The White Room
an excerpt from Lamentations
posted Apr 7, 2009
He wakes with bright sunlight chiseling up under his eyelids, like a flashlight, like a detective’s interrogation lamp. The room’s single window has no shade or blinds and faces directly east into the morning. When he opens his eyes quickly and shuts them again the image burned into his retinas is that of a bright featureless cube, a room made of fluorescent lamps, a light oven, in which he is dessicated, digested, shat out into another world.
Outside the window a neat rectangle of grass drowses in the midday sun. A straight concrete curb, a driveway of new black asphalt, a length of cyclone fence, and a hedge, some kind of dense pine-colored shrub hacked to form a wall at head-height. Across the way a narrower strip of grass and a windowless brick wall stretching out of sight. Through the hedge he sees bits and shreds of red earth, bright as confetti. Some of kind of open field, recently dug up. Wide enough to obscure whatever lies on the other side. Mined, he thinks, mined, for my protection, or ours. If I am here, there must be others. Even if I never see them, even if they never make a sound. There’s a difference between solitude and the illusion of solitude.
The air pulses with the thick voices of machines. Aircraft creasing the wind overhead. Motorcycles buzzing. Helicopters. Heavy trucks chugging through the gears. Periodically a siren rises and dies just as quickly, switched on by accident, it seems. The hard clack of things loaded and unloaded.
War, he thinks. It stops never and for no one. And then, an unprovoked thought, a moment of disconcerting lucidity: What would we do, how would we shape our lives, without it?
A wide gauze bandage around his left forearm tugs loose to reveal a wound, five inches long, healing into a patch of shiny, hairless skin, like polished leather, with hardly even a scar. There are tender spots above the eyebrow and across his right temple, bruises, he guesses. Without a mirror it’s impossible to say for sure. He feels fine, at the moment, awake, not drowsy, not sluggish, only a faint ringing deep in his ear canals.
Only when he swings his legs over the side and lowers himself to the floor does he realize his left ankle is numb and holds no weight. It simply collapses, as if emptied of tendon and bone, bending outward at an unnatural angle, causing him to lurch and steady himself with elbows against the mattress. The room has no chair, no desk, nothing to lean against, and he feels certain that he won’t make it across to the window without falling on his face. How could this be? He leans over, storklike, and pulls up the leg of his pyjamas. No scar, no stitches, not a hair out of place. God damn it, he says out loud, what the fuck have they done to me? He straightens up, his face webbed with hot baleful tears.
At midday, when the light has swung overhead, leaving the window a flat plane of cloudless glaring sky, a young man opens the door and enters, carrying a folding chair in one hand and a clipboard in the other. Mr. Ostenbrook, he says, in a high, reedy voice. I’m Timothy. Remember me? He wears no badge, no identifying mark. As if they were meeting on a tennis court: short, freckled, with straw-blond hair combed in a neat part. Blue polyester slacks and tight short-sleeved dress shirts, tucked in, with a white canvas Navy belt and white slip-on shoes. A wardrobe for the tropics bought in Salt Lake City or Omaha. He wipes his forehead with a white handkerchief stippled with blue anchors. The room filling with the smell of English Leather and baby powder.
What we’re trying to work out here is a timeline, he says. It’s vitally important that it be accurate. Anything that indicated what day was which. Any sign they gave of alteration of battle plan.
First tell me where I am.
Udorn, the man says, breathing in noisily through wide nostrils. I told you yesterday. Udorn Thani. The air base. You must have heard of it. You were stationed in Vientiane. We’re just across the river and twenty miles inland.
That’s not an answer to my question.
This is a hospital. This is a rehabilitation facility. All released prisoners come here first before they return home. It’s a chance to heal. You think you’re in no immediate danger. I know. You’d be surprised at how long it can take for some conditions to manifest themselves. We have tropical disease specialists here. Parasite specialists. Malaria experts. Say you get sick at home and go to the emergency room: they’ll have no idea what to do with you. It could be dengue fever. It could be kwarshikor. Could be bilharzia worms setting up camp between your toes.
You’re not a doctor. How would you know?
It’s my job to know.
He pulls up the hem of his shirt and lifts it to expose a plum-colored scar, the length of a thumb, across the soft pale skin of his stomach.
Outside Quang Tri, he says. Seven weeks back in ’66. They got me with a bayonet trying to climb over the wire. Just so you know. I understand where you’re coming from. All I’m here to do is prepare your evaluation and your paperwork.
I’m a civilian, he says. What kind of paperwork would I have?
Still. Nonetheless. We think of you as a former prisoner of war. It’s a form of professional courtesy.
What does that mean?
It’s another way of saying you’re a lucky son of a bitch. Timothy smiles broadly and tries to punch him lightly on the arm, but he shrinks back, instinctively.
Easy now. Know how many POW’s show up of their own recognizance in the middle of a battlefield, after no word for five and a half months? You can count them on one finger. We regard you as a very special case. Hence all the questions. It’s a little hard to believe, frankly. The Meo folks that were with you seem to think you fell out of the sky. They were of no use at all.
He grins at Phillip, opening and closing a broad, skeletal jaw, an enormous trap, liable to suck in bugs, bits of lint, all kinds of unwanted things. Like an undersea fish who strains the ocean through its mouth. Why Timothy, Phillip wonders, why not just Tim? Did his parents take the Bible too literally? Maybe he was raised by missionaries in the Congo and didn’t know any better. He has about him the aura of someone who learned Americanness out of a textbook.
I have three requests, he says.
I want to know where you found me and how long I’ve been asleep. I want a newspaper. I want to know when I can be released.
We’re required to keep you here until your condition stabilizes.
Listen, he says, raising his voice over a loud crackling in his eardrums, like fat sizzling in a pan. You know exactly who I am. I don’t work for Sullivan or Shackley or whoever’s running things these days. I was not a combatant and I was not a POW. Whatever you do to me is going to wind up on the front page of the Washington Post with your name attached. So I suggest you go back to your superiors and work out another approach. And in the meantime get me some treatment for my goddamned ankle.
A day passes without a knock on the door. He’s grown attuned to the building’s faint rhythms, the faraway sound of vacuum cleaner, the clacking of a woman’s heels in the corridor, the ballooning roar of the air-conditioners switched on all at once in the morning. He takes long naps, and somehow his meals are all delivered while he’s asleep. In the evening he wakes with a mouth dry as cardboard and stares at the tray placed on a folding table next to his head: Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, peas. A glass of water and a warm can of Coca-cola, opened, fizzing, the tab removed. The steam rises in a single thin column, undisturbed.
The next morning he wakes to sound of the key turning in the lock and rises up quickly on his elbows. A tall, bearded man enters, followed by a young assistant, an orderly, all in white, carrying a card table and two folding chairs. The table upended on the floor, the legs swung out and locked with a loud clack, the chairs placed on either side: all over in fifteen seconds, and the orderly disappears silently, before he’s had a chance to get a good look at him.
Mr. Ostenbrook, the bearded man says, I’m Dr. Korzenewski. Pleased to meet you. He places a brown briefcase on the table and opens it. Come and have a seat, he says. Take your time. I’m sorry for the early hour.
He searches through his briefcase and removes a folded newspaper, a wristwatch with a silver band, a manila folder, a black fountain pen, laying each thing out separately in a grid. A bustling, nervous man, in a tan suit and Madras shirt, dark stains under the armpits, droplets of sweat bursting from his nose and forehead. He removes a packet of tissues from one jacket pocket and stuffs the damp remainders into another.
I flew up from Bangkok yesterday night, he said. Never been up here before. Have to say I’m impressed. This is a first-rate facility. You’re lucky this was located so close to the theater.
Hold on. Stop.
He looks up, and for the first time their eyes meet.
Yes? Something wrong?
I have no idea who you are.
Have a seat and I’ll tell you all about it.
He swings his legs out and stumbles forward, reaching out for the back of the chair, dragging the bad foot toward him, a kind of perverse dance step.
Dear me, Korzenewski says. That’s worse than I thought.
I haven’t been treated for it.
No, that’s not right. You have been. You weren’t around to witness it. Lucky you.
Satisfied, pursing his lips, he shuts the briefcase, locks it, and lowers it carefully to the floor.
So my purpose here is to aid you with re-entry. He chuckles. Whatever that means, exactly. I hate neologisms, don’t you? I’m supposed to call it getting you up to speed. Take this, to begin with. He slides the watch across the table. Your first possession in your new life. Check the time and date and tell me what it is.
Tell you what it is?
It’s an indicator of mental faculties.
He picks up the watch and holds it between thumb and forefinger. A Timex, the kind you would buy in a drugstore for five dollars. It has a white face with a simple date window, the numerals in raised silver. A tiny notch for each individual minute.
So this is it, he thinks, it has an end now, it can be verified, the depthless well has a bottom. Or does it? How much, exactly, could they shut out? And for how long?
Eight fifteen, he says, eight fifteen on the twenty-third.
January twenty-third. January twenty-third, 1968. Do you remember what day you left?
To avoid answering, he slides the watch over his wrist and fumbles with the clasp.
September twelfth. You’ve been gone four months. Korzenewski scratches his chin through his beard. How does that make you feel? Are you surprised?
I suppose I thought it was longer.
Very common. Extremely common. It’s called isolation sickness. From all indications you have quite a case of it. Prisoners in solitary confinement get it all the time. A day can seem like a month in some cases. You forget the last time it was morning, the last time you slept.
He tells himself not to nod, to keep his neck straight, his expression neutral.
That’s why we’re taking baby steps here. It’s like dealing with someone who’s been systematically starved. You can’t give them ordinary food; their metabolism can’t handle it. You start with milkshakes and protein crackers.
Dr. Korzenewski, he says. All this is very interesting. But you have no idea how I was treated or where I was kept. You weren’t there.
The doctor stands up and removes his coat slowly, shaking out the arms, folding it lengthwise in half and half again, and at last hanging it over the back of his chair.
Sorry, he says. I hope you don’t mind. I’m very sensitive to heat. This is the wrong climate for me entirely. I’m from Minnesota, originally. International Falls. It’s the coldest city in the continental United States. Back to your question. We guessed, to tell the truth. This all happened back when you were still comatose, so to speak. We looked at the letter and the circumstances and worked it out as best we could.
This is absurd, he thinks, this man is absurd, it’s all a joke. He’s a clown, a minor-league Falstaff. They’re trying to throw me off balance. His ankle is beginning to throb, in flashes of heat, not painful, but noticeable. And then the question of who they are again.
This is what makes the situation so special, Korzenewski says. So delicate. I’m being honest with you now. Our conclusion is that you were kept in some kind of confinement with a very high-ranking Vietnamese. Don’t nod if you don’t want to. You can tell me your version of events later. We believe you were brainwashed, though the purpose is unclear. Perhaps to make you a spy. And then you were released, or allowed to escape, carrying this remarkable letter.
Have you read it?
Of course I have. He taps the manila file. I have a photostat right here.
As I said, remarkable. Of course, I have no access to what the higher-ups think of it. Or how high up it went. It’s a bit of an interpretive puzzle. I was asked to write a memo and I did so, but it was probably just pissing in the wind, pardon the expression.
What I thought? He blinks three times in quick succession. Well, I thought you wrote it, to begin with. Vietnamese don’t write that way. It was full of American idioms. The whole logic of it comes from the American point of view. A Vietnamese colonel, a nationalist, would never abandon the cause to that degree. It just wouldn’t be in his chemistry. The Vietnamese have plenty of traitors, but in far more subtle ways. They can be co-opted, but not converted. No, that letter was a work of fantasy. I’m sorry to be so straightforward. A pacifist fantasy, in particular, I suppose you could say.
I didn’t write it, he says, unable to help himself. His skin suddenly feels dry, as if he’s been left out to blister and peel in the sun for days. He wants to scratch the itch but can’t think of where to begin. I’m not sure how that squares with your interpretation, he says. But I was there. I remember it. It’s an uncontrovertible fact. That letter was handed to me.
The doctor looks at him sympathetically, his left eye pinched half-shut.
The valley referred to in the letter is real, he says. In any case that’s what I was told. The problem is that it was attacked and bombed months ago. Napalm followed by defoliants. Whatever was there was just obliterated. I’ve seen the photographs. You’d think it was the goddamned Kalahari desert in places. Not a stick left.
Show me, he wants to say. I don’t believe you. This is what they do, he thinks, they pull you in, they make it a conversation. Even a hypothetical conversation.
But listen! You and I are in the same position. I can’t say who’s right and who’s wrong and neither can you. We’re not in possession of the facts on the ground, so to speak. The only important thing now is your psychological survival. We need a story you can live with.
I don’t follow.
You’ve experienced a shock to your system. A tremendous shock. You’ve been placed in a state of mental suspension. And the next step, the crucial step, is to rebuild. You begin by telling yourself the story you know. I’m Phillip Ostenbrook. I was born in Washington DC, in 1942. My mother is Mary Ostenbrook, still alive. My father is Richard Ostenbrook, who died before I knew him. At school I excelled in biology and English and foreign languages but almost failed Mr. Bergendorff’s European History class. I graduated from Haverford College. I worked at the CORE office in Birmingham for two years. I dated Katherine Barnett, stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And so on and so on. Everything you know you know.
And then the hard work begins. We look at the observable facts. You were shot down on September 7th. Forward Air Controllers reported the wrecked airplane on September 8th and removed one body by helicopter. An appeal was made through the Red Cross, no response. Skip forward to January. You were found crossing through Phou Nok Kok, enemy territory, in the company of seven armed ununiformed men. A T-28 assumed your party to be Pathet Lao and strafed you. By some miracle you survived. The men were later identified as six upland Meo and one Nung tribesman from an unknown village, possibly in Vietnam. Identification was made by native experts on the basis of tattoos and facial characteristics. Restitution was made to the Meo village. Inquiries there proved fruitless as to your original location or traveling companions. Listen to me, he says, his eye twitching again, with a dry laugh. I’m mimicking the tone of the report. I sound like a goddamned robot. But that’s the truth, in a nutshell. That’s all we can say for sure. Everything else—look, no matter how vividly you remember it, you can’t verify it from the outside. The North Vietnamese are sophisticated these days. Brutal and sophisticated. There are mind tricks out there that could make you think you’re an ant crawling up Brigitte Bardot’s ass.
And this is your theory? Use one mind trick to cancel out the last?
It can go as simply as this. You were captured. You were held. They did something to you that played with your imagination. They tried to manipulate you, they tried to play on your past, whatever you told them about it. Somehow they got you to believe you were involved in some kind of scheme to end the war. Who the hell knows? Maybe they’re all dead by now themselves. Nothing happens in a straight line in this life, and god knows not in wartime. That’s the nature of PsyOps. A hundred schemes tried and one that actually works. They tried to make you into a guinea pig, and failed. It was a long nightmare, but it’s over now. He leans over the table and takes Phillip’s hand, gently, cradling it in his bulbous fingers. Look at the watch again, he says. Eight thirty-two. He snaps his fingers. Wake up! It can be just like that if you want it to be.
And then you go home and start off where you stopped.
Like hell, he wants to say, like hell it works that way. To avoid the awkward silence he reaches one hand over the other shoulder and grimaces, as if probing for an itching spot. Go along with it, he tells himself, make it easy on yourself, for god’s sake. Preserve the memories intact. Someone will believe you. Anything real can be corroborated. Any person living or dead can be found. Will be found. Even if it takes twenty years to do it.
You don’t believe me, Korzenewski says. That’s all right. It seems incredible. It is incredible. The mind protects itself. With a little prompting, that is. All it needs is a little cue for it to start doing its job.
They must have a school where they teach you to say these things, he thinks. There must be courses in it. Translating Psychiatry for Morons.
Give me something to work with, he says. Give me a newspaper. A letter. Demonstrate your sincerity, for once. It’s not that I don’t believe you, Korzenewski. But you’ve got to work with me here. I need outside data.
The doctor beams, spreading his oily lips. A shit-eating grin, Phillip thinks, if I ever saw one. A shit-slurping grin. Fine, he says, fine. I’m glad that’s your attitude. I think this is going to be easier than you imagine.
There was a speech Mary had given in 1952, in New York, to the League of Concerned Writers; he’d seen the typescript of it once, bound together with others that she’d one day hoped to publish. On Kafka and the Struggle. The problem with Kafka, the argument went, was that he conflated the Father and the State. If the State was the Father, it was whole, an organic being; its parts no more individuated than fingers and toes. Whereas in reality the State is a composite of individuals, and we should never allow ourselves to stop believing in the power of free will and moral choice, the power of individuals to free themselves from their circumstances. To think otherwise is to allow the totalitarians to win the day. Kafka was an aesthete, a tragedian, and a Jew, she wrote, and that was a terrible combination, as he himself acknowledged many times. His writings infected the Modern sensibility with an unearned and fashionable despair, a spirit of irony and ennui, instead of a healthy and vigorous and necessary outrage.
He wonders how much Kafka she’d ever actually read. Hard to imagine her at the kitchen table poring over The Metamorphosis, putting her feet up, making a second and third and fourth cup of tea, giving those precious hours away to a story with no possibility of uplift, by a dead man, a dead species of man. Quotations, in any case, were never her style. She was an indefagitable copyright-breaker; if Bertrand Russell had said it, or C. Wright Mills, or Gandhi, then it was for the public good, it was the property of the Movement, to be paraphrased or reapplied or mangled at will. Anything irreducible to an aphorism loses its value, that’s what she always meant: and so of course she hated Kafka.
You’re being uncharitable, he thinks. The last bureaucrat she knew was Grandfather, Inspector of the Treasury in the Coolidge administration. In the world of her childhood you could write a letter to the President and know it would be seriously read. She never recovered from that self-assurance.
Mary, he says, nearly out loud, Mary, mother Mary. How long since he’s used that word. You should have left Washington, you should have gone to Kentucky when they asked you to, or Mississippi, or the Navajo Reservation. Any place your name carried no weight. He feels, for the first time in his life, filled with perfect undiluted pity. Always staying behind, mother Mary, always in the rear guard, where you thought had connections, though in reality they were as diaphanous as a spider’s web, these ideologues all speaking in unison, each nursing his own little terroir. Power was there, it was tangible, but you never once held it for yourself, or wanted to. Of course you never stood before the Law. Power was for men and their sad little egos, appearing on the stage and disappearing just as quickly, with disastrous results. What mattered was eternal righteousness and the Cause.
© 2009 Jess Row