By Jason Heller
Art by Jason White
Published Issue 101, May 2022
The wound steel buzzes beneath my finger. It’s the G string, the thinnest and highest. I play it way up past the twelfth fret, letting the A and D strings drone open while muting the E string with my thumb, wrapped around the other side of the neck.
I don’t need all that low end. It muddies up the sound of the bass, as far as I’m concerned. I love the way I can make the high notes of a bass sound like beeps or bells or synthesizers, even without using effects pedals.
As if I could afford effects pedals. I mean, look at this dump of an apartment I live in.
Okay, so maybe my one-room place on 10th and Pearl isn’t a dump. Dumps, after all, have stuff in them. My place is barren.
It’s in the basement of a decrepit brick building, and my thrift-store couch takes up almost half the room. There’s a mattress on the floor next to it. A half-assed micro-kitchen is shoved off to the side. The rest is filled with a stereo, a TV on milk crates, plus a tiny bookshelf with a handful of books, including a big hardcover collection of M.C. Escher’s illustrations. I love staring at those drawings, the way the images repeat and circle around themselves and make geometric sense but are impossible at the same time.
Oh, and there’s T-Bone.
T-Bone sits there, black as night and cute as fuck, meowing at me. She’s small for a full-grown cat, but that doesn’t stop her from sounding as loud as an air-raid siren or shredding the upholstery off my couch like a miniature panther.
She starts scratching away at the couch right, digging her claws into the faded plaid upholstery, shuddering in feline bliss. I swear she’s keeping time with the bass line that I’m playing. And meowing like she’s singing along.
I picked “T-Bone” as her new name because she was a skinny little runt as a kitten. Nothing but bones. She’s not skinny now. She’s a fat little shit who eats about twice as much food as I do. I live mostly on a diet of canned spaghetti sauce, macaroni, and a giant bag of lentils. Lentils are an acquired taste, but I learned to love them. I bought them as a joke once, after I was watching an old episode of The Young Ones. It’s pretty much the only thing I watch, besides A Clockwork Orange, mostly because they’re the only VHS tapes I have. Anyway, “Demolition,” is one of The Young Ones’ episodes where Neil goes on and on about lentils. Lentils are kind of gross. Okay, really gross. But they’re super cheap, which surprisingly helps them taste better. When you have no money, you acquire the taste for shit.
T-Bone, on the other hand, eats only the finest gourmet cat chow. She’s a finicky little jerk. I’m pretty sure two-thirds of my grocery bill goes to feeding her. And how does she repay me? By tearing up my couch. What can I say? Love is funny that way.
Yeah, I know. I’m a magician with a black cat. I’m a walking goddamn cliché.
My upstairs neighbor pounds on his floor. The bass must be too loud again. I yell “Fuck you” back up at him, but he just pounds louder. I’ve met him a couple times, and he’s a jerk. He’s tried to get me thrown out of my apartment. He’s some office worker who makes plenty of money, but he’s part of the wave of well-off assholes trying to raise the rents and gentrify my block. He’d love to see all the trash like me taken out.
I start playing again. A flurry of pinging notes leaps out of the high strings. T-Bone stops mutilating my couch long enough to lick herself with her little pink tongue. Then she turns her head, fixes her big green eyes on mine, and yowls.
Everyone’s a critic.
I’m playing bass all wrong. You’re supposed to stick to the lower strings on the bass. At least that’s what people tell me. And by “people” I mean my bandmates. They’re always complaining at practice about how I don’t play the bass the correct way. That I play way up on the G string too much. That I don’t pay attention to the what the bass drum is doing. That I play too many chords instead of single notes, and that when I do, they’re weird, dissonant chords that clash with Brookes’ guitar.
Clashing, I was forced to remind them, is punk rock. Maybe they’d even heard of a little punk band called, you know, The Clash.
My fingers settle into a circular loop around the twelfth and fourteenth frets. Pick, slide, repeat. Pick, slide, repeat. Pick, slide, repeat. I feel like I’m practicing some kind of self-hypnosis. But not in a bad way. I just feel less jittery when I repeat the same riff on the bass, over and over and over. It just feels right. I get lost in it. New patterns emerge from the riff as I start counting each repetition from a different note, until it all swirls together into some abrasive symphony of structured chaos.
I know my bass playing isn’t technically correct. I don’t give a shit. Punk is about taking what you know and making it work for you. Even if it’s not a lot. Especially if it’s not a lot. Making magic with it only came about by accident a couple years ago, but since then, I’ve tried to let that power flow around my drones and up my arms and through the rest of me. It helps that I play with a pick. I love the sound and resistance the plastic makes when it scrapes the steel of the string. That twang. That attack. My bandmates say I should learn how to play with my fingers instead of a pick. That it sounds less obnoxious that way.
Obnoxious? I hated to break it to them, but last time I checked, there is room in punk for obnoxiousness.
T-Bone falls silent. Her review of my performance is over. She slinks to my makeshift stereo and climbs over a lopsided pile of LPs that are scattered across the floor. Then she curls up into the most adorable ball of black fuzz and immediately falls asleep. My upstairs neighbor ruins this precious moment with a flurry of renewed stomps on my ceiling. My walls rattle. A cloud of powdered plaster falls on T-Bone, waking her up and coating her shiny fur in a dull dusting of white.
That’s the last straw.
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and play harder. I focus and unfocus at the same time. The strings drone. The loops swirl. The the notes shatter into fractals. I can feel the magic course along my nerves and veins like electricity on a wire. Strings of energy streaming from my body, tangling and forming patterns above my head.
The power rises, like heat. It foams as it penetrates the ceiling. Then it’s gone.
My neighbor stops stomping.
Then he starts to scream.
A cold wind blows through my tiny window. It’s set high up in the wall, toward the ceiling, since this is a basement apartment. It looks out on the alley, right next to the overflowing dumpster. The wind brings with it the curdled stink of rotten garbage. The price of low rent, I guess. I get woken up almost every night by some homeless dudes pawing through the dumpster, swearing and breaking bottles. Sometimes they sing drunken songs as the glass crashes against the concrete.
When that happens, I can’t stay mad at them. I mean, come on. That’s about as punk as it gets.
Jason Heller is the author of STRANGE STARS, a book about science fiction’s influence on ’70s music (David Bowie, P-Funk, Hawkwind, Rush, Kraftwerk, Devo, and everything in between). It was published in hardcover and paperback by Melville House Publishing and is available everywhere books are sold. Jason is also the author of the alternate history novel TAFT 2012 (Quirk), the Goosebumps book SLAPPY’S REVENGE (Scholastic), the Pirates of the Caribbean book THE CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW HANDBOOK (Quirk), and numerous short stories in magazines and anthologies. He’s the former nonfiction editor of CLARKESWORLD and won a Hugo Award in 2013 as part of that editing team, and he also penned a chapter of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC (Tor). He’s written about pop culture for THE NEW YORKER, THE ATLANTIC, ROLLING STONE, PITCHFORK, NPR, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, THE A.V. CLUB, and many others. His next two books will be published in 2021: REPEATER, an urban fantasy novel set in the ’90s punk scene (Saga Press) and EXTRATERRESTRIAL SUMMER, a memoir about being a sci-fi-obsessed kid growing up in poverty in the ’80s (Melville House). His most recent band was the post-punk outfit WEATHERED STATUES (Svart Records), and he lives in Denver with his wife. He is represented by Eddie Schneider, Vice President of JABberwocky Literary Agency.
Jason White is an artist living in the suburbs of Chicago. His favorite mediums are oil on canvas and pencil & ink drawings. When he was a kid he cried on the Bozo Show. His work varies from silly to serious and sometimes both. Check out more of his work on Instagram.
Check out Jason Heller’s last Birdy install, 2:30 AM/PM, and Jason White’s April companion artwork to Brian Polk’s, Some Things To Think About, or head to our Explore section to see more work from these talented artists.