Harlan Mackie was the thirty-five year old front-man for Twisted Ballistix, a band that had already seen its hay-day and obligatory fifteen minutes of fame. Like Most, Harlan and the rest of the group had squandered their fame in their youthful lust for money, drugs, and women. Now, pushing forty, they’d done and seen more than most, and tired of the scene. But none of Ballistix was quite so burnt out as “Mac” Mackie.
He’d done all of the things the others had and then some; blown cash, toured foreign countries and waters, and soiled his share of women. Through it all, he’d aged each day with more weariness than the last. Long before Ballistix was featured in No Moss, the counter-culture music rag that dribbled on everyone’s reputation, he’d seen their decline on the horizon. Only Mac predicted their shift from 80’s glam-rock to blues-inspired jams and graveled crooning would see their popularity wane. Even when it did, he was the only one to mind– maybe, to notice.
While Shift (the drummer), John, and Jake, (bass-guitarist and guitarist respectively) had taken to the change with ease, Mac still clung to the delusions of the high vocals of the Glam-era. His voice begged to differ, had dropped octaves since his youth. He knew what was happening, couldn’t stop it with all the fame in the world; he was getting old, washed up.
He sat in the green room of the Tower-Blade theater in Chicago, hometown of the Blues. The others of the group had already left for the side-stage, there gear waiting for them on-stage. Mac knew the way there without having to be directed. They’d played Tower-Blade twice before, once during the glam-era, and once immediately following Ballistix’s reincarnation. He’d been left to his warm-ups, as usual, given privacy to psych himself up.
Instead, he psyched himself out. He hunched over the lighted bureau back-stage to stare at himself in the mirror. His eyes were deep purple, baggy. His long-hair, already peppered gray, was ratty from more restless nights than he cared to recall. There was nothing more to be done about it, he was finished, through– not even willing to finish out the Tower-Blade gig. Don Mclean had been right; there was a day when the music died, even if Mac couldn’t quite place it anymore.
He tore a scrap of paper from a pad, scrawled over it. The words themselves weren’t important, but the gist was that he was finished, gone. He grabbed a roll of duct-tape from a road-kit, tore off a strip, slapped it atop the note and smacked them both against the mirror. He grabbed his leather jacket, long a staple of his life– even before the Glam-era of eye-liner and finger-less gloves that had accompanied it and helped to make him a star.
He hesitated. He wasn’t a star anymore. He was a has-been, a burnt-out caricature of himself that he doubted anyone would miss. The music was gone. What else could matter to him?
He tossed the jacket over the back of a chair, turned away. He made it to the door before a deep baritone called out to him.
“’Ey Mac, you forgot your jacket.”
Mac whirled ’round, petrified at the lanky figure of a black man, roughly his age. Mac blinked twice. His mind swam. If he’d been stoned, he’d’ve sworn he was hallucinating the legend of John Robertson, Blues-God of Chicago that’d been one of the tour-de-force performers during the genre’s creation.
He took a few steps over room, his black suit-jacket and tie pressed and loose beneath black fedora. He had the deep-set eyes of Robertson, even the gravelly baritone, but it couldn’t have been him– Robertson’d been dead for thirty years, maybe more. He’d had a mishap with an especially potent strand of Heroin, made it to the hospital just in time to die in the ER. Everyone one that’d played the Tower-Blade– indeed, anyone that played the Blues– knew of Robertson’s death. The OD’d started in this very room, at an after-party for one of Robertson’s “Welcome Home” performances. It was the last time Tower-Blade had let anyone throw after-parties in the building.
Even so, the very reflection of Robertson in his prime seemed to make its way toward Mac. The latter’s jaw was slacked above his stony muscles and bones. Robertson extended a hand to the leather jacket, lifted it off the chair, presented it to Mac.
“Can’ go on without’cha your threads, man,” he said. The Robertson look-alike– as it had to have been– met Mac’s eyes, “You ain’t lookin’ so hot, Mac-Knife. What’s the digs?”
Mac’s mouth closed just enough for him to shake his head, “You… You’re…”
“Dead?” He asked under the brim of his fedora. He laid the jacket back over the chair, “Yeah, I s’pose I am ’bout now. What is this, ninety-eight?”
“Oh-three,” Mac said.
“Damn,” Robertson said as he removed his fedora, began to traipse the room with an upward gaze. “The new millennium. Never thought I’d see it.”
Mac blinked, “You didn’t. You were dead in seventy-three. OD’d in…”
Robertson met his eyes again. His words were slow, a serious rise to one of his brows, “In this very room.”
“You’re a… a ghost then, right?” Mac said, in disbelief of his own words.
Robertson’s signature, crooked grin appeared for a moment. He put a long, chocolate finger to his lip, looked to the floor as he stepped over to Mac’s chair. His hand fell to the chair-back, and he crossed his feet in a lean, began to gesture widely, then in small sweeps, with the hat in his other hand.
“Whad’ya know about science, Mac-Knife? Physics, Biology, space-time ‘n all that?”
Mac shrugged, shook his head, too torn between disbelief and utter shock. Robertson straightened enough to step past the chair, set his hat at the bureau in front of it, then lean against its side with a hand in the pocket of chinos, the jacket draped around it.
His other hand illustrated as he explained, “Ya’ see Mac, there’re these moments in time, in our lives, where we just sorta’ fit into place. Physicists call this a Nexus, it’s a point where a bunch of things coalesce– sort’a snow-ball together, to roll down hill in one big conglomeration together.”
Mac blinked, swallowed, “Uh… okay.”
“I can see your confused, but I’ll simplify it for ya’,” he drew the other hand from his pocket, gestured wide to the room. “There’s three events in my life that occurred in this room, that changed its course forever. Bein’ the man that I was, it also changed history. At each’a those events, you can trace that snowball’s path through history to the present, through all the people that were effected through me– My death was one’uv ’em.” He dropped the extra hand again, “Now, the other two, were quite a bit more subtle. They weren’t the kind of thing you see too easily, ‘less you know what to look for.”
Robertson hesitated, slid his other hand in his pocket, scratched at a heel with the opposite foot.
“Now listen close, Mac-Knife, ’cause one’a these concerns you directly, and the other’ll make you understand why. The first, is somethin’ that’s brought me here to ‘ya today.” Mac gave a small blink as if prepared for Robertson to continue. He drew his left hand from his pocket, began to gesture between them, “Good. You’ll be needin’ that curiosity.”
He went silent, sank into memory that brought on an old vernacular that immediately swept Mac into the past with it. Robertson began, “Ya’ see, I was a Blues-man, one’a the first. I knew all the other boys when they were the firsts too. Me ‘n the Kings, Muddy, and John Lee, and more than you could name; we was the soul– the heart of a poor-folk taught all their lives they wasn’t worth nothin more’n the sweat on their brow. But ya’ see, we disagreed with that notion, ‘n like the ancient troubadours, we didn’t know nothin’ more than to sing about it with screams ‘n cries from the only instruments that knew it better than us.”
Mac suddenly felt the sweat bead on his brow, heard the distant sounds of wailing guitars that cried out over the throaty shouts of young blues-men trying to find their place in the world.
As if Robertson felt it too, he commented to the effect, “Ya’ see, thing is, back in them days, we didn’t have a place. Nobody’d heard’a the blues, and no-one gave a thought to the poor-folk ‘less they’d had to step over ’em in the street. ‘N all of sudden, here we were– ‘fore the Brits and their invasion, the rock-pop scene, hell, even ol’ Chuck ‘n his duck-walkin’– screamin’ for someone to help us find our place in the world.”
Mac finally found his words over the sounds of past Blues-men that wailed in his head, “But you’re a legend, John. You always were.”
Robertson gave a giggly laugh, his pearly whites bright as ever in his brown mug, “Maybe I was, but no one starts out that way, Mac-Knife. Hell, you know that better’n anyone. Me ‘n the boys? We was trash, not fit to shine the shoes’a the folks we made rich with our suff’rin’.” He nodded to himself with a look at his feet, “Hmm… yeah. Yeah. That’s what we was. ‘N you see, that’s where the first of the events’a my life comes to play. Year was… uh.. ’63, I believe,” he did a mental calculation. “Forty-years to the day, if I’m not mistaken.”
Mac knew the year, “’63? That was right before all the marches and protests.”
Robertson was pleased, “Tha’s right. One’a the first times black-folk rose together, said they wasn’t gonna’ take it anymore. ‘N you know what happened here, that night?”
Max shook his head, “I know you were here.”
Robertson’s brow gave a buck, “I was. ‘N I wasn’t.” He removed both hands from his pocket, “Ya’ see, we was just workin’ on carvin’ ourselves out a spot in the world when it went ‘n got crazy on us. All’uva sudden, people were risin’ in the streets, throwin’ their own cries and pleas. We didn’ think they needed us no more. Or at least… I didn’t.” He put a finger to his mouth again, waggled it outward for a few turns, “Nah, I was wrong ’bout that. ‘N I knew it then. Ya’ see, me ‘n one’a my guys– cat by the name of Tempo-Jones– called ‘im Jonesy in those days– had a sit before the show. ‘N all we could hear in the background was the roarin’a the crowd.”
Mac heard it too. It wasn’t in his head this time, it was the audience waiting for Ballistix to take the stage, start a night of screaming blues. Mac shuddered, ready to bolt.
Robertson held him in place with a smile, “Yeah, that was how I felt. See, I didn’ think then, what I know now: It takes a legend to lead a crowd, be their… their representative. ‘N the best man to do that’s the one that can be heard over their own roar to scream for ’em.”
Mac’s eyes narrowed, “I don’t understand.”
Robertson nodded, “I ‘spect not, but you will.” He slid his hands back into his pockets, wiggled a foot along the heel of his wayfarer, “It was ten years to the day that I shot-up a dose a dope that made me soar so high I didn’t come back down. Thirty-years to the day, as it is now. Those are two’a three events that I was talkin’ about. The first, ‘case you missed it, was me realizin’ that the people needed me to cry out for ’em. The last, was me havin’ done my job. The Brits’d already invaded. Chicago was a Blues town. ‘N the poor, black-folk’d had their say ‘n now people were listenin.’ They didn’ need me no more, ‘n I didn’ need to be creatin’ what me ‘n the boy’s’d created anymore. I was finished with the world, and it in turn’d finished with me.”
Mac shook his head, “That’s not true, John. People still love you. You’re still a legend. Your work still affects people, it changed the world.”
Robertson waggled his finger at Mac with a smile, “See, now you’re catchin’ on, boy. You’re getting’ there, but you’re not there yet. Ya’ see, cats like me, we got somethin’ more in our veins– more’n blood, more’n soul, more than anything you can think to name. I always called it “The Power.” The power to get up on that stage, ‘n wail the blues with my git-box, ‘n echo the cries’a of the people for them– ‘n I did it louder’n meaner than any other man could’a.”
Mac nodded, “That’s what I mean. You are a legend. The people still need you.”
“As an icon, a legend,” Robertson agreed. “That’s how they need me now.” He scratched at a cheek, presented a few fingers through the air as he explained, “’Ya see, that third event that I was tellin’ ya ’bout? That’s what’s happenin’ right now, right here.” Mac squinted at him. Robertson cocked his head to one side, examined him for a minute. “Lem’me ask you somethin’ Mac-Knife; in all the years you been performin’ how many times you lost time? Been so in the groove you ain’t sure where it ends and you begin? I’d wager it’s more’n you know.”
Mac looked to the floor, thought about it. His eyes returned to Robertson’s with a shake of his head and a shrug, “Yeah, so? That’s what we do, innit? We try to get lost in that groove, take everyone with us?”
Robertson’s smiled weighted his cocked head further to the side, “Yep. You’re right.”
“So, what’s your point?”
Robertson’s head kept its tilt, but his arms crossed and his eyes gleamed, “You know the power I was talkin’ about. I know you do. We all do. That’s why we’re in this business.” Mac made a half nod, as if to affirm Robertson’s words. “And you know, that power, it’s somethin’ none of us can explain. Somethin’ we don’t quite control. It just works through us. Works us over sometimes, right?” Again, Mac nodded. Robertson’s head straightened, “It was ’71, two years before I collapsed from that shot’a dope, that I was leanin’ in the very spot I’m in now. I was ramped up for a gig, ready to scream the blues, when the power overtook me. It was better’n any dope I’d ever had, ‘n I suddenly found myself here, with you, with all’a the knowledge I’d ever need to make my point– like I’d lived more’n forty years in seconds.”
Mac shook his head, confounded, “No, that can’t be. You’ve been dead … and this… I just, I don’t understand.”
Robertson smiled, “This is one’a them Nexus points, Mac.” He finally straightened from the bureau, “Ya’ see, I’m bound to give up my power at some point. No man on this earth can defeat death. He’s a miserable bastard that hunts us down no matter how long it takes ‘im. But the kind’a power I got, the kind you’re gonna’ have; it can’t just appear. It’s gotta’ be handed over.”
Robertson stepped over to Mac. He stepped back on instinct, “No, I’m done. I’m leaving.”
The old blues man met his eyes, “Tell me what’s happening in your world. War, right? Lot’s’a poverty? The sick ‘n dying screamin’ out for someone to listen? Someone to echo, loud as they can, so the others can hear? To use their power for good? Isn’t that why you got in this game? To be the Tom-Cat, loved by all ’cause’a the screamin’ you did for ’em while they were screamin’ for you?”
Mac grit his teeth. He wasn’t sure why he’d gotten into it anymore. For that matter, he wasn’t sure of much, except that he couldn’t keep living as husk, a has-been, a burn out.
Robertson lifted his hand, placed it on Mac’s shoulder, “All you been lookin’ for’s a way outta’ your predicament. ‘N now you have it. Sing the blues, ‘n feel it.” He jabbed a finger into Mac’s chest, “Feel it. If not for you, then for the people that need to be heard. You’ll be a legend. One the world needs. You’ll change history, just like I did. Like the boys did with me. All you gotta’ do’s accept the offer.”
Mac steeled himself with a deep breath; everything Robertson had said, everything he’d felt himself, all of his worries and cares seemed to hinge on his answer now. It was as though he’d been shown the way to revival, all he had to do was take the steps along its path. He wasn’t sure he could. But he wasn’t sure he could turn it down either.
He bit at his lips, took a deep breath, “What do I do?”
Robertson smiled, lowered his hand, “Well, that’s the question, ain’t it?” He turned around slowly to grab his hat, “We all asked it then; what do we do to find our place, our way? Truth is, we had to carve it out. ‘N we did.” He lifted Mac’s jacket from the chair, “I expect, like we did, you’ll figure it out. You just gotta’ get there.” He handed it over, “Don’t forget your jacket, Mac.”
He extended an apprehensive hand, retrieved the jacket from Robertson, their eyes locked, “Wh-what if I can’t do it?”
“My momma’ always said, ya’ never know ’til ‘ya try.” He glanced sideways with a bittersweet look, returned his eyes to Mac’s, “I kept that in my heart, followed it all my life. Who knows– maybe you can too.”
He lifted his hat to Mac’s chest, handed it over, and stepped away. Mac whirled to follow him, “Wait! John! How do I do it?”
Robertson was halfway across the room, smoky and transparent looking. He glanced back with a crooked smile, tipped an invisible hat forward, and disappeared.
“Mac?” A voice called behind him; it was the equally aged figure of Jake, his Paul around his neck, waiting to be plugged into scream. He gripped it in one hand beneath a plectrum, “You warmed up?”
Mac stared for a second, then looked to the hat, “Y-Yeah. I’m coming.”
Jake squinted at him, “Where’d you get the hat?”
Mac was breathless, “John Robertson.”
Jake snorted, “Pft, yeah, alright joker. C’mon, we gotta’ show to play.”
Mac slipped into the leather jacket, took a deep breath, then set the hat atop his head. A rush of power floored him, coursed through his veins as his ears honed in on the sounds of the distant crowd. He suddenly understood. He reached forward, tore the note off the mirror, balled it up, and tossed it away. He turned for the stage, disappeared from Tower-Blade’s green room.