With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Tuesday, at Gethsemane, was transfer day and when the bus arrived, the yard was invariably packed with men curious to see who was coming and going or to see one of their old partners passing through. The men scheduled to leave were already lined up at the gate with the usual effects: a roll of gray bedclothes, cigar boxes, a few books, a carton of cigarettes. A guard with a clipboard systematically rifled through their things, checked them off on his clipboard, while another guard gave them each one last cursory frisk. Without being told, the men reflexively submitted to the frisks, taking spread-eagle postures as the guard approached, hooting when he ran his hand over the crotch area.
Officer Doyce Underwood wheeled the dilapidated bus into the parking lot, geared it down noisily with a big, exaggerated double clutch and what he considered an intrepid power shift. He drove across the state every day in the transfer bus, from jail to jail, from road camps to gun camps, and to the big prison in Raleigh. Although his job was a very safe one — there was a thick wire cage which protected him from everything but the degrading remarks his passengers habitually hurled at him — he conceived of it as being extremely dangerous and demanding a stature for which he felt sure he’d, alone, been chosen. It entitled him, unlike the yard officers, to carry a loaded weapon which he habitually patted. He was tall and skinny, with a tiny head, receding hairline, and a ridiculously large Adam’s apple. Underwood got off the bus and walked into the office to check the transfer list and flirt with the secretary. Afraid of dogs, he was careful to avoid the collies from an adjacent farm who, somehow and for unknown reasons, spent their days in the prison parking lot.
The men on the bus opened their windows and shouted at the men they knew on the yard who, in turn, shouted back at them. A big, black-bearded face, smiling broadly, filled a window and shouted long and low, drowning out the quips and one-liners flying back and forth from the bus to the fence line.
“What it is, Homeboy?”
A very short, wiry black man with a stocking cap pulled down to his eyebrows and a toothpick jutting through his teeth, threw back his head and let out a long rich laugh. “Old Jericho,” he shouted. “You back? What’s the lick?”
“Same old, same old,” said Jericho through his huge smile. “I needs this penitentiary.”
“This ain’t no penitentiary, nigger. This here a correctional facility.”
Then men on the bus and in the yard laughed.
Homeboy continued. “Lookie here. These people here to help you. They keepin’ me straight. Gimme these little white pills make me feel like I’m steppin’ out with two red ladies and a bag o’ herb.”
Jericho mugged in the bus, tugged at his beard in mock reflection. “Straight up. What exactly wrong with you, Homeboy?”
Homeboy pulled a yellow form from his breast pocket. “I,” he began tentatively, pausing at the larger words, “under . . . socialized . . . with a . . . marked de . . . gree of re . . . sent . . . ment toward the envi . . . ron . . . ment, es . . . pecially authority figures. My con . . . sti . . . tu . . . tional method of dealing with any type of dis . . . comfort is through violence.”
Everybody was laughing. The guards running the frisk at the gate tried to ignore the uproar, while the men stepped up their laughter and mugging in order to further unravel them.
“Sound like you one sick nigger,” shouted Jericho.
“Naw,” said Homeboy and then glanced back at the paper. “Society keep demandin’ behaviors I ain’t yet learned . . . and when that happen . . . I man . . . i . . . fests frustrated patterns of behavior.”
“Sound like these people helpin’ you.”
“That what they here for.”
The tower guard yelled at the laughing men to move back from the fence. They responded sullenly, their mood suddenly changed. Homeboy was no longer laughing. His hands, still holding the yellow paper, clamped the fence as he stared out at Jericho who was still grinning like a jackdaw.
“Get off that fence. I ain’t gonna tell you again,” said the frisk guard. Homeboy took his hands from the fence and glared at the guard. Things had become quiet and most of the men lining the fence began going about their business. The fun was over. Carrying a cup of coffee, Underwood walked out of the office and headed hack to the bus. From his window, Jericho moaned timbrously like twin claps of thunder: “Jesus Christ!”
A figure came flying out of the bus, ran headlong into Underwood, ran straight for the fence, then reversed himself and ran back toward the bus. He was a young man — in his late teens — with wild, guileless eyes, long hair, a stringy, fledgling beard, and big black horn-rimmed glasses heavily patched at the corners and bridge with white adhesive tape. He had the look of a man who had dozed while driving and wakes with only time to glimpse, without recognition, a tree which kills him. He moved as if unused to running, without the vaguest notion of what he was doing or where he was going. The entire parking lot, which was part of the compound, was secured by high cyclone fencing topped with five rows of barbed wire crowned with concertina wire.
At first, Underwood seemed more concerned with his coffee-drenched clothes than with the escape. He made a series of helpless gestures with his hands, then began gingerly pinching the soaked shirt away from his chest. The tower guard sounded the alarm and its grating honk activated Underwood who fumbled with the safety strap on his holster.
The tower guard who, once already, had sighted down on the running man, shouted to Underwood disappointedly, “Put it up, Doyce. He’s a goddam misdemeanant.”
At the alarm, officers poured from the office to help in the chase while the yardmen began securing the camp. Quickly they herded the men on the yard into one quadrant of it, left three armed guards at its perimeter, while the tower guard waved a six-foot shotgun over their heads. The men in the bus were ordered to close their windows and remain seated; another armed guard was stationed on its steps. Thus, all attention was focused on the wild, young man who fluttered about the yard like a bird in a house, as seven uniformed men moved methodically after him.
The young man shifted as capriciously as a pinball, evading officers by jukes and feints and footspeed, darting around and over vehicles. All of this furor attracted the lazing collies who joined the melee. Sensing trouble, they instinctively began rounding up the officers who were closing in on their prey. Whenever an officer got close to him, he was cut off by the collies who roved in a semi-circle, barking hoarsely and hurling themselves against the legs of the pursuers. Within seconds, the collies had herded the officers off to one side of the parking lot and continued to wind them into a tighter knot. When any of the officers attempted to escape, a barking collie would nip at him and scare him back to the herd. The young man, suddenly alone in the middle of the parking lot, stared puzzledly at his now-neutralized pursuers as if he wished to speak to them. He raised his right arm and held it at breast level. The spectators were beside themselves with laughter. They hooted and gibed but as their mood became merrier, the guards became grimmer. Suddenly the tower guard sent his big shotgun booming into the sky and everything fell back into place. The frightened collies bolted and the chase began anew, now with a familiar dangerous intensity.
Although his field had considerably narrowed, the seemingly inexhaustible young man continued to elude the officers. He bobbed behind trees and bushes, using the flimsiest ruses to escape again and again. His eyes glowed with disbelief. When four more officers joined the chase, the men on the yard began chanting, “Run, run, run.” It rose up from them like a dirge, rhythmic, portentous as tom-toms.
The officers closed in, something now funny in their eyes too.
“Run, run, run.”
The men in the bus picked up the refrain and suddenly the bus was rocking side to side.
The officers had him surrounded. They stumbled and fell and crabbed after him on all fours, reaching out and up for him. The young man, as if he’d just realized for the first time the seriousness of what he was doing, suddenly halted, dramatically threw up his hands and shouted twice — even through all the noise, everyone plainly heard him — “I surrender.”
They all rushed him at once. Abruptly he went down and, even at a distance, it was obvious that they were using more force than the situation required. When the young man reappeared from the tangle, his head, obscured by his long, disheveled hair, was hanging on his chest, and tears rolled down his face. He was finished.
They put handcuffs and leg-irons on him. Underwood roughly escorted him to a waiting van which whisked him away.
The yard was now quiet. The last lament for freedom floated up and over the fence and was blown away with the clouds. The bus sat squarely on its wheels.
“I told you to get away from that fence, boy.”
Homeboy uncoiled his hands from the fence and backed off.
Order restored, they went on with the transfer which, without the usual fanfare and wisecracking among the men, for some reason was finished in no time. Neither Jericho nor Homeboy made gestures of farewell. They did, however, look hard at each other for a few seconds before the bus pulled out. Homeboy kept his eyes on the spot where the bus had been and listened for quite some time to Doyce Underwood, well on his way, pumping clutch and banging the stick through the gearbox.