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The young man smiled at my uncle, glanced at me with friendly, but cautious, curiosity in his eyes. He threw the two young women a quick, apologetic glance. They nodded their consent nervously, reticent, puzzled expressions in their eyes.
I tried to cover my embarrassment with a shrug, a smile. "Yeah, I've been hearing all about Mr. Venable ever since I've been here. He's all my uncle talks about. That's all I've been hearing."
I could see that the young man was amused. The phone rang. It was a personal call. He laughed frequently, had an easy, pleasant, aristocratic accent. The young women stole glances at my uncle and me. When I caught them, they dropped their eyes to their laps. I turned away and looked at a color print of Robert E. Lee sitting astride a white horse, his sword pointing off in the distance toward a darkening sky. A small American flag, not a Confederate flag, was draped over the upper right-hand corner of the picture frame. Another print, on the opposite wall above where the two young women were sitting, showed a group of Confederate artillerymen firing at an unseen enemy. "Support Your Regiment," the caption said.
"When does Mr. Venable go to dinner?" my uncle asked when the young man was off the phone. "Maybe we'll come back this afternoon?"
"Oh, no, sir, you don't have to do that," the young man assured him. "I'm sure he'll be through in there in a minute. He don't much go out to eat anymore."
"Oh, he's kinda like me," my uncle interrupted. "I don't eat much anymore, either. Why, nowadays I just start out with 20 or 25 hot biscuits, and kinda go on my way from there."
We all laughed. The young man smiled and nodded in sympathy when my uncle explained that he was only joking, that he was a diabetic and really couldn't eat much of anything anymore. The smile and polite, attentive look remained on the young man's face as he swiveled back in his chair and listened to my uncle's anecdotal accounts of his and Mr. Venable's boyhood capers.
I wondered whether I should shake hands with the Imperial Wizard. Would he offer his hand? What if he didn't? How would I be perceived? Outside agitator? Admirer? Uppity "nigga"? What would be his reaction if my uncle mentioned that I'm a college professor? Wouldn't it be something to have a picture? The Imperial Wizard and I, shaking hands? Would it be impolite to inquire of Mr. Venable his opinions regarding recent events involving the Ku Klux Klan at Camp Pendleton in California? What about my ancestors?
Uncle Arbria was giving the young man at the reception desk all the fine details of his diabetic diet when an elderly man entered the reception room. The man, dressed in dark brown khakis and wearing a gray crew cut, approached my uncle, and the two of them shook hands warmly, complimenting each other on their appearances. Uncle Arbria introduced the man as Mr. Golden Clack. Mr. Clack took a seat beside the two young women. "This here one of your boys, Yella Hamma?" he asked. Everyone but his relations calls my uncle Yellow Hammer. Still, it sounded disrespectful, patronizing, coming from this man. "I've known this man for over 40 years," said Mr. Clack, "and I can say he's the finest black man I've ever known." The two young women looked uncomfortable. The young man looked embarrassed.