Two Men in a Pickup
Note that these stories, including this one, are not an endorsement of unsafe sex. They take place many years before the appearance of AIDS and before it was standard practice to use condoms to reduce the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases. Remember always: that was then, this is now. Sex is precious, and so are life and health.
Chapter 25, Epilogue 4, Part 1
OK, first day of pheasant season. Mike is off with Don somewhere. They leave before daylight to be ready to head out into a field, fully armed, with the first rays of the morning sun crossing the horizon. They've done this, so I gather, since they were old enough to hunt.
There were a few years off there while they let Don's getting married and Mike's enlisting in the service keep them apart, but they've been kind of mending fences since I've known Mike, and I say let them. It's tough enough finding good friends, but keeping them, that's even tougher. And you need them in this world.
Yeah, Don is straight as one of Tonto's arrows. Well, who knows for sure how straight that was, but you get the idea. And from spending a few days with him last summer on that road trip in search of Kirk, I know he wishes Mike was straight, too, so they could be the Lone Ranger and Tonto together, like the good old days. He's probably even holding out for Mike to discover he's not queer after all, and for me to drop out of the picture.
But be that as it mayand I seriously doubt that's ever going to happenit's all right with me if they can get back to enjoying one another's company. Mike would feel the same way for me.
Though I can tell you right now, there's little chance of that happening either. I've begun to see that I used to hang out with some real duds. Mike, of course, would never be so uncharitablehe can find some redeeming quality in just about anybodybut what I like about Mike is exactly what was missing in all of them.
He's not afraid. And fear is one of the personality traits I like least about myself. I've been scared of just about everything. And the friends I had at school were a bunch of other guys who were just the same way. They'd be the last to admit it, of course, because they covered it up with a shit load of cynicism.
Who needs that? That's what I want to know.
So I've got no real friends, and while that's pretty goddam pathetic, I'm willing to cut my losses and leave the welcome mat out for any who may some day come along. And either way, one thing's for sure, I'm sticking with Mike. He's the real thingnot to mention one helluva lot of fun in bed.
I'm having thoughts like this while I'm standing in the kitchen, having my third cup of coffee and looking out the window at the fields beyond the barn. First thing I notice is Ranger standing there in the horse pasture, gazing out across the fence into the distance, and when I see where he's looking, I can make out what looks like some hunters pacing through Mike's corn stubble.
Which is exactly where they're not supposed to be. The fields down that way are posted "No Hunting" because one of our neighbors, Tully, has turned out a bunch of his feeder steers and a couple dry milk cows there to forage.
I can see three hunters heading across the field, carrying their shotguns, and they're already spooking the cattle, who are eyeing them, curious, but ready to run off, tails straight in the air. Or if one has a mind to, give them a good chase. The hunters don't seem to care about that. Maybe they're dumb enough to think that with guns they can defend themselves.
I go to the phone and call Tully.
"Looks like we got some hunters over here with your cows," I say when his wife Alice picks up, and she hands the phone to Tully.
"Sonofabitch," he mutters.
I picture him already reaching for his coat to go put a stop to it. He's easy-going normally, but always ready to swing into action when something needs doing.
"You want some backup?" I ask him.
"If you're not busy," he says.
And I agree to drive out to the field and meet him there.
I put on a pair of boots that are like ice on my feet from sitting overnight on the porch, and I try to dress warm since for all the golden morning sunshine illuminating the world outside, it's cold enough to freeze your butt. Even if I did see the sport in firing buckshot into small, colorful game fowl, I'd draw the line at this.
When I sit down on the frigid seat in Mike's truck and start it up, a cold blast of air from the heater blows between my legs, and I am instantly chilled to the bone. Rusty jumps into the back, happy at the prospect of an adventure, huffing clouds of his breath into the air.
"Fuck this," I tell him. He, in his fur coat, thinks I'm delighted as he is by this new development.
