Mike and Danny: Straight Crush
OK, so Dayton showed up at my office in the spring after final exams, a sultry day with those big clouds gathering overhead that turn dark and menacing as the day wears on and your skin begins to prickle from heat, humidity and the promise of an electrical stormand the prospect of headlines in tomorrow's newspaper: TWISTER KILLS THREE.
The single window air conditioner for the suite of sub-basement cubby holes where I had my office was laboring noisily to little effect, and the back of my shirt was damp with my sweat. I was packing up to head back to Mike's as soon as commencement was over the next morning. My hood and gown were on hangers on the back of my door.
It would be my first time marching with the faculty to the football field, to sit under the gaze of proud parents in the bleachers while graduates sat impatiently through the address and then lined up to get their diplomas. The moment it was over, my carthe Camaroalready packed, I'd jump in and be gone for the summer.
"Professor." The word came from my open office door, and when I turned from the box of books I was folding shut, there was Dayton. He leaned in the doorway, one hand reaching up to hang from the metal frame over his head. I saw that he was steadying himself, and suddenly with a rich waft of alcohol between us I knew that he'd been drinking.
He gave me a wide-eyed grin. "Drunk as a skunk," he said and reached to touch the brim of his hat. "You want some?" he said, pulling a pint of Jack Daniels from inside his shirt.
I knew he'd be in deep shit if he got caught like this, and I pulled him inside my office, where he sat down heavily in a chair, and I pushed the door shut.
"What's going on?" I wanted to know, keeping my voice down because I knew we weren't the only ones still around in the building.
"Are you mad at me?" he said, trying not to smirk and giving me a fake stricken expression.
"I thought you went home days ago," I said. And he had, stopping me on the sidewalk outside the library, and jumping out of his pickup to shake my hand and thank me for everything he could think of.
It was early evening, and the campus was mostly deserted. For all the mixed feelings I had about him, I knew I was going to miss him. And as we parted, I pulled him to me and gave him a quick hug.
I don't remember much about it, but there he was in my arms for a moment, my hands feeling his shoulder blades and his ribs under his shirt, his hard belt buckle bumping against my stomach. Then it was over. He tugged his hat tight on his head and jogged to his pickup, parked at the curb and still running. He got in, swinging his butt onto the seat and then slammed the door shut a couple times, waving and giving the horn a honk as he drove off.
Now he was back.
The pint he'd offered me was more than half fullhe held it in one hand in his lap, tilted against his belt bucklebut he seemed a good deal drunker than the few shots he'd apparently taken from it.
"How much of that stuff have you had?" I asked and tried to make it sound like I was scolding him.
"Shit," he said, with a lop-sided grin. "I been drinking all day. Sure you don't want some? I thought we could get drunk together."
Just what I need, I was thinking, caught drinking with a minor and losing my job.
"Come on," he was suddenly pleading. "Just one for old times."
"Old times?" I laughed, trying to humor him now and gauge the measure of desperation creeping into his voice.
"Yeah. That's what I'd call 'em, since we ain't never gonna see each other again." His voice was now sharper, almost bitter. I couldn't follow the way his mood kept shifting.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be back in the fall," I said.
"That's fine for you," he said. "But my ass just got kissed goodbye." Now the most sorrowful look swept over him, and he started fumbling with the bottle, trying to unscrew the cap.
"What do you mean?" I asked him, taking the bottle from him and setting it on my desk. He let it slip out of his fingers, maybe thinking I was about to knock back a shot of it myself.
"I mean," he said, saying each word deliberately. "I won't be back."
"Who says?" I asked, wondering if somehow he'd flunked out or been put on probation.
"My daddy," he said, his gaze coming round to focus hard on me. "He says. And what he says, dammit, goes."
And we sat there in the sweltering room as he explained to me that his older brother had got his draft notice. (These were the Nixon years and boys were getting sent off to Vietnam.)
Dayton's dad had tolerated his going to college. As a second son, he wouldn't inherit the ranch anyway. Dayton, if he wanted, could goddam well start from scratch just like the old man, building up a ranch of his own, but Dayton's mom had once been a school teacher, and because Dayton had always been more her boy, there'd been a fierce battle in the family when Dayton wanted to go to college instead. With his mom on his side he had finally won out.
"Piss away your life with book learning," the old man had finally said, relenting. "You can go to hell for all I care." And that was the end of it.
Or it was supposed to be the end of it.
But now, with his brother away in the service, Dayton was needed back at the ranch. He could forget about goddam college.
Riding the flood of alcohol flowing through him, he lurched back and forth between sorrow and rage.
Once he tipped his head forward, hiding most of his face from me under the brim of his hat, and one hand came up to wipe across his eyes. Then he made a fist of his hand and pushed it along one leg of his jeans.
"Aw shit," he said suddenly, the other hand grabbing for his gut. "I think I'm gonna puke."
I shoved the wastebasket toward him with my foot. And he learned over it, coughing up foul-smelling bile as his shoulders heaved. I caught his hat as it slipped from his head. His sandy brown hair was matted with sweat over his ears.
I sat there, understanding his situation as well as I could, but part of it eluded me. What did I have to do with this? Why was this kid throwing up in my office?
Barry's words came back to me - straight crush. I needed to ask him if this was another version of that or something else.
I stood up, patting the boy on the shoulder and saying, "I'll be back," and I went to the men's room for paper towels. All the way there I was aware of that moment of touchthe skin under his shirt almost burning hot. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The color had drained from my face, and I looked confused.
I wanted to call Barry. I needed some advice. But there wasn't a phone handy, and I didn't want to leave Dayton alone in my office. So I let cold water run over a couple of the paper towels and hurried back.
I found him there, the wastebasket still on the floor in front of him, his boots planted on either side of it. He had the pint tipped bottom up to his mouth, and he was taking small sipping swallows, intending I supposed to settle his stomach. Hair of the dog.
I held the paper towels to him as he set the bottle down between his legs on the edge of the chair and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
"Thanks," he said, taking the wet towels and rubbing his face with them. Then he smiled at meit was a beaming smileit was, I thought afterwards, like I had passed another one of his tests.
I persuaded him in stages to stay in town that night. Drunk as he was, he was a menace on the roads, and until I saw that there was no rifle on the rack in the cab of his truck, I worried about that, too.
I left the Camaro in the faculty parking lot and drove him in his truck to my place, an upstairs one-bedroom in an apartment block. A place with young marrieds, a retired couple or two, and little kids on Big Wheels racing along the walks.
In the way of small western towns, everybody there knew me, so I left Dayton's truck on the street and snuck him in a side door.
He seemed to understand that I'd taken charge of him in his state, and as we walked from the truck he put his arm over my shoulders. Then going up the stairs inside I had to steady him, putting my arm around his waist.
He got heavier as we got further up the stairs.
"You may have to carry me, professor," he said, laughing at his little joke.
Inside the apartment, he took a quick look around and said, "So this is what it's like in here."
"Yup," I said, wondering what to do with him next. Feed him, give him coffee, get him sobered up somehow before sending him on his way. That was going to take a couple hours at least.
"I used to wonder," he said, sitting down on the couch, spreading out long arms and legs like he'd fallen from the sky.
"Wonder what?" I said. I was in the kitchen, running water to start a pot of coffee.
"I drive by here some nights before I go home. Sometimes I got a pizza and park across the street where I can see your windows."
This took a second to sink in, and I stepped out of the kitchen with the hot water kettle still in my hand.
"You do what?" I said.
And he told me again, with the innocence of a choirboy. "I was just checking on you, making sure you were in for the night and OK."
"Very thoughtful," I said, turning back to the kitchen and trying real hard not to feel I was being spied onor stalked. And I wondered what Mike would do.
Mike, of course, would tap into some well of fearless generosity he feels for lost souls, and nothing about this situation would have fazed him. He would assume there was some logic for everything about Dayton that didn't make sense, and at some pointwith an ah-ha!it would all fall into place. In retrospect, it wouldn't even be all that complicated.
Well, I was there, and I'm still not so sure.
Dayton got up and found the bathroom, and I heard him taking a long piss. In a while he was back out again and standing there in the middle of my living room. From the kitchen, I could hear the teakettle starting to pop and ping on the burner.
"Would you do something for me?" he said.
"Would you hold me again like you did the other night?"
I have to say, this was nearly the last thing I expected from him.
I nodded and stepped over to him, opening my arms to put around him, and I squeezed him tight for a few seconds, slapping him on the back real man-to-man before I started letting him go.
"Don't stop," he said. "Not yet."
And I must have held him for several minutes, as he stood unmoving in my arms, his cheek turning slowly against the side of my head until his lips were next to my ear, and I could hear him breathing first sharply and then gradually softer.
Finally the whistle started up on the teakettle, and I went to take it off the fire. I took half a minute to pour it over some instant coffee in two mugs, and when I got back to the living room, he was lying face down on the couch, his arms folded under him like broken wings and one leg off the edge of the cushions, the toe of his boot touching the carpet. He was out cold.
"Passed out," I said to Mike as I told him about this later.
"I'd call it knocked out," Mike said. "He needed that hug from you so bad it took the wind right out of him."
"Maybe," I said.
I left Dayton there on the couch, which I could see was way too short for him. The only way I'd ever been able to sleep on it was to curl up like a baby, and he was taller than me.
But I was mostly relieved by this development. After sleeping off some of his drunk, he might be sober enough to drive home.
And asleep he didn't have to be dealt with. No drunken talk to try to make sense of. No having to keep him from sliding off into some deep end to wallow in his miseries. Going out like a light, he made this all a lot easier.
I thought about my car still in the faculty parking lot. I called campus police and made up a story about leaving it there overnight.
"We'll keep an eye on 'er." It was the big after-hours cop the students called Gentle Ben. The force was out in full (both of them) in case any graduation parties around campus got out of hand.
In the silence that followed when I hung up, I turned on a lamp in the living room and picked up Dayton's hat where it had rolled onto the floor. It was a straw, the brims pulled out of shape and dirt worked into the weave, sweat stains around the crown.
It was a work hat, like the rest of the clothes he was wearing, and I realized that the day must have started out with different intentionsnot getting drunk and coming to town. Not showing up at my office door.
Thensince he knew where I livedI wondered if he had come to my apartment first.
Mike is a lot better with stuff like this. For me it takes a while for the penny to fall in the slot. Looking at Dayton on my couch, I began to see what I hadn't seena boy in a man's body not quite made for the hard-as-nails life of ranching.
He had the physical strength for itor seemed tolean and angular, rangy. Without knowing, I was sure he was good at it all, riding horses, roundups and branding, haying, fencing, fixing windmills, whatever else I could imagine. But the heart in him was meant for something else. I didn't know what it was, and I was sure he didn't either.
I felt at that moment the weight of being a teacher. I realized I was responsible for himthat I had been from that first day. And I also knew I wasn't up to it. I was dead certain I'd let him down. There was no way I'd ever be able to save him from his fate.
"Don't be hard on yourself, bud," Mike said, when I told him this part. "Every man's got to find his way for himself."
Again, I wasn't so sure. I thought of Mike and me and the strange course my life would surely have taken without him in it.
I left Dayton on the couch, where he still lay unconscious when I went to bed. I put his truck keys in his hat, where he'd find them if he woke during the night and got up to go home. And I left the light on in the bathroom for him.
In the darkness, as I drifted off to sleep, I stopped thinking about Dayton and reminded myself that in twenty-four hours I'd be back with Mike, and we'd be naked together in our bed. The stirring in my jockeys was almost immediate, and I fell asleep with one hand wrapped around my dick.
Sometime in the night I woke up. Dayton was in the bathroom. I peered at the clock in the gloom and without my glasses could just make out that it was after midnight. Good, he's going home, I thought, and almost right away I drifted back to sleep.
Then I was waking up again, and I realized that Dayton was standing beside the bed.
"Your couch isn't big enough," he said in a loud whisper. "Can I get in with you?"
"Sure," I said, not really sure at all.
"Is it OK if I take my pants off?"
I moved over to make room for him and he sat down on the edge of the bed, pulling off his boots and then lifting his butt from the mattress to shuck down his jeans.
I heard the rippling pops of his shirt snaps as he took off his shirt, and I could see his broad shoulders, his skin pale in the dim light from a street lamp in the trees outside the window.
Then he lay down, stretching out on his back, his body disappearing beside me in the shadows.
"How you feeling?" I asked him.
"Head hurts like a sonofabitch," he said, and I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was halfway soberand wide awake. "Not ready to go home yet," he said, and then he chuckled, the bed shaking with his laughter.
Continued . . .