The Low End
by Ted Downum
After his old friend Joel committed suicide, Kyle Hartsfield went off the rails, faster than usual and farther off the rails. A series of chemically induced blackouts followed; when he emerged from the last and deepest of these, he decided that the train analogy no longer worked as well as it once had. He had not gone off the rails so much as he had sunk like a crippled submarine. Almost at the surface again, Kyle decided that he was not quite ready for periscope depth.
He called the liquor store and his coke dealer for fresh deliveries. He ordered new stereo headphones from Amazon to replace the pair he had smashed after listening to an old recording of the rock band in which he and Joel had played as high school kids in Littleton, thirty years earlier. He had smashed the earphones because it made him mad, how good they had sounded, how good they could have sounded.
Three months later, Kyle surfaced again to discover that he had a big scraggly beard, the mustache studded with clots of dried blood and snot. His abdomen had swelled, while his limbs appeared to have shriveled; his skin had a dry, grainy texture. He thought he looked like Jim Morrison in the rock icon’s end-stage period, not long before the Lizard King died in the bathtub of his Paris apartment.
“I hate the Doors,” Kyle growled. He had not intended to growl; his voice came out that way, twisted and ragged, but he liked the sound of it. “I hate the Doors,” he growled again. “They never had a bassist.”
He put on his favorite bathrobe, to restore some personal dignity, and drank a Bloody Mary while he assessed the state of his home: widespread minor damage, empty cans and plastic liquor jugs scattered everywhere, baggies dusted with crystalline powder or flecks of pot, pill bottles and their caps, rarely together. The stuffy air in the place reeked enough to make his eyes water: a mixture of marijuana smoke, urine, the yeasty odor of spilled beer, and a locker-room funk of unwashed clothes and fungus-infected foot skin.
He found his iPhone in his refrigerator, drained of power, in the empty vegetable crisper. When he plugged it into its charger, a flurry of texts and a dozen voicemails bleeped in, all from his boss Athanasios at Olympus Elite Motor Imports — or rather his former boss: Kyle was now unemployed, terminated because he had stopped going to his job as a luxury car salesman.
The news disturbed Kyle slightly, but it did not surprise him. It was going to happen sooner or later, he thought.
He went to his music room, a spare bedroom where he kept his old Hartke amplifier and his small collection of bass guitars. He had apparently been in there at some point, noodling on his oldest bass, a black Fender Bullet beginner’s model, the bass he had played in Joel’s band Deep Sleepers from 1984 to 1987. The Bullet was plugged into the amp, and the amp had been on for a while: the back panel was hot to the touch. He switched off the amp and unplugged it and set his Bloody Mary glass on top of it while he bent to replace the Bullet on its stand in the corner. As he picked up the instrument, he flashed on a memory of Joel, a moving image in megapixel sharpness: Joel frowning as he studied a row of guitars hanging by their headstocks in some music store. Kyle wondered what had happened to Joel’s guitars. Joel must have owned fifty of them, both acoustics and electrics, plus some high-quality guitar effects pedals and amplifiers and some excellent electronic keyboards. Maybe his parents still had them, or maybe Joel had sold them or given them away before he had killed himself. Kyle knelt on the floor, cradling his bass like a stiff wooden baby, and his tears came in staccato little bursts, and as he bent his head another burst came and pattered on the pickguard.
He did not have to sell his basses. Even after a prolonged multi-substance binge, he still had money in the bank. He had credit limits that he had not yet exceeded. If he ran out of money before finding another sales job, which he had great confidence that he would as soon as he felt like looking for one, he had plenty of other assets he could liquidate: collectible vinyl, autographed concert posters, stuff like that. It was not actually necessary to sell his bass guitars. It simply seemed like a good time to do it because the band was not getting back together.
Deep Sleepers had broken up thirty years earlier. Joel, who had written all the songs and sung lead vocals on most of them, had hanged himself from a joist in the basement of his house in Aurora. Rick Yang, the drummer, was now Richard Yang, M.D., the nephrologist. The lead guitarist still played guitar, but only in the praise band at his megachurch in Colorado Springs. He was born again through Jesus and had renounced non-Christian rock music and its satanic influences, supposedly forever.
The band was not getting back together.
Kyle called one of his dealers for some Dexedrine, which would help him function in the world outside his condo. The next day he cleaned himself up, swallowed a couple of the Dexedrine tablets, loaded three of his basses into the back of his Porsche Cayenne, and drove very cautiously to the nearest used music shop.
The guy behind the counter, a grizzled Deadhead type in a dirty guayabera shirt, hurried over with his hands up, his calloused fingers spread wide. He said, “I don’t want any stolen shit, man. Okay? I am not a fence. If you’re trying to sell stolen shit, go somewhere else.”
Everyone in the store stopped what they were doing and looked at Kyle.
“What the fuck are you talking about,” said Kyle.
“Some country band had all their equipment stolen last night outside the Grizzly Rose. It’s out on the grapevine already. Sorry. I don’t want any hot pedal steel guitars or shit like that. I don’t need any trouble from the cops.”
“What makes you think I did that,” Kyle asked, in a voice that sounded like a bicycle horn, the kind a clown would honk. “I didn’t rip off any goddamn country band at the Grizzly Rose.” He looked around the music store in hopes of finding some support, but none of the other customers would make eye contact with him.
“You’ve got to leave, man,” said the Deadhead. “Please, just take off. I don’t want to have to call the cops.”
“What the fuck,” Kyle managed to say, but he left.
He went to a pawnshop, where he got about ten cents on the dollar for the three bass guitars: a battered black made-in-Mexico Fender Precision, a black Yamaha BB-850, and his wicked-looking Ibanez in purple shimmer lacquer, the second instrument he had ever owned, a Christmas gift from his long-divorced parents.
Kyle’s mother had disowned him because of the drinking and the drugs, but he still sometimes talked to his father, a septuagenarian living in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. He made himself a mental note never to tell his dad that he had sold the Ibanez, so as not to rile the old man up, so as not to make him remind Kyle how much the bass had cost back in 1985, assuming he remembered.
The pawnshop sale left him with just two instruments: the Fender Bullet and the jewel of his small collection, a 1976 Bicentennial Edition Gibson Thunderbird in tobacco sunburst finish. The Thunderbird was the only bass on which Kyle had spent what he considered serious money — two thousand dollars at a music store in Las Vegas in the late nineties, an impulse buy while he was in town for the International Auto Show. When he had first held the Thunderbird, he felt like it had been built for him personally by some unearthly telepathic luthier; it felt perfect over his shoulder, perfect in his hands. When he played it, he felt possessed by the spirit of the late John Entwistle, bassist for the Who, a famous Thunderbird player. In some of his more coherent daydreams of a Deep Sleepers reunion, back before Joel Hecker had knotted an automotive tow rope around his neck and kicked away a folding stepladder, Kyle had imagined that Gibson might someday release a signature model, the Kyle Hartsfield Limited Edition Bicentennial Thunderbird, with the same sunburst finish plus a few special touches — maybe gold-anodized control dials.
Kyle didn’t want to think about his Bicentennial Thunderbird, let alone pick it up, plug it in, tune it, or play it; if he played it, he might end up not selling it. He might even find himself buying new basses. He took measures to stop himself from thinking about the Thunderbird: he had a few drinks, called the liquor store, called his dealer.
He woke up in the music room to the hum of his amp and the caustic, entangled odors of ozone and whiskey vomit. When he finally managed to rise to his hands and knees to assess the situation, he saw that he had thrown up on the old Bullet, right into the single split-coil pickup, over the bridge and over the dials. A web of congealed vomitus connected the strings right over the pickup, the viscous strands brownish-pink and intricate.
Once he felt capable of going outside — after a quick hit of meth to take him way up and a gin and tonic to get him slightly back down — Kyle unplugged the Bullet and carried it out to the dumpster behind his condo complex.
The weather was cool, autumnal: an overcast sky, dead leaves clattering around the pavement. Walking back toward his condo, Kyle did not look back at the dumpster, did not look back at the headstock of the bass jutting up from among the plastic trash bags. Something twisted and jerked inside him like a huge fish on a hook. He ignored it.
He bolted himself back inside his home. He had a few more drinks.
Sometime that night, a surprisingly useful idea came to him as he lay semiconscious on the floor of his bathroom: use the Internet!
With some time and effort, the exact amount of time and effort obscured by rest breaks and blackouts, he took some decent iPhone pictures of the Gibson Thunderbird and put them into a Craigslist ad: vintage, excellent condition, hardly played, case included, incredibly awesome, five thousand dollars or best offer. After a while, he went back and added a condition: local pickup only; no shipping available.
The two Bryces showed up at nine-thirty a.m., exactly on time. They caught Kyle unprepared. He asked them, through his front door, to wait; he kept them waiting no more than a minute while he gargled, put on a bathrobe, and washed down the last of his Dexedrines with a gin and tonic.
Kyle had spent twenty-five years waiting on rich men, mostly as a salesman of very expensive European cars, but he had also sold high-end watches, sophisticated home gym equipment, home theater hardware. He knew how rich guys carried themselves: even the nice ones had a swagger. The older guy at his door — mid-to-late thirties, at least ten years younger than Kyle himself — swaggered standing still, hands on hips, his Oakley sunglasses parked above his forehead, up on his glistening hair. The younger guy was a teenager whose head was almost an exact replica of the older guy’s, scaled down about twenty percent.
“Kyle Hartsfield? Bryce Gresham Junior,” said the rich guy, “and this is Bryce Gresham the third. Thanks for seeing us this early; hope we’re not putting you out, but this is the only time we could come over here together. Long story. May we come in?” They came in, the elder Bryce pulling his namesake by a knobby shoulder.
With one hand on the wall to brace himself, the other tightly gripping his gin glass, Kyle led the Bryces around the corner and down the hall, away from the sticky, cluttered mess of the kitchen and the reeking mire of the bathroom, down to the music room.
Kid Bryce snorted when he saw the Thunderbird, propped on its stand in the middle of the room, plugged in and tuned up and ready to test. He pushed past Kyle and picked up the bass, plunked the open E string, twiddled the volume and tone dials.
“What do you think, buddy?” asked his father. “Is that a classic bass guitar, like our buddy Kyle says?”
“Gibson Thunderbird four-string,” said Kyle, carefully enunciating the words, “nineteen seventy-six Bicentennial edition.” He paused to drink some gin and tonic. “Mint condition,” he added, “hardly played.”
“We read the ad,” said Dad Bryce.
The kid looked up from the neck of the bass and rolled his eyes. Kyle said, “Why are you rolling your eyes? Look at it; it’s like new.”
“There’s something wrong with it,” said the kid. “It feels funny. It’s . . . like, off, or something.”
“Balance.” Kyle said, “That’s the word you’re looking for: balance. Thunderbirds just feel different. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Kid Bryce shook his head. He twisted his hand around the Thunderbird’s neck, pressed the E string directly against a fret, and plucked the string with his right forefinger. From the amp came not so much a note as a thud, nestled in an angry buzz.
Kyle stared at the kid, who had the grace to look slightly ashamed of himself.
“Look, I’d like to get this done. I’ll take it, but I don’t . . .”
Kid Bryce broke in, voice cracking, “Dad, I told you, I want a new one. If you’re going to make me do jazz band, I want a new one.”
“Our buddy here says this is a classic,” said his father. “I have to think about making my money back when you get bored with this, or thrown out of the jazz band, and I have to sell it on down the line.” He poked Kyle on the shoulder, not gently. “Of course, the asking price is high, even for a classic. I did some checking. Five thousand is a little high.”
Kyle felt his pulse rate increase, and it had nothing to do with the Dexedrine kicking in. He had not expected to have to dicker. He did not feel capable of dickering.
“Now, of course, now that I’ve met you, I understand that maybe you weren’t in your right mind when you put it up for sale. You were high when you thought of that price. Am I right? How about two thousand?”
“Vegas,” Kyle croaked. “In Vegas . . . I almost paid that much when I bought it, twenty years ago.”
“Okay,” said Dad Bryce. “How about twenty-one fifty?”
Don’t insult me, get the fuck out of my house — Kyle almost said it. He began to say it, but the mushy words disappeared in the sudden flat thrum of the Thunderbird. Kid Bryce had strummed the open strings, hard. Kyle watched him bend his knees, bounce on his feet, roll his shoulders under the Thunderbird’s strap: testing the weight, trying to find the balance.
“Here,” he said. “Give that to me. Let me show you.”
“The bass,” Kyle grunted, “the Thunderbird.” He lurched over from the wall; he put his drink on top of the amp. He beckoned for the Thunderbird until Kid Bryce finally handed it over.
“Oh, man,” said Dad Bryce. “This ought to be a real treat.”
Kid Bryce stood back. He was watching Kyle. Kyle asked him, “Ever heard of John Entwistle?” The kid shook his head. “How about Chris Squire? John Paul Jones? Larry Graham? How about Paul McCartney? Have you heard of Sir Paul McCartney, who played bass for the Beatles?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of the Beatles.”
“That’s a start,” said Kyle, and he played the first five notes of the bass riff that began the Beatles’ “Come Together,” or he attempted to play it. He missed a note the first time, and the same note the second time; he was dizzy and his hands buzzed with speed and Dad Bryce had said something that Kyle couldn’t hear, something mocking, sneering, so Kyle paused and turned up the volume of the Thunderbird to drown the rich bastard out, and he turned up the volume of the amp, and on the third try he got the riff right, the first five notes, and he went on playing the riff, one of Sir Paul’s greatest, the deep, clear notes shaking his sternum, the walls, the floor.
Ten minutes later Kyle had talked Dad Bryce up to thirty-five hundred, even though he had to throw in the amp, the case, the cords, the stand, and a few odds and ends from the music-room closet — two sets of unused Ernie Ball bass strings, some Allen wrenches, and a plastic sandwich bag full of picks.
Dad Bryce took out a checkbook covered in mottled, crackled gray leather. “What’s that,” Kyle asked, “rhino hide?”
“Elephant,” Dad Bryce grunted. He had produced a pen, too, a rich guy’s pen, a gold-trimmed Montblanc. He turned his back on Kyle, flipped to a fresh check, pressed the elephant leather against the blank wall, and started to write.
Fair enough, Kyle thought. He sidled over to Kid Bryce, who stood with the Thunderbird’s case at his feet, the case still open; the kid stared down at the instrument, apparently deep in thought.
“So,” Kyle murmured, “what do you think?”
“Your breath,” the kid sighed.
“You’re going to play it in jazz band?”
Kid Bryce curled his lip.
“You know, what you should do,” said Kyle, “is start your own band. Start a band. Get some friends, start a rock band, have some fun.”
Dad Bryce looked back over his shoulder. “What are you doing to my kid over there, Keith? You’re standing a little close to him.”
“Giving him musical advice.”
“Don’t get that near to him.”
Kyle shrugged. He turned back to the younger Bryce, and he saw the kid staring through time, through prisms of possibility, at himself: himself, but as a rock star, or at least himself as a bassist in a rock band, his band.
Dad Bryce closed the checkbook.
“Okay,” he said, “that’s it. Bryce, come on, let’s go. I don’t think I want to do business with this dirtbag after all. This whole thing gives me a bad feeling. Bryce, let’s go over to Guitar Center and I’ll get you something brand new; how does that sound? Something nicer than that, okay? And the speaker thing and all the other stuff, whatever you need — we’ll get it all new. Come on, let’s go.”
“Dad, you had a deal,” Kid Bryce said.
“I don’t have any problem breaking a deal with a guy like this. Come on. We’re leaving.”
“Dad, please. You had a deal with this guy, and you always told me when a businessman makes a deal in good faith . . .”
“Don’t quote me back to me,” said Dad Bryce. “Don’t you dare. Now let’s go. I’m not going to tell you again.”
Kid Bryce cringed. Kyle let him twist for just a moment, long enough to take a drink from his gin and tonic, before he said, “What if I make you a better deal?”
“Nobody’s talking to you right now.”
“Actually, I’ll make him a better deal.” Kyle smiled. “You can eat shit and die. The kid can have the Thunderbird for free.”
Dad Bryce opened his mouth and showed his bright, even teeth, but no sound came out. His frown brought his eyebrows together at the top of his nose.
Kid Bryce said, “Free?”
“Free,” said Kyle. “Take it. Take the Thunderbird. Take the amp, take everything, and your dad doesn’t have to pay me anything. Nothing. Doesn’t have to waste a check out of his dead elephant checkbook. Just tell me you’ll start a band. Who the hell cares about the jazz band at your school? I mean, do that if he makes you, but just tell me that you will start a band. Your band, with you on bass — would that not be fucking awesome?”
Kyle stepped backward, away from Kid Bryce and away from the Thunderbird at the kid’s feet. He lifted his hands, the left one spread in surrender, the right hand still clenching the gin glass. “You don’t even have to start a band, because how would I know if you did or not?” he said. “Just say you will, and that’s all I want, and then take all this stuff and go, so I can have some peace and quiet.”
“Tell him, Bryce,” said Dad Bryce. “Tell him you’re going to start a band.”
Kid Bryce looked at Kyle. He looked at his father. “You’d let me start a rock band?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Well, I’m going to.”
“No, you aren’t.”
“I am going to!”
Kyle sipped his drink. While the Bryces argued, he took a long last look at his Thunderbird. It wasn’t his anymore, though. He had decided.
“Come on, okay, it’s fine,” he heard Dad Bryce say. “Grab that. Let’s go before he changes his mind.”
Kyle followed them down the hall, calling out some last-minute advice to Kid Bryce. “It’s important to have a great space to rehearse!” he told the kid, who stumbled down the hall, carrying the Thunderbird in its case. His father hustled behind him, a step ahead of Kyle, hauling the Hartke amp in one hand and a bundle of half-coiled cords in the other. “Listen to each other’s ideas!” yelled Kyle. “And if the band doesn’t work, don’t let it ruin your friendship!”
Later that day Kyle got in the bath, thinking that perhaps his time had come to die like Jim Morrison, like a waster, like a loser at the end of his chain who had given away his prize instrument to a rich kid, like a chump, who had given up on rock just like he had given up on work, like he had given up on pretty much everything; only after he laid down in his bathtub and found himself unable to reach his gin glass on the lid of the toilet seat did Kyle realize that he had climbed in without filling the tub with water, and fully clothed, and also still swaddled in his bathrobe, and he had to wriggle around and jerk and squirm to get himself back out of the bathtub. The experience put him in a bad mood, coming right after the visit of the boys and on top of a Dexedrine crash, and it sapped him of what little energy he had. He lay on the bathroom floor, the beardless parts of his face pillowed on the soft bathmat, and he sank into a thick and pleasant darkness. Submarine, he thought, his last coherent idea before a sudden amazed realization that all the little lights on the face of his stereo component stack, green and amber, looked like the lights in the hands of an arena audience seen from the stage. They looked like lighter flames and cell phone flashlights, held up by the audience during a power ballad, or for an encore. Held up way out on the fringes of the audience, apparently, way out in the arena’s cheap seats, because the lights seemed very far away.
“Encore,” he said in a crackling whisper.
He sat with his back against the living room wall near the stereo, legs stretched out among the empty bottles and cans, headphones around his neck, fizzing out static, and he had the shakes, a rattle in his hands and his feet and a wave of the shakes moving back and forth through his swollen belly, a low and terrible thrum.
Because of the shakes and the weight of his beard, Kyle could not lift his head. He had to study the lights on the stereo receiver, on the graphic equalizer, on the CD player, from the corner of his eye. The static from the headphones — that could be voices cheering from those cheap seats.
The lights seemed far away, but they also seemed very bright.
“Encore,” Kyle said again. “I’m not finished. They want me back out there. I’m not finished.”
Ted Downum holds an MFA in fiction from Regis University. He lives in Denver and is working on a novel.
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