No swamp full of men is free of practical jokes — at least no swamp worth visiting. In my bag of tricks, in a close tie with the Bigfoot mask, is an encounter with No-name.
No-name is the largest alligator I know of in the Delta. He makes his territory almost exactly between the landing and my camp. There is a high piece of ground along the riverbank where he suns himself in flattened swamp grass.
Sometimes, especially when I have passengers, I will steer my boat directly toward No-name without reducing speed. This is en route to or from the camp, and we will have been underway for almost 10 minutes, a long-enough time for my crew to be calm, content and confident in my judgment concerning the river course.
No-name cannot be easily seen from a low skiff. Only the rough, black outline of his back appears through the strain of swamp grass. When the boat begins to get unusually close to the riverbank, my passengers instinctively turn to check my attentiveness. I stare ahead, and they are satisfied that I’m alert. But they also look forward again, curious about what I’m searching for.
When the boat gets about 10 feet from the bank, No-name leaps out into the river. He is not after us, but eager to get to safety underwater. But this leap appears to be directed at the people riding up front. No-name’s entry into the water is a violent thrashing of spray and black fury.
“Holy crap, that was close!” I yell as I swerve the boat. But no one hears me. They are too busy piling at my feet.
I’ve had plenty of jokes played on me as well. The one I am most embarrassed about is the night Crazy Dan had me searching in the swamp for a coatimundi he claims to have seen. Regardless of whether he really thinks he saw one or not, I knew better than to listen to Crazy Dan. Especially after he’s had a few drinks of whatever it is he puts in himself. I didn’t tell the story more than once without realizing I’d been a fool.
I narrowly escaped a joke played on Carson that almost chain-reacted to me. Every year or two, I coat the bottom of my boat with anti-fouling paint to help keep off barnacles. Even for a small skiff, the paint alone is nearly $300, never an expense I look forward to. But my boat was running like a wet mattress, and I knew I couldn’t put the chore off much longer.
One afternoon I saw Carson at the landing. I thought, “What do the swamp people do about barnacles? Surely they don’t spend $300 on anti-fouling paint.”
“Hell no!” Carson said. “That stuff’s too expensive.”
“What do you do?”
“Get some regular house paint and dump a bunch of cayenne pepper in there. That’ll keep ’em off.”
“Have you done that?”
“No, but this old Cajun boy told me about it.”
I’d grown wary of mischievous swamp rascals, but if Carson was pulling my leg, he had a great poker face. And what did I know about the properties of cayenne pepper? Why wouldn’t it work?
The next weekend, I hauled my boat out and took it home to start painting. I couldn’t get the cayenne pepper solution out of my head. I could save hundreds of dollars with an old can of house enamel and my wife’s spice cabinet. But in the end, I decided against it. If Carson was messing with me I’d have to spend another entire weekend scraping and repainting. And that would come after I showed up at the landing with a cayenne pepper paint job for everyone to laugh at.
I spent the money and put in two full days sanding my hull and slapping anti-fouling paint on it. The following weekend I returned to the landing and found Carson with his own boat flipped onto some sawhorses. He’d already scraped it clean and was applying some blue house paint with a pink tint to it.
“I should have listened, ” I thought. “I just blew $300.”
A month later I saw his boat turned upside down on the sawhorses again. The barnacles on it were as big as marbles. It typically took years for barnacles to grow that big.
“What happened, Carson? Is that the same boat I just saw you paint?”
“Man, the hell with that Cajun. These barnacles like it spicy.”
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in November, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer