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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 29
A Personal Stamped Letter

“Here, get this published,” said Seymour Silverman, giving his nephew Nathan
Silverman a copy of Billy's Factual Account.
Nathan flipped through a few pages and said, “I remember this kid. He's that young creep
who abused that girl. Nobody wants to read that.”

Mr. Silverman assumed a hurt expression.

“I know I owe you,” said Nathan, “and I am grateful, believe me, but we're in business.
We can't let some weirdo use us to get out of juvenile prison. We'd be laughing stocks.”
Mr. Silverman fixed a hard look on his nephew.
“Okay. I'll read it and see what I can do.”

Mr. Silverman took Nathan by the shoulders and smiled. “You're a good boy, Nathan. You
always were. I tell your mother all the time. That reminds me, I have to call her and see
how she's doing with the hip pain.”
***
Soon after, Billy Stone received a letter addressed to “Mr. William Stone.” Trembling, he
held it up to the light. After five and a half months in juvenile prison, a letter! It wasn't
from Juvenile Court or Social Services or the police, he knew that. They communicate to
others about him, never to him, and never, never in a letter addressed to him personally,
with a postage stamp and sent through the U.S. Mails.
This letter had a stamp placed by a human hand. It had his name. It was for him
personally and that made his heart race. The professional-looking ivory envelope bore a
logo of elegant cursive script saying, “International Book.” It had a New York City return
address.
He didn't open the letter right away. He carried it with him throughout the day, feeling it
in his pocket, taking it out many times to look at lovingly. Only when the day was done,
and he was alone sitting on the bunk in his cell, did he open the letter and read:
Dear Billy,
I was in Massachusetts recently visiting my uncle, Seymour Silverman, who gave me your
bound volume entitled “Billy Stone: The Factual Account.” I am with International
Book, a publisher in New York. While your account is not publishable in its present form,
it could possibly be revised to be less of a brief or presentation of facts and more of a
story with names, characterization, plotting, etc. I would need two acceptable sample
chapters for our editors to review.
I want to emphasize that we can make no promises. This is really a very, very long shot
and I told Sam (my uncle) that. Many things could go wrong. You may not be able to do
what is required, or want to, which, at your age, would be perfectly understandable. All I
am saying is that if your story could be developed properly, our editors would look at it.
If you wish to pursue this, please revise to more of a story format and send two sample
chapters. If the chapters show promise, I will pass them on to our editors who would
make the final decision on it.
Sincerely,
Nathan Silverman
Vice President
International Book
Copy: Seymour Silverman

Thank God for Seymour Silverman!
Billy reread the letter several times. He stretched out on his bunk, with the letter on his
chest, thinking. He was thrilled, but also afraid. He had gotten his hopes up too many
times, only to see them blow up in his face. Realistically, was this something he could
pull off?
He didn't write books. He read books. He was a kid in prison. He didn't even have a high
school diploma. Weren't all books written by super-smart, super-educated adults like Dr.
Kurlan? How could he write something to satisfy professional editors in New York? Even
if he could, would a publisher really print something by a 15-year-old kid in juvenile
prison for everything but murder?
The line of thought was giving him a headache, so he shut it down. He would think more
about it tomorrow. Tonight, though, tonight he would take a holiday -- in the printed
page. David Weatherall had gotten him a batch of books from MacArthur Library. This
time he was on a history kick: History of the American Revolution, The French
Revolution, The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo,
Life of Napoleon, and Life of Mozart.
Ahhhh ... which scrumptious read to ease a caged animal's misery?
But why force himself to choose? He would dip into them all as the spirit moved him. He
went first to the largest book, “Les Miserables,” which was as thick as the Bible and as
heavy. He had no idea that Victor Hugo's novel was so big. It was over 1,200 pages! Billy
felt compelled to address the author:
Well, sorry, Monsieur Hugo, but I will not be getting through your novel tonight or
perhaps ever. Did you really need 1,200 pages to tell your story? I doubt it. Do you really
have that much worth saying to the world? I doubt it, Monsieur.
Billy had asked for Life of Mozart because he and Mr. Caulfield had spent many
evenings listening to Mozart's music. Mr. Caulfield had always said that Mozart did with
musical notes what Shakespeare did with words. At Granite City, Billy had taken to
listening to Mozart on a classical music radio station. His guard friend, Wally Witkowski,
had given him a radio he had picked up at a tag sale for a dollar.
He perused the Mozart book, reading about Mozart's early years in Vienna as a child
prodigy and his writing of a full-length opera at the age of nine; and how the towering
musical genius captivated Viennese courts, sending the European musical establishment
into a dither. As was his habit, Billy turned to the back of the book and read how the
dying Mozart feverishly dictated the Requiem, a piece that was so intense for Mr.
Caulfield. Billy then went back and devoured every word.
Like a gourmand looking over a menu, he flipped through the book on the American
Revolution. He lingered and savored, and, by way of appetizers, sampled succulent
passages here and there. He read about Massachusetts farmers standing up to British
regulars at Lexington, which was not very far from Granite City School. He raced
through a chapter about Thomas Paine, learning that his fiery words in “Common Sense”
had stoked colonial rebellion against British rule.
He skimmed The French Revolution. Eyes gliding over the pages like those of a
swooping bird of prey hunting for a meal, Billy pounced on anything juicy: French
peasants rising up and sweeping away a thousand years of monarchy; the bloody Reign of
Terror in 1793 in which French nobles -- some crestfallen, some affecting bemusement --
were packed like farm animals in tumbrels and taken to a date with Monsieur Guillotine;
and the sad fate of King Louis XVI himself and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, who had
tried to flee but were caught and quickly condemned.
Robespierre's Committee on Public Safety, Billy read, had the power to condemn to the
guillotine anybody considered an “enemy of the Revolution.” In an irony that Billy found
remarkable, Robespierre, the prime author of the slaughter, was himself denounced for
“revolutionary excess” and had his own head chopped off. Billy thought, Holy Mother!
What an atmosphere of fear! And he thought Granite City School was dangerous!
Billy read that Thomas Paine had also worked his incendiary magic in the French
Revolution. French revolutionaries shouted phrases from Paine's “Rights of Man” just as
American rebels had with his “Common Sense.” Thomas Paine had apparently been at
the vortex of everything on both sides of the Atlantic. Interesting, Billy thought. Having
encountered Thomas Paine in two books, he decided to read everything the two books
had to say about him.
A student of language since his year of grammatical and stylistic terror in Sister Francis
Helen's class, Billy was interested to read that Paine at first tried to imitate the style of
writing at the time, which was flowery and ornate and full of Latin phrases-- and
promptly got nowhere. So Paine decided to create his own voice. He would write as if he
were debating in a pub. Out went the Latin phrases and long, convoluted sentences filled
with adjectives and adverbs. In went short, punchy sentences with clear and direct
metaphors from everyday life.
Instead of speaking to the elite, Paine spoke to the masses in simple, forceful language
that they could easily understand and relate to: “Let every tub stand upon its own bottom”
or “Lay then the axe to the root.” He thundered: Why should a little island rule a
continent? Billy learned that when “Common Sense” came out in January, 1776, it was a
sensation. In it, Paine became the first to call publicly for a complete break with England.
An estimated one out of every five colonists read it -- and Paine's words roused colonists
to fighting fury.
Billy expected that Paine would have been hailed as a hero by Americans of the time.
After all, he had penned the immortal words, “These are the times that try men's souls.”
John Adams wrote of him: “Without the pen of Paine the sword of Washington would
have been wielded in vain.” Billy was shocked to read that Thomas Paine died in 1809
alone, impoverished and scorned by Americans. He learned why: Paine's opposition to
slavery and organized religion.
Billy thought: Something wrong with that.
***
Next, Billy opened Life of Napoleon. He was immediately hooked. He skimmed the
whole book, which, unlike “Les Miserables” was a slim volume. He learned that for all of
Napoleon's military and political genius, for all that he had achieved by force of will and
personality, in the end he became the agent of his own destruction.
Napoleon did shake old palsied royal dotards from moldering European thrones, but he
only perpetuated their tyranny. He did lead Le Grande Armee' to glorious victories on his
way to subjugating 70 million Europeans under French rule, but he had to relinquish most
of it after a disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.
In that thoughtless campaign, Billy read, Cossack cavalry, a relentlessly subzero Russian
winter and a strategic scorched-earth withdrawal by the Russian army reduced
Napoleon's army from 500,000 to a frozen, starving rabble of 10,000-- and, after hearing
rumors of a coup, he abandoned these survivors to rush back to Paris coughing from a
head cold and miserable with a bladder infection. He left orders for them to reorganize,
but all they could do was lay down and begin to die.
“My army took some losses,” the book quoted the Emperor as saying.
Billy was appalled.
He read of that fateful day on June 18, 1815 when Napoleon met his Waterloo at the
hands of fate and the English army of Lord Wellington. On the eve of the battle it had
rained all night, bogging down Napoleon's vaunted artillery -- and neutralizing his one
advantage over Wellington -- and fatally delaying the start of the battle for four hours.
When the battle finally did begin late in the morning, mud and sunken terrain, invisible to
Napoleon's spyglass, swallowed thousands of charging French cavalry. The bodies of
horses and men piled up upon one another as wave after wave of unsuspecting French
cavalry charged toward English lines. Napoleon lost nearly a third of his cavalry before
they even reached the English.
Still, Billy learned, the battle hung in the balance into the waning hours of the day.
Finally, the arrival of a Hessian force at a critical last moment tipped the balance to
Wellington. Seeing that the battle was lost, Napoleon abandoned the field in his waiting
carriage. He left behind horrific carnage: 60,000 dead and wounded French soldiers lay
where they had fallen for the Emperor.
Billy was moved and deeply troubled. What unfathomable waste! What callous sacrifice
of human life! And for what? For the glory of Napoleon Bonaparte? Amazing, Billy
thought, closing the Napoleon book. What a time in history!
By coincidence, much of what he had been reading was about revolution; which seemed
fitting since he, Billy Stone, was trying to pull off a revolution of his own. To prepare
himself, he could probably do worse than sit at the feet of Thomas Paine and Napoleon
Bonaparte.
***
Next, Billy picked up The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens' novel of London and
Paris during the French Revolution. On the first page he was reading “It was the best of
times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it
was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was
the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ...” when
the lights clicked off.
“No!” he said, greatly annoyed. “Wally! Wally!”
Wally Witkowski, the night guard, came running. “What's wrong? What's wrong?” he
asked, slightly out of breath.
“The lights went out.”
“So? It's ten o'clock. The lights always go out at ten.”
“I know, but I was reading something.”
“You're always reading something. I thought something was wrong. Don't scare me like
that again, okay?”
“Sorry, Wally. Do you think I could borrow your light?”
“ No, I can't. It's against the rules. You could use it as a weapon. I'll never get off the
graveyard shift. I might get fired. I can't. Sorry.”
“Hey, Wally, it's me. You know me. I'm not a psycho. C'mon.”
Wally put his hand on his wide-faced industrial security light, as if to protect it, while
shaking his head. After some moments of silence, Billy said, “Wally, do you know where
the expression, 'graveyard shift' comes from?”
“No.”
“Let me use your light for a few hours and I'll tell you right now.” But with Wally still
shaking his head, Billy said, “Hey, I'll tell you anyway, for free. Because I'm that kind of
guy. That is, if you want to know ...”
“Where?”
“Europe, a couple of hundred years ago. Robbers used to steal fresh bodies from their
graves and sell them for medical research. It was so common that families set up all-night
watches to keep the grave robbers from digging up their loved ones. It came to be called
the graveyard shift.”
“No kidding,”Wally said. “That's where it came from?”
“I wouldn't kid you, Wally. Now you know. Now you'll always know. Tomorrow you can
start impressing your friends. Do you know where 'getting fired' came from?”
“No. Where?”
“In early America when the big mucky mucks wanted to get rid of someone, they burned
his house down. In other words, they 'fired him.' Later it came to mean getting tossed off
the job. Interesting, huh?”
“I gotta go, Billy.” Wally walked a few steps, paused, and came back and passed his
security light through the bars to Billy. “I'll get it in the morning.”
“Thanks, Wally.”
“Your head is full of garbage, you know that?”
***
Billy returned to The Tale of Two Cities. Reading by Wally's security light, he was
engrossed in the novel for the rest of the night. He cringed at the unfeeling cruelty of the
Marquis de St. Evremonde and the other French aristocrats. He felt the desperation of the
French peasantry. When the people rose in revolution, and the French army joined them,
he was swept up in the storming of the King's prison, the hated Bastille, and cries of
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
He shuddered at the rowdy trials and slaughter of oppressors and innocents alike. He
wept when the drunken wastrel of an English lawyer, Sidney Carton, voluntarily went to
the guillotine in the place of Charles Darnay so that Lucie, the woman he secretly loved,
could find happiness with Darnay.
Then, unbelievably, it was morning and Granite City School was stirring. Billy read the
last page of The Tale of Two Cities. The final words of the novel were those that Sydney
Carton wrote to his beloved Lucie the night before he was to go to the guillotine: “It is a
far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to
than I have ever known.”
After reading these words, Billy closed the book and fell back on his bunk, overwhelmed
by the power of the novel and exhausted from not having slept all night. Pleading a
wicked headache and an upset stomach, he was excused from the day's activities. He was
allowed to remain in his cell, where he spent a good part of the day sleeping.
Granite City inmates routinely try to get out of work by claiming illness and are just as
routinely driven out of their cells. But Billy was the inmate leader, acknowledged as such
by all, and a key inmate in Director Carson's maintaining order and discipline at the
school. He had never before said he was too sick to work and attend classes. His
credibility was such that no one doubted him and no one disturbed him. Food was
brought to him in his cell.
By nightfall, he was refreshed -- and had made a decision.