by David S Atkinson
Stacie wondered if the time waiting in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot counted in the hours for the day. He’d been there a half hour already; the flyer said six A.M. He hoped it was paid.
There were a bunch of kids, hanging around. Most of them he didn’t even know, which was surprising for a town as small as Seward. They were probably farm kids, looking for extra cash. He wished Marc didn’t have summer school. At least he’d have someone to talk to then.
Even that early, it was already hot. There was no shade in the parking lot.
There weren’t a lot of ways to make any money though, farm kid or not. Only a couple kids could work at the Dairy Queen, and those slots were already filled. Pamida wanted you to be sixteen, Piggly Wiggly too…except for sackers. That wasn’t even paid, though. Just whatever change people had when you carried them out that they felt like throwing you.
The flyer kind of thing was all Stacie could do.
He’d detasseled before, but that only lasted a couple weeks and wouldn’t come around this year until later in the summer. Even that wouldn’t last long once it did come. When that finally started he’d probably do it, but he was sitting around the house until then.
Seward was worse with no money.
Stacie didn’t even really know what this was yet. The flyers, taped up all over town, only said ‘watermelon work.’ Laborers over thirteen, five dollars an hour. It couldn’t be harvesting, it was way too early for that. Watermelons wouldn’t even have grown yet. Maybe weeding or something. Stacie bet it was one of those organic farmers that couldn’t use pesticides so had to do stuff by hand.
Whatever. He could probably do whatever it was.
Detasseling, berry picking, nothing exempt from minimum wage or age laws required any actual skill. It simply sucked really bad. Hard stuff, little pay. Still, it paid.
Summers broke in Seward sucked worse than any work at any pay.
Stacie realized kids were getting into the back of pickup trucks. He hadn’t even noticed them pull into the lot, or call out. He forced himself to wake up. Best not to space out until working. It was useful then.
It made it easier to get through.
He shoved in the rusted bed of a mostly brown truck between what looked like a group of towheaded brothers. They didn’t speak to him, didn’t make room. He caught a few elbows to the ribs that might or might not have been intentional.
No one told them anything before the trucks took off. The adults hadn’t even gotten out. They simply drove when loaded, stopping at a mostly dirt field twenty minutes or so later. Only his truck, none of the others. The other kids must have been going somewhere else.
‘Out! Hop to, loafers!’ a tiny old man bellowed, jumping out of the truck and slamming the heavy door as soon as he stopped. ‘We don’t pay when you’re not working.’
The kids got out quickly enough, lining up in the dirt without being told. Nearby, a tangle of green vines sprinkled with little yellow flowers stretched out endlessly.
‘You will call me, Tyrone,’ the angry man continued. ‘I ain’t your mom, or your dad, so don’t cry to me when you get tired. In fact, don’t talk unless it’s to tell me you’re having such a good time you want to work for free. Got it?’
They all either got it or were at least smart enough to keep their mouths shut anyway. The kids stared.
Tyrone tugged a battered cardboard Jim Beam box out of the truck’s cab. ‘You will each grab a smock and a few handfuls of these Q-Tips. You will rub the Q-Tips on the inside of the male flowers to grab some pollen. Those are the ones that have stamens. Then you will rub that pollen in the center of the ones with the green bulbs underneath, the females. If you can’t tell a man from a woman, just rub Q-Tips in a bunch of flowers for a while and you’ll get it sooner or later. Questions?’
He held up one of the smocks and some Q-Tips. The Q-Tips were just ordinary cotton swabs, but the smocks were nylon mesh aprons with black and yellow bands all over them. Tiny cellophane wings on the back.
‘What?’ Tyrone demanded, unasked. ‘You little bastards got something better to do? No one knows where the damn bees are and I won’t get no watermelons if they ain’t pollinated. If you want any money, then get to work!’
The speech was a little much, Stacie thought, in the absence of any questions. Stacie had wanted to ask, but thought it better not to be the first to speak up.
They all simply took smocks and Q-Tips. They put them on and moved out into the rows, swabbing as they went. Tyrone sat back in the cab with the door open, watching. Stacie didn’t see him set any kind of a clock and wondered how Tyrone would know how much to pay them, but decided he wouldn’t get paid any more for asking that either.
There wasn’t any shade in the field either. Later in the day, Stacie could feel the sun burning him and could even feel heat radiating up from the plants. The dirt too. The nylon shirt only made that worse. Stacie was blockier than most of the other kids, not fat but thicker. He was sweating before any of them.
And he didn’t see water anywhere.
The smock made it hard to bend for the flowers as well. Stacie had to scrunch more than the others to reach, making his back sore quickly. That little Tyrone would have had an easier time of it, but Stacie wouldn’t get paid if Tyrone did the job himself.
He kept going.
Stacie didn’t know if he was doing it right, but he kept doing what he was doing. Thoughts stopped pretty fast in the heat anyway, and the flowers seemed pretty easy to tell apart. The Q-Tips got yellow with pollen at least. He used them until they broke or fell out of his hand. It was rote after a while.
Stacie started to wonder if Tyrone had gone to sleep. They hadn’t heard anything from him in hours. Just when Stacie was thinking that though, Tyrone was hopping next to the truck and hollering.
‘Intruders!’ he shrieked. ‘Wasps!’
Stacie didn’t know what he expected to see, but it sure wasn’t another bunch of kids running over a nearby hill, jabbing stickpins in the air. They looked about the same age as the kids with Stacie…but it was difficult to tell. They were moving fast and were covered head to toe in black glossy fabric that reflected little rainbows here and there in the sunlight. Masks even, goggles. Everything obscured.
Tyrone shut himself in the cab right before Stacie and everyone were surrounded. Pushed, kicked, jabbed with the stickpins. They were all too overworked to resist. No one was doing anything really serious, but it hurt all the same.
Q-Tips were broken. Smocks tore. Flowers were trampled.
Then, the other kids ran off again. They were just suddenly gone, quickly as they’d come. The worker kids all looked around as if they weren’t sure what was going to happen next.
‘Get back to it!’ Tyrone sputtered through the truck window as soon as he could get it rolled down. ‘I’m going to need all the more done to make up for the damage, and they were only here because of you all. Work!’
‘What the hell was that?’ Stacie surprised himself by demanding, crowding close to the truck.
Tyrone’s face wrinkled, twitching and turning red. Stacie realized, standing there, how much bigger he was than the withered little man. Maybe that’s why Tyrone didn’t immediately fire him, instead sagging a little once Stacie didn’t flinch.
‘Wasps are pretty much gone too.’ Tyrone said, somewhat quietly. ‘Someone’s got to do their job as well, don’t they?’
Stacie thought again about getting paid. He adjusted his smock, best he could, and found some unbroken Q-Tips. Then, as Tyrone looked on, he bent down and went back to what he was doing among the rows.
It still beat detasseling.
David S. Atkinson is the author of “Apocalypse All the Time,” “Not Quite so Stories,” “The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes,” and “Bones Buried in the Dirt.” He is a Staff Reader for Digging Through The Fat and his writing appears in Literary Orphans, Connotation Press, and others.