Two Men in a Pickup
The ditches along the road out to Mike's place are standing half-full with rain water and run-off, reflecting the bright blue of the cloudless sky. The morning sun climbs, throwing long shadows across the road -- shadows of utility poles and old cottonwoods growing in the fence lines. Cool morning air, fresh from Canada, pours through the open window of Don's pickup. A red-winged blackbird darts from a low bridge railing to a telephone wire overhead.
Don hunkers in the seat, his cowboy hat grazing the ceiling of the cab. Since he was nineteen, topping out at six-three, the world's been miserly with head room. But he'll be damned if he'll take his hat off to oblige it.
Mike's place is coming up ahead, behind a shelter belt of bushy cedars. The two-bedroom house, probably built in the twenties, stands back from the road and opposite a big old horse barn, with a new coat of red paint on the front and one side. There are sheds for farming equipment and an old chicken house under two mulberry trees. Cornfields wrap around the place on three sides. Farther on, there is hay.
Mike, who has a job hauling bulk milk for Fairacres Dairy, is coming from the house to go to work. For a farmer, he doesn't look like one, scrubbed up and wearing a pressed shirt and a cap, a crisp crease in his jeans. Don figures work isn't real work if you're not wearing something that's been sweat through more than once, with flecks of dried manure on your boot heels. Whatever happened to the two of them? They used to be so much alike.
Mike's dog Rusty runs out the driveway, barking, and meets Don halfway. Mike walks over to the truck as it comes to a stop at the front gate.
"Appreciate this, Don," he says, with a serious look. "I owe you one." Don leaves his arm where it is, in the window, his elbow a few inches from the front of Mike's shirt.
"What's the deal anyway?" Don says.
"Kirk didn't come back from Kearney last weekend." Kirk is Mike's nephew, from Utah. Showed up a month or so ago and stayed. Kind of a runaway.
"Can't go too far, can he?" Don says.
"He's got Danny's Fairlane." Danny is Mike's hired hand -- more than hired hand from the sounds of it. Who would have guessed Mike would turn out queer?
And here comes Danny from the house, the screen door banging shut behind him. Typical brainy college kid. Yeah, he can do farm work, all right, but inside he's not so tough. You can just tell. Today he's wearing old levi's, boots, a short-sleeve plaid shirt, straw cowboy hat, and glasses held together with white adhesive tape.
"We got a call last night from his friend over there," Mike is saying. "Said they left Saturday for the Sandhills. His friend came back home, but Kirk didn't."
The idea is for Don and Danny to go over to Kearney, locate Kirk's friend, and see if they can find out anything else. The door creaks open on the passenger side, and Danny swings his butt up onto the seat.
"Hi," Danny says.
"Everything gonna be OK here while we're gone?" Don says to Mike.
"Can't go into the fields for a couple days," Mike says. "Rain gauge said almost two inches."
"Reckon you're all set, then," Don says. "Guess we better get goin'. Make hay while the sun shines." The truck has been idling; he puts it in reverse and swings around to head for the road, gravel crunching under the tires. Danny waves, and Mike waves back, smiling. Don looks away.
There's mostly silence until they get to the stop sign at the highway.
"How's the family?" Danny says.
"All right," Don says, watching a semi pass, headed west, and then pulling in behind it. That's not counting the argument in the kitchen this morning, and the one before bed the night before, when he jerked his jeans and boots back on and headed out to the Silver Bullet for a couple beers to cool off. It's always something. Not like he and Carol don't make up now and again in between. But gone are the days when it was easy. When anything was easy.
"You got three boys, right?" Danny says.
He wants to make conversation, Don thinks. "Yeah. They're doin' fine." He taps the box of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, flips it open, and pops one in his mouth. He hesitates a moment and then holds the box out to Danny, who considers it and then takes one. "Not your brand?" Don says.
"Naw, I just keep quittin', and I can't stay quit."
"Fuck," Don says. "Be a man. Either do it or don't do it."
Danny gives a little laugh. "Got a match?"
Don punches the cigarette lighter in the dash, and waits for it to heat up.
"Your boys got names?" Danny wants to know.
"Gordon is the baby. The twins are Don, Jr., and Mikey." Now Danny knows they named one of his boys after Mike. Carol, who never liked Mike much, didn't take to the idea, but Don had put his foot down.
"Mike must have been tickled," Danny says.
"He seemed to be." But it didn't bring them closer together, as Don had wanted. Mike joined the Air Force soon after, without a word, and was gone for several years. When he came back, something had changed. Until now, he didn't know what.
"You from around here?" Don asks. They're now driving through town, a stretch of stores, stop lights, filling stations, a Sears, and a movie theater showing "Rio Conchos."
"More or less," Danny says after a pause. "Grew up north of here."
"Got folks?" he says.
"My dad," Danny says. "Mom's gone."
"What happened to her?" Don gets a picture of a middle-aged woman furiously packing a suitcase with dresses and shoes.
"Cancer," Danny says, saying the word flatly.
Don isn't sure how to react. "That's a damn shame," he says finally. His own mother is very much alive and always after him about something. The cigarette lighter releases with a ching! and Don holds it for Danny, then lights his own.
"Yeah," Danny says, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "It is." He takes another drag on the cigarette and falls silent. They've hit the open road again west of town. It's a clear shot now to Kearney, 38 miles along the Union Pacific tracks, slowing down every ten to fifteen for a little burg with a tall grain elevator, visible for miles on the flat, flat landscape.
In Kearney, they go to the college, where Rich is working with a crew of plasterers on a new dormitory. Outside, a workman in muddy jeans and white tee shirt is shoveling sand into a mixer, which churns with a grinding rumble.
When they ask for Rich, they have to shout over the noise of the machine.
"Rich?" the guy says. "He'll be back in a minute."
The sun has swung around from behind the trees that line the street, and the warmth soaks through Don's shirt as they stand waiting. The guy at the mixer leans the shovel handle into his crotch and pulls the tee shirt over his head. He wipes his face with it, and tosses it onto a patch of grass where shiny aluminum lunch boxes are stacked around a cooler. Clearing his throat, he hawks a gob of spit into the mixer and winks at the two men.
"Secret ingredient," he says, and bends down to lift another shovel of sand. His back is lean and muscular, already damp with sweat, and his jeans ride down his butt, showing a wide strip of white underwear.
Don glances over at Danny, who is watching the workman, and wonders what's going through his mind. Then their eyes meet, unblinking,, each waiting for the other to say something, until they hear Rich's voice calling out to them from an open doorway. He's pushing an empty wheelbarrow along a plank.
Rich walks over, saying hello to Danny and calling him "sir." Danny introduces him to Don.
The boy looks up at Don uncertainly as they shake hands. "He's OK," Danny says. "Wants to help out."
Rich draws them over to the trees, away from the mixer and starts talking fast, either angry or hurt, Don can't tell which.
He and Kirk, it seems, had picked up a couple friends and gone driving around town, where they stopped at a grocery store, and -- to make a long story short -- they'd got busted for shoplifting bananas.
"Bananas?" Danny says.
"We were just having some fun, sir," Rich says. The cop was a deputy not much older than any of them, and they got his gun away from him and left him handcuffed to his car.
"You took his gun?" Danny's voice goes up an octave.
"We didn't keep it, sir," Rich says, sounding worried. "Just tossed it in the weeds where he could find it."
That night, he and Kirk decide they don't want to be around if the cops come looking for them, and they light out, taking back roads north into the Sandhills. They break into a hunting cabin along a creek and lie low for a couple days. When they get bored, they sneak into a bar in Thedford, and before they get tossed out for being under-age, they meet up with some guy Kirk knows.
"Big guy," Rich says. "Frank something or other."
"Frank?" Danny says, still up an octave.
"Yeah. Had a beat-up old camper."
"Was there another guy with him? Pete?"
Rich shakes his head no. "He was by himself. Said he had beer in his camper, so we went with him."
"Then what happened?" Danny wants to know.
Rich shrugs. "Next morning I told Kirk we should head home. I didn't want to miss another day and lose my job." But Kirk isn't ready to leave. Apparently he's having too much fun playing cops and robbers.
Someone calls down from an upper window. "Hey, Rich! Need some more mud up here!" It's a man in white coveralls, waving a trowel, a cigar clamped between his teeth.
"Comin' up, sir," Rich calls back. And he starts to go. Then he turns back to Danny. "When you see him, tell him to call me. Please?" There's that look again, Don thinks. Definitely hurt, not anger.
Back in the truck, they decide to drive north to Thedford. Find the bar and see whether Frank or Kirk left a trail. It's 126 miles, through Hazard, Merna, Anselmo, ranch towns little more than wide spots in the road, where the sun glints off the windshields of a few pickups and cars nosed up along curbs. There's a few houses with big yards, a bank, general store, school, church, maybe a diner. Population 253...174...56.
The two-lane road, cracked in places and streaked with tar snakes, crosses branches of the Loup River, shallow and sandy, thick with trees on both banks. There are angus and herefords in some of the pastures, which roll away on both sides, gently rising and falling to the horizon.
"Who is this Frank anyway?" Don wants to know.
"Big dumb oaf," Danny says. "He's trouble."
Danny thinks a moment. "Let me put it this way," he says. "You wouldn't trust him with anything you really care about."
They stop for gas in Broken Bow. A crew-cut kid in a red Cornhuskers jersey, levi's and unlaced sneakers ambles out to the truck, chewing a wad of gum. "Fill 'er up?" he asks Don and blows a bubble.
Don nods, then gets out to check the oil. Danny sees a coke cooler inside and comes back with two dripping bottles. When Don slams down the hood, Danny is holding one out to him.
"Thanks," Don says, and puts it to his mouth, sun pouring down into his face as he tilts his head back. The coke hits his throat, ice cold.
"Don't often see a man do that," Danny says.
"Put the whole end of the bottle in his mouth."
"What can I say," Don says. "Anything else about me strike you as odd?"
"Not odd. Just -- different."
Don thinks of a comeback and doesn't know whether to say it. "You know," he says anyway, "a man doesn't really comment on another man's habits unless it's his business."
"Didn't mean to piss you off," Danny says, and shifts his weight onto one leg, thumb hooked into a front pocket. When Don has finished off the coke, Danny takes both bottles back to a crate of empties by the machine.
Don pulls out a battered leather wallet from his back pocket and gives a couple bills to the kid. The kid's face is sunburned and his eyes are pale blue, bubblegum blue he realizes. The hand that reaches out for the money has two fingers wrapped around a splint.
"How'd that happen?" Don says.
"Fell on it," is all the kid says, snapping his gum.
"Hurt?" Don thinks of his own boys and how they already wrestle and punch each other over toys and games till one of them finally starts bawling.
"Naw," says the kid and goes inside to get change.
Don stands in the open truck door and reaches under the seat, his fingers bumping against oil rags, wrenches, and a box of shotgun shells before finding what he wants. He pulls it out with a long stroke of his arm and holds it up to show Danny, who's climbing into the cab on the other side.
"In case we run up against any rough customers," Don says, "I got my Persuader." It's a shiny blue aluminum baseball bat.
Don checks his watch and realizes he's not wearing one. Must have left it in the bathroom when he took a shower this morning. The clock on the dashboard is busted. He checks his stomach, which is beginning to feel empty. He figures it must be around eleven.
The cab is getting warm. Danny has hung his hat from the gun rack behind the seat, his damp hair pressed down over his ears. He pulls out his shirt tail to wipe off his glasses; the pieces of frame wiggle under the adhesive tape.
"Those specs look kinda worse for wear," Don says.
"Lost my best pair in the sand pit. These are old ones." Danny pops them back onto his face, squinting in the bright light. "How come you decided to come along?" he asks.
The original deal was that Don was loaning them his truck. Danny would drop him off at the feedlots where he works south of town. "Change of plans," Don says.
He wants to get away from home. Put some distance between him and Carol for a while. Get some breathing room. The Sandhills have always done it for him -- the open sky, treeless rolling hills, ponds in the hollows where the flocks of migrating birds stop to rest. Air so clear and dry, the dark shadows of clouds sweeping across the earth.
Where the wind blows through long grasses, you could be out at sea. He's never seen the sea but reckons it must be like that.
"Been up this way before?" Danny asks.
"Lots of times." Him and Mike when they were old enough to drive. "Fishing."
Danny says nothing.
"You fish?" Don says.
"Naw, don't do much of that."
Don wonders what the heck he does do for fun but decides not to ask. "Tell me something. I'm curious. How did you and Mike happen to hit it off?"
"What do you mean?"
"I guess what I'm askin' is, how do a coupla guys like you find each other?"
Danny laughs. "Couple of homos you mean?"
"If that's what you wanna call it," Don says.
Danny doesn't say anything for a while. "It's hard to explain."
"I got plenty a time."
"It's not like a secret handshake, if that's what you're thinking," Danny says.
The thought hadn't occurred to Don that there might be such a thing.
"You just kinda know," Danny says. "You feel something."
"There's nothing about Mike that says he's anything but a regular guy. And I've known him forever."
"Maybe it's like the old saying," Danny says. "You have to be one to know one."
"That's bullshit. A guy can tell. You, for instance."
"Me?" Danny turns to him, eyes open.
"Yeah, you're kind of -- I don't know -- "
"Well, you're probably one of those kids who played in the school band."
"I guess that would be a dead give-away, wouldn't it?" Danny's voice sounds a little sharp.
"Look, we're just talkin' here, all right? I'm trying to understand things," Don says.
"OK, let's say we're just talking."
Don waits and then says, "Well, were you? In the band?"
"I don't believe you," Danny says shaking his head.
Don decides to double back to something he knows for sure. "It don't make sense. Mike is just such an all-around guy."
"Well, I like that about him, too," Danny says.
This gives Don pause. He tries another tack. "You ever been with girls?"
"You mean have sex?"
"Yeah, you're what, a young guy, you must have had the urge now and then."
"This is getting kinda personal."
Typical college boy remark. "Your dick is the first thing that wakes up in the morning, right?"
Danny laughs. "What's that supposed to prove?"
"Well, there's a lesson you won't find in any book. A good fuck every day keeps a man goin'. So he can put up with all the shit." Don grips the steering wheel with both hands. "You give that up, you may as well roll over and let them shovel dirt on you."
"I guess that's one way of looking at it." Danny turns his head and looks out the side window, like he's done talking.
"There you go," Don feels himself getting angry. "You think I'm ignorant."
"No, I don't, as a matter of fact." Danny says. "I had my doubts there at first, but now I think you're just trying to be hard to like."
Don has to laugh at this. "Is it working?"
"Well, don't go likin' me too much."
"There's not much danger of that." Danny turns and looks out the window again.
After a couple miles, they come up on a road crew. A young guy with a big, easy smile and a SLOW sign waves them around, and Don pulls into the opposite lane. Three men in hard hats are pouring out trails of tar, some lengthwise, some crosswise, where there are cracks in the concrete. More tar snakes. The smell is strong and sharp, and the boiler under the tar heater is rumbling under the hot sun.
He goes to his shirt pocket for another cigarette, and before he takes one he holds the box over to Danny.
The tavern at Thedford is weather-beaten and looks like an old storefront from frontier days. They park beside several pickups that are pulled up to it like cows at a feed trough. Danny pops his hat onto his head, and they shove open the doors to step out onto the sandy dirt. They stop to glance at each other over the hood of the truck, and Don leans back, hands on his hips, stretching out his back. Likes to seize up when he sits long enough -- one too many falls from an obstinate horse he tried to ride one summer when he was in high school.
Boots scraping on the front steps, they walk through a double screen door, and after the bright sunlight pouring down outside, their eyes have to adjust to what little there is of it inside. Under Don's feet, he can feel the floor uneven and sagging away in unexpected directions. The place smells like forty years of stale beer and piss.
A tattooed bartender stands behind the bar, leaning on his elbows and watching them. Near him, a big man in tight jeans sits on a stool, with a beer, eating a plate of macaroni and cheese. He's the size of Hoss Cartwright on "Bonanza." In the back, five men sit around a table talking, like they've been there all morning, the table covered with plates and glasses, coffee cups, ketchup bottles.
Don thinks, you can find that same bunch of men in just about any cafe, diner, and bar, anywhere. Telling stories, joking, poking fun at each other. No big hurry to get up and go, like whatever they got to do don't take much of their time.
Danny walks up to the bartender, tilting back his hat. Only the bartender's eyes move as Danny approaches. And even when Danny talks, he doesn't move a muscle as he listens.
"Looking for a cowboy by the name of Frank," Danny says. "Big, bushy moustache. Was in here a few days ago?"
The bartender's arms are thick and solid; hairy barrel chest showing under a dark green tank top. His eyes shift to the big guy down the bar with the mac and cheese. "Do we know him?"
"Whodja say? Frank?" he says, putting one beefy hand down on his thigh. He looks over at the bartender.
"We're kinda interested in his whereabouts," Don chimes in, thinking the two men are just playing with Danny.
"Friend of yours?" the big man says, putting down his fork.
"No," says Danny. "He might have been with a couple boys."
"Boys," the bartender says.
"Yeah -- eighteen, nineteen -- under age," Don says. "We think one of them might've got himself in a little trouble."
In the back, a chair scrapes on the floor as a long-legged man in a black hat and black boots gets up to walk across to the men's room.
"Under age, you say," the big man says, turning on his stool now to face the bartender. "Lavern, you'd know something about that."
The bartender straightens up. "I might know the Frank you're talking about," he says.
"Kind of boisterous," the big man says, putting his fingers delicately around the neck of his beer bottle. "You might even go so far as to say a loud-mouth sonofabitch."
"That's him," says Danny.
The bartender and the big guy exchange another look. "Isn't he with the outfit over at the Lazy J?"
"I think he could be," says the bartender real slow.
"If you wanna find him, you might look for him out there," says the big guy.
"Should be easy to find," the bartender says, starting to grin.
"Yeah," the big guy says. "He'll be the one with the black eye." Then both of them break out laughing. The big guy is pounding his fist on his leg, and the bartender's eyes fill up with tears, his face turning red.
When they finally contain themselves, the big guy says, "Frank got a bit outta hand last time he was in here. Somebody had to take him outside."
"How do we find the Lazy J?" Danny wants to know.
"Head on up north to Brownlee," the big guys says. "You'll see the sign."