I took a step out of line and looked up toward the counter. The cashier was still printing out lottery tickets.
“Hello?” said the guy behind us. “Hello? Hmmph. Must’ve lost ‘em.” Dad and I looked at each other as the guy started to dial with his thumb. “Hello? Hey,” he said after a second. “I must have lost you.”
Dad leaned toward me. “Have you gotten to Dante yet in your lit class?”
“Just wondering if one of the circles of Hell looks anything like this.”
“Do you like music?” asked the guy behind us again.
Dad bowed his head forward and rubbed at the corners of his eyes with his fingers. “Oh my God,” he whispered.
“Yeah, I said I did. I like everything except jazz and blues.”
“Jesus Christ, are you ever gonna get around to having a conversation?” Dad said, turning to face the guy behind us.
The guy shifted his phone away from his mouth. “I’m sorry, excuse me?”
“You’re sorry?” Dad leaned back on his heels, folding his arms. “No, no, I’m sorry. Let me explain, since you’ve only just noticed me: the rest of us standing here can hear every word you say, so I figure the least you could do for us is find something interesting to talk about.”
The guy returned Dad’s stare, utterly bewildered. “I was just talking to my friend.”
“Your real close and personal friend. Yeah, I could tell by your delicate ‘do you like music?’ line of questioning. Where’d you meet your ‘friend’ – eHarmony?”
I took another peek at the front of the line. The old man was reaching for his wallet. I estimated only another ten or twenty minutes before we made it to the register.
“And did you really have to announce your love of all music other than jazz and blues not once, but twice?” Dad continued. “I mean, everything except jazz and blues – how can you honestly mean that? Everything. So that means you’re a fan of Celine Dion but not Sarah Vaughn.
“Or how about this one: you really dig Darryl Worley, but find no merit in the music of Muddy Waters. You like everything – plainchant, Qawwali, the mournful tones of the shakuhachi – even Eliot Goldenthal’s fucking ham-fisted score to Batman Forever, and that screeching anti-Christ Josh Groban – except jazz and blues.”
“Just a second,” the guy said to whoever was on the phone, “I’m talking to someone.”
The old man exited the building, his pockets stuffed with surefire winners. The line squealed and heaved gradually forward.
“Who is that?” Dad asked, gesturing to the guy’s phone. “Is it a woman? Are you trying to impress her with your taste in music, or just get what a clueless, uncultured shit you are out in the open right away?”
“Listen, what is my taste in music your business, anyway?”
“It isn’t,” Dad said, “but since you’ve made it a matter of public record, let me ask you: Is it only jazz and blues that you hate, or do you also hate all the genres of music that influenced them, like ragtime and folk ballads?”
“Well, I never really—”
“And is it all forms of blues you hate, or only certain styles? I mean, there’s the Chicago blues, the Mississippi blues, the St. Louis blues, the Piedmont blues – aw, I bet they all sound the same to you, huh?”
The guy started to say something, but Dad ran right over him.
“It’s not like I’m blaming you, though. Fuck no, I’m actually on your side. Yeah, I mean, I, too, can see no reason to ever listen to timeless music made by pioneering geniuses whose influence is felt throughout western culture even to this day. Who needs Robert Johnson, or John Lee Hooker, or Billie Holliday, or Willie Dixon, or Ella Fitzgerald, or John Coltrane, or Memphis Minnie, or Miles Davis, or Duke Ellington? Who needs Cephas and Wiggins when you’ve got fucking Big and Rich?”
Dad started to calm down at that point. He faced front. He seemed to relax, slipping his hands into his pockets, rounding his shoulders. He stared up at the ceiling, shaking his head.
“No, I’m still here,” said the guy behind us to whoever he had on the phone. “I’m standing in line to pay for gas. What are you doing?”
Dad turned back to the guy. “Man, let me tell you – not only do I applaud your rejection of jazz and the blues, I likewise celebrate your courage in announcing it to whoever that is on the phone and anyone else within earshot. It takes real mettle to carry your complete and utter lack of musical appreciation out in front of you like that.
“Yes sir, I wish I had your pluck, your gumption, your intestinal fortitude, if I might say. I wish I had the nerve and utter lack of self-awareness needed to yak obnoxiously on my cell phone in public, spewing my most insipid and embarrassing opinions for anyone around me to hear. And, why stop with music? It’s foolish to plunk down your hard-earned dollars to see a Buster Keaton movie at the Weinberg Center when you can watch The Celebrity Apprentice for free, am I right? No, no sense in eating a perfectly seared salmon filet when there’s all this spoiled hamburger lying around, that’s what I say!”
Finally it was our turn to pay. I put my ginger ale on the counter. Dad paid for it and his gas, and got Mom’s cigarettes. He stopped at the door on our way out and looked back at the guy who had been behind us with the cell phone.
“People like you ought to be castrated,” Dad said, and shoved his way through the door.
Dad noticed me smiling at him on the walk to the car. He smiled back. “Well, I needed that, I guess.” He shrugged. “Besides . . . the guy was an asshole.”