"Hold on," Unc whispered, warning me.
I turned, saw him standing there at the stern and polingthe jon boat in. He was only a silhouette in this dark, thin stars around himfor the half-moon we had out here.
"You hold on, old man," I whispered, andturned, looked ahead.
None of this was my idea.
He knew we were almost there for how shallow he had toset that pole and give it the push. But it was me here in the bow about to tossthe cinder-block anchor far as I could into the marsh,hoping I'd make it onto the dry ground past it. It was me could reach out andtouch pluff mud and cordgrass on either side of us, the two of us at the headof this finger creek at dead low tide.
Like always, it was me looking out for the two of us,because Unc is blind.
Two-thirty in the morning, and we were where we shouldn'tbe. Though a higher tide would have helped us get in a little farther, this waswhen Unc wanted to be here, for no other reason than two o'clock was too early,three too late.
The cordgrass and spartina and salt-marsh hay stoodsilver in the moonlight, all of it crowding up on us the closer we got in, thethick rim of black pluff mud a couple feet wide beneath it. To the left andabove and past the marsh I could see a house a good twenty yards in, anotherone to the right, back through trees and maybe fifty yards away. All I couldsee of that one was an outside light, a coach lamp looked like, and the dime-sizedhalo it cast on the brick wall it was mounted to.
What worried me was the house to the left, the closerone. Like all the houses out here-they call them cottages, only thirty-three ofthem on this whole parcel of land-it was big, this one white stucco and twostories, two chimneys, a circular gravel drive out front.
But I only knew that from when I'd seen the place indaylight. At two-thirty in the morning, and creeping in through the marsh atthe back of the place, all I could make out was the white of that stucco, andthe waist-high brick fence that ran alongside the whole thing almost down to thiscreek.
And the light in an upstairs window somebody'd cut on acouple minutes ago. A light still on, right now.
"Let's go back," I whispered. "Thatlight's still on."
We were almost there now, me already up on my knees andleaning a little farther out over the bow. I had the cinder block in bothhands, the ratty nylon rope it was tied to trailing back to where I'd cleatedit off, because I knew we wouldn't be turning back. I'd been out with Unc onthese efforts enough times to know once we were this close there was no goingback, and now here of a sudden and yet no surprise at all was the cold stink ofthe pluff mud thick around me.
"That light probably means ol' Dupont's nurse is upto change his diaper," Unc whispered. "He's got to be a hundred ifhe's a day."
"And what if his nurse takes a look out the window,sees-"
"Oh," Unc let out then, the word more a solidchunk of sound than a word at all, nowhere on it a whisper, and at the sametime I felt a hard shiver through the boat.
For a second I thought we'd hit bottom, the creek shoaledin here at the head. But I knew this spot. I'd been here before, knew thebottom didn't come up until the very end. I quick turned back at Unc, saw hewas looking down and to the left, the bill of the Braves ball cap he alwayswore part of that silhouette now, him in profile to me.
He'd touched something down there, had the pole up out ofthe water, held it with both hands like he was ready to gig a frog. And then Icould feel that the jolt hadn't meant the bottom at all, and that we were stillfloating free, still inching closer to that pluff mud and where I'd have toheave the block to anchor us in.
Something'd scared him, made him flinch hard enough toshake the whole boat. That's what it was, and even though he couldn't see athing he was still turned to it, ready.
"What?" I whispered.
"Don't know," he said, too fast. He lowered thetip of the pole to the water, eased it down slowly, like he was testing forsomething. "Thought it was a gator," he whispered. "But I don'tthink it was." He let it down all the way, until the top of the pole waseven with his chest, let it set there a second. "Something," he whispered.
He turned to me, said again, "Hold on."
And then we hit ground for certain, and here I was,shoved forward out over the bow for the pitiful bit of momentum we had goingin. I let go the cinder block, tried hard to get both hands on the gunwales oron the bow itself or just somewhere, anywhere, to keep me from tipping over andinto that mud.
But it was too late, and I heard the huge aluminum donk!of the block hit the hull in the same instant I fell forward and into pluff mudto my elbows.
We were both silent for how loud that sound was, and theway it caromed like a billiard ball one end of the world to the other out hereon the water. I already had words lined up in me, pissed-off ones it waseverything I had to hold back for the cold of this mud, and the stink of it,and the stupidity of falling in like this when I'd been out on jon boats mywhole life. I had words for Unc, and this mission, and how none of this was myidea. I had words. But all I could do was swallow them down.
And watch that window up there, past the marsh grass. Somebodyhad to have heard us. Somebody had to.
Nothing happened. Nothing: no face at the window of thatGuatemalan nurse Judge Dupont had taking care of him, or no old Dupont himself,holding close a shotgun. No turning off of the light, or turning on an outsideone so's to scare off whatever dangerous intruders these were out here.Nothing.
And so I leaned back as best I could, pulled my arms outof the mud, and whispered "Shit!" through teeth clenched tight forholding off every other word I had.
I held my hands out in front of me a second, looked atthe pure black of them in this dark, whatever moonlight there was soaked rightup in that black so that it seemed I had stubs for arms. "Shit," Iwhispered again, though this time there was nothing for it. Just me, pissedoff.
"Nope," Unc whispered from behind me."Pluff mud's only detritus. Organic material breaking down. Maybe you'dknow this if you hadn't quit college."
"Not funny," I whispered. I turned toward him,made to move farther back in the boat to where I could lean over one side orthe other, wash my hands off in the water, the bow set tight in that mud."And one more time: I quit for good reason."
"I'm sure you did," he whispered.
I looked up at him, ready to spit words at him. Ready forit.
But he was looking off to his left again, and a littlebehind him now. Back, I could tell, to where whatever he'd touched had been. Asthough he could see anything at all.
"If it's a gator, he's long gone," hewhispered, "but you might ought to wait a sec before you put your armsdown in that water."
He turned, looked down at me: that silhouette again,behind him those thin stars.
"Thought I told you to hold on," he whispered.
My name is Huger Dillard. You say it YOU-gee, not likeit's spelled. When I was a kid and people would ask about it, I'd tell them Iheard it was French. That's all.
But then I went off to college, started after what myfriends used to call an edumacation. By friends I mean the ones I used to have,before my mom and I moved out of the old neighborhood and into the new one.It's a different set I run with now, if you'd even call them a set, or if you'dcall what I have to do with them running. I'm twenty-seven now, and stillliving at home though, like every one of us still hanging out with Mom and Popat the ranch, I've got my reasons.
And Unc isn't my uncle. He's my father.
But to my edumacation: Huger, I learned in a coursecalled History of the South, taught by a tweedy and mildewed old professor whonever once lifted his eyes from his notes to look at the class, is short forHuguenot, a fierce people who came here to Charleston from France once they'dhad enough of being burned at the stake and forced to be galley slaves andwhatnot because they wouldn't lick the silk slippers of Louis XIV, Mr. Sun Kinghimself. Back in the day, the word Huguenot meant a kind of curse on who youwere and what you believed. But then it became a good thing, and meant you werea durable son of a bitch who wouldn't put up with anything.
Huger. It was a good name before I went off and had my goat getting schooled, and it still is.
But it's come to me in the six years since I've been backthat it's a name I don't think I deserve anymore. Because it was this kid namedHuger who chose to quit said college after two and a half years, though theword quit is a lie: my grades kicked my ass all the way from Chapel Hill tohere.
Some kid named Huger quit because he was lost up there.He wasn't as smart as he'd led himself to believe, even with an SAT of 1510.
And I don't think I can live up to being an endurable sonof a bitch anymore because, if you were to ask me point-blank, I'd have to tellyou I actually like being twenty-seven and living at home. I like watchingafter Unc, taking him to whatever appointments he might have with his financialadviser, or to the bank, or out to what's left of Hungry Neck Hunt Club onthose Friday nights when we have a hunt on a Saturday. I don't even mindhauling him out to his Thursday night poker parties at that huge orange monstrosityof a house in Mount Pleasant, though I won't set foot in the manse for the bitof history I have between the host's son and myself.
It's a big event for Unc, even though it happens everyThursday night ten to two, Thanksgiving included. A weekly opportunity for Uncand thirty or forty of his closest chums to win and/or lose up to five grand anight, if they so desire. It's also an evening in which, because I don't wantto leave Unc alone in case he taps out early but generally because I don't wantto be at home alone with Mom, I end up sitting in the Range Rover out on thestreet with the other thirty or forty cars and playing solitaire on my iPhone,or feeding locations into the Maps app to see how I'd get from here to Fargo orLos Alamos or Palo Alto. Or I'll end up just sitting there and thinking abouthow empty the all of this life is, and how much I am queasily enjoying it.
Oh. And I'll ponder, some of the time, on a girl involvedwith this whole maudlin malaise thing I have working. Her name's Tabitha. She'son a postdoc at Stanford.
I don't think I deserve this Huger moniker, finally,because ever since I gave up, it's seemed a good life to do nothing other thanfart my way through a day. Or a night.
Case in point: this excursion.
Because the truth of the whole thing, the absolute andpathetic and sorry stupid reason we were out here at the head of a finger creekbacked up to a cottage in the first place, the reason for all this intrigue andmystery and worries over an old man at a window toting a shotgun or aGuatemalan nurse hot on the phone to Hanahan's finest for the dumb metal donk!of a cinder block dropped-the truth of the whole dense and gratuitous andembarrassing thing is that we were here because Unc wanted to golf.
And as I leaned over the gunwale, made to put these pluffmud stubs into the water to wash them off, I couldn't help but think on my name-HugerDillard-and how, for the life of me, I ought not to care how the hell anybody'dpronounce it.
Here was yet another moment in the crowded long line of them-aline more crowded and longer every day-when the me I am sneaks up on me, tapsme on the shoulder, then sucker punches me when I turn around, and I realize Iam, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, smack in the middle of wasting mylife, living the way I do.
This was what I had come to: sneaking Unc out to golf attwo-thirty in the morning because he was too damned proud to be caught doing soin daylight.
None of this was my idea. But here I was.
I looked down at that water, and in the last instantbefore I put my hands in to start at washing off this detritus, this organicmaterial breaking down-this shit that might as well have been me-I caught Unc'sreflection in the water.
He stood behind me and to my left, his silhouette showingup clear and sharp for this still water at dead low tide. I could see that poleoff to the side and in the water, and the bill on his ball cap, him turned fromme again and looking back. I could even make out the thin wash of stars behindhim. All of this in the water, and in an instant.
I heard him take in a small breath, then whisper low,"Now what in the hell was that?" the words no louder than a breathback out, meant for nobody but himself.
I put my hands into the water, troubled it big for howhard it was to get off this mud.
Excerpted from Dead Low Tide by Bret Lott. Copyright © 2012 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.