Mike and Danny: Dog Days
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.
The year and a half since Rich had gotten out of the service had gone by under a kind of cloud. He'd made an effort to become a civilian again, but somehow he'd forgotten how.
The dream of buying a motorcycle with his army pay when he returned and hitting the open road for parts unknown had not turned out the way he expected. And now he was no longer sure what he'd expected.
It didn't feel like coming home, and it didn't help that there was no one to come home to. As far as he knew, his cousin Gordon still lived in his trailer on the farm outside Kearney, but Rich didn't care to lay eyes on him again, even if Gordon wanted him towhich was not likely.
Gordon had once given him a roof over his head, when there was no place else for him to go. But there'd been a price to pay. Still a boy, Rich had learned what it was to be at the mercy of a bigger, stronger man who saw him only as someone to bully and use to satisfy himself. And until Rich was big and strong, he'd had to put up with it.
After wandering without much direction on the highways and back roads of several western states, from California to Montana, like he'd long wanted to, he realized he was tired of traveling and took a construction job in Helena, putting roofs on houses, but that hadn't lasted long. The boss had been a hard-ass and gave him hell once too often. He walked off that job, leaving the man with a few choice words of his own.
And a string of jobs had followed that one, usually ending the same way, either quitting or being let go. The money eventually started running out and he found himself sleeping rough in a state park, living on canned pork and beans, and using the campground showers, where he'd got a blowjob once from a forklift operator on vacation with his family from Kansas.
It had been so long since he'd had sex, he'd nearly forgotten the feeling of having his cock in another man's mouth. And after a minute of relief that was more like being stunned into a kind of numbness, the experience only seemed to make him aware that he was alone in the world and probably always would be. If he continued this life that seemed to have no point to it, he was going to end up in deep troubledeeper than he'd ever known.
Staring long and hard into his campfire one night and finishing the last of a pint of Seagram's, he had thought finally of Mike and the long-ago nights he'd spent on the farm, crawling into bed with the man and being held safe in his arms. When he woke in his sleeping bag the next morning, he'd packed up his few belongings and rode out to the highway, where he turned east, headed for Nebraska.
He couldn't sleep at night. He'd grown used to lying awake in the jungles and the rice paddies, listening for the night to suddenly fall silenta sure sign the enemy was out there somewhere prowling around in the deep darknessand hoping and praying for the light of day to dawn again.
The fear of being killed while he slept had never left him. He watched the hours of most nights pass on the glowing dial of his wristwatch. Often in a motel room in a strange town, he'd let the lights burn all night, every lock on the door and windows securely fastened.
At Mike's place that first night, he'd only felt the urgency grow more intense. Instead of feeling safer, he now had Mike to stay awake for, too, and Mike's young friend, Ty, as if he was once again with the other men in his platoon and it was up to him to keep them all alive.
Whenever he looked back, he knew that he loved those soldiers more than he'd ever loved anyone. Without them now he felt lost, and though his memories often caused him pain, he couldn't keep his thoughts from drifting back to them.
Worst were the feelings of grief and guilt when one and then another of his outfit were lostonce by sniper, once with a booby trap, another in a night-long fire fight when they were pinned down in a muddy fieldthese deaths had left him feeling broken and sorrowing for days, until his lieutenant would take him aside and help him get back his courage.
It surprised him then when he woke that first morning in Mike's hammock, having fallen asleep during the night while keeping watch for the three of them. Something in him had finally let go. He didn't know whether it was Mike's calm presence or the trusting soul of Ty, a casualty in his own way, but sleep had come of its own accord, long before the light of dawn.
And it had come again the next night, and the night after, each time more deeply, more soundly. Ty, for his part, had made a ritual of getting up sometime in the dead of night to check on him in his hammock.
"You asleep?" he'd ask, whispering.
Then Ty would sit quietly by him on the porch as Rich felt fatigue begin to overtake him, waking finally the next morning well after daybreak to find Ty still there, awake and watching.
It helped, of course, that Mike had put them to work. They had spent a day loading up the new bales in the alfalfa field onto a flatbed trailer. Mike needed to bring them in so he could lay out his sprinkler system and irrigate the field for another crop of hay. They helped him unload and put together the lengths of aluminum sprinkler pipe, too. The next day they had made hot, sweaty work of putting all the bales into the hayloft of the barn.
There was no work like farm work, where quitting time didn't come on long summer days until it was too dark to do anything, and he would feel every muscle aching as they sat down to supper in Mike's kitchen. Sleep when it came was like falling into a coma.
Finally came an afternoon when the weather changed and a storm front passed through bringing heavy rain. At first there was thunder and lightning, and the wind brought down a big tree branch in the back yard.
Then it was just rain that lasted into the night, and Rich listened to it falling outside, gusts of it sometimes spraying through the porch screens onto him, and the smell of wet earth and grass bringing back memories of the jungle. He had to resist the feeling that swept over him at times that he was back there again, hunkered down on a miserable night and trying to keep dry.
He woke the next morning to find Mike there, a mug of coffee in his hand.
"You not working today?" Rich asked. "I thought you never stopped."
"I been out checking the wells," Mike said. "Almost two inches in all the rain gauges." And he'd turned them all off, including the sprinkler in the hay field. No use wasting fuel watering ground that was already wet.
"Anyway, it's Sunday. Even God took the day off." He laughed. "So I've been told."
"You going somewhere?" Rich asked. Mike was dressed in a pair of pressed jeans and a new dress shirt with a button-down collar.
"Lincoln. Gonna go see Danny." There was a smile on Mike's face as much about Danny as the rainfall.
"Went into town for groceries. The fridge is empty, and he wants to cook you some breakfast."
Coffee and a cigarette were usually enough to get Rich going in the morninga coke if there wasn't any coffee. He lay back in the hammock and shrugged his shoulders.
"He likes you," Mike said.
"What do you mean?"
"What do you think I mean?"
"He's just a kid."
"And you never were, I suppose," Mike said, and walked back into the house, eager to get going. "I'll be back tonight," he called from the kitchen and went outside to his truck.
Rich got up finally, looking for cigarettes. The pack he'd found on the porch was empty. But he couldn't find any.
Mike had been to town himself to buy a Sunday paper, and it lay spread out on the kitchen table, open to the comics. And Rich bent with his coffee to read them without sitting, trying to understand what was supposed to be funny about them.
Only "Peanuts" seemed to make any sense, and he felt an odd moment of sadness for Charlie Brown, who would always be a schoolboy in his safe, little world, yet never quite happy, like he knew life would always find some way to disappoint him.
He started to walk outside to his bike, still looking for cigarettes. A mirror hung by the door on the way to the front porch, with a row of pegs where Mike hung his work caps. A string of crooked lettering had been burned into the frame along the toplike it was a school kid's woodworking project. "Wearing your smile today?" it said.
He looked at his reflection, surprised that the face he saw was not his own. His eyes seemed sunken, he had not shaved in a week, and his dark hair hung long over his ears. Most troubling was the stricken expression on his face, his mouth grim and unsmiling, like he'd witnessed something strange and frighteningsomething from hell.
Jesus, he thought. Look at me.
He got his travel kit and went to the bathroom to wash up and give himself a good shave. He didn't want Mike to see him looking like that anymoreTy either. Besides, it was SundaySunday in the real world.
He'd been wearing a fu manchu since Nam, the dark, thick growth of whiskers drooping down from the corners of his mouth, giving him a don't-fuck-with-me attitude, especially when he wore a bandana tied around his head. It was a challenge to a fight, and more than once some drunk in a small-town cowboy bar had tried taking a swing at him.
He considered it for a while in the mirror, then spread lather across his chin and shaved his whole face. When he was finished, his skin was pale where the mustache had been, and for a moment he regretted what he'd donethe expression on his face now too naked and exposed. But it was too late. He'd just have to get used to it.
Ty cooked them a big breakfast, and Rich had eaten his fill, surprised by his sudden appetite.
"You look different," Ty finally said about the shave. "I think I miss the mustache."
"I dunno," Rich said and shrugged. He was done eating now and picking his teeth with a toothpick. "It was getting kinda wild and scary lookin'."
"I thought that's what you wanted," Ty said. "To scare people off."
Rich studied him from across the table, aware for the first time that Ty had an opinion about him. And being so close to the truth, it made him uncomfortable.
"You got any other ideas about me like that one?" he said.
Ty's face quickly flushed, as he looked down at his plate, and Rich listened to what he'd just said, hearing the coldness in his voice, the same tone he took with someone looking for an argumentor a fight.
Then Ty's eyes met his again. "I can tell you still don't trust me very much," he said. There was hurt and disappointment in his voice.
Rich got up to get a cigarette and then remembered he didn't have any. So he just stood there, his hand over his mouth, feeling again the naked skin around his lips.
If you knew what I've been through you might understand, he wanted to say, but realized that just sounded stupid and pathetic. He didn't know how to talk like thishaving to explain himselfor if he even should.
"I'm going into town for cigarettes," he said.
Ty got up, his chair scraping on the linoleum. "You can save yourself the trip," he said, reaching into a grocery bag on the counter. He tossed a pack of Camels onto the table. "I figured you couldn't get along without more of these."
Rich looked at him hard now, without moving. There was anger in him, but throwing a punch at Ty made no sense at all. The kid was harmless.
He thought of his bike and wanted the feel of it between his legs and the sound of the engine bursting into life as he roared away, with no idea of when he'd be back, if ever.
But he didn't move, just stood his ground, glaring at Ty.
"Tell you what," he finally said. "Let's just forget this whole thing came up." He tried to make his voice sound calm and even.
"Fine," Ty said, but he didn't sound fine.
"All right. You got me," Rich said, not knowing what he was about to say. "It's true, I'm fuckin' scared shitless sometimes." He looked at Ty, waiting for the look on his face to change, that he believed what Rich was saying.
"OK," Rich said. "Most of the time."
Ty still said nothing.
"Satisfied?" It had been a confession, Rich realized, and his heart was racing.
Ty shook his head sadly, a look of yearning in his eyes. "I'd give anything for you, to make that feeling go away."
And that, Rich now realized, was a confession, too. Ty had come to care for him and was filled with concern for him. Andall alone in the worldneeded him besides.
Now, after all the years that had passed since Mike had been the one man he could depend on, the shoe had found itself on the other foot. It was up to him to do the same for somebody else.
"Cease fire," Rich said, and he walked over to where Ty was standing to put his arms around him and hold him, feeling Ty first resisting, then gradually letting go.
By noon it was getting hot again, the sunshine pouring down from an almost clear sky, the remnants of a few clouds drifting east overhead in the wake of the storm.
They got on Rich's bike, Ty riding behind him, and went out past the barn and along the cornfields to a place he remembered by the river, where there was a big sandpit with deep water. He wanted to really swim, not just sit up to his chin in Mike's backyard pool.
When they got there, they left the bike in a clearing in the trees and then walked a ways farther until, pushing through tall grass and willows, they found it, shimmering blue and bright under the big sky.
Leaving their clothes on a tree that had fallen along the sloping bank, they waded in and were quickly up to their knees. Rich dived from where he stood on the gravelly bottom and let his body feel the full shock of the cold water, stretching forward to take one stroke after another, kicking hard as he pulled with his arms, until he got out to the middle.
He looked down at himself, his pale skin glimmering, his feet disappearing into the darkness beneath him, and he had the sudden feeling of floating over a limitless void, the water beneath the surface like a death chill.
Then he looked back to where Ty stood, still near the shore, staring at the water, not moving.
"Gotta get your balls wet," he called out to him, laughing.
Ty grimaced, closing his eyes, and threw himself into a dive with a belly-smacking splash. In a few strokes, he had reached Rich, his wet head bobbing up. He was grinning now.
"Race you to the other side," Ty said and starting swimming again without waiting for Rich to answer.
Rich swung round and took off after him, pulling hard with each stroke. But Ty was waiting for him in the shallows when he got there. Rich by this time was gasping for breath, his lungs burning.
"Race you back," Ty said.
"No, thanks," Rich said, coughing now.
"You gotta give up those cigarettes, old man," Ty said, grinning.
"Shut the fuck up."
They swam lazily out into the deep again, splashing water on each other but staying together, within arm's reach, bumping each other now and then with their hands as they dog paddled. Then they were quiet for a while. Like Rich, Ty seemed absorbed by the silence and aware that they were far from where anyone would think to come looking for them.
"Why's it called a sandpit?" Ty asked.
"They dug out the sand years ago, to make concrete."
"For the highway, I think," Rich said.
And he had a sudden memory of swimming here with Kirk and joking with him. Telling him it must be good sand for concrete because he was getting hard already.
For a moment, it could have been that summer again, the freedom he felt with Kirk for the first time in his young lifethe first time he'd found someone just like himself, someone he didn't have to hide his real feelings from.
Unashamed of getting a hard-on with him, always touching, grabbing, wrestling each other until they finally came in their jeans, laughing and hollering when they did. Talking nonstop, never worrying that he'd say the wrong thing. Sleeping at night in each other's arms. His heart pining when they spent more than a day apart. He would never feel that way about anyone again.
After a time, he and Ty got out of the water and walked with their clothes back to the bike, where they lay down in the tall grass and stretched out naked beside each other in the sunshine to dry.
"It's Sunday," Rich said. "Do you miss being in church?"
Ty thought for a moment. "I dunno."
"I never been to church. Guess I don't know what I'm missing."
"They got rules," Ty said. "You might not like them."
"What about forgiveness? Isn't there some of that, too?"
"Not nearly enough." Ty said, and he said it like he'd already made up his mind about this.
What Rich wanted for Ty right then was some of the freedom he had felt with Kirk that summer here by the river where they had spent those weekends together.
He trapped a grasshopper in his hands and put it on Ty's chest. It leapt away as soon as it crawled from between his fingers, but he left his hand there and didn't move it until he had shifted his body to press against Ty.
"You ever been kissed by another guy before?" Rich said.
Ty shook his head.
"You ready for the first time?"
Ty turned his head now so they were looking into each other's eyes.
"Guess I'd better make this a real good one then," Rich said and touched his lips to Ty's, pressing his tongue against them softly until his mouth opened. He made the kiss long and slow and as deep as Ty would let him. And he stroked down along Ty's belly, reaching to find his cock, which sprang into his hand, warm from the sun and almost fully hard.
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper