It was the year of 1937 when Robert Johnson, aged 26 years, and Alex Miller (professionally known as Sonny Boy Williamson), aged 25 years, found themselves on this particular freight train headed towards god knows where, anywhere that lies under the sun for all they cared. Sonny never liked travelling on the freight trains because they were uncomfortable, hot, and sometimes they would get kicked off if a guard came snooping towards the back of the carriages. For Robert, however, it was a way of life. He liked the motion of it, the feel that he was headed somewhere. He never knew where he was headed, for often Robert would just point his finger at a freight train that was loading up, and sneak his way aboard, and would only get off that train when he felt like it. But having lived in this moving condition for some time now, a map had been built in his head, and as such he always roughly knew about where he was. Right now, they were in southern Mississippi, near Hattiesburg. He didn’t want to jump off at Hattiesburg, in case police were near the train station. Once he had got off at Tupelo, and been fined for illegal passage; considering he only had the suit he was wearing and his guitar, he had to labour for a few weeks to work off the debt. But after that, as ever it was, the road lay out before him.
It was about two in the afternoon when the train began to slow down, approaching a small town just before Hattiesburg. Robert kicked Sonny awake, and with a grunt he looked up.
“Where are we?” Sonny inquired.
“We’re ‘round Hattiesburg. Figure we should jump here to avoid the law.” Robert stood up off the floor of the dimly lit carriage and dusted off his suit. It was important to him that he kept up his appearance, and let no part of his suit go unclean for very long. Sonny, on the other hand, was the opposite; he lead a less travelled life, and as such never had the urge to clean his clothes in such a manner, for he could simply afford to wait until he was once more home.
Robert slid open the massive door of the carriage. Swinging his guitar over his back, he kicked Sonny once more. Sonny, taking his guitar, stood next to the open way. The train was still moving, but Robert was undeterred; and with a crazy look in his eye, he jumped off the train.
He landed safely, and as Sonny looked at him in wonder, Robert motioned for him to do the same. Sonny did so; but his landing was quite different. The shock that jolted up his legs threw him onto his back, and his guitar off the side and into a bush. Robert walked over, and, seeing him on his back, urged his pace.
When he came upon him, Sonny was sitting up. Robert gave him a hand, and Sonny took it gratefully.
“You insane bastard! How’d you do that jump?” shouted Sonny.
“With a lotta practice. Come on. We gotta get to a bar, get a show and get a bed.” Robert led Sonny along the railway, walking slowly and without passion. Robert knew that he would be stuck in this small town for the next few days. He would play his guitar, of course, and he would drink, and perhaps he would meet a girl or two; but as he become stationary, the anger grew within him. The road was his life; this was not.
The walk into town was mostly silent; they stayed on the path of the railway until a highway intersected, eventually traveling parallel to the railway. For ease of walking the pair switched to this highway and followed it into town.
The town was very small, consisting only of a short high street crossing back roads that lead into residential quarters. There was a general store, a clothes store, a butcher, and a bar. Seeing the bar, Robert nudged Sonny and the two walked up to it and through the open door.
The place was cramped and darkly lit, but empty of people. There was a stale scent of cigarette smoke, whiskey, and sex. Robert surveyed the place and, upon seeing the bartender, walked over to him.
“What can I do for you this fine day?” asked the bartender.
“A whiskey for me and my friend here,” replied Robert.
The bartender began to pour the whiskeys and eyed both men up and down suspiciously. He finished pouring and passed both along. Robert downed his immediately, whilst Sonny coughed, uncomfortable with the hard liquor.
“Say, what are you two doing here? I ain’t seen you round here before.”
Robert answered, “We’re looking for work- we’re performers. You expecting customers tonight? We’ll work for food and board.”
The bartender smirked, looking at both of them. An uncomfortable silence flooded the room. He settled his eyes once more on Robert.
“Yeah, we’re serious. We’ll play audition if you want.”
“But I ain’t expecting too many customers tonight, boys. Any other evenin’ and I’d hire you. But not tonight. You’re welcome to sleep here for regular minted coin though.”
“But… what do you mean? How can you not be expecting business?”
“It’s Christmas Eve, son.”
Upon hearing this declaration, Robert glumly lowered his head. Ordering another whiskey, he turned to Sonny.
“I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back in fifteen.”
He downed his second whiskey and, leaving his guitar with Sonny, walked out the door. Sonny and the bartender’s eyes followed him until he left; and yet they continued to look, as if they could stare through the wooden exterior of the bar and follow the mystery.
“What’s he down for?”
Sonny replied, “He don’t like Christmas. Finds it depressing. Neither of us knew it was Christmas; had I known I’da made sure we stayed on that train.”
“He’s going to drink tonight. He’s going to drink a lot. And he’ll moan for Willie Mae.”
“Willie Mae his woman?”
“Well, if he’s just lookin for a woman for the night, I can get some over. That’s no problem, we can get a regular party started.”
“No, that won’t do anything. He loved her. He loved that girl, but she was too good for him, he reckoned it and so did she. That’s why she left him. Couldn’t keep up with him. He’s real intense you see.”
The bartender looks confused. “In what ways?”
“Well you see he’s real smart. Smarter than most, but not in the way of arithmetic. He’s a poet you see, a real poet and thinker. He knows about life more than most of us do. He travels, he walks, he consumes everything and when everything’s gone and done, he’s thirsty for more. It leads him down bad corners of life. Bad things have happened to him, and I reckon the world’s not done with him just yet.”
“Lord, the guy needs a drink. And a woman.”
“Not tonight. That’s not what he needs tonight at all. You see, he’s like a hurricane. His passion, it afflicts him. It builds up and it makes him do crazy things that in the morning, he’ll rot inside for the shame of it.”
“What can be done?”
“We wait here. We sit here tight and wait for him to stagger back from this haunt and we’ll not say a word about it and we’ll sit and talk. Can I count on your support?”
“As long as it’s supported by coin, yes you can.”
It was only recently that Christmas had become a difficult time of year for Robert. He fondly remembered the Christmases of his childhood, wherein his mother would prepare a feast for every worker on the plantation. Robert would sit next to her, and she’d cut up his food for him. It seemed a long time away now.
Things seemed to be getting better when Willie Mae arrived; young, beautiful, headstrong, she was everything he had wanted in a woman. She didn’t mind his nomadic life style. His lustre had infected her deeply. She had loved him, and he thought she was too good for him. Too pure. He was right.
When she passed, her family blamed it on him. He remembered arriving at her door with flowers, after a few months travelling, expecting to see her and his son (but he wouldn’t have minded a daughter) run out to see him; instead he was greeted with righteous speech, talk of God and Devil and filth and evil. Her father smacked him on the face. To Robert though, he had been smote. As he fell back, the world declined into nonsense. He reeled, staggering away; Robert would throw up behind the barn in delusionary sickness. He passed out in the work shed, and when he had awakened, it was night-time. He walked solemnly, dejectedly, towards the graveyard.
Seeing her gravestone, he fell to his knees, clasping the loose earth atop the coffin. He cried for her, because it was true; his lustre had infected her, but it had not been a bright lustre; it was a black one, black as the starless night heavens.
When he looked up he saw a man, dressed in fine clothes and with grey hair slicked back. He was leaning against a dirty spade, stuck in the ground, his white hair curling back over his forehead. He was shadowed by a moonlight bone-tree that stood behind him, masking his identity. With a devilish grin, he looked upon Robert, and with dark eyes he was reminding him of his transgressions.
It was then that Robert realized that Willie Mae’s father had been right; he was damned. He was finished. His damnation had been part of an elaborate guise beforehand, though; now it was complete and pestilential. It was not a public damnation, not a performance; in every complete sense of the words, it was private, never-ending, torturous, and a very personal hell. He was damned until the end of time, and now fiction had become fact. His damnation was his soul and he would carry it out until the ends of the earth. He would carry it always, in his head, in his hands, in his heart, in his soul, in his music.
And since the he had so utterly thrown himself into his own damnation, and had written and performed about it so explicitly in his music, Christmas time was always the hardest time of year. The devout population would suddenly gain some moral superiority, and whereas the week before they were dancing to his music, now they were throwing him out onto the muddy streets at night, and for an eternal 12 days, he would be sleeping in the dirt, intensifying his self-hatred and misery. And misery would breed more misery; and he would think back to old Willie Mae, to that most perfect of women.
The liquor and women had taken their toll on him too. He would get into a movement in the evenings of his performances, in such a way that he could not stop for fear of inertia. First would come a whiskey; then a second; and a third… and eventually, after many more, he would approach some woman, and thinking she was Willie Mae returned, he would take her in his arms and love her. Only to be awoken in the morning with fresh misery, as he turned his head and he saw that in fact this woman was not Willie Mae; and that Willie Mae was still in the ground. And his torture would begin all anew.
Robert stopped, leaving his daydream nightmares; and when he looked up, he found himself outside of a church. He must have walked far, as he had not reckoned on a church being in a town of this small size. He considered walking in and going to confession, but he rejected the idea; he had tried to do so many times before, and the church would always reject him. He smirked, for he realized the irony of his situation; religion had been founded to help people in the most dire of circumstances, and his circumstances were the direst. But there was no help to be had. The hypocrisy made him laugh.
Robert began the long walk back to the bar.
When Robert returned to the bar, it had struck six. The evening was beginning to darken, and Sonny was helping the bartender put up wooden shutters behind the windows.
Robert walked in glumly, and Sonny and the bartender both stopped their work, starring at him. Robert motioned Sonny to talk privately with him.
“Sonny, I figure we should get going before hassle drops on us.”
“No, no, it’s ok, I’ve talked to him. He’s cool.”
The bartender piped up, gesturing inquisitively to Robert. He motioned them to sit down at the bar, and both he and Sonny did so. The bartender disappeared behind the door, and they could see he was tinkering with a gramophone, placing a record on it.
Robert shouted to him, “Hey! How’d you get a gramophone in these parts? A bit expensive aren’t they?”
“Thought it’d be a good investment, get some more business going. Didn’t really help in the end. We’re in quite a rut. So mainly I listen to my own records on here. Now, listen to this.”
He placed the needle upon the record, and the gramophone immediately began to relay the hiss. And then a careful guitar picking, sliding out of the darkness, reverberated around the room, skipping along to the beat of the guitar. Robert looked at Sonny, shocked. And then, a voice from the darkness…
“And I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
When I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane, for you since I been gone…”
“I got Skip James, Blind Blake, Son House… and I got you, Mr. Johnson.” The bartender smiled and came out of the dark backroom, heading towards the counter. He stared feebly at Robert, an awkwardness introduced into his presence. He looked away, shy.
“For you and your friend, Mr Williamson, drinks are on the house. And I’d be grateful to extend to you an invitation to stay for Christmas day.” He went to pour a whiskey for Robert, but Robert stopped his hand.
“Thank you. You don’t know what it means to a man like me, that you don’t turn me out. It means a lot.”
“Turn you out? You? Man, you walked in here and I knew you had some shadow following you. I knew you was special. Knew it. Heck with the others. Don’t worry about it. Now, you want a whiskey?”
Robert looked at Sonny, a question in his eyes. Sonny conceded.
“I don’t think so. I think food is in order, if you have any.”
The bartender looked extra pleased. He ran around the counter and began to set a table, placing candle and forks on the wooden surface. He ran about wildly, collecting kitchen tools to prepare a meal.
“I can’t offer much in the way of food, and nothing particularly festive; but I’d be happy to serve you a meal, friends. And please, help yourselves to some whiskey should the desire strike you.”
Sonny stood up and crossed to behind the bar. He poured a whiskey and pushed it towards Robert; but he turned it away. Sonny looked at Robert, and he received a smile. Smiling, Sonny took the whiskey and downed it. He went over and sat next to his friend once more.
“How was your walk?”
“Goddamn miserable.” They both laughed, and then paused. They contemplated their rare situation, thankful for this opportunity. They both turned and looked at the bartender. They could here a sizzle emanating from the kitchen; whatever was cooking smelt good.
“How are you feeling, Rob?”
“Better. I feel better.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“You’re a good friend. A man has to appreciate good friends in life.”
Sonny smiled. The bartender walked in and told them to sit down at the table; the food would be coming through shortly. Both moved over to the table and sat opposite each other, with a third chair parked at the end for the bartender. They sat in silence.
When the food came through, Robert and Sonny followed the plates as they landed and settled in front of them with anticipation. There was chicken, corn, hash browns. A simple meal, but a good one. The bartender sat down at the table, and looking at both of his new friends, and said:
They talked as they ate, and they had many laughs. Robert shared some of his adventures on the road, encounters with police, with women, and a fistfight or two. Sonny had not as many stories; but listening to Robert speak, to tell his stories, this was enough for the present company. Come the end of the meal, as they all sat reclining in their seats, Robert asked Sonny a question.
“Where’s my guitar?”
“By the door.”
Robert turned around in his seat, and his focus settled on the door, and he followed the wall to the right until he saw his instrument, his voice, sitting by it. He stood up from the table, slowly walked over, and picked the delicate machinery up in his hands. His fingers began to pick and stroll their way across the chords, travelling through distant memories and through adventure, through the roads in his head that laid out on this land, this beautiful land, and he saw highways and railways and he saw the vastness of the country, picturesque and ever beautiful, and it was all like a wonderful painting, painted by the greatest artist who ever lived. He picked his way along these memories, sliding up deltas and streams in the chords of life. He began to sing those words:
“When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side
When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side
Give her all your spare time, try to love and treat her right
I mistreat my baby, but I can’t see no reason why
I mistreat my baby, but I can’t see no reason why
Anytime I think about it, I just wring my hands and cry
Wonder could I bear apologize, or would she sympathize with me
Mmm, or would she sympathize with me
She’s a brownskin woman, just as sweet as a girlfriend can be
Mmm, baby I may be right or wrong
Baby, it your opinion, I may be right or wrong
Watch your close friend, baby, then your enemies can’t do you no harm
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side
Give her all of your spare time, love and treat her right.”
The song finished with applause as Sonny and the bartender stood up and prospered in the afterglow of that display. Robert laughed, and he turned towards his guitar once more, as ever he did upon his journeys; and he smiled, and he figured that this was why he was here; this is why he wrote; this is why he shared himself with others.
And as he began to pick once more, sharing another story with his small but grateful audience, his soul shot out through his fingers; and as they lingered on each of the strings, as they told stories of bad women and devils, as they told the story of his life, his thoughts drifted back to her and to his son; and he was, for a brief respite, happy, as their memory no longer clouded or continued his sufferings. And with this knowledge he was thankful. And he was thankful for his friend, and for this man who opened up his home to a damned man; and he was grateful for their company, and for the food provided; and he continued to play his song.
It was a good Christmas, and for Robert Johnson, that was enough.
This story was originally published in the first issue of Cobalt Magazine, May 2014.