Boy Who Dug Worms at Mussel Flats
a small sail bobbed out on the water. And then it disappeared,
as if it had been erased. Bartholomew Bagnalupus did not blink
at the contradiction his eyes gave him. Things like mist and eyespots
and vacuums of sight existed. Been there, had that, he
thought, as he swung his short-handled curled pitchfork into the
earth of Mussel Flats. Hed have another bucket of worms
before the tide drove him off the flats.
Out on the bay, the light sail boats tossed easily and ran ahead
of the small breeze and in the slash of waters promising to cover
the stretch of Mussel Flats before the day turned over on itself.
Young Bartholomew Bagnalupus, sixteen by a few weeks, thought
the sails looked like napkins off his mothers table, the
way they folded in triangles, ran the breeze as if the front door
had been opened and whipped them from the table. Contrast lurked
not far from his mind as he dug in the muck for worms, at four
cents a piece from the bait shop
the white sails out there
and him on his knees here in the muck.
The sun, insisting it lit fires, cussed its way across Barts
shoulders and upper back. Because the bucket was only half full
of worms, gray water, sand, and minute debris, it made him drive
his short angled fork into the muck of Mussel Flats in the way
only he could attack it. His grandfather, the Great Bartholomew,
had shown him how to worm when Bart barely came free of diapers.
On your knees, boy, cause thats the way the
good Lord wants you serving. On your knees and your eyes wide
open. Never forget that.
Now his eyes shook open and salt touched at every crevice of his
body. He thought it to be iodine, a penetrating thinness with
stiletto point. His body ached as it did every afternoon, his
knees sore, sneakers sopped and loaded with mud, the sun barely
past ignition, his mind filled with the being of salt, with his
grandfather, with the waters of the ocean that had taken his father.
If railroad tracks plied this end of town people would have said
Bartholomew Bagnalupus lived on the other side, just a worm digger,
clam digger, hauler of kelp.
At the back of his mind, some awareness pulled him into another
consciousness. At a different level, more pronounced, it was a
severe yank, and one he knew would be folly to ignore. Be alert
to your own voice, old Bartholomew had said. Be alert.
He stood up to get a better view of the small bay now growing
under the tide, the tides reach coming in over the flat
land. As he put his hand up in a visor over his eyes, stories
of old Bartholomew flooded him and he fastened onto the first
legend of the old man now sitting in a chair in the sunroom of
his daughters house.
As a youngster of eighteen, in the little village of Pratolino
outside Florence, his grandfathers Saturday task demanded
he take horse and wagon and crops about fifteen miles to the market
for sale. Repetitious and boring, it offered little escape from
the centuries-old drudgery of the rock-strewn farm. The Cohorts
had disappeared long ago. The Legions, too. Adventure went with
them. Pieces of mountains came up profusely through farmlands.
Italy rendered little but continual labor. So one Saturday morning
Bartholomew Bagnalupus, yearning for more, hearing the voice inside
his body, sold the crop, sold the wagon, sold the horse, and bought
a ticket on a ship headed for America. Seventy years later, three
wives later, fifteen children later, thirty-five grandchildren
later, he still demanded attention from his youngest and last
grandchild, and the fourth one to bear his name.
There had been a sail out there and now it was gone. Bart dropped
his pitchfork and raced toward the water. His sneakers, filled
with salt water and muck, caused him to struggle in some parts
of the flats. Out on the water he saw the half silhouette of a
capsized sailboat, but could see no movement. Shortly, he knew,
hed be in the water so he took off his sneakers and dungarees
at the banking. Then he thought about his wallet. Pulling it from
his pocket he placed it under a large flat stone that would be
there when the tide went out again. Bartholomew Bagnalupus, fourth
of the name, worm digger, from the other side of the tracks, dove
into the water off Mussel Flats and cut his strong arms through
the water like a propeller.
As if a buoy had found release from a tangled underwater line,
a girl popped to the surface a few yards from the overturned sailboat.
Air and noise and blubbering came from her mouth, and one arm
swung like a hens broken wing against the water. A few strokes
brought him to her side. He grasped her in his arms and pulled
her close to the boat.
Bart held her against the hull and felt her body pressing back
at him, the curves and softness he had only dreamed about. Blond
tresses swung like leather traces, thick, knotted and rope-like,
over her eyes. The one arm that had swung idly now wrapped about
his neck. Her lips gave off promise. Against him her breasts bore
softly. A knee, lightly, accidentally, not quite harmlessly, touched
at his groin. He felt the new action in his body. Even above the
salt in his nose, at his eyes, a new essence came to him, filling
his head. Listen to your body, old Bartholomew had said.
He listened now and it was the girl who spoke. God, you
smell good, she said as her second arm swung limply about
his neck. Her whole frame pushed against him. Thank you
for jumping in. Id have been all right except for the line
that caught at my foot. But I think Ive hurt my arm. Do
you always dig out here?
Bart did not answer. Had she smelled salt-residue, shaving lotion,
pasta sauce from the back of the stove, the harsh cut of liberally
dosed garlic, the riches of his mothers kitchen? He knew
what she smelled like. An aroma leaped anew, with a smooth edge,
and then a cutting edge. It filled his head. If he had socks on
theyd have been knocked off his feet. And her body, despite
being in the water, rode warm and fresh and totally new in experience
against his body, floating against him the whole length, all the
curves and the new softness bending to his bends, following his
Wearing only his skivvies, he suddenly became aware of an erection
starting on its route. What an embarrassment! Yet her eyes told
him something, even as a voice came to them over the water: Marcy,
are you okay? Her eyes closed once, she leaned against him
the whole way, and said, Youre precious.
The voice came from another boat. It was Marcy Talberts
father, the banker, the man who owned most all of Pressburn Hill
off the old pond, who owned Vinegar Hill and Applepine Hill and
Cutters Pond itself and practically half of Rapid Tuckers
Pond. The broad, heavy-chested man jumped into the water and lifted
his daughter into the other boat and climbed back aboard. His
hand came down to Bart Bagnalupus. Come aboard, son. Im
damn glad you were around.
Bart did not accept the hand, his erection still somewhat in place.
Thank you, but I left my wallet back there under a rock.
Id be embarrassed to hell, he thought. Over his shoulder
he looked, back at the expanse of Mussel Flats. Time and tide
had closed down on him and the rock, now under water.
Not going to find it now, son. Come aboard. His hand
came back down to Bart. His eyes gleamed big and pleasant and
the face seemed kindly, though he had not shaved this day. I
know youre in your skivvies, son. She told me. Its
okay. She dont mind, I wont mind. Shes mine
and shes precious, even if a little headstrong.
A fathers eyes looked down at him, not a harsh bankers
eyes, and no bankers hand extended fully to him, but a fathers
hand. Ill have to dive for it, Bart said. Its
all I have and my mother needs it. My father drowned in his boat
a few years ago.
You the one always digging for worms out here? The
hand came again, still fully extended. Bart took it and the big
man hauled him out of the water in one swift movement. His erection
failed, and disappeared. He felt shrunken and weak and his breath
suddenly came in loud gasps. The banker threw a blanket over Barts
shoulders. "Your father the one who tried to get that other
crew out of the storm when their boat went under?
Yes, sir, that was him. The girl Marcy stared at him,
first at his face and then at his crotch. Redness ran all across
his face. She smiled again. A haunting and passing beauty glowed
on her face. Bart felt hed never see this same loveliness
again in his life.
Knock it off, Marcy, her father said. Why dont
you kiss him and let it go for now.
Bartholomew Bagnalupus said to himself, I better listen to
this man the same way I listen to my grandfather. He says things
you have to find for yourself.
That arm looks bad, Marcy. We better get you down to see
The girl with the soft lips, the warm frame, the deliciously new
body, spoke up. I wont go see that drunk. Hes
always peeking down my blouse or up my skirt. Take me to Doc Higgins.
He tends to business.
Bart listened. Learning came at him from every direction. This
girl showed herself beautiful, willful, and independent. Gray-green-hazel
eyes had really knocked his socks off. Her father threw Bart a
pair of swimming trunks. Bart put them on. Marcy still smiled
They ran ahead of the breeze, all the way into the marina. Banker
Talbert drove them to Doc Higgins office. Marcy wore a few
bruises. Bart only had a chill. Then the banker drove Bart home.
He spoke to his mother. He saved my daughters life,
Mrs. Bagnalupus. Hes not hurt, but if I were you, I would
not let him out of the house before tomorrow. Doc says he might
have a reaction. Keep him inside and rested. Hell be okay
tomorrow. Tomorrows a great new day. You and your son please
come to dinner at my house tomorrow evening. My daughter demands
it and I concur. Ill come and get you at five-thirty.
He looked at the two teen-agers sitting on the steps. I
think they already have some kind of mental correspondence.
His eyes were light and friendly. At the end of the porch an old
man rocked away in an old rocking chair, alert, nodding.
Early the next morning, when Bartholomew Bagnalupus clomped out
onto the muck of Mussel Flats and the tide had gone out to sea,
the rock he had hidden his wallet under sat on the mud like a
pancake. Someone had stuffed the wallet with hundred dollar bills.
At first he thought just about handing the wallet to his mother,
seeing the glow on her face. Then, seeing Marcys face and
the face of her father, he began to wonder how he would handle
But all along his body, he felt the newness of the girl in the
water, knew the smell of her in his nostrils, heard her saying,
God, you smell good. If he told the old man in the
sunroom, hed nod and smile, nod and smile.
Sheehan has published 7 books in the last 6 years: mysteries,
poetry, memoirs, short story collections. They include Epic
Cures, short stories in 2005; A Collection of Friends,
memoirs, in 2004; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights,
poetry, in 2003. He has six Pushcart nominations, a Martha Albrend
memoir nomination, a Silver Rose Award from ART for short story,
and many Internet appearances.