Mike and Danny: Brad's Story
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.
Wellington was in the backseat of Brad's car, and Clayton was riding up front. They had already stopped at the bus station, where Brad waited in the car while Clayton went inside to get what he'd left there in a locker.
He watched as the young man crossed the parking lot, his long wool overcoat flapping around his legs. In the stoop of his narrow shoulders, his hair sticking out from under his ball cap, he looked from the back like an old man trudging through his last days.
In a while, he came back to the car with a paper shopping bag that he held in his lap and tried to remember how to get from there to his brother's house, which was somewhere on the outskirts of the city.
It was the day after Christmas and the streets were busy with traffic. Clayton was mostly silent, watching signs and trying to recollect how to get where they were going. After a couple wrong turns, they arrived in a neighborhood of small, low-roofed houses with carports and big yards.
"This is it," Clayton said and jumped out almost before Brad had stopped the car at the side of the road. He walked up the drive and through a gate, disappearing behind the house. Wellington, nose pressed to the window, watched him go.
When he returned, he was carrying a beat-up suitcase in one hand and a black cowboy hat in the other. Brad got out of the car and opened the trunk for him. The suitcase, when he took it from Clayton, seemed too light to be holding all of a young man's worldly possessions.
Clayton put on the hat and tossed the ball cap into the trunk. Then he reached behind him and pulled some letters from his back pocket. It was mail forwarded from home.
"Who'd you hear from?" Brad said after they were back in the car. Clayton had been simply sitting there with the letters in his hand, looking sadly at the house as they drove away.
He shuffled through the envelopes and said, "Well, here's one from my ma. She probably wants to know when I'm going to send her the money I owe her."
"You never told me about your mother."
"Less said the better. We hardly see eye to eye. I think she gave me the money just to get rid of me."
"Seems like harsh feelings coming from a mother."
"She heard talk about me around town. Half of it weren't true."
Brad had wondered about his own mother, when he'd have to tell her that he was getting a divorce. She would not take it well. Probably think it was all her fault somehow, and his father wouldn't be likely to let her think otherwise. He'd counted on Brad to be the "& Son" of the family business, but Brad had decided to become a scholar instead. This divorce would all have been the result of that somehow.
"Moms can take things hard," he said.
"You sure as hell can say that again."
Clayton's mother had reminded him that as a man it was his job to "be fruitful and multiply." What was in the Bible were words to be obeyed. They weren't just suggestions. By now he was supposed to be married and raising a bunch of kids, not fooling around in public restrooms and getting people talking about him.
"What about the other ones? Who are they from?" Brad said.
Clayton looked at the envelopes in his hand again. "Overdue bills. Cripe, seems like I owe everybody something." His car had already been repossessed, he explained, and he'd gotten behind with the utility companies. One by one they'd cut him off. "And they're still trying to collect," he said.
Coming to Albuquerque, he'd been hoping to have a fresh start. But so far it wasn't panning out that way.
Sorting through the envelopes he finally stopped at one, flipping it over two or three times to study it. Then he tore it open, took out a folded sheet of paper and read it.
"Sonofabitch, if that don't beat all," he said and fell silent again, reading it once more.
Brad couldn't tell if it was good news or bad.
"Member that cowboy I was tellin' you about last night? Len? He got himself a foreman's job at a ranch up there. And listen to this." Clayton started reading, his voice filling with excitement. "He says, 'If you are available, I could sure use another good hand around here'. What do you think of that?"
"Where's the ranch?"
"He don't say. Just that he can see the Bighorns from the window where he's writin' this."
"Did he give a return address?"
Clayton looked at the envelope and read, "Buffalo. That's way up in Wyoming."
The street had taken them to what seemed like the edge of the city, where there were fewer houses, fenced-in corrals, and empty lots. Brad stopped the car next to a stand of cottonwoods, the ground thick with fallen leaves, and he let Wellington out to run around in a field.
The two men watched him, leaning against the back fender of the car, in the warmth of the winter sun.
"I think my luck has finally turned," Clayton said, getting more excited, and he read the letter again. "Hell, I shoulda stayed in Greeley."
"How soon does he want you? Does he say?"
"Soon as I can get there, I guess. He says there's plenty of work."
Wellington galloped through the weeds, nose to the ground. A horse in a corral across the road came to the fence to watch him, ears straight up.
"He must think pretty highly of you after all," Brad said.
Clayton looked at him and beamed. "Yessir, I think he does." Then he danced a little jig in the road, kicking up gravel and dust.
"When did he send you that letter?" Brad said. He'd seen from the envelope that it had been forwarded more than once.
Clayton had the letter in his coat pocket and looked at it again. "It don't say," he said.
"What about the postmark?"
He looked over Clayton's shoulder as he held the envelope so it caught the sunlight. There was a postmark for each time it had been forwarded. Next to a wide eight-cent stamp with a picture of several seals, there was a Buffalo WY postmark, with a date that looked like Nov 16.
"Damn, that was six weeks ago," Clayton said, concerned now. "He probably wonders why he never heard from me." And he blamed his mother for holding onto the letter before sending it on to him. "Hell, she probably tried to get it open to read it for herself."
True, the flap had been Scotch-taped shut. Brad had seen letters steamed open in movies but didn't know it was something anybody ever actually did.
"Now, I'm surprised she sent it at all. She probably thought it was from some boyfriend."
"Did he give you a phone number you can call?"
"No, just the address." And Clayton read it from the envelope. "It's a P.O. box."
"Then you're going to have to write him a letter. We'll go find a post office, so it goes out today."
He whistled for Wellington, who was down the road looking up into a cottonwood, where he'd treed a squirrel that was scolding him from high in the branches.
They drove back into the city then, and Brad gave Clayton a ballpoint pen and a dollar so he could buy a postcard to send airmail special delivery to his friend in Wyoming.
"What do I tell him?" Clayton said as he got out of the car.
"Tell him you're on your way." Brad opened his billfold and pulled out a card. "This has my phone number on it. Tell him to call me, if he wants to talk to you."
"But how will I know if he calls you?"
"Cause you're going to call me, and I'll tell you."
Clayton looked puzzled for a moment and then seemed to decide it would make sense once he thought about it. And he was off and running to the post office.
Brad marveled at what a difference there was now in his step. He was a young man in a hurry, his black cowboy hat still visible as he stepped behind a row of cars and then disappeared into the building.
"Now, while you're waiting to hear from him, there's a couple things you can do," Brad said, when Clayton got back to the car. "Stay here. Go up to Buffalo. Or go back home to Greeley."
"Buffalo. No question."
Brad knew Clayton was broke. He took out his wallet again, found sixty-five dollars, and handed it to him. "You'll need this to cover your bus fare."
"I don't need no bus. I can hitch myself a ride OK."
"It's winter. You'll freeze to death."
"I'm used to it," Clayton said. "Anyway, I already owe more money to people than I can ever pay back."
"I don't want it back."
Brad was holding the folded bills out to him, and when Clayton still wouldn't take them, he put his hand inside Clayton's coat and stuck them into his shirt pocket.
"Let me do this for you," he said, with his hand still over the pocket. "Knowing you're not caught in a snowstorm somewhere will give me one less thing to worry about."
He didn't expect Clayton to understand how he had come to be filled with his own worries. Looking into the future with all its uncertainty was like staring over the edge of a steep cliff.
In fact, he would happily have traded places with Clayton, who had only the problem of getting from Albuquerque to Buffalo, where someone to end his loneliness seemed to be waiting for him. It hardly compared to facing the utterly unknown--the prospect of abandoning a whole family who depended on him, and having to start a new life out of nothing but an aching heart.
Clayton had raised one hand to press it against Brad's. He was looking at Brad with sorrow in his eyes so deep Brad had to look away.
"I'd give anything to be like you," Clayton said.
"You don't know what you're saying."
"I think I do."
Brad just shook his head and sighed. He took his hand from under Clayton's and started the car. "Let's get you to the bus station," he said.
When they got there, Brad left Wellington in the car and went inside with Clayton, partly to make sure he bought a bus ticket with the money. They had only an hour to wait for the bus that would take him as far as Denver, where he'd change for one headed north into Wyoming. He'd arrive in Buffalo sometime the next day and get a room at the Y. And they agreed on a time for him to call.
"I'll wire you some money from Western Union when you need it," Brad said.
"You give me enough already."
"Remember what you said this morning, that we could take care of each other? This is me taking care of you."
Brad bought him a coke from a machine and a cardboard cup of bad coffee for himself, and they sat together until the time came for the bus to leave.
They had said nothing for a while, and out of the blue, Clayton asked him to tell him about his children. So he talked about them and the ways they'd made him proud over the years, leaving out their frequent unhappiness and ongoing grievances with him and with each other.
"They must like you a lot," Clayton said. "My dad was nothing like you."
"If you heard their side of it, they'd probably tell you a different story," Brad said, thinking how his oldest son would not even speak to him anymore. "I'm beginning to wonder if a father can help being a disappoint to his children."
And like the teacher he was, he found himself telling Clayton what Mark Twain had once said about fathers. When he was fourteen, his dad was so ignorant he couldn't stand to have him around. But when he got to be twenty-one, he was amazed how much the old man had learned in seven years.
Brad threw the half-empty coffee cup into a trash bin and said, "So I have hope. My oldest is still just fourteen."
Clayton smiled at that and nodded, like it might be true for some, but not for him. "I'm way past twenty-one and I'm still waitin' for my dad to show some smarts," he said.
Brad felt his affection for the young man tug at his heart. "There's still time. Meanwhile, you got your life to live." And he realized that if there was any truth to what he'd just said, it ought to apply to himself, too.
When the time came for the bus to leave, they walked out to the platform, Clayton with his suitcase in one hand, all he owned inside it, and wearing his cowboy hat.
"I'm never gonna forget you," Clayton said.
And the two men gave each other a quick, strong hug.
"I sure do hope I get to see you sometime again," Clayton said as he got on the bus.
"You will. Don't worry."
And Brad stood on the platform until the bus pulled away, Clayton never taking his eyes from him and finally giving him a wave from the window where he sat. Brad waved back and wondered at how their two paths had crossed--and whether they would ever cross again.
Brad had kept six dollars for himself. That would buy a tank of gas and something to eat, with change left over for a pay phone to call home. And he couldn't let the day go by without trying to talk to his wife again.
When he thought about it, he realized he hadn't really got all that he'd come here for. He'd wanted something from Elmer, just to be with a man he could feel at home with, able to speak the truth without having to guard every word, and maybe begin to understand himself.
Two months ago, he'd been sure about who he was and what he needed to be doing. He could see no way that he could go on living in the two worlds of his life--his wife and family in one of them and Craig, the man he loved, in the other.
Duty and obligation lay on one hand, fulfilling the desire of his heart and soul on the other. No matter how difficult, he'd come to understand that he had to obey his heart or live forever in a kind of half-life that was not real life at all.
When Craig decided he couldn't give up his family for the two of them to be together, Brad had felt his resolve shaken, but he'd made his decision and would go on alone until the day Craig could join him. The man had promised him that much, and Brad was sure his feelings for Craig would not waver. Now as the pieces of his life lay in confusion around him, he missed the confidence he'd always taken from knowing Craig was right there beside him.
It had been possible for a while to imagine another future for himself. There would be other men to keep him company. As they welcomed him into what he thought of as a kind of brotherhood, he'd feel that he belonged somewhere.
But so far he wondered if he'd been fooling himself. What he had learned from Elmer and Charlie didn't reassure him. They lived in a world so different from what he'd known. They were a strange couple, who lived together but were not faithful to each other. And each of them wanted sex with him without really getting to know him.
While Charlie had no shame about it, the difference with Elmer was that he'd seduced Brad with a good deal more grace and respect for his feelings. Still, taken all together, he'd wasted no time fucking Brad. Waking the next morning to find Elmer gone, Brad had trouble resisting the feeling that he'd been used. It was a feeling he'd never had with Craig.
Being queer for Brad had meant being totally in love with another man. For Charlie and Elmer, it seemed to be mostly about finding someone to get regularly laid. It might not matter much who. Meanwhile, for Clayton it was this aching loneliness that hadn't learned yet to keep itself well hidden.
He stopped at a gas station, and while the attendant filled up his car, he went to a pay phone and called home. This time it was his youngest daughter who picked up the phone.
"When are you coming home, daddy?" she wanted to know, and Brad had been able to say, "Real soon," before Coretta took the receiver from her.
His wife was distant but not cold, like her anger had been spent. When he told her he was still in Albuquerque, he found himself talking like they were the same two people they'd been before. Then he realized it was his usual act, shoring up the image he wanted her to have of him, the husband whose thoughts were not far from home even though he was away--as if he'd merely gone out of town for another conference.
Her silence made him stop. She was not playing along with him.
"Look, I'm coming back home tonight," he said, though he had not decided until just that moment.
"Marietta says I shouldn't let you back in the house."
"Have you always done what Marietta says?" He knew his wife sometimes resented the way her sister tried to run her life and hoped he could get some advantage from that.
She said nothing.
"I want us to talk," he said.
"You haven't said enough already?"
"It would be easier if we were together."
They went back and forth like this until she seemed to relent and fell silent. Then his daughter was on the phone again, thanking him for the present he'd left for her, a silver necklace with a tiny heart pendant.
And when his coins ran out, there'd been quick goodbyes, and the line was disconnected.
"Check the oil?" the attendant said when he got back to the car.
Brad shook his head, hardly hearing him, and paid him for the gas. All the way back to Elmer's he replayed the conversation with his wife. He hoped that when he got home she would be willing to continue talking with him, maybe talk like they hadn't for a long while.
There'd been a time when he told her almost everything that was going on in his life, all that he'd been thinking about and feeling, and the only things he'd hidden from her were things he was hiding from himself. He wondered if they could talk like that again.
But this other life of his that he'd been living without her knowledge, how much of that could he tell her? And was it wise to tell her any of it at all?
Now that she'd seen a glimpse of it, would she insist on knowing more? He realized that what he wanted was to make everything easier for both of them. But how that was possible he had no idea.
Nor could he imagine a conversation with any of his children. What he'd done, what he was doing and wanted to do would make little sense to them. He clung to the hope that he would continue to be their father and that they'd continue feeling loved by him.
He looked up from his hands on the steering wheel and realized he was parked in front of Elmer's house and didn't know how long he'd been there. Wellington, impatient to get out, had finally put both feet on the back of the seat and leaned over to lick his ear.
Taking Wellington inside the garage, he saw that Elmer's big Buick was back in its place. And when he went into the house he found Elmer in the living room with another man.
"Meet Clark," Elmer said, and introduced him to a large man who could have played tackle on a school football team when he was thirty years younger. He stood from where he was sitting and gave Brad's hand a mighty shake. He apologized for his own hand, which was cold from holding a beer.
Clark had flown in from Dallas that morning, and Elmer had met him at the airport. He came, he said, to spend a few days at Elmer's whenever things got slow back home. He was a cattle auctioneer and had an acreage with horses somewhere west of Fort Worth.
"When are you going to retire and move here for good?" Elmer wanted to know, and Clark shook his head like he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he did.
He was a talkative man, with a winning smile, comfortable as an old shoe. He sat back in the chair, arms and legs spread wide like he'd been exhausted from the effort it took to get here.
In his twill pants and boots, snap-front shirt, and a shiny belt buckle the size of a coffee can lid, he looked like someone dressed for a rodeo parade. On his hand, Brad saw, he wore a silver and turquoise ring.
"Elmer here says you're a college professor," he said, and before Brad had time to decide whether he was going to have to defend his choice of a career--as if he was talking to his father--Clark launched into a warm memory of his own university days.
"Best years of my life," he said.
Elmer went to the kitchen to make sandwiches, since Clark agreed a little something to eat would do him no harm. "Goddam airplane food wouldn't keep a crow from starving," he said.
He wanted to know what subjects Brad taught and stopped him every few sentences with some opinions of his own. "You prob'ly won't believe this coming from someone the likes of me, but did you ever hear of a Texas writer name of John Graves? Best damn book about Texas ever written, Goodbye to a River. You ever read it? You gotta read it sometime."
And he went on like that about everything. Then he paused, leaned forward in his chair, and in a low voice said, "Elmer says you're having some troubles at home. Is that true?"
Brad swallowed and nodded.
"I was married, too, you know," Clark said. "Three times, to be truthful. Got myself some kids. Growed up now mostly."
And he talked about finally figuring out why he couldn't seem to get matrimony to work for him the way it was supposed to. "We'd end up fightin' over one damn thing or another, and pretty soon I was spending more time with my drinkin' buddies or out on the road somewhere than I was at home. A woman runs outta patience for that."
With his drinking, he got to making a regular nuisance of himself, and before long there'd be somebody handing him divorce papers.
"I eventually got the idea there was something haywire somewhere, and it wasn't any of the ladies I'd been hitched to. That got kinda clear one night when I got too personal with a young rodeo cowboy I found in a bar. Hell, he come in all sweaty and cowshit on his boots, and next thing we was out back and he was lettin' me suck his cock."
And one wasn't enough. It was just the beginning of a downhill slide. "They tell you there ain't no queers in Texas, but all you gotta do is get drunk enough and look hard enough. I sure enough found me more'n a few." After he didn't know how long, he'd also found the end of his rope.
He wound up out of work and recovering his dignity at the little ranch where he had his horses. "They saved me," he said. "I'd lost all self-respect and damn near woulda died of bein' lonesome without them horses." He shook his head, seeming to marvel at his narrow escape.
Elmer came into the room with a tray piled with sandwiches, chips and salsa, and more beers.
"And I also gotta thank this man here," Clark said, lifting one hand toward him. "I found out from him you gotta kiss a lotta frogs before you find a prince." And he leaned forward to reach for Elmer and plant a kiss on his mouth. "Ain't that true, darlin'," he said.
And Brad watched as the two big men held one another for a moment and looked smiling into each other's eyes.
Continued . . .
© 2010 Rock Lane Cooper