"Grounded" by Kim Bradley

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.”