Alan tossed his cased guitar in the van highly disappointed with his performance. The crowd danced to every top forty tune they played but when it came to the bands originals, only their hardcore fans made a show on the dance floor.
While packing his drums into the Chevy van, Billy noticed Alan’s temper and guitar toss. Normally Alan would go on about how great the band sounded and how the people churned up the dance floor, but for the last four shows he’s walked off as stone cold as a tombstone.
“What’s bothering you, Alan?” Billy asked. “I noticed you’ve been melancholy of late.
“It’s nothing,” Alan answered.
“Nothing! Then it has been nothing for the last four shows. You walked off the stage in the same irritated, silent-as-graveyard mood as before. Have you caught Becky messing around, or, has she found out that you’re a playa?” Billy said with a smile.
“No, nothing like that,” Alan said slightly amused.
“Well it’s Hallows Eve, brother. You know what that means; we get plastered and go ‘Run amuck, amuck, amuck?” Billy said quoting a line from the movie Hocus Pocus. “The crowd was dancing their asses off and according to Scott the bartender they drank plenty too. And when the beer flows our wallet grows.” Billy pulled out a wad of hundred dollar bills and fanned them near Alan’s face.
Ignoring Billy’s money wave, Alan calmly situated his guitar in the van. “Did it escape your notice that only our committed fans hit the floor when we played our originals? And being that I write most of the music and Jay the lyrics, which are great lyrics by the way, I don’t think I have what it takes to write something memorable.”
“Dude, you’re talented. Don’t sale yourself short,” assured Jay, walking up with two girls, one under each arm.
“Look at you, Mr. Casanova,” Billy said laughing.
“Hardly. Whaaao, Black Betty bam-ba-lam, Johnson, here on my right is interested in you,” Jay said singing a line from Ram Jam’s 1977 ‘Black Betty’ song. “She likes the way you beat the skins. ‘ Soulful rhythm’ she said. And this is Sherry Westford. She liked my singing, so she’s not going anywhere,” Jay said laughing, as Sherry slapped him on the shoulder.
Billy looked Betty up then down noticing her hazel eyes, low-cut mid-drift blouse, tight jeans, and pumps. “Damn girl, you have striking eyes. My name is Billy Stetsons and this here is Agitated Alan.”
“Knock it off, Billy,” Alan said opening the passenger door and stepping into the van.
“It’s just Betty Johnson, no ‘bam-ba-lam’,” she said mocking Jay, “and I’m not black but high-yellow.” She then turned to Alan. “Honey, what you need is a little Robert Johnson juju.”
“Robert who? Is he a relative?” ask Alan.
“Here it is 2018, we have the internet and Google, you’re playing rock and roll, and you’ve never heard of Robert Johnson? You poor white boy,” Betty said, shaking her head.
“I’m alabaster,” Alan said, causing Betty to make a laughing pfft noise through her lips.
“Well at least you haven’t lost your sense of humor,” Billy laughed, as he slid his arm around Betty’s slender waist. “But you know, the Crossroads, making a deal with the devil for fame and fortune,” Billy pulled Betty closer, “and all the women you can love?” Betty looked up at Billy and smiled.
“Well, looks like that’s the last club in Jackson Miss. that lets you play rock and roll. Where’re we off to now?” asked Greg, walking up carrying a bass guitar over his shoulder.
“T o take Alan here to the Crossroads to impart some Robert Johnson magic on his ass,” said Jay.
“You know that’s BS, Jay. Ike Zimmerman taught Robert how to play after Roberts’s second wife and child died during childbirth,” said Greg.
“Well I’m impressed with this alabaster boy,” Betty said, putting a smile on Alan’s face returning the favor. “But do you know where Ike taught Robert to play so well?”
“His home I’d imagine,” answered Greg.
“In the graveyard across the street from Ike’s house,” Betty said as a matter-of-fact.
“We don’t have another gig until this Friday,” Billy said. “You girls want to take a road trip to see the three blue hollow-body guitars at the famous Crossroads of highway 61 and 49?”
“Absolutely, it’ll be fun,” said Sherry, still wrapped in Jay’s arm. “But Billy, you have to treat Betty real nice or you might end up with cat scratch fever.”
“You hush, girl. I’m sure Billy knows just how to treat a woman,” Betty said, as she slapped Billy on the ass and sashayed toward the van.
“So are we going to The Crossroads or the cemetery?” asked Alan.
“Lord, boy, you really don’t know the story, do ya?” said Betty. “The Crossroads is where the deal was made. Besides, Ike lived in Beauregard which is less than an hour away; the Crossroads is a little under three. The Crossroads would be more of a road trip whereas Beauregard, a mere Sunday drive.”
“So Clarksdale it is,” said Jay.
Greg jumped in the driver’s seat while Alan buckled himself into the passenger side: both sat shotgun since they were traveling solo. The two couples buckled in on the bench seat behind Greg and Alan.
As they drove through the subdivisions, they saw some older kids still out in full regalia: vampires, and mummies, an axe resting on one kid’s head in a fake pool of blood and of course the scantily clad nurse and cheerleader. They all toted pillowcases filled with the nights sweet treasures; the nurse and cheerleader toted the larger sacks.
“So what exactly do I do once we get there? I mean, if this juju’s supposed to happen at the stroke of midnight we’re going to be an hour late,” Alan said, looking back at Betty.
“Only before the sun comes up, baby. The devil doesn’t like the sun, nor does his hellhounds,” Betty said in a serious tone. “As for the rest, I’ll tell you when we get there. I don’t want to scare you off.” The van fell silent then Betty busted out laughing, “Y’all are too serious for me.” Everyone started laughing as Jay lit a sizable joint and Greg turned up the radio.
As the van exited Jackson, they all sang the line from the Eagles ‘Take It Easy’ in unison, “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”
The moon was not only full but appeared three times its normal size. It provided ample light in the countryside: woods and plowed pastures filled the landscape between small Podunk towns. Alan had slumped in his chair with his feet on the dash and fallen asleep thirty minutes into their road trip. After the joint was smoked, Jay and Sherry left the bench seat and made room between the instruments for a romantic rendezvous then past out. Billy stretched out on the vacant seat and crashed from the mixture of weed and whiskey.
“Looks like we’re the survivors,” Betty said, looking around the van.
“We’ve out lasted, out smarted, and by the looks of things, out partied these amateurs.” Greg gave out a long yawn. He turned the radio to a soft rock station. As Journey’s ‘Open Arms’ played Greg felt two hands on his shoulders gently messaging the stiffness out from holding the steering wheel for the last two hours.
“I wouldn’t mind taking the wheel for the last hour of the trip. I’m a night owl anyway. I’ll wake everyone when we get there,” Betty said softly in Greg’s ear.
“You got yourself a deal. Let me pull over and she’s all yours.”
“No need to stop. Haven’t you ever played Switch-hitter?” asked Betty.
“Only when I played baseball in high school.” Greg felt embarrassed for giving such a quick answer and not asking what she meant.
“This is more along the lines of the sexual connotation,” Betty said, smiling at Greg’s goofy expression in the rear-view mirror. “But no, we won’t be having sex in the driver’s seat, not unless you want to be found lying dead in a ditch the next morning. The partner we’ll be switching with is the van.” Betty laughed.
“Ok, what do we do?” Greg asked disappointed.
“You pull the seat back as far as you can while keeping your left hand on the steering wheel and I’ll slide in front of you. Once I take a hold of the wheel you slide out.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Greg said, “we better slide real slowly.”
Betty giggled. “Ok, move back.”
Releasing the wheel with his right hand Greg pulled the lower lever and slid the seat back. Betty swung her left leg against his moving it to the side. With one even move, she slide in front of him, grabbed the wheel, and with her right foot began searching for the gas pedal.
“God, can I just stay here for a minute?” Greg pleaded, with his head tilted back.
With a smile, Betty wiggled her butt against his crouch. “No, now slide out please.”
“Story of my life,” Greg said, as he slid out and onto the sparse bench seat next to Billy. Within ten minutes, he was sound asleep.
At precisely 1:30am, the van lights illuminated an empty field as the tires slowed on the gravel. A ditch ran along the roadside lined with trees. Beyond the trees was a pasture then woods.
Alan was the first to wake. “Where are we?” he asked, looking around. “Where are the blue guitars?”
“That’s not the real Crossroads, just a tourist attraction to get people to spend money in Clarksdale. This is the real Crossroads,” Betty said, pointing to the intersection.
A cymbal crashed in the back of the van causing Betty and Alan to jump and stirring Billy out of his sleep knocking Greg onto the floorboard.
Sherry popped her head up from behind the bass drum buttoning her blouse as Jay sat up behind her stretching. “Are we here?” she asked.
“Where’s here?” asked Billy, looking out the window.
“This is the real Crossroads according to Betty,” said Alan, opening the van door. “I gotta take a piss.”
“Just a bunch of pastures and trees,” said Jay. “Exactly where are we?”
“Right outside of Rosedale,” said Betty. “It was at this very crossing where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil.” She looked up through the front windshield at the full moon. “If you ever listened to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads song you’d know this. Besides, Clarksdale is too far from water. The Mississippi river is just past those woods over there.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” ask Greg.
“The devil never moves to far from water. Not sure why but it sure makes sense being there’s so much voodoo in New Orleans?” Betty continued staring at the moon as if hypnotized by its glow.
Alan walked back to the van and slid the side door open. “Who wants to stretch their legs? It’s nice and cool out here.”
The remaining band members and the two girls exited the van. Jay walked in the center of the intersection, looked up toward the sparkling velvet sky, and yelled, “Give me the voice of a god, Satan.” Sherry, Greg, and Billy laughed. Alan noticed Betty was not amused.
“So what do we do now?” ask Alan, in effort to distract Betty from Jay’s lame attempt of a joke.
“First off, Jay, you get your silly-ass back with the others.” Betty took Alan’s hand and led him to the center of the intersection, looked around, then up to the sky. “Right about here,” she said, moving Alan slightly to her right. “Now get on your knees and don’t move.” She looked over to Jay. “And don’t you say a word, smartass. That goes for all of you.”
Jay leaned in closed to Sherry’s ear. “She’s taking this awfully serious. How long have you two known each other?”
“For a couple of months. We met at Jackson U. One day I noticed she was having lunch by herself so I joined her. We don’t have any classes together so we’d just hang out during lunch and after school. Discovering that we both love rock and roll instead of all the hip-hop and boy bands that has saturated the music scene, we decided that when a rock band came to town we would hook up and go. That’s how we came to see you guys.”
“So what’s with the juju stuff?” Jay asked.
“How can you love rock and roll and not get into the mysterious side of it; Robert Johnson and the deal with the devil, Jimmy Page and Aleister Crowley, Patricia Kennealy and Jim Morrison?” Sherry’s voice rose with excitement just talking about it.
“Could you two hold it down please,” Betty said, as she walked past them toward the tree line. “I need Alan to concentrate.”
“Where are you going?” asked Billy.
“I’ll be back. Just keep quite.” Betty disappeared into the shadow of the trees. The night turned deathly quiet except for the occasional hoot from a horned owl hunting field rats and whatever gibberish Betty had Alan repeating over and over.
Having slept off his buzz, Jay lit another joint and began passing it to the others trying not to laugh at the whole ordeal. As Billy was taking a hit, a tall, man-like shadow appeared from the trees. None of the kids could make out arms or legs, just a faceless head and body. The apparition slowly drifted toward Alan who stopped chanting and closed his eyes titling his face toward the moon.
Stopping a few feet from Alan, it spoke in a low, southern drawl with an accent from a time long forgotten. “Who dat callin’ on the Devil-man?” Alan appeared frozen unable to speak.
The kids jumped at a sudden high-pitched yelp, like a dog in pain coming from the shadows of the trees. Each yelp and painful cry got louder as it continued. They noticed that Alan was starting to shake.
“The hell with this, I don’t put up with animal cruelty,” said Billy, as he headed for the ditch. Reaching the edge of the road, he looked down. He saw two small, red glowing orbs that looked like eyes moving side to side. In the midst of the yelping, he heard a deep growl coming from behind the eyes. Billy froze. He slowly looked to the right of the eyes and saw the yelping dog lying balled up and hairless: or was he seeing sinew as though someone or something had skinned it alive. He slowly turned toward the others. What they saw was an expression of sheer terror pasted across Billy’s face.
As Jay and Greg moved to help Billy, they froze at the sight of the shadow with red eyes rising from the ditch. In an instant, the shadow engulfed Billy and both disappeared into the ditch.
“Bes y’all be still now, ‘less you wanna end up like your friend,” said the apparition. “He had gumption, but no mo’.”
“What happened to him?” Greg yelled. But the apparition ignored him and turned back to Alan.
“You wanna be able ta play and write songs like no otha, am I right boy?” asked the Devil-man.
“Yes,” Alan said. His voice sounded as though he was in a hypnotic trance.
“You wanna be looked upon and appreciated by all, unlike that no-count daddy of yourn’,” the apparition continued.
“How would he know about his father?” asked Jay. Greg shrugged his shoulders staring in disbelief of what was happening and had happened to Billy.
Seeing tears rolling down her cheeks, Jay put his arm around Sherry. She was shaking uncontrollably from fear. “What’s happened to Betty?” she asked. Jay shook his head unable to give a plausible answer.
“Yes,” Alan answered.
“Then by the full moon above and the hound in the ditch, shall all be made so,” the Devil-man said in an old preachers tone while raising shadowy arms to the night sky.
As the hound cried louder Alan’s shaking became violent. He could feel the vibrations of the hound’s cries coming from the asphalt into his legs, torso, and arms. Lastly, he could feel his fingers stinging. The radio in the van kicked on blaring Robert Johnson song ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ causing Jay, Sherry, and Greg to jump. From the shadows under the trees, they heard several threatening growls.
“To hell with this,” Jay said as he began pulling Sherry toward the van.
“Ta hell is right, boy,” said the Devil-man.
Three hound-shaped shadows with red eyes leaped from the ditch grabbing each kid by the legs pulling them screaming into the shadow of the trees. Before shrouded in complete darkness, Sherry screamed for Betty, but no answer came.
Alan fell on his side as the apparition dissolved into mist and the hound ceased its yelping. Betty reappeared from the trees and walked over to where Alan lay drenched in sweat. Kneeling down, she gently put her hand on his shoulder. Alan slowly opened his eyes and blinked a couple of times. “Who is it?”
“You can call me Sweet Pea, Papa-Bob; I’m Virginia Travis’ great granddaughter. Memaw said this would work and she was right.” Betty helped Robert to his feet.
“Virginia, my first wife… I’ll be. Well I hope this holds, Sweet Pea. Hell ain’t no vacation spot,” said Robert.
“It should, the Devil-man got a four for one,” Betty said smiling.
“This poor boys soul is still in here. I can feel ‘em.”
“He’s a fine guitar player, just never in the right place at the right time. But with your combined talents, you’ll be the best guitarist and tunesmith there’s ever been,” said Betty.
Robert looked at his hands turning them over. He walked to the van and peered into the side mirror looking at his reflection. A white face with green eyes and long, brown wavy hair stared back. “Couldn’t find me a nice looking black boy, huh?” Robert said smiling.
“Sorry, Papa-Bob, just alabaster.”
Bruce Rowe © 2018