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.
The Peculiar Monument
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

Tags: BOOKS,

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week