Our Best American Essays: Shitdiggers, Mudflats, and the Worm Men of Maine

categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside / Our Best American Essays


Shitdiggers, Mudflats, and the Worm Men of Maine

by Bill Roorbach






“Hard work,” says Dicky Butts, and we haven’t even started yet.

.            “Get wet today,” says Truman Lock.  He pulls his greying beard, squints out over the bay.  The blast of an offshore wind (strong enough to blow the boat and its no-lights trailer halfway into the oncoming lane as we made the drive over) is piling white­caps, spraying their tops, bowing the trees around us, knocking my hat off my head, giving even the wormers pause.

Dicky says “No fun today.”

Walter—Truman’s father—lets a long minute go by, says, “We do get some weather, Downeast.”  He seems to know he’s offering a cliche, works the rich inflections of his Maine twang extra hard: there’s an observer here, myself, and no one (including me) knows exactly what the observer wants..

The night’s rain has stopped and the cold front that caused it is finishing its push.  The dirt parking area at the shore access on Ripley Neck is nearly empty—most of the wormers have decided to let this tide go—too much like March (here toward the last days of June)—too wild, too easy to stay in bed.  “Not a climber in the lot,” Truey says, one of a constant stream of plain observa­tions.  It’ll take me fifty conversations with twenty wormdiggers before I figure out the obvious: a climber is a clammer.  He means most of the usual guys aren’t here today—clammers, crabbers, inside lobstermen, wormers—not even anybody picking weed.  Just two cars in the lot—mature Subarus, both of them—no boat trailers.

We watch the tide.  It will be a big one, Truey guesses, with the offshore wind blowing the bay empty.  He’s sitting at the wheel of his Chevy truck, Dicky at his side.  Walter and I stand in the parking lot at their two windows.  We all watch the bay.  Low water is charted at 7:30 this morning.  It’s six now.  We watch, and watch more.  That’s what we do, watch.  No talking.  Down on the mudflats a quarter-mile away a couple of men are bent low, visibly chopping at the mud with their worm hoes.  “Bloods,” Truey says.

“Those boys are blood wormers,” Dicky says, deciding to pull me in a little, help me out here, whatever I’m up to.  He’s a stocky, good-looking man with a naked lady tattooed on one arm, a faded bird in a flower on the other.  At 33, he’s the youngest of the team.  He has a wide face and ought to look jolly, but he doesn’t.  Jolly you need to smile.  He’s taciturn and tough, burned and blown, his skin newly cooked over a deep spring tan, the creases of his neck white.  He’s got mud smears on the bill of his no-team baseball cap.  You think maybe he’s a little mean until he speaks and, yes, finally smiles, but it’s a warm smile, not jolly at all in the wide face, a good father’s smile, and you see how kindly he is, how helpful.  This he wants to avoid showing.  He pro­nounces the word wormers—names his profession—with softened r’s and extra vowels, points out the bent men, says, “Ten cents a worm.”  Back to taciturn.

Ten chops, ten deep turns of the mud, a pause to pull a worm, ten more chops, drop a worm in the bucket.  Ten chops bent over the heavy muck and those guys out there get a dime, a dime a worm, 100 weary chops to a dollar, 1000 chops for ten bucks, 10,000 chops to make the tide pay.

“Those fellows are Garneys,” Walter says.  He knows every wormer in Washington County by sight, and probably most in the state.  He’s been at this forever.  He wants me to know that a Garney is any digger from Beal’s Island, which is just over the bridge from Jonesport, a few miles east.  He wants me to know that the Beal’s Island boys are known for working in bad weather, and for working low tide all the way up to the beach, staying in the mud longer than maybe is good for the worm population.  But then, every wormer wants you to know that every other wormer is a fuckhead.  I’m thinking of a certain group of Midcoast boys who told me how dumb and lazy the Downeast boys are, including these very boys right here.

“Shitdiggers,” Dicky spits.  It sounds like genuine animosi­ty, but if I said it I’d probably get a blood rake through the brain.

Truey pulls the muddy brim of his cap, patiently fills me in: “Sandworms, see, are but six cents, but it’s faster getting.  Those guys out there was here an hour before us.  They’ll be here an hour longer for their money, and rip the mud right to the weed line.”

“It does takes a toll on your back,” Walter says dreamily, apropos of nothing in particular.

Oh, fuck.  I’m here on a magazine assignment: get to know these guys, these peculiar wormers, these strugglers at the extreme end of our great economy, write a poignant piece about their miserable lives.  But they don’t seem miserable.  Not as miserable as I am, for example, doing a job I’m really anxious about, inside a nascent career I’m really anxious about, a shaky career that has me saying yes to assignments like this, so many cents a word, really not the kind of thing I’m good at.  For one thing, I’m feeling horribly guilty, stealing these guys’ lives from them, worried sick what they’ll think of their portraits when the magazine hits the racks in town.  No one likes his own picture.

But here we are, all of us doing our work in this beautiful, dramatic place.  Which is their place, one they know intimately, a place they know themselves to belong.  They are their own economy, efficient, dependable, always bears, always bulls. Get to know them?  They aren’t going to let that happen unless I’m willing to work a couple of  years alongside them, and probably not then. I’ve found Truey after an unbelievably long series of phone conversations with mistrustful Yankees, Truey the one wormer in all of Downeast Maine who said, sure, sure, come along and worm.

“Blood­worms,” Truey sighs, not with malice, exactly, but with the supercilious pride of a specialist: these fellows dig sandworms, and even if maybe they are less hardy, less appeal­ing to fish, less marketable and so less valuable, they’re easier to come by.  He keeps looking me up and down.  I smile too much, smile now.

This is not my first day worming.  I had a day up Midcoast with a bunch of mean spirited mo-fo’s.  Shitdiggers, for sure.  The Midcoast boys abused me, rightfully so: what comes to them for talking to me?  But more about them soon.  Right now I’m Downeast, anxious but hopeful.  Months have passed since my Midcoast frolic without much progress on my story.  My big break is slipping away.  Truey and Dicky and Walter are my last chance.  And a new strategy is in place: I haven’t told them specifically  about Harper’s, only that I’m a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, doing a kind of study of guys working, and that I’ll write about them.  All true.  They maybe expected a pipe, a tweed jacket, elbow patches, a vaguely British accent.  Instead they got me: UMF sweatshirt, long hair, guy basically their age, a classic summer dink and a flatlander to boot.

Truey looks me over thoroughly, maybe trying to think what will interest me.  He nods in the direction of one of the Subarus in the empty parking lot: “That’s Porky Bob.  He’s a climber, most generally, but they just ain’t any steamers, not anymore.  He’ll be digging bloods, today.”

I’m rumpled and desperately bleary, slept poorly maybe three hours in the Blueberry Motel, the only motel open this time of year anywhere near, lone customer, windy night.

“They would used to get ten bushels,” Walter says, “a whole pickup load on a tide.  Now you’re lucky with a plateful for supper.”  He looks pained and weary.  “It’s the pollution.  It’s the runoff from the blueberry high­lands.”

This does interest me.  I’m nodding my head earnestly.

“Some say sewerage,” Truey says.

“No,” Walter says.  “That’s the lie.  The clam, he likes the sewage.  What he don’t like is the sewage treatment.”

“Many a wormer was once a climber,” Truey says.

The three men leave me out now, rapid shop talk.  I hear it the way I hear Spanish: pick out words here and there, get the drift.  They’re speculating about the worm population at Pigeon Hill, which I know to be a beach up toward Hancock.  They’re badmouthing some climber.  They’re thinking the weather will clear.  They’re speculating about the take today.  They’re talking about urchins, near as I can tell, something spirited about sea urchins and the frukking Japanese.  Walter would rather eat pussy than that stuff.  But Jack Morrison made $2800 in a day diving for ‘em.  And Truey’s a certified diver.  The rest sounds like daydreaming: all they need is scuba, an urchin boat (forty feet would do ’er), hot tanks for divers (the deep water in the Gulf of Maine is brutally cold in every season), some of that stuff is all, and you make $2800 a day.

Without a word of transition, without a word at all, Truey is pulling his truck around in the ominously empty parking lot, listening all the while to some story Dicky is telling, then backing the Cox trailer smoothly and straight as a new ashen oar down the steep ramp to the bay.  Walter plods down behind, thinking of something else, chewing a thumbnail.  I march down after him, flopping in my new worming boots (the Downeast salesman pronounced this women boots), anxious to be of use.  But these aren’t vacationers nervous at the winch of their thousand-buck trailer, this is Truey and Dicky knocking a scarred plank of junkyard lumber out from under the motor (a muddy Mercury 200, no messing around, a good old machine much reworked by Truey, who’s a local stock car racer, and Dicky, who’s his mechanic): knock the plank, unhook the cable, let the boat hit the water, no splash.  Now three of us are at the gunwales (I imitate every gesture they make, trying to be useful), waiting for Truey to park his mostly orange truck and return.

Dicky grins at me.  “Gonna get wet,” he says.  He sees my thin sweatshirt and that I don’t have a raincoat and yells up to Truey to bring what they got.  He’s so solicitous I stop worrying about the high wind.  I stop thinking about the low-down, bloodworming, shit-digging Midcoast boys who laughed and left me stuck in the mud, laughed derisively and chopped across the mud away from me, giggling like middle-aged and tattooed twel­ve-year-olds, dunking worms in their buckets, dunking worms.  I stop thinking about my deadline, two weeks past, stop worrying that my worming story is going to get killed.  (In the end, okay, it did get killed, but me, I’ve got the experience of worming under my belt, my fat kill fee, and my own blood worm rake, which will hang forevermore in the shed at my inland house.)

“This weather’ll clear by noon,” Walter says, watching the sky.  He’s built small and strong, is always preoccupied, always has a subject in mind and an informed, unexpected opinion (“If them Senators up in Washington was all women, we’d have our troubles solved.”).  He’s not only a wormdigger but his wife’s partner as a minor worm dealer.  His own dad (recently dead of diabetes, from which Walter also suffers) was a wormer, too, one of the originals up in Wiscasset with worming legends Bill and Artie Wanser and Frank Hammond—the first guys in the business back when the war was over and life was sweet and anybody could be Ernest Hemingway—go sportfishing in the ocean—anybody anywhere in the world: custom­ers.

Truey returns with an armless orange sweatshirt for me and a torn yellow slicker.  “All we have extra,” he says, with real concern.  He’s got muscles and the same gruff demeanor as Dicky, and like Dicky he’s warm and helpful and kind, all that just hiding behind a stern self-possession that you might read as distrust.  But he’s got a certain coldness to him, the bluff chill of the bad father.  His cap says Mrs. Giant Jim’s Street Stock on it.  Mrs. Giant Jim’s Pizza, up on Route 1, is one of his racing spon­sors.  In Mrs. Giant Jim’s they’ve got pictures of Truey in his lemon-yellow number five, holding the checkered flag after big wins at Bangor Speedway, never a smile for the camera.

I put the partial sweatshirt and ripped slicker on grateful­ly and the three wormers look at me a long time the way they’ve been looking at the tide: not much they can do about either, not much at all.  We get in the boat, a 21-foot aluminum camo-painted Quachita flat-bottom work boat full of worming stuff:  four blood hoes, four sandworm hoes, three worm boxes, four buckets, several twisted blue gloves, one faded green one, three life preservers, first aid kit.

We’re off.  Truey’s the helmsman, Dicky beside him, both of them standing.  Walter and I are on the middle seat facing forward, taking the spray.

I examine my women boots.  Last time out, with the japing Midcoast boys, I wore my fly-fishing hip boots, which have thick felt soles for traction on mossy river rocks.  The deep tidal mud down by Bar Harbor sucked them off my feet over and over again till they were gone.  So now I’ve got better boots, the real thing, according to Walter (who has explained that they’re “Number one in Maine”): tight-ankle LaCrosse hip waders.  I’ve gotten them two sizes small to be sure of their snugness.  I wonder if I should have tied strips of inner tube around the arches, as Walter also suggested, but I don’t want to look like a total fucking dork.  I start to tie and button the interior calf straps (a collar of eyes inside the boot below the knee that you tighten like shoelaces before you pull the thighs up), aware that Walter is too preoccupied to notice what I’m up to.

Dicky is staring.  He says, “I myself personally  prefer not to use the calf straps.”

I say I don’t want to get stuck in the mud, tell him the Midcoast story.

He and Truey grin at the picture of me flounder­ing as the Midcoast Boys leave me behind, especially the part where my ass is in the mud and I have to let go of my notebook and pen, losing them, then lose the boot.  Har har har, then my new friends fall back into their default faces—pretty grim—let me finish tying the calves of my boots.

Dicky says, “If we go in you need to get them boots off pretty fast . . .”

“Ah,” Truey says, “We ain’t going in.”

Walter isn’t listening, is looking to where we are going.  He points, says, “Some mud showing over there.”

Truey says, “Benson Williams.”

Dicky says, “Little Fred.”

Truey says, “That fellow from Jackman.”

These are people who have indeed “gone in.”  The tone isn’t quite elegiac, but before I can ask for elaboration, Walter’s telling Truey to slow down.  There’s a flotilla of lobster buoys, for one thing (which, to be sure, Truey has been missing expertly); for another, these waves will be big trouble if he gets the boat up planing.  Truey nods with an irritated patience and you can see Walter has been giving him advice like this for a lifetime.  Truey’s 40, now.  His dad is 57.  Truey’s name is actually Walter, too—Walter Lock III—but he was born on Harry Truman’s birth­day.

We are in the estuarine bay of the Harrington River, heading for Foster Island below Ray point.  I’ve gotten these names off of maps, for in the manner of most people deeply familiar with their surroundings, Walter and Truey and Dicky can’t quite rem­ember the names of the islands and spits and necks around us, only that good worming can be found on the flats that will appear here shortly.  They venture several guesses, but can’t agree on the names.  Finally Walter says if you were to boat around the island you’d end up at Milbridge, the next town up the coast (up being towards Portland, which is a hundred miles south and west).

We’re crashing over waves now.  Truey and Dicky crouch a little, but stay on their feet in the stern.  The old gas tank, less than a quarter full, bounces around back there.  Walter kneels on the middle seat beside me.  We all look resolutely forward.  The spray is ice cold.  I think of hack­neyed Maine-Coast paintings, proceed to compose one: five stripes of color—the grey plane of clouds, the green of the pines in the shore forest, the naked gray rocks, the brown rockweed exposed by the tide, water the gray of the sky but alive with whitecaps.  We’re the sole boat today; the scene is dramatic, timeless, lacks color, a Wyeth, which Wyeth I’m not sure.

Our bee line has brought us across Harrington Bay to several hundred yards off Foster Island.  Truey lifts the motor and we skim onto the mud.  Again we sit and watch.  You can see dis­turbed places in the exposed muck.  “That is yesterday,” Dicky says.  “That is us.”  The wind is so strong I have to pull my San Francisco Giants cap down to my eye­brows, cock my head.  I don’t know why San Francisco—it’s just a hat, but Dicky looks at the logo all day rather than in my eyes, asks me on the way home if it’s a Chinese character on there.

“See them two?” Truey says.  He’s pointing out men I hadn’t noticed, crouched men chopping at the mud much closer to shore.  I don’t at first see their boat, and ask how they got there.

“Canoe,” Dicky says.

“Wouldn’t be in a canoe today,” Walter says.  He hops out of the boat, overboard into the mud.  From the bow he collects his sandworm hoe (what climbers might call a rake)—five claw-curved steel tines nineteen inches long, these welded onto a bar that is welded in turn onto a post that impales a wooden handle about nine inches long.  The angle between handle and hoe is sharp; at work, one’s knuckles are just behind the tines.  Walter has shaped his handle to fit his stiffened fingers; the carving is artful: skin-smooth, oiled, comfortable.  Next he hefts his wormbox, a home­made fiberglass case like a car­penter’s box mixed with a budget cooler, fitted at top with the wooden handle from a broom.  Attached to one end is a big old coffee can—a vessel for blood­worms, which sandwormers view as incidental, but which bring ten cents each—it’s not like you’re going to throw them away.  He slides the box along the mud, leans forward, moves fast enough to keep from sinking beyond the point of suction.  I study his style.  He’s a strong old guy, moves with grace through the mud.

“Watch him,” Truey says, “he’ll dig all around the mussel beds,” this with a mix of affectionate pride and irritation at his dad’s predictability.  And sure enough, Walter is into the edges of the mussel bed, which is slowly coming exposed with the tide.  He operates knee deep in the muck, digging and stepping, moving his worm box along beside him.  Each big flip of mud seems to produce a worm.  He holds them up one by one for me to see.

“Rattlesnake,” Truey says, making fun, since Walter claims the mussel-bed worms are bigger.

“Tinker,” Dicky says.

“Shitdigger,” Truey taunts, and we all briefly laugh.  I miss the switch back to grim, find myself laughing alone.

Walter slogs speedily off across the mud to the next mussel bed.  Dicky and Truey and I wait.  We wait a little more.  Truey points out the bloodwormers again.  “Man in the red is the fastest wormer Downeast,” he says.  “You watch him go.”  It’s true, the man is chopping three strokes a second, stepping along the mud, a hundred yards ahead of his partner, hundreds of yards from his canoe.

“That fellow lost his son this spring,” Dicky says.  “Day pretty well like this.”

We watch the man work.  He does not straighten periodically as his partner does; he does not rest.

“Six-hundred pounds of wrinkles,” Truey says. “Boy and his partner.  Was he twenty-one yet?  Six-hundred pounds of wrinkles in the bottom of their canoe.  Six-hundred pounds.”

“Got turned by the wind,” Dicky says.  His own son is twelve, and for now Dicky gives him half the summer off.  “The boy was not a swimmer.  Though his partner made it all right.”

“They should have went to college,” Truey says.  He’s eyeing me closely, this professor, right here in his worm boat.  Dicky, too, more subtly.

This is a test.  I don’t give a twitch, not a smile.  I say, “That’s a sad story.”

We watch the bloodwormer, watch him digging like hell, plopping worms in his bucket, chopping the mud.

Dicky says, “College is not for everybody.”

“True,” I say.

I’m off the hook.

The wind has picked up.  It’s singing in my ears, watering my eyes.  I’m thinking of the boy sinking in his boots.  I ask what wrin­kles are, exactly.  Truey sighs, twirls his finger to draw the creature in the air, makes me to understand that wrinkles are those little spiral-shelled snails, what I have always called peri­winkles. He says, “The Japanese eat ’em.  I wouldn’t go near ‘em.”  You can’t quite tell if he means the snails or the Japanese.  His sons are babies, still, two and four, products of his third marriage.

“Nor is worming,” Dicky says.  Nor is it for everybody, he means.

We watch the sky, watch the tide, sit in the boat in the wind.  No warning and the guys are overboard, grabbing their wormboxes and hoes.  Truey asks if I’m blooding or sanding.  I say sanding—of course—and they give me a hoe and a bucket.  I pull my women boots up to my thighs, tie the ties into my belt loops, and step overboard.  I sink.  I step.  I’ve got the bucket and the hoe.  I sink, step, sink, step, suckingly follow the men.  Step, sink, looking for the little round holes that signal sandworm mud.  When Dicky crouches to the task I watch him.  Strike the tines full depth into the mud (nineteen inches!), two hands to turn the heavy gray stuff, a quick grab to pick out the worms, one or two or three to every dig in this spot.  Good mud.  Three or four digs, then step.

“The trick is to keep moving,” Truey says.  The two of them are off, leaving four-foot wide swaths of turned mud behind them, digging, digging, plucking worms, sliding the wormboxes—lean forward steeply and step—dig right, dig left, dig middle, pluck worms, step.

I use two hands, grunt and turn the mud.  My back already hurts.  Two worms.  I tug on one where it’s escaping back into its hole in the mud and it breaks, pull on the other more carefully and it comes free—a foot long, orangey brown, cilia down its length, appearance of a flattened and softened centipede, perhaps a half-inch in diameter, diameter turning to width as the worm flattens trying to locomote out of my hand.  Dicky has given me his gloves, so I’m not worried about the stingers hidden in the retracted head.  I put the worm in my bucket.  One.  Next chop and I note the tunnels the worms leave—slightly discolored tubes in the mud.  The worms can move very quickly into the un-dug, disappear.  You chop and grab.  You don’t wait around.  Two.  You step.  Three.  I’m doing fine, not stuck, proud of my new boots.  Chop, two hands.  The stuff is heavy.  I’m glad I’m strong, wish I were stronger, remember how I’ve bragged to Juliet that I’m in great shape.  Four, five, six.

“Those little digs’ll hurt your back,” Truey advises, kindly.  He’s ten feet ahead of me already.

Dicky has walked to a new spot, far to my right.  “Try to make it all one scoop.”  He shows me, swoop, scoop, plops worms into his bucket.

I make a big dig, do it right, turn a great chunk of mud, watch the hole grow wet, look in there for movement.  I pull out an odd, long, flat worm that just keeps coming—three feet long, at a guess.

“Tapeworm,” Truey says.  He very nearly smiles, because tapeworms are ridiculous, useless.

I dig again, showing Truey every worm I turn, trying to get the sense of an acceptable size.  The worms expand in length then quickly retract, so you can’t really put it in inches.  You just have to know.  Truey okays a couple, shrugs at a third.  The shrug is as negative as he’ll get with me.  Next worm is a blood.  Truey turns back to his work: the tide is only low enough for two-and-a-half or three hours of digging this far out on the flat—you can’t socialize.  I examine the bloodworm, which is wholly different from a sandworm.  No cilia, for one thing, and it’s all pink translucence, smaller than a sand, more substantial than an earthworm, something deeply red beneath the surface of its skin.  This one is smallish, not quite six inches, with a thicken­ing at the head end, a bit of flattening at the tail.  I roll it in my fingers.  Abruptly, the head shoots out, a moist pink cylinder an inch long, ugly and sudden, un-benign, bulging and unfolding till the stingers show, four grasping needles in the circle of the nasty mouth.  Walter has told me that if they get you in the webs between your fingers your whole hand’ll blow right up.  I haven’ been worred till now—how bad could a worm bite be.  Bad, is the answer.  I let the worm grasp at the air a moment, then throw it in with the sand­worms in my bucket—a mistake, as I will discover: the bloods bite the sandworms in half, making them worthless.

Step and dig, dig and step; my legs are growing exhausted, forty feet from the boat.  The digging style Truey showed me seems to be saving my back, though.  Dig and step.  I’ve lost count of my take, but it looks like a lot in there—a crawling, wriggling, spiraling mass, sunken in the quart of sea water I’ve added to the mix.  There’s quite a bit of mud in there too.  Incredibly, I don’t turn up a single clam.  Incredibly, I forget about my assignment.  My notebook never comes out of my pocket.  I’m worming.

The wind is getting stronger yet, and colder, takes my San Francisco Giants cap.  I lunge for it, fall in the mud, get the hat, put it dripping on my head, manage to stand by leaning hard on bucket with one hand, rake with the other. I wish for the sandy flats Walter has told me he used to work with his dad, up past Portland by George Bush’s place, all along and up to Kennebunkport.  You can’t get near there now.

Step and dig.  Dig and step.  It’s getting harder and harder to lift my feet.  I keep needing to stand straight, but it’s standing that gets you stuck.  Suddenly, a mudhole boils in front of me.  Before I can react, an eel pops out, leaps from his hole and into my face, struggles away, gets a few feet and pauses, gills gaping.  I give a little scream of surprise.

“Oh yes,” Truey calls.  He’s farther away from me yet.

“Mud eel,” Dicky shouts in the wind.

The sea gulls descend, laughing.  The eel slithers back in my direction.

“He’s a meal,” Truey shouts.  He means the eel, for the sea gulls.

I stop and watch the spectacle, sea gulls, eel, the wind, the waves away off where the mud stops, the plane of dramatic clouds, the salty and sulfuric smell of the mud, the men working methodically away from me.  I’m this close to having some sort of college-professor epiphany when I realize I’ve gazed too long.  I’m stuck.



I look back at the boat—it’s far.  I look at Dicky and Truman and know I’ve got to get out on my own.  I hear in my head the Midcoast Boys’ derisive laughter. I struggle.  My mud muscles—some rare strands in the sides and tops of my thighs—are ex­hausted, can’t do it.  I pull with my hands on the lip of my right boot, get it to move a little.  I pull on my left, but my foot leaves the boot and won’t go back in.  I remember Truey’s story about Crawford Peacham’s moronic son—how the dumb kid got stuck and they had to cut his boots off ‘im.  How the kid was covered with mud, mud in his nostrils, mud in his mouth, mud halfway up the frukkin’ wazoo.  I wriggle and pull and both socks are off inside the boots and both boots are stuck and I’m not connected to them except at the calves, where I’m firmly laced.  I fall over, go up to my elbows in the mud, then very slowly up to my biceps.  Both arms, both legs.  Soon it’ll be my face.  Deadline two weeks gone.  I’m sinking.

“He’s stuck,” Truey calls.

Dicky looks back, and just when you think the laughter should erupt the two of them are dropping their hoes and coming at me, almost racing.  Truey gets there first and without a word pulls my arms out, stands me up, then puts his strong hands under my knees and yanks me free a leg at a time, oblivious of the gazes the bloodwormers downflat turn our way.

Dicky makes a forward-leaning race to the boat, pushes it over the mud in a mighty effort, brings it right up behind me so I can sit on the port gunwale.  The two of them inspect me a moment, then go back to work without a tease of any kind.  I sit in the boat a long time, getting my socks back on, getting my boots readjusted, resting my thighs and my back, getting the mud off my face.  The whole time I keep my eye on a certain small hummock of mussels, watch it closely the way as a stock boy I used to watch the clock at the A&P, watch relieved as the hummock sinks in the returning tide.

“Did he quit?” Truey shouts over the wind.

“I think he quit,” Dicky calls back.  There’s no doubt I better go back to work.  I climb out of the boat, dig my way close around it in a big rectangle, afraid to move far from the safety of its gunwales.  I chop and step and pluck and pull.  It’s like digging nickels out of the fetid mud, pennies.  It’s like freelance writing.  Forget it.




Near Ellsworth, back in April, back when the deadline for my article was still months off, back before I’d found Truey and Walter and Dicky by telephone, back when I didn’t know how many television stations and local papers and even Yankee Magazine had done stories on worming using the same Midcoast boys repeatedly, back when my ridiculous plan was to go out on the flats alone, hoping to meet fellow wormers, back then I drove down to a town near Ellsworth that I shall call Wormville with no great prejudice, drove all morning to pop into the Town Hall in this little coastal town—Town Hall being a well-kept colonial-era house—popped in, all fake confidence, all grins and swagger, to ask about a worming license.

“Who’re you digging for?” the Wormville Town Clerk said, all smiles herself.

I faltered a little at the unexpected question, said, “Just digging?”

Now the Town Clerk was all frowns.  She listened to my convoluted explanation of mission skeptically (UMF Professor, writing about working men in Maine, meet the real guys out on the flats), but in the end she had to hand me a license application—all Maine residents are eligible—one form for all of the many Maine-coast commercial fisheries.

Later, over a lobster lunch at Ruth and Wimpy’s incredible Lobster Shack, I would check off the box for marine worm digging, add my birthdate, height and weight.  Later still I’d cheerfully write a check for $43.00, cheerful because Harper’s would pay (and pay for my worm rake, and various horrid motels, and maybe a dozen lobsters at Ruth and Wimpy’s, at least that, even if the story got killed), cheerfully mail the whole thing off to the department of Marine Resources in Augusta, which (as I would note with my newly acquired wormdigger’s churlishness) isn’t even on the coast.  But right now, having provided me with all I needed to get started, the good Town Clerk of Wormville walked me to the Town Hall door and pointed across the street to one of the few other commer­cial buildings in town, a modern, one-story affair with a pair of handsomely carved-and-painted wood signs: the first, Gulf of Maine Bait Company; the second, Gulf of Maine Wreath Company.  She said, “Before you go drowning yourself on the flats you’ll want to talk to Nelson Forrest,” and was rid of me.

I walked over and was intercepted in the parking lot by Nelson Forrest himself, energetically on his way somewhere else.  I rather nervously explained what I was after, using the whole professor bit, interested in the work, etc, still saying nothing about Harper’s, or any national article.  But here, finally, after two weeks of fruitless phone calls looking for sources, looking for reporterly access to the world of worming, I had someone live to talk to.  Mr. Forrest seemed preoccupied, even a little annoyed, but once he got me in his office—thin paneling, tidy old desk, real oil paintings (appealingly ama­teur), smell of the sea, a phone, a fax—he leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette, became voluble, answering questions I hadn’t asked:  “State law says the worms must be dug by hand.”  He’s well tanned and much creased, his eyes blue as the sky over Cadillac Mountain on Mt. Desert Island (pronounced dessert as in desert­er), which is due south, just across Frenchman Bay.  To folks in Wiscasset, Wormville is Downeast.  To folks Downeast, Wormville is Midcoast.  Wiscasset might as well be Massachusetts.

Mr. Forrest stares intently at me, talks rapidly, explains the business, answering his own questions: “We pay ten cents a worm for bloods.  Six cents for sands.  Up in Wiscasset they’re paying twelve cents, but they have less shipping cost.”  The diggers, whom Forrest carefully calls independent contractors, bring the worms to one of ten or fifteen dealers—places like Gulf of Maine Bait—for counting, starting about an hour after low water (“They’ll stagger in for hours after that,” he says, then corrects himself: “Well not stagger, exactly”)  On vinyl-covered tables the men (and a few women) count bloods rapidly into wooden trays of 250, then fill out a card:



dug and counted by:



Forrest also deals sandworms, but far fewer:  “I hate sandworms; they’re so frigging fragile.  They’ll die if you look at ’em.”  He transfers the worms to newspaper-and-seaweed-lined cardboard flats, where they rest in the walk-in cooler to wait for the worm van, a service provided by several independent shippers (Great Northern Seafood, for one example: “Worm Transit, Maine to Maryland”).  Nelson’s worms—3,000 to 15,000 a day—are driven to Logan airport, and from there flown to points south (Mary­land, Virgin­ia, North Carolina), west (California, especially Sacramen­to) and east (Mediterranean France, Spain, and Italy).  “It’s a unique business.  You tell people you sell worms . . . they look at you.”  The wholesale buyers are either dis­tributors who service bait shops or the captains of fishing charters.  The final price out there in the world—some guy fishing for sea bass or spot or weakfish or flounder—is in the range of three to four dollars a dozen.  Mr. Forrest nods proudly:  “They do catch fish.  See, they’re two-thirds blood.  Maybe it’s the scent, we don’t know.”  His competition, in his estimation, isn’t other worm dealers, really, but 24 other ocean baits including eels, sea clams, herring, and squid.  Of these, squid is probably the most effective, and, unlike worms, can be frozen for shipment, then frozen again by the fisherman after partial use.  “Worms aren’t the distributors’ favorite,” Mr. Forrest says, “they die, they’re expensive . . . but they need ‘em.”

Terrible years, good years, the business seems to go on, though not like the old days.  Nelson Forrest, who has never dug worms himself, wriggled into worming back in 1972—boom times.  He shakes his head about the terrible years of the late eighties—tiny worms, and not many—won’t venture a theory as to where the big ones went, though (like every cycle in business and nature), the sea-worm cycle does have its theorists.  Pollution plays a role in many of these visions, overharvesting in others.  Global warming gets a nod, and one strident wormer I talked to up near Wiscasset invoked Chernobyl (but oddly not the defunct Yankee nuclear facility, which is right in Wiscasset’s back yard).  Some don’t see doom, particularly, just the well-known fact that seaworms are unpre­dictable.  Some years there are plenty of big ones, the kind the fishermen like, some years there just ain’t.  Nelson Forrest would like to see some conservation—maybe close the mud in winter, maybe think more about size limits.  “It’s a constant battle to keep the guys out of the little ones . . . and we don’t buy on Sundays.”  He pauses, considers.  “Though that’s no conservation measure; the guys just refrigerate Sunday worms, bring ‘em in Monday.”  Then he shakes his head, lights the fifth cigarette of our conversation.  “When I started, I worried I’d be out of worms in ten years.”  He looks at me carefully, to see that I’m not missing the point, shakes his head again: “But we’re running out of fish first.  The fish are gone.  Pollution, commercial overfishing, this frigging economy—they do destroy sportfish­ing.”  And where sport­fishing goes, the wormers will go.

That afternoon there’s a 2:30 tide, and Mr. Forrest sets me up with one of his crews, the group I have been calling the Midcoast boys, these fellows who, I’ll later learn, are practically worming poster boys they’ve been on TV so much.  They love nothing more but jazzing a guy with a tie and a microphone.  The wormers know something most reporters won’t admit: they’re getting used.  But torturing a reporter for a tide can make up for it, make time fly.



One of the crew, my guide, gets me to follow him in my own vehicle—sixty miles an hour on back roads to one Thompson Island.  I watch his head turn at every sight of the water; he’s checking the size of the tide, driv­ing off the road.  We park on the main drag into Bar Harbor in front of an enormous fence that hides a gargantuan house.

After I’ve donned my flyfishing boots in the face of my guide’s skeptical impa­tience (but no warnings), he trots me past two no-trespassing signs and through the summer-dink lawn, around a summer-dink gate and past two more summer-dink property signs, then along an old lane through a quiet wood, shore pines and pin oaks, lots of poison ivy.  Past the fifth and sixth no-trespassing signs we break into a little meadow that is on a point thrust into the Mount Desert Narrows.  Trap Rock is in sight, and Thomas Island.  Seals play out there.  There’s a strong onshore breeze, the sound of waves crashing, white sprays of foam thrown up on rocks out there.  It’s gorgeous.

In the cover of some scruffy pines and under yet another no-trespassing sign, three grim guys await.  My guide offers no introductions.  I pull out my little notebook filled with little questions to ask, but every one of them looks and sounds like it was written at four in the morning in the worst motel in Ellsworth.  We all of us stand amongst boulders and birch trees and watch the tide, which for me means picking out a particular rock and keeping track of how wet it is.

I smile my rube’s smile.  “So what are your all’s names?”


“You.  Hi.  Where do you live?”


“How much can a good wormer expect to make on the average tide?”


“Ever get into fights over territory?”

Here we go.  They all look at me.  My guide says, “Old days you’d have a hell of brawl.  Now we see guys from Wiscasset or someplace, we might holler some.”

“Tell em to go the fuck home,” the next guy says, real fury.

My guide says, “Used to be you’d shoot holes in a guy’s boat.”

Another gently says, “Tires do get slashed.  But some years the worms are one place and not another and fellows travel.”

“Where’re you from?” the go-the-fuck-home guy says.  Everyone looks at me closely.

Me, I don’t say a thing, just look out at the tide.

“He’s from the college,” my guide says.  “Farmington, up there.”

“I thought only queers lived up that way!”

I’m supposed to defend Farmington, I guess.  But I don’t.  What am I going to say?  Well, yes, we have some gay citizens, of course, about ten percent, I believe, something along those lines, same as Wormville, same as anywhere.  Nice folks, our queers!

We stand on the rocks.  We watch the tide.  The breeze itself feels tense, carries drops of rain.  Where’s the story?  I don’t say a word.  The men around me stiffen.

Shop talk saves the day.  My guide says, “She gonna go out?”

The gentle man says, “Somewhat, I think.”  That onshore wind will keep the tide small.

The angry fellow says, “Probably under eight feet.”

My guide: “Shit tide.”

The angry fellow: “I’ll give you ten bucks you bail out the bay.”

They all snigger and have a look at me to see if I believe that’s possible.  I notice for the first time that the silent man is a young teen.  He looks as if he feels sorry for me.  I love him for that, gangly kid.  He stands half behind the protection of his dad’s back (his dad is the gentle one), holding a bloodworm hoe (six tines nine inches long, short wooden handle), dangles it at the end of one limp arm, an empty joint-com­pound bucket dangled at the end of the other, the tools of the trade looking like mittens someone has pinned to his jacket.

“You like worming?” I ask him inanely.

“I’m just doing it so my dad don’t get pissed off when I ask for money.”

His dad doesn’t laugh, stares the boy down.

Around a corner on the rocky mud toward the mainland a lone figure comes a-slogging, a stately, slow march through the muck, his bucket in one hand, hoe in the other.  On shore he’d look weary; on firm land he’d look gimpy and stiff; on dry land he’d be another old salt spitting stories; but on the flats there’s a grandeur about him.  He pauses and looks at the mud, continues on, pauses and looks at the mud, stoops, begins to dig.  His style is large, operatic: big strokes, very slowly made.  He doesn’t seem to be turning up many worms.  “He’s way inside,” the angry man says.

“It’s Binky Farmer,” my guide says. “He’s seventy-seven years old, that one.”

“Way inside,” the angry one repeats, but no one else seems to want to indict old Binky, whose only pension is a tide a day.

“Shoot him,” the angry one says.  “I mean it.  Shoot him.  It’s the ethics of the thing.”

My guide says, “It’s not Binky who should be shot.  It’s these schoolteachers who come along in summah, trying to strike it rich during their taxpayer vacation.”

All the boys turn subtly.  Binky’s off the spot.  I’m back on.  They eye me closely.

I pull out my pen, my little notebook, write down chunks of conversation, to remind everyone what I’m here for.

My guide looks on curiously, but no way he’ll penetrate my handwriting.  He offers a quote, is visibly pleased when I write it down: “We’ll all need boats before long with all these no-trespassing signs.”

“Fucking summer dinks,” says the angry one.  “Just try to keep me off this fucking point!”  He swipes his rake at the air.  “I been coming out here since I was seven.”  He swipes the rake in my direction again, for emphasis, ready to pop my summer-dink skull, find the worm within.

We watch the tide.  It’s going nowhere at all.

Five more wormers come into the meadow.  No greetings, just nods, men who’ve known each other a long time.  The new fellows take note of a stranger’s presence, remain utterly silent, drift off to watch the tide from their own vantage points around the point.  The rest of us watch the bay, watch the sky, watch old Binky as he straightens up, rests; we watch the sea gulls, watch the island out there, watch as Binky goes back to work.

Suddenly, no word said, they’re all rolling up their sleeves.  Suddenly, the tide is right. I can’t find my indicator rock—suddenly there are a million rocks.  The new guys are off and moving through the mud.  The father-and-son team hike off across the meadow to the other side of the neck, disappear.  I had hoped to work near them, in the warmth of their kindness.  My guide and the angry fellow step over the seaweed-covered rocks and into the mud right in front of us.  Resolutely I follow, uninvited.  It may not be much of a tide, it may not be deep mud, but after a short twenty min­utes, I’m stuck good.

The angry guy looks back, laughs, shouts something.

“What?” I shout.

“I said, You are a queer!”

“Leave him for the tide,” my guide shouts.  The two of them are laughing, hard, moving away from me.

“What?” I shout.

“Mud eel bite your cock off!” says the angry guy.

“What?” I shout.

“He won’t get but four cents for that worm!”

I’m alone.  I struggle, still sinking.  I drop my notebook, reach for it, lose my pen.  I thrash after the notebook, quickly exhausted, then lose my hat, lose my sunglasses.  I don’t want to lose my Orvis wading boots, but after a struggle, I do lose them, abandon them there in the mud, socks too.  The notebook is the one thing I manage to recover, and with it stuffed in my shirt I crawl and slither and drag myself to a rock near shore, pull myself puffing up onto it, sit heavily, watch the wormers move out and away chopping at the mud, warmed to their work, no thought of me in their heads.

“Fucking queers!” I shout.  I’m reaching for an insult they might mind.

But they can’t hear me.  They’re already hundreds of yards away in the wind, which comes at my face.

“Fucking Winter dinks!”

They don’t even turn their heads.

I drag myself rock to rock through the mud and to shore and slog my way back up the point through the yard of the summer mansion.  All the no-trespassing signs have been torn down, torn to bits by those fellows who came after, strewn in bits everywhere along the way as if by some furious wind.




Dicky Butts’s wife drives the town school bus, part time.  Health insurance?  No way.  Pension plan?  Ha. They live in town, a quiet and genuine Maine place, a working town—no stores, no tourist facilities—just a village made of houses and trailers and shacks and sheds.  Dicky’s good little house is neatly kept, painted blue, on a small piece of an old family lot.  His Grandmother lives nearby, and his sister too, and his mom and dad, and his aunts and uncles and cousins and many a good friend.  Their propinquity is his security, his insurance, his retirement plan.

Truey’s house is on a corner of the property down by the road, next turn up from the worm shed.  It’s a small place, a ranch house, bedrooms in the basement.  In the yard he’s got an old army truck rebuilt to serve as a log skidder, huge tires draped with tractor chains—winter work.  There are logs every­where.  Some cut, some tree length, all of them a season old, valuably waiting.  Beside the skidder is his speedway trailer—high rack of worn racing slicks—leaning into the weather.  The car itself, the estimable number five, is in a homebuilt garage, and in the garage is where you’ll find Truey and Dicky, most high tides, mired in oil, changing engines, packing bearings, knocking out dents (of which in number five there are always plenty).  Behind the garage in tall grass are a couple of car bodies—what’s left of wrecks Truman and Dicky have used as parts for the racer.  And there’s kid stuff for the little boys—plenty of toys, a swing set, a play pool.  Truey’s wife is a nurse at the hospital in Calais, fifteen miles down Route 1.  Her job provides the family with health insurance and a retirement plan.  Her job also gives insurance of another kind: proof against bad worming.

Delores and Walter’s house is at the top of a long, narrow lawn, a couple of football fields up the hill from the road and the worm shed.  It’s newish, set back on the hill, modern lines, tall windows, peaked ceiling, furniture-showroom furniture.  It’s all very tidy, with an entire wall devoted to a wallpaper mountain scene, anything but the ocean.

It’s well known, according to Walter, well known around the flats Downeast, that Delores runs the Walter Lock Jr. Bait Company.  He means he’s damn proud of her business acumen, and not afraid to say so.  Delores is tanned and short and built delicately around the ankles and knees, bigger and sturdier on top.  She wears large, round eyeglasses, gives an occasional smile, looks closely at you as you speak, her bullshit detector set on stun. Walter says she’s tough—she’s the one to sell something—sell a car, sell a house, sell the worms (“If these Senators up in Washington was just women,” he says again, has said it five or six times since I’ve known him).  There’s a sign in her handsome handwrit­ing in the worm shed: “No more short counts.  There will be no warning.”  I know it’s her handwriting, because she’s written me at the University, inviting me to come on back down, see the business end of things.  It’s her sense that I didn’t quite get what I needed from the men, she wrote, in so many words, quite a few words.  And today she’s gone out of her way to answer all my questions, even suggesting questions to ask.  She knows I want some color for my write-up (she calls it), so she has told me that she and Walter tried a couple of winters in Florida, picking oranges (piece work, like worms), but lately it’s been back to year-round Maine.  As for Truey, Truey may seem like a tough guy, but Truey is her little love bunny.

While Walter Truey are out on the flats, she’s on the phone and watching the fax—getting orders from distributors and retailers all over, filling them.  She shows me how everything works.  Charts and graphs and order sheets.  The volume of her sales gets translated into limits: if she’s got orders for 10,000 bloodworms and 5,000 sandworms on a given day, that’s as many as she’ll buy from her diggers.  A 500-worm limit means a digger can make no more than $50.00 that day, no matter how prolific the mud.  Some families, the ones Delores likes, can get around the limits by bringing spouses and sons and daughters into the picture.

In the worming shed—the windowless cinderblock basement of a truck garage (the garage now converted to an apartment—the days when they could afford to run their own trucks are over)—she washes the counting trays, packs the worms.  She hasn’t stopped moving since I arrived.  The worms go in the usual cardboard flats for the distributors, 125 sands or 250 bloods in a bed of seaweed.  Also, increasingly, Delores makes a special fisherman’s ten-pack for bait shops to sell, her own invention.  A little maiden-hair seaweed, ten carefully counted worms to a small, clear, plastic bag, a twist tie, then into a partitioned shipping box, cardboard lined with styrofoam:




A lot of work, something she didn’t have to do in the past.

It’s impossible to talk to her when she’s counting; she doesn’t hear or see, waits till the little bag she’s working on is completely and neatly packed.  She doesn’t move quickly, even though it’s familiar work; rather, she’s elegant with it, as if she were cooking a fancy French dish.  Between ten-packs she gives a small shrug, a smile, talks a snippet of politics, a bit of worm theory, tells a quick story, offers a confession: “Back when we were paying two and three cents a worm I’d kill ’em when they stung me.  Now we’re paying ten, I just pack the biters in like the rest.”  She likes her diggers loyal, she says, doesn’t appreciate someone who’s over limit trying to sell to other dealers, though she’ll buy spare worms from almost anybody if she’s got the orders.

Delores has two years of college, University of Southern Maine, thirty-some years back, cannot remember what major, did not get the degree.  At this, I just shrug.  For that, she likes me more.  And I like her.  She knows exactly who I am.  She keeps me at her side, introduces me to everyone as a scientist.  I don’t correct her, and in some weird way my actual physical stance changes.  The look on my face feels scientific.  Even my questions change.  I’m a new man.  Give me a lab coat.  I peer at the worms a whole new way, as if through some delicate instrument.  For the first time among wormers I don’t feel like an idiot.  That’s Delores.

In the hours after the tide the wormers come in, quietly, tiredly, make their counts.  There’s no banter, no conversation, no braggadocio.  The diggers just come in.  There’s Jordon LeMieux, whom Walter has called an ace blood digger.  There’s Spooky Nick, another ace, and Clarissa Larssen—the best woman wormer in Maine, in Walter’s estimation.  Squeak Snodgras comes in and counts his worms wordlessly, hands in his count slip, wordlessly leaves.  There’s a cool-looking teen boy, a hottie—Nike Air sneakers, t-shirt that says Slam Dunk, inner-city haircut—standing by his long-haired and tattooed dad, and in the counting room at prom time the boy is attentive, engaged, watches carefully as Pop counts his allowance worm by worm into the tray.  Another father stands beside his daughter, an athletic and serious young woman of sixteen—very, very pretty—with mud to her eyelashes.  They count.  No one talks, not even all the young guys—a dozen of them in their twenties (their muddy pants low on their hips, showing the cracks of their fannies: wormer’s cleavage).  No chatter.  No high fives.  Nothing but the counting, the exchanging of slips, this scientist watching.  There are two guys with ponytails like mine (that is, scraggly), a bunch with tattoos, several apparent body builders, a thin fellow with Jesus Loves You on his sweatshirt.  The wormers straggle in for a couple of hours, dumping their worms, counting them fast under fluorescent light, filling out their slips, col­lecting their cash or watching Delores put their counts in her book for a paycheck at the end of the week.

In a couple of months some of the boys will have to start blueberry picking up on the highlands; a few weeks past that some will go off logging.  Some have skills like welding for whomever comes needing it; some will clean houses or leave town with construction crews or take temporary work at a mill.  In December there’s firewood chopping, even knickknack carving, and many an individual scheme.  Then the new year: time to start thinking about the mud.  Some guys will have to get out there in January—break the ice, dig the worms.  Some will luxuriate till February.  Some—the diggers with luck, or skills that match this year’s needs, or spouses who work good jobs—some won’t have to go out till March.

My first trip with the Downeast Boys proved a good one for them, Walter and Dicky both counting 1500 sands—$90.00 each, plus enough bloods to carry the take over a hundred dollars for the tide.  Truey, always a little more aggressive, got 1650 sands that day.  Dicky was kind enough to count my worms for me, and after culling me about 50 (too small, or diseased, or broken by the bloods I’d thrown in with them), my count for the tide was an unspectacu­lar 155 worms.  $9.30.  The five killer bloods in there brought my payday up to $9.80.  I refused the cash, but Delores refused my refusal, and so—after a spot of negotiating, and a suggestion by Dicky—I became a minor sponsor of Truey’s big number 5, glory of the Bangor Speedway.





Still trying, I make yet another worming trip, drive down from Farmington the night before a tide Truey thinks’ll be a good one, eat a diner dinner, stay at the Blueberry Motel.  It’s a nice late low tide, and I sleep in, eat a big breakfast.  Truey’s broken a camshaft in the race Saturday night and wrecked his engine, so there’s extra incentive for a big day for all of us.  My boots are tight; I’ve been out on my own in the mud below Milbridge, practicing.  I’ve bought myself a sandworm hoe.  I have my own gloves, a proper shirt.  I know the Harrington River mud, now, and the Harrington River mud knows me.  I’m ready to leave the ranks of professors, even scientists, ready to move up to shitdigger.  The day is auspicious, the parking lot at Ripley Neck entirely full. Walter points out a Garney across the way, hovering in a workboat.  “Spyglass,” he says.  “He’ll sit there and wait to see where the real wormers go.”

We cross the bay in good weather.  The talk is briefly of cranberries:  Walter has had a brainstorm: he’ll dig a homemade bog in the woods up behind his house, grow cranberries.  Dicky and Truey don’t have much to say about that, then Truey invokes sea urchins, and they’re off on that good subject again.  $2800 a day, and you can go all winter.  $2800 a day, and you don’t have to worry about the worm market drying up, and you don’t have to cut wood, or make wreaths, or shovel snow or work blueberries.  You just get in your diving gear, bring up the urchins, get your body heat back in the hot tank on the deck of your boat, dive and dive and dive again, get rich on the Japanese.

“It’s a hard winter in this county,” as Walter says.  Here in June, the Downeast Boys are already thinking about ice.

That fucking spyglass Garney is going ashore in the neighborhood of some Milbridge boys.  The sun is hot.  Thunderheads are building up.  You think of lightning, then you think of yourself plugged into the mud, the highest thing for hundreds of yards around, a lightning rod.  Workboats are tooling every which way, and Truey and Dicky and Walter know everyone.  “That fellow there is Minton Frawley.  He went out to Arizona one winter and got himself in the movies.   Did you see Stir Crazy?  He’s the guy looking up the girl’s crotch in that bar scene.”

“He’s back worming,” Dicky says.

“Scared of lightning,” Truey says, meaning Freddy. “He’ll run at the first boom-boom.  Watch him.”

“Winter does take a toll,” Walter says, drifting on his own raft of thought.  When we hit the mud, Walter gets in it, immedi­ately marches to a big mussel flat and begins to dig its borders.  Dicky and Truey and I wait.  Like most wormers, they like to watch the tide, size it up, have a chat.  “Ask your daddy how many orders he’s got.” Dicky says.  “I need some ambition.”

He does look tired.

Truey just watches his father at work.

Dicky sizes up the tide, pretends a discouragement that looks real: “I don’t think this is going to be a profitable day, Truey.”

My deadline is long gone, my story’s a kill, but here I am.  The guys don’t pay much attention to me anymore, negative or positive.  I’m up to about forty bucks in Truey’s race car.  Maybe one Saturday soon I’ll go to the races, hang in the pit, a scientist, see, interested in speed.  Maybe Harper’s will like that story!

There’s a rumble of thunder, not far distant.  Truey smiles briefly at Dicky’s joking, goes over the gunwales, gets himself ready to worm.  Dicky reluctantly follows.  I’m so reluctant I just sit in the boat and watch them start.  More thunder.

“There he goes,” Truey says.  Sure enough, movie-star Frawley has turned his boat around and is heading back in.

Truey takes his shirt off, and you have to wonder if his naked-lady tattoo is by the same artist as Dicky’s.  It’s the same woman, same colors, same thick lines. I climb into the mud.  Today I plan to up my sponsorship of the glorious number 5 to serious partnership proportions.  Today I want to dig like a Downeast boy.

Truey is already at it, working hard.

Dicky can’t seem to get started.  “Help,” he says.  A plaintive joke.  He doesn’t feel like it today.  In the end, though, he’ll get 1900 sandworms, 120 bloods: $126.00, a super tide.  Truey will get 2100 sands, 50 bloods.  A money tide, a monster.  Walter will do as well as Dicky.  I will get 210 sandworms, zero bloods, working hard as I’ve ever worked, chopping and stomping and picking legs sore as hell from previous outings, shoulders aching, mind blank, struggling in the mud, turning it, panting, mucking along, pulling worms: $12.60.

Truey hikes off far away across the mud.  Later, when the tide comes up, we’ll have to go pick him up.  Walter is chopping away at some distant mussel mound.  Dicky doesn’t range too far, gradually gets his rhythm, digs faster and faster, coming into the worms.  I never get a rhythm at all, stay close to the boat, trying to get a whole tide in, no breaks, no getting stuck.  I know how to walk now, don’t pause long enough to sink, but march forward, ever forward, chop left, chop middle, chop right, pulling worms from the mud.  To me, they seem scarce today.  To me, they seem terribly fragile.  I break every third worm, miss a million that zip into their holes before I can get hold.  The thunder booms a little closer.

Late in the tide, Dicky starts saying “Help,” again, just kind of saying it out loud every twenty steps or so, groaning comically.  He’s found some good mud, is plunking worms into his box three and four at a dig.  “Help,” he moans, kidding around. Then he shouts: “Truey, let’s quit.”  It’s an old joke, and from across the flat Truman Lock gives Dicky the finger.  Dicky excavates his way through the mud, pulling worms, pulling worms, dunking them in his box, saying “Help, Truey. Truey, help,” a mantra for the dig.  Then he bellows, loud as hell across the mud: “Truey, get me outta here,” and then he shouts it again.

  1. malcolm writes:


    I use the first few lines of this story as an example of a perfect hook, using quotes. But, on another level, I know that my 8th graders are going to get off on the name Butts, and they do.