fiction by Jeff Mann
"Please Remember Me?” Well, that’s damned apropos, Travis thought, pulling into Kirk’s riverside parking lot. He checked his wristwatch and idled the pickup for another four or five bars before cutting the engine and truncating Tim McGraw’s plaintive radio tenor.
Leaning back, Travis gazed out over the New. It was low with October, but late autumn rains would come soon, and the river would turn turbid and swollen. “Pregnant,” Daddy used to call it.
Travis did the math one more time. 2017 – 1991 = twenty-six years. He took a long look at his face in the rearview mirror—close-cropped hair and beard, both silver-stippled—tried to picture how he’d looked in 1991, and failed.
“Here we go,” he sighed, climbing from his truck into the unseasonably warm afternoon. He smoothed out his khaki pants and black camp shirt before entering the roadside restaurant.
Inside, the after-church crowd had thankfully dwindled. Travis passed the counter where folks lined up to order and pushed through the door leading to the outside deck. The man he’d come to meet was sitting where Travis had expected he’d be, at the far end, at a table near the railing. When he caught sight of Travis, he waved, smiled, and stood.
Travis tried not to smile. He wanted to look tough, grim, and wounded. But there, mere yards away, was not the memory of Mike but the fact, the fact of a man who had for so long existed only as regret, yearning, and remembrance. Mike was changed, yes—stockier, his hair and beard at forty-three as gray-dusted as Travis’s at forty-four—but there still were the broad shoulders and the catfish grin, the solid chest shown off by a gray Mountaineers T-shirt, the hairy legs displayed by camo cargo shorts. In the face of all that, Travis’s stern expression cracked—hard-packed earth pierced by the ascension of a seedling. Grinning, he strode across the deck and seized Mike’s outstretched hand.
“H-hey,” Travis stuttered. “It’s great to see you.”
Callused, hard, warm, Travis thought in that brief moment before the two men’s palms parted. Even if it’s only a handshake, it’s a godsend to touch you again.
“Howdy, Professor Ferrell,” Mike said. “Still lifting weights, looks like.”
Travis blushed. “Yep. You taught me well.”
“Can I get an autograph?” Mike nodded toward the pile of books on the table.
“You brought my books? Really?” Travis shook his head. “Sure. Later. You ordered yet? I’m starving.”
“Naw. I waited for you. This is my treat, okay? You want the usual?”
Two and a half decades apart, and he says “the usual.” I guess my appetites have always been predictable. “Yep,” Travis said, taking a seat. “That’d be super.”
Mike ambled off. Travis watched him go, eyes fixed on his rump.
Glorious as ever. What a treasure. For such a gift to be given again and again…and then never again? How did I survive that? How did I continue, after reading that damned letter? How did I not drive my truck into a tree?
For a split-second, despair—that familiar black gorge—flooded Travis’s throat. He swallowed hard, forcing his focus away from interior damage and into the exterior world. In the sun-streaked shallows below the deck, a troop of carp hovered in the current. Above the river, a formation of Canada geese veered, honking, heading south. Everywhere, late summer’s dull jade was transmuting: bright gold of the box elders by the railing, burnt orange of sugar maple and rich burgundy of ash across the valley.
“Lost in thought?”
Travis turned. Mike stood by the table, holding two Styrofoam cups.
“Two sweet teas with lemon.” Mike handed Travis a cup and took a seat.
“Warm today,” Mike said, sipping his drink. “Cold front coming through tonight, though, with a few days of rain to follow. All those pretty leaves gonna be washed down the river.”
Travis shrugged. “That time of year. How’d you like the books?”
Mike pulled a pen from his cargo shorts. “Loved ‘em. Even the poetry.”
“Really?” Travis took the pen and laid it on the table between them.
“Really. I remember those poems you wrote before.”
Travis chewed ice. “Those poems I wrote for you?”
“Yeah. For me. So, I knew you were good, even back then. Your stuff makes sense, unlike most poetry I’ve seen. Lots of outdoor details I could relate to. I like your novels even better. Not a lot of stuff out there about gay country boys. You must have a passel of fans.”
Travis bit into his lemon. “Fans? A few. I’m too country for gay lit folks, and too queer for Appalachian lit folks. Definitely no fans among my colleagues. What fiction I’ve published they dismiss as too commercial. I got tenure, thank God, but might not get promoted to Full. Or so my last annual review seemed to warn.”
“Well, fuck ‘em. I loved your novels. Why should you care what they think? They’re probably a bunch of academic snobs.”
“They are indeed. Why should I care? I ask myself that all the time. There’s a kind of elitism that—“
“Here comes lunch.” Mike gestured toward a sour-faced woman in pastels heading their way with a heaped tray of food.
“Here you go. Y’all enjoy,” she muttered through pursed lips. She set out four hot dogs with everything, a squeeze bottle of ketchup, and two paper baskets of fries, then scurried off.
“Not as friendly as usual,” Travis said, squirting ketchup on his fries.
“That was my estranged second cousin, Cookie. She’s never nice to me. Guess she has a long memory.”
“Long memory? You mean…? When your dad threw you out?”
“Yep. After Aunt Drema found those gay mags in my bedroom. You know how small towns can be. All these years later, some people still remember that. They also remember those rumors about us being lovers.”
“Really? Everyone I’ve encountered around here has always been pleasant to me, despite the in-your-face gay books I’ve published.”
“Hell, Travis, most folks here don’t read books. They sure as shit wouldn’t pick up a book about queers.”
“Yeah, I’ve sort of surmised that. There’re none of my books in the local library, which irks my ass considerably, but maybe it’s for the best. So, you’re back in Summers County?”
“Lots to catch up on, right?” Mike chomped off a big bite of hot dog, chewed, and swallowed. “But first…thanks for coming today. I wasn’t sure you would.”
“I almost didn’t. Your Facebook note out of the blue knocked me on my ass. But hell, it’s been decades. I’m a big boy now. Guess I can face down a ghost.”
Mike chuckled. “Is that how you think of me? A ghost? Buddy, I assure you I’m solid flesh.” He patted the swell of his minor beer belly. “More flesh than when last you saw me.”
“Join the club.” Travis waved a French fry in the air. “‘Flavor crystals.’ That’s what I call fat. Why do you think I’m wearing this baggy shirt?”
Mike turned in his seat to look out toward whitewater breaking over rocks. “You look great.”
“You do too,” Travis muttered. I love the gray in your beard. “Look, I have no idea what to write in these books. Mind if I hold onto ‘em and give ‘em back to you some other time?”
“So, there’s going to be another time?”
“Probably. To be honest, I’ve dreaded this day—seeing you again—for so long. But now that I have….”
“Now that you have?” Mike turned back toward Travis.
“Now I’m curious. I want to know what you’ve been up to all these years.”
Mike grimaced. “You’d know that if you hadn’t insisted on breaking off all contact with me.”
“True,” Travis muttered. “It was just too painful.”
“I know, Travis. I didn’t understand then, but I damn well understand now. You were just protecting yourself.”
Travis nodded, sinking his teeth into his dog. “Damn, these are good. So, catch me up.”
“Long as you do the same.”
“I will. You first.”
“Okay.” Mike gnawed his lower lip. “So, I was in the army for nearly a decade. Saved some money, picked up a few skills. When I got out, I moved to Arizona on a whim, worked construction some, worked in a garage some. Got married.”
“Married? Wow. Congrats, I guess.”
“Divorced after two years. Couldn’t keep my dick in my pants.”
Travis snickered. “Big surprise. Were you snacking on other women? Or men?”
Mike flushed. “Men. It’s hell being bisexual. ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,’ to quote Steve Earle. Anyway, six months ago, ole Bucky finally managed to drink himself to death and left me the garage. We’d buried the hatchet ages ago. Since I’d been a success in the army and had gotten married, he figured his hopes had come true—that the military had ‘beat the faggot outta me’—and I sure as hell wasn’t gonna disillusion him.”
“So, you live in Hinton now?”
“Yep. Buck left me the house too, which he’d miraculously managed to pay off. Despite occasional suspicious looks from pious types who still remember the gay rumors about me, I get steady business. You know how it is: if you’re butch, most people around here assume you can’t be a fag. Folks know I’m good at what I do, and I’m trustworthy too. Women like me ‘cause I don’t talk down to ‘em or lay on that ‘honey’ shit.”
Travis rubbed his whiskered chin. “Women always liked you. You know that.”
“And why is that?”
“Are you fishing for compliments?”
Mike cocked a dark eyebrow and smiled. “Yep.”
“Don’t give me that shit-eating grin. For the same reasons I was into you. You’re handsome and sexy and manly and strong and kind.”
“You forgot loyal.”
Travis snorted. “Don’t push it.”
“Sorry. Hard to keep ornery on a leash. So that’s my story. How about you? Was your time at WVU as great as you’d dreamed? Did you have a slew of smart, sophisticated boyfriends?”
Travis sighed as he finished off his first dog. “You were always afraid I’d find some guy in college who was better-educated than you were and dump you. But that’s not how it turned out, was it?”
Mike slurped from his straw and shook his head.
“College was great. You remember those folks we met in Morgantown, that weekend we drove up together? Brenda and Bill, Farron and Cin, Laura, Jean, and Franny…and those drag queens, Miss Jerry and Miss Leroy. I had loads of fun times with them. I was lucky: they were the exactly the kind of gay support system I needed. I graduated magna cum laude and went on to grad school there. Made a few more friends in the gay student group on campus.”
“I taught freshman comp at WVU, then at a bunch of other colleges, made no money at all, managed to win a few poetry contests and publish a few poetry books. About ten years ago, I got that creative writing position at Virginia Tech. I rent a place just west of there, in Giles. Really pretty county, a lot like this one: small towns, big mountains, slow pace. Not busy and expensive like Blacksburg.”
Travis paused to start on his second dog. “When my parents retired and moved to Daytona, they gave me the Forest Hill house, so I get over here about once a month during the school year and spend my Summer and Winter Breaks here.”
“So, we’re both employed homeowners. Whoever would’ve thought?”
“True. And whoever would’ve thought that twenty-some years could be summarized in so few phrases?”
“You left something out.” With a grunt, Mike propped a foot on an empty chair and scratched his beard. “Marriage? Divorce? Passionate affairs? A passel of kids?”
Travis made a face. “Can’t stand kids. No marriage, so no divorce. A few affairs.”
“Yeah? Go on.”
“Why do you want to know? Why should I be telling you, of all people?”
Mike shrugged. “Just wanting to catch up. Unless the tale you have to tell is too scandalous to share.”
“Hardly.” Rolling his eyes, Travis sprinkled pepper on his fries and added ketchup. “When I got your letter, I went a little crazy. Pursued a bunch of guys, most of whom weren’t interested in more than a one-night stand. Dated Bob, that Italian guy we met at Brenda’s party. Dated Jack, an old hippie with a big dick, a guy twenty years older than me. Got attached, got screwed cross-eyed, got my heart broken. ‘Every time you open your mouth,’ he complained, ‘violence spews out.’ He dumped me for a fucking emaciated buck-toothed queen from Raleigh County. Talk about a blow to my ego.”
“Violence, huh? I always enjoyed your righteous anger, as long as it wasn’t aimed at me. Just part of the passionate man you are. This Jack sounds like a loser, big dick or not. Anyone else?”
“Right out of grad school, I saw Larry for a couple years. He was a barber and antique collector.”
“All of two years? The sex must have been hot, huh?”
Travis groaned. “Hardly. Pure vanilla.”
“He wasn’t into kink? Like we used to be? Remember that foggy night up Bluestone? In that cabin?”
“Of course I remember. Keep your voice down.” How could I forget? You were seventeen, naked, muscled and hairy, smiling at me as I roped your hands behind your back and tied your feet together. What have I felt since to equal a surrender so sweet?
“So, the barber wasn’t True Love?”
Travis shook his head, as if bodily movement could dislodge memory. “Larry was a dead end. I was too country for him, so he tried to change me. Tried to dress me up in preppy clothes. Made me wear a maraschino-red sweater to brunch one day. I felt like I was in fucking drag. Scolded me if I put my feet up on furniture. Thought my sense of humor was crass. Tried to refine the hillbilly out of me and failed big-time. These days, I call him my ‘insignificant other.’”
Mike snickered. “Another loser. Sounds a little bit like my marriage. Anyone else?”
“Other than the rare hook-up via phone app? Most of those have been utter disasters, by the way. A few years ago, I half-heartedly dated a guy named Tom, out near Roanoke. Smoked too damn much. He had money, which was a nice change of pace. Even had a yacht on Smith Mountain Lake. That tapered off to nothing.”
“So, no Mr. Right at present?”
“Naw. I’ve gotten pretty used to being alone. You done grilling me?”
Mike slurped the last of his tea. “Yep.”
Travis propped his elbows on the table. “So, let me ask you a question.”
“Who was she? What was she like?”
“Who do you think? That girl you dumped me for.”
Mike groaned. “I don’t wanna talk about her.”
“What’s the point? That happened so long ago.”
“True. But for me—sometimes—it feels like it happened yesterday.”
“Travis, I don’t wanna dig all that up again. I feel guilty enough. I won’t—”
Travis rose and swigged the last of his tea. “You can keep your guilt.” He picked up the pen and broke it in half, spattering ink on the tabletop. “And you can get someone else to sign these books. Thanks for lunch.”
Travis turned, face flushed. He’d taken only three steps away when Mike’s shout shook him.
“Cubbie! Wait! I got a favor to ask.”
Cubbie? The last person who called me that was Mike, the day we parted. Travis turned around. “A favor? What fucking favor?”
“Would you please get back here and sit down? Don’t make me rush after you, like in some kinda romantic movie. After all those years working construction, my knees and elbows ain’t what they used to be, and neither is my lower back.”
What am I doing? Travis thought. At the far end of the deck, other diners were staring at them, the usual passel of straight people and unruly kids ubiquitous in Summers County.
Travis approached the table, glowering down at Mike.
“Sit down, for fuck’s sake,” Mike growled. “I’ll tell you whatever you want. Do I have to kiss your hand and give those breeders even more of a show? Then I’d lose what business I have and end up on welfare and food stamps and wait in line for commodity cheese. You don’t want that, do you?”
“Not sure. Maybe.” Travis took a seat and concentrated on decimating what fries were left.
“You’re still that angry?” Mike’s voice was low and sad.
Travis stared at the tabletop and chewed slowly. “Yep. Guess I am. Didn’t really know that until now.”
“You always had a terrible temper. I remember that so well. You could carry a grudge to the crack of doom.”
“None of that’s changed.” Travis made quick work of what remained of his second dog, then sat back and looked Mike in the eye. “I’ve never met anyone I’ve cared for as deeply as you, and everything erotic since then has been paltry, trivial: sex, not making love. It’s hard to forgive you for robbing me of what we had.”
I need to get out of here. I need to get away from him. One minute I want to pull him close and kiss him hard, and another minute I want to punch him in the jaw and run. I’ve always felt too much. Too deep, too much. Too many things at the same damn time.
“I get that.” Mike cleared his throat. “Her name was Rebecca. I met her at a party off base. She was tanned, lean. A runner. A good cook, like you. Kind, like you.”
Mike paused to wave away a housefly. “I was so lonely, Travis…thinking of you and writing to you and imagining you in the gay bar in Morgantown, maybe meeting handsome guys and going home with them. I got so tired of pretending to be straight around all those butch army dudes…guys, good guys who would’ve taken a bullet for me as long as they thought I was like them…but who would’ve jeered at me—hell, probably ganged up on me and kicked my ass—if they knew the truth, knew that every night I was touching myself and remembering this shaggy-wild hillbilly boy back home who used to pound me so sore and so sweet.”
Travis sighed. “I met lots of handsome guys that first year in college. I wasn’t honestly attracted to any of them. All I could think about was you. Until I got your letter…a week after Nanny died.”
Mike nodded. “Yep. Worst timing ever, I gotta admit. You got my sympathy card, right?”
For a long moment, neither man spoke. A brisk breeze swept the deck, snatching a few yellow leaves from the box elder tree.
“Front’s coming in,” Mike said. “Do you understand? How alienated and alone I felt? I was used…to you, to how caring you could be. To go from that to…all that shouting and macho posturing, that brusque bullshit….”
“I told you not to sign up.”
“True. True indeed.”
“So, what happened to you and Rebecca?”
“Rebecca was an oasis for me. For a while. But like I told you a long time ago…I enjoy sex with women but I don’t fall in love with ‘em. I only fall for guys. So, when she started talking about marriage….”
“You bailed on her. Familiar pattern.” Travis shook his head and stood. “Look, I need to piss. Too much iced tea. Back in a minute. Then I should head home. Got some grading to do.”
Without waiting for Mike’s response, Travis strode off. Inside, he turned down the dim hall to the bathroom, his stomach sour and his thoughts churning. I need to get out of here. I need to get away from him. One minute I want to pull him close and kiss him hard, and another minute I want to punch him in the jaw and run. I’ve always felt too much. Too deep, too much. Too many things at the same damn time.
In the men’s room, Travis was about to unzip by the urinal when the door opened behind him. Mike stood there.
“Is there no way you’ll forgive me?” Mike said, locking the door.
“Jesus, Mike. What are you doing in here?”
“Cubbie, listen,” Mike said, grabbing Travis’s hand. “I’m so sorry. I was so stupid. So alone then. So alone now. So fucking lonely. Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed. Does that help? To know that? Some days I wish I was dead.”
“Mike, man, stop it,” Travis groaned, stepping closer, cupping Mike’s beard-bristly cheek. “What are you doing? What do you want?”
Mike pushed Travis against the door. “Damn, you look so good. You smell so good.” He pressed a hand against Travis’s chest, squeezing his right pec through the black shirt’s fabric, then fumbling open the top button.
“Really? You’re doing this? You’re crazy. Stop it,” Travis muttered, slipping a hand down the back of Mike’s shorts. “This isn’t some big-city backroom bar.”
Mike chuckled, kissing Travis on the mouth and tugging at Travis’s chest hair. “Naw. This is the fucking buckle of the fucking Bible Belt. Didn’t you do the same damn thing back in high school, in the bathroom at Buck’s garage? The ole bastard almost caught us. Remember?”
“Yep, I do.” Travis kissed Mike back and fondled a buttock. It’s you. It’s really you. I came here today because all that passion, so long ago, seemed like a dream to me, someone else’s life, someone else’s fantasy. I wanted to see if I’d made it all up in my mind. But here you are. I didn’t dream any of it. It was real. You’re real.
“Travis, can’t we—?”
The rattling of the bathroom doorknob interrupted Mike.
“Fuck,” Mike snarled.
“Shit,” Travis whispered, slipping his hand out of Mike’s shorts.
Mike stepped hurriedly away and made a show of washing his hands at the sink. Travis leaned back against the door and buttoned up his shirt. “Just a minute,” he yelled.
When Travis opened the door and stepped into the hallway, he found a short, pudgy man in his forties, sporting a hideous comb-over and eying them both.
“Mike Woodson,” the stranger sneered. “What y’all doing in there? Drug deal? Or up to your ole faggoty tricks?
Travis stepped closer to the man and glared down at him. “Who are you, sir?”
“What business is that of yours?” Eyes widening, the man stepped back until he bumped the wall.
“That’s Peyton Childers,” Mike drawled. “He’s the self-righteous prick who runs the ever-so-prestigious Pipestem Christian Academy. We’ve exchanged barbs before.”
Travis poked the man in the chest. “Do you know who I am?”
“I don’t know. And I don’t care. Please don’t touch me.”
“I’m a big, hairy hillbilly homo weightlifter with a foul temper and serious anger management issues. And I’m aching to kick the ass of anyone who uses the word ‘faggot,’ especially to insult my friends. So fuck off. Or I’ll dunk your head in the toilet.”
The man quailed. “My God, you’re insane.”
“Travis, let’s go,” Mike said, grabbing Travis’s elbow. “Lunchtime’s over.”
“Asshole!” Travis spat, as Mike dragged him away. “It’s your kind ruining this country! Fucking Trumpster fundamentalists! I’d like to tear every goddamn one of you into bloody gobbets!”
“Travis, buddy, come on now.”
“You’re the sort ruining this country!” the man shouted as Mike and Travis turned the corner. “A day of judgment is nigh! Sinners! Perverts!”
Mike detoured them back onto the deck long enough to snatch up Travis’s books, then led Travis into the parking lot.
Clouds had thickened over the valley, and the breeze was turning cold.
“Damn, man. You were a beast in there.”
“Sorry,” Travis muttered, clenching and unclenching his fists. “I almost never lose it like that. I guess seeing you again has gotten me a little overemotional.”
“Understandable. I would’ve loved seeing you push his ugly head in the commode but would’ve hated having to visit you in jail. Which vehicle’s yours?”
“There. The red Toyota pickup.” Travis’s mouth was dry and his legs were trembling.
“Right beside my old Ranger,” Mike said. “Will you do me one more favor?”
“I have a few more things I wanna say, but I think we’ve worn out our welcome here. Will you follow me over to Bellepoint Park? It’s just a couple minutes’ drive.”
The two men sat side by side in Mike’s Ranger. The Bluestone Dam loomed over the valley, its floodgates open. A few fishermen waded in the New River; a few high-school boys leapt and dribbled around the basketball court.
“Wish I were still that limber,” Mike said.
“Is it true what you said? About your joints and back after all those years working on construction sites?”
“Sure is. I’d put a brand-new body on my Christmas list if I thought it’d do any good.”
“Would surgery help? Physical therapy?”
Maybe. But my health insurance ain’t the best. Look, Cubbie, that’s not what I wanna talk about.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Get comfortable first.”
Mike reclined his seat. Travis did the same. A few drops of rain hit the windshield.
“Ever since I got back here, I’ve been thinking about you. Remembering. Those meals at your Nanny’s. That talk in the barn. The lunches at Kirk’s. Our first time making love, that winter night up Forest Hill. That rope-fest at Bluestone. The songs you used to play me on your guitar. Putting up hay together. Camping down Sandstone. The poems you wrote for me. I still have ‘em, you know.”
“I kind of hoped you would.”
“You know what else I have?” Mike patted Travis’s knee.
“My first tattoo. I’ve gotten a few more since then, but I still have my first one, pretty as you please.”
Travis grinned. “Really? Our initials intertwined on your right butt-cheek? I always assumed that—”
“That I’d have it removed after I broke it off with you? Naw. Guys in the army were always asking about it in the shower. I told ‘em the TF stood for an old girlfriend named Titaniana Ferocialotamus.”
“Jesus. Where’d that come from?”
“Drag show I went to once. That queen was fierce, to quote Mama Ru.”
Travis guffawed. “A big butch boy like you watches Drag Race?”
“Hell, yes. I dig out reruns whenever I’m feeling down. I call it ‘drag therapy.’ That show and Where the Bears Are make me feel happy.”
“Me too. You have great taste in video ‘entertaintment,’ to quote Mama Ru.”
“You wanna see it?”
“See what? Drag Race?”
“My tattoo. I wanna prove to you that it’s still there.”
“I’d love to see it. That, and your more recent ink. Not here, though. I think we’ve shocked enough Summers County heterosexuals today.”
“Later then. So, what now?”
Travis shook his head. “I have no earthly idea.”
“You wanna see me again? Next time you’re in town? ‘Cause I sure as hell wanna see you.”
Travis smiled, looking Mike up and down. “Yep, I want to see you.”
“Well, damn, that’s a relief to hear.”
“Want to know why?”
“Because we’re both lonely and horny as fuck?”
“Yeah, that. But more than that.”
Mike took a deep breath. “Go on.”
“First, when the present’s feeling tame and sterile, a wild blast from the past, however complicated, is more than welcome. Second, geologic time. I’ve been thinking about that as I age.”
Travis pointed out the rain-spotted windshield to the water. “The New’s the second oldest river in the world. It never stops flowing, on out to the Kanawha and the Ohio and the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. And these mountains are some of the oldest on the continent. You and me, we’ll stop pretty soon. I’m forty-four. My life’s probably half over. I’ve been loving you and cussing you for twenty-seven of those years. I’d be crazy to turn my back on so much history.”
Mike sighed, nodded, and rubbed his forehead. The two men sat in silence. Rain thickened about them, pattering on the truck cab’s roof and clearing the basketball court.
“Hey, Cubbie, you still have a fireplace up at the Forest Hill farm?”
“Yep. I can’t believe we’re here together.”
“Me neither. You know how to make your Nanny’s cabbage rolls? Those were so good.”
“I do. I’ve learned how to make all her recipes, though they never come out as tasty as they did when she made them.”
“So, you got grading to do this afternoon?”
“Yep. Mid-semester fiction journals.”
Mike checked his wristwatch. “I gotta clean up the garage some. When do you drive back to Virginia?”
“Tomorrow. I don’t teach till Tuesday.”
“And when will you be back here?”
“Not for another month. Thanksgiving Break.”
Mike cleared his throat and looked Travis in the eye. “Got dinner plans tonight?”
Travis’s mouth quirked. “Nope.”
“How about you head home and send me a shopping list via Facebook, and I’ll hit Kroger and drive up this evening after I get my chores done, and we’ll start a nice blaze in the fireplace and make cabbage rolls together? Great way to spend a chilly, rainy evening, don’t you think? I’ll bring some moonshine.”
“You will?” Reaching over, Travis stroked Mike’s hairy knee. “You remember where that always leads?”
“I sure do. That’s the point. I’ll bring up some DVDs too. Which season of Where the Bears Are is your favorite? The one where Hot Toddy gets tied up, right?”
“That would be it. You know me well.” Travis drew a long breath and exhaled slowly. “You sure you want to do this, Mike? It might take me a while to lay that anger to rest.”
“Yep, I’m sure. It might take me a while to lay this guilt to rest. How about you? You sure?”
“Yep, I am. I’m surprised to hear myself say it, but…if I hesitated now, I’d be a coward and a liar.”
“Carpe diem, right? You taught me that phrase,” Mike said, taking Travis’s hand in his.
“I did. After dinner, you’ll treat me to a showing of your studly ink?”
“Good.” Travis squeezed Mike’s hand and closed his eyes, humming along to the storm’s intensified tattoo. “We’ll lie back and listen to rain on the tin roof all night. I’m sure Titaniana Ferocialotamus would approve.”
Author's note: This story, in whole and in part, is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, clubs or organizations, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jeff Mann has published six books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine, On the Tongue, Ash, A Romantic Mann, Rebels, and Redneck Bouquet; three collections of essays, Edge, Binding the God, and Endangered Species; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; six novels, Fog, Purgatory, Cub, Salvation, Country, and Insatiable; and three volumes of short fiction, A History of Barbed Wire, Desire and Devour, and Consent. With Julia Watts, he co-edited LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia. The winner of two Lambda Literary Awards and four National Leather Association-International literary awards, he teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech.