I should have refused delivery.
The package, on arrival, was entirely unremarkable. I couldn’t make out the sender, but I rarely pay that much attention. It was addressed to me, or rather, to the Part-Time Audiophile, so out came the knife and off came strings, the tape, and the heavy brown paper. The box within was small-ish, only about a foot square, and not terribly heavy. I might have rattled it a bit, looking for the latch, but I didn’t hear anything.
I juggled it, my laptop and a mug of coffee on my way to the basement. I’d been traveling the day before, so I was off to a late start. Which is to say, my normal morning routine.
The basement, where I did pretty much everything in order to stay out of everyone else’s hair, is a mess. I was too busy (read: too lazy) to bother keeping it orderly. The box went on the stack of others, all in for review, and I went to the stereo rack to power it up before plunking down with the coffee for some Facebook-and-wakeup time.
Dr. K had been on me to bone up on my classical music. His latest admonition had been “some Wagner”, and while I was not a big fan of the opera, I was a dutiful student. Big voices filled the room in short order as cat-memes and presidential primary soundbytes scrolled across the screen.
I probably stayed that way for over an hour. Wagner is nothing if not indulgently bombastic, but I found him more than a little impenetrable.
After my first “decanting” (and refill!), I passed the box. I put down the steaming mug of coffee I’d just topped off and picked it up. The box wasn’t cardboard or wood, but appeared to be some kind of leather, well-worn and stiff, not supple or soft. The stitching along the edges were tiny and very finely done; the lid was held on by a clever clasp that I hadn’t noticed, which released with a subliminal snap. The lid itself, done in the same odd leather, was very snug and it only released with a soft hiss, as if the box had been sealed, the insides held airless.
As I lifted the box, a piece of paper uncurled like a flower. A note.
The note began, “I know we’ve never met, but I couldn’t help but think of you when I found this amongst my late Uncle’s possessions. An audiophile to the very end, he was also something of a tinkerer, always mucking about with that stereo of his. If you’ll believe it, he died in his chair, listening to music. Pretty much exactly as he’d have wanted it, I’m sure.”
“Anyway, my Uncle, God bless him, was also something of a kook. He collected things. All manner of knickknacks and audio tweaks. If you remember Tice, well, my Uncle was one of his first customers. He would try just about anything.”
“After he passed, my Aunt asked me to sell off his system for her. She needed the money to help her move to Florida and wanted no part of that ‘damned thing’ that ‘kept him up till all hours’. I did as she asked — it was a great system, too, vintage Quad electrostat speakers with some Futterman OTL amps at core — and there were about 5,000 vinyl records, too, that she happily unloaded to a local collector.”
“But there was one thing I couldn’t sell,” the letter continued, “these ‘cable sleeves’. I never found anything more about them, oddly, just the words ‘Erich’ and ‘Zann’ on a scrap, and this box, that I’m sure has to go with them — they seem to ‘match’. No idea what they’re supposed to do. ‘Reduce unwanted vibrations’, or maybe ‘eliminated cross-talk’ or some other happy horse shit, but I know you and Sandy Gross love these kinds of things (I think I remember reading that on your site), so as we discussed, I thought I’d pass the mystery on to you.”
I stumbled to a halt at the end of the page. Turned it over. Blank. I actually looked around on the floor of the second page as the spacing seemed to suggest that there was, in fact, more. A signature, perhaps. But there was nothing. The “scrap” he referred to was also missing.
Was I supposed to know the sender? Had I forgotten this, maybe as part of some conversation at RMAF this year? I set the note aside, nonplussed. I really needed to slow down the mayhem on those boondoggles.
Inside the box were two … rods. Tubes, actually. “Sleeves” was pretty apt, as I turned one over in my hand. A honeyed-ash in color and about 5″ long, they were slightly irregular in shape, flaring slightly at one end. The “center” had been hollowed out and polished as smooth as the outer surface. A pair of analog audio cables could, in fact, slip right through there. But why would you bother? I suppose they were interesting-looking, but why would you …? “Nonsense and snake oil,” I muttered under my breath, and then set them back in their box and promptly forgot about them for about a month.
I found the sleeves again when cleaning up one afternoon, before Gary and Colleen showed up with some audio toys. Gary was bringing me a new vacuum tube amp, one of his 20 watt per channel retro wonders and Colleen was bringing some vintage Western Electric tubes to use in it. I was pretty psyched about both — the tubes, because WE were legend, and the amp because Gary makes amazing amps.
Colleen was the one that fished the box out from under the billiards table.
“The hell is this?” she asked as Gary maneuvered his extraordinarily heavy hand-built amplifier over to the audio rack.
“Huh. I’m not really sure. Someone sent me them a few months ago, but I haven’t touched them since.”
“What are they for?” She had one out, was turning it over in her hand.
“They make your speaker cables a million times better,” I said. I don’t think I managed to keep the snark out of my voice, because she snorted.
“Have you tried them?” she asked, eyebrow raised a bit in reproach.
“Well, no but –”
“So you’re just a know-it-all, then?”
“Who, him? That’s our Scot, all right. We’re not worthy!” That, from Gary. “Stereo’s on,” he said, “what should we play?”
We spent the next two hours comparing amps, speakers and vacuum tubes. I ended up buying both the amp and the tubes. Because I have impulse control issues, perhaps, but at that moment, I could afford them, so I did.
It was late when Colleen suggested we try out the Cable Bones. That was her term. She thought they looked like bones. Thigh bones, actually. That was an uncomfortable moment, when all three of us looked at the “leather” box, at the Bones, and back. Gary broke the spell by standing up, and with a “Bah — here, gimme”, worked them over the ends of the cables before hooking the speakers back up, and dropping the needle on Reference Recordings‘ new LP, Copland.
I think I was holding my breath as the first few notes flowed out.
“Fanfare for the Common Man” starts plaintively. Slowly. Achingly. The clarion call seems to rise from an empty plain, resolute and steadfast, lonely in its triumph. Success, but not without pain or suffering. It’s anthemic and about as human a work as I’ve ever heard, and those first few stanzas never fail to nail my feet to the floor.
But that’s not what we heard. Not that day.
Instead, everything “felt” a little … off. The aching sense of unbroken pride was … undercut. Somehow. As if there was an edge. A hint of something unquiet. That the resoluteness in the face of darkness was somehow pointless. Vain, even. That there was something else going on. Another struggle. Beneath, or perhaps behind, the main show. Something off stage. Just out of sight.
When the needle hit the inside track and brushed up against the label, hush hush hush hushing, I think I might have jumped. I shook myself, a bit like a dog, and stood up and lifted the needle from the disc.
“Well, that was … different!” I said, shooting for a lighter mood. I turned, but my friends were gone.
So was the back half of the room. As if it had been sawed away while I had sat there, transfixed by the sound. Instead, the walls of my basement simply ended at some point, and beyond them, there was only half-light and flat ground. Stretching … away. No sounds. But at the edges of my sight, right at the limits of where I could see shapes blending toward shapelessness.
There. In that darkness. Something moved.
I froze. As completely and fully as if I’d been instantly sheathed in ice. All of my muscles spasmed and locked, and if my mouth hadn’t been clamped shut, I would have screamed in the sudden agony of it. But my eyes were shocked open, fixed on the horizon, that impossible horizon in my basement, and at the Thing I could not see.
But I knew, as solidly and as overwhelmingly as I knew that one day Everything Would End, I knew that It saw me.
And it was coming.
In a rush, the ice left my muscles and I could move. I did scream then, with the release came the pain and it came out in a rush and I could not stop it. Or the sob. The great, heaving sob as I attempted to breathe.
The air. There was no air. It was leaving the room, scattering across that hopeless plain and lost.
I will never know why I turned back to the stereo. I wasn’t really even thinking by that point. Maybe it was muscle memory. My mind was … gone and something was coming for my bones. So, I dropped the needle back on the still-spinning record.
I never saw Colleen or Gary again, after that day. Hours later, emerging back into the fading sunlight of that November afternoon, limp and hysterical, I looked for them. For their things. For their cars. Evidence.
There was nothing to find.
I tried calling their cell phones, but Gary’s number only went to a misdial. A man named “James” answered Colleen’s. He’d never heard of Colleen, or me, or Gary. Gary’s website is gone. I’ve driven by their homes. Families live there now. I’d never seen them before, but they’ve apparently been there a long time.
No one else I’ve ever met or known has any idea what I’m talking about when I ask after Colleen or Gary. They’ve vanished. Completely. Erased.
I don’t play Gary’s amplifier. I’ve left it, with Colleen’s vintage WE tubes, on the rack and I’ve locked the door to that room. I just can’t bring myself to listen anymore. I can’t.
The Cable Bones are gone, though. I’ve put those back in their skin-box. The faint weeping sounds are harder to hear that way.