By Julie Jackson
November 16, 1948
Elmore and Bukka sat on wobbly bar chairs, hats tilted toward one another. The blues singers whispered quietly, even though there was no way any one could have heard them over the rowdy noise of the bar. Beer glasses rattled and broke, pool balls hit one another with resounding smacks, and half-drunk women laughed too loud at the bad jokes the other men shouted to each other. It was Saturday night, and the place was packed. Ms. Annie’s Grill was one of the few places in town that allowed the black and white customers to sit and eat together. The owners also paid everyone they employed a good wage, making it the most popular spot in West Memphis.
The air was thick with smoke from cigarettes and from the pit in the kitchen, and every time the door opened, a blast of chilly air sent plumes of gray scattering toward the very back of bar, where a lone stool sat in an empty corner, waiting for the night’s musician to come take his place.
“This shit ain’t right,” Bukka said. “You know it ain’t.”
Elmore nodded his head. “I know, but it’s too late now. Sonny Boy took that other gig down in Clarkesdale. Said it was more money.”
“That’s a load of bull,” Bukka spat. “He knew what he was supposed to do, and he chickened out. So now who’s gonna take Riley? It ain’t go’n be me.”
“Well it damn sure ain’t go’n be me, either.”
“Then you know who it’s got to be,” Bukka said. Elmore nodded and they both looked up. Pete, the older white man who owned the bar, was already watching them intently. His blue eyes were red-rimmed from smoke and his muscled arms were crossed over his barrel chest. Elmore and Bukka met his gaze, and he gave them a tiny nod before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Yessir, it’s got to be him. The only man around that scares the devil himself,” Elmore said.
The door opened again, sending in another blast of cold air as well as a young black man carrying a guitar. A few of the crowd hooped and hollered, and he grinned at them. He waved at Bukka and Elmore, who in turned pointed at the stool in the corner.
“How y’all doing?” he said.
The crowd cheered in response, and he sat down, cradling the mahogany guitar.
“My name is Riley. I know it was supposed to be Sonny Boy tonight, but he decided to give me a chance in his place, and I sure thank him.” He twanged a few notes and cleared his throat. “Hope y’all like me as much as him!”
The crowd roared drunken encouragement to him, and he launched into a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail.” The boy could sing well enough, but Bukka and Elmore winced more than once at off-key notes and missed pickings. The audience didn’t seem to mind; they sang right along with him until he played a song he had written himself. As he crooned about some woman named Miss Martha, people got up to get more food, go to the bathroom or just leave.
“Shit, he’s losing ‘em,” Bukka said, and Elmore cursed. Riley noticed it too, and began to panic. He stammered over a few words and completely missed chords. He wrapped up the song quickly and announced he was going to take a break. The crowd barely acknowledged him.
Riley ran over to Bukka and Elmore. Sweat poured off of his head and he wringed his hands.
“Oh man y’all, Pete ain’t never go’n lemme play here again, is he?” he asked.
Bukka slapped him on the back. “You just nervous.”
“No, no I’m not. I’m just not good enough. Ain’t ever gonna be as good as y’all or Sonny Boy.”
Elmore cast a sidelong glance at Bukka, and then turned his eyes back to Riley. “Let me tell you a secret, son,” Elmore said, and leaned into Riley’s ear to whisper.
Riley stood there, rapt. Finally, he slowly nodded.
“I gotta get Pete to do it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Bukka said. “Them’s the breaks.”
Bukka suddenly felt a heavy weight on the right side of his body, and when he looked down he saw a white sledgehammer hand resting on his shoulder. Elmore tried to scoot away but Pete’s other hand came down on his arm.
“What’s all this whispering about, fellas? Got something on your mind?” Pete’s eyes sparkled knowingly.
Elmore took a deep breath and readied himself to speak, but Riley interrupted him.
“Mr. Pete sir, I need a ride. I will give you ten dollars,” he burst.
Pete straightened up, and removed his arms from Bukka and Elmore. They both breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well, come on then,” Pete said. “My truck is outside.” Riley headed for the door.
“Wait!” Bukka cried. He hesitated for a moment, and then grabbed Riley’s guitar and held it out to him. “You’re gonna need this.”
Riley grabbed it and took off.
“Mind the crowd for me. Play something to get ‘em drinkin’ again.” Pete said, gesturing toward the empty corner. And then he was gone.
Bukka put his head down on the dirty bar.
“God forgive us,” he murmured.
Riley hunched nervously against the pickup’s door, occasionally casting furtive glances at Old Man Pete. A lit cigarette hung off of his lip, and his face was blank. He drove slowly and calmly past several houses that were already buttoned up for the night.
“How long does it take?” Riley asked.
“Don’t know,” Pete replied. “If it ain’t done by midnight get out of there. That’s all I know.”
“Walls start getting thin,” Pete said. “There will be….other things. You don’t want the wrong one.”
Riley took a nervous breath, and stared out the window. The houses gave way to ranches, and then empty fields.
“How far out we goin’?” Riley asked after a while.
“It’s gonna be a long walk back.”
Pete barked a laugh. “Well son, I’m not scared. But I’m not stupid either. You’re on your own.”
“Why ain’t you scared?”
Pete threw his spent cigarette in the floorboard of the truck and sighed. “I gave the Devil his due a long time ago, son.”
They turned down a gravel road and drove another several miles. There were a few lean-tos and shanty houses scattered among the crops. If sharecroppers lived inside, they offered no signs of life. Riley was peering intently out of the side window when the truck lurched to a stop.
“We are here,” Pete said.
Riley looked forward. The gravel intersection was completely empty. A few white flowers and weeds bloomed in the four corners of two roads, but that was all.
“Is this it?” Riley croaked.
“Yep,” Pete said.
Riley’s fingers wrapped tightly around the neck of his guitar. “Now what happens?”
“You got to get out of the truck.”
Riley turned toward Pete. “And then what?”
“I don’t know. You will have to ask The Man.” Pete looked straight ahead.
Riley ducked at the sudden sound of pounding hoof beats.
He slowly turned back to face the windshield.
The Man stood in the middle of the two roads, tall and lean, towering over nearby weeds and crops. His skin was oil black and shiny. His limbs were long and sinewy, and one arm held a pitchfork. A large black dog was sitting neatly in front of Him, his pointy ears and red eyes trained on the truck. He blocked the view of The Man’s cloven feet.
Riley closed his eyes.
Pete softened at the site of the trembling young boy, and he shook his head. “Look, you seem like a good kid,” Pete offered. “You just need some lessons. You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I’ve had lessons! Years of them! I came up here two years ago, and found out real quick I wasn’t go’n cut it!” the young man cried. “So I went back to Mississippi and practiced and practiced, and I’m still not good enough.”
The Man took a step toward the truck.
Pete was about to throw the truck in reverse when Riley opened the door.
The Man grinned, brilliant white teeth flashing.
Riley got out, clutching his guitar to his chest. “I sure thank ya, Mr. Pete sir, but you can be on your way now.”
“I said you can go on now,” Riley said, throwing Pete some money and slamming the door.
Pete gave him one last look, and then slid the truck into the left side of the crossroads so he could turn around. He came close to The Man and his dog, but they paid Pete no mind.
Pete dropped the clutch and slammed on the gas. The last thing he saw in his rearview mirror was the boy that would become B.B. King handing his guitar to The Man.
Julie Jackson is 32 and currently resides in North Little Rock AR. She grew up in a tiny town outside of Memphis, TN. She is married with three spoiled bunnies. She enjoys writing, reading, cooking, making jewelry, and doing decoupage. She has other works on Writer’s Carnival she would love for you to read, and her story ‘A Trick of the Light’ was published in Aurora Wolf’s April issue. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter @JulieEmerson10.