Before dawn, a truck pulled over to pick me up, and I spotted a peeling BUCHANAN FOR PRESIDENT sticker on the bumper. I prepared my anti-immigration speech in the hopes it might secure a longer ride than my last, which had ended when the trucker had nearly run his rig off the road and kicked my "faggotty ass" out into the night. I wound up not needing it.
With a jerk of his head the driver signaled me to throw my stuff in back. I did, carefully laying down my guitar case on some dirty hay that served as a bedliner. I put my duffel on top, hoping it wouldn't roll into the pigshit I knew had to be there somewhere. I grabbed the passenger door and hauled myself inside.
"Howdy," the driver said. He wore an ancient seed corn cap and overalls. "Where you headed?"
"Just a piece south of Clarksdale," I offered, trying to drop a little extra twang into my mouth. I'd spent enough time in Memphis over the years to do a fair impression of a Southerner, but I didn't want to overdo it and have the guy think I was making fun of him. He was the only one in two hours that even slowed down, much less came to a complete stop.
"Well, I can take you that far, at least. To Clarksdale, I mean. Settle in." He pulled back onto Highway 61. "Name's Floyd."
"Thanks for picking me up, Floyd." I told him my name.
He nodded. "That a guitar you got back there?"
I admitted that it was. This seemed to be enough information for him, as he didn't say anything more.
We rolled south, squeaking and rattling. Floyd turned up a country station and I managed to get a little sleep.
I woke up as we slipped into a rest stop parking space. Floyd told me I could catch a ride a lot easier from there than I could from downtown Clarksdale, where he was headed. I thanked him, got my case and bag (which smelled shit-free), and watched him pull away.
The sun was fully up. I guessed I had maybe thirty miles to cover, and eighteen hours to do it. Not impossible on foot. The rest area was deserted, anyhow.
A long walk gives you time to think. I spent the first hour deep in thought, and each subsequent hour noticing how increasingly heavy my guitar case was growing. By noon, I'd made eight miles. By three o'clock I'd only managed another four. I spent a couple hours sleeping under some trees. My head hurt. My ass hurt. My feet had ceased to hurt, as my legs were numb from the knees down. I stunk. I was covered in dirt from my nap. I put my thumb out and actually saw people speed up as they passed. I checked my map frequently and became convinced that I'd misjudged the distance. It was beginning to look like I still had twenty miles to go. No chance I'd make it by midnight.
After I'd finished the last of my trail mix, I considered that maybe I'd screwed up somehow and had gotten off the interstate at the wrong place. The road I was shambling down was dirt. The sun went down and it soon became all but pitch black. I stepped off the road a few paces and found another copse of trees. I pulled a blanket out of my duffel and draped it over my head, as the only traveling companions who seemed to be interested in me were mosquitoes. Hideous, bird-like mosquitoes. I ran a hand along my guitar case. I slept through the night and well into the next day.
When I woke I had a few horrible minutes when I had to decide which side of the road I had stepped off of the night before. The last thing I wanted was to beat my brains against the backroads for another day and wind up back at the rest area because I lost my direction.
After a long spell of dirty walking, I came up along a shotgun shack. As common in Mississippi as illiteracy and alcoholism. A black woman sat in a rocking chair and watched me walk halfway past.
"You look like a man done slept in the wood!" She called.
"Yes, ma'am," I offered over her deteriorating front yard fence, setting down my case and turning towards her.
"You also look like a man who lost."
"I don't know if I am or not, ma'am."
She cackled and leaned forward in her rocker. "If you don't know if you is or you ain't, then I got news for you! You is!"
I pulled out my sweaty map. "Do you think you could show me?"
"Not until you wash you'self off enough I can see if I'm talkin' to a brother or a white man!" Another cackle. "They's a pump in back, if you care to do that."
I thanked her and came through the cracked gate. She smiled at me as I laid my burdens down and went around back.
I did feel better after a rusty bath and a huge slab of corn bread, which the old woman had waiting for me when I came around to the front porch. I hadn't been able to tell how old she was from the road, but she had to be at least 80, and seemingly on her own. She watched me eat the bread and drink a glass of Kool-Aid in silence. The breeze came out of the woods and stirred up tiny funnels of dirt out on the road. It seemed like a long time before she said anything more to me.
"You ain't from around these parts."
"Ma'am, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that--"
Her brittle laugh cut me off.
"I know, I know... it get mighty tiresome hearin' advice from folk all day. But, sonny, where you headed you ain't goan do much more laughin'! You best enjoy it now!"
I smiled, a little confused. "I haven't even shown you my map."
She stopped laughing and spoke in a hushed, almost girlish voice. "I don't need to see your map, honey pie."
I didn't know how to continue.
She turned away from me, facing the dirt road. Almost as if I was already gone. "I knew where you was headin' the minute you come up my steps, swingin' that guitar. You ain't the first."
I knew I couldn't be. I also knew that the next thing she should say would amount to it not being too late to turn back. She said nothing. I knew she should try and pass off a Hand of Glory for me to carry or some black cat bones tied up in a velvet satchel. She didn't. She pointed one dry black finger up the road and said, "Thirteen mile. And you got to be walkin' it from here on out. Don't take no rides from nobody."
I stared at her. She wouldn't look at me. Her laugh was gone, and her wrinkled face looked older than ever.
"Get goin', honey. You gots to get there 'fore midnight. It's later than you think."
I got my gear and started back up the road. After I'd made a few hundred paces up the road, I looked back, but I couldn’t see the shack anymore. The trees and vines that pressed in against the road had hidden it from my sight. I kept walking.
Over the next five hours I was passed on the road twice. The first was a black Cadillac that seemed as out of place on a Delta backroad as I did. As it rolled by, it slowed. I couldn't see past the tinted windows. The shadowy driver hit the pedal and spun up a dust cloud around me. The cracks of sunlight that had found their way through the thick foliage cut through the dust and blinded me for a moment. When the air cleared, the Caddy was gone.
The next vehicle passed with its lights off after dusk. The western sky that I could see through the branches was a deep purple. All around me, the woods had come alive with the songs of night creatures. I didn't hear the motor of the truck until it was upon me, slowing down to a crawl.
"How about a ride?" the driver asked, leaning towards the open passenger window. I turned my head to look but didn't stop walking. The driver wore a dark Stetson. I couldn't see his face. The pickup looked a lot like Floyd's, but this wasn't him behind the wheel.
"No thanks. I'm almost there."
He rolled along beside me. I saw the legend on the passenger door. "Rosedale Farms, Wm. Brown, Proprietor."
"You sure you don't want me to take you on ahead into town? It's almost full dark, son."
"I know where I'm going." My guitar banged against my knee and rang softly in the case.
"So do I," the driver said after a moment, and then he slowly pulled past and up the road into the darkness. I was left with myself and the noises from the wet woods.
I got to where I was going soon after that. In the gloom, I could just make out a wide place in the road ahead, and by the time I reached the spot I could see the ethereal path of another back-county road as it crossed before me. Nothing else. What made me stop wasn't anything in particular, as there were no signs or markers. It was just the absence of any urge to go further.
I can't say I was sure I'd even found the right spot, but I was most definitely sure that I wasn't walking anymore. I stepped off the road and found a stump.
I didn't know what hour it was, having sold my watch in Memphis three days before, but I knew it was well before showtime. I flipped my guitar case over and popped the three brass catches.
My first guitar had been a nylon-stringer that I'd wheedled out of my folks for twenty bucks at Woolworth's back in Indianapolis. It was the same cliche from there on out. Folks are sure it will go the way of Boy's other hobbies. Woodburning, baseball cards, other such prepubescent thrills. Boy takes a fierce hold of the guitar and plays it until it falls apart. Folks supply better guitar. Boy becomes single-minded loner as he grows up. Folks don't know what to make of it all. Boy joins local band, band who think big
and produce little. Boy's peers go off to college and careers, Boy takes job in a pawnshop buying and selling used guitars. Folks die. You know, same old thing.
I pulled my big Martin from the case. In the dark, I tuned it up as best I could and started picking out a slow blues. Something behind me bounded through the woods, probably chased by a bigger something who was hungry. I fished in the case for my slide.
My boring story had kept to its boring path until a week before. I'd been behind the counter in Gilbert's Pawn, offering a teenager twenty dollars for a microwave worth one-fifty. The bell over the door had rung and a lush redhead had walked in with a guitar case. She hung back while I finished up with the kid. Then she had stepped up to the counter and had spun her tale.
Two days later I headed south.
I ran the slide down the strings and the Martin moaned. I rolled into a shuffle, punctuated with glossy screams from the glass around my ring finger.
I pulled my left hand off and rang a loud open G.
I'd never been much of a singer. In the band, one of our major obstacles had been that fact, combined with the further facts that neither was the bass player and that the drummer was usually drunk. The only thing we'd had going for us was my guitar playing, if I do say so myself. It wound up not being enough of a factor.
I managed a semi-inspired Howlin' Wolf vocal as I played. The music seemed to cut bright threads through the night, like the sunlight on the road from the old woman's shack.
I figured it had to be drawing on midnight. I stopped playing for a moment, took a deep breath, and launched into the descending turnaround that opens the song I'd chosen.
I went to the crossroads.
Fell down on my knees.
Said I'm down at the crossroads...
The music hung in the air with the marshy humidity. The noises around me faded and I became aware of nothing but my fingers, moving in near-darkness across the fretboard and my voice, not much more than a whisper but somehow huge in the stillness. I worked my way towards the end of the song. I sang the last line unaccompanied.
I'm standing at the crossroads, believe I'm sinking down.
I didn't move. I didn't breathe. I listened to the air and the last notes as they rang off through the trees. And then he spoke.
I couldn't tell where the voice was coming from. I was too afraid to look.
"I'm right over here, to your right."
I turned. In the dark I could make out a dark shape a few paces away.
I could only whisper. "Thanks."
"No, not bad at all," the figure continued, and I cringed back as fire erupted from its face and the smell of something burning filled my nostrils. "Whoa! Relax, Sparky! I'm just lighting a smoke! You want one?"
An orange ember glowed a few feet away.
"No thanks," I said.
"Kid, what are you doing out here?" he asked.
I shifted on my stump and turned towards him a bit more.
"I've been standing over here for twenty minutes and trying to figure out what a Yankee kid is doing on a Mississippi crossroads at midnight."
"Wait a minute," I began, feeling bolder. I squinted towards the orange
dot. "What... what are you saying? Isn't this... aren't you...I..."
"Son, I am not the devil."
I fell silent.
"You think you're the first person to sit on that stump and play in the dark? For a while, back in the sixties, it got so bad that sometimes a kid would come up that road, just like you done, and find tents set up out here! A half dozen hippies would be bangin' their guitars all night long."
I felt tiny. I felt ridiculous. I wished he would stop.
"Then it tapered off for a while. We'd get someone every few months or so, but I must tell you, you are the first one in a long while. Over two years."
I lowered my guitar into the case at my feet.
"I kept asking for a transfer, 'cause nobody was coming around anymore. But then I hear Mama June had herself a visitor today. Dirty white boy with a guitar."
"Are you a cop?" I asked. I told myself that at least there would be a cot and a shower in the county lockup.
The dark shape laughed, and the orange dot flew out to the road, where it exploded in sparks.
He rustled for another cigarette and sparked his lighter again. He raised it to his face.
My jaw must have made a sound when it hit my chest. His skin was beet-red and his eyes were piss-yellow. Two black horns rose from the sheer dome of his head. Below his neck, he wore a plain black suit. He lit his smoke.
"No son, I ain't a cop. And you can put your tongue back in your head, cause as I told you, I ain't the devil either."
I couldn't speak.
"The name's Gurlick. Demon of the Delta. Nice to meet you...?"
I spat out my name, not able to manage more. I was doubting my sanity, as I had been for a week. But this... this was different.
"Let me explain it to you. I'm perfectly willing to tune up your guitar for you. The Man himself taught me how. It works the same way as when he does it. You ride out of here in my Cadillac and fly out in the morning. We've got a studio and a producer waiting. We'll sign the papers on the way. The deal's a little more complex than you might have heard, though."
I reached out to touch my guitar in the darkness.
"But first, if you'll permit me, how'd you get directions?" Gurlick asked, blowing Clove smoke my way.
I told him about the redhead. About the guitar she'd brought into my shop and about her husband the failed bluesman who had blown his brains out. About how her husband had never mustered up the courage to follow the map he'd been given and make the midnight deal with Satan. About how I bought the map and the guitar from her.
"And you walked here from Memphis?" Gurlick asked. The animals in the woods were still silent, but a breeze had kicked up. It was chilly.
"More or less," I said.
He laughed again.
"Boy," he continued. "Three more months and you could have sat there all night for nothing! I'm not kidding about that transfer. I am getting out of here!"
I listened to him chuckle for another moment. I stared down at the ghostly shape of my guitar.
"Yup. We've been doin' business here for almost a hundred years. But times have changed, my young friend." His voice was deep and scratchy, very appropriate for a demon, I reasoned.
"The big man stopped working these woods in the fifties. Business really took off, and I'll tell you why..."
"Mobility. We had some long meetings, let me tell you. A lot of the staff was... nostalgic for this spot. Demons are a basically sappy lot, if you can buy that. But the boss convinced us that we would do a lot more business if we went to the client and stopped making them come to us. After all, look at you! How do you feel after sleeping in trucks and bushes all week?"
Before I could answer, Gurlick was off and running again. His hooves scraped through the roadside gravel. The orange dot spun wildly through the air as he gesticulated.
"The first one wasn't such a big deal. Not more than a few hours drive east to Tupelo. We went out to that boy's house and sat down with him and his mama and went over the deal nice and civilized, over some coffee. Beats the crap out of gettin' bit by bugs out here, wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah," I admitted, as a gnat buzzed my ear.
"Well, that deal didn't go too smooth. We offered the standard seven-year contract, and he signed it, but then something happened that nobody could have predicted. Uncle Sam comes along and forces the boy into the army! Shot his profit potential right in the ass! We had to give him an extension, or it might get around that we don't keep up our end of things."
"Anyhow," he went on. "It all goes to show you that you gotta adapt your business to changing conditions. We started doing most of our deals long-distance. Went up to Chicago more times than I can count. I was just a scout back then. I found that little girl with the big voice over in Texas, got her an audition with the boss. We set up offices in San Francisco and New York. I"ll tell you, Sparky, it was exciting."
I just let him go on.
"Then, just when they're getting ready to put me in the new London office, the boss tells me that someone ought to work the old crossroads. Now, I'm a team player, but that wasn't fair! I mean, at least put me in collections, I told him."
"Collections?" I asked.
"Sad fact of life, sonny. Folks try and fly the coop at the end of the contract to get out of paying. That lizard king fella, for one. I went to Paris myself to call that marker in. And where did that get me? I'll tell you! On a dirt road back in Mississippi! Bless it to heaven, I was mad!"
I nodded in the darkness. Made sense.
"Well... that's all in the past. I'm gonna start shipping my stuff to Corporate next week. Then I'll drop by Willie's place to say goodbye. He's gettin' way too old to work these roads, anyhow. I expect he'll welcome the rest."
I told him about the truck that had offered me a ride. Rosedale Farms.
Gurlick grunted. "Yup. That's him. Mama June calls him right after she gets off the phone with me. She says he keeps it fair. He tries to get folks like you to turn back before they get here, just like his daddy before him."
I watched him light another smoke. Gurlick's hands were as red as his face, and his nails were long and sharp. He wore a gold watch. He snapped the lighter closed and the ember pointed back at me.
"Well, let's talk turkey, alright?"
"That's what I'm here for," I said.
"As I said, the deal's not what it used to be traditionally. We haven't gotten where we are today without offering some... options."
"Alright," I said, lifting my guitar from the case once again and leaning back on my stump to pick it as he spoke.
"First off... how old are you?"
I told him.
"Mmm hmm. Okay, that'll work. You've got three packages to choose from. As I told you, we've got a studio all ready to go. Whichever way you choose, we'll have your first single in the Billboard Top Ten by the end of next month, guaranteed."
"Option one. The "Twenty-Seven" plan. You enjoy the full measure of professional success until you reach that age. It's not like you may have heard, you won't disappear in a cloud of sulfur on your birthday, but you will lose certain... protection against whatever bad habits you may have picked up in the meantime. It looks cleaner that way. This package is of course inspired by the Hat Trick of '70/'71. All of three of those folks, twenty seven. Other graduates of this plan were some of those Free Bird boys and that mopey Teen Spirit fella."
"Understood," I said.
"Two. The Incentive Plan. Three years of guaranteed phenomenal success and two-year extensions offered regularly based on content. You know, do your bit for the home team with your music. Put in some backwards messages once in a while, get some cryptic spooky stuff going in your liner notes. Just little plugs for the Company here and there. We've had some clients ride that one out for a decade."
I played Gurlick the intro of a mammoth seventies anthem.
"Exactly! You're a smart kid."
"Thanks," I told the demon.
"Finally," he went on. "The Wonder Plan. You will record an album. That album will contain eleven tracks of filler and one very special song."
I stopped playing. It sounded interesting.
"This song will pour out of every speaker in the country for four weeks. You are guaranteed the cover of five major-market magazines. You can play it on the late-night talk show of your choice. This song will inspire a unique dance of some sort. There's a movie soundtrack option available. You will get the opportunity to duet with an aging crooner. People will speculate about your upcoming album and you will sign no fewer than six thousand autographs. You may behave as badly as you wish, people will love
you anyway. Feel free to punch, insult, and brag as often as you like. Preferably in front of a camera. You'll share top billing with artists who have been in the business for twenty years. Those two brothers from England made an art form out of this one a couple years ago."
"I'm with you so far," I said.
"Your second album will hit the discount bin very quickly. You will make your first celebrity game show appearance shortly thereafter. You might choose to sing different lyrics atop your song to promote some sorta fast food chain or phone company. Within a year, you'll hit the State Fair circuit. But I gotta tell you the beauty of this plan. No collection."
I perked up even further.
"Come again?" I said.
"That's right. By the time the entire process reaches the end, there's nothing left inside for us to collect. Think of it as depreciation. The break-even point usually comes around the time you decide to think about Vegas. This was part of the renegotiation we had with the boy from Tupelo. Get out before Vegas, and we have to take what's left of the soul. Press through to the bitter end, though, and you'll just puff out like a candle
forever. Hopefully not while you're on the toilet, though. That was embarassing."
I thought about it.
"Well?" Gurlick said after a few moments.
The woods remained silent. I ran my filthy hands over my face and considered the options.
"Come on, man!" the demon said. "I'm getting eaten alive out here!"
"Okay," I said. I'm going with number three." All that success and my soul to boot. It sounded pretty good.
"Good choice man. Too bad we won't get to hang out in Corporate when it's all over, though. Give me that thing."
I passed him my guitar into the darkness and his thick hand grabbed it. I heard him pluck through the strings and make some minute changes to the tuning. Changes too fine to hear with the human ear, I suppose.
He thrust it back to me. The moment I strummed it the woods came alive with animal voices once again. I played a few notes and laid it back into my case.
"Let's roll," Gurlick said. He took my arm and pulled me from my stump. His hand radiated a comforting heat, but was slightly greasy. "My Caddy is right up the road. We can make the Greenville Airport in ninety minutes."
We walked. My legs felt none of their former weariness, and my shoes seemed to fit properly for the first time in five days. When we got to the car he held the door open for me to get in back. The leather smelled exquisite. There was beer in a small refrigerator. Gurlick dropped a chauffeur's cap onto his horned head and pulled out onto the road.
On the way to the airport, I played him a song I'd written after my parents had died and my band had folded.
"That's real pretty, Sparky," he said.
"I can't wait to hear it on the radio," I said, running my slide up the frets.
Gurlick began to laugh.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
"Man, that blues shit is dead as a doornail. I told you, you were the first one in two years to wander back in these woods. Why do you think we moved the operation? To keep up with the times, baby!"
"This is what I play."
"Not tomorrow you don't We got us a producer with a real keen ear, don't you worry. He knows hits when he hears 'em."
"I write my own stuff!"
"Didn't I mention the eleven tracks of filler?"
"Yeah, you did. But--"
"They'll give you a list when we get to Corporate. Maybe they'll let you pick one you like to be your hit. We've got some of the best studio grunge musicians in the country, if that's saying much of anything. Personally, that shit gives me a headache."
"You like flannel? How fast can you grow a beard?"
"What? Do I--"
"I shouldn't speak so soon. The boss was talking about some Smooth Jazz stuff he's been backing lately. His son Kenny got him hooked on that. Maybe he'll have that polished up and ready to ride by the time we get to Seattle. Perhaps we'll have you go electronica."
"Corporate HQ. Say, toss me up a beer, Sparky."
We rode on into the darkness. I put my guitar down and stared out the window into the Mississippi shadows. When we got back to the interstate, the demon spoke again.
"Keep playing, man. I love that old acoustic slide stuff. Reminds me of the old days. I told you we're a nostalgic bunch."
My sinking feeling grew.