The Boy Who Dug Worms at Mussel Flats

First there was a smaller sail out on the water. And then there wasn’t any sail, as if it had been erased. Bartholomew Bagnalupus did not blink at the contradiction his eyes gave him. There were things like mist and eye spots and vacuums of sight. Been there, had that, he thought, as he swung his short-handled curled pitchfork into the earth of Mussel Flats. Another bucket of worms he’d have before the tide would drive him off the flats.

Out on the bay the light sail boats were running under the small breeze, and in the slash of waters that would cover the stretch of Mussel Flats before the day was half old. 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 from the table. Contrast was never 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 on the bay and him on his knees here in the muck.

The sun, insisting it was fire, cussed its way across Bart’s shoulders. The bucket was only half full of worms, gray water, sand, and minute debris, and his short angled fork dug into the muck of Mussel Flats in the way only he could attack it. His grandfather, the great Bartholomew himself, had shown him how to worm when Bart was just out 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 were open and the salt was into every crevice of his body. He thought it an iodine, a thinness with the point of a stiletto. His body ached the way it did every afternoon, his knees sore, sneakers sopped and loaded with mud, the sun 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 there were railroad tracks at this end of town people would have said Bartholomew Bagnalupus lived on the other side. He was a worm digger, a clam digger, a 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 as a visor over his eyes, stories of old Bartholomew flooded him and he fastened onto the first of the legends 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 was to take horse and wagon and crops about fifteen miles to the market for sale. It was repetitious and boring and offered little escape from the centuries old drudgery of the rock-strewn farm. The Cohorts were long gone. The Legions were long gone. Adventure was long gone. 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, then sold the wagon, then 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 could still demand attention from his youngest and last grandchild, and the fourth one to bear his name.

There had been a sail out there and now there wasn’t. Bart dropped his pitchfork and raced toward the water. His sneakers were filled with water and muck and he struggled in parts of the flats. Out on the water he could see the half silhouette of a capsized sailboat, but saw no movement. In minutes 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 flat stone that would be there when the tide was 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. In a few strokes he was at her side, grasped her in his arms, pulled her close to the boat.

Bart held her against the hull and could feel her body pressing back at him, the curves and softness he had only dreamed about. Blonde tresses swung like leather traces over her eyes, thick, knotted, and rope-like. The one arm that had swung idly now wrapped about his neck. Her lips were soft looking. Against him her breasts were softer. A knee, lightly, accidentally, not quite harmlessly, touched at his groin. He could feel 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. Now he was listening.

He was listening 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 was 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 could 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. It was new; it had smooth edges to it, and then a cutting edge. It filled his head. If he had socks on they would have been knocked off his feet. And her body, even in the water, was warm and fresh and totally new in experience against his body, floating against him the whole length, all the curves and softness bending to his bends, following his contours.

Suddenly he realized he was in his skivvies, practically undressed, and aware of an erection starting on its route. What an embarrassment! Yet her eyes were telling 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 was in the water and lifting his daughter into the other boat and climbing 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 was now under water.

“Not going to find it now, son. Come aboard.” His hand came back down to Bart. His eyes were big and pleasant, and the face 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.”

Those were not harsh banker’s eyes looking down at him, not a banker’s hand extended fully to him. “I’ll have to dive for it,” Bart said. “It’s all I have and my mother needs it. My father was lost 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 was gone. He felt shrunken and weak and his breath suddenly came in loud gasps. The banker threw a blanket over Bart’s shoulders. "Was 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 was staring at him, first at his face and then at his crotch. A 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 beauty 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 was listening. Learning was coming at him from every direction. This girl was beautiful, willful, and independent. Gray-green-hazel eyes were knocking 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 was but bruised. Bart was just chilled. 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 teenagers sitting on the steps. “I think they have already had 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 was sitting on the mud like a pancake. The wallet was stuffed with hundred dollar bills. The first thing he thought about was handing it 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, though, he could feel the softness of the girl in the water, knew the smell of her in his nostrils, could hear her straightforwardly saying, “God, you smell good.” If he told the old man in the sunroom, he’d nod and smile, nod and smile.