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.
It had been two hard days and nights. The nights, in fact, when he thought about it, had been getting harder for a long time.
When Ty had left him there that morning in Tully's barn, scrubbing the milking machines, his arms up to his elbows in soapy water, he wasn't sure what happened to him next. After he didn't know how long, he found himself staring into the bottom of the empty sink, the plug pulled out, and the water drained away, and he realized that he'd finished washing up.
He couldn't remember just what he'd been thinking about all that time, or whether he was thinking at all. What had played over and over in his mind was the picture of Ty standing there with a hopeful look on his face, as if the earth had not opened up between themleaving each of them stranded and unable to cross over to the other side.
Marty had been on his own for so long, he'd begun to think of himself as a loner. And that concerned him because he didn't like loners. They were creepy guys everybody steered clear of. Like as not, one day they'd wind up in the newspapers because they'd done something weirdshooting up a bar, or a post office, or holing up somewhere with a hostage and getting tear gassed out by the cops.
Then, out of the blue, he thought he'd found a couple friendsthree, counting Mike. Being with them, he'd felt alive and normal again. The loneliness that had been haunting him began to slip away into the shadows.
Now he was kicking himself because he should have known it was too good to be true. Somehow he'd missed what should have been obvious about them. Ordinary men didn't practically welcome you with open arms. Like Chuck that night in the Silver Bullet, they kept you at a safe distance, like you could be trusted only so far.
A sure way to make them suspicious was to take them seriouslyto let on that you could possibly care about them. He'd watched the friendships between other men, and that was how they seemedlots of joking around and back slapping, but all the while being sure not to get too close.
That was how his one friend Mark had put it the last time they'd spoken. "Maybe we've been too close."
The earth had opened that time, too, only Marty had been the one left stranded on the wrong side, with a hopeful look still on his face, like the one he'd seen on Ty's face. Now he'd begun to struggle with the realization that he'd done to Ty exactly what Mark had done to himpushing him away. And for something like the same reason.
Saturday afternoon, Tully came home from the hospital, and he was waiting for Marty when he showed up in the evening to do the milking. Still sore from being cut open and sewn back together, he couldn't do any liftingwhich was a good part of the jobbut he could help out a little, mostly glad to just be back in his barn with his cows, and away from doctors and nurses.
"You get to yearning for a breath of air that smells like the outdoors," he said, raising his voice over the noise of the milkers. "Damn, I hate being cooped up."
He checked on all the cows, giving each of them their measure of meal when they came into the barn and put their heads through the stanchions to the feed trough. He called some of them by name, as a man does with livestock he works with every day.
Marty had given his prize steers names, too, only he had a problem that Tully didn't. Fattened from calves and ready for market, they were destined to wind up in the food chain as steaks on somebody's tableyou were always saying goodbye to them.
In his last years, he'd taken to raising bulls, who not only got to keep their balls but got a few years of life to live having a high old time, as he figured they did, hanging out in the pasture and breeding the females when the time came for that.
"They all seem happy," Tully said, standing in the milking parlor as Marty strapped a machine to another cow. "They must like you."
Marty made a face. "Tell me another one."
"I'm not jokin'. I can tell they warmed right up to you." It was a risk upsetting them with a break in the routine and some stranger suddenly in charge, he explained. It could put a dent in production.
"Shoulda been here the night the power went out," Marty said and told Tully about how Mike had come over to help him.
"Mike's a good man," Tully said. "You couldn't find a man to be a better neighbor."
Marty listened to the warmth in Tully's voice and wondered if he knew what Marty had begun to suspect about him.
"I was wondering," Marty said after a while, trying to make the question sound off-handed. "How come Mike's never got married?"
Tully didn't answer right away. He was gazing out the barn door, where there were swallows swooping around in the evening air. "Oh," he finally said, "I think he's just not the marryin' kind."
It was half an answer at best, and Marty decided to push Tully a little further than he seemed willing at first to go. "A wife would be kind of outnumbered, I guess, with another guy living there."
Tully looked at him now, searching his face for a sign of something more than what he'd just said. Marty kept busy, squatting down to wipe off the udder of a cow, drips of milk already leaking from her teats.
"I may have wondered about that once, too," Tully said. "But I've been around long enough to know that you let a man choose who he wants to live his life with."
And he wasn't done. "Have you met his friend Danny?"
"No. Can't say that I have."
"He's a good man, too. If you knew him, you might stop your wonderin'."
They'd been talking loud enough to hear each other over the sound of the milking machines, and Marty couldn't tell for sure, but a scolding tone had seemed to creep into Tully's voice, as if he objected to something Marty had said, though he'd been careful not to say much of anything.
"You could be right about that," he said, smiling at Tully, as if he was waving a white flag. He liked the man and didn't want to piss him off.
And Marty let the subject drop. What had been clear, though, was that Tully was defending Mike. Which surprised him, coming from a man like Tully, a farmer like Marty's dad who had strong opinions about people trying to slip around their responsibilities to othersand wasn't settling down and raising a family one of those responsibilities?
Tully, if he'd felt the need to set Marty straight about something, didn't let it change how happy he was with the job he'd done. He thanked Marty more than once, and when he refused again to take any moneya farmer, not even a farmer's son, expected to be paid for helping out a neighborMarty had to promise that he'd let Tully take him to town for a big steak dinner sometime.
"OK, it's a deal," Marty said finally, just to be agreeable. And on the way to his pickup to drive off, he said he'd be back the next morning to do the milking again.
Instead of going to the Silver Bullet that night, he'd bought a six-pack of beer at a liquor store and driven down toward the river, where a road dead-ended behind a stand of cedar trees that had once stood alongside a farmstead.
Only a shed and a falling down corn crib remained. The house and the barn were gonethe house moved several miles closer to town to a lot in a field where it was lived in by a retired couple, and the barn torn down for the scrap wood by some interior design dealer in Omaha.
In high school, he'd come out here sometimes with guys he knew who'd got someone to buy them beer, and they'd stand around a car or poke around the abandoned buildings, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and pissing in the weeds. He wondered what happened to all of them.
After he'd quit his career as a high school athlete, he'd had time for this. It also got him away from his folks. Being back, as he parked at the end of the road and turned off the enginehe'd already switched off the headlamps, rolling down the road slowly like they used to do, in the dim light from the moonit felt for a moment like those nights long ago when he was a teenager.
He'd already drunk one beer on the way out here, and he popped the top on another. He let his thoughts drift as he sat there, listening to night sounds from the trees and the fields around himcrickets and buzzing insects mostly, frogs croaking from a slough, and a couple of whippoorwills calling in the distance, like they were trying to find each other out there in the dark.
And before long, he was thinking about Tully and what he had said about Mike. If Tully knew that Mike and Danny were queer, he seemed undisturbed by thatlike he'd given it his blessing.
Tully's reasoning had followed a path Marty had never gone down. It seemed to be simply thisthat we all come into this world alone and whatever choices a man makes to keep from staying alone are his own business. What's important is beingas Tully would saya good man, and the rest is unimportant.
Maybe less than unimportant. If there was any judgment to be made, it was whether a man chose what made him truly happiest. And Tully had made it clear thatin his opinion at leastMike had done just that.
And Tully was no fool. You could count on him to be right about things. He had to be right about this, too. It just wasn't something Marty was ready to accept. He felt his thoughts begin to whirl.
He opened the third beer, got out of the truck, and walked around to the back, where he put down the tailgate and hopped up to sit on it. The night spread out around him, cornfields, hayfields, and pasture glimmering in the moonlight.
A few lights from farms shone in the distance. He could make out the ones from his folks' place, a mile away. Then he found himself searching for Tully's blue-white pole light farther onand beyond it the lights from Mike's farm.
He thought again of the men who were thereMike, Ty, and Richand he recalled the feelings he had sitting in the lamplight with them. He understood now, more clearly than he did even then, that what he'd felt there was the utter absence of loneliness.
And this was what made Mike's kitchen so different from a place like the Silver Bullet, where someone like Chuck was wrapped up firmly in his loneliness like it was a blanket. Look around the place, listen to anybody else there, and you could see the same thing. It was why they came here.
Marty, he realized, had done the same thing himself. Hell, his whole life was a long pathetic embrace of loneliness to keep him exactly that wayaching for someone to share his life with, yet digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole where there was room for no one but himself.
Peering into the darkness, trying to make out a light from Mike's farm, he remembered it was the night of the partythe welcome home for Danny, who'd been away. Why had Marty said he wouldn't be there? He hadn't said, just turned down the invitation because it had meant spending an evening with some queer men.
Now, finishing his beer, he lay back on the truck bed and stared up into the heavens, the stars flung across it and shining bright, even in the milky glow from the moon. Whenever he did this, he always felt so small and insignificant in the universe. A tiny speck on what was not much more than a spinning speck in the vastness of space.
He sat up again, the solid earth swimming into view before him again. A warm breeze stirred the air, rustling the leaves in a cornfield across the fence from him. He dropped to his feet on the gravel road and walked around to the cab to get another beer.
When he'd opened it, he drank again deeply and then set the can between his legs. He'd had enough of sitting out here in the dark by himself. He'd had enough of everything. He started the engine of the truck and made a U-turn, heading back the way he came.
A few minutes later, he had driven to his folks' place. He went inside the house, straight to his room and got out of his work clothes. He took a clean pair of jeans from a dresser drawer and then went to the closet, where he picked out a shirt.
"You going out again?" his mom said.
"Yes, I am."
"The truck's out of gas," his dad's voice called from where he was watching TV. "If you're driving it, you can keep the tank full."
"Yeah, dad," Marty said, already walking out the door. In a moment, he was back in the pickup, headed for Mike's.
Rich had met him when he got there, walking across the yard to him stark naked and dripping wet from skinny dipping in the pool.
They talked for a moment at the fence, and Marty wasn't sure what to say to him, but he saw what he'd seen the last time. Though his tall, lean form was only a shadowy silhouette against the dim light coming from the house, Rich was a handsome man, strong and fearless, like one of Marty's young bulls.
"I'm sorry about the other day," Marty said, thinking an apology was in order for the way he'd leaped from the pool and run away.
"I'm the one should be sayin' that," Rich said. "I'm still workin' on my manners. I used to have 'em, but they got kinda neglected when I was off in Nam."
"I've been meaning to say something about that," Marty said, reaching up to tug on the bill of his cap and then realizing he wasn't wearing one.
"About my manners?" Rich laughed.
"No, about Vietnam. You did a good thing, goin' over there." Marty stumbled around for the right words. "I respect you for that."
"OK, but tell you what," Rich said. "Let's forget about all that tonight. It's a party."
They walked along the fence together to the yard gate, and then Marty followed Rich across the lawn and around the corner of the house. A stereo had been set up on the side porch, and there was music playing, a James Taylor song.
just call out my name, and you know wherever I am
Out at the pool, there were bug lights glowing in the dark. Once they got there he could see several other men, up to their chins in the water.
"Everybody, this is Marty," Rich said, and he introduced them all. There was Ty with that big, hopeful smile on his face. There was Mike, looking happy, and next to him Danny, wearing a pair of glasses and looking nothing like what Marty expected. And there were two other guys, Ted and Ed.
"Get out of those duds," Ed said, a big guy with a deep voice and a walrus mustache. "There's room for you right here between me and Ted."
"No way," Ty said. "He can go wherever he wants."
"Maybe he'd like some grub first," Rich said and turned to Marty. "You had anything to eat?"
Marty, not ready to get in the pool with all of them, said in fact he could eat, and Rich took him to the kitchen where there was food spread out on the table.
Rich handed him a plate. "We ate up all the steak," Rich said, "but there's burgers left. Just help yourself."
Ty came into the kitchen just then, drying himself with a towel and wrapping it around him.
"Ty, did you think to bring this man a beer?" Rich said. "Go and get him one."
And Ty hurried back outside again, passing Mike who was on his way in. He'd put on a pair of boxer shorts and was rubbing his wet hair with a tee shirt.
"Your cows recovered yet from all our teat pullin' the other night?" he said, grinning.
Marty laughednot too nervously, at least he hoped it didn't showand told him the news that Tully was back from the hospital. As he talked, Ty returned with a beer, handing it to him. And here Marty was again with the three men he'd hadn't stopped thinking about since the last time he was with them.
They were all doing it again, listening to him as though what he was saying was worth hearing, and touching himalmost embracing himwith their smiling eyes. He had wondered all the way here if he could forget they were queer, and he realized that Tully was rightit didn't matter what he thought about that. They were good men.
After a while, one by one they went out to the pool again until it was just Ty left with him, cutting him a piece of store-bought apple pie that Ted had brought and scooping up ice cream for it.
Ty had forgotten, it seemed, how Marty had talked to him that morning in the barn, and he wanted to set things right with him again. It was hard to say exactly what he felt now, and all he could think of was "I'm sorry," but when he remembered how Ty had opened his heart and soul to Marty, he knew those words weren't enough.
"I was wrong," he finally said, realizing that was exactly the way to begin. "You weren't thinking of yourself that day. You were thinking of me, and I really was a jerk-off."
"No," Ty said, shaking his head, like Marty had just said something desperately untrue.
"And you're doing it again now," Marty said. "I gotta take back what I said to you. I was dead wrong about youand Rich."
"You don't have to be telling me this."
"Yeah, I do. And I want you to listen to me, because you deserve to hear it."
And he told Ty what he'd been going through for years now, even running away to Alaska to get away from itand running away, he'd come to realize, was exactly what he'd done. He'd found nothing there because he'd fooled himself into thinking he was actually looking for something.
Now he saw himself for what he wasa poor excuse for a man, living in a world that felt no more like home than a prison cell.
"I've been doing what I damn please ever since I can rememberall the time thinking it proved I was somebodyand when I look back at it now, what I see just adds up to nothing."
At twenty-one he was still living at home with his folks and milking some other man's cows. He didn't even own a car. He went to bed at night and got up in the morning aloneand all the time in between he had no one but himself for company. For years, he'd liked it just this wayshow the world how tough he could be.
"But I'm getting tired of it," he said looking down at his beer. "And I used to be able to drink enough of this stuff to make me not care. But half the time that don't even work anymore."
After a while, he realized what he was saying sounded like a confession, and he looked at Ty, who was sitting across the table from him, silent, the expression on his face like someone staring into an open wound.
"Yeah, that's the man you're lookin' at," Marty said. "And there I was thinking I was somehow better'n youboth of you. For crissake, Rich even went over to Vietnam and probably got shot at. Right?"
"He doesn't talk about it."
"I know one thing for damn sure. If that was me, I'd be shakin' in my boots and wettin' my pants. I don't have the balls for that stuff."
"I couldn't do it either," Ty said.
Marty sighed and held his face in his hands. What he sensed about Ty was that he had the tenderest heart of anyone on the planet. The idea of sending him into the jungle with a gun would be like crushing a flower with your boot heel.
Marty had run out of words. He ached for something at that moment, but didn't know what it was until he felt the fingers of Ty's hand touch his own. He had reached across the table to him.
The touch had sent a wave through hima shudder that he felt race along his arms and into his chest. And as if they had a will of their own, his hands fell away from his face and he let Ty hold them. Feeling tears now in his lashes, he kept his eyes shut. He hadn't cried since he was a little boy and didn't know that he still could.
There was a long pause with just the sound of single sob, and Marty realized it was himself. Feeling more on the way, he held them tight inside, afraid to let them go.
"There's no need to be ashamed," Ty finally said in a voice so quiet Marty could hardly hear it.
Shame. That's exactly what he'd been feeling, and then the sobs he'd been holding back poured out of him, and hot, burning tears slid down his cheeks.
"You're a good man," Ty said.
There were those words again, only this time someone was trying to say them to him, as though they could ever possibly describe him. And then he felt hands on his shoulders, pressing down firmly, massaging them.
"He's right, Marty," a voice came from behind him. "You've got the right stuff." It was Rich. He had come quietly back into the room and had been there who knows how long, listening to him.
"Aw, shit," Marty said, pulling back his hands and roughly wiping away the tears. "You're gonna go thinking I'm some kind of a cry-baby."
Rich squeezed his shoulders hard and then kept on rubbing them. "I wouldn't give you two cents for a grown man who can't cry," he said.
And then Marty had laughed through his tears, and he felt a weight lifting from him that he had not known he was carrying.
"You gonna eat your pie or what?" Rich said, slapping his back. "Your ice cream's all melting."
And then they all laughed, and Marty felt like he was floating, carried off the field by his teammates after winning the game.
After a while, he went out into the yard where someone filled his cup with more beer and he got out of his clothes to climb into the pool with them. If anyone was looking at him naked, he tried not to care. In a way, it almost tickled him to think that some one of them might find him good to look at.
The night was still warm from the day, his stomach was full, and the beer tasted good. He sat by himself with his back against the side of the pool, the lemony smell of the candles settling over the deck and the water.
The music had stopped a while ago, when he was in the house, and they'd been able to hear waves of laughter drifting across the lawn. Ed had been telling jokes. He seemed to have an endless supply of them, but when Marty joined them, he'd started one and then stopped, saying, "Oh, I can't tell that one in mixed company."
It reminded Marty that he was the odd man out here, and he didn't want that feeling. "Go ahead, I don't care," he said.
"No, wait," Ed said, "I got one for you." And he started a story about a man and his wife at a stock show looking at the bulls.
"They're reading a sign by the pen for one bull and it says this bull sired 100 calves in the past year. She's thinking about the bull doing his job for that kind of output, and she says, `When you think about it, that comes down to about two times a week.'"
Then they look at another bull who has sired 200 calves, which impresses her even more. That means almost four times a week, she points out, and she's hinting that maybe her husband could take a lesson from the example.
When they get to the third bull, she's really interested. This one has sired 365 calves. That's one for every night of the year. She's making no secret about what she's got in mind now.
"The husband, getting her drift, says, `Big difference for the bull, though. It wasn't the same cow.'"
They laughed some more and finally fell quiet, surrendering to the calm of the night and the flickering candlelight. Mike tapped more beer from the keg, and the beer cups passed back and forth between them.
Marty leaned his head back against the edge of the deck, feeling a warm glow spread through him. And he tried not to think of how each of the other men there had someone with him, and only he was alone. He let himself picture having another man there beside himhis old buddy Mark, maybeand he realized that it would feel good.
His eyes closed, he heard the water stirring and Mike was getting out of the pool. He said what they needed was some more music, and he was going to the house to flip over the stack of LPs on the stereo.
Marty glanced up to see him climb the ladder, emerging into the light from the house, glistening and wet, water falling from his body and back into the pool. Then Danny was following him and getting out, too. Marty wondered if they wanted some time alone together, and he realized that real buddies would be like that.
As Danny stood on the deck, there was the sound of a car on the road, slowing as it came to Mike's driveway and pulling in.
"Ah, he made it," Danny said.
"Who's that?" Ted said.
"One of my students. He called before and wanted to know how to get here."
"A student?" Ed said.
"Don't worry. He's OK," Danny said, stepping off the deck and into the grass. "But behave yourself. And put some clothes on when you get out of the pool, all right?" And Danny bent down to pick up his pants.
Marty watched as a car parked beside his truck, and when the engine and lights were switched off, a voice called from an open window.
"Hey, Virgil," Danny called back, pulling on his pants and walking over to him. "Thought maybe you got lost."
"Not anymore, sir. The lost is found."
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper