One Last Round – Part One – The Old Guitar

The hanging bell outside McCarrow’s pub rang again, signaling the exit of another lonely visitor who, after the usual weeknight dosage, stumbled homeward to their half-empty bed.

Back inside, four friends sat quietly around a wooden table. The table itself was dark, stained and sticky from the remnants of drink that had been spilled earlier in the night. The friends, three men and one woman, sat with a sort of dazed patience while waiting on Craig, the bartender, to bring out the next in a series of final rounds. While the old stained glass windows near the door pulsed with the suggestion of passing walkers, the pub nearly hummed with a sense of stillness. The lights were low, the radio had momentarily succumbed to static, and Craig had disappeared to the back room a while ago to check on the boilers or some other mundane task. After a long while, the radio flickered back to life and the woman sitting at the table motioned for her male companions to listen.

“Oh my God,” she said, “is that what I think it is?” She looked at the man sitting across from her and grinned.

Her friend looked less happy. “Lily, no,” he said, and looked around the shadowed room.

“Oh, hey it is you!” The man to his right said, patting his arm.

The song on the radio drifted through the pub, echoing with electric guitars and a lone vocal steeped in emotion. The man sitting across from Lily lowered his head into his hands and seemed to want to drown it out.

“Christ, Devin, why are you getting all embarrassed? It’s a great song,” said Chris. “I haven’t heard your stuff in a long time.”

“Yeah,” said Lily. “Why don’t you perform any more?”

“It’s just not my thing,” Devin responded, scratching at the rough tabletop.

Lily raised her eyebrows. “Not your thing? You used to be up all night writing and recording. I remember because you always flaked out from coming to parties saying you had to work on your music.”

“It’s not my thing anymore,” Devin said. “And can’t somebody turn it off?” He turned around in his seat but Craig had still not returned to the bar. “I don’t like to listen to that old stuff.”

Chris leaned back and folded his arms. “Why’d you give it up anyways?”

Devin shrugged.

“Come on, man. You used to get a lot of air time on campus radio. Why didn’t you ever send off a tape to CBC or something?”

“Seriously though,” said Lily, “you really could make it big with those songs. Why not pick it up again?”

Even Leo, who had been quiet the whole evening spoke up. “Yeah, I get not having the time when you dropped out and were job hunting, but why not now?”

Devin stopped picking at the table and shook his head. “I didn’t stop writing music because I dropped out.” He paused for a minute and glanced over toward the front door of the bar. “I dropped out to get away from the music.”

The three friends shared a look of confusion with one another. “What do you mean?” Chris asked.

Devin glanced at each of the others in turn. “The station guys never released the tapes?”

They all shook their heads. “What tapes?” asked Leo.

Devin rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. “You’re gonna call me crazy.”

“We won’t,” Chris said, and leaned in to listen.

As the song ended, Devin started to talk.

It was when I moved into that apartment off campus that it happened – a few months before that big fire broke out on campus.

Old duplex, house divided down the center, right? I got the left side – the whole half of the place – for three hundred a month. Normally, I would have thought the low rent meant there was something wrong with it, but when the landlord showed me the location I found something that made me ignore any doubts I was having. Under the bed poked the neck of an old electric guitar. I was shocked when I pulled it out and saw that it was actually a vintage Gibson Les Paul – a ’58 or ’59 model – and a beauty at that. It was immaculate, and only the finest hairline cracks ran along the finish, arranged in a way that made it look even more impressive. I held it against me and tested the strings and looked at the landlord. They seemed surprised I was interested in it, and told me to keep the “old thing” as the previous tenant left it behind and they had no use for it. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I never could stand living on campus. With all that noise and constant partying I could never concentrate on my studies or my music. Back then I thought the music was more important. Stupid. At that apartment, though, I had all the peace and solitude I needed. I even had a separate entrance, so there was never a need to interact with the neighbor on the other side. That being said, I wouldn’t have known that there even was another person living in the house if the landlord hadn’t mentioned them briefly. Apparently they had lived there for a long time, but he was quiet and had always paid the rent on time, no questions asked. I never did see my neighbour, only heard faint mumblings at night time when I assumed he was talking on the telephone.

The thing that was really odd about it was I never heard a telephone ring, he would just start talking. After a while I started to wonder whether he was talking to anybody at all, or if he was just talking to himself. Try as I might to eavesdrop, the walls were so thick I could never tell what they were talking about. I figured it wasn’t worth my time to dwell on it, so I just went on with my business. I finally had a quiet place where I could get some work done. I could finally start writing some music.

The old guitar did half the work: with that thing in my hands it was impossible not to feel inspired. I would sit there for hours into the night with my computer recording and my headphones on, meditating to the sound of that instrument. It sounds like a douchy thing to say, but sometimes I was blown away by the things I came up with. It was the best music I’d ever written and recorded.

The problem was, I couldn’t think of a single damned lyric.

I would write a few lines or half a chorus, but it was all garbage. Music without words works well enough for jazz, but this wasn’t jazz, and I wasn’t going to get on the radio with nothing but instrumental tracks.

It was painstaking, having come up with these perfect, beautiful guitar parts but not having any decent words to accompany them. I felt like I might as well give it up. Nights of recording turned into nights of self-loathing, and then after a while I stopped recording anything at all. I would sit by the computer with my headphones on, holding the old guitar in my hands and staring at the strings. I’d sit there for hours into the early morning, my ears filled with the sound my own blood pumping and the ambient static from the pickups humming in my ears. That went on for weeks. I felt like I was going a bit crazy, and then I started hearing things.

At nearly three in the morning one night as I was sitting there listening to the steady hum from the guitar in my headphones, I heard a voice in the house.

It freaked me out, because I never heard people walking by on the street, and I could never hear my neighbor’s voice that clearly. I threw down my headphones and jumped up – the guitar still hanging from its strap – and shouted out “hello!?” Nobody answered. I made my way through the apartment, pacing through each of the dark rooms, but there was nobody there. The door was locked. I was alone.

I shook it off and went to sit down again. I put my headphones back on and went back to listening to the static drone of the old Les Paul. That’s when I realized where I heard the voice – it was coming from the guitar.

The wiring must have been picking up the signal from a nearby telephone or radio, and it was being fed back to me through my headphones. Knowing now what I’d heard, I chuckled to myself, feeling foolish at thinking there was an intruder in the house.

It was really low, so I turned the volume up louder than normal, and that’s when I realized what it was exactly that I was hearing. It was my neighbor from the other side of the wall. He must have been talking into a telephone, because I can’t think of another way his voice was being picked up like that, but as I listened i never heard the other end of the conversation. Perhaps his correspondent wasn’t very talkative, or perhaps he really was talking to himself. Either way, I was fascinated.

The things he spoke about – love, loneliness, dreams, pain – drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. The cadence and tone of his voice – filtered through the static hum of the guitar – were hypnotic. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was grabbing a pen and writing down what I heard. I scribbled as fast as i could to keep up, and when my hand started cramping I hit record and let the computer do the work – I could just transcribe it later.

I had found my lyrics.

One thing was certain to me: my neighbor was completely mad. For him to talk the way he did, for hours at a time, he must have been in a world of his own. In a week I had five fully composed and recorded songs. I had more material than I knew what to do with.

I took the demos in to the student radio station and was told that I’d get a call later in the month once they’d had a chance to listen to them and decided which songs would get air time. After that I went on to class and did my usual thing, although I admit I couldn’t really concentrate on anything the professor was saying. My mind was on my music – if you could call it my music at all.

I got a call from the station before the end of the week. “Were taking it all,” they said, “and I hope it’s okay, Devin, but we actually started broadcasting it this afternoon.”

Obviously it was okay – I was thrilled! For the first time since I’d set out on my own, I felt like I’d really accomplished something. I felt like a champion, like I’d finally proved myself. That was an incredible emotion. I wasn’t prepared for the next question.

“Do you have more?”

In that moment I was still feeling the rush of accomplishment, and more than a little full of myself. “Yes,” I said, hardly even thinking before saying it.

Before I knew it I’d agreed to bring in another four songs by the next Monday. I only had five days to get everything together, but with the amount of material I had pre-recorded, I was confident I could do it. I’d mostly be transcribing more of the phone static, and that was easy work. My neighbour’s words would do the heavy lifting for me.

I left classes for the rest of the day, too excited to listen to a word of my lectures, and headed back to my apartment to start working. I pulled up the recordings of my neighbour and started listening, pen in hand, ready to transcribe. Within a minute, I had to pause and scribble to keep up. Again, I was astounded by the raw emotion in those words. It was a perfect line, the perfect way to open a song. However…

It was already the perfect opening to a song – one of the songs I’d recorded the previous week. I rewound and listened again, just to make sure. It was the same as what I’d already transcribed.

I skipped ahead through the recording, looking for new material. When I hit play again, I found myself listening to the static-filled voice lamenting with the pain of a lonely heart. It was beautiful, but I had heard it before. This was what I’d used as the second verse on song number two.

I spent the rest of the afternoon skipping through the recordings, but time and time again I would land on phrases, lines that I had already used. the same ideas and suggestions kept coming up, looping over and over. I stopped skipping through and let the recording play through all the way. Every twenty minutes, my neighbour would loop back and start repeating himself, recounting the same stories, dreams, ideas that he’d already spoken of. The whole recording, the whole three and a half hours, was of the man talking over the same twenty minutes of dialogue on an endless loop.

But it wasn’t prerecorded. I could tell, because even though he was saying the same things, his words would change ever so slightly each turn. There were little variations in his tone, his inflections that showed he really was talking over these things, constantly repeating himself. His words would vary ever so slightly as well, but that detail could have easily been missed if I wasn’t as obsessed with searching for it.

There were gaps in his repetition, though – every ten minutes or so he would pause and utter a few words that were out of place. It was bizarre, almost like he would go into a trance – or, break out of his trance – and speak something completely unrelated to whatever it was he was talking about at the time. Sometimes they were full sentences, sometimes just a few seemingly random words, and other times the static got so loud I couldn’t pick out any thing at all.

I started listening more carefully, collecting those fragments that didn’t belong and writing them out. They seemed connected, and when I compiled them together I thought I had found my new source of lyrics. I would have to create my new songs by combining those little fragments into something that made sense. With what I’d already recorded, though, I could only find enough for a verse or two. If I was going to write four more songs, I would need to listen in on more of my neighbour’s talking.

It was tedious work. Before I knew it the sun was coming up and I still only had enough lines for half of a song, maybe more if I mixed things around and used more repetition. It wasn’t perfect, though. The words and phrases he was throwing out there were related, but nothing really fit together that well. I would have to dedicate all of my time to the task if I hoped to make any progress at all. So, I cancelled all other plans, skipped class and continued with my work, stopping only to grab a sandwich and a tray of coffee, not pausing to say hello to my classmates and professors who recognized me.

As the hours dragged on I started behaving strange. I knew it, I knew I was being weird and that I should have given it up and gone to bed, but I couldn’t stop. My arms ached unless I was holding the guitar and my ears would itch and burn if I took the headphones off and stopped listening to my neighbour’s voice. After… hell I don’t know how long it was… I must have decided that I had enough material because I realized I was singing. I was playing and singing and recording. That was unusual for me, because I normally recorded all of the tracks separately to get the cleanest results. I usually took my time, but now I was absolutely frantic.

It was like the words couldn’t come out fast enough, and I couldn’t even be sure that I understood the words coming out of my mouth. Had I even written them down? How long had it been since I ate something? I wasn’t even sure what day it was. It must have been near morning, because there was a dim glow in the sky outside, and it was cold, so cold in the room. My throat was raw from singing and my breath tasted like copper. When I looked down at my hands, I was both terrified and revolted to see that my calluses had torn away, blistered, and ruptured. My fingertips were a ragged mess of blood and the guitar itself was a display of sweat and gore. My singing convulsed into a scream as I stared down at my bloodied hands, almost vomiting in fear but unable to stop playing. The static was thunder in my ears.

Finally, I managed to throw myself out of the chair, and as I did, the headphones were pulled off and I lay there on the cold, hard floor, holding my hands close to my chest and wriggling like an animal to get the guitar strap off of my shoulders and neck. Once I got to my feet, I made my way to the bathroom and ran the cold tap, holding my injured fingers in the stream to clot the bleeding. I bandaged them in gauze and changed into some clean clothes, threw myself down into bed, and feel into the deepest and soundest sleep. When I woke up, it was to the sound of my phone ringing, and when I picked it up it was the manager at the station on the other end.

“Devin!” he said, “Jesus, man, what are you doing? You said you’d have the demos to us by today. What’s the hold up?”

Embarrassed, confused, I told them I would be there soon and rushed to my computer. After getting a few hours of sleep, I felt ashamed at the way I had acted. I couldn’t believe that I would push myself so hard, to the point of exhaustion, for the sake of my music. Looking at my computer, I was astonished to find nine recorded demos – all of them newly saved from the last few days. I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them, and quickly transferred them to my USB drive for submission. I grabbed my coat and, trying my best not to look at the bloodied guitar lying still on the floor, headed out the door to campus.

Apologizing like a child, I handed over the demos and ran to catch my class, hoping that my professor wouldn’t question my sudden and prolonged absence. Once I sat down and started sipping at my coffee, I immediately started to feel better. That sense of accomplishment and pride that I had felt the week before came rushing back. I had written over a dozen songs in two weeks, and was getting airplay at a major university and online. Sure, they weren’t my words, but who would ever know? No one.

That night, I cleaned up the guitar and my desk, and sat down to take it all in. I put on my headphones, leaned back in my computer chair, and pulled up the website for the student radio station to listen in. Every hour I heard one of my songs, and smiled with satisfaction. Only one thing bothered me – I didn’t hear any of the new demos, only the originals from the week before. Needless to say, it pissed me off. Why in the hell would they put so much pressure on me if they weren’t even going to play the damned tracks? I waited another hour but there was nothing – none of my new songs.

I sent a text to the manager, abrupt and wanting an explanation. I wasnt expecting a response back, as it was after 11pm. They responded almost immediately.

“Is this a joke?”

I stared at the message, infuriated. I replied back, “No, and stop wasting my time. What’s your problem?”

In seconds, I got another reply. “Listen, don’t bother the djs again. We’ll keep playing the demos, but leave us alone.”

I couldn’t beleive what I was reading, and was still trying to figure it out when they messaged me again. “If you send us any more shit like that, we’re taking you off the air. Goodbye.”

I was crushed. I couldn’t imagine how things could have gone so wrong. I closed the site down and pulled up my copy of the new demos. I put the nine tracks in a playlist and hit play.

Immediately, I felt my heart throbbing in my neck. There was no intro, no fade in. It was as though I had already been playing and singing when the record button was pressed. I was wailing, rambling incoherently like a madman, my voice straining in and out of tune with whatever the hell it was I was playing on that guitar. And I recognized what it was that I was singing. Those exact phrases, that endless loop that my neighbour had been reciting to himself over and over but in my own, distorted voice. The guitar was a cacophony of noise, distortion and screeching, and behind it all, layered under everything was the voice of the man next door. His ragged voice and my own recited that cycle of words in perfect unison, parting only for brief moments where he would stop, draw a sharp breath, and laugh. That horrible, howling, shrieking laughter.

I ripped the headphones off and threw them down, tripping over the cord as I scrambled from my chair and realized now that the mans voice and his terrible, mocking laughter was coming from behind the wall of my apartment. He was laughing, screaming, singing to me!

I ran. I ran to the only other place I felt safe – the university – and wandered the halls until morning. I talked to the head of residence and begged for a room on campus but that was useless since they had filled up months ago. I ended up crashing on a classmate’s floor for a few days until I could talk them into heading to the apartment with me. I grabbed my few belongings and got the hell out, leaving the key in the mailbox for the landlord to grab. I left the guitar behind. It was shortly after that when I dropped out.

It’s one thing to have experienced that, but it’s a whole other thing to be constantly reminded. Those first five songs keep creeping up on me everywhere I go, no matter how hard I try to avoid it. I eventually had them pulled from the air, but by that time they’d been uploaded to the internet, and had filtered their way into almost everything I hear. It’s like their everywhere I go. It’s like they… It’s like he’s following me.

Silence fell around their little table as Devin stopped talking. Nobody said anything for a long time, and Leo picked nervously at a loose thread on his jacket sleeve. Finally, the hanging bell outside the door rang again, knocking the circle of friends out of their trance.

“So there,” Devin muttered. “Now you know why.” He stared at the others, then at the empty bar to which Craig still hadn’t returned. The radio hummed with static. “Happy now?”

“No,” said Chris, shaking his head. “But…” he paused, glancing at the door. “But I think I’ve seen him.

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