If I’d been paying any kind of attention, I might have recognized Ronnie Orsulak as he paced the subway platform that Friday afternoon, late in June. I’d seen Ronnie twice before, once in December, when I saw him mine deep into his left nostril with one skinny finger, and then again in May, when he asked me if I had change for a five. I didn’t. But in the daily blur of commuting, Ronnie’s face was just another in the grand mosaic of stress, heat and delay. So, his face didn’t mean anything to me that day in June as he walked across my line of vision while I stood talking with Phil Bothwell, a colleague from the office.
It had been another riveting day at the office. I spent most of the day aimlessly searching the internet, reading in turn about Scrotum Smasher, a punk rock band from Northern Ontario who released one classic record in 1986 then promptly disbanded, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an affliction caused by a slow-moving virus that destroys memory. I’d been having difficulty motivating myself to perform small, simple tasks, and I had been wondering if the problem was one of faulty internal wiring. When five o’clock rolled around, I was trying to get my head around the reproductive properties of protein molecules called prions. The sheer effort of it all made me think that CJD (as it’s known in short form) was probably not my problem. I went back to Scrotum Smasher, whom I had seen play in Timmins during a one-summer stint as a camp counsellor after high school. They were back together and doing a tour of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Maybe there were more horrible ways to try and make a living than working in an office.
Phil came by at one minute to five, as he always did, a fact that had recently begun to annoy me. Phil had been living in the suburbs with his wife of two years, until he came home one night and found her in bed with a city employee who had been working on a storm drain outside the house. That the employee was a woman was small consolation to Phil, who was out on his ear within two weeks and had to move back to the city. He was compensating for his loss through compulsive organization, as if micro managing his own life could make him impervious to any potentially nasty surprises that might sneak up on him. I could see the potential in this approach—Phil spent so much time planning and making to-do lists that nothing very interesting was ever likely to happen to him again. But the problem was you couldn’t be in all places at all times, which left the door open to the random freak occurrences of this world, such as your heretofore straight wife ending up in bed making squeally with a strapping municipal worker named Terri. I didn’t want to be the one to make this point, so I did my best to play my part: public transit companion and coffee mate during working hours. It was the least I could do. Smile and nod.
“Well, there’s another day put in.” While I don’t really remember Phil saying this, I’d bet anything he did. He did every night.
A train came in on the opposite platform, and a sweaty, urgent horde flooded out and up the stairs toward the northbound train. There was a cheerful bing-bing-bing, the subway doors closed, and the train disappeared into the blackness. These inevitable interruptions were like godsends on days when I didn’t manage to make it to the subway alone.
“She called last night,” Phil said. “Says she’s not sure she’s a dyke. Well, not in those words exactly, but you know what I mean.”
“Wonders if it’s just something she needs to experiment with. At least that’s what she’s saying now.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “I don’t know, Jasper, what do you think?”
This was the part I dreaded most. “Not sure,” I said. “Maybe it’s just something she needs to get out of her system. Like jumping out of an airplane or getting a tattoo.”
Phil kicked at a scrap of paper on the platform. “Yeah. It’s fucked,” he said. “Someone had told me when I was sixteen I’d marry a lesbian, I’d have thought it was pretty cool. Goes to show how baffling life can be when you get right down to it.”
This was beyond a response, so I shook my head slowly and soulfully and kicked at my own scrap of paper, this one imaginary. People pushed behind me, moving further up the platform. I stepped closer to the track and looked up the line for a light. A sign of reprieve. Mercy.
“I don’t know, what do you think?”
Another train roared in on the other side of the platform.
“How many trains are they going to get?” a man behind me said, exasperated.
“What do you think?” Phil repeated.
“I don’t know,” I started. “Maybe you need to blow off some steam. Go out, see a movie. Something violent. Go check out the strippers. Get drunk. Rent a porno.” He’d introduced the sixteen-year-old motif, and I was running with it. I wasn’t sure if my suggestions would help him de-stress or trigger a killing spree.
“Yeah,” Phil said, as a train rumbled overhead and people began to pour down the escalator. “I’m just thinking too much. I can’t let this screw with my head anymore. Good idea, Jasper. You want to come over? We can throw a couple of burgers on the barbecue, grab some beers. Rent a porno, if you want . . .”
“Sorry, Phil. Got plans.” It was true. Kim and I had been fighting again and I had promised to take her out to dinner. Given the way things had been travelling, it was a breakable engagement, but the alternative wasn’t that attractive. Better to sit and deal with my own problems than Phil’s.
“Shit,” he said, crestfallen. “I may as well just head to bed early. Drinking isn’t going to solve anything.”
“Don’t be so sure about that,” I said. “Booze can be a clarifying force. At least the hangovers are.” I’d suffered through enough of them to know this for a straight-up, genuine fact. In the cool distance deep in the tunnel, a light went on. Thank God for that, I thought. Salvation. A couple of mice scattered in the dark, pebbly spaces between the tracks. Run, mouse, run, I thought. Behind me, the crowd surged and pushed, whipped on by the sweltering humidity, hell-bent on getting home. I could wait.
I could wait because there was nothing to look forward to. An argument at home, perhaps, a conversation about why Pam Anderson should make a comeback, or the benefits of the new, cheaper line of makeup she had found at Kmart. Listening, feeling guilty for being judgmental, feeling annoyed for having to sit and listen. In a best-case scenario, an evening of avoidance, escape in the form of a baseball game or a book I’d read before. Then off to bed to rest up for another day of the same thing. I’d been thinking about a change, all the while knowing I didn’t have the strength to make it happen. The fear that I’d put too much time into it, time I could never get back, loomed over me. This was of course cut through with the question of what I’d rather
be doing with my time. I honestly didn’t know.
I needed to make a break, switch things up, get going on a new path, fear and dread be damned. But in the meantime, I could wait to get home.
I needn’t have worried about getting home. Because at 6:15, as the train finally barrelled down the line toward the station, Ronnie Orsulak, having recognized me as the man-devil who would not change his five-dollar bill weeks earlier, walked up and pushed me off the platform and onto the tracks. I fell into the swell of approaching lights. There was a scream behind me, then a whole chorus of them, and then blackness.
A change was upon me whether I liked it or not.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe. Copyright © 2011 by Nick Crowe. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.