Mike and Danny: Forever
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.
Christmas fell on a Monday that year. Which gave everybody a weekend for getting as far as possible out of the routine of the work week and into something like the holiday spirit. On a ranch, of course, you could ignore all that as easy as Scrooge did. The cows didn't know one day from anotherthey had to be fed and they needed water. And they could come down with some ailment or have a mishap as surely as any other day of the year.
So there was work to be done, but it was all right to ease up a little and make space to fit in what you could of peace on earth, good will to men. The season came but once a year and didn't last all that long, so if a man had any care for his own soul, he didn't let the day slip by without reflecting on what it might mean.
Of course, it meant something different to everyone. But the deepening grip of winter, the still, frozen mornings, and the blanket of snow under the starry night sky could give a man pause, if not cause for wonder, and let him find a bit of gladness for whatever life had given him. And maybe even the wish to be giving something in return.
It was that way with Slim. On Sunday, Christmas Eve, he'd gone out in his pickup after the morning chores and brought back a little cedar tree that he'd seen growing in a draw on the far end of one of the pastures.
"You're just a perfect little fella," he said, admiring the shape of it. "You're gonna look nice as can be back in the bunkhouse."
With a rip saw, it had taken only a couple minutes to take it down, and as the flecks of cut wood fell onto the bare ground under the tree, the air filled with the rich smell of cedar.
There'd never been a Christmas tree in the bunkhousenot as long as he'd worked at the ranch, and that had been too many years to count anymore. And he didn't know why the idea finally came to him this year. He'd been to town for something and noticed boxes of tree ornaments and tinsel on his way into one of the stores.
For no reasonexcept maybe seeing a little plastic Santa with a bag of toys over his shoulderhe had a sudden memory of being a boy and the excitement he felt standing under a towering tree in his grandmother's parlor. And he found himself picking out two boxes of decorations and a string of lights to take back to the ranch.
"What's this for?" George had said, like Slim had returned with a chandelier or a set of fancy tea cups.
"As if you don't know," was all Slim said.
He didn't have a tree stand, so he'd taken a bucket and shovel with him in the truck and filled the bucket with sand from the draw. By the time George came in from making the rounds of the windmill tanks, breaking up ice so the cows could drink, the tree was up and sitting where Slim had put it on the table.
"Ain't it purdy?" Slim said, proud of what he'd done.
"Danged if it ain't."
"Just smell that," Slim said, inhaling the rich, earthy fragrance of the tree.
"Beats all hell out of the barn," George said. "Does this mean we're gonna be singin', too?"
"You know, `O, Little Town of Bethlehem'?"
"If we can remember the words."
The two of them would have the ranch to look after themselvesand only each other for company. Randy and Chad had left already the day before, saying their goodbyes and waving as Chad's truck headed off into what was left of a morning fog, the winter sun piercing through from above. They weren't leaving for the holidays. They had left for good.
They'd announced only a few days before that they'd decided to go live together at Randy's place in Nevada. While Chad had been recovering from falling off the shed roof, and getting around pretty good now without his crutches, the two of them had apparently buddied up.
Slim had figured something like that was going on when Randy spent whole nights at the ranch house with Chad while Don was away. At first there'd been a need for it. As long as Chad was laid up, Don wanted someone to be there with him.
He wasn't exactly laid up anymore, George had observed. "Maybe he's just gettin' hisself laid."
Slim, who hadn't thought of that, started paying more notice to the two young cowboys, and saw they were maybe getting friendly enough for it. Randy had a poker face you couldn't tell much from at all, but Chad couldn't seem to hide whatever was going through his mind. He could blush red as a beet if you just looked at him sideways.
The kitchen seemed unusually quiet without them there for breakfast this morning. Slim liked Chad, but he hadn't thought all that much of Randy. He talked too much and could make a nuisance of himselfdicking around sometimes, like someone who always had to be up to somethingbut he was a hard worker and a good roofer. You had to give him credit for that. It was a mixed blessing to have him gone.
Then it was Don's turn to leave. He came by the hay barn where Slim and George were loading up alfalfa bales to take out to the pastures for the cows. Don was on his way to spend Christmas with his family in Grand Island, dressed up in his Carhartt coat, with what looked like a brand-new hat and a well-shined pair of black boots, his jeans tucked in the tops.
He took his glove off to shake their hands and wished them both Merry Christmas. "Don't forget that bottle of port in the pantry," he said.
"We won't, boss," Slim said.
"See you boys in a couple days or so," Don said and went back to his truck, which was idling outside.
Don was not sure what had happened in Tucson. Glory had not wanted him there and kept saying so, but she didn't exactly send him away either. Her husband, she said, was in Hawaii, playing golf with his friends, so there was no worrying about him wondering where she was as she and Don met at his motel for long bouts of good old-fashioned fucking.
But she had a way of disappearing for hours at a timegetting dressed suddenly after an afternoon with him and leaving without a word. He might spend the whole night then pacing around or sleeping off and on in the flickering light from the TV.
"Where were you?" he'd say when she showed up again, but she'd just shrug like it was nothing.
"I flew all this goddam way to see you," he said, trying to get her to explain herself.
"Nobody asked you to," she'd said. He was lying naked in bed, and she was taking off her blouse and slipping out of her skirt.
"You trying to piss me off or something?" He was having trouble understanding her.
"Is that what you want?" she said and was unhooking her bra.
"You tell me," he said. "You're the one trying to pick a fight."
This was getting to be like one of those pointless conversations with his wife Carol. But the sight of her in her panties was already giving him a stiff hard-on.
"Come here," he said and reached out his arms to her, wanting the touch of her breasts.
She was taking off her earrings, each of them a dangly tangle of gold and bitty stones that looked expensive. Everything about her looked expensive. She wasn't the cowgirl in an old shirt and faded blue jeans that he knew from the summer.
"You just want to fuck," she said, setting the earrings on the bedside table.
"You like it. Don't say you don't."
She bent down to step out of her panties and gave him a little smile, like she could have sex anytime she wanted, if that's all she wanted.
She got into bed with him, letting him pull her to him as he opened his mouth over her breasts, his tongue finding her nipples, and he could feel her body in his arms, the muscles tensing in the small of her back, under her soft skin, as she arched against him.
As far as he was concerned, the sex had been just what he wanted. My god, it had felt so good. There just wasn't enough of it. He could have kept going nonstop.
The only time he got dressed up in the three days he was there was the last night, when they left the motel to get something to eat. He'd wanted more room service, but she said she wanted him to take her some place where there were waiters and candlelight.
She had a late-model Eldorado, and they drove for miles it seemed until they got to a place with rose bushes blooming by the entranceDon couldn't get over the way it was still summer here, though the calendar and common sense told you it wasn't, and a couple of short flights north took you to ice and snow, where only a well heated greenhouse could encourage a flower to bloom.
A look inside at the dimly lighted restaurant, linens and crystal wine glasses on the tables, with a fire burning in a stone fireplace, and Don was thinking, this was going to set him back. They were taken to a dark corner where candles glimmered and it would have helped to have a flashlight to read the menus.
It was a place for lovers, Don thought, and he wondered if that's what Glory had in mind, in spite of everything she'd said in the motel. He considered the likelihood that they might go on like this, meeting from time to time to enjoy each othertwo people who understood that marriage was a necessary inconvenience.
You were stuck with what you gotan irritable wife who had no respect for you and gave you a bunch of kids there was no end of paying for. Or you had a wealthy husband, who picked up the tab for everything but left you alone while he went off with his buddies. Why not take up with a handsome rancherwhich is what she'd called him once. It had kicked up his ego a notch, and he'd put in a performance that had got her writhing with pleasure under him. He liked feeling he could drive a woman wild.
In the restaurant, she told him what to orderprime riband she had something with a fancy French name. They'd consumed a bottle of red wine, and the waiter kept quietly fussing around them, brushing bread crumbs off the tablecloth at one point with the edge of a knife and a napkin.
As he ate his fill and felt himself warmed by the wine, he watched her pick at her food, the candlelight giving her face and her hair a radiant glow. She said nothing, hardly glancing up at him, but he felt as alone with her as he had in the motel room. And his dick got hard again in his pants.
As the waiter took the plates away, he'd gone to the men's room, finding himself with nearly a full erection, and he'd had trouble getting it out of his underwear when he stood at the urinal. Peeing with his big cock in his hand, he let his thoughts drift to the next stage of the eveningback to the motel for another good fuckand he felt on top of the world.
"We gotta come back here again some time," he said, after he returned to the table. She'd asked the waiter to bring her a cup of coffee, and Don was having a double-shot of single malt whiskey, which was raising his temperature yet another couple of degrees.
She took a cigarette from a pack in her purse. The waiter appeared out of the shadows to light it with a little silver lighter, and she took a slow puff before answering him.
"There's not going to be another time," she said, giving him a steady look, the first since they'd sat down at the table.
"We'll see each other again," he said, thinking he needed to reassure her. "This ain't over."
"No, Don. That's what I'm saying. It's over."
"What are you talkin' about? We got a great thing goin' here."
She sighed, like getting him to see what she meant was going to take more patience than she had.
He'd believed she was more than a little fond of himsort of rough around the edges maybe, but wasn't that what excited her? He'd always pictured her husband as slick and citified.
Now he found himself considering the restaurant she'd taken him to, her big car, her expensive clothes and jewelry. "I'm not good enough for you?" he said, like she couldn't possibly take him for less than the man he was.
"Don, I don't need you. I've got somebody already."
"I thought you and your husband didn't get along."
"I'm not talking about him."
Don, who knew something of the world, had figured he probably wasn't the only other man in her life. She'd taken up with him without a second thought, like she'd done it before. But he'd always assumed he was the best of the bunch. Had to be.
"Well, where's he been, this other guy?" he said. "He sure took the backseat as soon as I got into town."
"He's playing golf with my husband in Hawaii," she said, like Don had to be an idiot not to have figured that out.
"He's a friend of your husband's?"
"Yes, they're flying back here tomorrow."
Don, whose spirit had been floating somewhere in the stratosphere, felt himself suddenly losing altitude.
"Does your husband know about this?"
"I don't see how that should make any difference to you."
The reality of it all came crashing through now. When she'd had the time to drop everything and spend days and nights with him, it wasn't that her husband wasn't around. All the while, it had been because of somebody else.
"So you'll be leaving, before they get back," she said and crushed out her cigarette. "Finish your drink and let's go."
So that was it. She took a last sip from her coffee cup and reached for her purse.
"Wait a minute," he said, looking around for the waiter. "I still have to get the check."
"I already took care of it."
He just looked at her, not understanding.
"While you were in the men's room," she explained.
He was thunderstruck. "You took care of it?" was all he could say.
If she'd meant to get rid of him by making him feel like a fool, she couldn't have done a better job of it. He knocked back the last of the whiskey and felt every eye in the place watching him as he followed her out of the restaurant. And it had been silent in the car all the way back to the motel.
"I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," she said, as she left him at the front entrance.
What was he supposed to say, thanks? He sat in the front seat, his hand on the door handle, knowing it was his last chance to say anything to her. A moment passed, and he didn't get out of the car. Then another moment.
"Go back to your wife," she said. "Be a better husband than the one I got."
He kept searching for some last thing to saysomething that would make her never forget him and wish she hadn't let him go like this.
"If you ever change your mind," he said, realizing with those words that he was swallowing a truckload of pride.
"You're a good roll in the hay, Don. I wouldn't have spent the last three days with you if you weren't."
And with that he'd found the will to open the door and step out of the car. She hadn't left him with nothing. In spite of everything, he still had that much. A classy, well-dressed woman, driving away now in an Eldorado, thought he was a good roll in the hay.
It was against the rules. He'd promised Molly that he'd never talk to Brad again, but he had to have one last farewell. Craig had gone to his office and dialed the number of his friend in Arizona. They'd talked like this many times late on an afternoon, after classes and office hours, before going home to dinner with their families.
Light fading in the windows, the campus falling quiet, maybe some boys playing touch football on the lawn outside the cafeteria, he would spend sometimes an hour or more talking, just talking, the receiver nestled against his ear, his feet up on the desk, arms across his chest, hugging himself.
He would miss those times. They'd made him feel connected with this friend he'd found, affection expressed so easily that he could forget for a while that there were others who came first, depended on him, needed him. For a while, behind his closed door, he could feel like a free man.
"I've got a hard-on," Brad said once, almost whispering into the phone.
"Me, too," Craig said laughing.
And like they were doing something utterly forbidden, they had masturbated together on the phone. The first time it happened, Craig hadn't thought ahead, and suddenly he was coming all over his hands, soaking the front of his shirt. After that, he always kept a supply of paper towels in his desk drawer.
Those days, when he was so light-hearted, loving and being loved, he'd felt like a teenagerthe one he'd never allowed himself to be when he was young. People had been drawn to him, clustering around him sometimes as if to bask in the happy glow that seemed to radiate from him.
He heard music on the radio in a way he'd never heard it before. Songs about falling in love had always been about somebody else. Now, he realized, they were about him, too. On a summer day, he'd sometimes wear levi's pushed low on his hips and a tee shirt with the sleeves rolled up, enjoying the memory of how he and his friends used to dress in high school. He bought a pair of engineer boots and found himself wanting to get a motorcycle.
Afterwards, as he had a chance to reflect on that time, he could see that he'd lived his life till then in a shell. Instead of playing around and being foolish like other boys his age growing up, he'd taken everything soberly and seriously. Now he could see he hadn't really grown up at all.
So much of his life had gone unlived, and he wanted to catch up. It was like he'd been in a deep freeze, his feelings now beginning to thaw out, like one of those Stone Age men they find preserved in a glacier. It felt good, and sometimes it felt awfulso much joy, along with so much pain.
It was the pain now he felt, a heart sickness as he dialed the phone to hear his friend's voice one last time.
"I thought I wouldn't hear from you again," Brad said when he picked up. Craig had written him about what he'd decided and what he had promised Molly.
"I didn't get to say everything in the letter."
"What you said was enough," Brad said. There was both hurt and anger in his voice.
"I was just remembering something," Craig said and talked about a time they were together some years before.
"I don't remember where or when it was anymore," he said. In the early light of morning he'd sat naked on the edge of a hotel room bed, his back to Brad, who'd pulled himself from under the sheet to give him a sleepy hug from behind, spreading his legs around him.
"I know a Boy Scout pledge," Brad had said. "Something we used to do at summer camp."
"I wasn't in the Boy Scouts."
"Doesn't matter. It's not official."
Brad had been stroking his chest, rubbing his whiskery chin against the back of his neck. He put one hand between Craig's legs and tucked his fingers under his testicles. Then he slipped his other hand behind Craig to take hold of his own.
"Repeat after me," he said, and together they recited the pledge.
"Remember it?" Craig said now as the last light of Christmas Eve fell on the dead lawn outside his window.
Brad laughed. "I hereby solemnly swear, by my balls, that I am yours and you are mine. Honest and true hearts, buddies forever."
They were silent for a moment.
"I'm still keeping that pledge," Craig said. "You know, I think about you every night before I fall asleep. Otherwise, it's too lonely without you."
"Tell me something," Brad said. "Will there ever come a time when you won't have to do that anymore because I'll be right there with you? Will you ever be freewill you ever set yourself free?"
It was hard hearing it put that way, and for a second Craig saw himself as Brad saw himan inmate in a prison of his own making.
"I'm thinking, maybe when all the kids have left home," he said. When he had doubts about the decision he'd made, it was a hope he'd begun to cling to.
"I want you to know, when that day comeshowever long it takesI'll still be waiting for you," Brad said.
"I'm not asking for that. How could you do that?
"Oh, there'll be others. I'm not going to live like a monk."
"I don't want you to."
"But the day you are freefrom that day onI want you to spend the rest of your life with me. I'll still love you that much."
Craig sighed. He looked at his watch and saw how late it was. He explained that Molly would be expecting him home. Maybe even calling and getting a busy signal, wondering who he was talking to on the phone.
But he didn't want to hang up. It felt like his heart was breaking.
"I know you. You'll be OK," Brad said. "Just remember about forever."
"I will. Forever." And he put down the phone.
Ty had looked in the newspaper and found a Christmas Eve service in town. There'd be an organist and a choir singing carols, he explained to Rich, and someone would be telling the Christmas story. For Rich, who wanted to go with him, it was going to be a kind of adventure.
He couldn't remember if he'd ever been inside a church before. Maybe when he was a little boy, passed between his mother and one aunt or another until he'd fetched up at his uncle Gordon's, a man whose nearest association with religion was routinely taking the Lord's name in vain. And Christmas, depending on who he was living with, had more to do with getting drunk than shepherds and babes in mangers.
Together, they left Mike's and drove to a little church on the outskirts of town, a new brick building with a simple white spire over the front door and newly planted trees along the street. The parking lot when they got there was nearly full.
Rich was wearing a new sweater, a Christmas present from Ty. It was a wool fisherman's turtlenecklike they wear in Ireland, Ty had explained as Rich put it on, letting them all admire him before he pulled his leather jacket on over it and the two of them left the house.
They joined a tide of people of all sizes and ages heading for the front door of the church, and wishing each other "Merry Christmas." Inside it was already crowded, and they found a couple of seats in the back row, stepping across an old man with white hair and a beard so full he could have passed for Santa Claus.
The lights were dimmed, and a tree covered with shiny ornaments and tinsel stood near the front, where its branches mostly hid an organist who was playing a rousing version of "Joy to the World." A choir in scarlet robes entered from a side door and the organist segued into a slow, tranquil "Silent Night," nearly drowned out by the sound of the congregation murmuring and settling into their pews, and the shushing of excited children.
Rich leaned against Ty's shoulder and said, "It's nice. I think I'm gonna like it."
As the minister stepped to the front of the church and the room quieted, Rich felt in the dark between them for Ty's hand. When he found it, he squeezed it gently, and held it in his lap.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper