Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hellhound 5: Been Here and Gone

((This fifth part leads to the end of Section 1 of Hellhound. Four more sections of similar length remain, all to be offered here gradually.))


The front steps of Betty Mae's house in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Johnson climbs the steps and gestures for Johnny to follow him.

JOHNNY: You don' want me--y'all ain't see each other yet.

JOHNSON: Say hello at least.

He then raps softly on the door, guitar strapped across his back as usual. After a moment, he raps again. The door opens this time, and the light from within frames Betty Mae in the doorway. She is barefoot and wearing a plain cotton dress, yet radiantly beautiful. Johnson becomes slightly hesitant before her.

BETTY MAE (not particularly pleased to see him): Oh. Hello.

JOHNSON: Hello, Mae.

In silence they look at each other for a moment. Then Robert remembers his companion.

JOHNSON: Here's my frien' Johnny. We been trav'lin' some.

BETTY MAE (shyly): Hello, Johnny.

Johnny makes another of his bows.

JOHNNY: Please' to meet your' quaintance.

Another painful pause, into which Johnny suddenly blurts:

JOHNNY: Len' me your git-tar, Robert, an' I go see the folks.

In silence Johnson hands it over, then Johnny waves his farewell and hustles away from the tension that's developed.


Betty Mae challenges Johnson.

BETTY MAE: Well, somethin' you want here?

JOHNSON: What you mean? (clears his throat) I come to visit--you're my gal, ain' cha?

BETTY MAE (cynical sniff): Don't know where you get that idea. Nobody keepin' me.

JOHNSON: Aww, now, don' take on so. You know I ain' mean nothin' low-down. I jus' want t' see ya, been so long. Lookit, can't I come in?

BETTY MAE (crosses her arms): If you think I want you comin' 'round...

But she doesn't get to finish, interrupted suddenly by a woman's voice from deeper in the house.

WOMAN'S VOICE: Betty Mae? Who's out there?

The young woman glares at Robert.

BETTY MAE: Now see what you done. (turns to call inside) It's all right, Mama. It's just Robert Johnson.

Who uses the opportunity to slip past her and into the house.


The furnishings are sparse, but homey, well-cared for. Betty Mae spins around angrily, but Johnson is already headed over to the sickly elderly woman hobbling out from a back bedroom.

JOHNSON: Hi, Miz Hen'ricks. How you feelin' now.

MRS. HENDRICKS: Don't y'all fret none about me. Good t' see y' again, son. (already hobbling back to her room) Betty Mae, give Robert some o' that sweet tea you made up. An' don't stay up too late...

She closes the bedroom door behind her.


Betty Mae is not interested in socializing.

BETTY MAE: March yourself right out o' here, Mister Johnson.

Robert moves closer to try some sweet-talk.

JOHNSON: Don' be salty, Mae honey. I jes' want us close like we useta be.

She backs away from him.

BETTY MAE: You keep back now. You crazy if you think you go runnin' off all year, then come back to find me waitin', arms out an' porch light on!

Robert follows on after her, smiling more confidently now. Betty Mae backs into the front door, which closes, and he corners her there.


Robert closes in.

JOHNSON: Hey, li'l gal, I'm a musicianer. I gots t' go where the peoples an' the money is, ain't I?

He puts his arms around her; she doesn't struggle any more, but she doesn't yield to him either.

JOHNSON: But that don't mean I ain't comin' home when I go. Hell, I cain't leave you, you' my brownie.

BETTY MAE: Don't you sweet-talk me, Robert Johnson. I know you courtin' gals in every town in Miss'ippi an' Arkansaw combine'. You some damfool June bug, flittin' from door t' door, an' havin' to fight you' way out after.

Robert's grin is a bit sheepish.

JOHNSON: Don' b'lieve what folks talk, Mae. You th' onliest gal I care 'bout.


Robert pulls her, still resisting, over to the wornout couch and forcibly sits her down beside him. He puts his arm around her shoulders but she shrugs it off.

BETTY MAE: Take me with you then.

With his unwanted hand Robert touches her hair, and she turns to look him in the eyes, still challenging him.


As Robert's answer comes.

JOHNSON: You gonn' leave yo' Mama an' come on the road?

Betty Mae's hard look crumples--she is left defeated and miserable.

BETTY MAE: Oh you smooth-talkin' devil. I can't leave her sick, an' damn you know it!

Johnson leans over and kisses her lips and she responds just slightly.


He leans back and pulls her against his shoulder with the arm around her.

JOHNSON: Well, ever'thin' be all right after while.

The two sit there in frustrated but companionable silence for a moment.

JOHNSON: I 'most forgot... (reaches into his shirt pocket) I tote this for you...

He opens his closed palm to reveal the lipstick left behind by the vamp who took his money. Betty Mae's reaction is cautious still, but warming to him.

BETTY MAE: For me? For sure?

She pulls off the top and twists the bright-red lipstick up.

JOHNSON (grinning devilishly): You' sweet lips don' need no color, but i 'uz thinkin' you might like 'um anyways.


Betty Mae gets up and goes over to a period mirror hanging on the wall. She quickly applies a layer of red to her lips, while we see Johnson reflected as he leans back, looking satisfied with himself. She finishes and spins around to face him.

BETTY MAE: What you think? Is it too red?

JOHNSON: Not much. Come on back here...

For the first time a warm and loving smile lights up her face as she flirtatiously shakes her head "No." Then she busies herself with the gift lipstick, recapping it, turning it over in her hand, etc. Johnson is rising to come to her as she suddenly freezes, staring at the bottom of the tube.


Scratched into the base in ragged letters is a name: "Ida Hill."


As Betty Mae suddenly hurls the tube across the room at Johnson. It hits him in the chest, and he fumbles and catches it as it falls.

JOHNSON: What in hell?

BETTY MAE: Go on, take it an' get out!


Johnson starts toward her holding the lipstick.

JOHNSON: What is it, Mae--what I do?

She looks around and grabs up a convenient flatiron, holding it threateningly. And she swipes at her mouth with her free hand.

BETTY MAE: I ain't none o' your fancy women, Robert Johnson! You tote that, that Satan stick on back to her you got it off!

Now he too examines the tube and finds the telltale scratchings. Embarrassed at being caught out, he still tries to smooth things over, moving toward Betty Mae.

JOHNSON: Now, Mae, don't get het up.

But he pauses because she has burst into tears, of mortification and rage. He reaches for her awkwardly, but she leaps back and waves that iron.

JOHNSON (serious now): She 'uz nobody--some gal I met up the way. I come away wi' that, an' I truly did think you 'ud like it.

BETTY MAE (sobbing): It don't even matter. She's just one of 'em. I know. I know you--you cain't even help how you are. The blues in you, Robert--I cain't live wi' that, no more. Nossir, I know you. Are you gonn' give up your music?

She knows the answer to this already, and Robert can say nothing.

BETTY MAE: No, you won't do it. An' I won't sit home no more, tendin' Mama and waitin' for you to come by me sometime.

Johnson tries to approach her again.

JOHNSON: You don' mean it. We cain't jes' break off.

BETTY MAE (anger triumphing over her tears): Oh yes I do mean it!

When Johnson reaches to take her in his arms, she strikes his left wrist and forearm, not a damaging blow but a source of pain and a blow to his pride.

JOHNSON: Damn it, Mae!

He knocks the iron from her hand, grabs her arms with both of his, and shakes her violently, on and on, shouting all the while.

JOHNSON: Damn you, woman! I wants you by my side somewheres it kin last. But not yet! I ain't gonn' sit here, live in the gallion, spen' my life choppin' cotton, bowin' and scrapin' to the Man! I'm gonn' be somebody--I'm gonn' play music an' live fine! An' if you ain't waitin', I'm gone on widout cha!

Betty Mae has listened to all this without letting it touch her--continuing to try to pull free from his grasp. Now Johnson runs down; the emotion leaves him. As he loosens his grip on her, she yanks away and tumbles to the floor.


The racket has awakened Betty Mae's mother in the bedroom. She calls out in fear, and keeps moaning and keening throughout the rest of the scene.

MRS. HENDRICK'S VOICE: Betty Mae? Betty Mae! What is that? Oh Lordee... (etc.)

Johnson is contrite and bends down to help the young woman back to her feet.

JOHNSON: Honey, I ain't mean to knock you down. I...

But she shrinks away from his touch.

BETTY MAE (hysterical): Keep your hands off me! Get out of this house an' dont you never come back! (glaring up at him) I don' need you, Robert...

Johnson straightens up, looks at her in anguish and remorse but unyielding pride too. Then he nods his acceptance, turns on his heel, and stalks out the door, leaving it open behind him. As he recedes into the darkness, Betty Mae sinks lower, still sobbing, her anger and adrenaline spent.