By Joshua Ryan
While I was thinking about all the things that could mean for my future (!!!), the dudes in jeans were putting me on the truck. I’m saying “on the truck” instead of “in the truck” because my place was in a cage attached to the bed. I would ride to the farm like an animal. No, not “like.”
The two five-gallon tubs of Slick It Off were nestling beside the cage. One of the dudes told me to stow my box behind them, and he unclipped the leash from my collar and handed it to the cop. I could see a lot of leashes hanging in the truck’s rear window; I guess they didn’t need any more. And was that a rifle sticking up between the seats? That or a shotgun! They’d be ready for me, in case I caused any trouble during my transport.
They opened the little gate to the cage, and I clambered in. You could tell that the cage wasn’t just a temporary part of the truck; it was bolted to the bed. There wasn’t enough room to stand up in, but there were little shelves on each side of it where somebody could sit. Just enough for four workies to be crammed inside. But today only one workie was out for delivery — me. I had the whole cage to myself.
They locked me in with two big padlocks, which banged against the cage at every bump — and there were a lot of bumps, because Hamilton Farms was a long way away. The first part of the route went right through town, where there were plenty of people to look at me. It seemed like we hit every stoplight, and there were always cars beside us and pedestrians waiting to cross. Most of them were determined not to pay any attention, but some of the teenagers gawked and shouted things. At one stop, a posse of skateboarders ran up and took selfies with me. The jeans dude that was riding shotgun must have said something nice to them, because they smiled and gave him the hang loose sign. I wasn’t smiling, and I wasn’t hanging loose. Every second was forever.
It was even worse in Hilltop, which is the gay neighborhood. There were a lotta cute young guys out on the sidewalks, goin for an early drink. Always in groups. Havin a good time. Wearing attractive clothes and aiming at fun places to go. Every one of them stopped and looked at me as I passed by in my cage. Every one of them pulled on his boyfriend’s arm and pointed. Every one of them laughed. And half of them took pictures, which meant that by sundown I would be all over the gay web. So much for not letting anybody know. Mike said I didn’t have any friends. Nobody liked me. Now all the people who’d acted like my friends would gather around over drinks and laugh about what had happened to the piss-elegant queen.
It went on and on. One of the stoplights was in front of BJ’s, which is the big dance bar. The music was already blasting and there were lots of guys drinking on the patio in front. It’s a major intersection, and the lights are really, really long. Let’s just say there was a huge interest in the workie in the cage. Lots of whistles. Lots of comments. The spillover on the sidewalk was yelling “Great new style, dude!” and “How does it feel in the cage, sweetie?” and “Here comes the Shame Parade!” Somebody shouted “Thanks for keeping him off the streets!” and shotgun guy made a polite wave. When the light changed, the crowd was singing, “How much is that workie in the pickup?” The only worse thing was passing the corner of Druid Lane and glimpsing my house in the distance. Mike’s house. The house that used to be mine.
This was my first visit to Jerry’s farm, so I had no idea where I was during the rest of the ride. Some of it was freeway, complete with moron kids in the backs of cars, pointing and laughing. Then the truck exited onto a county road where there was basically nothing except fields and woods — mainly fields. Black earth and vegetables, then more black earth and vegetables. Just right for work performed in coffles. I shuddered and looked in the distance, where I saw a bunch of white insects lined up across the landscape, like ants that had learned to stand on two legs. The insects were jerking up and down, doing something to the dirt. Fuck! Those were the coffled workies. I’d been caught like a bug and was on my way to join them.
At last we came to a grove of trees and a driveway with a big house in the distance. HAMILTON it said on the wrought-iron gate. I expected the truck to turn in there, with Jerry coming out on the porch to inspect his purchase. But we kept going. When we’d passed the house a tall fence started dogging the road — a fence topped with razor wire. That didn’t look good. A few minutes later, the truck turned into a little two-rut road with a gate at the end. Dude riding shotgun hopped out and unlocked the gate, which was a serious gate in that serious fence. We drove through, and he locked it back up and hopped in again, his arm hanging lazily out the window.
From then on it was just fields and swamps, swamps and fields. We bounced along the ruts for a while; then we turned and headed for a cluster of buildings with fences around them, fronted by a lumpy frame house with a sign that said OFFICE. My ride stopped there. My two delivery men stepped out of the truck and went inside.
The fences were just as high as the fences out on the road, and they showed the same preference for razor wire. Up close, on the other side, I could see a bunch of barns, storage buildings, whatever — farm stuff — and a line of trucks, a couple like the one I was in but most of them bigger, and a little building with a gas pump beside it. I’d never seen a gas pump that wasn’t on a street. I’d never been close to a barn, either. This didn’t look like anyplace I belonged. Farther back I could make out some low white concrete buildings, function unknown. I was wondering about that when the two dudes returned.
There was another guy with them. He was older, and not in great shape. He walked to the back of the truck and peered into my cage. “Guess it’ll do,” he said.
“Guess it’ll have to,” one of the dudes replied.
“Well,” the old guy said, “got a coupla empties in Number 3. Take it back there. Tell Web to fix it up.”
“Right, Mr. Williams.”
Mr. Williams walked away, and the dudes started taking me out of my cage. It wasn’t easy to get down to the ground, but I made it. I guess the weight of my boots just pulled me down. They hooked a leash onto my collar and told me to pick up my “gear,” which was my box of uniforms. One of them stepped over to unlock the gate into my new neighborhood. “Cmon, workie,” the other one said, and pulled me through the gate by my leash.
They were leading me back towards the concrete buildings. There were six of them lined up along the little dirt road — all long and narrow, all alike — and in the distance I could see three or four more, of different shapes and sizes. Every building had a big black number painted on its side — 1, 2, 3 … But none of them had any windows, at least not normal ones; they just had lines of bars, way up near the roofs, with steel shutters in front of them, hanging from chains to keep them open. And each of them had a heavy steel door. When we got to the door of Number 3, the dudes swung it open and led me inside.
I saw a tall, long, narrow room. There was only some late-afternoon sun drifting down from the bars, but one glance told me it was a barracks. On the right, rows of bunks stacked one above the other, with a long aisle between them. On the left, behind a low concrete wall, a steel trough with a line of faucets above it, and next to it, yeah, a line of shit holes in the floor. Straight ahead — a big, black, hairless workie.
The dudes didn’t waste any time. “Yo Web,” one of them said, uncuffing my wrists and unhooking my leash. “Here’s a new one for you. Find him a bunk and put him in the coffle.”
“Yes sir,” Web rumbled, and the dudes left, taking the leash and the cuffs along. Web and I were alone.
He didn’t say anything for a while, just looked me up and down. Then he said, “This is gonna be rough on you. Too bad. You’re gonna suck it up. My job, I’m the barn boss. This is Barn Number 3. I manage this barn.” He made a gesture at the long rows of bunks. “Your job — do like I tell you. Got it?”
“I got it … boss.”
“You guessed right. I’m Boss. Or Boss Web. Never just Web. Got it?”
“Got it boss.”
“Now I’ll give you the run-down. You’re rousted at dawn. You take a shit. You clean up in the trough. You put on your suit and you march to the chow hall. Then you’re coffled and put in a truck. ‘Coffled’ means chained to the other workies. Every workie’s in a coffle. We got two coffles in this barn. You’ll be chained up in one of them. After you’re chained up, you’re trucked out to the fields. You’ll hoe, weed, pick — whatever. End of the day, you’re trucked on back. You’re dirty, so you take out a clean suit and you march to the showers. That’s what’s happnin right now. Dudes from Barn 3 are takin their shower. When you get to the showers, you take off your dirty suit and you put it in the bin. Then you wash, and you put on your clean suit. End of the shower, you come back here. Then you march to the chow hall again. Then you march back. Then you’re locked in for the night. You got a couple hours to hang out with the other dudes. Talk, whatever. Then it’s lights out and you hit the rack. You sleep. Next day, it all starts again. That’s it. Got it?”
“I got it.” Then I remembered. “Boss.” Fuck! This is worse than I fuckin dreamed!
“Glad you remembered what you just remembered. Keep remembering that. You’re owned by Mr. Hamilton, but you’re bossed by me. You fuck with me, you’re punished by me. Got it?”
“Got it boss.”
“OK, I’ll find you a bunk.” There were two rows of bunks, one row on each side of the aisle, six double bunks in a row. Boss Web walked down the aisle, and I followed, carrying my box of clothes. He stopped at the fourth double bunk on the right. “OK, this is your rack. See the numbers on these racks?” Yeah, they were numbered, top and bottom. “Here it says Number 16. Remember that. That means it’s your rack. The one on top. This is where you live now, boy.”
Where I lived now was a steel platform with a plastic mattress and a swamp-green blanket folded up at the foot. Oh, and I got a plastic pillow. Big improvement from the warehouse. The boss stood for a moment and looked at the bunk. It was like he was contemplating a work of art. Then he explained how I should deal with my bunk.
“Get up in the mornin, first thing you do, you fold up your blanket. Just like it is right now — this is the way it’s gonna look. Case you want any sheets, you don’t get any. Just another thing to wash. Every Sunday, you wipe down your mattress. Disinfect it. Then, uniforms. Mr. Hamilton always provides you with five new uniforms, so I know there’s four in your box. Right now, you’re gonna take out your uniforms, put em under the bottom bunk. You got the top bunk, but your suits go under the bottom bunk. You put em at the foot of the bunk. Head of the bunk, that’s for your bunkie, the guy that’s underneath you. Under there, make sure you never go more than halfway. Other half’s for your bunkie. I don’t want no fights in here. Do it now.”
I took my uniforms out of the box and he walked off with the thing. Right — I saw that my “bunkie” already had a stack of suits down there. Plus some other stuff I was scared to investigate. Then the boss came back with a little plastic bag. “Put that down there too,” he said. “That’s your hygiene bag. Don’t share it with nobody. Don’t want no diseases spreadin in here.” Inside the bag was a little tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush the size of my thumb, and a little piece of cloth like a washcloth. Like I’d share that shit.
“So that’s your hygiene bag. And these here are your hooks.” There were six steel hooks screwed into the bunk frame. “Three on each side,” he pointed out. “Your hooks are on the LEFT. Remember that. LEFT side. Don’t be gettin in trouble bout how you got your shit on the right side. I don’t like trouble in my barn. Got it?”
“Got it boss.”
“OK. It goes like this. One, two, three. One — this is the hook where you hang your shirt and cap. Two — this is the hook where you hang your pants and belt. Three — this is the hook where you hang your coat. You get your coat in winter. You don’t get it now. So don’t use that hook.”
“Your underwear. If you take it off at night, you hang it off the bed post on the left. You don’t use the hooks. You hang it off the post. The post on the left side. Not on the right. That’s for your bunkie. I don’t want no fights in here. You fight, I’ll need to go after you.”
“There in the aisle. Foot of your bunk. That’s where your boots go. Left side of the rack. Side by side. Toes pointing out. Your bunkie will show you. Don’t fight with your bunkie. You fight, I don’t care why, I’m gonna deal with you.”
“I walk through the barn at night. What I wanta see is the boots lined up, toes pointin out. And I wanta see the pants lined up, hook number 2. And I wanta see the shirts lined up, hook number 1.”
“Around here, you take care of your uniform. You don’t rip it, you don’t tear it. You take care of it. All workies are to be in full uniform at all times, until lights out. I don’t want any skin showin, except you can take your cap off, and except if you’re layin in your rack, then your boots are comin off, and they’re gonna be lined up the way I told you, toes pointin out. No boots on your rack. Not ever. Also, you’re gonna crap or whatever, end of the day or start of the day, whatever — you don’t have to do full uniform. Only no skin showin. Except when you crap. Or piss.”
“You notice that I am not wearing a cap.”
“That’s it. Any questions?”
“That’s good. You got company.”
In the background there was a noise like a crowd tramping down the road. Suddenly the crowd pushed in through the door. It took a while, because the door wasn’t any wider than the door on a house, but the crowd kept coming. It was the workies that lived there. As soon as they saw me, they knew what was going on.
“Hey!” the first guy said. “Gotta new one!”
“New bull in the barn!”
“Looks more like a heifer to me.”
“Looks more like a steer!”
They had me surrounded. I’d read stories about what happens on your first night in prison. I’d enjoyed some of those stories. But I wasn’t enjoying this. I looked for the boss, but he was standing on the side, watching it.
“Nah, BUTCH here, he ain’t gonna last very long.”
“That your name, boy? Butch?”
“I … I guess it is now,” I said. I could see in their eyes how feeble that was. How feeble I was.
“Hope I don’t end up in BUTCH’S coffle,” one of them said. “Drag the whole thing down.”
“I can hear Butch now: Please, boss, don’t send me into that field, boss! I’ll get my boots all muddy!”
“Probly never saw a boot before now.”
“Cept in a western bar.”
“Actually,” one of them drawled, giving me a long, slow look, “I want this one hooked up to me. Might be interesting to train it up.”
“Oh yeah! Midnight tonight! Know what you need, dude!”
“Glad I don’t need no workie shit on MY dick!”
“How bout in your ass, brah?”
They were really having a good time now. The crowd was pushing me into a corner, and I couldn’t help noticing that under their uniforms, a couple of them were hard and thick. I was caught inside three rings of loud, hard, STUPID workies, every one with a grin on his face and nothing to look forward to except a lifetime of field work and the chance to torture guys like me. If I’d thought about workies, this is what I would have thought they’d be like.
“So what YOU got to say, little newbie?” one of them demanded. The rest of them got quiet.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Fuck! What an anticlimax!
“Well,” another one said, “Then tell us how you got here. Nice little guy like you? With all that nice skin you got? And so forth?”
“I … I volunteered.”
“OOOOOH!” the crowd said. “He VOLUNTEERED!”
“So,” the first guy said, “did all the rest of us.”
“Hey! Not me!” somebody shouted. Three or four others joined in from the back.
“Sure,” said the guy that asked the last question. “Some of us are in here cuz we went to college and graduated with a degree in highway manslaughter.” He turned to the guy standing next to him. “Right, brah?”
That guy’s shirt said he was Dax and he was at your service. “That’s right,” he said. “But at least I wasn’t stupid enough to wanta be a workie, just cuz I was bored with teaching school. Right, Bib?”
“That’s right,” Bib said, with a grin on his face. “Worst fuckin thing I could possibly do.”
Chorus of, “Oh YEAH!” “The worst!” “Fuckin STUPID ass thing to do!”
He started laughing and the guys next to him started playfully beating him up. Fuckin clown show.
“Hey!” I heard a voice in my ear. I turned. There was a workie real close. Talking to me. With a serious voice. And a serious face. “I saw that look. That sneer you’re givin out here.”
“I … I didn’t mean …”
My eyes fell from his face and rested on his shirt. This one was “ACE, At Your Service.”
“Right,” he continued. “And that’s why you’re here. Because you didn’t mean anything. Which means you were stupid. You made a mistake. You threw your life away. Now you gotta get used to it. If you try, we’ll help you. If you don’t … somethin’s gonna happen to you. Understand?”
“I understand.” I was taller than he was, but that didn’t make any difference. He was a lot thicker.
“You need to. Because we don’t want trouble. And if you act like you’re special, you’re gonna be trouble. Got it?”
He came closer. He was literally in my face. The crowd was joking and laughing, but he was talking so close that I thought he was about to kiss me. “You’re not special any more,” he said. “All of us had to learn that.”
We were looking into each other’s eyes, and I knew that what he said was true. He’d learned that. Also that stuff about trouble. It was something he knew. So he could kiss me or kill me, either way, without having to think.
“I’ll learn,” I said.
He backed away. “Hey Boss!” he yelled. “This dude don’t look like no Hamilton Farms workie.” He knocked off my cap. “See that fuzz on his head?”
“Yeah, I do. I guess there’s time … OK, Butch, pick up your cap and follow me.”
Time? Time for what? Fuck! Are they gonna get rid of me right now? But I had to do what I was told.
I stepped warily through the grinning mob and followed Boss Web out the door. He walked me past the line of barracks till we got to a building with a giant 7 painted on the side. There wasn’t any door; you just walked in. And there weren’t any windows, or shutters either; after the walls got about five feet high, there were just bars all around, and then the roof. So it was totally open. This was the shower room — lots of heads coming down from the ceiling, and a big fuckin drain in the center.
Web pointed to a line of shelves by the door. “Normal day, you’d come back to the barn, pick up a clean suit, head out here when it’s time for Barn 3. You’d stack your clean suit here, put your boots over there, drop your dirty suit in one a those bins by the wall. Take your shower and suit up again. But this ain’t a normal day. What do they say — ‘This is the first day of the rest of your life.’” He chuckled. “So strip off, put your suit on that top shelf there. I’ll get the shit.”
Fuck! I thought. Is this gonna be the shower scene? Is this the scene where the barn boss claims his right to the first night? And this guy is HUGE! But all he was doing was bringing over a tub full of Slick It Off. He even let me spread it on myself — just told me where I’d missed a spot. “OK,” he said, “that’ll keep the hair off for another year. Get under the head.”
“Another year”! I used to go to the stylist every two weeks. But he’d started the water and it wasn’t totally cold. And he didn’t rape me! Thank God!
That’s what I thought. But then I had some more thoughts, while I was washing the gunk off my body: “What the shit, Carson! A few days ago, you were living in a beautiful house with your rich boyfriend, who gave you everything you wanted. Not a care in the world. You didn’t even know that some people didn’t like you. Your major problem was to keep your appointment with your masseur from interfering with your appointment with your mindfulness coach. And now you’re a workie named Butch. You’ve been collared and numbered. You’ve been delivered in a cage to your new home, where you’ll live in a barracks with 20 other workies and labor in the fields in chains. Your major problem now is showing the other workies that you’ve accepted your fate, because if you don’t, they may decide to kill you. Right now, you’re standing in the shower room of a workie labor camp, where you’ve been treated with a substance that will make you totally hairless for the next 12 months — after which it will be administered again, every year. And you’re feeling grateful that this is ALL that’s happening to you right now?”
The water stopped. The gunk gurgled down the drain. The boss threw me a towel about the size of a napkin; the breeze blowing through the room would have to take care of the rest. “Suit up,” he said. So I buttoned myself back into my workie suit and followed him back to my new place of residence. Shouts of “Hey! Great cut!” and stuff like that. Lots of stuff like that. “Dude!” Ace said. “Good style session! You’re lookin more like me all the time!” I guess that was his way of letting me know I wasn’t in immediate danger of execution. But then it was time for Barn 3 to visit the Chow Hall, Building No. 8.
The Chow Hall was like the barracks — concrete walls, steel roof, window made of bars with shutters propped open. Also 12 long steel tables with stools attached, all on one side of the tables. The diners all sat looking forward — at the sign on the wall that said EAT IT ALL. That wasn’t any problem for the rest of them. They would have eaten a horse if it had been gutted and served up to them, cold and bloody. But sorry, I’d lost my appetite someplace down the road.
The way you get your chow — You line up and take your steel tray and your little steel mug, and a couple of workies ladle out your “grub” and your “drink.” The drink was some kind of orange flavored water. The grub was baloney and beans, and some stuff that probably started off as carrots, before being “cooked.” The smell of my grub, the sight of a hundred-plus workies bending over their food, the shock of my hair being taken off of me again, probably forever … I felt like I’d died and gone to hell.
The conversation didn’t help. “So, I bet this is EXACKLY what you expected when you signed those papers, right?” “You know, we got a lotta great educational opportunities. For instance, you can learn to be a weed plucker. In fact, you WILL learn to be a weed plucker.” “Dude, you’re givin him the wrong impression. Old Ham likes to keep his cannery goin too. So this boy can ALSO take his degree in feedin cold green into a hot machine.” “Sorry, dude. I forgot those cannery courses. He can also take some classes on highway maintenance. Ham rents us out to the county roads, ya know. But we always come back to the barn. Can’t miss Christmas in the workie’s paradise.”
Worst, I had to FINISH my grub — “EAT IT ALL.” I’d wanted relief from the workie loaf, but this wasn’t it.
Back at the barn, there was one of the jeans boys lounging by the door, and when we were all inside, he locked it. Between the bunks and the latrine was an open space, with some beat-up old tables and chairs scattered around. Everybody started chatting and setting up card games and so forth. But I was definitely losing it. I was either gonna faint on the concrete floor or take Ace up on his offer to kill me for not fitting in. Which, clearly, I didn’t.
This was the moment when Ace called out, “Who’s this dude’s bunkie, anyhow?” and Web answered “Mack.” “Hey Mack!” Ace said. “Think the newbie needs help.” Mack was sort of a wiry little guy, and he said yeah right away. He led me back to the bunks and told me to take off my suit, which I did, down to my shorts and my tee. Mack hung up my stuff for me. Then he put my boots in the right place, “with the toes pointing out.”
“I’ll do this for you once,” he said. “Just cuz you’re my bunkie.”
“Need ta crap?” he said.
“Go do it.”
So I staggered over to the crap holes and squatted, which I had to do fast because all that grub seemed to be coming out right away. There were a few workies still milling around in the area, and they made a big laugh out of the smell I made, but how could I care? Next to the hole there was one of those rolls of brown TP that they must make exclusively for workies, and next to the trough there was some of that hard brown soap that is also just for us. So I used them, and now I was cleaned out and cleaned up and ready for a relaxing slumber.
Somehow I found my way back to bunk 16. Mack told me it was OK if I put my feet on his bunk to pull myself up into mine–“if you don’t fuckin kick me in the fuckin face, dude. If you do, I’ll fuckin beat your fuckin ass, man.” I’d never been in a top bunk before. I’d never been in a bunk before! But OK, now I was in it, and a second later I was asleep.
I did wake up once in the middle of the night. Where the hell was I? Oh, I’m a workie now, and this is where workies live. Sounds of men sleeping and snoring and slobbering in their sleep. One light in the far rear, where I see Web spread out on his boss’s bunk in the special boss’s area. The light is so faint, I’m not sure what I’m seeing . . . . Web is big, but he can’t be that big! Then I get it: Web has a bedmate.
I shiver. The shutters are still up. The bars are open to the sky. It’s a clear, cold night. I shiver and pull my blanket up to my collar. I need to sleep. Tomorrow will be my first day in the coffle.
To be continued …