Clarksdale

by Jeff Fleischer

Milo pulled into Clarksdale just as the sun was setting.

It had been a long drive from Chicago, and he had to shake his legs a bit when he first got out of the car. After grabbing his knapsack and guitar from the backseat, he handed the driver a wad of cash to cover the promised gas money and gave him a hearty handshake. He slung the bag over his shoulder, grabbed the banged-up guitar case by the handle, and walked a few blocks to the first open bar he could find.

He heard the place before he saw it. The small wooden building looked almost like a run-down garage, but the neon sign in the window promised cold beer, and the bluegrass band Milo could hear from the road knew what it was doing.

The air outside was hotter than he was used to that early in the summer, but that seemed like nothing compared to the heat once he entered the bar. In the few seconds it took him to find an empty stool for his seat and another for his stuff, the brim of his ball cap was soaked in sweat and he’d had to strip his torso down to his crusty white undershirt.

“Be right with you,” called the bartender, an older man with wiry salt-and-pepper hair and a prominent scar on the back of his neck. He was drying out a few glass mugs with a red bandana, which Milo noticed he also absentmindedly used to wipe the sweat off his brow a couple of times. Before walking over, the bartender caught a long glimpse of the band on stage, and Milo followed his eyes.

The trio was still in the middle of the same extended jam that drew him to the bar in the first place, a version of “Fire on the Mountain” that seemed in no danger of ending soon. The banjo player picked better than anyone Milo had ever seen, his ebony fingers working the strings faster than seemed earthly possible. The guitarist was just as good, and the way she swayed as she played made for an exciting stage presence. The fiddler, however, was even more talented than those two. A thin man of indeterminate age, he managed to keep most of his body perfectly still while his right arm managed the bow with controlled fury, as if it had its own inclinations.

“Can I get a beer?” Milo called out without taking his eyes off the band.

“That all depends. You got ID?” the bartender replied.

Milo made a show of searching his pockets, even though he knew he didn’t have one. He’d never learned to drive, and accidentally left his state ID in a motel outside of Louisville. Sobriety had become a hazard of being baby faced.

“Tell you what, just give me a lemonade,” he offered as a compromise.

“You play?” the old bartender asked as he brought over the drink. He winked as he spiked it with a shot of something.

“Not as well as I’m going to,” Milo said. “Paying a visit to the crossroads later.”

The bartender let out a long whistle. “Well, you come to the right place, I guess. Where are you stayin’?”

“Nowhere in particular. Figured I’d just sleep outside. It’s hot enough.”

“That’s sure true,” the old man said. “Or you can get a room down at the Riverside. Lots of history there. Bessie Smith breathed her last in that building, and some folks still say she haunts it.”

Milo nodded and sipped his lemonade. The glass was already slick with condensation, but the cold drink felt good. So good that he finished a few more while the band burned through a series of bluegrass standards.

“Why don’t you break out your guitar and show us a little of what you got?” the bartender said after some time, but Milo just shook his head. Even if he didn’t question his ability—and he would be miles away performing somewhere if he didn’t question it—he wouldn’t want to follow that trio. The heat hadn’t abated either, and a good half of the bar’s patrons were fanning themselves at any moment. The heat was starting to tire Milo prematurely, which combined with alcohol turned simply staying alert into a challenge.

A few hours and a few more drinks into the evening, the bar began to fill considerably. Nobody seemed to pay much attention to Milo, giving him a chance to listen to the band and think about the task ahead.

“You’re not from around here, son,” one of the other patrons said, interrupting his focus. “Where you in from?” The direct question broke Milo’s focus on the band, which continued to jam on an instrumental Milo didn’t recognize.

The priest was only a few years older than him, a hefty man in shirtsleeves and suspenders, his face almost glossy from sweat. He was sipping an auburn whiskey from one hand and using a paper fan to cool himself with the other. His occupation was only identifiable from the white ring around his neck, protected from the moisture by his shirt collar.

“Lot to see, lot to see,” the priest said, stealing a glimpse at the banged-up guitar case under Milo’s stool. “May I inquire as to what brings you to our little town?”

“Guess you could say Bob Johnson brought me here.” He was fine with the idea of selling his soul, but for some reason still found lying to a priest too far to go.

“You know Robert died awfully young, and in a lot of pain,” the priest pointed out. “You might be better off just practicing a little more. Best think about that.” On the bar next to Milo, he placed a little booklet with a cross on the cover, then moved on to talk to other patrons.

Milo put the pamphlet in his jeans pocket just in case and ordered another lemonade as the band took its bow and the full crowd applauded.

When the next group came on and launched into a bluesy version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” the fiddle player took a seat at the bar next to Milo. The musician was nearly as stiff as he’d been on stage. Before he brought whiskey sours to two women dancing near the stage, he nodded at Milo’s guitar and then at Milo, crossed his index fingers in an “x” shape and winked.

It was clear early that the new band was talented, but couldn’t match the previous one’s musicianship. Then again, Milo noticed, while most of the crowd was clearly there for the music, many of the latecomers were just there to find alcohol and easy sex. The musicians on stage were nicer looking and had a more populist sensibility. They encouraged the crowd to dance and sing along as they closely approximated the radio versions of blues-tinged oldies. The customers loved it, though the staff seemed to use it as an excuse to clean up and total some tabs.

Feeling like he’d been there a long time, Milo looked at the old railroad clock above the bar and saw it was already twenty minutes to midnight. “Clock’s a little fast,” the bartender noted. “Gives us all a hand come closing time.”

Milo slipped his shirt back over his head, straightened his sweaty cap and hurriedly gathered up his bag and his guitar.

“Before you pay ol’ Lucifer, you gotta pay me first,” the bartender reminded him. Milo settled the bill with cash, and politely turned down another suggestion of a place to stay. Then it was off to the spot where the devil marked his territory.

Determined to do everything right, he ignored the only driver who passed him and hiked down the road on foot, with his guitar slung over one shoulder and his knapsack of food and clothes over the other. He hiked for several minutes, following the old telephone wires, until he found the spot where Route 61 and Route 49 intersected. Looking at the sculpture of two guitars the locals had built atop the street sign, Milo thought the spot lost a bit of its mystery, like the time he hitchhiked to San Francisco and found out that the corner of Haight and Ashbury was just home to a Gap store.

The corner was quieter than he’d expected, considering midnight wasn’t as late as it used to be. Though the heat was worse back in the bar, Milo still found the weather hard to bear, and he took refuge beneath a pair of short trees under the guitar sculpture. Using his packed bag as a seat, he uncased his secondhand guitar and did his best to tune it. He realized he hadn’t played at all since Chicago, and the wood reacted to the temperature. Milo picked a few songs, clumsily muting the strings with his index finger.

He had no idea how long he sat out there, and regretted trading his watch for a bus ticket in Sacramento. After he’d been practicing for a time, he set the guitar aside and knelt in the shade, letting his knees sink down into the dirt.

It was only a few seconds before he saw another soul on the road, walking toward him. The heat made everything in the distance blurry, but as the figure approached, Milo identified a man wearing a fedora and a light coat, despite the temperature. He was walking an enormous wolfhound without a leash, but the hound moved in lockstep with its master. For the first time since he devised this plan Milo felt scared, not sure what was going to happen next.

The stranger tipped his hat, and Milo recognized him as the fiddle player from the band. When he came close, the dog ran ahead and moved in front of Milo, who got up slowly so as not to startle the hound. Despite his efforts, the dog retained an unfriendly stare and gave an ongoing low growl.

Milo was less certain about how to greet the other man and how he should explain his presence, but the fiddler seemed to already know. “May I assume you’re here to make a deal?” he asked, but continued before Milo had a chance to answer. “Let me see the guitar.”

Careful not to brush it against his dirt-stained jeans, Milo handed over his guitar, having to pass it over the intractable hound. Milo watched transfixed as the fiddler fiddled with the strings, tuning each in a matter of seconds and fingering the fretboard with lightning speed.

Pointing at Milo with a long finger, he said, “Call the tune.” The first song that popped in his head was “Crawdad,” and the hound made sure he stayed in place while listening. Milo had never heard anyone play it so well or so fast, and the idea of doing that himself excited him more than he expected.

When the song was over, the fiddler handed the guitar back to Milo. It felt unusually hot to the touch, though Milo questioned how much of that could be blamed on the weather and how much on the furious playing it had just endured. He had to blow on it a few times before his fingertips didn’t smart from contact.

“How do I … well, I guess how do I pay you?” Milo asked, bracing himself for what was to come.

“Our dealings are already complete,” the fiddler said. “Business was all done before we spoke. Now, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t remind you that you’ll have to play that guitar often if you still want it to play like that, and the more you practice with it, the better it’ll sound.”

“But-”

“But nothing. You think Mr. Bob just walked away from the crossroads an overnight virtuoso? He played and played, kept that fire alive in him.”

Milo had somehow thought Clarksdale would provide an alternative to practice, but his mother always told him to understand a deal before agreeing, and he knew there was no point in arguing.

He’d already come to terms just by hitching down there. With the hound watching him closely, he carefully laid his guitar back in its case.

“Another thing before I forget,” the fiddler said. “Nobody thought too much of Bob when he was alive. The legend grows over time. Don’t be surprised if the crowds you play for don’t react the way you want. They may not hear it.”

With that, the fiddler tipped his hat and started to walk back down the road. After a few paces, he snapped his fingers and the hound turned to follow. Before Milo could fully process his thoughts, the pair had disappeared into the night.

Not sure how much time had passed, Milo walked down the road in the opposite direction. When he found a bench, he settled in with his knapsack as a pillow and his arms holding the guitar to his chest. He expected to have trouble sleeping, but the heat made him groggy and he was asleep within minutes.

The next morning, the young musician stood along the side of Route 61 with his right thumb out, his cap backward and the guitar case in his left hand. Milo decided he’d try to get to Muscle Shoals. Maybe he’d try for a steady gig at a roadhouse there, or test his playing a bit and move on to Nashville or Memphis. Maybe he’d get some recognition before he found a hellhound on his trail.

In a diner across the road, the fiddler and the priest from the bar shared a laugh over grits and waffles, thinking about how many young musicians had come and gone in the same fashion, and wondering how many still thought they’d traded one kind of soul for another. Some visitor had told them years ago that the devil’s greatest trick was making the world believe he didn’t exist, but they believed the church’s was making sure people still believed he did.

The priest ordered them each a sweet tea as the fiddler pulled out a chess set. It was still too hot out to do much else.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications, including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of nonfiction books, including Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections (Zest Books, 2016), Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries (Zest Books, 2015) and The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

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