Mike and Danny Go to College
Chapter 2, part 1
Mike and Danny walk across a parking lot and out to the street, where a little two-bedroom house with white aluminum siding sits behind a tall, rangy cedar tree. An official-looking sign with the words ART ANNEX hangs from the porch roof, and under it is a bed sheet with "Winter Art Show" spelled out in crooked letters. The front door has been painted dark red.
Danny is explaining that the main art department is in some classroom building on campus, but the students hang out here. It's a place for them to put up their work and get away from it all.
Mike wonders what there is to get away from. College is already like that.
Their boots thump on the floorboards of the porch, and Danny reaches for the door and walks in. Mike follows, becoming aware of a thick wave of incense and cigarette smoke on the warm air inside. After the brightness of the open sky and snow, his eyes adjust slowly to the dimness. He realizes that the windows have all been covered over with plywood panels, and underfoot there's old wall-to-wall carpet, worn thin where the traffic arcs off in different directions.
Danny stops in the middle of the entryway and calls out, "Anybody here?" There's a feint reply from a back room, and they go on in. They find a couple of guys in jeans and flannel shirts leaning against the counter of what used to be a kitchen. They're scraping the last of the instant coffee from the bottom of a jar into two cracked mugs. A kettle is steaming on a stove. Mike notices a refrigerator painted the same red as the front door, and on it a cartoon face with a worried look and in wiggly yellow letters the word "Eats."
Danny doesn't seem to know either of the boys. He asks if they've seen Ted, and they haven't.
"How about his painting?" Danny asks. "Where's that?"
Mike gets a kick out of all this. He's never known anyone who painted anything but houses. And here is a whole house for people who paint art. As he looks around into the other rooms, he sees the walls hung with pictures in frames – paintings, drawings, and things that aren't either one. Hanging from the ceiling in the next room there's something made of colored cables and dangling bowling pins.
"They took Ted's painting down," one of the boys is saying. And he walks Danny and Mike around a corner where there's a big blank spot on the wall. Only a card hangs there: "Blue Man Dancing" with Ted's name and a price. Two hundred dollars.
Mike is thinking about this much money for a painting, and Danny is saying, "Aw, shit," like he finally realizes something.
"If you want to see it, it's still out in the garage," the boy says. "Ted hasn't come and got it yet." And he heads back to the kitchen, where his pal is making the coffee.
There's an enclosed porch in back that connects to a two-car garage, and Danny walks out that way, with Mike right behind him.
The garage is set up as a work area. There are makeshift tables and equipment Mike doesn't know what to make of. "What's all this stuff?" he asks.
"I think they throw pots out here," Danny says.
"Throw pots?" Mike is trying to picture this.
But Danny is already looking through framed paintings and canvases leaning in stacks against one wall. Finally he stops, peering at one almost as big as he is.
"Did you find it?" Mike says.
Danny pulls it out so they both can see. It's a naked man all right, from shoulders to feet, all blue, one knee up, as if he's breaking into a cowboy two-step. And between his legs is a good-size cock pointing upward and two ample testicles, one higher than the other, like they're bouncing.
"Recognize anything?" Danny says.
Mike takes another look and says, "That's you, bud."
"You never told me you were in a painting," Mike says, impressed.
"It never came up."
"I can see why they don't want anybody getting a look at this," Mike says. "People might get ideas."
"Yeah, well, we can't have that," Danny says and starts to slip the painting back into the stack.
"Wait. I'm not done looking at it," Mike says. "It's art."
"You're gettin' a boner. Gimme a break."
Danny is turned away, and Mike steps up behind him, hooking his fingers into his back pockets. His coat is open and he presses the front of his wranglers to Danny's butt.
"What are you doing?" Danny says.
"Having a good time." He reaches one arm around Danny and hugs him from behind.
Danny finally stops moving, and Mike presses his cheek against the back of his neck. He lets his hand drop down to Danny's thigh and then strokes up to his crotch, warm and full. Danny turns in his arms and hugs him back.
"I love you, bud," Mike says softly.
"Even if I don't skate worth shit?" Danny hangs onto him for a second with strong arms, pushing with his hips against Mike and kissing the side of his face. And then he pulls back. "We got an audience," he says.
There's a window in the wall between the garage and the house. Through it they can see into the kitchen. One of the two boys is looking out at them.
Mike smiles back at the boy, raising one of his hands in a little wave. "I know that look," he says to Danny.
"What look?" Danny has turned away again and is working the painting back into place.
"He wishes he was one of us."
They're walking to where they parked the pickup, which takes them on a footpath across a corner of campus between two large brick buildings. Both have names by the entrances. One is called Meyer Hall; the other is called Bronc Hall.
"What are these?" Mike wants to know.
"Dorms," says Danny.
"Can you go in them?" Mike asks. "Or do you have to live there?"
"You want to see a dorm? There's nothing to see."
They're going to the pickup to drive out to the farmhouse where Ted lives. As they round the corner of one of the buildings, someone starts calling out, "Danny, Danny!" When Mike turns, he sees a young man running up behind them. Mike gets ready to be introduced, but this time Danny stops for a look and then just keeps walking.
"Danny," the guy says when he catches up with them. "I heard you were back."
But Danny is giving him the cold shoulder. Mike sees the guy is still a kid, smooth-faced and fair, his cheeks red in the cold air. He has a big hopeful smile. And he falls into place beside Danny, talking fast as they walk.
Mike is a little behind them, noticing the guy's clothes, a nice sweater pulled over a clean white shirt, khaki pants and what look like new brown penny loafers. A doctor's son, he thinks, or someone raised by his mother. He walks with his hands shoved in his pockets, which pulls his pants tight across the cheeks of his butt, the only part of him that seems fully developed.
What Mike doesn't understand is why Danny is being so unfriendly. Or why the kid doesn't seem to notice.
When they get to the pickup, it gets clearer. Someone's told him Danny came with a guy in a truck, and could him and his friends use it to haul some furniture for the bonfire. Mike is walking around to get in and says to Danny, "Sure, he can use it."
Danny gives Mike a look and then just shrugs. "But not now," Danny says to the guy and as he gets in explains to him where they're going. "We'll be back in a while." He slams the door.
The young man comes around to Mike's side and stands there until Mike rolls down the window. "Thanks," the guy says and reaches in to shake hands. "I'm Bobby."
Mike takes his grip, which is good and strong. "Mike," he says and gives him a smile. And the kid stands there, fists shoved in his pockets, as they drive off.
"He seems OK," Mike says. "Why were you being so mean?"
"I told you about him. I gave him a ride home once, out to Scottsbluff. His dad's the minister?"
Mike laughs. "Oh, and you left him on the road because he pissed you off?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
When they get to a cross street, Mike stops and wants to know which way to go.
"Keep going straight," Danny says.
Mike is quiet for a while as they head out of town, finally passing a row of houses with wide yards deep in snow, half-grown leafless trees, and double garages. Finally he says, "I'm disappointed in you, bud."
Danny says nothing. Just looks over at him.
"That boy likes you."
"He's a moocher," Danny says, turning to look out the window. A guy in bright green, high-buckle overshoes is clearing a driveway with a snow blower.
"Maybe what he wants he doesn't know how to ask for," Mike says
"He wants the truck."
"More than that, I'm willing to betcha."
Danny says nothing, like he's sorry this whole thing came up.
"I can tell you what I'd do," Mike says.
"I figured you would."
"For what?" Danny opens his hands in the stiff gloves Mike gave him.
"You left him on the road with no way to get back here from home."
"He could hitch hike."
They pull to a stop at an intersection with a hardtop road. "Where to now?" Mike asks. Danny points one finger straight ahead.
They go several more miles out of town. Finally, set way back from the road in open, snow-covered fields, there's a fenced-in square, thick with cedars and Russian olives, and just visible the roof of a small farmhouse. At the road is a beat-up mailbox with the name Turner painted neatly across the side in blue. The driveway is long and unplowed.
"Doesn't look like anybody's been in or out of there for a couple days at least," Mike says. He hops out of the truck, pulls a shovel out of the back, and starts scooping away the ridge of snow left by the road plow. The snow is heavy, in frozen chunks, and after a while, the muscles in his arms and shoulders working in a steady rhythm, he's feeling his body warm under his coat.
The air is sharp and cold in his lungs, and overhead the sun is bright in the sky. Besides the scrape of the shovel as it bites into the snow, there is nothing to hear but the sound of the engine, which he's left running. Then he hears the truck door open and shut, and Danny is standing by the front fender.
"OK," he says. "So I'm not proud of myself."
"I hope not." Mike keeps working until he feels Danny's hand on his shoulder.
"Gimme that," Danny says and takes the shovel. Mike steps back and watches him bending into the bank of snow, getting the feel of what the job wants from him, and then finding his own rhythm, pitching the clumps and feathery wisps into the ditch.
Mike feels his heart beating in his chest and then slowly slowing, his arms tingling as they hang at his sides. He watches the movement of Danny's body inside his coat, the back of his neck and his ears in the cold air, his legs in jeans planted under him on the frozen road, the tracks of his boot soles blending with Mike's. And he thinks of the man's body inside the clothes, the skin and muscle and bone, and the feel of his naked strength pressing against him.
He doesn't know if what he feels at that moment is a wave of desire – he's got the impulse to reach toward Danny when he bends over and put his hand between the back pockets of his levi's – or whether it's just being god-almighty thankful that the two of them ever found each other. He looks around at the flat, open land, brilliant white under the winter sun, and wonders at the two of them here together.
There's a voice calling in the distance, and when he looks toward the house he sees a man standing under the trees waving at them. Danny straightens up. "That's him," he says.
They wave back.
Mike walks over to the mailbox and pulls it open. Inside, folded over, is a newspaper and some letters. He tucks them into the side pocket of his coat and walks back to the truck. "You got it good enough," he says to Danny. "Let's give it a go."
They get in the truck, the shovel landing with a clang in the back as Danny opens his door and then hops into the cab. Mike backs up a few yards and then takes a run at the opening they've made in the bank of snow. The truck pushes over it, and with the back wheels spinning they fishtail onto the long lane, heading toward the trees, the house, and the man standing and watching them.
When they get there, Mike pulls up beside an old Chevy station wagon, parked in front of the house. The snow has fallen away around the door on the driver's side, but it covers the rest of the car like a blanket.
Ted walks over to them. He's a well built man, in dark blue coveralls and unlaced hunting boots, bare-headed, a thick turtleneck pulled up to his ears, and he's got a smile on his face like he's happy to see somebody, anybody, show up at his front gate.
Stepping out of the truck, Mike shakes his hand and gives him his mail. The guy is a good man; he can tell from the solid calm in his body as he grips Mike's hand, the direct way he looks into Mike's eyes, the unguarded sureness of his smile.
Hugging Danny and pounding him on the back, it's also clear how well they know each other, and Mike guesses the painting back in the garage has more warmth and affection in it than probably even the people who took it down can imagine. Yeah, people might get ideas; they already had them.
Ted explains that the battery is dead in the Chevy, and right away Mike wants to get it going. He's got jumper cables, and before long they've got the hoods open and are hooking up the truck to the car. Ted is inside at the wheel, snow fallen onto his shoulders from the car's roof, and after a few slow turns the engine rumbles to life. They leave it running to charge up, and while Mike shoves the cables behind the seat in the cab, Ted and Danny walk on ahead into the house.
Inside there's a wood stove burning, and the place feels warm as a mess-hall kitchen. They take off their coats to hang by the door, and Ted pours them mugs of steaming coffee before he kicks off his boots and climbs out of his coveralls. The turtleneck is old and ragged, a red flannel shirt showing through at the elbows. And his jeans are worn, frayed at the cuffs, and streaked with paint where he's rubbed his fingers.
Ted and Danny are talking, and Mike is holding the hot coffee mug between both hands, looking around, aware that he's never seen a place like this before. There's not much furniture, for one thing, and what's there doesn't go together, but it almost seems to be that way on purpose. If there ever were cupboards on the kitchen walls, they're gone, and someone has built open shelves, where Ted's few dishes, soup cans, and cereal boxes are set neatly ordered. Military, Mike thinks. It's that, all right.
But there's something else. It's the light flooding in from the next room, where the bare boards of the floor show drops and streaks of paint and watery stains, and paintings without frames are stacked against the wall. The windows he realizes have no curtains or shades, and the bright white of the snow outside reflects off everything. The space in the room is alive with light. It's not the dark cave of his own place, with his recliner, the cracked leather couch, the carpet full of dog hair, and the TV.
Spartan, he thinks; that's the word for it. He glances at Ted and imagines him in this house, the days, the nights, living by himself way out here. It's a cool feeling. OK for them that want that – not sharing this space with someone else. But like it or not, Mike knows he's no Spartan. That boy there, sitting down in a kitchen chair and pulling out his shirt tail to wipe the fog from his glasses, Mike's arms are empty without that boy. And he knows it.
Ted is easy. He gets them settled next to the kitchen window, where the sunlight pours down through naked tree branches, and hanging against the wavy glass of the old panes a potato vine grows in a mason jar. He keeps pouring them coffee and gives them thick slices of bread he's been baking. The plates are chipped and the knives and spoons mismatched, like they came from a yard sale. And he's got a jar of homemade strawberry jam for them, with the year 1961 neatly written on a label.
"My aunt Juanita's," he says, putting it on the table. "Best in the west."
Ted is from up north, grew up on a ranch near Chadron. Can ride horses, run a hay baler, fix fence, get calves to nurse from uncooperative mother cows. Spent some time in the Army. Drifted around Colorado and Wyoming. Fetched up here, taking classes. No sign yet of what he wants to be or do. What he's doing right now suits him, and that's for the first time in a long time.
He sits with them at the table, leaning back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, his feet in thick wool socks. The sun slowly angles around, low in the winter sky until its light falls bright across the scratched and worn table top. From a box on the floor beside the stove, a well-fed calico tomcat eyes them like he's waiting for them to leave.
Finally, Ted gets up and comes back with a big pad of paper and several pencils. "I'm taking this life drawing class," he says, flipping up several thick sheets of the paper. "Not countin' the cat, you two guys are the first signs of life I've seen in days." And as they talk, he starts sketching them.
Mike watches him draw an outline of Danny's face, and then quickly fill in the details of his eyes and mouth, the wisps of his short hair lying along his forehead. The pencil moves in his fingers like it has a will of its own. Mike has looked at drawings but imagined they were done slowly, painstakingly, careful not to make a mistake.
They've already talked about the painting taken down from the art show. Ted has shrugged it off, like it was all a stunt anyway. He's not a college kid who knows nothing of the world, and some of the teachers aren't happy with that. He likes to needle them sometimes, get their goat a little.
But Mike has been around, too, and watching this man making an image of Danny appear with the quick movements of his fingers, and making it look so easy, he knows there's more to it than that. He has a talent – a gift – and he doesn't yet know how to let it all come out of him, where it will take him, whether he can even trust it. You probably don't grow up on a ranch in the panhandle thinking you'll take on the world one day with a paint brush.
And, of course, thinking about the painting, Mike finds himself wondering about Ted and Danny together. He can't imagine having Danny in the same room naked and not wanting to touch him and hold him, kiss him and finally feel the irresistible urge to have sex with him.
Danny seems comfortable here, his elbows on the table, tapping the coffee mug with his fingers, a smile creeping onto his face as he and Ted talk of school and teachers and other guys they know. He glances over to Mike, just to hold his eyes for a moment and sometimes explain what they're talking about. Then when they start running out of things to say, he sits back in his chair, one thumb hooked into a front pocket of his levi's, looking off out the window.
A big crow has been sitting on a high branch of a tree out where a wire fence borders the snow-covered corn fields. The bird lifts up, hunching under its big wings, and flaps off and away under the afternoon sun. Mike moves his foot under the table until he finds Danny's toe; Danny taps back a few times and presses his boot against Mike's.
By now Ted is drawing Mike, first his hands. "Working man's hands," Ted says. "Look at mine. Gone all soft from this soft living." He holds his palm open, the pencil tucked behind one finger. "I used to be able to hold onto a match till it burned out – a wooden match. Not any more."
"A man's gotta take care of his hands," Mike says. And as Ted goes back to drawing, Mike tells of his uncle, who lost his hand as a young farmer, pulling stalks out of a corn picker. "They had to amputate right here," he says, putting a finger across his wrist.
Danny, who's been listening, looks across the table at Mike and says, "Jesus."
"I got lucky," Ted says. "You don't do ranch work long without getting your fingers busted up. Like my dad's. They're all thick and twisted. I saw a stock rack come down once on his thumb." He's now looking into Mike's face as he draws, and Danny's gaze turns to the pad of paper, watching.
"Where do you want me to look?" Mike says, all at once self-conscious.
Ted smiles. "Doesn't matter."
And Mike finds that he's looking into Ted's dark eyes, aware of his curly dark hair and two or three days' growth of beard on his face.
Ted is silent, studying him, the room quiet except for the soft rumble of the fire in the stove and the scuttling sound of the pencil on the paper. Danny is smiling, eyes darting back and forth from the drawing to Mike.
"Handsome man, you know?" Ted says to Danny. And Mike feels his face flush, wanting to turn away but not daring to move.
"It's his nose," Danny says.
"Yeah," says Ted. "You know why?"
"No. Is there a reason?"
"It got broke once," Ted says.
Danny looks again at Mike. "Is that right?"
Mike starts to laugh and tells them how when he was a little boy, he got hit in the face with a swing.
"That'll do it," Ted says and explains something about faces and symmetry and shows how Danny's face looks too perfect. Lacks interest. He hasn't been in enough fistfights.
"What about your nose?" Danny says to Ted, like he's being bested in an argument.
Ted's smile fades, like he's remembering something, and concentrates on his drawing. "Oh, I've taken a punch or two," he says, but doesn't go into details. And after a pause, the phone rings, and he puts down the pad to get up and answer it.
The call, it turns out, is from Bobby. He wants to know when Danny is coming back to town with the truck.
"Shit," Danny says. He doesn't want to go and says so. Blames Mike for getting him into this. "Why do you have to be so damn generous?" But he's already getting up to go to the phone, and Mike hears him agreeing to show up somewhere on campus in a half hour.
Mike stands up, ready to leave, but Danny says, "You can stay here. I'll take care of this," and he pulls his coat off the rack by the door.
"You guys are having supper here tonight," Ted says to Danny, "Don't go makin' any other plans."
And in a minute, coat zippered up and stocking cap pulled to his ears, Danny is gone. Ted comes back to the table with the coffee pot and Mike hears the truck turn over a couple times outside and come to life. Then, shifting gears, it gradually pulls away into the distance and is gone.
And if you're interested in other Danny stories, you can find two in the nifty.org Gay/College section: "Blue Paint Special" (posted 8/19/03) and "Friday Night Football" (posted 8/21/03).