Our previous episode left young Joey -- who has lost his bathing trunks in the ocean on the Feast of the Assumption in the fabulous summer of ’63 -- burrowed in the sand under that Cape May paragon of amusement arcades, Frank’s Playland.
I slept under Frank’s Playland for what I am told were five-and-a-half years.
I lived off of seaweed, clams, sand crabs, spider crabs, helmet crabs, jellyfish, sand sharks and other sea creatures which I would catch up in my bare hands and eat, as the Japanese do, raw. I also did not turn my nose up at people’s cast-off garbage, the remains of hotdogs and other tasty seaside fare which I would scrabble up out of the waste bins left outside of Frank’s overnight.
And of course I prayed and moaned for deliverance. Yes, I prayed. Funny how your religion returns when you are cold and hungry and otherwise barred from from life’s grand bacchanal.
In summer I would stand chest deep in the water and watch the other bathers, who thought, no doubt, that I was one of them, a human being -- albeit a scruffy example of the species -- bathing, enjoying his vacation.
Often of course I voluptuously entertained thoughts of the keenest impurity as I regarded the girls in their scanty bathing suits, so close, ha ha, so far. (I may have been condemned to an extreme state of asceticism, but sanctity lay still light years beyond my grasp, and indeed I should wager that were it, sanctity, right before my nose I would still not grasp it, unless ordered to do so by someone in authority.)
Unable unfortunately to confess to a priest I consoled myself nonetheless with the thought that perhaps my exile was in itself some small atonement for my lustful imaginings and clockwork self-abuse. For if the summers were merely lonely and hot and lust-ridden, the winters were long and cold and bitter.
These cold months I spent in near-hibernation, leaving my bed and blanket of sand only to forage for food and for scraps of newspaper or rags with which to insulate my body from the elements. Back in my burrow I would lie with my eyes barely above the sand and watch icebergs, whitely efflorescent against the grey sea and the grey sky, slowly drifting past the shore. Sometimes great battleships (heading, unbeknownst to me, for some new war in Southeast Asia) would majestically cross the horizon, occasionally for sport blasting some giant iceberg into smithereens which would descend like snow in slow motion sparkling from the sky into the dark water and disappear.
Once, during a tempest, a tidal wave threw an enormous blue whale up onto the beach near where I lay, and I listened to its thunderous cries, louder than the storm, for hours, till National Guardsmen came and put it out of its misery with a barrage of machine gun and small weapons fire.
Ah, yes, long months, months of near-despair, of delirium, of increasingly canine prayer, but also, after a while -- I think I first felt this around the middle of the second winter -- of ecstasy, of a sort, if I may dare to use such a term, brief scattered bouts of a tawdry ecstasy indeed but an ecstasy nonetheless, of solitude, of separation, from my kind, from history, from the world. Perhaps what I felt at these times was a sort of Reader’s Digest version of what famous spiritual wags like the Buddha or Jakob Boehme allegedly felt. “Psychologists, over to you.”
Often I would dream I was lying awake in my burrow, breathing in the cold sea air and musing, musing, and I would awaken and breathe the same cold air, and lie and muse, and fall asleep to dream again.
And I began to forget, almost, that other world, and the possibility of living in any other world than the one of sand and sea and sky and the damp brown timbers of the underbelly of Frank’s. This, I decided, or noticed, is life. I cursed my abysmal lack of imagination in supposing myself alone, as if I had not been alone before my exile, as if we were not all alone inextricably. I was no big deal. I was doing what everyone else does: scratching for food, eating, drinking, defecating, micturating, masturbating, sleeping, dreaming, howling, giggling, sobbing, et cetera. No big deal.
A sort of peace came over me, no, not peace, a resignation, to taking the pricks with the kicks; getting a modicum of food in one’s belly; and going to sleep. Space enough had I in such a prison.
After all I was not without my little amusements. The girls, in summer, I have already mentioned the girls, many of whose faces and figures I became familiar with, having attained the ability to distinguish one from another, and I would look forward to seeing this one or that, and I would even come to recognize the laughter of a given girl, and I’d try to imagine what it would be like to be, say, platonic friends with her, or even, in some fantastically improbable mental scenario, to commit the act of darkness with her, as my otiose seed mingled again with the ocean in which its ancestors had wriggled eons before. Sometimes these dryads or is it naiads would catch me gazing at them, and I would avert my eyes, turn, submerge myself, and glide away swiftly underwater, to crouch and brood hidden in some favored cool cranny in the rocks, not unlike Browning’s Caliban.
Summer nights I would lie in the darkness under Frank’s and listen to the rock ‘n’ roll music coming from Sid’s Tavern across the street, the drunken laughter and badinage of young people my own age having what I only could assume to be a good time. And, more than once, I listened, breathless, to the labored breathing, the profane ejaculations, of lovers, and not only young lovers, trysting in the sand scant feet from where I lay. These strange pantings and tender mutterings were a sweet music to my ears, a music of an intimate world I’d never known and most likely never shall know.
And then the hurricanes, the storms, the tornadoes, when all of nature in its mindless spite seemed hellbent on ripping me loose from the tenuous dreamy grasp I held on life! When I knew high adventure at its rawest; clutching desperately to the pilings as the ocean tried mightily, furiously, to suck me into its raging bosom! How I howled, and screamed, and laughed, how I cursed! Ha ha.
The days and nights passed. Perhaps after all I accepted my lot with no more whining than had been emitted by your average Joe in similar circumstances. I was not, generally speaking, happy. I gather that even fabulously rich Hollywood stars are not, generally speaking, happy.
Shuffling back over these notes to see if I have left out anything important I see of course that I have done so.
Briefly then: fleas. These fellow creatures were indeed a problem for some time, as they had made a home in my hair and beard, both of which had grown to Christlike proportions, although I certainly claim no other similarity, to Him that is, not the fleas. One dawn however I discovered a small pocketknife in the sand. I honed it on a metal bracket under Frank’s, and with the aid of sea water I shaved my face, armpits, and crotch. I now looked monkish indeed, I’m sure, but I had solved the problem of those pesky vermin. This knife also came in handy for the catching and dispatching of all forms of seafood, not to mention rats, who soon learned not to consider my sleeping head a convenient midnight snack.
My hunting and foraging, I have also neglected to mention, was done usually at first dawn, and usually among or alongside of the great rocks of the jetty or sea-break or whatever it’s called closest to Frank’s. If you were wondering how I would go undiscovered into the water on summer days when I stood gazing at the girls, the answer is that I would slip out into the water at dawn and stay in it till dark. At first, to avoid sunburn, I would spend most of the day in one of my crannies in the rocks, my head draped in a turban of cool seaweed, but eventually my skin toughened to the point where I could stand in the water under the blazing sun all day if I wished. And when night fell I would scurry back to my little home under Frank’s.
Oh yes, what did I drink. At night, when it rained, I would lie with my gaping mouth stationed under a drainpipe running from the roof of Frank’s, and so would slake my thirst. On summer days when it rained I would crouch in one of my rock crannies with my mouth turned upward open to the sky, and so receive its bounty. Late at night when my thirst became too great to bear I would risk a lightning commando raid to the water fountain on the promenade near Frank’s. Never once was I apprehended.
Every year I would know when the Feast of the Assumption had come because I would see my old mother hobbling into the surf with her beads, praying, perhaps for her lost son.
One night I was awakened by a flashlight burning in my eyes. I did not resist the policeman. At first they thought I was a lunatic. But I was hardly that; merely an -- adventurer. My mother came down on the bus and fetched me home. She is Irish, and Catholic, and strangeness is not, I think, especially strange for her.
These past days I have lived quietly here, reading Augustine, Hopkins, a book of humorous zen literature, the National Enquirer, Spillane; I’m becoming accustomed, addicted, once again to warmth and to plenitude of food, to the snug warm flannel of my pajamas, to breakfasts of sausages and eggs and buttery stacks of pancakes washed down with numerous cups of strong piping hot tea, and to the cold bracing feel of an Ortlieb’s beer bottle in my grasp.
I feel little different from the way I felt, or did not feel, before my capture, only warmer, and not hungry. The doctor has pronounced me in excellent physical, if not mental, shape. Perhaps there is something to be said for the outdoors life. Still, now that I have tried it, I have no desire to go back to it.
One quaint item: each night since my resurrection I have awakened from my loutish sleep, suddenly, in pitch darkness, and excruciatingly I burrow back deeper into the sand, snuggle my newspapers closer to my chest.
Then I awake for real, open my eyes and see the reassuring crucifix on the wall glowing in the dark.
A young German film-maker named Werner Herzog came by here, we chatted, and he expressed interest in filming my story. He offered me the hefty sum of five hundred dollars for the adaptation rights to this memoir, plus something called “points”; I sent him to my attorney.
My father has spoken to my old boss at the auto-parts warehouse, and my former position awaits me when I feel myself ready.
(Thus abruptly ends another entry in what we call the "Tales from the O-Zone". Check out the right hand column for links to more of these gems.)