Stalkers by Ken Poyner

  Eric speeds by and with his wagon’s bullhorn systems screams, “Corn atcha!”

I’m sitting on the back of my wagon, legs barely touching the ground, stretching my back from the morning’s efforts, and point at the back of his vehicle to decidedly say “Corn at you!”, but he will not hear me as he is now down the road and I am not using my bullhorn. I’m not even in the cab of my rig, where the bullhorn is, the engine on the stalk wagon chugs along fighting a transmission in park, and I don’t even yell.

 I turn back to my lunch, unwrapping the two corn tortillas, both filled with a corn-based protein substitute and generous layers of corn kernels. From the thermos, I pour a little corn milk into the cup and settle back to enjoy my corn-leaf-bag lunch.

  Eric must have had an easy run. I don’t think his wagon was full from the slight glance I got of it, and he was heading back already towards the processing plant. I have another half mile to go. After lunch, I’m going to concentrate on the roadside alone. Often, I will help a homeowner or two, give them a few pointers, even climb a roof and show them how to make sure you get all the encroaching plant’s root. But I want to get home a little early this afternoon; I want at today’s work’s end to be worn out a little less than usual.

 It has been four days since I’ve cleared this section of road, so there could easily be quite a number of corn hatchlings that have tried to edge themselves under the macadam, that have started driving up the hardened corn-asphalt along the shoulder, turning out the husk fiber underbelly of the road’s construction. You cannot get those greedy roots with automated machinery: the machinery just lops off the stalks, leaving the roots to keep driving into the pavement, sending up new stalks. No, you have to identify each stalk, gauge how the root system has wedged itself in, select what type of trowel or plunge you need to use to get down to where the roots will not snap but instead, with your pull or the draw of the pneumatic extractor, will pop completely out.

  A talented worker can tell what method is going to work best by assessing the thickness of the stalk, the lean of the leaves, the thickness of the veins, the mix of green and brown, how far into the sun the seedling leans.

   Left alone, the Super Corn will begin to split the road, turning up the corn-asphalt, marching in mere weeks across the paved area: pushing it into askew pieces, obliterating its order, turning it into just another field. But I get paid to pull out the invading corn, take the stalks back to the ethanol plant, fill any cracks or holes with the corn-based pavement caulk. It is a job I would not have were it not for the eagerness of the Super Corn, the resilience it shows, the adaptability shoved into its copyrighted DNA.  

   And, along the way, I sometimes help the addled farmers who sit in the middle of the vast fields of corn. They lease the rights from Super Corn, Incorporated to harvest the corn, bring the stalks and cobs in for ethanol production, surrender every bit of the marching plant back to the corporation that created and bred it; but the corn is hardy, and will see their homes as yet another place to grow. A good shingle roof is heaven for Super Corn. Anything short of metal is enough for Super Corn to draw sustenance. Once the roots get through the shingle and into the plywood, it is a real job to extract it. You can lose the whole of a good home in no time.

   Most farmers, when their roofs get infested with the corn, take the whole lot – corn, shingles, plywood – to the processing center, put in a tin roof.  They still have to uproot what grows into the sides of their houses, even trying to spirit through fiberglass and brick, wall board and the moldings around glass. They have to check every two or three days, to ensure the corn does not get a survival grip, does not spread under everything and begin to dismantle the structure. It is the price we pay for the great gifts of Super Corn, the endless products, the stability it provides to our food chain, our energy chain, our economics, our politics.

  Thank the genius of the company for Super Corn and its civilization-sustaining products, from food to ethanol to containers to all the foundations of our vast one-input industry – but it can be pernicious. The grass cousin is designed to be persistent.

  The stalk wagon purrs, burning out ethanol as I take slow bites of my tortillas. If I am lucky, what I bring back for processing will produce less ethanol than I used. Between lunch and a lightweight haul, added to nearly a whole tank of ethanol burned, I could be in line for nomination as a net corn user, taking out of the corn chain for this period more than I put in. It would be unusual, but it could happen.

  Another two hours, maybe three, and I will be at the end of my territory, my section of road for the day cleared of any innocently invading corn. A trip to dump the stalks at the ethanol plant, and then home. The youngest son, the only one still living at home, will be out tonight on a field trip, exploring all the myriad uses of corn paper, expanding the school children’s regard for it beyond writing and wrapping. I will be alone in a quiet house with only the shuck and silk of a too often invisible wife.

   She and I have planned for days how we will be taking advantage of such an opportunity.

   Once home, I will open the door to bathe in the enabling smell of slowly boiling corn on the stove. It will need another hour to boil into true taste, and could stand an hour beyond that before it became inedible, and thus an unacceptable waste of precious corn. The harvester wife, usually in the hallway to great me with an empty wave of a husk and a quick kiss at the cheek, will be unseen.

  I will place my tools and corn lunch sack in the kitchen. My husk-fiber jumper I will peel back and leave in the foyer, to be hung and brushed later.  Quietly, though she will know I am home from the moment I unlatch the door, I will make my way like an unrepentant serial grass-seed thief back to our private chambers.

  There, reposed like a sleek bushel of the best harvest, she will be arrayed in her finest, though flimsiest, silk, with perhaps a husk or two dangling seductively across the kernels of my deepest desires. Ever so slowly, I will begin to shuck, to free her from any non-essential, secondary harvests, from the byproducts that will be salvaged later. And perhaps, this time, not only can we quell our fiercely agricultural passions, but we can possibly do our sacred duty, producing the germ of yet another soul to soon partake of the corn, to luxuriate in the excess production of the ever-expanding Super Corn domain that we greedily harvest and harvest and harvest. In our times as consumers, we can be producers of consumers.

 But for now, Eric forgotten and one new stalk sighted just yards a head, on to turning a precious plant – edging towards becoming a weed – instead back into a potential product, thus keeping the road safe.

After years of impersonating a Systems Engineer, Ken has retired to watch his wife of forty+ years continue to break both Masters and Open world raw powerlifting records. Ken’s two current poetry collections (“The Book of Robot”, “Victims of a Failed Civics”) and three short fiction collections (“Constant Animals”, “Avenging Cartography”, “The Revenge of the House Hurlers”) are available from Amazon and most book selling websites. Visit him at www.kpoyner.com.

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