Two Men in a Pickup
The phone rings sometime just after dawn. Ellis has already been up and out of bed for over an hour, rattling around the old farmhouse in his levi's and socks, with a mug of strong coffee, listening to the ag reports on KGHL out of Billings.
The phone is on the wall in the kitchen, and he lets it ring a couple times before he picks up the receiver, figuring it's a rancher or horse owner with a sick animal. He's got three calls to make today and, depending on how far he has to drive, another one will make it late by the time he gets back home again tonight.
"Hello, Uncle Ellis?" the voice says at the other end of the line. "This is Donyour nephew."
At first, he's not sure who he's talking to. The voice is unfamiliar, though in a moment it comes to him that his sister in Nebraska has a boy named Donnie.
"Donnie?" he finally says, still not sure how to connect this deep, man's voice with the grade school boy he knew fifteen years ago.
"Yessir, remember me?"
"Hell, yes, I do," Ellis says, recalling the scruffy kid his sister used to fret over, coming home after school with a bloody nose and beaming because he'd duked it out with some other kid.
"I'm comin' to see you," Don says. "I'm on my way there right now."
Ellis doesn't let on he's surprised. He's seen or heard from almost no one since he left Nebraska all those years ago, least of all his sister, who had always looked up to him and then never forgave him for what she felt he'd done. Well, for what he actually had done.
He'd left everything behind, young wife, family, friends, and a brand-new veterinary practice, and come to Montana to start over. By now he'd pretty much forgotten that he ever had a life before the one he has now.
"Where are you?" he says into the phone, still not believing that he's talking to someone from back there.
"Hot Springs," Don says, "in South Dakota."
Just Married, Hot Springs Tonight, Ellis thinks. Someone had painted that on his car the day he got married. And he remembers the 1940 DeSoto sedan he'd bought, just out of the Army. He had driven it to the Black Hills for their honeymoon. Then he'd left it with his wife two years later when they split up.
"When you gonna be here?" he says.
"Tonight, if I can make it," Don says, and Ellis can hear the eagerness in his voice. "You gonna be there?"
"Hell, yes," Ellis says. "You were just a little dickens when I last saw you. You must be all growed up now."
"Guess you could say that," Don laughs.
And they talk for a little while, until Don runs out of change for the pay phone and gets cut off in the middle of saying goodbye.
Ellis puts down the receiver and shakes his head. He'd tried to find out why Donnie has decided to come see him, but Donnie didn't give him a straight answer. Something is up with him, he thinks, but what the hell could it be?
The boy would have to be twenty-five years old by now, at least, or older. Damn, the time flies, he thinks. And now that he's hung up the phone, he's not sure just how he feels about this sudden reminder of a past he's tried hard to forget. And what does the boy know about that past, about his uncle, about why he left Nebraska?
What the fuck, he thinks. Guess we'll find out. Cross that bridge when she comes.
Glancing up at the clock, he puts down his empty coffee cup by the kitchen sink, snaps his shirtfront over the thick, dark hair on his chest and stuffs the shirttails into his jeans. When he gets on his boots and hat, he'll drive into town for breakfast and then get on with his day.
He's got an answering service in Billings to take his calls while he's not at home. About 11:00 he stops at a pay phone at a wide spot in the road called Edgar and checks in from there.
"Rosemary," he says. "It's Ellis."
"My favorite bachelor vet," she says. "You know, if you had a wife at home, she could take these calls for you and you'd save yourself a bundle."
"You must think wives come free," he laughs.
"They make up for it in other departments," she says. "You know that well as I do."
"OK, just the facts, ma'am," he says. "You got any calls for me?"
"Ellis, when you're all business, you're no fun at all," she says and tells him he got a couple calls. He has a little notebook and a click-pen from a feed store to write them down. Then he hangs up and reaches in his front pocket for more change to call the numbers she's given him.
He stops for a coke at a filling station. The summer sun is beating down and the rolling hills are brown in every direction. Inside his shirt, sweat runs down under his arms, and his feet are hot in his dusty boots.
His thoughts drift back to Don and the span of years that stretch out from where he is now to the time when he had another life in Nebraska. During the war, he'd been a young serviceman stationed in Alaska. Never saw any action; never got shot at. Remembers mostly the endless winter night and the cold.
Afterward, he'd gone to vet school in Lincoln on the GI bill and earned a little money playing slide guitar in a dance band. They listened to Bob Wills and Spade Cooley records, trying for the same sound, and some nights with enough beer between sets, they'd really swing.
Ellis had been a singer, too, doing "Whoa Baby" and "You're From Texas" just like his idol, Leon McAuliffe, whose voice was sweet and smooth and straight from down home.
The boys kept trying to persuade him to stay with the band, but he knew too many musicians years older than him, still out on the road and never making any money. He loved playing music, but didn't want that.
And besides the booze, the occasional joint, and the women ready and willing for sex with any of them, married or not, there was this other thing that had his life always a little off-kilter and made him want to settle down. He'd found it happening in the Army, making friends with a barracks mate, Wally from Pittsburgh, who took him to bars and strip clubs.
Once, after a night of drinking and swapping stories about women they either had or hadn't scored with, they'd been together alone outdoors, smoking cigarettes and contemplating the star-filled sky. In his alcohol-clouded haze Ellis had realized that it wasn't just the constant talk about sex that had given him a nonstop hard-on for the past hour or more.
A momentary rush of desire had filled him with something like deep affection for his friend. His cock was aching. And he was on the point of saying, "Buddy, I'd stop a bullet for you."
Which he didn't say, but just smiled to himself at the thought of having such a thought, and let himself enjoy this unexpected feeling. He understood, or thought he understood, what it was for men in battle to risk their lives for each other.
"What's so funny?" Wally had said, punching him in the shoulder.
"Nothing. I'm just drunk as a skunk," Ellis had said, and he had tried to grab Wally's arm before he got punched again.
In a moment they were wrestling with each other, and Wally who was quicker and stronger, even when drunker, had slipped around behind him, locking him into a full Nelson. Ellis could feel Wally's hips pressing against his butt, and suddenly in his BVDs there was the delirious explosion of cum.
When he woke the next morning, he couldn't remember much of the night before and he was too hung over to care. His underwear, crusted and stuck to his belly, meant no more than a wet dream he must have had in his sleep.
But Wally had not forgotten and joked about it the next day. "Buddy, we gotta get you some action. You're overdue," he said laughing. And the memory had slowly returned. Along with the feelings he remembered having for Wally.
Nothing like that happened again until he was out of the Army. And this time it was with the band, in a hot Nebraska summer, driving back late at night from an out of town gig. The drummer, Clarenceor Felix, as the rest of them called himhad a big trap set and got it to and from each dance in the back of a Ford panel truck he borrowed from an older brother who ran a plumbing supply store.
Ellis and Clarence had taken to riding together, while the rest of the band got around in a an old barrel-back Chrysler Town and Country with the band's name painted on the sideThe Kowboy Katzand the silhouette of a slim-hipped cowboy in wide, batwing chaps swinging a lariat over his head.
Clarence played pretty much sober but never stopped drinking once they'd finished the last set. He kept an open bottle of vodka between his legs as he drove, and so far as Ellis could tell, besides his drifting across the center line now and then on deserted stretches of highway, the alcohol never seemed to have an effect on his driving.
Clarence was still an overgrown kid, too young to get drafted during the war, and like most drummers, he was full of himself, never so happy as when he was on stage driving the rest of them on with his relentless, amazing percussion.
Night after night, he'd surprise them with licks and flourishes Ellis had never heard him play before. Away from his drums, he'd patter with his sticks on anything else that would make a soundtable tops, drinking glasses, silverware. Without his sticks, when he was driving, he'd be tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and humming some song they'd heard on the radio.
Late one warm night, parked in front of the house where Ellis had rented a room, and each of them well oiled on vodka, they had sat there unmoving in the wee hours of the morning, talking like they were still on the road with miles to go.
Finally, they fell silent, and Ellis felt again that old feeling. It rose slowly in him, filling his chest, and wrapping him in something like a soft blanket. He loved this young man and felt a sweet desire to take him under his wing and protect him from anything that might hurt him or make him unhappy.
He looked over at Clarence sitting beside him, who'd been watching him and waiting.
"If you're not gonna go first, it's gonna be me," Clarence said with a sudden movement and reached between Ellis' legs for his fly.
"Wait," Ellis had said, his mind skipping ahead over any surprise or objection, and he'd unbuckled his belt, lifting his butt off the seat to pull down his pants to his knees. His dick popped up, already almost hard, as Clarence grabbed for it and swallowed it.
The truck had rocked with Clarence's shift across the seat and there was the ting-ting of cymbals in the darkness behind them, as he started a complex rhythm of strokes along Ellis' big erection and pats over his naked thighs, with little fingertip runs over his testicles.
Ellis had got a clumsy blowjob in a car on a date in high school. The girl acted like she'd done it before, but the pulling and tugging as she yanked on his dick between sucks only made him uncomfortable. Most of all, he was suddenly conscious of his hands, and didn't know what to do with them. Finally, he was able to come only by thinking of the other boys she had done the same thing with.
Clarence was something different. His was the work of a man who could easily guess what felt good to Ellis, and only now it was dawning on him what a difference it makes when the other person actually seems to enjoy sucking your dick.
"Damn," Ellis said, eyes closed, his head falling onto the back of the seat. "Damn!" His hands this time fell naturally around Clarence's head, one cupped gently over the tendons at the back of his neck, the other with fingers tenderly laced into his hair.
His thoughts slowed by the vodka circulating in his bloodstream, he let his awareness simply wash in and out like the tide, until he felt a surge gathering gradually between his legs and then a bursting that emptied and emptied him and left him floating like debris in the wake of a sinking ship. "Damn," he whispered softly.
When he came to, it was the next morning. He was taking a summer class and got quickly dressed and went straight to campus. He sat in the back of the classroom, his head pounding, taking notes that were no more than unconnected phrases from the lecture that he hoped would make sense when he was clear-headed enough again to read them.
He tried to remember the night before, but again there was just a blank. He only knew for sure that he had gotten a blowjob from the drummer in the band.
"Did I return the favor?" he asked Clarence the next time they were together.
"What favor?" Clarence said innocently.
"You know, when you dropped me off last time at my place."
Clarence shrugged and winked, tapping his fingers down the front of his shirt. Then he smiled. "You don't owe me anything."
That he might be a little queer didn't really cross his mind often. In Alaska, he and Wally had regularly gone through their army-issue condoms. Now and again, in the dancehall parking lots there was sex with female fans between setsonce or twice in the back of Clarence's panel truck, on the thick blankets he'd wrap around his drums.
And, of course, he had a girlfriend, Barbara, who he intended to marry as soon as the time was right. When he'd given her a ring, she'd allowed him to go all the way, and she had hugged him fiercely and passionately the first night it had happened, in the backseat of his sedan. He was in love.
But the glow of that time passed so quickly. In less than a year, they were arguing about everythingthe time he was putting into the new practice, the nights he still played with the band. Unless he gave in and agreed with her on everything, there was never any peace.
It didn't help that she and his sister Kathy were best friends and had been since high school. Kathy always took her side and seemed to feel Ellis was still acting like a kid and wouldn't accept the responsibilities of a married man, like he should.
He'd started out in business with a partner, Jerry, who was a veteran like himself and newly married, with already a baby and another one on the way. He was a good guy and already a good friend, devoted to his work, his familyand to his partner.
"What's going on with you," he finally said at the end of one day. "Everything OK at home?" They'd stopped at the Silver Bullet for a beer to celebrate the bank's approval of a loan they needed for office equipment.
Ellis had just looked at him, thought for a long moment, and then shook his head.
"I'm your business partner," Jerry had said, looking worried. "I need to know you're all right and that I can depend on you."
"I'll be OK," Ellis said, reassuring him. But he knew everything was fucked up. He knew at that moment, looking into his partner's eyes, that right now he cared more for him than he did for his own wife.
It was a fleeting feeling, but he realized how he looked forward to their time together, the easy sharing of ideas, plans, and hopes, the jokes they told and army stories, and he went home reluctantly at the end of each day.
Aware of his affection for Jerry, he felt his feelings grow daily, until he knew that it was happening againa fondness for another man that couldn't be denied. Only this time, it was deeper and stronger than either time before and it did not go away. It didn't matter whether he was with Jerry or apart from him. The ache in his heart became something unbearable.
He stuck it out another year and then decided to quit, to give it all upmarriage, the practice, the band, Nebraska, the whole shooting match. And six months later he was living in Montana, starting all over again.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, he'd finished up at a farm near Bridger, where he doctored a heavey mare, and before that he'd been to a feedlot to test for shipping fever. Now he's been back to town and is on his way to a dairy, beside him on the seat a supply of bull's semen packed in liquid nitrogen, to inseminate three cows.
He's good at this procedure, with a better than 90 percent success rate, and he gets a lot of calls to do it. His bread and butter, it pays the bills, and with new technologies, the business is always there to eat up his profits.
And ironic, he thinks, too. Never fathering a child of his own, he's planted enough sperm to populate this part of Montana with a good size herd of bawling calves.
Well, he believes he's never been a father. To keep up appearances in and around Billings, he buys condoms at the drugstore and has even used a few of them in the occasional encounter with the occasional available woman, answering whatever speculation there might be in the community about his being unmarried.
One was a rancher's wife who taught school for a while in town. She cozied up to him one blizzard-driven night at the Lariat Lounge and after tracing her fingers a couple times up and down the inseam of his levi's, got him interested enough to invite her home. When he'd gone to unroll a rubber over his dick, she'd laughed and said, "Honey, there's no call for that. I'm on the pill."
The intense pleasure of that night had surprised him. And they had met again a few times over the next year. She had no secrets about her sex life with her husband, Clyde, but always assured Ellis that he was better in the sack.
"My god, your dick is big," she'd say. "Clyde's is pretty good size, but it's downright puny next to yours." It excited him to know that she'd go home to her husband afterwards and probably have sex again.
Then, months after he'd last seen her, he was out at the ranch on a callhe can't remember anymore what he was there forand she appeared in the barn, obviously pregnant. "Don't worry," she said, "it's not yours."
But he knew her well enough by then not to believe everything she said. He might not have found out otherwise, but a few months later it made the front page of the newspaper, the birth of a daughter, Allison, on the morning of January first, fourteen minutes after the stroke of midnight.
So maybejust maybethere was a little girl out there on the prairie who was his and took after him. Although in what way, he found hard to imagine. She'd be about six years old by now. In another dozen years, if she showed up as a singer in a band, that would be a clue.
What he had to cover with this occasional sleeping around, of course, was the fact of the matter. He was more than a little queer. And what that meant in a place like Montana was a necessary discretion to help preserve a myth about himself. To anyone who took notice, he was just your ordinary independent guy, who if he had any private life, no matter what it was, kept it well hidden.
The West was still the land of the cowboydon't fence me inand a single man in a cowboy hat could do or not do pretty much what he chose. If he got roaring drunk now and then, talked like he'd never got past eighth grade, and knew how to cuss a blue streak, that was proof enough he was a real man. There was little reason to consider any evidence to the contrary.
If anybody saw him at the Salvation Army Store, for instance, buying clothes for a drifter he'd picked up on the road, they'd chalk it up to his good will. They wouldn't suspect that he did more than offer the same guy a roof over his head for the night. Everybody knew what it was like to be down on your luck. There was no shame in offering or receiving a helping hand.
Which was how he got to know Deacon, a young guy hitching west on the highway one chill spring day, the ragged remains of winter snow still melting in the ditches along the road. Wearing worn jeans, beat-up boots, and a denim jacket, he was hardly dressed for the weather, and as Ellis had done before with guys like this, he'd taken Deacon home for the night, filling him up with hot food, letting him take a steamy shower, giving him clean underwear and a clean shirt, and then offering to share his bed.
When they met, Deacon had been on the drift from one job to another from the time he was a teenager, cowboying, working a road crew, even felling trees in Idaho as a gyppo logger. He had dark good looks and while he talked of girls and losing his virginity while in high school, he also made no objection when Ellis stroked his bare chest after they climbed into bed. And when he put his hand between his legs, he found the young man already hard. Hard and ready.
Sex with Deacon was something fierce and tumultuous. There was no holding him back once he got started. He was always eager to have Ellis' cock inside him and liked it best when they were face to face, his long naked legs locked across his back. He sank his teeth once into Ellis' shoulder and wouldn't let go until he had bucked and bucked against him and come in sharp, hot spurts against his belly.
There were teeth marks on his shoulder for weeks before they faded away. He took his shirt off once to wash up in a truck stop men's room, and a big guy who was a mechanic in the garage eyed him for a minute.
"Sonofabitch," he said in admiration. "Was that a horse or human?"
And word got around, of course, as it does. Ida, the bartender at the Lariat Lounge gave him a wink the next time he stopped for a quick beer, and said, "Hear you're sportin' a horse bite."
"Could be," he said and felt himself start to blush.
Hung like one anyway, he might have said, but didn't. This horse was in a pair of laundered levi's, a second hand western shirt, and an old barn coat from Ellis' closet when he left town.
And Deacon came through every few months, showing up at the door, having walked the two miles from the highway out to Ellis' farmhouse. The door never locked, he'd walk in and make himself at home. Ellis might find him taking a bath, eating something from the refrigerator, or asleep on the couch.
This was risky business, of course, as he'd found out. More than once a guy he'd picked up like that had made off with something that would have no value except what it was worth in exchange for cash. Once it was his old guitar, which he found again at a pawnshop in town.
"I'll loan you any money you need," he'd told Deacon. "And you don't have to pay me back."
Deacon had looked at him without expression, like a kid who grew up with good reason not to trust grownups.
"You steal anything from me," Ellis said, "and I'll break your arm."
Deacon had let a sly smirk cross his face. "What if I steal your heart," he said.
"In that case, I'll break both your arms."
And Ellis had meant it. He had survived on his own since the day he landed in Billings by keeping old feelings like that down to zero. Less than zero.
"Any more calls, Rosemary?" he says, calling in one last time before heading home for the day.
"Ellis, you old dog, are you gonna take up that guitar of yours again?" she says. "Fella with a band over in Miles City says he needs you this weekend."
Ellis hasn't played for years, not since all anyone seemed to want anymore was someone doing Elvis Presley covers. Between kids wanting rockabilly and folks staying home to watch TV, there's not enough call for the old swing tunes anymore.
"Hell, Rosemary, I'm retired," he says.
"Ellis, you gotta get out and circulate more. Do you some good," she says. "Put on a pair of them tight pants, and pretty young things are gonna be all over you."
"Aw, give me the number," he says and pulls out his notebook to write it down, knowing full well it'll be a desperate day before he steps onto a bandstand again.
"The other one I got for you is from a boy says he's your nephew." She reports this like she's saving the best for last.
"What'd he say?"
"Says he's on his way."
"Where'd he call from?"
"Didn't say," she says. "He's a man of few words."
"Thanks, Rosemary, you're a doll," he says.
She laughs. "Don't I know it."
He's only a few miles from home and stops for a couple six-packs of cold beer on the way there. The long day's sun is angling down into a dusty western sky as he turns off the country road and drives up to his front gate.
A Buck Owens song is playing on the car radio, and when he turns off the ignition, he can hear it still playing from somewhere. He realizes it's coming from the radio inside the house, and the volume is turned up good and loud.
This can mean only one thing. Deacon is back.
"Hell, look what the cat drug in," he shouts over the radio as he walks inside.
Deacon is sitting in an old leather easy chair with his boots kicked off and one bare foot up on a lopsided hassock. He's wearing an undershirt, which shows the tattoos on his arms up to the shoulders, and a pair of his stovepipe jeans with the cuffs frayed around the heels.
He's got a long neck in his lap, tilted against one leg like it's empty, and he takes a last drag of a cigarette before punching it out in an ashtray on the floor. There are several butts in the trayhe's been here a while.
"You're outta beer, pardner," he says without moving to get up.
Ellis pulls a can from one of the six packs he's carrying and tosses it to him.
"And you're a goddam sight for sore eyes," Ellis says.
Deacon pops the top and leans forward, opening his mouth to suck up the foam. Drops of beer slide down the side of the can into his lap.
"Got anything to eat?" Deacon says.
Ellis grins and touches his fingers to his fly.
"Wouldn't have any of that," Deacon says with a straight face. "Don't know where it's been."
Ellis sighs. "Right here in my shorts, the whole time."
Deacon's look softens, and he shakes his head. "You're slippin' pardner."
Ellis reaches down and pulls the hassock from under Deacon's foot. It hits the floor with a thump.
"On your feet," he says, and Deacon slowly stands up.
"Yessir," he says, beginning to smile.
Ellis puts one arm around his neck and the other behind his back, feeling the damp undershirt in his hand as he pulls Deacon toward him, crushing him first in a bear hug and then kissing him hard.
Deacon's tongue darts into his mouth, and there's the rough feel of several days' growth of beard, the smell of his sweat, cigarette smoke, and something like car exhaust fumes. He's been out on the highway, hitchhiking from somewhereagain.
Ellis holds him tight for a moment longer, letting his hands drop down to the hard muscles in the young man's butt. Pressing against the front of his jeans, he feels his own dick surge into life.
"Miss me?" Deacon finally says.
"Not a bit," Ellis says and lets him go.
The radio is still blaring, and when Deacon looks over Ellis' shoulder, he takes a small step back. "There's someone here," he says. "On the porch."
Ellis turns around, and silhouetted there in the golden light of the setting sun is the figure of a tall man in a cowboy hat, looking in through the screen door.
"Uncle Ellis?" he is saying.
Don is excited and full of talk about being on the road and how amazed he is by Montana and wide-open spaces. It doesn't take Ellis long to connect the rangy, long-legged young man with the excited boy who had come home still charged up from an after-school scuffle.
Over-grown boy that he still seems to be, he has the habits of a man. He tips his hat back with one thumb instead of taking it off and accepts a beer without hesitation, consuming half of it in the first thirsty gulp. He's got a box of Marlboros in his shirt pocket, and his vocabulary is well stocked with the standard cuss wordsnothing colorful as a cowboy's, but enough to make his mother drop into a dead feint if she heard.
If Don has any curiosity about Deacon, it doesn't show. He seems eager instead to make friends, sharing his cigarettes and giving him a big friendly grin whenever he stops talking to take a breath. And Deacon just sits back, listening to him, glancing once in a while at Ellis with an expression that gives away nothing.
"Who is this guy?" he says under his breath, when Don is in the bathroom taking a piss.
"My sister's boy," Ellis tells him.
"Didn't know you had a sister."
"Well, I do."
"What's he doing here?" Deacon wants to know.
"Beats the hell out of me."
But after a few beers it eventually comes out. Don is AWOL from home. He's left behind his job, his wife and two little boys and is apparently out to see the world.
Should have done army duty, Ellis thinks. A couple years getting shipped here and there would have satisfied that urge. But he keeps his opinions to himself for a while. Don's too busy talking anyway. He's obviously been saving up a lot to tell his uncle. It spills out of him like water over a dam.
The beer is quickly gone, and besides salami and a box of Ritz crackers there's almost no food in the house. Ellis gives Deacon twenty bucks and the keys to his car and sends him into town for more six-packs and sandwiches.
Don gets up to shove his hand into a front pocket of his jeans, and he follows Deacon to the front porch to give him money for more cigarettes.
When he comes back inside to stand in the living room where they've been talking, he looks around at the spare furnishings, the couple of worn rugs on the bare hardwood floor, a sagging couch, and a wooden kitchen chair beside an open roll-top desk heaped with files and ledgers, supply catalogs, and unopened mail.
On one wall is a fieldstone fireplace, blackened with many winters of wood smoke, and in front of it is Ellis' leather easy chair, where Deacon has been sitting, the cushion hollowed in from years of use. From the ceiling a shaded light fixture hangs on an electrical cord, casting a dim glow over the big room.
"This is the life you got here, Uncle Ellis," he says, hands on his hips, grinning as he takes it all in. "Only what you need. Nothing more. There's elbow space, just like outdoors." And he swings both long arms out to his sides.
Ellis looks around, wondering what the boy is talking about. He's always meant to do something with this house, furnish it somehow, but he never gets around to it. He can't think of anything to do that wouldn't look like a woman's touch. And then he wonders if that's what Don is talking about.
"Let me get this straight," he says. "You left home five days ago and nobody knows where you are?"
Don beams, like he's accomplished something. "Yessir, I just up and did it. And I got no plans to go back. Not till I goddam well feel like it. Maybe never."
Ellis recognizes this impulse. For a moment, he sees in Don his own escape from Nebraska fifteen years before. But there's something different about Don. He has no mixed feelings and certainly no regrets. Ellis remembers being in a different frame of mindkind of shell-shocked.
"What are you gonna do now?" he says.
"Go and keep on goin' till I feel like stopping," Don says. "I kinda had Calgary in mind."
Ellis also knows that this is the easy partbeing on the move, covering ground. Whether you're running or just drifting, not letting the past catch up with you. And he thinks of Deacon and the other men he's known who never settle down. Like if they ever had to, they'd shrivel up and die.
What's tough is what you do with yourself when you finally stop somewhere. Make yourself stay in one place and put down roots again. He looks at Don and knows he still has a lot to learn.
"I wanna live just like this," Don is saying. "Your time's your own. Do what you want. Stay out all night if you like." He looks at Ellis and gives him a grin. "Hell, I bet you get laid whenever you feel like it."
Is that what this is all about, Ellis wonders. Getting more sex?
"I've always admired you, Uncle Ellis," Don says. "You just picked up and left everything behind. I mean, everything. You didn't let anything or anyone stop you."
Where did the boy get this from, Ellis wonders. Surely not his sister, Kathy, who would have done everything she could to stamp out any good memory of his uncle. Somehow Don has created this whole myth about him. Without knowing it, he's become a hero to this boy he hardly knew.
"It's not what it looks like," Ellis says. "I have to work most days, and when I get back here I'm usually too tired to go anywhere but straight to bed. You can forget home cooking. And as for getting laid, the dry spells sometimes last forever. My sex life would make a horse laugh."
"Aw, you're just pullin' my leg," Don says.
True, Ellis thinks, that's not the whole story. It might have been easier if he'd been more interested in women. But different? Maybe not much.
"And I'll tell you something else," Ellis says. "If I was you, I'd go right back home and sort out whatever it is you're running away from."
Don looks at him, a little surprised.
"You're not going to find anything better out on the road than what you got waiting for you back there," Ellis says. And he starts into a long lecture that builds into something that he never expected to hear himself saying.
There's not much of anything to a man's life but hard work and getting by, he tells Don. The fun times are few and far between. You learn to make the most of them while they last, and you learn to have no regrets when they're over. It's damn lonesome when you got nobody but yourself. And finally you're dead if you don't have a sense of humor about it all.
"I can't believe you're trying to tell me this," Don finally says. "You of all people."
"Son, you got a wife who's surely good and pissed off at you right now but who probably still loves you. And you got two little boys who are never, ever going to understand why the hell you ran off."
"You're wrong there. None of them wants me around. They made that goddam clear."
"Bullshit," Ellis says, amazed that all of this is coming from him, from somewhere inside himhis heart?where it's been bottled up for who knows how long.
And now their voices are raised and ringing in the sparsely furnished old house, with its high ceilings. Ellis doesn't much listen to what Don is trying to say. Fifteen years of loneliness, hurt and anger are welling up in him, and all he can see is this one difference between themhe's had no other choice but to live in this exile from everything he once knew. Don doesn't.
When Deacon returns, the shouting is over and Don is out on the front porch, smoking a cigarette. Ellis is at his desk, the notebook from his shirt pocket open beside him as he copies what he's written there into a ledger.
Deacon puts a beer by his elbow and a fat sandwich wrapped up in stiff, white butcher paper. And he sits down again without a word in the leather easy chair.
"Mind if I turn the radio back on?" he finally says.
Ellis doesn't answer. And the room remains silent.
Later, when he's done, he gets up and walks to the porch, where he finds Don still sitting on the top step and staring into the moonlit night, smoking another cigarette, a six-pack Deacon gave him half empty beside him.
"Son," Ellis says, and feels the weight of that word sinking into him, knowing he doesn't have a son of his own. "You're welcome to stay here tonight. Stay as long as you like."
"Thanks," Don says without turning. "But I'll be on my way in the morning."
Ellis stands behind him, feeling tired. "Whatever suits you," he says. "You can bed down on the couch, if Deacon doesn't beat you to it."
"I can sleep anywhere," Don says. "I done it often enough."
"I reckon you probably have," Ellis says.
He waits a moment before he goes on.
"I want you to know something," he says. "You're still young, but you're a good man. I can tell. I just don't want you making mistakes like I did."
"Doesn't look like much of a mistake to me," Don says, like he's still not over being angry.
"Then you're more like me than I thought," Don says. "Have to learn everything the hard way."
Don finally turns and looks up at him, the look of admiration returning to his face. "That's not so bad, is it?"
Ellis lets himself smile. "Not if that's your only choice," he says, and then he turns to go back inside. "Good night," he says.
"Good night, Uncle Ellis."
Deacon is still slouched in the leather chair, staring into the blackened fireplace, holding a beer can in his lap. He gives Ellis a searching look as he crosses the room.
"You heard what I said about the couch?" Ellis says.
Deacon looks down again and nods. They would have been in bed together by now, but Don doesn't need to know anything about that.
Ellis pulls off his shirt and jeans in his bedroom, trying not to feel the emptiness that's rising inside him. It's been a long time since anybody but himself has climbed into this bed.
The room is warm, and he lies back in his shorts on the sheets. There's a bright moon in the velvet night sky, and a shaft of moonlight falls across him from one window. The memories that the day has triggered play against his thoughts about Don as he begins to feel the fatigue in his body, and before long he's drifting off to sleep.
Some time later, he wakes again, the bed shifting under him, and he's aware that he's not alone. The room is darker, the moon no longer in the window.
"You awake, pardner?" he hears Deacon say in a soft whisper.
He doesn't answer. Just reaches out to him and finds his shoulder. From another room, he can hear the sound of loud snoring.
"That's Don," Deacon says. "He's dead to the world."
Ellis feels his head clear and his body quickly waken. Deacon is pulling himself next to Ellis, and when his warm, hard cock touches his belly, he knows the young man is already naked.
He reaches down to pull off his underwear and then presses himself against Deacon, the yearning ache in him rising and swelling. In a moment he has rolled on top of him, searching for his whiskery mouth with his lips and then kissing him deeply.
Don's snoring stops suddenly in the other room, and they lie together unmoving. Ellis feels their hearts beating and the soft purr of blood rushing in his ears. Then Don starts up again, snoring loud as before.
"You want me to suck you?" Deacon says.
"Not yet," Ellis says. "Roll over and let me lavish some attention on that handsome ass you got."
Deacon laughs softly and does as he's told. Ellis lies beside him, resting on one elbow, and puts his hand in the middle of Deacon's back. The muscles there are strong and well developed. He jobs out now and then with haying crews, working in the stacks with a pitchfork. He's also worked long days bucking hay bales.
Below is his trim waist, where he belts up his jeans. In the dim light of the room Ellis can see this is where the dark tan of his back stops. From there to his feet, his skin is pale and untouched by the sun.
Now Ellis strokes down over Deacon's muscled butt, hard and firm under his hands, slipping his fingers into the gap between his legs and back up again between his cheeks. He can feel Deacon's skin shiver under his touch and pucker up in goose bumps.
"Ahhhh," he sighs.
Ellis sits up and puts his lips down onto one cheek, kissing it with little pecks, then opening his mouth wide, letting Deacon feel his teeth against the bare skin. He senses the muscle flexing against his face and hears Deacon's breath quicken.
Now he bites down a little, getting a salty taste against his tongue. Deacon stiffens and begins to giggle, his body shaking the bed. And Ellis bites a little harder.
"Ow, ow, ow," Deacon starts to say, his face buried in the pillow.
Ellis bites down harder, once and very quickly, and then he stops, pressing his hand over the spot where his teeth have been.
"Son of a bitch," Deacon says.
"Now we're even."
"Fuck," Deacon says. "I never bit you on the ass."
"Yeah, you're damn lucky you didn't. I'd've nailed you good."
Deacon twists onto his side again rubbing his butt.
"You can suck me now," Ellis says.
"Go fuck yourself," Deacon says and then leans into him, lifting an arm across his shoulder. They kiss again, and Ellis can smell the sharp fragrance of Deacon's body, sweet and spicy. The muscles of Deacon's belly tighten against him and Ellis pushes back with his hips, their cocks hard between them.
"What say I fuck you instead," Ellis says.
Deacon laughs softly in his ear. "Now you're talkin', pardner."
The heat of the summer day lingers in the room, and Deacon's lean body is warm and damp under him. His bare chest rises and falls against Ellis' skin, and his legs open wide as Ellis presses between his thighs.
From the other room, Don is still snoring.
The next weekend, Ellis is playing a dance at Miles City. The crowd is big and noisy, and couples are dancing two-steps in the smoky light from the bar and the neon beer signs on the walls.
The first set was a little raggedy, but Ellis knows most of the tunes and is getting the hang of it again. The bass player nods and grins at him now and then. The lead singer doesn't have much range, but he can belt out a pretty persuasive version of "Take Me Back to Tulsa."
It's been days now since Don left. Time enough to get to Calgary. When he said goodbye, his plans hadn't changed. He was determined to keep on putting distance between himself and homedrive right off the edge of the earth if he had to. The boy is stubborn as they come.
It feels good being out on a Saturday night. The folks on the dance floor are having a fine old time, the men in their go-to-town cowboy hats, big belt buckles, and tight jeans, and most of the women in dresses with big skirts whirling around as their partners twirl them one way and then the other, showing off their moves.
The room is hot, and he's sweating under the lights, but it's all coming back to him, how he used to live for this. Rosemary is probably right. It would do him good to get out like this more often. Stop rattling around that old farmhouse every night like a ghost just haunting the place. For a moment, now and then, he feels fifteen years younger.
Something else has happened. He'd fallen asleep with Deacon in his arms that night, and when he woke up the next morning, Deacon was gone. Gone as he sometimes was, having slipped away before dawn without a goodbye. Or the following day, while Ellis was out on calls. Ellis lay there, stroking one arm across the smooth sheet where Deacon had been, realizing that he was trying to retrieve something of himsomething more than just a memory.
His heart had ached, and for the first time in as long as he could remember, he couldn't make it stop. The room, still dark, felt empty and forlorn. He flicked on the light, and he looked down at his naked body. The years, he saw, were beginning to show. Only a short while ago, the last time he'd taken a good look, he'd still been a young man. Now, no more.
He pulled on a pair of jeans from the floor and walked out of the room to the kitchen, to start a pot of coffee. Passing the front room, he saw Don asleep on the floor, lying in a bedroll he must have brought in from his truck. On the couch, against the dark wall, there was a sheet spread out where Deacon had been sleeping the night before.
He stopped in the doorway, staring at it for a while, and then a corner of the sheet lifted, and he realized that Deacon was lying under it, his hand waving sleepily and then tucking itself back under the cushion he was using as a pillow.
Of course. He'd gone back to the couch while Ellis slept, where he'd be when Don woke up.
The band now swings into a slow version of an old Hank Snow song, "Now and Then There's a Fool Such as I," and couples get into snug, dreamy embraces and mill around the dance floor.
When he looks across the room, he peers through the smoky haze to the bar, and following the row of faces he finds Deacon, standing there with his hand around a bottle of beer, watching Ellis play, with a grin on his face.
He turns a little and pats his butt. Inside his jeans Ellis knows there's a purple bruise and a set of fading teeth marks.
"You sure as hell branded me good," he'd said in disbelief, twisting around to study his backside in a mirror, and then laughed. "Guess that means I belong to you."
Ellis smiles back at Deacon now, a glow of affection rising in his chest. Maybe this isn't all turning out like he'd thought it would. Maybe he can risk his middle-aged heart one more time after all. And this time, maybe there'll be something more like a happy ending.
End of chapter 23. More to come. . .
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