The events in this novel take place in 1996
Ladies and gentlemen, the BBC proudly presents another episode of Vin Vanbly, Farm Spy. Today, we follow the case—nah, no time. Only ten minutes until we begin his King Weekend.
From my hiding spot in the corn, I watch Mai Kearns on his front porch, watching his watch. Watch. Watch, watch. I like the word watch. Kearns wears a solid yellow T-shirt I have not seen before, which means either it’s new or one of his good tees. Yellow looks sexy against his hazelnut skin. I wonder if he realizes that color is perfect on him or if it’s a happy accident. He must know. I’ve been aching to kiss his dark copper neck, to glide my pale fingers down those strong arms, slightly less sunburned than his neck. I want to caress his chest, and to compare his farmer tan to what’s under his shirt. And, of course, his ass. I bet it’s a goldeny-brown, a tender shade that flushes when you kiss it, worship its rippling goose bumps.
His eyes… I can’t wait to see those hard, dark eyes staring right into me. Today I will see his eyes up close, no longer through binoculars.
Over the yellow tee, he’s wearing a white linen shirt, unbuttoned, the one he wore last Sunday when they ate dinner on the backyard picnic table. I almost strolled out of their cornfield to ask for a steak. Hard yellow corn, baked potatoes, fat red and gold tomatoes in a bowl, and his mom made a pie. I wish I knew what kind of pie. I’ll ask him. Tried to catch a whiff, but from my hiding spot, I could only smell dirt and corn.
His flat tummy peeks out as he stretches his arms behind his head. He looks at his watch again. I love his tummy. Slender guys have cute bellies. Or whatever you call his lack of belly.
God, I want to have sex with him.
He glances at his watch again and jerks his arm away. He’s already pissed and I’m not even late. I remained so adamant about beginning exactly at 6:00 p.m. that my impending tardiness will surely burst a vein in his neck.
He leans over the wooden porch’s railing, staring down the narrow, country road leading to his parents’ farm. Still no sight of me. He clunks his worn cowboy boots down the front steps and with clipped strides crosses the house’s front, the only side scraped and primed, ready for its repainting. Standing in the yard, he peers beyond the driveway but he can’t see far, not with cornstalks seven, eight feet high everywhere around us.
Okay, time for the final alignment test.
I step backwards, deeper into the field, and tighten my grip on the cornstalk in my right hand. Pressing my foot against the stalk, I wait until he’s looking away and with my boot, I punch it.
Mai’s head snaps straight toward this field. He knows what he heard.
Yup, he loves the corn.
After staring in my direction and hearing northing further, Mai storms back to the porch and flops hard into an Adirondack, his morning coffee chair, lifts his feet to the railing, and then scrapes his boot undersides across a banister spoke. His mom’s not going to like that—Kearns, you know better. But the man can’t stand to be doing nothing, and this latest distraction betrays his impatience.
Fuck it. I can’t wait until 6:00 p.m. I want our time together to start right now, this very second. I stride from the field into the neighboring grass and wait for him to notice me. He’s, what, fifty yards away? Sixty? Not close enough to distinguish eye color or read expressions accurately, but close enough to notice there’s a person now standing here.
Mai stands again and after flicking a few dirt chunks off the railing, catches me in his peripheral vision. He turns to look at me for a moment, peers in my direction, and jumps back a foot.
“Hey, bubba,” he yells. “That’s our corn.”
I love it. That’s what he calls the men in DeKalb. He once emailed me the word meant nothing more than a playful swipe at the locals. He lied. It’s more than a gentle snub. He hates the town bubbas, the redneck high schoolers who taunted him, a hurt exacerbated because he once loved a local bubba. It’s exhausting to hate what you love and love what you hate.
He stares at me, then glances down the road.
I cock my head, but say nothing.
Across the front yard, driveway, and expanse of grass crushed flat and ripped open by tractor wheels, he cups his hands and yells, “You…are you Vin Vanbly?”
He yells, “C’mere.”
I shake my head in refusal, exaggerating the motion so he can see it clearly.
I smile, remembering the many months it took us to get here.
When we first started emailing six months ago in March, Mai argued the sheer impossibility of so many kings, arguing the nightmare bureaucratic and legal consequences. He next launched real-world crime statistics like missiles, demanding explanations for how any utopia could remain untouched by humanity’s worst. In another email, he insisted that with many countries barely acknowledging women’s rights, so how could they recognize each woman as the one true queen? Despite his goading questions, Kearns didn’t really want answers.
He wanted to believe.
He waits a minute, staring at me hard. “Hey, could you come here for a moment? I need to talk to you.”
I shake my head again. With my right hand, I motion for him to come.
Fuck talking. I already know he wants to back out. “Something important came up.” That’s about half the excuses I get. Also popular lately is “I only showed up to explain why I refuse go.” Blah, blah, fucking blah.
When I invite men on my King Weekend, they never know what to expect, only that they must submit to my every demand all weekend. When Friday evening arrives, they realize my promise to help them “remember the man they were always meant to be” seems awfully vague weighed against a full weekend of total submission and obedience. I’m sure they worry it’s all dungeon basements and restraints in metal chains but lucky for them, I’m not that kind of guy. I guess I’m not surprised men want to back out at the last minute. I probably would too.
Mai tilts his head and skews his face into what might be a frown. Can’t tell. But I dig the cowboy angle of his body, hands on his hips, fighting me for control over this single moment in time. I wish I had a camera.
Almost the entire Kearns’ farm lies behind him. The dilapidated red and white barns don’t need new paint; they need new wood to go under the paint, and then new paint. The barn they use for storing tractors and hay shows its ribs in a few places, and a few massive corrugated tin sheets stretch themselves across squares of missing roof, protecting its modesty. I can’t imagine it’s effective in winter. The animal barn appears in better shape. They take good care of the cows. It’s clean inside—well, as clean as you can get with forty-three shitting cows. I’m not a farmer but from my night-time lurking around the property, I could identify dozens of necessary improvements once money is found.
No, Vin, don’t think about that. Don’t think about the farm.
He saunters across the yard, extra-casual, attempting to disguise his irritation. Damn he’s hot, even when he’s angry. Maybe especially when he’s angry. I get the appeal of angry men. They carry a clenched power in their eyes and fists, threatening immediate, immoderate action. While I do not want the anger, I love the accompanying raw testosterone. Bring it on, bubba.
After he storms across the white-stoned driveway, he skirts the scything machine, whatever that thing is, careful not to step on the border of impatiens I’ve seen his mom water and weed. Clearly, this rusted thing is beyond salvage. The rubber wheels are years flat, the blades dull and useless. I want to believe the surrounding pink and white flowers communicate his mother’s Midwestern sensibility regarding beauty: if this piece of crap stays in our yard let’s make it look like we intended it. I have to remember to ask him where this machine came from. I have a theory.
When he reaches the grass twenty feet from me, I start backing into the corn.
He stops and puts his hands on his hips. “Yes, yes, just like Field of Dreams. It’s been done, Vin.”
I leap back a few more feet until I’m sure I’m hidden, then turn and dash down the row. People associate cornfields with either Field of Dreams or Children of the Corn. That’s a pretty fair dichotomy: Found Kings’ interpretation, Lost Kings’ interpretation.
For a split second, I question my decision to review the full history of the kingdom where every man is the one true king, every woman the one true queen. Depending on how we move, I may recap the highlights. Okay, stop questioning the weekend flow. I can’t change much now. And no more second guessing. I must stay in the moment or my face will betray clues of what’s to come. Besides, Mai practically memorized the Lost and Founds backstory on my AOL home page just so he could better argue with me.
Get present. Stay present. No more second guessing.
From a distance, I hear him say loudly, “Hey, c’mon. I need to talk to you. What are you doing?”
When I do not answer, he says, “Don’t you guys have corn in Minnesota? Couldn’t you do this at home?”
I remain silent as a gentle breeze ripples through the field and I listen to the fat, broad corn sheaths slap each other across the face, like thousands of rugged drag queens.
Mai is quiet. I am quiet.
It’s not spooky if you’re a farmer, the quiet of the earth.
In the past three weeks, I’ve observed many flavors of quiet while skulking around the Kearns’ farm. Mai drinks his morning coffee in silence, boots perched on the chipped railing until his mom yells from the kitchen. There’s corn-slapping silence, which is not silent at all, but an army of invisible accountants rustling papers. Mai and his father work side by side in silence at times. They talk, they joke, they even argue loud, but in their silence I can hear them share the same love for what they do. Cricket-chirping silence, the silence of dirt, cow silence, and the exhausted quiet of an August day, a day spent milking, pounding, feeding, culling, sharpening, smashing, driving, hauling, milking again, then suddenly guzzling icy water from a sweaty glass at sunset. All that exertion and nobody gets off? I couldn’t handle being a farmer.
Mai enters the cornfield. “Vin? C’mon.”
Last week from this field, I witnessed a more ominous quiet right before evening milking, as both Kearns and his father raced toward the barns from opposite fields. I peered around the sky wondering how they knew, as the storm seemed distant to me, but in a screaming cloud of dust, Kearns jumped out of his pickup and yelled to his father, “I’ll take scratch.”
Didn’t know what that code meant, but they got most of the cows inside before the first serious lightning snaked down and pierced the earth’s skin in viper silence. A hair-raising peal of thunder rent the air and made me drop to my knees, wincing. They stayed in the barn and I remained in their cornfield, alternating between delight in the storm’s viciousness and cowering in absolute terror.
In a tenor close to—but not quite—yelling, he says “Yo, Vin. Chasing through cornfields isn’t as much fun when you’re a farmer. It’s like being at the office.”
Why would he say that? Neither one of us works an office job. He knows that.
“C’mon, man, I need to talk to you.”
I try to imagine the dark shadow across his face as he surrenders and storms down the row where I disappeared. But I already have moved seven or eight rows over and quietly, I think. I’ve been practicing my own silence, racing through cornfields for three weeks. I lost weight, which is good. I’m down to 205, 210.
Okay, fine: 215.
Once I spy his boots deep in our field I shout, “Experts predict family farm ownership will fall by 44% over the next six years, leaving farming in the hands of seven major corporations.”
I take off running down my current row, hunched over at the waist to avoid protruding ears, navigating each stalk with hard-won expertise. I pass him, more than a dozen rows over, and unless he specifically looks for feet, he can’t see beyond three or four rows at a time. I’m confident he does not know my location until I yell my next statistic.
“By the year 2011, the farm crisis will collapse the national food supply chain, rendering millions of Americans starving to death in their own homes.”
I yell over my head, straight up, making my voice harder to trace. I’m already on the move so he can’t make out my exact location. I cross several rows over, race back the opposite way, screaming statistics he gave me regarding pesticides and their long term impact, their decay rates, and in my best imitation of a crow’s hoarse voice, shouting, “Y2K! Y2K!”
Until Mai and his doomsday numbers, I had never even heard of Y2K. Apparently, it’s going to kill us all. Kearns spewed statistics during every email conversation in our early exchanges, and when we chatted live on AOL, he threw numbers at me frequently as well. And here I assumed I read a lot. He mostly reads articles as opposed to books. He hides behind numbers, percentage points, and grim predictions for the future. He thinks they will protect him so that when his heart next breaks he can cross his arms and say, “Told you.”
Mai drops to his knees, peering through the stalks to search for my legs. Good idea, Kearns, but too late—you’re dealing with a cheater. I already left the cornfield and now lie face down on the western edge in the grass, covering my blond skull using the broken stalk and its ears. I can be difficult to spot when I choose.
He stands and yells, “Quit fucking around, okay?”
I can only see his legs, spread-eagle, standing rigid right near the field’s center.
C’mon, Mai, listen. That silence rippling through the corn is your kingship, whispering your true name.
Careful, Vin. Don’t get cocky. Know your place. Though I am in boss mode, I must not forget who is the servant and who is the master. I serve the Found Ones this weekend and though he has not yet crossed over, Mai Kearns is my one true king.
After a moment, he takes off. I recognize his quick stride—he’s fucking pissed. Didn’t take much.
He’s so ready.
I stand, move a few rows in, and yell to him, “Follow my voice. Game’s over. Come this way. I’m over here.”
Mai stomps through the field toward me and once he emerges in my row, twenty or thirty stalks down, I note despite using his body’s bluster to communicate his frustration, he avoids breaking a single ear. Yup, he loves the corn. Problem is, he also hates it.
He pushes his boot heels deep into the earth as he marches toward me, but now that he found me, he slows down, tries to relax. After all, he plans to deliver bad news, so he doesn’t want to appear too much a dick while he says, “Thanks for driving from Minnesota but I changed my mind.”
Take a deep breath. Surrender to this moment. You’re ready for this.
His normal buzz cut looks particularly crisp; he must have shaved the sides of his head last night. Mai once emailed me he’s only a Buddhist for the haircut. That and it excuses him from invitations to local church groups. Classic Kearns.
When he gets within ten feet, I raise my foot to a stalk and snap it. The top half, laden with two almost-perfect ears, collapses in a graceful swoop, bowing as it exits life.
“Hey,” he says in a surprised tone. “A little respect, mister.”
“Why? As a Buddhist, I thought you weren’t attached to outcomes like this.”
I raise my foot to the next one, pressure it, and after a loud crack, it also descends to the earth.
“This is my parents’ farm.” Mai squints at me, the sun hitting him directly. “What you’re doing is considered damn rude, bubba. Every ear matters these days.”
As he approaches me with his final steps, I position myself with the sun at my back. Never hurts to have a golden aura behind you when you’re trying to convince an angry farmer to surrender for a weekend.
I have only heard his voice as he yells to his mom or dad from the barn. Up close, I now understand how his voice fits his frame, light and strong. Other men may have richer, deeper voices, but Kearns’ words possess their own unique authority, airy with a gravel quality, which makes him sound like a lightweight stoner, uncharacteristically focused.
“Kearns, in our emails you bitched about life in DeKalb, stuck here as a farmer. What I’m doing shouldn’t matter to you.”
He reaches out and wraps his hands around a stalk on either side. “It matters to my parents.”
I take a step away from him, and raise my boot to another stalk. “Your King Weekend is about choices.”
He says, “About that—”
Before he verbs his sentence, I push over this stalk.
His eyes flash rage at me, but he hides it almost immediately.
I say, “Door number one—I will give you twenty bucks for every cornstalk I deliberately ruin. Right now, I owe you $440. That’s $360 for all the stalks broken before today, plus today’s broken stalks, which comes in at $80.”
Mai’s eyebrows arc in surprise.
“Sixty bucks for these, and I deliberately snapped that one you heard a few minutes ago, when your head jerked over toward this field. That was me. I was testing you.”
I back up and use my work boot to press another one, slow motion, pressing further, further, until it can no longer stand the tension. With a crisp, painful snap, it follows its fallen brothers, surrendering its emerald majesty. Mai follows the progress with his sturdy gaze, both angry and distant as if he’s trying hard not to be caught caring.
I extricate a thick roll of twenties from my front pocket, more bills than I could fit in my wallet, and while never losing eye contact with him, count out $460. He makes no motion to take them, so I grab his wrist and flip over his hand, slap the money into it. Before he can protest, I strip off another twenty and add it to the pile. Wow, his hand feels rough, like work gloves, though he’s wearing none. I bet he doesn’t moisturize.
He asks, “What did you mean, stalks broken before today?”
“That last twenty pays for this next one.” I back up and raise my foot against another stalk. I mean, I paid for it already.
Mai’s eyes jerk toward mine. “Don’t waste your money.”
“It’s okay, I’m well funded. This is a fantastic deal for your parents, by the way. For the last month, I listened to WGN’s Farm Report with Orion Samuelson. According to him, corn’s going for $3.50 a bushel, right? Right?”
Mai seethes for reasons he probably does not recognize. “You don’t listen to the farm report.”
“Bitch, please. WGN from 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. Replayed at 9:30 during the Bob Collins show.”
Everyone in Chicagoland listens to WGN, particularly out here in farm country. More important to me was his tell. His face creased in anger when I called him a bitch. From up close, I can confirm what I have known: it’s all about the anger.
“Option A, I pay you twenty bucks for each broken stalk and I indiscriminately smash corn all weekend. Option B, I am careful with every single stalk and all you have to do is repeat back to me this single sentence: ‘I love the corn.’”
“Look, about the weekend. I can’t—”
I press harder and the green stalk cracks, falls to the ground.
His flinty eyes spark and his whole body contracts, as if an electrical current shocked him through the cornstalk in his right hand.
His statistical tirades and snide remarks about the local bubbas betrayed his Lost King secret: he loves this farm. Though he resents the shit out of DeKalb, still, he loves this town. He could be happy here if only everything were different. I get what he wants. I understand Lost Kings far too well.
And I hadn’t seen his face, to observe how his chin juts out when he says the word farm, because there’s a sense of pride he doesn’t fully recognize as his own. He still thinks he’s doing his parents a favor. Clearly, they handed him this love for the earth with the curt instruction, “Carry this, son.” So, he did. And he still does.
“Hurry up, Kearns. Decide. Option A or Option B?” I step back and raise my boot to the next stalk. “I will stop if you say, ‘I love the corn.’”
I lean my weight into the stalk and he winces.
“Kearns, the stalks I broke seem almost ready to harvest, so even broken, you can use these as feed. Right? Financially, it makes more sense to let me keep doing this until I run out of cash. I’ve got a lot more twenties in my truck.”
I push the stalk further, raising my eyebrows.
He says, “Stop.”
Mai shifts his weight. “You are a prick, Vin. All of those months chatting by computer, you would have thought I’d pick up on that.”
“Yeah, you must not be very bright. However, that’s not the sentence I asked to hear, champ.”
I increase the pressure a tad more, staring hard. “Say it.”
Through gritted teeth, he says, “I love the corn.”
I ease off my boot. “I know.”
“It’s just a sentence. They’re just words.”
I shrug. “Okay.”
Mai puzzles at me, already resenting whatever happened here.
I say, “Would you mind saying it again?”
Louder and firmer, he says, “I love the corn.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t threatening your corn anymore, but you’re fucking sexy when you’re defending your farm.”
I smirk with my lips all curvy, and Mai looks into my face. I grin my lust at him, letting him see me check out his crotch and chest, and he softens. He blushes and shakes his head, still irritated, but amused at the same time.
He says, “You’re fucking with me.”
“You know I can’t take this.” He offers me the money.
I put my hands behind my back. “I have excellent financing. Keep it.”
“Just fucking take it.”
I step away from him. “Hang on to it for twenty minutes. After that, we’ll talk.”
Mai grunts and rolls his eyes. “You’re making a great first impression. Makes me want to meet more men from AOL.”
“Isn’t it thrilling?” I say with genuine enthusiasm. “In the future, will people still get excited to meet someone from the World Wide Web? Or will it feel like no big deal you chat every day with people on the other side of the country? By the way, check me out—I’m adorable. Look at me, Kearns, and tell me you don’t want to get naked. You want me, man. I can read it on your face.”
He exhales a derisive little snort, and appraises me openly, more than the furtive glances I caught in the last few minutes. Finally, he says, “I sure wish I liked guys who weren’t complete assholes.”
I laugh. “Lucky for me.”
But it’s more than just physical attraction or lust. Mai is lonely. He’s been trying to meet guys on the World Wide Web and the experience is not as easy as he thought it would be. He worries in choosing the life of a rural farmer he is destined for a life alone. He confided this secret to me as our friendship grew through emails and late-night chats. I reluctantly told him I was not the one, not his one and only for the rest of his life, and he replied, “I know. But while I’m waiting for him to show up, I could use some lovin’.”
Of course, he didn’t ask me to king him for another two months.
He says, “C’mon. Pick up these cornstalks and we’ll head back to the house. I gotta talk to you about something.”
We step into the wide green strip between fields, the one leading us back to the farm. I carry mine in both arms like beauty contestant roses, and he grips the stalks in his left hand, letting the tops drag along the ground. He keeps the money in his right hand, ready to hand it back. I make sure I am near him but not too near. I don’t want him to stuff the cash in my front pocket. He needs that money for later.
He shoots me a sideways squint and grumbles so I can hear him. “Calling me a bitch.”
We tramp side by side in silence, the sun dumping its shine heavily on every surface, as if forced to unload the excess quantity before end of day. By my calculations, two hours of strong sunlight remain and another forty-five minutes of fading light after that.
He says, “You may not feel so generous after you hear this. In fact, I’m going to want to compensate you for your trouble, but I can’t do your King Weekend. Shit’s going down here.”
“Wow. Sounds serious.”
He extends the folded twenties toward me in his free hand, but I can’t take it. I’ve got my roses.
“Yeah, it’s bad. I emailed you last week describing how our foreclosed mortgage got bought by some bullshit corporation that buys and sells properties for fast profit. Remember? We never learned anything about these fuckwads except they’re some anonymous corporate shell. Yesterday, this company resold our land, probably to a bank, or maybe a corporate farm. If the new owner is a bank, we could be homeless in three months. If a corporate farm bought it, that means either a faster eviction or they hire us as labor and we now farm their way. Every option sucks. But some crazy farm legislation got passed three years ago that allows us to buy back the foreclosure if we can raise the entire amount in twenty-one days. It’s called the Hail Mary law. It’s ridiculous and has no chance of working. Still, that’s our only play at this point.”
“Doesn’t sound good. So who owns it right now? A bank or corporate farm?”
“We don’t know. Legally, the new purchasers aren’t required to make themselves known for three business days. Dad went in and yelled at the bank people this morning, but they gave him the run around. Mom spent all last night on the phone with her connections, but nobody heard anything. We’ll find out on Monday, I guess. Maybe Tuesday. I’m really sorry about canceling. I called you all day yesterday and super early this morning. I left about nine messages on your answering machine. Where were you?”
“Don’t worry about that,” I say, shaking my head. “What can you do this weekend to fix this?”
“Well,” Mai says. “We have to work stuff out, make backup plans and whatnot.”
“Sure, sure. And haven’t you worked out those plans since last week when your mortgage got sold to the other company? The shell company? How does this purchase on Thursday mean anything new?”
“But you’ll make a lot more progress on it over the weekend? There’s more you can do from Friday evening until Sunday noon? You have meetings scheduled?”
“No,” he says, flashing irritation. “It’s more about the family. I have to stay with my folks. This is a rough time. We could be homeless soon.”
Their three-story home comes into view as we turn a corner. I love cornfields for having right angles. It’s so damn orderly.
“Ah, so you’ll make financial plans with your parents all weekend.”
“Some. Yeah.” Mai speaks briskly.
“What’s the response plan? Are you guys going to raise the money to buy back your mortgage? Do you have appointments to discuss new loans all weekend?”
As we draw closer to the house, he gets quiet. I watch the anger blossom—his jaw clenches, he stares straight ahead, and his stride, while remaining the same length, now suggests a crispness not present a moment ago. Although I’m intrusive in my questions, I did drive from Minnesota. I watch his face trying to negotiate his annoyance with his obligation to be polite.
“You guys gonna have a bake sale to pay off your mortgage? Raise money?”
Mai scoffs. “We owe over 800K. That’s a lot of brownies and pecan pie. And who in town is going to buy 800K in pecan pie? Everybody’s getting close to broke. Our best hope is to convince them to let us keep farming, which they won’t want.”
“But you guys are gonna solve the money thing this weekend?”
“It’s more moral support. I can’t party with you while we’re losing our farm. My folks need me.”
He dumps his cornstalks in the grass not far from the back porch. Avoiding eye contact, he grabs my cornstalks and tosses them on top of his.
I try to infuse pity into my voice as I say, “You’re gonna make tea for your sickly mom all weekend?”
He says icily, “She’s not sickly.”
“Oh, so it’s your dad who is weak.”
He snaps a finger in my direction. “Listen, I said I would compensa—”
“No, you listen, farm-town Buddhist.”
I step closer, mere inches remain between our noses. “If backing out of your King Weekend will help your folks, great. Do it. I’m real curious what you’ll accomplish between Friday evening and Sunday. Nothing changed with yesterday’s purchase. If you made plans and scheduled meetings, you would have done it last week when Lemcorp purchased your foreclosed mortgage.”
At this specific mention, Mai takes a step away from me and his beautiful face opens wide in surprise. In the split second he forgets his anger with me, I delight to see his face is built for kindness. His eyes glow ginger molasses, and I love the gentle slope of his eyelids, so perfect in every way. Pissed as he may feel right now, his face cannot disguise his true nature, the love inside him eager to bloom. We are all destined for spring.
I pull the DeKalb newspaper from my back pocket and hold it up.
He sighs and retreats with a sullen expression. “That article came out last week. How’d you get a copy?”
“I’m very mysterious that way,” I say with singsong exaggeration. “All the kings say so. ‘Vin,’ they tell me, ‘you’re very mysterious that way.’”
Mai scrunches his face at my non-answer.
Resuming my normal tone, I say, “Quite an article, Kearns. Big front-page photograph of you and your dad in the barn, you looking all serious and sexy on a tractor. You and your mom pictured on the back porch picking over green beans.”
He looks away. “All staged. The reporter bought those beans from the Jewel-Osco.”
I glance over the article. “Longtime DeKalb residents with their adopted Thai son struggle to keep the family farm alive. Nice story. Kinda racist, you know, to keep pointing out how you were adopted by proud Americans, saving you from certain poverty in Thailand. They mentioned you’re Thai about five times. But hey, diversity stories are big right now.”
Kearns spits in the grass. “It’s a nightmare. I can’t go to the fucking feed store without people pointing and saying, ‘Saw the article.’ Everyone wants to discuss our farm finances and give advice. People are like, ‘Have you thought of a second mortgage?’ Gee, thanks. Never considered that. It’s too goddamn late for second or third mortgages anyway. We’re in foreclosure.”
“So why’d you agree to the article?”
His face says, “forget it,” but he answers anyway. “We figured publicity might make it harder for these Lemcorp assholes to evict us or shut us down. My folks sure as hell didn’t want to be interviewed. Me neither. We’re desperate. Maybe this buys us some time.”
“Yeah, sorry about the money thing. Good luck with that.”
“Yeah. It sucks.”
President Clinton said as a nation, we’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening in America’s farmland and respond with compassion. I agree. I’ve been searching for more farmers to king, especially after King Ryan the Protector.
“Seriously, Kearns, have you thought about a second mortgage?”
Mai’s face bunches into confused anger, his expression communicating “What the fuck did I just say?”
“See, right there, that’s the first reason you need your King Weekend. Do you realize how easily I tweak you? We’ve been together for fifteen minutes and I’ve lost track of how many times I poked your anger. You’ll have a stroke at thirty-five, but don’t worry about it happening on a tractor—you will have lost this farm long before that.”
His eyes get hard and slippery, like mud rocks. “Fuck you.”
“Next week, when that new bank wants to sit down and negotiate terms with your family, you’ll spit at them and call them, I dunno, corporate fuckwads, or something. Did you even hear the office crack you yelled at me? You know I’m a garage mechanic. You’re a farmer. So who exactly did you mean? Doesn’t matter. As far as you’re concerned, anyone with power over you—even me in a cornfield—is a corporate asshole. You have such a goddamn chip on your shoulder, you won’t last five minutes in negotiations and they’ll feel justified in shutting you down.”
“I’m sure your dad is a great man, Kearns. I don’t doubt that. But you’re the future, the man running this farm for the next forty years, not your dad. They’re going to base their decision on you, not him. You ready for that?”
He remains guarded, careful not to let his expression shift while considering this.
He says, “You pissed me off deliberately. I’m normally not this quick to get angry.”
“Maybe. But late one night in a private chat window, you told me your anger feels like a weed choking out your life. You’re fond of statistics, Kearns, so here’s one: right now there’s a 100% chance your anger grows stronger over time, your impatience with everyone and everything rooting its way deeper into your life, which sucks, because we are all destined for spring.”
He opens his mouth.
“This weekend’s not a good time? Of course it’s not. It’s never a good time to put down your normal, everyday life, and figure out how to live with bigger love toward your parents, your friends, your community. Hell, that won’t be much worry for you, because you don’t have any community and no friends.”
His eyes snap back to hard again. “Wow. You are a total prick.”
I knew that would get him. Kearns and I bonded over our lack of real world friendships. Neither of us are very good at making friends unless we can hide behind computers.
“Your parents have friends. The farm has its own friendships, neighbors, and whoever. I’ve seen the 4-H kids you let putter around out here. But they aren’t your friends.”
He says, “Wait, what?”
“People tolerate you well enough, because you’re a farmer and you’re part of this town. But where are your friends, Kearns? Who’s your Mary?”
He squints. “When did you see—”
I roll my eyes with fake exasperation. “Mary Tyler Moore? From the TV show titled The Mary Tyler Moore Show?”
His face remains creased by surprise and alarm. “When did you see the 4-H kids?”
“Every gay man needs a friend to call and complain, ‘Oh, Mare.’ Please tell me you’re still queer enough to remember legendary best friends, Mary and Rhoda. At least from Nick at Night.”
“Rhoda could always distinguish a ‘Mary’ from a ‘Mare’ moment. She was gifted that way. Doesn’t matter if this friend is gay or straight, man or woman.”
The word hypocrite flashes through my brain. Besides my older brother, the closest I have to real world friends are my pen pals on Alcatraz and they know me only as the Human Ghost.
I poke his chest with two fingers. “Don’t blame the bubbas, as you did in your emails. DeKalb is full of bubbas, I’ve seen them, and yeah, some are true assholes. Guess what? They aren’t the problem anymore. You are.”
I turn and stomp away, long, sharp strides leading me to the white-gravel driveway. I make a sharp right and head toward the road. Gotta drive us to the mailbox. Though I try not to listen to the teeth-crunching sound beneath my boots, my stomach flips. Do not think of teeth. Soon I hear his boots a few paces behind me, following.
Oh, thank God. I worried he wouldn’t take the bait. I may act like an overconfident asshole, but I’m never quite sure if I can pull it off. Can’t let him see that hesitation, though, give him a reason to doubt me.
He says, “Hey, you have no fucking clue—”
Over my shoulder, I say loudly, “You’re right. Never will. Nobody will ever understand how hard life is for Mai Kearns, homosexual DeKalb farmer of Thai descent. Get over it, Mary.”
He jogs to keep up. “Hey.”
“See how I worked that in?” I say in a friendly, chatty tone over my shoulder.
I shift back to angry and increase my huffy pace. He catches me, but his shorter legs have to work harder to stay at my side.
“You believe you’re wronged because there aren’t more bathhouses out here in the cornfields, well, boo hoo, Mare.”
I turn to him and speak in confidence. “Totally a ‘Mare’ moment. Hear the difference?”
I slip into angry-storming-away guy and outpace him by a few feet. When I hear him right behind me, I say, “Well, you’re wrong to assume the solution is bank money or a boyfriend or you getting laid occasionally in a DeKalb bathhouse. You’re the problem. I would know. I’ve been watching you from your cornfields for the past three weeks.”
I stop and spin to face him. His chest bumps right into me and my lips almost make contact with his eyebrows. He bounces back and looks at me with a combination of horror and surprise. Suporror. Or maybe horprise. Nah. Some words just don’t work.
Focus up, you moron.
“I said this weekend would change your life, Mai Kearns, and I meant that. Before I started my tune up, I spent some time getting to know your life. Don’t give me any shit because I snuck around your farm and spent a few nights sleeping in your barn.”
“You slept…in our barn?” His wobbly words stumble together.
I spin on my boot heel and take off down the drive way. Over my shoulder I say, “Don’t have a cow.”
Oh God, I hate this teeth-crunching sound, bloody gums, bloody gums. I don’t know why certain sounds trigger this sick, gut-churning reaction in me. I’m the idiot who planned the big moment happening while standing before his mailbox. Suck it up.
He jogs to catch up.
“Your barn sucks, by the way. On TV, people who sleep in haylofts wake up well-rested with fresh straw in their hair. But hay pokes you in your back all night. It’s fucking sharp. Plus haylofts are super dusty. I found it hard to breathe. TV never tells you that.”
We’ve reached a delicate moment right now. Stalking him is creepy, admittedly. I sometimes try to bluster through this part of the conversation by pretending it’s completely normal in “my line of work,” which raises the obvious question, what line of work is that?
I face him as we stop in front of the mailbox at the end of the driveway. “I’m a mechanic. To fix a car, you don’t open the hood and start replacing parts—you investigate. You figure out what’s missing: fuel, air, or spark. Compression. You look. You listen. Sometimes nothing’s missing, simply not in the right firing order. Your fuel is anger. Mai, your spark is the injustice done to you in this town. Compression is time and your time’s running out. The older you get, the stronger your anger. You’ve been running on anger since high school. I remember your stories about then, being called ‘chinkhead’ and ‘slanty.’”
His eyes snap to anger again, another vulnerability exposed.
“I can’t pretend to imagine how much that sucked. Especially chinkhead, since you aren’t even Chinese. Well, not that it would be better if you were Chinese. But high school is over. The problem isn’t your town, the impending foreclosure, or even your local bubbas. You know it, Mai. I’ve seen you at night walking alone in the corn.”
I touch his right cheek with the back of my fingers and his face creases in hurt. Nice. Good reveal. I can’t believe he let me touch him after the asshole I’ve been. He must be lonelier than I thought.
“Mai, worst case scenario, all weekend I keep breaking cornstalks and paying you more than their market worth. You guys could use the money. Best case scenario, you spend the entire weekend doing everything I say as I explained in the invitation I mailed you. Together we find a way to open you up to more love. Incredible love. Life-changing love.”
He looks down into his empty hands and he must realize he deposited the wad of bills in his back pocket at some point. Good. I wanted that money in his jeans. I’m not above a few tricks to tip the scales.
I say, “You love the corn.”
His eyes jerk to me to see if I’m mocking him.
“You chose to farm after you finished college and maybe you resent that choice because it felt forced on you. Maybe it was. Your parents raised you to become a farmer. Still, I bet they could live with you being a chemistry professor if that made you happy. The problem is you actually do love the corn. You love farming.”
Mai crosses his arms and looks at me. “You watched me for three weeks, huh?”
“I was in town for four weeks. But the first week the corn wasn’t tall enough for me to hide in. Also, I’m planning an orgasm for you tonight that’s so strong you’ll almost pass out. Doesn’t that make you a teensy bit curious?”
He offers me a grim, dirty smile. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
“Oh no,” I say earnestly. “That’s a myth. The King of Curiosity was not a cat killer. That cat choked on a chicken bone.”
He looks to the cornfield on his right. “You still haven’t told me anything about what happens on your King Weekend. I have no idea what to expect.”
“That’s correct. But that’s the other reason I think you’re already more into this than you let on. I never met anyone who asked me more questions about the Lost and Founds. Who started this story? Were these real or imaginary men? Was it based on Greek mythology? You had a million questions. You’re a curious guy. And the only way to get answers is to go through it yourself.”
He scoffs but reddens slightly.
I place my hand on the upper part of his chest, above his crossed arms, which makes him flinch and turn his gaze back to mine. I take a deep breath, and we stare at each other.
“It’s time, Kearns. Time for you to remember who you were always meant to be.”
Kearns shifts his weight to his right side and looks away.
Finally, he says, “This orgasm better be worth it.”
“Oh, Mary,” I yell and throw myself around his body, pinning his arms to his side.
His whole body clenches in surprise.
The sun reigns high in the western kingdom. Good. Plenty of time to run a cornfield or two.
It’s time to meet the Lost Kings.