Illustration by Milano Chow
Vice: When did you start writing?
Sam: Well like every other sad-sack teenager, I had a diary. It wasn’t really self-conscious though. It was pretty clinical. But there was an urge there.
Were there other writers in your family?
No. My dad was a painter. Well, he was really a banker, but he had this lost 70s period where he’d get stoned in the attic and paint and read
When was the first time you were published?
I got a story in Open City in 2001. I was always quietly working on fiction, but you really have to put in the hours. At the same time, if you don’t have another life—particularly when you’re in your 20s—you won’t have a lot to write about.
aron came out of the elevator holding the guitar. There was a white door in a white wall, a small red light with a button underneath. He pressed the button. A camera swiveled an inch above him. A voice asked him who he was. “Baron,” he said. The door buzzed. He stepped into an over-air-conditioned, windowless waiting room. A round-faced woman with green-streaked black hair sat at a desk covered with potted plants. She wore a new and oversize Ramones t-shirt. She glanced up at him with big, sparkling black eyes. “Have a seat,” she said, gesturing toward a white sofa. Baron sat down with the guitar. He stared at the Billboard magazines fanned out on the glass table. He did not look up again at the girl. He came from brooding, thickset people, and he did not look at women much and when he looked down from seeing a pretty woman he did not usually imagine her image. But the receptionist had tiny, bleached Tic-Tac teeth, teeth like Beth’s. Beth had a pretty, sharp wedge of a face and beady little teeth like peas if peas could be white. She was tall and hard-lined and so white as to seem albino. Escorting people to their tables—her white hair done up in buns on either side of her head, her mouth a thick red slash of lipstick—she had an almost zombie-like disassociation. Initially, he took this to be drollness, but more and more he’d suspected it was dumbness. Her face was so incurious—the only softening a red smear in her cheeks when she’d tire after a rush. It was only a small kitchen thing. They’d smoked together on breaks, drank at the bar down the block with the others after their shift. Once they’d woken up next to each other, and this had repeated itself a few times and he could not get over how far she could spread her long white legs. She would lay back as he crawled up over her. She would hold his head in both hands, like a barber would, and look right at him. He could not get over this in some fundamental way. He came from ugly people. There was a buzzing. He looked up. A frosted Plexiglass door slid open, seemingly of its own volition. There was a hallway, and he heard a voice, but no one came through. The receptionist did not look up. Baron took a Billboard and flipped through the photos. Artists in tuxedos or tight shimmering gowns, holding gold records or awards, looking very happy with their careers, with the people in the trade, and he looked down at Tim’s battered black guitar case and saw how lost in time Tim was. Tim on the cover of his one record, his face slanted down with a kind of wincing indifference, sitting on the decrepit wooden steps of an unseen house, dead leaves at his feet. A man was standing over him. He wore a headset and there was a small black box attached to his belt. He cupped a hand over the salamander-like receiver at his mouth. “I’m immensely sorry about this,” he whispered assuredly, “I know you’ve come a long way, but I’ve got a call I’ve got to stay on right now.” Baron didn’t say a word, but the man held up a finger, prompting him to stay quiet. Baron, used to brusqueness in kitchens, stared indifferently. “Great,” he said, dropping his hand off the receiver and walking away. “OK…” Baron did not know if the man was still talking to him. They hadn’t actually had a conversation, and he couldn’t tell until the man had disappeared back behind the frosted door. Baron had sent Beth a postcard about coming here. “Coincidentally…” He’d left her a few messages. He’d arrived this morning and hadn’t been able to help some kind of looking around. He’d gone to a coffee shop in her neighborhood. Had they run into each other there, he imagined there would be a long, uneasy moment, and he’d had no idea how he’d explain himself out of that moment. But he’d stayed in the coffee shop two hours. Got up and got back in line, ordered a second and then a third coffee. He’d even read USA Today. He’d finally moved to an outside table as a kind of self-negotiated preliminary to leaving. He saw a few pretty girls making their way to and from their cars, tank tops and showy hips out of low-slung jeans, but he’d been insolent about them because he might be seeing Beth. But there was no sign of her, of course, and the only sign of being in the desert, of being where she lived, was a small green lizard against the silver umbrella pole, its stomach expanding and contracting in some kind of rigor-mortis terror. He looked down at the black guitar case, flabby with wear and duct-taped along the spine. He gripped the handle. Maybe he shouldn’t be selling his uncle’s guitar. It was all he’d gotten in the will. It was all he possessed of any value. But selling the guitar brought him here, where Beth was. He was selling the guitar for a last-chance excuse of contact, a vain improbability of pressing his fingers one more time down on her stretched-out legs, of pressing on as to what, if anything, was behind Beth’s matter-of-fact and almost naive assumption of this posture. There was something silvery and fleeting about Beth, impossible to connect to his warm hand on the plump curve of her thigh and the rough-hewn heat of her crotch. He was never able to connect the two. She’d never allowed it. He went to sleep so many nights with the feel of the softness between the hardness of her knees and the hardness of her hips. He woke up most mornings with the feel of this place. It was troublesome, not least because he was aging. Forty coming and his stomach sandbagging and the state of the stomach was the symbol of aging and capability to so many female eyes. He knew the sharp eyes proximity brings, but Beth’s physical indifference to his messy physique was so rare, another good-looking girl was not close to an immediate possibility. There was the buzzing again. “Suze,” the man—headsetless—said from the door, “maybe you could get Tim’s nephew here some coffee. Or tea. Herbal tea, maybe. Would he like some herbal tea?” “I’ll ask him,” Suze said. "Coffee,” Baron said to the girl. And he stood and took the guitar and followed the man in past the frosted door. They came into a large white office. There were blue corduroy love seats on either side of a black Pyrex table, and he sat down facing the man. The man was short and balding, a mustache and a round face and hard small dark eyes. He wore an oversize white t-shirt, crisp blue jeans, and Birkenstock sandals. He held out his hand. “Deke,” he said. Baron passed the case over. Deke opened the case, glanced at the guitar, turned it over, and slipped it back into the case. He took a check out of a yellow envelope already there on the table and handed it to Baron. “This is for $2,200,” Baron said. “That’s what it says.” “On the phone, you said five.” “A week ago I said five.” “I haven’t even talked to you and you’re already going back on your word.” “Look, I don’t doubt this is the guitar, but the shape it’s in…” “It’s in good shape,” Baron said. “It hasn’t really been played much in the last 20 years.” “Good shape is a problem.” “I don’t understand.” “The worse shape it’s in, the better it views. Tim’s guitar lacks, you know, sympathetic wear and tear, the grease of personality.” “You offered $5,000, sight unseen. You had this check written out for $2,200, sight unseen.” “Your uncle’s death, we thought his passing away might have sparked more reinterest—apart from the Dutch reissue.” There was a silence. “You do know about the Dutch reissue?” “No. From what?” “What do you mean?” “From what material?” “Oh they probably just took an old vinyl copy, you know… unless they got ahold of the master tapes. But it would have been nice of them to consult you, for perhaps, some photos, or liner notes. Something for you to do…” Baron stared at Deke. Deke’s face had compressed slightly around his eyes. Deke had mistakenly gotten a bit personal, and now he seemed momentarily lost in some soft-footed zone of conversational ambiguity. He sat back and folded his hands, began nodding as if remembering some long-ago grave wrong. There was a buzzing. He reached over and pressed a button. “Arnold on four,” Suze said over the speaker. “Arnold?” “Vladistock Arnold.” “Right.” He looked at Baron. “You’ll excuse me a minute?” He said, standing and slipping on the headset and walking out. Baron looked around at the walls: Brightly tentacled Fillmore West posters, photos of Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger. The same old faces, doing the same old things. Weren’t there other people, ever, to try out on the walls? It was like the chain restaurants on the strips, these faces so pervasive as to be unnoticeable. Tim had been so obscure. Even as an uncle. He’d only met him twice. He had clear memories of both times because there was a funny kind of presence there. He’d gone to the bus station with his dad, and Tim was standing outside waving and seemed to get in the car before they’d even stopped. He seemed to be full of enthusiasm and cheerful news. Baron had been missing a tooth and Tim had turned with his bright green eyes and curly blond hair and squinting smile and had asked Baron if he’d lost it defending his girl. His dad and Tim had broken out in laughter before Baron could answer. Baron had been a chubby boy and he’d at first been embarrassed, but then he’d realized they were not laughing in the way other kids did, and he’d laughed along because it was nice to hear his father laughing. They’d gone to some bar downtown and Baron had a hamburger and a Coke while Tim tuned up at the other end of the room. Tim had disappeared afterward, the bedroom his father had made up and the table his mother set of no use. Tim showed up one more time. Two or three years later, unannounced at the front door at 3 PM, a thin, black-haired woman sitting in the old, square car behind him, the engine running. The sparkle in Tim’s eyes seemed to have smeared across his cheekbones, and his blond curls were whitened by the sun and frizzed. His face was leathery and thin, his arms and wrists so thin it seemed to make his hands shake. Your daddy here? He’s at work. How are you, kid? I’m Baron. Your daddy left me some money, Baron. Mind if I go take a look? In college, he’d once found a white-label promotional copy of Tim’s record. $2.99 in the cut-out bin. He’d tried to understand the songs, but the soft confessional intimacy made him uneasy. He liked hard stuff, forthrightness, and never otherwise thought too much about music. He heard music in his car and little elsewhere and he had nothing in common with the tousle-haired, torn-sweatered girls alone on their dorm-room futons, listening to Leonard Cohen. The paucity of invention some imagined watchfulness over solitude. This line was from the one review he’d ever read about Tim’s record. In Sounds, from October 1979. His father kept it in a picture book with old photos and other minor artifacts of Tim’s short career. Tim had been his father’s little brother. Deke came in and sat back down. There was a long silence. “Shouldn’t Tim have had the master tapes of his record somewhere?” Baron asked. “Those licenses to the record company are often for life.” “For life? His is over.” “Perpetuity, then.” Baron leaned forward. “Nobody bought his label. They folded.” “UAI bought out the catalogue.” “I’ve seen Tim’s papers. There’s no contract that says that.” “Well that is an issue for you to take up with UAI. It is hard sometimes for a company to verify the estate.” Deke leaned forward and looked analytically at Baron. “You are the estate?” “Are masters like that generally valuable?” “Depends. Why?” “No reason.” “Well, perhaps you’ll have the statute of limitations on your side. But you know, they are a very successful company. It will cost you.” Baron stared at him. "The thing about the $5,000, you see, is that when your uncle died we expected something, some kind of minor stir, to happen in Japan. That loner folky stuff is so big over there now.” “UAI should have sent him some money,” Baron said. “Just a little money once in a while. Tim was very degraded at the end of his life.” “Well, whatever their relationship, we’d hoped to take advantage of new movements and put this guitar on the casino wall in Tokyo.” Deke folded his hands and leaned back. “Tokyo, you know, is preferable to Rotterdam.” Baron held the check. “I can’t do this.” “You’re here.” “For this, I mean.” He held up the check. “What did you fly here? Southwest?” Deke stood and went to his desk. He pulled out a small booklet of pink paper, scribbled something. He reached into his desk and pulled out an envelope. Baron watched as he counted out $240 in 20s. The man looked up from his counting. “Round trip from Iowa City, right?” He came over and handed Baron the money. On top was glossy coupon for a free meal at the casino restaurant. Baron held the money and the check and the coupon. “How do I get out of here?” “I’ll walk you out.” Baron stood. Deke held out his hand. “It was nice doing business with you.” Baron nodded, just enough to disagree. But he’d taken the money, and he shook the man’s hand. They came back out through the waiting room. He glanced sideways to the girl, but she did not look up. At the elevator, the man pressed in a code. “One thing,” Baron said. “How did you know so quickly it was the actual guitar?” “The photo on the back of the record,” he said. “I have Tim’s record.” Baron looked at him. “I’m actually a fan. I grew up in the late 70s. It’s a very nice record. It has, you know, a real gray-day emotion.” “An emotion otherwise hard for you to locate?” “Don’t assume monetary toughness precludes other, more complicated feelings.” “Greed does.” “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “I’m sorry you didn’t like the record enough to keep your word.” “It’s the company word, and that always has to be able to change. The word was one thing a week ago, now it’s another. You got your money. You decided to do this.” The elevator arrived. Baron stepped in without another word or a look back. The doors closed as he turned around. Baron could see the elongated smudge of his reflection in the elevator’s steel. His hand felt the absence of the weight of the guitar. Tim’s had written his spooked-out songs on the guitar, and now the guitar was gone and the feeling from the sale was sharp, real shame. The elevator sank effortlessly. An old song played through the speaker above, folksy, with mandolin, and his thoughts went to nothing, as if the reverberations of the melodies carried away all sense of weight and purpose. And for an instant he seemed to understand something about his uncle, about musicians in general, ambivalence settling in with the starry accountability of a passing melody. But he wasn’t a musician, he had no way of using ambivalence. He was a line cook, and he came from ugly people. Tim was the one good-looking one—his goldenness treated as an embarrassing mishap by the family, as if Tim’s mother had been raped by Ryan O’Neal. And Baron had grown up, like his family, embarrassed by his uncle’s obscure career—almost to the point of permanent disavowal, until one of the skater blond, Zeppelin freak brothers from a nearby modern house in a better neighborhood had asked him, with a kind of restrained amazement, if Tim was really his uncle. Baron had nodded as if caught, but the kid had invited him over to watch Quadrophenia and Baron had tried pot for the first time and he still remembered the night as a kind of initiation into his wobbly and immense teenage years. Now he was nearing 40 and gaining only weight. Beth had long pale pin-up legs and was otherwise unattributable to anything in particular. He’d come to Vegas with a single angle of desire, the guitar a prop, but Beth might as well be a rock floating out in space and even the artifact office had seemed like some cold and solitary lunar world. But the elevator, as it sank, felt crowded with body warmth, crowded with the recent presence of dozens of others down below, pulling away. SAM BRUMBAUGH Where did the idea for this story come from? My friend Dave Berman emailed me to tell me that this musician Jackson Frank’s guitar and the acetate of his first record were up for sale on eBay. I was like, “Oh god.” It is kind of sad. Obviously some relative of his had inherited it and put it on there to make some money. It was the guitar he wrote all those great songs on and there it was on eBay. That was the germ of the idea for this story. But what about the girl in the story? I guess when I look at relationships, I focus on a single thing about a person. Something like how long and white someone’s legs are can sustain me for two months. That can be enough.