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.
It was his fiftieth birthday. So many years had slipped away. Unless he lived to be a hundredan unlikely prospectmore than half his life was gone. And looking at his dad in the nursing home, lost most days in a cloud of unknowing and forgetfulness, Baxter knew there was no sure bet a man's last years would turn out to be golden.
He let himself think for a moment about being in his dad's shoes, twenty-five years from now. What would that make it, 1997? Looked at this way, it seemed like a long way off. A man could do a lot of living by then.
But, damn, where had the last twenty-five years gone? Seemed like only yesterday that he was a young ranch hand, learning what there was to know about horses from his dad and then finding his own ways to gentle and train them, until people heard about him and started bringing their horses to himsome of them even racehorses.
The boss at the Dismal River ranch where he worked now had found him at the Fonner Park racetrack in Grand Island and had offered him a job. The money was good enough, and it was a chance to settle down. His father, getting old and stove up from years of broken bones and living a cowboy's rough life, could draw his Social Security and ease up a little.
At his new job, they'd lived together in a trailer house on the main place there, deep in the Sandhills. And all had gone well for a few years, until he began to realize that his father was losing his senseshe'd drive somewhere in the truck and not be able to find his way back home, or he'd start talking like it was 1950 instead of 1970.
Baxter had determined to look after him, but when he wandered off once and they couldn't find him for almost two days searching the ranch on horseback, the boss and his son had persuaded Baxter to take him to the nursing home in North Platte.
It had been hard for Baxter coming back to the empty trailer house night after night, and it almost broke his heart each time he'd make the trip to see his dad, who seemed to quickly fall into a deeper fog of confusion.
Then, out of the blue, Oscar had showed up, after deserting them those many years ago when the three men used to be a kind of family. Stiff in the joints, his face wrinkled as a prune, he was still full of piss and vinegar and sharp as he'd ever been.
Whatever he'd planned to say or do to Baxter's dadto make amends or just revive the disagreement that had separated them in the first placeOscar had taken one look at his old friend, defenseless now, and made up his mind to stay by his side. Though in the twilight of his years on earth, the old man's family was back together, and he would never be alone again.
What would there be for Baxter when that time came? He had no son, no close friend who had been like a brother. He was just a single man, no better than a drifting cowboy on his own. Independence was fine, but in the long run, it was a lonesome proposition.
No one knew, of course, he'd turned fifty today. The last time anyone had observed the day in his honorhis father had never been one to remember birthdayswas years ago.
Jesse, a widow on a ranch not far from Mullen, had sought him out after she'd spent a respectable period grieving the loss of her husband. A bolt of lightning while rounding up cattle in a storm hadn't killed him, but he'd been done in a month later by a new hay balerone of those freak accidents.
Too stupid to run a ranch, she'd said of him, eager to get on with the business of raising livestock. Setting her eye on Baxter as the most eligible bachelor around, she'd wasted no time picking him out as an able replacement for her departed spouse and business partner.
Sitting down next to him where she'd found him starting into a plate of steak and eggs at the café in town, she'd made her first move, offering him a job. When he politely declined, she'd doubled the money, and he couldn't bring himself to say no a second time.
"Let me talk to my dad," he'd finally told her. "I don't do anything without him."
"Fine by me," she'd said. "Come by and have a look around. We got a house sitting there empty. You and your dad can have it all to yourselves."
He hadn't taken the job, but it had started something between the two of them. For several months that stretched into a year, he'd shown up at her ranch on the odd Saturday nighttelling his dad he was going into town for a couple beersand not leave until dawn, with enough time to get back to the trailer house he shared with the old man, who'd already be up in his baggy long-johns and brewing a pot of strong coffee.
His father, of course, figured out something was going on, but if he suspected Baxter was spending the night with a female, he was too shy about the subject to be talking about it with his son.
"You ever think about getting married?" he'd asked once, which was as close as he ever got to what his son might be up to.
While Baxter could see through it to the look of curiosity on the old man's face on those Sunday mornings, the question had unsettled him.
"No, dad," he'd said. He knew that marriage would change everything. A wife would mean a third party, who unlike Oscar would have needs and demands that would surely come between father and son.
It had already occurred to him that Jesse had wanted more from him than just those Saturday night rolls in the sack. Even when it became clear to her that he wasn't the man she'd taken him for.
Fumbling with an anxious erection that first night with her, he realized that his inexperience surely showed. He was having sex with a woman who had done it many times before with another manin this very bedand many more times than himself.
She had helped him the first timeand often after thatstroking him fiercely and guiding him into herself, then drawing him with her whole body into a storm of passion that made the bed shudder under them.
She seemed to lose track of herself, almost consuming him with a hunger for his body that both excited and disturbed him, and while the sensation of his dick buried deeply between her legs was like nothing he'd ever experienced before, he felt oddly detached from her.
He had no one to talk to about this. Anyway, he'd never wanted anyone else to know he knew so little of sex. Other men, if they spoke of it at all, seemed unconfused about it and unhappy only that they didn't get enough of it.
He wondered if maybe he was just too much of a thinker and not enough of a doer. He'd always been that way, constantly sorting things out in his head, trying to make sense of everything, finding complications where no one else did.
Until Jesse had come along, he had let this particular puzzle subside like a water tank in a long drought, leaving finally only the cracked dry bed. He'd come to think of himself as a confirmed bachelor, and likely to remain so. Now, the long drought broken, the waters of uncertainty lapped again at the edges of his awareness.
She had learned the date of his birthday, and that last time together she had baked a cake for him with enough candles to set fire to the house. She also gave him a presenta fancy belt buckleand the next morning an ultimatum. If he had no intention of marrying her, she didn't want him coming around anymore.
He'd thought that they had settled into a routine. They would live their separate lives and meet like this on the occasional Saturday night for what they needed from each other. But she'd obviously begun having second thoughts. It wasn't enough.
Unable to meet her eyes, he looked at the belt buckle, still in its box on the table, with the tissue paper lying open around it, and he knew he could not give her the answer she wanted. He felt ashamed, too, that she'd had to ask for what he was not willing to offer.
"I'm sorry, Jesse," he'd said finally, expecting an outburst from her, tears, bitterness, or anything but what then happened.
She pulled her house coat tight around her, cinching up the belt, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Fine with me."
She'd written him off like every other loss she'd ever enduredstillborn calves, shipping fever, prairie fire, a broken down piece of machinery, a bad yearand was already moving on. Like him, in her own way, she would not let a disappointment touch her.
He thanked her for the birthday as he left a few minutes later.
"Don't forget your present," she'd said.
"I can't take it."
"I think you know why," he said.
"Will you ever have a kind thought about me?"
"You know I will."
"That's reason enough to take it," she said.
And so he did. Though he never wore it and always kept it in its box, wrapped up in the tissue paper, at the back of a drawer.
He wondered often whether he'd made the wrong choice that morning. Marriage would have been a big change, but so it must be for every man who marries. Now with his father in the nursing home, there would have been an actual home of his own to return to at the end of each daymaybe even with children in it.
But he had thought often of the feelings he'd had that Sunday morning as he drove home from seeing Jesse for the last time. While it had troubled him realizing that as a man he was not enough for her, there'd also been this feeling of relief. Somehow she'd not been enough for him either.
What he wanted in someone else had not been altogether clear to him. It was something like the friendship of another man, dependable, warm, and strong, and Jesse had come close to being that for him, but not quite close enough.
In North Platte, he'd found a place for Oscar to stay in a boarding house a few blocks from the nursing home. He'd written a check for a month's stay and given it to the landlady along with a phone number in case Oscar caused any troublewhich was not altogether unlikely. The old cowboy had been a little particular about his room, but he seemed resigned to it by the time Baxter left.
All of that took most of the day, and it was evening by the time Baxter got back to the ranch. Owen, the boss's son, came walking over to him as he parked his truck. He sat in the cab with the window rolled down as Owen said howdy and pulled a smoke from the pack in his shirt pocket.
Owen was a chip off the old block, hard-nosed and straight to the point as his father, not one to give a damn about another man's feelings. But he knew that the quarter horse end of the ranch's business depended on Baxter, and he treated him better than the other cowboys.
"I took care of it with my dad," he said, striking a wooden match on his zipper to light his cigarette. "I even got him persuaded you need a day off more often."
During most of the year, they worked seven days a week on the ranch. It got so you lost track of what day it was, because it didn't much matter, unless a regular Saturday night in town was something you required.
And the men who were like that didn't last long. Finally, they'd get up and quit, pissed off about something, and the old man was happy to give them their pay and see them off the place. He didn't want a man around who believed he was owed a day of rest. Christmas and Fourth of July, that was enough. Any more and a man started to get lazy.
"If you got bucked off a horse and broke your neck," they'd grumble, "he'd wanna know why you weren't putting in a day's work like anybody else."
Owen worked hard as the rest, if not harder, just to show how tough and determined a man had to be to be worth his pay. You couldn't fault him for taking advantage of being the boss's son. He intended to run the ranch himself some day, and bygod it was going to be one helluva operation when he did.
But there was this unexpected streak of consideration in him. It mattered to him when Baxter's father began to fail, and it was him who made sure he was well taken care of. Maybe it was something he got from his mother, a woman nobody seemed to know anything aboutwhere she was and whether she was even dead or alive.
"How's your pa?" Owen said, leaning on the pickup, his cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.
"About the same," Baxter told him and explained how Oscar decided to stay in town and look after him.
"Oscar," Owen laughed. "He's a pisser."
They talked some more as the evening light settled, and Baxter relaxed in the young man's company. He had come to respect Owen, and sometimes if he let himself think about it, he realized he sort of liked him, too.
"You OK if somebody moves in with you?" Owen suddenly asked.
"What do you mean?"
"The boys are gettin' kinda crowded over in the bunkhouse, and I'm thinkin' you got that extra bed."
Baxter thought of how he'd had the trailer house to himself now that his dad was gone. And he tried picturing someone else there instead.
"Who you got in mind?" he asked.
"There's that new guy. Lonnie"
Lonnie was little more than a kid, just out of school. He'd come from somewhere out of state, back East. The old man had brought him on as a farrier, shoeing and grooming the horses, and he was good at it.
"Tell you what," Owen said, taking a last drag on his cigarette and grinding it out in the dirt with the heel of his boot. "Give him a try, and if he doesn't work out, just say the word. I'll toss him back in the bunkhouse with the rest of 'em."
"Sure, it's OK with me," Baxter said, not so sure, but feeling he owed Owen a favor and wondering, for a moment, if Owen wasn't thinking the same thing.
"You don't have to feed him," Owen said. "He's only got the cook's chow comin' to him."
With a kitchen in the trailer house, Baxter and his father had taken to cooking for themselves after they moved in. The boss, always ready to save himself a buck, had been happy to see them do it.
"Speakin' of chow," Owen said, touching his knuckles to his stomach, "Time to get home. My belly button's knocking on my backbone." He was already walking away from the truck. "I'll go tell Lonnie he can come on over." And he headed for the bunkhouse, moving off into the gathering twilight.
A rusty hinge in the pickup door complained as Baxter stepped out, and he stood for a moment stretching the stiffness out of his back. Then he went to the trailer house, his boots thumping on the wooden steps to the side door. He switched on the lights when he got inside.
It was strictly a bachelor's quarters, looking lived in and sparsely furnished, though it had once been a home for the ranch foreman and his wifesome years ago before Owen was old enough to take over the job himself. And he had lived in the big house until he got married, the trailer house sitting empty.
Owen and his wife, after the wedding, had lived in a brand-new double-wide over closer to the highway, a big step up from this "shack on wheels" as she'd called it. It was a place with wall-to-wall carpet, a proper range, a tub in the bathroom, sliding glass doors, and a deck out the back, and it was well beyond the smell of the horse barns, no matter which way the wind blew. Owen had told him all this himselfafter the divorce.
Baxter stepped inside, the floor creaking under him, and he stood for a while just looking at the place, willing it to feel like home. In front of him were two well-worn easy chairs facing an old TV set that, with the antenna on the roof and favorable weather conditions, brought in a snowy picture. He and his father had spent every evening here after supper, talking, reading, playing checkers. Now his father's empty chair just reminded him that those days were over.
Turning, he took off his hat and hung it by the door, where there was a row of hooks on the wall with coats and other hats, and it occurred to him that if someone was moving in with him, he'd have to make some room for the guy. There was still stuff that belonged to his father in the closets and the dresser drawers.
As he considered this, he thought of kicking off his boots and getting a beer from the refrigerator in the kitchen. And he wondered what there was to eat.
He switched on the clock radio that sat on the end of the kitchen counter, and heard through the static the fiddle music of an old-fashioned barn dance show. Out here in the sticks, you'd never guess that rock and roll had been invented. But it was the kind of music his dad liked, and that was reason enough to like it, too.
He remembered again that it was his birthday. Maybe a shot of whiskey was in order, and he had just found a dusty bottle of Wild Turkey at the back of a cupboard when there came a knock on the door. It was Lonnie.
"Come on in," Baxter called out and took two glasses from the dish drainer.
The door opened, and after a moment the boy stepped inside, carrying a full duffel bag, a bed roll, and a pair of boots.
"Sir," he said, giving Baxter a little nod.
"Welcome, son," Baxter said. "You can put that stuff anywhere."
Lonnie was tall and nearly thin as a rail. He set everything down by the door and just stood there, tipping his hat back and looking around, a funny smile on his face.
Baxter poured from the bottle into two glasses and held one out to him. "Can I interest you in a bit of spirits in honor of your arrival?"
"Sir?" Lonnie eyed the glass for a moment.
Owen's dad held to strict rules about alcohol. As he explained to every man he hired, it bred trouble between cowboys who'd manage to get along fine without it, and a hangover the next daybesides being just punishment for a night of carousing in townwas the cause of half-assed work if not outright malingering.
No new hand was sure what "malingering" meant, but the note of undisguised contempt in the boss's warning made it clear that if a man drank, he better make damn sure the boss didn't find out about it.
"It's OK," Baxter said, dropping his voice to a whisper. "A wee dram won't get us in any trouble."
Lonnie took the glass, and Baxter raised his own as he looked at the boy. Then he took a sip from it, the warmth filling his insides.
Watching him closely, Lonnie lifted the glass to his lips. He took a taste and said, "What is it?"
"My father's favorite. Wild Turkey."
"I like it."
"Just don't like it too much," Baxter said. "You look too young for this stuff anyway. How old are you?"
"Well, I can tell you what my father told me when I was your age. You gotta respect hard liquor, because it'll make a fool of you if you don't."
Lonnie drank some more of the glass. "Where is your father?"
"In a nursing home in North Platte. Where's yours?"
Lonnie seemed to consider the question for a while. "Back in Ohio," he finally said. "But he's not my real father."
A look of sadness came over the boy, and then in a second it was gone again. Baxter decided it was probably not something he cared to talk about, so he changed the subject.
"Unless you like the bunkhouse cots and sharing a bathroom with three cowpunchers, I think you're gonna like it here," Baxter said. "Bring your stuff. I'll show you where you'll be sleeping."
He led Lonnie to the room at the back of the trailer, where there were two beds, one against each wall. The light switch inside the door turned on a lamp on a low table between them.
"That'll be yours," he said, pointing to a neatly made one, an old spread tucked in around the corners, a Navajo blanket folded into a square on top, just the way his dad had left it. "This other one is mine." It was a rumpled tangle of sheets that needed washing, and some of his clothes lay pushed together at the foot of it. His shoes and boots stood in a jumbled row along the wall.
Then he showed Lonnie the bathroom, where there was a shower. "We got plenty of hot water, so you don't have to worry about that," he said. "It's kinda small. Built more for someone your size."
Lonnie came up next to him in the narrow hallway, looking over his shoulder into the room. And Baxter became aware that they were almost touching, the sleeve of Lonnie's shirt brushing against his as they stood togetherso close that he could feel the warmth of the boy's body.
"I dunno," he said instead. "Maybe livin' with an old man more'n twice your age ain't what you'd call much of a deal."
"Sir?" the boy said, turning to him.
"Owen, you know, he has a way of deciding things for other people, whether they like it or not."
"It was my idea," Lonnie said. "It was me wanted to move in with you."
An unexpected feeling came over Baxter. He'd known Lonnie only as a quiet young man who worked around the horse barns, usually by himself, polite to Baxter but seldom offering more than a word or two.
It was the horses he clearly loved and felt comfortable with. He had his favorites, and he could often be found talking to one or more of them in the pens and stalls, grooming them and throwing down straw for them. Most of all, riding them whenever he had the chance.
"Them cowboys giving you a hard time?" Baxter asked, thinking of the other men in the bunkhouse. There'd be the usual hazing of a new guy who was still mostly a kidhiding his boots, dunking him in the windmill tank, slipping a rubber snake in his bed roll.
"No, sir," the boy said. Looking down at the floor, he lowered his head, so the brim of his hat hid his eyes.
"Well, if this is where you wanna be, then by golly this is where it's gonna be," Baxter said.
In a moment he could not account forit just happened without a thoughthe reached behind Lonnie and placed his open hand in the middle of his back. Under his finger tips, he could feel the boy's shoulder blades and then the gentle rise and fall of his breathing. Reaching to him like this, it was as if one of them had become unsteady on his feet, yet he couldn't have said which one.
Then he patted the boy a few times, softly, firmlysomething to reassure himlike that had been his intention all along. And maybe it was. Finally, he took his hand away and shoved it in his pocket.
It's good to have you here, he wanted to say. But he said nothing and just let the moment of silence surround them with a feeling he had not felt in a long timea feeling he could not name, but a good one.
"OK if I use that shower?" Lonnie suddenly asked. "Right now?"
"Of course, you can."
"I'm so rank I smell like a pole cat."
"Not like a pole cat," Baxter laughed. What he'd noticed was that Lonnie smelled like sweat from hard workearthy, salty, and mixed with the sharp fragrance of fresh hay from the barn and horses.
Lonnie was already unbuttoning his shirt, as Baxter pointed to a stack of clean towels on a rack along the wall. "Help yourself," he said.
Glancing back at Lonnie as Baxter stepped out into the hallway, he could see the boy's smooth, hard-muscled chest and his flat stomach, then his naked shoulders as he took off his shirt. In a moment, Lonnie had flipped open his belt buckle, unzipped his fly, and was lifting one leg to pull off a boot.
Finally, when he'd stepped out of his jeans and stood there in a pair of snug, white jockey shorts, Baxter held out his hand toward the hat he still wore on his head. "I can hang that up for you," he said.
"Thanks," Lonnie said and handed it to him, the hair along his temples pressed close to his scalp with a day's perspiration.
Then he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. In a minute, Baxter heard the shower spray come to life.
He took Lonnie's hat to put it by the front door where he'd find it in the morning. Then he went back, bending down to pick up the boy's clothes from the floor.
Hugging them to his chest, he dropped the shirt in a laundry basket that sat atop the washer-dryer. The boots he set down with their toes tucked under the bed, and he left the jeans across a little footlocker against the wall. They were damp and still warm, the cuffs frayed, the belt heavy as it hung from the belt loops.
He returned to the kitchen, where a western swing band on the radio was playing "San Antonio Rose." He poured himself a little more Wild Turkey and considered again his fiftieth birthday.
Somehow, in a way he had yet to figure out, the boy down the hall taking a shower was like a birthday present he had never earned or expected or even knew he wanted. But in the minutes since he'd arrived, he had banished the shadow of emptiness from the lonely rooms of this trailerand from deep inside Baxter himself.
He would drink to that.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper