Two Men in a Pickup
When Don wakes, Danny is sitting on the edge of the motel room bed, scratching his head and yawning, silhouetted in the faint light filtering in around the curtains in the windows.
In the end, Don had been too drunk to care if the two of them spent what was left of the night in the same bed. Very near the point of passing out and too tired to take off his clothes, he said nothing when Danny stretched out next to him and lay shoulder to shoulder. He just moved over and let his eyes fall shut.
Now, his head swims a little against the tide of sleep and last night's intake of alcohol. His body feels paralyzed, and he moves his fingers and toes to see if they work. He discovers he's still wearing his boots.
There is a bus to catch, he remembers. He's told Danny he will give him a ride, and to make sure he gets there, Don wills himself to stay awake and rolls onto his side, letting one leg drop onto the floor.
As he thinks about the new day, he suddenly feels in his gut a kind of excitement he hasn't felt in years. He is miles from home, and when night falls again, he will be in farther. After he leaves Danny at the bus, there's just the open road and wherever he feels like going. Maybe all the way to Calgary. He'll head in that direction anyway, and take all the time it takes.
When he gets back home, if he ever does, he'll be a different man. Everything will be different. He'll know what to do then. He'll have figured it out. There'll be no going back to the bullshit nonsense of doing what other people want him to do. If Carol and her old man don't like it, then fuck them. He doesn't need them; he owes them nothing.
And no matter what happens to him after that, it will be smooth sailing. The only tough parts will be stuff really worth sweating about, life and death matters if that's what it has to be. But he's not going back to that little corral where they've been keeping him. He's a mustang they ain't roping in. Never again.
He brings his other foot to the floor and pulls himself upright. On the lamp shade next to him, he sees his hat, where he must have left it the night before. He takes it by the brim and settles it onto his head. The leather hatband quickly warms against his skin, and his sense of himself comes together like pulling the cinch on a saddle. He's ready to go.
In the next bed, Hank and Dale are still asleep, lying in their underwear, one of them snoring. In their sleep, they have rolled together. Dale is turned toward Hank, and his arm has fallen across Hank's shoulder. Where the sheet has pulled away from the front of Hank's boxer shorts, his dick sticks out through the fly, wide, straight, and hard.
Don smiles to himself, warm to the easy way the two men have with each other. Like two boys who have never quite grown up. Fast friends to their dying days. His heart again feels a tug of desire and loneliness. There were mornings when he woke up like this with Mike. If only Mike had just waited for him. Let him get Carol out of his system and then out of his hair. They could have been like this again. Buddies. To the end of the trail.
But here they are, and what they had is lost. Mike's fault. Shit, and some of it his own fault. If only he'd stuck by Mike, maybe he wouldn't have gone down this other road and got so screwed up. Dammit, he thinks, he could kick himself for letting this happen. Most of the fault was really his.
The mattress moves under him, and he feels Danny stand up from his side of the bed. A floorboard creaks, and he hears Danny quietly clear his throat. "I'm ready if you are," he says.
In a minute they are outside in the first rays of sunrise, crossing the dirt parking lot to where the truck is parked. Don is careful not to glance back at the motel office. He doesn't want to see the woman from last night watching him go, or to see the look on her face. He doesn't want to see her not looking at him either.
He glances at Danny, who is walking beside him, watching the ground like he's feeling unsteady and looking like he's hung over. "There's time for breakfast, I think," Don says. "You want some?"
"I dunno," Danny says.
"Some bacon grease might just set you up for the day. Settle your stomach after last night."
"You gotta be kidding."
"I saw you polishin' off that bottle of Wild Turkey," Don says.
"Tell you the best thing for my stomach right now."
"What's that?" Don asks.
Don laughs. "You gotta toughen up, boy."
They get into the pickup. This is the last time, Don thinks, as they pull the doors shut. No more travels with Danny; they part ways here. He's not sorry, and he'll be glad to be on his own, no more chasing all over hell after Mike's nephew. From here on, he'll have only himself to look after. Himself to please.
But he's got to admit. For a college boy, Danny hasn't been all that bad. And he remembers how Danny managed to get along with the roomful of rodeo cowboys the night before, men who would have gladly tossed him out the door -- and worse -- if they'd known what Don knew about him.
Watching him get friendly with the saddle bronc rider from Oklahoma, Don wondered how he could act so normal that nobody suspected him. He even chipped in that joke about a penguin with a blown seal, which got a bunch of laughs, like they'd all been waiting for him to say something.
And when Hank asked him if he'd broke his specs falling off a horse, a bull, or a fence, he just grinned and said, "Well, let me put it this way. The lesson I learned is always remember to take off your glasses if you're gonna do oral sex." This about brought down the roof, and one guy, who'd had his feet up and his chair tilted back, laughed so hard he nearly tipped over backwards. Danny just sat there looking pleased with himself, as someone passed him another cold beer.
You had to hand it to Danny. The guy had some balls.
"Did I embarrass you last night?" Danny says, as they turn off the highway into Main Street.
"When we were sitting with those guys talking."
"Every minute," Don says, and grins.
He drives them back into town and parks the truck at the bus stop. A clock inside the barber shop says they've got a half hour, and there's a cafe across the street. He says they can get some breakfast, and wait there till the bus pull in. It probably won't be on time anyway.
"If you can't stomach breakfast, I'll buy you a coffee," Don says.
Danny notices a phone box and says he wants to call Mike. "You go ahead," he tells Don. "I'll come over."
Don crosses the street. Inside the wide windows, he can see several men at tables, a waitress gliding among them with plates of food. He steps through the door and walks to the back where there are booths.
An old man in a cowboy hat sits in one booth, polishing off a plate of steak and eggs, forking chunks of meat covered with egg yolk into his mouth. Beside him, a cigarette burns in an ash tray. His face is like sun-burnt leather, and his freckled hands tremble as he scrapes the plate with his knife and fork.
Don walks past him and swings his butt into the last seat, facing the window, where past the big old Plymouth sedan parked out front he can see Danny in the phone box, dropping coins into a slot.
The waitress, holding up a round pot of coffee stops at his table and pulls a plastic-covered menu from behind a paper napkin dispenser at his elbow, then drops it in front of him. She sets down a coffee mug and starts filling it without asking.
"I already know what I want," he says, smiling up at her. And he orders a stack of pancakes, eggs sunny-side up, bacon, and hash brown potatoes. "You got any orange juice?" he says.
"Small, medium, or large?" she says from behind a stiff smile.
"Make it a large."
She sets down the coffee pot to write the order. "In town for the rodeo?" she asks.
"Passing through," he says.
She pours more coffee for the old cowboy in the next booth. "How's Alma?" she says. "Don't see much of her anymore."
The old cowboy says something Don can't hear.
"Oh, that's too bad," the waitress says. "Must be lonely out there all by yourself."
The cowboy says something that makes him laugh.
The waitress gives him a poke in the shoulder with the pencil she's carrying. "Dexter, you're going straight to hell, you know that?" Still smiling, she moves on to the next booth and pours more coffee.
The old cowboy leans to the side after a couple minutes, slides to the end of the seat, and slowly gets to his feet. He's thin as a rail, a little stooped over, his face a roadmap of deep wrinkles.
The stub of a cigarette in his mouth, one eye squinting, he fishes in one jeans pocket to drop several coins clattering on the table, and like his feet hurt in his boots, he walks toward the front, puffs of smoke trailing over his shoulder.
"So long, Dexter," a man calls out from one of the tables by the windows, "Take 'er easy."
"Take her if I can get a rope on 'er," Dexter says and raises an arm stiffly to wave. "Ain't that right, Dixie?" he says, turning to the waitress, and keeps moving to the door.
When he's gone, the waitress is leaning on the pass-through from the kitchen. "No fool like an old fool," she says to the cook.
As the old cowboy hobbles along in front of the window, golden now in the light of the morning sun, two men brush by him, jarring his hat, one of them looking back to make a smirking remark that doesn't look like an apology.
They're men about Don's age, one crewcut, the other with slicked-back hair and sideburns. The crewcut guy wears a beat-up red letter jacket, with a W on the front. The other has a black muscle shirt, though not much muscle under it. On one arm, the guy has a tattoo of a bleeding heart pierced by a dagger.
Don has a chance to observe all this because the two men enter the cafe, and the one with the sideburns and the tattoo heads straight for the one empty booth, where the old cowboy was eating his steak and eggs.
They sit down, not talking, and Don can hear dishes clanking together as Sideburns pushes them to the edge of the table. "Busboy!" he calls out.
