Mother teaches us how to steal.
We start with Henderson's corn field, undercover of the night, our station wagon skulking down the dusty aisle ends like a muttering alligator. She throws us out, tosses us the gunnies and we scamper through the rows and I start ripping off ears as fast as I can. It feels like cheap murder or beating up a kid, someone helpless and smaller than me. When I pull them from the stalk, they make a scratching noise similar to Mother's fingernails on the arm rest or the sketchy rumble of her cigarette cough. The corn leaves are ridged and sweaty and the corn hair tickles my neck, but just for a moment until Davey jams his elbow into my rib.
"Stop screwing around," he says. His eyes are electric brown, Mexican jumping beans. Black smears of grease sit below them. Davey takes this crap seriously. He looks like a resentful quarterback or a warrior looking for a scalp.
When I still don't get it, he slugs me in the gut. "Don't be stupid. We work in the middle."
He hisses, flops down and slides in the dirt on his belly, an iguana now, a combat soldier. He motions that I should follow and I do because I am scared and confused and dizzy. Old Man Henderson is who we work for during the day, and here we are robbing him at night. I know these fields as well as I know the twelve-by-twelve bedroom that I share with Davey. We shouldn't be here. We're poor but we're not starving.
In the center of the field the stalks sway with the breeze, their tops tipping and dipping, brushing our shoulders as we work, whispering conspiratorially. I can't stop shivering even though it's a hot, humid summer night.
Davey has a flashlight. One end is stuffed in his mouth. Light comes out the other end in swaths and cones. Davey's face glows menacing lavender. He sees me staring and thwacks me across the forehead with the flashlight. He calls me a stupid fag as I finger the new bruise and rub his saliva from my eye.
I helped Mr. Henderson put up the new set of scarecrows that stand at the sides of the field, arms outstretched as if crucified. It was a lazy job, given to me, I presumed, as a kindly favor. Usually I was charged with moving the twenty foot long irrigation pipes and shoring up rows or pruning, which is the same as prison work when the temperature gets past a hundred. Anyway, Mrs. Henderson gave him half a dozen Albertson grocery bags stuffed with all sorts of clothing articles and Mr. Henderson said, "Go to it." As a test run for bringing up the news to Mother, I'd once confessed to Mr. Henderson that I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up. His eyes worked over my statement and out of his shirt pocket he pulled a piece of straw the size of a pencil. He chewed it for a while. It took him so long to answer that I thought my shame might burn me to death, but then he showed me a grin. It was wide and toothy and real. "That's wonderful, son." No one had ever called me that. "It's important to have large-sized dreams." So I figured there was a tie to me confiding in Mr. Henderson that day and him wanting me to put together a collection of scarecrows. I did as I was told. I would have, no matter the request, since I was getting paid cash money and, as anybody can tell you, that's a hard thing to come by. When I was finished I had six fairly realistic men. They were skinny things because the straw kept slipping down their drawers or out of their sleeves. But they looked fine, stylish even. Afterward there were a few garments left over, one being a sky blue turtleneck that didn't make sense on a scarecrow. Mr. Henderson said, "You like it?" I lied and said, "No," because even though the color was blue, it was too light, pastel, bordering on effeminate, and I didn't want him or anyone else getting ideas. "Take it," he said. "Go on." And I did. After I got home, I stuck it between the box springs and the mattress I share with Davey. One of these days I plan on showing him, but that might not be for a while.
When our gunny sacks are full of corn we stagger in the dark toward the lurking station wagon. Mother sits smoking with the dome light on. She doesn't blink, doesn't say a word, just starts the engine and pulls the silver stick shift on the side of the steering wheel and we drive off.
The next morning Mr. Henderson calls me to his office which is a trailer sunk into the sun-baked mud northeast of where some broke-down combines slumber. His golden lab, Leroy, scents me, sneezes, and scampers off. A crow caws.
He shouts to come on in when I knock. I hesitate and try to measure the tone of his voice, sift through it like a gold miner, for evidence of a mood. The door catches and won't open. "Kick it at the bottom!" he tells me. I wonder why he doesn't just open the thing for me.
"You gotta kick it!" he says. I still can't tell if there's anything to learn from his tone, but by now I'm running and his voice isn't very loud. Stalks slap me because I'm off balance. My feet burn, my eyes sting. It's not even noon yet. I sweat. I run through the corn row and don't stop.