Across my five-hundred-ten square foot apartment on the twenty-third floor of an early-1980s utilitarian building at the southern end of the Bronx come a few staccato chirps and whistles of the American goldfinch that now resides with me. His name is Charlie.
I open my eyes. I'm in bed. On the ceiling above me there is a faint crack in the plaster. It starts about an inch from the wall straight above my right shoulder and then winds its way in a jagged pattern toward the center of the room, where it disappears briefly behind the light fixture. The light fixture is frosted glass and has a seashell pattern of grooves that start in the middle and make their way toward the edge. It has four bulbs, but only three are working. The fourth burned out months ago. I've been meaning replace it.
I‘m breathing hard. There is a familiar crackling sound in my trachea that reaches all the way into my lungs. I reach for the inhaler on the bedside table, put it between my lips, and press down on the cannister, pulling deeply.
From the other side of the light fixture, the crack reemerges and meanders its way to the far wall. In places, little bits of plaster have chipped slightly and a few of them hang precariously, attached only by layers of old paint in various neutral colors: off-white, light beige, dark grey. Little glimpses into the lives of past tenants.
Sometimes, during the hours that I lie here tracing the crack, I wonder whether I could pry the ceiling open and just climb out of here, get up on the rooftop - even though I know there are another eleven stories above me - and fly away. Mostly, though, I think about how discordant, how out of tune, my life has become.
I roll onto my side. It is mid-afternoon, but I have not yet gotten myself dressed. The door to the small closet in my room is ajar, and inside it I can see the outline of the hard, black case with the maroon velvet interior that holds my saxophone. I should get it out today, practice a bit, maybe download some sheet music and learn something new.
Charlie is named for Charlie Parker, also known as Birdman, aka Sparrow, aka Yardbird, aka, simply, The Bird. He, meaning Charlie the bird, is bright yellow with midnight swooshes down the length of each wing. He is small, no bigger than a few ounces. His beak is a shiny lacquered-looking black. It is short and sharp at the end. He can bite with that beak, as I learned during those first days after Charlie arrived, and when he does, it hurts. He was an early Christmas present from my parents, the sort of thing that only someone who has the space of a midwestern suburban ranch house would think to buy someone as a gift. Charlie came with a note from my mom saying that I sounded lonely the last time we spoke on the phone, and that she hoped he would cheer me up. His cage is round at the bottom and is made of vertical metal wires, which taper as they rise and collide at the top in a bullet shape common to birdcages in old Tom and Jerry cartoons or the images of French café posters.
Charlie lets out a few more chirps in the key of D major. Or maybe it’s B minor. It ends in a melancholy three note melody, which Charlie sings twice.
I wasn’t supposed to play the saxophone. What, with my asthma and all. My parents tried their best to steer me towards something they felt was better suited to my abilities. For years I took piano lessons from a woman named Mrs. Jenkins, who wore thick framed plastic glasses and had her hair in a bun and was partial to flower-patterned dresses. Then there was violin. I liked that well enough, but it wasn’t good for what I wanted to do, which was play jazz. I worshipped the horn players: Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong. My favorite record was Bird and Diz. I played that record until it hissed and the grooves wore too deep and the sound went flat.
When I was ten, I put my foot down, and my parents relented and rented a basic alto saxophone from the shop on the other side of the town where they still live. I taught myself how to breathe, when to fill my cheeks, how to sip the air gently into my lungs, and, importantly, when in each piece of music there would be a chance to take a quick hit from my inhaler. I got to be decent, eventually, got into Juilliard, put out an album that got some flattering reviews, picked up a few regular gigs that paid the bills, got an apartment on the twenty-third floor with a view of the wall of the neighboring building. Even on a bright day in the middle of summer, the light that manages to make its way into my apartment is diffuse, lacking in rhythm and form.
Through the thin walls of my apartment, I can hear my neighbor. I’ve never properly met the guy, even though we used to walk past each other in the hallway at least once a day. He’s a few years older than me. His hair is thinning. Sometimes I would give him an impersonal head nod or a brief wave if I happened to catch him standing outside his door fiddling with his keys. He is on his three o’clock conference call, which I’ve learned takes place on weekdays, with the exception of Tuesday, when it starts at two-thirty. He is in sales, I think. Or maybe it’s logistics of some sort. It’s something with a lot of acronyms, at least. I can’t practice now. I wouldn’t want to bother him - my neighbor. It will have to wait. And then it might be close to dinner time, so that will be too late. I’ll practice tomorrow. Definitely.
At the beginning, there was something a little bit thrilling. I mean, we all knew that it was tragic, of course, especially as rumors started to circulate that friends had gotten sick. At the club, someone would say something like: “Benny. You know who he is. Older guy. Bartender at the Blue Lagoon, the one who makes the really good Manhattan. He was admitted to the hospital a few days ago. He’s not doing so great. I heard they intubated him.” And then the other person would nod solemnly because even by then we knew what that meant – to be intubated.
Then the jazz clubs closed by order of the city. So did the restaurants and coffee shops where a musician who needed to make an extra few hundred bucks to pay rent could pick up a gig or two.
Still, there was comfort in the communal experience. At seven o’clock every night, my neighbors and I would crack open our windows the six inches allowed by building codes and ordinances and whatnot, and we would bang pots and pans together and yell words of encouragement and hoot and holler for the doctors and the nurses and maybe sing the Star Spangled Banner or something, and I would provide accompaniment. We thought it would last a month, max, and then the world would go back to normal and the jazz clubs would reopen, and Benny would come out of the hospital and make me one of his Manhattans, and we would say, "well, that was pretty scary," and then I would get back on stage and we would all go about our lives.
The inhaler is doing its job. The crackling stops. I half sit up in bed and look across the room at Charlie. He is swaying back and forth on the little metal swing that is the sole feature in his cage. The swing squeaks as it passes the low point in its arc. The squeak is an F sharp. He let’s out a few more forlorn chirps. I see that his little dispenser of birdseed is empty. I’ll have to get up and refill it.
Everything went into full lockdown at the end of March. We readjusted our expectations. “Surely,” we said to one another, but with less certainly than before, “surely we’ll be back to normal by the beginning of summer. It can’t possibly go longer than that.”
Then Benny died, and the Blue Lagoon, which is where Benny had worked for the better part of the last four decades, hosted an online memorial service for him, and a bunch of the musicians who played on the small stage at the Blue Lagoon attended and some of the older cats told stories about Benny, about how he refused to serve drinks that came with any sort of fruit except for a single maraschino cherry or how he once kicked a couple of German tourists out of his bar for talking during a set by Wynton Marsalis. More people got sick. Signs went up in the elevator of my building telling people to wash their hands and wear masks. The hospitals filled up and they brought in refrigerator trucks to act as makeshift morgues. The seven o’clock banging of pots and pans and cheering out the window and smiling across the way at your neighbor you’ve never met but who seems like maybe the type of person you could be friends with gradually got quieter. Then it stopped altogether. I put my saxophone in its hard, black case with the velvet maroon interior and slid it into the closet.
I gather up my strength and push the covers and sheets off my body. I swing my feet off the bed and put them down on the hardwood floor, which creaks as I stand up. It is cold in the apartment. I’ve turned the heat down to sixty-four degrees to try to save a little bit of money. I take four steps into my kitchen and open the cabinet where I keep Charlie’s birdseed, then I carry the bag another three steps to where the birdcage sits near the single window in my apartment, and I fill up the dispenser.
For a while, Charlie really did lift my spirits. He sang ditties in up-tempo major keys, and once or twice I picked up my saxophone and we improvised and experimented for a few bars. I had no idea how to take care of him, but I learned. Which birdseed he preferred, when to refill his water, how to clean his droppings from the metal pan that slid from the bottom of his cage. For a while he seemed happy too, but over the past few weeks, as the days have grown both intolerably and mercifully short, his singing has become sporadic and melancholy. He still bounces manically around his cage, but it seems now like an act of desperation. The single flap of his wings taking him from one side of the cage to the other. Back and forth. Mostly, though, he rocks gently on the little metal swing that creaks an F sharp note.
By now, we’ve adjusted our expectations so many times we’ve lost count. The jazz clubs still aren’t open, and none of us dares venture a guess as to when they will because we don’t want to jinx it. It has been ten months since I've left this apartment. My asthma makes me part of what they call a high risk population. I know every nook and cranny of this apartment's surfaces, every faint crack in the ceiling plaster. The little rug between the window and my bed is worn thin from my pacing.
Charlie sings his melancholy three-note melody again, and then stops. I hunch down a little bit. We are now at eye level. “What’s the matter, Charlie Parker?” I ask. “Not in the mood to make music?” He repeats his sad little song, the three notes drawn out and tied together. Legato, as we musicians say. “I know, Birdman, you don’t like being cooped up like this." He keeps swinging. He doesn't appear at all interested in the seed I've given him. "Time for a change of scenery,” I say. I pick up the heavy birdcage and place it on the windowsill. Bracing the cage with my knee, I crack open my twenty-third story window the six inches that are allowed by city ordinances.
“What do you say we blow this joint, Birdman?” I say in an exaggerated jazzman-type voice. Then I rotate the cage so that its little wire door is facing my open window. “Go make beautiful music.” He lets out one last chirp. Then, without a second glance, Charlie the bird flies away.