Vernon Arthur Black

Vernon Arthur Black

A Story by Naomi Bloom
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Short story about an old man named Vernon Arthur Black. Written for a creative writing class in high school.

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“Heath Ledger’s twisted role a death sentence,” the old man read, skimming through the Entertainment section of the Toronto Star.  


"Heath.  What an odd name", he thought to himself, flipping to the next page.  


“Its curtains for Jeff Healey,” it read.  


He quickly turned to the next page, almost as if he didn’t want the article to exist.  


“Anna Nicole Smith’s autopsy” was the next article.  


The elder crumpled the paper into a ball and limped over the marble counter near the front of the Coffee Time restaurant.  He dropped the ball into a dark hole in the counter, walking as fast as he possibly could back to his red and white booth.  Sheltered by the length of the cushioned seats, the man tried to relax.

  

“Only a badly written A & E section,” he mumbled to himself, “I’m not dying.  People like me live to be a hundred and I’m only…”  


He was at a loss.  In his head, the Torontonian tried to remember his birthday, but with the dates, the events, the people, the papers and the coffee; how could he find that tiny number that seemed to decide everything?  


He pushed his brain until sweat dripped from his hairline.  


“Before the war…and I remember the depression…dad told me about this…I remember… ‘and I named you…’”


The old man stopped pushing himself.  


“I forgot my name,” he said.  The old man started to panic.  “First my age, then my birthday and now this… my god forsaken name!”

 

At this point, he realized that he was saying all of this out loud and looking around he could feel the frightened stares of children.  The adults’ stares were even more depressing.  To them he looked like a pig’s daily slop.  A young man with dark hair in tight curls opened his mouth to tell the octogenarian to leave but his pride held him back.   


The grandfather was infuriated.  He remembered how much the old people were respected in his time.  Being in an old man’s presence was an honor back then.  In Pensylvania, most of the people were older, so everyone would listen to them…


Pennsylvania had been his home since he had been born.  He remembered his days as a boy fishing with his father, Abram, and watching warplanes go by.  Back then; the only people who rushed around were the soldiers.  At least they had a reason.  


He’d always wanted to be a soldier, even a pilot.  As long as he was helping.  As long as he was in the action; the thick of it, he sometimes said.  


Abram was more practical: “I don’t want you getting married and letting your lady down.  You were always better at writing.  I’ve heard some of your stories, Vern.”  


“My boy’s a little journalist,” he would always say.


So Vernon had moved to Brooklyn, hoping his father was right about his talents…

  

But Vernon hated writing.  Every time he had had a work period for writing, he would watch the planes go by.  He would make all of his office friends come and watch with him, but most of them would cower or ignore the planes altogether.


 Every once and a while, he would write about being a soldier or being a pilot and his stories would move his work mates to tears.  


Unfortunately, most of them cried because he took them right to the war zones.  They could feel the blood and the bullets of the battlefield and his words terrified them.  


Vernon had always remembered the day when his boss had sent him to his office for a ‘chat’.


“Come in, Vern.”


The young man sat down on a too-comfortable chair, fearing the worst.  He faced his boss, poker-faced and prepared.  The boss offered Vernon a cigarette.


“Yes please,” he said rebelliously.


Suddenly, the mature man looked concerned.


“Vernon… you probably know this already, but… you just aren’t as inspired as I thought you would be.  Your regular articles…about politics and events…when you hand them in…they’re weak.  It’s like you did them in a few minutes, without even trying.  Your best articles are when you talk about the war, but…it’s too depressing.  No one wants to hear about the war.  People cry, listening to you.  They’re supposed to be riveted, educated, cheered up, entertained, but not depressed…”


The boss glanced at Vern for the last time: “You know, you’re so young.”


Tugging at his collar, he said, “I’m sorry Vern, you’re a great writer when you try, but I’m going to have to let you go.  I’ll get some interns to help you pack up your stuff.”


For a few moments, they simply sat, soundless.  Looking at Vernon’s changing face, his boss immediately regretted everything.


“Vern…”


But Vern marched out the office, standing tall.  Inside, he couldn’t have been happier.

