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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

Individuals don’t win anymore.

There is no room for Mozart

They’ve given me a new cellmate, and he drools.  It’s become a joke, I suppose:  put the least pleasant prisoner you have in a locked room with me, see if sparks fly.  These days it’s only the violent and the mentally ill who make the cut.  A while back … I have no idea how long, I lost my sense of time … they put an inveterate hummer in my cell.  A guy who’d annoyed everyone else in the prison with his constant tuneless noise.  They didn’t expect him to be a classical music lover at heart, and they’d forgotten that for the best years in my life I’d been a teacher.  I taught him half of Mozart’s memorable tunes and we sat together and harmonized on them until the guards dragged him kicking and screaming away.  It had been so beautiful, made me cry, to make music with another human being.

They’re a lot more careful now.  Just in case, I sing a few bars from one of the arias in The Marriage of Figaro, the one that says you’ll call the dance but I’ll play the tune.  Drooler looks up, curious, puts his sloppy head on his hands, and waits to see what happens next.  They’ve got the life pretty well beaten out of him, I guess.  Still, it’s nice to have an audience.  I sing the next few lines.

Clanging out in the cell block.  Big metal doors on motors opening up.  Someone’s coming for him or me.  Impossible to know – what’s he even in for?  Do people get arrested for real crimes, anymore?  Does anyone commit them?  Above ground they don’t even throw their gum on the sidewalks – it’s a social crime against the state.  Apparently you can all but eliminate crime, but the need to lock people up remains a constant.  If it’s not for murder or armed robbery, something will be found.  If it’s not a physical crime, it will be a thought crime.  If it’s not a thought crime, it will be for ugliness or a too tight smile.

Four guards pull the cell door open, one of them holding handcuffs.  They beckon for me.  Me. Okay, so it’s me.  We’re going to have another round.  Someday, I’ll probably bend.  I’ll probably break.  I’m under no illusions.  I’m always curious if this will be the time.

I let them bind my wrists together.  I let them bind my ankles together.  I follow where they lead.  Before the door closes behind me, the drooler starts to whistle Figaro’s aria.  Hearing that sound, my heart soars.  Little acts of rebellion are the atoms of the human spirit.  I haven’t seen the sun in maybe years, but I’m still alive.

They walk me down the brown corridor, and then the grey corridor, and then the green corridor, and put me in a metal room labeled “46.”  There’s a metal chair for me, and a table, and a chair across it, with a light.  Classic stuff.  They chain my ankles to the chair but let my hands free.  Okay, so it won’t be torture in the classic sense.  To be fair, they rarely do that:  after all, people who think they have all the power are comfortable following rules.

They let me wait for a while.  A long while:  long enough for me to replay all of Beethoven’s fifth in my mind, or at least all that I can remember.  Parts of it are getting fuzzy:  a sign of my degradation.  I’m not the man I was.  Even if I got out today, they’d have taken my best years away.  Eventually, waiting so long, I soil myself.  The room begins to stink of my urine.

The door opens, and two women in military uniforms walk in.  Women.  I hate it when they send women.  I was a lady’s man, back in my day:  I’m always driven to please a pretty girl.  An interrogation can be surprisingly like flirting, and it’s always that much harder to say no to a beautiful woman who’s asking me to open up, no matter how many bars they have on their collars.  Yet here I am, soiled and stinking, unshaven and aching.  I feel pathetic, and deep down it makes me all the more eager to please.

I wonder if they know that.  Probably.  They’re professional guards;  I’m an amateur prisoner.

One sits across the table in front of me and the other stands just behind me, just out of sight.  I’m surrounded.  The sitting one opens up a briefcase and pulls out a brown folder with my name on it, Masa Matsuomi.  It used to be Professor Matsuomi, but that’s a title they can take away.

She passes a piece of paper across the table at me.  “Look this over carefully, Masa,” she says.  “If you sign it, I’m empowered to release you within 24 hours.”

That’s always how they start, with a bribe.  “I’m sorry, have we met?”  I smile at her.  My spirits are still high.  “You look like Ruth’s sister, but cuter.”

The one behind me leans over, and I feel something sharp at the back of my neck.  My back straightens.  This is new.  I work hard to keep from shivering.

“We’re not asking for much,” she says, “Just an admission of what you did.”

“You already know what I did.  You had my classes recorded.  Everything I’ve said is on record.”

“But,” she says, “you haven’t admitted that they were crimes.”

“Keep your piece of paper,” I say.  But my voice cracks.  I’m waiting for the pressure on my neck to grow.  They’ve got me scared now.  That’s never good.

She leans forward across the table.   “Just because you’ll never go back to a classroom doesn’t mean you can’t be a productive member of society.”  She pulls another sheet of paper out of the briefcase.  “We don’t want you wandering the streets, singing opera on street corners for change.”  She smirks.  “Along with your confession, there’s a contract employing you for three years as a protocol officer at the Ministry of Trade. “

I’d lean back in my chair, but there’s constant pressure on my neck.  I don’t dare move.   I take a deep breath.  “My whole life is a classroom.  You can’t take the dangerous ideas out of it.”

“Masa,” she says softly, endearingly, “you were paid to teach what we told you to.”

“That’s so reasonable,” I say, my voice shaking.  “But it’s so wrong.”

She leans even further forward.  “Masa,” she says, “individuals don’t win anymore.  If you don’t sign this now, we’re going to break you, and you’ll be sorry the rest of your life.”

I don’t know what to say, I believe her, but … but … I don’t know why.  But I want to be the man who opened his students’ eyes for as long as I can.  I’m taking every extra second as that man, no matter what the cost.  So I shake my head.

I feel the pain in the back of my neck.  My whole body’s on fire.  Then I can’t move.  Anything.  I’m paralyzed.  They unchain me, and place me on a gurney.  They roll me to a new cell, one with just a chair and a mirror.  They put me on the chair, facing the mirror, and I can’t even blink.  They close the door, they don’t even lock it, and they leave me to look at myself in the mirror:  to watch my beard grow and my skin sag and my rashes spread and my body grow more and more pathetic.  Once in a while they send a nurse in to put a tube in my skin and pump fluids in, and I have to watch the whole thing.  My eyes water, over and over again, until there’s no salt water left, and my eyes sting like hell as I watch myself drool on my shirt.

And it lasts a long time, many nurses, many tubes, until they take my stinking carcass and wheel it back into room 46.  They don’t bother to chain me to the chair, because when I can move again it’s too painful to even try.  I can close my eyes, but my eyes are swollen, and it’s better not to.

Eventually, they both come back in.

“Masa,” says the one who sits in front of me, “I have a confession for you to sign.”  She puts it in front of me, along with a pen.   “We have five minutes, before you have to go back.”

Reaching my hand out is the most painful thing I’ve ever put myself through.  My fingers don’t want to wrap around the pen.  My arms are on fire as I lift it up, put it to the paper … and then stop.

Alarmed, I look over at the beautiful woman in uniform.  “I … ah … ah …”  My voice isn’t working.

The woman behind me puts a glass of water on the table.  She helps put it to my lips.  Swallowing is painful, and it doesn’t help.  I still can’t talk.

The interrogator in front of me is sympathetic.  “Three minutes,” she says.

I pick up the pen, and scribble doodles on the spot for my signature.

Both interrogators examine it carefully, and look up at me.  Then the second one nods.  “You’ve forgotten how to write, haven’t you.”

I nod.  Pathetically grateful that she understands.

She narrows her eyes.  “What about Mozart?” she asks.  “Do you remember any Mozart?”

My jaw drops as far as it can go as I realize I don’t.

She smiles sadly.  “I warned you, Masa,” she says.  “I’m a very good teacher too.”  She slips the confession into her briefcase.  “It’s all right. This is good enough.  We’ll give you a shower, and help you to your new apartment.  We all think you’ll do very well as a protocol officer now.  Now you understand that what you were telling your students was a lie:  in a world where we’re always watching you, form is always more important than content.  If you bump into any of your old students, be sure to tell them that.”

I nod, as they wheel me away.  All of these wounds will heal, except for the space in my head where Mozart should be.   An empty tattoo explaining they were right.  They are better teachers than I am.  I won’t cross them again.  But there is hope.  To beat me, they had to take reading out of my head;  to beat me, they had to take Mozart out of my head.  I may never teach again, but I get to learn those things anew, hear Mozart for the first time.  Who knows what kind of student I’ll become.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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