AT THE CROSSROADS
“What would you give me, my dear, to become famous?”
There’s a saying that if you make a deal with the devil at any crossroads you can sell your soul for fame, which is only half true. First of all, it’s a place called the Crossroads Bar deep in the heart of Missouri, in a nowhere town called Saltsville. It’s a little out of the way, but worth making your way to for the craft beer on tap and company. Second, the devil isn’t Lucifer himself despite what he might want you to think. He’s a charming little bastard who calls himself Mr. D.
Third, you don’t sell your soul to him. Not quite.
Thirty years ago I was twenty years old with no job, no family, and nothing to look forward to. What I did have was a dream and a guitar. Not one from any brand you’d have heard of, but a cheap little thing I bought back when you could get a good guitar for a hundred dollars. I’d spent the last few months moving from place to place, playing in rinky dink bars across the country for small change and a place to sleep. I’d played my way through the Southwest, taking Greyhound after Greyhound trying to get myself recognised and fed. Crossroads was just another on a long list of places recommended to me by the occasional bartender, in that “I hear you can make a coupla bucks in this place” sort of way.
When I stepped inside, it felt like this was gonna be just another gig in another crappy dive bar. You had the same rotating cast as every other honky-tonk - tired older women trying to get free drinks, stupid men drinking beers and making racist jokes, maybe a few young people because there’s nothing better to do in their backwater town. Then my eyes got drawn to a man sitting in the corner on his own, nursing a glass of wine. That was the first thing that caught my attention. Wine’s no honky-tonk drink. Beer, maybe whiskey and moonshine, but wine?
The second was the suit. He was dressed up all proper, wearing a deep red suit the colour of blood on the tiles. It was well cut, fit him like a glove. He looked… dapper. That’s the word. Dapper. Men in suits like that don’t come to dive bars. They belong in penthouses, sipping whiskey and watching the world pass by. Still, here he was, smack in the middle of nowhere. The stranger must’ve seen me giving him a once over because his lips curled up ever so slightly as he raised his glass. A toast.
Unnerved I made my way to the barman to make sure I was booked in for the evening, ask him about the lay of the land and the money I’d be making for the evening. What I’ve found is that if you’re nice to the barman they’ll always make sure you’re taken care of properly. Plus, you learn an awful lot about who everyone is, what to do and what to avoid. In any case, we had just finished negotiating my pay of 20 dollars, dinner, and a mattress on the floor when I remembered to ask him about the fancy man in the corner.
“Oh, him? That’s Mr. D. He comes in every night just to listen to live music. Says it makes him feel alive.”
“But, and no offence, what’s a fancy guy like that doing in a place like this?”
A full-bodied shrug. “No clue. He and his family have always been here, ever since the town opened. It’s historical.” Pointing to the back of the bar, there was a portrait of a man who looked eerily similar to the one in the corner. Same slicked back hair, same eagle eye and noble nose. The style of the clothing was different, more prospector-chic than GQ cover, but still that deep shade of red. In all honesty, I couldn’t picture that man with any kind of family. Maybe it was the suit, the gelled back hair. Maybe it was the way he carried himself, like he owned the whole world. Or maybe it was just the smile. There was something funny about it, like he’d heard the world’s greatest joke was you and he was keeping it to himself.
Still, now was not the time to get distracted. I had a show to put on. Thanking the barman I began to head to Crossroads’ sorry excuse for a stage, an empty corner of the bar away from the drinkers and occupied by a single stool. Tuning up meant people began to boo and heckle in that semi-good natured way you get from drunks sometimes. They never really mean any of what they say, but it just comes out anyways. Still, I needed to mentally brace myself for the kind of words people were slinging at me. The only one who didn’t say anything, of course, was that Mr. D lurking in the background. He was just there, giving this weird little half-smirk and nursing his wine. Nervous beyond hell, I brought my mouth up to the microphone and began to speak.
“Good evening. The name’s Delilah, and I’ll be entertaining you a little this evening.” There was a drunken boo from the crowd, but I pressed on. “This first song is an original piece called Our Road, and please don’t ask for Wonderwall.“ After my little announcement, I began plucking out the opening chords to Our Road. It’s a special song for me because I wrote it for… well, I’m not sure who I wrote it for. Maybe I wrote it for me. In any case, it’s always been one of my favourites, and it was my first single to go big. But that’s me getting a little ahead of myself.
