The mud in the salt marsh outside of Stone Harbor, New Jersey smells like life and death and the ghosts of a trillion horsehoe crabs who have come and gone and at least six kinds of seagull shit and fresh clams and certain summer nights and probably, if you squish your eyes shut hard enough and let your soul slither up into your nostrils like you oughta do more often, it smells just like the inside of a human heart.
Why do I think that?
I dunno, really; it's just a hunch.
We blew through it all on the way back from the grocery store one evening two weeks ago, the four of us, me driving and Monica shotgun, Violet and Henry strapped in the back, the ruby sun dripping slowly down the sky wall as we made our way back to the beach apartment we had rented for our first real family vacation ever.
In the back I could hear the 6 o'clock wind shattering the plastic bags, the swimming diapers so no one would shit in the ocean/ the plastic pint of $7.99 a pound mixed olives with pits/the medicine to help my wife's big red eye flare-up/the green mesh bag of something like a hundred golfball-sized limes/a brick of cheddar, all of it feeling the wild gusts plowing over them as they just lay there beside the once cold case of Corona Light I had bought on my way out of town just so I didn't have to stop again on my way back in.
We roared down the two-lane strip past ramshackle lagoon shanties at 63 in a 50, a State Cop's wet dream, and I remember clocking the VACATION RENTAL signs outside some of those places and thinking to myself that these were the kind of joints that allowed a vacation to just let her robe and bikini slide off her freckled shoulders and fall to the floor in a gentle shallow pool around her silver toe ring and her ankle bracelet. People who were renting these places out here three miles from the ocean beach weren't looking to do miniature golf twice a day or traipse up some once a year avenue, their arms loaded down with chairs and umbrellas and bendy bags of enough bullshit to kickstart a Rite-Aid.
People who rented these places, these places that were pretty much off the beaten path while actually lying paralyzed in the middle of it, they were people who were here to go crabbing, pop endless cans of cheap beer, cook living things outside, eat dead things outside, and watch the sun go down every night with what would amount to the same billion dollar buzz that Jimmy Buffet himself gets off on, just in a different state/galaxy.
It made me like the world so fucking much for a second or two. Just knowing that there are people vacationing out there in the piss clam mud made me giddy for the whole human experience. I guess I'm whacked out of my mind like that.
In my rearview I stole a glimpse backwards and I saw Henry in the floppy Superman hat I got him at Target a few days before we came down. He was staring out at the same shacks that I was, but I have no idea what he was thinking really. Probably he was thinking about the long afternoon we had come through that day and the waves swooshing around his little knees, the smiles and the giggles and the tired tears in the sand.
I saw my daughter, her sleepy eyes fighting themselves just to stay open.
I knew that their young hair smelled like ocean.
Your hair doesn't smell like 'sea' in Jersey.
It reeks of ocean; sweet wonderful ocean.
During that first moment of realizing a thing, a shitty shitty thing, the way I see it is you have two choices, right?
You can either choose to handle it 'like a man' or like an adult or whatever or: you can freak the fuck out and hope your dumbass hope against hope that somehow, even though you have opened the fridge six times in a row in the last two minutes just to get a fast glance at the last couple of things that live in that son of a bitch and which amount to 'not shit' when it comes down to the freaking fact that you are starving to death and someone hasn't gone to the store since the Civil fucking War ended, somehow or another you might be able to make something happen just by the power of the steam rising up out of the vents of the sidewalk running across your scalp.
But at 4:30 in the afternoon in a St Louis hotel room, downtown, where the rich people stay and where we never, ever stay but managed to stay this one Sunday night because the club we're playing at tomorrow night has a deal with this Ramada or Hilton whatever the hell unfamiliar chain this is to me and the band, when you finally get done in the bathroom and are staring down out of the seventh floor window at the streets of another strange city and then you wander over to the TV to make sure that the damn thing is working and you pop around the channels looking for HBO but don't find it and it suddenly begins to dawn on you what is up.
Back then, in 2000 or 2001 (I can't remeber exact dates) when you were seven weeks out on a long run opening for Govnt Mule or something like that and you and these guys you play music with and travel with and share every single freaking breath of shitty stale air with from Boston to Atlanta to Chicken Dick, Texas realized that the fancy hotel you were all excited and smug to be staying in that night didn't have Home Box Office on their television sets that was a trigger, a catalyst if you will, for some bad seismic shit to go down.
Just under three hours away from The Sopranos, the van parked hard in the underground garage, resting her saggy weary gasoline tits from all the savage sucking we've been doing on them, some dudes already thinking about the grocery store run...the cheeses/the olives/the hard salami, thinking about the gallon of Paisano red we were crafty enough and sly enough and foresightful (word?) enough to pick up last night at a liquor store in Memphis (West Memphis actually, but does anyone ever admit to staying in WEST Memphis...uh...no), and now the bitch slap across the collective unshaven cheek of five tired Philly musicians.
We cursed the hotel, our management, the club. We vacated our fortune as if it was a burning ship.
"Wine and cheese and The Sopranos in a Hilton, motherfuckers!!"
We thought that we were gonna live like the other half lives and now this. Sooner or later, as was our way, we cursed each other a bit.
"You are the fucking diva" my brother, our singer, told me. "That's why we are even here!"
My heart belly flopped into the lake of my sour guts and died in my chest with the realiziation that he was probably right. I was always chasing down the nightclubs we played in, making sure we knew in advance if they had any hotel deals where we could stay for cheaper than usual. Most didn't even bother, and the ones that did, it was usually basic digs, man. Now, having gotten us into something that was swank in our motel-ish world, it was all blowing up in my face.
I smoked ten cigarettes in a row.
The quietest guy in the band chewed his nails and smoked a bowl over by the air conditioner and his edge was palpable.
Don't let me down, I could hear his voice screaming at me inside his skull. Don't dude. Don't fuck me in the ass with this sharp rusted fucking sword!
That's how much The Sopranos meant to him, to all of us.
I was letting them down.
I was letting me down.
I hit the phone/local calls free.
'Motel 6 Airport, this is Roberto, how can I help you." Have you ever just heard someone say something, anything, and felt like kissing them on the face because joy was eating your skin with a buzzard's lips?
Seriously, I'm asking you...
On the road that runs along the trout stream where I like to fish with my little wet flies and my plastic strike indicators, I put the Hershey's Kiss on my head when I can see in the mirror that Violet isn't looking at me, she's totally out the window.
Then before it can slither down off my hair, I say some stuff that gets her to maybe shift her gaze towards the back of my head. Well actually words don't always work so I typically end up doing some high squeaky robot noises or something dumb like that. It does the trick and without moving my neck too much I peer into the mirror after laying down a track of laser guns and I see her smirking/wondering as she turns my way. Then I see her face light up when she sees the Kiss up there.
"Daddeeeee!," she blows up and it moves my heart.
And I've done this same maneuver a hell of a lot, I'm telling you.
I hand her the Kiss and then she hands me back the wrapper foil ( she only does that with Kissses for some reason) and I reach around with my one hand while the other one steers us along this rural road, past cows licking the thick ropey snot off of their own noseholes and crows staring at the high distant sun and Amish guys standing in a field of frozen time their shoulders slumped, their eyes fixed on God or something off beyond the local horizon.
I flip through the satellite radio stations, killing songs, destroying entirely possible lifelong love affairs with a song, or a band even with a flick of my fingers: Arcade Fire (POW!), Sigur Ros (POW!), Iced Earth (POW!), Phish (POW!), The Cars (POW!), The National (POW!), Jay-Z (POW!), Adam and The Ants (POW!), Pharrell featuring Pharrell (POW!), Kid Rock (POW!), Confederate Railroad (POW!), Motorhead (POW!) back to Phish (POW AGAIN!), forward/forward/forward through so many songs I can barely even register what the hell they are or even sound like, but it is somehow therapeutic and artfully relieving for me to run over Daft Punk and Superchunk and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs all in one sickly twisted teenage nightime raccoon squashing ride down through the night woods.
To be honest, I don't even know how the hell I end up where I end up because I rarely listen to the Springsteen channel that much either, mostly because I'm too busy flipping through the thing to stop and listen, but whatever. Life is life and things happen.
Stuff appears on the tiny radio screen and I can hardly believe what I begin to hear, the first noirish piano notes rising up out of the scattered whistles and cheers of a crowd. The digital letters say Boston, May 30th, 1978. My throat swells up. I barely miss smashing some free range chickens out on the edge of the road.
"Fuck off!," I scream.
"Today is May 30th!," I holler to no one, to Violet in the back.
She smiles through the wind blasting through her curls but she doesn't move her eyes toward me. I see a smidge of melted chocolate at the corner of her mouth where her lips hinge.
The piano plays, meandering/magical/a switchblade in a pocket in an alley in a city in a galaxy and I need someone to share this moment with as somewhere back in time, just a few hours from where my sleeping seven year-old head was laid out on my pillow, my mom downstairs probably crying/ our nuclear family breaking apart from the moors, a 28 year-old Springsteen was out there underneath the lights of some theater, lights which have all long since been shut down and trashed and hauled off to the dump by some Boston Sanitation truck (Darkness On The Edge of Town!) and it slams into me now, across the years/across these decades, this rock and roll like nothing I have ever heard before and nothing I will ever hear again before I die.
Bruce's electric guitar cuts across the scene like a fucking runaway Harley with no one on it, you know, ripping and rising up out of the gutter like an overdrive phantom shooting a hose of fire down the dark midtown canyon.
No one can do that anymore.
No one pushes riderless bikes out into the city night.
"This is Daddy's favorite song ever," I tell Violet. Then for effect, I add, "This is Daddy's favorite anything ever."
Her eyes seem transfixed on the world outside but I can tell she is listening. Hell, she has no choice; we are up at 11; the Honda factory radio is stretching its powers and I know that.
We sweep past a parade of cows marching back across some field toward the barn for lunch or whatever.
The guitar is shooting fire at the piano.
I see a hawk in a tree; our eyes meet; we speak without words; he is a resurrected Indian warrior, he tells me; I am picking my daughter up from preschool, I tell him.
In my mirror, Violet's face is in and out of the nest of wild snakes on her head.
All my shit, all my problems, all my money shit and my need to get laid and the novels I love and all of that hummus and carrot sticks I've been eating and all of the sadness I can't explain and all of my Zoloft pills and holding Violet and Henry in my arms as we watch Babe in the early morning and every trout I have ever watched throw my hook in the middle of some epic slashing leap that seemed to say "Fuck you Serge and everything you ever hoped for you greedy fat sumbitch!" and all of those times walking across the Williamsburg Bridge trying to peer into the housing project windows and so many dirty thoughts and silent tirades and gentle whispers and exploding kisses and all of my heart's hot blood and twitching muscle being channeled into a new stockade where my two kids are standing there in the middle of all that dank horseshit and woody darkness and how I would lay all of it down in a brief instant just to be able to promise those two something eternal and forever, ...all of that rages over me sitting there behind the wheel of an '05 Pilot as if I am just a fucking pebble laying there on the bottom of the crick to our left, this New Jersey guy using his guitar like a God to smash me across my own massive wonderful universe on a weekday afternoon on the way home from preschool at the Y.
When the song finally ends and the long ago crowd bursts through the here-and-now speakers, I peer back at Violet in the mirror and she has a look of super intensity, her brow furrowed, her eyebrows Wilford Brimley-ing.
I look ahead then and turn the radio clean off.
I have seen enough now.
We have heard enough.
We listen to the wind the rest of the ride home.
In the Super 8 room that we rented for the night, but will only use for this hour and change, we live like mad kings and it is something seriously beautiful, too.
We cut our bricks of supermarket Fontina and provolone with the dull end of a bottle opener because that's all we got. We rip the pepperoni stick with our hands. Same with the beef stick. We eat a loaf of Missouri Italian bread, dropping the crumbs all over the grimy carpet, our Timberlands and All-Stars grinding it all down in there to join the buried civiliztion of traveler's ketchup and coffee and jiz and cologne and booze and blood and free breakfast milk.
The jug of wine is tilted into our bathroom plastic cups.
Our lives in this band have often been ones where we try so hard for things that oftentimes things seem to pass us by because they can't even look us in the damn eye because our heads are hung low while we are working our asses off, trying so hard for things.
But not tonight. Tonight we have made it. We are all alive, far from home, but together. And we are drinking our wine and someone is packing a bowl and we are easing our way into something good, something easy. And we deserve that, I think.
I remember sitting there as the song began:
"Woke up this morning and got myself a gun..." and I was thinking: we deserve this shit, man. Even then, that's what I was thinking. Even in that moment, as it unfolded all around me, seconds before we did what we did every single Sunday night ( no gigs on Sundays during each Sopranos season, that was the rule no matter who fucking liked it or not) and tuned out our desperate/ hungry/and brilliantly lived lives, I remember thinking that this was what was so spectacular about art anyway; that we were free; and that this was about as good as any guy could ever hope things could get.
Looking back now, I was damn close to right on all of that, too.
Me and Violet and Henry and Monica were standing there loading the car up underneath the floating gulls.
It was 7ish two Saturday mornings ago and the thing that I noticed most of all was that all of the people who came by jogging down the bike lane in the street while I was trying to cram all of the Frisbees and the sandy towels and the bags of leftover boxes of cereal and thawing out frozen hot dogs into the back, they all smiled at us and said hello and it pissed me off in a weird way.
I guess I wanted them to be sad for us, you know?
One look at us and anyone could tell we were breaking camp, hauling ass, and headed back to whetever hamlet or cul-de-sac or neighborhood hacked us up and hocked us out onto the turnpike once the weather became just barely late spring enough for the off-peak level families to hit the road for their special week down the shore. It all goes by so fast.
Now it was over for us, obviously, but probably not for these people; they seemed to have the look of two weeks or more about them. They seemed relaxed, mid-stride, in their knowledge that they wern't going fuck-all anywhere that day, or for a lot of days to come.
In my mind, they were at the beach forever. Not a cold wintery stretch of battered coast either. In my mind, they were going to be hanging around that little ocean town for the rest of time under that same sunny sky that was beaming down on me and my family as we prepared to depart.
Leaving sucks, I guess. That's just the way things go.
No one likes to leave, especially when there is probably going to be a lot of sunshine this coming week, and there will be even more ladies in their small new bathing suits and the flounder will probably start biting.
No one wants to roll out especially when there is that lingering bright promise of ice cream cones after fried shrimp and clams on the shell spread out across all of the rest of the evenings to come after we are long gone.
But we go.
We go because we have to.
We pack our shit and we get in the Honda and we drive out over this causeway or that one and make sure we have our quarters for the tolls as we take one last deep drag of salty air into our aging lungs and we just go go go until we aren't in New Jersey anymore.
Until we're finally home again.