Mike and Danny: Dog Days
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
Mike didn't come back for a long time, and when he did it was late in the afternoon, almost evening. He was covered with mud from carrying armfuls of wet irrigation tubes, and when he took off his rubber boots, he'd poured water from them because he'd stepped into a ditch up to his knees.
"Fell in," he laughed. "Gotta be honest."
Then he left the boots upside down on two fence posts in front of the house, to drain out and dry until the next time he needed them. He walked in wet socks to the porch, leaving damp footprints on the sidewalk. Stepping inside, he started pulling off his clothes and tossing them into a laundry basket by the washing machine.
Ty didn't mean to watch him, but he couldn't take his eyes away either, as Mike first took off his shirt and then his jeans, bending finally to pull off each sock. This was exactly what Ty had taught himself not to do with the other young men at the seminary, in the locker room and the showers at the dormitory. Or with his roommate, who liked to sit around at night in his underwear reading his textbooks and typing his papers.
But now he took a deep breath, his heart beating, and let himself watch Mike, his body muscular from years of working on the farm, the hair dark on his chest and around his nipples, a trail of it from his belly down into his shorts. His feet were broad and angular, like his work-hardened hands. Only his face and his forearms were tanned, the rest of him pale, with just a V at his throat where his shirt collar lay open.
"Rich around?" Mike asked, standing now with hands on his hips, legs apart, a gap in the wrinkled fly of his boxers.
Ty swallowed hard. "He's been sleeping," he said. There was a hammock on the side porch, and after a while in the pool, he'd come back to the house, his cock swinging with the movement of his body. He'd climbed into the hammock and stretched out, one arm over his head, and quickly fell into a deep sleep, lying still as a dead man, like he hadn't slept in weeks.
"I thought we'd go into town for some supper," Mike said. "Doesn't look like he's been feeding himself real good."
He walked through the kitchen to the side porch and looked down at Rich. With his arm still over his head, his ribs were showing under his skin, and his pelvic bones were visible, his belly sunken between them. A long scar trailed downward over his abdomenan incision from some surgeryand his cock hung full and heavy over his balls.
Mike shook his head sadly. "He was a fine young man when I knew him," he said softly. "Respectful, big-hearted, always ready to give somebody a second chance if they needed one. He had a smile that would make you feel good all day. But I hardly know this man."
Mike shrugged, one hand scratching the hair in the middle of his chest. "Goddam war, I guess. What it did to some men."
Ty had got a high number in the draft lottery, and the war had come to an end before he'd been called. Two of his brothers had been drafted, but they'd served their two years and got on with their lives when they came back home.
"He was a tender soul, you know. Just a boy really," Mike said. "The things he must have seen there and did. It wouldn't have been easy on him."
Ty watched the sleeping man as they talked, his breaths shallow, the beat of his heart pulsing under the skin. Lying there naked, he was like a shipwreck survivor, half-drowned.
He felt Mike's arm reach around him to rest on his shoulders. "Now that I think of it," Mike said, "he was a lot like you."
"I couldn't have carried a gun," Ty said. He had worried about this when he knew he might be drafted. "I couldn't have killed anyone."
Mike nodded. "That's what I'm saying."
"But I would have gone if I had to," Ty said, swallowing hard again. Maybe they'd have let him serve as a chaplain.
Mike gripped him a little tighter around the shoulders. "I'm glad you didn't have to."
They stood together a while longer, not speaking. Then Mike had turned and walked back inside, saying he needed to take a shower, and he disappeared into the bathroom.
Ty watched him go,and when he looked again at Rich, gazing at his naked body, it took him a moment to realize Rich's eyes were open and looking back at him.
"Mike's right," he said. "You're goddam lucky they didn't take you."
Ty was startled, wondering how long Rich had been awake listening to them.
Rich stirred now, bringing his arm down from where it had been over his head, putting his hand to his chest, first touching the dragon tattoo, then pressing his nipple between two fingers.
"Goddam lucky," he said again.
He shifted his body now, the hammock creaking under him, and he reached to the sill that ran along under the window screens where he'd left his pack of cigarettes. Then he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. He raised the pack to his lips, pulling one from it with his teeth, and flipped open the lighter with his thumb to light it, sucking in the flame and inhaling deeply.
He leaned forward and held his head in his hands now, palms pressed into his eyes. Ty looked at his naked back, as smoke drifted from the cigarette in a shaft of late afternoon sunlight. In an impulse he could not quite understand, he wanted to put his arms around this man and hold him. He wanted to say, "I'll make everything all right."
But he knew he could not make good on such a promise. He knew it, and Rich would know it.
That night they went to a steakhouse in town for a big meal, and Rich sat with them in a clean shirt Mike had loaned him, not saying much of anything, but letting Mike talk and talk as if there was nothing unusual about his silence. He'd eaten every last bit of his food, cleaning the plate and polishing off all the dinner rolls on the table, plus a piece of apple pie with a big melting scoop of ice cream.
"I see you haven't forgot how to eat," Mike said, making a little joke as he reached for the check.
Rich managed a rueful smile and said, "Some things you don't forget." And he pushed his empty pie plate away from him with his thumb.
On the way out of the restaurant, they stopped by the door as Mike waited in line to pay the cashier, and a family from the church walked in.
The teenage son looked straight at him, but didn't say hello. Just brushed by him. The boy had been one of his favorites, hanging around after Wednesday night youth meetings to have serious talks about his faith and wanting maybe to be a minister some day.
Ty felt a cold wave pass through him now as the family walked on without glancing back.
"Somebody you know?" Rich said, surprising Ty that he'd noticed.
"Used to, I guessfrom church."
"People," Rich said, taking another cigarette from his shirt pocket. "Fuck 'em."
He had taken it all in, just like that. He'd seen them stiffen and pretend they hadn't seen Ty, denying without speaking a word that they'd ever known him.
Rich pushed open the door, and they walked outside into the summer night, where swarms of flying insects caromed around the parking lot nights. Mike followed the two of them to the pickup, and they all got in, Ty in the middle, taking comfort in the closeness of the two men on either side of him, their shoulders touching his, the length of each man's thigh pressed against him.
He thought of the family again, and he saw how empty their smiles and Sunday morning greetings had always been if they could turn away from him so easily now.
Alone, he might have felt that he deserved this coldness for what he'd done. But here between these two men, he realized that he felt something differentso strange he didn't have a word for it. He was on his own in the world, cut loose, but he'd found a true haven with them, and he knew he didn't want to leave it.
"Where to next?" Mike said starting the pickup.
"I've had enough excitement for one night," Rich said. "Let's head back to your place." And with that he put his hand on Ty's leg and just held it firmly as they drove off.
Mike had turned on the TV when they got home, but Rich only watched it for a few minutes and then got up to leave the room.
"You two can flip a coin for the back bedroom," Mike said.
"Ty can have it," Rich said. "I don't sleep much at night anyway."
And he had taken a beer from the refrigerator in the kitchen and walked to the side porch. Ty figured he was going out to the pool again. The rooms in the house were still hot from the day, and the air outside was slightly cooler.
But later, after Mike went to bedhis room the only one with an air conditionerTy had looked for Rich and found him in the hammock, the ember of his cigarette glowing in the dim light that filtered through from inside the house.
His first impulse was to leave Rich be with his thoughts, but the memory of his flash of understanding in the restaurant and then his hand on Ty's leg made him yield to a kind of desire he wasn't used to. He stepped onto the porch and stood looking out into the night, wanting the two of them to be company for each other for a while, even if they said nothing.
Fireflies flickered silently in the darkness outside, and all around there was the whirring buzz of insects like a soft blanket of white noise.
The hammock creaked and, without looking, Ty could hear Rich's boots on the floor as he got up to go into the kitchen. Then he heard the refrigerator open and close, and the clinking of beer bottles as Rich returned.
He put one of the beers into Ty's hand. "You could use one of these," he said and then got back into the hammock. Ty brought the beer to his lips and felt the cold bite of it on his tongue. Rich was probably right. One beer would do him no harm.
"You come out here to say something?" Rich finally said, lighting another cigarette.
"Not really," Ty shrugged, but after he thought a moment he said, "You smoke enough of those things and they're going to kill you."
"Yeah, fuckin' coffin nails. I'm good as dead already."
Ty didn't know what to say to this. He tried hard, remembering a course on pastoral counseling he'd taken, but they'd talked about what to do with people who showed signs of being suicidal, reminding them that killing yourself was an inconvenience to others and would send you straight to hell besides. But this was something different.
He thought of Rich's naked body that afternoon, lying so still in his sleep he might have been dead, but for the pulse visible under his skin and the slight tremor of his heartbeat quivering across the surface of his belly.
"You look alive enough to me," Ty said, trying to stay cheerful and sorry he'd brought up the subject of death.
"You can't believe everything you see. You oughtta learned that by now."
"I'll tell you what I do believe," Ty said, his feelings suddenly rising in him. "I believe in living all the life we've been given."
Rich laughed. "Aw, you can relax. I'm just giving you a hard time."
"I know you are. Shut up and drink your beer."
Ty didn't know if this was some kind of joke or whether Rich just took him for a fool.
"Look," Ty sputtered. "I like you, and I don't want to hear talk like that. That's all."
There was a long silence between them now. He could see the side of Rich's face turned to look out the window screens into the night. His hand brought his cigarette to his mouth again.
"I'll tell you something. There are two things keeping me going right now," he finally said. "One of them is Mike. Years ago I would come here, and I'd sleep with himin his bed. And he never tried to fuck me, even when I might have wanted him to."
Ty felt miles away from what he was hearing. He'd never let himself even imagine sleeping with Mike.
"He wouldn't take advantage of me," Rich said. "Not like some others. I always respected him for that."
"You don't need to know about them."
Ty waited for him to go on.
"You're wondering about the other thing that keeps me going?" Rich said.
"What is it?"
Ty felt his heart leap, surprised.
"I saw that look on your face at the restaurant, when those people walked by and ignored you. I saw how much that hurt."
Ty felt his cheeks begin to burn, unaware that his shame had been so obvious. And he was glad Rich couldn't see him there in the darkness. He took another sip from the cold bottle.
"You trusted those people, and now they crap all over you. And worse yet, you probably think it's your fault."
Was that actually it? Ty wondered. He wasn't used to thinking like this.
"Coming back home's been a lot like that," Rich said. "Only over there it's your ass you and your buddies are risking. You get shot at, blown up, fucked over. And people here don't give a shit."
And he talked of coming back from the war, no parades in the streets and marching bands, no cheering crowds, nothing. People wouldn't even look you in the eye, like they were ashamed of youeven though you'd done your duty and some of your best buddies never made it home at all.
"That's not how I feel."
"Yeah, and I'm trying to figure out why," Rich said. "Maybe it's because you're still just a kidlike I used to be before I left."
Ty wanted to pour out the feelings he'd begun to have for Rich, but the words embarrassed him and would not come. And though what he'd lost was only a thimble full compared to the ocean of loss Rich had known, he knew what he felt at that moment was for both of them. "It's not fair" was all he could say.
"If it was only that."
Rich stubbed out the cigarette and reached for another, then reconsidered and put the pack down again.
"Life isn't goddam fair. I knew that before I went." He cleared his throat and thought for a moment. "I had a cousin taught me that lesson, good and proper." The cousin's name was Gordon, several years older, was supposed to look after Rich when he was a boy, but didn't. Not like he should have.
"This is something else," Rich said. "All I keep thinking is people are no damn good."
The coldness in Rich's voice cut Ty to his heart. He wondered how a man could go on living if that's what he really believed, and he wanted to know if Rich felt that way about him.
Then he found himself thinking about Jesus, betrayed by everyone at the end, even his dearest disciples. How that must have felt. Yet how he was still able to forgive. But when Ty tried to put this into words for Rich, he remembered how the story ended in death, which somehow wiped out any lesson to be learned from it.
Then he realized he was at the point of tears again. How he wanted to be a pillar of strength for Rich, and here he was, no more than a baby himself. He wiped his eyes, hoping Rich would not see him.
"Get over here," Rich finally said, shifting to one side in the hammock. "There's gotta be room for two in this thing."
He reached for Ty's arm and pulled on him until he stepped closer. Rich then got him to sit down and lie back, so his head was on Rich's arm. And snug together, they lay side by side, rocking gently back and forth, drinking the beer until Ty's bottle was warm and almost empty, and he set it on the floor.
Rich's body against his, one of Rich's hands resting on his stomach, he felt a heavy weariness pass over him and he sighed.
"Get some shut-eye," Rich said. "I'll stay awake while you sleep, and keep watch."
As it happened, Ty slept very little that night. Whenever he woke up, there was a fierce, stiff erection in his pants. He would stir, stretching his body this way and that to release the tension that seemed to settle in his muscles like a quiet fire. He would sense Rich's hand on him then, patting him softly and whispering, "Sleep, sleep." And he would drift off again for a while into his dreams.
Finally, waking, he saw that it was dawn, a soft gray light visible in the sky and trees. The morning was filled with the sound of birds singing, but the house was still and quiet. There was only the lingering smell of coffee coming from the kitchen. And he half remembered Mike being up and around, making himself breakfast and leaving when it was still dark outside.
The air was now cool and damp, and where his body was not pressed against Rich, he felt chilled to the bone. He got up, thinking of looking for a blanket. Meanwhile, the beer he'd drunk last nightand the thought of this amused himwas waiting now in his bladder with some impatience, to get taken to the bathroom.
Standing beside the hammock, he looked down at Rich and saw that he had fallen asleepthis time for real. He was snoring softly.
When Ty unzipped his pants to take a long piss in the bathroom, he remembered again that he was wearing Mike's underwear, and the thought warmed him as he felt his penis begin to thicken in his fingers. Here he was, a few short miles from the lonely room in the house next to the church, but a world away, where two men had given him shelter from the storm.
Jesus loves me, the school children's song came to him, as he finished, gave himself a shake, and stuffed himself back into Mike's shorts. And he felt the depth of that love for the first time in his life in the affection of these two very real, flesh-and-blood men.
In the TV room, he found a Navajo blanket on the couch and took it to the porch, where he put it gently over Rich as he slept. He had taken off his boots sometime during the night, and his bare feet lay together under the wrinkled and frayed cuffs of his levi's. Ty tucked a corner of the blanket around them, feeling their weight for a moment in his hands, and wandering at the long distances they had taken him in his long journey half-way round the world and back to this farm house in the middle of Nebraska.
This was his shelter in the storm. And Ty yearned to be whatever he could to help keep him safe here and out of harm's way.
He went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee from Mike's percolator and then stepped outside to sit on the porch steps, watching the summer morning brighten and listening to the quiet countryside come to life, a pickup passing on the gravel road that went by the farm, a tractor starting up in a distant field somewhere, semi trucks rolling along highway 30 to the north, and then a long train rumbling on the railroad tracks that ran beside it. Once Ty heard the hammock creak as Rich turned in his sleep. And he thanked God for all of it.
When Rich finally woke up, the sun was well over the barn roof and the backyard flooded with golden-white light, under a cloudless, blue sky. The day was already warming.
Ty got up from where he'd been sitting on the step, his butt cold and a little stiff. He waited before he spoke, watching through the screen door, and as Rich blinked his eyes several times and slowly came to focus on him, Ty smiled and spoke.
"Good morning," he said.
Rich quickly pulled himself up, swinging his feet to the floor. "How long have I been sleeping?" His voice was thick and coarse, and he had to clear his throat.
Rich shook his head. He seemed not to believe it.
"It's OK," Ty said. "I've been awake. I kept watch."
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper