"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

AEI Client Milton Lyles Published in The Del Sol Review

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.

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