By Pat Harrison
The letter come to the house yesterday saying Eldred had passed. Come from his son up in Broken Arrow, saying his dad had asked him to tell me. I hadn’t seen Eldred since 1985, ten years ago, when I first got out of Big Mac. I saw him the one time, but it was never the same for me and him on the outside. He had his life and I had mine, but I didn’t never forget him.
Eldred and me couldn’t have been more different. I was just a kid and he was an old-time con, sent up for armed robbery. He knew everybody at Mac and everybody knew him. Partly on account of his music. He was always playing guitar and singing cowboy songs. But the other thing was this: Eldred was wise. Everybody came to him for advice on how to get by, to do their time and get out. Eldred’s way was to keep the peace and not take nobody on. I never asked for advice for myself, but I was listening. Eldred and me and two other guys shared a cell for almost three years. I heard a lot in that time.
There was one time though that nobody listened to a word he said. The day the riot started. Everybody knew the place was about to boil, you could feel it. “When this place blows,” Eldred told a bunch of us, “you don’t want to be any part of it. You want to lay low and let it pass.” Turned out I was the only one that followed his word.
It was late July 1973. Waking up that morning, I was all in a sweat before I even raised up my head. The water pressure was low so shit wouldn’t flush and it smelled like the sewer in there. Dixon and George was so knocked out on downers they didn’t even notice, but Eldred and me couldn’t stand it. We pulled on our shoes and headed to the mess. The line was short. Too hot to eat.
The only sound was metal spoons on metal plates. Irritating, like flies buzzing when you’re trying to sleep.
“Let’s get outa here,” Eldred said after we’d drank some coffee and ate some toast. “Go get in the draw line.”
Our block got paid tenth in line, same order as we went in to chow. Eldred and me stood against the wall till Block 9 was finished. Canteen Tom was lying at the end of the counter, splayed on his side. I went over and had a word with him, tried to scratch his chin, but he turned away. Usually he’d flatten out his head and purr for me, but not today.
“C’mon Bailey.” Eldred liked to be early wherever he went—the draw line, the sign shop, the chow line. I was in less of a hurry.
Saylor, the guard that runs the draw, he sat on a high stool and counted out the chips. His shirt was undone and flung to the sides so we were face to face with his fat belly. Looked like he’d ate a basketball.
“If it ain’t Big Jink and Little Blondie,” Saylor said to Eldred.
Eldred’s face turned to stone but he didn’t say nothin. My gut was tumbling but I said to myself to let it go.
“Hey there, Jenkins, you speak when you’re spoken to. How’re you and Blondie today?”
I was holding still, keeping my eyes down, trying not to blink.
Saylor bent over and stared in Eldred’s face, but Eldred didn’t move an inch. He was watching the chips. Silver coins that looked like foreign money. The size of a penny but the color of a dime.
Saylor had the chips counted out and stacked in piles. When he shoved them toward you, you was supposed to pick them up. Eldred and me was owed twenty chips each for our work in the sign shop, but Saylor wasn’t movin nothin toward us. He was staring a bullet through Eldred.
“Who do you think you are?” Eldred said in a low voice.
“I think you’re a big stud,” Saylor said with his ugly half grin.
“Let’s go,” Eldred said before he stomped off.
I was fixing to follow but I didn’t move right away. I couldn’t be fighting with Saylor. There was nothing to gain and everything to lose.
“Git your butt back over here,” Saylor called out to Eldred. The cons in the draw line was watching now, but nobody spoke. All you could hear was ragged breathing as Eldred crept back.
“Okay, big man, here’s your pay. Yours and Blondie’s too.” Saylor shoved the chips across the table.
I was thinking what a mess I could make out of Saylor’s face and his belly, too.
Eldred and me scooped up the chips and left. As soon as the draw was over, we’d come back in and buy cigarettes and pop. We’d be down to four chips each after we bought enough cigarettes to last till next week and a couple a pops. I needed some shampoo and shaving cream but they’d have to wait. Maybe Eldred would loan me his. I was always running out before he did.
“I ain’t workin today,” Eldred said on our way back to the yard. He wasn’t the kind to ever skip work, but today was different. Saylor hadn’t never lit into him like that. Eldred didn’t give nobody any trouble and maybe that’s what Saylor couldn’t stand. The fact he couldn’t get to him.
“Me neither,” I said. “It must be over a hundred already.”
Eldred told a few cons from the other blocks what happened with Saylor, then everybody had to have their two cents.
“He don’t care what the warden tells him, he does what he wants,” somebody said.
Rumor was going around that Warden Henderson had ordered Saylor and the other guards to cut back on the pepper spray and tear gas, to only use them in certain cases, for certain offenses, but nobody had seen any let-up.
“That ain’t the way to stop Saylor,” somebody said. “It ain’t the Mace it’ll be something else. Lye or Drano or lighter fluid.” Saylor was known to use whatever he could get his hands on—a pitchfork or post—and sometimes just for the sport of it, pitting one con against another like a cock fight.
“Haney’s as bad as Saylor,” somebody else said. Jim Haney was Saylor’s lieutenant. Same kind of sorry-ass bully.
The guards that ran the bakery and laundry and blood bank—they were easy, but the ones that ran the cell houses was mean as cons, which a lot of them used to be. The winter before we’d had a three-day food strike trying to get the politicians to look at the guard situation, but it didn’t do no good. Somebody died about every Friday and most times it was the guards that did the killing.
“Just look at the numbers,” Eldred said. “Saylor figures he gives us half a chance we’ll off him and the others too and that’ll be that. There’s only one cell-house guard for every hundred cons. We’re already half in charge anyway. The bulls don’t rule if we don’t allow it.”
A lot a guys nodded agreement.
Eldred and me was sitting there fanning ourselves, crowded in the shadow of the brick plant like it was some kind of shade tree. The Indians were bunched with us today and the black guys huddled under the tin overhang of the mattress factory.
The talk flew around all morning. Hardly anybody went to their jobs or into the mess at noon. It was too hot to be anywhere but the yard. Eldred moved around talking to everybody, even the guys in blacktown. They outnumbered the rest of us by a long shot and had the most gripes of us all. Word had gone around that Saylor and Haney bundled a black kid to a stretcher the other day and beat him unconscious. He lived but just barely.
I was hungry so I went in the mess and went through the short line. Got an iced tea and a slice of cherry pie. Block 5 was feeding, but nobody told me I was outta my turn. Probably the mess guards was too rattled from the heat to notice.
Back in the yard, Eldred was leaned against the brick plant, looking worried. I stood beside him and lit a cigarette.
“Place’s about to blow,” he said, wiping his forehead with his folded-up hanky. Every day Eldred carried a clean white hanky, folded up in squares inside his pocket. His hands was shaking as he put it back in.
Just then a rustle shot past us like dogs through a thicket. A bunch a cons had gathered in a huddle. When they turned back out, their hands were alive with metal. Homemade stickers that glittered in the sun, shanks big as spears.
“Saylor,” somebody called to Eldred and me. I’d have joined them if Eldred did, but he wasn’t moving.
Then they’re sweeping through the yard on their way to the mess, fifteen or more.
“Saylor’s in the mess with Haney,” Eldred told me. “Them two eats together every day at twelve-thirty.”
I’d just been in there and hadn’t noticed, but Eldred was a regular movie camera. He was a watching and thinking, but he’d also had a hand in stirring things up.
A few minutes later we hear the sounds, the whoops and hollers, then alarms going off and sirens screaming.
“What’n the hell?” Eldred said.
We stayed there, listening and watching. Pretty soon a bunch of guards hurried into the mess, then a few minutes later a voice come over the loudspeaker. “We’ve taken over. We have weapons and hostages. It’s a revolution. Come and help us.”
Eldred and me looked at each other but we didn’t budge from the wall. The whole yard was on the move, cons running into the mess and cell houses and work areas.
“Let’s wait here,” Eldred said. The faster things whirled around him, the more slowed down he got. The yard looked burnt out and blistered. Blue work shirts and white water cups all over the place.
Eldred moved swift as a cricket alongside the blood bank and hospital, past the cinder-block hide of the bakery. Both of us carried our sacks of cigarettes from the canteen. Soon we slipped through a gate and were inside the rodeo arena, climbing up the far side of the stands, hiding in the bleachers with a clear view out, perched there like hawks.
“We can see everything from here,” Eldred said.
A voice come over the loudspeaker again and said they’d taken twenty-one guards as hostages, that Haney and Saylor had been wounded and released to go to the hospital. “We’ll hold these hostages until the governor agrees to meet with us,” the guy on the loudspeaker said.
“They didn’t kill Haney and Saylor,” Eldred said, sounding surprised.
“Maybe they’ll die yet,” I said.
“Course if Haney or Saylor dies, the governor won’t meet with nobody,” Eldred said.
We sat there watching and smoking. Neither of us mentioned our idea about escaping, not with those sirens screaming. Ambulance and police and highway patrol—maybe even the National Guard. They probably thought it was Attica all over again.
