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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 31
Les Miserables

It was as if Victor Hugo had shaken him and said:


“Full of sorrows and despair are we, my young friend? I will take you where you can
learn the depths to which human misery can descend, so that you might thank God for all
he has given you. Now read -- and give thanks!”
Billy found himself on the teeming streets of Paris in the late 1700's. It was a time of
brutal exploitation and repression. Peasants with gaunt and fearful faces shuffled
mechanically about with downcast eyes, rage and lust for vengeance simmering within
them.
Among the downtrodden souls was Jean Valjean. He had lost his parents at an early age
and had been taken in by an older sister, a poor widow struggling to care for seven
children.
With his family starving, Jean Valjean smashed a bakery window, took a loaf of bread
and ran with it. He was caught and sentenced to five years in the galleys. The five years
became nineteen years as Jean Valjean's repeated escape attempts resulted in fourteen
years being tacked onto his sentence. He fell to the “bottom of all possible misfortune.”
Billy read of Jean Valjean's convict existence: hard labor, the cudgel, tethered to the
chain, locked in a cell, sleeping on a plank, repeatedly trying to escape. After nineteen
years of “neither sun, nor fine summer days, nor radiant sky, nor fresh April dawns” and
of his soul “illumined by vent-hole daylight,” Jean Valjean finally did escape. He
emerged unused to speaking, brimming with hate and barely human. It had been nineteen
years since he had shed a tear.
A dark, brooding presence fell over the pages like a foreboding shadow: Inspector Javert.
Rigid, his reverence for authority and hatred of rebellion knowing no bounds, his “air of
baseness mingled with an air of authority.” Javert viewed Jean Valjean's escape as his
own special torment. It was an affront to his profound faith in the righteous authority of
the state and its every functionary. For the Inspector believed that anyone who defies
authority, like Jean Valjean, must be tracked down and punished at all cost.
At first, Billy thought that Jean Valjean would never stand a chance against Javert and all
the might of the law. But then he read how Jean Valjean saw a lifeline -- literacy -- and
grabbed it. While Inspector Javert hated books, Jean Valjean painstakingly taught himself
to read and sought out books as a way to recapture his humanity. With literacy and
courage, Jean Valjean transformed consuming hate into overflowing good will, even
toward his greatest enemy, Javert. And Billy, choked with emotion, cheered him every
step of the way.
Billy read of the orphan girl who did not know her mother or father and had no family
name, no baptismal name, no family. In the words of Victor Hugo, “she bore a name that
pleased the first random passerby encountering her as a small child running barelegged
through the streets. She received the name as she received rain on her head from the
clouds.”
She was called Fantine and nobody knew more than that. At 10 she served a farm family;
at 15 she went to Paris; and there, the once laughing girl with golden curls and pearls for
teeth fell into the hell of the Paris streets. Alone, unable to read or write, sleeping in the
streets, she gave birth to a daughter that she was forced to give up to the 18th century
equivalent of foster care.
Yet Fantine, daughter of the Paris shadows, was a roaring flame of humanity. Told that
her little daughter, Cosette, needed clothes and medical treatment, Fantine sold her long
blond hair for a gold Napoleon and her white teeth for a handful of sous. With her scalp
raggedly shorn, with a bloody smile, and with her toothless mouth a black hole, she sent
the money to the Thenardiers, the tavern operators boarding her little daughter.
Billy read how the brutal and evil-spirited Thenardiers kept the money, as they did every
sou that Fantine sent, while ceaselessly inventing reasons for her to send more. Victor
Hugo described the Thenardiers as members of a “bastard class of dwarfed, course
natures, tending toward monstrosity.” He was a “blackguard” and she was a “substratum”
of her brute husband. Together, the two of them were “crab-like souls continuously
retreating toward the darkness.”
And how did the Thenardiers treat little Cosette? Billy read: “They fed Cosette a little
better than the dog, a little worse than the cat. She ate under the table with them from a
similar wooden bowl.” She wore rags discarded by the two Thenardier daughters. The
daughters got endless caresses, Cosette endless blows. “The sweet, feeble being,” Billy
read, “who should not have understood anything of this world or of God, incessantly
punished, scolded, ill-used, beaten, and seeing beside her two little creatures like herself,
who lived in a ray of dawn!”
Completely forgetting that the Thenardiers were fictional characters sprung from the
mind of Victor Hugo, Billy prayed for them to appear in his cell so he could strangle
them. Having experienced his own Thenardiers, Billy thought: There must be in this
world a common revulsion against anyone within the family abode who is of alien blood
and looks and who is also powerless and vulnerable.
Generations and epochs after the time of Les Miserables, this is what he himself had
lived. None of his abuse ever approached that of poor Fantine or Cosette after her, Billy
thought, thank God. That thought was quickly followed by another: Already that
insidious Victor Hugo has me thanking God for my good fortune!
***
The prisoner Billy Stone was now hopelessly lost to Victor Hugo's tales of evil and
unremitting human misery, but also of redemption, of courage, of love, of morality and of
retribution. Tears streamed down his face for Jean Valjean, Fantine and Cosette. He
wanted to torture Javert to death, slowly. Again, he forgot that the insanely zealous
prosecutor was a character from the imagination of Victor Hugo.
Billy raced through hundreds of pages like a filly thoroughbred thundering down the
track. Every night for the next week, he passed over into the world of Les Miserables --
reading by Wally's security light into the wee hours, alternately becalmed by the steady
turn of the pages and awed by the magnificent parade of thought, until he drifted off with
Hugo's cadenced sentences still marching forth down the corridors of his subconscious.
During the day, he carried the tome with him everywhere. He opened it during meals, at
breaks from chores and in the crowded, noisy day room. In the day room, Billy --
oblivious to the raucous chatter and the incessant blare of the television set from high in a
corner -- completed the final pages of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
Closing the big book, he fell into a reverie:
“Well, Monsieur Hugo, now I know why your book is considered such a masterpiece. It is
that and more. I salute you and I thank you. I also wholeheartedly apologize to you,
Monsieur, for my earlier ignorant and slanderous thoughts toward your book. I have no
defense except that I did not know. But tell me, please sir, how is it that you are able to
know Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and Cosette with perfect intimacy? By what magic do
you find the words that all of mankind instantly recognizes as truth? How is it that you
know how I feel, I whom you have never met and who lives in the far distant future from
your own time? Monsieur, this is your servant, Billy Stone, who bows before you.”
***
Billy was so fully into his homage to Victor Hugo that he did not immediately react to the
flurry of sudden movements and shouts that erupted from across the day room. When he
finally did, as if in a dream, he saw Julio de Cruz on the floor bent and clutching his
stomach, writhing in pain and moaning for someone to help him; and there was was
Roger Stanksy, the new inmate, standing over Julio with a bloody spike, a length of
copper tubing ground to a point and waving it menacingly at any inmate who got too
close.
With an unholy scream, Billy flew across the room and threw his full weight against
Stansky, knocking him off his feet, Billy landing on top of him; and as the two of them
struggled for the weapon, Johnson Johnson, Billy Ruggieri and others piled on. Billy
succeeded in wresting the weapon from Stansky. He had it in his hand as helmeted, body-
armored guards charged into the day room swinging riot truncheons.
They went for the inmate with the weapon, which was Billy Stone. Lunging to protect his
friend, Johnson Johnson fell under a rain of blows, as did Billy Ruggieri and others
rushing to protect Billy. Inmates fought back. The more they did, the more the guards
swung. Billy looked in horror at the bloody pipe in his hand and threw it against the wall.
“Stop! Stop!” he shouted.
But inmates and guards were now in a combat frenzy.
“Stop! Stop! It's over! It's over.”
He put his arms in the air, but a guard grabbed him and threw him to the floor where he
held him, truncheon heavily into Billy's neck. Suddenly, it was over.
The day room was littered with moaning, twisted, bleeding forms in orange jumpsuits.
Blue-shirted guards went around cuffing them. One guard grabbed the limp Julio under
his arms and a second guard took him by the feet, and they carried the blood-soaked,
weakly-moaning son of the East Side away like a sack of potatoes. Guards prodded
inmates to their cells and Granite City went into immediate lockdown.
Julio de Cruz died in the emergency room of Fairview Memorial Hospital, despite Dr.
Sam Bridges having worked on him for hours. While Dr. Bridges fought to save his life,
Julio was shackled to the operating table and a Granite City guard stood outside the door
as a precaution against the inmate attempting to escape. The body was covered in a sheet,
signed over to state custody, and taken to a mortuary subcontractor who was paid a
standard fee.
Before a public information officer of the Department of Corrections could reach Julio's
mother, Mrs. de Cruz had already heard through the grapevine-- there being an efficient
communications network between the East Side and a lock-up viewed as its own -- that
her boy Julio had been killed. When the state official arrived at her door to tell her of her
son's death, Mrs. de Cruz chased her away with a string of Spanish obscenities.
Billy was tossed into Seg.