Before the roadrunner came into our lives there was the skunk, whose feather duster tail could often be seen surfacing from the tall grass behind the library like a periscope. We presumed him male and assigned him familiar vices. Our skunk was a carouser, a gambler, a lover of women. He drank Jim Bean. Sadly, the staff did not share our affection. A trap was set, and in the morning we woke to find our skunk penned inside a cage on the library lawn, his tail extruding through the wire mesh like cheese through a grater. I thought of Russian nesting dolls: a cage within a cage within a cage.
Our newest mascot caused a stir when it arrived shortly after the New Year. Officer Parsons, peering out from the recreation shack, saw a mob of inmates gathered in front of the chapel and mistook the commotion for a fight. With one hand poised atop his radio he jogged toward the scuffle but found at its center not two dueling prisoners but a single bird crouched in the grass, its head tilted toward the sparrows tittering in the chapel’s silvery birch. Officer Parsons’ hand relaxed.
“A roadrunner,” someone said.
“But how did it get in?” said another inmate.
“Why, he flew of course.”
“Roadrunners can fly?”
“Sure they can. Just not very high. Like chickens.”
The inmates turned their gazes toward the twelve-foot fence trimmed in razor wire and then, enviously, back to the bird.
Like with our beloved skunk, we presumed the roadrunner a he. Jack however argued the bird was clearly female, on account of its diminutive size and lack of a pluck. Jack after all has some experience in these matters. He used to deal exotic pets, when he wasn’t dealing dope, and he claims to have once witnessed a roadrunner eating a house cat.
“It was yay tall,” he said, “and in its beak I saw a strip of orange fur. I couldn’t for the life of me think of any Texas-native animal with an orange pelt. And then I realized, my god, it’s eating a tabby.”
Jay leaned into my ear. “He’s full of shit. He was high and watching Loony Tunes.”
It’s true Jack has a penchant for telling incredible tales, everything from viscous animal attacks to machinery mishaps, bar room brawls to parking lot shootouts. But as fantastical as his stories are, I tend to believe that a man who’s spent most of his adult life in the company of drug dealers, burnouts, motorcycle gangsters, and crack whores can’t help but accumulate a vast collection of colorful stories.
“I suppose it’s possible,” I said, offering him the benefit of a doubt. “The encyclopedia says roadrunners are ‘opportunistic omnivores.'”
Jack laughed. “So are inmates.”
The inmate population here at Big Spring FCI has seen a sharp drop in the past year, falling from over 1,700 inmates to just under 1,100. The dorms are littered with vacant bunks and stripped mattresses. Lockers sit empty, robbed by other inmates of their shelves and hooks. Many men were shipped elsewhere due to overcrowding. Some elected to participate in distant drug abuse programs that would allow them up to a year off their sentences. Others have gone home. Henderson is scheduled to release to a halfway house this week and talks incessantly about such things as bus fare, itineraries, identification papers, and job interviews. Here in prison Henderson has earned his living and reputation as milk man. Every morning he wakes at quarter till six to smuggle milk from the chow hall to the dorm, where he keeps the pint-sized pouches on ice beneath his bed and sells them for a stamp a piece. What will he do in the free world? We know of Henderson in only one context, that of inmate, and cannot fathom him a civilian, working nine to five, clocking in and out, spending his Sunday mornings not stuffing his trousers with milk but sitting at his kitchen table paying bills and balancing a checkbook.
Do people still use checkbooks?
Someone asked Henderson, somewhat cheekily, what sort of job a meth addict with no prior work experience expected to find. Henderson got defensive.
“I worked when I was out there!” he cried. “I worked, I did! I worked twenty-three, twenty-five hours a day!”
Those of us left behind console ourselves by waging bets on who will return. The odds are always in our favor.
Earlier in the week we said goodbye to another character, Joe Dirt, so named for his scruffy resemblance to the star redneck in the film by the same name. Two days before his release he astonished us by shaving his iconic beard. More astonishing was that he was handsome, his eyes blue and kind. Given teeth he’d be a real looker. I asked Jack why the prison never fitted him for dentures.
“They did. He sold them.”
“He sold his teeth? But why?”
“Because he’s Joe Dirt. A better question is who in hell buys another man’s teeth?”
Joe Dirt could sell just about anything, and did, but his primary hustle was pornography. If Henderson was the milk man, Joe Dirt was the porn man. He kept his wares in a beat up photo album and sold each picture for a stamp, two if it was explicit. A seasoned salesman, he conducted all transactions with the utmost discretion, never judging, never batting an eye, not even at the more unusual requests for transvestites and women with braces. But despite his hustling prowess, Joe Dirt never had dirt, was always bumming a soup or coffee off his neighbors. His locker, when we ransacked it, was an echo chamber. He had no money and, to our limited knowledge, no family. I wondered aloud what Joe Dirt would have worn on the journey back to Pennsylvania, seeing as he had no one to send him street clothes.
“Blue jean,” Jack said. “They’d have given him some cheap jeans and a T-shirt. They don’t let you leave here in your khakis.”
I imagined Joe Dirt in his American Glories, staring out the Greyhound window, his blue eyes reflecting back at him like pale moons in the noon sky, marveled, frightened.
“He’ll be back,” Jack said. “Guys like Joe who have nothing to go home to always come back.”
The inmate population has thinned and no affiliation has been more affected than the good old white boys. Their numbers and consequently their clout have dwindled, not so much because of transfers or releases but because of treachery. It seems every month a charlatan—an undercover snitch or child molester—is discovered among their ranks, much to the delight of the confirmed sex offenders who often joke that the good old white boys aren’t as good as they claim themselves to be. The white dominion took another blow, literally, when a disagreement over televisions spurred a fight between the whites and West Texas Hispanics. The Mexicans easily overpowered the whites, cornering them in the TV room, locks swinging. For those able to escape, a second wave of Mexicans awaited them in the hall. The white shot caller ran through the dorm calling to arms every and all good white boys. An SO was said to have shouted back over the ruckus, “Let me know when you find one!”
That night seven whites were taken to the hole, and three were sent to the hospital. One man is rumored to possibly lose an eye.
Jay said the TV room was a mess after the incident, with crimson spattered on the floor and on walls and in chairs. As a blood spill orderly, Jay is trained in the cleanup of bodily fluids. It was the second time in a month he’s had to glove up, the first being when a Hispanic man sliced open his own arm with a razor in the bathroom. Jay, who isn’t one for sentimentality, took to calling the blade-happy Hispanic man Zorro.
“How’s Zorro doing? Is he still on suicide watch?”
“My shift isn’t until tomorrow,” I said. I’d been looking forward to seeing the hot-blooded Latin in a smock. “And technically he’s Puerto Rican. Zorro was Spanish.”
“Whatever. He’s lame is what he is, cutting himself over a gambling debt. Didn’t even hit an artery. Couldn’t even kill himself right.”
I never did get the opportunity to see Zorro in the buff; he was released from watch just short of my shift. Later at the debriefing we reviewed his internment with the psychologist and that prior of an elderly Native American who suffered a long list of depressing aliments including a gimpy leg, poor eye sight, and total deafness in one ear. A threat to public safety, for sure. After having refused his breakfast that morning, I asked the man if he wouldn’t like to eat lunch.
“Your lunch, sir. It’s arrived,” I said loudly. “Would you like a sandwich?”
“I’d rather have a rope!”
I opened the brown bag. Inside were two slices of bread, a slice of cheese, and two apple halves, all wrapped in paper towels, as plastic is a potential choking hazard.
“I’m sorry. No rope,” I said. “But look—a cookie.”
The old man relented and allowed the nurse to pass him his food through the cage door’s bean slot. Like the milk Henderson steals from the chow hall, the juice too comes in pouches. The nurse attempted to tear through the plastic, but it was thick and her nude-lacquered nails kept slipping from the condensation. She considered going in search of scissors.
“Your teeth,” I said. “You have to bite it.”
She placed one end of the pouch between her teeth and bit down gingerly as a mother bites a stray thread from a child’s coat.
“Is this how you guys do it?” she asked, not unkindly.
“Yes, I think you’ve got it.”
But the puncture was too small and the juice dribbled watery pink into the Styrofoam cup for what seemed a life sentence.
“It takes practice,” I said.
At the debriefing we reviewed the usual laundry list of concerns. The psychologist reminded us that the lights in the watch room must remain at full brightness, that our log entries should be concise and objective, that our charge’s face and hands should remain visible at all times. The doctor also raised an important change in procedure. Should the inmate try to harm himself, the provided phone will now automatically ring Control, no need to dial zero.
“By the way,” she said, her tone brightening. “Has anyone seen this roadrunner?”
We roused at the mention of our new mascot.
“Positively terrifying!” she cried. “It decapitated a ground squirrel outside my office.”
Indeed the roadrunner has amassed a reputation for ferocity. Its bloodlust draws scores of inmates and staff alike. It was the crowd that first caught my attention and not the bird itself, which was rather drab, hardly larger than a pigeon, and nothing at all as I’d imagined. But what our mascot lacks in ornamentation it makes up for in speed and cunning. On spindly legs it slinked toward a host of sparrows and hunkered down behind a lip of pavement. Its tail teetered in the wind, testing currents, calculating geometries. Like giddy school children we held our breath and pressed our noses to the bell jar.
When the attack came the roadrunner did not as one might expect reach for the closest morsel but instead hedged all bets and plunged headlong into the flock, beak snapping at every opportunity. It emerged from the feathery froth victorious with a flinching sparrow in its jaws. We cheered.
“That roadrunner one bad motherfucker!”
“A stone-cold killer, that roadrunner!”
The roadrunner retired to the shade of an aloe vera to pluck clean its meal. Gray down flitted past my legs, tickling my ankles, to collect along the fence line. Within minutes the dead sparrow was as naked as a newborn mouse. Unlike the savagery of the hunt, the consummation was a solemn, almost religious occasion. With delicacy and reverence the roadrunner took up the soft body in its beak, tilted its head, shivered, swallowed. Though unlikely, someone claimed to have seen the tiny bird still moving in its final moments.