Post Road Magazine #29

Accompaniment

Gary Sheppard

The planes descend on the swamp right before daybreak, just above the treetops—oak, ash, pine mostly—dropping their orange clouds all over Pelahatchie Bay from Gum Pond to Ingersoll Brake, forcing everything living to hide out indoors or underground or underwater, or to leave the swamp altogether until the spray lifts. The chemicals they're using, the pesticide Kontrol they're calling it, leaves a fine powder on the surface of the still water, turning the dark bay a reddish brown that foams up along the water's edge fizzling almost like soda. It's their first pass of the day: they will be back later around dark for the adult mosquitos with Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile. This first morning pass is for the pupae.

            Callie lives in her engine-less camper parked in some swamp woods down off Oxbow Road, not too far from the water. Her father bought it in installments after a responsible down payment he spent years saving for. He'd bought it as an investment, a purchase on her future freedom, on her being able to pack it up and move on whenever she wanted, to cut her losses and start over whenever things got too rough or complicated or just whenever she damn well pleased. This was back about twenty years ago, when Callie was a little girl, before her father died one night from getting drunk and stumbling into a bee hive over on Hackney's land that Hackney kept for wildflower honey. 

Now, years later, Callie couldn't leave even if she wanted to. Every so often she dreams of seeing what it's like out West, maybe San Francisco, or some grand mission in California she's read about and seen in movies. But she doesn't indulge those impulses, she feels like she's waited too long. And the woods are so thick now, there is no clear path for her to drive. Callie lives here for good, sold the engine a few years back for margarita money. It's just her alone in the camper with all of the books she stole from a failed run at community college. There's the two bassets of course, Cagney and Lacy, who lap at the reddening swamp water while the buzzing planes above swing around for a second pass.

She calls herself Callie instead of her real name, likes it better because she thinks it carries with it a serious femininity, like some blueblood, tall and curly-headed, none of which she is.  She's been almost married twice, never able to fall all the way into it and feel the hard, cold weight of a ring on her finger or a man in her life. Seems like a desperate move for desperate people, lashing yourself to someone you know barely more than a stranger. As a rule, one she learned in a book, from Elkin's early stories, she only loves nobody loved. They have less to leave.

One hundred and forty or fifty books and a nice new blender for margaritas. That's about it for splurges. Everything else is inherited, kept immaculate care of, not replaced unless absolutely necessary. But her margaritas are hers alone. She uses okay tequila, makes it a luxury. It's a way to get away, put some shades on, drink in her private high lonesome and dream of going up in the air, buzzing off along twin engine toward some place with a bit of ocean or a name she finds difficult to pronounce.

She leaves the camper, into the thick orange mist where everything seems more silent than usual, except for the planes. And just now the pups, Cags and Lace, choking on the water. Callie unclips them from their lead, tells them to go on, and they disappear in the mist like shadows of dogs, only to reappear a few minutes later, whimpering from the air too thick and poisonous to breathe. She rushes them inside the camper.

Callie thinks today is a good day to start early, so she crushes a few limes and some ice cubes and takes down her little breakfast margarita quickly. Then a few tequilas straight.

After a while of thinking about him, wanting to see him, wanting him to come out and see about her, she takes up the tequila bottle and her flare gun and goes outside and takes aim. You can't see the sky, but she aims upward and waits until the plane engines come rumbling back around. When they do, she times it the best she can and shoots up a couple of flares, orange, they would be, hoping word will get to him somehow.

She spends most of the day drinking and waiting about the clouded bay, the swamp animals sometimes sliding out of their hiding places as Kontrol slowly begins to lift. Into the amber part of the afternoon, searching for a fresh bottle of tequila, Callie finds some extra flares and shoots them, too. Shortly after this second round of flare fire, the pilot's son shows up, just as she has wanted him to.

"You the one shooting off flares?"

"I am," she answers with a thrill of not knowing whether he is angry, but secretly thinking that he is.

The pilot's son looks at her askance, then up to the sky, up around where the planes sound like they're coming from, then he looks back at her with a smile big and white, disgusting and untrustworthy like a boat salesman's. "You're the one shooting?" he says with emphasis to say it couldn't be her, that there is no way she can be the one causing such trouble for his Daddy up there earning that good government money—EPA, Fisheries & Wildlife, Department of the Interior money—she's too sweet, sweet looking, small.

