I did it. I finally made my decision. When I was helping Uncle Gary set up his exhibition at 18th Street Arts, it hit me right in the center of my chest. I’m supposed to sing tonight.
I’ve been fretting over this decision for the last week. Ever since he asked me. I’ve been going back and forth in my head. Not sure what to do. The more I thought about the idea, the more I started to like it. But I also couldn’t shake how scared I was of singing in front of strangers. So far in my life, I’ve only sang in front of my close family.
I guess I must’ve decided I’m ready to face my fears because I told Uncle Gary officially once we finished putting his seven pieces in place at 18th Street. We usually use dollies and a U-Haul truck to move his pieces from his studio behind our house to set up for his shows. This time, one of Gary’s friends, Josh, had to help us because his piece, Colossus, is too heavy for him and I to set up.
His friend, Josh, is nice. I’ve always liked him. He’s been around for a long time and in a way feels like an extension of our family.
“I’m gonna do it, Uncle Gary,” I nervously told him as he and Josh finished setting Colossus in place and screwing in all the miniature light bulbs around the giant piece’s metal base.
“What you gonna do, little girl?” Gary asked with a smile as he and Josh turned towards me.
“I’m gonna sing, just like you asked me,” I told him, surprised he didn’t automatically know what I was talking about.
“Oh!” Gary exclaimed excitedly.
“You can sing?” Josh asked.
“Sure she can, fool,” Gary said with a laugh.
“Oh, that’s cool,” Josh enthused. “What you gonna sing?”
“Crossroads by Robert Johnson,” I told them.
“Who’s that?” Josh asked.
“That’s so perfect, little girl,” Gary said.
His enthusiasm made me happy. I was feeling at peace in that moment. Full of hope, happiness, a bit of fear, but mostly positive energy.
But now I’m here. Back at 18th Street Arts. It’s 7:00, and the exhibition’s been going for about an hour. And it’s approaching time for me to sing. I’m scared. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this.
Gary borrowed a little amp and microphone from one of his friends for me to use, and he set it up in a corner before his exhibition began. People keep wandering around it and then looking back and forth around the room to see who’s attached to it. No one except for Gary and Josh know that I’m the one attached to it.
“Josie!” A voice says from behind me, whisper-screamed right in my ear.
I jump and turn to see my friend, Harper, from the coffee shop.
“Harper!” I say. “You scared the crap out of me.”
She laughs, “I didn’t mean to.”
“That’s a lie,” I say.
“I know,” she says as she stifles laughter by covering her mouth.
She starts scanning the room and I say, “Who you lookin’ for?”
“No one in particular,” she says but I can tell she’s keeping a secret. “Just checkin’ the place out. I’ve never been here.”
“Is somebody singing?” She asks as she walks towards the corner with the PA and mic stand.
I hesitate at first and then fess up.
“Yeah,” I say with a big exhale. “Me.”
She turns with the most surprised look on her face that I’ve seen – her big blue eyes are as wide as they’ll go.
“You?” She asks with a combination of excitement and uncertainty.
“You sing?” She asks. “Why haven’t you ever told me?!”
“I … I don’t know,” I stumble on my words. “I’ve never really told anyone. I don’t really sing in front of anyone. I’ve only sang in front of Gary… and my mom.”
I see a tiny spark in her eyes at the mention of my uncle. Oh brother, I think to myself.
“Wow, I’m actually glad I came now,” she says sarcastically.
“Oh, like the draw of Gary isn’t enough?” I tease.
I can’t resist it. Her crush on Gary is written all over her face.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asks suspiciously.
“Nothing, never mind,” I say. “I was just kidding.”
She squints her eyes at me for a moment and then shifts back to the subject of my singing.
“Well, what are you going to sing?” She asks. “When are you going to sing?”
“I’m just singing one song,” I tell her. “Gary told me the owner said I should do it sometime between seven and eight because the crowd would be perfect. He said you don’t want it too crowded or I’ll be drowned out.”
At this point being drowned out didn’t sound so bad.
“And you’re singing what?” She asks. I can feel her anticipation at my answer.
“Crossroads by Robert Johnson,” I tell her. “I learned it from one of Gary’s old records.”
“Woah, that’s cool,” she says.
Score, I think to myself. Impressing Harper isn’t easy and I can tell I just did.
“You know Robert Johnson’s story, right?” She asks me.
“No, I guess not,” I tell her. “Gary always says he’s the godfather of blues.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Harper says. “But did you know people say he sold his soul to the devil?”
“What?” I say with a half a laugh. “How do you always know all this morbid stuff?”
“I don’t know,” she says absently. “I read a lot.”
“Anyway,” she continues. “The story goes that he was an average harmonica player and an average guitarist at best, until he disappeared for a few weeks back in the 1930s. When he reappeared he was considered one of the best blues guitarists and blues singers ever. The song Crossroads is supposed to be about the devil tuning his guitar in exchange for his soul.”
A cool breeze floats over the back of my neck and goosebumps raise on my arms.
“What?” I say a little breathy.
Harper smiles and shakes her head “yes” enthusiastically. “It’s true,” she says. “At least, according to legend.”
Now I’m in shock a bit, I guess. I didn’t know this legend about Robert Johnson and now I’m going to sing his song?
“It’s a great song choice,” Harper says.
She’s all lit up now. Even more excited than she was earlier when I mentioned Gary’s name. “You’re gonna kill it.”
I’m a little torn at this “selling his soul to the devil” news about Robert Johnson but that Harper is excited makes me think I made the right decision.
“It’s 7:15 Josie,” she says mockingly. “Tick-tock, tick-tock.”
I start turning red. I can feel the heat on my cheeks.
“Aaaahhhhh,” I breathe out hard. “I know. I’m not ready yet,” I tell her.
I scan the room and there’s about 30 people moving in and out of the four attached rooms Gary’s art is set up in. Santa Monica is an expensive area but these art shows always bring in a more eclectic mix, as my mom used to call it. Fancy, plastic surgery mamas with $10,000 purses, along with surfer-bum types, and millennial hipsters with carefully curated homeless-chic clothes mix easily. Mom used to say it’s one of the things she loved best about California beach towns; odd mixes of people who seemingly float along together.
“There aren’t that many people yet, Josie,” Harper says, interrupting my assessment. “The longer you wait, the more people will come. Now is the best time to do it.”
“Don’t pressure me,” I whisper at her a bit desperately.
Then I feel Gary approaching and turn to greet him.
“You ready, Josie?” He asks. “Oh hey Harper,” he says as he briefly turns his attention to her.
“Oh hey,” she says with a bit too much enthusiasm, for her. On a normal person enthusiasm scale, it would barely register.
Gary notices and looks at her with his brow furrowed for just a beat and then turns back to me.
“Claus says now is probably the best time to do it,” Gary tells me. He’s holding back excitement and I can tell it’s because he doesn’t want to make me nervous.
“So, are you ready?” He asks again.
I look from him to Harper and back to him again. The anticipation on their faces gives me a boost and I decide I’m ready.
“Yeah,” I say, with a resolution that surprises me. “I’m ready.”
“Awesome!” Gary exclaims. “I’ll turn on the PA.”
Gary walks over to the corner with the mic stand and starts fiddling with the knobs on the small black box. The mic immediately feeds back with a loud shriek. The entire place goes silent as everyone looks at Gary. He turns a knob, fixes the feedback and grabs the mic.
“Hey everybody,” Gary says, his signature white smile at an all time dazzle. “Thanks so much for coming to my exhibition tonight. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Gary Kinimaka and I’m the artist.”
To my surprise, the audience breaks out in applause. Gary does a little half bow to the cheers.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says. “I take both cash and credit card.”
More laughs from the audience and even a whistle from one of the plastic surgery mamas in the back. How am I going to follow this? I wonder to myself. These people love Gary.
“I’d like to introduce you to someone very special,” Gary says, instantly calming the crowd. “It’s my niece, Josie Kinimaka,” he says as he points in my direction. All of a sudden all eyes are on me.
My cheeks are hotter than ever. I give a little wave as I look around the room.
“You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this little girl, ahem, young lady,” he says to laughs. “Is also an artist. And tonight, she’s going to gift us all with a song. Josie?”
I’m on, I think. Oh my gosh, I’m on. Lono, don’t fail me now, I think to myself as I walk up and accept the mic Gary’s holding out to me.
“You’re going to be amazing,” Gary whispers in my ear as he hands me the mic. “Good luck.”
Gary walks a couple people deep into the crowd and stands with Harper and Josh. All eyes on me. They’re all waiting for me to start.
“Hi … Hi everyone,” I stammer. Get it together, girl, I tell myself. I close my eyes for a second and take in a deep breath through my nose and out my mouth. “Thanks for coming tonight,” I say. “This is Crossroads.”
The crowd silently waits and I begin to sing softly a capella.
“I went to the crossroad, fell down on myyy knees. I went to the croooossroadddd, fell down on my kneeeeees. Asked the Lord above, have mercyyyyy, now save poor Bob, if you pleeeeease.”
I sing slowly – I’m staying faithful to Robert Johnson’s original version. I realize my eyes are closed and I open them. The way people are looking at me is surprising. The way the room all of a sudden feels is surprising. I can’t explain what’s different. It’s like… all the energy has been focused in a tight ball in the middle of the room. If that even makes sense.
Everyone’s eyes are glued to me. No one is talking. And the people in the other rooms are slowly moving closer to where I stand. I just found Gary, Harper and Josh in the crowd and the look on their faces is something I’ve never seen before. It looks like awe or admiration, I guess. I’ve never felt this before. I close my eyes and sing.
“Ooh, standin’ at the croooossroad,” I sing a bit louder. “I tried to flag a riiiiide. Ooh-eeeeeee, I tried to flag a riiiiidddeeeee. Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me byyyyyyy.”
I’m losing myself, like I do on the beach with Gary. I’m swaying back and forth, and my hands are gripping the mic. The people are disappearing. The room is disappearing. I’m holding onto the mic for dear life so I don’t float away.
“Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ dooooooooown. Standin’ at the crossroooooooad, baby, eee-eee risin’ sun goin’ dooooooooown.”
I open my eyes and the room has more people than it did when I started. Everyone is still silent and watching me. You know how people usually talk or look around, at least some people do, at live performances? No one is doing that. They’re all still. That look of awe or admiration, I don’t know what else to call it, is on each of their faces. I keep singing. I’m somehow brave enough to look people in the eye as I sing the words.
“I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ doooooooown.”
Something in the far back corner of the adjacent room catches my eye. I’m still singing but now I’m focusing on that back corner. Confusion and horror fill my head. I blink once. I blink twice. What I see can’t be there. But it won’t go away. He won’t go away.
I keep singing. I just want to finish now. I just want to close my eyes again. But I can’t.
“You can runnnnnnnnnnnn, you can runnnnnnnnnn, tell my friend Willie Brown. You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Broooooown.”
That man in the corner. That man I can’t stop looking at. He’s swinging by the neck from a rope that must somehow be attached to the ceiling in 18th Street Arts. He’s swinging back and forth with the rhythm of my voice and I’m swaying with his motion. I just can’t look away. That swinging is somehow becoming a part of my performance.
“That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkinnnn’ doooown.”
He’s reaching up now and loosening the slack from the rope on his neck. He easily pushes the rope up and over his head and frees his body from its tether. He drops to his feet, bending his knees a little and rubs the front of his neck where the rope held him taut.
“And I went to the crossroad, maaaamaaaaaaaa, I looked east and weeeeeeest.”
I’m panicking now. The man is looking at me and he’s starting to float towards me? He’s not walking, I know that. There’s no familiar bounce of steps. Just smooth movement towards me. He’s passing through people as he gets closer, his eyes locked on mine.
“I went to the crossrooooooad, babyyyyyyyy, I looked east and weeeeeeeest.”
I’m filling up with something. Not in my stomach like I ate too much pizza. In my lungs. Like I can’t breathe.
“Lord I didn’t have no sweet womaaaaaaan, ooh well, babe, in my distressssssssss.”
He’s nose to nose with me and passing through me? I think. Everything goes black.