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Joseph P. Garland’s Blog

My Walls

By Emily Locus

I knew they were coming only because the lights went off. The lights, cheap glaring fluorescents that ran the length and width of the room’s long walls—which were not very long—were always on except for this. They’d go off and a moment later the door opened. The door had no knob on my side. There was just a keyhole, which I knew from examining it soon after I arrived. As I’d examined everything in the time I was there. As to that, I did not know how long it was. It just was.

The walls in the room were painted in an institutional blue and for all I knew I was in a wing of a psychiatric hospital somewhere in the northwest, though I couldn’t say where even generally it was since I was in a room with no windows. The paint job was recent enough so that there was no peeling. The floor was similarly institutional, a sort of speckled yellow linoleum. It had browned in places and gook built up along the walls but periodically—again I had no sense of what the period was—a woman entered with a mop and pail and other cleaning things, and she mopped the floor and cleaned the bathroom and changed the sheets. I can say nothing more about her since she wore a full covering that left only her eyes exposed—though she never answered my own eyes while she was there—and she said nothing as she went about doing her duties. I learned after numerous unsuccessful attempts that she would not respond to anything I said or to any questions I asked.

Those long walls with the lights were twelve feet or so in length and the short ones were eight. I’d measured them with my bare feet, which I assumed were about nine inches each. The ceiling was high. If I jumped, I could not come close to touching it, so it must have been at least ten feet top to bottom. And the cameras. There was a camera in each corner. Each had a red light, which were always lit.

There was an iron bed with a thin mattress and a pillow. The sheets, as I said, were changed when that woman cleaned the room or when I stained them, while I stood in a corner out of the way. There was a light blanket as well, but somehow the temperature was never too warm or too cold.

There was a hard metal chair with a hard metal seat and a metal dresser, both gray. The dresser was attached to one of the long walls. I had four wide drawers.

The top two drawers had clean clothing—underwear, shirts, shorts—and when I first woke up after arriving there was a note on the top of the dresser that told me to place my used clothing in the bottom drawers. I understood eventually that at some point the rears of the drawers were opened on the other side of the Wall and the dirty clothing was removed from the bottom and fresh things were put in the top drawers. That’s all I wore. White cotton panties, a white bra (that fit me perfectly) beneath a plain gray t-shirt and plain gray cotton shorts. Plus black sandals.

There was a table beside the dresser. It had two levels and, like with the dresser, food and drink would be put on the top level and I was told to put my used things in the lower. I never saw food come in or plates go out because of the bathroom.

It was small, maybe twice the size of a toilet on an airplane. It was set up much like such a toilet with everything that horrible metal but there was a drain in the floor and a nozzle in the ceiling. The wall had a button. “On/Off” was stenciled on the wall above it. It controlled the shower. Next to the button were two small nozzles, and “soap” was stenciled above the left one and “shampoo” above the right.

The water was cold but not frigid. I could not bring a towel in because there was no place to put it where it wouldn’t get wet. When I showered, I had to leave the stall naked and collect a towel from a (gray metal) table by the door. When I used the toilet, thankfully, I could get tissue from a shelf well above it, which also held feminine products, kept high I imagined so they would not get damp when I showered, and I was able to flush.

Whatever I was doing there, I had to close the door, and when I did the door locked. When I finished using it, I pushed a button, which would release the door, and food came and plates went only when that door was closed. Several times I tried to open the door right after it locked to catch this process, but there must have been a separate lock because each time the lock would not release for many seconds so that by the time I opened the door the exchange at my little table was complete.

I had, as you can imagine, much time to take these measurements. My days—I did not know how many there were since all I had was the rhythms of my body—were saved only because a book appeared with my first meal. It was perhaps ironically meant: Fahrenheit 451. I wondered if my task was to memorize its text as when I finished it another did not take its place, so I read it a second time. Then a kind note appeared with a meal. “If you want another book, you must send the one you have back.” It was printed by a printer and not by a person but I cherished it still.

I still kept Bradbury’s novel for several more days before placing it with my used plates and glasses. When the next meal came, a novel was with it. And I devoured it and placed it with my used plates and glasses and so began my routine. Once the book was in French, a language I did not know. Instead of returning it immediately, I read it aloud and it became my companion, the sing-songy words.

Before I finished it, another novel appeared. It was in English, and I understood I was being allowed to retain the French book as some sort of Crusoe-like companion or the volleyball Wilson in that Tom Hanks movie.

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the books. Old. New. Hemingway. Austen. Some I’d read before, others I hadn’t. Jane Eyre was one of the former. I’d read it a few times and always loved the ending. As I devoured it in this horrible place, though, I realized that Mr. Rochester was a brute.

Each word I knew and knew again. How his eyes and other parts of him to Jane Eyre “were more than beautiful to me; they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me,—that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his.”

But, yes, over time, I was not so assured in my opinion of him and of the governess. “You elf,” he calls her. “My lamb, my pet lamb,” likely as not to forever treat her so. Protected from the wolf, but to what fate?

Instead, I read again and again about Jane Eyre’s rescue in the moors. The Rivers. St. John. But mostly the Rivers sisters. How they rescued her and took her under their wings. How I would have taken that money and let St. John go wherever he was doing his missionary work and go with the (newly rich) Rivers girls to some oasis. Perhaps the south of France. It wouldn’t matter where we went as long as we went together.

I refused to put Jane Eyre—the book—on the lower level of the table. If I had one book to keep, this would be it. I must have read about the meeting of Jane and the Rivers a half-dozen times and it got to the point where I didn’t bother to follow her return to Thornfield Hall. How pat I found that romance to be with each rereading.

I cannot say for how long this went on, but sometime later a new book appeared though I’d not returned the Eyre. And the routine continued, excepting I would alternate my reading between Eyre and whatever book was also provided. Sometimes I read snippets of the French novel aloud simply to hear the flow of its words.

Thus was my routine. Day in. Day out.

Except when the lights went off. When it first happened perhaps a week after my arrival, I did not understand. It was suddenly dark for the first time since I was brought there (when the room was pitch black). I heard the door open and felt hard hands on my arms and was forced down to the bed. My ankles were placed in cuffs and the cuffs were attached to the foot of the bed. Cuffs were placed on my wrists, and my arms were clasped to the head of the bed.

I screamed and screamed but was ignored and I felt a needle in my arm and realized that I was not being injected with anything but that my blood was being drawn. I cannot say how much but it was drawn, and I was released with military precision and as soon as the door closed behind however many came to take my blood the lights were on again and I was nearly blinded by their cruel brightness.

So my life became.

The story went back to how the narrator found herself in this dystopian nightmare. Being deceived by someone she trusted and waking up in this hellhole, having no one who would care if she disappeared from the face of the earth, as for all intents and purposes she had. It ended:

I recalled little more of what happened to me before I awoke in a plush four-poster bed, naked and covered in a comforter. I had to climb down it was so high. There was a light robe across the foot of the bed, and I put it on and tied its belt. The room was painted in a light yellow with white trim, including a strip of wainscoting. The curtains were closed, but it was light enough to see, and when I opened them, I found a pair of French doors.

They opened inward and there was an iron railing that went to my chest and from there I saw what I knew was a Parisian street, une rue Parisienne, and the traffic—cars and people—was moving as if it were the most normal thing in the world, me looking down at it all.

A tray was on the dresser, a dresser in what I thought was the Louis XIV style in a cream color with gold trim and an oval mirror attached of the same design and on that tray were a cup and saucer and a silver coffee pot and matching creamer and sugar. A linen napkin with a narrow raspberry border was beneath a knife and spoon, and a fresh baguette lay across the tray, with several pats of butter on a small plate and some type of strawberry confection on a separate one.

I broke off a large piece of the bread and ate it with neither the butter nor the preserves. It tasted fresh from a boulangerie, and I quickly followed it with dense black coffee I’d poured. I could not help looking into the mirror, and the face that looked back at me was very much the face I saw when I last looked into a mirror, I did not know how long ago, except the eyes were more drawn and the cheeks were shallower.

Within minutes, I lay in the large tub in the warm water and only lifted myself when the water turned cool. I dried myself off with a large, white towel and wrapped myself in a terry cloth robe that was warm.