by Steve Werkmeister

Sometimes a rush of bodies tearing across the rows,
crashing through the corn, two or three of them honing
in on a target, and then a few rows over, just out of eye
shot, you hear the beating. You know there will be blood
on the bus ride home, some boy will claim to have fallen,
will not come back. The next day Ronnie will say he was
just slowing us down anyway and there’s more where
he came from and you’ll know he’s right the cheap labor
of poor men’s children and you’re just glad it wasn’t you.

The first thing you learn is eight or ten feet in to a row,
the corn closes behind you and the field becomes eternal
as hell. For a while you might see the kids in the rows
next to yours, maybe even the kids next to them, but soon
they’re all just noise, disembodied voices and scuffles
that seem to come from nowhere or everywhere. There’s
no direction here except forward, the leaves nicking paper
cuts into your arms and neck. You don’t want Ronnie
or the other crew leaders to catch you. If they catch up,
you’re moving too slow.

In cornfields, you slog through solid air. You can hear
the wind brushing like a god past the tops of the stalks,
ignorant of the fact you’re down there, stewing in the mesh
of mud and leaves. You look like a supplicant, arms held
on high, but you’re going into junior high and you’re detasseling
corn. Ronnie says that down in the field it’s hotter than the devil’s
asshole. You smile, but don’t hold his eye. It’s almost the 80s.
America’s sick of losing. It’s a time for friendly distance.

There are no other jobs for 12-year-olds, and there is no shame,
and everyone on the block had done the same. Years later
you’ll remember the girl you were too shy to talk to, 12 or 13,
strawberry blonde and freckles light as birds riding a high wind.
It’s her last day, and she doesn’t want to be seen. She sits
in the third or fourth row, a few seats in front of you. The next
morning Ronnie will say she was a stuck-up bitch anyway
and he’ll turn up his transistor radio when Rupert Holmes
comes on and say I like this shit. But it’s a July afternoon
and tears like small blisters slide down her cheeks. Ronnie’s
in high school and he likes to talk about what he’s seen
on HBO after his parents have gone to sleep. You know there
are hurts so deep they leave no marks, and you don’t know
what to do and you don’t even know her you just watch her
stare through her reflection as central Nebraska rolls past—
fields impenetrable as fairyland forests, silver irrigation pivots like
stripped spines, the ditches, the fences, the hail-scarred signs.

IMAGE: Still from youtube video of teen detasseling corn.


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Kids worked detasseling jobs in junior high—I think I started the summer after sixth grade. The job was simple: walk the furrow between the rows of corn pulling off the tops (the tassels) as you do.  It was one of the few jobs that one could get before we were eligible for fast food and retail. There was a supervisor, usually a high school kid who drove the bus and managed everything, and a small group of crew leaders who policed the fields, ostensibly to make sure we didn’t miss any tassels.

PHOTO: “Teenagers beginning their day detasseling corn in fields near New Ulm, Minnesota, July 1974” (U.S. National Archives and Records Service).


Steve Werkmeister
is an English professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. He writes poetry and fiction and is, on occasion, published. He lives with his wife, kids, and pets in Olathe, Kansas.