The crop duster was named for his mother’s ornery great uncle, Hawthorne Eustis Middleton. Young Hawthorne never took to it. When he was twenty-years-old, his hometown of Deep Creek, Florida, was stunned by a summer of hurricanes. Potato fields were waterlogged, the St. Johns River flooded, livestock went missing, and roads were blocked. As Hawthorne accessed damage from his father’s Cessna Ag-Cat, he spied Jimmie Solano’s prize Black Angus stranded on an overturned bass boat.
“My god. You’re a hawk,” Jimmie said.
That name stuck.
Years later, on a sunny afternoon in April, the Hawk nursed a cup of coffee at Johnny’s Diner like a bird of prey with his wings clipped. For weeks he’d suffered from a mystery illness—dagger toothaches and swinging vertigo. Dr. Seymour extracted an infected molar, and prescribed pain killers. He cautioned of abscesses gone septic and sudden blindness, and suggested a month on the ground to heal.
Ordinarily this time of year, Hawk dusted from daybreak to dark. From his perch at the lunch counter, he studied the clear sky. In the Ag-cat, the river would be a sepia mirror, the plane’s reflection skating loops and knots. A fellow named Abernathy from South Georgia was hired to take his place. Earlier, Hawk watched his replacement’s halted, unskilled moves in disgust.
Hawk fidgeted. Maybe later if he was feeling better, he’d drive out to the hangar, sit in the cockpit, and listen to some Credence Clearwater Revival. He checked the clock; his wife was late. He pictured Kiki dawdling at the gas station, ripping the gold cellophane from a pack of Marlboro Lights, flashing those dark blue nails of hers. She’d be bitching about their marriage to the handsome cashier. A needling sensation in Hawk’s right molar flared, and he massaged his jaw as if that would somehow help.
Behind him, potato farmers huddled over fried chicken specials—a thigh and a leg, mashed potatoes and cornbread muffins. The thought of food was nauseating, but it was their talk that made him sicker. They wouldn’t shut up about the new developer in town like he was a god come to save them. Deluca this, Deluca that. It was sacrilegious to sell generations-old farmland. Otherwise, North Florida would end up like South Florida, all highways and cookie-cutter subdivisions.
“Take your pick. Golf course, condos, shopping centers,” Johnny called from the pickup window. It was as if he’d taken to parceling out real estate instead of burgers.
“Don’t matter to me.” Hawk recognized the raspy voice of Beck Tocoi, an old buddy of his father’s. Beck’s fifteen-hundred acres sidled up to the St. Johns River. “Long as they pay me my due.”
Baker Wells was in on the jokes, too. Not one of the men seemed the least bit ashamed of themselves. A pot of coffee was on. Soon, they’d move on to key lime pie. His stomach roiled.
“What you going to do, Johnny? Golfers don’t eat mashed taters and gravy.” Old man Taylor had gone up to the window with his empty plate. His land, slap dab in the center of Deep Creek, would be a prime spot for the welcome center, community pool and clubhouse. Hawk wondered if he was thinking that, too.
Johnny mopped his brow with a greasy towel. He winked at Hawk. “Whatever they want I’ll fix it.”
“You’ll need a liquor license,” Taylor hollered. “Craft beers and fancy labels. Spud Lite. Gold Tader IPA.”
Beck stood, and hitched his pants. He cleared his throat, and paused. “I present you, Cabbage Swamp Ale.”
They hollered, and slapped their knees. Somebody drummed a tabletop.
Hawk searched his pockets for an Ibuprofen, chased it with lukewarm coffee. He pushed his chair in; it screeched against the tile. “I can’t listen to another minute of this.” He didn’t realize he’d spoken out loud, proof medicine can talk. All eyes were on him.
“Hawk, my man. Don’t you want in?” Johnny said. “Gonna make a damn killing.”
“You know I don’t own property. I’m a crop duster.”
A voice from the back of the diner said, “More like a sour puss to me.”
Hawk looked to see who it was. A coy-looking man he didn’t recognize grinned.
“You can fly the rich folk in from wherever it is they’re coming,” Johnny said.
“Colorado,” Taylor said, leaning back, crossing his legs. “New York City.”
Hawk made a face. That would be like driving a sky bus. “So help me god— “
“You’re looking green around the gills,” Taylor said. “Why don’t you sit down?”
Johnny handed Hawk a menu. “You been here going on an hour, and all you had is coffee. Let me fix you something to eat.”
Taylor leaned over to Johnny. “He’s waiting on Kiki.”
Somebody snickered, and Hawk knew what they were thinking, that she was running around on him again. His face went red. “She’s late is all.”
“Ask her boss where she is,” Beck said. “Here he comes.”
Kiki had ditched waiting tables at Johnny’s for selling real estate for Deluca. Hawk had never met the man. He’d pictured a bald head and wire-rimmed glasses, and he was right, but there was also a goatee and a bowtie, and a hell of a lot of confidence. Deluca strode in like a movie star. Johnny hurried to greet him, and the men stood up like they were receiving Jesus Christ. Taylor said, “This here is Kiki’s husband.”
Johnny leaned in, “He’s not so fond of your grand scheme.”
“Maybe I can change his mind.” Deluca extended his arm. “Milo Deluca.”
Hawk buried his palms in his jean pockets.
Deluca shrugged. “Pleased to meet you, too.”
That got the crowd laughing.
“You need to know,” Hawk raised his voice to drown out the commotion. Grown men acting like silly boys. “You need to know some of us like our town just like it is.”
Deluca gazed out the plate-glass window at an avalanche of concrete and overturned grocery carts. Over his shoulder, he said, presumably to Hawk. “You see that there?”
“I see it. Home to crack dealers. Those buildings hadn’t seen renters in twenty-five years.”
“That’s my point,” Deluca said. “When we get finished with them, there’ll be a waiting list a mile long. Condos, duplexes, lofts.”
Hawk picked up his cap off the counter, and headed for the door. He didn’t know what a loft was, nor what Deep Creek needed with one. “I can’t listen to this.”
“At least your wife’s on our team.”
Hawk stopped dead still. “What did you say?”
“Your wife. She’s on the forefront of turning this town around.”
Hawk parted the group, and stepped right up to Deluca. He studied the man’s bowtie, and fancy dress pants. He looked ridiculous. How on earth did these men in Wrangler jeans and white T-shirts keep a straight face? Hawk wanted to yank his stupid-looking goatee. “Don’t bring Kiki into this.”
“But, my friend,” he said, smiling. “She’s already in.”
The way he said friend made Hawk’s blood boil. “You’re not my friend. You’re going to ruin this town.”
“You’ll be better off. I’m giving this place life.”
Life my ass, Hawk thought. He wanted Deluca out of his life, and out of his town. Deluca started to speak again, and Hawk didn’t want to hear another word he had to say, so he stepped forward, and shoved. Deluca stumbled, and Taylor caught him.
“What, the hell?” Deluca said.
A pall fell over the room. Hawk’s face stung. Johnny shook his head, and left for the kitchen, saloon doors swinging. Hawk scanned the diner for support, but Baker and Beck stared into their coffee. Hawk made for the door, aware of hot eyes on his back. Forks clinked against melamine.
Outside, as he leaned on his truck, he thought what have I done? Baker trotted up the sidewalk calling for him. The sun was hot. He’d forgotten his shades. Hawk squinted.
“Son,” Baker said. “We need to talk.”
Hawk nodded toward the diner. “About that.” He assumed Baker wanted an explanation of the scene he’d just made. “I’m not myself. I’ve come down with something.”
“I heard,” Baker said. There was an uncomfortable pause. “Listen—“
“I’ll be ready to fly next week. I swear. Be all back to normal.”
Baker put his hand on Hawk’s shoulder. “Even when you get better, we won’t need you this season. We’ll put down sod in May. Some folks in Jacksonville paid us outright on the harvest.”
“Sod?” Hawk said. “That’s not farming. Sod’s growing in my Aunt Alma’s backyard. What about your chipping contracts?”
Baker looked away. “We never even got one from Frito-Lay.”
Hawk rested his hand over his heart like it was about to break.
“Last year contracts came in so low,” he said. He turned from Hawk, and set his eyes on something up the street. “We could make more selling twenty-pound bags of sebagoes at the flea market. We’ve not made a dime more than we did ten years ago. It’s a dwindling life.”
Hawk rubbed his forehead. The news was hard to process. “It’s just wrong.”
“Listen,” he said. He got that faraway look again. “Before you hear it from somebody else, we’re in negotiations with Mr. Deluca.”
All Hawk could think about was Baker’s grandson. He remembered that little boy at nine-years-old driving a truckload of potatoes to the packing house. He had to stand to shift gears.
“What will Little Baker do?”
“That boy never was a farmer. You and I both know all BJ likes to do is drive tractors.”
Hawk watched Baker go back inside the diner. More than likely the men were having a laugh at his expense. He took deep measured breaths to try to forget what he’d done, and what Baker had said. But, sod? Baker was putting down sod? Farmland was meant for sustenance, for farm to table, for handing down to Baker Junior. All Hawk owned was half an acre, and a clapboard house but when he was in his Ag-cat, Hawk soared like a territorial red tail. It was as if he had been the one to cultivate and protect all this land, not the farmers. Hell, Hawk knew Deep Creek better that its landowners. Baker’s property was a sprawling beauty with islands of magnolias and live oaks, cabbage with a blue-purple hue. Before potatoes broke the surface, the lean rows were perfectly parallel, a study in geometry. The land was tethered generations deep, washed by torrential summer floods, warmed by unforgiving Florida heat. The sight of it all gave him hope. That’s what he should have told Deluca. It made him want to set down his own roots, and raise a family. He couldn’t imagine life without the huge expanse of space, and endless patches of green. Hawk inhaled and steadied himself, but the images came despite the effort—beige subdivisions burgeoning from the ground like briers, circular cement driveways lined with sycamore seedlings. Hawk teetered, lost his balance and puked in the azalea bushes.
Hawk slept on the sofa dreaming he was clinging to a plywood raft in the Atlantic Ocean. Steel-toed boots pulled him below the surface. He waved at Kiki where she posed on the beach painting her nails. The plywood sank. Overhead, silver-backed minnows soared like scale-cloaked birds. Hawk grabbed at clouds that broke into slimy bits. He woke with a start to the sharp odor of nail polish, and the memory of the Wells family farm. Hawk felt like he’d been run over by an eighteen-wheeler.
Kiki watched him with a perturbed expression on her face. It gave him a fright to see her painting her nails just like in the dream. It was another coat of that god-awful blue.
“You had to pick a fight with my boss? Have you lost your mind?”
Hawk closed his eyes at the memory. “I feel sick.”
“A toothache’s no reason to go bullying people. My god, Deluca’s my boss. If he wasn’t such a good sport, he’d of fired me.”
“You stood me up. It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t stood me up.”
She started in on her toes, propping her leg on a chair. “I had to study. My real estate test is coming up. I clean forgot about lunch.”
There wasn’t a hint of apology in her voice. Hawk braced for another round of nausea. “Can you get me some crackers. A little ginger ale?”
He closed his eyes. The refrigerator door opened. The pantry door slammed.
“Here,” she said, handing him a glass and a stack of Saltines.
Hawk eased up against a pillow. “Did you know about Baker Wells?”
She was packing a cooler with a six-pack of Pepsi, a quart of Plant City strawberries, and an angel food cake.
“That’s old news.”
“The doctor says I can’t fly for a week. Something about a bad infection.”
She inspected a box of microwave popcorn. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Must be something to it.” Hawk felt in his pocket and held up the pill bottle.
“They’ll prescribe anything to anybody these days.”
“Dr. Seymour doesn’t know what’s wrong. I don’t know what I’m going to do. You don’t know how it feels to be stuck down here.”
Hawk leaned back, and closed his eyes. The crackers were a mistake. “I wish you wouldn’t take the test. I thought you loved Deep Creek,” he said, swallowing a pain pill. The ginger ale tasted of sheet metal.
“I do love it. I want to make something of it.”
“Deluca walks into town, starts teasing desperate farmers with all this money, and they’re hungry.”
“It’s not teasing. It’s real.”
“They’ve all been living hand to mouth for years.”
“And you want them to keep on living like that?” Kiki asked.
“It’s tradition. It’s America. And, if they don’t have land to dust, I can’t dust. And if I can’t dust, then what is it I’m supposed to do for a living?”
“As usual, it’s all about you.” Kiki started on her toenails. “Farmers are selling off land because it’s the end of agriculture in America as we know it. We’re going to be eating tomatoes and squash grown in laboratories.”
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Her enunciation was different. “Honest to god, I don’t think I could pick you out in a crowd.”
Kiki poured coffee into a thermos. “I got to pull an all-nighter. There’s 40 flashcards on probate law I need to know by Wednesday.”
He held up a red coffee tin. “It’s in Spanish.”
She snatched it. “It’s Cuban espresso. That’s why.”
Hawk glanced at the rug he’d bought at the outlet mall. It matched the blue in the sofa perfectly, just as he’d hoped, but the edges were fraying. He turned to the creamy polish drying on Kiki’s nails. This was not the blue of the sky or the Atlantic Ocean. Hawk wondered what name Maybelline gave it. “What in the world kind of blue is that?”
Kiki fanned her fingers. “I wish you could be more progressive.”
“Progressive?” he couldn’t believe Kiki’s vocabulary. As newlyweds, Kiki crawled under the Cessna with him, and helped change tires. She’d climbed up on the wing and held torque wrenches and wire strippers. On his thirtieth birthday, she’d stood in his uncle Sam Middleton’s field one hot afternoon and flagged him down with a six-pack of icy Michelob and a double order of fried shrimp and Datil pepper squash from O’steen’s. “I miss the old Kiki.”
“Well, the new Kiki’s got to study. This test is going to whoop her ass.”
Hawk inspected her overnight bag: Real Estate for Dummies, tooth brush, makeup bag. “Where are you going?”
“I told you. To study. My friend Deb is taking the test, too. We’re holing up at the office.”
He opened the cabinet. “Where’s my Maxwell House?”
“I threw that out. It’s pedestrian.”
“I can’t understand a word coming out a your mouth these days.” Hawk studied the bag of food. It was enough to last a week. “Where are you really going?”
She parted her hair, pulled the brush through tangles. “Stop interrogating me. All that’s over.”
“That flame burned itself out a long time ago. I told you all that.”
The phone rang, and on her way to the front door, Kiki answered it.
He wished she hadn’t brought up the past. Like he didn’t have enough to worry about. Her fling with the Hess driver had been brief, but almost ended their marriage. He’d forgiven her, but there was always a nagging sensation she wasn’t telling the truth. Hawk turned over the bottle of nail polish to see the name. Storm Surge. Well, if that wasn’t appropriate.
“Sure, he’s here. Hold on.” Kiki handed Hawk the receiver.
“Wait. Don’t go yet,” he said.
“Hello?” the receptionist said. “Mr. Hawthorne?”
“Dr. Seymour wants you to come in. He’s found something.”
Kiki admired her storm-surged nails, while Hawk listened to the receptionist go on about his x-rays. He tried to imagine a mother’s silhouette, shifting babies from hip to hip, but it wouldn’t come. She pointed at her watch, and gathered her bags.
Kiki was closing the Volkswagen door when Hawk got out to the driveway in his sock feet. “My teeth. The dentist has something to tell me. I think it’s bad news.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. There’s nothing wrong with your teeth. Stop being a hypochondriac.”
He leaned in through the car window. “I’ve got headaches to beat the band. I can’t hold down food. What if I can’t fly again?” Hawk clutched her arm. “Ever?”
Kiki jabbed the key in the starter. “You’re exaggerating.”
“Don’t go,” he said. “Please?”
“For god’s sake,” Kiki said. She looked at him, and immediately her face changed.
“Damn, honey. You look awful.” She touched his jaw. “You’re blue.” She made a face. “Like all the life’s gone out of you. Go on to the dentist. Everything will straighten itself out.”
Hawk detected a hint of kindness in her voice, or maybe it was pity. Either one was a long time in coming. “I love you, Kiki,” he said, and jumped back as she gunned the engine.
The ceiling spun at Dr. Seymour’s office.
“Sometimes when toxins soak into the body,” the dentist was saying. “They travel through the roots of your teeth.”
Hawk closed his eyes, and saw bulldozers uprooting, and enormous signs with orange letters: Owner Financing. Will Divide. He heard buzzing chain saws, and imagined watching all this distruction at eye level.
“And, then they think they’ve found an exit,” Dr. Seymour said. “But actually, they’re trapped and stuck to rot out their life inside the tooth. Or, worse.”
Hawk touched his chin. “Worse? How could it get any worse?”
The dentist set his hand on Hawk’s shoulder. “Tell me this. Your father was a crop-duster, too?”
“All his life. He was a Green Beret. I started as his loader back in ’78. What’s this got to do with anything?”
Dr. Seymour rolled away toward his desk, legs in the air like a joy ride. “Was he ever ill?”
Hawk’s father, Ben, died in his fifties. “They said it was natural causes.”
Dr. Seymour flipped through papers, his back to Hawk. “Do you use gloves and masks when you load the plane?”
The dentist rolled around to face him, his lips pinched. “Hawthorne, I’m worried. There’s a specialist in Jacksonville.”
The room twirled. “Am I going to die?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. There’s treatment—”
Hawk held on to the chair, and shut his eyes again. “Do you know what it’s like to be up there in the sky?”
“I’ve been on my share of airplanes—“
“To be up there. Really up there. The plane’s talking to you, the clouds are talking to you.”
“There’s something called chelation therapy,” the dentist said. “It’s for extreme chemical buildup—“
“My mama would park the car at the roadside, and we’d watch Daddy dust. He’d be going 130 miles a hour, inches above the potatoes, and then zoom up over the power lines, beautiful as ballet. I belong up there, doc. I really do.”
Dr. Seymour handed a note to the nurse. She left the room, and the dentist folded his hands under his chin. “Have you considered going on disability?”
Hawk jumped out of the chair. The tool tray toppled as he wrestled the paper bib from his neck. “I’m fine. It’s a toothache. Kiki said so. It’s a damn toothache.”
“Wait,” the dentist said. “You can’t leave.”
The nurse ran after Hawk. On the street, she called to him, her voice high-pitched and desperate.
The hangar was nothing more than an aluminum shed in the field behind Leroy Seaton’s house. Hawk yanked the doors open; it was as if he’d been gone a year. The barrels, with their skull and crossbones labels, lined the back wall. He wondered if there was truth to Dr. Seymour’s theory. He slid his palm across the shiny propeller, and the plane’s red body, and climbed into the cockpit. Disability? That would be the death of me, Hawk thought, not my teeth. Hawk lingered, taking in the smell of the soil. He’d flown with Jack and Coke hangovers alongside blue forks of lightning, and once, before a tropical depression drowned acres of potatoes, he’d ascended Deep Creek in a muffled pre-storm calm. When he’d landed, that little corner of Florida seemed less complicated, as if he’d been privy to a secret. If he could handle the mechanics of a violent sky, he was equipped for turmoil handed to him on land, along with a dozen toothaches. He started the engine, and a deep thrum pulsed through the sole of his boots. Hawk would not be grounded.
The plane bucked along the makeshift runway. On takeoff, Hawk was comforted at the sight of drooping clapboard houses and doublewides, pickup trucks zigzag on lawns. At the St. Johns River, he throttled down, flew low over splintered docks, the familiar bend thick with eel weed and alligator lilies where years ago from his dad’s jon boat, they’d fished for channel cats and flatheads. At a stand of weeping cedars, he banked right, backtracked inland, grazing the muddy snake of the river until ripples peeled the tannic surface. He dipped over Cabbage Swamp Road, and followed a gaggle of gravel lanes. Gaining altitude, he looped toward Floyd Packers, and then, Baker’s land, already plowed under, and ready for sod.
Somewhere over Beck’s property, a crewelwork of new potatoes, Hawk hit a stubborn headwind. His stomach heaved with the turbulence, and Hawk tasted bile. The plane teetered, and he overcompensated.
The tail sagged, the plane dropped and plunged, landed sideways, right wing hooking soil, propeller churning potato plants like a combine. His head knocked the windshield; he swallowed blood. Pain lit deep. Unable to differentiate new aches from old, he leaned forward, and started the engine. It groaned. Wisps of smoke drew from the hood. He eased open the door.
The engine hissed, and Hawk smelled smoke. He climbed down from the plane, and crawled toward uprooted potato plants, tiny white flowers burgeoning from dark green leaves. They must be saved. With his good hand, he shoveled a shallow trench, and gathered the back-flung plants. He tucked them into the hole so their tendrils would root, fusing just below the surface, and further to the karst caves of the aquifer, outliving them all.
Pickup trucks gathered at the road. Farmers in coveralls circled, clenching John Deere caps. Their faces blurred; their familiar voices were amused:
“He’s grasping at straws if he thinks those plants will take.”
“Never did think he was right in the head.”
“We should a seen this coming.”
The Ag-cat’s engine flamed. Men hollered. Paramedics tromped through pocked soil. Fire extinguishers frothed milky clouds. Gloved hands were on Hawk’s shoulders and legs. Suspended on a stretcher, hovering over shifting land, the blue sky was above him. Hawk opened his arms wide as wings.
Kim Bradley's stories have been published in Southern Humanities Review, Bayou, Southern Indiana Review, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Real South Magazine, and The Louisville Review. Her new story collection, Spillway, will be out this spring with Stephen F Austin University Press.