Eldred said he knew a place where we could spend the night.
I didn’t say nothin. I’d let him go down on me a time or two, but it wasn’t a regular thing, he knew that.
Alarms and sirens were blowing so you could hardly even think. We were still watching when they torched the place: the print shop and chapel, the library and book bindery, the broom and mattress factory, the bakery. The whole place was going up like Detroit.
“I gotta check on somethin.” I saw the canteen on fire.
“He’ll be okay,” Eldred said.
“I gotta go check.”
“Not now. Tomorrow. I wanna show you somethin.”
He said we could come back in a few minutes and maybe go check on Tom, so we climbed down from the stands and went behind them a ways to the boarded-up concession stand. I was thinking there wouldn’t be a rodeo at all this year—we could count on that. Eldred was using a key I didn’t know he had to unlock a shed of some kind.
The door creaked open and he flipped his lighter so we could see inside. There was saddles lined up all around the room and bridles and ropes and all kinds of gear draped from the walls. The smell of saddle soap and rawhide hung in the air.
“How about this?” Elded said, grinning. “You want to stay in here tonight?”
“How’d you know about this? Where’d you get them keys?”
“I had them since tryouts last week.”
That was just like Eldred, to be quiet about it, biding his time. He was the most deliberate guy I’ve ever known.
“It’s too hot in here,” he said. He looked around till he found a crowbar, then he climbed on a sawhorse and started busting out roof boards. “This’ll make it cooler when we come back.”
We propped the door open before we headed back to the stands to watch the fires. It was a regular conflagration. Detroit and Newark and Watts all at the same time.
It was starting to get dark but none of the yard lights came on or the lights in the cellblocks and factory buildings.
“Electricity’s gone,” Eldred said. “You know what that means.”
I was thinking it meant we could make a break for it.
“Nobody’s safe in the dark,” Eldred said. “It’ll be a war zone out there.”
We headed back to the shed then, for safety as much as anything, though neither of us owned up to being scared.
We spread saddle blankets on the floor and made up a couple of pallets, one on each side of the shed, and lay down. Eldred didn’t try nothing at all. We just talked through the night, all about Big Mac and the governor and everything else that led up to this day and what might come next.
“This’ll get the governor’s attention,” Eldred said. “It was bound to happen sooner or later or he never would of takin it seriously.”
“I guess so,” I told him, but I wasn’t convinced the governor would ever do anything for us cons.
“It’s the drug-pusher rule that’s ruined Big Mac,” Eldred said. He always said Governor Hall had got elected by saying that drug pushers wouldn’t never be paroled, and now he was sticking to his promise. It seemed reasonable to me, especially when I thought about our cellmates.
“You think Dixon and George ought to be let out?” I said to Eldred.
“They don’t hurt nobody till you take away their dope. If they made it legal, them two would be harmless as flies.”
The sirens were still going like the end of the world. I started thinking I was missing the action, the same as always. The same way I’d missed Vietnam. Right when I’d been meaning to sign up and go over there, Imelda had got pregnant and we’d had to get married.
“Let’s go back tomorrow and see what’s going on,” I said to Eldred.
“Okay, but we got to be careful or we’ll both of us end up on Peckerwood Hill.” I knew my kin would bury me—at least my wife would—but I didn’t tell that to Eldred. It seemed like a miracle that Imelda had stood by me for as long as she had.
The next morning the air smelled like burning rubber. We pulled on our jeans and shoes and made our way back through the rodeo grounds. Big Mac looked like a fire bomb had hit it. The broom and mattress factory was a shell of bricks, its guts still smoldering. The bakery was a burned-out husk, its cinder-block sides still standing, but its roof and floor gone, cabinets and counters burned down to nothing.
Cons were lying all around the yard on mattresses they’d dragged from the cells. Somebody’d got a radio going that guys were crowded around. Eldred and me went over to listen. “Gangs of convicts at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester have been roaming the facility hurling gasoline firebombs,” the announcer said. Everybody laughed.
“They’re scared shitless.”
“Gangs of convicts.”
“Roaming the damn facility.”
“Hey Eldred, you been back to the cell?” It was Dixon’s voice but I couldn’t see where he was.
“Why’re you asking?” Eldred said to him.
I looked where Eldred was looking. Sprawled on a mattress, his face to the sky, Dixon looked half alive. He must have found some drugs somewhere.
“Don’t he beat all?” Eldred said, and I had to agree. “Let’s go have a look.”
We stopped at the mess first. It was a scene straight from hell. Blood smeared on the walls and tables, pooled in big lakes on the floor. It was hard to believe that nobody died here.
Neither of us said anything, not till we got to our cellblock. Some of the cells were completely burned out but ours wasn’t. It was just a mess like you can’t imagine. Everything tore through and scattered, the smell of piss and shit worse than ever.
“Damn,” Eldred said. “Goddammit to hell.” There on the floor at the end of his bunk lay his guitar, broken in a million pieces. He was picking up little chunks of wood and staring at them, like maybe he could put them back together.
“Goddammit,” he said again. “Who’d ever do a thing like this?”
It hurt me to even look at him. I put my hand on his back and held it there.
“I had that ax since I was nineteen years old, longer than anything else in my life.”
I couldn’t think what to say to him. I put my other arm on his back and tried to hug him.
“Dixon did this,” Eldred said over my shoulder. “Fucker smashed my guitar all to hell.”
I was thinking why would anybody want to smash Eldred’s guitar. He twisted away from me.
“He don’t want nobody to have any comfort but him.” I was thinking that sounded about right and what a sorry-ass lot all of humanity is. It was bad enough when the bulls was in charge but the cons was worse by a long shot.
Eldred rooted through the clothes and books from our dumped-over cabinet till he came up with a stack of his hankies. Then he brought out my rodeo belt buckle and asked did I want it.
“You take it,” I told him. He hitched it around his waist on top of his other belt. I wasn’t interested in anything here, but Eldred was just getting started. He was stuffing it all in his old army duffel: clothes and paperbacks and pens, notebooks, even the picks and capo he used on his guitar.
“What’re you doing?” I said.
“Supplies,” he said. “We might have to hide out in that shed for a while.”
Our next stop was the burned-out canteen where we looked around for Tom. He was hiding and wouldn’t come out but we could hear him, sounding pissed-off as hell, growling instead of meowing.
Most of the stuff in the canteen was burned up or already looted. Eldred and me pawed through the debris and I found a box of Bit O’Honeys inside the steel chest where they kept the pop. The pop had already disappeared. I didn’t feel like chewing the hard candy and neither did Eldred, but we took the whole box and stuffed it in his duffel for later. We were hungry but not for candy. The cons out in the yard had built a fire and were making coffee and cooking up breakfast.
While we waited to eat, we found out the governor was meeting with the cons that was leading the takeover. They’d let the hostages go, so he’d come to a meeting.
“They got a list of demands,” somebody said. “If the governor don’t meet them, then that’s it.”
Isn’t this it already, I said to myself. What more could happen except for all of us to kill each other?
Eldred and me got in line for breakfast, almost the same meal we had in the mess. Coffee and juice, eggs and bacon and bread, jam and butter.
Pretty soon after breakfast, here come the committee that’d met with the governor, eight or nine cons, headed by a black guy. They stood up on chairs in the middle of the yard and reported.
“The governor has met our demands and the press will be allowed in this afternoon...”
Everybody cheered and roared and high-fived, but Eldred was quiet as I’d ever seen him. It seemed like his mind was off somewhere.
“Let’s go back to the shed,” I said. “This news don’t change much of anything.”
He was still far away, but he talked as we headed back. “I was remembering when I bought that guitar from a guy up in Broken Arrow. I worked at the lumberyard in Tulsa with him and sometimes on weekends I’d go to his house and play music. He had a banjo and a twelve-string guitar, even a mandolin. He gave me that old Martin for almost nothin. Fifty dollars. It was worth ten times that much.”
This guy must have been somebody he liked a lot. “What happened to him?” I said.
“I wouldn’t have any idea. He may still be at the lumberyard. I lost track of him after I got sent up.”
Inside the shed we sat on our saddle blankets and started in on the Bit O’Honeys. I was so agitated I ate three bars without even thinking.
“Come over here,” I said to Eldred when I stopped for a minute. He moved across the dark shed and sat there beside me. Half a minute later we’re peeling off our shirts and jeans and winding ourselves up like a couple a bull snakes, holding on tight. We ended up making each other happy for a long time that day and into the night. But afterwards all I could think about was Imelda. I’m sorry I said in my mind over and over. I’m sorry I’m sorry. Before when I’d been with Eldred it hadn’t been like this. But now I felt guilty as hell. I pulled away and slept on the other side of the shed.
We woke up the next morning to somebody busting in.
“What’s going on here?” The guy talking was a con but the other guy was carrying a movie camera and wearing regular clothes. On the side of the camera it said Channel 4.
“We was just trying to get a little rest,” Eldred said. We were on our feet, lighting cigarettes.
“What is this place?” the news guy asked, looking all around.
“The rodeo tack shop,” the guide con told him.
“One of the few places that hasn’t been burned,” the news guy said.
Then we were all going back to the yard and Eldred and me were slipping into the crowd. That morning, Sunday, is when we heard that two cons had been killed by other cons. Nobody we knew, but we could be next. No place was safe.
We came across Dixon lying in the yard on his mattress, listening to the radio. Eldred stood above him, staring down. For a second I thought he might spit on him, but he just looked at Dixon and shook his head. “I’d hate to be him,” he said after we’d moved on.
It rained that evening and we stayed in the yard and soaked it up. Some guys even took off their clothes and got a good shower, but Eldred and me didn’t, not with the TV cameras going.
That night Eldred and me went back to the shed and sure enough somebody had torched the place. It wasn’t burned to the ground yet, but it would be. I was scared for a second that Eldred might jump in the fire and try to get his duffel out, but he didn’t. We went back to the yard and from then on we slept wherever we could find a place and watched out for each other. A couple nights when we wanted our privacy we barricaded ourselves in an empty cell, but most nights we slept in the yard where you could see all around and have a clear view of the sky.
Finally on August first the National Guard and the highway patrol came in to take over. We were filthy and stinky and starving, and they were dressed in their clean blue uniforms and boots and helmets, carrying bayonets and guns. They had the place surrounded, they were moving in, when one of the cons let out a belly groan.
I looked out across the yard and saw it was somebody that looked like Dixon, but this guy was skinnier and longer-haired. He was falling down with a shank in his side, a flurry of cons in a scuffle beside him.
“It’s Dixon,” Eldred said. “Somebody got him.”
The National Guard and the highway patrol and the TV cameras was all right there, but nobody took out after Dixon’s stabber. They’d been ordered not to, we found out later. One con killing another didn’t mean nothing to nobody. They brought an ambulance in and loaded Dixon up and took him off. He died that evening. I had no use for him but nobody deserves to die like that, with everybody watching and nobody caring.
That night one of the National Guardsmen came out to the yard with a list of cons that was being moved to other prisons. They were cutting the population of Mac by a thousand. Eldred and me were sitting on our mattresses listening. The cons on the list were going to the reformatory at Granite where they bust rock all day. It sounded worse than Mac but everybody said it was better, not near as crowded.
They called George’s last name, Eddington. Then soon we heard Eldred’s name, Jenkins. I could see by his face that Eldred was waiting for my name, Owens, to be called, but I knew they’d never keep me anywhere but Mac.
There was no name on the list that started with an O. After the guy said Peterson, Eldred looked at me.
I didn’t say nothin for a few seconds but I knew I would. It was something I had to give him, the last part of my story.
“I lied when I said I was in here for stealing.”
“I knew that,” Eldred said.
“No you didn’t.”
“I guess I know what I know.”
“How then?” I said.
“Saylor told me. He rats on everybody.”
I thought this over. Saylor wasn’t loyal to nobody, but I was surprised he told Eldred.
“This critter inside me got loose,” I said. “But I keep a tight rein on him now.”
Eldred was silent a while, studying. “Maybe you ought to make friends with him.”
I didn’t say nothin’ to that.
“Hear him out. He must have his reasons for what he did.”
“A guy kills somebody he must have his reasons.”
His saying this made me rest easier. Maybe there was explanations and reasons, sense to what happened. I couldn’t hardly think back to that day but right then I set my mind to try. To go back and look at what happened in that lady’s house.
I was glad for Eldred that he was going to Granite. He should have never been at Mac in the first place. He never hurt nobody, just scared some society lady.
That night after we ate our Red Cross supper, we sat around in the yard—watching the stars, talking and smoking. Eldred made music with just his voice, his high tenor singing and yodeling. Yodelay-eeoh, yodelay-eeoh, yodelade yodelade, yodelay-eeoh. He sounded like a bird of some kind, crying for me. I couldn’t say nothin for a long time after he stopped but I seemed to myself like a whole different person. It was the first time since I’d come to Big Mac that I hadn’t felt like a con.
Pat Harrison grew up in a small motel in western Oklahoma and now lives in a tall apartment building near Boston. Her story Eldred and Me—set during the prison riot that occurred in McAlester, Oklahoma, in 1973—is drawn from her novel "Three Okie Orphans," which is looking for a home.