Story Merchant Books had the good fortune to discover and publish Milton Lyles’ Bayou Trilogy (The Cruelest Lie, The Candle Seller, The Other Side of Tomorrow) because I’m convinced that Milt is a major, authentic, though still largely unrecognized, voice in American letters. In a more and more saturated story environment, his stories stand out for their moral grit, their genial cynicism about human nature, and their profound insight into the humor and depths of the human soul. Here is his latest short story.
The Summer War
By Milton Lyles
I did not as a boy despise the blistering, energy-sapping, wearisome heat of Louisiana’s summers. I now find my refuge in air-conditioned hotels and the upscale cars which haul me to and from them, but as a boy I did not experience such luxury. I took my refuge from the heat in the soft shade of a cool, green wood lot traversed by a lazy bayou.
The imperturbable beauty of that place is a long time gone. Like so many of the places in my journey from idealistic youth to cynical old man, it fell victim to the modernizing tide that brought interstate highways flanked by the vulgarity of strip malls and the equally unimaginative and uninspired tract houses strung together with ribbons of asphalt—houses now inhabited by lives which boast the depths of their prosperity by the make of the SUV crouching outside their two-car garages and by the diminished size of their TV dish antennas.
But in the summer of my thirteenth year, it was for a time a place of beauty and excitement. My five friends and I ran through the secluded woods and frolicked in the tepid waters of the slow flowing bayou which cut across it. We were, in that place, free of the worrisome eyes of our mothers, who took their refuge from the heat in darkened rooms made bearably cool by the endless beating of window fans. In their absence, we formed sort of a friendly gang, calling ourselves “The Church Street Raiders.”
My friends and I were not without enemies. There were the Cajun boys from Ford Street, youth very much like and unlike us who traveled in barefoot splendor the concrete-lined coulee that was the boundary of our claimed territory. They would sneak up on our wood lot and lob ineffective clods of dirt at our tree house fort, a place of sanctuary from which we hurled down upon them insults and equally-harmless sticky, wet, hand-formed red clay balls. They were “coon asses,” Cajun French. We scorned them because we thought ourselves to be “real Americans.” The colored kids, who lived on the perimeters of our lives, were as overlooked and taken for granted as the slow passage of time itself. Neither my friends nor I had, in that seemingly long ago time, experienced the kiss of a girl for whom we really cared, or had been compelled to make a painful moral decision based upon courage and good conscience.
The Cajun boys were part of our boyhood games of war in a time of real war in the adult world. But they were our make-believe enemies. Our only real and true enemy was the One-Legged Crow, who happened to be the legal owner of our wood lot. She was a sixty-three year-old Baptist widow woman who had been aged far beyond her years– by days spent in the harsh sun, by the alcoholic antics of her late husband, and by both her nutmeg brown skin and her dark somber clothing. I cannot recall ever seeing her dressed in anything except long, black mourning dresses.
I was responsible for establishing her title, because she looked to me like a giant crow. I find crows to be frightful birds. They have seemed so since I was a very small boy. I was I guess about five years old when it happened. My mama, Miss Ruby, was a loving but somewhat lazy Irish girl with red hair and a quick tongue. Mama suffered from real bad headaches, and her doctor, Doctor Billy Ray, prescribed for her a strong, bitter-tasting headache powder that had the effect of putting my mother to sleep through the worst hours of the headache. On days when her head got really bad and my papa was at work, mama would say to me, “Mookie, mama is going to take a white powder nap. I’m going to put you on the clothesline so you’ll be safe.”
She would then strap a belt around my waist. It was one of my daddy’s thick, wide work belts with extra holes punched into it with an ice pick so as to accommodate my small waist size. The loose end was not cut off, and it flapped down my backside like a tail. It was that flapping, black, back tail which inspired my nickname, “Mookie.” It began as “Monkey,” a childish tease, but softened into Mookie as I grew older.
My mama used that belt and a dog chain to fasten me to the clothesline in our back yard, giving me sort of an oval arena where I could play. Mama would hook the dog chain through the belt at my back, locking the buckle in place so that I could not reach it and free myself. She would then hook the catch end to the clothesline, which ran in a straight line from the back, right, outer corner of mama’s kitchen, wherein she never found time to cook, to the left, outer corner wall of daddy’s empty garage, wherein no car had ever been contained. Daddy’s garage was instead the habitat of a flock of Guinea fowl and Bantam chickens, which he raised as a hobby, and speckled-bellied laying hens, which were the source of mama’s egg-selling business and our Sunday chicken dinners.
The chicken pen enclosed the back half of daddy’s garage and extended across the remainder of our backyard. Our backyard shared a fence with the backyard of a colored man named Mose Jefferson. The chicken pen, with its residue of commercial chicken food and cracked corn remnants scattered in the dust, often attracted a flock of crows. I never took note of them until a baby crow fell from the nest at the top of the tall pecan tree. It happened during one of mama’s white powder headaches. I saw it fall, and by stretching out the maximum limits of the dog chain, I was able to pluck it from the grass. It was an ugly, sickly looking thing with a big yellow bill and a scrawny, wet, black body. The little bird filled the air with shrill cries, and the adult birds descended upon me like a swarm of angry bees. They beat at me with their black wings and slashed at me with fierce yellow beaks.
Disoriented by panic, I clutched the baby crow in my hands far too hard and ran blindly up and down the length of the clothesline calling for my mama. But Miss Ruby did not come to save me. The hands that took the dead baby crow from my hands and cast it into the chicken pen were the charcoal black hands of Mose Jefferson.
I had crushed the life from that baby crow out of fear and confusion, not out of anger. The crows that attacked me wanted to save one of their own. What they did, they did out of a deep-seated biological drive. But at the age of five, that did not matter to me. I hated them. I firmly believe that we are not born with hatred within us. It is learned, and that day on the clothesline I had learned to hate the crows. As I grew older, I took full advantage of every chance I got to punish or harass crows, even to the point of death.
As I saw it, The One-Legged Crow was just as low-down mean as the flying crows. If they offended her, she harassed and tormented weaker creatures. She relentlessly pecked away at them. As daytime squatters on her lot, my friends and I knew this firsthand.
The One Legged Crow’s given name was Sally Braswell Troop. The rest of the town called her Aunt Sally. She’d lost her right leg when her late husband, Bradford Ludlow Troop, raced the Sunset Limited through an unmarked train crossing. Bradford had a cream colored Packard 1601 convertible with a straight-8 motor, hydraulic brakes, and independent front suspension. It was a real fine car, but no match for the power of that big steam train.
As my daddy told the story, Aunt Sally bailed out just before the engine of the train cut the Packard in half, with a dazed Bradford still slumped over the steering wheel inside. Sally was still cursing her husband at the top of her voice for the drunken son-of-a-bitch that he’d been when her right leg slammed into a telephone pole. It was splintered above and below the knee like a white pine tree caught in a whirlwind. Aunt Sally was hauled off to the hospital in the back of a Borden’s milk truck. The driver threw out all the cases of milk and packed ice around Aunt Sally’s mutilated leg. Her last words before she passed out were, “Don’t let that old drunk Billy Ray hack my leg off. My leg can be saved.”
But Doctor Billy Ray Bordelon did hack her leg off. When Aunt Sally woke up from the operation, the doctor told her that he had no choice. She said to him, “You had no right.” He responded that she would have died otherwise. “Better off dead,” was Aunt Sally’s retort.
