John Doherty has been writing fiction off and on since he was a kid (lately more “off” than “on,” unfortunately). John attended Karleen Koen’s Something Novel workshop at the 2009 Summer Writing Retreat in Alpine. This character sketch is based on a rather curmudgeonly fellow John spotted while having dinner one evening at the Gulf Station Café in Alpine. John lives in Austin with his wife and two young children. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or through twitter @jtdoherty.
by John Doherty
In 1953, when Vernon Hicks was 11 years old, he’d been out a bird hunt in southern Kansas with his daddy and younger brother, Will. All of seven years old, it was Will’s first hunt and his daddy intended to make sure the boy knew how to properly carry and fire a shotgun.
On the second day of the hunt and with dusk quickly approaching, Vernon caught site of a mess of birds lighting in the trees on the far side of the tank. Vernon raised his shotgun and let go with a blast of buckshot toward the top of the tree line. This did nothing more than send the birds flying across the tank, shotguns flinging into the air to try and get ahead of them. Unskilled as he was, and in the excitement of potentially getting the first dove of his young life, Will swung his shotgun rapidly to the left and fired. The shotgun blast never made it more than a few feet, hitting Will’s daddy in the neck and killing him instantly.
Will and Vernon had stayed there near that tank with their daddy, sobbing over his dead body for hours, their clothes turning from shades of olive and beige to blackish crimson. Vernon couldn’t bring himself to say anything at all to his younger brother, his heart pouring out for him one minute and wanting to tear him apart in the next. For Will himself, the death of his dad was just too much and he ended up taking his own life before he turned 12. In the years that followed, Vernon came to feel responsible for both deaths.
When he was 18, Vernon was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. He earned the Silver Star for courage in battle, carrying a wounded man two hundred yards through mud and sizzling hot gunfire. The injured man, a good friend, later died of his wounds. Vernon was honorably discharged in ’68 and sent home after an errant shot from a member of his own platoon ricocheted crazily, shattering his left knee.
Vernon hoped good things might come of his return home to Wichita and almost immediately they did. A beautiful woman with eyes of cobalt blue and the deepest auburn hair he had ever seen served him eggs, toast and coffee on his second day home. Vernon and Suzie Lynn married just six weeks later. But good turned bad again when, in just their second year together, Suzie got cancer and lost her battle with it before she even had a chance to fight.
So in 1971, leaving almost everything he owned behind, Vernon climbed into his ‘69 Ford pickup and headed into the deep solitude of West Texas. Vernon had come to believe that friends and loved ones were things to be taken away. In his mind, the easiest solution to this problem was to not run about trying to collect them.
Nowadays, as far as most folks in Alpine could tell, Vernon Hicks barely said a word to anyone. Truth was he hardly took his eyes off the floor. He just lumbered from place to place, muttering to himself occasionally, sometimes with the greatest of bile. When he did speak it was out of purest necessity.
“Where’s the can,” he’d ask, which, in and of its self, was odd since there wasn’t a men’s room in town with which Vernon hadn’t previously held audience.
In his intentionally nondescript sort of way, Vernon was a fixture in Alpine. Just not one folks were drawn to discuss. It was sort of like the set of animal-shaped terracotta planters in the window at the local Bread and Breakfast café. Everyone knew they were there, and might’ve even considered them of some interest, but what was the point in expending energy talking with one another about them.
On the other hand, if there was anything folks would easily remember about Vernon Hicks it was his hat. It really was an ugly thing. Sweat-stained and smelly, or so one imagined. One of those one might wear out hiking or kayaking. A bit floppy all around, a beige color, with a bit of venting near the top of it. He wore it with such regularity that most folks in Alpine had no idea what the landscape above his ears actually looked like.
Vernon liked to think that hat did all of his talking for him. Don’t come near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t look at me.
Nobody did. Vernon figured he was doing all of them a favor.