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.
Nobody knew his real name anymore. Nobody but an aunt back in Oklahoma, who could still be living, but he doubted it. Everybody'd called him Slim since the year in eighth grade when he grew almost a foot and towered over everyone else in his one-room school, including the teacher.
By this time, his daddy had him working on the farm like a full-grown man, though he hadn't filled out yetand never would muchand while he'd set his sights on high school, his father had flat out said no. He was needed to help with the farm work, and no one needed a high school education for that. Besides, he'd hoped it would break his son's habit of always reading books whenever he had the chance.
But by then the damage had been done. A bachelor uncle had come to live with them for a whileit was his father's uncle, hump-shouldered and already graying with a collection of Zane Grey novels and a precious copy of The Virginian, the cover worn almost threadbare from being held through many readings in the old man's rough hands.
The two of them had made the long trip to see Gary Cooper in the movie when it played at the Rialto in Tulsa. It was Henry's first talkie, way back in 1929 or 1930.
The old manfor he seemed old thentreated the boy to candy bars and put his arm around him as they drove back to the farm after the show in his great-uncle's Model T.
"Smile when you call me that," he had said, remembering their favorite scene from the story, when the villain, Trampas, accuses the Virginian of cheating at cards.
And young Henry had fallen asleep under the old man's arm, as they rode along together, his cheek against the denim of his jacket, smelling the grown-up man's smells of talc and pomade, cigar smoke, and the Sen-Sens that made his breath like minty licorice.
The Depression, when it came, took almost everything. The Dust Bowl took the rest. His dad's uncle left first, looking for work in California. Then his dad lost the farm, and the whole family went west.
But Henry, too old now for high school, headed north to Medicine Bow, Wyoming, determined to be a cowboy like his hero, the Virginian. He'd call himself the Oklahoman, but somehow the name Slim had stuck, and that's what everyone else always called him.
Forty years later, he can look back at that time and wonder at how the young Henry he once was disappeared along with his illusions about Wyoming. It hadn't been 1880 when he got there anymore than it was now. The same Depression made work hard to find and pay low. He did all a man could dohe toughed it out.
He'd buddied up in the hardest of those times with another young man, Oakley, who knew ranch work, and the two of them got jobs for a big outfit in eastern Montana. Oakley wrangled horses and Henry worked on a haying crew. It wasn't real cowboy workridin' and ropin'but it beat being unemployed.
The days were hard and endless, up before dawn, back to the bunkhouse at dusk. Sundays were a day of rest, and like God they rested, dozing in the shade of the hay barn, or pulling off their shirts and wrestling, Oakley making Henry laugh by wiggling his ears, or just lying there together talking and staring into the cloudless sky or a cloud of gnats hovering just over their heads.
"Ever had a girlfriend?" Oakley wanted to know.
"Me neither," Oakley said and tossed a pebble against a corral fence. "They seem like a lot of trouble to me."
Henry agreed. They'd been to a barn dance at another ranch on the Fourth of July, and they'd asked the girls there to dance with them, but they'd been drinking outside to work up their courage, and the girls had turned them down when they came in smelling of whiskey.
"Aw, they're not lookin' to have fun with a couple no-account cowboys like us anyway," Oakley said, trying to be philosophical about it. "Can't hardly blame `em."
Henry had agreed, though the thought of dancing with a girl in his arms had made him go all hot and cold inside. "I got two left feet," he kept telling Oakley as they passed the flask back and forth.
"Aw, shit, it's easy," his friend told him. "Just stomp your feet a lot and spin around." Then he set the whiskey on a fence post and grabbed Henry by the waist. "It's like this," he said and pulled him round in a rough circle in the grass.
Henry laughed then, the feel of his friend's hands grasping him in the ribs, where he was ticklish, making him light-headed and suddenly fearless. He stumbled and fell against Oakley, who held him while he got his feet under him again.
"See, it's easy," he said. And they might have tried it once more if some of the other cowboys hadn't stepped outside just then, walking by them to go out into the darkness for a smoke and a piss, laughing at one of their wisecracks.
Henry hadn't been thinking much about it, but as they lay there now in the Sunday afternoon shade, he felt something he'd felt only once beforethe warmth of his great-uncle's company as they drove home from the movies.
He looked over at his friend lying beside himand it was a picture that stayed in his memory for the rest of his lifeflecks of grass stuck to his sweaty chest, one arm behind his head, a burst of dark hair filling his armpit, his hat pulled down over his eyes to the bridge of his nose, a long stem of foxtail grass rising in an arc from between his teeth.
The fingertips of one hand brushed a nipple and then slid down his belly, finally tucking themselves into the top of his jeans. They were his Sunday-best levi's, still stiff and unbroken in.
He absently scratched himself there under his belt buckle and then fell very still, drifting off to sleep, his chest softly rising and falling, a pulse of his heartbeat making his stomach quiver in a slow steady rhythm.
Henry had never known much of love, and he wondered if that's what he was feeling now. And afterward it came to him unbidden how it must have been this that he felt for his great uncle. Thiswhat do you call itthis feeling that banished loneliness and emptied emptiness and made him realize he'd felt lonely and empty for a long, long time.
Oakley fell more deeply asleep, his breathing now heavier and the stem of foxtail bending downward as his mouth slackened. A fly buzzed in the warm air and then danced on the brim of his hat.
Henry lay there watching, aware of his own heart beating, wanting time to stop in this rare tick of the clock, knowing they would not have this time together again until next Sunday, and as the afternoon sun slipped westward, this moment itself right now was slipping away. Almost nothing to cling to.
He knew then with a rush that he would lay down his life for his friendthat was in the Bible somewhere, and he knew how it was the only thing he'd ever believed in with his whole heart. He would stop a bullet for Oakley. Step in front of a speeding train if it came to that.
The fly suddenly danced up and away, seeming to set off a tremor in Oakley's hat brim, and then Henry saw that Oakley was wiggling his ears, his face breaking into a sly grin.
"What's the serious look for?" he said, the foxtail stem twirling up again between his teeth.
"Aw, nothin'," Henry said, smiling now, too.
If only . . . if only . . . forty years later his memory of that afternoon still stopped there. If only he'd said something of what he really felt.
Returning from the hayfields the next day, he learned what had happened. Oakley had been working one of the horses, trying to get the bucks out of him. Though he hadn't really been hired to break horses, it was something he wanted to learn and get good at.
He'd been making some progress, one of the hands said, "stickin' on that pony like glue."
Then the horse had thrown him into the corral fence. And thrown him hard. And the fall had broken his neck. They had put him in the back of a truck and taken him to the hospital in town, but he was DOA.
"Cowboyin's a rough life," the old hand had said. "Ever once in a while, you lose one." He clapped Henry on the shoulder and then walked away, as if that was all that was left to be said about it.
There was no funeral. The body was shipped back to some place in Illinois. He'd never seen Oakley again.
For years, out on the range by himself, he'd talk to Oakley like he was somewhere nearby, able to hear him. He'd tell him about his life, what outfit he was working with now, what his job was, what the foreman was like, funny things that happened, because Oakley always liked a good story.
In the war, when Henry was a foot soldier in Belgium and then France, he'd talk to Oakley in the foxholes, thinking if he was killed it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe some way they'd be together again.
But that was not to be. Returning to Wyoming when the war was over, he stepped off a bus in Sheridan, looking up at the late summer sky and said, "Well, pardner, I'm back."
The talks continued, but over the years, drifting from one ranch job to another, he'd tapered off, figuring it made more sense to let his friend rest in peace.
But just the other day, sitting around with little to do, as he healed up from a hernia operation, he'd caught himself doing it again. He'd pictured Oakley once more, lying there with his shirt off on that Sunday afternoon, dozing in the summer heat, not yet twenty years old. Always and ever since a young man, while Henry got older and older, fifty-five now, almost as old as his great-uncle was back when Henry knew him.
Stove up from years of broken bones and other injuries, he felt some mornings old as the hills, joints stiff and parts complaining that used to work just fine.
The boss, Don, a new man who'd taken over the ranch a few years back and kept him on, had noticed him more than once reaching to his crotch and pressing in a hernia that would pop out in his scrotum.
"It's nothin', boss," Henry had said, after he explained. "Had it for years."
"I don't like the sound of it," Don had said, and when it happened again one day as they were lifting some heavy planks onto a pile by the barn, he'd asked Henry to take down his pants so he could have a look.
Henry had said, "No, boss. It's OK."
Don had dropped the plank he was holding and said, "For crissake, Slim, there's no need to be modest. We're just two grown men here. I'm not asking to suck your cock."
This remark had startled Henry, and to prove somethinghe wasn't sure whathe reluctantly opened his jeans and stood there as Don bent down to examine him.
"Aw, Jesus, Slim. You gotta get that taken care of," Don said.
And though they were short handed at the ranch and it would lay him up for months, Don had insisted that Henry have the surgery done now.
