The thing on the table stops him dead. The bag with the corn that could be any old bag, but isn’t. This one’s stained black, guilty black like his hands. He gets this bad feeling, but he sees the way Mom stands at the counter, her hips leaning against it like she’s done to death. He knows she won’t take a bit of guff.
Mom shoots a tired look over one shoulder.
“‘Bout time,” she says. “Get in here and shuck this corn.” Peter swallows, hangs back, his heart thudding.
“C’mon now!” she says, clearly full to the top. “I mean it. Get your butt to work.”
So he sits at the table and gets to work. The clock ticks and Mom’s fingers squish as she mixes hamburger with bread. After a few minutes, Peter thinks maybe this will be okay, maybe she won’t ask. He tugs at a husk, his muscles tight knots on his licorice arms. He knows he shouldn’t hope, but it’s too easy to float on the late afternoon sunlight falling through the hazy windows, bleaching him and the old curtains white. It’s hot in the kitchen, unbearably so, and his lungs and brain grow heavy with it, but he doesn’t dare ask Mom to open a window.
He flinches, then tries to hide it, shifting like he meant it all along. “Yes, ma’am?”
A pause. The clock ticks. His guts burn.
“Where’d you get that corn?”
He tears off a husk with a loud, guilty skreet.
“Um… on the way home.” He says it like Dad told him, word for word, even though he knows Mom’s too smart to buy it.
He swallows. “In a field.”
She rinses her hands, then dries them. He doesn’t look up when she brings her coffee over. She sits, pulls a cigarette from her apron pocket, lights it.
“Which field, Peter?”
Peter peels silk off the cob and works hard not to meet her eyes. “I don’t know.”
Mom takes a long drink off her coffee and he feels her think. Silk sticks to the black, black, blackness of his fingers.
Mom picks up a cob, studies it scrunchy-eyed.
“Only sweet corn I know of is off V.” She turns it over in her hand. “All the rest is field corn.”
“Were you and your father out by County V, Peter?”
He swallows, fixes his brain on the dice cup banging in the tavern downstairs, the rattle of dice, Dad laughing.
“What did Dad say?” His voice creaks.
“I’m not asking your father, Peter. I’m asking you.”
His throat feels like sandpaper, so he swallows again. “I wasn’t watching.”
“But you picked the corn, right? I know your father wouldn’t get his lazy ass out of the car if he had you to pick the corn for him.”
He shakes his fingers to get the silk off. Why does everything stick to him, even this silk?
“So where did you get the corn? And don’t lie to me, young man. I know when you’re lying.”
Bits come back to him, the ride home, the haze over the road, the green walls of corn, the bag of black walnuts against his leg. Dad sang “My Way” and laughed and rustled Peter’s hair. This is our little secret, he’d said, but Peter didn’t want it. What was the secret part anyway? Was it the corn Dad made him pick or the walnuts or how Dad went inside with Mrs. Jacoby, the laughing through the torn screen, moan, slap, and the boat buzzing across the lake while Peter picked last year’s fallen walnuts like Dad told him. You stay right here, Dad told him. Pick these nuts up. Every damn one of them.
When Dad had stopped the car, he’d dumped those walnuts in the ditch, but the black stayed behind, burning him, black hands, black bag, black insides.
He knew better than to cross Dad.
Now Mom’s eyes drill into him and the blackness burns.
Mom leans back and smokes her cigarette, draws her eyes scrunchy again.
“So you were out by Patty’s,” she says eventually. Patty. Mrs. Jacoby. Mom’s best friend.
Peter’s guts collapse and he nods.
“I knew it,” Mom says, smoke from her mouth twisting to the ceiling, her eyes staring at nothing.
Peter swallows, grabs another ear of corn. He worries about crossing Dad, but even more about the black. He feels like he’ll stay black forever.
Greta Igl is a former technical writer and self-proclaimed Jack-of-all-Trades. Her short fiction has been published in Long Story Short, Tuesday Shorts, Word Riot and Six Sentences. For more about Greta’s writing, please visit http://www.gretaigl.blogspot.com/.