A Love Born From Steel
Three weeks, fifteen gallons of paint, five gallons of primer, forty sheets of sandpaper, three dozen dust masks, one case of caulk, five paintbrushes, and six skinned knuckles later, they finished painting the house. With the last swipe of the brush, Jack and Ennis stood back and admired their handiwork, Ennis wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his arm. Jack had bought an Instamatic camera at the drugstore on the day he ordered the paint at the hardware store. He had been taking pictures all along, starting when the house was completely scraped clean. Now he pulled it out of his pocket and snapped a few more shots of the finished product. "I can't wait t'get these developed t'show Hal," he said. "I think the house looks great. I'm sure he will, too."
"It better look great," said Ennis. "Those fuckin' window panes and the trim nearly killed me."
Jack smiled at Ennis. "Go stand on the porch, cowboy," he said. "I want t'get a picture of you in front of yer masterpiece."
"I'm wearing shorts, Jack," said Ennis. "Besides, I don't like havin' my picture taken."
"Go on, get over there," said Jack, not taking no for an answer. "This is for me. D'ya realize, we've never had a picture of each other? Nothin' t'ever look at? C'mon."
Ennis gave him a smile. "Okay, but only if I can take a picture of you, too," he said as he walked towards the porch. Jack held up the camera and snapped a few shots of Ennis, loving the way he looked, happy, smiling, and relaxed, and yes, wearing shorts.
They traded places and Ennis held the camera up to his eye. As he did so, he started walking closer to Jack. "Whatchya doin'?" said Jack. "Ya won't be able to see the house."
"I don't want a picture of the house," said Ennis, with a smile. "I want a picture of you. Say cheese."
Jack smiled, a big grin from ear to ear, and Ennis pushed the button. Jack walked over and took the camera back. "If we're gonna have close-ups, then I want one of you, too," he said, framing Ennis in the viewfinder. When he was finished, he looked at the camera in his hand. "What I'd really like is a picture of the two of us together," he said.
Ennis nodded. "Yeah, I'd like that." He looked at Jack. "Actually, I'd like a picture of us kissin'."
Jack looked at him, surprised. "Really? You'd want a picture of that?"
Ennis nodded. "Yup. Not t'show anybody or anythin', but just t'have."
Jack looked at Ennis, thinking about what he had just said. In many ways, Jack felt that he had witnessed a remarkable emotional maturation in Ennis over the past three weeks. It had started after the confrontation with Roger Grindell. For Ennis, it was as if the thing he had feared throughout his life—the faceless 'tire-iron guy'—suddenly had a face, and he wasn't all that scary. It seemed as if Ennis had realized that the fear he had been harboring all these years had grown, in his imagination, out of proportion to what existed in reality. Once Ennis had set some of that baggage aside, he was able to accept another piece of who he really was.
Jack also felt that the past three weeks had been remarkable, too, in that they had been so ordinary. He was surprised at just how easily they had adapted to day-to-day life, both with each other and in their work on the farm. Jack remembered the first weeks living with Lureen after they had been married. She was always nagging at him about this or that. With Ennis, none of that seemed to matter. When Jack left the cap off the toothpaste, Ennis just screwed it on without saying a word. If Ennis left a towel on the floor, Jack just hung it on the rack. And neither of them cared about leaving the toilet seat up.
Without any discussion, Jack had fallen into the role of cook, but Ennis was always at his side helping with the clean-up, usually drying the dishes as Jack washed. Jack had found an old Joy of Cooking on the bookshelf in the living room and began to experiment with a few different recipes. Most came out well, but a few, such as "Crab Mongol" turned out to be dismal failures. When he served this particular concoction, Ennis took a few bites, then, trying to be polite, pushed his food around on his plate. Finally, he looked at Jack. "Don't make this one again, willya?" he asked.
"Don't worry, En," said Jack. "I think I'll rip the whole page out of the book." Ennis smiled at him gratefully.
Ennis, who had never even touched a broom in the years he was married to Alma, discovered he enjoyed—well, maybe not enjoyed, but didn't mind—cleaning. In fact, Jack was surprised at just how much cleaning Ennis was doing. It started with the knick-knacks in the living room. Ennis had said to Jack, "I don't like all this crap around, collectin' dust. D'ya think Tom or Hal would mind if I put them away?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't think anyone gives a shit, includin' me."
Ennis laughed. Once the tchotchkes were packed away, he started in on the dusting, but realized a stronger attack was needed. He scrubbed the baseboards and window sills and washed all the windows, inside and out. He vacuumed the entire house within an inch of its life, pulling the furniture out from the walls and discovering dust bunnies that had laid dormant for years.
Laundry seemed to be the one point on which neither of them had much experience or knowledge. The hamper in the bathroom was overflowing and the sheets on the bed were due for a change when Ennis looked at Jack and said, "I guess we gotta figger this out." Jack replied, "Yup, I guess we do."
They had no concept of sorting light and dark, but it made sense to them to wash all their jeans and shorts together, and then their shirts, and then a final load of anything that was left, mostly socks. They did make the washer overflow when they stuffed it too full of sheets and towels and as they mopped up the basement floor together, Jack commented, "Well, I guess we learned that lesson."
Ennis nodded. "Yup, we did. Don't wait 'til every damn towel in the house is dirty before we decide t'wash 'em."
Bringing his thoughts back to the present, Jack looked at the house, thinking it was 'pretty as a rose,' corny as that might be. "So, En, we've finished the paintin', what's next?"
"What's next?" Ennis, replied. "Besides fixin' the fences, takin' care of the field, cleanin' the barn, disinfectin' the stable, and mebbe even paintin' the barn?"
"Yeah," said Jack, laughing, "all that and what's next?"
"Well, actually," said Ennis, "I was thinkin' we could start on the inside."
"Whaddya mean, the inside?" said Jack, puzzled.
"The inside of the house," said Ennis, pointing. "We can strip the wallpaper and start painting the walls."
Jack looked at him, surprised. "Strip the wallpaper? When d'ya get this bright idea?"
"The other day, when I was washin' the baseboards," Ennis replied. "If ya look at it close, the wallpaper is all dingy and stained. No way t'really get it clean. Besides," he continued, "the whole point is t'clean this place up so Tom can sell it. I think painted walls would look better than the way that old wallpaper looks."
"Well, if we're gonna do that, I s'pose we should talk t'Tom," said Jack.
"As a matter of fact," said Ennis, "I actually talked to Hal 'bout it. He liked the idea."
Jack smiled to himself. He wasn't surprised to hear this. Ennis had gotten into the habit of visiting Hal everyday. Jack went along three or four times a week, but Ennis was faithful to a daily visit. "Poor old guy," he'd say, "always complainin' 'bout bein' lonely. It's the least I can do."
Jack knew that it was more than just a matter of keeping Hal company. He could see that Hal and Ennis were becoming good friends. This pleased Jack—he knew Ennis basically had no friends, except for himself. For Ennis to find comfortable companionship, even if it was an older man in a nursing home, made Jack happy.
"So what did Hal hafta say on the subject?" asked Jack.
"Well, like everythin' else, the wallpaper got put up at the same time as the electricity and plumbing," he said. "Hal remembers the house when he was little—it had plain white walls but the trim was cream. Same color as the trim on the outside of the house."
"Sounds nice," said Jack. "And I bet it would be brighter." Ennis nodded in agreement. "So, what's involved in stripping wallpaper?" he asked, accepting the fact that this was obviously going to be the next big project on their horizon.
"Come inside and let me show ya," said Ennis. "I actually think it'll be pretty easy. I've already found places where it has started to peel."
It turned out that painting the inside of the house—the first floor, at least—was much easier and faster than the outside, and they were finished within a week. They had taken down all the curtains intending to wash and iron them, but they were all so old they had basically disintegrated in the wash. Ennis pulled them out of the machine, looking at the shreds of fabric. He showed them to Jack. "What d'we do know?" he said.
"Buy new curtains, I guess," said Jack. He thought for a minute, then said, "I have that appointment in two days with Lureen and the lawyers. There's a department store in Childress, bigger than anythin' here in Quanah. Why don't ya come with me and we can pick somethin' out there."
Which is exactly what they did. Ennis had about an hour alone in the curtain department while Jack was at his appointment. He realized he knew absolutely nothing about buying curtains, but a helpful saleslady was more than happy to offer advice and her opinion. He showed her the paper with the measurements and explained the layout of the house. "There are four windows in the livin' room," he said, "three in the dinin' room and four in the kitchen, along the back of the house. Upstairs, two in the big bedroom, and one in each of the other rooms—two bedrooms and the bathroom."
She nodded, "Okay, and the walls?"
"The walls are gonna be white, with cream trim," he said, "at least downstairs. We haven't figgered out what t'do upstairs yet."
"Well let's start with the livin' room," she said, moving over to a display of window length country curtains.
She was so nice and helpful that Ennis actually discovered he enjoyed browsing through the displays. By the time Jack arrived, they had made tentative selections for every room in the house. Jack liked everything but quibbled a bit about the valances that Ennis had picked for the kitchen. "I like green better'n blue," he said.
"I picked the blue 'cause of the colors in the countertops," Ennis countered. "Those little flecks are blue."
"I wouldn't pick these just for that," said Jack. "Think about it, cowboy—the way yer redecoratin', you'll be replacin' the countertops next."
Ennis laughed. "Yer prob'ly right. Let's go with the green, since you like 'em better."
The saleslady laughed with them, enjoying their obvious comraderie. Jack looked at her, sensing that she was another person who was "figgerin' them out." He nodded at Ennis, who nodded back, realizing what Jack was thinking. For his part, Ennis had discovered it really didn't matter if people they met knew or suspected about their relationship—no one, with the exception of Roger Grindell—seemed to care.
As the saleslady piled up their selections she asked, "What about curtain rods?"
"Curtain rods?" said Ennis. "Never thought of that."
"You said you were paintin'?" Ennis and Jack nodded. "Well then," she said, "I would suggest you just start fresh with all new hardware. Take down the old stuff before you paint, caulk the nail holes and put the new rods up after you're done."
"Caulk," said Ennis laughing. "We know about caulk. Went through a case o'the stuff while we were paintin' the outside of the house."
She rang up the order and Jack pulled out a check from his wallet to pay for it. The saleslady looked at the check as she put it in the cash register, then stopped. "Jack Twist? You're Jack?"
Jack nodded, a little wary. He didn't recognize her, but then, Lureen had a lot of friends he didn't know.
She continued. "You must be Bobby's dad, then. My nephew plays baseball with Bobby. I was watching the game the other day with my sister."
"Oh, really?" he said. "I haven't been t'many of the games the past few weeks. Lureen and I are gettin' divorced and I'm livin' down in Quanah."
"I heard that," she said. "I'm sorry." Jack shrugged. "But, actually, I'm glad I've run into you. Bobby was talkin' t'my nephew the other day. I guess he's started takin' ridin' lessons?"
"That's right," said Jack. "My buddy Ennis, here, he's teachin' him."
Ennis smiled. "Somethin' I like t'do, help kids like horses."
"My nephew is interested, but my sister didn't know how t'find you. Are you takin' on other kids for lessons?"
"I hadn't really thought about it," said Ennis. "But I s'pose it's possible. I taught a bunch of kids back home in Riverton."
Jack motioned to the counter. "D'ya have a piece of paper? I'll write down our phone number—ya can give it t'yer sister, have her give Ennis a call."
"That would be great," she said. "My name's Lucy, by the way, and my sister is Phyllis."
They picked up the bags with he curtains and the rods and thanked her one last time. "Tell yer sister t'call," Jack reminded her again.
As they walked out to the truck, Jack looked at Ennis. "Is that they way it happened in Riverton? People just ask ya 'bout ridin' lessons and ya get a new student?"
"More or less," said Ennis. "It's funny, Jack, when ya think 'bout it. Back in the old days, no one took lessons, ya just learned to ride. Shit, I don't even remember the first time I was on a horse—must've been two or somethin'. Nowadays, kids need lessons."
"Well," Jack said, "as they say, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Ya said ya made extra money in Riverton. Mebbe we can do the same thing here."
"Fine with me," said Ennis, agreeing. "It's easy work and I enjoy doin' it. Plus, I get the kids t'groom the horses. I can just sit back and smoke cigarettes."
"Ya look like ya work hard," said Jack, laughing, "but yer really a lazy sonofabitch at heart."
"Speak for yerself, cowboy," said Ennis, with a wink. "Let's get home. We got ourselves a livin' room t'paint."
A few days later they were hanging the curtains in the living room when the phone rang. Jack went into the kitchen to answer it. "Lazy L, this is Jack," he said.
"Jack, this is Tom," came a voice over the wire. "How are you?"
"Great, Tom, how 'bout yerself?"
"I'm great." They chatted about this and that for a few minutes. Tom had gotten into the habit of calling every few days, so he was up-to-date on the progress of the painting, both inside and out. Jack filled him in on the purchase of the curtains and the new rods.
"Save the receipt," said Tom. "I'll reimburse you."
"Ya sure?" said Jack. "It's our fault the old ones fell apart. I think the water was too hot or somethin'."
"They fell apart because they were probably thirty years old," said Tom, "and probably hadn't been washed in ten years. Of course I'll pay you back." He continued, "Listen, I'm thinking of coming up this weekend. That okay with you?"
"Of course, Tom," said Jack. "Y'know we like t'see ya, and Hal is always missin' ya. Ya gonna stay for the weekend this time or just rush back to Austin?" This last comment was in reference to Tom's visit two weeks earlier. He had planned on spending one night, but ended up making the roundtrip in one day. He had managed to visit Hal for a few hours, but had only spent about half an hour at the farm.
"I'm planning on spending the night," he said. "That was a hell of a lot of driving in one day. 700 miles roundtrip."
Jack smiled to himself as Tom said this. For nine years, he had routinely driven 917 miles one way just to see Ennis and never gave it a second thought. Now he realized just how long a drive it really was.
"When d'ya think you'll get here?" said Jack.
"I'm planning on leaving on Saturday after lunch," said Tom. "I should be there in the early evening. It's about a seven hour drive."
"Sounds good t'me," said Jack. "We'll wait up for ya." They chatted for a few more minutes before hanging up.
Jack walked back into the living room. "That was Tom," he said. "He's comin' up on Saturday."
Ennis looked at Jack. "We gonna tell him?"
Jack shrugged. "We planned on it last time," he said. "I don't think anything's changed, d'you?"
Ennis shook his head. "Nope—'cept if he flies in and out of here like a racehorse again, mebbe we won't have the time this time, either."
"Well," said Jack, "he said he's spendin' the night."
They had actually talked about this quite a bit before Tom's last visit and decided that if he didn't bring it up early in the conversation, they would tell him about their relationship. "I feel dishonest, En," Jack had said. "He's trusting us t'do all this work, be here in the house. I feel like we're keepin' somethin' from him."
"I know what ya mean," replied Ennis. "It's just that I ain't told anybody before. It's kinda hard. And what if he like, I dunno, gets mad or somethin'? Starts callin' us fuckin' queers?"
Jack had said, "Well, what's the worst that can happen? He throws us out." Jack considered for a minute. "Somehow, though, I don't think that's what Tom is like." He paused, then continued. "Y'know, En, think 'bout Hal. I think we have an ally in him. He likes us, and he knows about us. If Tom went to him and said he fired us 'cause we're gay, I think Hal would say somethin' 'bout it. Mebbe he'd even tell Tom 'bout himself."
Ennis nodded at this. "Mebbe I could even ask Hal 'bout this, see if he has any opinions on Tom's feelings on th'matter."
Ennis did bring it up to Hal during on of their visits, and Hal concurred with their assessment. "He's never mentioned it t'me," said Hal. "But I think he's a pretty open minded guy, bein' a college professor and all. But ya never know…" Ennis had not found this last comment particularly reassuring.
Jack stepped back and looked at the curtains. The walls gleamed under their coat of fresh paint and the windows shone from Ennis's washing. "This place looks pretty damn good," said Jack. "Let's just hope that even if Tom does hate fuckin' queers, he's gonna love the job we're doin' and keep us on."
Ennis laughed. "Fuck, Jack, you are the most optimistic sonofabitch I have ever met in my life."
"That's why ya love me, ain't it cowboy?" said Jack, with a smile.
"Damn straight," said Ennis, putting his arm around Jack's shoulders. "Damn straight."
Of course, as with so many things in life, their telling Tom did not go according to plan.
It was Saturday evening, and Jack and Ennis were lying on the couch, legs twisted together, engaged in a good old fashioned necking session. They hadn't planned on this but somehow it just…happened. They figured that Tom would arrive around 8 pm, so at 8, the flipped on the little TV. Nothing was on (as usual. Ennis was beginning to wonder why the TV was even in the house.) so they tried to amuse themselves with a few hands of poker. That didn't prove successful either, so they ended up just sitting on the couch, Jack flipping through an old book, but not really reading. Ennis had reached over and the next thing they knew, they were prone, making out like they hadn't seen each other in months.
The clock slipped past 9. "Where the hell is Tom?" said Jack, as Ennis pulled him in for another kiss.
"I dunno. Lost, I s'pose," said Ennis.
"Listen En, we can keep at this, but no screwin'," said Jack, trying vainly to set some ground rules for their fun. "Tom may show up at any minute."
Ennis nodded, realizing the wisdom of this, but he was finding it increasingly difficult with each successive to kiss to keep his pants zipped. At one point, Ennis pulled back and said, "Oh, God, I feel like I felt when I was datin' Alma."
"Y'know, I want it so bad but I can't," he said, pulling into Jack for another kiss.
When that one finished, Jack asked, "You dated Alma?"
""Course I dated her," said Ennis. "Whaddya think, we got married without knowin' each other, like they do in India?"
Jack laughed, "I s'pose yer right. Just never thought of ya datin' her. She ever put out?"
"That's what I was just sayin' 'bout the feelin'…no, nothin' 'til we got married. Her parents were strict Methodists. I was lucky t'even get a kiss. I was a virgin on my weddin' night."
Jack pulled back and looked at Ennis in absolute amazement. "Ennis, what the fuck are ya sayin'? You weren't no virgin on yer weddin' night."
Ennis looked back at Jack, feeling a little confused. In his mind, he had always thought of himself as a virgin but realized that discounted a summer of screwing Jack on Brokeback Mountain. "I'm not sure what t'say, bud," he said. "Mebbe I meant that I was a virgin with women. T'be honest, I'm pretty much a virgin with anybody. You 'n Alma, that's it in my life."
"Don't discount yerself, cowboy. Yer a mighty fine lover, even if ya ain't been 'round the block two dozen times."
"Ummm," said Ennis, pulling Jack towards him for another kiss. When they came up for air, Ennis looked at Jack, "What 'bout you?" he said.
"I told ya, it's you and Alma for me. How many others in yer life?"
"Why ya bringin' that up, Ennis?" said Jack. "It's not important."
"'Cause I'm curious," he replied, not picking at all up on the tentative anxiety in Jack's voice.
"Okay," he sighed, "since we agreed to be truthful….Lureen and two guys."
Ennis looked totally surprised and wondered if this was a path he should go down. But since the conversation was started, he asked, "Two guys? Does that count Mexico? You said somethin' 'bout that up at Don Wroe's."
"Oh, Ennis, why are ya bringin' that up? I don't want t'get into a fight."
Ennis didn't say anything, just waited.
Jack paused, then continued, "Three guys, countin' Mexico, which was the biggest fuckin' mistake of my entire goddamn life."
Like Jack, Ennis wasn't in the mood for a fight, and in fact, found the whole subject wasn't making him particularly angry. He felt detached, as if it was a chapter that was over and done, but he was curious about what had actually happened. "Guess it wasn't much fun then, huh?"
"That's an understatement," said Jack. "You saw what I was like back in May…I think I must've been havin' some sort of nervous breakdown or somethin'. Went down there, totally on impulse, got smashed, picked up some guy in the street. No, Ennis, it was not fun at all."
"Okay, then, I forgive ya, bud," said Ennis, giving Jack a hug. "I won't bring that up again." Jack smiled at him, his face full of thanks. "But," Ennis continued, "tell me 'bout the other guys. I'm curious, really."
"Well," Jack said, "it was a long time ago. Before I was married, but after Brokeback. A guy picked me up in a bar. It was just a one night stand, we had a good time, but I never saw him again." He paused and took a breath, "The second guy…he was more regular. We got together for about six months."
"Who was he?" said Ennis.
"Guy I met rodeoin', he was doin' the rodeo circuit with me. His name was Ray."
"So, what happened?" asked Ennis.
Jack tweaked Ennis's chin and gave him a little smile, "Well, see, I had this little problem…spelled E-N-N-I-S…tough to fall in love with someone else, when I knew I was in love with you." Ennis smiled as Jack said this, then Jack continued. "I think Ray was a little more into me, than I was into him. I felt bad, wasn't bein' fair, so I broke it off. I met Lureen a few weeks after that. Remember when you asked up at Don Wroe's cabin, why did I marry Lureen?" Ennis nodded. "Comin' on the heels of Ray, knowin' I was in love with you…I guess I thought I could fix it all by doin' the 'right' thing, which, once I did it, I realized pretty quickly was the wrong thing."
"I have t'say, Jack," said Ennis, "it sounds more complicated for you than it was for me."
"Like I said before, Ennis, I was tryin' to figure it out. I was married mebbe six or seven months when I knew it was a mistake…but Lureen was pregnant by then, I didn't feel like I could ask her for a divorce. So I stuck with it, but that was when I started lookin' for you."
"I've wondered 'bout that, Jack. How did ya find me?"
Jack smiled. "The phone book. Ain't too many Del Mars in Wyoming, fortunately, so it was pretty easy to figger out which one was you."
"They have Wyoming phone books in Childress?"
"No," said Jack, laughing, "but they do have 'em in the Dallas Public Library. L.D. sent me off to Dallas on some fuckin' errand for the business, so I decided to take some time while I was there and go t'the library. Looked you up, found out you were in Riverton, sent the card. The rest is history."
Ennis thought back to that day, remembering when the postcard arrived. "Y'know somebody named Jack?" Alma had asked. Ennis had grabbed the card and rushed to the post office to send his two word reply: You Bet.
Jack traced his fingers across Ennis's forehead, down his cheek and across his jaw. "Cowboy, I love you so much," he said, his heart full of emotion.
Ennis smiled. He could see on Jack's face the same feeling that he had inside. "I love you too, rodeo," he said. He pulled Jack's face towards his for a long and serious kiss.
Tom pulled up outside the house. He was glad to see the lights shining from the windows, which meant that Jack and Ennis had waited up for him. He had gotten a late start from Austin and then the drive seemed long and slow—traffic was heavy and there was a major back-up where a tractor trailer had broken down.
He was looking forward to seeing "the boys" as he thought of them. Talking to them on the phone, and their brief visit two weeks before, he had gotten to know them better and he realized how much he enjoyed them. Jack was funny with a good sense of humor; Ennis was quiet and thoughtful and seemed to have a lot of insight about Uncle Hal.
Tom was also pleased with their work on the farm. He thought things were going great. The exterior house painting was done and on their own they had decided to tackle the inside, too. The field next to the stable appeared to be in much better shape. He knew that they had plans for the barn, stable, and fences but had made the house the priority for the moment.
Tom walked up to the house and was about to open the front door when something made him stop. He turned and peered into the front window and the sight he saw couldn't have surprised him more. There were Jack and Ennis lying on the couch, their long legs twisted together, Ennis on the bottom, Jack on top. The two of them were making out—seriously making out. Ennis's hands were massaging Jack's ass, while Jack was holding Ennis's face. Jack was pressing on him and it looked as if he was trying to push his tongue all the way down into Ennis's trachea.
Tom knew he should stop looking, but he couldn't. He felt riveted to the spot as he watched them. He had never seen anything so…sexy. That's the word he wanted, he realized. This was the hottest thing he had ever seen. At this point, they pulled apart. Tom could see them smiling and whispering. It was pretty obvious they saying were saying "I love you" to each other, or at least words to that effect.
Jack leaned in again for another kiss and finally, Tom managed to turn away. He felt like a peeping Tom ("How appropriate is my name?" he thought) but any shame he felt came from within—for intruding on their privacy and observing their truly profound and deeply shared love.
"How can I be so dense?" Tom thought to himself. "Why didn't I figure this out sooner?" He remembered the first evening he talked to Ennis, when Ennis had used "we" in a particularly personal way. Tom had thought about them as a couple then, but dismissed the possibility of them being gay, and never revisited the idea again.
Tom thought about what to do. He didn't want to intrude on them but at the same time, he was here and needed to get in the house. He decided to "arrive again"—he got in his car, backed out the drive and then drove in again, this time honking the horn to announce his arrival. He made sure to slam the car door really hard and stomped up the steps of the front porch. As he stood in front of the door, he again peered in the window. His plan had worked. Jack and Ennis were now sitting on the couch. Of course, they still looked like a pair of horny teenagers—Jack's hair sticking up all over his head and Ennis's shirt partially unbuttoned—but at least he wouldn't embarrass them by catching them necking.
He opened the door, saying, "Hi guys!" Both Jack and Ennis stood up to greet him, Jack with a hug and Ennis with a handshake. He put his bag down at the foot of the stairs. "You guys got some beers in the fridge?" he asked. "I'm parched."
"'Course we do," said Ennis, heading towards the kitchen. "Jack, ya want one too?"
"Sure," said Jack. "Bring it on."
The three of them sat facing each other in the living room, drinking their beers. Ennis offered Tom a cigarette, which Tom accepted. "Still ain't quit, I see," said Ennis.
Tom shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. "Well, Ennis, you are not the best influence, offering them to me every chance you get." They all laughed together.
The three of them sat there, drinking their beers and looking at each other. Tom felt awkward and uncomfortable, but he noticed that Jack and Ennis also appeared to have a degree of discomfiture. For himself, Tom knew what the problem was—the proverbial gorilla in the corner. He wanted to talk about what he had just seen, but introducing the subject was proving harder than he expected.
Tom thought to himself, "Why am I struggling with this? I'm a grown man with a PhD, married with a son…I certainly should be able to talk to other adults about their sexuality, even if the other adults happen to be two men." He took a deep breath. "Uh, guys…as I was walking up to the house, I, uh, uh…" he stammered, then blurted out, "I saw you on the couch. Making out."
Ennis looked down, his face flaming red. Jack looked at Tom, trying to gauge his reaction. "Is that a problem?" Jack asked.
"No," Tom said, "no, not at all. In fact, I'm embarrassed that I intruded on your privacy, which is why I am bringing it up."
Jack continued to look at Tom with a level gaze, while Ennis's eyes were locked on the floor. Tom said, "I want to apologize, because I stared at you for a few minutes, and that was rude."
Jack felt anger starting to build in his chest. "You were starin' at us?" he said, keeping his voice even.
"Yes," Tom said, "I didn't mean to, but…," he stammered again, then blurted out, "ah, shit, let me just put it out there. I couldn't stop looking because it was as sexy as hell and watching you was giving me a hard-on." Jack and Ennis both blinked and their jaws dropped. This was not the answer they were expecting. "Besides, watching you, it was pretty obvious that you two are head over heels in love with each other, and seeing that made me feel good—feel good for you, I mean,"
"Well," Jack said, "we were gonna tell ya, but obviously we don't need to, now. Since ya know, is this okay? I mean, can we assume that this means yer not gonna kick us out?"
Tom looked at him in amazement. "Why on earth would you think that?"
"Well, there are plenty of people in the world who think that two guys lovin' each other is a crime and sinful and we should be dead. If you felt that way, you might not want us livin' in yer uncle's house."
Tom rolled his eyes. "Please. I'm a college professor. Being at least a little bit liberal and open-minded comes with the job description. What you decide to do in the privacy of your own lives really is no business of mine, now is it?"
"That's a mighty fine attitude to have," said Jack, "but unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world who don't share your view."
"I know," said Tom. "I live next door to one of them, and believe me, if it were he sitting here, not me, he'd probably be after you with a two by four. But, since he's in Austin and you're in Quanah, I guess you're probably safe." He smiled as he said this.
The three of them sat and look at each other, an awkward silence between them, then Jack said, "We were gonna tell ya…I'm glad we've got this out between us. It was makin' me 'n Ennis uncomfortable, we were feelin' like ya needed t'know."
Tom said, "I feel really stupid that I didn't figure it out."
"Why d'ya say that? We're livin' here so I guess that makes a diff'rence, but really, why is it important t'you t'figure it out?" Jack said. " Like you said, what we do in private is really nobody else's business."
"Yes," said Tom, "you are absolutely right. My point is that it is my problem, not yours. I was buying into the whole gay stereotype thing—limp wrists and all that. You certainly don't fit that, do you? And so, by lumping all people of a certain group into one box, I excluded you from being in that box. I guess I never realized I was so categorical, that's all."
Ennis looked up and gave him a tiny smile. "Are you startin' in on one of yer tangents, Tom?" he asked.
Tom laughed. "I probably am, aren't I?" He looked at his beer bottle, which was empty. "Another round, guys?" They all nodded. Why not? Tom retrieved three more beers from the kitchen and passed them around.
"Ya want another cigarette?" asked Ennis, offering him the pack. Tom accepted without a second thought. "Ya know, Tom, I think yer quittin' plan is to only bum smokes from other folks."
"That's exactly my plan," he replied, "and it falls to pieces when I'm around you." They all laughed. Tom stood up, "I'm going to take my bag upstairs and go to the bathroom. I'll be right back."
While they waited for Tom, Ennis and Jack looked at each other. They weren't quite sure what to say about the whole conversation, so decided to say nothing at all. They could talk later, when they were alone.
Tom came back in the room, sat down, and picked up his beer. "Okay, since we're having all sorts of awkward conversations, let's get another one out of the way, shall we?"
Jack and Ennis looked at him, thinking in unison, now what the hell is on his mind?
"Beds. I am assuming your comment about flipping a coin for beds was a joke?"
They both nodded, and smiled. Jack said, "We're sleepin' in the big bed, Tom, but it is yer house so if ya want t'be there…"
Tom shook his head. "That's my point…don't be ridiculous. I'm the guest here, really. I'll take one of the twin beds in the guest room."
Jack smiled. "Thank you for that. We appreciate it." He paused, then continued. "Y'know, Tom, we're still learnin' our way, too. We've been in love for a long time but we've only been together—really together—since May. This is new territory for us."
"In love for a long time…how long, may I ask, if I'm not prying?"
"Since the summer when we met—'63. I knew it then, it took Ennis a while longer to figger it out." Jack said this with a smile towards Ennis.
"And how did you finally get together?"
"Oh, that was easy. Ennis got divorced, and I had a nervous breakdown."
They all laughed and Tom said, "Seriously?"
Jack shrugged, "I dunno. I had a really rough month, spent a lot of time drunk. When Ennis and I got together in May, we talked, figgered out what was important for both of us, decided to do this—be together, I mean."
"Well, I have to give you guys a lot of credit. You certainly didn't pick the easy path."
"Tell ya what, Tom," said Ennis, speaking up, "when yer with the person ya love, any path is easier than when yer apart."
"So true, Ennis," said Tom. "You have such a great way of putting things." He looked at his watch. "Well, it's late for me and I'm tired from the drive. I'm heading up."
"You go first, use the bathroom," said Jack. "We'll close up down here."
Tom headed up the stairs, while Ennis and Jack gathered up the empty beer bottles and dirty ashtrays, and put everything away in the kitchen. They turned out the lights, and decided to have one last cigarette, sitting on the porch.
Jack turned to Ennis. "That whole conversation...Tom figgerin' it out...that wasn't quite the way I expected it t'go," he said.
"No," said Ennis, with a laugh. "That's a fuckin' understatement."
"Ennis," said Jack, turning towards him with a funny grin that Ennis could see in the shadow. "Ya know the funniest part?"
"No, what?" said Ennis.
"He doesn't think we're fuckin' queers, he thinks we're fuckin' hot."
"Damn straight, cowboy," said Ennis. "'Cause we are."