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.
Craig had been running for miles along the gravel roads that bordered the riverhe didn't know for how longsimply following the zig-zag turns and sloping bends where winter cottonwoods and willows stood stark and leafless in the fence lines and old beer cans thrown from passing cars showed through the shriveled, dead weeds. The season for farming was long over, and the fields lay still and fallow, in rows of stubble where corn had been harvested, or harrowed into flat blankets of turned earth and stalks, waiting for a covering of snow.
The only other signs of life besides the sound of his shoes on the frozen surface of the road were black crows in the trees, watching as he ran along below or cawing as they flew off, wings flapping on the cold air. And there were a few cows that foraged in the fields for fallen ears of corn.
There was almost no one else out on the road. Only a pickup once in a while or a car slowing to pass him, the drivers looking over at him curiously as they went by, the men maybe nodding and lifting a finger or two from the steering wheel, the women barely acknowledging him. The looks he got told him that running was not something people did out here in the countryyou didn't spend that kind of energy unless there was a need for it. Farm work consumed all the energy most people had to spare.
But what passed in his field of vision scarcely registered on his awareness. The running required little effort. It was more like being swept along on a tidea tide of forgetting. Thoughts lifted, like the crows above him in flight, and he became simply his body, legs moving mechanically under him, breath filling his lungs, heart pumping and blood rushing through him, warming him as he went.
Running like this took him out of himself. There was no Craig the husband and father, the teacher, the responsible citizen. There was just thisa rhythm, a kind of floating above it all, a welcome mindlessness.
And he became almost content with the worldno worries, no dread, no regret. He felt like he could go on doing this for hours. And though he'd worn his watch, he didn't want to know what time it was. He didn't want anything that would bring him back to earth.
At the end of it all, he would find a pleasant exhaustion, reality held at bay as he stripped out of his running gear and stood naked in a hot shower, the water drumming against his skin, washing away anything still left of an old self, eyes closed and making it last as long as possible.
And the relief might last as he dried himself off with a towel, got back into his clothes, and picked up his life where he'd left it. The memory of having escaped that life for a while would linger and then gradually fade as the day wore on.
Before Tully found him at the river, he remembered taking a look at the sun and noticing that it was slipping into a scrim of thin clouds in the western sky. He'd come to a thick grove of trees and brush that ran along the edge of the main channel.
Looking along the length of an old bridge ahead of him, he had stopped, curious at the sight of water slowly flowing under it. He jogged out to the middle for a better view of the whole river. Ice clung to the branches of the brush along the edges of the stream, and he stood for a while, letting his eye follow the current as it showed in ripples on the water's surface.
Which is how Tully found him, as he came driving along the bridge in his pickup. Craig didn't know how long he'd been standing there. He was already feeling the cold seeping into his sweatpants. A wind had come up, and the sunlight had dimmed.
For some reason, Tully had stopped instead of driving on. Maybe it was just the way of country people, not ready to pass by if there's need of a Good Samaritan. They'd been talking for a while before Craig fully understood what Tully wanted to knowwhether he needed help of any kind.
He thought for a moment and found himself saying, "I think I'm lost." And as he said it, he realized it was true. He had no clear memory of how to get back to Mike's farmand no sense of how he'd got to where he was.
"Get in," Tully had said. As it turned out, he knew where Mike lived and was even headed in that direction.
Tully turned up the heat in the cab because Craig had begun shivering. It puzzled him that he'd got so cold, and he wondered how long he'd been just standing there in the middle of the bridge, staring at the water.
Meanwhile, Tully was making conversation. He was a middle-aged man, older than Craig, friendly in the way of country people, no different from the farmers and ranchers he'd known who did business with his father, who ran a grain elevator in the little South Dakota town where he'd grown up.
"You livin' over at Mike's?" Tully asked.
"No, I'm just a friend of Danny's. We work together."
"Good men, those two," Tully said. "Good neighbors, too."
Then, getting almost all the way to Mike's farm, they'd encountered the caravan of vehicles coming in search of him, Mike in the lead.
"Looks like the posse's come after you," Tully said.
They were all trying not to seem concerned, but it was clear to Craig that his absence had worried them. He wanted to assure them that there was nothing wrong with him, but he couldn't answer, even for himself, how he'd managed to do what he did. He'd been disoriented before, running in some new place, but he'd always been able to find his way back. This time had been different.
Back at the house, he'd finally been able to convince them he was OK and that it was all kind of a joke at his own expense. He'd even convinced himself. It wasn't until after they'd gone to town later that he began thinking it over and a hollow sorrow began to fill him.
He recognized it as a feeling he'd been having now for months. It had grown deeper over that time, lurking in the shadows to overtake him when he least expected. Running mile after mile had been a way of trying to put it behind him. But it wouldn't stay there. In fact, it had been waiting for him all along on the bridge, and looking down into the flowing water, he'd felt it creeping closer around him.
Being here at Mike's this weekend, he saw he'd been alone with this feeling for a long time, and that it was a relief to be among men there was no reason to hide from. He was safe among friends, who would come looking for him if they thought he might be in trouble.
Alone now in the house, he turned on the TV for company and found a beer in the refrigerator. He sat watching "All in the Family," discovering that he was unable to follow or care about Archie Bunker's rants. So he switched channels until he found a western, "Alias Smith and Jones." The plot didn't make much sense, but the two handsome men in cowboy hats gave his eyes something to follow as he sat trying not to think.
But the thoughts came anyway. Here he was in the middle of his life having hit what was most surely a dead end. He'd done what he was supposed to do. He'd married and fathered children. He'd got a good education, he'd got a good job, and he was building a reputation for himself. He was healthy and kept himself in good shape. Meanwhile, he was providing for the family that depended on him.
The only problem was that he'd fallen in love with another man, and that was fucking up everything. Well, no, that wasn't it exactly. He could love another man and still manage his own life. But the other man wanted more than that. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with Craig and was willing to give up what he hada wife and kids of his ownto have what he wanted.
That's where the fuck-up was. It was forcing Craig to make a decision. When he'd let himself imagine a life with Brad, enjoying each other's company as they grew old together, part of him almost cried aloud in yearning for it. The other part could not give up what he hadcould not desert the family that depended on him. He could never hurt them or make them unhappy.
He'd already talked this over with Molly. She had faced the fact with him that he'd lost interest in having sex with hercouldn't keep an erection no matter how hard he tried. She could live with that, she said. He was the only man she'd ever loved, and there would be no other. She'd rather have him without sex than not have him at all.
The promise he'd have to make, though, was that he'd never see Brad again. He had to tell Brad that it was over for them. They could never meet or talk or even write to each other. She didn't say it, but she meant for him to stay away from every other man, too.
There was in him the will power to make such a commitment. But as he thought of steeling himself to never touch another man, the weight he felt in his chest was unbearable. He might be able to do that one day at a time, but not if he knew it was for a lifetime.
And then there were his kids. Could his teenage boys ever understand what had happened to this father they so admired and looked up towho had always been a hero in their eyesand so clearly wanted to grow up just like him. And his daughter, still too young to understand much about love and sex, having to explain this all to her.
And after that, of course, everyone else who knew him and Molly, their two families, and all of their friends. There would be the shame of divorce, yes, but leaving Molly for another man, not a woman, would double the shame. No one could forgive him for that. Every one of them would take her side, and then there would be all the speculation and the gossip about the two of them.
She couldn't go on living in the same town, Molly had said late one night as they sat up talking through her tears. She'd take the children and go back to her family in South Dakota. She hadn't made it sound that way, but it seemed like a threat. She would take his children away, and they would grow up without him.
This, he knew, would break his heart. It was his kids that had kept him in the marriage all these years. How would he go home at night to an empty house, at least until he and Brad could get a place together somewhere? And could they even find jobs near enough to each other to actually do that?
Still, he felt, somehow it could be done. He'd disciplined himself to live the life he'd lived so far. It would just take another kind of will power. All to have the touch of another man. True, there was more to it than that. But he didn't know how much of it was his growing affection for Brad and how much was simply carnal desire.
As he and Brad made love, Brad's cock buried in him, their mouths joined in deep kisses, could he honestly believe giving up his family for this was a fair trade? Which, finally, outweighed the other? Either way he looked at it, there was so much to lose.
Yet what would become of him without Brad? Knowing they would meet again had always kept his spirits from sinking as he counted down the months and weeks until they found themselves together once more in some hotel room in some city somewhere. How bleak would the rest of his life become without the promise of that? Did he have any real choices at all?
He realized he'd been staring at a commercial for toothpaste, while from the kitchen the telephone had been ringing. Since it was not in him to let a phone ring and ring without someone answering it, he went to the kitchen and picked up the receiver.
"Hello?" he said.
"Is Mike there?" someone said. It was a young voice, sounding anxious and upset.
"It's Joe Allen. I need to talk to Mike."
Craig explained there was nobody there but himself. "They all went to town."
"Aw, shit," Joe Allen said. It was the nearest thing to a mournful cry of despair.
But there was just Joe Allen gabbling and too worked up and confused to make sense. Something about a hat and another car on the highway.
"Where are you calling from?"
"Are you hurt?"
"No, it's Rory. He's dyin'."
"Rory, my best friend. Aw, shit. When's Mike gonna be back?"
"I don't know." He looked at the clock on the wall. "It could be hours."
"I'm scared. I need Mike herereal bad." Craig could hear a catch in the boy's voice. He was choking back a storm of emotions. Then, before he could find out anything else, there was the sound of Joe Allen hanging up.
Craig looked out the window, and in the darkness thought he could see Danny's Camaro parked in the shadows. He put on his coat and ran out to it, the yard gate swinging shut with a clang behind him. He pulled open the car door, and there, hanging from the ignition, were the keys.
He ran back into the house and scribbled a note to Mike that he left on the kitchen table, and soon he was driving out to the road and toward the lights of town.
He'd had to stop at a filling station to ask for the way to the hospital. When he got there, he parked near the ER and hurried inside, but there was no sign of Joe Allen in the waiting room.
He stopped a nurse who told him that a boy had been brought in earlier, and he'd just gone into surgery. She wasn't sure but she thought he'd been in some kind of accident out on the highway.
"That's all I know," she said and turned away from him to hurry off.
"Was there anyone here with him? Another boy?" Craig said.
"Did you look in the waiting room? It's down the hall," she said pointing.
"He's not there."
"Maybe outside? People go out there to smoke."
"He's just a kid."
"Kids don't smoke?" She gave him a look of disbelief and was gone.
He eventually found Joe Allen behind a van in the parking lot, taking a last drag of a cigarette that was burned down to the filter. He was huddled in a denim jacket, a stocking cap pulled down to his ears, shaking from the cold and stomping his feet. As he turned, Craig could see a bandage taped above one eye.
"Is Mike with you?" the boy said, hopefully.
"They went to the movies. It's just me." In the dim light, Craig could see tears frozen in the boy's eyelashes.
"They're operatin' on him," Joe Allen said. "The doc says they're gonna try and save his leg."
It was hard getting the straight story out of him. He seemed torn in every direction, his thoughts jumping from one thing to another.
"Aw, man, the cops were here and had all these questions," he said, but when Craig tried to get him to say what they wanted to know, he was off again remembering something else. "I thought he was dead. He was just lying there with his eyes rolled up in his head."
Putting the pieces together after a while, Craig understood that Joe Allen and Rory had been out joyriding in a car that belonged, it seemed, to Rory's unclethough Joe Allen had been vague on that point.
"Rory has a drivers license?" Craig said, and Joe Allen was vague about that, too.
They'd been somewhere outside of town on the highway. Some friends in another car had been chasing themmaybe they were friends, maybe they weren'tand they'd managed to ditch them on a country road.
More vague details. Driving with their lights off, cutting through some farmer's field, maybe even beating a train across the railroad tracks.
But Joe Allen was jumping ahead to the scene of the accident, which was all that mattered to him. They'd been on the highway, Rory driving and Joe Allen in the front seat beside him. Rory had this cowboy hat he'd got somewhere, and when he was having a good time, he liked to act like he was a cowboyespecially when he was driving a car.
"Hell, he loved that damn hat. He'd get to hollerin' `Yee-haw' and jumpin' around in his seat and shit, like we was in some western movie or something. Ridin' a stagecoach or something, except we musta been goin' eighty. And I don't know why I did it, I just grabbed his hat off his head and threw it out the window." He flung his arm to one side. "Like that."
He had another cigarette between his fingers and stopped to light it from a book of matches. The smoke drifted from his nostrils as he slipped the matchbook inside the cellophane of the cigarette pack and then put it into his shirt pocket.
"Mike know you smoke?" Craig said.
"Hell, no, and don't you tell him neither."
Craig had to remind himself that it was a teenagerjust a kidhe was talking to. He was more used to his own boys, and the students in his classes, who were mostly polite to him and respectful. True, Joe Allen was too worked up to be on his best behavioras Craig had seen him that first night in Mike's kitchen. But the difference, as he smoked and swore without apology, was almost unnerving. For someone so young, he'd already grown a rough edge, like he was trying to seem years older.
"So what happened when you threw his hat out the window?"
"He slammed on the brakes so hard I hit the damn windshield." He pointed to the bandage on his forehead. "That's how I got this."
And after backing down the highway, Rory had spotted the hat where it had fallen. It had rolled into the weeds on their side of the road, and he'd got out to retrieve it.
"He was so damn mad at me, kept callin' me a sonofabitch for doin' it." He sucked hard on the cigarette, eyes wincing. "Hell, I was just havin' a little fun."
The old two-lane highway had been as good as deserted, just a pair of headlights coming from way off in the distance behind them. It could have been the car-full of guys following them, and Joe Allen had called out to Rory to hurry up. But Rory had decided to have a piss and was just standing there with his dick out, taking his time.
He'd seen the other car coming and was walking around to get back in, buttoning up his fly, and he would have made it OK except for one problem. When he'd stopped the car, he hadn't pulled off the road, and the driver behind himnot their friends after allhad got confused at the last moment and swerved into the opposite lane with a screeching of tires on the pavement.
Only he hadn't swerved far enough. He'd caught Rory as he was pulling open his door to get in.
"Aw, Jesus," Joe Allen cried, as though it was happening all over again.
He had found Rory lying on the road, groaning in shock and pain. The other driver had turned around and come back, and he'd flagged down another car. And in a while, as he begged Rory not to die, an ambulance and the highway patrol had arrived. Someone had put out bright burning flares, and the night had come alive with flashing red lights.
"I couldn't find his hat again," Joe Allen said. "I looked and looked, and I couldn't find it."
The highway patrol cop had flashed his searchlight up and down the ditch for him, but the thing had disappeared like it had never existed.
"Is anybody else here? Rory's family? Your mom?"
"The cops called my mom. She knows I'm OK." Craig wondered at the truth of this. Nothing would have kept his wife Molly from coming to the hospital, if it had been one of their sons. "And they called Rory's house, but nobody showed up."
"Rory ain't got no real family. He lives with his uncle, and his uncle ain't always home."
Joe Allen flipped his cigarette butt into the shrubbery and after a moment reached for the pack in his pocket.
"You wanna know something?" Joe Allen said. "I'm the only family he's got. I'm the one keeps him out of trouble. I'm the only one cares what happens to himif he even lives or dies."
He pulled open the cigarette pack and felt inside it with one finger. "Shit, it's my last one," he said. "Would you buy me some smokes? I'll give you the money."
"I don't think Mike would want me to do that."
"He doesn't have to know, does he?"
"It's not just Mike," Craig said. "You shouldn't be smoking." And he started to explain about lung cancer and emphysema.
"Forget it," Joe Allen said and put the cigarette back into the pack. He looked over to the hospital and then up into the dark sky, shoving his hands into his pockets, his breath visible on the night air.
"Dammit, it's all my fault," he wailed, the tears welling in his eyes again, and he wiped them away hard with the back of his hand. "Why did I have to go and throw his hat out the window? It was stupid, a stupid joke."
Craig was cold and wanted to go inside. There might also be some news that could help calm the boy. "Let's go in and see what we can find out. Maybe somebody can tell us how long he's going to be in surgery."
But Joe Allen didn't hear him. "Where's Mike?" he said. "Why isn't he here?" He seemed only to want to stay outside, the hospital too full of anxious people and nurses too impatient and too busy to listen to him.
"I left a note for Mike," Craig said. "He'll know where we are."
"I wish he'd hurry up."
He walked around now in a little circle, his head down, a stricken look on his face. "It's all my fault," he said again, and there were more tears.
"No, it's not. It was an accident," Craig said. "You didn't make him step in front of that car."
"But it wouldn't have happened at all if it hadn't been for me."
And Craig tried to explain that what he'd done was only in fun. He hadn't meant any harm. Rory had only himself to blame for getting hurt. But Joe Allen wasn't hearing any of it.
Uncertain what else to say or do, Craig watched as Joe Allen seemed to give up trying to act like a grown man, the tears rolling down his cheeks now, andall the tough talk asideCraig saw him as no more than the boy he was. He reached out with one arm and pulled Joe Allen toward him.
And the boy didn't resist. He let Craig hold him, as he sobbed against his shoulder.
What Craig understood at that point came to him as clearly as if it had been written in neon against the night sky. Joe Allenand maybe Rory, too, if what he'd heard was trueneeded a lot of things, but most of all he needed a father. A good one.
A good father did not abandon his sons, no matter what. He didn't leave them to grow up on their own. A boy needed someone to look after him, to see that he got a good start in life, to show him what a real man is and does.
This, finally, was a father's job. A man might have to make sacrifices to do that, even big and painful ones. But having brought sons into the worlddaughters, toohe owed it to them. It was too hard and too lonely for them otherwise.
He would tell Brad that. He would tell him that he had a job to do, and until he could consider that job done, he could not leave his family. If Brad loved him, he could wait for that day. He liked to think that Brad could love him enough to wait, but if he didn't, that would be OK, too. No matter how difficult it turned out to be for him, he'd know he'd done the right thing.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper