Pioneers

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Gay and Lesbian  |  House: Booksie Classic
Billy is dying, and floundering, looking for what it is he thinks he's missing when he meets a man named Jack, a crude, mountainous man that takes the two on one last adventure together.

Submitted: April 10, 2015

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Submitted: April 10, 2015

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It’s been said that you can tell the quality of a man by the friends he keeps. I’d like to believe that, but it isn’t true. What you can tell, is the kind of man he wants to be; he wishes he could be. I know better than most. My Stiff-man’s Syndrome finally put me in a wheelchair, after two and a half years of awkward jerks, a slouch, and random, horrible pain. It finally took away my ability to walk. I met Jack only a few weeks later, and Jack? He was a Pioneer.
 

I met Jack, in June of ’97; I was browsing my local sporting goods store. I didn’t actually plan on buying anything; I was just there to pout, because I thought I’ll never get to go hunting or anything ever again. No matter if I never thought of hunting, or any of that outdoorsy rubbish before I was finally all but incapable of doing it. Being told I couldn’t suddenly made it important to me.

  I was looking at rifles. Specifically, these big, black, smooth ones in a carousel by the counter that looked more like toys than anything else – and then he came over. Tall, dark, and handsome weren’t the half of it. Jack was a damned giant, almost seven feet tall, in cameo, chewing on a cigarette, with another tucked behind his long, auburn hair. From the first moment I saw him, I wanted to be him.

  Jack, he didn’t really have a sense of propriety as such, he just did what he wanted. At that moment, I suppose, he wanted to impart his wisdom about guns. Jack put his hand on my shoulder, and just leaned in real close; not looking at me, but the guns, and he said “Naw, you don’t want one of these. These are for cop-killers and kids. If you steady it right, you can probably handle the extra kick, what you need is one of these babies.” He didn’t ask, or hesitate, he turned my chair around like it was nothing and pointed me at the Remington display.

An hour later, we left, me with a new Smith and Wesson pistol. We went out in his H1 hummer to the boonies, where he owned some land. We fired at bottles lined up on fence posts. I still remember that first shot, Jack’s hand wrapped loosely around mine, the smell of his cologne, musky in my throat. The sound of that first shot, how it deafened me. I didn’t even hear the bottle burst, at first – and then all I could hear for hours was the ringing crash of it, and Jack’s raucous laughter.

I’d taken a cab to the sports shop; Jack drove me home from shooting.

Jack just started coming over after that. Once or twice a week, he’d just turn up. He’d take me off to some strange adventure, and then he’d drop me back off at home. Sometime, maybe three months into knowing him, he started taking me to the hospital when I went in; we signed a mutual hospital visitation authorization. He did it the same way he did everything around me, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Jack met me at, perhaps, the lowest point of my life, and he didn’t even notice. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have given a damn. He spared my dignity, not by ignoring me, but by forcing me to do everything I thought I couldn’t do. Even made me try a few that, as it turned out, I really couldn’t. Never once did he ask though, he just did.

When I got the call that he was going to the hospital to get some test results back in September, I didn’t ask. I just went.

We were waiting outside the hospital. He was chain smoking, nervous, and I asked him to tell me why we were there. I asked him to tell me a story.

“All right, Billy. I was walking along this path, through the rain – except it wasn’t really rain. It was more like sleet. Just a really thick sheet, made of the tiniest bits of water – and I could taste them. Really taste them. Bitter with the forest, and rotten bark of trees, infected with spores. Hell, maybe they infected me too.” Jack said and he laughed. He shook his head, and stubbed a Camel out with the steel-toe of his right boot. He was smiling, twitching at the corners of his mouth.

“Damn, that’s just a horrible thought.” He said and he shrugged it off. It was always the same nonchalant gesture he’d give when he told a story about waking up late, or one about the Gulf War, only just fading into the rear-view. It was his default, and it said everything he probably meant it to. “To hell with it.” It said.

We passed the time. We watched people meander about the waiting room for five or ten minutes, then we went out and he smoked another cigarette. Rinse and repeat, some twenty times. Three hours passed, like molasses in wintertime, before the doctor, at last, came out. The doctor pulled Jack and I into what was basically a glorified closet, just inside the main hallway. The Newsroom, they called it. There, he told us that Jack had small cell lung cancer.

“It’s metastasized in both lungs, but there’s still treatment –” The doctor got no further, Jack cut him off.

“Fine.” Jack said. At least, I think that’s what the grunt was. He just walked away after it. He left the doctor and me alone. The doctor stared at me. I think he wanted me to say something, to get Jack back – but he didn’t say anything, anything at all. He, instead, slipped his card into my hand and slinked away. I dropped that card on the floor as I left.

“So, it wasn’t spores.” Jack said. The sound he made wasn’t really laughter, just some horse, revving from deep in his chest, and black eyes staring straight ahead, into the hellish rain that washed away the road. A cigarette burned between his left middle and forefinger, his knuckles were white on the wheel.

I don’t think I said anything, though I know I tried. There was Jack, the greatest man alive. There was Jack, a man who, a month before, had climbed Pike’s Peak on a Monday, and then shown up at my doorstep, wild-eyed, at three am Wednesday morning, talking about taking me to Seattle because Denver was just too damned stuffy. Damned if any part of that made sense. There was Jack, and he was going to die.

And he wasn’t going to let anyone stop him.

An hour later Jack’s black Hummer made that familiar tire-on-gravel roll, like the ocean, as it curved into the parking lot at Coors Field. He said it was the highest point he could go, without going back into the mountains, and there was baseball there to boot. Damn fine.

The cabin filled with smoke, and my vision bleary as I watched him, head lolled back over the neck of his seat. He didn’t say anything for a long time, we didn’t. Just listened to the rain coming down from the mountains in torrents, drowning Denver.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about Seattle,” Jack said.

I was quiet for a while.

“Because of the rain?” I said.

He laughed again, that time a proper, Jack laugh. Quiet, deep, and fatherly, it filled me.

“Yeah, because of the rain,” He said, “remember how it came down over all those skyscrapers? We don’t got enough big buildings like that here, I guess.”

“We do, just gotta go downtown. Same thing there I bet, suburbs and all that.” I said.

He nodded, leaned forward, and ashed his cigarette.

“Still, don’t have the view,” he said, “like that shirt you got. It’s different here. Just the mountains matter here. Don’t know why.”

He shrugged. Any other time I would have smiled, but I couldn’t.

“You’re going to die, Jack.” I said. Those damned butterflies churned up in my stomach, forcing my throat to clamp down on itself, and those unbearable words. “If you don’t let them help you, you’re going to die.”

He looked over at me, shrugged, and fucking smiled.

“Race you, Billy, I’ll race you.”

The rain in Denver, every so often, can go on forever.

The next day, I was at home, watching TV in my pajamas, debating whether or not to call Jack. He did have a few other friends. The news could hardly be delivered quickly. So I thought. It was three in the afternoon when there was a knock at my door. Five, hard, raps, that’s Jack.

I remembered the time he dragged me to Seattle just looking at him. His hair was a mess, almost a frizzy sort of fro, and he stank of booze. His eyes were only lightly glazed, cheeks only slightly reddened. But, he shifted his weight, and his speech was slurred, just a little.

“We’re leaving.” Jack said. He didn’t give me a chance to respond; he walked right by me and over to his favourite chair.

“We’re leaving,” he said again, “I cashed in my four-oh-one-kay and we’re leaving. Right now. You and me, Billy.”

Jack lit a cigarette. His fingers trembled, excitement, I thought. I shut the door, and wheeled over to him. The clock’s ticking was audible, as was the central heating system. Jack sank into the chair, and closed his eyes.

“Where are we going?” I said.

“North Carolina.” He said. He smiled, and I could see his yellow teeth. “I want to see the ocean.”

The rest of the conversation made, progressively, less and less sense. After several returns, he said we had nothing left to lose; I mumbled something about my job. He said, in a few weeks’ time, my job wouldn’t matter; I said he couldn’t know that. He stared at me. He stared at me, and then he stood up. Almost seven feet tall, Jack towered over me, but when he rest his hand on my shoulder, and let me rest my cheek upon it – he was the most tender man in the world.

“We’re going.” He said. So, he loaded me up in his Hummer, and we went.

The next day, we were in West Saint Louis, Missouri, at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Jack bought a new hunting knife. I bought a case of ammo for my pistol, the one, anymore, I couldn’t fire without Jack holding my trembling hands. Jack coughed, a mess of blood into his palms.

I stared.

Crimson, black, slightly coagulated, runny-jello: Blood covered his hands and lower jaw. I saw anger spark in his eyes, those bloodshot rims flaring up to almost consume the black irises. He ran to the washroom. I waited at the door for a good half-hour, maybe more. He would have kicked my ass if I’d come with, I think. I knew better than to do things like that. From the night in Denver, at Coors Field, I knew to keep my trap shut. He did the same.

“You ready to go?” He said. I nodded. Why the hell not? Just run her down, he might’ve said.

He helped me back into the Hummer, put my wheelchair in the back, and punched it. Ran her to a hundred-and-ten, and just kept running, all the way to Kentucky. By the time we got to Louisville, most the muscles in my body had clamped down. My body was, more or less, only pain. We stopped at a gas station there in Louisville, and he bought Turkish Silvers, instead of the non-filtered Camels. I got a pack for myself, a bottle of ibuprofen and a fifth of Mad Dog. Jack looked at me; I shrugged.

The first week in North Carolina was strange. Jack and I spent a lot of time in the hotel room. It was too cold to actually go out to the beach, though we could see if from our room. Jack would sit at the window, or go out drinking and come home rank. That night, the sixth we’d been there, he spent at home. I think he was just too weak to go out. We ordered room service, and sat by the window, looking out at the sea.

Jack had gotten thin, far too thin for only a week. So had I, honestly. As of two days before, I couldn’t move my left arm at all. I couldn’t do much of anything with any part of my body really; only my right arm worked right, and I was left-handed. Jack completely ignored the issue, just cut my steak for me, and did my seatbelt when I had trouble, whatever it took, without a word. I watched him light his cigarette, and then mine after I put one between my lips. It was hard not to envy him. He didn’t just have freedom with his own body, but, even ill, he could manipulate mine better than I could too.

That was a big part of the problem really. Jack was dying, but he kept control of his body, for the most part. I was dying too, that was something I couldn’t deny anymore, but I was losing everything along the way. I could look at myself in the reflection of the window and know, it’s better like this, it’s better than a hospital bed. Then I could look at Jack, as his cheeks collapsed into his face, and his cheekbones began to stick out, almost turning him into a skeleton man of his own visage. I could look at Jack, and be disgusted by the grim, selfish defiance there – the refusal to be anything less than his own man, and I couldn’t help but wonder.

We sat in front of the window and watched the wind whip trash off the sand. We sat in front of the window and watched smoke climb to the ceiling. We sat in front of the window and we were together, and somehow, it wasn’t so bad.

“Told you, they just don’t make them like this these days.” Jack said and took another bite of his sandwich. He’d made Phillies for lunch, his way. He tried to smile. “Come on, Billy, eat up.”

I shook my head; I was distracted. We’d been in North Carolina for three weeks. Three measly weeks ago he’d found out he had cancer. His eyes were permanently bloodshot. His pants didn’t fit anymore, despite our appalling diet. Sometimes, I caught him looking at me with a guilty frown on his face, his eyes furrowed and worried. I think it was catching up to him. I think he was starting to lose the fight for his spirits.

“Billy!” He gripped my hand, tight. It hurt.

“What?” I said.

“Just . . .” he sighed, “please eat.”

My trembling hand reached for the sandwich. It was hot; the cheese and grease were slippery. I dropped it. Jack looked down at his plate, put his cigarette in the ashtray and stood up. He came over and cut my sandwich down to bite-sized bits, mostly by turning it into a pile of mush. He put the fork in my hand and watched as I ate.

I could see his ribs against his wife-beater, under a cameo jacket. It worried me. He was so damned thin. His cheekbones so pronounced, cheeks sallow and gaunt, he looked almost skeletal to me. It disgusted me.

“Jack, why don’t you go to the hospital?

“You’re one to talk, Billy.” There was a slight pause before he said my name. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just ate my sandwich. It was the best-damned Philly I ever had.

We sat, toes in the water, ass in the sand. Cold beers and nice smokes. We drank and watched the sun rise over the Atlantic.

“It’s a beautiful thing.” Jack said.

“Better than the mountains?” I said.

“Never,” he said. He laid down, looking up at the sky, so very blue. The tide rolled, and the ocean opened up a moment, as if it were going to swallow us, and then it changed its mind. Maybe, it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had.

“We should get back. You’re shaking,” he said. He was one to talk. I tried to sit up; I couldn’t. Jack had to pick me up and carry me back to my chair, his cheeks puffing out like a trumpeter as he hoisted me, and sweaty and out of breath by the time he got me into my chair. By then I couldn’t even move my neck half the time. I’d begun to wonder what living would be like, without Jack around.

We stayed there, on the beaches of North Carolina for what seemed like forever, another three weeks. Fall slipped away one day, and it was winter – and I think Jack was too tired to fight anymore. I’d hear him throwing up as I lay in bed, shivering in the cold. At least it killed the bugs. I hated bugs worse than the cold. I could always just throw on another blanket. Well, I thought that anyway. Truth was, no matter how much I tried to keep warm, it just didn’t seem to work.

Anymore, I couldn’t stand to look at Jack. There was just too much guilt in those brief glances, before he’d turn it back out the window. I could still see it in his reflection. But he’d look at me, as we ate our drive-thru burgers that had gotten cold before he even got them home, and I swear – there was something horrible in his face.

I wanted my Jack back, the one I’d fallen for. I didn’t love him anymore. I couldn’t stand him. I hated him. I hated how he was always there, brooding in the window, looking out at nothing but an empty sea. I hated how he had to cut three new holes in his belt. I hated how his spine had curved, so much that he was at least four inches shorter. I hated how his eyes always looked like he was crying, or trying to, or had been. I hated how his voice was so soft when he spoke to me, and always so hoarse. I hated how his hands felt when he gave me a sponge bath, almost sharp. I hated how he made me go to the hospital for useless treatments, that only alleviated a little of the pain. I hated how they whispered in the hall, but he never said anything to me. I hated how he made me go, but wouldn’t for himself. But most of all, I hated missing him.

I wanted my Jack back. Strong Jack, Handsome Jack, Jack the Pioneer. I wanted to get back on the road, to keep going. Fuck the bedsores, fuck the pain. I wanted to get the hell out of North Carolina. I wanted the mountains. I wanted rain. I wanted snow. I wanted a peach from Colorado.

I couldn’t remember what my house looked like, or our little part of Denver. I don’t think it occurred to me that someone else lived in that house by then. Everything I’d owned, my world before Jack, was long gone.

Jack sat down beside me, and casually sat me back up straight, so I was looking out the window, instead of vaguely at the ceiling.

“Billy,” he said.

I stared into the black sea.

“You’re going to die.”

The sun was setting behind the city, through the hospital window, a week later. I was lying in the hospital bed. A vice had gripped my breath within me a few hours before, Jack had given me CPR, and called 911.

“Jack, you’re going to die.” I said. My head didn’t hurt, it burned.

“Yeah, Billy, I’m going to die.” I saw him shrug, but he was leaning over the bed, clasping my hands. I kept looking out the window, so I wouldn’t have to look at him. What a beautiful sunset.

“Mr. Burton?” A doctor said. He was, a young fellow or resident probably, with his nose in a clipboard.

“That’s me.” Jack said, and the doctor looked up.

“Could you step out into the hall with me?” The doctor said.

“Sure doc.” Jack said. He turned to me. “I’ll be right back Billy, just, hang tight.”

Jack came back about ten minutes later, crying. Tears flowed down his face, most of them falling off those ridiculously prominent cheekbones.

“Hey, Jack?” I said.

“Yeah.” Jack wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

He was quiet for a while; sitting down by the bed, he started slow, choking out the words.

“I was walking the path, through the rain. Just a really thick sheet of the smallest bits of water – and I could taste them, Billy. Really taste them. Bitter . . .” His voice trailed off.

~~~*~~~

“You’re going to die, Jack,” I said. Those damned butterflies churned up in my stomach, forcing my throat to clamp down on itself, and those unbearable words. “If you don’t let them help you, you’re going to die.”

He looked over at me, shrugged, and fucking smiled.

“Race you, Billy, I’ll race you.”

“I’ll win, Jack. I’ll beat you.” We laughed, and cried, and screamed, and coughed, and choked, all at once, in his smoke-filled Hummer, in the hellish rain, in Denver. We both crossed the finish line, but I won.


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