Read Vernon Downs Online

Authors: Jaime Clarke

Vernon Downs

Vernon Downs

Jaime Clarke

For my mother and father

and in memory of Liam Rector


Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV


A Note on the Author

Praise for Vernon Downs

It was only now clear to me how very much I had made that image, and yet I could not feel that it was anything like a fiction. It was more like a special sort of truth, almost a touchstone; as if a thought of mine could become a thing, and at the same time be truth.

—Iris Murdoch,
The Sea, The Sea

Chapter I

Charlie had traveled a long, indirect route to Summit Terrace. He could hardly recall a time he hadn't known the name Vernon Downs, though in truth the discovery was in the not-too-distant past.

“He's Olivia's favorite writer, dummy,” Shelleyan had said that day in the Milky Way Café at Glendale Community College, where Charlie and Olivia were creative writing majors. It was his second stint at GCC; he knew from his first stab, after graduating from high school, that even though he was pushing thirty, he wasn't the oldest student on campus. That Olivia was twenty-two separated her—and him—from the student body full of teenagers who mostly behaved like they were still in high school, and the retirees taking classes as a hobby. Only Shelleyan could make him self-conscious of his advanced age. He ignored her, long used to Olivia's roommate as the price of Olivia's companionship. He'd met Olivia, an international student from London, the previous semester in Intro to Creative Writing. Over the prior summer, Charlie had read an interview with a writer who had a background similar to his—the writer was an army brat and had lived all over the world—and how that sense of impermanence informed his writing. Whether or not the writer was being self-deprecating, Charlie couldn't tell, but the piece spooked him a little, as the writer seemed to intimate that there was no place in the workaday world for those with such an upbringing. And so he enrolled in the creative writing class with more hope than ambition.

Discovering Olivia across the conference table seemed to confirm the impression Charlie had taken away from the interview. Olivia's nationality gave her an air of otherness, and Charlie perceived a kinship in the way she was both present but from somewhere else entirely. Olivia hadn't told her parents that she'd dropped out of Arizona State University the first week of the fall semester so she could pocket the difference in tuition between ASU and GCC. If anyone could fully comprehend the narrative of his past and, more importantly, overlook its irregularities, it was Olivia, who confessed that she liked the attention, which was all the encouragement Charlie needed. What began as a crush on a pretty girl with a sexy accent quickly evolved.

“What did he write?” Charlie asked Shelleyan, the name Vernon Downs vaguely familiar. He glanced at Olivia as she combed through that day's goulash with her fork.

Minus Numbers
,” Shelleyan answered automatically, scooping a forkful into her mouth.

He looked at Olivia for help, but she was apparently absorbed in thoughts of Vernon Downs and
Minus Numbers
. More troubling than the notion of Olivia's secret admiration was the apparent truth that Shelleyan had been privy to the information but not him.

“You should really read it,” Olivia said.

“You never finished it, liar,” Shelleyan accused.

Olivia shrugged her off. “Of course I did.”

“You just think he's cute,” Shelleyan said. She turned to Charlie and he flinched. “He's in the movie for a second. He only has, like, one line.”

Olivia giggled, embarrassed. “So what?” she asked. “He wrote the book it's based on, didn't he?”

“The book is nothing like the movie,” Shelleyan snorted. “But I guess you wouldn't know that, huh?”

“So what?” Olivia said again. She had never found Shelleyan as intimidating as Charlie did.

He wondered how long it would be until she missed him. Really missed him, the way he knew he'd miss her once she was gone, a visa issue stripping her of her international student status after the spring semester. He dreaded the first time he would miss the candy aroma of her perfume, her smiling, freckled face drawing near, the harrowing moment when he would understand her loss in terms of his happy future thieved, stolen away back into the wilds of England.

Olivia had never mentioned Vernon Downs or
Minus Numbers
as far as he could recall, and he thought for a minute that they were putting him on. He awaited the punch line, the gentle ribbing that signified that he was still an intimate and not an ignorant outsider. He wasn't sure which he preferred: Olivia's having a simple infatuation with Downs or her actually admiring his writing, which, though he hadn't read anything by Downs, he was satisfied was facile and gimmicky. Hadn't he seen Downs in
? Serious writers didn't appear in the pages of

He was overcome with sadness at Olivia's leaving. Charlie knew intimately what it was to have something ripped out of your life, enervating your will, and senselessly: his parents, sure; but also the Kepharts, his maternal grandparents, in Denver, who helped him secure his Batman costume so he could burst into his third-grade homeroom, his new best friend, Jesse Mason, trailing in the Robin outfit, Mrs. Holstein looking on calmly as they scrambled after George McLean, the only Asian at Elrod Elementary, whom Charlie had talked into dressing as the Joker. The Kepharts had helped him crumple tiny pieces of aluminum foil, filling the bag of fake diamonds George clutched in his hand. Charlie's classmates squealed as the pursuit led them across the room, the chase continuing into the adjoining homeroom, as per his design. He explained to the principal that the drama would be more believable if the entire school was captivated by the play, a syllogism the principal accepted, much to Charlie's amazement. What Charlie didn't confess to the principal was that the production was simply a stunt to impress Suzy Young, whom he'd been caught kissing after the bell.

And the McCallahans, his aunt and uncle in Santa Fe, where he'd gone to live after the Kepharts admitted they were too old to raise a child. The McCallahans couldn't look at him with the same eyes they laid on their son, Ian, with whom Charlie had built a fort in the backyard out of empty boxes from Mr. McCallahan's job at Southwest Peterbilt. Only afterwards did he realize that Ian was technically his cousin, a fact that never arose while he was staying with the McCallahans.

And the Alexander-Degners of Rapid City, a cousin of his father's who was married to his high school sweetheart. Their childless neighbors had a dog that often found its way into the Alexander-Degners' yard. Charlie would play with the dog, chasing it up the grassy berm in their backyard that led to the freeway. The new neighbors were rarely seen, so that when a short, bearded man knocked on the Alexander-Degners' door to discuss erecting a fence between their yards to keep the dog from roaming free, Mr. Alexander assumed the man was the husband of the woman next door. Charlie learned only by eavesdropping that the man was a boyfriend, and that the couple had rented the house to get away from the woman's husband, a fact that the neighborhood discovered the morning after the boyfriend loaded his shotgun into his station wagon and drove to the local bar to call the husband outside and fire a slug into his chest, ending the alleged harassment the boyfriend and the woman next door had suffered at the husband's hands. The murder shocked their street, more so as no one knew the boyfriend or the woman, who had endeavored to live anonymously among their neighbors. Charlie retraced the neighbor's short drive to the bar in his mind, hearing him call the husband out onto the street, away from the innocent patrons, raising the shotgun to chest level. He imagined the husband, drunk, not begging for his life but daring the boyfriend to pull the trigger. Charlie heard the pop, smelled the smoke, saw the bewildered look on the husband's face. What were his taunts? How had he harassed them? Charlie tried to imagine the satisfaction the boyfriend must've felt when the threats evaporated. He wondered
what it felt like to erase the past just like that.

He missed the Wallaces of San Diego too, another aunt and uncle, with whom he'd lived on base. Mr. Wallace treated him to trips to the flight simulator on Saturdays, until the Wallaces were dispatched to an air force base in Florida, a place Charlie, for some reason, couldn't go.

And of course he'd miss the Chandlers, his Arizona family, who'd enrolled him with every good intention at Randolph College Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school of which Mr. Chandler was an alum. The Chandlers lived next door to his first cousin, twice removed, who agreed to take him in when the Wallaces left for Florida. The first cousin was a salesman for something called Simco and went missing for long stretches of time, leaving Charlie in the care of a succession of older women the first cousin called “friends.” Charlie noticed the surfeit of kids living in the brown and white ranch next door and quickly found himself welcomed by the Chandlers, who were foster parents to six kids, including Talie, whom Charlie followed around like a puppy dog. With the first cousin's permission, the Chandlers helped Charlie file the paperwork to emancipate at seventeen, the family court judge scowling at him as if he were making the mistake of a lifetime, the glare lasting an uncomfortably long time, ruining the pizza party at Pistol Pete's that the Chandlers had thrown to help him celebrate his entree into adulthood.

Charlie had admitted his fractured past to Olivia and was relieved when she didn't consider him the alien in landscape he mostly felt in his day-to-day life. He anticipated the moment in any social scenario— especially potentially romantic ones—when his past would arise, which always required endless qualifications. He'd omitted the gaping hole in his life that was Jenny, the Mormon girl he'd met in high school. Jenny's sudden marriage just after she graduated was a wound that wouldn't heal, and Charlie was too embarrassed to admit to Olivia the hold his memories of Jenny held over him. Or his secret hope that Olivia would be the one that would make him forget about Jenny forever.

“Did you see he's coming to Phoenix?” Shelleyan asked. She pulled her reddish brown hair back and adjusted her scrunchie, revealing the dabs of sparkle she'd applied high on her cheeks. She didn't know it, but the joke among those students who knew her was whether or not they could get sparkled by Shelleyan. A few had, and still others dreamed of it.

Olivia's eyes grew wide. “You're lying.”

“It was in the paper, dummy. He's got a new book coming out,” Shelleyan said, gathering up her napkin and utensils. “No picture, though. He hates having his picture taken. Don't you read the paper?” Charlie hated the way all of Shelleyan's questions intimated that everyone else was in the know, and he suspected her questions were really aimed at him specifically, to dunce him in front of Olivia. “I gotta jet,” she said, keeping one eye on Miles Buchanan, a hotel restaurant management major—and current focus of Shelleyan's affections—as he sauntered past the table and gave her a not-too-subtle wink, then drifted toward the door. Charlie guessed they were headed out to the parking lot, to make out in the backseat of Miles's silver Ford Bronco; Miles had told Shelleyan he'd tinted the windows with just those aspirations.

Lunch ended with Olivia promising to meet Charlie after classes, as usual, but he couldn't concentrate in his British literature class, distracted by the revelation about Vernon Downs. His need to be the center of Olivia's life flushed him with jealousy as he stared at the copy of
Pride and Prejudice
open on his desk, Professor Rudrud's words droning on. He hadn't been able to read the novel beyond the first few chapters, as the phrase “It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life” upset him so much that he couldn't continue, and he knew he would recall Austen's words verbatim every time he heard the book's title.

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