It was a strange experience, more than an hour's drive from the smoky, dark, unpainted bunkhouse that had been his home for almost ten years, lying in a high hospital bed in a spotless, bright, airless room, while a young male nurse pulled back the sheet and lifted his gown to shave every bit of hair from between his legs.
He had never been touched there by another man, except for an Army physicalturn your head and coughand the Filipino surgeon who was scheduled to cut into him the next morning. But this, the young man lathering him with soap and producing a long razor to scrape around his privates, this was by far the most unsettling and nerve-wracking experience he could imagine.
Later, as he lay under the crisp sheet again, he touched himself, amazed by the sudden tenderness of his naked skin. He held his testicles in his hand, and they made him think of the featherless, ugly, helpless baby sparrows he and a schoolboy friend had once taken from a nest in the eaves of a shed and drowned one by one in a stock tank.
Though he kept holding himself, with both hands now, the feeling of humiliation and shame would not leave him. The operation itself would not be worse than this.
It was calving season now, and he did what he could to help Don. Just no lifting, no pulling or pushing, no climbing. Which didn't leave much. A whiskery growth of hair had sprouted again between his legs, the bristles itchy, and there was a long, pink scar running through them.
"You can walk around all you want," the doctor had said, "but stand tall." If he bent forward there was no painful tug where he'd been sewn together, but it would heal up wrong, so he followed the doctor's orders, wincing whenever he stood, remembering to straighten up.
"And, Slim, no sex for a while," the doctor had said, like Henry would be raring to get that part of his life back to normal.
Henry had just looked down, feeling himself turn red. "No need to worry about that, doc. I'll be taking `er easy." Easy, after all, was normal. And if you didn't count the rare times when he took care of himself, none at all was normal.
In younger days, he'd given some thought to following the example of the other cowboys, who talked often of women and sometimes laid claim to successes with them. But always he held back, shrugging, and saying like Oakley, that they didn't seem worth the trouble.
As he got older, the other men blamed it on his age, and he'd just smile and let them think what they wanted. In his heart, he remained true to his friend. It would be too uncomfortable to admit to him that he'd let someone come between them, if only for one night.
For a few days, Henry discovered, when he came back from the hospital, Don had been keeping the ranch going all by himself. Another hand was supposed to be there, but his grandmother who was from up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota had died, and Indians being Indians he'd left to be there for the funeral.
George, who for reasons only another Indian would fathom, had been named after Gen. George Armstrong Custernot your George Washington, he liked to explain, with an always straight face, though Henry knew there was a joke in it somewhere that a white mantry as he mightwould never understand.
George was in his twentiesnot much older than Oakleyand he was already a good cowboy, as Henry knew Indians could be. Quiet, sober, hard working, reliable. He didn't care whether a job required going afoot or ahorse, and though it was a marvel to watch him on horseback, he was just as good repairing a corral fence or a windmill.
Now he was gone, and Henry missed him. Three years the two men had shared the bunkhouse, and in the winter months, as snow lay deep outside and they sat together near the oil heater, the silence was like a blanket wrapped around them both.
Henry read his Will James books, made easier now with a pair of drugstore reading glasses, and George worked leather into belts, hat bands, and pouchesthings his mother sold to tourists back on the reservation.
After a while, Henry had admired a belt with a pattern of prairie wild flowers and grasses. George had said nothing, but when it was done, he left it coiled up neatly like a snake relaxing on Henry's bed.
Almost overcome, having received few gifts in his life, Henry had thanked the young man.
"No use thanking an Indian," George had said, suppressing a smile. "I'll be taking it back before you know it."
But he never did.
This would all come to an end about this time of year when Kirk returned to the ranch. Noisy and sarcastic, he had no patience with Henry because he was an "old fart" and no patience with George because he was a "goddam redskin."
George had finally taken to keeping a hatchet by his bed and said calmly one night as they turned in, "Kirk, one of these mornings you're gonna wake up with your scalp missing."
Kirk had hooted, kicking the inside of his bedroll, satisfied that he'd got a rise out of George. But the word "redskin" hadn't been heard again in the bunkhouse, unless George said it himself.
Saturday nights were then something to look forward to, as Kirk would drive his beat-up pickup to town and get liquored up, like as not getting in a fist fight and coming home on Sunday, hung over and full of stories nobody wanted to hear.
Meanwhile, George stayed behind, even when Kirk declared a truce and invited him along.
"Nobody wants to see another drunken Indian," George would say, and leave it at that.
"Suit yourself," Kirk would say and be gone, revving the engine of his pickup as he roared off the ranch.
George would then shake his head and say, "That white boy really thinks I wouldn't kill him."
Continued . . .