Here’s the second part of a short story I wrote a few years ago about a young boy’s encounter with bluesman Robert Johnson. (Part 1 here.)
After the last song, folks crowd around Johnson, so the boy and the older man hang back. After the crowd thins out, the older man says, “Robert, there’s someone here who wants to meet you.”
Johnson’s been eatin’; he wipes his mouth and smiles at the boy. “Is there now?” Johnson’s voice is high-pitched, like the way he sings. “And who would you be?” He offers a handshake.
For just a second, the boy wonders what will happen if he shakes Johnson’s hand. Will it be hot, like an iron from the fire? But it ain’t hot. The fingers are extra-long, that’s all. “My name’s Willie, sir.”
“Did you like the music, Willie?”
Johnson takes another bite of the roast chicken he’s been workin’ on. “Kind of you to say.”
Now a question starts a-glimmerin’ in the boy’s head. Maybe it’s because it’s almost sunup on Sunday morning and he’s real tired. Maybe it’s because this ol’ juke feels like a whole different world with all different rules. Or maybe the boy is just brave, or foolish. He doesn’t know which, and before he’s got time to decide, the words are out of his mouth: “Is it true about you and the devil?”
Johnson smiles again, but he doesn’t say anything for a bit. Then: “Maybe it is and maybe it ain’t,” he says with his mouth half-full. “But let me tell you somethin’, Willie. Workin’ for the man in the fields every day, that can be a way worse devil than anyone you’d meet at the crossroads. So I got myself a git-tar and I got myself out.” He pointed to the bucket next to him on the stage, which was full of coins and a few dollar bills. “Learnin’ and practicin’ is hard, hard work, but payin’ for your daily bread like this is better than breakin’ your back in the cotton. ” He takes another bite, and then he says, “Isn’t it time you were gettin’ home, boy?”
It is well past time for Willie to be gettin’ home, so he turns to go. He will never see Robert Johnson again, because in not too long, Johnson will be dead. His death will be another one of those stories people whisper about.
Walkin’ home, the boy thinks about what Johnson said. He wonders what happened to that old guitar his granddad used to have. He knows hard work don’t bother him. Maybe he could have a future like Robert Johnson’s.
The eastern sky is growin’ brighter as sunrise comes on, but that don’t matter to the boy. Every time he passes through a crossroads, he hurries just a little bit. He don’t want to meet any strangers there.
The story is told that when Bruce Springsteen finished writing “Born to Run,” he walked around worried for a couple of days, wondering who he’d stolen it from. After I finished writing this story, I had a similar experience. No way I wrote that myself, I thought—I had to have unconsciously plagiarized it from somebody. But the client I wrote it for accepted the work, paid me for it, and never made a peep about any problems with it, so I guess it really was my own. I was so proud of it that I sent it to my friend whiteray, with a note saying I had no idea where it had come from. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, he said to me, “Songs, stories, essays—they’re all out there waiting, and sometimes we just catch hold of them. In this case, you caught a good one!” Yeah, I believe I did.
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