It is high summer on the farm, and Mike is busy with haying and irrigating corn. While Danny is away taking a course at the university, Mike gets visits from three different friends on the same afternoon.
Mike lay in the weeds under the cool shade of a big old tree at the edge of the field. He'd finished the sandwiches in his lunch pail, plus the dill pickle, the Fritos and the Hostess cupcake, and drained off the last of the coffee in the thermos. And he was stretched out now with his cap over his eyes, catching a short nap if he could before getting back on the tractor and taking the mower out to where he'd been cutting alfalfa since morning.
It was the season's second cutting, and with the rains this summer, the alfalfa was high and thick, its lavender blossoms nodding in the light breeze coming down after the last weather front from the Dakotas. Where the cut hay lay, it was drying now in the hot sun. It would be ready for windrowing and the hay baler in another day, long before the next rains, if he was any judge of the weather--and he liked to think he was.
He loved the wet years like this. The corn and hay grew like gangbusters and he didn't have to be chasing his ass irrigating all day and all night. Gave him more time to just appreciate what he'd always loved, being outdoors, looking after a farm, getting it all done. He felt sorry for guys who worked at desks or behind store counters. They could sleep later in the morning and have their weekends to themselves, but look what they were missing.
In the distance, he could hear a meadowlark, singing its heart out with that falling warble of notes that sounded both happy and sad, a kind of yearning for something that would never quite happen--that a perfect moment, if it ever occurred, would last forever. But lying here with the solid earth under his backside, the smell of cut hay, and the sound of the soft wind in the tree overhead, that was near perfect, and near perfect was damn near perfect enough.
What was missing from this picture was Danny, who had been away from the farm for most of two weeks, taking a summer course at the University in Lincoln. He was learning to make movies, something new to pass on to the students he was teaching at the state college in Kearney. They were lucky to have him for a teacher.
Ordinarily, on a day like today, Danny would come meet him from wherever else he was working on the farm. And he'd bring along their lunch. They'd eat together, not saying much, just sitting cross-legged and looking across the fields, enjoying the open air. Danny might sit close enough to put his hand on the dusty knee of Mike's jeans, and Mike would reach across to him and brush his cheek with his knuckles, or wipe away a spot of mayonnaise from the sandwich he'd been eating.
"Looks like you got cum on your chin," he'd say.
"I was kinda hoping we'd have some time for that yet," Danny would say with a smile.
And when they were done eating and far enough from the road--like here along the alfalfa field--and there was the cover of trees or even just high weeds and sunflowers growing thick in the fence line, they would lie back, pulling open each other's shirt and jeans to press their bodies together, cocks swollen in their underwear, then finally both free and arching upward, leaving long wet streaks of their precum on each other's bellies.
Sex out of doors was blissful. Mike had known it was part of farming from when he was a boy, overhearing his prim grandmother once sniffing that a farm wife she knew carried along a blanket when she took noon lunch out to her husband in the field. Judging from her tone of disapproval, he figured the blanket was for more than spreading the lunch on.
Danny didn't bring along a blanket. They didn't need one. All he needed to bring was himself. "All the best parts of you are standard equipment," Mike once laughed, between long slurping sucks of his cock, his fingers pressed into Danny's butt.
"I like to think of myself as coming fully loaded," Danny said, knees up and levi's around his boot tops.
"Well, before I'm done here, I'm gettin' the whole load."
Mike, on hands and knees, would go back to work on Danny's cock, while all around them there was the chittering sound of insects in the grass. Now and then, as a breeze stirred in the trees around them, he could feel the air against his bare butt and the sweat cool on the backside of his balls. Once, afterwards, he'd found a grasshopper had crawled into one leg of his jeans.
It was not altogether lonely having Danny gone--just more like the regular school year when he came back to the farm for weekends, something Mike willed himself through, waiting for the summer vacation when Danny would be there day after day--and night after night. But he felt out of sorts anyway, and he realized again that the whole arrangement was just not something that suited him.
The two of them belonged together all the time. It was a fucked-up twist of fate that they couldn't be.
He thought of his neighbors, most of them married guys, going home each night to their wives and crawling into bed with them, and whether they had sex or not, not being alone as they fell asleep--or alone when they woke up the next day. That was the way it should be. Meanwhile, him and Danny had to make do with what they could, their lives most of the year separated by forty-five miles of Nebraska highway.
Mike liked his work, but any day good or bad would have been just that much sweeter knowing that at the end of it, he'd be sitting across the kitchen table eating some home cooking with Danny, maybe sitting together after the dishes were done to watch a little TV with a beer, or too tired for that, heading straight to bed and falling naked into it.
He'd have liked that today for sure, and he pictured Danny, grinning from his pillow, and reaching between his legs for his cock, to hold him there while he planted a hungry kiss on his mouth. Whether or not they fucked, it didn't matter so much. After some days, he was too damn tired for it anyway, but touching Danny and making his animal noises--wishing he could utter something as bittersweet as the meadowlark, whose distant song rang out again on the summer air--he was one happy man.
Without Danny there at night, he often struggled for sleep to come to him, and feel an ache somewhere in his chest, or way further down in his balls. And he might finally jerk off in the dark, hoping to be rid of the edgy feeling that kept him from slipping softly into dreamland--and even then, while he might have dreams, they could be tense with urgency. He'd be driving a big, old car on a rutted country road and finding no brakes as he slowed to make a turn, the car sloughing on by though his foot was pressed down on the brake pedal with all his might.
The next day would begin in a similar vein, the bed empty beside him, the room dark and sad in the gray light of predawn. And he'd count the days until Danny would be there again, his head buried in his pillow, hair pointing in every direction, a smooth bare shoulder that Mike would gently cover with the sheet and then sit up, waiting on the edge of the bed for a moment, while Danny might reach over to him, half-awake, to touch his backside and mumble something into his pillow.
"Hey, bud," Mike would say softly. "I do love you."
And if Danny was awake, he'd pat him on the butt cheek. "I love you, too, Mike," he'd say and then fall asleep again.
As a way to begin and end the day, he could ask for nothing more. And without it, he could get damn forlorn if he dwelled on it.
He lay still on his back now under the shady tree, one boot hooked over the other. Thoughts of Danny had got his dick pushing for more room in his boxers, and he sucked in his gut to slip one hand into his wranglers. There he got his fingers around the length of it, still wanting to grow under his touch, and he just held himself as he got harder.
What his thoughts drifted to then was the feel of his hard-on, pushed as far as it would go into Danny. That snug silky embrace, holding him firm and warm, and beginning to rock against him as Danny started to moan and sigh with pleasure, the two of them sliding away now into the arms of some powerful loving force--a carnival ride lifting them off the solid earth and into the starry night sky, together.
With his thumb he softly stroked the underside of his dick, little lightning darts of intensity sparking there, as his thoughts drifted away.
He realized he'd dozed off for a while when he heard a scratching sound that was not quite like the stirring of the branches and leaves overhead. Scratch-scratch-scratch. He opened his eyes into the crown of his cap and listened harder. The scratching continued, without letup, hurried, like maybe a bird or a squirrel.
He let go of his cock and pulled his hand from his jeans, lifting his cap from his face, and a little ways away, he saw the figure of a man squatting on the ground, looking back at him and holding a big sketch book, on which he was furiously drawing with a pencil. Scratch-scratch-scratch.
"What the fuck?" Mike said.
It was Ted, a guy Danny used to know from his college days. He'd been the painter who made the picture of Danny--the blue dancing man--that hung on the wall of their bedroom. They hadn't seen Ted for a long time.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Mike said.
Ted laughed and kept working the pencil on the pad of paper in front of him. He had sketched Mike like this once before on a winter afternoon, years ago, Mike agreeing to sit for him with his clothes off.
"My car's over there." Ted nodded toward the road, a quarter-mile away, where a beat-up old station wagon was parked. He'd crawled through the fence and walked the distance to where Mike's tractor was stopped at the edge of the hay field.
"You drawin' me again?" Mike laughed. "That what you came out here for?"
Ted just shook his head and put down the pencil. He got up and reached out to Mike to shake his hand. "Good to see you again, Mike," he said. His handshake was firm and warm.
And they talked for a while, sitting together in the shade of the tree, like there was nothing strange about Ted appearing out of nowhere after so long.
"Danny ain't here," Mike said, thinking Ted would be looking for him. And he explained about the movie course at the university.
"That's OK," Ted said and didn't seem disappointed. He looked into Mike's eyes and smiled. "I don't care to lose track of either one of you."
The winter afternoon in Ted's kitchen came back to Mike, how they talked then as the burning wood popped and cracked in the stove and a calico cat slipped in and out of the room. He had been touched by what Ted told him of his life, of the brother who had shot him in the groin in a hunting accident, and then wished when he found out Ted was queer that he'd shot him in the head instead.
It was the kind of story once told that made a man seem forever close to him, even if they never met again.
"Where you workin' now?" Mike wanted to know.
"I'm trying to make a living from this," Ted said, holding up the sketchbook. On the page, Mike saw, was a drawing of himself, stretched out in the weeds, one hand behind his head, cap over his eyes, and the tree and his tractor behind him. His other hand, he saw, was shoved into his jeans. Plain as anything.
"See you got me with my hand in the cookie jar."
Ted laughed. "I'll clean it up when I paint the picture."
"You painting farmers now?" Mike said.
"Country landscapes," Ted said. "There seems to be a market for them."
He pulled off the straw hat he was wearing, and Mike could see the beginnings of gray in his dark hair. Ted had grown older. Well, they both were older.
"You got the talent," Mike said, though he was just guessing. What did he know about art, except what he liked.
"What you need are the connections," Ted said, sighing. "And I spend half my time just doing that." It sounded like it might be hard work. He pulled a bandana from around his neck and wiped his face. Mike noticed that his fingers were dark in the creases like his, though with paint, not grease and motor oil.
"Last winter I had a show in Kansas City," he went on and looked out across the alfalfa field, leaving his hat lying beside him in the weeds. He was wearing a rumpled, cream-colored sport jacket and a tee-shirt, faded jeans and tan boots, flecks of paint on them. "Actually sold a few."
"Can't beat that."
"Guy in the local paper said I was some kind of Midwestern impressionist."
"Is that good?"
Ted laughed and shook his head. "Who the fuck knows?"
Mike saw that Ted was working hard at what he did best, and the goddam world needed to hurry up and realize that. One way or another.
"So you and Danny are still together," Ted said.
"Hope to hell we are. I'd be one hurtin' puppy without him."
"That's good," Ted said, and Mike could tell he meant it.
Ted sighed. "Time comes you start thinking if it's gonna happen it woulda done it by now."
"Weren't you with a college boy there a while back? Whatever happened to him?"
"Bobby? He was just a kid. You know, they're here today gone tomorrow."
Mike had never got himself involved with a younger guy, not counting Danny anyway. What the word "boy" made him think of was his nephew Kirk, and the idea of expecting anything from someone as immature and unpredictable as Kirk made him shake his head in wonder.
"I'm keeping you from your work," Ted finally said, changing the subject.
Mike looked at the sun and judged he had enough time to finish cutting the field by the end of the afternoon if he got back at it.
"Stay for supper tonight," he said to Ted. "Don't go rushin' off."
Ted thought for a moment and then said OK. And he stayed standing under the tree as Mike took a long drink from a water jug and climbed onto the tractor. "Go over to the place when you feel like it. There's beer in the ice box, and we filled the pool. Make yourself at home."
He started the engine and swung the tractor around, heading back out into the field. He looked over his shoulder as he went, and Ted stood there watching him go, picking up the sketchbook from the weeds, to sit with his back against the trunk of the tree and continue drawing.
Then an hour or so later, Mike looked up and saw him walking with a long stride along the edge of the field and back to his car on the road, the brim of his big straw hat drooping down around his ears and the sketchbook under his arm. His sport jacket swung open around him as he went.
Who was the guy who cut off his ear, Mike thought. Van Gogh? Coulda been him.