The WORC Program
By Joshua Ryan
This is a story about adults, and for adults only.
It is also fiction. Any connection to real entities is purely coincidental.
OK, I admit it. I wasn’t a perfect boyfriend.
I guess I’d lost some interest. For one thing, Mike was 20 years older than me. Granted, he was in good condition. Nice face, nice eyes, nice hair, body still pretty much together—although I gotta say, he had about 15 pounds that he didn’t need. I’d been really interested in him at the start, and there was still something strong between us. I mean, it wasn’t like we NEVER had sex. In my way, I truly loved him.
And I knew I should be grateful to him. Mike had definitely done a lot for me. He’d put me through that last year of college, he’d got me a job afterwards, and he’d supported me totally when the job didn’t pan out. If he hadn’t paid off my debts after I quit that place, I don’t know what I would have done. I would’ve had to take some shit job, just to make ends meet. And like anybody could tell you, that wasn’t my style.
So obviously, Mike had money. Those investments of his had really paid off. Some guys have all the luck! So he could afford to bail me out that way. And I know, at his time of life, he enjoyed just having somebody staying around the house, looking nice for him when he got home.
I know he used to enjoy watching me napping by the pool, or just sitting in front of the mirror, making sure that my hair was right. It was all for him, really. A guy needs his boyfriend to take care of himself. And I wouldn’t have been half as hot if I’d had to go to some crummy office every day and miss my swim and my massage and my haircut and just worry every minute about paying my debts–when Mike had plenty of money to pay them anyway.
So that’s the way he was. Even when we had an argument, he didn’t go for the money angle. He just said these vague things about “trust.” He said he used to trust me to “be there for him,” but maybe I’d “changed.” I could never figure out what that meant. I was still me! I didn’t go out looking for a new boyfriend! I’d ask him, “What don’t you trust me about?” He’d say something vague about “feelings” or how I didn’t seem to be “the same” as he’d thought I was. So what can you do about that? Then it would all blow away.
But the sweet thing was, whenever Mike mentioned money, he’d always find a way to make a joke out of it. Like showing me some job ads for, like, “executive assistants,” and telling me, “Here’s what you’ve been looking for!” As if I spent my time thinking about how I could re-start my business career by landing an entry-level job. We must have laughed about that a hundred times.
Mike didn’t like to make jokes in public, but plenty of teasing went on when we got together with his best friend Jerry. Jerry would be over at our house and I’d do something to aggravate him, which wasn’t hard to do–I mean, I always knew he resented me for taking Mike away from him, despite the fact that they’d already stopped being lovers when I came on the scene. But anyway, Jerry would be there and I’d be hangin out, just bein myself, maybe turnin up the music a little too loud or drinkin a little too much, but hey! you gotta expect young guys to act up from time to time. And those little jokes I’d make about Mike–you know, about how old he was and how stingy he was or whatever–I didn’t think that was mean or anything. It was just some little love taps. Mike always laughed!
But Jerry never saw it that way. He was, like, committed to turning the joke on me. I’d be layin on the couch, surfin the web, bored outta my skull by all their big important conversations about “art” and “architecture” and “the truly great cuisines” and who was “truly a great tenor” and who “never deserved the applause he received for his performances”–and also “trends in property prices,” which was a big topic for both of them. Somehow I would signal boredom, maybe by nodding off. But Jerry would find some way to make it all about me.
One night, they were going on about how people default on their mortgages and it isn’t easy to foreclose on them, and Jerry looked over at me and said, “Hey, Mike, when are you gonna foreclose on THIS guy?”
“Well, what can I do?” Mike said. “He doesn’t have anything to foreclose on. He’s got no property, unless you want to count about a hundred thousand dollars worth of male grooming aids. All he’s got is what you see. What should I do—make him into a workie?”
Now here’s something you need to know if you don’t live in this state. A while ago they decided they were spending too much money on prisons, so they started turning criminals that weren’t totally dangerous into dudes they could lease out to employers. Sometimes they don’t call it leasing them out. And they never call it selling them–which it really is. They call it joining the WORC Program. Which stands for Work Options for Recovery and Correction. One of those dumb acronyms. The official name of the guys that are in it is “program participants,” which is almost as bad. Everybody just calls them workies.
The program’s pretty popular. Lotsa rich people and, like, corporations pay something to the state to license these dudes out to them. Also a lotta people that just have a little business will pick up a workie or two. They feed them and house them and put them to work. and pay a fee to the state upfront. The state has a right to take them back if “the conditions of the lease” are violated. But it’s usually a good investment, because you get to keep em forever if you want to, after the initial payment, or you can re-sell them back to the state. People think there’s something in it for everybody, because actually, you can even volunteer for the program. If you don’t have skills or you can’t get a job or you’re in some kind of trouble that you need to get out of, you can go to the WORC recruitment office and sign up for the program. It’s easy—they always want more guys like you! Sort of like the army! Is that a bad thing to say? But then you’re taken care of for the rest of your life. When you sign up to be a workie, it’s forever.
They even advertise. You see these billboards—there’s a picture on the left of some young dude, and he’s lookin really down, like really depressed, and some older guy, maybe 35, 40, right behind him, also lookin bad, and usually another three or four dudes so they can make it multi-ethnic and get everybody in, and next to that picture on the left it says in big letters I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. Then on the right side of the billboard is a line-up of workies. They’re all standing at attention, and they’re all in their uniforms, which are brand new and it’s almost like they’re starched and ironed, and they’re wearing their little caps, and if you look hard you can see the little steel collars they wear with the GPS trackers inside, and these are the same dudes that were on the left, only this time everybody’s smiling and happy. So next to that picture on the right it says in REAL big letters: PROBLEM SOLVED! And then: WORC WANTS YOU!
I guess most people don’t even notice those ads anymore. If they do, they think they’re sorta funny. But what else is some clueless young dude supposed to do—spend his life flippin burgers down at Mickey D’s? Not everybody’s born to be precious!
Jerry, I knew, had a lot of workies. More than a lot. He’d started out as a lawyer, and he’d made even better investments than Mike did, so now he had a house in town and a house up at the lake, and he had a farm off in the county someplace, and he had a lot of jobs for workies to do. So naturally, whenever Mike said that thing about “make him into a workie,” Jerry would come back with, “Sure, man–sell him to me! If he was one of MY workies, I’d find a use for him.” And they’d both laugh–although Mikey laughed in that sweet, innocent way he had, but I thought Jerry’s laugh always had something nasty and mean about it. I laughed at what they said myself, because they were making such fools out of themselves. I mean, it just wasn’t a good joke, that whole thing about “if he was one of my workies, I’d find a use for him.” It was like saying, “if he was my balloon, I’d find a party to take him to.” It was just dumb. Workies were workies. They had no relation to me at all.
Of course, I knew all the arguments. People said: “It takes 70,000 dollars a year to keep a man in prison, and only 60,000 to send him to Harvard. But workies pay for themselves.” Then other people would deny that. So who knows? It’s obviously better to put a bunch of failures to work than have them laying around.
That’s what I thought every time I saw a gang of workies. You know, you’re on the freeway and there they are in the back of a truck, all these workies all dressed up in their goofy white suits and their goofy white caps, on their way to another glorious day of making the Heartland beautiful with their shovels and rakes. Or you see a workie in some rich guy’s yard, mowing his lawn or washing his car like a junior high school kid, even though he was, like, maybe 45 years old. Or the other way around: Sometimes when I’d pick Mike up in front of that health club I finally got him to join, I’d see a guy comin out with a workie behind him, carrying his gym bag, and it was funny to think, here’s this old executive with the face lifts and the hundred dollar haircut and the three hundred dollar shoes and the big flabby stomach, and behind him is this hot young dude that’s bigger than him and ten times fitter, but he’s the one that’s wearing those cheap ugly horrible workie clothes, and he’s the executive’s bag-carrying device. Then you’ll see him helping his boss into his car and closing the door ever so carefully and positioning the bag just right on the front seat beside him, and then the workie hops into the trunk, for the ride home. I used to wonder what they did when they got there—though I could guess that “cook my dinner” had more than one meaning. Because lots of those workies were hot. But I’d just as soon have had sex with a workie as I would with the garbage man—which lots of them are actually used for.
“What should I do—make him into a workie?” Mike said. “Not a bad idea,” Jerry said. “You know, the program’s so useful, lots of people volunteer for it. If they can’t seem to find another job.” Which was meant as another dig at me.
“Sure,” I said. “Buncha losers.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “But I guess it’s better than being a busboy for the rest of your life.”
“Or those banana scanners in the supermarket,” I said. Mike and I shared a laugh.
“But let’s face it,” Jerry said. “Some guys can’t make it on their own. They need a lifetime support network.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “Obviously, if you’re dealing with somebody who has a drug conviction or something like that. But what about the ones that volunteer? I guess they’re treated the same as all the other workies.”
“You’ve gotta do it that way,” Jerry said. “If I treated any of my workies different from the others, I couldn’t manage any of them.”
“So, do they behave any different?” Mike asked. “I mean, the convicts and the volunteers?”
“Let me put it this way,” Jerry said, drawing himself up like the big man that’s in charge of everything. Actually, he is pretty big, but you know what I mean. “Out on the farm, I’ve got a few coffles working the fields. I look at those workies, and I can’t tell them apart. Even though I paid for them. Can’t tell the convicts from the volunteers.”
“What about your house servants?” Mike said. “Guess you know them by name.”
“Sure. By the names I gave them. I name all of them, even the field hands. Soon as I get them. And the house servants are around all the time. I know who they are. But the point is, there’s no difference between the volunteers and the convicts. Can’t be. They’re all workies.”
“Even if they’re hot?” I said. I thought it was time for me to say something.
Mike had been refreshing Jerry’s drink, and he put the glass down next to him.
“Thanks!” Jerry said. “You’re always such a good host.”
Which was another comment aimed at me. Implication: why wasn’t I the one who was getting up off the couch to pour him a drink? As if I was the one who wanted to waste a great bottle of Chateau Pape Clement on Jerry Hamilton.
“Well,” Jerry said, deigning to notice my existence. “I try to choose ones I’m not ashamed to have serving my guests. But they’re workies, and they’re there to work. Yes, I know there’s an idea in the gay community about workies being hot. And some of them started off that way. Before they were workies. But the training takes most of that out of them. Not much you can do with a workie suit.”
“Never see ANY hot ones?” I asked.
“Don’t think so,” he said. “Mike, here, might say different.”
Mike blushed. “He’s talking about one time . . . It’s a long time ago. I was looking at this ad, and it was downloading slow, and there was a guy with a real pretty face in it. Sort of like yours, Carson! Anyway, Jerry was there and I said, hey, look at this one! Then right away the thing opened, and the guy was wearing a workie suit! He was a workie! Definitely changed the way I looked at him. So Jerry’s been needling me ever since, about how I’m a workie lover.”
“That’s right,” Jerry laughed, “and I’m sure you are. Down deep inside. But thinking about this one being hot and that one being hot . . . . I mean, that’s something you might see in some recruitment ad someplace, like that one that got you all turned on … ”
“Which it didn’t!”
“ … and you like his face or something, but when you see the whole workie, out on the street or the farm or whatever, they all look alike.” He paused and grinned at me. “Put this one in a workie suit, and you couldn’t tell which workie he was.”
“Really?” Mike said. “But I could! Remember, you’re talking about the man I love.” He moved over and sat next to me on the couch. Ruffled my hair. He was really gettin into this.
“Lots of workies were somebody’s love,” Jerry said. “But once they’re intaked and processed and contracted out, it doesn’t make any difference. Unless one of them is lucky enough to be selected for house work, if you know what I mean.”
“Well,” Mike said, “if I ever want to buy a workie, this is the one I’ll buy.” Giving me a little shoulder hug.
“And with good reason,” Jerry smiled. I smiled back, but I didn’t feel like I had good reason.
It was a typical one of their conversations, full of wit and wisdom at my expense. It seemed like they’d never let it go. It just kept coming back. Every time Jerry came to visit, so did it. Same little comments. Same so called jokes. Me and the workies. If Jerry didn’t bring it up, Mike was certain to do it–and always with that same tone, like, this is my chance to say how much I’m in love with my partner Carson. Obviously, he thought it was erotic. I didn’t. I thought it was tiresome. Worse than tiresome. There were enough things I didn’t like about Mike; I didn’t need another one.
But they kept it up, and after a while I’d had enough and I decided to get it over with. Although I did wait till Mike left the room to round up some more liquor.
“Well, sir,” I said to Jerry. “Exactly what would you do with me I was one of your workies?”
Of course, he didn’t want to answer. He never did. He never wanted to talk to me, much less joke around with me—as opposed to joking about me or at me. It was always like, I fuckin hate you, you froofy little bastard. But this time he sort of had to answer.
“One thing,” he said. “I know I’d get some respect out of you.”
“Fat chance!” I said, and he let out a big laugh. But he never changed his expression. It’s one of those things you have to put up with, if you hang with rich guys. They don’t change.
“How would you do it?” I asked. “How do you get respect out of your workies?”
He was definitely surprised by that. Me, the froofy little queen, had finally asked him a serious question.
“Actually,” he said, “I ignore them. Basically, I just ignore them.”
“Ignore them?” I said. “What kind of fun is that?”
“None, I guess. From my point of view, workies are pretty much of a bore. They sweep, they clean, they dig in the fields, they cook my food, and if they’re attractive enough they serve it. But workies aren’t interesting to me. I don’t have much to do with them. I’m like the other big owners—I’ve got bosses. Workies that keep the other workies in line. They’re pretty tough. They get the job done.”
“And that gets you respect?” I said. Jerry usually irritated me, but he was more irritating tonight.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” he said–really casual, which was even more irritating. “I don’t know what’s going on inside their skulls. If anything. So maybe not. But they’ve got no choice except to ACT respectful. They’re pretty weak material to begin with. Wherever they came from, they were usually pampered little princes. Brought up by their welfare mamas as the man in the house. Or sent to the best boy’s school in the state, where strangely, they always got A’s. Given free access to the accounts by their friendly employer. Given the corner office by their father’s firm. Given everything by their older male partner.”
Whoa! If THAT wasn’t directed at me!
“So,” he went on, “this is what you’d call a major career change for them. Even if they’re volunteers, they aren’t really expecting it. Real work isn’t something they understood. But by the time they’ve been processed and trained and leased out, they’re ready for the stuff they’re handed.”
“So what,” I asked, “would you hand me? If I was one of your workies?”
He took another drag on his drink. “You want the truth?” he said.
“Yeah. Sure. I always want the truth.” I was mad, and I didn’t care who noticed it.
Jerry looked over at Mike, who’d finally returned with his drink and was glancing around, trying to pick up on the conversation. “So do I,” Mike said. “For instance, I’ve always wanted to get the truth about you, Jerry.”
They smiled at each other. Then Jerry said, starting off, “Well, I don’t need another valet or driver or manager, and I don’t think you’ve got any particular trade or skill.”
“And I don’t think you’d be buckin for boss workie. You know, keeping track of the other workies, supervising their labor details, administering the appropriate discipline …”
“Sounds like a lotta work.”
“It is. So I’d probably have to make you an under-servant. If you learned, I think you might be able to mop the floors, scrub the toilets, that kind of thing. Maybe some extra duties if I had a big party.”
“But you don’t have parties,” Mike put in.
“Maybe I would if I liked people better,” Jerry said. Big smile at Mike. He was always doin flirts like that. “And then I’d need more workies. But Carson would never be as good as Maria is.” Maria was Mike’s housekeeper, that he’d had forever. An old bitch, if you ask me.
It was all so silly. But I was interested in hearing what Mike came out with.
“You wouldn’t put him in a coffle?” he said. He actually said that!
Jerry gave me that familiar, superior look, like he’d made up his mind about me a long time ago and now he was just confirming what he knew.
“Sure,” he said. “If I thought he could take it. Which probably he couldn’t. But the real test,” he went on, looking all wise and technical, “wouldn’t be the coffle. It would be intake and processing. Every new workie gets processed into the life, as they call it, and it’s a pretty rough experience. As it’s supposed to be. As it should be. Then somebody buys their lease and off they go. Processing . . . . I don’t think you could take it, Carson. It would be too big a change in your . . . lifestyle.”
He let his eyes roam around the room, noting the Persian rugs and the Amos Dollinger paintings, and the ten-thousand-dollar couch that I was reclining on. That he knew I’d selected and made sure that Mike bought. Every second of that glance said, “You are a worthless parasite.”
So OK, that was it. Finally, I was boiling mad.
“You are SO wrong,” I said. “I could take anything a fuckin workie takes. I guess Mike never told you I was on the swim team at Stanhope. You don’t know what I can do! I could do that shit, standin on my head!”
“Look, Carson,” Mike said. “Jerry didn’t mean anything.”
“Wanta bet I couldn’t?” I said. “Prove I couldn’t!”
“Come on!” Mike said. “How could he do that?”
“Actually,” Jerry said, “there’s a way.” It made me even madder, the way he didn’t get mad. Like nothing I said made any difference.
“Yeah?” I said. “Tell me!”
“It’s something people have done before. Reporters. One of those filmmakers. It just occurred to me.”
“What do you mean?” Mike asked. As usual, everything had to be discussed s-l-o-w-l-y between them. Why is it that as guys get older, they waste more time?
“People who want to investigate a prison, for example,” Jerry went on. “From the inside. They find somebody that arranges for them to become a prisoner — under cover, of course. They come out in a day or two, and they report on their experience. I don’t need to tell you, the reports are pretty superficial . . . .”
The last thing I wanted to hear right then was an extended critique of the media. “So how do they ‘come out’?” I asked.
“Same way they got in. It’s all set up beforehand. Like I say, it isn’t so unusual. You could probably do the same thing with WORC. I’ve done enough business with them; I think I could fix it up. I could just buy somebody a drink, tell him you’d say something nice about WORC on the internet. Which I know you wouldn’t! But that’s OK. The only question is: how would you survive your day or so as a workie? Would you be able to do it—what did you say?—standing on your head? Or would it make you extremely . . . unhappy? I’m sure that Mike, here, could judge how well you did.”
“Hey,” Mike said. “Carson’s just fooling around. Nobody would expect a pretty little guy like him …”
“Little? I’m six feet tall!”
“Yes you are. And I love every inch of you” — ruffling my hair.
I backed away. “If I need to prove something, I’ll prove it,” I said.
“Really,” Jerry said, “I was the one that was fooling around. It’s not for you, Carson. You’re not cut out for it. You’re too … ornamental.”
“Right!” Mike said. “That’s what you are–you’re my work of art! And I’m so happy to have you right here with me!”
Fuck! What did they think I was, the last of the snowflakes?
“So,” I said to Jerry. “You could arrange it, right?”
There was a long pause, like something was starting to move inside Jerry’s head. You could almost hear the heavy old gears clanking around. Did I already say that Jerry’s even older than Mike is?
“I’ve always known you’re a big man in this county,” I added.
“I suppose so,” he said, very calm. Annoyingly calm. “Yes. I could manage that. But let’s make it a bet . . . . You spend, say, 48 hours as a workie, and if you’ve still got your head up high, I’ll buy you a whole new wardrobe. I don’t want you to miss the spring styles.”
“Spring styles started in January.”
“Fall styles then.”
“OK. But if I lose? Not that I’m GONNA lose.”
“Then I’ll do the same thing for you. Just so you don’t feel bad.”
He said it in his usual sneery voice. Just taunting me, because he knew I wouldn’t take his stupid bet. But I guess Mike didn’t hear it that way. “A win-win proposition!” he said. Which was true, even if it did just show that Jerry always had to be the unassailable top. But he was trying too hard, this time.
“You’re on!” I said. “How do I start?”
“Well,” he said, “I think it’ll be fairly simple. There’s a WORC recruitment office on Overland Road.”
“Way out there?” Mike said.
“Well, their last place, the one on Fourth—I happen to know that they couldn’t afford the lease. The state doesn’t fund recruitment very well. They figure there’s always enough convicts. Now, I think that’s a short-sighted view. Granted, real estate in Overland Gardens is underpriced, but still, the advertising value of being downtown …”
I was yawning, and finally I was noticed.
“I’m sorry, Carson,” Jerry said. “I didn’t mean to leave you out of the conversation. I’m pretty sure this will work. Like I say, I’ll need to buy somebody a drink, but I think I know who. The contract supervisor–he’s sort of a friend of mine. Needn’t be any big preliminaries, as far as I can see. I’ll try to fix it so you’ll just turn up at the office, and suddenly, you’re a workie. When would you like it to happen?”
He said it like, “Here’s your chance to get out of this.” And I was thinking how easy it would be to just say I was a little drunk and I didn’t know right now, and keep putting it off till everybody forgot about it.
“Any time!” I said.
“OK,” he said. “I’ll try to schedule it soon. You’ll probably want to get it over with.”
“But wait!” Mike said. “What’s to guarantee he’ll get out in 48 hours?”
“Oh,” Jerry said. “I’ve gotten so many workies from them–they won’t screw up. OK with you, Carson?”
“Fine,” Jerry said. “You’ve got yourself a whole new outfit, kid. I’ll get right to work on it. Hey Mike, can you give me a pencil and a piece of paper? I need to write down his date of birth. For the entrance documents. They’ll want that. Also his Social Security number …”
By the end of the night, I don’t know how many drinks I’d enjoyed, but the best thing was that I’d finally stood up to Jerry.
To be continued …
Metal would like to thank the author, Joshua Ryan, for sharing this story, which will be serialized here over the coming days and weeks.