Friday, June 10, 2011

A peek into the trunk

Do you ever go rifling through old stories you've consigned to the trunk? Maybe for ideas, things to steal and reshape, or maybe just to see what crappy thing you wrote years ago so you feel better about what you write now. Y'all, this is why I don't delete stuff anymore, no matter how awful. So Wednesday night I did just that, opened up my Trunk folder and poked around to see if anything could be cannibalized for either of the projects I'm working on now. I had a pretty good idea I might find some stuff for Project B in old trunked Story X, and after I poked around that document for a while I opened another. This is from an abandoned novel I fought with off and on for too many years and never finished, and further evidence of my never ending obsession with Robert Johnson in particular and music in general.

16 August 1938
Star of the West Plantation
Greenwood, MS

“I’m not the devil,” Jim answered. “I just work for him.”

RL’s thin body shook and spasmed as he coughed up another stream of blood, the bright red glowing against the soiled sheets. Jim wiped blood from RL’s chin with a stained handkerchief. The once-white cloth was discolored with paisleys of dried and fresh blood, in worse condition than the sheets. Jim had been there almost an hour but it felt longer. He got Robert settled again, as settled as the man could get alternating between muscle spasms, rigid limbs, convulsions. His breathing was labored and fear was the only thing left in his face.

“I don’t wanna die like this,” Robert said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“You’re not going to die. I’m going to find a doctor - “

Robert cut him off with a shake of his head. “No doctor gonna come out here, even if you could find one. He won’t let no one help me.”

“What do you mean, he – “

"He want me, he gonna have me”

“Who’re you talking about?”

Robert turned his head to face Jim, raised his arm to reach out for him. Jim took RL’s hand in his own, feeling the strength gone from the preternaturally long fingers. He looked at their joined hands, two black hands, blinked and saw flashes of his true skin color; for a second he even thought he could feel the difference in his hair, stiff black curl melting into soft straight blond. Looking into Robert’s eyes, he knew Robert could see him for what he really looked like. That scared him more than the convulsions, even more than the blood. No one had ever been able to see past the veil of one of his glamour spells before.

“I don’t want to go to hell,” Robert said.

“You’re not going to hell. That’s crazy talk.”

“It’s what he told me.”

“Who?” Pretty sure he already knew the answer.

Robert’s frail body shook hard again, his back arching as he cried out. Jim held his hand - he didn’t know what else he could do. He knew even if he could find a doctor who would venture out to a shack like this in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t get back in time.

“Man who was here before. He told me I was going to hell. Told me the devil was gonna come take my soul.” Talking so much took a lot out of Robert - he seemed faded, like a washed out old photograph.

“What did he look like?” Jim asked as he reached to the floor for a canteen of water he’d brought. He gently lifted Robert’s upper body enough that the sick man could drink comfortably, held the canteen to his lips. Robert sipped like he had no thirst. He lay back down, Jim pulling the old tattered blanket up to his shoulders. “What did he look like, Bob?”

“He was wearin’ overalls first, when he looked like an old black man. Then he... he had on a suit. A black suit, and a red necktie. And he was...” All of this came out slowly, painfully. Robert paused and Jim couldn’t tell if it was just to catch his breath, or was he doubting what he’d seen, afraid to tell it. Finally Robert continued. “He was like you, black and then white. Sometimes both. He said a lot of things, an’ he tole me I was goin’ to hell for the things I done.”

Jim wanted to tell him he was delirious from poison and fever, that he would get better, that they’d leave Greenwood and go to Memphis or Chicago or maybe even Texas, someplace where he could get recorded again. But none of that would have been true, and at this moment Jim didn’t have it in him to tell more lies. So he told the truth - the truth as he saw it.

“You’re not going to hell, Robert,” he spoke quietly, leaning close so RL could hear him. “The man who was here before, he’s a very bad man, and he likes to hurt people. He’s had a lot of fun with you, but it’s almost over now. The pain will stop soon, and you’ll be all right.”

Robert started to speak again but the words dissolved in a coughing fit, more blood coming up. Jim wiped away the blood again, raised the canteen again. “Just relax,” he whispered. “Just relax.”

“I’m dying,” Robert said through labored breath. Not asking.


Robert reached for his hand again. “Will you stay until it’s over?”

“Yeah, I’ll stay,” Jim said, running his free hand through his hair. His real hair.

The time passed slowly for Jim. Boarded up windows kept the night air out and the stifling heat heavy with smells of sickness in. A single hurricane lamp on the rickety table by the bed let off a faint glow - the lack of light was one thing Jim was glad for. The smell of blood and coming death, the rattle and moan of Robert’s rapidly failing body as it gave up its last bit of strength, his muscles and lungs losing the fight. As bad as it was now, Jim knew it had to have been much worse for Robert earlier - he’d been writhing on the floor, howling in pain and possibly even fury, when Jim finally found him. Jim wanted to leave, wanted badly to leave. Fought with himself to force himself to stay. Would have even prayed for Robert’s death just so he could get out of this horrible room, if he were the praying type. But he wasn’t, and he stayed, and was surprised to feel more relief for the end of Robert’s suffering when he finally took his last breath than relief for himself. He pulled the sheet over the body and headed for the door, not wanting to linger, feeling the glamour spell fall back into place as he crossed the room. He stopped at the door, glanced at the Gibson Kalamazoo leaning in a corner. Hustled over for it, then quickly left with the guitar slung over his shoulder, almost running into the blue-black delta night.

Yes, I know what you're thinking - this is all kinds of cringe-worthy. Although maybe not quite as cringe-worthy as the Young Adult novel that I did finish and promptly banish to the trunk, but still. Oy. Even so, I like having this. I like seeing proof that I have gotten better at writing. When I am filled with self-doubt and worry that I'll never write anything worthwhile again, I can look back and know that I made forward progress in the past and I can do so again. That's a good thing to know.

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