THE BATTLE CRY OF VERNON STEPHENS
When Vernon Stephens was a child, his grandfather, the photographer Neal Stephens, took him prairie dog hunting every Sunday on their family ranch. Neal carried the shotgun; Vernon carried the rope.
On one fall afternoon, they staggered along a hillside overlooking a dry riverbed. Vernon gazed west toward the Rocky Mountains: the snowcaps calling for future conquest, a foreshadowing of his developing courage. His grandfather stared ahead, talking to himself. It was 1975, and his grandfather complained of arthritis, gout, sobriety, filtered cigarettes, Marlon Brando, and the whining of the returning Vietnam Vets. He was a hard man, yet Vernon smiled whenever his grandfather spoke, because he loved the old man more than anyone else and he was grateful that his grandfather had taken in Vernon and his mother after his father’s death.
“All my life’s been a lie, a mangy lie,” Neal said. “I only did one honest thing. I only took one true picture. Do you know why it was true, Vernon?
It was honest ‘cause of the subject. You got that, Vernon? ’Course you do. I’m repeating myself and what use is a repeating gramophone in an eight-track age? You know what I mean?”
“It doesn’t matter, Vernon, not a bit.” Neal paused. He licked his fingers then massaged the shotgun’s barrel. “Don’t move.”
He raised the shotgun, taking aim at a lone prairie dog, a brave lookout. Neal closed his eyes, and then unleashed a ferocious cry of rage and unbroken pain. It would be the cry Vernon released fourteen years later when he stormed the beach in Panama.
The prairie dog fell.
Vernon ran up to the dead rodent: its brain was scattered like birdseed across the hillside.
“That tree over there Vernon,” Neal said. “The cottonwood.”
Vernon bound the prairie dog to the tree.
“That’s good Vernon. Real nice.”
Neal fired another shot out into the valley.
“Let it be warning to the rest of you,” Neal muttered. “Fucking try to ruin my strawberry bushes again.”
Afterwards, they sat on the porch in old rocking chairs. Neal laid the shotgun at his feet and lit a cigarette. “When I go, they’re going to tell some malicious lies about me. I wasn’t a perfect. But I was your grandfather. And remember, you’re a Stephens. You’re a tough son of a bitch.”
“One honest picture makes a man, Vernon. And I took that picture. You remember the one I showed you?”
“That’s what I leave to you, Vernon. That’s my legacy. Every man’s got a legacy, and that’s mine. Sure, it’s not wealth. I owe so much on this goddamn land it won’t do you a lick of good. But I still gave you a legacy.”
Vernon knew this like he knew the world was round and Colorado was the most beautiful place on Earth. Unalienable truths.
“Good boy.” He patted Vernon’s leg. “Now go in and tell your mother I won’t be needing dinner tonight.”
Vernon ran through the doorway, but then his body hesitated in the kitchen for a long time after the shotgun went off.
Although Vernon’s mother, teachers, and lovers believed Neal’s suicide derailed the locomotive Vernon had been riding towards maturity, Vernon thought their theories amounted to little more than dime store Freudianism. His grandfather’s suicide didn’t explain why Vernon turned down a scholarship to the University of Colorado or why he enlisted in the Army at eighteen or why he inexplicably deserted his unit the day before they shipped off for Operation Desert Shield or why he returned to New Sligo to work in the public library. No, not really. However, Vernon didn’t deny that Neal’s suicide had shaken something within him and he no longer saw people in the same way. They were transitive—always ready to leave, always quick to die—and Vernon couldn’t trust a fleeting character in the drama of his life. So Vernon performed, and he was awful at it: always missing the conversational mark, saying the wrong line in the wrong setting to the wrong actor. Hence, his reputation for vapidness and stupidity. But Vernon wasn’t either. He was just utterly incapable of displaying the true depths of emotion that fermented inside of him like a fine wine exiled inside a Coors keg.
So when a history graduate student named Sheila Berlin approached Vernon one autumn day in 1995 to talk about Neal Stephens, Vernon didn’t know what to do. Her dissertation was on First World War photographers, and Neal Stephens was the most important of them. On one hand, Vernon was flattered that she wanted to speak to him. His loneliness ached like a hernia. On the other hand, he wanted nothing to do with it, because he believed that specific piece of history was meant for Vernon’s private library. Yet she’d persisted and Vernon’s loneliness got the better of him and he agreed to meet her for coffee.
During their first meeting, Sheila outlined her objectives: although she wanted to hear about Neal Stephens’ war experiences, she needed above all to find out the context surrounding his most famous photograph “The Trench Angel.” Vernon seized up in anxiety, and then confessed that the Army wanted him for desertion, though no one seemed to be looking for him and this hurt his feelings. During their second meeting, they sat in silence until Sheila got up from the table.
“Fuck this, Vernon. You’re wasting my time.”
“No, no, no.”
She’d agreed to meet a third time. Vernon wanted her to like him so he told her that his grandfather attended the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris, 1913.
“Apparently,” Vernon said. “Gertrude Stein fled the theater screaming that is wasn’t even music. Just noise. Gertrude fucking Stein. You believe that shit?”
Vernon cupped his hands, and then spit, before rubbing them together like he was trying to find a spark, and, finally, he massaged his shaved scalp. “Chaos and bluster my granddad called it. Chaos and fucking bluster. And it got dirtier. Duels. Fucking duels. You’d never catch Vernon Stephens in a duel. Better to shoot a man in the back, then pop him in the front. That’s what my granddad said.”
Sheila was unimpressed. “That’s apocryphal. Stein wasn’t there the first night.”
“Yeah, she was.”
“Nope. She was there the next night with Apollinaire, the poet.” Vernon saw her glance at her notebook where she’d written, “photo altered—Lorraine?” He fished the last cigarette from his pack, and then lit it.
“But you are right,” Sheila said. “It’s strange how they reacted, to ballet no less. All Stravinsky did was express some Russian paganism via dance. You’d think that would be kosher in fin-de-siècle Paris. Besides, French Catholicism is little more than watered down paganism.”
Vernon thought she was lying, trying to discredit his grandfather so he’d admit something to tarnish the great Neal Stephens.
Vernon looked out the window at the empty, dying streets of New Sligo. A man in a wheel chair sat beside the bus bench in front of the Red Lobster. He wrapped a Mexican blanket over his shoulders, and then looked down the street. His hair was black and matted, creased down the middle like a new pair of Dockers. A long wet cigar jutted out from his mouth. Vernon tried to look away because the man made him feel ashamed. The bus to Denver pulled up. The man wheeled towards the door, disappearing from Vernon’s view. When the bus pulled away, the man was still there.
“I’d like to talk about “The Trench Angel” for a little while.”
Vernon reached for his cigarettes, but the soft pack crumpled between his fingers. “Shit,” he said. “You mind if I go next door for a pack? It’s a tough thing to shoot the shit about when I don’t have smokes.”
“Whatever you want.”
He walked outside and examined the man in the wheelchair. The cripple’s sagging face and poor posture suggested that he used to do migrant work in the fields, yet, despite the evidence, Vernon couldn’t help wondering if the man lost the use of his legs in some old war.
Vernon walked to the liquor store. The door was shuttered. He’d forgotten it was Sunday.
He glanced at the café and then walked home.
Vernon shelved children’s books. They were his favorite. Kids battered them, tore them, spilled on them, and cried on them. They felt of life. In the morning’s stack, he came across a copy of The Bridge to Terabithia. He flipped through it, slowing near the end to leaf through the individual pages. He stopped on the page where Jesse discovers Leslie’s death and felt the crumpled texture of the tear-stained paper. He remembered he’d read it in the fifth grade, when he’d wept in Mr. Robinson’s English class, when the boys called him a “chicken” and a “mama’s boy” and a “faggot,” when beneath his cascading tears he had looked over at Becky in her dress and pigtails and longed for her, back in the days when she was his Leslie and he, her Jesse.
At lunch he sat on a bench with a copy of The Selected Writings of Gertrude Steinand saw that his grandfather had been wrong and Sheila right. He bit into his tuna sandwich and watched the leaves fall from the trees and coat the chipped bricks of Pioneer Square. His eyes circled the square, examining the courthouse, the church, and the police station—all built by his forefathers, all reminders of how little his life had amounted to. Except for the fourth graders who studied the History of New Sligo, no one knew that the great minds of New Sligo ran through Vernon’s veins.
Vernon finished his sandwich and watched Becky Bailey’s approach. Her red dress shimmied in the light breeze and her black boots bounced along the concrete. Like the high school boys who came to library just to watch her work the card catalogue, Vernon loved her. He had all his life. But like Jesse losing Leslie to an accident in their Terabithia, Vernon had lost Becky to a fuckwad named Steve O’Leary. It wasn’t Vernon’s fault. Steve was a fox. All the girls thought so. That’s what Becky told Vernon in high school, when she said Steve was her boyfriend and she didn’t love Vernon the same way she loved Steve. Vernon had never confessed his love to Becky, and this, more than any of his other acts of cowardice, shamed Vernon. And Vernon never stopped hating Steve. When word reached him that Steve had been sentenced to seven years hard time for holding up a Conoco, Vernon celebrated with a shot and a cigarette.
Becky gave Vernon the grin she’d had since she was a little girl, the grin that made Vernon’s hands shake.
“I wouldn’t have thought you were a Stein man,” she said. “Personally, I think she’s a bit too mannered. Too many affectations.”
“Do you like Hemingway? I like Hemingway. My grandfather said Hemingway bought him a drink once in Paris during the war. Said he was a nice guy, but he couldn’t hold his liquor like my granddad did. He was brave, though.”
“I’m not brave.”
“Sure you were,” she said. “You fought in Panama.”
Vernon had no words for Panama, not for Becky. “You look nice today,” he said. “I like your boots.”
She lifted them on to the bench. Vernon closed his eyes. He didn’t want her to catch him looking up her dress, and Vernon knew if he kept his eyes open, he’d have no choice but to look up her dress.
“Dmitri got them for me.”
Dmitri. Vernon hated Dmitri. He’d never met Dmitri, but the name Dmitri made Vernon want to pummel the Soviet with a frozen cod or whatever those commies ate these days. As Vernon watched Becky walk away, he thought about Dmitri making a move on Becky—stroking her thigh with his Czarist fingers, nibbling on her ear with his Bolshevik teeth—and then he imagined strangling that Russian Don Juan with a telephone cord.
Vernon shelved fiction. He returned Moby Dickto the Melville section. He kneeled and wondered who or what his white whale was. His grandfather? Steve O’Leary? The Army? He didn’t know. The whale was something Ahab sought to conquer, but Vernon didn’t know what needed conquering. It seemed too large a question at too sober of a time.
Becky asked him to cover for her at the front desk. He took questions. He answered the phone.
“New Sligo Public Library.”
“May I speak to Miss Rebecca Bailey?” asked a man with a rhythmic, beautiful voice that enunciated so smoothly, so harmoniously that Vernon felt like his ears were being made love to.
“She’s stepped away.” Vernon said. “Can I take a message?”
“Tell her Dmitri will join her at the Red Lobster at seven o’clock and that I am looking forward to our evening together.”
Becky returned. Her hair was pulled back and a single strand fell down her forehead. Vernon wanted to smell that hair, hold that strand.
“And,” Becky said. “What did he say?”
“Shit, sorry. He’ll meet you at seven,” Vernon said. “At the Sizzler.”
“I just take the messages.” He looked down at the time stamps. “They’ve got shrimp.”
“The Sizzler,” Becky repeated. “The Sizzler.”
Vernon shelved philosophy. He placed An Essay Concerning Human Understandingin the Locke section. Vernon wondered if he was a blank slate, a man born flat and green and then callously desecrated by the chalk of human existence.
Crouched, Vernon saw a pair of nylon-covered legs jutting out of a denim skirt, the type of legs he’d like to blindfold himself with. He looked up, sighing.
“Vernon,” Sheila said. “Where’d you disappear to yesterday?”
“Really Vernon? You entered a void?”
“It happens,” Vernon said. “Maybe I met a lady at the liquor store. I get lucky once in a while.”
“We need to talk,” she said. “About “The Trench Angel.’”
“Why should I?”
“Because it’s important, because you promised me the truth and you haven’t delivered.”
“To you, it’s important,” he said. “History don’t matter if it doesn’t mark you.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“Maybe,” Vernon said. “But I want something out of it. You can’t just love me and leave me like that. I’m not a country song.”
“What do you want? Money?”
Vernon eyed her breasts. This wasn’t a random act of ogling. He didn’t care that Sheila knew he was staring. Breasts were his safe place, his Terabithia, his Pequod.
She put on her sweater.
“I won’t sleep with you.”
“How about some heavy cuddling?”
“Can I at least nap on your warm bosom?”
“My grandfather said American women have the warmest, most inviting bosoms in the world, as welcoming as apple pie and a meatloaf sandwich. He’d sampled bosoms far and wide, resting his weary head upon Irish bosoms, Japanese bosoms, Egyptian bosoms, but he kept coming back to good, ole American bosoms. Don’t you think that’s wonderfully patriotic?”
“I think you’re full of shit,” she said. “You know something about that picture, don’t you?”
“You’re lying, Vernon. You are. Now tell me or you’ll be in trouble.”
“What? You gonna spank me or something?”
She raised her arms, tapping her wrists like imaginary handcuffs bound them.
She’d send him to the brig.
“All right, Sheila,” he said. “You win. Tomorrow.”
Vernon reached into the closet for a pair of jeans. At his feet, in a tattered cardboard box marked “Stephens,” was the last of his grandfather’s possessions. He knew all of its contents from memory: some fading prints, three leather journals, and a shotgun. He took a shirt from the coat line, and then examined the doors, where he’d pasted a series of pictures. On the left door he’d taped a dozen photographs of Becky during various, candid moments taken over the past two years: Becky holding a bouquet of tulips and chewing gum; Becky napping on her couch, curled up like a cat while the television played Casablanca; in his favorite, Becky sat on a blanket in the park, her head tipped to the side, her eyes focused on her book.
On the right door hung three photographs of The Trench Angel. The first two were published copies, but the third was an original, printed by his grandfather in 1916. Vernon lingered, tracing the photograph with his finger. It showed a human suspended in the air, arms extended, on fire. If this was his legacy, and Vernon liked to think it was, he had mixed feelings about it. It was a greatphotograph, a picture people put in history books, but he wasn’t sure if it was honest.
It might be his grandfather’s wife or it might not be.
Vernon knew this because one night, his grandfather confessed that he didn’t remember taking the picture. It just appeared on his camera. Sheila wanted something more sordid, a story of a corrupt man who faked a photograph to gain notoriety, but that was a tale of good and evil, a simplistic story for a modern audience. The realstory was much more sadly human.
Vernon rolled down the driver’s side window, raised the camera, and held the viewfinder to his eye. He pointed the lens at the Sizzler window. Becky sat in a booth adjacent to the salad bar. To any passing stranger, she appeared content, her chin resting on her hand, her eyes skimming her book. But Vernon knew different. Her empty wine glass and slumped shoulders betrayed her. He snapped her picture.
A cold wind blew down the street, shuffling Styrofoam cups and newspapers along the sidewalk.
A man in a wheelchair rolled down the sidewalk, towards Vernon’s car. It was the man he’d seen outside the coffee shop. The man remained draped in a Mexican blanket, an unlit cigar jutting from his mouth.
“What the hell are you doing?” The man tapped the passenger side window.
Vernon reached over, rolling down the window because he was afraid not to.
“Vernon?” he asked. “Vernon Stephens? It’s me. Steve O’Leary.”
And it was. He could hear in Steve’s smoke-scarred voice everything that made him unhappy during high school.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
“I didn’t, man.”
“Is it ’cause I can’t walk?’”
“No, it’s the hair.”
“Oh yeah, grew it out in the joint.”
“I thought you were still in?”
“Let me out ’cause of my disability via a misplaced shiv,” Steve said. “What you doin’ here anyway? You five-o or something?”
“Then what are you?”
Vernon considered the question. A librarian’s assistant? A deserter? A white whale?
“In love,” he said. “I’m in love.”
“Go in and talk to her then. Don’t be sitting out here all glum-like.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” Steve said.
Vernon looked at the camera, then at Becky and then again at the camera. What was he doing? What prior experience led him to this moment? What would Ahab have done? Vernon didn’t know. He’d never gotten to that part, but he knew that Ahab didn’t take pictures of his whale from the deck of the Pequot. Ahab was a tough son of a bitch.
“Fuck you,” Vernon said. “Fuck off, Steve O’Leary, you foxy, hairy fuck. You fucked up fucking fuck.”
Vernon rolled up the window.
Steve slapped his cigar against the car. Tobacco leaves exploded across the window like a prairie dog’s brains. “I’ll fucking kill you when you open this goddamn door. Open it.”
He remained still while Steve O’Leary assaulted the Datsun. Vernon sat there for a long time, while Becky sat at the table, her head in hands, crying. Vernon felt the fire in his gut, and then repeated, over and over to the beat of Steve’s pounding fists, “I’m a tough son of a bitch….”
Vernon shelved history. He placed The Battle Cry of Freedomin the McPherson section. He considered the rebel yell: Confederates charged into certain death crying out in a pitch so frightening that many Union soldiers laid down arms and retreated. Vernon didn’t know if he believed in anything strongly enough to merit self-sacrifice, but he didn’t want to sit back and watch anymore.
Becky stood beside him, wearing more make up than usual. She didn’t need it as far as Vernon was concerned.
“Are you all right Vernon?” She said. “Why are you crying?”
“Because I don’t exist,” Vernon said. “I’m an empty chalkboard.”
“Trust me Vernon, you exist. You matter.”
She kneeled beside him and took hold of his hand. “You’ve always mattered to me Vernon,” she said. “I love you like a brother.”
He felt like he’d just charged the Union army at Gettysburg and now he lay, wounded, waiting to be finished off. “You’re lost Vernon. I’m lost, too.”
Her skin felt cool and familiar like in another life he’d held this same hand and now it had been returned to him. He wanted to confess, to tell her to run off with Dmitri, but he hadn’t the words for it.
“I broke up with Dmitri. We just didn’t communicate right.”
Vernon knew what he could do and he knew what he wanted to do, but the two stood across from each other like boxers before the ring of the bell.
“Because he was Russian?”
“No,” she said. “Because he was a jerk.”
Vernon nodded. Poor Dmitri. Poor Becky.
“I’ll be okay, Vernon.”
After she walked away, Vernon sat between the stacks and thought of blank slates, white whales, Terabithia’s, ex-convicts, and dates at Red Lobster, but mostly he thought of self-sacrifice. He felt like he was drowning between the shelves of history and fiction. After a while, his legs fell asleep and he closed his eyes and he remembered that his grandfather was also a coward, but it didn’t make him feel any better.
Vernon drank coffee and smoked a cigarette in the café, while Sheila rummaged through the box of Neal Stephen’s last possessions. She wore a white blouse so thin he could trace the outline of her bra and, if he focused hard enough, a hint of nipple. Vernon was unimpressed.
“That’s all there is,” he said. “It’s yours.”
She pulled out a packet of journals, flipping through one marked “June 1916.” Vernon had read that one. He’d read them all. The journals showed a man suffering through horrible loss: the loss of his beliefs, his purpose, and his wife. He knew Sheila was skimming through it, looking for mentions of “The Trench Angel,” but she wouldn’t find any.
She picked up one of the negatives, holding it to the light. It was a picture of an empty boot in a muddy trench.
“Is “The Trench Angel” in here? Vernon, for God’s sake, is it here?”
“No, he didn’t have it when he died.”
“Where did it go?”
“Never saw it.” And he hadn’t. Whatever his grandfather had done with that plate, it wasn’t part of Vernon’s legacy.
She stuck her hands into the box, and then gasped.
“Yeah,” Vernon said. He took a drag from his cigarette, his eyes fixed on the Red Lobster across the street. “That’s the shotgun.”
“Christ, Vernon. Who keeps something like that?”
“It’s his legacy.”
“I wasn’t going to turn you in,” she said. “I’m not cruel like that.”
He almost believed her, but she didn’t matter to him anymore.
“I just wanted the truth,” she said. “It’s important. Who was in the photograph? Was it honest?”
Vernon put his cigarette out, and then stood. His tongue felt loose, nimble.
“What does it matter? He said it was. That’s the truth. And I want to believe him. He said it was his only honest picture and you’ll have to live with that truth. He said it was his wife, but I don’t know. One night, he confessed that he’d been running away from the trenches because he was scared and when he woke up, he was a widow and there was this picture on his camera, and it felt right and honest. Maybe he was a coward and maybe he wasn’t, and maybe he loved that person on fire and maybe he was just a crazy old man, but it doesn’t matter, because none of us know why we do the shit we do, because we’re all just white whales of nothingness. We just do it and sometimes it works, and other times you find yourself still in love with a girl who never loved you and you take pictures of her just to be close to her, but she never notices so she runs off with some commie Casanova and I’m left with nothing but talking about dead people to a woman who thinks I’m a idiot. Know what I mean?”
But Sheila wasn’t listening. She was leafing through the journal, one page at a time, hoping to find something her university deemed true.
Vernon opened the door to a cold wind and looked at Sheila. He wanted to drop a closing line she’d remember, one that would punctuate the story she’d tell about Vernon Stephens, but he didn’t have the voice for it.
Vernon crossed the street and stood beside the bus bench and looked inside the Red Lobster window. He wished Becky were in there laughing at Dmitri’s cold, Siberian jokes and smiling at his Kremlin compliments. But she was alone and he was alone. He knew he would never let her be happy, not as long as he saw her every day.
When the bus pulled up, Vernon paid the driver $10 to get him to Denver. He sat down and pulled out a bus schedule. From Denver, he could get a bus to Fort Leavenworth for $50. It was a 12-hour ride and there were thirteen stops in between. Thirteen places where he could change his mind. He pulled a picture from his pocket and looked down at it. Someday, he’d get his voice back, he told himself. Someday, he’d be whole again.
He put his head in his hands, but he didn’t cry.
Amidst the clamber of the road and the rustling of the passengers, one could hear emanating from Vernon a long, low moan.
Michael Gutierrez holds an MFA in fiction from the University of New Hampshire and an MA in history from the University of Massachusetts. Since graduating, he has worked as a lecturer at the University of Miami and a Writing Fellow at the University of Houston. He’s currently a lecturer at the University of North Carolina. His work has been published in Scarab, The Pisgah Review, Untoward, Crossborder, and LA Weekly. His script Granite State was a finalist at the 2013 Austin Film Festival. His novel was a finalist for the Leapfrog Press Novel Award and the James Jones Novel-in-Progress award.