Friday, July 9, 2010

HELLHOUND ON HIS TRAIL (flash fiction)

Click play for some mood music

Greenwood, Mississippi. Around 1934.

When I heard what that knucklehead musician was up to, there wasn't any way I was letting him go to those Crossroads alone. It was the night he supposedly sold his soul to play that thing he used as he hoboed across the country.

He didn't see me following but it didn't matter, he was as drunk as the day was long. But I didn't think he was serious and moreover, I couldn't believe what I was about to witness.

# # #

I was about 14 or so and couldn't get enough of what my father called 'The Devil's Music.' You see, part of our plantation was positioned along a wooded embankment that, after a few twists along a hidden dirt path, you'd find Smitty's, a backwoods juke joint that featured some of the best negro music throughout the Delta.

Since I was so young, Smitty allowed me to sit with him behind the bar, provided I sneak in a bushel or two of corn every now and again. Plus he said I needed to make myself useful and help him serve beer and whiskey when weekend crowds overflowed onto the front porch.

Smitty's was a scene. Itinerant field hands by day and masters of a new musical genre by night, I'd see the likes of Willie Brown, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Pops Staples and Honeyboy Edwards. It was history being made. Smithsonian stuff.

But then there was Robert Johnson. He was tall and lanky and for the life of me, I couldn't understand why he was such a Casanova. Sure, the ladies thought he was charming but dammit if he wasn't a cockeyed bastard. Plus he couldn't play the guitar worth a shit. And while he knew it, it didn't stop him from taking to the stage at Smitty's. The poor guy got booed off just about every time. He just didn't know the blues.

One night he was particularly ornery and threw his guitar clean into the corner.

"Damn, boy! Is you crazy?" Smitty screamed. "Better get your ass outta here before I crack that shitty guitar over that block head of yours and make your sorry ass play better."

Embarrassed, the young musician ran out. I told Smitty that i would see him soon and ran after Johnson who, by now, was up the road a piece.

I heard him weeping and moaning, praying for an answer. He stopped in the middle of the road and picked at his guitar once again. It was plum awful. He weeped some more.

When I saw him bite the cork off his whiskey pint and spit it into a nearby puddle, I knew what he was about to do. Word on the grapevine all night at Smitty's was that Johnson was headed for The Crossroads.

When I asked Smitty if he thought Johnson was serious, he replied, "Sheeeet, that boy don' know what he's gettin' into over there."

I had heard stories about The Crossroads. It was a place where your dreams came true for a price and if the waking world was more important to you, any deal could be made. But you better be sure.

I followed him and as we got closer, I prayed to my maker that the lore of the famed intersection was just all a Faustian myth instead of a gateway to his doom.

# # #

While the soot of hell was in the air
, ashen and thick with humidity, the Earth was as cold as the dead slaves who years before had helped nurture the cotton fields surrounding us.

As I hid behind the only tree in sight, I watched Robert Johnson stand motionless in the middle of the intersection. Time had stopped. There were no cars in sight and the moon had gone black.

I heard the howling of a beast nearby and saw in front of me a hellhound whose eyes were blood red. He growled demonically over what I believed to be footsteps along the gravel road.

My eyes followed the footsteps to the intersection where a large black man stood in front of Johnson. He looked to be around nine feet and dressed to the nines.

A trepidatious Johnson handed the man his ratty guitar and the giant proceeded to play that thing unlike anyone I've heard in Smitty's.

After a minute or two, the shadowy man handed Johnson his guitar and kissed him on the cheek as his long fingernail traced the outline of Johnson's chin. And then, within seconds, the hellhound was gone and so was the man.

When I rushed towards the road to see if Johnson was alright, I saw that he, too, had vansihed.

There I stood, alone in the Crossroads, cold and hot at the same time as smoke and fog rose from the gravel.

# # #

No one at Smitty's saw Robert Johnson for two or three years until one night he returned, took to the stage, and played his axe like no one before him or after.

"Dayummm," Smitty just kept repeating. "Gotta book that boy soon. He'll sell all my liquor."

I agreed but knew this wasn't the innocent from a few years ago. This new Robert Johnson was hard-drinking all the time. He womanized practically as a religion and even though he'd recorded just about a dozen tunes, he still used many an alias to hide from jealous husbands whose wives fell victim to Johnson's wizardry.

# # #

One night after Robert Johnson performed
to a packed house at Smitty's, I heard the same demonic Hellhound growling I heard at The Crossroads years before. It was coming from behind the stage and I was certain all of us in Smitty's were doomed.

And there I saw him. Johnson, on all fours, barking like a dog and foaming at the mouth.

"Hellhound's on my trail, son," he said. "Can't run no more."

To this day, no one knows how Robert Johnson died. One myth says he was poisoned, possibly by tainted moonshine. Another has him a stabbing victim from one of those jealous husbands.

But I know the truth. I saw it at The Crossroads. When people tell me that the Devil doesn't exist, I just laugh and play a Robert Johnson record.

Then I go to church.

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  1. Very cool story! I've heard the many possible tales of Robert Johnson's demise, and I like your take on it.

  2. Fanfreakingtastic Ant! I absolutely love the origins of blues and have always wondered how Robert Johnson really died. Now we know.
    Great lines throughout, but that last one is The gem!

  3. Great take on Johnson's blues. Fabu take on the hellhound, too, and the metaphor for all the crap in life that dogs us. Just super, Ant. Peace...

  4. Ooh my. Great atmosphere. I love the crossroads legends. They're one of the spookier, the most easy to believe. And the photos you chose for this are great.

  5. I'm with Deanna on the fanfreakingtastic.
    Holy shit you write good.
    And there you were saying you had nothing... you musta made a deal with the devil yourself, boy, cause even my momma knows you write a black streak of fine...

  6. Crossroads and Hellhounds are viable explanations for the other-worldly mastery some achieve with the git-fiddle. Excellent job Anthony!

    I noticed a word seems to be missing in this sentence,

    " There were no cars in sight and the had gone black." Sky?

  7. Absolutely wonderful tale. Great reading it with the music you provided.

    Photos added to the atmosphere of the piece!

  8. Love how you take real life figures and make them even more interesting!

    Really fancy listening to some blues now - shame I'm stuck in the office (although it's so hot and muggy in the UK at the moment it feels almost Mississippi-ish!)

  9. Talent is a hungry demon. I love the pictures and music you find to go along with your stories. You're really giving us a multimedia experience here.

  10. This is awesome. A fantastic and powerful myth-and-truth mix which left me with a huge smile. Amazing voice to the piece, too. Masterfully done, and chilling.

  11. I wondered if this would be about the Black Dogs. Shocking if you came up with this rich execution on short notice and writer's block, Anthony.

  12. Funny you say that, John. I went to the reserves for this one. -- Not that I had it written, but I had it in the back of my mind.

    Truthfully, I wish I could've held onto it a bit more and gave it a better (and maybe more evolved) execution. This coulda made a killer short story.

    I usually don't like writing stuff like this on the quick. Especially when the subjects are near and dear to me... Does that make sense?

  13. Me and that Devil, we're walking side by side. How the hell else do we get our talent?

    Maybe we's born with it. Maybe we's owning to somebody. You just don't know.

    Fabulous piece. I could read tales like these all night long. Play on brother.

  14. Commenting on your comment above, yes.. I would love to see this expanded to a short story.

    I really like how your writing picks up the "feel" of a certain culture or moment in time, without it feeling like you're trying to do so. And I hope you travel travel into many musical eras...


  15. a tale well told - love the theme

  16. Sorry I'm late, don't know how I missed this one. And lordy lord, if the blues is not my favorite music. I love Robert Johnson and his legend, and you did him proud, even if it was on short notice.

    Of course, you nailed the atmosphere as you always do.

    Love this one to death, Ant.

  17. You held me spellbound. I loved the atmosphere you described. I'll be staying away from the crossroads. ;)

  18. Every time you do a piece with a historical bent, I think it is the best thing of yours I have ever read. This had me hooked, and, with the tune playing in the background, I was absolutely spellbound.
    You rock!!

  19. What I like so much about your writing... it's all truth and zero fiction. I am a total believer.

    Always amazed and extrememly jealous

  20. Highly enjoyable -- loved the photos. The last two lines give that extra twist that makes the fantastic almost believable.

  21. Awe-some, dude! You do the first person so well, and I like your take on historical characters. I'm going to have to look up Robert Johnson now...



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