Don't get caught at the crossroads at night. Do go there to hitch a ride. Don't go there to pick guitar. Even the Anishinaabe knew, from Mississippi to the Yazoo, you ain't got no business at the crossroads. Ain’t no good deals in this sundown town, every brother and his mother frown, but you sure as hell don't get caught with something to sell at the crossroads at night.
Elmore is at the crossroads.
It’s a bug eaten, fetid night, smelling of rain and rot and the squalor of mud. It chirps and croaks and echos with the hambone rhythm of skeeter killing. It ain’t his first choice, or his last choice, or any choice at all. Elmore had no choice but the crossroads, so there he sits long into the night that swallowed him, black and whole.
He knew the hoodoo of the place. The bandit dead and suicides interred beneath its furrows. The vain hope that they would not rise again, vengeful. A place without peace or freedom. Ghoulish rules for crossing--a hopscotch east-west, crossed heart north-south. Every child knew it, knew the peril of heedlessness, knew there was nothing worse than the junction in the dark midnight.
Elmore knows too. His granddaddy’s pocket watch was open in his hand. Every few moments, he strikes a match so he can read it. Little boy past the XI, big boy creeping up the left side. He means for the matches to spark every ten minutes, so as he can save some for later, but he ain't got the patience for it.
He sits on his haunches, the guitar box pressing into his back, a borrowed shirt soaked through with the hot press of the Delta in August. When he ain't striking matches, he finger draws circles in the dirt, counts up and backwards from ten, hopes that he can wait more than a full minute before striking the next one.
In the sulfur light of a dying match head, the big boy had crept past IX. It flickers and dances in the panting breaths of Elmore's anticipation before wisping into invisible death. Burnt wood smell. He'd begged off ten dollars from everyone he knew, everyone brave enough to talk to him, but hardly got two bits. Wasn't near enough to leave town, let alone on the Greyhound. He shivers in spite himself.
When he ain’t scared or burning fingertips, Elmore composes lyrics. Twang bang, he'd had a bad day. Something something, no place to stay. The man said something something, it ain't no lie. What he wouldn't give for that out of town ride.
He plots chords with fevered precision. Some of the best inspiration he'd done have in his whole life. Even finds himself time to wax poetical about an old lady he never had. A blues lady.
Lord knows he has the lady blues. Looked at one the wrong way, now he feared the noose.
X the watch says. The fat hand was closing in on its apex. Any time now. He shifts his feet, cracking the old patent leather dogs he took off his cousin. Ain't had time to ask. Elmore hopes for forgiveness. The watch ticks. He thinks about praying, slaps the back of his neck, itches all over. The nightjars sing requiems and threats.
Time moves slower here, Elmore thinks. He didn't know about elsewhere, but he know enough about here to know that time don’t work right. Don’t work in a brother's favor. Time had marched on, they said at the rally.
"They must not have gotten the memo here," the keynote speaker declared, "Because we have been free for some time now."
They all clapped. Elmore had clapped. It was aspirational, affirmational. Wish, desire, the projection of promise and pure fantasy fulfillment. He'd wanted to believe it.
He spends his last match seeing the minute off past the XI. It’s close enough. He swings his guitar into his lap, stands, starts tuning it. It twangs under the duress of a tin slide. Anyone might hear it. The birds and bugs and bullfrogs go quiet.
"Ain't no sunshine where I gone. The sun has set long way down. Chased out worse than a hell hound. Gots to get me out of this town."
Elmore's voice is deep and proud and it thrums through the weft and weal of the dense fabric of night. The guitar squeals in pleasure as he strums, the crickets and whippoorwills and toads sing backup.
"Saw me a woman, ain't she neat, now the hangman’s snatching my feet."
Elmore thinks on kings like Johnson and Lockwood and Willie Brown, dreaming of places they'd never dare wanted to be.
"Oh the preacherman he says I'm free, but the big man won't let me be, steal the music of my heart, says I best be gone by dark."
The dark ain’t just dark no more. Elmore can see shadows moving. Willows bowing, reed grass shaking, the gators and crocks doing their wiggle and roll. Despite the clear skies above, a storm gale takes the night, shakes the trees like the rattle of a soup spoon up a washboard. It smells of old eggs.
"Oh Moses let me be free, don't let these devils come for me, my daddy's done seen enough already, don't need the lash of ole Black Betty."
At the edge of his vision, Elmore can see him. Shirtless, shoeless, tattered overalls. Old Scratch, listening, nodding his head along. Not all ears are deaf to his prayers.
"Oh they comin' on nightmare steeds, gonna do their dirty deeds, I ain't want it go this way, but I gots the blues today."
'Twas like Elmore opened a fissure in the earth, scooped his way through criminals and the forsaken and dug deep into his very soul. The heat is oppressive. The heat is liberating. He melts into a new sense of himself as his fingers plucked bloody their calloused tips.
"The preacherman tell me to pray, but ain't no angels coming today. Ain't left me nothing to sing, nothing but this soul I bring."
Elmore riffs and rages. He sings clear into the night. More than just cicadas and crickets sing with him. There’s a chorus of something else, older and with multitudes. Something legion in its depths. Old Scratch moves forward. Eyes like fire. Eyes that burn like truth where no hope lies.
"Oh they ain't opening gates for me, just gonna let me swing in the tree, I ain't done nothing wrong, ain't got nothing but this song."
He steps forward into the center of the crosswalk. Elmore can swear there was a million of him. A million million of him and a million more, an audience bigger than even been seen, an audience older than time. One that would last an eternity, so long as his pain is real. He knows just staying here is like saying yes. He knows he hadn't even ask a favor, or been given an option. He'd just been taken in, by bad luck and worse friends.
"So it comes to this, they gonna take my bliss, and devil break me all my bones if the devil don't take me home."
Old Scratch is near him now. Breathing close. There is a stillness in the hot breath. He feels it pass through him like a fever dream. When it breaks, he’s in cold sweat. The wind died down. The birds went to sleep. The frogs ate the bugs and dug into the mud. A coal smell hangs in the air.
Two lights appear in the distance. Elmore keeps playing the same chords, but he ain't singing now. He hears the sputtering of an engine and the clopping of horses marching down the road. They'd done looked all over town, rousted all the negroes, and know him gone. They also know he ain’t got far. They’re a coming. Swing low, sweet chariot, he wants to sing. Carry me home. But the band of white angels shining bright in the hooded darkness--coming after him--have nothing but clubs and rope and fire. And the only thing swinging was gonna be he.
"Oh my old lady she weeps for me, she weeps just like a willow tree, hear me devil now I might cry, curse the men who gon’ cause me die."
Elmore had grown up learning the chorus of angels. He'd heard about their choirs, the way they could sing happy the live long day. Oh how he wanted to sing, when the saints go marching in. But he'd had plenty of song all his life, and it wasn't praise. It was pain. It was suffering. It was a bad end.
He can’t help that now. Heaven willing, well, at least the other side willing, he can still sing. Sing down below like an earthquake that swallows men whole. They'd put a song in his heart, and it wouldn't end with his last breath. Old Scratch had seen to that.
They ain’t far off now. It’s past time to pray. There’s no peace to be had. But if this was freedom, hell can’t be worse.