//By Alistair Frothingham//
It’s a snowy December in the year the Mayans predicted to be our last. Bundled in a black wool coat with buttons like wooden sabretooth tiger fangs, I breathe into a cheap blue-contrast-scale knitted scarf poorly hiding my cropped goatee. Marveled by the warmth I am afforded from purchases at a recycle shop, I chide the gods as to why I didn’t buy a beanie to match, with the winds breezing through my short haircut.
No doubt about it, I am lost and inebriated in a daze of chilly midnight Yurihonjo air and post-bounenkai buzz, trying to find my tomari up dead, silent streets that wonder why I disturb the peace holding no line. I yank off a glove with my teeth, whip out my phone, unlock the screen, and slip fingers in thermal sensory-based muscle memory. GPS green light’s a go-go, Android awaits further instructions. Three percent. Not sure what I am looking for, ambling further toward parking lots I thought I thought I knew. It becomes clear that I was fool to brim so sure of my feet out the karaoke box in this state of being-mind.
As soon as I rev the usual engine of existential questions to keep company, “why am I here” takes a turn to “just what a piece of work I must look like” to passersby. Noting the new notoriety I will have from my descent into chaos, I continue stumbling into the future as I have been known to do. Backtracking to the bridge near the B-GAL pachinko parlor, my breath is split in half by the blend of white at my feet and arching black over the horizon. I drag along. Looking down at my hand, fate has caught up with me. The screen spells doom as it begins its power-down jingling outro. I let out some kind of confused bellow, taking in the moment with a stupid look on my face, and turn back around. The back-and-forth always with a gutsy inclination of righteousness, only to be up-ended with creeping doubts.
Losing patience, I simply stop caring. Or maybe I even forgot what I was doing outside, aimlessly footling about in the snow. I ponder returning to a bar or going full hobo in the sheltered bike racks. Neurons suggest real estate in the nearby park with its buffet of benches, if only I could remember what I was even doing and knew how to get there.
Scouring the recesses of my addled brain, I start muttering to myself. End of the year parties. Yeah, that’s right. Dadadada Hotel California. Don’t forget Aerosmith. Tsugaru kaikyou… fuyugeshiki. The usual suspects. Yeah, because you like to sing or whatever. Music affirms human loneliness.
Just as I conduct the thought equivalent of throwing my hands in the air, headlights envelop my body. Time slows down. It’s the cops, I suspect. Who else prowls the night but me? I spin my torso over my right shoulder to see the source but still avoid moving my huddled neck. The move goes off with all the grace but only half the handsome of 90s Clooney in a batsuit.
“Get in the car!” says a middle-aged bald man who I am unsure I recognize. The vehicle behind me was a nondescript white sedan with silver hardware and beige accents. It was fascinatingly ordinary. I didn’t think there was a more ordinary car in all the world.
Trusting the man for reasons I didn’t realize at the time, I got in. As I scooted my hindquarters cheek-by-cheek into the back seat, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. Looking at his eyes in the rear-view, there was a vague familiarity in his face. I still couldn’t place it because of my buzz, however, and sat dumbfounded. An acquaintance perhaps in my many dive bar adventures peddling songs around town. Maybe a parent of one of my students that happens to live an hour away from where I work. A concerned citizen wary of a disoriented foreigner. A stranger in a strange land.
Almost immediately, the car takes off. Slightly confused by my sudden increase in velocity, I lost track of time. The drive may have lasted minutes or days, I couldn’t tell the difference. It was like a drive through my boundless subconscious.
What must have really only been seconds after take-off, I heard a raspy yet sultry, smoked salmon and chopped roasted almonds voice spouting something about cigarettes in Japanese from the passenger seat. The woman there turns to face me and instantly everything makes sense. She’s the woman from the high-class jazz bar up the road. Near the pink hospital. I played a gig there the month before. The bald man driver is the bar owner. Er, at least the bartender. Or was she the bartender?
“Herro,” she said. “Herro!” with emphasis on the ‘ro’. She and the bald driver began laughing. “Whoa,” I said, still contemplating what had happened. Only moments before I was meandering in all directions. Now I was set firmly toward an unexpected one. The woman turned around to face me again, and her memory in my mind increasingly came into sharper focus. She was the one with the fancy shoes. Always wearing the fancy shoes, like Dorothy’s red glitter high-heels. Or shiny mules. Very attractive, almost surprisingly so. I remember finding it impossible not to eye-glide down her bare legs to see those fancy shoes every time she walked by. She had beautiful legs. That’s right. In all this recollection of beautiful legs with respect to my own inner loneliness, I began to have a raging hard-on. It was a perfectly ordinary raging hard-on. There may have never been a more ordinary raging hard-on in all of my life.
Slightly embarrassed, I managed some dialogue in Japanese, “Wow! Thanks for the lift! I… I was trying to find my friend’s house to stay… at their place. Had so-and-so school’s end of the year party. We did the karaoke for a nijikai at that one place.”
“Ah! I see,” said the man. “We thought you were some kind of bad guy. Hahaha, when we pulled up behind you we said to ourselves, ‘Who is that? They look like they are up to no good.’ And lo and behold, it was you. We were so surprised! What, with you here so far from home in the dead of night.”
The woman began laughing some more, probably at the stupid expression on my face. I asked something about what made me look like some sort of villain. They said it was the goatee.
The woman told me that they closed the bar for the night and were headed home. Before I had even said a word they had already agreed that I would stay with them. A cold night out alone in the dark saved by my face. But without saving face. Ironic, I thought.
I mumbled something about my dead phone battery. “Ah! My friend… my friend is probably still waiting or worried about me! They’ll never believe someone recognized me and picked me up off the street. Can I charge my phone at your place?”
“Of course, of course!” The two of them said. “You are our guest for the night.”
We made it to their place and my impositions continued. Being backwards circadian night owls, they prayed and then drank to a night well done. I partook in their company, their presence, and fell asleep near their kotatsu, on a bright silver mat piece of a thermal blanket with my wool coat up to my eyes.
I awoke to a presence coming down the stairs. I thought it might be a cat. Oh god, I thought. Jazz bar owners and surreal stupors. The existence of a cat would really complete the Murakami ensemble. However, it was no cat. Lucidly, with one eye open, I saw a young high school girl in uniform, likely and rightfully shocked by the lump of a random bearded foreigner resting in her living room. I heard her grab breakfast and run out the front door.
The bald man bar owner was not far from me, fast asleep near the TV. I wondered what kind of relationship he and the fancy-shoe-woman-bartender really had, as she was nowhere to be found. I drifted back to sleep at the thought.
Upon second effort, I awoke to the sound of cartoons. The TV was chirping, and I heard someone crunching cereal. A kid in his pajamas next to me was holding his knee in one hand and a spoon in the other. I sat upright.
“Hey,” the kid said. “Hey,” I said back, as if it was the most natural thing in all the world.