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 26, Epilogue 5
OK, you're wondering where all this is going, and so am I. A twenty-one-year-old college dropout, I'm in love for the first time in my life withof all peoplea farmer.
And I'm getting used to the idea that I'm never going to move to a city somewhere, get a job in some big company, and settle down with a house in the suburbs, a wife, and 2.5 kidsI believe that's the current rate of reproduction.
I'm having this back-to-the-drawingboard conversation with myself about what the future really holds. And there seems to be just this one holdover from the life I walked out ofthis dream of being a writer. Next to having sex with Mike, I feel most like the man I'm becoming when I sit at a typewriter spinning out stories.
Characters and situations pop out of my head like they were just waiting to be set free. I get lost in them myselflaugh when I write something funny, get teary-eyed when I write something sad.
But I think of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller or Jack Kerouaceven J. D. Salingerand I'm saying to myself, these guys all have a world of experience. They've been places and done interesting things, so they have lots to write about.
What the fuck have I done? The biggest adventure in my life has been what I'm doing right nowshacking up with a queer man and living on this farm out in the Nebraska countryside.
Which is not to say, in this the year of our lord 1964, that doesn't qualify as some kind of adventure. By a stretch of the imagination, I suppose, you could call me a sexual outlaw. But look at any part of my daily lifekeeping house for Mike, cooking a meal, and sitting at this typewriterand try to persuade me this is the life of an outlaw. I don't think so.
Or consider my entire sex life, which consists of one blowjob in the shower of a painter who spent an afternoon covering me with blue tempera for an art projectfollowed by this five-month domestic arrangement with Mike.
An adventure for me, sure. Going from my bed to Mike's that first night was like crossing continents. Which I guess makes me some kind of Marco Polo. But for me, and not for any other reader I can think of, even assuming they're broad-minded enough to be curious and anything but shocked and appalledtwo guys having sex? Yuck.
Could I turn that around into a boy-girl romancegive it the Barbara Cartland treatment? Right, I gotta be kidding. I know even less about that. Science fiction? Shoot-em-up westerns? Be serious.
The #1 best seller right now is The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Espionage is what people want to read.
And where does that leave me? I've got no personal experience to draw on, except this one really Big Experiencewhich I can't write about. I'm fucked.
So maybe it's going to take me a while to find my subject. And until that happens, I'll keep plugging away at trying to write The Great American Novel. I'm thinking maybe it'll be about male bonding of some kind. I'll just un-queer it enough to camouflage what it's really about, and make it moving and important enough to get it publishedmaybe even get some good reviews.
And so I dream on.
Mike, of course, has every confidence in me. But sometimes I think he'd be confident if my dream was to dig ditches. He's like that. Always a booster. And to be honest, I live for that. I've never known another man who who's had that kind of faith in me.
And I realize something as I write on these cold days, with winter approaching, my typewriter in front of me on the kitchen table and a pot of coffee keeping warm on the stove. I realize that the hero at the heart of the stories I try to write is often a lot like the man who has taken up residence in my heartMike.
I can't help it. I just love the guy.
So if I don't have experience of my own to use, I ask him about his, which usually happens while we're lying together naked in bed at nightwhich means we've just had (yuck) sex.
Sleepy but not sleepy enoughtoo much in love, as the song goes, to say goodnightwe talk sometimes into the night, and I try to get him to tell me about the years of his life before I showed up in it.
But he's cagey when it comes to that. He doesn't want me knowing too much about his pastlike it could ever change my feelings about him.
"I want to write about a guy who's been a soldier, and I've never been that," I explain to him. "But you have."
"Don't writers write about their own lives?" he says.
"But I haven't had any life."
"You werewhatborn yesterday?"
"I'm serious, Mike."
"The story of my life would bore anyone to death."
"You're still here and lookin' alive. It must not have bored you."
"OK, how's this? I grew up an only child on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, did chores, worked weekends and summers with my dad. Went to a country school, then a high school in town. Then three years in college where I majored in doing as little as possible."
"You had a mom. You left her out."
"Yeah, well, I had a mom, too."
"What happened to her?"
"She's dead. You know that."
"What kind of mom was she?"
"Sick a lot of the time. She had diabetes."
"And what was that like for your dad?"
"How do I know? He never talked about things like that."
"If you had to guess."
"I dunno, Mike," I say. "I never thought about it."
"Well, think about it."
So I do for a moment, which is not all that easy. My dad is a hard man to get to know. I realize I've probably never tried to see the world through his eyes.
"My folks fought like cats and dogs," Mike says. "I bet yours didn't."
"No, they didn't."
"Anyway, a good man would never pick a fight with a sick woman."
Mostly I'm thinking how those last years passed in a cloud of secrecy. If my father knew that my mom was dying, he never let on. He just shouldered it, like every other burden in his life, in silence.
Not just silence. A kind of grim acceptance. Maybe from growing up in the Depression. He would have been twelve when the market crashed in 1929. Imagine being a teenager, the oldest son, on a dirt farm in Nebraska during all those Dust Bowl years that followed.
I had it easy. And maybe that's what he was thinking as he watched me go to high schoollike he never had a chance toand from there to college. Me the picture of self-indulgence. As if I was entitled. Which had to be the subtext of everything he ever said to me: "Buster, you got it easy."
Mike is lying close beside me, his naked hip pressed against mine, as he thoughtfully traces with his fingers the soft underside of my arm.
"When's the last time you had a talk with your dad?" he says.
I can't remember. "Months ago, I guess," I say, then wonder if we've ever really talked.
I turn onto my side and slip one arm across Mike's chest, my leg crooking over his until I can feel his balls, warm along my thigh.
"Did you talk when your mom died?" he says.
"No." The silence, I realize, was even deeper then. "He didn't have much to say."
"I guess I didn't either."
Mike kisses me on the bridge of my nose, and I feel his breath on my face, his hand now stroking my shoulder.
"Is that so good" he says. "Sittin' on things and sayin' nothing?"
"What would you have done?"
"I dunno. Talked about the good times, your memories. Get your dad to talk about his."
"I guess we're not like that in my family."
Mike kisses my cheek now and then my mouth. Lingering like he's pleased by the taste of me.
"Mine not too much either," he says. "But I know if I ever lost you, I wouldn't be able to keep quiet about it."
"What do you mean lost?"
"Well, I don't mean misplaced."
"I'm not dying, and I'm not leaving," I say. "Not as long as you'll still have me."
Mike pulls me to him with his strong arms, our bodies coming together as he kisses me again.
"Then you better get used to being here," he says. "Cause I'm not about to let you go."
I call my dad at the hardware store where he works these days. He gave up farming about the time my mom died, and he moved to town.
Dad gave it his best shot, but he was no farmer. It just didn't suit him. And when we both knew I'd never become a farmer myself, there was no point hanging on to the place. My uncle bought all 160 acres, and he and his wife moved into the house I grew up in.
Selling hardware pays the rent on the trailer house where he lives now. I've seen him with customers and the other men he works with. He seems to like what he's doing. And I realize he needs other people around to talk tobelong toand farming is a lonely occupation.
A day-dreamy sonand I refer to myself herewas not enough company for him, though many's the day we worked together side by side on that farm and he taught me everything about farming I know.
So there's been this turning point in his life he didn't see coming. It must feel like he's starting over again, a single man with no responsibility for anyone but himself. Hard to say at his age whether it seems like a second chance or just the end of the road after giving up on what he put more than twenty years of his life into.
Could be both. I realize we may have that in commongood days and badgiving up on something and wondering what comes next.
So when I call him, we agree to get together on a Wednesday afternoon, when he gets a half day off. He says to come by where he lives. He's got some yard work and I can help out.
It's a cold, bright day in early November. I put on a hooded sweatshirt and a down-filled vest of Mike's, and I borrow his pickup for the day, to drive to my dad's. His place is on the outskirts of town, where new houses have sprung up in what used to be cow pasture and cornfields.
His trailer house sits back from a gravel road, under some big old elm trees, with a garage in back surrounded by the previous tenants' old tires, car body parts, and other junk, half hidden in weeds and brush. He's loading the stuff onto a truck to take it away to the city dump. He's got a fire going in a rusty 50-gallon barrel, and he's been tossing trash into it.
When he said yard work, I got this picture of raking up some leaves, but this is turning out to be far more ambitious.
"Give me a hand with this," he says before either of us even says hello. He's dragged what looks like a piece of old hay rake to his truck and is trying to heave it onto the tailgate.
I'm always amazed by his strength, and I'm sure he still does most of the lifting, even with my help.
Since I can see what he's doing, there's no need to explain, and we work together wordlessly until the bed of the truck is full. He has a long rope and begins tying it all down, tossing the end over to my side, where I slip it through an eye bolt and toss it back to him. We worked like this together day after day for years, and I know better than to break the silence, as if a word would disrupt the rhythm of the labor.
I'm trying to gauge his mood, but there's no way of telling. He's just concentrating on the job. So I do, too.
On the way to the dump, I ride along, though he does not ask me.
"So how you been?" I finally say.
"All right," he says, which is always his answer to this question. I've seen him in agony after a milk cow kicked him in the knee, and while his face turned ash-gray, he waved me away with "I'm all right."
Geraldine is what I take to be his girlfriend, if you can say that about a woman who's forty if she's a day and keeps company with your even-older father.
I expect the usual "all right," but he doesn't answer right away.
"Don't see much of her anymore," he finally says, not taking his eyes from the road.
"You two break up?" I ask, and I feel weird asking this question of my own father.
"Looks that way."
I want to know what happened, but I can tell my dad doesn't want to talk about itat least not to me.
"I kinda liked Gerry," I say.
I got over her being in my mom's place, because she was always so careful about my feelings. She acted like she knew she wasn't a member of the family and might never be. I stopped short of thinking about whether she and Dad ever slept together, but I couldn't tell you why. It wasn't out of respect for my mother.
If he has something to say about Gerry now, dad keeps it to himself. He probably couldn't tell you why either. Like father, like son.
The truck creaks under the heavy load as we turn off the road and go through the big gates that lead to the landfill. When we get there, two guys about my age are drinking beer from the back of a station wagon and taking turns with a rifle shooting at rats in the piles of rubbish.
My father stiffens. He has owned guns, but rarely uses themand then only for a purpose, like when I saw him once take aim at a rabid dog roaming around the sheep pasture. The idea of wasting time and ammunition just for the hell of it riles him.
It's turning into a fine day otherwise, with barely a breeze, the afternoon sun burning down. I unzip Mike's vest and realize there's a shotgun shell in one of the pockets. Probably from the day he was hunting pheasant with Don.
And I'm aware that something important has changed in my life since Dad and I last worked together like this. I've fallen in love with another manwho has a gun rack in his truck cab and hunts gameand not only that. Without effort, as I stand here, I'm recalling the feel of his hard, loving dick up my ass.
"Where'd you get the truck?" my dad says out of the blue, like he's been reading my mind.
"Belongs to Mike," I tell him. "The guy I'm staying with."
"He the same guy that totaled your Fairlane?"
"No, it was someone who stole it from his nephew."
My dad shakes his head and heaves a rusted old log chain out of the pickup. A shake of my dad's head carries more than a truckload of judgment. You don't even want to know what he's thinking.
In this case, it's probably something to do with my careless choice of friendsmaybe no further up the evolutionary ladder than those two yahoos shooting at ratsand then trusting one of them with my car.
A lecture, he knows, would fall on deaf ears. Anyway, he learned long ago that unspoken disapproval has its own effect. It can eat away at you like a cancer.
Together we pitch a busted-up whetstone out the back of the pickup. "You sure some of these things you're throwing out aren't antiques?" I say, trying to lighten the conversation. "They take stuff like this over at the museum."
My dad actually smiles a little. He has no patience for people clinging to the past. I figure it reminds him of things he'd rather just forget.
"How come you're not in school?" he asks, like this is what he's been working up to.
Now I'm at a loss for words. "I needed some time off," I say. "I got to stop and think what I'm going to do with my life."
"When I was your age," he starts to say, like he's done many times before, to prove if nothing else how easy I've had it. But he doesn't finish. Maybe he's thinking that his life hasn't turned out to be much of an example to follow.
Which gives me a moment of freedom from his judgment, and then saddens me. I don't want him doubting himself or feeling defeated by life. I need him to be strong, even if he's wrong about me.
We're done at the landfill, and he slams shut the tail gate. There's another crack of rifle fire and some cackling laughter from one of the assholes who's now hanging on the back of the station wagon. The kick from the rifle has knocked the other one down on his butt, and he sits there in the dirt, the gun barrel between his legs, cursing.
Dad is already getting into the cab of his pickup. "Cocksuckers," he says half aloud, turning the key in the ignition. And I feel something like a rifle's recoil in my own gut.
We've driven a few miles before I realize we are not going back to Dad's trailer. He's turning onto the highway, heading north of town. At first I think we're on some errand, getting gas at one of the lower-priced gas stationsDad would drive miles to save a penny on a gallonor stopping for something he needs at the new K-Mart.
But before long we're past all that and in the open countryside, and he's picking up speed. I wonder if he's driving for some reason out to the farm where we used to live. And when he turns off at a newly paved side road, I'm pretty sure that's where we're going.
We travel east a couple miles, then north again, where the pavement turns to dirt and gravel, and the rough surface of the road rumbles under the tires. The autumn fields look naked, the corn picked and the hay baled for another season, waiting for the blanket of snow that will eventually start falling and the long siege of winter.
Worms is a little wide spot in the road, a country church and a school, a few houses and a tavern. There's a cemetery just north of the church, and Dad pulls off the road there under a row of old cedars. I now know where he's been driving us. My mother is buried here.
He turns off the engine and we get out of the truck. A breeze sighs in the trees overhead as we walk up a short bank onto the mowed grass of the cemetery, and we pass among the gravestonessome weathered with nearly a hundred years of Nebraska wind and sun and rain and colduntil we get to a section in the back where there are newer, shinier stones and the dates on them are more recent.
Under each stone, I'm thinking, a lifetime of memories wiped out forever. And I can't help being reminded that I am alive and above ground, breathing the sweet air, the sun warm on my face.
Something in me reaches again to Mike, and I'm thinking of his fierce embrace, his hairy chest against mine and his warm tongue pressing into my mouth. My hands are shoved into the pockets of his vest, my fingers wrapped around the shotgun shell.
And then Dad has stopped, and I realize we are looking at the gravestone where my mom is buried, on one side of it her name and her dates and on the other side a blank space waiting for my dad's.
In the two years she's been gone, I have not been out herenot since the day of the funeraland that day this spot was covered by a canvas canopy, the fake grass from the funeral home covering the back-hoed pile of dirt, the folding chairs where we sat facing the coffin as the minister said the last words before a crowd of silent people who stood behind us in the brightness of an October afternoon.
"What would she think of us," my father suddenly says. His words jolt me back to the present.
I glance over at him, and he's standing there, his weight on one leg, his thumbs stuck into his back pockets. His face in the shadow of his felt hat.
What did she ever think of us, I wonder. But I don't say it. The question, I'm guessing, wasn't meant for an answer.
"She'd want to know why you're not in school," he says. "She was always proud you went to college."
I can't believe he's dragged me out here to bring up this subject again.
"More'n that, though," he says, "she'd want to know what on God's green earth I'm doing with my own self."
Then I'm realizing he has more on his mind than just me.
"We've both been a disappointment to her," he says.
"What are you talking about, Dad?" I say, genuinely bewildered.
He just shakes his head. Like this isn't the time or place to talk about it. Or it's too painful right now to go into.
I look again at the stone and the blank space waiting on it for the day when I'll be standing here again, and it won't be the two of us, just me. Whose death is he really mourning, I wonder, my mother's or his own?
After a while he suddenly turns and walks back toward the truck. He's walking fast, his boots coming down hard on the brittle, dead grass, and I have to hurry to keep up with him.
He's slamming the door of the truck and starting the engine as I'm getting in beside him. He quickly makes a U-turn in the road, the tires spinning in the dirt and gravel.
Then he's pulling off the road again in front of the tavern, and a cloud of dust sweeps over the truck, carried by a gust of north wind.
"You're twenty-one now," he says, turning off the engine and opening his door. "Time I bought you a beer."
I'm not at all sure now what he's thinking or what kind of mood he's gotten himself into. Sitting with him in a bar is like nothing the two of us have ever done together before.
I know how to guzzle pitcher after pitcher with buddies I used to have in school. And I know the joy of sitting with Mike in a bar, having one after another and feeling my dick go hard in my jeans in anticipation of getting naked with him when we get back home.
But beer and fun and buddyship do not make a picture that my dad fits into. I decide walking up the worn, wooden steps into the tavern that this must be his idea of ritualto mark a passage through some stage of being a father to me.
But as we take a table at the back and a woman working the bar brings us two long-neck bottles of Hamm's, I discover he has a lot more on his mind. Thoughts that apparently had no place at the graveside of my mother.
"I stopped seein' Gerry," he starts to explain, like it hasn't been more than an hour since I mentioned the woman I'd been thinking of as his girlfriend. "It wasn't right. I figured that out when I couldn't come out here anymore to your mom's grave and face her with what I was doin'."
"What were you doin'?"
"I don't think I have to go into that. You're old enough to figure it out for yourself."
I look at this middle-aged man sitting across the table from me, like he's somebody else's father, and let myself consider that he's been having sex with someonea woman he's not married to.
"Your ma, she told me there at the end, when she goes, she doesn't want me living alone. She made me promise I'd look for somebody else."
Picturing the two of them having a conversation like this is beyond me. What they had between them was so private, there was only the sound of my dad's muffled laughter at night from their bedroomand that was back in the days when I was still a kidto suggest that there was more to their feelings for each other than they let on in front of me.
"But livin' in sin with another woman, that was not what she had in mind," he says and takes a long swallow from his beer.
I feel my face flush with embarrassment at this kind of talk. It's OK to have sex with someone you're not married to, I want to tell him, but I figure that's not a subject I want to debate within earshot of the bartender and the two other customers sitting silent at the bar.
"So that's why you broke up?" I say.
But he doesn't answer the question. Instead he tells me his guilty conscience has done more than bring an end to whatever they had going. He's been attending church every Sunday, something he did before, but only because of my mom, who was the religious one of the family.
"I know she'd never forgive me if I let my faith go. I'd end up with the goats on the last day, she always said, whenever I tried to talk my way outta going to church with her."
I'm realizing I can't touch my beernot in my dad's company, and not with the way this conversation is going.
"So I'm cleaning up my life," he says. "Before it's too late."
"Explain something for me," I say, like he's not my dad and I'm just talking to be talking. "Did you think about asking Gerry to get married?"
He takes another drink of his beer and shoots a look across the room. He kind of turns sideways in his chair, and I sense he doesn't want to look at me.
"She don't want to get married," he says, and his eyes turn back to me with that piercing look of his, like it's me he's caught in some indiscretion. "Anyway, she's got no interest in church. Says she wouldn't even go on my account."
"You broke up over that?" I'm remembering Gerry and how much I liked her. She was friendly, had some common sense and an easy sense of humor.
"You know your mother wouldn't have approved, and it just got to eatin' at me."
I'd like to take my beer bottle and use it to knock some sense into the man. My mother may have disapproved, but she wouldn't have kept him from having some happiness in his lifesomething he always seemed determined to keep at arm's length.
"I think you may have made a big mistake," I tell him.
He gives me that look of his, like having me was a big mistakea look he's given me way too often. And for a while, as I finally drink my beeras much as I can pour down in one gulpI wish it didn't have to be like this between us. And I'm glad I have Mike to go home to.
"Some day you'll understand," my dad says.
"You've been saying that to me forever," I say, the bitterness overcoming the will in me to just shut up.
But instead of bristling, like he can dolike I was one and the same with the two guys shooting at rats in the dumphe lets a smile cross his face.
"I know," he says. "You'd think I'd give up by now."
Maybe it's the beerthe legal beer, I should add, not all the illegal ones he doesn't know aboutthat makes the difference. Maybe he suddenly sees me as not his kid anymore but someone with a life of my own ahead of me. Like his job of raising me is over.
And maybe this thought flickers only briefly there under his sweat-stained felt hat, but I sense in that half-smile that he's putting our past behind him. If nothing else just to find out what it feels like.
"You know, all we got is each other now," he says, and from the tone of his voice, he might have added, "For better or for worse."
Not one to over-explain himself, he lets his words hang in a thick wedge of silence between us. And maybe he can't go on because he's suddenly overcome with whatever feelings he's having.
And I want to help him out, the full weight of his disappointment settling like a sack of rocks on my shoulders. So I say, "I know that, Dad."
Maybe going to church is the only thing of my mother's he has left in the world, and he's coming to realize it will have to do. I get a picture of all those years they had together when her health was failing, and whatever plans they'd once made slowly faded away. And I can see how the gloom that often gathered around him, the anger he often took out on me, and the long silences were all his way of grieving.
The whole sorry dead-end picture of that looming between us is too much for me. "I know that, Dad," I say again.
"You want another one?" he asks, nodding to my beer and emptying his own.
"No, one's enough."
This seems to be the answer he's looking for. He leans forward to pull out his wallet and leaves some money on the table. Then he gets up, and I follow him out to his truck.
All the way back to town he says nothing. And neither do I.
Mike, of course, is curious about how the afternoon went. We talk about it over supper, his feet in his socks cuddled up against mine under the kitchen table.
I tell him everything I can rememberevery last bit of itand he listens to every word, nodding and smiling now and then, like he'd arranged the whole thing himself.
"I don't know how he goes home every night to that empty little trailer," I say.
And I look at Mike, realizing that he knows, from all the time waiting for someone to show up and share his life with him and not knowing if anyone ever would.
"A man gets used to it," he says.
"It would kill me," I say, and I mean it.
"Oh, you might be surprised."
"That's a surprise I never hope to have."
I feel his toes wiggle against mine. There's a little surge in my shorts, and after a suitable moment of silence, we start talking about something else.
The next day, late autumn sunlight flooding through the kitchen windows, the chatter of sparrows in the honeysuckle bushes outside, I'm sitting at the same place with the typewriter in front of me.
And I start a story about a widowed father and a son.
Continued . . .
© 2008 Rock Lane Cooper