The Company built the silos after the war. The Men came home and built them up from the earth, built them with their hands and machines. Our people eat the animals fed by the golden grain they hold. The Men who worked for The Company made machines to move the grain from the earth to the silos, from the silos to the trucks, from the silos to the ships. The Men made machines for almost everything.

My father raised Angus, Berkshire, Chester White—heirloom breeds they call them now. He fed our animals The Company’s grain. Every other Sunday, The Man from The Company came in his truck to deliver our grain. He was strong, and I was not. We both wore ugly flannel shirts and thick brown denim. The Man stacked bags of grain by our barn’s rear door, and my father paid him. Sometimes The Man would make my father laugh, but I never knew what it was about. My father carried the sacks of grain to our animal’s pens. He cut them open and spilled their contents in a trough. Our animals ate. We ate our animals.

My father said if I ate our animals I would grow to be strong like The Man from The Company, but their meat made me sick. My mother made me beans and cornbread. She bought them from the store. The store bought them from The Company.

We lived across the river, about twenty miles from where The Company built their silos. Our land was good, rich soil, left when the settlers who came here drained the swamplands. My father said there used to be panthers in the woods, but the settlers killed them all a long time ago.

I never got strong like The Man from The Company, but my mother’s beans and cornbread made me grow. I grew and went to school. My father got sick. His belly swelled up huge. He looked like a pregnant lady. The Doctor showed him a picture of his insides with a big black splotch under his stomach. My mother breathed into her hands. She wondered about our animals and she wondered about me.

I came home from school and paid The Man from The Company with my father’s money. The Man from The Company never tried to make me laugh. I wish he had. I sliced open the feed bags and spilled shining corn into the animals’ troughs. The Company raised their prices for the grain. My father’s money disappeared.

I did not go back to school. My mother breathed into her hands. We sold our animals to the people across the street, and they ate them. I married a pretty woman that my mother liked, and we ate dinner together on Sundays. I drove my father’s truck to the silos and I talked to a Man from The Company. He was not strong like The Man who brought our animals their grain. He wore a powder blue shirt and pressed polyester. My wife would say he was put-together. I still wore ugly flannel and thick brown denim.

People like my father do not raise the animals for other people to eat anymore. Men in white jackets and hard hats raise them now. They do not raise heirloom breeds anymore, just one kind of pig that people really like to eat, one kind of chicken that grows fat and juicy. The Men in white jackets buy truck-fulls of grain from The Company. They load the grain into big hoppers in warehouses out by the lake, where the animals live. The animals eat the grain. They shit on the floor.

The Men in white jackets and hard hats watch the animals and make sure they do not get sick. They pump them full of medicine and hormones to keep them alive and make them grow quickly. They scoop their shit off the floor and flush it into the lake.

A couple years back, they flushed so much of it into the lake that we could not drink our water for a few days. The stuff acts just like fertilizer, and makes blue-green algae grow on the lake’s surface. The blue-green algae makes a toxin that causes liver failure. That year, the algae grew so much that they could not filter out the poison at the water treatment plants. Scientists took pictures of the lake from space. The whole Western Basin was the color of cartoon sludge. The people in charge of the drinking water said it got better, but I still do not drink it in the summertime.

A few years before that, the put-together Man from The Company told me he would give me a job with benefits. He told me we would go out on the lake in his bass fishing boat, and that after I worked there for a while, I could get my own bass fishing boat. He told me that I would have a jacket with a patch that said my name in cursive letters stitched in red thread.

***

I work the early shift now, but I did not always. I like the early shift because even in the winter, it is still light out when I come home, and I can play fetch with my dog when I get there. She is a kind dog, and she still has lots of energy even though she is getting old. The sun is just below the horizon when I cross the river. The water has never looked clean to me, and you are only supposed to eat a certain number of the fish you catch each year. Too many pesticides.

It is cold when I get to the silos, and the heat has gone out in my little pickup, but I still sit in it for a few minutes to keep warm. My mother would have said I was “gathering my wits,” but really I am just sitting. My truck starts to idle rough, and I cut the engine off. I scratch at my beard and open the door. I think that I will tinker with the truck this weekend.

“Hey Miller, quit jacking off and help me shift this bunch.”

Lockwood hollers at me as he drives past on his Bobcat. He does not know, but the other Men call it his Tonka Truck behind his back. He is a small man, and he is mean to me, but I like working with him.

“I’m coming.” The Bobcat’s treads leave tracks in the gravel lot. I follow them toward the silo’s open doors.

Lockwood looks over his shoulder, jostled in his seat as he drives the machine over a little hump. He hollers back at me.

“Well that would be the point of jacking off, now, wouldn’t it?”

He laughs at his joke and I crack a crooked smile. I think about my father and The Strong Man from The Company. I like working with Lockwood.

I do not like being in the grain. It forms bunches, and it forms shelves, and we have to shift them. Bunches are when the grain gets all piled up right in the middle. Shelves are when it slopes along an outside wall with a big pit on the other side. Lockwood does not know the difference between them, and he calls them both bunches.

Lockwood is smoking one of those tiny little cigars when I get to the silo’s doors. They stink like a dog’s foot and he smokes a lot of them. We are not supposed to smoke inside The Company’s fences, but Lockwood does it anyway. I stopped smoking because Emily does not like it, and she was kind enough to marry me. Lockwood’s little cigars really do stink, but I still want a cigarette.

We are not supposed to shift the grain like this, but it is easier this way. The Company makes us watch videotapes every so often, to remind us that we are not supposed to shift the grain like this. I think they made the videotapes a long time ago, because they all have terrible synthesizer music. The men on the videotapes have their shirts tucked into their blue jeans. They are much more handsome than any of The Men who work at The Company. The men on the videotapes look like Bruce Springsteen.

I do not look like Bruce Springsteen.

Lockwood squishes the burning end of his smoke into the top of his boot, ruining the leather. He puts the remains of the dog’s foot stinking thing in the breast pocket of his reflective vest. He will smoke the rest of it when we are done. We all wear the vests all of the time, except for The Men in powder blue shirts and pressed polyester. They do not have to wear the vests all of the time, because they do not have to go into the grain. I straighten mine out over my jacket from The Company. The patch with my name stitched into it is worn and dirty. Some of the threads are frayed and I think that I would like a new one, but The Company does not make them anymore.

I pick up a big scoop shovel and walk over to the hydraulic lift that will take me to a hatch about thirty or forty feet up. Lockwood shoves his tar-stained hands into some work gloves, even though he will just be pulling levers and punching buttons in his Bobcat. I insert a funny looking plastic key into the control panel on the lift and turn it. I press the big green button to make the lift go up. When it gets to the hatch above the highest part of the pile of grain, I press the big red button to make the lift stop moving. I leave the key in the control panel. We are supposed to do that, so we do not lose the key in the grain.

Lockwood hollers up at me, “Business as usual?”

“Yeah,” I holler back down.

Lockwood presses the button that opens the big sliding door at the base of the silo, and climbs back into his machine. He pulls some levers with his gloved hands and drives through the doors. I open the hatch that lets me into the silo.

“What do we got today?” I holler down at Lockwood through the open hatch.

“Corn as always,” Lockwood hollers back up. Sometimes there are other grains, usually rye or millet.

We have to wear a harness when we are going into the grain from above. I fix it around my waist, and clip the long cord to a curve of heavy rebar which emerges from the silo’s concrete wall. I check my belay device and my ascender. They are old and they tend to stick. I take my big scoop shovel and straddle the entrance to the silo. I swing my left leg in, and sit on the ledge for a moment. I gaze down into the corn. The top of the shelf that the grain has formed is just about eight feet down from my hatch, but I have a lot of shoveling to do.

