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Jere krakoff By Jere krakoff Published on December 11, 2016

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Purgatory House of Detention was constructed in an era when prison facades were designed with aesthetics in mind.

Still considered an architectural wonder, its exterior was an amalgam of soaring walls, leaning towers, high minarets, low parapets, flying buttresses, dipping cornices, fluted columns, graceful windows, and menacing gargoyles.

Behind the lovely façade was a cluster of profoundly overcrowded, vermin-infested cellblocks that housed the worst of the worst, the best of the worst, and the relatively bad.

The institution reeked of fear. Weak inmates feared strong inmates. Strong inmates feared guards. Guards feared low-level administrators who, in turn, feared the Warden. The Warden feared the Board of Overseers, a body that didn’t oversee but occasionally threatened to.

When admitted to Purgatory, Leopold Plotkin was harassed by a Reception Room corporal, slapped by a Reception Room sergeant, and humiliated by a lieutenant.

After a strip search revealed nothing of interest hidden in the butcher’s orifices, his blood-drenched clothing, still moist from the morning’s cow slaughter, was returned to him.

Once dressed, he was handed off to a pockmarked guard who shackled his limbs, ushered him into the bowels of the prison, and threatened to pummel him if he caused trouble.

Purgatory’s bowels were dark, dank, and foul smelling as well as noisy and chaotic. As Plotkin shuffled across a rotunda that led to a six-tier cellblock, he heard a cacophony of noises echoing off the ancient walls. Among the discordant sounds were inmates shouting at each other, guards shouting at inmates, administrators shouting at guards, and cell doors clanging.

Paralyzed by fear, Plotkin’s shuffling slowed to a glacial pace. When the pockmarked guard noticed, he accused the butcher of attempting to start a riot and called for assistance.

A pack of cohorts rushed to the scene. After the guards pelted Plotkin with nightsticks, they carried him up five flights of stairs to the top tier.

Once upright, he was dragged to a cell at the far end of the tier. Attached to the cell’s gate was a sign that read: COMMUNAL SANCTUARY FOR WEAKLINGS.

The Sanctuary was established to protect the frail and the puny from assault by their stronger brethren by collecting all weaklings in a common site. Although logical in theory, it was only marginally successful in practice. Experience showed that, when bored, the least weak of the weaklings preyed on the lower end of the spectrum.

Designed to accommodate six standard-sized adult weaklings, on the day of Plotkin’s admission, the Sanctuary housed nineteen weaklings of various dimensions. Plotkin studied the overcrowded repository while the guards were removing his shackles. He saw the occupants lying head to head on the floor, like packaged sardines. Doubting that there was room for one more, he politely asked whether there was somewhere else to store him.

The pockmarked guard, a man with a deep-seeded distrust of inmates, construed the question as an attempt by Plotkin to destabilize the institution. “You’ve been a thorn in my side since your arrival,” the officer proclaimed, slapping each of the butcher’s cheeks for emphasis.

Moments later, the guard opened the Sanctuary door and pushed the butcher inside.

Plotkin crawled toward the back of the cell, careful not to bump any of his cellmates too hard. As he crawled, the weaklings noticed his bloodstained hands and clothing. Inferring from the volume and location of the blood that Plotkin had taken one or more lives in the hours preceding his arrest, they migrated to the unit’s four corners, ceding Plotkin most of the floor. The meat merchant thanked them for their generosity.

Plotkin was depleted by the morning’s events and had no interest in socializing. With the intention of taking a recuperative nap, he closed his eyes and fell into a fitful sleep.

The weaklings cowered together in small groups, worried that the butcher might target them for reprisals if they disturbed his sleep. In hushed tones, they debated whether he selected the victims randomly or for good cause. Before they were able to reach a consensus, the pockmarked guard entered the cell and jerked Plotkin to his feet. The officer dragged him out of the Sanctuary onto a long corridor with numerous false turns, confusing intersections, and hidden dead-ends. The labyrinth led to a door with a sign that announced: WARDEN’S CHAMBERS. STAY OUT UNLESS INVITED IN.

The pockmarked guard knocked gently on the door, meekly identified himself, and asked permission to enter.

“Do you have the bastard?” a deep voice boomed from inside the chambers, prompting Plotkin to visualize the speaker as a person of colossal size.

“Yes, sir,” the pockmarked guard replied in a subdued tone. “The bastard is here.”

“Bring him in,” the baritone directed.

Once inside the room, Plotkin immediately recognized his misconception regarding the warden’s size. Hans Gogol was a short, skinny, balding man with a flinty mustache and an air of arrogance. He sat at a large desk whose dimensions were noticeably out of proportion to his body. His Lilliputian fingers toyed with the mustache as he fixed on Plotkin with a malevolent stare.

To placate the official who appeared to have a Napoleonic complex, Plotkin pretended to be slightly more frightened than he actually was.

“I’ve received complaints from reliable sources that you have destabilized the Sanctuary and disturbed the tranquility of my institution,” Gogol shouted. “While I hoped that, in time, you would learn to fit in, I realize now that I was naïve. I underestimated. It won’t happen again.”

“What do your sources say I did?” Plotkin asked politely, thinking he had been a model prisoner during the few minutes he had been in Purgatory.

“That’s privileged information,” Gogol answered, studying the bloodstains on the butcher’s shirt and hands. “If anything, my sources have minimized the trouble you have caused.”

“How reliable are your reliable sources?” Plotkin inquired. The butcher assumed that even the most reliable of sources occasionally made mistakes.

The inquiry offended Gogol.

The pocket-size official leaped from his chair and aligned his balding pate with the butcher’s lower chest. He raised his head to glare at Plotkin. “Put this asshole in the basement next to the lunatic!” Gogol boomed. “I won’t have him questioning the reliability of my sources!”

“Do you want me to put the asshole next to the lunatic in the same cell or next to the lunatic in a different cell?” the pockmarked guard asked, confused by what he considered a latent ambiguity in Gogol’s directive.

“Next to the lunatic in the next cell, idiot!” the Warden shouted, irritated that the dim-witted guard insinuated that the directive was not crystal clear.

Embarrassed by being humiliated in the presence of an inmate, the pockmarked guard angrily dragged Plotkin from the Warden’s office to a poorly lit stairway.

After the butcher negotiated the steep entrance to the basement, with only a few minor falls, he was pushed into the moldy, semi-dark basement with a stench he wasn’t quite able to identify.

He was then hustled down a narrow corridor and thrown into a cave-like structure with a low ceiling, naked light bulb, filthy floor mattress, and chamber pot. Plotkin bent, waddled into the windowless repository and, within seconds, fell asleep.

The lunatic in the adjacent cell, the only other occupant of the basement, was a defrocked lawyer who was recently convicted of embezzling from his law firm. Sane when committing the crime, he had gone mad during the two-year wait for trial.

Animated by a delusion that his conviction was a conspiracy to drive him out of the legal profession, he routinely stayed awake all night, staging mock trials that closely resembled his own trial, endlessly proclaiming his innocence to an imaginary jury, spouting legal maxims to a non-existent judge, railing against his defense attorney, defaming former law partners, castigating his billing clerk, condemning his estranged wife, and ridiculing former mistresses and various other people, real or imagined, he believed had taken part in the conspiracy.

It was afternoon when Plotkin entered the adjoining cage. The lunatic was asleep and snoring innocently.

During Plotkin’s first evening in Purgatory’s basement, he discovered that the lunatic’s nocturnal behavior precluded any sleep at night.

The next morning, he diplomatically appealed to his neighbor to confine the irrational behavior to daylight hours.

The lunatic, mildly paranoid even when sane, rebuffed Plotkin with the accusation that the butcher was conspiring with enemies to silence him.

Since it was obvious there was no way to reason with the madman, the butcher altered his lifelong sleeping pattern and made due with fitful daytime naps.

Against the backdrop of the lunatic’s nightly trial reenactments and protestations of innocence, Plotkin occupied his time battling armies of cockroaches that invaded his cage every night.

The swatting noise agitated the lunatic. “Quiet! Court is in session,” he demanded. “You’re disrupting my concentration. If I’m convicted, there will be hell to pay!”

Not wanting to antagonize the only other human occupying the basement, Plotkin abandoned the insect wars. With little else to do, he began ranting as well, often about the same things the lunatic railed against, but more coherently.

The lunatic began to sense from the parallel ranting that Plotkin was a kindred spirit, not a conspirator. As a sign of good will, he introduced himself and offered to talk if the butcher ever felt the need.

Soon, the subterranean neighbors were immersed each night in long, rambling discussions about things Plotkin had no interest in but valued as a means of passing time.

Despondent and fearing he would soon die a forgotten man in Purgatory’s basement, Plotkin began to long for his previous life: the stench of the butcher shop; the anxieties caused by living in a cramped apartment with his overbearing father and deranged uncles; the incessant verbal skirmishing with extended family members; and the lack of meaningful social outlets.

Over time, Plotkin grew increasingly morose, and plagued by nagging self-doubt. Day after day, when the lunatic was not shouting, he wondered whether he should have done what he did.

He thought about the Divine Comedy, one of his favorite books as a child, and speculated about which Circle of Dante’s Inferno he had descended to.  

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