Winner of the 2012 Graywolf SLS Prize


The winner of the 2012 Graywolf SLS Prize, awarded to the best novel excerpt from an emerging writer, is Snowden Wright, for Play Pretty Blues. The novel is a fictional account of the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, and based on these pages, it stands to be a wild, dark tale. Wright’s finely tuned descriptions of life in the 1930s, along with his empathetic portrait of Johnson, made the excerpt stand out. This chapter retells the most well-known story about Johnson’s life: “the selling of his soul to the devil” in exchange for skills on the guitar. Only this time, he’s a young busker at the crossroads. Play Pretty Blues is forthcoming from Engine Books in November, so be sure to watch for it at your local indie bookstore. SLS will announce the winner of the 2013 prize by April 12, and the winner’s novel excerpt will appear on our website.




Chapter Three


from Play Pretty Blues


Years later, two weeks prior to his death, Robert Johnson would remember Calletta Craft’s words as plainly as the chords of a song, but at the moment, ten minutes past midnight on December 12, 1931, he might as well have had cotton pits stuck deep in his ear sockets. “You can play it on the one,” Callie said from the player piano across the lobby, “you can play it on the other.”


At the Emerald Slipper, a proprietary concern Callie inherited from her first husband, Sargent Craft, after he fell into a nest of water moccasins, Robert was playing on both his harmonica and his guitar, studying how to mimic one’s sound on the other. It was a slow night. The nearby town of Martinsville, nothing more than a coalition of pine lumberyards and railway backtracks in the southern part of Mississippi, provided a meager clientele. Although ostensibly a dosshouse for people of a stamp, your sneak thieves, your gandy dancers, your street buskers, the Emerald Slipper got most of its revenue from the cottage industry of flesh. Our husband, who was neither customer nor employee but who had lived there the past four months, took well to being kept.


“Why don’t you put that thing down, lover?” Callie straddled the piano bench as a child would a rocking horse. “Why don’t you come over and stay awhile?”


“In a second,” Robert said. “Just a second.”


Callie Craft was a contradiction. She would slap a trickle of blood from the quivering lips of her girls upstairs only to spend hours at night wrapping towels soaked in buttermilk around their lady parts. She would earn money to purchase unnecessary comforts like glad rags from Montgomery Ward by sewing quilts for white women whose Parisian styles she sought for her own closet. The mysterious names of her patchwork designs—Distant Star of Sweet Bedlam, Hobson’s Choice, Forbidden Fruit, Lincoln’s Platform, Long Road to River Styx—were common parlance among good society. Seven years shy of her fiftieth birthday, widow twice over, and mother of three full-grown children, Callie advocated the belief that everyone’s past was best forgotten. She kept a nation sack full of dead scorpions tied around each garter to ward away the spirits of her neverborn.


Robert was busy mumbling to himself, “I said got damn, I said got damn,” straining his eyes on the strings, tapping his foot to a rhythm, and experimenting with new finger positions when Callie slinked her way across the bear-pelt rug ornamenting the lobby floorboards, raised his neck hairs from behind with the damp of her breath, slipped her hand over his shoulder towards the trouser crutch, and began torturing his limp prick through the buffer of shoddy gabardine wool. She said, “I need to buy you some new pants. These just will not do.”


“If that’s what you’d rather,” Robert said as he went stiff in her grip, a sunflower to its namesake, “I’m not stopping you.”


His glass of white whiskey, still half full after its pour an hour ago, made a sweat ring on the mahogany bar. The tang of creosote throughout the lobby, a result of the Avondale stove beginning to scorch the purple flocked-velvet wallpaper, stood to overwhelm the smell of perfume, hair tonic, and monthlies drifting from the bedrooms overhead. His brogans with their wooden soles, bought on a charge ticket at the county grab-all, rang a coarse noise against the ground. Robert was near to panic when he finally spent himself in those old pants. 


Given such distractions, bless his soul, our husband could only practice after a fashion. He needed the consideration we would soon provide him. Callie did not exhibit hardly the prudence of Mary Sue, who every day went for a walk between the hours of three and six. Callie lacked the tender, honest devotion of Betty, who regularly emptied his whiskey bottles in the woodshed. Callie did not possess half the foresight of Claudette, who often gave her children rock candy to keep them quiet. What made her think she could possibly become a better half? How could she ever regard herself as one of the fairer sex? These days we have come to learn that women are always more sensible, except of course whenever it concerns their sensibilities.


“Let’s you and me head up to the bedroom,” Callie said. “Momma wants her some milk and honey. Might even let you have some, too.”


“I have told you I need to practice for at least another hour.”


The lobby was not loud for a little bit.


“I am none too pleased with the tone I’m hearing right now.”


“Wish I could say I gave a horse apple in hay,” Robert said. “Leave me alone ‘til I finish playing this thing. Give me some hush-now so as I can think.”


The dowager’s gall should warrant its own categorical distinction amongst the bodily humors. On such harsh words from Robert, Callie Craft carelessly walked towards the bar and carefully wiped her arm across the countertop, sending a dozen glasses crashing to shards on the ground and waking every girl upstairs with the frightful racket. Afterwards, she exited the Emerald Slipper through the saloon doors in front, perhaps to stand on the porch until someone saw fit to attend on her, perhaps to visit the outhouse until the winter chill sent her back inside for warmth. Robert did not once give his eyes to anything other than the guitar.


He was working on a knife piece. Although his face would often appear misleadingly boyish, as each of us failed to realize during those years but as each of us have come to understand so many decades later, Robert Johnson tended to show his true age when he concentrated on music. We can picture him now. The skin about his bad eye may have bunched together like a river in oxbow as he studied on how exactly to place his hand against the fingerboard. His lips may have shrunk to a pucker around the stub of an unlit easy-roll. The hollows of each cheek may have fallen deeper into his overbite of the jaw. His brow may have imitated the rows of a cotton field in tilling season as he cantered the cheap guitar on his thigh and plucked each string with a copper pick. At the Emerald Slipper, Robert was so focused on his music he must not have heard someone enter the lobby behind him—that stomp of boots on the doorsill, an awkward cough, that wallop of a hat losing its crest—nor must he have heard the stranger stop and listen to him play the blues.


“You’re doing it all wrong.”


On the other side of the room stood a tall, elegant, meticulous, thin man in an ebony frock coat, his Wellingtons dripping grassy midnight dew, his Tyrolean hanging on a coat tree in the corner. Dust came off him like wet from a dog. His skin could not have been darker if it’d been smeared with burnt cork, but his eyes could’ve only been brighter if they had been wiped in cold cream. He wore on his upper lip the ghost of a pencil moustache. At Robert’s attention, the man crossed the room, offering his hand for a shake and saying, “But take heart, young man. I could teach you how to play the guitar. Like you would never dream ‘til the coming of rapture.”


The man’s hand was slippery in the palm, missing a digit, and hot as the flames of hell.



Reverend Ike Zinnerman of Pass Christian, Mississippi, lost his pinkie finger on Black Thursday of the Great Wall Street Crash. Prior to the historic day, he’d been a purveyor of toothpaste, a metallurgist, a veteran of the war with a limp taken in the trenches, a lost relative, a found relative, a victim of highway robbery, an inventor of the perpetual motion device, and a skillful raconteur whose tales of the El Camino Real, Babe Ruth, regal ancestry, the Maginot Line, Dr. Du Bois, x-ray machines, the World’s Fair, and petroleum strikes along the Bering Strait never failed to gain him respect, generosity, and zeal from any and all listeners. Reverend Ike may not have been a reverend, but the label honestly did suit his occupation. He ordained the sacraments, preached the gospel, and ministered to worship of the almighty dollar.


On Thursday, October 24, 1929, Reverend Ike was putting on an “Authentic Revival of Campbellite Temperament” near the swampy canebrakes due west of our state capitol. His sermon was known countywide as evangelism in the raw. At a quarter ‘til sunset, Reverend Ike took the platform built of yellow pine and stood before a congregation of poor, black laborers. He did not say a word for good on two minutes. Rather than grow restless with such quiet, the members of the crowd, not exchanging their recipes for buttermilk pie, not upsetting ant beds with a stick, not considering painful ingrowths of the nail, became more and more deferential to the figure so struck with piety he could not utter a word. They drew a collective gasp when Reverend Ike said, “Come forward, my flock.”


He told them he was a shepherd whose mission was to guide them through the valley of the shadow of death. He told them they would not only weather the storm of persecution like the Israelites lost in the desert for so many years, eating “mantra” fallen from the sky, carrying the ark of the “cabinet,” but they would also prevail themselves unto the holy land as the one and only people chosen to receive the Lord’s divine glory. He told them he knew the names of their heartbeats. He told them he heard their thoughts as a melody. He told them he understood The Sound of God.


“It is the sound of your heartbeats and your thoughts. It is the sound of salvation, of grace, of paradise, of hope. Have you heard God? It is said that once He enters your soul, at that very instant, music will fill your ears. Pray with me.”


Of course, at that very instant, music filled their ears, taking the form of a high-pitched noise with no discernable origin. Dulcet as it was stentorian, pleasant as a banshee, joyful as a siren, resonant as it was mercurial, the music preordained by Reverend Ike stood in contrast to all expectations, its single up note uncanny to the crowd’s ears, its persistence an offense to their composure. One of the crowd members, an old man who’d lost his wife and daughter to the Red Shirts during the last days of Reconstruction, said it must be the tornado siren in the far outskirts of West Jackson. Another of the crowd members, a young girl who devotedly kept track of the National Urban League’s broadcasts from Strivers Row in Harlem, said it must be a wireless catching the signal from KRQ in New Orleans. None of the crowd was right, but one thing was for certain. The sound of God begat the fear of God. 


With notably vaudevillian theatrics—one of Zinnerman’s descendants would, years to come, work a routine on the Catskill circuit—Reverend Ike took a Quaker’s hat he’d bartered years ago from a fellow traveler and let it be sallied hand to hand throughout the congregation. “The holy tithe is one of the most important sacraments decreed by God in heaven above,” he said. “Please donate anything you can afford to do without, so that His word may be spread far and wide in this great land.” It took less than ten minutes for the hat to grow lumpy with buffalo nickels, Lincoln pennies, and barber dimes. Around the same moment, unfortunately for Reverend Ike, fortunately for everyone else, the sound of God came to an abrupt end, replaced by tree branches snapping in half and the loud, tinny scream of a child.


The crowd rushed to the source. At a shady graveyard within shouting distance, they found a little boy spread unconscious on a bed of pine straw, his arm broken in two places, his face covered in scratch marks. A trumpet lay next to him. Let it not be said the common folk of the South lack a gift for deductive thought. Every gaze in the crowd shifted from the boy who’d obviously taken a spill from high up a tree, to the trumpet on the ground, to the man who’d obviously tried to swindle all of their hard-won money.


Such a picture of collective rage gave Reverend Ike ample grounds for concern. He put on a healthy smile. He let out a weak chuckle. Some five years back, he had seen a partner’s skin peel from the bones of his legs and face and arms, the hot, black tar and duck feathers rendering him a monstrous skeleton. The waking nightmare that had plagued Reverend Ike since that day, those howls of pain so loud they rang in his teeth, that stench of burnt flesh so rank it made food a task, came back to him in the graveyard full of angry fathers, children, and mothers. His knees hit the soft earth at the foot of a headstone. His nails tore at a slab of granite cut by hand. Although his senses were so dull he could hardly read the grave’s inscription—“William Jebediah Arnold, Great Soldier for the Confederacy, Loyal Friend, Honest Servant of Our Lord God, 1844-1868”—Reverend Ike clearly heard someone in the crowd say, “A man with such thieving fingers don’t rightfully deserve them.”



At the corner of Jefferson Street and Sixth Avenue, one of the busiest junctions in all of Martinsville, Robert Johnson stood on the curb with his guitar at the ready. We have trouble imagining a scene that has been so degraded by legend. Not that we haven’t smelt hot tamales steaming the pot of a roadside stand for a penny each, nor that we haven’t seen children giving themselves frothy moustaches while drinking Coke floats at the local druggist. We certainly aren’t strangers to the details of a southern street. Nevertheless, reflecting on a day of such mystery, renown, and scandal—the fabric of hearsay embroidered by the needlework of speculation—we find it hard to imagine our husband, who was always confident on stage, who was always calm under pressure, so not at himself that his hands shook with the all-overs. 


“It’s fine to have those jitters deep in your bones,” Ike said to him, standing by his side. “Use it for the good. Channel that demon itch into your song.”


Ike held his own guitar at the ready, as well, the fret angled in his whole hand and his finger stump tapping the baseboard. Only the third day of Robert’s schooling at music but the first day of what Ike called trial by brimstone, this practice of “cutting heads,” whereby two bluesmen on a busy street contend for the largest audience, was liable to give even the oldest hands sure enough reason for a wrinkly brow. Ike was about to start, but Robert interrupted him. “Mr. Ike, can I own something to you?”


“Don’t preamble your intentions. Be out with it, son, be out with it.”


“I’m not sure this is for me, being a musician and such like. Don’t know I’m the right fit for a bluesman. Sometimes I think on quitting the whole of it. Just seems not really all that worth my trouble. I am not very good.”


Ike gave the moment weight.


“Did you know there are a thousand little nigger boys in the Delta wanting to be where you are right now?” Ike said. “A thousand little nigger boys. They’d stand in line to be in your shoes. They’d give anything to be in your place. And how do you handle that?” Ike said. “With vanity. With hubris. With pity. I am not one to be a part of such things. Nuh-uh.”


Robert could not find words.


“Don’t you come to me with your ‘Not the right fits’ and your ‘Not worth my troubles,’” Ike said. “Expecting me to say, ‘But Mr. Robert, you can’t quit. The world’s such a better place with your music in it. You’re so good. Please don’t quit!’” Ike said. “Guess what. One of those nigger Delta boys will gladly step up and take your place and be just as good if not better by half.”


Ike let the moment sink.


“I’m sorry, Mr. Ike, I’m sorry. Don’t have the faintest what was going on in my head. Really am thankful that—”


“Save that shit for later, fool.” Ike could have taken the thought further, but he had already cut his first head. The chord of A-minor from his Kalamazoo hit Robert in the seat with the force of a hobnail boot. He did his best to catch up with Ike, but he only made a poor show of it. Robert lost himself in simple appreciation. Despite the lack of a pinkie finger on his strumming hand, Ike managed to play, with skill, with control, with ease, the full range of chords available on a six-string. Robert began to mimic the style. He used half of his fingers for the lead progression, but the other half were left with no purpose whatever. So, without pondering the technical significance and without grasping the historical consequence, Robert started playing the bass line with those other fingers. Two rhythms, one guitar. Who could have known the inspiration of genius would be as plain as idle hands?


Bear in mind his competition was no slouch neither. Although he allowed a moment for drop-jaw, Ike soon recovered and, rather than disrupt the chord progression, started to serve as backup to Robert’s lead. A crowd gathered round them. Three young women on their way to a Pageant of Birds, feathers papier-mâchéd to cardboard shaped like wings and strapped to their arms, hats styled like beaks painted orange and worn at a tilt on their heads, made eyes at those handsome men on guitar. Three schoolgirls giggled near each other’s ears. Four housegirls fanned themselves in the cold. One old woman taking the long way to the First Presbyterian Church, her calloused hands snapping occasionally to the rhythm, her clenched mouth humming along to the beat, fumbled the makings of a cigarette. This most definitely could be taken for a scene within the ambit of our imagination.


The tune of their song constituted nothing more than a riff, so Robert did not expect Ike to introduce actual lyrics. He was mistaken. The words to the song that would one day be known as Preaching Blues, their transcription cobbled from correspondence with our husband, still manage to elicit our pity for the confidence man dead these many years.


I was up this morning, blues walking like a man

I was up this morning, blues walking like a man

Worried blues, give me your right hand


And the blues fell momma’s child, tore me all upside down

Blues fell momma’s child, and it tore me all upside down

Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you round


The blues is a low-down shaking chill

Yes, preach them now, is a low-down shaking chill

You ain’t never had them, I hope you never will


Well, the blues is an aching old heart disease

You going do it, tell me about it, is a low-down aching heart disease

Like consumption, killing me by degrees


I can study rain, oh drive, oh drive my blues

I been studying the rain, I’m going to drive my blues away

Going to the distillery, stay out there all day


Although its meaning remains hidden from easy prospect, the parenthetical subtitle of Preaching Blues is the noteworthy phrase, “Up Jumped the Devil.” Some say it was the songwriter’s intention to include a final verse. At the moment Ike Zinnerman would have continued with more lyrics, however, a white man pushed his way through the audience with an expression on his face like as from the part of the Bible where God got angry. His straw boater and paper collar struck discordant amongst so many one-gallused farmers. The shine to his wingtips put folks in the mind of looking away. His damp cheeks and patrician temples grew as crimson as the skin of a Virginia peanut. The man stood his ground until everyone got curious about their feet.


“You there, with the gimp hand,” he said, pointing at Ike, “have you ever been to Pascagoula?”


“What’s that?”


“Address me as ‘sir.’”


“What’s that, sir?”


“It’s a simple question, boy,” he said, still pointing. “Have you ever been to Pascagoula?”


“No, sir.” Ike allowed his profile, including the features of his face but also the gnarled stump on his hand, to be studied on by the white man. “I’ve heard of the town,” he said, “but I’ve never had the pleasure.”


The white man turned to Robert. “And you?”




“Did I stammer, boy?”


Robert told the man, “I never been to Pascagoula.” Two years back, Robert had lost a substantial portion of his stake to a former member of the Copeland gang while playing seven-card stud in a Pascagoulan wharf house. “My playing partner’s never been there either.” Three months back, Ike had told Robert the story of how, prior to his arrival, he had spent time working at a paper-shell pecan plantation along the Pascagoula River. “Neither of us ever been to Pascagoula,” Robert told the man.


Despite his obvious suspicions, each made all too apparent by the spray of tobacco gleet he left on the sidewalk, the white man, later identified as a descendant of General David E. Twiggs from Good Hope, Georgia, also identified as kinfolk to the family that owned the Singing River Pecan Plantation, walked away without further argument. Ike Zinnerman, the type of man who did not require to be forgiven but simply allowed himself to forget he’d committed a sin, held composure. What a picture he must have been to those listeners. The camber of Ike’s delicate cheekbones, we know from a schoolteacher who to this day owns the calico housedress she wore that afternoon, caught sunshine at much the high angle. His eyelids bore no wrinkles. His temples kept dry of sweat. The half twist to his lips on just one side, we know from a seamstress whose drawn cheeks still get color at the memory eighty years afterward, gave the impression of such imperturbable charm. No one ever said fallen angels are not beautiful.



William Jebediah Arnold joined the Provisional Army of the Confederate States following the Second Conscription Act of September 27, 1862. Ordnance Sergeant in the Army of Mississippi even after the surrender of the Vicksburg Campaign, he was known throughout the Western theater as one of the staunchest proponents of the white man’s supremacy over the black man. His acrimony was matched only by his obstinacy. Given as much, William Jebediah Arnold, who succumbed after a rusty nail in the ankle left him with a bad case of lockjaw, most likely took pleasure from his special place in hell when on October 24, 1929, the historical date of our country’s economic downfall, one of the “damn colored things” set free by the war had his pinkie finger cut from his hand six feet above the Ordnance Sergeant’s corporal remains.


The instrument for the finger’s removal was an old pair of barbed-wire clippers. Each of the dull blades let out shrieks almost human in pitch as somebody from the crowd took good measure of their utility. One man tackled Reverend Ike to the soggy ground. Another man snatched hold of the imposter’s arm.


“Start with the little one first,” a mother of twelve said from the back. “Make sure he don’t go into a spell.”


“Don’t let his thumb slip away,” a sister of eight said from farther back. “Their ashes bring a blessing on the soul.”


Reverend Ike could just barely discern, what with the poor vantage on his wet behind, a group of women taking care of the boy who’d fallen out of the tree. They were patting his cheek to bring him to consciousness. They were brushing dirt from the scrape on his forehead. They were lifting his body to save him the brutal witness. That was the reason why Reverend Ike was so overcome with relief—the boy was okay, at least, the boy was okay—even as the clippers began to pulverize his finger’s bone, tissue, and skin. 


The relief did not keep for very long. Blood drenching the length of his arm, metal working its way into flesh, bone crunching to bits at the joint, Reverend Ike could only comprehend, soon enough, a pain beyond this kingdom on earth. He was very near to falling into a blackout when the first stone of hail struck the cemetery. 


Despite their regular attention to meteorological activity, the people in the crowd, most of whom were farmers reliant on rain for their crops, had never seen balls of ice fall from the sky. Hailstorms are rare in Mississippi. What might should have made up for such pluralistic ignorance was the crowd’s extensive knowledge of all biblical phenomena. In their prayer books they had seen Moses parting the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians. They had been told sermons of the bush that was not consumed by flames. They had been shown illustrations of the sun and moon occupying the same sky. From their church pews they had heard tales of Noah protecting all the creatures on earth against a Great Flood. The meaning of tonight’s occurrence was obvious to everyone in the crowd. Heaven had frozen over.


During the initial welter of the hailstorm, its stones larger than acorns but smaller than eggs, its intensity high at first but slackening by the minute, Reverend Ike slipped away from the crowd of people, whose eyes were still gaping at the night sky. He chose the greater darkness of a bog. Across from the cemetery, some three hundred yards towards where the sun had set, lay a canebrake made deeper than usual by the past month’s winter freshets. Reverend Ike dove towards the water but instead hit the muddy bank, his body sliding to a halt, comparable to a baseballist, less than a yard from the dark pool. 


Most of the dirt found in the lowlands of Mississippi is called “buckshot” because of the bits of clay spread all throughout it. The clay makes the dirt as tacky as cake batter. It took less than a minute of flailing his arms and rolling on his back and whipping his legs for Reverend Ike to become an indistinguishable lump on the ground. He stayed completely still for the entire night. Never once did he lift his head to shoo away the opossum sniffing at his crotch. Never once did he move his leg to get rid of the leech sticking itself to his calf. 


At dawn, not having heard the search party for a good many hours, Reverend Ike raised himself from the bank of the canebrake and walked towards the first light of a cold morning. He wouldn’t have known that across the country decimal points on ticker tape were steadily creeping to the farthest left. He wouldn’t have thought that around the world businessman were lipping the bitter steel of their pocket revolvers. On October 25, 1929, little more than a sleepless night after stock markets at last hit bottom, the shell of dried mud, twigs, and grubby mulch covering Reverend Ike’s body became more of a patchwork with each of his painful steps forward. 



During summer months, the staff members of the Emerald Slipper would form a line in front of the outhouse each and every Tuesday. Calletta Craft required her employees to take a regular bath. During winter months, though, she allowed for the more lenient schedule of every other Tuesday. “Sweat cleans you almost the same as water,” she was wont to say, “but nothing warms a man like the smell of cunt.”


Another thing Callie was wont to say was that anybody who lived under the Emerald Slipper’s roof was considered a member of its staff. So, naturally, begrudgingly, timidly, Robert and Ike once again found themselves standing in line on the third day of the week, their red union suits buttoned at the ass in consideration of the upstairs girls, their breath unseasonably evident in the nip of an early April morning. The bathhouse contained two porcelain tubs, and the washbasin provided hunks of black soap. Whatever their annoyance at the routine of Callie’s requirement, Ike and Robert always managed to take pleasure in the luxury of such apparatus for hygiene, the beautiful claw feet adorning each of the tubs, the specks of wheat germ dashed throughout the soap. 


“Today we’re going to practice some more on the piano,” Ike said as he lowered his body into the cool water. “I want you knowing it backwards and forwards.”


Robert dunked his head and returned for breath. “I about know it backwards and forwards already.”


Since Ike’s arrival five months ago, Robert had been training with him not only on how to improve his skills at the guitar but also on how to refine his grasp of music in general. Ike had taught Robert the rudiments of Pythagorean theory relative to the scale progression of chords. He tied a handkerchief around Robert’s eyes and had him play blind. He dribbled hot paraffin into Robert’s ears and had him play deaf. Ike had even shown Robert how to use harmonic analysis to play certain songs with nothing but his teeth. It would be near about forty years before another guitarist would make the same technique famous.


“One thing I want you to learn.” Ike stood from the water and reached for his sackcloth towel. “Anything you can play on the piano, you can play on the guitar.”


For a brief moment, as he dried every cranny of his parts and as he stepped into each leg of his union suit, Robert felt an eerie sense of the repetition in life, what he’d once heard an Acadian call déjà vu, as though he were being taught a lesson over and over by some higher authority. He liked to have sworn he’d heard those exact same words before today. Outside, walking back to the house, Robert erased the heebie-jeebies from his mind and started the process of preparing to play music. He had to concentrate. He had to clarify. He had to calibrate. The player piano in the lobby of the Emerald Slipper was an Aeolian Themodist gotten on the cheap for its obsolescence. On arrival, after Robert had agreed to the mentorship but before the actual training had begun for real, Ike had taken it on himself not only to fix the thing but also to modify it for manual play. The piano was stained with lampblack from its years at a saloon in the hill country of Georgia, upright, sturdy, tuned close as possible to perfection given it was so up in years, polished, spit-shined, dusted, and, right as when Ike and Robert entered the lobby from their baths, being played by the very same white man who, three weeks earlier, had interrupted their play on the street corner.


“My grandfather, the illustrious General David E. Twiggs, was a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War.” He looked only at the sheet notes. “David E. Twiggs was one of the oldest generals on either side during the War of Northern Aggression.” He never once looked at Robert and Ike. “General Twiggs, mind you now, appreciated music of quality.”


The white man played exceptionally well. Even though neither Ike nor Robert could recognize the piece, we know from the occasions when our husband would hum it, in the middle of bad sleep, on a drunken tear, at any time of full silence, that it was a movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. He played for what seemed an eternity. At last, twisting in his seat and reaching for a key, the white man hit a dead note. He tapped the key a few more times without any gain. Plink, plink. The white man said, “Looks as if one of your keys is broken,” as he turned to stare through Ike. Plinkety, plink, plink.


Robert did not notice the three other men step through the doorway at his back, but he did notice them grab Ike from behind and wrap a piano wire around his neck. One of the men made Robert see constellations by knocking him in the jaw something awful. On the floor, Robert watched the white man stand from the piano bench and walk towards the black man writhing desperately to free himself.


“That ring you took from my family’s house use to belong to General Twiggs,” the white man said. “It was given to him by the honorable President Jefferson Davis himself.”


In a series of entries from the white man’s journal, a helpful item we bought from an estate sale after his family went bankrupt, the grandson of General David E. Twiggs described the reasons for his pursuit of Ike Zinnerman and the measures by which he eventually found him. Ike had taken a position in Pascagoula as a crate packer at the Singing River Pecan Plantation owned and operated by a favorite uncle of the white man. One evening a few weeks into his tenure, having ferreted the information from a cook peculiarly subject to his wiles, Ike snuck into the house and stole the family heirlooms, a particular item of which being a gold ring engraved, “Distinguished Gentleman from the Confederated States of America.” The white man spent months traveling through the South in search of the black man he had been told in back-cap was missing a pinkie finger. One day on the downtown streets of Martinsville, close to quitting his enterprise due to its lack of progress, the white man happened across a guitar player with only four fingers to his strumming hand.


“I got no idea what you’re talking about.” Ike could only yell with difficulty. The blood from the piano wire matched near perfect the red of his union suit. “I’m telling you I got no idea what goddamn ring you’re talking about.”


“That so,” the white man said, “is it now?” He raised a gold ring to the light. “Suppose this found its way into your suitcase by accident.”


The two other men tightened their grip on Ike’s arms and repositioned the piano wire around his neck. They kicked his legs from under him and dragged his body towards the door. Despite the palpable hurt of Ike’s attitude, his face dissolving to ashy, his neck delineated with veins, he looked in Robert’s direction and said, “Tell my son I’m sorry about the tree.” Robert hadn’t the faintest. He would recall those words, however, for the rest of his short life.


The events that happened next were witnessed from a variety of perspectives. Robert Johnson watched from the porch, where he had managed to crawl even with his senses yet fully intact, as the white men chose a strong tree in the front yard. The upstairs girls huddled together, crying and whispering and praying, as the white men strung a rope. Calletta Craft watched from her bedroom window, where she clenched a sweaty wad of bluebacks offered for her cooperation, as the white men bound Ike’s hands and feet together. The last perspective belonged to a seller of tintypes. On his way to the Emerald Slipper for a visit with his favorite girl, the tintypist saw the events proceeding forth at an honest distance, their meaning obvious to him because his father had gotten similar treatment from municipal deputies ten years ago. He set up his equipment just in time. The ambrotype image of Reverend Ike Zinnerman hanging from the branch of a live oak, piano wire laced around his neck beneath layers of thick rope, his tongue a purple extrusion, his eyes round scarlet bulbs, two trickles of blood threaded from each ear down his neck, would later appear as a fold-out on pages 32-33 of Life Magazine’s September 13, 1964, issue, beneath the caption, “Unknown Negro man hung by angry mob in Martinsville, Mississippi.” Its title was Untitled.


Snowden Wright’s first novel, Play Pretty Blues, is forthcoming from Engine Books in November 2013. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, and the New York Daily News. Wright is the author of the e-book How to Get the Crabs. He lives in New York.