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The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 5

A dream, then, of his father, and of his mother.

The two of them are sitting on the front porch of her mother's house, under that same sky-blue ceiling, in the swing that swings there still. The evening is cool and blue around them. His mother is crying, quietly, as his father attempts - one arm wrapped around her shoulder - to console her. Clay is here, eavesdropping, but is supposed to be elsewhere in the house, getting ready for bed.

His father has just enlisted in the Navy.

"They're going to come for me eventually," he explains. "I'm too good to pass up."

"That's not true," his mother answers. Which is true enough, but not true enough to matter to his father.

"Geneva, please …"

"You have a son, Colby. What about him?"

"I wouldn't be the only one, babe. Lots of men are leaving their families for this thing."

"Making them widows."

"So, you've already written me off, Neve?" He chuckles as he says this, to take the sting out of it. "I'd like to think I could handle myself."

"It's not you I'm worried about, Colby. It's all the others, all the people you can't control, complete strangers. All they want to do is to kill. Doesn't matter who. They don't care that you're a husband and a father, that you have a family. They just see you as the enemy. Just like you see them."

And to that he has no answer; she is right, of course. But how can he explain it, this thing, this thing between men, the need to fight, even when you don't want to, each of you ginning up the other one, the jingo falling easily from your lips, the fear masking itself as false bravado?

Clay is crying, now, too. Silently, lest his parents hear him.

The summer flashed by, time marked by their liaisons in the abandoned farmhouse, marked by the too-infrequent meeting of their bodies. Jack proved to be a skilled teacher; nothing that their bodies were capable of doing remained undone. Clay tried not to think of those others, those men who had known Jack before he had, but any doubts he might have harbored quickly fell away when he lay with Jack.

If anyone remarked on his absence from his grandmother's house that summer, no one ever said anything to him about it. Periodically, he would pass his mother in the upstairs hallway; she would stare back at him as he passed (he could sense this), but remained silent.

But, she knew. He didn't know how she knew, but she did. Her strategy that summer became one of deflection and diversion, of near-Herculean labors to be performed for her, for his grandmother, for his aunt before he was allowed any free time. He dutifully performed everything she'd asked for him, only because he knew that on some mornings, before anyone else rose, he would be gone to the farmhouse.

Dinners were hardest, the five of them - for Byron Satterwhite had become, by fiat, one more member of this imbalanced family - gathered around the table. He, silent, endured his mother's wordless inspection, shrugged off her questions about his day's activities with tersely worded nothing and not much and just stuff .

Mr. Satterwhite was actually a godsend of sorts, distracting his mother simply with his masculine presence. As his mother watched him, so Clay watched this thing develop between the two of them. He wondered how different it was from what he and Jack had created, how his mother and Byron could perform this sly courting dance in full view of others, with their tacit approval, even as he and Jack stole hours as they could in the wrecked farmhouse.

Jack had been right, of course; what they were discovering was different, had to be different, given what it was and what it was not. Clay delighted in the secret he held locked inside him, felt no shame for doing so - for how could something that afforded such delight be wrong?

And then, one hot, crushing August morning, the LaSalle was there in front of Iris Denham's bungalow. Clay brought his bike to a halt, stared stupefied at the thing resting at the curb, a foreign thing, easily the most expensive car in Emporia except for Alice Compton's father's Lincoln. He knew it could not be Iris', for whom shank's mare served as her only means of transportation.

The car bore Illinois plates, and his heart fluttered in his chest.

He recognized the car as something from before the war, long and sleek and maroon and glittering under the morning sun. Despite its age, the car was immaculate; Clay peeked in to the mohair interior, a dried-blood-red color, slightly faded, but clean.

He propped his bike up against Iris' peeling and gap-toothed fence, then slipped past the gate and up the front walk. Stepping up to the door, he heard a voice. Jack's.

" - stay here?"

There was a brief silence, then, a man's voice, low and rumbling, spoke.

"Why would you want to do that, boy? You got family waiting to see you, back home."

"Family? Really? Took you long enough to fess up to it." Clay could hear the anger and frustration in Jack's voice.

"I'm here, ain't I?"

"Why can't I stay here?"

Instead of the man's - Jack's father , Clay reminded himself - voice, Iris' cuts in, thin and tired.

"Well, Jack, it's that … well … I mean …" Wanting the boy to fill in the various ellipses, with phrases like I'm too old to take care of you and wouldn't you rather be with your own kind and this really isn't the best place for you to be, not Emporia , and Clay was embarrassed, again, as he'd been that day on his grandmother's front porch, listening to the women talk - without really talking - about this shocking and unwelcome intrusion into their town.

Clay knew he shouldn't be here, should leave as quietly as he'd entered, so he turned, but the loose and rotting boards gave him away with a pop! and a creak! and he stood there, caught, as three heads turned to face him.

"Who -?" the man started, but then Jack was up and out of his chair and at the front door, its bowed and hole-pecked metal screen the only thing between them.

"What are you doing here?" Jack's voice was a whisper. Anger flashed in his eyes, and … shame?

Clay flushed. "I thought we could … who is that?" Looking past Jack to the figure seated next to Iris.

Jack risked a half-turn back, then faced Clay again.

