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 27, Epilogue 6
OK, I don't know why, but come early winter, when it's not even winter yet by the calendar, I get into a funk that starts making me wonder about everything.
Suddenly I'm looking down the road ahead and thinking, what the fuck am I doing? Maybe I should have stayed in school. You know how Robert Frost likes to talk up the road not taken. Well, you take it, like I did, and after a while you can get to wondering about the one you could have been on instead. Turns out there's always a road not taken.
"You OK, bud?" Mike asks me. He can sense a shift in my mood as surely as he does the weather that rolls over us here on the plains.
"Nothing wrong," I say. But apparently without enough conviction. He looks at me from across the kitchen table where we're having supper and I can tell he's thinking, "Tell me another one."
Hell, I don't want to bother him with this shit. He'll try to fix it, like he always does, because that's the way he is. Nobody gets to be unhappy in his world.
"Your dad?" he wants to know. It all kind of started that day I spent with him going out to the cemetery where my mom is buried.
"That book you been workin' on?" He likes to elevate my meager daily efforts at this typewriter into the next bestseller.
"Not that either."
"You wishin' you stayed in school?" He's layering little slabs of cold butter onto a slice of Wonder bread.
"No. Definitely not that."
I guess I protest a bit too much because he nods and just says, "I thought so."
I tell him I don't want to be anywhere but right here where he is, and that's the truth. If I didn't have the nights with him to look forward to, there are days I'd go a little crazy.
Well, that's a little extreme, but much as I wonder whether dropping out of college was such a smart idea, I can't face life again on my owna dreary bunk bed in the dorm at the end of each day and a roommate with Playboy fold-outs tacked over his desk. Gives me the willies.
"I always believe in finishing what you start," Mike says. "Not that I've always done that, but it's something to shoot for."
"I'd like to finish this," I say. "You and me. And as far as I'm concerned it can go on forever."
Mike laughs. This tickles him. He folds the slice of bread in half and dips it into the spaghetti sauce on his plate.
"I'm not talking about that," he says. "Anyway, I'll always be here. You can have as much of you and me as you ever want."
"Then what are you talking about?"
"You makin' something of yourself. You got yourself a good start on that college education, and I'm sayin' you oughtta go all the way. I think you'll be sorry if you don't."
"Now you're getting to sound like my dad."
He shakes his head and gives me that grin of histhe one that melts me right down to my socks. "I know you and him don't see eye to eye," he says, "but the man's gotta be right about something."
So Mike is no help. I just got here, and already it feels like he's pushing me out of the nest.
I put my arms around him that night as we're washing the dishes, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his big farmer hands in a sinkful of soapsuds. It's like I'm hanging on, I suppose, though I don't want it to feel like that to himjust that I'm content being right here by his side, and if I go back to school, I'll go when I'm good and ready.
I lean over and give him a kiss, not waiting for bedtime to have the feel of his mustache press against my nose as his lips open to mine.
This goes on. Mike lets me just be and doesn't bring it up again, and while he's at work every day hauling milk, I'm busy writing, realizing that I've introduced a character into a story not unlike myselfsomething of a drifter.
He's a lot like George Maharis in that TV series "Route 66," only he's riding a motorcycle instead of a Corvette, and every poor shlub with a nine-to-five job sees him on his bike and envies him, all free and easyand looking like he'd be good in bed.
Well, I'm throwing in that last part. Just as sure as there aren't supposed to be any queers in Nebraska, you won't find them on primetime TV either. But anyway, it's the open road and adventure and surely lots of sex, and anybody's thinking, who wouldn't give his left nut for that.
In my story, however, the guy on the bike has problems of his own. He's got that road-not-taken dilemma. He could have done this instead of that, and it's eating the bejesus out of him. The adventure business is getting old, and he begins wondering if the rest of his life is going to be like this. Just one damn thing after another and adding up to nothinglike a bunch of old TV episodes nobody wants to watch again.
I'm all set to end the story with him coming to a highway junction and not knowing which way to go. He's flipped a coin, and that hasn't helped him make up his mind either. The bike is rumbling and vibrating between his legs, but he's still not going anywhere.
The guy I was a year ago would have ended the story right there. Lots of irony. A bit of cynicism. Existential. Butlet's face ittotally amateur. It's the ending of a writer who's just faking it. It sounds worldly and wise, but it's just me pretending to be worldly and wise. I'm thinking, I have no business writing stuff like this. I don't know a damn thing about life.
I toss that one in the wastebasket, and go for a walk. I have Rusty for company until I get about a quarter mile down the road, but he can't be coaxed any farther. He won't leave sight of the farm without Mike, like it's his job to be the guard dog as long as Mike's gone. So I walk on without him, and he watches me go for a while before he finally turns back.
A bright November sun is shining in a clear sky, but the wind from the north is sharp and cold. It's a mile down the road and around the corner to the Wood River bridgea one-laner with a good stretch of washboard leading up to it. A sign warns "10 Ton Limit," and I have no idea how much that is.
The water under the bridge moves steady, deep and silent in a narrow channel. Cottonwoods grow here along the banks and seem to like it. They tower overhead and creak in the wind, the year's growth of leaves scattered on the ground.
I can stand here for hours in almost any weather, crows maybe keeping me company and calling down from the trees with that scolding cry that always sounds like they're complaining about everything. I have to step out of the way when some neighbor's truck comes barreling through. I wave, and they wave back. Then as the dust settles, I'm there alone with my thoughts again.
Today is no different. I observe the water flowing along, on its way to the Platte, always so sure of itself. Meanwhile, here I am, a man with no apparent purpose who might as well be sweeping floors somewhere instead of wasting time, paper, and typewriter ribbon like he was ever going to write a word worth reading.
OK, yeah, that's me feeling sorry for myself.
A pickup rolls up from behind me and stops a few yards away. The window comes down and the driver sticks his head out.
"You need a ride?" he says, his voice with that flat-country ring of the farmland.
It takes a moment and then I recognize him. It's Don.
"No," I tell him. Don and I haven't exchanged a word since we said goodbye in Crawford last summer, after that wild goose chase together in search of Kirk.
"Where's your car?" he wants to know, like how could I be anywhere without one.
"I don't have a car," I remind him. My last one, you'll remember, got totaled by some friend of Kirk's I never met.
"Well, when you gonna get one?"
This is not the kind of conversation I care to be having. Don probably doesn't mean it, but the way he learned to talk, he can make almost anything sound like he's picking a fight with you.
Anyway, he doesn't expect an answer. "You gotta be freezin' your ass off out here," he says, like only a fool would willingly leave the comforts of home on a day like this unless work, hunting or fishing requires it.
"I'm OK," I say. "So is my ass."
"Bullshit," he says. "Get in here. You're embarrassing me."
It's true, now that I take a measure of it. My body heat is dwindling as I stand there in the wind. If he wants to give me a ride back to Mike's place, I'm not going to argue with him.
"What do you mean I'm embarrassing you," I say as I walk over to him.
"You have to ask?" he says, like nobody could be so stupid. A man without wheels is an insult to his gender.
I get in beside him. And he's already got the truck in gear and moving before I get the door closed. The back wheels spin in the gravel.
"What are you doin' out here anyway?" he wants to know.
"A man can go for a walk if he wants."
"The way you was staring at the water there, I thought you was gonna jump in."
"If I ever decide to check out like that," I tell him, "it's not going to be jumping into a cold river."
I have this creepy feeling when I'm around enough water to drown in that if I had a previous life, I lost it going down with the Titanic. When I was a kid I read a book somebody wrote about that disaster, and with my overactive imagination, I keep wondering what it's like to die that way.
The air in the cab is smoky. He lights another cigarette and offers me one.
"I quit," I say.
"One ain't gonna kill ya," he says, like I've insulted him, but he slips the pack back into his shirt pocket.
Riding along with him like this brings back the days and nights we spent together on the road. Then, when he goes right past Mike's driveway without stopping, I say, "Hey, aren't you going to let me off?"
"We're goin' into town," he says. "You wanna eat? Let's get something at the A&W."
And so that's where we go. The lunch crowd is mostly gone when we pull in off the street, and there are plenty of free spots where you can call in your order and have it brought out to you. In a minute, he's got the girl on the intercom and for the fun of it he's confusing her with an order that he keeps changing, pretending it's me that can't make up my mind, meanwhile calling her "Honey" whenever he gets the chance.
The man is married with kids and he's never grown up.
"How'd it all go in Canada?" I ask him. "Last time we saw each other, you were headed for Calgary."
"Had myself one hell of a time," he said, grinning.
"I thought you were going to stay up there for a while. First thing I knew you were back in town again."
He laughed. "Saving my ass mostly."
"Your wife gave you an ultimatum?" I figured she had plenty of reason to be sore with him. For one thing, I knew from Mike that they were having another baby.
"Carol? She's been handin' down ultimatums since before we was even married. I got to ignorin' them." He's flicking the ash from his cigarette out the window. "It's the ones you ain't married to can get awkward."
"You get in too deep with one in Calgary?" I can't think of another way to put it.
He laughs again. "More like three," he says and holds up three of his fingers. "Course, you wouldn't know much about anything like that." At one point last summer he may have decided that I wasn't a complete loser, even if I am queer, but it doesn't stop him from feeling smug about fucking women.
"I was workin' on a fourth," he says. "But I found out she had a husband, who was one mean sonofabitch. Slapped the shit out of her and came after me with a barstool that wasn't bolted to the floor. I didn't stick around."
I have to admit, I'm curious what a life like Don's has been like. He's been free since he was a teenager to fall in and out of love about as often as he's wanted and to turn whatever he's got going with a female into something sexualeither a little or a lot, depending on how far he can go with her.
I try to imagine something like that for myself. When I was in eighth grade and found myself always thinking about one of the other boys in my classmissing him when he wasn't aroundhow different it would have been to realize that feeling was love. And that it was OK.
When the same boy rode his bike in front of a truck and got himself killed, I went to the funeral, where they sang "Abide with me, fast falls the eventide"a hymn that still makes me forlorn whenever I hear itand I kept thinking about him, talking to him when I was by myself, like he was finally there with me whenever I wanted. No, it didn't make me feel any closer to him, but it seemed to matter that I remembered him. I couldn't just let him go.
I'm thinking, what if when I was in high school I could have asked a boy for a date, hoping as we sat together in a movie or walked together holding hands that he liked me as much as I liked him. What if I'd known the thrill of a goodnight kiss as we got back to his house, rerunning it in my mind as I went home, my dick still hard as I got undressed and into bed, touching myself and just letting myself stay aroused by feelings of love and the memory of my arms around him.
I can imagine a school prom nightdressing up in my best suit to spend the evening with a guy I felt so much affection for that it made my heart nearly burst, slow dancing together, and then staying out late to maybe park along the river, steaming up the windows, and blissfully sucking each other's cocks in the back seat with our trousers down, because there was nobody we cared about more than each other. And knowing all along that it was not only OK, but the way it was supposed to be.
Instead, I missed years of a boy's life believing it was all supposed to be another way, the way that seems to come easily for boys like Don. And when I tried that wayand I did tryI had almost no feelings on a date with a girl, except awkwardness and a sad kind of emptiness afterwards.
Sometimes I just drove the empty streets, like I might still find something or someonegoing back and forth, from one end of town to the other, until long past when I was supposed to be home. I'd head out into the night then, along the country roads to the farm where my folks lived and the bed in my room where I might or might not sleep, feeling hopelessly different and alone.
The closest I could come to knowing the kind of experience Don had in Calgary was the very real threat of getting my ass kicked by some drunk who didn't like my lookssomeone who sensed I was queer or just an easy target for a good punch in the face. With or without my glasses, I'm no fighter.
That Don is talking to me at alleven letting anyone he knows see us together in broad daylight here in his truckkind of amazes me. Then again, if it weren't for Mike, we wouldn't know each other, and if Don has ever come close to loving another manmaybe even loving anybodyit's got to be Mike. I catch myself wondering if he ever talks to Mike when nobody is around.
A high school girl in a carhop outfit brings out our foodhamburgers and French fries in plastic baskets and root beers in thick glass mugs. She's the younger sister of someone Don knows. Her name is Candy, and he tries to flirt with her, asking if she's sweet as her name. He gives her a twenty, and it takes her a while to count the change.
She is skinny, like she only picks at her food if she eats at all. But she's pretty in a sweet way and probably has her bedroom walls papered with Beatles pictures she's torn out of magazines. She doesn't flirt back.
As she walks away, Don takes the bills and leaves the coins on the aluminum tray that she's brought to his window.
"I got a question for ya," he suddenly says to me.
"You like gettin' fucked, right?"
"That's kinda personal, Don."
"When we was driving all over hell last summer, did you ever want me to fuck you?"
I didn't expect the question, but the answer was easy. "No, Don. Never once."
"How come?" he says. "I mean I sure as hell didn't want to, and I still don't, but why not?"
There's a gleam in his eye like he's up to something.
"No reason. I just didn't." The fries are steaming, straight from the fryer and hot enough to burn my tongue. "Aren't there some women you don't want to fuck?"
"Yeah, the ugly ones, but I ain't ugly." He pops fries into his mouth like it's lined with asbestos. "I'm better lookin' than Mike, too," he says.
I'm thinking now, how do you argue with an idiot? The difference is simply that I like Mike a helluva lot more than I'd ever like Don. Mike is honest, principled, and someone you could trust with your life. I have never felt so safe and comfortable with anyone else. I wouldn't trust Don to walk my dog around the block.
I finally say, "You know, this discussion is too goddam hypothetical."
"I'm no college man, and I'm gonna pretend that's not some kind of insult," he says. "But how about this? Did you ever want to fuck me?"
I'm pissed off at him now. "I'd have to get a hard-on for that."
"Woo-hoo," he says, like something has finally burned him. "You ain't gettin' a hard-on sittin' here with me right now?"
"You wanna check me for one?"
"You'd probably like that."
I spread my legs a little. "Go ahead," I say.
"Relax," he says, like maybe this was more than he bargained for. "I was just jokin'."
"You don't have to wonder." He lifts his burger from the basket and takes a big bite from it. Then with his mouth full he says, "I ain't that interested." A piece of lettuce falls from between his lips into his lap, and he brushes it away onto the floor.
"Speaking of college," he says, "how come you're not in school? You flunk out?"
"No. I'm taking some time off, that's all."
"Got too much for you?"
"No. I'm OK."
"So when you goin' back?"
"I haven't decided."
"Don't they start up again in January?"
"Yeah, the spring semester."
"Why don't you go back then?" he says. "Sittin' around doin' nothin', a man might feel like he's wastin' time."
"I'm not in a big hurry. Anyway, I don't see why it's any concern of yours."
He takes a gulp from his root beer. "A guy like you oughtta think twice about having too much time on his hands anyway."
A guy like me? "What's that supposed to mean?" I say.
"You know," he says, "walking all that way to go stand on a bridge."
Now I'm starting to connect the dots. He wants me to go back to college, all right, but not for the same reason as Mike. There's nothing here about finishing what you started, which is what you'd expect from someone wanting the best for you. Don, true to form, is only thinking about himself. If I'm out of the picture, he can have Mike all to himself.
"You're still counting on him to go into farming with you," I say.
"Not farming. Ranching. I got this idea we can raise one of them new breeds of cattle. Find ourselves a couple thousand acres of grazing land somewhere and get started."
It all rushes out of him like he's dying to tell anyone who'll listen.
"You mention any of this to Mike?" I say.
"He knows all about it."
"And he likes the idea?"
"He'll come around. I'm just giving him time."
This is news to me. All Mike ever talks about is what he wants to do with his farm. I've got a hunch this whole thing is just more of Don's wishful thinking. As long as I've known him, he only hears what he wants to hear.
At this point, I look over and the carhop is coming out of the building, and she's walking straight to Don's window. He rolls it down with a big smile on his face like he's been waiting for her to find an excuse to come talk to him some more.
"Hey, Candy," he says, putting on the charm again.
But she's having none of it. "Someone called here looking for you," she says. "Your wife's in the hospital having a baby."
"What?" he says, like it's just her idea of a little joke.
"You wanna talk to them, they're still on the phone," she says.
"Holy crap," he groans and puts down what's left of his hamburger. "She ain't supposed to be due for another two weeks."
He's starting the truck now like he's been interrupted in the middle of something far more important, and Candy is grabbing the tray from the window. I hand across my half-empty root beer mug to her, and suddenly we are driving off.
"You can just drop me anywhere," I'm telling him. "I can get a ride back to the farm." Mike will be off work in an hour. I can call him to come get me.
"May as well come along," Don says. "You might learn something."
"Like why the hell you're so lucky."
"Yeah, you'll never be a poor sonofabitch married man like me."
Why I'm really feeling lucky is that I'm not a jerk like Don. I have done some dumb things in my life, but if I was married, I'd do my damnedest to be the best husband and father a man could be. Even better than that, because my best would surely not be good enough.
Don is going through yellow lights and then red lights, and I'm hoping he gets pulled over before we end up getting taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
"Jesus," I'm saying as a UPS van has to swerve around us. "I don't want to die this way either."
But he's not listening. In five minutes that seem a lot longer, we get to the hospital parking lot, and Don is pulling into a row of spaces reserved for doctors.
"I can park the truck for you," I offer. "Over there in the visitors lot." But he pulls the key out of the ignition and is already shoving it into his back pocket as he jumps out onto the asphalt.
"It says, 'Violators will be towed'," I point out to him.
"I don't care if it says, violators will be fucked. I ain't movin' this truck," he says. "You comin' or not?" He's already headed for the entrance to the hospital.
I follow him, but it's only to find a phone inside and leave a message at the dairy for when Mike comes in off his route.
Don is already at the front desk when I get there, talking to a gray-haired woman in a flower-print blouse and a tight perm. "My wife's having a baby," he's saying, still sounding pissed off, which confuses the woman, and she points first in one direction and then the other.
"Where can I find a phone," I start to say to her, but Don grabs me by the front of my coat and pulls me along with him.
At a nurse's station, he stops again, asking where to find Carol. The nurse looks at both of us and says, "Who's the father?"
"It sure as hell better be me," Don says.
The nurse stiffens, like she hates this part of her job. "Your wife's down the hall there in Labor," she says. "You can go in and see her until she's ready for Delivery." Then she fixes a look at me and says, "Fathers only. You'll have to wait in the waiting room."
I don't even want to be here, I want to tell her, but I just nod and keep my mouth shut.
In the waiting room, I'm there with two other expectant fathers. One is an older guy, wearing a ball cap and dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, like he's driven in from the country. The other looks hardly old enough to even be married. I'm wondering if maybe the wedding was more than a little recent.
He's looking worried and pacing back and forth. The other man is calmly reading a newspaper.
"This your first?" the younger guy asks, looking at me hopefully.
Yes and no, I want to say, but I understand what he means and say, "I'm here with someone else. I'm not the father."
"Oh," he says and looks worried again.
"I'm not even married," I say. "I don't know the first thing about all this."
He's chewing on what's left of his fingernails, and I'm noticing the shiny gold wedding band on his finger. "How about you," I say. "Is this your first?"
He nods. "Maybe first and second," he says. "The doc says it could be twins."
The guy behind the newspaper clears his throat like he's listening, but he says nothing.
"Wow," I say, knowing I must sound a little stupid, but this business of babieshaving sex and getting someone pregnant and waiting nine months to see what you get for what you've doneI realize I've never really thought about all this before.
"Babies are a blessing from God," the man behind the newspaper says.
I'm not so sure about that, and I can see looking at the younger guy that he's not so sure either.
"Angels unawares, someone called them," the man says, putting down his newspaper with a thoughtful expression. "I think it was Dale Evans. And she should know. She gave old Roy there a houseful of 'em."
"Roy?" the young guy says.
"Roy Rogers. You know who I mean. The Singing Cowboy." He's reading his paper again.
The young man looks at me like a jailed man with a lunatic for a cellmate.
"You notice a phone anywhere here I could make a phonecall?" I say to change the subject, because I think this religious bunk is probably not helping the boy.
"Back by the nurse's station," the man behind the newspaper says, like he knows everything.
And when I walk down the hall I realize the young guy is coming along with me. He tells me his name is Carlos, and we shake hands. By then we're standing at this pay phone, and I've got my hand in my pocket looking for some change.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he's saying. "Twins is gonna be too much."
And he's telling me that his family is in Mexico and there's just one of his brothers here, but he's out of town somewhere on a job.
"Your wife's family? Where are they?" I ask him while I'm dialing the number at the dairy.
He's vague about that, and I gather maybe it's some bunch of local rednecksand we got our share, like anybody elsewho didn't take to one of their own marrying a Mexican.
I feel sorry for the poor guy. When the call goes through, he turns like he's going to walk away, but I put my hand on his shoulder to keep him from going back to the waiting room.
I leave a message with Audrey in the front office to give to Mike. When I say I'm at the hospital, she wants to know right away if I'm hurt or sick, and I have to tell her I'm in the maternity wing, which totally confuses her for a while until she gets it straight.
Carlos doesn't pull away from me as he waits for me to finish. If anything, he pulls a little closer.
"Is my wife gonna be all right?" he wants to know, and I ask him what the doctor told him, but he isn't sure he understood it all. She went into Delivery, but that was more than an hour ago. Now I'm wishing Don was here. As aggravating as he can be, he might be able to reassure this guyone man to anotherat least about twins, since he has two of his own.
I flag down a passing nurse to help Carlos find out about his wife, but all she'll say is that the doctor or one of the assistants will be looking for us in the waiting room when they've got any news.
About this time, I see Don coming down the corridor. Tall as he is, and wearing his hat, there's no missing him. He's in full stride, and a couple guys in scrubs have to dodge out of his way.
"Here's my friend," I tell Carlos.
But I can tell before Don gets to us that he's still wound up, and not in a mood to reassure anyone about anythingexcept maybe that marriage is the world's worst mistake.
"I gotta get somewhere I can have a cigarette," he's saying. "Bastards won't let me smoke in there."
Carlos looks at me a little wide-eyed, like this guy's a friend of mine? And we follow Don into the waiting room, where he's got a cigarette in his mouth before he's even through the door. He's already got a smoke cloud started when we get there.
"Carol OK?" I ask.
He grumbles something at me and sits down in one of the chairs.
The man behind the newspaper is quick to chip in. "If God wanted us to smoke, he'd have given us chimneys."
"Is that right?" Don says all sarcastic.
The guy puts down his newspaper. "I don't think I like your attitude, young man," he says.
"Maybe you'd like a chimney up your ass," Don says, glaring at the guy.
I feel Carlos take a step behind me. But though I've seen Don rough up another man before, I don't think it's going to happen herenot indoors and not over a few words he doesn't like the sound of. He's just all mouth today.
At that moment there's someone else standing in the doorway, and I see it's a doctor. He's a big guy, and my first thought is that he's come to throw Don out. That was sure quick, I'm thinking, and then I realize it's not Don he's come for.
He beckons to the man with the newspaper and they step out into the hall. In the sudden silence, I can only hear the doctor's murmuring voice. And I'm thinking I would never want to hear a doctor talking to me or anyone I care about like that. It sounds way too serious and can't be anything but bad news.
Carlos is pressing closer to me, like whatever it is might be catching, and he wants nothing to do with it.
The guy finally steps back into the room and, while the doctor waits at the door for him, he puts down the newspaper, which he's been holding onto all this time. I can tell he's shaken by what he's just been told. He slowly reaches for a jacket that's hanging from one corner of the chair where he's been sitting.
Don gets to his feet and says, "Everything all right?"
The man doesn't look up, just shakes his head.
"What I said," Don says. "I was outta line."
The man seems to gather himself together, and his eyes meet Don's. "God never gives us more than we can bear," he says. Then he turns to go and follows the doctor down the hall.
We sit there together in silence for a long time, Carlos with his face in his hands, and Don now cursing himself instead of everything and everyone else.
I'm staring at the newspaper the man left behind, carefully folded together on the chair, the headlines stupid with inconsequence compared to what has been going on around uslife and death and me in the middle of it with little but my own ignorance. I wanted to ask Don what he thought the doctor might have told the guy, but I didn't want one of his casually blunt comments to upset Carlos.
"Carol OK?" I finally ask him again, since he hadn't really answered me the first time.
"Her mom's with her. She's fine."
He sits leaning forward, with his elbows on his knees, his rage deflated. "The nurse says she's dilating like normal. The doc keeps saying it should be a breeze."
I guess dilating is what's supposed to happen and though I don't know what it is, I let it go.
Carlos has been sitting beside me, his head still in his hands, and I pat him on the backreal lightly, not to startle him. He seems to welcome the touch, and I finally just leave my hand there between his shoulder blades. He finally looks up and sighs, his eyes wet with a few tears.
"Who's your friend?" Don wants to know. It would amaze me on the trip last summer how he could shift moods from his usual belligerence to something almost tenderlike the boy he may have once been before he decided he had to get tough to survive in the world. And now he's doing it again.
I introduce him to Carlos, who politely gets up to shake Don's hand, and with Don's gently prodding questions he gets to talking about his worriesthe fact that he's about to be a father and the very sure belief that he's not up to it.
I watch Don listen, already the veteran of fatherhood, nodding and even smiling once or twice. And for a while I feel so beside the point. This is a conversation I'll never have with another mana shared experience I will never share.
Like Carlos, I don't feel I could ever be a parent, but I realize that's just the way it isa challenge that makes you more of a man. I'll never get that challenge, and it feels like it might leave me less of a man.
Then I think about what the guy with the newspaper saidthough I'd leave God out of ityou're not supposed to get more in life than you can bear. And I wonder if that could possibly be true.
After a while, a young guy in scrubs shows up at the waiting room door. He's looking for Carlos.
"Yes?" Carlos says, leaping to his feet.
"It's going fine, but we're still waiting for one more."
"So it is gonna be twins?"
"Oh, no, there's two already. It's number three who's taking time."
Carlos sways on his feet, and I'm getting ready to jump up and catch him. "Three?" he says. "There are three?"
"Didn't anybody tell you?"
Now Carlos does start to wobble, and I help him to sit down.
"Triplets!" Don says, crowing. "Hell, man, you got a prize comin' for that!"
And we are all smiles and Carlos is looking like he doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"You missed everything," I say when Mike gets there. Carlos has already left to be with his wife and to see his three new babies. And the doctor has just been there to tell Don he has another son.
"How'd you end up at the hospital anyway?" Mike says, as we're driving back to the farm in his truck.
I tell him the whole story about Don finding me at the Wood River bridge. And it takes a while. I even tell him about the man who got what sounded like bad news from the doctor while we were waiting.
"He was this super-religious guy, with all these annoying opinions he couldn't keep to himself," I say, "but when that happened, I think we all felt sorry for him."
And Mike being Mike, I can tell he does, too. We drive along in silence for a while.
"I got to thinking about something while I was there," I tell him. "You ever wish you could be a father?"
"I dunno. I guess so."
"How does it make you feel that you might never be one?"
"A little sad maybe."
"You ever catch yourself wishing your life had turned out another way?"
Mike takes a long time to answer me. He slows to make the turn-off from the highway onto the gravel road that goes out to the farm.
"Hard to say," he says. "I'm likin' the way this one is turning out." He reaches over and puts his broad farmer hand onto my leg.
"But what if another way might have been better. I can see you being some boy's father, and you'd be a wonderful dad."
"I dunno about that."
"You would, Mike. I know you would."
He doesn't say anything again until we pull off the road into Mike's driveway and Rusty is racing up to the truck, his tail wagging.
"This lifethe one I'm living has been good to me," he finally says. "I'd have to give up what I have to get one different. Why would I wanna go and do that? I don't think I could."
It's late afternoon and the shadows are growing long from the trees that grow around the house.
I'm looking at that house and the life we have there together. In a moment, we'll get out of the truck and go up the walk to the door. Inside, we'll switch on some lights and then take off our coats.
The rooms will have taken on a chill, and one of us will turn up the thermostat for the furnace. There will be a long hug in there somewhere as we enjoy the embrace of our two men's bodies together. Then someone will say, "What's for supper?" and life will go on.
Continued . . .
© 2009 Rock Lane Cooper