Crop Dust

Writing Exercise

D. J. Cools

10/26/20224 min read

Two boys, twelve years old and both needing haircuts, wheeled their bikes up to Dr. Irwin’s wide brown porch.

Two rusty Huffy bicycles. Two pairs of knobby knees sticking out of holes in ragged jeans. Two skinny spines in t-shirts thin from too many washings. One boy with freckles and a wide mouth that grinned easily. The other dark-haired and light-skinned, small; almost delicate.

They tossed their bikes to the ground.

“So where’s the dog with the diaper?” said the taller boy—the one with the wide grin.

The smaller boy glanced at his friend as he unlocked the tool shed and shoved open the rusty door. Only he had been hired for the work they were here to do. Ben came along out of boredom. But Dr. Irwin was fishing in Montana and would never know, if it even mattered.

“In the house.” He wheeled the lawn mower out of the shed. “We’ll take care of him later.”

“Does the dog really wear a diaper?” Ben asked.

“Yeah. It’s gross. He’s incontinent.”

“Dang,” said Ben. He folded his arms across his chest, watching the smaller boy fill the lawn mower’s fuel tank with gasoline.

“You want me to do anything, Kate?”

“Not yet.”

Kate set the gas can down near the shed. Crossing back to the mower he pulled the starter cord again and again until the machine chugged into a staccato roar.

Kate’s real name was Caleb. Two summers ago a few kids from the surrounding farms were jumping their bikes over a board-and-cinder-block ramp. Several local dads leaned on pickup trucks and drank beer, talking about the fast-approaching harvest. They were farmers, and getting the crops in before the rains was their one great preoccupation this time of year. One of the youngest kids had looked up at Caleb and lisped, “Cateb? Awe you a gurl?”

Maybe he had been in bad need of a haircut that summer? Or maybe he was too unlike the other boys, with his thin cheeks and long-fingered hands. The other boys. Sun-browned, bruised boys who wrestled in pickup truck beds while their fathers drove from field to field on dirt roads. Freckled boys who chased each other with rusty tools behind the barns, out of sight of farmhouses and mothers and sisters.

Once the laughter had died down enough the other boys could choke out words, someone said, “Well, are you? Ca-teb? Are you a girl?” and the giggling erupted again. Someone started chanting, “Ca-teb, Ca-teb, Cate-eb—which quickly devolved to simply: Kate.

It stuck. Nearly everyone started calling him Kate. Even his parents slipped into the nickname without seeming to notice. Most of the time he didn’t notice anymore either. It was just his name.

Kate mowed while Ben tossed sticks into the bushes, bored. There wasn’t much grass, and there was only one mower. Kate didn’t mind doing the work while Ben watched. He would rather not share the money: $5 to mow the lawn, $1 to change the dog’s diaper; once a week for the lawn—once a day for the dog. There were not many paid jobs for a twelve year-old boy out here where wide spaces separated the houses (most of them surrounded by barns and corrals), and the nearest town was too far for a bicycle. And anyway, the job was only for two weeks.

When the last bag of clippings had been emptied, the boys glanced at each other. The big house was empty except for a dog that couldn’t hold his shit in, and Dr. Irwin’s dusty things. On his recent visits Kate had wandered through the empty house after the chores were finished, peering into dim corners, opening cupboards, reading trophy plaques and book titles on the shelves. Showing Dr. Irwin’s secrets to Ben was going to be a treat. Everything Kate had uncovered over the last few days that he probably wasn’t supposed to know about… Look but don’t touch. But the looking was delicious.

Kate put the mower away and stood beside Ben at the edge of the grass. The long gravel driveway rising up from the paved road in the distance crossed the space between them. It divided the smooth lawn from lumpy brown earth that soon gave way to tidy rows of planted alfalfa. Glinting irrigation lines pulsed out water in long arcs over patterned green plants in the afternoon light. Neither of them were ready to go inside yet and wipe an aging dog’s butt.

“You think you’ll ever leave?”

“What do you mean?” Ben said.

“Like, go to college somewhere. Or live in town.”

Kate wasn’t looking at his friend. He was gazing across the driveway into the distance where the broad sky met the flat spread of farmland. There were almost no trees.

“Naw,” said Ben.

At the sound of an approaching engine they turned and shielded their eyes against the sun, one boy a smaller echo of the other.

A squat yellow propeller plane came into view, flying low. A crop-duster: planes full of pesticides or fertilizer with rows of nozzles on the wings. All spring they would wing down so low over the fields it looked like they were about to tangle their landing gear in the waving alfalfa, letting go a thick blanket of chemicals over the plants, then swoop up and turn on a wing tip. The boys watched as the plane set up for a run over the field below where they stood.

“Why not?” asked Kate. “Don’t you want to go other places? See what’s out there?”

Ben squinted at the diving plane. It was coming straight for them, but they knew it would peel into its high turn before reaching the driveway.

“I love it out here.” Ben said. “It’s open and beautiful. There’s something in the air. You know what I mean?”

Kate eyed the approaching plane.

“Hey,” said Ben. “Let’s go lay down in the field as it flies over!”