You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom. I can handle the enthusiastic brutality of the guards, the wasted erections, even the suffocating heat. (Apparently airconditioning offends societys notion of punishmentas if just by being a little cool we are getting away with murder.) But what can I do here to kill time? Fall in love? Theres a female guard whose stare of indifference is alluring, but Ive never been good at chasing womenI always take no for an answer. Sleep all day? When my eyes are closed I see the menacing face thats haunted me my whole life. Meditate? After everything thats happened, I know the mind isnt worth the membrane its printed on. There are no distractions herenot enough, anywayto avoid catastrophic introspection. Neither can I beat back the memories with a stick.
All that remains is to go insane; easy in a theater where the apocalypse is performed every other week. Last night was a particularly stellar show: I had almost fallen asleep when the building started shaking and a hundred angry voices shouted as one. I stiffened. A riot, yet another illconceived revolution. It hadnt been going two minutes when my door was kicked open and a tall figure entered, wearing a smile that seemed merely ornamental.
Your mattress. I need, he said.
What for? I asked.
We set fire to all mattress, he boasted, thumbs up, as if this gesture were the jewel in the crown of human achievement.
So what am I supposed to sleep on? The floor?
He shrugged and started speaking in a language I didnt understand. There were oddshaped bulges in his neck; clearly something terrible was taking place underneath his skin. The people here are all in a bad way and their clinging misfortunes have physically misshaped them. Mine have too; my face looks like a withered grape, my body the vine.
I waved the prisoner away and continued listening to the routine chaos of the mob. Thats when I had the idea that I could pass the time by writing my story. Of course, Id have to scribble it secretly crouched behind the door, and only at night, and then hide it in the damp space between the toilet and the wall and hope my jailers arent the type to get down on their hands and knees. Id settled on this plan when the riot finally took the lights out. I sat on my bed and became mesmerized by the glow from burning mattresses illuminating the corridor, only to be interrupted by two grim, unshaven inmates who strode into my cell and stared at me as if I were a mountain view.
Are you the one who wont give up his mattress? the taller of the two growled, looking like hed woken up with the same hangover three years running.
I said that I was.
Its just that I was about to have a liedown, I protested. Both prisoners let out deep, unsettling laughs that sounded like the tearing of denim. The taller one pushed me aside and yanked the mattress from my bed while the other stood as if frozen and waiting to thaw. There are certain things Ill risk my neck for, but a lumpy mattress isnt one of them. Holding it between them, the prisoners paused at the door.
Coming? the shorter prisoner asked me.
Excerpted from A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz Copyright © 2008 by Steve Toltz. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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