Mike and Danny: Restless Hearts
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.
Marty has a talk with his father; Mike considers more than two sandwiches; Ted has a visitor from the past.
Marty found his father in the south pasture where he was repairing an old windmill that had once been part of some early settler's homestead. It was on a quarter-section his dad had bought years ago and turned into hayfields and pastures for his cattle. The farm buildings were all gone, torn down or blown down after decades of Nebraska weather, winter snows sagging in the roofs and the high winds of spring storms doing in the rest.
What would have been the original wooden windmill was actually gone, too, replaced years ago with a metal one, its aluminum blades making a musical sound overhead as they turned in the breeze. As the water table stayed high here in the river bottom, the old well was deep enough to continue filling a big round stock tank for his dad's cows. Besides this hole in the ground, there was nothing left of the old days.
A log barn, built to last for generations, had been taken down and moved on a flatbed trailer one spring day to the outdoor museum in Grand Island, where a prairie town was being constructed from whatever was still standing around the state in spite of a hundred years of neglect and disuse.
Marty parked the carhe'd borrowed Virgil's Plymouth Duster for the trip over from Kearneystopping at the side of the road just behind his father's pickup. He climbed through the barb wire fence that enclosed the pasture and walked to where he saw Wade working on the windmill.
Wade looked up when he saw Marty coming but kept at what he was doing until Marty was standing there beside him.
"Hello, son," he said, giving a bolt a last twist with a wrench and then putting the wrench into a tool box that was sitting open on the windmill platform.
"Dad," Marty said.
He'd swapped a morning at the lumber yard, taking another guy's Saturday, so he could have a couple hours here at home. Mike had made it seem like talking to his dad shouldn't wait. Besides, whatever it was that Wade had to tell him, there was also what Marty had come to tell his dad.
"How you been?" Wade said, making it sound like he might really careand maybe he did.
"Everything working out OK?"
The morning was already warming under the autumn sun. After the weather front that had brought rain over the weekend, it looked like there might be a few more days of Indian summer. Marty opened his jacket as he stood there, waiting for one of them to say something else.
"Mike came over the other night," Marty finally said. "We had us a little conversation."
"You and Mike friends now?"
"Dad, I know you sent him to come talk to me." He was beginning to feel some of his old impatience with his father, who could beat around the bush as easily as he could tell you exactly what was on his mind when he felt like it.
Wade nodded. "I guess I did."
"So you got something to say to me. What is it?"
Wade took a while to collect his thoughts.
"I've been thinkin' is all," he finally said. "Maybe I didn't always say and do the right thing by you."
Maybe, Marty was thinking. Maybe.
"I always wanted you to grow up to be a man you'd be proud of."
"I am, Dad. So you can stop worrying about that."
But Wade didn't seem to hear him.
"Could be it was more you wantin' to be proud," Marty said.
His father, hearing this, now gave him a sharp look.
"Because I don't think you are," Marty said. "And you haven't been for a long time, if you ever were."
"That's not true, son."
It irritated Marty that his father kept calling him "son." He hadn't done that since he was a boy.
"Those ribbons you won showing your steers at the fair, and that trophy you got for Freddie?" Freddie was a prize Angus bull Marty had raised when he was in high school. He'd sold him for a lot of money to a rancher in Colorado. "And there was you with your picture in the paper," Wade said. "I was so proud to be your dad."
"You could have showed it."
"Well, I'm tellin' you nowif it's not too late."
Marty stood unmovinghis thumbs stuck in his back pockets and his weight on one legstudying his father in the morning sunshine.
"It's not too late," he said. Better late than never, he wanted to add, but stopped with that. In the trees along the river, he heard the surprised cry of a rooster pheasant.
"Before you say any more," Marty said. "There's something else you need to know."
"I'm queer, dad. Your son is queer."
The words that came from him were a simple statement of facta fact he had accepted about himself that made sense of the life he'd lived all these years on this farm, in school, and running off to Alaska. They were the words that made sense of the days now as he spent them with Virgil, who he knew he loved and was loving more each time they touched or even just looked at each other.
His heart swelled as all that these words meant filled him with a new kind of courage. It was as if Virgil stood there beside him, an arm around his shoulders, defying the whole damn world to disapprove.
"Are you still proud of me?" Marty said. He knew that if his father couldn't accept this about him it would change nothing. He'd always been just himself, in spite of his father, and this was no different.
Wade looked at him grimly. "I can see what you're doing is getting back at me after all these years, and I probably got it comin'."
"I'm not getting back at you. I'm just telling you the way things are."
"If what you're saying is true, your mother's going to be more disappointed than I am."
"She already knows."
"How does she know?"
"I just told her," Marty said. "She took it pretty well."
Wade looked off across the pasture to where his steers stood, grazing on the grass, flush with green from the last rain.
"You don't have to be proud of me, dad. I've made it this far without that. I can make it the rest of the way."
Wade gave him a fierce look now, his anger suddenly rising. "No, it's not going to be like that," he said.
Marty, who'd been about to walk back to the car, waited for his father to finish having the last word.
"I'm your father," Wade said. "Whatever you say is not going to change that fact."
Marty just nodded. His dad could be stubborn as a mule.
"And you're my only son," Wade said. "Nothing's going to change that either."
"Well, that's the way it's always been between you and me."
"You're not hearing what I'm saying. You're a grown man. What you do with your life is up to you. Just don't leave me and your mother out of it."
"I wasn't planning to," Marty said, though to tell the truth, he knew he had no real plansnot yet anyway.
He pulled his thumbs from his pockets and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I gotta get goin' back to Kearney."
"I was hopin' you'd stay a while."
"I need to return that car to my friend." He nodded toward the Duster out on the road.
"When you comin' back?"
Marty shrugged. "One of these Sundays maybe."
There was a pause, and Marty started to leave. After a few steps he heard his father's voice behind him. "Bring your friend with you, OK?"
He turned but kept walking, backward toward the car. His father still stood beside the windmill, watching him go.
"I'll see if he wants to come along," Marty said.
Then he turned again and kept going. His heart, he realized, was pounding.
Sometime after noon, Mike was driving a truckload of corn in from the field. He parked by the grain bins and hurried across the place to the house, where he found Alice in the kitchen reading a magazine she'd brought with hera Family Circle he saw when she closed it and, without asking, got up from the table to make him something to eat.
"I'd have cooked you a proper meal, Mike, but you're kinda short on supplies," she said, indicating the refrigerator and opening a cupboard where there were only a couple of cans and some breakfast cereal.
"Alice, you don't need to feed me."
"Well, your friend in there is going to need to eat whenever he gets up. We oughtta think about him."
Leave it to Alice to walk in the door and take over, Mike thought. In her opinionand he knew this from her husband Tullymen didn't know how to begin to look after themselves. It's a wonder they survived to reproduce.
"That young man," and she nodded with her head toward the bedroom, "he don't look like he's had a bite of food in a week."
She had checked on him, she said, every hour like clockwork. He hadn't moved a muscle, just managed to keep breathing. She'd considered taking his pulse once to make sure he was still alive.
"And is there some reason he's still got all his clothes on?" She was putting mayonnaise and mustard on four slices of bread. "Two sandwiches gonna be enough for you?" she wanted to know, not waiting for an answer to the first question.
Mike wanted to tell her he could make his own sandwichesshe didn't have to go to the troublebut there was no point in that. She wouldn't hear of it. In her mind, he'd probably do it all wrong.
"You got a picture of one man bare naked on the wall," she saidshe'd seen the painting of Danny that had hung there in the bedroom for years"and another one goes to bed without getting undressed first."
She laughed and shook her head at the wonder of it all. "That boy's still got his boots on."
Though she had probably never seen another man naked besides Tully, Alice seemed unconcerned about finding a painting of one in Mike's house. It was Rich who troubled her. And when she handed the two sandwiches on a dinner plate to Mike, she looked hard at him and said, "What happened to him? He don't look so good."
Half glad to have someone to talk to about Richeven if it was AliceMike told her some of what he knew. "He was in Vietnam. I think he saw some bad things over there."
"Combat fatigue," she said. "I've heard of it."
"Maybe worse'n that."
She thought about this as she poured them cups of coffee and then sat down at the table with Mike.
"Tully was in Korea," she said. "He's never talked about it much. I always figured there was a lot more to it than he wanted us to know."
Tully had been an MP, and he'd told Mike a few stories about breaking up fights in off-limit bars and whorehouses. Nothing that couldn't have happened at a stateside base.
"Did he ever talk to you?" Alice wanted to know.
"See what I mean?"
Again she shook her head at the folly of men. "You train a man to killand he gets sent off somewhere and does thatand then he's supposed to come back and live like it never happened." She took a sip of her coffee. "Life ain't no John Wayne movie."
Mike wondered how a farm wife like Alice had come to this conclusion. He and his buddies in the service had been trained to kill, too, but about all they'd ever killed was timewaiting to get back out again and return to civilian life.
He had a bite of the sandwich and then took it with him to look in on Rich, who continued to lie just where he'd last seen him, his face gray and unshaven, eyes sunken.
"He's been cryin', the poor soul," Alice whispered behind him, looking over his shoulder. "Eyes red as anything."
They stood silently then for a while, watching. From outside, there was the sound of sparrows in the bushes. Then they went back to the kitchen.
"Best to let him sleep. Don't go taking his pulse," Mike said, thinking of how startled Rich had been when he woke up that morning. "He's not so good with surprises."
"Somehow I could tell that."
Mike finished his sandwiches and let Alice pour him more coffee.
"Maybe you should talk to Tully," she said. "He'll know of something that would help."
And she said this with the respect she obviously felt for her husband. It was one thing to joke about men's general incompetence, but the tone of her voice said she could give a man credit for what he might be good forhard work, supporting a family, and maybe even the company of his naked body in bed at night.
"I'll tell Tully about your friend in there," she said. "See what he says."
Ted had made good progress with his paintings. At the rate he was going, he'd have enough finished for the show in Omaha, and there'd been another phone call from the gallery letting him know there was interest building in his worksome word of mouth alreadyand he could expect to sell some.
That had been on Saturday, and then Sunday there was this surprise when someone walked out of the past to show up at his front door. Looking a few years older and like he'd seen something of the world was the young man who'd been a friend of Danny's when they were both college boys. And Danny had brought him to meet Ted.
His name was Bobby. They'd spent that weekend together, and several more after that. Then, after one thing and anotherBobby so much younger than Ted and hardly ready to get attached to anyone they'd split up. More like Bobby had just stopped coming by the house.
Now, years later, he was standing again on the porch steps, getting wet in the falling rain, and Ted had him come inside, where a wood fire was burning and there was hot coffee on the stove.
Bobby was back in town, he said, for homecoming at the collegeit was seven years since he'd graduatedand the memories had got the best of him. He'd been to the game and the dance on Saturday, but Sunday he'd driven out to the farmhouse where he'd spent all those times with Ted, thinking he'd just have a last look at the old place and recollect what he could of the past.
The times with Tedfrom the distance now of several yearshad taken on a kind of golden glow, of being held dear and cherished by a good man. Ted hadn't been the first man he ever loved, but he was the first one who loved him back, and Bobby knew now that the caring and the gentle affection Ted showed for him were something rare in the world.
After many tries, he'd never had that again with another man. It had been hard enough to find a queer man of any kind, but still a whole lot easier to find one who wanted him just for sex and nothing more. He had hope still that the right man was out there somewhere, but finding another one like Ted had begun to seem almost impossible.
Part of the ritual of homecoming each year, he said, was this stopping by Ted's old place in the country. Parked along the road and gazing for a while at the empty house, he'd feel the emptiness in his heart and soul and wish he could just let the memories go.
In fact, he'd promised himself that this year he'd stay awayno homecoming, no visit to the house. But here he was again, the feelings rising in his chest sharper than ever as he sat behind the wheel of his car, looking through the trees, the branches wet with rain and mostly bare now under the gray autumn sky.
Thenand he could hardly believe his eyeshe saw Ted's old station wagon there, parked at the front gate like it had been years before. In a kind of daze he pulled into the long driveway and drove to the house, where he knocked on the door, still not certain that the person who opened it would be Ted.
Ted had stood there for a moment, finally recognizing Bobby. He'd let his hair grow past his ears, and his face had lost the cheerful boyish look he remembered, but as the delight at finding Ted filled his eyes, he seemed to become more and more the college boy he'd once been.
Ted waved him in andbecause he had paint all over his hands and clothesapologized for turning down the excited hug Bobby wanted to give him. Then after a while, having him again in the house, interested in the paintings and wanting to see them, Ted felt the strangeness of not being alone begin to wear off.
