The Southern summertime in rural Tennessee baked down onto the dirt roads and sweltering crops. From up in the sky, a vast stretch as blue as a momma robins egg, the blinding coin of sun beamed down. The heat dog-eared and baked the browning leaves of tobacco plants, cooked the cornstalks to a bleached and dismal yellow, and came down in waves onto the stubborn flowers of cotton that sprawled for miles of lonesome countryside.
James sat on the porch of the tiny frame house that marked his homestead. His boots were clotted with dried mud—the only reminder of a good summer rain forgotten many months ago. The tanned, work-creased hide of the simple, heavy boots, were darkened with veils of dust kicked up from treks up and down plant rows, or out to the slanted, paint-peeling barn where he'd mount his tractor, a machine which was much too stubborn for her own good. Right now he was on break from his work, and his boots were propped up onto a railing as he leaned back in a hand-carved chair, a bottle of cold beer from his still tilted to his lips. His dark hair just touched his shoulders from under a straw cowboy hat perched atop his head. The brim was bent from many adjustments and wringing in his hands, but it still did the job to shade his face from too much sunburn.
His arms however, were a different story. The work carved muscles curved down from strong, broad shoulders, revealed by a t-shirt which had been shorn of its sleeves via two jagged cut lines. If his man was there, the cuts would be meticulously smooth, but James didn't have the time or patience to mess with sewing or straight lines. Unlike his face, which was nicely tanned, the cheeks flushed with pink heat, his unshielded arms bore a different stroke of paint. They were burned, a dark red that abruptly stopped at his shoulder and resolved itself to a paleness that only spoke of a long winter. In other words: A farmers tan, but it was appropriate seeing as how that's what he was.
He swallowed the cool taste of beer, giving a pleased sigh as it slid like icy silk down his parched throat. If there was one thing the work was worth, it was a beer at noon. A few more cold ones would greet the close of the day, when shadows began stretch out from the house and over the yard, when crows began to sit in the cornstalks, watching for the cover of night to hide them, issuing their shrill, specters cry to help usher it in. The horrible, humid, fever of the daytime would finally break to the milder fall of night time and the softer face of the moon, and sweaty skin would be kissed dry by a soft breeze singing low over the cotton bolls.
He'd lean over the rail, finishing off his last beer, licking the foam from his lips, thinking about the man he loved. With a soft clap of his boots he'd move himself inside, through the tiny house, and into the bedroom which had room barely enough for a sturdy bed for two. However, it had lately been used only for one. He didn't bother to make it, although Jeff would have had the covers done up with each crease perfect, the handmade quilt would be smoothed free of every wrinkle and insisted upon standing its ground if for nothing more than aesthetics—even though it was the damn dead of summer. James preferred to sleep on the stripped bed, the feathers in the mattress cushioning his nude and exhausted body, the window above open as the checked curtains drifted on a touch of air now and then.
He preferred, actually, to listen to the lullaby of his lovers soft breathing and gentle sleep moans, rather than the woeful whine of a coyote or the lonesome sob of a far away train whistle. Sometimes the crickets would chirp choruses, the frogs would join in with their singing burps, and each little crick or croak would begin to sound like a name, repeated again and again to his ears: Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff, JJ…JJ…JJ…
But it wasn't yet the relief of evening, or the dark finger of night, where he'd no doubt toss and turn from fits of loneliness if he wasn't so damn tired as to be taken into sleep and held there as if an oak tree thick-rooted into the soil. It was the middle of the day, and there was still plenty of work to be done. He glanced to the side, sat his beer down upon a warped porch slat, and clomped over to the other side. James leaned over the railing, peering at the barn sat off just a distance behind the house. It was leaned to one side, as if a man frozen in mid-limp. It had once been painted white but most of that was flecking away like bits of dandruff, left to litter the hard packed dirt and dried grass around it. The patches of wood revealed via the flaking paint were bleached gray from the glaring eyeball of many summer suns. The roof was patched with a faded blue tarp on one side, the result of a springtime storm that had threatened to wake them up in Oz.
Bobby, the hand he'd hired on for this summer, was out in the barn tinkering around with the tractor. The ol' girl had since morning outdone herself in her usual pigheadedness: she wouldn't work at all. She insisted on not working in a coughed, mechanical, refusal, and then decided on the silent treatment.
"Bobbeh!" James called, cupping one hand around his mouth. "Ya'll fix up mah Bluebird yet? Don't'cha dare go an' tinker with her too much, she's a classy lady!"
He smiled, waiting for a reply, though not expecting one. He had to admit that he teased the guy more than his fair share, but he was lonely here without Jeff and when he didn't take the truck into town to kill time at the bar or the diner, he had to find some way to amuse himself. Enter, Robert Roode. The guy was from up North, drifting around doing this and that. He didn't seem like the type who really belonged this far out in the yonder. He wore beat up jeans and cowboy boots, but they seemed more like a look he was trying to pull off to fit in, rather than a common staple of his life. The rips and wear in his tight jeans seemed manufactured, rather than grit worked into the sturdy fabric over time, such as James were. No matter how he tried, Jeff couldn't get them clean to his satisfaction anymore. The dust had become a part of the material, as if woven into the stitches and threads of denim. James also didn't seem to care—and JJ's nagging at him to buy new ones fell onto deaf ears. Sometimes James wondered if the nagging to buy new jeans had less to do with worn look of them, and more with the way the fabric gave and relaxed over time and failed to hug his ass quite like they used to. Or maybe that was just the reason he had for buying JJ new clothes.
Bobby was in the South, trying to blend in, but he was clearly not of the South. Said wanderer poked his head out, and peered at James from the distance of the barn. He made his way in a leisurely gate towards the house, wiping his hands on a rag. As he approached James couldn't help but smirk at the jeans that seemed too bright a blue, and the perfect looking tears, and the way Bobby had managed to spend half of the day working on Jame's girl without getting so much as a smudge of grease or grime on those jeans. Bobby stepped up onto the porch, and stopped on the steps to give his back a little stretch. His dark hair fell dampened with sweat over his forehead and loose strands brushed his heated cheeks. A lopsided smile hung amid the frame of his stubbly beard.
"She's not runnin' yet, James." Bobby replied, and found a clean part of the rag to dab his face with. He stuffed the soiled cloth into his back pocket.
"First off, Bobbeh, if ya'll really wanna fit in out here, ya'll gotta use the word "ain't" more. Like this here: she ain't runnin' yet." James shook his head, as if Bobby was trying to do something as stupid as to put both feet into the same shoe. "An' second…ya missed a spot." James licked his finger, and before Bobby could jerk away or back off down the steps—the spit smeared finger rubbed his cheek. On James's part it was only an automatic reaction: Jeff was always doing this to him, and in Jeff's absence someone had to do it for Bobby. The fingers were gone before Bobby could slap them away, though he tried, his reaction as automatic as James's but it left him swatting nothing but air.
"Agh!" Bobby cried in a grunt of disgust.
"Oh, sorreh, ah'm just used to this here kinda groomin' ah guess." A small smile curved James's lips. "See, me an' JJ's always lickin' on each other."
That statement drew another disgruntled utterance from the hired man, not that James cared. He simply shrugged, and passed back to the other side of the porch where he'd moments ago been sitting to take a break from the heat. He reached down an snagged a fresh bottle of beer from a bucket of nearly melted ice. He pointed the beer towards Bobby, and raised his eyebrows, a silent offer and perhaps a peace offering to make up for the awkward face cleaning.
"Hell yeah! Thanks, James!" Bobby took the beer and perched onto one of the porch railings. Even if the country didn't quite fit Bobby yet, the home made brew did. If he learned nothing else in his ventures this summer into Southern life, he'd learn to get drunk like a true cowboy of the land. So far, in that at least, Bobby was a fine student. He might need to repeat the course on tractor fixing, and beat up jeans, however.
Bobby and James sat chatting idly on the porch, in between swigs of delicious beer. The cold lips of glass pressing to hot, thirsty ones, was the most refreshing kiss either man had received for quite sometime. Their words lazed around such topics as the weather—which was obviously hotter than Satan's cock and drier than an old bitches pussy—such intellectual discussions, they endeavored upon while enjoying their suds. Out in the yard, a chicken that had found some way out from the pen strutted in that jerky, birdy, way and pecked at the ground. It found nothing but a beak full of dust. It gave an agitated 'bawk', fluttered its brown wings a bit, and strutted onward among the blades of bent brown grass.
Bobby sat his fourth empty bottle next to the other three, and licked his lips.
"So, what happened? Where'd he go off to—your lover, I mean." He brought it up as abruptly as that, taking James by surprise. James of course mentioned the absent lover much more than he realized, and Bobby took note of it, but any words about this absent counterpart were usually expressed by James as if he was talking to himself, and he never went into much detail. He had spoken about his lover enough to rouse Bobby's curiosity by now, however, so he figured he'd come right out and ask.
"Nashville, Memphis, the bright lights a' the city. Ya see here, mah Jeff can play a mean guitar an' boy can croon like a purdy bird greetin' the mornin'. He got himself an itch to go off an' try his luck, find him a place among the stars an' all that. He's always had a dream a' doin' somethin' big with his music an' I ain't one ta keep a man from follerin' after his dream."
James's eyes grew with a far off gaze, as if he could see far out over the fields of crops, past the edge of the bright sky, and find the outline of Nashville. Past the spires of skyscrapers and the jagged edges of the cityscape, he might be able to see—past the neon lights that flair on at night, and he might find the silhouette of his baby playing on a stage in some smoky honky-tonk. This is what longing looks like, Bobby thought to himself, as he watched a small, sad smile, curl James's lips and touch his eyes beneath the shadow of his cowboy hat.
Past the edge of the crisp summer sky, beyond the reaching fingers of corporate towers and names of tycoons, underneath the broken sign of a record store in Nashville, blue eyes looked back. Those eyes awash with sadness yearned to see a tiny farmhouse, sprawling fields, a tilted barn, and more than all of that—the man who sat on the porch, drinking beer from a still.
Jeff pressed his face to the cool glass window, and looked out into the street. He'd been wrestling with his decision all day long, even though he knew in his heart it had already been made for him by all the doors that had been slammed shut in his face. Sometimes he'd moved away from the window and lain out flat on the bed, on his back or stomach, and stared at the yellowy, cracked ceiling, or scented the smell of old cigarettes on the scratchy feeling bedspread each time he took a breath. For months he'd been living in this hole-in-the-wall hotel room, only his guitar and the roaches to keep him company. He left the bedside lamp on at night, and had gotten used to sleeping in its nicotine tinted glow, in hopes that the light would keep his bug 'friends' from crawling into the bed and exploring his skin at night time. He tried not to think of it too much, or his skin began to crawl, and then had to get up and go to the bathroom, peel his clothes away, and inspect every bared inch of his skin for creepy crawlies. This ritual got to be monotonous after three am, and so, he tried to think of anything at night but those vermin. The only comfort he had was that all of this would pay off some day (preferably some day soon) and then he'd leave the world of sleazy bars, grabby rednecks, and dirty hotel rooms for platinum albums, billboard hits, limousines, The Opry…and James. James would travel with him and they'd leave the cotton, corn, tobacco, and the hard earth behind them like dust just waiting to shaken off.
The only dust that had been shaken off was Jeff. He was kicked off again and again and his options were dwindling, along with his hope. Was it his singing, his playing, his look, his sexuality? He tried not to let it leak through so much, but he was naturally pretty. The fancy western shirts with their flamboyant colors and rhinestone or sequin accents tattled on him, along with the sway of his hips. Anyway, it didn't matter. He was told again and again that he didn't have what 'they' were looking for. He didn't have something that stood him out from the rest of the wannabes—no special pop, no sensational zing of uniqueness—he was just pretty little Jeff Jarrett with a guitar slung over one shoulder and a dream slung over the other. They had made him plenty of other offers—that was for damn sure—but he hadn't followed the city lights to become a whore. He wanted to be a musician, but maybe he just wasn't.
Evening was creeping onward, soon the neon lights would buzz to life and in front of this hotel, the vacancy sign was going to flash, because Jeff Jarrett was not going to stay in this trap for one more night. The luster of his pursuits had worn off and there was nothing left but the bare, cold bones of reality and he didn't want them. With a suffering sigh he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His shoulders sagged into a defeated position that he was becoming far too accustomed to, and he reached for his boots which were under the bed. He slipped them on, tracing his fingers over the intricate designs and patterns of the tooled leather. The deep, rich browns, remind him of coffee in the morning, made strong for his James so he could awaken to his days work—or a refreshing glass of iced tea that he'd sip with rattling ice cubes as James swallowed his beer. The simple thoughts made his frown tremble into the ghost of a smile.
He still had home, and love, and that was more than many a man would ever be fortunate enough to find. He got up from the bed, the frame giving a creak as his weight moved. He reached for his white cowboy hat and perched it upon his soft blond locks, picked up his suitcase in one hand, and his guitar case in the other. Jeff moved towards the door, and looked back for the last time at the cobwebs of his dream.
He had a lot of time to think as the cab ferried him over potholes and road, through intersections, stop signs, and colored lights, towards his destination. The city shrank away from him as the cabby sped further away, the meter ticking, Jeff's thoughts spinning. He watched the homes and buildings take up where the big city had left off, and soon enough those too were fading away, become nothing more than infrequent dots amid fields, with barns and silos surrounding old family homesteads like gaggles of children.
These things were all familiar to him and offered him the comfort of arms reaching out to embrace a loved one who's been gone far too long. He closed his eyes, opening them again only when the cabby stopped. He leaned forward in his seat, looking at the driver quizzically from beneath the brim of his hat.
"This is far's ah can take ya'll. The roads get too bad much further out, nothin' but dirt an' holes."
Jeff nodded, paid the man, and ducked out of the cab. He watched it go, a dusty yellow bee headed back to the bustling hive. He began the walk towards home, the heels of his boots tapping down the packed dirt, the song of bugs and birds mingling as if in a welcome home chorus, a soft voice whispering in his ear.
Bobby leaned over the porch railing, poking at his teeth with a toothpick. Beans and cornbread again, didn't James know how to cook anything else? His stomach was beginning to protest, and the family of scruffy cats who lived in the barn probably protested too—their companion who spent his nights sleeping in the loft was beginning to smell worse than they did. James followed behind him, and let out a loud belch, followed by a contented sigh. James seemed like an easy man to please, he'd probably be content to have beans and cornbread every night but no doubt his absent lover doted on him. James had told Bobby how cute the blond looked in an apron, his pies were to die for, but his cakes tended to end badly. No matter—James was a man who preferred his pie, and icing tasted better on skin than chocolate anyway.
That was probably a little too detailed, but James was a man who spoke freely and didn't seem to care if others liked it or didn't. Bobby looked out into the blue-gray of the waning evening, his eyes scanning over the rural landscape. Soon he'd be up in that loft trying to catch some sleep if that damn cat wasn't still in heat—yowling and howling like a devil for a soul. He yawned, blinked, narrowed his eyes as he glanced down the road, catching some movement in the dim light.
"What's that?" Bobby pointed with his toothpick, and squinted. James sided up next to him and looked too. Off in the distance along the dusty road, a human figure was walking. James heart seemed to lunge up into his throat as he sensed though he couldn't see—he knew. Without a word of reply to Bobby directly, he dashed off the porch, not bothering with the steps, and cut through the yard like a footballer sprinting for a touchdown.
"Jeff!" He hollered, his breaths coming quicker with his run, his feet falling over the crunchy grass and into the ruts of the dirt road. The approaching figure stopped, looked towards the source of his name, dropped both his cases, and ran too.
James's arms encircled him, picked him up off the ground, and swung him around in a circle of joy at their reunion. James sat him back to his feet but kept holding him close, and pressed their lips together in a long, much awaited kiss. Jeff's arms rested against James's strong shoulders, his fingers laced into the soft brown hair, Jeff sighed into the mouth he'd missed.
"God damn it did ah miss ya somethin' awful!" James exclaimed, tears settling in his bright, enraptured eyes.
"Oh James, honeh ah missed ya like the desert misses the rain!" The blues that had attached themselves to Jeff's heels as he'd walked through the city day after day, began to fall away as he gazed at the elated face of his lover, finding that it meant more than any record deal ever could.
"What about Nashville? What happened—ya'll gotta tell Jamesy alls about it baby!"
Jeff shook his head, and smoothed James's shirt, noticing the jagged edges of the cutoff sleeves.
"Honeh, they didn't want me in the big city. But ya know what—ah've got me a good man who wants me here an' that's jus' fine with me." He pressed his lips together into a tight line, messing with the shirt sleeves some more. "James, what did ya'll do to this poor piece a' clothin'?" Jeff licked his lips, and frowned a bit more at the taste. "An' don't tell me alls ya been eatin' is beans an' cornbread since ah've been gone—ah left you some a' those cards with recipes on 'em…"
"Aw, JJ ya know ah can't cook worth a dern anyway…an' besides, ah don't look nowhere nears purty in an apron as you do." James grinned big.
"Well, go get mah cases an' we'll go back to the house…an' I'll put it on for ya." Jeff grinned, and toyed with a strand of James's hair. "But ah think I'll do the cookin' in the bedroom tonight. No dishes ta clean up afterwards, whadya say, James?"
"Hell yeah!" James hooted, and trotted off further down the road to grab JJ's things that he'd left behind in his run.
The two of them cut back through the yard, and up to the porch. Bobby wasn't there picking his teeth, he'd made his way to the barn after he'd watched the embrace, a smile on his face that made it hurt. He settled in for the night, and scratched his hair with a yawn. Slowly, sleep began to nag at him. Inside the little house, beyond the slanted barn, a pretty blond sashayed in nothing but a flowery apron, and his cowboy wearing nothing but a farmers tan and a leer tossed him onto the bed and reacquainted himself with every last inch of the returned body. Bobby rolled over, and grumbled as his sleep was disturbed by a frantic howling—fucking cat.
"Oh James—mah James…"
"Oh Jeff-" James kissed Jeff's sweaty forehead, and brushed some of the pretty hair away. "Them bigshots in Nashville don't know shit from shinola. Ah happen love the way ya'll sing, baby." James winked.
Jeff smiled, and laid his head onto James's chest, listening to his heartbeat.
"That's just fine then, James, 'cause ah love singin' for you the most."