Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Boy Who Dug Worms at Mussel Flats

Tom Sheehan


First, 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. He’d 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 mother’s 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 Bart’s 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 that’s 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 tide’s 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 daughter’s house.

As a youngster of eighteen, in the little village of Pratolino outside Florence, his grandfather’s 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, he’d 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 hen’s 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. I’d have been all right except for the line that caught at my foot. But I think I’ve 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 mother’s 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 they’d 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 contours.

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, “You’re precious.”

The voice came from another boat. It was Marcy Talbert’s father, the banker, the man who owned most all of Pressburn Hill off the old pond, who owned Vinegar Hill and Applepine Hill and Cutter’s Pond itself and practically half of Rapid Tucker’s 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. I’m 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.” I’d 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 you’re in your skivvies, son. She told me. It’s okay. She don’t mind, I won’t mind. She’s mine and she’s precious, even if a little headstrong.”

A father’s eyes looked down at him, not a harsh banker’s eyes, and no banker’s hand extended fully to him, but a father’s hand. “I’ll have to dive for it,” Bart said. “It’s 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 Bart’s 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 he’d never see this same loveliness again in his life.

“Knock it off, Marcy,” her father said. “Why don’t 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 Doc Smithers.”

The girl with the soft lips, the warm frame, the deliciously new body, spoke up. “I won’t go see that drunk. He’s 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 at him.

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 daughter’s life, Mrs. Bagnalupus. He’s 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. He’ll be okay tomorrow. Tomorrow’s a great new day. You and your son please come to dinner at my house tomorrow evening. My daughter demands it and I concur. I’ll 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 Marcy’s face and the face of her father, he began to wonder how he would handle it all.

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, he’d nod and smile, nod and smile.

***

Tom 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.

© Tom Sheehan

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012