Copyright © by Hideo Asano
It was a cold, dark Friday night in March as I drove down the country road. I stopped my car in front of a brightly lit 24-hour gas station that had a small convenience store next to it. I went up, bought some food for the next day, filled up the tank, and continued on my way.
On the dark mountain road, through the black lattice of the thick and thin branches overhead, you could see the sparkling stars against the dark sky. In the headlights, I saw many jackrabbits sprinting away into the darkness.
When I reached my destination, I saw a cluster of buildings at a fork in the road: a tavern, a small old wooden post office with a sign on the roof that read MOUNTAIN CENTER POST OFFICE and a general store. A sign stood alongside the road: “Mountain Center, Elevation 4,400 feet”. It was very quiet and cold.
Further down, I found a motel, in the dark forest, by the mountain road, but it was already closed. It was past midnight, so I had to try to sleep in my car in a campground. I huddled in the back seat, covering my body with a thick, warm plaid blanket, but I was too chilled to sleep. I needed something warm in my stomach to help me sleep, so I drove back to the tavern. Perched on a high, jagged cliff, it was surrounded by cars and pickups. A large neon sign of a white champagne glass blinked on t he rooftop, providing a sharp contrast to the dark sky. Outside it was quiet, but as I opened the wooden door, the tavern exploded with noise, light and smokes. About twenty people were cheerfully dancing to a band playing heavy rock music and another dozen were found at the bar, sitting on high barstools or leaning against it, clapping to the loud music and drinking beer.
“May I have a coffee?” I said to the heavyset bartender.
“We don’t serve coffee this late,” he said. Then he reconsidered. “All right. I’ll make some just for you.”
I sat at a small wooden table close to the band and the dancers. I wondered where they came from and where they all could go.
I noticed a girl with brown hair. Her long flowing locks shone in the light like a reflecting river, dancing joyfully by herself. She moved around smoothly with long strides among the other dancers without touching them. I had never seen anyone so energetic. All of a sudden, the bartender was by my side with a mug of coffee and a stainless creamer in his hands.
I paid, tipped and thanked him. He returned to the bar. When the music ended, the people, including my flamenco girl, crowded around him while a few of them wandered to their table, smiling beneath the dim lights. He handed out bottles of beer, collected bills and slapped change on the wet bar. It gave me a pleasant feeling to watch this entire simple scene unfold before me. I didn’t see anyone else drinking coffee. They were all swigging beer of various brands.
When the band began playing again, most of the patrons hurried back to the dance floor. The brown-haired girl began hitting her heels hard on the wooden floor rhythmically and excitedly, weaving in between the other dancers.
Finally, after I had finished my coffee, I stood up and went to the bar for a bottle of beer in an effort to share their exhilaration. I sat on a stool. The bartender was still putting glasses on the bar and laughing with the customers. He often went to the register, punched the keys, and I heard the tinkling sound of coins. I beckoned with my index finger and ordered a beer.
At the bar, I talked to a shaggy bearded man who sat beside me. His name was Michael. I found out from him that the population of the Mountain Center was just over 300. We didn’t, or rather couldn’t, talk much more because the noise of heels hitting against the wooden floor increased, making it only possible to drink and watch the dancers.
When she got off the dance floor, she sat beside me and ordered a beer. I smiled at her. She told me her name, and I told her mine.
“Would you like to dance?” asked Pat, the dancer.
“Sure,” I accepted.
As we danced, we kept smiling at each other. She hummed to the music, one hand on my arm, the other on my back. I recalled the wonderful times when I had been in love, and how fine it would be again. We were the only couple dancing close together. Feeling pleasantly warm and thirsty from our dance, we returned to our beer.
A while later, a young man walked up to Pat and asked her to dance. She accepted. Lost love---I was shattered. I realized I was going to have to hold off falling in love until I find the right girl.
As closing time neared, the dancing became wilder. I spoke to more people. Michael invited me to spend the night in his trailer in the mountains, and when closing time came, I shook many hands goodbye.
In my car, I followed Michael’s vehicle, which had three of his friends inside. Not far from the tavern we turned left onto a dirt road between tall pine trees and stopped in a parking space. We all got out of the cars. With help from Michael’s flashlight, we walked up a winding dirt path until it ended at a small trailer against the dark mountain. A small window shone with an orange light and gave me a warm feeling. It was quiet and cold.
This small home had one large long room. A map of Mt. San Jacinto National Forest was tacked by pushpins on the wall up near a lamp. It was cold. Together, my host and I carried in chopped pinewood that made the trailer smell like winter incense. Michael built a fire in the potbellied stove and he put some more firewood to make the flame hotter. He was a very quiet man. His smiles took the place of words.
He sat down on the sofa with his guitar and set his fingers on the frets. He watched the ceiling for a moment, before he made music. One of his friends sat on the carpeted floor and played another guitar to the accompaniment of his strumming. Another, who also sat on the floor, joined them, playing on a Jew’s harp, which produced a soft “pinging” sound; the trailer sounded both happy and sad, like it had captured the feeling of the forest. The one who played the Jew’s harp stopped ever so often to drink tequila from the mouth of a bottle. He licked salt from his fist between his index finger and thumb before each swig. He passed the bottle to me and I put salt on my fist and I drank like he did. It made my stomach warm.
Michael stopped playing his guitar. He smiled. Michael seemed very happy with his music and also very happy living in the forest. He sprinkled the salt on my fist, and I drank it from the mouth of the bottle.
“Do you have any plans for tomorrow” I asked Michael.
“Not particularly,” he replied, after drinking. “How about you?”
“I would like to stay here and enjoy the nature, do a spot of fishing. But, I must go home.”
When I had enough tequila, I thought about the brown-haired girl in the bar. It suddenly hit me that the purpose of this night’s trip was to show me the connections between the world and me, and to prove that by plunging into life, I would understand it better. I mused over much philosophical thoughts until we had the bottom of the tequila bottle faced right up to the ceiling.
My companions, lying down in sleeping bags, were steeped also in silent thoughts and tequila. I lay down also.
“No, no. You’re our guest. You sleep on the sofa,” Michael insisted. It was a soiled old sofa, but to me it was beautiful. Michael covered me with a sheepskin coat and then, happy as a lark and as well provided for, I went to sleep.
A few hours later the sound of birds and the bright ray of sunlight awakened me.
After writing a brief thank-you note to my new friends, I slipped into the piney, earth-smelling morning, ready for the adventures of a new day.
As I drove away, I wondered how long it would be before the music of a new day would begin to play, or, if I might ever return for another conversation — or dance — with Pat.