Worms Out of Season by KT Heins
Worms Out of Season
Before I can tell you anything else, I have to tell you that my mama left and that the sadness is getting worse and that the quiet that comes with it, it stays the same. You don’t get quieter the sadder you get. You just stay quiet after it settles in and everyone else gets used to it, until you get used to it too. And the sadness is the feeling that you’ve grown out of something and after awhile, all things become “something.”
I’m 20 years old and everything is “something.”
My daddy teaches college chemistry, but about two years after we move to Saraland, he buys the old two-story on Hinkson Street and hires a woman to hollow out its insides. He throws out the furniture that the bank leaves behind and replaces it with steel shelves that he bought from the superstore in town. He plants sunflowers, daffodils and tulips in a small plot in the backyard, next to a gazebo that needs painting. After all the effort, the carport needs new light fixtures and the wrap-around porch needs its wood stripped. The Hinkson House smells like picking flowers to watch them bleed white.
He doesn’t tell me about the worms until he pulls them out of the river soil by the hundreds and starts to order exotic breeds from catalogs that he stacks on top of the fridge. The books have thick spines and the weight they put on the fridge causes the roof of the freezer top to cave in just a little on the inside.
He express ships the worms and researches what temperature they stay alive at and what they like to eat.
They really like to eat people more than anything else. Dead ones in the ground, I say.
He doesn’t say anything to that, but tells me that the heat in the house is warping the floorboards, that we need to fix it. The next day he puts a poster in the Hinkson House’s window that reads, Our friend, the Earthworm! Buy Today. The window belongs to what is formerly known as the dining room.
Now, there are thousands in white paper cups, oxygenated, and scrawled in sharpie on the side of each cup is the identity of the breed and the birthplace. If you open one up, there’s more soil than worm in each one, and they all look identical on the steel shelves, little white cells holding something alive and purposeful. It leaves a permanent churn in your stomach to know you’re fostering something that lives without a face.
I don’t know if he thought much about running a bait shop before Saraland, but when his customers ask, he tells them he has to support his teaching habit.
He doesn’t tell me anything when I ask. He tells me that some people grow out of talking and I tell him about the feeling that sadness is and he tells me not to talk about it too much, it’ll make me sadder. He is caught perpetually somewhere between angry with me for being sad and sad at me for being sad and his tone is a passive-aggressive way of saying please don’t end up in the hospital again. That happened after I wondered what too much aspirin looked like.
At night, in my bedroom above the worm bank, I dream they peel under my flesh like they’re skinning me. They pour from my eye sockets and I shower twice in the morning to get rid of the feeling.
There’s no one in the Hinkson House now, because the world is turning over the day and the sun is coming down. People don’t go out much in Saraland after dark and the whole town flips its collective light switch off around seven. The cat is by the door, with a moth caught between its body and the floor. Its wings agitate in beats, trying to squirm out from under the fur belly but it isn’t making much progress. My daddy is in front of the stove and he can’t hear the sound of it, but I can.
He fries collards in a pan and he spills cooking oil down the center of the shade-colored stovetop. I sit in the kitchen when he cooks because sometimes, I convince myself if I smell food long enough, I’ll want it and because I don’t like to be alone when the sun comes down. Daddy knows that real well. So at the fold-out kitchen table, I listen to something we both love like Johnny Cash from the portable or Bob Dylan, just like a woman, just like a woman.
We finally ran out of catfish from the freezer. In the summers, he and I catch them in the reservoir near the rusted rail tracks a few miles north of Mobile, just between there and Saraland. The trains don’t come by there anymore since one caught a kid playing, trying to wrench an unfortunately sized softball between two wooden baseboards.
We fry the fish and I like to watch the bodies shrink in size when they’re cooked. Their edges curl in like they’re capsizing in. I want to see a human body do that.
Turn that down, would you, Imma? I’m almost done.
I can’t eat the fish because I can’t stop thinking about slick cooking grease on a person’s skin. I push it around my plate until Daddy asks for it. He slices it into two parts and then divides those two parts into sixths. It’s mechanical.
Remember when Mama used to cut it for you.
Daddy doesn’t like to talk about her. He doesn’t say anything and instead takes a bite like the pause will make me think about what I’ve done.
I don’t want to remember your mama much. She isn’t here anymore so it’s best not to think about her. We have worms now. Besides … He pauses; She would’ve had a fork in your elbow for how you’re holding that knife.
His eyes squint when he laughs and mine do too. Mama didn’t care much for bad table manners, and talking about her makes the pain of not having her lessen just a little, but talking about her means thinking about her. Daddy isn’t ready to do that just yet. He says it’s a good thing I don’t look so much like her and just another year, he’ll need just another year. I’ll wait.
The linoleum floor has a bad stain from a flood last year and the place had looked like a puddle waiting to be jumped in. Now it’s the bank after the tide leaves, stained dark and waiting for the water to come back.
When the sun comes down, I can see it out the kitchen window and against the line of the horizon.
Not much to look at right now, he says.
And he is right. Autumn makes the southern sun look pale and ugly and I cross my legs under the table.
After a few weeks, the worms remind me of the hot mud under my granddaddy’s porch. The snakes sink into it in the spring when the lake water is warm, but the air is still cold. Their bodies only wriggle to surface in the summer when they want to swim and they bake in the center of the lake when the sun is highest in the sky. And if you stop being afraid of them so much, they’re pretty and look like drift wood, still and forgotten.
I was eleven when one caught against me in the current. It frantically pulled itself down the back of my pink swimsuit, two sizes too small, but on sale, and I can remember how its seizures felt against the small of my back.
Mama said that snakes felt like cooking grease, and that they stain everything they touch, but its body was firm and it pressed and thrashed against my spine, down to the backside of my thigh. I tried to push back against the feeling; like the weight of the water was a wall and I could suspend the snake in place.
But then it was gone and I was left with the feeling of being touched and wanting to touch back, which was the loneliest I’d ever felt. That reminiscence sat in my tailbone where the snake had been and when Jack kisses me, it feels the same.
I met Jack in a class about domestic violence at Bishop State. He’s 29 and tall and he looks like Norman Bates might’ve looked before he killed those people in that movie. He broke a girl’s arm in the backseat of his SUV last year while they were having sex. I guess she cried until he stopped and the court says he has to take the class or do more community service.
I know Jack wants to have sex with me someday because he tells me he does and I don’t tell him that I can’t. It makes me feel stupid because he is pretty and I cut my hair off last summer when my daddy told me not to. Told me to leave it long like Mama’s was, and I told him that I couldn’t because I wasn’t enough, just wasn’t enough.
He’s called me three times since I met him and each time I don’t know if I like him anymore.
Now I hear the way his breath hisses when he kisses me on the bed in the room he used to share with his older brother, Paulie, before he moved to New Orleans. Someone screams his name outside his bedroom door. He’s having a party and enough people tell me I look pretty when I stand in the kitchen so I kiss him when he asks me and I follow him to his room when he doesn’t ask me to.
After we kiss, he tells me about how Paulie left and I tell him about the Hinkson House and the snake and the worms and now there’s nothing to look at but a blank ceiling. Jack holds me too hard and I think about the snake even after talking about it, and how it cut across the pond, and how badly I wanted to go with it. I think about the worms between my fingers. I think about how I want to have sex one day, but that I can’t.
Immogene. I start to cry because I cry at everything. Immogene, Jack repeats and the collar of his sweatshirt is frayed between my fingers and I can imagine, if I try hard enough, worms wedging into the skin under Jack’s cheekbones. The blood would stain his bedspread, which is placid and white against the dark blue walls. There are no windows. What’s the matter with you?
I can’t stop crying now. He stops touching me. I didn’t touch him much. It’s the set of his jaw, or the way he leaves marks with his fingernails, or the harsh hiss through his teeth and all of a sudden, I really don’t want to.
Jesus, Immogene. How much did you drink?
I want to tell him to not talk to me that way, but it comes out as a sob and I want to tell him that I love him, but I don’t mean that so instead, I say,
I hate this place.
Jack’s face falls. He tells me about the Aerosmith poster his brother took with him to New Orleans and how he is real sorry that there is nothing to look at now.
The next morning, one window is busted in and the outside green hose is on, the pipe leaking, and we don’t know where the worms are.
I don’t remember anything about the window being broken when I got home at two in the morning, but at seven in the morning, Daddy is up and he knows the worms are gone.
He opens each of the white caskets, shoving his thin fingers into the soil and losing some of it under his fingernails as he pulls it all up from the bottom. His round glasses slip to the bridge of his nose when he shudders and in a way that makes me feel frantic too. The soil hits the floorboards and finds the cracks there. He can’t feel anything alive, he says, so he overturns it and the dirt sprays all over the floor and what’s there is unearthed unto the wood. They’re dark like the worms, but their bodies don’t move.
Worms rut and thrash when you pull them up, one long ligament stretched and snapped back once they’re out of the ground. These are long and limp and they’re dirty like a worm clinging to the soil with its sticky surface level skin.
Gummy worms, only you can’t eat them now that they’re covered in the blood and dirt that melted all the once-living worms into one another, keeping them safe in a cyst.
I think about how it’s not much to look at, except for the gummy his boots press into the floorboards. They make a sick squelching sound, a baby fresh from the womb. The pale and ugly sun presses them there too, streaking in from the empty window frame and the loose pieces of what had been there catch the light and refract it up at us.
After he flips the last container, the hardwood isn’t visible anymore and it smells like a sugar cane field except nothing is alive. My father calls the police and I sweep the dirt and what isn’t melted into our hardwood to the back door and there’s something delighted that curls into the pit of my stomach until I think about where the real worms are and what they’re going to eat now.
He tells me to put on shoes, but I hope that I’ll feel the remains of the ruined gummy on the ground. Before I can tell him no, he brings me a pair of sneakers, the laces half chewed by the cat, and I put them on because he starts to clean too. He tells me the total loss: the season’s sales.
I guess we’ll have to buy more … you could always sell gummy worms now.
He doesn’t laugh though and I try to tell him that it’s still wet enough to find some in the lake banks, but he doesn’t say anything and I wonder if he’s worried about what he’ll say. He frowns and I know he is. And I know he is missing them now.
Jack picks me up and my daddy rubs his temples and doesn’t say anything in the kitchen, even though I haven’t finished cleaning before I leave. He tells me to stay away from boys like Jack Burnes. This is how I know he loves me.
When Jack kisses me that night in his Chevrolet, I close my eyes and imagine the real worms under the tiles and floorboards, eating the gummy worms jammed into the crevices and cracks and screaming.
Jack likes Jolly Ranchers and sometimes he puts them in the tea I give him in the mornings. He drinks it after he rubs the last of the coke on his gums and it’s always the last of the coke and he always has to get more before he goes to work, at a Kum n’ Go just off the highway, which is a hike from the RV park where his mother lives. My mother always said that the RVs look like Coke cans in the refrigerated section, lined up on display behind glass and shiny on the surface. Jack’s mother asks me if anybody has figured out who has debunked your pop’s place yet. Her hands are wrinkled from dishwater and her coffee pot is broken in three places two feet from the sink. I’ve never seen her outside her kitchen, which isn’t much space, and the tabletop is pulled down from the interior wall of the RV. The mornings feel slower there, like they’re coated in something. I tell her no.
She is short, and her son is tall and she doesn’t look anything like him and I always wonder if I look like my mother and if my mother looks like Jack’s mother now. I hope not. My mama was a willow tree who was afraid to turn in a turn-only lane without her signal on.
In Mobile, when it’s the devil’s work, people best leave it be before it catches something fierce and spreads through the town, she says.
I tell her that You’d think the devil would be interested in selling the real thing, not gummy worms.
She doesn’t like me much. She tells Jack I have a smart mouth and that I need to learn when and where to talk and according to her, that isn’t much. She knows that Jack doesn’t make my life better, but he doesn’t make it worse. She watches him rub coke on his gums when I bring him tea in the mornings and she doesn’t like the tea much either.
Before he goes to work, she gives him some money for his mealtime, which he spends on the coke he needs to get and then he takes me to the station with him. We drink Coke from the glass bottles and he sings along to whatever is on the portable radio. I sit on a rusted stool behind the counter and even though there is one that isn’t rusted, I like the color of this one. Sometimes, he lets me light a cigarette. When he does a line off of the floor behind the counter, he tells me has a surprise for me.
He has a white mark from what’s left on the floor on the tip of his nose and he says it like a boy about to burn ants through a magnifying glass.
Someone lets the air out of the truck tires at the Kum n’ Go and breaks open the latch on the backdoor of the truck’s cargo hull. The Great Lake worms Daddy ordered in bulk die from the heat after three hours. The driver slept for seven. He delivers the containers a day late anyway after he calls a tow. Boxes and boxes of dead worms, once crawling on top of one another, rapid, tiny hearts beating, now sink into the near muddy soil in their transparent prisons. Daddy makes the driver leave the boxes on the front porch because they smell like the inside of a fish belly.
The only difference between them and the gummy worms is that they were once real. I think of Jack’s hand on top of my thigh when my father spreads the soil unto the counter top, trying to find one worm alive. None of them move. They lie limp like grease to the bottom of a pan and their little maroon bodies stick to the white tile, smearing the blood that comes from orifices I don’t want to think about. Their bodies are shriveled. He picks each one up and puts them back into the container like they deserve reverence.
Not much to look at right now, I say, cold.
He looks at me like I’ve said something funny, but doesn’t laugh. His smile suspends on his face and it’s scary more than funny so I help him pick up the little bodies from the counter until I start to cry. After awhile, he holds my shoulders to keep me still and waits for me to finish.
That night, he digs a hole into the backyard like a shallow grave and pours all the carcasses in, next to the gazebo that needs painting.
I watch him from my window and press my fingers along the sill, remembering how good it feels to see something dead.
When I lie down, he’s still turning them over into the ground. I can hear him because he has to go inside to get more boxes every once in awhile. He sets the shovel against the doorframe and unlaces his boots when he does and finally hours later, I hear him press the sharp edge of the shovel into the topsoil to throw the dirt over the mass grave.
I tell my ceiling that there is no way the devil could let air out of tires. And then I get a feeling that if the devil could, he would.
Jack doesn’t break my arm when I tell him I can’t have sex with him, which is a shame because I think I want to know what she felt like when she begged him to stop. I wonder every now and then if she got off on that.
He asks me why and then asks me to change my mind so I tell him that I can’t have sex because I can’t stay here and I can’t stop thinking about the way the snake felt. Then I tell him about what sadness feels like.
I don’t want you to touch me. I don’t want to stay in Saraland with you, or my dad. I put all my bad places, like Saraland, in order in my head, you know. You’ll touch me and then some more and then I’ll want to stay.
Jack doesn’t talk when I do. I know he doesn’t listen sometimes and that’s all right because sometimes I don’t like to listen to myself either. Sometimes he’ll turn the radio up after he asks me a question or when I space out and it’s like you’re not here, he says. He doesn’t know how to shake me out of it, but his face is screwed tight right now, like I shook him up. He doesn’t break my arm and I think he’s afraid to.
The Chevy idles and he puts in it park because there are no cars behind us at the intersection. Saraland’s sun hits the hood of the truck. I think how easily worms could die out in the heat and how the rings around their bodies, little indents, disappear when they bake.
Someone else used to talk like you do. He killed a whole bunch of people about four years back by the railroad. He put somebody in a cabinet. That’s so fucked. Everything you say sounds so fucked. They asked him why he did it and he said he was sad like, the kind of sad you just don’t get over.
I count the cars parked alongside the curb next to us, one yellow, three red, two white. I put them all together by color and finally, I look back to Jack who looks at his dashboard like maybe it can talk back and say what he wants to hear.
Where are the worms? The first worms. I know you didn’t go digging in my daddy’s backyard for the dead ones, but the first ones. You took them, didn’t you? For me? I ask.
Surprise. He says.
Jack stays my boyfriend, but tells me not to talk so much and I think about breaking up with him that night, but I don’t. My daddy doesn’t like him, but this is the way it has to be.
My mama loves to garden. She’s a mouse who’s too afraid to turn without a signal on in a turn-only lane and she likes Audrey Hepburn movies.
My daddy doesn’t, but he pretends to.
They get married and then they have me. Our family reminds people of summer in Los Angeles: blonde, thin and we smell like chlorine. Our house looks like something from the hills near the Hollywood sign, low to the ground with lots of Hummingbird feeders. They take the sunshine and make it red. Ms. Leads, our neighbor, calls us the closest thing to Miami in Pensacola.
It rains all the time. Pensacola needs even more sunshine this time of year, she says.
Mama doesn’t like the rain though or eating much and sometimes, she doesn’t get out of bed until the afternoon and she forgets to grocery shop for the month so Daddy has to make Hamburger Helper without the hamburger. Her sadness is so big; it doesn’t leave any room in the house for anyone else or their feelings.
People start to call her sick even though she doesn’t have a cold. I ask her why until she starts to cry and Daddy hits me hard across the cheek and I start to cry too.
Don’t upset your mama. I can still remember looking down at the dinner table and what the top of it looked like, smooth red wood.
At school, Nicki Johnson tells me that my mother has drug-fucked eyes and I don’t know what that means but he asks me to the middle school dance three months later. My daddy tells me to stay away from boys like Nicki, but I ride the three blocks to Middleton Middle School in Nicki’s mama’s Shelby Mustang. She tells me it’s the last thing she got from the divorce after Nicki’s dad skipped out on her. I forgot to buckle my seat belt.
He eats too much candy at the dance and throws up on six lockers. The vomit is a yellow color against the navy and some of it sticks between the vents and seeps down into the insides. Nicki’s mama drives me home.
Two weeks after that, I put a fish in Nicki’s backpack in homeroom and I zip its body into the zipper until it severs into two parts, the tail end of it falling in. The smell fills the homeroom and I get sent home early with an infraction and three weeks detention. Nicki’s face was all sucked in and the next day he had a new backpack.
He tells me you’re really sick too, but I don’t have a cold.
Mama cries the whole summer after seventh grade and Daddy takes me to the pool when he isn’t working on his lesson plans or his thesis paper. The smarter he gets, the sadder Mama gets. That’s what he says to me when he wants to talk about her, and he can’t talk with anyone about it but me. He packs my pink swimsuit that fits now and we take the mini-van out and we don’t put the garage door down because the sound of it wakes her up.
It’s a Tuesday and we go to the pool less traveled, Daddy says and he tells me about Robert Frost from the driver’s seat. There’s a hula dancer on the dashboard that shivers when he turns the car or when he stops it and I forget to buckle my seat belt. He leans over to do it at a stoplight.
Where does Robert Frost live?
He’s worm food now, Imma.
I don’t know what that is though and Daddy has to tell me and when he is finished, I don’t have to ask to know if we are all worm food because I’ve seen him put a worm on a hook, and I know that even the worms are food sometimes. I ask if grandma is worm food now and he tells me that yes, grandma is worm food and yes, she loved you even though she was mean to you at the end.
We’re all a little mean at the end.
I think of the snake and how it thrashed to get away and how Mama didn’t thrash but she didn’t like people much either. I think about the feeling I got when I put the fish in Nicki’s bag and about where Robert Frost lived, the same place as worms do. I like the idea of having a purpose after we’re gone and I figure it might be better than having a purpose when we’re alive. Because maybe Mama’s purpose is to be sad and after all the sadness is done with, she will have the same design as everyone else.
I tell this to him when he pulls the car into park and he has a face on like he’s told me something he shouldn’t. He always looks like he has had a very long day.
You’re just like her sometimes.
By the end of that summer, Mama packs up her pick up, and she wears a yellow dress she hasn’t changed in awhile. She tells Daddy that sometimes, you get so far out into the water, there’s no point in looking for shore. After that, she is gone and if you stop being so mad, you remember that she’s pretty like the driftwood in the center of the lake.
The Skidmore Park has a fine layer of fog and when you can’t see the ground under it, it looks like people float through the dirt lot and that they’ve lost their feet to the nothingness. It’s only like this when it rains; the water leaves more humidity in the air and at night, it looks like something you can touch. It smells like mud and water and the rubber coming from the factories that sit on the horizon line.
Jack puts a blindfold around my eyes and I ask him again if this is a sex thing, but he tells me to shut up, that it’s just fun, Immogene. Don’t ruin it.
A sex thing would ruin it though and something weird folds in my stomach when he forces me to wear the blindfold. The Chevy sits behind us, its engine idle and making a low death rattle in park. It’s a white noise like the ocean except it doesn’t make me feel calm.
I didn’t know where I’d put them all at first so I kept them in a bathtub, and the sink because there were so many. They made it pink though. Don’t peek. I don’t want to ruin it.
He lifts the blindfold and there’s nothing; a field of dirt, illuminated light blue in the nighttime next to a patch of cement, slicked by rain. It’s a dirty yellow color in the daytime like poorly painted hospital walls and I look around to Jack, who says nothing. He waits and I look back to find what he knows I can.
They’re strewn about the cement of the basketball court, shrunken and small like the same worm bodies on my father’s tile counter top. Except they aren’t limp and wet anymore. They’re dry wooden bones, rivets on the otherwise flat surface, and they smell because they’re decaying. They paint the flat top maroon, and I want to lie on top of them, and feel the indentations of them into my back. They have spines to snap now, made for them by the sun.
I didn’t think you’d want them alive. So I fried them. Three days back was 106 degrees. I stayed and made sure they didn’t get away. Swept them back with a broom and watched them.
Thousands of them sat so safely in soil for so long and they molded together, becoming one breathing mass like an organ beating up and down to pump blood. They planted in comfortable little plots, places that bodies go dead but that worms get to have alive.
Looking at them doesn’t make me feel better. Looking at them makes me feel tiny too, like I was in the sun yesterday too and my chest caved in first under the heat. I think about the quiet of that screaming and how Jack wouldn’t have when he swept the escapees back onto blacktop.
As we stand there, I think of why he must feel so big above them and I, so small, with them. I don’t have an answer. I can only look back to the Chevy. He left the lights on, probably didn’t take his key out of the ignition, and I think about how it looks against the outline of the sky.
© Kaitlin Heins
KT Heins is a first year in Colorado State University’s MFA program and an intern at The Colorado Review. She has an undergraduate degree in journalism from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
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