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  • Nom de Guerre
  • Askold Melnyczuk (bio)

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A national security letter is an administrative subpoena issued by the United States federal government to gather information for national security purposes. NSLs typically contain a nondisclosure requirement, frequently called a “gag order,” preventing the recipient of an NSL from disclosing that the FBI had requested the information.

—Wikipedia [End Page 17]

Who do you trust? Who tells you the truth? You trust your mechanic, but you keep the receipts. You trust your mother, but you cut the cards. Maybe you trust your dog: she sometimes annoys but has yet to betray you. Poe said, “Believe nothing you hear and only one half that which you see.” He was right. A bit optimistic. Do you even trust yourself? In all situations?


A man witnesses a killing he secretly films with his phone. Two days after showing it to the killers’ superiors, he is arrested. During his trial, at which he’s represented by a clubfooted, red-faced man in his sixties, he listens carefully to the accusations against him. Neither the charges nor the characterization of his motives reflect anything close to what he understood himself to be doing. He massages his temples with his thumbs. His eyes run up and down his black slacks, and he brushes off a few crumbs of toast. He then attends eagerly to the defense offered by his attorney. There, too, he fails to recognize himself or his actions. It is as though they were speaking about someone else, someone he has never met. Neither side appears to have understood what seemed so obvious to him that it was beyond words, so far beyond words that it would be useless to try to explain it. Either you got it, or you did not. Instead of participating in his own defense, he falls silent.

He notices that the judge, a thin, youngish woman with skin tightly wrapped around her skull, close-cropped hair graying at the edges, and a forward-thrusting chin, keeps checking her watch and stifling yawns, unsuccessfully.

His own mind also wanders. He remembers how, on winter Saturdays, his father used to take him sledding down Galloping Hill. He would plant him at the front, between his huge thighs, and they would thunder down amid the hordes of other kids, and sometimes they would spill over to the side. They would laugh, and his father would press his big cold nose against his ruddy tiny one. It didn’t happen often, which was what made those rare days so memorable.

He is not surprised when the judge finds him guilty as charged. He sympathizes with her plight. She can only respond to the fables she has heard in her courtroom. The extremity of the sentence strikes him as a kind of revenge for the tedium of the trial.

Shortly after the verdict, he is transferred to a famous prison whose name he recognizes from newspapers. The Harvard of prisons. He feels almost proud, like he’s aced a test, racking up perfect SATs. [End Page 18]

In prison, he’s immediately placed in solitary, “for his own safety.” As the door closes behind him, he doesn’t bother turning around to say goodbye to the guard, who seems decent enough.


To his surprise, although he is taller than the cell is wide, he does feel safer. Life “on the outside” has not felt safe for a long time. It’s on the outside that killers are born, trained, defined. On the outside, he was always at risk. At last he is in.

Now that the cell constitutes his entire world, every aspect of it interests him. He measures it out with his size-twelve feet. It is six by eight. But which is width and which length? He doesn’t remember. Length by definition should be longer than width—isn’t that right? Can width ever become length? Ridiculous question. And are all the cells the same size? If so, why this size? Does it have to do with median height? What might it be like for a very tall basketball player, who...


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pp. 16-33
Launched on MUSE
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