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.
Tully makes a difference; Mike gets a phonecall; Rich has a request.
"You should go to Mike's tonight," Tully's wife told him. "You're needed over there."
He knew Alice well enoughas well as any man could after thirty yearsand he knew not to question that tone of voice. She'd spent the day at Mike's place looking after what seemed to be a friend of his who seemed none too well.
She handed Tully an apple pie she'd taken from the freezer in the basement and baked as soon as she got back home that afternoon.
"You got some pie, you're half way there," she'd always said when it came to dealing with sorting out people's problems. This seemed to be one of those times.
"What's this all about?" he wanted to know, ready instead for an evening of TV and some popcorn after milking his cows.
"You'll figure it out when you get there," she said, like it was not for her to go into.
So he changed into a clean pair of jeans, put his boots and his hat back on, and went out to his pickup for the drive down the road to Mike's.
The day done, the frosty night air made him think of football and Friday nights playing for his high school team. It hadn't been much of an athletic career, as a so-so defensive lineman, with just a moment or two he still savored after all these yearsa recovered fumble that got them goal-to-go once in a close game. The fans had gone wild, and his overjoyed teammates had pounded him on his helmet and his butt when he'd come off the field.
He'd been a junior that year, his first season as a starter, and one of the cheerleaders, who was in his social studies class, had smiled and spoken to him. The fact that she went steady with the quarterback meant as much to him as the attention she suddenly began to pay Tully. He was a little in awe of the guy.
Maybe he'd said something to her about Tully after the gameparked along the river in his Chevy with the windows fogging overand to come up as a subject of conversation between the two of them made him flush with a warm feeling of pride.
Old feelings like that came back to him all these years later when he happened to be out on an autumn evening, and he felt the distance of time, of youthful innocence, of being little more than a boy with half-formed notions of what it was to be a full-grown man.
As he drove now to Mike's, the truck cab filled with the rich, cinnamon smell of warm apple pie, which sat on the seat beside him. He smiled as he saw the beginnings of condensation on the cold glass of the windshield. As a senior, he'd finally had his own few opportunities to fog up the windows on football nights.
But young and horny, he'd made little progress with the one girl he'd picked to pursueAlice, whose Catholic upbringing and determined resistance to every form of persuasion he brought to his backseat romancing had kept the two of them still virgins until they got married after graduation.
And that had given him less than a month of discovering what he'd been missing before shipping off to basic training at Fort Campbell and from there to Korea, where he'd been utterly faithful to his young wife, who as chance would have it, gave birth to their first daughter well before he was home again.
In all his years he'd never had sex with another woman, and once he was out of the service he'd never known anything but being a provider, a father, and a man for others to depend on. He might wonder sometimes how his life might have been different, if he'd waited a while to find a wife and settle downif he'd sampled a bit more of the opposite sex before picking the one he'd be spending the rest of his life with.
But if wishes were horses, he liked to say, they wouldn't all fit in the barnplus there'd be all that horse shit. You played the cards you were dealt, and that was that.
He could have made a far worse pick than Alice anyway. She still loved him after all these years, and unlike some married men he knew, he was still having sex regularmaybe no more than a couple times a month now, and maybe not with the old passion, but Alice always seemed to welcome his touch on those nights when he reached over to her in bed.
Often without saying so, she let him know that she'd never stopped enjoying his naked body, and while they could have their spirited disputes during the day, these just seemed to keep the air clear for what mattered just as muchthis coming together under the sheets, his hard cock not so readily hard these days but still good enough for the job of satisfying them both.
He wondered now as he turned his truck into Mike's drive if she'd be up when he got home, reading one of her Reader's Digest Condensed Books in bed and waiting for himmaybe agreeable to some lovemaking. It had been a while.
He parked by Mike's pickup and noticed a big motorcycle there beside it. A Harley, he observed, stopping to take a look at it and imagining for a moment the feel of it between his legs and roaring with it over hundreds of miles of open countrysideanother of his dreams of a road not taken.
Then he carried the pie to the porch door on the side of Mike's house, where a light burned brightly in the kitchen window, and he went inside.
Mike was at the kitchen sink doing something, but what Tully noticed right away was the young man sitting at the table.
"Hello, soldier," he said.
The words had come from him before he could even think to say anything else. After all these years, there was that thousand-yard stare that he'd seen sometimes in Korea, among men who'd fought long and hard in combattoo long and too hard. He sat with a bottle of beer in front of him, smoking a cigarette.
"Tully's the name," Tully said, putting down the pie but waiting to offer his hand.
The eyes glanced up at him, and there was a nod.
"This is my friend Rich," Mike was saying. He was sounding his usual cheerful self, like there was no one in the room with what Alice and her Bible would call the shadow of death hanging over them like a dark cloud.
"The pie's from Alice," Tully said, not taking his eyes from Rich. "My wife," he added.
Rich nodded again, stubbing out his cigarette. "We met," he said. "She's OK."
What the hell happened to you, son, Tully wanted to say, but he turned to Mike instead, who was offering him a beer.
"Don't mind if I do," Tully said and decided not to sit down. He leaned with his butt against the counter top.
Rich's hair stuck up in tufts, and there was a dark growth of beard on his face. He looked like he hadn't changed his clothes in a week. A long, hot shower would surely have done him good.
"Alice tells me you were in Vietnam," he said. "How long you been back?"
Rich shrugged. "A year," he said. "More'n a year, I guess."
"Pretty rough over there?"
Rich shrugged again and reached for another cigarette. The air in the room was already blue with smoke. And the conversation went on like this in fits and starts, Tully sensing what was wrong with the boy and not sure what to do about it.
Get him talking maybe. Otherwise, Tully guessed, he'd stay locked in whatever hell there was inside him.
"Alice tell you I was in Korea?"
Rich didn't look at him, just shook his head no.
"Well, I was."
And he told Rich about his tour there in the military police. How he got shot at a few times on convoy but that, he said, was probably no more dangerous than keeping drunken soldiers on leave out of trouble. There was a story told sometimes about a knife fight over a misunderstanding that involved a girl from a strip club.
Mike had heard the story before, and Tully dressed it up with some details that may or may not have been true anymoreit had been so many years ago, he'd begun to doubt his memory. Mostly he was gauging Rich's reaction, to see how much was safe for them to talk about.
"The girl was yelling and trying to keep them from cutting off each other's nuts," he said, laughing a little. "She'd put some time in with both of them, and she wasn't sure yet which one was going to pan out."
Mike smiled and said nothing, drinking his beer.
"Alice will be beside herself if we don't eat up that pie," Tully said, changing the subject. "And I never had a problem with pie going down with beer."
Mike took the pie from the table and set it on the counter, then opened a cupboard to take out some plates.
"I did have one close call," Tully said, and kept watching Rich, who continued smoking his cigarette, his concentration fixed on working the label loose on his beer bottle with a thumbnail.
"We was escorting prisoners from the front and took a mortar that blew out the whole front end of our vehicle. My buddy got hit bad, and we damn near lost him. Medevac got him out in time, but I was watching them take him away not knowing if I'd ever see him alive again." Only then had he looked down at himself and seen he was covered with bloodand checking himself, he realized it was his buddy's and not his own.
Mike was cutting the pie into wide pieces. Then in the silence after Tully's story, he scooped them onto plates and set the plates onto the table.
"You gonna need a fork?" he said.
"Not for me," Tully said. He was happy picking up the pie with his fingers.
Rich put down his cigarette and took the fork Mike was handing him.
"Did you?" he said looking at Tully. "Did you see him again?"
"Yes. He was pretty bunged upmaybe lost some of his good looks, but he had some to spare. He made it OK."
Crush, they'd called the guy, because he always had a new girlfriend writing from home he was crazy about. Now he was good and crushed, he'd said, when Tully found him in the hospital. The doctors had put him back together, but he'd lost most of the hearing in one ear and some teeth. One side of his head was wrapped in bandages, and his jaw was still wired together.
"What do you know about Korea?" Tully asked the two men.
"Police action," Mike said. "38th parallel. General MacArthur. Yalu River."
"It was no police action," Tully said, wiping crumbs of pie crust from his face with the back of his hand. "It was a goddam war. You know how many troops we lost?"
Mike said he didn't know, and Rich was just staring at his beer bottle.
"Fifty-four thousand. I'd call that war, wouldn't you?"
Tully never went on like this. History was history. And what you learned if you studied it was that it was usually about somebody getting fucked over, and nobody else ever wanted to hear about it. Those two years of taking casualties while negotiators refused to reach an agreement and the folks safe at home went about their businesswell, that showed what little people knew or cared.
Years of living with his cows, watching them give their milk morning and night, and almost envying their disregard for the human race and human folly, he had come to a kind of truce within himself. He was not in fact angry now, just stating some facts.
Rich took a bit of the pie and nodded, like he was having a conversation with himself. "You know how many we lost?" he said. "Fifty-eight thousand."
Not counting those who came back from the dead, Tully thought, and find themselves like this nowsitting in a farm kitchen somewhere on an autumn night, talking and eating, and feeling all the while like a ghost.
"Average Joes like you and me, we're the ones had to pay," Tully said quietly. "You don't mind me talking like this, do you, Mike?"
"No," Mike said in a respectful voice. "You two were dodging bullets, not me."
"I lost someone," Rich said, putting down his fork. "A buddy in my platoon. He was just another kid from the country like me. No real family. His grandma had raised him." And as he talked, the tears welled in his eyes and fell onto his face.
The two of them were like this, he said holding up two fingers in a king's cross, never separated longer than they had to be. Bound together by fear, courage, and something like love that they had finally confessed to each other after a night of drinking. They had promisedwhen this fucking war was overthat they'd be friends forever.
What that might have meant a million miles from home on a starless tropical night wasn't all that clear, but they weren't talking about the future anyway. From then on, they had looked out for each other, every day bringing them one step closer to boarding the big plane for homealive.
"He was such a good-natured guy, I didn't see how anything could happen to him," Rich said. "I guess it made me feel safe just being around him."
But one afternoon out on patrol, while they had stopped and the two of them were sitting side by side on the trunk of a fallen tree, talking about nothing, his buddy had suddenly fallen backward into the brush. He'd been hit by a sniper, and they'd all dived for cover, firing into the trees and undergrowth. But if they had taken out the sniper, they couldn't tell. There had just been that one shot out of nowhere.
Crawling to his buddy, Rich had found him already dead.
"I just hung onto him and kept prayin' hard as I could," he said. "Fuck, I don't even know how to praybut it was just, `Jesus, Jesus, please, Jesus.' All I could think of was I wanted him to go to heaven."
Tully watched the boy, wiping the tears from his face and picking up the fork to take another bite of pie. And he wondered how much of this he would ever tell Alice.
"I can't stop wonderin', why did it have to be him?" Rich said through his tears. "I was sitting right there beside him. That sniper could have picked me just as easy. Draw a beadright between the eyesand bam! But he picked my friend."
Tully thought for a moment and finally said, "Look at it this way. It saved your buddy the hell you're going through now. Would you trade places with him for that?"
Rich's eyes met his, but he said nothing.
"Tell me, son, you got any family or friends?" Tully said. "Anybody you can count on?"
Rich glanced for a moment to where Mike stood. "Mike's the only family I got," he said and seemed to think over whatever he was going to say next before looking back at Tully. "And there's a friend, yeah."
"Does he know about all this?"
Rich shook his head.
"Can you tell him?"
"I don't know where he is now."
"What's his name? Let's find him."
Rich shook his head again. "I owe him too much."
"For letting myself get so fucked up," Rich said, and he began talking about how he and this other guy named Ty had been on a trip to Phoenix. They were going to find work there and start new lives. But something had happened along the waysomething Rich was still not clear about.
"I must have blacked out," he said. "When I came to myself again I was in some motel in Julesburg, Colorado, and my friend wasn't with me anymore."
"What's the last thing you remember before that?"
Rich looked back at his unfinished pie and frowned. "We were going to a ranch up in the Sandhills. I wanted to see someone there, a guy I used to know when I was a kid."
"What did you want to see him for?"
Rich's frown deepened. "I dunno for sure. That part's kinda hazy. I just have a memory of being in a fight."
Rich nodded. "And nothing after that." When he'd come around, he explained, he'd gone back to the ranch, the last place he remembered seeing his friendbut his friend had already left, on a bus headed east. And there was just a note that he'd been here at Mike's, on his way home to Iowa.
"I don't know where in Iowa," he said. "I think he told me once, but I don't remember. Neither does Mike."
Tully glanced at Mike, who still stood there, with his arms folded across his chest and that look of hislike his own world had come to a stop and yours was all that mattered.
"I must have really scared him," Rich said. "Or I really let him down. Maybe he's good and pissed off at me. I wouldn't blame him."
"Don't you suppose a real friend would find a way to understand what happened that day?" Tully said.
"I know he'd understand. He was like that. But I'm thinking it's almost too much for me to ask."
Tully had finished his pie a while ago and had been holding the empty plate. He finally set it down on the counter beside the sink. A clock chimed the half hour from another room in the house.
"I got nothing but respect for a man who's been through hell," he said finally. "But I don't have much patience for self-pity."
Rich gave him a sharp look.
Tully decided to risk everything. "And the buddy you lost in Vietnam?" he said. "If he was here, I believe he'd say the same thing." He looked now at Mike. "You agree?"
Mike nodded. "He's right, Rich. You got plenty of reasons to be hurtin', but not enough to give in to 'emor to give up."
"I don't think I'm giving up, Mike."
"What would you call it?" Mike said.
"Maybe goin' down fightin'," Tully said. "That more like it? That why you picked a fight with somebody out there at that ranch? Give them a chance to beat the shit out of you?"
Rich shook his head. "Fuck, I don't know."
Tully sighed. "We're not gonna fix this thing tonight." He'd drunk the last of his beer and set the bottle down now beside his empty plate. "But, by God, something's broke, and we're gonna fix it. You hear what I'm saying, son?"
Rich nodded, a thumb and his fingers pressed into his closed eyes.
Tully went on. "I can tell you're a good man and, dammit, there's enough good men gone to waste in this sorry world."
Rich looked at him again now, blinking. Tully hoped he was hearing him.
"You do what you have to do, but you gotta set your sights on being the man everybody wants you to beand needs you to be. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," Rich said.
"Aw, sweet christ, you don't have to sir me. I'm just tellin' you one honest man to another."
An uncomfortable silence filled the room, and Rich sat there, like he was letting it all sink in.
"Another thing," Tully said. "And no offense, Mike, but you ain't got near enough family. I want youboth of youcomin' over for Sunday dinner with us. You can meet my girls and my grandkids. You don't have to like 'em, but I'm sure as anything they'll like you."
Rich gave him a smile now and said, "I will do that."
"Give me your word?"
"You got my word."
"Good, and I'm holdin' you to it. Now, you gonna finish that piece of pie you got there or am I gonna have to have Alice come and give you a lecture on not goin' hungry? Believe me, you don't want that."
Rich nodded. He'd met Alice, and he knew.
Then the phone rang. Tully had to step to one side as Mike took the receiver from the wall.
Tully didn't listen and was thinking instead about saying goodnight and heading back home. He'd done enough here and could tell Alice so if she askedand she probably wouldand there was still maybe an hour for a little TV and then seeing about some time with her in bed before sleep. He realized he was still up for that.
"He's right here," he heard Mike saying, and for a moment, Tully thought it was Alice on the line asking for him.
But Mike turned toward Rich and held the phone out to him. "It's Ty," he said. "He wants to talk to you."
Ty and his dad had been closing up the store, and he'd got to thinking of the phone in the back room his dad used for an office.
"Mind if I make a call?" he said. "It's long distance."
"Go ahead, son," his dad had said, pleased that the two of them were together again, doing something they used to do every night when Ty was a teenager in high school.
He wasn't sure what he'd say when he dialed Mike's number. Mostly he just wanted to hear the sound of Mike's voice again. And after three rings, there it waswarm and reassuringand for a moment he felt the miles between them disappearing.
When he discovered that Rich was there at Mike's, his heart leaped in his chest, and after a long pauseand Mike saying, "He's comin', he's comin'"there was his voice, too, and everything inside Ty seemed to go into a spin.
Rich sounded tired, but glad to be talking to him. "When Mike told me you went back home, I wanted to follow you," he was saying, "but I don't know where you live."
"Oskaloosa," Ty said, laughing. "I told you once. You said it sounded like the name of a swamp."
"Did I say that?"
"Yeah, I guess you forgot."
"There's a lot I wish I could forget," Rich said, after a pause, his voice growing darker. "I want to come to Oskaloosa. I want to see you."
Ty thought of Rich there among his family and how they'd react to him, a biker with his unpredictable moods.
"I don't think Oskaloosa is ready for you," he said.
"Yeah, I suppose not," Rich said, like Ty had told him it was all over between them.
"But I want to see you again, too. You still goin' to Phoenix?"
"Naw, I'm probably gonna hang out here at Mike's for a while."
"Good, I can come over some weekend."
"Don't wait too long."
The fear came over him that Rich was slipping away, and Ty felt something he hadn't let himself feel for daysthe desire to be curled up in bed, his arms around Rich and holding on. But he knew that he wasn't strong enough to save his friend from the phantoms that haunted him.
"I'm gonna be there, don't worry," he said. "Don't go jumpin' on your bike and headin' off again god knows where."
"That ain't gonna happen. Long as Mike'll have me. And long as I know you're comin' to see me."
Ty tried to take heart in the determination he could hear in Rich's voice. And he ached to be able to lift his friend's troubles from him, and to give him back his life.
As the words struggled up from the confusion that filled him now, he knew that they were utterly true. "I love you," he said.
There was a long pause at the other end of the line, and then finally he heard Rich's voice, like someone clinging to the ragged edge of hope. "I love you, too, buddy."
And then, after it seemed there was nothing else to say, they hung up, and Ty stood for a long time in the dim light from his father's desk lamp, letting the tears fall.
Rich had finally got out of his clothes and took a hot shower, letting Ty's words fill the emptiness in him as the steamy water washed the tiredness from his body. The mirror had fogged over, and he was glad not to have to see himself. That would happen soon enough when he decided to shave the thick bristle of beard on his facemaybe tomorrow morning, and maybe the next day.
Mike gave him a clean change of underwear, and when he came out of the bathroom, he'd pulled on the tee shirt and boxers.
"Your jeans, and the rest of what you had on, they're in the wash," Mike said. "A dirty job, but somebody had to do it."
Rich gave him a smile. "You're the mom I never had."
Mike laughed. "If it's a mother you're lookin' for, I'm sure Alice would be glad to take over. And do a helluva lot better job than I ever could."
"Alice and Tully are good people."
"Salt of the earth."
"I want to be like that."
Mike was getting ready for bed. He was unbuttoning his shirt and pulling down his jeans.
"I think you always have been. The old Rich is just hidin' there somewhere, waitin' for the right time to come out and say, here I am."
"I dunno, Mike. It ain't that simple."
"Maybe not. Time will tell. But my money says he shows up again better'n ever."
He'd pulled off his shirt now and walked through the house in his stocking feet, turning off lights until all that was left was the lamp over the bed.
"I want to sleep with you tonight," Rich said.
"You gonna need your boots again?"
"No," Rich laughed. "I just want you to hold me. Like you did when I was a kid and I used to come here."
Mike smiled. "I remember that."
"I never forgot. I didn't know what it was like to really feel safe until then."
Mike sat on the edge of the bed, pulling off his socks.
"Well, it was the easiest thing in the world to do," he said. "It still is."
He got into bed and Rich got in with him, turning so his back was against Mike's chest. Mike switched off the lamp and then put one arm over him, snuggling up closer, and patting him on the belly a few times.
"Tully's right. You're a good man," Mike said. "And you're gonna be just fine."
"I think I know that now," Rich said, letting the warmth of Mike's affection steal through his body. And in a moment he felt himself drifting off to sleep.
End of "Restless Hearts," but the story continues . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper