It Just Takes a Little Soul
As he walked along the dusty stretch of road with his bottle and rickety old guitar, R.J. thought of all he’d lost. His mama had worked herself into the ground and his daddy, well, he never knew no daddy. Gracie and their sweet baby were gone now, too. During childbirth, that was.
Music had always been his comfort in troubled times. Even when he was a boy, and he took work in the blistering heat of the Delta cotton fields to help his mama, music gave him strength. Oh, them were hard days. And when he lost his wife and unborn child, he took refuge in whiskey bottles and juke joints, playing his songs and drowning his grief. But the liquor and smoky rooms lit a fire in his belly. Gave him a yearning. He wanted fame and fortune.
He’d once heard his mama say, “Them crossroads is a place of evil.” He’d asked her why, and she’d said, “You just mind me, boy.” His mama never did do much explaining of the things she said. She’d just tell him to mind her and fetch the water from the well. And he always did as Mama said.
R.J. was known to have a good ear. He could play a guitar might fine for a man who couldn’t read notes. He and Willie Brown used to sit in the old graveyard, drinking shine and singing songs. They was real good, too. But just being good wasn’t good enough. Being the best is what satisfies.
Soon, as the years was creeping by, he noticed his hands wasn’t working no more, not like they once was, anyway. All them days picking in the fields, and all them nights plucking rusty strings made his hands ache something awful. He struggled to make his fingers work the chords, and tuning that thing was downright painful. Calluses and blisters would split open, bleeding all down the neck. So seemed he was losing his strength and comfort, too.
So now, midnight in Mississippi, he walked, guitar slung over his shoulder and a bottle of shine in his hand, heading down to where the 61 and 49 highways crossed paths. You mind me, boy, he heard his mama say. But mama was gone. Everything that mattered was gone. So he walked on.
There, at the crossroads, was a big old willow tree on the southwest corner and open fields everywhere else, the tall grass bending in the breeze and glowing in the moonlight. R. J. sat himself under that old willow on a patch of dry earth and took a good swill of shine, his guitar laid across his lap. He flexed his fingers. Lord, how they hurt.
But the Lord wasn’t nowhere around. The Lord had taken everyone he’d ever loved, and now was taking his ability to play. No, R.J. wasn’t looking for the Lord.
He wasn’t really sure what he was looking for, but when he thought of his mama, somewhere deep inside he knew this spot was as far from God as he was gonna get.
Them crossroads is a place of evil.
The wind was like a whisper of warning as he sat under that tree, trying to drink away the pain in his bones and the voice in his head.
You mind me.
He was only twenty-one but felt so old. The Delta had a way of doing that to folks in those days.
It was a warm night, and after a bit the shine was doing real good at quieting his mama’s voice. But the pain wouldn’t go. He sat there, leaning against that old tree, watching its branches weeping across the moon, and soon he wept with it.
Some time went by, and R.J. cried himself dry, dry as the earth he sat on. But now he was tired, downright tuckered, and began to drowse off and dream of the fortune he so longed for, his guitar still across his lap and the empty bottle in the dirt beside him. But no more than a minute or two after his eyes closed there was a rustling in the field behind the tree. He sat up quick and turned, but whatever it was had already scurried off.
He muttered to himself: “Damn critters...a man can’t find peace no place no more.” And just then, as he was leaning back, he saw a man. He stood on the opposite corner of the crossroads, no more than a shadow in the night. R.J. rubbed his eyes with hands that had stiffened into fists. When he brought his hands away and blinked a couple times, it was as if his eyes was playing tricks on him. The man had moved. He now stood at the edge of the grass, just a few feet from where R.J. sat. “You sure move might quick,” R.J. said. “How you move like that?”
For a moment the man said nothing. He just stood there, tall in his long black coat and hat with a brim so wide it looked like wings had grown right out of his head. R.J. noticed the man’s eyes was glowing an ugly green that made him think of poisonous things. “Who are you, mister?” he asked. “What you doin’ out here?”
R.J. had a fear growing in his gut as he heard his mama: What I tell you, boy? This an evil place.
“I think you know who I am, Mr. Johnson,” said the man in the long coat. “And I think you know why I’m here.” He stepped into the grass, a little closer to the tree. “You want something, isn’t that right?”
R.J. did want something, didn’t he? When he spoke, his voice came out cracked and shaky. “I...I want the pain to go away, sir. I can’t play no more.” He held up his trembling hands and looked down at his six-string, now in the dirt next to the empty bottle. “My hands is broken...I can’t even play one bit.”
“You want to be famous, Mr. Johnson. Don’t you?”
“Yessir, I...I do.”
“I can help you,” said the man, his green eyes glowing brighter, like there was a churning storm inside him. “But I need to know if you’re willing to pay the cost.”
“What is fame worth to you?”
“Oh, I’d do just about anything, sir.”
“I want your soul, Mr. Johnson. I trust that won’t be a problem since He has forsaken you.”
R.J. thought again of everyone God had taken away, and anger rose in his chest. “I reckon I ain’t got no use for a soul no more.”
“Then pick up your instrument,” said the man.
R.J. did as he was told. And just then a strong wind came, spinning dust-devils and dry earth in the air. But the wind didn’t touch the man. His long coat hung still, his hat still resting above his fiery eyes. He pointed one long-nailed finger at the guitar, and R.J. looked in terrified wonder as the pegs began turning all on their own.
“Now your soul belongs to me. I’ll be seeing you again, Mr. Johnson.” The wind now blew so hard that R.J. had to shield his eyes and hug his guitar for dear life so it wouldn’t be carried off. Then, as quick as it happened it was over. The wind was back to a gentle breeze and the sound of insects came up out of the tall grass.
R.J. sat there, dumbstruck, not truly knowing the price he’d just paid. But he noticed, for the first time since the man pointed his clawed finger, that the aching in his hands was gone. He flexed his fingers again. No stiffness, no pain. He rose to his feet and slung his guitar over his shoulder. He formed an E chord and reluctantly strummed. It felt good, and it sounded good. Then, as if possessed, his fingers began to dance along the strings like water in a stream. He pulled out his bottleneck and slid it along the neck. The sound of sorrow and yearning poured from his fingers and rose around him.
As he walked back home, down that dusty stretch of Mississippi highway, R.J. mourned all that he’d lost and all he’d gained, and he began to wonder about the price of the human soul.
Boy, you gone and done it now, his mama said. You done played with fire, and now you’s gonna get burned.
He caressed his beat-up old six-string, letting her voice be carried off on the breeze. Then he began to sing.
It was the dirge of a man grieving for his loved ones and grieving for his soul.
It was the sound of the Blues.