In An Empty Room: A Novel by Stephen Spotte spans the landscape from Vietnam’s war-torn jungles to hardscrabble Appalachia and is a gripping examination of time, memory, consciousness, and selfhood. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the book:
I live alone in a tiny shack a weak-armed stone’s throw from the train tracks. The air inside is manstale. I don’t remember how long I’ve lived here, but a while. My house has no mirrors. Had there been a mirror it would surely recoil at my image, which exists in another dimension beyond reflection. My beard—if I could have grown one—would have been black when I arrived; now it might be white. I’d give anything to grow a beard, do anything to hide my face.
I was born and raised in this miserable coal camp, or so they tell me. I don’t recall a childhood, and my life story comes with a caveat: I’m the most unreliable of narrators, not that I could ever speak or think in such terms. Don’t interpret what I say literally—the specific words and phrases I use. If you did you’d be reading a lie. I’m not thinking them, so don’t assume they emanate from logical patterns of thought. I’m not capable of that and maybe never was. What and how I think is irrelevant. Thoughts can’t be heard, and no one is listening to what I say aloud because I don’t say anything; I can’t.
At the VA Hospital over in Logan the doctors tell me I was brain-damaged in the explosion and likely won’t recover all my marbles. Do I care? Not particularly. My future was always doubtful, but so is everyone’s. What would I have done? Gone into the mines like the rest, probably. And considering my present appearance I’d be grateful for total anonymity, which seems impossible even here, a bleak valley doubtfully even God could find underneath the smog from the slate dump. Occasionally a drunken miner off shift tells a mostly incoherent story that includes the early me. He tells it from a bar stool in the Smokehouse Grill. I assume these reminiscences are true even if their retelling seems mostly autobiographical and I’m presented as a passive bystander. Apparently the childhood I don’t remember wasn’t memorable.
Can memories be forgotten? If so, were they ever memories? All he could recall clearly since his return were certain nights at the Smokehouse Grill. The war was a kaleidoscope of flashbacks interspersed with emptiness. They alternated in patternless scenes as if a plow had cut deeply across his frontal cortex leaving the broken synapses to reassemble randomly, pause for a time, and reassemble again in a different configuration. But which events? And when, exactly? What could they mean? Had he imagined even his memories?
The months of recovery in the burn unit of a U. S. military hospital in Germany were also a blur. He lay prone inside an oxygen tent, forearms perforated by tubes delivering nutrients and drugs. Morphine ameliorated some of the pain, although at times it was hard to know. Days and nights blended seamlessly as if time had stopped, which it does on arriving at the edge of a Black Hole in space. His visual memory retained an image of that blinding white flash that seared his flesh and induced pain so intense as to border on the exquisite.
Pain defies description. Had anyone in humanity’s long history experienced such pain as his? Impossible. How could it be? His pain was a manifestation of Earth’s ancient beginning; there can be no pain comparable, nothing so magisterial, so pure and profound. His auditory memory retained a thunderous boom that had caused his eardrums to rupture and his brain to resonate violently inside his skull. The disturbance generated a pressure wave that lifted his body and sent it hurling through a fragile bamboo wall of the hut. The disturbance penetrated his tissues to the cells of his very essence, setting into discordant resonance the molecules comprising every bit of his physical being. But odor is the most primal sense, and his most vivid sensations were the smells of cordite and hydrocarbons ignited during the fierce internal compression of that IED, and the stink of himself combusting.
In the few lucid moments of those early weeks in intensive care he believed he might be dead, except for that persistent pain so intense no descriptors were possible. Perhaps he had indeed arrived in Hell. Each pain-sensing nerve seemed exposed and unprotected. The light touch of a clean sheet draped carefully over him by a nurse or orderly, even a puff of air when the door opened and closed, activated them and set off a pattern of excruciating agony. He tried willing himself to rise off the mattress and fly to a place where nothing could touch him, but not even angels can fly on one wing.
Who was he, and what was happening to him? The medical staff came and went silently in the half-light, turning him over at regular intervals and shifting the positions of his limbs to promote even healing, daubing and moistening the embryonic skin slowly taking hold. They seemed inured to his screams provoked by these gentle ministrations. He wondered if the dead are merely paralyzed, lying in places like this fully conscious and able to hear everything, feeling acute pain but unable to speak or scream as if shot by curare-tipped arrows. Why couldn’t they hear him? He found later that his screams had been imaginary, his larynx and vocal cords having been scorched past ever functioning. His only utterances had been soft moans devoid of any discernible emotion. His expression, once a bottomless reservoir of affectation, was now fixed like an insect’s. There can be no ambiguity, no facial signifying. Following these sessions the intensity subsided, sinking slowly as a flat rock in still water, wobbling, its edges lifting briefly in relief before tipping downward and pressing once again on every insatiable nerve. This was life imitating art imitating death.