The first time I saw the devil was when I received that rejection slip. I’d opened my mailbox, expecting the usual demands and promotions, and there it was: a letter to yours truly with the Godspeed Poetry Press logo, urging me to open it real quick. I read the letter three times before I got to my front porch. No courtesy, no reason, just a perfunctory “no, thank you” that mocked me all the way to the trash can. I looked back through my front window and there he was, hovering around my mailbox.
He didn’t show up again for my next seventeen rejections, but he handed me number eighteen on the end of his pitchfork the same day I shoulda been saying “I do.” Please consider joining a writers’ circle, where you can hone your skills, it said. All poets are best advised to find a day job that pays… And he stayed to watch me read it, dancing on his cloven feet. He was such a cliché, with his red skin and talons. I’d always hoped the devil would be a woman, a Marlene Dietrich type, possibly wearing Prada. I had no idea what that even meant but my fiancée… OK, OK, don’t crucify me.
My ex-fiancée had mentioned it, watched the film with Meryl Streep, wanted the shoes, the trip to Paris, whatever.
Anyways, my diabolical friend showed up a whole bunch of times after that, and now he won’t leave me alone.
So there I was, standing at the crossroads at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, ready to sell my soul. By this point, my rejection slips numbered a hundred and twelve, and my online dating profile had yielded the same quantity of love-matches as I’d had offers of publication. I confess to being something of a cliché, a veteran of over forty summers without a gal or a royalty check to my name. But at least I wasn’t as clichéd as the goddamn crossroads, with its sky-blue monument of guitars and road numbers screaming at tourists. The whole vibe was more like a student strumming ineffectually on a cheap Squier than a legendary bluesman with a bottle-neck slide. Surely the devil wouldn’t make a deal here unless he hisself done sold his soul to the devil.
Oftentimes, I thought about just giving up, and each time ol’ Beelzebub gone cheered me on from the sidelines. Folks say I never seen the devil, but rather some black dog or other. But I only seen the teeth, a wet nose and a glimpse of paw, never the whole hound. I swore to myself I’d quit once my rejections doubled my age, but then I won that poetry competition. It gave me five thousand bucks, a trophy for my mantel, publication on the website and a boost to rival Apollo 11. In a way, it was cruel; it confirmed I have just enough talent to give me false hope. My name has appeared on no poetry pamphlet since.
Anyways, it was time to move on; surely this wasn’t the right crossroads. I’d always imagined it being dustier, quieter, shining with a subtler glory. I walked away and headed towards Dockery plantation, where Robert Johnson once played for his supper and where I expected my horned friend to welcome me home. Within ten minutes, a white Cadillac circa late sixties screeched to a halt at my boots.
“You looking for a ride, mister?”
“You bet, ma’am.”
I hopped in the passenger seat.
“Do you happen to know the whereabouts of Robert Johnson’s crossroads?”
She nodded, put her foot on the gas, and we sped away like a getaway car.
The farther we drove, the spookier the landscape became – exactly as I’d envisaged – and I couldn’t help but smile. There was nothing but board-flat fields, trees and power lines in all directions, and puffs of cotton wrestling with the dust clouds around the car. The view was almost as beautiful as my driver, with her braided hair, dark velvet skin and lips the likes of me could only dream about kissing. She racked up the volume on the radio as soon as Mick Jagger started singing about sympathy with my red-winged friend, forcing us to yell our polite conversation.
“So what you thinking o’ doing at those there crossroads? Tell me you’re not another one of those blues wannabes.”
“Well, ma’am, in a manner of speaking, yes I am. I’m a blues poet.”
“A blues poet? Now, I ain’t heard that one afore. You make much money writing blues poetry?”
“I once made five thousand dollars for a single poem.”
“Betcha don’t get a gig like that every week, huh?”
She had me there.
“I also write for other folks. They tell me their woes and I express what they’re feeling through the form of poetry.”
“Like some kinda therapist? Is that what you do?”
“I suppose I do, ma’am.”
She turned the radio down, then whacked it right up to the max again when a song I hadn’t heard in years came on. Two, three, four… It was ‘Comfort of the Devil,’ unplugged, by some eighties British rock band I couldn’t remember the name of. The irony was not lost on me.
“Let me guess,” she said. “You ain’t earning none, and you come here to sell your soul, to git yoursel’ some success. I seen it all afore.”
She had me there. Twice. I just nodded and hoped she wouldn’t abandon me, in the dust track, miles away from everyplace else.
“You been listening to too much Robert Johnson, my friend. Folks like you come here all the time on a similar mission, but you the only one who don’t know where the right crossroads is.”
She had me there again. I might as well open my head and let her take a look inside at the rest of the slime and the goo.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Maybe you looking in the wrong place for what you want.”
A spatter of bugs hit the windshield; she muttered something about it being a shame.
“Tell me more about your poems.”
My mind froze. I didn’t know what to tell her about my journaling, my poetry, whatever. All I could picture was my sorry self sitting at my desk, a six-year-old photograph of me in a suit from Bloomindales, the faintest slither of my ex-fiancée’s arm next to mine from where the photograph had been torn in two. Me scribbling down thoughts, lyrics I hoped to sell to some millionaire bluesman, the muzzle of a black dog poking my arm away from the desk every time a piece of gold-dust vocabulary entered my head, the devil hisself tipping over my coffee onto my notepad.
“Cat got your tongue, mister?”
“Sorry. Ask me again in a month and I’ll have something worthy of the Pulitzer.”
The Cadillac stopped abruptly.
Now, this was the snake’s hips. No monuments here, just a bare crossroads, dirt tracks, and a silence so peaceful you’d swear no sound had been uttered in these parts before. I was sure I’d be able to hear my own blood circulating if I stayed awhile.
“You got a long wait ’til midnight, mister,” she said, looking at her watch. “It’s not yet eight. You sure you wanna do this?”
What did I have to lose? I shrugged. “S’pose I do.”
“OK. Well, you jus’ be careful of what ol’ Lucifer might ask off of you in return.”
And with a brief smile that made my knees buckle, she sped away, Iron Maiden’s ‘The Number of the Beast’ blaring through her windows. Satan sure had a sense of humour today.
And so, I waited at the crossroads.
Occasionally I had the pleasure of the company of a passing ball of weeds or a dusty clump of cotton rolling down the road.
Nine o’clock came and went. I watched the colour drain from the sky.
At ten on the dot, I stood up to greet the stars, kicking my boots in the grit.
Eleven arrived, thirty minutes after, ten minutes to go.
For four hours I’d bided my time, and not one car, human being or lone heifer did I see. The birds did not sing, the wind did not whistle. Of all those folks who supposedly came down here with their best bargaining chips, I did not see a soul. Maybe their souls already been sold around here, or maybe the idea of changing your life was simply a myth.
At two minutes before twelve, I could just make out a car in the distance, hurtling towards me. Midnight arrived, and a black 1990s Chevy sports car pulled up right in the centre of the crossroads. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the glare of the headlamps and for my nerves to adjust to my heart rate. There was no turning back now.
The driver’s door opened and a high-heeled boot stepped out, followed by another. So, the devil was a woman after all. I didn’t know whether to be relieved, scared or excited. I took a step towards the car, and the devil-woman lifted herself out of the seat.
“You still here, mister?”
It couldn’t be.
“Cat still got your tongue?”
I could think of nothing more profound to say than, “You got yourself a new car.”
“Uhuh. I spend a lot o’ time driving around this location.”
I started to laugh. I shoulda guessed. All those songs on her radio, the constant questions about my poetry. She’d been weighing up the deal, while I was just trying to find my way.
“Look, ma’am. I’m not really sure how these things work, but I’ll do whatever I can to maintain my side of the bargain, you just tell me what you want, and all I ask is…” I was blathering now, and she knew it. Maybe the best course of action was to shut up and let her call the shots. “All I ask is…”
“I know what you want, mister. And it ain’t what you think it is.”
She stepped towards me, keeping eye contact like she was the leader of my firing squad about to expire me from this here green earth.
And then she laughed.
“What’s a nice boy like you doing on this here crossroads? You don’t wanna sell your soul to that son of a gun.”
I was confused some, but I stood my ground. She was testing me, I guess.
“Get in the car and I’ll take you back to the railroad station. I’ll even buy your ticket to wherever you come from. There’s no place for you here.”
“I want to sell my soul.”
“No, you don’t. You want some help. Get in.”
I did as I was told, more befuddled than ever. She got in the driver’s seat and turned on the radio. No songs of Satan this time, spewing lyrics I strove to emulate. From what I could gather, it was a phone-in chat show about gardening.
“You’re not the devil?”
“Hell, no. Did you think I was?”
I nodded, she laughed.
So be it.
“Why didn’t you dissuade me earlier? You know, from selling my soul and all?”
“I was kinda hoping you’d figure it out for yourself.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see.” She handed me her business card and roll of twenty-dollar bills. The soft glow of a halo appeared over her beautiful head and the tips of white wings peeked out from behind her back. “Why don’t you just call me Angelica.”
As the car gently moved away, I looked in the rear-view mirror and swore I could see a dust devil getting smaller, smaller, until it vanished.