Yankee Doodle Henry, Part V

The eerie feeling that he’d been in that exact same spot before plagued Henry in the early months of his assignment. Something about the way the walls and windows were organized, something about the tile pattern he laid down piece by piece each day, losing a little more bend in his back each time. It wasn’t until the tacky plastic signs for The Corn Hole went up above the main doors that Henry remembered the original joint, a mainstay of awkward teenagers and overgrown families back in rural Nebraska. It had been his refuge on school half-days, and the setting of his first and only high-school date. With a dwindling national food surplus, a corn permutation chain proved very successful, and hundreds of thousands of Corn Holes were sprouting up around the country, with help from dedicated corn cadets like Henry and the other labor camp prisoners.

He wondered what it was like back home these days. He hadn’t thought of Nebraska as “home” in a long time, but in the raw and honest light of his subjugation, the pretense that Nebraska wasn’t part of the real Henry faded away. He hadn’t seen his parents in over a decade, had barely even exchanged pleasantries with them over the phone. His few friends by proxy, the neighbors he’d passed every day and then suddenly never seen again –they all seemed oceans, planets away. As he installed cheap vinyl booth seats emblazoned with the Corn Hole’s logo, he wondered where Marcy was, what she was doing. She had asked him out with all the awkwardness he’d imagined would’ve come from him if he had had the guts to do the asking. She’d told him she wanted to be a pilot, which seemed absolutely orthogonal to her plain and safe appearance, he remembered. She didn’t have much of any plans to do something about that; neither her dream, nor her appearance. He’d walked her home when their trays of Cobs N’ Coke were finished, clutching at mental straws to find some way to kiss her that’d seem reasonable. He hadn’t managed, and she didn’t push the matter, and they never talked again after that.

If Marcy had made much of any effort towards style as a teenager, she might’ve been hard to spot in the drab uniform of the labor camp. One particularly cold morning, after what felt to Henry like ages but was in reality half a year since his recruitment, she was somehow just…there. One of them, in her ragged olive over-alls, LIVINGSTON, M. embroidered half-heartedly onto the breast. Just as worn-looking, just as well-behaved. Henry immediately suspected he was being tested, for which reason he spent the next week avoiding all eye contact and interaction with Marcy. He wondered and worried about her in equal measure throughout, though, miserably losing both his afternoon and nighttime sleep. Would she even remember him? Had their date all those years ago condemned them to toil here together? He wanted answers. He longed for someone to talk to. He fantasized about tearing off her coveralls and taking her on the cold Corn Hole floor, growling at her to finish what she’d started. Finally, on the eighth day after her arrival, Henry quietly left his backroom cabinet assemblywork and stalked, nearly crouching, towards where Marcy painted yellow stripes of trim in the dining room.

She didn’t notice him behind her. Or maybe she was pretending not to notice. Either way, Henry stood there, not quite doubled over, his eyebrows raised in expectation of her turning around any second. She painted carefully, as though the entirety of her faculties was absorbed in the straightness and evenness of the thin yellow line. Henry’s hamstrings were about to give out.

“Marcy!” he whispered urgently at her.

No response.

“Hey!” Henry tugged lightly at her waist seam. The perfect yellow line was given a dramatic, sloppy S.

She spun around with fury in her eyes, but looked only at Henry’s mouth as she spoke.

“The fuck is your problem, you’re going to get us both recommended.”

“What?! Marcy, it’s me!”

“Recommended, asshole, as in for the worst detail they can find, the kind even force reps won’t sling on innocent recruits ’cause they know assholes like you are gonna break activity like you’re god’s gift to reasons and recommend yourself to a slow and total annihilation.”

“Don’t you remember me?”

“Jesus.” Their eyes met. He searched hers; she poured acid into his. “Yes, I’ll come to you when it’s not actually fuckin’ suicidal to talk, okay? Go back to work.”

She turned and began applying turpentine to Henry’s forced mistake. He stalked back to his spot across the floor.

“And stop walking like an idiot, you’d trip an alarm for drunk hyenas with that dance.”

It was a month before Marcy spoke to him again. The waiting was unbearable. Henry lost yet more sleep, cluttered up inside with yet more questions. Marcy seemed to understand this place better than him. How was that? Maybe this wasn’t her first deployment. He tried to keep that thought shoved down somewhere below his diaphragm, to starve it of possibility. How horrible, can you imagine? And yet he could imagine, he could see her now, one tour on hard labor, another on menial medical detail, maybe even a stint in the institutional recreation league. She looked like she could strip, after all. She looked like she could do just about anything. During the weekly recess hour Henry practiced his stalking in the bathroom. First tiptoe, then hands and knees, then a sort of saunter that swiveled him left and right while he squatted. He wanted to show Marcy that he could take her direction, when she finally came. Maybe she could teach him something, or at least, maybe he could convince her to share something with him, in that place where even a handshake was non-negociable and somehow inappropriate.

In his carefully daydreamed scenarios, Marcy came to him under cover of silence and solitude; in the middle of the night, she’d sneak into the men’s dormitory and wake him with a tiny whisper, or he’d spy her bony finger beckoning him into a bathroom stall. In reality, Marcy simply walked up next to him in the mess hall one afternoon, sat herself down by his side, and started talking. Henry ducked and jerked his neck around towards where force reps always took their supervisory positions near the doors. None were there.

“Calm down, stop being so awkward.”

“But you said, I’d get us recc–”

“Yeah, you would. Not me.”

“Oh.” Henry was flush with shame and admiration.

“The word is you were picked for core labor because your dumbass folks back home never had the decency to get you sick. Jesus Christ, Hen, I had no idea, I would’ve at least given you a standard pox.”

Nobody had called him Hen since high school. A warm trickle of pleasure meandered around his extremities.

“It’s so good to see you. How have you been, since the old days?”

“Are you even listening to me? I didn’t spend a month with balls in my mouth to reminisce about high school. I’m trying to help you out here. I don’t think anyone else’d stick out so much as a pinky.”

Henry just smiled at her. So she does know her way around here. Probably been on active duty the whole time.

“God, you’re goofy when you grin. So look, I’m gonna think of some way we can break you out before you break straight up, but you have to be patient, okay? And stop staring at me in the yard. Just pretend I don’t exist.”

“That’s impossible.”

“I’m serious, Hen. Look at yourself, you’re a dishrack. You’ve got what, maybe another six months in you, at best? You want to live, don’t you?”

Henry frowned at his cubical meal as he took in Marcy’s words. Was it that bad, was he really dying?

Then the ear-splitting alarm sounded. Lunch was over.

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