The devil was waiting at the crossroads.
“Howdy.” I said as I drew level. He was sat on a fence that looked too slight to hold him. Not that he was a big fella, he was kinda slim and about my height. Well dressed. His ancient face weathered and tanned.
He gave me a nod.
“Been here long?” I asked.
“Some,” he replied.
I dropped my kit bag to the scorched grass, before carefully lowering my guitar. We stood a while in mutual silence.
“Where you headin'?” he asked.
“Oh, I'm not particular,” I replied. “Anywhere. ‘Cept maybe back wheres I came from.”
He peered over my shoulder, looking across the prairie as if he could see the mess I'd left behind. He smiled and patted the black case by his side. “Shall we play, to pass the time?”
“Sure.” I shrugged, and bent to the dewlap bag I carried my guitar in. By the time I'd untangled the old thing he was sitting there, an ebony-black guitar slung over his narrow shoulders.
“Nice guitar.” I said.
He plucked a few strings, the mournful chords floating out into the early evening air. “Thanks.”
I watched his fingers dance lightly over the strings, not a tune exactly, but not warming up neither. He drew to a halt. “Seems ‘bout right.” And then he looked back over at me.
I raised a knee, resting my boot on the bone-white fence, and lifted the battered instrument higher onto my lap. After the miles I’d already trekked that day, it was hardly a surprise there wasn’t a string still in tune. I bent to my task, tweaking the keys, while he just sat there, his eyes closed until I was done.
“Your top string’s still a touch low,” was all he said.
I gripped the nub of wood left where the peg had long since snapped off, fighting the tension in the string until I was sure I’d got it, feeling the blush fade. Then I defiantly lifted my head once more. “Seems ‘bout right,” I mimicked.
“Well now,” he drawled, amused. “Perhaps you’d like a little sport. Something to make things more interesting.”
I stared at him. “What ... what do you have in mind?” I stammered, suddenly thinking what my soul was worth, and what I would trade it for.
He looked at me long and hard, unblinking, until I dragged my gaze away. “Your guitar,” he said “for mine.”
I laughed, feeling the sudden release of tension, and looked once again at the smooth black surface of his guitar, so dense and dark I could hardly see the grain of the wood, so dense I had to wonder if it were wood at all. “What’s in it for you?” I asked.
“Your guitar.” He repeated.
I frowned. “But...”
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “If you can play better than me, then you deserve my guitar. And if you can’t – well, we’ve passed some time, and nothing has really changed, has it?”
I couldn’t see a downside, and told him so.
He gave me a strange look that made me shiver, like winter had arrived just that moment. “You’ll see.”
I strummed my strings thoughtfully, then looked up at him where he waited, wondering what he was waiting for. “You first.” I said, and his face creased up once more into an easy grin.
And then he played.
He was good. That pitch-black guitar had a soulful resonance, a depth that even the wide open outdoors couldn’t dull. And his playing... he was real good. Heart wrenchingly good.
When he was done, I gave the silence a respectful measure, blinking moisture from my eye. “Nice.” I said. “Very ... nice.”
He said nothing, just tilted his head a little. Your turn, he was silently telling me.
‘Course I already knew he’d won. But still, I wanted to play as well as I could. When you hear someone that good, that special, you want them to at least acknowledge you, to give you a nod of respect, of approval. Though after a minute or so, thoughts of that and everything else drifted away on the soft prairie wind, and I was just playing for the fun of it, like I always used to do.
Then my mind stumbled over thinkin’ of the last time I’d played that particular tune, and who to, and what happened after, and that returned me with a sickening bump to the here and now. As the final chords jarred under my hesitant fingers I looked up at my audience of one, and gave him a smile. “No need for a recount.” I said.
He shook his head, raised his thumb to his lips, the nail to the slim gap between his upper teeth. “Don’t be so hasty.” He said. “Seems it ain’t entirely fair, seems like you played well enough, but maybe that old guitar of yours ain’t as good as you are. What say you we swap? And play one more round?”
Well I was keen enough. I’d been itchin’ to get my hands on his guitar since I’d seen it. I shrugged nonchalantly, and he lifted the sleek black instrument over his neck, and with a hand supporting the body and one on the neck, held it out to me.
Damn if it wasn’t the heaviest guitar I’d ever hefted! I’d thought his two handed grip was him just being extra careful with it, and I paid him and it the same respect. Good thing to, as I would have near dropped it otherwise. Oh, it wasn’t as heavy as a keg of beer, or a young heffer, or even Mary-Lou, all of which I’d hoisted in my time. But it was at least three times the weight of my cedarwood. Uncommon heavy for a guitar.
I balanced it carefully, feeling the coolness of its surface, easing its weight into a comfortable position. I gave its owner a wry grin, hardly knowing where to begin. Tried a few strings, then drew to a stop. The sound was clashing with itself, the tonewood kept the vibration going seemingly forever. I slowed it down, but it was still too fast, the noise an ugly jangle. Slowed it down once again, until it was almost a dirge, a lament, and the strings came alive under my fingers. It sure was hell to play, but the sound built and built, until it was almost playing itself.
When the final note was still slowly dyin’, I looked around in surprise to see the stranger cinch tight the cord on my dewlap bag. He nodded at me. “Congratulations.” He said, and stood to go.
“Wait!” I cried out, confused. “You’re not going to play?”
He shook his head slowly. “Nope. No point, I know when I’m beat. Enjoy your prize, and see ya around.”
I’d like to say there was a moment of dark premonition, as I watched him walk lightly away, his only baggage the guitar my brother had left me, that day long ways back. But I’d be lyin’. Truth was, as I carefully lay the black guitar back in its jet black case, I could hardly believe my good fortune, hardly believe it was really mine.
I’ve been playing it ever since. Or it has been playing me. Because since I picked up that guitar, I can’t play no-other. I can hardly bear the thought of letting it out my sight, and even when I’m on the move, riding on the back of a pickup with the guitar safely in its case, I can still feel the smooth wood beneath my fingers, sense the taut strings, almost hear the notes I’ll play as soon as we come to a stop.
It’s bought me some success, sure. I make ends meet. I never want for a meal, or a drink, or a bed to lie in. The dark guitar on its own brings respect, and I only have to strum a few bars to secure a gig, most anyplace I want to play. But not many places invite me back. The sound is so beguiling, so sorrowful, so sad, it ain’t exactly what most joints want. But I can’t play nothin’ else. Damn guitar won’t let me play nothing but the bleakest of blues, music to make grown men cry. Lost soul music. Music that, come the cold light of morning, casts a funereal pallor over the places I’ve played. So I have to keep moving, lugging my burden with me.
And the burden is a heavy one. ‘Taint just the weight, neither. It’s the fear of damage, the fact I can’t ever let no-one else play it, no matter who, and that distances me from my fellow musicians.
The girls want to touch it as well. The girls it, and my playing, attracts, and there’s no shortage of them. But they’re all damaged. Bad for me, and I, bad for them. Another reason to keep on moving.
One day, maybe, I’ll tear myself loose. Find a crossroads to sit at, wait for some wet behind the ears farmboy running from his past or seeking his fame, his fortune. I’ll eye his lightweight, homespun, hand-me-down guitar with envy. And I’ll offer him a trade – his guitar for mine, and head the way he came, to a simpler life, to somewhere I can stop running, settle down, and find someone I can play the songs I used to play to; songs of friendship, of simple pleasures, of love.
Until then, I dance to the tune of this black as night, heavy as sin, demanding as the-devil-himself cursed guitar, and play on.
(c) Liam Hogan, 2013
Liam Hogan may – or may not – have sold his soul to the devil in return for writing success. He thinks not. He thinks it's more like a timeshare arrangement. You can read those stories written while the devil was in attendance at his bibliblography (http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/) @LiamJHogan
Terence Anderson has been acting now for over ten years. He has played Jean in Bonnie Greer’s play Jitterbug; Eddie in John La Manchuria’s The Wild Party; Aide Williams in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Ivan & Johnson in Benjamin Zephaniah’s De Botty Business. Recent film appearance: Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.