 

“Boy, do I need a cigarette,” he mumbled, as his hands padded every pocket on his Goodwill jacket.  Temptation.  The old man had been visiting a smoker’s group that was trying to quit smoking.  For the senior, it was impossibly hard.  He’d been smoking since he was in his teens.  In fact he couldn’t remember anything that was harder except choosing between a family and a dream…

 

New York was Vern’s next destination.  The man was not at all sad about leaving Brooklyn.  He’d heard of the armies that had come out of that city.  They were built with ingenuity.  Those pilots knew what they were doing.  


But as Vernon hopped off the bus to New York, messy straw-coloured hair tousled by the wind, he didn’t know about Vivian Jardine.  That woman had changed everything…


Vernon fell in love with Vivian.  


Trying out for the army, Vernon had waited in line with a man named Albert.  Albert raved about the war planes and fighting for his country more than any other man Vern had met.  And although he wore a ridiculous cowboy hat, Vernon couldn’t help but wish they were good friends.


“I just love to be in the thick of it.  Making a difference,” Albert had said.  


“That’s just how I feel,” Vernon exclaimed, “What kind of soldier are you going to be?”


“The front line, or a pilot.”


The two people dove deep into conversation, exchanging identical values, until it was Albert’s turn to sign up.  Two rock-hard soldiers stood at the sign-up table, too manly to be comfortable.  The one to the left had thin lips and dark, dead eyes.  He must have been so vicious that his captain had let him keep his black, crinkled beard.  


The bearded soldier barked: “American soldiers don’t wear no hats but army helmets.  That’s the rules.”


Uncharacteristically, Albert looked horrified.  


“But… Please… Just until I can get a helmet…”


“Take it off!”


“Take it off!” the other soldier said.


“Take it off!  Take it off!  Take it off!” the people waiting had started a chant.  


Albert whirled around, not knowing how to react.


“If I have to take it off myself, you’ll be no soldier,” the tough soldier threatened.


Albert kept hesitating, stuttering.  


Vernon urged, “Just take it off…  You don't wanna get in trouble, do ya?”


Patience leaving him, the black bearded soldier walked over as fiercely as he could and yanked off the enormous cowboy hat.  Long black hair poured out of the hat, silky and wavy, hair that could only have been a female’s.  The woman looked around one last time, with her captivating green eyes, at her dream, and walked out slowly and steadily, with dignity.  She left her dopey hat on the floor in the middle of the room.  


Vernon didn’t know what to think.  


He’d been taught that girls were only made for the kitchen, the bed and the sitting room.  A girl joining the army was as bizarre as a fish riding a bicycle.  


But he liked Albert.  


Why should Alberta be any different?


He found Alberta in an alleyway, sobbing.  Apparently Alberta was actually Vivian Jardine.  How do you do?  What do you know, I’m signing up for the army, too!


And that was how it happened.  In a year, Viv and Vern had had their first child, Edward.  


But Vernon still heard the bombs and the planes in the sky.  Every article in the newspaper that lied about America’s success made him angrier… and hungrier to fight.


Unlike most wives, Vivian could actually understand Vern’s hunger.


“Vern, don’t just join the army because it’s your dream…join it because it’s my dream too.  Do it for me, for both of us.  Get out there and kick Hitler’s a*s.”


Vernon couldn’t say no.  Kissing Vivian good bye, he was gone the next day.  But he couldn’t help but feel uncertain, guilty.


“Vivian should be with me.  Better yet, I should be with Edward and her.  What am I doing here?” Vernon thought to himself as he landed in Poland.  But it was too late. 


After a few months fighting at the front line, Vernon’s closest friend from his days of fishing and watching airplanes was dead.  William wasn’t William anymore.  Like a ruined, blood-soaked teddy bear, he lay in the mud, torn into pieces.  One of his legs was in the russet-coloured bushes, the other on top of another corpse.  William kept one of his arms, while the other was half buried in the mud, hand reaching toward hell.  Vernon didn’t cry.  He simply gathered the pieces together and assembled them like a sadistic puzzle.  


