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.
The deal was that Joe Allen could sleep over at Mike's after he'd gone to school for a whole week and did his homework every night. It hadn't been what the boy expected. He'd wanted to move right in, but first he'd have to do something to prove himself.
On Monday morning, Mike went to the school and talked to the principal, Miss Spender, a gray-haired woman he remembered from his own days as a student, who came out of her office when she saw him at the front desk to say hello and shake his hand.
She had been his math teacher back then, and chose not to recallor at least not to speak ofhis occasional truancies and a minor record of mischief that had got him sent to this very office more than once. This time, she saved him the long uneasy wait that he rememberedsitting on one of the hard chairs by the doorand invited him to come inside, where her desk was covered with piles of paperwork.
There were framed pictures of past graduation classes on one wall, and they found Mike's, the class of '56, where he looked younger than he could remember being, his hair cut in a neat flat-top, his face oddly naked without his mustache.
The bravely serious look on his face brought back for him the troubled feelings that made a kind of hell of that senior year, struggling with dark sorrows he couldn't understand. His long-time friend Don, who grinned from a picture just above Mike's, had deserted him for Carol, the girl he was datingand fucking. And there she was, her picture in an upper corner, looking cheerfully innocent.
"What brings you here?" Miss Spender said as they sat down. "It's a little soon for you to be having kids in high school."
"Actually, it's not," he said.
And he explained about Joe Allenjust enough for her to understand that as a friend of Joe Allen's mother, he'd taken an interest in the boy and was seeing that he did well in school.
"Joe Allen," she said and sighed. "He's a hard case." And she pulled out his records to show that he had D's and F's in most of his classes and had already missed school twelve times since September. "If this keeps up, he's not going to pass. And he'll probably decide to drop out."
She was frowning now and shaking her head. "I know his mother," she said. "She can't be very happy with him."
"Well, I was hoping weIcould maybe turn things around. Straighten him out a little before it's too late."
And he asked her to have someone call him whenever Joe Allen skipped schooleven if he was just lateand to tell his teachers to make sure he brought home his homework assignments, the new ones and all the ones he hadn't done.
"I'm hopin' that's not too much to ask," he said.
She smiled at him. "That and anything else I can do. I hate to see any student fail."
They shook hands again as he left. "You know," she said, "there's not a lot of men who would do what you're doing."
"Maybe not," he said, suddenly embarrassed by a school principal's good opinion of him. It had never happened before. "Maybe they should."
"Call me," she said. "Any time. I want to know how it's going."
He left the office and walked down the hall to the entrance, struck by how stark and confining it all wasthe hard polished floors, empty walls, and closed classroom doors. He could understand why a boy like Joe Allen might want to be any place but here. It was a relief to step outside into the bright, cold air, and to walk across the visitors' lot to his pickup.
Back at the farm, Rich and Ty were deciding which subjects each of them was best at to help with Joe Allen's homework.
"Hell, I wasn't much good at anything," Rich said. "Alegbra? Geography? Biology?" And he shrugged. "I think I fucked up all those."
"But you graduated, didn't you?" Ty said.
"Bet your ass. I showed 'em. And how."
"Maybe it'll come back to you."
"Too bad Danny ain't here for this. He'd be a big help." Danny was back at his teaching job at the college.
"Mike, what were you good at?" Rich wanted to know.
"History, I guess," and Mike remembered history class, the teacher he liked, and how he worked hard to please him and get noticed. "Yeah, history."
Each afternoon that first week, they waited for Joe Allen to get out of school, one of them driving, usually Ty in his Nash Rambler. And they brought him out to the farm, where they spread out his books and homework on the kitchen table and worked with him right through supper until it was time to drive him back home.
It didn't seem to bother him how little he knew about his subjects. Catching up became a matter of figuring out where to start. They decided to first concentrate on the homework.
A book report that was due for his English teacher by the end of the week meant that both Ty and Rich found themselves reading Of Mice and Men. When a copy of the novel had turned up in Danny's bookcase, they passed it back and forth between them, lying together in bed at night and talking about it.
"Can you believe what it would take to kill your only friend?" Ty said when they'd each finished it.
Rich said nothing for a while, his arm tucked around Ty's neck and softly stroking his chest. "Death in a book ain't like death in real life," he finally said. "It don't matter who pulls the trigger."
"You thinking about your friend in Vietnam?" Ty said.
"You must have really loved him."
"It don't matter how much you love someone when they don't deserve to die. It tears the same size hole in your gut."
He pulled Ty closer to him and bent to kiss him on the temple.
"I've never lost anyone like that," Ty said.
"I just thought I lost you once."
Rich sighed and lay back on the pillow.
"But you're here and I'm here now," Ty said. "That's what matters."
"Well, I ain't goin' nowhere again. Not without you."
The lovemaking that night was deep and tender. "I want you to fuck me," Rich said, rolling over onto his stomach. "And I want it like this, with your whole body on top of me. I love it when you come like that."
By the middle of that first week, Joe Allen was asking Ty to let him, with his learner's permit, drive the car after school.
Ty shook his head. "Not till Mike says it's OK."
And Mike, of course, didn't. Joe Allen would get to drive when Mike said so. He'd have to show some progress at school before that. Which didn't sit well with Joe Allen, but he tried not to show it. And that night he and Rich sat at the kitchen table working on the book report.
"Did you get it read?" Rich asked him.
"All the way to the end?"
"Yeah. Lennie gets shot."
"Well, what did you think when that happened?"
Joe Allen shrugged. "I guess he had it comin'."
"He screwed up. What else was the other guy gonna do?"
Rich leaned back in his chair and frowned. "I don't think you read it. You had somebody tell you what happened."
Joe Allen gave him a blank look.
"I pulled that kind of crap when I was in school," Rich said, pissed off now. "You're not going to fool me."
"It's just a book report. Teacher didn't say we had to read it."
"That does it," Rich said. "Where's your book?"
"I don't have one."
"Well, you're in luck," Rich said. "It just so happens we do." He went to the back bedroom and got it, standing over Joe Allen as he handed it to him. "Now open it to page one and start reading."
Joe Allen looked at him for a moment, thought better of the situation, and then took the book.
"Page one," Rich reminded him and sat down again.
Joe Allen opened the book, found the page, and began to read. Meanwhile, Rich picked up a science textbook and started reading about thermodynamics.
"This is hard," Joe Allen said after several minutes.
"Not as hard as explaining yourself to Mike when we tell him. And you'll have a lot of explaining to do."
Rich sat up in his chair. "I'm going to ignore what you just said. But one more word like that out of you and you can take one last look around while you kiss this place goodbye. Because you'll never see it again."
"What's going on in here," Ty said. He'd been out in the shop with Mike, putting a new muffler on his car.
"We're having a little discussion about a book," Rich said and glared at Joe Allen. "Aren't we."
Joe Allen said nothing, just picked up the book again and went back to reading.
The book report had got done by Friday. Now that Joe Allen knew the whole story, he'd changed his mind about Lennie's death, deciding that it was a damn shame, in his words. Lennie hadn't done anything wrong. It was the rest of the world that was screwed up, and he set out to say so as he put pencil to paper.
This new take on the story seemed to satisfy him. You could tell that he felt more than a little like the Lennie he'd discovered in the pages of the book. He let them all read what he'd written, and they pronounced it good, Mike suggesting that his English teacher might not be ready for the words "screwed up," and Joe Allen promised he would fix that during the study hall before it was due.
"Teacher's gonna have cats when I turn this in," he said. "She's not gonna believe it."
The weekend, it had been decided, would be given to catching up on American history. A test was coming the next week.
"And right before Christmas," Joe Allen complained. "Like they'd do anything to take the fun out of it."
"School is work," Rich said. "It's not supposed to be fun."
Mike wondered at the wisdom of this point of view, but let it pass. He was hoping that he could stir up some interest in the boy for one of his favorite subjects. The history test was going to cover the Civil War. They'd get started on it right away.
But Joe Allen argued that nobody does homework on Friday nights. He intended to get together as usual with his friends.
"And what's he going to do that won't be a waste of time doing it?" Rich said, when the three men discussed it.
"Maybe you're being a little hard nosed about this," Ty said.
"Give him a little break from the books," Mike said. "He's earned it."
"Only with somebody cracking the whip over his head," Rich said, unconvinced.
But come Friday night, Joe Allen got his wish to have some fun on his own. It was oddly quiet at the house without all his noise and teenage attitude, and when Danny arrived home for the weekend, there they all were, kind of restless and not sure what to do with themselves.
By noon on Saturday, Ty was to drive to Joe Allen's house in town and bring him back out to the farm for an afternoon of Civil War history. It was a blustery day, a cloud bank building in the west. A sharp wind caught at Ty's cap as he walked from the car to the front porch.
Estelle met him there, after he'd knocked twice on the storm door. It took only a minute to discover that Joe Allen was not there and hadn't come home from school the day before.
"He told me he was staying out at the farm last night," she said. "He wasn't with you?"
"No," Ty said.
He stepped inside the door, as she shut it behind him, and he saw she was dressed in a worn housecoat and slippers, her face pale without makeup. She'd come down with a cold, she told him, and had been in bed when he knocked.
"Where could he be?" Ty said.
"With Rory?" she said, like she hoped it wasn't true. "Rory is always getting him up to something. He never used to lie to me until he met that boy."
"Where does Rory live? I'll go over there."
"Let me call first," she said and left Ty standing by the door.
He could see into the living room, and it reminded him of his own house back in Iowa. There were upholstered chairs, wallpaper on the walls, a round mirror reflecting the sheer curtains hanging in the front window, an upright piano with framed photographs arranged on the top.
When she came back from making the call, she said simply, "Rory's at home, but if he's telling the truth, he hasn't seen Joe Allen either."
"He have a place he likes to hang out?"
"Try the Dairy Queen."
She offered to come with him, but he told her she should go back to bed. He could find the boy himself.
It was a short drive to a street of fast food restaurants, discount stores, and car washes, where he found the Dairy Queen, its parking lot full of cars and pickups. Inside, a line of people stood waiting at the counter, while the booths were crowded with mostly teenagers, eating chili dogs and French fries, and sucking down cokes, all of them talking it seemed at once.
Working his way toward the back, he scanned the faces, until his eye fell on a familiar black knit cap, with a Raiders patch sewn to the front. Only it was being worn by a girl with long brown hair and bangs. She had on a bright red ski jacket with rabbit fur lining around the hood, and beside her, with his arm around her shoulders, sat Joe Allen.
He was happily talking to two other boys and a girl squeezed into the seat across from them and didn't notice Ty until he'd stopped to pop the long straw sticking from a cup of coke into his mouth.
"Weren't you supposed to be somewhere?" Ty asked him over the din of raised voices around them.
Joe Allen, blinked at him a couple times, like he'd just been shaken from a dreamless slumber.
"You weren't home last night," Ty said. "You lied to your mom."
"Who cares," Joe Allen scoffed, "and who asked you anyway." He was trying to sound tough, though Ty could see he was just putting up a front for his friends, who were all looking up at Ty now, moon-faced.
"You're coming with me," Ty said, "right now."
I'm counting to three, he wanted to add, but this maneuver that had worked easily on him when he was young wouldn't get him anywhere with Joe Allen, who would probably just laugh at him.
"I ain't goin' nowhere, not with you," Joe Allen said, glancing back at his friends with a smirk on his face.
Ty stared at him for a moment and realized it was a showdown he couldn't win. Short of dragging him out of the booth by the collarand over the girl sitting beside himthere was nothing else he could do.
"Have it your way," he said, trying to control his growing fury, and he turned away, heading for the door.
But when he got outside, Joe Allen was right behind him. "Wait, wait," he was saying. "I'm comin' with you." He'd taken back his Raider's cap from the girl and was pulling it on his head.
"Too late," Ty said, the anger rising in his voice. "I don't want anything to do with you anymore."
"Look, if I made you mad, I'm sorry." The boy was begging now, trying to smooth it all over like it was nothing, even some kind of joke.
Ty walked away to the back of the lot where he'd parked, with Joe Allen following right behind him.
"I screwed up a little last night," he was saying. "But don't tell Mike, OK?"
Ty got into the car and was starting the engine as Joe Allen jumped into the front seat beside him.
"How is Mike not going to find out?" Ty said. "Nobody's going to lie to him."
Suddenly there was somebody else on Joe Allen's side of the car, knocking on the window and trying to get in. It was the girl who'd been sitting with him in the booth.
"Let me in," she kept saying and finally the door flew open. "Where do you think you're going?" she wanted to know and shoved in beside him.
Ty stared now at both of them. "Who is this?" he said.
"Cassie," Joe Allen said, his voice flat and hollow.
"Cassandra," she corrected him. "I'm his girlfriend."
"Happy to meet you, Cassandra," Ty said, wondering if either of them could even begin to understand how thoroughly unhappy he really was.
"What I want to know is," she said, glaring at Joe Allen, who from the tone of her voice clearly owed her an explanation, "what do you mean running out on me like that?"
Joe Allen quickly turned sullen. "Cassie, I really don't want to talk to you about this right now," he said.
"Fine, I'm going," she said and opened the door again. She stopped as she got out to unfasten a bracelet from her wrist and threw it in his lap. "And you can keep this, too. Merry Christmas!" She slammed the door so hard it made Ty wince.
"Aw, shit," Ty said, crumpling forward in his seat, his hands over his face. "Shit!"
Mike was waiting in the kitchen at the farmhouse when they got back. "What took so long?" he wanted to know.
"A little misunderstanding," Ty said. "Joe Allen can tell you about it."
Joe Allen sat at the kitchen table hunched inside his denim jacket like he was still outside somewhere in the cold.
"What happened?" Mike said. "What do you have to tell me?"
Joe Allen twisted his body away and wouldn't look at Mike.
"Someone never came home last night," Ty said. He was leaning against the kitchen counter with his arms folded.
"Oh, someone didn't?" Mike said, watching Joe Allen. "And where did someone go instead?"
"We think someone may have been with a girlfriend, but we're guessing because he isn't saying."
"Is that right?" Mike said. "You were with your girlfriend?"
Joe Allen turned to him, a stricken look on his face. "Please, Mike, it was just a little mistake. Don't get mad at me."
"Your mother knew about this, of course. It was OK with her?"
"Please, Mike," Joe Allen pleaded.
"I see." Mike sighed and sat back in his chair. "Out with it. I want to hear the whole story."
Joe Allen looked up at Ty, like he was waiting for him to leave the room.
"He's not going anywhere," Mike said. "I'm sure he'd like to hear this, too."
"What's going on?" a voice came from the doorway to the next room. It was Rich, with his thumb between the pages of one of Joe Allen's textbooks. He'd been stretched out on the couch studying it. Then, all at once, there was Danny standing beside him, too.
Joe Allen groaned and took a look at them all before covering his face with his hands.
The story, and it sounded true for the most part, began with a bracelet he'd bought his girlfriend Cassie for Christmas. He reached into his pocket and put it on the table. It was a gold chain with little stones that looked like turquoise set in it.
"Where'd you get money to be buying something like this?" Mike said.
"I mow lawns in the summer," Joe Allen said, like Mike was accusing him of stealing. "And I save it."
"I'm just asking," Mike said. "That bracelet doesn't look cheap."
"So you were going to give her this last night, but I see you still have it."
Joe Allen touched the bracelet with the tips of his fingers and looked at it sadly as he went on.
He'd hung out at the bowling alley after school and then got a ride with somebody out to the new mall, where he met up with Cassie at the movies. Afterwards, they'd walked to her house, where he'd said goodnight to her at the door and waited outside in the cold until her parents went to bed and she let him inside to sneak up to her room. They'd apparently done it before. More than once.
"Are her parents deaf?" Rich said, disbelieving.
Joe Allen looked up at him and said simply, "Yes, they are." Then he fluttered his fingers in the air. "They talk to each other like this."
He and Cassie had sat together on her bed, talking softly, and she had rubbed his cold hands with hers to help him warm up. And then they had held each other for a while and kissed, until he gave her the bracelet.
"And she really liked it," he said, pleased with the memory of the moment.
She'd put it on right away and held it close to the lamp beside her bed admiring how it glowed and sparkled in the light. She'd taken off her bra when his hands were warm enough to slip under her sweater, and now he was opening her jeans to touch her there, too.
He'd been lightly stroking the links of the bracelet with his fingers as he told them this, and for a moment he looked around at all of them, as if to see whether it was OK to go on.
She'd never let him get very far with that before, he said. He could touch her naked breasts as much as he liked, do anything he wanted with them, but what was further down was off limits. He was hoping tonight, with the gift of the bracelet and maybe the spirit of Christmas, she would let him finally go all the way.
Mike had his back to Danny, but he knew what must be going through his mindthe discussion they'd had about rubbers, and he was waiting for Joe Allen to say he'd come prepared with one.
But there'd been no need for it. She'd disappointed him. When they'd gone so far and he'd opened his jeans to make what he hoped would be the right moves, she had grabbed him between the legs as she'd done before and got him to come in his underwear before he could stop her.
After a while, he'd tried again, and this had led to an argument, in which she'd accused him of giving her the bracelet just so she'd have sex with himnothing, of course, being farther from the truthand he'd lost a lot of time trying to persuade her that what he felt for her was really true love.
But by the time she'd begun to come around, it was getting too late. Her father was often up early, prowling around the house because he couldn't sleep, and she got Joe Allen to get dressed and be gone, with a last kiss and a promise to meet him later in the morning at the Dairy Queen. And everything had been fine thereshe was all lovey-dovey, as he put ituntil Ty showed up, and when he'd suddenly left her with their friends, she'd got pissed off at him all over again.
So, Mike thought, having spent his hard-earned money on an expensive present and thrown everything he had to gain to the winds for a quick fuck, here he was empty-handedexcept for the braceletand feeling sorry for himself.
"Life just taught you a lesson," he said. "Were you paying any attention?"
Joe Allen looked at him, puzzled.
"You can tell us what you learned from all this, and then we'll accept an apology from you for letting all of us down. Or I'll take you back to town now and you won't be coming here anymore."
"Mike, please," he said. "I'm really sorry."
"We want to hear what you learned. Then you can tell us how sorry you are."
"I made a mistake, is that what you want me to say?"
"We all make mistakes, Joe Allen. What was yours?"
Joe Allen thought, hands shoved into his jacket pockets now and staring hard at the bracelet on the table.
"I'm a failure," he said, mournfully, and it was like the memory of everything that had gone wrong in his life was racing through his mind.
"That sounds like an excuse," Mike said. "Try again."
"Aw, you're not gonna believe anything I say. You don't trust me."
"Bingo," Mike said and snapped his fingers. "And why's that?"
Joe Allen swallowed hard. "Because I didn't tell the truth?"
"Say that again? I don't think we all heard it."
"I didn't tell the truth," Joe Allen said, raising his voice.
"And I'm sorry. Really sorry."
Joe Allen thought a moment. "And I'll never do it again. I promise."
Mike looked around the room at the others. "What do you think?" he said.
There were nods and words of general approval.
"And you're going to make a promise to your mother, too?"
Joe Allen nodded. "Yes, sir," he said.
There was a silence in the room as Mike let it all sink in.
Then he cleared his throat and said, "A man is only as good as his word, Joe Allen. You've got a lot to learn about that."
Mike smiled a little and took a deep breath. "All right. Now let's see what you can learn today about American history."
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper