The Peculiar Monument

In this exclusive excerpt from Stephen Harrigan’s new novel, Remember Ben Clayton, an ambitious sculptor meets a lonely rancher who lost his son in World War I. But as the two fathers come to rely on each other, they realize they both have secrets they are desperate to keep.

May 2011By Comments

Photograph by Ocean/Corbis

The ranch house and outbuildings finally came into sight after the road veered off onto higher ground. Gil and Maureen exchanged cautious looks. It was not much of a house, just a fortresslike main room of stacked stone to which a long, peaked-roof wing appeared to have been more or less randomly appended. A man stood on the porch, watching the truck drive up. At his feet sat an unlikely ranch dog, a chubby, gray-muzzled dachshund. As the car approached, the man climbed stiffly down the stairs and walked out to the edge of a parched circle of grass that marked the end of the caliche drive. He stood there bareheaded, his hands stashed in the back pockets of his trousers, his head cocked, staring at the approaching vehicle as if awaiting not a pair of invited visitors but some dreaded decree of fate.

Gil stepped out of the car and said hello and offered his hand. Lamar Clayton took it and looked back at Gil with an assessing stare and a faint smile that could have been either an expression of welcome or the manifestation of a private judgment. Gil decided he was a decade or so older than himself, a quiet old man with an air of grave self-possession, the tough skin of his face marked by a network of wrinkles and deep vertical creases.

His expression brightened as he greeted Gil’s daughter, but he did not have much to say to her besides hello. Maybe the self-possession was just shyness, Gil thought, the evasive, deflective manner of an old rancher unused to being around women. Nevertheless, there was something commanding about his stillness, his patient assumption that it should be others who speak first and say the most. “Ernest treat you folks all right?” Clayton said, with a sly glance at his hired man, who was already hauling their luggage into the house.

“We were in excellent hands,” Gil replied. “And we’ve arrived at a beautiful place.”

“Oh, I don’t know about beautiful,” Clayton said, “but I ain’t got tired of it yet. We get a nice breeze from across the creek there this time of year, and the north wind don’t bother us too much in the winter, since we’re down here in a kind of draw.”

He paused, as if he were planning to reflect some more on the favorable location of the ranch house, but it was just a stalled silence.

“Anyway,” he said, rallying to the conversation again, “come on in. George’s Mary ought to about have our supper on.”

If there was a reason she was called George’s Mary—something beyond the obvious assumption that it was to distinguish her from someone else’s Mary—nobody explained it as they sat down to eat in the narrow parlor. George’s Mary, Gil supposed, was close to his own age, a stout woman in stout shoes and a faded print dress who set various platters down upon the table with no comment and then disappeared into the kitchen to put a pie in the oven. Was she Clayton’s wife? Unlikely. He didn’t know much about the mores of ranch life in Texas, but he assumed the woman of the house would at least preside over her own dinner table.

Ernest, the one loquacious member of the household, had disappeared to the bunkhouse, so it was just the two of them sitting there, spooning fried beef and potatoes onto their plates and trying to carry on a conversation with no great assistance from their host. It seemed to be Clayton’s attitude that dinner was for eating, and Maureen’s dutiful openers—what lovely china, what wonderfully airy biscuits—were met with that same polite half smile and maybe a word or two of explication. The china, he allowed, had been one of his wife’s great treasures.

The “had been” confirmed it: dead wife, dead son, lonely, inward old man.

“Get out of here, Peggy,” Clayton said without conviction to the dog, who stationed herself by his chair and spent almost the entire meal reared up on her hind legs with unnerving persistence, looking less like a dachshund than a vigilant prairie dog. Despite Clayton’s surly commands for her to leave, he kept tossing small pieces of meat onto the floor at her feet, which of course only reinforced her commonsense determination to stay where she was.

Gil had no problem with silence when decorum or gravitas called for it, so he followed Clayton’s lead and mostly forgot about conversation as he finished his meal. Maureen did so as well, though clearly she was unimpressed with all this manly forswearing of talk, this solemn chewing. It was not until George’s Mary cleared the plates and served them buttermilk pie and coffee that Clayton looked up from his plate and seemed to understand that it was time for something to be said.

“She makes a pretty good pie, I always thought.”

“Excellent,” Gil said, smiling in George’s Mary’s direction as she hurried off once more into the kitchen.

“Everything was excellent,” Maureen jumped in. “It was a gorgeous meal.”

Clayton nodded and ran his hand across his full head of wavy white hair. There was another beat of silence during which he seemed to be deliberating about what to say next. Gil could hear the ticking of the mantel clock, the creak of the windmill across the yard. “Well, now, about this statue,” Clayton finally said. “I guess you’re interested or you wouldn’t be here.”

“I’m interested,” Gil answered. “But of course I’d like to know a bit more about what you have in mind.”

Clayton folded up his napkin; he picked up a crumb of piecrust from the table and put it back on his plate.

“Ben—that’s my son—was killed over in France. Some little town somewhere called Saint-Étienne. I looked it up on a map of France over at the library in Albany, but there’s more than one Saint-Étienne in that country and I couldn’t find the one I was looking for. It ain’t but seventy or eighty miles from Paris, over on the western front. Anyway, they buried him in this Saint-Étienne, pretty much where it happened, as I understand, and then he and a bunch of the other boys got moved to a big American cemetery they started up over there. They asked me did I want to bring him home—they said they’d do that for me—but I didn’t take to the thought for some reason. Didn’t like the idea of bothering him again, I guess. Didn’t want to think of that. Maybe that’s a little strange.”

“Of course it’s not,” Maureen said to him.

“Anyway, I just thought if I had a statue of Ben, if I had a likeness of him, not just a picture, something I could . . .”

He gripped the edge of the table with his hands and sat there tensely for a moment, forcing back his emotions.

“I seen your statues in San Antone, Mr. Gilheaney, like I wrote you,” Clayton went on when he found his voice again. “The Alamo one, of course, and that one you did of that Cabeza de Vaca fella. I don’t know much about statues, but I seen plenty that I didn’t think were any good. Yours have got something special to them. The people seem alive.”

“I do my best to make them seem that way. Do you have an idea of where the sculpture would be situated?”

“Oh, yes, sir, I got that all picked out. There was a place that Ben liked pretty well, and I reckon that’s where it ought to be.”

“I should like to see it.”

“I’ll take you there, if you and Miss Gilheaney don’t mind bouncing in the car a little more.”

“And I wonder what you have in the way of photographs of your son.”

“I got a few,” he said and stood up and walked in his shuffling, stove-up gait into another part of the house, the dog following behind.

While he was gone, Gil glanced at his daughter, who simply shrugged, her eyebrows lifted in a wait-and-see expression. George’s Mary came in to collect their dessert plates. There was a teary sheen to her eyes, but her manner was brisk and silent.

“Everything was delicious,” Maureen told her.

“Well, Mr. Clayton ain’t too hard to please,” she said, “long as I burn his steak till it’s tough as a boot.” She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “You’d think a man who lived all that time with the Indians would like his meat on the rare side.”

“He lived with the—” But before Gil could finish the question Clayton had come shuffling back, holding a high school yearbook. He opened the yearbook to a bookmarked page and set it on the table in front of Gil. Maureen moved her chair closer to her father as the two of them studied the photo of Ben. It made no impression: neither handsome nor interestingly ugly, just another in a rank of young men looking indifferently at the camera, their hair tightly combed, synthetic half smiles on their lips, their thoughts hidden.

“There’s another one of him on the baseball team, but you can’t hardly see him in it,” Clayton said as he turned to the next bookmarked page, where Ben stood in the rear of a team grouping, the cap on his head obscuring his face.

“And then we got these Kodaks here,” Clayton said. There were a half dozen of them, small and wrinkled from much handling. They were a little better. One photo showed the boy standing with an elegant-looking woman who, Gil supposed, had been his mother. Another had him posing with some of his fellow soldiers, their arms interlocked as they smiled at the camera in front of their barracks.

“That one’s at Camp Bowie,” the old man said. “Not too long before they shipped out.”

Gil and Maureen studied it a moment more and then went on to look at the others. Only one of them showed Ben by himself, and from that one they could get an idea of his bearing and proportions. Though solidly built, he had not been tall, perhaps a few inches shorter than his father and with an apparently unarresting face—the jawline neither particularly firm nor soft, the features regular but not remarkably so. But his smile, in the photo in front of the barracks, was electric in some frustrating way Gil could not pin down. There was some inner quality that seemed to override his features, that made their impact secondary. It was the same with Lamar Clayton himself. Ever since he had met the old man, Gil had been almost unconsciously puzzling over how one could reveal, in clay, that face’s hidden burden of experience and sorrow. If he had been handsome, it would have been easy, because handsome faces were built for the display of sweeping emotions. Gil’s own wife’s powerful face, which he had used so many times as a model for mournful or triumphant women, was an unfailing scaffold for whatever noble mood needed to be set upon it. By contrast, he thought, he could sculpt Maureen for the rest of his life and never truly capture her, never be able to make her bland exterior light up with the complex fire he knew burned within.

“These are all the pictures you have?” he asked Clayton when he and Maureen had shuffled through the few imperfect images several times.

“Yes, sir, that’s pert’ near it.”

“I have to be honest, Mr. Clayton. It’s not a lot for me to go on. But of course I’d certainly do my best. And I feel that at this point, before we go too much further, I should be honest with you as well about the cost of such a project.”

“Well, a statue’s a permanent thing. I don’t expect they come cheap. How much?”

“I can’t give you an answer just at the moment. My daughter and I will have to talk about it. And a lot will depend on whether the statue would be just of your son or whether you would want it to include some other element, a horse, say, or—”

“Oh, his horse would have to be part of it. Ben would be in the saddle, the way I see it in my mind.”

“Well, of course that would considerably—”

“I understand your point. You’re the experts, you and Miss Gilheaney. You think about it a while and give me a price, and we’ll talk about it. In the meantime, didn’t I hear you say you wanted to see where the statue was gonna be?”

Clayton drove them himself, taking them deeper into the ranch along an increasingly problematic road. The little dachshund stood imperiously in his lap and stared out at the passing sights with quivering absorption.

“A motorcar ain’t the best way to get back up in here,” he told them. “But I didn’t expect you folks was comfortable on horseback.”

“Comfortable enough,” Gil said, bluffing a little.

“Daddy is,” Maureen said, looking a little pale from the arrhythmic jostling of the car, “but I’m afraid the spectacle of me on a horse would be a comical sight to Mr. Clayton.”

“Well,” Clayton said, “I bet the sight of me trying to make a statue would beat it.”

At last he pulled to a stop and turned off the motor. They were in a broad, shady declivity above a dry streambed. Off in the distance stood a modestly imposing grouping of flat-topped hills that seemed as evanescent as a thunderhead.

Clayton drew their attention to a gradual rocky slope leading upward from the side of the road.

“This is the highest point on the ranch,” he said. “But as you can see, it ain’t that high. Won’t take us but a minute to climb it, if you’re ready.”

“Lead on,” Gil told him.

A horse trail led up the flank of the hill, and in ten minutes they were at its broad mesa summit, looking out over a landscape that should not have been spectacular but somehow was. The view was uninterrupted by any man-made feature and the terrain almost pastoral in its overall sweep, despite its jagged and thorny components. The sky was clear. It was startlingly vibrant, the vast reach of it as bright and blue as a solid shell, but with a limitless transparency, so that the longer Gil looked at it, the deeper it drew him in. A buzzard teetered silently above them, the fringelike feathers at the ends of its wings clearly individuated, standing out from the brilliant sky vault with a stereopticon sharpness. A few dozen head of white-faced cattle drifted along by the flank of another hill half a mile away, grazing on a thin carpet of wild grass. Gil heard some skyborne bird’s sharp whistle—not the buzzard but some unseen eagle or hawk. Otherwise there was nothing but tantalizing silence, until Clayton decided to speak.

“This is the place,” he said. “It ain’t the easiest spot to put a statue, I know that, and I expect to pay the cost of that too. But this was Ben’s place. Sarey and me—that was his mother—we used to bring him up here for picnics when he was little. And when he was in a brooding frame of mind—after his mother died, or when he was home on leave right before they shipped him out—he’d tend to saddle his horse and ride off. He never told me where it was he was going, but I’m pretty sure this was the place. Anyway, it’s where I want to remember him being.”

“It’s a fitting spot, Mr. Clayton,” Gil said. “Very fitting.”

The little dog wandered determinedly across the summit, her tail wagging at the prospect of discovery. Every once in a while, when she was probing too deeply into a burrow or an overhung rock that might have housed a rattlesnake, Clayton gave a low whistle and she backed off and looked up at him, whimpering.

Meanwhile Gil paced off the ground and made notes of the distances in a small sketchbook.

“The sun rises here, I would think,” he said to Clayton, gesturing to the summit of the hill to their east.

“Pretty close.”

“And how cold will it get in the winter?”

“Can’t hardly predict. Down past fifteen or so if the right norther decides to come on through.”

“I don’t see a road down there.”

“Ain’t none.”

“So who’s going to see the statue?”

“I am.”

Gil thought about this, then turned back to Clayton.

“Perhaps you and Maureen could wait in the car for me.”


“He likes to be alone at this stage,” Maureen explained to Clayton. “To get his bearings, so to speak.”

“All right. Let him get his bearings.”

Gil watched as the old rancher led his daughter back down the hill, his hand hovering beneath her elbow with touching solicitude as the little dog ranged ahead of them.

Left to himself, Gil took out his sketchbook and studied the dimensions he had written down. He stared once again at the open landscape—open but secretive, because it was so far removed from any human habitation or byway. Placing a statue on this hilltop, a site undefined by pedestrians or vehicular patterns, by buildings, by conventional sight lines, by any expectations whatsoever, made no logical sense. And that was what began to stir his interest. It was a deluded, heartbroken dream of a commission, not so much a statue as an apparition. But here was a real chance, he thought, a chance to create a monument that was not carefully ushered into being by committees of city fathers or boards of directors or clubwomen but by one man’s private grief. The challenge for Gil would be to create a piece that could somehow command this summit without calling attention to itself.

But did the old man really have the money? He wrote down some quick calculations in his sketchbook—the value of his time, the cost of materials, the fees to models and plasterers and foundry workers and stonecutters and the workmen who would be required to erect the statue and its base in this remote location. The amount came to almost $20,000. He could do it for less, of course; he could factor in less profit for himself. He was not rich, but since moving to San Antonio, he was getting by. There were fewer commissions after the war, and they were going to younger men now or to the so-called modern artists or to talentless blowhards who got by on nothing but flattery and connections—or simply to the monument dealers who had gotten into the business and were now trying to sell every town square in America a knockoff statue of a grenade-flinging doughboy. Standing alone on top of this mesa, he felt all that irritating competition drop away as his excitement about this project grew. He had been in this business a long time and knew what it meant to be stirred in this way, aware that there was some effect, some emotion, as yet unseen and ungrasped, waiting to be revealed. It was his skill and his labor that would reveal it. He was the man for this peculiar monument, this lonely bronze eulogy in the middle of nowhere.

He spent that night in the boy’s room, one of the two rooms that formed the original stone core of the house. There was a single small window through which he could see a hazy full moon that looked like a giant dissolving aspirin tablet high in the West Texas sky. On either side of the window, at shoulder height, were two indentations that passed all the way through the thick wall, funneling down to small circles that were open to the night air. It took Gil a minute or two to puzzle out what they were: shooting holes, to fight off Comanche during the not-so-distant days of the Indian wars. Ben Clayton’s saddle sat on a sawhorse on one end of the room. It seemed a bit old-fashioned in a way Gil did not have the expertise to judge, something to do with the straight, high-backed cantle. There was no ornamentation, no silver inlays or intricate tooling, just solid leather. The working saddle of an earnest, unaffected young man, a plainspoken American martyr. Or perhaps that was the way Gil was already seeing his subject, because he preferred to think of his own style, and hence his own substance, as unadorned as well. No simpering cherubs commenting from the ether, no bombast or symbolic blather, a minimum of the decorative vines and garlands that were known in the trade as “spinach.” He would use this saddle in the statue, of course, not merely for its authenticity but for the pleasure it would give him to sculpt something so austere and worn.

When Lamar Clayton had shown him to his room after dinner, he had pointed out the saddle and the other vestiges of his son’s life that he had been too paralyzed with sadness to do anything with but leave them in place. A picture of Ben’s mother and father’s wedding day rested in a silver frame on an empty spool that had served as the dead boy’s end table. In the photograph, Lamar was twenty years younger and a few pounds heavier, his hair streaked with gray but not yet white. But there was no more buoyancy in his expression than there had been at the dinner table. He must have been fifty in this photograph, Gil supposed. Why had he taken so long to marry? His new wife, dressed in a traveling suit, her hand gripping the crook of his arm, was slender and winning, beaming at the camera as if she were in possession of a wonderful secret about her dour husband. It was a better-quality likeness of Ben’s mother than the one Clayton had shown them earlier, and it made Gil rueful to think about how the only people in this little family with a glint of vivacity were now dead.

By the light of the kerosene lamp he sorted through the young man’s war memorabilia, scant enough to fit into a shirt box. Most of it seemed to be from his training at Camp Bowie: a pamphlet called “Songs for the Hike”; a blank postcard from the Westbrook Hotel in Fort Worth, displaying a photograph of a not-very-good statue called The Golden Goddess; a “Souvenir Folder of Camp Life,” whose cover depicted a group of doughboys engaged in bayonet drill and whose pages were mostly blank. Under “My Division,” Ben (Gil assumed it was Ben) had written “36th,” and under “My Regiment” he had penciled in “142nd,” but after that he must have lost interest or become annoyed at being prompted about what to enter, because the spaces for “My Company” and “My Training Log” were left blank, as were all the rest of the pages.

There were three postcards, all from Camp Bowie. “Dear all,” one read. “Well I escaped getting my wisdom teeth pulled by one of the dental students they got here. They said there’s no reason to worry about mine. Ortho Cotton got his pulled and now his jaw is swelled up pretty bad. If somebody has the time could you send me that extra quilt after all? These blankets are thin and it would save me having to go buy another one in Fort Worth. How’s Poco? Ben.”

The other postcards were equally brief and chatty. He enjoyed working in the pit on the rifle range, he was getting pretty tired of hearing the top’s whistle all day long, he finally could manage “right shoulder arms” without knocking his hat off, everybody in his squad had gotten tested for hookworm and passed with flying colors. And that was all, except for a telegram at the bottom of the box from the adjutant general’s office deeply regretting to inform Mr. Lamar Clayton that his son, Private Benjamin Clayton of the 36th Division, 142nd Infantry Regiment, had been officially reported killed in action near the village of Saint-Étienne-à-Arnes. The telegram was followed by an apologetic letter from the chief of the Graves Registration Service, pledging to inform families as soon as possible “as to the present resting places of their noble dead who glorify the nation’s roll of honor.”

Lamar Clayton had directed Gil to the shirt box, saying that’s where his son’s letters were stored. But was this all? Surely the boy had written home from France. Perhaps he had even kept a diary. But Gil could find nothing else. The traces of Ben Clayton’s life in this room were sorrowfully palpable, but as a sculptor Gil needed more. He needed to know who this young man had been, and that key knowledge did not seem to be on offer, either in the artifacts surrounding him in this room or in the terse testimony of his father.

Gil wanted his subject to be visible, and it troubled him in an obscure way that an emotional portrait of Ben Clayton had not yet begun to present itself to him. Except, of course, for the profound emotion of loss, the death of promise, which would be the unstated theme of his statue.

From the moment he first stood on top of that mesa he knew that this piece was what he had been searching for. It had the potential to turn his life in Texas from one of artistic exile to one of liberation. Twenty thousand dollars didn’t matter. This was a theme that had the power to bring forth the greatness he knew was still within his grasp. He was irritated with himself that he had not traveled with a few of his sculpting tools and a block of Plastilina, so that he could make a proper three-dimensional sketch. A drawing would have to do for now. He took out his pencils and a pad of paper from his valise and went to work at Ben Clayton’s boyhood desk, under the imperfect light of the lamp. The statue would be, more than anything, calm. As calm in its way as the beautifully eerie memorial Saint-Gaudens had done for Henry Adams’s wife. As a younger man, Gil had once stood in front of Saint-Gaudens’s hooded female figure, nearly weeping at its plangent mystery and at the shivering inspiration that underlay its artistry. He sensed a similar opportunity here, an opportunity for something glorious and enduring.

He sketched rapidly; it was the work of ten minutes. Lamar Clayton’s idea of the statue was of Ben on horseback, but Gil swiftly rejected the father’s vision and supplanted it with his own: a young man, dismounted in death, standing beside a beloved horse, looking out across the landscape of his childhood. When he was finished, Gil held the drawing closer to the light. It was enough. Not a pencil stroke more. And the finished statue, he knew, would be similarly spare. The challenges were all in the proportions, in the posture of man and horse, in the fidelity and detail of the face. It was after midnight before he finally turned off the lamp and climbed into the narrow bed upon which Ben Clayton had slept for most of his short life. Moonlight flowed in through the small window and even from the two shooting holes, helping to endow the saddle on the opposite end of the room with a seductive physicality. He heard the profound, reverberant notes of an owl’s voice as the bird made its rounds on silent wingbeats from tree to tree around the house. He heard as well the snorting and stamping of horses from the nearby stable, and from the unimaginable distances of the night came the anxious, cascading calls of coyotes. These were the sounds, Gil noted, that would have ushered Ben into sleep from his earliest childhood—so different, surely, from what he had listened to in France during the last nights of his life. 

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