Tony flew by sound and touch. He tried to understand life with the two senses he used to cropdust. The engine noise told him how far to push the stick and when to inch back the throttle. A sound of a woman’s sigh told him what she wanted in bed. The pressure of the controls against his worn leather gloves told him how to fly. He could hold a woman’s hand, but that didn’t tell him anything. Love, if it existed, should be like flying fast and low.
He dropped the nose of the single-seat Weatherly and dove toward the ground. His body floated away from the seat, but the shoulder harness restrained him like he imagined a mother’s hug would. He brought the plane level, jumped a fence, backed off the power, dropped her tailwheel, and opened the hopper. Swirls of yellow sulfur dust trailed him the length of the field. Flying fence-high at 100 mph, the wheels skimmed over shuddering blades of rice. Life made sense when he was alone in the cockpit.
The engine growled when he climbed up the tree line at the far end of the field. His ascent flattened him against the seat as if a fat lady had dropped into his lap. He banked right, and she disappeared during his lazy wingover. He came around and dove in again, over and over.
The hopper emptied beneath Tony, and the unburdened aircraft answered his touch with a renewed quickness. On the final pass, he made the plane sashay around a phone pole, slither under a wire, and climb the side of a red barn. At last, he pointed the plane toward home with a Rolling Stones’ tune stuck in his head. “I can’t get no. . .”
Flying was freedom. It was the same freedom he felt banging a married woman— one who just wanted sex and not another husband. Like Velma Lee. Tony would buzz the boss’s place and hope he didn’t see a pickup out front.
A transistor radio crackled on the dusty window sill of the single-wide trailer. Velma Lee Purdy opened her mouth wide and applied too much red lipstick. She sucked in her cheeks and stared at her image in the steamy bathroom mirror, regretting the nose job she never had. A slightly used babe maybe, but she still considered herself a babe.
“This is KNFB in Beaumont, Texas, playing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ by Hank Williams. The weatherman says hot and dry again today with—”
Velma Lee heard the front door open. Just her fingertips touched the knob and turned down the volume. Red nail polish was still drying above her wedding ring. Her bent-tailed, tabby cat jumped down from the toilet tank and dashed out the bathroom door.
“Ton-ee?” she called with a drawl. “Tony, is that you, darlin’?”
The response— a muffled “yeah”— made her adjust her nightie to reveal more cleavage. She plucked three curlers from the top of her head, fluffed her hair with a brush, and moved her face closer to the mirror for one last look.
“Hey, R. J. called,” she said. She threw the brush in the sink, and then headed up the hall. “He’ll be home late. We have all afternoon—” She stopped short in the living room. “Why, R. J., what are you doing here?”
“I live here, Velma Lee,” the big man in the plaid shirt said. He kicked the cat aside and stepped toward her. “Why did you call me Tony? Has he been sniffing around here?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, picking up the reluctant cat to hide her plunging neckline. “I just asked him to feed our kitty, that’s all.”
A growling engine passed low overhead, and she followed R. J.’s gaze up to the ceiling.
“The hell you did,” R. J. said. He snatched the cat from her arms by the tail and flung him out the open door.
“You’re all wrong about me and Tony. . .”
“Jesus Christ, Velma Lee, he’s my hired pilot,” R. J. said, shoving her aside. He opened the gun cabinet and grabbed a shotgun and a box of shells. “He’s such a good one too. It’s a shame I have to blow his ass away.”
R. J. sailed off the porch and threw the gun on the front seat of his pickup. His tires spun in the gravel, then caught, and he backed over a sign that said, “R. J.’s Cropdusting. Two planes to serve you better.” Velma watched him tear off. A moving cloud of dust followed him down the dirt road to his airstrip.
“Oh, don’t hurt him, R. J.,” Velma whispered from the trailer door.
Tony came back on the power and slowed the plane. His gloved hand nudged the stick left, and his left boot applied pressure to the rudder. The plane banked into the final approach. His head tilted to follow the slant of the horizon. The plane leveled out, and he straightened his head. The airstrip, with a hangar at the far end, was now centered in his windscreen. The plane’s shadow passed over R. J.’s pickup racing up the dirt road to the strip. The runway grew larger, and Tony picked out his touch-down spot. He adjusted the power to allow the spot to increase in size at a steady rate.
This landing would be a piece of cake. Only 10:00 a.m. and he had polished off the last load on a 600-acre rice job. That was almost $250. New car? Round waterbed? At least some expensive vodka. Yes, 1972 was his year to get rich. He brought the blue and white Weatherly in for a picture-perfect landing.
“I can’t get no, sat-is-fac-tion,” Tony sang and flared out the plane. “I can’t get no, girlie action. But I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.”
The wheels of the low-winged plane kissed the sweet spot he had picked out. Greasing it on, they called it. Tony tapped the brakes. The tailwheel touched down, and the horizon disappeared behind the engine.
“I can’t get no-oh-no—”
The right rudder pedal wilted beneath his foot. No brake.
Tony had enough speed to steer with the tailwheel until she slowed to a crawl. His boot jabbed at the dead brake. No control. He was just along for the ride. The end of the runway was approaching.
“Not the fucking hangar,” Tony said.
The plane, now going five miles per hour, was only a breath away from the building. Tony chewed on his dark, thick moustache and rolled on helplessly. The landing gear hit a small rut. The plane veered left in slow motion, and his wingtip snagged the corner of the hangar.
R. J.’s other plane sat parked dead ahead. The spinning prop chewed into the wing of the other plane with the noise and fury of a giant can opener. Tony listened and winced. Seconds later, stopped dead, stillness surrounded him. He scowled at the pool of brake fluid on the cockpit floor.
Tony popped the canopy, pulled his long body out of the plane, and stood on the wing. He smelled gas. Please, no fire. Was there fire? It was always his first thought after a sudden stop. There was no open flame, no smoke. The fumes rose from the gas tank in the ripped wing of the other plane. He exhaled, snagged the helmet from his mop of black curls, and shielded his liquid blue eyes from the sun. One hand rested on his narrow hips. R. J. wouldn’t be happy. Tony stared in disgust at the curled propeller blades tangled in the half-eaten wing.
“These two are history.”
He threw his scuffed white helmet halfway to his ragtop ’67 Mercury Monterrey. He stood on the wing and looked back at the tangled mess. This would probably come out of his paycheck. Hell, it was an accident.
The sound of rubber burning against asphalt made him turn around. Brakes squealed, and the quick stop caused a cloud of dust to envelop his boss’s pickup. R. J. threw open the driver’s door.
Maybe R. J. wouldn’t call the NTSB. He didn’t want to deal with the National Transportation and Safety Board again if he could avoid it. They could separate the two planes, and Tony would offer to work on the mangled wing for free, just to keep it all off his record. He raised his hand over his head, signaling he was okay. The next thing he knew, R. J. had a shotgun propped on the truck’s open window. Both barrels were aimed at him.
Shot gun pellets peppered the fuselage. Holy shit! Tony jumped from the wing and ran behind the hangar for cover. He kept his back pasted to the hot, corrugated tin building. Two seconds of silence prompted him to peek around the corner. He saw R. J. break open the weapon and empty a box of shells on the front seat of his pick-up. Damn, he was reloading.
“It was an accident, R. J.,” Tony yelled, venturing from behind the building, but not far. “Fluid leaked from the cylinder. I didn’t have any right brake.”
R. J. took aim again. Tony took a step back, spun around, and dived behind the hangar.
“Bang my wife.” KA-BOOM! “Wreck both my planes.” KA-BOOM! “I’ll kill you, Tony Damascus.” KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM!
Tony dashed behind the two planes, the blasts following him. He snagged his helmet from the ground and dove head first into the front seat of his car. The gear shift stabbed him in the ribs. Damn. A shot hit his windshield. Shit. Shit. Shit. He yanked off one glove and fought to remove his keys from his pants pocket. Another shot. He fumbled with his keys. His shaking hand made it impossible to make the key penetrate the ignition switch.
“Come on, come on,” he said to the key.
The key cooperated and he turned the switch, pushing the accelerator pedal with his hand. He drove away, lying low. Roadside bushes scraped the car doors. He crossed the railroad tracks and sat up. Even then, R. J. blasted another round in his direction.
Tony turned left onto FM 1193, the highway headed west. He didn’t look back. No need. The trunk of his faded yellow car held most of his tattered possessions. Velma Lee would know he wasn’t coming tonight.
Texas, flat Texas passed. The shot gun was a first. Worse than the knife in Mississippi. Worse than the pitch fork in Arkansas. Not as bad as the guy in Oklahoma, whose only comment was, “You’re welcome to her.”
Ten years ago, Tony had left California, escaping from Jealous Husband Number One, his foster father. Word was the old man was dead now. Seemed as good a time as any to go back. His foster mother might still be alive. Well, fuck her—hell, he had— if she couldn’t take a joke. Um, no, she couldn’t.
Four burgers, ten beers, and a whole goddamn day later, he took a whiz on the sign that said: “You are now leaving Texas.” He popped another brew to salute the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign. He did the same at the “Welcome to Arizona” sign before pulling into a dusty roadside flophouse for the night. Tony stood in the narrow door of room 17 and stared across the empty parking lot, feeling too hot to sleep, too tired to drive. Would life always be like this?
He noticed a car pulling into a driveway across the road. A family emerged and headed into the house, Mom and Dad first. The kids bounced in behind them, looking happy to be home. Some people were lucky enough to go home. Tony would have, if he had one.
He had heard his real dad say once that Tony had a brother somewhere, but he was pretty sure his father had been lying. The old man always had tried to sound like a real stud. Maybe that’s why Tony was such a fuck-up. Maybe things like that ran in families.
At least he had managed not to flirt with the proprietor’s wife when he registered. He grabbed the molding above the door jamb and stretched. Too many hours in the car. He rubbed his eyes and stretched again. Twenty-four hours without touching another man’s wife. Not much of a record. He wasn’t good enough for a woman to want only him. So he had been told. So he believed. He might as well go to sleep.
Tony woke in the middle of the night, dreaming about Velma Lee. They had been lying in bed, after sex. She was playing with his little finger, like she always used to do. He liked that about Velma. She didn’t want to snuggle or get too close. She would just pick up his hand and play with his little finger, bending the top joint back and forth. He had always tried to stiffen his finger, so she couldn’t move it. But no matter how hard he tried, she always could. An odd habit to dream about. Not something like the sweet curve of her backside. That was worth dreaming about.
He had probably stayed with Velma too long, but things had been going that way for him. Two or three weeks used to be enough with any woman. A month tops. Lately though, things had been different. For some reason, he wasn’t as interested in the chase as he used to be, and the thrill of getting caught was becoming more of a drag. Maybe it was age, although 28 wasn’t that old. At least he wasn’t 30. Tony kicked off the covers and rolled over, but it took a while to go back to sleep.
Fourteen hours later, he stopped and bought three gallons of water and a 12-pack of Coors before crossing the California state line. He nursed the convertible’s tired engine across the desert with the water, but saved the beer for himself. He’d get a real meal when he landed a job.
Tony checked all the cropdusting hotspots in the state’s wide Central Valley—Needles, Buttonwillow, Tranquility, Firebaugh, Dos Palos. Each one told the same story. “Got all the pilots I need,” the boss would say. It was probably true, since California’s climate meant year-round work. Somewhere after Crow’s Landing, he headed west, then south, cruising the coastal highway below San Francisco through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz to Moss Landing. His rotten luck was holding.