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.
Kirk gets a surprise visit from Rich; Ed gets his car ready for the road; and Brian takes matters into his own hands.
Kirk hadn't thought of Rich in a long time. The past was like that, if you let it, just water under the bridge. So it was a surprise when he realized the stranger who was waiting for him when he got back to the ranch was his old friend, looking much older than the fistful of years that had passed since they'd last seen each other.
He had ridden in on a motorcycle, not the usual way anybody got around out here on the dusty roads of the Sandhills. And he was walking over to where Kirk had just stepped out of his pickup, back from a trip to town where he'd bought some rolls of twine for the new hay baler.
Dressed in black leather, in a jacket that was all straps and buckles, heavy boots on his feet, his head wrapped in a dark red bandana, Rich had almost crossed the distance between them before Kirk realized who he was.
"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," Kirk said. "Look who it is."
Rich had then stopped short of him, his arms hanging loose at his sides. He had an odd expression on his face, like he'd had something to say, but now he couldn't put it into words.
Kirk stepped toward him to shake his hand. But he thought better of it when he got a good look at Rich's eyes. They were dark, fierce, like a hunted animal caught into a steel trap.
"I heard you showed up at Mike's," Kirk said, trying to get a reaction from Rich, who just nodded at him at little. "How is the fucker? I haven't seen him in a while."
"He's fine," Rich said to this, like he was measuring out his words. "He's a good man."
There it was again. Mike was everybody's hero, not the hard-ass he'd always been with Kirk.
"You got somebody with you?" he said, noticing a young guy who had walked from the bike over to one of the corral fences, where a horse had come over to greet him and was getting his forehead scratched.
Rich just nodded. "You were a bastard to me," he said, the light in his eyes growing darker.
Kirk thought for a moment of how they'd last seen each other, years ago at the house of one of Danny's friends a painter named Ted. It was the dead of winter and the two of them had a difference of opinion over something he couldn't even remember anymore. What he did remember was finally leaving and walking several cold miles over a snow-packed country road to get to the highway and hitch a ride into town.
"Shit, Rich, we were just kids. What do you expect?"
Rich shook his head and a strange smile came over his face. "You haven't changed a bit, have you."
"Hell, I've always been kind of an asshole. I won't stand here and deny that." He laughed, trying to make light of it all. Rich had to agree you couldn't expect much from somebody like him.
"I wanted to fuckin' pop you in the nose," Rich said. "And I still do."
"I probably deserve it." Kirk kept smiling, letting Rich have his say.
When it was over and he'd finally got it all off his chest, they'd spend the afternoon together and have some beers and maybe a few laughs as they talked about old times. He'd take Rich and his friend into town for a steak dinner at Big Red's Café and persuade them to stay overnight. The old man could put them up in one of the empty bedrooms in the big house.
But what happened next happened so fast, he wondered afterwards how he'd been warned and still didn't see it coming.
The blow threw him back against the door of the pickup, and the force of it, as the back of his head hit the window, knocked his hat sideways over the hood, where it slid onto the ground and rolled several feet in the dirt.
Rich had done what he said he'd do. He'd popped Kirk in the noseso hard that it had blinded him for a moment, his vision full of stars. And then as he brought his hand to his face, his mouth was suddenly full of the salty taste of blood.
"Jesus," he'd had time to say, just as Rich hit him with his other fist, right under the eye. And as he was trying to stay on his feet, there was yet one more blowa kick to the groin that doubled him over, knocking the wind out of him, and tumbled him onto the ground.
Scrambling to his feet, he'd expected more kicks and blows, but Rich was done. His sudden fury spent, he was stalking back to where he'd parked the bike. Without pausing, he'd thrown his leg over it, started the engine and was riding it in a big arc that took him back out to the road.
"Hey!" Kirk shouted at him, but he was drowned out by the roar of the engine. He just stood there, bent over and leaning against the truck, his nose bleeding, one bloody hand pressed into his aching balls.
Then he heard the sound of running footsteps behind him, and the voice of the young man who'd been standing at the corral fence, calling, "Rich, where are you going? Rich! Come back!"
Tomorrow, Ed planned to be packed up and ready to go. He'd given the Cadillac a wash and a coat of Turtle Wax. It was looking good again since he'd taken it to the body shop and got the rear end straightened out. Some tail-gating drunk in Lander, Wyoming, had failed to notice he was stopping for some pedestrians in a crosswalka woman with three kids, one of them in a strollerand slammed into his back bumper with a screech of tires on the asphalt.
He admired the new body work, as he buffed it now with an old tee shirt. He loved this car. Driving it off the dealer's lot the day he bought it, he'd felt like the king of the road. And that feeling had never left him. After two months hanging out at Ted's place, he realized that feeling was something he missed.
It had been a long, much needed rest from years of being constantly on the move, and Ted's company had made him feel things he hadn't felt for a long time. Rubbing the tee shirt on the car's trunk, his own contorted image and the sky overhead appearing on the shiny surface, he knew he'd let something happenhe'd felt something close to real friendship for this man.
That had not happened beforenot since he was a kid anyway, two boys spitting into their palms to shake hands and become brothers for life. Like the super heroes in the comic books, who stood back-to-back with their weapons drawn, fighting off the villains. Like Batman and Robin. Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
And that brotherhood would last for maybe a summer, until somebody's family was packed up into a U-Haul and headed to a new job, or a relative in another state, or some place where life would be better or easier. Meanwhile, none of them caring how a boy's heart sank at the news and that the friendship of a lifetime had just been interruptedforever.
How many times had he stood there saying goodbye to a pal as a parent honked the horn and shouted, "Get in the car or we're leavin' without you!" Then watching from the driveway with his bicycle beside him, as they pulled away from the curb, his friend looking out from the backseat of the car.
Or it would be him in the car watching the figure of a friend disappear as they drove off. He'd fight back the tears because boys don't cry, and as they left town, his stomach would tighten up until it hurt, and he'd get this scary feeling that he was falling into a deep darkness.
It was finally easier, as he grew older, to never get attached to a new friend. And he'd somehow learned to see leaving town and getting back on the road as normal. The life of a traveling salesmanalways on the gowas perfect for him.
He could get as personal as he liked with anybody he methaving one-night stands with guys he met in bars and locker rooms, or talked up in motelsand the next day he'd be off again, no hard feelings. Only a few had gotten closer to him than that.
Mike had been one of them. He still remembered how they'd met. Mike had wandered in under the canopy where he'd set up the displays of saddles and fancy, hand-worked tack. It was in a good spot where most of the rodeo crowd would drift by on their way to the beer tent and the barbecue stand.
Ed was making what looked like a sale to a rancher who had his hand on his checkbook but couldn't bring himself to actually write a check. All the time, he kept glancing over at Mike and guessing that he was hanging around for a reason, and it wasn't because of anything he wanted to buy.
Ed had this second sense about other guys. He couldn't explain what it was, but he could tell when they were interested in sex. He'd catch the sign of a flirtation, and he knew how to give it back with just enough spin to keep the interest building.
A lot of times he didn't care all that much if the guy got away. There were plenty of other fish in the sea, and something about him attracted them to him. He'd been told he was handsome most often by the women who came on to himthat he had a killer smile, a nice ass. The comments would get more specific as the liquor flowed.
But with Mike, it was different. Mike there in his wranglers and his DeKalb seed corn cap was a hard man to resist. Something about the size and shape of him, the way he stood there in his tan work boots, the friendly expression on his facemaybe all of it together made Ed want him, and want him fiercely.
And Mike had shown up at his motel room door that night, as Ed had hoped. He'd had a chance to pull off those boots and wranglers and find out what was inside. And while the two of them had wrestled and rolled around on the bed, laughing and enjoying each other, he'd rediscovered feelings he hadn't felt since he was a boy with one of his buddies.
Back then, in the freshly mowed grass or a dusty, warm hayloft, they had wrestled, too. He'd get hard in his jeans because it felt so good just to be young and strong and alive, and with his best friend.
He'd spent the rest of the rodeo nights there with Mike, and when it was all over, Ed had awakened the next morning to a feeling like sadness in his heart. It took him a while to recognize it, but there it was again after all these yearsthe sharp sorrow that overcame him after the goodbyes and forcing back the tears each time they were driving out of town.
So he hadn't let Mike become like the others, disappearing in a cloudbank of forgetting as he got on with his lifealways looking ahead and never looking back. He'd done something new. He'd got the directions to Mike's farm, and whenever he had the chance he stopped there for the night, and they'd be boys again together.
Not that Mike was the only onejust the first. There had been others he'd let himself get closer to, each somewhere else on the rodeo circuit. So leaving a town always meant that up ahead somewhere was a guy who'd be happy to see him, welcome him with a bear hug, and joyfully fuck all night.
It had been a jolt to this easy arrangement when Mike had tied up with Danny. Getting married was about the only word for it. He'd thought at first there might be room in their bed for a threesome, but neither of them was interested in that. Mike was just plain unavailable anymorestill friends, which was the only way Mike knew how to be, but unavailable.
And while Ed may have held out hope for Mike and Danny to split upas men often didthe two of them seemed to be the exception to the rule. They were stuck together like glue and Ed was just going to have to get used to it.
Becoming attached to someone himself, of course, was the farthest thing from his mind when he fell in with Ted. This picture painter who listened to music you'd never heard before, who had books with stories that just made you scratch your headhe'd have to read Catch-22 again if he was ever going to understand all of itthis good looking guy with his smooth, lean body, a scar like a dent in his thigh where he'd been shot in a hunting accident, and balls hanging at such an odd angle from each other they could have belonged to two different men . . . this guy had managed somehow to take him by surprise.
When he looked into the future now, where the road had always meant a kind of permanent state of homelessness, with temporary stops along the way, he felt something else. He'd found someone to stick withone he hadn't been aware he was looking forand of all people, it was Ted. He didn't know yet if he liked this so much, but he didn't dislike it either.
In his travels and, face it, he was still a traveling man, he now had this placethis personto come home to and to feel at home with. What an unexpected development.
He stepped back and admired the car he'd buffed to a shine. There were men and women out there who were going to take a look at him and his carand then him againand they were going to buy themselves a painting by a new, soon-to-be-famous artist, and they had no idea yet they weren't going to be able to live without having one.
Brian had been living out of his cara Firebird whose previous owner had plans for customizing it and stripped off most of the hardware. What he wanted now more than anything was a place to sleep at night and unpack his stuff. Roxanne had thrown everything he owned out of her place, even his weights. She was making life a misery for him.
He needed two hundred bucks for a deposit and first month's rent on a place of his own somewhere in town, and though he had it in the bank, he'd have to go without eating until he could scrape some more cash together. His textbooks had cost over $50, and of course he'd have to buy gas for the car.
His uncle had been the one to help raise him when his dad left his mom all those years before, but he wasn't any help now. He'd promised to pay Brian for working for him all summer, but now one of his customers had backed out of a big job, and he said he couldn't spare the money. Besides, he'd been warning Brian not to get in too deep with Roxannehe wasn't ready for marriage, and knowing Roxanne he could tell that's exactly where this was headedand he'd even said, "You are using rubbers, aren't you?"
His uncle was afraid he wouldn't finish school, and that was the important thing. What was he going to do with a family to support and not enough education? One thing for sure, there wasn't much of a future in laying carpet. His uncle had been clear about that.
Brian wasn't about to go to his uncle now and admit that he'd fucked up. All he could hope for was that Roxanne was lying to him about missing her period, and when her little game was over, he'd split with her for good. Meanwhile, it was all he could do to get to classes, using the gym to shower in the morning and then spending the night trying to sleep in the backseat of the Firebird.
He'd hoped that Virgil would take pity on him. It's true that they'd had a parting of the ways a while ago. But Virgil had to see the jam he was in now, and he'd be willing to forget their differences. Besides, Virgil had himself to blame for what happened back then. He got to depending on Brian for too much, and then he embarrassed himthe whole team, for that matterby going psycho.
What was he supposed to say when word got out he was seeing a head doctor over in the student health center? And then winding up in the infirmary needing his stomach pumped. What kind of bullshit was that?
No, Virgil owed him. He had to see that. He'd been a friend to Virgil for years, and now that he was stuck, it was time for Virgil to repay him for that friendship. And it pissed him off that Virgil had turned him downjust flat refused to let him move ineven though he had asked nicely and even apologized.
Cripe, he'd seen the size of the apartment. There was plenty of room. He'd even offered to bring his own sleeping bag and air mattress. What made Virgil think he could get away with being such an asshole?
So he had a roommate already. Some nobody Brian had never even heard of. The guy didn't have any right to come first. He could move out if he didn't like it.
When he went back to Virgil's place later that day, he meant to try again to get him to have a heart and change his mind. But Virgil and his roommate were gone. He knocked and no one answered, and when he tried the doorknob, the door swung open on its squeaky hinges.
Figuring the place was his already, since he had every right to be here, he went out to his car and started carrying in his stuff. After twenty minutesif Virgil had been there to help, it would have gone fasterhe'd stacked everything in a corner of the living room, and he'd made a space along one wall for his sleeping bag.
He was finding a place for his shaving kit in the bathroom when he heard someone come in to the apartment. When he stepped out, he found a guy standing there holding a bag of groceries.
"Who are you?" the guy said.
"Brian. Where's Virgil?"
"Over on campus. Is this your stuff?" he asked, pointing to Brian's pile of belongings.
"Yeah, just moved in."
The other guy set down the groceries in the kitchen. "I didn't know you were movin' in," he said, looking puzzled. "Virgil know about this?"
"I'm Marty," the guy said after a pause. "I live here, too."
Well, Brian thought to himself, we'll just see how long that lasts.
One of the other men at the ranch, a young guy, had come from the barn to say hello to Ty, telling him the name of the horse whose head he was petting and scratching. Then suddenly there was behind them the sound of the motorcycle cranking up, and he turned to see Rich on the bike and starting to leave, without a look in Ty's direction.
The man Rich had been talking to was leaning against his pickup, bent over, the hat gone from his head and blood on his face.
"What the hell?" the guy beside him was saying, and what he did next Ty didn't know, because Ty was running over to catch up with Rich, calling out to him. But Rich didn't seem to see or hear anything, the bike's engine racing and the tires kicking up dust behind him as he went.
Ty ran hard for a ways and then stopped and just stood there, watching him go, his thoughts churning with confusion.
Something had happened to make Rich suddenly want to be goneand wanted it so bad he had forgotten to take Ty along. He'd even left with Ty's helmet still strapped to the back of the bike. And there was Ty's change of clothes tucked in with Rich's in the bike's leather carrier.
Rich had lost his senses like this before, when he'd seem to forget where he wassafe at Mike's place and far from Vietnamand Ty had talked him back from wherever he'd gone. But what would happen to him now without Ty? How long would he go before he realized what he was doing? And whatTy felt a surge of fear in his chestwhat if he kept going and didn't come back?
"Damn," he could hear the man by the pickup saying. "I think my nose is busted." The young guy had gone over to him and had a hand on the man's shoulder as he sank down on the truck's running board. He was holding a big kerchief out to him.
"Here, sir, you're gettin' blood all over your jacket."
And Ty walked over to them now, because he didn't know what else to do.
The man with the bloody nose was Kirkhe knew that from what little Rich had told himand the young man with him, he learned, was called Lonnie. He was walking around the truck now to pick up Kirk's hat, brushing off the dust and sand with his hand.
"Let me have a look at it," he said, still holding the hat in one hand and with the other lifting the kerchief back from where Kirk was holding it to his nose, his thick mustache caked with blood. "I don't think it's busted, sir."
"Sure feels like it," Kirk said, and he was laughing a little now.
Lonnie carefully felt the bridge of Kirk's nose with his fingers. "I've seen busted noses, and this ain't one of 'em. Just bleedin' like a son-of-a-gun is all."
"Lonnie, you missed your calling," Kirk was saying as he took back his hat. "You'd make a fine nurse."
"I don't think so, sir," Lonnie said. "Just tellin' you what I think."
"And who are you?" Kirk said from behind the bloody kerchief, looking up at Ty. "You come to give me a punch, too?"
"No, sir. I wouldn't do that. My name is Ty."
"Ty? What kind of name is that?"
"It's for Tyrone. My ma says she named me after some movie actor."
"Well, Ty, if you promise you're not gonna take a swing at meor kick me in the nuts," he winced as he pressed his hand between his legs, "Jesus, that smartsI guess it's OK with me."
"I'm real sorry about what happened," Ty said.
"Comin' here wasn't your idea was it?"
"Then I don't see as it's anything you need to be sorry about." Kirk tried standing up now and took a couple stiff steps away from the pickup. "Guess I'll live to see another day. I've had my pride hurt worse'n this."
He swung the truck door shut now, looked at Ty again and said, "He comin' back for you or was you plannin' to stay with us?"
"We were on our way to Phoenix."
"Think he'll miss you before he gets there?"
Ty swallowed hard. "I hope so, sir."
"I reckon he will," Kirk said. "Lonnie, you look after Ty here while I go wash up and see if I can get this sucker to stop bleedin'."
And the two young men stood, watching Kirk walk off toward the pump by the ranch house.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper