“The thing then is, Ken, remember your dad, keep out of strange beds and wash your neck reg’lar,” Uncle Joe had said. “Son, you’re a man now.” Ken’s breath had been stilled as he listened. “You’re leaving home,” continued homely Uncle Joe. “You’ve been pampered a bit too much. Folks call this Texas, and Texas it is to us older ones—but to you, Texas could be New York or Chicago or most anywhere.”
That was Uncle Joe.
Dad was different. Dad was thin. Uncle Joe was fat. Uncle Joe’s clothes hung about him loose-like. Dad’s fit. But Ken more or less liked Uncle Joe because he was so human. Dad, of course, was human—a sweet, reasonable father, worried by failing eyes and failing business—but for a young fellow, take Uncle Joe.
The car turned into the Camino and Ken took a look at Weber’s Drug Store. Funny to be leaving it, leaving the Coca Cola cowboys and Ike and his son, Dave, and the jolt of alkie that Ike served with lemon phosphate straight. Code—code for a slug of alkie and that dizzy feeling and dad with his Presbyterian manners and thin mouth setting itself like a line dividing heaven and hell.
Here on the corner of Alamo, the church. Ken sat straight. Indefinable his reactions toward the church. He did love Jesus. Not that pale Jesus of Mr. Barton’s dry sermons, but the lush vivid-cheeked Christ who had appeared to him as in a vision a long, long time ago . . . or had his vision been a forgotten dream?
Ken turned away from the church. Why, he did not know. At seventeen one does not decide whether one shall conform or dissent—that is, a he-man does not; and Ken concluded that as of this July morning, straight in the back seat of Mr. Lowell’s Packard, he was mighty glad to get away from Mr. Barton’s First Presbyterian Church of Selma.
“Comfortable, boy?” said Mr. Lowell.
“I’m all right,” said Ken.
“Homesick already?” the older man placed a hand on Ken’s sleeve and smiled.
“No,” replied Ken flatly. Mr. Lowell looked out of the window. The car passed the two low Spanish-type buildings of Selma High. Ken felt a sharp, prickling sensation in his throat. Selma High was disappearing in the dust haze as Johnson stepped on the gas; and Selma High did mean a lot to Ken Gracey. That there frame house back of the school on Council Street—what laughs at what dirty stories! And the gym! To be free, young and white in that gym . . . to stretch long arms and legs, to take in deep, sweet breaths, to ride the horse, row the machine, race Bud and Bill and Lee. And beat them, what’s more, beat them! In basketball to rise up, up and up . . . learning form, dribbling, tip-offs, the intricate signals of “Doc” Weston, the keen technique that brings one to success—success—center in the Dallas game—four fouls, three goals, applause and fame.
The town dwindled into flat sandy prairie. Ken turned to Mr. Lowell and said: “Makes one sure feel sorta wobbly, this going away from home.”
“Ken,” said Mr. Lowell, “home is where you love. In California you will learn to love a new home, a gloriously beautiful home. My boy, I’m a born Texan. I shall always come back to these barren acres because here did the seed of me sprout. And in the bitter future, I shall be borne back to Texas soil and here shall I eternally rest. But, Kenneth, I am taking you into the great world. This summer, we shall live in Southern California. Next winter in Miami. Next spring in Paris. You must always hold Texas close and dear to you. But Texas, great as she is, is but a fragment. The world, Ken—that is your apple pie. Cut it—as you will.”
Ken—seventeen—thrilled to these inspired words. The older man—old because of his graying Van Dyck, with his slanting watery-blue eyes, his oddly precise manner of clipping his words, his neatly tailored clothes, his ivoryheaded stick, his faintly perfumed breath—placed that square-tipped-fingered hand again upon Ken’s sleeve.
“My boy,” he said, “you make me very happy.”
If Ken was making Mr. Lowell happy, Mr. Lowell was leading Ken to Kingdom Come. At this moment when Dawson County was ending and roadside signs about the boll weevil advertised the coming of Kent County, Ken shook his head abruptly as if to make sure that he was fully awake. He then turned to Mr. Lowell.
“Mr. Lowell,” he said, “I don’t know how you made father let me go with you.”
“It was easy,” Mr. Lowell said. “I told him you were a handsome young brute and that you deserved better than a Selma upbringing. Your father is a sensible man. If he weren’t, you’d be working in his office and you’d be settling down in Selma and marrying—or some such ridiculous thing.”
Ken listened and still did not understand. He knew that Mr. Lowell owned the Lowell Block on the Camino, that he held a mortgage on the Gracey home and that he seldom resided in the sturdy white-washed Lowell mansion opposite Selma Park. He knew that Mr. Lowell was a mysterious man, a man much feared by those who owed him money—and his father owed him back interest on a mortgage.
To have been noticed by Mr. Lowell was something. That day when Mr. Lowell made a beautiful speech to the graduating class of 1922, then dropped over to visit Ken’s father, would always be memorable to Ken.
“I want you to let me take your son with me to the Coast,” Mr. Lowell had said. “I plan to train him to be a business associate, as I have already trained so many other boys.”
Ken could not believe his ears. Yes . . . he wanted to leave Selma. He had been happy in Selma High. Mr. Coleman had praised him as an exemplary youth. He had been a basketball star. Yet he really wanted to quit Selma. What more could he do in the little Texas town? Why should he not become an associate of Mr. Lowell? Why should he not go to California?
Yet he was troubled by a persistent desire to know why Mr. Lowell had chosen him and not Lee Graham or Bill Parrott.
“How did you come to pick me out, Mr. Lowell?” he asked.
“You are a fine young animal—you are a gifted young man,” Mr. Lowell replied.
The words rattled against Ken’s ears emptily.
“But why me? There’s others.”
“Ken, I want you to enjoy this trip. Tonight, in El Paso, we shall talk.”
“This is Henry Fraser, Ken,” Mr. Lowell said. Henry Fraser, seated astride a gilt chair in the El Paso Hotel suite, puffed on a long Mexican cigarette and regarded Ken with dull eyes.
“Pleased to meetcha,” he replied. “It’s been awfully boring,” he turned to Mr. Lowell. “I told Fran I didn’t want to go to a dude ranch alone.”
Henry Fraser seemed like a sissy, Ken concluded. His clothes were too well tailored, his waist too wasplike, his affected speech and tiny moustache ridiculous.
“Fran has been too commanding,” he continued. “Too damned imperial, if you get what I mean. I always preferred you, La—”
“I want to show you the view from the bedroom window,” said Mr. Lowell suddenly. “Ken will excuse us.”
“I didn’t know. I really didn’t know,” said Henry Fraser, with curious emphasis. “I don’t care for views. Though your taste is improving. I’ll tell Fran not to worry about me.”
“Is Fran your wife?” Ken interrupted.
“Quite,” said Henry Fraser. And that ended the conversation.
Ken thought Mr. Lowell’s suite was lavish. He had stopped at the Jefferson in St. Louis on the basket-ball team’s northern jaunt last winter; but the Jefferson was a doghouse compared to this. These elegant rooms, the heavy carpets, the green and gold wainscoting, the respectful humility of the manager before Mr. Lowell—and the dinner . . . wine . . . a liqueur—then, this odd conversation, in which he took little part: he felt elated by this peep into the gilded future.
“Henry,” said Mr. Lowell politely, “Kenneth is to be my protégé. I am a lonely old man. I have no son of my own. I plan to teach Kenneth life as I see it.”
“Estimable, La, estimable,” said Henry Fraser. “You are a true philanthropist.”
“If I must say so, Henry,” Mr. Lowell spoke with unusual acerbity for Mr. Lowell, “you are rotting, positively rotting.”
Henry Fraser wore a neat polkadotted tie and a handkerchief to match. He carefully blew his nose and made an unintelligible remark.
“We’re leaving in the morning. I had planned to devote an hour or two to Ken’s curriculum at Flintridge Academy. That is, if he chooses to go to Flintridge Academy.”
“I’m sure I shan’t delay you,” said Henry Fraser. Ken thought he understood that Henry Fraser wanted to be entertained in some fashion by Mr. Lowell. But he proceeded to say goodnight and departed.
After Henry Fraser was gone, Ken asked Mr. Lowell who he was.
“An ungrateful youth, of a vile and insupportable temperament—but an old friend,” Mr. Lowell quickly added.
They sat, the young man and the old man on the Louis Quinze chaise-longue, and the broad-shouldered hazel-eyed Ken seemed frail beside the bulk of old Lowell. The tall Texas youth sat in abashed deference, waiting for his protector to speak.
“Life—that is, your life—has been simple, Ken,” Mr. Lowell began. “Too simple. I know Selma. I know you have learned to depend upon Selma people, Selma stores, Selma homes for your life.
“I am appealing now to your mind. I want you to think of me not as you think of your father, that is, not as a god nor as a man, but as a being far closer to you than either. You and I . . . we shall seek the same thing together. You shall give me youth—I shall give you wisdom.
“First you must forget Selma. When we reach California, I shall enshrine you in my most beautiful of homes. You shall possess everything there that is mine. You shall do as you please, live as you please—but become what I please.” His inflection changed with these last words. Ken fancied his dull blue eyes became sharper.
“What do you mean?” Ken asked.
“Not now—I shan’t tell you now. First I want you to live. Tell me, dear boy, what do you want most to be?”
Ken flushed as the old man stared, awaiting an answer.
“I don’t know yet.”
“I shall wait. We shall relax, stop talking, go for a walk perhaps. Or what you will.”
“Mr. Lowell,” said Ken, “I’m tired. I was up this morning at five. May I go to bed?”
“Of course—of course. I forgot. Forgive me.” Mr. Lowell sighed. “Perhaps I should turn in too. We have a long drive before us tomorrow.” He rose and offered a hand.
“My boy, believe in me—will you?”
Ken rose and faced Mr. Lowell. “I believe in nothing else.”
He was amazed at these words. He himself, he decided, was not speaking. He could not have said such a silly thing. He had always been gay, bold, certain—in Selma, in faraway Selma. The possibility of going to California with Mr. Lowell had never entered his head until that day when he was graduated.
And that was a week ago, only a week ago. Now he felt certain that he was changing so rapidly under the influence of this extraordinary old man that he could not imagine what life would have been without him.
“Like Socrates’ slave,” Mr. Lowell was saying, “you have lived in utter darkness all your life. Now in the light you are blind.
“Tomorrow—in a few days—in California, your eyes will accustom themselves to the new light and you will learn what our marvelous world—ours—yours and mine—really is. We’ll wait until then.”
Naked beneath the shower, Ken rejoiced as the sharp shafts of water played upon his firm muscles. His rippling brown hair glistened. His cheeks were flushed.
He stepped out of the shower compartment and proceeded to lave himself with thick suds, soapy foam which soon covered him like a lustrous lacy sheath.
Back into the bath—then quick darting painless stabbing cold water.
He stepped out of the shower compartment again. The thick folds of a Turkish towel embraced him. He was warm, alive, vital.
He laughed as he glanced at the clock. Twelve-thirty. He could stay awake all night. The drowsy indifference he had felt in the other room was gone. He wanted to see himself as he really was, to talk to himself so that he would understand the stranger who was being born within him.
He stood naked before the room-high mirror and could have cried with delight for the supple youthfulness of his body. Thus naked, he became truly beautiful; no blemish in the straight, graceful lines of his form. His shoulders were strong and his arms tapering. His chest was full and hairless—his stomach flat and firm. His sex was wreathed in dark, reddish-brown hair that curled with the natural abandon of a Greek statue’s.
His legs . . . here came the secret of Kenneth Gracey’s joy in living. These legs of his—long, endowed with mighty sinews and an uncommon elasticity—they gave him that speed which had won him a place on the track team and the basketball team at Selma High. They had born him to the prized goal of success in athletics. Now, as in the flush of happy vitality he began to move rhythmically, first with arms, then with legs, he felt that urge toward a dance, a wild, naked dance of pagan ecstasy. He watched himself move, facile, swaying. His legs now arched in a sweeping kick, a pivoting thrust high above his head. He spun about, hearing an unheard rhythm in the quickening pulses of his heart.
As he did so, Mr. Lowell entered the bathroom. Ken continued to dance. The old man watched him closely. Suddenly Ken stopped.
“Oh, boy!” he cried gaily.
“Happy?” Mr. Lowell asked.
“There isn’t anything else I want.” He slipped into his dressing robe. “Thanks to you.”
“Dear boy,” said Mr. Lowell, “I have given you nothing—yet.”