I was having seizures then. I’d get real cold and drop and then I wouldn’t remember much of it. Sometimes I’d bite my tongue. I had my first one on an active unit just after Sandy left. U4. The inmates huddled around me, and after twenty seconds of the radio on my hip being tilted past ninety degrees, the body alarm was triggered. “Can’t have you on the units,” my captain said. “Can’t get rid of you, either.” So after sixteen years working the tiers, I was reassigned to the kitchen, where the inmate workers made bologna sandwiches and BBQ rib patties.
It was dinnertime, and plating was about to begin on the waterlogged yellow food trays. I could already taste the leftovers I’d put aside. Only a few hours were between a silent basement and me. I stood off in the corner in my food-stained white button down and black-and-white checkered pants. Barker House’s first cook, long retired, chose the getup. A Vietnam vet who said he wore something similar in a breakfast hall in Chanoi.
If I were still upstairs, I’d have the inmates locking down for chow. Late in the afternoon, as another day off their sentence closed, the inmates could get excited. I always gave them a good fifteen minutes in their cells before dinner. It settled their nerves. But down here, I supervised the making of chow. My security duties were stripped. I reported to the housekeeping supervisor. He wore an ID clipped to his breast instead of a badge. If two inmates had a beef and decided to settle it in my kitchen, I couldn’t even break it up. Men—convicted of drunken driving, parole violation, loitering—wore steel mesh gloves and chopped carrots with sharp chef’s knives, the knife handles connected to a ten-inch chain looped to a ring in the countertop.
Meatloaf was on the menu, seasoned by industrial-sized seasoning packets—sacks, for lack of a better word. The salty loaf did not have the mixture of seasonings I would have used at home—dried mustard was the headliner. I used to cook dinner at home even before Sandy’s big break, as she called it. She was profiled in New Hampshire Magazine as a Remarkable Woman of 2007. The top home-seller at her agency. A recent Bay State Marathon finisher. But it wasn’t the profile that changed her. It was the attention her photo received. Sandy in a black dress, her hands on her hips, standing victorious in front of a SOLD sign. Her trainer said she looked powerful. Facebook comments from strange men: Gorgeous! Stunner! Me likey likey. Sandy began weighing her food on a scale before she ate it. If she wasn’t at the gym or working, she was running. I didn’t mind cooking. When Joey was really small and Sandy was a stay-at-home mom, her dinners were pre-made or pre-packaged. Hamburger Helper, or frozen fried chicken and canned green beans. But I missed her at the table.
I checked the boiling carrots. The inmate stirring the pots had his mouth open, his eyes fixed on the bubbling water. He was leaning toward the pot, and I was afraid he was going to dunk his face in it. I got close to him and smelled the alcohol—not booze, but chemical, like hand sanitizer. And then I realized the entire kitchen staff seemed different. Along the assembly line they laughed and roughhoused, and some yelled loudly over the hip-hop on the old boom box. I could sometimes trust them too much and forget. I guessed they’d cooked a batch of apple hooch inside a trash bag, stashed underneath dirty uniforms in housekeeping. It had to have been cooking for a while.
I found Copley struggling with a stack of food trays.
“Are you straight?”
“I’m not gay,” he said without looking up from his duty. Copley’s story, as told by Copley: “I bought a dirt bike off my boy Rawls for sixty bucks and the thing’s a piece of shit. I stick it under my mom’s porch and forget about it. A month later I enlisted and blah blah blah I do all this shit. You know. I’m over there for whatever. Eight months. The day I come back they’re waiting for me. Arrest me for stolen property. For a dirt bike that don’t even work.”
Copley had told me of his plight one night after he’d volunteered to scrub the meat freezer. We’d sat and ate a tub of sun butter and a loaf of bread in the pantry afterward.
“I mean sober,” I said. “Are you sober?”
“I’m not a rat,” said Copley. “And I’m not drunk.”
On one side of the counter were five industrial ovens cooking the meatloaf. Two older inmates sat at the head of the counter, smearing pieces of white bread with a scant amount of golden margarine to round out dinner. The other side of the counter was a caravan of metal food carts, ready to be filled with trays and lids and crates of milk cartons, and sent up the elevator to the units.
Copley had a shaved head, patches of red whiskers sticking out in no particular pattern on his zit-scarred face. He removed trays from one of the dishwashers and stacked them on the ground. I could feel the warmth of the dishwasher, the moisture rising up between Copley and me.
I didn’t drink. Never had. Sandy didn’t either. Our leisure was going out to eat. A thing of ours was to try chicken wings from different restaurants. I’m not sure how it began, but we ate chicken wings from Northern New Hampshire down to Cape Cod. The best, we agreed, were the Tiki-style wings at T-Bones in Hudson. But then the obsessive running began, in correlation with the pre-crash competitive housing market. She lost weight and I could see the muscles in the back of her arms. I didn’t like the changes, but Sandy had a way of making me feel like I was making a big deal out of things. “It’s not a big deal,” she said.
Copley continued to slot the trays, but there were only a few left in his stack. I bent at my knees, my fat stomach between my legs, and hoisted a tall stack of heavy trays off the ground. I strained while walking them to the plating station. I left the stack on the station, and the inmates who were buttering the bread plated the bread and slid the trays down the line.
I went back to Copley. He was making another stack. I was out of breath and trying to hide it, slowing my breathing. I was embarrassed about my weight gain. The photo ID clipped to my shirt portrayed a different man, with a chin and neck and cheekbones. A man who could keep a wife, or easily find a new one, if he wanted. I used to shave every day back then. I said, “I know they’re drunk. But what’d they drink?”
“You look tired, boss,” he said. “Go get yourself a cup of coffee.”
“Don’t tell me what to do.” I feigned being strict, but I wasn’t. “Sorry.” I needed the inmates to have an investment in me. If my brain exploded and I cracked my head, I needed a kind heart to call it in.
“I’m just saying, maybe you should go and start a pot of coffee.”
I counted filled dinner trays on U8 and U9’s rolling food cart. After a tip, you needed to continue your duties. I was good with the inmates, especially since I’d traded my pepper spray for a ladle, but they thought I was an incompetent amateur. Fat-ass cook. They’d say, “Leon, the CO’s are cocksuckers. You boys with them? Nah, Leon ain’t. He’s on the level.” They hadn’t known me prior to the weight gain—a side effect of Keppra—and Sandy leaving, and the sleepless nights with Joey’s knees jammed in my back. I’d wondered if the seizures were self-punishment. I could beat myself up sometimes and say I deserved them. I welcomed them. When I’d awaken in a spell at home, I’d turn the stove on and off, flick the light, open and close the fridge, set the table and then put the plates away, mess with the pans, fill the sink and then drain it, look out the window at the empty yard. I’d do this for about twenty minutes, until I was done acting normal but was, in fact, back to normal. When I’d realize Joey hadn’t witnessed it, I was elated.
“Your brain may be misfiring,” was all I got from the neurologist. If he were more comforting and less unaffected by the news—or possible news—I would have told him about the separation, how the seizures coincided with my wife’s leaving.
Dinner went smoothly. The inmates kept the radio loud, and the banter crude and racist, which only brought on more laughter. Before I instructed them to commence cleanup, I put three untouched trays from U10’s returned food cart inside the pantry. Then I went behind the line of food carts, through the trash receptacle that smelled of meatloaf and soured milk—where the scraps from dinner filled the heap of bags—down the quiet hallway, and into the housekeeping room. Four inmates wearing white t-shirts and tan pants were huddled around the coffee pot in the corner. The large washing machines, six feet high and wide, sloshed netted laundry bags in soapy water. The dryers hummed and rocked loud, muting conversation. They stared at me. I didn’t belong there.
“Everyone, away from the coffee.”
I didn’t know their names. They put their heads down and spread out, but didn’t stray too far from the coffee maker. The wall opposite the washers and dryers had a metal rack filled with folded uniforms. Underneath it, on the floor was a pair of sneakers without laces. The room smelled of mildew and burnt hair. The inmates wouldn’t look my way. I was larger than any of the four, height- and weight-wise. My legs had become thick, and my arms as well. I didn’t feel any stronger. I approached the coffee maker and the inmates spread out a bit more. One inmate, a black man with a dark birthmark on his face that looked like Florida, began folding clothes near the rack. I put my nose into the reservoir of the coffee maker and got a whiff of mint.
“What is this?” I asked, holding the coffee pot. A thick, clear liquid covered the bottom.
No one answered. Another inmate started emptying clothes from a dryer into a basket on wheels.
“Who wants to lose good time over this?” Again no answer. I turned to the inmate pretending to fold clothes. “What is this?”
“I didn’t drink none of it,” he said. “They did. Ask them.”
“I’ll have everyone put to a hearing.”
No one answered. I was breathing quickly and holding the entire Mr. Coffee maker, wrapping the cord around the base.
“Fine,” I said, sweating, my collar and my lower back damp. “Everyone against the wall.”
The inmates lined up against a free part of the wall, their hands against the white concrete, legs spread, chins down. I held the coffee pot. I’d been letting things go. Everything kept getting farther and farther away from me.
Before a seizure, I’d get really cold. It felt like a chill, one that crept up on you while lying in bed or washing dishes, just a shiver. But the chill didn’t shake a limb. It’d lay me down and take minutes from me. It’d put me on the moon.
I wasn’t cold, but I was worked up, another warning sign. I stared at the washer, focused on an orange shirt with dark black lettering, and followed it from the front to the top. It disappeared, and after a moment came back again. I didn’t know how long I followed the shirt. If I collapsed, I’d be alone. I could die right there, and they’d watch me. They’d laugh. They’d finish folding the clothes before telling anyone. They didn’t know they had this power over me. I put the coffee maker on the floor and patted each inmate down, handed them their ID tags from the hooks on the wall, and relieved them of their shift. None of them thanked me.
In the kitchen, I waited for cleanup to finish. I lined up my crew outside the elevators, patted them down, too. A normally quiet inmate slapped me on the back. He had a wide smile as he entered the elevator.
Afterward, inside the pantry, I spooned three trays worth of meatloaf into a metal bowl. I covered it in ketchup and ate it while reading the ingredients on the back of a box of breadcrumbs.
At forty-five, the backseat of a taxi was a good place to evaluate things. Driving the same way I’d driven home for sixteen years, only now as a passenger, and having to pay for it, made me want to run away like Sandy had. Or sleep. But I could never sleep. Route 3 at eleven-thirty at night was quiet and dark, but not dark enough. The driver was usually Juan or Benji or sometimes Frank, and I’d talked with them enough over the first few months that we didn’t need to talk anymore. They knew the state had revoked my license for six months and then extended the revocation. My doctor wasn’t confident. I might still have a seizure while driving. I didn’t feel them coming on with enough warning, so I wasn’t so sure either. I didn’t want to kill anyone, or myself.
We had a small house in Concord. A two-bedroom cape with one bathroom. I got home from work and hoped the inmates had gone to bed without issue. I showered and ate a ham sandwich on the bed and watched Joey climb a mountain in a blizzard. Joey played this one medieval video game that I hooked up to the bedroom TV. He’d stay up until I got home from work, late, and I’d let him finish whatever quest he was on. His grades disappointed, which was different from when Sandy was here. But it wasn’t like Sandy sat down with him and did homework. It’d been years since that. Joey was just going through an ordeal. I’d tell the teachers, “His mother left. He’s taking it badly.” The teachers were mostly women, and they’d nod and make sad faces, and sometimes they’d touch my shoulder. I wondered if they’d seen me climb out of a cab outside of the school.
Anyway, his character, Dzole, was in search of a Hagraven, he explained. A witch that was half bird, half woman. “Her talons are poisonous, Dad. It took me an hour to make enough serum to fight her.” Joey wore a black hoodie and plaid pajama pants, and sat at the edge of the bed with his legs crossed. It was a role-playing game. You got a base character in a lore-heavy world then imagined who your character was within that world. Dzole, a hardy Nord, was a witch hunter. Excitedly, Joey read me the bio he wrote for Dzole from a message board. It was something like, “Some years ago, while on a job escorting a caravan to Whiterun, his wife and newborn son were kidnapped and used in a sacrificial ceremony by Foresworn witches. Dzole returned to an empty cabin, and with revenge in his blood he set off to destroy unholy creatures, demons and witches. He would never be satisfied. No amount of money or bounty would fill his heart again. The days were long, for Dzole yearned for the night, when the ones he sought were lurking.”
Other kids, adults too, shared their character’s stories, and the community rated them. Joey’s had more thumbs up than down. I understood the need for escape. The need to pretend. I’d been following Joey and Dzole’s quests for a few months. I was surprised at how invested I’d become. I watched the Nord’s progression from unskilled swordsman to master killer.
Dzole was muscular and wielded a hand axe. He donned a leather skirt, a metal helmet with horns. The soundtrack was always impressive, but during a quest, with enemies nearby, the music was epic. The snow fell at a greater speed the further up the mountain he climbed. The score picked up. I stopped eating my sandwich. A cry, like a crazed eagle, avalanched down the mountain. Joey jumped and paused the game. He put his head down and took a deep breath. I put the plate on the bed and scooted toward him; my body lop-sided the mattress. Joey leaned into my weight. He caught himself on my thigh. He was skinny, his fingers piercing. I wished I could give him my fat.
“I’m not ready,” he said. His hair covered his ears and, if he let it, his eyes.
“You got this. You said you stocked up. I’ve seen you fight dragons.”
He unpaused the game and the cry finished its descent. He continued his climb. The cries got louder, but Dzole wasn’t afraid.
“The bird woman must die,” I said.
She stood on a rock in the distance, her figure hunched, but I couldn’t see her face. The dim lamp on the bedside table was drowned out by the glare of the box TV. A grey aura created a funnel in the small room. We were entranced. I couldn’t see Sandy’s empty white dresser, the one we’d put together on a snowy Saturday morning years ago as Joey lay on a blanket on the floor. I couldn’t see my mother’s oak rocking chair, the one Sandy had rocked Joey in, nursed him in. The wooden cross above the TV wasn’t ours. The blue veined floral comforter wasn’t for two men to sleep under. Dzole didn’t move.
“Go get her.”
“No,” Joey said. “I’m not ready.”
“What’s the point of playing then?”
“I’m going to level up some more.”
I scooted back to my pillow to finish my sandwich. The bird woman threw a fireball toward Dzole as he jumped off the mountain.
I had seizures in my sleep. After Sandy left, Joey started sleeping in my bed. He said he hadn’t seen me have a seizure. But I wasn’t sure how he hadn’t. I’d wake up and my body would be right up against his. At fourteen, he was almost as tall as me. But if I blanketed his body, I’d smother him. I’d crush him. It wasn’t safe, what we were doing. We slept like there was a wall between us, or another body. We’d never talked about it, but I knew he didn’t want to find himself snuggled up against his father. But he couldn’t be alone. Not yet.
In the dark of the bedroom, I’d awoken once, damp and stiff, my muscles aching. There was small pool of blood on the pillow, and when I touched my wet face, the blood was up into my ear. I wondered if my brain had finally found a way out, spilled onto the pillow. I turned and saw Sandy. She was asleep. I wanted to whisper in her ear to stay, explain to her that the universe had turned on me, that it was only a matter of time before the sun consumed the Earth. We joked, long ago, “Life has no meaning. This is all so silly.” And we laughed. It was too easy. The way it all fit in. Then later, in that other life, she said, “Happiness isn’t real.” I hated her then, for being so concise.
I’d never had a seizure in public, but I wanted to. The more I thought about the seizures, or willed one to happen, the less likely I was to have one. It’d been seven months. I’d had seven seizures. I knew my seizures didn’t understand time, but I couldn’t help thinking they were falling into a pattern. Still, they seemed to hit when I’d forgotten about them completely. In line at Subway, surrounded by other customers, waiting for my roast beef sandwich, I wanted to have one. At the bank. In the back of a cab. In the cereal aisle while reaching for Tastee-Os. I wanted to wake up and see worried faces, people on their phones, a kind woman holding the back of my head and asking me if I was okay.
I did try to find Sandy, a few weeks after she left. I searched Facebook, but she’d deleted her account. I called the ReMax office she worked out of, but Meg, the receptionist and running partner, told me Sandy quit. “Where is she?” I asked. Meg told me she didn’t know. I told her I wasn’t well. She said sorry. I thought it was a genuine sorry.
I called Sandy’s mom in Saratoga.
“She wants to be on her own, Leon,” her mother told me. “Respect her wishes.”
“Sandy has responsibilities. Your grandson needs his mother.”
“She’s not good for him right now. He has you.”
“I’m not well.”
“I’m sorry to hear.”
Neither of them took my calls after a few months of check-ins. Her mother sent Joey a birthday card in March. She signed it “Grandmammy XOXO.” There was a check for twenty dollars.
People said sorry a lot. I didn’t necessarily dislike the sorrys, but I didn’t need them. I needed Sandy back. I needed her to fix Joey. I needed my brain back. A sorry was confirmation that things weren’t getting better. They were getting worse.
I told the kitchen crew that if they were going to drink during their shifts, they needed to be smarter about it. “Hickey drinks coffee from that thing,” I said. Hickey was the part time cook on my two days off. I searched online and found an easier way to extract alcohol from hand sanitizer.
“Kids do it,” I told the two bakers. “Mix the salt in. Let it sit.”
Inside the pantry, the bakers—an old, dirty vagrant and a long-haired gay kid—started doling out shots an hour into their dinner shifts. The pantry was near the walk-in freezer at the farthest end of the basement.
I allowed two shots each, which they slurped off a plastic spoon. I read about kids dying from the stuff, so I monitored the shots and made sure no one was falling-down drunk. It was enough to take the edge off, and for them to be sober before the shift ended. Even Copley came into the pantry for shots. I received many thank-yous and hand-shakes and “you don’t know what this means to us,” but no “I’m sorry.” Dinner and cleanup ran the same as it did before. But I felt safer. I’d begun to want to have a seizure in the kitchen.
Joey wouldn’t fight the Hagraven.
“I need to get Dzole to level thirty first,” he said one day during breakfast.
I should’ve been asking about homework and studying. But I was more concerned with his avoidance of the Hagraven. “Do bosses have levels?”
He finished chewing his cereal before he answered. We ate a lot of cereal. “She’s level eleven.”
“Destroy her, then.” I made coffee and filled a bowl of cereal for myself. Joey didn’t respond. “Show me how to play. I’ll fight her for you.”
“Can’t you just restart if you die?”
“Dzole has never died.”
That night, Joey sat crisscrossed on the edge of the bed; a big can of energy drink was on the carpet. The living room looked big without a TV. But we really only used half of the house. I wanted to lay on the sectional in the living room, in the dark, and pretend Sandy had come home and taken Joey to wherever it was she went. I wanted that more than I wanted Sandy to come home and stay.
“Did you do it?” I asked as I took off my socks.
I got in the shower. My stomach was flabby. It wasn’t the kind of stomach some men can get away with, tight and round. It was just fat and fleshy. If Sandy walked in and saw me washing under my breasts, she’d gasp. That was the last thing I thought about, Sandy walking in, her hands on her beautiful face, long red nails up near her eyes, shocked and maybe afraid at how fast I’d deteriorated. I opened my eyes and Joey was standing over me holding a towel. He was crying. He was spectral. A fuzz emanated off his body.
I was embarrassed, like I’d been caught in a lie. I couldn’t move. Blood-tainted water ran under my body, toward the drain. The shower curtain was across my legs, plastic rings broken in pieces on my stomach.
I could feel my body loosening. My jaw unhinged. “Can you turn off the water?”
I was bleeding from the back of my head. Joey wasn’t crying anymore. He handed me the towel and pulled the shower curtain off of me. “I’m okay,” I said. “It’s just a cut.”
“I heard you fall. I heard it happen.”
“Did you see it?”
“No. It was over when I came in.”
“Good.” I stood up, with my back to Joey, and wrapped the towel around my waist. I felt like I normally did after a seizure. I felt out-of-body. There was no pain. The blood meant nothing.
“Are you scared?” He started to cry again, but quietly. He was wearing his youth baseball jersey from before he quit last season. The Cincinnati Reds. It was bigger on him now than when he played. How’d I let him get so thin? He had his mother’s nose: slim with a slight hook at the tip.
“I’m scared all the time.”
“I want to help you,” he said, and picked up my clothes. He looked exhausted. He handed me my boxers and turned away, looking at the door. I couldn’t get my feet off the floor.
“Dad,” he said.
“You need to sleep in your own bed.”
He was quiet. And then, “Can we talk about this later?” He tossed the rest of my clothes into a pile on the bathroom floor and went to leave.
“Joey,” I said, “what if the Hagraven was the one who stole Dzole’s family?”
“She wasn’t the one,” he said, and left.
I opened the medicine cabinet and took out my toothbrush, wet it, applied toothpaste, then washed the toothpaste off. I put the toothbrush back. I dried the shower walls with the towel. I took the top off the toilet and adjusted the ball float. I stood in the shower and looked out into the night through the blind. I tried to find the moon, something I knew was real. I couldn’t. But the maroon fence was still there, and so was the bird feeder we’d hung from an oak branch. Everything was still here. I couldn’t see the cut in the mirror because it was right in the center of the back of my head. I rinsed the blood off my hair in the sink and got dressed. From the medicine cabinet, I took Sandy’s razor, nail file, contact solution, mouthwash, makeup remover, and floss, and I threw it all in the trashcan. I went down the hall and checked on Joey. He was back at his post, the joysticks tapping, buttons clicking.
“You want to talk?” I asked him.
“There’s a note from my teacher you need to sign,” he said without looking away from the TV. He had it folded on the bed.
It was the usual note he’d been receiving. This one was from Miss Descoteaux. Your son didn’t complete the semester project. He’s been sleeping in class. Would you like to chat on the phone or could you come to the school? We can set up a conference. You should come in, Mr. Gomes.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I put the note on the nightstand and lay on the bed. It felt good to stretch out. I’d be sore in the morning.
“I’ve been messing up at work, too,” I said. Joey clicked the buttons on the controller. I realized Dzole was making the summit to the Hagraven. “Sometimes we get in ruts, Joey. It happens. We need to snap out of it.”
“Is she ever coming back?”
“You should prepare like she isn’t.”
The bird woman screamed. Dzole reached the top of the mountain. He pulled a battle-axe off of his back and stood in a fighter’s stance, two hands on the handle. Fireballs rained down on him. Joey paused the game. He left the bed and stood in front of the TV. I couldn’t see beyond him. By the back of his shirt, I yanked him on the bed and the controller fell to the floor. Joey looked at me like he had in the bathroom. I wanted to tell him there was no reason to be scared. Before I could, he picked the controller back up and ran Dzole toward the fire-slinger.