The Acrobat

The Acrobat

The Piper PA-25 Pawnee bucked once, gasped, and then died. Hmm…this is interesting, Rico thought, peering out the tiny side window. He quickly calculated: he had at least a half-mile to the runway. He pushed the nose down to come in lower, hoping to get underneath the turbulence.

He only had one shot at this, but he’d been in tighter spots before. As he got closer, Sam Haythorn’s voice squawked through the headset, which swung from a bungee cord stretched across the ceiling of the Pawnee.

XY49K, you are not cleared to land. Repeat. XY49K, you are not cleared to land.

Rico looked up at the headset. He would have liked to have responded to Sam but was kind of occupied at the moment. He’d make it up to him over a beer later in the Hangar Five Bar. He was coming in too fast, but he didn’t have much choice. He hoped he could hold the nose up long enough to get his plane safely on the ground.

In exasperation, Sam looked over at his partner, shaking his head. “I swear, one day we’ll be hosing that son of a bitch off the runway.” Duncan smiled and nodded.

The small plane bounced once opposite the control tower, Rico glancing over long enough to catch Sam’s red face, and bounced again twenty yards farther down the runway. He was relying on the plane’s brakes now, which he’d never had to rely on before. He leaned back hard in the seat and closed his eyes. Nothing to do now but pray. He let out a loud laugh when he realized he didn’t know how to pray, so he screamed “shit!” instead.

Just before driving the nose of the plane into a prairie dog hole in the overgrown field at the west end of the tiny airport, Rico managed to jerk the Piper sharply to the left skidding to a stop. He exhaled. After a minute to reflect, his head resting on the small steering wheel, he unbuckled and stepped out of the plane, relieved to be on the ground. He spent as much time in the air, time that counted anyway, as time on the ground. His Uncle John, who taught him how to fly, always told him if he was going to be a pilot, he needed to change his point of reference from looking up to looking down. And he did.

Rico turned back to look at the Piper, sitting like a crippled bird just off the edge of the tarmac. He guessed Sam would send the fuel truck out. When Sam’s voice cracked across the headset again, Rico reached into the cockpit and slipped it over his head.

“I don’t know what you were up to, but I want to see you in the tower ASAP.”

“Listen, Sam, it couldn’t be helped,” Rico tried to explain. “I ran a little short of fuel is all.”

“And you’ve been flying how long?”

“Well, it really doesn’t have anything to do with how long I’ve been flying, it’s more about the wind.”

“Wind, my ass,” Sam said. “I want to see you up here immediately.”

“Do you think I can get a little fuel out here so I can get her off the runway? She looks a little silly sitting here in the scrub.”

“I’ll send the truck out, but you get your scrawny ass up here – now,” Sam screamed into the headset.

Rico tossed the headset onto the seat and walked unsteadily toward the control tower, mumbling under his breath.

He climbed the two flights of stairs, stopping at each landing to look back at his plane. He hated leaving it sitting on the edge of the runway. Before he opened the door into the observation room of the control tower, he hesitated, trying to gauge Sam Haythorn’s stormy glare.

“Just what in the fuck was that all about?” Sam asked even before Rico had the chance to close the door behind him.

“As I said, Sam, I ran a little short on fuel,” Rico said.

Sam was holding a rolled-up piece of paper in his hand, slapping it against his thigh. And then he held it up. “Do you know what this is?”

Rico smiled. “I’m guessing that is my flight plan.”

Sam unfurled it and began reading, “Fuel: 38 gallons. Check. Chemical: 1500 pounds. Check. Range: 250 miles. Check.” He looked up and asked, “How far did you go today?”

“I’d have to check my log,” Rico said.

“And you’d tell me the truth?” Sam asked.

“Of course, why wouldn’t I?” Rico said.

“Because it isn’t in your nature,” Sam said.

“That’s not fair, Sam,” Rico said.

“No, it isn’t. But it’s the truth.”

“OK. OK. I went out a little low on fuel so I could carry a little more dump. It’s done all the time,” Rico said.

“And it’s going to get you killed,” Sam said. “Is your life really worth so little?”

“It isn’t a question of what my life’s worth, Sam, it’s more a question of what can I get done.”

“And when you’re dead, what then? How much are you going to get done then, huh?”

“Then I’m not going to worry about it like I have to while I’m alive.”

“I swear, Rico, you’re going to be the end of me. The end of both of us. Now get out of here.”

“Can I buy you a beer later?” Rico asked as he opened the door to leave.

Sam frowned, shook his head, and said, “Yeah, I’ll see you later.”

Rico Imbroglio was a crop duster, called crazy by some, skilled by others. He took chances. It was his mark. He took jobs other crop dusters avoided like the plague. But then Rico always guessed a pilot had to sit alone, had to settle into his own consciousness, look out his own narrow window. It wasn’t any different with anyone else in any profession. Everyone had to look out his own window, Rico believed.

John Fench, married to his dad’s sister, had taken Rico under his wing when Rico was only eleven. Rico had taken right to it, couldn’t get enough of flying. John had flown F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, and afterward, as a fighter pilot with the Air National Guard, flew F-16 Fighting Falcons, right up until the time he went down during a training mission when Rico was twenty-one. Rico had been flying for over ten years by the time of John’s death, and he had no plans to give it up. He knew the risks, but he figured the risks in the air were less than what he encountered on the ground.

Rico had enlisted in the Air Force, but couldn’t get past the physical because of a slight tick in his heart. It wasn’t anything that grounded him, but it kept him out of the Air Force. He flew bush planes in Alaska for over eleven years, until the solitude and the whiskey finally overcame him. He moved back to Colorado where he’d grown up. He hated coming back, thinking it was a step backward. But he had to return to civilization. Or so he thought. He took up crop dusting, the closest thing he could find to the thrill of flying in the Alaska bush. But he never gave up whiskey.

Rico walked back to his plane to wait for the fuel truck. Gus pulled up with his usual broad smile. “Hey, Rico, it looks as if you could use a little fuel,” he said. “Maybe you could’ve used it a little earlier. One of these days, your luck’s gonna run out. You know that, don’t you?”

“Listen, Gus,” Rico yelled to Gus as Gus pulled the hose up to the Piper’s fuel tank. “It isn’t about luck. Luck has nothing to do with it. I like to call it fate. We’re all fated one way or another.”

“Fate,” Gus laughed. “You might believe that your life is determined by some unknown force or other, but for me, I like to keep my feet on the ground, right where God intended them to be.”

“But look what you’re missing out on.”

“Hey, I’m not missing out on anything. For excitement, I go to the movies.”

“The movies? A poor substitute for living.”

“Yeah, well, I get thrill enough out of watching a good 007 movie. If you need to strap yourself into an angry bomb, that’s your business. Thirty-eight gallons of highly combustible fuel and another 500 gallons of pure liquid hell, does that seem wise to you?”

“It’s a living,” Rico said.

“Well, I’m making a living, too, but I’m doing it where I can run for my life when things go up in flames. You, you’re sitting on top a fucking bomb several hundred feet above the ground. And you keep pushing it. Flying lower and lower. Taking more and more chances. You only get so many, you know.”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out. How many? That’s the big question, right?”

“Not for me it isn’t,” Gus said.

When Gus had reeled the fuel hose in, Rico climbed back in the tight cockpit, turned the electric fuel pump on, opened the throttle about one-eighth inch, primed the engine three times, flicked the magneto switch to the on position, turned on the master switch, and pushed the starter button. It coughed and sputtered. He primed it again, opened up the throttle, and pushed the starter button again. It fired. The propeller clicked and whirred into action. Smooth. He felt in control again as he guided the Piper Pawnee back to its hangar.

At five that afternoon, he headed to the Hangar Five Bar on Airport Road a short distance from the small airport. He hung out here. This is where the pilots came when they weren’t flying. The place was already crowded. He walked to the long bar that looked out across the mowed field that bordered the airstrip. Through the wall of windows, the pilots could watch planes coming and going.

Jesse turned in his bar stool and greeted Rico. “I heard you had another close call this morning.”

“Not so close,” Rico said. He pulled out a bar stool and sat down. Punts set a glass of beer in front of Rico. Rico always started with a beer. Maybe two. He avoided the whiskey for as long as he could. It always came later. But he never started with it. It was too depressing. But he never could hold it off for long – the whiskey or the depression.

“Has Sam been in?” Rico asked Punts.

“Haven’t seen him,” Punts said.

“You in trouble with Sam again?” Jesse asked.

“No, it’s nothing,” Rico said. “I just promised to buy him a beer, that’s all.”

“You think Sam’s that easily bought off?” Jesse asked.

“I wasn’t trying to buy him off,” Rico said. “I just happen to like his company. More than yours, that’s for sure.”

“Did you get Smith’s place done?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah,” Rico said.

“What d’you got next?”

“I’ve got to go up to Windsor for a couple of days.”

“Parrington’s place?”

“Yeah, and Israel’s, too.”

“Oh, Danny Israel?”

“Yeah, do you know him?” Rico asked.

“I used to,” Jesse said.

“Used to?”

“I mean, yeah, I know him,” Jesse said. “I just haven’t seen him in a while.”

“I guess that means he hasn’t seen you either – in a while,” Rico smiled. “Before I took his place on, he’d told me you used to do it. But you had some sort of falling out.”

“I just didn’t like what he was asking, that’s all,” Jesse said. “It sounded kind of crazy to me. I take enough risks as it is, I don’t need anymore.”

“But that’s precisely what we do,” Rico said. “We take risks. It’s the only thing we have. If we didn’t have our skins in the game, they’d pay us a lot less. It keeps us in demand.”

“If you’re dead, the money isn’t going to matter,” Jesse said.

“It’s never been about the money,” Rico said. “It’s about keeping your skin in the game. It’s about being essential.”

“I don’t guess any of us is essential,” Jesse said. “They’d figure out another way to get their crops sprayed. They’ll figure it out anyway, no matter whether we keep our skins in the game or not. We’re obsolete. Or soon to be.”

“I don’t pay much attention to soon to be,” Rico said. He took a long drink of beer and looked over his shoulder. He was relieved to see Sam making his way to the bar. He stood up and offered the stool to Sam.

“Sit down,” Sam said. “I’ll stand.”

“Don’t think about it,” Rico said. “You need to take a load off.”

“Are you suggesting that I’m fat,” Sam said.

“Not at all, I’m suggesting that you’ve had a long day and you need to rest,” Rico said. “Get a beer for Sam, will you, Punts?” Punts drew the beer and set it in front of Sam, who pushed the barstool up under the lip of the bar, reached for the beer, and took a long drink. He looked over at Rico.

“I’m worried about you,” Sam said.

“So here comes the lecture you’ve been scheming up all afternoon,” Rico said.

“No, not all afternoon, for months, maybe years. I’m not sure you’re sane enough to fly.”

“Sane enough?” Rico said. “Hell, no, I’m not sane enough. No pilot worth his weight in salt is sane enough to fly. If I were sane, I’d take a desk job like you. You were a pilot once, a damn good one, too. You know what it takes.”

“I know what it takes, you’re right there,” Sam said. “And I know when a pilot has gone beyond, when a pilot flies too close to the edge.”

“Come on, Sam, that’s not fair. You gave it up after you met Vera. And I think you made the right decision. It’s risky.”

“It had nothing to do with Vera or the risks I took when I flew,” Sam said. “I was tired. Flying takes a hell of a strain on you. And I was worn out. I’m not so sure you aren’t worn out, Rico.”

“I feel fine,” Rico said. “There’s nothing wrong with me, mentally or physically. I tell you I’m fine.”

“You’re dangerous,” Sam said. He set his beer on the bar and looked hard at Rico. “I think you’re trying to kill yourself. Oh, maybe not in a straightforward way, but in the back of your mind I think you have a death wish.”

“You’re not making sense, Sam,” Rico said. “I tell you I’m fine. I get a thrill out of flying. And when I fly close to the edge, I get an even greater thrill out of it. Sure, I’ll admit that. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“This is different,” Sam said. “I’ve been around people who take calculated risks because they feel a heightened sense of excitement in it. But you are pushing way past that. Your risks aren’t calculated. They border on insanity.”

“I think you’re wrong, Sam,” Rico said. “I’m a good flyer, damn good.”

“You’re the best I’ve ever seen, but something’s snapped inside you,” Sam said. “You’re dangerous. And I don’t want to have to hose you off the tarmac. No one does.”

“What’s that mean?” Rico asked.

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “I’m looking into my options. I just don’t know yet.”

“Are you thinking about turning me in to the FAA?”

“Like I said, I don’t know yet,” Sam said. “But you’ll be the first to know.”

“All because of today?” Rico asked.

“No, today is just one more incident in a long list of things that have me worried,” Sam said. He picked up his glass and took another drink of beer. Rico looked hard at him. Rico couldn’t imagine his life without flying. The world looked bleak enough from the air, from the ground it was intolerable. If it came to that, he’d leave the country. He’d move to Mexico. He’d fly there. Sam couldn’t keep him out of the sky. No one could. He finished his beer and asked Punts to bring him a whiskey.

“That’s another thing that concerns me,” Sam said.

“I don’t drink when I fly,” Rico said. “So it shouldn’t concern you.”

After Sam left, Rico sat at the bar sipping his whiskey. He liked the burn of it. And when he had just the right amount, it put a smooth finish on his thoughts. He eased into the non-gravitational space that he found in flying, that space of weightlessness. He stood up and walked to the restroom, conscious of the echo of his boots across the hardwood floor. He stood at the sink looking at his image in the streaked mirror. Sam wouldn’t ground him, he was sure of it. They had known each other too long. Maybe if he promised Sam that he’d get some help. But he knew he wouldn’t get any help. He’d been through that before. He washed his hands and splashed some water on his face, looking once more into the mirror. No one was going to tell him what he needed to do. No one. It was his life. He didn’t have much, but he had this much at least.

When he sat back down, he ordered another whiskey. His mind was still too stirred up. The burn hadn’t come yet.


He was up early the next morning, two hours before sunup. He made coffee and fried a couple of eggs, which he ate out of the frying pan. He filled his thermos and walked out to his car. He drove the short distance to the airport and parked outside the hangar. The flight to Windsor would take no more than thirty minutes and he’d arranged for the chemical truck to meet him at the Highline Farm Airstrip at five-thirty. He would be spraying by six. And done by nine. Easy enough.

He’d driven up to Parrington’s farm yesterday afternoon. It was a straight forward job with power lines at both the west and east ends of the field. He never minded going under power lines. He liked flying low. It bothered some pilots, but he always figured if it bothered them they should find another way to make a living. Risks were part of the job. On the west end, there were power lines running along either side of the county road nestled against the field, so his approach would have to begin a hundred yards before the road. And he’d be flying into the sun, which made it even more precarious. Good. This is why he got the job.

He loved the hum and rattle of the Piper Pawnee in the dark hours before sunrise. Flying in the dark, he felt the whole universe open up to him. Once he reached cruising speed, the Pawnee evened out, and he poured a cup of coffee from the thermos. In the broad plain to the east, the sun was beginning its morning ritual. Rico could count on few things in his life. The stretch of sun in the morning was one of those things. Come to think of it, he couldn’t think of anything else. Except the sun slipping behind the mountains at nightfall. That was another thing. Squeezed between these two things his life gave him enough. The burn of whiskey didn’t always numb his thoughts like it used to, so he couldn’t count on it anymore.

He banked the Piper Pawnee straight into the glow of predawn. And the universe reached out to him. He was alone. But he had a fix on his location. How many people could say that? Sam didn’t understand. Rico thought that Sam had understood once. But he’d traded it in. For what? What could replace the thrill of flying into the arms of the universe? Rico was touched by something that he couldn’t put into words. But words weren’t needed. There wasn’t anyone to tell anyway. He pushed the nose down scanning the horizon for the narrow airstrip. He hated going down, but he would. For now. But he wouldn’t stay down long. He had tricks to perform for this traveling circus. He was a one-of-a-kind acrobat. One-of-a-kind.

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