Roots Music

The needle hit the record
and through the scratchy silence
came a sandpaper voice,
the wallop of a backbeat
and the fat notes of electric guitar.
We kicked the rug back
from the hardwood floors
and Dad tipped his head back and crooned,
his forehead beaded with sweat
as he played the air harp
with his eyes closed.

Senior year in high school
he took his dad’s car
down to the bars on Euclid
to a joint with tinted windows
where the black and white kids
came to hear Lightnin’ Slim.

Driving downhill from the Heights
was like tearing through
a curtain between two worlds –
the life he’d always known about
through the tinny AM radio
he listened to late at night
waiting on the other side.
He stands shoulder to shoulder
with black kids from the city
and when the lights come up
the sweaty crowd spills into the street
and waits in the glare of the streetlights.
He and his friends light cigarettes
and steal glances at the black kids
from the hood of his car.
The parking lot empties out
and he feels the last few notes
shiver up his spine.

Just then Lightnin’ moaned,
the harmonica wailed
and dad and I hit the floor together,
hard enough that the record skipped
and the song stopped –
mom calling from the kitchen,
shaking off her soapy hands
what’s goin’ on out there?
We stared at each other
over the sudden, crackling silence.
Dad wiped his foggy glasses
and straightened his shirt collar
and before we said anything
a voice half-shouted, half-sang:
The little red rooster
said to the little red hen
you ain’t laid an egg
since God knows when
We got to rock tonight, baby
We got to rock tonight, baby
We got to rock tonight, baby
Yeah, we got to rock tonight.
The lamp on the table
shook closer to the edge
as the voice of Lightnin’ Slim
made us move our feet again.

Later that night, lying in bed,
I wondered how he felt
as he slipped his foot from the gas,
coasted up the drive
and crept in his parents’ house.
Did he lie awake in bed,
feeling the old world
of private school and homecoming
chafe against the new one
taking shape inside of him?
I imagined the rest of the story
from what he gave me,
incomplete scenes
that showed up unannounced,
stood in the doorway
with their coats on
and never stayed long
as Dad and I listened to blues records
on a Sunday.

Published in Paddlefish, 2010 issue


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