The first and last music of my life was my mama’s voice—I swear I heard her singing before I was born, and I sure enough heard it after I died.
The fog was thick and hot that night. On my way to the crossroads, it was like walkin’ through potato soup, like the air itself was pulling me back, like it didn’t want me to get where I was going-not by midnight, anyway.
Hell, maybe I shoulda obeyed the air. And my mama. But every step I took down the side of the road, I could feel that postcard in my pocket. Scraping against my leg, back and forth. My pants was too big that year, on account of too many plates being more plate than food.
It was late July 1940. I was 27. Never married, but fixin’ to change that.
The fog kept all the sounds tight against me—the dull tap of my shoes against the dust, the rattle of the guitar case in my hand, both in time with the wheeze of my breath. (I wasn’t sick or nothing, just scared. Scared I’s about to make the last mistake of my life, the only mistake that would ever matter.)
The soup-mist kept sounds out, too—all the Mississippi swamp noises. I could feel a little bit of breeze, and knew I should hear it sweeping through the leaves of the tupelos.
But to my ears, there was nothing but me on that road. I coulda been all alone in the world that night.
The fog was so thick I didn’t even know I’d reached the crossroads ‘til my feet hit another road, this one going left to right. I stopped and looked around, as if he’d show up right then. Pulled out my watch, the one my uncle gave me before he went off to fight the Germans, or maybe it was the Italians. Never did find out if he came back.
Anyways, it was too dark to see the watch face, but I knew the hour was almost there. Some things you don’t need your eyes to tell you. Like when my woman come up behind me, I know the smell of her perfume and the rhythm of her feet.
I set down my guitar case, circled around it maybe four, five times, then sat on it. Crossed my legs one way, then the other, wondering how to look like I just happened to be out in the middle of nowhere, just before midnight. Felt that postcard again, so I took it out of my pocket. It was too dark to see the picture much, but I knew it by heart.
Michigan Avenue Looking North at Night, Chicago, it said at the top. The picture showed the moon shining down on buildings twice as tall as that water tower up in Raymond. Cars driving side by side. All that life in one place, moving so fast.
I ran my thumbs over the wrinkles in the postcard. I could almost hear the car horns, the people shouting and laughing, walking along Maxwell Street while music spills over the sidewalk.
I put the card back in my pocket and sighed. I thought I heard the sound echoed behind me, smothered by the fog. Turned around but no one there. Something like a cold breeze tickled my neck.
I sat there, holding my breath ‘til I couldn’t hold it no more. I’d never heard such quiet in all my life. When I’s a boy, my mama would sing all day long with her chores. I’d hear it when I woke up and when I went to sleep. Then came the records and the radio, and they were always on, except when the electricity run out, and then we’d sing to fill the silence.
So that’s what I did. I started singing, to fill up the fog.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep, little baby.
When you wake you shall have
All the pretty little horses.
That’s when I saw the light come on. Across the road, one yellow match, no brighter than a firefly. It flashed and went out.
A tall, pale man strolled toward me, high black boots making no sound against the road’s packed dirt, long dark coat brushing his knees. He carried nothing but a long white cigarette, which right then was the only light on the road.
I stood up. He wasn’t what I expected, not what they told me the Devil would be (some people called him Elegua, the hoodoo trickster god). They said he’d be a black man—not black like brown skin, not black like me. Black like a walking shadow, with red sparks for eyes. I always wondered if they said that just to scare me.
The fog seemed to turn tail and run. It spread off the road every which way, and by the time the man got to me, I could see the sky.
Not that I was looking at the sky, or anything else but him. But I knew it was clear by the moonlight that shone over his long black hair, making it look like a river of blood.
My knees went to water, and my feet were begging me to run. But when I shifted to take the first step, that postcard scraped my thigh again.
I stopped. There was no going back. Going back meant a life in the fields, and a life without Sarah. Hell couldn’t be no worse.
The man stood right in front of me, not two feet away, and just stared down. His eyebrows popped up a little bit, like he couldn’t believe I wasn’t screaming.
“LeDell sent you?” he said with a Yankee accent.
I nodded. I knew if I tried to talk, my voice would come out rough and let on I was scared.
He pointed his cigarette at the guitar case. “Play a song.”
I tripped over the durn thing trying to open it up. No lie. I couldn’t have been more nervous if I’d been playing for Mr. Speir, that talent scout in Jackson who got record deals for Robert Johnson.
“Calm yourself,” the man said. “We have hours.”
I pulled out the guitar and snapped shut the case, then turned it up so I could sit on the edge. Nearly fell off. Again, no lie.
The man stood there, all still, as if he had eternity to wait for me. Which I figured he did. Turns out, he only had ‘til sunrise.
The guitar was already tuned, but I fiddled with the pegs anyways, not turning them, just brushing my fingers over them. I swallowed hard, my throat was so dry.
I took the deepest breath of my life, then started playing “Sweet Home Chicago.” Soon’s my fingers touched the strings, my hands stopped shaking and my heartbeat turned smooth and slow.
For the first verse I kept my eyes down, when they was open at all. But when I hit that second chorus, I looked up, straight at the man. Show him I ain’t afraid, I thought.
‘Cept he wasn’t looking back. He’s staring off past me, toward the river, though it was too far away to see, about seven mile. I didn’t know a man could stand so still.
I kept singing, but it felt like I was playing to an empty room. I never felt so alone.
In the middle of the second verse, he held out a hand, palm down. I stopped.
“Why that song?” he said, still looking past my shoulder.
I licked my lips, swallowed again. “Warms me up. Easier than most others I know.” I couldn’t tell him the real reason, what that song meant to me. If I even thought about it, much less said it out loud, my throat’d close up.
He turned his head, slowly, and blinked. When his deep black eyes opened again, they’s looking straight into mine. My blood flashed hot and cold, switching back and forth with each beat of my heart.
“Start over,” he said. “This time, think about why you chose that song. Don’t forget it for one moment while you play.”
My hand squeezed the fretboard so hard, the strings almost cut my skin.
“Do it,” he said, “or I’ve heard all I need to hear.”
I started over then, didn’t hesitate, and as I finished the intro, I thought about what would happen tomorrow if he didn’t help me. Thought about telling Sarah goodbye, watching her move up to Kansas City with her folks.
I couldn’t afford to keep her there in Mississippi, not the way I was, scraping by, lucky to feed myself, much less a wife and babies. But if I got a record deal, we’d take that money—could be two hundred dollars, I heard—and get married, move to the one place I could make a living playing the blues all year round, not just harvest time.
I thought on all this while I played and sang, and the pain and joy poured out like floodwaters over a levee. I wanted that life, and it was so close now, I couldn’t let it go. I knew that whoever this man was, if he’d give me his magic to play like those other bluesmen who went north, well, I’d pay any price.
When I finished, I looked up at him, and I swear I saw fire in his eyes. Felt like it was my own fire lookin’ back. Power ran through me as I realized that whatever he had to give me wasn’t near as good as what I could give him.
He said nothing, just took one more drag off his cigarette, staring at me the whole time. When he breathed out, no smoke left his mouth.
“You want to hear another one?” I said finally.
“What if I said I could take you to Chicago?”
My heart stopped at the sound of the word. The same word that bounced off the end of my song, the same word I whispered in Sarah’s ear every night, the word that made up all the promises in the world.
“How much it cost me?” I asked him.
Just then, way off to the east, a freight train whistled, the way it always did when it come up on the highway. I could hear the wheels rumbling on the tracks, then the bell ringing at another crossroads miles away.
I waited for the man to smile, or blink, or explain. Instead, he just stared. Then his cigarette burned out, and there was no light but the moon.
“You want all my money?” I asked him, though I knew he wasn’t talking about that. “Ain’t got but ten, eleven dollars to my name.” It was more like five.
He held out his right hand, palm up, and curled his fingers a little. I gave him my guitar. That’s what LeDell Johnson said the Devil had done for his brother Tommy. Tuned it, showed him how to play right. Then Tommy could play any song in the world, play like lightning. Play so people would pay him anything to hear more.
The man took my guitar, and I knew right away something’s wrong. He held it the way a man holds a baby the first time, like he thinks he’s gonna break it. Like it’s a foreign thing.
This wasn’t the Devil, wasn’t Elegua, wasn’t nobody I was looking for. Nobody I shoulda found.
“Give it back,” I said, and my voice squeaked, like a guitar string when you don’t hold it down right.
He knelt and laid the instrument on the ground beside him. ”Come here. I have something for you.”
I turned my head to give him a crooked look. “What?”
“Your ticket.” His voice was slick as oil. “If you don’t like Chicago, we can try New York.”
My fingers itched. “Don’t lie to me.”
“I’ll always tell you the truth, Monroe Jefferson, starting right now.” He dark eyes went wide and clear. “There is no Devil. There’s no Elegua. Your friends were putting you on.”
It rang true. I knew they thought I was young and stupid.
He kept talking. “I’ve watched you play those juke joints. You know you’re just as good as the others, but they’re the ones with the record deals.” He held out his hand. “I can change that.”
I took a step back, glancing at my guitar. I didn’t want to run off without it, but it was too close to him for me to snatch up.
”It won’t hurt, I promise.” He pointed his thumb to the south. “It’s either this or run on home to your mother.”
“She’s dead.” I almost snarled at him. “How come you know my name and my friends, but you don’t know that?”
“I did know it. She died in the Rhythm Club Fire three months ago.” He stretched out his hand to me again. “Do you know what I’m saying? This is your choice. Be with me or be with her.”
My neck went cold, all the way around. He was fixin’ to kill me if I didn’t do what he wanted.
“Don’t.” I moved my feet again, but this time towards him. “I got a wife, almost.”
“Not anymore.” His hand twitched to beckon me. “Not unless you come here.”
It was too late. I couldn’t’ve moved away if a mule had been dragging me. That cold fire in his eyes pulled me down, and next thing I know I’m on my knees, them little rocks by the side of the road biting through my only good pair of pants.
“You want to live forever, Monroe?” His hand, too cold for a summer’s night, slipped up my arm. “You want people to hear your voice in their minds when they go to sleep?”
“Yes,” I whispered. I wanted it more than anything, more than money, more than a life with Sarah. I wanted to live, and go on living long after I left this world.
“Then close your eyes.” His hand passed over my face, from my forehead down to my chin.
I fell, and he caught me. Felt the ground beneath my back, cold, and his mouth against my neck, warm.
The pain was like a thousand shards of glass. He’d said it wouldn’t hurt, but that was just the first lie in a long, long line.
I kicked and shoved, but he held me down, so hard my collarbone snapped. I screamed, but stopped moving.
Far off a white light shone, getting bigger and brighter with every tiny little breath I squeezed out.
Just when that big white light was all I could see, the man left me. I wanted to reach out and grab him. Better to die with my murderer than die alone.
Then his hands was on me again, one behind my head, the other at my face. Hot blood poured inside my mouth, and Lord help me, I took it. I’d never known a thirst like that, not even after a day in the fields with no water.
After it was over, he didn’t touch me none, but I felt him near me while I lay there, going through the Change. I heard every song of my life, the last ones first and first ones last, goin’ all the way back to my mama’s lullabies.
Way down yonder in the meadow
cry sweet little lamb-y
birds and flies were peckin’ his eyes
poor little thing cry mammy
The pain left me, and that big white light got littler and littler and finally winked on out.
Before we left, I took that postcard out of my pocket and buried it there at the crossroads. Where I was going, I wouldn’t need no more pictures.
And as we walked north down that road together, I started to whistle.
Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleep, little baby.
When you wake you shall have
All the pretty little horses.