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He was feeding calves when his cousin called out to him from where he was filling up his truck. “How about I take you fishing tonight?” The boy nodded, but, figuring his cousin would forget like he always had, put it out of his mind so as not to be disappointed. But that afternoon, feeding calves again, his cousin came walking up from the milk house with a Folger’s can and told him to gather up some worms. He’d be over in an hour to pick him up. Shy, the boy peered in at the eyebrow of grounds at the bottom. When his cousin was gone, he licked his finger and tasted it, an earthy, slightly-bitter flavor that he carried back over to the other house along with the can itself, slung over one handlebar.

His mother was on the porch, talking on the cordless. When she saw him walking up with the can, she pinned the phone between her ear and her shoulder and made a reeling motion. Unbeknownst to him, it was she who’d called his cousin the day before to ask if he’d take the boy fishing before school started. He’d never been fishing before. His father had promised to take him but something always came up: the cows got out, or there was fieldwork to finish, or he was simply too tired to teach his son something he barely knew how to do himself. For as long as the boy could remember the poles had leaned together in one corner of the machine shed, rigged up with rusted tackle, pale lead weights pinched along the length of the line. Small as they were, there was a violence about the hooks. They had known the innards of innumerable worms and the soft mouths of fish that were tossed back thrashing to grow old and bitter in the waters of the Pecatonica. One day back in June, when he hardly knew what to do with the new wealth of hours, the boy had taken one of the poles, more out of a longing to touch what his cousin had touched than out of any interest in fishing, and gone down to the pond below the house where his cousin lived with his parents and his five mysterious sisters and tried fishing with a bare hook. And that was when his cousin had come out onto the porch and made the promise that he was finally keeping that evening: to take him fishing on the Pecatonica, where the big fish were.

He walked around the house and down to the kitchen garden. It was August and the beds had been left to go wild. He stepped in and knelt amongst the herbs. Their scent was heady and somewhat sickening. He picked some parsley and chewed it as if it were an antidote. He liked the way the leaves tickled the roof of his mouth. The soil was soft, brightened in places with vermiculite from the potted starts he’d helped his mother put in in the spring. It took some digging before he found the first one, but after that, as if some permission had been granted, they were everywhere. He pulled them, writhing and attenuated, out of the dark secret soil and lay them gently, one upon the other, in the can, dimming the quicksilver tin so that it ceased blinding him when he glanced in. Every now and then he tossed a handful of dirt in, in a trusting, measured way, the way he’d seen his mother toss salt into soup. He stopped when the can was full. The dog came up from under the porch to greet him, sniffed at the can and, at a loss as to how to participate, somnolently licked its side.

It was still possible his cousin wouldn’t show. Sitting on the porch step between the flaming geraniums, he began to wish he wouldn’t. But then the truck appeared on the brow of the hill and came bucking down the field path, the dust trailing in a long plume that would take all evening to settle. Long before he braked abruptly before the lilacs, the boy recognized the song he was blaring: “Free Falling,” the hit of the moment. His cousin came walking up to the porch, carrying both poles in one hand, a dirty tackle box in the other. The lines were rigged up with bright new tackle. His mother brought out an obligatory pitcher of lemonade and invited his cousin to sit in one of the chairs angled matrimonially towards one another. The boy stayed on the steps. A worm had pierced the surface of the soil, its featureless head wagging back and forth in a pitiable, searching way, begging pardon. So as not to have to watch the worm he watched his cousin. The boy was fascinated by everything he did, the way he sat there so casually, one hand dangling between his thighs, the other holding the glass of piss-colored lemonade, the way his Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed. He had watched him on Friday nights, juking would-be tacklers, had heard his name boomed from the loudspeaker, allowing himself to feel pride in being related to him, and now he was sitting there, on their porch, making his mother laugh. She covered her mouth because she was embarrassed of her teeth. Years of drinking the iron-rich well water had stained them, while his cousin's teeth were perfectly white, like chiclets set in his gums.

The light changed. Soon his father’s truck would appear on the hill. Just when he started wondering if they’d ever go, his cousin stood up. In the truck his cousin pulled a can of Old Milwaukee out of a blue and white cooler set on the bench seat between them. Bucking down the washed-out lane, the boy squeezed the can of worms between his boots to keep it from tipping over. His cousin handed him the beer to try. It tasted like how the granary smelled. They took the hill so fast he felt his stomach go hollow and blew past the bridge. Only upon losing momentum did his cousin turn around and drive back. From the power line hung lengths of fishing line complicated with tackle, evidence of the errant casts of other summers.

While gazing down together at the water purling against the pilings, his cousin unzipped his fly and drew out his thing. It lolled hugely out of his jeans, the stream of urine falling in a golden mist that didn’t alter the mud-brown surface of the water. Catching the boy staring, his cousin turned towards him, rocking a little, making it sway. The boy felt something similar to what he’d felt coming down the hill, only in a different part of himself. Putting it away, his cousin knelt down and plunged his hand into the can. Bringing the hook close to the boy’s face, he deftly pierced its body, and the worm doubled back upon itself, a pink ganglion of pain. His cousin nodded. The boy drew another worm out of the dirt and clumsily crucified it. His cousin grinned.
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