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.
Mike was on the porch, putting on his irrigation boots when the phone started to ring. Rusty was sitting on the front steps just outside the screen door, waiting for him.
"Who the hell could that be?" Mike wondered aloud. The grayest dawn was showing in the eastern sky. The rest of the world, except for farmers and night shift people, still had to be sound asleep. If it wasn't a wrong number, it would have to be one of his neighbors, like Tully who lived down the road.
He reached through the open kitchen door and took the receiver from the wall phone.
"Lazy Acres," he said. It was a little joke between him and Tully, a dairyman who'd decided over a beer one hot afternoon that they should have names for their farms and called his own place Holstein Haven. Another neighbor, Wade, was feeding a small herd of Hereford steers that year and thought of Best Damn Beef. He even came up with a sloganYou Can't Beat Our Meat.
Mike expected a chuckle on the other end of the line, meaning it was Tully or Wade. If it was anybody else at this hour, it had to be a wrong number.
"Mike?" came Danny's voice instead.
"Hey, bud," he said. He felt a flood of warmth in his chest that spread along his arms and up to his ears. "Sorry I missed you yesterday. Wish I'd been here when you came by."
"Me, too. I wanted to call last night, but it got too late."
"Everything OK?" Mike said. He could hear a difference in Danny's voice.
He stepped into the kitchen now and glanced up at the clock. It wasn't even 5:30.
"I'm not sure, Mike," Danny said. "I just want you to know I'd give about anything to be home with you right now instead of talking like this on the phone."
Mike tried to remember if he'd ever heard Danny talk this way before.
"Yeah, it did." There was a quiver of emotion now in Danny's voice. "What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that I love you more than anyone else, and as long as you'll have me, you are the only man in my life."
"Bud, you know you mean the world to me."
There was a long pause.
"You still there?" Mike said.
"Yes." And the word came from him like it had forced its way through tears.
"Danny," Mike said. "Whatever happened, everything's gonna be all right, OK?"
Then there had been another long pause, while Mike felt a rush of concern well up in him.
"I picked up a hitchhiker yesterday," Danny said. "He spent the night here in the dorm."
Mike took a breath and waited for the rest of it.
"I didn't sleep with him. We didn't have sex."
Mike knew he didn't care whether it was the truth or not. The pain in Danny's voice made him want to just hold him tight, cradle him in his arms, and let him cry if he needed to. And the sudden empty feeling Mike felt in his heart was from the distance between them and not being able to even touch.
"It's OK, bud," he said.
"But I really wanted toI came this closeand I feel so bad."
"Danny, don't worry about it."
"But you've always trusted me, and I let you down."
"It's OK," Mike kept saying. It was all he could think of to get Danny to stop blaming himself. "Go do what you're supposed to be doing. Make your movie. We can talk about all this when you get home."
"But that's more than a week," Danny said. "I gotta see you before then."
Danny would always be the younger one of the two of them, and Mike had often been the one to lean on when the world got to be too much for him. This was one of those times.
"I'll come to Lincoln," Mike said. "I'll be there this afternoon."
The second cutting of hay was all in, and Rich and Ty could look after the irrigating for a day, like they'd been doing already. Two guys falling in love, they were happy doing anything together, even if it was work. And there was always Tully or Wade to come to the rescue if they had a real problem.
They talked a couple minutes longer, and Danny finally had to hang up. He was at a pay phone and running out of quarters.
"I love you, bud," Mike said as they were being disconnected. And after he put the receiver back on the hook, he stood there for a while. There was a lot he needed to say to Danny, and it was going to take some thinking.
He got away later in the morning, after checking all four of his irrigation wells and resetting the siphon tubes. Then he had to clean out his pickup. He'd been to town the day before and brought home a bag of dog food, motor oil, some two-by-fours from the lumber yard, and a battery for the one that was running down in the Farm-all. There was all that to unload and his long-handled shovels and a couple of muddy plastic irrigation dams, his tool box, and a grease gun.
There was loose hay to sweep out once he'd done that, and bird featherswhat was left of a sparrow one of the barn cats had apparently surprised and devoured. Then a layer of dirt and gravel that he had tracked onto the floor mats in the cabplus pop cans, Burger King wrappers, take-out coffee cups, and a paper bag from a bakery in town, with what felt like half-eaten cruller inside.
He had a weakness for them and couldn't drive by without stopping for a couple. Although the way the waistband of his wranglers kind of resisted being buttoned in the morning was a clue that maybe he needed to scale back at the bakery and stop more often at a place with a salad bar.
Two weeks ago, he'd bought a couple new tires for his truck, which he decided to put on before he drove any further on the old onesonly the ghost of tread still showing on one of them. There was dried mud on the fenders and bird shit on the hood from parking under the cottonwood by the front gate. And he got out a hose with a spray nozzle and washed down the whole truck, so he would not be embarrassed by it in the Big City, which is how he thought of Lincoln, pop. 100,000.
About the time he thought Rich and Ty would be waking up, he went inside to take a shower and change into his go-to-town clothes. Then he went to the back bedroom and roused them.
It was already getting warm in the room, and they lay together with the sheets kicked off. The tenderness that had developed over the last week between the two of them had touched Mike. It had pleased him to see Rich slowly emerge from the dark sorrows he had brought with him that day when he showed up on his motorcycle, a year or more after Vietnam and almost unrecognizable.
Mike had watched as Ty's growing concern for him had worked a kind of magic. Not that it had been easy for either of them. Ty, who'd known his share of betrayal, had somehow found in himself a deep well of strength to draw onor maybe a faith in a God who would never abandon him, no matter whatand from nothing but the goodness of his heart he had done his best to take Rich under his wing.
Rich, of course, would fit under no one's wing. He was too full of whatever he had seen and done as a foot soldier in the jungles and rice paddies. And maybe what had saved him was letting Ty try to look after him. Finally, it was Rich who had taken Ty under his wing, finding in himself a measure of his own lost innocence. And in that moment, they had become for one another what both of them neededsomething each could trust with his whole heart.
Rich was awake when Mike entered the room. He lay on his side, naked, looking across Ty's sleeping form to where Mike stood. Ty was on his stomach, his face buried in the pillow, and Rich's hand rested on the inside of his thigh, gently stroking the fair skin there with his fingers.
"I'm going to Lincoln today," Mike said softly. He didn't need to explain why. Rich would know it was to see Danny.
"That make me foreman again while you're gone?" Rich said.
"Yeah, but you might need to get out of bed sometime to do it."
Rich smiled at him. "Sir, yes, sir." He shifted his body a bit, leaning forward to lightly kiss Ty's shoulder, then swung his legs to the floor.
He bent down to pick up a pair of jeans, and the floor creaked under his step as he slipped into them. He came around the bed toward Mike, buttoning them and zipping up the fly, and the two men walked down the hall to the kitchen.
"I reset the wells already this morning," Mike told him. "Keep an eye on them, and change 'em again tonight. You know where they all are." And he said if he wasn't home before morning, to do them again.
"You don't have to hurry right back," Rich said. He stood barefoot at the kitchen counter, pouring himself a cup of coffee from Mike's percolator. "I think Danny could use more good lovin' than he's been getting lately."
"Why's that?" Mike said, curious.
"He looked none too happy yesterday when he was here."
Mike just nodded. He thought he knew the reason why.
"How about you?" he said, giving Rich a smile. "You been gettin' enough?"
"Oh, I can't complain," Rich said and winked.
Mike put on his good wrist watch, and set it to the clock on the kitchen wall. He never wore it during irrigating season because he'd forget, and before he knew it, he'd absent mindedly plunge his arm up to the elbow in a ditch full of water. Even if he pulled it out right away, the inside of the crystal would fog over, and he wouldn't be able read the dial.
"Better get going," he said.
"Yep, time's a-wastin'."
Mike picked out a new cap from the rack on the wall, set it on his head, and went out to the pickup, where he found Rusty already in the back, waiting for him. He smiled at the old dog and snapped his fingers, pointing to the ground. "Sorry, sport," he said. "You stay home today."
Rich had followed Mike outside. He was standing by the gate with his mug of coffee, one fist shoved into a front pocket of his jeans.
"Here, boy," he said, and after a long look at Mike, Rusty jumped down from the pickup and went over to Rich.
And the two of them stood there together watching Mike as he got in and drove off.
In the hour and a half it took him to drive to Lincoln, Mike had plenty of time to think about what he would say to Danny when he got there.
At the beginning, for a long time, he had believed that Danny would eventually leave him for someone else. He was still so young when they first met, and he'd had so little experience, almost none. To add to that, they didn't have all that much in common. Danny was going to college, and still had a year to finish. He was a book-reader who wanted to be a writerand was now a teacherand Mike was just a farmer. And most of the year they didn't live together, because Danny's job was in Kearney.
Even after he'd gotten used to the idea that Danny was determined to stick with him, he'd felt it was unfair that Danny had settled down before he'd ever really had the fun a young, single man should haveplaying around, sowing some wild oats. Sooner or later he'd begin to wonder what he'd missed.
Mike could think back over several years of meeting menand before that a few girlswho had helped him learn about the world and himself in it. For a time, he'd kept count of the men he'd had sex with, but after a couple dozen, he'd stopped caring. To have lost count became a kind of achievement, a measure of his manhood.
For a long time he'd dreamed of finding one man who'd become a real partner, someone to stay with through thick and thin. If possible, someone he'd care as much about as he'd cared about his high school buddy, Don, who as luck would have it didn't have a queer bone in his body.
Finally, what he'd settled for was the kind of friendship he'd had with Ed, the sales rep for a saddle maker he'd met at a rodeo in Burwell. Ed's beefy shoulders and nicely rounded butt had caught his eye before he'd even seen the rest of him. Mike had walked around studying the display of saddles and tack and eventually glancing over to get a good look at Ed's face as he talked to another customer, a gleam in his eye, like he enjoyed a good time as much as making a sale.
He'd come over to Mike then, and the two of them had talked saddles for a while before Ed figured out that Mike didn't have a horse or any expectation of owning one. In a minute there'd been this silent click, and in another minute he'd given Mike his business card and written a room number at the Best Western on the back.
"Come by after ten," he'd said with a big smile. "I've got to take a dealer out to dinner."
"Make the deal?" Mike had said, when he showed up at the door that night.
"Let's not mix business with pleasure," Ed had said. "Get your ass in here."
And what happened then was a kind of free-for-all that lasted for hours. It had been a long time since Mike had enjoyed another man so much. Ed was uncomplicated. He knew what he liked, and he liked just about everything.
They'd met again each night until the rodeo was over, finally having breakfast at a restaurant on the morning Ed left town, his boot nudging Mike's shoe under the table the whole time. Mike figured this would be the last of Ed. He knew enough about paths crossing once and never meeting again.
But Ed gave him his schedule for the rest of the summer, a string of rodeos, fairs, and stock shows over three states.
"Come see me," he said.
"I got a farm to run," Mike had told him.
"Where's your farm? I'll come see you."
He seemed sincere, but Mike knew that with another queer guy, it was usually out of sight, out of mind. You made the most of what was often a brief encounter and, no matter what you felt, you didn't get any high hopes for another one. But he told him how to find his farm anyway, watching him write down the directions and then drawing him a little map that Ed folded together and slipped into his wallet.
So it was a surprise three weeks later when Ed pulled into his driveway and up to the front gate in his big old car, towing a horse trailer. It was a sultry night, electrical storms building in the southwest. Mike was sitting in his kitchen eating a supper of spaghetti from a can and reading the newspaper.
Ed had come right to the door. "I brought a horse for you, since you don't have one," he said. "But we gotta put him inside somewhere before any of that thunder and lightning get here." Seems they'd been through one storm on the road already, and the horse was more than a little anxious. Mike could hear him stepping around nervously inside the trailer.
This was Ranger, who'd go on to live there on Mike's farm for four years until Ed finally sold him to a banker in York, who wanted a horse for his daughter.
They'd backed the trailer up to the barn and brought the horse inside, where Ed and Mike cleared out a stall and then led Ranger to it. He rolled his eyes, side-stepping a little, unsure of what these two men had in mind, but he seemed glad to be inside where it was light, and he set to eating as soon as Mike gave him some of a bale of sweet prairie hay that grew in a low pasture down by the river.
"This horse is hungry. Have you been feeding him?" Mike asked Ed.
"Just got him today, trailer and all. A cowboy needed the money real bad. Sold me his saddle, too."
Ed brought the saddle in from the back of his car, while Mike patted the horse's head, talking quietly to calm him. Two or three cats appeared from out of the shadows, curious about this new resident of the barn, and one of them climbed up beside Mike and purred. Ranger seemed not to mind him and nuzzled the cat until it fell off the door of the stall.
"Guess he likes cats," Ed said.
"Good thing," Mike said, beginning to get the idea that Ed had brought Ranger here to stay. "I got more cats than I know what to do with."
The one electric light overhead flickered, and after several seconds there was a rumble of thunder in the distance. Ranger started a little but stayed put, the sound of hay crunching between his molars pausing for only a moment.
"I think he's gonna be OK," Ed said.
"So do I," Mike said. "Only problem is, I'm not in the market for a horse."
"He's not for sale. He just needs somewhere to stay until I find a place for him."
Mike gave him a level look. "You ever thought of asking me first?"
A gust of wind started up around the barn and the light flickered again.
"Is it too late to ask you now?" Ed said.
"Hell, no" Mike said and looked again at the animal. "A horse'll be good here."
There was a burst of rain on the roof, and a scattering of drops flung up dust on the dirt outside the barn door. They heard a bolt of lightning strike much closer, and then as they were swept up in the roll of sky-shattering thunder, the light went out for good.
In the sudden darkness, they had reached for each other at the same moment, and their bodies came together, like a door blown shut in the wind.
Off and on over the months that followed, Ed had dropped in like that, always for sex and friendship, pretty much in that order, and then more sex again, which he never seemed to get enough of. Seldom serious and ever a rolling stone, he was a constant, nevertheless. There was never a goodbye without a hug and a kiss, and when he said, "I'll se you again, Mike," he meant it. You could count on him for that.
Someone like Ed would have been good for Danny before he moved in with Mike. It would have made settling down seem more like coming to a much needed rest after a long, long wandering. And that would have made a difference.
He parked the truck in a lot on campus when he got to the university and went searching for Danny. His door at the dorm was closed and locked, but there was a note taped to it. The note said where to come find him, and Mike was there waiting outside a classroom building when Danny came walking out.
"Hey, bud," he said as Danny came over to him.
Danny just looked into his eyes and said, "Boy, am I glad to see you."
A good long hug was what Danny needed, Mike could tell, but it had to wait until they could be alone together. And they walked across campus, back toward the dorm, talking as well as they could.
He told Danny what he'd been thinking, about how he'd found Mike too soon and that Mike had known many other men along the way before Danny had showed up in his life. He said again what he'd said often at the beginning, that he didn't expect Danny to stay with him.
"But you were always wrong about that," Danny said. "I knew you were the one for me and you always would be."
"You can't know something like that," Mike said. "Not with the first guy you meet."
"You weren't the first one."
"Oh?" Mike said. He remembered that first night how Danny didn't even know how to give him a blowjob.
"OK, you're right. The ones before you probably don't count," Danny said. They had stopped at a fountain and Danny was staring into the water. "But after all the times I said I was never going to leave you, I thought you believed me."
"No, I just stopped arguing with you about it."
"And you stayed by me anyway all this time. I don't understand how you could do that."
Mike shrugged and said, "I guess I couldn't help myself."
Danny looked at him now. "That doesn't sound like you."
"What can I say? I love you."
"God almighty, I feel like a jerk." Danny turned and started walking again.
"I see I'm not doing a very good job of this," Mike said, catching up. He put his hand on Danny's shoulder and spun him around.
"Listen to me," he said, and then he had to wait while two people walked by them. "Whatever happened with this other guy, it wasn't your fault."
"Mike, there's a word for what you just saidbullshit." Danny glanced around him and then said in a low voice that barely crossed the distance between them, "I almost fucked somebody else last night. And I'm not even sure how I got myself stopped. But I know you'd never do anything like that to me."
Mike looked at him and saw the sorrow in his eyes. An ache rose in his heart for Danny as they stood there together. "You're right, bud. I never would."
They said nothing more to each other until they got back to Danny's room. There they closed the door, standing for a moment in the stillness.
"Mike, I'm so sorry," Danny said finally. "I love you more than I ever loved anybody."
"I believe you," Mike said, and he saw that Danny"s eyes were filled with tears. "You gotta believe me, too."
He put his arms around Danny and held him for a while, until he couldn't wait any longer to start undressing him and caressing his naked skin.
Hours later, the light of the setting sun in the windows, they had awakened, lying together on Danny's bed, and Danny had put on his pants and gone to the lounge downstairs to get them a couple of cokes and something to eat out of the vending machines.
Mike had put on his boxers and was sitting on the bed, listening as someone down the hall put a record on their stereo. It was a soft, mournful ballad he'd never heard before.
If I could save time in a bottle
They'd left the door locked, and when Mike heard a knock, he went to open it, thinking it would be Danny, but it was someone else, a guy in a cowboy hat and boots, carrying a black nylon bag.
"Oh," he said, taking a look at Mike, "Is Danny around?"
"He was here. Just stepped out," Mike said.
"I'm Randy," the guy said, offering his hand. "Rhymes with candy."
"Ah, Mike," the guy said, shaking his hand and giving him a big grin. "He told me about you."
Mike couldn't make out who this guy was. He didn't seem like a student.
"Danny gave me a ride yesterday. Found me a place to sleep here in the dorm last night."
Mike knew now that this was the hitchhiker Danny had picked up. He was a handsome guy, someone Danny's age, and he seemed friendly and uncomplicatedsomeone maybe a lot like Ed when they'd first met.
"Danny'll be right back," he said.
"I can't stay," Randy said. "I got a ride waitin' outside. I just wanted him to know everything went OK today. Could you tell him that?"
"Sure, I can do that."
"Tell him I got to see Wallace, and he's all right. He's up for parole in a while, if he stays a good Indian, and he thinks he can be back home soon."
"Danny can tell you the whole story. I gotta go now."
He turned from the door and then paused a moment. "Tell him something else, too. Tell him he's a good man."
Randy touched his fingers to his hat brim. "Chin to the wind," he said and then he was gone, the sound of his boots echoing along the corridor as he hurried away.
Mike went back to the bed and lay down again, looking at the pattern of shadows from the window blinds on the wall. The song finished from down the hall and there was a silence before the next one started.
A good man. He would be sure and tell Danny that.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper