Read an Excerpt
Kris sat in the basement, hunched over her guitar, trying to play the beginning of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Her mom had signed her up for guitar lessons with a guy her dad knew from the plant, but after six weeks of playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a J.C. Penney acoustic, Kris wanted to scream. So she hid in the park when she was supposed to be at Mr. McNutt’s, pocketed the $50 fee for the two lessons she skipped, combined it with all her savings, and bought a scratched-to-hell Fender Musicmaster and a busted-out Radio Shack amp from Goldie Pawn for $160. Then she told her mom that McNutt had tried to watch her pee, so now instead of going to lessons Kris huddled in the freezing cold basement, failing to play power chords.
Her wrists were bony and weak. The E, B, and G strings sliced her fingertips open. The Musicmaster bruised her ribs where she leaned over it. She wrapped a claw around the guitar’s neck and pressed her sore index finger on A, her third finger on D, her fourth finger on G, raked her pick down the strings, and suddenly the same sound came out of her amp that had come out of Tony Iommi’s amp. The same chord 100,000 people heard in Philly was right there in the basement with her.
She played the chord again. It was the only bright thing in the dingy basement with its single 40-watt bulb and dirty windows. If Kris could play enough of these, in the right order, without stopping, she could block out everything: the dirty snow that never melted, closets full of secondhand clothes, overheated classrooms at Independence High, mind-numbing lectures about the Continental Congress and ladylike behavior and the dangers of running with the wrong crowd and what x equals and how to find for y and what the third person plural for cantar is and what Holden Caulfield’s baseball glove symbolizes and what the whale symbolizes and what the green light symbolizes and what everything in the world symbolizes, because apparently nothing is what it seems, and everything is a trick.
This was too hard. Counting frets, learning the order of the strings, trying to remember which fingers went on which strings in which order, looking from her notebook to the fretboard to her hand, every chord taking an hour to play. Joan Jett didn’t look at her fingers once when she played “Do You Wanna Touch Me.” Tony Iommi watched his hands, but they were moving so fast they were liquid, nothing like Kris’s arthritic start-and-stop. It made her skin itch, it made her face cramp, it made her want to bash her guitar to pieces on the floor.
The basement was refrigerator cold. She could see her breath. Her hands were cramped into claws. Cold radiated up from the concrete floor and turned the blood inside her feet to slush. Her lower back was stuffed with sand. She couldn’t do this.
Water gurgled through the pipes as her mom washed dishes upstairs, while her dad’s voice sifted down through the floorboards reciting an endless list of complaints. Wild muffled thumps shook dust from the ceiling as her brothers rolled off the couch, punching each other over what to watch on TV. From the kitchen, her dad yelled, “Don’t make me come in there!” The house was a big black mountain, pressing down on Kris, forcing her head into the dirt.
Kris put her fingers on the second fret, strummed, and while the string was still vibrating, before she could think, Kris slid her hand down to the fifth fret, flicked the strings twice, then instantly slid her hand to the seventh fret and strummed it twice, and she wasn’t stopping, her wrist ached but she dragged it down to ten, then twelve, racing to keep up with the riff she heard inside her head, the riff she’d listened to on Sabbath’s second album over and over again, the riff she played in her head as she walked to McNutt’s, as she sat in algebra class, as she lay in bed at night. The riff that said they all underestimated her, they didn’t know what she had inside, they didn’t know that she could destroy them all.
And suddenly, for one moment, “Iron Man” was in the basement. She’d played it to an audience of no one, but it had sounded exactly the same as it did on the album. The music vibrated in every atom of her being. You could cut her open and look at her through a microscope and Kris Pulaski would be “Iron Man” all the way down to her DNA.
Her left wrist throbbed, her fingertips were raw, her back hurt, the tips of her hair were frozen, and her mom never smiled, and once a week her dad searched her room, and her older brother said he was dropping out of college to join the army, and her little brother stole her underwear when she didn’t lock her bedroom door, and this was too hard, and everyone was going to laugh at her.
But she could do this.