"My … father." The word freighted with disbelief, with anger, with resignation.

"He wants you to go back with him."

"Yes. So he says."


Jack snorted out a laugh. "You heard her. Iris. Grandma ." A sneer in that word. "She doesn't want me here."

"But she's your family as much as him."

Instead of answering, Jack pushed through the door; Clay stepped out of the way as the door slammed back into its frame.

"Come on," Jack said to him. Clay followed him out to the fence. Jack paused, then with a jink of his head indicated that Clay should follow him up the street, away from the house.

They sat side by side on the curb, a few houses up from Iris, in dappled shadow from a mimosa rearing up behind them, its branches laden with frilly pink flowers, like tropical birds.

"How did they find him? Your father."

Jack shrugged. "Said he saw a story in the paper, figured out who it must have been."

"Is he?"

Again, the shrug. "Sure. Why not?"

"But, if you're not sure …"

"Oh, I'm sure it's him. He's the guy my mother was around most often, so …" Jack smiled a sad smile. "Plus, I look like him."

"What's going to happen? Are you going to live with him?"

"I don't know. Funny thing, though … he's already got a wife. Don't know if he's told her yet about me ."

"I - oh. That's … interesting."

Jack chuckled. "Yep."

"Does he know about the … other thing?"

Jack glanced at Clay, looked away. "You mean, that I like men?"

"Yes," Clay whispered.

Jack was silent for a long moment. Then, "I don't know. Maybe. It depends upon …" He trailed off.

When Jack didn't respond, Clay went on. "Upon whom?"

"On whether or not he said anything."

" Who , Jack?"

Jack, not looking at Clay, murmured "Although … it's not something you're going to just casually tell somebody …"


Jack snorted out a quiet laugh. "Ray-ray."


Jack turned to face Clay. "His cousin. Ray-ray. Raymond, really."

"What about him?"

"One day, Hiram - that's him, the guy with Iris - came over to see Mama. But he'd brought someone with him. Ray-ray. First, I thought he was just another john, so I did what I always did when Mama had someone over. I started to leave, but then Ray-ray said that maybe I'd want to stay. Hiram and Mama went off to the bedroom and shut the door. Then, Ray-ray got up and went into my room and I followed him, and he sat on my bed and pulled a wad of bills out of his shirt pocket, peeled one off - a ten - and put it on my nightstand. I asked him what he was doing and he said -"

Clay knew what was coming.

"Jack, it's okay."

But Jack went on, undeterred.

"He said that my mama said it was okay and I asked him what was okay, and he didn't say anything. He just … and after it was over, he said that I could earn a lot more money, if I wanted to."

Jack fell silent, as did Clay. But, one thing …

" Did she say that?"

Jack glanced at Clay.


"That it would be okay. If you and … Ray-ray …"

Jack sniffled, bent his head, wouldn't meet Clay's stare.

"I don't know. I really don't. He probably said it just so he could … well." Jack hunched in on himself. "I was thirteen, by the way."

Clay tried to understand, couldn't. He thought back to the conversation he and Jack had had out at the abandoned farmhouse. Thirteen . He couldn't imagine. He'd been thirteen only two years ago, remembered easily what he'd been like at that age. He'd known absolutely nothing about anything, stumbling along in a life newly without a father, no real friends except those he made in the books he read, the movies he watched, the radio programs he listened to. Even then, Jack had been … well, the euphemisms his mother and aunt would have used came to mind: laying with, sleeping with, seeing … all of them oblique references to the vulgarity he refused to speak (but there it was - fucking ) though he'd heard it many times on the playground, from the older boys. Clay knew there was nothing he could say that would mean anything. He draped an arm around Jack's shoulders.

"So. All those other men …"

"Yes." Jack's voice came out quiet and muffled. He looked at Clay. "You hate me."

Did he? That first day, in the farmhouse, he'd been crushed to learn that he was not Jack's first, that he'd been with other men. In the end, though, it hadn't mattered. Now, with this new layer of information, the thing had shifted once again, had become something more alien and dangerous.

He tried to imagine what life had been like for Jack and his mother. She, forced by circumstance or necessity into that kind of life - one that society tacitly permitted even as it despised it - to support herself and, then, a son. Certainly she had not started life thinking that she would end up in such straits; certainly she had not escaped Emporia for Chicago thinking that this was the only thing she was capable of doing.

Certainly she had not thought that her own son would come to share the same kind of life.

Clay saw the brief arc of his own life, contrasted it with Jack's. Here, in such a small community, where nothing much happened, where women like Rachel did not really exist … where boys like Jack - and, now, he himself numbered among their secret society - also did not really exist. But, above all, he understood the comfort and safety of his life here, nestled in his community of women and womanly things. How stupid he had been! How ignorant!

No , he decided. "No," he said. "I don't hate you. How can I, when you've shown such amazing things to me?"

Jack, to Clay's surprise, leaned over and nuzzled a kiss into Clay's neck, pulled back.

"I love you, Clay Macklin."

Clay closed his eyes against a welling of stinging tears.

"I love you, Jack Denham."

The two boys sat side by side on the curb, holding back time with their immobility.

"Stay," Clay whispered.

"What would I do here, Clay? Where would I live?"

And no other answer was possible.

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