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.
OK, Craig stayed at my place some nights and stayed at home others, unable I guess to make up his mind. By the last weekend before Christmas vacation, he'd pretty much installed himself with me.
"I should get a motel room," he'd said more than once, and I kept telling him he didn't have to, until my friend Priscilla, whose husband Barry is on the faculty, came out point blank and asked me if the two of us were having an affair. Don't you just love the way word gets around a small town?
"Affair?" I laughed. "I don't think so."
"I'm not so worried about what people think," she said, not completely believing me. "I'm just worried about Mike. He's a great guy, and Craigwell, maybe he's good looking and all, but don't you think he's kind of a jerk?" I think Priscilla would have said "asshole" if it wouldn't have embarrassed her to use the word, but she could make "jerk" sound like the same thing.
"I'm just a colleague of his who's letting him sleep on his couch, while he sorts things out at home."
I didn't want to go into my opinion of Craig with Priscilla. I just said, "Trust me. I wouldn't lie to you."
In fact, I was developing worries of my own. Craig was so clearly depressed and worn out by what he was going through, I wasn't sure it was a good idea for him to be spending nights all alone in a motel. And when the weekend came, and it was time for my usual trip back to the farm, I took a good look at him and decided I'd feel a lot better if I brought him along.
"Go with you to Mike's?" he said, frowning at me like it was some kind of riddle to puzzle over. He knew of MikeI'd seen him once studying the picture of the two of us that's on my bookshelfbut he'd never met him. Maybe he was wondering if he was ready to spend a weekend with two queer guys.
"Yeah, get you away for awhile, fresh air, the countryside, clear your thoughts."
He blinked his eyes a couple times while he considered this and then surprised me by saying, "OK."
"It's kind of a full house. You might want to bring your sleeping bag."
I explained about Rich and Ty, and there was also a chance Mike's half-brother Joe Allen would be around. I kept it simple and didn't explain that we hadn't known the boy even existed until only a few weeks beforeor that he was a marginal juvenile delinquent.
Anybody else, I'm thinking, would have backed out at that point, figuring it was already too many people under one roof. But the more I described it, the more Craig seemed to like the idea. I couldn't tell you why.
So Friday afternoon, after our last classes, we piled into the Camaro and headed out of town on the interstate.
I'd given Mike fair warning, so he knew what to expect. I was bringing home this kind of fragile married guy who was thinking about going queer full-time. Well, that's sort of putting it crudely, but whenever I found myself getting impatient with this whole melodrama, that's how I summed it up for myself.
It was almost dark when we got to the farm. There were the Christmas lights hanging from the porch roof as I pulled into the driveway, and I quickly filled with the simple pleasure of arriving home, being greeted by smiling faces and hugged by my Mike, while my glasses fogged over from the warmth of the room and supper cooking on the stove.
And as we walked in, there everybody was, waiting like a welcoming committee. They'd obviously been briefed. Even Joe Allen seemed to be on his best behavior. There was an introduction and shaking of hands, hanging up of coats and scarves, and enough good will to fill a Mac truck.
"Make yourself at home. You're one of us," Mike said, giving him a big smile.
What that could have meant to Craig I couldn't tell. The look on his face said he would wait and see, and he returned Mike's smile in that way men do when they're sizing each other up.
Friday was spaghetti night, and we were soonthe six of uscrowded around the table, bumping elbows and knees, and arms reaching for slices of bread and calls to pass the butter or the cheese. And there was the sound of men enjoying their food, because Mike's spaghetti sauce and meatballs are first class. He could give Betty Crocker lessons.
After cleaning up afterwardsJoe Allen actually drying dishes, with some coaching from Tysomeone turned on TV for the Friday Night Movie, and those who got bored with it got out the checkers for the kind of noisy game that includes pounding the table hard enough to make the pieces jump on the board.
As typical as a Friday night can get with six guys under the same roof, you can say it was pretty much thatnothing out of the ordinary. Except that four of us were queer, one was definitely notI truly doubted it was safe to leave Joe Allen alone with any girland one was somewhere in limbo.
We turned in at the usual hour, shortly after the ten-o'clock news. Rich and Ty disappeared into their bedroom, and Mike drove Joe Allen back to his mom's house in town, which freed up the couch for Craig, and the two of us talked as we made a bed for him on it.
"I gotta figure out a way to stop spending my nights like this," he said, and he explained that even on his nights at home he'd been sleeping on the couch. "Maybe if I was twenty again, but a grown man can't keep this up for long."
I wondered if this was his way of talking about what he was trying to do with his life.
"I like Mike," he said. "And the others, too. It's good what you all have here. Kind of a sanctuary."
"Never thought of it that way."
"Indians, you know, didn't expect all their men to be warriors. A few were differentwhat people would call homosexual today."
And he started into a little lecture about how these Indian men were accepted and, instead of being outcasts, were a part of the tribe with privileges and responsibilities of their own. I'd never heard of this before, but I figured he was the expert and should know what he was talking about.
I mostly just paid attention to the way he was talking. He sounded a little wistful, like wouldn't it be nice if people today could be that civilized.
"A man could even marry another man if they both wanted," he said. "If the Indians had enough fire power to win the war with the whites, who knows how different it would be today."
"For the Indians," I said, reminding him that we were a couple of white guys talking.
"Yeah," he said, sadly, and I began to understand that Craig's interest in Indians ran a good deal deeper than I'd thought until now.
He smiled then to himself. "When I was a boy, reading my Lone Ranger comic books, it was Tonto I wanted to be, riding along with this handsome masked manand getting to see him without his mask on. How many boys do you think ever have ideas like that?"
"What was going through your mind when you were a boy?" he said, and the question surprised me because he'd never asked me about anything that personal before.
"Nothing much. I made up my own stories, I guess," I said. And I told him about imagining a bunch of tiny people, no bigger than your thumba boy's thumbwho had adventures in this big world of big people. Nothing too interesting.
"Of course, it's interesting," Craig said. "It's like Jack and the Beanstalk. There you were feeling small as you were in a world so big it took a whole bunch of you not to feel lost in it."
I laughed. "Kind of like the bunch of us here at Mike's," I said, not sure I wanted to take my boyhood or myself so seriously. Life is complicated enough.
"You wanna know what I thought of when I walked in here tonight?" he said. "Peter Pan and the Lost Boys."
I thought about Rich and Tyand then Joe Allenand I could kind of see what he meant.
"I don't feel that way now," Craig said. "This is a house with men in itreal men."
He was sitting on the couch, and I'd been standing, thinking he'd want me to leave the room so he could undress and get into the bed we'd made for him. But he seemed to want to keep talking.
"Mike's got a bottle of Johnny Walker in the back of one of the kitchen cupboards." I said. "Care for a wee dram?"
He looked up at me and nodded.
And we sat together talking, the bottle between us, until Mike came back from town.
Saturday dawned bright and cold, and as we got up one by one, we kept it quiet and let Craig sleep. It was noon when he finally roused himself, saying he hadn't slept so late in years. He considered the day outside as he drank a cup of coffee, and then went to digging in his bag for his running shoes.
He asked for a few directions as he put them on, and then he was gone. I watched him for a while from the kitchen window, heading on down the road toward the river until he was just a speck in a bright red sweatshirt disappearing behind a stand of cottonwoods.
"He gonna be OK?" Rich said standing beside me. He put his arm over my shoulder in the way he'd started doing now that Ty was back with us. You could almost feel the wounds healing in him day by day.
"I dunno," I said. I probably should try to sound more hopeful about other people, but I'm just not like that. I figure it's too easy to screw things up for somebody else by expecting too much of them, and Craig had got enough of that already for one life.
"Me neither," Rich said. "I don't have a good feeling about him."
This was Rich being Rich, of course. For a young guy, he'd had more than his share of wrong turns. And there was this spooky side of him from learning how to deal with things he saw and heard in Vietnam. He could surprise you with his superstitions and sudden panics.
I swear, he forgets where he is sometimes and believes he's back there. "Don't touch that," he said to me once as I was reaching for the cookie jar on the kitchen counter. "It could be booby-trapped."
The first time it happened, I thought he was joking, and then when I took a good look at him, I saw that thousand-yard stare in his eyes. And I knew he'd slipped away. He wasn't in Nebraska anymore.
Then he could just as quickly snap out of it. "Just joking," he'd say with an uneasy laugh.
"No you weren't," I'd say and get as close to him as he'd let me, to take his hand or put my arms around him and just hold him for a while until the trembling in his body stopped.
For the most part, Ty's presence seemed to release him from that private hell. There were still bad days, but the gloom was not so deep, and by nightfall, he would sometimes be back to himselfif you can say that about someone who will tell you he can't remember the person he was before going to Vietnam.
"Can't say I have a feeling one way or another," I said to him as we watched Craig take his run. "He's got himself between a rock and a hard place."
"Did I tell you I'm going to start looking for a job after Christmas?" he said, suddenly off on another subject, which was like him, too.
"That's good news," I said.
"Yeah, I gotta get out there again. Can't keep spongin' off of you guys."
"Employment Bureau in town. Mike says he's got an uncle works there can help me."
"I hope you find something."
"Oh, I will. I'm versatile."
It was a word I didn't know he knew, and he said it like he was giving it a test drive. "Me and Ty've been studyin' Word Power Made Easy. Never know when knowing a good word might come in handy."
He still had his arm around my shoulders, and though Craig had long disappeared down the road, we still stood at the window, looking out at the world.
"I'm not so sure about your friend, though," he said.
"He looks lost."
I wonder what he sees, or senses, to get an idea like this. Maybe you have to have been in Vietnam. In which case, I'll never know.
Ty, on the other hand, is the eternal optimist. How he and Rich get along the way they do is sometimes a mystery to me. Opposites attract maybe. Though I'm no big believer in that either.
"I like your friend," Ty had told me when it was just the two of us up that morning, in the kitchen. He was there in his thermals and slippers, pouring himself coffee. I was half-awake and waiting for the toast to pop up in the toaster.
"He's not a friend, just somebody I work with," I said.
"He's a friend. I can see it in the way he looks at you."
The toaster popped up k-ching!
"You want one of these?" I said, offering him a piece of my toast. I already had the butter and jam out.
"Won't say no," Ty said and took one. "I like havin' somebody older around. How old do you think he is?"
"Forties?" I said, buttering my toast.
"It's funny, you know. The thing I noticed right away was him wearing a wedding ring. That and something about him reminded me of my dad. Good natured, solid family man. Stood behind each one of us boys like we was the only one he had. I'll always love him for just lettin' us be who we areespecially me."
Not having any idea what that's likeyou already know something about my old manI let him talk. And I'm thinking Ty's the kind of guy who'd find something good to say about even my dad.
I decided to mention the one point he was overlooking. "He's got himself a little problem though," I said. "That wedding ring, and those kids of his, they've kind of got him in a bind." And I told him what he didn't know about the other man in Craig's life.
But Ty was confident. "He'll work it out," he said. "He'll do what's right."
"Seems to me, no matter what he does, somebody ends up losing."
"He'll figure out a way. You wait and see."
I'm there thinking, you don't know the half of it. Ty will never have to choose between leaving a family he's given twenty years of his life to and plodding on like some beast of burden, denying who and what he is until they put him in the ground.
And thata bit overstated maybeis how I saw it.
Craig was gone on his run for an hour, then two hours, and I was beginning to realize he wasn't just out for a jog. I recalled the marathon trophy on the shelf in his office, and I began wondering what a run along country roads might mean to him.
When it got to be three hours, I knew I should have asked him how long he planned to be gone. This was beginning to not feel right. And I let my mind go over the possibilities. Maybe he'd had some kind of accident, got hurt, had a heart attackdidn't things like that happen sometimes to long distance runners even when they were supposed to be in the peak of health?
Was he even capable of doing himself in? I found myself recalling the look of desperation he'd get sometimes when he didn't know I was watching him. I knew the life he'd held together with determination for so long was beginning to unravel, but it hadn't occurred to me to doubt his instinct for survival. He'd surely do anything to at least come out of this alive.
"Which way's the river?" he'd asked me before he left. Now I wondered why he wanted to know that.
And I came face to face with my own concern for the man, which I saw that I'd really been trying to avoid. I'd been blaming him for the mess he was in, as though I didn't have any responsibility for him.
Rich, now there was someone I'd worried about, and for good reason. He seemed fully capable of going off the deep end and without warning. And it was none of his own goddam fault. It wasn't any weakness of character or lack of intelligence that got him where he washe'd been sent off to that hell-hole in Southeast Asia and then left to fend for himself when he got back.
But Craig still had all his wits. Getting fucked by a German twenty years ago had nothing to do with him getting knocked off kilter now. To my way of thinking, he'd fucked himself.
And yet, I realized, I wasn't so sure about him. What do they always say about suicides? That nobody saw it coming. Well, if it came to that, I sure as hell wouldn't have that as an excuse for not doing what I could to prevent it.
You mean you just let him take off like that all by himself? I could hear someone saysomeone like his wife, or Priscilla, or another faculty member. Even Mike, for that matter. I was ready in a moment to imagine myself on TV, with a reporter's microphone shoved in my face.
Yes, I'd say. I didn't see any harm in it. And they'd all be shocked at my lack of common sense. My insensitivity. I'd hang my head shame-faced and get the feeling that I wished I was dead myself. Though, trust me, I'm too much in love with my own sweet life to ever get too serious about that.
I found myself pacing around the house and every five minutes checking out the kitchen window for a sign of him on the road. Rich and Ty came in from doing target practice out behind the trees with Mike's .22 rifle.
Rich, for reasons of his own, did none of the shooting. He said he was helping Ty get over his fear of gunshe'd revealed once that he never wanted to go hunting with his dad and his brothersbut I suspected it was some fear of his own Rich was trying to overcome. Another one of those things left over from Vietnam.
I decided not to bring up my concern with them. Rich would have been feeding my growing alarm, and Ty would have been telling me not to worry. Instead, I walked out to the machine shed where Mike was working, and I told him I was taking my car to go look for Craig.
"You want to make it a real search party? I can go out in the truck." He was standing there in his coveralls, with his insulated boots on his feet. It looked like a torn down carburetor on the work bench in front of him. "Rich and Ty can take Ty's car and we can drive up and down everywhere until we find him."
I hadn't thought of that, but as Mike talked, it began to sound like a better idea than the one I had. He put down his tools and walked outside with me. I went to the house to get Rich and Ty, and in a few minutes, with Mike in the lead, we were all going out the driveway and turning onto the road in the direction of the river, which was where we'd last seen Craig headed.
At the first crossroads, we were going to split up in different directions, but as we got there, we saw a pickup coming toward us from the other way. It was Mike's neighbor Tully. As he got closer, we could see a passenger in the seat beside him. It turned out to be Craig.
The two men, as Tully was pulling up next to Mike's pickup, were smiling about something. In a moment, I realized I'd made a big mistake. There was no need for any kind of rescue mission or suicide watch. I got out of the car and walked up to where Tully and Mike were talking, their trucks idling, the windows between them rolled down.
"This guy belong to any of you?" Tully was saying with a grin.
And he explained to us, as we all gathered there on the road, that he'd found Craig near the old river bridge. He'd gone out for a little run, he'd told Tully, and somehow he'd got lost and needed directions to find his way back.
"A little run?" Tully said. "Hell, he was almost ten miles from here."
So he'd insisted, as Tully would, that Craig get in the truck and let Tully drive him at least most of the way to Mike's. "I was willing to let him out far enough from your place so's he could run the last part of the way and none of you'd know the difference, but I guess you kinda caught us in the act."
So the search was over before it really got started, though without Tully, I wonder if looking for him we'd ever have found him before dark. It would only have been by chance if we did.
Tully came all the way to Mike's place, and we sat in the kitchen drinking coffee to warm up and talking some more until Tully looked at the clock on the wall and said it was milking time. His cows would be trying to break down the barn door if he didn't show up soon to let them in.
"Nice meetin' you," he said, shaking Craig's hand. "You might have somebody draw you a map before you head off again." Then he laughed, putting one hand on Craig's shoulder. "See you, boys," he said, giving the rest of us a wave as he went to the door.
So the short adventure over, we began considering what was left of the day. From the looks of it, Craig's long run had done him good. He seemed relaxed and happy for the first time in as long as I could remember. I'd told him a weekend in the country would clear his head, as it often does mine, and I saw that the open fields, the big sky, and the endless straight roads had worked their magic. He'd found some kind of peace with himself.
I was already patting myself on the back for bringing him here. Even while an hour before I was berating myself for doing what seemed like the stupidest thing anybody could think of.
Rich and Ty had plans to go into town to finish their Christmas shopping and didn't want anybody to go with them, so they said. Mike, still in his coveralls, looked at me and Craig and said he didn't feel like cooking tonight. How about going out for supper and maybe checking what's on at the movies.
There was a Clint Eastwood western on, and I knew how any kind of western puts Mike in a good mood. And then it would be home to bed and the two of us in bed with just each other's naked company.
Craig, though Mike had made clear that he was welcome to come along, said he just wanted a quiet night by himself with his thoughts. Anyway, he was really tired and felt maybe he'd get another good night's sleep. I looked hard at him for a sign that any of this wasn't absolute fact. But he seemed genuinely content with himself, the look of troubled confusion simply erased from his face.
And I felt how foolish and irrational I'd let myself be that afternoon. I was simply no good judge of other men's hearts and minds. Still, I waited right up until we left, ready to change plans and stay home with him. But he gave no reason to believe he wouldn't spend the evening exactly as he intended. A little TV, then early to bed.
So in the growing dark of a winter solstice evening, the rest of us left for town.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper