“Down The River (A Crossroads Story)”
by Sean Alexander Luciw
‘Twas a chilly evening, dreary and ominous. Twiddling his digits inside the pockets of his old tweed jacket, Robert waited nervously at the prescribed location, standing beside his worn-out guitar case. “I wonder if he’ll show up. I’ll be damned if this ain’t some prank,” he mused. The teasing moon seemed to hover for an eternity above his fidgeting and doubt, until he finally saw the dusty plume approaching in the distance. Robert checked over his shoulder, this way and that, to see if he had any unwelcome audience. “Coast is clear,” he thought.
As the speeding car approached, a few more clouds seemed to gather around the moon, like some grey scarf. The looming headlamps possessed an unusually reddish hue. “Is that a Duesenberg? Well I’ll be… I guess this guy does mean business after all!” The imposing vehicle slowed to a casual halt beside where he stood. Little rolls of dust sauntered past the long dark red frame and faded. The engine purred like a savage beast ready to pounce. Robert peered at the blackened windows, waiting for his business dealer to emerge.
The window rolled down, barely an inch, and the deep voice asked, “Are you R. L. Johnson?”
“That’s me,” Robert replied somewhat nervously. He noticed that the voice sounded somewhat like a slowed-down phonograph record. This was starting to feel a little too real, but there was no turning back now. He took a deep breath to gather himself. Coming from a place of weakness is no way to do business.
The engine stopped and the suicide door opened. A tall man stepped out of the car, bringing a briefcase in his left hand. Robert noticed the shoes first, but the fancy pinstripe suit was equally impressive. “So, you’re ready to make a deal with me?” asked the tall man.
“That’s what I’m here for. My guitar’s right here,” he answered as he thudded the grungy old case.
“And you understand the price?”
“My soul is no big price to pay. I won’t be using it when I’m dead.”
The devil laughed as he opened the briefcase, “Let’s get on with it, then.” He pulled out the contract and began reading. “Under witness of eternal universal forces, this contract does bind the undersigned Robert Leroy Johnson to the following agreement with the Dark Lord Satan…”
“Wait!” Robert interjected. His mind was starting to panic. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Maybe I can do this without your help.”
“Hah! Robert. Leroy, my dear boy – let me straight with you. I am fully familiar with the legendary awfulness that’s been squeaking out of that guitar of yours. At your current rate of progress, you’ll be jamming in graveyards with your friends for an eternity before you ever start carrying a tune. How much more time do you want to waste? Please, stop mocking us all.”
Robert deflated. The devil was right. Robert wanted the blues. Hell, he wanted to be the blues. He wanted it so bad he could almost taste it. He was born for success and he knew it. The fame, the ladies… the music! The mere thought perked him up again.
“Music, sweet music,” the Devil uttered slowly, as if reading Robert’s mind. He put the briefcase, with the contract, back on the car seat. “Why don’t you pull out that guitar and we’ll get started.”
Robert excitedly put the case flat on its back and unlatched the lid. “I want to be the best,” he said. “I want to be the blues!” He shoved the guitar towards his abettor, still grasping. He looked the devil in the eye. “The ladies will swoon, you got me, devil?”
“A little demanding, are we?” Satan laughed and put his hand around the guitar neck. Robert surrendered the instrument and a faint thunderclap echoed in the distant mountains. The devil strummed the strings in a seemingly random fashion and expertly adjusted the tuning pegs, twisting the sound through some mysterious morphing until it settled into a sweet harmony.
“I want to be the best.”
“Indeed,” the devil responded as he kept strumming.
“I want to be remembered.”
“Oh, you will be. Now that you mention it, I could sweeten the deal if you like.”
“How’s that, devil?”
“Just imagine… all future blues guitarists expressing their gratitude and debt to the mighty blues legend, the one-and-only Robert Johnson. Your fame and influence could extend far into the future through all of them!” The devil grinned at the sight of Robert’s eyes lighting up. “We are talking about a sort of immortality here. Figuratively speaking, of course. But it will cost you.”
“Name the payment.”
“Ah, great. Great! There is a little clause I’ve been preparing, for just the right occasion. Now is the time, it seems.”
“The price is large,” the devil assured as he handed the finely-tuned instrument back to its owner. A wind began to howl.
“What? What! What is this damned price?”
“I would very much like to start a special collection – a poetically-themed sort of tradition which ought to unfold just beautifully over the coming ages,” the devil tells, wringing his hands ominously. “Let me retrieve the contract and it will all become clear.” He grabs the document from the car and pulls a quill from his jacket pocket.
Strumming his freshly enchanted guitar, Robert remarks at the tone, “Heavenly!”
Satan begins iterating the details of the contract, poking it with the pen as he speaks. “In exchange for aforementioned musical skills, fame, sex appeal, general embodiment of the blues and furthermore continued eternal relevance through the musical actions and words of future blues artists, Robert Leroy Johnson does hereby offer his own soul to the Dark Lord Satan…”
“This guitar really sounds great.”
Satan continued, “…and does also, by proxy, offer the souls of the following list of musicians, born and unborn both…”
“Whoah, what you say, devil?”
“…whose souls shall be each collected, through their death, during their 27th year of life.”
“Twenty-seven? What in tarnation?”
“I’m a numbers guy, what can I say?”
“Dammit, you devil!”
“Ahem. The list of names is as follows: Robert Leroy Johnson…”
“Stop! What? I have to die when I’m 27? You’re pulling my leg, you… you shyster,” Robert protested in sudden angst.
“I would never joke about something so serious. Do you want this, or don’t you?”
The entire midnight scene became deathly silent, and the few straggling clouds cleared away. Robert Leroy could feel the moon staring down at him. After a long moment of reflection, and with downward eyes, he answered, “Yes. Yes.”
“Good,” and Satan slowly continued to read his famous list… “Robert Leroy Johnson, Brian Jones, Alan Blind Owl Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron Pigpen McKernan, Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, Kristen Pfaff, Amy Winehouse, Anton Yelchin…”