Shitdiggers, Mudflats and the Worm Men of Maine

“Hard work,” says Danny Stubbs, and we haven’t even started yet.

“Get wet today,” says Ikey Dorr. He pulls his graying beard, squints out over the bay. The blast of an offshore wind (strong enough to blow the boat sideways on its no-lights trailer 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.

Danny says, “No fun today.”

Warren—Ikey’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.

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,” Ikey says, one of a constant stream of plain observations. It’ll take me a full couple of days worming with him 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, Ikey guesses, with the wind blowing the bay empty. He’s sitting at the wheel of his GMC truck, Danny at his side. Warren and I stand in the parking lot at their windows. We all watch the bay. Low water is charted at 7:30 this morning. It’s 6 now. We watch, and watch more, quietly. 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,” Ikey says.

“Those boys are bloodwormers,” Danny says, willing to explain. He’s a stocky, attractive 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’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 smiles and you see how kindly he is, how helpful, how warm. This he wants to avoid showing you, especially at first. He pronounces the word “wormers”—names his profession—with softened r’s and extra vowels, points the bent men out. “They get 10 cents a worm.”

Ten chops, 10 deep turns of the mud, a pause to pull a worm, 10 more chops, drop a worm in the bucket. Ten chops bent over the heavy muck and they get a dime, a dime a worm, 100 weary chops to a dollar, 1,000 chops for 10 bucks, 10,000 chops to make the tide pay.

“Those fellows are Garneys,” Warren says. He knows every wormer in Washington County by sight, and probably most in the state, goes on to explain that a Garney is any digger from Beal’s Island, which is just over the bridge from Jonesport, a few miles east. The Beal’s Island boys are known by the Addison boys 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 has someone to look down upon.

“Shitdiggers,” Danny spits. It sounds like genuine animosity, yet I know without experimenting that if I were to say the same he’d lay into me in their defense, maybe never forgive me.

Ikey pulls the muddy brim of his cap, says,” Sandworms are but 6 cents, but it’s faster getting. Those guys was here an hour before us; they’ll be here an hour longer for their money.”

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

“Bloods are worse,” Danny says.

I’m thinking how a certain group of Hancock boys—bloodwormers—told me all the same stuff about sandworms. How hard on the back, how much more work—and told me with the same contempt. They have also told me how dumb and lazy Downeast boys are.

“Bloodworms,” Ikey sighs, not with malice, exactly, but with the supercilious pride of a specialist: he digs sandworms, and even if maybe they are less hardy, less appealing to fish, less marketable and so only bring 6 cents each, they’re easier to come by.

Ikey nods in the direction of one of the Subarus in the empty parking lot: “That’s Julius Hammer. He’s a climber, most generally, but they just ain’t any steamers, not anymore. He’ll be digging bloods, today.”

“They would used to get 10 bushels,” Warren 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.”

“Some say sewerage,” Ikey says.

“No,” Warren 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,” Ikey says.

The three men leave me out of the talk now, chat rapidly. 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 badmouth-ing 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. Warry would rather eat pussy than that stuff. But Jack Morrison made $2,800 in a day diving for ‘em. And Ikey’s a certified diver. The rest sounds like daydreaming: all they need is scuba, an urchin boat (40 feet would do her), 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 $2,800 a day.

Without a word of transition, without a word at all, Ikey is pulling his truck around in the ominously empty parking lot, listening all the while to some story Danny is telling, then backing the Cox trailer smoothly and straight as a new ashen oar down the steep ramp to the bay. Warren 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 these women boots), anxious to be of use. But these aren’t vacationers nervous at the winch of their thousand-buck trailer, this is Ikey and Danny 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 Ikey, who’s a local stock car racer, and Danny, 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 Ikey to park his mostly orange truck and return.

Danny 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 Ikey to bring what they got. He’s so solicitous I stop worrying about the high wind. I stop thinking about the bloodwormers up in Hancock who laughed and left me stuck in the mud, laughed and chopped their grinning and giggling paths away from me like middle-aged and tattooed 12-year-olds, dunking worms in their buckets, dunking worms.

“This’ll clear by noon,” Warren says, watching the sky. He’s built small and strong, is always preoccupied, always has a subject in mind and a fast, informed opinion (“If them Senators up in Washington was all women, we’d have our troubles solved”). He’s not only a worm-digger but his wife’s partner is a minor worm dealer. His own dad (recently dead of diabetes, from which Warren 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, folks who needed bait.

Ikey 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 Danny, won’t even talk to me at first, but like Danny he’s warm and helpful and kind, all that just hiding behind a stern self-possession that you might read as distrust. His cap says “Mrs. Big John’s Street Stock” on it. Mrs. Big John’s Pizza, up on Route 1, is one of his racing sponsors. In Mrs. Big John’s they’ve got pictures of Ikey in his lime-green number 3, holding the checkered flag after big wins at Bangor Speedway, never a smile on his face.

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 workboat full of worming stuff. Four blood hoes, four sand-worm hoes, three worm boxes, four buckets, several twisted blue gloves, one faded green one, three life preservers. We’re off. Ikey’s the helmsman, Danny beside him, both of them standing. Warren and I are on the middle seat, taking the spray.

I examine my women boots. Last time out, with the japing Hancock boys, I wore my fly-fishing hip boots, felt soles. The deep tidal mud down by Bar Harbor sucked them off my feet immediately. So now I’ve got better boots, the real thing, according to Warren: 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 Warry also suggested, but I don’t want to look like a total dork. I start to tie and button the interior calf straps, aware that Warren is too preoccupied to notice what I’m up to. Then I see that Danny is staring. He says he prefers not to use the calf straps. I say I don’t want to get stuck in the mud, tell him the Hancock story. He and Ikey grin at the picture of me floundering as the Hancock boys leave me behind, especially the part where my notebook plops in the mud and I lose my pen.They go back to their default faces— grim—let me finish tying the calves of my boots.

Danny says, “If we go in, you need to get them boots off fast…”

“Ah,” Ikey says,”We ain’t going in.”

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

Ikey and Danny rapidly speak several names, and I take it the names describe folks who have indeed gone in. The tone isn’t quite elegiac, but before I can ask, Warren’s telling Ikey to slow down. There’s a flotilla of lobster buoys, for one thing (which, to be sure, Ikey has been missing expertly); for another, these waves will be big trouble if he gets the boat up planing. Ikey nods with an irritated patience and you can see Warry has been giving him advice like this for a lifetime. Ikey’s 40, now. His dad is 57. Ike’s name is actually Warren, too—Warren Dorr III—but he was born on Eisenhower’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 men deeply familiar with their surroundings, Warren and Ikey and Danny 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 Warry 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. Ikey and Danny crouch a little, but stay on their feet in the stern. The old gas tank bounces around back there. Warren 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 gray plane of clouds, the green of the pines in the shore forest, the naked gray rocks, the brown rockweed exposed by the tide, the water the gray of the sky but alive with whitecaps. We’re the sole boat today; the scene is dramatic, timeless, lacks color. When you add the men, it’s aWyeth.

Our beeline has brought us across Harrington Bay to several hundred yards off Foster Island. Ikey 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,” Danny 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.

“See them two?” Ikey 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, ask how they got there.

“Canoe,” Danny says.

“Wouldn’t be in a canoe today,” Warren says. He hops out of the boat, overboard into the mud. From the bow he collects his sand-worm hoe (what climbers might call a rake)—five claw-curved steel tines 19 inches long, these welded onto a bar that is welded in turn onto a post that impales a wooden handle 9 inches long. The angle between handle and hoe is sharp; at work, one’s knuckles are just behind the tines. Warry 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 incidental bloodworms, 10 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,” Ikey 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, Warren 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,” Ikey says, making fun, since Warren claims the mussel-bed worms are bigger.

“Tinker,” Danny says.

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

Warry slogs speedily off across the mud to the next mussel bed. Danny and Ike and I wait. We wait a little more. Ikey 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,” Danny 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,” Ike says. “Boy and his partner. Was he 21 yet? Six-hundred pounds of wrinkles in the bottom of their canoe. Six-hundred pounds.”

“Got turned by the wind,” Danny says. His own son is 12, and for now Danny gives him half the summer off. “The boy was not a swimmer.”

We watch the bloodwormer, watch him digging like hell, plopping worms in his bucket, chopping the mud. The wind has picked up. It’s singing in my ears, watering my eyes. I’m thinking of the boy sinking in his boots. Wrinkles, as it turns out, are little spiral-shelled snails, what I have always called periwinkles. “The Japanese eat ‘em,” Ikey says; “I wouldn’t go near’em.” You can’t quite tell if he means the snails or the Japanese. His sons are babies, still, 2 and 4, products of his third marriage, and he hopes they won’t be wormers.

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. Ikey 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 Danny crouches to the task I watch him. Strike the tines full depth into the mud (19 inches, elbow depth!), 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,” Ikey says. The two of them are off, leaving 4-foot-wide swaths of turned mud behind them, digging, digging, plucking worms, sliding the wormboxes—lean forward steeply and step—digging, digging, plucking worms.

I use two hands, grunt and turn the mud. My back already hurts.Two worms. I tug on one 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. Danny 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 undug, 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 my wife that I’m in shape. Four, five, six.

“Those little digs’ll hurt your back,” Ikey advises, kindly He’s 10 feet ahead of me already.

Danny 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.

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

“You’ll see tapeworms 3 feet long,” Danny calls back.

“Just garbage,” Ikey says.

I dig again, showing Ikey every worm I turn, trying to get the sense of an acceptable size. The worms expand in length, then retract quickly, so you can’t really put it in inches. You just have to know. Ikey okays a couple, shrugs at a third. The shrug is as negative as he’ll get with me. Next worm is a blood. Ikey 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 6 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, unbenign, bulging and unfolding till the stingers show, four grasping needles in the circle of the nasty mouth. Warren has told me that if they get you in the webs between your fingers your whole hand’ll blow right up. I let the bloodworm grasp at the air a moment, then throw it in with the sandworms in my bucket—a mistake, as I will discover: bloods bite sandworms in half.

Step and dig, dig and step; my legs are growing exhausted, 40 feet from the boat. The digging style Ikey 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. Sad to realize, I haven’t turned up a single clam.

The wind is getting stronger yet, and colder, takes my San Francisco cap. I lunge for it, fall in the mud, get the hat, put it dripping on my head. I wish for the sandy flats Warren has told me he used to work with his dad, up past Portland by George Herbert Walker Bush’s place.

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,” Ikey calls. He’s farther away from me yet.

“Mud eel,” Danny shouts in the wind.

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

“He’s a meal,” Ikey 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 stayed too long. I’m stuck.

I look back at the boat—it’s far. I look at Danny and Ike and know I’ve got to get out on my own. I hear in my head the Hancock 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 Ikey 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. 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. 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.

“He’s stuck,” Ikey says.

Danny 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. Ikey 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 distant blood-wormers turn our way.

Danny 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 gunwales. The two of them inspect me a moment, then go back to work without a tease. 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?” Ikey shouts over the wind.

“I think the man quit,” Danny 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 fucking mud.

It’s well known around the flats Downeast that Gladys Dorr runs the Warren Dorr Jr. Bait Company. While Warren and Ikey are out on the flats, she’s on the phone and watching the fax—getting orders from distributors and retailers in California, in Maryland, in Mediterranean Europe, in Florida, then filling them. 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 that day, no matter how prolific the mud. With the forbearance of the dealers, some families can get around the limits by bringing spouses and sons and daughters into the picture. The money at times is pretty good—but not always—and wormers operate without benefits or guarantees, without insurance or pension plans, and seasonally.

Gladys Dorr 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 kill. Warren 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). There’s a sign in her handwriting in the worm shed: “No more short counts. There will be no warning.” She and Warry tried a couple of winters in Florida, picking oranges (piecework, like worms), but lately it’s been back to year-round Maine.

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. They go in the usual cardboard flats for the distributors, 125 sands or 250 bloods in a bed of seaweed. Also, increasingly, Gladys makes a special fisherman’s 10-pack for bait shops to sell: a little maiden-hair seaweed, 10 carefully counted worms to a small, clear, plastic bag, a twist tie, then into a partitioned shipping box, cardboard lined with styrofoam:

LIVE SEA WORMS. RUSH!

A lot of work, something she didn’t have to do in the past when the many species of sportfish that love her worms were still abundant. 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 10-packs she gives a wee 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 2 and 3 cents a worm I’d kill ‘em when they stung me. Now we’re paying 10, I just pack the biters in like the rest.” She likes her diggers loyal, doesn’t appreciate someone who’s over limit trying to sell to other dealers, though when it comes to it she’ll buy spare worms from almost anybody if she’s got the orders. She packs calmly, an hour before the worm van arrives, an independent operation that brings all the dealers’ worms to Logan Airport in Boston, every day.

In the hours after a 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 Gordon Beckman, whom Warren calls an ace blooddigger. There’s Danny Rodge, another ace, and Bev Anderson—the best woman wormer in Maine, in Warren’s estimation. Pete Snyder comes in and counts his worms wordlessly, hands in his count slip, wordlessly leaves. There’s a cool-looking teen boy— 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 allowance worm by worm into the tray. Another father stands beside his daughter, an athletic and serious young woman of 16—very pretty—with mud to her eyelashes. They count. No one talks, not even all the young guys—a dozen of them in their 20s (their muddy pants low on their hips, showing a little wormer’s cleavage). No chatter. No high fives. Nothing but the counting, the exchanging of count slips. There are two guys with ponytails, a bunch with tattoos, several apparent body builders, a thin fellow with “Jesus Loves You” on his sweatshirt. They straggle in for a couple of hours, dumping their worms, counting them fast, filling out their slips, collecting their cash or watching Gladys 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 they’ll probably start cutting brush for Christmas wreaths. 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 paper mill. In December there’s woodchopping, 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 Addison boys proved a good one for them, Warren and Danny both counting 1,500 sands—$90 each, plus enough bloods to carry the take over a hundred dollars. Ikey, always a little more aggressive, got 1,650 sands that day. Danny 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 same tide was a spectacular 155 worms: $9.30. The five killer bloods in there brought my payday up to $9.80. I refused the cash, but Gladys refused my refusal, and so—after a spot of negotiating, and a suggestion by Danny—I became a minor sponsor of Ikey s big number 3, glory of the Bangor Speedway.

My boots are tight; my attitude is good; I’ve been out on my own in the mud below Milbridge, practicing. I’ve bought myself a hoe; I have my own gloves, proper clothing. I know the Harrington River mud now, and the Harrington River mud knows me. I’m ready to leave the ranks of shitdiggers. The day is auspicious, the parking lot at Ripley Neck entirely full. Ikey has broken a camshaft in the Saturday night race and wrecked his engine, so there’s extra incentive for a big day for all of us. Warren 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—Warren has had a brainstorm—he’ll dig a homemade bog in the woods up behind his house, grow cranberries. Danny and Ikey don’t have much to say about that, then Ikey invokes sea urchins, and they’re off on that good subject again. Twenty-eight hundred dollars a day, and you can go all winter. Twenty-eight hundred dollars a day, and you don’t have to worry about the sure doom of sportfishing, 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, dive and dive and dive again, get rich on the Japanese.

“It’s a hard winter in this county,” as Warren says. Here in June, the Addison boys are already thinking about ice.

The Spyglass Garney is going ashore in the neighborhood of some Jonesport 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. Workboats are tooling every which way, and Ikey and Danny and Warren know everyone. “That fellow there is Freddy Crowley. 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,” Danny says.

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

“Winter does take a toll,” Warry says, drifting on his own raft of thought. When we hit the mud,Warren gets in it, immediately marches to a big mussel flat and begins to dig its borders. Danny and Ikey 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,” Danny says. “I need some ambition.” He does look tired.

Ikey just watches his father at work.

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

There’s a rumble of thunder, not far distant. Ikey smiles briefly at Danny s joking, goes over the gunwales, gets himself ready to worm. Danny reluctantly follows.

I’m so reluctant I just sit in the boat and watch them start. More thunder.

“There he goes,” Ikey says. Sure enough, Freddy Crowley has turned his boat around and is heading back in.

Ikey takes his shirt off, and you have to wonder if his naked-lady tattoo is by the same artist as Danny’s. It’s the same woman, same colors, same thick lines. I climb into the mud. Today I plan to swell my sponsorship of the glorious number 3.Today I want to dig like an Addison boy.

Ikey is already at it, working hard.

Danny 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 1,900 sand-worms, 120 bloods: $126, a super tide. Ikey will get 2,100 sands, 50 bloods. A money tide, a monster. Warren will do as well as Danny. I will get 210 sandworms, zero bloods, working hard as I’ve ever worked, sore as hell from previous outings, struggling in the mud, turning it, panting, mucking along, pulling worms: $12.60.

Ikey hikes off far away across the mud; later, when the tide comes up, we’ll have to go pick him up. Warren is chopping away at some distant mussel mound. Danny 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, just march forward, ever forward, pulling worms from the mud. To me, they seem scarce today. To me, they seem terribly fragile; I break every third worm and seem to miss large numbers of worms that zip into their holes before I can get hold. The thunder booms a little closer. I’m getting tired; I’m getting very tired. To me, it just doesn’t seem worth it. And to me, happily enough, this is a temporary assignment; tonight when I leave I’m going to laugh the whole way home: I never have to dig another worm as long as I live.

Late in the tide, Danny starts saying “Help” again, just kind of saying it out loud every 20 steps or so, groaning comically, grinning for my benefit. He’s found some good mud, is plunking worms into his box three and four at a dig. “Help,” he moans, and if you didn’t know him you might miss that he’s kidding around. Then he shouts: “Ikey, let’s quit.” It’s an old joke—quitting time’s an hour off—and from across the flat Ike gives Danny the finger. Danny keeps going, excavates his way through the mud, pulling worms, pulling worms, dunking them in his box. Then, so abruptly that I’m startled, he rises from his crouch, throws his hoe down, bellows loud as hell across the mud: “Ikey, get me the fuck outta here,” and as his grin fails, he shouts it again: “Ikey. Help me!”

And there’s the wind, and the boom of near thunder, and a long mute pause—a frozen minute on the flats—then Danny retrieves his hoe, leans back into the work. He stabs the mud, turns it, pulls worms, plunks them in his worm box, stabs the mud and turns it, pulling worms.

About the Author

Bill Roorbach

Bill Roorbach is the author of a memoir, “Summers with Juliet” (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), and a book of instruction, “Writing Life Stories”, to be published in July 1998 (Story Press). His creative nonfiction work has appeared in Harper’s, New York, Granta and The New York Times Magazine.

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