Trouble Bass

0705 - Trouble BassFor years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

Kids dared each other to climb the porch steps and knock on the door on Halloween. The light was always on, its bare bulb illuminating the peeling paint of the screen door and the rusty hinge that kept it mostly shut.

But no one ever took the challenge.

Still, if a soul was brave enough to slow their steps of an evening, they’d have heard sounds from within the old house that might have changed their minds. For after dark, there were warm lights behind those watching windows, and if the wind was just right, a person who paid attention could catch the sound of old jazz – acoustic jazz – seeping out from the cracks in the floorboards and the gaps in the siding.

The bassline was always most prominent.

When Sherry and her family moved into the house next door, that bass was the first thing she heard. Her bedroom window overlooked the neighboring back yard, and she could see a covered patio lined with colored Christmas lights, and smell the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco.

Often, she could hear men talking and laughing. She could tell by their voices, their accents, the way they spoke, that they were black, that they were older, that they were from the South, and that they were musicians, but she could never discern specific words. When the laughter stopped, the music would begin.

So many nights, Sherry would lose herself in that music, letting it distract her from the sounds of her parents fighting downstairs, or, later, from the sound of her mother crying in frustration and desperation, after her father had stormed out yet again, or come home drunk and violent, or finally left forever.

Sometimes, Sherry was half convinced her unseen neighbor and his friends played extra-loud on the really bad nights, just for her.

The music went on all through her middle- and high school years. She always meant to go and knock on the door, bring a batch of cookies (everyone liked cookies, right? And she was a decent baker) and thank him (she was certain it was a him) for the music.

But she never did.

One late-autumn weekend, home from college for the traditional doing of the masses of laundry on Mom’s dime, Sherry sensed a change in the old house.

Sure, it had always been a little bit raggedy, but now, the windows felt empty, the grass was too tall, and that night, there was no talking, no laughter… no music.

The next morning, she layered herself in turtlenecks and flannel and climbed the three cement steps to the front porch and knocked.

She wasn’t expecting a response.

She was half-certain her neighbor had died, and since she’d never bothered to meet him, no one would have thought to tell her. Or her mother.

But a rustling sound came from within, and a man with white hair and dark, weathered skin, opened the door.

“I’m your neighbor,” Sherry said. “I’m Sherry.”

“‘Bout time you came,” the old man said. “Played for you for so long… never a peep. I knew you’d come if I stopped. We’ve been expecting you.”

“I’m sorry?” Sherry said.

“Nothin’ to be sorry about. Just follow me.” And he turned and shuffled back into the house.

Inside, it was just as shabby as outside, but it was also somehow warm and cozy. “That’s Pete,” the old man said. “This here’s Milt, Ron, Joe, and Mona.” He introduced her to a circle of older people, all aged, all with skin and hair like his, all holding instruments. “My hands can’t pluck the strings anymore,” he said. “But yours… yours are young. You can learn.”

“But I’m an economics major,” Sherry protested.

“Economics is what you do. Music is what you are. Today you’re a trouble bass player.”

Trouble bass?”

“Yup. Iff’n you play for nice folks in clubs, it’s double bass, but when you play for the people who need to hear it, need it to keep their hearts whole, it’s trouble bass.”

“So, you were playing for me, all these years?”

“As if you didn’t know.”

“I should have come sooner.”

“Nope. You came when you were ready. Like I said, it’s about time. Now, come here.” And he put his instrument, honey-brown and warm from care and love, in front of Sherry, and helped her place her hands. “Good thing you’re a tall girl.”

For Sherry, learning to play the bass was a sort of homecoming. All the music she’d listened to growing up finally had a place to go, and her fingers – fingers that usually clicked pens or absently tapped on paper – finally had a healthy means of expression.

The old man never shared his name. Only his music. Sherry just called him Mr. Bass Man, or, when she was particularly exasperated with him, Trouble.

Eventually, she took her place – his place – in the circle of players, laughing with them and talking. They shared their histories and she shared hers and it was as if cultures were being bridged in between riffs and licks and improvised melodies.

Trouble breathed his last breath a few days after Sherry graduated.

She was surprised to learn that he had a son – a doctor. He came to close up the house, get it ready to sell. In a romance novel, the two of them would have found a connection, fallen in love, and made music together to honor the old man.

But it wasn’t a romance.

She inherited Trouble’s bass.

His friends dispersed after the funeral.

And Sherry?

Sherry formed a pickup jazz ensemble among the accountants and other eggheads she worked with in the big city. Her condo had a covered patio, and she lined it with fairy lights and invited them to come and eat and drink and laugh and play.

They called themselves Numbers Game.

Cut a few albums.

Played gigs in schools.

Sherry got letters from kids who said their music made them feel safe. That they listened to her walking bass lines when they walked home at night and felt like someone was walking with them. That the music helped put their troubles in a safe place.

She knew that at some point some kid would find her, and she’d have to teach them what she knew.

But until then, Sherry plucked her fingers on the strings of the trouble bass, and found peace.

For years, the house had been rumored to be haunted. It was the one that always seemed neglected. It wasn’t tall or imposing – just a post-war bungalow, like half the houses in the neighborhood, but there was something off about it. The grass was always a touch too long, the shingles too shabby, the windows… when you walked by at dusk or after, it was as if there was something watching from behind them.

But if a person paid attention. If a person really listened… they could hear it, coming from the back yard, or maybe from the kitchen on rainy nights… the sound of a walking bass line, thumping its solidity through the darkened streets, guiding them safely home.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Trouble Bass by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One thought on “Trouble Bass

Comments are closed.