But the last piece was missing, and like most puzzles, it was the most important piece.  William’s head was gone.  Hysterically, Vernon grabbed at anything and everything round, but he couldn’t find the sacred limb.  The young man looked into the distance and found the barbed wire fence that bordered the battlefield.  Between him and William’s head stood the barbed wire fence.  At the foot of the fence, William’s head lay on its side.  Vernon bawled.  He made nightmarish noises as he ran to the fence and tried to grab the head over and over again.  His arms were pierced with the wire, but his arms didn’t matter anymore.


There he screamed for hours.  When the other soldiers came, he could only be comforted by seeing his friend’s eyes.  They were closed.  


Vernon left the army.  No amount of glory, adventure or nationalism could make him stay.  At least Vivian would be there in New York, with his son Edward.  The band aid in a battlefield of cuts and scrapes.


But knowing Vern’s luck so far, he couldn’t even count on his wife and son to be there when he got back.  Like William, Edward was dead.  Tuberculosis.  Before he could even wipe his new tears away, Vernon found Vivian who was not alone.  Beside her stood Bernard Writhe.  They were married.


“Vivian…” he was almost weeping, “Why?”


Obviously embarrassed, she took Vern aside and looked at him seriously and whispered “Vern, I had no choice.  I wasn’t married.  You were at war.  If you think a girl joining the army is shameful, imagine an unmarried girl with a child.  Things have been so miserable for me that Edward’s death turned out to be a good thing!  Bernard married me before anyone could notice that I had had a child without getting married.  He’s not the best looking guy,” she hushed, indicating Bernard, “but he saved me…  Vern…  I wish things had turned out differently, but I can’t change history.”


Pushing him into a different room and closing the door, Vivian gave Vernon one last kiss, a short peck and then Vern left for good.


Vern had moved to Toronto to try to forget everything that had happened in New York and to avoid bumping into Vivian and Bernard.  He’d tried many odd jobs after that, trying to recover, but nothing felt right.  No job had ever felt right for Vernon.  Month after month, he would get frosty, impersonal letters from Vivian, mostly telling him about the children she had had with Vernon.  Shirley and Albert.

“Shoulda been Shirley and Alberta,” Vern would always chuckle to himself, remembering how he had called Vivian Alberta years ago.


Many years later, when Vern got a job selling hot dogs, he found out that Shirley had become a reporter and Albert taught history.


On his first day working as a valet, Vern learned about Shirley’s children, Brenda and Martin, and Albert’s, Lisa, Thomas and Mark.


He’d laugh it off, pretending they were letters instead of darts that Bernard would periodically throw at his heart.  He’d imagine them as imbeciles, as unemployed as he was, all the children locked up in insane asylums or in jail for parading around naked.  But the children were something Vivian was probably very proud of; Martin was a photographer, Brenda a dog breeder, Lisa an optician, Thomas another history teacher and Mark a minister.  


Sometimes he’d curse the inhuman letters, through the cigarette wedged in his mouth " his new band-aid.  He’d wanted to rip them into pieces, spit on them or just never open them, but no matter how much Bernard and Vivian would taunt Vernon, he would always love his lady Alberta.  He could never bring himself to do anything but kiss the letters.  


The day he “retired”, or started to rely on welfare, he found out about what would have been his great-grandchildren.  This letter came from Shirley.  She reminded Vernon that both Vivian and Bernard had died years ago.


Vern wished that the letters had lost their appeal now that the couple was dead, but he still couldn’t get rid of the letters that haunted him.  


Madison was thirteen now, Leroy seven, Roxanne was fourteen, William was ten and James was twenty-two, the oldest great-grandchild.  Shirley wrote matter-of-factly that “James is dating a girl named Valerie.  Many months ago, they were married by James’ uncle Mark.  They’re planning on having children soon.  Valerie is already pregnant.”


Vernon didn’t want to even think about why he wasn’t invited to the wedding.  He wanted to write back to Shirley to tell her to stop writing, but it was as if the letters were protected by some unearthly force.  Most of the names of his descendants were names he would have chosen himself.  Remembering Lisa’s son William, he had nearly cried just like when he was kneeling at the barbed wire fence as he had done decades ago.  


Abruptly, Vernon drifted back to reality.  Recalling his memories, he felt as if he had just seen his whole life flash before his eyes.


“I’m not dying!” he yelled dramatically to the crowd, immediately berating himself for the outburst.  Then he suddenly remembered his identity… ‘Right.  I’m Vernon Arthur Black…age 87…born… March 4th, 1921.  I remember,’ he thought to himself, careful not to say anything out loud.


The room was silent, save for the sound of furious sketching in the corner of the store.  Hearing the noise, the people in the crowded coffee shop turned to see who it was.  A man with a calm expression and hazelnut-colored hair drew on his sketchpad, which sat nicely on his lap.  Looking up every few seconds, he hungrily probed Vernon’s face with his sharp blue eyes, trying to remember every wrinkle, every hair. 


Quickly realizing what the gentleman was doing, the crone stood up and growled across the room, “Stop that, boy!”


Knowing that the old man didn’t want to be disturbed, the male stopped sketching and stuffed his pencils and sketchbook back into his green backpack.  Slipping into his coat as quietly as possible, he got up from his table and started walking toward the door.  Relaxing again, the people in the Coffee Time reassumed their usual chatter.  


It looked like the man was about to pass the old man’s booth, but then he stopped.  Without even a pause, he slid onto a seat in the elder’s booth.  Sitting opposite the old man, he began, “My name is Kevin Brio.  As you’ve probably realized, I’m an artist.”


The elderly male nodded, still dumbfounded.


“Well, what can I say?  You are the perfect subject.  I can see just in your eyes that you have lived a long and fascinating life.”


“Yeah, sure…Well you can’t just go and sketch me like I’m your dog or something” the man snarled.


“That’s true.  It was rude of me.  I’m going to ask your permission.  Could I please draw you?”


The aged man sighed.  He wasn’t used to anything like this for years.  “Can’t you just draw him?  He looks much more interesting,” he pointed to the curly haired man who had turned up his nose seeing the crone.


The young man ignored the old man’s words and instead stared at the old man’s face.  Vernon started to feel less vulnerable.  The youth made him feel… respected.  Kevin asked suddenly, “What’s your name?”


“Vernon Arthur Black,” he said proudly, glad that he had remembered it, but then he asked, “You don’t think I’m stupid, do you?”


Kevin looked the elderly man in the eyes and said, with no hesitation, “you are not stupid, Vernon.”


For the first time in months, the old man smiled, quietly thanking Kevin with his soft gray eyes.  Kevin left the establishment, smiling and waving.  

 

Day by day, Vernon began to notice that there wasn’t a twinge of embarrassment on Kevin’s face when he was talking to him.  To Kevin, being with Vernon was like being with any other close friend.  

Maybe better.


Reluctantly, Vernon had agreed to pose for Kevin’s sketch, meeting the artist in the same booth at the same Coffee Time every day for a week.

 

On Friday, Kevin walked in for his very last “Coffee Time”.  This time, Kevin didn’t have his backpack or his pencil case; just a sketchbook.  The young man didn’t have to search for Vernon since the man always sat in the same booth.  Hesitating for the first time, Kevin decided to slip into the booth beside Vernon instead of standing.  The look on his face was a mixture of excitement, sadness and anticipation as he looked at Vernon.


“It’s finished,” said Kevin.


“M-m-my picture?” Vernon asked, reluctantly pointing to himself.


Kevin nodded.


“Well go on, show me!” he said, too excited to remember his manners.


Kevin fumbled through the pages, more artistically self-conscious than usual.  Finally, he found Vernon’s portrait.

 

Vernon looked at the page carefully.  There were millions of wrinkles indenting his face, his ears stuck out the way he had always remembered them, his nose was large with a fleshy tip and his hair was grey, thin and messy.  But somehow, he couldn’t recognize this sketch as his reflection because underneath his messy, bushy eyebrows, he could see a sparkle in his deep gray eyes.


Vernon had never seen himself or any other men look so wonderful since he was a teenager.  Tears clotted near his eyes looking at the honest beauty of the sketch.  Was it even a picture of him?

He turned to look at each person in the restaurant, firing double takes in every direction to see if Kevin’s sketch was depicting someone else.


Coming up fruitless, Vernon looked at Kevin excitedly and asked, “Is that…me?  Is that really…me?”


“That is more you than you are you right now” Kevin answered mysteriously and then continued, “But Vernon, I can’t come here anymore.  I’m going to Italy tomorrow.”


Vernon opened his mouth to ask why, but Kevin said, “I have an art exhibit there.”


He mumbled to no one in particular, “I’m not sure if they’ll like my creations…” 


“But…” Vernon desperately tried to object, “we just met.”


“It seems like minutes.  But I know you’ll do the right thing, Vernon.  And… whatever you do, don’t lose that smile.”


With that, Kevin walked out of the working class café.  Looking like he wouldn’t look behind him, Kevin opened the glass door.


Once outside, the artist turned around, suddenly, looking to see that Vernon was watching and he winked.  Moments later, he was gone.

 

Vernon stared into the distance where Kevin had been and then stared at the page he had been handed, trying to understand what Kevin had said. 


“Don’t lose that smile…”

 

Vernon suddenly lit up as he realized what everything meant…


“I’m smiling…”


The portrait was smiling.  And it wasn’t fake, artificial, out of place.  Vernon’s smile was real.  Studying it carefully, Vernon knew Kevin had captured the old man’s happiest moment, whether it was in the past, the present or the future.

 

*****


On the city bus, Vernon went over Kevin’s words over and over again.  


“I know you’ll do the right thing…”


“About what?!” Vernon asked the bus packed with people.  Meeting the shocked stares of many passengers, Vernon mumbled to himself “I’ve got to stop doing that.”


Vernon noticed the ebony-haired man from Coffee Time looking very annoyed with the crone.  Suddenly, the male with curly black hair let go of the black bus pole and fled from the crowded bus.  Realizing that it was his own stop, Vernon scrambled to follow the young man.

 

Slowly, Vernon limped home; passing his neighbors on the sidewalk that grimaced at him in passing.

Vernon looked at their houses instead of their faces.  The houses were brown, black and gray.  Dirt, soot and smoke.  Vernon noticed today’s newspaper on the ground, soaked and torn.  He could barely make out the headline: “Spitzer’s career meets its coffin.”  Vernon growled, annoyed, until he saw his boarding house.


The venerable man climbed a couple of steps to get to the door of the boarding house.  It looked as if the door had been made of old planks of wood.  In the corner, Vernon could see a half-oval shaped window.  The glass had been shattered for the fifth time this week.  Vernon twisted the grey door handle and with an irritating creak he was inside.  

 

Immediately he was faced with two dark sets of stairs.  His least favorite part of coming home.  Grunting and wincing, he took the left staircase and eventually made his way to his floor.  The hallway was beige and bland.  No pictures, but it still managed to be caked with dust.  The old man could just barely spot his door through the cluttered boredom.  Twisting another doorknob, grey again, he entered.  

Vernon had been through some excruciating experiences; his friend’s twisted death, his son’s disheartening death, his wife’s unexpected betrayal and the cruel letters he had been sent over the decades, but even then, he still had room for one more heart wrenching memory.


To his amazement, he saw many faces; children, parents, grandparents, intellectuals, lovers and a baby, in the arms of a proud father.  Vernon tried to touch the baby’s hands.  Were they real?  The people crowded the dusty room that had been torn apart by neglect.  Some of the adults were cleaning it.  Cleaning it!  The last time Vernon had cleaned it was almost twenty-five years ago!


The people were real, but he couldn’t recognize a single face.  All he knew was that the adults looked worried, as if they were seeing a ghost and they couldn’t run away.  He wished he could ask them their names, but the shock wouldn’t let him say a word.  


A little girl with ash blonde hair looked at her mother and nudged her: “Mommy, mommy, mommy.  He doesn’t know who we are!”