A young man who has been clearing tables and the counter carries a plastic tub to the booth where the two men are sitting. Don senses there's something odd about him. He has a trusting face. No trace of suspicion or worldly care. No burned up, washed out, hopeless look he's seen on men too old to be bussing tables in a restaurant. Instead, he has a sweet smile and eyes so unguarded they could belong to a five-year-old boy.
Retarded, Don thinks.
"Hey, you spilled some," barks Sideburns. "Watch what you're doing."
The young man glances at him and the expression on his face does not change.
Don feels his stomach tighten. He looks over at the waitress, who is watching but doing nothing.
Sideburns suddenly jumps back in the booth, and there's the sound of a fist, or knee, or boot hitting the table. Silverware jumps and rattles on the tabletop.
"Stupid idiot," Sideburns says, and his friend W laughs nervously. The room falls silent, and two or three heads turn.
"There's no call for that," Don says. "You can see he's doing the best he can."
Sideburns turns around and takes a good look at Don. "Why don't you mind your own business?" he says.
"And you can shut your mouth," Don says.
"You're gonna make me."
"I sure as hell will if I have to." Don is clenching his fists and starting to get up.
"Boys, boys," says the waitress.
At this point, the door to the kitchen swings open and a beefy man with a white apron steps out and simply fixes them all with a glare. Sideburns shrinks like a dog who's been kicked a lot and settles back down in his seat. Don can see the crewcut guy watching his pal, only his eyes moving.
Don glances once or twice at the cook. He's unshaven, eyes dark and burning, his arms thick as good-size fence posts, his gut like a sack of feed under his apron. The next time Don looks over at him, he's gone.
A chair scrapes on the floor across the room, someone makes a comment, and there is stifled laughter. Then there is a gradual return to normal.
Don stares at the back of Sideburns' head, memorizing it, knowing if he ever sees it again, he's ready to beat the shit out of the guy. And his sidekick.
The guy bussing dishes has stood unmoving, taking this all in -- or maybe just waiting for it to be over, so he can finish his job. Which he does now and heads back where he came from. The waitress comes over to Don with a tall plastic glass of juice. She gives him a meaningful look, meaning what, Don isn't sure. Then she steps to the next booth to stand looking down at Sideburns and his pal W.
"You boys settled down enough to order?" she says.
Now Don sees Danny coming across the street, waiting for a John Deere tractor pulling a load of hay bales. When he walks through the door, he quickly looks around the room and when he sees Don, hurries over to him.
"You get Mike?" Don asks.
"Something wrong?" Don says as Danny slides into the booth.
"We may have a problem," Danny says, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
"The cops were at Mike's just now," Danny says. "Somebody held up a liquor store here last night, and whoever it was, they were driving the Fairlane."
"What the hell?"
"They found it at Alliance. Rolled. No driver." Danny is looking at Don, watching it all soak in.
"We're talking about Mike's nephew?"
Danny shakes his head. "The car had to be stolen."
"Shit," Don says and takes a mouthful of the juice. It is cold and sweet. "Tough luck about your car."
"To hell with the car. Where's Kirk? That's what I want to know."
Don shrugs. "Maybe he's hitchhiking to Utah."
"Doesn't make sense. Never did. He's got no reason to go back there."
The waitress comes by with four plates of food and a bottle of syrup hooked over one finger. She puts them all in front of Don. The pancakes are still steaming.
"What can I bring you, hon?" she says to Danny.
"Bring him coffee and a knife and fork," Don says. "He's gonna help me eat this."
Don dives into the food and keeps talking, letting his thoughts go back to yesterday. The scrawny bullrider with the stupid name, Wink, he'd told them he gave Kirk gas money to go to Utah.
"That little bastard was bullshitting us," Don says. "I knew it." For a moment Sideburns' pal W glances at Don, over Danny's shoulder. Then his eyes shift away.
"Think we can find him again?" Danny says.
"Busted his leg, didn't he? That oughtta slow him down. Maybe he's still at the hospital."
Don stops to pour catsup over the potatoes.
"I thought you wanted to hit the highway," Danny says.
"Not that much." He doesn't want to pass up a chance to take care of that weasely bullrider. "Can't leave town when there's unfinished business."
The waitress brings Danny a mug of coffee and silverware. "What happened to your glasses, hon?" she wants to know.
Danny catches Don's eye and then looks up at her. "Wrestling with some guy," Danny says.
"Get the best of him?" she says smiling.
"Yeah, I guess I did."
Don still cannot figure out why other people take such a warm interest in Danny. When the waitress is well out of ear shot, he says in a low voice, "How come you didn't tell her about the oral sex? Or did you just make that up?"
"I don't make things up."
Don thinks about this a minute, chewing down bacon and spreading grape jelly on his toast. "No, I guess you don't," he says finally.
Danny blinks a few times, watching him.
Don says, "You gonna get busy and help me eat this or just sit there on your ass."
"I'm gonna sit here on my ass."
The hospital is a rambling, newly built structure at the edge of town. The trees and shrubs around the doors and windows look freshly planted, even the wood chips spread under them are new.
Don parks the truck next to the emergency room entrance and is getting out almost before he's turned off the engine. His boots hit the asphalt surface of the parking lot, and he's slamming the door shut behind him. By the time Danny catches up with him, he's already inside the building.
The woman at the desk in the ER takes a minute to check the log from yesterday and tells them the bullrider with the broken leg was admitted, and after a phone call gives them the room number.
"But I'm afraid you won't be able to see him until visiting hours," she says. "There's a waiting area at Reception for family and friends."
Don touches the brim of his hat and says thanks, then walks out, Danny hurrying after him.
"Now what?" Danny says.
"We're gonna go find the sonofabitch," Don says. He's walking straight for the main entrance.
"I take it we're not waiting for visiting hours."
"You heard what she said. Family and friends. Does that sound like us?"
Inside again, they walk past the front desk, and Don leads the way down a wide corridor. He's checking room numbers.
"Just act like you belong here," he says under his breath.
"I've been doing that all my life."
The walls and floors, everything, are so shiny and spotless, the two of them could probably get asked to leave just for the dusty, sweat-stained clothes they're wearing.
"Here it is," Don says and walks through an open door. "Close it behind you," he says to Danny.
There's a man in each bed, one of them an old-timer, with his eyes closed, his arm hooked up to a couple of bags on an IV pole. In the other bed, by the window, is the bullrider.
He's got a leg in a thick cast, suspended in traction, and his chest is wrapped up in bandages and surgical tape. He's awkwardly spooning oatmeal into his mouth from a breakfast tray pulled up under his chin.
"Hurt, does it?" Don says. As Danny steps from behind him, Don grabs the privacy curtain and pulls it around them.
"What the hell?" the cowboy says, looking up. Without his hat, his head looks small, almost pointed.
"It's gonna hurt a lot more if you fuck around with us again," says Don.
The cowboy is still looking at them blankly, the spoon of oatmeal lifted half way from the bowl.
"I think you may have been fibbin' to us a bit yesterday," Don says. "You didn't give no gas money to that boy to get to Utah."
A look of recognition crosses the bullrider's face.
"Yeah, you remember us now," Don says.
The spoon drops back into the bowl. "I told you boys everything I know," the cowboy says and gives them a weak smile, which makes his head look even smaller.
"No, you didn't," Don says leaning toward him. "What you said was crap. Now you're gonna tell us what really happened, or I'll break your other leg."
The cowboy starts looking over his shoulder, and Don's long arm darts to the call button, clipped to the sheet at one corner of the bed. He jerks it away and hands it to Danny.
"You won't be needing this for a while," Don says and now makes a fist that he aims straight at the cowboy's bandaged chest.
"OK, OK," says the bullrider. "I didn't give him any money." And after a few more threats, he tells them about taking the car keys and then losing them in a late night poker game at a rooming house somewhere in town.
"Who was the other guy?" Don says.
"Some asshole," the bullrider says. He had red hair. They called him Red. He can't remember much else.
"And what about the boy? Where was he the last time you saw him?" Don says.
"With the other guy. He went with the car."
"What the fuck?" Don says.
"Is he OK?" Danny asks.
"How the hell would I know," the bullrider says.
Overhead the curtain rings shift on the rod, and a nurse appears beside them, looking surprised.
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave," she says.
Don turns to the nurse, who has taken a step back, touches his hat and lets her see how nice he can smile. "Ma'am, we were just about to go."
She's young, with a long dark ponytail under her white cap. She meets his gaze, retreating no farther, one arm pressing a clip board to her breasts. She looks ready to take him on if she has to, like a terrier.
He turns to the cowboy. "I'm warning you, pal. I find out you've been jerking us around again, I'm gonna find you and when I'm done with you, you'll be right back here in emergency. Only this time they'll be pulling my boot outta your ass."
He pulls aside the curtain with the swing of one arm, and as he leaves, the room goes by in a blur.