I drive down the road to where the hunters have parked their truck, a beat-up old GMC pickup with a sprung tailgate, decals for petroleum products and additives in the windows, and a bumper sticker on the back: "I Got a Gun For My WifeBest Trade I Ever Made."
The plates are from some county I don't know. You can reason with most local guys, I'm thinking, but some yahoos far from homeand maybe drunk to bootthey could take some persuading.
I stay inside Mike's truck looking at them already half way across the field, Tully's cows scattering then turning to watch them pass by. I leave the engine running, waiting for the heater to kick in. Rusty is still in the back, letting out a woof or two, anticipating he doesn't know what yet.
Tully arrives in his truck, jumps out and is crossing the ditch, his long legs high-stepping through the dead weeds. He's already shouting at the hunters when he gets to the fence. His voice rises high and shrill, in that flat, tight way of country men who need to be heard above the sound of loud machinery, a herd of cattle bawling, oras in this caseover a considerable distance.
"Can't any of you fuckers read?" he's shouting, pointing to the no-hunting sign on the fence post beside him. "Get the hell off this property!"
Rusty woofs again, getting more excited.
Maybe one of the three men turns to look our way, but they show no signs of hearing or understanding what Tully is saying.
"Goddam it," Tully says and stomps back to his truck. He takes the shotgun from the gun rack in the cab, pops in a couple of shells and fires it into the air. The sharp blast echoes back to us from across the countryside. Tully's cows stand where they are, too startled to move.
This gets the attention of all three hunters, and Tully shouts some more. He's aiming the gun now at the tires of their truck. I've never seen him so mad.
I can hear them shouting back at him, shaking their fists and sounding pissed off. Part of me, from watching too many "Gunsmoke" episodes with Mike, is expecting this to turn into a shootout, me unarmed and diving for cover. Rusty barks again, like he's ready for a showdown.
Then one by one they begin walking back toward the road, one of them with a hand over his head, as if he's surrendering.
Tully comes over to where I'm sitting in Mike's truck, and I roll down the window.
"Idiots," he's muttering. But he's grinning at me, as he shakes his head, like this is all in a day's work.
"What's Mike up to today?" he wants to know, and I tell him. And while we wait for the hunters, we small talk like this, as country men do who meet each other on the road and are in no hurry to get someplace else.
I don't know Tully very well, but I like him. He's solid as bedrock, a man of his word, decent and dependable. He was born and raised out here, and he's farming the same farm he grew up on. Too many years to stay in one place, if you ask me, but he'll live the rest of his life this way. He's already been married long enough to have teenage kids.
When the three hunters are finally close enough and we can hear them walking through the corn stalks on the ground, Tully stops talking and turns to watch them, his elbow in my open window and his shotgun cradled in his other arm.
They're an unsavory looking bunch, unshaven and scowling. One of them has a face that's been through more than a few fist fights and seen the bottom of way too many bottles of booze. He stumbles crawling through the barb wire fence like he's started into another one today already.
"We could report you to the sheriff for this," he is saying. "Threatening us with a firearm."
"I know the guy personally," Tully says. "If he's not already too busy today with assholes like you, I'm sure he'd love to hear your story."
The guy gives Tully an evil look, but nothing more is said. They take their time getting into their pickup and finally drive off, spinning tires in the gravel. The driver sticks his arm out the window and gives us the finger.
"Thanks for coming out," Tully says to me when they're gone. "Made it easier with the two of usand Rusty." He reaches into the back and pats Rusty on the head.
When Tully says stuff like this, you know it's from the heart. I admit, coming from him it gives me a little feel-good surge.
"No problem," I say.
"Did you get a good look at those suckers?" he laughs. "That one had a face on him even a mother'd find hard to love."
Tully seems in no hurry to get back home, and since the heater has finally started workingI can feel the beginnings of warmth around my anklesI invite him to come sit inside.
"Don't mind if I do," he says and walks around the front of the truck to get in. He's a big guy, and his big coat makes him even bigger, his knees almost touching the dashboard. He pulls off his cap, flipping the ear flaps back into it and snaps it onto his head again, tugging it real snug. Then he puts his hand into an inside pocket and takes out a rolled-up pouch of Red Man.
"Chew?" he offers, holding it to me before he takes some himself.
"Filthy habit, I know," he chuckles. "So Alice keeps telling me."
He pulls off a stringy wad and puts it in one cheek.
"I like Mike," he says, when he gets himself settled. "He's a good neighbor."
"Well, he says the same thing about you," I tell him. Which sounds lame, I know, but it's the truth.
"And you're related to him?" he asks.
Here it comes, I'm thinking. He's fishing for information about Mike and me. I'm sure the people around here must have begun to wonder about us by now. Tully would be no exception.
"No, we're just friends," I say and offer nothing more. How, I wonder, would I explain the "just" in just friends anyway?
"He's smart," Tully says. "Stayin' single like he does. Put it off as long as you can, gettin' hitched. I wish I'd done that."
As I hoped, Tully doesn't pry where information isn't offered. Instead, as it happens, he decides to be more roundabout.
A car comes down the road toward us now, a big old Buick. The driver, a woman, slows and waves as she goes by. The girl beside her on the front seat only glances our way.
"That's Alice," Tully says and sighs. "And my daughter. They're going into town to shop for a wedding dress."
And then the story tumbles out of him. His daughter, Nadine, seems to have rushed things with her boyfriend, and now they're organizing a quick wedding.
"Alice thinks they'll be all right, but I got my doubts." His voice takes on an edge. "Sure as shootin', it'll turn out like the last time with my first daughter." And he explains how she married two years ago and is already separated and living at home again, with two little ones.
"I don't know what's the matter with young people today," Tully says, and I hear both regret and dismay in his voice. If you asked him, I know he'd say it's not all that hard to just stick to your guns and make the best of things come hell or high water. Nobody said getting along with a spouse was supposed to be easy.
"They read those romance magazines until they're boy crazy," he says. "And they think you and me and every other good lookin' man is gonna sweep them off their feet and keep them livin' happily ever after."
He rolls down his window and takes a spit out onto the road. "Hell, it ain't that way, and anybody could tell 'em, but do any of 'em want to hear that? Hell, no."
I am still turning that "good lookin' man" remark over in my head and starting to feel a glow of self-regard that is not coming from the heater. Tully is a good looking man, even at his age, and it tickles me that he not only considers himself so but includes me along with him.
"I have three uncles, every one of 'em stayed singleErnest, Albert, and Richardand I can't see it's done any of 'em a lick of harm." He was on a roll now, and I just let him talk.
Two of his uncles, it seems, were not really marriage material anyway. One of them is hunch-backed and another is so shy around other people everyone takes him for mentally disabled. The oldest, however, did well working for the railroad and, living on his pension now, still manages to buy a new Chrysler every couple of years.
"A Chrysler, for crissake," Tully says. "That second-hand Buick you saw my wife drivin' and that sorry excuse for a Ford truck you're lookin' at right there are the best I've ever been able to manage." I look through the windshield at his pickup and, besides the heavy-duty splashes of manure-colored mud and a paint-chipped stock rack that leans a little to one side, I can't see anything wrong with it.
Those three bachelor uncles, he goes on, ended up living together and looking after each other. The one car gets them everywhere they need to go, and until they bought a TV, you could find them most days sitting at home playing cards and passing around the occasional pint of schnapps.
Over the years they have worked out most of their disagreements, each tolerating the others' eccentricitiesand there were many. Then Tully laughs. About the only problem anymore is agreeing on which shows to watch on the TV.
The two youngest have never had steady work, just jobbed out as manual labor, mostly for local farmers when someone needed an extra hand. Tully himself hired his uncle Richard for a while one year, getting two of his daughters to double up in one bedroom so the old guy could have a room of his own.
He had odd table mannersor so the girls complainedand because his idea of talking to them was so old-fashioned and quaintly courteous that he seemed to be from Mars, it was hard maintaining anything like harmony in the household. Only his youngest daughter, a first-grader then, would accept his uncle's offer of a candy barhe kept a grocery bag full of them on the dresser in his room.
The others were downright rude, until Tully had finally threatened them with whippingssomething as unlikely to happen as an actual invasion from Mars, since soft-hearted Tully had never raised a hand to his daughters.
Richard finally went back to his brothers, and that was the end of the discord for a while. Until the girls returned to squabbling with each other. There's never a moment of peace under his roof it seems. Trapped, he's been, in a house full of women.
"Sometimes, I think the only satisfaction I ever had from those girls was the five minutes it took to get their mother pregnant." He laughs ruefully and spits out the window again.
I picture him for a moment, sliding into bed with his long legs, the start of a hard-on in his underwear, reaching over to interest his wife in something conjugal at the end of a long day's work on the farm.
"When I was young," he says, "I never stopped to wonder what my uncles did for sex." Ernest, he could have had girls stashed away here and there. With that Chrysler, and the sharp way he can dress, he wouldn't have had any trouble picking them up.
But if a woman ever caught his eye, no one ever knew of it. Ernest was his mama's boy. He looked after her till she was gone, and to this day he still looks after his two bachelor brothers.
"Sometimes I look at the situation this way," Tully says. "You and I know how boys are. They can get to playing with each other. I suppose some boys never outgrow that."
And there it is. There's his theory about Mike and me. He's worked his way around to it without ever saying it in so many words. And then, as if to make sure I don't take it the wrong way, he says, "If that's how it's been for them, I say what the hell. Live and let live."
I feel a kind of relief flood over me, that this man with his farmer's way of thinking has found a way to make sure I don't misunderstand him – that as far as he's concerned, Mike and I are free to be "just friends" in whatever way that means to us. And he doesn't need to know.
He falls silent for a while, hands on his knees, gazing out the windshield. Then he stirs, pulls a pair of leather work gloves from the back pocket of his jeans, and begins putting them on.
"No, if I had a son," Tully says, "I'd tell him to take a lesson from Mike. Sew your wild oats if you have to, but stay away from the marryin' kind as long as you can."
And if I needed a father, I'm thinking, I'd pick a man like Tully. Anyone who could go to the trouble to give Mike and me his blessingand even consider yours truly good lookingwell, he is king in my book.
I look over at him with the big wad of chew in his cheek, and I picture him living his life out here on his farm and giving it all his best, year after year, letting himself think sometimes how he might have done it all differently, shaking his head, and then just getting on with it.
"You know," I say. "I may be out of line saying this, but if you were my dad, I'd be proud of you."
He looks at me, a grin now on his face, like it was the last thing he expected anyone to ever say. "You would?" he says.
"Yeah, I would."
He slaps me on the knee, giving it a good shake. "I don't know," he says, "but I might come around some day just to hear you say that again."
He opens the door on his side and starts to get out. "Been real good talkin' to ya, Danny," he says. "Give my regards to Mike when you see him." And a wave of cold air washes over my legs before he closes the door again.
Instead of walking to his truck, he steps down into the ditch and crosses through the fence. I roll down my window, and he says he's taking the time, as long as he's here, to have a look at his cows to see if they're doing all right.
"You want me to stick around in case those hunters come back?" I ask him.
"Naw, they're gone for good," he says and waves me on.
I watch him for a while, walking out into the field, calling to his cows. And then I turn the pickup around in the road and head back to the house.
I'm thinking, well, it's back to my writer's life, lonesome as it may be, pouring heart and soul onto the typewritten page, dreaming my long-shot dreams of fame and fortune.
But my day that started with Tully and a truckload of drunk pheasant hunters has only just begun.
Continued . . .
© 2007 Rock Lane Cooper