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.
And so Thanksgiving came. Don drove from the ranch the night before to be with Carol and their sons, pack them into her car and take them around on Thanksgiving Day to spend time with his parents and his in-laws.
She'd met him at the door of their four-bedroom in a new development on the west side of town. Her father had paid for it with casha purchase he'd made, he liked to say, instead of getting the airplane he'd always wanted. His daughter and his son-in-law were not supposed to forget the sacrifice he'd made so his grandsons could live in comfort.
Carol, a business woman just as dedicated to making a buck as her father, had stopped for gas at a Kum & Go convenience store in Des Moines and, recognizing a gold mine when she saw one, wanted one of her own. Not just one, but a whole chain. She already had four around town with plans for twelve more elsewhere in the state.
"How's business?" Don asked his first night at home, after he'd helped her put the boys to bed.
"Doing better than yours."
"I'm not doin' so bad."
"As long as dad thinks so, it doesn't really matter how bad."
"Are we gonna have another one of these Thanksgivings," Don said, looking for a beer in the refrigerator, "or are we going to stick to what we got to be truly thankful for?"
"Do you actually own any of that ranch?"
"I'll be comin' into a share, so don't be gettin' on your high horse about that."
"I'll believe that when I see it."
"How come we don't have any beer?"
"You guzzled the last of it last time you were here. Ever think of buying some yourself?"
And it went downhill for a while like that, as it usually did when they'd been apart for several weeks.
This time Carol didn't bring up the other women she knew he spent his time with when he wasn't home. There seemed to be a kind of truce on that subject. Maybe she half realized he wasn't getting any and hadn't had a fuck for months.
"You don't have to sleep on the couch," she finally said. "Long as you stay on your side of the bed." The boys were getting old enough, she said, that finding their dad asleep in the living room in the mornings was making them ask questions.
"Not that they give a shit about me," Don said.
"If you were ever around to spend time with them."
"Don't start on that. I can't be here and run a ranch at the same time."
"Those boys have always worshiped you, and it's a damn shame because you never wanted to be their father."
"So why aren't they out at the ranch more often to see me?"
"Don, you should listen to yourself. You're pathetic."
This is what marriage had come down to for him, and he hated it. She was righthe didn't want to be her husband or anybody's dad.
He couldn't even remember anymore how he and Carol had got mixed up together in the first place. Was it no more than him not being able to keep his dick in his pants? A rubber on that fateful night would have been the difference between a life of his own and this one. It was goddam unfair.
"I put up with a lot, Don. Any woman I know would have walked out on you a long time ago. Why you're still standing here in my kitchen is a mystery to me."
Don didn't know either. He just didn't seem to have any other choices.
"I could have married a doctor or a lawyer, and look at you. A cowboy."
"Same difference. Boots, levi's, and cowshit."
He felt suddenly aware of himself, dressed as he was. He'd taken a long, hot shower before leaving, then found a pair of jeans that still looked new and a fresh shirt. He'd taken the time to put a coat of polish on his Justins and switched the buckle on his belt for a shiny one he'd never worn before with a longhorn steer on it.
"Carol," he finally said. "I'm just trying to make a go of it. This is the best I know how."
She sighed and reached for a pack of cigarettes on the counter beside her.
"I know," she said. "And a lot of men have done worse." She lit the cigarette with a little lighter. "I just wanted something better."
They looked at each other through the drifting smoke.
"I only do this for the boys," she said. "I'm not trying my luck out there again and coming home with someone even more of a jerk than you are."
Don laughed. "That's supposed to make me feel good?"
"I don't care what you feel," she said and took another drag of the cigarette. "And I know that's the way you feel about me. So we're even."
He wanted to storm out of the house to go get drunk at the Silver Bullet. He wanted a good fuck. He wanted to get in his truck and drive fast as he could make it go back to the ranch. But he just stood there. He would take this like a man.
Randy had spent his first night in the ranch house with Chad. They'd cleaned up the kitchen after Slim and George went back to the bunkhouse, and then they'd gone into the living room with its beat-up leather couch, and Randy had got a fire started in the fireplace.
They'd sat together talking, telling each other their life stories until it got very late. Since Don had insisted they all take the day off tomorrow, there was no reason not to keep putting logs on the fire, and watching the flames, which finally lulled them both into reveries.
Randy found that he was liking this young cowboy. He had an easy sense of humor and knew some cowboy poems, like "Little Joe the Wrangler," that he recited from beginning to end. He was a big lover of the Old West and kept saying how much he would like to have lived then, riding on the cattle trails.
Randy knew something about the old days himself, and could tell Chad stories that his seventy-year-old uncle had told him, working as a buckaroo in the Great Basin during the 1920s and the Great Depression. Talking about camp food, they'd got to wondering if Slim knew how to make sourdough biscuits and decided they'd ask him in the morning, when he came to the house to put the turkey in the oven and start all the fixin's.
"How's that ankle of yours anyway?" Randy wanted to know. Chad had kept it up on a chair they had brought in from the kitchen.
"Gettin' better I reckon."
And Randy had wondered if he could have a look at it.
So they unwrapped it and Randy studied the swelling and bruising, massaging Chad's foot and the muscles that weren't too sore.
Chad sank back into the couch like he'd been shot with a stun gun.
"Feel pretty good?" Randy said. "How about we do the other one, too." He pulled off the boot Chad was wearing on his other foot and massaged it as well.
"Who taught you that?" Chad said.
He'd learned it from Wallace, but there was no use bringing that up. He'd been able to tell about his life without mentioning him so far.
"Nowhere," he said. "It just takes figurin' out."
He looked up from Chad's foot as the young cowboy stirred, the leather upholstery creaking under him.
"This givin' you a boner?" Randy said, laughing, for he could see him tug at the front of his jeans. He could give Wallace a hard-on doing the same thing.
Chad laughed, embarrassed. "Just a little."
"Well, you can take 'em off if them britches are gettin' too tight for ya."
Chad straightened up now and pulled back his foot. "No, I reckon that won't be necessary."
Randy laughed some more, like he didn't mean anything by what he'd just said and let himself have a good yawn. The fire had been dying, and it was warming his back as he crouched on the floor in front of Chad. He was ready to turn in and said so.
"Me, too," Chad said.
Chad hopped up on his good foot, reached for his crutches and spun around. Once he was faced the other way, he stopped to adjust the front of his jeans once more.
"Need some help with anything?" Randy asked.
"Nope. No help needed."
Randy watched him hobbling awayk-thump, k-thumptoward his bedroom. He wondered what it would be like to walk up behind him like this and jerk down his wranglers. He had a cute butt.
When Don stopped by his parents' house the next morning, he found the house bustling. His brother Kenneth was there, driving back from Topeka, and Ellis' friend Deacon. And then he discovered that his uncle Ellis was there, too, come all the way from Montana.
"Uncle Ellis," he'd called out to him as soon as he saw him, and he gave the man a hug, pounding him on the back as they held each other.
Ellis had never been there for Thanksgiving before. He seemed to return only for family emergenciesthe time Don's grandfather was in the hospital, and then some years later when he had died. Don and Ellis had ridden to the cemetery in the same car, and he'd felt again his admiration for this man, who had gone west to make a life for himself.
It pleased him to see Ellis and Deacon together again. He envied their friendship, which had lasted over the years, and the easy way they had with each other. It made him think of Mike and how the two of them might have had a life together, as they'd once planned. A man needed another man by his side sometimes. It got lonely always being on your own, and a wife sure had a way of making matters worse.
His father, of course, couldn't get off the subject of Kenneth's hair, which by his account made him look like a goddam hippy. "Pony tails belong on horsesand girls," he was saying when Don found them in the kitchen.
"Didn't I tell you?" Don said to Kenneth.
"Shut up," Kenneth said, giving Don a grim look, like it was not going to be his happiest Thanksgiving, and he'd resigned himself to it.
Ellis had finally given in, aware that he was actually debating whether to call the airlines and get a ticket for Grand Island. In the past, he would not have thought twice about leaving Billings for a holiday with his family. He simply wouldn't have gone.
Even the prospect of spending it alone didn't bother him. He'd done it before. The day after Thanksgiving would come soon enough, and there would be work to be done. Animals didn't take holidays, and a vet was always in demand.
So why had he decided to come? Was he just getting old and beginning to miss the people he'd left behind all those years before? Or was it that he was now the oldest male in the family, his father dead and buried? If it was a bad idea, he'd find out soon enough and never come back again.
That both he and Deacon were here was the strangest part of it. His sister certainly did no more than tolerate Deacon, as a constant reminder that her only brother seemed to believe he was queer. And how could any man be so sure of that? Ellis had never given marriage a real chance. So went her argument.
And her husband was not even tolerant. Ellis couldn't imagine what deal the two of them had struck for him to keep his mouth shut and not say something openly hateful to his face. At best, the man steered clear of both Ellis and Deacon, focusing instead on his sons, berating Kenneth for the length of his hair and nearly driving him out of the house.
Ellis was so concerned about Kenneth that he looked for a chance to get him alone, and when Kenneth had been sent to the supermarket with a shopping list, Ellis had offered to go with him.
"I'll ask you this straight out," he said to Kenneth, when he got into the GTO with him, "is your dad giving you a hard time because of me?"
Kenneth was at a stop sign, his turn signal ticking as he waited for a break in the traffic. "He's always been like this."
"No, I think it's your dad doesn't like what I am, and having Deacon here is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I need to get him and me back to Montana." There was a flight out that night. Ellis would try to change their tickets.
"No need for that. I'm gonna be gone anyway. My boss only gave me today off. I gotta be back in Topeka tomorrow."
"Kenneth, this is not good. I'm worried about you."
"You're the only one who is. You have no idea what that means to me - and how I look up to you."
Ellis felt an even greater weight of responsibility for Kenneth, and he imagined how enraged his brother-in-law would be if he could hear them talking. He'd think Ellis had kidnapped his son and corrupted his morals.
"I have something I have to confess," Kenneth said, his hands trembling on the wheel as he drove. "You can't know how much it hurts me to have to tell you this. Deacon and I have been fucking."
What Ellis felt when he first heard this was anger at Deacon, then sorrow for Kenneth. He'd trusted Deacon to be a guardian of a young man with more than his share of troubles. He wasn't ready for someone like Deacon, with his careless attitude about sex and his refusal to take anything seriously.
"It was my fault," Kenneth said. "I started it."
Ellis doubted that. And he didn't want Kenneth taking the blame for what surely couldn't have been his own wrongdoing.
"It's you and Deacon who love each other and I screwed that all up."
"Nobody screwed anything up, Kenneth." How could he tell Kenneth that Deacon had only used himand no doubt thoughtlessly? "Deacon doesn't think about feelings the way you do. If he isn't with the one he loves, he loves the one he's with."
"I suppose I knew that," Kenneth said. "I guess I learned I can be a little that way myself."
They'd got to the supermarket, and Kenneth took a slip of paper from his shirt pocket, reading over the list of things he was supposed to buy.
"We make mistakes. Maybe we learn," Ellis said, reaching to put his hand on Kenneth's shoulder. "No mistakes, nothing to learn."
"Oh, I'm learning, all right. Do you want to know how I felt last night when we walked into the house and found you there?"
Ellis had arrived only an hour before them. He'd rented a car at the airport and driven to his sister's.
"I felt ashamed of what I'd done. And I must have thought Deacon would feel the same way. But he didn't. He walked right up to you and hugged you like nothing had happened at all." Kenneth swallowed hard. "And he hasn't said a word to me since. Like I'm dead meat."
Ellis remembered how he and Deacon had gone to a motelthere was no way the two of them would get the same bedroom at his sister's houseand they spent the rest of the night together like they were back home in Billings. He had been tired from the trip, but Deacon had wanted sex and Ellis had obliged him.
Now he knew what Deacon had not told himthat he wasn't as hard up for sex as he'd pretended. Just his usual horny self.
"I apologize for him," Ellis said. "And I apologize for trusting him."
"No." Kenneth reached up and took Ellis' hand, holding it tight in both of his own. "Like you say, no mistake, nothing to learn. You both did me a favor."
Ellis wasn't reassured by this. Kenneth was taking this like it was some medicine he needed to toughen himself up. Ellis began to worry now that the tender heart of this boy might get lost to him forever. And he would do anything not to let that happen.
Out at Mike and Danny's farm, there was their little gathering of four, where Mike carved the turkey during half-time of a football game, and then they filled their plates and went back to the TV to eat and wait for the game to start up again.
"What I want to know," Rich said, "is why Dallas doesn't have some real cowboys for cheerleaders. No wonder they're losing."
It made Mike glad to see Rich so pleased with himself as he sat with Ty on the couch, their plates on their knees, napkins tucked into their shirt collars. He reached to where Danny sat beside him and took his hand.
"Feelin' thankful?" Danny said.
"Yeah, that I got you."
"You sure got me, all right."
Danny took a forkful of mashed potatoes. "I like this gravy, not a lump in it. Kinda like yours," he added with a wink. He'd awakened Mike that morning with a Thanksgiving blowjob.
Out at the ranch, Slim had come to the house early to fire up the oven, stuff the bird, and put it in to roast. Then he went to work on everything else. Don had let him drive into town first thing in the week to get what he needed for the meal. There would be candied yams, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes, pecan pie, the works.
As the kitchen filled with the smell of roasting turkey, the other men wandered in, and he gave them things to do, chopping, stirring, basting.
Since the only alcohol in the house was Don's bottle of Kentucky bourbonand therefore off-limitsand the rule, as on almost any ranch, was no drinking on the premises, there had to be a special OK from the boss himself for a bit of good cheer. And Don had acquired for Slim, on a trip to Omaha, two bottles of imported portone for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas.
"Open this," Slim said to George as he took one of the bottles from a cupboard and put it on the table.
"Port?" George said, eyeing the label. "Twenty years old, it says. That's older'n Chad."
"C'mon, you guys," Chad said, peeling potatoes.
"Well, ain't it?" George said.
"Yeah, but c'mon anyway."
They all laughed.
When the turkey was carved and served, it was a big hit, along with everything else. There were second helpings and thirds, until the men pushed themselves away from the table and groaned.
There was still pie for dessert, and they voted to wait until naps had been taken before proceeding with the rest of the feast. Another round of the port was poured, until the bottle was almost empty, and they slowly sipped itas Slim had insisted, "It ain't Boone's Farm!"
Then Slim and George had put on their hats and winter coats and walked back to the bunkhouse, leaving Randy and Chad to put away the food they hadn't eaten and to clean up the kitchen once again.
The evening had still been early when Ellis and Deacon left his sister's, but Ellis' brother-in-law had never relaxed with them in his house, and as the family settled in to watch the specials on TV, the two men had excused themselves. His sister had followed them out to the car and begged Ellis not to be put off by her husband's attitude.
"It'll take him some getting used to. He just needs some time to get to know you." And she told him that she loved him and wanted him part of the family again.
"You're giving him too much credit," Ellis said. "The guy's never gonna come around."
"You're going to be back tomorrow again, right?" she said.
"To say goodbye. We've got a flight out at noon."
"No, you just got here."
Ellis sighed. "It's no good, Kathy. I keep telling you."
She turned away then, angry, and slammed her open hand on the hood of the car as she walked back toward the house.
"She's right," Deacon said. "We should come back."
"I don't think you were listening. She didn't mention you."
"You treat your family like crap, you know that?"
"This isn't the family I ever wanted."
He backed the car down the drive and turned in the street to head to the motel.
"Anyway," Ellis said. "I got a bone to pick with you."
"You have some explaining to do." And he told Deacon everything Kenneth had told him. "He was in misery, he felt so bad."
"All right. It happened. I'm not saying it didn't."
"Then help me understand this. You promised to just look after him, not fuck him. You even understood why. At least I thought you did."
"You're his uncle. You don't know what's good for him."
"No, you're wrong. I know what's good for him because I'm his uncle."
"That's bullshit. Anyway, he came to me. What was I supposed to do?"
"Keep your word, for one thing."
"You weren't there. He needed more than an uncle who wasn't around."
"So I'm just going to keep getting excuses like this from you?"
"I'm not making excuses."
"OK." Ellis threw up his hands. "So you're not. Seems to me you're telling all this to the wrong person anyway. Kenneth needs to hear it."
"That you don't really care about himand you never did."
"That's bullshit, too. I like Kenneth."
"And what's to keep him from thinking you didn't just fuck him for the hell of it?"
They had got to the motel, and Deacon was just sitting in his seat not moving. "You know I'd never do that," he finally said.
Ellis got out of the car and slammed the door shut.
The pecan pie and the whipped cream had topped off the Thanksgiving Day with several sighs and groans of pleasure from the four cowboys around the table, and after that they'd polished off the last of the port.
"Aren't you supposed to smoke a cigar with port?" someone had said. "All I got is chew."
"Don't think the port would go down too well with that, do you?"
When it was good and dark outside, a cold November wind blowing around the house, Slim and George had said good night and headed out the door once more to the bunkhouse. Then Randy had got a fire going in the fireplace again, and he and Chad had wound up on the couch, spread out, stuffed and happy.
"Suppose I could interest you in giving me one of them foot rubs again?" Chad said.
"Heck, yeah," Randy said and got up to squat in front of him, taking each foot and rubbing the sole and instep, and pulling on each of the toes. Chad lay back, eyes closed, a contented smile on his face, and Randy kept working, reaching under the cuffs of his jeans to knead his calf muscles, then stroking his shins as far as he could go.
Sitting closer to the couch, he moved higher up Chad's legs, massaging the muscles through the denim until he'd got to his knees.
"You want me to stop?" he said.
"Little more," Chad said, without opening his eyes.
So Randy went higher, kneading his thighs, and as Chad spread his legs a little he went higher, until he was close to the top and his fingers were brushing against the seam in his crotch. There was no need to ask if it was giving him a boner this time because the bulge that would have been a pretty good size erection was filling out the front of his jeans.
"You need some help with this?" Randy said.
"Huh?" Chad's eyes came open like he'd been in a dream.
"This." Randy opened his hand over Chad's hard-on.
Chad suddenly doubled up and rolled over on the couch, both hands pressed into his crotch, and breathing hard. It took him almost a full minute to recover.
"You got kind of a hair trigger there, cowboy," Randy said and laughed gently, patting Chad on the back as he struggled with his lame foot to sit upright again.
"You know what's nice when you blow your load like that?" Randy said. "Let somebody hold you in his arms for a while. Always works for me."
And he put his arms around Chad as they sat together in the firelight.
It was past midnight when Kenneth got back to Topeka. He'd driven almost nonstop all the way, getting out just once at a truck stop to refill a thermos of coffee. He thought ahead to the job at the radio station, where he was already taking on new duties, but he was too strung out to really know how he felt about anything. The last two weeks had been a roller coaster ride. He couldn't remember ever feeling so good and so bad, and all at the same time.
On the whole trip back, he'd thought often of his uncle Ellis, and one feeling he was sure ofthat he loved this man who cared about him so deeply. He hoped some day to spend more time with him, maybe even to find a job in Montana, so he could move there to be near him.
Deacon, too. For Deacon had opened a world to him he didn't know was therea world he should have known by now if he had not retreated from life and gone into hiding when the one love of his life, Butch, had deserted him.
He had no hard feelings about Deacon. They had disappeared as he was leaving home and found him running up the street, trying to catch Kenneth before he got away. He'd walked, he said, all the way from the motel to say a last few things.
"I never meant to fuck with you," he'd said. "I like you, Kenneth. I always have." And he'd told him that he'd never known anyone like him. "I thought I was doing the right thing. I started out wanting to be for you what Ellis is to me." What he found out, he explained, was that it was a whole lot harder than it looked. "I'm never doin' that with anybody again."
Kenneth drove him back to the motel and they'd talked for another hour, parked in the shadows farthest from the parking lot lights. Kenneth had told him that he had no regrets about the two of them.
"I admit, I got to love it when you fucked me. You made me feel things I'd never felt before with another guy."
And when they'd run out of words, they'd kissed again for the last time and said goodbye. Deacon had got out of the car and walked toward the motel, and Kenneth watched him walk away. He didn't start up the car until he'd disappeared inside the front door.
At his apartment building in Topeka, he stopped in the foyer to pick up the mail that had collected there while he was gone. He flipped through it quickly and then went up the stairs.
Inside his rooms, tossing the mail onto a table, he saw that there was a letter. It had come airmail, and he saw that the stamps on it were Canadian.
He reached for it and then paused, not sure whether to open it. Though it was light in his fingers, no more than a single folded sheet inside, he could imagine any number of possible messages. That it was from Butch he had no doubt.
He considered throwing it away. Most of the things Butch might have to say to him he didn't want to hear. He didn't want to hear an apology, a justification, or a confession. He didn't want to hear a request to continue being friends. He didn't want a plea for a second chance.
Then a part of him wanted to hear all of these things. Butch was embedded in him like shrapnel. The love he'd felt for him would never go away. If whatever was in his letter was going to cause him more sorrow, he could take it. He wasn't the same man anymore that had sat in his car outside Calgary weeping.
He tore open the envelope.
"Dear Kenneth," the letter began, "I love you more than I've ever loved anyone. . ."
The end of "Big Hopes." More stories coming.
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper