The Diffident Boy

by Joe Casey

Chapter 2

A dream, then, of his father.

Hazy outlines of his face, already lost to memory, but enough to know that it is him. Hair the color of copper wire, eyes the blue of the sky over Galway, a beard when few men had beards, thick and full, his father's pride, immaculately combed and kept, the same flame-bright as his hair.

The two of them, outside in the bright, clear spring morning, washing the truck. The chore becomes play as he, manning the hose, turns it full force upon his father, drenching him, soaking him to the skin. His father, laughing loudly, delighting in the cold bite of the water, twisting and turning under its electric chill.

Clay laughing in turn, watching his beautiful father dance under the diamond sparkle, not angry but joyful, his mouth loose and wide with laughter, teeth flashing white, eyes flashing blue, hair flashing red.

Something, some turn of light and shadow, some trickery of form and motion, stops Clay's laughter for the briefest second as he watches his father, his thin white t-shirt molded to his sturdy, workman's body and rendered nearly translucent by the water. He is conscious of that body, of what it represents, though he cannot yet - at the age of ten - put a name to what he feels.

Then, there is his mother, at the door, calling them in to lunch, laughing at them both, handing them towels. His father dabs at his chest and arms, then surprises Clay by rucking his shirt up over his head and wringing it out on the back steps. Clay stares at his father's body, solid and muscular, covered in the same gingery hair as his head, skin pink and pale as a peach.

A greater surprise as his father unzips and unbuckles his pegged denims, shucking them down to his ankles, stepping out of them, down to his boxers, which nearly come off with the wet denim, revealing an S-curve of muscle and sinew that starts at the hip and ends … down there, beneath the thin, translucent cotton. His mother takes the offending items into the laundry room as his father stalks down the hall to his bedroom, still chuckling, tugging his shorts back up into propriety.

Some hot discomfort nags Clay, won't let him go as he watches his father recede into the darkness.


He returned a few days later to Iris' house and the boy. Jack.

He rode his bike through the quiet streets, thinking deliberately of nothing. To indulge in any kind of thought would lead him invariably to the one thing - the only thing, perhaps - that has dominated his thinking ever since Jack had waylaid him in front of the fabric store.

Had those thoughts always been there, even before Jack? He thought of his father, of seeing his father, of his father's unconscious maleness.

Only since his father's passing had such thoughts sparked through his night dreams, meteoric flashes through a boy's roiling mind. Other figures, unconsciously collected, inhabited that most secret room locked inside him, have all become part of one phantom, nearly inchoate, always changing … but always male. Far too many times is he under the spell of this unnamed chimera who coaxes the most extraordinary things from him in the creeping hours before dawn. Far too many times has he become the inarticulate puppet of his desire, alone under the silver moon washing down upon the planes of his body as it arches and aches under the stars, hands going there and there , calling forth this phantom to move and dance with him, to become one with him.

And now this phantom had a name, had a face, is become more real.


"Hello, Clay Macklin." Jack was wedged in the doorframe, with his hands along the top rail as he swung forward; each swing towards Clay drew his white t-shirt tight against the muscles of his chest and belly. "You came back."

Clay smiled. "I did." He watched Jack for a few seconds. "Doing anything?"

Jack looked back at him, a slight smile playing on his face. "No. Not really."

"Do you want to?"

"Maybe."

"We could …" Clay thought furiously. "We could go downtown, go to some of the stores."

"For what?"

"I don't know … it's something to do."

Jack said nothing, the skeptical look on his face saying it all. Clay sighed.

"Well, okay, then. We could go swimming."

"This place got a pool?"

"Mmm … not really. The Country Club, but we're not members. There's a lake down at Peter Pan Park."

Jack burst out laughing. " Where? "

"Peter Pa - well, it does sound kinda stupid, I guess. It's a fishing lake, but we could maybe swim in it."

"You think they'll let me in?"

Clay was nonplussed.

"Why wouldn't they? It's free."

In answer, Jack pointed at his face, made a what do you think? gesture.

It took Clay a few seconds.

"Seriously?"

"Wouldn't surprise me. This isn't Chicago."

"I've never heard of anyone complaining about it."

"Well, it's probably because you don't have a lot of people like me, do you?"

Clay shook his head. "Not really, I guess." He scrunched his face up. "There's the Cottonwood."

"What's that?"

"A river. It's south of town. There's places where we could swim, I think."

Jack thought about it for a few seconds. "Sounds good to me." He banged out through the screen door, pulling the heavy front door closed behind him with a solid thunk, not bothering to lock it. He walked off the front porch, Clay following him, over to where his bicycle lay abandoned at the side of the bungalow.

Together, pedaling side by side in the building heat of the summer morning, the two boys made their way south. Halfway there, Clay realized that neither one of them had bothered to pack a towel, or swimsuits.


The place Clay took Jack to was one he'd heard about in school as a place popular with the older kids. It lay a few hundred yards upstream from a more popular spot, populated mostly by families who could let their kids play together in the shallow water where the river broadened out into an assemblage of shoals and sand bars.

This spot was more secluded; an overhanging canopy of catalpa and oak provided dappled shade over a deep pool of clear, slow-moving water bordered by flat stones that baked under the summer sun.

Luckily, no one had claimed this spot for their own yet; the two boys had complete run of the place. Clay had no idea what Jack would do if and when he wanted to swim; Jack, though, seemed uninterested in the water. He sat on one of the stones and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of a shirt pocket and lighted on. Wordlessly, he offered the pack to Clay, who shook his head, refusing.

The boys sat side by side, not speaking, watching the current sparkle, watching tiny fish dart here and there under the surface, watching turtles sun themselves on a rock isolated in the middle of the pool. Periodically, Clay caught a whiff of the smoke from Jack's cigarettes - Lucky Strikes - and wondered where and how the boy had bought them.

Jack finished the cigarette and flicked the butt into the water, then turned to Clay.

"You hear any more about me?"

"What? Um, no … I don't think so. Not yet."

"I guess that's good." Abruptly, Jack made a gargling noise in the back of his throat and sent a gob of spit flying into the water. Clay watched it slowly get teased apart in the water. "Want to know what I've heard about you? "

Clay looked over in surprise.

"People are talking about me? "

"No, not people . Just my grandmother."

"Oh. What did she say?"

Jack stared down at the water creeping past the rock, just beyond his feet.

"That your dad died."

"Yes. In the war. He was on a ship … it -"

"Yeah, I know." Jack looked over at Clay. "You know my mother died."

Clay remembered the veiled insinuations in the conversation he'd overheard.

"Yes."

"Do you know how?"

"No," Clay whispered.

"She hung herself."

"Hanged."

"What?"

"It's … um, it's hanged . Not hung ."

Jack stared at Clay for a few seconds.

"Smartass. There you go, again."

Clay returned Jack's stare, dropped his gaze.

"Sorry."

Jack fell silent. He played with the laces on his worn sneakers.

"I found her. Did you know that? "

"I - no."

"Came home from school one day and there she was, in the bedroom, spinning around in the middle of the room, like a chandelier."

"Oh." Clay didn't know what else to say to that.

"It's funny how you know somebody's dead. I knew I didn't have to try to cut her down. I just went next door and told Mrs. Landrum, and she called the police."

"Jack, I'm sorry."

Jack turned to him, one side of his mouth curling up.

"Why? You didn't do it."

"Yeah, but …"

Jack nudged Clay's arm with his elbow. "Thanks." Jack tapped out another cigarette, lighted it with a battered steel lighter.

"You miss him?"

"Who?"

"Your dad."

Clay thought about it, thought about the dreams that still flickered periodically through his unconscious.

"Yeah. Not like I used to, but …" He shrugged.

"Navy, right?"

Well, he was on a ship, so, yeah … but Clay bit that back. More smart-assery.

"Yeah."

"Boy from Kansas? Middle of the country?" Jack smiled.

Clay chuckled. "Yeah, I know. He used to say that it gave him an opportunity to look for beachfront property."

"He sounds like a great guy."

"He was. I -" loved him , was on his lips, but it was more than that, an uncomfortable more.

"Yeah." Jack stretched out, arms outstretched behind him, legs crossed. "You know what my mom did, right?"

Again, the conversation echoed. "Yeah, I think so."

"I knew what she did, but it was … okay, I guess. I understood it."

Clay knew what mothers like Jack's were called, to their faces as much as to their backs. He knew what his mother and aunt and grandmother felt about that, knew how sorry they'd felt for Iris - who knew more than anyone what her daughter was capable of doing - even as they gossiped about her wayward child. He flushed with embarrassment when he thought about it, about … being with ( fucking , his gutter mind supplied, unbidden) … so many men. And for money.

"Yeah," he muttered, if only to keep up his side of this strange and disquieting conversation.

Jack glanced at Clay, smirked.

"You think she was wrong."

"I … don't know, Jack. It's not for me to say."

Jack chewed the corner of his mouth.

"Did you know her? When she was still living here?"

"No. She'd left before I was born. My mother knew her, I think. They might have gone to school together."

"Was she … Iris said she was … oh, what was the word she used? You'd like it; it's one of those smart-ass words. Headstrong? Even back then?"

Clay shrugged. "You'd have to ask my mom."

Abruptly, Jack stood up, started kicking off his shoes.

"Doesn't matter, anyway. She's gone." He bends down, peels off his socks. "Are we going for that swim?"

"Well, we don't have -"

Jack began unbuttoning his shirt.

"I know. I was wondering when you were going to realize that. I wondered why you even wanted to go swimming in the first place. Don't need 'em, anyway. Right?" He grinned at Clay.

Clay, still seated, stared up as Jack stripped; the sun lay behind Jack, leaving him only a dark silhouette outlined by the yellow-white glare of light. Shirt followed shoes and socks on the rock, then he shrugged off his jeans, leaving him only in a pair of boxers.

"You can go ahead. I'll wait here."

"Bullshit. Get off your ass, Clay Macklin. This was your idea." Jack reached down and grabbed Clay under his arm, hoisted him up, and Clay was not all that unwilling, not really. Jack circled around, forcing Clay to orbit him, ended up with the sunlight washing across the brown planes of his muscles and Clay stared, could not help but to stare. Jack's hands reached out, started fumbling with the buttons of Clay's shirt. Clay batted his hand away.

"I can do it." His voice came out husky and clotted.

Jack licked his lips.

"So do it."

Jack's arms dropped to his side as Clay began to undress; his clothing joined Jack's on the rock, until he stood there, like Jack dressed only in his underwear. He felt thin and pale next to Jack, whose body was very nearly that of a man, muscular and athletic. Clay knew that he would soon burn if he didn't get out of the sun, envied the milk-and-coffee color of Jack's skin, hated his own peach-pink paleness, so like that of his father.

Jack stared as Clay had, unashamed. Clay crossed his arms over his boy's chest; Jack batted them away, as Clay had done with him.

"No," he husks. His lips were parted; Clay could hear the rough breathing, could smell the cigarette smoke carried on it past his nostrils.

"I …" he breathed. Then, he turned away from Clay and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his shorts and rucked them down to his ankles, then kicked out of them. Naked, he walked gingerly away from Clay over the pebbly sand bar and into the pool; Clay watched Jack's muscular back and buttocks as he made his way over the rough surface. Jack dove headlong into the water and surfaced many feet away, then turned to face Clay, sluicing water off his face with his hands, standing up in the pool, whose level crossed Jack's flat belly right above his crotch, revealing a dusty patch of black hair that sparkled with watery diamonds.

"Come on!"

Clay watched as Jack waved him in, swallowed nervously past a sudden tenseness. He shook his head.

"Come on, pussy!"

Still he waited; what he couldn't reveal was what watching Jack naked had done to him. His loose shorts hid the worst of it, but he could see it. More importantly, he could feel it, its hardness rubbing seductively, almost painfully, against the scratchy cloth.

Jack smiled and shook his head, threw himself once again into the pool. Clay took this opportunity to slip off his shorts. Nearly running, he sprinted towards the water, his desire betraying itself under the full sun, nearly comical as the stiff bit of flesh jiggled right-left, right-left as he progressed He prayed that he would reach the safety of the water before Jack surfaced.

Just barely, he did.

Jack surfaced and whirled.

"Oh! You're here." If he'd guessed the reason for Clay's hesitation, he said nothing.

The two boys circled each other warily in the water; in its coolness, the water helped to ease Clay's arousal.


Twenty minutes later, Clay had to get out. In the mottled shade, the water had proved cooler than he would have thought, sending his teeth chattering, raising goosebumps on his exposed flesh.

"J-j-jack!"

The boy turned. "What?"

"I have t-t-to g-g-get out. I'm f-f-freezing."

"Oh. Okay. Sure.

Jack stood up, facing away from Clay, started walking back towards the rock and their clothing. Clay followed, hugging himself for warmth as the water dripped off his body.

Rather than dressing himself, Jack turned around when he reached the rock and perched on it, hugging his knees to his chest, watching Clay, who could do nothing to conceal himself from the boy's searching gaze. He could only imagine how he must appear to Jack … some plucked-chicken kind of creature, bumped skin bluish-pale and bony, what small dollop of manhood he possessed certainly no match for Jack's as-yet-unseen gifts, surrounded by a scratchy patch of bright orange curls.

Quietly, he climbed onto the rock, mimicking Jack's pose, arms wrapped around his bent legs. Warmth from the rock seeped into his buttocks and the soles of his feet. He could feel some warmth from Jack's body; their arms and legs brushed against each other's as they sat.

"That was nice," Jack said.

"Yeah. Felt good."

"You come here a lot?"

Clay chuckled. "Never have, actually. First time."

"Country club, right?" Jack smiled.

Clay rolled his eyes. "Well, of course. Sipping mint juleps on the verandah … oysters Rockefeller for lunch … maybe a round of golf in the afternoon."

Jack laughed, looking at Clay, then the smile faded.

"Thank you for … well, this."

"Oh. You're welcome. I had a good time."

"So did I." Jack shifted position on the rock, scratched a kneecap, looked away from Clay. "I like you, Clay Macklin."

No one, to his knowledge, had ever said that to Clay, so used to being part of the background, always the observer and not the observed, on the periphery of nearly every aspect of his life. He blinked against a sudden sting of tears.

"I like you, too, Jack Denham."

The two boys stared at each other for a long moment, each evaluating the other. Clay could see Jack's gaze shifting from Clay's face to his crossed arms and legs, his posture giving away nothing.

Then, Jack released his hold on his legs, bowing them apart, crossing them, some decision taken to show himself to this boy as he had done for Jack, coming out of the water. Clay's gaze dropped, as Jack knew that it would, to the thing, curled there on the rock, the end of it hidden under its hood of flesh.

Clay shivered against a burgeoning hardness that was bound up in his bunched thighs, caught painfully and seeking its release. He looked back up at Jack's face.

"Show me," the boy commanded.

Clay did, unkinking himself, stretching his thin legs out upon the rock, freeing the upcurving, bowed and tumescent flesh.

Jack stared at it, back up to Clay's calm face.

"Is that me?"

Clay nodded.

Jack unlimbered himself still further, stretching out flat upon the rock, his left leg bent up, his right leg extended, arms up over his forehead, shading his eyes from the sun, whose light brought forth a burnished kind of sheen from Jack's exotic darkness.

Clay extended a hand, let it hover in the air between them.

"Yes, Clay Macklin."

He drew a finger first along Jack's strong brow, then down the broad, flat nose and across his full lips. Then, down the neck and into the hollow in the boy's throat to his chest, across the coppery brown coin of a nipple, twirling around the hard bud of flesh in the center of it. He looked at Jack's face, watched his nostrils flare and contract with his breathing. The hand moved - almost under its own power - down the parallel ridges of ribs, moving in concert with Jack's quiet breathing. Further, across the flat, muscle-ridged belly, then across that special S-curve that he'd seen before, that one day when he and his father had played under the water.

There was a trail of coarse, wiry hair from Jack's navel, trailing down to his … cock - Clay made himself say the word in his mind - which had begun to unlimber itself and lay flat on its back on Jack's belly.

Clay's hand stopped.

"Yes, Clay Macklin."

Under his touch, the thing grew, filling out under its scrim of loose skin. He had only ever touched himself in this way - and not all that often for all that - and marveled at how both like and unlike himself this thing was. Under his touch, the thing pulsed and moved, like some strange creature; it revealed itself, peeping out from the hood of flesh that Clay himself did not have.

Clay's other hand moved to his own hardness, teasing along the length of it to the flared head. He felt hot and suffocated, somehow, and yet there was something good about it.

A low, breathy moan escaped Jack's throat as Clay's hand worked at him; Jack bucked himself up off the rock, pressing himself deeper into Clay's grasp, groaning.

Suddenly, to their right, just beyond a bend in the river, there were shouts, laughter, coarse voices echoing among the trees, a group of boys making their way upriver, to this area.

Jack shot upright, as did Clay, an electric bolt of panic coursing through him.

"Shit," Jack murmured, sounding more peeved than alarmed.

The two boys stood up, madly scrambling for their discarded clothing, then dashing for the safety of the trees and their abandoned bicycles, not even bothering to dress. When they reached the trees, they ducked down behind some rotting bit of deadfall to wait.

Three boys, older, maybe Jack's age, came into view. Clay hoped they would go further, but they didn't, climbing up onto the same rock that he and Jack had only recently vacated. They watched as the boys joked among themselves, passing a cigarette between them as they talked. One boy had something wrapped in a sweat-dampened paper sack in his grasp; with a tink of sound he set it down on the rock and pulled forth a bottle of beer, opened it and took a deep swallow before passing it to his compatriots.

Silently, the two boys dressed, facing away from each other, then walked their bicycles up to a gravel road that paralleled the river. When they were far enough away from the others, they rode quickly back into town. At Sixth Street, they stopped; Clay's house lay in one direction, Jack's in the other.

They stared at each other, each knowing that this thing remained undone.

"So … I should go." Clay.

"Yeah, I guess. But …."

"I know."

Without waiting for Jack to answer, Clay spun his bike around and sped home, leaving the other boy to stare after him as he raced away.

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