A tall, attractive woman dressed in a light gray business suit and rose colored blouse stood reviewing her notes on the empty two lane highway. When she was ready, the cameraman handed her a microphone, disappeared behind a tripod, lined up a shot, and pointed. She began: “There is a small town about fifty miles southwest of Phoenix, Arizona as the crow flies, tucked into a bend of the Gila River. Its founding fathers secured a San Antonio to San Diego mail line stop there, and since every town on the line needed a name, they called theirs Gila Bend. The arid climate and foothills, which are recognizable to every Western movie fan, make for a hard scrabble existence. This town was an unlikely backdrop for the event that occurred here on a Sunday morning in November 2005. Behind me is where it all began, one of America’s most endearing fairy tales since the Kennedys. It is here that our own United States Senator and presidential candidate, Gerald Pierce, then a young attorney, stopped to aid a motorist with a flat tire. The motorist was a struggling young actress named Bethany Longoria. They fell in love – Bethany says it was at first sight – and were married one year to the day after they met. In the ten years since, their lives have blossomed as they work together, managing each other’s careers with phenomenal success. And in spite of their fame, they are two of the most down to earth, helpful, friendly people one could ever hope to meet, taking an interest in many struggling, young, college graduates, providing them guidance and support. I know from first-hand experience. Reporting live for KPHO, this is Janice Sands.”
Joey Price had a nagging feeling. He was jolted awake by a dream and although he couldn’t remember the particulars, something wasn’t quite right. He crawled out the sleeper cab of his truck, used the rest stop facilities, and continued on his way. On good days, Joey liked to call himself a “knight of the road”, a transporter of goods, a chauffeur of necessities, a purveyor of needs – an independent long-haul truck driver. On bad days, which were many, he would spend hours daydreaming about a better life. At thirty-one, he was slightly over six feet tall, of stocky build with a wardrobe that consisted primarily of jeans and flannel shirts – the perfect uniform for a truck driver. His thinning brown hair, always a source of angst, was frequently covered with a ball cap.
On that particular Sunday, he was on his way from Los Angeles to Dallas with a load of electronics imported from China. By 8 AM, all he could think about was a beer and although it was still early, he slipped off the highway, eventually finding himself in front of a small pre-fabricated structure with a pink exterior and a large sign identifying itself as Neto’s Pastime Bar. He was not particular about where he drank his beer; he pulled the rig up parallel to the building, slid out of the Kenworth cab and sauntered over to the front door. The landscape, parched by the sun, was riddled with fissures. The ground was so dry that he expected to hear it cracking like glass each time he took a step. As he reached the front door, he saw a red Mustang convertible sitting a bit further up Murphy Street, its flashers on and a female motorist standing outside. Joey thought about walking up to help but changed his mind when he saw a blond haired man come walking across the street towards her car. Instead, he opened the door to the bar and went in.
The place was dark and dank. It smelled like stale liquor and pine scented cleaner. A handful of televisions were scattered throughout, strategically placed so patrons wouldn’t miss a touchdown, basket, goal, or home run. Wooden stools ran the length of the bar. Liquor bottles were shelved in a semi-pyramid in front of a mirrored back wall. A cash register stood to the right of the bottles. The woman behind the bar was tall, attractive and shapely, in her early 30s with brown hair tied in a bond. She was wearing a “Pedro for President” T-shirt. The Sunday Arizona Republic was spread out in front of her. As Joey moved towards the bar, she asked, “What can I get you?” with all the enthusiasm expected from someone tending bar in a tiny town, early on a Sunday morning in November.
“Miller. Bottle if you have it.” It had always been Joey’s beer of choice. He liked that it was called Miller High Life, as if drinking it was a guarantee of good times. He laid a twenty on the bar. She was back in a few seconds with his beer – no glass offered – and collected the money, and bringing change. Joey settled onto a stool, taking his first swig, enjoying the way the carbonation glided down his throat. ESPN was just beginning hours of the football coverage, so he looked up at the screen without really focusing. “Never seen you around here before,” the barmaid said, setting her newspaper aside.
“Just passing through. Driving that rig out on the parking lot.” The front third of the truck was visible through a window.
“You’re kind of off the beaten path here. Where are you heading?”
“Nice town. Lived there once when I was younger and thought I was in love. Turned out to be just morning sickness. Who do you work for?”
“I own my own truck and usually run out of Wheeling, West Virginia, but don’t really have a home base anymore. I have a house there, but since my ex-wife moved out, it’s kind of empty, so I prefer being on the road.” He finished the last third of his beer in a couple of gulps.
“Don’t mind if I do.” He set the empty on the edge of the bar while she fished out another from the cooler. “Looks like you have the ‘Help Wanted’ ads over there. Any luck?”
“There are jobs, but none that I’m qualified for. That doesn’t keep me from looking.”
“If you see an ad in there for Bill Gates’ replacement, let me know,” he said with a chuckle.
The squeak of a protesting hinge alerted them that the front door was opening. A figure stood for several seconds, silhouetted by morning light. The barmaid, bending over the cooler, looked up, her hand dangling just above the beer bottles. She felt slightly unnerved since this was turning out to be an odd day; two strangers entering the bar within minutes of each other. Normally the bar didn’t get two strangers in a week, much less on a Sunday.
Joey looked over his shoulder as the door closed. The new patron was approaching the bar, moving with the unsteady gait of the slightly inebriated. His face was heavily lined, a testament to life’s endless battles and the march of time. A shock of salt and pepper hair escaped from under a gray fedora. He was dressed for Saturday night in a charcoal sport coat, striped shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest, a fuchsia ascot, and expensive designer jeans. A large, silver medallion hung from his neck, partially obscured by the jacket. “Where the hell am I?” he asked as he approached the bar. He had an English accent.
“Gila Bend,” the barmaid responded.
“Where the hell is Gila Bend?” Joey and the barmaid exchanged glances.
“Arizona,” she replied.
The stranger emitted a deep, croupy sound – a chuckle – and climbed up on the stool next to Joey. He dropped his hat on the bar, dug into his jacket pocket, pulling out a box of Marlboro’s, lit one with an elaborately engraved lighter, and took a long, deep drag. “Dewars on the rocks. What’s your name, love?”
“Well Bonnie, here is a hundred dollar bill.” He pulled out a large wad and stripped a bill from the top. “Let me know when I’ve spent this and I’ll give you more.” He sat the bill on the bar and turned, grinning at Joey, with the whitest teeth he’d ever seen. There was something about his eyes too, the lashes were dark, as if he were wearing mascara. Joey thought the stranger was even older than his deeply lined face hinted at. “Care for another beer?” Joey was never one to turn down a free drink. “Bonnie, a beer for my new friend.” She returned with both drinks. The stranger took a liberal taste before turning to Joey. “It hits the spot, don’t you think?”
“It does, thanks. Where are you headed?”
“Why, Gila Bend, of course.” They all chuckled. Nobody intentionally came to Gila Bend. “Headed to Glendale, from Los Angeles.”
“From LA? Are you in show business? Bonnie here has been looking at Help Wanted ads. Maybe you could help her with a show business job.”
The stranger grinned. “No, sorry. I’m just a lowly musician.”
“Really? What instrument do you play?”
“Let’s have another drink. Bonnie?” The barmaid, listening to the conversation from behind the bar, delivered drinks before the echo of his words evaporated.
“I play the guitar, some bass, and a little piano.”
“Been at it a while?”
“You might say that. I’ve had an interest in music ever since I can remember. My granddad’s jazz band toured England before the Second World War. He encouraged me. When I was young, he had a classical guitar hanging on a wall at his house. He told me that if I learned to play, he would give it to me. It turned out well. I got the guitar and developed a love of music.”
“So you’re a musician because of your grandfather?”
“Certainly he and my mother nurtured my interest, but there were other things. One day, when I was a teenager, I met an old neighbor on the train. He was carrying an armful of record albums. They were all American blues. Until then I thought I was the only kid in England who really dug the American blues. We formed a fast friendship and really got into the blues – Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and those cats.”
“English kids into blues, huh?”
The stranger nodded, lit another cigarette, took a drag and turn to the barmaid. “Bonnie, my sweet, might I trouble you?” as he pointed between the beer and scotch. As he sat there, Joey couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something very familiar about the guy. The stranger continued, “We formed our first band.” His voice seemed to take on a softer quality as he spoke, as if he were recalling a better time. “It was hard to play enough gigs to make any money, but we loved what we were doing and had fun doing it. Enough about me, what do you do?”
“I drive that big rig that’s out on the parking lot.”
“Is that a good job?”
“It pays the bills, but it’s not much of a job. I own a house but I’m not sure why. Mostly, I live on the road.”
“I’ve been living on the road for forty years.” The stranger took another long sip. “I don’t feel comfortable anywhere else.”
“When I was first married to Gladys, I liked being home, but that didn’t last. We fought so much when I was there that I didn’t want to come home. Eventually, we divorced. Nowadays there’s not much reason to go back.”
“Why do you keep the house?”
“Storage.” They both chuckled.
“I’ve been married several times, but they all ended the same. It’s the road, man. She’s my mistress.” He took a long drink from his glass, and lit another cigarette. His grinning face emerged from a cloud of smoke.
“Tell me about being a musician,” Bonnie asked, abandoning her paper to join the conversation.
“As I was saying, we’d been having a hard time making it. We worked odd jobs just to make ends meet. One day I said to my mate, ‘I’m going to learn from the masters. I’m going to America and learn to play the delta blues.’ I had a few pounds my granddad left me and I scraped more together. I bought a one-way ticket to Memphis and when I arrived I headed south. By that time, guys like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker were already in Chicago, but there were still plenty of good musicians in the delta. I hung around, listened, picked up some riffs, but there was always something missing. Do you know what I mean?”
“You mean you couldn’t get the notes right?”
“No love. I couldn’t get the right feel, couldn’t give it the right groove. When you’re playing, I mean really playing, the music comes alive. How about another round for the house?” He was consuming scotch at a prestigious rate. Bonnie poured him more, pulled another beer from the cooler, and even mixed herself a Kahlua and cream. “There was a guitar player named Tommy Bankhead. He used to back up Howlin’ Wolf. One night he was playing in this joint outside of Indianola, and I bought him some drinks. He talked about the blues and about Robert Johnson.”
“Who is Robert Johnson?” Joey asked.
“Robert Johnson is known as the father of the delta blues. He died in 1938 at 27 years old, but before he died, he made some recordings that changed the blues forever.”
“How did they change the blues?”
“He played the acoustic guitar like no one before him. And his singing and songwriting were unique. Tommy told me how he did it, how Robert had a midnight rendezvous with the man at the crossroads.”
“Yes, the crossroads. It was near Dockerty Plantation on the Sunflower River. Tommy told me some people thought it was a legend. Other people thought it really happened. Tommy really believed Robert went to meet a man who tuned his guitar.”
“What do you mean? Who was the man?” Bonnie asked.
“I asked Tommy the same question. He said to me, ‘Don’t you know? He went down to the crossroads at midnight to sell his soul to the devil just to play that guitar.’ After he came back, Tommy said he made sounds with it that nobody had ever heard. It was the birth of the delta blues.”
“Did you believe it happened?”
“I didn’t know whether it was true or not, but I knew I had to find the place. It took a few days of begging to get that information. When I did, I packed and went right away. I got there and found dirt roads surrounded by cotton fields. It was still daylight, so I sat down to wait. I was determined to stay until midnight.”
“Weren’t you scared?” Bonnie was fascinated, devouring every detail.
“No, I wasn’t. There was electricity in the air. I was excited. Around midnight, my skin began to tingle and in the distance I saw a figure coming down the road. It was a man, tall and thin, dressed in a suit. He smiled at me, and his teeth were as white as the keys on a new piano. ‘So you want to play? You’ve got to pay to play’ His voice was a deep baritone that made my insides quiver. He reached out a hand – he had long bony fingers – and I gave him my guitar. Those fingers caressed the strings and it seemed to come to life. When he handed it back to me, the sounds I made were beautiful, amazing.” The stranger lit another cigarette, and for the first time, Joey noticed the ring on his right hand – a silver skull.
“Then what happened?”
“He took a contract from his pocket and unfolded it. My name was already there. I left that night in 1963 and became famous beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve lived a life that is unimaginable to most, with every desire satiated.” He reached into his jacket and removed two envelopes, sitting them on the bar.
Joey and Bonnie exchange glances from across the bar. “What are the envelopes?” she asked.
“Let me explain,” the stranger began. “I am, shall we say, a recruiter. For those who are interested in joining me, I can obtain for them fame, fortune or any other worldly desire. The envelopes contain a contract for each of you, good for six years.”
“You’re making this up,” said Joey.
“I assure you I am completely serious.” He opened the first envelope and produced a piece of old looking parchment with Joey’s full name at the top. The second envelope contained parchment with Bonnie’s full name. “If my proposition to you was a hoax, how would I have a document for each of you, bearing your full name?”
“I don’t know.” Bonnie was intrigued. “What happens after six years?”
“For every person that signs the contract, the life you choose continues another six years. For instance, my bandmates all signed contracts, which guaranteed me twenty-four years. You may think that it is difficult to find the right people, but I assure you, I could name names that would shock you.”
“And if you can’t find ‘recruits’?”
“In those very rare instances, the deal terminates immediately. You both have heard of Jim Morrison and Kurt Colbain, haven’t you? Their contracts expired, and the results were rather dramatic, but they both chose not to seek candidates to extend the contract. Finding people is much easier than you would imagine. So there you have it. I’m extending to you both an offer that will completely change your lives. Drudgery and misery end today. Fulfillment of all your dreams and aspiration begins immediately. Your new lives await you, not a hundred yards up the street.” He carefully unfolded each contract, and laid them out on the bar before them.
Bonnie let out a gasp. “I recognize you now.”
The stranger grinned.
Michael Cora asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work