Mike and Danny: Big Hopes
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
At a phone booth somewhere outside Great Falls, Kenneth made two calls. The first was to his uncle Ellis in Billings, where he left a message with his answering service, and the second was to his boss at the TV station in Topeka.
"I need a couple more days to get back to work," he explained. "This trip turned out to be more than I expected."
"Get lost in those mountains?" his boss said, laughing. He was a good man, and Kenneth knew he could count on him.
"Something like that," Kenneth told him, thinking something had been lost for sure, and it felt like his whole insides.
"That's what's good about Kansas. It's a whole lot harder to get lost where it's all flat."
Kenneth knew it was supposed to be a little joke, but he was a long way from enjoying the humor.
"Thanks, boss," was all he said and then hung up.
The road to Billings took him over the rolling plains of central Montana, low ranges of mountains appearing and then disappearing along the horizon. Then it would drop down off the high tableland to follow long river valleys bounded mile after mile by low, rocky cliffs. Overhead the sky loomed huge and filled with a bank of wintry clouds.
But Kenneth took little notice of it all. His thoughts would not release him from the turmoil of feelings that he'd been left with after a week with Butch. More than anything, he wanted to be with the uncle he loved and who loved him back, who would listen to him share his heart and soul, and hug him like he was still a boy and not a grown man of twenty-six.
He had not really understood about his uncle until the winter when Kenneth was still a freshman at the university. His grandfather had a stroke and nearly died, and Ellis had come back to Nebraska for a few daysduring a snowstorm.
Kenneth had never known why Ellis had gone years before to Montana. Going west was just something some men did. He didn't learn until later that Ellis had been married and left his wife before leaving Nebraska for good all those years before.
A young man, Deacon, had been with Ellis on that return trip, and he had finally revealed to Kenneth that he and Ellis had sex togethernot for any lack of females in Montana. They just liked each other that much.
"You mean you two guys are queer?" Kenneth had said.
"Who cares what you call it?" had been Deacon's answer.
"You both seem soI don't knowreal."
"Well, it sure ain't make-believe."
Kenneth, knowing what it was like to have feelings for a friend almost too strong to understand, had taken a while to get used to this revelation and then decided it was OK. They were both grown men, he reasoned, and were free to be and do whatever they wanted.
Seeing the two of them together, he found that it excited him more than a little to know this about them. And since he already knew that he liked both of them, it was easy to let his fondness keep growingespecially for Deacon, who had plenty of time to spend with him while Ellis was busy with his sick father and the rest of his Nebraska family.
Older and seemingly wiser, Deacon had listened as Kenneth told him all about himself. And when the time came for Ellis and Deacon to return to Montana, the two new friends had promised to see each other again. At the airport, in an impulsive moment, they had swapped the jackets they were wearinghis letter jacket for Deacon's leather one.
Kenneth had worn that jacket faithfully through the rest of that winter. He liked the smell of it, the stiffness of the sleeves, and the signs of wear around the cuffs. As he pulled the zipper up over his chest and tugged the collar around his neck, the jacket seemed almost to hug him.
Then he just as faithfully returned it on a trip to Montana as soon as school was out for the summer. However, when he got there, he was surprised to find his uncle living alone, and to discover that Deacon was gone.
"He's like that," Ellis had explained. "He may show up here again in a while, and he might not."
"Do you miss him?" Kenneth had said. He knew already then what it was like to lose a friend.
"Not at the moment," his uncle had said, his eyes smiling, and he patted Kenneth on the shoulder. "I hope you weren't counting on seeing him. He's not what you call dependable."
"No, sir," Kenneth told his uncle, but it was mostly out of respect for the older man. He'd been looking forward to being with Deacon again.
Later, Ellis remembered Kenneth's letter jacket. "I had to talk him out of taking it with him," he said. "He tends to forget the difference between borrowing and owning."
And there it was in the back of a closet. Kenneth took it from the hanger and hung the leather jacket in its place.
"You may as well keep it," Ellis had said. "I was the one who bought it for him in the first place."
"No, let him find it here when he comes back," Kenneth said, hoping for his uncle that he would.
He stayed for a long weekend that time before hurrying back home for a summer job. He'd been hired on by a landscaper who would have him putting in long hours laying down sod around new houses and commercial buildings. But while he was there in Montana, he got to know his uncle with a fondness that grew deep and strong.
They'd gone into Billings for hamburgers that first night at an Irish pub call Pug Mahon's. There he'd met some of Ellis's friends, mostly married men, who sat along the bar joking with each other and the woman, Meg, who was the bartender.
Introduced as Ellis' nephew from Nebraska, he felt embraced by their easy acceptance of him and their apparent respect for his uncle. A golden retriever belonging to one of them snuggled up to Kenneth as he sat at the bar eating, poking its muzzle into his lap.
"Don't mind him," the man next to him said. "He just wants one of your french fries."
Driving back to the farmhouse where he lived outside of town, Ellis had said, "I don't take Deacon there, if that's what you're wondering. Folks here don't much care about a man's sex life as long as he keeps it to himself."
Kenneth thought about this. "You could say he was your nephew, like you did me."
"I said they don't care. I didn't say they're ignorant."
Kenneth, felt himself warm with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, sir. You probably think I'm ignorant for saying that."
Ellis just laughed. "No, son. You want to know the truth, I think you're a fine, intelligent young man, and I'm pleased as anything we're family." He turned to Kenneth as he drove and smiled. "Course, I don't get to say that often."
"You know my brother Don. What do you think of him?" Don had made a trip here himself the previous summeron what their father called a wild goose chase. He'd just picked up and left everything behind one summer dayhis job, wife and kids, and everythingand didn't come back for weeks.
"I'm probably out of line saying this," Ellis said, "but you seem to be a little smarter than your brother. No offense to your father's people, but I think you take more after my side of your family."
Kenneth felt his heart take an extra beat. He thought of how the others at the bar had made no secret of their affection for his uncle. It had made him proud to be there beside him. "When I get done growing upif I ever doI'd like very much to be like you," he said.
"You know what they say," Ellis told him. "Be careful what you wish for. You just might get what you want."
They drove on in silence as Ellis followed a hardtop road that took them over a long bridge across the Yellowstone River and up a winding grade onto open farmland south of the city. He turned off where several mailboxes were lined up together and followed the gravel road that took them across fields of growing wheat. Lightning flashed from a storm far off in the distance.
He switched on lights in the darkened house when they got there. The silent rooms held the heat from the early summer day, and they went out on a screened side porch where the night air felt cooler, Ellis carrying a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses from a cupboard inside.
"Last I heard," Ellis said, pouring them each a little from the bottle, "you were figuring out what to do about a guy who had gone off with your girl. How did that turn out?"
During the previous winter, Kenneth's two best friendsStuart and Brendahad deserted him for each other.
"That's all over," he said. The whiskey stung on his tongue as he sipped it.
"You end up winning or losing on that deal?"
"Both, I guess."
"Life can be like that."
Kenneth wondered if his uncle was thinking about his failed marriage long ago, Deacon's absence, or whatever the problem was with getting what you wish for.
"Uncle Ellis, is there anything you'd do over again if you had the chance?"
"Now that's a 64-dollar question," Ellis said laughing, his face hidden in the darkness, only a dim light behind him coming from the doorway into the house. "I have sure as hell scratched my head over that one, long and hard."
Kenneth waited for him to go on.
"Give a man a second chance," he finally said with a sigh. "And if he doesn't make the same mistake all over again, he'll find another one."
"I wonder if I'd be the one making the same mistake twice," Kenneth said.
He felt again the wave of loneliness that had washed through him each day while the cold winter had turned into an empty spring, his sorrows deepening as he'd tried without success to make new friends to take the place of the old ones. He'd finally given up, concentrating on his school work and letting the rest of the world go on its merry way.
"Well, I'll tell you something else I've learned about making mistakes," Ellis said. "You want to live your life, you have to take some chances. A man who never made a mistake surely never took a chance. And what kind of life is that?"
"I don't know, sir. I'm still learning."
"That, I believe, is the best philosophy."
And Ellis topped up both of their shot glasses from the bottle. He reached with his glass then to touch Kenneth's and said, "Here's to learning life's lessons."
They talked on like this into the night, and Kenneth felt himself drawn to his uncle, who seemed to understand him and care about him more than any other man ever had. Getting up from their chairs finally, well after midnight, he realized he was drunk and unsure on his feet, Ellis catching him by the elbow to steady him.
The touch had warmed Kenneth as much as the alcohol, and he had given his uncle a long hug, filled with his gratitude. And in the weeks and months that followed that summer, the strength of the man's arms around him became a vivid memory that never left him. In a world of shifting uncertainties, Ellis had become for him the one safe harbor he knew he could always depend on.
Now, seven years later, he was heading for that safe harbor once more, where he could fathom the near-bottomless depth of more lessons learned.
It was mid-afternoon this time when he got to Billings, the day growing darker under a leaden sky, snow flurries whirling along with him on the north wind. He drove through the city and then followed the way he remembered across the river, turning off the hardtop at the line of mailboxes and looking for his uncle's house, surrounded with trees now stripped of leaves.
There was no sign of his uncle's truck. His veterinary business, Kenneth knew, often kept him away from sun-up to sundown. The door from the side porch was unlocked, and he went inside, where he found a fire burning warm in the wood stoveand a figure on the living room couch, asleep.
It was Deacon.
He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and levi'sexactly as he had when Kenneth first met himhis arms crossed and hugging his chest as he lay there on his side. His old black cowboy hat sat bottom up on a sagging leather hassock not far away, and his boots stood, leaning together, on the floor beside him.
Kenneth watched him for a minute, letting his heart gladden. Here was the first queer man he'd ever knownand unashamed to be sowho had made him aware that he was, nevertheless, no less real than any other man. Kenneth realized now how that had been a gift to him back then, from whatever power there was looking after him and caring about his welfare.
There was so much to tell Deacon, and he felt the urge to shake him awake and pour out everything, for he would surely understand. But he let him sleep. It was enough just to know that his old friend was here, and he felt the ache in his chest begin to lessen.
An early dusk had fallen outside when his uncle got home, and Kenneth watched from the kitchen window as he stepped out of his truck and walked through the gate to the house. He'd got the message Kenneth had left with his answering service, and he was already grinning as he came through the door, dropping a leather case on the floor and opening his arms to accept his nephew's embrace, while they slapped each other on the back.
He loved being held by Ellis, apparently unworried like Kenneth's father that hugging would make him weak or soft and less of a man. His brother Don was the same way with his own sons. Instead, the hugs he got from his uncle filled him with strength and determination to take on whatever life had in store for him. And he felt the beginnings of that now.
"What this?" Ellis said, pulling off Kenneth's stocking cap to get a look at his ponytail. "You turn into some kind of biker?"
"No, sir. It's just something that kinda happened." Kenneth flushed now with worry at what his uncle would think of him. His father, not happy at all when he let his hair grow, had called him a goddam hippy.
But Ellis still had his big grin. "By golly, if it don't make you look even more handsome." He stroked it where it fell over Kenneth's shirt collar.
The sound of their voices woke Deacon, who appeared in the kitchen doorway in his stocking feet. "Look who's here," he said, rubbing his eyes with one hand and scratching his crotch with the other.
They had a hearty supper of pan-fried steaks, baked potatoes, and what was left of an apple pie Deacon claimed to have made himselfamong his many jobs, he'd worked for a while as a cook for the cowboys on a 20,000-acre ranch in eastern Montana.
"What brings you here?" Deacon wanted to know.
And he told them his storyof going up to Canada to see an old friend from collegeleaving out most of the details at first. Like Butch's reason for being there in the first place and the fact that the two of them had spent every night together in each other's arms after a good, long while of lovemaking. And how Butch had left him at the end with a heart broken clean through.
In fact, he realized, he was leaving out most of it, and he wasn't sure why. Despite the comfort he felt in the company of these two men, he was so used to keeping his feelings to himself, of pretending that everything was OK, he couldn't bring himself to admit the truth.
Ellis had listened quietly through it all as they sat around the kitchen table, getting up to pour more coffee as they finished off the pie.
"I know that country up there," Deacon was saying, wanting to hear more about what the two friends had seen and done. And Kenneth was happy to tell him about the hikes and canoeing and the wildlife they saw.
When Deacon had run out of questions, there'd been this silence in the room, and Ellis finally looked at Kenneth and said, "You unhappy about something?"
There was no point in lying to his uncle. The time had come to tell them the whole story. He looked at the empty pie plate in front of him and just nodded his head.
"I thought maybe so," Ellis said. "You want to tell me about it?"
Kenneth felt his eyes suddenly fill with burning tears. He nodded again.
And this time he told them all he'd left out before, unable to lift his eyes to either of the two men, just wiping the tears away on his shirt sleeve as he talked.
"So you been playin' for our side all this time?" Deacon said when he was done. Happy to discover another queer man, it was his way of making Kenneth feel betterby making light of it all.
Ellis must have given him a look, because Deacon didn't say anything more for a while.
"This friend of yours," Ellis began, "I can't say what he did is right or wrong. God knows I've done my share of running off in my lifetime. And if Deacon here was honest, he'd say the same thing about himself."
Deacon cleared his throat in a way that sounded like he was agreeing.
"And your friend Butch sure made a tougher choice than I ever did," Ellis went on. "I may not want to go back where I came from, but at least I can if there's a need to, and I don't have the U.S. government to answer to."
At the sound of his uncle's calm voice, Kenneth felt the tears begin to subside. He wiped his eyes and his cheeks one more time and looked up at Ellis, whose face was now clouded with concern.
"But I'd tell that Butch one thing for sure if he was here," Ellis said. "He sure as hell didn't do right by you. Sounds to me like he was only thinking of himself."
Kenneth knew this could be true, but he didn't want to believe it. He looked down again, shaking his head. His heart ached now, with the relief of having unburdened himself and the weight of taking on a new burdenthe possibility that Butch had never really loved him.
"Son, I wish to hell I was wrong about your friendand maybe some day it will turn out I am wrongbut the boy who can love you like you deserve is still out there somewhere."
"Can I say something?" Deacon said.
"What?" Ellis said, a note of tenderness now for Deacon in his voice.
"Ellis sometimes talks out of his assand you'd know what I'm saying if you knew him well as I dobut he's right. This guy sounds like bad news."
He heard Deacon's chair scrape on the kitchen floor, and then there was a pair of arms around his shoulders. He felt Deacon's cheek against his and the touch of his lips on his face.
"All right if I take this man to bed now and love him like somebody should?" he said to Ellis, and then laughed, impatient with all this seriousness.
Ellis sighed. "Only if you're ready for a swift kick in the backside from me."
"Might be worth it," Deacon said and then started clearing the table.
Kenneth stayed for another day. When he woke up the next morning, Ellis was already away working, and Deacon was outside with a power saw, turning the fallen branches of a cottonwood into logs for the stove.
Kenneth put on his coat and went out to watch him at work, and when he was done, Deacon walked him around the property, showing him trees and bushes he'd planted over the years. They marked his presence here, leaving something of himself behind each time he went away. Some by now had grown well over their heads, making shelter for the house from the winter winds that swept across the open fields of wheat stubble that stretched out in all directions.
It was such a day today, the sky still overcast and a sharp breeze from the north, the sighing sound of it overhead in a big old pine tree that was surely older than both of them.
"I wasn't joking last night when I said I wanted to take you to bed," Deacon suddenly said. "I wanted to way back when I first met you. But Ellis is your uncle, andlike he said last nighthe'd kick my ass."
Kenneth, who'd thought of Deacon as a friend from almost their first moment together, wondered now if he and Deacon might ever be closer than that. Something in him wanted the solace of lovemaking.
"Don't take me wrong," Deacon said, like he could tell what Kenneth was thinking. "But I wouldn't risk losing Ellis because of you. He means more to me than anybody ever has or ever will."
Standing with Deacon now at the edge of the property, Kenneth looked out to a barn in the distance, all by itself in a wheat field, daylight showing through its roof where time and neglect were making a mark of their own. For a moment, as he thought of his life, it seemed he was just like thatused and then abandoned.
"All I can say is what I know," Deacon said. "People like you and me, maybe we spend a lot of our life on our own, but you gotta keep lookin' for someone else, 'cause someone out there's gonna be lookin' for yousome one in a million who don't believe it's all just every man for himself."
"Don't you think I would've found someone by now?" He thought of how everybody he knew from collegeeverybody except Butchhad married and was having kids. And who knew? Maybe Butch was married, his wife knowing no more about Kenneth than he knew about her.
"How old are you?" Deacon asked.
"I was older'n you when me and Ellis found each other," Deacon said putting one hand in the middle of Kenneth's back. "You gotta give it some time."
Kenneth let his gaze fall to the brown, frozen grass at their feet. The touch of Deacon's hand sent a shiver of longing through him.
"How did you and my uncle meet?"
Deacon laughed a little. "Well, I wouldn't recommend this, but I was hitchhiking. He picked me up at a truck stop. Asked me where I was going, and I said it depended on where he was going. He said he was going home, so I said, take me there."
"Doesn't sound like something I'd be doing," Kenneth said. He'd passed hitchhikers on the road during his trip and figuredas his dad had once told himif they didn't have a car of their own they probably weren't to be trusted.
"Where's your car anyway?" he said.
"Sold it. I needed the money."
"You ever let anybody else take you home like that?"
"When I was younger, yeah. Pretty much regular."
"Even after you met my uncle?"
"Yeah. But not hardly ever anymore. It kinda dawned on me I shouldn't be lettin' anybody else fuck me. Ellis is too good a man for that."
Kenneth felt his head begin to spin with all this. He was taking deep breaths of the cold air.
"Course, if a guy wants to suck my cock," Deacon laughed, "I probably wouldn't say no." He took his hand from Kenneth's back and shoved it into a front pocket of his jeans. "No sense passin' up an opportunity like that."
They walked now back toward the house.
"So don't go givin' up," Deacon said. "I can tell you'd like to."
"I'm not giving up," Kenneth said, and swallowed hard. He understood why Deacon would not have sex with him, but it did not make him want it any less right now.
He had left his gloves in his car, and he went to get them to help Deacon carry the wood to the woodpile. Then, since there was only one axe, they took turns splitting the bigger logs into pieces.
The work helped him feel more alive again, his heart pumping and his body warming inside his coat, the long-handled axe in his hand a weight that felt good as he brought it down with a blow that went straight through to the chopping block, sending the split pieces flying to each side.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper