Mississippi 8 & 1

11:56 pm and the concrete felt like a griddle.  The sweat on June’s feet hissed steam against the broken rock, not that you could’ve heard it over the racket coming out of the river bottom down the way.  Crickets and frogs, mostly.  Full moon shining like a streetlamp – only light out there, shone the stars out.

June’s feet only burned for a second but it was enough to make her hesitate.  She had flip-flops in the trunk.  Ordinarily she’d just leave them there; the gas station was closed and there weren’t any other buildings in sight.  Hot damp night like this one, flip-flops just collected sweat and rubbed muddy itch into a V on top of your feet.  But there might be some kind of protocol thing here.  Moses took off his sandals before approaching the Lord because the ground where He stood was holy.  Well.  June popped the trunk, sat on the bumper to put on her shoes and tossed her purse in before slamming the trunk shut harder than she meant to.  Her keys thumped her leg through her skirt pocket.

Sooo… now what?

June curled her toes around her shoes to keep them from thwapping on the pavement, and stepped out into the intersection of Mississippi Highway 1 and Mississippi Highway 8.  Nothing happened.  Her skirt stuck to the sweat inside of her thigh so she shook it loose and walked out into the middle of the intersection.  A mosquito landed on her face but she swatted it off before it got to bite.

This is stupid.

She’d just started back toward her car when she saw the elderly black man strolling up Park Road on the other side of the gas station.  He was taking his sweet-ass time but held a hand up in salute to June.

A minute later he was close enough to say, “Ain’t you even gon’ wave back at somebody wave hello atcha?”

June’s hand made it chest-high before she let it fall.  “Are… are you, uhh…?”

“Shoo, you all bidness.  A’ight then.  You musta come from somewhere else, some big city somewhere.”

“I just drove down from Memphis.”

Memphis!  Unh-UNH-unh!”  His hair was wiry and grey and didn’t move when he shook his head.  He had on denim overalls and a plaid cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and he didn’t look like he had ever stopped smiling, even in sleep.

June’s keys sat heavy against her leg.  The man must have seen her glance at her car because he said, “You got somewhere to be, I ain’t gon’ keep you.  Want a smoke?”

“Yes.  Please.”

He offered the pack, she took one, and he lit her cigarette before he lit one for himself.  The old man inhaled deeply, then blew his smoke with satisfaction at the moon before easing himself down onto the grass.  Looking up at June, he patted the ground next to him.  “If you ain’t in no hurry to go, pull up a seat.  We can talk some.”

The ground had squished unpleasantly around June’s rhinestoned shoes.  She squatted, then knelt, drawing up her skirt to keep it as clean as possible.  Immediately something in the mud wriggled against June’s leg.  She sucked a drag off the cigarette to keep from jumping up, and coughed until the wriggling in the dirt had stopped.  “Sor – sorry.”

The old man patted her hard on the back.  “Don’t be sorry, I thought you was a smoker.  You don’ want that cig’rette, y’ain’ gotta smoke it.”

“No, it’s cool.”  June cleared her throat, took a long drag into her mouth but not her lungs, blew the smoke out the corner of her mouth, sat up straight.  “So.  I gotta ask.  Are you who I think you are?”

“I might be.  Might just be.”

“Then you know why I’m here.”

“I suppose.  Been awhile since anybody came by.  They all been going on up to Clarksdale tryin’na find me where that sign is.”

“But you can’t go in that far from the river.  Right?”

He grinned.  “No, little miss, I guess I can’t.”

June smiled back and tapped the ash off her cigarette.  “I knew it was here in Rosedale.  The crossroads.”

“You a smart girl then.  It’s a lot less people in Rosedale than it used to be, wasn’t many to begin with.  And don’t nobody come lookin’ for me much no more.  You read it in a book?”

“The internet.  I always heard you made that deal with Robert Johnson in Clarksdale, but I also heard it was somewhere else instead.  Last month I thought about making my own deal so I went online and looked up where.”

“The in-ter-net.”  Smoke billowed from his mouth.  “Ain’t it some kind of a world nowadays, huh?”

“Yeah, and with that in mind… don’t you think it’s kind of a cliché for you to appear as an old black man?”

“Miss – I didn’t catch yo’ name.”


“Miss June, you in Rosedale, Mississippi.  You gon’ trust me better if I show up lookin’ like somebody else?”

“Well.”  June slapped a mosquito on her arm, leaving a smear of blood where it had been.  “Maybe not.  I’m just saying.”

“So how come a purty li’l white girl like you out here lookin’ for Ol’ Scratch this time o’the night?”

June took one last drag off her cigarette and stubbed it out in the mud.  The old man’s was still burning and looked like he had hardly smoked it.  “It’s my birthday,” June said.  “I want something, and I’m selling.”

“Birthday!  Lemme guess, you eighteen.”


“Well, hot damn.  I brought the wrong thing with them smokes.  I shoulda brought us some whiskey.”

“It’s okay.  I got some friends gonna meet me at the casinos over in Tunica.  I just wanted to see you first.”

“For what?  You still ain’t say.”

“Oh no.  Whoever names the first price loses, right?  I just got out of college, I learned that much.  You know what I’m selling, if the price is right.  What I want to hear is what you’re offering for it.”

“How I know what to offer?  You talk about Robert Johnson but you ain’ brang no guitar.”

“Not my instrument.”

“Well, what is, then?”

June shrugged.  “I write.  I sing.  I might could act a little if I needed to.  Hell, whatever you say I can do, I can do.  Right?  Tell me what you can make me.  I’ll decide if it’s worth it.”

“That ain’t how this thing works.  You gotta tell me what you’re trading for.  I might say I can make you mo’ beautiful than Helen a’Troy, and then you say –”

“I say it’s the twenty-first century, and what I’m gonna do with beautiful?  I’m not looking for fifteen minutes on reality TV.”

Scratch nodded, took a long drag on his cigarette and listened to the crickets.  A cloud drifted over the moon – for a moment he vanished, but then the cloud passed and there he was again in the moonlight.

“I tell you what,” said Scratch, “you tell me first what kinda soul you sellin’, I see what I can do ya for.  You a churchgoin’ girl?”

“Yeah.  My mom makes me go sometimes.”

“That’s the only reason?”

“I guess.  I’d probably still go for, y’know, Christmas and Easter.  I like to sleep on Sundays.”

“You like the boys?”

“That’s a personal question.”

“Miss June, this is a personal matter.”

“Well.”  June stood up and curled a hand in her pocket around her keys.  “The fact of my being here ought to tell you anything you need to know about me.  I didn’t drive for three hours to have some old man ask invasive questions.  If everything I’ve heard is true, you want to make this deal worse than I do.  If I’m wrong…”

“Hey hey hey, sit down, sit down.”

He had to lean back in order to look up at her.  June said nothing.  With a deep creaky-muscle groan, Scratch heaved himself off the muddy grass, but his lower back wouldn’t go upright just yet so he held one hand against it and stooped.  “A’right, a’right.  Let me guess a few things about you then, you just tell me yes or no.”


He stepped back and took her in, fully.  Knee-length cotton skirt, tank top, muddy flip-flops with dirt caked in her French pedicure.  Hot as the night was, her skin prickled bumps under his appraisal.

“A’ight.”  He dropped his cigarette into the mud and stepped on it with the toe of his work boot.  “Say you twenty-one.  You just get outta college?”


“You a pretty white girl, got that goin’ fuhya.  You owin’ money?”

“Whole mess of it.”


“Not interested.  Not yet, anyway.”

“Mmm-hmmm.  World is changin’, ain’t that the truth.  I’m a say you scared o’something.  Maybe…”  He stepped closer and stared hard into her eyes.  “Maybe you worry about growin’ up just like yo’ momma.”

The sweat on the back of June’s neck turned to frost.  She tried to break the man’s gaze, tried to tell him he was full of shit, but cold clenched her teeth; she could only shiver.  When he looked away and turned his back to light another cigarette, the summer dropped back onto June like a wet towel on the steam room floor.  For a minute she fought to breathe.

Old Scratch turned back to June, still smiling around his fresh cigarette.  Smoke swirled around his mouth.  “Miss June,” he said, “I think we gonna be able to make us a real good deal.”


Kimberly James is an emerging writer, having published previously in the now-closed journal Ash & Bones. Originally from Memphis and Los Angeles, she now lives in Honolulu with her husband and her two sons.