Authors: Willy Vlautin
For the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis
Leroy Kervin opened his eyes to see a woman in a blue-and-white-starred bikini holding a pneumatic drill. He could see her blond hair and high heels and thin, long legs. For the first time in seven years he could see her without blurred vision. He could see her clearly from the glow of a small colored nightlight.
He lay in a twin bed and looked at the girl. He could read the company name below her on the calendar:
JACKSON’S TOOL SUPPLY
. He remembered that his cousin worked there. Suddenly he could think things through, he could put things together, where in the past years he’d been unable to. It was like his mind had suddenly walked out of a never-ending snowstorm. Tears dripped down the side of his face in relief. Was he finally free? Was he really himself again?
Leroy Kervin had been twenty-four years old when his National Guard brigade was sent to Iraq. Six months into the deployment a roadside bomb had destroyed the vehicle he was in. One soldier had been killed, two others severely injured, and he’d woken up in a hospital in Germany with major brain trauma and two broken arms. He couldn’t speak and he couldn’t walk. The life he’d known before the bomb no longer existed. That Leroy Kervin had vanished.
The new Leroy Kervin couldn’t recognize people he had just met. He would become instantly agitated and just as quickly depressed. He’d throw things in frustration one minute and sob the next. It took him months to re-learn to walk, months before he could again hold a fork, and always he struggled with his speech and with his emotions. There was no miraculous recovery for the new Leroy Kervin. Rehabilitation turned into caregiving, and eventually led him to a second-rate group home for disabled men in a town in Washington State.
But that night, for the first time since the explosion, he woke with clarity. Memories flooded into him. He could recall his routines, the week’s menu, what time he went to bed and which days he took a shower. He could remember his mother bringing him takeout food and sitting next to him while they watched TV. He could remember his girlfriend, her eyes and face, and the birthmark on her calf and her walking around in her underwear. He could suddenly recall the way she laughed, the sound of her voice when she was upset, the way she sneezed, and the way she sighed sadly when the alarm went off in the morning.
What was happening to him?
Time passed and he didn’t know what to do. He grew tired. He could hear the kid Rolly in the next room jacking off, and the old man Hal snoring faintly in the room across the hall. Farther down he could hear Donald having a coughing attack. Donald, who would run around the place naked, who would come into Leroy’s room, shake him awake, and spit unintelligible words all over his face. If he fell asleep would he wake up lost and in the fog again? Would the clarity be gone? Would he have to spend the rest of his life there?
He remembered suddenly the long months when every time he closed his eyes it felt like he was drowning in mud. And then there were periods when his thoughts fell into nothing but frustration and violence. How days would pass when every time he heard a door closing or opening he felt certain someone was coming to kill him. The fear of that would engulf him and when the fear passed, the fog would again come and he wouldn’t be able to remember anything. It would just start over. Was this all his life was? Was this clarity just another illusion, a trick? He knew that most likely he would close his eyes and sleep would come and the clarity would disappear and the frustration, the bleak thoughts, and the fog would return. But at that moment, on that night, he had a window and he decided to escape through it.
He decided he would kill himself.
He got out of the bed in such hysterical panic that he began hyperventilating. He shuffled to the kitchen trying to catch his breath. He tried to open the silverware drawer to find a knife but it was locked. He checked the meds cabinet, but it was also locked. He went to the door leading to the garage and opened it. He found the light switch and turned it on. The space was empty except for a barren work bench on the far side of the room and an old four-foot picket-fence gate leaning against the back wall. There were no tools; there was nothing of use but old paint cans. He stared at the wooden gate, and then went to it and put his hands between the stakes. He dragged it from the garage to the living room and set it next to a childproof gate that blocked the stairs to the second floor. His legs began to shake from the effort and he sat down on the living room couch and rested.
He needed rope but there was none. He lumbered back to his room. He took the one dress shirt his mother kept for him in the closet and walked back to the childproof gate and opened it. He climbed the first step and turned around. He shut the plastic gate and dragged the wooden one in front of it and leaned it against it. The old pointed wooden stakes faced toward the stairs. He used a shirt sleeve as a rope and tied the gates together and sat down.
He was overcome with exhaustion. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall and waited. When he stood again, he was shaky, but he plodded up the stairs. As he neared the top he could hear the sound of Freddie McCall, the night man, snoring. He took the last few steps and then reached the second floor. A lamp on the office desk shone. He could see Freddie lying on his stomach, fully clothed, asleep.
He walked to the back of the room, the farthest he could from the stairs and turned around. He was out of breath and dizzy. He thought again of his girlfriend, Jeanette. He remembered their house together, her lying in bed next to him asleep, how in the end she secretly put a note in every pocket of every shirt, of every pair of pants, and inside each sock of his travel bag. How she drove him in tears to the base. How she would break down on the phone from halfway around the world and then spend the rest of the conversation trying to make him laugh. Where was she now?
And was he making the right decision? Maybe the clarity wasn’t just a brief illusion; maybe suddenly his brain had somehow fixed itself? But that couldn’t be, could it? Those sorts of things didn’t happen, did they? Tears fell from his eyes and he tried to run.
He asked his legs to move faster than they had in seven years and he flew down the stairs with his arms stretched out. He landed on top of the old wooden stakes and they plunged into him as he crashed to the ground and lay unconscious and bloody on the floor.
Freddie McCall woke from the noise and reached for his glasses. He turned on the lights and ran down the stairs to find Leroy unconscious with a piece of wood sticking out of his chest. There was blood everywhere. He ran to the phone and called 911.
When he hung up, he held two kitchen towels over the main wound and stared at Leroy’s face. There was a two-inch cut on his cheek leaking blood and a growing welt on his forehead. Freddie wanted to say something to comfort him, but every time he tried to speak he began to cry.
He’d always liked Leroy. For a man who couldn’t speak, whose brain had been caved in by war, he had personality. He liked Cap’n Crunch and would watch the science fiction channel for days on end. He had never picked a fight or become violent towards the other residents. He would fall into fits of despair when he refused to leave his bed, but who wouldn’t? And there were times, dozens of them, in the two years that Freddie had been there, when Leroy would wake him in the middle of the night. He would pull Freddie to the back door and knock on it. Freddie would find the key, unlock it, and they would go outside and look at the stars. Leroy would move around the small lawn like an old man, his head back, staring at the faraway galaxies.
He’d heard that Leroy’s mother would visit him after she got off work. She would watch
reruns with him and help him eat dinner. When she was leaving Leroy would hug her so tight she could hardly breathe. “Don’t worry. He did that before he got hurt too,” she would always say. She was usually gone by the time Freddie started his overnight shift, but there were times when he would run into her and he always felt for her when he did. She worked at Safeway. She lived alone in a small house in a failing neighborhood, and drove a twenty-year-old car.
The sound of a siren was heard and then an ambulance parked in the drive. Two EMTs ran in and began working on Leroy at the foot of the stairs. While they did so, Freddie went to the kitchen and called the manager of the group home and then left a message for Leroy’s mother. The residents came slowly from their rooms. Hal, the forty-six-year-old, stood next to Freddie. The kid, Rolly, was behind him, crying, and Donald, the thirty-five-year-old Indian, was nearly catatonic staring at the TV.
“It’s alright, guys,” Freddie told them. “There isn’t much we can do to help, so let’s try and get back to bed. Leroy’s going to be fine. These guys know what they’re doing.” But none of them moved, not even Freddie. They all just stood there watching the EMTs put Leroy on a stretcher and take him outside to the ambulance. They watched him being loaded into the back and driven away.
The group home’s manager, Julie Norris, arrived. With her help they put the residents back to bed, picked up the broken gates, and tried to clean the blood-stained carpets. It was 4:00
when she left. Freddie was so worried and upset that all he could do was drink coffee and wait for his shift to end. When the day man, Dale Riley, arrived fifteen minutes late at quarter after six, Freddie realized he’d only slept an hour.
He got into a battered 1965 Mercury Comet and started it. He turned the heater on full, got out again and scraped the windows, then drove home. He could see his breath as he walked inside. The kitchen timer sat on the counter and he took it and set it for six minutes. Inside the bathroom he turned on a small box heater, put his work uniform next to it, and got in the shower.
Thirteen minutes later he was back in his car. He drove to the industrial section of town and parked in front of Heaven’s Door Donuts, a small, white cinderblock building that had once been a walk-up hamburger stand. A sign hung from the roof spelling out its name in pink cursive neon. It was a donut shop he had frequented at least five times a week for the last fourteen years. The owner, a sixty-year-old Vietnamese man named Pham, made the donuts in the back room. The counter was run by a middle-aged obese woman with dyed-blond hair named Mora. When he pulled up in front he flashed his lights twice and she hurried outside with three dozen assorted in two pink boxes.
“Jesus you’re late today,” she said. Her hair was pulled back with a bright-orange headband, and she wore red sweats and a white apron. She handed the boxes to him.
Freddie set them on the seat beside him. “Dale was late again.”
“They should really fire old Dale.”
“I wish they would.”
“You look tired.”
“I am a little,” he said.
Mora leaned down and placed her arms on the door. Her lips were blue from the cold and her breath came out like smoke and trailed off .
“You know your boss hasn’t paid the donut bill.”
“I’ll get him to.”
“He’s getting on my nerves just like Dale is,” Mora said and smiled.
“Did you hear the game last night?”
“I meant to. I had the radio on but I fell asleep in the first period, and then I had to go to work.”
“You didn’t miss much. They got crushed by Moose Jaw. Are you sure you’re alright, Freddie? Your eyes are all red. Even in this light I can see that.”
“I’m just a little worn out, Mora. It was a long night but I’m alright.”
She stood up and began walking back toward the donut shop. “I put in an extra twist and a handful of donut holes for you,” she yelled. “See you tomorrow, Freddie. And get some sleep.”
He yelled good-bye and pulled out of the lot and drove to Logan’s Paint Store and parked. Inside, he turned on the lights and the computer. He set the donuts on the counter, made coffee, and unlocked the front doors.
It took him four cups of coffee to stay awake through the morning rush. When the store finally cleared it was 11:00
. He made another pot of coffee and began sweeping the retail floor. At 11:40 the owner of the store, Pat Logan, parked a year-old Ford F-250 pickup in the front lot. He was a tall man and overweight by two hundred pounds. He had bad knees and brown teeth and was going bald.
His father, Enoch Logan, had opened the store in 1970. On his deathbed, Mr. Logan told his wife he wanted Freddie to run the store. He wanted to give him part ownership to guarantee the business would survive her lifetime. But his wife disagreed and thought Pat, their only son, should run and own it. Their son, who had been in and out of work most of his adult life, had three small children to support. They argued about it for a long time, for weeks, but she finally convinced Enoch to leave the business in the family. So Mr. Logan brought in his lawyer and locked Freddie’s wages to a 3 percent annual wage increase. He made Pat sign an agreement to it, and gave him the business. A month later Enoch Logan was dead, and six years after that all five employees had been laid off. The store was behind on payables, and Freddie was left to work the counter of Logan’s Paint alone six days a week.
“How was it this morning?” Pat asked and set a frozen Salisbury steak dinner and a liter bottle of Dr Pepper on the counter.
“Jenson bought thirty gallons of primer,” Freddie said. “And Lawson’s crew came in for top coat on that apartment complex, maybe twelve hundred dollars so far.”
Pat shook his head and looked out to the empty parking lot. He put the frozen dinner in the refrigerator and went to his office and shut the door. At five minutes to noon he came out again, heated the dinner in the microwave, and went back in his office. He turned on the radio to
, the evangelical radio program hosted by Dr. James Dobson, and called his wife. He put her on speakerphone and they listened to it together while he ate his lunch. At 1:00
he came out of the office again, dumped the tray in the retail trash can, and looked at the still empty parking lot. He walked back to the warehouse where Freddie was unloading a pallet of paint.
“Well, it looks like it’s going to snow now,” he said.
“January and snowing,” Freddie said.
“It’s going to be deader than dead this afternoon.”
“You might be right.”
“I have to run some errands. I might come back but I might not.”
“Okay, Pat,” he said as his boss left.
Freddie closed the store at 5:30 and went home. He lay on the couch, put a sleeping bag over himself, and slept until seven. When he woke he drank an energy drink, moved the box heater from the bathroom to the kitchen, and fried two eggs. He changed his clothes, sat down on the couch, and called his daughters in Las Vegas. He spoke to each girl for five minutes, but at the end of both conversations they had run out of things to say to each other.
He looked at his watch. He had an hour and a half until his shift at the home began. He lay back down on the couch. From the kitchen light he could see the mantel and the dining room. He could see the hallway leading to his daughters’ old rooms, and the stairs leading up to the master bedroom. His grandfather had built the house, and now Freddie was failing it. He was given it free and clear, and now it was mortgaged twice. There was no heat and no garbage service and he was behind on the electric bill. In the end he knew he was going to lose it all.
He drove the Comet through downtown and through the suburbs, and in the distance he could see the county hospital set on a hill. He parked in the visitors’ lot and got out. At the front desk he asked for Leroy Kervin, and a woman gave him directions. Five minutes later he found Leroy in a room by himself on the sixth floor in a post-surgery ward.
There was a tube running down his throat and tubes running in and out of his chest. He was unconscious and there was a film of sweat covering his swollen face. His lips were chapped and part of his bottom lip was cut and swollen. The cut on his cheek was now stitched and the deep bruise on his forehead was turning yellow and purple. Freddie took off his coat and sat down in the chair facing the bed.
A nurse came in the room.
“Is Leroy going to be alright?” Freddie asked.
“He’s got a long way to go, I’m afraid,” was all the nurse said. Her name tag read Pauline. She was a thick-set woman of mid-height in her thirties with dark brown hair and brown eyes. She smelled of shampoo and cigarettes. From a distance she had a pretty face. It was only close up that the lines around her eyes and lips and the scars from acne appeared. She looked tired.
“Are you his family?” she asked.
“I work at the group home where he’s been living. He fell down the stairs last night and I found him.”
“The good news is they say the surgery went well,” she said and checked the ventilator, the chest tubes, and the canister at the side of the bed. She looked at his med chart and made a series of notes on a computer in the corner of the room and left.
He looked at his watch and got up and went to the window that overlooked the hospital parking lot. There were over a hundred cars below and he couldn’t believe there were so many for such a small town. He went back to Leroy and put on his coat. He leaned over him and put his hand gently on his arm. He felt the warmth and the softness of Leroy’s skin. “I’m sorry you didn’t make it, Leroy. I know that’s not the right thing to say, but I’m sorry you didn’t.”