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.
Mike gets a visit from his neighbor; Ed reveals some unexpected feelings; Kirk tells Ty some things he didn't know about Rich
Night was falling again in Nebraska, the sun already setting behind a bank of dark clouds gathering along the flat horizon. Mike considered the western sky and remembered the forecast on the radio that morninga cold front would be coming across the state, with maybe some rain.
Nothing like a September cold snap to bring an end to another Indian summer. He thought of Rich and Ty on their way to Phoenix and figured if they got to southern Colorado by nightfall, they'd have a chance to keep ahead of the weather.
Mike had been picking corn all day. Now he left the harvester in the field and got in his truck, full to the top with shelled corn, to drive it to the big new grain bin on his place. The truck groaned under the weight of the load as he got to the road. And he waited there for a pickup that was coming, its headlights on. It slowed as it approached, and Mike saw it was his neighbor Wade.
The truck stopped when it got to Mike, and Wade got out and walked over. Wade had shut off the engine, so Mike switched off his, too, figuring Wade must have something on his mindor was in no hurry to get where he was goingand planned to talk for a while.
"How's your ass?" Wade said as he got to Mike's truck. It was his usual hello.
"About done for," Mike laughed. It had been a long week and a long day. And he'd be out here again tomorrow, though it was Sunday and anybody but a farmer at harvest time would be taking the day off.
"Sure that corn of yours is ready to pick?" Wade said. "I'd be waitin' for a good frost." Wade liked to needle Mike, who'd got caught one year by an early snow storm with several days of picking still to do. Wade himself had feedlots for beef and chopped all his corn for silage when it was still green. He'd filled his silos by now, and all winter he'd be feeding it to his cattle.
They talked for a while about nothing in particularthe weather, corn prices, the cost of hay, anything but what was really on Wade's mind.
"How's Marty doing?" Mike said, finally raising the one subjectWade's sonthat Wade wasn't mentioning.
Wade sort of laughed and looked over at a stand of cottonwoods down the road, where noisy blackbirds were settling in for the night.
"Who knows?" he said, like whatever there was to be known about his son, he'd be the last to find outand the last to understand.
"He's in Kearney now?" Mike asked, though he knew the answer to that question from Danny, who'd told him Marty and Virgil had rented an apartment together.
"So his mother tells me," Wade said, looking again at Mike. "Got himself a job at a lumber yard. And he's livin' with somebody he met from over there."
Mike sat in the high cab of his truck looking down at Wade, who stood in the grass and dry weeds at the edge of the road, the expression on his face partly hidden by the bill of his cap and growing harder to see in the fading light.
"I've tried my best to make something of that boy," Wade suddenly said, as if this was what he'd been wanting to say all along. "But somehow he just turned out the wrong way."
Mike had always liked Wade. He was a good neighbor. It gave Mike an odd feeling knowing what he knew about Marty. That he knew the guy Marty was living with and that the two of them were more than just friends.
"I've told you this before, Wade," Mike said. "You've always been too hard on that boy."
"You never raised a son. Wait till you get one of your own. It's a damn sight harder than it looks."
"You got me there," Mike said and shrugged. He dodged the comment about his not being a fatherand seeming likely never to be one.
Wade fished in his shirt pocket now and pulled out a cigarette. His face lighted up briefly as he struck a match, his hands cupped around the burst of flame.
"I heard you was helping him milk Tully's cows," he said. "Did you and him ever talk?"
Mike thought for a moment before he answered. It was not his place to tell Wade what he wanted to knowand was surely not ready to hear.
"I guess you could say we got to know each other a little." He remembered the two of them there in the darkened barnthe rain falling outside, the power outmilking Tully's cows by hand. "You would have been proud of him, Wade. He's got a lot more of you in him than you think."
"I'll never believe that," Wade said. He took a long, hard drag on his cigarette and then blew out the smoke. "Tell me something, Mike. Do you think my boy could be a little queer?"
Well, there it is, Mike thought. "What give you an idea like that?" he said.
"I've had a funny feeling about him since he was little. He's always been more of a mama's boy."
Mike thought of his own mother and how she and Mike had almost never got along. "I doubt if it has much to do with that," he said.
But Wade wasn't really listening to him. "If he's queer, it would explain a lot."
Mike sighed. "Would it matter to you if he was?"
"It would kill his mother. She wants grandkids more'n she ever wanted anything."
"How about you? Do you want grandkids?"
"To be honest, I don't much care one way or another."
"Does Marty know that?"
"Him and his mom talk. He knows what he knows from her."
"Maybe he should hear it coming from you."
Wade laughed. "He hasn't heard a goddam thing I've had to say in years."
The bitterness in his laughter struck hard at Mike. He'd always known Wade as a man with strong opinionsabout government, business, unions, banksand he never yielded ground in an argument, even when he was dead wrong about something. More even than that, he wanted you to know he didn't give a damn what you thought of him. If anything ever hurt his pride, he wasn't about to let it show.
The Wade standing there in the growing darkness was not that man. He'd been given a cross to beara fact of life he could never argue away. And he was admitting to Mike that for all his efforts to shoulder it, he'd failed.
He took another drag on the cigarette and then flicked it away, unfinished, the glowing arc like a tracer flying onto the road, sparks spinning over the gravel.
"Would you talk to him sometime?" Wade said.
"I'm not saying I will, but what would you want me to say?"
"Tell him what I think. He'll listen to you."
"Let me get this straight. You want me to tell him you think he's queer?"
"No, Jesus. That's the last thing."
"Well, what then?"
Wade shook his head. "Just tell him, I don't care what or who or anything. I don't want the two of us fightin' anymore."
"Let's say I do this," Mike said. "Could I put all that into my own words?"
Wade pulled off his cap for a moment and brushed through his hair with one hand. "Like what?" he asked.
"Is what you mean something like, you love him, you miss him, you hurt like hell inside, he's been right all this time and you've been wrong?"
Wade took a step back, as if someone had just thrown a bag of cement into his arms.
"And that would just be for starters," Mike added.
Wade still said nothing. He tugged on the bill of his cap, pulling it further down over his eyes.
"Whatever you think, Mike," he finally said in a quiet voice. "Whatever you think it would take."
"What does Wade make of you and me?" Danny said when Mike told him about the conversation in the field.
They were sitting at the kitchen table eating supper. Danny had just put out a loaf of white bread and Mike already had his hand in the bag pulling out a couple slices to have with his soup. A pot of homemade chicken noodle had been cooking on the stove all afternoon, while Danny took a fistful of papers from his briefcase and graded them.
Before that he'd got the storm windows out of the garage from where they spent the summer months stacked in the rafters. He'd had to wash the dust and bird crap from them and then put them up one by one around the house, getting ready for the winter. It had been warm work up under the garage roof, and he'd had to strip down to his tee shirt, but he didn't want to wait and end up doing the job on a bitter cold day, his hands freezing on the aluminum frames.
"I don't think Wade ever wonders about you and me," Mike said. He sat there with elbows on the table, his shirt sleeves rolled up, a soup spoon in one hand and a slice of bread in the other. His mustache and the hair across his forehead were still damp from washing up when he came in. "If I was livin' here with my mom," he laughed, "it might be another story."
"Could be that knowing you he's coming around about Marty."
"Well, he likes youhe trusts you. If Marty turns out the same as you, maybe he thinks that wouldn't be so bad."
"I doubt if that thought has ever crossed his mind."
Danny felt Mike's stocking foot slide across the floor under the table and settle against his toes.
"Not saying he's had that actual thought," Danny said. "But something like that is going on in there."
Mike smiled. "Playing hide and seek with him sort of?"
"Could be." He took a spoonful of the hot soup and fell silent.
They rubbed toes together under the table for a while, not talking.
"What are you thinking?" Danny finally said.
"Just wonderin' should I talk to Marty, and if I do, what do I say?"
"You want me to go talk to him?"
"No, Wade asked me. If it's anybody, it should be me."
"How you gonna do that? You got corn to pick."
Mike shook his head. "I don't know yet. But something tells me I shouldn't be puttin' it off."
Ed's whole scheme of somehow finding buyers for Ted's paintings was such a far-fetched idea, it came close to being completely crack-brained, and he'd finally told him so.
"No, sir," Ed had insisted. He'd never been so serious about anything.
"I suppose you're gonna want a commission," Ted had said, just to see if Ed had thought that far.
"Plus your expenses?"
"Nope. No charge for them."
"So when you're in Dallas, you're staying at the Hilton and not billing me for it?"
"You got that right. I hate all that paperwork."
"Be serious, Ted. How you even gonna break even?"
"You don't worry about me. You just worry about doin' what you do," Ed said pointing at the paintings lined up along the wall.
Knowing Ed, it seemed more likely that he was just getting restless, and this was a way to get away from what had become his daily routinehanging around and doing nothing. It seemed even more likely that the plan involved making some side trips to meet up with old pals he knew from all his years on the road. Meet up and bed up.
The possibility that Ed was somehow different from every other man he'd ever metready to settle down with himthat seemed as much of a long shot as putting money on a lame horse. Never happen.
And he'd told him that, too. "I think you're lookin' forward to getting some recreation," he said.
"Recreation?" Ed seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Giving that dick of yours some variety."
"Oh, that," he laughed. "My dick is happy as it's ever been. You don't have to worry about that either."
When pigs fly, Ted thought, but said nothing. If Ed wanted to believe he could live a day on the road without some kind of sex, let him.
"What. What's that look supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," Ted shrugged.
He was pouring himself a glass of wine out of a jug of Paisano. He'd cleaned out his brushes for the day and was looking through a sketchbook for some drawings he'd made last summer. Ted had wanted macaroni and cheese for supper and said he could follow a recipe he'd found on the back of a package. It was in the oven baking now, and the creamy smell of it filled the kitchen where they sat.
"I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer," Ed said, "But I know you well enough to know that look."
"Would you expect me to go cold turkey night after night if it was me out there on the road and not you?"
"You mean you wouldn't?" Ed said, sounding a little hurt.
He got up to peek inside the oven one more time, unable to resist following the progress of the macaroni and cheese.
"C'mon, Ed. We're grown men here. All I'm sayin' is you're a free man," Ted said, turning to a page where he'd drawn a sleeping figureMikelying on the ground under the shade of a tree. "You can do what you want."
"Well, I'll tell you what I want," Ed said, reaching over to close the sketchbook on his fingers and look him in the eyes. "I want to be the man you can count on for everythingthe only one."
This was not a development Ted had expected. And he still wasn't sure how much of it to believe. Ed was likely to say about anything he thought another person would believe to get what he wanted. It went with being a salesman.
"You don't have to say that because of me," he said, pulling his thumb from between the pages of the sketchbook. He set it down on the floor, propping it against the wall.
"I'm not just sayin' it." Ed sat down now across the table from Ted. "I admit, I've had more'n a few men in my time. Women, too. I'm half sorry now there've been so many of 'em. Just the few good ones maybe, and nothellnot so damn many, like I" His voice trailed off.
"What are you talking about?" Ted leaned forward, sure now that he hadn't been paying close enough attention to Ednot just tonight but for who knows how many days and nights that had come before this one.
"You get to be a man my age, there's a lot of years to look back on, and you can see what adds up to something and what don't."
"Stop talking like you're over the hill."
"Free and easy. That's always been me. But what's it got me?"
Ted looked at the bottle of beer in Ed's hand. "When did you start drinking today?"
"You're missin' my point."
And you're missin' mine, Ted wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.
What Ed seemed to be saying was that all the while he'd been having a good ol' time, he'd let life slip through his fingers. Here he was, forty years old, and what he had to show for it was a string of sales jobs and the ability to sweet talk people out of the hard-earned cash in their bank accounts. Add to that one other skillattracting like a magnet the handsomest man in any crowdthe one even who didn't know he could enjoy a roll in the hay with another man.
"You're complaining about all that?" Ted finally said.
"It ain't enough." Ed had forgotten for a moment about the macaroni and cheese and jumped up to crack open the oven door for another look.
"Well, what exactly do you think a man's got coming to him?" Ted wanted to know.
"What we got here." Ed turned from the stove, his arms flung open. "At least I thought we had it."
"You can have all of this you want. I just don't see what the problem is."
"I want you to think better of me."
Ted was mystified. "How could I do that?"
"Trust me a little more."
Ed paused to put together a sentence before he said it. "For when I come back through that door again, you bein' the last man I had sex with."
"Why is that so important? I keep telling you, you're a free man. Do what you want."
Ed threw up his hands in frustration. "I see I'm not making myself clear at all." He stopped talking now, deciding it was time to take the macaroni and cheese from the oven. He slid the Corningware casserole dish off the rack, and carefully held it between two mitts, like it was something about to explode.
He set it down gently on the stove top and lifted the lid, a plume of steam rising into the air. He just stood there, admiring it for a while. Then he took a serving spoon out of a drawer and ladled up a big serving for each of them on two of Ted's mismatched plates.
"You didn't answer my question," Ted said as Ed set his plate down in front of him. "Why is that so important?"
Ed reached for his own plate and sat down with it at the table. "I guess if you don't understand now, maybe you will some other time."
They waited until nightfall, but when it began to grow dark, it seemed pretty clear that Rich was not coming back to the ranchnot anymore today anyway.
"He just needs to cool off," Kirk kept saying, going on what he knew of Rich from the time they were best friends and working stiffs together. "Had his moods, you know," he explained to Ty. "You never knew for sure how he was going to take something."
Until now, Mike had been the one person who knew Rich from those days, but Ty quickly sensed that Rich and Kirk had been much closer. And that made a difference he wasn't ready for. What happened between the two of them? Something so good and then so bad that it made everything else fade in importance.
Ty struggled not to feel part of that everything else, but as the hours passed, he began to realize that he had stopped existing in Rich's world. All along, this man Kirk had meant more to him andfor better or for worsewould always mean more.
The rest of the afternoon, he'd hung out with Lonnie and another cowboy, Baxter. They were putting in post holes for a big riding corral, Lonnie on a little Ford tractor operating an augur attached to a power take-off on back. The sandy soil spilled out around the holes they were drilling, until Baxter lifted his hand each time to let Lonnie know he'd gone deep enough.
They were a natural working team, hardly needing to talkjust a hand signal, a nod, a word. It turned out that they shared living quarters, a trailer house down the hill beyond the main house, under a canopy of low-hanging tree limbs. The wooden steps leading to the side door were worn with many seasons and years of use.
He had supper with them, pan-fried steak and boiled potatoes, that Baxter had cooked up. Lonnie stood working with him in the kitchen for a while, after Baxter had said, "You gonna peel the spuds?"
There was no mistaking the admiration the young Lonnie had for the older manwhile there must have been thirty years between them. And the affection Baxter felt for Lonnie was there in every gentle word and each soft glance. It calmed Ty to be with them, though beneath that calm was a fear that he would never see Rich again.
After supper, he and Lonnie had started washing up the dishes when Kirk stuck his head in the door carrying a peach pie under a dish towel. He'd brought it from the house.
"The cook heard there was company," he said, handing it to them. "Company gets pie." As Ty held it for a moment, he could feel the bottom of the plate still warm in his hands.
They'd cut up big wedges and scooped them out onto dishes Baxter took down from a cupboard. Then the four of them stood, leaning against the counter tops or the wall, silently eating. It was clear that Kirk was the one in charge, for the others said nothing about the purple bruise and the swelling on his face. They just waited for him to speak first.
"See you started on that new fence," he finally said.
"Yes, sir," Baxter said. "That we did."
"I hear the old man wants you to use railroad ties for the posts."
"I think he means for it to last forever."
"They get delivered yet?"
"They're sayin' first thing next week if the shipment comes in."
"You'd think a lumber yard would keep a supply of something like that."
"Well, there was that derailment over west of town," Baxter explained, being the one to have the answers for questions like this. "Tore up a half mile of track."
"That coal train?"
"Yes, sir. They're still workin' night and day out there on that."
And Ty listened to them, watching the way each took his place in the roomtook it and held ittaking responsibility for so much and no more. The way they talked and listened, you could tell who made the decisions and who had the job of doing what was decided.
"Damn," Kirk finally said, taking the last bite and setting down his fork and dish. He wiped flakes of crust from his mouth with the back of one hand. "Nothing like good pie."
The others agreed.
Suddenly Kirk was ready to go. He put a hand on Ty's shoulder and said, "Get your things. You're comin' with me."
Surprised, Ty was speechless for a moment. "I don't have anything, sir," he said. There were just the clothes on his back. Everything he'd had with him was on the motorcycle when Rich took off.
"No reason he can't spend the night here with us," Baxter was saying.
"No, no," Kirk said waving both hands. "We got a bed for him over at our place. No use making him sleep on the floor here."
And in a minute Ty was saying good night and thanks to Baxter and Lonnie, who followed him half way to the door, Lonnie saying, "Maybe I'll se you tomorrow."
"My truck's over here," Kirk was saying, striding off into the dark and already several steps ahead. He was headed for a pickup parked under a dim pole light that stood near one of the barns.
Kirk already had the engine started by the time Ty was getting in. It turned over real slow a couple times, like the battery was low, then it came to life with a rumble, the headlights brightening against the side of the barn. They rode in silence for a while, Kirk seeming preoccupied. He'd taken some tobacco from a tin in his shirt pocket and slipped some into one cheek.
"I wouldn't be worrying about Rich," he said as the truck bumped along the ranch road. "He's like that. Hard to predict. But he kinda backtracks when he gets too far out on a limb. I figure that's what's goin' on with him now." He looked over at Ty, a smile spreading the edges of his fu manchu mustache. "He'll be back here lookin' for you before you know it."
Ty wanted fiercely to know how close the two men had been as friendsand how their friendship had endedbut didn't know how to ask. He wasn't sure it was any of his business anyway.
"I'm takin' you over to our placeme and Owen's. Used to be him and his wife's, but they split up." He rolled down the window to lean out his head and spit. "You may as well know we bunk together. Nothin' you have to hide from me about you and Rich."
He turned to Ty, grinning again. "I'm not just imagining anything there, am I?"
Ty swallowed hard. He wasn't used to talking this way to someone he'd just met.
"I'll tell you somethin' about Rich," Kirk said swerving around a rutted spot in the road. "He didn't have much of an upbringin'. Got kicked around from place to place till he fetched up with some shirt-tail relation, a guy name of Gordona real sonofabitch."
"Me, I was a runaway," he said. "But Richbein' the kind of kid he wasstuck it out and put up with stuff I'da never done."
And he told of what he knew about how Gordon beat him and locked him up once in a farm shed without food and water for two days. Always for some minor offense, like missing the school bus or forgetting something he was supposed to do.
Worst was making him do things no man should be forced to do for another. "Maybe you shouldn't oughtta be hearin' this," he said. "Not if he don't want you to know."
Ty didn't know what to say.
"Well, my nose is pretty goddam sore right now, thanks to him, and I don't care what he thinks," Kirk said. And as he drove on, taking his time on the rough road, he told of howeven though he was getting plenty of sex from whatever women would let themselves get involved with himGordon used Rich in that way, too.
"Hand jobs it started out as, then one thing led to another. I'll save you all the sorry, sick details." But it was no good for someone like Richwho, after all he'd been through, just wanted and needed someone he could trust.
"Like I say, I wasn't even in his situationjust a bad-ass step dad and a sorry excuse for a mom. And I lit out. I was lucky havin' Mike's place to run to. Him and I don't always see eye to eye, but lookin' at me next to Rich, I can see he saved my ass."
Kirk turned the wheel sharply and started down a narrow lane that took them to a doublewide, where lights burned in the windows and another truck was parked to one side.
"We're here," Kirk said. "Let's go in and introduce you to my no-account, shiftless partner. He's probably in there waitin' for supper, hungry as a weaned calf bawlin' for his mama's teat." He laughed and reached across the seat to put his hand on Ty's shoulder.
"Just kiddin' a little about Owen. He'll be happy to meet ya."
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper