Jungleland by Jessica Griscti
Kerry Dahlen sits behind the wheel of her older brother Rick’s Buick. The car is wide and long and stretched out in front of her like a boat, stuffed starboard to port with her brother’s friends. The windows are down and Kerry’s hair whips into a frenzy around her face. The radio is blaring. They’re cruising on the Long Island Expressway behind Rick, who’s at the helm of the family station wagon, switching lanes like a true born-and-bred New Jersey driver. They’re on their way to a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert, and they will not be late.
Spotting an opening, Rick pulls the station wagon into the left lane without warning. He doesn’t use his turn signal, believing like most of Jersey that its sole purpose is to give away his next move. Kerry eases the Buick to the left behind her brother. On the right, a car pulls up next to them, stereo pounding out the last track on Born to Run. A hearty cheer goes up from Kerry’s backseat. The sign for their upcoming exit whizzes past. There are fists in the air and someone screams: “As we take our stand…”
In front of Rick, a car stops just short of the wall of traffic trying to merge to the right. Rick slows the wagon in time, but Kerry is watching her passengers in the rearview mirror, and she looks up just a second too late. Instead of slamming into the back of Rick and ruining both the cars, Kerry aims for the center divider and stomps on the breaks.
After the impact, the dull crunch of metal on concrete, Kerry looks around, to make sure no one is hurt. One of Rick’s friends curses low. Rick is out of his car first, kneeling down on the side of the highway, veins thrumming with adrenaline as he examines the scene. The left fender hangs over the wheel well. If he turns Kerry back out onto the road, the sharp edge will rub up against the tire until it’s sliced clean to the rim. Learning to drive in Jersey gets you two things: a spectacular inability to pump your own gas, and a hefty inheritance of Daddy’s road rage. Rick kicks the fender hard. It starts to move in the right direction, so he kicks it again. Then he bends over and grabs the edges of the fender with two hands and wrenches the twisted metal out of the way of the wheel.
He slaps the hood and eyes Kerry through the windshield. “C’mon, sis, you’re good. We gotta keep going.” Kerry shouts back to her brother: “We’re not calling the cops?” But Rick is already buckled back into the wagon and revving the engine in triumph.
Hey what else can we do now? / Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. / Well, the night’s busting open these two lanes will take us anywhere.
It is the thirtieth of December, 1980. Dean and Charlotte Dahlen are out of town, and they’ve entrusted the care of their two youngest to Rick, who is home in Jersey on winter break from Georgia Tech. Bruce is touring The River in the tri-state area this week. Rick has already missed three shows at The Meadowlands, mecca to the E Street Band, and Bruce played the first of three shows at Nassau Coliseum the night before. Rick has tickets for himself and five friends and he’s not missing the concert just because Mom and Dad expect him to look after the kids. Even if it is the first time in months that Dean and Charlotte are happily spending time together.
Bren, the youngest, is already set up for a sleepover with a family friend across town. Kerry, on the other hand, is seventeen. She’s recently been licensed to drive. And with too many friends coming to the concert and too little seats in the car, Rick has an idea.
“But I don’t have a ticket,” Kerry will protest before twisting the key in the ignition.
And Rick will laugh. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get you one there. Scalpers, littler sister.”
It’s because of his conviction and the cocksure way he rolls his eyes that Kerry won’t second guess the wisdom of her older brother’s plan.
You pick up Little Dynamite, I’ll pick up Little Gun / And together we’re gonna go out tonight and make that highway run.
They arrive with plenty of time to spare and pull into the parking lot alongside seventeen thousand other Springsteen fans. They gather like a congregation on the asphalt taking beers from coolers in the trunk as the hymns of Bruce sound from the maw of every car stereo within listening distance.
Rick stops Kerry from grabbing a beer of her own. It’s not because she’s underage; she turns eighteen in eleven days and he doesn’t care. He tells her they’ve got to get her a ticket first and there will be time for drinking later. Then he grabs her by the hand as they walk closer to the entrance, eyes peeled and ears open.
“Tickets, tickets.” A greasy-looking guy, short, in a black satin baseball jacket calls out from the edges of the parking lot. “Tickets, tickets,” he says, the refrain soft every time someone passes by. Rick starts heading in that direction, and Kerry follows at his heels.
The man’s stringy hair is pulled back in a ponytail. A few feet away, a couple chats aimlessly. Rick approaches him. “How much?”
The scalper gives a number and Rick methodically counts the bills out of his wallet while the guy fishes the tickets from inside his shiny jacket. The two shake hands; the money is pressed tightly between their palms. The instant the man pulls back, the nameless couple springs into action.
“Stop right there,” the man says, tone authoritative. “Police.”
“Run,” Rick orders and he moves to bolt.
Kerry turns to go, but before she takes a single step, there is a voice in her ear and a hand on her wrist. “Stop.”
The female officer has grabbed her. She whips her head around to see the male officer gripping her brother by the bicep. She wishes fervently that she’d stayed with Sean and Greg and the others back at the car. Another officer places handcuffs on the scalper and leads him off in the opposite direction.
The remaining two plain-clothed officers are firm as they steer Kerry and her older brother to a trailer parked at the edge of the lot. They usher the two of them inside. The trailer is long and skinny, with a closed door at one end. There is bench seating and harsh fluorescent lighting. Rick and Kerry are asked to sit.
“Do you know why you’re here?” The male officer steps up closer to them.
On the uncomfortable wooden bench next to Kerry, Rick’s eyes go wide, almost as if he’s scared. He doubles over, suddenly wracked with sobs. His shoulders shake and his voice comes out wobbly when he starts to answer. “No,” Rick wails, shuddering through the powerful burst of shortened breath that rips through his thin frame.
Rick? Lost his nerve? Kerry goes cold next to him. She clenches her fists at her side. Suddenly, this feels very real.
Turn around the corner things got real quiet real fast / I walked into a Tenth Avenue freeze-out.
By the next summer, Rick and Kerry’s parents have finalized their divorce. Charlotte has moved into a condo across town. Dean and his new wife, Beth, share the house on Whitmore Drive with Kerry and her dog, Spike.
Kerry spends her days that summer volunteering at the Rockaway Animal Clinic. She thinks she’d like to study to become a veterinarian, but the dirty work and the years of schooling—almost as much as it takes to become a real doctor—are starting to put her off of the idea. At night, she works the busiest shift at Denville Dairy scooping sundaes for families and aimless teenagers. One Friday night, after all of the underage employees go home, her boss breaks out the tequila, and blends margaritas for all of the eighteen pluses with the last of the sherbet. But for the most part, the summer of 1981 is hardly that much fun.
Because where Kerry loves Springsteen, Beth is a Bon Jovi Jersey girl. Her stepmother spends the afternoons lounging by the pool sipping cocktails. Beth’s short blonde hair is always teased huge. In the evenings, she’ll throw off the itsy bitsy bikini in favor of tight jeans, long tee shirts and huge belts pulled in to show off her bumblebee waistline. She wears Candies shoes with a pointed kitten heel. In the 1980s, they all looked plastic, something like a stylish Dr. Scholl’s shoe, and they came in every color. This is how she’s dressed the first time Kerry catches her snorting lines of coke off the glass coffee table in the living room. Beth is two years older than Kerry and this is the first summer Rick doesn’t come home.
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house / But all her pretty dreams are torn / She stares off alone into the night / With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.
Inside of the police trailer, the female officer steps closer to Rick. “So you didn’t know that buying tickets like this, off the street, scalping them, is illegal?”
“Of course not!” Rick cries. “We didn’t have a ticket for my sister.” He muddles through an explanation, flinging phrases like, “people do it all the time and how was I even supposed to know?” Then he finishes off with a great lament: “I didn’t even want to take her here but my parents made me!”
Kerry starts to open her mouth to protest. The cops turn to look at her, and she finds that her lips won’t form the words she’s thinking.
“They went out this weekend and stuck me with the kids,” Rick says, petulant.
Kerry is stiff beside him. They grew up together and she has never seen Rick like this, not once. Through the worst of childhood scrapes, every time Rick and Bren would come home from the dirt bike track behind their house smudged with grime and all cut up, he would never shed a tear. Once, when he took antagonizing Kerry a step too far, she smacked his head against the wall. He sported a goose egg on his forehead for a week afterward—it was a horrible purplish blue the first day and a sickly green for the last three—until it faded and his skull shrank back to a normal size. Even then, he didn’t make a sound, except to mutter obscene names for his sister when Mom wasn’t looking.
“They all told me we could just buy a ticket at the show. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Rick is full out bawling now. There are fat tears rolling down from the corners of his eyes. Kerry keeps silent, biting her lower lip.
And when you realize how they tricked you this time / And it’s all lies but I’m strung out on the wire.
Because of the divorce, the next three years will throw Kerry’s idyllic Jersey adolescence into turmoil. Kerry doesn’t get along with Beth and tries endlessly not to outright resent her father for bringing the woman into her home.
By late Spring of her junior year, the pressure has become unbearable. Kerry has turned eighteen by then, so she and three friends often sign themselves out of school. Maryanne and Nancy meet Kerry and Venisa at the closest liquor store and pick up a case of beer. V stashes it in the back of the car next to the beach towels and bags, then Kerry takes the wheel of the Buick, and drives them an hour and a half down the coast to Ocean Grove.
The girls rent a hotel room for the day so they have some place to use a bathroom and stash their things. It’s a ritual they’ll repeat three or four times until Kerry graduates, losing afternoons in sun and booze and pizza on the boardwalk on the best coast along the Eastern seaboard.
‘Cause down the shore everything’s all right / You and your baby on a Saturday night / Nothing matters in this whole wide world / When you’re in love with a Jersey girl
The police trailer is cold.
Rick is still gasping around his words. “It was just supposed to be me and my friends. I’m home from college this week and I didn’t want to—I wasn’t supposed to—It’s not my fault!” He doubles over again, inconsolable, and submits himself to the sobbing.
The cops begin to soften. Shoulders falling, they step away. Their stern expressions melt.
“It’s okay, son.”
Kerry kooks up sharply. It’s okay? All of that and it’s just okay? They ask that Rick never do this again. “It’s illegal,” they remind him. “Do you understand?”
Big brother nods, huffing along with his wheezing breath, and allows the cops to press him forward out of the trailer and into the open night. The female officer hands Rick the money they gave the scalper. Dumbfounded, Kerry follows.
Behind them, the door to the trailer shuts. Kerry reaches over for Rick. “It’s okay, see? They let us go…”
Rick swipes the back of his hand across his eyes. He’s standing tall, proud. He is the very picture of upright masculinity. “God, I thought we’d never get out of there.” He looks nothing like he did the last twenty minutes, when he was sniffling into the corner of his shirt like his puppy had just been killed.
Kerry stops dead and crosses her arms. “Rick!”
He whips around, several feet ahead of her now. “What are you waiting for? There’s only half an hour left before doors open.”
“Are you kidding me?” Kerry doesn’t move.
“We have to get you another ticket, c’mon!”
And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine / Over the Jersey state line / Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
Two days after the sherbet margaritas at Denville Dairy in the summer of 1981, Kerry is diagnosed with mononucleosis. In the two weeks that follow, she can hardly get out of bed.
Dean is trying to sell the house. He and Beth have plans to pack it up and cross the country to southern California. Every other day that summer, while Dad is at work, the phone rings. The realtor wants to show the home to a new set of clients. Mostly because of Beth, the place is consistently a mess. Kerry comes up with a new excuse on the regular as to why they’ll need another hour before the realtor can stop by.
On the last day Kerry stays at the house on Whitmore Drive. Beth is still in bed midday. Burdened by mono, Kerry can hardly expect to clean the entire house by herself. She goes to Beth in the master bedroom and asks for her help.
“No!” Beth shrieks. “It’s not even that dirty.”
Kerry reminds Beth that she has mono, and the only reason they’re selling the goddamned house is so that she and Dean can move away.
“Oh, sure, you ignore me and you’re mean to me, you tell your father things about me that aren’t true and now you want my help?”
When the realtor arrives, Kerry shows the group into the foyer and apologizes. “Give me just one minute. I have to make sure the lady of the house is done in the bedroom.” In all likelihood, the woman is high as a kite and Kerry doesn’t need to showcase that particular scene to a bunch of strangers in the living room.
When Kerry asks her stepmother to leave the bed, Beth calls her a bitch. It is the last in a string of injustices, and Kerry decides she’s not standing for this a second longer. She retreats upstairs to her own bedroom, where she calls her father at work. Dean asks to speak to Beth. Kerry stands at the balcony over the foyer and shouts down to her stepmother to pick up the phone. One story below, the realtor and a young family wander throughout the house.
Minutes later, Kerry hears the sound of the phone clicking off and Beth’s scream reverberates throughout the house. “How dare you call your father on me!” Then the small blonde woman is out in the foyer, in a complete rage, running up the stairs toward Kerry, every single hair out of place.
Kerry locks herself in her bedroom behind a solid Maplewood door. She misses her brother; she misses the days when she didn’t have to deal with this alone. Kerry makes a second phone call, this time to her mother across town: “Beth is in a rage. You’ve got to come pick me up. Now.”
There is pounding on Kerry’s bedroom door. Beth is still screaming.
With one foot out the bedroom window, fifteen of her favorite albums under one arm and her dog Spike under the other, Kerry jumps down onto the roof of the garage. Behind her, Beth splits the bedroom door in two.
Charlotte pulls into the driveway. She leaves the car running, and runs straight to her daughter, with her arms outstretched so she can catch the dog she hates as Kerry lowers him to the ground. Then Kerry hops down alongside them and gets into her mother’s car.
They are the only two people in the driveway. No one knows what happened to the realtor or the young family.
You sit and wonder just who’s gonna stop the rain / Who’ll ease the sadness, who’s gonna quiet the pain
Despite almost getting arrested at Nassau Coliseum, or perhaps in spite of the whole ordeal, Rick insists they get Kerry another ticket. But she refuses to take part in the next transaction.
“Fine,” Rick huffs. “I’ll take care of it for you.”
Kerry sits on the trunk of the Buick with Sean, Greg, and the others, while Rick stalks around the edges of the parking lot again.
He tracks down another scalper easily. The man has nose bleed seats on the very, very cheap. Which is fine. No one in his right mind sits down during a stadium show put on by Bruce and the E Street Band, so Rick figures Kerry will just come stand with them.
What takes a little bit more convincing, however, is getting the scalper to come back with him to the group of friends tailgating around the radio. “Look,” Rick says, “I don’t want to get arrested.” He explains that he just wants to hand over the money inside his car, and after a few moments of deliberation, the scalper agrees. He follows Rick back, and the two of them get into the Buick.
Kerry spends the entire fifteen-second transaction trying to look like she doesn’t know them even though she’s leaning up against the car they’re inside. When the scalper leaves, Kerry lets out all of the air from her lungs—air that she didn’t even realize she was holding hostage.
Rick claps her on the back and with his other hand holds out the ticket, loosely between his fore and middle fingers. “Don’t lose this, sis.”
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday, / Let the broken hearts stand / As the price you’ve gotta pay / We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood / and these badlands start treating us good.
Decades later, after Beth is gone and Dean has married his third wife, he’s in the hospital dying of alcohol-induced throat cancer. Rick and Kerry are in San Diego to help Sharon sort out the house and likely say goodbye to their father.
Kerry and her dad on are better terms than when she was a teenager—something about only having one family and making the best of the one you were stuck with. It was much easier after Dean met Sharon, sweet and kind-hearted and age-appropriate. Plus, Dean and Sharon have always been great with Kerry’s kids.
Rick and Kerry sit chatting at their father’s bedside as he sleeps. All day, he’s been trying to convince them to let him go home. They tried every manner of excuse. Dean didn’t care for, “Dad, it’s for your health,” or “You’re not going to get better if you leave.”
So Rick tells him instead, “Dad, none of your clothes are here.”
Dean reaches across the gap and grips his son by the hips, with a much stronger hold than what should be capable of a dying man. “You’re about my size, son. Give me your pants and then we can go.”
Finally, about fifteen minutes later, he tires himself out enough to drift into fretful sleep. This lasts all of twenty minutes before he jolts himself awake. Dean stretches out an arm. “Rick,” he croaks. “Rick, come here.”
“Yeah, Dad?” Rick leans in towards his father, but the words are loud enough that Kerry can still hear.
“You know where my gun is? Back at the house, in the den, right? Go get it. We’ll shoot our way out of here.”
Rick looks over at his sister, and together they shake their heads, searching for the appropriate reaction. It’s something they’ll find much funnier years later, and they’ll whisper it to each other as a last-ditch solution when either of them is facing a problem they just can’t fix.
But for now, Kerry is immeasurably grateful that her big brother is here by her side.
They just stand back and let it all be / And in the quick of the night / They reach for their moment / And try to make an honest stand / But they wind up wounded / Not even dead / Tonight in Jungleland.
The thirtieth of December 1980 was a typical Bruce Springsteen show: three to four hours, so loud the audience could feel the music in their veins—capped off at the end with five sweat-soaked encores. Bruce does all of Kerry’s favorites; “Candy’s Room,” the singles off Born to Run, “Rosalita,” and “Incident at 57th Street.” She still claims that The River is one of his lesser works, but thirty years later, that very album sits framed on her mantelpiece—a testament to rock and roll, teenage recklessness, and New Jersey.