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DOCTOROW, E.L.



The Book of Daniel

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First they led in my father. They had rightly conceived that my mother was the stronger... They wanted the thing done with as little fuss as possible. They wanted it to go smoothly. It is not a pleasant job, executing people, and they wanted to do it with dispatch. His legs were weak. He had to be held up. His eyes were red from crying, but he was drained and now they were dry. He wore slippers, grey slacks and a loose shirt with the sleeves rolled. A round area on the top of his head had been shaved. His right pant leg had been slit with a scissor.

There were a number of people in the room with him. The warden, the executioner, three guards, the rabbi, two doctors and three reporters chosen by lot to represent the press corps... My father’s hands were shaking and his breathing was rapid and shallow. He had been advised that a phone with a direct line to Washington would be in the execution chamber. He did not look for it when he entered the room. He made no sign that acknowledged the presence of any of the onlookers. He had to be helped into the chair, gently lowered, like an invalid. When he was seated his breathing became more rapid. He closed his eyes and clenched his hands in his lap.

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Ragtime

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His life was absurd. He went all over the world accepting all kinds of bondage and escaping. He was roped to a chair. He escaped. He was chained to a ladder. He escaped. He was handcuffed, his legs were put in irons, he was tied up in a strait jacket and put in a locked cabinet. He escaped. He escaped from bank vaults, nailed-up barrels, sewn mailbags; he escaped from a zinc-lined Knabe piano case, a giant football, a galvanized iron boiler, a rolltop desk, a sausage skin. His escapes were mystifying because he never damaged or appeared to unlock what he escaped from. The screen was pulled away and there he stood disheveled but triumphant beside the inviolate container that was supposed to have contained him. He waved to the crowd. He escaped from a sealed milk can filled with water. He escaped from a Siberian exile van. From a Chinese torture crucifix. From a Hamburg penitentiary. From an English prison ship. From a Boston jail. He was chained to automobile tires, water wheels, cannon, and he escaped. He dove manacled from a bridge into the Mississippi, the Seine, the Mersey, and came up waving. He hung upside down and strait-jacketed from cranes, biplanes and the tops of buildings. He was dropped into the ocean padlocked in a diving suit fully weighted and not connected to an air supply, and he escaped. He was buried alive in a grave and could not escape, and had to be rescued. Hurriedly, they dug him out. The earth is too heavy, he said gasping. His nails bled. Soil fell from his eyes. He was drained of color and couldn't stand. His assistant threw up. Houdini wheezed and sputtered. He coughed blood. They cleaned him off and took him back to the hotel. Today, nearly fifty years since his death, the audience for escapes is even larger.

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