THE BEST DAMN FLAGGER IN AUDRAIN COUNTY

Fall 2009: Issue 86

J. W. Donaldson

“Look’s like Zach’s working late,” Jane said, pointing in the direction of Bill Keating’s soy fields with one hand, the other hand on the wheel. “Maybe he’s got more work than he can handle by himself.” It was a baited comment, but I looked anyway, watched my brother’s Air Tractor running back-and-forths in the sky over the fields. I hadn’t worked in weeks.

“I heard something about Zach running around with Laura Keating,” I said. “He’s probably trying to get in good with her dad.”

“It’s not like your brother to work late, even for a woman. Makes me wonder why he doesn’t need your help.” The words slid from the side of Jane’s mouth as she let the wheel play back and forth in her palm. “If he can afford a new GPS and has enough business to work ’til sundown, seems he could use an extra hand.” I held our three-month-old son on my lap, lifted him as Jane plowed through a pothole. He squealed with ignorant delight as my hands tossed him in the air and my head banged against the back window of the pickup. Jane choked down a laugh. When I wasn’t working, she took extra pleasure in raking me over the coals. I reached over with my free hand and turned on the fizz of AM radio, searching for snippets of the Cardinals game as we bounced our way home.

When Jane and I married a few years back, her father set us up in this townhouse in downtown Mount Poplar, or what passes for downtown in a place like Mount Poplar. He also dressed me in a sales position at his dealership—“Bennett Chevrolet, family owned since 1982.” Despite its name, Mount Poplar is like the rest of southeast Missouri: flat. Living in town meant we didn’t farm for a living and were therefore of a certain class. But I couldn’t stand downtown. Whenever Jane went on one of her tirades, I longed for an endless expanse of green to swallow her words. Fortunately, the IRS audited Jane’s father two years into our marriage. The townhouse and my job were the first extravagances to go.

Since then we’ve been living in this run-down house on my dad’s farm. We conceived our son on the same patch of land where I was born and not much Jane says gets to me anymore. She stopped talking to her father when the money ran out, but I drive by the dealership every once in a while to check in. Last time I caught him fiddling with the engine of a client’s trade-in, his tie tucked into his dress shirt, his blazer hung on the raised hood. Jane’s dad started as a mechanic way back and it pained me to see him back where he began. My father’s farm loses about twenty grand a year but government handouts put him in the black. He grows corn and soy. When tobacco was king in the eighties, he stupidly tried to plant it. Within a few years the soil was sterile and the tobacco never flourished.

After Jane and me moved into the farmhouse, she spent most her days in bed watching soap operas and crying about our fall from grace. Dad gave us the house for free but he turned down my offer to help on the farm. “I got Mexicans that work for almost nothing,” he said. “Why would I hire you?”

I spent my ample free time fixing up the house, occasionally taking drywall jobs in town or helping Zach with his business, Zach’s Aerial Application. He fixed up an old ag plane he bought as junk and came up with a motto: “We’ve got your crops covered, from Z to A.” I think it was during the first few months after I returned to the farm, the months Jane had lost the energy to give me a hard time, that I was happiest. We were just making ends meet and life seemed manageable.

After the house began to take a more respectable shape—a secure banister, new carpet, a dry basement—Jane came out of her depression and life changed again. Rather than letting me pick and choose projects as I saw fit, half-completing them until something better came along, Jane made a list of my “chores” and clipped it to the refrigerator. She tied a bandanna around her head and tromped around the house with two water buckets—one dirty, one clean—and talked each night about the amount of work she’d done making our home “acceptable.” She took whatever money I made and shopped for furniture at flea markets, replacing the family relics with things more suited to her taste. Sometimes she dragged the heirloom furniture, pieces that had been my mother’s mother’s, into the dank basement, where it was forgotten.

As Jane’s presence in the house grew, mine shrunk. It was around this time that Jane became pregnant. During the first trimester, before the morning sickness and added weight, our relationship improved. We snuggled and talked about baby names and made plans, but as her stomach grew, Jane became distant and cold. I think she was in a pain I never really understood.

 

About an hour after we survived Jane’s drive home, the phone rang and I watched Jane set our son in the center of the kitchen table where we take our meals. His legs kicked as if he were some sort of shelled ocean creature stuck on its back and trying to grab the sand.

Jane twirled the phone’s cord in her free hand. “Saw you flying pretty late today,” she said into the receiver and raised herself on the balls of her feet, stretching. “He’s on the couch, but I think he’s free tomorrow.” She made no effort to get my attention. “I already put him to bed,” she lied. I looked at our son, thrashing less wildly now, accustomed to a hard surface and the inability to right himself. I wished he would start screaming and expose Jane’s lie. “Let me get your brother,” she said and motioned me toward the phone. As I grabbed it, she kissed me pertly on the cheek. I never understand her in moments like these. She took our son into the TV room and closed the door.

Zach asked me to work the next day, said he had a bookkeeping backlog because he’d been too busy flying and sleeping with Laura Keating. I indulged him by asking about the relationship. He told me about the all-the-time sex and her father’s money.

“Bill’s getting something out of you too, I suppose,” I said.

“Application at cost. Or close to.”

“So you get the girl and he gets the fertilizer.”

“That’s right, man. I barter like a Chinese trader.” I heard a girlish laugh in the background. “So I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” I said and hung up.

Jane poked her head through the door and stared, her own endearing way of asking if I was working the next day.

“You’ll need to watch him tomorrow,” I said and she nodded. She popped open a Mich Ultra and took a long drink.

“Zach asked if we are going to the barbecue tomorrow,” she said. “His band’s playing.”

“I guess we should.” Jane sucked her teeth. I wondered where she had placed our son. She treated him like a set of keys, like some object she didn’t mind losing, figuring it would turn up again eventually. I opened the refrigerator and pretended to search for leftovers until I heard her shut the kitchen door.

 

When he first bought and repaired the ag plane, Zach talked about the two of us starting a business together. I didn’t have any money to invest but took flight classes even though I had no talent for it. I was nervous on the short takeoffs, felt sick to my stomach making the low-flying turns of a crop duster, and had trouble maintaining a steady line when buzzing fields. The kicker was the licensing test. For part of the test, a pilot takes you up in a puddle jumper while you’re hooded. He flies a good distance from the landing strip, constantly changing course, and places the plane at an awkward heading. About fifteen minutes in, the pilot sets the plane on cruise, switches seats, and asks you to right the plane using only the instruments. Vertigo always set in as I tried to sense the plane’s course. The difficulty isn’t reading the instruments; it’s more about trusting them. You can right the wings, nose, and rudder, get to the proper altitude and heading, and still swear the plane is listing, flying sideways through the air. I failed the test twice before passing. I tended to make slight adjustments based on my senses and when the hood was removed, I would realize we were flying crooked—the nose raised, the wings angled.

That final time I took the test, I cried in the cockpit as the instruments told me one thing and my brain another. The instrument panel blurred from the tears that I tried to wipe away without the test pilot noticing, but I stuck to the instruments and passed. Jane wanted to celebrate when I came home with a license, but I went straight to bed and told her we would go out another night. She tried to wake me with a midnight blow job but I pushed her away. The next night, after I took her for a steak dinner, she slept stiff as a board.

“Anyone can learn to fly,” Zach told me afterwards. “But the best pilots, they have natural ability.”

“So I won’t be flying your prop?” I asked.

“Only one plane anyway,” Zach replied. “I’ll always need somebody flagging in the field, though.” From then on I was dropped as a business partner and became a hired hand. I took Zach up on his offer and helped him as a flagger and bookkeeper.

I never told Jane about my failures as a pilot, and I’ve never taken her up in a plane like I promised, never even flown since I got the license. Back then Jane still believed I could provide her a good life and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

 

Zach picked me up at seven in the morning, his socks and boots sitting between us as he worked the clutch and gas with his bare feet. “This girl, I tell you what—” he said and took a deep breath. I waited for him to finish but he just rolled down his window and spit. I fumbled with the stereo until he reached over and turned it off. “I woke up with her on top of me,” he said and gave a sort of tribal whoop. “All ready to go, her father asleep downstairs. Man, she sweats.” He shimmied with excitement from the memory.

“Her father hear you?” I asked.

“She says he sleeps without his hearing aids.” I imagined old man Keating waking up one random night, reaching out to the bedside table for his hearing aids, only to hear the moans of his daughter. I wondered if he would jump to his feet, grab a shotgun, and confront Zach, or if he would just sit in bed, mesmerized by Laura’s animal sounds, the rhythmic scratching of headboard against wall. I imagined myself with Laura Keating, lifting her into the corner, her legs wrapped across my hips like a broad belt, her arms pressed against the walls for support.

I looked over at Zach and wondered if he could read my mind, but he had his head arched toward the window, opening his mouth wide and taking in big gasps of air before letting them go. “If the wind holds off, I think I’ll have you flag this afternoon,” he said. “You know, for old times’ sake.”

“I didn’t bring a mask. Why not just use the GPS?”

“I have some masks at the office.”

To call Zach’s trailer an office is a bit misleading. Most of the ag pilots keep their planes at the same landing strip, about thirty minutes outside Mount Poplar. On one side of the runway about twenty square trailers with attached garages stand evenly spaced. The pilots leave their planes out when they’re working, as if the planes were Old West ponies tied to hitching posts. Zach still hasn’t built steps to his trailer, so there is a two-foot drop to the ground, and inside everything from the carpet to the blocky desk and shelves is a sort of stain-swallowing brown. A phone and answering machine with a blinking red light perch on the corner of a desk littered with crumpled papers and cups of tobacco spit.

I pulled an old typewriter from the desk drawer and heaved it onto the desk. “I’m gonna check on the plane,” Zach said and I asked him to flip on the lights before he left. The fluorescent overheads buzzed and flickered, brightening and darkening the room without any particular rhythm. I organized the papers on the desk into two piles—clients and suppliers—and put anything marked urgent or overdue on top. Then I checked the phone messages, new and old, and made detailed notes before deleting them.

Zach came back, started the coffeemaker, and laid down on this tan love seat he’d picked up on the side of the road, letting his legs fall over the edge. He kicked the side with the heels of his boots. I wondered what it meant about me that Zach, with his mounting debt and cavalier business habits, was considered the family success.

“So, what’s the damage there, cowboy?” he said in a rather poor Texas drawl, giving a lazy sweep of his hand toward the desk.

“You need to call Schneider Chemical. They left two messages saying you’ve used all your credit.”

Zach reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a rubber-banded roll of cash. “Let’s pay him in person,” he said and jumped up from the couch, his cowboy hat falling from his head. “Like the good ole days.” The morning sun had plastered Zach’s yellow hair to his forehead and exposed a receding hairline. I realized for the first time how meticulously he combed it when he went hatless. I took off my own farmer’s cap, revealing a healthy bald spot and broad forehead, giving Zach a view of the future.

“You rob a 7-Eleven?” I asked.

“Just got paid for a job,” he said, waving the bills. “Tax free.”

Business went on like this: calls about missed payments, lies about checks lost in the mail, promises for new ones to be sent. Zach made the phone calls, and I watched him pace the carpet, gesturing wildly with his left hand, which held the base of the phone. Sometimes he settled the receiver between his ear and shoulder so he could use both hands to make a point. And when the person on the other end talked at any length, he rolled his eyes and wound himself like a mummy in the phone cord. In the end he charmed his way out of every problem. He always knew the right excuse to use: how busy he was and how that meant he’d be a great client in the future, how he liked to fly but wasn’t much for paperwork, how he didn’t even know anything had been the matter until I went through the paperwork, or how he had fallen for this hot little piece and how his mind couldn’t focus with that apple-bottom ass running around in his head all day.

I tired of Zach’s voice, grabbed a cup of coffee, and walked outside. A pilot from three garages down rolled by in a refurbished biplane without any tanks attached, just a hobbyhorse flyer. He gave a quick wave as he adjusted himself in the seat and set his helmet and glasses. At the end of the runway he made a loop turn, straightened the plane, and accelerated. Even as he gained speed, the plane seemed to pass in slow motion. I could make out the details of its structure, the stabilizer bars of the wings, the thin wheels and rusted body with aluminum patches welded to the tail. I felt like I’d been transported to 1918, that this was a man off to fight the Germans. Three-quarters down the runway he began to take the air, a slight wobble as he lifted the nose, and ten seconds later just a fleck in the sky.

I made my way over to Zach’s Air Tractor. It was bright yellow with red accent paint, the leather pilot’s seat polished, the windshield spotless. Zach had only so much care to give the world and so he’d always looked out for two things first and foremost: himself and his plane. I picked up a couple pebbles from the ground and tossed them into the spotless cockpit.

For the rest of the morning, Zach dictated invoices, estimating materials and hours haphazardly as I typed them on the typewriter. The keys kept sticking and I had to make corrections in pen. Zach would look at each invoice, point to the typos, and say, “Fifty cents,” as if he were docking my pay.

When we finished I called Jane. The phone rang six times before she picked up and said, “Yes?”

“Is that the way you answer the phone now?” I asked.

“I’m making lunch,” she said. “And I feel like I have changed a thousand fucking diapers already.”

“He is a baby,” I said. Zach dropped to his knees and pretended to weep.

“Wow,” Jane exclaimed. “Here I’ve been spending all day in this house wondering why I married you and I just got it. He’s a baby! Genius.”

“You can leave the house,” I said. “You have the truck.”

“Make sure Zach pays you today,” Jane said and hung up.

“Can’t win with that one,” Zach said. “Jane’s like a green pony, man. You just gotta keep getting up there until she gives up and stops bucking. Might never happen, though.”

“That’s real wise, Zach,” I said. “You should be a marriage counselor.”

“If there’s one thing I know,” he said as he leaned over, placed one hand on the arm of the couch, and began to move his hips back and forth, “it’s how to break down a green pony.” His hips quickened and his free hand grabbed his cowboy hat and flailed it as he humped the furniture. I wondered if he was imagining Laura Keating or my own wife beneath him. “Let’s go,” he said immediately after letting out the dramatic moan of a climax. “We gotta quit dickin’ around and get to work.”

 

I drove Zach’s truck east on Highway 60 toward a couple cornfields he had to treat with Atrazine. It felt good to be driving. Ever since we had the baby, Jane made me ride passenger-side. I found Zach’s Skoal in the glove box and an empty can beneath the seat. I rolled the windows down and enjoyed the tobacco buzz. On a good Missouri day, you can place one finger on the wheel and drive straight for miles, never catching up to a slow-moving tractor, never dodging a deer loping across the road.

By the time I reached the farm, I heard Zach’s plane in the sky behind me. He swooped down toward the truck, turned the plane sideways about twenty feet off the ground, and gave me a big, childlike grin. I put on a mask and an extra flannel shirt I’d found in the office, lugged the orange flags to the cornfield. When I waved one in the air, Zach stopped circling and turned the plane on course, coming down over the field. I set the flag in the ground and moved down the row with the rest of the flags.

Zach steadied the plane about ten feet over the corn and opened his tanks, the stalks swaying slightly under his pass. There’s a beauty to the danger of a plane so near the ground, the lack of room for error. As I watched Zach fly, a familiar pang of jealousy welled up in my stomach. I longed to have his view from the sky. Instead I covered my mouth and crouched down, eyes closed, as he passed overhead, the splatter of herbicide against my clothes, the chemical smell dappling the air. I checked the application and waved a flag to let Zach know the cover was good. Then I found the edge of his spray, took five large strides, and waved the second flag. Zach looped the plane like a rolling pigeon and rather than spraying back and forth, the way a man mows his lawn, he returned on the same axis, spraying only as he headed west.

We finished both fields in an hour, and Zach buzzed me one last time as I collected the flags. I drove back with the windows down to air out my chemical-covered clothes. By the time I got to the office, Zach had closed up shop. “Scoot over and keep the motor running,” he said and hopped in driver-side. He tossed me a white envelope with a rubber band. It was filled with twenties, almost a thousand dollars’ worth, and I couldn’t help but imagine the smile on Jane’s face when she fingered the bills.

“Why so much?” I asked.

“I probably owed you some back pay,” he said and I raised my eyebrows. “Don’t let those unpaid bills fool you,” he said. “I’m rich. Also, just so everything’s on the table, my GPS is busted. I need you to flag until I can get that bastard that ripped me off to fix it.”

“So flagging wasn’t just a trip down memory lane?”

“Hell it wasn’t,” Zach said. “Didn’t it feel like old times? Didn’t you have fun?” I didn’t answer him, but it was true. I smacked the envelope against my thigh, said thanks. “No need for thanks,” he said. “You’re gonna buy me a couple rounds before the barbecue.” Then he sniffed the air. “You smell like fucking herbicide.”

We stopped by Clemens’ Bar and some of the drunken, retired farmers walked by and smelled my shirt. “Ain’t no weeds gonna grow on you, Youngblood,” one laughed, exhaling stale beer and cigarette smoke.

Zach told them I was the best damn flagger in Audrain County and they nodded and turned serious. “Had a friend who flagged,” one said, patting me on the shoulder. “Got cancer. They was spraying real mean stuff. Doctors blamed it on the cigarettes, but he didn’t smoke except when he was drunk.”

“Sorry to hear that,” I said.

“It don’t matter,” he said. “He was gonna die sometime. I’m just saying. I hope things changed since then.”

“It’s just part-time work,” I said and took a drink. I bought the man a round but we ran out of things to say and turned our attention to the Cardinals game. The new stadium was filled and some kid named Reyes was on the mound. The old men traded Mexican jokes, said, “He’s diggin’ into the mound like he was born for it,” said, “It’s so hot in St. Louis today, a man can’t help but get a wet back.” Reyes threw shutout inning after shutout inning. Zach tapped my arm in the bottom of the seventh and we stood to leave. “Kid can pitch,” he said as La Russa decided to pinch-hit for Reyes.

 

Zach dropped me off and Jane was out of the house yelling about something before I even had a chance to say goodbye. The sun was just beginning to set, a long summer sun, and I stared at it and let Jane’s words pass me by.

“Awww, shove it, Jane!” Zach yelled, and even though she scowled at him, it turned into a smile. Zach revved the engine and backed out of the drive, his arm out the window, middle finger exposed to the sky.

Jane tramped through the dry grass without shoes, her sundress flapping about her knees, her splotched legs pumping in and out of view. “You gotta clean the boy up ’cause I need to shower and get ready,” she said, walking straight up to me. “You smell like chemical,” she added. “Wash your hands before you touch him.” She turned and plodded back the way she’d come.

I washed my hands at the kitchen sink and changed our son’s diaper. Then I soaped my hair and underarms and stripped down to my underwear, trying to make as little mess as possible while Jane showered. I picked up my chemical-soaked clothes in one hand and perched the baby on my hip with the other, letting his soft skin meet mine, his little hand perched just below my chest in a clump of black hair as we walked to the bedroom to change.

Jane came out of our bathroom a throwback to the stunning girl I’d married. She still fit into her slim Wranglers, which molded to the curve of her hips. And she wore a flower-printed cowgirl shirt tucked in tight so that her chest pushed the fabric away from her body. I knew it was more the work of the bra than her breasts, which had given way to gravity, but none of that mattered. She was beautiful. She let her hair down for the first time in as long as I could remember, a straight cascade running to the middle of her back, and gave herself bangs, which covered her tight, tanned forehead and softened her face.

I imagine that moments like these are when a husband falls back in love with his wife, when he grabs her passionately and tosses her on the bed to make wild love. But I’d placed our baby boy on the center of the bed, where he napped silently. And I suspected that if I grabbed Jane and tried to romance her, she’d push me away and say, “I don’t need you mussing me up right now.” It’s the sort of thing she’d said before. At the time, I’d laughed because it made sense but now I know that that was the beginning of our decline, that what began as solid reasoning turned into dull living, and that once logic ruled our marriage, Jane and I never stood a chance. I tried to save us by convincing her to stop taking the pill, but I’d been fooling myself, and had only prolonged our misery for the life of a child.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Jane asked.

I looked down at my outfit—jeans, boots, and my best plaid-printed snap shirt. “Well, I don’t look as good as you, Jane. You look beautiful.”

I tossed her the envelope of twenties. Her eyes widened as she looked inside, and she turned to me openmouthed. “How much?” she asked, the breath almost gone from her voice.

“About a thousand.”

“We gotta get you some new clothes,” she said and came over and sat in my lap and stroked the hair at the side of my head and kissed me full on the lips. Then she went into our closet and grabbed a cowboy hat. “Here you go, pardner,” she said, tossing it to me. “Put that on.” I tilted the hat on my head and Jane placed another lipstick kiss on my cheek and sashayed out the door with the cash. I picked up the baby and stood before the mirror. I think at a certain point men always see their fathers staring back at them. I half-wanted to apologize to my own son for this, but instead I grabbed his travel bag and bassinet and met Jane in the truck.

 

The barbecue was in full swing by the time we arrived. A tent had been put up, perhaps in the hope of rain. A flat, barren patch of dirt served as the dance floor. Jane and I found a table underneath the clear blue-black night, and she made a trip to the troughs of beer and tables of boxed wine to mingle with old high school friends. I watched her down two glasses of wine in the time it took for me to feed our son his bottle. She returned with a beer in each hand and I went for a plate of food. The party had already become a microcosm of our life: passing our son back and forth while running away from one another.

I noticed Zach at a table with Bill Keating, carrying on a conversation while tuning his guitar. Bill seemed unimpressed but humored Zach. I knew then that Zach and Laura wouldn’t be an item for long. Even Zach couldn’t charm a hawk like Keating. Laura was standing off to the side in conversation with a girlfriend, and remembering Zach’s description of their escapades, I admired her from afar. She was rounder than Jane, with curly blond hair that cupped her cherub face, her pink cheeks. Everything about her was soft; she had none of Jane’s hard lines. Her gestures were small and graceful. Zach finished tuning, tipped his hat to Keating, and grabbed Laura around the waist.

His band was mediocre, Zach more caterwauler than singer, but people danced all the same. And when a neighbor offered to watch the baby, Jane and I two-stepped for the first time in years—me stumbling along like an oaf as she led. “Still not much of a dancer, are you?” she said when we sat down. The alcohol had taken the playfulness from her voice. I rubbed the soft yellow hairs of our sleeping son. Jane turned away and looked into the distance as she drank a beer.

Zach excused himself from the stage after a while and let the others play some bluegrass. He came over to our table and we applauded as he approached and he pretended to wipe sweat from his brow. “Gets boring up there,” he said and sat down between us.

“You were great,” Jane said in a boozy warble and leaned in close. “Also,” she said, unable to keep her voice a whisper, “thanks for the cash.”

“Don’t thank me,” Zach said loud enough for me to hear. “I didn’t do the work.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter where it comes from,” Jane said and took Zach’s hand. “Let’s have us a dance to celebrate.”

Jane and Zach blazed the ground with a fast two-step—her hips moving to his slightest touch. I clapped along with a large group of others when the song finished, but instead of calling it a night they stayed out for two more, the third a slow song. Jane, who had a friend bring her a glass of wine while she danced, let herself fall into Zach and rested her head on his chest. As he spun her around, our eyes met and he gave a slight toss of the head, as if to say, “What can I do?” But Jane, she was oblivious.

Laura Keating walked by my table and before I realized it, my arm had reached out and brushed hers. “How ’bout a dance, Laura?” I said.

Her sweet face beamed down at me. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Yeah, sure.” Then she motioned to the bassinet on the table. “What about him?” she asked.

I’d forgotten about our son, sleeping beside me. “He’ll be fine,” I said and took her hand in mine.

We found a spot next to Zach and Jane, and Zach joked about me stealing his girl. Jane looked perturbed, not so much because I was dancing with Laura, but because we’d disrupted her dance with Zach. Laura didn’t bury her head into my chest, but she didn’t shy away and my right hand was excited, perched on her hip, the fault line where jeans met shirt. I spun her and she laughed and came back to me, her chest almost meeting mine. Zach spun Jane in response, but the alcohol had made her woozy and she stumbled back before he perched her upright. “No more of that,” he laughed, and Laura laughed along with him.

I looked at Jane’s distant eyes and wanted to be anywhere but there. I looked over Laura’s shoulder to the table where my son slept alone, wrapped in a blanket, the candlelight flickering over his chubby face. I worried about the flame. I worried he would forget about me. Did I think that the world would protect him? That sometimes the wolves leave the sheep alone? I wanted to run to him, to cradle him, and take him far away, but I just clutched harder at Laura, squeezed her hand, and balled her shirt in my fist, trying to focus on her uncomfortable smile.