By Joshua Ryan
So I spent a lot of days sweeping the drive and swabbing the terrace and crawling around getting all the dirt out of the travertine in the foyer, and lots more days hefting 65-percent-polyester-35-percent-cotton workie uniforms out of the washing machines. Not much to say about that. But I do want to talk about a special feature of this phase of my career, which was getting to leave the estate from time to time.
It was sort of like when I was in the coffle—they’d take us out for road work, but afterwards they’d bring us right back to the fences and the razor wire. This time, I was the most expendable part of the crew, so I was the one that was “permitted to accompany” Mr. Meyers and Marky on their shopping trips to town. Marky drove the SUV, and Mr. Meyers rode shotgun, and I was the package-carrier that rode in the back. Marky was a hot young workie and Mr. Meyers — who the workies called Mr. Nance, or just Nance, or Nancy — was always making comments that Marky was careful not to pick up on.
Everybody knew that a guy in Mr. Meyers’ position could get a workie to sex with him, but he never pushed anything, and the workies on my gang thought there was a reason for that. The theory was that the only thing keeping Nancy in line was his fear of becoming a workie himself. He had debts, and if Mr. Hamilton stopped paying the interest … I don’t know. I do know he wasn’t interested in me. I was just the cargo, riding in a little seat in the back with steel bars on the windows and steel bars between me and the front seat.
Closest place to shop was a wealthy suburb — one of those places that’s got a Quaint Main Street. Most of the stuff we were there to pick up had been ordered already. If there was a big item, we’d go to the loading dock and I’d manhandle it into the vehicle. Yeah, Carson Robertson manhandling stuff. But sometimes we’d have to follow Mr. Meyers into the store, because maybe there wasn’t any loading dock or maybe he just needed to shop — or wanted to shop, since he was a fag and enjoyed it. Then we’d go to the front door and half the time he’d be told, “I’m sorry, sir, only one workie is allowed on our sales floor at once. You need to take this one in through the rear.” We’d exit the store with everybody looking at me and mothers clutching their children and teenagers snickering and all the rest of it. It’s not that most people are actually afraid of workies. They’re just disgusted by them. Especially in enclosed spaces.
So if that happened Mr. Meyers would stay in the store with Marky (obviously) and he’d send me off by myself. Which is something you see all the time — at least in wealthy neighborhoods, where lots of people have household workies. After all, you’re collared, and you’ve got your tracker; you’re not gonna go much of anyplace. Mr. Meyers would tell me, very carefully, that I should go to such and such addresses and pick up such and such goods. I had to repeat it all to make sure I remembered. Then I went to the back doors, the way workies are supposed to do when they’re by themselves, and if they had an order for us I’d pick it up, or if they didn’t I’d say, “Please sir, do you have any of this and that, sir? It’s for Mr. Hamilton, of Hamilton Farms, sir.” Usually it was some teenager they sent to find out who was at the back door. He was the “sir.” Then his boss would come back and say, “Yeah, we got em. Mr. Hamilton, eh?” “Yes sir, Mr. Hamilton sir.”
I was always scared that they wouldn’t give me the item, and I’d have to go back empty-handed and then Mr. Meyers would be pissed with me, and he could be a real bitch. But almost always they gave me the stuff, because they’d dealt with Jerry before, and then I took it back to the car, wherever it was parked. The good thing was, a lot of these guys in the stores would give you the item, and they’d say, “And here’s a little something for the workie.” Which was me. That was my tip, I guess. It wasn’t money; workies are prohibited from possessing money, although they can carry it, under the immediate supervision of a person. So it would be some candy, or if the guy was older it could be a couple of cigarettes. Occasionally I did get some coins. And several times I got a whole pack of smokes. The rules about gifts were like the rules about junk you picked up along the road — if they gave you something small you could eat it or maybe even smoke it, if you had time–although in the nicer suburbs, like the one where we shopped, you’d be locked up if you were a workie smokin on the street, and your owner would be notified. If somebody gave me some cigs, I’d put em in my pocket and smoke one if I could, and back in the coffle, I’d share.
Of course, when I went on one of those shopping errands for Mr. Meyers, he never gave me the car keys; only workies driving on their owners’ private property and workies with a Servitor License like Marky were permitted to have them. Which meant I’d have to wait next to the car for Mr. Meyers and his friend to return. When alone, workies were expected to stay as close to the curb as possible, or to the side of the road, if there wasn’t a curb. I’d sort of plaster myself against the car and pray for them to come back quick. There was no place to hide. And it was totally predictable — the stupid women sheltering their stupid kids behind them, so I wouldn’t eat them or something; the ten-year-olds yellin fun stuff at me; the teenage girls pointing and giggling, like I was a funny picture they found on their phone and whatever they did was OK, because the picture couldn’t see them; the guys my age in nice suits and beautiful haircuts who walked around me like I was a parking meter stuck in the pavement; the old people shaking their heads, pitying me.
I’d always thought that if something big happened to you, it was bound to be interesting. This stuff was a punch in the gut, every time, but it wasn’t interesting at all. And neither was I. I could see that. None of these people would remember me for 60 seconds.
But one time, something interesting happened. Interesting, though also another punch in the gut.
It was a September afternoon, and I was hangin by the car, tryin to look inconspicuous. OK, you try that. Put on a workie suit and stand on a public street at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and try to look inconspicuous. The best you can do is to keep looking down at your boots.
So I was doing that, but I was gradually getting one of those sensations like, somebody is watching me. And it was true. Ten feet away was a teenager. Late teenager. Typical—All Stars and jeans and a t-shirt, and a hoodie opened almost down to his belt. But not so typical–he was carrying a book in his hand. OK, I’d noticed there was a library on the other side of the street. That’s where he got the book. So fine. Mystery solved. But he was staring at me.
“You’re a workie,” he said.
Huh? “Yes sir,” I said. “You can tell by my suit, sir.”
“I know. Do you mind if I talk to you?”
When was the last time somebody asked me if I minded something? What was this kid trying to do?
“I don’t mind, sir.”
“I’m really interested in the . . . life you live.”
“That’s one of you, sir.”
“I’m sorry, sir. That was a joke.”
“Can I ask you some questions?”
“Of course, sir.” Go away, kid.
He came a little closer.
“Well, Butch. . . . I see that’s your name.”
“Yes sir. Butch, sir.”
“Did you volunteer, or were you a convict?”
“I volunteered, sir.” Wince. Shame.
“Why did you do that? Sorry … If you don’t wanta answer …”
“I … uh …” Look, it’s already been a long day. I’m tired. I’m too tired to make something up for this kid that I’ll never see again. “It was sort of a … test, sir. A test to see whether I could do it. Whether I could … make it as a workie.”
“Did you pass the test?”
“You’re looking at me, sir.”
I slipped off my cap and let him see my big bald head.
He laughed. He had a nice laugh. He had a pretty face and white, pretty teeth.
“Do you mind,” I said, “if I ask you a question, sir?”
“No! Of course not! I hope you do!”
“I hope you do”? I saw it all. This was one of those geeky kids that’s got no friends to listen to him while he talks about himself. “How old are you, sir?”
“I just turned 18. Last week! This is my last year in high school.”
“You like reading books, sir?”
“Huh? I guess so. But I’m supposed to go to college next fall, and I was told that I oughta be reading books. Big books. I read ‘Treasure Island.’ I just checked out ‘Crime and Punishment.’ That looks harder.”
I couldn’t talk about those books. I’d never read them. I’d spent my time in college doing other things. I just wanted to get off that street and back to the Farms. But I had to say something.
“So you wanta go to college, sir?”
“That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“But what do you want to do?” I said. “Sir?”
He came closer. “You want the truth?” he said.
This was getting serious. But I didn’t have anything else I could do. And there was a Warbucks nearby, and the kid was standing between me and the crowd. Which had to be good. Also, for a kid, he was really cute. He wasn’t real tall and he wasn’t any heavier than you’d expect a not-real-tall kid to be, but he had beautiful long dark wavy hair, and a little dark spot under his right eye. It was just a tiny spot that emphasized the dark blue of the eye itself …
“Sure,” I said. “Sir. If you want to tell me. Sir.”
“I want to be a workie,” he said.
“Pardon me? Sir?”
“I want to be a workie.”
How disgusting can you get? I was mad, and I couldn’t help showing it.
“Sir, if you don’t mind, it’s hard enough standing here on the street like this, without you coming up here and mocking me. Sir.” OK, I was glad I said it. But I had to stay on Jerry’s good side. In case the kid’s parents were the complaining kind. “I’m sorry sir.”
“I didn’t mean it that way!” he said, rushing forward. “I’m sorry! Please don’t …
He was starting to cry. This was the most fucking confusing …
“No problem, sir. I don’t …”
“Thank you! It’s really important to me …”
Now he had a smile on his face, so how “really important” could it be?
“Go on, sir.”
“OK,” he said. “I’m really … OK, I don’t want to go to college. I’m sorry — I just don’t want to do it. So I’ve been thinking … I’d rather be a workie. OK, that’s it.”
“Look,” I said. “They’re gonna come back for me pretty soon. Sir. What do you know about being a workie. Sir?”
He brightened up. That was a question he thought he could answer. “My dad owned some workies! They worked in his house-cleaning business! Sometimes I hung out with them!”
Now everything was wonderful!
“So … maybe you asked them about it. Sir?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t wanta talk. They just wanted to talk about sports and shit. I liked hangin with them — it made me feel like I was a workie myself sometimes! But I couldn’t really talk to them. I thought if I … if I told them, maybe they’d rat me out.”
“Rat me out”? Yeah, he picked that up from his workie friends. This kid was …
“I don’t know, sir. If they liked you, maybe they’d want to stop you from … being like them, sir.”
“Hey, maybe! I didn’t think about that. But I’ve been thinking. I wouldn’t want to be that kind of workie. You know, somebody’s little business … only a couple other workies around. But you’re at Hamilton Farms, right? It’s painted on the side of the car.”
“Yes sir. That’s right sir.”
“And Hamilton Farms workies — there’s lots of them. And they’re all in coffles. Out in the fields.”
“Most of them … us. Sir. Some of us work in the house, sir. I do, sir. I do house chores, and they even feed me French food.” I don’t know why I wanted to tell shameful things about my life. Probably to get rid of him. “But you know about coffles, sir?” This kid was special, at least.
“Sure. I found out! I’ve wanted to be a workie for a long time. So — you live in a barracks?”
“Yes sir. If you’re a workie at Hamilton Farms, you live in a barracks. But …”
“Is there any sex?”
What? He’s a lot more special than I thought. “Uh … Yes sir. There’s … sex.”
“You mean rapes? Stuff like that? Like on TV?” What the fuck! He was obviously a nice kid, a good kid. What he saw on TV … I guess that was real for him.
“No sir,” I told him. “You can’t … When you’re in … for good … you can’t just … even if you wanted to …”
“I get it,” he said. With a knowing smile. “That’s good.” He didn’t know anything, but he thought he did, and that was good enough for him. “So you enjoy the sex?”
I looked in his eyes. He was totally innocent.
“Yes sir. I’ve enjoyed it very much.”
His face turned to the left. “They’re coming for you,” he said.
I followed his look. Yeah, here came Marky and Mr. Meyers.
“I want to do it,” he said. “I want to be a workie.” He looked to the left again. “My name is Noah. Later, man.”
He walked off. He seemed perfectly happy. He loved calling me “man.”
So what do you make of that? I didn’t know. I was just happy to get away from it. One good thing about being a workie — you have no responsibilities. And I didn’t want to start having any.
But a week later I got another chance. I had to go on another weekend shopping trip. Marky left the car on the same street while he and Mr. Meyers went off someplace. I wanted to think it was an adult toys store, but I guess it was just Cut Rate Appliance. I’d noticed that like most rich people, Jerry wanted to save pennies whenever he could. I was supposed to visit a loading dock and pick up some new shelves for a bookcase. I was lugging the shelves through the alley and out to the street when I heard a voice say “Butch.”
Shit! What’s going on? I turned towards the noise. Noah was standing beside me. “I thought you’d be back,” he said. “I know you workies have your routines.”
“Fuck!” I said. “I mean, sir. What the fuck! You were waiting for me?”
“Yeah. At the Warbucks. I watched you from there. Listen. I’m not stalking you. I just want to know stuff. All right?”
“All right.” I set the shelves down in the alley, and I shared the peanuts I’d just got as a tip. Then I answered his questions about life at Hamilton Farms. A lot of it was about life in the coffle.
“That’s perfect!” he said. “Except I don’t know if I’d like what you’re doin now.”
“You mean scrubbin floors and pickin up furniture, sir?”
“Nope. I mean living with those French people.”
“They’re not French, sir.”
“OK. But they act like they’re French. They’re queer.”
“Sir, I …”
“I don’t mean gay. I mean queer. I never had sex, but I know the difference.”
What the fuck! But he wasn’t through.
“I’d rather be in a coffle. Like you were before. I want to be like every other workie. The real ones, that is.”
Whew! OK …
“You know,” I said. “They work us pretty hard. Even up at the house.”
“I can tell,” he said. “I’d like to have muscles like that.” He was taking a lot of looks at various parts of me. I guess he was already into the fact that you don’t need to worry about embarrassing a workie, or putting one on the spot. Go ahead! The workie can’t object.
He followed me to the car and told me all about wanting to be “real” and not wanting to “spend all that time in college just so I can work in an office,” and about hanging with his father’s workies but not wanting to be like them either because he didn’t want to “just live in a neighborhood puttering around like that.” He was also afraid that if he volunteered to be a workie his dad would buy him back and that would be the end of the whole thing. He was talking fast and I was confused. I didn’t know what to say.
I put the shelves down on the curb. Fuck! Those things weighed a ton. And this fuckin kid was still following me.
“Look,” I said. “Sir. Just briefly. There’s things you don’t understand. For one thing, your dad couldn’t buy you back, because relatives aren’t allowed to have workies. Or get somebody to do it for them. Once you’re a workie, you’ll never see your family again. Except maybe by accident.”
“Oh!” he said. “Thanks for telling me!” He obviously wasn’t worrying much about losing his family.
“Also. Young guy like you …”
“Cmon, Butch! You’re not that much older than me.”
“Young guy like you … You don’t just decide to be a workie and suddenly you are one. You gotta be made into a workie. You gotta be processed into one. That’s what happens, soon as you sign that contract. It’s rough, sir.”
“You don’t think I could take it?”
“You’d have to take it.”
“Great! Then I will.”
Arguing with this kid was harder than it ought to be. “OK,” I said. “SIR. WHY do you want to do this? SIR?”
He didn’t even pause. “I want to be like you!” he said.
“What do you mean, sir?” Amazing.
“I love your clothes. I love the way you go without hair. I love the way you stand out here in the street with all these people staring at you. Or treating you like a thing. But you just stand here and take it. I love how you carried those shelves, like they didn’t weigh a pound. I love how you call me Sir and have that thing on your chest that tells everybody that you’re at their service, like you’re so strong that none of it matters. I love the way you don’t have to decide on things or figure things out or take any tests or apply for any jobs or even decide what you’re gonna eat or what you’re gonna wear or what kind of work you want to do. You’re just alive! It’s like in church. The lilies of the field.”
“What, sir?” Nobody’d ever dragged me to church, thank God.
“That’s OK, it takes too long to explain. But you know what I mean. You don’t have to plan. I hate planning stuff! And you don’t have to save. My dad’s always tellin me to save. Even the paper cups from the drive-through — they must be worth something! But look at those peanuts — you just gave them away to me. And it didn’t bother you a bit. You knew you were gonna get your chow tonight.”
He had those dark blue eyes and that little dark spot, that little lack of perfection, underneath one eye. And yeah, he’d picked up some workie expressions, and he wanted to show them off.
“Sign of respect,” I said. “Sir.”
“I don’t think so. I think you like me. I think you’d like to see me in a suit like yours.”
We were standing next to the car. He was about two feet away from me, and I swear he was about to kiss me. The guy was that gay. And for fuck’s sake, he was gonna kiss me in the fuckin street!
“Sir!” Backing away. “You don’t know what it’s like until you’re in this suit.”
“Maybe I’ll find out!”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe you wouldn’t like it very much.”
“Are you mad at me, Butch?”
What could you do with this guy? Now he was about to cry again.
“No, I’m not. I couldn’t get mad at a guy like you.”
Fuck, did I say that?
“Great!” Now he was back. All happy again. “So just tell me one thing. Serious!”
“If I was you … I mean, if I was coffled …”
“But I’m not coffled. I used to be, but I’m not now.”
“Maybe you will be!” Like that would be great.
“So if I was a workie, coffled at Hamilton Farms …”
“Do you think I’d be happy?”
God, what beautiful eyes!
“I’m sure you’d be happy.”
“I knew I was right!” he said. Huge smile on his face. “Thanks, man! I knew I could trust you!”
He looked to the right. Marky and Mr. Meyers were coming up on that side. “See you later!” he said. “It was great!”
He left, and Mr. Meyers unlocked the SUV and I loaded the shelves in and he put me into the workie compartment and we drove off. I saw Noah walking along the sidewalk. He was looking very happy, the way a guy looks when he’s solved a problem.
But OK — WHY did I say that to him? WHY did I say, “I’m sure you’d be happy?”
Because I hated the way he was stalking me? Because I hated that sweet, sappy look on his face? Because I hated the way he said “love” all those times? Or because I hated myself and I couldn’t stand to tell a hot guy like that — because, yeah, I had to admit it, Noah was hot, all right — how totally fucked my life really was?
It happened once more, two weeks later. I’d been ordered to pick up a load of toilet paper, and Noah was waiting for me when I got to the car.
“Sorry you weren’t here last week,” he said. “But I know you have to do what you’re told. That’s what workies do!” His tone was like, “what WE workies do.”
“Yes sir …”
“Don’t call me sir! I want to start getting used to … you know what!”
“OK. If you say so. But I was thinking about … what went on … what you said, last time. You need to know, it isn’t that easy to be a workie, and …”
“Oh, I know it’s not! And that’s something I like! I’ve had it so easy — I’m practically a girl! Just kidding! You can check if you want! But I HAD to talk to you, cuz I needed to know what it’s like on the Farms, cuz I’d be worried if I got to be a workie and I was bought by somebody that just lived in a pokey little house and had me washin dishes all the time, or if I was just out on a field someplace with nobody around!”
“But yeah, that’s the danger … Noah. Once you sign the contract …”
“But I fixed that.”
“You fixed it?”
“Yeah. I hope you don’t get mad at me, but I did something! Right after we talked. Monday, after school. I went to the recruitment place. You know, the one out on Overland?”
“Right. I know.”
“And I talked to a recruiter! At first, he didn’t want to talk to me. Then I showed him I was 18, and he did. So I told him what I wanted to do, but if I signed up, I wanted to go to Hamilton Farms. Where you are!”
“You did that?!”
“Sure. Why not? Of course, I know you aren’t on the coffle right now—you’re here! — but I’m sure you’ll go back. You’re not really a house servant!”
“Course, he started off treating me like I must be weird — which I understand! So he was sorta dodgin around. BUT — after that, he actually LISTENED to me, you know, about what I wanted, and he said he’d find out if Mr. Hamilton would be interested in buying me! So he took pictures and he said he’d find out and get back to me. I think he wants to make a sale.”
“Listen,” I said. “This isn’t something you can …”
“But it is! I’m sure he can get it all set up for me.”
I started in with “Listen! Noah!”, but right then Marky and Mr. Meyers came around the corner, and the kid saw them. He gave me the V sign, and left.
“Hey,” Mr. Meyers said. “You got that TP?”
“I got it,” I said. “Sir.”
“Two ply?” he said. “Mr. Hamilton always wants two ply.”
“Two ply,” I told him. “Fifty rolls.” I gave hm the receipt.
“Bastards. Raised their price. We’re not goin back there again.”
And we never did. If Noah was waiting for me the next week, or the week after that, I wasn’t there. A few weeks later, I was waiting for my two keepers to return with the Christmas decorations they were picking up someplace, and I saw Noah coming out of a store half a block away. He was with an older guy that had to be his dad, and he was looking unhappy. He saw me, and he edged off in my direction, like he wanted to say something, but the dad saw me in my workie suit and dragged him back. They walked past me. “I thought I told you!” his dad was saying. I didn’t see him again. Crazy kid. He wanted to be a workie!
To be continued …