I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Asked the Lord above to have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.

--Robert Johnson

The thing you got to understand is that people have died for this music.
--John Lee Hooker, BBC radio interview, 1973

 

Paying The Cost To Be the Boss

The legend says that if an aspiring bluesman waits by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself will come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman's soul, guaranteeing him a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. Some folks believe that there walks on the earth a very special few of them deal-makers, who must have waited by the crossroads and gotten their guitars fine-tuned.

Like all legends, son, things get a little mixed-up in the telling down through the years.

It's gonna be time soon for you take over; there's things you need to know about that responsibility.

Sit yourself down and listen to me.

There was a deal struck at the crossroads, but old Scratch -- and don't let anyone tell you different -- he had almost nothing to do with it...

Boogie Chillun'

I knew this was going to be the night when the old jukebox in the corner came on all by itself. The damn thing's nearly fifty years old, hasn't been used in almost as long, and so sets behind some crates, covered by tarp. We've got a computerized jukebox next to the dance floor that the customers prefer.

How'd I know it was the sign?

That old jukebox has never been plugged in; not for as long as I've run this place, anyway. Dad showed it to me the night he decided to retire.

I stood behind the bar, massaging my bad hand and staring at the eerie light that tried to push through the tarp as the miraculous opening croaks of John Lee Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" managed to pull a kingsnake-crawl from underneath, twisting its funky tail in a snap-rattle dance and spitting in your eye if you didn't like it.

I looked at the clock.

Eleven p.m.

One hour and counting.

It's funny, the way Purpose works: You spend most of your life preparing for something, yet you still get a mondo case of the willies when it's upon you.

I took a quick shot of Jim Beam to steady my nerves and kill the pain in my arthritic hand (which is more of a claw at this point in my life), then flipped up the serving panel and came out from behind the bar to set about the preparations.

The first things I retrieved were the netting and the skulls.

Our place is called Hangman's Tavern. It's located halfway between Cedar Hill and Buckeye Lake, but if you look for a sign to guide you there you'll never find it.

Watch for the crossroad two miles after you get off the highway. Can't miss it. And if the weather's bad and you can't see very far, then keep an eye peeled for the eight-foot "T" post on the left, the one with the noose dangling from it. The Klan used to bring blacks out here and hang them, then go on down the road for a few drinks. That's how our family business got its name. My great-grandfather was Klan and built this tavern. The male descendants who followed him decided not to pursue membership in that particular boys' club. Not that it helps erase the shame of our family's history.

The skulls--six of them altogether--belonged to blacks whose bodies had been cut down from the post and buried in the field that stretches for two miles behind tavern property. My grandfather found the bodies and, knowing what had to be done, took the skulls and left the remains to lie in peace.

I tried very hard not to look at the things as I gathered them up and put them one by one into the net sack; the idea of staring into those ancient, empty eye sockets gave me the shakes: Who knew what kind of phantoms waited in that bone-grave darkness?

I tied the top of the sack together with chicken wire, then slung it over my shoulder--the rattling from inside almost made my knees buckle--and made my way out the side door, thinking all the time about Music.

The night was cool and crisp and clean; darkness made into a jeweled blanket by the glittering stars above, each one winking down at me as if knowing I needed all the moral support I could get. I smiled at them, astonished as always at the thought that, the farther away a star was from the Earth, the closer it was to the moment the universe began; the closer it was to the Secret of where the Music came from, and what exactly it was the Songsters wanted.

I never dwelled on that for too long. It not only frightened me...it depressed me, as well. Hell, find me a kid who grew up in the 60's and 70's who didn't at one point or another dream of being a rock star and I'll show you a liar. I know I dreamed such dreams. Just wound up not having the hands for it--but I can sling booze with the best of them, and I still have my fantasies of musical stardom, and I don't wallow in self-pity; there's too much in life to enjoy.

I trudged down the road until I reached the hanging post, then tied the net of skulls to the noose and--as I'd been taught--spun them around hard, until the rope knotted at the top and began twisting itself back into position.

The skulls shifted and clattered.

So did my spine.

A sharp breeze came out of the south, holding the faintest traces of ozone.

Big storm a-comin'.

The clouds moved in almost at once, obscuring a section of sky perhaps five miles in circumference: the property boundaries of the tavern.

A small break in the center of the clouds allowed a single, intense moonbeam to cast its glow down into the center of the crossroad, a spotlight on an empty stage.

I closed my eyes, gripped the small mojo bag in my pocket, and held my breath.

The faint, breathy sound of a train whistle drifted toward me, underscored by the melodious clackitty-clack of iron wheels against the track (grab dat sack 'cause you ain't comin' back, jack) and when I opened my eyes I saw Smokestack standing in the moon's spotlight.

Dressed in a raggedy coat and sporting and even raggedier fedora on his head, he was looking not at me but up at the light. He pulled the harmonica away from his mouth and whipped the hat off his head as if preparing to take a bow. His smile was lightning against the deep ebony of his skin. He tossed his hat in the air, let fly with a whoop and a holler, then caught the fedora, slapped it to skull, and placed the harmonica back to his lips, one hand firmly grasping the harp, the other whirling in the air as he waved hello to the spirits that were out and about this night.

Kick-a-tap-tap, shuffle-tap-kick was the song his feet sang as he danced in the moon's follow-spot. For the next two hours, no one--human being, spirit, or otherwise--could pass this way without his permission.

Kick-a-tap-tap, shuffle-tap-kick--

--and his harp sang: Oh, de Rock Island Line, it's a mighty good road, oh de Rock Island Line, it's the road to ride, oh de Rock Island Line is a mighty good road, if you want to ride it gotta ride it like you find it get your ticket at the station fo' de Rock Island Line!

"I may be right and I may be wrong," I sang.

"Know you gonna miss me when I'm gone," he replied in song, his baritone-spiritual voice melting the chill of the dark.

Then his harp again: Oh, de Rock Island Line is a mighty good road...

I turned and started back toward the tavern.

Kick-a-tap-tap, shuffle-tap-kick.

I had marked this spot well; Smokestack had given me his blessing, as had those unseen spirits whose ghostly voices joined in his chorus.

Good God Have Mercy

Some say it started with the War in Heaven. You know how that went down--Lucifer didn't win and got himself banished, but there were some of the angels who fought with him who went to God and said they was sorry, but God didn't want to hear it. He said they had to be punished and sent them away while He thought about their punishment. But the Good Lord, He got all caught up in creating mankind. The Fallen Angels, they didn't much care for all the attention God was givin' to mankind, so they stole the Book of Forbidden Knowledge from the Good Lord's library, and they came down here to Earth and they scattered, each of them taking a piece of the Forbidden Knowledge with 'em.

Some of 'em got down here and acquired a taste for human things--food, drink...women. And they laid a little angelic tube-steak on the chosen human women, and the children who were born from those couplings...they were Gifted in ways no regular human ever could be.

There are certain things that Man was never meant to know, understand. Poetry, Art, Sciences and such...and music. That was maybe the worst of them all, music, because it was supposed to belong only to the angels; didn't matter which Master they served, Music was supposed to be theirs and theirs alone. But the Fallen Angels, they didn't have a place in either Heaven or Hell on account of what they done, especially after stealing the Book and getting their celestial rocks off and all. So Music was the first thing they gave to mankind, and damned if mankind didn't quite know what to do with it.

It took a long time before the Fallen Angels figured this out, and by then, well...Music was everywhere. There were some--damn few, truth be told--who knew how to use it, who were born with the Gift of Understanding on account of having an angel as one of their parents--Bach and Mozart and some of them fellahs--but most folks, they could only try to reach for what the music held before them.

So a few of these Gifted Ones--the Songsters--they came up with a plan.

One cold midnight.

At the crossroads.

They drew lots, and some of 'em snuck into Heaven, and the others...well, I guess you can figure out where they went.

And those bands of Gifted thieves, they managed to get what they went after.

(They Call It) Stormy Monday

I wasn't the least bit surprised to find the backup musicians already on stage and setting up their instruments when I returned. I nodded at one of them--the drummer whose face I recognized from a Rolling Stone story last year that came out two weeks after he died--and made a beeline for the bar.

The area within the bar itself is safe because it's blessed. The marble used for the top came from an altar my granddaddy bought from an old church that was being demolished, and forms an almost perfect sixteen-foot square around the serving area. The only vulnerable spot is the flip-up wooden serving panel; once I was back behind the bar I immediately hung another mojo bag from the corner of the glass rack directly above it. It wasn't the most potent form of magic I could use to protect myself, but it would do for right now.

Thunder rumbled from outside, and the flashes of lightning became ever more intense.

The backup musicians finished setting up, then wandered over to the bar.

I set each of them up with a shot of whiskey and a beer, taking care not to look any of them directly in the eyes--even though I knew their gazes were fixed on me. Not that that bothers me. Having the use of only one hand has made me something of a local legend, so I'm used to patrons staring. It's an accomplishment of sorts, I guess: Even with only one hand, I can flip a glass, pour a shot, and open a bottle faster, smoother, and neater than bartenders who've got the use of all ten fingers.

You'll see things in their eyes, boy, that you'll spend the rest of your life trying to forget, my dad had told me. Just sling the booze like you're supposed to and don't get too friendly and you'll be okay.

I wondered if Dad would approve of the way I was handling myself. He'd died two years ago. I still missed him so much that I'd start crying like a baby if I thought on it for too long.

But there wasn't time for that tonight.

The lightning fried the sky again as the next clap of thunder threatened to blow the roof off the place.

The old jukebox finished playing its Hooker records and started in on its B.B. King collection.

Another flash of light, this one more focused and steady than the lightning but no less intense, drilled through the front window, hot on the heels of a roar that sounded like it came from the guts of an ancient dinosaur awakening. Godzilla arriving at the tavern, lawdy, lawdy, lawd.

"Ankou's Chariot," murmured one of the backup musicians.

I squinted my eyes and saw that the "chariot" was a screaming-chromed hog, its engines smoking and sparking as its midnight rider brought it to a screeching halt.

The backup musicians finished their drinks in a hurry and got back to the stage.

The light died, the roar choked into silence, and a few moments later the front doors were kicked open with such force they banged against the walls and loosed some dust and plaster from the ceiling.

Ankou stood their holding his ax of choice--a banged-up Fender Strat--by the neck, its body balanced on his shoulder.

His height was a good seven feet even, at least. He wore an ankle-length black duster that looked more like Dracula's cape from my viewpoint, and his long white hair hung down over his shoulders. Adding to the effect was the wide-brimmed hat on his head, part of which was bent down to hide his eyes.

He stormed toward me. The doors slammed closed behind him even though he made no move to touch them. He took a seat at the bar, gently lay the Strat across the wooden serving panel, and snapped his fingers, producing a bright spark.

I pulled the pack of cigarettes from my pocket and shook one out for him. He took it, put it in his mouth, then flicked index finger to thumbnail and brought forth a small flame from his thumb. Once the smoke was lit, he blew the flame out.

His flesh was not charred in the least.

Then he reached up and pushed back his hat.

Even though Dad had warned me over the years about what to expect, the sight of his face still made my parts wither.

His skin had the gray pallor of a corpse, pulled so tightly over his skull that for a moment he appeared to be only a skeleton. Two tear-shaped holes squatted in the center of his face where a nose should have been, and he stared at me through two empty, tomb-dark eye sockets.

"I was a lot prettier when the day started," he said. His voice was the echo of rat's claws scratching against the cement floor of a forgotten crypt.

I reached up and pulled a whiskey tumbler from the overhead rack but my hand was shaking so badly that I dropped it.

It never hit the floor.

The second it fell from my hand Ankou opened his mouth and from it shot a long, thin, forked toad's tongue that whipcurled around the glass and sucked it back toward the bar.

"Hit me," he hissed.

I filled the tumbler with Jack Daniels Black. Ankou slammed it back and demanded another.

"Gettin' a little greedy in yer old age, ain't'cha?" came a voice from somewhere beyond the bar.

I turned around in time to catch a glimpse of a small, fiery circle throbbing to life, then dying away.

The sickly-sweet stink of cigar smoke wafted toward me.

"Just look at 'im, will ya? You done went and damn near gave 'im a case of the screaming meemies, Ankou."

"My heart bleeds, J.J."

The man in the darkness chortled, then slowly walked forward into the light.

Understand something: I am not a racist, but the only way to describe this man was to say that he was astoundingly black. I had never seen a black man of that impenetrable hue: It was a blackness of such intensity that it reflected no light at all, achieving a virtual obliteration of facial features and taking on a mysterious undertone that had the blue-gray of ashes. He flashed me a blissful grin, revealing deathly purple gums, the yellowish stumps of several teeth, and oddly colorless lips.

"The Eternal Champion," said Ankou. "Doesn't look to me like you're up for the fight tonight, J.J.".

"Hear that?" J.J. asked me. "He's concerned for my well-bein'." He took a seat at the opposite end of the bar. "I'm touched, Bone-Bag; really, I am."

"Don't call me that."

"Then don't call me 'J.J.' like we're life-long buddies, asshole."

"Is that any way for the son of an angel to talk, JukeJoint?"

"Angel this," he said, turning both thumbs down toward his crotch.

After a moment of the tensest silence I have ever endured, JukeJoint looked at me and said, "You gonna peer or you gonna pour? I just came across time, space, and Highway 61 to get my sorry butt here, and I'm a bit thirsty."

I reached up for another glass and immediately recoiled in revulsion.

I have this recurring nightmare where my right hand--my good hand--swells up like some dead bloated thing and begins to rupture, its tendons turned to cotton. I sit there in the nightmare and bend down my head and start pulling the cotton out with my teeth until all that's left at the end of my wrist is a limp, useless, bony starfish-like thing, and usually wake up in tears because now I have no hands left.

The cotton tendons of my right hand were bursting forth now, and as I recoiled in horror a shriek escaped my mouth and Ankou laughed.

"How you sleeping these days, pal?"

"Knock it off!" snarled JukeJoint.

I blinked several times, took a deep breath, and looked at my hand.

Intact, no cotton tendons bursting.

I swallowed very hard, trying to stop the single tear from slipping out my eye, but it did no good.

"It's all right, boy," said JukeJoint. "Now, how's about my drink?"

I gave him a whiskey and a beer.

I hoped that neither of them sensed how much I was trembling inside.

Finally Bone-Bag Ankou looked at me with his grave-gaze and said, "You got the strings for us?"

"Right here," I said, ashamed of the little-boy terror in my voice as I pulled the ancient wooden box from under the bar and inserted the key in its lock.

Go on to the next part of the story ....

This story originally appeared in Subterranean Gallery anthology, edited by William Schafer

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