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.
Ty loved Mike. It was simple as that. And hardly anything could have been more complicated.
He'd felt this way about a friend in seminary. One of their teachers had watched them together in class for a semester and had finally taken Ty aside to observe that in the life of a young seminarian such attachments were not unusual. He and the others were, after all, a special breed of men, called to love and care for all the lambs of the Father's flock, so it was natural that this love for others flowed deeper and stronger.
But, he pointed out, it was easy for a natural thing to turn into a distraction from his calling. And being distracted from the will of the Almighty, even for a minute, would have the Prince of Darkness just rubbing his hands together with glee.
Too much love for his classmate would in time become a weakness in the armor of his faith, and not only for the welfare of his own immortal soul but some day for the souls of everyone in his parish. Any weakness of his could leave them defenseless and headed straight on that broad road to eternal flames. His future ministry required him to pray and pray hard for deliverance from excesses of the heart.
So Ty, shaken to the core by this warning, withdrew into his studies and prayed for release from his feelings, and he eventually found himself given the will power to resist them.
When the young man of his affections happened to be in the same room with him, he'd find an excuse to leave. When they were in the same class, he asked to be assigned to a seat in the front row. In chapel, he joined the choir, which sang from the loft and out of sight of the worshippers gathered below. And in the locker room at the gymah, this he found was where temptation was strongesthe changed clothes with his head down and eyes averted and left afterwards without taking a shower.
As an assistant at his first parish, he was not yet authorized or even expected to carry out the responsibilities of a fully ordained minister. He was only a deacon there, given light duties, getting his feet wet in holy water, as a clevermaybe too cleverfellow seminarian liked to put it.
But it kept him so busy that he felt not the slightest twinge of his old affliction, and he began to stop worrying about it. In the odd moment, when the memory of it would come back to him, he'd heave a sigh of what seemed like genuine relief that it was a phase he'd gone through, something well behind him now, where it would remain and be forgotten.
Then he was asked to organize a canvass of the parish and to send the young members of the Youth League out door to door with questionnaires, asking people about their religious affiliations. This was not supposed to be sheep-stealing, the head pastor was quick to explain to him. Their job was only to find those without a church home and warmly extend a welcome to join their fellowship.
The campaign had gone well. The Youth Leaguers were fond of their young deacon and came out in force. It was late January and February, the dead spot in the middle of winter, and folks on a Sunday afternoon were easy to find at home, weary of the snow and cold and content to be cooped up in overheated living rooms with their TVs.
This was especially true of the farmers around town, where in a last burst of energy, the teams of canvassers fanned out in all directions to make themselves and their church known to the tillers of the soil, as the senior pastor once referred to them.
Ty had gone out each Sunday afternoon with a different team, and on this final day he was with a girl named Margery and a center from the high school basketball team, Chad. Margery was still inspired by the spirit of outreach, but Chad had lost his enthusiasm, if he ever had much in the first place.
Margery was a well developed girl, popular with the other kids and pretty. Although he didn't like having thoughts like this, Ty suspected that Chad's interest was chiefly in her and her developments, and not so much in extending the Kingdom of the Lord.
After an hour with them, driving from farm to farm in Ty's Nash Ramblerthe boy had got into the front seat with reluctance, embarrassed no doubt to be seen in a vehicle so unsuited to his social standing as a well regarded athleteTy had taken to jollying him between house calls to lighten the sour expression on his face, hardly an advertisement for the warm fellowship of the church whose pews they were attempting to fill.
Arriving at the porch steps of one farmhouse, he focused his awareness in part on the boy, who stood awkwardly behind him, and he let Margery knock on the door, while a rust-colored dog with muddy paws stood barking at them and ready, it seemed, to chase them back to the car without further warning.
They could hear a door opening inside and then footsteps across the porch, and a man in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt appeared. On his feet, Ty noticed, he was wearing a pair of thick socks, a small hole in one toe, and he was holding a section of the Sunday paper he'd been reading. Looking at all three of them, he smiled, his eyes finally settling on Margery, who was explaining their mission.
The farmer's smile did not fade as she talked, and when Margery asked if they could come inside to ask him a few questions, he said, "Sure," and ushered them into a kitchen where they sat around the table and he offered them coffee.
His name was Mike, he told them. No, he didn't belong to a church, and no he'd never been a churchgoer, and no he didn't think he'd be coming to their church, but he thanked them for their concern for his spiritual welfare. There probably weren't enough folks in the world who cared that way, he said, and maybe it would be a better place if they did.
Ty lingered, drinking his coffee, not quite ready to move on to the next farm, though Margery glanced at him finally when it was clear they were done and Chad was fidgeting like he had ants in his pants.
He found himself asking more than the usual questions, wishing there were some way he could entice this man into the fold. There was an easy, thoughtful manner about him that the church neededsomeone with apparent patience and character. His hands there on the table, a workman's, callused and strong, were like the rest of himtough yet gentle as they cradled the coffee mug he was drinking from. His eyes were signs of a depth of soul that others, in times of trial, could find shelter in.
In the days and weeks that followed, as he thought of Mike and hoped each Sunday that somehow he would look out over the congregation and find him there, smiling that warm smile as he sang along with the first hymn, Ty began to wonder if the time of trial he'd had in mind might not be his own. For meeting Mike had unsettled him. He had not been able to stop thinking about him.
He suddenly realized, with a sharp catch in his chest, that he was lonely working in this small-town congregation, far from the seminary and the company of the men he knew there, men who read books and talked theology and understood the finer points of faith. And he sensed for the first time the degree of strengththe armorthat his teacher had spoken of needing to do parish work. For he felt suddenly vulnerable and a little lost.
He prayed harder and longer at night in his rented room next door to the church, where one of the church ladies, a widow, had a big old house with several empty bedrooms abandoned one by one by a large family of children now grown and living all over the country. Always early to bed, she left him to face the long hours of night alone, while silence settled over the town, broken only now and then by the mournful late-night moan of a diesel making its way along the Union Pacific tracks.
Another kind of man, he knew, might look for company in a bar, and the town was full of bars. But as the young deacon of a large church in a small town, this was out of the question.
When sleep continued to fail him, he found himself creeping from the house and driving around the deserted town in his Rambler, up Eddy Street to Five Points and down Locust to Stolley Park Road, then west to the edge of town and back east again along highway 30, all the way to Shady Bend, where he'd turn around by the old stucco gas station and motel and wait for a while, engine running so he could keep the heater on, aware that if he drove on a few more miles, he could turn off the highway and drive by Mike's farm.
Which, after a few nights of this, he finally did. And there in the utter darkness of the countryside, he saw a light glowing in the kitchen window where he had sat across from Mike that Sunday afternoon, drinking his coffee.
The first couple of times, he just drove slowly by. Then he took to making a U-turn at the next crossroads and driving slowly the other way. Finally, he would turn off his lights as he doubled back and roll to a stop in the sandy gravel, where he could sit in the dark car and watch the window glowing there in the night, until the light was finally switched off.
He had no idea what was happening to him. The loneliness had begun to haunt his days as well as his nights, no matter how busy he kept himself.
Eventually, he worked up his courage to drive out to Mike's farm in broad daylight. It was early spring now, a week day, and Mike was working in a field, disking corn stalks. A flock of blackbirds followed him, diving down for grubs and worms the disk had unearthed.
Ty waited at the end of the field, standing there in the dry weeds that grew out of the ditch and along the fence. When Mike got up to him, he turned the rig and then throttled back the engine. He flipped open a window of the cab and stuck out his head.
"Hello," he called out.
"Hello," Ty said, his heart in his throat as he bent down to step through the barb wire fence. The freshly turned earth was wet and soft under his shoes as he walked over to the tractor.
Mike tipped his cap back off his forehead, frowning for a moment and then recognizing him.
"You're from the church," he said.
Ty had forgotten what he had come to say to Mikeor ask himor even if he had thought of anything to say at all. With a rush of feelings sweeping through him, his heart beating in his chest, all he seemed able to do was just stand there.
"What can I do for you?" Mike said, smiling down at him.
"I wondered," Ty said, "I wondered if you'd given any more thought to coming to our church."
"No I haven't."
"I was sort of hoping you would," Ty said, no longer aware of what exactly he was saying.
"I don't think I'd be very welcome there," Mike said, a shadow of some other feeling crossing his face.
"Oh, but you would," Ty said, the words leaping from him. "How can you be so sure?"
"I'm just sure of it," he said. "Let's leave it at that."
Ty felt somethingeverythingslipping away from him.
"Look," Ty said, a note of pleading creeping into his voice. "I just wanted a chance to talk with you. And not about church if you've made up your mind about that."
"What do you want to talk to me about?"
"Not here, not like this. You're working." He gestured toward the field with his hands. "But some day when you have some free time."
Mike smiled again. "Free time? You don't know much about farming." And he laughed. But it was a good-natured laugh.
Ty took heart and felt his wits returning to him. "Sometime when you're in town. Meet at the café, maybe. I'd like that."
The last words, though they were the truth, had got away from him before he could stop them.
Mike studied him for a moment. "Well, hellheck, I should saymaybe sometime I'd like that, too," he said.
Now Ty's heart leapt.
"Tell you what," Mike said. "Next time I come in for something, I'll give you a call. What's your phone number?" He pulled the stub of a pencil from his shirt pocket.
As Ty gave him the church's number, Mike wrote it down on the paint inside the tractor cab.
Mike beamed at him now, his hand resting on the steering wheel. "Anything else I can do for you today?"
And when Ty shook his head, Mike throttled up the engine and pulled away, heading back across the field, leaning out the cab to wave as he went.
Ty had got all the way back to the church in town before he realized he'd been driving and had no memory of how he got there.
He slept that night, soundly, and floated through the next several days.
"What's up with you," the senior pastor wanted to know. "Lately you've been all smiles. Like the cat that swallowed the canary."
"Just enjoying my work here," Ty said, which was true. But feeling at last that he'd found a friend he could open his heart to, he kept that to himself. It was nobody's business but his own. He wasn't going to risk losing that feeling again.
And after more than a week, when he'd begun to doubt that Mike would ever call, there was a message waiting for him in the church office. Mike would be in town, it said, and had some time to meet with him.
"Who's Mike?" the church secretary wanted to know. She had taken the message.
"Just a friend," he said.
"Do I know him?" she said.
"Lives on a farm east of town."
"Belong to our church?" she said.
"No, he doesn't."
She shrugged, like maybe he should, and said no more.
They met on a drizzly spring day at the Farmer's Daughter Cafe, across the street from the town's daily newspaper and a few blocks from the post office and the county courthouse, a popular establishment that was usually busy with regular customers. It wasn't yet noon when Ty walked in, and he found Mike already in a booth near the front, waiting for him.
He wore a dark blue-gray, zipper-front work jacket, the collar crimped up along the edge, and under it another plaid flannel shirt, like the one he wore that first Sunday. He had taken off his cap, and it was beside him on the seat. Ty noticed that his hair was slicked back, and it looked like he'd just been to the barber.
They ordered lunch before they'd said much, and Mike seemed to be waiting, curious to find out what Ty had on his mind.
But Ty, with his heart in his throat, was content just to keep Mike talking, asking him about his life and his farming.
Mike ate his chicken fried steak when it came and ate it quickly, consuming every last bite of the mashed potatoes and peas, and swabbing up the gravy with a dinner roll, until his plate was clean. Then he waited, drinking refills of coffee and patiently answering more questions, as Ty hurried to finish.
They both were starting into slabs of chocolate pie as Mike said, "Tell me, what makes a young man like yourself decide to be a minister?"
And Ty took a deep breath, wondering at the words "like yourself"what kind of man did Mike think he was? And then he explained a little of how he wanted tonot do the Lord's work, that would sound too pious to a farmerhow he wanted to do something with his life that would maybe make a difference for others.
Mike nodded, popping a fork full of pie into his mouth. It seemed to be an answer that was OK with him.
"And how's that been working out?" he asked.
The question surprised him. He glanced across the room, where he recognized the husband of the church secretary sitting at a table, a man of few words who was a retired cop.
Afterwards, when he thought of the answer he gave to Mike's question, he didn't know what made him tell the truth. Instead of bravely expressing his confidence in the commitment he'd made to his calling, he'd said, "Some days, I'm not so sure."
Mike shrugged his shoulders and said, "I think I know what you mean. I have days like that myself." And then he smiled, his eyes looking directly into Ty's and holding them for a moment with an unexpected measure of kindness, until Ty glanced down to his pie, feeling his face suddenly grow warm.
The check had arrived, and Mike quickly paid all of it, over Ty's protest. "Save your money," Mike had said. "I'm betting they don't pay half what you're worth at that church."
And they stood briefly outside the doorway, a light drizzle still falling. Mike had pulled his cap onto his head and was zipping up his jacket. Ty saw now that he was wearing what looked like a new pair of jeans and tan work boots with thick soles. There were dots of rain water over the toes.
"Next time, if you want, you can come out to my place," Mike said. "We'll have supper."
Next time? Ty thought.
"Nothing fancy," Mike laughed. "Just some of my home cooking."
"I'd like that," Ty said, hearing himself say the words againand all of them true.
"We can talk some more," Mike said and shook his hand. Then he turned to go, and Ty was watching him walk away, down the street to a pickup parked along the curb. When he got in and drove off, Ty was still standing there.
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper