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Cross Roads Blues

a novelette
by Paul McAuley

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 to.

"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 smoke.

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 lasting."

"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 understand..."

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 hotel session."

"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 institutional carpet.

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 changed him?

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 new.

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 of himself.

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 than time."

Turner felt something fly out of him. "I don't suppose you're alone."

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? The Army?"

"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 vision."

"I heard Reagan's speeches, Captain North. We did have TV in prison."

"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 be changed."

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 killed."

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 train.

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 a thought."

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 his skull.

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 radio?"

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, boy?"

"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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