Notes From Underground
“Dinner,” Corrections Officer Larabee says, sliding a pink plastic tray through the food slot in my cell door. It’s the usual; boiled chicken with not so much as salt or pepper on it, half a piece of wheat bread with no butter, a jiggling cube of Gell-O brand gelatin, of all things, and a section of limp lettuce. No dressing. Twelve hundred calories a day doesn’t allow for much. I need to lose a little over fifty-five pounds to reach a body weight at which the state can safely hang me by the neck until dead.
I take the tray and sit down on the concrete slab that serves as my bed.
“Library,” C.O. Larabee says, shoving a large book through the slot and letting it fall to the floor. “And this is from us, me and the wife,” he whispers as a crumpled bag follows the book, plopping onto the floor near my feet.
I pick up the bag and give it a sniff. Bananas. Not just bananas, but sweet, sick-smelling bananas, probably mottled, soft and brown with age and rot. It’s enough to make me want to throw up.
* * *
I hadn’t trusted C.O. Larabee at first. To begin with, it’s only natural for a convict to think of his captor as the enemy. And, if that wasn’t enough, there was his name. So many vowels do not speak well of a person’s birth or character, at least where my family is concerned.
Now, take a name like mine, a name like Hmrlnk. There’s a name you can believe in, a name you can trust, or at least respect. In my ancestral homeland of Moldavia men are still judged by the vowel content of their family names. The fewer vowels, the better the family, and chances are, the better the man. It’s a self-serving belief, for sure, one started by my great, great-grandfather, Hmrlnk the Horrible, and then perpetuated by succeeding generations of Hmrlnks. There’s no record of what Moldavians with more vowel-heavy names think of the practice, and none of the consonant-blessed could care less anyway. That’s just the way it’s always been, and probably always will be. The peasants get a royal family to envy, despise, and fear – an institution to give their grubby, desperate lives structure and substance until they succumb to the hard labor, alcoholism, illness and early death that seems to historically be their lot.
What more could they want?
We Hmrlnks have always been satisfied with the situation.
* * *
The novel C.O. Larabee dropped through my food slot is Anna Karenina, and inside it the pages have been carved out, leaving a space where a block of cheddar cheese fits nicely. There’s a note wrapped around the cheese. The message on the note is written in a committed, almost childlike scrawl:
Situation hot in kitchen.
Operations day 2 day.
S.A.D IS WITH YOU!!!!!!! Don’t worry.
S.A.D. is the acronym for Stop All Death, one of the many activist groups started or
taken over and directed by my ever-idealistic son Ilya Hmrlnk V. The group’s stated mission is to eradicate death in all its forms, and its members are involved with a wide range of mostly lost causes. They have had their successes, no doubt, mostly legislation banning children’s toys they consider dangerous or promoting obscure animal rights issues, and they’ve helped postpone a number of court-ordered executions, executions like mine. For the most part though, people and animals just keep on dying.
One S.A.D. member, codenamed “Squeak,” has infiltrated the prison kitchen. He in turn recruited the prison librarian and discovered two sympathetic guards here on death row, one of them being C.O. Larabee, the other, a weekender named Strange. They now form the covert cell that smuggles in the food keeping me too fat too hang.
* * *
I hold my nose and eat the bananas, peels and all. I shred and eat the bag they came in. I eat the cheese from S.A.D. I chew Squeak’s note into a pulp and swallow it down too. I consider doing the same with the few intact pages of Anna Karenina, since I’ve heard that every little bit helps, but decide that a little reverence is in order. After all, another classic has been desecrated, sacrificed so that I might eat to survive another weigh-in from the prison doctor. I read the few intact pages left, thinking it a small but fitting tribute.
I hate Tolstoy for his opening line.
* * *
John Swift, my neighbor across the hall, used to be a high school English teacher and has taken it upon himself to order me books from the “Free Your Mind While Your Ass Is Ours” literacy program run out of the prison library. He encourages me to read more, saying that it is one of the few activities in life that can’t help but better a person. He has ordered me books by authors such as the Frenchman Albert Camus, a man I thought spent too much time speculating on how to survive without justice or grace and not enough time on how to live without them. Swift also thought I might like reading Franz Kafka, a German Jew, whose views on the individual and collective struggle against the dark and omnipotent forces of the bureaucratic state depressed me so much that I had a hard time eating for two days. If I don’t eat and keep my weight up, my bureaucratic state will execute me.
No more Kafka for me, thank you.
Lately Swift has been concentrating more on the Russian classics, Turgenev, Gorky, Nabokov, Gogol, Pushkin, Bulgakov and Dostoevsky, among others. Besides the laughable satire of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, Russian literature is one sad, tragic and psychologically grueling body of work when read one novel after another. And now, this Tolstoy, this first line of his novel Anna Karenina, this is too much for me. Here’s what it says:
“All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy
in its own way.”
Some strings of words speak so truly to certain human beings that it may make them want to throw themselves under a train. Could this long-dead Russian have foreseen the family that I would be born into? Could he have imagined the family that I would bring into being? His words should be inscribed on the banner etched across the top of the Hmrlnk coat of arms. They could have been carved into the marble ceiling support over the entryway to the Hmrlnk mausoleum, if there was one. And, if some graffiti artist had
spray painted them across the front of either Father’s or my family homes, the meaning would not be lost. I have lived out, and am trying to stay alive to keep on living out, that immortal opening line.
Some days I wonder why.