A journal of narrative writing.

"If you don’t already believe in magic," the elderly man said at the bar, placing a violin at his feet, "you probably should. It’s real." 

"Do I know you?" I asked. I needed a fresh angle on polls and candidates, not a plaid-emblazoned hillbilly musician with notions of the occult. My editor and I had had it out for the last time. Was it the drinking? The poor craftsmanship? Halitosis? I couldn't say, and neither could my editor as he, laughing, sent me off to Missoula in search of a "rich and contextualized American view-point," or, more accurately, into the lost dugout of a game I no longer knew how to play, to cover elections I didn't understand. Journalism had become a rug that, for me, was pulling itself out from under itself. I wanted to imagine that I'd be knocked to the ground by the force of it all or be rolled up in it like a corpse and tossed in a bay or backlot, but I'd already begun to suspect or know that there weren't any rugs in journalism, or even floors or carpets, just air and time, and that I could float on indefinitely between nothing and nothing if I wanted to -- and even if I didn't. 

The old man pinched me in the arm, hard. 

"Magic, son. Not trolls and fairies, of course. That’s mundane and a little stupid. No, instead, take corn for example," he said, obviously drunk but still lucid. "It’s a fulcaltitive long-night plant with eccentric photoperiodicity. Cereal buyers, cola drinkers, stockholders, slaughterhouses – they demand twelve billion bushels of corn per annum, upturning landscapes from Pennsylvania to Colorado. That, in and of itself, is not magic at all, but listen," he implored, slapping at the napkin tray as I began to push my chair out to go, "here in America, where there once was wheat or anything else, now it’s all corn, as if a wizard waved a wand at roads and parking lots, fields and forests, food products and beverages, even people, their hair and skin, DNA, proteins and peptides, and said 'Presto!,' but of course there wasn’t a wizard, just the magic."

"Of course," I conceded, still trying to leave. 

"It’s purer that way -- zip zap: carrots, apples, tomatoes, barley, tobacco, cattle, genetics: poof! corn.  Pure magic. Every day whole sections of states just disappear like ice breaking away from the shelf -- into a trapdoor beneath the stage. It’s mesmerizing, but there is no trapdoor, and maybe no stage. You see? When the saw goes through the body, that’s a real cut. No blood, though, only husks. All this and the corn once grown by the Inca and Mayans no longer even exists, slowly replaced by the corn we know today. Where does it really go? A bottomless agricultural top-hat with no rabbits -- magic!" " 

He said all this while sipping a poorly dressed Sazerac and nibbling cheap wings, both of which he pointed out, are derived in part from corn. 

Stuck between stool and bar, I checked my watch and the news-ticker as the old man introduced himself: Nathan T. McElroy, corn farmer, apparently on a much needed vacation.

He wasn't "suggesting magical realism, either," he blathered on, waving his old hat around, because, "Once you accept magic as reality," he explained, "the phrase 'magical realism' becomes a kind of absurd redundancy like 'tuna fish.' And while we waste time repeating ourselves, the Corn Belt grips tighter around America’s widening waist, threatening to unbuckle itself and lay into working class backsides like an angry stepfather twice removed. You can imagine the belt," he said, "as a snake making its way down the highways and back roads of forgotten states (Kentucky, Nebraska, California, New York, etc), salting seeds into the ground with nefarious intent"  -- I tried to envision this, but found it difficult and settled instead on the less verbose legs of an elderly woman seated across the bar – "or," he said, snapping at me, "you can picture it as an inert piece of leather upon which a snickering man sharpens a blade made primarily of money. Really it’s neither of these things and is only corn, a lot of corn, almost everywhere and maybe more, but you can imagine whatever you want." Telling myself it was weakness and not curiosity, I stayed for another drink. 

And then another.

 Through his haze or mine, or perhaps the exponential effects of both, I stupidly decided that I'd found my "rich, contextualized American angle." Probably I was wrong, but all night his story --and I -- didn't so much unravel as kind of melt onto the bar, slowly and without sense of purpose, clarity or chronology. 

Apparently, over many months previous, each Sunday afternoon, twenty-four elderly farmers hobbled into a church basement, walkers and canes abiding, so that they might tame a beast with their music. Hector Soriano ached at the piano. Nathan McElroy, Rock Stevens and David Jacobs pained the violin, Sullivan Richter cello, Martin Emsweiler flute. They sounded like a middle school orchestra, but worse, their wheezing and creaking more musical than their entire repertoire. I can only imagine that these gentleman lived in a world of wilted notions and dying mores, mumbling to each other a kind of forgotten chant about traditional farming while the rest of the world tossed concrete down like splashes of paint on a hack's easel. Still, at each rehearsal, after a few numbers and as the priest retired to his rectory, they'd saddle their instruments and talk, not about music, McElroy said, but a modest uprising. 

They aimed "to undermine the supremacy of a local branch of a national conglomerate, Colavec Cronus and Ops, a chemical company and investment firm so named as to invoke the Titan parents of Ceres or Demeter, the goddess of corn, sunny protector of harvests." The nod to mythology made the whole thing stink of David and Goliath, but with old people and less about rocks and more about change. Also, corn. I didn't know what to make of the fact that Demeter was one of only two gods to feel real, pure misery.

McElroy's rambling, finally, I think was primarily an account of the struggle to recruit and maintain one final farmer, or farm, or musician, the twenty-fifth in any case, in hope of exacting real change (but what change, exactly?) by the next harvest. 

Elected by the others to get it done, McElroy drove to Francis's place. He felt positive someone was following him again, a Colavec employee in a grey Oldsmobile, emerging from the emptiness into a space in the road two or three cars back, the same as always. There was a "weather man," too, stationed in a van across the street from his farm, always smoking out the window. Surveilance had intensified each time they'd taken on a new recruit. Adding Francis to the list would likely do the same.

Once inside Francis’s home, McElroy was joined by Hector Soriano, the aged piano playing farmer, who wore a weathered Stetson. He'd changed over the years, but only in a way that made you feel change isn’t inevitable but instead always surprising. Outside, wind beat down on the grasses like old friends roughhousing in jest. One might imagine a horse, but there were no livestock, only ungrown corn, as if long ago Noah just said “Screw it” and put a few kernels not in an ark but a canoe instead before waving goodbye to everything else in a mad rush. 

Both McElroy and Soriano removed their hats and clutched them to their chests as if trying earnestly to hold something in. Together, they planned to make their case to Francis using a well rehearsed routine, but first they absorbed the ambiance. Family portraits. Children's artwork. Bronzed shoes. Fishing trips. School awards. Cheap paintings. Perfect: so much to lose. If Colavec came calling for Francis, McElroy and Soriano could leverage all of these precious things for commitment and discretion. 

Their nearly vaudevillian act always started, amidst rattling of canes and boots, with a brief history lesson about the first agricultural revolution, the switch from hunting and gathering twelve thousand years ago, and then an ode to Colavec's pesticide, UnAmbrosia 15xr, a fantastic chemical that kills just about everything -- ear worms, aphids, corn borers, silk flies -- but is harmless for people. Genius. They recalled most farmers' confusion upon hearing that it also kills corn, a strange characteristic for a product marketed to corn farmers. 

They remembered being told that a special corn created, bred and copyrighted by Colavec itself could alone withstand the powerful pesticide. Would they dare not buy it? Consumers wanted safe products, FDA approval -- cheap and fast, any time or season. It could save farmers a hell of a lot of money -- hypothetically, and for a price.