image Gay Degani
Losing Ground

It began with hands. Doesn't it always?

Fingers lightly brushing wrists. Thumbs in palms. Remove the bracelet. Remove the watch. Clothes go next. Stinky fish hands touching here. Touching there.

The memory splits her in two. Then drives her down the rough wooden stairs to the dock.

Claudine's no sentimentalist, her. Not after years of working in the sheriff's office, answering phones, filing paperwork, watching folks in hand-cuffs pass her desk, giving her the look. But now, even with that, she's breaking apart inside.

She climbs into the pirogue and uses the pole to push away from the soft bank. Light soaks the eastern sky. A breeze comes in from the gulf to fill her nose with salt. The camp, high on stilts, soon disappears behind a stand of cypress. She closes her eyes, lets the boat drift.

She's been down the bayou since Madge died, parking her little Dodge under the house next to her brother's fishing boat. She's asked her family to stay away. At least for a while. If she stayed in town, anybody might drop by without so much as a knock on the front door. She needs to be alone in the swamp, with its rich brackish smell and slow mossy currents.

Claudine lets the water push her toward the sea. Remembers that first summer she asked Madge to the camp. Madge was married then, her kids just babies, but she left them in Houma for a "girls weekend." They played cards and made gumbo. They drank and went fishing.

Madge, a deputy who took Claudine under her wing when she started work at the sheriff's, said she was too soft. Told her "The world is full assholes, and the sooner you accept that, the better off you'll be." Strong friends they became, two women weathering hurricanes and money troubles, Claudine steady through Madge's divorce, Madge a rock when Claudine lost a brother to a drunk driver. Still, it took ten years to begin.

They were down the bayou, cutting mullet for bait. They were laughing, mugs of French coffee steaming on the slats of the dock, their hands reaching in the bucket, the sky just beginning to streak gray. Claudine's hand bumped accidently against Madge's, and Madge took it, and kissed her wrist, her palm, the hollow at the center.

Now Madge is gone, shot in the neck by a stray bullet during the take down of a bank robber.

Claudine stands up to pole the boat, the wind chilling her wet cheeks.

The gulf itself isn't as far as it used to be, not since Katrina brought salt water pouring into fresh, burying land, trees, houses, killing wildlife. Claudine thinks about the vastness of water beyond the continental shelf, its cold beckoning expanse. She sits down again, sets aside the pole, and begins to row.

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