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Water and Oil
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None of this is true. All of this is true. I want to tell you about a boy in a boat on a nameless creek. About dawn reflected on the water but so dim over the swamp that it failed to illuminate the spaces between the trees.

The boy’s name was Henry Rufus Bragg and though he was seventeen years old and would most likely have been offended by my description, there was still enough boy about him that the word remains appropriate. He was handsome but in an unfinished way, especially in summer when the sun freckled his nose and cheeks, blurring his features, a faint constellation half a shade darker than his tan. Six foot three now and not through yet, his bones ached at night with growing pains. A late bloomer, his mother called him, the last of the model airplane builders, a tender boy, a quiet boy, an odd and earnest boy who, like the keeper of some lost art, memorized old knock-knock jokes and repeated them in his head when he was bored.

He lived on the nameless creek with his mother and his father and his younger sister in a white house with long windows and plantation shutters, porches front and back, the only house in sight. The creek drained into Dog River—Riviere du Chien on the original French settlers’ maps—and here the boy, called Bragg by everyone who knew him, would nudge the throttle down, boat nosing upward before easing into a plane, spray hissing around the hull, often as not startling a sleeping egret into flight. At moments like those, racing toward the big houses with big wharves crowding both banks of the river and away from the lush untidiness of the creek, the boy was washed with a feeling he could not have put into words, a kind of rising, something to do with youth and his own fluency behind the wheel and how well he knew and loved this place.

Ten minutes to Dog River Bridge, then forty more between the channel markers in Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island, where the EPA had set up shop. I am writing, of course, about that recent season when the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon blew out in the Gulf and the bottom of the ocean sprang a leak. His father owned a marina, where the boy had worked previous summers, scraping barnacles, painting hulls. Though he could have used the boy’s help—that summer more than most; he could see the hard times coming—his wife wanted to encourage her son’s better instincts and neither of them wanted the children to worry. So they agreed to let him volunteer, after school at first and then, once school let out, from morning until dusk. Because the boy had his own boat, a bearded Oregonian named Jinx MacFee put him to work patrolling the mouth of Mobile Bay, eyes peeled for signs of oil.

Once he’d reported for duty, the boy charted a course back and forth from Fort Gaines to Fort Morgan, between which Admiral Farragut damned the torpedoes at the tag end of the Civil War. He was careful to steer clear of the hulking tankers headed in and out of port, his wake fading, reconstituting itself, Willie Nelson twanging in his earbuds, summer stoking up with every hour, baseball cap shading his eyes, chuckling periodically at the jokes he told himself. At noon, he veered in the direction of his father’s marina to refill his tank with gas, charge a hamburger at the snack bar, and pass a few minutes in the presence of Dana Pint, the girl I should have known would be the first to break his heart.

In order to entice sport fishermen and leisure craft, the boy’s father hired pretty girls to man the snack bar and the bait shop and the gas pumps at his marina. They dressed in white shorts and fitted T-shirts with the marina logo across the breast. It should be noted that the boy had known dozens of these girls over the years, admired their tan legs and their ponytails, highlighted...

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