In celebration of International Short Story Day, I have decided to post one of my own personal favorites. Originally published in Inkspill Magazine (psst, they are taking submissions right now) and later appearing in my collection 13 Broken Nightlights, it is, I believe, one of my best.
Hey music geeks…see if you can figure out the cameos.
This Tour Don’t Roll Through Seattle
The fragile strings that comprised the night melodies of thousands of unseen crickets came to a halt as the thin black man approached the street corner. He wore a faded black suit and a dusty fedora that sat at an angle on his head. An acoustic guitar was slung over his shoulders, riding his back like a piece of medieval weaponry. When he arrived, the dusty street corner was vacant with the exception of an old milk crate. He took a seat on the crate, brought his guitar around to his lap and began to play.
He was a young man but his fingers bore the calluses and scars that came from rigorous manual labor and infinite practice on the old bronze strings of his guitar. With the crickets and the moon as his audience, he let his fingers strum the sounds of their ache. He tapped his foot against the sidewalk, keeping a steady beat, as he peered into the darkness of the countryside beyond.
His fingers ran up the fret board like ballet dancers on fire. His eyes stayed on the empty road ahead, his fingers knowing the riffs like a science.
He was expecting to see headlights crest the horizon. Instead, he saw another figure approaching. The posture alone told him that it was a man; there was a strut to his step, something that spoke of confidence and experience. This man also carried a guitar. It hung from a strap across his shoulders and was nestled at his side.
“How do?” the black man on the crate said to the newcomer.
“Can’t complain,” the visitor said. There was a thick southern drawl to his voice and as he approached, the black man saw that the fellow was quite old. There was a slight tremble in his unmoving hands and his eyes looked tired and ready to close for good. The black man could tell just by the way the old man carried his guitar that he knew all about music; sometimes it was something he could just see in people.
“Let me ask you,” the old man said. “You happen to know where in the hell we are?”
The black man shook his head. “No clue, Mister. I’m just waiting on my ride. If you’re lost, feel free to stick around. We could play a tune or two if you want,” he said, nodding to the old man’s guitar.
“Much obliged,” the old man said, “but I feel like I need to get on down the road. There’s something waiting for me at the end, I think.”
With that, he tapped his shaking fingers along the bottom of his guitar and nodded to the black man. He took a few steps away from the corner and then turned back around. Almost as an afterthought, he added lightly in his southern drawl, “I don’t know what’s happening here, but if anyone comes through asking for Johnny, let them know I went this-a-way.”
“Will do, Mister,” the black man said, his fingers already resuming their play on the strings. “Best of luck to you.”
“Same to you,” Johnny said as he walked further down the road.
As the black man started playing again, he hummed along to the tune. It was one of his own songs, one that he had written. And although he had written it and even recorded it in a studio, it really didn’t belong to him.
He played for a while longer, still peering into the distance for headlights.
Somewhere further off, a tree frog started to babble. It was a low rumble, the kind you’d hear in those fat bothersome frogs from the Deep South. The black man grinned and did his best to form his freestyle strumming to the frog’s tune.
The sound of footsteps from behind him gave him a scare. The sound his spooked fingers made as they clanged against the strings was nearly demonic. He turned around and saw another man approaching.
This man wore a long flannel shirt that clung to him like a shroud. His hair was dirty and unkempt, hanging in his face and covering his eyes. He held a guitar in his left hand, the strap dangling like a broken appendage. He tossed his head back slightly to remove the hair from his face.
“Hi,” he said. From that one word alone, the black man thought that this fellow sounded like a little boy when he spoke. But he looked to be in his mid to late twenties.
“Hey there,” the black man said. “You looking for your friend?”
“He said his name was Johnny.”
The man looked confused and simply shook his head. “No, I don’t know a Johnny. Besides…I have no idea where I am.”
“That’s just fine,” said the black man. “I got a ride on the way. I bet they could take you where you need to go.”
“Ah, that would be cool. Thanks.”
The black man nodded and resumed playing. The young guy in the flannel shirt sat cross legged on the sidewalk and tried to strum along but couldn’t keep up. He’d grin from time to time, amazed at the black man’s skills. He managed to finally keep up a rhythm to the black man’s playing but his chords sounded like brutish grunts compared to the other man’s delicate leads.
As the two awkwardly played together, the night’s silence was broken by the approaching sound of an engine. The black man looked up expectantly. The man in the flannel shirt followed his gaze.
A pair of bright headlights appeared, approaching at an alarming speed. The vehicle that was barreling towards them was a very old bus, tearing through the night as if it were well acquainted with these back roads. With a squealing of brakes, the bus came to a stop directly in front of them. The lights from inside, blaring through the windows, looked like hospital lights. They made the man in the flannel shirt cringe.
A peculiar mechanical sound disrupted the night as the door to the bus swung open. After a moment’s silence, a large black man dressed in a flawless suit stepped down the stairs and onto the road. He eyed both of the men and smiled widely, adjusting his red tie as he did so. It was odd, but the night seemed to bulge out in a way, as if there was not enough room left in the world to accommodate this man.
“Nice to see you boys,” he said. “Best be getting on board now. No time to waste.”
“Yes sir,” the black man on the crate said. He slung his guitar to his back and headed for the bus obediently.
Behind him, the man with the dirty hair and flannel shirt followed. He stepped towards the bus but the large black man placed a hand like an anvil on his chest and shook his head.
“No more room,” he said, although with the exception of the skinny black man, the bus was totally empty. “This tour don’t roll through Seattle.”
That was more than fine with the young man. He turned away with a slight scowl and, without a word, began walking into the night. He gripped his guitar tightly, his knuckles hardened with prescribed angst. He looked as if he were desperately seeking an amplifier to smash the guitar through, as if plunging a knife into a heart.
On the bus, the skinny black man watched his temporary friend fade away into the night. As he watched this man disappearing through the windows, the large black man stepped onto the bus and took the seat directly across the aisle from him. They looked at each other for a moment in a silence that was both awkward and frightening.
Although there was no one behind the wheel, the bus lurched forward and headed further down the road.
The large black man looked to his companion with much interest and said, “It’s nice to finally see you again, Robert.”
Robert Johnson then began to remember why he was here and he suddenly did not want to be on this bus. He remembered why his songs weren’t really his and why he had returned to that deserted street corner—to that crossroad—earlier in the night. He gripped his guitar tightly, as if it were a shield against the truth, and wished he had never learned to play the damned thing.
“Oh relax,” the large man said. As he spoke, his eyes seemed to grow wider to allow more room for his impossibly black pupils. “The time has come, Robert. And I’ve got one hell of a tour lined up for you.”