A Love Born From Steel
Jack and Ennis decided to take July 4th off. They figured they had been working nonstop since their arrival in May—they had earned a one-day vacation.
They went into town to watch the parade. Like most small town parades, it included the high school band and color guard, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Veterans from World Wars I and II, plus Korea—Viet Nam vets were notably absent—antique cars, fire trucks, and homemade floats from various civic organizations. Since it was the Bicentennial, there was an extra contingent of men and women from the VFW, dressed up as Revolutionary War heroes and heroines. The women wore long dresses and bonnets; the men, black coats with ruffled shirts and knee britches. With the temperature approaching 100 degrees at ten in the morning, Jack thought they all looked miserable.
As part of the celebration, there was a crafts fair that ran up and down the length of Main Street. After the parade, Jack and Ennis browsed the booths, snacking on hot dogs and drinking lemonade. There were various exhibits of crafts, some quite nice, while others reflected a uniquely Texas brand of craft fair kitsch. At one point, Ennis held up a crocheted toilet paper cover. "What the hell is this is?" he whispered to Jack, out of earshot of the owner, who was busy working on another one.
"You don't wanna know," whispered Jack, taking the cover from Ennis's hand and putting it back on the display. "Don't worry, I ain't buyin' one for our bathroom."
There was one booth of very nice, hand-embroidered Western shirts. Ennis paused at the rack, fingering a particularly pretty green and cream shirt, thinking about Junior.
"That's one of my favorites," said the owner. "Do you have someone in mind?"
"My daughter," said Ennis. He pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket. "Her mama says she wears a size 14."
"Size 14 for a girl, or size 14 for a woman?" asked the owner.
Ennis, who had never bought a garment of woman's clothing in his life, looked confused. "Uh, she's 12," he said. "Tall and skinny."
The woman laughed. "Must be a girl's size." She went to a rack behind the table and flipped through a few shirts on hangers. "Here's a similar one, in a size that should fit."
Jack had walked up while this was going on. "That one's pretty," he said. "I like the green." Ennis nodded. He knew that Jack liked green.
He consulted his piece of paper. "Okay, my other daughter wears a size 12."
"Let's see," said the owner. "I think maybe a blue shirt would be nice. Different, but they would complement each other." Again, she thumbed through the hangers, and pulled out another, mostly blue, with a cream yoke and red, blue, and green embroidery.
Ennis nodded. "I like that one. Jenny will too, I think." He looked at the owner. "I'll take both."
She smiled and wrapped the shirts in tissue, then put them in a brown paper bag. "Do your daughters live with you?" she asked.
Ennis shook his head. "No, I'm divorced. If the plans work out, they're comin' t'visit in a few weeks, though. First time in Texas."
"Well," she said. "These shirts will be a treat. Real Texas Western wear."
Ennis smiled. "Yup, I'm thinkin' we'll go to a rodeo. They can wear them then."
The owner, ever the saleswoman, pointed to a booth across the street. "My friend is sellin' hats over there," she said. "They'll need those to go with their shirts."
Ennis laughed. "I s'pose yer right," and crossed the street to look at the hat display.
While Ennis was thus engaged, Jack wandered off. He looked at a display of hand tooled leather belts, but none appealed to him. The next booth was an assortment of wooden boxes with hand painted birds and wildflowers on the covers. Jack laughed to himself, thinking of Ennis packing away all of Hal's old knick knacks in the living room. Jack knew that Ennis was not fond of clutter and passed the woodenware without a second glance.
He came upon a display of jewelry and stopped. There were necklaces, bracelets, and a number of silver rings arrayed on a black velvet cloth. He picked up a ring—it was unusual, a series of silver threads, intricately twisted to form strings, and the entire group then braided together. A pretty young woman with long red hair, standing behind the table—Jack assumed she was the silversmith—pointed to the ring in Jack's hand. "That's my specialty," she said. "I call it 'lover's braid.'''
"Hmm," Jack said, turning the ring over in his fingers. "It's pretty."
"Well thank you," said the young woman. "I made it—compliments are always appreciated. My name's Sarah, by the way. I'm from Albuquerque."
"Albuquerque," said Jack. "That's a long way from Quanah."
"It is, but that's what I do," she said. "Make jewelry all winter, travel to fairs all summer." She pointed back to the rings. "As you can see, there are different styles. This one has three stands of silver," she said, holding one up, "while the one you are looking at has six." She picked up a third. "This one has twelve strands, but I think it would be too big for your finger, I think. It's made for really big guys."
Jack smiled at her. "I'm not a really big guy?" he said, teasingly.
Sarah laughed. "You know what I mean…really big, like football players." She pointed again to the ring in Jack's hand. "Are you going to try it on?"
At this moment Ennis came up and stood at Jack's side. "Whatchya lookin' at?" he said. Jack showed him the ring. "That's nice," said Ennis. "I like it."
Jack nodded to Sarah. "This is Sarah," he said. "She makes all this jewelry. This ring is called lover's braid." He paused. "Oh, by the way, I'm Jack," he said, "and this is my friend Ennis."
Sarah smiled at them. "It's nice to meet both of you."
Jack looked back at the ring in his hand and started to push the it onto his ring finger on his right hand. It stopped at the knuckle.
"It's too small," he said, pulling it off and handing it to Sarah.
"Let me see," she said. "I might be able to size it, or, better yet, I'm sure I have a larger one." She pulled out a black velvet box from under the table. Inside were several rows of rings, their silver shining brightly against the black. "Try this one," she said, giving it a quick polish with a polishing cloth as she handed it to Jack.
He slid it on. This one moved easily over the knuckle and in the second before it reached the base of his finger, Ennis touched it. "That's it," Ennis said, and Jack looked at him. An unspoken vow traveled between their eyes.
Jack turned to Sarah. "I think it fits perfectly." He held up his hand and looked at it. "Yes, perfect. Now, for my buddy here," he said, motioning to Ennis, "d'you have another?"
"I'm sure I do," she said, first looking at Ennis's right hand ring finger and then her box of rings. "This looks about right," she said, handing the ring to Ennis.
Ennis turned the ring over in his hand, then held it up and showed it to Jack with a wink. Jack nodded. Ennis pushed the ring onto his own right hand ring finger, while Jack, as Ennis had done, touched it as it settled into place. "That's it," said Jack, smiling at Ennis. They paused for a minute and held their eyes in a steady gaze. Then, Jack turned away and looked at Sarah. "Well," he said, "looks like we bought ourselves some rings today. I wasn't expectin' that."
Sarah smiled at both of them. "That was beautiful…they look beautiful…the rings, I mean. But then again, I always think my jewelry looks beautiful." They laughed together at that. "And," she continued, "I know my jewelry makes special things happen." Jack and Ennis smiled at her. "They're $25 each," she said.
Jack pulled out his wallet and started to count out the total, when Ennis stopped him.
"I want t'pay for yours, Jack," he said. "You can buy mine." Ennis counted out the bills from his wallet, while Jack did the same.
Sarah smiled as she took the money. "As part of your purchase, I have a jewelry bag for each ring," she said, "as well as a polishing cloth."
"I'll take the cloth," said Jack, "but I don't need the bag. I ain't plannin' on takin' it off."
"Me neither," said Ennis, with a happy smile that radiated from within.
Sarah handed them each a business card. "All my jewelry is guaranteed," she said. "If you ever need to get your ring resized or repaired, just give me a call. You can mail it in and I'll fix it." They tucked the cards in their wallets.
Jack gave her a happy smile. "Thanks again," he said. "I'm glad I stopped by yer booth. You've got really nice stuff." Ennis nodded in agreement.
"I'm glad you stopped by too," Sarah said. "It was special, wasn't it?" her words conveying the knowledge that she knew exactly what she had witnessed.
The afternoon found them on a blanket next to the river, lying in the sun after a swim, each enjoying a beer. Jack had just finished a long, slow, lengthy application of suntan lotion, which Ennis had done first for Jack. The first time Jack had pulled out the suntan lotion, back in May, Ennis looked at it in disbelief. "I don't need that shit," he said. "I've never had a sunburn."
"Have you ever been sunbathing in the altogether in the hot Texas sun?" asked Jack.
"No," said Ennis, "but why does that make a difference?"
"Ennis, lookit you," said Jack. "You have blond hair and fair skin. You'll burn to a crisp. Besides," he said, giving Ennis's cock a tug, "I bet li'l Ennis has never been out in the sun. I don't want a sunburn there to affect your performance."
As he had said this, Ennis had pulled Jack in and started kissing and licking the skin at the base of Jack's neck. "I think you just want an excuse to rub your hands all over me," said Ennis, his hands rubbing Jack's ass.
"That too," said Jack, loving the feel of Ennis's tongue, which was now running down his chest. "Turn over, cowboy, and let me do your back."
Since that day, their suntan lotion application procedure had become increasingly elaborate and they argued playfully about who got to go first or second. Today, Ennis lay on his stomach, feeling totally relaxed, as Jack finished his all over body massage.
Jack pulled back and looked at him. "Ya want another beer?" he said.
"Sure," said Ennis, rolling over onto his back, then propping himself up on his elbows. "Y'know I never say no to that." Ennis watched Jack walk over to the back of his truck and get two beers out of the cooler. "Y'know, Jack," he said, "we're a pair of lazy fucks, drivin' the truck down here instead of bringin' the horses."
"It was yer idea, En," said Jack. "Ya said ya didn't want the horses standin' out here in the sun all day, all saddled up."
Ennis laughed. "And yer a stupid shit to believe that pitiful excuse," he said. "We could take their saddles off." He took a big swig from the bottle of beer that Jack handed him.
"So why'd we bring the truck?" Jack asked, taking his cold beer and rolling it across Ennis's chest.
Ennis gave a little gasp at the feeling of the cold bottle. "I told ya—'cause we're lazy bastards enjoyin' our day off." His eyes traveled the length of Jack's body. "Y'know, Jack, I think all this suntan lotion we've been puttin' on each other is working,"
"Whaddya mean?" asked Jack.
"Lookit yerself—you're gettin' a tan."
Jack laughed and rubbed his hand along Ennis's hip. "You are too, cowboy, and no tanlines. Looks mighty damn sexy if you ask me."
"I've never had tanlines," said Ennis, with a wink. "I've never had a tan."
"I'm sure you have, you dumbass, but it was a stupid ol'farmer's tan. This is different. Ya look like…I dunno…a model or something." He smiled at Ennis while his hand continued to caress Ennis's hip.
Ennis watched him for a minute, enjoying the sight of Jack's hand rubbing across his body. He sighed. "Oh, Jack, y'know, I love the way ya touch me."
Jack smiled, "I know ya do, cowboy," he said, moving his hand further up Ennis's chest, "and I love to touch you."
They smiled at each other, but when Jack's hand moved near Ennis's face, Ennis gently grasped Jack's wrist. He looked at the silver ring that Jack was wearing, then looked at the matching one on his own hand. "So what was that about, anyway?" he asked, in a soft voice.
"What was what about?" asked Jack.
Ennis smiled. "Y'know. Back there at the crafts fair. At the silver booth. What was goin' on?"
Jack smiled at him. "Whaddya think was goin' on?"
"I asked you first," Ennis said, with wink.
Jack looked closely at Ennis. "Well, I'm not sure these are the right words, but I don't know how else to put it…I think we got married. I think we married each other."
Ennis nodded. "That's what I was thinkin', too," he said with a smile.
"Y'okay with that?" said Jack. "We didn't talk about it beforehand. It just sorta happened."
"I think the just sorta happenin' is what made it special," said Ennis, giving Jack a loving smile. "And, yes, I'm okay with it. I bought yer ring, didn't I?"
Jack smiled back. "Ya said yer not plannin' on takin' it off…"
"And I meant it," replied Ennis. "Not to sound too corny or anythin', but I really love this ring," he said, as he looked at it on his own finger. "What did the girl—Sarah—say? Special things happen with her jewelry? I can feel it in this ring. I don't want t'take it off."
Jack looked at him, a little bit amazed at this revelation. "Yer not worried what people might think?" he asked, a cautious tone in his voice.
"We bought two rings at a crafts fair, Jack. I am sure plenty of other people bought rings there today, too. Hell, prob'ly half the town of Quanah is runnin' around in Sarah's jewelry. We'll just fit in with the crowd."
Jack sat up and laughed. "You crack me up, Del Mar," he said, poking Ennis in the ribs. "Sometimes I never know what to expect from you."
Ennis sat up next to him, his face suddenly serious. "I know what yer sayin' Jack. Here we are, wearin' the equivalent of weddin' rings and am I gonna be okay with that? Or am I gonna get all scared and nervous and feel like I need t'take it off when I am around other people?"
Jack nodded. That's exactly what he was thinking. He had actually hoped they would get to a stage in their lives together where they could wear rings—or something—to show their commitment to each other. But Jack didn't expect it to come this soon, and he never expected it to happen without some prior discussion. He worried that their impromptu wedding would be something that Ennis would change his mind about later.
As if he was reading his mind, Ennis said, "Remember Tom's philosophy, Jack? 'There are no coincidences, everythin' happens for a reason.' That's what happened t'us today. Everythin'—goin' t'the parade, goin' to the crafts fair, meetin' Sarah—all happened 'cause we was meant t'get married today. I didn't know it was gonna happen, but it did." He paused, then continued. "People who are married wear weddin' rings and they don't take 'em off when they go t'the grocery store."
Jack laughed, then put his hand behind Ennis's neck and pulled him close. "You amaze me, cowboy," he said, looking deep into Ennis's eyes, "and that's part of the reason why I love you."
Ennis smiled at Jack, and let himself be pulled in for a long and lingering kiss. When they finished, Jack looked again at Ennis's face. Ennis smiled. "I can see ya still don't believe me," he said.
"No, I believe you," said Jack. "It's more that I can't believe us. I can't believe we're livin' it."
"That's it," said Ennis. "We're livin' it."
Jack looked at him and nodded. "That's it," he said.
The afternoon passed in a haze of swimming, dozing, drinking some beer, and sharing some love. They finally roused themselves when the sun started to slip past the cottonwood trees on the opposite bank of the river. They could feel a gentle breeze and tell the worst heat of the day was finally over.
Ennis was determined to find a few minutes for a visit to Hal. "It's a holiday, Jack," he said, "and Sunday. You come with me this time."
They brought Hal a piece of cake from the Mayor's open house. As part of the Quanah celebration, the mayor had two large cakes—one decorated as the original American flag, with just 13 stars, the other, the Lone Star flag of Texas—and had invited everyone in town to stop by for a visit. They also had an envelope holding the newly developed pictures, which Jack had picked up the day before at the drugstore.
Hal was delighted when they walked through the door of the dayroom. He enjoyed the cake and made a few funny comments about how the Mayor was always grandstanding—turning any event, no matter what it was—into a way to further his political career. "He says he wants to be Governor someday," said Hal. "Can you believe it, Mayor of a hick town like Quanah thinking he could be Governor of Texas?"
"Could be worse," said Ennis. "He might want t'be President."
"God forbid," said Hal, "if that asshole ever ends up in the White House." He picked up the plastic fork and ate some cake. "Good cake, though," he said, "even if he is a jerk."
As they suspected, Hal was thrilled to see the snapshots. They had taken pictures of the outside and inside of the house, showing off the freshly painted walls and new curtains. Hal's eyes got a little misty as he looked at them. "I can't wait 'til I can go home," he said. "Soon, I hope."
Jack and Ennis didn't say anything. Ennis, because he visited every day, was becoming increasingly aware that Hal was not getting better. He tired more easily, his breathing was more labored, and even talking for more than a few minutes seemed to be difficult for him.
The last group of pictures were the ones that Jack and Ennis had taken of each other, plus a few of them together. One in particular caught Hal's eye. It was of the two of them, sitting on the steps of the porch, Ennis's arm around Jack's shoulders. They were looking at each other, not at the camera, their faces completely open and natural, smiling as if they didn't have a care in the world. "This one's nice," said Hal. "Who took it?"
Jack looked over his shoulder at the snapshot. "That's my favorite too," he said. "I wanna get some extra copies made." He added, "Tom took it, when he was here two weeks ago."
Hal smiled. "He's okay, Tom, ain't he?" he said. Ennis had told Hal the story of Tom finding them making out on the couch. He embellished it a bit, and made it funny, and Hal had laughed out loud for five minutes.
"Yeah, he's okay," said Jack. "I don't know why we were ever worried."
As Jack gathered up the pictures and put them back in the envelope, Hal noticed their rings. Ennis knew he would—Hal had sharp eyes and never missed a trick. "Those somethin' special?" he asked.
Jack nodded. "We bought 'em at the crafts fair today," he said, explaining about Sarah and her display of silver jewelry.
Hal reached out for Ennis's hand and rubbed his fingers across the ring. Ennis smiled at him. "We're together, Hal," he said. "We're buildin' a life."
Hal smiled back. "I've told ya before, ya make me a little jealous."
"We don't mean too," said Jack.
"It's not yer fault," said Hal. "It's me. Livin' a life in secret—and now I'm old with not much life left." He paused, then in a soft voice said, "I'm glad I met you boys, though. You've made a difference t'me."
They stood up to leave. Ennis leaned in and gave Hal a little hug. "See ya tomorrow, bud," he said. "Watch the fireworks on TV tonight. Ya can tell me about 'em tomorrow."
Hal smiled gratefully. "Yer a good friend, Ennis. You too, Jack," he added. "See ya tomorrow."
That evening, Ennis was sitting on the porch, watching the sun set and thinking to himself how much enjoyed the long days of summer. They had come back from the nursing home and had a simple dinner of leftover takeout barbecue. After their lazy day, heating that up in a double boiler was about all the energy Jack had for cooking.
Jack came out to the porch, carrying two jelly jar glasses and a green bottle. He popped the cork which sailed into the night air, then poured a glass and handed it to Ennis.
"What's this?" said Ennis, looking at the glass in puzzlement.
"Champagne," said Jack, with a smile.
"Where'd that come from?" asked Ennis.
"It was in the fridge," said Jack.
"If it was in the 'frigerator," said Ennis, "it's prob'ly a hunnert years old."
Jack laughed. "Actually, I bought it," he said. "I got it to celebrate when we finished paintin' the house, then forgot it was there." He smiled at Ennis. "I think we got somethin' better t'celebrate tonight."
Ennis looked at the glass. "I ain't never had champagne," he said, taking a tentative sip. "Ain't got much taste."
"It's the bubbles, I think," said Jack. "People like the bubbles."
They sat there for a minute, sipping their champagne. In the distance, they heard a low rumble, then boom—boom—boom. "What's that?" said Ennis. "A storm?"
"Fireworks," said Jack. "It's July 4th. We could've gone t'town t'watch 'em."
"Nah, I've had enough of town today," said Ennis. "I'm happy here with you." He turned and smiled at Jack.
Jack smiled back. "Y'know En," he said, "I've been on this earth for thirty-three years and I think today has been the best day of my life."
"How's that, bud?" said Ennis, knowing full well exactly how, but wanting to hear Jack say the words.
"Today was perfect," he said. "Perfect in every way. I can't think of a single thing I would change about the entire day."
Ennis smiled at him. "It was perfect for me too," he said. Ennis then stood up. He reached a hand to Jack and helped pull him to his feet, then picked up the champagne bottle and glasses. "Let's go, cowboy," he said. "There are a few hours left in the day. I think we can squeeze a bit more perfection out of them. Besides," he said with a wink, "we've got some work t'do."
"Work?" said Jack, not entirely following what Ennis meant.
"Yeah, we've got a marriage t'consummate," said Ennis, pulling Jack by the hand towards the door.
Jack laughed. "That's work?" he said. "I thought it was a recreational activity."
"Cowboy, let's just say that tonight I'm gonna work you all over," said Ennis, as he closed the front door and headed up the stairs, champagne and Jack in tow.