by Mike Sweeney
— “Something in the Night,” Bruce Springsteen
“You never know who’s going to show at the Stone Pony,” he taunts, tongue firmly in cheek.
Christine, the band’s keyboardist, says, “Bruce’s hair looks great tonight.”
The crowd murmurs. Springsteen did a guest spot on one of Marah’s albums so there’s more reason than usual to hope for an appearance.
Next to me, James explains: “Their guitarist is named Bruce. His hair.”
I nod and laugh like I was in on the joke the whole time.
James and I spent most of our teens chasing phantom Springsteen appearances. We’d cover the Pony, the Fast Lane, even the Trade Winds. After a while you just get a feel: the size of the crowd, the way security has the side of the stage blocked off. It’s not going to happen tonight.
Honestly, it doesn’t happen that much at all any more.
Marah’s the main reason we’re here. James is a long-time follower and Marah fans are a bit like evangelical Christians: they’re not content just to be saved, they need to convert. I’m not yet ready to profess belief, but I am enjoying them more than any band I’ve seen in a long time.
I’m enjoying the Pony too. The new owners have taken out the pillars that obstructed the stage view. It feels like they’ve raised the ceiling. You can actually breathe in here now. Best of all, they leave the heating system off. It’s December but the body heat does a nice job of keeping the place warm without being oppressive.
I remember coming home on winter break from college and going to Southside Johnny shows. It’d be eighteen degrees outside and one-hundred-five inside the Pony. Instant pneumonia when you hit the parking lot. Except back then I was twenty and never got sick.
The crowd at the Pony is exactly how I remember it. About half are young people, the kids you actually expect to be here. About half are Springsteen’s contemporaries, fifty- and sixty-year olds reliving their glory days without any sense of irony.
James and I inhabit a late-thirties netherworld between the two groups. I look around at silver-haired men with pot-bellies poking out from the folds of their Levi’s trucker jackets. I watch the twenty-year old brunette in black jeans grind her ass against the security barrier and wonder if I already look that way to her.
Aging sucks, as my bladder reminds me.
I tell James I’ll be back and make my way to the men’s room. People still move out of my way without me asking. It’s nice to be big and strong. I think of my dad at the end, how terribly small he seemed.
The bathroom’s been renovated too and I give the facilities a cursory exam. As I expected, they won’t do. First of all, the urinals are packed too tightly together. You can’t stand at them without rubbing shoulders. Second, there’s an attendant handing out towels. He’ll be staring at my back. Third, and most damning, there’s not a proper door, just an over-sized hinged one that swings as you go through and only blocks half the doorway. You’re practically standing in the crowd. Under the best of circumstances, I have a shy bladder. No urination will happen in this space.
If getting old has one advantage it’s that you learn to embrace your limitations.
I have a plan. Out the front door and across the street is the Silver Ball Museum, a genuine, old-fashioned pinball parlor. It’s open till one on the weekends. I spent some Saturday nights there when things weren’t going well, nights when I knew I didn’t want to be alone but when bars seemed like a bad idea. The place is nice, well lit. You can get lost in the old games. Best of all, the men’s room is a single-person job, with the foaming kind of disinfectant soap in the dispenser. Admission is five bucks for half an hour, but I’ll happily pay it to pee in peace.
James won’t miss me. He probably knows where I’m going. Even back in grade school I’d use the stall instead of a urinal. That’s the great thing about old friends: they’re completely inured to your insanity.
I hold my wrist band up to the Pony’s doorman to make sure I can get back in. Then I’m outside, the cold momentarily refreshing. Ocean Avenue is deserted, but that’s only because of the temperature. After spending two decades as a ghost town, Asbury Park’s resurgence finally took hold in the Aughts. The New York Times compares it to South Beach now.
I look down the avenue to where the Palace used to stand, the one beyond which hemi-powered drones once famously screamed. I had my first date there. We played skee ball. Her name was even Wendy.
The cold has shifted from refreshing to biting and my bladder reminds me why I’m out here. I put my back to the Palace and start walking towards the Silver Ball Museum.
The new restaurants and shops block the view of the Temple of Knowledge, the boardwalk shack where Madame Marie once told fortunes. I had my palm read by her when I was nineteen; she said I’d live to be ninety-two.
“She was wrong.”
Her voice alarms me. Not the words, so much as the simple fact of it being. I swore I was alone out here.
She’s standing on the corner of Second Avenue. She’s small. Pretty, I think. The street lights shadow her face. She turns and walks north towards Kingsley.
Figurin’ I’ll get a drink.
My alarm fades. It’s more amusement now. After all, I’m big and strong.
Her gait is light, easy. It’s practically a skip.
I walk behind her and my eyes memorize her curves. She pulls her leather jacket tight against the cold and it goes taught against her backside. I think of black jeans.
We’re walking hand-in-hand down wide, amber-lit sidewalks in Greenwich Village. We sit at a table to the side of the stage and watch a woman with an impossibly sallow face rail against Patty Hearst. There’s so goddamn much smoke in here.
Horses, now. Horses.
We reach Kingsley and stand in the middle of the empty intersection.
I’ve forgotten about Marah, about James, even about my bladder.
I watch my breath cloud the night. I don’t see hers.
Her eyes are like crystals, ice blue and deep. I look into them and we dance along rooftops overlooking Central Park. She’s looking for that one ledge and when she finds it she shrieks with glee and pulls me down. Inside the window, the room is blinding. On the couch, a white man cuddles an Asian woman. She gets up to walk to the kitchen and when he calls after her his voice is the most wonderful sing-song.
I don’t know how long her teeth have been in my shoulder.
I drop to my knees and her feet return to the ground.
I look at her and my mind conjures a picture of my sister as a baby: she’s eating tomatoes.
“Will I live forever?”
She shakes her head and her crystal blue eyes seem genuinely sad.
She kisses crimson down my throat. I cough and we laugh together.
Her fangs crush my Adam’s apple.
Bruce has finally shown but he has a beard and looks like he weighs ninety pounds soaking wet. He removes his oversized newsboy hat and lays down on the stage as just the piano plays. His hair looks great.
Dry you eyes…
I’m at the Palace and Wendy looks at me in horror. She doesn’t want to kiss.
Spotlight on supine Bruce.
Baby, dry your eyes…
I’m seventeen and hovering at the bottom of the deep end of my family’s pool. I want to open my mouth and breathe deep because someone won’t kiss me.
For just one kiss…
I make for the surface but someone’s moved the air. The water’s so very warm.
I swore I’d drive all night…
I taste pennies and hear a last gurgle.
It’s December 1992 and for the first and last time I see Springsteen at the Pony. He and Southside Johnny harmonize: We were never gonna get old.
I fall like loose bricks onto the frozen street.
MIKE SWEENEY lives in Central New Jersey where he writes constantly but never quite enough.