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.
OK, many a filmmaker I'm sure has got himself into a worse fix than this, I thought, and that was jim dandy with me. Because I had no plans to make movies for a living.
All I'd wanted was to beef up a film course I'd wanted to teach at the college. Give the kids a little more than what I'd learned from books about the subject. Have some real experience to share. Give them and the taxpayers who helped pay my salary something for their money.
Although, to be honest, if you put the question about a film course to the taxpayers of Nebraska, they'd probably have said, what the heck do they need that for? Gosh-a-fishhooks, teach 'em how to read and write. They already know how to watch movies.
But that had nothing to do with the jam Oscar had gotten me into. And, I want to tell you. I was pissed off enough, as Mike would say, to cuss a blue streak. I just didn't know whether to cuss out myself for my own stupidity or go give hell to Oscar for his.
Right away, I got on the phone to the home in Lincoln to have them call off the search, which took some talking. They were not happy at all, and I was told that the director would have words with me as soon as he got the newshe'd gone home already for the day.
Did I understand, they informed me, that Oscar was in poor healthwhich you couldn't prove by meand that anything strenuous, like even a day-trip in a car could have serious consequences. They didn't say "fatal," but the implication was there for me anyway.
I wondered whose medical records they were consulting because, besides seeming a little footsore in those fancy boots he was wearing, Oscar had never seemed anything but hale and hearty. You or I or anybody would be lucky to have his energy when we're that old, should we even live so long.
"How old is he anyway?" I'd asked them.
But like details of the condition of his health, I was told, they didn't give out information of that nature.
Then it hit me. "Do the police know about this?"
"Yes, they've been notified." As of that morning, Oscar had become a missing person. "And I'm sure we don't need to tell you that his sister is very concerned about his welfare."
"His sister?" He'd never mentioned a sister. And then I rememberedoh, yes he had. The picture of him and Baxter had been taken, he said, by a sister.
This was going from bad to worse. "OK, he's with me right now," I said. "We're taking good care of him, and I'll have him back where he belongs tomorrow. As soon as I can get him there."
More than anything, I just wanted them to call off the posse. I was already having visions of the sheriff showing up at the door, with a warrant for my arrest.
"What about his sister?" I said, not sure what I was thinking. "Can I talk to her and let her know he's all right?"
After a brief consultation on the other end of the line, I was told no, that wouldn't be possible. But they wanted a telephone number anyway in the event it became necessary for them to call me.
Desperate to seem cooperative, I read it to them off the wall phone I was using. As I did this, I looked over at Kirk, still working at the kitchen counter, Owen pressed up behind him with one arm around his chest and the other kneading his crotch.
"What the hell's going on?" Kirk said to me.
I just shook my head, and when I finally hung up, I explained what had happened.
"He's gone AWOL?" Kirk laughed. He seemed only able to see the humor in the situation. "That Oscar of yours. He's some pistol."
"He's not my Oscar," I said, letting the anger in me flare up into a real rage. And I went out to the deck where he and Baxter were still together talking.
"How about bringing my pardner and me a couple more of them beers," Oscar said to me. He gave me this big grin that stretched the wrinkled skin across his foolish face like a dried up old apple. I wanted to kick the chair out from under him, but had the presence of mind to stop myself.
"Should you even be drinking anything," I said. "In your condition."
He had to know I was pissed off, but he just ignored it and kept on grinning.
"I'm still sober," he said, "and so's my friend here, and that's a condition we wanna get out of."
Baxter, who'd heard the tone in my voice, was looking at me with something more like concern.
"You thought you'd fooled me," I said to Oscar. "But I'm onto you." And I told him what I'd just learned on the phone.
"You're sick, Oscar?" Baxter said. That was the one thing he'd picked up on. "What's wrong with you?"
"Little old diabetes," Oscar said. "Never hurt anyone."
"Like hell," I said. "People die from that. Did you bring along any medication?"
"Yeah, yeah," he said and waved the back of his hand at me like he wished I'd just go away.
"Are you taking it?" I wanted to know.
Baxter, bless him, set his empty bottle on the porch railing, leaned forward and squatted down next to Oscar's chair. He put one of his big hands on Oscar's shoulder and the other on his bony knee and looked him square in the face.
"You're a tough old buzzard. You always have been," he said. "But if the doc says you need to, you gotta be takin' your medicine."
I could have kissed him for that, because Oscar had gotten his back up and was more than ready to stonewall me. Baxter with a few words had just put an end to that.
"What I'm getting at, Oscar, is you lied to me," I said.
"I did no such thing," he said, refusing to look at me.
"Right. You just didn't tell me the truth. It amounts to the same goddam thing."
"That old folks home is no place for a man," he said bitterly, shaking his head, like he might shed a tear any minute if he was someone who ever let himself. "Hell, it was killing me to be there."
I didn't want to get into this kind of argument. I wasn't about to tell him it was the best place for him, and looking at Baxter, I could tell he wouldn't back me up if I did. We both knew, come the day, we'd feel the same way.
"Maybe you don't realize it, but what you did has got me in a shit load of trouble," I said instead. I had to make him see this from my point of view.
"Just leave me out of your movie," he said. "I don't want to be in it anymore."
I guess he thought he was playing the one trump card he still had. My movie wouldn't be worth shit without him in it.
"That's fine with me," I said. Which if I'd thought about it before I opened my mouth was probably not even half true. As the instructor of the course had promised, the story I'd discovered was a whole helluva lot more interesting than the story I'd set out to tell.
"What about your sister?" I said, calming down. "You need to call her and let her know you're OK so she can stop worrying."
"My sister? She don't have anything to do with this."
"Well, I beg to differ," I said, looking at Baxter for support. "They told me she was really concerned about you." I pictured a bed-ridden old woman, practically at death's door, stricken with worry and ready to lapse into a coma.
"You want me to call her?" Oscar said, like I'd asked him to jump from a moving train.
"Yeah, that can't be too hard," I said.
"Hell, in that case, I'd be happy to give her a piece of my mind." And he jumped up, a little unsteady, from the chair.
This, of course, I hadn't expected. Then I figured he was bluffing anyway. He probably didn't even know her number.
But damned if he didn't. "Where's the phone," he demanded to know, and there I was following him into the house, where we found Kirk and Owen still in the kitchen, Owen with one hand inside Kirk's shirt and the other stuck into the open fly of his wranglers.
Walking right by them, Oscar grabbed the phone from the wall and dialed a number. He was a man on a mission and not about to be distracted by anything.
"Georgina?" he suddenly barked into the phone, without saying hello. "You can call off those goddam pricks at the old folks home. I'm gone and I'm not goin' back there."
I could hear her voice suddenly rising at the other end of the line. She didn't sound like someone at death's door at all.
Oscar started sputtering, trying to get another word in, and finally handed the phone to me. "She wants to talk to you."
"Young man," was the first thing she said to me, and I braced myself for a royal reaming out. "You can take that piece of shit brother of mine and dump him in the deepest hole you can find. Just be sure you put plenty of rocks on him, so he don't get out. I never want to lay eyes on his sorry face again."
Turns out she'd taken him in back when he got himself "busted up." And it wasn't from being thrown from a horse, like he'd told me. He'd totaled a perfectly good-as-new car, to use her words, which she'd helped him pay for with her own hard-earned money, because he'd never saved a goddam nickel in his life.
And she'd nursed him back onto his feet after he got out of the hospitalthe fool wouldn't wear a seatbelt if it killed him, and it damn near didand when she finally got fed up with his constant complaining, she'd told him to shape up or ship out.
So he'd shipped himself outto the homewhere they'd found he was afflicted with any number of ailments that would have disabled most other men his age. And he'd ended up staying there, under a doctor's care, like it or not.
He'd taken advantage of her good will once too goddam often, she said. For all she cared, he could go live out there with his cowboy buddies till he croaked.
"And I told that to those dumb clucks at the old folks home. I washed my hands of him, I said, and they'd be smart to do the same." She paused for effect and then said, "And, honey, so would you."
Then she hung up.
Well, this put a different spin on things. I had no idea what to expect yet from the people at the home, but I wasn't about to piss my pants anymore at the thought of doing jail time. I could kind of let go of the image of myself being led away in handcuffs and some sheriff's deputy pushing my head down as he put me in the back seat of a patrol car.
You might be one to get a rise out of that fantasy, but I don't and never did.
So I let the cards lay as they fell, as Mike would say, and went back to Oscar to see what else, if anything, he was still holding. But all I found was Baxter. Oscar had gone to the bathroom to take a piss, and with his old man's prostate, I knew that was going to take a while.
Somebody had given Baxter another beer, and he was back on the porch railing, slipping a big pinch of Copenhagen under his lip. He grinned when he looked at me and shook his head.
"He's a corker. You know that," he said. "Always has been."
I was curious about their story, and I wanted to hear something approximating the truth, which I knew I had a better chance of getting from Baxter, so I asked him.
"How did you two get to know each other anyway?"
"My dad," he said simply.
While I was trying to sort out the possibilities of this, he went on to explain that his father and Oscar had known each other for years. "I don't know how far back they go," he said. "All I know is he was always there somewhere tagging along with us."
Baxter's mom had been a schoolteacher on summer vacation at a dude ranch in Wyoming when she met Baxter's father, and she'd taken such a shine to him that there'd been this exchange of letters that quickly developed into a long-distance romance.
Come winter, he'd hopped a train to Chicago, where they met up and squandered nearly every cent he had on a long weekend at the Ambassador Hotel. They were young and foolish, and within a year she was married to him and expecting a baby.
"That was me," he said, like he'd shown up uninvited at somebody else's party.
It hadn't lasted long. Wyoming in the 1920s was still barely civilized and no place for a woman who aspired to be more than a rancher's wifeand on a cowboy's pay, there was no ranch in the future. She'd packed up Baxter and gone back to her family.
And it wasn't until Baxter was a teenager that he'd gone looking for his father and found him, still broke but happy, working on a good-size ranch within sight of the Bighorns. He hadn't wandered far.
And like his mom before him, Baxter had fallen in love with his dad, Wyoming, and cowboying, pretty much in that order. When he was old enough, he came out west to stay.
"I never knew my father when he wasn't with Oscar. The three of us got to be close as family. It was like having two dads instead of just one."
I admit I was still puzzled about something. Here I'd been thinking Baxter and Oscar had somehow been a pair, even while it seemed a little unlikely. But this was different.
I wanted to know how close his father and Oscar had been, but I couldn't think of any way to ask that didn't seem like I was prying into something that was none of my business. And Baxter, for that matter, seemed about as regular as a man comes.
"I got a picture here of the two of them," Baxter suddenly said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a worn leather wallet. He flipped it open and there was almost a duplicate of the one Oscar had shown me, only this time it was Oscar and another man. They stood shoulder to shoulder, smiling big as you please into the camera.
"That's your dad?" I asked, pointing to the man beside Oscar. "He looks a lot like you."
"Guess you'd say I sorta look like him. A little bigger is all." He grinned at the photo, like he was something he never tired of looking at.
"And Oscar's sister took this one, too?"
"No, I took it. We was at a rodeo somewhere," he said. "I don't think I ever met his sister."
Score another one for Oscar. For some reason, he'd made up that story, too.
"What happened to your dad?" I asked, figuring he could very well be dead now, and I was getting ready for the likes of that answer.
"Well, it's kinda sad," he said. "He's just gone downhill these last few years. I don't like to say it, but he finally got to be too much for me to handle. He's in a nursing home now down in North Platte."
His face fell as he told me this, the smile fading. His shoulders sagged a little under the weight of what he was telling me.
"I don't get to see him near as much as I'd like to," he said, putting the wallet away again.
"Does Oscar know about this?"
"He does now. I just told him."
This didn't all add up. "How come he didn't know? You said they'd always been friends."
"Aw, they had a falling outyears ago nowover what, I never knew." There'd been a big fight, and suddenly Oscar had packed up and left.
"I thought it was just a lover's quarrel, you know, and Oscar'd show up at the door again some day."
Lover's quarrel, I thought. It was a curious choice of words, but Baxter didn't say it like he was giving something away. It was just a manner of speaking. A metaphor.
"But Oscar, well, he can be stubborn as a mule. Cut off his nose to spite his face. And that's just what happened."
So stubborn that he'd even lied to me about who took the picture of him and Baxter at the rodeo.
With that, Kirk came from inside the house carrying a plate stacked with thick steaks and started putting them on the grill. Owen came out a little later, with what looked like a big old boner in his jeans. Whatever you might say about him and Kirk, the honeymoon was obviously far from over. He sat down in one of the deck chairs, legs spread wide and sucking on a long-neck bottle of beer.
It was getting dark now and the mosquitoes had come out. I got to wondering about Oscar and went looking for him.
I knocked on the bathroom door when I didn't hear anything from inside.
"What do you want?" he said when he came out, lifting back his big belt buckle and cussing his zipper because he couldn't get it all the way up.
"Well, you kind of disappeared," I said.
"A man can disappear if he wants to," he said, and I could tell he was still pissed off.
"Why didn't you tell me about Baxter's father?"
"Nothing to tell," he said, and kept yanking on his zipper.
"Maybe you can't see so well," I said. "You got a bit of your shirttail stuck in it."
He struggled some more.
"You want some help?"
"Jesus, no," he said, and he pulled back like he thought I was about to put my hand in his crotch.
This made me laugh. "For someone who had to sleep with me all last night, you're suddenly awful goddam fussy."
He didn't have a comeback for that, and just stood there now. Which I took as some kind of surrender to his predicament, and I got down on one knee to unhook his belt so I could get a better look at his problem.
"You are a piece of work, you know that, Oscar?" I said. And I told him what I'd learned from Baxter about his old friend and how he'd pretended to me all along that the man never existed.
"And all the time, that's what all this has been about," I said. He was just too fucking proud to admit it.
When he had no idea anymore whether the man was dead or alive, he'd come back, hunting around for the man's son towhat?find out if he'd outlived his old friend? Get in a few last licks? Or maybe, god forbid, admit he was wrong and say he was sorry.
"It wasn't me who was wrong," he said. "Could you hurry up?"
"I'm not interested in your dick, if that's what you're thinking," I said, finally getting his zipper freed. "And I hope that doesn't disappoint you." I stood now as he zipped up and buckled his belt, and I looked him in the eye, daring him to make some wiseass remark.
If he'd heard what I said, he didn't show it. I knew for sure now that he'd loved his old friendand he was probably even willing to admit that much to himself. If they'd ever fucked each other, it didn't matter, not to me anyway.
While it may have never happened, he may have wished it had and never been able to live with knowing that about himself. Some men, I've decided, are better off with what little of the truth they can stand.
"What lie are you going to tell me now?" I said, more than a little unkindly.
He didn't say anything, and when I looked into his eyes, I could see there were tears welling up in them. "I want to go see him," he said.
He'd decided to stop being the stubborn old fool.
I sighed and said, "I'm pretty sure it can be arranged."
Anyway, Baxter's father was in North Platte, and that was on the way back to Lincoln.
We left bright and early the next morning, and Baxter drove his truck down to meet us there at the nursing home.
"When's the last time the old man gave you a day off?" Owen had asked him.
"Been a while," Baxter said, not offering to be specific.
"You got tomorrow off," Owen said, slapping his knee. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it with the old man."
Baxter was leading us down a long corridor now. "It's this way," he said, and we went around a corner into a small room. A gray-haired old man sat there in a wheelchair, gazing out the window.
Baxter walked over to him.
"Hello, dad," he said, touching his hand to the man's arm. "I brought you some visitors." Then he moved the wheelchair around so he could see us.
"Look who it is, dad, it's Oscar," he said.
But as soon as I saw him, I realized he didn't really understand what Baxter was saying. He simply stared in our direction, his face nearly a blank.
"Some days he doesn't even recognize me," Baxter said to us. And sitting on the edge of the bed, he turned to the old man again and went on talking to him in a voice so sad and gentle it nearly broke my heart.
What Oscar did next utterly surprised me. Instead of backing away and taking off down the hall, like I half expected, he left my side, where we'd been standing inside the door, and went over to the old man, pulling up a chair to sit beside him.
"Look what the wind blew in," he said and took the man's hand, holding it in both of his own.
There wasn't a flicker of recognition. Their eyes didn't even meet. And Oscar just sat with him, saying nothingmaybe because he couldn't put what he felt into words.
After a while, Baxter and I left them there and walked out to where we could talk.
"Is your dad all that's left of your family?" I asked him.
He nodded and gave me a little smile. "Not counting Oscar."
I knew then that if Baxter's father was anything like his son, he would have been a fine man to know.
Baxter reached into his shirt pocket for his Copenhagen. "They were both good to me," he said. "Most men aren't so lucky."
There wasn't a lot more that needed to be said. We stood together for a while, studying the tile floor and glancing sometimes out the window, where the morning sun shone in a cloudless sky.
After a while, Oscar came out looking for me.
"I'm not going back with you," he said. "I'm stayin' here."
"They're not gonna like that, Oscar," I said.
"To hell with 'em. They'll have to come and get me," he said. "And if they do, I'll make 'em wish they hadn't."
This was big talk, but I could tell he'd dug in his heels and wasn't about to be budged.
"Let him stay for a while," Baxter said quietly. "I'll get him to Lincoln when he's ready to go. Otherwise we'll have to rope and hog-tie him, and I don't know if that'd look so good either."
It took a while to persuade me about this, though all along I knew he was right. I just couldn't come up with a better idea. Finally I left them there, Oscar and his old friend, and Baxter followed me out to the Camaro.
"You know, I can't get down here near as often as I'd like," he said. "Most days he's just sittin' there all by himself." He thought for a minute. "Do him good to have Oscar for company. Reckon the folks in Lincoln might see a way to let him stay? There's gotta be a boarding house or some place like that in town where I could put him up."
He squatted down beside the open window where I sat behind the wheel.
"What do you think?" he said.
What I was thinking was that he had a heart in him big as a barn. And when his dadand then Oscarwere finally gone, would there be anyone there to bask in the warmth of all that love there inside him.
"I think that's a damn good idea," I said. "Damn good."
I started up the car and drove out of the parking lot. When I looked in the rear view mirror, he was still standing there, watching me go.
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper