by Adam Rabasca
Early this morning, when I heard you knock upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
-”Me and the Devil Blues,” Robert Johnson
Noah Schwartzman thumbed a folded yarmulke in his front right pocket the entire trip from Port Authority to Clarksdale, removing his hand only to scratch his head or blow his nose or remove lint from his slacks for fear an air current would waft it into his mouth. His left hand firmly had affixed itself to the neck of a newly-purchased acoustic guitar, a sunburst-finished Alvarez, which stiffly occupied the window seat. It hardly resonated due to Noah’s silencing fingers resting upon the steel strings. If it was humming, it was because Noah reluctantly placed it in the overhead rack in order to make room for a new passenger. Noah’s destination was the crossroads at Highways 49 and 61. He was going to meet the Devil.
A native to Queens, Noah assumed Satan held a local residence in Times Square, home to all breeds of sinners -thieves, strippers, drunkards, con-artists, media hypnotists, copyright infringers, and litterers- but worried the city’s lack of privacy would not allow enough face-time with the greatest evil-doer in history of civilization. He needed to meet the Devil alone. Bystanders would too likely be star-struck by Satan’s presence and thusly seek his autograph while Noah was tailoring their frowned-upon arrangement.
It was only recently that, while listening to WNYC, Noah heard a tribute to bluesman Robert Johnson, telling of the guitarist’s Faustian legend: Upon standing at the crossroads at midnight, Johnson sold his soul to the Devil to play guitar like no other. He later died prematurely when his mistress’s husband poisoned him. Some might chalk that up to forging an ill-advised relationship under the auspices of evil; Noah simply thought it was bad luck.
As Noah listened to Johnson’s haunted, ghostly recordings, a feverish and inexplicable desire to play the blues overcame him. Not the Chicagoan B.B. King blues. And, not the Memphisian Jug Stompers kind, either. He didn’t like Stevie Ray. He didn’t even like Clapton.
He wanted to play like Blind Willie, Lead Belly, Son House, owl-like, the notes themselves stealing through the darkness of the nocturnal backwoods. He wanted his voice to crackle and hiss through a rusty, dented phonograph, to fade out unexpectedly at the end of each song, his audience swooning and uncertain. He wanted his fingers to play like a wraith’s. He wanted to live Robert Johnson’s entire life…just not the “dying by poison” part.
Noah didn’t want to go to extremes, however, especially since these guitarists were blind, convicts, former preachers, or black. He was, after all, a Jew and needed to be mindful of the good reputation with which this came. Meeting the Devil would have to be enough. From there, Noah was certain he could negotiate the deal, though his mother would likely disapprove of their relationship.
Noah was not always so confident in his power of verbal persuasion but Hofstra had been the antidote for his limited and distant conversationalism. An awkward teen, chubby, unkempt, his shirt separated between buttons over his stomach, exposing a pale doughy abdomen. Girls were not attracted to him. Boys were not attracted to him. He wasn’t attracted to anybody other than his own fantasies, usually inspired by curbside newsstands indiscreetly promoting their more suggestive literature, yet other relationships his mother would frown upon.
Since attending college, Noah lost twenty-eight pounds, becoming nearly wiry, cut out sweets, walked more -not just on Shabbos- and even took up shadowboxing in his full-length bedroom mirror. Between classes, he usually walked the three miles from campus to Ben’s Kosher for lunch before downing an irresistibly savory corned beef sandwich on rye. On holidays, he walked home to his parents’ apartment in Forest Hills, but given the distance, gradually conceded to commuting by the Long Island Railroad.
His face thinned, too, though never fully ridding itself of a slight double-chin. His eyes remained drowsy behind a pair of thinly framed glasses, but compared to his former self, Noah was at least not unattractive anymore.
Noah’s parents were frustrated that even in his third undergraduate year he was not pursuing a career path towards medicine more aggressively. Certainly, they led Noah to follow in his father’s footsteps as a family physician. Though Noah reluctantly obliged, his heart melodramatically clung to the glory of performance.
Music was luring him back. A pariah in elementary school, he was an unlikely prodigy violinist, whom the music director singled out, often performing duets with him at the school band’s winter recitals. Other boys and girls teased him about his greasy hair and portly frame, but never at the winter recital. Even alpha male Trevor Purcell, a blond-haired faintly freckled Anglo-Saxon prototype with shin-guard tan lines from his forward position on the travel soccer team, would pat Noah on the back and commend him on a riveting show before wiping Noah’s dandruff from his hand and ordering Noah to shower. Noah did not just play the violin; he fused with it, surging with every stroke, every note, every dyad, like the coagulated fat jiggling in conjunction with the slicing of gefilte fish. He undulated, limply dangling from the bow, his fingertips glissing across the four strings barely visible to the front-row, cross-legged kindergarteners. He wanted Juilliard. His parents wanted Harvard. His grades wanted community college.
Noah’s brain was never fully able to deconstruct an assignment, no matter how easy or relevant, the act of learning, itself, a foreign language, music a seamless and natural biological process. Noah’s defiance did not stop his parents from pushing him towards medicine, though. They even tapped into his grandfather’s best friend, the head of admissions at Hofstra, asking for this one simple favor, promising that Noah would not embarrass him; the boy would thrive and excel, despite his extraordinary achievement in mediocrity. The pleas worked but Noah never obtained higher than a 3.0 grade point average. It was good, just not doctor good.
Noah wanted music back.
Even so, he could not return to the violin. He could not go back to the exhilaration of performance and the satisfaction of recognition, on for the two to be followed by the solitude of social letdown and a mega-wedgy in the boys’ locker room where Coach Maiolo sat within his glassed-in office, his back turned to the abuse, while wearing white tennis shorts that too eagerly displayed his curly-haired upper thighs. Inside the auditorium, Noah was normal; outside, he was ostracized. He could never go back to the violin.
Then he heard the Robert Johnson tribute and, for days afterward, obsessed over the “new,” old sound, his ears salivating over the tinny ringing dirtily pleasuring his eardrums. It was meaty, substantial. It was rich. It was familiar. Noah and Johnson had much in common: both lonesome, both segregated, both aware that a clean break would reconstitute their lives. Shaking Satan’s hand was simply the first step of reformation.
Noah bought a guitar but could not even tune it -YouTube offered free lessons. He imagined plucking and howling in a mossy, backwoods bar with it, his song inebriating the drunks and prostitutes, though his mother would likely disapprove of their relationship.
By the fifth day straight of humming “Come On into My Kitchen,” Noah could bear the desire no longer. He bought a Greyhound ticket on a Saturday morning with the money his father supplied for applying to med school and, with guitar in hand, was in Clarksdale by Sunday evening, breaking Shabbos for the first time in his young life to ride the bus. He did not consult with his professors. He did not leave a message for his roommate. He did not call his mother.
He also did not wear his yarmulke once out of the city, uncertain of non-New Yorker sentiments towards Jews and mindful assimilating. He was not even certain Jews lived outside of New York, except in Israel, and sought to remain as inconspicuous as possible, especially since residents of the Bible Belt frowned upon business transactions with history’s primary executor of incest, freakish babies, and liberalism. Noah never ventured beyond the borders of New York, except to Jersey, which, he surmised, was New York’s unseemly and extraneous appendage. Nevertheless, with the American Masada behind him, Noah pocketed his yarmulke, a lucky charm to deliver him safely to Satan.
On the bus, he broke Shabbos again, reserving from his iPhone a car and a room at the Comfort Inn, nestled snuggly on South Street, only a few miles from the intersection at 49 and 61. Whenever there were two empty seats together, he took down his guitar from the overhead rack and sat it upright next to him, his left side protecting it in the window seat from would-be thieves or vandals. In Wilmington, he got the runs from the two hot dogs lathered with sauerkraut, mustard, and relish that he ate in Penn Station-he had seen the goys do this a thousand times and so, without hesitation or error, entered the world of traif. Noah paid the Devil his first dues, the act of gluttony resulting in his occupancy of the bus toilet for twenty minutes, and regretted his non- kosher cravings, his mother’s shameful reproach delivered telepathically the entire time he endured the stench of his own and others’ feces mingling in the bowels of the Greyhound, now halted in construction traffic. This unfortunate happenstance left him subject to several suspicious stares, blew his cover, and made for an awkward trip until the bus change at Baltimore. At the rest stop in North Laurel, he felt the urge for Gentile indulgences again and ate a bag of M&Ms, a craving which did not result in further gastrointestinal difficulties, thusly reinforcing his traif desires. Upon reaching Richmond, he ate a slice of pizza -he avoided pepperoni so as not to push neither his providential nor his gastrointestinal luck- and waited fifteen minutes. As stomach cramps failed to present themselves, he ate another slice. Once back on the bus, though, his stomach began doubting his choices and fought with the rest of his body until Wytheville. At Nashville, he chose only to eat an unsalted pretzel and a bottle of water and subsequently, feeling a little better, slept on the bus until his last transfer in Memphis. Three hours later, Noah arrived in Clarksdale, a faint waft of Robert Johnson’s ghost stirring the hairs in his nostrils enough to make him abundantly aware of his distance from home, his solitude within the South, and the questionable events in which he was about to willfully engage.
By the time Noah picked up his rental car, he was ready for dinner and so stopped into a diner near his hotel, somehow missing the three-guitar monument in tribute to Robert Johnson. He played it safe in the diner, eating only a grilled chicken sandwich and ignoring the fries gravitating longingly towards his mouth. When finally he checked into the Comfort Inn, it was 6:30 p.m. Within the privacy of his room, he returned the yarmulke to his head and laid down on the double-bed, placing the guitar gently beside him, its head on a pillow. Shabbos now over, he watched the local news for an hour -a Clarksdale woman had been raped and murdered just miles from Noah’s current location- and took a nap since he would not be in until late.
During his sleep, Noah dreamed he was a doctor removing an appendicitis, Robert Johnson his patient, metal finger picks his surgical instruments. Halfway through the operation, Johnson awoke from the anesthesia, singing, “Me and the Devil was walking side by side.” The nurse handed Noah a guitar and he played, harmonizing with the spiritual warble, Johnson’s gut exposed and pulsing.
Noah’s alarm rang at 10:30. He showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, put on a tie, stuffed his yarmulke back into his pocket, and drove to the intersection of 49 and 61 to wait for the Devil. When he arrived, however, he was unsure whether to wait on the overpass or beneath it. He had only looked at a map and, rather haphazardly, selected this crossroads as the location, even though 49 and 61 coincided coming in from the north. He figured that the highway had been re-routed since the 1920s, but if ever there were a crossroads that met at right angles, surely this was it. The surrounding environs were barren. He decided under the overpass was best, scoping the darkness before emerging from the car, timidly, softly just like all those late nights when he awoke in a sleeping house as a teen, tiptoeing to the bathroom to enjoy himself in ways only the Devil would approve.
It was dark. Deathly dark. Noah had never experienced this kind of dark. There was always light in the city. Not here. It was 11:52 and he was scared of the dark.
Noah removed his guitar from the passenger seat and slid onto the hood of the car, the bottom of the Alvarez knocking into the headlight and screaming down the street. Despite the quiet, he decided to play, resolving that music would summon the Devil better than this hush. His playing sounded awful and he shuddered at its volume in the darkness, the cacophony springing back from the overpass concrete and distorting in his ears. Every time his knuckles tapped the hollow wood, it echoed up 49, northward towards home evoking his first feelings of doubt. What are you doing here, Noah? he asked himself. This is no place for a Jew. You belong in New York.
He looked again into the darkness, toward the direction his guitar playing seemed to dissipate, wondering that if, were he able to see far enough, this was the exact direction to his mother. Come on, Noah, he thought again. If Mom taught you anything, it’s to finish what you started. Toughen up, kid.
11:57 p.m….no Devil.
A dusty breeze swept into his face. He thought, perhaps, he should reconsider being on the overpass and walked out from underneath to see if anyone was above. No one visible from his angle. Just stars. He hopped back onto his car, wondering if his watch was off. What if I missed Him? thought Noah. What if I came all this way for nothing…on Shabbos?
Momentarily, he considered putting his yarmulke back on his head, hypothesizing that Satan might be Jewish and would appreciate the gesture. He decided against this, though, because he was always offended by comparisons between Jews and the Devil.
12:00 a.m….no Devil.
Noah was confused. In every legend, every myth, every tale, midnight has always been the moment of definition, the moment of climax, the moment of decision. Where was Lucifer? He was supposed to show, especially since it was 12:01. “What the fuck, Satan?” Noah said aloud. “This is bullshit.”
Maybe Noah had it wrong. Maybe this wasn’t the right crossroads. Maybe the Devil gave up on the whole business when they relocated the highway. He stood up to leave but thought better of it, deciding on patience. He leaned back onto the car and tried to strum an A7.
Maybe the Devil had another crossroads to be at for somebody else who wanted to sell his soul-or her soul (much had changed since Johnson’s time in the way of women’s rights and gender equality).
12:02 a.m….Noah peered into the darkness seemingly inches from his face. The wind dusted him again, humidly clinging to his cheeks.
He heard footsteps from the south, a cold sweat breaking on his temples as he erected himself. He did not even have an opportunity to regret this decision before a person -rather, a being– darker than the surrounding darkness approached. His hands were loosely stuffed into his pockets, his gait relaxed and steady. He was shouldering a black messenger bag and wearing worn, dark jeans, a white button-down shirt, and Converse sneakers. Hair stylishly messy, his unshaven face donned narrow black- rimmed glasses. The Devil’s a hipster, thought Noah.
The figure, handsome and without any doubt of evil in his presence, began negotiations, his baritone voice simultaneously comforting and alarming, “Sorry, I’m late, Noah.”
“Um…it’s okay? How did you know my name?”
“Come on, Noah. Don’t ask stupid questions, please,” he dropped his messenger bag on the pavement, a metallic ring bounding through Noah’s feet and legs a millisecond after impact, his eyes enshrouding his subject. “We both know why you’re here.”
“Right. I wasn’t sure if this was the right crossroads or not.”
“Technically, it’s not. Up the road apiece, back in the town, where Desoto meets North Street. Now, there’s a big Robert Johnson tribute. It’s a pretty busy intersection but back in the day, it was desolate. I loved it. Anyway, with all the highway re-routing, this spot turned out to be a good replacement.” He paused, looking nostalgically north.
“No more room up there anymore. That’s the original crossroads where I tuned Bob’s guitar.”
“No, Bob Dylan. That whole Robert Johnson myth was a load of shit. I don’t know who started that rumor but it gave me one hell of a bad name. Guitarist crap! I’m a poet. I’m a lyricist. Bob Dylan, man! I like the Jews,” he said, as he removed the yarmulke from Noah’s pocket and placed it carefully on the errant Jew’s head. “God likes ‘em, too, in case you’re wondering, but he’s not so much in the business of bestowing talents in place of your soul.”
“Wait a second…didn’t Johnson die before Bob Dylan was born? How could everyone mix that up?” Noah was doubting the authenticity of this character. He needed to check the guy’s facts.
“That legend is bogus. I never even met Johnson. Didn’t even have the guts to say my name, let alone summon me. That legend didn’t come around until the sixties, anyway. Nah, Bob Dylan, man.”
“So, what do I do then?” asked Noah, convinced by the retort. “I came to play like Robert Johnson, not Bob Dylan. I don’t want to play folk music.”
“What? You do know who Bob Dylan is, don’t you?” His face looked suddenly fierce, even offended. “He’s the greatest lyricist of all time. Think about it, Noah…what do you really want? It’s not to play the guitar. It’s fame. Recognition. The kind of acknowledgement draws people to you.”
“No, I don’t want fame. I just want to play guitar the old bluesy way. I want to play in backwoods bars for drunks and prostitutes.”
“Noah, please. Your mother would never approve of those relationships. Besides, all of those recitals in elementary school? I was there. You beamed at the applause…because for those few moments, the other kids loved you. Some of them even wanted to be you. You wanted the applause. You craved the applause.”
“No, I didn’t!” snapped Noah, forgetting his company. “And, if you’re not going to give me what I want, I’m going home.”
“Home? There’s no going home ever again, Noah. You came to me. You’re here. There’s no getting out of this now.”
“But I don’t want to play folk music. I want to play the blues.”
“You’ll play what I make you play!” The Devil’s voice expanded, enveloping Noah’s body, his blood, his thought, the damp air, the darkness, the stars, the moments past that led to Noah’s encounter.
Noah did not answer. He didn’t move. He just started to cry, silently, like a child gasping to catch breath before wailing in front of an overbearing, angry parent.
“Oh, damn it, Noah. Too much?” He sounded instantly sympathetic. “Come on, knock it off. I hate it when people cry. What did you think was going to happen? That I was going to just let you go? You’re entering a contract with the Devil, man! I’m the reason Evil exists at all.”
Noah kept crying, harder now, but still silently.
“Come on, kid. Stop it.”
Teardrops fell on his guitar.
“Alright, alright, alright. I’ll let you play the blues. Just stop crying, please. I can’t
stand it when people cry. It’s such a guilt trip.” Noah felt his body drawn in for a hug.
“Calm down, calm down. See? It’s alright,” he said, pulling his head back to look intimately into Noah’s eyes.
Noah caught his breath. “Sorry, sir, sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty.”
“It’s okay.” He paused, seemingly to reflect a millennium of memories. “You know, way back when God and I had that falling out, he never realized that if he just cried a little, I would have backed down. I hate it when people cry.”
“Why do you do bad things, then?”
“Easy, bro. Don’t ask too many questions…I just do my damage and leave the room. I don’t have to watch anyone cry. Listen, enough about me. You want to play the guitar like Robert Johnson?”
“Give me your guitar.” Noah unstrapped himself and passed the Alvarez to the Devil, who handled it lightly and, without strapping it on, tuned the suddenly off-pitch strings. Noah was surprised to see that, like himself, the Devil had perfect pitch.
The Devil handed Noah’s guitar back and said, “Play.”
Noah played as if he’d been playing his entire life. Noah played as if there were drunks and prostitutes in front of him, lounging and fornicating in the shadows of a musky backwoods bar.
He looked up from his guitar and the Devil was gone. He looked into the darkness and saw nothing. No one. He looked back down at his guitar and watched his hands pluck the strings as if they were not his own. He looked up again at the darkness and smiled widely, the kind of smile he could not stop.
The night became quiet. Noah’s music ceased resounding off the overpassed and, instead, saturated the air with an embracing calm.
Still playing, he walked around the hood of the rental car and did not see the swerving headlights as they clipped his legs, flipping him up and back, his head and neck crashing onto the pavement, the top three strings snapping on the guitar as it sustained a streaking fracture to the lamination on the bottom of its body. Noah lay on his back, listlessly gazing at the overpass’s blackness masking the sky, beyond which stars amassed in quantity across Mississippi’s night. He did not register the two drunken teens now surrounding him, looking down at his dying body. He did not register the prostitute they contracted for the night. He saw only the sky, as he heard his own voice sailing over his body’s numbness, “You better come on…into my kitchen…’cause it’s going to be raining outdoors.”
A moment after Noah exhaled his last breath, his corpse continued playing as his brain sent its remaining signals to his fingers. The drunken teens and the prostitute phoned for help, though they knew immediately Noah was dead. His mother would likely disapprove of their relationship.