The first time Mike and Harry had a drink at JT’s Bar, they ended up there by mistake.
“You planned it all along,” Harry accused Mike that night, and for years afterward too. It got to be something he said that reminded them of the long years they had traveled together and a time when their world had opened up a little. Just a little, because they hadn’t needed it to open very much.
“Like hell I did,” Mike always retorted, and though Harry mainly thought Mike hadn’t known he was dragging him where he’d never been before, didn’t want to go, and would’ve turned away from if he could’ve, Mike never actually denied it, did he? So Harry kept putting on his fake sour face and accusing him, even twenty years later when he was sixty-five, and he intended to keep saying it until the day he died. Mike with his feathers ruffled was a sight to appreciate.
The westerly wind blew hot and strong that August day in 1991, and it went with them all the way from northern New Mexico to Amarillo, Texas. They drove away from their small ranch at five in the morning after a pre-dawn feeding of the horses. Harry was behind the wheel to start because he didn’t like city traffic; they’d switch off halfway there so Mike was the one who negotiated the elevated lanes of the in-city interstate. Mike poured him a cup of coffee from the thermos they had with them, and Harry took it with a nod.
He sipped carefully because their coffeemaker ran to steaming-hot. “You still mad at me for not wanting to go to Neil’s wedding?”
Mike rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Nah. I get it. No, on second thought, you’re a stubborn jackass.”
“Wouldn’t wanna change too much.”
“There ain’t no danger of that.”
That was enough conversation for an hour before sunrise. Mike tipped his hat over his eyes, leaned against the door, and dozed while Harry dealt with the turns through the Cimarron Canyon State Park, and he kept dozing as almost a hundred miles later they skirted the long plain dominated by the ancient Capulin Volcano. Harry didn’t mind; they didn’t often get to drive together, and he liked doing it even when Mike was silent company. The important thing was that he was there. Harry thought of turning on the radio but began to hum to himself instead. Mike stirred and said thickly, “You’re gonna scare the children,” an old joke between them, and then he seemed to go back to sleep.
When they crossed the Texas border and were headed for Dalhart, Mike took over driving, and Harry tried to snooze, but he was wide awake and couldn’t keep his eyes closed.
Even though they were real early in motel-time, they checked into an Amarillo Holiday Inn by ten-thirty, the one next to the Quarter Horse Museum. Just one room, thanks. One big bed if you got it, Mike told the desk clerk while Harry stood silent guard over their F-150 in the parking lot, looking away from the transaction going on inside. Seven years of living together in the high reaches of the Seguro Valley had smoothed much of his jumpiness over being in public with Mike, but there wasn’t any need for both of them to be making spectacles of themselves. A man couldn’t be too careful in a big city. He’d have Mike’s back if anything happened, like he’d had once or twice before.
After they dumped their one overnight bag in the room—with two dop kits for toothbrushes and razors, two briefs, two shirts, one half-squeezed tube of K-Y—they went on a determined, let’s-get-this-done search for small equipment, used but in good shape: mowers, generators, circular saws, post hole augers, anything Mike might be able to offer from his rental business in the tiny downtown of Elk Ridge. High Country Equipment Rentals was going like gangbusters with city folks pouring in to live among the scenic wonders of New Mexico. Mike’s business was pulling in almost as much income as the horse training that was mainly Harry’s work. Mike wanted to expand, so he needed more equipment to rent.
They spent that Saturday attending the two auctions that had drawn them two hundred and fifty miles east. The equipment from more than a few ranches was being liquidated at one auction that started at twelve-thirty not far from Palo Duro Canyon, while the other one got going at five o’clock on the outskirts of the fairgrounds.
“It don’t seem right,” Mike said, surveying a promising-looking stump grinder. “Profiting from their misfortune.” It was an inevitable truth that cattle ranching as a way of life was hanging on by its fingernails where it wasn’t dead already. Beef prices would never be what they’d been.
“Nothing we can do to help ’em now except buy their stuff,” Harry said. “That grinder’s in good shape. Best bid on that.” Harry stayed in the background most of the time with his hands in his pockets, sometimes in his back pockets when he was feeling a little comfortable and risked being expansive. He followed Mike around from grader to chainsaw to backhoe, offering opinions when asked, and sometimes when not asked.
One of the men helping at the sale came over to them. With him came a tall woman in overalls, clumping across the field in mudboots. A navy blue handkerchief circled her neck. Harry blinked at her.
“You interested in this grinder?” the fellow asked. “It’s a good one, a Vermeer model only a couple years old.”
The woman added, “Twenty-five horsepower. I used it last month to take out a cottonwood stump when my husband here was tied up with the heifers, and it works fine.”
That explained it, then. These folks were some of those who actually owned the equipment spread out around them on the prairie grass, who’d come up against hard times and had been forced to sell out.
Mike pushed his hat back and spoke directly to the woman. “You used it recent? How’s it go? Is it easy to operate? I need something that any of my customers can handle.”
She put a possessive hand on the engine casing. “It makes a racket, but our fifteen-year-old’s worked it fine.”
“Then I might put in a bid.” Mike tipped his hat to both of them, and Harry did too, before they moved on to look at a tractor. “Hope those two do okay,” Mike said quietly. “Life sure can be hard.”
The day wore on. The thermometer had busted past the one-hundred-degree mark right after noon, and they both sweated through their shirts. By the end of the second auction the air was hardly cooler even by a degree or two, but they had stocked up to the edge of Mike’s budget. Pick-up at each site was extended to the next day, so they agreed they’d load up all their purchases early the next morning.
By that time it was past eight o’clock at night, and they were hungry, hungry enough not to wait while they found a restaurant with chicken-fried steak, Harry’s favorite. Instead they stopped at the first fast-food joint they came across, a sad-looking McDonald’s that was deserted except for the servers, them, and a mom watching over two kids in the glassed-off play area. Dinner rush must have been over and not expected to start again, because a teenager with an electric polisher was working on the floor already, filling the eating space with its loud hum.
They sat in one of those plastic McDonald’s booths where it was easy to slide right off the seat and tackled their food. Harry complained about it being fake and how he’d never eat fast food if he had his choice. “I could make us a roast with potatoes and gravy for what this cost us.”
“If you ate more of that stuff you cook,” Mike said, “maybe I could find you when you turn sideways.”
Harry ignored him. “We could eat off what we just spent for half the week, dinners and lunches both.”
“Skinflint,” Mike told him, and then he bit into his second Quarter Pounder.
“Somebody’s got to look at the pennies.”
“I just wrote two checks for more’n a few thousand dollars. I don’t think you got to worry yourself over eating at Mickie Dee’s. We’re doing good, and you know it.”
Harry sent a quick glance to the floor polisher and judged they couldn’t be overheard. “I’m not saying we’re gonna starve, it’s that—”
“You’re bragging on how you’re a better cook than I am.”
One of Harry’s rare smiles emerged. “You don’t mind it.”
“I sure don’t. Consider this your night off. You could have another one if you go to Neil’s wedding next year.”
“Don’t get started on that. Besides, I thought you weren’t so sure he should marry that girl. Or maybe you don’t think you’re ready to be a father-in-law or that he’s ready yet, even though the boy’s almost twenty-five.”
“It ain’t that. Besides, you married when you were eighteen.”
Harry hunched a shoulder, but nothing could ward off the bad memories and the guilt. “I was a fool to do that. Neil’s no fool.”
“I don’t know. Marriage is a big step. Why can’t he just live with her?”
“Like you and me?”
“If he’s gonna do it like you and me,” Harry said, “there ain’t no difference between that and putting a ring on her finger.”
Mike paused in the middle of slurping his Coke, no straw, and looked at Harry over the rim of the cup. Then he slowly returned the drink to the table. “There you go again, knocking me out when I don’t see it coming. You’d think after these years together I’d be prepared. You lay me out flat saying such things.”
Harry was examining a crumpled-up napkin somebody had let fall to the floor. “Well, yeah. There you go.” He cleared his throat. “You were saying ’bout Neil?”
“Marriage is a big commitment. Our way of living is a big commitment. I ain’t so sure Neil’s got it in him for that.”
“You think he loves Courtney?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I’ve never even met the girl, so I’ve never seen them together. Besides, what’s love? And who says how much of it you need to walk down the aisle?”
“Not me,” Harry said. “But I figure folks know it when they see it, and they make a stab at whether it’s enough for marrying.”
“We didn’t do so good with that, did we? We both got it all wrong with our wives.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Mike contemplated his fries for a while and then with a quick smile looked up at Harry. “But we learned from our mistakes. We’re doing okay this time, you and me.”
“Doing okay so far,” Harry said. “Ask me again in five years. I’ll let you know.”
“Right. I’ll try to remember that if I ain’t pushed you off a cliff in the meantime. I guess none of my worrying’s gonna make any difference. Neil’s gonna do what he wants to do without asking what I think ’bout it. Besides, the wedding ain’t for another fifteen months, so there’s plenty of time for him to know his own mind.” Mike looked at him pointedly. “And for you to decide you’ll show up.”
“At some fancy to-do at a Dallas country club? That’s taking more’n a year to organize?” Harry shook his head, hoping that Mike saw how that just wasn’t possible. “No way. Every one of those fancy bluebloods there will be talking behind our backs, pointing to the two queers. I ain’t putting up with that shit. Nope, you go yourself and then come back and tell me about it. Neil’ll understand.”
After they balled up the packaging and tossed it, they took themselves off to the biggest U-Haul center in town. The owner was happy to put off closing to take Mike’s credit card. They ordered a truck that they’d come back for at seven the next morning. Harry would drive it home once they got it loaded, because he’d won the flip of the coin early that morning.
“I sure could use a beer,” Mike said as he drove the F-150 back toward their motel. The city lights not only threw their glare onto the asphalt road, but they leaked up into the sky, obscuring the stars the two of them saw most nights from their house on the shoulder of the mountains. “It’s been hot work.”
Harry grunted. He was out with his horses most days whether it was cold enough to snap off his toes or hot enough to melt his balls. Mike helped some around the ranch, like Harry tried to help now and then with the equipment business, the way he was doing that weekend, but Mike did take Mother Nature seriously. He wrapped up good in the winter, made sure the AC was on when summer set in, and if there was a rumble of thunder? That man got indoors fast.
“Let’s find a bar,” Mike said, already looking from one side of the street to the other. “Something that’s not too much of a dump.”
The section of the city they were driving through was one that Harry knew, some; it was half-warehouse, half-industrial, with railroad tracks they’d driven over not half a mile behind them. But it was Mike who peered through the windshield like a hound that’d seen the fox. “How about that? Is that a bar? Hard to tell.”
Harry saw it too. Who would think there’d be a bar around here? “Think so. Pull over there.”
There wasn’t any parking lot, but there were enough cars and pickups along the street to prove that the storefront with the barely lit sign reading “JT’s” was pulling in the customers. Harry made sure he got to the door first. He pushed it in slowly, but the sound of music and men’s voices reassured him even before he saw what was inside. Yep, a bar. JT’s looked okay. Nicer than Stubbie’s at home, bigger and newer with not-bad lighting, wood paneling, tables and booths, and the familiar yeasty smell of beer overlaying cigarette smoke. There was a small stage tucked to one corner, but it didn’t look like it was being used tonight. Straight ahead, a crowd clustered around the bar. The customers mostly wore jeans, and there were more than a few cowboy hats and boots like theirs. Some were well-worn boots, not meant for show but for real work every day.
Harry nodded to himself as he took the first few steps inside. Him and Mike fit in all right here, at what was a country-type bar, and he could handle it. He tried not to show that he was always careful going places with Mike, but he was. Mostly he’d finally got it into his head that they just looked like friends out together, and that was okay because they were that too. But sometimes he could tell somebody got another thought in their head, and him and Mike were looked at cross-wise. That was when he made sure they got out before trouble started. Harry hadn’t always walked away from trouble, but that was before he’d set up housekeeping with Mike. He had something to lose now. He’d miss it if he didn’t wake up next to his black-haired, pain-in-the-butt fella, miss it like not having air to breathe, so he was gonna make sure nothing happened that would mean he’d ever have to sleep alone.
He would’ve preferred a stool at the bar, but there wasn’t any room, so Harry led Mike over to where a table for two was free by the far wall. The jukebox was playing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as they took their hats off and put them on hooks over their heads. He picked up a cardboard advertisement on the table for Coors beer and fiddled with it. There was a picture of the Rocky Mountains on the card that reminded him of home; he always liked it best staying home. Mike bugged him sometimes about how fixed he was to the ranch.
“I should’ve called Danny this afternoon,” Harry fretted.
Mike stretched his legs out under the table and leaned back in his chair, looking like he was in their own back room with a view out the window down to the stream. “He’s a good kid. I’m sure he’s taking care of the horses fine. Don’t worry.”
“We should’ve asked Pete or Lefty to do it, or Floyd, or at least made sure—”
“Floyd’s almost eighty, for God’s sake, and Pete and Lefty have their full-time jobs in town. Danny’s been helping us out all summer near every day. He knows what to do.”
“He’s only seventeen and don’t have much judgment. You remember how you were at that age?”
Mike laughed and scratched his neck. “Young and dumb and full of come, that was me.”
That was like every other teenage boy, queer or not, so Harry let that comment go without telling Mike to shut his trap; nobody hearing it could take it wrong. “I guess that’s supposed to make me feel better.”
“No, it’s supposed to get you thinking on other things. I don’t want you up all night worrying that Danny’s left the gates open and all the horses are running down the highway.”
Harry shook his head, put on his frown that he knew didn’t fool Mike one bit, and didn’t say anything more. Geez, but Mike did like to flap off his mouth, especially at the end of the day when he was ready to put up his feet and relax. Harry didn’t really mind Mike talking, though; he spent too long in his own wordless world of horse’s neighs and the wind’s howling, of the aspen trees rustling and the creak of the saddle, of his own thoughts that regretted the past and hoped for the future. He liked it when Mike got all wound up.
“Howdy and welcome to JT’s.” A waiter who filled out his black polo shirt like he was aiming to be the next Mr. Universe stood next to their table. “What can I get you?”
Mike ordered Heineken, and Harry wanted his usual Corona—“with a lime,” he reminded, ’cause sometimes it didn’t come with. The waiter nodded and tucked the pencil behind his ear with a certain fancy move that caught Harry’s eye. Nah…. He glanced away uneasily and saw a couple more guys come through the front door with big grins like they were real happy to arrive. They were greeted with shouts from across the room; seemed like at JT’s folks knew one another. Knew one another pretty good from the way they were hugging hello.
“We’re getting the crowd early tonight,” Chad commented, because that’s what his name tag said.
Across the table, Mike was sitting up real straight all of a sudden, and he was chewing on the inside of his mouth. He let go, looked up at Chad, and asked, “You get a good Saturday night crowd?”
“Darling, you wouldn’t believe. There won’t be space to move in another hour.”
Harry was pretty sure he must’ve heard that wrong, what with all the noise, the new guys being talked to, and the music and all. That wasn’t a word he heard much. He didn’t even call Mike darling. He sure as hell hadn’t ever called Charlene anything like that, though he hoped his wife rested in peace. Darling?
Harry wanted to look at Chad some more, to squint up at him, ’cause there was something not right here. But he didn’t. He didn’t want anybody staring at him, so he sure wasn’t going to call attention to himself by getting into anybody’s face.
Chad didn’t seem to be in that big a hurry to leave. What, was he aiming for a bigger tip by being friendly? He shifted his weight to his right hip and asked them, “Is this your first time here?”
Mike was the one who answered. Harry couldn’t talk when he was thinking so hard. This really did look like an ordinary bar to him, except for…. And that hugging. “Uh, yeah,” Mike said, “it is.”
“How’d you get word?”
Mike shrugged. “We just drove by.”
“Sure, whatever you say. I’ll get your beers.”
Chad took himself off and Harry watched him take his tight-assed leave, but he quick caught himself and returned his gaze to the table. His thoughts were racing a mile a minute, and his mouth was dry. He risked a quick look up and around, gulped, and went back to studying his fingers gripping the edge of the table. It couldn’t be. There wasn’t a woman in sight.
Mike leaned in toward him across the table. “Harry, I think—”
“Hold off there,” Harry said roughly. He needed to get away fast to where he could think clear. He stood up, pushing his chair back so it scraped against the wood floor. “I gotta go take a piss.”
“Wait a minute. You need to know—”
“Gotta go, Mike.”
He stalked across the bar, skirting the dance floor as if stepping on it would break his back, but then he gratefully noted the familiar shapes of two pool tables on the other side. He didn’t let himself look at the bodies of the men playing, didn’t let himself look at anyone at all. The music had changed to some guy singing “Love’s Got a Hold on You.”
There wasn’t another soul in the men’s room when Harry stumbled inside. He went straight to a sink, bent over, and threw water in his face.
Jesus! They were in a goddamn gay bar!