When I was a kid I always thought I wasn’t happy because of this or that, kids at school being mean to me, or my mother forcing me to do things I didn’t want to (or preventing me from doing things I did). Claire was always on my fucking case, even when I was small–don’t touch that, don’t do that, you’re a bad boy. But she was always on Digger’s case, too, maybe that was the thing he and I had most in common.
The first time he took me out I was eleven, barely tall enough to see over the top of the bar. We snuck out after Claire was asleep, went down to Madison’s to see Nomad play, and snuck back in at two a.m. We did it every couple of weeks, we’d go see Remo play, or catch a late movie, or join some poker game in some guy’s garage. Nomad had just formed their new lineup then, with Martin on drums. Sometimes Remo played acoustic solo sets down the shore in the summer and Digger’d meet up with guys he knew for drinks. I was a quiet kid, never said much, and I felt proud somehow, that my dad wanted me along.
When I got older he started making “pit stops” he called them, at seedy motels while we were on our way to or from other places. He and whoever was driving us would go inside and leave me in the car with the keys so I could listen to the radio. Sometimes he’d go in and leave me with the other guy, and we’d sit there, not saying a word to each other, until a half hour or however long later Digger’d slide into the passenger seat, chewing a piece of gum and combing his freshly wet hair.
When he got drunk he could be belligerent, difficult, insulting–and yet at other times he was the best guy in the world to have around. As I got older and learned to finesse him a little and keep out of the way of his benders. And sometimes we seemed to connect… it’s hard to explain. He had a weird kind of charm that kept his friends lending him money and pitching in to his schemes, even though none of them had ever panned out.
Thinking back on it, there’s no way Claire couldn’t have known what was going on. We acted like we were putting a big one over on her, but you can’t tell me she never woke up and noticed him gone, or she never noticed the smell of cigarettes or booze. We almost never took our car–we were always walking out to Route 17 and getting picked up by some buddy or another. I realize now this wasn’t so much to fool her as much as, maybe, to not alert the neighbors. If the neighbors didn’t know, then Claire could turn a blind eye or at least pretend she didn’t know. Maybe she thought if I was with him he wouldn’t get into as much trouble–which was probably true.
The night Claire put her foot down was a little before Remo and company moved away, the night of my fourteenth birthday, which would have been a disaster even if she hadn’t picked that night to confront us. Digger was buddy-buddy with the owner of a strip joint a few miles away called the Foxy Lady. Sometimes we met up with Digger’s poker buddies in the parking lot there, but before that night I’d never been inside.
There were a whole bunch of us, including Remo, Digger, me. They’d planned it with the owner, and stuck me in the corner where the main stage connected with the runway.
I know what you’re thinking. A 14-year-old at a strip bar? All I can say is it was 1981, the drinking age hadn’t been raised to 21 yet in New Jersey, and the cops had probably been paid off for the night already.
Digger ordered drinks for everyone. I remember my first impression of the place was that the music was way too loud. A few drinks and a few stage shows later, that impression hadn’t changed. My heart was pounding hard. I remember a woman with Bo Derek braids in her hair crouching down in front of me, sequins glittering in the too-dark reddish lights, her knees suddenly moving in opposite directions to reveal everything. She swiped her finger between her legs, and then flicked my nose with it. The guys were in an uproar with that–everyone was in on the joke and I was the butt of it. I wanted to go back and sit in the car, but me being the guest of honor I knew I couldn’t. The dancer exchanged some words with Digger, pointing to clamshell shaped couches along the back wall.
“Think you can handle that, son?” he was saying to me, then.
I don’t remember if I croaked out “what?” or if I just sat there paralyzed. I do remember him calling her a skanky bitch and that she wasn’t good enough for us. She walked away without any reaction to that.
A little while later one of the other guys went with a dancer to the back couch. He had to sit with his hands down, not touching her, while she sat in his lap and writhed around him. Now that I think about it, I’m sure they weren’t allowed to have actual sex, but at the time I was convinced he was screwing her in front of everyone. I think I must have looked nauseous when I realized Digger’d intended me to have a couch dance with the Bo Derek woman.
I remember hoping the police would actually come in and haul me out of there. No such luck.
Later, of course, I really was nauseous. Every time Digger’d ordered another round I’d gulped one down, afraid to say no or seem contrary. And I was well and truly paying for it by the time we were walking down our street toward our back door. Digger didn’t say a word as he walked, which was usual, since we were trying to sneak in. But I had a feeling he was angry with me. I didn’t know what he wanted and I wasn’t about to talk first. I figured we’d keep the silence up until we were each asleep in our beds. I held out a shred of hope that maybe I would not puke.
I was wrong. He pushed open the kitchen door, which we’d left unlocked, and turned on the light, and let out the hugest air-sucking gasp I’d ever heard. Then I saw, sitting at the kitchen table and looking like a horror movie zombie in her sleep-in face goop, was Claire. It was all very B-movie, the way she sat there in the dark, just waiting for us to walk in. At the time I didn’t appreciate just how whacked out that was. Then Digger recovered his cool and began talking shit.
I don’t remember what exactly Mr. Smooth Operator tried to say. Something about how he’d hoped she wouldn’t have to see this or something… The long and short of it was he spilled out some story about me sneaking out and him having to go and retrieve me from the juvenile police or something. God, I really don’t remember. What I do remember is him turning the full heat of his anger on me, twisting it into some kind of self-righteous injured parent thing, and then, at point blank range, belting me across the face.
I hit the handle of a cabinet door on the way down, as well. Two for one–I’m not sure which one gave me the shiner.
I wasn’t about to protest. I wasn’t about to call him a liar or defend myself in front of her. I wasn’t about to stay around, either. I was out the door again as soon as I could see, and shortly thereafter was puking my guts out in the back yard.
I spent the night at Martin’s because I didn’t want Remo to see the black eye. I don’t know why. Maybe I was afraid he wouldn’t let me play at Maddie’s on Wednesday. It’s hard to remember that I did that gig almost every week with them in those days.
After that, Digger and I rarely went out together, and I started going out on my own. Since then, it’d been one long roller coaster ride. Was I happy yet?
Look, I ticked things off in my mind:
Digger and Claire were both out of my life,
I was playing guitar and writing songs for a living,
I had money in the bank and friends…
and, there was Ziggy. What the fuck.