Authors: Ace Atkins
“I want you, Blackie, to get naked and put your muff in my face while Blondie over there kisses my lizard,” he said with a thick tongue.
“How about a little smoke first?” Fannie asked.
“Shit, that’s all you whores think about,” he said.
The man rolled off the bed and reached into a flimsy night- stand for a pipe and a plastic Baggie. Next to the radio, he had one of those dumb-ass ceramic baseball statues with the bobbing head next to a picture of an old woman in a casket. Annie licked her lips as he popped a fat rock into the pipe and thumbed the lighter. The sweet orange flame licked the bottom of the glass.
The drunk man took a deep hit, coughed, and lay back into his bed like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. He passed the pipe and a rock to Annie. She wrapped her lips around the glass, lit it, and sucked in deep. She felt the smoke burn through her lungs, into her limbs, and out her toes.
She passed it to Fannie, who burned the last rock in the Baggie. Her partner’s eyes crossed as she inhaled the blue smoke.
Make it all go away. All go away.
Annie could see the amoebas crawl over her eyes and disappear. As she started to float, the man yanked the pipe away from them, pulling the brake on their wild ride. He set it on the bedside table.
Annie slid her hand inside her black leather jacket but Fannie shrugged her off and laughed. Fannie took a wide stance and dropped her vintage letterman’s jacket to the nasty floor. She pulled the red sweater high over her chest, so the little man could see her bra. Then she started slow and deliberate, stroking her long fingers over her tight stomach and around her navel. Her gloved hands moved over her rib cage and up to her breasts.
Annie’s heart felt like it was going to explode.
“Oh baby, that’s the way I want it,” the little turd said. “Keep on with that shit, get them pants off, down to your knees.”
“How “bout another hit?” Fannie asked.
“That was it,” he said, slumping back into his yellowed pillows.
Fannie slipped off her boots and dropped her leather pants. She sat beside the man on the bed, his eyes flitting and darting over her body like some kind of crazed monkey at feeding time. Fannie let the man touch her leg. He was shaking now.
“You too, you too,” he said, looking at Annie with his teeth chattering.
Annie gritted her teeth, pulling off her leather jacket and setting it on a broken kitchen chair. She turned her back to the man, her vision flickering, and tucked Willie into the side of her pants with the handle barely poking from the top. She could feel his sharp coldness on her hip as she walked across the room and closed the curtains above the space heater.
She sat beside Fannie on the bed and waited to get this shit over with.
The man shook like some old fucker as Annie put her arms around Fannie and kissed her neck. For some reason, men always went for that shit. They loved to see two women hot for each other or cat fighting. Showed how damned stupid they were. Too dumb to see they weren’t needed.
“You wanna see it, baby?” Fannie asked.
“Mmm, we want to show you,” Annie said, her vision blurring. “You are just sooo hot.”
The man licked his fingers and ran his hand over his bald spot.
“Over there in the kitchen,” the man said, slightly slurring his words. “I got another rock.”
Annie moved away from the bed and into the kitchen. Under the sink was a box crammed full of more Baggies and two huge packs of pure coke. They felt like bricks in her shaking hands. One was covered in blue plastic wrap and the other in red. All she needed to know.
Back on the bed, Fannie moved her hands to the man’s rod. The little man was rocking now as she moved her gloved hand up his leg. She grabbed hold of his wrists and pulled them over his head. Even at the foot of the bed, Annie could smell his dirty armpits. Fannie yanked the man’s belt from his loose pants and bound him at the wrists.
“Now, now,” he yelled. “Do it. Do it!”
Annie pulled Willie from her pants as Fannie moved to the other side of the bed. Annie jumped on him and traced the blade from his throat to his chest and smiled.
“Stagger Lee said hello.”
“You fucked with the wrong man, mister,” Fannie said, biting a cuticle and spitting it away. “That ain’t your coke.”
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit.”
“Yeah, ‘oh shit’ is right, numb nuts,” Annie said as she stabbed the knife in the center of his chest. His eyes crossed as he mewed and slumped into the pillows. A big O caught on his lips as a red bubble appeared, froze, and then popped.
The cold stung Nick’s face and hands as he stepped onto the Union Station platform with his army duffel bag and great expectations. He buttoned the wool overcoat and pulled a black watch cap down on his head as he exhaled a long stream of smoky breath tainted with whiskey. It was early Thursday morning, December 21, and the booze and tight quarters hadn’t been kind to his old body. He felt sore and stiff as he followed a trail of people into the terminal.
Union Station was like going back about a half-dozen decades. The columns, statues, and wooden benches in the football field-size terminal made travel seem important. The ceiling was an arc of hundreds of glass panes shining bright on a world that still spoke of A1 Capone, men in fedoras and red-lipped women smoking unfiltered Chesterfields.
Chicago. Capital of the blues. A man’s voice reading schedules droned from speakers above.
Nick loved travel. Travel was about hope and the opportunity of adventure—about the only thing he missed from playing football. He remembered the dirty jokes on bumpy airplanes, the two-ton linemen with tiny earphones in their ears bopping to an unheard beat. He liked the camaraderie between the guys— some zealous Christians who recited prayers over the phone while others played with waterguns in the halls of four-star hotels.
He also enjoyed the simple pleasures—the way managers laid out uniforms as if they were armor. Socks perfectly cuffed, pants folded by your pads, and helmet buffed with a tight shine. The money was great, too. He made more money in those few years than he would probably ever make playing or writing about the blues.
But he hated the preparations. The stress. The way the blue-collar fans pelted players with hot dogs and insults when you lost. His asshole coach who tore up a treasured copy of Catcher in the Rye because he was reading too close to kickoff.
The idiot never understood it calmed him.
There was a falseness about playing in the league, a feeling that you were disposable, that you were just sitting in a position being readied for someone else. Average players of the past were not revered. Most aging players, even great ones, were treated with pity, like greyhounds ready to take the needle. Most of the guys Nick knew were now broke. Guys who made a few hundred grand a year now had nothing to show for their time but cracking joints and ruined bodies.
For Nick, the giggling groupies with frosted hair and fake tits disappeared into the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s bottle. He was done anyway. His shoulders couldn’t make it without the cortisone and his head pounded with the monotony. Saints’ fans were wearing paper sacks on their heads and professional football was starting to hold all the promise of a day’s pass to an auto show.
In just a moment of rage, his whole career was gone.
His coach had benched him for most of his last season in favor of the laziest rookie Nick had ever met. When Nick got into a Monday Night Football game and racked up several sacks, the coach took him out again. The rookie had cleaned the dirt from his eye and was ready to go back in. The coach was making decisions not on how to win games but how to please the front office. Something snapped.
But it was worth it, just to see the wide-eyed shock on his coach’s face as he threw him to the Astroturf and dumped the Gatorade on his head. An hour later, he was drunk at JoJo’s and had been there ever since.
Nick looked around the limestone cavern of the station as if he were lost.
Seemed silly now, but he half-expected Kate to be there. JoJo trying to push fate and maybe giving her a call. But she wasn’t. He was unknown wandering through a crowd that didn’t give him a glance. Absolutely anonymous. Maybe it was better that way. Conduct a few interviews with Ruby and get out of town. Leave their past alone. He walked through the marble and gold to Jackson Street. The wind outside felt like ice water flowing into his lungs as he tossed the duffel bag over his shoulder and grabbed a cab to the Palmer House.
An hour and a half later, Nick headed south on Interstate 55, a Styrofoam cup of coffee between his legs and a McDonald’s ham biscuit mashed between his hand and the steering wheel. He had his radio tuned to a public station as he thought about the ways to ask a woman about killing her lover. He thought about the Great Migration, Ruby’s chilling voice, and the little he knew about King Snake Records. Through a haze of clouds the sun burned, white, distant, and alone.
Seventy-one miles outside Chicago, the Dwight Correctional Center stood like a medieval fortress. Didn’t look like a prison. Looked like a mental institution during the Depression or an old college campus. Buildings made of stone with pointed towers. Nick drove his rental car—which resembled a white Tic Tac— into the visitors’ lot and shut off the engine. He finished a cigarette, flicked it into the weeds, and walked inside, passing through various gates and checkpoints.
The halls echoed with bolts popping and buzzers sounding until he was ushered into a sterile room to wait for Ruby Walker. Basic white cinderblock decorated with crooked law enforcement posters. The floor was concrete and the door was metal. No windows. Just the annoying burn of the fluorescent lights above.
Prisons were a part of the blues, the same way railroads and bars emanated with the music. Bukka White was a well-known slide guitarist when he was convicted of shooting a man in 1937. He spent a year at Parchman Prison in Mississippi before meeting Nick’s hero, Alan Lomax. Lomax, the first great blues tracker, recorded White for the Library of Congress.
Lomax also found Leadbelly, who was sentenced to Angola Prison in Louisiana. Leadbelly, the king of the twelve-string, was serving his second term in prison for murder. Impressed by Lead- belly’s powerful voice and knowledge of folk songs, Lomax petitioned the Louisiana governor for a pardon. In 1934, the big man went to work as Lomax’s personal chauffeur.
Nick was also no stranger to the Farm. Over the years, he’d interviewed several prisoners at Angola. A prison meeting was nothing new. He drummed his hands on the table and adjusted the cassette recorder.
After a few minutes of staring at the ceiling, the door opened and a white female guard walked in with a tall black woman. The woman was lanky and rawboned with darting black eyes. She had an oval face with high cheekbones and weathered brown skin. Her gray hair was cut short and it frizzed loose above her ears. She kept her hands in the pockets of her denim jumpsuit as she took a seat.
Nick stood and smiled. He tried to imagine the Sweet Black Angel from the photographs, her hand delicately wrapped around a thick silver microphone, her eyes shut, and her mouth wide open in song. He thought of the slight space between her teeth and the sheen of her skin speaking of smoldering sexuality.
Now she just looked worn. Tired.
Nick sat back down, reached into his coat for a notebook, and fiddled with controls on the recorder. His watch cap and gloves lay on the table. The guard leaned against the wall smacking gum.
“Miss Walker,” Nick said. “Glad to meet you, ma’am.”
Ruby nodded, looked down at the tabletop, and crossed her arms over her chest. It was cold in the room. Felt like a cellar. But her arms over her chest and downturned head showed little excitement. He hoped she didn’t regret the invitation.
“I appreciated your letters,” Nick said, smiling. “Enjoyed every one.”
Ruby wiped her nose with her right hand and stared at the buzzing lights over her head. She shifted in her seat, crossed her arms again, and turned back to Nick. The sound of her stiff denim was briefly interrupted by the guard’s cracking gum.
“So, why’d you choose me?” Nick asked. “After forty years, you could have spoken to anybody.”
“I’ll make sure your story is cataloged into the archive at Tulane. Probably follow up with an article published in a blues history magazine. Several research papers … Ruby?”
She looked back up at the ceiling as if waiting for divine intervention. Seemed more talkative in the letters. Maybe she had trouble being around people.
“I’d like to start at the beginning,” Nick said. “Maybe cover some old ground from what you wrote … Heard you’re a good cook.”
Ruby slowly brought her head down to her chest and raised her eyebrows. She nodded as if seeing Nick for the first time. “Appreciate that,” she said in a rough growl with only a trace of a Mississippi accent. “But with these ingredients, it’s like turnin’ dog shit into chocolate pie.”
Nick laughed. Ruby and the guard didn’t crack a smile.
“Remind me to skip lunch,” Nick said. Still laughing alone.
No one spoke for a few uncomfortable seconds. Nick looked down at his notes. “Tell me more about ‘Lonesome Blues Highway.’ Big hit?”