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On April 20, 2010, the lives of many who earn their living along the Louisiana Bayou and all along the U.S. Gulf Coast were seriously jeopardized when an offshore oil-drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, exploded, causing a massive oil spill with consequent damage to the gulf’s fragile ecosystem certain to follow. The economic impact was severe; the emotional impact was even greater. Tim Gautreaux’s short story "Gone to Water" was inspired by the ramifications of that disaster. Jackie, a “willowy boy of nine,” is going fishing with his 88-year-old great-grandfather, a cantankerous old man who has clearly lived his entire life on these waters dominated by the Mississippi River. The old man, Claude, acts as though the presence of the boy is more a nuisance than a pleasure, and grills his great-grandson on the roster of relatives whose presence may have been more enjoyable:
"That's right. So many come around to visit with me I can't keep 'em straight."
The boy gave him a long look. "Great-aunt Suzie's your daughter."
The old man nodded west. "Get two rods off the porch and my box. I'm goin bail the skiff."
"Her friend's husband got killed in that rig accident about three weeks ago. It's a big mess out in the Gulf."
"My radio's burnt out and that damn television don't make no sense to me at all."
"Everybody's talking about it. You haven't heard?"
Claude put a hand to his stubbly chin. "We need some crackers and potted meat and a jug of water."
With this passage, Gautreaux is emphasizing at the outset of his story the gravity of a situation that Claude has either chosen to block out of his mind or which he is unable to comprehend. Claude is a native of this remote, backwards region that is nevertheless dominated by the shrimping industry that provides the area's main means of sustenance. As the old man and the boy journey towards the river, Claude explains the area’s history, how it was once farmland but is now all covered in water, no doubt courtesy of the canals cut into the marshes by the oil company.
As Claude’s skiff edges closer to his destination, he and his great-grandson Jackie are suddenly assaulted by the harsh odors of the nearby refinery and of burning oil, the source of which continues to mentally elude this elderly native. Gautreaux describes his two protagonists’ unpleasant discovery:
“...as the skiff slid along, they saw that it was not a little oil they were going though, but a broad deep pool of reddish crude that had blown against the shore and was turning the marsh grasses into tarred pretzels. They saw pelicans trembling about the bank like bronze ghosts strangling under glossy sheets. The slathered skiff seemed lost in a vast storage tank of crude oil, as thick as glue. Looking overboard, Claude saw that the engine's water pump was pulling pure oil and spitting it up in a fuming stench. He killed the outboard, fearing that the very sea around them could erupt into flames.”
Claude has just been introduced to the ramifications of man’s industrial-scale intervention in the only environment he has ever known. Gautreaux portrays this elderly gentleman as the victim of corporate malfeasance. His entire world is suddenly and violently rocked by the explosion of the offshore oil platform, the severity of which was beyond his imagination. The devastation inflicted on this once-vibrant and productive land is impacting his mental state. As the author describes Claude’s observations while he pilots his skiff along the banks of the gulf waters, the old man is lost and confused by the ravages of progress:
“The old man was dizzy, afraid, and his mind suddenly went many years off track. To the east he saw more water than he remembered, open Gulf running all the way to the orange triangle marking the eroded mouth of the river. He wondered what had happened to the land, its fish-filled inlets, the shrimp-spawning marsh, the oak groves, the hummocks overrun with white egrets, how a place that fed so richly whoever sailed through it could dissolve, history and graveyard and church and road and home.”
The boy begins to vomit from the fumes of the burning oil from the wrecked platform off the shore, and Claude falls into the oil-contaminated water, soon followed by Jackie, a weak swimmer. Claude succeeds in rescuing them both, but the boy is sickened by the oil that has penetrated his respiratory system. The two are eventually rescued and Jackie receives the medical treatment he requires. As the story approaches its conclusion, Claude’s family takes away his boat and car, which he has long ago ceased operating anyway. The story ends with Jackie standing on the shore waving at a passing oyster boat, “its deck piled high with sacks of oysters.” That boat, however, only exists in Claude’s memory. Earlier in the story, Gautreaux described the images of the old man’s relatives piloting that boat along the river, its deck stacked high with its catch. The parting image of Jackie waving to that long-since destroyed vessel serves to further emphasize the notion of a way of life cavalierly swept aside so that the oil companies could have their way, with the toxic fumes and badly contaminated water all that now remain.
"Gone to Water" is Gautreaux’s depiction of a way of life ruthlessly eliminated by the advance of civilization, and of the irreversible damage done to the planet in the name of progress. The title applies to the land that once nourished communities but was flooded in the service of economic development. The oppressive effects of the oil spill a year after the Deepwater Horizon exploded are the legacy of the choices we have made. That is the story’s theme.
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