Mike and Danny: Stuff Happens
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 followed that pair of taillights for more than sixty miles. When they got to going too fast for his old Chevy, he'd find himself dropping back until the road ahead was dark as far as he could see. Then over the top of a hill he'd come upon them again, going slow enough for him to catch up.
And they'd race off once more, the other truck hugging the road, always inching away from him, like the driver couldn't hold back, couldn't wait to get where they were goingcouldn't wait for the next thing, whatever it was going to be.
When they'd been driving half an hour, Kirk had told himself he'd turn around and go back after another ten miles. For all he knew, it could be a joke or a game of some kind and he'd be following this guy all the way to Omaha. But ten miles would crawl by, and the taillights would still be there in front of him, his foot still pressed to the accelerator.
At Mullen, they turned south, and sped on into the night again like there were still miles and miles to go. All around, the night was dark as pitch, and besides an owl that appeared suddenly over him in the headlights, making him jump in his seat and grip the steering wheel hard, there were few signs of life anywhere. Just the lonely light of a ranch way off the road, or a car now and then coming the other way, its headlights glowing beyond the hill ahead and then bursting over the crest, blinding him, until they swept by in the opposite lane.
His thoughts, when he had them, were on the guy in the Ranger. But through the fog that all the beers had made of his memory, he couldn't remember much about him except the way his ass looked in the tight jeans he was wearing, the hat pulled down so you couldn't really see his eyes, and the way he stood with one thumb in his front pocket.
In Texas he'd seen guys like this in bars, but they weren't all of them cowboys. Could be a checkout cashier at the H-E-B or a bank teller or even a lawyer, for crissake. The way you could tell a difference was that they were too well dressed, and they didn't tend to spend money like they were down to their last five bucks. They were just Saturday night cowboys with paying jobs somewhere in town and didn't know which end of a horse to feed the hay to.
But there was something about this guy that was different, even if he was for real. The honest-to-god, don't-give-a-shit attitude maybe. And the stiffness in the way he moved, like he'd done his share of hard work and maybe broken some bones. But a cowboy's wages didn't explain that new truck.
From watching him, Kirk was pretty sure the two of them were the same age. He had a hunch they'd been down many of the same roads and learned some of the same lessonsand some of the same tricks. They probably wouldn't surprise each other with what they knew or had seen.
Of course, there wouldn't have been all this speculating if they'd just slipped off into the bushes behind the tavern, right then and there, and he'd gotten himself a quick blow job. He'd have been well on his way back to the ranch long before now, yawning and trying to keep his eyes focused on the road, his balls emptied, and himself more than ready to hit the sack, the other guy mostly forgotten.
"Where the fuck are we going?" he muttered, as they crossed the Dismal River, and he checked his fuel gauge, which was dropping down toward empty. He'd forgotten to gas up before leaving the ranch. If they didn't get where they were going pretty soon, he'd be driving on fumes.
Finally the truck ahead of him braked and slowed, turning off the highway onto a rough washboard road, and after a few miles of nothing but the view of the guy's tail gate in Kirk's headlights, they came to a turn-off that took them over a cattle guard and down a gradual slope that led to what looked like a double-wide sitting by itself in the dark.
They went around behind it, where there was a bare patch of sandy dirt to park and a wire fence beyond. The guy in the Ranger drove up to a set of wood plank steps at the side of the house and stopped, and Kirk pulled in beside him. He turned off the engine and doused the headlights, and for a moment the dark swallowed him and the truck whole. He heard the door of the Ranger open and close, and as he got out of his own truck, he could hear the sound of the other guy's boots hurrying up the steps, and the sharp click of a latch and the door opening. Then a light popped on inside.
This was not like a routine of his. He usually settled for sex on the flyhighway rest areas, truck stops, parking lots. Going to somebody's home wasn't really his style, and he stood at the bottom of the steps for a while, thinking back to the time or two when he'd done this beforefeeling awkward surrounded by the stuff of other men's lives, the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the TV Guide folded open by the armchair, the box of breakfast cereal on the kitchen counter. It was more than he wanted to know about another mansomebody he'd never see again.
The guy came to the door and stood there with two beers. "You comin' in or not?" he said.
Kirk hesitated. He had come a long way for this, and while the idea of getting his rocks off had him thinking pretty much from below the belt buckle, he still wasn't sure about this guy.
"Yeah, I'm comin' in," he said and started up the steps.
"Figured you'd be needin' one of these," the guy said, handing him one of the beers. He'd taken off his hat, and Kirk could see now that maybe he was younger by a couple years. But there was still something about him that made up the difference between them.
"Owen," the guy said, holding out one hand. "You got a name?"
"Yeah, Merle," he said, briefly shaking the guy's hand.
"Fuckin' shit, nobody's called Merle," the guy said. "Your name's Kirk. I asked them two cowboys you was talkin' to."
Kirk dropped his hand, not liking this. "What else do you know about me?"
"You cowboy for some outfit over there around Hyannis," he said. "And for another thing, you drive a shit truck. You oughtta get yourself a real onea Ford."
This was gen-u-ine cowboy talk, the old Chevy-Ford debate that would outlive the pickup truck itself.
"Honest-to-god truth, I don't give a fuck what your name is," Kirk said. "Let's get this over with."
The other guy laughed suddenly, like this really cracked him up. "Aw, take your hat off and stay a while. What's your goddam hurry anyway?"
"I'm not much for socializing."
"Well, goddamit, I am."
Kirk thought for a moment of just turning around and leaving. But he remembered he was as good as out of gas, and if there was an all-night gas station open somewhere, it would be to hell and gone from wherever they were, and he didn't know in what direction. He took a drink of the beer.
"And my name really is Owen," the guy said. "You may as well know that." He pulled a wallet from his jeans and showed Kirk his driver's license.
Kirk glanced at it long enough to see that he wasn't lying. "I'd've said nobody's called Owen either, if you wanna know the truth."
"Tell that to my old man," the guy said. "He's the sonofabitch saddled me with this name."
Kirk didn't care about this either.
"Hell, what are we standin' here for?" Owen said, gesturing toward a couch that sat across from a big old TV. "Set down and take the load off."
And after they sat down, it went on like this, Owen trying to make conversation and Kirk realizing that he was a whole lot more interesting standing there in the bar with his tight jeans and his mouth shut. He wondered how the fuck he'd let himself get into this. No matter what happened, he was stuck here until tomorrow morning, and being Sunday he might get to a filling station and still have to wait hours for the place to open.
"How about another beer," Owen said, going to the refrigerator in the kitchen, "and then what say we move to the other room." He nodded toward the back where Kirk figured there was a bed.
So far, besides the handshake, they hadn't touched each other. This was getting on his nerves. When he saw Owen bending over as he reached into the refrigerator, he got up and walked over to him, putting his hand in the crack between his back pockets.
"Let's skip the beers," he said. "I wanna fuck."
The guy had been agreeable to that, and in a small bedroom at the end of a hall, they had got naked in the light of an orange lava lamp. There was wall-to-wall shag carpet on the floor, and most of the space was consumed by a big king-size bed. A pair of worn levi's and a work shirt hung from a closet door knob, and there were more clothes strewn on the floor and in the corners.
The air in the room could have been improved by opening the big slider on the other side of the bed for some circulation. It was stuffy and close, like the place was shut up all day with the sun beating down on the roof overhead. The bedroom opened into its own little bathroom, the door ajar, and there was a vaguely sweet smell that seemed to come from there, like the guy had gotten carried away with the aftershave a few times too often.
He was sitting on the bed, pulling off his boots and glancing up at Kirk as he stood undressing. Then he got to his feet and started shucking offmore like peeling offthe black jeans that Kirk had studied earlier in the evening when he thought the guy wasn't looking. His dick swung out as soon as he had them open and hung from between his shirt tails, nodding and growing longer, as he pulled off his shirt and dropped it to the carpet. Then he held it, stroking himself and smiling, his eyes never leaving Kirk's.
When Kirk was down to his skin and a hard-on, the guy reached toward him and touched his fingers to his chest, his thumb rubbing one nipple. Then he took him by the elbow and pulled him back onto the bed.
Getting into another man's bed always gave Kirk the strange feeling of trespassinginvading someone's private property. Like he was hunting on posted ground. He didn't belong here, but here he was anyway, with a loaded gun.
The bed seemed huge. Not the bunk he slept in at the ranch, and as he let himself think of it, not like the narrow one that Virgil had in his dormitory room. They got to rolling around on the sheets, wrestling and trying to out-muscle each other, until Kirk had the guy pinned on his back, squirming and struggling, arms stretched out to each side.
"Hey, Owen," Kirk said, grinning at him. "Loser gets fucked" And the guy bucked against him a few more times, the bed rocking under them. Finally he fell back, getting sweaty and breathing heavy, and when Kirk let him go, he reached with both arms around Kirk's neck, pulling him down and kissing him hard and then harder.
With that, the night had truly and finally begun. As the lava lamp glowed, its blobs of goop rising and sinking, silently, endlessly, they had sucked each other and fucked each other with a passionate, wordless intensity that Kirk kept expecting to exhaust itself but after a few minutes each time one of them came, they'd be back at it again, until hours had gone by.
Finally, still awake and almost staggering with fatigue, they had opened the slider and walked naked outside where there was a deck with a couple of plastic chairsKirk's was cold on his butt and wet with dew as he sat down on itdrinking the last bottles of beer from the refrigerator and smoking cigarettes. It was just short of 5:00 a.m., and he shivered in the night air, but they'd somehow agreed to stay awake until the sun came up and they were by-god going to do it.
Owen got up once and walked to the railing, standing with legs apart to take a piss over the side. Then when he was done, he just stood there looking out at a lazy old moon that hung low in the sky.
He raised his arms over his head and stretched, finally clasping both hands behind his neck, the muscles bunching over his shoulders. And there in the dim light that filtered from indoors, Kirk could see the butt that had kept him on the road for sixty mileseach cheek full and dimpledfollowing it all this way until he was goddam near running on empty.
Then he'd come back to his chair again, and after they'd been quiet for a while, sitting together in that moonlit darkness before dawn, some birds in the distance already getting the new day started, Owen had reached across to him and taken his hand, holding it between them until the sky in the east began to get light.
In all his years as a grown man, Kirk could not remember another man holding his hand like thisever. At first it just felt strange, then it got stranger, then it became something else that brought back a memory he'd long forgotten. He was just a boy, and the hand that held his was his father'shis real father's, who had split up with his mom so many years ago he no longer thought of ever having had a real father.
He felt another chill and shivered.
"It's too fuckin' cold out here for me," he said. "I don't have the balls for this anymore."
"Me either," Owen said, letting go of Kirk's hand and jumping up from his chair.
They went back inside and fell into the bed, pulling the sheets over them. They lay there together, and in a while Kirk had fallen into a dreamless sleep.
When he woke again, it was hours later and morning light poured in around the drapes that had been pulled across the slider. The lava lamp was now dark and dead, and when he looked at a clock radio by the bed, he could see that it was almost 11:00. From the bathroom, he could hear Owen in the shower.
He lay in bed and had the notion to get dressed and be gone before Owen knew he was awake. And he sat up, looking around on the carpet for his clothes. He had his jeans and shirt on, his hat on his head, and his boots in one hand, when he reached to his back pocket and realized he didn't have his wallet.
He'd put it down somewhere, not thinking, like he was at home, and now he couldn't remember where. He looked on the bed table and then the dresser, and in the instant he found it there, just where he'd left it, his eye fell on a framed picture, one of those photographer's studio shots of a family sitting together and smiling at the camera. A mom and dad and three young kids.
He noticed first that the glass in the frame was cracked, like it had fallen or been dropped. Then he looked at the dad and realized it was Owen, looking younger, maybe a little better fed, and without his sideburns.
Suddenly, what wasn't quite right about Owenwhat Kirk hadn't been able to figure outcame as clear to him as anything could after a night of drinking and sex. Owen was a married man, fooling around on the wild side. And this king size bed belonged to him and his wifejesusand it was probably where some of those three kids got their start.
With that, the water was turned off in the shower, and he heard Owen puttering around, humming to himself. There was still time to get his ass out of there, but the bathroom door swung open, and there was Owen, still wet, with a towel around him.
He glanced from the empty bed over to Kirk and said, "Hey, you're up. Thought you were dead to the world for sure."
"I gotta get goin'," Kirk said.
"No, what's your hurry?" Owen said. "It's fuckin' Sunday morning."
"I'm missin' church."
Owen snorted. "Yeah, like a root canal without Novocain."
Kirk decided to level with him. "You're not the only one who lives here."
"How'd you get that idea?"
Kirk jerked his thumb toward the photograph on the dresser. "That's you, ain't it?" he said.
Owen nodded. "Can't lie. That's me, all right."
"These other folks, they're just total strangers?"
Owen had his hand now pressed to his chest, like he was keeping his heart from jumping out. "Look," he said. "I was hopin' you wouldn't rush off. Maybe stick around for some breakfast."
"Are you fuckin' kidding me?"
"No, I'm not. I wanna talk about this," Owen said, sounding like a man in dead earnest.
"No need for that. I get the picture."
"Do I have to spell it out for you? Well, D-I-V-O-R-C-E."
Kirk glanced once more at the photo and saw again the broken glass. And he saw other possibilities. The picture had been thrown or thrown awayby someoneand then sometime later put back again.
He'd seen pain in men's faces before. A busted leg, a busted heart, it was hard to hide. Slim had read him that day fixing fence like it was written all over him.
But it didn't make him want to stick around with Owen. He didn't want to hear about his goddam troubles, whatever they were. Every man's troubles were his own. A real man just shut up about them and didn't complain.
"I been livin' here alone for more'n a year," Owen said.
Kirk scoffed. "Get used to it."
"No," Owen said, looking into Kirk's eyes, "I need a pardner. I was thinkin' it might be you."
"You gotta be shittin' me," Kirk said and started putting on his boots.
"I'm askin' you," Owen said. "Don't go. Not yet."
Kirk sighed, and glared at him. Owen stood there naked with his damp towel wrapped around him, his wet hair falling down onto his forehead, looking pathetic.
"You woulda had better luck last night taking Charlotte home. I bet you money she'd take you up on that pardner business."
"I tried that route. More'n once," Owen said. "I just don't work that way."
Kirk looked back at the photograph. "How'd you get them kids then?"
Kirk shrugged, unconvinced. "Can't be all bad. A woman in the house saves you cookin' for yourself."
Owen looked at him now, like he didn't believe a man could say something so stupid.
"Here's the deal," he said. "My old man owns this ranch. Between what we own and lease, we got over twenty sections. Cow-calf operation. Black Angus. I get the ranch when he retires. I can give you a job. Long as I live in this place, the old man don't care who lives here with me."
Kirk blinked a couple of times, absorbing all this information. For one thing, it explained the guy's new pickup.
"You wanna think about it?" Owen said.
Kirk, for once, didn't know what to say.
"If you give me your word you'll think about it," Owen said, "I don't care if you go now."
Kirk waited for a moment to pass. He just kept looking at Owen. "OK," he finally said. "I'll think about it." And he turned and walked out to his truck.
When he got in, he looked back and saw Owen standing in the door watching him go, his towel still wrapped around him.
Kirk rolled down his window. "If I come back and say yes," he said. "It'll be for one thing and one thing only."
"Those goddam dimples in your ass," he said. "They're worth more'n the whole shootin' match." And he gave a grin as he started the engine and drove away.
On a warm spring day, after calving was done, Kirk made a trip to Kearney. He hadn't expected to be doing this, but the idea had come to him to drive down and see Virgil play ball. It was a tournament he'd read about in the Omaha newspaper that came in Don's mail every day.
"Catchin' up on world events?" Slim had asked him. "Or just lookin' for something worth catchin' up on?"
"Lookin'," Kirk had said. About the only thing the two men agreed on was the general uselessness of trying to make sense of the world at large. Bunch of ignorant people making dumb decisions that made life a misery for just about everybody else.
The two of them were sitting in the bunkhouse at the end of the day. Slim was mending a pair of his socks.
"I read the sports sometimes when I get the opportunity," Slim said. "Only place anymore men are just trying to do their best and it's hard to fool anybody if they're not."
"Damn right," Kirk said, turning to the back pages. "Course, you could say that about workin' around here."
Slim just laughed at that, like he didn't often agree with Kirk about anything either, but this was one of those few times.
"Here's your example," Kirk said and read Slim a story about Willie Stargell of the Pirates, who'd hit the first-ever home run out of Dodger Stadium.
"Can't argue with that," Slim said.
"Tough luck, though. Dodgers won 7-4."
"Ain't that the way it goes," Slim said, shaking his head.
Then Kirk had seen the story about the tournament in Kearney coming that weekend, and before he'd turned in for the night, he'd figured out a way to get Saturday off.
The spring sun was already warm overhead as he got to the playing field, where a few bleachers faced a high wire fence and he could hear the amplified voice of a young announcer calling out the name of the next batter. A small crowd had gatheredand not too much of onebaseball fans being rare in football-happy Nebraska.
Looking at the program, he saw there were teams there from Wesleyan, Chadron, Wayne, Peru, and Hastings, and he realized it would be a couple hours before the Kearney team played.
He sat on the hard bleachers by himself, reading the team rosters until he found Virgil's name. Then he leaned back and watched the game, aware that he was the only person there in a cowboy hatand wishing he had a beer.
As the time came for the Kearney game, the crowd grew a little, and a few more people began taking seats around him. Then one-two sat right next to him.
"Since when did you get to be a baseball fan?" one of them said.
And when he looked, he saw it was Mike. And sitting beside him was Danny.
Having been alone with only his own company since he left the ranch, sitting now in an unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers, he was half glad to see them. And he must have smiled, because they were both smiling back at him.
"Things OK at the ranch?" Mike wanted to know, like he was testing to make sure Kirk hadn't fucked up with his old friend, Don.
"They're OK," Kirk said, nodding, and left it at that. If Mike wanted to know more, he could find out from Don.
"Come to see Virgil play?" Danny asked.
The last time they'd all seen each other was when he'd stopped by the farm a couple months ago and Virgil had come along with him when he left.
"Yeah, I guess," Kirk said. He wondered now how much of anything Danny would have found out from Virgil about the two of themand what he was thinking now.
"I hear you and Don almost had him turned into a cowboy," Danny said.
He couldn't get over how he felt sitting there with Mike and Danny. Once he'd got old enough to really consider them, he'd never been able to make sense out of them or why they were together, playing house as if they were a couple of old married people.
He had to try hard to imagine them getting old together, rocking that bed every nightor however often they'd still be doing itcontent with each other like they always seemed to be. He'd never been really content with anyone.
Restless, he'd always told himself. That's the way he was and always would be. Settling down? The words made him shudder.
Maybe it was the warm sunshine and being over 200 miles from the ranch, where on a normal Saturday he'd be sweating his balls off working like awell, like a cowboymaybe it was just this unnatural leisure that had him feeling kind of lazy about everything, but he didn't mind being together with Mike and Danny. He even half liked it.
It got to be time for the next game, and the Kearney team came out on the field to warm up. There was Virgil in his uniform. When they filed into the home team dugout, Danny waved and called out to him, and he glanced up, grinning until he saw all three of them. And for the entire game, he played without looking again into the stands.
At short stop, Kirk recognized the kid he had punched in the parking lot. If he had any idea that Kirk was there watching, it didn't seem to affect the way he played. What he did notice was that, outside of a ball now and then thrown in from the outfield, he and Virgil seemed to have little to do with each other. Coming in at the end of an inning, they stayed apart and didn't sit together on the bench.
Virgil had a good game, or so it seemed to Kirk, catching a couple of pop flies, one of them a long stretch that had him diving and sliding along the outfield grass, the ball caught in the tip of his glove. The crowd loved that one. And he'd got a couple of hits, with a double in the sixth inning that brought home a run that tied the score. And Kearney finally won, 5-4.
Afterwards, the three of them walked down to the fence, and while a few of the players lingered talking with fans and girlfriends before going to the field house, they called Virgil over to congratulate him. And they talked for a little while, Mike and Danny finally leaving and Kirk staying behind for a parting word.
"Thanks for comin'," Virgil said to him, smiling.
Kirk laughed. "Tell you one thing. You're a better ball player than a cowboy," he said. "And you're not that bad a cowboy."
Virgil stood, working his glove, like he didn't know what to say.
"Your friend OK?" Kirk said. "The one got punched."
"You busted his nose. But it got him the sympathy vote with the girls," Virgil said. "Claims he gets laid regular now." He laughed at that.
"You comin' back to the ranch?" Kirk asked after a pause.
Virgil looked away. "Got a chance to play ball this summer. I think I'm gonna do it."
Kirk took a breath, like the answer was complicated. "I got this offer to work with another outfit. Partner with a guy," he said. "I've decided to take him up on it."
"When do you start?"
"Anytime I want to."
They were just talking now to be talking, neither of them wanting to be the first to say goodbye.
Someone called out to Virgil, one of his teammates, telling him to hurry up.
"I gotta go," he said.
"Well, maybe we'll meet up somewhere again," Kirk said.
"Yeah. That'd be good," Virgil said, already turning to leave, lifting his glove to touch the brim of his cap. "Say hi to Slim and George for me. Tell 'em I think about all you guysall the time."
"Hey," Kirk called after him. "You ever change your mind, any of us would be glad to have you back."
Virgil nodded and said, "Maybe I will." And then he walked on.
Kirk stayed standing at the fence, watching him go. Then he went to find Mike and Danny, who were waiting by Danny's Camaro in the parking lot.
"Wanna stop somewhere for a beer?" Mike said.
Kirk nodded. "A beer would be good right about now. I'll follow you."
And he went to get into his truck.
Continued . . .