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.
He didn't drive straight home after Mike dropped him off at Tully's farm. Going there would have meant spending the rest of the evening with his folks, and that was the last thing he wanted.
They'd be watching TV, his dad either not talking to him, or trying to pick a fight, giving him the third degree about what he'd been doing, so he could turn around and tell him how he'd fucked up again. Or revive an old argument or pester him about something, like when was he going to get a car and stop borrowing the pickup. The possibilities were next to endless. It was better coming home after they'd gone to bed.
Mike had loaned him a pair of socks and some old sneakers to wear. So he tossed the wet and muddy ones onto the floor of the truck and drove into town to the Silver Bullet for a couple beers. The place was smoky and there was only country music on the juke box, but it was somewhere you could find a dark corner to disappear into, if you wanted, and people left you alone.
The bartender was a beefy old guy who owned the place with his wife and checked his ID each time like he was an escaped convict, then flipped it back to him as if it had to be fake. It didn't seem to matter how often he'd been there. They didn't seem to remember him.
But once he got his bottle of beer, he could sit at the bar for a while, maybe getting some quarters and drifting over to the two pinball machines against the side wall. There was a pool table in the back corner, but he wasn't any good at pool, and somebody was always hanging around there looking for someone to put five bucks on a game. He didn't like losing money any more than he liked getting beaten.
He hadn't been here often, but he was already getting a feel for who were the regulars. They small talked and told off-color jokes and bought each other drinks. Specifically, they ignored him.
Tonight was not much different. The storm had caused some welcome excitement and was a topic of conversation. People told and retold how the wind had taken part of the roof off the Assembly of God church, and there were trees down by the county court house. Someone driving on one of the back roads around Shelton swore they'd seen a funnel cloud.
It went on like that. He could have told them about having the power go out while you're trying to milk cows, but no one would have cared much. It was a town crowd, and they weren't interested in some farmer's hard-luck story. They barely even listened to each other. People in bars were like that.
It had been different at Mike's place. So different that he'd wished he could just stay there. The three of themMike, Rich, and Tyhad made him feel something he hadn't felt for a long time. They'd made him feel like they wanted to know him, to be his friends.
He couldn't remember meeting anyone like Mike before. He was such a regular guy, a real shirt-off-his-back kind of man, who seemed to honestly care about Marty though there was at least a dozen years between them and they'd hardly known each other before tonight.
Sitting with him in the truck, talking together, he felt Mike trying to understand him, really listening, even while he was disagreeing with what Marty was sayingnot accepting what he believed about himself and not rejecting him either like he'd grown so used to from his father.
With anyone else who'd tried to tell him he might be wrong about something, he'd walk away angry, thinking "fuck you" if he didn't actually say it. But though he wasn't exactly happy when he closed the door to Mike's truck, he realized that he'd felt something else, too. He liked Mike enough to still be thinking about what he'd said.
And here he was still thinking about it.
He liked the two other guys, too. Rich, the older one, had seemedwell, there was no other way to put ithe'd seemed a wall of strength, and Marty got the feeling that if they were friends and there was a need for it, Rich would defend him against all comers, fighting with him side by side.
And Ty was just a pool of tenderness, someone he'd never have given a second thought to if he'd met him anywhere else, but tonightwell, where were the words again?Ty had let Marty see right through to his heart. And what Marty had seen there made him aware of how his own heart had been locked away, far beyond anyone's touch.
"Well, look who we have here," came a voice from behind him, and someone's hand clapped him sharply on the shoulder.
He turned and saw a face from his high school days. It was a guy named Chuck who used to sit next to him on the bench during the time he played football.
"Marty, you old sonofagun," he said, putting out his hand to shake Marty's. "How long you been back in town?"
Chuck had never been much of a friend, but they had usually shared a joke about their lack of importance to the team when they were in the locker room getting undressed after another practice. Always ready for the showers first, Chuck would stand in his jockstrap, waiting for Marty to get out of his uniform.
He was standing the same way now, one hand on his hip, the other holding a long-neck beer, resting it against the inside of his thigh.
"So, you livin' out with your folks?" Chuck said.
"For the time being."
"No shit," Marty said, looking past Chuck to the wall behind him, where someone had tacked up a wrinkled poster for the State Fair.
Chuck sat down on the next stool and tucked his feet under it like he was going to stay for a while. "Heard you was in Alaska," he said.
Marty nodded and took a drink of his beer
"What's it like up there?"
"Cold, dark," Marty said. "Winter's way too long."
"I hear there's more men than women. Get laid much?"
This was the old Chuck. Never letting a conversation wander far from his main interest in lifesex.
"Compared to here," Marty said. "I didn't notice the difference."
Chuck laughed. Unless he'd found a way to get luckyand the Silver Bullet didn't seem like much of a place for thathe was probably no better at finding a bed partner than either of them had ever been.
Chuck had both elbows on the bar now and was peeling the label off his beer bottle with one thumbnail.
"You workin'?" Marty asked him.
"How long you been doin' that?"
"Too long." He turned again to Marty and tapped a finger on his knee. "You know what my problem is?"
"You got a problem?"
"I need me a good pickup line."
Marty couldn't help but laugh. They were back to Chuck's favorite subject.
"How about," Marty said, "How about your clothes would look good on my floor."
Chuck gave him a sly grin and then shook his head.
"Always works for me," Marty said.
Somehow they were teenagers again, laughing at jokes that weren't funny to keep from feeling like failures on the gridiron. If Marty stayed in Grand Island and the two of them hung out together, they'd be doing this for the rest of their lives.
After another beer, the idea of that didn't seem so bad. He looked at Chuck as they talked and wondered about him. He wondered about the thoughts that went through his head when he was alone, falling asleep at night, waking up in the morning. And he would like to have found some way to ask him.
So they talked of other things. Marty asked about their schoolmates, and Chuck told him who got married, who went into the service, who went to college, who had kids already, who was at the last class reunion.
"Shoulda been there," Chuck said. And he told a long story of a romantic triangle that surfaced between the class president, his fiancée, and a girlfriend he'd apparently never stopped seeing on the side.
Though Chuck had never done much but complain about high school while they were in it, he seemed to think differently about it now. Some things he still spoke of bitterlylike their miserable algebra teacherbut looking back, he had mellowed a little about others. And a few things he plainly missed.
"You know, I was always kinda curious about you, Marty," he said.
Marty wasn't sure how to take this. Chuck had never been serious about anything, and he wondered how much of this he really meant.
"How so?" he said, like he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"I dunno, you were just a puzzler," Chuck said. "Sorta kept a person guessing."
"You're making this up, aren't you." Marty was still expecting some kind of punch line.
Chuck looked at him. "I was never sure what you were going to do or say next. It was like there was some other guy inside you just biding his time, waiting to pop out."
"A serial killer?"
"No, not like that," Chuck said, shaking his head. He pulled out a cigarette and lighted it slowly, like he was thinking all the time exactly what he was going to say.
"You always played your cards real close to your chest," he said. "Made a guy wonder just what you were holding."
"Bum cards, that's all."
"Not that either. Some day I figured you'd turn out different and surprise us all."
"Sure ain't happened yet," Marty said and tried to catch the bartender's eye for another beer.
They both fell into a thoughtful silence, and Marty wondered if he'd ever had any suspicions about Chuck. He'd never seemed more than just an ordinary kind of guy, always horny and not up to much of anything except getting by.
"Anything about you I didn't know about?" Marty said.
"No mystery to me. What you see is what you get."
Marty laughed. It was the old Chuck, but with a difference. He'd been out in the world awhile, even though he hadn't left his hometown, and there was something about him that hadn't been there before.
He'd learned some things, had some hard knocks maybe. If you spent some time with himand after enough beershe might get to talking about it. And Marty would listen, really listen.
"What do a couple of guys our age do for fun in this town anyway?" he said.
Chuck glanced over his shoulder. "Look around. This is pretty much it."
This place sucks, Marty wanted to say. Maybe he came here to get away from his folks on a night like this one, but it wasn't his idea of fun.
"You like to go camping?" he said.
Chuck shook his head. "Did that once."
"You gotta be kidding."
"How about the Y? Shoot some hoops."
"Can't be that bad."
"Rolled a car a year ago. Didn't exactly walk away from it."
And he talked about being in the hospitaland the surgeries to put a shattered leg back together.
"Finished with physical therapy less'n a month ago," he said. "Took me a while to get back to work."
Marty thought he understood now where the change in Chuck had come from. He'd had a close call, and it had given him time to think about what his life was worth. Talking with him about that was the kind of conversation Marty had been looking for with another man.
But he didn't know how to get it started.
"A thing like that must give you a different outlook," he said, fumbling for words.
Chuck met his eyes for a moment. He had a frown on his face, like whatever he was thinking was something painful.
"Yeah, after the drugs wear off, everything hurts like hell," he said, darkly, "You get to hating everybody who can walk around on their own two feet. Coming and going as they please. Even the nurses."
It was kind of a grim outburst, and not what Marty expected. He hardly knew what to say and just watched as Chuck took a last drag on his cigarette, burning it down almost to the filter.
"I can't imagine going through something like that," Marty said.
"No, you probably can't."
Chuck finished his beer and set the bottle down on the bar, picked up his pack of cigarettes with a swipe of his hand and dropped them into his shirt pocket.
"Been real nice talking with you, Marty," he said and got up from the stool. "See ya again." And he walked away.
Marty watched in the mirror behind the bar as Chuck crossed the floor to a booth against the wall, where he stood for a moment talking to two guys who seemed to know him. And then he sat down with them, never glancing back toward Marty. Like he'd already forgotten about him.
Fuck you, too, Marty thought, and in his reflection he saw his lips form the words. You got laid up in the hospital and went through a lot of shit to get yourself back together, and I'm some jerk for asking about it. Excuse me for caring.
He looked at his beer, and for a while just felt the urge to get really drunk. But he knew he was done drinking before he got around to ordering another.
He paid up and left, walking outside into the night, where the air smelled of rain and the moon shone overhead through broken clouds. Somewhere in a drainage ditch nearby, there was a chorus of frogs singing.
After driving around town aimlessly, leaves and branches on the wet streets blown down by the storm, mist gathering sometimes in the headlights, he decided that his folks would have gone to bed by now, and he went home.
In his room, he started to undress, sitting on the edge of his bed to take off the shoes he'd got from Mike. "The socks are mine," he'd said. "But these sneakers are Danny's. He's your same size."
They were scuffed, white sneakers, run down at the heels, and soft with age. He set them side by side on the rug beside his bed, thinking of how they'd been worn by Mike's friend, who he'd never met.
The feeling he felt as he looked at them was a kind of gratitudea strange mixture of happy and sad. He and Mark, his fraternity brother, had worn each other's clothes once or twice, and it had given him this same feeling.
"Walking in another man's shoes," he thought, the phrase slipping into his mind from nowhere.
When he took off the rest of his clothes, to lie naked on the bed, he left the socks until last, taking a long look at them there on his feet, wiggling his toes in them, and almost feeling Mike present in the roomor maybe just wanting him to be there.
He remembered how he felt in the calm and quiet of Mike's kitchen. The peace that had come over him had made his life up until then seem a rough ride on a hard road. He tried again to get that feeling, but it wouldn't come.
He slowly pulled off each sock, setting them beside the sneakers, and in the darkness, after he'd turned off the light, he put his hand between his legs and held himself while he drifted off to sleep.
The next day, he was putting in a new corner post for one of the corrals, and replacing some planks that two of his dad's yearling bulls had busted up while having a stand-off. It was hot, sweaty work. Must have been over 100 degrees in the shadeand no shade.
The sweat had soaked through his shirt, and it was running from under the cap he was wearing and down his face. He'd finally taken his cap and dipped it into the stock tank just to cool off the top of his head.
Standing there, he'd looked into the water past the reflection of the windmill overhead and was tempted to shuck off his clothes and jump in, but the bottom was covered with algae, a slimy green that gave him the creeps at the thought of stepping into it.
As he worked, he kept thinking about the night before, the way Mike had come to his rescue with Tully's cows and then sitting in his kitchen with Rich and Ty, all of their faces softly glowing in the lamplight.
And then he'd thought of how the night had ended, the encounter in the bar with Chuck, who seemed half-friendly at first and got Marty thinking of ways they might get to know each other again, picking up where they'd left off in high school now that they were both a little older and wiser.
But Chuck, he found, had maybe not grown up at all. Or the way he'd grown had just made him more screwed up than before. Marty kept going over what they'd talked about, but he couldn't find a way to make any other sense of itChuck had always been something of a jerk, and from the look of it he still was.
When he'd finished the job, he walked over to the house where his mom was picking string beans in the vegetable garden. He turned on the garden hose and took a long drink from it, letting the cool water splash across his mouth and his face.
He didn't know where his dad had gone. He'd taken the pickup and driven off somewhere right after dinner.
"Mind if I borrow the car for a while?" he said to his mom, standing at the garden fence.
She looked up, the glint of her glasses all he could see of her face under the brim of the floppy straw hat she was wearing.
"Your chores all done?" she said. Like he was still a teenager and thinking he could sneak off without doing something he was supposed to. Farm kids, he'd been told countless times, had responsibilitiesunlike town kids who never had to do a lick of work.
"I don't have chores, mom," he reminded her.
"Well, whatever your dad told you to do before he left."
"I did that."
She shrugged and went back to picking beans. "Don't stay gone long," she said. "Your dad will be back any time."
It was hard to say who was really his boss. His mom made it seem like his dad called all the shots, but while she never contradicted him, she had her own opinions and wasn't one to back down easy. Tough as they come, she never gave Marty much slack. She didn't trust him and was still trying to keep him in line.
He wasn't going to argue with her and rarely had. He just said, "Thanks, mom," walked over to her car, and got in.
He'd thought of driving into town, just to get a root beer float at the A&W drive-in, but as he drove past Mike's place, he decided for no reason to stop there instead, maybe get whoever was there to go along with him. He didn't have the sneakers with him to return, but he could return them along with Mike's socks when they'd been through the wash.
Mike's pickup was gone, but there was a car he'd remembered from the night before parked by the front gatean old Nash Rambler. A dog came running up to him barking and wagging his tail, and someone stepped out through the open door of a shed across from the barn. It was Ty.
When he got out of the car, Ty called out a hello and waved him over to the shed. Inside he found Rich, in coveralls, working on his motorcycle. There were engine parts and tools scattered on the floor.
"I've already replaced the plugs and points. Now I'm thinking it's something wrong with the fuel line," he explained.
Neither of them asked Marty what he was doing there. It was almost like they'd been expecting him.
"Hey, Ty, be a sport and go get us some beers," Rich said. It was hot in the shed, the air not moving.
Ty left, and while he was gone, Rich kept working, his dark hair falling into his face as he bent over the parts he was studying in his hands. He said nothing, just concentrated on what he was doing. Marty looked around and found a stack of winter-tread tires to sit on.
He watched Rich, the coveralls zipped all the way open in front, down to the waistband of a pair of white jockey shorts. His chest, with a trace of dark curly hair, was damp with sweat, and to one side Marty caught a glimpse of a colorful tattoo.
"It may look like I know what I'm doing, but I don't," Rich laughed.
Ty came back with the beers, one for each of them, and said, "How much longer is this going to take?"
"If you were any kind of help, we'd be done by now," Rich said, glancing over at him, still grinning.
"I don't know anything about that stuff," Ty said. "Do you?" he turned to Marty.
"Not much. My dad's probably the one you'd want. He's the Mr. Goodwrench."
After leveling with Mike the night before about him and his dad, it seemed funny talking about the man like they were on good terms with each other, but that's the way he'd always been with people. A farm boy and his father were supposed to be a team. Their continuing differences embarrassed him.
And Marty's unwillingness to learn engine repair had been one of those differences. He could change the oil, check the battery, and keep the tires inflated, but he didn't see the fun in tearing down an engine and getting grease all over himself.
He wished now that he'd taken the time to learn something. He might have been able to help out, and he wanted to.
After a while, Rich had put the bike back together and was revving the engine, listening to it like it was a band playing out of tune.
"Let's get out of here," Ty shouted, his hands over his ears, and he and Marty walked out of the shed into the heat of the afternoon sun.
"I'm for getting wet," Ty said, and the two of them walked to the house where there was an above-ground swimming pool in the backyard, shaded now by the trees.
Ty got out of his clothes and climbed naked up onto the deck, while Marty was still realizing that he wasn't going to need a swimming suit. He pulled off his shirt, still damp with sweat, and his boots and jeans, and he climbed in after Ty.
The cool water welling around him was a pleasure beyond words. He felt his body let go of the tightness and the tiredness, and the sensation of ripples all along his bare skin and between his legs made him sigh aloud and want to laugh.
The two of them sank up to their chins in the pool. Marty tilted back his head, looking up into the trees, which were alive with the buzz-saw sounds of cicadas. He ducked under the water for a moment and came up again.
He let loose with a long whoop that burst out of him, something from his fraternity days, when one or another of the brothers was overcome with good feelings. Glad to be alive.
The motorcycle engine had fallen silent in the shed, and Rich was walking over to them. He came across the lawn pulling the coverall over his shoulders and his arms from the sleeves. It had dropped to his waist by the time he got to the pool, and after he'd pulled off his boots, he stepped out of it and stood for a moment in his jockeys.
On his chest Marty could now see his tattoo, a coiled dragon. It was beautiful.
Then he pushed down his underwear and climbed up onto the pool deck. Of the naked men Marty had seen in his lifenot many, but in the fraternity there was next to no modesty, and the brothers had a way of showing off when they got the urgeRich was by far the most fiercely handsome.
Marty couldn't help staring at him, head to toe, and feeling that next to him, he'd hardly measure up as a man. He wanted to say something, but all he could think of was "Where'd you get the tattoo?"
Rich looked at him for a moment, as though weighing the questionor weighing Marty himself.
"Nam," he said simply.
"I like it," Marty said.
Rich said nothing to that. Just got into the pool, gliding in like an eel.
"What are you doing Saturday night?" he said instead.
"Come on over. Danny's gonna be getting home. We're havin' a little get-together for him and Mike."
"Sure," Marty said.
"Keg of beer, steaks on the grill, whatever else comes up. Could go all night."
"Don't tell Mike, though," Ty said. "It's supposed to be a surprise."
"OK," Marty said.
But while they were talking, something had happened. Rich had moved through the water until he was standing behind Ty, and he had first put his hands on Ty's shoulders, massaging them with his fingers. Then, as he kept talking, he'd put his arms around Ty, pressing up close against him.
It was a gesture that one good friend might make to anotherand he remembered once walking up behind Mark when he sat studying at his desk and hugging him in just this way.
But both of them had been wearing clothes. With the image in his mind of Rich standing naked by the pool, he sensed suddenly something else. And something like a shudder went through him.
"You two aren't just friends, are you," he said.
And it was at this point that everything seemed to go into slow motion.
Both of them were looking him straight in the eye, and then Rich said, "Is that gonna be a problem?"
Marty swayed backward a step in the water. "Whoa," he said, and inside he felt himself floundering.
As he pulled away, reaching for the side of the pool, he was half aware of Ty, a look of concern on his face.
"If it's a problem, I'm sorry," Rich said, though he didn't sound very sorry. "I thought you understood."
Marty had nothing to say. He was just getting himself out of the pool and thinking about where he'd left his clothes.
Rich said something else that sounded like "You may want to think again about Saturday night." But whatever he said after that, Marty didn't hear any of it. He was pulling his jeans over his wet legs, grabbing the rest of his clothes and heading barefoot across the lawn to his car.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper