Saturday, November 28, 2009

Rainclouds and Cigarettes: The Devil and Robert Johnson


A rockslide in North Carolina closed the interstate today, so we had to backtrack towards Knoxville and find an alternate route along backcountry roads. Our detour couldn't have been more fortuitous. We crawled up and down the Smokey Mountains, fully appreciative of every tiny town, roaring creeks glimpsed from high on rusty bridges, and the Carolina sunset, gently depositing us in Georgia. It was a lazy, transcendental off day.

We're staying with Tim Gill tonight, my old friend from Echoes of Harpers Ferry, in the clean, comfortable Athens apartment that he shares with his adorable Albanian girlfriend, whose lovely name I will not tarnish with crude misspelling. She fixed me a plate of eggs and mushrooms, toasted rolls, and fresh salted tomatoes, which might have been one of the best meals of the trip.

Now we've outlasted our hosts, sprawled out on the floor and watching cable television. There's a show on about Robert Johnson. Johnson is a ghost, probably always was a ghost. Just another one of Mississippi's lost souls, from a time when the world was sepia, framed by open boxcar doors. The Crossroads are still there, in Mississippi, but the magic's probably gone. They call it the Devil, I say it was the Holy Spirit.

Las Cruces translates roughly to, alternately, "the crossroads" or "the crucifixes". Maybe I did lose a little bit of innocence back there in New Mexico, made a bargain with something sinister beyond the clouds. Maybe it turned my bones to pigiron, put the Gulf in my eyes, turned my blood to steam.

If I haven't already sold my soul, maybe it's time I did. Like I said, what they call the Devil, Robert Johnson's Devil, surely wasn't nothing but the Holy Spirit; a fierce avatar of dust and mud.

Johnson was murdered in 1938, poison in his whiskey. He's just a haint again, a specter staring out of old picture frames.

I wish jukeboxes were free, and I wish there were radio stations without commercials, reserved for ghosts and devils. I'd spin my dial, and then break the fucker off. I'd drive all the way to the Delta, get all four wheels stuck. And I'm hopelessly stuck, and sinking until I'm breathing mud, and I'd never turn that radio station off.

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