When I was little, my dad would pack me and my sister Joy into our big red Suzuki and drive to the Wooden Nickel Record Store. I hated that place more than I hated eating bananas or the smoking sections in restaurants. There wasn’t a shade of white in the entire store–everything was mix of pee yellow and tan. Dust perched on every record and cassette; sometimes my white Keds left prints on the floor. This particular day, I took each one of my fingers and pressed them into the dust, leaving behind their small oval markings. Just in case I was ever kidnapped, they’d have my prints to help find me. (I did this with every extra piece of tape in my house, and also clippings of my hair. I read too many Nancy Drew books.)
Some days, if the weather was nice, we stood outside and played gymnastics on the balance beam of the parking space marker. I always won “Most Balanced” because I had taken lessons longer than Joy, and plus, I was older. But today it was cold, so we stayed inside. I took my coat off, instructing Joy to do the same. We used the weatherproof material as a tent, hiding from our dad, wondering if he’d ever find us under the tent, under the table, under those hundreds of records that could hold his attention for hours. I peaked out at my father’s feet, tapping to the beat of the music from a spinning record at the listening station. He searched through the blues albums, his eyes hungry but his movements controlled. For him, this wasn’t a process that could be rushed. He looked at my upside-down face, rustled my bangs then quickly returning to his search. When the longest thirty minutes of our lives had passed, my dad made his purchases, and we climbed back up into the car. It was time to go home.
Once we were in the house, we didn’t mind the hour-long trip we had just taken. We forgot how bored we were and how angry we were at my dad, because this was the time of day we loved—the moments after my dad bought a new record.
My father carefully slid the black disc from its paper cradle, placing it on the turntable. The player’s thin arm swung over, resting atop the record’s grooves. With a rustling click the record began to spin, raw notes and harmonies spilling from the speakers. This was our cue:
Joy and I shook our arms and wiggled our hips in violent motions, dancing in ways only a child can do. Even though we hated the process of acquiring these records, we loved the end results.
Well I been sittin’ here drinkin’, I’m just a lonesome little man. Well I been sittin’ here drinkin’, I’m just a lonesome little man.
Lead Belly. Muddy Waters. Blind Lemon Jefferson. We knew them all, the soulful pluck of each guitar note, the gravely tone to their voices. Every so often we jumped too hard and the record player would skip. We froze, worried. My father gave us a quick, quiet reprimand, but then smiled and watched us start our dancing again, our thin hips swinging, swaying to the beat. Sometimes we’d sing along, crooning about women and the devil and devil women.
Little white babies dancing to the beats of tired black men.
These men sang songs of racial discrimination, of weak women and strong drinks— nothing my father could relate to. But even though the words were different, they spoke the same language.
When I was nineteen, our basement flooded a few days before Christmas. The water creeped up the walls and into bookshelves and cabinets. We had to throw away old toys and stuffed animals, made fat with dirty water. But the worst of it was reserved for my father’s record collection. The melted snow and groundwater had ruined the album covers of hundreds of records, leaving them mushy and dripping. I had never seen my father as visibly upset as he was when he silently carried boxes of his destroyed collection to the trash. While he was at work, my mom and I tried to dry them, standing amidst a sea of album artwork, wading and weaving around each waterlogged square, armed with hairdryers and good intentions. They dried, but were rippled and distorted, poor crumpled versions of what they once were.
The lead guitar solo began and we danced, harder and harder, laughing amidst our flinging hair and wiggling hands.
You have taken all my money, you have taken my baby too.
My dad laid on the floor, eyes closed, soaking in the waves that bounced from the speakers. Odysseus, standing on the shoreline, ankle-deep in the water that carried him home.