A shimmering sun beats down mercilessly on Robert’s head. The wooden signpost offers his back some solid support as he sits, his legs stretching out in front of him. His battered brown guitar case, also availing of the signpost’s services is visible from the corner of his right eye. The piece of twine he’d taken from the post office is wrapped around it, tied with a basic knot. It keeps the lid closed and prevents his pride and joy from tumbling out, face first onto the dried yellow grass. The air is stifling, oven hot, the heat haze sets the horizon hovering in the distance.
Why did those guys at the Roadhouse Club have to be so mean? Their conspiratorial chuckles and snide remarks sending shivers up his spine even as he began his journey to the makeshift stage at the back of the sunless room. He felt as if he was approaching a gang making ready for some desperate display of machismo when all he wanted to do was jam with these guys. Each step bringing him closer towards these giants fills him with dread. Every slow motion footstep sends shockwaves through his skeleton. He’d been practising hard every last second that he could afford to, every day for months now. Endless repetition of scales and melodic passages until the fingers could find their way around the guitar on their own. He was so pleased when he managed to work out a riff just by listening to it, no help, no sheet music.
The chair legs scrape the dusty floorboards as he adjusts it to help settle his nerves, and then… his fingers desert him like guilty traitors. A bead of sweat sets off on a course down the left temple, gathering momentum past the cheekbone and hesitating agonisingly for seconds before the final plunge from his chin. The cotton shirt clings to his back for dear life, afraid to let go, the sweat turning icy.
‘We’re waiting son,’ an impatient gravely voice booms from behind the upright piano at the side of the stage. The piano’s strings vibrate in sympathy. A full scale riot is raging inside Robert’s addled brain. A long deep breath in a last ditch attempt to regain some composure and trying to recall something, anything, those wayward digits start fumbling through a blues in A, but the strings seem to be rebelling, mutiny on the fretboard, the notes are jumping ship faster than any shanghaied sailors ever could. Robert is so caught up in the terrifying moment that he barely comprehends as the owner of the voice rises from his seat, strides purposefully over to him and takes the guitar from his grip. As all six foot six of the man stands over him Robert feels like he’s observing the whole scene from above and slightly behind his body and he can see himself shrink as his tormentor seems to grow in stature.
‘Not today, son. Maybe some other time.’ Those words come to him from far off, drenched in reverb. Robert is shellshocked, unmoving, forcing the giant to turn around with the guitar and put it to rest in its case. Its handle is thrust into his left hand, the piece of twine plucked from the floor is placed in his right, and then he’s outside in the middle of the street, dazed and confused, the light burning his eyes.
The shadow that falls across his legs startles him into looking upward into the cold dark eyes of its owner. How did he manage to creep up on him, he had a good clear view of the road, although lost in self pity he hadn’t been the most focused sentry.
‘Is that your guitar?’ punctuated by a tap on the case with his black ash walking stick, a large silver ring with black stone inset sits on his skinny index finger. He’s dressed in black from the top of his high crown trilby to the soles of his shiny spanish leather boots.
Who does this guy think he is? Robert’s thinks. ‘There’s no-one else around for miles it’s pretty obviously my guitar,’ he says.
‘Why aren’t you practicing?’
That was it, not so much the straw, more like a whole bale of hay hitting that camel’s back. It just tumbled out, straight down like the water at the nearby falls, violent and foaming as it hits the rocks of humiliation.
‘I’ve been practising for months on end, day in, day out, and it hasn’t done me a blind bit of good.’ It turns into a whimpering stream of tears.
The wiry old man leans with both hands onto the walking stick, rocking his body gently from side to side, waiting patiently for Robert to gather himself together.
‘Ok, so the guys at the Roadhouse gave you a hard time, that’s not reason enough to just give up!’
‘It is for me,’ he says wiping away the tears with the heel of his hand.
‘Listen to yourself. Willing to throw in the towel at the first sign of a decent fight. Was that the first time that you’d played in front of people?’
‘Well, yeah, but…’
‘There you go, right there, classic mistake. You need to practice playing in front of people. People you know, who won’t put you down. That’ll help you conquer some of those nerves, not that being nervous is a totally bad thing, you understand. To get a good performance you need to be a little edgy, but if you let that adrenalin take over…’ He left the sentence suspended, knowing from Robert’s slight nodding that he knew this is what had happened to him earlier.
‘Why don’t you play something for me now?’ Robert hesitated, wanting to use the old man’s argument against him, saying that he didn’t really know him that well either, but he figured he hadn’t stopped to give him advice only to mock him when he started to play. He drew in one leg bent at the knee and propelled himself upward, standing still for a moment, a touch dizzy. He took the guitar case and gently laid it down on the grass, kneeling on one knee, carefully undoing the knot in the twine. Realising that the old man was trying to peek over his shoulder to get the first glimpse of his instrument, he can feel the giddiness start to course through him once more. He frees the guitar from its resting place, hoists the strap over his head and lets the weight settle onto his shoulder. He holds it’s body like a lover, keeping it close, nestled to his chest, caressing its neck.
His fingers leap into action, checking the tuning of each string, no point playing out of tune. Then they get down to the serious business of the blues, headlong into a descending turnaround riff, vibrating the last note before laying down a shuffle interspersed with little fiery licks, spitting out note after note of pure passion, bending and pulling the strings to make them cry and sing with pain and anguish and joy and liberation, until there’s no more, every last ounce is spent and the final note is carried off towards town by a slight breeze.
The dry sound of two hands coming together slowly, rhythmically reaches Robert’s dazed ears, the old man continues clapping until Robert raises his head to face him.
‘I’ll bet you can sing too.’ A grin cracks open his face, and Robert can’t help himself smiling too.
‘I… I think that’s the best I’ve ever played,’ he says just about realising that he’s said the thought out loud.
‘Well, how about singing something for me, then. What about ‘Death Letter’ by Son House?’
‘I think I know the first couple of verses, but I’m not too sure after that.’
‘That’ll do just fine.’
Robert plays the opening chords, soaking the notes up into his soul, then unleashes an ethereal voice from the very depths of his being, a sound that doesn’t seem to belong to one so young, hinting of untold hardships, experiences that should have come later in life but here, they add that slate edge to an otherwise smooth delivery.
The old man waits until he’s finished and locks eyes with Robert. A shiver shakes Robert and he breaks contact from that soul searching gaze. Dry and cracked the voice reaches him, ‘Let’s make a deal.’
Robert listens, taking everything in, nodding emphatically.
After shaking hands, feeling the unexpected power behind the old man’s grip, he turns back to the yawning guitar case, gently places his precious into the gaping maw, brings down the lid, ties up the twine and straightens himself up to find the old man gone.
Robert opens his eyes, looks to his right and nods at the piano player, signalling the end of his solo and the upper register of the piano comes to life, the notes leaping from the keyboard, escaping the merciless pounding fingers, tripping and trilling over the faded ivory. Robert sings the last verse and signals the band with a nod that this will be the last twelve bars of the blues and with practised precision everyone arrives at the last note of the tune at exactly the right moment. The crowd erupts into a wall of applause even before the last note has finished vibrating. People are reaching up to the stage, clambering to shake his hand, which he does good-naturedly to a few but demurely declines after that and begins to unburden himself of the guitar’s weight. The piano player approaches him, and grabs his right hand in both of his and shakes as if he wanted to remove the arm from its socket.
‘Man, I just wanted to apologise for how I treated you that day.’ He half turns away, then leans in closer to Robert’s left ear still gripping his hand, and whispers, ‘How did you do it anyway?’
Robert pauses, licks his dry lips before replying, ‘I made a deal with someone I met at the Crossroads.’