Mississippi Muse

by FeLicia A. Elam


Tori Gamble laced her legs around the barstool to keep from sliding off the vinyl seat. She propped her thin elbows against the red padded bar and leaned back to watch the action. This was her favorite spot in the club, other than behind the microphone. The Four Corners Bar and Grille had gotten into its rhythm.

Cheap shoes scraped and stomped against the broken tile of the linoleum floor. The smell of drugstore cologne settled in the heavy air. Men danced in Flagg Bros. suits while women strutted in discount store bargains. Elbows flew, coattails flapped, and people danced to Denise LaSalle who begged people not to mess with her “toot-toot” over the jukebox.

It amazed Tori that some of the plainest, homeliest folks washed up so nicely. Ditch diggers and farmhands came decked out in bright colored suits, wide brim hats and Kangols. Women, who worked as domestics and cooks, wore satins, sequins and carried hand-me down designer purses.

Tori waited until the chorus repeated and the accordion wailed. She nodded to Russell behind the bar to lower the volume. She stepped up to the mike and made a quick survey of the crowd.

Most of the regulars showed up. Joe and Charlesetta Crutcher took their usual spot, dressed to match as always. Tonight they chose red, not a subtle shade, but a bright, robust red. To Tori, they looked like two fat strawberries. Joe stretched his double-breasted suit until the buttons pulled to one side. The zipper on Charlesetta's pantsuit jacket poked out and it revealed a red and white striped top.

Lena Battles wore her tight, stretchy, light blue dress. She showed up when her husband, Lamont, went to the VA in Memphis for his heart. Lamont must have been gone because Lena sat in her usual spot at the bar with Russell. Couples in bright shades of blue, green and purple danced to the sounds of the dwindling music.

“Y’all ready to get this party started?” Tori asked into the microphone. Hoots and hollers rippled through the tightly packed dance floor.

“This is my last night”, she said. She paused to let her words sink in. “As y’all know, I’m headed back to school tomorrow. My last year. Wish me luck.”

“We gonna miss you, Tori,” Joe yelled. “Place ain’t the same without ya’"

“Amens” and “That’s rights” came from the crowd. A few whistles followed.

“I gotta little something old and a little something new for ya’. Call it my Delta Remix. It's my going away present. I’m going to miss you too”

She switched off her main microphone and eased into the vinyl barstool behind her synthesizer. She scooted around until she found her balance and leaned forward to switch on the cassette player. A heady, bass guitar sound emanated from the dusty speakers nestled in the corners. The beat vibrated off the walls.

Dancers picked up the rhythm and shuffled their feet to the music. Tori added the drums, first she struck the keyboard at intervals; she then switched to the track she had lain down earlier. Heads began to bob and hips started to sway. By the time Tori added the lead guitar, arms flew one way and legs went the other, the rhythm had taken control.

Tori pushed the vinyl stool aside and stood behind her synthesizer like the conductor of an orchestra. The serious dancers took to the floor, the ones who didn’t get warmed up until nine-thirty. The ones who worked all day in the heat or the cold, danced till close and could do it again the next night.

The instrumental part of her set wound down. Tori stepped to the mike to sing her version of Creeping in the Next Room.

The song sounded different from the first note. Tori had recorded everything, her cassettes and her tracks, in the key of C. Now they came out in B. She could sing in that key, but preferred C because it felt more comfortable. She didn't have time to check on her tape; Tori sang along.

The music stretched her, pulled her voice to places it rarely went. She struggled to keep up. She glanced around to see if anyone noticed that she had to strain to sing her own music. People moved in unison; they dipped and twirled as if choreographed. The colorful clothes, flashy sequins and bright, cheap jewelry the women wore, blended with the music. Tori senses slipped away.

The first side of the tape ended. Some of the less hardy dancers took advantage of the break to head to the bar. Tori emerged from the fog long enough to check on her equipment and to see why her tape played off key. She did a sound check and reset her microphone, but nothing appeared out of order. Tori looked around to see if anybody got close enough to switch tapes. Maybe Russell decided to play a farewell prank on her.

She knew everyone at the club except the brown-skinned man near the door. She almost missed him, except he bent out of the shadows to light his cigarette. The candle on his table had gone out. Long fingers hid his face. She waited for him to straighten up so she could get a better look. When he did, Charlesetta Crutcher blocked her view.

“Keep it up, baby girl, and we ain’t gonna let you outta here,” she said between breaths. She daubed her forehead with a white cocktail napkin and left dots of paper stuck to her brown face. Her jacket laid halfway open, giving the stressed zipper some relief. Patches of sweat seeped through her blouse and made the red stripes redder and the white ones transparent.

“I'm just getting warmed up,” Tori said. “I have a Koko Taylor remix for ya’ and a little Ike and Tina Turner.”

“Sure hate to hear you ain't coming back next year," Charlesetta said. "We all hate it. We don't dance hard till you in tha' house."

“If I could make a living singing I would. But it's hard to make it these days.”

"Your mama tried, tried real hard. Bless-her-heart," Charlesetta said after a long pause. Peopled didn't mention Betty Jean Gamble much around Tori. Just like Tori, her mother sang at the Corners during summer breaks and some of the same people came around. The comparisons made Tori feel closer to her. She inherited her mother's slanted gray eyes, honey brown skin and gift of singing. Tori's had a richer voice; it carried the burden of separation.

"Some nights when you is really cuttin' up, I swear I can hear her in th' background," she continued.

"That's what makes it hard to leave," Tori hugged herself. " I can almost hear her sometimes, too. She loved this place. Ain't no place in the world like it," she said.

She slid the tape into the machine and the music picked up in the same key as before. This time it more urgent, more intense, driving. In the distance, she heard the clanking of beer bottles, as Russell exchanged them for money. She smelled chicken wings frying and hot links grilling; combined with the beat of the music and the rhythm of the crowd, the scent created an atmosphere that Tori only found at the Corners. Except tonight it felt more powerful. Stronger.

A couple more dancers sat down and left the floor less crowded. She spotted him again; this time nobody got in her way. He looked young and old at the same time. His movements, the slow way he lit his cigarette, the unsteady way he lifted his drink, betrayed those of an old man. His smooth face and the strident way he bobbed his head, belonged to someone much younger.

He looked familiar, too, his odd brown suit and bowler hat. Tori couldn't place him, like she had seen him on television or in a magazine. Her gaze swept over the crowd before it settled on him again.

Tori's gray eyes locked onto his deep brown ones. He puffed his cigarette and the boom of the bass guitar grew more powerful. Drumbeats followed the intense thumping of his fingers against the tabletop. Melodies swelled and grew fuller as he tapped his feet. The beat of the music matched his movements.

As the music grew in force, Tori's voice swelled to meet it. She focused on the man, and felt him take the lead. Her voice soon matched his movements. He started to blur, to blend with the music. She merged with him and soon thought of nothing and felt nothing but the music around her.

The set continued in a haze with Tori floating along on a sea of music. As the end of the last song faded to repeat the bridge, she felt herself being lifted as if out of a sleep. She managed to unhinge her eyes from the man. The crowd came back into focus and the scents of the food began to separate from the sounds of the music.

The dancers wound down listening to the instrumental outtake Tori ended her set with. Men wiped sweat from brows and backs of necks with handkerchiefs. Some women dug in purses for the lacy kind, while others clamored for cocktail napkins at the bar. Russell served cold beer to those who could still stand to drink it. The kitchen was closed.

“Girl, you showed out tonight,” Joe said. He slapped her across the shoulders and shook off the remainder of the fog. "You sho' took Th' Corners back to its heyday."

“You damn-near danced us out of our clothes,” Charlesetta said. The red jacket now draped over her arms. "I busted out my jacket on that next to th' last song."

"You was busting out of it when you got here, woman," Joe said with a laugh.

"You ain't exactly no spring chicken yourself," she said. She pointed at his jacket. "You got a button missing here and there. I bet you don't even know where they is."

Thin laughter moved through the crowd. Most people still panted and tried to catch their breaths like they had been exercising. A few nursed cool beers and some had ice water. Tori saw a couple of women adjusting their wigs. Even Lena, who hardly ever danced, had a sweat stain seeping through her dress.

"We ain't the only ones losing clothes tonight," Joe said. He pointed to the floor. A few more buttons, some hair pins and various colors of sequins dotted the dingy linoleum.

"If you can't make a living at this," Charlesetta said, "Nobody can. You sing better than people on TV. Tonight, you did your mama proud."

Tori gave her shoulder a squeeze and then stood tall to see over the small crowd that pressed against her. She still couldn't see the table where the mystery man sat. Most of the candles in the back burned out long ago. By the time the well-wishers dispersed, she realized he had left. She tried to keep an eye on the door, but tonight it the crowd stayed longer than usual. She never saw him leave.

He seemed so familiar to her that she wanted to ask had they met before. She wanted to know if he made her music glide the way it did tonight. She never sang like that, at least not in public, and wanted to know how he did it, if he did it. Could he be an old blues man? He looked like somebody she had seen on a calendar or in a book. Could they be shooting a movie in the area? He didn't look like an actor. She couldn't place him at all, but something about him stayed at the edges of her mind.

***

Russell left with Lena in the blue dress. He always left with Lena when she came by. Tori didn't mind having to count out the register or close up that night. She wanted to be alone in The Corners for her last time. She had to say good-bye in her own way.

She looked up from behind the counter and saw him striding toward her, guitar case in hand. He walked fast to be an old man, even a young looking one. She hadn't heard him come in and would have doubted he was real except he kicked a stray red button across the floor and it ricocheted off the bottom of the bar.

He was waiting for everybody to leave so he could rob me, she thought.

Russell kept a .45 automatic under the register, but she sat at the other end of the bar. Before she could even look at the gun, he stood in front of her, tall, slender and almost the same color as his brown suit. He slung the guitar case on the counter and began popping the latches on the side.

“You did pretty good with that fake music,” he said. He pulled the guitar out of the case.

“Let’s see what you can do with the real thang.”

He polished off imaginary dust and dragged a bar stool from the counter, to the main microphone. He adjusted the mike to his height and steadied himself on the chair. He strummed the guitar, head tilted, eyes closed like he was tuning a Stradivarius.

She sat behind the bar, shocked that the man just walked in, and relieved that he hadn't robbed her, yet. She still couldn’t figure out how he got in. She heard Russell's keys jangling in the lock and a definite click when he left. Who gave this man the right to come in here and scare her, anyways?

“Whatcha waiting for?” he asked. He glanced back at Tori. He sounded like an old field hand. He ran some words together and dropped parts of others.

“I thought you wanted to sang?” he asked. He plucked at the strings of his guitar and a melodic twang bounced off the walls. "Thought you was a sanger. Taking Th' Corners back to th' heyday."

She unglued herself from the counter and moved to the front of the bar, behind her synthesizer. Her eyes never left him; she didn't want to turn her back to the door. Just because he hadn't tried anything yet, didn't mean he wouldn't later. She didn't know if he came alone or if someone else waited outside until she dropped her guard.

He closed his eyes and pulled the guitar strings and rocked his head back and forth. Before long, his whole body swayed, like he was in a rocking chair. As soon as she switched her mike on, his pickings turned to Sweet Home Chicago. He played the first two bars over and sang:

Come on, baby don't you want to go
Come on, baby don't you want to go
To the same old place, sweet home Chicago

She listened for a while, felt the song out, and picked up on his style. He held notes as long as he wanted or made them as sharp as he needed. He picked at the strings and the guitar became alive in his hands. It breathed and moved on its own and he guided it like a riverbed guides a river. She listened a while longer and then joined in.

From there he took her through Me and the Devil Blues, hollering the lines ‘I believe it's time to go' like his life depended on it. Next they tackled I’m a Steady Rolling Man; sweat trickled down her back. Keeping up with his guitar licks became harder and harder. Tori had a feeling he was just warming up.

He played guitar better than anyone she had ever heard and some pretty guitar players had come through the Corners. He made the guitar sound almost like someone singing, wailing even. She had sat in on some sessions in New Orleans and Memphis, too and she had never met anyone like him.

Whatever chord he played in, she matched him note for note. By the time she took a break, she felt like the dancers on the floor that night, winded, hot and tired. She looked out of the window and saw the sky had started to lighten. How long have we been here, she wondered. Just how long have we been singing?

As if to answer her questions, he stopped playing and straddled the guitar across his legs. He pushed the bowler from his brow and leaned back in the chair. He drew a Prince Albert can from his vest pocket and flipped the lid with one long brown finger. With the other hand, he produced a thin piece of creased paper. He tapped the contents onto the paper and smooth it out with his index finger.

He leaned over, bowler hat still high on his head, and licked the paper. He rolled it with one hand and put it in his mouth. Tori sat in a chair close to the bar and watched. The hat, cigarette, the guitar, brown pinstripe suit all formed a picture in her mind. Tori realized why the guitar man looked so familiar. She had heard about him all of her life. Only two known photographs of him existed. Betty Jean owned one of him sitting on a piano stool with his guitar, looking at lot like he did just then.

Tori pushed down the fear that tried to choke her. If this man is who I think he is, he's been dead some fifty years, she told herself. Her mind wouldn't let her argue, so she watched the pungent smoke waft toward the ceiling and waited for him to speak.

"Cataracts," he said. He winked a cloudy eye at her and held the green smelling cigarette in her direction. Tori shook her head no; he seemed not to mind.

“You remind me of some of them women who used to come 'round here back in th' day,” he said. He inhale and held his breath in. “Big voices, full of pain. Lost love." He blew the smoke out. "Create your own style, too. You good.”

She watched him take a couple more puffs and waited for him to say more. His good eye glassed over a bit. The sharp smelling smoke had stopped drifting upward and filled the club. Tori felt a bit light headed and held onto the barstool. He laid the guitar at his feet, placing it down like an infant and turned to her.

“You got a gift that a lot of people don’t have," he continued. He pointed the cigarette at her. "You know how to take the soul of a song and bring it out. It’s a blessing.”

“What's a blessing to some is a curse to others,” Tori replied. "Like for you at the Crossroads."

“A curse at th' Crossroads? Says who?” He blew smoke at the ceiling, opened the Prince Albert can and balanced cigarette over the top.

"The deal you made with the devil and his coming to get his due. It's all a legend," Tori said.

"A lie is what it is. Weren't no devil at th' Crossroads, girl," he said. "Evil is in th' eye of th' beholder." He shook his head hard after some thought. "What you see is what you is."

"Then what happened to you? Where did you go?" she asked. "You dropped off the scene for about fifty years and now you show up in the middle of the night. And for what? To play a couple of songs with me?"

"I didn't drop off the scene, I made the scene," he said. "I made the scene b'fore it could be seen." He laughed like Tori was the only person in a room full of people who didn't get the joke.

"You heared of Charlie Christian?" he asked. He wiped an tears from his eyes.

"Yeah, he played electric guitar in the thirties. Big band," she replied, She rubbed her red eyes.

" Miles Davis? Jimi Hendrix?"

"Of course. What do they have to do with me? What do they have to do with you being here?"

"Let's just say I discovered all them people," he said, He pushed the cigarette into the tin and closed the lid.

"Discovered? How?" she asked.

"Just like you. They was working hard in juke joints and back alleys, without notice. I come whisperin' in their ears and the next thing you know they off to the big times," he said. "I didn't meet no devil. I met my music. I never lost my soul-- I shared it with something bigger."

Tori paused and looked at the man closely. By all accounts he shouldn't be sitting there. Yet here he sat in front of her, guitar and all telling her some outrageous story, all while blowing smoke in her face.

"I don’t know what you really want," she said. She rose toward the door. "But it's time for you to go. I have a long day in front of me and it starts as soon as you leave."

"All I want is for you to sang."

"Sing? Sing what? We just sang."

"No, I want you to keep sanging. I want you to keep sanging when you leave this place. I want you to sang for the rest of your life," he said.

Tori returned to her seat and closed her eyes against the drumming behind them. The lightheadedness left long ago.

"You know. You just playin' ignorant," he said. "You hear me ev'ry time you write a song or open your mouth to sang. Ev'ry guitar lick, ev'ry key you strike on your fancy piano comes from me and you feel it."

"Teaching music is a steady paycheck," she said. She clenched her teeth. " I can't make a decent living singing. My mother tried and all she got was in debt, disappointed, and…". She didn't want to finish the sentence because they both knew how it ended.

"You ain't your mama. Got her voice and all, but you got something else," he said. "You got me on your side. Victoria."

Tori said nothing but turned toward the window. No one had called her by her real name since her mother died. She hadn't heard it in so long she had forgotten that she was Victoria.

The sky had grown even lighter, a dark pink with purples and blues fading upward. What the man said and all the talk about her mother clouded Tori's mind. She wanted to be alone, to think, to sort things out.

"You at the Crossroads now," he said. He returned Prince Albert tin to his vest. "You got choices to make and not a lot of time to make them. I got other people in other back alleys waiting on me."

He stood and picked his guitar off the floor. He cradled it in his arms and walked to the bar. She heard the case open and close and then the locks snap shut. She heard him sling it over his shoulder and retrace his steps. He walked past her, toward the door and into the breaking dawn.