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 a few 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 town 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 I had actually fallen in love, I hadn't even realized it until the middle of the night when I was drunk off my nuts 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.

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 get reflected right back at you 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 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... yes, I guess 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 fat sort of tadpole sparks you'd see drifting lazily from a dying campfire 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 for with 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 did. But that morning we sat 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.

Brad Zellar doesn't touch a drop.