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The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 1

A dream, then, of his father.

The three of them - father, mother, son - are sitting three abreast in his father's truck, barreling across the hot summer prairie, bound for a weekend in Kansas City, his father flush with money from some recent job, eager to spend the cash burning a hole in his pocket.

His father's right arm is draped across the back of the seat, his fingers dallying with the thin cloth of his mother's dress over her left shoulder, tracing invisible arabesques in the patterned cloth. His left arm rests on the window sill, his fingers barely touching the steering wheel, only enough to keep the truck from careening into the deep swales lining each side of the arrow-straight road. The wind knifes across his father's sinewy forearm, flattening the coppery hairs on it as it does the red-gold fields of wheat just outside the window.

This is one of his earliest memories; he can be no more than three or four. Too short, yet, to see over the dashboard of the truck; he can see only the cloud-pocked sky far overhead.

His mother is laughing at something his father has said. He loves to hear her laugh, pealing clear in the heat-blown air of the truck's cab. His father turns to her and smiles, his teeth flashing against the red furze of his beard.

His father's scent is a commingling of soap, sweat and aftershave, beguilingly masculine; Clay leans into his father, then, feeling the heat of his body through the thin cotton of his t-shirt. As his father speaks, Clay can hear the rumbling echo of it in his father's chest.

His father's hand drops to the top of Clay's head, raking through the coils of hair whose color echoes that of his own hair. His hair is too long, he knows; his mother is loath to cut it, even now, even despite the comments of her husband, that it makes him look like a girl. He delights in his father's touch, delights in nestling between his parents, delights in their quiet and simple love for each other and for him.

Clay Macklin awoke to a view of a faded and peeling wooden sky, painted robin's egg blue.

It was a nice blue , he thought, clear and refreshing as water, meant to evoke an ideal sky, cerulean and free of clouds. It stood in complete contrast to the boiled and hazy whiteness actually domed over his grandmother's house, choked with summer heat and a building bank of cloud to the west. Clay was at rest on the glider, recumbent, rocking slowly back and forth, one arm crooked in back of his head for support, the other trailing along the rough pine boards of the porch floor, in need of painting: a job, no doubt, which would fall to him soon.

The ceiling, too, needed painting. He doubted that anyone but him even looked at the ceiling any more, had no real idea of its condition. Would they remember that his father had painted this ceiling, many years ago, trying to impress his fiancée's mother with his industry and his cleverness?

Little sound disturbed the air. There was the rasp and drone of insects invisible in the trees, some birdcalls, the periodic drone of a passing car. From within, he could hear the quiet voices of his mother, her sister and their mother, their clear, quiet voices rising and falling, punctuated by polite laughter as they worked together on some task they'd set for themselves … Alice Compton's wedding dress, he thought he'd heard.

He lived in a world circumscribed by the voices and the movements of women: his mother's quiet contralto, his grandmother's husky, cigarettish creak, his aunt's querulous and fluttery confusion. No rough, rumbling bass filled these perfect and stifling rooms. He lived in a world of rose water and lilac, of crêpe and georgette, of Sunday chicken dinners and fruit pies, of Thackeray and Woolf. He lived in a world of arrested and effete action, of what if? and perhaps and I'm not sure .

All of the men of this town seemed to be gone. What the Depression didn't steal away the war did, leaving those who could not flee, could not fight - the too-young, the too-old, men with families, men at the college, those who had simply lucked out and had not been called, those few who refused to fight or were dismissed from fighting - spare in the ranks of the women. The town held a certain distrust of many of these men, especially the younger ones, ostensibly fit enough to take up space and resources but not suitable for fighting the enemy.

And, of course, his own father, dead halfway around the world, when the desperate arc of a suicide bomber had found its ending on the deck of the Bismarck Sea off Iwo Jima, taking him and three hundred seventeen other men down into the depths, leaving his son and only child subject to this aleatory and distaff upbringing.

He drowsed, again, he thought, woke up to his shirt sweat-stuck to his chest. Something - his grandmother's unmistakable growl? - roused him, her voice drifting out through the open window.

"Did you hear about Rachel Denham?"

"Yes, yes. Terrible thing." His mother.

From his aunt Lydia, "No. What happened?"

"Well, you know she went to Chicago, after she quit high school."

"Yes … I think I'd heard that."

"Some job, wasn't it? Modeling, of all things."

"Well, she was a pretty girl …."

"Not all that pretty," muttered his grandmother, and he smiled.

Their conversation was punctuated by sudden bursts of activity from his mother's sewing machine; it sounded like a miniature machine gun. He could hear the rustling of the organza as one of the women rearranged it on the sewing table. This talent had saved his mother (and, by extension, he himself) over and over again after the loss of his father.

"Well, pretty enough," his mother replied. "She did turn more than a few heads around here."

"Which is why she ended up in Chicago," his grandmother retorted, and Clay could hear his mother's breathy chuckle.

"What happened to her?" asked Lydia.

"Ended up in the wrong crowd, I think I heard," his mother answered. "Job turned out to be not quite the kind of modeling she was interested in."

"Maybe it was," growled his grandmother.

"Well, what kind of modeling was it, mother?"

Even out here, Clay could hear his grandmother's exasperated breath. "Really, Lydia. Please. What do you think? "

"But I - oh! " said Lydia, the gasp at the end of her statement broadcasting her comprehension. But Clay had to think about it as well and thought that he understood. Obliquity was often the best source of information.

"What happened to her?" Lydia repeated.

"They found her a few weeks ago, at her apartment. She'd - well …." And, again, obliquity yields its subtle gifts. Clay knew that they meant that she had died somehow.

"Oh, my!" from Lydia.

Another burst of sound from the sewing machine distracted everyone; when it was over and the dress again turned around, his grandmother spoke.

"You know she'd had a child. A boy."

"Yes," replied his mother. "Iris had said something about that. Married?"

"Oh, no. That wasn't modern enough for our Rachel. She had rather less … conventional ideas."

"Where's the father?"

"Who knows? Only thing I know is that he was -"

His grandmother stopped speaking; Clay imagined looks being exchanged between his grandmother and his mother, with poor Lydia left out in the cold, as usual. He wondered if they'd finally remembered him asleep on the front porch.


"Well, not one of us, Lydia. A …." And, here, his mother's voice slipped into whispered inaudibility, masking whatever terrible secret this boy possessed. Was he Chinese? A Martian? Green-skinned? Two-headed? Clay heard the clatter as something metallic - scissors? - clanged off the floor from being dropped.

"You can't be serious!" he heard, when Lydia surfaced with the object.

"That's what I've heard. Anyway, we'll know for certain when he gets here."

"He's coming here? Whatever for?"

"Nobody else wants him, apparently. Iris finally agreed to take him in, at least for a while, until they can locate any family he might have in Chicago." Iris was Rachel's mother and ran a laundry tucked away on one of the side streets downtown; she was a prim, quiet woman who had never known quite what to do with her headstrong daughter and eventually gave up trying.

"I can't believe she agreed to that so easily," said his mother.

"Well, there may have been some money involved. Rachel left something behind, or someone did; I presume it belongs to the boy, now." His grandmother paused, made a strange noise in her throat. "I say boy, but he must be nearly grown at this point … eighteen or nineteen, at least."

"Not enough money to make it worth that , I should think. People round here aren't going to like it. When does he get here?"

"Soon. Next week, I think."

"Going to be interesting around here, at least."

Their conversation trailed off again as more details of Alice Compton's wedding dress presented themselves. Clay was left with thoughts of Rachel, whom he had not known, and her misadventures in Chicago. Part of him admired her for her boldness and courage for leaving dusty Emporia, part of him was sad that she had met an unfortunate end.

And part of him was curious about this boy, the product of some illicit liaison between Rachel and the unnamed, unknown green-skinned, two-headed Chinese Martian. Iris Denham he remembered from accompanying his mother to the laundry to drop off their clothing … a kindly woman, Christian, but not so she would have held it in your face. She had drawn into herself when Rachel - her only daughter - had escaped town and made a life for herself in Chicago. Clay couldn't imagine how she must have felt now, with a daughter dead long before her time and now a son - Iris' grandson! - soon to make his way here.

Iris Denham's house was a neat, trim bungalow across town; fifteen minutes by foot but only a handful on a bike, which was where Clay was now, cycling idly past the house, to the intersection just beyond it, then circling round to pass the house in the other direction. The neighborhood was not quite as nice as his own, but not bad, a neighborhood of working families in smallish bungalows. It wasn't the poorest neighborhood in Emporia, nor the richest. He himself had grown up in a neighborhood much like this one, at least until his father had died and his mother had sold the place to move the both of them into her mother's place.

He had no real reason to be here, of course, except for his damnable curiosity to see this thing, this boy from Chicago, the subject of his family's idle derision. Part of him had felt some strange delight in overhearing their conversation; had they known he was on the porch? Probably; where else would he have gone? He couldn't decide whether they had been inclusive or dismissive in letting him take vicarious part in their prattle. The other part of him felt some slight discomfort; they didn't know the boy, had rejected him out of hand; he certainly had had no part in his mother's decision to lay with the man, to bear a child by him. He certainly had had no part in her decision to hurt herself; what pain would drive a person to that extreme?

Every time he passed Iris' house, he could hear a faint skein of music - jazz - drifting out from the opened door. He thought he knew this piece, had heard it somewhere, but couldn't place it. Is she in there? he wondered. Is he?

He got to the intersection, wheeled around, went back, just in time to glance at the house and to see a figure at the door, behind the screen door, looking out. It wasn't Iris, he could tell, but a male figure, him, the boy from Chicago. Clay's heart beat a quick, fluttery tocsin in his chest as he pedaled faster, as if he could outrun the boy's hard gaze in his direction. He looked back in time to see the boy step out onto the front porch and onto the concrete walk. He could see the boy turning to watch him, one outspread palm shading his eyes, watching Clay's retreating back as he pedaled furiously to the other intersection and to the left, nearly losing control of the bicycle on a patch of oil, righting himself only through some miracle.

He was at home, now, heart still beating as much from fear and excitement as from exertion. The house was empty, his mother at work at the college, his grandmother probably at some errand.

There was lemonade in the fridge and he stole a cookie from the jar, then went back out to the front porch.

He tried to remember what he had seen of the boy. Certainly not green-skinned nor two headed. Not Martian, of course, and probably not Chinese. What he did remember was a tallish figure with light brown skin and a cap of curling brown-black hair.

He knew, now, what his mother had been saying when she'd talked about the boy's parentage, why she had dared only whisper it to her sister and her mother.

He wondered what shame was to be felt about it; he knew, of course, what his family, what others in the community might feel about it, tried to imagine what it might have been like in Chicago. Perhaps things were different there, activity like that commonplace.

There were Negroes in Emporia, of course, some few families, gathered in a ramshackle cluster of shacks down by the railroad tracks slicing across the prairie. One saw them periodically in the stores, in town, smiled politely at them, uttering a simple "good morning" to them but little else. Those who were able to get out of town ended up in Wichita or Kansas City or even Chicago. The janitor in his school was a Negro … Amos, a sad man in his sixties, silent and complacent, never complaining, even as he cleaned up after kids who gave him no acknowledgement whatsoever.

He'd never spoken a word to the man.

He sat on the rusting metal bench outside the fabric store, nursing a bottle of tepid soda. The day was already hot and growing hotter; he could hear cicadas droning in the catalpa in the park, filling the air with their rasp. He imagined his mother and grandmother and aunt inside the store, pawing through bolts of fabric, discussing projects, what could be done with this fabric or that one, under their expert hands.

He might have liked to escape the heat, to wander among the close-packed aisles listening to the women, but he didn't know if that was such a good idea. Not only was there the shame of possibly being caught inside a fabric store (no real boy would be caught dead within five blocks of the place) but there was also the proprietor, Miss Lucille Carson, and her scowling, aquiline gaze, ready to call out with withering scorn any real or perceived transgression on his part.

No, a real boy would have escaped the house shortly after breakfast, to wander along the banks of the Neosho or down to the rail yards to watch the dusty metal cars bump and shudder along the tracks of the Katy, bearing their loads of wheat or soybeans or coal.

But inside the store was a certain coolness and a certain quiet, tonic against the heat and noise of the downtown. He rose up, ceding defeat, ready to undergo the implacable attentions of Miss Carson, when there was a blur of motion to his right and a figure came to rest beside him. Surprised, he sat back down and turned.

It was him. It was the boy.

Who was staring at him, frankly and openly, unembarrassed and unconcerned. Under a cap of inky black curls, green eyes beetled out from under a strong brow.

"And you are?" asked the boy.

"What?" was all that Clay could manage, his voice thin and anemic even to his own ears.

"Your name. What is your name?" The last was pronounced carefully and slowly, as if talking to an idiot.

His heart hammering, he responded. " Clay . Macklin."

The boy regarded him for a few seconds. "Well, Clay Macklin … why are you riding past my house every day, on your bike?"

He could feel the flush blooming on his freckled skin. "I'm not," he managed.

"You are. I've seen you." The boy gestured at the top of Clay 's head, pointing no doubt to the copper-colored wire that pretended to be his hair. "It's hard to miss that. "

"Not every day ," he muttered.

The boy suppressed a quick smile. "Near enough. Why?"

"I don't know." Clay took another swig of soda, now warm and brackish, trying to appear nonchalant. "I've heard some things. About you ."

The boy twisted his body on the bench, facing Clay . "Oh, yeah? What things?"

"Just … things ," he responded, hoping the boy would accept that.

He didn't. "Really? What things? Just tell me, Clay Macklin." A hint of scorn in the last part of the sentence.

"It doesn't matter. I'm sorry."

The boy fell silent, still staring at Clay , who returned his stare for a few seconds before dropping his head and turning away. He wished now that he'd gone into the store, but something in this boy's demeanor told him that they would have confronted each other eventually. Clay could hear the boy's breath hissing quietly through his nostrils and decided, now, to yield to temptation. He began to rise up.

"Look, I've -"

The boy reached over and actually placed a hand on Clay 's shoulder, gently but firmly keeping him in place. Clay tried to shrug the boy's grip away.

"You want to know anything about me, just ask. All you have to do is ask me."

Clay said nothing.

"Fine. I'll start. My name is Jack Denham and I'm seventeen years old and I'm living in this god-forsaken shithole of a town because it's the only place I can."

At the obscenity, Clay glanced back up at the boy - Jack - who smiled back at him.

"Emporia," Clay responded. "It's called Emporia. It's Latin. It means -"

"Shithole. I know. Don't be a smart-ass. Nobody likes smart-asses." But Jack was still smiling.

And, despite himself, Clay smiled back.

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