In which I talk about the proper way to eat pizza. It sounds strange, but listen to the episode, and I promise it will make sense.
And now, TPV–
For Alex’s twenty-first birthday, Brian took him out to the Dark Horse bar, and they drank themselves stupid. While not usually one to enjoy the crowded-bar scene, tonight was a special occasion. Brian indulged in Alex’s favorite hard-liquor combo of Long Island ice teas followed by shots of Jagermeister. Brian normally detested Jager’s licorice-aftertaste, but he decided to tolerate it, for Alex. After the first round, Brian developed a pleasant buzz. After the second round, he had progressed well on his way to being drunk. After the third round, he opened up to Alex about the pressures of school and to reciprocate, Alex actually conceded that he had some difficulty adjusting to school after a couple years off. Brian told Alex about the car accident with the heterochromatic cyclist, and Alex was suitably amazed.
They got along quite well at the bar, with no bickering or awkward moments. Alex regaled Brian with tales of girls he had bedded in Boulder (by his count, five, only two months into this semester) while Brian kept his mouth shut. He had not said anything to Alex about Megan. He just wanted to keep this one to himself. He had also said nothing about the fact that he had been selling meth for Wiles for a couple of weeks, although he assumed that Alex must know. Although maybe not, because Wiles could be unpredictable with his information-sharing.
Brian had not had this much fun around Alex since the first time they were at school together. They seldom spoke to each other at the apartment. Sometimes they sat together on the couch and watched Nickelodeon channel reruns of 1980s sitcoms, but even then, they conversed little. Brian did not know much (nor did he want to know) about Alex’s activities when they were apart. Judging by the bags under his eyes, his chewed-to-the-quick fingernails and his near-constant repetitive nervous movements like eye twitches and a heel that bounced up and down against the floor, Brian gathered that he was spending most of his time cutting up lines of methamphetamine. At least, he hoped that he was putting it up his nose, and not smoking or shooting it yet. Alex still had all of his teeth, so Brian assumed he was not smoking it.
But tonight should not be a night to worry about Alex; tonight was his birthday and Brian intended to have a good time. They drank until they were bleary-eyed and foolish. At one point, Alex convinced Brian to adopt an Australian accent and they approached a couple of girls, pretending to be from Sydney. Channeling Graham, it worked for a couple of minutes, then the girls recognized Alex from class, and their cover was blown. Brian made a sincere but incoherent apology while Alex just laughed, and the disgusted girls moved to another table far away.
Brian considered telling Alex about the money he had stashed in the apartment, and his plan to leave Colorado after graduation, but something held him back. What if Alex told Wiles? Brian would need to think about how far he could trust Alex with that kind of information.
Around midnight, Alex managed to persuade Brian that he was sober enough to drive and convinced him that they needed to travel up Flagstaff road into the mountains and climb the big radio tower to get a proper look at the lights of Denver. Alex swayed Brian easily, as inhibitions and reason were in short supply since Brian had not had this much to drink since his dorm days.
When they reached the tower, it loomed much larger than Brian had anticipated. He remembered seeing it in the daytime, and figured it would reach about 150 feet, with platforms at each one-third, approximately 50 and 100 feet. Seemed so much bigger now. Beyond each platform, the subsequent tower section narrowed again, until the last third consisted of a basic rung ladder attached to a pole. The pinnacle was a simple crow’s nest.
Tonight, all he could see were yellow lights like blinking candles swaying as the tower bowed and leaned in the wind. Brian then had his first inkling of doubt. “How far you do you wanna go up?” he asked Alex, staring up at the massive structure with its cold steel and trails of light.
“We going all the way to the top, dude. Summit this bitch.”
Brian had committed, and could see no other choice. He swallowed any further comment, and the first section proceeded rather straightforward and uncomplicated. A metal structure enclosed the ladder in something like an elevator shaft, and the rungs were wide and easy to grasp. Alex went first, much swifter than Brian did. Brian stepped carefully on each rung and awaited the feedback of solid footing before shifting his weight. Brian was out of breath by the first break. At the platform, they stopped and Alex struggled against the wind to light a cigarette.
“Can I have one of those?” Brian said. Alex handed him a smoke and a lighter and then Brian fought with the wind to light the cancer stick. Instant relief washed over him as tobacco smoke filled his lungs for the first time since Brian had bummed one from a coworker the day after 9/11. Burned, but also provided a fleeting sense of calm. “I think I may be good right here,” Brian said. Now inside the reach of the tower’s light, he could see the path above with unnerving clarity. He looked up to the second section’s ladder, exposed and narrow. Each side of the ladder had a large support rail, but the way still seemed dubious. One slip and he would be lucky if he only fell to the first platform instead of all the way to the ground.
“Buck up, dude,” Alex said as he flicked his cigarette off the platform. Brian watched the red light twist and dance in the wind all the way down, a dive-bombing firefly. “We’re doing this. Just wait, dude, this is going to be amazing at the top. Don’t wuss out on me now.”
Alex continued up the second ladder section at the same speed he took the first, and Brian continued up at a careful pace. The fingers of Brian’s gloveless hands began to seize up as he grabbed each cold metal rung, one after the other. Alex reached the second platform two or three minutes before Brian arrived, huffing and puffing. The area was just a flat, steel lattice connected to some beams and girders. The grated floor lacked a safe place to sit, or to take shelter from the wind, which howled so relentlessly that standing proved difficult. The reality began to sink in. Brian gazed down at the parking lot below and Alex’s Jeep looked like a tiny Hot Wheels car.
“Just one more to go,” Alex shouted through the wind. “Let’s do this.”
A vice grip tightened in Brian’s chest, sending ripples of heat throughout his body. His feet had latched to their spot on the grated platform while he held on to a steel beam for stability. The beam was icy against his skin. The platform spread only a few feet wide, and Brian feared any movement might cause a slip. He did not want to play anymore. “No, Alex, this is stupid. We should go back down. We shouldn’t be up here because this was a bad idea.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want to be up here. It’s freaking me out. It’s windy, it’s cold as hell, and this is too dangerous. Come on Alex, we came up to this part already, that’s far enough. I can see the city lights from here and I don’t think we need to go any higher. Let’s just go back down.”
“But we’re almost at the top. Are you serious? I mean, what in the fuck happened to you tonight, Connelly? When did this turn into such a fat fucking deal?”
Alex stood on the platform, not holding on to anything, waving his hands, and all Brian could think was that Alex would lose his footing at any second and tumble to his death. The wind howled in Brian’s ears and Alex’s ranting drifted noiselessly into the stream. Maybe he had sobered up, because now all he wanted was for Alex to see how unsafe this situation had become and agree to return to the car. Brian could not think straight. His legs became weak.
Alex moved within earshot. “This is real simple,” he said. “It’s one way or the other.”
“It’s not so simple, Alex. I don’t know what to say, man, I’m sorry. I know it’s your birthday, and you wanted to do this, but I just can’t. I’m sorry, I just can’t. Please, let’s go back down to the car. I’m drunk and don’t know if I can hold on to the rail anymore if we go up higher. I’m starting to get the spins and I just feel like I want to throw up.”
“Stop apologizing,” Alex said. A gust of wind whirled around them, knocking Alex off balance. For a split second, he freewheeled with his arms in the air, then he lashed out for a beam to steady himself, and at that moment, Brian decided he would endure no more. If Alex had not grabbed the beam, he would have fallen, probably to his death.
Whatever Alex did after that, Brian wanted no part of it.
Without another word, he proceeded to the ladder, carefully taking one rung at a time until he reached the first platform. He looked up, but Alex had not followed. He gradually returned all the way to the bottom of the first section, then to the ground, and had a seat next to the Jeep. He watched the ladder for five minutes, ten minutes, with no sign of Alex. He did not know if he would see his roommate coming down that way, or coming down by a quicker, deadlier route. No choice but to wait for the outcome. His breath came in short, hiccupping snatches for several minutes until he calmed himself.
I wish I had another cigarette.
About fifteen minutes later, Alex finally emerged from the ladder shaft and headed straight for the car. He unlocked it, and he and Brian got in. Alex did not say a word to Brian, not about if he went to the top, or about anything, and Brian did not ask. They drove home in silence.