His fingers rubbed bloody across the thick stitches of his Levi Jean pockets. They were worn and grey, tattered from constant fidgeting. The knees had holes ripped across them like he had found the things lost in his mother’s closet circa 1979. Of course he had bought them like that. They were marked down forty percent, and it was a deal he couldn’t pass up. The pockets on the other hand; well he ripped those himself. The nerves would start at the heart and tremble outward towards his extremities. His speech was impeccable, but his hands shook like he needed a cigarette. Instead of grabbing for a pack, he wrung his fingers across the inner linings of his not so designer denim jeans.
The dark man sitting next to him had a flat newsboy on his head, a cheap blazer, and a brief case that said he had either just moved to Hollywood or he had been there way too long.
“Ser name, partner?” The man said.
“First audition, Robert?”
“First in a while.” Robert said.
“You don’t look much. How long you’ve been out here?
“Came out here from Mississippi four years ago. Took a break for about a year.
“Say you couldn’t rid the itch.” The man said. “Looks like you damn wore those pockets.”
“Say I just about did.”
Robert pulled his fingers from his pockets and saw that the tips were starting to callus over. His sandpaper jeans were stained black across the belt from incessantly scraping his broken fingerprints over the top of them. If he had the money he would buy another pair, but all Robert had were his fucked up jeans, broken down van, and wadded up eviction notice that should've had a stamp splashed across the front of it reading: GO BACK HOME - YOU FAILED - BLACK PEOPLE DON'T MAKE IT IN HOLLYWOOD.
“I think I just might have to catch the next one.” The man said.
“What do you mean?”
“Looks like this one’s going to you.”
“You don’t know that.” Robert said.
“But I do. I can tell. You want it so bad it’s printed on your face, your hands, your jeans.” The man said. “Say you don’t get it?”
“Guess that’s the end of it then.” Robert said.
“Desperate men prevail.” The man said. “Desperate men make hard decisions. Say desperate men make bad decisions as much as good... You really want this thing?”
“I do. I better—at this point.” Robert said.
“Hope you thought hard and read your lines.”
“I read em’.” Robert said. “Every last word.”
“I only got through half the damn book. Say you know more about what you’re doing in there than me.” The man said.
They were waiting on a dark sound-stage blocked in by four fake walls that created a faux office. Artificial light hit them overhead in a low orange dim. Beautiful as the building shone on the outside Robert thought the inside would look much prettier. Of course it never did. Stubby walls sprawled across the large stage cramming a dozen sets into one building. Just beyond the office sat a railroad and a street corner. A western movie built on concrete. Robert thought that fitting—for what he was about to do.
“Robert Johnson.” A female’s voice rang out. She was wearing a sharp black pencil squirt that shaped her body all the way to her tied back up-do. Her hair was red, and her lips also, the color of fire. “You play the blues?”
“I do not ma’am.” Robert said.
“You’re auditioning for the lead?” The fire headed woman asked.
“I am ma’am.”
“Come along.” She said.
Robert followed the woman out of the office and into the pitch-black sound-stage. Small lamps gave light to shadowy details of broken sets. Costumes from old movies stood pushed aside in dusty corners. Relics from Hollywood’s past sat shoved away. Only time could tell when they would be boxed up for the next best thing. Somewhere at a rich man’s auction last year’s blockbuster was being sold in pieces, and here is where those pieces were made—at a crossroads built on concrete—with a fake train always ready to chug on by.
“Stand on the red marker.” The woman said.
A bright light shone across the marker blinding Robert’s eyes. He squinted and could barely make out a train cabin, the large camera lens focused on him, the faint shadow of a man standing behind it, and the sudden largeness of everything that was happening. It was a suffocating feeling that started at his heart and moved slowly down the veins of his arms causing violent unstoppable shaking to the bones of his hands.
“Robert Johnson. Crossroads - Lead.” The woman said.
“I know who he is.” The shadow spoke. “It’s nice to see you again Mr. Johnson.”
“Wish I could say the same.” Robert Johnson replied.
“We haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Spose’ I was buyin’ my time.”
“Have you read the lines?” The shadow asked.
“I’ve read em’.” Robert said.
“Have you thought about the role?”
“I’ve thought about it.” Robert said. “That’s why I’m here isn’t it?”
“Then we should start.” The shadow spoke.
The camera light began to blink red. Robert still couldn’t see the figure causing the shadow, but he could feel it looming over him. He was standing there somewhere behind the camera and beyond the blinking red light. He stood on the other side of the body and the lens—the film that recorded the picture— it took a piece of Robert’s self he knew he could never get back. The camera would make a desperate man prisoner.
“So Robert, what have you given us?” The shadow spoke.
“I’ve given my home. I’ve given my family and my friends. I’ve burned every bridge I ever crossed. I’ve given my job—which was looking pretty good until I got the itch. Never had a loved one, Sir. Never had someone to call my own. All I ever had was this dream of mine. The work and talent—it doesn’t mean anything if you still have your soul.”
“So what would you like from me?” She shadow asked.
“I’d like to make an exchange.” Robert said.
The shadow crept from beyond the camera and gently asked Robert to begin reading his lines. Through the bright light and fading black horizon Robert saw what he believed to be a smile. It curled up to the shadow’s cheeks exposing a row of white jagged teeth. Robert felt his heart stop, and his hand calm. He mustered up his courage and started reciting lines that he didn't remember to practice. They must've been around page 13; Mark: 4:15.
“We’ll go far.” The shadow said.
And Robert knew it to be true.