Standing in the cool, fluorescent cavern of the K-Mart, clacking through the stack of cassette tapes, boasting brightly colored stickers declaring things like “Wow! Only $6.99!” or “Feat. Warren G!,” I paused over one near the bottom. I’d heard of it. Probably from liner notes. One of my daddy’s Allman Brothers albums more than likely. Muddy Waters – The Real Folk Blues. I pulled it from the plastic rack, carefully, turning it over in my fingers, looking at the husky black man’s twin, mustachioed, pompadoured faces on the cover — one shut-eyed and moaning, the other tight-lipped, eyebrows arched, as if to say, “Go on, and try me.”
I turned it over again.
“Mannish Boy.” “Gypsy Woman.” “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”
I fished the crumpled ten-dollar bill out of my pocket, and handed it to the lady at the register.
“This it, honey?”
Christmas money, probably. Maybe birthday. (It would’ve been my 11th.) Probably from Aunt Myrt, or maybe Uncle Bill.
There in the backseat, I bit off the corner of the cellophane, and tore off the rest. I cracked it open, pulled out the tape, and stuck it in the Walkman.
It crackled first. I remember the crackle. It sounded like smoke looks. Like barbecue smells. The guitar tickled my ear, the way that gnats and sweat conspire to do in the summertime. I think I blushed. Like I’d heard a dirty joke within earshot of my parents, or like somebody had called me a name. And that voice. It was kind of like the old black gospel music I’d heard. But far simpler. Cruder. Tougher. Sadder. Not pretty enough for the choir loft, I imagined. And there were all those grown-ups yelling and carrying on in the background. Drinking, surely. Cigarettes, too.
The language was familiar. The kinds of words and cadences that rolled out from between the lips of older folks, black and white both, around Birmingham. The kind that the old men in their perfectly creased ball caps and shirts, necks and noses burned deep red or deep black, would use at the Krispy Kreme or on the bleachers at the ballpark. But this man wasn’t cutting up and talking about football, or city politics, or fishing, or church, or carburetors, or old so-and-so, or whatever grown men were supposed to cut up and talk about. He was talking about crying, and being lonely, and drinking, and mean women, and drowning, and dying.