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.
It was not a hard sell for any of them. Rich and Ty had already taken a liking to the boy, and all Danny wondered was whether five men weren't too many for just one bathroom. It was only Joe Allen's mother, Estelle, who seemed to need some persuading. On a chilly Friday evening in mid-December, she invited Mike to her house for supper.
It felt strange that night knowing that this woman setting fried chicken and mashed potatoes onto the table had slept years ago with his father. He knew enough of the worldand wasn't sure enough of his fatherto wonder exactly how it might have happened. But he allowed himself no more than to imagine her, a young widow, finding solace in an older man's arms. He didn't want to think that his father might have taken advantage of her, or even set out to seduce her.
For her part, if she was curious about Mike, she kept most of it to herself. She was either too polite or too timid to ask. He realized there was little he could say to reassure her that his intentions were sound. As she sat across from him, telling Joe Allen to pass him the plates of food and to get him more coffee from the kitchen, Mike knew that she was already making up her mindrelying on her feelings, and nothing that he said, to decide whether to trust him. He hoped it wasn't his father that she saw in him but that she would judge him as someone who was his own man.
"Your father tells me you have a farm?" she asked him.
"Yes, ma'am. Just east of town. In the river bottom."
"You're not married?"
"No, I'm not."
He couldn't tell if this mattered one way or another to her. Since both of them were unmarried, maybe it gave them something in common. Or maybe it didn't.
"But Joe Allen says you don't live by yourself."
"That's right. There's some other guys."
And he told her about them, how they were all friends and that he liked having them there.
"They're all good men like yourself?" she asked.
He noticed that she didn't smile when she said this. He couldn't tell whether she actually believed he was a good man or that this was her way of expressing her doubt.
"There's not a bad one in the bunch," he said.
She glanced for a moment at Joe Allen, who'd been quiet until now, taking it all in. He was hardly eating, just holding a drumstick between the fingers of both hands.
"Could I meet them?" she asked.
Joe Allen just blinked his big eyes at Mike.
"Sure. When would you like to come over?"
She thought a moment. "How about Sunday after church?"
That settled, the rest of the meal went smoothly enough, right through the chocolate pudding. Meanwhile, Mike began to assume that if she wanted to meet everyone else, she must have been satisfied enough with him.
They talked of other things, spending a while before he left looking at a family picture albumher husband in his Army uniform, wedding photos, and snapshots of Joe Allen taken over the years. From a first birthday party, chubby fingers thick with frosting as he sat in a high chair, to him as a gawky teenager on the front porch swing, making a face at the camera. There was, Mike was relieved to see, not a single photograph of his father.
They were all waiting for him when he got back to the farm, the TV on in the living room, with no one watching it, while Rich and Ty were in the middle of a fierce checkers game on the kitchen table, and Danny was making popcorn.
"How'd it go?" Danny said, walking over to him as he took off his coat and giving him a hug. He'd arrived home for the weekend from his teaching job in Kearney just as Mike was leaving to go have supper with Joe Allen and his mother.
"I think it went OK," he said. "She wants to meet all of you."
He let it drop like a bombshell, just like that. And when they all realized what he'd said, there was laughter and cheering in the room. They were up for it.
In the Saturday they had before she and Joe Allen arrived, Danny went to a Christmas tree lot in town to bring home an earthy-smelling spruce strapped to the top of his car, and Rich and Ty put up a string of colored lights along the porch eaves. Mike went to the supermarket and brought home a brisket of beef to roast, plus baking potatoes, vegetables to cook and two pies.
In the evening they had stood after dark in the front yard and admired the lights, their breaths visible on the cold air as they shivered and drank mugs of hot cider with rum that Ty had made. Then someone broke into a chorus of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and they all joined in.
Back inside, Mike went to a storage closet and took down a wobbly cardboard box full of ornaments that he and Danny had been collecting since they first started living together. And with an LP of carols on the stereo, they decorated the tree and kept drinking Ty's cider.
"You realize," Mike said afterward, as they sat in the glow of the tree, "we're going to have to be on our best behavior whenever Joe Allen is here."
"What do you mean?" Rich said. "We're always on our best behavior."
"I'm thinking of some of the noise I can hear at night after lights out," Mike said.
"Speak for yourself," Rich said. "You and Danny get that bed going thump-thump-thump sometimes. It's enough to keep a man awake."
"When have we ever kept you from sleeping?" Danny laughed. "Who exactly has the squeally giggle I hear from back there just when I'm ready to nod off? I've always wondered about that."
"Don't look at me," Ty said, getting embarrassed.
"It's not a giggle, I'll have you know," Rich said.
"I misspoke," Danny said. "Maybe it's more like a whinny."
"You mean like a horse? Well, we all know I'm hung like one," Rich said.
"Which brings up another thing," Mike said. "No more walking around here buck naked."
"Not much chance of that this time of year," Rich said. "I like to keep my dick tucked in when the snow starts flyin'."
"OK, maybe so, but no loose talk about dicks and stuff like that either," Mike said. "We gotta clean up the language around here, too."
"I promise not to talk about your dick, Mike," Rich said. "We all know you're sensitive about it."
"Look, I'm serious," Mike said. "We need to set an example."
Rich laughed and then walked over to Mike and kissed him. "Before you get to the rule about no kissing, here's the last one of those for you from me." Then he put his arms around him and said, "Me and Ty were talking about all this today when we were up on the roof hanging lights. We got it all covered. We understand the whole deal and you don't have to worry about us."
Mike hugged him back and buried his face against his neck. He loved the feel of Rich in his arms, the strength and courage it took for him to face each day and put his life back together again after Vietnam.
He sat on the arm of Mike's Lay-Z-Boy and said to them all, "You don't know Mike like I do. When I was still a kid, he taught me all the good things I know about being a manthings I'm learning again because I forgot some of them. I'd do anything for this guy."
"And so would we all," Ty said softly and lifted his cider mug.
And they all drank to that.
Afterwards, when they had gone to bed, Danny cuddled against Mike. "You have no idea how much we all love you, do you?" he said.
Mike said nothing. The day had been unlike any he'd known for a long timeall the good feeling had taken him by surprise. For a man who had once thought that he'd be living the rest of his life on his own, the embrace of the men around him in the glow of the Christmas lights had filled his heart just about to bursting.
Maybe so, he wanted to say, not sure that feelings like this ever truly lasted. Instead, he turned to press himself against Danny and hugged him with all his might.
The next morning they were busy with house cleaning, vacuuming the carpet in the TV room, dusting, and taking a broom to the ceiling where Mike discovered cobwebs in the corners. In the kitchen Danny was mopping the floor, cleaning the windows, and wiping down the cupboards and the appliances.
"I wonder if we should be going to church," Ty said, concerned about making the right impression.
"No, thanks," Rich said. "I draw the line there."
"What if she takes us for a bunch of godless heathens?"
"Ty, you ever get a look at yourself in a mirror? Who would ever mistake you for that?"
They'd made the beds and picked up clothes from the floors. And after Danny considered the naked painting of himself on the bedroom wall he decided to put it away in the back of a closet.
"Can't we just leave the bedroom doors closed?" he'd wondered.
"Don't want it to look like we're hiding something," Mike said.
"Well, we are kind of, aren't we? Does she know we're all queer?"
"There's no need to bring that up."
"What if she asks?"
"Then we tell her."
"Right. It's always good to know you've thought everything through."
"Are we done discussing this?"
"I think we are."
"Good. Let's get back to work."
Mike got busy with the cooking and the rest of them took turns in the shower. Then there was a long debate over what to wear as they went from room to room in their socks and underwear, while figuring out the right outfit for Rich, who had nothing but old jeans and beat up sweatshirts.
They finally settled on one of Ty's white shirts and a pair of Danny's khaki pants, which were long enough for his legs but big for his slim frame. He stood looking in the mirror, holding them up at the waist with one hand.
"I gotta put on some weight," he kept saying, like he hadn't noticed before how thin he'd been.
"You got a belt, don't you?" Danny said.
"The one with the studs? Think that'll go with this?"
"Take one of my sweaters. Just pull it down over."
Ty was busy ironing shirts for himself and Danny. He thought it would be spiffy to wear a tie and took a while deciding between the two he hadone black and one dark blue.
"It's not a funeral, Ty," Danny said and handed him one of his own, a deep maroon with a pattern of flowers.
"I dunno," Ty said, still the seminarian. "On me that's gonna look kinda girly."
"Trust me. You're gonna look like you stepped out of GQ." He looked down at Ty's feet. "It won't happen, though, if you're wearing white socks with those dark pants," he said. "You want to match them up."
Ty regarded his feet with dismay and went to put on a different pair.
"What do you think?" Rich said. He was wearing one of Danny's sweaters, and he had pulled on his motorcycle boots.
"You ever think of giving those a shine?" Danny said, pointing to the boots.
"Oh, yeah, shit," Rich said and pulled them off again, while Danny got him Mike's shoe polish kit.
When Ty lifted Danny's shirt from the ironing board and handed it to him, it felt warm on his skin as he slipped it on. Tucking it into his pants, he went out to the kitchen, where Mike had the roast in the oven and was setting the vegetables in pots on the stove to cook later.
"You can set the table," Mike told him. "Silver, best china, crystal."
"Where do we keep those?"
"Oh, right," Mike laughed. "We don't have any."
But he did know where there was a tablecloth, and Danny found it on a top shelf in the bathroom closet where they kept the bath towels.
The room was still a little steamy from their showers, and Rich and Ty had done a mostly good job of cleaning up after themselves. The sink and the cabinet beside it weren't the usual chaos of toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, razors, deodorants, soap chips, and shaving cream cans. They'd even wiped down the toilet and lowered both the seat and the lid. Probably Ty's doingRich wouldn't have thought of that.
"You look handsome," Mike said when he found Danny in the kitchen. "I like those pants. They show off your goods."
They were a new pair of bell bottoms, snug in the crotch, slim in the legs, and flared out around his shoe tops.
"And a tie?"
"That was Ty's idea. He wants us looking like we just came home from church, I think."
Danny unfolded the table cloth on the kitchen table, bending over it to smooth it out.
"Nice from the back, too," Mike said from the stove and laughed. "You guys are gonna make me look like the clodhopper I am."
"You already got all the sex appeal anybody needs," Danny said and kissed him, patting him on the butt. "I could fuck you right here if we didn't have company coming."
Joe Allen and his mother arrived just after noon. It had turned into a brilliant blue-sky day, the sunlight sparkling off the windshield of their old black Chevy Nova as their car came from the road and along Mike's driveway. Joe Allen had been driving, and he parked the car very carefully next to Mike's pickup by the yard gate.
"All I got is my learner's permit," he explained as Mike met them at the porch door. "My mom has to be with me if I go anywhere."
Estelle was carrying a tray with a dish towel over it that turned out to be homemade oatmeal cookies she'd brought for Mike and the rest of them.
Mike, holding the tray she'd handed him, did the introductions as everyone crowded into the kitchen, the air fragrant with the smell of roast in the oven. One at a time they stepped forward and shook her hand. They were a handsome bunch, Mike thought, all dressed up like he'd never seen them before.
Danny, more comfortable with pleasantries, took their coats, and as Estelle took off her practical winter parka, they saw that she was wearing a bright red satin blouse and a long plaid skirt. Her hair fell in soft waves to her shoulders. She was a beautiful woman, Mike thought, and after years of nothing but men in the house, with their rough talk and unpolished manners, just her presence there was something to marvel at.
Joe Allen had dressed for the day, too, in what looked to be a new shirt and stiff new jeans. His sneakers, Mike noted, had been dutifully tied.
They gathered around the Christmas tree for a while as Mike began dishing up the food in the kitchen. He handed Rich a carving knife and told him to cut slices from the roast.
He listened with one ear to the talk coming from the TV room, and it seemed to be mostly Joe Allen telling a long story that was getting comments from Danny. And then there was Estelle's voice, adding something that Joe Allen seemed to have left out.
"Aw, mom," he heard the boy say. "You didn't have to tell 'em that part."
Rich, layering slices of meat with his knife, suddenly said, "This roast looks fuckin'sorrythis roast appears to be highly edible."
Mike laughed. "I think your vocabulary may be improving."
"It ain't easy," Rich said, his voice low and serious. "But it's good for me. I need to learn how to make a good impression. I've been thinking about getting out there and looking for a job. A real one. Not some bullshit oneoh, fuck, there I go again."
There was the sound of laughter now and everyone talking at once from the other room.
Rich kept talking. "I know stuff, you know, wiring, painting, putting up dry wall. I could work for a contractor. Someone who builds houses. Work steady, you know. Make some money."
Mike was listening, mixing flour and milk into the drippings to make a thick, brown gravy.
"I just don't want to leave here, that's all. I can't do it without youyou knowto come home to every night. I really love Ty, just bein' with him, lovin' him, but you're my rock." He put down the knife and took a deep breath.
"I didn't want to say it in front of everybody else last night, but I look at Joe Allen, and I'm no more of a man than he is. I need you the way he does." He paused and looked at the slices of roast. "You want these to go on some kind of plate?"
"Yeah," Mike said and pointed to one in the open cupboard.
"I know it's not fair to you," Rich said, reaching for the plate. "And if I'm askin' too much, tell me now or tell me later, but I gotta be honest. That's the way it is."
"I'll be honest, too," Mike said. "I didn't want you to leave here in the first place. And if you never do again, I'll be a happy man."
"You really mean that?"
As the voices rose again in the other room, Mike said simply, "Hell, yes."
Rich laughed and shook his head as he went back to work. "You really do mean it."
The Sunday dinner seemed to be a success. Mike sat at one end of the table and Estelle at the other, with Joe Allen next to her. Danny sat between Joe Allen and Mike, and Rich and Ty had the other side for themselves.
Because they wanted to know, Estelle talked for a while about her job at the county courthouse. She worked in the assessor's office and kept track of the tax records. Joe Allen, meanwhile, had sat there the whole time letting his mother talk, carefully cleaning his plate, like he'd been told to do so, and when the serving plates went around the table again, he took seconds of everything.
"I know Mike is a farmer. What do all of you do?" Estelle asked, looking around the table.
Danny answered first, telling her about his teaching job at the college. When she wanted to know whether he drove back and forth every day, he explained how he had an apartment in Kearney and was here on the weekends.
The question was harder for Rich. "To be honest, I'm between jobs right now, ma'am," he told her. "But soon as I can, I'm looking for work again. Construction. I can do just about anything."
She had this firm smile again, like Mike remembered from that first night. There was no telling what she was thinking, except that she either did or didn't like what she was hearing.
"If it would help," she said. "I can ask at the county clerk's. They handle the building permits and know all the contractors."
Rich was almost speechless, surprised by someone he hardly knew willing to do him a favor, and for no reason. He glanced at Mike and then back at her. "I wouldn't ask you to go to any trouble, ma'am."
"It's no trouble," she said. "Their office is right across the hall from me."
Mike's knee was against Rich's under the table, and he pressed against it gently, as if to say, everything's going to be OK, you'll see.
For Ty, the question wasn't easy either. Stories that weren't in the newspaper had a way of getting around town on the grapevine. Mike realized there was a chance she'd heard of his troubles at the church where he'd been an intern. And who knows how the story would have been embroidered by the time it got to her.
"I was preparing for the ministry," Mike heard him saying, his voice steady and not betraying any worries he might be having. "But I've decided not to go back to seminary. I found out I want to study psychology instead. Help people with troubles to find some peace."
As he talked about his plans to go to college, where he could start his studies, Mike understood all that Ty wasn't saying, too. It was his commitment to Rich and to everyone like him who were lost and needed a helping hand to find their way again.
There was a trace of warmth in her smile now as Estelle listened to him. "Sort of another way to look after their souls," she said, interested. "The world is full of people who need that."
Rich was staring down at his plate, unmoving, and Mike nudged his knee again.
"What about you, Joe Allen," Danny said, breaking the sudden silence. "What do you want to do with your life?"
Joe Allen, taken by surprise, had no answer, as if any thought of the rest of his life had never occurred to him until this moment. He looked first at his mother, then around the table, like there might be a clue in one of their faces.
Then he shrugged and said, "I dunno."
But he looked like he was thinking he might have to come up with something if he was going to fit in here at Mike's. His mother said nothing, just watched him like she was having the same thought.
When it came time for the pie, Mike announced that they could have either pumpkin or pecan, and there was a round of general approval. Joe Allen asked for some of both, and when his mother started to scold him for being forward, Rich quickly asked for both, too, and gave Joe Allen a wink, as if to say, it's OK to be a kid here. Then Mike took a bowl of whipped cream from the refrigerator, and Danny put a spoonful on each piece as Mike cut it for them.
"How do you all know each other?" Estelle finally said as they started into the pie.
There was a moment of silence around the table as they all looked to Mike.
"Well, I have to think a moment," Mike said, remembering how it all started with Danny's arrival one summer day to measure his cornfields.
And he told her how Danny had been his hired man. And how Rich had been a friend of his nephew Kirk, who'd come from Utah to live with Mike. And how he'd got to know Ty after a visit one Sunday from a team of church canvassers.
"And you all ended up living together," she said, like that part still needed explaining.
"It saves on the rent, ma'am," Rich said, like he'd been waiting for the question.
"It's more like Mike here has a way of taking in strays," Danny said.
"I see," she said, though it wasn't clear what she was seeing. "And Joe Allen wouldn't be in the way here?"
"Not at all, ma'am," Rich said.
"You all realize that he's still just sixteen," she said. "He eats like a horse, he won't go to bed when he's supposed to, he won't do his chores or his homework, he can be disrespectfulyou should hear the mouth on himand I've already had a call from the police about him in the middle of the night." She glared at him the whole time and then looked down, unable to go on, putting a napkin to her mouth.
Joe Allen was sinking into his chair, a last bite of pie on his plate untouched and a bit of whipped cream on the corner of his mouth. She had told it like it was, the unvarnished truth. Her unhappiness and frustrationher fears for himwere suddenly all out there in the open, like everything until now had been let's pretend.
When she'd stopped, Mike was searching for the right words to say, but Rich was already talking again.
"Ma'am, you're looking at four men who have been through all thatand some of us worseand we're here today able to say we came out OK. Some of us still have a ways to go, and I'm referring of course to myself, but a man isn't stuck being sixteen forever. If he wantsand lookin' at Joe Allen there, I'd put money on it that he doeshe's got it in him to make you proud of him some day. Make us all proud."
Joe Allen looked over at Rich with a look of disbelief on his face. His mother was still trying to collect herself.
Danny quietly said, "I'd agree with that."
"Me, too," Ty said.
Estelle looked across the table now to Mike. She cleared her throat and quietly said, "As long as you know what you're in for." And with those words, Mike understood, she had given him her blessing.
And for the first time, he wondered how long and how much she had known about himthis other son of her son's father. Had she watched him from a distance over all the years, as he grew to be a man. And what had she made of him?
Some day he would ask her.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper