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 has his doubts; Ed takes a detour; Ty makes a decision; and Marty gets some news.
Mike still wasn't sure this was a good idea. He couldn't remember the last time he'd ever done anything like this before. His sex life had always been his own business, and if it involved anybody else, it was never more than finding a partner for the night orwith the right man, like Dannyfor as long as he could make it last. He didn't go around giving out advice or telling other men how to live their lives.
But here he was, on his way to have a talk with Marty. The only reason, he kept telling himself, was that his friend Wade had asked him to, and a man does what he can for a friend.
It was Sunday afternoon, and the rain still came down in a steady drizzle, blowing sometimes across the highway in front of him and falling hard against the windshield. He was driving his truck, and somewhere up ahead was Danny in his Camaro.
Usually Danny waited until after supper on Sunday evenings, to spend all the time he could with Mike before returning to his teaching job in Kearney. But this time they'd be spending the night together at Danny's placesnug in Danny's bedand the prospect of that was keeping Mike going, even while he had his doubts about the rest of what lay ahead.
Most of all, he didn't know where to start with Marty. If he could get past that, he thought, the rest would come more easy. But if he thought about where he wanted the discussion to end, he got even less sure of himself. It would be perfect if Marty was ready to make amends with his father, after so many years of fighting each other, but what was the chance of that? It could be a lot or damn little.
Though he was still a young man, Marty seemed already very set in his ways. Maybe he needed to be like that just to hold his own in the world. And if that was the case, he'd come by it honestly. His dad was stubborn as they come.
But if Mike were having this conversation with Danny, he knew Danny would be laughing and saying, "Listen to yourself. You're as set in your ways as anybody."
And he'd disagree for a while, all the time knowing Danny was probably right. He might keep most of his opinions to himself, but he certainly had his share of them.
Eventually, he came around to telling himself that he'd made no promises to Wade. If Marty refused to play along, it was out of Mike's hands. He could always say, I tried. But then again, Wade was counting on him, and that made just trying not good enough.
"Shit," he muttered as he drove along. If Marty didn't give in a little, it was going to be tough going back empty handed. And it would be a toss-up then between being disappointed in himself and being more than a little pissed off at the boy.
When Ed got as far as Salina, he saw a sign for Kansas City and started thinking about his old friend LeRoy, who'd been living there for years now. It was about 175 miles out of his way, but I-70 would get him there in less than three hours, and without much thinking, he'd already turned onto it. Anyway, though he'd been trying to make Oklahoma City, at the rate he was going, he'd never get there by nightfall.
LeRoy was a good manretired now from the rodeo and running a liquor store. They had known each other for years, and their friendship had defied the temper of the times. LeRoy was all country, having grown up in a small Kansas town that had been settled by black men and women who'd left the South after the Civil War, and LeRoy was the great-grandson of two of them.
LeRoy had been one helluva steer wrestler, but even so, winning the prize money depended a lot on the whim of white judges, who either saw him for the fine competitor he was or let their prejudices get in the way. Hard to say which of them even remembered that it was a black man, Bill Pickett, who had been the first great champion bulldogger.
Some of the rodeo cowboysand often even the fansrecognized his ability. He could slide from a galloping horse onto a running steer with the grace of a big cat and flip it onto its side. No wasted effort, just a sequence of clean movements that made it all look easy and simple. Men who competed even in other events would stop what they were doing to watch him and just shake their heads at the wonder of it.
But as a black man in a white man's sport, he was still the exception. He was respected, but still always something of an outsider. That Ed and LeRoy became friends may have been out of the ordinary. But since Ed was nothing more than a salesmanand not a cowboy at allit didn't really matter that much to anyone.
Which was OK, because their friendship, in fact, was a cover for something no one knew about either of themthey both liked men. And it hadn't taken them long to find that out about each other. Half way through a bottle of Jim Beam one night in Ed's motel room, someone's hand had found its way to the other one's crotch. And from there on their new friendship was complete.
Alas, it hadn't lasted. When enough dislocated shoulders, torn muscles and ligaments had forced LeRoy into retirement, he'd taken up with an old buddy who was looking for someone to partner with him in his liquor store business.
The old buddy happened to be queer, too, and they'd become a two-some, living together in a nice three-bedroom on a good street in a mixed neighborhood, where two black men could pretty much do what they liked as long as they kept the property up and the lawn mowedwhich was not a problem since LeRoy's buddy and business partner was all Better Homes and Gardens.
"Hell, yes. Come for as long as you like," LeRoy said when Ed stopped along the road at a pay phone and gave him a call.
"Can't stay long, I'm on my way to Dallas."
"Well, we'll see about that," LeRoy said, like he was already making other plans for Ed.
Later in the afternoon, when Ed drove up to the house, the sky was darker and the rain was still coming down. Now that he'd been going east, he'd probably been driving right along with the storm. The garage door began to lift open and LeRoy stood there, calling out to Ed after he'd parked at the curb.
There was an empty space inside, next to an old maroon Mercury. When he reached over to roll down the window, he could hear LeRoy's deep voice saying, "Park it in here, out of the rain."
So he drove the Cadillac onto the driveway and into the garage. Before he could shut off the engine and open the door LeRoy was standing there beside him, wearing a black western shirt with pearl snaps and an old pair of levi's, starched and creased like he was on his way to a shindig.
He had gotten older and a little fatter, with some gray showing in his dark, dark hair, but he was still a handsome man. And he had a big smile on his face like a ten-year-old who'd just got a pony for his birthday.
"You old son-of-a-gun," he said as Ed got out of the car. "It's sure as hell good to see you." And he gave him a long, strong hugpounding his back once or twice, but mostly just holding him in his arms.
Ed heard the garage door come rolling and rattling down, shutting out the sound of the falling rain on the concrete of the driveway. And when it was all the way closed, LeRoy took his face in both his hands and gave him a quick, hard kiss on his mouth.
It felt good this big, warm hulk of a man embracing him with the strength he'd once used to wrestle steers down to the arena dirt. And Ed's body came alive with memories of nights together in cheap motel rooms, damp with sweat because the air conditioner wasn't working, the bed springs complaining under them, and taking showers together afterwards, scrubbing each other's backs, their bodies slippery with soap as they pressed together.
"Where's your partner?" he finally said, unable to remember the guy's name.
"Cliff? He's in Topeka. Family reunion."
"You didn't go?"
"They're still trying to get him married off to some nice girl."
"Don't they know about you two?"
"Don't wanna know."
"It's Kansas, my friend. What can you do?"
They went inside, LeRoy carrying Ed's suitcase and with his other arm around Ed's shoulder. The kitchen was orderly and brightly lighted. Through an archway, he could see a living room with beige carpet, upholstered furniture, magazines fanned out on a coffee table, and sheer curtains and drapes in the picture windows. At first glance, the place seemed to be more for looking at than living in.
"Nice place you got here," Ed said.
"Cliff runs a tight ship," LeRoy said, like he could read Ed's mind. "He's got something you don't find much of in an old rodeo cowboy like me."
"He'd call it taste."
"What would you call it?"
LeRoy just laughed. "I got my own room, and he let's me do what I want in therelong as I keep the door shut."
LeRoy showed Ed around the house, dropping his suitcase in the guest bedroom, which was furnished like it was waiting for royalty or a head of state.
"What kind of bed is that?" Ed wanted to know.
"Four poster. Count 'em."
And then LeRoy showed him his own room. There were framed photos from rodeos everywhere, a rack of deer antlers on the wall, a braided rug on the floor, an Indian blanket flung over the foot of the bed, and a little roll-top desk with shiny championship belt buckles arranged in a row along the top. A cracked leather chair took up one corner with a floor lamp.
"That chair used to be my grandpa's," LeRoy said." I had to explain to Cliff that it goes wherever I go."
He took a faded snapshot in a small frame from where it sat with several other photos on a chest of drawers. "This is him, on the front porch with his shotgun. Taught me damn near everything I know."
He studied it thoughtfully for a moment before carefully setting it down again.
"This is Ike, my nephew. Remember him?" He pointed to a picture of a serious young man in a dark gown with a mortar board on his head and holding a graduation diploma. "My pride and joy. Went to law school."
"And look at this," he said. He pointed to another one. There were two young men in the picture, leaning against a corral fence and smiling for the camera.
"I never seen this before," Ed said, realizing it was of the two of them. "Who took it?"
"Some girl. One of the barrel racers." He held the picture now in his hands.
"I don't remember it."
"Little did they know," LeRoy said, stroking the image with his thumb as he held it. "You and me was fucking like rabbits whenever we had the chance."
Ed laughed. "Must be why we're both grinnin' like that."
LeRoy set the photo back on the bureau. "I always loved that picture." Then he turned to Ed, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I sure as hell am glad you're here," he said.
Ty had given up waiting for the phone to ring. There was not going to be a call about Rich. He had lost his way somehow, and who knows how long he was going to stay lost. Ty couldn't wait here for him forever. He needed to start thinking about what he was going to do next and where he was going to go.
It seemed like something he should talk over with Mike, and as the daylight dwindled in the windows of the doublewide, he got to looking at the phone numbers penciled onto the wall around the telephone, and he found one for a "MIKE" that he decided to try.
But when he dialed the number, the phone rang and rang, and no one picked up. The same thing happened an hour later when he tried again.
It was dark when a truck pulled up outside, and when he looked through a panel of rain-streaked window glass beside the door, he saw that it was Kirk, back from a day's work on the ranch. As soon as he got inside, he pulled off his slicker and coat and hung them with his wet hat from a row of hooks on the wall. Then he tried taking off his boots, but they were soaked tight to his feet.
"Gimme a hand with these suckers," he said, sitting down and getting Ty to grab a boot between his legs while Kirk pushed against his backside with his other foot. When it finally came off, they did the same thing with the other one.
"How's our patient?" he said, unbuckling his belt and taking off his jeans, which were wet and streaked with mud from the knees down to the frayed cuffs.
"Sleeping last I looked."
"Ain't he just like a baby when he's like that?" Kirk said, standing there now in his wrinkled shirt and a pair of thermal underwear. "Makes him almost lovable." He took off the thermals and threw them with his jeans over the back of a chair; then he walked barefoot and bare-legged to the kitchen.
"Any of that whiskey left, or did he drink it all?"
"There's still some."
Kirk found the bottle, unscrewed the cap, and poured himself some in a juice glass.
"We hear from Rich?"
Ty shook his head.
"Guess he decided to be a real shithead."
"I dunno. He's got his troubles."
They both fell silent. Whatever Kirk might have been thinking, he wasn't saying.
"I think I need to be getting home," Ty said.
"Iowa. That's where my family is."
And Ty found himself talking about his mom and dad and his three brothers. He told of growing up, working nights and weekends stocking shelves and bagging groceries in his dad's grocery store and learning to play the piano from his mother. And he realized how much he missed sleeping in his own bed and waking every morning to the sound of familiar voices in the house.
He had put off going back there because he didn't want to face his family's disappointment when he was asked to leave the church. But he thought he was beginning to find the courage to do that. His brothers had always treated him like he was some kind of fool, so that was not going to change. His mother loved him no matter what, and his father had never cared much about his wanting to be a minister anyway.
What was different was their knowing now the secret he'd always hidden from them and himself. His deepest yearning was for someone to be his closest and dearest friend, and the two of them always loving each other more than anybody else.
"That's gonna be the hardest part," he said. "They're not going to understand that."
"But they got no choice," Kirk said. "Do they."
Ty looked at the set of Kirk's jaw, his steady gaze, the beginnings of a smile on his face and the purple bruise across his cheekbone, where Rich had punched him. And he felt the determination that made Kirk what he was, a man who believed in himself and stood his ground, no matter whatbecause there was no other way for a man to be.
"You're right," Ty said. "They have no choice."
Marty went to the door when he heard Mike's knock, and when he opened it, there the man stood, in his jeans and a fleece-lined coat, drops of rain water on his shoulders and the bill of his cap. He stepped inside and waited while Marty got his jacket.
"Hey, Tiger," he said when Virgil came from the TV in the bedroom, and they shook hands as he gave Virgil a one-armed hug.
Virgil, glad to see Mike, had this big grin and was practically starry-eyed. Marty felt almost guilty that it was him Mike had come to see instead.
Then they hurried through the misty night out to Mike's pickup that he'd parked in the street and climbed into the cab.
"Where to?" Mike said.
And Marty took him to a bar a few blocks away, where there was a pool table in back, and after getting bottles of beer, they took them to an empty booth that glowed in the colored lights from a juke box.
"So what's this all about?" Marty wanted to know.
Mike glanced up at a TV that was on over the bar, as if he might find the words he needed there. "I'm gonna come right out and say it," he said, looking back at Marty. "Your dad wanted me to talk to you."
"My dad?" Marty felt a surge of something go through himlike brushing against the wire of an electric fence.
"He's not exactly happy," Mike said.
"He's never been happy."
"I mean with himself. He thinks maybe he sorta screwed things up."
"He told you to tell me that?"
"More or less."
Marty didn't know what to make of this.
Mike went on. "He's thinking maybe he could have been a different kind of father when you was growin' up."
"Maybe cut you a little more slack."
"I don't get it."
Mike sighed, like this was the last kind of conversation he wanted to be having right now.
"Well, you and him don't get along so good. And he figures maybe he's the one to blame for that."
"Oh, he does, does he?" Marty said. "Why couldn't he tell me that himself?"
"I think you and me both know why."
"Yeah, because it would kill him. He's always been one stubborn sonofabitch."
Mike took a drink of his beer and then set the bottle back on the table. "I won't argue with that," he said. "And if you picked the right words to say it, he'd probably agree with you."
"I sincerely doubt it."
"He told me to tell you that he wants to stop fighting with you. He wants another chance to be your dad."
Marty rolled his hand into a fist and brought it down on the table. "Well, you can tell him he's a little too late for that."
Mike said nothing for a while and just stared at his beer.
"I have a dad, too," he finally said. "He ain't the best, either. He broke up with my mom, and when I was your age he run off with another woman. Lives in Florida now. If I get a Christmas card from him, it's his wife who sent it and signed both their names. I'd give almost anything if he'd call me or send me a letter some time and say he loves me and misses me."
He looked up at Marty now.
"And that's what your dad would say to you," Mike said. "If you'd let him."
Marty felt his stomach begin to tighten up, and when he started to speak, he was surprised that his voice was shaking.
"Whatwhat does he know about me and Virgil?" he said.
"I dunno. Maybe nothing. But for now I think he's willing to let that go."
"He'd be singing a different tune if he knew."
"Yeah, but it would still sound a lot like `You're my son and you're OK'."
Marty pressed his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes until he felt he could trust his voice again.
"I'd like to believe that," he finally said. "But I don't."
Mike took another drink from his beer, his eyes fixed on something across the room. Then he looked again at Marty and said, "One man to another, I think you'd be foolish not to give believin' a try."
Marty still wasn't convinced, but he didn't want to hear himself say so. Here was Mike trying to get him to do what he thought was right, and he was behaving like a mule.
"Tell me you'll think about it," Mike said.
Marty sighed and his heart seemed to shift in his chest, feeling light and then heavy. He had to catch his breath to say the words. "All right. I'll think about it."
Mike gave him a little smile then. "Can I tell him that?"
Marty considered this for a moment and then slowly nodded.
"OK, then I'm leavin' it up to you," Mike said, starting to sound relieved. "It's all in your hands now."
Marty, at a loss for words, raised his bottle to his lips and drank the last of it.
"What do you say to another beer," Mike said. "I think we could both use one." And he got up to go over to the bar.
LeRoy had started a fire in the fireplace, and the two of them sat there on the couch, talking over old times and drinking shots from a bottle of Wild Turkey. When they started getting hungry, LeRoy took a pan of lasagna from the freezer and put it in the oven, following the instructions Cliff had written and left on the inside of the plastic bag he'd put it in. And as the house began to fill with the smell of tomato sauce and spices, they'd got drunk together on bourbon and memories.
For a white man, Ed had always been a little different from the rest. Like others, he had no idea what it meant to be a black man always steering a careful course in the white man's world, and he didn't know the first thing about the world LeRoy had come from. He'd probably never been the only white man in a group of black men, having to learn how they talked and what they meant by what they said.
But Ed seemed to have not an ounce of judgment about LeRoy. He saw LeRoy for what he was, first and last a man, no more and no less. And from the beginning he'd always offered LeRoy the truest kind of friendship. He'd do anything for LeRoy, without question, and expect nothing in return. Being with him tonight reminded LeRoy of all that.
Once when he poured them a round, he had lifted his glass and said, "To friendship." And Ed had smiled and done the same.
When the lasagna was ready to eat, he put a loaf of garlic bread in the oven to warm, set the kitchen table for them, and opened a bottle of red wine.
"I never knew you was a cook," Ed said, sitting down at the table, watching LeRoy fill his wine glass. Ed took his napkin and for a moment didn't seem sure what to do with it. Then he tucked a corner of it into the open collar of his shirt.
"Cliff's the cook around here. I just follow orders."
"Kinda like being an old married couple?"
LeRoy served him a plate of the steaming pasta. "I wouldn't know much about that," he said. "Never been married." He got the bread from the oven now and set it on the table.
"Looks that way to me," Ed said, making a gesture with his hand that took in the rest of the house. "All settled in together."
"Settled? I suppose so. Don't mean I'm not as glad to see you as I always was."
This seemed to perplex Ed. He blew on a forkful of lasagna before putting it in his mouth. Then he drank from the glass of wine.
"I didn't tell you," Ed said. "I got myself a buddy."
Ed got up from the table and went back to the guest room, where he'd left his suitcase. After a while, he came back with a snapshot of a handsome young man standing at a painter's easel. "This is him," he said. "I'm kinda his business manager."
"Is that all?"
"We've been living together. I told him when I left that I was gonna be true to him." Ed tried some more of the lasagna. "I never done that before."
"How's it working out?"
"And he feels the same way about you?"
Ed didn't answer right away, then seemed to remember something that amused him. "He says he don't believe I can do it."
"What you told him. Was it a promise or more like a bet?"
Ed began to look unsure. "Little of both, I guess."
"I wanna tell you something," LeRoy said, putting down his fork. "And I'm not gonna beat around the bush. The two of us have been friends for a long timereal close friends. And I've been planning to be that way with you again tonight, just like we used to."
Now Ed looked confused. He was searching LeRoy's face for the answer to a question he couldn't bring himself to ask.
"You're wonderin' about Cliff?" LeRoy said. "Me and him aren't true to each other like that. Not like you and me have been."
Ed had a mouthful of food and was just looking at him from across the table.
"I'll tell you something else," LeRoy went on. "Cliff still has a couple women friends he sees now and then. To prove what, I don't know."He waited for all that to sink in for Ed.
"So you see things here ain't all like they look. When I say you've been a true friend to me, you know now what I mean."
"Aw, hell," Ed said. He put both elbows on the table and stared at his plate. "Why didn't I see this coming?"
LeRoy waited a while to say something more, and afterwards, he wasn't sure what it was. Mostly, he was aware of the hollow feeling that grew in him, a kind of angry sadness, then a wave of disappointment he resisted for a while until he was able to shake free of it.
After all, he had no reason to expect Ed to stay the same man he'd always been. A man has the right to be who and what he chooses. Friends are friends, but a man can pick one friend to be true to more than all the rest.
And he thought again of the photo Ed showed hima white man. In spite of all Ed had seemed, maybe that made a difference after all. He had finally meant more to LeRoy than LeRoy had to him.
Finally he told himself he was a grown man and had dealt with worse than this before. It was no different from a bad ride at the rodeo. Win some, lose some. But it was hard forgetting that this was losing a friend. The best friend he'd ever had.
As they talked, he kept the hurt to himself, as he'd done so many times before in his life. He'd said what he had to say, and it was just making Ed question a commitment he'd made. Which was not the right thing to do at all. You don't make a man go back on his word to someone else.
After a while, they changed the subject, and when they'd finished with the meal, they sat for a while longer watching the fire die in the fireplace, with a last nightcap or two, before turning in. Ed, a little unsteady on his feet, gave LeRoy a big hug and then went off to bed in the guest room.
LeRoy cleaned up the kitchen and put away what was left of the bourbon. The house was silent, the rain all but stopped outside. An ambulance siren wailed in the distance as he turned out the lights and went to his room.
He undressed and got into his bed, lying there in the darkness for a long time, tired but unable to sleep.
After a while, he heard the guest room door quietly open. A minute or two went by, and there was a soft tapping on his own door before it swung open and Ed stepped inside.
"Are you awake?" Ed whispered.
LeRoy lay still for a moment without answering, thinking maybe the best thing was to pretend he was asleep. Then he heard himself saying quietly, "Yes."
Ed came over to him, his pale skin just visible in the dark. He was bending now and pulling off his jockey shorts. Then he climbed into bed with LeRoy, the sheets rustling around him as he slipped under them.
"Everything you said is right," he said in a voice that almost trembled with emotion. "We've always been the best and truest friends. I got no business making a promise to anyone else."
Then he pressed himself against LeRoy with a sigh and held him tight in his arms.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper