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.
When Kenneth got back to Topeka that afternoon, he'd dropped Deacon off at his apartment and driven straight to work. It was several hours early for his usual night shift, but he knew there'd be work for him to do, and his boss was surely close to running out of patience waiting for him to get back from vacation.
There was the matter of getting time off for Thanksgiving, too. After covering for Kenneth these past two weeks, his boss would want the holiday for himself, and as the station's only engineers, one of them needed to be around in case there was a problem.
"So you're home from the mountains," he said. He was in a back room with all the broadcast equipment, logging meter readings on a clipboard. "I thought a bear or a moose got you," he laughed. "Or maybe a two-legged deer."
"Not a chance."
His boss looked at his watch. "You're early."
"I owe you."
"Forget it." His boss went on peering at the lighted dials and jotting down numbers. From a speaker near the ceiling they could hear the on-air gabble of the afternoon announcer, reading from ad copy about a car dealership in town.
"I suppose you'll be wanting Thanksgiving off, too," his boss said.
Kenneth hadn't figured out yet how to bring this up, and suddenly here they were talking about it.
"Well, yeah. I just figured you'd be wanting the day yourself."
"You take it, Kenneth. Come the first of the month, you're going to be busy running this whole show yourself. I gave notice while you were away. I got a job in Jacksonville."
"But I like you right here," Kenneth said. "You're the best boss I ever had."
"I'll miss you, too, kid." He hung the clipboard on the wall and slipped the click-pen into his shirt pocket. "I wish I could take you with me."
They stood together for a moment just looking at each other, and then Kenneth put out his hand. "Well, I guess I owe you congratulations."
"Thanks. After Thanksgiving, I'll be turning the place over to you. I told the manager to make you senior engineer. You know most of it already anyway."
What Kenneth knew for sure was that he couldn't seem to depend on anybody to stay put in his life. They were constantly moving on and leaving him to fend for himself.
Randy had got a ride out of town with a guy in a Monte Carlo with Texas plates. He was a retired realtor, he said, seeing what there was of the world while he still could. He was headed north now, as far as he needed to go, to where he could see the Northern Lights.
He'd lived his whole life in Houston, he said, and never seen anything of the world but pictures in the National Geographic. He was going to see as much as he could nowbefore his time ran out.
"Don't let your life get away from you before you have a chance to live it," he said. He was full of advice, and kept talking all the way, while Randy let his thoughts drift, his head foggy with hangover.
Luther was still asleep in his bed as Randy had got up to go that morning, finding his clothes on the floor, and quietly dressing. He'd put on his coat and hat, but carried his boots out the door and didn't put them on until he'd got downstairs.
The sex with Luther was not all that precise as a memory. The details of it kept slipping away, like a movie he'd slept through. He did remember clearly that Luther was the one who wanted to be fucked, and Randy had obliged him, emptying what seemed to be weeks and months of regret and now-useless hope into him.
Fucking drunk had come easier when he was younger, but when he was done and Luther wanted morewaking him by stroking his cockhe'd found himself quickly hard again.
If he could trust his memory, the sex was not totally cheerless. At moments he had felt almost grateful for Luther's desire for him, his softly moaning kisses and the way he buried his face between Randy's legs, caressing him there with his warm tongue and breath, his thick sideburns brushing against the inside of his thighs.
Then sometime before the night was over, Luther had wakened him again wanting yet more. This time, he'd rolled Randy onto his back and got astride him, knees tucked in around his ribs and Randy's erection pressed up inside him, Luther's balls sticky with sweat and cum falling over and over onto Randy's belly as he rode his stiff cock to another orgasm.
After he came this time, his body arching up, arms flung over his head and hanging onto the bed frame, Randy felt utterly drained and exhausted, except that he needed to take a piss bad and went down the hall to the communal bathroom, not caring that he was naked, his dick swinging leaden and lifeless between his legs.
While he was there, the fluorescent light bright over the mirror that reflected his tired face back to him, he turned on the tap in the sink and tried to wash himself off, splashing the cold water over his chest and his stomach, scrubbing his penis and ballsnow sore and achingwith a chip of soap he found and putting his face under the faucet, holding it there for what must have been minutes, hoping his head would clear so he could recover from the wallow of drunken sex with a stranger he'd just willingly submitted himself to.
Leaving without a word at the first light of dawn, he'd felt no better than he'd felt the afternoon before, when Wallace ended the life he thought they'd have together. But he felt no worse either. And once he'd got rid of the headache and the throbbing in his temples, he had no reason to believe he wouldn't get through thiseven if he had no idea how. He had lived to see another day, and what more could a man really ask for?
"This is good," he said to the realtor, when they got to the interchange for the interstate. "You can let me out anywhere along here."
"Sure you don't want to come along with me and see the Northern Lights?"
"I've seen 'em," Randy said. "Thanks for the ride." And he got out of the car, heading for a big truck stop without looking back.
"If you come for Thanksgiving," Rich had said on the phone, "I'll hug you and kiss you and make love to you till you won't want to go back home again."
"I'm willing to risk that," Ty had said. And the sound of Rich's voice had touched him more deeply than it ever had before.
"I'm going to see my friends in Nebraska," he'd said to his mom. She would take it the hardest. All of his brothers would be there for Thanksgiving, and it would be the first one they hadn't all spent together. But she had hugged him, as she had done many times since he'd moved back home. "You do what you have to do," she'd told him.
So he didn't wait for the holiday. He packed a suitcase, gassed up the Rambler and first thing the next morning was heading west, taking a last look at Oskaloosa as he left town. He wasn't sure when he'd be back.
After crossing the bridge over the Missouri River and driving through Omaha, he pulled off the interstate to stretch his legs and have something to eat. The donut he'd taken from the box on the kitchen counter at home had long since left him hungry again. And the open road always gave him an appetite for things his mom didn't cooklike biscuits and gravy or chicken-fried steak, the kind of food you found in truck stops.
Full and satisfied now, he was coming out of the restaurant, enjoying the unfamiliarity of it allthe huge parking lot and the flow of traffic he could see passing on the highway. Above, there was an expanse of bright sky that already had the feeling of endless western distance in every direction and emptiness and solitude waiting to be found if you only went a ways off the beaten track.
Seeing a cowboy thumbing a ride as he drove to get back on the interstate seemed like a stroke of good luck. He stopped and rolled down his window to ask where he was going.
"Nevada," the cowboy said.
The cowboy tossed his bag in the back and then got in beside Ty.
"Name's Randy," he said, reaching across to shake hands. "Rhymes with candy."
"Tyrone. Doesn't rhyme with anything." The guy's hand was cold from however long he'd spent standing by the road. "You're a long way from home."
"You got that right," Randy said. "And I can't wait to get back."
He explained that he'd come east with some plans and they'd all fallen through, but he didn't go into the details. "I'm headin' home and hopin' there's something waitin' back there that'll get me a whole new set of plans."
"Something like that happened to me," Ty said, and when Randy seemed interested, he told him how the year had started out with his first job working at a church parish, and here he was, no longer a seminarian, writing off to colleges with programs in clinical psychology.
"You decide being a preacher wasn't your line of work?"
"They kind of decided that for me," Ty said, avoiding the whole story about his troubles with the pastor and the church board after a town cop had found him with another man in the park after dark.
"I know all about that myself," Randy said. "A bunch of other people can gang up on you and first thing you know, you can kiss what you thought was yours goodbye."
"I guess I got lucky," Ty said, thinking of Mike, Danny, and Rich. "If you can find them, there's others just as ready to be your friends and help you out."
"I dunno," Randy said, sounding forlorn. "I'd be happy for just one good friend to call my own. That's all the help I need right now."
Ty wondered how someone with his easy manner, his way of talking, and his smile could seem so alone in the world. He began wondering if he himself was the one sent to help this cowboy. The Lord moved in mysterious ways, he knew, for his life had proved that.
So he said, "I was a long way from home when I thought everything had come to an end for me, too. And I was ready to go right back thereyou know, tail between my legs. And I'd probably be right there now if I had."
"I let myself get stopped by someone else."
He was thinking of Mike when he said this, and Jesus, too, for he knew for certain that the Jesus he had once loved still loved him and looked after himmaybe even more if that was possible. But he wasn't going to say anything to Randy that sounded like a preacher talking. There was no quicker way to get most people to turn a deaf ear.
"Well," Randy said. "There's a lot of miles between here and Nevada. Who knows what might pop up before I get there?"
"Maybe it popped up already." Ty remembered how he'd found and made a friend of Mike long before that night in the park.
"Guess you can't never tell, can you," Randy said and sighed, closing his eyes.
When he didn't say anything else for a while, Ty glanced over and saw that Randy had fallen asleep, his hat tipped down low on his forehead, his arms folded across his chest. There was something so good-natured in his manner, even as he sat there settled into his seat asleep, Ty felt himself yearning for Randy's troubles to quickly pass.
That was happening to him all the time now, seeing into what seemed like the souls of other men and wishing them well.
Randy had got a ride from Omaha to Grand Island and now stood there in the parking lot of another huge truck stop looking for a ride that would take him further west. After he'd waited an hour, the sky becoming overcast and a cold wind picking up from the north, he went inside for a cup of coffee.
He sat there at the counter, staring at a wall of telephones outside in the entryway, where men, mostly truckers, made calls, leaning their big shoulders sometimes against the soundproofing built around them or with their backs to it, writing with stub pencils into little pocket notepads.
The odd thought came to him that he wished he had someone to callsomeone to tell him what to do with his life. Then he remembered the phone number on the slip of paper in his back pocket. He took it out, unfolded it, and looked at the writing, remembering that the driver of the GTO had said there might be a job on a ranch there.
He got some change when he paid for the coffee and went over to one of the phones. He called the number, and when an operator told him to put in more money, he dropped the coins into the slots one at a time. After a moment, he could hear the phone ringing several times, but there was no answer, and he was about to put the receiver back when he heard someone pick up and say hello.
He asked for Donthe name written with the phone number on the paperbut he was told that Don was gone and wouldn't be back until the evening. It was a young man's voice. Normally if you called a rancher in the middle of the day you'd get the man's wife, if you got anybody.
"Give me your number" the young man said. "He can call you back."
"Haven't got a phone." Randy explained that he was on the road. He didn't say that he was hitchhiking. "Maybe I'll call back tonight," he said, hoping that by then he'd be well out of Nebraska and far into Wyoming. The way he was feeling right now, he never wanted to see Nebraska again.
And he hung up, the sound of the coins falling inside the phone.
"You still lookin' for a ride?" a trucker waiting behind him said. He was a big guy with a short pigtail down the back of his neck, and would have looked like a biker in his leather vest if he hadn't also been wearing a cowboy hat.
"Yes. Goin' west."
"If you wanna wait ten minutes, I can take you. Just gotta make a couple calls."
"Anything I can do to help out another cowboy," the guy said, and gave him a wink.
Ty took the familiar route through town and then out the old highway that took him to Mike's place along the road that went down toward the river. When he turned into the driveway, Mike's dog Rusty came out to greet him, barking and wagging his tail as he ran alongside the car.
He parked in the spot he remembered near the yard gate. As he carried his suitcase to the porch, the door opened, and there was Rich. His heart quickened and he let the suitcase drop from his hand as they met, embracing each other with a hug so fierce that it nearly took the breath out of him.
"Let me lay eyes on you," Rich finally said, his face one big smile, and he leaned back to look at Ty, his gaze taking in his whole faceeyes, nose, mouth, ears, forehead. He put his hand on Ty's head and ran his fingers through his hair. Then held him again tight, nuzzling the side of his neck, pressing his lips to his cheek, and finally kissing him deeply on the mouth.
Ty felt his body come alive in Rich's arms, the tension releasing in every muscle after the long drive, and there was the excitement of feeling his cock growing in his underwear as the two of them pressed together.
"I have missed you so much," Rich said, his voice shaking with emotion. "And I'm so glad you're finally here."
For Ty there were almost no words for what he was feeling. He could only repeat what Rich was saying.
Finally, Rich took Ty's suitcase, and they went from the porch into the kitchen, where it was warm and there was the smell of coffee and baked bread. Two fresh loaves sat on the counter, cooling.
"I made bread for us," Rich said, grinning. "I've been teaching myself how to do it." The loaves were handsome, hefty, and golden brown on top. "I just took them out of the oven when you drove up. Aren't they beautiful?" He was laughing now, like a kid with a science project. "I mean, this is bread for real men," he said, flexing one arm as he stood there.
All Ty could think was how wonderful it was to see him again. His smile was so full of joy it was almost heartbreaking.
"All the time I was making these," Rich said, "I thought we'd maybe just sit here and talk like we used to do, eat some of my breadI got some homemade strawberry jam to go with itand take some time to get to know each other again."
He looked helplessly at Ty and said, "But all I want to do is take you to bed and make love to youright now."
Rich stood, not moving, and Ty went to him to put his arms around him again. "Then let's do it," he said.
They walked together to the back bedroom, and after they lay down together on the bed, Rich still just looked at Ty.
"I don't know where to start," he said. "I'm so hard I could come in my pants."
"Me, too," Ty said. "Let's try this." And he began to unbutton Rich's shirt.
You could never tell about truckers. There were all kinds. Some were hell-raisers; some were Bible-thumpers. Some were starved for company and never stopped talking; some were sullen and didn't say a word. You could find yourself with a man as easy-going as your favorite uncle, or he could turn out to be scary as Count Dracula.
A man in a cowboy hat could be just about any of those. But a man who also braided his hair into a pigtail was likely to be one of a kind, and Randy was about to find out. He set his travel bag on the floor, under his knees, where he could grab it quickly if he had to, and he sat waiting as the trucker took one last walk around the rig before getting in behind the wheel.
The truck cab was neat, everything polished clean, maps folded carefully in a side pocket. There was no dirt on the floor mats. No girlie pictures or decals on the window. Only a wobble-hipped hula dancer stood on the dashboard, with grass skirt and ukulele.
"Guys from the west are sayin' there's some weather comin' in again," he said as he got in. "Snowflake or two in Wyoming. We should be OK." He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a pack of gum. "Juicy Fruit?" he said and held the pack out to Randy. "Been tryin' to quit smokin' and I go through a lot of thisthis and Doublemint." He laughed. "I think I need somethin' stronger."
Randy shook his head no and watched as the guy unwrapped two sticks and put them in his mouth, chewing with his big jaw as he threw the truck into gear.
"Buddy of mine just found out he's got the Big Clung cancer. Made me promise to give up tobacco. I don't wanna lose him. And I told her," he said pointing at the hula dancer, "I'd quit for good as long as she kept him alive for me."
Her? Randy wanted to say.
"Our Lady of the Highway," the trucker said. "She's been answering prayers for over a hundred thousand miles. Well, not all of 'em. She misses a few now and then, just to keep me guessin'."
He'd won her at a county fair carnival in Oregon years ago, he explained, the same day he'd met his buddy, Rodney. Ten years ago last September. "We been together ever since," he said. "He used to ride along there right where you're sittin'. They got him on chemo now, and the travelin' don't suit him too well."
"Ten years?" Randy said, thinking that he'd known Wallace for only three or four, and half of that time they hadn't even been together.
"Ten years sounds like a long time," the driver said, chewing his gum, "but it ain't enough, not when it's somebody you'd stop a bullet for. Hell, a hundred ain't enough."
Randy thought there was something he should say, but he didn't know what. Wallace didn't have cancer just a baby and plans to get married, which weren't killing him, but for Randy they'd been the nearest thing.
"Sounds like you really love the guy," he said.
"You could call it that." The truck driver tapped the hula dancer with one finger. "What do you think?" It nodded several times. "She says yes," he said. "Must be so."
Randy laughed. "You really believe in that?"
"Gotta believe in somethingsomething bigger'n you. A man's a pitiful little mite when you hold him up to the whole universe."
"Does she answer prayers just for you, or would she do that for anybody?"
"Only one way to find out. Give it a try."
Randy thought for a moment, feeling awkward and a little silly. He wasn't a believer or the sort to pray, at least not for anything that wasn't a life-and-death emergency. And what he had the impulse to ask for wasn't either extreme or dire as that.
But the prayer came anyway. "Please let me have Wallace back," he thought.
"You might have to ask more'n once, but that's mostly just to remind yourself to keep the faith, cause she'll be workin' on it for you all the time." He laughed. "Hell, she might even come up with something better'n what you asked for."
Randy repeated the prayer to himself again, and this time he felt a painful twinge of hope, and a troubling thought that every mile westward was separating him more surely from the only friend he'd ever had or ever loved. He realized that by going back to Nevada, he was making the prayer even more impossible to answer.
They drove on for a while in silence, and the guy turned on his CB radio to listen to the other truckers coming and going on the highway. It was a chorus of men's voices in accents from all over, talking a kind of friendly jargon of the road, warning about speed traps, traffic conditions, and joking with each other. Randy didn't understand half of it, and he let the rumble of the engine lull him into a half sleep.
When he woke, they had stopped somewherea rest area along the interstate. The sky was clouded over, but he could tell it was late afternoon. The gum-chewing trucker was shaking him with one of his big hands on his shoulder.
"Piss stop," he was saying. "I ain't stoppin' again till I get to Cheyenne."
"Where are we?"
"We still in Nebraska?"
Randy shook the cobwebs from his head and got down out of the truck. He followed the trucker to the restrooms. After the warm truck cab, the air felt sharply cold. A thin crust of broken ice lay frozen along the curb.
Inside, he saw a pay phone on the wall and thought again of calling the number on the slip of paper in his back pocket. When he'd come back from the men's room, he reached for the receiver and put a dime in the slot.
This time the phone rang three times and another voice answereda man's voice. The guy said, yes, he was Don.
"Your brother gave me your number. He said you might need an extra hand there." And he explained where he was from and what he knew of cowboying.
"It ain't ropin' and ridin', but I can use someone who can finish a roofing job."
"That would be me, sir. I can do that, too."
"You said it was my brother? Kenneth?"
"When can you get here?"
"You got yourself a job."
When Randy hung up the phone, he wasn't sure what had just happened. Whatever it was, it had happened so fast he hardly knew what to feel. A few minutes ago, he'd been aching to get out of Nebraska. And now it looked like he was staying for a while.
When he got back to the truck, the driver was waiting for him, starting on two new sticks of gum.
"Change of plans," Randy said, grabbing his bag. "Thanks for the ride."
"Hope everything works out for your friend Rodney."
"Thanks, pardner. Happy trails."
Randy looked at the hula dancer, and with the vibration from the truck engine as it idled, she nodded back at him.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper