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I never had much use for a normal night’s sleep. The hours I spent unconscious and uncaring seemed few and far between, my waking hours sustained by loud music and dusty bottles of Coca-Cola. When those hours began, the stars might still be out, twinkling over the glistening waves beyond the Jersey Shore. When they ended, the sun would already be lowering in the sky.
Sometimes, after only minutes of sleep, I’d awake to streams of sunlight shining in though an open window. I’d get up and lean my mattress against the wall, blocking out the light. When I’d lie back down upon the cold floor, blonde curly hair would stream out behind me, green eyes staring past long legs to a tall stack of records at my feet. I never really minded the dirt, or detested the feel of the cold dark wood against my skin. Instead, I’d fall back into sleep to the sounds of phonographs crackling in the distance, not waking until the sun was setting, deep in the west I couldn’t see.
Every Sunday morning, my mother would drag me off the floor, three blocks down the road, and through the doors of the local church. I’d sit in the pew staring up at the preacher, playing with my hair and fiddling with my chapstick. His name was Father John, something I liked to mutter about under my breath when my mother was busying herself with hymns and shared wine. The name “father,” I felt, was a bit strange, seeing as he would never marry, never have children. He took it upon himself to become the father of the church, the father of the people. Yet I never believed a word of the prayers, and Father John, whatever his name, was never any kind of father to me. My only father had slammed the door behind him when I was thirteen years old, and he had never looked back. My father had become nothing more to me than any other man out somewhere in the distance, like those we still know are there even when we don’t bother to look. I still remember the night I watched him leave; heavy footsteps echoing down E-Street, boots facing west, and back turned to the pier lights of the boardwalk that had once sparkled like diamonds in his eyes.
I never thought about my father much, at least if I could help it. Sometimes the memories crept back into my head, like a persistent disease that never really went away. Then there were nights when I would pretend that I had never had a father at all. The trouble was that the more I tried to convince myself of this, the more obviously false it became. It was on nights like these when I tried another way of thinking- that my father had left because he had to, because it would give us a better life. But these thoughts were even more false than the first. So I fought back against the gaping hole he had left in my heart the only way I knew how- with long summer nights spent out along the shore in Asbury Park, drinking in music like pineapple fizz.
It was the rainy nights I liked best, because the boardwalk was not quiet, but cloudy and dark, the air thick with the sweet smell of summer. Most days I would step into Maxwell’s coffee shop for waffles and ice cream, but on the others I would simply sit outside on the boardwalk, hunger for something more than food tearing at my insides. I liked to adjust the wooden backrests on the benches along the ocean, turned one way to face the shops and the people passing by, then the other to face the vastness of the open sea. When the sky was clear, the crowds would grow quickly underneath the stars, headed for the packed arcade, or towards the music down at the Casino. I lived to lose myself in those crowds, the greasers and the surfers, the young and the old. I’d pick up a cone of Sammy’s French Fries; dipping the salty pieces in vinegar as I watched the boys battle with the pinball machines at the Palace, and the musicians tune their guitars by the water’s edge. Every night I’d lie back, just watching the people strolling underneath the stars, stopping for Fortunes at Madam Marie’s, or humming “Mrs. Robinson” and reapplying their lipstick.
Most of all, I loved the sounds. The music along the shore. I would stand in the aura of the Rock ‘n Roll bands at the Casino, soaking in the rhythms, in awe of but at the same time unaware of anyone surrounding me. I stayed for every show, tapping my feet to the beat of Southside Johnny, relishing in the sway of the crowds. It was my peace, my completion, my one and only home. I’d stand there all night, feeling the sweat on my skin and my heart beating fast in my chest. Then, when the first specks of dawn arose in the east, I’d shuffle home down Fourth Avenue, and slip though the back screen door. My mother never said anything about it; truth was she didn’t really say too much after my father left us. Sometimes she’d give me a look of concern, and sometimes she’d shake her head. But most nights she’d be upstairs in the room above the kitchen, and her muffled tears were enough to keep my presence hidden as I crawled into my room, to sleep until the stars came out again.
My father had played the guitar. He would pluck the steel strings with his fingers and sing the words through his teeth. At night he’d leave it sprawled out across the couch, which always drove my mother mad when she went to sit down for her morning coffee. For my tenth birthday, my father bought me my own guitar and he’d teach me chords and scales, strums and melodies. My mother would plunk the keys of our old piano along with us, smiling wide just because of the beauty of it all. Everything seemed so perfect, so unbreakable. I’d play that guitar on the living room floor; my legs sprawled out across the family room rug, singing over the sounds of the radio.
When my father left us, like a broken melody, everything changed. I stopped sitting on that braided rug. I stopped singing for my mother, and I started carrying that guitar down to the uncut grass behind the Casino. I had learned to not play in the house, learned not to play near my mother, learned not to remind her of the past. Just the buzzing of a B string made her hands slip on her sewing. Just the sound of an E chord made her cry.
On one of those nights along the boardwalk I finally brought my guitar down to where the waves met the sand. I was sitting still and humming a song by Chuck Berry, feeling my toes beneath the earth on the soft shore of the beach, and watching the rippling waves. I could feel the rising mist from the salt-water stinging my eyes, yet the sea was not responsible for the tears that fell fast, silently flowing over eyes of emerald green. I was thinking about the phonograph back home, the scratched records that I believed in more than life itself. I’d kept that black vinyl hidden away for two years, trying not to hurt my mother, not wanting to make her remember. I had no desire to fill her waking moments with the sounds and images that already haunted her nightmares, especially on those rare nights when she laid her head down to sleep without the lights on.
But I’d remember. I’d dream of those spinning discs, the pops and the skips, and even the times they’d pop so much I’d have to cross the room to adjust the needle. So there I sat on the beach, thinking of my father while the town walked by, whistling and not even noticing. It was on that night when I finally saw my father.
There he was, standing in the mist, walking eastward with his clunking boots, his curly hair, so much like mine, swinging silently down at his shoulders. I knew right then that everything was going to be all right. He was my only hope, my hero, and he had come back to us; we were saved. There would be no more tears, no more heartbreak. My mother would smile at the sunshine again. She would walk along the crowded boardwalk, and she would come back home the way she used to: without dark shadows in her eyes and tearstains on her blouse. She might even sing along to the radio.
I was still dreaming when the mist cleared. Maybe he was heading for Madam Marie’s, to test his fortune with the tarot cards and crystal ball. Maybe he was walking towards the tilt-a-whirl, spinning fast down on the south end. It didn’t matter. Wherever he was going, he was not my father. My eyes clouded with tears as sharp knives of realization pierced my heart, hopelessness trickling through my veins like fast-acting venom. My father was gone; he was never coming back. He would never again pull those shiny discs out of their paper sleeves, and he would never wipe the tears from my mother’s eyes. The loss hit me harder right then that it ever had. Harder even than on that day when the last of my father’s footsteps had disappeared around the bend, the clouds of dust from his heavy footsteps settling for the last time beneath the setting sun.
I had believed in my father; I had always thought that he would come back to save us. It was on that night along the sandy beach when I realized that my blind faith in my father had always been as worthless as the worship of the God they spoke about in Father John’s chapel. I had always thought of father as perfect, someone to look up to. Yet I had grown since my father had left me, and I had learned an important lesson during those loud nights at the Casino; that perfection was even less important than it was possible. I had spent countless nights underneath the stars in Asbury Park, watching the greasers with their cuffed jeans and switchblades, listening to the music wash over me like a breeze that knew no barriers like skin; that traveled right through the heart and soul.
My father was no man to be worshipped, he was no God or savior to place belief in; my father had left me alone. Whatever he was and wherever he was going, that was the truth. If I ever had a God, if I ever found someone to trust, someone to believe in, he would never leave me. He would never yell and shout, and he would never fall apart. My God would carry a fingerprinted harmonica in a crumpled pocket, or a saxophone around his neck. My God would swing an electric guitar from his shoulders; and it would sway as smoothly as soft waves roll into the Jersey Shore. His hands would be strong like my fathers, perfect for pressing piano keys and picking guitar strings. Yet those hands would never tuck me into bed at night, those hands would never hold me tight. My God would never tell me that he loved me. He would never make promises; he might never even speak, not other than of those soft lyrics sung by greasers and echoed by hollow guitars on starry Asbury nights. My God would let no empty words fall from his salt-stained lips.