Mike and Danny: Restless Hearts
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.
Baxter goes to town; Ed considers what might have been; Mike gets a visitor; Ty starts a journey home.
Baxter was up before daybreak, turning on the propane heater to take the chill off in the trailer. He stood in the kitchen with a cup of black coffee, already dressed for the day. Lonnie still lay in bed, always waiting until the very last minuteor past itto respond to Baxter's "Up and at 'em. Get your britches on. The day's waitin'."
He heard the sound of a truck as it drove up and came to a stop outside, and soon there was a knock on the door. It was Kirk.
"You got business in North Platte this morning," he said when he stepped inside.
"Someone needs a ride down there to catch a bus." And Kirk told Baxter to drive over to the doublewide and pick up the young man Ty who'd showed up at the ranch two days ago and had been staying with him and Owen. "And while you're in town, you'll want to maybe stop by the nursing home and see your dad," Kirk said. "How's he been doin'?"
"He's doin' OK. But the boss is hell-bent on gettin' that corral fence done we been workin' on."
"Don't worry about the old man. I'll tell him something," Kirk said. "Think you can be back by noon?"
"I'll give it all I got."
"A man can't ask for more'n that," Kirk said and gave him a quick nod before he ducked back through the door and was gone.
All Baxter knew from Lonnie was that this young man Tyhardly much older than Lonnie himselfhad ridden in with a guy who'd taken off again, leaving him behind, after giving Kirk a good punch in the nose. Lonnie, who'd been the only one to see it happen, hadn't been able to tell Baxter any more than that.
Baxter put down his coffee and walked to the back of the trailer, where he switched on the light and roused Lonnie, who looked back at him with his face screwed up and squinted eyes barely open. Baxter could never bring himself to get angry with the boy. The love between them was utter and bottomless. He touched his hand now to Lonnie's shoulder, the muscle firm and like sinew under the skin.
"You're on your own this morning, pardner," he said. "I'm takin' that boy Ty into town to catch a bus. And I'm gonna see my dad while I'm there, too."
"Can I come along?"
"You got a barn full of horses to look after. And when the truck comes from the lumberyard, you gotta tell them where we want them railroad ties."
"Yessir." Lonnie curled up against Baxter, who had sat down on the edge of his bed. "Some day I'd like to meet your pa," he said.
"You will." Baxter brushed his rough knuckles against the boy's cheek, where he'd been trying to grow long sideburns. The whiskers there were thin and still patchy, but he wasn't giving up, and it amused Baxter how much he wanted to be regarded as a man.
He ached to stay just where he was, Lonnie pressed against him, but the sooner he changed his clothes and got going, the more time he'd have with his dad before he had to come back to the ranch. He leaned down to nuzzle under Lonnie's ear with his nose, and Lonnie put both arms around his neck and held him.
Baxter let himself enjoy the warmth of Lonnie's body and his young man's smell. He put one hand on his butt and under the blanket could feel the muscles flex as he pressed himself tighter to Baxter. From the strength in his embrace, he was guessing the boy had a fierce erectionsomething that came to him so easily and simply with the smallest gesture of affection.
From the start, Baxter had made a rule about sex in the morning. It was no different from sleeping late. There was no room for it in a ranch hand's schedule.
"Just for once," Lonnie would beg. "It'll be quick."
"Maybe for you, buster," Baxter had said, "and maybe if I was your age." And he'd tried to explain that "quick" wasn't what he liked or wanted or was even capable of, especially when they'd just had sex the night before. And he wished at those times that he was nineteen again like Lonnie and so easily fired up.
"I don't want you my age," Lonnie had said once, all serious. "Maybe you wish I was old as you."
Baxter, in moments of reflection, had let himself have thoughts like this. He would have felt more sure about the whole thing if the two of them could look forward to growing old together. But what was the fairness in being attached to someone who'd be a doddering old fool while you were still in the prime of life? And while Lonnie was too young to see that now, wasn't it wrong that Baxter let him ignore it?
He didn't know, and all he knew how to do was ignore it himself and stay with Lonnie until the day came when their lives took a turn in different directions, or Lonnie finally got old enough to see that he'd made a mistake. And they'd cross that bridge when they came to it.
Lonnie finally gave him a long kiss on the cheek and then let go of him. "I know, you gotta get goin'," he said and stirred under the blanket, stretching out in the bed and putting his arms behind his head.
Baxter stood to put on a fresh shirt, and while he changed he watched as Lonnie got up. There was a big hard-on in his underwear, and he hurried barefoot to the bathroom to take a morning piss.
A while later, Baxter was following the headlights of his truck along the sandy road that went past Owen and Kirk's place on the way to the hardtop. As he pulled into the lane that led over to their doublewide, his thoughts still lingered on Lonnie, who'd got dressed with his usual lightning speed, gulped down a cup of hot coffee, and was walking out the door right behind Baxter as he left.
Baxter had watched Lonnie and Ty as they'd all spent the afternoon together working on the corral fence. Since the two of them were nearly the same age, he expected them to strike up a friendship, and he waited for some sign of interest from Lonnie. But the boy had hardly spoken to Ty and rarely even looked at him.
Baxter had seen the confusion and bewilderment in Ty's face, and he'd done his best to put him at ease, hoping Lonnie would do the same. But he realized after a time that Lonnie's unwillingness to be friendly was his way of sticking close to Baxter. It was a show of loyalty. No one was going to come between them. And Baxter got a sense again of how often in Lonnie's life his trust in another man had been betrayed.
"Don't worry about me, pardner" he'd said that night after Ty was gone. "I'll always be right here, as long as you want me." And Lonnie had beamed as he put his arms around him.
When Ed woke up, he was alone in LeRoy's bed. The first light of day filtered through the curtains, and his eye fell again on the rows of framed photos on the walls and the bureau top. It was like a big crowd of friendly facesblack and whitewaiting for him to join them for another day under the sun on this big old revolving world.
Ed had his share of relatives, like anyone else, and during his life he'd known plenty of people, but they were filed away somewhere in his headno more than vague memories slowly fading. LeRoy with all his photographs seemed to keep himself surrounded with everyone who ever mattered to him and, though some were dead and gone, never letting go of them.
And among that number was Ed. How surprised he had been to see himself there among the rest, a smiling face in the crowd. He got out of bed now, naked, the air warm on his skinhe could hear a furnace blower running somewhere below him in the basementand stepped to the bureau to take the picture of him and LeRoy, to look at it again.
There he was, a younger version of himself, on a day long forgotten. Yet he was smiling big as you please, as if it was a time and place that would always be rememberedif not treasured. How could he let a memory like that slip away?
But spending the night with LeRoy had been more than it would have been for the man he was back then. He'd been swept along by feelings he never knew he had. Somewhere between the first and second times he'd come, arms and legs locked around LeRoy, he'd realized that every night they'd spent together like this was a link in a chain that connected them not just to each other but to the past.
With LeRoy he could feel as young as he'd been when they first met. More than a decade had gone by, yes, and he wasn't the ramrod machine he remembered once being. But with LeRoy, he was still in some way the young man in the photograph, maybe a little slower and fatterhe'd never get into those same wranglers todaybut in his heart and soul hardly a day older.
Laughing and discovering again the pleasure of sucking each otherexperiencing the old familiar taste and feel of LeRoy's cock in his mouth, and recognizing the particular tug of LeRoy's tongue on his ownEd felt the cares that had been dogging him fade away, while memories rushed back to fill the present and make passing time stand still. He wanted to hang onto that. And the only way he knew how to do it was to hang onto LeRoy.
He'd taken the photo back with him to bed, when the door opened and LeRoy stood there in a bathrobe holding a coffee mug in one hand.
"Mornin', pardner," he said, handing the mug to Ed. "There's gonna be flapjacks for breakfast soon as you want 'em."
They sat together side by side on the bed now, and LeRoy stroked his back in slow motion, from the nape of his neck down to his butt.
"If you like that picture you can have it," he said. "I got another'n somewhere."
"Naw, it's yours. It should stay here with you. Anyway, I'll know where it's at if I want to see it again."
LeRoy rested his arm across his shoulders now. "You sayin' I'm gonna see you again?"
Ed thought of how he could have been a truer friend to LeRoy all these years and felt a kind of sorrow wash through him. "Yeah," he said. "That's what I mean."
"I'd ride along with you to Dallas, you know, if I didn't have to be at the store today."
Ed set down the coffee and the photograph, then pulled open the front of LeRoy's bathrobe, slipping one hand inside against his warm skin. When he discovered the robe was all LeRoy was wearing, he turned toward him to push him backward onto the bed.
"One more for the road?" he said, crawling on top of him.
LeRoy gave a low, gentle laugh. "One more for the road."
Mike stood at the window of Danny's apartment and looked out at the parking lot as Danny got into his Camaro, dressed for work and carrying his briefcase. He backed the car out of his space and looked up at Mike to wave. Then he was driving away.
It was still overcast, and fog lingered in the trees along the creek that flowed beyond the parking lot. Willows grew along the banks, and there was a new scattering of yellow leaves where the wind had blown them across the green, wet grass. There was a swimming pool with a fence around it, where young mothers from the complex gathered in the summer, talking and drinking iced tea and lemonade, with one eye on their children playing in the water. Now it was empty and closed for the season.
He'd been to Danny's apartment often before and sometimes slept over, like last night. The feelings that came with being here were hard to describe. Mostly he thought of this as Danny's other home, with his furniture, his books on the shelf, his dishes in the kitchen cupboard, andmaybe most of allDanny's bed in the bedroom.
Propped against the stereo was one of his record albums, "American Pie." On the cover was a picture of the singer, holding up a stars-and-stripes-painted thumb. There were other LPsChicago, Neil Young, Bill Witherspeople he'd hardly heard of. Sometimes he felt a little like a guest here.
He wondered if Danny had the same feelings about the farmhouse, where most everything was Mike's. He wanted Danny to think of it as their home together, but he could understand if it wasn't quite like that. Danny, after all, had another life here in Kearney. He made a living down the street at the college. He had a circle of friends there. And he was making something of himself. All of which made Mike proud of him. And a little like an outsider sometimes, too.
But watching him drive away this morning, Mike didn't have the usual hollow feeling that came with each Monday morning after they'd spent the weekend together at the farm. On those days, there'd be a hurried goodbye in the farmhouse kitchen and a quick hug before Danny grabbed his car keys and was gone.
It had long since become a ritual. Mike would stand on the porch watching him go, raising one hand to wave, and Danny would answer with a beep of his horn. Then Mike would wait until the car had disappeared down the road before stepping back inside, knowing he had the whole week to himself on the farm, living, working, and waiting for Danny's return on Friday night.
Today, when he woke as usual at dawn, he'd got up to look out the bedroom window as the morning light slowly revealed the rain-soaked lawn and the wet parking lot, where water pooled at storm drains blocked with fallen leaves.
And he'd been given an excuse to put off going home. While there were plenty of odd jobs and chores around the place waiting for him to take care of, rain or shinea farmer's work was never donethe main thing right now was getting the corn picked, and there was no way he could do that again until the fields were dry enough to work in.
So instead of getting dressed and going out to his pickup to head for the interstate and back to the farm, he had made himself a cup of coffee in Danny's kitchen and allowed himself the unusual luxury of doing nothing but returning to the bedroom, where he got dressed and watched Danny sleeping, the alarm clock quietly ticking on his side of the bed until it finally went off at 7:30.
When Danny turned off the alarm, he found Mike sitting there in a rocking chair, leafing through a National Geographic where there was a story with pictures of wild mustangs in Nevada.
"How long you been up?" Danny asked.
Mike shrugged. "Coupla hours maybe."
"How can you get up so early day after day?"
"Farmer genes. Either you got 'em or you don't."
When he explained that he was planning to stay thereall day if the weather didn't changeDanny had smiled and said, "I'd like that."
"What time you go over to the college?"
"Banker's hours," Mike laughed.
"If it only paid like it," Danny said. "Get over here." He sat up and pulled the covers away from Mike's side of the bed.
Mike gave him a grin and came back across the room, pausing for a moment and then hopping in, making the mattress and springs rock under them.
"You're more than usually frisky this morning," Danny said and rolled over against him.
"Can't both of us be a lazy-bones like you."
"Lazy maybe," Danny said. "But sane, definitely."
Mike reached under the covers and felt between Danny's legs. His cock sprang to life as Mike gripped him firmly.
"Well, what do you know?" Mike laughed. "Here's a part of you up already."
And they had stayed together in bed, hugging and holding each other, kissing whiskery faces, Danny's naked body warm and smooth in his arms. Danny had finally got Mike's jeans open and was between his legs, stroking his hard cock with his tongue, when he happened to notice the time and said, "Shit, I'm gonna be late." And he jumped out of bed to wash up in the bathroom and get dressed.
"I'm expectin' you to come back and finish what you started," Mike said, as Danny ran for the door.
"Don't go anywhere," Danny said. "I'll be home for lunch."
"I'll be here waitin'."
Mike had got out of bed and pulled up his jeans, tucking in his shirt tail and then his wet cock. And after Danny had gone, the smell of his aftershave lingering on the air in the apartment, Mike went to the kitchen and poured himself some more coffee.
Discovering he was getting hungry, he found some eggs and a loaf of bread in Danny's refrigerator. After he'd fried up both eggs and bread in a skillet, he went back to the bedroom for the story about the mustangs to have something to read while he ate.
Maybe twenty minutes passed, and he thought he heard a knock at the apartment door. There was another apartment across the hall, and he had never gotten used to living in the same building with other people, the sound of them coming and going, their TV turned up on the other side of a wall, their voices in the apartment below, their footsteps overhead.
The knock came again and he was just about to open the door when he heard a key in the lock. The door swung slowly open, and there stood a woman who after a moment he realized he knew. It was the wife of one of Danny's friends at the college.
"Lucille," he said.
She was surprised at first, then started to apologize when she saw it was Mike.
"I was just dropping off some cookies for Danny," she said. She had a key to let herself in, she said, to look after Danny's plants when he was goneand to leave him something to eat sometimes. "He hates cooking for himself, and I think he enjoys being mothered just a little."
She set down the plastic container of cookies in the kitchen and was about to go.
"Stay and have a cup of coffee," Mike said. He had never forgotten how Lucille and her husband Barry had accepted him so warmly, inviting him and Danny to their house.
He explained to her about the weather and why he was in Danny's apartment instead of at homeleaving out the prospect of sex when Danny came back at noon. And she agreed to stay for a while, putting out some of the cookies on a plate for him before they sat down at the kitchen table.
He asked about Barry and about their son, Pogowho she said were both finePogo was in kindergarten and Barry was busy all the time at the college, his time taken up with committee meetings, a search for a new staff person, and counseling a growing number of students who showed up with emotional problems. And she got to talking about what it was like being a faculty wife.
"You should be a therapist," she said suddenly.
"You're such a good listener. I'm blathering away telling you stuff I don't even tell Barry, and you just sit there taking it all in."
"Well, I can stop, if you want," he laughed. He was all at once self-conscious, unaware that she was observing him in some way he wasn't used to.
"No, it's wonderful. I can see why Danny loves you like he does."
Now Mike was speechless. He had never talked about himself and Danny with anyone.
"Look, I'm just a farmer. I'm not really any good at stuff like this." He had a memory of how awkward he'd felt with Marty the night before. Other people's personal lives were really not any of his business.
"You talk for a while," she said. "I don't know anything about what it's like being a farmer."
"There's not much to say. It's mostly work, and not much of anything else."
"But you must like it."
"Well, yes, I do." And he told her a little of how he liked working outdoors in all the seasons, having his own place, and watching crops grow each year.
He'd never really talked like this with a woman. The women he knew were mostly waitresses in cafes or cashiers at the supermarket, who would sometimes flirt with him or make a little small talk, but never start an actual conversation. He knew the wives of his neighbors, but never more than to say hello and be polite if they happened to meet.
Unlike them all, Lucille was educated and thoughtful, she'd seen something of the world, and she was interested in Mike as someone who might have thoughts of his own. Most of all, she understood about him and Danny, and it did not matter to her that they were two single guys living togetherin some odd way it seemed even to please her. He'd never known there were people like this.
"I've always wanted to ask you something," she said now. "How did you and Danny meet?"
Mike laughed. "I'd guess you'd say he was my hired man." Then he laughed again. "Well, in fact he was. I hired him for a summer, because I was holding down another job hauling milk for a dairy."
"And then what?"
Mike glanced away, remembering how Danny had come to his bedroom that first night.
"I know, I shouldn't be asking this," she said. "When you work in the theatre, you discover thatwell, some men are different than others. Even the good-looking ones a young girl like me might get a crush on." She laughed a little at herself and what looked like her own embarrassment. "And when they're your best friends, you want them to be happy."
"You're an actress," Mike said. He'd forgotten this about her.
"Was. There's not much opportunity for that in Kearney, Nebraska."
Mike remembered now that she and her husband had come here from Toronto. And it occurred to him that being a farmer was something he could do almost anywhere. He tried to imagine being somewhere that he couldn't do what he loved.
"For Barry it was a job," she said. "I was in love with him, and I loved our baby boy, and anyway, we wouldn't be here forever. So I thought I could live without the theatre for a while."
"But it didn't turn out that way?"
"Well, nothing really turns out like we expect, does it?"
"I suppose not."
He wasn't used to this. He could feel the beginnings of regret in the woman sitting across the table from him.
"I used to think of you and Danny like you were married," she said. "But I don't anymore."
Mike didn't know what to say to this. He wasn't sure what she meant.
"When two men are together, it's like they stay equals." But it was different, she explained, with a husband and wife. "The way he looks at it, what he wants comes first, and she's supposed to make the adjustment. But that's not being equal."
"I never thought of it that way," Mike said.
"With you and Dannyand I've watched you togetheryou both have to give a little."
"I guess that's a way of looking at it."
"Barry, for all his college degrees, can't see that."
Once again, Mike was at a loss for words. He wondered if she was talking about sex, and he didn't want to know about what went on between the two of them.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can see the concern in your face, and I didn't come here to burden you with this."
Mike shook his head. "No, it's OK."
He paused for a long moment, letting himself be touched by the feelings that welled up in himfeelings that were a lot like a prayer of thanks for what his life had come to mean with Danny in it.
It didn't matter how long they'd been togetheralmost eight years now?or how much their lives had changed in all that time. He continued to have this sense of wonder that Danny was still there with him, banishing for days, weeks, sometimes months at a time, the loneliness that was always there ready to envelop him in the cold chill of a solitary life.
"Besides," Lucille said, her face brightening. "I'm not unhappy. I wouldn't change anything."
She reached across the table and touched his hand.
"I wouldn't either," Mike said. And there was nothing he was surer of at that moment.
She smiled at him now. "Like the philosopher said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
"Is that so?" Mike said and laughed. "Well, it must be true then."
It was noon when the bus got to Grand Island, and Ty stepped off into the cool, damp air, under a leaden sky. He went to a pay phone and called Mike's number again, but there was still no answer.
The farm was at least five miles outside of town, maybe farther. Most of that distance was the highway, and he could hitchhike out to where there was a gravel road that went down toward the river and right by Mike's place.
He walked out to the highway, one eye on the sky and glad it had stopped raining. After what seemed like a half hour, the passing traffic whipping up a kind of mist from the wet pavement, he got a ride with a driver in an old Studebaker who was listening to Paul Harvey on a radio that was turned up so loud he must have been nearly deaf.
"Let me off here!" Ty had shouted three times before the guy finally slowed down and pulled over. And he'd had to walk back a ways, because they'd passed the road out to Mike's.
A little drizzle fell as he went along the road, the sandy surface wet and muddy in places, soaking through the soles of his shoes. Not a single car or truck passed him until he was almost all the way there. Then a pickup came to a stop beside him, and the driver rolled down the window.
"Need a ride, son?" he said.
"I'm just about there," Ty said, pointing ahead to the turnoff into Mike's place.
"You goin' to Mike's? I'll take you. Hop in."
It was one of the farmers from the neighborhoodhe said his name was Tullyand he took Ty right to the gate in front of Mike's house.
"Don't look like anybody's home," Tully said. Both the pickup and the Camaro were gone. "Just Rusty," he laughed, as the dog came from around the barn, woofing and wagging his tail.
He looked out at the tire tracks in the sandy soil and offered the opinion that they were at least a day old. They had been nearly erased by the rain.
Ty thanked him for the ride and went up to the house, where he found the doors unlocked, and he went inside. The rooms felt strangely empty, almost abandoned. He couldn't remember ever being in the house alone before.
In the back bedroom, he'd pushed his suitcase with most of his clothes under the bed, and he bent down to pull it out now. He tried not to look around the room itself, because there was a rush of memories waiting to wash over himmemories of himself and Rich, who had slept here together and been swept up in a flood of feelings for each other.
At least he'd assumed they were for each other. Now he wasn't so sure what Rich was feeling. Ever since Rich had disappeared on his bike down the ranch road, leaving him behind without a word, Ty had struggled to understand what had happened.
He knew it had something to do with Vietnam. Even Kirk had said so. But he'd thought Rich had let that all slip into the past, where it belonged. Now he wondered if Vietnam had ever really done more than go into hiding, ready to emerge again despite everything else that might have happened in the meantime.
In that case, the love he'd begun to feel for Rich would never be enough to bring him any peace. And as the days passed with no word from him, the more Ty began to feel that he might never see or hear from Rich again. He was lost to whatever held him and kept him locked in his sorrows.
He'd sucked down his own dismay that morning as Baxter had left him at the bus station, and he had been determined to stay strong as the miles passed outside the rain-streaked window, thinking always ahead to where he was going and whygetting his car from the garage at Mike's farm and then getting on the road back to his family in Iowa. There was a story about himself he needed to sort out before he walked through the door and faced his mother and father and all his brothers.
But now, he could not hold back the tears, and they flowed down his cheeks in the bedroom where he and Rich had spent so many nights. And he lost track of the time it took to shed them all before he finally walked from the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper