Cross Road Blues

Jeff had one job to do, and he hated it.

It was hot.  He sat at a crossroads in the middle of a west Texas desert.  There was no shelter or shade, no shanty or tree.  It was him, an old wooden stool (that offered absolutely no back support), four faded, dusty, and weather worn stop signs, and occasional tumbleweed.  The roads themselves were mere suggestions, mostly rocks and pebbles that were barely discernable from the landscape around them.  They ran straight into the distances, north, south, east, and west, under a large blue sky.  The flat land around him shimmered and warbled with heat.

It was boring.  He had been there for what felt like, and possibly was, an eternity.  He would have an occasional visitor or passerby, a dusty, rusted out truck limping its way from one corner of the desert to the other, maybe a hitchhiker.  Occasionally he would have what he would consider a client, but that was once in a blue moon.  He would know if it was a client or not miles before they arrived; he could see them, in the distance, with what appeared to be a guitar slung around their backs.  Otherwise it was him, alone, for weeks at a time, with only his thoughts and the desert to entertain him.

When they arrived, he did not like his clients.  It’s not that they were bad people, but it was always the same.  They would reach him, stained with sweat and dust.  They wouldn’t say anything, not right away, but stand perplexed, looking for something, or someone, they had been expecting.  He would wait, patiently (all he had was time), until they registered him and approached, uncertainly.

“So uh,” they would stammer, “Have you seen a guy around here?”

“A guy?” he would respond.

“Yeah, you know, a guy.  Tall, maybe?  Dark.  I don’t really have a description, but…” they would trail off.

“Not me?”

“No, not you, I don’t think.”

It was an unfair stereotype, really, perpetuated a century ago by an old blues guitarist that had never actually even been to the crossroads himself.  His clients would come looking for the Devil, and all they found was Jeff.

He could register the expectation drain from their eyes, replaced by confusion and disappointment.  He couldn’t blame them, not really.  He was, after all, in the middle of nowhere; all about him was sand and dust, rattlesnakes and heatstroke.  They came from all parts of the country, thousands of miles traveled, looking to sell their souls for fame and fortune, and what they found was a man, middle aged, balding, with wet crescents beneath his armpits.  Of course they were not angry, but livid, or not simply sad, but broken.

He had only one job, and his job was disappointment.

He had tried quitting once, but this was not the type of job you could simply up and quit.  He had no direct supervisor, at least not in the immediate area, and no real job description other than sitting, waiting, and informing his clients that, no, they were no longer accepting souls.  He had walked away, once for every road, north, south, east, and west, and after hours of trudging sand and rocks had always returned, inexplicably, to the same crossroads, his same stool, his same four stop signs.  He could not remember when he began his job, only that he had been there a long time, and that it must be, had to be, some form of punishment.

So he had resigned himself to the crossroads, with nothing but time and his own thoughts.

He was sitting on his stool, hunched forward, arms on his knees, when the young man arrived.  It was July, noon, and the sun baked his skin.  Like all the others, the young man was sweaty, dirty, and tired.  Unlike the others, however, he carried a ukulele.  It was tiny, wooden, and obviously old, stained with water and time.  He was tall and thin, wore a plaid button up shirt, cut off at the shoulders, blue jeans, and black boots, scuffed and beaten with use, and a straw Stetson, frayed at the edges and bent to shade his fair skin.  A cigarette hung from his bottom lip.  He stood, directly in the middle of the four way intersection, and looked about him.  He nodded absently at Jeff.  Jeff nodded, just as absently, back.

“Hey.” He said.  He had a thick southern drawl.  Gray smoke spilled from his mouth as he spoke, wafted about his head, blew and dissipated into the air about him.

“Hey.” Said Jeff.

“You him?”

“Who’s ‘him’?”

“The Devil.” the man replied.  He asked casually, as he may expect, if anybody may expect the Devil to be around at anytime, anywhere.

“No, sorry.” Jeff replied.  “He hasn’t been here in a while.  It’s just me.  I’m Jeff.”

The man studied him.  He tilted his cap up, screwed his eyes and peered at Jeff through the sun.  His cigarette hung from his lip, the cherry glowing in the shade of his hat. Ash broke from the end and fell to the road.

“Are you telling me,” the man drawled, dropping the cigarette to the ground, crushing it beneath the toe of his boot, and promptly drawing another from the breast pocket of his shirt, “the Devil closed up shop?  He ain’t here no more?”  He did not sound upset about this, merely curious, sort of surprised.

“That’s what I’m telling you.” Jeff said.  The Devil had not been there for a long, long time.  Jeff wasn’t sure he had been there at all.  He did not tell the man this, though he would if he was asked.

The man studied him a moment longer, measuring him up.    Then he grinned.  It was a wide, white, gleaming grin, and a reaction Jeff had never seen before.  He spread his arms wide, ukulele in one hand, unlit cigarette in the other, and spun around once, twice, thrice.  He whooped and laughed and hollered.  He capped it all with a skip and a hop, clicking the scuffed heels of his boots together in a sort of triumph.

“I’m Chris.” he said, jovially, hand outstretched.  He approached Jeff in three brisk strides.  Jeff took his hand and was shaken vigorously.  “Looks like I’m gonna be the new Devil in these parts.”

“Oh?” Jeff asked.

The man drew a wooden match from  his hip and snapped it with a brown fingernail.  It popped and hissed to life.  He cupped it to his face and inhaled.  Once again, smoke wafted about his face and head.  “Yessir.” he continued, “Seems a fairly good racket, souls for fortunes.  If he’s out, I’m in.”

Jeff nodded to the ukulele.  “Not exactly rock n’ roll you got there.”

“This?  Fuck you it ain’t rock and roll!” he grinned again, that wide, white grin.  “World’s chock full of guitar players my man.  You need something new to get attention, something fresh. I ain’t talking that Don Ho touristy Hawaiian bullshit, neither.  I’m talking all out, shake your ass, whiskey and fuckin’ rock n’ roll!” He laughed and shook the ukulele in the air. “Lemme show you what I mean.”

Chris clamped his cigarette between his teeth and held his ukulele to him, high and against his chest.  He wined at Jeff, grinned once again, and began to tap his finger and thumb against the hollow base of the instrument rhythmically, tap thump, tap tap thump, tap thump, tap tap thump.  His boot heel kicked into the ground, kicking up grit and gravel and dust.  Then he gripped the neck, fingers splayed, and began to strum.

It was high and tinny, unlike anything he had heard in a long while.  For such a small instrument, it projected a loud clear sound.  Chris played chords, sharp and quick and bleeding funk.  Jeff’s skin prickled and his toe tapped; he couldn’t help himself, this was, indeed, all out, ass shaking, whiskey and fucking rock n’ roll.

Chris began to sing, and Jeff knew the words immediately.  He wasn’t expecting it, as it was up-tempo and sharp, not like any rock and blues any other musician had ever presented to him,.  “Went down to the cross roads!” he crooned, “fell down on my knees!  Went down to the cross roads, fell down on my knees! Asked the Lord above, have mercy if you please!”  His fingers tapped and thumped and strummed. He kicked so hard a small cloud of dust had enveloped both of them.  He took no notice, but played and played.

He finished and the small instrument in his hands seemed to vibrate and thrum with residual sound.  He took a large drag off of his cigarette, stomped it out, and winked once more at Jeff.  “What do you say boss.  Is that rock or is that rock?”

“That is rock.” Jeff agreed.  “But I don’t get your plan.”

Chris shrugged and hunkered down on his haunches beside Jeff’s stool.  “Ain’t nothing really. I sit.  I wait.  These boys come round and want to sell their souls, whatever’s left of them, for rock and roll. Talent on the axe, a record deal, and all the trappings that come with it.  ‘Cept they get here and, by God, the Devil up and left!  All that work, all those miles, risking life and limb for nothing!  I can only imagine what you’ve seen, being the bearer of bad news.  How none of them boys ever done and killed you I’ll never know.” Chris peered up at him with this, suddenly somber, “If you can even die.  You out here, no shanty, no pot to piss in.  You don’t even have a tan.  You ain’t even human, are you?”

“I’m human.”  Jeff answered.  “It’s something about this place.  It’s… stuck.  I’m stuck.”

“You look like you’ve seen some shit, boy.” Chris said, his somberness gone.  “I imagine you wouldn’t mind some company, neither.”

Chris was right, he didn’t.  They sat and talked.  Chris played his ukulele (“My uke.” he’d drawl). The sun rose and fell.  There was, indeed, something about that place; Chris needed a shanty or a pot to piss in just as much as Jeff did.  An added bonus, that bulge in his breast pocket never ran out of cigarettes.  After an eternity alone, it was good to have company, though Chris could yammer on at nothing day in and day out.  Chris even began to teach Jeff how to play his instrument; step one, “You gotta hold it like you would a lady.”

Weeks passed and a young man came, as they inevitably do.  He, like the others, had a large wooden acoustic guitar trapped to his back.  He, like the others, stared at Jeff with mistrust and confusion.

“So uh.” he stammered, “Have you seen a guy around here?”

“A guy?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah, you know, a guy.  Tall, maybe?  Dark.  I don’t really have a description, but…” he trailed off.

“This guy’s kind of tall.” Jeff answered and motioned to Chris.  Chris grinned, winked, and plucked his ukulele.

“I… don’t think that’s him.” the boy said.  He looked around uncertainly.  “The guy I’m looking for, well, he’s… I don’t know, he’s.”

“The Devil.” Jeff finished for him.  “I know, you’re looking for the Devil.  I’m sorry, he’s not here.  I don’t think he’s been here in a long, long time.  I don’t know if he was ever here to begin with, honestly.”  He watched the boy’s dawning sadness and loss, as he had watched so many times before.  This time, however, he intervened.

“I have some good news, though.” he clapped the young man on the shoulder and turned him to the hunkered man by his stool, “Have you met my good friend Chris?  He’s got some skills that’ll knock your socks off, and all it requires is one little soul.”

Crossroads

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