Mike and Danny: Brad's Story
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.
Brad followed the two cowboys outside when he left the diner. They headed for an old beat-up pickup with Nebraska plates, which made him think right away of Craig.
One of them slapped the other on the back of his jeans and then ducked away, but not fast enough, as his partner knocked off his hat, which sailed into some shrubbery at the edge of the parking lot. The driver, who looked like the younger of the two, bent over laughing, as the other fetched his hat. Then they jumped into the cab, slamming the doors hard. Brad watched them go as he got into his Nova.
He and Craig might have been like that one day, carefree and headed down the road somewhere together. But if it ever happened, it wouldn't be anytime soon. In the meantime, there might be another man, and maybe even a young guy like Del, who seemed to like him and enjoy his company.
It had been so different with Del, feeling the boy's young, muscular body, his skin smooth and perfect, the faintest trail of hair, like a pencil mark, running from his belly button to the patch of it around his cock, and just a trace of down on his legs. Brad would like to have seen him in the morning light, but when he woke the next day, Del was already gone.
And in the days that followed, Brad looked for him but had not seen him again. Twice he had driven by the house at night, hoping to find a light in one of the windows, but the whole place was dark. The workmen installing the kitchen in the cafeteria didn't know anything about him either. He thought they gave him a funny look when he came by, like something he said made them suspicious, and he hadn't gone back.
He'd bought Christmas presents for his kids and wanted to deliver them to his house on Christmas Eve, but there was no one home. He'd let himself in with his key and put them unwrapped under the tinsel-covered tree, which filled one corner of the small living room, as if nothing was amiss.
The angel at the top had tilted over, and he reached up on tiptoes to straighten it. The needles brushing against his canvas coat seemed brittle, some falling to the carpet, and he discovered that the tree stand had gone dry. He brought a Kool-Aid pitcher of water from the kitchen and filled it again.
Then he switched on the string of lights and stood there in the warm glow, listening to the strange quiet of the house. A sadness came over him as he realized there might never be another Christmas morning with his family.
Then he heard a scrabbling at the back door and a mournful bark. It was Wellington, back after having gone missing for days. He was mud-spattered and hungry, dancing around Brad, his toenails clattering on the kitchen floor, as Brad poured him a bowl of dog food and watched him wolf it down.
His spirits lifted then. Here was his only loyal friend in the world, who didn't care if he was queer as a duck and running out on his family. And when he left, he took the dog with him, throwing a blanket over the backseat of the Nova for him to lie on and tossing his food and water dishes and the bag of dog chow into the trunk.
Taking a last look at the tree in the living room before he left, he decided to leave the lights burning. It was Christmas, after all.
Getting back on the highway now to Albuquerque, with Wellington behind him looking out the back windows, he began to think about what lay ahead down the road. He was going to see an old friend of his father's, a man he'd caddied for at the city links when he was still in high school.
Elmer had always been kind to him, ready with a warm smile, and gave him generous tips. He ran a construction company that put up office buildings and shopping malls around town. Whenever he saw Brad, he seemed to have all the time in the world for him. Brad came to think of him as an uncle, which made the man laugh with pleasure when he told him.
As he grew older and realized there never was and apparently never would be an "aunt" to go with this uncle, something told Brad there must be a good reason why the man stayed single. When he asked his father about it, he'd got a vague answer, like Elmer's personal life was none of their business.
"A man gets set in his ways," his dad said. "Gets used to living on his own." He said it like there was something wrong with that, but to a ten-year-old like Brad, who didn't much care for girls, it didn't seem like such a bad idea.
Once Brad had understood the basics of human reproduction, he speculated that Elmer had some birth defect or sustained an injury, maybe in childhood, that prevented him from having children of his own. When he got up the nerve to ask Elmer himself why he never married, Elmer had just laughed and told him he was a "confirmed bachelor."
Which could have meant a lot of things, from not wanting to take on the job of raising a family to not wanting to limit himself to sex with only one woman. Eventually, as Brad learned more about the world, it dawned on him that Elmer may not have been interested in women that way at all.
By then, Brad had finished his education, left Albuquerque for his first teaching job, got married, and started reproducing himself. Elmer was only a fleeting thought sometimes that surfaced for no reason at allat least no reason he could think of.
When it came up this time, however, the thought of Elmer needed no explanation. Brad knew he wanted to see him again, talk to him again, feel again the warmth of the man's attention. He was full of questions, and he hoped Elmer would have some answers.
He'd got Elmer's phone number from information in Albuquerque, and when he called, the passage of years had become only a blink of time. Elmer remembered him at once, seemed to welcome the sound of his voice, and said "of course!" without a moment's thought when Brad asked to come see him.
Driving along the highway, getting closer to Albuquerque, Brad felt his heart begin to race. He rehearsed a dozen different ways to tell Elmer why he was thereeach time discovering a different possible reason. Did he want Elmer's advice? his sympathy? his encouragement? What if Elmer wasn't queer after all? Then what?
But the man had said, "We'll be waitin' for you." Who was "we"? And how many of them were there? What would Brad do if it turned out Elmer had finally got married after all? Some sweet, pliant widow who just wanted a man around the house and didn't care if he had a childhood injury?
The questions all ceased as he passed the city limits sign and had to concentrate on the directions Elmer had given him to get to his house in the suburbs. Finally, he stopped in the deserted parking lot of a vast shopping center to stare unseeing through the windshield and realize that what he was doing was trying to plunge head-long back into his childhood. He was visiting a man he hadn't seen since he was a boy, as if to grab a second chance at growing up all over again.
Maybe Elmer had been put there for a reason way back then, and Brad had simply missed all the clues. If he'd figured out what Elmer was telling him with his life as a "confirmed bachelor," maybe he wouldn't have taken so many wrong turns himself. He wouldn't be in this predicament now. While he might have still had a dog, dozing now in the back seat, there wouldn't have been any Coretta or his annoying in-laws.
Then again, there wouldn't have been his four kids either. He knew he loved them, even when they were driving him nuts, which was about every day. But his imagination balked at the idea of their never being born, and at that, his thoughts sputtered out in a whirl of confusion.
Still, he didn't want to give up seeing Elmer now that he'd come this far. The way to deal with his doubts was simply to not deal with them.
"Woof," he heard Wellington from the back seat.
"Glad you agree," Brad said. He could always count on his dog.
And he drove the rest of the way to Elmer's house, which stood at the end of a cul-de-sac on a little rise, with nothing but open hillside and sage behind it. A big RV was parked at one side of the driveway, and Christmas garlands and red ribbons had been wrapped around a lamppost along the front walk. He parked his Nova at the curb and walked to the house.
Pressing the doorbell, he heard a series of chimes from inside that sounded a lot like the first bars of "Silent Night." After a moment, the door flew open, and there was Elmer, looking almost like Brad remembered him. His hair had grayed and thinned almost to nonexistence, but the rest of him was still beefy and fit, with the same twinkle in his eyes.
"Brad, my boy," he said throwing open his arms to give him a fierce hug. "Merry Christmas!"
And there with the man's big, strong arms around him, he knew he'd been waiting his whole life to be held just like this.
He wondered how soon he would find out who else, if anyone, lived in the house, but no one appeared. Elmer took his coat and hung it in the closet. Glancing out through a fan of glass panes in the front door, he saw Wellington in the backseat of Brad's car.
"You're not going to leave him out there," he said, and the next minute Brad was bringing him by his collar to the garage, where they walked past a big new Buick to a door that led into the backyard, where a high fence enclosed an expanse of flagstone patio and a lazy-shaped swimming pool that yawned empty at the open sky.
Wellington sniffed some planters and bushes and then lifted his leg, while they watched, standing side-by-side in the doorway. Elmer had his arm around Brad's shoulders and kept talking the whole while.
"How's your folks?" he wanted to know. When Brad's dad retired, his parents had moved to San Diego. "A good man, your father. I was sorry he and your mother decided to go to California."
"Mom never liked the winters here."
And they talked about his job at the college. Did he enjoy it? Did his students appreciate him? Did his boss like him? But there was no question yet about his own family and why he could possibly be spending a Christmas Day somewhere without them.
With Wellington settled in the garage, where Elmer put an old cushion for him inside a big cardboard box, they went back inside the house. They walked past a tall, fragrant tree laden with decorations, crisscross strings of lights burning brightly even in the full light of day, and they went to the kitchen, where Elmer had been working, preparing a Christmas dinner. A turkey roasted in the oven. The house was full of smells that made Brad homesick for the Christmases of his boyhood.
Elmer, in a flannel shirt and jeans, put on a chef's apron after he poured a Bloody Mary for Brad and then returned to a pie he'd been making. Brad drank from the tall glass, a leafy stalk of celery tickling his nose, and felt the bite of the vodka in the cold tomato juice. He wondered who all the food was for.
"You expecting company for dinner?" he said. He'd perched himself on a high stool and leaned with one elbow on the counter beside him.
"And who else?"
Elmer laughed. "Max'll be back before long. He goes and works at a soup kitchen on Christmas morning. Been doing it for years."
Max? Brad thought.
Then Elmer glanced over at him. "You remember Max?"
Brad searched his memory, taking another mouthful from the glass, then shook his head.
"I think you two went to school together." Then he said Max's last name. "Didn't you both caddie at the golf course?"
"He remembers you," Elmer said, crimping the edges of the dough he'd just set into a pie tin.
Brad and Max had worked summers carrying heavy bags of golf clubs along the fairways for businessmen and city employees, hearing their off-color jokes and gossip, witness to their wagers and the occasional business deal. Knowing who cheated on his scorecard and who didn't. What was Max doing here with Elmer?
"I remember him," Brad said, trying to sound like he wasn't surprised.
Max was not a goof-off, but he knew when to cut corners. And while he was an expert at sucking up to the players for a big tip, he didn't have an ounce of respect for any of them. "They're all the same in their underwear," he liked to say.
Max was always good for a wisecrack. He seemed to understand that everything was a game and there was no point playing it straight if you didn't have to. And he could turn any subject, no matter how serious, around to sex.
"They want you to think they go home to fuck their wives," he liked to say. "But all the time they're busy hosing somebody elseor wishing they could."
The two of them may have gone to the same school, but they weren't friends there and didn't hang out together. Max was too rough a customer, too old and too experienced for his age, too cynical. They'd pass each other in the hall, each with his own friends, and not let on that they knew each other.
Max seemed satisfied with that. He probably thought Brad was a jerk anyway. Wasn't his name on the honor roll sometimes when the grades came out? Didn't that make him a grade grubber? A brown noser? A teacher's kiss ass?
Yet when summer rolled around, there they'd be together again, like Brad was an old buddy. And since Brad's friends had summer jobs elsewhere, he didn't have to worry what they thought of it.
Elmer had finished the pie and was wiping his hands on a towel. Then he took off the apron and said, "Let me show you the rest of the house."
Brad tossed back the last of the drink and set the glass on the counter. As he stood, he felt the alcohol already beginning to take effect.
Elmer took him around the house, where there were open beam ceilings, hardwood floors, and big prints of flowers and colorful landscapes on the walls. And the walls, painted in pale blues and greens, shone softly with the winter light from the windows. Compared to this, his own house, with all the wood paneling, shag carpet, and avacado green wherever you looked, seemed heavy and oppressive as a dark cave.
"This is Max's room," Elmer said, stopping at an open door. The neatly made bed and almost every other surface were covered with teddy bears and stuffed animals.
"I made him straighten it all up when we knew you were coming. Otherwise, he gets to leave it any old way he wantswhich is usually like a cyclone went through. I just close the door so I don't have to look at it."
Teddy bears? Brad wondered. He tried to imagine the Max he knew having anything to do with anything soft and cuddly. It didn't add up.
Across the hall was a bathroom, with aqua tile and glass shower doors. "This is Max's," Elmer said. Towels hung neatly from the racks. On one wall there hung a small, framed drawing of a naked man, but if Elmer saw him notice, he didn't mention it.
Next door, Elmer opened a door into another bedroom. "Guest room," he said. Brad saw a four-poster with a floral spread, a small chest of drawers and an antique rocking chair.
At the end of the hall they came to what Elmer called the "master bedroom," with a king-size bed, a skylight overhead, walk-in closet, and an open archway leading to another bathroom. All was in perfect order here, not a stuffed toy in sight.
"I had it built just the way I wanted it," Elmer said.
Stepping inside, Brad felt his feet sink into the thick wool carpet. It was a room, Brad thought, that his mother would have liked. But it hardly seemed to fit the stout, nearly bald man standing next to him, who must have spent most of his working days in a hard hat.
"Come see the Jacuzzi we just put in," Elmer said, crossing the room to where a door opened onto a deck.
Outside, in a corner out of sight of the neighbors, stood a big square hot tub. "There's room enough in it for more than one," Elmer said with a grin.
More like five or six, Brad thought, considering the size of it.
"You can try it while you're here," Elmer said. "Max's already worked out all the settings." He pointed to a control panel. "He can show you."
Then they went back to the kitchen, Brad now finally aware of the full size of the house. His own place back in Santa Fe wouldn't fill half of it. The construction business, he guessed, must have been good to Elmer.
"How long can you stay?" Elmer asked.
Forever, Brad wanted to say. And he started to explain about what had happened to him. "I may be leaving my wife," he said, and as Elmer handed him another Bloody Mary, he already knew he'd begun in the wrong part of the story.
The rest, as it came out, couldn't have made the beginning all that much clearer, but Elmer simply listened, never stopping him to make a comment or ask a question. As if he'd maybe heard a story like this one before.
Brad had finished a second Bloody Mary when he was done, and was feeling light headed, ready to slide off the stool he was sitting on.
"I don't know much about marriage," Elmer was saying. "I got close to it once. But I think you know why I never went through with it."
"And I think you've guessed that Max isn't just a housemate."
Brad nodded again. "That's why I'm here," he said. "I didn't have any place else to go."
Elmer looked at him sadly. "I can't say I know what you're going through," he said. "But you and Wellington are welcome to stay here for as long as it takes."
Brad felt his eyes start to fill with tears, and he laughed as he wiped them away with the back of his hand. He hadn't cried over anything since he was a boy.
With that, he heard the front door open, and Max walked in.
"Well, who do we have here?" he said, coming into the kitchen. He slapped Brad on the back and offered to shake his hand. "Long time, no see, pardner."
The guy didn't look like a teenager anymore. He'd let his hair grow over his ears and his shirt collar, with sideburns down to his jaw, and he had a heavy mustache. If you overlooked all that and a kind of thickness that made his cheeks look jowly, he was the same old Max.
He'd taken on a western look, with a deep indigo shirt, black cowboy boots, and a big silver buckle on the belt that held up his levi's. In the hair that covered his ears Brad caught the glint of a silver stud planted in one earlobe.
"Goddam, it's good to see you," he was saying, taking a beer from the refrigerator. "How the hell you been?"
He rattled on like this, like Brad hadn't just been on the verge of crying his heart out. And Brad was grateful to him for that. He didn't want to be bawling like a schoolboy and feeling sorry for himself. He just wanted to be here with one man, and now two, who wouldn't threaten to beat him up once they knew the truth about him.
It was time for the turkey to come out of the oven, and Elmer started dishing up the food he'd cooked. Before long, the pumpkin pie was baking and the three of them were sitting down to eat, Elmer carving the turkey and Max uncorking a bottle of wine.
"Only day of the year I drink this dago punch," he said, holding up the bottle. "I'm a Coors man myself."
"Never got him to appreciate a good bottle of wine," Elmer said. "And god knows I've tried."
Listening to the two men talk to each other like this, Brad felt as if he was getting a glimpse of the life they'd lived together all these years. Used to each other, they were like an old married couple. He began to envy their intimate familiarity.
"So what brings you here?" Max wanted to know, after they'd passed around the serving dishes and started eating.
Elmer cleared his throat.
Max turned to him. "I say something wrong?" he asked.
"Brad can tell you later," Elmer said. "We're going to eat now."
"That's a wedding ring, ain't it?" Max said, nodding toward Brad's hand.
And Brad looked down at the gold band, unaware that he was still wearing it and realizing he'd never thought to take it off. It seemed too much a part of him.
"You got a family somewhere?" Max said.
"Back in Santa Fe."
"I get it. You split up."
"Enough," Elmer said, putting his knuckles down with a soft thump on the linen tablecloth. "It can wait."
And they were silent for a while until Elmer got Max to talking about the soup kitchen that morning, and Brad ate his food, surprised that he'd found his appetite after days of skipping meals and living on candy bars and coffee.
After dinner, Elmer and Max put away the leftover food and cleaned up the kitchen, while Brad tried to help, finally putting dishes in the dishwasher as Max rinsed them in the sink and passed them to him.
When they were done, Elmer put a piece of his pumpkin pie in a plastic container and put on his coat and a knit cap to leave for a while. He was going to see his mother, who was in a nursing home across town.
"She used to spend Christmas with us," he said. "But it's too much for her anymore."
He'd be back in the evening, he told them. On his way out the door, he and Max gave each other a quick kiss.
"Look out for the drunk drivers," Max said. "You know how some folks like to celebrate Christmas." There was a note of caring in his voice that Brad hadn't heard until then, and Max stepped into the garage to watch Elmer go.
Brad heard a woof come from the garage and then Max calling out, "This your pooch?"
"That's Wellington," Brad said, remembering his dog.
"Fine lookin' animal," Max was saying as Brad stepped out into the garage. Max had bent over to stroke the big labrador's face and scratch behind his ears. Wellington looked pleased to see him.
"I'm Max," he said. "Damn happy to meet you." He put out his open hand and Wellington lifted one paw into it.
"Smart dog," Max said to him. "And a handsome devil. Like the guy he came here with."
He straightened up then and turned to Brad, giving him a wink. "You don't mind me sayin' that, do you?"
Brad felt a little confused, but he guessed he didn't mind.
Continued . . .
© 2010 Rock Lane Cooper