Monday, April 5, 2010
In If Lover Were All by Victor Banis, Charlie is a stray. He is picked up hitchhiking one night in a rain storm by Tom and invited to spend the night at Tom's trailer, which leads to sex, and an invitation to stay on.
Hard Working Men
Publisher: MLR Press (July 15, 2008)
"It ain't much," Tom said, indicating the trailer, "But it's got a roof, and it don't leak."
That was how they come to live together. Charlie said once about looking for a job, and Tom said, "Seems like you could find enough to do around here, to keep you busy."
That was settled, then. Charlie stayed home and cooked and swept and mopped and did the laundry and shopped and washed the windows and scrubbed the toilets—like a multiple purpose home appliance that you screwed on the bed and it took care of all the chores for you. But he kept that thought to himself, and saw everything was done the way Tom liked it.
He didn't mind much. He had been on the road for a long time, trying to find work, trying to find anything without quite knowing what that was, going hungry, caught out in the weather; which was where he had been that night, in a downpour, not even trying to thumb a ride, just walking alongside the road, because who would pick up a man sopping wet, when Tom had stopped in his old pickup, and when he got to his turn off, he said, "Don't look like you're going to get any rides tonight. I got me a little trailer up the lane here, it's not fancy, but it's warm and dry, if you would like to crash for the night," nothing said about sex, nothing expected, so far as Charlie had been concerned, seeing that the man behind the wheel of the pickup looked to him like he was straight, maybe one hundred and ten percent of it. And Charlie knew he was no beauty, he was skinny as a rail, always had been, and being on the road hadn't put any pounds on him.
Tom was good looking, though, in a rangy kind of way, hard muscles. Work earned muscles, too, not the gymnasium kind, and he was well endowed to boot. Charlie figured he could do lots worse. Had done, plenty of times.
He learned quickly that there were two allowable bodies of thought on any subject: Tom's way of thinking, and Tom's further opinion on the matter. As a for instance, the trailer was small to begin with, and Tom had the habit of leaving the door open when he used the bathroom, no matter which number he was doing, and when Charlie said something about it, he said, "I guess you wiped with silk hankies when you was on the road," and continued to leave the door open, and that went on the growing list of things Charlie resigned himself to getting used to.
Tom was not much for bestowing compliments, either, although he surprised the hell out of Charlie one night while he was eating supper by saying, in a singular burst of enthusiasm, "Best fried chicken I ever ate." After that, a lot of chickens made the acquaintance of Charlie's skillet.
Except with his compliments, though, Tom was generous, in his own way. He got paid at his construction job on Friday, and on Saturday he would drive them to the mall, and hand Charlie a wad of bills, never counting them, and wait in the truck listening to the radio and watching people come and go, while Charlie did his shopping.
The first time, Charlie stopped inside the entrance to the mall and took that wad out of his pocket and stared at it. It must have been two, three hundred dollars. If he wanted, he could walk right out the other end of the mall and just keep going.
But where could he go? He'd already been there hadn't he?
Tom never asked any questions about how much Charlie spent, either, or what he bought, or asked for any change back. He said one day, on the way to the mall, "Them shoes of yours, you might as well be barefoot, looks like. Maybe you ought to buy yourself some boots while you are in there."
After a moment, Charlie asked, "Well, if I was to do that, how much should I spend?"
"I expect they will want you to pay whatever the price is," Tom said, "That's how it usually works, ain't it?"
He never so much as raised an eyebrow when Charlie showed him the boots later and told him how much they had cost. Charlie thought they were on the expensive side. He had small feet and this was the only pair he had found in his size, but Tom just grunted and nodded, was all.
The mall was as far as they got, though, and after a few months, the little trailer seemed to Charlie to get littler still. They never went out. When they were at home, Tom watched television. Action movies mostly, or sports: football, baseball, wrestling, any kind of sports but swimming or tennis, and don't even think about ice-skating. He could sit and watch a Nascar race for hours, from start to finish, which to Charlie was nothing but a bunch of funny looking cars driving round and round in the same circle. Then, finally, he would stand and stretch, scratch his crotch and say, "Let's hit the sack," which meant, he was ready for some exercise.
"Why don't we go to a movie or something?" Charlie said one night.
"I'm watching a movie, right here," Tom said, indicating the television where cops in a car were chasing some bad guys in another car.
"Well, how about we go out somewhere, to a bar maybe, have a couple of beers?"
"People see two guys come into a bar together, what do you figure they are going to think?"
"Let them think what they like," Charlie said, and Tom looked up from the television and gave him the cold-eye.
"That's easy for you," he said, "A fellow can look at you and tell right off that you're queer. I don't want nobody getting any ideas about me, then I might have somebody's teeth stuck to my knuckles. Things is just fine, the way they are."
"I ain't been nowhere since I come here," Charlie said, knowing he was on thin ice.
"You been to the mall, ain't you?" Tom said, and before Charlie could answer to that, he went on in an injured voice. "Don't see you got anything to complain about. You got a roof over your head, plenty to eat. You was like a stray cat, half starved and half drowned when I brought you home, I wish you could have seen yourself. Now look at you, you got yourself an old man, steady, like your kind is always looking for, is what I always heard. Can't say I don't give you enough cock, you been getting your tank filled from it every night, to say nothing of them all-you-can-eats in between times. Plus I ain't fucked around on you once the whole damn time you been here, case you didn't know, and there's plenty out there would like a sample of what you been getting regular. Seems like to me you ought to be in hog heaven."
"Well, it's just," Charlie tried to say, but Tom cut him off in a voice that said the conversation was over.
"Listen," he said, "If I wanted a wife nagging at me, I'd have me one was split down there, wouldn't have to go in no back door. I got no reason to go out, and you ain't neither. Let's leave it at that."
Charlie got up quick from his chair and went into the kitchen, which was only the other end of the same room. He needed to be busy with something, and decided to make some cornbread for in the morning, and occupied himself with that, from time to time watching Tom watching the television.
It was the prison, he decided when he had considered it a bit. Tom had gotten used to staying in one place, not going around anywhere. Prison took the stray out of a man's feet.
When do we get out, he wondered?
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