Celeste’s room faced onto one of the shafts where small slivers of daylight fell into the wards and treatment rooms. The only light to enter her room appeared like an angel on the wall opposite her bed in the late morning, and as the days grew shorter with the end of summer the time of its arrival crept closer to noon. She grew weary of waiting for the angel of death to well up inside her head. The doctors didn’t have the means to treat her in the north. Her family didn’t have the means to come with her, so they cried and put Celeste on the bus to Toronto. She was going to die alone.
When she arrived, she sat in the edge of her bed and wept. She was still ambulatory. The sisters permitted her to go for walks but with one proviso: if she suffered a headache or any faintness, she had to return immediately to her room. She stood in the lobby off Bond Street in front of the marble Archangel. He was leaning on a staff held in one hand and pointing to heaven with the index finger of the other. “You’d better come up with a pretty good reason for taking my life,” she said to the empty-eyed Michael.
One night, unable to take any more waiting, Celeste walked out into the pouring rain on Victoria Street and at Shuter saw a gathering of people lined up, clutching their coat collars and shuffling into Massey Hall.
Curious, she walked up to the box office window and asked what the show was. The girl behind the round, slatted metal speaker pointed to a poster of Charlie Parker. “SRO only, I’m afraid.” Celeste wasn’t sure what SRO was, but a show was a show and worth the hours she’d be away from her room.
Before Celeste went south to die, her mother and her priest had warned her of the dangers of the big city. Dying in sin, the priest said, would only compound her mortal suffering by bringing the torment of the afterlife. The infractions that would take her straight to hell were boys, chewing gum, and jazz music. She climbed the flights of stairs to the top floor and stood at the brass rail at the back of the auditorium’s gods. She thought for a moment why they called the upper balcony “the gods,” and decided it was both profane and the suggestion that the higher seats were closer to Mount Olympus.
Her hair had gotten soaked during the walk from the hospital to the hall. It dripped down the back of her neck, and she wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her cardigan. “If I die and am damned,” she mused, “I will do it in style coming from the theatre.”
The houselights dimmed. The stage gradually grew bright which reminded Celeste of the way dawn rises over Lake Nipissing. The audience applauded. Parker walked onto the stage followed by the other members of his quartet. He paused for a moment in front of a microphone, acknowledged the audience, and said even though there was a hurricane outside, there’d be a bigger storm inside, and with that his quartet began to play.
The steady rhythm of the drums, the emphatic chords of the piano, and the man on stage with his saxophone – the music reached out and grabbed her so hard she thought her head was going to explode. At first, she thought she should try to get back to the hospital so she wouldn’t die in sin in Massey Hall, listening to Charlie Parker. But she stood still. She felt the notes lifting her, as if she was riding each one on a current of wind. She felt as if she had wings.
Celeste stared at the dusty-looking gold saxophone Parker was playing. Even from a distance she could follow the movement of his fingers, his cheeks billowing and his lips curling around the mouth piece as if every note was a response to the world’s terrible silence. Where was the devil in this, she wondered?
This was music.
The music was alive.
She was alive.
The drummer hunched over this snares and cymbals, picking up a beat and carrying it rapidly until with a final exaltation his sticks came down on the cymbal and the audience applauded.
For the first time in her life, Celeste felt music could be more than just a melody. It was a conversation. Her heart and soul and spine all wanted to join in. She felt a fluttering on the back of her neck, as if touched by soft feathers.
Then she fainted.
The sisters stood over her in their black habits and wimples, their bodices tied up in white aprons. One of them asked whatever was she thinking when she went to hear the Devil’s music.
Celeste looked at them, their eyes stern and unblinking. She told them she had gone to hell and met Jesus.
The sisters put their hands over their mouths and scattered. One nun, an older woman without an apron, returned to set matters straight with Celeste.
“No one ever met Jesus in hell. Jesus was in heaven. He never, ever, went to hell,” the nun told her scoldingly. “Though, maybe once,” the nun recalled. “Yes, he had been there, but just once, and he didn’t hear jazz when he was there. Jesus died to save the wicked from sin, to save sinners from themselves, and to put a stop to the purveyors of sin who seduced young women with their saxophones. He kicked open the doors of hell on the day he was dead and he’d brought out the righteous.”
“Oh, but sister,” Celeste said, “it wasn’t hell. It was heaven. Pure bliss.” The old nun shook her head, stood up, smoothed her habit and began to walk away. She turned to Celeste.
“I will pray for you, my child, but I think you are beyond salvation.”
Celeste slept. As she fell asleep, she prayed the Lord would deliver her from a brief, unfulfilled life of pain and send her back to where she was certain she saw heaven in the grace note of a song Parker called “Ornithology.”
Just before she closed her eyes, an orderly came into her room to empty her garbage pail. He looked young. He said he was a student. When she asked what ornithology was, he told her it was the study of birds. That was how people who climbed the stairway to the gods had spoken of Parker. He was the Bird. She had glimpsed the wings of a bird, perhaps an angel, and its wings had brushed the back her neck.
When she woke the rain had passed over the city and even the light shaft in the middle of the hospital was glistening. The nuns who came and went in her room were talking about the storm. It had been named Hazel. Celeste had never realized storms had names. It was not merely any rain, but a hurricane, as Parker had said, and the storm had blown parts of Toronto off the map.
A prayer took shape in her mind. God comes in the wind. God comes in the rage of hard rain. God knows what to do with water. He sorts the high water from the low water, the bass from the sax. God blows hard and makes the doors leave their hinges. God is the music that pulls at the trees, tears at the roof, broadens the rivers. God saw her lying on the floor in the darkness long before those beside her bent down and motioned to the ushers for help.
The doctor appeared at the foot of her bed. While she was unconscious she had been rushed into the x-ray room.
Someone had looked inside her head.
Someone had read her thoughts.
Someone might have glimpsed the threshold of heaven as she was walking toward it in her darkness.
He held a chart in his hands.
He shook his head.
He said he didn’t know what happened but that she should be thankful she had experienced a miracle. The tumour, a large growth that appeared the day before as a dark hole in her mind and soul was gone. She had been cured. She could go. He warned her to stay out of jazz halls, but as he turned to leave he stopped and asked if Bird was every bit as good as they say he is?
“He gives music wings,” she said.
All the way home to North Bay on the bus through Gravenhurst and Powassan her mind kept returning to the moment when she felt a fluttering on the back of her neck. What had it been? When she spoke to a man on the bus who had come all the way from North Bay to see Parker, he told her that Bird’s favorite haunt in New York was a place called Birdland. If she got a job and saved enough money, she would go to New York. She got a job in the local department store and began to save her money, but instead of going to New York, she married the young man she had met on the bus. In the apartment over a hairdresser’s shop, they would play Parker’s records and dance together until they were exhausted. One night, her husband lifted her up and they both came down together on the floor. Only Celeste stood up.
“What was Parker like?” her son Ron asked as he sat with his mother on the final night of her life.
“Well dressed,” said Celeste.
“What colour was his suit?”
“Dark grey, like the other three in his band. They wore black ties. Their shoes were polished to mirrors. They looked better than any North Bay banker.”
Celeste had intestinal cancer, nothing to do with the head. She found the thought amusing. She asked Ron to play a cassette tape she had brought with her to the hospital for her final days before the flickering consciousness of morphine set in to send her off mercifully.
“Had the crowd at Massey Hall talked over Parker the night she was there?”
“No,” she said, “no one was talking. Smoke was thick in the balcony because in those days you could smoke in the loges of a theatre, but the cigarettes only added an extra dimension of holiness to the moment. The air was purified as if by a censer.”
Was she overcome by the smoke?
“No,” she said again.
“Did you feel you were cheating on God by being there?”
“No. I was not cheating on God, and no, I will never renounce jazz either.”
He asked what had entered her mind just before she passed out.
“Have you ever been startled by a bird? Have you ever been sitting in someone’s house and their budgie gets out of his cage and you don’t realize he’s flying around until he lights on the back of your neck? Put it on,” she said, and together they listened to the Best of Charlie Parker.
“Maybe, miracles do second chances,” she whispered.
As the music began to play, Ron realized this was probably the last time his mother would hear Parker. He felt an urgency to ask her questions, a reverse catechism to satisfy his curiosity. And as he began to ask more questions, she mouthed a “Shhh. Listen,” as her last words.
In the background of most of the tracks on the cassette, Ron could hear the sound of people talking over Parker in the Birdland lounge as if he was a sidebar to their evening out in New York. The great Charlie Parker was playing, and people were talking. They didn’t know any better.
His fingers ran to the very top of the stops, and he hit and held a high note that seemed to last forever.
The night she saw him in Toronto, Celeste could not stop staring.
She hadn’t stared that long at anything since she was a girl. There was an icon of the Virgin she had to kneel before to do penance in detention after school. Celeste thought the Mother of God was very beautiful, and the longer she stared at her the more the Virgin seemed to move and try to say something.
The next day Celeste told one of the nuns that the image seemed to move and wanted to speak to her and the sister looked horrified and struck Celeste’s fingers ten times on each hand with a metal-edged ruler. But she knew she had seen a God who lay hidden behind the fears in this world when the light struck that one tiny spot on Parker’s sax that he had not dusted down to repel the glare off its brass. In that flash, she saw a star as if it glowed through a storm, through the rage and sadness in God’s heart, a star that burst into an explosion of light, just for an instant, brighter than anything in the sky.
Celeste knew, at that moment, the divine lives here and now, alive among all the creatures of the world that feel the magic of a heart’s rhythm. And as Parker hit that high note, when his saxophone spoke, it was not a scream or a cry of pain, but a note as clear and perfect as the answer to a prayer.
Bruce Meyer is author of several books of short fiction and poetry. In September, Guernica Editions will publish his next collection of poetry, McLuhan’s Canary, and in 2020 will publish a volume of essays on his work and a collection of flash fiction, Down in the Ground. He lives in Barrie, Ontario.
More of his works:
Elizabeth Taylor, Literary Review of Canada