The Devil at the Crossroads
It was all about a girl.
I was in love. Young love. The kind of love only a teenage boy can know; a sweet, abiding, all-encompassing obsession, innocent and pure, beyond mere physical attraction. I loved her warm, brown eyes, the softness of her skin, her heart-shaped face and the beautiful sadness of her smile; her Mona Lisa smile. I loved her long, brown hair, which she wore down, parted in the middle, her halo of glory, flowing loosely to a point just above her lovely waist. She was my first thought every morning, and my last, aching thought every night. And, though I loved her outer beauty, she was also my best friend, my closest confidante. I would have given my everlasting soul for her.
And I nearly did.
I attended James Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, with my two older brothers, Brian and Gary. Though a freshman, I had none of the awkward moments of not fitting in. Brian and Gary were already something of high school royalty, though not part of the “in crowd.” They were the patriarchs and protectors of the misfits, the ones who did not fit into the proscribed roles of Jocks, Stoners or Kickers. Brian and I, with our brown hair and blue eyes, resembled our father. A surgery Gary had as a young boy to repair two holes in his heart had left him with a long scar on his chest, and his body never seemed to fully recover. Brian and I were thick boned and sturdy. Gary was gaunt, tall and thin. Where Brian and I were sanguine and gregarious, Gary was quiet and serious.
The Pullman boys were the twin terrors of James Madison High. They were six and a half feet tall, wore their hair long, and, though teenagers, had full beards. They walked the halls, wearing dark tee shirts, of the Metallica or Iron Maiden variety, denim jeans and motorcycle boots. They had once been wrestlers on the high school team until they were kicked off for sheer meanness and excessive violence. They were kings of the hill, lions among the sheep of James Madison High. Until they cornered my brother Gary, that is.
I was still in the eighth grade when it happened, not yet a member of high school. My brother Gary, so the legend goes, was walking from one class to another and happened upon the Pullman brothers and one of their friends. I was never sure of the details. One of the Pullmans, or Gary, either by accident or design, brushed up against the other in the hallway. Whatever the details were, what happened was the Pullman brothers and their friend decided to follow my brother Gary, pushing him from the back as he walked. Other students, wanting to watch a fight, followed the procession. the Pullmans and their friend pushed my tall, skinny brother until they maneuvered him into a corner with no way of escape. Gary was helpless, alone. He had no way out. And that was the Pullman brothers’ mistake. Gary was always quiet and of few words. The friend of the Pullman brothers was just the opposite. He puffed out his chest and taunted Gary, confident in his strength and the strength of the Pullman brothers standing behind him. Gary simply hit him. Hard. In mid-sentence, a half-formed taunt still on his lips. The witnesses said Gary’s fists were lightning, hitting him three times before his limp body could even start falling. And, boy, did it fall, hard, all the way to the ground, a knockout punch. Then two things happened. A teacher passing by stopped the fight, and Gary became an instant legend. In the sort of logic only high school students understand, because Gary was a legend, a fighter with lightning fists, Brian, who was Gary’s bigger, older brother was considered a legend, as well. After all, everyone knew Brian could take Gary in a fight. Brian had a couple encounters of his own that launched the Taylor brothers further into legendary status at James Madison High School, and their reputation for not being trifled with earned me an immediate umbrella of protection. Far from being alone in high school, I was instantly part of the group, and, as the youngest of the Taylor boys, I was awarded a small part of the respect they had earned.
Our group was a myriad of different personalities. We had good students, we had students who were close to dropping out. We had poor students and wealthy ones, the nerds, the geeks, all mixed in with others who could have been Jocks, Stoners or Kickers, but simply enjoyed the variety and acceptance of our group. There was Joe, a short-haired boy of seventeen, whose cigarette smoking, cowboy boots and willingness to fight, put him on equal standing with Brian and Gary. There was Bob, a boy of seventeen, who drove a brown Volkswagen bug, and appeared to be in his early twenties. There was Alex, a Mexican-American boy, there was James, a tall, lengthy lover of all things guitar and Rock N Roll. He was my best friend at the time. There was Shawn, a country boy, Andrea, a diminutive girl we all considered one of the boys. There was Kristen, a religious girl who loved all things Jesus. And there was the girl that I loved.
