Published on 2011/08/28

The Reaper Went Down to Harlem

Myrriah Hopkins

Ah, that’s an awful cozy fire you got goin’ there. I hope you don’t mind if I cop a squat next to you. You know your way ‘round these woods? Fella could get lost or even freeze to death out on a night like this. I see you got yourself a git box—‘scuse me, a guitar there with you. I’m a musician myself. The name’s Skaggz Cruthers. Maybe you heard of me? No? I ‘spose not. My style ain’t really happenin’ right now. Been quite a while since my band hit the stage. But I still got gigs. Matter of fact, I’m on my way to one tonight. Man, I’m beat, though. I sure could use a rest to warm my bones. Tell you what. You let me stay a while and mooch some of your marshmallows and I’ll tell you a story ‘bout how I met Death and out-jammed the Grim Reaper…

The year was 1945. Cigarette smoke hung in the air like dawn fog over a pond. Clinking glasses and laughter accompanied the sounds of the band tunin’ up. Every available seat was filled. Lights on the stage and dull covered candlelight on the tables kept the club from being pitch black. When I stepped up on the stage, it all went quiet with all eyes on me.

"All right all you cool cats, we've got ourselves a wild and crazy ditty for you and your kitty. So for all of you sittin' pretty, get up for the jivin' and get gritty!"

We started playin’ the biggest shindig since Adam met Eve. We had everybody dancin’, singin’, and stompin’ so loud I think the Devil hisself was woken up from a nap. In fact, I’m certain that’s what caused all the trouble. For no one but a grumpy Devil would have done what he did to a man at the height of his life. But I digress.

As I said, everybody was up dancin’, ‘cept for a par-tic-u-lar pretty kitty sittin’ way in the back of the room. Maybe it was her skull-white face that caught me off guard; it really made her stick out considerin’ there were mainly blacks and tans in the club. But she was whiter than any white person I’ve ever seen before! Perhaps it coulda been her fiery red hair. Somethin’ that vibrant should be free to whip ‘round and be flung carelessly. Instead, it was pinned up in-a bun. Sad really, like seein’ a tiger stuck in a cage. An’ unlike everyone else, she was rooted into her seat. Her lips, pale pink like a dyin’ rose, were pursed tightly. As if in deep thought, her brow was furrowed, makin’ it seem like she was glarin’ at me. The whole time I was scattin’ and blowin’ my horn, I could feel her cold, gray eyes on me. No matter how I tried to look away or put my thoughts elsewhere, I would always find my eye rovin’ back to her table.

After we did our final number, an’ everyone was clappin’ and catchin’ their breaths, I tried to see if she had enjoyed the show too. All I caught was a glimpse of her back as she walked out. I tried not to let it get me spooked, but all night at the party, all I could think of was her pale face, those stern lips, and her storm-cloud eyes.

For hours, me an’ my boys celebrated with the patrons. We flirted with floozies, did some gambling, and spent our money like it would never run out. I admit I tossed back a few, guzzled a lot of foam. I had to! I was willin’ to do anything to get that gal offa my mind. The shopping and drinking didn’t do it, and every lady I was with reminded me of her in some way. She fascinated and scared me like no woman ever had before.

Unfortunately, our chauffeur musta had some creepy girl on the brain too ‘cause he drank twice as much as me. Now you know what they say ‘bout drinkin’ an’ drivin’. There’s a reason you don’t do it. But we didn’t think for a second we was gonna face the consequences. So at the crack of dawn, me an’ my boys all piled up in our bus with our driver at the helm.

Once on the road, we were zig-zaggin’ and swervin’ like a couple of jitterbugs that didn’t know the steps. It was lucky there wasn’t much traffic out that early. The few cars we did see veered just in the nick of time, horns blarin’. Someone—maybe it was the drummer—screamed to slow down. I laughed and told him to chill. It was all in fun, after all. We musta been the most dangerous thing in Harlem that night. I don’t know how we managed it, but we didn’t hit nothin’.

‘Cept that guardrail.

Let me tell you somethin’: Impending death makes you sober up real quick. As our behemoth of a bus flipped over the edge of a ravine, we were hollerin’ and prayin’, and I begged whoever would listen to spare me. I was too young to die. I was too good lookin’ to die. I was too talented to die!

I remember when the bus hit the dirt, I whacked my head so hard on the window, I was sure I was a goner. Blood splattered all over my vision. Then it all went dark…

When I woke up, I was standin’ outside, just as if I was out takin’ an evenin’ stroll. But I had an odd feelin’ in my bones. Lookin’ at the horizon, I could see that the sun had started to rise, but was frozen in place, the rays of pink and peach barely touching the dark blues of night. Up above, stars were caught in mid twinkle. A bat, wings spread, was motionless in the air.

I turned. Behind me, the bus, too, was frozen. Flames reared up from it, blurry orange stalactites growin’ off a hunk of twisted metal. “My boys are in there,” I whispered to no one. “Why ain’t I?”

“Mr. Cruthers?” A sharp voice in the darkness made me turn.

And she, the gray-eyed girl from the club, materialized out of the shadows. I hadn’t noticed before but she looked like a school marm from my grandpappy’s day. Stray tendrils had escaped her bun and were floatin’ around her face like she was underwater. Her long sleeved shirt was starched with a tight, tall collar that went almost up to her chin. Down past her ankles, she wore a wool skirt the same shade as her eyes.

I jumped, but then smoothed down my jacket. It was impeccable as always.

When she chuckled, I snapped, “What, you think I’m afraid?” Truth is, I was. Shouldn’t I be in pain after bein’ flung outta a burnin’ bus? I pulled back my sleeves a bit. No scratches or bruises graced my skin. I didn’t even have a headache. This had to be a dream. If so, then this was all fake. There was no reason to be scared. Somethin’ weird will happen, like I’ll suddenly be in my old high school givin’ a speech naked, then I’ll wake up a hotel room with a girl on one side and a bottle on the other. Until then, I thought, I’ll just jive along with this groove and see where it takes me.

So I played it cool as I always do. I told the dream chick with a chuckle, “Mr. Cruthers is my daddy’s name. You can call me Skaggz darlin’.”

She cocked an orange eyebrow and drew up one side of her lips in a smirk. Despite those dead threads, I could see she was a hip chick. “All right, Skaggz.” Her eyes twinkled like tombstones gleaming in the moonlight. “I have a proposition for you. You are dead—“

I gasped, but then laughed when I remembered none of this was really happenin’. “Right, right, I’m dead. I’ll go along with this, kitten.” I stroked my goatee. “But that ain’t much of a deal.”

“Let me finish!” she snapped. Inhalin’ sharply, she regained her composure. “You are dead, Skaggz, deader than a doornail. You want proof?” She snapped her fingers.

I fell and hit the dirt hard, wind knocked out of me. Screamin’ and writhing, my arm snapped, my leg twisted, and blood gushed from a gash in my head. I coughed and wheezed, feelin’ like smoke was rushing into my lungs. Boiling heat, as if I’d been tossed in a furnace, made my skin blister and burn.

Somehow I managed to moan, “Make—make—make it stop!”

She snapped her fingers again. I stopped floppin’ on the dirt like a tuna and stood up. Patting my chest and face, I felt cold, smooth skin. Not a smudge tainted my suit. For good measure I flapped my arms up and down. Nope, no broken bones.

My relief wasn’t long lived, though. Trembling, I said, “So this ain’t a dream. But why me? Why’m I not back in that bus with the rest of ‘em?”

“As I was saying, Skaggz,” she held up her hand and my trumpet appeared in it, “I have a deal for you. You thought you were too talented to die, so prove it.”

When she held out the horn, I timidly took it from her, thinkin’ maybe her fingers might turn into snakes.

“If you can play better than I…” Here she raised the end of her skirt daintily to reveal a violin and scooped it up. “…I will grant you immortality.” Bracin’ the fiddle under her pointed chin, she asked, “Have we got a deal?”

I grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Now that’s a hard spiel there, pigeon. But I’m hep to the jive.” I held out my mit to shake. “You got yourself a bargain.” She shook my hand, sealin’ the deal.

“I warn you,” she said primly, “I am quite good—the best. No one has ever beaten me.”

Not afraid of her bluff, I scoffed and retorted, “You’re about to lose that winnin’ streak, darlin’.”

Cryptically, she murmured, “Oh, I do hope so.”

Then we held our weapons up, hers under her chin, mine to my lips, and we began to duel.

It started slowly at first, with a mellow tempo, and then kicked up. Her bow was a blur as it raced up and down the strings. I swear I saw smoke! There was no doubt in my mind she was sent from Hell; she played like a demon, her red hair flyin’ out of its bun and whippin’ about her face like flames.

My cheeks were hurtin’ and turnin’ purple as I played harder than I ever have before. The growl from my horn was hotter than my best gig times a million.

For what felt like hours, we played, jiggin’ around each other, taunting one another with our notes. Time couldn’t stay frozen with that powerful beat playin’. Above us, the stars danced to the tune, shootin’ across the sky.

It wasn’t until the sun had risen that she showed signs of tirin’. As those beams of mornin’ light began to filter across the horizon, she took the bow from the strings and fell to her knees, pantin’ like she’d just outrun a grizzly.

I finished up the song and lowered my trumpet, sweat drippin’ down my brow. “Do you give up?” I whispered hoarsely.

She lifted her pretty head, chuckling. With a lick of her pale pink lips, she agreed. “I give up, Mr. Cruthers. You have out played me.” Pushin’ herself up, she laughed loud and long. It was a cackle that sent shivers up my spine. “We made a deal. You get to live…until you find someone who can beat you.” Cackling, she vanished in a puff of gray smoke and I was left standin’ there with my trumpet, cold as ice.

“Beat me?” I asked the wind. “But I’m the best! Ha! No one can beat me! I’ll live forever!”

Forever. I was goin’ to be here forever… Not dead, not truly alive. Havin’ to watch everyone I love die… Unable to rest… Wanderin’ for decades…

You see, I’m the new Reaper. I challenge musicians like myself, people who made one too many bad choices, who thought they were the best. The ones who lose…well, I have to take them to the hottest gig they’ll ever play. The ones who win… Well, I ain’t never lost.

I’ve jabbered on long ‘nough. It’s time for our appointment. I see you got your guitar by your side. So let’s get crackin’. I warn you, I’ve seen them all: Canaries that sang like angels. Cats who nearly threw me for a loop. But I still ain’t lost. And I want to lose. I’m tired of livin’. Now let’s play!

Myrriah is a recent college graduate from the University of South Florida. Writing and editing have been obsessions of hers since she was ten years old. She loves to make people laugh and give them fun scares. Those aren't her only hobbies--she's been known to play a mean game of pinball and her collection of Incredible Hulk comics outgrew its shelf space some time ago.

She has been published on the Supernatural Fairy Tales blog, the Asinine Poetry website, and in Dead Man's Tome.