It was 1869. The U.S. had just fought a Civil War bent on creating a more perfect Union of States under one nation, but in the lawless West, it seemed the true perfect Union was that of the mining camp and the whore-house; for wherever there were hardened men with gold on hand, there was a market for drinks and pussy.
Yet underlying this union of commerce were the horrors–robberies, rapes, murders– that inexorably result from a lawless society steeped in alcohol and greed.
And so a certain implicit need developed amongst the more powerful businessmen and the wealthy miners of Western towns, a need for law, a need for punishment, but only the kind that would not bring with it the hand of government or the writ of legislation or the tax-collecting arm of federal oversight.
At first, Sherifs and ad hoc lawmen were anointed to keep the general peace and to dole out justice to petty criminals and thieves so the bigger ones could keep playing their money game, free from the eye of government, and under the guise of civility. But still, chaos in many towns proved too hot to handle and not to mention most lawmen could be greased for the price of a whore and a horse.
A group of entrepreneurs, all named Dick and each the proprietor of his own major whore-house and gambling saloon in a 50-mile radius area in the gold-veined San Jaoquin Valley, developed a coalition to fight the onslaught of bad-for-business rogues and criminals, while at the same time finding a way to make money off the endeavor.
The men acquired an abandoned Spanish mission and its 10,000 surrounding acres. Its occupation as an unofficial military outpost during the Mexican-American War meant that it was already well-equipped for their dual purpose: a secret prison labor-farm.
By the 1860s, the midwest Corn Belt had been firmly established as the commercial harvesting capital of the States. With the heavy population increase of the West after the Gold Rush, the demand for corn, a cheap versatile crop that had become a staple even in the diet of livestock, exploded so that soon Pacific-bound railroad cars couldn’t bring in corn fast enough. The result was a booming market in the West for what was known as “white corn,” referring not to the color of the cornflesh but to its CA homegrown-ness, unblackened by the soot of railroad commerce and notably cheaper.
In the late 1860s, San Jaoquin Valley farmers began to cash in, and soon developed strong relationships of commerce with the mining camps, especially with whore-house and saloon business proprietors like the four Dicks, who spent thousands of dollars weekly procuring low-cost “white corn” used in the production of corn whiskey, a cheap marked-up moonshine on which their businesses thrived. If only the Dicks didn’t have to hire out distillers, or pay to transport the corn, if only they didn’t have to pay the farmers who labored in the fields.
And so it was the convergent bust of crime and corn that made the Dick’s privatized prison scheme a viable commercial investment.
Bobby Grisholm would never have fallen to the horrors of that scheme had he not gotten drunk solstice night and fucked a horse.
A year prior he might have received the punishment of public slander, been issued a fine to be paid to the horse’s owner, and sent back into bar to buy more drinks and gamble off his wages. Problem for him was the sheriff, one of the Dick’s puppet-lawmen, knew that the kind of person who’d commit such a foul act probably didn’t have many friends, and thus wouldn’t be sorely missed. Perfect prison fodder.
When they dragged Bobby away from the livery, he kept screaming, “It was my horse! My own damn horse!”
They covered his head with a black sheet, shoved him in a wagon with three Chinese criminals, and rode all day and night. In the morning they yanked him out, a succession of strong arms pushed and pulled him through mud and tall bushes, he heard cursing and the cries of the Chinese being kneed in the groins, the sound of iron clanging and scraping, a huge slam, the jingle of keys, big men laughing and spitting, and then, growing louder as they crunched over a gravel path, the cheers of a large crowd. He stumbled up a staircase, fell, was yanked along, then made to kneel and while they cut the fetters from his mask, one of the guards said,
“Lucky to be joining us on a cornhole day.”
“Three tins says one of these Chinese shits himself watching,” said another guard.
The black fabric ripped off to blinding light.
“Hey this one ain’t even a chink.”
“Woulda look at that. What does his necklace say?”
“Ho, hor, hors–”
“Give me that you idiot. Horsefucker!”
“Well I’ll be.”
“Hey Horsefucker, get a load of this!” They shoved him by the neck toward a bright window and forced his vision downward. Slowly his eyes regained depth and began to focus. He saw a large crowd of men forming a semi-circle around two gaunt figures. It was two naked men, bent over at the waist; their hands were bound by rope to their ankles. Both had their front foot on a white line in the dirt. Next to them stood a guard in uniform, noticeably bigger, buffer, more burly, more healthy than any man in the crowd. He raised his rifle and fired into the air.
Instantly, the two men began running. It was the kind of frantic hobble that being tied only in such a way compels. The crowd cheered wildly.
The man on the left, in the lead, slipped on a patch of mud, and came up covered in brown sludge, bucking to his feet as his rival took the lead.
Yonder, the dirt expanse of the open yard ended abruptly at a wall of greenery; it was a massive cornfield.
As he approached it, the man on the right gave no sign of slowing down, and sure enough, when he got to the wall, he plunged vigorously through the cornstalks and disappeared. Then, the mud-covered man followed suit and lunged headlong into the corn. Like choreography, the crowd grew silent, listening.
From his vantage, Bobby traced each man’s path by scanning the tops of the moving cornstalks. Right still had the lead. Left was closing in. But then it seemed both men had stopped. Suddenly a small section of cornstalks tilted, and with a loud crack, sunk away.
Cheers rose up in full force, but were quickly shushed until it was silent again.
Now there was the sound of a struggle amdist the stalks. Grunts, groans, the ripping of branches and the harsh pinching of leaves. Teeth and spit and huge gasping breaths were involved. Five, ten minutes passed.
All of the sudden, the brown-streaked man emerged from the corn. Cheers rang out.
Something was different though. He was moving much slower, inching along in fact, his gait was tense and strained as though now his knees too were tied together.
He was halfway back when finally his competitor appeared from the wall of corn. This man had a wholly different method of return, a backward shuffle, which given his speed, seemed to be working better.
Clenched vertically in the man’s buttocks was a thick, stringy ear of corn.
At seeing this one of the Chinese muttered something that expressed disgust.
“I might have to make that bet 5 tins of chew,” said one of the guards.
“Shutup. Here he comes, here he comes!”
It was neck and neck approaching the finish. At some moment during the race, two wooden boxes had been lain beyond the line. Both racers were ten yards out.
Then the backwards man stopped abruptly, his body tensed and he was like a bent-over statue. Only the strings on the ear of corn were moving. What was he doing? Then with a violent convulsion, he sneezed, and out the other end shot the ear of corn to the ground.
An upheaval of emotions rang through the crowd. The dirt-covered man had crossed the end line and was presently placing his corncob atop one of the wooden boxes. Backwards man was (oh how painful it was even to watch!) frantically trying to regain his pinch on the now gravel-coated cob.
“Christ,” whispered Bobby.
The guards were animated:
“Get a grip man! There! He’s got it! Aw shit, dropped it. Wait. Ohp. Is that it? I think so! I think he’s got it!…Yep there it is!”
When Bobby looked back over at the dirty man, he was half-expecting some sort of sign or dance of victory, but no, it wasn’t over. What he saw was foul and horrid. The man was on his knees, bent over the wooden box, his face pressed to the cornpiece as he savagely gnawed at the husk.
Backwards man crossed the line, released his corn onto his wooden palette, and soon both men were performing the same vile act. It was then that the more vocal of the Chinese men beside Bobby retched and vomited onto the stone floor.
“Ha! Pay up Tony,” said one of the guards.
“You said shit, not spew.”
Bobby heard the metal tins change hands. He looked over and saw one guard put a wad of tobacco into the sick Chinese’s mouth. He seemed to appreciate it.
As the two competitors went to town on their respective corn-ears, Bobby scanned the rowdy crowd. The cheers were unwavering and there seemed to be equal parts encouragement and rancor directed at either man.
It was impossible to tell who was in lead, nor could one surmise that this was even the last stage in the cruel game. Removing the husk seemed to be the hardest part, and savage though it was, there seemed to be a certain delicateness to each man’s form, as though it was taboo to bite too far into the corn-flesh. Both men utilized forehead rolls and side-spits; the nose seemed to hold a special role in maneuvers requiring the slightest minutia.
At one point dirty man’s head rose, the guard came promptly over, inspected the corn, rolling it over with the tip of his rifle, then apparently unsatisfied, muttered something, and the man went right back to the task.
Now it was backwards man who’s head raised. Over came the guard, inspecting the gnawed cob, looking very closely (but not too close). The crowd’s volume subsided, all was silent.
Then the guard lifted his rifle and fired one off. The winner had been chosen.
Some men in the crowd cheered wildly, but most looked subdued and tired, and when a bell tolled from above, the men, in little groups here and there, ambled back toward the building.
“All right Horsefucker, let’s go.”
They yanked Bobby to his feet and dragged him down a corridor, lined with windows. At each one he struggled to catch a glimpse of the yard. In a flash, he saw the dirty man smash his own head into the wooden box and come up with the ear of corn plastered to his bloody forehead. Then a pair of big arms ripped him away.
“What’s gunna happen to the guy who lost?”
“Ask your horse,” said the guard called Tony. Bobby looked over at his face, it was huge and red and stretched taut like a pig bladder. The man’s right arm and chest were massive as if his uniform might explode with one flex. Bobby looked at the other guard’s face; his neck was thick and pimply. When he saw Bobby staring, he winked and blew Bobby a kiss.
“Johnny, take the Chinks to Chink Alley. I’m goin’ up with this one to see the Warden,” said Tony.
“What are you, my boss now?” said the guard Johnny. “Remember, I can bench press more than you.”
“More than me? More than Tony Dirito? Get the fuck outta here!”
Tony the guard dragged Bobby down a succession of grimy corridors; along the walls were portraits of what looked like U.S. presidents, but they were hung low and stank of urine.
They passed into a rectangle of light and cut across an open courtyard lined with phallic cacti. Bobby looked up at the blinding sun.
“Say goodbye to that for a while,” said Tony.
Next thing Bobby knew, he was in a small office of dark mahogany furniture. Across a desk was the back of a well-dressed man, the warden he assumed; he was staring at his mass of gold sporting trophies arrayed on the mantle.
“Warden Grindgrit. This is one Bobby Grisholm. Picked up in Pilser for horsefuckin. Would you like me to strip him sir?”
“Leave us,” said the Warden turning around, “I’ve got it from here.”
“Yes sir,” said Tony and left.
For a solid minute the two men stared at each other. To Bobby, the Warden resembled a piece of gnarled lumber in a suit, the way his face was thick, flat and twisted, the lack of eyebrows, the absence of a chin, the juncture of jaw and neck completely indistinct. This was what they called, back in Bobby’s grade school, a pencil-head, but all beefed-up and muscly, as if the warden once indeed had been a pencil-head, but had been so teased and ridiculed, so misguided, that he’d eaten and lifted his weight in red meat every day since.
“It’s a certain kind of man that would bear down on livestock, eh Mr. Grisholm? Don’t answer that. Just listen. I’m guessing also that you’re a drunk, that you have a sporting habit, gambling perhaps. Most inmates do. Or did, I should say. Judging by your build, you were a laborer, a miner most likely, although perhaps a blacksmith. Either way you probably couldn’t save a day’s wage if your life depended on it, pissing it away in a game of horseshoes. I’m excellent in that game by the way. I wonder if you’ve ever thrown a stick of dynamite from twenty feet into a small hole in an inconvenient rock. In here, you won’t see any of that. The fun is over Grisholm. In here, you are the livestock. You work for us, and it’s all corn. Corn every day. Picking, shucking, grinding, eating and breathing. Corn.”
“Why?” muttered Bobby.
A sharp, painful lash came down across his back. The Warden came around the desk holding a thin bamboo stick.
“Gotta love Chink engineering,” said the Warden grinning at the stick. “From here on, you’ll ask no more questions. You’ll only speak when spoken to. After you’re sufficiently broken, you’ll work the cornfields. Sunup to sundown. Nothing more except eating and sleeping. There is no leisure here, no gambling, no sport, no games–except for one, which I believe you’ve witnessed–and that is not a game for the participants, believe you me, it is the worst kind of punishment imaginable. That will be all Grisholm. Goodnight. For the next two weeks goodnight!”
Tony D came back in. With a practiced efficiency, he ripped off Bobby’s clothes, inspected his orifices, and made him to dress in the drab, grey prison garb. Warden Grindgrit sat watching from behind his desk with a look of pleasurable anxiety, his face a deep raspberry red.
Bobby was ushered stiffly out the door and down a hallway, passing on his way a dirty sickly figure who, detained, was screaming “Noooooo!” as guards forced him through the Warden’s threshold. It was the man who lost the corn game.
The guard led Bobby through a metal door and down the stairs of a room that was the large shaft of a bell tower, then along a cold hallway that stunk of slaughtered meat; he could hear the cries of livestock and voices of Chinese. Then it was a room where many guards sat at long tables, picking rib-bones clean, drinking ale, over there some were on their backs lifting bars with huge weights on the end, two men were wrestling, one in a headlock looked as if his face might explode.
Then a door opened, shut, and it was darkness.
Darkness for a long time, forever it seemed. Vast tracks of time. A sliver of light once in an eternity brought food. A type of thin gruel that he drank; thirst was the only feeling greater than hunger.
It was not long before his mind hungered for a task that would relieve it of having to think. He discovered a declivity in the stone floor, and began a game of tossing one of his shirt buttons into the darkness, trying to get it to land in the dent. He did this over and over, sweeping his hand over the ground to retrieve the button. Soon the game erased his thinking, consumed him.
Still, he was aware of the sounds, sounds that made the darkness deeper and more saturating–metal bars clicking, distant laughter, screams, his own breath–that his mouth was the breath’s source was unbelievable, so distant it sounded. It was the breath of a horse, he was thinking, of a beast whose ears stretched far above its nostrils. He was a horse. Wasn’t he? He had traded brains with a horse. Yes. That made sense.
One day–what was a day?!–the sliver of light ruptured into a giant flame and black blobs forced him to his feet.
The time the eyes need to adjust to daylight from extreme darkness pales in comparison to that of the brain and the spirit readjusting to the stimuli of waking life from a vast solitary confinement.
They took him to the mess hall and plopped him down at a table of inmates, who immediately let out groans of disgust and gave the guards begrudging looks. Bobby had that solitary stink.
“This here’s Horsefucker,” said Tony the guard. “Be nice.”
The men said nothing and continued eating in silence.
“They sure broke him.”
“What do you think his real name is?”
“He looks like a Peter to me.”
“No, Peter’s are more needly, they have thin noses. He ‘s got a big nose.”
“Why don’t you idiots just ask him.”
“You kidding? He’s dead-brained. Watch. Horsefucker, what is your real name?”
“Is your name Peter?”
“Shutup, give him a second. What’s your name guy?”
“Guard 12 o’clock.”
“Pipe down over here jackasses!” yelled the guard.
The men grew silent again and continued working at their food, a thin mealy yellow paste peppered here and there with hard blackened corn-kernels.
“Why do they overcook this? Every day, I swear.”
“It’s the salt peter they cook it with.”
“Enough of the Peter shit.”
“I said salt peter you idiot, it’s a drug to suppress our sex drives. Turn us into complete work mules.”
“Naw. They cook it hard to wear down our teeth, case one day we try to bite our ways outta here.”
“Any word on whether Gruger made it out?”
“Pot shot killed ‘im, swhat I heard.”
“I heard it was the dogs. The ones we hear howling out there on the edge of field. Supposing you even make it all the way out there they’ll rip you limb from limb.”
“Gentlemen, I heard it from a guy who’s in with a chink, and this chink as they say, ‘Spicka Inglesh,’ and he says he heard the guards saying it was the road agents, he’d made it all the way out to the highway only to get nixed by state guns.”
“Ain’t that a bitch, win or loose cornhole, you’re screwed either way.”
“What would you choose, what if say, you had to play cornhole? Wouldn’t you just lose on purpose? Only way you’d know for sure you was getting out of here alive.”
“I’d rather be dead than play Missus to Warden Grindgrit.”
“You kidding? I’d have the son-of-a-bitch’s child to get out of here.”
“But you’re never the same. You lose something. Look at Williams. He lost cornhole and paid the piper a year ago. Shocked ever since. He’s getting out next week, and by the look of him he couldn’t give two shits.”
The men looked over at Williams, a weak shell of a man who, staring off blankly toward the ceiling, let out a wet-sounding fart.
“Well, maybe two shits.”
“Hey, Horsefucker likes that.”
“Horsefucker, do you like shit?”
Bobby laughed again.
“A big pile of shit.”
Bobby laughed even harder.
“We got a real sicko here.”
Over came the guard Johnny.
No one said a word.
Bobby, staring dumbly at Officer Johnny’s barrel chest, reached out and made to touch the guard’s third shirt button. In a swift movement, Officer Johnny put Bobby in a headlock and spanked him three times.
“I’m the one that’s ‘sposed to put the moves on you sweetheart,” said Johnny through gritted teeth. He threw Bobby to the ground. From below, Bobby winked and blew Johnny a kiss. Several of the men saw it and winced, but Johnny merely huffed, and re-rolled his shirtsleeve. “Clear out and get to work,” ordered Johnny.
“Did you see that?”
“Never in my life…”
The men cleared the mess hall, walked single file to the outside yard, and gathered in three lines, waiting for the whistle that commenced each 12 hour work day.
The men were sallow, shriveled creatures; the corn diet gave you just enough energy to work your monotonous task, do and think of nothing else in between except sleeping and eating more corn-gruel.
Picker, shucker, grinder– those were the three jobs. Unless of course you were a Chinese. Then it was the slaughterhouse, and preparing food for the guards. And that was just what people knew. Rumors went wild about what else the Chinese were forced to do–some say they were cooking up the corn into strange Oriental drugs, others that they were in charge of churning the latrines lest they combust and blow the whole prison.
Bobby was a shucker. His task was to receive fresh-picked ears, remove the husk and stem leaving absolutely no shred of green plant material, fill up a wheelbarrow, cart it across the dirt yard to the grind-house, return, repeat.
Bobby, who had gained back only a small inkling of personhood since his stint in solitary (which was rare but not unheard of), excelled at the job. His secret: he made a game out of it. That’s right. Bobby was now mule-brained, yet the little shred of human spirit he did contain was that of a child, and to a child, life’s sole purpose is to have fun, and so everything is a game.
It started one day when the left-side handle of his wheelbarrow broke off on his way across the dirt yard, and out spilled a whole load of new-shucked corn-cobs. Rather than try to fix the thing, he picked up the cobs one-by-one and chucked them about 40 yards toward the oak loading-barrels at the grind-house portal.
“Horsefucker what the hell are you doing?” said a fellow shucker passing with his wheelbarrow. “Is you crazy?” The man, a redhead, was nervous and started scanning for guards. “They’ll beat you hard for–Jesus have you missed once?”
Bobby was utilizing an underhand finesse technique that he’d learned playing hours of horseshoes in his former life. Though his mind had little concept of the past, his muscles had retained the memory of the once thrilling arm movement that, in gambling situations, had garnered for Bobby everything from money to drinks to women to kicks in the nards. (His were presently tingling).
“That’s amazing! Must be twenty in a row! Twenty-one! Twenty-two!” yelled the redheaded man. He scanned for guards again. None.
“Let me try.”
Anxiously, the man let fly a feeble toss that landed pathetically twenty yards short of the barrel.
“Shit,” he giggled.
“More hips,” said Bobby.
“Give me another one. Quick.”
With giddy excitement, the man wound up again and released, this time a low-flying bullet shot that hit the barrel but glanced off the top edge, and sputtered across the dirt trailing dust.
“Holy toledo! Hot shit!”
Bobby already had another cob held out, but the man, squinting toward the thinning dust, had caught sight of a set of three guards who were bench-pressing next to the grind-house. The two spotters were staring and looked pissed.
“Shit,” said the redhead. He grunted and scurried off with his wheelbarrow. Bobby could hear anxious laughter coming from the man. When was the last time he’d heard anyone laugh? Bobby smiled.
Ahead in the distance, the man approached the oak barrels with his load. Suddenly the two guards appeared and in a flash were beating him senseless with their huge wooden-like arms. Bobby’s smile vanished and then he himself disappeared into the nearest corn stalks.
Over the next few weeks, with the foresight and rationale of a pre-teen, Bobby continued throwing his corns from across the yard, referring to it now as a game called shuck n’ chuck; he was now 95% from sixty yards out. Fellow shuckers began to take notice, and the emotional reaction amongst them was varied and complex, ranging from bewilderment to apprehension to derision to even a nervous type of approval; at least one shucker a day now ventured to try his hand, usually stopping for not more than five seconds to flick off a tense grounder or weak pop-up. Some shots even went backwards. However, there were a few men, two perhaps, that aced their first shot. Such bright smiles at that moment broke out across their sunken faces that Bobby felt a sense of pride and purpose for the first time in his life.
Such as prison is, rumors began to fly:
“There’s a game now. Guards don’t even know about it. Some type of corn cob horseshoes. Risky.”
“A shucker, I won’t say who, suffice to say he’s got brass balls, he started it, right in front of the guards’ noses.”
“Word is a shucker’s been screwing that one guard Johnny to give him the go-ahead. That’s why it’s called fuck n’ chuck.”
“He don’t care about Grindgrit. He wants to be picked for cornhole. He’s either got a death wish or a death grip.”
“It’s like catch, but by yourself.”
“Only inmates with the biggest balls have the gall to try it.”
“In the barrel’s 3 points, hit the edge, that’s 2, hit the box, bounce off, that’s 1, dirt is nothing, nada, zip. Simple but fuckin’ brilliant!”
“Stupid if you ask me. But let ’em do it, least I know I’ll be safe from the next game of cornhole.”
One night, before lights-out, Bobby heard a whistle and held out his hand to receive a note from the adjacent cell. It took him thirty minutes to decipher, and still he could only guess what it said:
The pickers want in. Switch tomorrow.
P.S. Eat this.
While Bobby lay sleeping that night, digesting Longbeard’s letter, he had a dream that he had swallowed a whole ear of corn, and that inside of him, it became an actual ear. The thought occurred to him, in the dream, that when he woke up and pooped it out, he would never be able to hear again, as if being kicked in the head by a horse.
He woke up crying and drenched in perspiration, yet he was not shivering or cold. In fact, he was being cradled by a warm, heavy weight. It was Officer Johnny.
Next morning, when breakfast ended and the men dumped their trays and exited in staggered lines to the outside yard, Bobby and Longbeard had already made the switch. Most of the guards were noticeably fatigued from the weekends’ weight-lifting competition and failed to notice.
Pickers worked out in the cornfields. On the one hand, the dense corn-stalk coverage gave them an advantage from the scrutiny of the guards, yet on the other, it made ambush and the possibility of a rapid discovery an ever-present threat.
It didn’t take long for Bobby to teach the men the gist of the game. A clearing of about 50 yards was achieved with the help of ten men, five on each side, lying down head-to-toe, and rolling opposite directions, to gently bend and separate adjacent rows of corn-stalks, thus creating a temporary alleyway. At a moment’s notice, the men needed only to stand and the corn-stalks would flick back up to normal position, as if the vegetation too were conspirators in the illicit deed. The wooden boxes in which the men transported their fresh-picked corncobs to the shuckers became the obvious targets.
The game caught on quickly and after a couple days, shuckers, and even a few grinders, hearing about the game’s renewed secrecy under the coverage of the corn-stalks, sought to make the switch, utilizing bribes and ego-massages on the pickers, if not to play, at least to see for themselves what all the hype was about.
As the game’s popularity grew it became harder for anyone but the picker’s to get a crack at it, and soon indignation rose up among the shuckers and grinders, making mealtimes tense. The threat of rats and stool pigeons lent a palpable tautness to the air.
Then one day it seemed someone had indeed talked, because here was Warden Grindgrit himself addressing the men who stood at attention in their respective lines in the blaring sun of the dirt yard.
“For the last week, we’ve been severely behind quota, and coupled with rumors I’ve been hearing about an unsanctioned recreation activity, I’m, needless to say, pissed, and when I’m pissed, like most of your wives who you’ve abandoned, betrayed, beaten or else never had due to excessively puerile brains, I get bitchy and needy and demand attention. We will hold a cornhole match twice weekly. Starting today. Guards please retrieve the designated men.”
The white chalk line seemed to have appeared from thin air, and two men were dragged toward it, ceremoniously stripped naked, and bound in that most humiliating position.
One of the men was the redhead who’d been badly beaten weeks ago for mimicking Bobby’s first corn toss.
From his place in line, Bobby could see that the redheaded man, though bent-over, was staring at him with intense hatred in his eyes, which, as the man contorted into ready position, morphed into the savage stare of a more odious eye.
The rifle flared and the match began. Even from the start, something was different about the game. The two men, everyone in the crowd, even the look of a few guards, all seemed desperate and hopeless, too much so to even care about the outcome. One of these men would die, the other receive unthinkable bodily and psychological horrors. All because of what? Throwing an ear of corn into a barrel. Over a stupid game. These were the thoughts that spun through Bobby Grisholm’s head as he watched a distant bunch of cornstalks tremble sideways and snap.
“No fair!” he wanted to cry out. This prison was like having school all the time and no recess. He looked at the faces of his fellow inmates. No cheers, no excitement, no bewilderment, no recess. Craning his neck, he peered upward and saw Grindgrit watching from a high window of the bell tower.
“Pencil Head!” he wanted to yell so badly. He wanted to scream and run around playing, jump on the other men, dog-pile and laugh and run free like wild horses. Yes! He wanted to run with horses, he wanted to play with horses. But this feeling sank quickly. Something about it felt wrong, like a lump of lead balled-up in his chest. It was the guilt from something he could no longer remember, some distant reprimand or beating associated with the fanciful play of horses.
A very mature thought began to poke through the flits of childish whims and non-sequiturs that encompassed his 8-year-old mind: The Warden Grindgrit, when he was just a kid, had been a pencil-headed dweeb that got bullied and excluded from everyone’s games. He’d come to the fishing hole on the weekends and big kids would call him “titty-williker” and hold him over the bridge by his ankles. At horse races, they’d trip him into dung piles, and during jacks, they’d stuff the metal barbs down his pants and punch his crotch. Perhaps his stilted jaw hindered proper chewing, thus contributing to irritable bowels later on, and he’d spend hours on the toilet, and the teacher would reprimand him for missing the lesson, sharp cracks and slaps so everyone knew, and a couple big kids at recess would come to tip the outhouse. He was beginning to see that it wasn’t that the Warden had been excluded, but that he’d been included in the worst possible way, the butt of every joke, the submissive rag-doll of humiliating games.
In his bunk that night, Bobby couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking of the Warden. His mind was ping-ponging back and forth between hatred and sympathy for the man. He was a brutal prick, yet a lonely soul. He deserved to be slaughtered with the pigs, yet maybe all he needed was a friend. Now one feeling, now the other. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth! Yes! It was such a random thought, but that was just what his corn-toss game was lacking! And all these thoughts about the pathetic Warden just needing a friend, made him think of partners. Yes, the game should be played with teams!
At breakfast next morning, Bobby detailed the new rules to a table of allies, however, no one shared his excitement. The men were skeptical and frightened.
“It’ll reinvigorate the game, get everybody excited! We could have tournaments!” said Bobby.
“It ain’t worth gettin’ cornholed!”
“It’s a verb now?”
“C’mon guys!” cajoled Bobby. “Plus we have eyes.” Officer Johnny passed the table. Huge and puffed-up, he yelled no curses or reprimands, but did slip Bobby a coy wink.
“Horsefucker. Get it through your skull. It’s over.”
At a nearby table, the redheaded man who’d yesterday lost cornhole had rejoined the inmates. So uninhabited and vacant was his demeanor that he went almost wholly unnoticed save by the sordid group of men at his table. Per his command, they had all removed one sock and into them were presently depositing, one after another, the hard over-cooked corn kernels that dotted their helpings of gruel. Each man filled the tip of his sock, pinched and tied it off.
The men finished eating, filed out of the gates to the yard and gathered into their respective lines. The scene was tense, as though at any moment a bugle would sound, the warden would appear and order another batch of cornhole to be served up immediately. Instead, it was Officer Tony Dirito announcing that work was to be extended by 2 hours today and every day following until quota was raised sufficiently and all vestiges of covert yard games eradicated. The reward for stool pigeons would be handsome and involve meat.
As the pickers maneuvered a line through the cornstalks, Bobby and a small group of loyal followers weaved a path to a hidden pocket of the cornfield. They broke into teams and like school-girls began to play the new version of the game.
At high noon, a sharp crack resounded in the near distance. The warning signal was immediately sounded (three rapid sneezes), and the players quickly flipped the boxes upright. As the supine men rolled inward to disappear the alleyway, several figures burst in from multiple directions swinging mace-like socks and started beating the gamesmen senseless. One man so enraged cracked Bobby’s partner Ronson on the side of the head, who let out a painful shriek cut short by a second blow straight to his Adam’s apple. On impact the bludgeon’s fabric ripped showering the air with corn-kernel bullets, one of which beaned Bobby in the right eye. As he fell down, Officer Johnny, who’d been their eyes on the fringe, erupted onto the scene, and filled with passionate rage, began grabbing the ambushers one by one, until he had about six of them in his clutches, at which point he fell to his knees and began squeezing the men with all his might. Bobby rose to his feet and from out of his one good eye he could see the veins popping on the foreheads of those six men.
Suddenly Officer Johnny’s face went from red to stark white and he screamed, “Billy!” which wasn’t Bobby’s name but nevertheless caused him to turn around at a crucial moment and see that he was about to be socked (literally) by the angry redhead. He leaned quickly left, the blow glanced off his ear. Two gamesmen promptly jumped the redhead and began rapidly punching his face.
Bobby’s reality slowed; the scene rang with an intense silence. His left eye latched onto the flung sock spiraling like a severed foxtail, up and up and up, scraping the silent clouds. Then it fell, gracefully and soundlessly, and with a plop landed in the open mouth of dead Ronson. Beautiful images blossomed in Bobby’s brain.
Soon guards poured in, took all the men away, flogged them, and put them back in their cells. Immediately rumors went wild– were the gamesmen being tortured to give up their leader? No one was surprised when the bugle sounded and the guards came to corral the inmates into their lines on the yard.
The surprise came moments later when the two victims were brought forth to the starting line. It was Bobby Grisholm–they’d finally nabbed him– and the other man was Officer Johnny.
Gasps and whispers spread across the crowd, even amongst the guards, several of whom cursed and lowered their eyebrows in disgust at the Warden who stood at attention at the window of the bell tower.
“Here finally we have the perpetrators–Horsefucker and Officer Johnny himself. They’ve tried for weeks now to peddle their little bush-game in secret, convince you of its charm and merit, but there can be no sweetness here! No leisure. Only punishment! Guards!”
Two guards stepped forward with rope in hand and began binding the men, wrist-to-ankle.
One of the guards was Tony Dirito.
“What have I done Tony?” snivelled Johnny.
“Shutup Johnny. Listen,” whispered Tony as he wound the rope. “You gotta win this. The warden’s going to the shoot whoever loses right here on the spot. This is a trick knot, undo it when you’re in the stalks, you’ll have the advantage.”
The guards finished binding, stepped back, and the two men hunkered over the chalk line. The sweat and tears on Johnny’s face were indecipherable. Bobby’s face however, seemed completely relaxed, his mind far away. Already, murmurs of praise for Bobby’s courage passed among the audience of shrivelled inmates, and many sallow eyes twinkled as if beholding a fleeting human presence that in a matter of moments would pass from man to legend. Others just thought he was an idiot.
The rifle flared and off they went hobbling toward the wall of corn, disappearing into the stalks.
Johnny quickly wriggled free from the rope.
“I’ll untie you,” whispered Johnny passionately.
“Then, I don’t know, we’ll escape, we’ll run for it.”
“It’s no use Johnny. One of us has to lose. Let it be me. I’m not afraid.”
“Let me at least untie you,” said Johnny reaching for the knot.
“No,” ordered Bobby. “Leave it like it is,” he said and he turned his body and looked back doe-eyed at Johnny.
From across the yard the men began to see the tops of stalks moving back and forth rhythmically. At any moment, they expected to see them bend and hear the familiar crack, any moment, any moment now…
Then–and people to this day can only guess what really caused it –an explosion came from within the structure of the prison, launching out streaks of flaming debris. Hordes of Chinese men came running out of the building, their clothes and hair on fire. Then chaos ensued as the edges of the cornfield caught fire, enclosing the yard in a wall of flame. Guns were wrested from the guards and fired every which way. Most inmates were weakened immediately by the fumes, passed out, and burned like wisps of hay.
Seeing the smoke from afar, the road agents closed in with poised rifles and shot at any movement inside the brush along the road. Still, a few inmates managed to escape the crucible, slip past the highwaymen, and sneak into the nearby town.
There was four of them. Their spirits were broken, beyond broken, shattered, yet they were men of the earth, and they did they only thing they knew–got drunk and bought whores.
They were so dirty and their clothes and bodies so riddled with the vegetation through which they’d clawed and trampled, one of the whores looking at her man as he stripped said,
“Dang mister, you got corn comin’ outta every hole!”
The man smiled and looked nostalgically out the window at the night sky. Then he screamed, “Horsefucker!” and jumped into bed.
“Yeeehaw!” said the whore.