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The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 3

A dream, then, of his father.

Here's yet another August Sunday morning, leonine, settling itself without regard on the land. His mother is already up and downstairs, making breakfast; the scent of eggs and sausage, of toast and coffee, drifts up into Clay's nostrils. He can hear the various sounds of her industry as he steps from the bathroom, freshly showered, teeth brushed, clothes clean, ready for the day.

Sunday breakfast is a ritual, one that he enjoys. Weekdays are always clotted with business and busyness; school for him (except for summers), sewing for his mother, chores or work for his father. There will be church later, with his grandmother and aunt, another ritual that he enjoys less than this one, but one that he has been told is necessary, although he understands that his parents - especially his father - do not cotton to all of the church's teaching, as he himself does not.

He walks down the hall, past his parents' bedroom door, which is slightly open. He glances into the room, casually, in passing.

Then stops, looks again.

His father is still there, asleep, on the bed, and he is naked.

He can hear the slight rasp of his father's breathing, not quite a snore. His father is prone, head resting on one arm, the other arm dangling over the edge of the bed.

Clay is transfixed by the sight of his father's unclothed body, although - at the age of eleven - he doesn't quite understand the nature of his utter captivity. He sees his father's broad back, freckled, as he had that day they'd cavorted under the hose. His gaze travels down more of that familiar territory, then to the narrow waist and the sudden and luxurious swell of his father's buttocks, firm and compact and dusted with fine orange hairs. One of his father's legs is drawn up, revealing a shadowy glimpse of the man's fundament and the tantalizing treasures nestled there.

He is hot, flushed, guilty, a voyeur, seeing something only his mother is entitled to see. He stands there, for seconds, minutes, hours, staring at his father, something Biblical in this, somehow, something profane and beautiful.

Something, some rattling thump downstairs and his mother's muttered cursing, stirs his father; he turns his head and emits a snuffling breath, and Clay moves away from the door, out of his father's sight, sees now only one bare and muscular leg on the tousled sheets.

He steals downstairs to his mother's startled "Oh, there you are!" and sits at the table as she spoons food onto his plate. A moment later he hears the thud of his father's footsteps and he's there, with them, in a t-shirt and boxers, kissing his mother, tousling his son's hair before he sits down with them, starts spooning sugar into his coffee.

Clay watches his father eat and drink, captivated by the unconscious grace of his various movements.

He came home that day to a one-armed man in his undershirt sitting on the front porch, smoking.

The man and the boy eyed each other warily. Clay really wanted nothing more than to go inside and up to his room to think about what he and Jack had just … well, not quite done. But his gaze kept going over to the missing limb.

The man expelled a cloud of blue smoke and coughed.

"You must be Clay," he said.

"Yes, sir."

The man smiled and extended a hand, his left. Clay shook it; the feeling was strange, using the wrong hands.

"I'm Byron Satterwhite. Geneva's mending some shirts for me. All my shirts have two sleeves, so …." He gestured with the elbow of his missing arm. "Seems … pointless, to have all that material just flapping around."

"Oh. Right." Again he stared at the arm, forced himself to look away. "Sorry," he muttered.

Byron smiled. "You can look. I don't mind." He pulled the sleeve away from from his shoulder, revealing the joint to Clay.

Clay could see, under the faintly scarred skin, the workings of what remained of the joint, knobs and dimples ghosted beneath the flesh. He couldn't imagine what that must have felt like; an image flashed through his brain, of his grandmother at work in the kitchen one Sunday, laboring over the carcass of a chicken, pulling it apart at its joints with a wet crack of sound.

"How did it happen?"

Byron smiled again. "Normandy. Damnedest thing, really … one minute I was storming the beach, screaming at the top of my voice, gun ready, knowing that I was probably going to die … then I was flying ass over tit through the air. When I came down, I remember looking over at my arm and thinking 'that's not where that's supposed to be,' and then I passed out. Came to in a field hospital, then I came home."

"Are you from here? Emporia?"

"Well, next door. Chanute. Uncle Sam's paying me to attend college, so here I am."

"Oh. I see. I -" He was about to say something else when his mother butted her way through the screen door, holding a shirt.

"Byron, should I -" She stopped when she saw Clay. "Oh, hello." Her nose crinkled slightly. "Where have you been? You smell … rank."

"Down at the river."

"Well, you should go clean up for supper. You can talk to Byron later."

