Winner of the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature
The characters in Big Picture, Percival Everett's darkly comic collection of stories, are often driven to explosive, life-changing action. Everett delves into those moments when outside forces bring us to the brink of insanity or liberation.
The catalysts in Everett's tales are surprising: a stuffed boar's head, mounted on the wall of a diner, becomes an object of intense, inexplicable desire; a painter is driven to the point of suicide by a mute who returns day after day to mow the artist's lawn; the loss of a pair of dentures sparks a turn toward revelation. The characters respond to their dilemmas in ways that are both unpredictable and memorable.
Everett's highly original voice propels the reader into unfamiliar, yet unforgettable terrain: a landscape full of excitement, astonishment, and self-discovery.
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By Percival Everett
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1996 Percival Everett
All rights reserved.
The front left wheel of the lawn mower looked like it was ready to fall off. The machine's original blue was now rust red and brown and the writing on it that at one time had read WESTERN AUTO now said TERN AU. The wheel wobbled with a rhythmic squeak as the short man with the shaved spot on his head pushed the mower up the walk toward Gail and Michael. They were standing at their door, bags of groceries at their feet while Michael dug into his pockets for his keys. The man with the mower stopped at the bottom of the steps and looked up at them.
Michael looked at the man, then at Gail, then at his grass, which didn't appear to be in great need of cutting.
The man raised five fingers and pointed to the yard.
"Five dollars?" Michael asked.
The man nodded, then rubbed his nose while he looked away.
Michael turned to Gail, who shrugged. Michael studied the man's filthy jeans and his shirt, which appeared to be made of a fabric too heavy for the heat. "Okay," he said. "Five bucks."
The man didn't say anything. He turned and walked to the edge of the yard and started pulling the cord of his machine's little motor.
Michael found his keys and got the door open. Inside, he and Gail set the sacks on the counter.
"Are you sure that was a good idea?" Gail asked, putting the milk into the refrigerator.
"It's five dollars," Michael said.
"I don't mean the money."
Michael sat at the table and watched as Gail put away a few things. "I think it's okay." He paused to listen to the motor outside. "The grass doesn't really need to be mowed, so what can he mess up?"
"I don't mean that either," Gail said. She opened a new bottle of cranberry juice and poured a glass. "What if he sees us as a soft touch?"
"We are a soft touch." Michael stood and walked to the window. "It must be ninety degrees out there and he's wearing a wool shirt."
"He can take it off if he wants," Gail said.
"Well, he's not doing it. He's sweating like crazy out there. What if he has a heat stroke while he's working for us?" Michael considered that.
"What is it?" Gail asked.
"I'm going to give him one of my T-shirts." He went upstairs and into their bedroom. He pulled a light blue shirt from the shelf in the closet. The letters UNC were faded. He took the shirt back to the kitchen. Gail was still putting food away.
"You're not serious," she said.
"If he keels over, we could be liable."
Gail paused. "I suppose."
"I'm going to ask him to change into this." The sun was slicing into his back as Michael walked out the back door and across the yard toward the man. He waved to him when a few yards away. The man stopped pushing the mower and watched Michael approach. He didn't turn off the machine. "I brought you this shirt," Michael said loudly.
The man looked at it, but didn't seem to understand.
Michael pointed to the man's soaked wool garment and then held the T-shirt out to him. The man nodded and unbuttoned what he was wearing. He took it off, handed it to Michael, and took the T-shirt. The wool was indeed soaked and Michael felt uncomfortable holding it. The man pulled the light blue shirt over his head, his hair wet from perspiration, and down over his soft, glistening belly. He nodded a thank you and went back to pushing the machine. Michael walked back to the house, and draped the wet shirt over the railing of the steps. Inside, he walked to the sink and washed his hands.
Gail was peering out the window over the sink. "I see he put it on."
Michael dried his hands with a couple of paper towels. "Yeah. He was sweating like a pig. It's unbelievable out there."
"He asked to do it," Gail said. "Do you think he can't talk?"
Michael shrugged. "You know, that's a big job for only five dollars."
"He's the one who asked for it," Gail said.
"Yeah, but it's sweltering out there. It'll take him a couple of hours. He'll use a buck's worth of gas at least. So, he's doing it for four dollars."
"Have you ever heard the term 'bleeding heart?'"
"Tell me it doesn't bother you," Michael said.
"Of course it bothers me." Gail sat at the table with him. "But I am glad you didn't bring that shirt in here."
"That's something else that bothered me." Michael leaned his head back and blew out a breath. "I was really uncomfortable handling that thing after he'd been wearing it."
"Who wouldn't be?" Gail laughed. "It's soaked with sweat and who knows what else."
"I know, but still ..."
A couple of hours went by and there was a knock at the door. Michael found the man standing there, his lawn mower at the bottom of the steps. He had his wool shirt back on, but it was not buttoned. His chest hair was shining with sweat and moisture sat in the cracks of his belly. He held the blue T-shirt by his side.
"All done?" Michael asked.
The man nodded.
Michael put his hand in his pocket. "Do you live around here?"
He pointed up the streeet toward the busy avenue.
Michael handed the man his money. "Here's ten dollars. It was a bigger job than I thought at first."
The man looked at the ten, then fished a five out of his pocket and pushed it toward Michael.
"No, it's all for you," Michael said.
But the man shoved the five at him again. Michael felt obliged to take it and did. The man then handed Michael the sweaty, light blue T-shirt. Michael took it, and his fingers touched the slick, salty water from the man's body. He closed his hand around it and looked at the yard.
"You did a fine job. Thank you."
The man stepped back down the steps, grabbed the handle of his mower, and walked away up the street.
Michael closed the door and felt the air conditioner switch on and pump coolness at him from above. He went into the back room and put the UNC T-shirt on top of the washing machine. While he was standing at the kitchen sink lathering up his hands Gail came in.
"So, how much did you pay him?" she asked.
"Five dollars," he said, tearing off a couple of towels from the roll.
"I tried to give him a ten, but he gave me change. Still didn't say a word."
"I wonder if he can hear," Gail said.
"I'll bet he reads lips. And I'll bet that's how he can stand out there with that noisy machine for hours."
"What's wrong?" Gail asked.
"Nothing." Michael opened the refrigerator and just stared inside. "It's really hot out there. You think he has a place to live?"
"Who knows," Gail said. "Hand me a diet cola."
Michael grabbed a can and gave it to her. Opening the can she cut her finger and shook it in the air. She took a swallow. "So, who's going to cook?" she asked.
"That was easy. I'll help."
Later that night, after dinner, Gail was watching television and nursing another diet soda. She sat in the overstuffed chair with her legs folded under her. Michael passed through on his way to the bookshelf against the far wall.
"They're talking about the suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge," she said, referring to the program on the television. "This guy is supposedly an expert on suicide." She laughed. "How can you be an expert on suicide and still be alive?"
Michael chuckled, too. "I suppose that's a good point."
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"I thought I'd sit in the other room and read for a while."
"Come on, sit in here with me and watch something stupid."
"Nah, I'm just going to read."
"Come on, veg with me."
Michael looked at the book in his hand.
"You can sit on the floor in front of me and I'll rub your neck."
Michael tossed the book onto the coffee table and sat in front of her. "You're a terrible influence."
"That's why you married me. Because I like to give."
"Does your mother know how you talk?"
Michael felt his wife's fingers on his neck and watched the images of the bridge in San Francisco. "Do you mind if we watch something else?"
Gail picked up the remote control and switched channels, moving past an old movie, a soccer game, a couple of ads, and settled on an exercise show. The woman leading the group counted out loud between whoops and encouraging words.
"You're not serious?" Michael said.
"Do you think she has a good body?" Gail asked.
"She ought to; she exercises for a living." He watched the woman in spandex. "Actually, I don't like her body. I don't like her legs."
"So? What's thin got to do with anything? Her legs are shapeless." He turned and looked at Gail. "Now your legs ... your legs are not shapeless." He pretended to bite her knee.
"Yeah." He puckered his lips. "Kiss me."
Gail leaned forward and kissed him. A noise in the backyard caused her to sit up straight. "What was that?"
"Don't know," Michael said.
"Do you love me?"
Michael reached and took his wife's hand. "Yes, I love you. You know I love you."
"There's that sound again," Gail said.
"I'll go see what it is," Michael said and found his feet. Gail followed him into the kitchen. They didn't turn on the lights. Michael looked out the door window and Gail looked out through the window over the sink. "I don't see anything." Michael opened the door and stepped out onto the small deck. He looked over at the garbage cans and saw that one of the metal lids was on the ground. He walked down and put the top back on the container, thought he heard something behind him, but turned and found nothing.
Gail called to Michael from the door.
"It must have a been a cat or a dog," he said. He pressed the lid firmly down and stepped back up to the door. "Yeah, cat or dog, maybe a bear or hyena."
"Or a duck-billed platypus."
Upstairs in bed, Michael felt the little movements that told him his wife was close. He tried to think of his love for her, but it seemed to get lost in his head. He felt her come, then shut his eyes and rested his face on her thigh.
The next morning Michael returned from his run and jumped into the shower. He kept the water cool. He was tired of the hot summer weather. He made the water a little colder and let it strike his face. His knees ached a bit and he remembered a time when they didn't, when his runs were longer and seemed less boring. He turned off the water, grabbed a towel from the rod, and dried. It was Sunday and he'd promised Gail that he would try to get the dryer to stop making a new, high-pitched whine. He slid open the closet door and there, sitting on top of a stack of sweaters and pullovers was the light blue UNC T-shirt. He stared at it. Gail must have washed it and run it through the whining dryer while he was out running. He touched it, thinking about how it had been on the body of that man. He was ashamed that he was afraid to put it on. He picked it up and sniffed it, found that it smelled like the soap they used. He tossed the shirt on the bed and looked at it while he found and put on underwear, socks, and a pair of jeans. He looked at himself in the mirror and noticed how old he was getting. He walked downstairs to the kitchen with the shirt in his hand. He took a yogurt from the refrigerator.
"I was wondering if you'd actually wear that shirt," Gail said. She had file folders open on the table and was making notes.
"What's the big deal? It's washed, right?"
Gail nodded. "I'm just surprised."
"Didn't mean to surprise you."
"Are you all right?" Gail asked.
"You didn't sleep well."
"No, I guess not." Michael rubbed his forehead.
"Are you happy?" she asked.
"It's just work, honey." He looked at her eyes. "I thought I'd look at the dryer," Michael said. "But I have no clue where that sound is coming from."
"Well, it drives me crazy. You know how those little high squeals can squirm all through the house and find you and get under your skin and make you want to kill the nearest person."
"I'll fix it." He slipped the shirt over his head and took a bite of yogurt.
It was hot in the back room. The air conditioner failed to pump relief there and the morning sun pounded at the slatted windows. Michael had the dryer turned on its side and was checking the belt. The problem was, of course, that as long as the machine was disassembled it had to be unplugged, and therefore couldn't be turned on to allow him to hear the noise. The belt seemed tight enough without being too tight and all the screws and bolts were fast. He lay there on his back, reached inside, and sprayed the motor and belt with WD-40. He let his head fall back and stared at the ceiling. He scratched at his shoulder, then at his chest. Gail called to him from the kitchen.
"How's it coming?" she asked, now standing in the doorway.
Michael didn't say anything, just looked at her and shrugged. He started to put the dryer back together.
"You're soaked," Gail said.
Michael looked at himself and wiped the perspiration from his face.
"I'm going to make some lemonade."
He gave her the okay sign with his fingers and watched her turn away into the kitchen. Michael got the dryer back together and turned it on. It didn't whine. He didn't know why, but it sounded the way it was supposed to sound.
Gail leaned into the room. "All right, you fixed it," she said and was gone again.
Michael put away the tools. He felt good. He felt easy. He went back upstairs, stripped down, and got into the shower again. He put on another shirt and some shorts.
"Where's the lemonade?" he asked, walking into the kitchen.
"I'll pour you some," she said, opening the refrigerator.
Michael sat at the table and watched his wife. He loved the way she enjoyed her body, the way she moved. "Are you still working on the same chapter?" he asked her.
"I'm always working on the same chapter."
"That's not quite true."
"True enough," she said. She pushed a glass of lemonade in front of her husband.
"Thanks." Michael took a long swallow. It was cool and tasted good, but he felt a little out of sorts.
"It's really hot in the laundry room, eh?" Gail sat in front of her work at the table.
"You looked sick out there. I'm glad you showered. You look a lot better now."
Michael nodded. "Wouldn't want to look sick."
There was a knock at the door and Michael got up and looked through the door window. It was the man from yesterday, with his lawn mower. "You're not going to believe this," he said to Gail.
"What?" Gail got up, came to the door, and looked out. "Didn't he finish the job?"
"I thought he had." Michael opened the door and stepped out into the heat.
The man pointed at the yard and held up five fingers again. Michael looked at the grass. Gail came out, too.
"You just mowed it all yesterday," Michael said.
The man flashed five fingers again.
"Thank you," Gail said, "but we don't need you today."
"I tried to give you ten dollars yesterday," Michael said. "Listen, I'll give you another five because you earned it, but we don't need our grass cut again." He turned to Gail. "Would you grab a five for me?"
Gail went back into the house.
"Can you talk?" Michael could smell the man, recognized the smell from when he had carried the wool shirt before. "Can you hear me or are you reading my lips?"
The man nodded and smiled.
Gail returned with the money. Michael took it from her and handed it to the man.
The man turned away and, somewhat relieved, Michael and Gail turned back into the house. Michael had just closed the door when the sound of the lawn mower split the air. He looked at Gail.
"That guy scares me," Gail said.
"He's harmless," Michael said.
"He's a nut."
Michael looked out the window at him, wearing the wool shirt, struggling to push his mower with the wobbly wheel. "He's pretty weird, all right. We'll let him do this today."
The man mowed the already mowed lawn and was gone without a knock at the door. Michael suddenly noticed the silence. He got up from his desk and walked from window to window, looking out.
"He's gone," he said to Gail.
"Boy, that machine of his makes a lot of noise," Michael said. "Listen to how quiet it is now."
"Yep." Gail yawned and rubbed her eyes. "I hate work. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it."
"How old do you think that guy is?" Michael asked.
"If he comes back he won't get any older; that's all I know." Gail sharpened a pencil. "I don't know. Sixty?"
"I'd bet he's our age."
"He does; you're right." Michael rubbed the back of his neck. "Of course, I feel sixty."
The following morning was overcast and Michael had trouble pulling himself out of bed for his run. Lately he'd had to force himself. He'd had to force work as well; the paintings were staring back at him, mocking him, scaring him. He tied the laces of his shoes and grabbed the nearest shirt, which happened to be the light blue UNC T-shirt. Gail stirred when he opened the door of the bedroom.
"I'm going running," he said.
"Is it still dark?" she asked sleepily.
"No, just cloudy."
Her head fell back onto the pillow.
Excerpted from Big Picture by Percival Everett. Copyright © 1996 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Wolf at the Door,
Pissing on Snakes,