By Joshua Ryan
Spring went on. Out in the fields, it was beans, then onions, then back to beans, then three weeks digging a ditch to drain water off the level, featureless land. If you looked around, you’d believe the earth was flat after all. When I woke up in the night, I saw the long barred window at the top of the barn, and the cold stars shining behind it. Ace and Mack were rutting in the bunk ten feet away from me, but I didn’t notice it anymore. I didn’t even hear it.
Things did happen from time to time. Dax broke his arm on some machine in the canning factory and had to be taken to the vet. Who put him back in the coffle where he could keep whacking weeds, only with his other arm. One time it rained for six days and we couldn’t work, so there were a lotta fights. Even Ace got in a fight with a workie that made a joke about him. I can’t remember the joke, but I know the guy will never want to fight him again.
The next thing that happened, Mack called it the biggest news of the year. I don’t know about that — workies make a lot out of any kind of “news.” And you’d have to get real close to this one to think it was any bigger than your boot. But anyway. A story came down from the House — I lost track of the months, but I found out later it was June. Sacky made an excuse to hurry down and tell it to Jupe, the head workie in the Chow Hall, who told it to Bud, who’d been sent over from our barn to put in a new piece of flooring. Bud came back after showers, and he couldn’t wait to tell his story to the rest of us.
“You know there’s this guy up at the House, dude named Jody?”
My ears pricked up. Last time I saw Jody was when they took him out of the chastity belt and he was so happy and grateful to Mike and Jerry and he looked at me with such tears of hate, right before I was sent down here again. Which must’ve pleased him completely.
“Yeah,” somebody said. “I heard a him. But Butch can probly tell us a lot more about him.”
“No I can’t,” I said. Bad enough, them knowing my backstory with Mike.
Of course, “no I can’t” always means “yes I could,” but Bud had a story that he wanted to keep going, and he wasn’t gonna wait. “Yeah?” he said. “Sacky claims he’s one hot little guy.”
“How bout it Butch?” Mack said. “Hot or not?”
I felt a little shaky and I was about to say, “Hot as an Ace in your hole!” But I didn’t. I had to keep living there. And I’d worked through all that shit a long time before.
“If you like cute little guys.”
“I remember,” Web said, “when you were a cute little guy.”
Lots of laughs and wolf whistles.
“OK,” I said. “I was a cute little guy. Also, I know all about EVERYTHING up at the House.”
That did the job. Chorus of “SURE you do!” No workie wants to believe that any other workie knows more than he does.
“OK!” Bud said, totally impatient to get on with his story. “This guy Jody is a workie, but he’s supposed to do some kinda special shit for MISTER Hamilton and MISTER Thomasen. And when I say special …”
Lots of woofs and high-pitched oooohs.
“You get the picture. I guess young Jody has all the … features you need when you apply to be their special ass-is-tant.”
Lots of “oh yeah!” and a few glances in my direction, to make sure I wasn’t gonna start a fight. They all knew I’d been Mike’s first special ass-is-tant. But if it didn’t matter to them, it didn’t matter to me anymore.
“So he gets the POSITION. Well, what can happen NEXT? You guessed it — a few months later, that is yesterday, a new version shows up. Let’s call this one Jody-point-three.”
They hooted and hollered at that, too, even though they didn’t understand it. That’s what workies do. But I knew who Jody-point-one would have been. He would have been Carson Robertson. Bud was smarter than I thought he was, to make a joke like that.
“What happened was, it seems like Mr. Hamilton had ordered this brand new workie, special sale, right outta the box, and even YOUNGER than little Jody there…. ”
“A new field hand?” somebody asked.
“Huh?” Bud said.
“I mean, we could use some more help down here…. ”
Everybody started laughing and yelling “What are you talkin about?” and “That ain’t the field they’re plowin!”
“All right, all right,” Web said. “Keep it down! Come on, Bud. Almost time for chow.”
“That workie wasn’t bought for the fields,” Bud explained.
“We know, we know! Fuck, dude, go ahead with the story!”
“Sorry. I just….”
“Go ahead with the fuckin story!”
“OK, OK. So yesterday morning this new workie’s delivered up at the House, and as soon as it’s delivered, guess what happens? Jody’s little head blows off. I mean completely off. Completely fuckin batshit crazy. Seems like suddenly there was just too much terminal cuteness in the House. Twice too much, to be exact.”
“Two viable species,” Ace said, “in the same ecological niche.” Even Mack stared at him. “THANK you, teacher!” somebody yelled. And there was stuff about “niches” that wasn’t so clean. I’d forgotten how many of them were in college when they signed their workie contracts.
“Just sayin,” Ace said, and went back to being gravity.
“So,” Bud said, “there was this huge fight, with Jody sayin I can’t WORK under these conditions….”
“WHOA!” “Unbe-fuckin-lievable!” “Spose WE said shit like that!” “Oh, Mr. Hamilton, sir, it’s SO hard to work with my foot locked to this chain! I simply CAHN’T do it anymore!”
“Or something like that,” Bud shouted over the uproar. “Anyway, he made a huge fuckin ruckus, pracktickly before they took the dude off the truck.”
“So Butch,” somebody put in. “This guy Jody — is that a real name?”
“Real as the name on your shirt,” I said. Which was Gator.
“You’re a BITCH! But what’s he really like?”
“He was a nice kid. That’s all I know.”
“Well, guess he ain’t so nice anymore,” Bud said. “Guess he’s pretty nasty.”
Yeah, I could see that. You could get that from wearing the chastity belt. It wasn’t something I wanted to discuss.
“So what’s gonna happen?” somebody said.
“Don’t know,” Bud said. “Just givin out the news. That’s the last I heard — fight still goin on. But if I was old man Hamilton, I know what I’d do. I’d sell this Jody down the river, and see what the new one could do for me.”
“Yeah,” Mack said. “And YOU probly never even seen Mr. Hamilton. Or Jody neither.”
“I seen you,” Bud said. “And that’s bad enough!” He gave Mack a little clip on the head, and they wrestled around for a while. Then it was time for chow, and the story made dinner a lot more interesting for everyone. When we got back to the barn, there were a lot of bets being placed about whether “Jody wins” or “Jody loses.” Bets to be decided whenever Sacky came to our part of the world again.
So that was a happy night for everybody. Even me, I guess, although “happy” may be going too far. “Entertained” — that’s better. And if Mike and Jerry were gonna be ordered around by a house servant, why not Jody? That wouldn’t sit well with Cicero, but I never liked him anyway. He had a lot of fun puttin me into that belt. And I wasn’t scared about any shit that went on at the House. I was no longer in Jody’s “ecological niche.” And I knew I would never get off the Farms. Nothing would ever change for me.
Anyway, I didn’t make any bets, but if I had, I would’ve bet on Jody. Look at the way I used to boss Mike around. And look at all the trouble he went through to get his revenge. The dude that’s actually in the bed can usually figure out a way to stay there — unless, of course, he makes himself a workie.
But it didn’t take long to find out who won. Next day we were coming back from showers and the t-shirt named Chad came to meet us next to the door of our barn. He had a leash in his hand, and a workie on the end of it. Which he presented to Boss Web. “Here’s a new one for you. Hear you gotta coupla bunks still empty.”
All of us were trying to get up close and look at the new stock. And it wasn’t Jody. Like Bud told us, it was something even younger.
“Yeah, we gotta couple,” Web said. “We never been todely filled.” That was a sore spot with Web. The coffles were never completely filled, but the work quotas were always supposed to be.
“Well,” Chad said, “Mr. Hamilton, he finds somethin he wants, he buys it. He just don’t always find what he wants. This one, though, you oughta be happy. You weren’t sposed to get it. It was sposed to go up to the House. Matter a fact, it did go there. But now you’re gettin it.”
Half of the workies were giving each other high fives. They were the ones that bet on Jody coming out ahead. The others were looking unhappy. In a few minutes there would be big transfers of nickels and cigarette butts.
“It’s small,” Web said.
Everybody took a closer look at the dude on the end of the leash. Right, he was small. Not that he was particularly short, because he wasn’t. He was just small when you saw him next to us big burly field hands. And he seemed to be having trouble managing the box of gear he had to carry.
“It’ll bulk up,” Chad said. “Look, boss, this is a good deal for you.”
“You can put that box down, kid. I get it, sir. But …. ”
The new guy put the box down and stood silently, still on the leash. Chad and Web kept talking. Staffers like Chad never even considered talking to a common workie, except to say “git in the truck” or “git off the road,” but they had to talk to the bosses. The bosses managed the workies for them.
The new workie never looked up. He kept looking down at his boots. They were new boots. There weren’t any stains or scars on them yet. Finally Chad said, “OK boss. I get what you’re sayin. Anyway, he’s yours now.”
He turned to unhook the leash. “Raise your head,” he told the new workie. It was the first time anybody had really seen his face. You could tell why Jody had been upset. Big eyes. Long, straight nose. Full, red lips. Small chin. Smooth complexion, except for the worry line crossing his forehead …. Eyes a little too moist — a lot too moist …. A funny little black mark under one of the eyes ….
Fuck! I knew this guy! It was that kid I’d been talking to, a long time ago. Even in the workie cap and without the eyebrows, I could tell it was him. That black spot proved it. It was the kid named Noah. The one that wanted to be a workie. Well now he was one. But he didn’t look very happy about it, dangling on the end of a leash. In fact, he looked miserable.
The leash came off. Chad made Web a farewell gesture and walked away, taking the leash with him.
Web looked at the rest of us. “OK. Git in the barn and settle your debts.” We drifted towards the door while he inspected the new workie. “Let’s see your head, boy.” He lifted the guy’s cap. “Yeah,” he said. “Already gittin a little shadow up there. Must not’ve done a very good job on you, back at the Center. I’m takin you to the showers, git that hair off.”
The boss looked at me. I was the closest workie.
“Take this guy’s shit inside for him. I don’t want those gamblers doin no tug a war with him.”
“I’m puttin him on Number 8. Take his shit there. Also …. Matter of fact, kid, I don’t want you talkin bout any a that stuff that happened, up at the House. Whatever it was. Won’t do no good for nobody down here.”
“Yes boss,” the kid said, real low.
“They wanta talk, you tell em Boss Web said not to.”
“Yes boss.” He was lost. He had no idea what was going on. He had his eyes on his boots again, and I guess the boss felt sorry for him, because he didn’t give him the “look at me when I’m talkin to you” treatment.
I turned toward the door, and I heard the boss saying, “This new stuff I’m gonna give you, it’ll keep you bald for the rest of your life. Never need to worry about it again.” That was the boss trying to be friendly and reassuring.
I put the kid’s box on rack 8 and watched the other workies settling their debts. It wasn’t good that this new guy Noah or whatever his name was now … I didn’t know how it happened, but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t good when he stalked me, back on the streets. And it wasn’t good that he did what he wanted to do, and now …. Now what? You don’t want a stalker moving in with you. Just when I thought everything was settled …this happened. And this was one more thing that I’d better keep to myself. I hope he did! At least he hadn’t looked up and recognized me — yet!
Then Web brought him back from the showers. He didn’t look any different, with his cap on and all, but I knew he’d lost his hair, forever. The same thing had happened to me, when I’d had my last “treatment.” OK. One way or another, I was a workie, and there wasn’t any reason why I should have hair. As for the kid — he had that same look I must have had when it was my first time in the barn and I saw all those big workies standing around me and all those strange faces looking me over. I was wondering if they were gonna haze him the way they did me, but half of them were happy with him, because he’d won the bet for them by being such a week horse runnin against Jody, and I think the others were feeling sorry for him because he looked so helpless. His face was still wet and he had no idea what to do with his hands, or anything else. But there was still some time before chow.
“Show him his bunk,” Web said to me. “Tell him what he needs to do.”
Great. That’s what I was afraid of. From now on, he’ll be my responsibility.
“Follow me,” I said, and he followed me obediently, like a dog. “What’s your name?” I said, and he started saying, “N — , No — .” Then he stopped and pointed at his chest. “My new name is Lucky,” he said. And yeah, there it was, followed by his number and AT YOUR SERVICE.
“Lucky” — a dog’s name. I wondered how he felt about getting that name. Then, out of the blue, he started talking. I mean, actual talk.
“I guess it’s not a good name for me,” he said. “I didn’t turn out to be lucky at all.” No wonder he kept looking at his boots, if that’s the way he felt. How was I gonna disagree with that? But I’ve never heard anybody make such a sad, disappointed sound. It didn’t sound like self-pity. It sounded like he was just making a statement — an obvious statement, that was obviously true. And horribly sad and lost.
Totally natural. But that was the moment when he lifted his eyes — probably just hoping to find a sympathetic face — and he saw my shirt. “Butch!” he said. “Oh my God! It’s you!”
I put my hand over his mouth and looked over my shoulder to see if anybody had heard. They hadn’t. They were still too busy replaying the big gamble.
“Keep it to yourself,” I said. “I don’t want you complicating things.” He nodded, and I took my hand off his mouth. At least he could follow orders. I hoped.
“Butch!” he whispered. “I’m …I’m so happy!”
“Yeah?” I said. “A minute ago you were starting to cry.”
“I wasn’t gonna cry. Not really. I was just confused! I wanted to be a workie — SO bad! You know that! And you told me it was all right. So I believed you. But I had to wait. But now I’m here!”
“Yeah. You are. Listen, I gotta show you how to do this stuff ….”
“Thank you!” he said. “I knew you’d say that! I want you to show me everything! I want to do everything — just the way you do!”
“Fuck!” I thought. “What the FUCK did I get myself into?” I was just there to show him what to do with his uniforms, and how to hang his clothes on the bunk at night, and where to put his boots and so on, and here he was, standing there in his brand new boots and his shirt so new that it still had the creases in it, smiling at me and looking at me with those huge round eyes and the little spot under one of them …. Nobody had ever looked at me that way, and I’m sure I’d never looked at anybody that way either. Then he reached out with both arms and hugged me, with smooth little face and his little bald skull pressing my chest and his cap bouncing down to the floor. Even worse, my arms hugged him back.
Obviously, he didn’t know what he was doing, and neither did I. If anybody saw us, we’d get one fuck of a bad time on his first night in the barn. Like Ace said to me a long time ago, you gotta fit in. You can’t be trouble. “Save that,” I told him, pushing away. “From now on, just do whatever I do. Just like you said.”
“Sure!” he said. “Anything you say, Butch! That’s what I wanted!”
So I showed him how to take care of his bunk. I also told him how to keep his mouth shut about, basically, everything that had ever happened to him. “Sure, Butch! Anything you say!” It was amazing — he trusted me completely. When we went back to the others, he got all kinds of questions, but he was smarter than I thought he was. He said he didn’t get to see much of the House, he was just there overnight, and then he found out he wasn’t needed there, so here he was. Somebody asked him how he got to be a workie and he said he’d just graduated high school and he “wanted to do something different. So far, it’s been very interesting,” he added, looking around at the bunks and the bars on the windows way up on the wall, and sounding very interested, all right. There were a lot of funny looks about that, but nobody went after him, I guess because he seemed so harmless.
“How’s he gonna make it, out in the fields?” Ace said to me, under his breath. “I dunno,” I said. “But I made it. So did you. And he isn’t carrying physics on his back.” “You’re funny,” he said. “But he doesn’t have anything in his head, either.” “What would he use it for?” I asked. “You got me there,” he said.
Right then, Web told us to line up for chow. Lucky looked around for me and found me and followed me there. Also followed me through the chow line and followed me to the table and watched me eat and ate the same way. It was a normal meal — lots of beans, not much ham, a slab of cold cornbread. I was hungry and I wolfed it down. The kid was having trouble. “Not as good as that French food they gave you last night,” I said. “It was horrible,” he said. “Everything was horrible. Those horrible people. I didn’t want to stay there. That’s not why I signed up for the program.” For him, being a workie was doing “the program.”
He needed another lesson, so I leaned over and said, “If you keep talkin like that, you’ll get run outta the barn — if you’re lucky. This is NOT somethin you’re supposed to like.” I said before, we all had to face one direction while we ate our grub, so we couldn’t talk to anybody on the other side of the table, because there wasn’t any. Which in this case was good, and I’d sat at the end of the table, in case the kid started talking about things. “Better eat your chow,” I said. “You’ll need it tomorrow.” “Oh!” he said. “Right, Butch. I will!” And I’ll hand it to him — he got it all down. When he stood up, he looked like, oh my God, that was sickening, but also like he was really proud that he’d done it. I guess I was proud of him too. He’d gone from a good home to a workie camp, with a stopover in fag heaven, the House. First normal human food, then escargot, then that vat of beans he’d just ingested — no wonder he was confused. But he kept on talking, even when we were walking out of the Chow Hall. “What I wanted to say …. you know, when I said that’s not why I signed up for the program …. I know you told me not to say stuff, but what I WANTED to say — I wanted to be a workie so I could be like you! And that’s what I’m gonna be!”
It was a good thing that everybody else was talking and nobody looked like they heard what he said. I took him by the shoulder and pulled him next to me, hard. “Look,” I said. “I’m gonna say it again. This stuff … stuff about yourself. You can talk to me about it later. Some time. Not now. Not soon. Not when anybody else is around. Got it?”
“Got it!” he said, like he’d found a giant pearl in those beans he’d been swallowing. “Thanks, Butch!” I actually think he would have hugged me again if I hadn’t stepped aside and started talking to Mack. The kid was tired, like any other workie on his first day in the barn, but he kept on tagging me. He couldn’t even take a shit in the hole without watchin how I took down my pants and did it. And the sorriest thing was, I actually did feel like I was responsible for him. Like it wasn’t enough to spend the rest of my life as a workie — I had to teach him how to do it too.
To be continued …