Two Men in a Pickup
Mike is late getting home from work. He's stopped at the junkyard looking for a tail light to replace the one broken on the truck when Kirk backed into a utility pole. And when he calls the house and gets no answer, he's had supper at the B&E, lingering over the meatloaf and mashed potatoes because there's no one to hurry home to, and talking with the waitress Lorraine, who he's known from high school. Then having lemon meringue pie -- "No calories," she said, setting an extra-large slice in front of him -- and refills of coffee.
"You never get married," Lorraine has said more than once, and she said it again tonight. "I know girls would give their eye teeth for a chance to keep house for you."
"Wouldn't look so good without their eye teeth now, would they?" he tells her.
He thinks about this, driving from town to the farm. He's had fun with girls, when he was younger, and having sex with them was better than no sex at all. And he feels a kind of yearning when he sees another man his age with a family, a yearning that turns into loneliness in the quiet before bed at night.
But the time has passed when he would consider getting married. And now with Danny and Kirk, there has been more than enough company to keep the house -- and his heart -- from feeling empty. Their being gone is all the more reason to put off going home tonight, talking to the dog and turning on the TV just to hear the sound of voices in the rooms.
But when he gets there, pulling off the dirt road and into his driveway, he sees a motorcycle parked by the front gate of the house. Beside it he recognizes Kirk's friend Rich, who is sitting on the ground under the cottonwood tree with Rusty.
He parks beside the bike and sits with his arm in the window of the truck, turning off the engine and smiling down on the boy.
"Hello, sir," Rich says, scrambling to his feet. Rusty turns a loving look to Mike and wags his tail.
"Hello," Mike says and pushes open the truck door with his shoulder.
"Any word from Kirk?"
"Nope," Mike says, and he wonders if Danny has tried to call again while he was at the restaurant, eating pie and talking to Lorraine. "Last I heard anything, they were looking for him up in Valentine."
Rich just stands there looking forlorn. The truck engine ticks as it cools.
"You come over from Kearney?" Mike says.
"Had anything to eat?"
"Well, let's do something about that," Mike says. He reaches for his jacket and his lunch pail on the seat and gets out of the truck. They head for the house, and he lightly touches the boy's back with his hand, letting the gate swing shut behind them and walking on through the screen door and onto the porch.
While Rich sits at the kitchen table, Mike cracks some eggs into a bowl and turns on a burner under a skillet.
"You eat vegetables?" he says, slicing off a chunk of butter into the pan.
"Well, you better, cause you're gonna get 'em," Mike says and chops up a tomato and part of an onion to toss over the butter when it's starting to melt. He fills the toaster with bread and sets out peanut butter and jelly on the table. When the tomato and onion are sizzling, he pours in the eggs and lays on a couple slices of Velveeta.
"Where'd you learn how to cook," Rich says, transfixed, like he'd never seen a man make an omelet before. Maybe never has. Cooking is women's work.
Mike remembers having the same idea. Then he had a buddy in the Air Force who not only cooked and baked but listened to Ella Fitzgerald and made him realize that a man with hairy arms up to the elbows in cake flour could make his heart skip a beat.
"Taught myself," Mike says. "It was either that or go hungry." He doesn't have to explain to this boy why he's never got married. He pours a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator for him and takes a beer for himself.
"Why do you think Kirk didn't come home?" Rich says.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," Mike says, wiping his hands on a dish towel.
"He said he was having too much fun to come home."
"Do you think that's the real reason?" Mike asks, shaking salt and pepper into the skillet.
"No, sir. I think it's because of something I said."
"What was that?"
Rich looks down at the table and turns red. "I told him I loved him."
"That can do it," Mike says. "Gives some guys the urge to run and hide." He could add that he knows this from experience but decides to stop there.
Mike slides the eggs out of the pan onto a plate, carefully picks the slices of hot toast from the toaster, puts it all on the kitchen table in front of Rich, and hands him a fork from a drawer by the sink. He pulls out a chair and sits across from Rich, drinking his beer and watching the boy dive into his food.
"Is that going to be enough?" he asks.
Rich nods, his mouth full.
"He'll come back when he's ready," Mike says. "He might even say he's sorry. Though knowing him, I wouldn't count on it."
"I don't care," Rich says. "I just want him back."
Mike lets a suitable moment pass before changing the subject. "Danny said you ran into Frank. How did that happen?" he asks.
Rich gives him a guilty look. "We were looking for someone to buy us beer."
Mike turns the bottle in his hand. "Ain't you still young for that?"
"Yes, sir." He starts turning red again.
"I'm just jokin'," Mike says. "You want one when you finish that OJ?"
"I wouldn't say no," Rich says and gulps down the glass.
Mike goes to the refrigerator. "So you're lookin' for someone to buy you beer, and Frank turns up."
Mike pops the cap off the bottle and sets it on the table. "I suppose he and Kirk remembered each other."
"Yes, sir," Rich says and describes how the beer was for free if they'd spend the night in Frank's camper. Which they did. He'd fallen asleep after a while and woke up to a lot of shouting outside. It was Frank and somebody having a loud disagreement, then the sounds of a scuffle and what turned out to be Frank falling hard over the hood of his truck. Some guy had torn off the side mirror and hit him a couple times over the head. Then it was all over.
"Frank talks big, but he's not much of a fighter," Mike says.
With that, the phone rings. Mike tilts backward in the chair, reaching up to the receiver, tapping it from the hook with his fingers into the palm of one hand.
"Hello," he says into the phone, letting the chair drop down onto all four legs.
It's Danny, calling from a bar in Crawford. "We think we lost him," Danny says. "Found a guy today who gave him gas money to drive all the way to Utah."
"Back to his mother?" Mike says.
"Does that make any sense to you?" Danny says.
"Not really," Mike says, "but consider who we're talking about."
Danny's voice is drowned out by the sound of laughter and loud jukebox music.
"What's all that, anyway?" Mike wants to know.
"There's a rodeo in town," Danny shouts. "It's cowboys wall to wall in here."
"Did you ever find Frank?" Rich's head pops up and he sits listening to Mike, a half-eaten piece of toast between his fingers.
"He wasn't much help," Danny is saying.
"Did he look like he'd been in a fight?" Mike winks at Rich.
"No, but I think he'll avoid Don if he ever sees him again."
"Don give him a hard time?"
"You could say that," Danny says. "So what do you want us to do?"
"Come back home."
There's a pause at the other end. "I'm thinking about the Fairlane," Danny says.
"So am I," Mike says. "We'll get it back."
"OK, you're the boss."
"Just get your ass home," Mike says. "I'm startin' to miss ya." When he says this, he's looking straight across the table into Rich's eyes.
There's another burst of noise on the line, and Danny says, "I can't hear you."
"Just come on home," Mike says again.
"OK," Danny says and hangs up.
While Rich finishes his supper, Mike changes into his jeans and sweatshirt. He goes out to the barn to do some chores, and Rich tags along. It's getting dark, and there's a couple of crickets singing in the grass by the door. The chirp of another one echoes from the shadows inside.
Mike finds the light switch, and a bare, fly-specked bulb blinks on over their heads. Ranger knickers, waiting in the straw-filled pen that opens out into a fenced-in square of sedan grass pasture behind the barn.
Mike talks to him, scratching the blaze that runs from his forehead to his nose, his ears cocked toward Rich. "What a noble beast you are," Mike says, and reaches over the gate to pour a coffee can of oats into his feed trough. Ranger ducks his head away from the men and the pool of light, and they soon hear the grinding crunch of his teeth as he eats his grain. Then Mike pulls a slab of hay from an open bale on the floor and tosses it into the manger over Ranger's head.
"How did you and Danny meet?" Rich asks, out of the blue.
Mike opens a cabinet and dips Rusty's dish into a bag of dog chow. "Well, it was about a year ago," he says. "Danny had a job for the farm program, measuring cornfields." He sets the dish down for Rusty. "So he showed up here one day." Mike sits down on an overturned water bucket and tries to pet a kitten that's nosing around the cuffs of his jeans.
"Was it love at first sight?"
Mike chuckles. "I wouldn't call it that."
"So what happened?"
"He was all business," Mike says. "We were out walking along the fields with this tape measure, and my head was jumpin' with ideas, but you know what it's like when you're horny and the other guy is just showing no interest whatsoever."
"I sure do, sir," Rich says, shaking his head and sitting down on the barn floor.
And Mike explains how an old buddy, Ed, happened to be passing through that day. Ranger is his horse, and Mike keeps Ranger because Ed is on the road a lot. Sells riding gear and saddles at trade shows and rodeos.
"Ed doesn't come by just to see Ranger. We always drink a little, and one thing leads to another. So when I saw him, I let my prospects for the evening shift more in his direction."
"When did Danny find out how you really felt about him?"
"Well, I just wanted to get into his jeans," Mike says. "I wouldn't dignify that by calling it a feeling." He lifts the kitten by the scruff of the neck. It dangles limp from his hand, as if it was out cold.
"I have feelings for Kirk," Rich says.
"I'm sure you do," Mike says and tries to get the kitten to stay in his lap, but it scrambles away.
"You might have spent that night together, but you didn't," Rich says, as if nothing could be sadder.
"Oh, he stayed the night," Mike says. "But it was mostly Ed that seduced him."
Rich is looking a little confused. "How did that happen?"
"In the pool. We got him drunk and naked. It was pretty easy from there."
"Oh" is all Rich says.
"Not all that romantic," Mike says and laughs. "He threw up a couple times and passed out pretty early in the evening. I carried him inside and let him sleep it off on the couch."
"But you must have cared about him a little even then," Rich says, still wanting to cling to some idea he has about true love.
"I dunno. I don't even remember."
"So when did Danny move in with you?" Rich asks.
Mike shrugs and explains how Danny showed up a month ago looking for a summer job. "I didn't even recognize him at first."
"But this time he came and stayed." Rich smiles. "A happy ending."
Mike thinks ahead to the end of the summer. Danny will go back to school. And that will be the end of it, he's sure. But he's not going to burst Rich's bubble. He says nothing.
"I wish Kirk was like that," Rich says.
"Oh, give him time," Mike says and reaches over to scratch behind Rusty's ears. Rusty's mouth falls open, and he smiles, his tongue sliding out over his bottom teeth. "He knows what's good for him. He just has to figure it out."
There is silence for a while. Just the sound of the crickets and Ranger chewing his hay. Rich seems lost in thought.
"Your folks know you're here?" Mike says.
"I don't have folks," Rich says. "Just Gordon. He's pissed off at me anyway." And he tells Mike about living with his cousin and his cousin's two girl friends.
"One doesn't know. The other doesn't care," Rich says and rolls his eyes.
Mike studies the boy, his butt on the dusty floor and his arms around his knees. He looks strong from hard work, but his clothes hang loose on him, his black biker boots too big for the rest of him.
"Does Gordon look after you?" Mike asks.
"I don't need much looking after anymore."
"How about when you did?"
Rich shrugs. "He was OK, I guess."
"But not like a real dad?"
Rich turns his head and looks off into one of the dark corners of the barn. Then his eyes connect with Mike's. "Did you have a father?"
"What was he like?"
"Not much to say. He's a good man. Treated me OK." He thinks of the Christmas when he was ten and there was a Daisy Red Ryder B-B gun under the tree.
"Where is he now?" Rich says.
"Florida. He's a trucker."
"Do you ever see him?"
"Not much anymore," Mike says. "How about you?"
"My dad got killed in Korea."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Mike says. "You must miss him."
"I was just a little kid. I didn't know him." Rich gets up and leans into Ranger's stall to pat his neck and stroke his mane. "Does Danny have a father?"
"Yeah," Mike says. "He lives somewhere in town."
"Do you know him?"
"I see him around." There was the day they ran into each other at the Dairy Queen. While Mike was at the window getting them milk shakes, Danny had got out of the truck and walked over to a Chevy station wagon parked under the trees by the street. When Mike brought his milk shake to him, he found Danny talking to a gray-haired man with wire-rim glasses, who smiled when Danny introduced them but didn't stay long.
"Does he know about you?" Mike had said after the man drove off.
"Know what?" Danny said.
Rich has fallen silent. He yawns and walks to the barn door, looking out. "Nice out here," he says. There's dust and hay leaves from the floor on the back of his jeans.
Mike stands, stretches, and then switches off the barn light. He puts an arm around Rich's shoulders as they walk back to the house, stopping half way to look up at the waves of stars filling the sky overhead.
"You're welcome to stay the night," Mike says.
Mike comes out of the bathroom, pulling off his sweatshirt and unbuckling his belt. He's sucking the taste of mint toothpaste from between his teeth and kicking off his boots at the foot of the bed. "You can sleep in Kirk's bed down at the end of the hall," he says. "Or you can sleep with me. I don't mind the company."
"I'll sleep with you," says Rich and starts unbuttoning his shirt.
"Suit yourself," Mike says and pulls off his wranglers. His boxers slip down with them, and he has to hike them up over his butt again. When he turns to lift the sheet and step into the bed, Rich is putting his shirt over the back of a chair. Then he opens his jeans, and they fall straight to the floor under the weight of a long leather wallet and a chain hooking it to his black leather belt. He steps out of his boots, and his jeans lie in a heap around them.
"I've seen firemen do that," Mike says.
"Leave their pants around their boots. So if there's a fire, all they have to do is jump into them," Mike says. "You in the habit of rushing off, or does it just make mornings easier?"
Rich blushes. "Some of both, sir." He bends down to pick up his jeans and lays them across the seat of the chair where he's hung his shirt. Then he stands in his jockeys, long pale legs hanging down to his bare feet. He gets into bed and is startled when it gives under him.
"What kind of bed is this?" he says.
"They call it a waterbed," Mike says. "I got the mattress in California. Built the frame for it myself. It's probably the only one in Nebraska."
"Woooo," Rich says lifting his feet in and settling back. "Fella could get sea sick."
Mike feels the boy's movements, as the water ripples under him. He thinks how every man who's been in this bed is different, starts up his own seismic rhythm. He can picture them like patterns on an oscilloscope. Rich's would be a couple of light wavy lines, one slow and lazy, the other criss-crossing it, loopier and a little nervous.
Rich pulls the sheet up over his navel and puts his arms behind his head on the pillow, making his ribs show. He is hairless, except for his arm pits. His nipples are dark oval patches on his chest.
"You need a TV in here," he says.
"Is that right," Mike chuckles and reaches to switch off the light. The room goes pitch dark.
He lies on his side, turned toward Rich, and when they have been still for a while, realizes the steady flutter stirring the water under him is the boy's heartbeat.
There's the sound of Rusty coming into the room, turning twice, and dropping onto the floor at the foot of the bed, followed by an even longer silence. Mike feels the weight of the day settling down through him and his body lighten. In a minute he is drifting off, feeling sleep seeping into him.
Then he's rocked back toward consciousness as Rich moves in the bed, first bumping Mike's bent knee, and then shifting against his whole body. Next, without a word, Rich turns his back to Mike, and with a strong pull wraps Mike's arm over him.
Mike opens his hand on the boy's chest, over his heart, and now feels the heartbeat that's been rippling under him.
"Is this how you sleep with Danny?" Rich says.
"Sometimes," Mike says. "Only my hand is usually in his shorts."
"I like that," says Rich. "You can do it to me."
"Aw, I'm just ribbin' you a little," Mike says. "You save what you got down there for Kirk."
"He wouldn't know."
"But I'd know, and I've got enough secrets already," Mike says, hugging the boy, and giving him a goodnight kiss on the back of his neck. "What do you say we just call it a day and go to sleep."
Rich presses his butt against the front of Mike's boxers. "Feels like something in there isn't ready to go to sleep yet, sir," he says.
"It just thinks you're Danny," Mike says. "Ignore it."
Rich is quiet for a while, and Mike thinks he's finally drifting off to sleep. But his own dick stays warm and half-hard, and now he's wide awake.
"If it wasn't for Kirk and Danny, would you make love to me?" Rich asks.
"I'm not much good at what-ifs," Mike says. But he does know right now there's not a lot he'd rather do than taste the salty sweetness of cock in his mouth, to glide his fingers over bare butt cheeks, and fill his hand with the warm, firm softness of a man's balls. Then to let go with everything and finally empty himself into the body and soul of another man.
"No doubt about it. We could give each other a little comfort tonight," he says. "But when Kirk and Danny are back, we might wish we hadn't."
Rich sighs and says, "OK," and he turns around to face Mike, kissing him on the neck under his ear. "Good night," he says and snuggles against Mike, his arms folded up like bird wings against his chest, ducking down his head so he's under Mike's chin.
Mike holds him like this as the boy's breathing grows steadier and his body relaxes. He does not know what has come over him. And he remembers Mitch, who held him that night years ago on the wrestling matt in the basement of a house in Broken Bow. He wonders now for the first time if Mitch loved someone else as much as he has come to love Danny.