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I Bought a Strange Guitar; I Think the World Is Ending

I Bought a Strange Guitar; I Think the World Is Ending


Estimated reading time — 30 minutes

At this point, there is little that will make any difference. I can protest that I am a victim, I was always a victim, the same as everybody. But I don’t ask your forgiveness. I’m writing this to tell you how it happened. That won’t matter, either. It’s the only thing I can do at this point, so it’s what I’m doing.

I found the guitar in an old pawn shop in Boston. The proprietor was a caricature of a pawnbroker: a bent little old man with a hooked nose and wisps of white hair around his ears. His face creased with a permanent frown from too many years of feigning disgust with the stuff people brought him. I didn’t bother speaking to him at first, just walked up and down the narrow aisles between the shelves stacked with endless junk. I thought people brought their valuables to pawn, but this guy had somehow acquired piles of rusty old hand wood-working tools, random glassware and salt-shakers, chipped china, and flatware that wasn’t silver. I felt curiously drawn to a battered old wardrobe that looked like it had been built of leftover tongue-and-groove siding. I almost opened it, but I was sure it could only be filled with mink coats. Judging from the rest of his stuff, probably moth-eaten mink coats.

I felt his eyes glued onto me, waiting for me to try to lift something. With my mohawk and torn jeans I often get that look, but given the worthlessness of his crap it was almost insulting. I said screw it and headed for the door.

“Can I help you find something?” Husky and suspicious.

I looked him straight in the eye. “I doubt you have a guitar.”

He almost smiled. The corners of his mouth twitched, but then I think they couldn’t remember how smiling worked, and gave up on it. “I might have a guitar,” he said. “For the right price.”

This didn’t sound promising. He didn’t say anything more. I wondered if he were expecting me to fork over money sight unseen. “Well, do you or don’t you, old man?”

“I do, kid,” he said, which I had to respect. After I’d called him “old man,” it was only fair he called me “kid.” But I like how he said it, deliberate, to be clear he was giving me back what was mine. “Look in the wardrobe right behind you. Don’t open the case, just bring it over here to the counter.”

It was the wardrobe I’d almost opened. I did, now, and found it contained nothing but a dusty, rectangular guitar case. I humored the old man, carried it over to the counter. I put it down so it would open toward him, since he obviously didn’t want me to handle it until I’d bought it.

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He turned it around, flicked open the clasps, and pulled it open, shrinking down behind the lid. Later, I would note that the maneuver protected him from sight of the guitar. I doubt he really understood what he had, but he was not totally ignorant. At the time, though, I just put it down to showmanship.

Inside was the most amazing black guitar I had ever seen. It was so black, it looked like there was no guitar there at all, just some silver frets and strings stretched across nothing, a guitar-shaped rip in the universe. I reached into the case, just to touch it, just to be sure there was a guitar there.

The old man closed the case partway, nearly trapping my hand inside. I didn’t pull away.
“Na na,” he said, his lips curling back from his teeth. “Not here.”

“I can’t buy it if I can’t try it,” I said.

“Take your hand out of the case,” he said.

I did. I wanted the guitar. I had to hear it first, but frankly if it didn’t play at all I’d still have bought it. If I could afford it. It was that cool.

He shut the case and fastened the latches.

“Take it into the basement. There’s an old amplifier down there. You can plug it in and play it. But see here. The volume on that amplifier is set on ‘Two,’ right? It stays on ‘Two.’ “

“Sure,” I said. Whatever.

He laid a bony hand on a red fire extinguisher at the end of the counter. “See this? You know what this is for?”

“Putting out fires?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you. But check the pressure gauge.”

I looked at the dial on top. It was all the way down on empty.

“The only thing it’s good for is bashing out the brains of people who don’t follow the rules. Got it? The volume stays on ‘Two.’ “

Somehow I wasn’t too frightened at the thought of this old man trying to assault me with a fire extinguisher. Except for the thought of trying to convince the police that the punk had acted in self-defense when he broke the little old shop-keeper in two. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need the guitar to be loud to tell if it could play.

I took the case, and went through the little door, down the steep stairs. It crossed my mind that I was probably doing something stupid, going down into this crazy old man’s cellar looking for—yeah, a cask of Amontillado. But frankly, the door was so flimsy I could turn it into kindling if he tried to lock it behind me. All he did was yell down at me about keeping the volume on two.

In the basement was a chest freezer, a big converted coal furnace, some broken furniture, and a vintage amplifier. I put the guitar down on the freezer and opened the case again. Down in the basement it looked even blacker than before, if that were possible. I touched the guitar, just to assure myself that it was real. My hand stopped, so there was definitely something there, but I couldn’t really feel it. It had all the friction of black ice, but no sensation of cold. A sensation of vertigo crept over me, as if I were going to fall into the nothingness. Impulsively, I grabbed the strap—that at least felt like leather—and lifted the guitar so it hung from my shoulder.

It had weight like a guitar. The sensation of vertigo left me, when I wasn’t staring right at it. I fished a patch cord out of the case, plugged it into the amp, and switched it on. I turned the volume up to two and a half, just to screw with the old man, then touched the strings. Just the tinny sound a guitar makes when the club owner pulls the plug on your show. I only had a moment of disappointment, before I remembered that this amplifier probably had vacuum tubes. It would need to warm up before it would play.

I waited a minute. The amplifier hummed with potentiality. Then I struck the open strings. Or I meant to. Hit them one after the other in a slow arpeggio to hear how far out of tune it was, but on the first note my fingers froze. It was indescribable. A deep, resonant tone that sounded like it came out of the primeval past; a note imagined by alien races that had looked down on Earth when all life was just a slime on the bottom of the sea. It unseated my bowels from their rest in my viscera and set them floating uneasily.

I took a deep breath and plucked out the first seven notes of “Stairway to Heaven.” It seemed like the right riff to try. This guitar spoke with the Voice of God. But not the all-forgiving God of the Gospels, nor even the strict pedantic God of Evangelicals. This was the Old Testament God, mighty and awful, the God that shook mountains and spoke in thunder and trumpets. The God that smote the Edomites by the thousands. My head swam. I was terrified, and at the same time, I had to have this guitar. I would pay whatever price the old man asked.

I snapped off the amplifier and forced myself to walk slowly up the stairs. The door was unlocked. The old man was back where he had been, behind his counter, adding rows of figures in a little black book. I tried to act casual.

“How much you want for it?” It came out as a shaky, tense whisper. So much for acting casual. The old man would have to be deaf not to know I’d pay whatever he asked. But maybe he was deaf. He didn’t even look up. I repeated myself, louder, and less desperate.
He glanced up, surprised to see me standing in front of him. Then he took an earplug out of one ear. If he hadn’t heard me, he knew what I’d said. “Two thousand dollars.”

My stomach, already dangerously unmoored, flipped over again. That was four times what I’d told myself was my maximum price when I set out guitar hunting. I drew a deep breath and tried, “I can’t pay more than–“

“Bah!” he interrupted and thumped a hand-lettered sign on the wall behind him. “Do not TRY to dicker. All PRICES are FIRM.”

On another day, I knew that just because you put something on a sign doesn’t make it true. Saying he didn’t dicker was just the first round of dickering. But I didn’t have it in me. I had to have the guitar. I took out my wallet, and pulled out my credit card, wondering what hope I would have of paying this off.

“Can’t you read?” he snarled and thumped another hand-lettered sign: “All sales are CASH ONLY.”

“Can I hold it with a deposit?” I asked.

“How much you got?” he asked.

“Fifty dollars,” I said.

“There’s a cash machine on the corner, you could take out two hundred and fifty, make it three hundred.”

I could. I’d even have enough left to eat until payday. Paying rent would take some imagination, but I could do this.

“It may take me a little while to work up the rest and come back.” Even as I said it, I knew it was hopeless. I’d never have $1,700 in cash, not unless I took a cash advance on the credit card and paid the thirty percent interest rate.

“No!” he said. “Don’t come back. If you walk in my door again, I’ll bash your brains out with this fire extinguisher.”

“But…”

“Three hundred dollars,” he said. “In cash. Go get it right now. Then take your guitar and get the hell out of here. If I see you again, I’ll kill you.”

The man was clearly raving mad. But $300 was a price I could pay. I went out to the cash machine, traded all my money for the guitar, and left before he could make good on his threat.

It was only then that I realized I’d even given him my bus fare home. I wound up walking two miles through the city. I got home late and tired. Playing the guitar seemed like too momentous a thing to attempt in that state. I put it aside, microwaved a can of mushroom soup, and went to bed early. But I didn’t sleep well. I dreamed about the guitar. In my dreams, it wasn’t just black. There were stars, twinkling in the void. When I tried to pick it up, my hand went right through it. I felt like I could reach deep in, and scoop up a handful of stars, except I figured they’d be terribly hot. I thought they’d make tiny little burns on my hand.

There was something behind the stars, too. Something vast and restless. A long, slow roiling in the dark. I didn’t want to touch that thing. I didn’t want to disturb it. It was asleep, but not deeply. I hardly dared to breathe. If I woke it… I had no idea. Something very bad would happen.

I was miserable the next day. And the day after that. So I never took the guitar out again until the night I rehearsed with the band.

We called ourselves Chthonic Circus. We were a lean bar band, splitting our meager earnings just three ways. Leslie fronted the vocals and defined our sound with a loud, rumbling bass. She was a scary little thing, a knife of moodiness under a big mop of black hair. She disappeared under layers of black canvas and orange-striped tights. On the drums was Ethan, an underfed stick of a man with big frog eyes. Every once in a while he put off shaving until he had half an inch of see-through whiskers on his chin. No one could ever call it a beard. Then he gave up and cut it off.

I don’t know what you’d call our style. Post-punk or goth are the most frequent labels we get, but we do occasionally go off into the technically demanding solo, like a progressive band. But we assiduously avoided the grand, pseudo-philosophical lyrics of progressive, and our themes were too dark. One reviewer, in a local scene rag, described us as playing “danse macabre,” which I thought was a great description, but it didn’t stick. We got the plug pulled on us only once, after a patron complained to the bartender that we were depressing. “I come here because I feel bad and want to feel better, these guys make me want to kill myself.” I felt a little bad about that. My hope is always that we’ll make those guys feel understood. But there is a badge of honor in getting kicked out of a club.

I made a production out of my new guitar, telling Leslie and Ethan that they’d never seen anything like it, and getting them to stand around watching while I opened the case. I watched their faces, opening it just as the shop owner had, standing behind the lid as I raised it. Leslie frowned. Ethan’s jaw dropped open.

“What is that made of?” Leslie whispered. She reached out to touch it, but hesitated.

“It’s like… the void,” Ethan said. “It’s like… staring into infinity, the black sky between the stars.”

“Does it sound as good as it looks?” Leslie asked.

I just smiled. I lifted it by the strap, and hung it on my shoulder. For some reason, I kept my gaze averted from the guitar, as if I expected to see the thing from my nightmare still roiling beneath the blackness. I patched it into my amplifier, turned the volume up to seven, and struck an E-minor chord.

It vibrated the windows. It was a full, dark sound. But it wasn’t the Voice of God. It was just an electric guitar. Disappointed, I tried hitting the strings one at a time, as I had in the pawn shop. Just an electric guitar.

“Good enough,” Ethan said. “Damn, that hurts my eyes.”

“It’s like it’s pulling your eyeballs out of their sockets,” Leslie said, and turned away. She busied herself setting up her bass. Ethan continued to stare.

Maybe it was the volume. Maybe that was why the proprietor had insisted I keep the volume on “two.” Maybe it only sounded that good when it was quiet. I turned the volume down, and plucked the strings again. Still just a guitar, only quieter.

“It sounded a lot better in the shop,” I said.

“It sounds great to me,” Leslie said.

“No,” I said. “It sounded like, like it came out of the abyss. It…” I still remembered the sound of those few strings I’d touched. I hadn’t imagined it. They were burned into my memory.

“Maybe it was something with the acoustics where you were,” Leslie said. “I heard this podcast about these guys who were trying to reproduce the acoustics of ancient cathedrals. They turned this ordinary chorus into the voices of angels.”

“It couldn’t have been,” I said. “I was just in this guy’s basement. With a big old furnace and a freezer and concrete walls.” Could it have been? Could there have been some freak perfection of the dimensions and objects? It didn’t seem possible.

“Could there have been an effects block patched in to the amp?” Ethan asked. He was still staring at me. He hadn’t moved toward his drums.

“I don’t see how,” I said. “It was just an old tube amplifier.”

“Oh, that’s it,” Ethan said. “That vintage sound. I’ve heard Neil Young still uses a tube amplifier, because he likes that vintage sound. The things cost a fortune, nowadays, because no one makes the tubes anymore.”

I thought about this. I knew everything Ethan had said, but I doubted an amplifier could make that much difference. If tubes could make a guitar sound like what I’d heard, no one would have invented solid state electronics.

“Hey, Ethan,” Leslie said. “Put your eyes back in their sockets and get on your drums. No matter how beautiful his guitar is, we still gotta play music.”

“I don’t know,” Ethan said. “They might book us just so people could look at that guitar.” It took him three tries to tear his eyes away and sit down at his drums.

The practice didn’t go well. I was distracted by my disappointment, and my bandmates were distracted by my guitar. Twice Ethan lost the tempo, slowing down while he stared at my belly. Then in the middle of the third song Leslie screached and stopped playing.

“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. Most of the evening she had been avoiding looking at me, but then she took a long look at the guitar. “Sorry, I don’t… I swear I saw something moving in your guitar. It was like it was a window into somewhere, and there was… something moving.”

“I think it’s alive,” Ethan said, staring at me. “Maybe that’s why it’s not making the sound you want. Maybe you gotta have the right relationship with it. Before it will sing for you.”

“It played for me before,” I said. I didn’t believe him. Not really. But in Leslie’s dark studio it didn’t sound so crazy.

“Yeah, but then you weren’t trying to show it off,” Ethan said. “Then, all your focus was on the guitar, wanting to hear the guitar. Tonight, you’re wanting to show off the cool guitar you got, your focus is on you. It doesn’t want to put on a show to make you look cool.”

“This is crazy,” Leslie said. “We can’t practice like this. Why don’t you, like, face the wall or something. No offense, but…”

“It’s just a guitar,” I said.

“Yeah, but you don’t look at it, either.”

“Whatever, let’s just play,” I said. But I did turn away from them.

It didn’t do any good. I was too annoyed and disappointed. Leslie was too rattled. Ethan lost the beat twice more, just staring at the crescent of the guitar he could see past my hip. We gave it up at ten, when we usually jam well into the AM.

As we were packing up, Leslie said to me, “Why don’t you bring your old guitar to the Venus tomorrow.”

“Don’t be crazy,” I said. “You know what I paid for this?” Actually, I’d gotten it for a steal, but it was the easy thing to say. A lot easier than that I still hoped to make it sing like angels.

“Just in case,” she said. “This is gonna be a good show, the Venus draws a good crowd. So we have something to fall back on if your baby derails us again.”

“It’s just a guitar,” I said again.

“You shouldn’t say that,” Ethan said. “No wonder it won’t sing for you when you talk about it that way.”

I said it was just a guitar, but I don’t think I believed myself. I mustn’t have, because on the bus home I talked to it.

“I’m sorry if I was trying to show off with you,” I said. “Tomorrow night, I promise, I won’t pay attention to the crowd. I’ll just listen to you. I want to hear you sing again, the way you did when I first played you.”

The guitar, of course, had nothing to say. Neither did my fellow bus passengers. Late at night, on city buses, nobody talks to the people who talk to inanimate objects.

“You should have a name,” I said, then reconsidered. “You probably have a name. I shouldn’t make up a name for someone as important as you. If ever you can let me know what your name is, I’ll use it.”

At that moment, the man next to me put down his newspaper and stood up to get off the bus. Most of the paper was obscured by an ad for great bargains at Walgreens, but I could just see a word and a half of the headline:

“Has Tur-“

A cold dread crept up my spine. It was coincidence. Coincidence and imagination. I moved the ad circular to expose the full headline.

Cemetery Killer Suspect
Has Turned Himself In


See? It wasn’t an answer to my question. What was I imagining, that there just so happened to be the exact headline in the paper needed for Hastur to show me his name when I asked? Or maybe he had mystically transformed the newspaper. If he could have done that, he could just as easily have scratched his name into the seat cushion. That would have been surer than giving me a word and a half to guess at his name.

Or maybe he reached across time and space, made the killer turn himself in, made the publisher compose the headline, so this would happen here, now, when I asked. Hastur. The King in Yellow. The vast, tentacled creature who drives men mad just to be looked upon.

Or maybe a man dropped his newspaper, and my imagination scared me.

“If Hastur is your name,” I said softly, “give me a sign. Make something green land in my lap.”

I held my breath. I’d been specific about the sign I wanted, because I knew how easily occult swindlers could suck people in. I ask for a sign, and something happens. Anything. A dog barks. The bus goes over a bump. The old man across from me coughs. Something is always sure to happen. The sign!

Nothing happened. Nothing landed in my lap, green or otherwise. See? No omnipotent Elder Being was reaching out of the void to introduce himself to me. Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution: I was scaring myself.

I’d arrived at my stop. I stood up to get off. As I stepped on the first stair, the driver called to me. “Hey! Son!”

I looked back.

“Matthew four, verse seven.”

“Huh?” I said, intelligently.

“Matthew four, verse seven. It will answer your question.”

“What question?” I asked.

“How should I know? Look it up. Have a good night, now.”

“You, too,” I said, and stepped off the bus.

If you’ve lived in Boston as long as I have, you probably have had random strangers quote Bible verses at you. You probably never looked them up. I never had, before. But I was feeling weird, and it was a weird exchange, and it usually isn’t the bus driver who does it.
I took out my phone and looked it up.

Jesus said unto him, “It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

My gut got that floaty feeling again. I’d asked for a sign, a specific sign. Instead, I got rebuked.

This was ridiculous! I strode off for home. The line in the Bible was “Do not tempt God,” it was about how to treat God. The rule did not transfer to any other supernatural being. But this righteous denial didn’t even last the short walk to my apartment. As Antonio said, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”

I locked my door carefully that night. Then I put Hastur in the foyer closet, as far from my bedroom as I could. Even so, I had weird dreams. I dreamed that my old girlfriend Amelia had been transformed into a guitar. My right hand, plucking the strings, was diddling her clit. My left, on the fretboard, was squeezing her neck. The strings were her carotid arteries, and I pinched them closed against the frets, cutting off the flow of blood to her brain. When I played a bar code she could not breathe at all. After a few F# power chords the sound from the guitar grew weak and fluttery. After a few more it stopped making any sound at all. I kept playing her dead body.

I woke near 11 am, groggy and annoyed. In the light of day it all looked stupid. My guitar was possessed by the spirit of an ancient, evil force? Not just any ancient, evil force. A fictional entity, made up by H. P. Lovecraft, to spook Victorian gentlemen, while implicitly reassuring them that they were the guardians of civilization against the unknown terrors of the past. What was Lovecraft, but an attempt to modernize medieval fears of witches and the devil. Instead you had cultists and cosmic entities. So much more scientific.

That I had bad dreams? Of course I had bad dreams. They weren’t caused by the malign influence of the entity in my guitar, they were caused by my imagining an entity in my guitar.

My night terrors banished by the cold light of reason, I turned my powerful intellect to the question of how to recapture the sound I had first heard. There were two possible explanations suggested to me: that it was the acoustics of the basement, or that it was the amplifier. Neither sounded likely, but I knew which one I wanted to be true. If the sound had been a quirk of the acoustics of the basement, I’d never recapture it, not unless I persuaded the pawn-broker to let me give concerts in his basement. But if it was the amplifier, I could, in theory, get the right amplifier. I looked up what it would cost to get an old tube amplifier, and was surprised to see they weren’t insanely expensive. Not that I had another $500 dollars in my bank account, but I could get it. If I knew for sure that it would give me the sound.

I spent the day calling every guitarist I could think of who might have a tube amplifier and be willing to let me try it. By three o’clock I ran out of ideas, except for the obvious one: go back to the pawn shop. That, of course, came with an obvious problem: his threat to kill me. But I doubted that was serious. The man had insisted he would not negotiate the price of the guitar, and then dropped it from $2,000 to $300 in a heartbeat. His threat to kill me was probably a negotiating tactic as well. He hoped I would come in afraid, I’d walk in the door with a fist full of cash leading the way.

Suddenly I saw it all. He hadn’t dropped the price of the guitar. When I came back and asked for the amplifier, the price would be $1,700. He’d threatened to kill me so I wouldn’t come back until I had that $1,700 in cash in my hand.

Which was I to do? Drop a load of money in the hope that it would be the right thing? Or raise three times as much, but know?

At seven I sent a text to Ethan, reminding him of our show that night. He hadn’t forgotten a show in a long time, but the couple times he had were bad scenes. In those days, we played short sets in small pubs where the owners were used to the occasional no show and disappointing performance. The Venus was a big venue, and the owner had a reputation for vindictiveness. He owned clubs in several cities, and he had a lot of friends. Or, more likely, he had a lot of dirt to blackmail other club owners. Bands who screwed him got screwed. I’d heard of one band who produced documentation that three out of four of them had tested positive for Covid-19. The manager had told them, “The only doctor’s note Mr. Hawkins will accept is one signed by a coroner.”

As the hour of the show drew closer, my sunny courage began to wane. I didn’t really notice at first. I threw both guitars into Leslie’s trunk, but I told myself it was because she’d asked me to, because it would promote band comity, and all that. But still I thought of my new guitar as Hastur. Still, I made sure it was firmly propped against the side of the trunk, so it would feel properly cared-for and respected.

We swung by Ethan’s to find he wasn’t home. No lights. No sound. No sign.

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“You did remind him of the show tonight, didn’t you?” Leslie asked.

“Of course,” I said. I checked my phone. No reply. I called him.

After six rings it went to voicemail. “Dude, I’m either on my phone or can’t find it. Leave me a message.”

“Hey, asshole, we’ve got a show tonight. At the Venus. Where the hell are you?” I hung up.
Leslie’s eyes, barely visible through all her hair, were big and afraid. “What do we do?” she asked.

“Go on as a two-piece?” I asked.

She shook her head. “Unless we brought the house down, Hawkins would call it breach of contract.’ “

“Then we gotta get a sub,” I said. “Who do we know could sit in?”

“With no notice?” she gaped. “That’s crazy.”

“Maybe he’ll call back,” I said.

“We can’t wait,” she said. “If we’re going to find a sub, we need to start calling five hours ago.”

My phone rang. “Thank God,” I said. But it wasn’t Ethan. It was an unknown number. I was desperate enough to answer it anyway.

“Is this Liam?” the voice on the other end said.

“Yes,” I answered. My guts started to unmoor themselves again. I just knew this was bad.

“This is Stephen Brooks. I’m a nurse at McLean Hospital. I’m calling on behalf of Ethan _____. He isn’t well, and won’t be able to make the show tonight.”

“What?” I said, although I’d heard him perfectly well. McLean Hospital. First in psychiatry, since 1818.

“Ethan is being treated here. His condition is stable, but he insisted it was urgent that you get this message.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“I’m afraid that I can’t give any more information about his condition. But he will be very reassured to know that you got his message.”

“Yeah,” I said. Then, finally finding some compassion in my soul, I added. “Tell him it’s fine. We’ll get a sub, it’ll be okay.” I hung up.

“What is it?” Leslie asked, reading my face.

“He’s cracked up. He’s in the mental hospital.”

“Okay…” Leslie’s eyes darted back and forth, as if she were reading some emergency manual in her head. She pulled out her keys. “You drive. I’m going to call every drummer I can think of until someone says they can come. If I have to, I’ll promise him half our fee.”
“If you have to, promise him everything,” I said. “It’s better than blowing this gig.”

“Shit shit shit shit.”

“I’ll see you, and raise you two fucks.”

I drove the van. Leslie called. The first person apologized, said it was impossible. Then she got voicemail. The third laughed at her. I could hear him over the car noise. The fourth sounded afraid at the prospect of going on stage to play songs he’d never heard before. Leslie tried reassuring him. He didn’t have to be great, just hold the beat and jam. Then she tried bribing him with money. He didn’t bite. After that she just sat in the van and stared at her phone.

“Try someone else,” I said.

“I can’t think of anyone else.”

“What about… who’s that guy who plays with Doom Cell?”

“They’re on tour in Philadelphia.”

“Or… or… Pongo. Pongo what’s-his-name.”

“That’s who I was just talking to. Hold on. Call Honey.”

“Who’s Honey?” I asked, but she’d been talking to her phone.

Leslie blushed. “An old boyfriend.” He must have picked up, because she suddenly said, “Hey! You’ll never guess who this is… you guessed! How are you? It’s been so long!… Yeah, well, I’m kind of in an emergency here. I’ve gotta a show at the Venus in two—yeah, at the Venus… thanks. It would be good news, if our drummer hadn’t finked out on us… in two hours… well, I can go get you. Where are you?… Worcester? Sure, I can do that.”

“Worcester, are you crazy?” I said.

“Have your gear by the road, this is going to be tight.”

“That’s insane,” I said. “It’s over an hour each way, we’ll never make it.”

“Yeah, I can do it,” Leslie said, ignoring me. “Yeah. Be ready. Be at the side of the road in, like, seventy minutes, okay?”

“Are you insane?” I said. “Do you know what Hawkins will do to us if we’re half an hour late?”

“Yeah, bear,” she said into the phone. “You’re saving my ass. See you soon.” She hung up.

“This won’t work,” I said.

“This is how it’s going to work,” she said. “Drive to Venus and get out. I’m going to drive like hell to Worcester. When our time comes, you go out, say you’re the opening act, and you play solo. If I don’t get stopped by Massachusetts finest, I’ll be there before you’re ten minutes in. With luck, the audience will be so busy staring at your guitar they won’t notice.”

“Without luck the bouncer will entertain the crowds by tying me to a table and butt-fucking me.”

“Yeah, well, I’m going to be riding for an hour with a guy I don’t get along with who’s going to be wondering how ‘grateful’ I am that he helped out, so pardon my lack of pity.”

“There’s gotta be someone else,” I said. “What about…”

I did come up with two names before she dropped me off, but one she couldn’t reach, and the other was playing a show already. When she drove away, her SUV leaned precariously on the first corner.

I was there way early, of course. I wound up standing in the alley with our guitars and amplifiers for fifteen minutes, hoping that the manager would show up before some enterprising gangster. He did. I set everything up, ran a sound check, got a beer, and waited in the green room while the crowd started to file in. Fifteen minutes before show time the manager checked in.

“Where are the rest of them?”

“They’ll be along,” I said, trying to be casual. “I’m going to open solo.”

“What?” He scowled at me. “I booked a band.”

“You got a band,” I said. “Plus. It’s just an opening act. It’ll be like folks see two bands for the price of one. A fifteen minute teaser.”

“That was not the contract,” he said. Not that we had a contract. “If one person, one person asks for his cover back during your ‘opening act,’ I’ll have your ass.”

“Deal,” I said.

By the time I took the stage, my dread of the guitar was creeping back.

Ethan was in a mental hospital, the day after he couldn’t take his eyes off my guitar. Now I was going to go onstage, and perform in front of two hundred people. If there was anything… was I putting the sanity of two hundred people at risk?

I had the other guitar. I didn’t have to take Hastur on stage. But that thought was no reassurance, either. I had no idea how I was going to keep a club full of people entertained for half an hour by myself (of course I’d lied to the manager). They’d want to dance, and I had no rhythm section. Even if the manager didn’t follow through on his threat, the last thing we needed was for the crowd to be impatient and pissed-off before we started playing. No. The only reason I dared try this was because I had Hastur to hide behind. I laid my hand on the case.

“Hastur,” I said. “I need you. We’re going to go out in front of a big crowd, and I need you to sing for them. Get us through this… get us through this and I’ll…” What does one offer to an enchanted guitar? I said the first thing that came into my mind. “A tube amplifier. I’ll get you a vintage tube amplifier, just like the one in the pawn shop.”

Seriously? I was bargaining with my guitar? I downed my beer, snapped open the case, and took it out. Yes, I avoided looking at it as much as I could. Just as I was leaving the green room, I saw a yellow scarf hanging on the back of a chair. A sheer, mustard-yellow scarf left behind by some girl band or something. Without even a conscious thought, I swept it up, and wrapped it around my head, so only my eyes were showing.

I walked out onto the stage, without any idea what I was going to play. I took comfort knowing that whatever happened, it wouldn’t be associated with my face. The club was barely half full, but still, that meant two hundred eyes, trained on me.

“By special arrangement,” I said. “Opening for Chthonic Circus. The King in Yellow.”

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There, Hastur. All the glory was to be yours. Having no idea what else to do, I started playing the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven. A lame choice. Every bar band in the amateur cover league played Stairway to Heaven, hoping to cop some of its glory. But it was the official song you always played to try out a new guitar. It did sound better. There was a difference. I got the feeling that Hastur was trying as hard as it could. But it wasn’t half the glory of the pawn shop. It needed the tubes. Vacuum tubes. Glass globes containing a tiny piece of the void where Hastur—himself, not the guitar—was imprisoned, restlessly sleeping. It needed to touch the void to give full voice.

Whatever. It was enough. The crowd stood, transfixed, unable to take their eyes off of me. I didn’t sing. I can sing. I often fill in harmony and counterpoint vocals with Leslie. But I didn’t want Hastur to have to share the stage. When I thought the instrumental Stairway couldn’t go on any further, I morphed into the opening riff of Heart’s Barracuda. Played that for awhile. I didn’t see any movement in the audience. Even the waitrons, who were supposed to be selling drinks and milking the crowd for cash, were not winding through them. When I got all I could out of Heart, I threw caution to the wind. The King in Yellow was not a cover band. I didn’t want to play anything from the Chthonic set, either, so I just started improvising. A surge of power chords, spiked with bright overtones, I drove as fast as I could, trying to create a wall of sound with only six strings. Next thing I knew I was fingerpicking a bass line on the two low strings while simultaneously leading on the four high ones. It was insane. It wasn’t me playing. My fingers moved faster than I could track, spinning a web of dark and terrible music. It was Hastur, playing through me.

I lost track of all time. I have no idea how long it was, before I spied a chubby man at the foot of the stage waving for my attention. A small, feminine hand clapped over his eyes. I looked again. I could barely see Leslie standing on tiptoe behind him to peer over his shoulder. The band had come. With some effort, I took control of my hands, and ended the song.

Back in the green room, I put Hastur in his case, and unwrapped the scarf from my head. Leslie stuck her head in the door.

“Is it safe?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, not even thinking what a crazy question that was.

She came in, breathless. “Fuck. When I told you to open I didn’t think you’d upstage us.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” I said.

“The door man didn’t even look at me when I told him I was the band,” she said. “He just kind of grunted. Bruin came to a dead stop when he saw you. I had to cover his eyes and guide him down to the stage.”

“Where is he?”

“Setting up his drums, of course. Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’m going to switch to Gus.” That was my old guitar. Yes, I named him when I was sixteen. Gus the guitar.

“That might be best. I don’t think I want to share the stage with that thing. It would be like singing a duet with Aretha Franklin or something.”

A knock sounded on the door. Leslie cracked it open and peaked out.

“There’s a guy here from the Meme, says he wants to talk to the King in Yellow,” the manager said.

“Who?” Leslie said.

“Yeah, send him in,” I said.

Leslie gaped at me, then rolled her eyes. In walked a slick guy in designer jeans and professionally styled sideburns. He glanced at me. “You the King in Yellow?”

“Let’s say I speak for him,” I said, in case Hastur was listening.

“I want to book you for the Meme. This Saturday.”

“Saturday?” Leslie gaped.

Saturdays at the Meme were for bands with record contracts. Professional musicians on the tier below arena rock.

“There are three girls crying in the lobby right now while the bouncer calls them a cab,” Mr. Slick said. “The doorman just walked off the job, saying he was going to do something with his life while he still had a chance. The bartender can’t sell drinks fast enough. You aren’t playing anywhere else between now and then, are you?”

“No,” I said.

“I know a guy at Columbia. I’m going to call him, and he’s going to sign you, but he’s going to sign you at the Meme. You’re going to be discovered at the Meme, understand?”

“I need an advance of seventeen hundred dollars,” I said. I was astonished as everyone else at the words coming out of my mouth.

The man chuckled uneasily. “Don’t get cocky. Columbia will be happy to throw money at you, but first, you’ve got to do the show.”

“I need an advance of seventeen hundred dollars to do the show,” my voice said again. Then, since I was talking so cool, I decided to act cool, too. I picked up Gus, and turned to Leslie.

“You ready to go on?”

“Wait,” the man barked. He took out his cell phone. “Yeah, hi Cindy, this is Mark. Listen, a guy is going to come by the club tomorrow morning, and call himself the King in Yellow. I want you to give him seventeen hundred dollars in cash… I’ll take care of that when I get there… hang on.” He looked at me. “What time will you be there?”

“One?” I said.

“One in the afternoon. That’s right.” He hung up the phone and glared at me. “All right,” he said. “You can take your seventeen hundred dollars and head off for Mexico if you like. Or you can show up on Saturday, play my show, and walk into the life of a rock star. Your choice.”

He walked out, leaving me with Leslie staring at me like I had betrayed her. Like all this time I’d been pretending to be a regular person, and now it turned out I was secretly a god. She’d thought we were friends, but she was only a stepping stool to stardom.

“The fuck,” she said. She looked on the verge of tears.

“Come with me,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be a solo act. I could–I probably need some help out there.”

She shook her head. “I think I’d only hold you back. Come on. If this is going to be the last show for the Chthonic Circus, let’s make it a good one.”

It wasn’t. Our heart wasn’t in it. Bruin was able to fit himself in, well enough, but it wasn’t like having a real drummer. He couldn’t add to the songs. Leslie was heartbroken, I was confused. If we’d been any other band we’d probably have been booed off the stage, but with Chthonic Circus, well, Leslie was able to leverage heartbroken into our songs easily enough, so we held it together. After the first set I thought about getting out Hastur again, but I didn’t dare. I didn’t think he’d want to share the stage, either.


*


The next day I collected my seventeen hundred dollars in cash and headed back to the pawn shop, Hastur in hand. Just to keep him from asking for even more money, I kept five hundred dollars in my wallet and another five hundred in my sock. I didn’t doubt he would ask for as much as he thought he could get, but I thought seven hundred in my fist was enough to stave off homicide, and we could dicker about the rest.

The pawn shop was gone.

I don’t mean it was closed, it was gone. The stone facade still stood. Through the shattered windows I could see charred timbers and a few metal remains. There was a metal ladder, bent out of shape by the heat of the fire, balanced on the blackened floor joists. Yellow police tape stretched across the windows and warned everyone to stay out.

I stopped in at the flower shop next door and asked the lady there.

“Good riddance, too,” she said. “He made the whole block creepy.”

“How did it happen?”

“Arson,” she said. “They think he probably set it himself to collect the insurance money. The police picked him up in Mexico, he won’t see a dime.” The lady wanted to say more about the intelligence of someone who tries to pull off an insurance scam while simultaneously skipping the country, but I had to check one thing. Fire burns up. It was possible–unlikely, but possible–that the amp was still there, in the basement, unscathed.
I parted the police tape and climbed through the window into the burned-out shop. There wasn’t much floor left. I kept my feet on the joists and hoped they were sound. The sun was high in the sky, and I could see down into the basement well enough. It was piled with litter of half-burned boards, globs of melted glass, various metal things that had fallen through the floor. Plenty of burning things had landed in the basement. But there was the hulking old furnace. There was the freezer chest, scorched and pitted, but not warped out of shape. There was a pile of ash and junk that might be covering the amplifier.

The stairs to the basement were still in place, but they were so black and alligatored I worried they were mostly charcoal. I stepped from joist to joist until I got to the aluminum ladder. Slightly twisted, but it seemed sound. I eased it between two joists and jammed it against the junk in the floor. It was so bent there was no way to brace it at all four corners. I got both feet on the floor and one side of the top braced, and called it good enough. I held tight to a joist as long as I could, just in case, but it got me to the bottom intact.
A cloud of ash floated up around me. I floundered across the wreckage, flung aside the frame of a Flexible Flyer and a broken panel of sheetrock, and there it was, unburnt, undamaged. Barely a scorch mark on her.

Getting the amp out of the basement was an ordeal. It might have been possible to pass it between the floor joists, but it was so big and heavy I knew the odds were better I’d drop it and shatter the irreplaceable tubes. In the end I decided to chance the stairs after all. If I fell through and killed myself, it wouldn’t matter that I wrecked the amp. I got it out.

There’s nothing left to tell but the concert. The Meme was not very crowded that night. Maybe a hundred folks, including the guy from Columbia. I walked out on the stage, the yellow scarf around my face, and I began to play.

I noticed the screaming first. First one, then others. People threw their arms over their faces, covered their ears. It didn’t make any difference. They fled for the exits, so many at once they ran into each other. The first probably made it out, but when they jammed in the door others tried to climb over them, trampling, crushing, tearing. I saw one man try to smash through the wall with his head. Either that or he was trying to kill himself.

I could no more have stopped playing than grow wings and fly.

Somewhere along there the tentacles began to reach through. I think they first came out of the storm sewers, but in parts of Boston the storm sewers connect with the municipal sewage, so soon they burst out of the drains in restrooms and basements. By the time they were reaching into the concert hall most of the people were already dead. The remainder were pulled apart or disappeared into an engulfing mass. The bartender had climbed up to the top shelf and started a fire by throwing a bottle of 151 at the hot grill. Then he threw more liquor at the flames until the whole bar was burning. He kept the tentacles away until he had roasted himself.

Then all at once the guitar ceased to exist. Frets and strings and wires sprang free and clattered about my feet. I had control of my body once again. But I knew what this meant. From every sewer grate in Southie, the shapeless mass was oozing. The terrible deed was done. Hastur was in the world. I escaped out the backstage door, and ran.

I don’t need to tell you more. You’ve heard it from a thousand other voices. The only curious question is why, or how, I survived. When I was there, at the center of the maelstrom, where it all began. Why wasn’t I eaten? Why didn’t I perish in the fires? Why am I still at least somewhat sane? Was it some reward, some expression of gratitude, that I was spared? I doubt it. What use has Hastur for gratitude? I think rather the opposite. It is his exquisite torture for me. No matter where I run to, no matter how I hide, I hear the news. Another city fallen to madness and fire. More tentacles, reaching out of the sea.

Nuclear missiles annihilating the survivors, if there are any, but never slowing the inexorable spread of destruction. I hear the news and know it was my hands that made it happen. Even if I hadn’t been in control of them.

I tried to find Leslie. I doubt she made it out of Boston. Hardly anyone did. But in case she is alive, somewhere, that’s not her real name. I don’t want anyone killing her for her association with me.

The only question left is whether Hastur will bore of planet Earth before he has exterminated the human race. I think there’s a chance of that. To pursue us until the last one is dead, that would take a real dedication to the cause. I don’t think he cares enough about humans to bother. Kids may have fun burning ants with a magnifying glass, but even the meanest kid doesn’t dig up the nest and hunt until he’s sure every last ant is dead. No. There are other nests. Other worlds to destroy.

But I hear England is burning. Oceans are no barrier, and he’s not bored yet.

Credit: Eugene Fairfield

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