Bewildering Stories

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A Slander of Solzhenitsyn

by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

When he left I thought everything was okay. The first police officer left after our discussion, so I thought everything had been taken care of. I was outside again, selling copies of my stories, across the street from the big record store on Delmar Avenue. The first policeman made me put away my tip jar.

I was reduced to working for tips by an earlier recommendation. They’d already made me remove the prices from my little books. And they also told me I couldn’t talk to anyone unless the person first walked up to me. Rules like that.

I had a little tray, and on it I had a selection of my latest stories, little sheets of folded paper with stories typed on them. Like I say, the first officer had already left, and yes, maybe I’d pushed him down a few times... But that’s always a part of any meaningful negotiations. So when three officers arrived and placed me in handcuffs I was shocked.

“Is there a problem here, officers?”

“Not any more.”

“I’ve changed my mind. I would like to sign that summons.”

“Too late for that.”

A car arrived, with lights spinning and the siren making a noise. The siren was just playing with the night like a cat or a kitten playing with a suicidal mouse, a mouse wearing a canary costume for some reason never fully explained by the mouse in his otherwise very detailed diary.

The car they put me in had a little well built into the back seat. That’s where the hands and the handcuffs go. It was only a short ride to the station. There they put me in a cage. A real honest-to-god cage. They took my belt, and shoes, and glasses. I need my glasses a lot, so in all the rest of this account you have to picture me looking in the wrong direction whenever someone tries to talk to me.

“Is there someone you’d like to call?”

“Why.? what.?”

“Do you want to make a call?”

“I don’t know. Have you got Madonna’s home number?”

“Mr. Smith you’re going to have to have someone come down and bail you out.”

“You guys aren’t just letting me go after a talkin’-to?”

“We’ve tried that. Three times.”

“Okay, so what do I do?”

“You married?”

“A lot.”

“You should call your wife.”

“Couldn’t you just shoot me?”

They got Mary Ann on the phone. They handed the phone in to me.

“Mary Ann, I’m under arrest and need you to bring me two hundred dollars. I’m at the...” CLICK. She’d hung up on me.

I kept talking anyway. “Listen HO. You best get two hundred of your HO dollars and some crack daddy instant orange booty tang, and bring your best fine-lookin’ self down here. And don’t you be forgetting what it is a man wants, the minute he gets out of prison. Don’t be givin anything away while I’m gone either.”

“Mr. Smith, the light went out. The light on the phone went out five seconds into your call. Whoever you called hung up a long time ago.”

“That’s cause she’s afraid of me. Afraid I’ll go OJ. Afraid I’m gonna’ pop a cap on her.”

“Mr. Smith are you on any medications?”


“May I suggest you try some?”

The cage I was in, wasn’t the final destination. I thought it was, but I was wrong.

Transferring a prisoner is the most dangerous time for civil authorities. The only thing that takes out the risk is doing it by the book. Many years of handling prisoners has taught the police that a standardized approach can take the danger out of a very dangerous situation.

Both officers outside my cage, the man and the woman, both officers put on vests. They took the mace spray cans out of their belts and locked them in a locker. The male officer took the key to the locker and broke it. Then both officers traded firearms. Then they called in the transport team. These were two big men and they had with them a dog named Daisy. One of the men was reaching up and rubbing the German shepherd’s neck. “Good Daisy. Fine girl. You’re gonna tear him up, aren’t you, Daisy? If he makes one wrong move, you’re gonna tear his butt up. Sic him, Daisy. Sic him. Get him, Daisy.” The dog was barking and the men were holding their clubs up high, like they were going to beat me. Then the lady officer opened the door and pointed down the hall. “See that blue door there? Open that door and go down them steps, and then wait for me.”

I went down the steps. It was dark. There is a basement in the police building. I’m telling you so you can go there and look for people. There is a basement in the police building. Say there’s a relative you haven’t seen in years. He may be in that basement. It’s hidden behind the blue door.

There were three cells down there. Small rooms really, if you consider a cell a room. (Which is a mistake I’ll never make again.) The cells have bars. Bars across the front. And there is a basement in the police building. Remember when you were little, and you stuck your head through the railing on the front steps, and you had to call you big brother, and he spread the metal sticks apart and you pulled your head out? Your big brother could bend those bars; your big brother couldn’t bend these bars.

Superman couldn’t bend these bars. Well, maybe if he stra---ined.

There were men down here. Locked up behind the bars. I waited and eventually the police lady came down. She opened the cell door and stepped aside. I walked in. There were three men waiting inside. They looked up as I entered.

“Hi,” I said.

“I’m going to make you wear chiffon. I’m going to call you Daisy Mae,” one said.

One of the others said, “Don’t mind him, he’s crazy.”

“I’m going to I’ll kill every last one of you.” Someone said, and then I put my hand up by my mouth when I realized it was me. “Sorry. Stress,” I said.

“No problem,” one of them said.

“I guess I should ask what’re you in for,” I said, starting to talk when I should have been quiet. “I guess I could ask you guys what you’re in for. But, like I’m sure, someone in here would lie to me. Like, say you were actually in here for beating some old lady with a piece of pipe, so you could steal here social security check, and then I asked what you were in here for. You’d probably say, nothin’ really, it was just a misunderstanding about some title to a car I bought off some relative. Or one of you may have robbed a bank, and your answer would be that you forgot to get your dog licensed. And last, there may be an actual crack dealer here, but your excuse would be adding to your house wiring, without getting a permit.”

One at a time they raised their hands. “The wiring thingy,” one said. “That car title stuff,” the other said. “That bank was just askin’ for it,” said the man sitting on the bunk.

“So what are you in for?” they asked.

“I’m a writer.” I said. Expecting them to be amazed that a writer was in trouble with the law. Expecting them to sympathize and empathize as long as I wasn’t here because I’d plagiarized. So,I wasn’t well prepared for their question when it came.

“Do you write fiction or non-fiction?”

“What difference does that make?” I wanted to know.

“With non-fiction you have an income. You might be able to hire a lawyer. With fiction, you might be here a while.”

“What do you mean by ‘a while’?”

“You ever hear of Solzhenitsyn?” he said. I looked at him closer now. He was a thin black man wearing a clean white shirt, a frayed suit coat, a red bow tie. He would have looked like an English professor, if he’d had on pants.

“Sure, I heard of him.”

“He got eight years of hard labor for misspelling Stalin’s name in an article that, for the most part, praised Stalin like he was a veritable god on earth. Solzhenitsyn always claimed afterward, that he was using some kind of primitive spell check. Said that was why the word ‘Stalin’, was replaced throughout the text with the word ‘Stealing’.”

“That’s crazy.”

“What kind of stories do you write?”

“Some horror, some fantasy.”

“You ain’t got a dime, do you?”

“Well not yet.”

“But any day now, right?”

“I think so. I think I can make a whole lot of money standing on a street corner and selling my stories.”

“Me too. I also think that’s possible. But then again, I don’t have any pants.”

“I tried to call my wife to come bail me out. I think she hung up on me. I was thinking, like maybe, I could call some of my writer friends. See if they’d come and bail me out.”

“Good luck there,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Don’t you know what writers are? You’re one and you don’t know? Writers are alone. That’s who they are, that’s what they are. Hell, even when they come together they’re alone. We were talkin’ about Solzhenitsyn just a minute ago. His first wife filing for divorce. He was in Kaluga Gate prison five years before Natasha realized he was gone. She just figured he was having a rough time with his novel. She was afraid to knock on the door to his study, for fear she might derail his prose. It was only when he came home on furlough that she found out he was even incarcerated.

“Did you know that they arrested some of his stories? In ‘65 they arrested some of his books and stories. Burned them. Writers come into the world alone. Writers go out of the world alone. Everything else in the world forms groups. Did you notice how everything else in the world forms groups? Groups that transcend the individual.

“Even rats form groups. You can have a colony of rats, a chine of polecats, a bury of rabbits, cartload of monkeys, rake of mules, a bevy of otter, farrow of piglets, crash of rhinoceros, a team of seals, trip of sheep, ambush of tigers, but writers? The only word I can think of that works is dispersal. A dispersal of writers. You can have a dispersal of writers. Each thinking about going off alone and typing. So they wouldn’t come. Your writer friends wouldn’t come. Not to a police station.”

“They might,” I said.

“So why don’t you call them?”

“I don’t know their phone numbers.”

“You could look them up. There’s a phone book upstairs.”

“I’m not sure I can remember any of their last names.”

“How long you known these people?”

“Years,” I said.

“Ha!” he laughed.

We spent the rest of the time discussing the major works.

“Did you know the original title for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was going to be “SHCH 854”? he asked.

“No. No way,” I said. “I’m good with titles. If I ever write about this prison stuff I’m going to call it ‘The Salamander Sandwich’.”

“Catchy,” he admitted.

We sang some songs. “Proud Mary” was a big hit. Some of the other cells even joined in. We played a game of scramble to the cots when the toilet overflowed. Then we played a game called, can you whizz and hit the potty while kneeling on the upper cot? I won on accuracy but lost in the other categories.

It was long past midnight when the door at the top of the stairs opened. Light came down like a flood of illumination. Light rushed down the stairs tripping and falling onto the dark floor. I’d spent almost the night in jail.

A night in jail for selling my stories without a license. But they wouldn’t sell me a license. I could get a license to play music, or be a mime, or juggle bowling pins. But they weren’t going to sell me a license to distribute my stories. So, I think the wrong cut both ways.

The lady cop came down the stairs. She rattled her club along the bars. “Wake up Smith,” she called. I woke and rolled away from my friend’s soft embrace. He must have climbed into my bunk after lights out. I touched his hand lightly. “I have to be going,” I said. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me with red-rimmed eyes.

Upstairs they gave me back my belt and shoes. They gave me back my box of fiction. My wife was waiting outside the main entrance.

“Thanks for coming,” I said.

“Just get in the car,” she said.

On the way home I promised her I would never type again.

But just as soon as she fell asleep...

I crept into my room

and all alone

I wrote another small chapter...

the “big” news of my latest adventures...

this little nothing about my life in literature.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith

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