"Jump up and down Jonny, now!" His voice was hushed so as not to wake the neighbors but his tone had an emphatic edge. "You've got to jump up and down as hard as you can." He was shouting and whispering at the same time. I was pretty sure he was tugging my chain and that the impact of a 99 pound eleven year old would do little to scare the earthworm
s to the surface but when Billy
said "jump," I jumped.
Billy had been a fisherman, to the exclusion of almost everything else, since he was old enough to bait a hook. His excursions were usually solitary endeavors, like most everything else he did, so on my rare opportunities to join him I did as I was told. He carried a cardboard milk container, opened at the top and half-filled with soil, with a small pen light duct taped to the side. He was just a shadow crouched behind the tiny cone of light across the yard but I could tell he was scoring big. The small pinhole of light was dancing around the yard like a firefly and his whisper was more excited than before, "keep jumping, Jonny, just a few more."
I hopped dutifully until my head started to throb and Billy finally called me off. "The janitor's yard is cherry, man. I got two of 'em as long as my forearm." Our own yard was hard scrabble and gravel but the Elementary School janitor pampered his little patch of God's country. Every spring he spread a layer of natural fertilizer and every day he gave her an even dose of rain. The rap on him was that he hated kids because he had none of his own, just he and his wife and his fertile lawn. Billy knew we were taking a considerable chance harvesting the janitor's yard but the pickings were good so we took the risk. I always harbored a terrible fantasy of getting caught in the act some night and having to suffer the janitor's wrath every day at school.
Billy detached the pen light from the milk carton and was admiring his work as we trotted across the street to our house. I tossed a glance over my shoulder to make sure the coast was clear just in time to catch the curtains on the front window of the janitor's house rustling. "Aw, we're busted Billy, I just saw his curtains move...he saw us, man."
"Nah, he didn't see us, he'd have hollered."
The millpond was on the opposite end of town and it was a hell of a long trot on short legs. Before I was ever allowed to tag along I had to promise not to whine and I had to prove that I had enough coinage for my own bottle of Dr. Pepper
. There was a little bait store near the fishing hole with one of those Andy Griffith Show
bottled pop dispensers out front and after a three mile walk in the summer sun, the fifteen cent bottle of cold soda was the highlight of my day. The truth is I didn't care much for the actual fishing but being allowed to hang with the big kids was priceless. If we had been walking across town to throw rocks in the water I'd have been an eager volunteer.
Billy was always venerable and wise to me so it didn't seem odd in the least that the crusty old guy at the bait shop called the fourteen year old kid "Old Man."
"What do you got for me today, Old Man? You got some creepy crawlies in there I'll bet!"
Billy set the milk carton on the counter without a word and the old guy squinted at the contents and moved his lips with his silent accounting. "You're keepin' the biguns I s'pose?"
"Yeah, I'm gonna use the two foot-longers on top, the rest are yours."
The old guy furrowed his forehead and cast a banker's glare at my fourteen-year-old brother, "two dollars, a Dr. Pepper, a stick of beef jerky and a pack of Lucky's. Final offer, Old Man."
"Ah, you're a little pirate but these are prize specimens...I'll toss in the wet sticks."
The bait store owner assembled Billy's loot in a paper bag, then plucked a handful of dirt and the two largest earthworms from the milk carton and put them into another. Billy picked up both bags, nodded a silent goodbye, turned and left. The screen door slapped behind him and Billy didn't pause when the proprietor yelled,
"So long Old Man, good luck...to the fish!"
Pulling apart the worm
was the worst of it for me. Billy claimed that if you did it right you could separate the worm in sections so both the small section and the rest of the worm would wriggle with life. I don't mean to give you the impression that I was an eleven year old Buddhist or anything. I came up among God fearing omnivorous Lutheran
s so my views on the sanctity of life were as arbitrary as the next guy's but something about the methodical dissection of the worms really bugged me.
If I dwelled on it too long I realized that the slow sectional torture of the earthworm was only prologue to the vivisection of yet a larger critter. Call me a cupcake but I lost my stomach for the whole deal.
"Hey Billy, you ever hear of Aristotle?"
"Yeah, some wise guy from ancient times, why?"
"He said that worms were the Earth's intestines, I looked it up in the Funk & Wagnall’s."
"So, what's your point?"
"I just wonder if he's right, ya know, is it cool to be rippin' apart the Earth's intestines, that's all. And you know what else, it would really suck to be the fish."
Even as a teenager Billy was a stoic cat. He wasn't Bwana so much for what he said but what he didn't. He'd fall into these long thoughtful pauses and wouldn't utter a word until he'd something to say. When he did speak it was like those old E.F. Hutton commercials and everyone would crane to hear. I was a little nervous about how he'd respond to my casual indictment of his life's passion but I was his little brother and felt it my duty to mess with him.
"It would suck to be the fish, but Jesus was a fisherman so it can't be evil."
"No way man. My Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Anders, said that he was a carpenter and that the fisherman thing was a metaphor."
"A metaphor. She says it's like you're talkin' about one thing but you mean something else."
"That sounds useful."
"I don't get it either but she said they meant he was a 'fisher of men,' not a fisherman. I think he ate a lot of bread or something."
One of Billy's long pauses ensued that lasted right up until the last worm was used and all but a few of the Lucky's smoked. Billy yanked the stringer full of Striped Bass from the pond and said that we'd better move if we were going to make it home by dark. I was wishing I had never brought up the whole "Earth's intestines" thing and I was afraid that I had really pissed him off this time.
He barely spoke a word in the two hours or so it took for us to get home so I made a last ditch effort at conciliation by offering to help him clean the fish. He knew I hated gutting the fish more than anything else in the world so he gathered I was trying to make amends.
"Sure, there's a mess of 'em and I could use the help."
Billy always burned a cigarette after cleaning fish to get the smell out of his nose and since I helped him clean the fish he offered me his second to the last Lucky. This was big, man. He'd never let me smoke around the house where our father might catch me and he'd certainly never empty a pack on me. I was forgiven for busting his chops about critter torture and intimating that his life's obsession might be less than cool.
We sat on the back porch and alternated puffs off the cigarettes with paranoid glances for evidence of our father. Billy fell into his solemn pause for a moment or two, flicked the last of his burning butt onto the driveway with a splash of orange sparks and spoke as he stood.
"Did you know that tennis is free? No shit, you buy a racket and some tennis balls and you can play all day for nuthin', I don't see the percentage in it."
"Tennis is cool. We've got all that stuff in the basement. We ought to go bat it around some time."
"We'd be idiots not to, it don't cost nuthin'."