“But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all.”
- Albert Camus
“When somebody's wearing a mask, he's gonna tell you the truth. When he's not wearing a mask, it's highly unlikely.”
- Elston Gunn
When pestilence becomes persistent, so must we. Born in a pub and a pandemic, Out of Masks Press offers weekly serials of prose, poetry, philosophy, opinions, and everything in between; including bullshit. All the literature you'll find here wears both a disguise and its true face.
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This heat is making me go mad. I do not believe what they accuse me of. The events of my life I look upon as though they were written by someone else—all the hopes and despairs, those natural antagonists of human life which have run their course over me, seem to forever oscillate between a devouring passion and a fearful retreat. Forty-three days ago they roared through the door. It was mid-morning and I was not in dress. When I tried to explain about the heat on my pale skin they laughed and when I further declared the importance of bringing my medication they began to hit me. That was and will be, more or less how I ended up in this room of concrete and metal beds with twenty other men. I am the twenty-first applicant of Ground Prison Block B, Lincoln, Nebraska, along the glove of late July. All day, after two I mean, they relinquish us to the yard under the pretense of ‘recreation’ which is thinly stretched over their more basic interest to watch us mire around in the oppressive columns of heat striking every one of us uniquely, sweat rolling down our bodies as though we were nothing more than vegetative crops or farm animals brought to ripening or to death under an endless and exhaustive sun. I suppose I agree with them on some details—I do have a distracted mind as they so loudly protest; I won’t rob them of that—but it was not as they say, it was not me who did what they want to paint across my life—for love I am awarded hatred; for life I shall receive death. Yet I cannot deny them—my mind arrests itself in hijinks. Still, I do not believe them. I have never been offered any cause to doubt that the reason for dying is the very same reason for living.
At night they open the upper windows, the ones designed so no man below can reach, in some arrogant display of godliness—I suspect that’s the secret motivation behind all of this and anyone remotely involved with it—they say paranoia is the hallmark of descent—but at night, particularly at midnight, the heat pours like silent oil into our dormitory as the men groan and belch into various avenues of sleep; the heat waking them at various intervals back into the very real kingdom of hopeless sweat and the true savagery of time. I have not slept well since the early morning hours in which they took me. Curious, that image of black figures pouncing into my living room—curious that it has the feel of a very old and exhaustive emotion, one that might belong to my father or someone with a great zest to tell a story—I shudder and dig at the loose skin around my nails; I have long ago learned to hate the word “story”—as though life always ends in some distinction between choice and destiny. I suppose they will say mine did. They will pick my life apart like eager surgeons on the breakthrough edge of a cure, and they will articulate with irrefutable justification and historical elucidation when and where I failed to honor my life and none of it will be true. That is my last human act. They cannot know my laughter.
When I was younger I had several friends—I do not know what happened to them and I have not had many since. Dr. Diver says I do not perform well in groups. I am better in one to one situations, he tells me. I only know I do not like to be embarrassed. I also do not like this heat, which follows me like an annoying fly—the wind too bothers me. At night it lashes against the plexiglass windows which are built to withstand its rage but not its furious sound. This is partly why I insisted on my medication. I don’t mean to cause harm, but I am human. The other men, especially after meals when they are inflated on cheap starch and the vague sense of familiar contentment, fill their tongues with hope—and hope, once brought to a single flame can ignite even the notions at the furthest edge of a man’s logic—it is this, their preoccupation with hope, which terrifies me more than my own fate. They will not die as easily as I will. Then I wonder why I pity them—I cannot decide. I am to meet the judge at half-past noon this day which has yet to begin—I do not know what he will decide; only that I do not want to be embarrassed. I expect to die. I do not like when men assume the mantle of their gods, but more than that I do not want to be embarrassed.
The heat I do not like either. Forced into a cage and stripped of the sky and the earth which gave birth to me and cradled me through my many trials, these are my only convictions. My mother and my father must make their own deal with history. I was never afforded the comfort of siblings. I will die amongst strangers who hate me.
There are many dangers in hope and I watch it gut these strangers around me—all day they lift it from themselves like an offering to a serene and merciful god, and every night the same god slams it back down their throat with a firm hand over their mouth—long past midnight the room swells with the agony of men who laughed in the day. They must not know my laughter. I wish they would close the windows. Or I wish one of them would suddenly jerk from his delusion and scale the wall into oblivion—I wish he would somehow slip the yard and make it in a dead sprint to the train station at the end of the steep hill where the sun sets and disappears and they would learn not to leave the windows open under a diligent heat. But I am a fool—people never learn, they only become more aware of their shadow. Perhaps that explains why I am here. Every crime needs a criminal. And the lack of one in the presence of a crime, is a very unfortunate equation for those tasked with the geometry of appearances. When tasked with an unfilled shape, they will never, ever, return without a piece—a piece can be bent into shape. I’m not sure any of this matters and I’m not sure it needs to. The whole world obeys one command—dying in one place or dying in another, I find the idea of choosing hostile to the idea of life itself.
In the daytime the ones who can no longer talk their way to peace of mind consort to pacing endlessly in sad, circular patterns in a way which kindles him into grace with the ape and the lion, robbed of his amusement for another’s, and it is one of the worst things I have ever witnessed. When you tell him to stop, he even snarls. If the men who decide and see such things through determine that my life must be destroyed in order to serve that which they cannot define, I accept that. My innocence is irrelevant. The men who sign the paper which authorizes my death—I know not what will become of them. They might later enter into a great joy or their wives might leave them. I will die. I am not afraid of them. No I’m not. I have not been afraid for a very long time and maybe that is why I am here. Fear is not to be confused with respect. I never respected the finite terror of life and that is why I am here.
I do not attempt acquaintances with the men around me; I do not want to die in the sight of a familiar face. It has always made more sense to die in the company of strangers. I cannot feel embarrassed before those who hold no shape in my heart. We are all plugging shapes with strange pieces. My father saw only one shape and unfortunately very few people he encountered fit—my mother was too timid to ever reveal what she saw and everybody she ever met politely decided her opinion was nothing of note. I weep for my mother. Her life seems a more horrific death than anything these men equipped with righteousness can do to me. I know I am not above their influence—I know the fire which will be set to my every nerve, the unconquerable cry that will rise in the depths of my stomach when it starts, I know I will cry out. But I will not be embarrassed. At the moment when they introduce death into my body my eyes will be far from here—my eyes will be on the woman for whom I am to die.
I never wanted anything other than to be happy. That’s a lie. My occupation was dreams and my pension was the stars—that’s another lie. I don’t know. For this, I am to die. In a world run by men who do not dream, my death is nothing more than natural. Those who loved me will hold me in the nightly dreams they are allowed, then only in memories aggravated by circumstance, and then not at all. This is the only truth I have been able to know in my years. I do not find fault with this. I do not find fault in dying for a crime I did not commit. It is not their fault. I do not blame them anymore than I could blame my mother for birthing me. I do not blame them. I only do not want to be embarrassed. I trust that their instruments will deliver the swift and final justice their hearts decree must be so. I do not trust them—I trust their belief in their own moral certainty. I trust they view me as a black mast, I trust they view me as a teaching lesson to their children; I know they will not fail themselves.
I have attempted to live as so nothing they could dangle before my eyes would make me move. The few possessions I own are of such nature that I could simply walk away from without any emotional drainage—I have always been poor, and committed nearly all the books I own to memory. In that sense, I have succeeded. They could strip me of my whole life and all that would be available to them would be the raw endings of my nerves—my physical pain would be their only firebrand. In another sense I have failed—I would move for her. They could string her up before me and I would capitulate like a stranger in the sun—I would babble and moan and groan; I would do a thousand things, anything, whatever kinds of things they wanted. But she is dead now. And for that fact, I must die too. That is as sentimental as I can be in this climate of contagious sensationalism. They say we are seventeen years into a new millennium. I suppose that which we call progress can easily be acknowledged as its nemesis.
She lived on the floor below me, second door from the back, with a window sill about five feet off the ground, on which she kept several pots of blue asters. Those are her favorite—were, yes were. I remember them well yes—the others were just colors, a wash of fuchsia, red, yellow, green etc. In the grey of evening her window with its flowerbed takes a golden texture as she prepares a small supper at the stove—I am always—err, was always delighted at the end of my daily walks to catch her silhouette emanating out along the sidewalk. Something sad about her always struck me then, she never wore any makeup in these hours. She never smiled either. I kept this secret. Often, I would be unable to orchestrate my legs further from the exact spot where her window struck the perfect angle with the sidewalk. I became aware of the perverted phrase under which our neighbors scoffed at this accidental ritual of mine, but love to me has always been louder sermon than the rest. To the knowledge that love will be one of the bloodiest swords they will level against me is to finally assuage my confusion at the application of the word irony. I always figured it as something of a glass umbrella—now I understand the need for men to affix it to a single rain drop. I should like it to rain tonight—to hear the malleable sound of water lashing these open windows, to feel them offer anything other than a slow agony of humidity and mangled cries of cicadas who have more freedom than the men in this room. I would like it to rain yes, so she will appear like that wet afternoon we walked home together: her slender attentive face smiling behind damp dark hair and my futile attempt at keeping a newspaper above our heads; inviting me in for tea among the snug yellow cupboards of her kitchen. It was then I began this love that will surely now lead to my ruin, and it was then I wish to remember her best.
To Be Continued...
Part I. (continued)
It was after that rainy afternoon that I began to leave the asters at her door—pale ones. She later requested that I please stop. I still don’t understand what she meant by that. When I asked she just smiled and said it was “flattering but a little inappropriate”. I don’t know what she meant by that either. Emotions always seemed baffled by themselves. Even when they accept themselves it never seems permanent. I suppose they are made in the image of their creators. I knew I had to make her sure of me, of loving me. I resolved myself to the idea of love without even knowing what it meant. I have seen others do this with graceful indifference. I am always clumsy and naked to everything. But I was prevented in this most important effort by the impenetrable terror of embarrassment. I can think of nothing more damaging to the human soul than when it is caught embarrassed. It seems a hell from which only false escape is permitted. I posses courage yes, but not the courage by which men subjugate the Earth. For this it seems, I am also to die. My hours they were composed of this horrible contradiction between the will to love and the fear of embarrassment.
Many months passed in this teetering manner. I began to understand the futility inherent in my intentions and resolved to force myself by one great burst of blind will power. At the time it seemed to be the coronating moment of my life, the point from which all infinities diverged—I know this now to be quite false. The timing was also poor—I am told they found her poor body the next day. Oh curse the precision of memory! Curse the arrangement of circumstance! Curse this wretched heat! The moisture along my eyes nearly evaporates in its presence. My last memory is of her voice—sharp like the harrowing draw of breath before those final trumpets shout, shouting, shouting to me…shouting with the tragedy of God in man. The last sound of the last paradise right before it is lost forever.
The days which followed were at the time, and still remain, a mystery to me, as I was largely paralyzed with difficulty breathing. I could not do much of anything else; nor was there a modicum of desire to. I could not entertain any other thought than the rhythm of my own chest: back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Strange patterns ran the walls of my apartment and I do not remember whether or not I slept. A sort of planetary exile persisted within me. At one point they knocked on my door with questions: “We’re taking statements from every resident”, they told me—but they mostly presented me with the observations of my neighbors: using cruel and erroneous words like “Peeping Tom” and continually probing, from different angles, what they referred to as “A description of an evening occurrence with the victim in the victim’s residence.’ I could not help myself at such language—her corona hangs over--and anger overwhelmed me in a beleaguered dizziness. This can be added to the litany of my death. Sometime after that they arrested me and placed me inside this inferno of concrete and strange men.
On Sunday mornings, between breakfast and the lunch hour, a thin man with white hair and a face which seems out of place in a prison guard’s uniform stands in the doorway offering a Christian service for any condemned soul who wants to attend. I am told that before this became a co-ed event, attendance was quite low. Now the men leap toward God in the guise of a woman in an orange jumpsuit. I have only gone once and it was neither for god nor woman. The absurd ceremony is held in something of a drab and monotonously concrete classroom, divided in half by a sentry line of guards who remain motionless and silent as the old man pounds the room with the fire of God. I had brief difficulty at stifling a laugh when Johnathan Edwards suddenly ran across my mind. The women are brought in first and sit in the front partition before the guards—the men are then positioned in the back of the room, and throughout the word of god the women take calculated turns flashing the men behind them. In this way all the men here praise Christ—this is also why they will not die as easily as I will. They eat their lunch with a satisfaction easily exchangeable with faith.
Perhaps that might be of some use in reasoning why they open these windows to the flame every night. Prisoners in the hand of an angry warden and I laugh—but silence! They must not know my laughter. For then I will be embarrassed. Nothing else about this desolation can embarrass me, save the discovery of my laughter. If they find it, my laughter, they will instantly tattoo it with the incessant configurations of the human machine and I cannot allow that. Then I would have no choice but to join the Hollow Men who see the skull beneath the skin. Then I would begin to pace.
These men who move in their sleep with moans and antagonizing dreams, ribbons of sweat upon their brow and limbs waking them every hour to an existence less perfect than the sanctity of their dreams. These might be the last men on Earth who dream. Having lived in both kingdoms, that of the sun and that of the wall, I cannot argue against the flatness by which men dream. The truth of the world, should there be any at all, seems only attainable by those who are removed from the world. I have heard silence is only measured by its absence. I pity these men for the price of their truth. Most of them are not wholly measurable by the vagrancies of good and evil. They are not afforded the luxury of being called by their rightful name. They have been Hawthorne’d with titles of “Felon”, “Degenerate”, “Convict”—phrases that will follow most of them into death. Ah! A rain drop irony again! I am one of these.
Do they pity me? I hope not. I only wish to die surrounded by hateful strangers, unembarrassed. I suspect that the man in the bunk below me is the danger of developing such emotions. He is quite fond of initiating conversations with me and often attempts to regale me with anecdotes about his life as some sort of addict before his life as prisoner. I have noticed the longer a man has been incarcerated the greater his propensity toward self-depreciative humor and nostalgia becomes. This I believe is another manifestation of recalcitrant human hope. I find it incredibly pathetic and sad, and wonder why it does not ever attempt to possess me. I only know it does not. If it means anything, Joel, my bunkmate, appears to be a good man. I say that and instantly realize I have no idea what it means.
A new shade of blue has begun at the distant edge of the night, way out beyond the auburn yard lights and the train station. In the remaining hours it will curdle lighter still, mingle gradually with a flashing yellow infusion, and then effortlessly roll like a blanket of paint dropped onto a dark canvas. When it has completed this unfurling and the sun has settled near the middle of the sky, that long door will slide open and they will take me. It will not have rained.
To Be Continued...
The following is a series of articles, reports, profiles, and court proceedings which led to the mortal condemnation of one Mr. Cottard:
Lincoln Journal Star July 19th, 2016
“Woman Found Dead in Downtown Apartment”
Lincoln—Police found the body of a woman in a south downtown apartment this morning after being asked to perform a well-fare check by her employer. Concerned that Ms. Rebecca Sinclair, 26, had not shown up for work at the Hudson Automotive Dealership several days in a row, the President of the dealership asked police to check on her at her residence on the 1400 block of E street. When officers arrived they found the door locked and Ms. Sinclair’s body on the living room floor. Police say the body exhibited several lacerations. Officer on the scene Franz Kromer said several smashed flower pots underneath a broken window facing the street is believed to have been the point of entry, “Right now it appears the assailant entered the residence through the kitchen window, assaulted and killed the victim, then exited through the front door of the apartment.” The case is being treated as a homicide and authorities are asking anyone with information to please contact the Lincoln Police Department.
Lincoln Journal Star July 28th, 2016
“Police Narrow Search for Killer”
Lincoln—Authorities searching for a suspect in the murder of Rebecca “Becky” Sinclair that has rocked the local community and led to a public outcry for justice, may have narrowed the scope of their inquiry. Today Police Chief Gletkin, in a press conference outside City Hall, announced that police now believe the perpetrator was at least known to the victim, as it has now been determined the front door was the initial entry point, and not a broken window, which had been previously speculated. Police are in the process of conducting interviews with Ms. Sinclair’s family and friends, as well as known associates. Tenants in the two-story E street apartment building are also being questioned. In the nearly week and a half since the murder, the local community has been unsettled by the authorities’ inability to produce a suspect.
Last week’s demonstration outside the University of Nebraska’s Student Union, dubbed “Justice for Becky”, was attended by over three-hundred students and local residents, and underscores the public’s outrage at the ongoing investigation. Local resident Ruby Daggart who attended the demonstration with her sorority, laments the fact no suspect has yet been identified: “What are the police doing about this? Why haven’t they caught this guy yet? It doesn’t matter what actions they have to take—evil is a presence that must be eradicated by any means. We’re good people out here—we go to work, we give to charity, we pick up after our dogs in the parks, church on Sundays—we don’t deserve this. We really don’t. I mean, we go home and can’t get a good eight hours in knowing this man lurks among us.”
More demonstrations are expected to take place across the metro area this week. Police officials declined to be interviewed, citing an ongoing investigation.
Lincoln Journal Star August 8th, 2016
“Suspect Apprehended in Sinclair Murder Case”
Lincoln—The city can breathe again: we have a suspect in the unresolved case of Rebecca Sinclair that has rocked the community for weeks. On Tuesday morning police arrested a 33-yeard old Lincoln man—whose last name was released only: Cottard—in connection with the alleged murder of Rebecca “Becky” Sinclair. Mr. Cottard, a resident of the same apartment complex as Ms. Sinclair, reportedly earned a living as a tradesman’s apprentice and suffered from an undisclosed illness for which he is prescribed daily medication; as reported by his personal physician Dr. Dick Diver, whom the Star contacted for this article. The doctor described his patient as “More like the man on the moon, than the man in pulpit. Both have their merits, both have their crimes. Which one is right, well, how could anyone decide?” A search of public records reveals that Mr. Cottard has never married and has lived at the 1420 E apartment complex for the last 17 years.
Cottard is currently being held at the Lancaster Correctional Facility on West O Street. He is expected to be charged with Sinclair’s death in the coming days.
Lincoln Journal Star December 29th, 2016
“Sinclair Murder Trial to Begin”
Lincoln—In what has become community-wide theatre, the trial for the murder of Becky Sinclair is set to begin this Thursday, and the entire city seems bent toward the verdict. At its center is enigmatic Mr. Cottard, a figure of both strange sympathy and horrific revile. Cottard, who suffers from a complicated mental illness of undisclosed proportions, has drawn support for his innocence from the mental health community, who believe he is the unintended consequence of a neglectful society. This opinion, which first surfaced the day after Cottard’s arrest, has drawn intense criticism from the much more numerous camp of those who wish to see the 33-year old man awarded the death penalty.
“What he did to that poor woman is pure evil”, says Gilbert Jonas owner of the Star Art Supply store downtown, “And anyone who says he isn’t guilty is guilty themselves. Even a man’s thoughts can make him guilty. He’s doomed to answer to God now, and that’s a solidary occupation.” A reporter laughed but no one heard.
Neighbors of both Sinclair and Cottard describe the latter as “Reclusive” and “fascinated by Becky.” Several have reported seeing Cottard on the building’s west sidewalk at sundown, watching Ms. Sinclair through the now infamous broken window. Says first floor resident Polly Mooney, “I’d have been a butcher’s wife not to notice something was going on. Always adjusting his pants too. I remember that distinctly. Kept leaving flowers at the poor girl’s door. I’d bet my life he did it.”
Expected to plead not guilty to charges of first-degree murder, Mr. Cottard, who is represented by a public defender after being denied the opportunity to represent himself in court, is set to begin the proceedings at half-past noon this Friday.
(An Excerpt of the Psychological Profile Submitted to the Court by Dr. Diver)
As I have already stated, I do not believe the defendant, Mr. Cottard, to be beyond the reach of justice. But I ask, are we not all creatures of passion? If the answer is yes, then as men of passion who squirm beneath god’s shadow, is injustice not the natural product of our just principles? And do our principles not, by their very ambitions, reduce us to burdening others with this fatalistic passion? In what I have observed of human life there is always a master and there is always a slave. In this way we create justice. We are conscious and because we are conscious, we desire. What is desire if not the passion by which we approach justice? Again, I ask you, how can we proceed with justice without the footprints of injustice? I cannot write an honest description of a man based on whether he is good or evil for this court, as I do not understand what those words mean.
I can tell you that in the 12 years I have observed and treated Mr. Cottard, I have found him to be a man of passion and suffering, a man whose distance from god has resulted in a longing for others at the same time it longs for exile. Exile, when aroused by passion, does things to the soul. I understand Mr. Cottard’s peculiarities to be a one of the central indictments in this case. I believe these are symptoms of a man in exile. And if every man is allowed to dream, then the strangeness of a man such as Mr. Cottard is nothing more than the solitary dreams of an exiled paradise. Perhaps what is needed is the path of sympathy. If he is to be a murderer, he is surely an innocent one. He has been borne out of history, and I would question the execution of any man who has struggled for such a death.
That being said, I do believe Mr. Cottard does possess some capacity to love, and though it is often misguided and unsure of itself, I believe this and its desire to be fulfilled to be the chief occupation of his life. In this regard I believe him to be more capable of humanity than most men I have known. In his anger, his strife, and his pestilence I believe the same. Potential, though, must never be exchanged for the present. We are forever caught between two great immeasurables. My final diagnosis then, is that Mr. Cottard is a human, capable of anything.
May this testimony lend you aid, as you determine the destiny of his life.
Dr. Richard Diver
Bottom of the Last Page of the Sentencing Order in the Case of Cottard vs. The State of Nebraska
--The court has very carefully considered and weighed the aggravating and mitigating circumstances found to exist in this case, being ever mindful that a human life is at stake. The court finds, as did the jury, that the aggravating circumstances in this case outweigh the mitigating circumstances present.
Accordingly, it is ordered that the defendant, Mr. Cottard, is hereby sentenced to death for the murder of the victim, Rebecca Sinclair. The defendant shall hereby be committed to the custody of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institute for the execution of this sentence as provided by law.
Ordered in Lancaster County, Nebraska, this day of April 7th, 2017.
The Honorable Judge Blicero
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