"Yes, ma'am."

Upstairs, he slipped into the bathroom, started drawing a bath, testing the water with his fingertips. He undressed silently, staring at himself in the mirror as he stripped.

He thought of his mother; at thirty-three, she was still attractive, he thought. She had a certain charm still about her, certainly enough to draw the attention of this Mr. Satterwhite, whoever he was becoming. He knew that she dyed her hair, masking the grey that had shown up in the years since his father's death; periodically, the musky, cloying scent of the chemicals involved in that process drifted like a fug through the house. Women were permitted that vanity, he thought, and perhaps some men as well: Mr. Satterwhite, altering his clothing to his changed body.

Byron , she had called him, brooking some familiarity, and he wondered if they'd been seeing each other for awhile, away from the gentle prying of her mother and her sister.

Naked, he looked at himself in the mirror. Scarecrow-thin, more like his mother's side of the family, but with his father's coloring. Freckles constellated his chest and back and arms, even across his forehead. Eyes the same icy sapphire. No hair save for there , and a sparse copse it was, for all of his fifteen years. And that , as well, a coy snail of proud flesh pendant; not Jack's prodigious man-flesh, to be sure, but not a boy's, either, and how it had responded looking at Jack, rising up and and up and up, as it did now, remembering the look and smell and feel of Jack's man's body.

He broke away and stepped gingerly into the tub, letting the hot water caress him. He thought of the river and of Jack, and of the warm rock and of Jack and how he'd arched his body as Clay touched him there, cupping him under the palm of his wandering hand. Clay rose up in the tub, and his cock was a ridged and bowed archipelago of desire afloat on the steaming water and he reached down, trailed a finger along the steel-velvet flesh.

Shuddering, he consummated the act begun two hours and a lifetime ago.

And, indeed, Mr. Satterwhite - Byron , although Clay would not allow himself the same familiarity his mother had permitted herself - was there at supper, back in his newly-mended shirt. A pile of similarly-altered garments sat on a bench in the vestibule.

The five of them sat, somewhat awkwardly, around the table. His grandmother had insisted that the table be expanded beyond its usual capacity - the four of them usually sitting at cardinal points around the square of mahogany - to accommodate their guest, kicking off a manic treasure hunt throughout the house until the leaf could be unearthed from storage.

There was now some kind of strange imbalance at the table; his mother and Mr. Satterwhite sat opposite each other; his aunt and grandmother sat at each end of the table; he himself sat to Mr. Satterwhite's right, next to the missing arm. Scents of the man's pomade drifted periodically past his nostrils.

He was a fine figure of a man, still (despite the missing appendage) tall and commanding, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, long-legged … all these archetypes of manhood missing in his father, who'd been shorter than most and bow-legged to boot, but more muscular, with a face that - handsome in its own right - could not match the ideal of the man who, Clay suspected, sought to replace him in his mother's affections.

Meat loaf was on tonight's menu, along with mashed potatoes and green beans and yeast rolls; all foods that were easily consumable by someone missing an arm. Had his mother planned that? Clay watched out of the corner of his eye as Mr. Satterwhite ate.

He wondered how the man tied his shoes in the morning, thought to look later to see if he might have capitulated by wearing loafers.

Clay knew that he was lucky that Mr. Satterwhite had been invited tonight of all nights to dine with the family; it deflected attention from himself and what he had done that day. His mother knew that Clay had never, would never, choose by himself to go down to the river for a swim, in fact rarely ever swam. He could see her directing her attention to him every so often, but then Mr. Satterwhite would say something clever and she would turn back to him, smiling.

But after Mr. Satterwhite had left and before his bedtime, she remembered, corralling him in the upstairs hallway.

"You went swimming today?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She smiled. "But you never go swimming. Why did you go?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. It just … well, I wanted to do it." He wondered why she cared so much; wouldn't she rather have him outside doing something vaguely athletic instead of lounging around on the glider?

"Did you go by yourself?"

She knew, he realized. She knew he hadn't.

"No, ma'am."

"Who did you go with, then?"

"Just somebody I know."

She remained silent for a few seconds, staring at him.

"Did you go with that Jack boy?"

His heart pounded; why did he feel that he'd done wrong?

"Yes, ma'am."

She fell silent again, pursing her lips; he could hear her quiet breathing and nothing else. Finally, she cleared her throat.

"Be careful, Clay. Just … be careful."

And then she released him.

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