Towards evening we ran about in our hooded sweatshirts and held our hands over our heads complaining. We had crushed a dozen or so just-opened buds with the bees still in them. Then it came time to celebrate because the sun was low and our spirits were struggling to burst out of our bodies. As the mist of evening descended upon us, we watched the last glorious red rays color the edges of the clouds. We made fog trails with our hands. We listened as the older kids walked up and down the street when all we could see of them were the lit ends of their cigarettes.
At night, we threw nuts at the nest the squirrels had made in the old tree. Hardly looking at one another, we fidgeted in front of the T.V., while the sprinkler produced an artificial thunderstorm in our back yard. I often wondered why they didn’t simply move to another yard where they’d be safe. For I knew they were aware of me. They felt my voice, even in whispers. The methodical pound of my footsteps echoed in their hearts like a drum. Sightless, I was sure they could yet envision me: processional, head bowed like a hooded monk, directing my beam of flashlight along the ground. Some darted for cover instantly when detected, but others — the martyrs — stretched themselves out, basking, fully glistening in the light.
I would inspect the cans of dirt for moisture. We would divide into two teams. My brother Chuck and I, on our hands and knees, would comb every inch of grass in the back yard. We could hear our younger sister and Tommy in the front yard, laughing, conversing.
There were hot and cold regions, lush greenlands where the nightcrawlers congregated with a disproportionate thickness, and arid deserts which contained only the odd sociopathic worm. We worked silently: many times we pushed down the impulse to cry out when our efforts were rewarded with a capture. Afterwards, we compared lengths and thicknesses. We tried to sex them, always settling on females being the fattest because of the likelihood they were pregnant. We discussed fat or wiggly or both to determine which of these attributes would produce the best lure. We did not ask God to deliver a big fish: He punished selfishness with foul weather and knotted lines inside our reels. So we asked God for lucky worms, for worms the fish could not resist eating. Then it was up to us to land with our skill from among the many fish, the biggest.
We took a knife and cut holes into the plastic lid of our coffee can—we remembered always the time we had not done so by mistake—and set the can in the basement beside the pumpkin, which had ripened to a spectacular yellow-orange, awaiting Halloween dissection. From inside their metal confines, they emitted prayers to my father, imploring him to stay away, until at three in the morning he overcame their will, crashed up the stairs and into the bedroom, awakening me from a nightmare, and fending off my mother en route to the bed. I was on fire again, the Lightning Bolt Man from General Electric summarily cornering me in the attic where the yellowed Polish newspaper in my hands lit with a flash as I awoke. The next day they rejoiced and dug back under between rows of green beans and radishes while my father slept it off, his socks half dangling from his feet. “No you didn’t!” shouted Chuck, “Eat this dirt you lousy worm!” as he tripped and pummeled me when he saw the empty can with its lid beside, full of triangular breathing holes. They were the culprits, these holes allowed the worms to beseech my father’s tardiness. I laughed because I knew we’d fish another time. It never hurt when someone hit you, only afterwards. That afternoon, I went between the houses where the snapdragons grew, took it out on the bees. I watched them curiously, buzzing erratically back and forth, finally lighting on their deathbeds.
Mark Putzi received an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee in 1990. He has published stories in Jazz Street, The Cream City Review and Wilderness House Literary Review and poetry in many small press magazines. Since 2012, he has worked as a retail pharmacist in Milwaukee. In 2015 he married for the first time. His wife, Sharon Nagel has published two mysteries in collaboration with her co-writer Jocelyn Koehler under the pen name Juneau Black. The family pet, Willow, is an internet star and a highly accomplished tortoise shell cat.