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Pescatore's Contest.

One whole day to get there: five hours east to New Hampshire, five hours beyond, into Maine, toward a town called Clemency. The boy had been asleep for several hours, which made the quiet of the last leg of the trip seem more natural to Eamon. In the beginning, as the three of them traveled from New York into northern Vermont, the boy's voice had been on mute, but his anger had filled the car. The radiant silence from the back seat had been terrible.

"He'll relent," Kath had said as they crossed Lake Champlain on the ferry and the boy stood apart from them, up by the heavy chain at the bow, watching the approach to shore. "Give him time." But Eamon and the boy knew differently. It had been over a year, and Drew was having no part of his mother's boyfriend. The bait, for Eamon, of coming to Glemency had been ten nights to spend with Kath. But the truth was now revealing itself: ten days to spend in close proximity to her eleven-year-old son.

They arrived in Clemency after dark. A field of lupines bloomed, lunar and innumerable, in the headlights as the car nosed down the hill to Kath's brother's house. Suddenly Eamon wasn't counting on much.

Three cars and a truck were parked in the driveway, lozenges of color in the porch lights. Kath's brothers would be there waiting to see their little sister. Eamon hadn't realized how daunted he could be simply by the number of men in Kath's life. Drew had already confided that his uncles were going to have Eamon for lunch. "Think chowder," he had said. This, thought Eamon, was a reasonable prediction: he had heard the stories of the trio of protective older brothers whose sister he was taking to bed.

Kath kissed him on the cheek as they stopped in front of the house. "It's going to be fine," she said, then she turned and roused her son in the back seat.

Standing at the open back hatch of the Volvo, Eamon watched the screen door swing open and a small spill of Drew's cousins crowd out. He guessed that the two men herding them were Robb and Gordon, the brothers who ran the lumberyard, both tall as sentry towers over the heads of the kids. Eamon ducked under the hatch and retrieved Drew's duffel, the June night full of the scent of grass and earth and the whine of mosquitoes and a feeling, not unpleasant, of dampness in the air. A good night to find night crawlers, he thought. Maybe the boy would like to go fishing. And if not, maybe that would be the way to handle this trip if it got tricky: slip away and do a little fishing on his own. There was the branch of the St. Germain that wound its way through town. He hadn't fished in years.

After introductions had been made and hugs and handshakes exchanged and they had all crowded into the immense kitchen, Robb, the youngest of the brothers, waved a bottle in the air over heads of the others and called out, "Eamon, my man, want an ale?"

It was after ten, the drive had been long and what Eamon had least expected to see was a bottle of Seadog waved at him. One of the nicest beers he'd ever tried. "You bet," he said, sinking into a chair. Kath was busy back out at the car. The cousins were taking custody of Drew, swarming him--the only redhead in the tribe-out the door. There was a spare room here at Robb's and another at Gordon's. Eamon had wondered if he and the boy would become the natural pairing, the two of them taking one room while Kath took another, but here was the boy being tumbled back into the night to go across town to bunk with the cousins closest in age to him. He nearly felt relieved, but the boy seemed reluctant, his backward glance unsmiling. Eamon wondered how Kath had lured her eleven-year-old away from his friends for nearly two weeks.

"Cam will be here tomorrow," said Robb, handing him the ale and settling down beside him in a chair. Gameron, the oldest, the lawyer, the acknowledged head of the family since the deaths of Kath's parents, the most formidable one in legend--at least in the legend as told by Drew. Eamon had just begun to relax--the Frasiers were so pleased see Kath and her boy and even her new man. Robb and Gordon had welcomed him in spite of all Drew's stories about their protective natures when it came to his mother. But the mention of Cam revived his worry. The biggest stories were about Cam. Mostly from Drew, who had intended to scare him, and some from Kath, who hadn't. Cam once chased off an old boyfriend because he didn't like how he drove his car. "Don't worry," Kath had said, "that was high school, after all." But Cam was also the one she turned to when the marriage to Drew's father fell apart. Eamon knew he could count on his driving skills, but he didn't know what to expect from the older brother who probably wanted to be sure that any new man in the life of his sister didn't cause her the heartache the first one had.

Kath came back in from her last trip to the car to report that Drew was safely off to Gordon's and that she had lost an earring. One of the pair he had given her for a kind of six-month anniversary. The couple of years just after her divorce had been dark for Kath and he had dangled small, bright things in front of her: a walk to get ice cream, Shakespeare in the Park, the gleam of earrings in the soft batting of a jewelry box. The earrings had been an agony and a joy to give. He had so wanted the choice to be right. The earrings were elliptical, like leaves on cherry trees, silver and green. When he gave them to her, he had pushed her bangs back with his hand and kissed her forehead. Kissed her mouth. Pressed the box into her hand. She had held the earrings up to the light, laughed, tried them on. Their tips hung beneath the short swing of her brown hair, glinting: green-silver, green-silver, like light on water. An early success in their time together.

Later--after the second ale, after talking to the two brothers who lived in Clemency and to one of the wives, after learning that Gam would be up from Boothbay the next day to meet him and see his sister and nephew, after making plans for the next day, after hauling their gear upstairs to their room, after curling up in bed and letting Kath fall asleep against the small of his back as he listened to the moths and June bugs against the screen--Eamon took a flashlight from his travel pack and slipped out the back door and searched the car for the missing earring. Not there.

Then he trained the small disc of light on the damp grass and began looking for night crawlers.

Eamon had a certain skill at finding night crawlers. His grandfather's retirement sideline had been selling night crawlers from an old fridge on the back porch and Eamon had grown up with his grandparents--an arrangement struck early enough in life that it seemed almost ordinary. It had meant that he had grown up with less TV and more independence and he had become an integral part of the night crawler business. The going rate was a dollar a tub, a nickel for each pointed-nosed, blindly inquisitive, forward-seeking, cowl-necked annelid stretching through the leaf mold.

He and his grandparents lived on the road to Lake Colvin, in the Adirondacks, where there was a public dock, and early on weekend mornings he would awake to the rumble of cars idling out front with canoes on top or boats in tow. Footsteps on the stairs to the side porch. The faint smack of the fridge door. It was a serve-yourself operation, money going into a coffee can on top of the humming Frigidaire. Repeat customers left their old cottage cheese tubs in a stack beside it. Sometimes he and his grandparents went fishing, too, bringing along one of their own cottage cheese containers.

At the back of the garden, along a stone fence, his grandfather layered leaves and kept them damp, and the worms came in their slow, silent droves to this place of rich tunneling. This is where Eamon learned his great felicity at counting, at enumerating things by group. Twenty-five crawlers per measuring cup, a dozen a handful. He was a pharmacist--spending the stretch of an ordinary day bending his six-foot flame to the counter, sliding tablets and capsules off a plastic tray in groups of five and leaning down to catch the words of an elderly soul extending a bottle and pointing to a label. His aptitude in science had brought him to study pharmacy, but Eamon often thought that his early days of tallying his grandfather's inventory had given him a mental abacus that took stock of things in a particular way.

Now, in the shine of his flashlight, an amber traveler nosed its way through the blades of grass. Eamon let it go.

"We're all going out on the boat," announced Gordon at the big family breakfast at Robb's in the morning. "Want to come?" The question was intended for everyone, but Gordon was standing at the door, pulling a windbreaker on and looking directly at Kath and Eamon and Drew over the heads of everyone else who was still seated. He had the same hazel eyes as his sister. Eamon wondered how large a flame Cameron might have if this man still had kid brother status. Eamon glanced at Kath.

"I just want to walk the neighborhood, go see a few people," she said. "Promise there'll be another chance?"

Eamon wasn't sure where he fit into the picture Kath had of her day, but Robb, smiling as if he had found a kindred spirit, interjected that he wanted to take him for the microbrewery tour about ninety minutes away, closer to the coast.

"Well, then, Drew," said Gordon, "that leaves you. Go get your sunscreen and we're off." There wasn't any element of question in what he said.

Was that a trace of a frown he saw gather on Drew's face, Eamon wondered. Was the boy reluctant to go with his cousins? Eamon counted four boys and three girls in a range of ages, all under twelve or so. Each of them had some variation of a bob of straight, shiny hair whose color could have been identified on a stain chart at the lumberyard: oak, butternut, ash. Then there was Drew. Curly tangles of red hair, always disheveled. Did he feel uncomfortable with his cousins--the only child used to a household of two suddenly in the midst of Team Frasier? Eamon had thought these kids were the reason Kath could so easily persuade Drew to take this trip, but now he suspected he had been wrong.

As everyone scraped back chairs and headed out, Eamon, on impulse, asked the boy, "Want me to go along on the boat, too?" The suggestion was impulsive, for he had no real inclination to go, but in that moment, the boy looked somehow outnumbered. It was an invitation for a sharp reply and Eamon knew it as soon as he said it. His words just dangled there briefly. The only response for two beats was Drew's expression--a practiced slack-faced, wide-eyed look of incredulity or hostility or both. And then the boy snapped at him.

"My father knows everything about boats," Drew said. Eamon knew that he was going to be refused, but he hadn't seen this particular response coming. How would Eamon's company on the boat be at all an improvement on the day for this angry boy who, with his tousled ginger hair, looked very like the father he missed?

"Yes," said his mother. "He knew so much he pulled the pin on the outboard motor and the whole prop dropped into the lake while he was trying to fix it. And your father isn't here and he won't be coming here. This is how it's been for us for three years. This year is no different."

"Yes, it is different," Drew said as he smacked through the screen door. "The pill-pusher is here."

"Watch how you talk," said Gordon as he followed the kids out the door. To his sister he said, "Don't let him get away with so much, Kath."

Kath just tilted her head a bit, her own bob of Frasier-brown hair touching her shoulder, and shrugged. She was never quick to speak sharply to her son.

Perhaps, thought Eamon, he should be sore about Drew's outburst, but Gordon seemed to have that covered. Besides, it was hard, he thought, not to admire Drew's way with words.

"Sorry, Eamon," said Kath as she watched through the kitchen window as her son sprinted down the driveway to his uncle's truck. "I thought we were past that part."

Eamon wasn't sure that they were ever going to be past that part.

At dinner, everyone gathered at a restaurant, commandeering a side room and pushing a series of tables together. Eamon had had an enjoyable tour of the microbrewery and found himself a new fan of blueberry beer, but now Cam was here, settling his large frame into the seat at the head of the table. According to Kath, her husband had fared miserably during his initial meeting with Cam, the lawyer capable of asking a deadly question and making people squirm. Eamon looked toward Kath, but she was telling a sister-in-law a story from her afternoon.

Drew, however, deliberately caught Eamon's eye. He was smiling in spite of his sunburn. Apparently he had rebelled against sunscreen. Drew looked from his Uncle Cam back to Eamon, waiting--Eamon supposed--for the inevitable. The introductions had been warm, but the group was large and in good spirits. The last big brother, at that moment, was holding forth on fisheries negotiations between Maine and Canada.

By the end of the meal, during which Robb recounted their trip to the microbrewery like he and Eamon were new best friends, Drew had lost his grin. Among the cousins, Drew was the only one not laughing or squirming or lunging for someone else's onion ring. He's disappointed, thought Eamon, that things aren't going according to plan. He had some sympathy for that because he had seen very little of Kath. From the head of the table, Cam was talking about his blood pressure. Eamon checked out the remains of Gam's big meal. Clearly he hadn't resisted the night's temptation to veer from the prescribed diet. The kids were having strawberry shortcakes, the adults were having sorbet and Cam was asking for the Seville orange sorbet.

"Maybe not," said Eamon. It was his pharmacist's voice, which he hadn't intended to use here, nor how he intended to begin a conversation with the formidable big brother.

Cam looked up and so did Drew. "Maybe not?"

"Seville oranges work like grapefruit. Not great with blood pressure medicine."

Cain reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of what Eamon knew were small coral pills, shaking it like a maraca. It sounded to Eamon like it was time for a refill. Eight pills in that bottle at most.

"I appreciate a man who knows the details," said Cam.

Maybe Kath had been right, thought Eamon. Maybe it would be fine. And then it dawned on him that maybe Drew had been so willing to come be jostled by cousins and give up a chunk of his summer at home because he remembered what had happened to his father. Drew had come to watch the fireworks, Eamon's big exit, expedited by his trio of uncles. Only now he was learning whatever animosity there had been toward his father was aimed only at his father, not just at any man Kath might love.

Drew looked like his evening had been spoiled. Kath, immersed in conversation with Gordon and his wife, hadn't noticed that Eamon had cleared the checkpoint with Cam or that her son was wrestling with some new information. When the coffee was delivered, Cam brought his cup over to the chair next to Eamon's and asked him some questions about blood pressure meds. Drew didn't even dip a spoon into the swirl of whipped cream that rose from his shortcake. Cam, thought Eamon, wasn't his real challenge. It was still Drew, Drew who had come to see Eamon dismissed in full Frasier style. And Eamon had come to spend some time with Kath. He and the boy had something in common--the growing realization that Clemency wasn't turning out as they hoped.

"Kath," Eamon said ill the dark that night, "let's take the day tomorrow. Show me where you went to high school. Walk me around town. Buy me an ice cream."

"Not tomorrow. I want to spend some time with Cam. Maybe the day after."

Almost none of what Eamon had envisioned for himself and Kath and the boy had materialized. For the first two days, he had felt lucky to be accepted by her family, but as the third day approached, he wondered what was in store. He had seen less than he had expected of Drew, which was less of a relief than he might have predicted. And less of Kath who, in her pleasure at being among her brothers, had trusted Drew to the flow of cousins and Eamon to the other men in her life as well.

The other men in Kath's world were presences to be reckoned with, he thought. There was no escaping it. And that included Drew's dad, who had been gone for years, but whose absence rocketed through Drew's daily life. Eamon reached for Kath's hand in the dark and held it against his bare chest. This at least was something, just this simple thing of sharing a bed, night after night. Their first full night together had been the result of an end-of-term sleepover for Drew at a friend's house. Since then, there had been none--until the temptation of this stretch of time together had been dangled in front of him. Lying there in the quiet of the spare bedroom as Kath fell asleep, Eamon wondered about Drew, across town and bunking with a rabble of cousins, and how his days were taking shape. Two days in Clemency, eight to go.

The next day was rainy, and Kath and Cameron had determined to cook for the family. An outrageous feast, she promised, but everyone else stays out of the kitchen."

"Those two always do something amazing," said one of the sisters-in-law. "But the place will be a disaster after, depend on it."

"I'll help," said Drew.

This was unlike Drew, and the boy had taken the words right out of Eamon's mouth. Both of them, it seemed, wanted a little more time with Kath. The boy would be refused, he knew, just as he would have been.

"No, Drew. This is just me and Uncle Cam. Yon know that it's been kind of a tradition forever. You and Eamon run to Pescatore's store and get us some cream, three pints of cream."

The errand was welcome and even Drew seemed eager. As they climbed in the Volvo and headed toward the small store, Eamon hoped it wouldn't have enough cream and that they would have to extend the ride and go to the chain supermarket a town over. Maybe they both needed a little escape.

"Cream puffs tonight," said Eamon as they drove, intuiting the reason for the pints of cream. Both he and Drew loved them. Dinner, at least, would be something to look forward to.

The boy, looking down at his cell phone and moving his thumb across the touchpad, nodded.

"Want to go to a movie?" Eamon asked the boy. The night they came in, he had seen a marquee lit up and advertising matinees a few towns over. Immediately, he regretted asking the boy. The prospect of a movie with Eamon wouldn't be the least bit tempting to this kid. He was grateful that Drew didn't rise to the full possibilities of derision that he had opened himself up for. "Nah," Drew said. Simply, "Nah."

In the window of the store was a cardboard placard that read WORMS and above the door Pescatore's was painted on a giant fish-shaped signboard. Pescatore's Superette crammed it all in, floor to ceiling. Eamon and Drew walked in past a pyramid of gallon jugs of blue windshield washer fluid and racks of chips and beef jerky. A spinning display stand held videos to rent and homemade donuts were piled in bags by the register. The aisles were full of canned goods and boxed mixes. And one whole wall was devoted to fishing gear: monofilament line and hooks and lures and pliers and fish scalers and sinkers and red and white bobbers and a small array of surprisingly nice graphite poles. Across the back of the store were coolers full of beer and soda and bottled water. Eamon knew that back there someplace would be enough cream, and there was. "Let's get four to be safe," he said.

On their way to the register, past the pairs of cupcakes in cellophane and individual jelly rolls, Eamon wanted to buy a little lemon pie, his favorite as a kid, and have it, the nearly forbidden childhood treat, in the car on the way home. Then, no, he thought, not in front of Drew.

Behind the register on a shelf was a gallon jar that once had held pickled eggs, Eamon guessed, and was now full of gummy candy worms. Night crawlers, red-orange and green-yellow and remarkably accurate, right down to their ridged segments and size. They were nearly neon in their colors, and their translucence was more pronounced than even a backlit night crawler's, but the overall effect was almost uncanny. He found himself watching for movement. Taped to the bottom of the jar was a sign: GUESS THE NUMBER OF NIGHT CRAWLERS, WIN A FISHING ROD. It was one guess per customer, per purchase. And you had a choice of reels if you won. "How many do you think?" asked the boy, reaching for a slip.

Eamon didn't have to guess, he knew. Twenty-five crawlers to a cup and the rest was just arithmetic: two cups to a pint, two pints to a quart, two quarts to a gallon. "Four hundred," said Eamon, turning to pay for their purchase, expecting the boy who missed his father to put down any number but the one his mother's boyfriend suggested.

On their return, he and the boy were shooed from the kitchen. Eamon decided to look over the pharmacy in town, leaving Drew to his own devices. At home, Kath had measured out their time alone together because of the boy. Or this is what he had thought until now. What if--and this was the new thing he was considering--this was simply how it would be with Kath? What if his desire for more time together would always be, with Kath, the need unmet? Maybe they already were who they were going to be together.

Dinner, Day Three. As a kid, counting the days until summer vacation--starting with the first day of school-had never felt daunting. Even in September, when the number began at 180, he felt unintimidated by the stretch of days because each number would peel away until there was only that luminous "1" and the next day would dawn to freedom. When he had lost in whatever battle had been waged between his parents and ended up learning the earthworm business from his grandparents, counting had helped. Not just counting worms or days till summer, but counting things that he had cherished. He had, for example, seen twelve movies with his father, three with his mother and four with his parents together, including one double-feature drive-in that he sometimes counted as one and sometimes counted as two. He remembered all their titles.

When birthdays rolled around and neither parent found a way to visit him, he remembered the seven birthdays he had had with them. He actually remembered five of them, had seen pictures of the first and had been told by his Gram about the second. His mother had visited six times as he grew up--one was his graduation. His father hadn't come, ever. For Eamon, what should have been occasions with his folks too numerous to count came down to a baker's dozen.

And now, he found himself wondering about how things were adding up for Drew. How many times had he been out on a boat with his father here in Clemency? Drew could count on that number staying the same number indefinitely.

The only astonishment for Eamon when the phone call from Pescatore's came at dinner two nights later wasn't that there were 403 edible neon night crawlers in that gallon jar but that Drew had willingly put down the number his mother's boyfriend had suggested: Drew had won the contest.

"You won, Drew!" Kath, sounding surprised, hugged him.

"Big deal!" said Drew, who seemed to be refusing to let himself make eye contact with his mother or with Eamon, who wasn't trying to.

"Don't go talking to your mother like that," said Gordon. His voice was sharp. Eamon thought that Kath's brothers would probably feel flee to intervene for a lifetime. This was fine with Eamon as long as there was ten hours of geography between them.

Drew, shrinking back in his chair, had pulled out his phone and was scanning it.

"Eleven is a hard age," said his mother.

Maybe harder than you've calculated, thought Eamon as Drew left the table. He and Kath were actually going out for a picnic the next day, just the pair of them, and he was glad enough of that, but he was in a real Day Five flame of mind. Halfway. And, Eamon realized, that what he thought would be true was not: the boy was not a great favorite of his mother's people, at least not the adults. Maybe the reason was as simple as how much he looked like his father.

Day Six. He and Kath were going to get a day to themselves after all--in spite of the fact that her brothers had asked her to spend the day at the lumberyard office. Short-handed, they said. Eamon knew better--her brothers simply loved to have her around. He couldn't blame them.

Kath was packing their lunch. Eamon had bought a bottle of wine, the Margaux she liked. They were going to drive the hour and a half to the coast and find a piece of rock to sit on-eat lunch, feed seagulls. So why, he wondered, was he still thinking about the boy? "What's Drew going to do today?" he asked.

"I think he went to get his rod. Maybe he'll try some fishing."

He pictured the kid, his new rod, the St. Cermain as it wound through Clemency. Fishing sounded nice. "You know," Eamon heard himself say, "we can do this picnic tomorrow. I know you'd love to help out at the lumberyard." Kath look mildly startled. That pleased him a little. "The Margaux will keep," he said, leaning in, and he put his arm around her. Sweeping her bangs back, he kissed her forehead, kissed her mouth. If his fishing notion fell through, he could always buy the pharmacist at Clemency Drugs another cup of coffee and they could finish their talk about compounding flavored medication for dogs. He kissed the top of her head and released her.

"You're sure?" she asked.

"It'll be fine," he answered, not the least bit confident of his claim or his hunch about Drew.

The tributary of the St. Germain flowed in a series of switchbacks through town under a succession of bridges. Eamon parked near Pescatore's and walked from one bridge to the next, each one street over from the other, until the river narrowed and meandered out of town. Drew was on none of the bridges. Eamon was already ruing the lost picnic, wondering if there really would be another chance tomorrow. Day Six and he was singing a true Day Ten tune, wishing this place behind him. At the last bridge, he left the street and walked along the bank, thinking this might be a great place to fish. There might even be trout. And then, around a bend, there was Drew, attempting a cast.

"You took a spinner," Eamon said approvingly of the reel Drew had chosen as he approached. He saw a bagged lunch and a foam container of crawlers. The lid had pin-prick air holes and a picture of a night crawler on it: googly eyes and a fishing hat and a grin. "How did you rig your line?"

Drew shrugged and reluctantly reeled it in. And there, dangling from a filament of leader, fitted out with a baited hook, was Kath's earring, the birthday earring. "Sorry," he said. "I found it beside the driveway this morning."

The earring-turned-lure glinted green-silver, green-silver, like light on the surface of the St. Germain. The flickering inch-long blade had signaled success once before. Maybe Clemency would bring a different kind of success with the other important Frasier in his life. Maybe it would be fine after all that Kath was spending so much time with the brothers she loved. He and Drew might have some fishing to do.

Eamon laughed. "You've made yourself a little wobbler, kid. A classic spoon!" On the hook beneath it were threaded two huge flat rubber bands: no night crawlers.

"I tried," said Drew, "but I couldn't bait it for real. I have a problem with worms. Especially big ones." He pointed to the container with its grinning logo.

"Me, too," said Eamon, who hadn't eaten cottage cheese in years, who couldn't remember which among the innumerable night crawlers had been the one crawler too many. "But let's look in your lunch. Let's see if you've brought a substitute."

Drew pulled out of his lunch for Eamon to assess: a peanut butter sandwich, a chunk of Jarlsberg cheese and a large baggie full of marshmallows.

Drew really was only eleven, Eamon thought, looking at the lunch. Just a kid making his way one bagged lunch and one afternoon at a time. "We'll start with the cheese and move on to the marshmallows. That peanut butter sandwich is all yours."

The boy started breaking the cheese into small chunks. Eamon pried the lid off the little tub and walked up the bank to a box elder and tipped it over, letting the pink and brown accordions softly drill themselves into the leaf mold. He and Drew would get some artificial worms at the store later and see how they worked if they got bounced along in the weeds. Maybe get a couple lemon pies. And then, watching Drew bait the lure's hook with cheese, something happened Eamon hadn't counted on-the long sure cast of the filament of summer. The pleasure of four nights left, four days to go.
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Title Annotation:STORIES
Author:DeGhett, Stephanie Coyne
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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