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HI, I’M RONNIE
short story by Mark Kolke
December 5, 2011
I lay awake some nights, second guessing how my life might have unfolded if I’d done something differently, or if I hadn’t.It’s like playing solitaire. There is no solution and no way to win consistently.
What separates life from death?
Or a life as bad as death, from another life of sunny days and cozy nights in a warm bed where a hot partner makes otherwise steamy sex feel just ordinary?
Down that road of diminishing returns lay so many great ideas and so much wishful thinking - wasted, in ditches and gutters, faint resemblances of the people who once stood upright, walked tall, and could follow a straight line while doing it.
Recent events have left me mulling, recalling and second-guessing a near miss – wondering if it was really the opportunity I thought it was, or an illusion of wishful thinking I’ve had so many times, too many times, these last twenty-five years.
I was getting hoarse.
The sound was alright. It was me.
It felt close. Dank. Almost claustrophobic.
Not shrouded in cobwebs, but it may as well have been.It was the basement in ChristChurch Cathedral hall basement. On Church Street in Fredericton.
Those walls were 50’s acoustic wall tiles that looked like some neurotic drill press operator made them.No pattern to them.Decades of over-painting had filled half the holes with latex, leaving the rest simply serving as resting cavities for dust.
Chairs shuffled on battle weary battleship linoleum floors. It had been cold earlier, before everyone arrived, but the activity of seventy breathing bodies had boosted room temperature to an acceptable level.
The crowd was mixed crop, diverse spilling-ins from all walks of life. Some came in ratty donations from some charity source, some wore finely tailored latest fashion; some women, mostly men, they collectively stank of outside humidity and cigarette smoke that swirled from so many of them, row by row, it was almost as hard to see there as it was in the fog outside when we arrived.
Maybe it was best after all, that maintenance had been deferred so long . . .
My mind was wandering.
Sure, my mouth was moving, my body animated, and I was delivering a talk I’d done many times . . . but I was suddenly feeling like a fly on the wall, observing myself in action.
I’d been talking for about an hour.
I could see folks in the back row were nodding off, and a guy in the front row wearing orange socks kept rolling his eyes (boredom I think).
There was a woman, 2nd row from the back who kept grabbing my attention.She stood out, like a white lily in a forest of grime and maleness; she was one of only a handful of women in the crowd – sitting next to a fellow who looked incongruous to her – and they didn’t seem to be chatting, and the seat on the other side of her was vacant, occupied by what appeared to be her coat, handbag and designer-style knapsack.
My mind was still wandering, and by that point I felt I’d probably worn out my welcome.
Still, I didn’t want to short-change these buggers. After all, they had paid to fly me in for this gig, put me up in a hotel. My plan had always been that I would speak for an hour and then take questions after, and then I would sign copies of my book for a while . . . that is, if anyone wanted to buy a copy. Best not to screw up the sales by dragging further so I decided to wind it up . . .
In today’s terminology, you might say we were friends – with benefits. The relationship was never whole. Tragically flawed, arousing, intoxicating, seductive, addictive, merciless and relentless.
When Ron was spent, or gone, I turned to others for comfort – in search of soothing my wounds without fully realizing I was food for the gaping maw of this creature so bent on consuming me whole. Or in bits. It wasn’t fussy or in a hurry.
AndI wasn’t so particular either.
Looking back, I know it could have taken me all at once, or in pieces.
It was what you might call a long term relationship.
I was married at the time, but it wasn’t an affair in the usual sense.
Addiction, much worse, the co-dependant sort, it consumed me the way flame consumes candles. I burned bright, often flamboyantly but it was neither sustainable or healthy. It was destroying every bit of me, but I couldn’t leave its grip.
Nobody knew.My partner didn’t know, my children were too young to know and my father – who I worked with every day was completely unaware, though many years before he had suffered the same destruction.The characters were different in his play, the effects different, but the cause was no different.
Driven by forces I couldn’t understand I sought to fix it somehow.
I loved Ron, yet I came to hate him. I hated him. And I loved him.
We’ve been apart a long time now. From drinking him in daily, as if from a tasty fountain, I tried to wean myself but that didn’t work.
Then, I stopped. I gave him up.
No, he was demon. As demonic as those who embrace religion would label their devils.
He was at his amber best, smooth, over ice. With Coke – not too much – was my drink, Ron Bacardi 1873 medium-dark rum.
I drank vodka too, with orange juice, when the rum was gone.And rye-whisky when vodka ran low.And scotch, then just about anything else in the liquor cabinet except for the gin.
I’ve poured his best for others often, but not a drop has touched my lips since that night.
I drew the line at gin. I couldn’t stand the putrid stuff.Some people told me it was an acquired taste, refreshing on a hot summer day.I kept it around to serve to guests but I hated.
I rarely ran so low that gin was a consideration, because there was always some beer, wine, a few assorted goodies like Dubonnet, or Grand Marnier to drain.
I didn’t know, you know, that I was a problem drinker.
But that summer, in 1986 when so much went wrong in my life, there was no getting through it without him.
I’ll leave you with a quote I like, from Bertrand Russell.It goes like this – Drunkenness is temporary suicide; the happiness it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.”
. . . and then I ended my talk at yet another A.A. meeting, the same statement I started with:
“My name is Blaine, and I’m an alcoholic.”
I was drained from the talk, maybe more so than usual because there was no time to eat between landing at the airport, being picked up by Edmond. He drove me straight to the meeting.He was two years sober, Hungarian immigrant, unemployed electrical engineer.He talked, non-stop, from the airport to the Comfort Inn on Prospect Street, at the hotel while I checked in and again on the way to the meeting.
I found some coffee and a sandwich at the back of the room.
The meeting was continuing, but scheduled to wind up soon.
I didn’t have long, but a few minutes at least, to replenish some calories, guzzle coffee and make a bathroom run before my duty at the book signing table began.
I was hoping this group would be better than the last three nights in St. Andrews, St. John and Moncton.
If I can’t get my sales up it won’t make it worthwhile to cart cases of them along on these gigs. My publisher Simon Whitestone keeps telling me this is the way to build my writing brand – speaking engagements wherever I can get them, sell a few books, get the occasional interview on local radio stations and – when I’m lucky, doing readings or book signings at book stores in the towns along the way.
This milk-run through New Brunswick hasn’t been particularly fruitful. Sure, I enjoy the conversations with the audience, enjoy being centre-stage and all that ego-gratifying stuff, but I need the money!And, I need a rest.
The sandwich labeled tuna salad, but it tasted like cardboard salad soaked in mayonnaise which permeated the bread.The coffee tasted burnt, that taste the settles in the bottom of urns where coffee has burned too long.It was enough to make anyone heave – drunk or sober, but I knew I would be ill before the night was out if I didn’t consume something.
Just then, delicious distracting morsel from the 2nd last row, tapped me on the shoulder. I recognized her immediately – not from this meeting, but up-close she was the spitting image of Ann Maguire, from my 12th grade chemistry class in Vancouver.Well, not exactly, but as I would have expected Ann to look, if gently aged forty years.
“Hi Blaine, I’m Ronnie, and I’m an alcoholic”, she purred as her extended hand came into range.
I extended mine, “Pleased to meet you Ronnie.”
Ronnie, short for Veronica, was not related to anyone named Maguire; she’s never been to Vancouver and, like me, she’s an only child with boundary issues and alcoholics littering her family.
Like me, two marriages, two divorces, three children – hers, daughters and mine a mix. A son, a daughter and the third, a sexually confused son who isn’t quite sure.
“Ronnie, tell me your story . . . ”
. . . and time flew . . .
First, I signed some books. Edmond loaded up the remainders and my materials, and chauffeured me back to the Comfort Inn.
Ronnie followed in her car. Once Edmond had unloaded everything to my room, then shaken my hand for the fourth time and departed, I joined her in the lounge for a beverage.
Odd, it seemed, two drunks working their way through ginger-ales on a first date in hotel lounge in Fredericton of all places.
Night turned into wee hours before we knew it – and, bed beckoned.It beckoned us both.
I don’t know how it happened – we just started talking. Before I knew it, two hours flew by, chemistry and stories flowed without inhibition.We had lots in common, aside from the obvious biological attraction . . . we both lacked inhibitions, boundary-less tendencies in her that I recognized from my own recovery.
We didn’t talk A.A., we didn’t talk much at all. Breathing heavily was enough conversation.
When morning arrived we were both ravenous.The hotel had a continental breakfast service that didn’t look very appealing so we ventured out – found lobster rolls and coffee at Deluxe Fish & Chips hit the spot.
My flight back to Vancouver left at noon, I had a connection through Toronto that got me back to Vancouver very late.Ronnie took me to the airport, and waited for me to head through security.She said she would call me in Vancouver.We swapped business cards and contact information.
I wasn’t looking for a one night-stand.Never do. I always aim for a two-night minimum.
I got home late, just before midnight. I expected a voice-mail message on my phone.There were three; my landlord wondering where my rent cheque was, one from my publisher Simon wanting to know how the speaking tour went, and a solicitation for furnace cleaning.Nothing from Ronnie.I checked my computer.I had a handful of emails, but nothing from Ronnie.
I didn’t really expect cultivating a relationship – from opposite ends of the country, would be possible. But her suggestion she would want to see me again, that she would come for a visit intrigued me.
We caught up, on the phone, a couple of days later.That conversation lasted an hour and seemed promising.But the energy level – for both of us, around having another conversation dropped off.The flurry of emails that first week quickly dwindled to one a week.Then one every two weeks.
When was the last time we talked?I don’t know, but it must be a couple of months now.
I met someone the other day.No instant-chemistry, but nice. Her name is Carole. No previous marriages, no children, no drinking problem.She’s a librarian.Sensible shoes, horn-rimmed glasses and sexy looking in that starched white blouse and cardigan sweater.
I have two Ronnie memories now.
One served with Coke, the other came with a broad smile and a lobster roll.
I’d come from the dodgiest part of East Vancouver.
Down and outers on every street corner where, but for a few accidents of good fortune they could be me, or I them – just one more skid-mark on skid-row.
My life has turned from bad to worse sometimes, but it no longer leaves me confused – as to the cause, because when things go well it isn’t the booze, and when things go badly, it isn’t the booze.
I am free of it, but not free of life, not free of the mess I’ve often made of business, relationships and my finances.
For that I can only blame me.
Old Ron is no longer accountable for any of my follies.