By Joshua Ryan
After that, I was so nervous, I could hardly sit still. Geometry class! What a nightmare. With My Fate Hanging in the Balance like that, I had to worry about theorems! And it took DAYS for something to happen. Actually, I was sittin in Geometry when I got the text from Mr. Sinclair: “Come out to the Center. I’ve got an answer for you.”
I should have walked outta class right then, but I was such a good boy that I waited till it was over, LOL! Then I got on my bike and rode out there. As soon as I got into his office, Mr. Sinclair said, “Well, Noah, you’re in luck. Mr. Hamilton has expressed an interest in acquiring you for the Farms.”
“Sweet!” I said. “When do I go?”
“Hold on,” he said. “Mr. Hamilton made a good offer for a preliminary contract. Preliminary. But he told us that under no circumstances will he make the purchase until after the subject graduates from high school.”
“You mean I’ve gotta hang around till next June?”
“I’m afraid so, Noah. Look, you’re fortunate that Mr. Hamilton is willing to go this far. He’s taking a big risk, after all. When he buys your lease, he’s stuck with you. He’s spending a lot, and you’re not spending anything.”
“But I … I’ve spent all this time! I’ve done all this research…” Sort of an exaggeration, but so what?
“I’ll be honest with you, Noah. What he said to me on the phone was, ‘Looks good, but if he can’t graduate high school, I don’t want him. I don’t want any flakes that can’t even graduate.’”
“But what does graduating high school have to do with it?”
“Call it a test, Noah.”
“No way I can do it now?”
“I could get you into the program,” he said. “But definitely not at Hamilton Farms. You’d have to take your chances with, frankly, some less prestigious lessee.”
“OK,” I said. Unhappy. “What next? Anything?”
“Well, Mr. Hamilton is prepared to initial an agreement to take you, provided you graduate. And you maintain your current state of health. AND you don’t get in any trouble. I don’t think you’re the kind of kid to do that, but I want you to understand — that’s the condition. Understood?”
“I’ll sign on behalf of the program. And I’ll send a copy for you to sign, expressing your intention to join. Of course, this will put you on our list for updates and news about the program, which may be valuable for you. But I want to emphasize that this is a preliminary document. It means that if you graduate, and if you stay out of trouble, stay healthy, and pass a medical exam at the end, you’ll be given your opportunity to join the program. You’ve got till the middle of next June. That’s when you sign the contract that makes it final.”
“I can’t wait!”
“And Noah, you’ll start off better if you keep this in mind. When you sign the agreement, Mr. Hamilton is obligating himself to lease you, supposing that you fulfill the conditions. But right now, you’ll just be signifying your intention. You could still back out. So you can see how grateful you should be, that you have this chance to do what you want to do. Be serious, Noah. Don’t be a flake.”
He got up and put out his hand, and I shook it. I sorta had tears in my eyes. “Thank you!” I said. “And if you hear from Mr. Hamilton, please thank him too. I’ll be serious. I promise.”
“See you in June,” he said. I left his office higher than a kite! I had a beer in my room that I stole from the convenience store, and I lay down on my bed and drank and started to jerk. I knew I had to be serious and not commit any more crimes, cuz I might get caught and that would be a violation. So this might be my last beer! Ever! Somehow that made me even more excited, and I went deeper into the best jerk of my life.
Of course I wanted to talk to Butch about it, so I went downtown the next day and I hung out by Warbucks, but he wasn’t there. And after that, I didn’t see him again, except at a distance, because a bad thing happened. My dad found out about the Recruitment Center.
I came home from school and there he was waiting for me, with a big white envelope in his hand. “What the FUCK are you doin!” he yelled. “You wanta be a WORKIE!”
So, he’d been weeding out the junk mail and he’d found this envelope, which he didn’t know if it was junk or not, and he opened it, and there was the agreement that Mr. Sinclair sent me.
OK, you can imagine what the rest of that night was like. I won’t even try to say how many times he told me he was glad he had two sons, because one was no good at all, and didn’t I understand this and that, and how could I get taken in by those salesmen down at the WORC place, and no son of his was gonna go around in a workie suit, and I was goin to college whether I liked it or not.
I was lucky he was so dumb about the envelope — I mean, he was waving it in my face and I was sayin, Huh? What? like I didn’t know what it was, so he threw it at me and I caught it and kept it. Which was really important! I mean, my whole life depended on signing that piece of paper and sending it back! And it was a good thing he hadn’t read through that form before he got all mad about it, so he never knew about Hamilton Farms so he could, maybe, try to cause trouble about that.
But he kept goin on and on and finally he said he always knew I was a queer but this proved it. So we had this crazy argument about whether workies were all queers and he said “the ones that fuckin volunteer!” and “look at that workie I owned! the one that you were in love with!” Which actually wasn’t true at all, I wasn’t in love with Willy, but how could I prove it unless I said that workies were all scum and of course I wouldn’t want to sex with one of them? Which I wouldn’t!
Well it would be boring to go all through it again, but it wasn’t boring at the time. It was — actually it was the only real fight I’d ever been in! Even my brother would usually just say something to me and I’d shrug or maybe I’d go along with it, cuz I don’t like fights. But I was SO mad! And of course so was my father. Then along about midnight or something I guess he needed a beer so bad, he said something like, “OK, I can’t keep you from doin this fuckin stupid thing, throwin your whole life away, that I tried to give you, but I can’t stop you. But as long as you live in THIS house, you keep your nose clean. You go to school, you keep your grades up, you keep sendin out that college stuff, and I don’t wanta see you talkin to no fuckin workies. Then next June if you still wanta turn yourself into a workie … Like I said, I can’t stop you.” Then he went and had his beer. I really wanted one! But I didn’t want to push my luck.
So that’s sort of the way it went for the next few months. Of course I signed the form and sent it back right away, but I didn’t hear anything more from the people at the Recruitment Center. Dad was watching me so close, I couldn’t hang out downtown, hoping that Butch would come along. The only time I did see him, I couldn’t even talk to him, because I was with my dad and he dragged me off. Of course, he didn’t know what had happened between us! But he saw that Butch was a workie, and he said, “I thought I told you!” and he took me away, and that was the end of it. NOT happy!
So I went to school and sent off my college applications, and I didn’t talk to anybody about what I was planning to do. Are you kidding? If any of the other kids knew about that, they’d make my life miserable, callin me Wonder Workie or things like that, or seein if they could make me get down and shine their shoes. I knew they would. Kids are like that, even my friends. I was actually worried that my stupid brother would tell one of his stupid friends and it would get back to their stupid brothers or something, but I guess he was too ashamed and didn’t.
But what I did do was go over and over my copy of the agreement I’d signed. The first part was for Mr. Hamilton. There was a lot of boring legal stuff about what he agreed to do and what he didn’t agree to do, but the hot thing was how much he agreed to pay for me. $40,000! I looked at that and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t be worth that much. Then I started getting excited about the idea of being worth something like that. Like that was my selling price. Which actually it was! I’d just started off on this stuff, and already I’d been put in the store window and been sold for $40,000! Which was a lot different from my life up till then! Everybody seemed to like me — except my brother, of course, and now my father didn’t like me either, so OK, we were even — but did they really? How much was I actually worth to them? Sometimes I used to think maybe I was just worthless to everybody. If I wanted to go over to Bobby’s place and play games or something and Bobby texted “nah, not tonight, I gotta do somethin else,” I’d always think, whatever that somethin is, it’s worth more to him than me. And what if it wasn’t worth much of anything, even to him, only I was worth even less?! But once I said I wanted to be a workie, I found out what I was worth, and it was $40,000! Wow! Also I got a big warm feeling out of seeing my own signature — Noah Burns — in big letters under the words “state my intention to surrender myself for service in the Work Options for Recovery and Correction Program on or before June 17, 2022.” I knew it wasn’t final, but I pretended it was, so I could feel like Hey! I did it! So now I’m a workie!
Then there was this stuff that WORC sent me, just like Mr. Sinclair said. It happened about once every week. I’d be sittin in class, playin with my phone way down on my lap so maybe the teacher wouldn’t see, but they all know it’s happening and if they said something about it that would just mean they knew the students had something more interesting to do than pay attention to them, which isn’t easy, and … Where was I? Oh. I’d be sittin in class and then my lap would vibrate and I’d look and it was a new message from WORC. They sent them out to recruits, to sorta keep up your interest, and they did. Kept something else up, too!
Some of them were just short little items, and they weren’t very good. But the first thing they sent was this big colorful spread that was like Welcome to the Program. It was laid out in pages, like a magazine, and on the first page it said SO YOU WANT TO BE A WORKIE! Then at the bottom of the page it said A GUIDE TO VOLUNTEERING. In the middle there were two pictures. One on the left was a dude my age, sorta hangin out. He was wearing jeans and a nice dark blue sweater, and he had long floppy hair — like mine! He was leaning against the kind of wall that you see around the door of a school. He had a book in one hand and his phone in the other, and he was looking at his phone. Nice looking, normal guy. Everything normal, although the more you looked at it the more you … I don’t know … the more you got sick of it, because that’s what all your friends looked like and that’s how you probably looked like, and the guy was obviously supposed to be doing something with the book but he was lookin at his cell instead, just like guys do when there’s nothin goin on. Which is pretty much always! I mean, even he looked like he was sick of the whole picture. But that’s what you see all day, every day. But then on the right side of the, like, cover page was the same dude. It took you a while to recognize him. But yeah, he was the same — same nose, same ears, same cheekbones. But now he was a wearing a crisp white workie suit with a little white and blue cap and he was standing straight and looking into the distance and smiling, because he obviously didn’t have to worry about his book or his phone or his style, he was just calm and happy and lookin good. Of course he’d gotten WAY hotter! I mean, that suit makes almost anybody hot! But the attitude was so amazing.
So this thing was definitely for guys my age. When you scrolled through it, every picture was a guy like me. I guess they must’ve had them for older guys too, but this was for dudes that wanta be cool, so they’re thinkin about joinin up. There were eight or ten little sections in it. The first one was called IT WAS RIGHT FOR ME, and it was a lotta little quotes from workies, with little pictures beside them. Of course the pictures were all dudes lookin great, with names like Dylan and Brendan and so on, but they did look great in their short tough little haircuts, or just bald! I mean, how amazing is that, to go around with no hair at all, like Butch! Like, you DON’T need hair to be hot. Amazing thought for a guy that spent as much time with his hair as I did! Then there were dudes that were wearing their workie caps, which are even cooler, with those long blue brims stickin out and shading their faces, but not too much, just enough to keep the guys in the shadows, where they don’t have to worry about making a good impression anymore — so they do! At least on me! I made a lotta visits to that page.
Then I read the quotes. A couple of the dudes were saying that the program had saved them from their drug problems. A couple said they were gettin weirded out by their parents pushing them to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, but once they got in the program, it was OK, they didn’t feel like something was nagging at them all the time, and now they could breathe. Some of them said something about working outside and being healthy. One guy said he was kicked out of his house and if it hadn’t been for the program he’d be living on the street. “But now I know I’ll always have my food and my uniform and my place to live.” So great! Wasn’t exactly my problem though.
One I really liked was this guy named Yuri — that was a Hispanic kid so why was he named Yuri? But I already knew that they give you a different name when you get to be a workie, so I wouldn’t be Noah anymore and my dad couldn’t trace me — too bad, huh? Yuri said, “I was doing well in school but I was so lonely all the time! So I really like my labor assignment, cause there’s lots of guys in my barracks and I’ve gotten to know all of them REAL well.” So what do you think that means, eh?! Were they goin after the gay guys or not? But I felt the same way that Yuri said that he’d felt. Also, there was this workie named Duck that said, “I’d never been a self-starter. I was always late to get goin, specially with school. But when you’re a workie, it’s totally simple! They tell you when to start and you just keep goin till they stop you.” Which was such a cool way to put it!
So after they got you all worked up to join, they put in this other feature called WAIT A MINUTE! DON’T BE SO FAST! It showed a picture of a hot dude just comin up to a door that says “Recruitment Center,” and he’s got his hand on the door, and then I guess he’s feeling that “wait a minute” thing, cuz he turns and looks at the camera with a funny look on his face, like, “Huh? What am I doin here?” So that page was all about reasons NOT to be a workie. Like, after you sign those final papers you got no more choices you can make. All your property goes to your “next of kin or legal designee,” and “your family and friends will not be allowed to locate you or communicate with you,” and “you must obey all orders given to you and not try ‘thinking for yourself.’” Also, “you will probably be required to live with many other men in circumstances in which facilities are shared.” Stuff like that. I was thinking, so these are supposed to be drawbacks!
But then there was a paragraph about “discipline.” “You need to remember that men like you” — “men like me!” so I was only 18 but from WORC’s point of view I was considered a “man,” at least for the present! — “come to the WORC program from many different backgrounds, and discipline is required if they are to work together. Our volunteers must be men who understand their need for discipline. As a workie, you may feel the temptation to make your own decisions or ‘make up your own mind.’ At that point, discipline will be needed to remind you of why you joined the Program. You should know that discipline can take many forms — loss of privileges, temporary isolation, temporarily restricted diet or mobility, reassignment of jobs, or transfer to new supervision. Corporal punishment is also a permitted form of guidance, although it is not permitted to be physically damaging. Transport or labor assignments, especially those involving public contact, often require the wearing of restraints or other physical limitations on your ability to roam. Agricultural work often requires physical attachment to other workies in a line or gang. (That was the coffling part!) Access to or from your housing facility will be carefully controlled. If you cannot adapt to these forms of guidance, do not volunteer to become a workie.”
Over in the margins there were more pictures of workies and some more little comments. One dude was smiling into the camera and saying, “We all need discipline — and WORC gives me everything I need!” Another one said, “Without my restraints, I’d feel naked!” And a couple said things like, “I wanted a secured environment, and that’s what I got” and “They know where I am every minute! No way I’m gonna get lost!” All good!
At the end of the section you saw a picture of the same hot dude that was thinking about whether he should go through the door at the Recruitment Center. Now he was turning back towards the door, but just before he went inside he was smiling and flashing a thumbs up. In a second or two he’d be in the Program.
The middle of the magazine was about the various things that workies do to serve the community. There were lots of pictures and comments about building things and helping people with their bags in the airport and cleaning up the streets and “producing food.” I guess that’s what I wanted to do, because the picture for that was a line of big manly workies hoeing across a field. It wasn’t focused on the chains, but you could see them if you looked. So that was so cool, just to see a picture of where I wanted to be! And there was a little picture in the margin, with a nice lookin guy saying, “We’re not just a team — we’re a COFFLE!”
Then when you got close to the end there was an article called TRAINING FOR YOUR NEW LIFE. It had one of those before-and-after pictures too, only in this one the dude on the left was real sloppy lookin. His hair was way long, and it needed a comb. His jeans had a rip in them, his shoes were beat-up old sneaks, and instead of a shirt or a sweater he just had a faded old tee with the sleeves sorta rolled. Which was nice, because of the muscles. But not exactly ready for prime time. The guy on the right — same guy — was totally different. He was all dressed up as a workie, and his cap was totally straight on his head, and his collar was straight and the blue lines on the sides of his legs were straight and even the blue stripe that went down the front of his shirt, where the line of white buttons was, that was straight too, and all the buttons were in the holes. He had a little grin on his face, and he was coming out of a door with a sign on it that said RECEPTION AND TRAINING. So that’s what connected the before with the after, Reception and Training.
Of course, I knew they wanted to sell me something, but I guessed they were as honest as they could be. Like, “You will find your training difficult and stressful. It is designed to be that way. Our job is to make you what you want to be.” There were two or three workie comments on that. A workie named App said, “I was in the Marine Corps. Now I’m in the workie corps. My workie training was different. But just as effective.” A workie named Treve said, “If it hadn’t been for the training, I wouldn’t have really been a workie.” A workie named Zeb said, “The training was incredibly hard! But it made me the happy workie I am today!”
So the last page was called ARE YOU READY? It showed a nice looking guy like the “before” guy on the cover, with a nice sweater and everything, only this time he was lookin all happy and focused. He was sitting on the other side of the desk from a guy like Mr. Sinclair, and he was starting to sign a paper. The words said, “Now that you’ve thought it over, what did you decide? A WORC counselor will be happy to welcome you to any of our Recruitment Centers.”
Whew! Picture me reading this stuff in class! Over and over! I jerked on it for months! And some other messages that were definitely hot. It’s too bad that a few of them were just routine. They were like, “Did you ever wonder?” and then there’d be some answer to a question that maybe nobody ever asked. There was some Program History, which was so dull you wouldn’t read it, and a thing called Ask Us Questions! with an “online advisor” you could text to. I didn’t use it. I’d already made up my mind.
To be continued …