We received proof of his life less than a month after his death. In late September of 1938, a period of days on record as the hottest in state history, our memories of Robert Johnson had begun to entangle themselves with the sensations of our skin gamy in the joints and our dresses glued to sweaty thighs. We could hear him in the symphonic trickle of riverbeds parched by crop storms. We could smell him in the effluvial perfume of tomatoes fallen to decay. At each of our homes in towns scattered throughout the Delta—Tabitha lived in Tutwiler, Helena lived in Yazoo—all six of us distracted ourselves from both the heat and his memory by snapping peas on the porch, by beating dirt from rugs in the yard, by scrubbing laundry with lye in the washroom. Our chores were interrupted when the postman arrived at each of our homes carrying parcels that bore each of our names. We immediately recognized our husband’s serpentine scrawl.
Each of the packages contained a single photograph. Such content, sunk in an oversized box and swaddled in cornhusks, rang peculiar to us for more than one reason. We had never known Robert Johnson to pose for a picture, as he had lived in deathly fear of having his image put on film. We had never seen him wear so dapper a suit. We had never known him to sit as straight. We had never seen him smiling such a careless grin. Most perplexing of all, we received the photograph two whole weeks after our husband’s murder.
Was he forced to take the picture against his will, we ask ourselves to this day, or did some doppelganger pose in front of the gargantuan Kodak? Did he mail the package prior to his death? If so, did the postal service delay the delivery until afterwards? Could it be possible that Robert Johnson, dead but a fortnight, was still alive?
The only evidence available for study was the portrait we hold now in our trembling hands. Even to this day it works the hypnotist’s machinations on our fading memories of Robert Johnson. The face transposed onto heavy card stock, all but disfigured by various tricks of light, bears the veronica of the man we helped shave every morning. His left eyelid hangs half-mast from the untreatable cataract. His left ear droops doggish from a childhood fishing accident. Sepia-tinted shadows morph our late husband’s chin and jaw into those of someone else, but his nose, forehead, and mouth stay true to the originals that once provided our lips a place to rest.
Even more so than his facial features, however, we recognize Robert Johnson’s long, delicate, spidery hands. They could play the blues like no other. They could invigorate our bodies like no one else. The sight of them coiled around his Gibson L-1 remind us, now as well as then, of our husband’s fingers kudzuing along our spines, of his palms feeling for fever on our brows. They remind us of his knuckles kneading knots in our shoulders, of his nails soothing an itch we’ll never be able to reach. Ever since the day we received the photograph, those hands have caused our husband’s ghost to rise from the monochromatic gloom.
We have spent the past seventy years trying to fathom the circumstances of the photograph. Our imaginations have realized the occasion of its capture. We have built dioramas of the Hooks Bros. Studio, whose insignia marks the bottom left corner. We have sketched storyboards of the day our husband was photographed in Memphis, Tennessee. We have envisioned him sauntering down Front Street in close-up and entering a Cotton Row four-story from a high angle. We have created a montage of him quibbling over the price and bragging he just released a record and shaking the hand of the photographer. We have edited his last words for content. “Give me an extra six copies,” he tells the gentleman who operated aperture and lens. “There’s a few ladies I want to make proud.”
The picture has framed our lives. It has accompanied us to job interviews and to counseling sessions. It has brought us luck before the title match, during college exams, and after the flop. It has comforted us in the waiting room. It has bourn witness as we gave our children away in marriage, as we soaped our ring fingers slick and welcomed other men into our beds, as we cleared a place setting for one, called collect on Easter Sunday, and lied about tickles in our throats.
Over the years since his death, as our late husband’s music grew famous and as his life became myth, streetwise historians and plainclothes reporters have ransacked the traveling-man motels, the nickel-and-ten recording shacks, and the Highway 61 juke joints of Mississippi in the hope they might stumble across visual verification of Robert Johnson’s existence. They have questioned relatives by blood. They have searched premises without warrants. It wasn’t until 1989, over fifty years after his death and almost eighty years after his birth, that the entire world was finally given tangible proof of our husband’s life, its dimensions eight by ten inches.
A man named Stephen LaVere, whose name and actions we know from numerous articles published in recent years, made the discovery while interviewing our husband’s half-sister, Carrie Thompson. “A snapshot of my brother? Well, let’s take a look-see,” we imagine she said to the nice man asking about little Robbie. “I’ve got some of his things stored away in the closet.” She spent ten minutes rifling through an old cedar chest, its contents a veritable gold mine for any blues historian. Mr. LaVere’s pupils dilated to the size of mercury dimes as Mrs. Thompson removed two photographs, one small and one large, that would earn both of them thousands of dollars in the years to come. The first photograph, which would later be known as the “Photo-Booth Self-Portrait,” portrayed Robert Johnson posing with his guitar, an unlit Chesterfield hanging from his lip. The second photograph, which would later be known as the “Hooks Bros. Studio Portrait,” was the very one we received two weeks after our husband’s death.
We, the wives of Robert Johnson, were never questioned by historians or reporters. We, the inheritors of his legacy, were never asked about the truth of our late husband’s life. Our existence has been glossed by time. If only someone had read between the lines of history and found our names scribbled in the margins, they would have discovered a photograph of the legendary blues singer much sooner than 1989. If only someone had knocked on our doors sometime over the past seventy years, they would have found his portrait on the mantle, or plastered inside an album, or atop the bedside table, or sandwiched within a cookbook. Claudette, the archivist, kept it filed under V for Visual. Betty, the drunk, kept it crumpled in her back pocket. If only someone had searched for our existence as fervently as they did that of our husband, we would have shown them the photograph we received on a series of afternoons in 1938. We would have flipped it over and read them the inscription our husband wrote to each of us seventy years ago. “To my one and only love,” it reads in his beautiful cursive. “Yours forever, RJ.”
SNOWDEN WRIGHT‘s first novel, Play Pretty Blues, was published by Engine Books in November 2013. He has written for The Atlantic, Salon, Esquire, and the New York Daily News, among other publications. Author of the e-book “How to Get the Crabs,” Wright lives in New York.
Adapted from Play Pretty Blues, by Snowden Wright, Copyright © 2013 by Snowden Wright. With the permission of the publisher, Engine Books.