The smell of pizza battles the odor of nail polish remover for the room. It’s what has become our regular Friday night with a half-eaten box of delivery pizza sitting on the coffee table next to watered-down cola’s and my wife’s feet. She has twisted and woven Kleenex tissue between her toes. What looks like a miniature battlefield of blood and bandages is really the discarded red soaked cotton balls. What I don’t get is why she needs to change the color from red to another red or why she paints her toes in December when no one can see her feet anyway? It’s too cold for those open-toed shoes, even in Nashville, there’s frost on the ground this time of year. But she cares, and I love that about her.
My guitar leans in its stand in the corner of the living room. We used to spend our Friday nights at one bar or another, where I played a gig with my old band. But ever since my back got jacked-up in that car accident, I’m in too much pain to stand and play for hours. We were never living off my pay anyway, but the dream has died. It pains me to see Cindy dust off my Dobro-style Resophonic guitar every week. I love that guitar. Now, I look at her from across the room, at her honeyed tones and burnished edges. I’m lusting to hold her again with the steel resonators and a spider bridge. My lickerish fingers ache to play Paula Lee again.
Cindy is real good about having a fat husband creating a sinkhole in the couch and not doing much more. She is real supportive and drives me to my rehab, cooks my dinners, and works at a Call Center bringing home the bacon. She does it all with a smile. She says I’ll be back on my feet in no time, back to playing the blues on that steel guitar. I know she means well, but I don’t see it happening.
Sunday, my buddy Johnny stops in for a visit. When Cindy goes to the back room to work on her scrap bookin’, Johnny starts in with this story about The Crossroads. He says just outside of Nashville, there is a dirt road that comes along another dirt road about 2 miles up. And there is a legend that if you go out there at midnight with your instrument, you can make a deal with the magic man, the devil.
“What kind of deal?” I say, ’cause Johnny is a good storyteller.
“You can bargain for all the fame and glory that comes with being the best fiddle, guitar, whatever instrument you please, player in the world – for a price.”
“What are you sayin’ Johnny? I should sell my soul to play the steel guitar again.”
“I’m just telling you a story to pass the time. Didn’t you like it?”
“Yeah, It was real good; too bad it’s not true.”
The next Friday night, it’s back to pizza and nail polish remover, punishing my nostrils. ‘Round 10 o’clock Cindy comes to help me to bed, but I tell her I’m not tired yet; to go ahead to bed. I might stay up and watch some of those UFC fights Johnny likes to talk about. After Cindy goes off to bed, I just sit through infomercials and stare at my steel guitar, Paula Lee. She’s named after my high school sweetheart. Clearly, Paula Lee predates Cindy, but Cindy’s cool about it. The way she dusts that guitar I know she loves it and misses the sweet, solemn sounds she use to produce. I fall asleep on the couch dreaming of playing Paula Lee.
On Saturday, I hatch a plan with Johnny. I’m gonna stay up late again, and your gonna pick Paula Lee and me up. We are going to head out to that crossroads. I’m going to make both my women happy again.
It’s 11:08 by the time Johnny gets to the house.
“Man, you’re late.”
“I know. I know. Hurry up and get in.”
We drive in silence until we hit the first dirt road.
“I don’t know about this man. I mean, what if it’s true. I don’t want to meet no devil, “Johnny says.
“What if it’s true? It ain’t gonna be true. I’m just desperate is all. Having you drive Paula Lee and me out here.”
“Should I turn around?”
“Nah, we came this far, and we got a cooler of beer. Let’s go see what’s at the crossroads at midnight.”
“Okay, sounds like a good time to me.”
Before we are ready for it, we are at the crossroads. Johnny pulls in real slow and stops shy of the intersection by about 100 feet.
“Should I leave the lights on or off?” Johnny says, getting nervous.
“I don’t know. Probably off.” And with that, he killed the engines and lights. We just sat quietly in the car for a bit, then Johnny reaches into the backseat and grabs a couple of beers from the cooler. I crack mine open and take a long swig. I clutch Paula Lee between my thighs. It was a quarter to midnight.
“Should we get out of the car?”
“Yeah, I guess we could.”
Leaning against the hood of the car, Johnny and I get to talkin’ and drinkin’. The time passes right by us. Johnny’s in the middle of a story about some blonde he’d met once at the Bourbon Street Blues when a slow, low voice filters out of the fog that came out of nowhere.
“So, you want to make a deal?”
I nearly shit my pants. Johnny runs and gets back in the car and auto-locks the doors. There is a deep, gravelly chuckle.
“I repeat my question. Do you want to make a deal?”
“I can hardly see you.”
“I can come closer.”
His dark blue skin looked metallic, he had pointed ears, and a pitchfork tattoo on his left temple. The tattoo was ornate and other worldly with smoky tendrils that moved and flicked about his face and neck, uneasy snakes about a confident man’s face. His hair was thick and black swept up in a pompadour. His eyes a inky black that dialated at random intervals, no they pulsed with my heartbeat. He was wearing a soft charcoal gray suit. He was broad-shouldered and long-fingered. And he was holding Paula Lee in his large, capable hands.
“I uh, I don’t want to be in pain anymore. I just want to play Paula Lee again.”
“Just. And how would you like to play her? The best, the longest, the most famous? Am I whetting your appetite?”
“What do I have to give you to play Paula Lee the best anyone has ever played the steel guitar? My soul?”
“No, I rarely deal in souls these days. No, what I want is your love.”
“You want me to love you? Worship like?”
“No, I want your true love in exchange for being the world’s best steel guitar player.”
“I won’t give you Cindy.”
“I didn’t ask for Cindy.”
“I won’t give you Paula Lee, neither.”
“I didn’t ask for her.” He says, then plays a fast lick on her strings.
“You can keep Cindy and Paula Lee, but I want your love for Cindy. A true love.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t be thick, man. I give you what you want, and I take away the love you feel for Cindy.”
“That’s not possible.”
“If you want to do business with this magic man, that’s the deal.”
Before I crawl into bed with Cindy, after I have put Paula Lee in her stand, I toss the pain killers in the trash. I look down at my sleeping wife’s face, and I think surely nothing, not even a pact with the magic man, the devil, could take my love away from her. Before I turn out the light, the soft glow shines on Cindy’s face. The scar from a dog bite when she was a child comes into focus. Her brows need to be plucked. I think how we need to get some softer light bulbs in the bedroom.
About the Author:
Leah Holbrook Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where she also earned her M.F.A. Leah’s stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Leah has published short stories in several journals including Connotation Press, Blacktop Passages, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Writing Disorder, Crack the Spine, and more. Learn about her published fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website