DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN
A short story about Skip James.
Skip sold his guitar in Vicksburg and was nine days on the road when the storm hit. He’d had steady work playing with Will Crabtree, but then things went bad with Annabelle Davis, and he just couldn’t stick around anymore. She hung around Will, but he was a pimp and pianist, a great and lunatic hulk of a whiskey’d up con man. He never knew if she was a whore or just some lonely sweetmeat who knew she was getting hustled. She had that creamy cocoa skin he knew his Da’ had loved, and Skip guessed it just moved into his blood and bones. Skip’s family had always been dark, “Purple bruises in the night, boy,” as his Granny Yula had liked to say. His Momma was light-skinned and stupid and too sweet to live. Been dead for almost seven years, since 1917. He’d been fifteen years old.
That was in Bentonia, and he didn’t want to go back but figured he probably would. He’d dropped out of high school, already good on the guitar, started to take up the piano. He’d worked on road crews, in lumber yards and sawmills, all around Ruleville, Mississippi, up and down the Yazoo River.
He walked the levee now, thinking about old ladies digging their heels into the church stairs, wondered if he’d see his father again, they hadn’t talked since the old fool found God and a widow in Arkansas. It was all horsehair rugs and sawdust and shy white girls there. Here it’s all rain and the thick, cloying humidity. Someone named Rossman threw a table at him at some bar in Jackson, and goddam if he didn’t want one last hot little kiss from Annabelle. She don’t kiss long, but nips you in fierce little bites, after a piece of your soul and it burns her. That’s what souls do.
He hadn’t seen the sun yet today, but it was out yesterday. Highway 61 curves away from the river somewhere around Signal, and that’s where he’d been headed, but Skip decided to stick with the river. Felt good to watch the black mud slowly devour Mississippi, after all, and eventually the buzz of a thousand things in the darkness gets to be something you can’t imagine having lived without. He missed his fuckin guitar so he sang louder, calling it to just echo with his need, and be out there waiting for him, Anna-girl too, but to Hell with that crazy little whore. Didn’t matter. It was always Anna and Bentonia and Yazoo City. Mona Lee and Roberta, white lightening in black jars and Mary-Beth. Thunder in Katie Mae’s backyard, running half-naked and blacker than the Texas night. Stormed like it is now. He walked away from the road and starting howling, the same piercing falsetto that send pangs through every girlish eye he found.
“If I sent for my baby, and she don’t come…I sent for my baby, and she don’t come, get my 22–20, shoot her dead and run!”
Sometimes the nights roared back, and then there were days like this one, and Skip was wondering which he wanted forever, maybe, or at least until he got to Signal. His chest suddenly tightened and he couldn’t find a breath. Scared shitless, frozen in terror — and then it passed. He looked around, stopped singing, and saw the fishing shanty.
“Glory be,” he said to himself, and lurched along a thickening path of mud and tree branches, the wind whipping up the Delta swampland up around him. He walked around to the doorway facing the river and walked inside and saw Annabelle, bent against the wall and fucked by Will, by his father, by a tall white man with no eyes. She laughed and grunted and writhed and shouted Skip’s own name just once, delirious, eyes squeezed shut and he yowled like the kittens his Uncle Walter had crushed to death under his bootheel, just because he had too many hanging around his tobacco shop.
He fell back, asprawl and instantly filthy. Chiggers jumped into his shirt, his jacket was layered in the nastiest shit a swamp has to offer, and he’d just seen — well, what? And someone was laughing at him.
An old man sat with his back against an ancient eucalyptus, a long, polished, hard-carved fishing pole taut and quivering in the rain, the line vanishing into the silver water. You couldn’t really tell where the sky ended.
“Fancy Moses, son! You filthier than your Papa after twelve days in Baton Rouge!” he yelled to him, and then sprang for the pole as a monster snag bent it nearly double. “Ye Gods, Nehemiah! Look at that!”
Skip stared at him, then looked at himself, on his back in the mud, so he stood up and stretched, tried not to crack his knuckles (they’d been aching for hours, though not as bad as some nights back in Vicksburg, yeah?), and walked to his side, watched him struggled with the pole.
“What was that you called me?”
The man ignored him. “Lookit! Aw, hell yeah! Ride it like a Chinese dragon!”
“Hey! Put that thing down! Look at me!”
“That’s your name, and you know it! Now help me!”
The old man thrust his pole at Skip and jumped back.
“Whoa! Hey, no, here!”
“You gotta get him in here, boy! Go for it!”
“No, now take your pole, you old bastard!”
“Bring ‘er in, Skip!” the old sonuvabitch shouted, and clapped him on the back. Skip lost his footing and let go. The pole was swept along by the current, into that endless, roiling black and blue sky. The old man bellowed laughter, slapped his thighs, and marched back through the mess of a levee into what Skip figured had to be his shanty.
“Hey! Ah, shit!” He almost slipped and didn’t want this last suit any dirtier, so he followed, shouting. “Hey! Who are ya! What you doing out here, and how the fuck you know me? Eh? Old-timer!”
But the old man would just laugh and shake his head, his long, white coils of hair shaking around. He stroked his beard and vanished into the shack. Skip stood outside and let the rain soak in his skin. He wiped his jacket and pants down but it was gritty and had a fine brown layer over the dark blue wool. Old men, Skip thought, old men and another old mothafuck, as Will Crabtree liked to growl.
“Ah, Christ-Jesus,” he whispered, and went inside.
“Well, well. Nehemiah James. How come you out here all dirty and rained on, out at the edge of the Delta? Come now, speak on it and sit a spell.”
He was sitting on the floor, his legs drawn up to his chest, his eyes glittering in the shadows. There was nothing in here, certainly not his old lady, or ex-old fuckin whored up little lady, yeah? So why ain’t you movin’, son? That was his old man. He buried that voice, growled it down.
“Who are you?”
“Me? Just another sucker on the vine. A pan-fried peckerwood, as a friend of mine used to say, but he’s no longer my friend, so does it matter?”
“What? I don’t know what that is, but — “
“Backwoods cracker, like my old and blistered pappy. Or was that you? Oh, but didn’t they like to call you ‘Nig the Chig’ back there in Bentonia? And Will heard it, and that skinny nigger from Jackson, Bo Carter? Henry Stuckey, too? You know he thought he saw you once in Sidon, crawling up the gutter, looking old and feral. Taking the Keith Richards route so early, Nehemiah? Damn shame.”
Skip was stunned. He tried to scream, but he could only squeak: “Don’t call me that!”
“Siddown, Skip. Take a load off. Ease on in. Let it ride. Stack the deck. Try to take snot off a suede jacket, like they say in Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Mister — “
“Call me Mel. Close enough, I’ll warrant. Not that names mean much. Do they?”
“My name is Skip. You call me that, nothing else, you hearin me now?”
“I know those guys. Except for Keith whoever. Don’t know him. How you know me so well?”
“Oh, it’s the simplest thing. There’s stories hidden in every step, every motion. Molecules collide, an infinite chain reaction of Being and Passing, that’s all. I can smell ’em. Stories everywhere. And you, my boy, you’re something special.”
Sure he was. Skip knew it, right? Had to be, had to convince yourself you were to survive, at least in the life he’d been given. He smiled a little and took a seat on the cold hardwood floor. He should’ve been freezing, but he just wasn’t. This old fool threw off some kinda heat.
“Gotta radiator up yer ass, old man?” Skip said, edging away from him a little. The old-timer grinned.
“Call me Mel.”
“Yeah, okay. So how you know me, Mel? We ever meet before?”
“Maybe. I doubt you saw me, but I know you.”
“Well ain’t that fine.”
“Ain’t it? Finer than a gal from Carolina,” Mel said. He closed his eyes then, and sang a song Skip knew all too well. Sure, he ought to! He wrote it, after all.
“In Illinois, in Illinois, I hope I see you in Illinois…”
Skip stared at him, knowing he ought to be just pissed off, but he couldn’t. He just wasn’t mad, because for one the old bastard sang it pretty well, even though Skip had only wrote the thing three years ago and sang it five times.
“How you know that one?”
Mel opened his eyes, a broad smile arcing through his long beard.
“Heard ya, kid. Heard ya in that mining camp between Drew and Louise. And I heard you were in between Lola and Arlene, them cousins from Louise. Camp boss almost caught ya, huh? Heh!”
“How do you know my name?”
“That ain’t what you wanna know. Ask me a real question.”
Skip thought awhile. Sure, he had a real question.
“Fuck makes me so special?”
“There! Honesty! So rare, and getting rarer. Shit, it won’t really be too long until they start writing Frodo Lives! on subways, or shouting Clapton is God! Eggghh. Clapton. Most overrated white boy ever. You know what’s gonna happen to the music you play? Stolen by limeys and Yankees. What Clapton did to ‘Crossroads,’ now there’s a damn shame…that Bob Johnson‘s song. Can‘t just fuck it up for the hell of it!”
“I don’t follow ya. Clapton who? I don‘t know no Bob Johnson.”
“Oh, that ain’t important. I gotta little ahead of myself. Gets hard to remember where I am sometimes, you know? Shit, everyone knows that Charley’s God, anyway.”
“Yeah! You know him?”
“Kinda. Saw him at a birthday party for some mulatto girl back at the Woodbine. I grew up there.”
“Yup. You didn’t ever work, though, Skip. Too busy with a secret screw or four with those pretty white girls came by to play with Freddy Woodbine’s daughters, hey?”
Skip smiled in spite of himself. Yeah, he was a slick fuck. He knew it. Sure. Who cares? He heard Charley’s croak in his head then, so real if he turned around…
Charley was in the corner, strumming his Harmony, on one of those high stools he liked so much. Skinny old Charley Patton, looking like he came all pressed and polished as always, smooth hands that never saw any work beyond pounding a piano or slapping around Bertha Lee. Charley gave one of his sliver-smiles and dropped into “Mississippi Boll Weevil Blues,” one of his best. He winked at Skip, then stared at some point beyond them all, like always. His voice was wild and rough with decades of whiskey and road-dirt and Dunhill. His eyes were dead.
“You a little boll weevil, tell me where’s your little home, mmm-hmm…baskin in the sun, gonna crush your little head, Lordy…”
Skip wanted to say something, maybe ask that bastard if he took the seventeen dollars Skip lost somewhere, and then he turned to look at the old man. He saw a long, curled a shadow stretched and then doubled somehow. Hell, he didn’t what the fuck he was seeing: a pair of eyes like chips of fire, floating in the blackness that swam and bubbled. It looked like a man, then a floating nightmare, and Skip watched as a rose of light opened where a man’s chest might be, and Skip looked, and Skip saw
A thousand visions, revisions, near-misses, a naked, youngish man with long hair and a beard, struggling to escape a bathtub somewhere and Skip knew it was Paris but couldn’t know it, never been. A tall black man was holding him down, then slips out through a window. Another cat, copper skin and crazy clothes, choking to death on his own bright green vomit, a needle bucking in his vein, a clot of blood growing around his arm. He looked at least half-Indian, Cherokee maybe, or Choctaw. Like Charley, Skip thought, and then he was falling, then he was nothing, just a speck in a mass of infinity. He saw terrible things happening everywhere, children murdered by their parents, a group of adults tearing each other to shreds in a church, his own mother dying before his eyes, again and again and again. He saw Annabelle, dancing on the tables at Judd’s back in Vicksburg, saw her stagger up the stairs with Will Crabtree. He saw a laughing man with blood red eyes. He saw himself, old and gnarled, clutching his chest and falling, falling. . .
It all went away, and Skip was tearing through the night, branches whipped him in the face, clawing at his jacket. He ran on, and stopped when he saw a cabin. I’ve had enough of this, he thought, but he knew he had to go in there. He sure didn’t want to. Maybe he won’t. Skip takes a breath and turns back, running straight into Charley Patton. Dead eyes, flyblown breath, and teeth stained black. This wasn’t no Charley.
“No,” he says, “I sure ain’t. But you gotta go in and see what’s gotta happen. It happens all the time.”
“Naw,” says Skip, “I don’t wanna go in there!”
“You got to, Nehemiah. You got to see what’s a-waitin’ for all us who serve Someone.”
“I serve myself!”
“No, you got to serve somebody, and we serve Someone else. Ain’t the Lord’s music, you know.”
“No. MY music. That’s all there is to it.”
“You know what the future’s gonna bring to the blues? Electric guitars. Fusion. Hip-hop, Trip-hop, mass-produced shit for a brain-fried world. That’s about it. Go on in and see why.”
Skip looked at him, watched him melt back into the shadows. Those dead eyes burned into the night, and after a few seconds they were a pair of campfires across the river. But this wasn’t Mississippi anymore — was it? Maybe, maybe not. He didn’t know. It was too dark.
That was then the tune came into his head, like always, out of nowhere. He hummed it out, could almost taste the strings, but the guitar part always came later. Words came first.
“I’d rather be the Devil, than be that woman’s man, lay down last night, lay down last night I lay down last night, could not take my rest. . .wind was shrieking like a wild beast in the West — “
He lost his concentration when he heard somebody screaming from the cabin.
Skip went to the door and pushed it part of the way open. He looked in, his eyes wide and dry and horrified.
A dark-skinned man with one weird, bulging eye was howling, snarling, staggering naked from the narrow bed in the corner. He knocked a bottle of whiskey to the ground, and started to puke up yellow and red, whiskey and blood and bile, clawing at the pine floor.
“Bob? What’s matter?” his lady was naked, at the edge of the bed, watching. Not surprised. She grinned, and padded nude across the floor. Skip ducked back but she just smiled at him and winked.
“Told you to leave Clara alone, Bob.”
Robert Johnson shrieked and lurched toward her. She swatted him away, and he curled up on the floor, kicking the kerosene lamp over. The burning oil lit on his legs, and Skip could hear the sizzle, smell the frying flesh. The girl sighed and picked up the whiskey. She drank it down, leaned over Bob, and spewed it in his face, laughing. She grinned, and Skip could see her teeth: pointed and jagged and stained black. Dead eyes. Burning, burning into his. She walked toward him, and vanished.
Bob howled and snarled like a dog, the fire leapt up around him, and Skip could only run. The night laughed down on him, silent as judgment and evil as he was. At least the rain had stopped.