You’re so excited to start earning your own money detasseling that you get up at 4:30 in the morning without your Dad even waking you. He’s up though too so you eat bowls of instant oatmeal together. You pack your lunch while he fills your thermos, then bungee both to the back of your pink Huffy on the rack that usually holds your saxophone. You bike two miles to the older part of town to meet Jeremy, who you met two days ago at Centennial Pool. There is something dangerous and dumb about Jeremy. He’s a grade older than you but should be two. When he rides up out of the dark, you’re terrified, already nervous about being on the other side of town.
You ditch your bikes in Jeremy’s yard and walk to Connor’s service station over on 16th. It’s like a Kum-n-Go but there is grime on the candy bar wrappers from before you were born. Jeremy buys an Almond Joy and joins you as you squat on a yellow parking block. Soon, a blue van with no rear windows spins into view, stopping with a swoosh. The driver hangs half of her body out the window. That’s Tawny, Jeremy nods. Crew chief.
You coming or ain’t ya? Tawny hollers, looking you over from tit to tail. Mercy be, she says.
Ladies first, Jeremy says, opening the back door. You can feel his eyes on your ass as you climb in. The wheel-well seats are taken by two lighthaired boys, one red and shifty and the other with a wall of whiteheads over the lower half of his face. Jeremy says your first name by way of introduction, and Whitehead welcomes you with a quick jerk of what must have been a chin. Shifty smiles a crooked smile. You settle cross-legged into the corner behind the driver’s seat, floorboard ruts pressing against your tailbone. Jeremy squats kitty-corner from you and closes the door.
The half-hour drive passes mostly in silence, punctuated with an occasional short grunt or snicker. Everyone’s eyes droop, crusty with sleep, but there’s still an elbow nudge here, a furtive glance there. You concentrate on the sound of the highway, the wind in the van as it swirls your hair something godawful, lashing your eyes and cheeks. You enjoy the soft cracks of its whip, the jostle from turning onto the dirt road—the field arrives all too soon.
As you pile out of the van, there is nothing to see but the green and green of corn. Green like money. Green for miles. A dark-haired man in a cutoff jersey and camo waders—obviously The Boss—carries a clipboard and makes a speech. You learn the basics—male and female corn. Don’t touch the male. Pull the tassels from the shorter, female corn, so the male corn can fertilize it instead of the female corn fertilizing itself. Don’t touch the baby corn ears, The Boss says. No matter how cute they are, Boss’s Son chimes in. That’s right, The Boss says. Ignore the little fuckers. Everyone laughs half-heartedly. The Boss is short, squat, and walks on his tippy-toes. If you were closer you could hear his plastic waders crinkle, but with men like this, you know to keep your distance as long as you can.
You walk to your assigned rows, next to Whitehead and close to Jeremy. You reach your fingers into the first tassel, pull at its base until it slides out with a little pop. It’s moist and white where it was connected, like a green onion. You drop it to the ground and are on to the next, fingers wet with dew. Little black insects clump around the tassel and the leaves. Jeremy tells you that they’re spider mites, and spider mites, he says, can crawl up your asshole and lay eggs. It doesn’t really matter if he’s kidding.
Whitehead is bored now and starts singing. On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, he yowls, pausing a second before finishing: A forty-ounce in a pear tree! You don’t know what a 40-ounce is but find out soon. He continues his makeshift version, changing each item to suit his purposes. Five ding-a-liiiiiiiings! You shout together. Later you make obvious jokes about ears listening. Still later, you talk about siblings and friends and parents and the vacation you took to Wyoming in fourth grade. Much later, you fall silent.
You ignore Boss’s Son when he comes up. He’s big and cute and has shoulders like a linebacker because he is a linebacker, All-State two years running, which matters around here. He smiles while making small talk with Whitehead and Shifty, then turns and asks you to the movies on Friday. You are 13 and scared and have never been asked out before, but you’re also flattered, so you smile and look at your feet before saying no. Doesn’t he know you’re only 13? Can you ask people out on their first day?
He keeps talking to you anyway, picking tassels faster and faster and throwing them in the air like the Cookie Monster or the Swedish Chef or something—Bort, bort, bort!—which makes you laugh. You tell him you’re babysitting Friday but you aren’t. It’s ok because he busts you that night anyway, at the mall with Marcy. Because you lied about babysitting, he makes you go see Batman, the first one, with him and Casey, who sits on the other side of you. Casey is cute too and when you start nodding off—tired from the fields, the week—you want to put your head on Casey’s shoulder, not Boss’s Son’s. Casey’s wearing the cologne all the boys are wearing that year. He smells like a letter jacket wrapped around your shoulders. Even so, you’ll date Boss’s Son for two years, and boy, the things you’ll see. But you don’t know that now. Right now, you have just been asked out for the first time by a beautiful, terrifying boy. You watch his back as he walks away.
Not too much later in the day, you have to pee and try not to panic. The message on the corporate recording the Boss played for you that morning said not to pee in the fields, but everybody does it. You are mortified when you hear rustling behind you, and a few minutes later Jeremy says he saw everything. You don’t know if he’s telling the truth—how much could he see, really—but your ears turn red. No boy has seen you pee before.
Today is eventful.
Jeremy tires of teasing and goes much faster, getting ahead because of his strength. He disappears completely, yet when the crew is done for the day, he shows up much later than everyone else to go home. You hear that someone caught him having sex with a girl named Steph in the field, and you believe it. The Boss yells at Jeremy but it’s more like he’s proud.
You will ignore Steph and Trish, a year ahead of you in school, at first. They will ignore you at first too. Trish’s bangs are six inches tall, hairsprayed to perfection even at six a.m., and she wears thick eyeliner and chunky gold hoops. Steph’s hoops are thin, less makeup. At lunch she pries the cap off her Dr. Pepper bottle with her teeth, and you hear that Trish’s mom died in a car crash last year, falling asleep at the wheel. You are too young to know that “falling asleep at the wheel” is probably code for “passing out.” Trish knows the code, though. She tells you she irons her bangs with a clothes iron to get them to stand up that way.
Everything is fine in the field until it rains. Then, the hairspray you couldn’t stop yourself from using that morning will melt into your eyes, burning. Then, you will be cold and soggy and your sweatshirt will weigh 900 pounds. Everything becomes slick and slimy and the dirt turns to mud. There’s a squelching sound every time you lift your feet—the suction making it difficult to walk—and you already have golf-ball sized blisters on your heels. You put your foot down and when you pull it up, your sneaker has disappeared, lost in the mud. You don’t know what to do, already pissed, so you just keep going like nothing has happened except now you’re verging on tears. Your foot is red and cold and scrapes against the rocks in the mud.
But it’s not raining, not yet. Right now it’s 99 in the shade, Bon Jovi says. Your sweatshirt’s tied at your waist, and your biceps and nose are pink with sun, you can tell, but you’re so covered with corn rash—small slashes from the leaves, itchy stinging—that it doesn’t matter. You’re oilywith sweat, a bird in gasoline. The others are so far ahead they look like ships at sea.
You want me to dig you out? Boss’s Son calls from nowhere. What?
What? You say.
Dig you out, he says, Help you catch up. He strides toward you, a good foot and a half taller than the corn.
Um yeah, you say. That’d be great. You’re relieved but suddenly can’t breathe. He walks about 15 feet ahead in your row before looking back.
When you get to where I’ve already gotten the corn, you hop in front of me, he says. We leapfrog. Rescued, you’re elated. You leapfrog with glee. Leapfrogging feels like hopscotch. Like ice cream.
Because Boss’s Son likes you, he picks you to clean the fields. All you have to do is walk the rows, brushing your hands through the plants like clothes on a rack, looking for tassels that were missed, an automatic car wash of corn leaves. Too high a percentage of missed tassels and The Boss won’t get paid as much. You might be afraid if that happened, but cleaning goes so fast that you’re giddy with freedom. You feel like singing love songs to the whole world—Boss’s Son, Whitehead, The Boss himself. Anybody.
Abruptly, you’re at the end of the row and The Boss has called it a day. You feel amazing. Better than the last day of school. Better than sex, except you’ve never had sex, but your aunt makes a chocolate cake that’s called Better-Than-Sex-Cake and it’s better than that cake, even with a whole package of mini-marshmallows on top. You pile into the van, everyone tired and hot and dusty. Still, you made it. You try not to nod off.
Back at Jeremy’s, his stepmom has called the cops and given them your bike thinking Jeremy had stolen it. She’s that kind of stepmom, and Jeremy’s that kind of kid. You walk the two miles home, not caring even if someone you know drives past and sees the sweat making little trails down your legs—dirt-hair, mud-stripes. You’re polka-dotted with bug bites. But you’re. Almost. There.
Home, a sheer wall of artic air-conditioned air hits you like a truck. You ignore your Dad’s calls and haul ass into the basement, throwing yourself onto the waterbed. Jesus, you think, cheek squished into your eyeball by the rough sheet. Jesus.
You shut your eyes; all you see is corn.