Two Men in a Pickup
The Frontier Bar in Crawford is jammed, mostly with cowboys standing shoulder to shoulder and drinking beers. A few are knocking back shots of whisky. It is stifling hot, and the noise of raised voices and laughter would wake the dead.
Don has found two men, Hank and Dale, who took second that day in calf roping at the rodeo. He remembers their neat dash from the chute, horses galloping after a white-faced calf, and their ropes whirling in the air and sailing over its horns and under its rear hooves, too fast to really see. They sat upright in their saddles as the announcer called their time, tugging their hats onto their heads and looking at each other with warm smiles as the crowd applauded.
"You looked real good out there," Don says to the two men.
One of them, Hank, turns to his partner and gives him a wink. "Aw, we got lucky today, don't you think, Dale?" The three of them are standing pushed together near the end of the bar. Hank has his back to the wall under the mounted head of a bison.
"Speak for yourself," says Dale. "I like to think I did better than get lucky."
"Well, the day ain't over. You might get lucky yet." Hank laughs and turns to Don, the brims of their hats almost touching. "He's had his eye on that girl down the bar, but she ain't had enough to drink yet to give him a second look."
"Dammit," Dale says. "I ain't that ugly."
"When's the last time you took a look in the mirror?" says Hank and grins over his beer. "Or are they all broke?"
Dale makes a face and then glances over his shoulder down the bar. The girl, in short curly hair and a cowboy hat, is talking to the bartender, a crew-cut guy with sideburns, all duded up with a red silk scarf around his neck.
Hank is wearing a crisp checked shirt, and he's got a big oval belt buckle, shined and polished, from when the two of them took first at a big rodeo last year. He is the married one of the two, a wide gold ring on the hand holding his beer bottle. Don has put his own ring in his jeans pocket and is getting the feeling back of being single.
"You want it regular," Hank is saying to Dale, "You gotta get yourself hitched. How many times do I have to tell you that?"
"I ain't ready for that kind of regular," Dale says.
"And ya ain't gettin' any younger either, pardner," Hank says. "The young pretty ones kinda lose interest when ya start gettin' long in the tooth."
"Aw, hell," Dale says. "You're as young as you feel."
"That ain't the way I heard it," Hank says. "You fell off your horse once too often, and you gimp around like a grandpa. But that little filly over there is looking for a young stud, and I'll put money on it."
"Twenty says you're wrong."
"Aw, keep your money. I'd be ashamed to take it from you."
"You two guys been riding together a long time?" Don says. They are so easy with each other, they're like a pair of old boots. They often glance into each other's eyes, Hank ribbing his partner and either patting him on the back of his shoulder or nudging him with his elbow.
"Went to school together," Hank says. "Didn't we, bud?"
Dale nods and drinks from his beer.
It was a little one-room school house, Hank explains. The two of them grew up four miles apart on neighboring ranches and rode their horses to get there. Hank was two years older.
"You were always older," Dale says.
Some years they were the only boys in school, sitting one behind the other in the desks, arriving early when it was cold to start up the fire in the stove, playing catch with a couple baseball gloves at recess, and when the weather turned hot, riding to a creek on the way home to shuck off their jeans and swim buck naked under the willows.
"We had only one disagreement," Hank says.
"What was that?" Don asks.
"You tell it," Hank says to Dale.
Dale's face starts to turn red. "Fuck you."
Hank turns to Don. "One year we were both in love with the teacher," he says. They'd made a pact not to tell. But Dale had written her a love letter for Valentine's Day. Which caused a fist fight at recess. After two days, they agreed to be buddies again.
"A woman has never come between us since," Hank says.
"You're forgettin' that one in Rawlins," Dale says.
Now Hank is starting to blush. "Well, maybe I am."
"A little chickadee, as Hank here likes to call 'em, took us both home one night," Dale laughs. "The next day, I wanna tell ya, our dicks were draggin'."
Hank laughs and thumbs back his hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead. "Course, we were both a lot younger then," he says. "I'm ready for another beer. How about you?" he asks Don. And he buys them a round.
The subject shifts to the bullrider who took a bad fall that day and was taken away in an ambulance.
"Let's hear it for one tough cowboy," the announcer had said as three men got him to his feet and helped him out of the arena. And the stands had come to life with some applause.
"Did you know him?" Don asks.
"Never heard of him before," Hank says and turns to Dale. "Did you?"
"No. Them bullriders are breed of their own. Plum crazy if you ask me," Dale says.
"Did you see it happen?" Hank says to Don.
"Yeah," Don says and describes how the bull had thrown the guy in no more than two seconds, and he had come down hard right under the animal. "Looked like he got stepped on."
What he doesn't say is that it was the same bullrider he and Danny had talked to before the rodeo -- Winky. It had kind of tickled him at first to see the guy go down. He'd been a little too cocky for Don. Then when the rodeo clown brushed off his hat and handed it to him, he couldn't help feeling a little sorry for the poor bastard. Busted up and probably not the first time.
There's a steady stream of men pushing through the crowd behind Don, angling toward the bar. One of them turns out to be Danny. He's found a phone and has been calling home.
"Mike have any news?" Don asks.
Danny shakes his head. "Nope. The boy's probably half-way to Utah by now."
"We could go there and bring him back. I've never seen Utah."
Danny shakes his head again. "He says forget about it and just come home."
Don looks away and lets his gaze shift across the hats and faces along the bar. He likes the idea of heading west across Wyoming to Utah.
"I told you. I'm not ready to go back," he says.
Danny gives him a steady look. "OK, I'll take a bus."
Yeah, you do that, Don thinks. You got someone waiting for you. Don has no one to go home to but a woman whose folks wish she'd married somebody else and who's getting to feel that way herself. She had said so the last morning before he left the house.
True, she also said she loved him. But what kind of love is that? And maybe he's never been a marrying kind of guy anyway. He wonders if he's more like Dale, who's edging now over to the girl down the bar.
Hank has taken one look at Danny and bought him a beer. "No good standing there empty handed when there's beer to be had."
"Thanks," says Danny.
"You can tell me if I'm gettin' too personal," Hank says, "but what happened to your glasses?"
Danny laughs. "It's personal."
Hank laughs even harder. "Well, now you really got me curious."
There's not a room to be had in town; the motels and the old hotel are full and have been booked up for weeks. When he learns they have no place but the truck to spend the night, Hank tells them where he and Dale are staying.
"You boys go make yourself at home," Hank says. "There's a big old tub with a shower and lotsa hot water. Dale can tell ya that. He's a good 'un for long, hot baths." He glances down the bar, and Dale is talking to the girl he's had an eye on. She's smiling up at him, looking interested.
"If you don't mind doubling up," Hank says. "There's a extra bed. Looks like it might be available tonight."
Don glances at Danny. They can flip for it, he thinks, and one can sleep on the floor.
"Course, if that's a problem," Hank says, grinning, "you're always welcome to bed down in the horse trailer. There's a time or two when me and Dale have had to do that."
A couple bulldoggers join them, stocky guys with big shoulders and arms. And after another round of beers, Don and Danny push through the crowd to the door, with the key to Hank and Dale's motel room.
"That's real trusting," Danny says when they step outside. "How does he know we won't steal anything?"
The truck is parked blocks away on a side street. Front porches are lighted up and two boys are running across a lawn and around the corner of a house into the shadows.
Don has a memory of summer nights and racing with Mike through dark alleyways on their bikes, playing cops and robbers, and hiding out along the banks of a creek, crawling under the low branches of trees, lying together still and whispering, hearts pounding, and finally coming home sweaty and muddy when the other boys gave up all hope of finding them.
And he thinks of Hank and Dale, and how the two men are still a team after all these years. Traveling from one rodeo to another, going on down the road together, buddies, inseparable, with a wagonload of memories and good times between them.
"You getting in," Danny says from inside the cab, "or are you gonna stay out there?"
"Just thinking about something," Don says. He shoves a hand into his jeans pocket and pulls out the truck keys. Something bounces at his feet with a clink, and when he feels in his pocket for the ring, he realizes it has dropped into the dirt.
"Shit," he mutters to himself and gets into the truck. He starts it, turning on the headlights, and backs up a few feet to get out and look for the ring.
"What's up?" Danny wants to know, and when Don tells him, he gets out and looks with him, bent over in the glare of the lights, finally kneeling in a patch of grass, raking through it with his fingers.
"Fuck it," Don says, standing upright. "We're not gonna find it. Let's go."
"Hold your horses," Danny says, and after a moment picks something out of the grass and holds it up in the light for Don to see. He hands the ring to Don, who shoves it back into his pocket.
"What do you say?" Danny says, getting up from his knees.
They get into the truck, its engine still idling. Don backs into the street and drives off.
"Swing by the bus station," says Danny. He wants to find out when the next eastbound bus is leaving town.
On the way, he says, "I have a question for you."
"This is probably none of my business, but if you're not going home, where is it you plan on going?"
"You're right. It's not your business."
"Well, I'm thinking Mike's gonna want to know," Danny says. "What should I tell him?"
"I don't care. Tell him the last time you saw me I was headed for Calgary."
Danny turns to look at him. "That's a ways," he says.
"That's one of the things I like about it," Don says. Another is that he and Mike had often talked about Calgary. They wanted to go for the Stampede. The summer after graduation, they were finally going to make the trip. Just take time off from their jobs and do it. Quit if they had to and stay as long as they liked. Maybe never come back. But instead there was the wedding, and from the day he knew the trip was off, they'd never said a word about it again.
Maybe Mike will remember Calgary, and maybe he'll remember the old days, and how they'd been together. And when he's thought enough, maybe he'll pick up and come to Calgary, too. Right now, just about anything seems possible.
"You want us to tell Carol, too, if she asks?" Danny says.
"Tell her anything. Tell her it's over."
Danny clears his throat. "I don't know much about these things, but don't you think that's something you should tell her yourself?"
Don doesn't say anything.
"What about your boys?" Danny says.
Don still doesn't say anything.
"If you were my father--," Danny starts to say.
"Well, you're not," Don says. "So shut your mouth, or I'll shut it for you."
Danny shuts up.
At the bus station, which is no more than a hole in the wall that doubles as a barber shop, Danny gets out and studies a schedule scotch-taped inside the darkened window. He walks back to the truck and gets in.
"There's one at 6:00 tomorrow morning," he says. "Suppose you could give me a ride here, or am I gonna have to walk?"
"I'll give you a ride," Don says and wishes already he could apologize for getting pissed off. They drive on out to the highway and find the motel.
The room is paneled with knotty pine, and the dark stain of the wood glows when Danny switches on the lights. There are two double beds, with wagon wheel bedspreads over them. From the ceiling hangs a wagon wheel fixture with little chimney lamps and green shades. On the wall is a framed color photograph of a desert sunset. Evenly spaced overhead are ceiling beams cut unevenly to look like timber.
"Must be where the Cartwrights stay when they're in town," Danny says, like he's no big fan of Bonanza.
"I kind of like it," says Don.
They take turns using the toilet and then Danny goes in to take a shower. Don kicks off his boots and switches on the TV. Perry Mason is cross-examining someone on the witness stand.
The bathroom door opens a crack and Danny sticks his head out. "The guys are running low on towels. Suppose you could go to the office for a couple more?"
Don pulls on his boots again and steps outside. A cloud of millers fly around a light by the door. He listens to the sound of his footsteps on the concrete walk as he heads for the lighted window of the office. A neon no-vacancy sign flickers over the entrance.
Inside, there is no one at the desk. From behind a curtain drawn across an open doorway, he can hear the same TV show.
"Anybody here?" Don shouts.
After a while, a woman steps out, patting her hair and buttoning the top of her blouse. The movement of her hands makes him aware of her breasts.
"Can I help you?" she says.
He tells her what he's there for and she turns and ducks through the curtain, coming back after a while with two folded towels. "Still warm from the dryer," she says, handing them across the counter.
"Thank you, ma'am," he says, fingers brushing hers as he takes them.
"You been to the dance?" she wants to know, apparently in no hurry to get back to Perry Mason.
"No, I haven't."
"I'd go myself, but I got nobody to cover for me tonight."
"Don't you hate that," he says. "Havin' to work when everybody else is out having fun."
"You can say that again," she says. "Story of my life."
She's older and makes him think of Nora.
"Wouldn't you know, it's the only damn excitement we ever have in town," she says. "If the football team ain't havin' a winning season, about all that's left is who's sleeping with who."
"Where you from, cowboy?" she says laying her hands flat on the counter, showing off a set of scarlet fingernails. He puts down the towels and knows that he's probably going to be here for a while.
When he gets back to the room, Danny is on the bed with a towel wrapped around him. "What took you so long?" he says.
"Talking" is all Don says. "You done in the shower?"
"Yes," Danny says. "Did you know your shirt is snapped up wrong?"
Don looks down and says, "Damned if it ain't."
If it was anyone else, he'd grin and let on that he'd just got laid. But it's Danny, who wouldn't give a shit. Mind your own fucking business, he wants to say.
Then he goes into the bathroom, which is still damp and steamy, the mirror over the sink still wet. He wipes it with one of the new towels and studies the two days' growth of beard on his face. He'll need to buy a razor tomorrow, a comb and toothbrush, some underwear, a change of clothes, and then find a laundromat to wash what he's got on. He'll need to find a bank and cash a check.
He turns on the water in the shower and starts undressing. He'd pressed together the snaps on his shirt without looking, standing over the couch in the darkened room behind the front counter at the office. Perry Mason was having a last solemn word with Della Street, and the woman with scarlet finger nails was lying back, one hand over her eyes, pushing down her skirt with the other.
He turns his back now to the bathroom mirror and sees red welts and scratches from his shoulder blades down past the waistband of his underwear.
He remembers thrusting into her, his jeans around his hips, her hands on his ass, one boot on the floor and another over the armrest and braced against the wall, and somewhere in the background the witness breaking down on the stand and confessing to the murder.
It had been quick, and she had said almost nothing. There was just the moment when they both knew what was coming, and he stepped around the counter to follow her behind the curtain. She had turned and pulled open his shirt, pressing against his bare chest and kissing him hard.
His hands had gone under her blouse, reaching for the breasts that he'd not stopped being aware of from the moment he first saw her. "Hurry, hurry," she kept saying and was pulling at his belt buckle. He helped her with his pants, his cock springing free from his shorts as both of them dropped down to the couch.
She had grabbed him, pulling on his hard dick, and there had been the sensation of sinking, gliding into her all at once. She had gasped, and at the same moment his lungs sucked in a deep breath and held it.
He steps naked into the shower, the steamy water splashing his face and chest and sheeting down his body and between his legs. It had not been more than five minutes ago. His heart was still pumping.
He turns to let the spray rush down his back, the scratches already starting to sting, and he finds the little chip of Ivory soap to suds up his armpits and the hair on his chest and then downward to his gut and his balls, stroking the length of his hanging dick, still full and tingling under his touch.
There was a time when he would stand like this in the shower, counting how often he'd been with someone new. But it's been so long, he can't remember how many it was anymore. He wonders if he can recall them, one by one, and start up the count again. And does he count getting sucked last night in the filling station men's room? Maybe he'll start a separate tally for blowjobs.
Then he shakes his head. What the hell are you thinking, he wonders. You are one crazy fuck. That happened once, and won't happen again.
He washes the inside of his legs and feet and then runs soapy fingers into his crack, where days' of sweat and dust have collected. And he looks around the shower until he finds a little sample bottle of shampoo. He lathers up his hair and then stands under the shower head, letting the water drum on his head and wash over him -- wash away everything, every worry, every grievance, every sadness.
And then, as if it's been waiting there like a snake to bite him, he thinks of the two men in the bar, Hank and Dale. And with a sudden heaviness in his heart, he feels the weight of forgotten sorrows and the knowledge that he's alone and has no one who'll always be his pal. What comes back to him now is the emptiness he felt when Mike drifted away from him, joined up and left town.
After all this time, that feeling had found him again and followed him here, where he had only blotted it out for a while with a quick fuck on a couch. He remembers how he used to tell himself that some day it would be like old times with Mike again. He'd just done it tonight, imagining the two of them in Calgary.
But it's clear to him like it's never been before that he's just kidding himself. A nearsighted college boy with a busted pair of glasses means more to Mike now than Don does, or ever will again. Mike is gone. For good.