It would be more difficult to slip in the blue notes once the funeral started. No one paid any attention in the minutes before: they thought she was practicing, though she wasn’t. While they sat still and quiet with their thoughts, she would slip off her shoes and pedal the cold brass with her bare feet, giving them a seventh, a ninth, a little trill up to an impertinent E flat, or something to think about at the deep end. And nobody ever noticed.
But once the pallbearers wheeled the casket in – on a little extendo-cart; nobody “bares” anything these days – she would her wide heels back on, and sit on her hands, just in case. The priest would intone the opening, the first sniffles riffle through the front rows. Then she would play the hymns they were used to, the psalms they expected.
She sang too, beautifully enough. She didn’t have a strong voice, she stubbed her toes on the high notes, but she tilted her head and stared straight into the page, and sang for them.
On instrumental songs she would forget the page altogether, stare through it, through the piano, even, past its wires and its hammers and try to feel in the chords all the rich clay of human emotion, to give them the softness of flesh and that quiet intent that turns simple breath into sighs.
The priest would intone again and again she would slip her hands beneath her seat, and wait. She would watch him lose focus, mix his metaphors, stretch a new vignette to hide an old cliché. Death is the greatest cliché, and the oldest, she’d come to think. And she would wonder then how Thelonius might have played a funeral – if he would add “Crepuscle with Nellie” while the family wandered out, like a cloud stretched to breaking on the great loom of the sky, and then tossed down, anywhere, its threads unraveled. And would he take a solo during the eulogy, or get up and spin around, his arms out – would he play like only God could hear?
She would watch the mourners. She could recognize faces, now; the same extended family, all Italians, the old ones drawn with hard lines, as if by some timid caricaturist. A whole generation of men, gone now. The women clung on, with permanent bags now under their eyes, and their sons grew serious, and fumbled with the buttons on their suits.
And then she’d begin to push and prod – a little extra sustain, there, a little extra wrist, or the sixth that no one ever noticed.
Playing two funerals a week was the opposite of jazz; and the reason for it, too.
What did I do to be so black and blue?
And then the incense would rise, lazy mushroom puffs following the clink of the gold chain, a heavy pocketwatch from the old days, and she’d feel a waiter move behind her, carrying a high tray of gin and tonics.
She’d really stretch out during the handshake and sad smiles section – everyone was too busy waiting, judging, wondering whether to reach across the aisle, or the second row, how much of a fuss to make, they’d see each other at the reception anyway. And she’d risk it: a hint of dissonance.
And then somber, sonorous, Southern chords to lead them away.
Someone would come and hand her an envelope, usually one hundred and sometimes one hundred and fifty, as a tip.
She did play her best for them. Or at least, she was willing, if they would ever let her.
The suit-coated ministers, usually retired janitors or county workers, doing their service to the priest and the cross, would be the last to leave. Then, in the carpeted stillness, she’d slip off her heels, pedal the cold brass, and start slowly, because still, in the empty church, there was the faint scent of incense and the memory of respect. It was never easy to begin, but before long she’d pull on all the fresh memories of sounds, syncopate the sniffles and the sobs, and finally she’d smile; it was all part of the grieving process. Then she would worry the white keys and hit hard on the black, trying to surprise the piano, herself, and practice transubstantiation on the score. To find that sensus divinatis they made such a fuss about.
Aidan Ryan is a Buffalo-born freelance writer living in Edinburgh. You can find out more on his website.