Hiram had been avoiding the gay son of his recently deceased friend Tru Rasmussen. First, prior to his friend’s passing, he had run into the young man, Eldon, and his fiancé, Jasper, when they were registering for wedding gifts at Wal-Mart. At the time, he didn’t think Eldon could’ve recognized him.

Hiram and Tru had a falling out years ago, and Hiram didn’t think he had seen the boy since he was ten years old. The kid looked just like his daddy at that age. But the way Eldon’s eyes latched onto Hiram when he passed them in the aisle—the boy remembered him. Hiram hoped Eldon knew nothing. He continued by the young men preparing for their happy day.

The next time he encountered Eldon was at Tru’s funeral, not even a month after the wedding. He had hung himself from a rafter in the barn. Tru’s wife was telling the town, Eldon broke his daddy’s heart so bad, he couldn’t go on. It was a damn lie. Tru had loved that boy twice as much as the sum of everything he felt for everyone else in his life. Hiram paid his respects to the family except for Eldon, and the boy noticed. His eyes stayed on Hiram, who could see a question inside the young man.

Hiram hoped it wasn’t about Tru.

The third time he ran into Eldon, Hiram had stopped by the Jaxson Diner for a cup of coffee. He had arrived between breakfast and lunch, which meant that he was able to score a booth, the one with the window view next to the entrance. Eldon and Jasper entered together. The boyfriend wore a John Deere hat and t-shirt ripped under an armpit. Eldon’s jeans were muddy, probably from the field. This time, Eldon looked around the restaurant and found Hiram, who immediately cast his gaze out the window.

Before the waitress could seat the young men, Eldon stepped to the booth and said, “You’re Hiram, aren’t you? My dad’s old friend?”

This time, he admitted it. Though he would’ve preferred to remain unrecognized, the boy’s dad had just died. He noted a look of distaste in Jasper’s expression as Eldon asked, “Mind if we join you?”

“Of course, of course,” Hiram replied.

Then they were sitting across from him and ordering coffee.

“How are your fields coming?” Hiram asked.

“Good so far. Got the beans in. Tomorrow, the corn,” Jasper replied. “If we get the tractor out of the mud.”

“I keep seeing you,” Eldon said. “And the thing is, I remember you from way back.”

Jasper picked up a menu and held it in front of Eldon’s face. “I’m starving. Figure out what you want to eat.”

Eldon reluctantly did so.

“Maybe I’ll get a little something too when the waitress comes around,” Hiram wondered aloud.

Jasper pushed his menu across the booth to Hiram, who lifted and examined it as if he were new to the place. After Eldon set down his menu, Hiram held on to his and feigned uncertain noises until the waitress arrived and took the boys’ orders. She started to walk away, but Hiram stopped her.

“The health choice for me,” Hiram joked. “Side of hashbrowns.”

As she left, Hiram saw Jasper reach under the table, take Eldon’s hand, and lift it to the table top, where they held hands for anyone to see.

“How did you boys get that tractor in the mud?” Hiram asked.

“Eldon got lost in his head again.”

“I didn’t!”

“You’re just dreaming when you’re on that tractor.”

“I’m still getting used to my dad’s tractor. Got it in the inheritance.”

“Sure you are.”

“I didn’t see how wet it was.”

A couple had stepped into the diner. When they saw Eldon and Jasper holding hands, they immediately turned their backs to Hiram’s table.

“And the wheels spun themselves until they suctioned?” Hiram questioned the kid.

“You remember that tractor, right?” Eldon asked Hiram.

Hiram knew not to respond to that.

“You used to help my dad with tractors,” Eldon stated.

Hiram picked up a spoon and stirred his coffee. Realizing he hadn’t actually added creamer, he did, but now he looked foolish.

“Remember way back when you came around a lot?” Eldon asked.

Jasper helpfully got the waitress’s attention. She came to the table and Jasper changed his order slightly. After she left, Eldon said, “I know about my dad.”

Jasper untangled his fingers from Eldon’s grip.

Hiram didn’t allow his mouth, eyes, eyebrows or cheeks to give a hint. He looked right at Eldon and kept looking.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” Jasper said. “Eldon hasn’t been himself since his dad passed.”

“I’m more myself than ever,” Eldon insisted.

“I’m sure you are, son,” Hiram chuckled. “You seem like a chip off the old block.”

“Just drop it,” Jasper said.

Even though he had sworn to himself that he would never discuss Tru, Hiram really missed his oldest friend. Despite his vow, he said, “Boys, I knew too.”

He was surprised to hear himself admit his friend’s secret. Despite his marriage, Tru had always preferred men. Ever since they were teenagers, Hiram had been on the receiving end of his friend’s determined interest. He wasn’t proud of the occasional blowjob he had enjoyed, the ones his girlfriends and his sweet wife Trudy didn’t know about. He couldn’t help his biological reaction. Tru was the best.

“I knew it,” Eldon said, nudging his husband, who looked annoyed.

“Your father wasn’t ever happy,” Hiram said, “not as far back as I can remember.”

“Someone made him happy,” Eldon hinted.

Damn. Tru had told the boy something.

“This is none of our business,” Jasper whispered.

“But it is,” Eldon insisted. “It’s part of our story.”

“No, it’s between them,” Jasper said.

The waitress arrived with their food. Eldon was hungry enough that the burger got his teeth off Hiram’s neck. Hiram picked at the soggy hashbrowns, but more than anything, he was waiting a polite amount of time to ask for the check.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Eldon asked, halfway through his burger. “You’d tell me if it was someone else, right?”

His mouth full at that moment, Jasper gave his husband a scolding look.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Hiram said.

Despite the food in his mouth, he tried to say something, but when he couldn’t, he chewed faster.

“You were with him. In secret,” Eldon continued.

The waitress was right there where she could hear. So were guests who were paying their check.

“No way,” Hiram said.

Jasper swallowed and said, “I can’t believe you, Eldon. Keep your voice down.”

Hiram wasn’t going to tell them about that July afternoon in the hay field, their first time. Like a lot of boys, Hiram and Tru horsed around with each other. Taking a break from the heat and hay dust under a chokecherry tree, Tru tackled Hiram from behind and when they fell to the ground in the shade of the branches, he unbuttoned Hiram’s jeans and pulled them down. Laughing, Hiram went with it. He let Tru’s mouth do the work, and he liked it enough that he wanted it again. Later in life Hiram would decide a gay guy does it best. But at that age, no girl had worshipped what he had, certainly not the way Tru did. Afterwards, he and Tru went back to haying as if nothing had happened, which was how Hiram had wanted it to stay forever.

“You haven’t said no,” Eldon said, his voice a little lower.

The boy had certainly gotten his pushiness from Tru.

“I’m really sorry for the way he’s acting,” Jasper whispered.

Hiram knew he had to make the story casual and forgettable.

“When we were kids, your dad and I messed around a little. It was a one-way thing. I wasn’t really that way.”

“You can tell us. It’s safe,” Eldon said. “I’m not going to out you. I just want to know.”

That word safe stung Hiram. He remembered the time he and Tru were sitting all day in a hunting blind on Tru’s property during deer season. By that time in their lives, Tru had let himself go. He breathed hard and had a waddle. They had been drinking beers and waiting for a buck, but when they stood up to stretch their legs, Tru got the itch. He came up behind Hiram, unware. Then Tru pressed his crotch against Hiram’s rear end, something Hiram didn’t allow, and ended with an emotional hug and a caress.

He wouldn’t have minded a blowjob, but not with all the extra feelings.

“Leave me alone,” Hiram said, but Tru kissed that spot underneath his left ear. In the past this affection had aroused him, but this time, he elbowed Tru in the ribs. Instead of letting go, his friend pushed him against the wall of the blind. His hands pulled at Hiram’s camo pants.

“Get off me,” Hiram yelled, and with more force this time, elbowed Tru in the nuts. Tru let go and stood there, pretending not to feel it.

“Guess you’re not in the mood today,” Tru bitched as he picked up his gun and returned to his watch. “You’re such a goddamn woman sometimes.”

“Go get AIDS,” Hiram said as he, too, picked up his gun and began to wait for a buck.

Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Hiram had been unable to forget these moments.

“There isn’t anything else to tell,” Hiram said to Tru’s son.

“Ok. Full confession,” Eldon began.

“Tell it to the priest,” Jasper complained.

“You’re the reason I know I’m gay,” Eldon said. “Not you in person, but you in the abstract.”

Shaking his head, Hiram placed his knife and fork on the plate and topped it off with a wadded napkin.

“I’m not joking,” Eldon continued. “Thank you.”

The way Eldon said it, Hiram believed him, but the boy wasn’t making any sense. Now Jasper was shaking his head in disapproval. He, too, put his utensils and napkin on his plate. Hiram gazed in irritation at the half-finished burger on Eldon’s plate, which the boy had only occasionally bit into while he berated Hiram. Against his own good sense, Hiram finally asked, “What in the hell are you going on about, son?”

“Oh, here we go,” Jasper said.”

“My dad wrote love letters to a guy named H,” Eldon said. “He hid them in a cigar box in the rafters of the barn. I found them when I was nine years old.”

Jesus. Now Hiram understood the extent to which Tru had been messed up for years.

“It wasn’t mutual,” Hiram informed them. “I married my wife and I wasn’t tortured about anything.”

“I was so naïve, I thought it would be full of cigars,” Eldon said. “I thought I was going to smoke one.”

Hiram wanted to take back his question from just a moment ago. Part of him hadn’t really wanted to know and now, most of him didn’t want to know more. He got the waitress’s attention and nonverbally signaled for the check. At the same time, a couple entered the Jaxson and stood so close to their table, Eldon had to pause. While he anxiously sat, Hiram could see the boy had something else introspective to say, something else Hiram was sure he didn’t want to hear. The waitress returned with the check, which Eldon immediately took.

“I’ll get it,” he said.

“No, I’ll get mine.” Hiram put his cash on the table, but Eldon waved his hand no.

“Sitting here with you, it’s weird,” Eldon continued, “The way my dad described you, I can see you the way you looked when you were our age. My dad doesn’t look anything like he did, but you look great.”

Was the boy flirting? Hiram wasn’t ready to understand he was curious.

“It’s like I know you from way back then,” Eldon said dreamily, which made his husband sigh in disgust.

“You don’t know me,” Hiram stated with indignation.

“What my dad wrote about you, all that love, it felt so right,” Eldon continued. “I knew being gay was good, not some kind of sin like they taught me in church. I didn’t get all fucked up from it, you know?”

“You’re embarrassing him,” Jasper said.

“The couple of times you visited after I read those letters, I watched you two,” Eldon kept going.

“I think we need to leave,” Jasper announced, but he said it to Hiram, who could feel the boy gushing too.

It felt good.

“When my dad smiled at you, I could see what he really felt,” Eldon said. “And I remember the last time I saw you. At the auction barn.”

Hiram didn’t want to talk about how he had walked into the auction house’s dingy bathroom without locking the door behind him. He hadn’t known Tru was a few steps behind until he came inside mid-piss and turned the lock. Saying what the hell and starting to zip, Hiram turned from the toilet. But Tru was already on him. Tru pressed his junk against Hiram’s leg, and said, “I know you’ve been thinking about it too,” but, no, Hiram hadn’t.

Tru kissed his closed lips, grabbed his half-open jeans and yanked the zipper open, as he had done many times. Saying no, Hiram wanted to twist away from Tru, but this time at the urinal, he had frozen. He didn’t know, even now, why he couldn’t move, but when Tru decided to pull him away from the toilet, his feet could move. He knew Tru was trying to push him against the wall, and, saying no again, he planted his feet on the muddy tile. Pressing against him, Tru pushed Hiram, as hard as he could, into the white drywall speckled with mold.

Then Tru’s mouth was on his, and Hiram still couldn’t move. He wanted to speak, but he wanted to stay quiet so no one outside could hear what was happening. Tru jammed his tongue into Hiram’s mouth, opening despite itself, and when Tru got what he wanted, he popped open Hiram’s fly and went down on his knees.

But first, Tru whispered, “You’ve always been my one and only.”

As he slipped unwilling into Tru’s mouth, Hiram said, “No.”

That was when Hiram’s hands discovered they could move to Tru’s shoulders and start pushing him away. But Tru didn’t want to stop. He punched Hiram in the gut, and when Hiram doubled over, Tru stood up, only to knee Hiram between the eyes, just above his nose. It was the last attempt at intimacy between them. Hiram could tell Tru knew. He started crying. Proclaiming over and over how sorry he was, he dabbed a brown paper towel to his eyes. The tears were too much.

Afterward, their friendship was never the same. When one had invited the other to go to an auction or help fix a tractor, there was always a delay in response, and then a reason why one of them couldn’t, and now Tru was gone. He really missed that shitbag. Hiram wouldn’t tell the kid. Even when they’ve done you wrong, you don’t speak ill of the dead.

“If I remember right,” Hiram lied, “he was counting on some of my money so he could buy a cow. But I didn’t cough it up for him. He was pissed and that was that.”

“After you left, he cried. I had never seen him cry until then,” Eldon said, even getting teary. “‘Sometimes you think you know someone, but you never did.’ That’s what he said to me.”

“Got anything else you want to share?” Jasper asked his husband angrily. “Do you feel better now?”

Eldon nodded, even though Hiram could tell he wasn’t supposed to.

“Eldon has the letters. Do you want them?” Jasper asked Hiram. “I don’t want them around anymore. They really belong to you.”

Tru couldn’t stop embarrassing himself from beyond the grave. Hiram blushed at the realization of his old friend’s fixated desperation. All he could do was shake his head.

“Are you sure?” Eldon said. “I’ve felt so strange all these years knowing you should have been the one reading them.”

“They’re yours, not mine,” Hiram said. “If he really wanted me to have them, he would’ve made sure I read them twice.”

Getting up from the table, he knew he would be seeing Tru’s son again. Maybe here first, and if that tractor was giving those boys trouble, maybe then at their place. If Hiram got lucky, maybe he could get a few minutes of Eldon’s time without Jasper around. Now that he was getting to the heart of the matter, all he really wanted was five good minutes.

 
 
Photo by roger4336

Michael Walsh

MICHAEL WALSH is the author of The Dirt Riddles. His poem and stories have appeared in The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Cimarron Review, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Fiddleblack, The Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

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