Our hour is marked, and no one can claim a moment of life beyond what fate has predestined.
— Napoleon at St. Helena, 1821
A man less self-assured, a man less prone to fits of self-aggrandizement, a lesser man altogether would have wondered if the phone was connected to the Internet at all, but this was not a lesser man. No, the thought never entered that mind, that the Android might be a dummy, that all those tweets sent out into the void were simply for his benefit now, those every dwindling legions of supporters now simply in his head. Longwood Federal Penitentiary had seen serial killers and terrorists, but they’d never seen anything like this. Prisoner 2018211316 was once an important man. In this cell he was still an important man.
They had all abandoned him in the end, that greasy Rasputin with his strawberry nose and his phrenology charts and his sitcom royalty checks, those creepy dead eyed waxen automatons who parroted all of his verbal ingenuities back to the salivating press, those armies of Faustian “moderates” rubbing their hands with glee, even his dear daughter Lucrezia now turned state’s evidence. All had abandoned him but one – the People! For he was the State, and if not the State, than at least the greatest show any one had seen in a long time (and never mind the losers who complained along the way).
And to the People he sent out his hourly fortunes from the smart phone, tweets unto the void about the lying press and crooked politicians and dodgy over-rated actresses and people who were third rate and losers and all the rest, and some part of him (though no part ever really felt self-aware) finally fully fused with them, with these, the people whom he knew loved him for he had told them that they should love him (even if he couldn’t shake their hands and would drink a bottle of Purell before he’d ever think of touching their clammy flyover country claws pawing at him).
“Mina and Joe were very unfair! Asked me on all the time before, now lying about indictments. Rude!”
There were never any responses, which incensed him even more, and he would up the ante, sometimes sending dozens of these messages in an hour, fingers greasy with Butterfingers and Three Musketeers which the guards let him eat in addition to the prison diet which had slimmed him down to a svelte 225 pounds.
He hit refresh on the phone – there was a “joke” from that guy who replaced Letterman, the tweet being about how the prisoner’s jumpsuit now matched his skin tone. It was very unfunny, very unfair. They were always being unfair to him. Where had that host gone? The prisoner went to an Ivy, he was very smart! He knew all the best people! But he was very humble too, not elite like the host, who for being elite, probably still hadn’t gone to an Ivy (as the prisoner had).
Some of the guards had been nice to him, none were ever mean, most were neither. At first he suspected that the majority had once thrilled to him – they were prison guards after all. But quickly he realized that the averted eyes weren’t from the ones who hated him, but rather from the ones who had once loved him. Or at least he would have realized this had he been the sort of man capable of self-introspection (and we have already established that he was not the sort of man capable of self-introspection).
“I am not a sick man. I am not a wicked man. Nor an unattractive man,” the prisoner repeated to himself, for a second wondering if he should tweet it out, then wondering if it was too long a sentence, then forgetting what he had originally been thinking about all together. He ruminated – insofar as he was capable of rumination – and thought that while some might think him mad or crazy, what he really suffered from was an acute case of feeling more than others, not less (but of course he could never hear a heart beating beneath the floorboards because he never let himself feel guilty).
He felt himself getting angry again. “America has more need of me than I have America!” He started screaming. Soon the little sliding panel on the cell door opened. When the panel opened, the ice blue eyes on the other side never broke their gaze from the prisoner.
“Sir, I know you are upset. Should we put your shows on?”
It was always the same voice, calm, Midwestern, without accent, so different from the effete nasal honking of the prisoner, and yet, without a hint of irony, the prisoner thought “This guard is one of my people.”
“Yes! Yes! Put Joe and Mika on! But an old one, when they still liked me!”
“Yes sir, absolutely sir,” said the guard, whose voice the prisoner grew accustomed too, though he never saw his face and didn’t know his name (thought it had never occurred to the prisoner to ask him his name). He was sure that the guard had voted for him, he could feel it – even if it was increasingly rare to find anyone who would admit to such a thing.
“Wait, come back!” Yelled Prisoner 2018211316.
The little panel opened, the pair of blue eyes returned.
“Would you like a different show?”
The prisoner considered the room he was in, it felt pitiable to him, small and normal and boring. Nothing was gold. That it was comfortable beyond all measure of what most people had was of no accounting to him, for he was not most people. Still, they let him bring the four canopy Louis XVI bed from Fifth Avenue, and they let him have his six big screens tuned to every channel of 24-hour news, and he could bring the framed picture of Lucrezia, and the warden even said he could bring as many books as he wanted, but he couldn’t figure out why he would want any books.
“No…. Would you want to talk?” The prisoner asked, but really he wanted somebody to listen, since it all seemed so quiet now, hashtags and tagging and tweeting didn’t work anymore.
“Yes, of course I would sir,” said the guard, his voice never modulating, never showing any trace of emotion, which even if it had the prisoner wouldn’t have noticed. The prisoner thought, and thought, and thought. Thought harder than he ever had before (which wasn’t saying much) and still he thought. A lesser man would have had questions for the guard, a lesser man would have had questions.
He could have started with the guard’s name (Leonard, but his wife called him Lenny), he could have asked if he had any children (two, a girl and a boy), any pets (none, was allergic to them). He could have discovered that the guard’s daughter had diabetes, and that with the repeal they had to decide what days of the week they could afford to give her insulin. He could have discovered that the guard had a brother named Sam, who died in Anbar Province during the war. He could have found out that the town in Indiana where he was from was as grey and brown and empty as it ever had been. He would have found out that the guard didn’t vote for him, but that most of his friends had, and that none of them would cop to it while sitting around at the bar after work.
But the prisoner was not a lesser man. So he didn’t ask these questions – because he didn’t care.
What it was in the end doesn’t matter, intrigues foreign or domestic. Maybe it was that modem, maybe it was those investments, maybe it was saying too much of something too loudly to too many people. That it was something was what mattered.
Prisoner 2018211316 tried to think of something to say, but in his mind he just returned to variation of something he had said before: “I am the country.” Finally, after an uncomfortable pause (or one that would have felt uncomfortable to a normal person) the prisoner spoke.
“I saw on the phone that they said this is going to be a really fabulous event, a really big deal. Really tremendous.”
“Oh yeah?” The guard politely said.
“Yeah, one of those pundits, those guys on the cable news, he said it’s like nothing they ever seen before. Like ten Superbowls. Said that when the broadcast begins they’re anticipating that my trial is going to the biggest ratings bonanza in human history.”
And when he said it (and it was a rare truth for him to have said), the prisoner instantly became happier, like clouds being blown out to sea. He felt whatever version of happiness he sometimes was able to feel.
“Is that right?” The guard asked.
“That’s right, the biggest rated TV event in human history.” Prisoner 2018211316 smiled to himself, and almost laughed (though he never laughed), because for a moment he realized that he truly was the country. And he realized that he had at last truly accomplished everything he had ever wanted to accomplish, and that the rest could be a big, beautiful, tremendous silence.
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.