Despite the sudden loss of weight the last few months, Vince still seemed too large for the office. He leaned deeper into the red cushioned chair, scratched the stubble on his chin and chuckled. I waited, my mug of tea in hand. He had just returned from a trip on the other side of the mountain with a new friend. He looked like a scruffy-feathered crane, tall and bony with a head of soft, sparse hair.
“It did or didn’t turn out like you thought?” I asked.
“Well,” he said and spread out his large, calloused hands in the space between us, “I got back alive. I was humbled. I left thinking it was going to be a nice holiday experience, over the mountains, a chance to get to know more about K.T. and his family. Instead,” he shook his head, “instead, Miss C., I’m walking into this house where chaos reigns, the radio and three TVs and everybody moving, the dogs dying to meet me, the cats chasing what looks like a smart mouse, and an older lady-his aunt?-dancing in the kitchen in sweat pants, tank top and an apron.” He crossed his bony legs and folded his hands. “I had to get my bearings. Where’s the Christmas tree? Oh, tilting to one side behind the exercise bike, next to the huge flat screen which flashes at me like an electronic billboard in Times Square. But it’s the day after Christmas, right? Things are not as usual maybe. And I’d said I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, my little house with my stereo system creating an island of peace and too damned much alone time. The only thing is, I wasn’t ready for it.”
“Ready?” I prompt.
“Well, there were the uncle and cousins racking up beer cans at one in the afternoon, and from the basement I could detect eau de cannabis co-mingling with the aroma of greasy fried chicken from the kitchen. I couldn’t figure which one made me break out in a sweat more. Smoke from cigarettes, the big fireplace and the weed made everything gauzy. Or it might have been me.
“But they were all welcoming me, the kid’s new mentor, right? We sat right down and started shooting the breeze. K.T. turned off the TV, and I started to unwind so why not go with the flow? The chicken and baked potatoes were pretty good, we played some gin rummy and his family seemed happy to have us. By nine o’clock I was tired out, but K.T. and gang were just waking up. Out come the cartons of wine, a couple of cases, and the weed moved upstairs with two teenage girls, his sisters. I pulled K.T. aside. What’s with the kids smoking dope? He shrugged and got us a couple of Cokes from the frig. I made a salad for my snack, then sat watching from the dining room table. The group was loosening up and the jokes weren’t very funny.The cats kept trying to get in on the ham pieces in my salad so I finally went out on the porch and ate. The snow floated down. I could imagine the Cascade Mountains and felt good. But by the time I got cold and went inside, the party was cranking up. Cars started pulling in like someone had sent out an all-points bulletin. Some guy was yelling something raunchy and the older lady, his aunt, grabbed my hand with a gleam in her eye as she offered me a glass of wine. I waved K.T. to come talk to me but there it was: a beer bottle at his lips. He stared back at me, then slunk away. So upstairs I went, lay down on the bed fully clothed and put in my earplugs. I wondered what he was thinking. Was I supposed to rescue him? No, I decided. The whole thing stank. And I was trapped.”
“You don’t appear to have known ahead of time that they drank and used drugs.”
“No, well, yeah. I mean, I’ve been watching over K.T.’s new sobriety, right? I knew his history but I didn’t know we were going to end up at a place that had the feel of a corner bar with some circus thrown in. I thought I was his sober buddy and we were getting away for a couple of days. I’d planned on enjoying the sights. But it was like I had chosen the wrong door and was back in 2005, with people working themselves up to bad news, the hustle on, alcohol a toxic aphrodisiac. I wanted out like a poker player with a stinking hand. I never did do great working against the odds. I always lose with drugs, alcohol and cards, you know that.”
“No, not good odds.”
He stretched his legs. He had gained some weight back since the last couple treatments for hepatitis C, but his face was haunted by chronic discomfort. His light blue eyes, however, sparked with life.
“I was so wiped out by the long drive and socializing that I actually slept, in spite of the great time they thought they were having downstairs. Until about 3 am. I could hear the TV next door. A DVD player hadn’t been turned off and bad music was in a loop. I pounded on the wall. No luck. I hit it harder. It was a nightmare of cheesy music in the darkness. I walked to the top of the stairs and heard the TV but nothing else. When I crept downstairs, there they were, all two thousand of them strewn across the floor and couches and chairs. It looked like an unholy battlefield, the place a wreck with bottles, ruined party clothes, mouths hanging open. I checked K.T. who was snoring in an armchair with a beer bottle in his hand. Then I went and grabbed my gear and left.”
“You just left, didn’t wake K.T. or leave a note?”
“What could he have to say to me? No note. I wasn’t feeling too good about anything. Can’t say I did my job very well, keeping him sober. I let him stumble into it. Well, I couldn’t very well tie his hands, could I? He knew what he was doing.”
Vince rubbed the lines on his forehead, then sat up straight.
“But wait, the good part is coming. It’d been snowing. I knew it’d be dicey. I still had the chains on the tires so I headed up to the pass, sleepy and not sure if what I was doing was stupid or smart. The truck slipped around some. No one else was on the road. I had a blanket in the back but if I ended up in the trees I wasn’t going to do too well. I got more scared the longer I drove. I fully woke up. It felt like a demon was at my back, like something was chasing me up that mountain. It was so black and still out there. I rolled down the window to smell the snow and woods and slid on random ice. But there was no question that I was going home.”
Vince leaned forward, eyes locked on mine, hands on his knees.
“When I got up to the top of the mountain something happened to me. It was like this shining moment, a moment of beauty in the horror. I realized I was home free and I got it: I’d left behind the chaos and insanity. I was safe! That’s recovery, right? It’s like some dark romance, trying to leave the old passions and searching for the new, trading the deadly pleasure of addiction for the freedom from selfishness that comes with sobriety. I’d had one foot forward but one dragging. It’s hard. I’d returned to the old den of thieves–my best years were stolen by the drama of addiction, the rippin’ and roarin’–but I got out in one piece. Five years ago I got to start over. Damn. It’s a thing of beauty, you know?”
“Yes.” My eyes prickled with swift tears and he smiled back at me.
Vince slapped his leg, looked at his watch and stretched. He got up, wobbling as he reached his full height. I looked away.
“It’s okay,” Vince assured me as he opened the door. “You’ve seen me sicker and you’ve seen me a lot better. I’m going to be just fine, Miss C.”
“I know you are,” I said and walked him out to the lobby.
(Note: Name and identifying features have been changed to protect privacy.)