What Mr. Johnson Knew
by Ronald Polizzi
part 1 of 2
When Richard Berry finally reached the Hazelhurst, Mississippi city limits the sun was only a red orange ball above the trees. Though the height of its conflagration had been spent, it continued to burn like an angry eye, casting its malevolent stare down upon all those below. Before him, the harsh glow of late afternoon tinted the little shanties, composing the majority of the town, fiery orange. To Berry it looked as if the place was aflame.
I could just as well be looking at the gates of hell, he thought. No wonder Robert Johnson dwelt so much on the devil in his music. Look at all this fire!
The sunset really was a beauty, in a dark, devilish way. Possibly the most spectacular he’d ever witnessed. In a moment of inspiration, he stopped the car and began snapping at the scene with the digital camera, racing to capture the anger and fire before the light faded. This was serendipity if ever there was such a thing. He congratulated himself; the photos would make a perfect background for the final painting in the series.
The sun set quickly. Purple twilight soothed the angry red, spreading its inkiness across the sky like a dark stain. The light gone, he stored the camera in the glove box, then fired the engine of his little MG convertible, to drive the remaining quarter mile into town.
The juke joint proved easy enough to find. It lay just off of highway 51. A bluesy tune came spilling out through the open doors as he pulled up. Walking into the club he noticed the strong aroma of deep fried chicken, air mixed with cigar smoke and spilled beer.
Suddenly Berry realized he was very hungry. Working his way to the counter between crowded tables, he ordered chicken with a beer. A large black woman handed him a brown bag spotted with grease and a plastic cup filled with draft. Taking his dinner in hand he found an empty spot to wait. A half hour later his contact, an ancient black man arrived. They sat talking quietly over the remnants of Berry’s meal.
“What can you tell me about Robert Johnson?” Berry probed.
The fellow, dressed in a ragged flannel shirt covered over with bib overalls, scratched at his gray wooly hair with a gnarled hand.
“You one of them writers?” he asked, the light of bare bulbs highlighting a worn face and yellowed teeth.
“I’m an artist,” Berry said. “I’m doing a series of paintings of Blues Men.”
“Well, I can tell you this,” said the old man pulling a sack of Bull Durum from out of his bib, rolling a smoke. He paused until he’d finished the job, and then lit it. Inhaling he let out a long stream of white smoke. “He didn’t learn to play from no human, no sir.”
“What are you saying?” Berry was confused. He’d studied Johnson for over a year and thought he knew everything except the most obscure trivia.
“Didn’t he study under Ike Zimmerman?”
“That was later, and Ike studied him. He could already play then. He let on that Ike taught him, but that was not the truth.”
“I already know the story of the crossroads if that’s where you’re going with this,” Berry warned the man. “I just came from Robinsonville and there are no crossroads there even if the story was believable, and it’s not.”
The old man snuffed out his cigarette with a violent motion. Catching Berry’s eye he gave him a stern look.
“I’m telling you what happened,” he said stabbing at the artist with a long crooked finger,” If you don’t want the truth then I’ll be on my way.”
The old man made to get up. Barry quickly put a hand on the other’s arm to restrain him, then drew it back apologetically when he saw the displeasure in the man’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please, tell me what you know.”
The old man looked around, surveying the room, then spoke in voice so low Berry had to lean forward to catch the words.
“It wasn’t no crossroads, though two roads cross near the spot. There’s a place outside of town. You can meet the Devil there if you know how to call him. He’ll teach you what ever skill you desire, but there’s a fee.”
“Like your soul,” Berry said with skepticism.
“Sometimes. Sometimes not, depends.”
“What if I was to go... to this place?” Berry tried to keep his voice calm. He had an idea, though he doubted any devil would be involved. But, it would make a great piece of copy for the unveiling of his newest works. He even had a title for the show: The Devil at the Crossroads, Blues Men of the Delta.
The old man scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Now why would you want to do that?” he asked eyeing the artist suspiciously.
“I want to see what Robert Johnson saw.”
The black man sat there for a long moment weighing the request. Berry was afraid he’d blown it, that the interview was over.
“You know where highway 29 and 51 come together?” The man asked, finally. “They make a crossroad.”
“I can find it,” Berry said.
“Find it then. There will be a Mulberry tree there on the North West corner. Not much of it left anymore just a few twisted limbs. That’s the spot. That’s where the devil comes riding a black horse.”
The old man’s features turned hard. “Now here is what you do.”
Berry tore off a section of the stained bag that had held the chicken. Fishing a pen out of his pocket he began writing out the instructions.
The formula proved to be more complicated than he had suspected. It was not as simple as just going to the crossroads and playing a guitar until the devil showed as Robert Johnson had supposedly done.
You got to bring a sacrifice, the man had said. A chicken blind in one eye.
* * *
The next morning he drove to the farmers market. Consisting of long aisles built on concrete flooring and roofed over with galvanized tin, it was divided into stalls with vendors selling everything from produce to bags of feed. He felt a little foolish looking for a blind rooster among the sober faces that smiled too little and laughed less. The things we do for the sake of Art, Berry thought.
Looking at the hard countenance displayed by the merchants he was tempted to forget the whole idea. Maybe I should just rename the show? He already had gallery space but dammit, a first hand account of working the crossroads ritual would be so radical. Not only would it be great copy, an artist going the extra mile for his work, but also fuel for the lecture he was scheduled to give at the reception on opening day. Working his way to the end of the aisle he reached an area in the back lot where livestock was offered for sale. Weaving through wire cages of live fowl he found the owner, a seedy fellow in a dirty white T-shirt.
“Mister, I never been asked for that before, a rooster blind in one eye?”
“I’m willing to pay double,” Berry offered.
The man said something to an ugly woman with matted hair standing next to him. She nodded.
“We’ll I be darned,” he told Berry a sly look on his face. “The missus says we do got a one-eyed rooster after all. She’s going to get it now.”
There was a loud squawk and the woman returned with a medium sized rooster sporting a bloodied spot where a right eye should have been. Legs tied together, she carried it dangling upside down. The creature was trembling badly. There was no doubt it was feeling intense pain from the injury.
“Here’s your one-eyed chicken,” the woman said, showing off a smile of rotten teeth.
“I knew we had one.”
Berry was livid with anger.
“You’re lying,” he exclaimed, “You put this rooster’s eye out just now.”
The seedy man drew himself up menacingly. “Mister, I expect my money and here’s a word of advice. Take your chicken and git.”
Several farmers were looking on.
“Need some help Carl?” one asked.
“I believe this fellow is leaving right now,” Carl replied.
Taking the hint Berry quickly counted out the bills and hurried away with the injured rooster. Behind him he could feel several pairs of angry eyes watching him depart.
You got to cook that bird but don’t eat none yourself, the old man had warned, and then you take the leg with the foot still on the leg and take that to the spot where you meet the devil.
Cooking the rooster was easy. Killing the bird had proved more difficult though he managed the job. Slitting its neck with a knife, the way he’d watched his granny one summer on the little farm, the bird expired almost immediately. Though he felt some remorse it was a relief to see the creature put out of its misery. Earlier in the week he had been forced to reserve a room with a kitchenette. It was more expensive but the motel clerk was firm.
“It’s all that’s available, sir,” she said. “Most folks that stay here want a unit with a stove. Actually you’re lucky we have any vacancy at all this weekend with the Strawberry Festival. It’s very popular and we are normally booked up”
Now it seemed things had worked in his favor. Serendipity again! Who’d have thought I’d be frying chicken for the devil. Damn bit of luck I ended up with the stove.
Lining the counter beside the sink with newspaper, he plucked and cleaned the rooster, careful to leave no trace of feathers or innards. Then he divided the carcass into irregular sections and fried it in the skillet he had purchased at the local K-Mart. The smell was anything but the pleasant aroma he’d experienced at the juke joint the night before. He covered the pungent odor by spraying the room with air freshener.
Then he opened the doors and windows exposing the room to the outside air until he’d rid the place of the smell. Placing all the cooked chicken but one leg on paper plates, he left the pieces out side at the edge of the parking lot for any stray dogs or cats that might happen up. That’s not really in the formula. It was supposed to be eaten by humans but it will have to do. He told himself I’m not about to walk around this motel offering fried chicken to strangers. Besides, in the end it won’t make a wit of difference anyway.
Finishing his task, there was nothing to do but wait. Outside dark clouds were brewing threatening rain. I’ll need it to be clear tonight, he thought I have no intention of sitting under a dead tree shivering in the rain no matter how great an addition it makes to the lecture.
The sound of his cell phone pulled him away from the window and the menacing sky. Heather, his live-in girlfriend was on the other end.
“Hi, sweetie,” she chimed. “What you doing?”
“Frying a one-eyed chicken,” he joked.
“If I told you why, you’d never believe me.”
“Quit joking. When will you be home?” Heather said in her little girl voice. “I miss you.”
“Monday. Look I can’t talk now I’m on to something important. I’ll see you day after tomorrow.”
Making a kissing sound, a silly endearment they shared, he put the phone away. Rummaging through his notes he pulled out the scrap of paper where he had jotted the old man’s instructions. The scribble reminded him of the serious way the fellow had talked, low and secretive. Make sure you go a little before Midnight so you be there when the clock strikes twelve. Now the devil he ain’t gonna be there right at twelve. He come in his own time but he sends his creature first. If you see his creature then you know the devil be coming soon. The old man said the creature might take any form but it was always black and male, or it appears as fog or smoke. You’ll know though, because your heart will go cold and a fear will creep up your spine.
The old man sure believed it, though it was hard to fathom that any one could in today’s world. Some of those old timers were like that, he reasoned, hanging onto the superstitious past. Let him have his devil. I won’t spoil it for him when I prove there’s nothing to this. Maybe I’ll even play along just to see the look on his face.
It was nearing late afternoon. The rain seemed to be holding off which was good. Things just keep working out! Berry wanted to get to where the highways intersected before it got too late. I’ll need photos for the Power Point presentation. It would be grand to shock the audience with shots of where Robert Johnson made his pact with the devil. I can see the stunned looks on their stuffy artsy faces when I begin the slide show complete with a nice close-up of the chicken foot and all the mumbo jumbo that comes with it, he chuckled.
He hated the fakery of the self-proclaimed arts crowd. What a bunch of hypocrites they were. But if you wanted to make it as a painter you had to court a certain number of them. They were after all, old money and could open doors for you that would otherwise remain shut.
I’ll need lights, he realized frowning. Though his camera was designed to compensate for extremely low light he didn’t want to take a chance of ending up with murky photos. Much of what he planed to record would be after dark. He cursed himself for not taking care of the problem earlier when he was at the K-Mart but there was nothing to do now but make a second trip.
Copyright © 2007 by Ronald Polizzi