In Corrales, fish swim in the irrigation ditches and fishermen with muddy shoes come into the FrontierMart looking for bait.
“We don’t have any,” I tell them.
“Too bad,” they say. “You should sell worms.”
“No,” I say, “We shouldn’t. We tried it once.”
Some years ago an elderly gentleman wearing a hatful of fish hooks came into the store selling earthworms. “No, thanks,” I said. “We just sell food.”
“Worms are food,” he said. “Food for fish. Plenty of fishermen in these parts. They’ll want bait.”
I hesitated. What he said was true.
“I dug these worms myself.” He extended a hand for me to shake, a hand with black dirt embedded in the wrinkles. “My name’s Clay. An old fisherman. I know a good worm when I see one. Fat Succulent. Clay’s hand picked worms. They sell fast.”
“All right,” I said. “We’ll try.”
Clay’s worms came in pint-size ice ream containers that he recycled and filled with peat moss. Twenty-four cartons, twenty-four worms per carton. Five hundred seventy-six worms. Clay would have to eat 24 more pints of ice cream before supplying his next client. Judging from the cartons, raspberry was his favorite.
We stacked the containers on the bottom shelf of the front aisle under a sign that said “Fishbait.”
“Keep them damp, Clay said. “A squirt of water every day.”
Later that afternoon, I went to the bank, leaving Lollie to mind the store. When I returned, the worm shelf was empty. “Wow, Lollie,” I said. “Did you sell all those worms?” Clay was right. Worms sell.
“What worms?” Lollie replied. She was ringing up a stack of magazines for a woman who looked startled at the mention of worms.
“Fishbait,” I explained. “they were in ice cream cartons.” I pointed to the empty shelf.
“I thought that was ice cream,” Lollie said. “I put them in the freezer.”
I dashed to the freezer. “Have you sold any ice cream?”
She hadn’t. I pulled the worms from the freezer and emptied one carton of worms on the floor. Lollie, the woman with the magazines, and I watched a slow tangle of worms.
“They look all right,” said the woman.
“Yuck. Frozen worms,” said Lollie.
But they weren’t frozen. Just chilled. I carried an armload of cartons back to the shelf. “Bring the others,” I told Lollie.
She shook her head. ”I don’t do worms.”
So I took care of the worms myself. Every day I opened the boxes and gave them a squirt of water. Sometimes I said good morning to them. I resisted the urge to name them, though names just naturally sprang to mind — names like Jimmy Dean, Earthmother and Juicy Fruit.
After five days I sold my first carton of worms to a boy in a Dodgers cap. I didn’t feel any too good knowing they were headed for a fishhook.
But the boy brought the worms back. ”How many worms are supposed to be in here?” he asked.
“Live worms?” he asked.
“Well, some are dead.”
We dumped the carton on the floor and counted 16 live and nine dead. I meant to give the boy nine live ones from another carton, but I was minding the store alone, and I first needed to ring up sodas for a carload of high school students.
“Take nine worms from another carton,” I told the boy.
“Okay,” he said. “They sure stink. Must be lots of dead ones.”
The next time I looked, the boy was gone and 12 cartons sat open on the shelf. He had cherry-picked my best worms and left the rejects crawling in the aisle. I couldn’t clean them up because I had a crew of adobe workers and vanload of senior citizens lined up at the cash register.
The worms crawled toward the bread. A Coke deliveryman came in and rolled a hand truck stacked with 40 six-packs over some of them.
“Watch it,” I snapped at the Coke guy. “Can’t you see those worms?”
Customers craned their necks to look. Maybe it was my imagination, but they suddenly looked doubtful about the food they were buying. At last, Lollie came in to work her shift.
“Pick up those worms,” I whispered to her. “They’re everywhere.”
She planted her fists on her hips and declared, “I don’t do worms.”
I felt heat rise to my face. I lowered my voice and enunciated, “Please. Help me.”
She drew her eyebrows together and gave me a look that could boil coffee, then tried to scoop worms onto a pencil. They dangled like wet noodles. Occasionally she was able to drop one into a carton.
I finished waiting on customers, then picked up the phone to call Clay. “These worms are dying,” I said.
“Did you water them?” he asked.
“Every day? That’s too much. You’re drowning them.”
“What shall I do? They’re dying. They stink. They’re crawling toward the bread.”
“Poke holes in the cartons,” he said.
“I hung up, used a pencil to poke holes in the cartons, discounted the price, and stacked the survivors back on the shelf.
The phone rang. Clay again. “Make those holes small,” he said, “or those worms will crawl out.”
I looked at the cartons and saw worms straining through the pencil holes. “Thanks,” I said.
“Let me know when you’re ready to restock,” Clay said.
“Right,” I said. “Sure.”
I gathered the worms into a paper bag and took them outside where I turned them loose in the shade under the water faucet. So much for fishbait.
©Jean Blackmon Waszak 1996.