Issue 17, Autumn-Winter 1957
Riding back to the stockade after the long and leaden day on the road, Dooley sat stripped to the waist on a plank that crossed the body of the truck, looking at the pines» sand and palmettos.
Friday. The week-end Olympics again. Night games. God, if only—I hope he can’t get any ephedrine tonight.
He looked back at Barton sitting massively on the tail-gate, brown back and yellow hair gleaming in the late sunlight. He was swinging his feet and singing “When It’s Twilight On the Trail”—doy-doy doy doy doy doy doy, doy-doy doy doy doy— the raucous voice rebounding from the wall of the woods.
Why did I feel so absurdly pleased when I found out he knew that tune? Like watching him graduate. You’ve come a long way from your civilian days, father of none.
Barton caught Dooley looking at him and the look he returned mixed amusement with irritation,
“Whose baby are you?” he said sternly.
“Daddy’s baby,” said Dooley.
“What kind of a daddy?”
“And who’s your high-rollin’ daddy?”
“You are. Daddy.”
“Just don’t forget it”
The other cons roared at the stale and familiar exchange.
Dooley turned to stare again at the passing trees.
An evil night when I fell into that routine. Even a straight delivery doesn’t save anything.
The truck was passing through heavily-wooded country now, pine forest on either side. This was the spot where so many prisoners had jumped off into the woods. He looked back at the two shotgun guards in the trailer behind the truck.
When they remembered, they would sit up straight at this spot, grasp their guns, and look straight ahead with such a charged air of dissembling alertness that Dooley always felt oddly gratified.
The truck slowed at the approach to a wooden bridge across a creek. Looking down, Dooley saw a huge alligator, looking up.
Everybody yelled at once. “Stop the truck, Cap’n!” “Gator back here, Cap’n!” Somebody banged on the top of the truck’s cab.
The truck drew to a stop at the side of the road. Cap’n Clark slowly unfolded his long old bones from the front scat of the truck. He pulled off the cork tropical helmet he wore, and stood glaring wildly from the guards to the prisoners.
“Big gator back here, Cap’n,” Barton explained. “Could we please go back and see him, Cap’n? He’s a great big bastard, sir.”
The two guards had dismounted from the trailer and stood leaning on their shotguns. The driver of the truck, a burly young cracker with the eyes of a doe, got out and started back towards die bridge, pulling his pistol from the holster.
“Better put that gun up, Kern,” the old man stopped him. “You know better than to shoot a gator.”
The driver, coloring, put up his gun.
“All right, c’mon everybody wants to see the gator.” Cap’n Clark started towards the bridge.
The men jumped in noisy confusion off the truck to follow, trying to rattle one of the guards, who was new on the job and had been getting it ail day.
The alligator lay in a sunlit-mud patch on the bank. Someone made a sudden noise and with a great heave and flash of its belly it slid into the water and vanished beneath the bridge. Some of the crew hung over the railing, peering, anxious to prolong the diversion.
Cap’n Clark turned towards the truck. “All right, all right, let’s ramble, we’re runnin’ late now.”
“Ramble!” they hollered, and scrambled noisily back up on the truck.
All the way in to the stockade. Barton kept outlining to Bayou Boy, the big ramrod of the crew, a scheme for capturing the alligator alive, involving a rope, and “down wind” and a leap from the bridge on to the alligator’s back.
Dooley beard eager excited snatches of it as he faced into the wind.
He’s transported by it. And I feel touched and warmed by his eagerness. Fearful for the boyish awkwardness. Aaah God.
In the prison dormitory Dooley waited his tum at the long row of taps in the washroom. He washed slowly and the room was deserted when he was combing his hair.
Can field came in, a plump young man with a crew cut from San Francisco. An airline pilot, in for forgery, to Dooley his coining to the prison farm had been an advent. Riding out in the morning to the job, back at night, each had discovered in the other a listener and a companion.
Can field knew all the names and labels, Faure, Firbank, Fonteyn, Fats, and told long serpentine stories of rainy weekends in New Haven, of what the boy from Amherst had said, all ill a half-petulant tone that suggested everything had been a tedious mistake.
He stood beside Dooley at the mirror, combing his hair, carefully pressing forward the beginning of a small curl over his forehead. He said wearily:
“How are you and Apollo Belvedere getting along?”
“Not too bad.” Dooley leaned into the mirror. Dishing with Can field was a thing he would never understand, and never forego. “He found an alligator he wants to rassle.”
“He found a what?”
“An alligator.” Dooley gave a small pained shrug. “And he’s going to leap off a bridge on to its back. Bring it back alive.”
“Oh no. Mowgli the Alligator Boy.”
A small shame crept into him, but he went on,
“Bayou Boy is coming from down-wind, with a rope—I think—Well, it’s not too clear, of course—But we all goan have alligator shoes bye ’m bye.”
“All God’s chillun got alligator shoes!” They collapsed into silent laughter. The room was suddenly quiet, only the soft pleasantly stricken sounds of muffled mirth. Dooley straightened and saw himself in the mirror.
“C’mon, cut it out now man, yawl act like yawl against alligators.” He reached for the comb and looked up to comb his hair.
In the glass he saw Barton, buttoning his pants, coming around from a row of toilets that was screened from the mirror. He came over and stood behind them, examining his nails.
Can field hurriedly finished combing his hair.
“Time for chow,” he muttered, and fled.
Dooley watched his own stricken face in the glass and combed his hair with careful attention.
