Friday, May 25, 2012

Three-Fingered Joe

Three-Fingered Joe
Bobby Derie

Even from the back of the bar Aaron Blackman could see the thin mangled digits strum and pick at the strings. The plain white handkerchief wrestled the neck of the old guitar, concealing the tapered, mutilated fingers of Three-Fingered Joe’s left hand; his right hand was bare. A callused thumb struck the final chord of the second-to-last song in the set as Aaron checked his watch: quarter past eleven. Time enough to see Joe with the broken hands do his last song.

Aaron never heard of any other guitarist that overcame a disability like Joe had; he still couldn’t understand how he got the chords to play right. The gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt was supposed to be about the best that ever lived, and he only had three working fingers on his left hand — a fire in his wagon had crippled him and he had to learn to play again with two paralyzed fingers. Joe could play with only three fingers on each hand. It was something to watch, and hear.

Every time Aaron saw him play, Joe had the left hand covered up so you couldn’t watch what he was doing, except for the last song of the night. You couldn’t say much for him as a showman, because he was a quiet one; but that was his signature act.

The stage dimmed to a single, burning red floodlight centered on Joe, so he sat half in shadow half bathed in an alien sun, and the conversations in the club sputtered out with expectation. A square of red-limned cotton fell from the guitar as the thin three-fingered hand, pale and patchy with vitiligo, brought out a small black-handled pocketknife. Joe could have posed for the face on Mars right then. The broken-handed guitarist worked the knife under the strings with the three-fingered claw of his left hand and began to play.

Aaron’s grandmother had an obsession with the devil’s music. Didn’t have anything to do with cassettes or CDs, wouldn’t know an iPod if it bit her. What she had were old black vinyl, with faded labels and thin, yellowing paper envelopes. She played the devil’s music. Old stories told by bluesmen, stolen and passed around from black mouth to black ear, until some white folk heard it and we ended up with Satanpunk and fine old churches burning down in those parts of Europe as cold as the final circle of Dante’s hell, and ancient, overindulgent rebels begging for someone to make up their dying bed.

The old stories, the first stories, always got to young Aaron. Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson were the famous bluesmen that dealt with the devil and sang of hellhounds on their trail. His grandmother told him how every twenty-seven years the devil would come to a certain crossroads, and you’d hand him a guitar, he’d tune it, play you a piece and hand it back to you. From then on you’d play as well as he had — until the devil’s note came due.

Aaron would sell his soul to the devil to play as well as Three-Fingered Joe.

He reckoned he wouldn’t be the first to, either. Joe finished his set with a slow-dying caterwaul from the guitar and Aaron checked his watch again. Eleven twenty-nine. The lights brightened as Joe unplugged the guitar from the amp, picked up the handkerchief, and began to pack away the foot pedals as the drummer for the next act started loading up. The bar noise swelled again as people took to talking, got a new drink, headed to the toilets for a piss or outside into the Chicago night. It was time to go, so Blackman paid his shot, picked up his own guitar and left.

The young bluesman came out of the club and got a lungful of summer air, warm and a bit wet. The blues scholar in him said he should be out on some lonely country crossroads down in the delta, or at least out on Maxwell Street, where Chicago blues was born. But if the devil ever came to Maxwell Street these days, he’d hardly recognize it; the university had bought out and renovated damn near the whole thing for student housing.

Blackman’s feet took him north on Turnbull, the guitar slapping his knee, then west until he hit the train tracks, which he followed north again. This section of rail ran down the border between two cemeteries, St. Mary’s and Evergreen. There was a bit of unpaved road, almost a path really, that connected the two cemeteries, right across the tracks. Aaron couldn’t think of a lonelier or more fitting crossing for what he wanted to do. A sudden skittishness took hold as he crossed the final road. Blackman looked around to see if anyone was watching as he walked along the track, thought about what stories he would give for why a young black man would take a guitar on the railroad tracks between two cemeteries at night.

No mouth of hell opened before him though, no police cars cruised by. Just a level track laid straight on between two fences, moonlight playing on gravel and long grass. Blackman found himself holding his breath, like his grandmamma taught all her children and grandchildren to do, and let it out. The dead couldn’t steal his breath. Walking along the tracks, gravestones watching him from either side, Aaron felt the city pass away. The sky was limned by ten thousand streetlights forever distant, but the cemeteries were dark and quiet save for the grasshoppers and other singing insects. When Blackman arrived at the crossroads and checked his watch again, he had four minutes to murder.

The moon hid behind a passing cloud and the night grew darker. Aaron busied himself for all of thirty seconds, taking the old guitar out of its case, heart beating out a strange rhythm. Blackman knew what the stories said would happen, and he’d planned to come here and practice — and, well, he knew they weren’t true. Devils don’t stalk graveyards, in Chicago or anywhere else. The young bluesman admitted that part of him wanted to believe in them, just a little, and part of him was excited to be out here, alone in the dark, and thrilled at the scare he’d put on. Aaron wiped his palms dry on his jeans and touched the strings to play a couple scales.

A scuttle of gravel over gravel came out of the darkness, and Aaron froze at the sound. In the dark a tall shadow of a man loomed, which sent his thoughts racing back to the crossroads tales of witches and the Black Man and his damnable book and obscene kiss. Then Aaron’s eyes adjusted and saw Three-Fingered Joe walking further down the track, alone and without his own instrument or anything else. The young bluesman felt he really saw him for the first time, then. Before Joe had only ever been on stage, in his ill-fitting suits, hunched over his guitar and hiding his left hand under that old handkerchief. Out here on the crossroads, he was taller than Aaron remembered him, and the clothes ill-fit Joe because he was the wrong shape to wear them. His dusky splotched skin looked unhealthy and grey, and his eyes … for a moment the moon came out from behind the clouds and his eyes were so wide and dark that Aaron could clearly see his own reflection in the pupils. Then the cloud covered the moon again and Aaron forgot all of that.
Joe took the guitar from Blackman’s unresisting hands, and the young guitarist saw Joe’s hands up close for the first time. Aaron stared guiltily, like you do at someone with a birth defect or an amputation, trying to make sense of the smooth unbroken skin and knotty joints. There was no sign of scars where the missing fingers should have been.

The elder bluesman carefully tested the guitar, running a finger up each string and fret. Then he fetched a scroll of dark velvet or soft leather from his pocket, and unrolling it on the ground revealed a strange set of tools. One probe and blade at a time, Joe began to take the guitar apart. It was like watching surgery on TV, as the knowing three-fingered hands worked to loosen the strings, cracked open the shell and exposed the vulnerable electronics within. The old bluesman worked slowly, with no sense of rush, and Aaron couldn’t have said if minutes or hours passed as Joe tested each part of the guitar, shaving and cleaning, adding or subtracting bits and pieces, slowly reassembling the instrument into a semblance of its original shape.

To look at it whole again, Blackman could tell it was the same guitar but subtly different at the same time. The strings shone like new silver and rose higher above the neck; the faux-wood plastic face with its aluminum had been stripped and replaced with soft-grained planks and a shiny, lustrous metal that Joe had cut by hand with a pair of heavy clippers. No seam showed where he’d broken open the body and replaced the electronic guts.

The guitar complete, Aaron watched him work his way through each string, tuning and calling them soft names that Blackman didn’t know, moving through scales the young bluesman had only heard in fragments of songs on old vinyl. When he had gone through the whole thing, which must have taken quite some time, Joe took out his black-handled knife, fixed it beneath the strings, and began to play.

The air tasted different to Aaron then; the slight tang of ammonia crept into each lungful and burned the back of his throat. Sleep or something more suddenly made the young bluesman’s body feel heavy, the bones and meat weighing on him and his lungs labored harder. Dropping to his knees, Blackman’s hands sprawled in dry red dust that was warm to the touch, and when he raised his head he looked up at a vast and purple sky with two moons.

Three-Fingered Joe began to sing an old blues song, his voice high and falsetto, and the guitar rumbled and hissed. The old bluesman seemed perfectly at ease here, in the strange setting, like a burden had been taken off him, and his eyes were wider and blacker under the light of the twin moons than when Aaron had seen them in the bright, familiar, light of Earth’s moon. The knife worked its way along each string, the pitch and timbre shifting, and the young bluesman felt his own hands twitch in response, aping the motions Joe was making, muscles learning the strange gropes and slides.

The words of the song slipped from Aaron’s head almost as soon as he heard them, but it was a familiar tune; an old story about not being able to go home, alone and lonesome in a crowd, forced to eat unfamiliar foods and sleep in strange places, bereft of all company and comfort. There were rocks all along each road he had traveled, Joe sang, trouble dogged his every step, and all he wanted was to go home, to go home, to go home. The part that came next wasn’t any darker or stranger than what had come before, but Joe’s voice got angrier and cruder, the rhythm of the piece picked up and alternately squealed or growled or droned. It wasn’t about love or sex like you hear in most songs, but it expressed a desperate need, urges that come and go in everyone like the tides, but which are wrapped and stifled by custom and courtship. It was the rawest and terrifying and titillating tale of seduction Aaron had ever heard. There were secret sins that shepherds committed on lonesome nights out on the range, and sailors far from home who begin to eye each other in new lights when their craving for sweet release overwhelms their natural inclinations.

When he was done playing the piece, Aaron felt himself settle back into his body. He could still see the shadow of an alien sky, but he felt the summer night of Earth and it had gotten cold. Beneath the illusion of red dust, the gravel felt chill and dry beneath his hands, and somewhere far off a police siren howled. Blackman shivered. Joe was still there, looking at him, and the bluesman never looked stranger and more alien than at that moment.

The old bluesman set the guitar back in the box, gently, very gently, and then he came over to where the young bluesman knelt. One dry, three-fingered hand found the bottom of Aaron’s shirt and untucked it; the other fumbled at his pants. Blackman didn’t resist. At that point, Blackman didn’t know if he even wanted to.
A red nova flared behind Aaron’s eyes like sunset on Krypton. He was awake before he opened his eyes and recognized the familiar rumble and worn-out seating of the Chicago L train. Nostalgic disorientation set in, of waking up somewhere strange with no clear memory of the night before, the satisfied aches of a one night stand. Slowly, the bluesman sat up and took stock of himself.

His guitar was on the seat next to him. There were grass stains on his knees, gravel rash on his elbows, and his ass was sore and burned like he’d taken the longest and most painful shit of his life. A glance around showed him that there were only a handful of people in the car with him, which was on the Brown line. Aaron decided to ride it to the end of the line and get off at the Loop.

Aaron tried to piece together what had happened. Three-Fingered Joe was at the club, he left after his set… bits and pieces were coming back: the crossroads, the devil that tuned his guitar, an alien with black eyes and caresses from long tapering fingers, an otherworldly nightscape and the names of notes Aaron couldn’t quite remember but felt he could play. Almost by instinct, Blackman took his guitar out of the case. The balance felt different, better. Instinct guided the bluesman as he played a couple scales, almost inaudibly so as not to upset the other passengers.

Blackman needed a slide. He looked around for something, anything in the car that would make do, and his gaze fell on a plain brown paper bag someone had left on the floor, the tip of an empty bottle poking out. He fished it out from under the seat, Aaron had another flashback from last night — a familiar humping motion, an unfamiliar position. He snagged the bottle and sat down again.

Blackman waited until no one was looking then “accidentally” slammed the guitar case down on the bag, cracking the glass. He fished out the broken bottleneck. One end was jagged and wickedly sharp, but it fit securely over Aaron’s finger and slipped neatly between the neck and the strings. Aaron tried a few notes and it worked fine, so he began to play.

It was like a duck taking to water. Blackman had never played that way before, never played that well. Everything that happened last night, the pain in his ass, melted with the thrill of hearing and feeling himself play so well. He could feel the bottleneck resonate with every note, and almost by instinct he slipped into a song that he only half recalled, humming the words and hearing the guitar echo them.

The train came to another stop and people got on and off, a few of them taking notice of the bluesman and listening to him play. The half-sung piece talked about a dark-lit world and a long lonesome journey, a sailor cast off on an ocean of night and marooned on an island in space under a strange sky. His voice hit new pitches he’d never sung before, telling of a brief abduction from the fields we know, a bestial urge that dare not speak its name, and how the sailor wandered on again, unfaithful, lonesome and depraved.

Aaron finished the piece and sat quiet for a spell, scared and more than a little ashamed. He’d seen things last night he couldn’t quite articulate — the music, the double-moon in that vast purple sky – it was all weird and strange to him, and he didn’t know who would believe him if he was want to tell it. Maybe those old bluesmen had been telling the truth about the devil at the crossroads — they just hadn’t said it was a horny old devil. Blackman thought of that strange old alien, homesick and alone, singing the blues. Twenty-seven years between seductions, lonely men that were willing to give up everything for music. Except the Black Man at the crossroads didn’t want your soul, he wanted a piece of your ass.

A handsome black woman shook Aaron out of his reverie, asked him what he called that piece he just played. The bluesman was at a loss for its proper name but one suddenly came to him.

“Starry Crossroads Blues, ma’am. I call it that.”

She liked it, and asked Aaron to play it again. He gave her a shy smile and started working the slide again, singing a little louder so she could hear. This time, of course, he left out the verse with the anal probing.

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