The silos look big from the highway, but you cannot really know until you are inside of them. I am maybe one-third of the way up the entire silo’s height, and they are probably thirty feet across. One of The Men from The Company’s training videos said how big they are, but I do not remember. Lockwood has staged his Bobcat close to the edge of the pile, on the far side of the silo. I will move small amounts of corn from the top of the pile to the floor below. He will move bigger amounts of corn from the edge of the pile to the open floor space. His Bobcat will pack it down. Once we have moved a good amount, he will drive his Bobcat out and shut the door. I will finish leveling off the corn. He will take off his gloves and finish his little cigar. It will be time for lunch when I am done.

I tuck my big scoop shovel under my arm and clip the handle to a carabiner on my vest. I begin my descent, taking the line in my hands, turning around, and walking down the wall just as easy as if it was the floor. I like this part, but I still do not like being in the corn.

“Safety is our top priority.” Lockwood makes his voice really deep when he says it.

He says it just like The Man from one of The Company’s videotapes. Lockwood says this every time, but it does not make me laugh as much anymore. I give him the finger. That makes him laugh.

You have to scoop the corn up and away. If you scoop it down, or try to chip away at it, there is a better chance that it will shift all at once, and that will make your ears pop. Plus, if you are using a Bobcat, you will bury your friend and coworker. That is why we are not supposed to shift the grain like this, but Lockwood and I like to do it this way. He gets to use his Bobcat, and I get to walk down the walls.

Lockwood tells sexist jokes while I shovel corn down at him. He thinks I am laughing at the jokes, but I am actually laughing about how sad and mean he is. The women in his jokes are dumb and ugly and mean. I do not like them. His jokes make me think about Emily, and that makes me sad, because she is smart and beautiful and kind.

I shave a foot or so off the top of the pile, and Lockwood moves what I have done to the side. He gets out of the Bobcat and stretches while I walk down the side of the silo. He tells another joke. This time I do not even laugh at how sad and mean he is.

I shovel more corn down at him. I shave another foot or so off. Lockwood shifts my work to the side with his Bobcat. He drives it back over near the edge of the pile. This time he does not get out and stretch, and he does not tell a joke. He only has a few of them. Lockwood and I do not usually talk too much while we work. We just sort of get into a rhythm, I guess. Lockwood tells a sexist joke. I shave off a few feet of the grain. Lockwood shifts my work to the side. I walk down the wall.

We are going to shave off a few more feet, before Lockwood drives his Bobcat out, and I finish the morning’s work. Lockwood is at the edge of the pile where he should be, and I am going to walk down the wall. I clip my shovel to my vest and grip the belay line with my left hand. I try to free up my belay device, but it is stuck. This always happens because they are old. The put-together Men from The Company say they are expensive, so they do not replace them often. I sigh and grip both the line and device in my left hand. I can keep a strong grip while I fiddle with the device to clear the jam.

Lockwood calls up at me from his Bobcat, “Jacking off again, eh Miller?”

I look down at him over my shoulder. He mimes like he is masturbating in his seat.

“Fucking belay is jammed again,” I say under my breath, struggling to free the device.

I pound on it with the side of my fist. I pound it again. The line frees, and I feel my insides in my throat. I must have let go of the line in my frustration. I am falling. I land flat on my back atop the pile of corn, but it gives way immediately. I am consumed by it, carried down toward Lockwood. It sounds like I am inside of a very loud rain stick. My fourth grade teacher showed us one. She told us that shamans believed the beautiful sound made by the grains inside could really make it rain. I cannot find my center of gravity. I see smooth gray and pebbled yellow.

***

“Miller, you okay up there?” Lockwood hollers up at me, but his voice is dull and muted by the corn.

“Radio,” I try to make a shriek, but it is feeble. The drop has knocked the wind out of me, and my voice cracks as I holler back down. I do not know if he hears me.

“Miller, you got your radio?” He hollers up at me again. I do not have my radio. My wind comes back to me. I take a deep breath in. The corn shifts.

“Carl, see if you can back that thing out and let more of the corn down. Then go get me some help. I’m pretty stuck, I think.” I take another breath. It is not quite as deep as the last one, and I cough a little.

“My arms are fully fucked, Miller. I can’t move a thing.”

Inside of the cage, Lockwood tells me he is buried almost up to his shoulders. My arms are free, but they are all pins and needles, too weak to do any good. I try to reach the cord that my harness is hooked to, but I cannot turn my body enough, and my hands are folding up on themselves. Each time Lockwood exhales, a little more corn spills into the wire cage around the cab of the Bobcat. Each time I exhale, the corn becomes tighter around me.

I think about an old adventure movie I saw when I was a boy. An explorer in a jungle gets himself stuck in some quicksand trying to outrun a big saltwater crocodile. A beautiful wild woman comes out of the woods, throws the explorer a thick vine, and pulls him out. They fall in love and eat plantains. I always thought that quicksand would be a big problem when I became a grown-up.

My mind wanders here and there through its memories. I think about husking corn. I think about lightning bugs and humming cicadas. I think about the time I drank too much of my mother’s wine and threw up under the front porch. I think about my wife making fun of Lockwood when I would tell her stories about him, and that makes me laugh. I see my mind’s memories like cellophane and lace in front of my eyes. I open and close them, but I am still in the silo.

Every once in a while, some more corn spills down. By now it has settled just under my chin. I seem to have settled in more or less upright, about halfway up the pile. My body is numb and buzzing. I can see the very top of Lockwood’s Bobcat, now that the corn has settled into the cab. I am not sure, but I think I see his face. It is red and he looks like he is about to sneeze. I wonder if he is remembering anything, but I do not ask him. Lockwood would probably say something to make me feel bad one last time. I am not sure, but I think time passes slowly, because I remember a lot of things while I am in the corn. I remember The Man from one of The Company’s videos said the silos are thirty-six feet wide and one-hundred-seventeen feet tall on the inside. I do not remember how much corn The Man said they can hold, but it is a lot.

“Hey. Miller.” Lockwood spits a red cluster of bubbles at the cage and licks his lips clean. The bloody foam drips slowly down and disappears into the corn. My vision is wiggly, but I am sure I see him now.

“Yeah, Carl.” I say with little breath. My legs are ruined. My chest burns.

“You ever met Mr. Wonderful?” He laughs a little. He sounds drunk. There are a few pieces of corn stuck to his chin.

“Who’s that, Carl?” I wonder if he is dreaming like me.

“Street fella, I think. You know, like homeless? Usually over there by the on-ramp for 75. Spells your name out with different words. Real character.”

I take what is left of a breath and swallow hard. My head feels like a tick ready to pop.

“Can’t say I have, Carl.”

 Lockwood’s head slumps forward. His nose whistles in time with the rise and fall of his chest beneath the corn. He is falling asleep.

“Shame,” he says with a yawn.

When The Men from The Company find us, they will not know what to do. They will swear a lot. They will think about what to do with the corn. They will wonder if it can still be sold, but there are probably rules for when someone dies in it.

The animals in the warehouses by the lake will not get to eat this corn, but they will still eat. The men in white coats and hard hats will shovel shit into the lake. The blue-green algae will bloom in the summertime. I wonder if Emily will still buy bottled water when the algae blooms. She thinks that I am silly for not drinking from the tap. I try to remember if Lockwood ever mentioned having a wife, but I can only remember him saying dirty things about nameless women.

For some reason, I think about those pictures of the lake from space, whorls of cloudy green reaching further East. The put-together Man will go out on his bass fishing boat this summer. His fishfinder will show him where the schools are underneath the murk. He will make the other Men watch training videos. He will fill out a lot of paperwork.

I hear the ventilation system kick in up above.

The corn shifts. My lungs fill with blood.

© Liam Edward Talty-Johnson
[This piece was selected by Sarah Star Murphy. Read Liam’s interview]