The shot at my back sounded like the starting gun of the best race I’d ever run. It was a joy to run again, just the smooth joy of one good step, over and over. These steps connected in my mind’s eye to my last race: the crowd cheering as I came in after a hard twenty-six miles and all I could think then was: I’m sorry it has to end. It had been a long time since I had run free in the fresh air, and it felt like a summer day after a long winter.
And it did not steal my joy if today I was running in a Madison County prisoner jumpsuit instead of a tracksuit.
And I knew that I had my good luck and my good friend Boyd to thank for my freedom, and that made me feel good, too. Proof positive that if you do good things for people, good things will come your way.
Just five minutes earlier we had stood there, prisoner and guard, in the Alabama sunshine. Me smiling just to be outside picking up trash for the state of Alabama, Boyd leaning on his rifle and bitching about the heat and looking like he was sucking on lemons. I tried to interest him in a little bright conversation to make our time more easy passing.
“Look at this.” I held up a dirty box half-full of crackers about to go into my black plastic garbage bag. “What you think made somebody throw out a perfectly good box of crackers?”
“Christ, Bobby Earl, you want them, go ahead and eat them.” He checked the chamber of his rifle for the hundredth time this morning.
“No, I don’t need them. I’m still full from that fine breakfast the state of Alabama fed me this morning.”
“You call that slop ‘breakfast’?”
“Scrambled eggs. And grits.”
“Gummy cardboard I wouldn’t feed a Communist sympathizer from New York. You go ahead and eat those week-old crackers and get you some real food.”
“No,” I said. “I just thought there might be a story here. Maybe like a teen-aged boy and his girl out in the grass over there behind the stadium, sharing a box of crackers. He’s telling her the great things he’s going to do one day ’cause he’s so smart. She’s looking up at him and her eyes get all dewy and he sets the box down and now it’s like every cracker here is a dream they’ve still got coming to them.”
“Yeah.” Boyd snorted. “World is full of dreams just waiting to come true.”
Then he smiled at me and I smiled back because guards rarely smile at prisoners.
He said, “Bobby Earl, you think you could do me a favor? I need to tie my shoelace, and I ain’t got no place to lean my gun. Can you climb up here and hold this for a minute?”
“You want me, a prisoner, to hold your gun?”
“Sure, why not, I trust you.”
I smiled at his trust and pulled myself up the bank.
“Bobby Earl, you’ve only got a week left on a one month sentence. You ain’t going to do nothing stupid. Here.”
He thrust the gun out and I took it, holding it by the barrel like it was a snake. He laughed. “Hold that thing proper.”
I wrapped one hand on the stock and cradled the barrel with the other, standing like a proper rifleman. “Better,” he said. He tied his shoe and reached back for the gun. But this time, he took the gun careful-like by the barrel.
“You know, Bobby Earl, you done me a favor here, and I think I’ll do you one back now.”
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. “Extra drink of water, boss?”
“Better than that, son.”
He looked far off, down to where the rest of the work detail was working at the end of a stand of pine trees behind Milton Frank Stadium. Most of them were out of sight of us around the corner, with just one other guard standing on the corner where he could see us and see the other prisoners at the same time.
“Your sentence is almost up anyway. And you didn’t do nothing bad, no ways.”
“Sure didn’t look like nothing bad to me at the time. A couple of good ole boys asked me to help them clean up some stuff. Seemed like a nice thing to do.”
He grinned. “Except it was a judge’s campaign signs they had you cleaning up, a week before the election. He wasn’t too happy about that.”
“I tried to explain it to him, but he just got redder in the face.”
“You do have a talent for stepping into it, Bobby Earl.”