When she says nothing, he takes a seat on a bucket she has set up next to the water for gar fishing. She pulls one up beside him. He turns down her tequila, but he stays with her for a while, looking at the sky, waiting for the evening round of Kontrol to fall. He tells her what he thinks, which isn't much, about growing up the last in a line of crop dusters. That there's so little need for them these days, so that now they have to take on jobs like this one, when they do come, just to make it through the year. The pilot's son tells her that he often thinks of taking off some impossibly bright morning for Mexico or New Orleans or Denver or Miami or just about anywhere, never coming back here to this place where the fucking mosquitos can kill you.

Callie cannot make heads or tails of what the boy's saying. It could be that he is hungry, a boy fool for love, and that he really does want nothing more, having nothing here, than to leave for good, and that maybe, to Callie, that's an offer of some sort. Or it could just be the way pilots' sons speak. Perhaps since he is the last in his line, he only feels like it's his place to talk this way, though he may want nothing more than to live it out here, on the run from nothing, knowing everything, no mystery in anything but death, but he must never speak it, he like his father, knowing how to fly.

And the tension is sexual too. She has hoped to somehow find him without a shirt on, to somehow undo him with her presence, or even her body. Both possibilities, his absent shirt, her sexual body, begin to feel eventual.

He thinks he should leave, go back to the house to let his dad know it was just Callie being drunk and playing with a flare gun, but he doesn't want to interrupt such a good and purely contemplative staring up into the sky, even though the cloud of pesticide still hangs thin among the trees and the sun is beginning to go down and the swamp is darkening.

 

---

 

When the second round of spraying comes, the cloud is blue instead of orange and it doesn't descend on the swamp like before. It creeps in low along the waters mostly, like it is seeping from the earth itself, though it does come from above. The planes up there so quick this time, only passing by twice before climbing and disappearing, their engines sounding faint, into the dark invisible of the night sky up above the swamp and the cloud imprisoning Callie below.

The pilot's son went and scored some crystal at a good price and pulls back up to the dead end of Oxbow Road and brings it, along with some beers in bottles, back to Callie's place for, despite it being so soon, what feels like their second date.

Callie opens the front door to greet him. She's got wet red hair she's trying to put up into a towel. It's not working, so she stops to light a smoke. She doesn't try again. Instead she finishes her smoke and reads the last few pages of this great big Mavis Gallant collection she's been working on lately.

He sets the box of beer down on the table she's sitting at, next to her book, and says, "Won't be having the problem of not enough, of running out."

She finishes up the page she's on then nods at him and carries the beer outside a cooler she has prepared with ice. He follows her outside, shaking the crank and rubbing it between his fingers, smiling at it. With his other hand he signals to Callie for a light.

She goes inside and comes back with a grill lighter and a mosquito candle, which she lights and puts on the center of a huge patch of crabgrass. She takes a beer and unscrews the cap with her teeth, winking, handing it over to him. It seems, she thinks, like he is shorter, smaller somehow, and maybe wider too. Not like earlier in the day when he first came over to scream at her for the flares, with that perfect amount of hair and muscle. He is flabbier in the middle now, which makes her feel better, firmer, like it's not an issue, her middle. She imagines him on top, or coming in her from behind. Whatever way she wants it, she imagines it. All over her, or her taking control of everything while he does nothing at all, not even talk, not a word.

She is widening herself. She knows she only feels things when she is forced to move at a rate not her own, in moments she feels alienated from herself and everything becomes about space and closeness, impassioned states she can trust because they are her own, because they provide her with a vital feeling of distance like often accompanies joy or ambition or greed.

 They drink for a while, Callie and the pilot's son, without intentions of any kind, on a blanket spread out over the soft moldy dirt. The pilot's son pulls out a pipe and they smoke. The pesticide cloud inches toward them. The pilot's son cracks a joke Callie doesn't get and he digs an elbow into her side, trying to make her understand. She turns, quickly coiling into him, and plants her fist in his eye, immediately apologizes. She didn't mean to actually hit him. Next thing, she is under him, as she has imagined, and the cloud of Kontrol grows around them and they can no longer breathe. They run off through the cloud for the shelter of the camper.

            In bed after they finish, he feels something shift in his gut and he makes for the bathroom. On the commode for a good twenty minutes, he wonders if this new pain, this rock in his stomach, will ever leave him. He spends the better part of an hour working it out, then calls to Callie to see if she is hungry.

She puts on some meat and a dozen eggs while he cleans himself up in there. The smells make her sick, but she keeps setting the table, setting out for him a few hot sauces she imagines he might want but never ends up using. He eats all of the eggs mostly in silence, every so often letting out a moan. She listens, chewing her meat, looking at him intently, thinking maybe his pleasure is overabundant.

 

            When they are done filling themselves, they sit in the camper's cockpit (her behind the wheel, him riding passenger) and drink, looking through the wide windshield at the Kontrol cloud around them, the entire world out there somewhere beyond them both. They are in the thick of it. Dark blue bleeding to black.

He kisses her—she has to admit, it feels better this way—all over her body until he finds a spot where she laughs hysterically, and he stays on that spot until her legs shake and she goes limp with exhaustion and a trickle of urine runs down under her onto the vinyl seat.

            They move to bed and turn on the television, a show about ancient Romans where everyone is naked and murdering someone.

Callie thinks she can still hear the planes in the sky even though she knows they are long gone. She finds television easy to ignore, says that he, the pilot's son, can change it to whatever he wants. He flips around for a game he can drink a beer to, if she'll run out to the stoop and grab him one.

            She goes and grabs a few and brings them in to the fridge, keeping one for him. Back in bed she backs her body up against his, and wonders how he could be so sweaty. A fan is running in the corner. The sex, even though it was nice, didn't last long enough to account for all this excessive wetness.

            He says he's not normally like this.

At once she feels disgusted at how out of shape he is. This is not what she had imagined of him at all. She is beginning to see.

            "The sweat, you mean?" she asks. "Or the fact that things happened so quickly with you and me?"

            He laughs, patting his sticky belly. "Funny," he says. "No, that it happened so fast." Then he laughs some more and wipes his drenched brow. He looks at his palm before wiping it dry on her sheets.

            Callie sees him do this but she doesn't say anything. She tries her best to ignore it, imagines, in a way she detests, herself as a hostess, careful not to offend her guests. "How's your beer?" she asks him, thinking she hasn't seen her dogs since earlier. She had let them inside, hadn't she? Sometimes they get back out again.

            He takes a sip, "Fine, fine. Good beer. I spent extra on it. Got a good price on the other stuff."

            After a while he sits up to see her face, see what she could be thinking. "Look, I know you don't like this," he says, patting his belly again. "But it's great that you're the way you are, and I'm so different. It's like it fits. You don't always get that."

            "What do you mean?"

            He tells Callie about the woman he was with before he was with her.

She thinks about how she never thought she would go off and sleep with someone who, afterward, talks about the last woman he was with. She could hardly believe that this slob of a man she could fall in love with, and fairly effortlessly, had ever even been to bed with someone in the first place. It's a surprise when he gives details about his last girl sleeping around on him with a banker, a preacher, a couple of knife salesmen, when he calls her, the ex, a slut and says he could have killed her.

It's a surprise that this doesn't bother her. She wonders if he is serious, if he could really kill someone. What that might be like. What it would take to get over your natural aversion to it. The mindset. How your hands would hurt afterward. If he isn't really serious, it's romantic.

She never thought she would want a man like him, with such persistent shortness of thought, or that she could imagine past his loosely shaped body. At first the hardness of his body gave her shameful thoughts about her own body merely by comparison. Now, wiggling herself snug against his fat, it makes her feel good knowing he is big and ugly and beyond her, bigger and uglier than she is. She is barely asleep, making the soft sound she found for her pups when she first brought them home, to call them home, but they don't come home.

 

The next time the pilot's son comes by, it isn't because of Kontrol or flares going up in the sky or any other reason than just because he wants to.  This is a new feeling for Callie, a loss of that distance she holds so dearly, replaced with feelings of shame, anger, and long grief. She looks at the swamp water still reddish but fading. It's been days and she still can't find her dogs.

            She is beside herself when he asks if she wants to go up for a bit, only for an hour or so, to look for them.

They couldn't have wandered very far. His father is gone into town to be drunk and forget until much later tonight, so he's got wings without his pops giving him hell for it, for taking her up while he wouldn't put in even an hour's flight time for real honest to God work. There's still some gas in the tank from spraying the swamp. It isn't much, but he does know how to fly, even though he hardly ever does. He wants to fly for her.

            When he takes her up, he doesn't tell her where anything is. She can see the swamp in general. It's hard to miss. Looks like the stacks of broccoli in the produce case at the supermarket, but rotten dark and wet. She looks down on the earth, looking for markers, rivers, clearings, pastures, but nothing helps. The earth below is unmarked and impossible to make out.

            He descends on a pond in a clearing Callie has never seen before. She doesn't know even in what direction they are flying. At one end of the pond there are a group of men she's never seen before throwing scoop after scoop of dried dog food out into the pond, chumming for catfish. The pond is a thick brown gravy the dog food makes in the water.

At the other end, where the pond touches a tree line, Callie sees them, both Cagney and Lacey, happy in the water, happy as they'll ever be, full mouth after full mouth, drinkeating their pleasure at full gulp. Callie can't understand feeling like that, reveling in your own beastliness, like migrating birds under the spell of magnetic fields, at no harm to anyone.

            Later, back at her place, back in bed with him, and the bassets, before they get around to the pilot's son taking his pants off and doing a little belly dance Callie finds so hilarious, she poses him one question:

            "How far can you go?"

            "Up there?"

            She nods.

            "Don't know. As far as at least the Alabama line I guess, or the other way into part of Louisiana. I've never taken her out of this county."

            "But you could?"

            "I suppose I could," he answers. What did she want? Escape by crop duster? He is exhausted by her longing and yearning, but he tries to hide it. He doesn't want to come off as rude or anything like that.

Callie, though, can tell his exhaustion. She wonders how long of them living together it would take before he would love her to the point she would become, in a story meant for another, future woman, some slut that he loved hard enough to want to kill. Why does the killing still sound romantic? To feel something so obsessively that you're utterly directionless, and everything works, it seems, to unmoor the mind from reality. 

            In the morning she is sitting out front of the camper, picking some flowers with fuller, brighter, deeper colors now than they had a week ago. She takes a quick morning margarita followed by a quick nap, comes to wake midmorning finding him standing above her. He is looking up at the sun, pointing his finger, arcing his arm across the full width of the sky. She asks what he is doing, and he says for her to sit back, pours her another margarita and tells her he has been saving for something like this, but he doesn't know, would she like to take off for somewhere today?

For how long? For good! That's how long. There's no sense in vacations. We'll go somewhere, he thinks before speaking out loud to her, where we can set up, get some work. If we're taking the plane, it has to be somewhere we can still work, where I can dust fields.

            But he says, in answer to her question of how long, "What about Florida?" He points in the direction of Florida.

            She doesn't know what to say. Of course, yes. Who wouldn't want to go to Florida with him? But she doesn't know. She feels the distance disappear and space closes in on her again. She lights a smoke and goes straight into the tequila, thinking how feelings are only a long line of consequences that free us to live, for however long it takes, apart from our routine awful lives. She knows it from characters in her books. And she feels it deeply, so outside of her routine now and sucked into the pilot's son's orbit, his decisions. Realizing that this is her life, the life of the her she calls Callie, she feels nothing but an empty space underneath it all where something, some version of her, is missing.

            She looks out at the swamp, at the early evening light coming in warm among the trees, the entire area seems to her like it is on the brink of fire, like the sun goes down here and nowhere else on earth. If you are to escape this place, she thinks, get away scot-free, give yourself room to be pure and normal, something happens—every time something happens, doesn't it?—like this flabby pilot's son with the keys to a better world, to a better Florida waiting for them down there. Like you bend your life to fit more tightly in line with this man and his character. If this kind of leaving is something she doesn't have to plan or sacrifice anything for, if it manages to turn her into something like a purer version of herself, and if in Florida she can take down as much tequila as she wants, the good stuff even, with this overweight half-pilot with big eyes on a certain horizon, can you really blame her? Can she even blame herself?

 

 



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