Outside the Door – chapter one

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-roomOutside the door, Paul thought it was more difficult. He had not been inside, not yet, so his conclusion was academic. He knew he didn’t really know. But even so, conclusions had to be drawn. Otherwise there was no firm ground on which to stand.

One must have firm ground on which to stand, Paul decided the first day, the first hour, the first minute. The world had tilted and he had to hold the wall to steady himself, once they left him alone.

Free fall is endurable only when a bungee cord is attached to your leg. Here, there was no bungee cord. When the ground tilted, Paul nearly slid off the edge of the known world into the void.

He was in a room outside the door – that’s how he thought of it, making it more contained. Through the door was another world. But he was on this side of the door. He had been there about an hour.

He was in a room with cabinets on one wall, a book shelf on another, and a sink with water and blood thinned by the water pooling on the porcelain. A towel on a hook above the sink was stained with blood but not the blood of his friends. His friends were the only people on earth between Paul and people who wanted to kill him.

There was also a table or desk and three wooden chairs. There were no windows. On the desk were a pair of pliers, a small ball peen hammer, a telephone book several inches thick, some tangled barb wire, a coil of rope—some tools of the trade left as silent communication to those coming into the room, then out through the door.

When the sacks were walked into the room, they removed their blindfolds and made sure that they saw what was on the desk. They paused to let it register. Sometimes they played a tape of screaming and pleading that echoed faintly through the walls. Some of the ones to be questioned had been kept awake by similar tapes playing through the night—amplified sounds of prisoners walking down the hall, sometimes crying, a door slamming, then screams filling the hallways. Cold naked prisoners huddled in the corners of their cells, when they could, trembling from cold or the sounds of interrogation. Some could not sit down, had to half-sit in cells that prevented positions like standing or sitting or lying down. Some had very bright light and some had none.

After they made sure they saw the tools, they gently escorted the prisoners through the door into the other room. Then they closed the door, leaving Paul alone with his orders and his mission.

A scream was muffled by the closed door. It made Paul shiver. The hair on his neck stood up. It was not just a story, not just something in books, that stuff about the hair on the back of your neck. It was a deep unconscious response to terror, fear that became contagious, spreading quickly through a tribe and eliciting fight or flight. Paul’s heart raced and perspiration soaked his clothes, his face, his hands. Fight or flight, but no one was in the room with him, no one to hit, and he couldn’t escape.

The room was all his. There was nowhere else to go.

He breathed deeply, focusing on his breathing, as they taught him. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. His sweatshirt said “I Heart the USA.” They never wore uniforms in the work room, never wore tags with their names. Just that, red letters on gray. Making sure the prisoners understood why they were there.

Another scream elicited a lesser response. Becoming habituated, perhaps. Maybe it would be commonplace soon, like sirens in the city, mosquitoes buzzing after a summer rain, the television his mother was always watching in the livingroom at home. Background noise, white noise, his brain safely contained.

Paul thought he heard a faint whimpering through the door. He quieted his breathing, listening. He did not hear the voices of his colleagues who were quiet as a rule. The only one who ever raised his voice, Pony Menudo, was in Turkey, taking a break. Frank, who sustained the process with care, having the medical knowledge, keeping them awake and responsive and alive, never raised his voice. Perry Mirsky, Johnny and Carl had done this for a long time, practicing their craft. They simply did their best to elicit useful data from motherfucking assholes who wanted them all dead. They did it to save the lives of their friends and families back home. They did it to advance the mission.

Everyone talks, Paul was learning. You too will talk, they told him during his training. That’s why we have to limit what you know. You will know what you need to know to carry out the mission, nothing more. The sergeant was in his face, he remembered garlic on his breath and perspiration under his nose. Soldier, you will tell them everything, everything you know, you will make shit up to make them stop, you will sell your mother, so don’t even pretend you aren’t flesh too, boy. Flesh tears. It isn’t rocket science, shit-ass, it’s more like a negative of medical knowledge, black on white. Reverse engineering.”

“What’s a negative?” Paul asked, a child of the digital era.

“Mother fuck!” the sergeant said. “How stupid are you?”

“Very stupid, Sir,” Paul had learned to say.

“It’s a reverse image, you ignorant prick. Where the fuck you grow up anyway? ”

Paul knew what he meant. He understood that flesh-and-blood would do what it could to stop pain. It did not matter what made the pain—burning, electric shock, stress, beatings – it was all pain.

Burning was bad, veterans told him, because afterward, every time you walk into a steakhouse or barbeque, the steaks you once loved have become an emetic. Smell, they said, is ancient, encoded deeply in memory. You will never get the smell out of your brain.

Paul had memorized some of the old catechism, once upon a time, but they made him learn a new one. A threat is a sin, it said. A threat is anything that looks like a threat. A sinner is whatever looks threatening. Anything that diminishes the ability of the sinner to hurt us is a virtue. Ethics is simple. Whatever you need to do to accomplish the mission is ethical. Back home, they do not understand. They can not understand. Only the dogs who protect the sheep from the wolves can understand. We are the dogs. Your mother, your sister, your wife are the sheep.

A scream pierced the door, catching him off guard. He found himself trembling, his hands shaking uncontrollably, so he held one hand tightly in the other and squeezed hard. He was glad that no one was in there to see him.

He sat in one of the chairs and put his booted feet up on another. He closed his eyes and crossed his arms and held himself tightly. He breathed deeply again until the trembling diminished.

The door opened. Paul opened his eyes.

“Hey!” said Johnny, closing the door behind. He went over to a sink and washed his hands and dried them on the towel on a hook. There was blood on his shirt. “This asshole thinks he’s tough.” he forced a laugh. “Who knows? Maybe he gets off on it.”

Paul shrugged. “I don’t even know who’s in there.”

“What does it matter? A sack’s a sack. Potatoes potatoes. Who knows? This one is seven oh four. Six thirty two was last night. Frank calls this one four for short.”

Paul removed his feet from the chair and leaned forward.

“Are you getting anywhere? Is he telling you anything?”

Johnny shrugged. “He will. We’re cutting through the bullshit. He’s learning that nothing he says or does will stop us.”

“Who else is in there, again?”

“Doctor Frank, Perry Mirsky, and Carl. Carl said this is his hundredth. He ought to get a citation.”

“Jesus. Has he been here that long?”

“No, not that long. He’s good at this so he does it a lot. He had an oops deaths last week but that was only his third, I think. Maybe his fourth. I don’t know.

“Frank said it was a stroke. He was tired of saying coronary.”

“He must know what he’s doing. Carl, I mean.”

“He’s worked with a lot of partners. His uncle helped write the manual for Central America in the eighties. He trained a lot of our allies, in DC and down in Georgia. Carl’s been around. He worked with the Uzbeks in Bosnia.”

Johnny laughed.

“You know what he said about them? He says and I quote ‘it was a novelty when the Uzbeks were told that one purpose of interrogation might be to get information.’” Johnny laughed a higher-pitched laugh. “They did it for sport, I guess.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Yeah. You hear weird shit doing this shit.”

“So Carl was in Europe?”

“He’s been all over. Central America, Israel, Africa, even China.”

“No shit? China?”

“He was ‘an observer.’ He learned a lot, he says. In Israel, too”

Paul watched Johnny look around the sparsely furnished room, then sit in one of the chairs.

“You ready for a turn?”

Paul turned away, facing a different windowless wall. “I don’t know. I guess. I looked through the book last night—“

Johnny smiled. “The one with the pictures and descriptions of what these guys did? So you know why we’re doing this?”

“Yeah.” The book contained pictures of faces of soldiers and civilians arranged like mug shots. Many were stabbed, broken, burned. “It makes you think.”

“Yeah, it does.”

A long drawn-out scream was followed by a wail and words they could not understand. Johnny said, “Perry knows what he means. He understands.”

The other door, the door to the hallway, opened. The colonel came in. He carried two hoods that looked like ski masks. He tossed them onto the table.

“You might need these later,” he said. “They have a couple of women.”

“Thanks, Colonel,” Johnny said. Things were pretty informal. No salute was needed.

The colonel closed the door as he left.

Johnny saw Paul looking at the black hoods. “You know why, right?”

Paul said, “So you don’t see their faces.”

Johnny said, “Yeah, but especially the eyes. The eyes can get into you. It’s better to blot that shit out.”

“The noise doesn’t?”

“No, not like eyes. Or smells. Smells do.”

A muffle of voices came through the door, some speaking English.

“He’s talking now,” Paul said, not telling Johnny something he didn’t know.

“About time, too.”

They sat in silence listening to occasional sounds coming through the door.

“How long you got?” Paul said.

“What, until I go home?”

“Yeah.”

Johnny frowned. “Is that what you think about, sitting around? How long you got?”

Paul shrugged. “Not often. Sometimes.”

“Don’t think about that,” Johnny said. “Stay in the day. What we have to do. We have to protect the sheep. We keep the wolves away. That’s it.”

Paul said nothing.

The door opened. Carl stuck his head through the open door. “Come on, pussy,” he said with a grin. “We need your magic. Get your ass in here, John.”

Johnny smiled and rose from the chair. The open door allowed the strong odor of excrement into the room.

“Jesus, close the fucking door,” Paul said. “I haven’t got that stuff in my nose.”

Carl laughed. “Stay cool, dude. Always put it on when you come in. You never know when you’ll shit yourself, do you?” Johnny laughed and followed Carl into the room. They shut the door.

Paul tried to put his feet up again but couldn’t sit still. He stood up and walked around the room, looking at the cabinets containing tools, clothing, towels, the shelf on which someone had put a few books, something to read while waiting. Someone had to be outside the door, just in case. This week it was his turn. He was the big dog guarding the other dogs who did the work.

He didn’t hear anything now, just the sound of his own breathing. That and little noises he couldn’t seem to help. Maybe those were the whimpers he thought he heard earlier. It’s all right, he told himself, think about other things. Think about Terri. Think how she smells when you wake up. Think about the pepperoni pizza they deliver from Palermo on T Street, think how it smells when you tear open the paper.

He thought of those things as long as he could. But he was restless, not bored, exactly, but something like it. He chose one of the paperbacks, any one, whatever the fuck it was, and read the words as if they were in another language, not following the story, not knowing what he read.

It didn’t matter. Words didn’t mean much of anything, really. Words were just words. But he forced himself to look at them, shivering now and again, turning pages randomly.

It was something to do while he waited.

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