Author's note: This story is set in a world just sideways of our own, where the heroes of American legends are real. But then again, so are the villains.
"I say," said the tall, black man with the perfect smile. "I say, come along over here and sit a spell. You look plum tuckered out." And he played a little arpeggio on his guitar, which he held like it was a woman he loved.
It was dusk then and the sky was fading from its cotton candy dream color into a deep lavender, dark and low on the horizon like a lady singing blues, and Ted Swanson the securities salesman was grateful to sit down. He took a seat beside that old black man, right in front of the diner, and he loosened his tie. It was a lot damn hotter down south than he'd expected, and a lot lonelier too.
"Where am I?" asked Ted Swanson.
"You in Mississippi, boy."
"Yeah, I know. What town I mean?"
"Not that it rightly matters but you at Route 8, Halfway Diner, next to the Plantation. Ain't got no town name, but that's where you are."
Ted Swanson the securities salesman ran his hands through his thinning brown hair and then put his head in his hands.
"You look like someone who's singin' the blues," the handsome black man said and his fingers ran up the fret board in fourths and fifths. "Tell it, brother."
"Not much to tell. I sold securities. Now there's no one to sell securities to. Ever made a mistake in the banks?" Ted Swanson asked.
"Can't say as I ever had enough money to make mistakes in banks," the black man nodded, "but I imagine it's no good."
"You know the securities are supposed to keep this from happening," Ted Swanson mused. "But there's no such thing as security when it comes down to it. You start losing, the market starts rolling down hill, and it just
just picks you up and carries you down with it."
"Like a big ol' snowball, gatherin' might."
"Kind of like that, yeah." Ted Swanson kicked a rock. "Then you wind up at a nameless crossroads in Mississippi with a broken down car ten miles behind you." He put his head back down in his hands.
"Sing it, brother." The man played a low F chord then resolved in back to C. "And then the dogdonedied," he sang. "Know what the best thing about Mississippi is?"
"No," said Ted.
"No snow," said that man. "No snowballs." And he grinned wide. "What's your name?"
"Ted Swanson. What's yours?"
"They call me Bob. It's short for Robert. But only two people call me Robert, so you call me Bob."
"Nice to meet you, Bob.
Yes, he was handsome, Ted Swanson thought, but he looked sick. All sweaty with his ashy cheeks. The black man called Bob played his guitar softly, and it was nice, soulful blue. Quiet and persistent. It made Ted feel better. It made him relax.
"I know someone could help you," he said. "Give it all back. Give you anything you need, really."
Ted looked sidelong. "I don't want trouble with loan sharks or anything."
Bob laughed and smiled a big white smile. "Oh it ain't anything like that. It's easy, really. Fair trade. No interest."
"Real an' true. Jus' look at me." His fingers tickled the guitar again and it laughed with nickel-plated twangs.
"What do you mean?" Bob had a good smile but a suit as old as the hills. The frayed cuffs came down to some leather shoes that'd been tanned thrice over now. Didn't seem like much to look at, and Ted screwed up his face.
The guitar laughed again under Bob's deft fingers. "Don't look like much," he answered softly, "But I play the gi-tar like a sonnabitch."
And he did then, play that guitar, played it so low and so blue that Ted Swanson felt like it was playing about securities and loss, about how Becky left him with nothing but a purple lipstick mark on her sherry glass and a memory. The guitar sang about the old chevy he left sitting up the road, about the thirteen unanswered messages on his machine at home, all from his accountant, telling him the mortgage really couldn't wait any longer. It sang about the bottom of a deep well where the water is cold, and the empty space inside a heart where a woman had been. Where happiness had been. It sang about security, and how there just ain't no such thing.
"You can lose it all so fast," murmured Ted.
The music stopped because Bob took his magic left hand off the neck and reached out to put it on Ted's knee. Ted was surprised to find his eyes were wet. "Sorry about what you lost," said Bob softly.
From somewhere, maybe just up the road, or around the building, there was a sound, like metal clinking together; stretching, wearing, moving.
"I gotta go," said Bob hastily, and he got up. "Jus' think about what I said. It's a sure bet. I promise you."
Up the road came a man in a duster, and the duster was gray, just like his hat. He kept the brim down over his eyes to shield them from the sun, and kept his hands in his pockets in such a way as to suggest he was keeping something important there. The walk was slow but purposeful, and carried with it the faint sound of metal-wear with every step. Maybe, Ted thought, he had a leg brace or something.
Bob was long gone disappeared completely around the side of the Halfway Diner. The man in the gray duster stopped beside Ted and cocked his head to the side, like a hunting dog catching a slight something on the breeze. Then looked at the empty spot. Ted wiped his eyes, trying to shake that last lingering breath of the song inside him, of that feeling of loss, and he tried not to look at the stranger.
The man in the duster lifted his head and squinted along the now blue horizon, listening in the twilight. "Do you hear that?" he asked.
"Very faint. But it sounds like someone playing the guitar."
"Oh, well, if you're looking for Bob, he was just here " Ted shifted uncomfortably, unsure of this man or why Bob had to hurry off. "But I don't know where he went."
The man in the duster nodded, then looked down at Ted, studying him. His eyes were dark, darker than the duster, and when he looked at Ted, Ted felt heavy, like the gaze was sitting on his forehead and picking inside his brains. He didn't like it.
"It's getting dark," remarked the man. "You alone out here?"
"Oh," said Ted Swanson. He hadn't thought about accommodations, just walking, until he couldn't walk anymore. He supposed it was a lucky thing he found the Halfway Diner just as the sun had started setting. "No, actually. Well I, I, my car broke down and
" he put his head in his hands.
"What's your name?" asked the man.
"Ted," said Ted Swanson, muffled by his hands.
"Come inside, Ted. Dinner's on me." He offered a hand down to help Ted up, and Ted took it, feeling lower and emptier than he had before he got there. In the back of his mind, Bob's song played softly, and it made his heart ache.
The man in the duster held the door. "They call me Tinman."
"Oh," said Ted. He almost said he couldn't imagine why, but that seemed rude.
Tinman didn't say anything.
They sat down at a table, and Tinman ordered a pot pie. The waitress suggested the chitlins since they were a house specialty, but Ted Swanson didn't eat things he could not identify, and opted for a chicken filet instead.
"So," said Tinman, "What brings you here?"
Ted told him the story, same as he had to Bob, and same as Bob's guitar had sang back to him. He tried to hold in the tears. "That's when my car broke down," he finished. "So I started walking."
"Where are you trying to go?"
"I don't know," Ted whispered. And he didn't. That frightened him immensely. He thought about banks and money, and he thought about Becky, too, but all he could conjure up was the sight of her hair fluttering behind her as she went out the door. He didn't say that.
He switched topics. "Why do they call this place the Halfway Diner?" He'd walked down at least ten miles of Route 8, and he didn't see anything the Halfway Diner could reasonably be halfway between.
"Because it's halfway between where you started from and where you get to," Tinman answered plainly. Then the pot pie and the filet came.
They ate silently for the first half, then, chewing slowly and thinking long, Tinman said at long last, "So you talked to old Bob Johnson did you? A word of advice: be careful with the easy way out of things."
Ted looked up and blinked. "What?"
Tinman put down his fork and settled his lead colored eyes on Ted. "There are two ways to do things in this world. You start with a dream, and sometimes you try to cheat and take the easy way up. But in the end, it falls apart. There's no foundation in the easy way. The other way still starts with a dream, but the second half of the battle is hard work. And in my experience, it's never pretty, but it works out alright in the end."
"Who are you?" asked Ted, with his eyes narrowed down.
"Just a concerned citizen."
"Are you a cop?"
"As you like."
Tinman finished his pot pie, but Ted didn't feel so hungry anymore. He felt suspicious and sad.
"Listen. There's beds here. You can stay the night. Then there's a mechanic about another ten miles up the road Dan's Auto. Walk yourself there and you can get him to take your car in for a reasonable fee."
Ted looked forlorn. He only had five hundred in cash with him, and he had no idea what he was going to do when that ran out.
"Don't worry about the room," said Tinman. "On me."
"Where's the bathroom?" Ted asked. He was miserably uncomfortable.
"Out house," Tinman said. "'Round the back."
Through a swing-screen door Ted wandered into the muggy Mississippi night. Something didn't feel right, and he didn't like Tinman, though he was grateful for the dinner. A full, corn moon was on the rise in the sky, bigger than any moon he'd ever seen. He walked towards the silhouette of the outhouse a few yards away.
Bob was leaning on the outhouse, his guitar slung over his back. He looked gaunt and a little bit nervous, but he smiled his big white smile and it showed up bright as the moon in the darkness.
"Sorry I had to run," he said. "I came back to see if you wanted my help."
"I don't know," said Ted. "I don't know what I want."
Soft, yellow light trickled out into the yard as the screen door creaked behind them. Bob's smile disappeared and he took a step back into the shadow.
"Alright. If you reconsider now, you meet me tonight at midnight on the nose, when the moon is full up, out by the crossroads by Dockery Plantation. Just down Route 8. You'll know the place when you see it. Can't miss it."
Bob Johnson was gone then, melted back into the darkness and Ted looked behind him to see the bulky outline of the Tinman standing in the doorway. He slunk into the outhouse, and returned five minutes later.
Tinman offered him a key. "Room 6," he said. "Yours for the night."
"Thanks," said Ted.
"I've got to get moving," Tinman said. Then he pressed his lips into a thin, tight line and regarded Ted with dark eyes. "There are people who don't know how to do anything except destroy other people's dreams because they gave up on theirs. Be careful. Don't let anyone destroy what you have left."
With that he put on his hat, and left through the screen door. Ted stood in the sodium yellow light with a key in his hand and thought, all I have left? Well, that isn't much.
It was a bare room, and the bed springs were tough, but that wasn't what kept Ted Swanson awake. It was a tickling feeling in the pits of him, a feeling of despair rolling around in his stomach, making it hurt, and a pain in his heart where the pieces of his life should have been. Holes shouldn't hurt so much, he thought, but they did, like phantom limbs, they hurt like hell.
Ted got out of his bed and he put on his shoes and his coat. It was his only coat, and his only five hundred dollars were in that pocket. That old blues song Bob had played for him thrummed around his mind again and he sighed a heavy sigh. Talk about dreams was all well and good, but the truth of it was that five hundred dollars would only last him a few days, and then everything, every thing big and small that he'd ever had in his life, would be gone.
Ted headed out the door and his watch read twenty past eleven. He put his hands in his coat pocket and he walked East down route 8, away from where he'd come.
It was a warm, humid night and he wasn't sure why he wanted the coat, except that it made him feel protected and safe. He dug himself into it even though he was sweating, and he walked. Route 8 stretched on, a packed earth path to perdition, stretched on to the big gold corn moon looming up above the horizon. It looked closer than it should. Ted had read a magazine article about it, once, about why the moon could look so close. He forgot the reason, though. Soon enough he was walking easier, humming that old song to himself.
He heard the dog before he saw it, wailing away at the side of the road near an old wooden sign post. In the dark it was hard to make out the words until he got very close, and then the moonlight showed him it was a sign for Dockery Plantation. Beside him in a ditch an old brown dog looked up hopefully, but set its head down again and quivered there when it saw Ted was not its master.
"That dog gone mad," said a voice from behind him.
And there was old Bob Johnson, his guitar still strapped on his back, and he smiled less of a smile than he had before. He laughed. "Didn't know if you'd come. Had me worried. But it's a good thing you done come. Fix your problem right up, he will." He laughed again, but there was tension in it, something hidden there that made his voice sound thin and strange.
Ted Swanson shivered and he wasn't sure then if he wanted fixing right up. He didn't know if he was right to have come. But he didn't have other options. All he could do was come. "Where's your friend?"
"Oh," said Bob, "he'll be along." He looked at his watch. "Any minute now."
The dog whimpered and the wind got colder as the sound of metal wearing came faintly from the dark. "You shouldn't have done it, Robert."
Bob jumped. "Couldn't be helped. You scat now. Y'can't be here." And he edged away from where the Tinman's voice had come.
Faintly outlined from the moon, the Tinman flickered into view on the path, as if he'd sidestepped from the shadows. "Ted, you ought to leave."
"You take off, you old bucket of bolts!" Bob cried.
They started to argue and the dog started to howl, but he was howling at the crossroads, where a dark space was growing. It was dark all around, Ted thought, but this was darker than dark, it was full, blotting, terrible darkness, swallowing darkness, darkness that took. This, thought Ted, was a black hole. But the darkness was forming something; it was swirling, slowly, growing steadily, forming something deep inside it, and the Tinman and Robert Johnson stopped bickering and looked. The dog threw its head back far enough to snap right off, and it howled its lungs out.
"Look, I brought you one, willing as the day is long," said Bob, and his voice was jumping like short notes on a violin. "Deal's a deal, you got your soul."
Ted looked straight into the darkness. It was a comfortable, warm place, and he was safe there. Becky was there. She was sorry she'd left and she kissed him, leaving purple lipstick on his lips. There were no messages from the bank or his accountant and he just knew that everything was fine, because he was at home in his own house that he had bought years ago, twined in Becky's arms. And they lay down on the new white sheets overtop the bed and kissed again.
He was happy.
"Don't do it," Becky said.
Ted Swanson blinked.
"Don't do it!" said the Tinman. "Robert, stop this!"
Robert Johnson was looking at the ground with his hands to his head. Ted blinked. He felt sleepy.
"Ted?" Becky called. "Teddy bear?" He looked back to her, back into the darkness, searching for her.
"Robert, don't do this again! You can do the right thing," called the Tinman.
Robert too was staring into the darkness, his long, dark fingers trailing over the strap of his guitar. He was crying. "Deal's a deal," he said. "My guitar for a soul."
"It's always one more, every moon. When's it gonna end?" asked the Tinman.
"You don't know," Bob said.
Ted took a step forward, because he felt sleepy, and the bed looked inviting to sit down on.
"Ted!" called that husky, metal-worn voice. "Stay still. Robert, you've got to do something!"
"I can't," Robert sobbed.
"Listen to me. He lost his wife. You know how that feels. He lost his woman, just like you. Ask yourself, are you happy, Robert? Did this take it all away?"
Robert shook and he covered his eyes.
"He doesn't have to end up like you. He shouldn't pay for your mistake. You don't have to stay captive to this any longer. Just do it, Robert. Do the right thing!"
"I'm so tired," murmured Robert Johnson. "So tired of this."
There was a moment when the howling dog and the yelling and the roar of the darkness coming went soft. Something deep and dark was taking a big breath. Ted drifted. Becky, he thought, I'm coming home.
Bob stepped forward up to Ted and said to him, "Won't bring your woman back to you, goin' to him. Trust me. You'll know it's not her. He never can get 'em right."
He shoved Ted aside and Ted stumbled into the ditch. His eyes snapped opened and he saw the darkness opening up like a great big mouth, opening up wide to swallow something whole. And he didn't see Becky or his house or his security. He hunkered down, trembling, and he watched.
"Ok, Devil," said Robert Johnson. "Time to pay you your due." He took off his guitar as the darkness yawned up over him in a great wave. The Tinman sprinted back off the road in a scramble, and Ted threw up his hands. But old Robert Johnson just got down on his knees. He looked up to the sky and said, "Save poor Bob, if you please."
Crash came the darkness, and it swallowed him up. Swallowed him whole, and the crossroads was quiet and empty, save for the guitar lying sedately in the center.
A few crickets chirped and the old Mississippi road didn't seem to know anything had passed over it. Shaking like a leaf, Ted Swanson, securities salesman, crawled out of the ditch he'd been hiding in and looked all around him. The dog slunk out next to him, and looked much the same.
With a clank and a creak the Tinman came cautiously to the crossroads and he looked at the guitar. Nothing stirred. The crickets kept up their orchestra practice. The moon was high and white and the size it should have been.
Ted crept to the crossroads and the Tinman took the guitar up and over his back with a frown.
"Did he just--?"
"Yeah," said the Tinman.
They both stared at the guitar.
"What will happen to it?" Ted asked.
"I'll take it to someone who knows about these things," said the Tinman.
They regarded one another for a moment.
"Who are you?" asked Ted.
"I told you already."
Ted thought he understood. "I saw my wife," he said quickly. "
"I had guessed that you did."
"What did you see?"
At this the Tinman smiled sadly. "Nothing. Hard to see your heart's desire when you haven't got a heart." He tapped his chest.
Then he looked around himself. He looked at the open fields, and at the star studded sky. "What do I do now?"
"Don't let the experience, or Robert, go to waste," said the Tinman, more gently than before. "start walking."
"I've only got five hundred dollars," Ted said miserably. "And no car."
"Find your road, and it will provide."
"What road? What do you mean?"
"Where you're meant to go, of course."
"Oh," said Ted. "How do I know where to go?"
The Tinman shrugged. "Some roads are yellow brick and some are dirt paths running down to a Mississippi bayou, and some are nice and paved, some are full of holes. But you'll know it's yours when you see it."
Ted nodded thoughtfully. That made sense. "Will I see you again?" he asked the Tinman.
"Someone like me," he answered. "It's entirely possible." He turned to go. Over his shoulder he said, "Good luck." And he started off into the fields.
"Hey, wait!" called Ted. "
thank you." But only the wind answered him.
By his side the dog whined. Ted sighed and he patted its head. They were alone at the crossroads. Ted had an old coat with five hundred dollars in it, and the feeling deep inside him that he had something left to lose. He looked right, and he looked left, and then he started walking straight with the dog trotting at his heels.