Since it’s always a good idea to stay on friendly terms with swamp neighbors, I don’t waste time introducing myself.
By the time I stop by to meet Jack and Carla, they tell me their camp is almost finished.
“What you gonna put over this plywood floor, Jack?” I ask.
“Nothin’. Maybe caulk up the cracks.”
“I told Jack I ain’t cleanin’ them hogs outside when it’s rainin’, ” Carla adds.
Their last name is Johnson and both of them grew up not far from my childhood home. The Johnsons are fishermen; Jack uses his father’s shrimp boat to make a living during shrimp season and works as a carpenter the rest of the year. Carla cleans houses. Their 16-year-old son, Hank, paddles an aluminum skiff through the swamp like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
It turns out that I have some connection to the Johnsons, and it immediately sets me at ease with them. I knew one of their older cousins growing up. He owned a small general store down the road from my childhood home in Point Clear. The store closed when I was about 10 years old, but I still remember it well. In my mind its most outstanding feature was the cooler with block ice. We often walked to the store in the dead heat of summer, when the asphalt was vapory and so hot that we had to keep our bare feet in the fetid ditch water alongside the road. Walking into that ice cooler would almost make you pass out.
Dan and Stacey are my other new neighbors. They arrive in their houseboat one afternoon and tie to a hackberry tree about 50 feet from my dock. Their living quarters are nothing more than a 10-by-12-foot metal shed similar to something you might find at Sears. It is mounted on a homemade, plywood barge, the whole contraption propelled by an old Evinrude 70. They plan to build a permanent camp, they tell me. The houseboat is only temporary.
It is soon apparent though that they don’t carry Jack and Carla’s sense of urgency about construction. They return to the houseboat almost every weekend, but only to fish and drink beer. Meanwhile, I piddle away at my own camp next door and get to know them through quiet study.
The first thing that strikes me about Dan is his energy. The guy is wired. His face twitches, his eyes dance crazily, and he seems about to jump out of his skin at anything. He drives a Stauter that looks like it has been whipped with a chain. But it doesn’t run like it. In the same way that a dog can take on the personality of its owner, Dan’s boat leaps around the swamp just as wired and strung out as its captain. Most swamp people move about in no hurry, taking in their surroundings, seemingly at peace with nature, all while trying to sneak up on it. Dan rides his boat like it’s gone insane beneath him. It skips across the water like a flat stone released from a slingshot. The only thing that slows his boat down is mud. And mud makes him mad. He hits the shallows wide open and slams his hand on the throttle to whip whatever’s got him. Most people will glide to a stop about 50 yards from their camp and idle in, stepping onto the bow at some point to place their hand on the dock. Not Dan. Dan will yank back on the throttle at about 10 yards; the boat sits down, and then leaps forward on the back wave into the houseboat like it might go right through.
“What’s up, Watt?!” he yells.
I’ve been watching. “Hey, Dan.”
Dan and Stacey fish from the back of the houseboat. They cast their lines into the channel and prop the handles of the rods and sit back and drink beer and watch. When boats come tearing by, there is a mad rush to reel the lines in before they are run through and cut. This works fine in the early afternoon. But as the day wears on, and more beer is consumed, the couple loses their edge. The boats approach in a roar, and one or both of them will be just starting to stand when the rods bend and tremble for a moment like a passing whale has clipped them. Then the boat passes and the rods spring back to form and leap in their holders, leaving the lines slack across the water like pieces of loose spider web.
“Come on!” Dan yells, straightening and staring after the boat. “Why don’t you slow the hell down?!” MB
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer