Melvin knew that welfare was there to help people, and he knew that sooner or later, he wouldn’t need it, but it seemed to be later rather than sooner. He was behind on practically every bill, had canceled his cell phone, used minimalistic electricity (relying on natural light) and water (only showering on days when he left the apartment for filling out applications or interviewing). He no longer shaved daily and so his mirror image seemed older because the gray stubble showed. Melvin even felt his computer had turned on him at times, showing ads in the margins related to hair regrowth treatments, exercise equipment, testosterone treatments, vitality drugs, and the latest, diapers for adult men to prevent leakage. What annoyed him most were not the ads, or the fact that he was older, but that he didn’t invest in these technology tracking devices. Melvin didn’t beat himself up about hindsight; however, he often noted how life scenarios might have worked differently for him had he made alternate choices.
Melvin was hoping the call was about an interview. “Hello?”
“Hey, Melvin. You still looking for some work?”
“My cousin down in Appalachicola needs some help. He lost a guy working for him. It don’t pay a lot, but it will give you some cash until you get something you want.”
“Nah, worm grunting.”
“I ain’t drunk. I said worm grunting. Never heard of it?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“They drive a stob in the ground. Rub a flat iron across it. Makes a sound kind of like farting, but it causes the ground to vibrate and the worms come out of the ground. They think it’s a mole digging to get them, and they come oozing out of the ground in gobs. You collect the worms and they pay $25 a bucket. You can get several buckets in a day. Cash, so you ain’t got to give up the monthly check”
“Good night, I‘ve never heard of anything like it. Where do they do this?”
“It’s in the Appalachicola forest, a place called Tate’s Hell.”
“Why’s it called Tate’s Hell?”
“I don’t know really. Maybe because of all the snakes and mosquitos out there.”
“Hell, I’m game. I need the money to hold me over.”
Melvin drove the few miles from Sopchoppy to the entrance of Tate’s Hell, where he met up with the small crew. He wore snake proof boots, held a flat iron in one hand, a bucket that contained a wooden stob in the other, and as the crew entered the forest from the two lane path the old truck sloshed down, the sunlight faded. He felt a slight temperature decrease, but not enough to stave off the high humidity and prevent excessive sweating. Melvin got used to the process quickly and before lunch had filled three buckets. One of the guys told him, “It might be in your blood. It’s in mine. There’s an art to it. Some got the gift. Some ain’t. Looks like you might’ve got it.”
Melvin didn’t know if he had a gift or not, but he did ask how many buckets they’d fill before knocking off, and the man told they tried to get a hundred dollars apiece. The old man told him they didn’t work every day. Some of them would work every other day. “They might get them enough money to buy a fifth and be out the next day.”
Melvin felt like he might try doing this for a while until the right job came along. To him, it was honest work, and the more he thought about the sound of the flat iron rubbing the stob made him think of the Aboriginal’s degeridoo instrument used to praise and thank the Earth for meeting the needs of the tribe. That night, Melvin dreamed he was a painted tribal elder dancing naked around a fire to the beats of drums and listening to the low, vibrating sounds of degeridoos being played.