Elias Clayton liked to be up before the sun to help prepare breakfast and coffee. He’d been working for Martha Kent for almost a full week and had always managed to be in the kitchen before she was up. He enjoyed the conversations with the older widow, and Martha seemed to enjoy them in kind (she would tell the women in her Bible study group that “Elias radiated warmth and had a very kind smile…for a colored boy.”).
On this particular morning, when Elias came down the stairs from washing up, he was surprised to see a tall and broad-shouldered man at the stove, frying sausage and eggs in the cast iron skillet. He wore a loose-fitting tee shirt and a pair of grey jersey pants, and turned to meet Elias’s eyes with a warm grin.
“You must be Mister Clayton,” said the bespectacled man in quiet tones, “I’m Clark, Martha’s son,” he extended his right hand while moving the skillet somewhat clumsily with his left.
“The same, but you can call me Elias,” he said, shaking the young man’s hand. “Good grip you got there, Clark. Pleased to meet you. Missus Kent says such nice things about you. Strong family resemblance there,” Elias chuckled softly. “Why don’t I start some coffee, how do you take it?”
“A lotta cream and a lotta sugar, I’m afraid,” replied Clark, returning to his skillet. To a trained ear, Clark had the slightest hint of a Kansas accent.
“I was young once too,” remarked Elias with another chuckle. He sneaked a glance into the living room and noticed a dress shirt and dark navy suit thoughtfully draped over an easy chair; there was a sheet and a crocheted afghan folded on one side of the couch.
“Elias this must be the earliest you’ve been– Clark!” came a shout from Martha, who practically skipped into the rapidly shrinking kitchen to wrap her arms around her hulking son. “Whenever did you arrive?”
“Late,” said Clark, plating the greasy and sausage-flecked eggs, and giving the sausage patties their final flip. “Perry has me researching a story in Kansas City so I wanted to stay here and get an early start.”
“Does that mean you won’t be staying tonight?” Martha asked, thanking Elias for her coffee (a little cream and that’ll do,) and sitting at the small breakfast table.
“Unfortunately, I’ll be leaving after breakfast, but depending on how things go, I may come back and stay tonight, and get on the road real early tomorrow morning to head back east.” Clark placed a plate of eggs in front of each setting at the table, and put the plate of sausages on a serving plate in the middle of it all, pushing the napkin holder to the side.
Clark held out his hand to his mother, and hesitantly to Elias. The trio bowed their heads and Clark spoke a soft blessing over the meal.
“Lord, we are thankful for our food, our farm, our family, and our health. Continue to bless us in all we do,” he concluded.
“Amen,” all three voices said.
Clark took a sip of his coffee, remarking that it was perfect to Elias, and the three started a conversation.
“Ma mentioned you’ve been really lightening the work load around here,” Clark said. “I know she can use the help.”
“Ever since the last boy–“ she began, only to be interrupted by a sharp Ma! from her son, “I’m sorry, there was a young man by the name of Virgil, Virgil Hawkins, but he got a letter from his father about his mother passing away so he had to head back to Dakota to help his daddy,” a sigh. “I told him I’d let him come back anytime, but that was seven months ago, almost to the day before you showed up. I’d just as soon let him come work for me again, but I’d be a little shocked if he returned.
“Well, you saw the state of things when you arrived Elias, the whole farm was a mess, but you’ve been absolutely indispensable so far and it’s such a blessing that you’ve been able to help out around here,” she concluded her praises with clasped hands and a sighing smile.
“It’s just nice to find work without having to go back east, I’d like to go to Hollywood,” Elias said wistfully. “…well, someday,” he added.
“Hollywood?” Clark asked, an eyebrow arched out above the rim of his glasses.
“Yessir,” Elias beamed. “I’ve always enjoyed playing a part, and I want to see if I can’t make it in tinseltown. For now, I’m saving my pennies, but with the way your mother is so…fair in compensating me, I figure I might be here a little longer than I expected.”
“Fascinating,” Clark seemed enrapt by the warmth in Elias’s voice. “Is there much work in Hollywood for, um…”
“For colored men?” Elias supplied with a smile (and Clark audibly sighed relief), “I think there might be. Always thought of Noble Johnson as a bit of a hero of mine – you ever see ‘The Realization Of A Negro’s Ambition,’ – well, I’m sure you haven’t, it only really played in colored cinemas, but it’s a heck of a story,” Elias’s eyes brightened, and it was evident he was talking about a truly foundational moving picture for him. “..heck of a story! Saw it in August of seventeen, right before I got shipped off to France. It kept me more than a little hopeful when things got bad over there that an all negro company was making films for negroes. Mmm.”
“Wow,” Clark glanced at his mother who was finishing off the last of a sausage patty, smiling and chewing while Elias described his dream, “I can’t say I knew much about that film or that motion picture company, but that’s alright to hear, Elias!” Clark was smiling now as well.
The three finished breakfast with a discussion of Clark’s career, his life in the big city, and some polite chat – Martha wouldn’t countenance any stories of particular violence – about Elias’s time in Europe.
After washing up, Clark and Elias walked out onto the Kent farm, with Clark pointing out some things that he thought his mother hadn’t mentioned (she had mentioned every point, in almost the same order), and Elias showed Clark the new, almost-finished chicken coop that he planned to have finished up by that same afternoon.
Clark shook hands with Elias, the pair saying goodbye to one another, and the older man flexing his hand as he reached for his hammer to get back to work.
The pride of Smallville headed back toward the house with a cautious-but-genuine smile, and Elias, a man who never could pride himself on his propensity for minding his own business, saw through the window as the mother and son embraced in a deep hug.
As Clark Kent left his mother’s farm, Elias Clayton was already working up a sweat from hammering, enjoying the fair-paying labor, the genuine hospitality, and the sudden breeze.
As lunchtime approached, with the sun high in the Kansas sky, Elias finished the chicken coop, as he’d predicted he would. He gave it a few tests for stability, and opened and closed the door several times to try the used hinges he’d found in the late Mr. Kent’s tool shed.
It was when he was rehoming the chickens that Martha Kent appeared in the yard with a glass of lemonade and a critic’s eye on the new coop.
“This looks quite a bit better than the old one,” she said, handing Elias the drink and patting him on the shoulder. “What say we go into town for some things – I need to see the butcher and get some items from the market – and I’ll make us a nice supper when we get back?”
“That sounds nice, ma’am,” Elias replied, taking a deep swig of the lemonade (which was much too sweet for his taste).
Elias finished transferring the nesting from the old coop, and then jogged to catch up with his employer.
Elias dragged a soapy washcloth across the back of his neck and washed his face and hands thoroughly, and came down the stairs looking more like someone going to work than like someone who’d finished the laborious part of his workday already.
Mrs. Kent turned around to see Elias at the base of the stairs and jumped (but only a little).
The ride in the truck was rough, as usual, and Elias (once again) suggested that Martha replace the front passenger side tire; the spare had been on it since before Elias had arrived, and the patches and wear on the tread didn’t bode well for a trip downtown-and-back.
Somehow, they made it to Downtown Smallville, which was much more of a Main Street with shops and a single saloon than what someone from a proper city would call “downtown.”
Elias bought himself two peaches at the market, and pulled a flyer off the bulletin board. It concerned a missing cat that he was almost certain he’d seen near the farm. He bit into one of the peaches, the sweet juices almost running down his chin, and decided that would be his lunch, and the other would be nice to press into a peppery pit sauce that he’d overheard some folks in town discussing, and then, as was his fashion, asked them to describe so that he could recreate it at home.
“Elias I can’t help but notice how excitable you seem right now, what ever is the matter?” Martha asked as they walked the half-block to the butcher’s shop.
“I was thinking, if you’d be alright with it that is, that I could make us some beef ribs on the grill for supper. I think I’ve got a pretty nice recipe from some folks I met at the market, and it’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to really cook.”
“I was going to make a casserole – chicken divan used to be Johnathan’s favorite – but I suppose we can have that tomorrow instead. You’ll need to clean the grill though, that thing hasn’t been used in ages. And I do mean before and after you cook, Elias.”
Elias paid for the meat himself at the butcher’s, and Martha noted that the smile didn’t leave his face since she’d given him leave to use the grill.
The smile didn’t leave Elias’s face until the flat tire, and Elias was able to hide his irritation at Mrs. Kent for not heeding his warnings, even when she said exclaimed “Well how did that happen?” as the tire dragged on the rim.
“We’ll need to walk back to town,” Martha said, mostly to herself. “Lucky for us we’re only about a mile out.”
Elias offered to go alone, but Martha wouldn’t hear of it, so the two made the journey in relative quiet with Martha muttering her surprise at the situation and Elias alternating between carrying the tire and rolling it along the ground.
At the service station, the pair had the tire replaced (with a used tire, but one in much better shape than before) and put on the rim, and the technician, Albert Anderson, was even kind enough to offer Elias and Martha a ride back to the truck – though, because of space constraints (and refreshingly, not because of bigotry) – Elias had to ride in the bed with the tire, which he didn’t mind too much.
After thanking Mr. Anderson, Martha and Elias got to work putting the tire onto the truck, which took less time than either of them had expected; a pleasant surprise.
“Would you mind driving, Elias?” Martha asked. “When the sun starts to get lower on the horizon, I have quite a bit of trouble seeing the road.”
Elias enjoyed driving, and fulfilled Martha’s request with a smile, and the duo started on their way back to the farm.
“Looks like we may be having that casserole tonight,” Elias noted; the sun was nearly below the horizon and knowing that grilling in the dark would be, by and large, nothing but a fast way to ruin some good meat.
“Oh, that’ll do just nicely I think,” Martha responded. “Maybe tomorrow instead, and then you’ll have more time to work on the meat.”
“Sounds good to me!” Elias said, licking his lips.
Not too far from home, but still far enough that they couldn’t see the farm yet, a sheriff’s car appeared in the sideview mirror, causing Elias to instinctively slow down just a bit.
“They’re not after you, Elias, keep going, Bill will just pass us if he’s in a hurry,” Martha said, glancing back at the car. He increased his pace, and sure enough, the sheriff sped past them on the left, eliciting a private sigh of relief from Elias.
The tension quickly returned as they caught up with the sheriff’s vehicle, which was in the middle of the road with the light on. Sheriff Bill Bunson stood outside with his hand extended in the universal sign for “stop.”
And so Elias did.
Sherriff Bunson sauntered to the driver’s side of the truck, and Elias noted that his hand was hovering near his sidearm. Elias put both hands on the wheel and Martha fixed her face into quite an irritated look, crossing her arms in the process.
“What in the heck is the problem, Bill?” Martha spat.
“One moment, missus Kent,” the officer replied. “Could you step out of your vehicle, son?”
Elias was certain that he was older than this babyfaced sheriff, but he complied, speaking his movements out loud along the way.
“I’m taking my hands off the wheel to open the door, sir.”
“I’m opening the door now, and exiting the vehicle, sir.”
“Oh stop it,” Martha exited the truck as well. “Bill, what’s this all about?” Martha demanded.
“Coupla folks in town said they saw this man steal a pair of peaches from the market.”
“Steal? If you’ll excuse me, sheriff, I purchased those peaches…” Elias protested, irritated, but trying to contain it. “…sir.” he hastily added.
“Did missus Kent witness you purchase the peaches?” Bill retorted.
Elias glanced very briefly at Martha, wondering if it was her intention to lie for him. He had purchased the peaches, of course, but he was mostly sure that Martha hadn’t seen it.
“The check out girl was Annabelle!” Elias offered, and Martha shooed him with a hand.
“I saw him pay for those. He was in line just in front of me,” Martha made no effort to hide her annoyance at all of this. “Get back in the truck Elias.”
Elias kept eye contact with the sheriff, backing very slowly toward the door of the old pickup truck.
“Now dammit, don’t try to undermine me, Martha!” Bill shouted the command. “You’ll wait until I tell you you can get back in the car, son!” the sheriff said more firmly, turning a bit red in the face.
“I’m not trying to undermine ya Billy, I just want to get home!” Martha offered as a reply. “We just had to walk a mile and a half back downtown to get this tire. I mean – who was it even told you he stole peaches?”
“I had multiple witnesses.”
“Oh baloney! Get in the car, Elias.”
Elias’s heart was beating faster than usual, but he didn’t begin to panic until Bill Bunson drew his gun and pointed it directly at him.
Elias tried to remain calm, but he didn’t think that Martha was helping the situation, even if she wasn’t wrong.
“Sheriff Bunson, I have no inclination to disobey your orders. Can you please put the gun down?” Elias’s voice shook just a bit, and the boy was clearly nervous too, this may have been the first time he’d brandished his gun in a traffic stop.
Bill kept his weapon trained on Elias.
“Afraid we need to take you in. Please turn around and put your hands behind your back,” he commanded, holstering the weapon and approaching a compliant Elias. “Peaches in the truck, boy?”
“Brown paper bag,” Elias conceded as Bill cuffed him. “Only one of them in there. Ate the other.”
“Hmm,” grunted the officer.
“This is an outrage!” Martha yelled, but not in the direction of the two men. “Absolutely unconscionable how you’re treating my farmhand! Don’t you worry Elias, I’ll come down and sort this all out.”
Elias felt a sudden, unexpected breeze on an otherwise dry day, and heard the sudden, sharp gasp of the sheriff, accompanied by a noise like a sail in the wind.
Bunson didn’t finish handcuffing Elias.
“Su-Superman!?” The sherriff managed a panicked whisper, and Elias turned very slowly to see the Man of Steel floating above the ground, between the sheriff and Martha, arms crossed and looking down at Bill like a schoolteacher might look down at a troublesome student.
“What seems to be the problem here, officer?” he asked in a calm-but-authoritative baritone.
“THIS ONE WAS ACCUSED OF STEALING PEACHES FROM THE MARKET!” answered the sheriff in what must’ve been an unintentional shout.
“Witnesses?” came the voice of Superman.
“Just Sara Billups and Penny Paisley,” Bill said (at a much more reasonable volume).
“Mmhmm,” Superman nodded. If Elias didn’t know any better, he would’ve swore the flying man was smirking. “And how old are these witnesses?”
“School girls, Superman! Can’t be a day older than thirteen!” Martha shouted.
“Well it stands to reason,” Superman began, “that these two young ladies should probably be in school, and not bearing false witness against kindly widows or their farmhands. Aren’t sheriff’s and deputies also responsible for school truancy in Kansas, officer?” Superman’s toes very gently touched the ground, and he took a step toward Bill, who trembled.
“Yes sir,” Bill gulped. “I suppose I could check Mr. Clayton’s story with the check counter girl.”
“I suppose you could,” Superman agreed.
Superman reached out to Elias, taking him gently by the wrist and flicking the hinge of the locked steel bracelet, breaking the handcuff with absolutely no effort.
The giant, dark-haired man in the cape tossed the broken handcuffs at the sheriff.
“You’ll need to get a new pair of these, I think,” he quipped.
Bill Bunson bent down and retrieved the broken cuffs, shaking his head, and muttering whispers of disbelief to himself.
“Just gonna go follow up with those truants,” he said, getting back into the police car and driving back towards downtown without even an apology.
“Please try to be careful, folks,” Superman said. “You’ll want to back up, and maybe close your ears.”
Elias and Martha both did just that, and Superman flew off without another word; faster than any airplane Elias had ever seen.
Elias couldn’t help but notice that Martha Kent didn’t seem at all annoyed any longer. She smiled with the satisfaction of accomplishment, as though she had dispatched the sheriff herself.
When they arrived back at the farm, the sun was practically gone from the sky, but it cast the horizon into a kaleidoscope of oranges, pinks, and violets.
Elias pulled the truck onto the empty gravel drive, still a bit shook up from the evening’s events. He took a bag of groceries from Martha, who insisted on at least carrying one, and turned to the house, only to find Clark Kent standing on the front porch, in his loose-fitting tee shirt and grey jersey pants, and with an apron to boot. He trotted down the steps and kissed his mother on the head, relieving her of the bag.
“Started making some supper. Hope casserole is alright with you two!” He said with an excited smile.
“Whaddaya know?” Elias finished swallowing his last bite of the chicken divan. “This young man can cook!”
“Thank you,” Clark said with a sincere smile. “Ma is an excellent teacher – have seconds if you want them!”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Elias remarked, reaching for the serving spoon. “It’s a real shame you have to leave so early tomorrow. I’ll be grilling some beef ribs out back for supper. I got a recipe for a special pit sauce that I’m itching to try.”
Clark continued to smile.
“If you could see your way to making them for lunch, I could leave a little later,” Clark said. “I’d just have to go into town for a couple hours to check into some things at the library, and call the press desk at the paper,” the boy looked genuinely hopeful.
“No trouble at all,” Elias smiled back. He thought for a moment. Elias hadn’t seen another car in the drive. “If you’re taking the truck when you head downtown tomorrow, could you get a new spare tire?”
Clark and Martha exchanged glances.
“Um, no problem,” he replied. “Trouble with the truck?”
Martha, seeming to have been snapped back from a daydream, shook her head and began telling Clark the story about “Billy-Bunson-who-your-daddy-used-to-coach-in-little-league,” and the trouble he’d given Elias earlier, and the three of them chatted about the story until it was time to clean up for the evening.
“Elias, lunch was really something else. I’ve never seen Ma eat like that,” Clark chuckled. “Why don’t we take a quick walk so I can have a look at that new chicken coop?”
Elias thought he knew what was coming next. A walk like this would begin quite cordially, but would end with Clark telling Elias that he was being let go for one reason or another, offering only a week’s severance and a hastily written letter of recommendation.
The two walked down toward the poultry pen, and Elias told Clark about his impressions of Kansas, and Smallville, and Mrs. Kent. He tried to be honest, but not to give any inclination that he felt unwelcome. And Clark told Elias about his work as a journalist, and how it’d always been a dream of his to write for The Daily Planet.
“Elias, I’m glad I had the pleasure of meeting you,” Clark interrupted his own story of working for the Smallville Ledger (first as a paperboy, but eventually as a reporter) with a non sequitur. “Ma is someone I care about very deeply, she’s really all I have left, and, well,” Clark sighed heavily, and Elias removed his hat to acknowledge the gravity of the moment. “People in Smallville talk. And, how do I put this, you being the um, second colored farmhand in a row, I just wouldn’t want to find out anything untoward had happened to substantiate the less savory rumors. Do you understand?”
Elias blushed a bit at the tension and awkwardness of the conversation, but then smiled, and calmly replied:
“You got nothin’ to worry about young man,” he pulled a small, silver wedding band from a chain around his neck, showing Clark the ring. “Lost my wife just about a year ago, and I reckon the thing motivating me to get out west is that we always talked about going out there together,” Elias’s eyes began to glisten. “She was such a fine damn woman, if you’ll excuse my cursing, and she would’ve changed the way America thought about colored women.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Elias,” Clark said, wiping his own eyes. “I appreciate you being so candid with me. Pa died a little more than a year ago, and I–”
“–Y’all hug in Kansas?” Elias smiled, opening his arms.
Superman and Alfred Pennyworth shared a heartfelt and emotional embrace before the former took his leave, apparently satisfied that his mother would be safe with her new farmhand.