Bob Johnson is empty. Night after night, juke joint after concert hall after front porch jam, every note perfect. Faster. Slower. Groove. Funk. Hell, even a flamenco. Hell. Bob Johnson is empty. His notes, every picked, strummed, vibrating-stringed one of them, perfect, are empty, too.
Clouds cover the moon. No vehicles have passed through the intersection since his ex-wife—the fourth one, the one with the doctor daddy and the moonshine mama, the one who could take all the lovin’ he could give until one day she told him, “Bob, your lovin’s just fuckin’, and it’s good fuckin’, virtuoso fuckin’, like that damn guitar, but you got no lovin’ in your dick, husband brother, it’s just empty”—dropped him off, round about sundown.
Bob Johnson is a thirsty man, and no whiskey, nor beer can sate him. He’s tried plenty of both, and possum piss and much stranger things cooked up by the conjure woman down the road, but his thirst is a bottomless hole. He’s parched, sitting, waiting, ants crawling up his ankles, snakes smiling sly just out of sight.
“God damn it all,” Bob says. The night doesn’t answer. “And the devil, too.”
The asphalt rumbles at his feet, giving up the last of the past day’s heat into the sky, a groan like eating a good slice of pie, and lights pop up on the horizon. They split into two headlights a long way off, and Bob stands.
“This is it,” he says. A frog croaks. A snake’s tongue slips out, then in, out, then in.
The headlights grow closer and brighter, until a mighty truck, an eighteen-wheeler, barrels down on him, its diesel engine roaring in his ears, the dust stirring up around him in small vortices like miniatures of the tornadoes that tore down his mama and daddy’s house thirteen years before, and Bob takes one step back. Brakes squeal, a freight train of sound and fury.
What fresh hell, thinks Bob as the truck comes to a stop.
The truck looms before him, breathing, a beast, headlight glowing eyeballs bleeding steam. The passenger door of the cab swings open on a creaking hinge. The driver leans over the seat. He’s a skinny skeleton of a man, wild eyes bloodshot and full of murderous dreams and amphetamines. His smile carries two rows of perfect white teeth. A red mesh baseball hat is propped atop stringy hair.
“Hop in, boy,” the driver says.
Bob Johnson stoops down in the roadside weeds to grab his guitar case, then hefts it up into the cab and follows it in. Though it’s a hot night, heat waves in through the air vents. The rig rumbles up to speed again. In the side-view mirror, Bob catches sight of flames shooting out of the exhaust stack each time the engine growls, sending vibrations up through the seat.
“Where you headed, boy?” the driver shouts over the cacophony.
“You know why I’m here,” Bob shouts back.
The driver looks at Bob, amusement mixed with bewilderment. “Say again?” he says. “I know you?” He looks at Bob a beat more with that look of confusion on his face then breaks into a wide smile. “Name’s Meph!” He grins and holds out a scrawny hand to Bob.
Bob looks at it a moment then shakes it. This is how the deal will go down, he thinks.
“So where you headed?” Meph asks again.
“Along for the ride,” Bob says.
Meph laughs, reaches for the volume knob and turns up the stereo. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries sweeps loud out of the speakers. Bob looks down at the guitar case on the seat between them, rests his hand on it.
No time for second thoughts, he thinks.
“So you gonna play a song with that, or suck me off?” Meph shouts over the music.
“What?” Bob asks.
“Come on, boy,” Meph says. “Rides ain’t free. You know how it works out here. Play me a song. If’n it’s good enough, then I’ll be content to take you where you’re headed, or at least where I’m headed. But, boy, if it ain’t …” He grins again, looking down into his lap and then back up at Bob. Those perfect teeth.
“I ain’t your boy,” Bob Johnson says. “You know I ain’t here for a damn ride, neither. And I sure ain’t your minstrel or your whore.”
“What you mean, fella? Them’s the rules of the damn road.”
“Meph—whatever you’re calling yourself now—you can keep this damn guitar. I want my soul back, you sonuvabitch.”
Meph turns his whole body, one hand barely balancing atop the steering wheel, so he faces Bob fully. The truck roars down the two-lane blacktop almost of its own will. “Your soul?” he shouts back. “Hell, I ain’t responsible for that, boy.”
“I told you, I ain’t your boy! Not no more.” Bob reaches across the seat, grabs Meph by the collar of his grimy plaid shirt. Bob feels the fever in Meph’s skin where his knuckles brush Meph’s throat. “Stop playing games with me, devil man! I don’t want this music no more! I want my soul back, motherfucker!” Bob is shouting now, leaning across the seat, his face spitting into Meph’s. “Give it back!” He’s shaking Meph.
But then the shaking surrounds them both, contains them, throws them into the ceiling of the cab, against the windshield, into the doors, back to the seat, changed seats now, Bob in the driver’s seat, and back against the back of the cab, up to the ceiling again, until they come to a rest. Bob’s fists are still filled with Meph’s shirt, but the shirt’s empty now, Meph a crumple of blood and bone against the windshield. Wagner continues to play.
Bob crawls out and looks back. The rig lies on its side, smoke coming from behind the cab, the trailer a hulk of twisted metal stretched eighty feet behind. Bob turns to walk off, and trips over his guitar case. Still in pristine shape.
“Damn,” Bob says. A frog by the side of the road croaks.
Bob punches the pillow, wanting only sleep. Beside him, Millie, the woman he’ll try to love but not make wife number five, breathes a small snore. If Bob were in a better mind, that snore might be sweet. He might feel the dull, good ache in his nethers and remember the midnight sex, and smile. Millie might be smiling right now, dreaming of riding Bob, screams and pleasures. But Bob’s mind ain’t better. His head is a demon. He feels the sharp pains at the top of his head, one on either side, and thinks if he runs his fingers over his scalp he’ll feel the horns growing there, small nubs, reminders.
The guitar strings gleam in reflected moonlight from the window, taunting him. He hears the laugh of the little man, the tick-tack of his cloven hooves on the old asphalt. So long ago.
Bob’s plan is unassailable. Take that devil’s gift and use it to turn the people against him and toward a good life. Other than the chafing of the necktie knot at Bob’s throat like a hangman’s noose, the plan is off to a good start.
“Gotta wear your Sunday best,” Millie said to him that morning. She’d hugged him then, extra tight, her naked body pressing through his suit clothes, her heat finding its way to his skin.
Now she sways in the choir, her mouth open in an “O” he knew as an “ohhh,” but singing instead the praises of the Lord, in beat to Bob’s heart and in tune to his song. The congregation shouts “Amen,” sings, claps, stomps its feet. Handkerchiefs cross sweaty brows, breasts heave, cocks swell. Hands in the air. Jubilation.
Bob’s hands dance over the frets and strings. Never has God been so adored in music. The sun threatens to crash through the stained glass windows of the little Mississippi country church. Damn that devil to Hell. If he won’t come to take this hollow guitar gift, Bob thinks, then this—the praises, the tithes, the shouts and prayers—will be a backfire on the old man. Devil could keep Bob’s soul, then. Bob would have the last laugh, turn hollow into hallow.
After three hours, the service is finally done. Millie smiles at him as the choir files out to process down the aisle. Pastor Bub winks at him as he follows them down. Bob feels his heart might fill with love and light as he continues to play. Closer Walk With Thee, o’ Lord. Closer Walk, that’s all I want, he thinks. Shed my shoulders from this burden. Repent, thinks he, repent.
When the song is gone, and the crowd has filed out, Bob is alone in the chapel in the afternoon gloam. He looks up to the wooden cross mounted on the wall above where he’d stood near the choir alcove.
“I fixed this, right?” he asks the plaster replica of the white man Jesus on the cross. Jesus just stares at his own nailed feet, downcast or resigned. Bob hears the faintest eli eli lama sabachthani echo of a guitar arpeggio from the plain wooden walls. He lays the guitar, its wood gleaming, its strings sharp as razors in the felt-lined case, closes the lid, and snaps the clasps. They sound like gunshots in the empty church.
As he hefts the case to walk toward the main doors at the back of the church, from the sacristy door at the side he hears, faintly but real, “You are mine.”
“Damn it,” Bob whispers. He stands still in his tracks.
“Mine!” again, this time the voice louder, deeper, a bottom falling out, a growl, a boom.
Then, a higher, fainter voice, but just as definite: “Yes.”
Bob turns toward the sacristy, its plain wooden door painted white like the walls of the church. He puts his hand on the knob, and it burns hot to his touch. A high whimper sounds from the other side. Bob grips the hot knob tighter and turns it, thrusts his shoulder against the wood of the door, bursts through.
Pastor Bub faces him, his suit jacket still on, his shirt immaculate and white, barely touched by the sweat of the service, even his tie still knotted pristine around his throat, but his pants off, his cock buried deep into Millie, who lies on a small table between Bub and Bob, her face twisted upside down toward Bob, her skirt pushed up and her legs wrapped around the pastor.
Pastor Bub’s eyes glow red, and his voice comes from so deep that it’s below the surface of the hills, boiling the springs of the land. “You gave this up, Bob Johnson!” he roars.
Bob brings his guitar case up to his chest, hugs it tight, his fists gripping its edges. “You get back from her,” he yells back.
Pastor Bub smiles, says in a controlled voice, “You played real sweet today, brother Bob.” Millie lies still between them.
“This wasn’t part of the deal,” Bob says back. “My soul. Not my woman.”
“Looks like she ain’t ‘your’ woman, Brother Bob,” Pastor Bub says.
Millie shifts away from the pastor, brings her feet from around him and pushes them gently against his girth. He looks down at her and smiles broader. Bob’s empty place fills with anger. He rears the guitar case back and swings it hard at Pastor Bub, catching him in the side of the chest. The sound of cracking ribs reverberates through the small room.
Pastor Bub’s eyes go out and he crumples to the floor. Millie clambers down as Bob circles the table to stand over the Pastor. “Come on, Bob, let’s go,” Millie pleads as she smoothes her skirt and backs toward the door.
Bob looks at her. He wants to show her love in his eyes. He wants to understand what he’s seen. He wants to forgive or be forgiven. Millie backs a step toward the door.
“Come on, Bob,” she says again. “He ain’t worth nothing, that old preacher.”
Then Pastor Bub moans in the corner where he’s rolled up on himself.
Bob picks the guitar case back up and raises it over his head. Millie yells “no,” then ducks out the door.
Bob looks at the Pastor. “OK, devil,” Bob says. “It’s me and you.”
Pastor Bub opens his eyes. They glow red again. “You got nothing, Bob Johnson.” He pulls himself straight in the corner, leaning against the wall. “Nothing but that sweet piece of ass and your damn guitar.”
Bob looks over his head at his guitar case, still poised, then back at Pastor Bub. Feeling the heat straining at his shoulders, at his arms, streaming through the joints of his fingers, he tenses then releases everything in the direction of Bub. He hears the roar come from his mouth, watches as the corner of the guitar case meets Bub’s face, caves it in. He sees the blood, the pink glop of brain, the hard shards of white bone. He hears laughter, his own hard breathing, then he runs from the room, out the sacristy door, down the aisle of the church, and into the sunlight. He keeps running, music and laughter following him. He runs around the back of the church and toward the cemetery and the swamp beyond. He hears Millie scream, hears window glass break. He looks back and sees the sacristy window broken. On the glass and grass outside it, the guitar case sits, black, beautiful, clean.
Bob’s moved beyond drink to fill the hole in his center. He loads a syringe with all the soul he can find, pure golden soul and light, bought for a crisp twenty from an orange-tinged hipster in the brick alleyway. He hears a moan. It could be his. It could belong to any one of the other ten people crammed onto piss-stained mattresses on the floor of this room.
He plunges the needle into his arm, can almost feel the pop of the vein as it admits the cold metal and the soul plunges in. Warm numbness, but only more emptiness as he leans back down, his other arm draped over the hard contours of his guitar case, like a young body, woman’s, man’s, no matter, but unyielding. He wipes at his mouth, closes his eyes. Nothing. Sweet nothing Chicago. Winter.
“When’s the last time you touched that thing?” asks the fat slob, his collar splayed wide over the lapels of his leisure suit, a sausage finger jabbed in the direction of the guitar case.
Bob’s gray head lifts slightly. “Twenty years?” he asks as much as answers. “Thirty? Don’t matter none. I’ll play it better than you’ve ever heard.” It isn’t a boast, not an empty one anyway.
“Why you want to play it here?” the man asks. The room around them is a dark, small club, a riser big enough for one guitar man and a small drum kit, a sticky concrete floor, the ghost of a hundred chain-smokers in the air. “I’ve heard about what you used to do. Heard about the crowds, the women. My daddy said you could play four songs at once, with your dick, behind your back, while drinking a fifth of shine.” He chuckles, thinking he’s funny.
Bob just looks at him. He knows this might be his last chance to make the exchange. Enough crossroad nights and wild-eyed men picking up hitchhikers. Enough dead preachers. Enough loveless loves. This time had to be it. Back at the beginning, he’d met the album man who’d taken every song he had, promised him fortune in return, but given him nothing to fill that empty place the devil’d left. The album man then stole Bob’s third wife away, had a son with her, and named him “Lucifer.” Some said it was a family name, some thought it was a sick joke on Bob, the talent who’d made him all his money, but Bob knew better. This son of the album man was merely the body, built and nourished on the songs from Bob’s guitar that housed that sprite who’d put this all in motion so long ago.
A week ago, Bob found this club, found Lucifer, and sat in the shadows in a corner of the place. He had to be sure. Lucifer’s eyes didn’t glow red. His teeth didn’t spark white. This, this time was no trick.
“What you’ve heard,” Bob says, “is only a shadow of the truth. I’ve done all that, and I’ve done more.” He looks down at the whiskey growing stale in the untouched glass before him before adding, “It’s the gift you gave me.”
Lucifer laughs. He looks nervous. “OK, old timer. Whatever you say. I’ll give you half the door.” Lucifer’s nervous grin is replaced by a yellow and hard-lined grimace.
“You can keep all the door,” Bob says. “Just give me my soul back.”
Lucifer’s grimace doesn’t break. He doesn’t ask Bob “What do you mean?” and doesn’t act coy. “That deal is done, Bob Johnson,” he says.
“I ain’t talking about reneging on the old deal, Lucifer,” Bob says. “I’m talking about a new deal, one I think you’ll cotton to.”
Now Lucifer grins, just a frog’s hair of a grin. “I know your story, old timer. So whatcha’ got now?”
“I’ll take your gift, devil man, this music, this guitar, and if I can move you with it, make you dance, then you’ll take it off me and let me be.” Bob keeps his eyes steady on Lucifer’s. Lucifer doesn’t flinch.
“Deal,” says Lucifer, “but you better be ready to burn forever because this devil don’t dance.” Lucifer gets up from the table and leaves Bob sitting alone in the small club. Bob’s heart cracks.
A couple hours later, Bob takes the stage, alone with his guitar. The tiny floor is packed with the young and the hip, the beautiful, the gangly, the sweating and the heaving, the shy, musicians themselves, incognito, under hats and behind masks, the holy, the soulless like him. All four ex-wives. That truck driver Meph, his eyes wilder, his scars healed, his skin sucked down even further over his bony frame. Pastor Bub, impossibly fat, Millie on his arm and rings on every finger. The tables in the joint are pushed back along the walls, the chairs stacked on top of them, and on those chairs sit children, stretching their necks to see over the many-headed crowd. The children’s eyes are all narrow, black slits, judging. Above the children, smoke sifts, red smoke in the stage lights. And above it all swirl and jolt the notes from Bob’s guitar.
Bob watches as the notes move the crowd to dance and frenzy. For decades he’s thought about these songs, these notes, the right mix to fill his empty place. Blues. Rock. Funk. Rhythm. Ska. Punk. Hell, even flamenco. Hell. After the initial fire of frenzy, the songs grow slow, the notes dragging sex over the crowd, and the people all intertwine arms and legs and pull at their clothes. In that moment Bob spies Lucifer, greasy, smiling, standing still at the back.
“Dance, motherfucker!” Bob yells over the heads of the crowd. Lucifer only smiles wider, but his girth, his rolls of fat, stay still. Not even a jiggle. Not a toe-tap. Bob abandons the slow love groove and his fingers grow more frantic, his left hand flashing blurring signs across the fret board and his right hand almost invisible in its speed on the strings. Many in the crowd begin to collapse and writhe on the floor. The children perched on the chairs cry out for their mothers. And still Lucifer is unmoved. Bob plays faster, shifting his songs into snarling minor chords. Those in the crowd still standing begin to weep and moan. The children jump from the chairs and run out the door. Bob’s strings sear his hands then one by one begin to break. Finally, there is one string left, Bob working it maniacally. Sweat pours down his face. Only one person remains standing in the crowd—Lucifer—and his smile has dissolved.
Lucifer’s eyes grow wide. Bob dares not look at him anymore, instead focusing on the guitar in his hands, the lone string jerking and sawing and vibrating. He loses sight of the room, of everything but that single string. And the notes and growls begin to work their magic on Bob himself. He feels, finally, the empty place inside him begin to fill. A warmth in his belly better than drink, light in his veins better than junk, juice in his balls better than sex. Love finds purchase in his heart beside the anger, jigging together arm in arm. Smoke rises from the guitar from the friction of that string on the fret board. Bob steals away from his newfound elation for a last glance at Lucifer. Barely, almost imperceptibly, Lucifer’s fingers at his sides begin to move, to dance a rhythm across his greasy slacks. Lucifer’s hips sway. One foot shuffles. Panic grips Lucifer’s face. And at that moment, the last string breaks, snapping back so violently that, in its arc, it slashes a bleeding line across Bob’s left cheek.
In the club, all is still, except for Bob’s gasping breaths and the tapping fingers of Lucifer’s left hand.
“Sure you don’t want half the door?” Lucifer stammers after a moment. “Was a pretty damn good night.”
Bob looks up from his guitar at the fat man. “That’s not our deal,” Bob says. He steps down from the small stage and walks across the floor, stepping carefully over those who had collapsed, still lying glassy-eyed among the cigarette butts and beer bottles on the hard floor.
“Right,” Lucifer says. “Something about your soul, is that it?”
“Yes. Our deal.” Bob stops a couple feet away from Lucifer. He hesitates, thinking about that light he felt filling him while he played.
Lucifer’s stricken look breaks into a wide grin. “What? Felt good, right?”
Bob’s filled now, but with doubt. “I know it’s you, devil man,” he says, “but I just don’t know. Sometimes. Ain’t nothing good come from this. All my life’s been a cheat, me cheating folks, them cheating me.” He looks down, then back up. “So here.” He stretches the guitar across the gap. “Take this. I don’t want it. Give me my soul and I’ll go.”
Lucifer looks down at the guitar, but doesn’t take it. “I didn’t dance,” he says.
“I saw you,” Bob roars.
“What? That finger tap? A hip shimmy? That ain’t dancing, boy.”
“I told you before,” Bob says, “I ain’t your damn boy.”
Lucifer replies, “Oh, you’re damned, all right. What you want a soul for, anyway?”
“Why do you need my soul?” Bob counters. “What can one creature do with so many souls? How many souls you traded for, anyway?”
Lucifer laughs. “Since that old guitar player back in the 1920s, must be a million now, so many like you, thinking they can be him, with his guitar and all that.”
“So we’ll all be burning with you,” Bob says. “But you’ll still burn, too.”
“Your hell is here, music man. Ain’t no hell coming hereafter,” Lucifer says. His grin is gone. His anger becomes another creature in the room. “Your theology’s shit. When you’re feeding worms, I’ll take your soul and all the rest, stack them one on top of the other, climb back up to where I fell from.”
Bob’s breathing becomes labored. He looks up from a downcast face. “We. Had. A. Deal,” he gets out between breaths.
Lucifer looks Bob up and down a long time. Nothing stirs in the club. “You know that feeling you just had up there on that stage?” he asks.
Bob nods. The guitar is heavy in his hands, still reached out into the space between him and Lucifer.
“You might never get that again.”
Bob falls down onto his knees, but still holds the guitar out. “Just take it. Please,” he says.
Lucifer looks around at the people lying on the floor. Some stir, some moan, some drool. “I bet you got me at least ten new souls tonight, Bob Johnson,” he says. “So, fine then. Fine. Be nothing.” He reaches out and takes the guitar. Bob’s hands hold tight to it, for only a second then he lets it slip from his grasp. Lucifer lets out a chuckle, shakes his head, turns, and walks out the door of the club.
Bob gets to his feet. One of the collapsed club-goers sits up, rubbing her head. “What happened?” she asked.
“You all right?” Bob asks, offering a hand to help her stand. She looks at him with dazed eyes.
“Who are you?” she asks.
“Nobody,” he says. “Bob.”
She takes his hand and pulls herself up. She looks at him one more time, furrowing her brow, before walking out the door. Bob follows her, but stops at the doorway. Next to the door is a beat-up bulletin board with flyers for shows, old take-out menus, notices about lost dogs. In the bottom corner, a yellowed sheet reads, “GUITAR LESSONS. CALL TODAY.” At the bottom of the sheet had been a series of tabs with the phone number of the guitar teacher. One is left. Bob grasps it in his fingers. The paper is cool to the touch. He hesitates then he tears it off and sticks it in his pocket.
Bob walks out the door. The air is cool. When he’d walked into the club, it was a hot dusk. Now the dark of night is turning over into gray dawn. The wind feels good on Bob’s skin.
Tad Bartlett’s story, “Through the Valley of the Shadow of Home,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Bird’s Thumb. His work has been published by Oxford American, Carolina Quarterly, Euphony, and others. Tad received his MFA at the University of New Orleans. He’s a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.