Mike and Danny: In Love
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.
Milking cows. His life had come to this. Not even his own cows. They belonged to Tully, who would normally be doing his own milking, but he was laid up in the hospital with a hernia operation he'd put off for too long.
Marty squatted down to slip the milker cups onto the teats of another Holstein with her head in the stanchion, her tail suddenly switching and knocking the cap off his head. He'd been doing this for three nights and mornings now, and most of the cows were still not used to him.
He picked up his cap off the concrete, gave it a snap with one hand and then set it back on his head.
He'd never milked cows before in his life, but it hadn't been too tough catching on. Tully had a vacuum system that was no doubt brand new fifteen years ago, back in the 1950s. You hung the milker from a strap around the cow and then the suction in each of the four cups released the milk from the udder.
When the milker was full, you carried it into another room in the barn and poured it into a big tank, where every couple of days a shiny bulk truck came by from the local dairy and emptied it.
There were exactly thirty cows, all waiting for him when he got to the barn, and it took him more than two hours just to feed and milk them, six at a time, the first ones shoving in through the barn door to get to the corn meal he'd measured out for each of them in the feed trough.
When the six were done, he'd let them out through a side door into a large shed where they'd stay while he did the rest. Then he'd put down more grain for the next six and let them in.
At the end, there'd be the usual sullen or anxious stragglers who didn't like getting milked, didn't like him, or simply objected to the whole ritual out of sheer bloody-mindedness. He'd have to walk out into the corral, dodging around the cowshit on the ground and shooing them inside, waving his arms and hollering.
He didn't like milk cows and couldn't fathom a man tethering his life to them, like Tully, every morning and every night of every fucking day of the year. And Marty wouldn't be doing this at all except that his dad, who farmed down the road and was an old friend of Tully's, had volunteered him for the job.
The electric motor and compressor that ran the whole milking system made a lot of noise, and whenever the lights were switched on, a fly-specked radio on the wall came to life, tuned to KRGI, the local station, turned up to top volume so you could hear it over the general racket.
The radio was dull company. Mornings it was all farm news and market prices for cows and corn. Nights seemed to be Herb Alpert and Sing-Along-With-Mitch.
He'd tried to find another stationwith some rock and rollbut only two others came in, and they were even duller. A choice of polka music or hits of yesteryear sung by the likes of Pat Boone and Tennessee Ernie Ford.
You load sixteen tons and what do you get,
He tried to imagine the kind of people who would listen to this crapliving in a world untouched by Jefferson Airplane and Jimmi Hendrixand he tuned back to Sing-Along-With-Mitch. It was better than nothing.
It was a lonely occupation. Tully's wife Alice occasionally came out to the barn, usually in the mornings when he was cleaning up. He'd have already shoveled the cowshit out of the milking parlor, sweeping the floor and then spraying it all down with a water hose. After that was another hour of washing up all the milking equipment, to keep down the bacteria count for the dairy who tested for it regularly, and that's when she'd show up.
You had to do a super thorough cleaning job, she'd remind him, because if the count got high, the dairy rejected the milk as unfit for human consumption and poured strawberry flavoring into it so all you could do was feed it to hogs, if you had them, or throw it out. And that meant, literally, money down the drain.
She didn't seem to trust him, but then he was used to that. By now he had a reputation that seemed to be there waiting for him wherever he went.
It had started early. The only son of his father Wade, he had been named Wade, Jr., and had been known as "Junior" or "June" until he was in grade school, where on the first day he had informed the teacher he went by Martin, his middle name. And it had stuck.
The old man had never forgiven him for that, but the distance between them had set in even long before. Wade, Sr., had his son's life laid out for him, very much after the pattern of his own lifea 4-Her with purple ribbon beef at the county fairs, high school athlete with a letter for every year, FFA chapter president, partnering with his father in the feedlot business, marrying a local farm girl, and settling down to raise a family of future Wades.
Marty had been off that track even before the first grade. The lickings and nights without supper that had apparently worked to keep his father in line only made Marty more obstinate and determined to be anything but what the old man wanted.
In high school he had gone out for football, all right, but he mostly warmed the bench for two seasons, until he got mad at the coach and quit the team. Then there'd been that after-school episode when he and two buddies had taken a couple of freshman girls out on a country road and tried to see how far they could get with them.
Nothing really happened and no one would have found out about it, but some thoughtless bragging had got the rumor mill started, and before you knew it the word got around to his parents. They had sat embarrassed in church one Sunday morning as the minister made a thinly veiled reference to yet another shameless escapade by wayward and delinquent youth.
He wasn't there to hear it, of course, because church was something he'd given up on years before, much to his mother's eternal dismay. When it was clear that his father was not going to shape him into a respectable man, she'd held out hope for prayer and the mysterious ways of God.
The beer drinking and cigarettes were just another way to prove they had no control over him. And just to show how unpredictable he could be, he did raise purple ribbon beef for the county fair and got to know the feedlot business, even better than the old man did.
They'd have knock-down-drag-out arguments in the barn and around the corrals. And then they'd take a truckload of steers to stock shows at the Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, where he'd bring home even more ribbons. It burned the hell out of the old man that Marty was so good at raising cattle and at the same time a son he could not bring himself to be proud of.
After nearly flunking every course he didn't like in high school, he got all A's and one B in his senior year, just to piss off the teachers, and on the strength of that had squeaked into the university in Lincoln, where he pledged a fraternity the first year and then flunked out for real after the second.
The pot, the alcohol, and the all-night card games hadn't helped. But there was something else going on, too. He'd jumped from the roof of the fraternity house one night in the late spring, and if he hadn't fallen into a tree he would have probably killed himself.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" a frat brother had asked him when he came back from the hospital wearing a neck brace.
He'd shrugged it off, blaming it on a fatal mixture of Gallo and acid. But the fact was that he'd been almost perfectly sober when it happened. He'd had it in his mind, very clearly, to put an end to it all.
His best buddy, Mark, had just signed up for the Peace Corps, and when he came to Marty's room to tell him about it, there'd been this weird argument.
"I thought me and you were quitting school and going to Alaska," Marty had said, hurt and angry because that's all they'd been talking about for months.
"It was you wanted that," Mark had said. "You know we'd just end up screwing off and coming back here when we ran out of money."
"Besides," Mark said. "I been thinking we need a break from each other."
"What do you mean?" Marty was furious now. "We think the same way about everything. I feel close to you like you were my brother. Hell, we almost have the same name. We could be twins. You said that yourself."
But Mark wouldn't be budged. Marty had put his hand on Mark's shoulder, shaking him to get him to see reason, but Mark had pushed his hand away.
"I think maybe we've been too close," Mark said and took a step back.
"How the fuck can you say that?"
Mark suddenly turned to go. "I'll talk to you some more when you calm down," he said.
"Wait!" Marty had shouted and grabbed at Mark, but after they had wrestled for a moment, Mark had slipped out the door and closed it behind him. Marty had just stood there, bewildered, and without thinking punched his fist into the wall.
And there hadn't been any more talk between them. Mark made sure he was always with two or three of the brothers when they ran into each other, and it became very clear that their friendship was over.
Crushed, because he'd had so few friends, the pain in his gut became a constant gnawing that would not go away. He found himself ready to start crying, though he'd never cried before about anything, and there on the top floor of the frat house was this window he found himself opening and climbing through.
"I've lost my mind," he'd said when he got up to the peak of the roof. The street below was silent and empty, a street light burned dimly in the darkness. He'd been alone beforemany timesbut he'd never felt so alone.
"College boy," his old man had called him when he got back home. "So what did you prove?"
By now, his father was in an almost constant state of rage and disappointment. Marty's going to the university had not been his idea at all. It had been his mother who thought it would be good for himfinally turn him around.
"I proved more than you ever did," Marty told him. "Did you even have the grades to go to college?"
"There was nothing wrong with my grades," his father had fumed. "I applied myself."
It was going to be another one of those dead-end arguments. Marty had thrown up his hands and stormed off.
"What are you gonna do now?" his father had called after them. "Make a fool of yourself someplace else? I'll tell you one thing for sure. I don't care what your mother says, you got no reason to think you're welcome back here."
Marty couldn't let that go. "You need me here, and you know it," he said. "All you're getting done by yourself is running this operation into the ground." It wasn't exactly true, but the old man couldn't keep up with the times, and he knew it, though he'd never admit it.
"Have you ever been somebody I can depend on?" his father said. They were shouting at each other now from opposite ends of the feed shed.
"You can depend on this, dad," Marty said, and the only time he ever used the word "dad" was when he meant it to cut the deepest. "I'm leaving, and it'll be a cold day in hell before I come back."
So he'd gone to Alaska anyway, by himself. He'd had enough of the farm and constantly fighting with his parents. He wasn't going to amount to anything if he hung around them any longer.
On the way there, hitching rides with truckers along the Al-Can highway, he'd tried to put that last scene with his father out of his mind, but it had haunted him as he stared out the window at the forests and snow-capped mountains of British Columbia.
He didn't have much of a plan, and he knew it. For a while, the trip was an end in itself. When he finally arrived in Fairbanks, he set to getting himself a job and in two days was filling cars with high-priced fuel at a gas station.
He met a girl at a bar a few nights later, and two weeks after that he had moved in with her. No sex. She just wanted a housemate. And that was fine with him. He'd never really clicked with girls anyway. They always wanted more from him than he had to give.
"Guy good-lookin' as yourself should have a girlfriend," his housemate said one day. Her name was Adriana, and she rode a motorcycle. It was Sunday morning, and they were sitting at her kitchen table. She'd made a pot of coffee.
He looked at her and shrugged.
"You ever have one?" she asked with a sly smile, like she was fishing for a story that would pass the time and entertain them both.
"Not really," he said, without interest.
"You're different, I'll say that much," she said. "Most guys around here would have been doin' their damnedest to crawl all over me by now." She'd been smoking a cigarette and stubbed it out in a cracked saucer. "Course, I'd have to be kickin' their ass outta here. I've had about enough of that."
"You don't like men?" he asked.
"They're OK when they know their place," she said and gave that sly smile again. In spite of what she was saying, he sensed that she was flirting with him.
"I've never had much luck with girlfriends," he said, like there had been a lot of them.
"I'll bet," she said and lighted another cigarette.
He let it pass and finished his cup of coffee, making like he had some place he had to go. And he left the house, walking out into the mild summer air. He didn't come back until late that night, after she'd gone to bed.
Alaska, he found, had been lonely beyond what he'd ever imagined. The Northern Lightsthe bar where he hung outwas no more than a place to get good and drunk, which he did sometimes. When he got enough money to start making car payments, he'd bought a used Firebird and found a job at UPS loading and unloading trucks.
Then as the summer passed and the long nights began to set in, he found himself drinking more and feeling even more alone.
Adriana had kept him on, though a girlfriend of hers had showed up and moved in. They'd shared the bed in Adriana's bedroom, and if Marty cared about what went on behind that closed door, it didn't much interest him.
"You are a sorry sonofabith, you know that?" Adriana's girlfriend said one day when she asked him what he was doing for Thanksgiving. He had just looked at her with a frown on his face, like why would anyone care?
"Have you ever had a single friend in the whole goddam world?" she asked him.
She was standing in the doorway to the downstairs rec room, where he was watching some crap sitcom"Two's Company"on TV.
"And I'm not counting those drunks over at the Northern Lights." She had been there a few times and new the place.
"I reckon I have," he said, like he ought to defend himself, though it was none of her business.
"Tell me about one."
"Why should I have to do that?"
"Because I don't believe you," she leaned over the TV and switched off the sound.
"I was watching that," he said.
"No you weren't. Gimme a break." She sat down next to him. "You'd have more fun playing pocket pool than watching that shit."
He'd been around, but he couldn't remember ever meeting a woman who talked so much like a truck driver.
"So tell me," she said.
"Sure," he said, as if to prove to her she was mistaken about him. "I had a friend back in college. His name was Mark."
The mention of Mark's name sent a quiver through his gut, which he hadn't expected, and he wondered if it showed on his face.
"And whatever happened to Mark?"
"Peace Corps," he said simply, no longer trusting his voice, after the sudden surge of emotion that had filled him.
And afterwards, he'd been unable to remember the rest of the conversation. There was just the silent images from the TV swimming in a blur before his eyes. His feelings had taken him by surprise.
At Thanksgiving, Adriana and her girlfriend had invited over a bunch of people they knew to consume a big turkey that filled the oven and smothered the house in the smell of roasting meat. There was everything else to go with it, with two kinds of pie for dessert.
Three of the womenand one guyall of them from the factory where Adriana worked, sang the Doxology over the food before they ate.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
They were members of a little Bible church in town and had known each other for years. He glanced at Adriana, who winked at him and shrugged. And then they dived into the meal.
She had persuaded him to carve the turkey, and mopped his brow with a dish towel after he had labored over the roast bird for a while. The four guests had laughed, like they'd been watching him all the time, unable to break through the silence he surrounded himself with.
Adriana had leaned over him then, and under the sound of talk and laughter, she had said, "Every one of them would like to fuck you, you know that? That guy, too."
He'd felt his face flush and fought the urge to glance over at them.
"Take your pick," she said and patted him on the butt.
When he had finished his plate of food, he'd slipped back to his room and stayed there for the rest of the day, watching football on a little portable TV he had found at Goodwill.
The long, dark months that followed passed in a kind of agony. He went out less to the bar after work and just stayed home. The weeks went by, and somewhere in the dead of winter, he'd got a pay raise, and he was putting money away.
He started wondering what his father would think if he could see him now. But he knew the old man would scoff. What was he but a box carrier, in training to be a fork lift operator. Not even much of a step up from packing groceries at Safeway.
And he realized that he felt that way himself. This was not a life. If he was ever going to get the old man to eat his words, he'd have to do one hell of a lot better for himself. He got to thinking about going back to school. But when he thought of the textbooks and exams, the old feeling of dread came backhe hated all that.
Anything else just seemed like a dead end. The other men at work seemed happy enough, besides bitching about not earning enough to support a family. "I got three kids," one of them kept saying, holding up three fingers.
So what do you want, a medal? Marty wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.
He looked at them and knew he didn't want to go on living like this because he'd turn out just like them. But he didn't know what else to do.
"How you holdin' up, kid?" the foreman had said one day, with a thoughtful frown like he really cared. And when Marty took a good look, he saw that he did.
"I'm OK," he'd said, and felt the strangeness of an older man showing any kind of concern for him.
"Well, keep smilin' then," the man said and walked on.
The expression on the foreman's face had stayed in his mind all day. And it was there again as he got into bed and turned out the light. He felt on the verge of liking this man, but in two weeks the guy had left and taken a job somewhere else.
By the next summer, he was fed up with it all. He sold the Firebird and bought a plane ticket back to Nebraska. Sitting on the Frontier flight as it came into Grand Island from his connection in Denver, he had felt a sudden panicky feeling that he was making a big mistake.
He'd sworn to his dad that he'd never come back, and dammit here he was again, little more than a year later. The plain fact was that he couldn't stay away. This was his starting place, and if he was going to make it in the world, he was going to have to start again from here. The old man could say what he liked. He would anyway.
"Your mother and I've been talking," was what he did say. "Do you good to do your time in the service. You could enlist."
"I'll think about that if my number comes up," Marty told him. He wasn't going to put on a uniform and take orders from anybody if he didn't have to.
"What'll you do when it does? It don't hurt to have a plan."
"Go to Canada," Marty said, just to rile the old man up. He'd already decided to do his duty if Uncle Sam wanted him. He was willing to be called a lot of thingsdrunk, drop out, wayward and delinquentbut draft dodger wasn't one of them.
And what was he now? A cow milker, apparently. He had just stepped out of the barn to bring in the evening's last bunch of cows.
Looking up at the sky, he realized that a dark bank of clouds had rolled in overhead, and a storm was gathering. Thunder rumbled in the distance, and a warm wind had started up. As he stood there, it shifted direction around him, and on it was the smell of rain already fallen somewhere not far away.
Driving the last cows into the barn, he felt the first wet drops on his face, and he ducked inside, pulling the half-door shut behind him. In the din from the milking machine, he couldn't hear the storm as it descended outside, just bursts of static from the radio.
After setting the milkers on two more cows, he stepped again to the doorway and saw the rain coming down now in a torrent, pounding the dusty earth of the corral and quickly turning it to mud. A sheet of lightning suddenly blinded him, and a split second later there was a deafening crash of thunder.
Summer storms, brewing all day in the convection currents rising from the prairie, building into huge billowing clouds and descending finally in explosions of wind, hail, and rainthey had always fascinated him as a boy. He stood there now, trying to feel again that excitement.
But it was no good. Something had switched off inside him. He felt nothing. The only feelings he ever seemed to have anymore didn't rise in him until after consuming a six-pack of beer, and then they were nothing he likedjust rage and disappointment.
There was another bolt of lightning and a cracking rumble of thunder. He looked over at the house, thinking about Tully's wife Alice, but the windows were all dark, and he saw that Tully's big old Buick was gone. She was probably in town with him at the hospital.
Meanwhile, the cows in the shed stirred, some of them staring out blankly at the falling rain, and a whiplash burst of it blew in on him. He just stood there, letting the ice-cold drops run down his face and soak into the front of his tee shirt.
Then everything came to a stop.
The lights in the barn went out and the milking machine ground into silence. The radio had also gone dead. In the sudden quiet there was only the sound of the rain, a continuing roar he'd been unable to hear until now, that rose and fell with the wind.
His first thought was that the power would come back on again in a few minutes. And he did nothing but stand there waiting, watching now in the dim stormy light outside as hail stones began to fall along with the rain, bouncing off the wooden corral fences and splashing in the puddles of water that had already gathered. Now and then, he could hear them ping against the windows.
Fifteen minutes passed and the rain let up, but the power stayed off. It was getting darker, and he began to wonder how he was going to finish milking the cows. As long as the machines weren't working, he'd have to do it by hand.
A 4-Her friend had showed him how to do it once at the county fair when he was still in grade school, but all he remembered was that there was a trick to it. It wasn't as easy as it looked.
He knew one thing. If he had to do the last cows by hand, it would be pitch dark in the barn before he was done, and he began looking around for a lantern or a flashlight. Finally he stepped outside, ducking through the rain to his dad's pickupwhich he'd been driving since he came back from Alaskahoping he'd find one there.
After reaching under the seat and looking through his dad's tool box, coming up with nothing, he gave up and just sat there behind the wheel. He'd left the windows open, and the seat was wet and soaking now through his jeans. And he cursed his luck.
He saw a dim flash of light, thinking it was distant lightning, and when it finally fell in a flood around him, illuminating the falling rain, he realized they were headlights. Someone had driven onto Tully's place and was pulling up beside him.
It was another truck, not Tully's Buick, and he could just make out the driver, a guy in a ball cap, who was rolling down his own window and calling over to him.
"Everything OK?" the driver said, and Marty recognized the voice and the truck. It was a farmer from down the road, a guy named Mike.
"Lost power," Marty said.
"Us, too. Thought of you over here with Tully's cows. You need any help?"
"You got a lantern or a flashlight?"
"Can you show me how to milk a cow by hand?"
Mike just laughed. "How many you got?"
"Hell, yes. Let's do 'er." He turned off the truck's engine and switched off the lights. Then he disappeared to rummage for something on the floor and came up with a long handled flashlight.
They both ran for the barn, following the bobbing beam from the flashlight, and Marty stepped aside to let Mike through the door first.
"Sonofabitch," Mike said when they got inside. He was still laughing. "We can use the rain, but why the Sam Hill does it have to come all at once?"
Then they walked through a swinging door into the milking parlor, still warm and humid from the day's heat and the bodies of the big Holstein cows, who were now getting restless.
"Got a clean pail?" Mike said, and Marty went in search of one. He found an aluminum one in a cupboard, and before they used it, they scrubbed it out with detergent in one of the big tubs where Marty washed up each morning.
Mike found a plastic bucket that calf formula had come in and flipped it over to sit down on beside one of the cows. Reaching under her, he grabbed a teat in each hand and began squeezing out the milk.
"Don't ask me how I know this," he said. "I'll give you a hint. It's not like jerking off." And he demonstrated, showing how he closed his hand along the cow's teat, one finger at a time, forcing the milk down and out the end in a long spurt, each one falling with a ringing sound against the side of the pail.
Then he told Marty to take over, and he went looking for another pail and a bucket of his own to sit on.
There was something comforting in an unexpected way having Mike show up like that. He was so unlike Marty's father, treating him like just another guy who could be trusted to do a job and knowing enough to ask for help when he needed it.
And when Mike set to work on the cow next to his, he started talking, his friendly voice crossing the dimly lit distance between them. And working together like this, Marty realized how lonely he'd felt here by himself with nothing but the cows for company.
It came to him, too, that the reason he'd left Alaska was the very same feeling and the wish to return to what was at least familiar, though it meant the certainty of confronting his father again with who he was and what he wanted.
But who was he, and what did he want anyway? He used to think he knew. Now he wasn't so sure.
He could see the seat of Mike's pants as he sat milking the next cow, and his hands reaching under her in the shadows cast by the flashlight he'd set on a window ledge. With shirt sleeves rolled up, he was pumping the cow's teats in steady, quick jerks.
"Mike," Marty said, thinking long and hard before he asked the question. "What made you come over here?"
"I dunno," Mike said. "I knew from your dad you was milking Tully's cows these days all by your lonesome, and when the power went out, I figured there was a chance you might need a hand."
He'd heard everything Mike said, but the words "all by your lonesome" kept repeating as he considered it. He'd learned not to care what other people thought of him, but there in the warm darkness, Mike so close he could reach over and touch him, he found himself wanting to know what this man he hardly knewthis friend of his father'sreally thought of him.
He pressed his forehead into the side of the cow he was milking and squeezed his eyes shut to just focus on this single question. His heart seemed to tremble in his chest, and he realized that his hands were trembling, too. All he seemed sure of was that he wanted Mike to like him.
"Thanks," he finally said, in the sudden storm of feelings that swept through him, carefully choosing his words. "You saved my ass tonight."
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper