Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Midnight Cross Road

by Nathan Boutwell




"It's in the rules, gorgeous," I say, taking a long puff on my cigarette. I let the smoke fill my lungs and drift out of my mouth before I continue. "If you don't have the talent to play the blues, but you want to play them badly enough to sell your soul to me, this is what you do. You come out to a crossroads in Mississippi under the light of a full moon. Not just any crossroads will do, mind you. It should be one dirt road running east and west, and another running north and south, cutting cotton fields into quarters until all that remains is loneliness."

As I finish my explanation to the woman standing next to me, I wave my hand across the dark sea of cotton plants. They glow dull silver under the moon. The cotton looks like I feel, stunted and withered, straining to grow in overused soil and exhausted from too many man-made chemicals. Man-made. That's my problem. Things made by humans, or just humans themselves. My client tonight doesn't need me. Maybe I need him. I wish he'd drive faster. I want to get down to business with this woman.

She leans against the front fender of my black 1957 Cadillac Eldorado, a prize I picked up when I claimed the soul of a senator in 1958. I found her while wandering through Harlow's Casino in Greenville earlier, and the steel beast impressed her enough to go for a ride into the countryside with me. It's a shame I have a client tonight, otherwise I'd already have her out of her halter top and miniskirt. Looking at her makes me feel alive again. In the moonlight, her pale skin glows like a pearl and her hair seems made out of fresh straw. The moon turns her cleavage into a deep valley. I don't know her name, but I don't need to know her name to take her all night in the cotton fields. She weaves a little. She isn't quite tipsy enough, I think, handing her my pint of Jim Beam. The woman takes a swig and hands the bottle back to me.

"Then what?" she asks. She leans close to me and I smell her Walgreens copy of Magi Noir. She half closes her eyes and says "Then what do you do, fancy pants?"

I take a long gulp of whiskey and say "Well, my client brings his guitar, a pint of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes. We meet in the middle of the road. I take his guitar, tune it and play a song and give it back to him. He gives me a cigarette and a drink. With that, the contract is complete and his soul is all mine. After that, he has seven years of phenomenal talent. What he does with that talent is up to him. At the end of the seven years, I drag him to Hell. Those are the rules, and they're my rules. Ask any bluesman and he will tell you that story." I lean down into the woman's face and whisper, "And he'll tell it to you in a hushed tone, because he's scared."

The woman staggers a little bit. Then she laughs. "You really think you're the devil, don't you?" she asks.

I smile. This woman doesn't just have the large breasts, narrow waist and full hips that make me love being the incarnation of lust, but she has that intoxicating Southern accent. I love the way she says "yew" and "Ah."

"The devil. Satan," I say. "Your preachers came up with those words. Those are just job descriptions. My name is Lucifer. I am still an archangel, you know."

She slaps me on the arm and says "What is your real name? Lou? Louis? Well, whatever it is, you're good looking, although that hat looks more at home on Indiana Jones, and that suit looks like it came from the 90s. Narrow lapels? Seriously?"

"1985," I say. "I liked the Reagan era. It was the last time anyone believed in me." I pause and stare at her. I can tell by her narrowed eyes that she doesn't believe in me. "I really am Lucifer."

"Naw!" she says and laughs.

I hold up the pint of whiskey and ask "How long have you been drinking with me?"

"I reckon about an hour. Long enough to get good and horny."

"Have you noticed that the bottle is always full? If I'm not Lucifer, an archangel with phenomenal supernatural power, how did I pull that off?"

"Aw, you have a bottle in every pocket! You're some stage magician in a casino and you're just trying to con me with a trick. There are tricks, and there are tricks, Louis. Now, are you gonna pull some condoms out of your hat and do me or what?"

I stare off into the darkness, toward the interstate. I sigh and take a long drag on my cigarette. Then I say "My client will be here in twenty minutes. The ritual takes around twenty minutes. So, in an hour, I'm all yours baby. And you're all mine. All night long."

