Two Men in a Pickup
Chapter 15, part 1
OK, I'm lying flat out on the bed and half hearing the sound of Don in the shower. I'm thinking about getting a little sleep before somebody decides I'm in their bed and wants me out of it, and I may be drifting off a bit with that thought in mind when I hear a kind of sighing sob come from the bathroom.
I know it's Don, but it's like no sound I've ever heard him make. You may have to picture this guy again. He's tall, taller than I am, enough that I'm always being reminded of it when I look at him. He's got broad shoulders and long legs. Unlike most married men I can think of, there's no part of his gut that wants to hang over his belt. The only time I've seen him with his shirt off, it was night, if you'll remember, and I couldn't see much, though I tried.
He has a limited range of expressions, most of them handsome in a Gary Cooper kind of way. There's his quiet intensity, and there's his moody, brooding intensity, and there's the occasional short-fused intensity. You get the picture. I wouldn't expect him to break into a belly laugh or a song. He's a man with things on his mind, and things to get settled.
I'd guess he knows he's handsome. But that's a part of him he's not sure what to do with, besides get a base hit now and then with a barmaid or waitress who catches his fancy. As he says, he doesn't strike out. And I can see that he probably has a certain rough appeal with women.
But mostly I think he's more a man's man, someone you either admire for his toughness, or feel intimidated by, for the same reason. And I believe he wants it that way. Wants it more than likes it, because otherwise he'd show a few more signs of being satisfied with himself, and I don't see much of that. Do you?
So when I hear this noise from the bathroom, I don't connect it with anything I know about Don. After a moment, I'm deciding I've just imagined it, and then I hear it again. Only now it's more of a choking wail.
I get up from the bed in my towel and walk to the bathroom door. "Don, you OK?" I say.
He doesn't answer, and I wonder if he can hear me over the sound of the shower. I try the doorknob, and it's unlocked, so I push open the door a couple inches to see what I can see. Which is little more than a cloud of steam hanging in the room pretty much down to the floor.
So I stick my head in. He's still in the shower.
"You OK, Don?" I ask again. And again I get no answer.
The curtain is hanging a couple inches away from the wall, and I can see that he's not standing but squatted in the tub. I pull it further away, and there he is, bent over with elbows on his knees, holding his head in both hands, the spray of water pouring through his dark hair.
The next thing I notice is that his back is streaked with welts and scratches. I'm trying to imagine how he's done this to himself. And then I realize they are fingernail marks. Pretty fresh ones. What the hell mischief have you been up to, Don, I'm thinking.
About this time he notices me and tries to pull himself together, standing up and stepping forward to turn off the shower, splashing water onto me and the floor. I reach for a dry towel folded on the toilet lid and hand it to him. He presses it to his face, like he may be standing there in his altogether, but if there's anything he doesn't want me to see, it's any sign of naked emotion.
And after a few moments, when he's lowered the towel, it's clear from the set of his mouth that he thinks he's pretty well recovered. But from the stricken look in his eyes, you'd think he'd just lost his best friend.
I wonder if it's finally hit him that he's walked out on his family. That no matter what he feels about his wife, he's got three little boys counting on him to be their daddy.
"Are you OK?" I ask him again.
His eyes settle on me, and they are both fierce and pathetic at the same time. If you can picture that. It's a kind of wounded, hang-dog look. And maybe a lot of it is that he's just all wet and naked, the hair on his head and the rest of his body flattened to him in dark whorls and curls. Water dripping from his elbows, his ears, his dick. He couldn't look intimidating right now if he tried.
"I suppose you fuck each other in the butt," he says.
"Or is it just Mike that does the fucking?"
Of course, I know what he's talking about, but I'm not prepared for it. And I don't think there's any way I could be. Until now, Don has steered so far away from this subject it may as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
"You don't have to answer that," he says, with a sigh, and starts toweling himself down.
"I wasn't gonna," I say, and now that I'm sure he's just being a pain in the ass, not coming unglued, I reach for the door, walk out, and close it behind me. Then I stretch out again on the bed. I'm still going to get some sleep if I can.
Eventually he comes out, too, and I hear him drop his boots on the floor and the rest of his clothes on the other bed, the belt in his jeans clinking.
"I wanna know something," he says. I open my eyes, and he's sitting on the other bed facing me. He's wrapped the towel around him. And since it's not a big one, he's got one long leg bare all the way from where two ends meet at his waist. Meanwhile, he's tucking another corner of it in around his balls. "How did you two get to know each other?"
I'm not sure what he wants me to tell him, but I must give him a look that makes him think I need a good reason before I'll say anything.
"You're almost opposites," he says. "I don't get it. Being around you, I can tell you're not much interested in women. But Mike, he's always been a regular guy."
All those years of growing up together, Don says, there was never a clue that Mike was any different. It makes no sense. Maybe if I hadn't come along, he'd still be OK.
I have to smile at this. "If I told you the truth, you probably wouldn't believe me."
"Go ahead," he says. "I want to hear it."
So I tell him, more or less, how it happened. "I had this job last summer working for the Agricultural Stabilization Commission. You know what that is?"
He gives me a blank look and shrugs.
"It's a government agency; they pay farmers to grow less crops."
"I heard of it," he says.
"A farmer gets so many acres he can plant to corn. Somebody has to come and make sure he hasn't planted more than that."
The deal is that you drive out to a farm and have the farmer take you around to all his cornfields. With one end of a 50-foot reel of steel tape they walk ahead of you along the side and end of each field, and you take down the measurements. It's not rocket science.
I explain how Mike is one of the farmers in the program, and I had never met him or even heard of him until the day I showed up to measure his farm.
I certainly knew nothing about him, and only got a hint of something from a cornfield measurer, Bob Farquhar, who worked another part of the county. I bumped into him and his little brother Beaner one day in town waiting at a stop light. "Been out to the Old Kramer Place yet?" he wanted to know.
When I said no, they both giggled and looked gleeful.
"Shit, you're in for a treat," Bob said and looked over at his brother, who was stuffing his face with a chili dog, I think, and the two busted up laughing.
I didn't even know what the Old Kramer Place was. There was no Kramer on the call list. And Bob was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so when he roared away from the stop light, I just shrugged it off and forgot about it.
It was afternoon the day I got to Mike's. I'd called the night before, and he was working on his tractor in the shade of the barn, adjusting the cultivator blades, just like he said he'd be. I was driving the Fairlane; it had belonged to a buddy from college who'd graduated that spring and went into the Peace Corps. He was somewhere in Micronesia, and had gone there expecting to find half-dressed native women with long flowing hair. I'd promised to sell the car back to him when he returned, so I'd kept it as is, with a Playboy sticker in the back window. That handful of details should help you kind of place him mentally and sexually.
Anyway, I'm skipping over some of this for Don's benefit. He's not one for a lot of details.
Well, Mike got into the car and right away started chatting me up as we drove around to the fields where he'd planted corn that year. He wanted to know where I'd been going to college. I told him. He told me he'd been in the Air Force; thought sometimes he might like college but couldn't see himself in a classroom again.
"Besides," he said, waving an arm at the passing fields. "I like this too much."
To be honest, I wasn't paying all that much attention to him. Farmers are OK. They have their own idea of humor, a sixth sense about the weather, and a fearless -- I would say obsessive -- attachment to hard work. A few have skills that have survived since the Middle Ages -- like cutting a forked branch from a willow and using it to find where to drill a well. But for a lot of them, as the saying goes, the world stops at the end of the driveway -- and somewhat short of the daily newspaper. They couldn't tell you where Hanoi is or why it matters.
Not that I'm an expert on world affairs. But at twenty-one, I've seen something of what's out there and think I know a thing or two.
We pulled off the road and into a cornfield. "I want to buy this place," Mike said as we were getting out of the car. "But Old Kramer won't sell. He's waiting for land prices to go up."
That's when there was a pause between my ears and then a "ding!" as my brain put two and two together. Now I was taking another look at him. And this is my memory of him, wearing a work shirt with sleeves rolled up over his elbows, jeans, dusty workboats, aviator sunglasses, and a Dekalb Seed cap, the brim bent into an angle over his eyes.
He was smiling at me, looking friendly, as a farmer will, one thumb resting on his belt buckle. It dawned on me that he wasn't just being friendly; he liked me.
"Where'd you go to high school?" he wanted to know, after I explained to him how to walk ahead of me with the tape.
And as we walked along, we talked about that. What about sports? Did I have a girlfriend? And he named everyone he could think of I might possibly know from there. The ones I did know were guys all his age, 3-4 years older than me.
"You know the Farquhar brothers?" he said.
"I might," I said. But it turned out he was talking about the two older ones, not Bob and Beaner. "How do you know them?"
He didn't answer right away. "Aw," he finally said, turning and grinning, "it's a long story." Then he fell silent.
Following along behind him, I noticed that he was about the same size as me, but nice and compact. I saw for the first time how his butt fills out his jeans, and how he kind of bounces as he walks. It was getting warm under the afternoon sun, and beads of sweat were working through the back of his shirt. He would whip off his seed cap to wipe across his head with one sweaty forearm. He had short dark hair then, cut high and tight.
We drove to another field, and glancing over at him in the seat beside me, I noticed his legs spread wide apart and muscular, the crotch of his jeans full. His cap was on the back of his head. He had one arm in the window; his other elbow was bent toward me, his hand on his thigh, the fingers rough, the creases of the knuckles and around his fingernails lined with dirt and grease -- a farmer who fixes his own machinery.
He took off his aviators and pulled out a shirt tail to wipe off the dust and sweat. "So what does a college boy from around here do for fun in the summer?" he wanted to know.
Drink beer and jerk off would have been my honest answer, but I mentioned something about driving to the ballpark in town to watch baseball. A buddy was playing short stop in the local league. And some friends would take a boat out weekends to Johnson Lake and invite me along.
"Could be fun," he said, and I saw him move his hand closer to his crotch. "Could be fun," he said again and then turned his head to study the hay field we were driving past.
Finally, I couldn't help myself; I took a really good look at him. His thumb was moving ever so slowly back and forth across the nub of something in one jeans pocket. I glanced at the road to make sure I wasn't headed for the ditch, then looked back. The nub a bit larger and having shifted position, I saw that what I was looking at was the end of Mike's dick.
"Now, I'm still a greenhorn," I say to Don, who has leaned forward with elbows on his knees, but otherwise has hardly blinked as I've been telling him all this. "I'm guessing that this little thumb movement is for my benefit. But I couldn't make the first move if you put a gun to my head."
Besides, for crissake, I was a government employee. And my heart was pounding so hard, I figured if he made a move in my direction, I'd black out. And I needed all my wits about me, because it was a narrow gravel road and coming our way, hogging the middle and trailing a cloud of dust, there was another car.
Mike perked up at this, peered ahead, and started saying, "I'll be damned." He got a big smile on his face. "Pull over and flash your lights," he said. So I did.
The other car eased up beside us. It was a big wide Buick convertible, gleaming white, gravel crunching under the tires. The driver was a big guy in a big straw cowboy hat. He looked in at us and hit the brakes.
"Sum bitch," the guy said, a big grin spreading from ear to ear. "Look who it is."
Mike leaned across me to say hello. It appeared they were old friends. Service buddies it turned out. And they carried on as the cloud of dust drifted slowly from behind the Buick and settled over all three of us.
"Who's yer friend?" the guy wanted to know, ignoring the dust.
Mike said to me, "This here's Ed," nudging me with his elbow. "Go ahead, introduce yourself."
So I did, and the guy reached out to take my hand in a grip that would crush rock. Somehow he managed to grin even wider. "Pleased to know ya," he said, looking straight into my eyes.
Then the two of them were jawing again, agreeing to meet up later at the farm. Ed spit a mouthful of dust over the side of the car and stepped on the gas, spinning up gravel in the wheel wells, kicking up more dust.
"Ed keeps his horse in my barn," Mike explained. "He travels a lot. Rodeos. Comes by here once in a blue moon."
I told him I've never known a rodeo cowboy.
"Oh," Mike laughed. "He doesn't ride; just sells stuff. He's a salesman."
We proceeded to the last field, way down by the river, where the trees were thick along the fence line and cut off every breath of a breeze. It was forty-some acres with corners at odd angles, and we had to measure all four sides. Before we were half done, the sweat was dripping off both of us. And we were slapping at mosquitoes, swarming up from the river bottom.
I was watching Mike. Looking for some sign of something, I didn't know what. But he was on his best behavior. I decided I was being nervous for nothing. He was just a friendly guy. And that's all.
I took him back to his place and was getting ready to drop him off at his front gate. The Buick was nosed up under the old, crooked cottonwood tree that grows along the yard fence.
"You're not going without a beer," Mike insisted. He wouldn't get out of the car until I agreed to stay. And I was thinking, what the fuck, the day's shot anyway. All that's left was to head home, stop at the A&W for a burger and root beer, go to the trailer park where my dad lives, crank up the A/C, watch some TV, and finally fall asleep on the sofa. That's the exciting life I led. I cut the engine.
"A beer would suit me fine," I said. And with the sun still hanging in the western sky, that's how the night began. Mike gave me another one of his grins, and we peeled out of the front seat of the car, our wet shirts sticking to our backs.
He sent me around the house to the backyard. Here the sun had dropped behind the trees. There was a battered play set, Mike's big old dog Rusty wagging his shaggy tail, and a small above-ground swimming pool. Not small -- little. If you were doing laps, you'd be turning around every two strokes. And there in the pool was Ed, up to his chin, with a bottle of beer, still wearing his hat.
"Stop suffering out there and get your butt in here," he said.
Mike emerged from the house about that time with three beers and passed them around. "Go ahead," he said to me, nodding toward the pool.
The beer in my hand was wet and ice cold and I felt that wave go through me -- the yearning that starts somewhere deep down inside and reaches all the way up to your back teeth -- and my arm was already moving, the cold lip of the open bottle coming to rest against my own open lips, the first mouthful washing away grit, old spit, and the taste of the day's share of hard work, hard luck, and other needless burdens. (And there you were, not expecting any poetry in all this.) I emptied the bottle in two long gulps and realized I wasn't going anywhere for a while.
I kicked off my boots and undressed down to my jockeys, putting my jeans, shirt and socks on an aluminum lawn chair, taking a last look around before setting my glasses on top of them, the backyard blurring into soft focus. I swung up to the platform around the pool and jumped in. No testing the waters. They may have been straight from the Arctic; I didn't care. The shock was pleasant. My feet hit the bottom and I ducked my head under.
Coming up for oxygen, I rested the back of my head on the edge of the pool, feeling the air bubbles trapped in my underwear percolate around my balls and up my crack. I wanted to let go and float forever.
Ed was across from me, shouting at Mike to bring more beer. And he did, a cooler full of it, which he lifted onto the pool platform in one easy motion, the ice rattling inside. Now for Don, I kind of skip over this next part where Mike gets into the pool. I don't think he'd be all that interested. But I can tell you, because for me it was a welcome sight.
Mike had taken off his shirt and as he pushed the cooler in closer, I was seeing his muscular shoulders and bare arms. Then I was watching the rest of him emerge, as he came up the steps, his hairy chest, his tight gut and smooth hips, and -- lo and behold -- he was buck naked. There was the thick bush of curly hair around his dick, and his balls were dark with it. I got a flashing glimpse of hairy legs, and then he cannonballed into the water with a great ka-loompf! When the waves subsided, he was there grinning at both of us, blinking water from his eyes, laughing, and saying something like "Let the games begin."
What games were in store, I had no idea. And I remember only some of them. We were trying our best to empty the cooler, and the sun was going down. Mike had set stereo speakers in a window and put a stack of LPs on the record changer -- a lot of Ella Fitzgerald with some Hank Williams mixed in, and after many, many beers, one scratchy Julie London album, with "Cry Me a River."
Ed was telling salesman jokes. One after another. It was the first time I heard the one about the penguin who has car trouble and stops at a small town garage and goes down the street to a diner for a tuna salad sandwich while he waits. When he returns to the garage, the mechanic says, "Looks like you've blown a seal." And the penguin wipes his mouth and says, "No, it's just some mayo."
Much after that one, Ed told a long, long, long story about a young guy who goes to the doctor for a physical. The doc says, "You check out OK, son, but you're really looking tired." There follows a long, long, long confession from the guy about having sex about fifteen times a night. Ed enjoyed telling this story and embellished it with endless, rich detail. So much so that I was getting a hard-on in my briefs.
Anyway, Mike eventually wobbled out of the pool to fire up the outdoor grill, and as he did, I was admiring the way the water rolled off his backside. Then Ed lifted himself out, hopping backward to sit with a wet splat on the edge of the pool. A generous set of equipment slapped into place between his legs. Sitting across from me, he looked even bigger naked than he did with clothes on.
Then he was up and rummaging through his pants draped over the railing. "Roll you a smoke?" he wanted to know.
I said no. I'd been off cigarettes for a couple months. He lit up and got back in the water. "It's some home grown," he said coming over to my side of the pool.
"Oh," I said innocent as you please. "I think I've heard of this stuff." And I was careful not to drop it in the water when he passed it to me.
On top of who knows how many beers, I was soon totally buzzed. When Mike came back, he slipped into the pool and joined us, and as darkness descended, I had one of them on either side of me.
"I think it's time we get you out of them BVDs," Ed was saying. I seemed to have no objection, as I felt two, three, maybe four hands sliding under the waist band. I put my arms over their shoulders to keep my head above water as my jockeys glided down my legs and off the ends of my toes.
I was loving the feeling of water moving freely and intimately all over my nether parts, and the two of them next to me, knees and feet bumping against mine. And I remember laughing because there were still hands touching me under the water, in places I couldn't quite identify. Maybe the inside of my thighs, my balls, my butt. I was all jelly, except for my dick, which a handful of fingers had now wrapped itself around. I was pretty sure they weren't my fingers.
Ed put his hat on my head, and Mike bent down to my chest, where I was feeling his warm tongue on my nipples. That and the hands -- there were more of them -- on my dick were blowing all my fuses. I wanted to holler. Then I realized I was already making noises -- breathing hard and sighing so loud I was having flashes of yelling my lungs out once on a county fair carnival ride, while my white-knuckle buddies were mute with terror.
At this point, there was no holding back. Something was coming, and I was just getting the hell out of the way, saying "Let er rip!"
What follows, of course, is that I came in quarts, as I can do. Polluting the pool with a large helping of my vanilla pudding. I was blissful. Then things kind of faded to black.
"So," I say to Don, "Is that anything like you thought it would be?" His eyes are fixed on mine.
"That's it?" he says, like what I said wasn't enough.
"Well, memory picked up again briefly a while later," I say. I found myself lying naked on a couch, under a sheet. Mike was tucking me in and bent over me, whispering something in my ear. "Sleepy time for this little cornfield measurer." Or some such sweet talk. In my substance-tempered fog, I loved him utterly.
The next morning, I woke up at dawn, surprised that I was clear headed. Lights were still on, but the place was silent. Outside, birds were singing up a storm. I found my clothes folded neatly on one armrest of the couch, along with my glasses. All but my jockeys. I suspected they were in the pool, but I figured I could go without them.
"So nothing happened? Don asks.
After everything I told him, I'm wondering whether he was listening at all. But I guess I know what he's been listening for, and it probably has something to do with butts and fucking, since that's where this all started.
So I tell him that I got dressed, my shirt damp and cold, and hunted for the bathroom. Looking through an open door, I saw Ed and Mike, arms and legs wrapped over each other, sleeping heavily on a big bed. Ed's cowboy hat hung from one of the bed posts. Mike's back was turned to me, the sheet around his ankles. There were his broad shoulders, and just over his butt, a patch of soft curly hair. The dog looked up at me from the foot of the bed, wagging his tail.
And while Don is thinking about that, I go on to remember the rest. Because I slipped out to my car, parked where I left it beside Ed's Buick. And I have this vivid memory. On both cars, there was a scattering of puffballs from the old cottonwood tree overhead. And as I was idling the Fairlane down Mike's driveway and back to the road, the sun broke over the flat horizon. It was a golden burst of bright yellow, and above it was the bluest, clearest sky I'd ever seen.
I look at Don, who hasn't moved, except for his forehead, which is furrowed in thought. Finally he says, "So when you met him, he was already -- like that."
"I'd say so."
"And this guy Ed. You said they met in the service?"
"Then it must have been then." He shakes his head, like he's just heard of some freak accident.
I'm half interested in what he's thinking right now, and I have to wonder if he's remembering all the years before and what he might have done to save Mike from what happened to him.
"Carol never liked him," he says.
"You think she had something to do with it?" I ask him.
"It couldn't have helped." He sounds bitter now.
So I take a deep breath and try to tell him what I think I know. That it's no good blaming Carol, because what happened with Mike went back long before she came into the picture. Probably when they were boys together it was already there.
This makes his eyes pop open for a moment, but whatever thought he has is replaced by another. "No," he says, shaking his head. "That's bullshit."
I decide to leave it like that. Let him believe what he wants. He gets up and starts dressing, pulling on his shirt first. Then he drops the towel and is sticking his feet into the legs of his jeans. As he bends over, his bare butt sticks out from under his shirt tail.
"You want me to try and find something for those scratches on your back?" I say.
"I'm thinking about the ones you're going to be sitting on."
He turns and looks at me, stuffing the shirt down into his open pants. "I reckon they'll heal up on their own." As if to say, like they usually do.
And I'm thinking that until they do he sure as hell won't be going home, because there'll be no explaining them to Carol.