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.
Ty stood in the room that had been his since he came here last winter to work as deacon at St. Luke's Church. He'd never had a room of his own before. With three older brothers, he'd not even had his own bed for many years.
Then in seminary, there was his roommate, a farm boy from Wisconsin, who'd already moved in and unpacked his bags by the time Ty had arrived that first semesteranother room for him that was occupied before he got there.
When his new landlady showed him this room in the house next door to the church, what had struck him was the empty closet with only a few clothes hangers in it. All the dresser drawers were empty, too. The room even had the smell of being empty for months. Behind the see-through curtains in the window, there were a couple of dead flies on the sill.
It had taken him weeks to get used to falling asleep alone at night, without the sound of someone else breathing or stirring in the darknessor someone snoring. And when sleep finally came, in that room at the back of the big old house, where there was nothing to be heard but the low moan of a Union Pacific diesel passing through town late at night, he'd slept deeply and profoundly, unable to remember a single dream when he awoke the next morning.
Now he looked around him one last time, the closet door standing open and empty again. His suitcase was packed and already in the Rambler parked out in the street. He picked up a cardboard box filled with his books and his few other belongings, and without looking back, he took it out to the car, too.
He was going home, back to his mom and dad, because he had no place else to go. There was no going back to the church. For a while he had considered making an apology to the board of elders and let them decide his fate, but he knew that would not be the end of it. Nothing would ever be the same. They might grant him a pardon, but they were not, most of them, the kind of men to understand what had happened or to ever trust him again.
He stopped at the church office before he left to drop off the church keys. Elma, the secretary snatched them from him, as if they'd never belonged to him in the first place, and gave him a look like he'd escaped from the state penor maybe he just imagined that.
"The pastor wants to talk to you," she said and nodded toward the office door, which stood open. He didn't want to talk to the pastor but knew he had to. He could see the man inside, looking up from his desk and waving him in.
"Sit down," he said, getting up from the desk and closing the door.
"This is between you and me," he said, quietly. "Elma doesn't need to hear."
Ty sat on a big couch across from the desk, where couples about to get married got their counseling and small families crowded in together when there was a funeral to discuss. The pastor sat down in a big leather chair in one corner, the church parking lot visible in the window behind him.
"I'm sorry to see it end like this," he said. "But you realize this is for the best, don't you?" And he went on about the importance of appearances and how some folks would not understand if he stayed on, especially as director of the church's youth ministry. People would worry about his possible influence over impressionable young minds, and on and on.
Ty felt himself sinking under the weight of all this, the shame of what he'd done in the eyes of everyone in the church washing around him like rising flood waters.
"If it were up to me," the pastor was saying with half a smile, "I think we could work this out with some counseling and good, solid prayer sessions." But it wasn't up to him, he was quick to point out. The congregationcertain long-standing memberswould not be comfortable with that.
"So it's out of my hands," he said, holding his open hands out in front of him to show that he was powerless in the matter. And then he smacked them down on the arms of the chair as if to say, you see how it is.
Ty sat frozen on the couch, his eyes meeting the pastor's. The pastor said nothing more, just looked away and began to push himself up from the chair, like their little chat was over.
"There's something I want to say, sir," Ty said.
The pastor stopped, mid-way onto his feet and looked at Ty, then sat again, the leather cushion wheezing under him.
"Yes?" he said.
Ty's heart was pounding, and he was trying hard to focus his thoughts. He hadn't come prepared to say anything, just listen and be gone. But that wasn't the way it was turning out.
"I've worked hard for you and for the congregation ever since I got here. Every day, every weekend. And when you asked me to organize the church canvass, wethe youth group and Iwe brought in nine new families and several singles."
"That's all true," the pastor said, nodding.
"And not once did anyone ever have any question about my dedication to the work of the Lord here at St. Luke's."
"Oh, never a question," the pastor agreed, shaking his head.
"And no one ever questioned the way I was with any of the young people who worked with me."
"Well, no," the pastor said, raising his hand to interrupt, "but thinking back, some may wonder about your intentions."
"My intentions, sir. There was never anything wrong with my intentions." Ty felt his face begin to flush with anger.
"Maybe you better think about staying calm, young man," the pastor said, a note of warning creeping into his voice. "Before you say something you may regret. You know there will be a full report of this to the seminaryall of it."
"Then you can include this in your report, too," Ty said. "I have prayed on my kneesas hard as any man can pray, sirfor release from this cross." He felt tears welling in the corners of his eyes. "And the Lord has chosen not to lift it from me. Instead it grows heavier every day."
"These are trials, my son, to strengthen your faith." The pastor had slipped into his counseling voice, smooth and reassuring, hoping maybe to calm the waters.
That is bullshit, Ty stopped himself from saying, amazed that he'd let the thought even enter his head. It was his father speaking, or his brothers who took after him. They'd always had little patience with church talk.
"Then why does it feel like my faith is growing weaker, not stronger?" he said instead.
"That's what the Devil wants you to think."
"Why would the Lord lead me to thoughts the Devil wants me to think?" Ty said. "That doesn't make sense."
"You're trying to reason your way around this, and you can't." The pastor was being firm now, like he was attempting to persuade someone not to jump from a window ledge. "You must never let go of your faith, my son."
I'm not your son, Ty thought. And then after a full moment, while the room rang with silence, and he became certain that Elma the secretary was listening intently from the other side of the office door, he said it aloud: "I'm not your son."
The pastor let this sink in, staring at him from across the room, not blinking an eye.
"I hoped I wouldn't have to say this, but I can see I must," the pastor finally said. "You have allowed yourself to fall under the influence of a sinful man. You must flee, like Joseph from Potipher's wife, for the sake of your immortal soul."
At first, Ty had no idea what sinful man the pastor was talking about. And then he realized who he meantMike.
The tears began to slip down onto his cheeks now, and before he knew it he was smiling through them, for as he sat there, he remembered that under the pants he had on he was wearing Mike's boxers.
When he'd put them on, he'd felt a warm glow that not only gave him an erection but filled his whole body with the sweetest sense of well-being he'd ever experienced. Like he'd been gently touched by the loving hand of Jesus himself. And he'd known that somehow this was all in His plan.
"I'm leaving now," he said, loud enough for Elma to scurry back to her desk out front. "But not until I've said one more thing. The man you're referring to is as fine a man as any man in this congregation. He has a heart in him bigger than you or all the board of elders put together."
"You know the Scriptures," the pastor said, not giving up. "From the heart proceedeth every evil thing."
Ty stood and leveled a look at the minister who had just maligned his friend. "The Devil can quote Scripture, too," he said, and turned to go to the door.
Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, and yes he'd probably regret everything he'd just said, but he also knew he'd do it all again. He would not take any of it back. Not a single word of it.
Before he knew it, he had driven out of town and all the way to Shady Bend, where highway 30 swung by a stucco filling station and a string of motel cabins under a bunch of ageing cottonwoods with drifting seed fluffs on the summer air, the day already hot and sweltering. He had to keep wiping the tears from his eyes with the palm of one hand as he drove.
Home was some 200 miles east in the middle of Iowa. He'd take the interstate to get there, but first he wanted to make a last stop at Mike's. He wanted to say his last goodbye.
He found Mike at the alfalfa field, where he had finished raking hay into long windrows and was talking to another man who had pulled his old pickup over to the side of the road. Mike stood beside it, one boot on the running board, his cap tilted back on his head, talking through the open window. His tractor was stopped, with the engine off, on the other side of the fence.
Ty waited in his car until the other man drove away, nodding at Ty as he passed and greeting him country-style by lifting one finger from the steering wheel.
Mike walked over to him, a smile on his sun-burned face. "That's the guy's gonna bring his baler over tomorrow and make hay bales out of all this." He pointed to the field of windrows behind him.
Ty felt his heart warm just hearing Mike's voice.
Mike took a good look at Ty and glancing into the backseat of the car saw Ty's suitcase and box of belongings. His suit and two clean shirts hung from hangers in one back window.
"What's going on? You leaving?" he said.
Ty nodded, not sure he could trust his voice. "They're letting me go," he said, and he told Mike as much as he could before his voice broke.
"Leave if you have to," Mike said. "But what's your hurry? Stay at the house a couple days. Till you're ready to make the trip."
"Look at you. Tears in your eyes, I don't know how you can see to drive."
Ty wiped his face hard with both hands, ashamed that Mike could tell he'd been crying.
"I'm done working out here, and I'm going to the place now," Mike said. "You can follow me or go on ahead, but promise you won't get back on the highway."
Ty looked at Mike as more tears rose in his eyes. "I should get on home," he said, making his best effort to sound determined.
"You got a home here," Mike said, frowning.
Finally Ty agreed and, turning the car around in the road, went on ahead to Mike's place, a strange feeling rising in him.
There was relief that he could put off facing his parents, his mother stricken with concern, his father unbelieving, and his brothers all needling him and scoffing again when they got him off by himself that he'd never amount to anything. But the idea of being alone with Mike was unsettling. He felt a tremor deep inside him that was hard to describe. It felt like fear, but what was there to be afraid of?
When he pulled into Mike's driveway, he saw what he had not seen from the road, lost in his thoughts. A long, shiny motorcycle was parked under the tree that grew alongside the farmhouse, and a man was squatting there in the shade with Rusty, scratching his head and talking to him.
He looked up without lifting his head as Ty parked the car at the house yard gate, then rose stiffly to his feet. His black leather jacket was unzipped and hung open over a torn tee shirt, and he wore black leather leggings over his levi's. His hair was wet with sweat and pressed down around his face from the helmet he'd been wearing. His boots looked like they could crush rockor a man's skull.
Ty got out of his car, but stayed on his side of it.
"Does Mike still live here?" the man said.
"Yeah, that's him," Ty said, pointing. "Coming up the road."
The man just nodded and put his hands on his hips, looking off toward the slow-moving tractor and the thin cloud of dust that followed it.
He was maybe thirty, Ty guessed, but it was hard to tell for sure. His body was angular and slender, not like the black leather bruisers on bikes he was used to seeing on the interstate or at truck stops, looking like Hell's Angels. And he seemed tired. There was a dark expression in his eyes.
Ty introduced himself, trying to strike up a conversation while they waited for Mike.
The man didn't look at him. Didn't seem to hear him.
After an awkward silence, Ty asked, "You a friend of Mike's?"
The man's eyes slowly turned to him, studying him, then they flickered to life and he smiled a little. "Yeah, a friend." After a moment he added, "He's a good man, Mike."
"I think so, too," Ty said, and he felt a bond suddenly grow between them. Here was someone, so different from himself, who shared this same thought.
The man took off his jacket now, the leather creaking softly as he set it across the handlebars of the bikea Harley, Ty noticed, though he didn't know much about motorcycles.
Then the man turned his gaze back to the road, his hands again on his hips, fingers hooked around the wide black belt that held up his jeans. Rusty sat on the ground beside him, watching and waiting, too.
Standing in the sun, Ty felt the full heat of the day. He decided to get his suitcase from the car and take it inside the house. It would give him something to do, since the man didn't seem to want to talk.
In the kitchen, he set the case down behind the door, out of the way, and went to the refrigerator for some ice cubes to put in a glass of water. Then he sat at the table, letting his thoughts drift for a while in the stillness of the room.
Here on a cold winter day he had first met Mike, while canvassing with the two teenagers from church. They had sat together at this very table. Now here he was again, six months later, his whole world changedthe person he'd been only a few days ago already no more real to him than a character in a book.
He sipped the cold water from around the ice cubes and listened to a fly buzzing and bumping against a window screen, trapped inside and wanting out. It would go on for a while and then give up, the room becoming dead quiet for a minute. Then it would start up again.
After a while, he heard Mike's tractor come onto the place from the road. As it came to a stop and silence returned after the engine switched off, Ty went onto the porch where he could see Mike step down from the tractor seat and walk over to the man beside the tree. He called out a hello as he came.
"Hi, Mike," the man said, shifting on his feet, his whole body seeming to relax now, like a great weight was falling from him.
Mike stopped in his tracks. "Rich, is that you?" he said.
The man didn't answer, just opened his arms, and Mike strode to him. They hugged when they met and held each other for a moment.
"You are a sight for sore eyes," Mike said, and he slapped the man's back. "Damn if it ain't good to see you again."
Ty stepped from the porch, and Mike called over to him, "Do you know who this is?"
Ty shook his head.
"This here is an old frienda real old friendI thought I'd never see again." And Mike introduced them.
The man turned to him, and Ty could see that he was now smiling, his face still care-worn but softened and brighter.
"Rich was in Nam," Mike said, as if there was no more that needed to be said.
And there wasn't.
The manRichglanced down, and when he looked up again, the smile had faded. Ty understood in that moment, as Mike put his arm around Rich's shoulders, that something about Vietnam had affected him deeplychanged him forever.
"Come inside," Mike said to Rich. "Let's get some beer into you."
And the three men went to the house, Mike's arms now around both their shoulders.
Rich hardly had a word for Ty. He'd come to see Mike, and even with Mike he didn't have a lot to say. As they sat and talked, he told them a bit about where he'd been in Vietnam and what he'd done there. He'd been infantrya grunt, in countryapparently for long stretches of time. But it all seemed like a pat little speech he'd told often before. There were no details.
He took a pack of Camels and a lighter from his leather jacket and smoked one cigarette after another, until the air in the room became a blue-gray haze.
Meanwhile, Mike sat listening to him, his cap set in front of him on the table, sweat streaks on his face, tanned except for his forehead, which was pale from wearing a cap in the sun. There was dust and a few hay leaves in the hair on his arms.
"You're staying for a while I hope," he said after their second bottle of beer.
Rich smiled and said, "If you'll have me."
And Mike said, "Make yourself at home." He got up then and said he had to go check on the irrigation wells. "There's plenty more beer in the fridge, and water in the pool out back. Ty can show you."
The reference to himself meant more to Ty than it may have seemed to Rich. There was a hint of concern in Mike's face. He was telling Ty to look after Rich while he was gone.
But sitting there the whole while, hardly saying a word, Ty had already felt a yearning in his heart for this man. The troubled expression in his eyes never really lifted, though it was clear that somehow and for some reason, Mike meant the world to him. After everyone else and everything had failed him, Mike was his lifesaver.
And Mike was asking Ty to help.
Mike drove off in his pickup, and the two of them shared a long silence before Rich got up for another beer.
"You want one?" he asked.
Ty, who'd tried one beer and was feeling unsteady, not used to alcohol, said no and waved his hand to make sure Rich understood.
Sitting down again, still in his leather leggings, Rich extended one foot in front of him, his heavy buckled boot resting on the edge of the heel.
"So what's your story?" he said, finally looking at Ty, who had got up to pour himself another glass of ice water.
Ty considered telling him something brief and casualhis own pat speech that he'd told many times before, leaving out most of the details. But he stopped, realizing it wasn't the truth anymore. For the first timeif he was going to tell the truth, and somehow this man deserved ithe'd be telling this new thing that he didn't yet have words for.
"I used to be in seminary, studying to be a minister," he began, wondering if the beer had loosened his tongue, and he set out to tell Rich everything.
At first he worried about having to explain how he'd got himself into trouble at the church. There was that encounter with the stranger in the park. But when he told it, Rich simply nodded, like he'd heard stories like this before.
"You walked out just like that?" he said when Ty was finished.
"I guess so," Ty said, still not sure that he'd done the right thing.
"Guess, nothin'. You did good," Rich said and opened another bottle of beer. "Ever get the feeling you can't trust anybody?
"I trust Mike."
"Well, Mike isn't just anybody."
Ty agreed and sipped on his glass of ice water. "There's a question I've been wanting to ask you."
Rich just looked at him and shrugged.
"How do you know Mike?" Ty said.
Rich took a deep breath and didn't say anything for a while. "I was just a kid," he said. "Long time ago. He kind of took me under his wing."
He frowned, and his look said there were reasons why it wasn't something he cared to remember.
"I'd almost forgot about Mike," he finally said. "When you come back stateside, you and everything else have changed so much, you can't even remember who you were when you left."
Ty listened, watching a cloud pass across Rich's face, like he was peering through a window into a darkened room.
"Mike had a nephew, a little bastard named Kirk." There was a long pause as he stared at the ash at the end of his cigarette. "I loved that sonofabitch." Then he tapped the ash into the jar lid he'd been using as an ashtray and took a last drag from it before stubbing it out. "Like I said, you can't trust anybody."
"Do you think you could trust me?"
"I don't even know you." Rich said it like Ty was a fool to even ask.
Rich stood abruptly, his chair scraping against the linoleum, and he pulled off his tee shirt. A small, vividly colored tattoo of a dragon appeared on his chest.
"I know where the pool is," he said. "You don't have to show me."
Then he walked out to the side porch, sitting on the top step to pull off his boots, which he tossed down into the grass. Then he was getting himself undressed and walking naked to the pool.
Ty watched from the kitchen, the man's skin pale even in the shade of the trees as he climbed to the deck and flung himself into the water.
Continued . . .
© 2006 Rock Lane Cooper