A Deeper and Steeper Slope and Slant
The woman on the phone said to come straight through to the back, and so Magnus does, trudging through brambles and shaggy ferns along the bungalow’s side to the empty swimming pool behind, then to the squat back cottage, almost the bungalow in miniature. He raps on the cottage’s screen door, can see light faintly through its mesh.
The woman who emerges is bespectacled and iron-haired, her cardigan stretched longer on one side of her squat frame than the other.
“Hi, Berniece? I’m Magnus. I’m here about the guitar pedal. I talked to you on--”
“Wait there.” She points to the battered rocker by the pool, disappears back inside.
Magnus drags the rocker a little back from the pool’s edge, sits long enough to feel its wicker bite into his ass. He’d hoped to make this quick, drop his money, maybe chat briefly, get back to the city well before his afternoon shift. That probably isn’t in the cards.
The woman has left the screen door ajar. A little calico with a bent right ear noses through the opening and takes one cautious step out.
“Uh, maybe you should just stay put, bud,” Magnus says to it.
The animal seems to consider Magnus’s words a moment before breaking for the treeline.
“Ma’am?” Magnus calls when he next glimpses movement through the screen. “Hey, Ma’am? I think maybe your kitten got out.”
The woman opens the door, curses, stares down at her bare, right foot, at her big toe, so thickly bandaged that it juts diagonally. “Can you go get him?”
“Hurry.” She points. “Before he gets out on the road.”
Magnus heads back through thicker brambles, through taller ferns, a strange order to these, like rows of planted crops. Beyond that the evergreens begin then thicken. He ducks and weaves, fends off spiky branches. From the street where he parked, the property didn’t look nearly this deep. And he doesn’t remember seeing trees at all, just the flat façade of the bungalow and the gentle declination behind.
Dead needles, ankle deep, crunch underfoot; their aromatic stink makes his sinuses burn. To his relief he spots the little cat a short way down the hill, perched on a root. The animal seems to be watching him, unnervingly, until he sees it’s actually staring some place deeper in the trees.
“Hey, dude,” Magnus croons. He has never before picked up a cat, never held one that wasn’t handed to him against his wishes. He moves in cautiously, cupping the small body, which sags, limp and hot, in his hands. The kitten keeps watching the same spot as Magnus carries him back through the evergreens. Berniece waits inside the screen door, arms out, unsmiling. He hands off the animal with some relief.
“Get in there, dummy,” Berniece grunts, tossing the animal to the linoleum behind. Her eyes return to Magnus, foggy and uncomprehending.
“So like I said, I’m Magnus Macklan. We talked – I think it was you – on the phone yesterday. About the guitar pedal. The Wingding Overdrive. You told me to bring money, and --”
“Yeah, I remember,” she says. “Dean’s working. But I’ll get your information.” She draws a small, leather bound ledger from her cardigan pocket. “I need your full name, address and phone.”
Magnus gives them while she scribbles. “And my email is --”
“I don’t want that.”
Magnus’s friend Ben, who told him about the Wingding overdrive pedal, mentioned this woman who kept Ben on the phone nearly an hour asking weird questions then hung up without a goodbye, who called well after midnight one time to follow up. Crazy boutique guitar pedal-makers. Mad scientists. Wack jobs. Magnus has heard tales. This is his first real encounter.
“What kind of music you play?” she asks, still hunched over her ledger.
“Um. The band I’m in now plays mostly covers, rock and pop. On my own, I play different stuff. Originals. More indie, I guess.”
She seems to be recording his words verbatim. Magnus feels suddenly self-conscious.
“What guitars and amps you using?”
“Mostly a Tele into a Twin right now.”
“How did you hear about us?” This familiar marketing question, though there’s something unhappy, almost accusatory, in the delivery.
“I don’t remember. Maybe online. Some discussion group. Then this buddy I know in Kalamazoo, Ben, got one. He’s been raving about it ever since so . . .”
“Yamashita?” She flips in her ledger to columns of names and dates in different shades of ink but her same blocky script. “Ben Yamashita?”
“Wow.” Magnus laughs. “You keep pretty thorough records.”
She scribbles a note beside Ben’s name, regards Magnus dolefully. “And why do you want a Wingding, Magnus?”
Magnus hesitates. “I don’t know. I want something to cut through better when I’m soloing, I guess. To sit better in the mix. Maybe something with a bit of a mid boost. But transparent, you know, so it keeps my natural tone.”
The woman is staring, blank and suspicious, again.
Magnus shrugs. “I guess I just want to, you know, sound better.”
She scribbles another note.
“Where are you from, Magnus?”
“From here. Michigan.”
“You people, I meant.”
He laughs, though the woman isn’t. “My Dad’s family is Irish. My mom is Norwegian and Scottish mostly.”
Berniece looks up, a strange constriction between her eyebrows. “Where in Scotland?”
“I mean she was born here. Grand Rapids.”
“Were any of her people from The Shetlands? The Orkneys?”
“I’m not sure.”
“The Island of Yell?”
“I don’t really know.” He smiles at her. “Why? Do you have family over there?”
The woman eyes him again, a long and close scrutiny, before shutting the ledger.
“Okay, I’ll pass this on to Dean. If he’s going to do it, build you a pedal, you’ll get a call. You can sign the purchase agreement and leave the money now. If things don’t work out, we’ll mail it back.”
Magnus considers asking for a receipt, though the woman’s sour expression makes him think it’s best to just hand over the cash.
Berniece folds the bills into her cardigan pocket, departs without a word. For a moment the open screen door affords Magnus a glimpse of the cottage’s interior: cluttered shelves, a magnifying lamp on a telescoping arm, a man’s battered work boots, some flicker deeper in the dim, maybe a soldering iron or cigarette lighter. He sees the little cat too, on a window sill, staring not at Magnus but deep into the evergreens, through the overlapping trunks. All this in the moment before the door shuts again and he can’t see anymore, only smell the odor that wafts out, something between mildew and hot metal that dizzies him slightly.
“Thanks, Berniece.” Magnus shouts at the closed door. “Bye now.”
The phone wakes Magnus though it isn’t that late, just 9:45. He’s dozed off in his recliner after a late dinner, Sriracha-smeared plate balanced on his knees. He’s still in his Guitar Circus shirt and khakis, still footsore after his double shift.
“Mr. Macklan?” The woman’s phone voice is spiky and nasal. It takes him a moment to place her. “We got a few more questions. Dean and me.”
Magnus sits up. “Sure.”
“Do you work nights?”
“What? No. Days. Retail.”
“Any small children or pets?”
Magnus nearly laughs but catches himself. “No.”
“Any problems where you’re living with flooding? With infestations? Rats or mice? Ants or termites? Mold?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Okay, the pedal will be delivered Friday. Make sure you’re home. I’m going to go through the conditions now.”
“Yes. They were on the agreement you signed. We take them seriously. We expect you will too. First, you don’t resell the pedal. You don’t lend it. You don’t lose it.”
“Just what I said. You ever decide to get rid of it, you bring it to us. We’ll give you a full refund.”
Magnus hesitates. “All right.”
“If it stops working, you call us or you bring it here for repairs. You’ll need to. No one else will be able to help.”
“When you get it, you’re going to see it’s not like your other pedals. It’s welded shut. You do not break those welds. You do not open it up. Doing so will ruin it and void your warranty. Also, you’ll see there’s a small port in back with a sliding cover. You stick nothing in that port. You don’t obstruct it. You leave it closed in daytime, open at night. It is very important that you remember that.”
Magnus laughs. “Sorry. I just wasn’t expecting all this –“
“If you changed your mind, Mr. Macklan, we can refund your money.”
“No. I’m listening.”
“The last thing. As you saw, we’re a small outfit. It’s just me and Dean. We’re not looking to expand. And we can’t handle too much demand. We appreciate your business. But we don’t need help finding new customers. We’d ask you not to publicize the pedal, talk it up, chat about it on the internet. That sort of thing.”
“Okay. I mean, I’m surprised. I would think a little word of mouth probably doesn’t hurt. I mean I never would have heard about the pedal to begin if my friend Ben hadn’t --”
“Your friend Ben probably shouldn’t be doing that.” The woman coughs, a hard flat noise. “I need to hear you agree to our terms, Magnus.”
Magnus does agree.
The doorbell rings just as Magnus is leaving the shower, and he jogs out in his robe, dripping, sees the old sedan departing around the corner, the parcel on his doorstep with no postage or courier stamp. He brings the box inside and opens it, digs through the packing peanuts and finds a printed card, which contains most of what the woman said in her final phone call, a list of stern imperatives in bold print. The pedal itself is matte grey, a little heavier than most, the welds barely visible. On top, a button switch and LED, but no other knobs or switches. On the back just the adapter and cable plugs along with the small port the woman mentioned. He snaps its aluminum hatch open with his thumb, squints into the opening but can see nothing.
Magnus plugs the pedal between his guitar and Fender Twin amp, stomps it on, sits on the couch in his bathrobe and strums a chord. He can hear a slight difference maybe, a thickening. Nothing special. Magnus laughs out loud. Just his luck. After all the jumping through hoops, to get ripped off. But he comes back again after shaving, turns up the volume, plays a quick run up the neck. This time he does hear something in how the notes rise and linger in his small living room. He turns his amp up even more, to neighbor-complaint territory, strums a few fat power chords.
“Jesus,” Magnus says out loud then. “Holy Jesus.”
“That’s a good room,” Jeff, the bass player, says again as they’re leaving Rescue Lounge. Magnus and Taylor, the keyboard player, follow, carrying out the last of the gear.
“Yeah, a really good room,” Taylor enthuses.
“We gotta get back here.” Jeff flips through his phone. “When did he say we could get back here?”
“He said to call early next month.”
“That’s good.” Jeff grins, adds a note on his phone calendar. “Yeah, a fucking great room.”
In the van, Magnus balances his pedal bag on his knees, nods along with his two bandmates, agrees what a truly excellent room it was. It was honestly a good show. Or at least good enough draw the attention of the few listless drinkers who weren’t engrossed in the Tigers game, to summon a few girls out to sway on the floor during their Blink 142 medley. For a moment Magnus is happy to see his bandmates’ smiles, for the fact that Jeff, unsolicited, helped carry his amp into the van, just as he did after the great practice this week. Though no one has said anything directly about his recent playing, he doesn’t expect that. Compliments are bad form. If anything, it has been what Magnus hasn’t seen, the irritated side-eyes after his solos, the gestures to turn down.
Magnus feels a little vindication, maybe relief. Or at least he feels less of what he has ever since he saw the ad seeking a guitarist posted on the bulletin board at Cliff’s Riffs last month, the familiar phone number in Jeff’s scrawl on the bottom tags that Magnus tore off, furious until he reminded himself he too was there looking for other opportunities. So he has a little more time maybe, a reprieve from the indignity of being fired from a bullshit bar band he doesn’t even respect, a band without a real drummer, just rhythm tracks on an old MacBook. So he relaxes, enjoys the joshing on the way home, accepts Jeff’s offer – again, unprecedented – to help lug his amp up to his porch.
“You want to come get a beer?” Taylor shouts from the van.
Magnus is surprised, the first time he’s been invited out post-gig in months. He nearly accepts before he remembers the only time he did go with them, how he ran out of things to say within one beer, how he had to listen to them moan about their girlfriends and day jobs for an hour before he was able to escape.
“I got to get up early,” Magnus says. “Thanks, though.”
“See you Wednesday, Mags,” Jeff calls to him as he heads out. Magnus smiles, brings in his amp, his pedal board, the little grey box in its center.
Later, unable to sleep, Magnus sits in his recliner, the Wingding on the coffee table before him. He likes to keep it in sight, for some reason, the ugly little box, even when he’s not using it. He likes plugging it in, turning it on, most often to noodle around, a few times just to hear its rich hum. Like an itch that needs occasional scratching. He feels another itch too. While the agreement he signed warned not to discuss the pedal with potential customers, it said nothing about current owners. And so he phones Ben Yamashita in Kalamazoo.
“It just . . .” Magnus strains for words. “It pulls something extra out of every note, every chord. I can’t tell what it’s doing, if it’s compressing or some weird EQ thing. But I couldn’t believe it the first time I cranked it in practice last week, really opened it up. I felt like I was fucking levitating.”
Ben listens silently, is either characteristically stoned or uncharacteristically sedate.
“I’ve been dropping other pedals from my board all week,” Magnus tells him. “My boost. All my dirtboxes. I don’t need them anymore. What are you using yours with these days? Your Wingding?”
Ben sniffs. “Mine’s not working actually. Cut out a few days ago. I called them, the Wingding people. But they’re not calling back. Guess I’m shit out of luck.” He laughs. “Maybe I can get a few bucks for it on eBay. As a paperweight.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to resell it,” Magnus says too quickly – the stern warning from the card -- catches himself, laughs.
“I mean, it’s not like I care,” Ben says. “I don’t know if it was totally for me, to be honest, that thing. I liked it at first, but I never really connected with it, you know.” Ben yawns and sniffles. “Hey, you seen that new Rajah dual delay though? The demo video is fucking unbelievable.”
Magnus listens to Ben’s stoned rambling long enough to remember he does need to get up early, begs off and hangs up, a little dejected. There is no one else he can talk to, he supposes, no one else who would appreciate his recent experiences.
Magnus does get to sleep in time with the help of an Ambien, carries the little grey box to his bedside table, like a kid with a favorite Christmas gift. As he slips into messed up Ambien dreams he feels, within his body, a turning and lifting that thrills him. He hears things too, hushed voices, trees stirring in wind. He wakes a few hours later to more ordinary noises, the faint thud of bass from the dance club down the street, the pop and hiss of his old AC unit switching on. But it’s still there in his mind, still half-embedded in dream, the melody he was just hearing. He leaves bed, powers his amp, starts to work out the chords.
At Wednesday practice, Magnus shares the new song he’s written, watches Jeff and Taylor’s pleasure and surprise as he guides them through it, stays a while after the others have left to iron out the bridge before he leaves himself. He doesn’t immediately clock the two guys standing with Bryce, the space manager, out in the corridor. Magnus is too distracted by the willowy redhead sprawled on the hallway couch, dangling her flip-flop from her toe.
The two guys greet him. Magnus lingers to chat, partly out of politeness, mostly because of the girl’s cool, measuring gaze. He’s seen her at shows, doing sound for open mics at the Drag Strip Riot. Her name is Laurel, he discovers. It isn’t until part way into the conversation that he recognizes the two guys as well, the drummer and bassist from a local band of some distinction that put out a few good EP’s but folded a year or so ago. He didn’t know they were still in town.
“Sounding good in there,” the shorter guy, Karl, says, a little shyly.
“Thanks.” Magnus feels bashful too, distracted by the red-haired girl’s cool, amused stare.
“That last thing you were playing?” Karl asks. “Did you write it?”
The two guys are exchanging glances now, a fast query, a shrug. Karl turns back to Magnus.
“So I don’t know if you’re interested. But we’re putting something together. It’s early. We weren’t planning on meeting with guitarists yet. But if you want, you should give us a call.”
Magnus is aware of these two guys smiling at him, the girl, Laurel, smiling at him too. He tells them yes he will call.
Magnus recognizes the upstate 989 area code, hesitates and doesn’t answer. It’s not even seven AM by the clock on the microwave near where he’s making coffee. Laurel is still getting dressed, he can hear distantly, hunting for a lost sock, muttering in exasperation. He’s still not quite used to her presence here, her voice and her rapid footfalls through his space. The phone rings again, the same number. This time he answers.
“This is Berniece. From Wingding. Just following up. Seeing if you have any questions about the pedal.”
“Not really. I’m glad you called though. The pedal’s great. I mean, thank you. Really. Thanks.”
“Could you tell me more about your experiences so far? We’re interested in that. Have you found a use for it?”
“I mean, I’m never not using it. For leads. For rhythm. It’s awesome all around. Inspiring too. I’ve been writing songs, which I haven’t done in forever. It’s really working for this new project I’m involved in.” He winces at how pretentious this must sound, is still uncertain what to call whatever he has been doing with Karl and Giovanni in the downtown practice space. “No seriously. I love it.”
“Happy to hear that.” Berniece sounds, for the first time in all his dealings with her, like she might actually be happy.
Laurel enters the kitchen, wearing a pair of his wool work socks which droop comically around her ankles, asks if he has any normal socks, remains long enough to make him forget why he was on the phone before she pads away.
“Sorry,” Magnus says. “You were saying?”
Berniece is silent for long enough that he wonders if she’s still there. “I was just saying we’re glad things are going well.”
After they hang up, Magnus chuckles, wonders if he should be touched by the woman’s concern, if he should have made more of an attempt at conversation. He’s never been good at that. He wonders too if there was something lonely in her voice just now, something wistful. He’s still wondering when Laurel returns, wearing his argyle dress socks, which somehow look good on her, and asks him who he was talking to. And even as he tells her it was just some weirdos he bought a pedal from, Magnus does feel a small stab of guilt.
When Laurel wakes him, Magnus is already in a deep sleep. He needs a few moments to convince himself it’s not a dream, to focus on her wide, frightened eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he manages, sitting up.
“There’s something there,” she says, is actually shaking, small tremors along her shoulders. “I was getting up to go to the bathroom. There was something in your living room. Flying around. Hovering. Like a Mayfly but bigger. You seriously didn’t hear me screaming?”
“A bug.” He laughs and lies back down.
“A fucking enormous bug. I tried to squash it with your broom. But it went away somewhere.” She gestures vaguely. “God my fucking heart. I’m seriously not going to be able to sleep now. I’m sorry. Maybe I should just go back to my place. Is that okay?”
Magnus briefly tries to convince her to stay but doesn’t press the issue. She’s stayed over every night for nearly a week. While he’s been enjoying it, he can’t deny it might feel good to have a night off.
“So call an exterminator, okay?” Laurel says as she laces on her boots.
Magnus is about to say that he’s not supposed to do that, that it was one of the items in an agreement he signed, until the silliness of that hits him. “Sure.”
“Or maybe just clean the place up a little.”
Magnus doesn’t tell her that he thought he had cleaned up.
After he’s walked Laurel to her car, Magnus rolls up a catalog, searches his living room, toes the shag carpet and kicks the drapes, peers under the couch. There’s too many places to hide. He’s isn’t sure at first why he keeps looking back toward his amp in the room’s corner, toward his pedalboard and the grey box at its center. He isn’t sure why he feels the pull he does to plug in his guitar, to stomp the pedal then strum, why he’s not entirely surprised when no sound issues forth. Something like panic begins, a sick dive in his guts, while he unplugs and replugs, tries again. But there’s no signal, just the hiss of misfiring circuits.
Though it’s late, almost eleven, Magnus locates on his phone the 989 number from the day before and calls.
Berniece listens as he apologizes for calling late, as he explains. She coughs hard. “So what did you do to it?” she asks.
“Nothing, I don’t think.”
“It’s important that you tell me honestly what happened. If you dropped it. If you got it wet.”
“No, none of those things.” Magnus hesitates. “I mean, it is possible that some kind of insect might have gotten into it.”
Berniece is silent for a disconcertingly long time. “What kind of insect?”
“I didn’t see it. My friend did. She said it was flying around, maybe near the pedal. Sorry, but that’s the only thing I can think of. I remember there were warnings in your agreement about bugs.”
He hears the woman sigh again, then the flick of a lighter, a long inhalation. Another voice is audible then, male and reedy, not that different in pitch or timbre than the woman’s. Magnus hears a quiet consultation that he can’t quite make out.
“Hi, Magnus. This is Dean Ferguson.” The new voice is warm and genial, has the comfortable rasp of a lifetime smoker.
“Oh hey, I never got a chance to thank you personally. But thanks.”
“No prob. It’s what we do. So let’s try and get you up and running again. Okay?”
“So I’m going to ask you to try something, Magnus. I’ll warn you it’s going to seem a little strange. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to sort everything out, all right?”
“So I want you to go over near the pedal. Make sure it’s unpowered and that the back port is open.”
“Great. And I want you to get down close and say: ‘A deeper and steeper slope and slant.’ Just like that. Those words.”
Magnus doesn’t speak. If it’s a joke, he can’t tell from the man’s earnest, kindly voice.
“Say it now. The way I did.”
“A deeper and steeper slope and slant.”
“Slower. And don’t raise your voice at the end. More like this.” The man repeats the phrase.
Magnus imitates him, the clipped syllables, the lilting cadence, feeling foolish, glad that Laurel is no longer there.
“Now what? Is that some kind of vocal reset?” Magnus laughs. “I mean, how does that even --?”
“Now you just leave the room for a minute, go out have a smoke or something. Then come back in and try ‘er again.”
Magnus obeys, feeling silly, walking out on the back porch in the chill night, listening to the man’s gentle wheezing on the other end of the phone. When he returns and plugs in his guitar, he can tell even before he strums that everything is all right again. He plays a lick just to be sure.
Dean laughs. “There. All fixed. Okay, you call us if you have any other problems.”
“Um. How did that work, Dean? Just now.”
“If it doesn’t you can also try ‘A brighter and slighter glade and glen.’ That’ll do it too sometimes.”
“No, I’m serious. Why did that work?”
“Just some, what you call it, proprietary tech. I can’t tell you more unfortunately. But it does the trick. That’s the main thing, right? We’ll talk to you later, Mr. Macklan. Happy playing.”
The next day Magnus calls Ben again, steering through other subjects, new albums and gossip, even Ben’s excited questions about Magnus’s mysterious new musical project, before he gets where he wants.
“So back when your Wingding was working, did you notice anything weird ever?”
“Like nothing out of the ordinary?”
“Nothing too strange.” Ben sighs. “I mean, except the noises. I told you about that, right?”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
“Well, because it’s stupid. I used to hear or think I was hearing something, at night. Like noises, ticking or clicking, like a clock but not as regular. It was driving me nuts. I’d walk around trying to track it down. It would get louder the closer for a while but then further away. The only reason I think it might have been the pedal is one time I closed that dumb little door in back, and I didn’t hear anything for a couple of nights. Then one night it started again, and I saw the little door was open.”
“I mean, that’s pretty strange,” Magnus says and laughs. “You don’t think that’s strange?”
“I don’t know. I was pretty out of it back then. That huge chunk of manali I had.” Ben laughs. “One time, I remember I took the thing and I put it to my ear, you know like you do with a seashell. And I heard something. Not like the ocean, more like whispering or walking through grass. That pretty much sealed it. I started keeping it in the garage after that. No, it wasn’t for me. I’m honestly glad to be rid of the fucking thing.”
“You sold it?” Magnus feels a quick tug.
“No, she came last week. The woman, what’s-her-face. Drove all the way down from the Midland. She gave me a full refund in cash, took it away. Not a word. Nutjob. I mean, I’m not complaining. I’ve been GASing big time for that Rajah reverb. I can actually afford one now.”
After they hang up, maybe because he needs to, Magnus heads into the other room, carries the pedal to his ear and holds it there, even shuts his eyes, though it all feels foolish. He hears nothing like Ben described, to his relief or his disappointment, nothing but the sounds of his apartment, of his own beating heart and his breathing, of the reverberations within his own skull.
To take the pressure off, the first show out by Magnus’s new band isn’t billed as a show, just as a “live rehearsal.” The band still doesn’t have a name, just “Karl Case and Co.” Still, Magnus feels the woozy trepidation leading up to the date, including one moment on the sidewalk outside the club where he spots a flyer and realizes its printed words communicate that he will soon be on the stage inside, and he needs to lean against a mailbox for a moment. He’s finally told Jeff and Taylor, the guys in his former band the bad news one evening after practice, offered to honor the few upcoming gigs. They seemed to take the news fine, smiled and congratulated him, told him they’d come see his new band.
Neither Jeff or Taylor are here, Magnus sees as he peers out through the green room door, though everyone else in town seems to be. It’s the largest crowd he’s faced by a few score, the club packed out despite the minimal promotion. He and Karl and Giovanni emerge around eleven, play a few covers, some favorites from the old band, some originals they’ve worked up over the past month. One of Magnus’s songs, a fast instrumental with an intricate, weaving guitar line, gets the biggest ovation of the night.
They return for an encore, looser, a little drunk, turn up and play a few more ramshackle covers, even take some requests. It isn’t until the final song that Magnus really lets loose, a fiery solo that reaches and extends, continues until he feels woozy, like he’s looking down at the stage and the crowd from altitude, like he’s swung out over them and is at the apex of his arc. He looks to Karl for a signal to stop but gets none. So he keeps on. He’s watching the audience, the set grins on their faces – a rictus of glee. He’s sweat-drenched and panting by the time he stops, by the climbs down from the stage, the crowd parting as he walks through. Laurel meets him at the bar and hugs him.
This is what he thought it would be like, he reflects a few hours later, sitting up awake in bed, wired and unable to sleep even if he tried. Back when he began, when he first started playing guitar, this is what he dreamt. He thinks of who he can call, who would understand this, brings up Ben’s number on his phone but doesn’t dial it. He even contemplates calling Berniece and Dean, wondering if they’re awake, wondering if they’d like to hear about the show, though the idea feels stupid as soon as he considers it. He settles down, finally manages to sleep.
Laurel’s shouts reaches Magnus all the way out where he’s smoking on the back porch. He hurries inside to where he last saw her eating breakfast in front of the TV. She’s there still, though she’s perched on the couch corner like a spider monkey, cereal bowl clutched to her chest, milk slopping down her shirt.
“I just saw it again,” she pants.
“That fucking bug.” She sets the bowl on the coffee table then springs back, holds herself. “Sorry. I thought I could be chill about this. But you seriously need to clean this place up, Mags. I can’t. I just . . . can’t.” She waves, gestures, small nose wrinkled.
“Where did it go?” he sighs.
She points without looking.
“Did you see it any better? Did it look like a hornet? A wasp?”
She shakes her head.
“Well, it’s probably harmless then. Was it like a moth or a --?”
“I don’t fucking know. I just saw it for a second. It went over there. And then it was gone.” She shudders. “I’m going to go take a shower. Sorry, I’ve got major hebegebes. I was sitting on the carpet there earlier. Probably full of fucking eggs.” There have been more moments lately when it wears on him a little, the flightiness, the drama. He’s relieved when she retreats to the bathroom, faucets drowning out her complaints.
Magnus waits until the shower is running before he surveys the space, watching for movement, before he moves to his amp and guitar. He powers on and plays, hears nothing -- the pedal dead again. After a time he bends low, clears his throat then speaks the phrase. He heads out to the porch, returns and plugs in. Still nothing. He tries again, speaking the words louder, bending lower, coaxing. He even tries the second phrase the man told him, though he can’t entirely remember it, something about a glade and a glen.
“What’s that?” Laurel is toweling her hair behind him, eyebrows raised, amused. Magnus didn’t hear the shower stop.
He straightens. “Nothing.”
“What were you saying?”
“Just something. A song.”
She watches a moment more, shakes her head, goes to the bedroom to dress. Magnus pretends to watch television until she’s headed out to work, tries for a third time then to revive the pedal but hears only the same dead hiss.
When he calls the number, he’s not sure at first which of them, the man or woman, grunts a greeting.
“Dean? Sorry. This is Magnus Macklan. It happened again.”
“It’s Berniece.” The woman coughs. “Did you drop it?”
“No, I didn’t. My girlfriend said she saw that insect. Like last time. And now the pedal’s not working again.”
“Your girlfriend.” The woman sighs. “The redhead?”
“Um. Yeah.” Magnus comes close to laughing but doesn’t. “Wait, how --?”
“I heard her on the phone last time. I can tell sometimes. From people’s voices. She sounded like a redhead.”
Magnus has many questions, though he asks none of them. “Huh.”
“So it could be that.”
“Could be what?”
“Could be her.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
Dean’s faint voice has joined in on the other end. Another inaudible exchange, a scuffling as the phone is passed.
“Hi, Magnus. Dean here. So we’re thinking the situation might be a little more serious than we first thought.” The man’s voice is low and earnest. “And like Berniece is saying, the easiest solution might be to, just for now, keep her away from it for a while.” The man exhales grimly.
“Keep who away from what?”
“Your red-haired friend. From the pedal.”
Magnus says nothing for a time, only listens to the high keening buzz on the line.
“I need to tell you a few things now, Magnus. Things that might be a little difficult to understand. Things that must not be repeated. In a way, we’re trusting you not to. Trade secrets, you know.”
“Okay. I’ll start simple. We’re thinking that your pedal doesn’t like red hair.”
Magnus says nothing.
“Or it’s more accurate to say something inside your pedal doesn’t like it.”
“Um . . .”
“And so there may come situations where, because the something in the pedal doesn’t like red hair, it goes away for a while.”
The phone feels hot against Magnus’s cheek.
“Normally, this isn’t a big deal. When something leaves, it usually won’t go far. Most often it just relocates. A speaker. A blender or toaster. Some small appliance.” The man coughs hard, recovers. “If that happens, you can usually talk it back. Just how I showed you. The only problem, and I’m wondering if this is what is happening, is if something in your pedal gets very bothered, then it might leave for good. That’s what we want to avoid, of course.”
“I’m sorry, Dean. I’m having a lot of trouble understanding.”
“Right.” The man sighs. “Maybe we can talk about it in another way. You enjoy music, obviously. Maybe I can tell you that there’s something in the pedal that likes it as much as you do, that just wants a safe place to enjoy it. And this something enjoying the music in your pedal, responding how it does, makes the music better. Which makes you enjoy it even more. So it’s like a symbiosis, right?”
“This is . . .”
“Magnus, this isn’t an easy conversation to have. This is the best I can do. I also should tell you that it’s probably going to happen again, given what I know.”
“But what is happening?”
“Magnus, if I told you the pedal worked because of Germanium transistors or Silicon diodes or chained JFETS, you’d thank me then you’d go back to playing. You probably wouldn’t understand what those things are or what they do. You wouldn’t care. This is the same. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand how or why it works. You can just play. You can enjoy the results. You can be happy for what it provides.” The man’s sad sigh again. “Do me a favor. Hold your phone up to it.”
“Just for a moment. I’m going to try something else.”
Magnus numbly obeys, unplugs the box and cradles it, holds his phone to its front, then to the back with the open port. He hears the man’s voice briefly, a buzz of rapid speech. He returns the phone to his ear.
“There. That ought to do it. Sometimes it just needs a little effort.” The old man sighs contentedly. “Listen, I feel like I threw a lot of you at once. But just think about what we talked about. Or don’t. Whichever is easiest.” The man laughs.
Magnus mumbles that he will.
After he hangs up, Magnus sits for a while and smokes, unplugs the little grey box finally and takes it to his utility room, places it on the high shelf with the bleach and the caulk guns, leaves it perched there then closes the door.
At the next rehearsal with Karl and Giovanni, Magnus is distracted, stomach tight. All the nerves he hasn’t had before seem to be here tonight. He is aware of the other men in ways he wasn’t, the effort in keeping up with them. They’re both great players, better than him. Magnus plays hard, bears down, concentrates. Even then, he flubs a lead, comes in late on one cue then too soon on the next. There’s nothing overt, no unhappy looks, just an occasional silence.
Laurel arrives from work as she has the past few practices, flops on the corner couch to listen, though after the first few minutes she’s on her phone.
“We should probably call it a night,” Karl says, less than an hour into the two they’ve booked. “I think I got a migraine coming. Mags, maybe we take your new one home and work out our parts a little before we try it again.” The man doesn’t look directly at Magnus, speaks towards the room’s corner.
Magnus nods, packs his gear, his pedal board with the space of bare Velcro in the middle, the dangling AC lead.
Laurel, in the car on the way to dinner is quiet, distracted, mostly on her phone.
“We spend like forty minutes on his stupid, four-key-change bullshit.” Magnus can hear the petulance in his voice. “But mine we have to work on at home.”
“Maybe it does need a little more time in the oven.”
Magnus wants to ask what exactly she thinks she knows about songwriting but holds off. He doesn’t like it, this sulk he’s slid into. He sees that Laurel’s heading into the laundry room and moves to head her off. “What do you want?”
“Huh?” She tries to maneuver around him.
“I broke a glass in there. Don’t know if I got all the bits.”
“I got shoes on.”
“Still.” Magnus makes a face. “What you need?”
She frowns at him, a momentary bafflement. “Just one of those stain remover sticks.” She holds up her shirttail, spotted with pasta sauce.
“Be right back.” He goes in, half shuts the door, glances once at the small box on its high perch before he emerges with a stick.
Magnus knows he is acting strange, that if he was her, watching him, he’d be as confused as she now looks. She’s cross too, back on her phone. Which leads him to wonder again what he has for the past few days, if she will break up with him soon. Which leads him to wonder if he should break up with her first, a necessary preemption. Though these measures seem drastic, the thoughts return, churn and shift.
He waits until Laurel’s absorbed in a movie before he goes out on the porch, dials the Midland number. He’s sure it’s Dean that answers this time.
“What is it?” Magnus asks the man. “The Wingding?”
“A guitar pedal. An overdrive.”
“No, what I mean is . . . I can’t believe I’m asking this,” Magnus laughs. “But what does it want, the pedal? From me?”
“It doesn’t want anything. Just to be involved. You understand that, right?”
“You’re a musician, so you should know all about signal chains, pedal chains. How we can map a line from you and your guitar through one pedal then another, through an effects loop, to an amp, a mixer, a PA. But you know the chain is bigger right? That the sound that comes out of your amp connects you to the people you play with and play for? You play to be a part of that, to be connected, to be chained. You play because other players, people you listened to, chained you a long time ago. It’s all the same. For it. For you. Does that make sense?”
“I think so. I mean no. Not really.”
The old man breathes out, laughs, a little more harshly than before, as close to exasperation as he’s capable with his wheezy voice. “I’m always surprised how it bothers people. Sorry, it just surprises me. Every time.”
“I’m just feeling weird about all this.”
“Well, you can send it back if you’d like. Have us come get it. We’ll give you a full refund.”
“No. I’m just having trouble --”
“How has your playing been lately, Magnus? How has everything been?”
“Great.” Magnus’s throat feels suddenly dry, almost painful. “Everything’s going great.”
“I’m honestly happy to hear that. And I just want to say there’s probably a few reasons for that. And some of it certainly has to do with your own god given talent and hard work. But a little bit might have to do with something else, right? And I’m just saying in situations like this where we’re blessed or favored, we maybe should feel a little gratitude. Right?”
“Gratitude. Thankfulness. I mean, maybe it’s time to think beyond yourself. Beyond your own needs.” The flicker of anger again.
“Okay. Things have been going well. And yes the pedal has been a help. But I’m the one who worked, who practiced scales for hours in my room instead of going to parties. I’m the one that played in shitty bands for years to try and make it into not-so-shitty bands. That was me, right? I’m just saying. It was me.”
“Why hasn’t it happened for you before then? The good stuff? Have you asked yourself that? Why only now?”
Magnus hangs up on him.
The show, the first with the band’s new name, is something of a blur before it even starts. Magnus begins unsteady from the brandies in the green room and Karl’s two hitter in the alley. He chases them with beer and some offered tequila. He has trouble mounting the stage. He shouldn’t even be able to play. But he is, better than he can remember, a stiletto clarity as he strums the first chord, as he turns up loud, then further still. He watches the audience, and they stare back, rapt. After the band has run through their small repertoire they play covers and requests, call people up on stage to sing. Magnus is amazed that he even knows some of these songs, some muscle memory. During a final song he backs up too far, knocks over a cymbal, though Giovanni only laughs. Magnus laughs too, throws his Tele up over his head then, catches it clumsily, throws it higher, then so high that he knows he won’t be able to catch it this time, only stare up cross-eyed and dodge as it lands squarely on his pedal board with a crash. The other two are doubled over in laughter. The spectators whoop their approval. Everyone’s having fun, at least.
Then the other guys have left the stage, headed to the bar, and he’s there alone, still playing, still making noise, grinding his guitar neck down the edge of his amp, the monitors, his pedal board. He leans his guitar against his amp finally, walks away from the din. The people are still watching the stage as he steps away, still delighted as the feedback lashes them.
When Laurel starts to climb on stage, Magnus holds a palm in her face. She steps back, blinking. He climbs down on his own.
“There’s something I gotta tell you,” he manages then can’t recall what it is.
“Show’s over, lunatic,” she shouts in his ear, leads him through the cheering crowd, the hands patting his back, holding offered drinks.
The next morning, Magnus wakes with a crushing hangover, climbs over Laurel, who doesn’t wake. He makes his painful way out to where his gear bag lies, digs down, finds the grey box crammed in at the bottom, plugs it in and plays. Nothing. He tries the spoken phrase, then the other, then both in succession, the words tangling. He can see now, in the morning light, the scratches on the pedal’s face, the little dent where the Telecaster must have landed on it. He can see that he’s neglected to close the little hatch in back. He remembers more fragments from the night before, Laurel angrily piling his gear in his bag, carrying the case to her car.
He tries the phrases a final time, but the scratchy hiss remains.
Magnus phones Berniece and Dean, gets voice mail and leaves a message. No one calls back.
Laurel is up now, while he’s still hunched over the amp.
“Can you make some coffee?” he mutters.
She ignores him, eyes averted, as she heads into the bathroom.
He can remember more now, words, accusations, some sort of argument he can’t fully reassemble. Some cruelty. He feels suddenly tired, doesn’t say anything as she reemerges, dressed, doesn’t stop her as she leaves without saying goodbye.
He won’t call her, he’s already decided, maybe decided some time last night. He leans over the pedal a final time, shouts “A Deeper and Steeper Slope and Slant” again but can’t get the phrasing, the odd lilt. He phones Wingding a few more times until the phone finally picks up.
“Berniece?” Magnus says. “Dean?”
The listener hangs up. The next time Magnus calls he gets voice mail again.
It’s dusk by the time Magnus arrives at the bungalow at the end of the suburban street, by the time he starts up the driveway, rings the front bell a few times to be polite before moving through the untidy ferns into the back. He knocks on the cottage’s screen door, calls the two names quietly then louder.
There were two cars visible in the open garage so somebody should be home. But Magnus sees and hears nothing, no lights, no activity, just the wind swooping in over the evergreens, carrying their scent. He knocks again, peers around. The screen door is unlocked, he sees. He opens it and leans in. The cottage is small and cluttered, a bucket of fishing poles, tackle boxes filled with circuitry and tangles of old wire, grimy tools, baskets of what looks like dried moss. That pungent smell everywhere, mildew and metal. A flash of movement in the dim startles him, the little calico cat appearing, darting between his legs before he can act.
“Goddammit,” Magnus says, pursues the little thing a few feet, chasing in an awkward crouch, though it’s already gone, loping off into the woods.
It will be difficult enough to do what he came to do, to apologize, to make his plea, without revealing that he trespassed. He will need to hunt the animal down before they come back from wherever they’ve gone, get it back inside the cottage before it gets lost or run over. He trudges into the forest.
The dusk light doesn’t reach far into the trees. A few times Magnus thinks he sees the little cat, but it’s a trick of the light, a gesturing fern. He’s traveled further than the last time into the rolling contours, the gentle rise and fall.
“Here, kitty,” Magnus calls softly, feeling like an idiot. Ahead he can see sky, a hollow dip where the trees stop.
Ahead, in the clearing, two shapes lie in the grass, the pale pink of flesh startling against the green. Two bodies. Magnus feels a moment of horror before he sees the bodies are moving, before he hears the quiet voices, the laughter. They’re nude, side by side. The little cat is with them, he sees, reclining near the woman’s thick ankle, near her bandaged toe. Its head is craned upward, looking where the two humans are. Magnus looks up too by reflex, can’t see anything except the crowns of the trees. Unless they’re not looking but listening. And perhaps there is something, voices, music. He feels light-headed as he listens, as the two people turn to see him. He freezes, no chance to retreat. It is certainly their right to be naked in their back 40. He is the trespasser here.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Magnus says, backing away, averting his gaze. “Really sorry. I just wanted to. Hey, I’ll just --.”
The woman rises with her flat breasts and blocky hips. She puts her finger to her lips, shushing him.
And after that he’s unable to speak, even if tries, even when he coughs and clears his throat. It’s as if something has left, departed from his throat or some place deeper. Gone away. He’s panicked, disappointed too. He’s been preparing what he would say to them, rehearsing it the whole drive up.
If he could speak, he would tell them what he rehearsed, that he’s very sorry for his recent behavior, that he will ask no more prying questions, that he will be a better caretaker, will honor the trust placed in him. He would say too that he has thought long and hard about what Dean said about signal paths, about connections, that he can accept that he’s not the only important link in the chain, that he’s maybe one of the least important. And that all of this is okay with him. That it’s a relief. That maybe the reason he’s always had trouble connecting with music, with people, is he couldn’t see that. He would like to say all these things, but isn’t able to say them or anything else as he stumbles away from the hollow.
Magnus climbs a shallow ridge, moving away, not sure if he’s heading back to the house or deeper into the trees, not caring. The fallen pine needles are thicker somehow, so deep they prick his shins and get in his socks. How could they gather like this, he wonders as he tries his voice again, and though something comes at last, it’s without shape, a sort of whimper. The ground beneath is uneven, is dark. He steps on a hidden root, his knee wrenching as it turns under him, bright pain as he topples and slides down a short incline, the piled needles cushioning him. How could he not see all these trees from the road, he wonders again.
He wonders too if anyone can see him, so far back. His phone is gone, he feels, would be useless even if he had it. He listens now, hears, beyond his ragged breathing, something high, something remote. Something which is either a din of sound or nothing. He can’t establish where it is relative to him. If it’s a single voice or thousands. It seems to echo the silence in his throat, seems to drown him out whenever he does try to speak.
Over the hours, in the dim, he listens to it. He mostly just listens.