Cross Roads Blues
The first time Turner heard Robert Johnson play was to a
vast crowd in Washington, D.C., December 5th 1945, the night the desegregation
bill went through, and just three weeks before Johnson was assassinated.
The second time was on what was supposed to be a routine archive trip,
June 3rd 1937, a jook joint just outside the little Mississippi town
of Tallula, and it was something else.
Afterwards, Turner hung around outside, an anonymous still point in
the crowd that, slow as molasses, dispersed into the hot dark night.
The music still thrilled in his blood. Songs he had known only as ghosts
in the crackle of a few badly worn 78s or no more than titles in charred
files from the fire-bombed office of an obscure record company had one
after the other ripped through the heat and noise of the crowded jook
joint, so much sound from one man and one guitar, driving the whoops
and pounding feet of the dancers, that Turner doubted his state-of-the-art
Soviet recorder had been able to capture one tenth of the reality. Turner
had once played a little guitar himself, enough to know that what the
old bluesmen said about Robert Johnson was true. Even before the New
York concerts, the years in prison on a trumped-up murder charge, his
letters and his protest songs, the Freedom Marches and the Segregation
Riots, near-canonization after his assassination, he had been the best
of them all.
The hard little capsule planted under the skin beneath Turner's collarbone,
where the grain of Americium hung suspended in its Oppenheimer pinch,
tingled. He should have cut out and closed the Loop when Robert Johnson
had finished his set. Get in, do the job, get out. Don't give the paradoxes
any chance. But Turner had heard raw truths in Johnson's songs; for
the first time since he'd been brought home after the Peace Corps had
been disbanded, he felt alive again. Before he closed the Loop, he wanted
to meet the man whose music had cut him deep.
The sandy yard and dark road in front of the jook joint were empty
now; only Turner and three men sitting on the sagging porch were left.
The men, all in various degrees of drunkenness, were passing around
a chipped enamel jug in the yellow light of a couple of kerosene lanterns,
talking in low voices and glancing sidelong at the stranger in the dark
suit (it hung oddly around Turner, and the suspenders which held up
the trousers were gouging his shoulders), clean white shirt (soaked
in sweat), and polished two-tone shoes (which pinched like hell). He
strolled over to them, casual as he could, wondering if one of them
was the man whose recollections about Robert Johnson, told to a field
researcher in some twenty years time, had brought him here. His pulse
in his throat, his mouth dry, he asked where Robert Johnson was.
One of them said, "He out back somewhere."
Another added, "With a woman. Comes to women, Bobby Johnson's
like a snake in a henhouse."
The third wanted to know who was asking. Turner gave his cover story
of being a talent scout, named a large New York record company. It was
sort of true.
The man, burly and barechested under bib overalls, fixed a mean look
on Turner. "Never heard of no gentleman of colour working for no
record company before."
"Bobby Johnson, he already done got himself a deal," the
first man said. He was the oldest of the three, his face a map of wrinkles
like drying mud, his eyeballs yellow as ivory, his nappy hair salt and
pepper. He peered at Turner and said, "You got yourself seventy-five
cents, Mr New York, you can walk into Mr Willis's dry goods store tomorrow
and buy a record of his 'Terraplane Blues'."
The second man, skinny and mournful, said, "I heard he been on
the radio in Detroit, singin spirituals. Shit, he been round this country
a couple three times now."
"Race records are a big thing in New York," Turner said,
already in deeper than he'd intended. "That's why we're very interested
in Robert Johnson."
"What they know bout the blues in New York?" the old man
said. "You go tell your boss that down here is the rightful home
of the blues, no place else. Why, I play harmonica myself. I get the
blues real bad sometimes."
The mournful man said, "Bobby Johnson, he got 'em worse of all."
"He got a mojo hand, no mistake," the old man said, and
drank from the enamel jug and smacked his lips.
"They say ol Legba gave the boy a lesson in the blues, in exchange
for his soul," the mournful man said, and there was a hush as if
an angel had passed overhead.
The old man took another drink and said, "Well I don't know if
that be true, but I do know one time Bobby Johnson couldn't play a lick
to save himself. I got the story straight from Son House. Bobby Johnson,
he could play harmonica right enough, but he was always fixin after
playin gitar. Hung out every joint and dance and country picnic there
was, pesterin the players to give him a chance, but he was so bad it
wasn't even funny. Anyway, he went away maybe a year, and I don't know
if he went to the crossroads with ol Legba or not, but Son House told
me when he came back he was carryin a gitar, and asked for a spot like
old times. Well, Son was about ready to take a break, and told Bobby
Johnson to go ahead and got himself outside before the boy began. But
that time it was all changed. That time, he tol me, the music he heard
Bobby Johnson make put the hair on his head to standin."
It had the air of a story told many times. There was a silence, and
then the mournful man said, "He near to burnt down the place tonight,
and that's the truth."
The old man said, "Son House tol me Bobby Johnson tol him a man
called Ike Zimmerman taught him how to play, but what truth's in that
I don't rightly know."
Turner, whose first name was Isaac, felt an airy thrill.
The burly man in the bib coveralls hauled himself to his feet, using
as a support one of the posts that propped up the corrugated tin roof
that sloped above the porch. He pointed at Turner and said, "You
fools tell this stranger whatever's on your minds, an you don't know
who he is."
"He tol you he scouting talent, Jake," the old man said.
He told Turner, "You come on down to Mr Willis's dry goods store
tomorrow, Mister New York, I show you stuff on the harmonica you ain't
never before heard."
"He ain't no scout," the burly man said. "He got the
look of the law about him." He came down the steps towards Turner,
a mean glint in his eyes.
"I'm just passing through," Turner said, and raised his
hand to his chest, ready to collapse the Oppenheimer Pinch if he had
"Don't pull no gun on me," the burly man said, half-angry,
half-fearful, and swung clumsily at Turner and turned halfway around
and sat down with comic suddeness.
The door of the jook joint opened. Yellow light fell across the yard.
A slightly-built man in a chalk-stripe suit stepped out, a guitar slung
across his back, a fedora tilted on his head. It was Robert Johnson.
He looked directly at Turner and said, "Why, Isaac. You come back.
I always wondered if you would."
Robert Johnson soon disengaged himself from the three hangers-on,
refusing a drink from the enamel jug but somehow acquiring a crumpled
pack of cigarettes. He took a long swallow from a half-pint bottle of
whiskey he took from his jacket pocket, and passed it to Turner. The
bootleg whiskey was as raw as his songs. Turner managed not to cough,
passed the bottle back, and Robert Johnson took another swallow and
lit a cigarette and held it jauntily in the corner of his mouth. "Well
all right," he said with satisfaction, and exhaled a riffle of
They stood in the warm dark, looking at the lights of the little town
across a rough pasture where the unfathomable codes of fireflies winked
on and off amongst the weeds.
Robert Johnson said, "When I saw you back there, Ike? Thought
for a moment I'd been wrong all along about who you were. Thought you
were the devil after all, come for my poor soul."
He spoke with the grave care of the profoundly drunk, although he
didn't look drunk at all.
"I'm not who you think I am," Turner said.
"You're not no devil, that for sure. Never forgot what you taught
me, Ike, and never did figure out why you did it. One of the boys on
the porch said you were a talent scout. That just a line you spinnin,
or you in some other business now?"
"I just came to hear you play."
"I was good, wasn't I?"
"Better than I'll ever be."
"I learnt a lot from you, Ike, and I'm still learning. That barrelhouse
shake-up ain't nothing to my best. I got stuff that'll put some real
upset in your backbone. Tomorrow, when I'm not so drunk as I am now,
I want to play them for you."
There was nothing Turner would have liked better. He said, "I
have to move on tonight."
"Yeah? Maybe I come along with you."
"That really isn't possible."
"It ain't?" Robert Johnson looked sideways at Turner when
he didn't reply. "I guess you don't have to tell me where you goin
or where you been. You look good though, Ike. Not a year older. Me,
I been through some bad times and some good times. I lost me two good
women and a baby, I travelled all over this land like a vagabond, I
been in jail, I been ridden out on a rail, but I got my singing put
down on record, and I'm fixin now to be famous."
"I heard some of it in your songs."
"Got to tell it in my songs. Got no other way."
Robert Johnson drew on his cigarette. His fingers were so long they
seemed to run back to his wrist. Under his sharply creased suit, his
white shirt was open down to his navel. He looked both easy and dangerous.
He said, "I get to thinkin sometimes that there's somethin missing
in them, maybe I need to make the beat better. Not just louder, but
more insistent. I remember when I was a little kid, down around Banks,
the cotton fields there? Way the croppers sang the old worksongs as
they picked. I try to put that in, but my ol gitar ain't enough."
Turner shrugged. He was inside something so deep he didn't know which
way was up.
Robert Johnson laughed. "I guess them ol days are gone, teacher.
I guess I got to figure my own way now. But it's hard, you know? Sometimes
the days just run by me, it seems, can't seem to catch hold of anythin
"Your songs will last," Turner said. It was true, but the
none of the songs Robert Johnson had sung tonight were the songs he'd
be remembered for.
"Maybe so." Robert Johnson said it softly, and exhaled a
last riffle of smoke into the dark air. He took a swig of whiskey and
said, "You heard I got recorded? It could happen again, if I can
get me to Dallas in a couple of weeks."
"You'll be there."
Turner's colleague, Bill Frankel, would be there too, aiming his equipment
at a warehouse room above a Buick showroom that had been made over into
a makeshift recording studio.
There was the sound of a car approaching, muffled in the humid night
air; off across the dark fields, headlights pricked the night. Someone
on the jook joint's porch said, "Shit, here comes ol Sheriff Wiley,
looking to see if we wants trouble."
"I have to go," Turner said. The last thing he needed was
a policeman asking him what he was doing with a tape recorder that wouldn't
be built for thirty years.
"Believe I'll fade too," Robert Johnson said. "Real
nice seein you this one more time, Ike, and I'm wonderin if you can
help me out here. I got so busy with a lady friend I missed gettin paid,
I'll have to wait til mornin, and I done spent the money people put
in my gitar on this good whiskey we shared. Meanwhile me and my lady
friend are lookin for a room to stay, only we lacks the necessary you
Turner gave Robert Johnson all that was left of the little
money he'd been issued and walked a little way into the dark field and
used his magnet to disrupt the Oppenheimer pinch. The flash decay of
the grain of Americium caught inside the pinch, an element that wouldn't
exist until it was created by the Fermi Lab's cyclotron in the late
'50's, was the hook by which the Loop machinery reeled him back from
still-segregated mid-Depression Mississippi to 1963.
Washington, D.C., early spring, the Potomac pewter in rain-dulled
light, cold rain drifting across the Mall's acres of grass, hanging
heavy on the blossoms of the cherry trees and clinging to uniforms of
the marching bands that were practising beneath them. Nearly thirty
years separated the ends of the Loop: it might have been a thousand.
In 1963 there were two African Americans in the Supreme Court, a dozen
in the Senate, more than fifty in Congress. The president of Harvard
was African American; so was the Secretary of the Interior and the commander
of the US Army Air Force Corps. And the first African American President,
Adam Clayton Powell, was in the White House. Hastily sworn in on a plane
a year ago, after Kennedy had been shot at the beginning of his campaign
at a second term, all his dreams of a newer stronger America, an America
that finally would count in the world, spilling out with his brains
on the tiles of that kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel while his widow
knelt over him in a cross-fire of flashguns. Powell was a good man,
no question, and the first African American President counted for something
anyway you looked at it. But Powell was more interested in expanding
the Welfare and Federal Work programme budgets than the international
scene. Kennedy's finest legacy, the Peace Corps, had been suspended
-- feed our brothers and sisters in Harlem, in Watts, in Roxbury, white
and black and coffee-coloured, and their children will be strong enough
to really help the world, Powell had said -- and that was what had brought
Turner back from the refugee camps in Madagascar to his old job as a
Loop rider, held open for him since he'd dropped out two years before.
Most of Turner's friends thought that he spoke out against Powell's
policies because he resented the disbanding of the Peace Corps; only
a few knew that he had always been an interventionist, that his father
had died in Mexico in '49 during the disintegration of the support of
the Christian Democrat guerillas against the Marxist government, twenty
thousand Americans lost and Turner's father one of them. America had
a chance to become a world power during the Mexican revolution and had
blown it, and now it looked like it would never come round again. For
all her size and wealth, America was a sleepy backwater compared to
the British Empire or the Communist Axis. Powell seemed set on making
sure that was all she ever would be.
Turner deposited his recordings and underwent debriefing with Bill
Frankel and the rest of the team. He didn't mention that he had waited
to meet Johnson, and never talked to anyone about that mysterious encounter.
Robert Johnson had known him, yet before that moment they had never
met. It could be that later on Turner would Loop to some earlier part
of the singer's life, but there was no point in worrying about the way
the future could tangle with the past, and so Turner tried to set the
mystery aside. If it had happened it would happen, that was the way
it was, no use brooding over it.
Spring wore into summer. Turner Looped to pre-earthquake San Francisco
to gather data for someone studying immigration patterns and interracial
tensions, got beaten up by a gang of Chinese, and was put on light duties
while he recovered. But he chaffed at doing background work in the Smithsonian's
musty stacks. He was a rider, not a historian, and besides, the old
restlessness which had prompted him to join the Peace Corps had been
awakened by Robert Johnson's music. So he took a month's vacation and
spent it at the family farm, mowing the fields which his stubborn but
frail mother really should give up. When he came back, the first person
to knock on his office door was Bill Frankel, bearing half a dozen LP
records. They were the transcribed recordings of early period Robert
Johnson, Turner's own jook joint recording amongst them.
The LPs were newfangled '33's, and Bill Frankel had a little trouble
setting up the record player he'd brought along to play them. A wiry
man the same age as Turner, with a shock of prematurely grey hair, he
had been promoted to team leader while Turner had been with the Peace
Corps, and was still unsure how to treat his old colleague. He hardly
said a word as he fussed with the balance of the player's complicated
tone-arm, and Turner smoked two cigarettes and looked out of the window
at the office workers sunbathing away their lunch break on the Mall's
browning grass, suddenly and unaccountably nervous.
"I think we're about ready," Frankel said at last. "All
in all it turned out very well, except for the attempt to bug the second
"You used what, infrared vibratometry?"
"The first time it was fine. The second, 1937, drapes were drawn
across the windows to keep out the noise of the traffic, and the sound
was too muffled for anything but lyric transcription. Columbia want
to put out some of the recordings, did I tell you that?"
"Really? That's good, Frankel. Who gets the money?"
"Not me, unfortunately. The Smithsonian, and Robert Johnson's
relatives. I have a release I need you to sign later. But now: hush."
Crackle and hiss, the sudden loud noises of a crowd, handclaps and
foot stamping, a fiercely-strummed guitar sounding like a barrelhouse
piano and slapped bass all in one, a strong high clear voice carrying
over this furious rhythm, singing about feeling around on the floor
for his shoes, feeling he got those old walking blues.
And Turner was back in the jook joint with its garish murals animated
by the reeling light of kerosene lanterns that swayed above the bobbing
heads of the dancers, standing at the front of the feverish crowd, watching
Robert Johnson in his shirt-sleeves, eyes closed as he sang and hollered,
slashed and hammered at his guitar. He came to himself only when his
forgotten cigarette stung his fingers and he dropped it on the office's
Robert Johnson's first session of that lost night, more than twenty
minutes long, took up all of one side of the LP.
Bill Frankel smiled as he flipped the black disc over. "He was
something else, right?"
"Oh yes...." And Turner said no more; Bill Frankel had lowered
the needle to the groove, and Robert Johnson sang out again.
Columbia Records issued an LP set of Robert Johnson's early
songs. Turner bought it and played and replayed it, played the lost
songs back to back with the familiar protest songs on which Johnson
had built his fame, the songs which had helped lay the ground for desegregation,
the songs hundreds of thousands had sung in unison on Freedom Marches
across America, the songs half a million people had sung on the Mall
in Washington, D.C. the night the bill for desegregation had gone through.
Turner had been six years old. His father had lifted him on to the wide
shoulders of his Army greatcoat, where he had swayed above a sea of
packed heads receding into darkness and sleet flurries towards the high
stage from which Robert Johnson's steely voice rang out...and the next
year Turner's father had gone to Mexico and vanished there.
Turner played the lost songs again and again, brooding over them in
his two-room apartment, sometimes lost in memory, sometimes trying to
figure out why they sounded so much more powerful than the later works.
There was the driving beat, and the way Johnson sounded like two or
three people playing at once, but that wasn't it, or wasn't it entirely.
There was something else, some vital spark the protest songs lacked.
A directness, a human nakedness. If the protest songs had relied on
familiarity as much as their message (and how many on the crowd that
night had dwelt on the words as they sang with Robert Johnson, him elevated
on a high stage, alone in crossed spotlights) how much better would
they have sounded if they had the passion of the younger Johnson's songs
of failed love and lost salvation?
Einstein had said that it was impossible to change the past, that
time's arrow was set in only one direction, fixed and invariant. You
did not change the past when you visited it, but became part of its
preordained pattern. And no one doubted Einstein, or at least officially,
for otherwise the Loop facility would not have been built. But there
were plenty of rumours amongst the Loop riders that inadvertent changes
had been made, that some small change could tip the momentum of the
past into a new course: why else were precautions so stringent, training
for the Loop so elaborate? While Turner played and replayed those lost
songs, he dreamed of a world where Robert Johnson turned to protest
early in his career, becoming part of a movement that urged to enter
the war in Europe and help defeat the Nazis, or at least gave her the
resolve for a full commitment to the counterrevolution in Mexico. No
debacle, perhaps a world role after all. It was possible. After all,
he'd met someone who had changed the world, and hadn't that meeting
It might have remained a dream, if a group of dissident musicians
in Britain hadn't taken up those lost songs, and made them into something
Before the year was out, the four members of the group, the Quarrymen,
were the most famous men in Britain. They called themselves rock and
rollers. Two guitarists, an electric bass player, and a drummer, belting
out a crude but vigorous mutation of the rhythm and blues that had been
popular in Chicago before the Marches. The music caught fire in the
hearts and minds of Britain's disenfranchised youth. For all the British
Empire's solidity, for all its wealth, there were millions of unemployed
in the Mother country itself, out of work and on the dole because South
African and Indian slave labour was so cheap. The Quarrymen's mutated
blues articulated their grievances. There were riotous scenes at Quarrymen
concerts, and a dozen imitations sprang up to be idolised in turn: Blues
Incorporated; Blues by Six; the High Numbers (who quickly changed their
name to the Who); Little Boy Blue and the Blues Boys (who just as quickly
became the Mannish Boys).
In the States, British rock and roll was available only on incredibly
expensive imported discs, but Turner bought everything, even got hold
of a bootleg tape of a Quarrymen concert: the audio quality was incredibly
poor and the band's playing was all but drowned by the screaming of
their fans, but he heard again the electric rawness that he'd responded
to when he'd heard Robert Johnson singing in the jook joint outside
Tallula. If this transatlantic facsimile could wake Britain's lost generation
and begin a cultural revolution that the British government was powerless
to stop (too slow to stamp out the movement at birth, its random banning
of concerts now seemed petty and foolish), what could the original do?
Turner hunted out his old guitar, and knew why Robert Johnson had recognised
him that time.
There were only a few times and places where Turner could
be sure of meeting the young, untutored Robert Johnson. He lucked out
on the first, outside a little town east of Robinsonville in Mississippi,
on a humid Saturday afternoon in August 1930.
Someone had thrown a rent party at their shack. It stood on a gullied
rise above a sweep of cotton fields, one of dozens straggling along
a dirt road: a tin roof, unpainted clapboard walls raised on bricks
to keep the termites out. It had rained earlier and promised to rain
again, and the shack was packed out; people spilled over the porch,
stood around on the muddy ground while Willie Brown and Son House played
inside. Others clustered under the big shade tree hung with kerosene
lanterns, where hootch was being sold and a mess of pigs' feet was stewing
in a big black kettle.
Turner sat on damp grass a ways off. His guitar was with him, in a
canvas sack. He'd seen a young Robert Johnson go inside the shack an
hour before, knew he'd soon come out humiliated, after having borrowed
a guitar from Son House and made a fool of himself. Turner had verified
the story from House himself.
He'd been there all day, had plenty of time to wonder at what he was
doing. The Loop operator, a friend of Turner's, had been easy enough
to bamboozle, but Turner knew that the altered destination would show
up in the records. Right at that moment he didn't care. He was here
to teach Robert Johnson how to rock and roll. He was here to remake
history into something better.
He was so keyed up that he had to keep going off in the bushes to
take a leak, and he almost missed the moment when Robert Johnson came
down the steps, shouldering through the people with his head down, his
swagger broken-backed. Buttoning his fly, Turner picked up his guitar
and headed after the young man as he set off down the red clay road.
The road curved around the edge of an untidy cemetery; Turner cut
through the crowd of leaning crosses. It was twilight, and the sky was
heavy with purple clouds; a storm was rolling in from the south like
an omen. The road was crossed by another at the cemetery's far corner,
and it was there that Turner caught up with Robert Johnson, meeting
him beneath an old magnolia tree just as the first heavy drops of rain
began to fall.
Four weeks went by, mostly on the road, as Turner taught
the young Robert Johnson the hard-driving rhythmic techniques he had
heard his older counterpart use. Turner was careful to use only old
standards in his teaching, for where would the songs come from if Robert
Johnson learned something Turner had heard him play? The origin of Turner's
adopted name was enough to give him a headache. He called himself Isaac
Zimmerman, of course, because that was the name of Johnson's legendary
teacher. But who had chosen the name? There was a very young, very obscure
white folk singer by that name in Turner's own time...but Turner had
only found that out because he'd been trying to trace Robert Johnson's
mythical teacher, not realising that all the time he was on the track
But there was little time to wonder about metaphysics. While Turner
taught him how to play blues guitar, nineteen-year-old Robert Johnson
taught Turner how to ride the blinds. You could hitch a ride to almost
anywhere on the railroad, Robert Johnson said, except Alabama. He refused
to go there; he said that it was the land of death.
It seemed half the nation was on the move in those dog days of the
Depression, but even in the hobo jungles, alongside railroad tracks,
in boggy hollows, in junk-filled clearings in shabby suburban woods,
there were always at least two campfires burning, separate gatherings
of black and white. Turner and Robert Johnson sang for their supper,
and sometimes white men would hang at the edges of the black encampment,
transfixed by the music -- but it was not they who fed the musicians.
Four weeks. It was not enough time. Turner managed to teach Robert
Johnson the rudiments of his craft, but although the young man was an
avid pupil, practising twelve hours a day until his extraordinarily
long fingers bled on the strings of the Gibson guitar (which had been
Turner's father's, who at that moment was alive and not yet married,
and, strange to think, younger than Turner himself), he was still only
a shadow of what he would become.
Robert Johnson knew how much he had to learn, and sometimes he would
weep in frustration, but he played on while the tears ran down his cheeks,
driven by a passion that awed Turner. At nineteen he'd lived through
more than men three times his age: he'd had three stepfathers; his wife
had died in childbirth. He burned to redeem something from that world
of hurt. If only there was enough time, Turner knew he could teach him
the brutal rhythms that drove the rock and roll of the Quarrymen; but
there was not enough time.
They rode a boxcar into the Big Easy, and Turner spared a few of his
antique dollars to pay a week's rent on a room. There was no furniture
but a couple of mattresses and a broken chair, and flying roaches big
as sparrows emerged after sundown, whirring into walls and smashing
into the glass of the lantern. Bobby Johnson was beginning to master
his craft, but the city held too many distractions. One night Turner
came back to the room to find Bobby and the guitar gone; the young man
turned up the next day and admitted he'd pawned the Gibson to get enough
money to afford a night in a cathouse.
"I got needs, Mr Zimmerman," he said, his face averted in
shy shame, his narrow shoulders hunched. "I got needs same as any
man I guess, but sometimes they're just plain stronger than me, and
that's the truth."
He was so comically contrite that although Turner was angry he easily
forgave the boy. It wasn't a matter of money -- Turner carried a dozen
gold rings ready for pawning when the need arose -- it was the waste
of time. He redeemed the ticket on the guitar and told Bobby Johnson
he'd done enough practising. It was time he tried working a streetcorner
solo, playing the guitar instead of the mouth-harp with which he had,
until now, accompanied Turner.
So Robert Johnson made his professional debut as a blues guitarist
on a corner of Canal Street in the middle morning of a hot heavy September
day. Turner hung about in a storefront across the street, watched the
small crowd gather, heard snatches of Bobby Johnson's hard-edged but
trembling tenor above the chugging of passing automobiles, the rattle
of streetcars. Mostly, the boy stayed close to the small repertoire
he'd established, from old time blues like "Heart Made of Stone"
and "Stack O'Lee" to newer numbers like "Pony Blues"
and "Birmingham Jail", making a stab at a couple of Bing Crosby's
latest hits along the way. But a couple of lines floating through the
gap between a streetcar and a Model T raised the hairs on the back of
Turner's neck, Bobby Johnson singing about a kindhearted woman who studied
evil all the time, a stray verse from Robert Johnson's late repertoire,
ringing out clear in the muggy heat of that New Orleans morning. It
drew Turner from his doorway to the kerb, his heart lifting. And someone
pushed through the crowd towards him: it was Bill Frankel, looking incredibly
young in a seersucker suit and a wide-brimmed boater, saying, "Come
on now, Isaac, I believe it's time to go."
"I'm not done here," Turner said. He was trembling, he didn't
know if it was fear or shock. "He isn't much beyond being a good
blues singer, and he has to be something else."
"You haven't changed anything yet, Isaac, and we're taking you
back before you can. I don't know what you were planning, but it can't
be allowed to work."
"If you've been here a while you'll know why," Turner said.
He talked too fast, stumbling over words. He knew this would be his
only chance to explain himself. "Here and now I'm just another
nigger. I could get thrown in jail, just talking to a white man like
you here on the street. What I'm doing is bringing the end of segregation
closer, ten years ahead of time. When I'm done with Robert Johnson he'll
be singing in Carnegie Hall all right, but in just one or two years
from now, not ten. And then, when the European War comes, America won't
be caught up in civil unrest over desegregation. That'll be over, and
everyone will be able to move forward together, help America find its
place in the world!"
"America has its place," Frankel said. "And they won't
be ready for Robert Johnson in New York until they are ready.
Nothing you can do can change that. It's time to close your Loop. More
Turner felt something fly out of him. "I don't suppose you're
Frankel's glasses flashed full of sunlight as he shook his head. "Don't
make me call them, Isaac. Let me do this for you."
Frankel steered Turner back into the doorway. He had a magnet in his
hand. Just before he clapped it over Turner's Oppenheimer pinch, Turner
looked back for a last glimpse of Robert Johnson. But a streetcar was
rattling by, and he couldn't even hear the last of the boy's song.
There was a trial, but it was held in camera, and nothing
got out to the press. Turner was sentenced to ten years and served his
time in an open prison. It wasn't too bad; he adjusted to it with a
Loop rider's ease. That's what Loop riders mostly were, not historians
or physicists but actors, chameleons. He worked on the farm and had
a cell to himself, there was TV and a gymnasium, and the library was
well-stocked. Most of the prisoners were white-collar offenders, spiced
with a sprinkling of political prisoners from the bad old days when
Hoover had tried to bring down Kennedy. Mostly lesser minions -- Hoover
and his inner circle were brooding in the high security Army base in
Alaska -- but there were two of the notorious 'electricians' who had
bugged Kennedy's rendezvous with Marilyn Monroe a few hours before his
assassination, which ill-conceived revelation had caused Monroe's suicide
and finally brought Hoover down.
Turner kept his nose clean and got out after only five years. It was
1969. His mother had died six months ago; he'd attended the funeral
in handcuffs. The one-time movie actor Ronald Reagan was in the White
House after a landslide victory over Adam Clayton Powell, who in his
second term had been discredited by a string of sex scandals. The Soviet
Republics had made good Kruschev's boast of landing men on the moon
before the decade was out. The Quarrymen had just split up after their
second tour of the States. Lennon had taken up with a Japanese avant
garde artist and had moved to New York and applied for American citizenship;
he said that he was tired of revolution, and that the States was as
good a place for retirement as Eastbourne. On the same spring day that
Turner was released from prison, a general election in Britain returned
the first Labour government in forty years; the day after his victory,
the pipe-smoking premier was photographed backstage at a rock and roll
concert, shaking hands with Paul McCartney and the members of the Mannish
Boys and the Who.
The next day, Turner was sitting in a plush steak restaurant in Alexandria,
the neatly preserved Colonial suburb of Washington, D.C., talking to
an earnest, newly-minted Army captain.
The captain came to the point after they had been served coffee. "We're
very interested what you tried to do, Mr Turner. We believe it has great
potential. If you can help us, we can help you. You're still a trained
Loop rider. You can operate in the field. You know the era." Which
in his rich mid-Western twang he pronounced 'error'.
"Are we talking about the 1930's?"
"We certainly wouldn't want you to go back further than that.
There's enough potential for paradoxes already."
The captain had small, deep-set green eyes and a boyish crew cut.
His gaze was candid, and his manner was disarmingly frank, but all the
same Turner sensed a certain disingenousness. He sipped his cappuccino,
enjoying the tang of sprinkled nutmeg, waiting for the man to get to
the point. He'd learnt to be patient in prison.
The captain said, "You're not the first person to try to use
the Loop in the way you did. To our knowledge there were at least three
other unsuccessful attempts."
Turner tried to hide his spark of excitement. "What did they
try to do?"
"None of them were as subtle as you. One wanted to change the
outcome of the Civil War by building tanks for the Confederacy. He got
as far as showing Lee his plans, but fortunately Lee thought he was
a madman. And then they caught up with him and closed his Loop."
The captain leaned closer. "We don't condone freelance efforts,
you understand, but we do think that use of the Loop for nothing more
than historical research is an absolute waste of a unique and powerful
resource, one we have been trying to exploit since its development.
Einstein made a big deal of saying that God does not play dice with
the Universe, but he knew that the Loop could be used as a weapon; so
did Slizard and Oppenheimer, and they made darn sure that it wouldn't
be. It's our edge over the rest of the world, and it is used by academics
for trivial reasons. A terrible waste. Ideally, we'd send troops back
to Mexico, turn the war right around, but the power expenditure makes
it impossible. What you wanted to do, though, now that was interesting."
Mexico. Of course they would know about his father. Turner said, feeling
that he was leaning above a great drop, "Who exactly is interested?
"America had several chances to take the lead in shaping the
world, but they were all squandered, just as the chance to use the Loop
for some good has been squandered. My father served in the Expeditionary
Force, Mr Turner, in the Marines. He was killed in the retreat, won
a posthumous Silver Star because his company held back Rivera long enough
for the rest of the 2nd division to be properly evacuated across the
Rio Grande. It wasn't the Army that lost the war, it was a failure of
political nerve. Perhaps you don't realize it, but now we have someone
in the White House who has more nerve than many we've had since. Oh,
I'm not saying Powell was a bad President, but he had no international
"I heard Reagan's speeches, Captain North. We did have TV in
"Then perhaps you heard how he likened America to a shining city
on a hill. An ideal we strive towards. An example for all the world.
The communists might be able to put a cosmonaut on the Moon, but they
still need American grain to feed their people. The sun might not set
on the British Empire, but in England they still have slums dating from
Queen Victoria's reign. Our country has a vast wealth of natural resources
that should be used to enrich Americans, not traded for Soviet computers
or British jet airplanes."
"I remember that Reagan said something like that in his inaugural
speech. And I remember his speech in Casablanca, too, the final
scene at the airport. Where he says he's an American, not a European."
"Rick Blaine said that, not Ronald Reagan. Don't confuse movies
with reality, Mr Turner."
"Unlike Reagan, huh?"
"You don't have to like us, but it would help, because we can
be very useful to you." North smiled. "Like you, we think
that something in Robert Johnson's life may be a critical branch point.
If he goes down one road, if he goes to New York and performs at Carnegie
Hall, you get the history we're living in right now. If he doesn't play
there, if he goes down another road, he won't become a focus for the
desegregation movement, and perhaps America will look outward instead
of inward, and enter the war on the side of the British, before Churchill
is deposed, before the Yalta Treaty. We'll be the ones who beat the
Nazis, not the Russians; we'll be the world power, big as the Brits.
Maybe even replacing the Brits. Of course, whether you or I would know
we had changed history is a bit fuzzy, the scientists aren't agreed
on how much carries over. I said we knew about three unsuccessful attempts,
who knows how many successful ones there were? Well, I guess
we can't, but the important thing is that we do know that history can
Turner said, "I wanted desegregation to happen earlier, not later."
"The best of all possible worlds. I understand. But we subjected
your idea to games theory analysis, found too many problems with it.
Our scenario is stronger, much stronger. And besides, think about it,
Mr Turner, aren't we all of us in this country second class citizens
in the world? And aren't you an American before anything else?"
"Of course," Turner said, "you could just have him
The captain's gaze flickered for a moment. "It's a viable scenario,
and I'll admit that we studied it, but the President isn't happy about
signing an executive order to eliminate one of the most famous men in
recent American history. Also, there's a theory that history has a certain
momentum; if we did eliminate him and it was in any way botched, we
could risk turning him into a martyr, as much a cause celebre for the
bleeding heart liberals as the New York arrest and his protest songs.
Branch-point analysis tells us that our best shot is to keep him away
from the Carnegie concert, keep him in obscurity down in Mississippi."
"How do you propose I help, Captain North?"
"When you were travelling with him, Mr Turner, just how much
influence did you really have over Robert Johnson?"
Robert Johnson said, "Now see, Ike, I've done with
all this rehearsin. I'm not no Shakespeare actor or any such thing.
I play the blues. Way I do that, is go out and do it."
Turner blotted sweat from his face with his handkerchief. It was hot
in the empty storefront, the close wet heat of Memphis's summer. "We've
been through this already, Bobby. What you're doing here is something
so new you have to get it just right. It's like a Fourth of July rocket.
Either it rushes up and explodes, or it just sits there and no one'll
take notice of it."
Robert Johnson sort of leaned on the guitar slung around his neck.
Electric cord ran back from the pickup inside its hollow body to a buzzing
valve amplifier. The cord twitched as he swayed to and fro impatiently.
"We can't tell if we got it right less we play it to people. And
you know I've never been one to fix in one spot too long. I been here
two months now, wouldn't have stayed longer than two weeks if you hadn't
shown up. I'm not saying that this idea of yours is no good. I like
it. But it's time to get it movin. That right, boys?"
Behind him, the drummer started up a slow beat, and the trumpet player
bent long notes over the top, a parody of the funeral march opening
of "Love in Vain", the slow beat of the train leaving the
station, two lights on behind. A couple of the hangers-on began to clap
in time. The bass player, a fat balding man, sat to one side, his big
woman-shaped instrument keeled at a low angle, its head in his lap.
He took a swig from a bottle of beer and wiped his lips, watching Robert
Johnson and Turner face off.
Turner forced himself to swallow his anger. He had to stay calm to
stay in charge. Things weren't going quite as he'd expected. He'd been
Looped to Memphis, where the Army's research had discovered that Robert
Johnson would be blowing the money Vocalion had wired to him, the last
of the fee for laying down more tracks with Don Law. Turner had managed
to prise him away from the cronies his money had attracted, get him
sober, put the proposition. To Turner's surprise, he'd accepted at once.
He'd been thinking along the same lines, he'd said; after he'd been
through Chicago and heard what was going down there, he'd wanted to
get his own band together, but Vocalion saw him as a Delta blues singer
and that was all she wrote. But if Ike Zimmerman told him to do it,
and if Ike Zimmerman had the money....It had slid together sweetly and
easily. They'd found a drummer and a stand-up bass player, had Robert
Johnson's Gibson modified for electrical amplification. The trumpet
player had been Robert Johnson's idea, put a little plaintive edge in
it, he'd said. And because there was a thriving black business community
in Memphis, it had proved easier to find a place to rehearse than Turner
had anticipated. Ever since 1914, Boss Crump had used the black vote
to get his hand-picked candidates into office -- blacks had been given
back their franchise, and regularly returned fifty per cent of the poll.
Black leaders cooperated with the white political machine in return
for favours, and by 1938 a substantial proportion of medical and educational
budgets were aimed at blacks: the black section of Memphis had paved,
well-lit streets, and parks and libraries. Turner had no trouble renting
out an empty store a block away from Beale street. A couple of payments
kept the local cops away. And Turner made sure that Johnson didn't get
too much money, enough for drinks and women if he wanted, but not too
much to subsidise his new-found drinking buddies. Still, that hadn't
stopped him getting in trouble once or twice; he'd even been thrown
in jail after he'd been picked up for vagrancy when playing a street
corner for spare change, an old habit Turner couldn't break him of.
Turner said now, "You sure you're not in trouble, Bobby. Or one
of your women isn't?"
"There's maybe a couple of boyfriends lookin out for me, but
that ain't nothin new. What is, I got to hear of an offer today. Some
white guy wants me to give a concert. In New York."
Turner felt as if his insides had been haled away. Here it was. Here
was the crossroads.
Robert Johnson said, "I hear he wants me to go up in a few months.
He'll buy me a train ticket, put me in a good hotel, and have me play
the Carnegie Hall. You know it? Is it a good place to play?"
"One of the best."
"So I'm thinkin we should try out what we're doing on the road,
see if it works out, or if I should stay with what I was. I mean, that's
what he wants, this guy, he wants me as Robert Johnson, Delta blues
gitar man. And the best is what I am, too. But what I'm asking here
is, Ike, do you think I should go?"
Turner's blood softly thrilled, the way it had when he'd heard Robert
Johnson play in Tallula. Here was the place where time's highway branched:
one road leading to Carnegie Hall and jail and the letters and protest
songs that had fired the Freedom Marches; the other to at least twenty
more years of Boss Crow, war, and perhaps, just perhaps, to the elevation
of America to the world stage. He felt like he was falling right where
he stood as he said, "I think we should take this thing of ours
on the road."
Robert Johnson's face split in a wide grin. "I knew you'd see
my way of thinkin," he said, and swaggered off to his band, saying,
"All right, boys. One more time with feelin."
And as the band swung into the slow burn of "Cross Road Blues",
Turner tried to believe that he could feel the change, the switch. But
all he could feel was the music.
Turner had spent an entire week setting up the dates for
the tour, but it nearly came to grief on the first night, when an amplifier
blew ten minutes into the first set; Robert Johnson had to revert to
his solo act, and very nearly wrecked that, too, he was so nervous.
He got blind drunk afterwards, and the next morning he was still so
drunk Turner and the bass player had to carry him between them to the
But from the first moment of the second concert, everything swung
into place. The crowd stood in a trance as Robert Johnson, gas light
hitting him under his chin, led the band into spaces they'd never been
before. It ended with an apocalyptic reading of "Hellhound on My
Trail", Johnson singing with the fevered defiance of one who knows
he's already damned, underpinned by the rock-steady rhythm of drum and
bass and mocked by the trumpet's counterpoint as he told his tale of
being driven across a world with no respite, pursued by demons real
and imagined; then in a space of silence he sang with tender regret
about how he had discovered too late that all he needed after all was
his little sweet woman to keep him company, and the drums came down,
and the trumpet and his guitar screamed like devils harrowing him into
darkness. When the lights came up the crowd stood there for a long minute
before they remembered to clap. But Johnson was already gone.
He wasn't backstage with the rest of the band, and when Turner looked
for him in the smelly little dressing room he found someone else waiting
there: a tall lithe man with a shaven scalp, his skin so dark it looked
blue-black in the yellow light of the unshaded bulb, who uncoiled from
the chair and bounded to his feet before Turner could ask who he was,
put a hand on Turner's chest, over the place where the Oppenheimer pinch
was lodged, and said, "Don't be foolish, or I'll Loop you without
The man's gaze locked with Turner's. In the distance, the crowd was
stomping and shouting for an encore. Turner said, "What did you
do with Bobby?"
"Robert Johnson? Why, nothing at all. And I won't, as long as
you keep on keeping him from New York."
Turner felt a surge of relief. Ever since the band had set out on
the road he'd felt that he was being watched, and it was good to know
it wasn't in his head. He said, "How did you like the show?"
The man took his hand away. He wore his dark double-breasted suit
like a costume. A smile came into his face as if he'd flicked a switch.
"Don't try to be smart with me, Turner. Just do your job, and I
don't have to do mine. Keep Robert Johnson under control until December,
and then you can go home." He picked up his hat and carefully set
it on his head, smiled again, and was gone.
The band rode the train across the country, playing each
night in a different town, moving on the next morning. And each night
it was as if the band was playing as much for itself as for its audience,
testing the boundaries of where it could go, crossing and redefining
each line it found. Turner, who knew what the English white boys had
done (or would do), knew they could never come close to this; not even
Lennon on his anguished solo LPs came close. He had set out to do what
he'd been asked to do, he was keeping Robert Johnson from his appointment
with history in New York, but he'd unleashed something else. He was
scared that it would make Robert Johnson as famous as the Carnegie concert,
but he'd lost control. It was as if he'd cut down a levee, and they'd
all been swept away on the flood.
The band played two long sets each night, grabbed a few hours sleep
in their hotel or rooming house, grabbing a few more hours rest on the
train to the next town and the next concert, nerving themselves up with
whiskey and amphetamines for each show. Turner kept looking over his
shoulder for his shadow, but saw no trace of the man. They'd been on
the road a month now, and Robert Johnson wasn't ready to stop. When
Turner suggested that they take a break, put together some new songs
and think about starting a new tour in the New Year, he said, "You
don't know what it's like up there. I'm gettin to where I've been tryin
to get all my life, and I know I've got you to thank Ike, but I'm beyond
anythin you can do for me now. I got to see for myself how far I can
go. Maybe we should take ourselves to New York after all, blow Mr White
away at the concert."
Turner argued with him for an hour, sweating hard as he tried to talk
him out of it. In the end, Robert Johnson shrugged and said, from his
distance, "We'll see how it goes."
After each concert Robert Johnson would sit alone awhile with a bottle,
smiling and returning the banter of the backstage crowd, polite but
distant. Later, he'd find a woman and he'd be gone. Turner couldn't
get close to him; no one could. A few times, Turner had to bail him
out the next morning; once he'd been badly beaten -- a tooth gone, one
eye swollen shut -- by some guy cutting up over the girlfriend he'd
lost to Robert Johnson's charms, but he told Turner not to worry, and
sang that night as strongly as ever. This is the world we're in, he
sang, where terror and beauty walk hand in hand. If it only was different,
couldn't we have a time, babe? Then Robert Johnson found they'd been
booked to play in Birmingham Alabama, and flat-out refused to go.
"I'd rather go to Hell than Alabama," he said. "Alabama
is death for people like us, Ike. Especially people like us who dare
to try somethin different, somethin new. They don ever want anythin
to change down there, they happy with how things is, every white man
a king, every black man his slave. It's death."
And that was that, they had to pile off the train at the next stop.
Turner was relieved. He hoped that they'd lost their seemingly unstoppable
momentum; he'd have a chance to argue for a rest, find a place to rehearse,
lay low. He'd have to pay off a string of disappointed promotors, starting
with the one in Birmingham, but money wasn't the point. Captain North
had made sure he had plenty of money.
The band spent the night in the station; Turner bribed the station
master to keep the waiting room open. The next morning, he found that
Robert Johnson was gone.
At first, Turner was scared that his shadow had caught up
with them and murdered Robert Johnson, but by the end of that frantic
day he discovered that the singer had walked into town, staged an impromptu
concert in front of the hardware store, and got on a bus. Turner chased
after him across country; for two long weeks he was always just ahead,
a rumour, a ghost, and then Turner caught up with him at a house party
at Three Forks, some fifteen miles outside Greenwood, Mississippi, on
a dirt road that ran between unfenced fields.
It was the end of August, swelteringly hot. Turner got a lift with
half a dozen men crowded into a rattling open-topped Ford Model T, saw
the lights of the clapboard house far off in the blue bloom of the night;
as the car drew up, he heard the stomping noise of dancing inside the
house, Robert Johnson's high, harsh voice cutting through it. A young
man with a guitar slung over his back stopped Turner on the porch, said
that he'd come all the way out here because he'd seen Robert Johnson
play with his band in Little Rock, and wanted to see him play again.
"I play the blues real good," he said. He swayed, holding
on to Turner for balance. He was blind drunk. "Not good as Mr Johnson,
no one can touch him, but I plays real good. He tellin everyone he goin
up to New York to play. You need someone else to play in your concerts
down here, you asks for Honeyboy Edwards -- "
Turner shook the man off and pushed inside the house.
The heat outside oppressive; inside it was even worse. People packed
out a front room stripped of furniture, stomping and clapping and hollering
along to Robert Johnson's song. He sat on a stool at the back, swinging
his big Gibson guitar back and forth, singing a couple of verses and
then carrying the rhythm by rapping the body of the guitar with the
knuckles of his left hand while he took a swig from a half-pint bottle
of whiskey before picking up the song again. When he saw Turner he grinned,
and shouted that he would be done in five minutes. Turner pushed outside.
He was wet through with sweat. Couples were whirling around in the yard.
Men sat on parked cars, drinking. The young musician, Honeyboy Edwards,
leaned against the trunk of a cottonwood tree, being copiously sick.
Although the noise from inside the house had hardly diminished, Robert
Johnson appeared at Turner's side. He had sweated through his shirt,
his guitar was slung under his arm, and there was a fresh half-pint
of whiskey in his hand. He spun off the cap and took a swallow and offered
it to Turner, who shook his head.
"You're mad at me," Robert Johnson said. "I don't blame
you, but you got to understand I got to do what I got to do. I got to
go play for Mr Hammond in New York because it puts a cap on this part
of my life. He want a Delta bluesman for his concert. He get the best.
Then I come back here, and we set the world on fire."
"You won't come back," Turner said.
"You got to trust me," Robert Johnson said, and took another
swallow of whiskey, offered it again to Turner. "Takes a drink
with me, Ike. This is fine smooth stuff, real mellow. Given to me by
a fellow that purely loves my music."
Turner knocked the bottle aside and grabbed hold of Johnson's narrow
shoulders. "You have to listen to me, Bobby! You won't come back
because they won't let you get there! But if you come with me -- "
Johnson shrugged away. "This more of your conjure stuff, Ike?
You sayin you know the future?"
"I know it's a wicked world. Come back with me. Please."
Robert Johnson shrugged. "Don't I know how wicked the world is,"
he said. "Listen, I gots to play for these people, then we sit
down and we talk."
"Come with me now, Bobby. Before it's too late."
"Aw, Ike, I'm just havin me a little fun here. Like the old days,
remember, when I played back of you?"
The dancers inside clapped and howled as he sat down and started to
play again. Turner stood just inside the door. The music flew past him
into the darkness. Robert Johnson was slowing things down now, swigging
whiskey at the end of each song, toasting the crowd. He had just started
the lazy lope of "Come on in My Kitchen" when he suddenly
stopped and bent over and clutched at his stomach. Sweat was dripping
from his face. He took a few deep breaths, took a swig from his half-pint
of whiskey, and started in on "Stones in My Passway", and
for a moment it seemed as if everything was all right.
Turner, pressed in on all sides by the restless crowd, only caught
a glimpse as Robert Johnson collapsed again. Someone in the crowd shrieked,
and a terrible anguished howling took up the note, if the pit of hell
had been opened right there in the packed, airless room. It was Robert
Johnson, writhing on the floor and screaming like a gutted dog. Turner
tried to struggle forward, but the panicking crowd surged back and forth
like a sea struck by a squall. Someone yelled for a doctor and someone
else shouted something about poison whiskey and someone else was laughing,
a tall very black man laughing right in Turner's face, his hand coming
down on Turner's heart.
Bright sunlight, hot and vivid on the white sidewalk, flaming
on plate glass windows. Turner nearly fell off the curb, and a green
boat-shaped automobile with upswept tailfins blasted him with his horn,
the driver yelling something about damn drunken heathen niggers through
the swirl of dust as he pulled away. There was a peeling sticker on
the wide chrome bumper. Nixon for President.
Who the hell was Nixon?
Turner made it across the pavement, found a little shade in a doorway
and sat down and rested his head on his knees. Somewhere down the hot
white street a radio was playing rock and roll, but he didn't know any
of the songs. His brain felt like it had been slammed to mush inside
He sat there until the cops came to move him on. There were two of
them, one young and skinny, with a drooping moustache and collar length
hair, the other red-faced, his belly hanging over his Sam Browne belt.
The radio was playing something Turner recognised now.
The fat cop pulled Turner to his feet, said, "I'll be goddamned,
but he don't smell drunk."
"Maybe he's on acid," the younger one said.
"Ain't no niggers fool enough for that, that's for your young
rich white assholes."
"Hell, we was all of us on anything we could get, in 'Nam."
"I swear that fuckin war's all you talk about. You ain't there
now, and this nigger sure ain't fightin the Viet-Cong." The fat
cop slapped Turner a couple of times, not hard. He said, "Wake
up now. No nigger should be sittin outside of Ray Dillon's funeral parlour.
You fixin to die, boy, your own kind'll take care of you."
The song the radio was playing was a Robert Johnson song, "Cross
Road Blues", but it was being sung by some white English boy over
a howling wind of virtuoso electric guitar.
Turner said, "Please, officer, can you tell me who is that on
The fat cop scowled. "It seems we got one of those educated niggers
on our hands here. You're in the wrong place if you are."
"The band, please, I need to know." He'd Looped back, but
he didn't know where. Someplace where rock and roll was played on Southern
radio stations, someplace where there was a war, America fighting a
war....The young cop said with a smile, "You're a Clapton fan,
"Fuck that shit," the fat cop said. "Let's get Martin
Luther King here down the station."
Turner let himself be manhandled across the sidewalk. He tried to
cling on to the hope that at least Robert Johnson had not died in vain,
that America was raised up after all, a shining citadel of freedom fighting
a just war for the sake of all the world, but as the cops bundled him
into the hot smelly squad car he knew that he was in Alabama now.
For Lew Shiner
© Paul McAuley 1991, 2007.
This story was first published in Interzone in April 1991.
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