I wrapped my fingers tightly around the prickly, grainy stalks and yanked up hard toward the empty sky. The tassel separated with a dull pop. I flung it to the ground, stepped forward in the hard black dirt to the next stalk, and reached up again. The sun glared down on my bare shoulders and back, baking them to a soft brown with a cherry tinge underneath.
“Riders on the Storm” by The Doors floated across the corn field from our little portable radios that hung from our belt loops. Everyone tuned into WLS from Chicago, so the whole field was alive with music. And this day, everyone listened. The Doors had lost one of their band members. Not only was this our first summer job and our “initiation” into freshmen year at high school, we were suddenly faced with the realization that we would not be on this earth forever. That death could come at any time, like it did for Jim Morrison.
Sweat rolled down my arm into one of the small cuts on my inner elbow. The salt-sting made me wince. I had not bothered to put on long sleeves this morning when we hit the field at dawn. The leaves of the corn stalks were still dripping with morning dew then and wet corn leaves have paper-sharp edges. But now, as they dried out under the midday sun, they softened, and most of us girls had peeled down to bandanas on our heads, halter-tops and jean shorts. The guys just peeled down to jeans, their bare chests and backs exposed and glistening, tanned and hardened.
I grasped a corn tassel and yanked. Pop! Some of the chaff stuck to my sweaty palm as I let go. “Into this world we’re thrown,” I sang with the radio, letting the tassel fall. I wiped my hand against my shorts to relieve the itch and moved further down the row, pressing the fallen tassel into the warm earth with the heel of my tennis shoe. The tall green stalks, standing stiff like soldiers, lined the dark dirt ahead of me on both sides for what seemed like forever, eventually converging in a shimmer of heat, like a mirage, a promise of its end.
A flash of red bandana between the stalks two rows over told me that Donna had caught up. Absorbed in the song and her work, she belted out in a deep grinding voice, “There’s a killer on the road.”
I laughed to myself and sang quietly along with her as we moved down the rows. Reach, yank, pop!
The sky was still empty and the sun had moved high overhead. The corn stalks no longer shaded the ground at its feet. It heated the black dirt beneath us, like the black seat in a car that burns you. I paused to wipe my brow with my forearm, but it felt rough and gritty and left a layer of chaff sticking to my wet forehead.
I could not see over the rows of corn to either side, to see how far along everyone else was. All I could do was keep moving forward in this sea of green and chaff, in the trough of the wave I was assigned to. If I fell behind, our crew chief, who wandered across the waves behind us, would let me know.
I moved forward, reach, yank, pop, listening to the music waft over the field. The sounds of thunder and rain, mixed with the tinkling of light-stepped piano keys, made you forget momentarily there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. How we wished for those clouds, a respite from the angry sun. A rain to turn our sea of sun-baked corn stalks into wet muddy puddles.
The last phrase of the song became a whisper, “Riders in the Storm.” With the music silent, the air filled with the wavering buzz of bees. A crew chief shouted to his team as we reached the end of the field and gathered by the bus. Chuck Buell, the afternoon DJ, announced the next song on the WLS Hit Parade. We quickly forgot about rain and thunderstorms as the girls listened to the Bee Gees’ “How can you mend a broken heart?” and the boys rolled their eyes.
by Barbara Seaton