by Ernest Troost
It was black outside as I stepped onto the chilly back porch. A light drizzle was falling and I pulled my windbreaker tight over my sweater. Dad handed me a flashlight and a coffee can with a little dirt in it. He looked at me as I shivered and said, “It’s not that cold. This will be fun.”
Just after I’d gone to bed, I’d heard Mom saying to Dad that I was only eight years old, and kids that age need their sleep. I was too young to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night. But at around 2AM Dad shook me awake. He leaned over me, smelling of coffee and tobacco, and whispered, “Get dressed and try to be quiet, we don’t want to wake the whole house.” I’d been excited when Dad proposed catching night crawlers, but now, with cold rain dripping down the inside of my collar, it seemed far less appealing.
Looking out into the darkness, it was difficult to get my bearings, but eventually I could see the faint outline of the tall trees at the edge of our yard and hear their leaves rustling overhead. Our backyard was mostly hard packed dirt, as we had defeated all efforts by my father to grow a nice lawn by pulverizing any new grass with badminton and whiffle ball games. The rain had turned it to mud.
Dad squatted and swept his flashlight beam slowly across the ground in front of us. I squatted next to him and tried to imitate his movements with my flashlight. Tufts of wet grass soaked the seat of my pants and mud oozed around the sides of my new sneakers.
Then, right in front of us appeared two huge worms, glistening pink in Dad’s flashlight beam. As we moved towards them, they shot back into their holes like they were spring-loaded.
“They can hear us,” whispered Dad.
“They can hear us?”
“If they feel your vibrations through the ground, they’re gone, baby, gone,” he said.
I began to worry about grabbing one of them, but I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Big worms.”
“Yeah, they’re beauties,” said Dad, sweeping his beam across the lawn.
I wonder where Dad had learned about catching night crawlers. He’d grown up in a city. Since we’d moved to this rural town, Dad seemed to have acquired all sorts of outdoorsman interest and knowledge that he was eager to share with us. He would slam on the brakes in our car, sending us flying into the dashboard, then throw it into reverse to show us a snake that was sunning itself on the side of the road. “Look at that thing. I think it’s a copperhead,” he’d say. “We’ll have to look it up when we get home.” After dinner I saw him reading an old copy of “The Tomato Can Chronicles,” by Edmund Ware Smith.
I spotted a worm with my flashlight, and as I moved forward it zipped into the ground. “Gone, baby, gone,” I said to myself, more than a little relieved. I duck-walked through the muck over to where it had disappeared and stuck my finger in its little hole in the ground. My light beam fell on another worm close by, and, holding my breath, I grabbed for it. I got it. I pulled, but the other end held fast in the ground. As I pulled, the worm stretched thin like a cartoon worm. Then it popped out of the ground and coiled its slimy body around my hand, and I frantically threw it at my coffee can. I missed, and it disappeared into the darkness.
“It’s not going to bite you,” said Dad.
I wiped my hand on my pant leg, and decided to let Dad catch the rest. After an hour of crouching in the mud and rain, Dad say, “Okay, we’re good to go.”
“How many do we have?” I asked.
“Enough,” he said.
The next morning at 6AM we were rattling down Route 7 in our VW bug. My eyes were burning, and I needed sleep. I had toasted a Thomas’s corn cake and it was balanced on my knees as I drifted in and out of sleep. We swayed and bounced on the road, and I tried to keep the little lakes of melted butter from overflowing their little corn cake banks and running onto my jeans. I had never been so tired. Dad kept his window cracked so his cigarette smoke would go out, but it allowed more of the noise from the VW engine in. Together with the static on the radio and the fishing rods and gear clattering away in the back, the din lulled me to sleep.
I was running hard away from something. My heart was pounding and a strange sound was behind me. A quick glanced over my shoulder revealed a giant night crawler, at least twenty feet long, slithering after me.
“Wake up, you’ll miss the morning,” said Dad, flicking his cigarette in the direction of the full ashtray. The sun was starting to break through the clouds and the leaves sparkled. We turned off Route 7 where a little black canon sat at the intersection with the name Cannondale inscribed on its side. We swerved, and I caught my corn cake from falling. We bumped over some railroad tracks passing an old train station and a cluster of small farm buildings, and then I closed my eyes again.
The giant worm was right at my heels. I could feel and smell its wormy breath. I leaped onto a residual boulder, struggling to get high enough for safety.
“The fish will be biting today,” said Dad, as a pothole jolted me awake.
“I can feel it in my bones.” He held his cigarette between the stained fingers of his right hand, which rested on the vibrating shifter knob, letting ash fall around the transmission tunnel like a dusting of snow.
“This is the perfect spot,” said Dad, as we pulled into a gravel turnout along the Norwalk River. The sun was spilling across the river and polishing the wet rocks. The water was loud enough that we couldn’t talk easily. I sat on a warm smooth piece of granite--which looked suspiciously like a residual boulder--and ate my corn cake. It was the best corn cake I’d ever tasted.
Dad impaled a worm on a hook and tossed his line into the frothy water. “How many worms do we have?” I asked. “Three,” he said.
The river was high and fast that day and our big worms wiggled around in the foam until their color faded to a ghastly white. We fished all morning, but didn’t catch a thing. On the way home I asked Dad if maybe next time we should try fly-fishing.
He said, “Fly-fishing? What do I know about fly-fishing?”