About The Empty Room: Colleen Kerrigan wakes up sick and bruised, with no clear memory of the night before. It’s Monday morning, and she is late for work again. She’s shocked to see the near-empty vodka bottle on her kitchen counter. It was full at noon yesterday; surely she didn’t drink that much last night? As she struggles out the door, she fights the urge to have a sip, just to take the edge off. But no, she’s not going to drink today.
But this is the day Colleen’s demons come for her. A very bad day spirals into night as a series of flashbacks take the reader through Colleen’s past—moments of friendship and loss, fragments of peace and possibility. The single constant is the bottle, always close by, Colleen’s worst enemy and her only friend.
In this unforgettable work, acclaimed novelist Lauren B. Davis has created as searing, raw, and powerful a portrayal of the chaos and pain of alcoholism as we have encountered in fiction. Told with compassion, insight and an irresistible gallows humour, The Empty Room takes us to the depths of addiction, only to find a revelation at its heart: the importance and grace of one person reaching out to another.
Good Morning, World
It was Monday morning, and Colleen Kerrigan woke up wondering why she was chewing on a dirty old sock. She tried to pull her tongue from the roof of her mouth; it peeled away, dry and swollen. Her fingers told her she didn’t actually have a sock in there, which was something of a relief. She must have been sleeping with her mouth open, probably snoring like a wildebeest. The late-October sun butting up against the window barely made a dent in the murk. She rarely shut the curtains because her eighth-floor window looked out onto the parking lot and the old Dominion Coal and Wood silo. Besides, who wanted to peek into the windows of a nearly-fifty-year-old woman?
The man’s voice on the radio said the high today would be seven degrees Celsius, with a brisk wind and the possibility of showers. His voice was sharp and irritatingly upbeat. She shut off the clock radio with a slap of her hand and dragged her legs over the side of the bed, her head fuzzy, her stomach churning. She had slept in her T-shirt and sweatpants, which she hadn’t intended. In fact, she didn’t exactly remember going to bed. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her bra and the wire must have dug into her left breast as she slept. It hurt. Or maybe it was cancer.
Good morning, world.
Her eyes settled on the framed postcard of Dylan Thomas’s writing shed at Laugharne, which she kept on the bedside table. The tiny room, the whitewashed walls, the simple desk and chair, the photos on the walls, the crumpled bits of paper, the bottle, the astonishing work Thomas created there . . . this was Colleen’s idea of perfection. If she concentrated on the image hard enough, it would manifest itself in her own life. She hadn’t written anything in a long time, but she would again, of this she was sure. Beside the photo lay the Bible. Many of the Psalms she knew by heart. They felt like a doorway—one of many, but one which suited her—into the world of Spirit she was sure lived just beyond her fingertips, just out of reach, but which nonetheless beckoned to her. The Bible was open now to Psalm 38. My wounds are loathsome and corrupt, Because of my foolishness.
Sometimes the Divine had a wicked sense of humour.
As she sat up, her head, and the room, spun. She held onto the bed for a moment until it righted. Was she coming down with something? Her sinuses were painful and her throat a bit sore. An ear infection, perhaps. That would account for the dizziness. Her tongue still felt woollen. Maybe she should just go back to bed and call in sick. But no, she’d taken too many sick days these past few months. She’d need a doctor’s note for any more. Her head ached and her bladder felt about to burst. She limped into the bathroom—her knee was bothering her again—and as she sat on the toilet she noticed new bruises on her legs and arms. Where had they come from? She must fight off the hounds of hell in her sleep. Maybe she sleepwalked? She reached for the toilet paper and her left elbow pinged sharply. She cupped it with her right hand. It was tender, just at the joint. When had she banged that? She was going to have to start taking better care of herself.
When finished she made her way down the hall to the kitchen, where dishes crowded the sink and the yellow linoleum floor stuck to the soles of her feet. She drank club soda from the bottle in great gulps, hoping it would do its work and settle her stomach. The clock on the stove said it was nearly seven-thirty, which meant she had to rush or she’d never get to work on time. She had been late far too many times. On the counter, next to the hideous green cookie jar with the painted cherries—this had once been her mother’s—stood a vodka bottle. Colleen froze, the club soda bottle still pressed to her lips. Some of it dribbled down her chin and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. She stared at the vodka bottle. She picked it up and jiggled it, hoping it was merely an illusion, some trick of the light making it look nearly empty. It should be at least half full. But no, a mere inch or so sloshed about in the bottom. This simply wasn’t possible. She didn’t drink that much yesterday, surely. She must be losing her mind. She wondered if she’d miss it very much.
She put down the bottle. Yes, she thought, I’ve rather enjoyed my mind. I will not drink today, she vowed.
She remembered the bottle had been nearly full when she poured the first glass and added cranberry juice, sometime just past noon yesterday. She had munched some potato chips with that first drink, and had meant to pop a frozen macaroni and cheese into the microwave for dinner, but she never did. Vodka, chips, some peanuts . . . she had started watching Law & Order. Such a reliable show. No matter what time you turned on the television it seemed there was a Law & Order,in one of its many variations, on some channel or another. That Latino actor, so handsome; she could look at him all day. She remembered that, and something afterwards, some stupid confusing movie, and then she remembered picking up her guitar and singing . . . Joni Mitchell, soundtrack of her youth. And Tom Waits. Music filled up the space, drove away the silence of the empty rooms.
She could not possibly have drunk all that vodka. But there it was, the near-neon accusation of it. She couldn’t go on like this, and she wouldn’t. She felt hollow inside, as scooped out as an old Halloween pumpkin. Hollow and jangled.
A muffled buzzing came from somewhere in the vicinity of her living room. She put down the club soda. The telephone. Where had she left it? She had disconnected her land line six months ago, seeing no reason to pay for two phones. More economical, certainly, but the problem with a cell phone was that one was constantly misplacing it. Yes, there on the sofa. She picked it up and opened it. The readout said, “Spring Lake Place.”
Oh for God’s sake, not now, she thought. She could just let it go, ignore it. But what if it was the call? “Hello?”
“Is this Colleen Kerrigan?”
Colleen walked back into the kitchen. She recognized Carol’s voice. Carol was the nice nurse and from her tone this was just one of those calls, not the call. “Hi, Carol.”
“Your mother is here, Ms. Kerrigan, and she’d like to talk to you if you have a minute.”
“Well, she just wants to talk to you.”
And Colleen knew what that meant. She picked up the club soda bottle and took another swig. “Put her on.”
Pause, and her mother’s voice in the background, the words unintelligible, only that awful, curt irritation.
“Hi, Mum. I don’t have much time. I have to go to work. How are you?”
Of course. Colleen couldn’t remember the last time her mother had given a positive answer to that question. Even before the mini-strokes she suffered last spring, which destroyed whatever remained of her impulse control and most of her memory and forced her move into Spring Lake Place, Colleen’s mother had to have been the most negative person on the planet.
“What’s the matter?” It was an unwavering script.
“It’s horrible here. This woman, she comes in and takes the . . . candles . . . potatoes . . .things and I’ve told her not to. I don’t want anyone in my room.”
“I know, Mum, but she’s only taking your laundry.” The recurring laundry issue. Last week her mother had threatened to kill an aide over it—a threat that, with mother, one couldn’t completely discount.
“I don’t want them to take my things . . . my cake . . . the trolley . . .” The aphasia worsened when she was irritated. “Oh, I don’t know, I’m too tired. I don’t sleep.”
If Colleen were to believe her mother, the woman hadn’t slept in thirty years. “Just let them take your dirty clothes. Isn’t it nice not to have to do your own washing anymore?”
“I want to do my own cleaning. There’s nothing to do here. I hate it. I wish I was dead.”
Don’t we all, thought Colleen, and she hated herself for it. “I know, Mum. I know it’s tough, but I’ll try to get you moved out of there soon.”
“I’ll be dead by then.”
Or I will be. “I have to go, Mum. I’m late for work. But I’ll talk to them, okay?”
“That would be good, dear.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
“It doesn’t matter; I don’t care,” her mother said, and hung up.
Colleen flipped the phone closed and rubbed her temples, as though trying to rub the whole conversation away. Before her mother went into the nursing home, she hadn’t called Colleen in twenty years. Colleen always called her, dutifully, every two weeks, taking forty-five minutes to listen to her mother’s chatter, her complaints and the latest gossip from the seniors centre. It seemed much like the behaviour of high school girls, full of petty grudges and little betrayals. Grating as it was to listen to this, week in and week out, it was one of the few things Colleen could do for her mother, who was, after all, pretty much alone in the world. Husband dead, no siblings, and friends who didn’t seem to stick. Deirdre Kerrigan had long ago alienated most of her living acquaintances. Colleen had once thought her mother, like other mothers, might want to see more of her as she got older, but this was not the case. Her mother, after all, was not like other mothers. Deirdre rarely wanted to see her, and had claimed illness or fatigue or a dirty house as an excuse any time Colleen suggested they get together, which was, Colleen admitted, a relief to both of them. Christmases were a hell they had agreed to give up ten years ago, and which, after her mother’s last suicide attempt on Christmas Eve of that year, they never discussed. Last year Colleen sent her mother a large gift basket of expensive treats—chocolate, wine, biscuits, cheeses—picked especially to suit her palate. When Colleen called to wish her mother a Merry Christmas, nothing was said about the basket and so Colleen asked her if she’d received it.
“I got it,” said Deirdre.
A long pause followed. Colleen didn’t want to ask, knew she shouldn’t ask, but nonetheless asked, “Did you like it?”
“It wasn’t what I wanted.”
“What did you want?” Colleen asked, taken aback. Just when she thought she’d built fortifications against all her mother’s weapons, Deirdre pulled something new and sharp from her bag of tricks.
“What does that matter now? This is what you sent, so thanks for that. Thanks a lot.”
Her mother had sent her nothing. Deirdre Kerrigan’s mental state worsened when she was around her daughter for some reason—the depression, the suicide attempts, the obsessive thinking. It was hard to love a mother who fought so hard to keep her at arm’s length, but it was harder still to give up the idea that one day it might be different.
Colleen put the cold club soda against her temple. God, it was so sad. What a non-life her mother had had, and this was the way it ended? Without even a little peace? Please God, don’t let that be me. O keep my soul, and deliver me: let me not be ashamed; for I put my trust in thee. She put the bottle back in the fridge, noting something fuzzy in the crisper that she was not up to dealing with at the moment. A stab of icy dread streaked along her spine. She could very well end up that way, couldn’t she? Or worse.
Don’t think about it now. Only this: you will not drink today. Not today.
Excerpt from: The Empty Room by Lauren B. Davis. © 2013 Lauren B. Davis. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Lauren B. Davis is the author of the bestselling and critically acclaimed novels The Stubborn Season, The Radiant City and Our Daily Bread, which was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named as a best book of the year by both The Globe and Mail and the Boston Globe. Born in Montreal, she now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.