Soul Proprietor, by Daniel Genis

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From Sentence, a memoir, which will be published next month by Viking.

The entire time I was in prison, I owned a typewriter, and it was on this typewriter that I wrote contracts to purchase the souls of fellow prisoners. My skill on the machine was part of my undoing: my contract for souls looked too real in the eyes of the cops. The document simply stated that, in exchange for a desired item—which was a cup of coffee, in three of the five cases—the seller would transfer ownership of his immortal soul to the buyer, me. With only one soul to sell, these fellows could not come back for more.

It took me only ten minutes to type up these one-page agreements. Some of the fellows who had been pressuring me for my possessions became hesitant when I explained the terms of the deal. I remember one religious inmate who needed more convincing:

“Yo, my man, you could spare a shot of mud?”

“No problem, but only for your soul. Sign here.”

“You want me to sign my soul away for a cup of coffee?”

“It’s Folgers.” The cheap stuff was Maxwell House, at half the price. It was hard for everyone to resist those Folgers crystals, and despite this man’s reservations, he could not either.

I included a clause stating that souls would be returned in the event of the Rapture; there were many readers of the Left Behind books in prison. My contract was supposedly endorsed by the Better Business Bureau, and in the final version it mentioned the UCC, or uniform commercial code, a common reference work.

This was a bad miscalculation on my part. UCC materials are banned inside New York prisons. In the incarcerated world, the uniform commercial code is considered a book of spells by the prisoners and a weapon by the authorities. In recent years prisoners had attempted to use the procedures in the code to put liens on their enemies’ properties, and targets included superintendents and deputies of security. Once there was a lien, no matter how baseless, the property or item in question was frozen financially and could not be mortgaged or sold.

Liens can require a lawyer to untangle. They also clogged up the court system, and convicts are a litigious lot. Having a UCC is a Tier 3 offense, the highest level, as was my “crime.” Had I been found guilty of possessing the UCC, years could have been added to my time.

I had five takers the night I printed up the contracts. I dutifully handed out cups of coffee with cream and sweetener to the first three. Another signed away his soul for a granola bar, and the fifth did so for a single stamp.

Everyone in the dorm witnessed this exercise in absurdity and had a good laugh, including the cop on duty. I had always lived my life as if I were the protagonist of a novel, and this just seemed like a humorous chapter. But apparently I was dangerous enough to be locked away in the box. The Department of Corrections does not appreciate jokes. If I had learned anything in the past seven years, I would have known to immediately destroy the contracts. Instead I left the papers out in the open on my locker. The morning cop was a member of a fire-and-brimstone evangelical church down the road. He came across the contracts and called in a sergeant. Somehow the two decided that I was a menace who had to be stopped.

For the next three months in the box, I had my case to fight. None of the real security staff wanted to touch this one, as the potential embarrassment was a career danger. Instead the food-service manager was deputized to be my hearing officer. As I stood handcuffed before him, he read the charges with a straight face. I already knew about the unauthorized exchange, of which I was guilty in the most technical of terms, and the possession of UCC materials, of which I was not even theoretically guilty. As soon as he took a breath I asked him whether he was taking this seriously.

“Without a doubt,” he answered, a cold, puritan glint in his eye.


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