Mike and Danny: Forever
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 and his father were a pair, so people said when Mike was a little boy. There were pictures to prove it. Snapshots of Mike in his aviator cap with the earflaps and a heavy, little boy's wool coat standing with his father, beaming at the camera, beside the snowman they'd just made. Snapshots of him in summer shorts, his face and arms sunburned, laughing as his father held him upside down by the ankles.
There were morealways the look on his face of a boy who adored the man who was holding his hand or hugging him. His favorite was one of himself stepping with bare feet into his dad's big work shoes. The tops of them came almost to his knobby, little-boy knees.
Then it all ended with Pearl Harbor and the war. When Mike was three, his father became an enlisted man in Uncle Sam's armed forces, and the pictures stopped. Instead there was a single photo of his fatherVance, as everyone called hima PFC in his uniform, which sat for four years on an upright piano in his grandparents' house, where Mike and his mother had lived for most of the war.
His mother took a job at the ordnance planthe never understood until years later that ordnance was weapons and ammunition. She and the other women who worked there were making guns, and bullets for the guns carried by the men who'd gone off to fight the enemy. Meanwhile, he and his older sister Rachel were taken care of by his grandmother, a woman who got through her days with nips from a bottle of homemade plum brandy she kept with the cups and saucers in a kitchen cupboard.
His father returned when the war was over"unscratched," as he liked to say, having survived Omaha Beach and the long trek across Europe to some place in Bavaria, where they met up with troops of Russians coming the other way. There had been a celebrationa real victory party in a mountain village, with singing and dancing and firing their weapons into the night skythough no one knew a word of each other's language. It was a story he liked to tell, until years later during the Cold War. The Russians had become the new enemy, and no one cared to hear about it anymore.
The war had changed a lot of things. Eight years old now, going on nine, Mike was no longer the little boy his father had rememberedtoo old for hugs, too big for holding upside down by the ankles. There was a distance between father and son that lingered for a while and never truly went away.
And though he could not understand it at the time, Mike felt a yawning distance grow between his parents. Once they had settled into the three-bedroom house his father had found on the outskirts of town, it was only a short while before the fighting between them started. There were voices raised after the children had gone to bed at nightangry voicesand his parents began what became a history of never-ending disputes.
By the time Mike started high school, his sister was already married and living in Utah, and his mother had moved outher whereabouts less certain. His father, for years a long-haul trucker, saw less and less of Mike, as he met a woman in Florida who didn't fight with him and offered him the comforts of home and companionship that had long eluded him in that three-bedroom house on the outskirts of town.
When Mike signed up for the Air Force after high school, he already thought of himself as living on his own, half glad to be a grown-up and the years until then well behind him. When his best buddy Don had married and left him like everyone else, he figured this was pretty much the way life was. There was no point getting attached to people. They were always letting go and moving on.
His father had tried to make up for it when Mike got back from the service in '62. Mike had found a farm to rent, where he could have the life he'd always dreamed of havingout in the country, working hard in the outdoors, being his own man.
"Come down to Florida," his father had said on his last return trip to Nebraska. His new wife Amanda was in real estate and said there was no end of people moving there and looking for a place to live. There was talk of a big new Disneyland, and the place was just going to boom.
"Dad, I'm not interested in real estate."
"But you can make a lot of moneymore than you'll ever make being a farmer." His dad was completely sold on the idea and wouldn't take no for an answer. "You gotta see reason, Mike. You don't know the first thing about farming. You're going to be working your ass off and for next to nothing."
"Well, sir, there you're wrong. You have no idea what I know and don't know."
"But look at this place." They were sitting at Mike's kitchen table, an old dinette set he'd bought at a farm sale, the Formica top worn and scuffed. "You can do better than thisa lot better."
"I'm going to do better, dad. I'm gonna do fine."
"You're already holding down another job just to afford this place."
"I haul milk for Fairacres, yes sir, but that won't last forever. Some day I'll have a big operation, and it'll be a full-time businessa farm businessbut I have to work up to it. Just like you did, with the trucking."
"That was different."
"No, it wasn't. You made a go of it, dad, and some day you'll see, I'm gonna do it, too. I'll be just like you."
"But where you gonna find a nice girl these days who wants to be a farmer's wife?"
"Dad, I'm not getting married, so don't start worryin' about that."
"Son, don't go by what went on between your mom and me. We stayed together for you and your sister, and maybe that was a mistake. It gave you the wrong idea. Two people can live together and be happy with each other. If you came down to Florida with Amanda and me, you'd see."
Mike, of course, knew by now he was too queer to ever marry. But that was something he'd never discuss with his father. And it was another reason for staying where he wasfar away from his dad, who didn't need to get suspicious about the absence of women in his life and the men who passed through it instead.
As they talked that time, he felt a growing impatience with his father and realized that inside him there were years of bottled-up anger for all the times his dad was somewhere else or locked in cold silences that were part of the eternal wrangling with his mother.
"What were the two of you always fighting about anyway?" he wanted to know.
"That's water under the bridge," his father said, dismissing the subject.
"It isn't for me. Why was it so hard for the two of you to just get along?"
His father studied Mike's face for a moment, like he was considering how to answer the question, or whether to answer it at all.
"You know where your mother went when she left us?" he finally said.
"Reno, I heard."
"That was for the divorce. She went to Seattle."
"Why there?" It seemed a long way to go just to get away.
His father leveled a look at him and then said flatly, "To go live with another man."
She had met him during the war, he explained, worked with him at the ordnance plant where he was a shift supervisor. "I found out who he was, and I wanted to kill him. I'd risked my life and been shot at, and here he was safe and sound and having himself a good old time with any soldier's wife or girlfriend willing to fool around."
Mike had found this all hard to believe.
"You sure you ain't making some of this up?" he said. "Who was this guy anyway?"
"You don't need to know that. He's gone now anyway."
But his father wasn't finished. The fights had started when Mike's dad had found out, and though she'd sworn the affair was over, he hung onto his doubts. As the trucking business had grown, he'd been on the road more and more, and when he was out of town, he was sure sometimes they'd been together.
Learning all thisthe details like being cut with broken glassMike had sunk into a kind of shock, until he closed both of his fists on the table and said as calmly as he could, "Enough, enough."
He wasn't convinced. For all he knew, his father had driven her to italways distrusting her, as good as forcing her into the arms of someone else. After all, as hard as it had been living with his mother all those years, Mike still remembered her as someone who could care for him when she wanted.
"I just wanna know one thing," he said. "Did you ever love each other?"
"What kind of question is that? Of course, we did."
And his father spoke of being just-married and struggling to make ends meet in those years of the Great Depression. Then less than a year after the wedding, Rachel was born, and there were suddenly three of them.
"We decided to wait to have you, until times got better."
"Yes, you know what that means, don't you?"
Mike had an idea, but he didn't want to hear the details.
"Hell, I can tell you the night your mother and I got you started. It wasn't supposed to happen, but we weren't thinking about you, just loving each other." His father laughed, a little sadly. "Your mother had her own way of explaining it. She always said you got tired of waiting."
So he'd been a mistake, Mike learned, but somehow proof that his parents loved each other. As he considered this, he thought he liked his mother's version of it better.
His dad glanced at his watch and stopped talking then, finished the beer he'd been drinking, and got up to go. Whatever the business was that had brought him back to Nebraska, it was done, and he wanted to get back on the road to Florida. He gave Mike a bear hug, and told him to think about what he said.
"I will, dad," he said, though he knew he wouldn't.
This was all history now. Some time later, he had spoken of it to Danny, after they'd been together for a while. Danny, whose father lived in town, was curious about why Mike had no family anywhere nearby, though he'd grown up here.
Mike had been willing to talk about his father, but he'd said little about his mother, only that after years of being unhappy together, his parents had split up, each moving awayone east, one west.
"Seattle and Florida?" Danny had wondered aloud. "That's about as far apart as they could get."
"I'm sure they like it that way."
Then, out of the blue, family showed up again, this time in the form of Mike's nephew Kirk, a chronic runaway, who wouldn't stay put where he belonged with Mike's sister Rachel in Utah. Still, it made a kind of sense when it happened. Nobody in his family seemed to want to be anywhere near the ones supposed to be closest to them.
And Kirk, for that matter, hadn't stayed long. He was an orphan in a storm of his own making, and survived by mostly keeping one step ahead of trouble until he'd eventually settled down with a rancher in the Sandhills, a safe distance from kin, true to form.
Now, with Danny there and with Rich and Ty moved in, too, Mike had what felt like a family to come home to. He'd begun to believe after eight years that Danny was really there to stay. They were a couple.
And though Rich and Ty had up and left for Phoenix to start a life there together, it had secretly pleased Mike when it didn't work out, and they were back under his roof again eating his home cooking, and sleeping together in the back bedroom. He loved them both, like they were his little brothers, now grown into men, and he was hoping that Phoenix would never come up again. They belonged right here.
Turned out, he didn't know his father's whole story after all. He phoned on the Sunday after Thanksgiving to say he was going to be in town, and he wanted to get together with Mike. He had something to tell him.
"Is it about mom?" he wanted to know.
"No" came his father's voice, kind of hesitant, like he was already bracing himself for what was going to be hard to say.
"Are you OK, dad?" Mike said, suddenly wondering if his father, who was always healthy, had suddenly developed cancer or heart trouble. It was a prospect that had never occurred to him until this moment.
"No, Mike, I'm fine," he said, but there was no disguising the concern in his voice.
"Guess I'm gonna have to wait to find out."
"Yes, it'll be easier that way."
Easier on who, Mike wondered, his dad or himself.
Two days later he was in town, having flown in from Florida. He'd rented a car at the airporta big Chryslerand arrived on an afternoon of leaden skies and snow flurries. He made his usual complaint about Nebraska weather, always too hot or too cold.
Mike considered the usual comeback, that if you stuck around it would change soon enough, but he decided it wasn't worth the effort. Let his dad get to whatever it was he'd come all the way from Florida to say.
Mike was in his coveralls, big insulated boots on his feet. He'd been working in one of the shedsa big, new one where he kept his new harvester. There was room enough inside to park his truck, too, or any equipment that needed upkeep or repairs. He'd installed an oil-burning stove that kept the place warm enough in the cold months to work out there for hours at a time.
He wanted to show it all to his father, who'd been so sure Mike would not make a go of it as a farmer. This, the harvester, and the grain dryers he'd put in across the place were proof that he was doing OKpaying off his debts, at least, to the bank in town where he'd got the loans to pay for it all. Even his pickup, though he'd bought it used, was in good shapeno rust or dents, and just a few scratches.
His father had taken an interest, but there was something weighing on his mind, you could tell. And he finally came out with it.
There were two other people in town Mike needed to know abouta woman and her son. The woman, Estelle, had been a friend of his father's. She had worked for him for a while, keeping the books for his trucking company and doing the taxes. Her son was a teenagerhis name was Joe Allen.
"I'm his father," his dad said.
Mike was stunned. He could think of only one thing.
"Is that why my mother left us?"
"No. She was already gone by then. So were you, mostly."
Then he begged Mike not to hate him for what he'd done. They were two lonely people with little more than heartache in common. She'd lost her husband in Korea and there had never been anyone else after him. He'd felt sorry for her, and there had been a few times when they'd spent the night together.
Another mistake of his father's was all Mike could think. "Why didn't you marry her?" he said.
"She didn't want to marry. Not me anyway." He was past forty by thenstarting to lose his hair, getting a gutand she was still in her twenties, with memories of an eighteen-year-old lover who had married her just before shipping out.
"So what are you telling me, dad? I have a brother?"
Mike was a confusion of mixed emotions. "Why are you telling me this now?"
"Because he's in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
"He grew up without a father. She wanted it that way. He wasI don't knowthe child her and her husband were supposed to have. That's all I've ever been able to figure out."
Now, at sixteen, he wasaccording to his motherrunning around with a bunch of delinquents. He'd been to juvenile court already, after a break-in at the school, which resulted in some minor damage before he and one of his pals had been caught by two town cops who discovered the broken window where they'd got in. The judge had given him a stern lecture and told his mother he needed someone with a firm hand to keep him in line. Next time he wouldn't get off so easy.
"That's when she called me," he went on.
"You've been in Florida for years. How did she know where to find you?"
"I've been sending her money all along. I've owed her at least that."
Mike was turning this over in his mind, wondering how much was true, how much half true. His father had kept this from him for all these years. How could he be sure what to believe?
"I don't get why you're telling me all this," he said.
"Like the judge said, the boy needs a firm hand. There's nobody knows him here who can do that for him."
"You don't mean me."
"I'm too far away to do it. Who else am I going to ask?"
The old surge of anger swept through Mike again. "So you're going to duck out of this one," he said. "Just like you ducked out on me."
His father seemed about to burstwith his own rage at life's disappointmentsbut he took a deep breath and said, "I loved you like anything when you were a little boy. And I never stopped loving you. The war fucked up all thatbetween you and me, between me and your mother."
Mike was still angry. He wondered how much of this was just his dad feeling sorry for himself, not taking the blame for what was his fault.
"I wanted to be this boy's father. Don't think I didn't. It was like a second chance for me," his father said.
Mike shook his head. "I don't believe this."
"I want you to meet him. He's a good boy. Just needs someone to look up to. A big brother."
I'm already a big brother, Mike wanted to say, thinking of Rich and Ty. He'd had delinquent family pushed on him beforeKirk, who'd been a pain in the ass from day one until he'd taken off again for the last time. He preferred choosing his own siblings.
"I don't like this, dad. I don't want to take on your responsibility."
"I know you didn't ask for this, but he's kin. You owe him, too."
Mike stood there, his hands shoved in the pockets of his coveralls, staring at the concrete floor of the shed. The oil heater purred softly in the silence.
"Just meet him" his dad said, almost pleading.
Mike met his father's gaze now and something in him relented. There was a boy in troublehow much did it really matter that it was his father's son? If he could put that part of it out of his mind, maybe there'd be room for him in his heart.
"OK, dad," he said. "No promises, you understand, but I'll meet him."
Joe Allen was a pistol, and since Mike never expected to like him, getting to know him was awkward at first. During the day, he was usually hanging around the Dairy Queen. At night you'd find him at the bowling alley, where there were pinball machines, and before closing he and his friends could walk along where the bowlers had sat, looking for unfinished bottles of beer.
His best pal, Rory, was the son of a former church elder with a double-life who was doing time in the state pen for extortion and various other felonies, and Rory seemed well practiced himself at breaking whatever commandments that years of Sunday School had once taught him to obey.
The two boys skipped school, smoked and cursed, and stayed out late. Rory's mother, when she was around, had tried to keep them apart, believing that Joe Allen was the bad apple. Anyone who met them both could tell it was the other way around. Joe Allen had taken after his buddy right down to the unlaced racing sneakers they both wore.
If there was any difference between them, it was that Joe Allen also had a girlfriend. The daughter of the high school band director, she could play five different musical instruments and she was working on a sixththat being the whistle, as he liked to call it, in Joe Allen's pants.
"Precocious," was Danny's word for it. "Makes my rebellious youth look pretty tame by comparison."
"I didn't know you had one," Mike said. "If you did, maybe you could give me some help with this."
"Way outta my league," Danny said, shaking his head.
Not that either Joe Allen or even Rory were bad boys. A person could tell that, at sixteen, all their wrong turns took something of an effort. They were trying to show they were tough enough for this world, and they were bluffing it until one day they got it right. Meanwhile, it was still an uphill climb.
What it took to change all that was someone not trying to stop it from happening, which wouldn't do any good anyway, but diverting all that misspent energy. The juvenile judge who'd let Joe Allen go after breaking into the school had been half right. A firm hand would help, yes, but a firm hand that could show some tenderness, too. He needed to discover that a real man was both tough and tender.
"Firm and friendly. That's straight out of Dr. Spock," Danny told Mike, always ready from the sidelines with what he considered a helpful observation.
"Here, you know so much, you do this," Mike said, impatient with the whole situation his father had gotten him into.
"You're doing fine," Danny would say. "You're just what he needs."
Rich and Ty were of the same opinion. They'd met Joe Allen on a couple of his visits to the farm, curious to know about this half-brother he never knew he had.
"He likes you," Rich said. "And he wants you to like him." He'd noticed that Joe Allen had taken to tying his shoes after Mike had asked him to explain to them why he didn't.
Ty agreed. "I even think he wants to be like you," he said.
"That won't last," Mike said. "Not when he finds out what I'm thinking."
What he was thinking was that Joe Allen was going to have to really shape up. No more skipping school, no more staying out late at night, andthis would be the hardest partno more hanging out with his pal Rory, if Rory wasn't going to shape up, too.
"What about the girlfriend?" Danny wondered.
"None of that stuff either. Sixteen is too young to start having sex."
"Weren't you about that age?"
"Yeah, that's how I know."
"Want some advice? Make sure he knows about rubbers."
"Doesn't that kind of go against what I just said?" Mike said. "Besides, where's he gonna get 'em?"
What Mike wasn't sure of was how to bring this all up. Then Joe Allen presented him with an opportunity.
"Can I move in with you guys?" he wanted to know after one of his visits to the farm. The idea of living with three grown menfour when Danny was therehad immense appeal for a teenager who'd lived all his life with just his mother. She'd always called him the man of the house, and it was something he never liked hearing. A man would be in charge, but he wasn't in chargeso it was a lie.
"You got your own home," Mike told him. It was a Saturday night. They'd spent the day together, and he was driving Joe Allen back to his mother's house in town. "Anyway, we don't have room for you."
And that was supposed to be that.
But Joe Allen wasn't done with the idea. There was a roll-away bed he could get, and he could sleep in the back bedroom with Rich and Ty.
"That ain't gonna work," Mike said, not even beginning to imagine what it would mean to the two men to have to share their room with a third person.
Then, as he drove the rest of the way, he saw an opening for an idea of his own.
"Tell you what, you agree to some things, and I'll let you sleep over on the couch whenever you want."
Joe Allen brightened up at this. "What? What things?" he wanted to know.
"A bunch of stuff is gonna have to change," Mike said. There were going to be some rules from now on. No two ways about it. And he laid out all his conditions.
They were sitting in the truck now in front of Joe Allen's house, and he was silent as he weighed all this for a minute. But a minute was all it took.
"Yeah, Mike, I can do that."
"All of it?"
Joe Allen swallowed hard and then said, "Yeah, all of it."
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper