Swamp Writer: The Landing

Pie owns the landing where I launch my boat. Her office is an old abandoned nightclub on the riverbank. From here, she collects $5 for every parked car, whether the driver is launching a boat or just admiring the scenery.

She lives in a house she built on the hill a few years back. She lives alone, but is far from lonely. A steady stream of colorful characters mill about the landing all day, every day. The most prominent of these is Kenny, her childhood friend and groundskeeper of sorts. Although a frail cancer survivor in his 70s, Kenny is always eager and amazingly capable of helping people like me out of their many swamp predicaments.

Though the landing is strewn with old mobile homes and rotting shacks and oil drums and bridge rubble, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how it could be resort-quality waterfront if cleaned up. But Pie won’t change a thing about it. And most of what you or I might consider junk actually has a purpose. The old crane, for example, is perched like some apocalyptic artifact on the bluff: an ancient Bucyrus Erie with a boom towering 50 feet over the launch ramp. I don’t know of one sane person who can take an eye off the rusty cables that hold that boom out at a 45-degree angle. My blood races every time I launch my boat and pass under the shadow of that thing.

I’ve explored the crane a few times, crawling up into the cab and sitting on the metal seat. Wind and sun have even baked the grease dry from the exterior. But inside, you can peer deep into its bowels and catch the glint of oil and frozen gears. Mostly, it makes you ponder, “Who left this thing here and why?”

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“Pie, you ever worry about that boom fallin’ on somebody?”

“I been tellin’ the owner to come get it for years.”

“How’s he gonna get it? He’s gonna have to cut it up.”

“Shoot no. He’ll just drive it on out of here.”

“That thing works?!”

“Yeah, it works.”

One day, I came to launch my boat and something wasn’t right. It seemed the sun was brighter and the wind was stronger. I backed down the launch ramp and noticed the long shadow didn’t stroke my fear. The crane had crept off sometime during the week.

Even with the crane gone, there are still plenty of items to study:

An oil drum. Folks burn driftwood in it to keep warm while they skin catfish under the cleaning shed.
Rusty framing nails in a Folger’s can sitting under a gum tree. Used for tacking the roof tin down when it pops loose.
A piece of capped iron pipe lying in the sand. Kenny tamps pilings into the mud with it.
A 5-foot-tall section of what looks to be giant culvert pipe. Kenny will set this on end, fill it with water, and use it to hold minnows.
The PVC pipe lying across the yard that disappears into the river will soon supply this water.

There is a fiberglass boat floating in the marina. It looks like it passed beneath a low bridge at high speed and lost its top half. The bottom half is strangely filled with foam. I learn from Kenny it is a barge for hauling lumber out to the houseboats.

You Get What You Need

Sometimes things at the landing disappear. Kenny is concerned about his things in particular, and he has a lot of them. His truck bed is filled like someone lifted a tool shed by crane and shook the contents out the door into it. The organization of those tools lends credibility to that scenario.

“Kenny, you got a chainsaw?”

“Look in that truck bed.”

“Kenny, you got a spare fuel hose?”

“Look in the truck bed.”

“Piece of iron pipe to prize this trailer off?”  

“Truck bed.”

“Toilet tank kit?”

“Truck bed.”

“Propane torch?”


“Twenty-two bullets?”

 “Under the cast net in the truck bed.”

Most of the time I can’t find what I need, but Kenny plunges into the heap emerging with exactly what I asked for.

“Spare 2-inch trailer ball?”

“Gimme a second … Here you go.”

“You got just about everything you could want in there.”

“You never know what you’re gonna need around this gal-dang place.” Which I suppose is the truth. He is constantly rigging and repairing contraptions to support his swamp ventures or to develop new profit centers for Pie. I think the most ongoing of these is the bait shop. In all of the years I’ve been passing through the landing, I can only count a few times when I might have been able to actually purchase bait. I think this must have to do with Kenny’s problem irrigating the minnow tanks. A long, white, run of PVC pipe exits the shop and runs the length of the boat dock and then attaches to a pump of some sort that looks like it has never worked. And the position of this dock leaves it vulnerable to the high water of the river so that sections of boardwalk are constantly washed away, leaving the pump on an island of boards, the umbilical to the bait shop severed, and the minnows dead.

The last time I was at the landing, I noticed a new pipe coming from a small creek at the edge of the property. It disappeared into the ground not far from the creek, but it was headed in the general direction of the bait shop. I’m hoping that Kenny has found a more reliable system and may sell bait sometime soon.

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

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