Two Men in a Pickup
Chapter 24, Epilogue
The mornings are crisp, and fall is in the air. The frost is on the pumpkin, as his old man used to say. The old man, of course, is living in Florida now and probably hasn't said it or even thought it since he left, married again and happily settled somewhere around Ft. Myers. Mike has never been there. Just gets the occasional picture postcard.
He gets a call from Don one night after corn picking is over, asking if he's got his pheasant license, like he promised, so they can be out with the rest of the hunters on opening day.
This is something they used to do back when they were boys. It's a chance to do it again, to make up for the years they missed while Mike was in the serviceand then afterward when they kind of let themselves drift apart.
"Ammo? You got plenty of ammo?" Don says.
"No problem." A box of shells lasts Mike a long time. He rarely uses his shotgun and would happily miss a season if Don wasn't so hell bent on this one.
And they agree to meet up at Mike's place the morning pheasant season opens. "Dark of the moon," Don says. "I want to be out there and ready to go the minute the sun comes up."
"I'm setting the alarm for 4 a.m.," Mike says. "I'm not getting out of bed one damn minute sooner'n that."
"Better sleep in your clothes then, pardner," Don says. "I want your ass in my pickup at four-oh-five sharp."
It used to be the same way when they were boys. Don raring to go and then, like as not, showing up late because he'd overslept.
"I got the hooch," Don says. "Don't worry about that."
"I'm not worried," Mike says. "What are we doing for eats?"
"Up to you," Don says. "Carol will definitely not be packing us any lunches. Trust me."
"I thought you and her made up."
"I'm not your mom. I believe those were her last words on the subject."
Carol seems to think Don's mom has spoiled him for married life. Expects her to do too much.
"How about we eat at the tavern in Worms?" Mike says. Worms is a little farm village, not more than a wide spot in the road and not far from where they'll be hunting. They can get burgers and fries there.
"Us and everybody else," Don says, like he doesn't want to be bothered with that.
"OK, I'll bring something." Mike remembers how Don's mom would make them roast beef sandwiches, with dill pickles wrapped up in wax paper, little bags of Fritos, and some homemade brownies or Rice Krispie bars. Too bad she still isn't around for that. She and Don's father quit farming and moved to Arizona.
He hangs up the phone and walks into the TV room, where Danny is in an easy chair reading the newspaper.
"That Don?" Danny says. "What's he want?"
And he tells Danny about their plans to go hunting. "You want to come along, bud?" he says.
Danny shakes his head.
"I can borrow you a gun." There's his dad's old twelve-gauge he left behind when he moved to Florida.
Danny shakes his head again.
"Something about the idea you don't like?" Mike is standing behind his chair now and leans over his shoulder, his cheek next to Danny's ear.
Danny shrugs. "No," he says. "Good chance I'd shoot something I didn't mean to."
"You used to go hunting," Mike says. "You told me."
"Yeah, with a bunch of other hooligans. Lucky one of us didn't get killed." He puts down the paper. "Anyway, it'd do you and Don good to have the day to yourselves."
Danny has talked like this before. Ever since he and Don came back from that wild goose chase to the Panhandle looking for Kirk. He seems to have this idea about Mike and Donthat old friends should stick together if they can, even if one is queer and the other is not.
Through Danny's open collar, he can see the white V of his tee shirt, and he slips his hand inside, sliding his fingers onto the smooth skin of his chest. For a moment, Danny leans his head back against him.
"Don's just a guy I used to hang out with when we were boys," Mike says. "He'll never take the place of you."
"But he doesn't give up on you either. That counts for something." Danny opens the paper again. "I never had a friend like that."
Mike now cradles Danny's head in his arms. "I don't give up on you, bud," he says.
"Haven't given you any reason to," Danny says, laughing a little. "So far."
This is a side of Danny that Mike doesn't know well yet. He can be cocky and full of wisecrackssittin' on top of the world, as the song goesbut there's a part of him really unsure about himself, like no one has ever loved him enough.
He lost his mother after a long illness when he was young. Mike has wondered about that. Not like his own mother, who fought with his dad about as long as Mike could remember, before they split up when he was a teenagerand still managed to get into a fight sometimes.
A mother like that was easy to let go of once you got used to the idea she was going. But Danny's mom, struggling against sickness year after yearor so Mike imagined herthat had to be a lot harder.
It was Don's mom who'd given Mike most of the mothering he ever knew. And she had trusted him, too, though god knows she shouldn't have. He hardly did as much as she wanted to keep Don out of trouble. The times they picked up girls and drove down to the river to park and see how far they could go, he'd think sometimes of Don's mother back hometrusting him.
He presses his nose into Danny's hair. It smells of his shampoo. He realizes he's still only beginning to get used to this young man's presence in his life. Not counting the day they met over a year ago, Danny measuring cornfields for the ASCS, they've known each other for less than six months.
He and Don have known each other for ten years or more. And many of those yearshe sees that nowhe loved Don as much as a teenager could. Yeah, it was love. His heart ached for him sometimes when they weren't together. And there'd been those few times, Don so drunk he couldn't remember, that he'd sucked his cock until he came.
And though he'd felt confused and troubled about it each time for days afterwardsit was maybe not what a normal, red-blooded American boy should doand though he promised himself not to let it happen again, he eventually came to believe there was nothing wrong with it after all. With what he was feeling, and feeling with all his heart, it was just the next normal, red-blooded thing to be doing.
Danny is still new to all this. Still getting used to what he's learning about himself. And getting used to Mike. It's too much to think that it will stay like this. He'll be spreading his wings first chance he gets, and that will come sooner or later.
Him living here with Mike, he can't go on being a farmhand forever. He'll go back and finish college, and though you have to hunt like hell to find another queer guy in Nebraskathey hide out and usually for good reasonsthere'll be somebody. You can count on it. Somebody with more to offer than a farmer.
That's just the way it is. You have to be ready to let people go. Even Donand Danny is wrong about that. Don has given up on him. This hunting business is just him trying to live in the past, trying to forget for a while that he's married and has kids and a father's responsibilities. Don has never grown up, and probably never will.
He looks at the paper Danny is reading. It's coming up on elections. Johnson and Goldwater. In your heart you now he's right, the Republicans are saying. Far right, the Democrats insist.
Danny seems to take an interest in all this, like he's discovering politics for the first time. Mike wants to tell him that politicians can't be trusted. But he decides to let Danny find that out for himself.
"What's in the paper?" he says now, still leaning over Danny's shoulder.
"Same old stuff."
Mike lifts the newspaper out of his hands. "Then you won't miss reading the rest of it," he says and switches off the lamp beside them. "Let's hit the hay. I want to get naked with you."
"Clear as a bell," Don is saying. He's observing the predawn sky, full of stars, as they walk to the truck from Mike's house. They've been in the kitchen, drinking coffee while Mike got into a second pair of jeans and his lace-up boots. He's carrying his shotgun now, his pockets full of shells, and he's got a brown grocery bag with plastic packets of beef jerky, some apples, and a package of Halloween candybaby Snickers bars.
He looks up. Don is right. There doesn't seem to be a cloud in the sky. The air is frosty cold and still. Inside the truck, the cab is still warm from the drive out to the farm. He puts his gun on the window rack next to Don's.
They drive straight north along the county line, across highway 30 and the Union Pacific tracks, and keep going. All along here, there are cornfields on either side of the road, just row after empty row of stumps of stalks stripped by corn pickers, and hunkered down in them are little flocks of pheasant, each a rooster with some hens, feeding on kernels of corn that fell on the ground during the harvest.
They could hunt on Mike's land, but he's rented it to a neighbor who lets his cows forage there until the winter snows set in. And you can't hunt around livestock. You'll scare the shit out of them, even if you don't shoot a cow by mistake. There's always some assholes doing that anyway and giving hunters a bad name.
Every mile or so, they pass a truck or car parked along the road. Hunters who've staked out their fields already and are waiting for sunrise.
Mike and Don have a favorite place to hunt on a side road farther on. There's several open fields with a creek running through them, the trees growing along the banks losing their leaves, and no farm buildings anywhere around. You can drive in a good half mile from the road before you have to get out and walk, and if you've got the patience, the pheasants practically come to you.
It's still dark when they get there. Don parks the truck, turns off the engine and the lights. And they sit together, taking sips of a bottle of Jim Beam and starting into the Snickers bars.
The taste of bourbon and milk chocolate blend into a bittersweet, nutty confection in Mike's mouth, and after a while he feels himself growing warm and relaxed, sleepy again, as he did when he first woke up, Danny there in bed beside him, stirring in the moments after Mike punched off the alarm, reaching over to touch Mike's arm, then drifting back to dreamland.
Sitting quietly now in the dark, with only the sound of Don's hand in the bag of candy bars and tearing open the paper on another one, Mike thinks of Danny and the night before, the two of them locked together for a while under the covers as their body heat warmed the bed.
He likes those first moments, the first touch of naked skin against naked skin, of pressing into each other, his cock growing hard against Danny's. Each time it is like discovering that he's been starving in some way, a hunger or thirst in him that he's been only half aware of. Holding Danny tight, it's like finding something that he didn't know was lost. Something worth more than anything else in the world. Something he would have perished without.
Maybe it's the darkness and the bottle they are sharing, but Mike realizes he felt something like this when he and Don were teenagers. A version of it more innocent, for sure. But Don had been that for him. A kind of lifesaver he wouldn't have survived without.
Well, he would have survived, but in some diminished way, like a homeless person. A man without a country. He would have grown up less than the man he is. Loving Donand that's what it was, even though Don had not really loved him back, not half as muchloving Don had made the difference. Set him free somehow. Helped make a man of him. A man to be, at least.
Don clears his throat and pops in the cigarette lighter. "Been meaning to ask you something," he says.
"You and me had this idea once about going into business together."
"I got my dad-in-law interested in starting up a purebred operation." Seems Don wants the old man to buy a ranch somewhere, maybe up in the Sandhills, and stock it with some new breed besides Angus and Herefords. He's been hearing about Charolais. They're big, hearty, winter well, got lots of lean meat on them. He wants to start up a herd, get other ranchers interested, maybe raise some champion bulls, sell sperm.
"I figure you and me could partner up, and make a good living for both of us," Don says.
"I already got a farm going," Mike says.
"You got small potatoes, my friend. I'm talkin' a real honest-to-god business. Customers coast to coast."
"Is this how you sold the idea to your father-in-law?" Carol's father runs feed lots outside of town and owns part of the sale barn.
"He's rollin' in dough," Don says. "Don't know what to do with all of it."
"Doesn't he care that you ran off last summer?" Mike says. "Left your wife and two kids?"
"Two kids and one on the way," Don corrects him.
"Carol's pregnant again?"
"Yeah, well, I didn't know at the time. She was keeping it a big surprise for me, I guess. Who knows with Carol," Don says. "She's due to spring next month."
"Congratulations," Mike says.
"Musta happened on Valentine's. I can remember that one," Don says and laughs. "We don't do it that often."
The cigarette lighter pops out – >Ping!and Don lights a cigarette.
"No, he don't mind I took some time off," he says. "Get him interested in making some more money, and he's all bygones be bygones."
In the east, they can begin to see the tops of the trees along the creek, silhouetted against the dawn sky.
"So, like I said," Don says. "You wanna come in with me?"
"I got plans," Mike says. "The place I'm on is coming up for sale. I've been improving it. It's the start I've been waitin' for."
"I'm telling you, Carol's old man is bank-rolling this. You don't need to put up any of your own money."
"I dunno, Don," Mike says. "I'd really have to think about it."
"Well, think about it, dammit," Don says impatiently, like Mike is just giving him a hard time for no good reason. "You don't want to miss out on this." The cigarette sparks in the darkness between them as he flicks it into the ash tray. And he's quiet for a while.
"You know you missed one helluva good time not going along to Calgary when you had the chance," he says.
"I have a milk hauling job, you know that," Mike says.
"Fuck that. You coulda taken the time off."
"What's so funny?" Don wants to know.
"You haven't changed a bit."
"You're right. I'm the same hell raiser I was when we were in high school. And don't anybody try to change me." More sparks from the cigarette as he takes a deep drag from it.
"You gonna tell me about Calgary or just leave me guessing?" Mike says.
Don laughs. "I wanna tell you, that place was crawling with buckle bunnies." And he proceeds to give an account of serious drinking, nights of getting laid, and being thrown out of at least one barthe one he remembers.
Mike lets him talk and watches as the eastern sky grows lighter.
Finally, after Don tells of having his pants thrown over the balcony of a hotel room on the top floor at two in the morning and having to go down in just his shirt and boots to fetch them, then meeting twocount 'em two, he sayswomen on the elevator, getting off on their floor, and not retrieving his pants until hours later – after all that, Mike says, "I wanna know something. If you were having such a good time, why did you come back?"
Don thinks a moment, stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray. "Hell if I know anymore," he says. "Musta had a reason."
Mike shakes his head. It's just about sunup. He opens his door and steps out, reaching back inside for his gun. In spite of two pair of jeans, the morning chill reaches quickly under his coat to his backside. In the distance, he can hear gunfire already.
"Damn," Don mutters. "Somebody got the jump on us. Them birds are gonna be skittish as all hell now."
The sun broke over the flat horizon, the long shadows of the trees along the creek spilling across the field in front of them as they walked slowly down parallel corn rows, watching ahead of them for the first sign of movement, a burst of flight as one, two, or more pheasants suddenly shot up from the ground cover.
It required more stealth and patience than Don had ever been willing to give it, and soon he was talking and tramping loudly with his boots through the dead stalks and fallen leaves. Any game in the field would hear them coming and creep silently off and out of their way. There'd be no surprising any birds, unless they were deaf.
If Mike truly wanted to take home any pheasant that day, he'd tell Don to be quiet, but it is enough just being outdoors, seeing his breath on the crisp morning air, and walking warm inside his layers of clothes, the thermals and the two pair of jeans pressing into his crotch, his feet in a pair of insulated boots, the bourbon and chocolate buzzing in his bloodstream, and the gun heavy in his hands.
He traded away two Saturdays with another driver at the dairy to get this one day off for hunting with Don. It feels like playing hooky, as they did in school on opening day of the season, having to face the music in the principal's office for truancy when they went back, but not giving a shit as they walked this same field, glad to be alive and out on their owntogether.
Don, walking a half dozen rows over from him, has got a couple steps ahead, and Mike can see his back now, his shoulders filling out the wool jacket he's wearing, the dark green sleeves extending from under a bright orange vest. He's set his orange cap on his head so it is high in back and low over his eyes, making him look even taller, and under him are his long legs in a pair of his levi's, so new they are deep indigo in the morning light.
Mike realized when they were still boys in high school that he admired the way Don moved, always loose and smoothunhurried, even when he wasn'tand the way he stood, feet wide apart, weight evenly balanced, his hips pushed forward and his gut tucked neatly behind his belt buckle. Mike tried to mimic it but realized finally that his legs were too short. It never felt natural
Don walks now with that same easy gait, sure footed. Finally, Mike came to love those legs, and he sees today that they haven't lost their magic. They led his interestor so it seemed when they were boysto everything else in Don's jeans, his butt, his cock, his balls.
Walking along, the rising sun now over the trees and throwing their own long shadows together across the corn rows, he finds himself thinking about Don's offer. Once, way back, they planned to go into business togetherfarming or maybe ranching, though neither of them knew much about raising cattle. Mike had the brains, and Don had the determination. What neither of them had was the capital.
Then Don got married to Carol and started having kidsactually, got married because he started having themand their lives went in different directions. Now, Don's marriage has done something unexpected. It is producing capital as well as offspring. Besides all the magic in his jeans, his pockets are suddenly full of cash. In Don's mind, there is nothing now to stop them from having what they always wanted.
Correct that, Mike thinks. Don would get what he has always wanted. And he'd be giving up nothing.
Mike would have to give up his farmhe only rents it, but he's been improving it for the day Farquhar, the owner, is actually willing to sell it to him. And he's already got the old man to agree not to make him pay for his own improvements by upping the asking price.
He could let that go. Finally, it would come down to no more than a change of plans. Yes, he could do that.
"You still considering that offer I made?" Don says.
Mike doesn't answer right away. "What about Carol?" he says. "What does she think of all this?"
Don stops now to let Mike catch up with him. "All she says is she won't live on any ranch. But whatever she says ain't gonna decide it."
"Who'd live on the ranch then?" Mike says, thinking Don would have to hire a foreman to run it.
"You and me," Don says. "Partners."
They stand for a moment facing each other.
"What about your kids, Don?" Mike says. "You're a dad. You got responsibilities."
"Aw, they'll be fine," Don says, turning to walk on again. "Besides, there'd be one of us there if the other has to leave for a while."
Mike doesn't say anything to this. Don might go back to Carol and the boys for days at a time, but what reason would Mike have to leave?
And he lets himself think about Danny.
Danny knows his own mind, OK. But he doesn't know his heart. He is old enough to know better, but about a lot of things he's still a babe in the woods. It is, in a way, something Mike likes about himhis innocence.
In time, though, he'll come to know himself better. He'll go back to college, and sooner or later there'll be someone else, some guy causing a stir in his shorts, then as they get to know each other better, touching his heart. And though Danny would deny it now, he doesn't know this about himself yet.