Their worried faces put on more wrinkles and many adults gasped.  


A woman with short grayed blond hair insisted: “I think I’d better introduce myself first.”


Vernon’s first word came out: “Wait!”


He looked at the faces again and he knew exactly who they were.  The old man dropped to his knees, feeling the stinging nipping of arthritis on his bones.  Quietly, he wept for several minutes.


After he had brought the children to tears as well he announced: “I can’t stay here.”


With that, he painfully got up from his knees and headed to the door.  Everyone in the room followed him, arguing with him that he must stay and face his family.


Vernon’s face went beet red and howled as loudly as an 89-year-old can: “You are NOT my family!  I’ll never forgive you, ever!!”


The minister Mark said “He needs to be on his own.  This is a difficult change for him” as Vernon slammed the door and angrily limped down the stairs.


Leroy rolled his eyes at the minister and groaned: “Duh!”


Back on the sidewalk outside the boarding house, Vernon stood and watched the cars go by, too exhausted to go any further, no matter how much he wanted to.  A filthy city bus passed Vernon.  It stopped at the lights and Vernon studied the picture on its side, which looked extremely familiar.  He peered through the dirt and grime and beneath that he saw Kevin Brio’s picture.  Kevin held the sketch of Vernon in his hands, grinning.  The artist detached himself from the side of the bus and floated toward Vernon.


“Hi, Vernon.  What are you doing out here on the street?”


Vernon didn’t know what to say.  He shrugged.


“Don’t tell me you forgot already!  Aren’t you going to do the right thing?”


Vernon blinked and the illusion was gone.  As the light turned green and the bus moved forward, the old man realized that it wasn’t Kevin Brio’s smile that decorated the bus but Simon Cowell’s sneer.


“Don’t tell me you forgot already!  Aren’t you going to do the right thing?”


“Don’t tell me you forgot already!  Aren’t you going to do the right thing?”


“Don’t tell me you forgot already!  Aren’t you going to do the right thing?”


It echoed in Vernon’s old ears like a strange sort of song.  Didn’t Kevin say “I know you’ll do the right thing” earlier?


He did!


He saw Vivian’s face in the sky.  Her hair was still like fine black thread and her green eyes made him feel warm and at peace.


“Vernon,” she said, “They would have been your children if you hadn’t joined the army.  Is it really their fault?  Is it anyone’s fault?”


Vernon shook his head.  If anything it was his fault for wanting to join the army.


“One more thing Vernon,” Vivian looked deeply into his eyes, “I still love you.”


The sky Vivian vanished.  Vernon stared at the finally normal-looking street.  


“I guess I’d better do the right thing,” he said simply.


Vernon re-entered the boarding house, this time taking the elevator that he had always overlooked over the years.


When he found his room, he met the enormous family and said “I forgive you all, and I’m so sorry.  I just wish you could treat me like family as best you can.  You don’t have to… but I hope you will.”

Albert pushed through the crowd of people and wrapped his arms around Vernon.  Thomas did the same and everyone else followed.  


James brought his baby over to Vernon and carefully placed the baby in the old man’s arms.

“Vernon, this is your great-grandson.  Well, kind of.  Arthur Vernon Hope.”


The old man threw his head back and laughed, a deep laugh from underneath the surface, coming right from his heart.                 

© 2013 Naomi Bloom


Author's Note

Naomi Bloom
The original document had a bunch of dashes in it but those don't agree with WritersCafe. I think I fixed most of these, but if anyone spots any quotation marks where semi-colons or dashes would make more sense, please point out these spots to me. Thanks!

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Added on February 7, 2013
Last Updated on February 7, 2013
Tags: vernon arthur black, naomi bloom, story, short story, fiction, prose, writer, writing, old man, ancient, history, memories, war, love, family, change, rebirth, heath ledger, art, artist, home, elder

Author

Naomi Bloom
Naomi Bloom

Ontario, Canada



About
An amateur writer of poems, short stories and other types of writing. I recently graduated from university and I am trying to figure out what to do with my life. Victorian England, name meanings, be.. more..

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