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My Daddy's Worm Farm
After taking a dozen country roads to my daddy’s one-bedroom shack a few feet from a little backwater cove on Landon Lake, I honk at all the ducks in the dirt driveway, and they part like white water.
“What’s with all the ducks?” my friend Chloe asks.
“Worm farm … ducks,” I say. “You rarely can have one without the other.”
I park under some towering pine trees next to the largest bin of worms. I call it a bin because I don’t know what else to call it. It’s like a huge sandbox raised three feet off the ground with several sheets of black tarp over it.
“Watch your step,” I say.
She slips on her sandals. “I will.”
I look around her to the dock but don’t see Daddy’s boat. “He must be out delivering worms.”
“He delivers them?”
“Yes, and by boat,” I say. “He traded in a brand new Ford truck for his boat. You’ll just have to see it to believe it.” In the age of fiberglass, my daddy bought a wooden boat.
“Where does he deliver them to?” Chloe asks.
“Everywhere,” I say. “He bought fifty old Coke vending machines and placed them all around the lake, mostly at marinas. All he did was use some gray duct tape to put the letters ‘W,’ ‘O,’ ‘R,’ and ‘M’ over the C-O-K-E on the machines. I told him that he forgot the ‘S,’ and he said, ‘No I didn’t.’ But that’s about all anyone would get, alive anyway, if it gets too hot.”
“They’re not plugged in?” Chloe asks.
“Some of them are,” I say. “The others are under shade trees along the shore.”
Chloe shakes her head. “That’s … absurd.” She opens her door carefully, a bunch of ducks staring right up at her. “Do they bite?”
“Yeah.” I pull up my pants legs, pointing at several red marks. “From my last visit. I was wearing shorts.”
She shuts the door. “You go first.”
“Watch this.” I lean on the horn, and the air fills with ducks and feathers until a huge greenish-white splat of goo plops on the windshield. “I think it’s safe to get out now.”
We check out the biggest bin first. I pull back the edge of one of the tarps, and we see dirt. There isn’t much excitement at a worm farm. “You’re looking at where about a million worms live, and all they do is make more worms. They double every twenty-two days.”
Chloe whistles. “That’s a lot of worms. Does your daddy make any money?”
“He sells two dozen worms for two dollars, which is a pretty fair,” I say, “and he says that each machine makes him about a hundred a week in quarters, so—”
“He makes five thousand dollars a week?” Chloe interrupted.
“In quarters,” I say. “But only from late March to early November.”
Chloe blinked. “That’s … seven months to make money, about thirty weeks times five thousand … He makes a hundred fifty thousand dollars a year?”
“Give or take,” I say. “In quarters.”
“That’s … that’s amazing.”
I shrug as I watch several teams of ducks closing in on u. “He ought to be raising ducks.” I take Chloe’s elbow and guide her towards the dock. “But he’s got some major problems this year, and it’s all because of these ducks.”
We walk out onto the dock, and Chloe flops down, taking off her sandals and dangling her feet over the edge.
“I wouldn’t put your feet in the water,” I say.
“Why not?” she asks.
“You used to be able to see the bottom,” I say. “It’s only three feet deep here.”
“Eww.” She pulls her feet under her. “What happened?”
I sit next to her. “The ducks happened. The worms attracted them, they hang out, they crap everywhere, and this cove simply … died. That water is duck crap soup. Daddy’s neighbors all recently signed a petition to have the worm farm removed so the ducks will go away and they can go swimming again. A news crew even came down here a couple weeks ago, so now folks think all of Landon Lake is duck crap soup, which doesn’t do much for business. All that publicity cut down on fishing anywhere on the lake, and that cuts down on Daddy’s sales.”
She sniffs the air. “It does smell metallic.”
“Today’s not so bad because it rained yesterday,” I say. “But after a few days without rain, this cove smells like, well, dung. But that’s not the main problem. You see, Daddy doesn’t sell the worms fast enough. He might sell two million worms a season, which sounds like a lot, but whatever is left at the end of the season, um, copulates all winter. Eventually, he’ll run out of land for all his bins, even if he starts stacking them on top of each other, and when that happens, I don’t want to be anywhere near here. Can you imagine a couple million worms spilling into that cove?”
Chloe looks down at the water. “The sunset doesn’t even reflect on the water.”
I hear a boat approaching and look out into the main channel. “Here he comes.”
We watch his busted-up Chris Craft churn through the green water to the dock. That thing takes so much water he often has to bail it as he goes. I catch the front end and tie it up while Daddy ties up the back. Then he starts stacking sacks full of coins onto the dock in front of Chloe.
“Hi,” Chloe says.
Daddy only nods.
Daddy nods again, and he keeps on stacking.
She’s getting more out of him than I usually do.
“Need any help?” I ask.
“Nah,” Daddy says after a pause. He glances at me, but he keeps on stacking.
It’s always been like this, ever since I was a boy. He hardly ever made eye contact with me when I was growing up, hardly even spoke to me, as if he were either ashamed of me or ashamed of himself. He isn’t exactly slow, though it takes him a couple seconds to answer any question, and I know he’s not dumb. He’s just … my daddy. And since Mama died two years ago, all he’s been doing is this worm farm. He could have invested Mama’s life insurance money raising any other animal, maybe even cows or pigs or even horses on this land. I guess he chose worms because they’re blind, they don’t make any noise, and they breed like, well, rabbits.
“So, Daddy, how’s it going?” I ask.
He looks up, the last sack of change on the dock. “It’s going.” He steps out of the boat and collects four bags at once, each easily weighing fifty pounds. I grab two, Chloe struggles with the last one, and we follow Daddy up to the shack. He opens the only door and goes in, extending one of his massive arms behind him to take our bags.
“Aren’t we going in?” Chloe whispers.
“No,” I whisper. “He won’t let anybody inside.”
“Why not?” she whispers.
I don’t answer her, because I really don’t know. I tried to go inside once, but he blocked the way, not saying a single thing and barely making a sound.
Daddy comes back out with a huge plastic bag filled with Styrofoam cups and lids, heading past us to the largest bin.
“Are you going out again, Daddy?” I ask.
Daddy nods, pulling back one of the tarps. The second he does, the ducks flock over and surround him. They never nip at his legs. Never. Daddy lays out a line of cups in front of him, and then he starts digging into the dirt, coming up with fistfuls of worms. I’ve never seen him count them, but I’ve never heard anyone complain that they were short-changed. Every third fistful, he flings several worms into the air, and the ducks go crazy, squawking and fussing with each other. I almost see a smile on his lips whenever he does this, and it seems to be the only time my daddy is happy.
Chloe wades through the ducks to stand beside him. “Need any help?”
Daddy blinks at her and then at me. “Nah,” he says.
Chloe digs into the dirt with both hands. “I don’t mind.” She grimaces as she pulls up a handful of worms. “Two dozen in each, right?”
Daddy glances over at her hand. “You got twenty.”
“Huh?” Chloe says.
“You need four more,” he says.
Chloe looks at me, and I shrug. I don’t know how he knows. He just does. Chloe counts out the worms wriggling in her hands as she puts them in a cup. “Twenty,” she says eventually.
“You need four more,” Daddy says again.
Chloe nods. “How did you know?”
Daddy touches his temple. “Just do.”
Chloe puts four more worms in her container and snaps on a lid. “Come on. This is fun.”
I’ve never done this. I’ve never wanted to do this, yet here I am, walking towards my crazy daddy’s biggest worm bin, rolling up my sleeves while ducks nip at my pants legs.
Daddy nods at me, and I dig in.
This is beyond gross, yet it’s kind of relaxing. The worms massage my hands when they aren’t snotting on me, and the ducks don’t nip at me as much once I start feeding them. I find that I have “twenty-eight hands,” so Chloe and I work together to fill our cups. She digs her twenty, I dig my twenty-eight, and then she takes four from me. In less than an hour, we have several hundred Styrofoam cups finished and ready to go. We help Daddy get them into the boat, he nods at each of us, and off he goes into the last of the sunset.
Chloe holds up her hands. “Where do you wash your hands around here?”
We end up wiping them off on an old towel in my trunk, but no amount of digging will get all the dirt from under our nails.
“That was interesting,” I say as we return to the dock.
“It was fun,” Chloe says.
I skip a rock across the cove, and it takes a long time to sink. “What do you think of my daddy? Do you think he’s crazy?”
“What he does might seem crazy to the rest of the world,” Chloe says, “but the way he does it is completely sane. And he makes money, a whole lot more money than I do.”
“But it’s all he does,” I say. “It’s all he’s been doing since my mama died.”
“So he’s just working it out,” Chloe says. “Nothing wrong with that.” She smiles. “I think he may even be a savant, you know, someone who seems kind of slow but who has amazing mathematical abilities,” Chloe says. “I bet he could count all the pine cones in that tree over there in less than a second.”
I smile at the gnarled but majestic tree, suddenly remembering a number: 247. That’s what Daddy had said to me when I was five as he pointed at the oak tree in our yard. “Two-forty-seven,” he had said. We had watched several leaves fall. “Two-forty-three now,” he had said.
Only now do I understand what he meant, and only now do I understand what he really is.
My daddy is a worm farmer and a counter of leaves.