The conversation lagged. Even after six stiff drinks apiece, he couldn’t find a rhythm with her. She began to text on her phone, her cigarette pointing towards him from her fingers as if accusing him for the lull. He stared at the yellowed wall, then through it, and then closed his eyes. The drumming rain on the window got heavier, and he smiled slightly.
“Did I ever tell you how I started drinking again?”
She drew on the cigarette and leaned back.
“I don’t think so.”
He poured each of them another generous portion of bourbon and took a look at the candle, the only light in the room.
“I took up hiking. That became my new addiction. I couldn’t manage a mile at first. My joints weren’t used to it. Any time I really, really craved a drink, I’d drive five minutes to Verdugo Park. I’d beat the shit out of my knees, get bit up, covered in dirt...it was how I cleared it all away.”
She re-ignited her cigarette.
“It didn’t take me but three, four months before I was covering that whole park. I’d even do Stough Canyon and cross into La Tuna. I had these legs like fucking tree trunks. Still do, sort of. Few years later, I was hiking Los Padres. Multi-day thing, you know. Packing a tent, hiking north, was gonna meet friends in Creston.”
He touched the scar on his forehead.
“I fell. Hard. Got turned around one night, fell about ten feet. Cracked my head on a rock. Could’ve died, now that I think about it. That whole night’s a blur. Somehow I found a creek, washed myself off, dressed it as best I could. Didn’t pack a mirror. I had a concussion, so I just kept walking until I dropped. I woke up around eight the next morning, filthy. I still wasn’t at all cognizant...I just kept walking, didn’t even really look at my compass. I wanted out. It was fear and panic.”
Her eyes were narrowed.
“It’s not a huge park, but if your head is scrambled like mine was, it’s a maze. I drank all of my water…I got real worried. I thought to myself, ‘this might be it’. Right then, though, I saw it in a clearing. I found a fire watch tower. It was a beacon. That was it, I was gonna be fine. I climbed the stairs, knocked...then I looked around. Fucking thing was closed for the season. Didn’t much matter to me at that point. I threw my weight into that door, damn near destroyed it.”
Her eyes darted away momentarily, distracted by a bump from somewhere in the poorly-insulated apartment building.
“I ransack this place, right? I mean, turn everything over, ruin all of the equipment. I’m about to set this thing on fire, ‘cause in my mind at that point, I needed out. Fast. Let the government bill me, let them lock me up, I needed people to find me.”
One last sip from the glass, and the seventh drink was done.
“I’m about to do it, and the sun hits a bottle of this.”
He waved the bourbon bottle in her face, smiling against the weight of a million ironies.
“Guess the last watchman didn’t clear out his stash. Didn’t matter. I start hitting this bottle. Hadn’t drank in five years, it was disgusting. I start walking away, sipping this whiskey, and it burned bad. I knew what would happen, and that I was making it worse. I was working on instinct. It was liquid, and I was thirsty.”
He poured again; one more drink for the road. His bed was four feet away.
“Somehow, I stumbled onto the 101 and a Japanese tourist found me. Spent a week in the hospital, drained my savings paying back the government and my lawyer. And here we are.”
He took a moment to watch her face as she strained between laughter and pity. He reached into a knapsack a few feet away and grabbed some trail maps.
“Someday, I’ll have to start from Verdugo Park again.”