I loved her the moment I met her. I know that sounds foolish, juvenile even, and my only defense is that I was, in fact, a foolish juvenile. But I loved her the moment I laid eyes on her. Brian introduced me to the group on my first day at the school. I felt an instant connection to them, an acceptance closer to family than to friendship. But, for her, I felt more. It was electric. She was sitting on a bench, laughing at something someone said. She looked up at me, and I looked down at her. And that was all it took. I am no expert on the vagaries of the heart. It is not logical. Some call it chemical, but I believe that to be a tawdry definition of love. It is more like the knitting of two souls, an occurrence that can happen over a lifetime, or in the space of a few precious moments. There was something in her eyes, in the way she laughed, the way she smiled up at me. And something else, a sadness just below the surface, below the smile. I asked Brian about her, and learned she was off limits. She and Joe were in an on and off again relationship, part of the reason for her sadness. But the timeless code of honor followed by high school boys from time immemorial meant we could be no more than friends.
Over the next year, I loved her in the only way I could, spending time with her, surrounded by the rest of the group. Every day after school, at four-thirty, she called me. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, watching the clock, waiting for the yellow wall phone to ring. I remember the pure agony I felt the few times when, for whatever reason, it did not ring. We talked about life, about her dreams, about her heartache, about Joe. I helped her through her many breakups with Joe, and, despite my heartache, celebrated with her when they got back together again. Never once did I tell her how I felt. Joe was my friend, part of the group, and I was loyal. I hoped that one day she would see, that she would realize the one who truly loved her was the same one she wept with when her heart was broken and laughed with when her heart was glad. But that day would never come.
Railroad tracks ran behind my neighborhood, surrounded by trees and bushes. Large green junction boxes with red and green lights stood to one side of the tracks. These became a regular hangout for our group during summer, when we needed a place to drink. School was out for the summer, and one night, Brian, Gary and I told our parents we were going to see the late show, but spent our movie money on booze instead, Joe or Brian purchasing it at the local Kroger, hoping not to get carded. We walked the tracks late at night, carrying cheap bottles of wine, six packs of beer and Jack Daniels. Darkness surrounded us, the green and red lights from the junction boxes shone in the distance and pale moonlight guided our steps as we opened cans of beer and unscrewed the tops of wine bottles. We walked, drinking and talking, until we reached the soft green and red glow of the junction boxes. There we sat, our backs against the metal walls of the box, feeling the electric hum coming from inside. We sat and drank, laughing and joking. James talked about the guitar, our favorite bands, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin. James said something about wanting to play the guitar like Led Zeppelin.
“I would sell my soul to play like that,” he said.
“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” I said. James took a long drink from the bottle of wine. He looked at me, the green and red light from the junction box painted his face in an eerie glow. He was a tall boy, two years older than me, with brown hair reaching just passed his collar, wearing a Levi jacket like a few others in the group liked to wear.
“Yeah. So what?”
“I didn’t know Mormons believed in the Devil,” I said.
“We believe in the Devil,” he said, “and if he was here right now, I would sell my soul to play like that. Like the bluesman at the crossroads, Man. I mean it. I would sell my soul.” He looked down at his hands, as if picturing the Devil blessing them that very minute.
“And you would go to Hell,” Brian said. He had downed a couple too many beers and stared at James, bleary-eyed. Would you go to Hell just to play like Led Zeppelin? That’s stupid, Man.”
“Mormons don’t believe in Hell, do you, James?” Joe said. He preferred Jack and Coke and was drinking from a plastic cup. He was wearing a ballcap and a Levi jacket like James was.
“Not like you do,” James said, shrugging.
“Well, Hell is real, damn it,” Brian said, pointing an admonishing finger at James, “and if you sell your soul, that’s where you’re going.”
“What bluesman at the crossroads?” I said, “what does that even mean?”
James looked at me like I didn’t know anything at all.
“What bluesman? What bluesman?” he said. “Just the greatest guitar player that ever lived, Man, Robert Johnson! You know, Crossroads Blues.”
“Never heard of him,” I said.
James shook his head. crumpling his empty beer can, he threw it on the ground a few feet away. He grabbed a full can from one of the six packs and cracked it open.
“Never heard of Robert Johnson? You never heard of Robert Johnson?” The look he gave me was a mixture of incredulity and shock. James and I worshipped at different altars. I loved books and authors. He loved guitars and musicians. His realization that I knew nothing about one of his guitar gods affected him more than the fact I knew little and cared even less about Mormonism. He had once explained to me that, whether I became a Mormon or not, someday, somewhere, somebody would be baptized in my place in one of their temples. I would wake from the dead and find myself in Mormon Heaven. He was drinking at the time, but I got the impression good Mormons would be on a higher plane, with white clouds, white suits, all living in clean, white mansions. The unwashed throng, my self included, would be on a lower plane with the drinkers, smokers, gamblers and loose women.
“You don’t have to tell me anymore,” I had answered. “That sounds like a good enough Heaven for me.”
“Robert Johnson was the greatest guitarist to ever live, man,” James continued. “They say he met the Devil at the crossroads and made a deal. He sold his soul to be the greatest.” He looked down at his hands again, his face filled with longing.
“What crossroads?” I said.
“I don’t know what Crossroads. Crossroads in Alabama or Mississippi, Man, but that’s not the point. They say if you go looking for the Devil at the crossroads, any crossroads, he will make a deal with you.”
Brian looked up, bleary-eyed, nursing another beer.
“And you’ll go to Hell for it,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t believe in Hell, and I don’t believe in the Devil.”
“Don’t believe in Hell? Don’t believe in the Devil?” Brian said. He was suffering from the acute deafness that seems to affect the inebriated everywhere. He spoke loudly, just below a shout, slurring his words. “You know better than that. You were raised better than that. You believe in God, so you have to believe in the Devil.”
“I don’t believe in God, either,” I said.
Brian looked at me, concerned. He wasn’t what you would call religious, but he had a strong belief in the existence of God.
“You don’t mean that,” he said.
“Like Hell I don’t,” I said. “I’ve never seen God and I’ve never seen the Devil, so I don’t believe in either one.”
“Then what do you believe?” James asked.
“I believe,” I said, reaching for a six pack, “I will have another beer.”
That’s when I heard her voice and turned to see her walking with Kristen and Andrea on the tracks, making their way to where we were gathered around the junction box. I felt the familiar flutter in my chest when I saw her, her face becoming more visible in the soft red and green glow of the junction box lights. She smiled and waved at me, and I waved back. She walked to where Joe was standing nearby, smoking a cigarette. She said something to him, and he answered, unsmiling. The smile on her face turned to a frown. Even in the dim light, I saw sadness in her eyes. Joe took a long drag from his cigarette and blew out smoke. He walked over to where Gary was standing with Bob and Alex. He opened a can of beer, his back turned toward the girl that I loved. I stood up.
“Can I get you all a drink?” I asked. “We’ve got beer, wine and Jack.” Andrea had already grabbed a beer from the cache and was drinking it down. Kristen looked at the alcohol with disgust and righteous indignation. “Maybe some wine?” I offered. “Jesus turned water into wine, after all.”
“No thank you,” she said, sounding more offended than thankful.
“I’ll have some wine,” said the girl that I loved. I poured wine from the large green bottle into a plastic cup and handed it to her. My hand brushed hers, and I wanted to let it linger, to hold her hand, to comfort her. I didn’t know what Joe had said to her, but, at that moment, whatever it was, I hated him for it.
“Thank you,” she said. I nodded and sat back down, leaning against the junction box. She sat next to me, her arm touching mine. She looked to where Joe was standing, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and talking with the other boys. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
“Are you okay?” I said. She shook her head. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“He wants to break up again,” she said.
“He told you that?”
She looked at Joe. He was laughing at something Gary said.
“No, but I can tell by the way he’s acting.”
We sat the rest of the time in silence, her arm touching mine. I wished I could take away her pain, her hurt feelings, and replace them with good feelings. Hers was a face made for laughter, hers was a heart made for love. She watched Joe as he stood, drinking, laughing and smoking. He never glanced her way, and he never came over. After a while, she told me goodbye and left, walking on the tracks towards Judson Road with Kristen and Andrea. James joined me, offering me a beer, and we sat, drinking in silence. Finally, we all began walking the tracks towards Judson Road. We were about a hundred yards from where the railroad tracks and Judson Road met, when I realized we were at a kind of crossroads.
“Alright, James,” I said, “now’s your chance. We’re at a crossroads.”
James looked around us. There were trees on one side of the tracks and a tall fence wrapping around my neighborhood on the other side. The railroad tracks crossed Judson Road. A crossing signal with an automatic gate waited for a coming train. A white and black railroad crossing sign at the side of the road formed a diagonal cross.
“I guess this is a crossroads,” he said. “Never saw that before.”
“Well,” I said, “there’s no time like the present. Call the Devil and deal your way to glory.”
“You’d better not,” Brian said.
“I think you have to be alone,” James said.
“A bunch of B S,” Gary said.
I looked at Joe, who was smoking another cigarette. I loved him like an older brother, despite the fact his actions were hurting the girl I loved. I wondered what he would want if the Devil appeared in front of us, ready to make a deal. Here was the guy who already had everything I wanted. He had the heart, the love of the only one I would have given my soul for.
“Come on,” Brian said, “You’re talking crazy. No one’s summoning the Devil while I’m around.”
James shook his head, grinning.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I really do think you have to be alone.”
We continued onto Judson Road. Brian, Gary and I parted from the others and walked to our house on Kissing Oak Street. I had trouble sleeping that night. My thoughts were on the girl that I loved. When I finally fell asleep, my dreams were of her.
Two weeks passed. As predicted, Joe broke up with the girl I loved. I helped her through her heartache, talking with her on the phone as we regularly did, even when school was out. She told me it was over. This was the final time. She could not continue breaking up with Joe and getting back together again. And, as her heart began to heal, I was coming to my own decision. I decided to tell her, to bare my heart, to reveal my soul, my longing, my desire, my love for her. When the timing was right, when her heart was fully healed, I would let her know how I felt. Then, suddenly, the phone calls stopped coming. I figured she needed time, and the daily phone calls were a little more sporadic during the summer, when we had other things to do. I wasn’t overly troubled by it. The phone would ring again when she was ready to talk. And it did ring. I answered it, relieved when I heard her voice after so long a time.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” she said. She sounded nervous. I felt my heart stop. Was this it? Was this the time to finally tell her how I felt?
“There’s something I need to tell you, as well,” I said. “You go first.”
“Well,” she said, “you know Joe and I aren’t together anymore.”
Yes,” I said. I felt a lump growing in the center of my chest.
“I’m ready to move on.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do you have anyone in mind?” Let it be me. God, if you exist, let it be me.
She laughed nervously.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said.
“Just say it,” I said. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to tell her she was my everything. I wanted to be hers and for her to be mine. I held my breath.
“Well,” she said, “I have been seeing your brother, Brian. He asked me out and I said yes. I just want to make sure you’re okay with that. He was worried it might be weird for you, since you and I are so close.”
My heart came to a full stop. I listened further, numb, answering by rote. Sure, I’m okay. Yes, I want you to be happy. Sure, we will still be best friends. Some time later, the conversation ended, and I hung up the phone. I went to my room and fell onto my bed. Lying on my back, I stared up at the ceiling. Tears ran down my face as the shock dissipated and I felt my heart break. I wept for over an hour, until, finally, no more tears would come. A knock came at my bedroom door. I sat up and dried my eyes.
“Who is it?” I said, doing all I could to stop my voice from trembling.
“It’s Brian,” came the answer.
“Just a minute,” I said. I wiped my face on the blanket of my bed and looked in the mirror. My eyes were red, but he might think I had been sleeping. I opened the door.
“What’s up?” I said.
“I just want to talk to you,” he said. He looked at me. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” I said, “just tired.”
