Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
J. C. Geiger’s fiction has appeared in Thirteen and Horror Garage, and his plays have been produced at The Second City and Gallery 37 theaters in Chicago. He is currently a member of the Wordos writing group in Eugene, Oregon.
The tongues of Jorge’s brown leather boots flopped loosely in the sun as he cornered his tenth row of corn that morning. If everything went well, he’d have shoelaces by the end of the day. It had been six months, and he’d been a model prisoner.
He worked quickly down the row, popping the golden tassels from the ears and letting them drop to the dirt. He had eight more rows to work. Five hundred stalks to a row and three or four ears per stalk meant 30,000 more before the end of the day. He counted the popping tassels, praying the rhythm would soothe his nerves.
He was about to receive his first privilege as an inmate, and awaiting good fortune unnerved Jorge. His heart pattered irregularly as he walked, rousing memories of similar anticipation: dropping from the Mexican Wall into the United States, his wedding day, his first morning of work at the bank. The worst had been the birth of his only child David. Jorge had thrown up in the hospital parking lot and couldn’t stop shaking that evening, watching his boy’s pruney body shift in his incubator. In many ways, it had been easier to watch immigration take David away seven years later. Once his son was gone, there was little left to worry about.
Jorge recalled eating dinner that night, watching the sky dim through his fifth-story window when a government van screeched to a stop below. Clusters of neighbors swarmed the vehicle, clutching sun-bleached signs and protesting the New Immigration Resolution. From Jorge’s height, their jeers sounded like the cries of playing children. Uniformed men slipped from the van, using their rifles to carve a path through the crowd and into Jorge’s building. Their boots clicked in a steady cadence up the steps then halted at his door with two booming knocks.
Jorge unlocked the door and stood in silence as his wife shrieked then wilted against his shoulder. The soldiers bound his son’s hands and dragged him from the apartment. David’s screams echoed in the stairwell as Jorge signed his trial agreement on an old brown clipboard. A soldier squeezed his wife’s hand, forcing her to sign below him. She collapsed on the floor, sobbing violently. Jorge was jealous of her emotion. He couldn’t feel a thing. Every stage of the New Immigration Resolution had felt casually predetermined: its passage from bill to law, Jorge’s termination at the bank, then David’s kidnapping, all like riding a moving walkway to its only destination.
Jorge was more nervous this morning in the fields then he’d been at his immigration trial. Everyone tried went to prison, but today brought tangible hope. Good prisoners had received shoelaces. He’d seen them, smartly strung through boots which stepped more surely through the rows, worn by men who detasseled faster and earned more credits for the company store. He’d smelled the tobacco of their weekly cigarettes and had peered over their shoulders at colorful magazines and newspapers.
Yes, today gave him cause for concern, especially since he’d soon be passing Malachi. They were working the same field in opposite directions. Malachi was new; his body hadn’t yet digested all the muscles which didn’t explicitly pick or peel, and the sly curl of his lips unsettled Jorge. Malachi laughed too easily, and the guards had taken notice. If something went wrong today, it would happen as they passed.
Jorge glanced at the mountain-shouldered guard standing on the wooden platform 30 meters back. The rising sun glinted on his mirrored sunglasses. Just keep quiet, Jorge thought with a stammer of his heart—a few thousand ears to go.
Malachi was slow. Jorge could see him fumbling several rows ahead, sneezing and wiping his eyes with the back of his glove. Doing that, pollen would clog his nose and tear ducts until the stalks and tassels and scattering spiders blurred into one miserable mess by the end of the day.
Jorge focused on his work and lost himself in the popping rhythm until suddenly he was two rows farther along and Malachi was approaching from his left. Jorge plucked his highest ears slowly, intending to stoop as he passed to discourage conversation. Malachi was already watching him through the curling green leaves. Sweat beaded on Jorge’s forehead.
"You’re a good little worker, man," Malachi called loudly. "Yeah, ol’ Jorge’s a good little worker. That’s what all the guards say." Malachi laughed and his right boot flopped off and buckled beneath his foot. He cursed and stomped it back on; Jorge stifled a grin. Malachi moved closer, leaving several stalks untouched.
"C’mon, man. You get one chance to talk in these fields all day. You aren’t gonna take it?" Malachi narrowed his eyes. "You must like the work. You always been a corn picker, Jorge?" Jorge tried focusing on his hands but involuntarily glanced back at the guard, wondering how the man could fail to hear Malachi, wondering why the guards hadn’t shut him into solitary, pulled him from duty—
"Maybe you were born for this, man." Malachi laughed and squinted up at the sun. He wasn’t even pretending to work. "You know who I feel for? Poles, man. Brits, Ruskies, Swedes, man, they got Swedes out here!" He shook his head with laughter. "They aren’t made for this. They get purple out here, man. Have you seen ‘em?"
Jorge fought to maintain his sour expression as he stood and yanked the tallest tassel on his next stalk. A hairy-bodied spider scrambled onto his head. He nodded it down to the dust and worked the next ear.
"You know something, Jorge?" Malachi whispered. "You’re good at your work. I’ll bet you used to be somebody, man—so I want to let you in on a little secret." He peered through the tight stalks, staring with his dark, unblinking eyes. Jorge’s breathing sped; was the guard seeing this? He must be. He must be waiting, hoping to catch them both and spoil Jorge’s chance. Malachi continued:
"You know they don’t even need to detassel corn? You know this shit isn’t even necessary?" He spoke as if it pained him to say it. "They bred this work outta corn a long time ago. So why are we all out here working these rows? Think about it."
Jorge didn’t want to think about it. Sweat had already gummed his T-shirt to his back and dampened his flannel. That usually didn’t happen until the thirteenth or fourteenth row, when the sun was hottest.
"Look at me once, Jorge, and I’ll leave you alone." Jorge looked, and his hands froze under Malachi’s cool gaze. "A group is leaving tonight. If you’re in, drop one glove next time we pass."
Malachi broke eye-contact, spit, and a tassel came off sloppily in his hand. He flung it down and raked his glove over his eyes, moving on to the next ear.
"Don’t touch your face," Jorge whispered through the stalks. "Use water." Malachi stopped and nodded. Without looking back he pulled a slender bladder from his pocket, filled his exposed hand and flushed his eyes. He shook the sparkling droplets from his face and the guard’s voice boomed at Jorge’s back.
"Malachi!" Jorge instinctively hunched back into his work, trying to look nimble beside the slow and lazy Malachi. When Jorge glanced up Malachi was struggling to pick faster, sneezing and fumbling with his oversized gloves. Jorge suddenly felt sorry for him. Despite Malachi’s clumsiness in the field, he’d understood something important.
Jorge was a hard worker, and the work had once paid off—he’d climbed from bank teller to personal banker to corporate accountant in a very short time. He recalled his small desk, one of many flat wooden islands in the wide marble lobby of Allcorp Bank and Trust. For years, his fingers had flown over the computer’s number pad, figuring profit margins and interest rates, investments and tax-breaks.
Jorge smiled bitterly as he twisted off a low tassel and stood to face the next stalk. Would Malachi laugh if Jorge told him he was still technically working for the same company? Allcorp had once paid him with checks; now he received store credits. Was it so different?
Despite its obvious unfairness, Jorge had welcomed the field work at first. It broke the routine of crowded, urine-soaked cells and stale rations. It was after six months of imprisonment when one morning, just before dawn, a team of guards stormed his group’s cell, hooting and shouting, raking batons over the bars. One young man with crooked teeth grinned inches from Jorge’s face.
"Wake up, buddy," he laughed. "The country’s starving."
That morning, Jorge went into the fields. The inmates were giddy that first week from all the movement, fresh air, and sunlight. Similarly, they cheered the announcement of the Company Store Initiative in the dining hall months later. Thanks to Allcorp’s sponsorship of prison labor, they’d now be compensated. A copy of the yellowed wage-chart hung above every bunk. Two full day’s work by a senior field hand could buy a half pack of cigarettes.
Jorge slept better with the chart there. He’d never believed in the Family Reunion Program predicted by the prison reader, and by memorizing his wage table line by line, he’d slowly trained himself to stop thinking about David and his wife. What itched him now, what burned in the back of his mind, was something Malachi had said. If detasseling wasn’t necessary, why did they work the fields day in and day out? To maintain their strength and obedience? For the pleasure of the guards?
Jorge dwelled on the shoelaces. Did they really wait six months because of the hangings, or was it so the guards could watch them trip and fumble from their towers? Jorge plucked more quickly and grappled with his thoughts, trying to steer them back to figures, back to recalculating the rows, the number of stalks and ears, the uncomfortable flop of his shoes.
But a prison break—tonight of all nights! The last day of his sixth month! He pictured fugitives mobbing the Mexican and Canadian walls, knowing hundreds tried daily, knowing most were caught and sentenced to maximum security. He remembered the stink of his old cell. He’d never again feel the sun on his face, never see another wage chart.
Corn-rash seared Jorge’s wrists where his gloves hinged open against the leaves. His technique was slipping. His hands chewed steadily at the tassels, but he’d lost track of how many. He glanced left where Malachi would soon appear, and could already feel the weight of his expectant stare.
Jorge plucked, and the pop-pop-pop became the soldiers’ tightly-laced boots in his stairwell, the jouncing tires of the prison bus on ruined roads. The sound amplified in his mind, becoming the rattle of automatic gunfire as he raced toward the Mexican Wall, his knuckles snapping between gloved fingers in an interrogation room, a baton’s echo on a locked cell door.
Cornering his eleventh row, Jorge gritted his teeth, glanced at his boots, and resumed his count at twenty thousand—a fair guess. He moved along the stalks, relaxing into his rhythm until Malachi rustled in the green distance and sent a jolt through Jorge’s heart.
As the space narrowed between them, Jorge focused on the cling of his gloves, wishing they were glued or molded there, wishing them fastened to the tips of his fingers. Terrified, he imagined one slipping from his hand; it had happened before, on accident. Sweat stung Jorge’s eyes and slicked his back. His heart strained, each beat like a wound as Malachi stepped closer, then stood just beside him. Jorge’s hands clenched to fists. He couldn’t look up or pull another tassel. A droplet of sweat ran down his back and his breath stilled. A fly buzzed by his ear.
When Malachi finally stepped away, Jorge couldn’t move—frozen until the guard shouted his name. Jorge turned and watched the man scurry down from his tower, parting the stalks as he approached. Jorge felt as if he were the one moving, as if he were standing on a moving walkway. The guard stopped and peered down at him.
"He bothering you?" the guard asked, thrusting his baton toward Malachi.
"No," Jorge managed, grimacing down at his boots.
"Move!" the guard shouted at Malachi who inched away, eyeing them. "Hey, Jorge! It’s your sixth month today isn’t it?"
"Well, congratulations," he said, glancing down at Jorge’s unlaced boots. "Keep up the good work and you’ll be on your way in no time!" Jorge heard the smile in the guard’s voice, but when he looked up he only saw himself, stained with grime and grinning back in the man’s mirrored sunglasses.