Boots taught me how to drink. She lived across the hall from me in a boarding house in southwestern Colorado: three two-room, furnished apartments above the elderly landlord, Mr. Fowler, who charged eighty bucks a month; common bathroom with a claw-foot tub down the hall; and a shared phone at the foot of the stairs. No one bothered to lock their doors.
I was 17 and on my own for the first time. I worked the fry cook swing shift at the Western Steakhouse with a Chinese-American menu. I took care of the American side of the grill. On the other side Chinese cooks hovered over two giant sizzling woks. Woodrow Wilson Wong was an exacting boss who spoke perfect English when he caught me loafing. “Get to work now! Get to work now!” He said it twice like a mantra and emphasized it with an exacting poke in the ribs. However, when I complained to him about the hours he was cheating me on my paycheck, he lapsed into Mandarin indicating that he did not understand. When I cut my pinkie to the bone on a meat slicer the Chinese cooks stopped the bleeding with raw sage. Afterwards, I sat on the steps outside trying not to look at my finger and pass out until Wong found me, poked me in the ribs and said, “Get to work now! Get to work now!” It was 1974. I made one dollar and sixty cents an hour plus one free meal a shift.
Boots was short with a bleached blonde beehive and a curvaceous figure in decline. She was older, more experienced, and entertained a lot of visitors, mostly men. I could hear their cowboy boots hammer up and down the stairs at all hours and smell their cigarette smoke through the thin walls. Some nights I would wake up to the clink of glasses, shouts, and laughter, then the rhythmic bounce of bedsprings.
The other resident in the boarding house was Jane, on whom I had a crush. She was a student at the local university and drove a Volvo sedan with Illinois plates. Some evenings Jane would invite me over for herbal tea. She wore a thin, revealing nightgown on those nights, but nothing ever came of it. I often thought of her bathing in our common bathtub. When she moved to Albuquerque I typed up a smeary, typo-laden letter in the public library, quoting Steinbeck from “Grapes of Wrath.” I can’t remember the exact passage but it was something about wanting an honest life and lying down in a field with a woman. When Jane did not reply I hitchhiked down to New Mexico unannounced, where she fed me tacos, put me up for one awkward, celibate night, and in the early morning dropped me off at a freeway on-ramp during a snowstorm.
Boots’ door was usually open in the daytime. She dressed in jeans and a western-style shirt. She would sit on her foldout couch, smoking and drinking, looking down at the street from her window and listening to a talk station out of Denver on a transistor radio.
When I passed her apartment on the way to the john she would call out to me and ask if I wanted a drink. The first few times I turned her down thinking that if I was seen with her it might hurt my chances with Jane. But the day I returned bedraggled and deflated from Albuquerque I said, sure, why not? She mixed up a pitcher of gin and tonic on top of her dresser. Up to this point I had only imbibed 3.2 beer. I took right to the juniper taste of gin and, after the second or third glass, I told Boots my sad story of rejection and humiliation in the Land of the Enchantment. She was an attentive listener, nodding her head in sympathy, even putting her arm around me and rocking me gently when I teared up. She smelled of soap and cigarettes, and I began to give in to the exhaustion of the trip. I also realized that I was quite drunk. I excused myself and stumbled back to my room where I slept for twelve hours.
Sometime during the night I vaguely recognized Boots entering my room and opening drawers and cabinets and going through the pockets of my Levis. It seemed like a dream and the gin had taken away most of my vigilance and all my resistance. On her way out she pulled the covers up around my shoulders and kissed my cheek, purring, “You are a poor boy, aren’t you?”
Since my shift at the Western didn’t begin until three in the afternoon I fell into a routine of almost always having drinks with Boots beforehand. I tried to pace myself but I began to crave those gin and tonics, and my work on the grill began to get sloppy. (It was around this time that I cut my pinkie.) I would fall out of rhythm with the orders, cook the fries before making the burger, and start the toast before cracking the eggs to make the omelets, those sorts of rookie mistakes. Wong noticed, too, and gave me two weeks to shape up.
Except for occasional trips to Wagon Wheel Liquors for supplies, Boots rarely left the house. Despite all our afternoons together I never learned why she was called Boots. I only learned the sketchiest outline of her life: she was the daughter of a geologist and grew up in mining camps in Montana and Nevada. Her mother suffered from depression and alcoholism. Boots had a brief marriage to a gambler named Lonny, worked as a showgirl in Reno at one of the minor casinos, and had a grown daughter named Lily, who lived in Haight-Ashbury with a hippie healer. They were not on speaking terms. I never knew how she supported herself, but I began to suspect it had something to do with those gentlemen callers.
The day I was fired I had been drinking with Boots since mid morning. Boots had a fresh shiner on her left eye. I asked what had happened. She sighed, exhaled a perfect smoke ring, and said there had been a little misunderstanding. She and a fellow had gone out to the Strater Hotel for a nightcap and run into the guy’s wife, who had been searching every bar in town for her husband. She pulled Boots right off the bar stool, slugged her with a fist that featured a couple of nice fat Zuni inlaid rings. In her other hand she carried a cast iron skillet, about the right size for two eggs over easy. She then dragged her husband out of the bar by his hair. As was the custom around there, no one bothered to call the police.
“How was I supposed to know he was married? Guys never wear rings,” Boots explained.
She seemed nervous and kept looking out the window as if expecting more visits from angry spouses.
“I gotta get out of here. Maybe head down to Flagstaff.”
“What about Reno?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Boots said. “I can never go back there.”
Boots was mixing progressively stronger drinks and by noon I was well past sober. I knew I couldn’t face Wong and another shift of slinging fried egg sandwiches and patty melts so I simply didn’t go in. The phone downstairs rang at 3:15, then again every fifteen minutes for an hour, but I didn’t answer. I wasn’t too worried. Rent was due the next day, but I’d been paid the night before and I had $300 stashed in a teapot, so I could afford to coast for a couple of months. Maybe I’d take another trip down to Albuquerque or take a backpacking trip into the lake country above Silverton. Boots kept filling my glass until the spinning began.
When I woke up it was early afternoon of the next day. I could barely stand upright. I tried to recall how I had managed to undress and get into bed but all I could remember was Boots insisting that I try a double. I walked into my tiny kitchen and noticed that the lid of the teapot was off center. The cash was gone, of course. I rushed across the hall but Boots’ apartment was vacant, the bed made up, the hangers in the closet shoved to one side, and the dresser drawers empty. There was not even one bit of trash anywhere in the rooms. It was if she had never existed. I went back to my apartment, looked in the mirror, and noticed that I had a lipstick kiss on my right cheek.
I found Mr. Fowler on the front porch reading the Durango Herald. I sat down next to him and told him the rent would be late. Without looking up he said, “A Woodrow Wong called. He said you’re fired.” As we sat there a pickup truck with Arizona plates pulled up. A young Navajo man about my age with two waist-length black braids jumped out of the passenger side. He walked right up to Mr. Fowler, and without a word handed him an envelope and left. Mr. Fowler opened it and I could see it was full of ten and twenty dollar bills. Mr. Fowler laughed and slapped his thigh.
“I loaned this kid $500 more than a year ago. Thought I’d never see it again and here he shows up unannounced and pays me back. You never know what’s going to happen, do you?”
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