Two Men in a Pickup
It's dawn, and Mike is up and in the kitchen, waiting for the coffee. He's got an old porcelain coffee pot, blue speckled with white, that he found at a farm sale with a box of heavy old china that was worthless and should have just been thrown out. He got the box for fifty cents.
The coffee pot reminded him of his grandfather, a man long gone who survived being struck by lightning as a teenager digging post holes on the homestead over by Aurora, carried a rifle in France during World War I, got dragged by a team of runaway horses while shocking wheat, nearly lost the farm in the Depression, did lose not one but two wives, and then late one night was hit by a train crossing the railroad tracks on the way home from a dance in town. He'd been seeing a widow whose dead husband had been a prosperous landowner around Grand Island. In later years, Mike learned from an uncle she was the woman who'd wept loudest at the funeral. And there'd been several.
Mike pours a mug of coffee and walks from the lighted kitchen back to the bedroom. On his bare legs and shoulders, he can feel that it's cool in the room; the windows have been open all night. Rich is stirring under the sheet, his arms lifting up to wrap around his head, eyes still closed.
A few feet from the bed is the chair where he laid his jeans the night before, and Mike pulls it with one foot over to the side of the bed. He sets the coffee mug on it and then bends down to put his hand on Rich's chest and gently rocks him awake.
"Hey, pardner, it's morning."
Rich mumbles something from the other side of consciousness.
"Don't you have a job to get back to in Kearney?" Mike says.
Now Rich stirs again and smiles, eyes still closed. One hand flops down on Mike's and holds it there.
"Got some coffee here," Mike says. "But I'm warning you, it's strong enough to give a dead man a boner."
Rich says, "Already got one."
"Guess I don't need to warn ya then."
Rich opens his eyes in the dim light from the kitchen and fixes them on Mike. "Can I come back here again tonight?"
"Of course, you can," Mike says. "Come back any time you want."
Mike remembers how all night long Rich kept curling up alongside him, and now his leg shifts under the sheet to press against Mike's butt.
"Some reason you'd rather be here than home?" Mike says.
"I like it here," Rich says. "You don't treat me like Gordon does."
"Well, he's had to look after you." Mike thinks about how being responsible for Kirk has been no picnic. "It's a big job."
"I don't mean that," Rich says and starts to say something, then stops.
Mike waits for the rest of it and finally says, "What?"
"He wouldn't have let me sleep with him. Not without--." He stops again.
Mike doesn't like what he thinks might be coming. "You don't have to tell me," he says, and feels Rich's hand gripping his more tightly to his chest.
"You're good to me. I know you wouldn't ever hurt me." Rich's voice is almost a whisper. "Gordon doesn't care if somebody gets hurt."
Mike feels a wave of anger rising in him. Finally, he says, "That's not right."
Lying in Mike's shadow, cast by the light from the kitchen, Rich is silent now and holds Mike's hand with both of his own. "I wish Gordon was more like you," he says.
Mike doesn't know what to say. He pulls his hand back and puts it down again over both of Rich's. "You stay here any time you like, OK?"
Outside, Rusty starts barking, and there's the sound of a car turning in from the road and coming down the driveway.
"What the heck?" Mike says getting up, and he walks to the kitchen to look out into the gray dawn. He sees the car roll to a stop beside his truck, headlights on high beam.
He puts on his pants and a shirt and is walking to the front porch, buckling his belt. When he turns on the light over the porch door, he can see a set of rollers on the car roof. And he wonders what trouble could give the law reason to pay him a call. And at this hour.
Two men step from the car, putting on their flat-brimmed hats, and one of them fumbles with the latch on the front gate while the other keeps an eye on Rusty, who sniffs their boots and pant legs and then backs off to bark at them some more. Finally they're coming up the walk, and one of them is saying good morning when they see Mike waiting for them on the porch.
From their uniforms and badges, he can tell they're from the county sheriff's office. They tell him they're looking for Danny.
"We understand from his father that he's been living here?" one of them says, one foot up on the porch steps, his thumbs hooked on his service belt. He's older and a little tubby, dark brown shirt buttoned tight across his gut. He has a round face and a scratch under one ear where he cut himself shaving.
His partner looks spiffier, shoes polished shiny black, tan pants snug in the crotch, muscular arms hanging stiffly from the short sleeves of his shirt. The brim of his hat is tilted forward, casting a dark shadow down to the tip of his nose. Military, Mike thinks. And not too long ago.
"Danny works for me," Mike says, "and he's got a room here, yes." No need to suggest it's the same room as Mike's. From the car, he can hear squawking voices on a two-way radio.
"We got a few questions," the tubby one says, who seems to be the one who does all the talking.
"Fine by me," says Mike. "You boys wanna come in?" He pushes open the screen door. They nod and step onto the porch. Once they're in the kitchen, they pull out chairs and sit at the table. Mike offers them coffee, pouring what's left of the pot into two cups.
"How do you want it?" Mike says, and they both say black, as if that's the only way deputies drink their coffee.
The name plate over Tubby's shirt pocket says Arnold. The good-looking one -- and in the light from the overhead, he turns out to be just that -- wears a tag that says Krantz.
Tubby sets his hat on the table, then takes out a spiral notebook and pen, flips it open and clicks his ball point a couple times. "Could I have your full name?" he says. And Mike tells him.
"This your farm?"
"I rent it."
With that, Rich comes into the room in his jockeys, rubbing his eyes and standing there, his dick hanging in his underwear like a ripe banana in a sling. "I forgot where the bathroom is," he says. Mike points to it and thinks he notices the two men steal a quick glance at each other.
When Rich leaves, Tubby goes on. He wants to know Danny's whereabouts. And Mike explains about Kirk and the Fairlane and how Danny gave chase all the way out to some town in the Panhandle.
"Last I heard, my nephew still had the car and was driving out to Utah," he says. "That's where he's from."
Tubby writes it all down. "Reason we're asking about the car is it was identified in a armed robbery up there in Sioux County last night." And at this point Rich flushes the toilet in the bathroom.
"What?" is all Mike can say.
"Fella got shot, but he managed to get the plate number. It was your hired man's car. Would your nephew have access to any firearms?"
"No, he wouldn't."
Tubby gives Mike an even look. "Have you had any contact with him since he left?"
"No, I haven't."
"Could you give me a description of him?" He wants to know age, height, weight, color eyes, hair, what Kirk was wearing.
"I don't know what he was wearing. I wasn't here when he left."
Tubby nods toward the bathroom. "Would he know?"
Trying to size up the situation, Mike knows Kirk doesn't have it in him to rob a store or shoot anyone. He's just a dumb kid. The stupidest thing he's capable of is taking Danny's car on a cross-country joy ride without asking and without calling home.
Rich steps from the bathroom, and Tubby says to him, "Could we ask you a few questions?"
Rich glances at Mike, and Mike tells him what the two deputies are there for. Rich blinks and stares like he can't believe what they're saying.
Tubby takes that as permission to proceed and says, "Did you see Kirk the morning he left here?"
Rich looks again at Mike. "Go ahead," Mike says, figuring Rich can steer safely clear of anything incriminating.
"Yes, sir," Rich says.
Tubby takes down his name in his notebook, pressing down so hard with the pen that the edges of the pages curl up. Then he asks, "What was he wearing when you last saw him?"
Rich thinks a moment. "Jeans, boots, and a tee shirt, I guess."
"That's all he was wearing when he left here?"'
"No, that's what he had on the last time I saw him. I don't know for sure what he had on when he left here."
Tubby is trying to figure this out, and stops writing in his notebook. "Let me understand something. Were you here when he left?"
Tubby gets an exasperated look and puts down his pen. The other deputy, still wearing his hat, tips his coffee cup and looks into it.
Rich is starting to rub his bare arms and hug himself. He puts one bare foot on top of the other.
"Think this young man could go get himself in some clothes?" Mike says.
Tubby waves him away and then glances at his watch. "I need to make a call," he says and gets up to go out to the car. As he steps off the porch, the screen door falls shut behind him with a loud bang.
This leaves Mike together with the silent deputy, who shakes his head and looks up at Mike. "You'll have to excuse my pardner," he says. "He's a little out of sorts."
The man's voice sounds educated, like maybe community college. And in the suddenly warm expression on his face, Mike can see he's a man with his mind set on something bigger than being a deputy -- maybe a career in law enforcement. Some day, when he's worked his way up the ladder, he'll be chief of police somewhere, with a wife and three kids, and a ranch house on a quarter acre in the suburbs. For now, he's doing time, letting jokers like Tubby run the show.
"Had a little trouble on the home front. The wife left him," the deputy says. "Then he lost a county car in a sand pit a couple weeks ago. They're still figuring out how that happened." He looks into his coffee cup again and lets a smile work its way across his face. "Then his brother-in-law's son got suspended from the force over at Kearney -- for some bad judgment from the sound of it. Stopped a car full of boys for some petty theft at a grocery store and apparently they got the best of him. Left him handcuffed to his car." The smile turns to a tight grin. "Had to crawl through the window to get in and drive back to the station."
"Bad luck," says Mike.
The deputy's expression changes and he clears his throat. "The two boys -- they saw each other after the one left here that morning, right?" he says.
"Could be." Mike says, nodding toward the bedroom. "You'd have to ask him."
"I thought so," the deputy says. "I may mention it, if this comes up again." He obviously thinks they've been barking up the wrong tree.
There's the sound of the front gate opening and closing, and then heavy footsteps on the porch rattling some bottles in a cabinet over the washing machine, as Tubby comes back in the house. When he gets to the kitchen, he stands in the doorway, rocking a little on his boot heels.
"Seems they've located the car," he says. "Motorist found it upside down in the road south of Alliance."
Mike feels a surge in the pit of his stomach. "Did they find the driver?" he says.
"No sign of him," says Tubby.
"Alliance is not on the way to Utah," Mike says. "That's coming back this way."
"You're right about that," Tubby says, sounding or trying to sound suspicious. "Looks like somebody's story doesn't quite add up."
"I've told you what I know," Mike says.
"How about you, son?" Tubby says sternly, looking past Mike. "Anything more you want to tell us?"
Mike hears Rich's voice coming from the doorway behind him. "No, sir."
The other deputy slowly gets up from his chair and carefully places it back against the table. Tubby takes out his notebook, double clicks his pen again and says, "Can I have the phone number here if we need to talk to you again?"
Mike gives it to him.
Tubby turns and leaves, and the silent deputy follows him, glancing back with a small smile and touching the brim of his hat as he goes. Mike watches from the kitchen window as they get in the car and drive off. It's become light outside, and he can see into the car. Both men stare straight ahead through the windshield, not talking.
"I'm getting worried, sir," Rich says.
"I don't think you need to be," Mike says, but knows he's not saying what he's thinking.
"No?" says Rich.
If Kirk could get mixed up with Frank, Mike thinks, maybe he could get mixed up in something worse. He doesn't have the sense to know when he's getting into deep water.
The boy is still hugging himself with his long arms, though he is now fully dressed.
"He'll be OK," Mike says. "Let's get some hot food into ya. You'll feel better."
At this point the phone rings. Mike lifts the receiver and says hello.
"Mike?" It's Carol, and with the one word, he can tell she's been up all night, angry, distraught, and afraid. "Where is he?"
He tells her some of what he knows, and tries to make it sound like Don will be back home sooner or later. Mike has been out of bed little more than an hour, and he's starting to lose track of how many people he's had to keep from knowing what he's thinking.
"My Dad wants me to call the police. File a missing persons," she says, trying to control her voice.
"I don't know if that would do any good, Carol," he says. "He's not missing."
"He's not where he's supposed to be," she says. Now there's an edge in her voice. "He's not there with you, is he?"
"I wish he was," he says, and then wonders if that sounds like the way he meant it.
"Mike, I just don't know what else to do." The edge is gone now. "Did you tell him to call me?"
"I haven't talked to him," he says. "He's not talking to me."
"Why is he doing this?" she says, her voice wavering.
"Try not to get upset," he says. "I know Don. He's not going anywhere."
"I know him better than you do," she says, making it sound like a contest. "You don't have three little boys to think about."
And it goes on like this. She isn't really hearing much of what he's saying, he realizes, just unloading everything she's been thinking all night, pacing around the house, trying to calm down with pills and scotch probably, talking to herself.
When he hangs up, he stands with both hands pressed against the wall, feeling drained for a minute. When he turns, he sees Rich still standing where he was.
"Breakfast," Mike says. "We need to get some breakfast into you."