Bobby had taken a job with an engineering contractor in Colorado that had projects in several western states. "It's a job where some days you're wearing a tie and a hard hat," he explained.
He stood now next to Ted as he painted, holding a mug of coffee with both hands. He was wearing khaki pants and a dark blue ski sweater. And he'd become a handsome man. When he turned and walked to the kitchen for more coffee, Ted could see that he still had a handsome butt, too.
"I've missed you," Bobby said when he came back.
"We had some good times together," Ted said, not sure what Bobby was trying to say.
"I was just a dumb kid and you put up with me anyway."
Ted smiled at him. "You weren't all that hard to like."
The wind blew a burst of falling rain against the windows.
"I'm not a kid anymore."
"I can see that."
"I'm chokin' up a little here because"his voice wavered"I'm ashamed of what I did."
Ted looked at him for a moment and then kept painting.
"You got nothing to be ashamed of," he said.
"I didn't even say goodbye."
"Sometimes it's hard to know when you're seeing somebody for the last time."
Bobby shook his head. "No, what I did was pretty bad."
"I got no reason to complain. I've done a lot worse."
Of all the times he'd like to do over againand do rightthe one that came clearest to him now involved a boy he'd known in high school. He was a little girlish and carried his books on his hip, and in a small-town rural school, where boys were expected to be loud and toughif not downright meanthis one was way out of place.
One of the boys had promised to meet him after schoolit was supposed to be a walk along a creek, for some bird watching. He'd showed up instead with a carload of his mates, including Ted, and they'd made the boy get down behind the bushes and suck all of them. As they left, laughing and jeering, he'd stood there, mud on the knees of his school pants.
The forlorn look of betrayal on the boy's face had haunted Ted for years, and it came back unbidden at moments like this, to remind him of how often his courage had failed him. He'd gone along to prove his own shaky manhood, and what he'd proved instead was his capacity for being heartless.
"I want us to be friends again," Bobby said. "I never met any man good to me as you."
Ted was glad now for the paint on his hands and shirt sleeves that kept him from putting his arms around Bobby, even though that would have been easier than knowing what to say next.
"What happened to you, Bobby? I don't remember seeing you look so sad."
"It's never been easy being queer, but I never thought it was going to be this hard."
He thought of Ed and how the two of them would never be having this conversation. Ed was so uncomplicated about feelings, and what made him that way was his expecting no more from another man than a good time. His heart was big enough for whoever he happened to be with. He liked being loved, but it didn't always have to be the same person.
Bobby, he could see, was different. He was still that young, hopeful boy, expecting true love to show up in the form of the perfect man. Now that experience had taught him otherwise, he was reliving the past and persuading himself that his first love had really been the best one all along.
"Can I stay the night?" Bobby said.
"You can stay as long as you like."
"Just let me keep on painting." He had deadlines, he explained, and he needed to keep working.
Bobby didn't care. He'd had some vacation days coming and just being here under the same roof with Ted seemed to be enough.
Not that they hadn't relived the old times. Bobby had made supper that first nightthere was spaghetti and wine and candles at the table in the darkened kitchen. He'd put a stack of LPs on the stereo and said, "All we need is Mike and Danny." He was trying to recreate the first evening he'd been here, a college boy, hardly twenty, falling in love with a handsome older man he'd just met.
"I had stars in my eyes," he said with a big grin.
"You got 'em now," Ted said, looking at his face in the flickering candlelight.
He found himself touched by Bobby's yearning innocence and the sorrow in him that life could not be what he dreamed it would be. And maybe he was thinking of Mike and Danny, and how the two of them had found each other despite the oddsodds that seemed to grow with each passing year.
"How old are you now?" Ted asked him. "Twenty-five?"
Ted wondered if he was trying to make himself seem older than he was, to get closer to Ted by narrowing the gap of years between them.
"Don't wish your life away," he said. "Time goes by fast enough." He'd happily be twenty-nine again, knowing what he knew now. On the stereo, a James Taylor song was playing.
Close your eyes, you can close
your eyes, it's all right
And I can sing this song, and you can sing this song when I'm gone . . .
They had washed up the dishes afterwards, standing together at the kitchen sinkBobby washing and Ted drying. The stereo played through a last LP and in the silence that followed, filling the rooms of the house, Ted had leaned over to Bobby and kissed him on the neck.
He hadn't thought much beyond the impulse itself and where it might lead. There was just this moment as a wave of tenderness rose gently in him, and he wanted to press his lips against the soft skin under Bobby's ear. Then he had done it, and Bobby had turned and folded into his arms.
They hadn't finished the dishes.
Bobby had slept that night and the next night in Ted's bed, their naked bodies wrapped together after bouts of passionate sex, Bobby hungry to grasp again the sweeping feelings of first love and Ted content to relive those winter nights that had banished for a time his own young man's loneliness.
Come Tuesday night, they were going to bed early because Bobby was heading back to Denver the next morning. He was already under the covers watching Ted undress, when from the kitchen there was the sound of the phone ringing.
"I should answer that," Ted said, and slipped his flannel shirt on again, leaving his belt unbuckled as he left the room.
When he picked up the phone, which hung on the wall by the door, he heard Ed's voice. He was talking over what sounded like a TV in the backgrounda sitcom with a noisy laugh track.
"Where are you?" Ted said.
"I got to Dallas. Just sittin' here in the hotel room. What you doin'?"
"I was getting into bed." He felt an awkwardness as he held back the rest of itthat he wasn't alone.
There was a pause while Ed put down the phone to turn down the TV. When he was back, he took a deep breath that Ted could hear clearly over the line and then began stumbling over his words like he had something to say and couldn't get it out.
"II have a confession to make," he said, finally able to put a sentence together. "You were right about something."
"I think I know already." He'd probably found out how impossible it was to sell paintings with only Polaroid shots of the painter.
"I found out I can't be true to one man after all."
It was now Ted's turn to find the right words, but he didn't have to say anything, because Ed had now found his voice and kept talking.
"I'm sorry, but I have to tell you this," he was saying. "The last two nights, I got laid with two different guys. Not together, just one at a time."
"It's all right, Ed."
"I wanted to be a better man, Ted. I thought I could do it."
"And you wanna know the worst part?"
"I don't know if I do."
"I love all three of you. How can a man be so fucked up?"
"Ed, that's not fucked up. It's amazing you can do that. Hell, I'm happy for you."
"But I made you a promise. I wasn't gonna be like that anymore."
"How can I hold you to a promise like that?"
"A man's word is supposed to be his word."
"Ed, let me say something. Are you listening?"
"The same thing happened to me. Somebody showed up here after you left. He's there in the bed now waiting for me."
"Yes. Now do you feel a little better? Or are you gonna keep kicking yourself?"
Ed was at a loss for words again. Orand this was just as likelysomething on TV had caught his eye.
"You still there?" Ted said.
"Yeah, I'm thinkin'. Who is this guy you got with you?"
"Someone I used to know, years ago." And he explained how Bobby had been in town for his homecoming at the college and showed up at the door.
"Would I like him?" Ed asked.
Ted thought for a moment. "Yeah, I think you would."
"Is he there? Can I talk to him?"
Ed, who was usually predictable, had this way of springing the most unexpected request on a person.
"I'll go see," Ted said and set the receiver down on top of the phone.
He walked to the bedroom, where Bobby lay waiting.
"He wants to talk to you," Ted said.
"Friend of mine. He's calling from Dallas. His name is Ed."
"What does he want to talk to me for?"
"You don't have to."
Bobby was thinking it over, then looked at Ted and gave a shrug. "No, I'll go." He got out of the bed covers, his dick full in his underwear, and left the room.
Ted sat on the edge of the bed and listened to the sound of Bobby's voice coming from the kitchen. He spoke only a few times. Ed seemed to be doing most of the talking. Then Bobby was saying goodbye, and after a moment he was back in the room.
"What did he have to say?" Ted asked.
"He said you are a good man, and we should love each other with everything we got."
Ted shook his head and laughed. He reached to Bobby who stood in front of him now.
"Well, you got advice from an expert," he said and began to pull down Bobby's briefs. "Let's not disappoint the man."
When he had them down to his ankles, Bobby stepped out of them. His dick swung toward Ted, lifting and getting hard, and Ted put his arms around him, caressing the small of his back and the smooth skin on his butt and pulling him onto the bed.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper