FULLY REVISED AND UPDATED
Winner of the Canadian Authors Association Birks Family Foundation Award for Biography
Finalist for the Writers’ Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
The investigation that helped Truscott get a new appeal.
In 1959, a popular schoolboy, just 14 years old, was convicted and sentenced to ha …
By Friday evening, a tumultuous week was coming to an end in Clinton. As much as they could, the children and adults in the PMQs around the air force station tried to follow life’s normal pursuits. Steve was looking forward to some fun and adventure over the weekend. Some fishing, some baseball, maybe another trip into the woods to work on the tree house. As the sun dipped in the horizon, Steve headed over to one of his favourite places around the base, Lawson’s farm — unaware that he was about to spend his last hour of liberty for the next ten years.
It looked like rain, Bob Lawson thought as he rushed to finish the evening chores — a godsend after the crop-scorching heat all week. Lawson was eager to get a little haying done. “If you start the lawn mower, I can cut the grass,” suggested his mother, Alice Lawson.
Bob was in the barn with the cows when he heard a loud, clanging racket. A fifteen-foot metal chain attached to the farm dog had somehow got tangled up in the mower and was slowly dragging the terrified mutt toward the sharp, spinning rotors. Lawson knew he was too far away to get to the mower in time. He caught sight of Steve rushing up the driveway to the farm. Fortunately, the mower stalled, and the chain stopped only a few feet before the dog would have had an unappetizing encounter with the rotors.
Laughing, the boy began to untangle the chain from the lawn mower. Still, the Lawsons felt that Steve was more reserved than usual. “Steve seems a little quiet this evening,” Alice Lawson told her son. Perhaps Lynne’s death had shaken the boy, Bob thought. The day before, Steve had dropped by the barn and appeared to be bewildered by events: “I heard they found Lynne in the bush,” Lawson remembers Steve telling him. “How did she get there?”
With the Lawsons’ dog safe from the marauding mower, Steve hopped on Lawson’s new Ferguson 35 tractor. “He loved being on that tractor,” Lawson recalls. “I would often let him ride on it. Steve was good with machines.” The lanky boy stood on the tractor’s floorboard, leaning against the fender, while the farmer rode across his land. When they got to the edge of the crops, Steve jumped off and perched himself on a large rock. For safety reasons, Lawson never let Steve stay on the tractor when he hooked it up to the harvester. As Lawson began haying, Steve rested on the rock, gazing out at the paths and trails where the children played hide-and-seek and picked berries. He saw the thick expanse of Lawson’s bush where only a few weeks earlier he and his friend Leslie had built a tree house.
“He was sitting on that stone, but next time, when I turned the tractor around and came back, he was gone,” Lawson recalls. “I guessed he had walked back to the barn.”
Bored, or perhaps anxious to get home for a bite to eat, Steve headed back down to the county road.
He never made it home.
At the Goderich OPP station, Inspector Harold Graham had made up his mind. Jocelyne’s story about a date and the phone call with the results from the laboratory analysis of Lynne’s stomach contents pointed the finger at the Truscott boy. “At ten minutes to seven, I had him picked up,” Graham said. He sent out Const. Donald Trumbley to bring in the boy — preferably without his parents’ knowledge. “I asked the constable to try and get him away from home.” The OPP cruiser pulled up to the gateway at the Lawson farm.
“Would you get into the car and come with me? We want you to read over your statement,” Trumbley explained, referring to Steve’s interview with Graham that morning.
“Yes,” said the teenager, without a moment’s hesitation. Looking back forty years later at that fateful moment, Steven explains that in 1959 young people had an abiding respect and trust in authority. “Back then when you’re fourteen years old, you looked up to the police. When they told you to get in the car, you got in the car,” he says. Steve never thought to question where Trumbley was taking him, much less to ask about his legal rights.
Trumbley pulled into the Goderich police post with his teenage passenger and took the boy into a small room at the back of the station. Steve had no reason to believe he was doing anything but signing a witness statement. The police did not tell him he was no longer simply a witness, that he had instead become their chief suspect. They did not tell him this trip to the station was, to all intents and purposes, an arrest. Certainly, they wanted his signature–but not just on a statement. What the OPP wanted from Steven was a confession and they were going to do everything they could to get one, even if that meant bending a few rules to the breaking point.
When Steven walked into that police station Friday, he was walking into what, in hindsight, can only be described as a trap, carefully planned and well executed by Harold Graham. Twenty minutes before dispatching Trumbley to pick up Steve, Graham had another officer, Sgt. Charles Anderson, obtain a search warrant for the Truscott home. Anderson then contacted Dr. David Hall Brooks, the chief medical officer on the base “and advised him of what we had planned to do.”
Graham had a very specific objective in mind — get Steven alone, without any interference from his parents. Years later, at a police convention, he boasted about his well-planned strategy: “I was well aware of the judge’s guidelines that it is preferable to have a parent or social worker present when you are questioning a juvenile,” he explained to his appreciative audience. “I was also well aware that it would be an exercise in futility, so I chose to disregard those guides.”
Graham’s was a bold admission of how far the police were willing to go to get their man, even if their man happened to be a fourteen-year-old boy. “Judges can always set their own guides for prisoners, they are not laws,” Graham said defiantly. And he was right. The Juvenile Delinquents Act in 1959 did not require the police to ensure a youth’s parent or guardian was present; today it is the law. Still, while Graham had not strictly violated any laws, he seemed to forget that the police had not told Steven he was a “prisoner” or even officially a suspect. At the boy’s murder trial three months later, the judge was unsparing in his criticism of the police’s tactics that night: “The ordinary safeguard should have been taken and he should have been warned. He was undoubtedly under arrest. It was clear he would never have been allowed to go.”
“Will you read this aloud,” the inspector told the boy as he handed him a typed statement based on Steve’s interview earlier that day. Steve read the text out loud and, according to Graham’s account, asked for only one minor change. He said his return to the school was not at 8:00 p.m., but closer to 7:50 or 7:55 p.m. “That was crossed out . . . and changed, and he said then it was correct, and I asked him to sign it and he did,” Graham said. Steven signed the statement at eight o’clock, ten minutes after their meeting began.
The inspector from the Criminal Investigations Bureau, a veteran of a decade’s worth of homicide cases, now had the boy exactly where he wanted him: alone in a room in a police station. Every police officer hopes they can crack a murder case with a confession, thereby saving the courts time and trouble. For the next hour and a half, Graham, assisted by Constable Trumbley, probed and prodded Steven.
Graham began by questioning his story of seeing a car at the highway. “I told him it was difficult to understand that because the distance was so great and I asked him if he was sure,” the inspector later recounted.
Yes, Steve said, he was sure.
Was he sure that he had seen Lynne with her thumb out at the highway?
Well, the boy said, he had not actually seen her thumb; he had seen her arm out.
Graham noticed a crescent-shaped scratch on Steven’s left arm. How did he injure himself, the police officer asked.
On a tractor in Lawson’s barn, came the reply.
Then Graham moved to the guts of the interrogation: “Have you ever taken a girl into Lawson’s bush?” he asked.
“No,” Steve said.
“Have you ever made a date to take a girl into Lawson’s bush?”
“Have you ever spoken to Jocelyne Gaudet about going into Lawson’s bush?”
“Were you at Jocelyne Gaudet’s house on Tuesday night?”
“No, I haven’t been to Jocelyne Gaudet’s home since last winter,” Steve answered, according to Graham’s account.
“Have you ever phoned Jocelyne Gaudet?”
“No, I have never telephoned Jocelyne Gaudet.” Steve said. “The only conversation I have had with her is in school.” It was a strange question. Had Jocelyne told the police about a phone call to arrange the alleged secret date? If so, the police apparently considered it an unreliable claim, for the police would never again mention a phone call to Jocelyne.
There is no official record of what went on for the duration of the ninety-minute interrogation. The two police officers were the only witnesses. Graham took only a single sheet of notes. Today, Steven Truscott remembers the first hours of his slow, steady slide into the abyss of incarceration: “They would take turns questioning me and calling me a liar,” he says of Graham and Trumbley. “One would come in and question you. He would leave the room. The other one would come in and he would say: ‘You lied. You did this, you did that.’ They keep questioning you and calling you a liar, and you just can’t believe what’s going on. In your mind, you can’t understand what’s happening. And all through the whole thing I stuck to what I had said.”
If the OPP inspector was hoping the boy would crack, he was sadly disappointed. “He steadfastly maintained that his statement was true in every detail,” Graham later reported.
Throughout his ordeal that night — and indeed, throughout all his forthcoming days in court — Steve never cried, at least not in public. Much like his mother, the fourteen-year-old held his emotions in close check. “I just wasn’t brought up that way — it’s kind of not the air force way,” he says today in reflection. “I knew I hadn’t done anything. I had nothing to be afraid of.”
That did not mean the boy was not scared out of his wits as he sat in a police interrogation room. Why hadn’t the police contacted his parents?
Doris Truscott was in a panic. It was 9:30 p.m. and there was still no sign of her son.
“Where is he?” she wondered. “He should have been home — it’s very seldom he’s late.”
Bob Lawson was baling his final load of hay for the day in his barn when a pair of headlights lit up the driveway to his farmhouse. As he walked over to the car, he saw Doris Truscott roll down her window. The farm was the only place she could think her boy might be this late at night.
“Have you seen Steve?” she asked. “It’s getting dark and it’s not like Steve to stay out late.”
“I saw Steve earlier, but not for a couple of hours,” the farmer informed her.
Doris was filled with a sense of dread. One schoolchild had already gone missing and turned up dead in the bush. Where in heaven’s name was her boy?
At the OPP station in Goderich, Graham had decided to take Steven to the RCAF guardhouse in Clinton. He ordered one of his men to find Steve’s father, Warrant Officer Dan Truscott. The police got Steven to the guardhouse on the base around 9:25 p.m. Ten minutes later, his father arrived “in a hostile attitude,” according to Graham. The inspector had kept Steven in custody — getting him to sign a statement and then questioning him about a murder — for two and a half hours without even informing his parents. But the OPP man could not grasp why a parent would be upset at the officers who had swept away his son without notifying anyone.
“The father asked me in a belligerent manner how and where Steven had been picked up,” Graham said. Dr. Brooks painted a slightly more sympathetic picture, reporting that Steve’s father “naturally was the anxious parent who wanted to know what had happened to his son and why he was there.”
For his part, the frightened boy felt relieved at least one of his parents was on hand. “My dad was there, so I figured, you know, he’s not going to let anything happen,” Steve says.
Dan Truscott immediately wanted to know if his son had been taken into police custody with his own consent.
“I asked him to get into the car to accompany me to read the statement and he got in willingly,” Trumbley reported.
Dan turned to his son: “Is that right, Steven?”
“Yes,” the boy answered.
Graham attempted to allay the father’s fears. “I told them that Steven had been brought in on my instructions and as a result of our investigation thus far certain suspicions had been directed toward Steven.” The OPP inspector explained he wanted doctors to examine the boy.
Steve’s father asked to speak with the boy alone and took him into an adjoining room. “I told him they were accusing me and calling me a liar,” Steve recounts. “It was quite clear they were trying to pin this on me.” Dan emerged from the chat with his son a few moments later.
“I refuse to allow Steven to be examined by a doctor,” he said. “Steven says you accused him of murdering Lynne and called him a liar.”
“I didn’t accuse him of murdering Lynne at all,” Graham replied. “I pointed out certain features from his statement that indicated he was lying. My only duty is to try to determine the truth.”
“Steven never goes out with girls,” his father reportedly said.
“We have information that he had a date with a girl that night,” Graham replied, referring to Jocelyne’s story of her rendezvous with Steven in the bush. “Will you consent to a medical examination of Steven?”
It was a pivotal moment. Ever the military man eager to do the right thing, Warrant Officer Dan Truscott was not one to question rules and regulations. He turned to his friend, Sgt. Charles Anderson of the OPP. “What do you think about it, Charlie?”
“I think you should consent to the examination,” Anderson suggested. “It looks bad if you don’t consent to the doctor examining Steve.” (Truscott could not know that Anderson was hardly a neutral advisor. Under Graham’s orders, he had already taken steps to secure a search warrant for the Truscott home, even before Steven was picked up. Lawyers would later convince a judge that Anderson’s comments were an unfair police inducement.)
In any event, it is doubtful that Dan Truscott could have wrested his son away from the police, even if he wanted to. “It was apparent to me it was unlikely he would get the boy home,” Dr. Brooks reported. In the end, Steve’s father bowed to authority; he turned to the OPP officers surrounding his son and agreed to the medical exam. Nobody asked Steve what he thought.
Initially, there was some question about whether Brooks should conduct the exam, but after consulting with the commanding officer, it was determined it would be better if an outside, civilian doctor performed the task.
The police asked Dan Truscott for the name of his family doctor. He mentioned that in the past, they had consulted a Clinton general practitioner, Dr. John Addison. Addison had briefly seen Steven twice in October 1957 for a urinary infection, and had treated Steven’s brother Bill for a threatened appendix.
Dr. Addison arrived at the guardhouse around 10:35 p.m. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, he had been practising medicine in Clinton since 1943. A stern-looking man with dark hair, a trim moustache and black glasses, Addison was well liked by the local citizenry. Presumably, the family doctor was supposed to be more dispassionate than Dr. Brooks, the military doctor working closely with the police. But Addison’s first move was to consult with the air force medical man. “I met Dr. Brooks first, who outlined a bit of the story that had transpired before as to why they wanted me to examine the prisoner,” Addison said later. “I had known . . . that this boy was the possible suspect of the rape.” Hardly a good start for a neutral observer.
“He accompanied me into the adjoining office,” Brooks said. “An examination of Steven then took place.”
From the mailbox of the Prime Minister's Office to your bookshelf, a list of more than 100 books that every Canadian should read. This largely one-sided correspondence from the "loneliest book club in the world" is a compendium for bibliophiles and those who follow the Canadian political scene. Smart, subversive, signed, sealed, and now available t …
From one of our most widely read, award-winning journalists – comes the powerful, unputdownable story of the very human cost of a global pandemic of staggering scope and scale. It is essential reading for our times.
In 28, Stephanie Nolen, the Globe and Mail’s Africa Bureau Chief, puts a human face to the crisis created by HIV-AIDS in Africa. Sh …
I looked at AIDS in Africa for a long time before I understood what I was seeing. That moment came on the shady porch of a small mud-brick house in a village called Nkhotakota in Malawi, early in 2002. The house belonged to Lillian Chandawili. She was thirty-five years old, and I met her through the local AIDS organization. We sat in the softening heat of the late afternoon and she told me how she was raising her five children on her own–her husband was gone. She confided that she was plagued by diarrhea and a racking cough; some days she barely had the strength to lift a hoe, but her little plot of land was the only source of food for her family.
While we talked, Lillian’s children ventured up to sit near us, and neighbours and relatives stopped by, polite and eager to greet a visitor. There were a great many children. Lillian explained that in addition to her five she was raising two of her late sister’s children and two orphaned cousins. She laid one gentle hand on their heads as they crept in close–“This one has it,” she said. “And this one, I think he’s infected.” When the neighbours moved on, she gestured with a lift of her chin at one or another–“She is infected. He is positive. Her husband is dying. He lost his wife.”
And as I listened, I suddenly understood that it wasn’t just Lillian and the dozen people in her support group in Nkhotakota who had AIDS. On paper, it was one in six adults in Malawi. But in this village, it was hundreds of people. If they weren’t sick themselves, they were caring for the sick. They were sheltering their sisters’ orphans, their dead brother’s young wife and baby. One way or another, everyone had the disease. And it meant that they earned less, that they grew less food, that fewer children went to school, that no one had any savings. Lillian talked of all the people who had “passed,” and I had a sense of a community quietly evaporating around me.
A few days later, in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, I set out early one morning for the main hospital, where the lone doctor in charge had agreed to speak to me about the country’s HIV epidemic. When I got to the hospital, however, no one was quite sure where he was, and people suggested I try one ward or another, check this corridor or that office. I wandered the halls in a state of growing horror. I had by that point seen many basic and overcrowded African hospitals, but never anything like this. There were people everywhere: three to a bed, lying head to foot to head; under the beds, lying on grass mats in the stairwells and in the verandas off the wards. They were bone thin and covered in lesions and abscesses. As I stepped gingerly among them, they shifted their heads slightly to look up at me through eyes grown huge in sunken faces. I could not find the doctor; I did find a nurse–perhaps the only nurse–who was stout and slovenly and clearly drunk, her hairpiece of copper curls askew. Looking around the ward, I couldn’t blame her: it was barely 8 a.m., but I felt in desperate need of a stiff drink myself.
I had realized, long before that day, that AIDS was a unique and savage phenomenon in Africa. Back in 1998, in a rural hospital in Tanzania, the chief medical officer had led me on a tour of the wards. In one, we passed rows of antique but tidy beds lined up under billowy mosquito nets. Then we came to three men off by themselves, lying in a row on a thin mat on the floor. Their legs were like twigs, and their breathing was audible from the other side of the room. I was puzzled at first, and stopped in front of them. Then realized what this must be.
“Do they have AIDS?” I asked.
The doctor and his assistants whipped around. A nurse seized my arm and began to pull me out of the ward.
“Shh, shh, shh,” she scolded. “You can’t just say that word.”
The sight of those men stayed with me. Over the next few years, I kept going back to Africa, drawn to what I began to believe was the biggest story in the world. Not the wars or the refugee crises that occasionally–very occasionally–made the evening news back home, but the slow, almost incalculable devastation that HIV/AIDS was wreaking in country after country I visited.
I know something about what makes news. In the fifteen years I have worked as a journalist, I have reported on some of the biggest stories in the world. I watched Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization move into the West Bank after making peace with Israel in the early 1990s. I saw tentative women venture out of their homes for the first time in five years as the Taliban lost their hold on Afghanistan. I watched Saddam Hussein’s army flee Baghdad in the face of an onslaught of U.S. Marines. There is an undeniable thrill that comes with being in the centre of the big story.
But nothing I was sent to cover anywhere in the world compared to what I saw AIDS doing in sub-Saharan Africa. And yet this story never made the news at all.
In 2003, I persuaded my editors at The Globe and Mail that we were missing something important. They did not yet share my conviction about the urgency of the story, but they were willing to let me try to tell it. I moved to Johannesburg and began what would turn out to be years of travel through the heart of the epidemic: the Swazi villages, the slums outside Durban, the highlands of Lesotho, the urban hospitals of Botswana. I found hundreds and hundreds of communities like Nkhotakota on the verge of disappearing. I knew people in North America who had been living with HIV for years, taking antiretroviral medication that does not cure AIDS but will keep a person with HIV healthy for decades. But no one in Africa had the drugs. No one was even talking about getting them the drugs. AIDS was a fully preventable illness at home. But in Africa, it was a plague, and people like Lillian Chandawili could do little but sit and watch its inexorable progression. And I began to wonder how this could be happening–how we could be letting this happen–almost entirely unremarked.
From the Hardcover edition.
From the acclaimed Giller Prize Finalist and Governor General’s Award Winner: a delightfully funny and charming second novel about Canada’s smallest town.
Life in Winnipeg didn’t go as planned for Knute and her daughter. But living back in Algren with her parents and working for the longtime mayor, Hosea Funk, has its own challenges: Knute fi …
Algren was Canada’s smallest town. It really was. Canada’s Smallest Town. It said so on a big old billboard right outside the town limits and Knute had checked with one of those government offices in the blue pages and they said fifteen hundred is what you need for a town. And that’s what Algren had. If it had one less it would be a village and if it had just one more it would be a bigger town. Like all the rest of the small towns. Being the smallest was its claim to fame.
Knute had come to Algren, from the city of Winnipeg, to look after her dad who’d had a heart attack. And to relieve her mom who said if she spent one more day in the house she’d go insane.
She was twenty-four years old. Her mother, Dory, had intended her name to be pronounced “Noot uh,” but nobody got it so it became just Knute, like “Noot.” Even her mom had given up on the “uh” part but did from time to time call her Knutie or sometimes, and she hated this, Knuter.
Knute had a daughter, Summer Feelin’, and Summer Feelin’ had a strange way of shaking when she was excited. She flapped her arms, and her fingers moved quickly as though she were typing to save her life, and sometimes her head went back and her mouth opened wide and sounds like aaah and uh-uh-uh came out of it.
When she first started doing it, Knute thought it was cute. Summer Feelin’ looked like she’d lift right off the ground. But then Knute started worrying about it and decided to take her to a specialist, a pediatric neurologist. He did a number of tests, including an encephalogram. Summer Feelin’ liked the wires and enjoyed the attention but told the doctor that flapping was just something she was born to do.
Eventually after all the results came in and the charts had been read and analyzed, he agreed with her. She was born to flap. There was no sign of strange electrical activity in her brain, no reason to do a CAT scan, and all accounts of her birth indicated no trauma had occurred, nothing untoward as she had made her way through Knute’s birth canal and into this world.
Every night Knute lay down with Summer Feelin’. That was the time S.F. told Knute stories and let her in on her big plans and Knute could feel her daughter’s body tremble with excitement. It quivered. It shook. It was out of her control. Knute would hold Summer Feelin’ until she stopped shaking, maybe a twitch or two or a shudder, and fell asleep. The specialist said S.F.’s condition, which wasn’t really a condition, was very rare but nothing to worry about. Then he’d added, in a thoughtful way, that the condition or lack of condition might be the precipitator to that rare phenomenon known as spontaneous combustion. So Knute worried, from time to time, about S.F. bursting into flames for no apparent reason. And that was the type of concern she couldn’t really explain to people, even close friends, without them asking her if she needed a nap or what she’d been reading lately or just plain laughing at her.
March was the month that Knute and Summer Feelin’ arrived in Algren. Tom had had a heart attack (or his heart attack, as Dory called it) in December. He’d been putting up the last decorations on the tree and BAM, it happened. He fell over, and because he was sort of clutching at the tree it fell on top of him. Ten days later, in the sterile intensive care ward of the hospital, nurses were still finding tiny pine needles in his hair and in the many creases of his skin. He picked up a nasty infection called septicemia in the hospital and, as a result, his lungs malfunctioned and he was put on a respirator. Of course, he couldn’t talk, but in his more lucid, pain-free moments he could write. Sort of. All he ever wrote, in a barely legible scrawl either stretched out over the whole page or sometimes scrunched up in the bottom corner, was “How is the tree?” Or “Is the tree okay?” Or “Is the tree up?” Or “I’m sorry about the tree.”
One day in the hospital Dory told him, “Tom, it’s Christmas Day today. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”
His eyes were closed but he squeezed her hand. She said, “Do you remember Christmas, darling?”
And he opened his eyes and looked up at her and shook his head. Yet the next day, again, he wrote about the tree. He couldn’t remember Christmas, but he knew a tree should, for some reason, be erected in his living room.
Gradually he could remember a bit more and he could spell “world” backwards and count by sevens and all those things they’d asked him to do in the hospital when he was off the respirator and out of intensive care, but still he had a strange scattered memory, like, for instance, he knew he must, absolutely must, shave every morning, but he was unsure why. He reminded Dory to check the battery in the smoke detector, but when she said, “Oh, Tom, what’s the worst that can happen if our battery is dead for a day or two?” he didn’t have an answer. So he was caught in a bind where he was committed to doing what he’d always done but he couldn’t remember why he was doing it. His life, some might have said, had no purpose.
Neither did Knute’s, really. Summer Feelin’ was in a day care that she hated and Knute was working full time as a hostess in a busy downtown restaurant where everybody was used to seating themselves. She wasn’t aggressive enough to say, “Hey, can’t you read the sign? It says ‘wait to be seated,’” and so, pretty much, she just stood there all day smiling and feeling stupid. From time to time she moved the sign right in front of the door, but people would walk into it and then move it back out of their way. Sometimes the waitresses got mad at her because she wasn’t seating anybody in their sections or because everybody was sitting in their section and they were run off their feet trying to keep up with the orders. Then, for a while, Knute would try to keep people from walking past her and she’d say things like, “Please follow me,” or “A table will be ready in a minute,” or “How many of you are there?” Usually there would be two and when she asked how many of them there were, they’d look at each other like she was nuts, then they’d hold up two fingers or point at each other and say, “one, two,” in a loud voice.
“Two!” Knute would say, “okay, two, hmmm . . . two, you say,” like she was trying to figure out how to seat twelve. Then she’d meander around and around the restaurant with them behind her, suggesting possible tables, and she’d say, “Oh no, I think, well, no, well, yes, okay, sure, right here is fine. Wherever you want, really, I guess.”
Her boss’s wife and all the waitresses and the dishwasher and the two cooks kept telling him to fire her, but her boss kept giving her more chances. He told Knute she’d get the hang of it in a while, just get in their faces and make them wait. “They’re like pigs at the trough,” he said. “You gotta keep ’em under control.”
On her first day Knute had actually managed to lead an old couple to a table. But somehow they got their wires crossed, and Knute pulled a chair away from the table just as the man was going to sit on it. In slow motion he fell to the ground while Knute and his wife stared, horrified. As he fell, he knocked over the fake flower arrangement and the vase shattered.
A thrilling Knopf New Face of Fiction debut, A Cold Night for Alligators takes the reader on a breathtaking ride through the seedy, sensual Florida Everglades, unravelling a mystery at the heart of which lies a devastating family secret.
Twenty-six-year-old Jasper hasn't seen or heard from his older brother, Coleman, in over ten years. Not since Co …
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.
Sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel longs to hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull in New York City’s East Village. Instead she’s trapped in East Village, Manitoba, a small town whose population is Mennonite: “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager.” East Village is a town with no train and no bar whos …
I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window. Nothing great. The furniture keeps disappearing, though. That keeps things interesting.
Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing. Ray and I get up in the morning and move through our various activities until it’s time to go to bed. Every single night around ten o’clock Ray tells me that he’s hitting the hay. Along the way to his bedroom he’ll stop in the front hallway and place notes on top of his shoes to remind him of the things he has to do the next day. We enjoy staring at the Northern Lights together. I told him, verbatim, what Mr. Quiring told us in class. About how those lights work. He thought Mr. Quiring had some interesting points. He’s always been mildly interested in Mr. Quiring’s opinions, probably because he’s also a teacher.
I have assignments to complete. That’s the word, complete. I’ve got a problem with endings. Mr. Quiring has told me that essays and stories generally come, organically, to a preordained ending that is quite out of the writer’s control. He says we will know it when it happens, the ending. I don’t know about that. I feel that there are so many to choose from. I’m already anticipating failure. That much I’ve learned to do. But then what the hell will it matter to me while I’m snapping tiny necks and chucking feathery corpses onto a conveyor belt in a dimly lit cinder-block slaughterhouse on the edge of a town not of this world. Most of the kids from around here will end up working at Happy Family Farms, where local chickens go to meet their maker. I’m sixteen now, young to be on the verge of graduating from high school, and only months away from taking my place on the assembly line of death.
One of my recurring memories of my mother, Trudie Nickel, has to do with the killing of fowl. She and I were standing in this farmyard watching Carson and his dad chop heads off chickens. You’d know Carson if you saw him. Carson Enns. Arm-farter in the back row. President of the Pervert Club. Says he’s got a kid in Pansy, a small town south of here. Troubled boy, but that’s no wonder considering he used to be The Snowmobile Suit Killer. I was eight and Trudie was about thirty-five. She was wearing a red wool coat and moon boots. The ends of her hair were frozen because she hadn’t been able to find the blow-dryer that morning. Look, she’d said. She grabbed a strand of hair and bent it like a straw. She’d given me her paisley scarf to tie around my ears. I don’t know exactly what we were doing at Carson’s place in the midst of all that carnage, it hadn’t started out that way I’m pretty sure, but I guess carnage has a way of creeping up on you. Carson was my age and every time he swung the axe he’d yell things at the chicken. He wanted it to escape. Run, you stupid chicken! Carson, his dad would say. Just his name and a slight anal shake of the head. He was doing his best to nurture the killer in his son. It was around 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter day and the light was fading into blue and it was snowing horizontally and we were all standing under a huge yellow yard light. Well, some of us were dying. And Carson was doing this awful botch job on a chicken, hacking away at its neck, not doing it right at all, whispering instructions on how to escape. Fly away, idiot. Don’t make me do this. Poor kid. By this time he’d unzipped the top half of his snowmobile suit so it kind of flapped around his waist like a skirt, slowing him down, and his dad saw him and came over and grabbed the semi-mutilated chicken out of Carson’s little mittened hand and slapped it onto this wooden altar thing he used to do the killing and brought his axe down with incredible speed and accuracy and in less than a second had created a splattery painting in the snow and I was blown away by how the blood could land so fast and without a single sound and my mom gasped and said look, Nomi, it’s a Jackson Pollock. Oh, it’s beautiful. Oh, she said, cloths of heaven. That was something she said a lot. And Carson and I stood there staring at the blood on the snow and my mom said: Just like that. Who knew it could be so easy.
I don’t know if she meant it’s so easy to make art or it’s so easy to kill a chicken or it’s so easy to die. Every single one of those things strikes me as being difficult to do. I imagine that if she were here right now and I was asking her what she meant, she’d say what are you talking about and I’d say nothing and that would be the end of it.
It’s only because she’s gone that all those trivial little things from the past echo on and on and on. At dinner that night, after the slaughter at Carson’s place, she asked us how we would feel if for some reason we were all in comas and had slept right through the summer months and had woken up around the middle of November, would we be angry that we had missed the warmth and beauty of the summer or happy that we had survived. Ray, who hates choosing, had asked her if we couldn’t be both and she’d said no, she didn’t think so.
Trudie doesn’t live here any more. She left shortly after Tash, my older sister, left. Ray and I don’t know where either one of them is. We do know that Tash left with Ian, who is Mr. Quiring’s nephew. He’s double-jointed and has a red Ford Econoline van. Trudie seems to have left alone.
Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far. My period started the day after Trudie left which means I’ve bled thirty-six times since they’ve been gone.
From the Hardcover edition.