Books·CBC Literary Prizes

How to Catch a Nightcrawler by Kat Main

Kat Main has made the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for How to Catch a Nightcrawler.

2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Kat Main has been a psychology teacher, writer and researcher. (Aileen Smith)

Kat Main has made the 2018 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for How to Catch a Nightcrawler.

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and will have her work published on CBC Books.

The winner was Sandra Murdock for her story Easy Family Dinners.

You can read How to Catch a Nightcrawler below.

This story contains strong language.

After her last marriage, Mom promised she'd only date someone you were a-okay with. But being single and on welfare gives your mom headaches, which means she tosses back more painkillers than usual, so most days when she's not reading Tarot cards, she's passed out or throwing up in the bathroom.

Things are tough because you're poor. Not the "Oh darn, we can't afford an Atari" kind of poor, but the "Oh darn, you've outgrown your pants again which means Mom slowly lets down the hem bit by bit until there's just the raw edge of fabric fraying around your ankles" kind of poor. You try to hide the frizzy ends by folding the hem ever so slightly and stapling the threads under, which you think works until your classmates start asking why your pants have staples and you can't decide which is worse, the staples or the frayed ends.

You don't think much of Bill the first time he comes around to pick Mom up for a date. He stands waiting in the doorway, jangling his car keys like he can't wait to be somewhere else. Bill grins and offers you a piece of Juicy Fruit but kids have radar when it comes to adults — you know when they're being fake nice. You notice his teeth are the colour of old brown bananas.

After her last marriage, Mom promised she'd only date someone you were a-okay with.

Bill is living in your apartment by the Brockville railway tunnel three weeks later. He really digs your mom. You can tell because one of his hands is always squeezing her bum. You and your older brother, Mike, are another story though. You and Mike are like those pieces of wilted lettuce that garnish the plates at the Woolworths lunch counter. Nobody really wants the lettuce, it just comes with the plate. Even though you're wilted lettuce, Bill finds uses for you and Mike. He's always got a plan and the plan is always to get rich. Not the "Let's go to work every day and save our pennies like Grandma Flo" kind of rich, but the "Let's screw the man and we'll be instant millionaires" kind of rich.

Fishing season opens in May just after Bill moves in. Walleye and northern pike. Bill sends you and Mike out to the neighbour's front yard with empty tomato juice tins tied around your ankles. It's midnight. The sky is a black starless canopy. A new moon after a rainstorm is the best time for worm hunting, Bill says. "Go get 'em kids. We'll sell these suckers like hotcakes."

Mike turns the flashlight on and sweeps the beam across old Mrs. Boer's lawn. He's wrapped a piece of wax paper around the end to dull the beam. Nightcrawlers are shy and sensitive. If you make too much noise or vibration, they'll slip back into their holes faster than you can say, "Ah shit." Squatting, you waddle forward like praying monks, staying close to the ground so you can catch the worms slithering through the wet grass.

At first, you're squeamish. These aren't cute fuzzy worms like Oscar's pet Slimey on Sesame Street. They are gargantuan worms up to 12 inches long and thick as slugs. But there is one big thing motivating you. Moolah. So you can buy real pants like Jordache jeans. Go to a real hair salon instead of Mom giving you home permanents. Live in the Fullford Estates and Allison comes over to swim in your pool. You're gonna be the Beverly Hillbillies of Brockville. You're Elly May Clampett. You're a blond bombshell with the body of a pin-up girl. Your whole job is to be pretty and you can have pets galore. You always wanted a chimpanzee. 

But there is one big thing motivating you. Moolah. So you can buy real pants like Jordache jeans.

After a while, you get the hang of worm hunting. You move slow like a cobra. Sit coiled and ready until you see a long shiny body and then move quick quick, grab it between your thumb and two fingers. Don't yank or you'll rip it in half. Grip firmly and gently pull until the little bugger releases itself from the hole.

You've caught a couple dozen each when Mrs. Boer's porch light comes on, enveloping you in a square of yellow light. Mrs. Boer's grey head appears in the window. She points to her watch and stabs her finger at your house.

"Come on!" Mike punches your shoulder (about 10 times harder than he has to) and you run until the old busybody can't see you anymore. It's after midnight on a school night and you don't want her calling Children's Aid again.

You make your way down the block, moving from lawn to lawn, squatting, scanning the flashlight, pulling nightcrawlers from their holes. The dampness from the wet grass seeps through your canvas running shoes, soaking the toilet paper Mom stuffed in the toes to make them fit. In a couple hours you've got a kink in your back and the cans are full. You follow the faint beam of Mike's flashlight towards home, shivering in your canvas shoes with wet toilet paper in the toes.

In the backyard, Bill has built a six-by-three-foot box filled with dirt. You lift the lid and Mike dumps the worms. There must be a couple hundred nightcrawlers. A few more nights and you'll be open for business by the weekend. Bill has a sign for the lawn: Fresh bait! Large Nightcrawlers. Number 1 for fishing in the World! $5 bucks/100 worms. Mom got Chinese food takeout boxes from Ming's where she waitresses part-time to sell the worms in. Soon you'll be selling bait in fancy boxes. You're gonna be Elly May and you're gonna be rich.

The clock blinks 2 a.m. when you slump into bed. Mom's room is across the hall. The door's open again. You can see two sets of feet squirming at the end of the bed. You smear worm slime from your fingers onto your pillowcase. Mom's bedsprings squeak and Bill groans. Sweaty skin slaps skin. The headboard thumps against the wall. Then the sound of Mom coughing, the flick of a lighter and the smell of cigarette smoke drifting across hall.

The next day at school, there's a sandstorm beneath your eyelids. Mrs. Endhoven asks if you're okay. Everything is fine, you say.

"And everything is okay at home?" Your radar tells you Mrs. Endhoven is one of those adults who know things without you even saying. You are petrified she can see the pictures of worms and feet and squeaky bedsprings in your head. Your face grows hot.

"You seem awfully flushed, dear." She lays a cool hand across your forehead. "Why don't you stay in for recess this morning." You want to hug her and cry at the same time because most days you really do feel like a nightcrawler except that you have no hole to hide in. You're stuck every recess in the schoolyard feeling wet and slimy because the other kids point at your staples and poke a stick in your tummy, saying "No, no, no, you can't play with us."

Saturday. Opening day. Bill teaches you how to sell worms. "Like this, see? Keep your palm down so they can't see how many worms you have. And count in uneven numbers so they can't keep track... One, two, five, seven, 10." He flips his hand over. "Six worms. Ta da!"

You are petrified she can see the pictures of worms and feet and squeaky bedsprings in your head. Your face grows hot.

You and Mike take turns sitting at the end of the driveway waiting for customers. Nobody shows on Saturday. Or the next day. Or the whole week. And then finally, the following Sunday, it happens. A fisherman in rubber boots and a baseball cap that says Black & Decker. He hovers behind you smoking while you count worms and put them in his Chinese food takeout box. You feel his eyes and imagine he can see through your hands. He knows how many worms you're hiding. You keep dropping the worms and have to start counting all over again. Besides that, your hands are too small to hold more than a few slug-like nightcrawlers. At 11 years old, you only weigh 65 pounds. The kids in Grade 2 are bigger than you. You keep waiting for the fisherman to yell, "Hey there, Missy, I see what you're up to." But instead, he lights another smoke. Your radar kicks in. This is one of those adults who feels sorry for underweight children with staples in their pants and tissue paper in the toes of their shoes. And now you feel bad for trying to rip off the nice fisherman. So you give the fisherman 97 instead of 100 worms because then you're honest when Bill asks if you followed the rules.

The worm business stays slow through the rest of June. Bill changes the sign: Time limited Sale! $3/box! While quantities last! Things still don't pick up. Mom's back on painkillers. She's passed out most days when you get home from school, sprawled and sweaty on her bed. You and Mike eat bowls of no-name cornflakes for dinner and try not to wake her.

Near the end of July, Bill pulls his marker out again: BLOW OUT SALE — every worm must go! $1 buckaroo!

In August, the landlord leaves a letter in the door. You're two months behind on rent. Grandma Flo offers her farmhouse about 15 minutes outside of town. She has to move back to Brockville because Great Grandma's sick and someone needs to take care of her and her 13 cats who poop in the bathtub. You pack up the house, wait for nightfall and Mrs. Boer's lights to go out, then ever so quietly load boxes onto Bill's truck and head for the country. You leave the worms for the next lucky tenants.

Bill sings along to King of the Road playing on his 8-track. Dust from the gravel road billows through the headlights. He thumps the steering wheel. "No more worms. We need a new tactic. Games is the ticket. Think of the carnival. Ring Toss. Bottle Stand. Know how much money they rake in on those games? Because it's rigged! We'll do Balloon Darts. You kids have the summer to build the game board. It's going to be great." He turns down a driveway and Grandma Flo's farmhouse looms ahead. "And you, my fair lady," he squeezes Mom's skinny knee, "I'm going to buy you some fancy new underpants."

"Stop it," Mom laughs and swats his hand away. The sound of her laugh loosens the knot in your stomach. The air feels lighter and full of possibility. You dream a future with chimpanzees. Piano lessons and Jordache jeans. Mom in fancy new underpants who never gets sick from taking too many painkillers.

Bill hits the brakes and grins his banana brown grin. "Home, sweet, home."

Read the other finalists:

About Kat​​ Main

Kat Main has been a psychology teacher, writer and researcher. She has swam in the Aegean Sea, jumped out of an airplane at 13,500 feet and told fortunes on the streets of Vancouver, B.C. She now lives and works in Calgary, Alta., blending her time between writing and working in the non-profit sector. Main's writing was longlisted for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize in 2015 and shortlisted for the Alberta Magazine Showcase Award in fiction. In 2013, she won the Brenda Strathern Writing Prize. She is currently at work on a collection of stories about her strange childhood.