Brian flew down I-65 in his canary yellow Dodge Dart. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was all he could afford at the time. He had haphazardly crammed what necessities he could into the cramped back seat the night before, preparing for his trip. There were questions that begged to be answered and there was only one way to find them: follow his father’s directions. The leather-bound folder sat riding shotgun, pages folded open along with the map. He tapped at the steering wheel in tune with the radio, keeping his eyes open for his next exit. He planned to stop at each designated spot, that is, as long as his money held out. His finger quickly flipped to a section that he had marked with a tab prior to his trip, guiding the car onto the off ramp of Exit 1A. The sign to his right welcomed him to Memphis, Tennessee.
He pulled to a stop at the rest area, picking up the folder and placing it in his lap. He scanned over his father’s words again as he prepared to make his first real stop on his journey. It had taken him around seven hours to get to this point, but he knew he had to find out the truth.
Beale Street Blues Club - Memphis, TN – September 30th, 1950
I have decided to make a stop in Tennessee, there seems to be a large Blues community here and maybe I can get pointed in the right direction. I have already asked a couple of people where to head to find the right scene and I am being told about a backdoor club downtown.
I get the eye walking in, doubt they see many white men in places like this but I’m here for a job, not entertainment. Many of the artists here have heard the story of Robert Johnson and a few of them believe it. I have been told to look for an artist named Frank Stokes down in Mississippi. He used to be a regular here but he seems to have moved down to Clarksdale. He has been seen speaking to a man that resembles Scratch’s description.
Brian searched for Beale Street on his map, finding it wasn’t that hard but the alley was more difficult. The buildings had changed after eighteen years and the place described in his father’s notes just didn’t exist anymore. This would make his mission more challenging, but not impossible. He began asking people who passed by, mainly the older crowd, if they had heard of this Blues club. Some people ignored his questions entirely, some had no idea what he was talking about, and others seemed to be angry he even asked. The whole task was frustrating and after about an hour of bad luck he found a bench to rest his feet.
He had been sitting there staring across the road for a few moments when a leathery hand landed on his shoulder. The sensation caused him to jump and as he looked up at the figure behind him he came face-to-face with the wrinkled features of an aging black man. He asked shakily, “Can I help you?” The man didn’t respond, only stared down at Brian. He assumed he was staring, that is, considering he could not see his eyes behind the large rimmed sunglasses that sat upon the man’s face. “Sir,” Brian spoke again as he tried to lean away.
“I heard you’re looking for some Blues,” the words spat out in a raspy tone through the man’s jagged and rotting teeth. He patted Brian hard on the back and cackled a bit, “Come on now, I can show you.” He began hobbling away from the bench, a cane in the other hand. Brian simply watched for a moment, still trying to understand what was happening. The old man stopped, pivoted on the leg he seemed to be favoring and spoke again, “Well, come on now, boy, I ain’t got all day.”
Brian hopped up and shuffled over to the man. The two of them walked in silence down the block until reaching another alley; the old man didn’t skip a beat before turning down the passage. Brian paused at the entrance, knowing this had to be the dumbest idea he had ever had. A canvas roof draped between the two buildings that sat on each side. The cloth blotted out the sun and if the alley had been any darker, you would need a flashlight.
“Come this way, the door is just here. I ain’t gonna bite ya, boy, ain’t got enough teeth,” the old man said with a laugh before making a chomping motion with his mouth. Brian’s nose squinted at the sight of those ragged bits of yellow and black that remained. He had come this far though and decided he might as well see what was ahead. He slowly approached the door that the man had pointed at, seeing no handle but only a port hole with a closed cover. “Just knock on the window, tell ‘em Pete sent you. If they ask Pete who, tell him it’s the only damn blind man that can still find his way to this shit hole,” the crass words fell out before another wicked laugh.
Brian took a step toward the door, raising his shaking hand to form it into a fist. His knuckles rapped on the metal covering over the window, causing an echo in the alley. Stepping back to wait, he shoved his hands down in his pockets. He turned to thank the man for his help and noticed that he was gone. His face wrinkled a bit in confusion at the sight. The man had been moving so slowly earlier there was no way he could have made it back to the street so quickly. His curiosity was broken by the clank of the window opening and a faceless voice calling out, “Who’s there?”
“Br-Brian, Pete s-sent me,” Brian’s voice cracking as he attempted to respond. Laughter could be heard on the other side of the door before the window shut. Brian’s shoulders slumped down and he shook his head in disappointment. “I knew this was a dumb idea,” he thought right before a loud clamber came from the door. Soon it swung open and out stepped a dark-skinned man that towered over him. He had to be at least 6’7” and 400 lbs. He loomed over Brian for a moment, arms folded and confusion resting on his forehead.
Finally, his voice rumbled, “What’s a scrawny white boy like you hangin’ round that crazy old coot for? Matter of fact, what are you doing coming around here anyway? My people aren’t taking too kindly to yours right now, if you haven’t seen the news.”
Suddenly, Brian felt the overwhelming urge to run. He was never surer that he had made a mistake following the blind man until right this moment. He had no idea what he was talking about; he had been so busy tending to funeral matters and helping his mother move that he had paid little attention to national matters. He mentally struggled for the words that might keep him from landing a beating in this dark alley, knowing that no one would hear him or see him here. “Listen, I just- um, I wanted to see this Blues club my dad used to talk about. I'm not really from here, so I'm not sure what you mean. You see, my dad passed away earlier this year and I was following an old road trip plan he left behind.” he gave a weak smile in an attempt to convince the man.
The hulking figure looked Brian over for a moment then looked around a bit before agreeing to let him in. Brian stepped up into a dimly lit hallway and the sound of the metal door crashing shut made him jolt. “Head on down there through that door,” the guard said as he returned to the stool that sat by the door. Brian continued along a crimson walled corridor, the hardwood floor creaking slightly under his steps. He could already smell the aromas from the room ahead. It was thick, almost to the point of choking him. You could tell that dozens of cigars and cigarettes created a wave of mist that billowed from the doorway.
He reached the entrance and stepped just inside to bear witness to a ruckus. People hooped and yelled, danced, and sang along with the artist on stage. The band blared melodious mixtures of trumpets, saxophones, drums, and guitar. Waitresses dressed scantily buzzed from table-to-table, taking and receiving orders and dozens of men lined the bar, some speaking to one another and others simply placing an order with the bartender. Brian slowly approached the counter, leaning his elbows against it.
The bar went silent, all eyes falling on the palest person in the room. The bartender took a few steps in Brian’s direction, still cleaning a glass with a towel, “Can I help you, son?” Brian almost missed the question, his eyes scanned the room and noticed that slowly everyone was watching him. He began to feel a knot growing in his throat and sweat began to bead upon his forehead. He swallowed hard and tried to clear his throat.
“My father came to a club like this a long time ago,” he said, still looking around the room. “He passed away earlier this year and I was visiting places he used to go, hoping someone knew him,” the words finally falling from his mouth.
The bartender gave a half-smirk, almost as if he didn’t believe him, “How long ago was this, cuz you’re the first white boy I’ve seen in here?”
“Probably eighteen years ago….” his voice dwindled off as if he barely believed himself.
The men around him erupted in laughter along with the bartender. After a few moments the man behind the counter waved his hands around a bit to settled the uproar. “Okay, okay fella’s, give the kid a break,” he said in a calming tone before looking back to Brian, “Listen kid, there isn’t many people from back then here tonight but if you wanna ask some of those old folks at that table over there, be my guest.” The thin finger pointed past Brian to a booth in the corner; four men sat peeking over toward the commotion, their eyes widening a bit at being singled out.
The room slowly returned to life as Brian made his way through it. He overheard many of the patrons whispering about him and it did little to settle his nerves. As he came to a stop at the table, each of the old men gave him a stern look. He rung his hands for a moment, “I was just hoping one of you might have known a Rick Sawyer, he was my father.” They all looked at one another for a moment, then back at Brian before shrugging and slightly shaking their heads. “He may have been in here asking about Robert Johnson,” he continued. The man in the back corner sat forward a bit and his eyes perked at the statement.
“You mean the cop,” he blurted out in more of a statement than a question. Brian nodded in response. “Yeah, you boys remember that fella. He came in here talking about Robert and asking about that deal,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. It clicked in their heads and they started agreeing and nodding, the man next to him pointing a finger outward toward Brian, “So that was your pops?” Again, Brian simply nodded in response but the unease of the situation seemed to be tapering off. They didn’t seem as shook by his presence anymore. Each one started conversing about their memories of Rick Sawyer and the night he came asking questions. “Well, what brings you here then, boy?”
“I was hoping to find out what all you told him and ask you if you know anything about this,” he said sharply as he pulled the coin from his pocket. He turned it in between his index and thumb, the light glinting from it as it moved. The man at the back of the table stood up slowly, removing the cigar that had hung between his lips and letting it rest in his fingers. He leaned in toward Brian and the rest of them simply fell silent, looking at the item in his hands.
“Listen boy, if you had any idea what you were really messing with you wouldn’t have brought that here. So, I’m going to tell you something and then you’re going to walk right back out that door,” his words cold and callous. Brian fell back into his nerves, almost shaking at the man’s voice. “That right there is a ticket to hell and you’re on the highway. If that’s what you’re after you don’t have to travel far, but both Robert, your pops, and many many others had to learn the hard way just what that means.” Brian tried to explain, but he was cut off. “No, you don’t say another word. If you wanna throw your life away you take that coin of yours to a payphone and dropped it in. He will come to you, boy, but don’t be thinking about doing it here,” he said before pointing toward the exit.
Brian stuffed the coin in his pocket, turned toward the exit and slowly passed through the crowd that had fell silent at the tone of the old man’s voice. Some of the ones closer to the table had overheard the conversation and they scowled at him as he left. He lowered his head slightly when passing the bar, everyone sat waiting for his exit. When he approached the door man Brian noticed him shaking his head with a smile. “Told you, you didn’t need to be up in here,” he said with a laugh in his voice. The door was unlocked and pushed free, held open by the guard.
Brian began to step down and just as he was clear of the door he turned to the man one more time with a question, “One more thing, what about Frank Stokes? Is he still down in Clarksdale?”
The guard shook his head, “That cat died in like 1955, just like you’re gonna if you keep pokin’ around in things you don’t know nothin’ about.” With that the door slammed shut in Brian’s face and he was left alone in the dark alley. He sighed in disappointment, pulling the coin from his pocket again. It turned between his fingers as he thought about the warning he received and what was said about the payphone. He remembered his father dropping the coin in one within his dream. Was it really that easy to summon the Devil? This thought echoed in his mind as he began walking toward the street.
When he reached the end he noticed the street lights hum and slowly come to life. It was late, he was tired, and it would be far too dangerous to drive in this state. A shop owner nearby was kind enough to give him directions to the nearest lodging. It was only about a mile away and he quickly pulled into the parking lot. The sign illuminated his car amongst the dark and read, “The Lorraine Motel.”
As he exited his car and stepped past a group of people to reach the door, he noticed how much attention he seemed to get. It was slightly unnerving how closely the group watched him enter the building. He quickly passed through the doorway and approached the front counter. A tawny skinned young woman sat behind the desk, flipping through a magazine for a moment before Brian cleared his throat to signify his arrival. The woman jerked her head upward, obviously startled by the noise and made eye contact with Brian. Her gaze seemed to widen slightly as she stood, approached the counter, and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”
Brian requested a room and the young woman seemed shocked, “Are you sure you wanna stay… here?” The idea that he wouldn’t want to stay was confusing and led him to wonder why they wouldn’t want his business.
“Is there not a room available or something?” he questioned, annoyance in his voice. He had been on the road for many hours and had endured enough humiliation for one night. He simply wanted to go to bed and let this day wash away in dreams.
“Well, it’s not that… it’s just, it may not be safe for you to stay here,” her voice cracked a bit in the reply. The thought of being unsafe made Brian instantly turn and observe his surroundings. It seemed like a typical hotel, kind of on the cheap side but normal. His eyes scanned the chairs in the lobby before landing on a plague just above it. It was an image of a man he recognized and it drew him closer. As he approached, he read the words, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” The words below it had been slightly smaller but from the news he had witnessed earlier that year he knew what it would say.
The warning and the looks from the men all made sense now, worry playing on his face. He gave a quick, “Thank you,” to the lady behind the desk and made his way to the door. Peering out slowly, he couldn’t see the men anymore. He only had to make it to his car and he would be fine. The door opened slowly, Brian’s head peeking out in each direction. When the coast seemed clear he began a brisk walk toward the Dodge. He internally counted out his steps, his heart quickening with each higher number. His eyes scanned the area as he moved and as soon as he laid his hand on the door handle he gave a slight sigh of relief.
His shirt jerked backward, his body following after. He soon found himself staring up into the night sky and feeling a dreadful pain in his back. The group of men hovered over him now, some with expressions of anger and others seemingly very excited. The largest of the few stood just over Brian’s head and leaned down quickly to greet him, “You’re on the wrong side of town, Cracka,” before dropping a large ball of saliva onto Brian’s forehead.
Feet and fists began pummeling his body, his arms rising in defense. He attempted to roll over, but the men didn’t relent. He managed to his side and began crawling as best he could, begging them to stop all the while. The assault slowed and laughter erupted as each one found humor in Brian’s attempt to escape. He had only made it a few feet when he felt a heel drive into his back-side, shoving him down into the pavement.
After a moment of gasping he started to rise. He felt the burn of the gash that had been left on his cheek, but did not allow that to stop him. The men had been between himself and his car, his only safety would be the motel. He hobbled in the direction of the doors, feeling the warmth of his tears stinging his wounds. They followed and shoved him repeatedly, his body aching from every touch. Then his worst fear came in as a voice of one of his attackers, “Get the bat!”
Brian looked over his shoulder to see one of them making a dash for a vehicle. If they returned with any sort of weapon he knew he would be finished. He couldn’t die this far from home, with no one or nothing. He couldn’t let it all end here. When he finally reached the door, one of them attempted to pull him back. Somewhere within him his fight response kicked in and his elbow flew backward toward his assailant’s face. It collided with a crack, feeling bone give way to his attack. The man stumbled, grasping at his nose and yelling for help. Brian slung the door open and fell inside. The woman behind the desk screamed, “I don’t need this, man, you need to leave!”
The men didn’t enter but they didn’t leave the parking lot either. Brian just knew that they would stay there all night if they had to. He couldn’t assume the desk clerk would be calling the police to assist him and he couldn’t fight them all off. He lay there in the floor trying to find a solution when he noticed the pay phone by the door. The idea was horrible, but it’s what he had come all this way for anyway. All he needed now was the coin.
Pain shot up his shoulder as he rummaged through his pocket, pulling out random change and lint. He had almost made it to the phone before he found the right coin amongst his change. As he lifted the receiver the woman behind the desk informed him that it was not in operation. That fact rang true when there was no dial tone. His forehead rested against the phone, eyes closing as the tears continued the fall. He simply dropped the coin in the slot anyway and watched as it fell through the return. His body slowly slipped back to the floor, letting the receiver hang beside him. He sat there, eyes closed tight and sobbing to himself. “What have I got myself into?” he thought.
A hand rested on Brian’s head, causing his eyes to open wide in that direction. His attire had changed, but it was the man he had been searching for. It was hard to forget, despite the lack of yellowing eyes, he was just the same as his dream. Scratch leaned over to the change return and lifted the shiny round object from it. It turned between his thin fingers and suddenly the world seemed to come to a halt. Brian examined the room around him and for a moment, he couldn’t even hear the clock on the walling ticking away anymore. It all became still before Scratch looked down at the beaten young man, “Looks like you need some help, Brian.”
Rick Sawyer’s son followed in his footsteps and bargained with the Devil for his life. The deal was sealed with a hand shake and Scratch smirked, gesturing for Brian that it was now safe to leave. He approached the door and noticed the men frozen in place. Scratch snapped his hands closed around the spinning coin and everything sprang back into motion. The blaring horn of a large truck could be heard in the distance and before the group outside could react the two ton vehicle plowed through them. Their remains piled along the street in front of the motel as Brian quickly rushed for his car.
The woman from the front desk had come out screaming at the sight before rushing back inside to call the police. The engine roared to life with a quick turn of a key. The passenger door shut as well, seconds before tires peeled across the pavement. Sirens echoed in the distance as he turned down a side road and headed back to the interstate. Scratch leaned over slightly from the passenger side, his voice detailing the conditions of their deal through a wicked grin.
Written by L0CKED334