I see her bite her lip and hear her tap her nails against the car. Women used to love being seduced all night long, knowing that they were going to be taken but never knowing exactly when. They loved letting their passion rise and fill them until they just couldn't take it anymore. Today, women want instant gratification, quick sex in the backseat of a Honda Accord to a Nickleback song. I like taking my time. After all, it took me 400 years to destroy Rome and I enjoyed every slow minute of it. I can see this woman doesn't like waiting.

I look up at the night sky. Despite the distant glow of casino lights and the brilliance of the moon, the stars form a vivid blanket overhead. I haven't been to the Mississippi Delta in twenty years. It's still beautiful. The sultry mid-July evening grows more humid with the song of the cicadas. The branches of the nearest oak shoot an arrow-like shadow that strikes the heart of the giant cross I stand in.

"Come on, Luke. Take me now," the woman says with a sigh.

"Lucifer," I snarl. "My name is Lucifer. Do I look like I have a lightsaber in my pocket?"

"You better have some condoms," she snaps.

"We don't need them. My blood is different from yours so we can't give each other diseases, and my DNA is incompatible with yours so I can't get you pregnant. I tried that before. Several times."

"Will you stop with the damn Satan stuff? God! What are you, a preacher? Only preachers believe in Satan. Well, them and my mom."

The lust drains from my loins with her comment. I hear the same thing almost everywhere now. Nobody believes in me, Lucifer, the villain of history. The Boy Scout created humans with the ability to choose their own destinies, and they choose to pursue my path with a fervor that surprises me. I chose evil because it was fun and because I was angry at the Boy Scout. Humans seem to choose evil just because it's there.

I check my pocket watch, a nice time piece I took off John Wilkes Booth. 11:37 PM, local time. Tim, the guy I'm meeting, will arrive just before midnight. The idiot doesn't want to be late. I smile at that thought. You'd think everyone would want to be late meeting me. If I were meeting myself, I'd blow it off completely.

I pull another cigarette out of my pocket. I'm chaining tonight. Winston 100. The long filter keeps the heat from burning my lips. I'm full of irony. It seems like the only thing I have left, now that what's her name deflated me. I consider lighting my cigarette with my thumb, so the woman will believe, but I don't want to scare her off. So, instead of lighting my cigarette the usual way, I use the Zippo I took off a GI killed in Anzio. After seventy years, it still works.

"Want a coffin nail?" I ask, offering the woman my pack.

"Sure," she says taking one.

I light it for her and ask, "What's your name?"

"Luanne," she says, puffing on the cigarette.

"That's a nice Southern name," I say.

"I hate it! Mom named me for my grandmother! I reckon I'd rather be named something like Tiffany. Then I'd feel like a diamond necklace. With a name like Luanne, I feel like some fat gal livin' in a trailer with six kids at my feet. I wanna get laid, not be a baby factory." She catches me sniffing the air and asks, "What're you smellin'?"

"The night is full of chemicals from the cotton fields," I say. "Not like the old days when they used cow manure and prayed against the boll weevil. Ah, the old days! Back in the 1920s and 30s. Back then, you would be lying naked in the cotton fields, your bare breasts heaving in the moonlight as you recover from your second round with me and I take care of business. Then, I'd return to you and take you until the sun rose, inflamed with passion over having one more human soul in my pocket. Back then, it was fun being Lucifer. It excited me!"

"Huh," Luanne says. "Don't I excite you?"

"Honey, you excited me the moment I first saw you at that blackjack table."

"Then why don't you do somethin' about it?" she asks. "I mean, nice car. Plenty of room for me on the hood or in that shoppin' mall of a back seat."

"As soon as I take care of my client, we'll use this car for all it and you are worth."

"Business, business, business!" Luanne snaps. "There's a horny woman standing right in front of you! Where are your priorities, mister?"

I take a deep drag off my cigarette before I say, "I don't know, Luanne. I don't know."

"Well, hell. If you're in such a remember when mood, and if it will help you get your balls fired up, tell me about the old days."

I smirk. Luanne shouldn't have said that to me, not tonight. A flood of memories cascade through my mind, as if Noah's deluge became mental. This ritual hasn't been fun in decades. I feel hollow, empty, like a piece of me is missing. I hear that Junior feels the same way. At least people still kill other people in Junior's name, like they did in Iraq. The Son of Sam was the last guy who said the devil made him kill people, and he belongs to the history books now. Is a twenty thousand year old being allowed to feel old? Luanne wants to hear my story? Fine. Maybe talking about the old days will cheer me up, and like she said, get me back in the mood.

"All right," I say, perching on the fender next to Luanne. "If tonight were say, 1929, I could tell you what's about to happen. Back then, the rituals were solemn events for desperate people. The smell of formaldehyde and arsenic in the air tells me that tonight won't be like 1929. Like everyone else today, your cotton farmers let some businessman in New York do all the thinking for them. That wasn't my idea. I'm not that evil! The boll weevil, certainly – that was one of my best inventions – but I did not think of agricultural chemicals or outsourcing. You humans came up with those on their own. You don't need me anymore."

Tim is still twelve miles out. He's from Dallas, and already I don't like him. Guys used to come to me with a mental burlap sack full of disheveled heaps of fear, desperation, and desire. Tim carries mental boxes of neatly organized files marked ennui, pretension, and self-importance. I hate people like that. The Boy Scout says he loves them, but I can tell it's really pity.

I inhale deeply from the cigarette, letting the smoke linger in my lungs. At least I can feel the burn, a burn I can control. I reach for the pint of Jim Beam in my back pocket. It's still full. The bittersweet taste lingers on my tongue as I gulp down half the bottle. I need it. The older I get, the more human I get. The older humanity gets, the more they become like I used to be. I almost forget Luanne stands next to me. I can feel her glowering stare without looking at her. Right. She wants to hear my story, not a rant about what's wrong with humanity today.

"I loved it back then!" I say. "People believed in me and they believed in Junior and his old man. People were fun to mess with. I thrilled at the idea of hurting the Boy Scout's pets. I enjoyed coming to a Mississippi crossroad on a full moon night. We used to meet at Stovall's, when that crossroad was like this one."

"Junior and the Boy Scout?" Luanne interrupts me.

"Jesus and God," I answer. "For obvious reasons I don't like calling them by their real names. They might drop in uninvited and that would ruin everything. Anyway, back in the old days, around midnight under a full moon, a guy would show up, wearing a nice suit. Not a Sunday go-to-meeting suit, but a dance-with-your-best-girl suit. Oh, and a crisp, new hat; a nice brown or black city fedora type, like this one," I say, touching the brim of my fedora. "Back in the day, a guy wore a nice hat because he thought more about himself than guys do today. I took this one off a stockbroker who jumped from a twelve story window in 1930.

"Anyway, a musician in 1929 bought his guitar in a dime store, or ordered it out of a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog. Frankly, I thought those cheap guitars sounded better than the expensive Martins or Gibsons I heard in Nashville. Maybe the guys down here played like their lives depended on each note, and after I finished with them, they did."

Thinking about the next step makes me want a drink, so I reach for the pint of Jim Beam in my back pocket. I take a long swig and hand it to Luanne. She takes the offered drink. I can tell that she ponders the full bottle for a second. Is she starting to believe? Could, for one brief night in Mississippi, a woman believe that she is making love with Lucifer? Do I dare hope that much?

"Then what, Lucy?" Luanne asks.

"Oh, please, not that old joke!" I snap. "You do want to get laid tonight, don't you?"

"More than you can imagine," she says, taking another sip of whiskey.

"Well," I continue. "Of course, my client also carried a pint of Old Crow or Old Granddad bourbon in his hip pocket. In his jacket pocket, he carried a pack of Lucky Strikes, or at least a tin of Prince Albert and some rolling papers. By the time he got here, the whiskey would be half gone and he would have smoked himself senseless. He was terrified by what he was about to do, but he had to do it. Nobody came out here on a lark.

"That's what made all those guys the same in the old days. They came for the same reason. They came out of desperation; a need to play and sing and rip the pain out of the hearts of the forsaken people around here. Seeing me was a last resort, but one they were willing to pay because to them it was worth it. They knew what they were getting into. They came here to sell their souls to me in return for being able to play the blues. Being a music fan, I always gave them seven good years, not that any of them became famous. Okay, so Robert Johnson did, but it was after he died. I made sure of that."

"Who's Robert Johnson?" Luanne asks, draining my bottle.

I stare at her. She's from the Mississippi Delta and she doesn't know who Robert Johnson was? How did that happen? He was only the most famous son of this area and she's totally ignorant of his existence or what he means to the music world. Well, I pick women for their bodies, not their minds.

Maybe that is what's wrong with humanity today. They don't use their minds anymore. They're just animals who prowl through life living on instinct. They're totally unlike the guys who came to me back in the old days. Although, now that I think about it, even my old clients didn't really use their minds. If they had, they would have asked for fame as well as talent. Except for Robert Johnson and Chitlin Johnny, none hit it big locally. They used their expensive talent to burn through the juke joints and honky-tonks like fire through the cotton fields on an August morning, screwing every woman in sight and never paying for a drink.

That used to be fun. Not anymore. It isn't fun damning people who don't believe in you. Their lack of faith in me spiritually castrates me. If you don't fear the one in power, then the powerful has no power. These idiots don't believe in me. They don't fear me. I once thought it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Today, I rule limbo all by myself. The Boy Scout tells me he does the same thing in his own way.

"I wanted to meet tonight's client down at Stovall's Plantation," I say, taking the bottle back from Luanne. In less than a second, it's full again. "That was where the first deal was struck, when I created the Plan. It has history. It's part of legend. I met all of them there for nearly 70 years, but the damn place is crawling with tourists now. So tonight, I picked this spot."

I sigh heavily and blow a smoke ring as the clouds of memory swirl in my mind. Stovall's and Cornelius. That was back in 1898, when a sharecropper named Cornelius kept saying "I'm going to sell my soul to the Devil so I can play this here guitar." After a week of hearing that, I thought I'd take him up on the offer.

I stepped inside Jeptha's saloon on a crisp March night. It had been a barn before the Civil War. It's gone now, blown down by a storm in 1934. The place smelled of sweat, kerosene and chewing tobacco. The pale yellow light of the lanterns cast dark shadows on the wall of the cavernous interior. The saloon fell silent. I noticed I was the only white man in the whole place. I smiled, not quite making myself invisible. Everyone returned to what they were doing. An old man sat on a barrel in the middle of the barn, strumming a cotton field tune on a guitar missing its bass string. Couples sat at tables and mismatched chairs hauled out of abandoned plantation houses, whispering about what they planned to do to each other later. I waved my hand and spewed intense lust on them, smirking at the idea that they would hate each other in the morning. Cornelius slumped against the bar, just several old planks nailed to darkened kegs. I climbed up on the stool next to him. A rickety old antique made by slaves in 1858, it shifted under my weight.

I looked at Cornelius. He may have been twenty-nine, his unshaved face hunkered beneath a field hat. Scars from the cotton plants lined his hands and scars from the verbal beatings of white overseers covered his face. I could tell by looking at him that he was the youngest child of a couple born into slavery. Pain radiated out of him. So this was the guy who wanted to sell his soul to me, I thought.

"Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name," I said to him.

"I know who you are, Boss. The devil's the only white man who would walk in here," he said.

"I'm here to give you your wish," I said. "Buy me a drink and we'll talk about it."

He bought me some of that cheap rotgut, the kind that tastes like gasoline mixed with rubbing alcohol. The guy was so broke he couldn't afford good whiskey. I bought the next six rounds, ordering the best whiskey in the house. It still wasn't as good as what they served in Atlanta or New Orleans, but at least it didn't taste like it was siphoned out of one of the lanterns. I planned to get Cornelius good and liquored up with bottle courage so he would go through with his deal.

"I didn't know the devil was so generous," Cornelius slurred as he sucked down his last drink.

I waved my hand to the bartender, ordered another round, and said, "You'd be surprised. So, what do you want?"

He told me, and agreed to sell his soul to me. In Europe that was easy. When witches or sorcerers wanted to cross the line and have more power, they sold their souls with a formal contract, full of enough caveats and quid pro quos to stagger my legalistic mind. Then, they slashed their fingers and signed their names in blood. But Cornelius couldn't read or write. He asked what he should do. That's when I came up with the Plan.

"You know where the two roads cross at Stovall's Plantation?" I asked Cornelius. He said yes. "Meet me there at midnight under the full moon. Bring some whiskey and cigarettes and your guitar. I'll tune your guitar, play you a song, and give it back. You give me a drink and a smoke. For seven years, you'll be the greatest musician who ever lived. At the end of those seven years, you're mine."

"That'll work, Boss," Cornelius said, offering me his hand.

I stared at his open hand. He offered me his hand. Me. I'm Satan! I'm the reason you need blues music! And offered me his hand? I took it, and as I did, I felt his sweat. He didn't want to be famous. He wanted to take the pain away from his people, the ones I tormented for centuries, the ones I sold into slavery, and made white people hate and whip and hang. He was willing to sell his soul to the one who caused all his people's pain so he could take it all away. Cornelius almost made me hate myself.

I don't tell Luanne about Cornelius. I don't think she'd understand. Still, she wants to know the story, so I tell her some of it, just enough to let her know that the business tonight is a part of history and she should be impressed. She isn't. She climbs up on the fender and rests her elbows on her knees. I can tell she's annoyed. Although Tim will be the first soul I've claimed in twenty years, I'd rather lose him than my designated lay. I caress her bare shoulder. She murmurs.

"After that night," I say. "I designed plans to buy souls from politicians, railroad tycoons, baseball players, bootleggers, movie stars, and especially stock speculators. I pitched a great plan to the Nazis, but they told me they could do it on their own. It looks like they did. I thought I could make a killing on rock stars, but the Beatles succeeded on pure talent alone. Then came the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream and Led Zepplin. They destroyed me. Jimi Hendrix just laughed in my face and told me to go to Hell. Then The Exorcist reduced the supernatural to a can of split pea soup. Business died. After that, nobody believed in me, nobody wanted to make a deal anymore. The only ones who still believed, the only ones left, were the bluesmen, guys like Cornelius and Tim and Chitlin Johnny.

"Oh, Chitlin Johnny!" I shout, standing up and pacing around in the road. "He walked out one moonlit night in the spring of 1953. He wasn't like the others. He was older for one thing. Most of the guys who came to me were in their twenties. Johnny was sixty. He didn't come out of desperation to play blues to salve people's souls. He came because he was dying. His wife died of cancer, his son was lynched, and Johnny had just lost his job as the best cook in Jackson because of his bad heart. Johnny already had talent. He wanted some fame. He just wanted to go out with style and recognition. Who doesn't? I do, too.

"I knew Chitlin Johnny was different when he handed me his guitar. That was the first twelve string I'd ever touched. It took me twenty minutes to tune it. As I tuned it, Johnny watched me, a doubting scowl on his dark face. He wore a suit that must have cost him all his severance pay, and looked at me as if I were a beginner trying to pluck 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' Then, I strummed Muddy Water's 'I Just Can't Be Satisfied.' Please tell me you know who Muddy Waters was!" I look at Luanne. She nods. I continue, "I felt bad for Johnny, living in a Hell I didn't make, so when I handed the guitar back to him, I closed my eyes. That negated the contract, but I didn't tell him that.

"Chitlin Johnny had enough. He jerked the guitar out of my hand and snapped 'That ain't how you play it, old son.' Then he played 'Terraplane Blues' by Robert Johnson, using a Western Auto pocketknife as a slide. Could that man play! People don't get blues. The singer isn't just saying 'I feel your pain.' He's saying 'I've walked in your shoes, so let me take them off your feet and massage that pain right out.' Chitlin Johnny took it to a new level that night at Stovall's. For a few minutes, he made me forget that I got kicked out of Heaven for telling the Boy Scout to screw himself. For that one night, it felt great to be alive.

"I followed Chitlin Johnny around after that, listening to every performance, every song, joining in with the crowd as he took their pain, and mine, away. I made sure the crowd paid him well, too. Of course, the next morning, all my pain came crashing back on me and I had an even worse mad against all these damn humans. Then I'd get drunk again and screw ten more women."

"You screwed ten women in one night?" Luanne asks through a gasp.

"Well, of course. I am Lucifer after all," I say.

"When are you gonna screw me?" she whines.

"In a few minutes. My client is almost here."

"But I want to get laid now!"

Man, I wish Chitlin Johnny were still alive and could play while I take Luanne later tonight. Chitlin Johnny gave me an opportunity to experience my soul. Most people don't think angels, or demons if that's what they want to call my employees, have souls. Damnation, we're all soul! That's what caused the war in the first place. I wanted to experience my soul to the fullest, and the Boy Scout said no, so I told him where to place his scepter. He kicked me out of Heaven for that.

Anyway, Chitlin Johnny died of a heart attack after four years. His bad heart just quit. I loved the look on Junior's face when I told him Chitlin Johnny belonged to his old man. That may be the only time I ever left the carpenter speechless. Chitlin Johnny hit me in a way that no other human ever has. He didn't come to me so he could be rich. He came to me so he could die with dignity. I think he did. How much more dignity can you get than making Satan weep when you die?

Sometimes, I wish I could do that, too. Sometimes, I wish that I could die. Sometimes, I wish I had someone to sell my soul to. I gulp down more whiskey after that thought. Me selling my soul for seven years of people believing in me again. What a laugh! Then what? Who'd want to claim my soul? Dangle me around your neck like a medallion. Why not. I gulp more whiskey. When you've been around as long as I have, you're allowed to daydream. All I can do at the moment is daydream of finishing with Tim so I can start on Luanne.

It is possible for me to sell my soul. I did it once, back in 1589. There was this French count who wanted ultimate power to rule France. Oh, I thought, this is going to be a plum and I'm going to pick it and eat it. Count Mauvais lived in an ancient Crusader era castle in Burgundy. A thick air of smoke from the fireplaces greeted me that winter night as I stepped into his castle, dressed like the king himself. The castle almost creeped me out. It was dark and sinister even by Hell's standards. Tapestries of women being raped and men being disemboweled lined the walls. Gargoyles sat on the floor, glowering at me. An Inquisition rack sat in the middle, serving as the Count's coffee table. The Frenchman was the first human I met who out performed me in the evil category. He wouldn't be the last. Count Mauvais waited for me in all his regalia, sword at his side and his greasy black hair hanging limp down his back. We stared at each other for a minute before getting down to business.

"I don't know how to do this," Count Mauvais said.

"What, you know how to write a contract, don't you?" I said.

"I do, but only with people. I've never written a contract with Satan. Would you mind showing me how it's done?"

"Oh, for Hell's sake!" I snarled. I strode to the rack where a pen, ink and paper sat. I grabbed the pen and began writing. I, Lucifer, agree to sell my soul to Count Mauvais for seven years. Then, I jerked a dagger from my hip, sliced my index finger and wrote my name underneath.

"You do it like this," I snapped. A cold shiver ran through me. I glanced up to see Count Mauvais grinning at me.

"You son of a bitch!" I snarled.

"I counted on you being too full of pride to notice that you were selling yourself to me," he said.

"I didn't include a paragraph about what happens to me when the seven years are over. At the very first second after that, I'm going to castrate you, strip the skin from your body, and make sure you suffer for three full days before you die!"

"That may be, but you're mine for the next seven years. Now, first thing is first. There is a count near here whose wife has the firmest breasts in all of France. I want her."

I kept my promise to Mauvais, too. Tonight, between Tim, Luanne and my own emptiness, I may be willing to write another such contract, but actually include a paragraph allowing some human to claim me. What do I have to lose when I've lost almost everything? It may be worth it for seven years of people believing in me again.

I stamp out my cigarette and reach for another. I miss women who believe I'm Lucifer, the kind of women who let terror and intrigue arouse their passions. I miss Chitlin Johnny. I miss Cornelius. I miss all the ones who came in between. The guy who's coming out to see me isn't Chitlin Johnny. He isn't even black. He's a white guy! A guy who claps on the second and fourth beats, instead of the first and third. A guy who plays music like algebra. Not like Chiltin Johnny. Now, that man made love to the pentatonic scale like it was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

As I think about the way Chitlin Johnny played, I take another long drink from my bottle and reach for Luanne. I grope her hard, trying to fill her with the idea that Lucifer likes rough sex. She moans.

As I massage her, I say "I remember the first time a white guy sold me his soul. Chitlin Johnny was the last guy to come out to a crossroads for years. After that, guys decided it was better to study music under Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf in Chicago. Then, in 1969, a white guy wanted to meet me at a crossroad over near Robinsonville. That spot now has a convenience store, a used car lot and a self-serve storage warehouse crowding it.

"His name was Max. He had limp blonde hair half way down the back of his paisley shirt. He was from New York City with a master's degree in Sanskrit. Out of memory for Chitlin Johnny, I almost broke Max's flower covered guitar over his head and told him to go to Hell, but I didn't feel like being funny that night. That damned hippie just came to me because playing blues would irritate his parents and because it was a fad up at Columbia University. Counterculture they called it. I left Max playing lullabies to Count Mauvais down in the lowest parts of Hell. Of course, Max wasn't as bad as that Tony Orlando look-alike sonovabitch back in 1975; the one who showed up in the lime green leisure suit."

Luanne jerks out of my grasp. "I've had enough of this bullshit!" she snaps. She jumps off my car. "And I've had enough of you! I wanna get laid now. What is it with you men? You think you can seduce me with lies? All y'all are just NATO -- No Action, Talk Only!"

Luanne digs her stilettos into the clay and staggers down the road. I watch her hips sway in the glow of the moon, letting them inflame my lust. Some people don't think celestial beings have bodies. Oh, we're quite solid all right. Unlike humans, we can turn the solidity and visibility on or off at whim. Tonight, I'm solid, and when I'm solid, I have more desire than any human alive. Lust is my idea, after all.

"Where are you going?" I shout after her.

"Into town!" Luanne shouts, not even turning her head to look over her shoulder. "There are men in town who will do me on the pool table. I don't have time for this! I knew not to get involved with a guy in a suit!"

Thirty years ago, I would have levitated off the ground and flown after her. I would have grabbed Luanne and thrown her to the ground, then ripped off her clothes. I would have ravaged her several times, until she screamed, cried and begged through her tear-stained and bruised lips. Tonight? I slump back against the Cadillac and watch the woman disappear into the dark. What happened to me, I wonder. I already know the answer. I'm not the devil anymore. I'm not Satan. I'm just old Lucifer and apparently I was fired from my job long ago and no one told me. All I have left is Tim.

I reach for another cigarette. Come on, kid. Let's get this over with. I see lights approaching. Good. Tim's here. In the old days, I would walk over to the cotton patch and lie down. They always liked it when I stood up out of the cotton. The cotton used to be prettier than this, I think. It used to be waist high, and the long white tags glowed in the moonlight. Now, it's barely high enough to cover my body, so why try to hide myself in it? How can they get enough cotton out of an acre today to make a ball of yarn? Instead, I just sit in the driver's seat of the Cadillac, the door open and one foot out on the shoulder of the road. He reaches the crossroad and stops facing me.

Oh, what the hell! Tim's driving a Chrysler Crossfire. If he really means business as a bluesman, he would drive a 1984 Ford LTD, a 1978 Plymouth Volare, or a 1990 Chevrolet pickup with a cracked windshield. Bluesmen are working class guys. Even if they come from the upper middle class, they at least know how to act the part. Anyone who has ever read Bill Wyman's book on the blues knows that!

Tim gets out of the car and walks to the center of the intersection. He wears Nunn & Bush penny loafers, pressed Gucci Genius jeans, and a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt. I stare at him, feeling like one of the ancient plantation houses that dot the landscape, vanishing with each breath of the breeze. Why did I get this guy? Is this karma's idea of a sick joke? I get out of the Cadillac and walk toward Tim.

"Where's your guitar?" I ask, tossing my cigarette onto the dirt. I wonder if he has an autographed Eric Clapton Stratocaster in the trunk.

"I didn't bring it," he says.

"You didn't bring it?" I explode. "How the hell do you expect to trade your soul if you didn't bring your guitar?"

"We write a contract, I sign it in my blood, and we put it in a metal box with my picture, some chicken bones and feathers, and bury it in the middle of the crossroad. That's how it's done, right? That's how it's done," Tim says.

I just stare at him before I mumble "You've been watching too much television, boy."

"How do we do this?" he asks.

Cornelius got the Plan. Chitlin Johnny got it. Robert Johnson got it. Max got it. Even Mr. Green Leisure Suit got it. It's in the rules. If you know blues, you know this legend. If you know which intervals to skip, you know how to sell your soul to the devil at a crossroads. It's that simple. But it isn't simple anymore, is it? I sigh, and with my exhalation, I feel part of myself escape into the air.

"Did you bring cigarettes?" I murmur.

"I don't smoke," he says.

"Did you at least bring some booze?"

"I have some vodka in the trunk."

"You don't smoke," I shout. "You don't have your guitar! You drink martinis! What kind of bluesman are you? Do you even know who I am? I'm goddam Satan. I'm Lucifer! I own Hell! I'm lust, greed, envy, wrath, pride, gluttony, sloth. And you priss out here like this is just an anthropology experiment. Tell me one thing," I roar, thrusting my finger under his nose. "Why should I do this for you?"

"Because it's cool," Tim says.

It's cool, Tim says. It's cool. I live in a land dominated by high temperature, what they call fire and brimstone. He thinks it's cool. I thought I owned irony tonight. Tim even took that away from me. I reach for my cigarettes.

"Here, have one of mine," I say. He takes it. I give him the complete effect and light it with my finger.

Then, I pull out the pint of Jim Beam, full of course. I offer it to Tim first. He takes a swig of it, grimaces, then hands it back to me. I take a swig, and taste his saliva, and immediately know what he wants. He isn't here because it's counterculture or an experiment. He's here because he thinks playing the blues back in Dallas will get him laid.

"Boy, I should just fill you with lust," I say. "You probably passed a woman on your way out here. She'd love to be taken on the hood of your car. That would be more honest."

I throw my head back and roar. Me, honest! And Tim is the deceiver! We switched places. What a laugh! Then it hits me. They used to offer me their cigarettes, whiskey and guitars. Now, I'm the one laying the sacrifices on the altar. If this is what I get, what does the Boy Scout get from the humans who chase him? I don't even want to know. I'm not in the mood to feel sorry for God. Tim doesn't even have a guitar. But I do.

"Wait here," I mumble.

I lift the guitar out of my trunk with love. It was Chitlin Johnny's, that beautiful siren of a twelve string. Last year, I refitted it with new tuners, new frets, and steel-wrapped nylon strings. It still sings like a woman in the middle of an orgasm. Oh, Johnny, I'd love to hear your music one more time. I'd love to forget all this, to forget Luanne and Max and Tim and humans who make me look like a mere kindergarten playground bully. I'd love to feel like I'm back in Heaven if just for one night, staring into the Boy Scout's baby browns with the wonder I used to feel.

I shuffle back to Tim, pale under the moonlight. I feel as if the whole planet rests on my shoulders and pushes down on my chest. Maybe I believe in Tim more than he believes in me. Maybe I believe in Chitlin Johnny more than I believe in myself. What would I give for an eternal night of Chitlin Johnny's music. What would I give for seven years of people believing in me, women trembling beneath me, and towns rioting out of fear of me. I ponder what Hell Tim rules over.

As I hand him Tim the guitar, he asks "What do you want me to do with this?"

"Tune it and play me a song," I say.

THE END


2013 Nathan Boutwell

Bio: Mr. Boutwell is a native Floridian living in Texas who graduated from the University of North Texas with an MA in creative writing. He is currently writing a sword-and-sorcery series. His website is www.nboutwell.com

E-mail: Nathan Boutwell

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