Mike and Danny: In Love
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.
Spies had a term for it, Mike knew. It was called "coming in from the cold." And when he got to thinking about it all, it was how he thought about Marty that summer.
Mike didn't often speculate about other men, and didn't have to. He was happy as a man could be with Danny, and if there wasn't another queer man in the worldand he knew well enough there were plenty of themit didn't matter much.
Which is why he hadn't wondered about Marty. Over the years, he'd seen Marty grow up from a feisty kid his father Wade was always complaining about to a young man with a mind of his own.
He and Mike had never had much to do with each other. What Mike knew about Marty came from his father, who liked to brag about the boy, just never seemed to have enough to brag abouteven though there was a shelf on Wade and his wife's kitchen wall loaded with Marty's ribbons and trophies and framed photographs of him with his prize steers and bulls.
"Can't block or tackle or throw a football for shit," Wade would say. "Always got too much attitude to be a team player."
"What about his grades?" Mike had asked. "Maybe that's his strong suit."
"Forget that. He don't care about book learnin' neither."
Still, it didn't make a lot of sense. Most fathers would have been happy with a boy like Marty. Maybe you expect too much, Mike wanted to say, but he thought better of making a remark that might sound like a criticism.
Wade was a decent man otherwise and a good neighbor. As Marty grew older, Mike figured his dad would begin to ease up on him and stop measuring him against some impossible ideal. Hell, nobody was perfect.
When Marty went off to the university in Lincoln, Mike kind of lost track of him, mostly because Wade had stopped talking about him. All for the best, Mike thought. Some time away and some growing up would probably go some to fix things between the two men.
He hadn't even known about the year in Alaska. That's how much Wade had stopped discussing his son. Looking back now, Mike realized that Wade had written the boy offstopped caringif it was even possible for a father to do that about his own son.
Tully was the one who finally brought him up to date, when he told Mike that he was going in for a hernia operation.
"The sucker slips right down there into my nuts," he said, "and I have to push it back inside me. Doc says I'm gonna be sorry as all hell if I don't get it taken care of."
"He'd be the one know," Mike said, the whole idea making him a little queasy.
"Shit," Tully laughed. "You should see it. Looks like I'm packing a firearm in my shorts."
"Not interested," Mike said, and he wasn't. Handsome as Tully was, Mike had never once pictured what he might look like in his underwear, and this was not going to be the first time.
"Who's taking care of your cows?" Mike asked, ready to volunteer.
"Got that covered," Tully told him. "Wade's boy Marty is back home from Alaska. He's been over, and I've been showing him how to run the milkers."
So that was how Mike had learned about Marty, and for reasons he couldn't really explain he'd started thinking about the boya man now, reallyas he did his own farm work that summer.
He was at home when the power went out during the storm that evening. Rich and Ty had cooked up sweet corn in a big pot on the stove and a skillet of hot dogs for supper, and they'd just sat down to eat.
Mike had helped them find candles to set on the kitchen table, and after the power stayed off for a while, he'd gone to a storeroom to fetch out a kerosene lantern he'd bought years ago at a farm sale. He lighted it and brought it out to them, the burning wick in the lamp's chimney sending a warm glow that sent shadows dancing across the walls.
"There ain't a light out there anywhere," Rich was saying, standing on the porch with a beer in one hand and peering through the windows. "The power must be out all over."
That's when Mike thought of Marty and Tully's cows. When the wind and rain let up some, he had run out and jumped in his truck. By the time he'd driven the half mile to Tully's place, it was coming down in buckets again.
The young man was trying hard not to seem desperate when Mike found him, sitting in his dad's pickup, unable to even find a light to see by. They'd finished off the last six cows, milking them by hand, and as they worked together, Marty had started talking. And he had talked and talked.
There'd been a kind of yearning in his voice that made him sound lonely for company. Mike supposed that all his school friends had gone off somewhere looking for lives of their own. And thirty head of cows night and morning hardly made up for that.
"How come you never got married, Mike?" he suddenly asked.
It was a question he got in one form or another all the timeand it was usually in an earnest tone of voice, from people who believed in marriage like they believed in truth, justice, and the American way. Even when it was asked playfully, like a waitress he knew at the B&E, people somehow seemed to think it would be for his own good.
Still looking for the right woman was a tired and useless answer, since it implied that he wasn't looking hard enough. Or it meant that no woman was good enough for him, which made him seem hard to please and full of himself.
Being just a confirmed bachelor sounded more than a bit old-fashioned in 1972. There were men who stayed unmarried their whole lives in a previous generation, but that had kind of died out along with the horse and buggy.
Waiting until he could support a family may have worked for a younger man, but anyone could see he was making a good living these days with a farm of his own and several hundred acres in corn and hay.
Not ready to settle down yet might have worked as an excuse for a man who wasn't done chasing women, including other men's wives. But he'd have to give people reason to believe he actually did that, and one way or another, he probably wouldn't want that kind of reputation anyway.
Unable to get anyone interested might have worked as a reason if he was butt ugly, cross-eyed or hunch-backed. And there was nothing he could do but shyly protest when he'd get a comment like "A handsome man like you? They must be lining up just to get their hands on you."
For those who knew about Dannyand it was a fact of his life he didn't denythere could only be what they allowed themselves to think about two grown men living together. Since the general belief was that life in Nebraska was too wholesome to produce queers, they would have simply scratched their heads at the oddity of their living arrangement.
And they would have let it go as something that would some day play itself out in the way God intendedgoing their separate ways, finding spouses, and raising a bunch of kids. Mike, as he was often told, would make such a good father.
He could have pulled a long face at that last comment, suggesting that maybe he had an old injury that disabled him in the business of fathering, but he didn't want people thinking that either. It would just make him seem pathetic.
He had pride enough in his manhoodqueer or notthat being taken for impotent was not an option. Anyway, like all the rest of his reasons for staying single, it would be a lie, and a miserable one at that.
So there was the questionfrom Marty this timeon everyone's minds. How come you never got married, Mike?
"I like my life the way it is," he said simply.
He sensed that there in the quiet and shadowy darkness of the barn, the sounds of the rain outside and the squirts of milk falling into their two pails, nothing would do for Marty but the truth.
"Another guy lives with you, right?" Marty said. It was a statement, equally simple, unguarded.
Mike paused only for a moment. "We're more than good friends."
Marty seemed to think about that for a while. "I've never had a good friend," he finally said, "of any kind."
Mike wondered at this. It was as if Marty had not heard what he'd said. Or he had, and it didn't matter enough to deserve comment. Orand this came to seem more likelyit didn't weigh as large in Marty's mind as the loneliness of having no friend at all.
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," Mike said. "Guy like you must have all the friends he wants."
But that didn't seem to be the case. "Someone gets to know me, and they kinda lose interest," Marty said.
Mike found this all hard to believe, but he could also tell from the sound of Marty's voice that he was confiding in him what must have felt to him like the absolute truth.
"That ever happen to you?" Marty asked.
Mike thought of Don, his best friend high school. He had loved Don mightily, but Don couldn't love him backnot the way he wanted. A queer boy, he finally figured out, was going to be continually up against that.
For the first time he let himself wonder about Marty. And he remembered it was Marty who'd first brought up Danny.
"What kind of friend are you hoping to find?" Mike said carefully.
There was another long pause as Marty thought about this. "Just somebody I like who sticks by me."
That, Mike realized, was the simplest and most eloquent way anyone had ever described the way he felt about Danny.
"There's gotta be somebody like that," he said. "Somebody who's looking for someone like you."
"I kinda doubt it. I think they would've found me by now."
"Oh, I wouldn't give up just yet," Mike said, thinking of how long it had taken him and Danny to find each other. "There's still time."
Marty didn't seem to have anything to say to that.
Mike had finished with his cow and went to dump his milk pail in the bulk tank. Mostly he was thinking about Marty's father, who had been a good neighbor, ever since Mike had started farming here, renting and then buying his place from old man Farquhar.
Wade had loaned him tools and equipment over the years and helped him out, sometimes with advice about farming and the markets. He'd known the ins and outs of the federal farm program, the same one that had brought Danny to him that summer with his measuring tape and together they had walked the length and breadth of his cornfields.
He felt a loyalty to Wade, because the man trusted him without question. And he was concerned now that anything he might say to Marty would betray that trust. While from the looks of it father and son were not on the best of terms, he didn't want to interfere either. It was always best not to go sticking your nose into another man's business.
"Does Tully have a generator?" he asked when he came back.
"I don't know."
"Well, I got one over at my place," he said. "If the power stays off any longer, we're gonna need it to run the cooler on that tank."
He moved his bucket to the next cow in line and set the pail under her udder. She took a step away from him at the touch of his hand.
"Whoa, boss, whoa," he said. "This ain't easy for me either."
They finished milking the cows and released them from the stanchions, letting them head one at a time out of the barn, and Marty opened the gate that held the rest of them in the shed.
The rain was no more than a light drizzle now, and as Marty walked across the muddy corral to open the gate into the pasture, he disappeared into a darkness that seemed to swallow him up whole.
When he came back, Mike said, "I'm gonna go over to my place and get that generator."
"I'll come along with you," Marty said. "Give you a hand with it."
So they went out to Mike's truck, following the beam of the flashlight. Marty stopped before he got in. "Damn, I got mud all over my shoes."
"Don't worry about that," Mike said. "It's just my truck. I left the limousine at home."
Marty laughed and they got in. When Mike switched on the headlights, the burst of illumination that flooded across the ground in front of them seemed almost unreal.
They drove then to Mike's place, not speaking until they got there.
"You had any supper?" Mike asked.
"Me neither. You want to come in for some? If I remember right, it was roasting ears and hot dogs."
"Sure," Marty said.
And they walked to the house, where the windows were lighted with a soft glow from the candles and the kerosene lamp. Inside, they found Rich and Ty sitting at the kitchen table. They'd been playing a game of checkers.
"I don't think you guys know each other," Mike said, and he introduced the three men.
Marty was still on the porch kicking off his muddy shoes and pulling off his wet socks. He glanced up at them now and stood there in his bare feet.
"Any supper left?" Mike said, and Ty went to the stove, bringing back plates full of food.
"It's not even warm anymore," he said.
"Don't matter," Mike said. "I've had worse." And he picked up a hot dog with his fingers to bite the end off it.
Marty said nothing for a while, just "Thanks" when he took his plate from Ty.
Mike noticed Rich and Ty sneaking looks at Marty as he sat down at the table to eat. For more than two weeks now, since the two of them had come to the farm, there hadn't been anybody else around.
They hadin a manner of speakingtaken the opportunity to get to know each other about as well as any two guys like them could. These days they were never separated. They worked together, swam together in the pool, went for long walks along the cornfields out to the river together, and certainly slept together.
Finding them stretched out on the couch watching TVone leaning back between the other's legsMike couldn't help but think of Danny and the many nights the two of them had done the same thing, not being able to sit apart, wanting each other's bodies pressed together and not ever getting enough of it.
Tyfor all his hurt and confusion, after leaving his churchhad been the first to reach out. Though the younger of the two, he had seen through Rich's tough exterior to the troubled man inside. The same impulse, Mike guessed, that had made him want to serve others as a minister had drawn him to Rich.
And he hadn't given up, even when Rich remained distant and cold, lost in the darkness he'd brought back with him from Vietnam. Ty would talk to him, bring him coffee, encourage him to eat, and even when he didn't want any of this, Ty would just sit with him, keeping him company through the nights, like the worst thing for Rich would be to leave him alone.
"You got courage, you know that?" Mike had said to Ty.
"I do?" Ty had said with all his innocence.
"Most people would have just quit on Rich by now. But you hang in there."
"I'm not most people, I guess."
"You sure as heck aren't."
And when he thought that Ty would probably never get a response out of Richthe man who had seen and done too much, too far from home to ever come backsomething had happened. A light had flickered on inside, and the kindness of a young man with his own troubles had brought him to life again.
The tenderness for Ty that then slowly emerged from Rich warmed Mike's heartit was the first sign that the boy he'd once known years ago was coming out of hiding. He would discover the two of them leaning against a corral fence, looking out across the fields and talkingor not talking, Mike couldn't tell from a distanceRich's arm across Ty's shoulders.
Once Mike had stepped into the barn and found the two of them in a long embrace, kissing. They hadn't seen him come in, and he ducked out again. Rich had even taken to holding Ty's hand at odd moments, the two of them walking across the place, riding with Mike somewhere in the pickup, or sitting at the kitchen table eating supper.
As the days passed, he saw the care and desperation begin to fade from Rich's face, and every once in a while there'd be the trace of a smile.
Ty, meanwhile, was smiling almost all the time. He was like a man sprung from prison. If he had any doubts or concerns, they would show up rarely as a thoughtful expression and a long gaze across the room, but Rich would reach over to him and touch his thumb to Ty's forehead, wiping away the beginnings of a frown.
"No need for that," he'd say softly. "Everything's gonna be just fine."
Their eyes would meet, and Ty would say, "I know."
How they began to look after each other was a wonder. There were hardly two men Mike knew of who needed it more.
That they had fallen in love was plain as day. Mike simply let it happen and said nothing, like if he did it would suddenly all vanish.
Their presence now in the kitchen, faces warmly lighted by the kerosene lamp and the candles, was the calm center of a stormy night that enclosed the farmhouse in darkness, under a starless sky, with only the faraway glimmer of lightning in the distance.
It was such a peaceful moment, all of them around the table, the game of checkers waiting where they had left it. Mike finished his plate of food and sat there, with a cup of lukewarm coffee, and listened as the three others talked.
It was like going back in a time machine to fifty years ago, before electricity, when farm people at the end of a hard day's work had nothing to do but sit in the lamplight with each other for company. He glanced up to the kitchen clock, stopped at the moment the power had failed and realized that back in those days there would be the sound of an old Big Ben ticking somewhere in the house, keeping track of the hours.
"You live around here?" Ty asked Marty.
"My dad's farm is up the road," Marty said, pointing over his shoulder. He explained how he was back from Alaska and only home for a while, and he told them about milking cows for Tully.
Rich wanted to know about Alaska, and it went on from there. But if Marty was curious about Rich and Ty, he didn't say much of anything to show it.
After a while, Mike stood up, ready to get the generator loaded onto the truck. And just then the lights came back on. It was 1972 again.
"Rich and Ty live with you?" Marty said.
Mike was driving him back to Tully's, to get his pickup and go on home to his folks' place.
"No," Mike laughed. "They're just visiting."
Since that didn't really explain much, he expected another question, maybe one that asked him to account in some way for the affection that the two of them obviously felt for each other.
But instead, Marty said, "Where's Danny?"
"In Lincoln," Mike said and explained about the course Danny was taking at the university. "But he's done on Saturday. Then he comes home."
"It's kind of like a fraternity at your house," Marty said.
"Men who are brothers," Marty said. "And every one of them's welcome under the same roof."
"Sounds like a good thing."
Marty didn't answer right away. "It's supposed to be," he finally said, but with an odd note in his voice.
"It's not always?" Mike asked.
They'd got back to Tully's. The pole light had come on, casting a pool of blue-white light over the barn and the corrals and over Marty's truck parked by the barn door. The lights inside glowed in the windows, and a few cows still stood in the shed looking out into the misty drizzle.
"You miss all that?" Mike said.
"Think you'll go back?" Mike asked, thinking of how Danny had changed his mind about college and finally returned to finish his last year.
"I pretty much flunked out," Marty said. "They wouldn't take me back."
"What if you'd changed your mind about the whole thing? They'd still be that way?"
Marty sighed. "That's the way it works."
"Doesn't seem really fair to me."
Mike turned off the engine, since Marty didn't seem ready to get out of the truck.
"Don't ever tell my dad this," Marty said, "but I don't know what the fuck I'm doing with my life."
Mike let this comment hang there between them, like he was weighing it carefullywhich he was. This seemed exactly like something a boy should be able to say to his father, and here was Marty wanting to keep it from him.
"What would your dad say if he heard you say that?"
Marty scoffed. "He'd laugh his ass off. That's what he's been telling me my whole life."
"Maybe you have to let your dad be right about something once in a while."
Marty looked at him, as if he thought Mike was making some kind of joke.
"What's he gonna do?" Mike said. "Say I told you so and chuck you out?"
"You got that right."
"How could a father do that to his own son?"
"You don't know my father."
"Maybe I do a little, better than you think," Mike said, not ready yet to give up. "You want me to have a talk with him?"
"Hell, no. What good would that do?"
"If he really knew how much you was hurtin' inside right now, I think he'd start to come around."
Marty turned and stared out his window, like there was something in the dim light to see out there.
"And I can tell you're hurtin'," Mike said. "It don't take no college degree to see that."
Marty put his hand to the door handle, like he was about to get out.
"Before you go, Marty, I wanna say something," Mike said, not sure just what he was about to say. And he found himself trying to express what he'd begun to feel for Marty in the few short hours they'd spent together.
He'd known what it was like to be Marty's ageabout twenty-one maybeand feel all alone in the world. No good friend, no father he felt he could talk to.
"My dad wasn't like yours, criticizing me. He just wasn't there at all," he said and explained how his parents' divorce had changed his father and turned him away and into himself, until he'd finally gone off for good and married another woman in another state.
And he said as much as he could about losing a best friend who'd been a buddy since they were boys. He talked of the friends that had come and gone in the service, and how lonely he had felt when he got out. The farm and the hard work had been the only thing to keep him going.
"Many's the night I sat in my kitchen there all alone wondering if I'd feel that way for the rest of my life."
It was a story he wasn't used to telling, because he never thought it was really anyone's businessfor a long time, he hadn't even told Danny. A man does what he has to do, and he doesn't complain about it.
"But I didn't stop hopin' for the best," he said. "If I was your dad, I'd tell you the same thing."
Marty hadn't taken his hand from the door handle, but he hadn't moved to get out either. He seemed to be letting everything Mike said sink in.
"But you're not him," he finally said.
Now he stirred and opened the door.
"Thanks for helping me out tonight," he said as he got out, and before he closed the door, he looked at Mike once more and said, "I wish you were my dad."
Then he closed it and walked away.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper