Chapter 14 Hanky Panky

Nervous as a cat, I hung up the fencing gear and turned to him.  Taking his hand in mine and backing through the kitchen door.  “I’ll give you a tour of the house,” I said, “soon’s I start coffee.  Wet feet and coffee, one leads to the other.”

We walked through the rooms, careful not to brush each other.  To tell the truth, I regretted that we had left the gully.  Maybe Milo regretted it too.  I came close to confiding in him, but instead showed him the unused front room.  “This is the ‘parlor.’ Not much furniture.   One El Greco print I bought to celebrate my divorce.  I’m not a good consumer.  In the old days, I suppose this was a dark, closed-off room opened up for the holidays.”

“Reminds me of my ma,” said Milo.  “Should have a piano over there.”

“Big old eating kitchen,” I continued.  “Here’s the noon-time-nap cot.  I always thought no farmer should ever have to get by without a kitchen cot.  This room over here is my room.   My worktable, over by the window where I can see better to write.  Bed.  I sleep there when I sleep.  Grandmother’s quilt.  I can’t admit it will someday wear out.  So.  This is my place, guarded by an unfriendly spirit.”

Milo lowered his head to peer at me.  “What’s that now?”

“This spirit stands guard over my independence.  When someone says ‘I’ll look after you,’ it shrieks a warning.  Nobody tells me what I should be.”

“I was never much good with rules either,” said Milo.  “I guess that’s what you’re saying.”  He broke from my gaze and walked to the window of the bedroom.  “You got a nice little place here.  Not any worse’n my place.”

“Son of a gun,” I said. “That bad?”

“Well, wait,” he said, turning back, “I like it okay.  I wasn’t saying I didn’t like it.”

“Mercy,” I said. “I’ll have to advertise for an all-purpose housekeeper.”

“There we go,” said Milo.

While we were waiting for the coffee we took off the wet shoes we wore, which had left splotches of dampness on the floors.  I skinned mine off using the heel-toe technique.  Milo retired to the ladder-chair to laboriously pry off the boot, roll off the saturated Rockford socks, and turn up his soggy pant legs.  “At work getting the old guys out of bed,” I said,” I draw up this plan to bomb the Rockford sock factory.”  Milo cast a rueful look at me, walked to the kitchen door hung the socks on the doorknob.  I said, “I mean, do they every quit shrinking?  You should just try putting them on someone else’s feet some time.”

“I never did try that,” he said.

“I suppose not.”

“Been a real long week,” said Milo

I came past him to pour the coffee.  “Here’s to shorter weeks,” I said raising my cup to his.  We stood, too close, facing each other.  The earnest look in Milo’s eyes was disconcerting for me.  I tried to concentrate on the strength of the coffee and then on the inexorable drip of the faucet.  I tried to seal off the passage to where my body’s parts were rising up in mutiny.  Unnerved, I walked away from the heat I felt, trying to regain my composure, looking out at the dusty Pontiac and the Fiat in its shadow.  “Worst coffee I’ve made since fall,” I said.

“No,” said Milo, “the coffee’s fine.”  He was leaning against the sink.  “I was wondering about your bedroom.  How many nights of chores would a guy have to do to get in there for a half-hour?”

“With or without me?” I laughed.  “Half-hour indeed.  Such a question.  What am I going to do with you?”

“You know what to do with me,” he said.

“But seriously,” I told him, “I mean it about cussedness and independence.  I mean it.  I’m selfish.  I won’t even think about changing.”

He lifted one shoulder.  “I can’t change much of anything either.”  He considered his cup, turned and poured himself some more coffee.  He said, “Have to adjust the schedule, that’s all.”

“I don’t want to set myself up.  Milo, see, here’s the thing:  I don’t trust myself not to care too much about you.”

“Oh, you want to harness up to somebody you don’t care about?”

“It’s the word ‘harness’ that would bother me.”

“You don’t know if takin’ up with me is worth the trouble?”

“Doubts assail me.”

He scratched his forehead.  “What kind of trouble you expecting?  I’m not strung too tight.  I look out for people.  You know that.”

“The thing is…I don’t like for this to be one more stop on our routes.  Like mechanical toys winding up and running down.”  I saw his free hand on the edge of counter, fingers flexing.  I said, “Because all I know about you is what I see and hear.”

He put the cup aside.  He leaned back on the edge there, hands in pockets.  He said, “I’m trying to catch up with you.”  He said, “I’m just thinkin’ what I should say here.  You’re talkin’ about, I guess, ah, women.  I figgered that might be gonna come up.  I been picking up the scent.”  He flashed a short grin at me.  “Well, women are okay.  I never had much hassle trying to get on with them, at least not since I’s full grown.  I was always like what they call ‘easy’ but I never, y’know, went back and jabbered about anybody or went sneaking off to another county like it’s a big secret.  I don’t lie much.  I never did screw around with a loaded gun neither.”  He looked at me with his laughing eyes.  “Just seems like we’re pretty well matched, if you ask me.  I don’t mean to insult you.”

“No,” I replied, “I wouldn’t call it an insult.”

“So I don’t know what else to say.  I’m no politician,” he said.  “Rest is up to you.  You want to let your public tell you what to do?”

“No,” I said.  “What I want is, I want you, and that’s about it.”

His fingers move inside his pockets; the coins jingled.  “Okay,” he said, “you got it,” and he pulled his hands from his pockets and extended, and, barefoot on the linoleum, we came together again, just as calm as if the earth hadn’t moved.

He said in my ear, “Let’s just go slow; talk to me.”

“You are too much for me.”

“No way to hurt my feelings just now,” he said with a short laugh.  His hands shoved down into the back of my loosened jeans, fingers rough and catchy on my skin.  “Long week,” he said.

“That’s the trouble,” I said.  “My time is taken.  We live separate lives.  Very few moveable pieces.”

“I’ll work out,” said Milo.  “Don’t sweat the little stuff.”

“Sure plenty of time with someone you don’t like, that’s the killer,” I said.

“That’s right,” said Milo.

“Out by the creek,” I said into his shirt.  “I wanted just to – do anything but talk.”

“Yeah, I felt that,” he said.

“I guess it’s just too hot, too hot, and I don’t trust the way I get about you.  It’s so much like a yen.  Burn hot and die fast.  It’s like, to me, it’s like a mare coming into heat.   How can it last?  It’s like a disease you catch.  I know it’s not nice: I need to say it.”

“Don’t trust yourself,” he said, lightly, a joke.

“I guess I don’t trust myself.  I probably trust you more.  Not much more.  I’ve fooled myself before, but I’ve never been fooled by you.  Not yet.”

“A little animal instinct is all right,” said Milo.  “You got to start someplace.”

“It’s wonderful,” I nodded.  “But feels temporary.”

“Is there something you have to do?  You mentioned the river.  Wasn’t there — ?”

“Oh, right, well, I don’t know when they’ll show.  Maybe six.”

“Oh, you’re talking Brown Swiss; Brown Swiss coming today.  Do we go out there and wait for her?”

“By six the milking will be half through,” I said.

“Wait here for the truck to come in?”

“I’ll hear them,” I assured him.  “Well, you.  When do you have to be somewhere?”

“I am somewhere,” he said, smiling fast.

The fragrance of our bodies came to my nostrils, our sweat from the field work, acrid melting heaviness, a sweet tantalizing lure.  My forehead pushed into Milo’s shoulder, his shirt, his skin, inhaling him.  “I like you coming on,” he said, “I got to tell you, I like it.”

“Keep liking it,” I said.  “Love it or leave it.”

“It’s all I ever think about,” said Milo.  “What do you want to do?”

“See you in the light,” I said.  “Unhook your clothes.  Talk until the cows come home.”

“Sounds like the best job I ever had.  Tisn’t everybody can undo those bent-up hooks.”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m an old hand at bibs.  My kids wore them.  Remember the sixties?  Not only that.  The first afternoon I saw you, in my head I undid those bent-up hooks.”

“Is that a fact,” said Milo.  “You scalawag.”  The trace of shyness, it moved me.  The cot was roomy enough, my leg across him.

“I know this cot like the back of my hand,” I murmured.  “Every day pretty much on schedule, I fall onto it and conk out for five hours.”

“You poor kid,” said Milo.

“I don’t feel poor.” (Through the talk I felt his body shift.)  “It still works, Milo,” I said.

“Don’t pay me no mind,” he laughed.  “I’m just happy to find myself here.  Out in the water I was a little worried.”

“Am I hurting you?”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

“So what do you tell your women when you come over to fix fence?”

He looked straight at me.  “I don’t tell nobody anything about nothing.  My women.   Housekeeper, is that who?  I got no women.  You ever see me with a woman?”

“But I don’t go where you go.  My nights are not your nights.”

“But you get the story from your sharp-eyed buddies.”

“Should I believe them?”

He coughed out a laugh.  “No, you better not do that.  This is kind of no-win.  Well, here.  I gave up chasing some time back.  Lost interest.  I’m out to pasture.  Remember, I told you that?  I’m out on grass.  Come on, Mare, take a look at me.  Who’d want me?

“Strange question to ask me,” I said.

“Sure, but you’re a bohemian.  Nobody ever set up for me before.  Do I have to tell you this?  I don’t know, nothing ever worked out.  I got me a bare-faced living, try to keep my head above water, end of the day stop off for a drink and talk big, go home to the empty bed.  All I ever knew was hard work.  Clear sky.  Nickel in the pocket, and glad to get it.”

“You are upper-class enough,” I said.  “Although I never thought I’d be takin’ up with some infamous horse-trader.”

“Never thought I’d be one.  But it works out okay.  Who knows for how long?  I made up nice names for the horses, like they’re old friends of mine.  I get some facts on what some city-lady wants and then I call her.  Sometimes go knock on her back door.  I say, ‘I got me a Tennessee Walker in my yard:  a fella I know mentioned your name.  Nice southern horse, smooth tempered as your maiden aunt.  You come on over and have a look.  Along with English saddle, I’ll let ‘er go for seven fifty.  Get ‘er into a quality home is what I’d like, price isn’t important.  I wanted to keep her for myself but this here back-injury I got from rodeo riding, every once in a while acts up; I can’t pay that horse enough attention.  I can’t do her justice.’”

“Smooth,” I said.  “Have you ever been called a swindler?”

“Well, who knows?” he drawled.  “I don’t think I have.  I never took money they weren’t glad to give me.  Such a bargain.  It’s no joke; it’s all serious as backwoods booze.  If I hadn’t got familiar with rich folks’ taste in horseflesh, you think I’d be wearing silk undershirts?  You betcha not.  The way farming’s going these days, it’s sink or swim, you know that.  You need money?  You go to where the money lives.  Here….come closer.  Relax.  Treat me gentle, like those ladies across the tracks in – uh – jodhpurs.”

“Do any of them ever flirt with you?”

“Flirt?  With me?  Ah, once in awhile.  Well, you just got to act stupid.  You can’t afford to lose these people.  Anyway, cigarette holders and fancy gowns, what kind of a fool….   Nope, I like the real thing.  A real woman.  Well, the rich ones, I try to stay on their good side.  Leave the buyer happy and word gets around, then you got guys coming around to see about a pony and screwing up your love life.  Next worst thing that happens sometimes I have to wear a tie on Sunday.”

“You’re pretty funny,” I said.

“Yup.  I’m funny,” agreed Milo.  “And then we got fishing.  You guys fish yesterday?”

“Three hours maybe.  You like fishing?”

“Never did much fishin’.  You bring the fish home and I’ll eat ‘er, how’s that for a deal?”

“Sometimes someone with imagination finds other things to do out on the stream in deep grass.”

He thought it over.  “How many of these people d’you think have that much imagination?”

“I have no way of knowing.  I don’t know how many fishermen there are, even.”  I traced my finger around his mouth.  “You have to realize what I’m up against out there.  You have lulls when the fish don’t bite.”

“I know about the lulls,” said Milo.

“Sometimes I’ve taken pen and paper out there to write.  Get absorbed in sitting in the grass and the fish take it all, run off with all the bait and tackle, everything I own.”

“You’re nothin’ but an outlaw yourself,” said Milo.

“The fish are the thieves,” I protest.

“Talkin’ about hanky-panky out in the grass.”

“Oh, I see.  Well, these people…I suppose if it were a crime, they would have been booked.”

“When did you get into fishin’ like that?”

“I got into it just lately.  Thought it up just recently.”  Out in the yard, a house wren trilled passionately.  I said, “Shall we try it?”

He took a moment.  “You just tell me what you want,” he said.

“I want more of you.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said.