Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By William Carpenter
He can’t remember. The hospital room is no clue. White walls, blood pressure instrument, all the other off-white machines tubed and wired to his arm, their purposes unknown; his visible heartbeat on the scope and above that a soap opera with subtitles like a foreign movie, but Nick has to read them because he cannot hear a word. The TV doctor is saying to a young woman He can’t last much longer and the woman’s eyes tear up with a big drop rolling down one cheek. How do they fucking do that, cry tears when it’s just an act? He’s seen a lot of guys cry and he himself cried when Baker came in with his foot gone but he could never fake it like that actress, or maybe she isn’t faking, maybe she truly believes she’s the character she’s playing and that the man dying in the hospital is really her husband, son, brother; nobody alive knows if they’re acting or if this is what they are.
The guy in the bed next to his is propped up to watch the set but he’s asleep, or at least his eyes are closed. The Venetian blinds are half-open and out the window there’s a low brick wall and beyond that a stand of white pines in transparent air, actual Maine air you can see through, not the unbreathable blinding dust and dried-up cedars of Iraq. His arm tattoo above the IV entrance says derelix, his unit’s nickname; the three of them got the same tattoo one afternoon in the street bazaar. Ramos and Williams, he doesn’t know where the fuck they are. He looks again to see if it’s Ramos beside him but it’s not. It wouldn’t be Dupuy because his black skin sucks all light from the air and it’s brighter than a Wal-Mart restroom in here. But if they’re not here beside him in the hospital room, where are they?
His bracelet says N COLONNA and his number and CHAMBERLAIN VA. He knows where Chamberlain is; it’s a Maine VA hospital maybe thirty miles inland from Ledgeport where he lives, or where someone he half-remembers being once lived, and if he goes back there maybe he can find again. There was another bracelet in another hospital room before this, in Ramstein, Germany, where his roommate was Singleton and they had to exchange their names in writing because between them they couldn’t have heard a nuclear weapon if it blew up in the room. At Ramstein he made a written inquiry about Juan Ramos and Dupuy Williams but they shook their heads, indicating they didn’t know. If they have also reached their own home-state VA centers, Ramos will be someplace outside of Denver and Dupuy will be in Houston, Texas, which he claims is hotter than Iraq. That’s what Dupuy used to say when spit sizzled on the Samarra sidewalks, It don’t hold a candle to Harris County. They used a special ink for his tattoo, darker than indigo, but you can still barely read it against his skin.
The door opens and in comes a male nurse he doesn’t know, along with Dr. Borque, who has been communicating in writing, though the pills they’ve given him have blurred the dialogue to a single phrase flashing in his head like a neon warning sign: Better get out now or they’ll keep you in here forever. Dr. Borque looks at his roommate first and they lip something to each other but he can no more hear them than the characters on TV. The nurse pokes at the bed controls and he’s pushed to a sitting position without having to move a muscle. Dr. Borque gives Nick this wide counterfeit smile, then opens the door and in comes his old man with the same fake smile as if covering something up and Nick cries Dad! and feels the word rasp through his throat like a sandstorm but he can’t hear it.
His father pauses and his eyes water like the actress on TV but his mouth doesn’t open, then he comes over and half-kneels to give Nick a hug that pins him to the hospital mattress with love and some kind of sadness that is so strange and distant, he wonders if maybe he didn’t make it and this is the afterlife. The hadj heaven gives you a hundred virgins but in the American one you get your parents. They started you out and here they are to greet you; besides, what do they expect you to do with virgins if you’re dead?
Behind him, his mother Martha’s holding a large bouquet from their garden, though it’s almost September and she must have brought him every remaining blossom. He reaches up toward her. The IV restrains him and he opens his mouth to say Mom but checks himself, not wanting her to hear the weird utterances of his throat that feel more like Arabic than human speech. He further thinks he is dead because beyond his mother is his sister Angela who ran off to Albuquerque and hasn’t been home for a decade.
Angela looks like she’s concealing a watermelon bomb under her dress so he twists his head around looking for another exit, then realizes she’s expecting; but if they wire it right even a fetus can be triggered to explode. They’re pro-death, Moby says, they blew up a pregnant woman with a remote detonator that wasted a 113 and everyone inside. He pulls away from her to the limit of his connections. It’s okay if his mom hugs him, she’s so slight there’d be no place to conceal anything; but it’s halfhearted ’cause she’s afraid of the tubes and wires, or of him, the guy that left as her son Nicolas but has returned as someone else. Only eight months since he leaned down and kissed her on the forehead then boarded the plane: three months in Kuwait, two more in Basra, eighty-two days in forward operating base, Brassfield-Mora, twenty-nine Humvee missions, when the thing that he has no memory of happened and shipped him home.
His father steps forward with a clipboard holding a piece of paper. It’s not a printout but lettered in his dad’s own hand, the crisp and commanding typeface from his work as a stonecarver for Coastal Monuments. It’s in a big font as if he’s not only deaf but blind.
WELCOME HOME, NICOLAS, it reads,
BEHIND YOU 100%.
Like anything his dad writes, it looks like a headstone, increasing the sense that he’s crossed over and this is death: this white room, white faces, the doctor the same color as the heartbeat machine, dreams of a white dog floating above the surface with white eyes expanding till they ignite the world. His father can’t help it; it’s his vocation. That’s what he does. Everyplace else has switched to laser-machine carving but they still let Peter Colonna work by hand.
Beneath it, in his mom’s sharp, confident, ex–bank worker’s script, WE HAVE SO MANY OPTIONS. DR. BORQUE WILL TELL YOU. THEY HAVE COCHLEAR IMPLANTS NOW. WE LOVE YOU. WE CAN'T IMAGINE WHAT YOU'VE EXPERIENCED AND WE ARE SO BLESSED TO HAVE YOU BACK.
He blurts out, “Where’s Dupuy Williams? Where’s Ramos?” which he can’t hear himself say but must get through, because Dr. Borque takes his dad out in the corridor and his dad comes back alone with the yellow pad. He knows from the look on his dad’s face that he doesn’t have to read the words. They didn’t make it and he did. His father hugs him and puts his mouth very near his ear, almost touching, and says something he can’t make out except for a distant gritty rush like a desert sand whirlwind inside his ear. They claim to have some kind of bionic eardrums but if Dupuy and Ramos are gone, what fucking good would it be to hear?
His sister Angela looks like another person from the one who left for New Mexico, skin tanned dark as an Arab, gleaming white teeth and a V-neck shirt with the tops of her big expectant breasts showing the same color, like desert hills. The last women he saw in life were disguised by burqas on the cobblestones of the Samarra street. If Angela had walked forth in that outfit, pregnant or not, she would have set the paving stones on fire. She’s smiling at him now and apparently saying something but she may be just mouthing words to him without sound, he has no idea. She should wear subtitles if she wants to be heard.
The doctor and nurse have left. His mother scrawls on the clip- board: YOU'RE GOING HOME WITH US! LATER, THEY WILL EVALUATE. DON'T WORRY, THEY HAVE MIRACLES NOW.
The guy in the next bunk’s come awake, death-pale like everyone in the room but Angela, gaping over at the family gathering, then up at the subtitled TV. Now it’s the evening news: scuba divers, an overturned boat, guy trapped underwater, the one thing that can’t get you in the desert. A filthy waterway ran through Samarra and the Arabs were always throwing bodies in there that would float past the riverbanks at dawn. Evans once said the Tigris was the river in Paradise where the original humans lived, but its water quality has seriously declined.
He can remember every Humvee mission and every one of them ended safe inside the wire with Ramos and Williams, some salsa thing on Ramos’s iPod speaker, food-stained Formica mess table, three cans of Red Bull. Not one of them went bad but here he is staring and breathing and they’re dead. He wants to be with them. They shared a language then and they do now.
And Brenda. Angela’s here; why is it that Brenda didn’t come?
This excerpt is the beginning of William Carpenter's latest work Silence, an ambitious novel that examines the bitter legacy of terrorism, as well as the nature of conflict and loss. Carpenter, a Waterville-native, graduated from Dartmouth and got a PhD at the University of Minnesota, taught at the University of Chicago, then returned to Maine to help found the College of the Atlantic, where he has taught for 48 years. His previous novels are A Keeper of Sheep, set on Cape Cod in the 1980s, and The Wooden Nickel, set in a Maine Coast lobstering community.