The banner flaps wildly in the wind, threatening to free itself from the flimsy poles that hold it in place. ‘Welcome to the ANNUAL WORM FARMERS CONVENTION’ it proclaims in muddy brown text, though ‘WORM’ is composed of squiggly letters, some of which have eyes. I open my notebook, adding an item to an ever-growing list, Q: Do worms have eyes?
As I snap the notebook shut, I remember a conversation with my Dad when I was ten years old. I was sitting listlessly at the kitchen table, staring at a blank piece of paper when he walked in.
“What's up buttercup?” he asked.
“Homework. For tomorrow. I don’t know how to do it. I don't wanna a bad grade."
“Mrs. Abbot wants us, everyone, to say what we want to be when we grow up. We have to write a paper on it. At least two paragraphs.”
I continued, “Katie says she wants to be a ballerina. Leslie wants to be captain of a space ship. Mark wants to be a race-car driver. But I don’t know what I wanna be.”
Dad shook his head and sighed. “It’s okay kiddo,” he said. “I'm thirty-six and I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up."
"Really?" I asked in astonishment.
"Yep. Asking kids what they want to be at your age is a silly question. So give them a silly answer."
He paused for a moment, running a finger lightly over his moustache, then said, "Tell them you want to be a worm farmer.”
“A worm farmer? Gross!” I giggled.
The battery level on the voice recorder shows three-quarters full. I check on the name tag dangling from the lanyard looped round my neck, making sure it’s visible over my wool coat. 'Erika Eastman. Journalist, Miller High School.' Though I didn’t become a worm farmer, I did discover that I liked writing. So now, five years later, I’m in a parking lot converted into an outdoor convention space about to interview worm farmers. I'm sure the irony would not be lost on Dad, but we've not had much time for our kitchen-table talks lately.
The parking lot stretches one-hundred feet long and about half as wide. At the entrance I see a woman, mid-fifties, sitting behind a folding table with a sign that says, “Gift Shop & Info Desk.”
Clocking her name tag, I say, “Good Morning Maggie. I’m Erika. I'm writing a local interest story for my school paper. About the convention. About worm farming.”
“Well, you’re in the right place,” Maggie says brightly, “How can I help ya?”
“If you could give me the program for the day, then I could—”
“Program?” Maggie laughs. “The program is that you can have a looksee when the stalls are set up.” She glances at the white canvas tents that line the left side of the lot. “Yep, they should be ready soon.”
“I guess that makes me the early bird,” I joke.
“What’s that now hun?”
“The early bird. The early bird catches the worm.”
“Oh, yeah,” she says. “But ya know, what about the worms?”
“What about them?”
Maggie smashes a fly to the table with her hand. “Gotcha, ya bugger!” she croons as she wipes her hand on the front of her coat, leaving little flecks of fly blood and guts.
“What about the worms?” I say.
“What about them?” she asks, before picking up her earlier train of thought. “Oh yeah. They say the early bird catches the worm. But what about the worm's point of view? Maybe we should be saying, ‘the early worm gets killed.’ Right, don’t be an early worm ‘cause you’ll be murdered dead.”
As I ponder this, she says, “The Earworms are on later.”
I'm clearly baffled. Maggie explains, “The Earworms are a music band. Made up of some farmers. We got a harmonica player, and a drummer, and a ‘lectric guitar guy. Zeb might even get up and play the kazoo. Would ya like to look at the books we got for sale?”
Before I can respond, she reaches under the table and brings out a book. Squinting, she tries to read the title. “Nah, not that one,” she says as she retrieves another. “Yep, this is a good ‘un,” she says as she hands it to me.
It’s a slim book, maybe 300 pages. I note the bold title, ‘THE FORMATION OF VEGETABLE MOULD THROUGH THE ACTION OF WORMS’ supplemented with smaller text below, ‘With Observations on Their Habits.’
“Ah, um, very intriguing,” I say, turning the book over in my hands, attempting to feign interest.
“That was Darwin’s bestseller, dontcha know? Sold more copies than that other book, whatsit called, the Original Species. I figured you might like it. You look bookish.” She adds.
“Um, thank you? I guess," I say as I place the book back the table. "When does the—"
“Oh, we got gummy worms too!” Maggie exclaims as she places a glass jar full of worms on the table. “Would ya like some? They’re free.” She takes off the lid and reaches her fly-smashing hand into the jar, grabbing a large handful. “Whoops, I grabbed too many, can’t get my hand out,” she laughs. “Ha, guess I’m no smarter than those monkeys they trapped.”
Her outstretched hand offers me the multicoloured gummy worms. I search for some excuse not to take them.
“Oh, thanks, but I’m off the sugar.”
She eyes me suspiciously, but says nothing, instead stuffing a worm in her mouth.
“Guess what I’m doing,” she says as she makes an exaggerated chewing motion while looking at her watch.
“Eating a gummy worm?”
“I’m waiting with baited breath,” she cackles, spewing a segment of worm on the table.
“Ha, yeah, I get it. Bated versus baited. Very funny.”
“There’s something real special I’d like to show ya,” Maggie whispers conspiratorially.
“Oh, that’s very kind of you,” I stammer, desperately trying to think of some way to escape. “But, uh, I really need to—”
“Won’t take but a sec,” she winks. “It’ll be worth it.”
She motions me closer, her eyes darting around, checking to see if anyone else is watching. She reaches under the table again.
Curious, I lean closer. I can smell her sugary, gummy-worm breath.
“Okay now, you can’t tell anyone about this,” she says.
I nod in agreement.
Her hands wrap around a canister. It’s labelled, but I can only see the part that’s not obscured by her hands. Looks like ‘Mixed N…’ Mixed what? Mixed Nuts, maybe?
She tilts the can toward me as she lifts the lid. Something launches out, attacking my face. I scream, trying to bat the creature away. Maggie’s maniacal laughter rings in my ears as I stumble back.
The creature lands softly on the table and rolls a few inches in my direction.
Cautiously, I approach it. It's cylindrical, like the canister it came from, but longer. A speckled brown skin stretches over the coiled ribs. And then I realise. It’s one of those cheesy joke gifts where a spring-loaded, snake-shaped thing pops out of an innocuous can of food.
"Ah, the can-o-worms trick, it never gets old. Unlike me," Maggie says as she stands up and scrunches the worm back into the can. "Hey Earlybird, you been good company. Why don't I introduce you to the more interesting folks here, the ones who got good stories."
"Sounds great," I say, opening up my notebook and following her in the direction of the tents.
"But don't spoil the surprise," she giggles, tucking the can-o-worms in her voluminous coat pocket.
"My lips are sealed," I say, as I retrieve a vibrating phone from my bag. Recognizing the caller, I smile and tell Maggie I'll join her after I take the call.
"What's up buttercup?"
"I'm on assignment. At a very special convention, for people who wait with baited breath...."