This is about a moment. And an afternoon. It is also about nine minutes and ten seconds. It is about immortality, too – immortality that lasts at least until you die and then goes on without you, with new people, and new places.
It is 1975. You are twenty-one years old. You are walking the broad, mile-long boardwalk at Seaside Heights, just passing Funtown Amusement Pier with its 225 foot Tower of Fear and its Loop Roller Coaster and Giantwheel, strolling toward The Beach Bar that juts out into the ocean on wood pilings and where you always (at least ever since you turned twenty-one) end your day at the beach with a dozen oysters and a pint of Stella Artois – or, if your wallet is not so fat, with half a dozen and an eight ounce glass of Bud.
Today your wallet is reasonably fat. You are wearing only a bathing suit, sandals, a baggy T-shirt, and a clear plastic scapula around your neck with your ID and money in it so you don’t have to worry about your things when you go for a swim. Your body-rotted ’71 Vega is having its brakes relined, and you saved bus-fare by hitchhiking, dressed – or undressed – like this, from Madison, N.J., where you are a senior undergrad at Fairly Ridiculous University (only FDU people are allowed to call it that!), along inter alia the New Jersey Turnpike, which always gets you thinking about Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch me,” which always gets you thinking about your friend Bob Stewart, who once had a fistfight with Chuck Berry in St. Louis (it was a draw), and Bob Stewart always gets you thinking about Kansas City where he lives, and Kansas City always gets you thinking about – for the year since you started listening to it – jazz, which was born in New Orleans but grew up in Kansas City, and in 1975, you are developing a hefty taste for it – Yardbird, Diz, Coltrane, Baker, Getz, Mulligan…
But at the moment, because an hour ago you were on a stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike, your brain is colonized by Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” You are not a musician, but you are blessed, or cursed, with a brain like grooved, impressionable vinyl, and when you listen to a record over and over again, every lick, riff and word, grunt or groan of vocal gets etched upon it and sets up a little colony inside your skull, an internal concert which can be touched off by a single note, word, or association.
So you are walking along the Seaside boardwalk, hearing Chuck’s clanging harmonious chords and jivy needle-sharp runs of guitar notes while he sings inside the walls of your skull about his brand-new air-mobile with its powerful engine and its hide-away wings being chased on the Turnpike by moaning sirens, but they can’t catch him cuz when they get too close, he’s gone – like a cool breeze!
And as you groove inside your skull on the Seaside boardwalk with your private Chuck concert, feeling the sun tingling in the flesh of your arms, legs, face, and feeling cool behind your new wrap-around Polaroid shades, a lilting female voice penetrates your head-music by calling your name – first and last – and your head emerges from its voluptuous rock-and-roll fog and flesh-tingling rays to look in the direction that the voice seems to come from, thinking it must be some mistake. But a beautiful woman is, no mistake, standing over a spread-out bright orange beach towel on the white sand below and waving, smiling. She calls your name again – first and last – and gestures for you to join her on the sand.
First of all, being twenty-one and your head stocked like a porn-shop display window, you register her micro-bikini – white ruffles under her gorgeous half-grapefruit breasts and like whipped cream in the V of the place that twenty-one years ago you emerged from and have been yearning approximately twenty times a day to get back into as long as you remember. Then you register the long tan thighs, the outie navel, the trim tan arm and long fingers, waving… Then you see the smiling face between two cascades of long straight blond hair, pinned back on one side with a blue plastic clip: It is Sandy Guldbrand – which in old Nordic, you happen to know, means “golden fire.” So Sandy Golden-fire is standing on the white sand in all her blazing gorgeousness, waving at you and calling your name.
Though she was in your Romantic Poetry class last year, you never even exchanged word one with her, tongue-tied by her flaming beauty and the fact that she drives a red 1970 T-Bird convertible, clearly designed with an aeronautic eye to “slice the wind,” as the ads said.
Sandy Guldbrand! Smiling! At you! Waving! Gesturing to you to join her on the sand!
Instantly Chuck Berry rolls over to make room in your mind for a cut from Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker at Carnegie Hall: “It’s Sandy at the Beach.” Nine minutes and ten seconds of Mulligan and Baker finger-fucking heaven, their horns blowing a driving, orgasmic, lavish tempo with the help of Bob Jones on ebonies and ivories, Ron Carter spanking bass, Harvey Mason banging skins, Dave Samuels’ shimmering vibes, Ed Byrne sliding the bone and, not least, John “Sco” Scoffield with a cool hot electric ax so so so cool!
Your head blooms with the music which you have happened to listen to about a thousand times on vinyl, or a hundred anyway, and which you coughed up a goodly deal of dollars to hear these same guys play on stage at Carnegie Hall the November before, loving it, never guessing that this Sandy at the beach would materialize into blond Sandy Guldbrand of the Golden Fire in a white ruffled micro-bikini.
Sweet sweet serendipity! you are thinking as you jog down the wooden stairs from the boardwalk to the hot sand and the even hotter Sandy – Oh, Sandy!
To make things even more incredible, as you walk toward her, she watches your approach and – no, you’re not making this shit up! – she says to you when you get within conversational distance, “Anyone ever tell you, you have sexy legs?”
No fucking shit! You catch yourself gaping, thinking, Never! (before or since), but her smile brightens, and as Mulligan drives his baritone forward in a hammering baroque barrage of notes and turns it over to Chet whose energy is stranger and cooler, she looks at you and insists, “Well, you do!”
You are grateful that your T-shirt extends long and baggy enough to conceal your immediately fully aroused hormones as Sco’s guitar and Samuels’ vibes take up the forward drive of the musical rampage. You are thinking that a plunge in the cold salty Atlantic might get a grip, so to speak, on your passion, and you ask her, “Wanna swim?”
She does. And tucks her hair into a white swim cap with rubber ruffles and takes your hand in her cool warm fingers as the two of you step toward the rolling water, wincing as your bare feet come down on the white hot sand until the chill, salty foam laps at your ankles, thighs, bellies, diaphragms.
“Shall we dive?” she asks. “But keep holding my hand, ‘kay?”
And the two of you, fingers still intertwined, plunge into the next wave – the salty cold rush! – and bob up again, grinning furiously, braced by the brisk surf.
You look into her green eyes. Beads of water dot her tan cheeks and forehead, her trim shoulders. She is sun-squinting one eye shut. You are not totally naïve, despite being in a three-ring circus of waltzing hormones, despite being but twenty-one. You see something in her eyes, and you do not kiss her. Because her eyes do not invite you to do so. You have learned that much in your twenty-one years: women always say it with their eyes, yes or no, and if you take a no for a yes, you are about to tread in the deep spinach.
And you are forever grateful that you do not try to kiss her at that moment because that is what will make the moment, the afternoon, the meeting with Sandy at the beach immortal. That is why you will always have this untarnished memory. Because you do not try to force the moment. You do not spoil it.
You dive again and again into the waves, plod out against the rolling surf, dive under and come up, laughing. You swim until you’re famished, and then you invite her to the oyster bar where a Mexican man effortlessly opens a dozen Baltimores with the blade of a knife, and you and Sandy carry the platter with wedges of lemon and tiny paper pots of vinegar and tinily diced raw onion and two glasses of Stella to a table outside on the narrow long wooden shelf that juts out into the ocean.
She has never tasted an oyster before. She picks one up and smells it, and her green eyes brighten with conspiracy as she looks into your blue opnes, lifts the shell to her lips, and spills the oyster onto her tongue while Mulligan is blowing frenetic, plaintive baritone runs up and down the scales.
That moment, the memory of that moment, the picture of it imprinted on your mind, is immortal in the same way that the couple on Keats’ Grecian urn is immortal, reaching, following, never touching, never completing the action so that it never quite begins and never ends. And in the same way that heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter yet. So you hear and don’t quite hear Mulligan and Baker blowing “It’s Sandy at the Beach” and make love to Sandy without making love to her, and you will always remember that moment of her bright green eyes before she spills her first oyster onto her pink tongue as you will always remember that afternoon, and again and again you will hear and not quite hear those nine minutes and ten seconds from Carnegie Hall on November 24th, 1974 – a spontaneous performance preserved on vinyl.
Eight years later, Sandy Guldbrand will marry a stockbroker, and you will never see her again. Eleven years later, Chet Baker will be dead, fallen or pushed out a hotel room window in Amsterdam. Twenty-one years later, the eternally youthful, energetic, red-headed Gerry Mulligan will be dead, too, at sixty-eight. And thirty-eight years later, hurricane Sandy will wipe out much of Seaside Heights.
But what matters now is that you have that moment, that nine minutes and ten seconds to live over and over again, to bring out whenever your spirit falters, to see Sandy’s smile, her bright green eyes, her white ruffled bikini, her long tan legs, to hold her hand as the Seaside surf laps against your bodies, to see her eating her first oyster out of the shell while her green eyes brightly meet yours as though the two of you were participating in a conspiracy.
And maybe it was a conspiracy. Against time. Against time and death and disaster and the fierce wind and violent sea that can blow and wash everything away – but never can reclaim that moment, not so long as you breathe.