Barton stood inspecting himself, yellow hair brown face brown shoulders, in the mirror.
“Alligator shoes for all,” he murmured. “I’ve always wanted to deck you good anyway, Carhart.”
The washed-blue eyes that Dooley sought in the mirror were implacable with hatred.
“Bart, I didn’t want—”
“It was amusing, wasn’t it?” He gave it the languid inflection of Can field.
Chow call sounded. Barton turned away from the mirror.
“You better not go in for chow tonight. If I have to look at you, I’ll puke. Get over on the bunk and stay there.”
“Jesus Christ, Bart, I’m hungry as a bitch! Look man, don’t—”
Barton turned, motioned with his head.
“Over on the bunk. And when I come back I’m going to try to kill you.”
He lay face down across the double-bunk in the deserted dormitory, listening to the busy clacking of spoons on plastic plates in the mess-hall. Heavy with a dreary certainty, he reached over and turned on the radio. Sarali Vaughn came on, singing “If You Could See Me Now.” The sinuous silver of the music trailed in the air...
He thought of how quietly expectant the piano used to look when he sat down at it. Rush Street in Chicago on a misty night, the neon signs of all the night-clubs haloed, the taxi-horns muted in the gentle fog.
How many worlds away?
MacLean came in from chow, first out, fastest eater. He bent over Dooley, long eager nose.
“You better hide, kid. He’s really pissed.”
“Don’t get excited, Mac. And don’t do me any favors. Just go away.”
“Just trying to help you, Kid.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Dooley Carhart was a piano player from Chicago who’d been bouncing around Florida for a year, lightly tea-d up most of the time, drunk on gin and the climate. He played the piano in bars until he ran out of jobs, began to steal and wound up on the chain gang with two years to build.
The only law of the prison dormitory, he discovered immediately, was that of violence. Except for shakedowns and riots, no guards ever entered it. Authority was represented by a trusty, of whom it was said that he would get out with better than a thousand dollars.
On the first night, Dooley made up his bunk, an upper on the top tier, and flopped into it. The noise in the dormitory was deafening. Radios brayed, all different, voices shouted, sang, cursed.
The rack shook, and a brown face under wheat-yellow hair looked over the top.
“Mind if I come up?”
Dooley said no.
He swung himself over the top and perched on the side of the bunk, a half-naked brown giant, in faded gray prison pants.
“Barton’s my name. You’re the new-cock came in today.”
“That’s right. I’m Carhart.”
“What’d you bring?”
“This your first bit?”
“You’ll find it ain’t so bad when you get used to it. You can build easy time or do it the hard way. I could make this standing on my head in the shit-jacket. All you got to do here is beat your brains out on the road, and they don’t care what else you do.”
“I ain’t exactly looking forward to that road department.”
“It’ll be rough at first, but you’ll get used to it. After a while, you’ll learn how to goof so they can’t see it—Hey I was on my way to get a coke. You wanna coke or something? Ya got cigarettes?”
Dooley said yes, and yes he had cigarettes.
When Barton returned with the cokes, he said,
“I’ve been thinking, there’s a lower bunk vacant down in my rack. I don’t know why die hell he put you up here. Ya gotta climb up and down every time you have to piss ? That’s nowhere. Let’s move your gear over there, you wanna?”
Dooley wanted to be alone and read, but he thought of the hassle he was due to face out on the road in the morning. It would help to know somebody, and this guy acted like a wheel. If it was some kind of a pitch, he would just pull out.
“Good deal,” he said, and they rolled everything up in the mattress and carried it down to the back end of the long room, through the inquiring stares of other prisoners.
“You sure this is all right? The house-man—”
“He don’t mean anything. If he says anything, I’ll straighten him out.”
The bunk was on the bottom tier of a rack in the back comer of the dormitory, another bunk beside it. Hanging across the back of the rack was a blanket covered with pin-up pictures, and on a shelf across the head of the bunks were an overseas radio, some pipes, tobacco, shaving gear.
“This is fine, man,” Dooley said, unrolling the mattress and distributing his belongings.
“Beats sleeping up on a shelf. They call this the Mourner’s Comer back here.”
Dooley noticed for the first time that Barton was wearing shackles.
“What did you get those for?”
“Oh these? Runnin’.” He stretched out on the bunk. The stout chain was about two feet long, fastened to thick steel rings around his ankles. “I ran about a month ago, but I got drunk and fouled up. They’ll take ’em off maybe in a month or so. Hey I think I’ll make some coffee.”
He reached under the bunk and pulled out a glass half-gallon jar. “I’ll get some water from the bathroom.”
He brought the jar back half-full and put it on the shelf, then opened the back of the radio and drew out an electric cord with a plug on one end. “Shakedown all the time, but they never find this baby.” The other end of the cord was an exposed wire wrapped around the handle of a spoon.
“This is what they call a bug. Put the spoon in the water, plug in, pretty soon hot water.”
They drank the coffee out of glasses, and talked. Dooley learned that Barton had been in the Marines and got a DD for black-marketing in Manila during the war—that he was a light-heavy professional boxer when not in jail—that he had made time in Leavenworth and Raiford, the state pen—and that he wanted some day to return to Manila to stay.
Barton assured him that there was nothing to the road that couldn’t be handled, and that anyway he’d be around to help him out.
Dooley went to sleep with an easier mind.
In the morning he was assigned to the bull gang. Barton’s crew, under the boss guard, Cap’n Tig.
Tig was a towering fat man with a whiskey-raddled face and bright malign squeezed-looking eyes.