There was something strange in the air that night, something that made my voice come out smoother and my fingers dance across the guitar. It was incredible. Some nights before that my voice would crack in places, or I’d miss a note somewhere. I could perform decently, but it was never exceptional. But that night? All eyes were on me, all ears trained on my voice. My songs. Every single one was a hit, both original and cover. I felt… powerful. Magical. Strong. Like with my voice and a guitar, I could change the world.
After the set people honest to God clapped, which you don’t get a lot when you’re meant to be the backing track to a night of drinking. Folks were coming up to me telling me that I was the best performer they’d had in a while, patting me on the back and telling me to keep coming back to perform. One by one folks filtering in and out to cheer me on and congratulate me, until finally the last of the drunks had staggered out and it was just me, the barman, and Mr. D, who finally got off his barstool to approach me.
“Beautiful set, Miss Esther. Care for a drink to parch your throat?”
If I’d thought about it harder, I would’ve realised that I’d never said my real name up on that stage. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking that his eyes were quite an unusual shade of yellow, and that it was very gracious of him to offer to buy me a beverage. So I nodded yes and followed him to the bar counter, where the barman seemed to know exactly what he wanted. We sat there, shoulder to shoulder, in an uncomfortable silence that he broke first.
‘Tell me, is there any way I can purchase your records yet?”
I couldn’t help but snort with laughter. “I wish! No, I’m just a travelling musician. I make a decent living and get by, you know?”
“That’s a shame. Truly. There’s a budding talent in you yet.” Idly swirling the wine in his glass, the enigmatic Mr. D took another sip before his eyes bored straight into me again. “You know, I like your sort. The independent kind. The ones who strike out on their own.”
“Awfully nice of you to say.”
“No, it’s true! It’s absolutely true. I did some of that back in my day. Or, well, my ancestor did. Had a row with someone far far back, enough that he’d decided enough was enough. Have you heard about that part of the town’s history?”
“The part with you folks?”
“The part with one of my folk.” He raised a finger for emphasis. “My ancestor, bless his soul, didn’t agree with the decisions of his father. He was a genteel sort, from nobility as it were, but he didn’t like the cut of his old man’s jib and decided to just up and leave.”
I looked into my drink, contemplating… something. I’m not sure what, only that I’d been thinking heavily. “So even noble folks argue with their families?”
“Oh, all the time!” Another sip, his eyes turning almost misty at the thought of his family’s past. “All throughout history, even. Kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, even back to biblical times families have gone and torn themselves apart. It’s why there were so many wars, after all. People couldn’t stand each other, or they’d argue over anything. Who owns what, who believes in what, I don’t like the way you looked at me at that party last night.”
“But they’d make up, right?”
Pursing his lips, Mr. D looked very deep in thought when I asked that question. “Sometimes. Sometimes they’ll sign treaties or host parties or have weddings, in order to bridge gaps. But sometimes the animosity runs too deep. Sometimes there is too much hate, and anger, and you rage against the heavens in what is ultimately an exercise in futility.”
He smiled, just a little bit, and this one was a kind and gentle little smile. No teeth. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. The point is that they can make up, but it is very difficult because people are stubborn and nobody enjoys compromising. Who would want to yield, when you think that you’re right?”
There was a little bit of an awkward silence there, as I tried to digest what he was saying. It wasn’t wrong, but it seemed very bitter. Like he knew all of this from his own experiences. As if realising I was thinking too deeply, he asked how much I knew about Saltsville itself. I confessed that I didn’t know much of anything about it, and he launched into a speech about Saltville’s history. How it had grown from nothing into a little slice of heaven for wanderers and nomads. From there we talked about music, art, life and death. How they were intertwined, and what that meant to him, and what meant to me.. For someone who had come across so eerie he was pretty good at chit chat. We must have talked for hours and I must have been drinking a little faster than usual because my head was reeling when he asked me a strange little question. The question that would change my life forever.
“What would you give me, my dear, to become famous?”
I mulled it over for a second or two before giving my response. “Anything.”
I must have had an important reason, because I nodded without hesitation.
Then Mr. D steepled his fingers together, tapping them once, twice, three times on the countertop. He was like that for a very long while, forehead wrinkling with thought before he finally spoke again.
“I know what I can do.. Tell me… what’s your family like, my little star?”
You know, it was surreal. I don’t have a family - anybody who knows me knows that. But that evening, I told him… I told him something. The darndest thing, and I think it went something like this:
When I was a little girl, my daddy used to love to bounce me on his knee or toss me up in the air. He’d throw me high up into the sky, so high I could touch the clouds. My momma would be cooking up something for us, maybe a pie, and when we could smell it from outside our house we’d rush over and try to eat it. Those days were so happy for me because they were before everything. No arguments, no fighting, no being worried or afraid about my future. And then daddy passed away.
I got older, and so did my momma, and it was hard without him. There were more fights, more arguments, more painful moments until I couldn’t handle it anymore. So I picked up my guitar, the money I’d saved up, packed a few clothes and ran away. That was a few years ago that I ran from home and made trouble. You know… I miss them. I miss momma, and I miss my daddy up there in the sky. But one day I’m gonna make it big, so I can take care of her and make my daddy proud. We’ll be a family again.
After I finished telling the story, Mr. D gave me a sad sort of smile. Nothing mean or malicious in it, really. Just pitying. Part of me felt drained saying all that, but I remember it was probably because I hadn’t had anything to eat. Just the drink. Still, there was a feeling of sorts. A sick and twisted feeling in my gut, that I’d lost something very important.
“Now, tell me my dear, what family have you got?”
I shrugged my shoulders, a little confused. “Don’t have any family. No offence, but that’s a ridiculous question to ask me.” I couldn’t understand why he’d ask that. I’d never had any family, not any that I could remember. He nodded, as if I’d answered correctly, and I wondered then if I’d done the right thing telling him those words.
“Good, good. Memory is often such a tricky one, so I’m glad it worked out. As for my end of the bargain, well… try these out.”
I’m not sure where from, but somewhere behind him he pulled out a leather briefcase, old and worn with age. Stroking it almost fondly, he passed it to me with reverence. When I opened it out of his sight later in my travels, I found it contained reams and reams of sheet music with lyrics. It was music about stories. Mythical stories, heroic stories, romantic stories, tragic stories, all enough to make me weepy. I found that out way after though, after I’d somehow passed out and came to on a bus headed for Nashville.
It’s been twenty-one years since that day. My career has been nothing short of amazing, and I’ve scarcely got space to even breath. After leaving the Crossroads I had a chance encounter with a talent scout . He was able to help me jumpstart my career after I played him one of the songs from the briefcase, one about a journey deep into the underworld. Everything I touched from that point turned to gold, every song certified platinum and played everywhere. Even now I play to sold-out crowds all over the world to millions of cheering fans. The fame is incredible, although from time to time I get annoying stalkers who come to my door pretending they know. They like to claim to be friends of mine, or even family members. Otherwise, I’m content to live my life on the road, enjoying life as Delilah the superstar.
From time to time, every seven years or so, I take a trip down to the Crossroads bar. I chat with the barman, always somebody new every time, and I play a set for old times’ sake. People come up to me, some who recognize me from the news or some who remember my old sets. They used to be happy to see me at the bar, but something I’ve noticed is that sometimes they get sulky or even angry I’m there. Sometimes folks even need to get escorted out because I’ve not said hi fast enough or I did something they didn’t like. Mr. D says it’s just because they’re jealous of my talent. Says that’s why most people would end up avoiding me. He might be the only friend I’ve got left, really. At least, the only one willing to sit down with me and really talk, and to be honest when we talk he seems to be a little like me. We’ve both got people who latch onto us, people in the past, people we can’t remember. There never seems to be a space for anybody to get close. It’s just him, and it’s just me.
So if you want to get famous, take the nearest Greyhound bus down to Saltsville, Missouri. It may take you a while, but eventually if your heart is determined you’ll find it. Head to the Crossroads bar, every day if need be, until you can play in front of a man in a blood red suit with a wicked smile. If he likes you, he’ll come up to you, shake your hand, tell you how much he enjoyed your performance. And if you’re willing to do whatever it takes, he might just make you a star.
Kyle Tam is a dreamer, writer, and full-time complainer from the Philippines. Her fiction has been published in Idle Ink, Mineral Lit, and Analogies & Allegories among others. She’s unlikely to sell her soul to the devil for fame. Probably. You can find her on Twitter at @PercyPropa, or follow her work at whatkylewrites.carrd.co.