by Elizabeth R. McClellan                                                                                                                Rhysling Award Nominee: “Long Poem”

For Betsy Phillips, who knows how the roads lie.

I.

The Devil is a good old boy at heart
who wishes sometimes he knew how to live right
but just can’t stay off the stuff
of this world long enough to get saved.
After the Fall it’s a long way to rock bottom.

Times have changed, but the Devil keeps
his patterns—same riffs but
the age shows in the wrinkles of his tunes.

Someone in this story’s always named
for that good old-time beloved apostle,
a mostly forgotten charm
to remind babies “God is gracious”
when they have so many reasons to doubt.

When the Devil hangs around
Mississippi at midnight, he still picks
out of the way intersections.
When no one comes to trade,
he sings for himself.

Every time he slips into gospel
in the middle of laying down
the most outrageous slow-time blues,
he tells himself it’s pure irony, but
the way the Devil sings
Looked over Jordan and
what did I see, anyone would guess

the old man knows his morning train
ain’t never pulling in.

II.

When the Devil’s been drinking he forgets
how he and Robert fell out.  Memphis
knows his weaknesses, laid its streets
out to confuse him, keep him wandering
endlessly up and down Beale, tipping bartenders
sooty twenties for helpful advice.

When he comes, you’ll know him, whoever he asks for.
These days he smokes Camel filters. Send him
to the bar furthest up the street. Take his money but
never invite him in.

It passes with the classic
urban legend pattern.  Still, that’s what
Janelle with the braids who works the window bar
at B.B. King’s got told, two managers ago now.
He made her promise,

made her swear on her own fool soul
to lie steadfastly to a little lost old man
looking for his dead friends—but
in this economy in a right-to-starve state
she gave a little to get her little.

When the Devil came, he didn’t want cigarettes,
just asked if Robert was inside.
When she gabbled out her set piece,
he nodded, passed her a twenty,
gagged her with the stink of rotted eggs
and something worse,

that sick organic reek of Delta alleys
when the dumpsters are all cooking
in exhaust and hundred degree heat,
teeming with the unpleasant realities that
keep what’s dead from staying around forever.
It got in her hair, worse than cigarette smoke.

The garbage smell washed out after while, but
Gracie at the beauty shop asked if she’d gone over
to Hot Springs, looked at her strange when she said no.

Now when he comes she smiles and
tells him politely where she thinks Robert’s at,
pointing him anywhere management rips off
the staff, where a spare twenty bucks
might feed two for a week.
She seals his tips in a Ziploc,
runs them through the washer
with her uniform after work.

More and more often she finds herself
dropping the crisply laundered bills
in the collection plate or the cup
of the street face who sings, plays guitar,
likes his Jack, occasionally screams
a pitch-perfect train whistle into the night.

III.

In Nashville the Devil’s been spotted
asking for his friend Johnny, getting
endless shots of Walker for his trouble.

It starts with Join your friends
while you got ‘em cause you know
they’re getting fewer every day,
his hat filling up with crumpled cash
from those who feel compelled to pay,
but don’t stop to listen.

It always ends with him
sitting on the plaza calling
shall we gather at the river
to the toxic stream below.

He thinks he’s seeing double but
it’s just the Shelby Street Bridge,
confusing him again.

After the flood at least twelve waitresses
reported him missing, not knowing
the river-smell that lingers in the District
will keep him scarce for a while yet.

IV.

When Elvis died the Memphis streets filled up
with mourners who didn’t know or care
where their sovereign stole his rock and blues.

Moths and flames have nothing on
the Devil and wakes.  It’s a compulsion.

A sobbing white Jane from Michigan pointed
the wrinkled black man in the dusty suit coat
up November 6th Street when he asked,
looking lost, where Tommy was playing tonight.

I don’t think that movie
is still in theaters, is it?

In the antique shop that replaced Blues Alley
that last time it burned down,  the roof beams
still show the char.  The Devil forgets this is
his handiwork, doesn’t recall the August night
in seventy-seven when he spewed brimstone
and moonshine all over the floor

when the dead voice rang loud in his head
twelve gates to the city all square wide,

all the bottles behind the bar catching fire
at once, the roof showering sparks
like confetti on the street-side funeral cortege
honoring their self-styled king with tears and sweat,
a thousand pinpricks of blood sacrifice to the mosquito cloud.

Sometimes now he goes there, looking,
ends up buying old switch knives and harmonicas,
battered banjos, fiddles, guitars.  They tell him sir,
the blues bar moved to Front Street, but it’s too close
to the river, makes the Devil itch under the creases of his hat,

so he ends up back down Beale, smoking cigarettes
in the alley, staring holes into a plastic cup of beer
that sometimes melts clean away from his heat,
leaves a steamy puddle of regret, vinegar
and burnt plastic for the streetcleaners.

V.

Around Easter he usually swears
he’s gonna give it up, goes slow and aching
down the old stage road to The Rock,

Georgia, where there’s only one crossroads
and not a package store anywhere in fifty miles.
He slumps on the red clay that hisses and sets hard
beneath him, leaned up against a signpost,

coughing tar, looking up guilty as homemade sin
while he picks, hums Could my zeal no respite know,
ears buzzing with flies, the start of a hangover.

Even the lightning won’t come to listen,
the damp air sours the strings
but the rain won’t break.

VI.

The Devil’s tears are so dry they sizzle hot holes
in the wide lapels of his centenarian suit.  He walks
until the moon sets, down Highway 36
to the old Cedar Grove cemetery where
the coffin fragments stick out of the earth and
the paper markers left over from the forties

look like dried yellow flowers on the graves.
The Devil doesn’t need to read them, he
remembers who rests here in his bones.
Those who never got a decent burial
have always been his particular kin,
whether or not they were among the saved.

He calls the sun up with his private lamentation
for Robert, for Tommy, for all the forgotten names
of all the unnamed dead beneath his feet who

got home at the end of days, never mind
hell or high water.  Licks make the leaves tremble,
last fair deal gone down.


More from Elizabeth R. McClellan:

ELIZABETH MCCLELLAN is a second-year law student who lives in a probably-haunted apartment house in Memphis, Tennessee. When not making scholarly arguments for the applicability of legal personhood to artificial intelligence, she writes stories and poems, usually exploring the untold tales of not-unsympathetic monsters. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine and The Legendary; she is a 2011 Rhysling Award nominee. Amid reports that she is a Devil’s advocate in training, McClellan notes that the learned gentleman from the lower realms has no trouble securing his own counsel without her assistance.

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