An Old Thing, from Somewhere Else: Something Heavy Being Carried Away

I WAS 38 YEARS OLD and washing dishes in a strip bar,
forced to wear a ridiculous chef’s hat because the place clung to its delusions
and had the audacity to serve food. The all-you-can-eat chili special was a big
draw with the oil boys from the refinery across the highway. I’d punch out at
11:00 and get the hell out of there. I still had enough pride to go someplace
else to drink, so every night I’d head over to the Toot-Toot Tavern up the
road. There was a decent moon over the highway and the usual prevailing stench
of petroleum. I guess I felt pretty good, but this was no bright beer
commercial; I was too old, had a bigger thirst than that, and wasn’t dressed
for the part. I had a pocketful of cash, and my life at the time didn’t boil
down to much more than that: I’d have a pocketful of cash and then I wouldn’t.
I still had this vague notion that anything could happen, it was just that
anything now meant something entirely different than it once had. Maybe it was
now a truer notion, with a greater allowance for the machinations of what I
like to call the black lottery. Some guys hit the Powerball jackpot; others get
hit by a grease truck or get kicked in the teeth in the parking lot of a bar.
Odds were odds. Still, that night I liked my chances. I had this interesting
thing developing with a woman at the Toot-Toot; a bashful, slow-motion, almost
old-fashioned sort of courtship that had been going on for almost three weeks,
and was completely out of place in a grimy, groping dive like the Toot-Toot,
where the jukebox was so loud and the selections so horrific you almost wished
you could drink yourself deaf.

It was the strangest damn thing because I had seen this
woman around for well over a year, and all that time there was nothing
there. Nothing. Her name was Julene and she was a day bartender at a place
further down the highway called The Bends, and she apparently lived with her
mother in a trailer somewhere out in the scrub. I’d been introduced to her by a
guy named Slim Chung, who was the caretaker at the place I was staying, and who
divided his drinking between the Toot-Toot and The Bends. Slim Chung had a temp
job at the airport in something called "In-Flight Services," a gig
that allowed him to carry home a blue gym bag full of those little bottles of
airline liquor every day. He carried that bag everywhere he went.

Anyway, you know how certain types of women will pull every
single hair from their eyebrows and draw a more perfect line along the ridge of
bone above their sockets? That was Julene, and I’d never given her a second
look until one night a few weeks back when I found myself seated across a table
from her, studying those odd brown lines above her eyes. She smelled just like
angel food cake. We made small talk for a while, and I noticed she could force
down Old Heaven Hill bourbon without retching or tearing up. I was impressed. I
told her I wasn’t a guy who was threatened by a woman who could drink me under
the table, which was the honest-to-God truth. She asked me if I was one of
those men who made a habit of barging in and out of women’s lives. I think I
just blushed and shook my head; I certainly didn’t tell her that on the two
occasions in my life that I had actually fallen in love, I hadn’t even realized it until I
found myself in the middle of the night drunk and crying in a phone booth. No,
I didn’t tell Julene that, not then anyway, but at some point in the
conversation I did start to look at her a little harder, a little more closely.

She was one of those women who would strike you as beautiful
one minute, and a moment later you would change your mind. There is nothing
particularly cruel or calculating in that assessment. I know I’m not a matinee
idol, and cheap whiskey has taught me lessons in practical relativity that no
physics professor could ever hope to impart. I suppose the truth was that we
had both seen better days, but in the world of the Toot-Toot, that notion could
be almost presumptuous. When you’re 25 years old, you want to look into some
woman’s eyes in a bar and feel like she’s thinking you’re the most charming
person in the world, but when you get to be 38, it’s somehow good enough if you sense the the presence or the approximation of the same thought that’s running through your
own mind: You’ll do.

That night at the Toot-Toot, I thought I saw that most
modest of appraisals in a woman’s eyes for the first time in many years. And
every 15 minutes or so Slim Chung came around and freshened our drinks from his
stash in the blue gym bag, so everyone got very drunk.

IN THOSE DAYS we all lived in the industrial bush out beyond the
airport, and we drank all the time. Every big city eventually runs out of steam
and coughs up a mess just like that, a place where infrastructure gives way to
indifference, and the tangle of streets and highways and interchanges finally
gives way to one dark road, leaving town. Follow that road from the airport and
you’ll enter a territory of the ugliest outcast industries: places of necessary
isolation; waste; intense pollution, steam, and heat; nuts-and-bolts
capitalism; blank, flat barracks where hinges, springs, filters, mud flaps, and
ball bearings are manufactured. These were badlands; dark scrub, fringe,
margin, the outskirts of Oz, the airspace invaded every 30 seconds by the
skull-vacuuming scream of jets.

I had a room in the Jet Stream, an old cottage motel dating
from the ’50s or ’60s. The Jet Stream was a dejected and defeated enterprise.
Perhaps the original owners thought they would attract airport business;
pilots, stewardesses, and businessmen in town for a few days, but the Jet
Stream was in precisely the wrong location to attract airport customers. The
airport, big as a city itself, sat directly between the motel and the city with
its access freeways and enticements. When I first discovered the Jet Stream, it
was already in lamentable condition. The parking lot and faded sign were
terminally dark. The various cottages were badly in need of repairs and a coat
of paint. Slim Chung never lifted a finger around the place. A peeling sign
along the old state highway advertised "Low weekly and monthly
rates." There was a modest and functional neon sign in the window of the
office that was activated nightly: Office. Vacancy.

South along the two-lane highway, there were no occupied
dwellings between the Jet Stream and a huge, terrifying oil refinery about a
mile down the road. That place was a visual spectacle: garishly futuristic,
with its towering smokestacks belching flames into the night sky; seemingly
random nests of wire and steel; looming towers, catwalks, and trestles; and
concrete orbs sprawling and towering over acre upon acre of a tightly penned,
brightly lit, steam-bound nightmare. Strung out along the opposite side of the
highway from the refinery were a half-dozen bars and truck-stop cafeterias that
were frequented day and night by refinery workers.

THE TOOT-TOOT was a squat box in the middle of a scrub lot about a
half-mile south of the refinery, surrounded by a dirt parking lot that even on
the best days was as challenging as a motocross track. The place was always
packed with serious drinkers, and I had been forced to come to terms with the
fact that I had joined their ranks. I was becoming a career drinker, so great
was my weakness for sedation and liquored transcendence. I’d learned just how
far I could go without a lot of sick carryover and soul-searching and ugly shit
like that; train wreck narrowly averted: I liked to keep it right there. But
just about everybody in the Toot-Toot had had a gun in their mouth at one time
or another–metaphorically, certainly, but also literally–and more frequently
than most of them were comfortable admitting.

When I came through the front door I saw Julene at a table
in the back, her feet propped on a chair directly across from her. I made my
way across the crowded bar and joined her. "Hey," she said, and
kicked the chair out from under the table with her feet. "I saved you a
place." We sat there and made our usual nice, quiet conversation until
closing time. We both had plenty to drink, and while we were standing around in
the parking lot out back she took my car keys from me and said, "Why don’t
we go back to your place?" I wasn’t terribly surprised… but, yes, I
suppose I was.

I wasn’t the slickest fielding shortstop in the American
League, but she clearly knew what she was doing. There were sparks, I guess,
but they were the sort of fat tadpole sparks you’d see drifting lazily from a
dying campfire and then collapsing back into darkness. This was nice enough. I
certainly wasn’t complaining.

Afterward we took a little sampler of Slim Chung’s airline
liquor and sat outside my room. We’d found a little bit of the only sort of
magic you could hope to coax from the kind of lives we were leading. I think we
both knew full well that one day pretty soon we’d have to face some ugly music,
and we surely did, each in our own way. But that morning we were content to
simply sit there quietly sipping from our little bottles and staring at the
refinery flames in the distance, listening to the sound of a train moving
somewhere out in the darkness, easing by with that soothing restless rhythm,
the perfect somnolent sound of motion, of something heavy being carried away.