Sketcher: On Family, Magic and Louisiana Swamplands

Culture Trip

Roland Watson-Grant’s debut novel turned out to be a winner – funny, witty, tear-wrenching at times, Sketcher tells the story of a family stuck on an isolated and valueless piece of land in the heart of Louisiana’s swamplands. As days pass in endless monotony, there suddenly emerges a strange kind of magic in the lonely swamp house. Read the first chapter of the fabulous Sketcher, exclusively on The Culture Trip.

Roland Watson-Grant

Chapter One

Well to begin with, lemme tell you, my pops is the reason we grew up in that swamp. And when I say ‘swamp’ I don’t mean that great, big, wonderful Atchafalaya Swamp in south-central Louisiana that everybody talks about. No sir. If you don’t know too much about New O’lins, grab a map and go east, almost past Lake Pontchartrain, and you might see the little piece of purgatory I’m talkin’ about. I can’t tell you any names, cos there are no real names to tell. It’s a kind of no man’s land, a clammy corridor, part of the muddy mess left behind by the Mississippi slidin’ out into the Gulf. So don’t blink or you’ll pass it.
There were no wilderness tours and jazz music and dancin’ and jambalaya tastin’ and boat rides coming through where we used to live, cos many people didn’t expect nobody to be all the way out there. All you’d see out there was wheezin’ trees, ankle-deep in the swamp. Most days, nothin’ moved except for maybe a dragonfly testin’ the water with its toes, or a crow screechin’ up in the branches to make even midday look spooky. So the first thing people asked when we told them we lived on that sorry side of the swamp is: ‘Now, how in da hell did y’all get out there?’ Sometimes we’d say nothin’, but other times we’d tell ’em that our pops had a vision.
Yessir, before we were born, ol’ Pops hit the bottle hard one Friday night in the city and passed out. Round about Tuesday, when he came back to his senses, he told Moms he had a vision that he was standin’ in a crowd, and all the people saw a desert, a barren land with brown dirt stretchin’ from their toes to the top of a mountain on the horizon. In the vision a voice told him he had to journey across the desert to that mountain. So he turned to the crowd and asked for people to go with him, but he couldn’t find anybody crazy enough to do that. Then when he spun back around and looked in front of him again, lo and behold, all he saw was butterflies and big blossoms of every kind, with purple and pink, buttercream and strawberry colours swirlin’ on top of the greenest grass. He said that he started walkin’ and all those flowers felt like silk and velvet under his feet, and everywhere he put his foot a million more blooms exploded in colours that God had not yet invented. And they all made a rainbow road out of the city, from his toes to the mountain top.
Well, my moms said those were all the colours of his lunch that he left in the sink that Friday night. So, yeah. That vision that was supposed to take us into paradise was our first step into growing up in limbo. Now look, I’m not exactly blamin’ my pops, I’m just repeatin’ the facts like I heard it since I was born, just so you can see where we’re comin’ from. Now, I heard some of the drama from Pa Campbell – that’s our neighbour in the swamp, who’d been around since before that time that everybody loves to jaw about, the Sixties. I was born early Seventies, so I guess I can’t fully appreciate all that excitement and why everybody in the city and the swamp said the Sixties this, the Sixties that… especially old man Pa Campbell when he didn’t take his chill pills. He always got excited and said: ‘Skid!… I don’t know why they called you that name, boy, but, Skid!…’ – Pause. ‘Oooh, the Sixties.’

And you better have two hours to sit and listen to him talkin’. It must have been the time o’ their lives, the Sixties, what with all that music and bell-bottom tight pants and lots of free love and everything. But I bet they still had headaches and mosquitoes and taxes, so I don’t know what all the fuss was about. Anyway, Moms didn’t have much to say about all that. Matter of fact, every time you talked about how we came to live at the edge of the swamps of Louisiana, she just got real quiet and stirred them okras a little harder with her lips folded under. And she sighed a lot or she sang a hymn until she calmed down.
See, the way I hear it, when she came to New O’lins, Moms wanted to move into one of those apartment complexes they built back in those days along Hayne Boulevard, ‘Lakeside Apartments’ they called them. Those apartments were fancy and new and for people on the up and up. But my pops, he woke up one mornin’ after the ‘vision’ and had a better idea. He said with the oil boom there would be some major construction sweepin’ through New O’lins. So he suggested that instead of wastin’ money on a small apartment, especially with the first baby on the way, he and Moms should go get a piece of the wetlands much further east. He said he had some contacts, and the land would be dirt-cheap, and if they were lucky they’d prob’ly even find oil on it. But if not, they would just dig in their heels and wait, cos it was only a matter o’ time before all that development got into the swamps. I hear my pops would mock-preach about that day, the day they would go to sleep in the swamps and wake up in a better part of town.
‘Any day now, Valerie, any day now. Hah! We’ll be moving, hah!… without a moving truck. Hah! We won’t be movin’ out from the swamps, hah! The swamp will be moving out from under us! Take a leap o’ faith ba-bay, take a leap o’ faith! Amen. Amen.’

And Moms would tell him to settle down and stop mocking church, since he didn’t go there. At least not to her church. Or maybe she just didn’t believe in counting your eggs until they’re hatched. But then again, maybe it was because Pops is white and he was mock-preachin’ like them black Baptist preachers. And that mighta made Moms uncomfortable, I don’t know. But look, my pops isn’t prejudiced or nothin’, so get over it. He married Moms and she’s not white. She wasn’t even born in America. But I’m the youngest, so my family didn’t discuss those details with me. Anyway, as Pa Campbell tells it, every evening you could hear Pops coming into the swamp from the train tracks excited and hollering at the top of his voice about how far the construction had come.
‘Valerie, what did I tell ya! They’re all the way up past the airport now!’ – or ‘Valerie! They’re building interchanges on Interstate 10 now. Hah! It’s comin’! Any day now. Just a little longer ba-baay!’
Well, after a while Pops stopped talkin’ so loud about the whole thing, and then he stopped comin’ home with the day’s progress report altogether. Pa Campbell says Pops prob’ly should not have gotten land so far east, cos by the time I was born in ’73, the whole New O’lins development slowed down and then stopped dead in its tracks just before it got into the swamp. And then after that, when Moms would go into town in the mornings, she said the cranes and bulldozers and all those other construction machines just sat there by the side of the road lookin’ all tired and refusin’ to go any further. And in the evening, on her way back into the swamp, she would pass them again, and sometimes she was hopin’ to see them suddenly start up and belch smoke into the air and dig at the earth and move stuff, but they’d still be sitting there all cold and lazy. Then, almost as soon as you passed them, civilization just kinda surrendered, and you’d find yourself ‘on a goddamn safari’. The sounds of swamp life would drown out the city more and more, until you were so deep in the sogginess you wondered if the steel-and-stone city was only something you imagined up. Soon there was a crack on the map, an area nine-minutes-wide by car. A clear line that showed where the construction stopped and where the swamps began.
Pa Campbell said the city was ‘nearly near but fairly far’ – and the almostness of it was heartbreakin’. At least for my pops. We crossed this distance into New O’lins every day using a lonesome ribbon of road with bayou on both sides. There was nothin’ but mangroves and open water until you hit the mainland and rolled under the very first overpass, the concrete feet of the city. This was the stretch between the swamps’ desperate fingers and the toes of New O’lins. Toes that stood their ground. So by the arrival of the unexcitin’ Eighties, there were four growin’ children in the pass: Moms was sayin’ we had moved to a ‘whole ’nother country, just slightly outside of a city’, and Pops wasn’t comin’ home happy. Hell, some days he wasn’t comin’ home at all.

Image courtesy of Alma Books

There was a long period when, every day after sunset, we’d take turns askin’ Moms where Pops was. We always did it in order, from the eldest to the youngest, for some reason.

‘Well,’ said Moms when Tony asked her where he was, ‘if the city didn’t come to the man, the man will have to go to the city.’

‘Well, he’s everywhere but here,’ she told Doug.

‘Well, I think he took the scenic route home, son,’ she told Frico.

Simple answers. I was only eight, but when my turn came to ask, she had to make it complicated. She said: ‘Skid, I’m so tired a y’all asking me where he is. Why don’t you all get on that CB radio and holler out your dad’s name and tell him to get himself home.’
So we did. Now, we had a CB radio, and in the Eighties that was a big deal. You had to have a CB nickname and all that fancy stuff. And we called our dad ‘T-Rex’ on the radio. And my pops, he was one of the biggest godfathers of Citizen Band radio technology in the South. People knew him, cos he fixed CB radios and boosted their frequencies, and he invented all these sky-scrapin’ antennae things that could prob’ly pick up as far as China. So when we all got on the radio and switched to Channel 19 and started pressing the hell out of the key on the microphone and jumpin’ up and chantin’ ‘Breaker, Breaker, T-Rex, you copy? Come on home, T-Rex’, all the truckers and all the cops and the hunters and the shrimp fishermen and people as far as frickin’ California and prob’ly Mexico could hear us. And man, they all started in on the joke, whether they knew T-Rex or not, cos that’s one of the things that CB radio people do.
Well, within fifteen minutes we could hear the Ford Transit engine revvin’ into the swamp and the tyres grindin’ and the door slammin’, and the great big ol’ T-Rex came crashin’ into the house with his claws all out and his teeth sharp. He looked across the room and growled at me, cos he said my voice was the loudest on Channel 19. Me? And he made me get back on the CB radio and announce that ‘T-Rex made it home tonight’, and then I had to speak like I was an AM radio announcer, with a big, dumb radio voice and everything. I had to tell ’em what time it was, and do the weather report and tell ’em to ‘stay tuned for more news’. See, in my house they had to get creative with punishment. For example, you can’t tell a kid ‘Go to your room’ in a one-room shack. You have to tell a kid ‘Go to your bed’. So when I thought that my radio-announcer bit was good enough, Pops said, ‘Umm, naw,’ and made me go back ‘on the air’ and apologize to each state capital and Mexico City individually. And that’s hard when you don’t have a map and you can’t speak Spanish and your brothers are all snickerin’ in the background. Moms was sorry for me, even though she had this big ol’ smile on her face when she was sleepin’ that night on account of rufflin’ Pops’ feathers. Meanwhile I stayed up listening to two owls matin’ on the tin roof while trying to remember which of the capitals I’d left out. ‘Raleigh, North Carolina!’ is what I jumped up and said at about one in the mornin’. The crickets couldn’t care less, but out of the darkness Pops said: ‘It’s about time, Skid.’ I think that phrase had become part of him, cos he heard it so many times comin’ out of Moms’ mouth. My Moms is real patient, but it seems that as soon as she realized this vision of his wasn’t happening, she just got real antsy, and on some days she was plumb fit to be tied, I tell ya. We could hear ‘It’s about time we got out of this swamp’ fourteen times a week – seven if we went to bed early. And the poor guy would do his best and say just about anything to make her more comfy. But that’s like fluffing someone’s pillows when they’re sleepin’ in a graveyard, or buildin’ somebody up like a big ol’ dam. Cos one night, right after the sun nodded off, the Valerie Beaumont Dam broke and everything flowed into a big fight.
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