The first time I met my neighbor Ace, he told me he was going to kill me. He never did, and eventually I got to be his friend.
Over the years, I made lots of buddies in the swamp. Now, no longer the new boy, I’d even outlasted some of them. And I was starting to wonder just how long it would last for me. Crazy Dan was gone. Randy was gone. Some new people I didn’t know had fixed up and moved into the camp three down from me. Almost all of my original camp members had stopped coming up. It was mostly me and my kids and their friends now.
“In the end, it all goes back to the mud, ” an old swamper told me.
I thought about that statement a lot. Ace hadn’t been to his camp in years. It was starting to sag and lean. On breezy nights, I heard the roof tin tapping and slowly working its way loose. Once the roof goes, the rest is not far behind. The swamp comes at it from all directions.
Having to watch Ace’s camp deter-iorate wasn’t the only thing getting me down. For sale signs were up on the property, and it was unlikely I’d be able to renew my lease. Environmental restrictions and a general scarcity of private land in the Delta made buying another location difficult. It seemed like an era was coming to an end.
“I tell you about that old boy?” Jack asked me.
“Which old boy?”
“Carla and that girlfriend of Mayhall’s was checkin’ catfish lines one mornin’. They said they drove up in that creek and saw his boat sunk and his cooler floatin’ in the water and full beer cans strung out in a little line with the current. They look up in his camp, and he’s all balled up in a tent with his legs and bare butt stickin’ out and ate up with mosquitoes. Swole up like a baboon’s rear end.”
“What was wrong with him?”
“They start yellin’ up at him, and he ain’t movin’. Finally they called the Coast Guard and the marine police. They figure he’s up in there dead.”
“One of ’em eventually gets out of the boat, walks up to the doorway and looks closer at him. He jumps up buck naked with his hands cupped over his privates and yells ‘What the hell you want?!’”
“Carla and that old girl tell him they thought he was dead and called the Coast Guard and the marine police. He starts scrapin’ around for his clothes hollerin’ ‘What the hell’d you do that for?!’”
“Maybe he’ll sell his place to me.”
“He needs to sell it to somebody.”
I wanted to see this camp for myself. Jack said it was framed up and roofed, windows and doors in, but no siding. Just studs and a black plastic tarp half stapled, half flapping in the breeze – so leaky that he had to pitch a tent in it. The man stayed in this thing for days at a time and didn’t seem to have any life schedule.
When I visited the camp, it was empty. I studied the black plastic flapping in the breeze, and it looked like the most depressing, nightmarish place one could ever spend a night. “I can fix this, ” I thought.
I kept driving by the place on weekends until I eventually found a man in his early 60s sitting on the porch.
“You own this place?” I asked him.
He looked at me like he hadn’t spoken for days. “Yeah?” he finally said.
“Is it for sale?”
I saw a faint spark of enthusiasm in his eyes. “Yeah.”
“Mind if I look at it?”
He climbed down off the porch while I tied my boat to the creek bank.
“I’ve still got a little bit of work to do, ” he said, “but it’s mostly done.”
I studied the foundation. I had never seen such a chocked and cantilevered support system. One corner was still held up by an old railroad jack. He saw me looking at it.
“And that jack’ll come with it, too, ” he added. “You wanna get up inside?”
No, I didn’t. The whole place would have to be torn down anyway. But I walked around the outside just to keep from hurting his feelings.
Out of prudence, I told him I’d be in touch. In fact, his price was exorbitant for a piece of swampland, but I knew I was already sold. I would have paid twice what he asked. And yes, even a new camp would go back to the mud in the end. What didn’t? But I realized it wasn’t about the money or the camp itself. The memories I’d make were priceless. And they’d outlast us all.
Swamp Camp II. Stand by.
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. Coming in June as a conclusion to our Swamp Writer series, a pictorial essay reveals the real swamp folk behind Watt Key’s stories.
text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer