ust a boy of seventeen and Four Roses drunk, Romer Meeks had pancaked his father's Aeronca Chief onto Becky Weed's front yard, downtown Tea, South Dakota. He'd knocked out his two front teeth against his kneecap and spit a pulpy string of blood on the long grass next to the little airplane, which rested maimed over its buckled landing gear. He'd wanted to impress her. Now he'd have to tell his dad he'd broke his glasses.
Romer limped, casual as a scarecrow, to the porch where Becky and her family stood. Don't appear messy, he thought, the idea forming like foam in his consciousness. Don't appear hurt neither. Mostly, though, don't appear stupid, but it's maybe a little late for that. "What are you up to?" Romer said as he reached visiting distance, hiding the gap in his mouth with his tongue like an upside-down wolf whistle.
"My God, Romer, are you okay?" Becky asked, standing at the edge of the porch. Romer felt a throbbing in his chest.
"Just turn around and keep on walkin'," Becky's father said, staring at the toylike airplane for signs of smoke and fire. "Limp on home.
"But, Dad, what if he's hurt?"
"He ain't hurt that bad."
Romer did limp home, to be rejected by the Air Force and the Navy and the Coast Guard and Jackrabbit Air Freight, for reasons that ranged from arrhythmia to corrective lenses thick as the bottoms of canning jars. After another wrecked airplane he had to have custom-made shoes with the left sole cobbled two inches higher than the right, normal one, just so he could walk in a straight line. Fifteen years later, he wore black lizard-skin cowboy boots, little red airplane hand-stitched into the elkhide shafts, cloud of thread on leather weather, skywritten initials just below: RM.
Chasing bugs and nightshade up and down the long and short rows of eastern South Dakota, Romer laid malathion and Dibrom 14 fog over small town after small town for an outfit out of Sisseton called Sky Tractor; the poison settled into wells and backwaters, marrow, eddies, aquifers, and fat stores. Romer found himself gypsy-flying over Big Stone City, where, he remembered reading from the Weddings section of the County Broad-Axe, Becky Weed had moved (following a honeymoon in Hawaii) with her husband, the quarterback-turned-banker.
Jim Beam his drinking buddy the night before, poison and coffee sloshing in his stomach now, the checkerboard cropland surrounding the airport read like the cloudy irrigated topographical map of his memory. He'd come such a long way, scud-running the 250-horsepower '66 Piper Pawnee with a narrow Spartan cockpit like a fighter plane, a long way from the boyhood Chief that would fly backward at full throttle in a stiff headwind.
But now, in real time, he flew. A film of green engine oil and yellow motes of poison that dripped from leaky O-rings painted the windscreen of the Pawnee or his glasses--wasn't sure--causing the sunlight to prism his view, sweet vibrations and smell of malathion, alfalfa seed, and old tractor filling the cockpit as he taxi-bounded across the grass, synaptic bulbs firing, his liver feeling fine and clean as ever. Styrofoam Grande Cafe Java between his legs. Traffic control a smile and a wave.
Pawnee Whiskey Zulu. He took off heavy to the north, using every inch of runway in the thin summer air, pulled up and banked hard and buzzed town fast and low. That morning over breakfast--cigarettes, a jelly-filled--he'd sleuthed Becky Weed's (now Becky Catchpole's) address. Old fashioned pre-GPS telephone-book map in his lap lined with a carpenter's pencil, he nosed the airplane down and rolled left into a twisted horseshoe. Romer surveyed her half acre of yard and house in reconnaissance fashion, the end of the canopy rainbow resting at her patio, where the quarterback barbecued in a pink golf shirt. Becky Weed nowhere in sight.
Romer had held a fantasy, that of flying shotgun for the Animal Damage Control boys over to West River, shooting coyotes from a Husky with a Benelli 1O-gauge, but the ADC was military in nature and he knew he wouldn't pass muster, many physical equivalents of flat feet. He'd have to stay satisfied with his summertime blitzkrieg on the delicate chemical balance in the nervous systems of arthropods. Catchpole the quarterback flashed a banker's wave at the pilot in the sky, Thanks for spraying, yes, the world needs fewer insects and more fliers like you, you'd qualify for low interest, damn sure would--Go Coyotes!--see me on Monday in my designer tie.
Romer waved back, tipped his wings as if to say, Remember me, Becky Weed? Romer Meeks, the only one who's crashed for you.
This one's on the county, city of Big Stone, Romer Meeks, Sky Tractor (by God!). He ruddered left, stall speed rising, circled and came in low, yawing above the ranch-style, out of trim, then leveled his booms over a 12-gallon veil of malathion, enough organophosphates to drop a murder of crows.
Becky Weed will not have to swat mosquitoes as long as Romer flies her evening air.
Excerpted from When We Were Wolves by Jon Billman. Copyright © 1999 by Jon Billman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Photo credit © Hilary Barton Billman