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The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 6

A dream of his father, a true dream, not a memory.

His father, struggling to stay afloat in the rough, salty sea, surrounded by debris, some of it familiar, surrounded by other men like himself, watching as their ship burns. A blood-stained cap drifts past his father's circling arms as he struggles to breathe in air laced and clotted with the stench of burning diesel.

The ship is nearly done for, listing heavily, smoke and fire bellowing from her, her last breath a shout of defiance even as she yields to the inevitable.

He can hope for a rescue, can hope that it comes in time to save them all, knows deep inside that it may not; Colby knows that some of them will not live through this, will not have this tale to tell to their sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters as they grow old together.

The ship groans and groans again as she tilts, readying herself.

His own pain surrounds him in its harrowing embrace and the sting of the brine in his wounds is graven deep into his flesh.

Colby looks up into the faultless sky, smiles, mutters … well, not a prayer so much as a request: that his family - his wife and son - find peace with this. He has earned this right, he thinks, to ask this of his demanding and implacable God.

He thinks of home, of the miles and miles of prairie, gentle and womanly and alive under the hurrying breeze. He thinks of the choices he has made, choices that led him here, and regrets none of them.

The ship is going. Colby turns and swims, thinking to outpace this thing. He knows what's coming.

He thinks of that one perfect summer day, in the truck, going to the city, his wife and son with him, the only two people he would ever want beside him. He thought of his wife's laughter; he thought of his son asleep next to him.

The ship is gone. He swims fast and faster, but there they are, the fingers of water, pulling at him, teasing him; their grasp is tender but much too strong, and he submits.

He is now suspended here, with others, men fixed like stars in the ultramarine expanse of the sea. Despite the distance, despite the murk of the roiled waters, the men can see each other clearly, can see into each other's eyes, can each see that they are done for, lost, beyond rescue The ship is there, too, clawing her way to the blackness, spiraling down and down and down, this great, grey behemoth, this machinery of war finding her own repose, discharged of her duty, drawing them into her wake.

Light dims as he sinks; the water chills him as he slips further and further from the sun's furnace. He looks down to the ship as she descends.

Come with me! she whispers. Come with me, come with me, come with me!

And he does.

Jack was gone; only just. Clay sat on the front porch glider, arms crossed, staring into the distance. Slowly, he got up, went over to his bicycle, walked it down the stairs, mounted it, and was gone. He rode first over to Iris Denham's house, closed up and silent, no jazz drifting out through the front door, Iris herself doubtless at work at the laundry. Was she glad, now, to be rid of her burden?

He rode next back out to the Weller house in the hot August afternoon. Hard to believe that school started in less than a month, but for now he was free; perversely, he wished now for something like school to occupy his mind.

When he got to the old farmhouse, there was something new awaiting him: a heavy steel chain, slung across the throat of the driveway, suspended from two metal poles sunk in wells of fresh concrete. A sign warned him against trespassing. He stood there for a long moment, wondering what had happened, wondering if he should give up and go back home. Fear gripped him, as it always did; fear of discovery, fear of doing wrong, fear of shame. He looked up the driveway, could see nothing past the curve of it, could hear nothing. The No Trespassing sign stared back at him in black lettering on a yellow background, quiet and ominous.

He thought of Jack, standing behind him in that secret room, his body pressed against Clay's, hands coaxing forth endless frissons of touch and delight, murmuring in his ear don't be afraid, don't be afraid.

He was tired of being afraid, did not want to be the one forever standing on the edge of things, watching others dare what he dared not. Even his mother had dared, taking Mr. Satterwhite into her life. With a start, he remembered that first day, after he'd returned from the creek, feeling as if the world had shifted on its axis, that he'd gone out to Jack's as one person, had returned as another. Had his mother, even then, set something in motion with this man with one arm? He remembered that as he had walked through the house, his grandmother and aunt had been absent, had indeed only showed up right before supper, having gone up to Topeka for the morning in search of material for their sewing.

He got off the bike and hid it as best he could in the coreopsis and Queen Anne's lace gone tall and leggy in the late summer, then slipped around the end of the fence, started walking up the rutted drive. When he rounded the bend, he stopped and stared.

The house was gone.

Well, still there, but rendered down into a pile of scrap, bones of lumber sticking out here and there like staved-in ribs among the rough pelt of plaster, all of it capped by rusted sheets of dark green painted metal gone scabby with exposure, the roof of the house. A stuttering, linear run of red brick indicated where the chimney, now unsupported, had fallen over to splash against the ground.

He forced himself to walk towards the pile, half again as tall as a man, surprisingly compact for the volume and the life it had once described. He wondered what had happened, knew that this was no natural event; someone must have made an offer on the place and had demolished the house.

He stood before what looked to be the front stairs leading up to the porch, about where the front door would have been. A slight breeze drew the odors of old wood, plaster dust, and nearly seventy years of occupation past his nose.

He glanced to his left; the barn, too, was gone into its own pile of lumber. All of the rusting hulks of old farm machinery had been gathered together in a metallic kind of necropolis, awaiting disposal.

He felt numb, felt nothing. Certainly the house had been nothing special, ennobled only by what he and Jack had brought to it, what they had done inside it; had the new owner discovered any trace of them in it? The pile of blankets, or the bottle of baby oil, or the flat bottle of whiskey? What had he thought of it, if he'd chanced upon it? The work of a vagrant, perhaps?

He walked around the pile to the back of the house, stared out onto the rolling fields. A flicker of motion caught his eye and he looked up to see a hawk circling lazily on the updrafts, his wings extended, the ends of them like many-fingered hands, outstretched, catching whatever gifts the wind might send him.

The breeze soughed in the grass, in the cottonwoods. He remembered the dream of his father, of the three of them rushing headlong across the Kansas prairie, the wind flattening the red-gold hairs on his arm.

He glanced down; there, on the ground at his feet, lay a cigarette package, perfectly intact but for having been opened, a package of Lucky Strikes, Jack's favorite. He smiled and bent down, picking up the package; had it been dislodged somehow by the force of the demolition? Had it fluttered down to find itself here, on the ground? He brought the package up to his nose, could still smell the rich tobacco smell. He pocketed the package, feeling it as a slight pressing on his chest, over his heart.

There was, then, a shout, to his left, out past where the barn had once stood. He looked over, heart leaping, to see a figure, a man, striding towards him, shouting.

"Hey!" he heard. "Hey, you!"

He was frozen; the figure, nearer, resolved itself into the figure of Joe Branscomb, the farmer who'd waved at him and Jack as he had passed that one amazing day. Memory reminded him that Joe owned the farm next door to this one; he must have finally been able to put together enough capital to buy the place from the bank and combine the two.

Should he wait? Certainly Joe would wonder why he was here, now, in this place. Certainly word would filter back to his mother - might, anyway, if Joe recognized him, as surely he must - if he stayed.

He ran, remembering none of it until he hoisted his bike out of the scrum of wildflowers and hopped on, pedaling as he'd never done before, pedaling so hard that his ball cap nearly leapt off his head and he clapped one hand over it, pressing it to his scalp.

He dared a look back over his shoulder; no truck, there, turning out of the driveway, following him.

Only in town did he dare relax. The empty package crinkled in his shirt pocket.

The next morning, he rose early, before his mother or his grandmother. He crept downstairs in the blue light, past the dining room where another wedding dress - this one intended for his mother - stood incomplete and ghost-like on the mannequin in the dawn. He stared at this dress for a long moment, at what it represented. He was happy for his mother, of course, had never seen her as happy as she was now, in the long wake of his father's passing. He reached out and drew a finger along the fine silk of the bodice and the intricacies of the beadwork taking shape on it. He remembered when he had taken some strange kind of delight in this, watching a dress take shape under the women's expert hands. He wondered what it would be like to have Byron Satterwhite as a father.

He tiptoed over to one of the glass-fronted cabinets by the fireplace in the living room; there, lodged among the books, was a metal case, which he drew out.

He wasn't specifically forbidden to touch this case, it was just that no one ever did, not even his mother. It wasn't locked; easily, he thumbed the catches open slowly, so that they wouldn't make their usual snap! of sound.

First, then, a flag, folded tightly into a compact bundle; this he lifted out carefully and set aside, not wishing to disturb its military perfection. The Navy guard had presented it to his mother at the memorial service.

Next, a case, within which were various medals for his father's service, some awarded posthumously. He'd had to look that word up when he'd first heard it. He looked down at the bits of enameled metal and brightly-colored ribbon. An entire part of his father's life lay banked behind those tiny objects, a life he'd known of only peripherally.

Other things … letters addressed to him and his mother, jointly. He understood that there were letters he had never seen, would never see except at his mother's passing, if she kept them. He unfolded one, looked at his father's neat cursive, skimmed it although he'd read it a dozen dozen times over the years. He could hear his father's voice as he read the words meant to reassure him and his mother that everything was fine, that he would be home as soon as he could, that things were going well for him and for the ship.

Bits of jewelry - not his wedding ring, which he'd been wearing and which had been lost - but things like a high school class ring, solid and heavy in his hand. A tie tack and matching cufflinks, each with a tiny diamond chip embedded; in all the time he'd known his father, he'd never seen the man wear anything but work clothes.

And, now, just two items were left. One, a folded piece of yellow paper; he withdrew it and unfolded it, carefully. A telegram, whose tersely worded text had cast his mother adrift into a new territory of loss and pain and regret, from which she'd never truly recovered.

And, a photograph, of his father, on the ship. Strange to see his father shorn of his beard, nearly unrecognizable, his handsome smile beaming, standing in front of a truly impressive piece of artillery, beyond which could be seen open water dotted with other ships. Standing next to him, another man, a sailor like his father, trim and compact, with a narrow face, dressed as his father was, in white that gleamed under the tropic sun. The two men stood side-by-side, arms thrown around each other in a kind of brotherly camaraderie. His father favored the camera and the unknown photographer with his broad grin; the man next to him stared up at his father, a smile there, too … but something else, something else.

On the back, in his father's hand: Frank Ianucci, Brooklyn, New York January 1945

In a month, his father would be dead.

This one thing, this photograph, Clay took, slipping it into the breast pocket of his shirt, then he straightened up and crept back upstairs in the growing light of morning.

Only to encounter his mother in the hallway.

The two stared at each other; Clay dropped his gaze with a muttered morning and tried to slip past her, but she blocked his way, sighing.

"Clay, please …"

He looked back up at her. "What?"

She stared at him, arms crossed, the expression on her face one of genuine concern, he thought, not her usual scowling suspicion. "You've been so … different, this summer. Distant."


A sad smile flickered on her mouth, her eyes. "I wish you would talk to me. Tell me what you're doing, what you're thinking."

"Working, mostly. For you."

"Yes, but … well, thank you. But … you were gone so much of the time."

"I -"

Her gaze narrowed. "Was it that Jack boy?"

"Yes." No harm in saying that one word.

She sighed again. "I warned you about him. You should have -"

"What?" he interjected. His mother reared her head back, eyes going wide at his interruption. "What don't you like about him? You didn't even know him."

"Yes, but I knew his mother."

"He's not his mother. And she's dead, anyway."

She said nothing for a moment. Then, "She's dead for a reason, Clay. She's dead because she -"

"I know what she did. What she was." He thought about what she'd said; it angered him. "And nobody dies for a reason. Not like that." But then he thought of Jack and Ray-ray and Rachel's tacit acceptance of what had happened between them.

"Did he tell you that? About her? I certainly didn't."

" He did."

"I think you need to stop seeing him."

"Well, I have, Mother. He's gone. He left. His father came back for him."

"I - oh. When -"

"Last week. So, you see - I'm safe."

But he knew that he was not safe, would never again be safe.

Not much to say after that; he slipped by her and into his room, could hear yet another sigh masked by the heavy tread of her shoes on the wooden staircase as she went downstairs to start breakfast and another day.

In his room, he locked the door with a slight ping! of sound and lay down on the bed, taking the photograph of his father and this Frank Ianucci out of his shirt pocket and holding it up to the light. His father's unconscious beauty stared up at him; had this Frank person also been moved by that beauty? Had he understood it even as he fell sway to it?

Clay leaned over and opened the drawer of his nightstand, took out the empty package of Lucky Strikes, inhaling the fading odor of tobacco. He would have to find another place to hide it; should his mother discover it - whether or not she thought he had taken up smoking - she would quietly dispose of it, and it was all he had left, to remember.

The tobacco was like an aphrodisiac as his memory responded to it, commanding his body to an unsubtle and uncomfortable attention.

He rose from the bed and went to the window, which faced the back yard, the grass carefully cut but browning in the dry heat of August. A towering bank of oak and catalpa separated his grandmother's house from the one behind it. Certainly no one could see him …

Even thought he'd just dressed for the day, he undressed, carefully folding his discarded clothing and placing it on the dresser.

He eased the window open and stood framed in it, hands bracing himself against the head of the window, his slender body arching out beyond the confines of the frame. He looked down at his body moving into manhood, his sex proud and defiant, pointing ever upward.

He closed his eyes and imagined another window, another house, another landscape of golden grass hissing like water, like serpents and temptation, but it was not the same.

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