Winter 2012, #18
The "EVERLASTING DELAYS" Issue
Laughter on the Wind
by Milton Lyles
My eyes were stung by rain as I searched the darkness for the shape of the cabin. The lack of any sign of light did not trouble me. J.T. was not the sort of man who needed light to hold back the kind of fear that breeds in darkness. I saw the cabin through a break in the rain. It was ominous as dark and silent as a tomb. I knew as surely as I knew my own name, that he was there waiting in the dark for me to come and kill him. I knew with the same unquestionable certainty, that even more than he wanted me to kill him, that he wanted to control the script like the director of a good B movie, for that too was part of the game he had skillfully drawn me into. The stiff wind, blowing hard from the south, slanted the warm sheets of rain into the Gulf of Mexico like rice blowing in the summer breeze. That same wind and rain muffled the sound of the outboard motor and doubtlessly kept J.T. off his boat dock. He was no longer a man given to sleep. The cancer which was, with infinite and painful patience, killing him denied him the solace of sleep.
If I were a different sort of man, I might tell you that he deserved to suffer as penitence for his many sins, and I wouldn’t even count the ones against me. I no longer have that degree of cruelty, and no one this side of hell deserved the kind of physical torment that miserable old man was suffering. Even with generous applications of booze and morphine, he could not sleep for more than a half an hour at a stretch. His dying reminded me of a strong, sharp toothed, young wolf taking down a crippled old stag and devouring it while it still lived.
J.T. could no longer abide being cooped up in rooms, not even those with large windows. He especially liked to be outdoors at night when the softest hint of a gulf breeze touched the water. Were it not for the rain, J. T., more than likely, would have been sitting on his screened in porch, hunkered down in his wheel chair. His mouth would be wet with the taste of very good whiskey while his fat Roy Tan cigar would be glowing like a lighted buoy in the darkness putting out a heavy cloud of blue grey smoke sufficient to drive off even the most blood thirsty of mosquitoes.
I could, without much effort, conjure up the image of him sitting there fishing in his red and gold striped silk pajamas. I had, for three intolerably long weeks, watched him sit on his private dock in his wheel chair and fish many an evening away, peeing in a baking powder can, smoking his cigars, and drinking copious amounts of Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey. He would splash the whiskey across slivers of ice that I fetched for him. I used a block plane to shave it from one of several hundred pound blocks of ice in the ice house out back of the main house. He fished and waited in the darkness for death to overtake him or at least for a cool night breeze to come along and dissipate the heavy air the day had left behind. Death was denied him, though he often spoke of it as some men long for lost lovers and the comfort they would bring if they only would return. The cool breeze was also denied him as the heat clung to the night air with all the tenacity of a blood sucking leech. All that was left to the old man was his fishing, his drinking, and his cursing at the cruel fate that had delivered him to this sad end.
On those nights when I carried his bed out onto the dock, I would curl up in mosquito tormented ball and feign sleep in a hammock which reached out over the water’s edge at the land end of the dock. It was from that area that the mosquitoes swarmed up towards the dock lantern hanging on a tall post holding up one end of the hammock. The lamp glowed in the darkness a single pinpoint of light seemingly calling forth every mosquito adrift on the gulf. Beyond the voracious mosquitoes my other companions on those nights were my memories of my past debaucheries and of better days and an occasional line of cocaine or two and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black to take the edge off my hurt pride.
When the island loomed out of the rain that was barreling across the Gulf of Mexico preceding hurricane Audrey, I did not head straight to the boat dock on the gulf facing south side of the chenier. If J.T. were watching, if he were waiting, he would see me there. I feared him, even in his weakened sick condition. I feared him as a hunter fears a wounded lion or a cape buffalo. He wanted a good, quick, clean death. He was counting on me to be the instrument of his salvation from pain, but he would not, as the saying goes, “go quietly into that good night.” He would try and inflict as much hurt on me as possible for that was his very nature.
The boat dock at the point where it joined the chenier had been extended into a gently slanted switch back wooden ramp to accommodate J.T.’s wheel chair. The incline was broken by two horizontal platforms as it ascended up to the screened porch of the cabin which sat atop twelve cypress pilings that rose eight feet above high tide levels. The tall, square sturdy post had kept the cabin above the roughest of the hurricane churned sea storms for thirty-nine years. It was for that reason that I had no fear of the coming storm.
I slipped the boat around to the north side of the island, and used the motor to drive the bow hard into the shallow slant of the muddy black earth that was the north shore. The wind had begun to shift around as I jumped from the bow of the launch and dragged the anchor to a sturdy chenier oak trunk and looped it around fully believing that I could kill the old man and get away clean.
Judge J.T. Slater was a man who loved games of chance. He knew I would come on this night, knew what my temper and rage would drive me to do, knew that he had sown the seeds of my willful destruction, and hoped no doubt that he had pirated the last of my decency as I had purloined his father’s good name. I saw the cabin through a break in the rain. As surely as I knew my own name, I knew he was up there waiting in the dark for me to come and kill him. I knew with that same unquestionable certainty that even more than he wanted me to kill him that he wanted to control the script, for that too was a part of the game he had so skillfully drawn me into.
As I climbed the steep stairs on the rear side of the cabin, the wind grew fiercer and transformed the rain into horizontal sheets. When I reached the landing that filled out the back porch, I stumbled and fell noisily across the empty wheel chair. It lay on its left side and the right wheel spun slowly in a quiet circle. I could feel the closeness of him, the very power of his evil desire drawing me toward him. He had known that before the night was over I would have discovered the enormity of the sin that he had led me to. He had known I would come for him and that when the sun rose only one of us would be alive. This, I thought, this is what he had planned from the very moment he had explained the concept of Mancipium to me. I took the cold weight of J.T.’s pistol from my belt and filled my hand with it and slipped into the darkened cabin to meet my fate.
“I know,” he said, “that it is an antiquated, illegal, indefensible, concept, but you do owe me a debt, and I do not believe there is enough money in anything you do, or have done, or ever will do in your pathetic little life to square the debt you owe me.”
“J.T. you’ve professed your hate for me for over thirty years, and now you’re asking me,” I said through gritted teeth, “to willingly hand my life over to you. You must be crazy, or believe that I am, if you think for one minute I would give you power over my life for as much as a heart-beat. I can think of no reason that would force me to let you own and control me for a year. Particularly no reason as pathetic as having told a lie that slandered your daddy whose honor was suspect at best.”
“You see, Mickey, we’re making progress. I do believe that is the first time you have acknowledged that what you wrote about my daddy was a lie.”
J.T. gave one of those horse snort-sounding laughs that I despised. I felt anger spring up in me like a white hot fire that would not be banked. I desired nothing more at that moment than to choke the life out of his fat greasy body. When I answered him, my voice, as though it were the voice of a stranger, worked itself into the shape and tone of a hopeless stutter tinged with feeble supplication. “Bu,-bu, but J.T.” The very sound of it caused tightness in my chest, made me despise my weakness, and brought tears to my eyes. The fear of his money, his power, and my own cowardice sickened me. I began again with only limited success to sound more confident. “I have admitted nothing. I have acknowledged nothing. I have merely restated your ridiculous and groundless belief that I am guilty of having slandered your daddy. Who was, by the way, as we both have said on occasions both public and private, a bastard of the highest order. I shall not now, or ever, be a party to your call for my indentured servitude no matter what fancy name you call it by. I find the idea of even limited tenured slavery, under your control, grotesque.” Try as I might I could neither manage to sound confident or keep my hatred of him from creeping into my voice. For just a moment, I saw the enjoyment of my untenable position in a tiny smile that played with the edges of his cruel mouth where it touched the edges of his salt and pepper mustache and beard.
Judge Jubal Turner Slater shifted his ponderous weight with great effort and sighed. “Do not decide in haste Mickey. You had best take a day or two and think about it, and while you’re doing your thinking consider this: I’m dying. Oh, I see the doubt in your eyes. You think I’m running some game on you. It is no game, Mickey. I am a dying man. Hell, if you get lucky, you can be clear of me in two weeks, six months at best. Who knows you might even suck up the courage to kill me just to be free of me. You keep telling all your little California friends how I stole your chance at life because I convinced my daddy that you were just what you are, ‘liar and a thief’. My daddy could abide a liar, hell, he admired creative prevarication for fun and for profit even at his expense. But, he would not give a thief the time of day!”
“If this thing that’s eating up my guts is as bad as the doctors tell me it is, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did kill me. Personally I don’t think you have the guts to do it or the brains to get away with it. There is no denying there is bad blood between us, but I’m going to need help getting through this, Mickey. You and I were once as close as brothers. You do this thing. You come and help me get past this cancer and there will be no libel suit. I’ll give you that in writing, and enough documents about my daddy’s questionable dealings to protect you from his business associates. The ones you call daddy’s crooked friends from New Orleans. The men who would dump you in the swamp for alligator food long before this gut cancer eats me alive.
“So if I say no. J T. you’ll have me killed?”
“Hell, Mickey, there are things worse than death. My lawyers will convince that book publisher in New York and your money man out in L.A. that the book they think will make a lot of money and a hell of a movie ain’t never gonna happen. By the time my lawyers are finished with you, and them, none of you will have a corn cob left to clean your collective asses or nothing even left to shit.”
“Well, I must admit, Bubba, you have a way with words.” I called him Bubba as I had when we were kids because I knew he hated it. Let’s let the light in. “Let’s have a little truth here. You don’t give a big rat’s ass what I wrote about your daddy. This is not about your daddy at all. It’s about you and me and how much we hate each other because of wrongs we did to each other. It’s some final game that you have made up, and I must tell you. I don’t believe for one minute that you are dying.”
J.T. laughed that horse laugh again. Spittle dribbled down his chin. “You are wrong Mickey. I do indeed give a big rat’s ass. My daddy loved you even after he sent you away. You were always his favorite. He knew you couldn’t go for more than ten minutes without telling a lie, but he still loved you. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times. “I love that damned little red headed son-of-a-bitch, Mickey. I can always tell when he lying. You know how? Cause his lips move.” He loved you Mickey more than he ever loved me, and I hate you for that. If for no other reason, I hate you for stealing my daddy’s love away from me.”
Two days later, I gave in as J.T. knew I would. He had an ace in the hole. I badly needed money. I could not afford to fight him in court. I owed big money to gamblers in L. A., which I could not pay. I needed to disappear for a while till I could get my life back together, or face the possibility of walking on broken knees for the rest of my life.
What I had written about J.T.’s daddy was true, but I could only prove a small portion of it. Louisiana politics and corruption is a lot like making a pact with the devil in that everybody talks about it, many are touched by it, but very few have actually shook hands with the devil. I am quite certain that nobody sales their soul and then sits around drinking beer, making small talk, and laughing about it. There was another factor in my accepting J.T.’s offer of repentance. I saw myself as a gamer, and I wanted to beat J.T. at a game he really cared about. He had ruined my future with a lie, and from that point forward his life was a long string of uninterrupted victories won because of the depth of his cruelty, his unmitigated disrespect for mankind in general, and his boundless dishonesty. His daddy had been a bastard of great repute, but J. T. was one of those duopolistic little men who took the greatest pleasure in the kind of revenge that stripped a man of his honor and a woman of her virtue. He hid behind a cloak of honesty, charity, and virtue while all the while he was stacking up lies so quick that no one had time to notice. There was a great deal of needless cruelty in his spurious dishonesty. He took joy in hurting weak people and saw it as their just punishment.
There had been a night years before when I saw evidence of J.T.’s cruelty. One of those occasions that I carry like a brand on my soul, I had come home to Lake Charles for my mother’s funeral in a borrowed suit, sporting a jail house moonlight tan, and a fifty cent haircut. There I was trying to shine the whole town on by carelessly spending every nickel in my pockets, walking on the edge of the truth, and talking the talk of a guy who had hit it big as a Hollywood writer.
There was no fooling J.T. as he had followed my career carefully. He chose to confront me the night before mamma’s funeral on the front porch of Hixson’s funeral home. He cursed me for being a fool, and a drunk, and a loser who had run out on his sick mama and left her destitute. He did this in front of mama’s friends and her two sisters and a bunch of my cousins. I suspect that they were pretty much of the same opinion as J.T which made his harangue unnecessary at best. As I watched him I was well aware that he was taking great pleasure in making me look small. It was as though by some silent signal they had all empowered him to say what they all were thinking. He got right up close to my face, and his words peppered me with small drops of spittle. “How dare you come to this good woman’s funeral reeking of booze and stinking of lies. The least you could do is come here with some degree of remorse and beg her forgiveness. These good people may permit it but not me. You get out of here now. You get on down the road and get the stench of mendacity washed off you.” Then he grabbed me roughly.
J. T. could have stopped right there, but it wasn’t his style. He plunged on like a bull out of control trying to stomp and gore his fallen rider into a greasy spot. I knew after a fashion what was happening. When J.T. was twenty and I was ten, a lot of folks thought we had the same daddy. Ludlow Slater was, J. T.’s daddy for sure and certain. The same folks that knew that for a fact were equally certain that I was his “woods colt”. They, over cups of coffee at the Silver Dollar Café, commented as to how Ludlow seemed to favor me more than J.T., and as to how it hurt J.T. to no end. They never said it to J.T.’s face, but he heard it plenty. He hated the hearing of it and he hated me. Hell, he even paid older boys at Second Ward School to beat me up on a couple occasions, but Ludlow put a stop to that real quick. However one must give credit where credit is due. J.T. drove a wedge between Ludlow Slater and me with one lie, and Ludlow put an end to the talk about me being his son, and banished me from Lake Charles with all the cruel dispatch given to lepers and snake oil salesmen.
So make no mistake, what J.T. said that night at the funeral home was not said out of respect for my dead mother. It was a hate speech that went back to our youth when I could out fish him, out think him, and out talk him, or so I thought.
I cannot recall how he worked it in that night on the funeral home porch, but at some point he got around to telling folks who wouldn’t stop listening that I was a loser that lacked the internal fortitude that it takes to be a winner. He denied we had the same daddy. Cursed those who slandered my mother’s name by calling her ‘Ludlow’s whore’. He said, “you‘re all show and no go, Mickey. You can’t fool these folks. They’ve known you all your life. You can’t wrap up your fancy lies in a silk bow and call them literature. You don’t even have the decency to give these folks credit for having the good sense to see you for what you are. That’s a liar, a lazy bum who lives off the gains of other men’s sweat, a man who has dedicated his life to cheap whores and the pursuit of easy dollars. You put that good woman you call your mama in an early grave. We all know you for the abomination that you are and they know I speak the truth. I value these people. I have invested my life in there well being. I have earned their trust and respect. You, Mickey Malone are a lower class, low life loser! “The conviction with which he said it gave added truth to the meaning of his words. Everyone gathered on that porch knew that J.T. had me accurately pegged from my jail house tan, the borrowed shirt marked with another man’s sweat rings, and my cheap white buck shoes with run down heels and holes in the soles. His final act was to strike me across the chest with his walking stick, breaking the pint of Johnny Walker Black in my coat pocket. It was shame, not cowardice, that drove me from that porch. The shame and the laughter of my mama’s friends and my blood kin who felt that I had got no more than I deserved.
That night on the porch of Hixson’s funeral home J.T.’s words hurt me, but I allowed myself to believe that he had the right to hurt me. It was J.T. who had bailed me out of jail in California to come home to mama’s funeral. I said to myself, “He’s feeling bad about having to bail me out of jail to come home. I was in many respects what he said. Not a big time crook, just a drunk who had written some checks he couldn’t cover. If I had gotten one or two breaks, I would have been in fat city. My homecoming would have been different. I knew J.T. did not believe in living on dreams, pursing dreams, or betting on the come. I knew he was the cruelest kind of liar; a man who did not waste his lies putting on a front. The more I thought about how he made me look like a fool, the angrier I got and the more useless I felt. If I had had a gun or a knife, and a little more courage I would have went for him that night. Instead I just went for another pint bottle.
There is courage in a whiskey bottle, false courage. Later that night I staggered into the bar of the St Regis hotel. I knocked J.T. out of his wheel chair and got ninety days in jail for assault and being drunk and disorderly. I missed mama’s funeral, but I don’t regret it. I went into that bar not for supper. I thought that I could drink up enough courage to go back to the funeral home and in private say to my mother the things I should have said when she was alive. I wanted to ask her for her forgiveness. They had cleaned her up and dressed her in white satin like some old dried up bride, and J.T. had paid for a fine looking oak coffin. I kept thinking that she had not looked or lived that well in years. I had only seen her for two or three minutes before J.T. had asked me to step out on the porch, but in those few minutes I felt the eyes of my family on me and the eyes of friends who knew mama and me. They were eyes filled with hate and contempt. I knew they wanted to see tears on my face, but I had no tears for mama. I kept recalling how it was between her and me. There was a lot of hard bitter stuff that most of them did not know, and if they knew parts of it they saw mama’s side not mine. They could forgive mama’s madness but not my wildness and rejection of her. I had wanted to say to mama, “Do you recall when I was five and you tried to drown me in the bath tub? Did you even know what you were trying to do? I forgive you for that and for all the nights you tied me to the clothes line out in the back yard with a dog chain around my waist. I forgive your screaming at me and cursing me when the police brought me back after I stole fifty dollars from your dresser and ran away at twelve. I forgive you for that same night when you broke my collar bone with a flat iron. I couldn’t forgive you then mama but I forgive you now and I hope you are finally in a good place.”
I guess I blame those folks down at Hixson’s that made you up for burial benignly unblemished. They hid away the last vestige of the pain you suffered. You left to me a legacy of hate and self-loathing, but to look at you lying there so peaceful and serene surrounded by family, friends, and sweet smelling flowers masking the terror and madness you had known and obscuring all the harm you had done.
It would be another lie to say that I knocked J.T. down because he ran me off from the funeral home. It had nothing to do with my mama. It was because of the waitress in the short red velvet skirt. I, to this day, do not see the harm in what I was doing. It was just a little flirtation, and I certainly don’t think J. T. was right in pressing assault charges. I was just trying to get my mind off of mama, and going back to Hixson’s and telling her what I had to tell her even if it was too late to matter. I wanted my two aunts to hear me saying to my mother that I begged her forgiveness and that I loved her so that they would think kindly of me and I could leave Lake Charles for once and for all with a clean conscience. Do not think for a moment that my mother’s death had not saddened me. It had nearly driven me mad. I thought if I could talk that pretty waitress into coming and tell her bedroom lies up to my room, and if I could make love to her for just a little while, it wash my hurt away. I could tell just by looking at her that it was a road she had been down before. She had heard her fair share of pillow lies and had told some herself. I wasn’t asking her for a lifetime of hurt. I just wanted a little love and some understanding.
J.T. brought the whole thing to an end when he rolled up in his wheelchair on the way back to his regular table. He had been politicking with some folks at a nearby table. He slipped by me like I was a horse turd dumped in the road. On his return trip he paused in front of me at the bar, smiled at the red skirted waitress, and said, “Before you go making a fool of yourself young lady, you had best take a careful look at Mr. Malone’s hands.” The way he said it made the word ‘mister’ sound dirty and cheap. But, he did not quit there. His cruel mouth continued. “You must look carefully at those hands and ask yourself how did they get so sunburned and scratched up on the top, If you were to have him turn them over, or if you were to be so unwise as to let him talk you into his bed and touch you with them you would feel calluses, and no doubt see his dirty fingernails which as of late had—“
As I recall I hit him about then. I pivoted off the bar stool and swung hard at his mouth. I saw her eyes filled with revulsion. He had convinced her. One blow wasn’t enough. I went at him like a madman, a fulfilled prophecy; the madwoman’s equally mad son flailing away at a sick old man in a wheelchair.
The memory of my knocking him out of the wheelchair ten years ago should have been sufficient reason for me to refuse this new game even at the risk of broken knees, but it didn’t! I didn’t even consider it again until I was resting in the tree. What J.T. proposed was a Mancipium Agreement, a contracted year of indentured servitude to free myself of my debts to him, a legal concept that could be traced back to ancient Rome.
Once J.T. had drawn me into his contract of servitude, we set up housekeeping on his summer island down on the Louisiana coast of the Gulf of Mexico. He was, as I recollect, not the least bit gracious or forgiving about his initial victory over me. “Hell,” he snorted. “I knew you’d come around to my point of view. You made it awful easy though. I rather thought I’d have to twist your ears a bit like I would a poorly broken horse or an egg sucking dog.
He spoke to me from behind his yellow teeth. He was a very bright and well educated man. He was top of his class law class at Tulane University. But, like all effective demigods and snake oil salesmen, he used the same homespun, quasi-ignorant, and mispronounced language that his father and his grandfather had spoken before him. They used it to win the hearts and minds of poor folks looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Their votes were purchased with false promises that contained just enough hope to keep the voters coming back for one more chance to grasp the brass ring and win the big prize.
I knew J.T. better than most and still from time to time I would get caught up in his posturing of ignorance and forget just how bright, deceitful, and dangerous he could really be. He was indeed magna cum laude from Tulane Law School. He had been both a district attorney and a Federal Appellate.Court Judge. He was a man who could properly pronounce and knew the meaning and subtlety of Quid sit jus, et in quto consistit injuria, legis est definire. He was a man who could, with absolute cleverness, submerge all the intelligence and learning that marked the true dimension of his mind and take on the persona of an uneducated ‘Cajun’ while he beguiled you with the image of your own false brilliance.
J.T.’s island was not really an island in the classical sense. It was a chenier. The word chenier is one of those cross-cultural words unique to Louisiana. It is a derivative of the French word for oak. It comes as close to meaning oak ridge as anything else. The cheniers along the coast line of Cameron Parish are like boney fingers extending horizontally across the marshlands daring the gulf with each wave to steal them back.
J.T.’s hunting and fishing cabin was on one of the oldest and smallest of the cheniers. It was about seven miles from Little Pecan Island. His chenier consisted of two distinct segments. The lower eastern portion of the island was cut off from the rest of the low ridge at high tide when it slipped beneath the blackish blue water in a swirl of mud. The lowered section had no oaks on it but on the farther most eastern edge on high dry land where the chenier still fought the gulf for dominance stood a scraggy pecan tree. The front side of J.T.’s island, the side nearest the gulf was made up of scruffy sand and broken white clam shells. The dry ground stood a little over two feet above water level at high tide. The chenier oaks stood out like centennials guarding the little island. There were areas of black soil toward the coast line of Louisiana slung up by the waves after they stole it from the fragile shore line.
The island was a place of enforced isolation. A condition which I detested, and no doubt was one reason why J.T. chose to go to such a place. It was very much the same as when his grandfather had built it in 1902. It was a simple white broad board cypress house, lit by kerosene lanterns. Fresh water was supplied by a cistern which trapped the rain water and inadvertently served as a pitfall for a wayward rat. The one major improvement J.T. made was indoor plumbing and a septic tank. With that singular exception, a visit to the island was a step back in time. Monks would have been content to dwell in such solitude, but I was not. I need lights, and noise, and the distraction of pretty women. I had, for most of my adult life, hidden my insecurity and fear in the tender folds of flesh that surround a woman’s heart. J.T. was well aware of all my faults, and he brought with him to the island a young, beautiful, red headed woman to use as bait in the snare he had laid for me.
The nurse, that’s what he called her his nurse, was an aspect upon which I had not counted. It was, I suspect a special kind of hell that J.T had rigged up just for me. He knew that I had a weakness for beautiful women, especially red haired women. And who should our only companion be during our period of exile, but Lacey Lemoine, a sometime stripper occasional hooker from New Orleans. She was a strikingly beautiful, red haired, young woman of about twenty-six years. Her stage name was Lace, and that name purely suited her. She was sprinkled with freckles as delicate as the holes in fine lace. I watched her day after day and heard her laughter on the wind night after night, and her every move brought forth from my fertile imagination detailed images of her body trying to escape the confines of a shiny, black, see through, silk bra. I suspected there was to her a resilient toughness, as strong as the silk thread that confines a sensuous butterfly within its cocoon.
J.T went to great lengths on more than one occasion to cheapen his “nurse” in my eyes. “There ain’t much to her.” He’d say. “She’s street trash out of New Orleans. Dancing naked on Burbon Street down in the quarter, snorting cocaine every chance she got, and hooking. She wasn’t a high class, high dollar whore, but one of those low end whores working the cheap crib joints frequented by the sailors from down on the docks and by candy ass college boys.”
“Oh by the way, you ain’t gonna have the pleasure of her company. I had doctor Burdelon check her close. She is 100 percent Life Boy soap pure, totally free of disease, and I’ll tell you the truth Mickey, I wouldn’t touch anything you screwed with a ten foot pole and that includes man, woman, or animal of any species.”
He was of course wasting his time. I took no hurt from his insults or his crude attempts at humor. I had no desire for the woman, no sexual hunger for her, well not initially. I liked being around her. I liked the sound of her laughter deep down in her throat, and I liked the smell of the shampoo she used in her hair as she came out of the shower. Then there was the way she would run her long elegant fingers through that tangle of red hair. Eventually I could picture my hands pulling hair pens from her hair and having it cascade down across our two naked bodies like a waterfall.
J. T. treated her badly. He held Lacey in the same low esteem with which I viewed him. I wondered what his hold was over her. I suspected that he had caught her up in a honey trap with about as much choice as he had given me. It probably involved time spent with him or time spent in a jail cell going down on any cop who desired to take her.
J. T. no longer used the wheelchair as a resting point when his legs gave out as he had at my mama’s funeral. He and the chair were now connected in a quasi-permanent fashion. He even slept in the damned thing. There was of course another aspect to his life beyond Lacey, the wheelchair, and me. The pain of the sharp toothed beast of a disease that was consuming his life could only be tamed and restrained by little needles filled with morphine. It did not take a college degree to figure out that Lacey had managed to steal for her own use a goodly amount of that product. The fact that she was a hop head and could not get through the day without her mojo, may well have been all it took to induce her to come to the island. But, all in all, there was something in me that would not let me believe that little slip of madness. The fact of the matter was he had the girl for any purpose he desired and I could only look and not touch. I began to see myself as her Sir Galahad, honor bound to free her from J.T.’s corrupt debauchery. I watched J.T.’s corruption of the girl’s flesh and spirit and waited taking refuge in the ten bottles of Johnny Walker Black I had brought from Cameron. The scotch was a godsend I rationed it carefully to escape the boredom, J.T.’s endless insults, and to fantasize about Lacey and me being free of J.T. My hatred of him, as he no doubt desired, grew day by day, and I began to suspect that it had no limits. I also knew in the deepest part of my soul that I had won the game. I knew that never in anger or spite would I lower myself to his level and kill him, a man whose poorly followed Catholic faith denied him the right to take his own life, even when living was a constant painful ordeal, void of pleasure beyond a dope induced haze.
There were of course moments when I wanted to kill him, but they were brief and pointless. Most nights I sat across a chessboard from him squinting through the lamp light filtered through the smoke of his Havana cigars, smashing at mosquitoes the size of humming birds that avoided his bloated sickened flesh but took great joy in my blood. During those chess games, I marveled at his cleverness and mental agility in spite of the ongoing pain and the morphine that would have sapped the mental energy of most men.
June the 26th was one of those lazy summer mornings. It was a Wednesday, one of those days when time just seems to hang endlessly on the slow tick of every second of the clock. J.T. and I were doing some rather casual half-serious crabbing off the boat dock. Lacy was lying in a hammock that was strung between two posts on the outer edge of the dock. She wanted to take her bikini top off and work on an even tan but J.T. would not permit just out of spite. It took less than two hours for the sun to get blazing hot even down close by the water in the shade of a canopy. I could see heavy grayish black rain clouds sliding towards us from far out in the gulf. I could out of the corner of my left eye see Lacy tossing about in the hammock trying to find a comfortable cool position, and I could not for the life of me get her out of my mind. She was reading some, but mostly dozing. It didn’t matter what J.T. said or what I suspected there was to her in that place at that time a child-like innocence and purity, and I despised the desire I felt for her more than my revulsion of J.T.’s demeaning corruption of her. J.T. was looking at her and at me. He had a slick smile on his face. He was swigging Jax beer from a long necked bottle. He still was able to take great joy in consuming beer, but food had begun to lose all interest to him. He was living on sardines, beer, dope, saltine crackers, and stool softeners. He was filthy, and disgusting, and as dangerous as a rabid fox.
Lacey was scheduled to make a supply run into Cameron in the launch that afternoon. J.T. called the boat his launch. When the falseness of J.T.’s over statement of the facts was stripped away, the ”launch” was nothing more than a fourteen foot, aluminum hulled, open decked motor boat powered by a twenty-five horse Mercury outboard. It was our only means of transportation to and from civilization. The run in to Cameron was a half hour boat ride for the girl, but it was a pleasure not afforded to me by J.T., and I had not been off the island in three weeks. As if he had read my mind, his watery blue eyes looked up at me from beneath the brim of his battered straw fishing hat. “I must be slipping in my old age.” J.T. said. “You have not had a day off in three weeks Mickey. You go on with Lacey to get the supplies. I can get by for four or so hours without the two of you. I’ve had my man Marcus send me down a package from the big house in Lake Charles. I want you to borrow a car from Monti Blanchard. You recall Monti don’t you? He used to hunt with my daddy when you were just a barefoot boy in shirttails. Well anyway, you borrow Monti’s car and run over to the post office in Cameron and pick up a package for me. He might recollect you. He sure as hell wouldn’t let a hop head like Miss Lacey drive off in his Lincoln convertible. I figure you and Lacey could both stand a break from my demands.”
I credited J.T.’s sudden outburst of generosity to the beer. I was not the least bit suspicious of his motives. What is it those crafty old Cajuns always say about pills in sugar coatings? “If a man give you a bitter pill with a sugar coating, sha, that pill most likely be alright, but you can bet money dat sugar be poisoned.”
The boat ride was rough. Lacey and I took quite a pounding, but it was a good boat and a sound motor. A strong wind had begun to blow in from the gulf and it carried with it a little slant of rain. The run in was rough but uneventful. After a time she snuggled up next to me on the stern seat. Lacey and I shared a poncho to keep us both dry and my last bottle of scotch. She offered no objection when I suggested we extend our liberty by an hour or so and get a motel room in Cameron. I was covering all the bases so as I asked her about the motel I flashed the two vials of morphine I had pilfered from J.T.’s medicine chest. She laughed and I knew from the sound of it that she was laughing with me at J.T. and what we were going to put over on him. When her laughter ended, she lowered her voice to a throaty whisper and said, “You didn’t need that monkey mojo magic to get me into bed. You’re a nice enough looking man, but I’ll tell you this straight and true. You’re gonna have to ask me nice to get naked under the covers with you, and you’re gonna have to make me believe for just a little while that you care for me more than just this afternoon” She laughed again and took a long slow pull on the scotch bottle. Her eyes were a little less flinty and there was less tightness in her mouth. I felt in that instant that she did not see me as a “John” or our love making as a job. She was going to do me for the joy there might be in it for both off us. Being with J.T. was no doubt an odious job. What she and I were going to have would be special.
Once I had picked up Monti’s Lincoln, the two of us started down the two lane blacktop that ran to Cameron. Lacey scooted across the seat and sat very close to me. So close that I could smell her hair and feel the naked heat of her thigh touching mine. Her left hand traced tiny circles on the back of my neck, and for a little while I forgot about Judge J.T. Slater and what he expected me to do to him and for him. I had the ragtop down on the Lincoln. The wind teased at Lacey’s cotton skirt and sleeveless blouse. Her skirt rode high up on her naked thighs and exposed the creamy perfection of her braless breast. I toyed with the idea of stealing the car and just running on down the road with her. J.T.,Monti, and the law be damned. I wanted her that bad. I wanted to pull the car off the road and have her right then, but I made myself wait. Sometimes waiting is the best part of discovering a woman’s passion. I fixed my mind on the feel of hot lather on my face, a hot shower, and the cool clean feel of an air conditioned room with its soft bed and white sheets. A part of that focus was the feel, taste, and touch of Lacey Lemoine.
When we got to the post office in Cameron, Lacey waited in the car drinking a bottled Coke and sneaking hits off the last of the scotch which she had concealed artfully in a towel to keep it secret from any curious passing eyes of would be do-gooders, self proclaimed street corner preachers, or nosey policemen. I could see she was getting a little bit tipsy, as I slid out of the car she gave me a sly little slack mouthed smile and dipped the towel wrapped scotch bottle in salute. All I wanted at that moment was to get back to her as soon as possible and to get her naked in that clean bed.
Hadley Prejean, the lady who ran the post office and everybody she could was a mean mouthed woman prone to hurtful speech. She escorted me back into her small neat office with its polished oak desk, clean astray and the stale smell of cigarette smoke that seemed to cling to ever thing that Hadley possessed. She was an old woman, and she had been old ever since we had been in high school together. She actually with the passage of years looked more akin to an old man than to an old woman. She had short, stiff, white hair. She never wore make up and her habitual choice of clothing ran to blue jeans, men’s shirts, and deer skinned Nacona cowboy boots with pointed toes. She lived in a double wide trailer at the end of a white clam shell road with her mama, Aunt Louise, and between the two of them they smoked about four packs of Lucky Strikes a day. The difference being Aunt Louise smoked hers crushed up in the bowl of a corncob pipe rolling paper and all.
“When you get back to J. T. you tell him two things for me. The first is to get his ass back to Lake Charles cause there’s a big storm blowing in after midnight tonight. The second is this, and you make this real clear. What I don’t know I can’t talk about, but what I do know I won’t sit still for. Not even for him, and I owe him and his daddy a lot. They were the ones who got me this job. You tell him he should know better than to do this kind of crap. After all, good God almighty, the man was a federal judge and he damn sure knows better. You give him this package and tell him to stop acting the fool. I want no part of it.”
She retrieved a broken box from the bottom drawer of her desk and showed me the contents which were clearly visible through the torn brown wrapping paper which was addressed to Judge J. T. Slater Post Office Box 326, Cameron, Louisiana. I could see the hard rubber checked grip and the blue steel finish of the slide. I made it to be a ’38 caliber automatic. There was a second small package contained within the larger one. It was wrapped tightly in binding tape. I could not see any actual part of the contents, but from its shape and size I knew it was more of the vials of morphine, quite a few more.
“That damned gun is loaded,” she screeched, “with a bullet chambered. He could have gotten somebody killed. He could have had his colored man bring it down. You tell him, and tell him good, if he pulls another stunt like this I’m going straight to the police, and I don’t mean the local police he can buy off. I mean the Feds. He can bring jail house trash like you and his whore down to the island till hell freezes over, but guns and drugs in the U.S. Mail is going too damned far.”
There is to every cheap southern motel room I have ever visited, a smell unique to no other environment. It is the lingering odor of slightly stale air that clings to the cheap drapes and poorly cleaned blinds. It mingles with the heavy scent of Pine-Sol, cheap liquor, and illicit passion. I slid onto the queen size bed, the kind that will vibrate if you feed it a few quarters, and as advertised, watched the flickering screen of an RCA color TV that was tracking the projected path of a hurricane named Audrey as it moved up out of the Gulf of Mexico slanting towards Beaumont, Texas.
I turned the TV’s sound off and let my mind focus on Lacey fussing about in the bathroom just beyond the partially opened door. I peeked through the crack between the door and the door jam, and I watched as her near perfect body slid beneath the soft sweet smelling bubble bath. I was about to go to her when I saw her battered leather suitcase sitting on the foot of the bed. I lifted it open. It was not a planned act. It was more intuitive than planned. The lie I told myself, moments later, was that I wanted to find a pair of sheer panties and a sexy bra for her to wear to bed. Then I saw the vials of morphine neatly packed away like sleeping soldiers next to the neat stacks of hundred dollar bills and the milk white purity of the little glassine packets of cocaine.
I began to laugh, not loud and boisterous, no it was more the soft laughter of a knowing conspirator. I pictured J.T. reacting to the theft of his drugs and his money, his only respite from the rat toothed like pain gnawing at his guts and his only hope of support and friendship ,which in his case had to be purchased like a whore’s cheap kisses. I wondered if his anger and rage at being ripped off of both his money and drugs would overcome the cancer pain gnawing at his belly.
Seeing the dope and the money changed all my plans. There was no going back to the island. Lacey and I would have to cut for Mexico without delay. J.T., even a sick and most probably dying J.T., would not let this insult go unanswered. Lacey and I had to get out of Louisiana and out of the country before the storm front rolled in from the south. The storm would be our cover. Depending on its intensity we might have as much as two or three days to make it down to San Antonio and jump the border down into Mexico. All it would take was a little luck and we’d be home free.
I did not join Lacey in the bath. I sat naked on the bed sipping Johnny Walker splashed over ice cubes in a paper cup and plotted our escape. We’d make a run to Sabine Pass, across to Beaumont, then Houston, and Fort Stockton. We’d lie low in Fort Stockton, burn Monti’s Lincoln out on the desert just outside of Van Horn, and catch a bus down to San Antonio and Mexico. The whole Magalia hung on the progress of that Gulf hurricane, Audrey.
Lacey was a thing of quiet beauty as she came out of the bathroom naked, shining like a silver star. The room was all cool quiet shadows. She moved with a dancer’s grace as she knelt before the little two chair table across from the bed. I watched her as she, bathed in the light of the muted TV screen, laid out two lines of cocaine from one of J.T.’s bags. Her hands were swift and true as she diced the white powder with a single edged razor blade, adjusted the width of each of the lines, and rolled one of J.T.’s crisp hundred dollar bills into a tube.
I saw the hunger in her eyes as she looked at the drugs and, and I knew it would be a problem somewhere down the Iine. But this was here and this was now and the force that turned the wheel was passion. I took a long drink of the Johnny Walker.
She said, “Baby are you ready for some blow?”
I answered with complete honesty. “All I want is to be inside you.
She drew the two lines up her nose, first the one on the right and then the one on the left. She was at peace with the world as ready for me as I was for her. All the dirt and hurt that J. T. had imposed on the two of us was washed away. I threw the covers off the bed as she came towards me and I wanted her more than any woman I had ever had.
“How do you want me” she asked, “on my belly or on my back?”
I answered “On your belly.”
She slid beneath me as though we had made love a hundred times or so. Her body fitted neatly, snugly, comfortably under mine. As I entered her she thrust her hips back violently. I was momentarily overcome by her passion, but it was not passion. Her hands were grasping at her stomach. Her voice was an animal like, strangled, garbled plea for help. Before I could give her any relief she expired, no not expired she died. She died painfully and violently twisting in agony, soiling herself, and calling for her mother.
I had seen a similar death out in California. A jail house snitch, named Terry Jamerson was going to give up a trustee for punking young dudes who ran up cigarette debts far beyond their limited means to pay. The trustee, a black kid named Rodney knew Terry liked his cocaine main lined. He arranged for Terry to get a hotshot, cocaine cut with rat poison. Lacey’s death was reminiscent of Terry’s and just as ugly.
I waited until almost dark. Then I moved the Lincoln to a parking spot close by the motel door. I put the suitcase with the money and the dope in the trunk of the car, and then I staggered out carrying Lacey’s dead weight in my arms as I nuzzled her face and laughed. We must have looked to all the world like two drunken lovers taking off to avoid the coming storm. I headed back to the boat dock. J. T. and I had one more score to settle.
There was rain now but I took no note of it. I left Lacey lying in the back seat of the Lincoln under an army blanket. Her eyes were closed, her face at peace, she was sleeping the long sleep. The Gulf, the outboard, the wind and the rain for a time contained my anger. I could feel the steel of the pistol cold on my belly. I began to run scenarios in my mind of how the cocaine might have gotten poisoned. Maybe some of J.T.’s crooked associates feared that he might as death approached feel the need to confess and redeem his long lost soul, an act that would put their individual freedom at cost them money. They were the type of men who would act with more certainty. They would have sent a man from New Orleans, a man who did ”wet work”, and he would have put two small caliber pistol shots into J.T.’s head.
There was only one reasonable answer, J.T.’s black heart. He had no doubt put rat poison in all the packets of cocaine. He had counted on me wanting the woman and her wanting the drugs even more than I wanted her. He had offered me cocaine on the island and I had refused it on more than one occasion. He would have counted on that too. He knew well all of my weaknesses. How I would plan to run off with the money, the drugs, and the woman, how I would violate the Mancipium agreement, and how Lacey’s death would compel me to return to the island and kill him.
I found him in the darkened cabin lying on the floor in his own filth. He was curled up like a fat, sick old dog. His red and white stripped silk pajamas had like him lost all vestige of elegance. My mind began to do strange things. The boat ride had calmed me down, but the sight of him and the memory of Lacey dying. Her face contorted, her eyes bulging out, her youth, vitality, and beauty extinguished in one moment made me want to punish him. I did not want to kill him. I wanted to make him suffer right up to the moment that I jammed the pistol into his mouth and watched him look into my eyes as the hammer fell again and again on an empty chamber. Then I saw his face shining out of the darkness, the little, black, squinted, pig eyes just behind his smile, the self same smile that I had seen years before in a movie with Charles Laughton. It was the face of the hunchback calling for sanctuary.
I can’t recall if I read it, or if someone I cared for and respected said it, but I had at some point in my life come to believe that violent acts committed during fits of madness to you or by you were blotted out by memory. That is a lie, a falsehood of the highest order.. I was crazy mad with hate when I set out from that motel room to deliver to J.T. his just punishment. Every moment of that horrible time, every action of mine or his is burned into my memory.
I saw his eyes , and in that instant a great calmness came over me. I knew that come hell or high water I was going to take J.T. back to Cameron to stand trial for Lacey’s murder. It did not matter to me if he suffered the pains of hell itself or sat in his wheelchair in a doped up stupor. I would not permit him the sanctuary of death. He had to be accountable for what he had done to her, and I had to be the instrument that dragged him down.
I shook him like a broken rag doll and I looked into the pig like eyes and I said. “You will not die you sorry-son-of-a-bitch. I’m going to move heaven and hell to get you back alive. That girl did not deserve to die just because you’re a twisted bastard.”
As I turned loose of him and started to right the wheelchair and get him down to the boat not for one moment thinking of the problems posed by the rain, the mud and the growing storm. He rolled over on to his left side and lashed out with his right hand. I saw the flash of the blade too late to move out of its path. There was white hot pain as he drove the butcher knife so deep into my left thigh that I felt the knife tip breaking as it smashed into bone. I raised the pistol to swing a blow at J.T.’s head, and as I did so a black swirl of shadow rose above the high windows of the cabin. The wood and glass simultaneously disintegrated under the weight of the water and the fury of the wind as the tidal surge overtopped the chenier. My only thought was to save J.T. and to take him alive back to Cameron.
I could not have held J.T. above the water for very long. He was all dead weight. The fierce wind and swirling water carried the two of us into the pecan tree on the back of the chenier. The two of us were lashed to its twin forks like sacrificial lambs by electrical wire from the destroyed cabin, rope from the hammock on the dock, and a twist of branches and vines. Wave after wave driven by the wind slammed into the pecan tree, but it would not yield.
In the midst of that hellish confusion, I saw that J.T.’s right hand still held the butcher knife with its broken tip. He was at most two arms lengths away from me. His face was a distorted mask of hate. There was no fear in it, no despair just unmitigated hate. He no longer needed me or my services. The storm was to be his executioner and he mine.
He slashed away at his bindings trying desperately to free himself. I struggled with equal intensity to free myself and escape the blade. I saw the little motorboat. Its anchor line stretched full out holding fast to the last remnants of the chenier and the tree roots that had held it secure against the storm’s fury. I had but one thought one desire, to reach that little boat.
The next and largest wave slammed in and as my mouth filled with salt water and my eyes were blurred by its sting two images were burned into my brain. The little motorboat still tethered to its anchor line was jerked straight down and disappeared beneath the dark water, and the fork of the pecan tree that held J.T. in its embrace split away. I saw the gantries of termites and the newly exposed unseen rot that had weakened the pecan tree at its strongest junction. J.T.’s place of refuge slipped beneath the water. The flashing knife blade could not cut through the strand of wire that bound him to the tree. I watched him drown with no thought of his suffering. The man who made himself my enemy, the man who sought death as an escape from pain, fought against it violently until the last breath was gone from his body. Each new wave caused me to doubt my place in the tree. All I had thoughts for was my own death which I feared greatly. I began to endlessly repeat “Hail Mary’s”.
J.T. and I, boyhood companions, half-brothers who shared the same father, enemies because he made my mother his whore after a lifetime bound together by mutual hatred of each other’s vices, were bound together for three more days. Audrey was done with us quickly but the Gulf was not. The sun, the thirst, the hunger, and most of all, J.T. floating in the clear water just below my feet was not yet done. I watched the blue shell crabs as they fed upon his exposed flesh, taunting me with the fate that awaited me. He and those crabs were my only companions for two nights and the better part of three days. I said the “Hail Mary’s” during my every conscious minute and I only paused to pray to God for relief and when it did not come to offer up my soul to the devil but that too was without recompense.
The high tide was my enemy. It came in once a day and as I struggled to keep my head above water and tried not to consider how firmly the swaying pecan tree was adhered to the damaged chenier. I came to regret every hurt I had ever done to J.T., in the midst of the spoken “Hail Mary’s” in silence I cursed my lies, and my vanity, and the painful struggle to keep my head above water as long as possible. Even so I would not lower my face into the water and give up my life to the crabs.
Relief came on that third day in the form of Monti Blanchard. His first efforts were directed toward J.T. and the crabs. He was still J.T.’s man. Monti beat the crabs away with his boat paddle. He then went into the water with a fishing knife and a pair of pliers that he used to skin cat fish. He cut what remained of J. T. away from his section of pecan tree. He looked at me for what seemed like an awful long time as though he was deciding something in his own mind, and then he started cutting me lose and thanking me for trying to save J.T.’s life.
I did not bother to tell him why I came back for J.T., and that his being in the tree was in no way my doing. The local papers made me out to be a hero because some folks had seen me set out into the teeth of the storm in a small boat to rescue Judge J.T. Slater from a doomed chenier. Monti’s story of how I had lashed J.T. and myself to the pecan tree added to the myth, but in the end it accounted for nothing. There were more compelling stories up and down the Louisiana coast. The Lincoln, the girl Lacey, the money, and the dope were gone forever.
I lost my left leg just below the knee to infection and gangrene. I made it down to Costa Maya, Mexico a year after Audrey. I spend my time drinking Mexican beer from long necked bottles and when the tourists are buying good tequila, I tend bar a little, fish a little, and I write a little. The tourists, momentarily bored by the boat ride come ashore looking for paradise. They drink, gorge themselves on lobster tacos, and listen for the boat whistle that calls them back to who they really are.
I see from time to time a beautiful young face that brings Lacey back into my mind and fills me with hurt, and desire, and sadness.
Four hundred twenty-five people are listed as killed by that great storm of June the twenty-seventh, nineteen fifty-seven. You will not find Lacey Lemoine’s name on that list. She is, I suspect, not the only unnamed victim. A woman out in California, who I came as close to loving as any woman I have ever known, told me, “as long as someone remembers you and speaks well of your name although you are dead your life counted for something.”
I shall always remember Lacey in that context. Her life, brief though it was, counted for something. It was out of my love for her that I tried to save J.T., and bring him back to stand trial for the wrong he had done. It was her that I dreamed of and talked to, not in the pecan tree, but in the hospital when I was fighting pain and infection before they took my leg away. It was her memory and visions of her face that came to me in my dreams and took away the pictures of the blue shell crabs consuming J.T.s face.
There are nights down here when I hear again her laughter on the wind and look for her behind every shadow.