Mike will fade into history. He'll be alone again, rattling around his old farmhouse with just a dog for company.
Partnering on a Sandhills ranch with Don wouldn't take the place of Danny, but being with someone day after dayeven Donwould make up a little for night after night alone.
"You still thinking about what I said?" Don asks, as they walk along.
"I'm still thinking."
When he gets back to the farm, it is late afternoon. They'd walked miles and found almost nothing to shoot at. Neither of them could remember such a bad opening season day, not even the time when all they found was a leghorn chicken that had wandered off from someone's farm.
That time, Don's theory was that the coyotes had been getting to them first, and he said the same thing today, but it didn't explain why a chicken would have been spared back then and why today there was the constant sound of gunfire from all directions as other hunters were obviously getting their limit.
There finally was a very confused rooster pheasant that sprang up scolding from just in front of them as they got back to the truck, and Don took a shot at it. He got the bird, but he also took out one of his headlights.
He dropped Mike off at his front gate, still disgruntled, though they'd finished off the beers in Don's cooler and should have been in a better mood. And then he drove off, back to town.
Inside the house, Mike discovers that Danny is nowhere to be found. He's left a note on the kitchen table that says only, "Be back soon."
What's odd about this is that Mike's pickup is still parked out by the front gate. If Danny has gone somewhere, he would have taken it. The keys are always in the ignition.
He turns on some lights, starts some water to boil for a cup of instant coffee, and looks through a small stack of mail that has been left in a neat stack on the tablesome bills and flyers and a new issue of Successful Farming.
The silence of the house reminds him of the old days, when he lived here alone. He finally turns on the radio for company.
This is what it will be like with Danny gone. Maybe if he'd never known Danny, it would be easier, but now he sees that he's come to depend on him. Life without him is going to be awkward. Hell, it's going to hurt a little.
Still, he thinks, he is man enough to handle that. After all this time, he isn't going to turn into some kind of Mr. Softy. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta doand all that. He squares his shoulders and spoons some coffee into a cup.
Outside, Rusty starts up barking, which means someone is driving onto the place. He looks out the kitchen window and sees a car pull up and Danny get out. It is Ernie the mailman's car, and there is Ernie behind the wheel.
When Danny gets in the house, Mike lets him stand there a moment to explain where he's been and why. They only know Ernie because he delivers the mail. He isn't exactly a close friend. He even seems a little slap-happynot the sharpest knife in the drawer.
"You won't believe this," Danny says, setting a bag of groceries on the counter top. "Ernie just showed up at the door with our mail and asked me if I wanted to come along with him on his route. Guess he wanted someone to talk to, and he picked me."
He hands Mike a cardboard box. "That fuel pump you been waiting for came in at the auto parts store," he says.
Mike takes another cup from the cupboard for Danny. "What's Ernie's problem?" he says, pouring hot water into both mugs, and Danny tells a long story about listening to Ernie's troubles. He'd married after years of bachelorhood, and after a flock of kids, his wife has said no more and gone all cold on him. Won't even let him touch her. After several months of this, he's started going round the bend.
"Don't they know about birth control?"
"She's Catholic. Won't hear of it."
Mike shakes his head. Being queer, you don't have these problems. "So what'd you tell him?" he says.
"I said he should talk to you," Danny says.
"You said what?"
Danny's face then breaks into a grin. "I didn't say anything. I just listened." He steps over to Mike to get the cup of coffee he's made for him. And he puts his arms around him, patting him on the butt.
"I guess you didn't freeze your ass off out there today," he says. "I can still feel it in there."
"What made you even do thatgo along with Ernie," Mike says.
"Well, I asked myself, what would Mike do?" Danny says. "And I figured if you were me, you'd do what you could for him. You're like that."
"Yeah, how about that," Danny laughs and hugs Mike some more.
As Mike holds Danny, he thinks of what he's been thinking all dayabout partnering with Donand about another day he knows will come, when Danny is gone.
He feels again how he began bracing himself for what is sure to happen, and how the idea of throwing in with Don has begun to make a kind of sense.
But with Danny in his arms, he feels his resolve quickly melt away. "Who'm I kidding," he thinks. "Who do I think I'm kidding?"
For as long as it lasts, he will stay right hereto hell with what the future has in store for him. He'll keep on living in this house as long as Danny considers it home, until the day comes when he leaves for the last time and never comes back.
Continued . . .