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  • The Ouachita River Walk is a quarter mile of paved sidewalk on the east side of the brown Ouachita River. The skinny, dull, green woods, unkempt and junky like many Arkansas backyards, are begging the Army Corps of Engineers for a manicure.

    Every other day I take Josh, my autistic son, to walk along the trail. He likes walking in straight lines. Last week was another day on the trail.

    When we neared the paved trail’s end, a group of twenty or so convicts in white prisoner’s garb and orange vests were hovered at the bottom of the trail underneath the frail, ghostly green trees.

    “Prisoners,” I whispered. I turned Josh and our dog Tolstoy around.

    We walked back up the trail toward a big, jagged crag overlooking the river. I sat down and Josh sat beside me. We took in the rushing river’s tranquility and all of its uninviting ugliness.

    In every fiction book and movie I’ve read on apartheid South Africa, there are white families who find great protection with their big dogs. The dogs serve to warn their homes of imminent danger— the archetypal, muscular, deep colored brown, male rogue.

    On the crag atop the river, Tolstoy whined and cried and begged that I move.

    “What’s the matter with you, doggie?”

    More squeals. More cries. More pleas to move.

    "No, doggie. I’m staying right here. Be a man. Not a mutt. Stand your ground."

    The prisoners were approaching. Their marching feet were a slight rumble compared to the trotting hooves of the two prison guards' quarter horses. The guards wore blue uniforms and something similar to navy blue cowboy hats. They carried long black shotguns.

    For ten years, I’ve been writing a movie about a prisoner who escapes from his unit’s cleaning detail. He’s clearing McDonald’s refuse and banana peels from the interstate. He pushes another inmate into oncoming traffic. That inmate is injured and the commotion endows my character an opportunity to flee.

    In an open, natural, outdoor space, underneath skies, and skinny trees, despite the twenty men, and despite the two horses, it's funny, but the only thing I saw was the direction those shotgun barrels were pointed.

    I turned quickly away from the prisoners and back to the river.

    I patted Tolstoy on the head and under the chin. I thanked him immensely for being a good watchdog.

    Had it not been for Tolstoy’s extra dramatic whine dance, I’d have been frightened. Blood pumping, heart racing frightened because when I sat on the rock I had thrown my mind into the dingy river. I had totally forgotten about the convicts in grunge white jumpsuits.

    In that moment, I forgave the South African writers who never failed to remind readers of the significance dogs held for white farmers and land proprietors in apartheid South Africa. A significance that reigned supreme over the lives of black folks.

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