Doctor Billy Ray had taken off her leg nine inches below the hip. It was not a neatly-done piece of work. He had spent most of Friday night and all of Saturday morning in a Bourré game at Buster McCracken’s fish camp on Little Pecan Island. Aunt Sally maintained that Doctor Billy Ray butchered her leg because he was drunk. She tried without success to sue him for malpractice. Just about everybody at the card game that night staunchly maintained that Doctor Billy Ray did not drink while he was playing cards. If there were mistakes made, they were products of fatigue and the complex nature of Aunt Sally’s traumatic injury. Aunt Sally did not forgive Doctor Billy Ray or accept the losses she had sustained. She became The One Legged Crow, dressed always in black. She wore her mourning dress as much for her missing leg as for her dead husband. Her whole life became focused on her only child, Jude Bradford Troop, the son she and Bradford had conceived three months before going to their wedding bed twenty years earlier.
The wood lot where my friends and I had played at boyhood games was where Aunt Sally wanted Jude to build his house once the war was over. She owned it, but she always called it Jude’s Wood Lot Down by the River. However, the boys and I had claimed the so-far-neglected space in every way we knew how: we built our tree house in the old magnolia tree, we defended the land from the Cajun boys, and I had even begun to design a Church Street Raiders flag to fly above the property.
On the 13th day of June 1944, our claim was finally challenged: Aunt Sally sent Mose Jefferson, who was also her hired man, to run us out of the wood lot. My five friends and I were gathered in the tree house, having a heated discussion over who was the best hero, Superman or Captain Marvel. We were drinking RC Cola, eating Planter’s Peanuts, and being little boys loud. I favored Captain Marvel and was making my case on his behalf. Mose Jefferson stole upon us as quiet as death. It was my name that he called out, and for a long second I thought it was the voice of God himself calling me home to heaven. When I came to my senses, it was the fact that Mose had singled me out to talk to which made me mad– Mose was a neighbor and knew my daddy, but I felt put-upon by this and indeed I became chiefly responsible for what happened next.
“You best listen to what I say, Mookie,” he continued. “Aunt Sally wants you boys off this property. She says to take y’all’s stuff and not to come back in these woods no more. If you do, she will put the law on ya.”
I did not show myself to Mose, and the other boys were as quiet as thieves. I just yelled down to him in what I thought was a very mature voice, “Mose, you go and tell Aunt Sally to let us be. We ain’t doing any harm to her wood lot.”
I waited for his reply and got none. Just when I thought he had gone away, I heard a small noise behind me. When I turned, there was Mose crouching on a large branch not three feet from my face. He looked at me with very hard eyes. “If I was you and your friends, I would busy myself clearin’ out of these woods for good and always, and not wastin’ your time or makin’ Aunt Sally perturbed talking about what is or what ain’t.”
I spoke harshly to Mose. I spoke in the manner that cruel white men talked to colored folk. It was, I think, pride and anger which led me to say, “Well you ain’t me, and don’t you go forgetting it. You ain’t nothing but a raggedy assed old colored man.” I could see right away in his eyes how my words stung him like a whip.
I knew that if he told my daddy or even my mama what I had said to him, I was the one who would get a whipping. They had not raised me to be what daddy called, “a trashy, back talking child,” and daddy was well known for not being prejudice against colored folks, Catholics, or Jews. One of the multitude of complaints Aunt Sally had against my daddy was that he supported Franklin Roosevelt’s Jew war in Europe, the war that had whisked away her son, and in her words, “was not even man enough to fight in it.” I was just about to put it right and apologize to Mose, but before I could wet my mouth, one of the boys threw a red clay mud ball and hit Mose right upside the nose. Four other mud balls followed in rapid succession. Mose half fell, half climbed down to the ground and fled the wood lot chased by six mud ball throwing boys and the sound of their wicked laughter. I felt bad about what I had done for just a moment, but I got carried away in the perceived victory defined by the image of Mose sliding and scrambling down from the tree.
I do not, after all these years, know which boy threw the first mud ball. None of the five have ever admitted to being first to fire. I know I joined in as Mose fled the tree and the wood lot, which makes me guilty as any, and more so than most for what followed. We boldly roamed the wood lot for the best part of an hour. We laughed at how funny “Old Mose” looked running till his ankles smoked. He had suddenly become Old Mose and would remain so for the rest of our lives. One by one the other boys found feeble excuses to leave the wood lot. As they departed the tree house fort, they took their possessions with them, knowing full well that our treatment of Old Mose and Aunt Sally’s response would surely lead to our banishment from the wood lot for a couple of weeks. Aunt Sally was very partial to Old Mose. T. J. Sinclair’s daddy said Aunt Sally treated Mose as good as a white man. Even to the point of letting the nigger eat at her table if there was no company in her big fancy house. Mr. Sinclair used the word nigger a lot. T. J. used it, but not to the face of colored people. He was clever in that fashion.
I was the last one out of the tree house fort. I dragged up the rope ladder one last time, secured the entry door with the bolt latch, lowered the shutters over the windows, and climbed out through the escape hole in the leaky roof. It was well into the afternoon when I started out. I had just taken the log bridge across Cat Bayou when I heard the sound of a heavy hammer falling hard on finished lumber.
I did not run as Old Mose had, but I was quick and stealthy in my return to the tree house fort. The late afternoon sun cut slashes across the wood lot floor, and I watched through my tears as Old Mose used a nine pound hammer to smash down our tree house. His face was ugly with hate, his clothes were marked with red clay stains, and I knew it was the six of us that Old Mose was smashing with that hammer. Our youthful vanity had made him our enemy.
I told my friends what I had seen, told them to be watchful of Aunt Sally and Old Mose, and told them that a price should be paid for the destruction of our tree house fort. I became, by virtue of my insult to Old Mose and my tale of how he destroyed the tree house, the acknowledged leader of our little band
The six of us began to meet in our new fort, a very inferior newly constructed club house atop my daddy’s garage chicken coop. We set out from there like Carlson’s Raiders on Makin Island to inflict damage on our enemy. The rule was if you thought up the prank, you had to pull it off, and if you failed to contrive a prank or lacked the nerve to carry through with it, you were no longer a blood brother and a Marine Raider, our newly formed identity.
We all took Dean to be the dumbest of our group, but he pulled off the first raid all right. While we hid and watched, Dean removed the four screws which secured Aunt Sally’s mailbox to a cypress post. Then we began the excited wait for her to come out on her crutch (she scorned the use of an artificial leg and hated her wheelchair), open the mailbox, and struggle to gain control of it as the mailbox slipped off the post and fell onto
the edge of the muddy ditch that marked the boundary of Ford Street. In frustration, jiggling on her one good leg like a puppet with a broken string, she threw that mailbox into the ditch. From that time on, she had Old Mose pick up her mail at the post office. The only flaw in our plan was that she did not appear to credit the mishap to us.
T.J. was up next, and he said we ought to supply clues which suggested us as the culprits without directly tying us to the acts of vandalism. We used T.J.’s slingshot, which his daddy called a “nigger shooter,” for our next prank. Lonnie, whose dad repaired pinball machines, got us six steel pin balls from a couple of the junked machines. T. J. fired them into the windows of Old Mose’s house, destroying six squares of glass. I think he and Aunt Sally got the idea about then that they had a problem, and that the wood lot boys were the source of it.
The next day Old Mose came to see my daddy. Old Mose was doing that hat in hand, eyes down, shuffle-footed thing colored men did when seeking favors from white men. I could not hear their conversation, but I could measure the anger by the redness in daddy’s face. When daddy got mad, his face would turn beet red. After Old Mose had been gone for less than a minute, daddy searched my room for a slingshot, but he did not find one. I had thrown my own on top of the garage in anticipation of what had to follow the breaking of Old Mose’s windows. Daddy did not bother to come right out and ask me if I was a party to the window breaking. We both knew that if he had, I would have, no doubt, lied about it.
I had a whipping coming. What surprised me was that daddy whipped my butt on the front porch using the same old, wide, black belt that mama had used to tie me to the clothes line the day that Old Mose saved me from the attacking crows. I did not cry at first, but it was daddy’s policy to whip you till you cried. Of course, if he felt I was faking and cried too fast, he would lay on a few more swipes of the belt for what he called “the general principle of the thing and for good measure.” I guess it was kind of like, “and one to grow on” at a birthday spanking. Of course, in daddy’s serious whippings, one swat was never enough
I looked up from my tears that afternoon and I saw Old Mose just down the sidewalk. He no longer had his shuffle-footed, hat in hand, false humility face on. He was standing there, his dirty felt hat pushed back far on his head, his arms folded with authority across his chest, and a forty-four tooth possum smile lighting up his face
Whippings from my daddy, as painful as they were, did not deter me. I now hated Old Mose because he had seen me whipped like a small child and had laughed at my tears and protestations. I had not begged daddy to stop, but I had come very close to that ultimate humiliation. This new game of pranks had become more consuming than the imitation war we had fought with the Cajun boys. We felt we had, by cause of the destruction of the tree house and our banishment from the wood lot, just reason to inflict punishment on Aunt Sally and Old Mose. It made our vandalism seem more heroic than criminal
The third, and what proved to be the final prank, was mine. Aunt Sally had an American flag flying on a lighted flag pole out in front of her two-story house. She had said she would fly it twenty-four hours a day, seven days, a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, until the war was done and Jude was home safe and sound. I proposed the removal of Aunt Sally’s flag a week from the date, on the night of July 3. We would replace it with the flag which I had designed and recently completed for the Church Street
Raiders. It was a two foot by three foot bleached cotton banner adorned with a drawing of a Marine Raider I copied from a comic book. Imposed across the Stars and Bars flag he held aloft in his left hand was the broken body of a cottonmouth water moccasin. I had carefully printed “DON’T TREAD ON ME” along the snake. The Marine Raider was firing a Thompson submachine from the hip with his right hand, and he had a Bowie knife dripping blood clasped in his teeth. He looked an awful lot like John Wayne
The task which I had set for myself was not an easy one. Aunt Sally’s flag was not secured to the twenty-five foot flag pole with a pull rope. The flag lanyard had been removed after some neighborhood boys, I suspected the Cajun kids, stole two of Aunt Sally’s flags. She had pledged to shoot the next person who trespassed upon her property and violated what she called “Jude’s flag.” It was now secured to the top of the pole by a short metal chain and two clasps. The only way to remove it was to shimmy up the pole without her seeing, and that is exactly what I planned to d
The six of us gathered in the coulee on the night of July 3, 1944. Aunt Sally’s flag hung limply on its flagpole, bathed in white light from a spotlight mounted on her front porch roof
We set out toward it in a single file with me in the lead. The Ford Street drainage ditch was hot and dry and carried the faint smell of cat urine. Aunt Sally’s house was dark and quiet. A dog barked somewhere off in the darkness. To our advantage, Aunt Sally did not take with dogs. She was, like most widow women, a cat person. She even had a hand painted sign nailed up to the wall by the screen door of her front porch. It said in neat, black, block letters, “A house without a cat is not a home.
I slithered up out of the ditch like a snake, Raider flag tucked in the back of my belt, and my breath coming in short excited gulps. My hands were wet with sweat, and the contents of my stomach did little flip flops. I had not done any real practice or preparation for the task which lay before me. I had, of course, shimmied up some pine trees with thin trunks, and rode them down to the ground, and that experience gave me a false sense of the ease with which a steel pole could be climbed. It was a difficult task, but I quickly developed what I took to be an effective technique. I would lock my legs on the pole, squeeze tight with my thighs, reach up with my right hand, place my left hand above it and pull myself up half an arm’s length
The climb seemed to take forever. Twice, I damn near gave in and slipped back down the pole in defeat. The thing that kept me climbing was ego. I liked being the leader of the Raiders. I liked the feel of the weight of admiring eyes on my face and body. So I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and climbed through the pain until at least my right hand filled itself with the base of Jude Troop’s flag. I could not with one hand free the Stars and Stripes of the clasp which held it. With great difficulty, I pulled my Boy Scout knife from my only pocket that did not have a hole in it. I cut away the bottom ring of Jude’s flag, shimmied up the top of the pole with my knife in my teeth, just like the raider on my hand-drawn flag, took a strong grip on the eagle which capped the flag pole, and slashed the American Flag free in one quick cut.
As the flag fluttered toward the ground, I heard a loud moan. I swiveled my head towards the sound. I was looking into Aunt Sally’s bedroom. By the illumination of the flagpole light, I saw Old Mose and Aunt Sally lying naked upon her bed: him a coal black shadow lying across the whiteness of her belly, and her face lit with the most loving of smiles, a smile which transformed her wrinkled face into a thing of beauty.
I do not know what made her look toward the flagpole. Maybe the sight of the two of them made me gasp, or perhaps it was the shadow of a bat or night owl crossing in front of the light. More than likely she just felt me watching. I don’t know for how long our eyes were locked before she screamed, but as soon as she did, I lost my hand hold and went sliding down the flagpole. I was unable to grasp it with my knees or hands and at some point, still high up on my slide, I came free of the pole and fell, as they say, “ass end over tea cups.” I broke my collar bone, two ribs, and my right wrist.
I do not know if what followed next was by loving plan or selfish betrayal. Aunt Sally had come out of her house yelling rape almost before I hit the ground. My companions had run off in fear, leaving me to meet the police and ambulance that responded to Aunt Sally’s frantic phone call. I do not blame them now, but it took me a lot of years to get to that point.
They arrested Old Mose. He did not suffer the humiliating and painful indignity of a two-hour hellish whipping with a logging chain followed by a fiery lynching. Old Mose got his due legal process, confessed so as to spare Aunt Sally having to testify, and was executed in the State of Louisiana’s portable electric chair three weeks later in the basement of the parish jail.
I carry still the guilt of Old Mose’s needless dying. I always knew in my heart he did not rape The One Legged Crow. My daddy did not hold me to be at fault for what I saw. He accepted the fact that our lives are defined by accidents and choices. He visited Old Mose every day up until the day he was executed. On the occasion of daddy’s last
visit, Old Mose confided that he and Aunt Sally had been lovers for a good long time. He told my daddy that what was happening had to happen, and that he bore me no ill will.
That information did not much help to assuage my guilt. I dreamt for years of the old black man strapped to that chair with fire coming out of his mouth and smoke boiling out of his ears.
The execution of Old Mose marked the end of The Summer War, the termination of my friendship with my five youthful companions, and the death of my innocence. Aunt Sally never spoke to me or to my daddy again. She had all the trees in Jude Troop’s wood lot cut down. She then had it fenced off with barbed wire and, posted with “no trespassing signs.” For the remainder of her life, she sat on her back porch swing near the ice box. Her crutch and a telephone were on a wicker table by her side. If you walked to the upper edge of the coulee as I often did, you could see her there on all but rainy days wearing a black dress, drinking copious amounts of gin splashed over shaved ice, and calling the police each time someone trespassed on the now-empty no man’s land of a wood lot.
It was twenty years after the war before my father and I had the courage to really talk about Old Mose and Aunt Sally. Jude Troop had been killed in a car wreck in London in the days which preceded the great invasion of Europe by the Allies. Aunt Sally had been notified on June 13, 1944. She had sent her man Mose to tell my five companions and me to leave the wood lot. The sound of our games and boyish laughter was too much like the sounds her Jude and his best friend, my daddy, had made when they were boys growing up faster than trees on Aunt Sally’s wood lot.
It was, no doubt, my smart-mouthed impudence which prevented Mose from delivering Aunt Sally’s message in its entirety. I do not believe that he did not intend to tell us the reason why we were being banished from the wood lot. The only comfort that I can take in all that happened that summer is this. We all travel in the hand of God, and our falling away from life or the fall of others is always only part of our doing. Old Mose angry as he was, should have told us they why of it. If he had done so, there would not have been a summer war.