor's fine. Blade's broke. I guess I hit a big rock."
I reached down, picked up a bit of hoof trimming, and tossed it to Zoe. "Guess so. Didn't I tell you to walk that field first? Damn." I collected myself. "Well, Wallace," I emphasized saying his name, "things happen. At least you didn't whack off your leg or some other part. I'll take a look at it later. In the meantime, go on in the house and have Gus make you a sandwich."
"If you want I can try to weld the blade back on."
"No, no, no, that's okay, Wallace. You need lunch." The words felt too quick in my mouth and for a second I worried that I'd insulted the thin-skinned man again. "I'll take care of it. Go grab yourself some lunch."
I watched the man cross the corral, then walk through the yard to the back door of the house. He knocked on the screen door, perfunctorily, before entering. I thought Wallace was okay, a little dumb, but okay. I didn't know much about the man; I didn't care to know much. I'd hired him in spite of his obvious surprise at discovering I was black. He'd come to the house and stood on the porch for near five minutes without knocking. Gus looked out the window and shook his head, laughing. "That white boy is gonna stand out there till winter."
I opened the door and stepped out, asking what he wanted. He could barely get out that he was there about a job.
"My name is Wallace Castlebury."
"Okay," I said, trying to help him.
"I heard you need a ranch hand." He looked at his long feet, glancing up quickly to catch my eyes before looking away again.
"Yeah? Where'd you hear that?"
"At the feed store. The one in town," he stammered. "The woman who works there told me."
"You ever do ranch work before?"
"Some. Over near Shell."
"Who'd you work for?"
"Man named Fife. The Double R."
"I know him," I said. "Mind if I give him a call?"
The man shook his head. "You can call him."
I looked away from him toward the slope at the end of the large pasture. "Can you drive a tractor without killing yourself or others?"
"So far, sir." The sir came hard. "I've mowed and pulled a disc. I can work on them a little bit, too."
"Know anything about horses?" I asked.
"Which end kicks, that's all."
I think I smiled. "I reckon you'll do. You got a place to live?"
"Staying with a friend in town," Wallace said.
"Can you be here at seven in the morning? And I mean seven, not seven-thirty, not seven-fifteen. Every morning?"
Wallace said he could and I hired him. Then he stood on the porch, looking at his shoes, waiting.
"Wallace, you can go now. I'll see you in the morning at seven."
That had been our first meeting and for a month the subsequent encounters were not so different. Wallace wasn't completely inept, but he was as close as a man can get to it and still be alive. He did what I asked for the most part, not much more, thank god, and when he did show some inkling of initiative, his instincts nearly always turned out to be wrong. One time he used my ranch Jeep to pull the two-wheeled trailer I had filled with cut firewood to the back of the house. Once there he decided to uncouple the trailer. I watched him, not quite believing it. He, with almost complete focus, flipped the lever. Before I could shout out, the trailer seesawed back, throwing high the hitch and dumping the wood. He was lucky he didn't lose a finger, or more.
He stood there gawking at the spilled wood like that might clean it up. "Geez, I'm sorry, Mr. Hunt."
"That's okay, Wallace." I stepped around the mess. "Just empty the wood and stack it all here." I imagine that I was not successfully covering my expression of exasperation because he said, "I'm really sorry. I can reload it and put it wherever you want. That was stupid, weren't it?"
"Just stack it here, Wallace." I walked away a few strides, then turned back to him and said, "Wallace, yes it were."
The afternoon sun was burning into the west side of the barn where I was repairing a waterline. The white PVC was a great invention, but sunlight made it brittle. I'd sawn off the cracked section and was trying to couple in a new piece without covering my hands with the blue adhesive that I was certain would poison me somehow. The roof vents were spinning from the heat. I'd sent Wallace home early because of the broken mower blade and so he couldn't cause any more damage. The break in the blade wasn't bad, near the back, away from the cutting surface. I was glad for the quiet. I planned to weld the blade back on once the sun was down and the air had cooled some. I finished with the pipe, put my hacksaw, pipe pieces, and glue in the shade and walked through the barn, out and across the yard to the house. Gus was resting on the porch, sitting in a straight-backed chair.
"You forgot to eat lunch again." The old man lifted a hand and scratched his pathetic beard.
"If you shaved that thing off it wouldn't itch," I said. "And a man doesn't need lunch unless he remembers it."
"That's what you cowboys say, eh?" Gus said.
"That's what we say."
"Are you starving?" he asked.
"Now that you mention it." I looked off in the same direction as Gus. "Of course, there's a pot of elk chili simmering on the stove."
"No, but there's a salad in the icebox." Gus pulled out the pipe he never lit and bit down on it.
"Icebox? Who says icebox anymore?"
"I do. I'm an old man. I also say movie house and dang fool. Want to make something of it?"
"I think I'll bring my salad out here to eat. Want some?"
"It's a nice evening," he said. "Quiet."
The greenish sparrows under the eave of the little barn weren't crazy about the roar of the tractor so early and they liked even less the sparking and brightness of the arc welder. I'd forgotten about the blade and so I was up in the pre-dawn, in the cool air, sweating under the welding hood. I'd been careful to take off the mower blade and set it properly, but my seam, as usual, was pathetic. Gus always teased me, telling me I couldn't weld a straight dot. Zoe looked up from her spot some yards away, then I heard the truck. I lifted the mask and stood. A white, late-seventies Ford dually kicked up dust as it approached. I looked at my watch. The young woman driving skidded more than she'd intended when stopping. A skinny cowboy leaned an unshaven face out the passenger-side window.
"You John Hunt?" the man asked.
"Is Wallace here?"
"It's five-thirty in the morning, son." When the kid didn't say anything, I said, "No, he's not here. Would you like me to give him a message for you? I expect him at seven."
"Naw, ain't no message."
The woman put the fat truck in gear and they drove away with a little more decorum.
Gus came out of the house in his robe and walked across the yard. "Who the Sam Hill was that?"
"Some kids looking for Wallace."
"It's five-thirty in the morning," Gus said.
"I pointed that out to them."
"Well, come on in and have some breakfast, stupid."
Gus walked ahead of me. From behind him I studied his khakis and white T-shirt that was his uniform. The old man limped, favoring his left leg. But at seventy-nine, he was still strong and it showed in the way he moved, deliberately, always with conviction. Uncle Gus had spent eleven years in a state prison in Arizona for murder. He killed a man who was raping his wife. The fact that the man had been white was Gus's explanation for his time in prison. Gus would say that the reason you never saw any black people in the state of Arizona was because they were all in prison. But Gus was never bitter. He was hard, but never bitter. He'd come to live with me after Susie's death.
In my dream, I spoke to a mirror, telling myself that I was speaking windy nonsense. That was what I said. "You're speaking windy nonsense." Then, as if to stop the dream, I wondered whether the windy nonsense was, in fact, a complaint about the expression "windy nonsense." But then the talk to the mirror turned to the accident and all I could do was swear at myself, call myself stupid. And slow. "You're a selfish bastard," I said over and over, until there was no mirror, just another me and I didn't know which one to believe, even though they were saying the same thing.
I'd lost Susie during a dry spring. It was a hot May day. I'd been in town all morning picking up supplies. My foreman Tad met me as I drove up. He came to the truck's window, holding the de-worming chart.
"You got the stuff?" he asked, conspiratorially.
"Yeah, here it is." I handed over a case of de-worming paste from the passenger seat. "I really think we've got to put them on a split rotation. There're getting to be too many horses to do all at once."
"I'd have to agree with you," Tad said.
I looked past Tad to the short arena behind the house. My wife Susie was checking the cinch on the new Appaloosa. "Hey, Tad, what's my wife doing with the App?"
Tad looked back. "Don't know. Maybe she's going to lunge him."
"Well, okay," I said. I had an uneasy feeling. "I told her to let me work with that horse a few days before she got on him."
Tad starting telling me that one of the horses had wind puffs.
But I was noticing that Susie was holding a crop and not the lunging whip. "Tad, is she about to get on that horse?"
Tad looked again. "Looks like it."
I pulled myself out of the truck and started walking toward the arena. Things turned sour in a hurry. Once Susie's butt settled on the saddle the mare spun to the left and reared slightly. I broke out into a trot. I heard Susie shout "whoa!" to no obvious effect. I was running now and I could hear Tad's footfalls behind me. I called out to Susie. The horse reared again, this time higher. Susie fell head over hind end off the back of the horse. The horse kicked out and I thought I saw a hoof catch my wife's helmet as her light body spun just before hitting the ground. I took the fence in a bound and landed on my knees next to Susie's motionless body. There was dust, nothing but dust, so much dust I couldn't see her face, couldn't see where the horse had run. I choked on the dust, holding Susie and trying to find her.
After breakfast, and after finishing the blade, and feeding the horses and riding the new mare, I stood on the porch and looked at the sky. Gus joined me. "It's nine," I said, "and where's Wallace?"
"Probably tied one on last night."
"Well, I'm not waiting around for him. You ready to go?"
"Yeah, I'm ready. Whatever the hell that means."
"That means do you have on clean socks and undies?"
"As a matter of fact," he said.
"Well, let's go."
Gus grabbed his jacket and got into the Jeep. He drove out the drive toward the road. "I'll be damned if I'm paying him for today even if he shows up and works late," I said. I looked over at my uncle. "And don't forget to tell the doctor about your shortness of breath."
I followed the dirt road to the highway and turned toward town. I looked up at the mountains. There had been an early dusting of snow up high, but the valley was unseasonably hot. I was eagerly anticipating a free day to go and root around in the caves. I'd discovered them years earlier on the BLM land south of my ranch. I didn't know what I expected to find or learn in them, but I thought of them often.
We made the big curve and came over the hill and looked down on town. I was never quite prepared for the sight of it, though I'd lived outside it for twenty years. Even when it had been tiny, its abrupt appearance after the bend always made it seem large. Now, with a couple of housing developments and the new community college campus and the strip malls that followed, it was damn near urban sprawl.
"I don't know why you let this place bug you so much," Gus said. "It's just a town and not much of one. Just a bunch of buildings where people live and work. Hell, it's not like it's Phoenix."
"It was fine ten years ago." I glanced at the fuel gauge and made a note to fill up. "It used to be a village, a real Western town. Now, now it's working on being just like anyplace else."
"Get off your soapbox."
I shut up.
"Did you remember to bring the list?"
I felt my breast pocket and said I did. I was always forgetting lists. I was good at making them and, with the list in my pocket, I could take care of everything without looking at it. But my habit was to forget the list, and then I couldn't recall a damn thing. "Are you sure you don't want me to wait for you at the doctor's office?"
"I'm sure. When he's done poking me, I'll just want to grab a bite and head home."
I pulled into a diagonal space in front of the doctor's office and watched the old man walk through the door. I then drove to the opposite side of town, not far, to the Broken Horn Feed Store.
The doors of the store always sported some new, tacky novelty that the shop owner, Myra, hadn't been able to resist. Today it was a pony-sized, stuffed horse with eyes that followed anyone who walked by and said, "Clippity-clop, cowpoke" in a John Wayne voice. I watched the eyeballs track me to the counter, then reset.
"That's real nice, Myra," I said.
"Ain't it a hoot?"
"That's what it is, all right. What else does it do?" I asked.
"Well, it doesn't shit on the floor." Myra flashed her wide, gap-toothed smile. "Around here that's a pretty good trick."
"I reckon. Say, do you have my de-worming paste all packed up?"
"Not yet. I was in the middle of doing that now."
"That's fine," I said. "I've got a whole list of stuff. I'll get what I need while you wrap it up."
"How's that ancient uncle of yours?" she asked as I stepped away.
"He's at the doc's right now getting his oil checked," I said. "He's okay. He doesn't say much about how he feels."
Excerpted from Wounded by Percival Everett. Copyright © 2005 Percival Everett. 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.
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Meet the Author
Percival Everett is a professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of sixteen books, including American Desert, Erasure, and Glyph. He lives in Los Angeles and British Columbia.
Percival Everett is the author of more than twenty books. He is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. He teaches at the University of Southern California and lives outside Los Angeles.
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This was the best book I read in 2005. I read over 130 books, and Wounded topped the list. Everett is an accomplished writer who chooses each word carefully. In another writer's hands, this slim volume would have been twice as long. I didn't want it to end.