Mike and Danny: Big Hopes
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.
Kenneth had crossed the border from Alberta into Montana at Sweet Grass and spent his first night back in the country at a rest stop north of Great Falls. At the border crossing they'd held him for a while, maybe because of his ponytail.
They quizzed him about where he'd been and whya vacation, he'd told them, traveling all by himselfand there'd been a search of his old GTO. They'd found nothing, of course, because there was nothing to find.
Curled up on the back seat now and waiting for sleep to take him, he thought back over the last week, in the mountains west of Calgary, not alone but with his friend Butch. They hadn't seen each other in over four years, since an August night in 1968 when the war had separated them.
Their last year at the university, they had debated what to do when graduation finally came and their draft deferments were up. As the months passed, Butch had gradually become more loudly opposed to the war. "If it was fighting the fuckin' Nazis, I'd be the first to go," he kept saying, "but it's just a damn civil war on the fuckin' other side of the world, and we got no business over there."
Kenneth didn't know what to think. Listening to Butch, he half agreed with him. The other half of him felt there was a duty to be done, like it or not. "We can go in together," he would say. "Maybe they'll let us stay together."
"That's bullshit," Butch would say. "We could get our asses blown off together, too, and what good would that do?"
And by graduation day, Butch had already decided to go to Canada. "You gonna go with me or not?" he wanted to know.
Kenneth had thought over the odds. By now there were demonstrations in the streets, anti-war marches, arrests, and the whole works. It was all over the TV at night. The whole country seemed to be in a state of turmoil.
He'd finally gone to talk it over with his brother Don, spending a weekend with him out at his ranch in the Sandhills. Don had just looked at him like he was nuts.
"Go to Canada?" he scoffed. "Be a draft dodger? You wanna live your whole life with that around your neck?"
"It wouldn't be that way. In Canada they call it asylum. They respect a man with a conscience." It was something Butch liked to point out.
"You wanna live the rest of your life in Canada, go ahead. I don't give a fuck one way or the other, but you won't ever be comin' back here again, and you surely know that. Hell, even Dad would turn you in."
What Don had to say stung like ice, but the way he said it was even colder. He might be able to live without seeing his family for a long time, maybe even neverafter all, these were desperate timesbut knowing they would be ashamed of him was too much to bear.
"I'm going to talk to a recruiter," Kenneth told Butch when they saw each other again. It was a day in early summer. He'd driven back to Lincoln, where Butch was still in the apartment they had shared.
He found Butch sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, having just got out of bed, drinking a beer. He pointed with the tip of the bottle to the refrigerator where there was more.
Kenneth shook his head.
"Breakfast of champions," Butch said and patted his stomach.
"Come talk to the recruiter with me," Kenneth pleaded.
"Why the fuck should I do that?"
Kenneth swallowed hard. "Because we love each other," he said and paused, waiting for some acknowledgement from Butch. "At least I thought we did."
There had been few words of love between them, but over the last two years they had shared the same bed many times, and the moments of tenderness between them had seemed very much like love, even if it wasn't.
Butch looked at him, like he was trying to decide somethingmaybe the easiest way to say they'd just been fuck buddies all this time. And if that was the case, Butch could surely find another one. Canada was probably full of them.
Butch sighed and reached across the table to touch the back of his hand. "Ya doofus," he said. "Of course, I love you. I don't want us to split up."
Kenneth had felt a rush of relief and affection, and there was an answering response in the crotch of his jeans as his dick stirred.
Kenneth opened his hand around Butch's, gripping it hard. "Then come with me," he said. "Just hear what they have to say."
"OK, but I ain't goin' to no goddam Vietnam. Not with you, not with anybody."
He had stood up then, pulling Kenneth from his chair, and he'd put his arms around him, his body still smelling of sleep, his unshaven face rough like sandpaper against Kenneth's cheek.
"Get naked with me for a while," he said softly. "I ain't seen you for weeks and I got this hard-on."
And he did. Kenneth could feel it growing stiff between them in his underwear.
The recruiter had been a clean-cut, middle-aged guy with a haircut so short it looked like he'd been scalped. In his tie-dyed tee shirt and frayed bell bottom jeans, with wavy, thick hair down to his shoulders, Butch looked like he'd just arrived from a love-in. The recruiter seemed like he was trying hard not to notice.
Kenneth had been reassured that day. Something about the recruiter had begun to wear away the arguments Butch had made against the war. Kenneth realized that he didn't have to approve of the war. He just had to go, do his job, and come back alivethe odds, after all, were in his favorand it would all be behind him. He could get on with his life.
Butch had not been so easily convinced. He wavered for a while, and Kenneth thought maybe he'd come around. And maybe he would have, but when Kenneth had a physical, there was this discovery he hadn't been counting on.
During the exam, the doctor had become concerned about something, listening for a long time with his stethoscope on his chest and across his back. He ordered some tests, and when he had the results Kenneth learned that he had a heart murmur. He was promptly classified 4-Funfit to serve.
"That's it," Butch said, when he found out. "I'm goin' to Canada. You comin' with me, or not?"
Still bewildered by the discovery that the heart in his chest was not the sound and dependable organ he'd always thought, Kenneth felt thrown into even more confusion by Butch's ultimatum.
"Why would they take me there?" he said trying to reason with Butch. "I'm not the one needs asylum."
"Who cares about that?" Butch had argued, angry now. And then things had turned ugly. "Maybe you're just chickenshit after all."
It was meant to jolt Kenneth into seeing it all his way, but instead Kenneth heard himself saying, "Who's chickenshit? You're the one worried about getting shot at."
"Why should I risk my ass just to keep you happy?" Butch shouted, his voice ricocheting off the walls of their apartment. "You can go fuck yourself."
They'd drunk their way through a fifth of Jack Daniels that night, and each had ended up in his own bed.
The next morning, Kenneth had thrown up mightily in the toilet, his head swimming. The door to Butch's room was shut, and Kenneth sat for a while in the kitchen trying to get the bitter taste of stomach acid out of his mouth with cold coffee from a pot on the stove. Then he'd written a few lines on the back of an envelope he'd found in a waste basket.
"When you come to your senses again," he wrote. "Let me know. I will always love you."
He looked at the words he'd written and lingered on the word "love," as if seeing it for the first time. Tears welled in his eyes until it blurred in his vision.
Butch disappeared sometime after that night. Gone without a word, he'd taken a few of his things from the apartment and driven off. The message on the envelope, Kenneth discovered, still lay on the kitchen table where he'd left it.
There had not been another word between them until four years later. By that time the war was winding down. Troop calls had fallen from 536,000 to 24,000, and though four students had died in Ohio, the draft lottery had taken some of the wind out of the anti-war demonstrations. Meanwhile, President Nixon was running for election to a second term, and the newspapers were briefly covering a break-in at a hotel complex in Washington, DC, called Watergate.
For Kenneth it all seemed far away. He had taken an engineering job at a radio station in Topeka, installing and maintaining the broadcast equipment and keeping them on the air. He mostly worked at night and lived alone in an unfurnished apartment that after many months still looked that way.
"A letter came here for you," his mom said one morning on the phone. It was one of their Saturday morning conversations, when he was about to go to bed for the day.
"No return address," she said. "It was postmarked in Detroit. You know anybody there?"
"Can't say that I do."
"You want me to open it?"
"No, mom, just forward it."
When it got to him, he puzzled over the envelope for a while, studying the handwriting. When he opened it, there was a single sheet of tablet paper inside, in the same hand. When he glanced to the bottom of the page, his heart jumped. It was signed in capital letters, "BUTCH."
After a few exchanges, through someone in Ontario passing letters between them, they agreed to meet at a truck stop outside Calgary. They'd go from there into the mountains. Kenneth was to bring a sleeping bag, hiking boots, and to dress warm.
It was November, the camping season over except for hardy souls willing to brave snow and cold, but Butch had a place in mind well sheltered from the weather. They'd be the only ones there.
At first Kenneth had not recognized his old friend. With a full beard, his long hair tucked under a cowboy hat, he had sat for a while at the counter of the truck stop diner before walking over to Kenneth's table and slipping into the booth, across from him.
"Mind if I join you?" he said.
Startled for a moment, Kenneth couldn't have said if it was the surprise of seeing a stranger suddenly become the man he'd known four years beforeor whether it was the look in his eyes, the warmth and the sorrow that met in them as a smile appeared in the depths of his thick beard.
With a shock he realized how much he had missed his old friend, and the anger he had felt growing in him as he crossed the 1200 miles that lay between Topeka and this truck stopthe bottled up anger from being deserted years ago without a wordall of it dissolved in a wish to just hold Butch in his arms once again. And to put a kiss on the lips that had parted as he grinned.
It was growing dark when they left the diner, driving westward into the mountains, Kenneth following Butch's 4x4, until they stopped at a filling station already closed for the night, and they left the car there inside a shed. Working in the dark without speaking, they put Kenneth's gear alongside Butch's in the back of his truck, and then they rode on together.
"That GTO of yours won't make it where we're going," Butch said. "It's the back of beyond, where nobody's gonna find us."
They came to a stop sign, ready to pull back onto the highway.
"Wait," Kenneth said, reaching to Butch's hand on the gearshift. "I've been wanting to do this."
And he leaned over to Butch and pressed his face into Butch's beard, searching with lips and tongue for his mouth to kiss him. Butch came alive with that and shoved hard with his body, pushing Kenneth back against the door, returning the kiss, deeper and harder.
"Buddy, I have missed you so much," he said sighing and gripping his arms around Kenneth.
And after a minute or more of this, kissing again and hugging some more, they drove on into the night, holding hands between them on the seat.
Butch worked for an outfitter and took people on pack horses out into the woods, setting up camp for them on a mountain lake with good fishing, far from civilization, and leaving them for weeks at a time. Or he'd take them canoeing down rivers or whitewater rafting or trekking along wilderness hiking trails.
He hadn't been much of an outdoorsman when Kenneth knew him, but he'd found a life that he loved. And it earned him enough money to live simply in an A-frame he'd built himself on a small acreage at the end of a road far from town.
So he saidif he was to be believed. Kenneth realized afterward that Butch had told him little that might lead anyone to himeven Kennethif they were looking for him. He was still a wanted man back home, and though he had broken no laws in Canada, it was hard to know anything for sure about the long reach of the U.S. government.
"I still have dreams at night about being kidnapped and taken back there," he'd said once.
"Does that happen?"
Butch had shrugged. "Anything's possible in this crazy world."
"What would happen to you if they did?"
"Let's not talk about that. That's not what I wanted to bring you here for."
It was still dark, and after Butch had parked the truck off the road, they hiked the last quarter of a mile through almost a foot of snow, Butch with a huge, heavy backpack, lighting the way ahead with a bright lantern, and Kenneth carrying the sleeping bags. They eventually arrived at a little shack of a cabin.
"Down that way there's a lake," Butch said, pointing with the lantern along a snow-covered path that led off between the trees. "And this," he said, pushing open the cabin door, "is gonna be home sweet home."
Inside, the lantern light showed a bare wooden floor and a stone fireplace. There were open rafters above and only one window. Butch put down the backpack and set some wood and kindling in the fireplace to start a fire.
As it crackled, the flames darting up to illuminate the soot-blackened stonework, Butch and Kenneth stood together, letting its warmth begin to envelop them.
"It's after midnight," Butch said studying his watch in the flickering light. "You feelin' ready for some shut-eye?" He put one arm around Kenneth's shoulders, the nylon of his parka whispering against the fabric of Kenneth's coat.
"Only if you're in it with me," Kenneth said and put his arm around Butch's waist. Butch pulled the two of them together and tilted his head to bring Kenneth's face under the brim of his hat for another kiss.
Then they spread out the sleeping bags on the floor and zipped them together, pulling off their boots and coats before jumping inside and slipping back into each other's arms.
The week had glided by in a kind of dream, the still mornings crisp and golden, the days bright under the cloudless blue sky, the snow brilliant white where the sunlight fell on it and a deep cool blue where it lay in the shade of the pine trees. With a canoe stored under the eave of the cabin roof, they went out sometimes onto the lake, and paddled along the shoreline.
Other days they went for long walks in the woods, climbing to a cliff edge once to look out over the expanse of wilderness, as Butch pointed out by name all the mountain peaks he knew and where they were part of the Continental Divide.
The shortening autumn days brought an early dusk, and they would return to the cabin, with a fish or two Butch had caught. And after they'd eaten, they would lie in front of the fire, not speaking for an hour at a time, just watching the flames and touching each other, caressing arms, faces, hands, and stocking feet, and holding each other, until passion would begin to stir between them, and they would quickly get out of their clothes to crawl naked together into the sleeping bags.
In four years, Kenneth had hardly been with another man. For a while, when Butch left, he'd still felt that he'd find the right girl and get married. But the one girl who had gotten close enough to him in the year after he'd left school had finally told him that there was something missing between them.
"You're sad all the time," she told him. "Like somebody died. I can't seem to do anything to make that go away."
And they'd finally drifted apart. Six months ago, he heard she'd married someone else. He wanted to send her a letter saying he hoped she'd be happy, but he decided not to. She'd probably rather not hear from him anyway.
By then, there'd been a couple of times with a guy who lived in his building when he first moved to Topeka. He'd show up at Kenneth's apartment when he got home from work in the mornings, and he'd want to hang out watching TV and drinking cokeshe'd spent a year as a mechanic in Vietnam and got addicted to Coca-Cola, so he claimed, from drinking it night and day because you couldn't trust the water.
It was summer, the mornings already hot and humid, and he'd be there at the door with no shirt on and a pair of jeans so old that the knees were worn through. He'd sprawl out in Kenneth's easy chair, watching the game shows, his legs spread wide apart and a rip in the crotch of his jeans showing he hadn't put on underwear.
Kenneth had fallen asleep once there on his couch in the middle of "The Price is Right" and he'd awakened to the feel of his cock being sucked. And it had been so long since anyone's hand but his own had been on his dick, he'd felt next to no urge to push the guy away.
He'd objected at first, muttering, "What the fuck?"
But the guy kept on sucking, and by then Kenneth was well on the way to not caring, and he lay back in the cushions, eyes closed tight and tighter, until he came in a giant flood of pent-up, raging cum.
He'd let it happen a couple more times, but when his lease ran out, he'd found another place across town, closer to work, and the morning blowjobs had ended. And he was glad. He couldn't miss the company of a guy with a Coca-Cola and game-show habit. It was also more than a little demoralizing to let a guy suck your cock if you couldn't even remember his namewhich he realized months later was the case.
With Butch now, all the sadness in him had vanished. The nightly lovemaking lifted him into a state of mind he hadn't known for yearsif he'd ever known it at all. Drained by each orgasm, he found the desire for sex with Butch to simply grow stronger.
And there was no mistaking that whenever he looked at Butch now, his smile, his sparkling eyes, the easy gait of his body as he led the way along a mountain trail, the strength of his arms as he lifted the canoe onto their shoulders, the shape of his butt in his jeansany of it, all of it, triggered in Kenneth the deepest, fondest love he'd ever felt for anyone.
On the last night, awake together before the fire, naked bodies pressed together inside the sleeping bags, Kenneth had raised the subject that had been on his mind all week. "Come home," he said. "As soon as they'll let you, please come home."
Butch had said nothing at first and only shook his head. "They won't let me back."
"But they're talking about amnesty when the war is over."
"There ain't gonna be no amnesty. Don't kid yourself."
"OK, just for the sake of argument, let's say you're wrong. Would you come back?" It was a gambit they'd often used in their many late-night debates when they were students togethertesting each other's ideas "for the sake of argument." The years between those nights and these had melted away for Kenneth, and he wanted to know that Butch felt the same way.
Butch didn't answer for a moment, as he would have in the pastalways ready with a snappy comeback. He had one arm around Kenneth and just hugged him tighter. "This is home to me now. Canada is where I live."
"But you're not Canadian."
"I am now. I made a choice to come here, and they let me stay. If I was free to go back, it would mean only one thingthat I'd run away. That I was just chickenshit after all, like you said that time."
Kenneth felt his heart sink at the memory of that last night. "You can't believe how sorry I am I ever said that."
Butch lifted his hand from Kenneth's chest and touched his lips. "Don't be sorry for saying what you really felt. You were being honest with me, and I never forgot that."
Then he'd explained that nothing had changed. To him the war was still a mistake, and after all the lives it had cost, it was even more of one. He couldn't accept amnesty for a wrong he had not committed in the first place.
"But what if you were wrong?" Kenneth said.
"We still arguing for the sake of argument?"
In the way he asked the question, Kenneth suddenly knew that the four years had not disappeared for Butch. There would be no returning to who they'd once beenas men and as friends.
"If I was wrong, I don't deserve amnesty," he said and then said no more. He drew his face close to Kenneth's and kissed him on the mouth. "We gotta leave tomorrow first thing. Let's get some sleep."
The way up the hill to the truck the next morning had been a kind of agony for Kenneth, like he was tearing a bandage too soon from a healing wound. He looked back at the cabin before it disappeared behind them in the trees, a fresh snow having fallen during the night, the flakes still drifting down through the trees. Silence everywhere except for the sound of their boots in the snow, taking them away like two souls banished from paradise.
In his heart, during the long drive down the mountain to his car, he'd felt a confusion of feelings that made his stomach hurt. Civilization returned in the form of traffic signs along the highway, houses with yards, and storefronts in the little towns they passed through.
Suddenly Butch was pulling off the road and driving onto the gravel lot around the filling station where they had left the GTO. The asphalt around the pumps glistened black with wet, melting snow. A man in blue coveralls was filling a car with gas and looked up, lifting one arm to wave at them as they drove by. Butch nodded, lifting two fingers from the steering wheel.
Once they'd shifted Kenneth's gear back into the trunk of his car, their goodbye had been short and simplea few words and a quick hug. Looking into Butch's eyes, now clouded with emotions, the smile he'd worn all week gone, Kenneth felt like his heart could break.
"Is this what you brought me here for?" he said, almost bitter.
"This is hurtin' me, too," Butch said, his hand still on Kenneth's shoulder. "But I'll never forget this week. And I've never forgotten you."
"I'm sorry I came."
"All I can say is, try to do what I do. Remember the good times, and let the rest go."
"How the hell can I do that?"
"You find a way," Butch said. "I know." He looked down at the ground and shook his head. "I have to go."
"Jesus, Butch, don't leave me again." The tears welled in Kenneth's eyes.
Butch said nothing more, just gave Kenneth one last fierce hug and then turned away. In a moment the truck was driving back across the lot, stopping for a moment and then pulling onto the main road, the wheels spinning in the gravel.
Kenneth watched him go, headed back up the mountain. And he got into his car and sat there for as long as it took to stop crying.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper