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The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 4

"I know a place," Jack said. They were downtown, outside of the Rexall, where they'd scraped together enough change to buy a soda, which they shared, along with some candy.

"A place?"

"Yeah. Where we could …" Jack shrugged, the simple motion completing the ellipsis.

"Where we … oh."

Jack licked his lips, looking down at his feet. "If you still want to."

The question was there, implied. Did he still want to? He looked at Jack, who stared back at him openly, eyes wide, his face blank, neutral. Jack's breathing was quiet, measured.

"Yes," Clay said. "I think so," he says. "Yes."

Jack smiled, nodded his head once in affirmation. "Let's go, then." Jack stood up and went over to his bike, turned back to Clay, who - stunned - was still perched on the bench.

"Now?" he managed.

A sly grin flickered on Jack's face. "Why not?" He slung a leg over the bicycle seat, and suddenly Clay was all too conscious of Jack, of his body beneath the threadbare cotton of his too-tight chinos and white cotton t-shirt. Clay's gaze dropped to the bicycle seat, to Jack gathered there, and the shadowed triangle between his thighs. "You see any reason to wait, Clay Macklin?"

He didn't.

They rode south, through town, past the rail yard and into the prairie. Jack led the way, Clay not far behind. To all eyes they were simply two boys, teenagers, out for a lark in the summer afternoon. As they rode, Clay watched the workings of Jack's body astride the bike, the workings of his legs at the pedals, the flexion of his back muscles under the white shirt. On a rare incline, Jack would stand up on the pedals to gain traction; Clay would stare at the compact, full curves of Jack's bottom outlined clearly under the chinos.

This landscape was vaguely familiar to Clay, who'd grown up here. When he was a child, he and his parents would, on days much like this one, go for long, aimless drives in the country, and Clay knew he'd been on this road before. Often they would find a spot, perhaps along the Cottonwood, and picnic. On the way back at home at night, they might stop to get ice-cream downtown before retiring.

Two miles or more the two boys rode under the sun, in the silent afternoon. A truck passed them; the driver waved and Clay waved back, knowing who - Joe Branscomb - was behind the wheel of the ancient Reo. His throat caught with nerves, thinking that Joe surely must have known what he was up to, with Jack, out here in the countryside.

Jack slowed, then stopped at the turnout of a road perpendicular to the one they're on. Clay stopped next to him and looked up the road, which was a simple rutted dirt path. He knew this place.

"Here?" He was winded; his voice came out as a tired, thin whisper and he dabbed at the beaded perspiration on his head with the back of a wrist.

Jack nodded. "Yeah. You know where you are?"

He did. It was the old Weller place. Donnie Weller had taken over the farm from his father, but mismanagement and the Depression had wrested it away from him in 1932. He'd taken his family first to Kansas City; when that didn't work out, they'd packed up and trekked across the prairie to whatever the West might hold in store.

Clay nodded back. "Yeah. It's empty?"

In answer, Jack turned his bike up the road and started making his way slowly along the ruts, careful not to lose control of his bike. Clay sighed and followed him up the road.

The house was empty, blown wide open, doors and windows missing, porch roof sagging, clapboard peeling and rotted. All this in fifteen years , Clay thought. The barn was worse, its imminent collapse evident in its slouched and swaybacked posture. Rusted farm equipment formed a constellation of machinery in the yard.

Inside was no different. Plaster walls were crazed with cracks; sections had spalled off and lay in chalky piles on the rough pine boards. Scavengers - human and animal - had been through the house. Silently, Clay and Jack walked through the empty, wind-scoured rooms. Little trace of the Wellers existed, even now.

The kitchen was gutted: porcelain sink gone, icebox gone, stove gone, cabinets open and bare. Traces of animal scat were scattered here and there.

Clay turned to Jack standing before the window over the missing sink, staring out into the prairie sloping down to the creek beyond.

"Jack, I don't think -"

Jack turned to him, smiling. "Upstairs. Let's go upstairs." He turned away from the window and Clay had no choice but to follow.

Upstairs was little better. Three bedrooms and a bath, whose contents, like those of the kitchen, were gone, leaving only traces of themselves in the pitted hexagonal tile on the floor. Even the medicine cabinet was gone; only a rough rectangular opening in the plaster wall betrayed its existence. Slats of wooden lath lay exposed like a ribcage under the pale flesh of plaster.

Their footsteps echoed in the hollow emptiness, gritting on bits of plaster and glass. In one room was the carcass of some animal - a possum? - now just a grinning skull and ivory bones knitted together with grey-white fur. Clay recoiled from the sight, allowed Jack to lead him into another room. Jack chuckled at Clay's reaction; Clay batted him on the elbow.

This room - perhaps the Weller parents - was cleaner than most; Clay realized that Jack had been here already. There was a neat rectangle of blankets spread out on the floor, which had been cleaned of the more obvious detritus. The windows in this room were, surprisingly, still intact. Jack walked over to one and shouldered it open; a faint breeze moved into the room, dispelling the staleness of the air.

The walls still bore traces of paper, a pattern of tiny roses and daisies, delicate and feminine. Freckles of mold peeped through here and there, but the room smelled now only of dust and time.

"So," began Jack.

Clay hugged himself, his heart hammering. "So."

Jack moved over to him, standing directly in front of him. He was a hand's breadth taller than Clay, and looked down at him. Jack reached out, placed his hands on Clay's shoulders, drew him nearer still. He bent his head down, resting his forehead on Clay's own. The sounds of their breathing mingled in the still, quiet space. Jack's smell drifted up into Clay's nostrils, a heady kind of scent, musky and dark under the thin scent of some kind of floral bath soap.

"I've never done this before," Clay whispered.

"I know," Jack says. After a beat, Jack continued. "I have."

Surprised, Clay looked up into the boy's eyes, could see that he was not lying, could see the evidence of it there in the lack of shame, of embarrassment. "What? When?"

"Oh, here and there. Not often, but …" Jack's voiced trailed off.

"But, what?"

"Oh, I don't know. Does it matter? You seem … surprised." Jack chuckled. "You're not the only one, you know. Even if that's what you were thinking."

"No, not that. It's just … well, I thought …"

"That I was a virgin, too? Like you?"

Clay nodded. Jack continued, grinning.

"Sorry. Didn't know you were waiting for me, Clay Macklin. If I'd known, I'd have saved myself."

Clay broke away from Jack, went over to where the window used to be, looked through it down onto the wind-blown prairie; the town itself was there, in the middle distance, white and grey and brick against the green-gold grass hissing in the summer breeze. He could not see his house, knew that it was there, with his mother and aunt and grandmother doubtless still inside, chatting over lemonade and cookies, discussing Alice Compton's wedding dress, which they still had not finished, perhaps discussing the various charms of Byron Satterwhite.

Was this what he wanted, then? Did he want to surrender himself, this part of him, to this boy, in this way, knowing what he now knew? How many men? he wondered, tried to imagine the mechanics of it, the intricacies of motion and of geometry. He intuited, of course, what must happen to consummate the act; it was something he had dreamt of, many times, at night, under the moonlight, naked under the sheets, watching his body respond to the silent commands of his fantasies.

He thought to refuse Jack, then, to wait for … what, exactly? When would another chance like this come along? Where would he be? College? On his own, working somewhere, some large city? Did Kansas City have people like him numbered among its many thousands? He thought they must be there. Jack's mother, the hapless Rachel, had fled to Chicago and its millions, had found and lost herself there.

He turned then, opened his mouth to speak, but Jack was there, behind him, wrapping Clay in his strong brown arms, hands laced across his chest, pressed tightly along the length of him. He could smell hints of the whiskey, of the cigarettes, and it was not unpleasant … a man's smell, a man-smell.

They stood like that for a long moment. Jack slipped a hand along Clay's ribs and belly, holding it there, feeling the boy's nervous breathing in the rise and fall of it.

" You're nervous."

"Yes. I don't know if -"

He broke away, then, or tried to; Jack restrained him, not unkindly, bending his head to nuzzle the back of Clay's neck.

"I won't hurt you. I will never hurt you," he breathed into the soft flesh of the boy's throat.

He tried once again to escape.

"I should go home. I -"

Jack kissed the back of his neck, dropped a hand to Clay's crotch, teased the boy into hardness under the rough denim.

"Your body knows what it wants, even if you don't." He pressed his hand tighter over the rising knot of flesh in Clay's trousers; Clay willed himself not to relax into Jack's encompassing embrace, tried hard to fight it. "You can't go through life being afraid of this, or you'll never understand it."

Clay shivered again, but something took hold of him, some strength. He wrested himself away from Jack's insistent groping and turned, his back exposed in the opened window. He sat upon the sill.

Jack sighed and pulled away.

"It really bothers you, doesn't it?"

Clay nodded; a tear slid down his cheek. Jack brushed it away, smiling sadly.

"Okay. You win. But …." He trailed off, thinking. "I may not be the one that you want, but that doesn't mean that you're not what I am. If that makes any sense. Those other men … they were just … bodies , you know. Things to learn from. They meant only that to me, and nothing more. In a way, I'm glad it happened. I learned so much from them … not just about … that … but about -" Jack broke off, taking a deep breath. He looked around the ruins of the room.

"Look, I know this isn't perfect. But it's what it has to be." Jack looked at Clay, seeing if he understood, could tell that he didn't. "There's no … good way, I guess, to learn about this. Nobody's going to take you aside one day and tell you what it means. No father is going to sit by you on the night before your wedding and explain it to you. You learn it where you can, how you can, and it doesn't make sense, not at first. It's confusing and scary to see that this is how you are, this is what you respond to. And it doesn't stop there. You have to go through your entire life hiding it, making sure no one knows the real truth. And it's not fair; I know it's not, but that's what it is. You have to go your whole life telling yourself that it is okay, that you're not wrong, that you're not … sick or crazy."

Clay cried openly now; Jack flicked the tears away with his thumbs and leaned down to kiss the boy.

"Yes," Clay whispered, shaking. "Yes."

Jack bent down, surfaced with something in his hand, pressed it into Clay's own: the bottle of whiskey.

"It might help. For the …" Jack broke off.

Clay unscrewed the whiskey; a muzzy sharpness drifted up into his nostrils. He tipped a swallow of the golden fluid into his mouth, coughed a surprised cough into the silent room. The whiskey was raw and cheap, but it did the trick.

He allowed Jack to undress him, fingertips working the buttons of his shirt, then slipping it off of him. Jack rucked Clay's undershirt up over his thin, muscular chest; it joined the other shirt on the floor. He ran his fingertips down each side of the boy's bare torso, then he unbuckled the belt, snapped the denims open and unzipped them. Bending down, he tugged the denims off the boy's legs; Clay stepped out of them. Still crouched down, Jack slipped his fingers into the waistband of Clay's underwear, then eased them down past his knees, to his ankles, and Clay stepped out of those, as well, then sat back on the sill, his bare back exposed. He felt somehow like some invalid, unable to care for himself, relying on others for even the most basic things.

Jack, still crouched down, buried his face between Clay's legs, inhaled deeply at the musky scent. Clay cried out as Jack worked the boy into his mouth; his fingers raked through Jack's kinked hair as the boy's head bobbed up and down.

Too much , Clay thought. This is too much . But he didn't stop, didn't stop Jack from doing what he was doing. Jack rose up and kissed Clay, who could taste himself on Jack's mouth

Jack took him, there, in the window. Clay braced himself with outstretched arms, fingers gripping the peeling frame of the window's head. Anyone passing below could have clearly seen him, naked in the window, another figure at work behind him.

Jack's fingers worked some kind of slippery fluid into him: a dollop of the baby oil, whose own particular smell - comforting and soft - displaced the grumbling man-smell of the whiskey. Jack's fingers probed and teased Clay apart, opening him up, then withdrew. Clay looked down at himself, sunlight raking along his thin body, bringing into bas-relief his stringy leanness, watched the graceful curve of his hardness moving as Jack worked behind him.

He knew what was to come, and then it was there, an insistent pressure between his legs, even as Jack murmured into his ear. He was dizzy from the whiskey, wondered if he should have drunk it, thought again that maybe Jack was right, that it might help.

For then, here it was, that which would define the rest of his life. He wanted it even as he feared it, knew that whatever else he might or might not remember of this day, this memory would persist.

Jack's hips flexed once, and once again, and pain - sharp and luxurious - flashed through him and he shouted.

Shouted again.

It helped.

He cried out as he submitted to this, knowing that he must. He cried out to the sea of grass around him, a cry of surprise, of pain, of defiance, of delight and, finally, of acceptance.

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