A Touch of Madness

It’s not the baying of the hell hounds that bothers me. It’s the cliché. I hate being unoriginal. Might as well be in some old “B” movie with ole’ Robert Johnson, out of his Mississippi Delta grave, picking on his guitar in some shadowy corner. “He’s got hell hounds on his trail,” he’d be singing—but at least I am spared that final indignity.

It all started a couple years ago. I had left my girlfriend, Samantha, for the first time and was staying at a buddy of mine’s house. I was laying in bed in Steve’s spare room, with the white down comforter pulled up over my shoulders while the air conditioner thrummed in the background. There was a coldness on my calf from where my leg was sticking out from underneath the comforter in the direct path of the blowing air. The smell of sweetened mulberry from the candle could not completely mask the odor of stale cigarette smoke.

I was sinking down into the mattress, my body calling it quits and my mind quickly following. I was either on the edge of sleep or just on the other side of it. Maybe it was that fuzzy place in between. All of a sudden, I was wide awake, catching the fading echoes of a long, drawn out howl.

My mind pushed at the thought, slapping it away. Just a dog, though there was no answering chorus of yaps and barks from the neighborhood animals. Must have been a dream–one of those that intrude on reality the way water still coats you when you step out of the pool.

But the thoughts slapped back at me. There is just a knowing, a distinct difference between a beagle’s whuffling yowl and a hell hound’s throaty call.

Maybe it was finally my turn? Mental illness ran in my family, everything from bi-polar disorder to schizophrenia. It had been the family get togethers that had chased me down to Miami from Philly, and one of the reasons why I had not gone home after graduation.

Anyway, I pushed everything out of mind, rearranged the pillows, tucked my leg underneath the comforter, and willed the last vestiges of caffeine from my body so I could wake-up fresh for once, maybe do some apartment shopping before I went into work.

I caught more of it the second time. Even before the peak of the crescendo, I was awake and out of bed, with my face plastered against the window. Charlie, the neighbor’s retriever, was outside and sniffing along the edge of the house. His head did not even turn. No twitch of the ears. Nada. Nothing. And I knew it was going to be a long night.

Yep, it looked like it was my turn. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. Blue eyes, detached ear lobes, and all of the fun genes.

More long nights had followed until I swallowed my pride and moved back in with Samantha. Never did do any apartment shopping. Got written up at work a couple times for lateness.

The baying would come and go. Sometimes, it would only be one hound and one long howl. Other times, it would be a whole pack of them.


“Auditory hallucinations brought on by stress.”

“That’s it,” Steve asked, handing me a beer.

“That’s it. $150 to be told to relax. See why I waited for a year to go and talk to somebody?”

“That’s it,” he asked again.

“The therapist said it was common. Not so much the howling, but the hallucinations. Phantoms mosquitoes waking you up in middle of the night. Even electrical shocks that leave you splayed on the floor. All brought on by stress. It’s a good thing actually—no association to the usual suspects. I’m not nuts, just stressed.”

Steve Ryan just stared at me, expecting more. He was a big black man whose side-burns had gone to grey. 6’4 and, as they say, built like a brick shit house. In contrast, his hands were slender, almost feminine.

I hid behind the beer and drained it. I passed him the empty while I loosened my tie.

“So you didn’t tell her about how you hear them during the day? About how you think they are connected with Samantha? That as long as you stay with her, the hounds are silent?”

I looked down at the beer that he handed me and shrugged.

“Can you hear them now,” he asked me.

“Why should I,” I asked by way of reply. “I’m going home tonight.”

Steve always wanted to know when I heard the hounds. We even had a signal worked out for when I heard them in the middle of the night when I stayed at his place: knock, knock, on his bedroom door, then tap, tap, tap. If he was awake, he’d come out and join me on the patio and then we would sip on beers and play some blues until they stopped.

Steve even joked about the sounds, saying that I must be a damn good bluesman. He was a connoisseur. He knew those scratchy, old LP’s.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues, made two albums in 1926 and 1927, in make-shift recording studios. As the myth goes, he had gone down to the Crossroads in Mississippi and made a deal with the devil: talent for his soul. The deal drove him mad, they say. Everywhere he went, Ole’ Scratch would be there with his hounds, waiting for Robert to die so he could collect his payment. In some back room of a hotel, Robert allowed his madness to be seared onto vinyl.

Whether genius or madness, whether the music was heard live or from a recording decades later, the infernal is so palpable you can smell the brimstone. Later bluesmen enshrined it. 60’s super groups mixed it with heroin and stole it. And then I came along with my harmonica in my hand, borrowed it, and made it my own.

Steve also knew about heroin, so believed me when I had said that I wasn’t using, and he never asked again. Maybe he heard the hounds himself—though he would never admit to it. A young black kid in Chicago, he would tell me with a laugh, strumming his guitar, with lightning in his fingertips and poison in his veins.

When Samantha would do one of her disappearing acts, Steve and I would sit out by his pool and play for the better part of the night. He’d make that guitar of his cry, and then I would transform the tears into a train a comin’ on my harmonica.

“I better get out of here,” I said, as I stood and handed Steve the second empty. “Samantha wanted me to make sure I was home for dinner.”

Steve slid the empty onto his left ring finger, and then drew it down the strings of his guitar. That train was a comin’.

Traffic reports and sports scores: that’s what I told the car radio repairman he would deprive me of by leaving me radioless for a week. When that didn’t get me a loaner, I went for the vacation approach. I was getting out of town for a few days. How could I drive anywhere without tunes?

He told me to hum.

I had been about to tell the repairman about the hounds. I really was. I was going to tell him that the radio drowned out the baying that I heard day and night. Had been for the past two weeks, ever since I had made the firm decision to leave Samantha and take the job out in Austin.

I had been just about to tell the clean shaven white kid when my eye sight crinkled and an old black man was standing in front of me, leaning in close to let his whiskey breath steal my words.

“Ole’ Scratch got you in his sights,” he said. “Ole’ Scratch got them hounds snuffing after you.”

“I’ll be back next Monday,” I told the kid behind the counter, still smelling the cheap whiskey.

So, I hummed while I made my way across Miami to where I shared an apartment with Samantha. I’m not a very good hummer—it just all sounds the same to me. When it is about to take you 45 minutes to make it through four traffic lights, though, and humming is all that you have, you hum with gusto. You even get your hands into it and tap out the beat on the steering wheel.

My humming might be lousy, but my imagination is pretty good. Eric Clapton, on stage with Cream, in the late 60’s, with liquid thunder pouring over a capacity crowd. It was one of their best live recordings. Their cover of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads would become the standard by which all future remakes would be measured.

The train had come, and gone, and Eric’s guitar playing tried to keep up with the frantic pace. Slowhand, he was called, the same way you would call a football lineman “Tiny.”

I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.”

Eric’s hands would blur.

Asked the Lord for mercy, ‘Save me if you please.’”

All of the remakes were done in tribute to Robert Johnson. The way he strummed and picked at the guitar was just short of miraculous. The way he sang his songs, you would think he was channeling damned souls. Maybe the myth was true. Maybe he had gone down to the crossroads one night and traded his soul to the devil, ole’ Scratch. Maybe he wasn’t channeling damned souls, because his own already burned.

And I’m staying at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down.”

I pull up to the apartment and the lights are off, but the air conditioner is on. Telling me to be home by dinner time doesn’t necessarily mean there will be food waiting for me.

The first time Samantha asked me if I wanted to swing, I thought she was talking about dancing. It was an honest misunderstanding. She made her way in the world as a stripper, but had a background as a professional dancer. Man, could she move. The patrons in the bar had no idea what they were seeing, had no appreciation that jazz was mingling with ballet, tap, and hip-hop. That sultry swing down the pole could easily turn into a pirouette instead of a slither across the floor, all the while grinding to an imaginary partner.

When I had told her that I wouldn’t mind taking dance lessons, she had laughed so hard she cried. With the tears coming down the sides of her face, she had kissed me over and over again, saying what a wonderful man I was. I still had had no idea what she was talking about, but the sex that night had been so intense, moving through three different rooms, that I had forgotten the question.

The next night, when I got home, another dancer from the club was waiting for me with Samantha. And it wasn’t for a dance lesson.

Isn’t that every guy’s dream? Two gorgeous women waiting for you in bed, all naked and funky? Four hands grasping at your clothes, untying ties and unbuttoning buttons? Two mouths and two tongues so that you have no idea what to do next? But they do.

Two nights later, though, I was presented with the other side of the swing set. I walked into the apartment and was greeted with grunts, moans and other odd vocalizations coming from the bedroom. Then, the baritone said, “fuck me hard baby.” I burst through the bedroom door.

I got lucky that time. He was surprised, and smaller than me. I had my hands around his neck and was dragging him across the floor before he even knew what was going on. After a few kicks, he was running across the parking lot with nothing covering him except for some blood and some bruises. Samantha had just stayed in the bedroom, and then slammed the door on me when I came back in.

The visits had continued, both male and female, and I told myself it didn’t matter anymore—usually with the hounds barking their agreement. I did some ass kicking, and had the shit beat out of me too many times to count.

It didn’t matter to the cops either.

And it didn’t matter to Samantha. I threw her out a dozen times, and she left just as many. I can’t seem to leave, and she won’t.

I walk in and the fire alarm immediately starts buzzing. Smoke billows from a frying pan, and Samantha is there in the middle of the kitchen, waving a dish towel ineffectually, as she cries in a pair of Daisy Duke shorts and a halter top.

I jump around her and grab the towel. I throw the pan in the sink, flip the knob on the window to open it, and then jump up on a stool to disconnect the fire alarm. With smoke escaping from the kitchen window, and steam hissing up from the sink where a blackened thing that may have been a fish once lies, Samantha is suddenly in my arms.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she chokes into my shoulder. “I was trying…” Cut off into muffled sobs.

It might have mattered to me at one point in time, but with the fire extinguished, I could feel her body pressed up against mine, feel every curve and nuance that I had gone over hundreds of times. I ran my hands through her long dark hair until they caught near the scalp, then pulled her head back and covered her mouth with my own.

Then she is wiping her nose on my shirt, with a laugh in between sobs. She grasps at my shirt buttons, and pulls me by my belt towards the bedroom. How does she wriggle out of those skin tight shorts without even touching them? That too doesn’t matter, and within minutes I am inside of her.

“I love you,” she moans to me.

Her words and my pause illicit a growling from all around.

“I love you too.”

Much later, after some sandwiches, a couple lines of coke, and a kiss on the cheek, Samantha is now Savannah as she grabs my car keys and heads out the door to work. She has her own car, much nicer than my beat-up old Mercury, but what car would you rather have parked outside of a bar full of pissed off, hard up drunks, a Mercury or a Porsche?

I sit down on the sofa and break out the harp. Those hounds will be out any time now, so I figure I’ll give them something to sing to. I breathe in the first note, bending it into the wail of a train. I flutter my hand with the exhale to get those steel wheels moving along the track.

Aye, I gotta leave. But I tell myself that a lot. Been telling myself that for over a year.

Samantha had come on to me in the bar. Somewhere in between the first lap dance and the second, she had transformed from Savannah to Samantha. She had told me that she really liked me, wanted more of me. In the space of five minutes. Unreal.

Of course she did: it was payday and I had a pocket full of cash.

I’m running out of money, I lied to her.

The next dance is for free, she told me.

The other girls, beers, I mumbled, as she brushed her C-cups across my face.

That’s when she did her first magic trick for me. A hand that had been holding her ass was now filled with ones and fives.

A stripper had just given me money?

I let the memories flood through, tapping the beat with my foot, drowning out the clamoring of the hounds. I was keeping up with Slowhand now, and we allowed that train to charge through a desert wasteland.

At the end of that first night, I had offered to drive her home. She accepted. It was in the opposite direction of my place, down along Route 1. I was about to make the right onto her street when she slid her hand along my upper thigh and asked me to take her back to my place. Something about her roommate not liking late night company.

A right turn became a left u-turn that took me over the grassy median. If there had been a cop watching, it would have ended there, with me in jail for DUI. My car jarred into the actual roadway, and I sped south.

The train comes to a rest and I do as well, just mimicking the soft flutter of desert breezes.

There was no roommate I would find out. Some older guy dropped off her bags at my place a few days later. With a shrug and a wink.

A fantasy is supposed to be just that: a fantasy. Never to touch, and never to have it touch you. I went to strip clubs for some T & A, to break up the tedium of the week. No, that’s a load of crap. I was a social misfit, shy and insecure. Isolated since graduating college, keeping in touch only with Steve, my old advisor, I went to the strip clubs for some warmth, for the illusion of intimacy, never expecting to find it.

And then the train is off again, with the last stop behind it. Alright, Eric, let’s see if I can keep up.

Standing now, weaving through my living room, huffing and drawing for all that I was worth. Bending the notes until their breaking point, and then lifting them up again into the manic charge of the train.

She moved in with me the next day. Such a beautiful woman, with close cropped blond hair at the time. An answer to a fantasy. An answer to a need. Filling an emptiness that I had not even known was there.

“You can run, you can run, tell my friend poor Willie Brown.”

Don’t go down to those Crossroads, Willie. It ain’t worth it. Working the fields ain’t all that bad.

I went to the crossroads, mama, and I looked east and west.”

She’d go south, down to the keys, with the highest-paying customers. Always coming home with smiles and “I love you’s,” along with rug burns on her back and bruises on her hips and thighs.

I went to the crossroads, babe, and I looked east and west.”

I’d go north, to hide out at Steve’s, telling myself it was time to leave. I’d had enough. Maybe another kind of man could deal with this, maybe another man would enjoy this. But the hounds always chased me back.

Lord, I didn’t have no sweet woman, ohh well, Babe, in my distress.”

For a fucking year I had the sweetest woman a man could ask for. That lithe body that would wrap around me, encompass me, enfold me. It just blurred the outside world, the yesterdays and the tomorrows. I sank far into her, away from the sounds of the hounds. I sank so far down into her that I forgot what kind of man I was.

And the train vanishes into oblivion, just as I did. Sounds fading into the night, chased by the hounds like puppies snapping at moths.

And I cried, with my face in my palms, snot smeared across my chin, and my harp lying beside me on the sofa. Fuck the blues, and fuck those hounds.

“You hear me, dogs? Fuck you. You ain’t got me yet, Scratch. Not yet you motherfucker. Let’s see if you can chase me all the way to Austin on Monday.”

They sent up a chorus of howls that shattered the silence into a deafening madness.

And from the stereo: “Eric Clapton, on vocals.”

Sunday night, my last, I assumed my old position.

“Will you be by tonight,” she asked, peeking her head around the shower curtain to smile at me while I watched her from the bathroom floor.

“Maybe,” I said, without lying. My arms were resting on my knees, and my back shoved into the corner where the vanity and wall met. I loved to watch her. Showering. Putting on make-up. I particularly liked it when she would fall asleep on the sofa, with her head in my lap. I’d shut off the television and just watch her breathe.

“There is a new girl at the club,” she said. She opened the shower curtain and turned. The water flowed down her chest and disappeared in the shaven spot between her legs. She cupped her hands over huge illusionary breasts, and then ran them over a tiny waist. “She likes me. Wants to do an act on stage with me. She’d like you too.”

Steve would probably understand why I nodded, smiled back, and replied, “Maybe I will be up tonight after all.” I knew that I just might.

She hummed, and then turned back to her scrubbing, leaving the curtain parted. Up and down those shapely legs and her inner thighs.

I drank it all in—not that I thought I would ever forget.

When she left, I got her to take her car, begging off my own, saying that I had to drop it off at the shop tonight.

I invited the hounds in after Savannah left. I opened the windows, and put a CD into the player. No Slowhand tonight. The original. Yeah, it was time that me and Mr. Johnson had a talk. I tracked through the CD, found the song I wanted, and hit play.

The hounds began their baying. It sounded like they were right outside my window.

I turned up the stereo and did what I had to do.

No Crossroads tonight—though maybe later, when I was on the road. I did love that song. No, tonight was a night for my little chat with old Mr. Johnson. Pick his brain a little bit. Try to guess what his answers might be. Hellhound on my Trail.

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving…”

Maybe I was crazy. I had to turn up the stereo even more to hear the picking of the guitar as I got out the bags I had hidden in the closet.

Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail…”

I’ll tell you: if there had been saliva on that window tonight, or any night, or a shattering of glass for me to watch a hound as large as a small horse burst through the sliding doors, I would have gone right to the emergency room. Checked myself in and would have said anything to make them commit me. I was about to kill myself, about to kill my girlfriend, was being stalked by a six foot tall, knife wielding, Pillsbury Dough Boy. Anything.

But it was just noise. Never actually saw one of the damn things.

And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.”

Shit, I don’t need the day reminding me nothin’.

A note left on the table, in between her razor blade and mirror. I had agonized over it. I had filled it with loves and hatreds, thank yous and curses. I had even written about the hounds, and the sex, and about my fear of going to a doctor to get checked out for STD’s, and that I was 25, and that I knew I was a chicken shit for not saying any of this to her face. Those notes had been fed into the shredder at work. The one that I left said simply, “the rent is paid until the end of next month. Everything is yours.”

Hellhound on my trail. Hellhound on my trail.”

Yeah, and fuck you too, Mr. Johnson.

I clicked the stereo off, left the CD in it, and walked out.

I tried to pull my thoughts away from Samantha as I began the drive over to Steve’s house. The hounds wouldn’t let me though. That’s okay.

I remembered everything about her. Her smell, her taste, her body as she wrapped it around me, the feel of her hair against my chest in the morning.

Yes, she did love me. And I loved her. Always did. Maybe always will. Who the hell knows?

She’ll be okay. She would not even miss me for a week or two. Hell, she made five times as much money as I did and definitely had a talent for finding comfort.

The hounds chased my car, loping along unseen.

Maybe it was madness. Or maybe it was a touch of madness that kept me from turning around and going to watch the new girl on stage with my seductive beauty. Maybe it was a touch of madness that made me believe that the hounds would eventually be silent.