The disposable lighters were in a small, clear plastic cup next to the cash register. Bright red and green and yellow plastic things, about the size of his thumb. He picked a yellow one and paid for it when he paid for the pint of vodka. He put the lighter in his pants pocket and told the man at the register he didn’t need a bag for the bottle. But the man insisted, and put the bottle in a brown paper bag.
He walked out of the liquor store and up Laurel to his car.
He had no need of a lighter. He didn’t smoke. But the shape of the thing attracted him: The flattened tube of yellow plastic, although he wished now he’d gotten a blue one or a red one.
He got into his car, cracked the seal on the vodka without removing the bottle from the bag and took a swallow. It burned and he grimaced. It was eleven forty-five in the morning. The pint would carry him through till three or four o’clock. Then there would be sleeping, usually in the back seat of the car, sometimes on Clifford’s couch if Clifford’s wife wasn’t around. The evenings took care of themselves.
He took another swallow, capped the bottle, started the car engine and made a sloppy u-turn to head north on Laurel. He drove under the overpass, signaled his turn and climbed the ramp to merge into the westbound lanes of the 101.
The oven heat of a Los Angeles August blew in through the windows. He wasn’t driving anywhere. He was just driving.
Without looking in the mirrors he drifted left into the fast lane and let the road take him out past Encino and Reseda and Tarzana, names of different towns, but you could never tell from looking out the window when one changed into the next. It was all the same. All the backsides of mini-malls and the slab rear walls of apartment buildings.
He once had an apartment in one of those buildings, or another building somewhere else. Maybe Burbank. A studio in an apartment house with cheap siding on the front that stopped half-way around the building, as if the owners had simply given up. Dead gray concrete the rest of the way around. Gray concrete facing the freeway.
He took another pull on the pint. It still burned, but he was feeling it now. Out past Winnetka and Canoga. Driving. Thinking about taking his hands off the wheel, but never getting to the point of doing it.
He felt the vodka in his fingers now. He had enough money for another day or two. He was afraid to buy more than a pint at a time. He didn’t trust himself to make it last.
Somebody leaned on their horn. He was drifting across the lanes, drifting right. He yanked the wheel and realized he was on the exit for Malibu Canyon. He put his foot on the brake then turned left, crossing back over the freeway and heading through the flats that lead into the Canyon.
There was little left to do. Nothing, really. But he kept driving as if there was someplace he had to go. Someplace where he was expected. Someplace where he would be welcomed. This was not the case.
The road climbed up into the Canyon, past grass baked brown and brittle by the heat. The air was cooler through the car windows, but not so much cooler that he stopped sweating. He was sweating all the time now, between the heat and everything else.
He was getting near the top, near where you come around the curve and see the blue rectangle of ocean and start down the slope to Pepperdine. Then what? A left back to town or a right?
He didn’t want to think about the choice so he pulled into a turn-around and reached for the vodka. He listened to the angry insects and smelled the dry grass and drank the rest of his pint. He was feeling better, but still didn’t know where he would go when he got to the PCH and had to make up his mind.
So, he got out of the car and walked across the road to the drop-off. If there’d been any traffic he would have be punched against the stone retaining wall. But there were no cars on the road at that particular moment.
He looked over the retaining wall, down the steep side of the canyon to the dried creek bed below. You could almost see the moisture being baked out of the bushes and grass and trees. See it rising up in shimmering waves like an aurora.
His shirt was wet from all his sweating. He put one leg over the retaining wall, then the other, and sat on the wall. He looked north and south along the twisting road then, when he couldn’t see any cars, he pushed himself off.
He did not fall as far as he thought he would. He did not fall at all. He had the unexpected grace of the drunken and stayed on his feet on the tilted ground and stumbled only a few yards below the retaining wall.
He stood there, dust settling around him and on him. It felt as if time had stopped. He could not see the sun from where he was, but he was pretty certain it would never move again. It would remain, nailed to the sky at whatever place it was right now.
He thought about throwing himself further down the canyon, too far to climb back if he changed his mind. But the idea of not doing enough damage and having to remain in the Canyon through the long night...if night ever came...frightened him. It would be cold. There would be animals.
He would have to climb out, get in the car and get on with it.
That’s when he put his hands in his pockets and found the unfamiliar compressed tube shape of the lighter. He took it out and looked at it and had to concentrate to remember what it was and why it was in his pocket.
He cupped the lighter in his hand and pressed the plastic trigger. A tiny burst of spark from the flint then the steady, transparent, orange flame of the ignited gas. He looked at the flame as the lighter grew warm in his hand.
Then he pushed the hand with the lighter into the heart of a dead bush rooted in the dry canyon wall. He felt the heat all around his hand as the bush caught fire.
The fire crawled through the bush, popping and erupting, then leaping. It burned his hand and he yanked it back and watched the bush transform itself from a dead plant to something vibrant and alive and powerful.
He watched until the fire formed a beautiful orange ring around him, then he turned and started to climb for the retaining wall. He slipped twice and felt the fire snatch for him as the white gray smoke wrapped him and burned his eyes. He thought for a moment that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t.
He made it to the retaining wall and pulled himself over the ledge and crossed the road to his car. Dirty smoke chased him across the pavement.
He sat in the car until the flames reached the retaining wall, then he started the engine and pulled onto the road and headed for the constantly watered green carpet surrounding Pepperdine.
There were other cars now. The people in the other cars must have seen him. The people in the other cars would tell the police what they had seen. And that would be how it ended. They would find him and accuse him and punish him and he would never have to make another decision again as long as he lived.
He was done making decisions. That ended when he bought the lighter.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.