The Curtiss banked in a steep-rising, almost perfect three-quarter loop. Lange thought of it like throwing a lasso, and he was the rope. Sky in his face. Wires singing with wind. The pull of “G” on his body. The roller-coaster down. Spotting the flagger. The horizon rosy with the sun already low in the west. He leveled out two feet above the field, right on the top edge of the cushion, opened the hoppers, and a white trail of dust clouded out behind him. He kept his eye on his speed, his altitude, the row of salt cedars at the far end of the field.
At the last second, he jerked the biplane sideways, and knifed the wings through the trees, cranking back on the stick. Dust flowered up from the floor of the cockpit. The cedars got dust, too, before he thought to cut off the hoppers. Arsenate of lead, for the midge eating up this field of grain.
The flagger waved him around, and he made his last two runs. There had been a crosswind all day that kept taking the chemical. Some of it always blew back on him. The chemical was the one part of the job he disliked. Flying was the part that galvanized him. Once the hoppers were empty, he circled back towards the flagger, waggled his wings, and headed for the airfield Red Hawk was using that week.
This was new territory for Red Hawk Aero-Dusters. Lange had a natural sense of direction, but even if he hadn’t, all the barns and warehouses for miles around had arrows painted clearly on their rooftops, marking the way to the airfield. It was like following the yellow brick road across this country, flat and patch-worked with row crops, his shadow flying along ahead of him.
Once over the landing field, he circled the Curtiss into the wind and put it down on the grass in a soft three-point, taxied up to the hangar where the mechanic, Cooper, was waiting with his sack of spark plugs and wrenches.
“There’s still a little flutter in the tail.” Lange unsnapped his goggles and chin strap. He hiked himself out of the seat and dropped over the side to the ground.
“Reckon it’s that new stabilizer,” Cooper said, bending down for a look. “I’ll see what I can do.”
One of the hopper-loaders, a skinny kid of about fourteen or fifteen, came trotting up. “Can I pull her inside this time?” he said.
Cooper nodded. The kid’s face lit. Lange remembered the feeling. He’d been there himself at fifteen, begging odd jobs around an airfield just to get a chance at one of the planes. He’d been willing to push a broom or lime an outhouse for a three-minute sit inside a cockpit.
He headed for the hangar just as the boss, Choke Hargrove, ambled out to meet him. Choke was a beer-bellied, red-faced man who walked with a swivel left over from a crackup in his younger, warbird days, back before he bought the four machines that made up his duster fleet. While the other pilots took the new Cubs and the Waco, Lange got the old, beat-up Curtiss Jenny, because he would fly anything, and everybody knew it.
“DeLony!” Choke said, around the cigar clamped in his teeth. He waved a yellow envelope at Lange. “Telegram come for you while ago.”
Lange’s heart skipped. He reached for the envelope, thinking Papa, or calamity, in that order. Another stroke. Maybe worse. People didn’t send telegrams just to say How are you? He bit the leather glove off his right hand, spit out the taste of the arsenate. It was all over him. He tore off one end of the Western Union envelope and shook out the slip of paper inside. He turned his back to Choke.
The telegram came from his cousin, Julianne Williams. It was short, to the point, telegram-like. It was about Becky. “There’s been an accident. Your needed.” The “your” misspelled by the telegraph operator on one end or the other. Lange folded the telegram and stuck it back in the envelope. Choke was watching.
“It’s my wife,” Lange said. “She’s had an accident.” He thought about that old Ford Model T he’d left with her in San Antonio.
“Your wife?” Choke stared harder.
Lange grimaced, gave a nod. “I’m going to have to go see about this. I know we’re busy as hell right now--”
“All these weeks you’ve been working for me,” Choke’s mouth clamped harder on the cigar, “and I don’t know you’ve got a wife?”
Choke’s eyes narrowed. “All right,” he said. “I’ll hold your job, but you let me hear something pretty quick. I need to know when you’re coming back.”
Lange knew he was the most reliable pilot Choke had. Choke could act hard-line and make threats, but Lange knew the job would be here waiting.
“A goddamn wife,” Choke muttered, as Lange strode towards the hangar.
Beside the rear door was a makeshift sink some thoughtful somebody along the way had rigged up by using a rain barrel and a gate valve. Wasn’t much but it did the trick. A chip of a mirror was fastened to the wall. Lange’s face looked ghostly white with the lead arsenate all over him. Only the skin around his eyes, in the shape of his goggles, looked human and normal. He stepped out of his jumpsuit, dropped it in a heap, and splashed soapy water on his face.
The telegram had rattled him. It didn’t say exactly what sort of accident Becky had, but Julianne wouldn’t have sent a telegram if it wasn’t serious. She knew how things stood with him and Becky. It had to be that old Ford. Last time Becky wrote to him she hadn’t mentioned anything about the car acting up. She had just asked him for more money, the same way she always did. She was still his wife, she said, and like it or not, the lease on the apartment was still in his name. So he had sent her all he could spare. But how long ago was that? Six months? Maybe longer. At least it wasn’t Papa. At least that...
He dried his hands and face and watched as one of the other flyers brought in the Waco--a guy named Eddie or Mike, a new guy. He porpoised it all the way down the landing field before it finally bounced to a solid stop.
Nobody on the bus to San Antonio seemed to want to sit beside Lange. He guessed the lead arsenate ran them off. No matter how hard he scrubbed he couldn’t seem to get rid of the smell. They had been dusting for five weeks already so he was used to it and used to the coughing that came with it. Hazards of the job. But it was a flying job, and one he’d found for himself, so he wouldn’t complain. Especially not when he thought of all those years on the ground, chopping cotton and pushing cattle around for Papa and Gabe.
Inside the bus it was sticky hot. He loosened his collar and tried to sleep but his window wouldn’t raise. After a while the arsenate started mixing with his sweat and burning the skin around his wrists and neck. He tried to wipe it away, but he couldn’t get his mind off the burning or off what was waiting for him in San Antonio.
At the Kenedy stop, a woman with two bawling babies got on the bus. The only empty seat left was next to him, so she had no choice. He didn’t mind kids, but the bawling made him nervous. He ended up with one of the babies asleep on his lap and shared his dwindling pack of cigarettes with the mother. She was on her way to live with her folks in San Angelo. She said her husband had just joined the Navy.
“He said he figures we’s about to get into the war over in Europe. Wants to make sure he don’t end up in some dirty stinking trench somewhere.” She said it as if she wholeheartedly approved of his decision.
Lange couldn’t imagine having a wife as agreeable as that. She gave him half a bologna sandwich, which he devoured in two bites. He hadn’t even realized he was hungry.
When the bus pulled into the San Antonio station it was half past midnight. The woman said, “Sure hope your wife’s all right,” as he angled himself down the aisle. He raised his hand to wave thanks and goodbye and stepped off the bus and into the sultry San Antonio night.
Inside the terminal, he dug a nickel out of his pocket as he made his way to the bank of phone booths along the wall. He gave the operator the number, and when Julianne answered, said, “I’m here.”
“Oh? Already?” She sounded sleepy. “You got the telegram then.”
“Yeah. Can you come pick me up? Or do you want me to walk?”
“Of course not, Ding. Just give me a second to wake up. I’ll be there directly.”
He thought she must be really sleepy to call him by his old nickname. He’d done away with that years ago, or anyway, he thought he had. Who would hire a pilot with a nickname like Ding? His first name was Crawley, but he didn’t care for that either. Back when he was a kid just starting school his sister had suggested he go by his middle name. Lange had been their mother’s maiden name. It was short, easy to pronounce. He hadn’t realized until later that he would have to constantly correct people--“Lange. Rhymes with hang.”--to keep them from using the soft g or from sounding out the e at the end. He’d been called Lang-ey often enough to cause a couple of fist fights.
The bus station was empty except for an old bum asleep on a bench. And the snack bar was still open. He bought a plate of greasy French fries to quell the appetite the bologna sandwich had stirred, counted the cigarettes left in his pack, and bought another--Camels, the only brand behind the counter. His pocket change was fast dwindling, too.
Within fifteen minutes, Julianne drove up in a new Dodge coupe. It grated on him a little to see that new Dodge. Clearly, Sterling was bringing in good money now. She opened the door and got out to hug Lange, then backed off when she got a whiff of the lead arsenate.
“Whew!” She was dressed in a skirt, hair combed into a snood. Julianne was in her forties, but she’d kept her looks.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t have a place to bathe.”
She gave him the once-over. “You didn’t bring a suitcase?”
“I didn’t think I’d be staying that long.” He smiled, but he figured it probably came out more like a grimace. He wasn’t in a real smiling mood. “Good to see you, too,” he said.
“Oh, it is good, honey. You know it always is.” She grabbed his hand and gave it a jiggle. “Get in the car. You can borrow some of Sterling’s clothes. Him and Troy Lee are up north anyway. Won’t be home till the weekend.”
Lange went around to get in on the passenger’s side of the Dodge. He didn’t comment on the car, but it smelled new. As if to add to his irritation, the engine purred like a hummingbird.
San Antonio was asleep this late at night. Julianne maneuvered the Dodge through the streets without meeting any oncoming traffic. When he lit up a Camel she reached for it.
“Forgot mine,” she said. He lit another for himself, glanced at her. She had her face turned towards the road, smoking his cigarette. “Becky smashed her car into a tree,” she said finally.
He let out his breath. He felt like he’d been holding it for hours. “I had a feeling it was that old Ford.” He said it calmly, careful to hide his nerves. “When?”
“Last night. I didn’t get specific in a telegram. I apologize. I guess I just didn’t want to worry you.”
He shook his head at her, but she wasn’t looking. Any telegram was enough to put a person into a panic. She had to know that. He took a long pull on the cigarette and kept his eyes on the lonely swath the headlights cut in the dark street. “Is she OK?”
“I’m afraid it’s not good, honey. She’s in the hospital. In a coma. Her mother came in on the train this morning.”
“In a coma? Which hospital?”
“It’s way past visiting hours, Ding. We’ll go first thing tomorrow.”
“Which hospital is it? I’m going there now.”
She looked at him. He heard her sigh just before she U-turned the Dodge.
He followed the nurse down a long corridor. The woman was all business, no small talk, crisply leading him through the ward doors. The place spooked him. Smelled too sterile, made him feel awkward and dirty. He wished Julianne could come with him, but the nurse had said visitors were welcome one at a time. Julianne was out in the waiting room with Laura, Becky’s mom, who had apparently been there all day and wasn’t leaving. He needed a smoke but reckoned it wasn’t allowed, so he concentrated on following the starchy nurse.
The soles of her shoes squeaked as she walked ahead of him. Without speaking, she led him into the critical ward. It was bright and antiseptic. Curtained screens walled the patients from view. The nurse stopped at the third one on the left. She slapped back the curtain. He jumped at the sudden noise. She nodded at him to go, and he stepped sideways through the opening.
Becky lay flat on her back. A plasma bottle hung from a hook on the upper corner of the hospital bed. A tube ran from the bottle down into her arm, which was strapped onto a board. She lay still, her head turned slightly away. A bandage was wrapped around her forehead and over one ear. She looked small, ragged. He almost didn’t recognize her. She’d cut her hair, or maybe the hospital had. A hard chair stood beside the bed. He braced it for balance and leaned forward for a closer look. Scratches and bruises decorated her face.
“Becky?” he whispered, coughed into his hand. He swallowed. “Becky?” He said it louder. “It’s me. Lange.”
“She might not hear you,” the nurse said from behind him. Her voice startled him. He had forgotten she was there.
He backed away from the bed, self-conscious. He couldn’t take his eyes off Becky, lying so perfectly still in the bed. She seemed lifeless, a wax doll. A picture of the last time he’d seen her snapped into his mind. How she’d run after him, tripping on the sheet she’d wrapped hurriedly around herself, hair bedraggled, face flushed with heat. Lange, wait. Stop please....
“Will she come out of it?” he asked the nurse. “The coma?”
“Sometimes they do. Eventually.” The nurse fussed around with the plasma bottle. “She lost the baby, though. I’m sorry to say. Couldn’t be helped....” The nurse reached for the back of the chair, scooted it towards him. “You can sit here for a bit. It won’t hurt anything to talk to her. You never know.”
“No, I think...” He cleared his throat. “I believe I’ll let her get some rest.”
He backed away and didn’t think until later about how ridiculous that must’ve sounded. Rest, hell, she was in a coma. He ducked out of the curtained enclosure before the nurse could say anything else. He was suddenly anxious to put as many steps between him and Becky’s pale, still body as he could.
Lost the baby. There’d been a baby? He focused on the floor tiles, the black toes of his boots. Whose baby? Was he still supposed to care? A baby...for crissake....
Julianne sat perched beside Laura in the waiting room. Both their faces rose towards him as he came in--watchful, troubled faces. They made him feel caged. The last thing he wanted right then was to have to talk to Laura. He wondered how much she knew about the situation between him and Becky. Should he tell her there’d been a baby? Maybe she already knew.
He stopped in front of them, gave them both a fidgety look. “She didn’t know I was there,” he said.
Laura jumped to her feet. “Oh, I’m sure she did. I know she did.”
She grabbed hold of him, gave him a fierce hug. He tried to stop her. He tried to do it gently, so she wouldn’t know how uncomfortable her clinging made him feel. “I’m pretty dirty.” He gave Laura’s shoulder a shallow pat.
“Laura’s going to stay here tonight,” Julianne said.
He studied Julianne. Did she know about the baby? “You’re coming home with me,” she said. “You look dead on your feet.”
He didn’t argue. She held out the car keys, and he took them, glad she was letting him drive. It would give him something to concentrate on. Something besides this whole damned messy business.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said to Laura, as an afterthought. He didn’t know if he’d just told her a lie or not.
Julianne and Sterling had a new caliche driveway, and a carport for the Dodge. Their economic situation had clearly risen. A light burned in the kitchen. They entered through the back door.
“I could use some coffee, how about you?” Julianne said, as soon as they stepped inside. She put down her purse and started filling the coffee pot with water.
He lowered himself into one of the kitchen chairs, dragged the ashtray from the center of the table. He used a stick match from his pocket and the bottom of his boot to light a cigarette. He was already down to six. Inhaling deeply, he watched Julianne measure coffee into the tin pot. The aroma of it spread through the kitchen.
She glanced around. “Is coffee going to keep you up all night?”
He shook his head.
“You want to try a piece of this cake?” She motioned at a cloth-covered plate. “My neighbor brought it over this morning. Said it’s made with Coca Cola. Sounds funny but it’s pretty good.” She smiled. So did he, but he shook his head at the cake.
She bent to light an eye on the stove and set the coffee pot over the flame. “It’s not your fault this all happened, Ding. I mean, Lange. I just can’t get used to it, sorry, honey.”
He mashed the burnt match-head against an edge of the ashtray. A hard lump had settled at the top of his stomach. “I’m not blaming myself. I’m trying not to blame anybody.” He let the match drop into the tray. He thought about Becky, lying silent and still in the hospital bed. “Did you know she was pregnant?”
Julianne sat down across from him. Her eyes had dark bags underneath. “Not till this morning. I haven’t seen Becky since...I don’t know when...last winter, maybe. I bumped into her at the dry cleaners one day.”
Julianne slid a folded newspaper in front of him and tapped her finger on a spot near the bottom of the page--one paragraph about the crash. Lange read it silently. It said Master Sergeant Dwayne Sutherland, from Redfield, Arkansas had been thrown from the car. Died on impact. Broken neck. Sergeant Sutherland was twenty-eight, stationed at Fort Sam Houston.
The coffee pot on the stove started wobbling from the heat of the eye. The paper didn’t say anything about Becky, just her name--Rebecca DeLony--and that she had been driving. It didn’t say if she had been out drinking, dancing and drinking, or how she knew this Sergeant Sutherland, or if he was the father of her baby.
Lange swallowed. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” he said. “I mean, hell, Julianne, I haven’t even seen her in near about a year.”
She got up after something on top of the icebox. “The police came here after the accident. They had this as your address.” She held out a big legal envelope, laid it on the table in front of him. “This was in Becky’s car.”
The envelope had his name on it, Julianne and Sterling’s address. The return address on the envelope, stamped on the left corner, was an attorney’s office on St. Mary’s Street. The envelope was smudged with dirt and crumpled on one corner. He smoothed at the crumpled corner, then opened the envelope. He read the heading, skimmed down to the body of the document, read further.
“Desertion, she claims, of all the damned things...” His voice trailed off as he continued to read.
Julianne reached to pat his arm, but he moved it before she could and took a drag on his cigarette so she wouldn’t think he was purposely avoiding her touch. He didn’t want sympathy. What he was feeling didn’t call for sympathy. He kept reading. The print was small and made his head hurt.
“It says she’s expecting me to pay for everything,” he said. ”Wonder where in hell she thinks I’m going to get the money for that?” He set the cigarette in the ashtray and stuffed the papers back in the envelope. “If she wants a divorce then she can damn-well pay for it.” A picture of her lying in that hospital bed flashed again in his mind.
On the stove, the coffee pot geysered brown liquid into the glass bubble on the lid. Julianne used a dishrag to grab up the pot and poured coffee into two cups. They were nice cups--pink Sunday china. Before she could set the cup in front of him, he scooted back his chair.
“Would you mind too much if I just went on to bed? I’d like a bath too, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Her shoulders straightened. She held the two steaming cups. “Of course not, honey. You know where everything is.”
He smashed out the cigarette and stood. “I’ll just sack out on the porch.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll take Troy Lee’s bedroom. I’ll make sure the sheets are clean.”
Troy Lee was Julianne’s youngest, the only one left at home. Lange had slept many nights in Troy Lee’s room, back when he worked for Julianne’s husband, Sterling, nights when he’d come in from some job too late to go home.
The walls of Troy Lee’s bedroom were covered with posters of different aircraft and of flyers like Lindbergh and Wiley Post. Models suspended with fishing line, hung from the ceiling at various levels. There was a recent model made from balsa wood of a German Messerschmitt 109. Lange gave the German plane a tap on the tail, and it swung into a flat spin.
Julianne fluffed a pillow and turned back the bed. She’d given him a pair of pajamas to wear. They hit him mid-calf. He didn’t care. A deep tiredness had seeped into him. He felt heavy with it. Numb.
“You want the fan off or on?” Julianne raised the window beside the bed.
Lange spun the Me-109 in the other direction. “I guess Troy Lee got his private ticket finally?”
“Oh gosh, yes. A couple of months ago already. Morning of his sixteenth birthday. He was up at dawn for it.”
“So he’s working with the old man now?”
She nodded. “For the summer anyway. They’ve sure been busy.”
She didn’t realize Sterling’s success hit a raw spot in Lange. That whole time of living in San Antonio was raw. But if he’d stayed here, stuck it out through those first hard months, maybe things would be different now. Maybe he would feel different, like a success, too, instead of living in one cheap hotel after another, flying a creaking, old crop dusting Jenny, covered up in lead arsenate all the damned time, chasing any job that kept him flying, maybe he would be making some real money now, too. Sterling had been trying to help, giving Lange a percentage and the use of his planes. It was Lange who had thrown in the towel, packed up and left town without a word to anybody. Because there hadn’t been any words left inside him.
As soon as Julianne closed the door behind her, he stripped off the pajama shirt and flopped down on the bed. He reached to start the fan on the bedside table. It roared like the blades of a propeller. Cool air gushed across him. All the strung-up model airplanes danced in the breeze. The Messerschmitt kept twirling round and round in its flat spin.
Lange had known Becky was running around. Known it in his bones but just wouldn’t admit it to himself. Clues were there, all over the place. She had an explanation for every slip-up she made. For the strange butts in the ashtrays--well, she worked in cosmetics at Joske’s downtown, and sometimes she bummed cigs on her coffee breaks. For the river mud on the car fenders--well, one morning she and some of her girlfriends from the store took a wild hare to go catfishing. Catfishing! Hell, no idiot would believe that one, except he had. Sometimes those same friends came back to the apartment with her, put on a stack of records, and taught each other new dance steps--which was her explanation for how she suddenly knew the Lindy and the Shag that New Year’s Eve he finally had money enough to take her out on the town.
Becky was lively, up on the latest of everything. She liked to go and do and be around people. Dances. Parties. Pictures shows. Coffee shops. Pretty clothes and nail polish and lots of colorful make-up, that was Becky. It was what attracted him to her in the first place. She laughed a lot, and drank beer, and would flirt and cut up. She liked men--yeah, OK, he’d know that from the beginning--and they liked her back.
He met her at Southwestern, that single year he spent in college, that one golden year. She was from a nearby small town. He was from a town even smaller where there were no girls like Becky Godshall. None with her sparkle. He fell in love instantly. She claimed to feel the same way. He married her mostly to keep anybody else from having her. She looked gorgeous on their wedding day, took his breath away. They went to Austin on their honeymoon, because he couldn’t have made it any farther. There were a hundred tiny seed buttons down the back of her white satin gown. He made it through about half of them before he tore off the rest. And she didn’t even get angry about it. She laughed at him, loud and boisterous, and never pretended to be the lily-white bride. That had been his fantasy not hers. His mistake.
You couldn’t leave a girl like Becky by herself. Not as much or as often as he had to flying charters for Sterling. But it was the only dream he’d ever had, to fly and make a living at it. Even working for family--his cousin’s husband--it took time to build confidence, to build a reputation, to get some experience under his belt. It took patience, more patience than Becky had to give. He hadn’t been trying to catch her at anything, he really hadn’t. Later, though, he wondered if maybe she had been trying to get caught.
On a night like this one: midsummer, sticky hot, might have come an afternoon shower, he couldn’t remember. He didn’t know what caused him to creep into the apartment so quietly. He was tired, had been gone for thirty-six hours on a charter to Odessa with two Houston wildcatters. And he thought she was asleep, except for that light on in the hall and some soft music playing on the radio--“All The Things You Are.” Maybe she was just getting ready for bed. He thought he would surprise her, so he crept in. Well, he surprised her all right. Surprised hell out of her--and the Joe Blow from Men’s Shoes.
Later on, he was glad he hadn’t been able to see much, because the light in the hallway had been glaring in his eyes. About two steps from the door he recognized the sounds from inside the dark bedroom. He said something, he didn’t remember what exactly what. Her name probably. He knew he cussed. He almost reached around the corner for the bedroom light switch. Almost. Except all he wanted was to get out of there as fast as he could, wanted not to have chosen that moment on that night to come home, wanted to go back to being the dumb country bumpkin he’d been before, blind to all the signals, believing in marriage, trust and fidelity, in decent human honesty.
She came running after him, dark hair bed-messy, pink- cheeked, tripping on the sheet wound so modestly around her. Who the hell did she think she was kidding with that sheet? Especially with Joe Blow from Men’s Shoes scrambling out into the hallway with his pants half on.
“Lange, wait! Stop please! Lange! Listen to me! I can explain....”
The slamming of the front door cut her off. It gave him a little satisfaction--about two seconds worth--slamming that door in her face. Explain what? Exactly what in hell had she been about to say? That it was an accident? That she hadn’t meant to? That he hadn’t just caught her cheating? Sometimes he wondered just what kind of an idiot she thought he was anyway.
The telephone in the upstairs hallway woke him. Outside the window, bright daylight shone. Once he finally drifted off, he’d slept hard but with his neck in a cramped position. He sat up, rubbed at it. He could hear Julianne talking, her voice muffled through the closed door. He blinked at the Army Air Corps poster of a Bell P-39 Airacobra thumbtacked to the ceiling. All the model airplanes still swayed on their strings. He reached to switch off the fan.
A tap came at the door. “Lange? Honey? It’s for you,” Julianne said. “It’s the hospital, honey. They want to speak to you.”
The hospital? Of course, the hospital. Who else would call him here? He almost asked Julianne to take it for him--almost--but that would’ve been too cowardly.
He opened the door, just two inches. Julianne’s face was there, morning-frazzled.
“It’s the hospital, honey,” she said again.
He walked across the hall to the black telephone. The receiver lay on its side. He stared at it for a moment, picked it up. He cleared the clog in his throat. “Hullo?”
“Mister DeLony?” It was a stranger’s voice.
“Mister DeLony, I’m very sorry to have to break this news to you, but your wife passed away this morning....”
The words went through him like something sharp--even expecting them, even knowing as soon as he picked up the phone that they were coming, they stabbed him anyway.