Harlow watched Lyle from the Gods, the blues seeding and blossoming in her bosom.
He started with a few, rusty chords; then, with his boot soles tapping out a beat, slid into the dirtiest licks she’d ever heard. It hit her full on, like a blow to the head. Twelve-bar blues played in G.
“Lawd, yiss, he’s jus’ whoo.”
Lyle could conjure up the sound of the Delta better than most. Played a resophonic guitar. National. Old school. A travelling bluesman. Crowds sat up straight when he played.
“Drop by see me sometime – here till closin’.”
There was a hint of a smile on his face, though he wasn’t talking to anyone in particular.
Harlow intended to write about important things. Women in blues and jazz, improvisation, the palimpsistic wearing of many skins. She’d imagined her pen scratching over the dry, empty pages of a journal.
Instead, of getting that writing done, she got the blues for Lyle. Her longing turned everything to fragments.
His beautiful hands and arms, inked so that they mirrored the scroll and flowers engraved on his guitar. The thrummed chords and the rising wail of the bottleneck slide caused Harlow’s heart to ache. She whispered his name.
She turned the word over and over on her tongue. Lyle, Lyle. It tasted salty, dirty and sweet.
Her thoughts travelled like gossamer across the empty space. He looked up. Saw her lips open in the dark. It made him breathe in deeply. Harlow gave him the version of herself where she spreads her wings, casting a spell like a conjure woman. Learning to do this had been important.
When his performance ended, he sought her out. They drank bourbons and cokes late into the night. Lyle studied the curve of her mouth as she gave him a white smile of possibility. When they danced, his chin rasped her cheekbone. Her eyes fixed on the little silver stud that shone from under his bottom lip.
When you’ve got the blues, the night can swallow you up. Lyle stopped travelling for a while. Instead, he began dropping by her place pretty regular. Harlow lived out in the country, on a straight road lined with half-fallen telegraph poles.
One night, as the trees cracked in the tinder-dry wind, a question turned in her mind.
“Tell me, how does a sweet boy like you carry all those load-bearing licks?”
It was important to her, the twin intelligences of music and desire.
“You have to listen, that’s all,” he said.
They were sitting out on her porch. He raised his dark eyebrows and smiled a little as he picked up his guitar. It shimmered as he turned the tuning pegs and plucked the strings, putting his ear close to the vibrating sound. The chords hit her skin like blades. Her heart thumped. The yowl of the slide moaned her name.
He played until the sweat dripped.
The licks were hard, raw and pure to the bone.
“Wow, jus’, wow,” she said.
When he stopped, he gazed at her, wide-eyed, as if, at any moment, she might burn up.
“Jesus, we’re a fire,” he said.
Harlow put her fingers to his lips. She wanted him to stay, fixed, like that, with the guitar resting in the crook of his arm. No words, just looking.
Days or weeks might have come and gone. It felt like forever. He’d just drop by, drink whisky and play for her. Then he’d smile his handsome, trapped smile, knowing she was gazing at him.
When they slept together, she could feel the scrolls and flower tattoos, like hooks of music under his skin.
Lyle. Such a sweet boy. Such flammable carelessness. Playing for her, night after night, sitting on her porch. Amidst all that burning, she hadn’t noticed that his playing had subtly changed. It growled and rumbled. It began to shift, to edge down new roads.
One morning, Harlow felt a shiver of something pass over her in the heat. When Lyle gathered up his stuff, he said he had to move on for work. His pretty face had dimmed a little.
“I’ll drop by and see you,” he said. There was a hint of a smile on his face, though it was as if he wasn’t smiling at anyone in particular.
There was a glitter of something in Harlow’s eyes. She tried to translate her experience into words. It might be expected that she would write about patriarchal gender relations, about why these men move on so easily…but when you’ve got the blues. Dust and stray threads hung in the house, disfiguring everything. At night, Harlow lay in bed, clinging to an empty, guitar-shaped space. Parched leaves rustled outside her window. Longing burnt her up. Bits of her flaked off like ash.
Lyle had travelled west, two days straight, to play at an old music hall in some buried town. He tuned his guitar. The crowds sat up straight and listened. The veins stood out on his arms as he played with all his soul. There was nothing on his mind, nothing except the music.
“Lyle, Lyle,” Harlow called into the darkness. Her tongue stuck dryly to the roof of her mouth.
It wasn’t long before her ghost arrived without invitation, writhing its way back into his heart. Alone in his motel room, sucking in the silence, Lyle heard the metallic hum of the wind along miles of telegraph wire. The air, at times, felt too heavy for him to breathe. He strummed a little on his guitar, suddenly embracing some mad, discordant sounds.
“Conjure woman,” he said under his breath.
Harlow smiled a little on hearing those words.
Her skin sighed and cracked under the weight of those load-bearing licks. Salty, dirty and sweet.
First published by Marauder Literary Magazine.