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They spend the morning in a dance of kisses, each a little closer to the last. Very soon, Skye is standing on a curb in front of the casino, watching her car fade off down the road, a period at the end of a clean gray sentence. His lips feel chapped and dry.
Dry. Through all the heartbreaking drama, he promised himself that he would remember one practical item: his truck is an oil-burner, and he needs to give it a fresh quart. He walks a block to a convenience store and finds an overpriced 10W-30. When he returns to the casino lot, he flips the hood and just stares.
His engine is blindingly shiny. It takes a minute of memory scan before he figures out what he’s looking at: a genuine 1986 Toyota pickup motor that has never been used. He checks the oil, finds it full, and begins to laugh.
He can’t possibly go through Salt Lake, so he cuts south to Highway 50, where the markers read Loneliest Road in the U.S. It proves to be true, an infinity of scrublands, dry creekbeds and graveled mountains. On a long, empty straightaway he gets out and pees in the middle of the road. As he zips up, a drizzle of rain passes over, flushing his urine and kicking up the smell of sage from the roadside. He finds a motel in Delta, Utah, sits under a tree and lights up a cigar that Sarge’s minions stashed in his glove compartment.
He drives over the Wasatch Plateau in a lightning storm. The strikes are thrilling and a little terrifying. He tries to recall practical bits of science – will the plastic steering wheel insulate him from a strike to the chassis? He wouldn’t be surprised if Sarge’s mechanics installed a lightning rod. Four hours later, the rain is falling in blinding sheets, and he decides to give his nerves a rest.
He recalls the town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado from a train trip. Viewed from the station, the town looked bucolic and inviting, rows of old-fashioned storefronts on a tree-shaded main drag, the Colorado River running between the town and a rocky, fir-treed mountainside. He later realized it was a way-station to Aspen, which explained the prosperous atmosphere.
He’s now driving that very drag, and stops to park when he sees the word “coffee” next a dangling bicycle. The Kickstand Café. He orders a latte at the industrial copper counter, and hears what sounds like live music seeping through the back wall.
“Something going on back there?”
The barista gives him a dead-eyed look. “Oh. Uh. Songwriter night? In the back room. Costs like three bucks.”
She flicks her eyebrow ring. “It doesn’t entirely suck.”
After this kind of testimonial, how can one resist? He shakes a little cocoa on his latte, pays his three Washingtons to a girl at the door (like the barista, practiced in the art of minimum enthusiasm), and enters a dark room full of brightly painted tables and terrifying artworks. He sits next to a painting of a blue Satan holding a pitchfork on which he has shish-kebabbed an American family: mom, dad, teenage daughter, golden retriever and a blond toddler about to be dipped in a deep frier. Is there something in the water of Glenwood Springs?
A slim fiftysomething with a Grateful Dead beard and a red mandolin adjusts the mic stand and smiles beatifically.
“We have a visitor from the cultural hinterlands of San Francisco, who is in the midst of a cross-country tour of funky coffeehouses. I listened to the stuff on his website, and I think you are going to be blown away. Would you please welcome Peter Chung!”
Peter is a slim, tall twentysomething with attractively angular features and a clean-cut look: button-down shirt, new jeans and a corporate haircut. The sole bohemian clue is a silver necklace with a Celtic knot pendant. Any thoughts of typical Asianality are dispelled when he speaks: a scratchy baritone that ought to belong to a cowhand or a carnival barker. In the way of all good performers, he addresses the obvious.
“I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t this guy sound more Chinese?”
The gothed-up teen audience, all geared up to be aloof, can’t help but snicker.
“Story is, I was abducted in Beijing and raised by a pair of black gay auto mechanics.”
Bigger laugh. Peter waits a beat (he’s obviously done this routine before) then puts a hand to his forehead.
“I’m so confused!”
By now he’s done with his tuning. He stings a high note, slides it low and pulls it to a jackhammer strum. His singing is back-porch rough, invested with crackles and barks, a brown timbre that cools to a tender indigo. His playing is blues-based but eclectic, ranging into single-note arpeggios, wiry rock solos and the ukelele swing of the recent happy-pop. His lyrics center on love, with a wry wit and surprising flashes of sincerity. He finishes with a stop-and-start Chicago blues, “Don’t Let a Vampire Drive Your Car,” and finally releases a smile under the rain of applause.
Hippie-dude retakes the mic and announces the opportunity to purchase Peter’s CDs at $10 per. The next act, a trio of banjo, mandolin and standup bass, takes the stage and begins the business of plugging in. Skye heads for Peter’s table and hands him a Benjamin.
“Oh dude. I don’t think I’ve got change for…”
“Well, yes, they’re ten apiece.”
“I would like ten CDs.”
Skye has flapped the unflappable. Peter develops another smile.
“Not that a man should have to justify anything when he’s handing you a hundred bucks, but yes. You’re an awesome singer, and I’m going to make sure all my friends know about it.”
“Well that’s a deal!” He sorts out ten copies and hands them over.
“What’s your name?”
They shake hands. “I’m… well I guess you know who I am. You have made my night, Skye. Hell, my week.”
“No problem. Keep up the good work.” He turns to leave.
“You’re not staying for the bluegrass?”
“Nope. Little tired from driving. Take care.”
Skye doesn’t really know why he’s leaving, but the idea takes shape as he walks to his truck. A ridiculous show of generosity should be followed by a quick exit, lest the recipient feel uncomfortably indebted. He slips Peter’s CD into his stereo and heads out in search of a motel.
Photo by MJV