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Friday, June 17, 2011

I Went Down To The Cross Roads - Short Story Orignally Published in the Christian Sci-Fi Journal

I Went Down to the Crossroads, and Tried to Flag a Ride…
Willy Minnix
There was this watch sitting on a desk. It was a nice watch, a Bulova, in fact. This particular Bulova had a couple of interesting features, interesting at least for someone who wasn’t used to wearing such types of watches. One of the things that the owner of this watch, a blues musician named Barry Watkins (known to his few fans as Barry Walker), particularly liked about this watch was the miniature pulsimeter dial that he thought gave the watch a look of authority. There was also another dial surrounding the edge of the watch that one could use to… well no one really knows what those dials are for, but they look good. This one did rotate, Barry had owned watches before (much cheaper watches) that had the same dial but didn’t rotate.
A hand picked up the watch, although the hand didn’t belong to Barry. Barry was in the shower at the time. Yes, even bluesmen need to shower once in a while. You might think that the hand belonged to a thief, but in this case it did not. The hand was very pale and the veins underneath the skin pulsed with a golden glow. A second hand came up and pulled out the watch stem. This hand also was slightly strange with the pale skin and veins pulsing with the golden glow. The hands adjusted the watch back fifteen minutes and then set it down on the table.
The next time we see this watch is around Midnight at a place where the C & G railroad line used to cross the Yazoo and Mississippi railroad line, what used to be called the Yellow Dawg, or simply the Dawg, way back in the 20’s and 30’s. They moved the Dawg further north and renamed it the Illinois Central, just like in that old Doobie Brothers song. The locals always thought it was a crying shame that them railroad men would name a Southern Treasure after a Yankee town, but that’s the way the ball drops sometimes.
These two railroad crossings were immortalized in the now sacred blues tune made famous by one Robert Johnson. This is the Cross Roads. The one that begins “I went down to the cross roads. Tried to flag a ride…” Everyone thinks it’s about two street crossings, but it isn’t, as any real blues aficionado will tell you. And Barry Watkins-Walker was a true blues aficionado.
Barry wannabe-Walker knew everything about the blues. He could tell you about where Robert Johnson drank the poison that finally killed him, he could tell you who Charlie Patton was and what songs of his influenced B.B. King. He could even tell you what brand of guitar strings Sonny Boy Williamson (the first not the second) was reported to use. He knew vague things like what amp setting Eric Clapton used when he recorded “Sunshine of Your Love.” And that wasn’t all he knew. He had a thousand bits of blues trivia floating around in his head. He could play every song that Robert Johnson wrote, not well, but he could still play them. Most of Eric Clapton’s and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s songs too.
While most of the locals were convinced that he sucked and that nothing short of a miracle would ever help the boy out, there was one person who was a huge Barry Walker fan. That was Deloris Farriday. Deloris was kind of a town outcast of her hometown of Moorehead, Mississippi, mainly because she was black and Barry was as white as a sheet. “It just ain’t done in these parts,” so the old folks say.
But they were happy. Deloris liked the way Barry sang, and liked the songs he wrote about her. One song began, “Oh I love my delta queen, oh I love my delta queen, she may be black as the night, but I love my delta queen.” Not very original, but it made her feel pretty special. Not often does a well-to-do city boy come to the Delta, and not often does the same well-to-do city boy romance a poor African-American girl like herself. Barry Walker, though he was short on talent, and long on trivia, was also big in heart, at least in the opinion of Deloris Farriday.
But that was all later, it all started something like this.
“You mean you’ve lived your whole life in Moorehead, Mississippi and you ain’t never heard of Robert Johnson?”
“Nope. Can’t say I have.”
Barry, brushed a long strand of corn yellow hair out of his eyes and shook his head in disbelief. “What kind of music do you listen to?”
Deloris sat at the bus stop waiting on a bus to take her to Angola to visit her grandma for the weekend. She had always had a bit of a curious streak in her, and the white boy with the battered guitar case and fancy watch seemed too much for her to let slide by without finding out what he was doing in Moorehead. Now here he is talking nonsense about some dead musician named Robert Johnson. She had a cousin named Bobby Johnson, but he wasn’t dead and he wasn’t no musician either.
“Well, I listen to most of the stuff they play on the radio, some R&B, some hip hop, rap and the occasional country song now and then. But I’m not much into music. I want to become a lawyer when I get out of school.” Deloris seemed slightly defensive about becoming a lawyer, which made sense since most folks in these parts just laughed at her and said things like “Girl, ain’t never been no black girl from around here become no lawyer, and I can’t see that happening anytime soon.” But she didn’t care. It was her dream, and everybody needed a dream didn’t they?
Well, this answer didn’t sit too well with Barry. He scratched his head. “Girl, I’m gonna have to educate you on the finer details of true American culture: the Blues.” The words flowed out of his mouth like smoke. He spoke the name of his favored music like one speaks of a religious experience, as if merely speaking the name might shake the world if not invoked correctly, or as if savoring a choice delicacy like in them fancy restaurants down in New Orleans. Barry was lost in his own savoring, until he noticed that Deloris wasn’t all that enthralled. “I guess not everyone starts out as a blues fan, but once you’ve been bitten, there ain’t no going back.”
Deloris looked at him askance. “I have heard blues music. My cousin Navin plays in a blues band on Saturday nights at Thornton’s Juke joint. But Navin ain’t that good and most of the time him and his buddies are too drunk to play much of anything. I told Loretta Thornton, her daddy owns the place you know, that if they wanted Navin and his friends to play half way’s decent, they shouldn’t let them get all liquered up before they go on.”
“I see that you haven’t bore witness to real blues music. Please if you will, allow me to bestow some truth upon your pretty black ears.” Barry smooth talked with the best of them, and was rewarded with a slight blush from Deloris.
“Alright. I suppose the bus ain’t here yet. If you want to play sumpin’ that’s up to you.” She smiled and gestured to his guitar case.
Barry laid out his guitar case and pulled out a 1936 National guitar. If Deloris had any clue what a valuable piece of equipment Barry was traipsing around the county with she might have either been impressed or recognized Barry’s foolishness right off the bat. As it was t just looked like any other old guitar to her.
Barry took out a blue piece of bottle neck out of his case and put it on his ring finger of his left hand. And without further ado he launched into a rousing rendition of “She’s A Little Queen of Spades,” by Robert Johnson. Now as stated earlier in this tale, Barry wasn’t all that good. But fortunately for him, he was slightly better than Deloris’s drunken cousin Navin. And so, the fact that she was somewhat impressed encouraged Barry enough to ask her out on a date when she got back from visiting her grandma, which of course led to some interesting talk around town. This being the modern area though, Barry didn’t have to worry much about getting lynched or anything, but they still got a lot of harsh stares as they walked around town or drove around on his motorcycle.

Anyway, I should probably be getting back to the point. The next time we saw the Bulova, it was about midnight at the crossroads where the Southern used to (not no more) cross the Dawg. This is the place, baby! This is the spot where Robert Johnson sold his soul to Satan, Old Scratch, that cloven-foot devil, Lucifer his-own-self. Now Barry, you see, wasn’t much for religion. Wasn’t much for believing in Heaven and Hell, and wasn’t much for thoughts of God and the Devil, neither. But he did believe in Robert Johnson. He also believed that something must have happened to Johnson. Every legend has some sort of beginning. He’d be just as happy if Robert Johnson sold his soul to aliens, as long as the blues was there.
All the tales of the time say that Robert Johnson was the worst musician and biggest wannabe in Mississippi. He would harass and bother all the other high caliber musicians by bringing around his battered guitar. Where they would jeer and tell him to get lost. Anyway, the story goes that at some point ole Bob shows back up in town, only now he’s the biggest badass guitar player that ever strutted into a juke joint. Robert claimed that he went down to the crossroads, now, on a full moon and sold his soul to the Devil to gain his powers of bluesification.
Some folks corroborated Johnson’s tale by saying that he spent a nights in the graveyard, what folks in those parts called the bone-yard, learning from a strange blond haired grey-skinned guitar player. Other’s said that it only appeared like a night, but Johnson was actually missing for a while, and that single night he claims to have spent there lasted at least a decade.
There were one or two old timers, now well into their 90’s, who were young when all this was reported to go down. And Barry, being the diligent bluesologist that he was, had interviewed them all. All their stories seemed to be believable. Or at least, it seemed to Barry that they believed what they were saying. Some told about how Robert was a regular attendee (mayhap even a Sunday School teacher) of one of the local Baptist churches, in some tales it was a Methodist church, and in yet another tale it was a Pentecostal church. At any rate, all the tales agree that he attended until his wife and first born child died. The death of his family darn near drove Bob right out of his mind with grief. It wasn’t too long thereafter that he disappeared.
Barry wanted to find out all about Johnson, even to the point of selling his soul if that’s what it took. He longed for immortality just like his idol. Who cares if his debatable soul had to languish in an even more debatable hell? Anyway if there was a hell, everything was reversible, wasn’t it? He knew in the legends that Faust was screwed, but Daniel Webster got his boy off, right?
Barry double checked his watch, and reached into his pocket to feel for the black cat bone. He had a piece of John the Conqueror (pronounced for you Yankees, “conkah”) root in the other pocket. He wasn’t a seventh son of a seventh son, but you can only be what you are, the old crone that sold him all that stuff, and the bag of mojo hanging around his neck, had said.
Any rate, he was now under a full summer moon, awaiting the coming of the Lord of the Flies. Well, he had one minute left to go, and if it was all true he should be here any minute now. In all his research Barry had never found out why exactly this particular cross roads was the place where Satan liked to hang out, but did that really matter? Probably not. The fact was if it was true, then Barry would be rich and famous in a matter of months, maybe even weeks.
These thoughts as well as all the scraps of history Barry cold remember were floating around in his head, when Barry thought he could see something glowing up a head in the fog. Perhaps he thought, is that someone’s tail lights in the distance? Was he going to be interrupted in his quest? Hopefully it wasn’t a cop. The last thing he needed was to explain himself to some county mounty.
But the lights grew in form as he watched and he realized that the lights were golden in color and looked to be pulsating even as they grew larger. He glanced at his watch again and then back up to the lights. His palms began to sweat and he unconsciously reached for the black cat bone in his pocket. He didn’t know what to expect. After all, it appeared that all the legends were true, and here came Satan; Satan, the baddest dude in the history of bad. This could go really, really wrong if Barry wasn’t careful.
The creature that appeared before him was unlike anything he’d heard in any of the legends. He was frightening beyond all of Barry Watkins-Walker’s imaginings. The creature stood easily seven feet tall. Was male, but with an effeminate heroin chic quality about him. His skin was pale white, almost translucent, and the veins in his body were visible beneath his skin. The veins glowed with a strange golden shimmer. The eyes had that same type of glow, and Barry realized these were the lights that he had seen moments before coming towards him in the dark. The being’s long hair gleamed with a light of it’s own in the darkness. Barry took a step backwards in alarm.
“Greetings mortal.” The being did not open his mouth, but the sound exploded in Barry’s mind like a trumpet. No, it was more like the guitar orchestra that Brian May was famous for. Enormous! Barry sank to his knees. “Rise! Thou art not permitted to kneel, mortal.”
Barry climbed back on his unsteady feet. He fondled the black cat bone again, this time taking it out of his pocket and holding it with both hands.
“Why art thou here, mortal?”
“I… I…uh, I want to be a blues god.” Barry stammered.
“Thou mayest one day attain the glorification of godhood, Barry Watkins, but dost thou know what it is that thou asketh?” The voice boomed in his head and made him flinch with each word, yet the mouth never moved an inch. The King James grated against Barry’s sensibilities of gutter slang. It hurt almost as much as the disembodied voice.
“What? I don’t understand you,” Barry whined.
“What is it you seek, mortal?” The voice commanded.
“I want to be the best blues player of all time. Like Robert Johnson.”
“Do not waste my time with your puny dreams, mortal. I will ask again, what is it that you seek?”
Barry was unsure of himself now. Was the god creature deaf as well as mute? Surely this wasn’t Satan. Where were the horns, where was the tail. Barry looked down at his watch, five minutes had passed. He was wondering when he could go home, if he would go home. He knew if he didn’t answer the god-creature soon he would likely be slain right here in the middle of the crossroads. “I want immortality.”
“Ah, so that’s the truth of it, is it?” The voice seemed to calm down a bit in Barry’s head. He wasn’t sure if it was getting quieter or if he was adjusting to the sound.
“Shall I show you immortality then?” The creature was wearing a black leather outfit resembling the one that Mick Fleetwood wore on the Roumers album cover. Except this creature was not wearing a billowy pirate shirt as Fleetwood wore. He reached into the skin tight vest and pulled out a crystal ball about the size of a softball. How it was carried in the vest, Barry couldn’t see. But as the creature brought the ball closer to Barry, it began to glow of its own light.
The ball began to hover above the palm of the creature and floated around its body. It made a compete circuit around his body three times going first around the head, then the waist and then the lower legs before it began floating towards Barry. Once it got to Barry it made its circuitous way around his body, starting at his lower legs, then ending directly in front of his face.
“Watch, mortal, for you will see your future.”
Barry gazed within the depths of the crystal. He couldn’t be sure of what he was seeing. The mysterious golden glow, like golden lava that was pulsing in the creature eyes and veins was within the globe as well. And with each passing second it grew more powerful, until Barry’s face and hair was awash in the glow. Slowly out of the boiling lava images began to appear within.
Not long after selling his soul to Satan, Barry meets Robert Jameson. Robert is an A and R man for Atlantic records. He has worked with the big named blues men all over the world. When he heard Barry playing in Silky O’Sullivan’s in Memphis, he knew he just had to sign him. It was really a freak accident that Jameson was anywhere near Memphis at the time, except his car broke down in Little Rock on the way from Austin to Chicago, and by the time he got back on the road it was already much later than he planned. He thought it would probably be a good move to stop for dinner in Memphis, see if anyone worth listening to was playing and get on to Chicago in the morning.
When he heard Barry’s first song, he knew that he was experiencing magic. You see, Robert had the lucky, or perhaps unlucky depending on the way you look at it, distinction of having signed five other acts who had also sold their souls to Satan in exchange for immortality. Three of those bands were now washed up has-beens, but whoever said immortality was forever?
Before the night was over, Barry had a date with some bigger executives at Atlantic records, and though he didn’t know it yet, was onto a successful career as a blues god.
Barry’s new band is called Barry Walker and the Howlin’ Bone Yard Dogs. They had played 130 gigs over the past year, but this New Year’s gig was the Mack Daddy of all gigs. They are playing at times square in front of millions of crazy drunks. It is the thrill of a lifetime to say the least. And like every other gig of the 130 they had played, Deloris is backstage hanging around in the wings. This time however she’s making time with Barry’s new manager Jerry Stevens.
Barry met Jerry at a dinner for uppity ups in L.A. at the premiere of White Hot Blues, a movie starring a number of the famous Hollywood Celebs. It was about a pair of young thieves stealing one of Elvis’ guitars from Graceland. Barry thought the movie was pretty good. But what was monumental was being introduced to Jerry. Jerry had managed a number of famous bands over the years and was currently looking to manage the next up-and-coming thing. Barry just happened to be that next up-and-coming thing.
Thanks to Jerry, the Howlin’ Bone Yard Dogs were able to play this New Year’s gig as well as the previous 130 before that. But also thanks to Jerry, Barry and Deloris were growing further and further apart as photo shoots, press conferences, radio promotions, late night TV interviews, and of course, the concerts and wild after parties began to take their toll. Not to mention the hellacious drug and alcohol addiction that Barry had acquired during the course of the year.
Deloris missed the sweet guy that used to sing her songs and write her love letters. One night around gig 110, Deloris mentioned this to Jerry who was all ears and sentiments. He made sure Deloris new that he was always there for her if she needed anything. It wasn’t long before he was more than just there for her.
So it’s no surprise to Jerry when he gets fired from being Barry and the Howlin’ Dogs manager after the New Years show.
Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll always take a toll on a person, sometimes quickly and sometimes it takes ‘em slow. But in the end it always takes ‘em. Barry finds himself on his twenty seventh birthday at a hospital with serious kidney failure resulting from Hepatitis. Two years later Barry dies in an entirely different hospital.
As Barry is being dragged into the pit of Hell, he passes a being very similar in form to the first one he met at the cross roads that night so long ago, though this guy’s slightly different.
“Welcome to Hell, mortal.”
“This can’t be. I don’t belong here.” Barry looks at the being as fear creeps into his voice. He’s still wearing the hospital gown that he wore when he died.
“It is, Barry Watkins. And yes, according to the contract that you made with our master, you do belong here.” The creature never once opened its mouth, until the words finished forming in Barry’s head. After the being “spoke” it flashed Barry a grin filled with pointed teeth. “Take him away!” It shouted, this time using its mouth.
At the pronouncement of the word, two other demons fly up and drag Barry screaming down to the lake of fire.
Some where in Chicago, a young man with a guitar, puts ear plugs into his ears, and attempts to play the last hit of the Howlin’ Bone Yard Dogs, “Don’t drag me down screaming when I go!”
Barry tore his eyes from the gazing crystal and looked at the being in the Mick Fleetwood getup. “Is this true? That’s not how it will be! Why did you make it show me those things?” Barry blurted these things as a single question.
“The mirror serves the maker. I cannot make it show anything that is not true. The choice is yours Barry Watkins. You must decide if immortality is worth the cost.”
“But that’s not immortality, I die.”
“No one ever truly dies, Barry Watkins. All souls are immortal, yours as well as mine. What you do with the soul is up to you.” The voice had quieted to a whisper in his mind, but the eyes glowed brighter in the darkness.
“I don’t want this.” Barry pleaded with the creature. “This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Very well. Good day to you then.” The creature plucked the orb from the air and placed it back into his vest. He turned around and walked away.
Barry watched for a moment stunned into immobility. Far in the distance a golden stream of fire shot off into the night sky, like the tail of a Fourth of July rocket. Two other golden trails shot off to the right and to the left. Barry followed these with his eyes until the glow faded out.
While he was still gazing into the heavens, he heard a shuffling from in front of him. He could see two red dots of light coming towards him from out of the bushes. The form of a creature very much like the one that had just left appeared before him, only this guy looked slate gray with scarlet glowing in his veins.
“So you’re the great Barry Watkins!” The creature smiled. Barry could see the moonlight reflecting off of jagged teeth. This creature spoke like a normal man, and not with the voice of a god. “What can I do for you?”
Barry heard a snap, looked down at the Bulova and noticed that the crystal had cracked. He could make out the time as twelve fifteen.
I went down to the cross roads, fell down on my knees, asked the Lord above for mercy. Save poor Bob if you please.”

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