Brian sat on my bed. He told me he was dating the girl I loved. He wanted me to know he wouldn’t interfere with the friendship I had with her. He told me he had always liked her, but because she was with Joe, he could never make a move. I listened and nodded when it seemed appropriate. He finally left my room, closing the door behind him. I looked around my room, wanting to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be away. I wanted to be alone. I left my room and exited the house through the garage, walking up Kissing Oak Street to Judson Road. I reached the railroad tracks and turned left, walking on the tracks, away from my neighborhood. It was twilight time. The sun was setting, and dusk was fast approaching. I thought of all that had happened. I remembered with sharp clarity the telephone conversation with the girl I loved. I remembered Brian’s words. The tears came again, and I walked alone, weeping, as dusk fell on the tracks before me. I turned toward the trees lining the sides of the tracks, and shouted, not thinking about what words I said, not caring.
“I will sell my soul for her!” I heard myself shout. “If you’re real, Devil, I will sell my soul for her!”
I stood, motionless, looking into the wooded area. No devil appeared there. I shook my head, and continued walking. I looked up and saw the figure of a man walking on the tracks ahead of me. He had not been there just moments before. I was sure of it. It was dusk, but I could tell even in the failing light he was dressed all in red. I laughed to myself. Yeah, right. The Devil in a red suit. He continued walking away from me, not toward me. He moved slowly, and I realized after several minutes, I was catching up to him. He looked back at me a couple of times, but continued walking toward O’Connor Road. Finally, where O’Connor Road crossed the railroad tracks, he stopped. He turned and looked at me, waiting. I was about fifty yards away, and his image solidified as I drew closer. He was a young, black man, wearing some type of uniform, a red hat, red shirt and red pants. He beckoned toward me, and a feeling of unease and trepidation washed over me. I shook it off and walked to him. He was wearing a Taco Cabana uniform. The nametag above his right breast pocket said Carlos. I felt like a complete fool. My crossroads Devil was a fast food worker. I nodded at him.
“Hey,” I said.
Carlos smiled at me, a wicked smile, parting his lips, showing teeth that, though human, were entirely too sharp; the smile of a predator.
“What the Hell?” I said, realizing immediately that might be the wrong phrase to use. Carlos grinned again, and I was filled with a deep revulsion. Whoever he was, I wanted to get away from him, but my feet would not move. He met my eyes with his own. They looked black in the falling darkness. He spoke in the accented tones of an islander. His voice was low and hoarse.
“Meet me at six o’ clock tomorrow at the Taco Cabana.”
I tried to look away from his gaze, but I stood, staring, unable to move.
“What?” I managed to say. His face hardened. He appeared to be growing angry. He answered again, reluctantly, spitting out each syllable as he spoke.
“Meet me tomorrow at six o’ clock at the Taco Cabana.”
He turned from me and began walking, crossing O’Connor Road to the other side of the tracks. He stopped and looked at me, leering at me, showing again the teeth that were far too sharp. He spoke, and his voice was mocking, low and guttural.
“God bless you,” he said. Then he turned from me, walking on the tracks, disappearing into the darkness of night. I walked home, taking the road instead of the tracks.
Had I met the Devil at the crossroads? I do not know. I did not meet our appointment at Taco Cabana the following day. I remember like yesterday, sitting in the living room. The clock on the wall showed six o’clock. It was June 6, 1996. Part of me wanted to go, but I remembered Brian’s admonition about going to Hell. I think, though, what finally decided it for me was love. I wanted to be loved. But, more importantly, I wanted to show love. Perhaps the Devil could have given her to me. I doubt it. I doubt, even, that he was the Devil. Perhaps he was an eccentric Taco Cabana employee simply wanting a friend. But, if he was the Devil, and he could give me the desire of my heart, that would relegate the girl I loved to nothing more than a possession. I did not want to own her. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to know love.
A few months later, I would leave San Antonio, my brothers, my friends, the girl that I loved. The relationship between Brian and her ended rather quickly, each of them deciding they were not ready for anything too serious. On my last night in San Antonio, I told her the truth. I told her I loved her and kissed her softly on the lips.
More than three decades have passed. And I wonder still, what would have changed had I met Carlos, my crossroads Devil at the Taco Cabana? Perhaps I will never know. Maybe it’s better that way.