The Other Side

Dirty Work at the Roundabout


One summer afternoon my friend Stony and I were leaning against an old boom log in the oyster shell gravel, squinting out at the water, when out of the blue he said, “When you’re at a roundabout, you’re looking at a perfect example of the disenchantment of the world.”

Max Weber’s old phrase must have been a memory from Stony’s student days 60 years ago at the University of Wisconsin. The flotsam that washes up on his mind’s beach is more likely to be playing rhythm guitar in The Ardells with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, or hitchhiking from Amsterdam to India. But you never can tell with Stony; maybe he had read Weber’s “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1905).

He was right about roundabouts though. An engineer’s perfectly rational solution to the danger of intersections may be safer, but there’s no enchantment in a roundabout.

Stony explained that only at a crossroads could the famous blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Johnson have sold his soul to the Devil. “Everyone knows” that sometime around 1930 the aspiring musician summoned him at midnight near Clarksville, Mississippi, and the Devil showed up ready to deal.

“The old fellow limped up smoking a pipe and used a cane. He had a dog on a leash in his other hand. Johnson hocked his soul to the Devil in exchange for being able to play the guitar better than anyone else. Papa Legba, as voodoo people call him, sure kept his end of the bargain. That night Robert Johnson walked away from the crossroads as the greatest blues artist of all time. But the Devil does not forget, and Johnson’s day of reckoning came all too soon.”

Stony has a way of putting thoughts in your mind. Maybe it’s a contact high, but he got me thinking, “There’s no Roundabout Blues. The blues and poetry and the Devil are only ever at the crossroads.”

The Key Peninsula has Devil’s Head. We’ve also got the Devil’s Crossroads. Most drivers call it the Penrose turn-off. Maps mark it as Delano Road and 158th Avenue SW. But the Devil is always there, day or night.

That’s because it has a three-way stop.

In hoodoo numerology, three is Papa Legba’s number. There’s this world, the other world, and the trickster who has a foot in both. The cane makes three legs. Two-way stops are dangerous, and four-way stops are psychological experiments. Three-way stops are infernal.

How many times have I come up Delano Road heading for the urban amenities of Home only to discover that I had hellhounds on my trail at the Penrose Park crossroads?

I approach from the east on Delano. There is one stop sign for me, and one each for north and south on 158th. People coming from the west on Delano don’t have to stop.

During the summer, there’s often a Dodge Ram pulling a high-priced camper up the hill from the Bay Lake beaver dam. The big boy truck’s left blinker is signaling Penrose Park as its vacation destination.

I stop at the stop sign to let him turn toward the park for a family weekend in the great outdoors.

He has the right of way but stops anyway, as if it were a normal crossroads with just two stop signs.

I wait for him to turn.

He waves me to cross the intersection. There is a scowl on pickup dad’s face. His kids in the crew cab are asking, “Are we there yet, daddy?” for the 10th time since the Purdy Bridge.

I wait for him to realize he has a protected left turn. In vain, I point up to my stop sign.

After some more back-and-forth, he lunges forward belching a cloud of black smoke from that 6.7-liter diesel. His jaw is set, and I can see he’s thinking, “These damn yokel drivers out here!”

They say the Devil is in the details, and the detail is that we law-abiding yokels obey the unusual stop sign. It’s the urban-values summer people up from Chehalis who would have me be a scofflaw and run the stop sign.

In the middle of the brinksmanship at the crossroads, I wonder what the Devil’s going rate is for getting city slickers just to turn left.

Stony once observed, “Sometimes in life you’re at the poker table with people who don’t know what they don’t know.”

Dan Clouse lives in Lakebay.