As Kenny Potter and his former professor, George Falconer, play chess, Kenny asks, “Do you know where I could find another copy of Rimbaud’s works, sir? I think it might interest June, the cousin I told you about, but I don’t want to give up my own copy.”
“I'm not quite sure Rimbaud is appropriate reading for a ten-year-old.”
Kenny shrugs. “Her teachers keep telling her that poetry has to rhyme. They don't encourage her, sir. June's gotten to where she hardly ever writes in her diary, anymore, and she's losing interest in reading.”
“That is a tragedy,” Professor Falconer agrees. “However, perhaps, you can encourage her development into a poetess with some poetry more suitable for general audiences.”
The doorbell rings.
“I've got it,” Alva, Professor Falconer’s maid, calls.
“What kind of poetry did you read when you were that age, sir?”
“I mostly didn't,” Professor Falconer answers. “Charley, like many of the other girls, refused to read beyond class assignments. I spent many a night blackmailing her into trying different books, sure she'd make a good reviewer once she found something to spark an interest in literature. Unfortunately, it turned out her taste ran to science fiction.”
Making a move, Kenny inquires, “Sir, did she literally blow up one of your partner's projects?”
“In a way,” Professor Falconer confesses with a sad smile. “Science fiction isn't known for its scientific accuracy, but it did get her interested in the subject. I sometimes wonder how she would have ended up if she'd decided to try to challenge social norms and attempt entry into the scientific field. However,” he gains an advantage on the board, “the story is: She was once looking at some plans Jim had drawn up, and she realised he'd made a mistake. Jim refused to listen, and to prove he needed to correct it, she gave a practical demonstration of what potential dangers lied in wait.”
Alva appears. “Professor, a Mister Clay is here. He says he's Miss Charlotte's son?”
“Oh,” Professor Falconer says. He quickly gets up. “Excuse me, Mister Potter.”
Waiting by the front door is a man a few years older than him with auburn hair and hazel eyes. “Uncle George,” he greets with a smile.
Pulling him into a hug and kissing his head, Professor Falconer says, “Hello, kiddo. Is everything alright? It seems as though you've lost weight.”
Sighing, Clay breaks the hug. “I don't think Mary and I can work this out. It looks like divorce is the only option left.”
Professor Falconer rubs his back. “I'm terribly sorry. Elisabeth?”
“I don't know,” Clay answers, and it strikes Kenny how helpless the tone is. “Mary wants full-custody, and since she takes after her in colour- Uncle George, I was wondering if I could stay with you for a week or two. I've taken a vacation week, and we both know how Mum is. And Dad,” he shakes his head.
“Of course,” Professor Falconer answers. “You know you always have a place here.” Spotting Kenny, he says, “Clay, this Kenny Potter, a former student of mine. We were just playing a game of chess. Kenny, this is Clay Williams, Charley's son.”
Clay offers his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Shaking it, Kenny smiles and says, “You, too.” Turning to Professor Falconer, he says, “Sir, I'm ready for a rematch whenever-”
“Don't leave on my account,” Clay interrupts. “I was hoping to have a quick shower followed by several hours of sleep.”
“Do you have your luggage,” Professor Falconer inquires.
“In the rental outside,” Clay answers.
“Go take a shower, kiddo, and I'll bring it in and have Alva set up the guestroom for you,” Professor Falconer says.
“Thank you. Sorry to interrupt your game,” he apologises.
“It's not a problem,” Professor Falconer insists.
Once George has gotten Clay settled in the bathroom, he finds the front door slightly ajar and looks out the window to see Kenny unloading the luggage.
Sighing, he goes to the kitchen and sees Alva is sewing a button on what he suspects is Kenny's jacket. “Alva, Clay's going to be staying here. I'm not sure for how long. Is that Mister Potter's jacket?”
Nodding, Alva answers, “I'll set up the guestroom in a few minutes, Professor. His button fell off. The iron should be done getting warm soon.”
“Alva, there's no need to-”
“Professor Falconer, ever since Mister Jim's death, there isn't much for me to do. You keep everything so clean on your own, and Miss Charlotte hardly ever comes over.”
“If you would-”
“I'm too old for classes,” she informs him. “Go finish your chess game.”
“You're never too old to learn,” he counters. “I’m going to call Charley. Tell Kenny to leave the luggage in the guestroom.”
After Charley has been convinced not to come over and Clay is soundly asleep, George and Kenny resume their game.
“I’m sorry about all this,” George says.
Kenny grins. “This is the most exciting Saturday I've had in a while. I didn't know Ms Williams had a son, let alone any grandchildren.” He studies the board for a moment. “Sir, what did he mean by his daughter taking after her mother in colour?”
“Mary's a Negro,” George answers. He moves a pawn. “Charlotte's always been supportive of the relationship, but the same isn't true for her ex-husband. I sometimes think,” he muses, “that Clay marrying Mary was the last straw for their marriage.”
After a few silent moves, George looks up and catches Kenny's eyes. “I can hear you thinking, Kenny. You should know by now that, whether we disagree or not, you can always speak freely around me.”
“Sometimes, I wonder why people take the risk,” he finally says. “People like you and Mr Ackerley, and Mr Williams and his wife. I understand the answer's to keep fighting social stigmatisation. But still, sometimes, I wonder- I don't know.”
“I'm afraid I don't have the answer,” George replies. “In the case of Jim and I- well, we were mostly able to go unnoticed. The important people knew, and the unimportant people either didn't or were content to keep their suspicions to themselves. The discrimination Clay and Mary face, the discrimination that will only get worse for Elisabeth as she grows older, is different. I suppose it comes down to deciding whether one has it within themselves to face the daily battle of an unforgiving society.”
“But you can't answer why.”
“I don't imagine anyone can. 'Love makes fools of us all, big and little,' as our friend Mr Thackeray put it. I never intended to fall in love with Jim, but I wasn't given much choice in the matter. I simply did, and much like you, he was brave, almost to the point of foolhardiness, and refused to let me live a life of solitude and celibacy.”
“You think I'm brave?”
“I know you are. There are times, Mister Potter, that I wonder if you deliberately hide how truly fearless you truly are.”
“Why would I do that, sir?”
“So as to not scare off those who aren't as brave,” George answers as Kenny wins the game.
For supper, George cooks hamburgers and opens a bag of potato chips.
“I haven't had soda in ages,” Clay says. “Thank you for doing this, Uncle George.”
“It's good to have you, kiddo,” George answers. “A colleague of mine has a brother-in-law who specialises in unusual family cases. If you'd like, I can see if he'd be willing to take yours.”
Nodding, Clay says, “I know that Mary's parents are already trying to convince her to keep Elisabeth away from me. I can't let that happen, Uncle George. Whether she looks completely Negro or not, she's my daughter, and I have a right to be a part of her life.”
“I completely agree,” George assures him. Leaning back, he gently asks, “You do understand, don't you, that it might turn out that your race is the only solid advantage you have, to the point of it may be your best shot as a defence?”
Sighing, Clay looks down.
Reaching over, George pats his shoulder. “I'm sorry. Now really isn't the best time to discuss this, is it? Let's have a nice evening, and tomorrow, we can start worrying about everything else.”
“That sounds swell to me,” Clay answers. Taking a bite of his burger, he says, “So. The man who was here earlier. Is he like Uncle Jim?”
“Oh, for heaven sakes,” George mutters. “I don't know what I'm going to do with you and your mother. Clay, he's about five years younger than you.”
“Uncle Jim was younger than-”
“The age difference between Jim and I, while significant, wasn't that drastic. Do you realise that while I was helping your mother bathe you and taking pictures of you on your first day of school, Kenny was little more than a newborn?”
“But he is a homosexual?”
“I don't know,” George answers. “I don't feel it's my business. And it most certainly isn't yours, young man.”
“You like him,” is Clay’s simple reply.
“He's a friend,” George responds. “He saved my life, and he knows about Jim. Along with your mother, I count him as one of my closest friends. The difference is, he and I can discuss literature.”
“Debating Asimov suddenly isn't good enough for you,” Clay jokes.
Reaching over, George ruffles his hair.
In the bedroom of his best friend, Lois Yamaguchi, Kenny asks, “Do you think I'm fearless?”
Lois blows out the smoke. “You're impulsive and optimistic,” she answers. “You like to think you're cynical, but when it comes down to it, no matter how many times you're kicked down, you keep believing that getting back up will eventually result in something better.”
“Professor Falconer says he thinks I deliberately hide my bravery.”
“Brave, scared witless, it doesn't matter,” she says. “The brave people need someone to defend, and the cowards need someone to defend them. If there's no one to defend, what's their purpose? And if there's no one defending them, they're screwed.”
“Something about what he said, though- maybe the way he said it.”
“There are two differences between him and Benny Clyde: One,” she says, “is that he actually has an attraction to other men, and two, he's got a lot more than a year and a half up on you.”
“He doesn't make fun of my-”
“Kenny, everyone makes fun of your continuing devotion to weekend cartoons. If the professor doesn't, that's only because you've made the sensible decision to not tell him.”
“You still make your parents pay fifty extra cents just so you can read the Sunday morning comics.”
“There are bullshit reasons people are harassed, and then, there are legitimate reasons to mock people. Publicly gushing over cartoons past the age of ten, maybe thirteen, is one of them. I keep my shameful secret private because I recognise that my enjoyment of something aimed at pre-school children is-”
“You always go on about the witty dialogue and subtle social commentary.”
“My contentment with not moving is the only thing saving you from being smothered.”
They find themselves laughing.
When they stop, she gropes around and finds his hand. “You tried to seduce him that night he had his second heart attack. I can read between the lines, y'know. And you've eased since then, but the truth is you still dream of him waking up and seeing what's standing in front of him. For as long as I've known you, you've been afraid of a lot of things, but when you've felt a connection to someone, you've gone after them, even when you knew it was a stupid idea that could get you hurt. Bravery, stupidity, whatever, not many people have the instinct to take that kind of risk, especially once they find themselves burnt once or twice.”
“Where does me hiding that come in?”
“It's just who you are.”
“I don't understand.”
“I don't think I understand, right now,” she confesses with a laugh and pokes the air.
Later in the week, George represses a yawn and says, “Come in, Kenny.”
“If this is a-”
“No, of course not,” George says. He motions for Kenny to step inside. “Clay has been working non-stop on reading through legal briefs. I finally had to lock them up and threaten to call Charley. He's sleeping.”
“You sound- I don't know,” Kenny notes.
George closes the door. “I sound like a man who's done this before. Clay had a rather severe case of colic as an infant, and Elisabeth refused to go to bed the last time she visited.”
Starting to make a place for Kenny to sit, George asks, “What’s on your mind, Mister Potter?”
“I got the job.”
Pausing, George turns and wraps Kenny in a hug. “Good,” he says. “I’m very proud of you, Kenny.”
Returning the hug, Kenny sighs. “Thank you, sir.”
Breaking it, George asks, “When do you start? You understand I’m required to tell Alva. If she isn’t allowed to throw you a party, I fear she’ll take extreme measures to terminate my employment of her.”
“I start next Monday,” Kenny answers. “Sir, it really isn’t necessary-”
“It is to her,” George insists. “And to me. It’ll be difficult and sometimes painful, but I believe this will be a wonderful experience for you.”
“Do you think I could use this to convince her to attend some classes,” Kenny wonders.
“I certainly won’t dissuade you from trying,” George answers. “Don’t be too nervous. You’re more than qualified.”
Kenny nods. “I just- This is important. I could make life-changing differences in people’s lives.”
Softly, George responds, “Kenny, what do you think you’ve done? It’s no secret what I was planning last year; not to you, at least. It seems, Mister Potter, you have an innate ability to change lives within you. There will be times you can’t save someone, a fact you need to be prepared for, and when that happens, you might realise that working there is detrimental to your well-being. If that happens, I assure you no one important will think any less of you. But until it becomes necessary to make such decisions, I sincerely and completely believe you will do provide invaluable help.”
“Thank you, sir,” he answers. “Especially for your recommendation. Are you sure a celebration is a good idea? With Mr Williams’s-”
“Relaxing outside of sleep for a few hours is exactly what Clay needs,” George assures him.
“Hello, Professor,” Alva calls from the backdoor. “I noticed Mister Kenny’s motorcycle.”
“Hi, Alva,” Kenny calls. He heads towards the kitchen. “You know that job I applied for at the crisis hotline?”
At the party, Charley and George sit and watch Kenny and Lois dance. “He is rather young,” she acknowledges.
“Yes, he is,” George pointedly agrees. “I like to consider myself something of a father-figure to him.”
“You like to, darling, but it doesn’t mean you are.”
Sighing, George remembers Kenny stripping down when they went swimming.
He remembers Kenny later running around in his trousers, and then, just a towel.
For all his heartbreak over Jim and depression with life in general, George was still a sexual being who reacted to such things, if only in the safety of his own head.
Privately, he’ll admit the deeper friendship he’s developed with the brave, interesting, kind, young (too young) man has only intensified his lust. It’s lust, however, and George has never been one to have causal sex.
Assuming Kenny was genuinely interested and George could manage to believe this, any non-platonic physical additions would be disassociated from their emotional relationship. Kenny is too young and free to be involved with someone like him. He still lives with his parents, has all sorts of dreams for the future, and aside from Lois, he’s never been in a relationship with anyone.
George knows Kenny will do great things, see some of his dreams come true, and experience so many different things: some will be wonderful, some will terrible, and some will be utterly forgettable.
He sometimes wonders if he should hope or fear his time with Kenny will end up being the latter.
Charley, he can see, is distinctly unimpressed.
She leans against him. “I can see your thoughts.” Sighing, she continues, “Do you remember that night, George? When I accused you of not having something real with Jim?”
“Of course, I do. It’s not the thing one tends to forget.”
“I was wrong, and I’m sorry,” she says. “You’ve heard that, before, I know. But I am. Now, you’re doing the same thing. You’re making the decision for Kenny that he wouldn’t be interested, that he isn’t mature enough, that something between you will never be real.”
“Charley, I don’t even know if-”
“You know that, if you asked, he’d give you an honest answer.”
Because he will never tell her the truth of what he almost did before his second heart attack, George can’t explain how he truly doesn’t know.
The second time Kenny stripped in front of him, he’d looked at George in expectation, and George has never found the courage to ask what the expectation was for. He knows Kenny would do almost anything for people he cares about, and he knows how worried Kenny was for him.
Regardless of Kenny’s preferences, George is miserably unsure Kenny wouldn’t have fallen into bed with him solely in an effort to help keep George grounded. He doesn’t know if Kenny wouldn’t do the same now if George made his interest explicit due to a combination of admiration and wanting to please someone he cares about.
“Go dance with your son, Charlotte,” he orders, “before he sneaks back into my office and breaks the papers out.”
Kissing him, she complies.
After the party has ended, Alva physically pushes Kenny and Clay outside. “Out! You two will just wake the others if you try helping.”
Clay laughs when the door clicks shut. “Is there anything good to do around here at this hour?”
“How do you feel about swimming?”
“As long as it doesn’t require a bathing suit,” Clay answers.
Smiling, Kenny nods for him to follow.
At the lake, they swim until they’re too cold and tired.
After they make a fire, Clay comments, “You took my uncle here.”
“Yeah,” Kenny agrees. “He scared me to death by almost drowning. He cut his forehead.”
Clay sits with a thoughtful look on his face for a long moment. “He told me you know about Jim.”
“Losing him almost killed Professor Falconer,” Kenny answers. “I didn’t know about him for a long time. It’s just, one day, Professor Falconer was normal. Then, he misses a class and comes back different. That day, I could just feel something was even more wrong than usual.”
When Clay responds, his voice is full of discomfort, “Then, I hope you can understand me asking you to be careful with him. He’s extremely fond of you, and I’m not sure what you- what your feelings are. As my uncle said, it’s none of my business. But if you’re interested in him in such a way, just, please, be careful.”
Kenny examines him closely. “Fair enough. But he might be the one to hurt me.”
Clay laughs, catches himself, and says, “I apologise. I just can’t imagine Uncle George intentionally hurting anyone. He loves too deeply for that.”
He loves so deeply, Kenny thinks with a surge of bitterness, he refused to bother anyone with his the true extent of his pain even when it got to point he was planning suicide.
Kenny saw the letters, the keys, and the money for Alva in the freezer. He’s not sure what the sleeping bag was for, but some morbid part of him fears Professor Falconer was planning to make clean-up as minimum as possible.
As much as he respects Professor Falconer, Kenny hates what he had planned.
Obviously, he’d never say such things to him or a caller. Suicide is a morally neutral action, is one of the first things he’s supposed to say, and on one level, he honestly believes suicidal people are simply people who are dealing with intolerable pain and need kindness and help in getting past the pain enough to see the better options available.
Yet, he also finds this sort of selflessness utterly selfish. Kenny wouldn’t have been okay if Professor Falconer had gone through with it or if he’d died of the heart attack. Neither would have Alva, Ms Williams, her son, or her granddaughter.
He sees Clay is looking at him with wary curiosity, and whatever his complicated feelings on the matter are, if he can help it, he’ll never tell any of the people involved about what was being planned. He asks, “Can I ask you a highly personal question?”
“Why did I marry a Negro?”
Sighing, Clay leans back. “Away from home, from everything I’d ever known, I felt disconnected. Then, I met Mary, and suddenly, I felt connected. I was back to being me. And my mother and Uncle George had always taught me to pursue happiness, even if it was risky.”
“She felt the same way, and we swore society and disapproving family members wouldn’t tear us apart. The happiest day in my life was when Elisabeth was born. I knew what it meant, but still, I was happy she had her mama’s skin and hair. She has my eyes, you know.”
“But society did.”
“Sometimes, people get lucky, like Uncle George did,” Clay answers. “He had over two decades with a person he was connected to. And in the end, it was death rather than choice that separated them.” Clay shakes his head. “Sometimes, love really isn’t just enough. Luck doesn’t always hold. I got twelve years, and I have my little girl. In the end, I think I’d do it all over again.”
“If there’s anything I can do,” Kenny offers.
“Keep being a good friend to him. If you become more, be careful. I’m happy he’s found someone besides Mum he has a connection with.”
When they come back, Clay makes his daily morning call to Mary and Elisabeth while Kenny has coffee with George.
“Thank you for taking Clay out,” George tells him.
“He’s a swell guy,” Kenny answers.
He looks around.
Alva has left, Lois is still snoring on the couch, and Charlotte has yet to emerge from the Clay’s room.
“Sir, I’m going to speak freely to you.”
Looking up, George says in surprise, “Of course, Kenny.”
“I don’t know what I am. But what I do know is that the connection I feel with you isn’t completely platonic. If you’re not interested, I hope we can keep being close friends. I promise I won’t bring up again. If you are, though, I am old enough to know I want to see if you and I could forge a different, deeper connection.”