December in the Delta can be windswept, cold and lonely. At times, this is exactly what I’m looking for. During the Christmas holidays, I went up to the swamp camp for a night of solitude, hoping to get some work done on an overdue writing project.
That night, I listened to the north wind howling over the camp, rattling the tin on my roof. I woke the next morning to find the water blown out of the swamp and my boat sitting on an ice-coated mud flat. Usually I find a solution to all the inconveniences that arise at the camp, but this situation left me dumbfounded.
I sucked up my pride and called for help.
“Jack, I’m in trouble.”
“You on mud?”
“I’m at work right now. Call Randy. He’ll get you out.”
“You think he’s up here?”
“He’s up there.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know him real well.”
“He’s all right.”
For Jack, master of the understatement, calling someone “all right” was a healthy endorsement. But I wasn’t so sure about Randy.
First of all, I had a hard time believing there was anyone within 5 miles of me. I’d passed his camp the day before, a crooked, low-ceiling, low-light, thieves den of a structure. And it looked deserted. But then again, it seemed Randy was always in the Delta, even when you didn’t see him. He was the Yoda of the marsh, so experienced beyond me, and even Jack, that it seemed impossible I would ever be accepted into “Randy’s bunch.” I’d heard legendary stories about him. For some reason, they always involved Randy naked against the backdrop of the swamp: swimming naked across the river with a bowie knife in his teeth or stranded naked in the swamp and then sleeping in the marsh grass.
Bottom line, he intimidated me. I’d never gotten through to this guy. After all the years I’d put in with swamp people, he alone remained strangely ambivalent to my presence.
But I saw no options. Jack gave me his cell number, and I called.
“Yeah, ” he answered.
“Uh, Randy, this is Watt Key. You know …”
“I know who you are.”
“I’m up here …”
“I saw you last night.”
“Well, my boat’s …”
“You think you could help me?”
He didn’t answer right away. “Start walkin’ out to the point, ” he finally said. “I’ll pick you up.”
“What about my boat?”
“You wanna watch it or get home?”
“OK, ” I said. “I’ll see you in a minute.”
I trudged through the frozen swamp to a point of land that edged a deep part of the river. Randy, wearing blue jeans and rubber boots, the icy wind whipping the short sleeves of his T-shirt, was already there in his jon boat. He studied me from under a stained ball cap pulled down almost over his eyes.
“I really appreciate this, ” I said.
“Climb in, ” he mumbled.
On the ride to his camp, my mind raced to find appropriate payment for the rescue. I didn’t have much cash on me, which was going to make it awkward.
Before I had time to offer him anything, Randy docked at his camp, climbed out of the boat, and shoved me off. “Go ahead. Take it in, ” he said. “Just leave it at the landin’. ”
“How you gonna get back?”
“I got some boys comin’ up in a couple days. They’ll bring it to me.”
“You sure about that?”
“Go on, ” he said.
I didn’t know if he was being overly generous or just annoyed with me. But again, I didn’t see any options.
“I’ll make it up to you, ” I said.
“Don’t worry about it, ” he said. “Get out of here.”
For a few days after that incident I struggled with how I was going to repay Randy. I finally decided to send him a copy of my first book, “Alabama Moon, ” with a letter of thanks written on the title page. If he read it, which I doubted he would, I would have found a way to indirectly introduce myself to him.
Weeks passed after I mailed the book, during which I never saw or heard from Randy. I imagined him looking disgusted at my offering and dropping it in the trash.
A few more weeks passed and my second novel, “Dirt Road Home, ” was released. I had the kickoff party one evening at Page and Palette in Fairhope. I was stationed at a table doing my best to keep up with a line of people, trying to put names to familiar faces, talking to them while I’m writing, worried I’m going to misspell something. All that noise and confusion went mute when I glanced up to see a man approaching me in line. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, ball cap pulled low over his eyes, as out of place in this crisp bookstore as a farmer at Churchill Downs.
It made my night. I couldn’t have cared if he was the only person in the room.
“Randy, ” I said.
He bashfully set his copy of “Dirt Road Home” on the table before me.
“Hey, man, ” he said. “I’ve only liked one book in my life: ‘Alabama Moon.’ I hope this one’s as good.”
In Memory of Randy Dowsey: 1953 – 2011
Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in December, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.
text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer