in the closet




At three different times in a thirty-year period, she hides from life’s difficulties in her grandparents’ closet, where she ruminates about life and death, longs for her lost mother, and finds strength in the world of art.

In the first part, she takes refuge in the closet while her grandparents party downstairs. Her grandfather, a piano-tuner, plays Thelonious Monk’s records, and she immerses her ten-year-old girl body in Monk’s jazz, while dreaming of her mother’s return.

Fast-forward ten years, now twenty years old, she sequesters herself after her grandmother’s funeral, while her grandfather sits shiva downstairs. Devastated by her death, she ruminates about her librarian-grandmother’s reverence for the poet Emily Dickinson.

In the third part: before selling her grandparents’ house, the thirty-year-old narrator takes refuge in the same closet. She laments the deaths of her grandmother, grandfather, and mother. She muses about her mother’s bohemian artist lifestyle and her favorite photographer, Diane Arbus, and finally understands why her mother abandoned her when she was ten.


In the closet, she layered herself in threads. Threads of her childhood. Threads of her grandparents. Threads of her mother and father. She covered herself with a cape and she wandered through the closet as if she were roaming the night under a bed of white stars. She wore a mask. She covered her face with a new face, a ten-year-old girl’s face that smiled that stretched that glowed underneath a face marred by night. She layered herself in new skin, skin she pinched and pulled and tightened and loosened, layering herself in time.

The night turned to day and even in the closet she felt the moment when the lightness of day overpowered the darkness of night and she listened to his Monkisms, his whole runs, his scales based on whole steps, his fingers at work, his voice groaning, moaning, and humming solfeggio sounds—all the while black musicians were paid less than white musicians.

She layered herself in his chord cluster, his descending chromatic chord progression—all the while white cops feared black men were having sex with white women. She layered herself in his melodic lines competing with countermelodies, the melodic line turning on itself, the Monk’s line obscure and rooted to the melody while filling in space with intricate runs—all the while the circulation of his tunes with no credit to his name, his frustration, no royalties, no jobs.

She layered herself in his exploitation of the entire range of the keyboard, more breathing space between the Monk’s spasmodic notes, his piano orchestral, embodying all the elements of an entire band. Thelonious Monk, a composer, an improviser, an arranger, his 1,000-pound black piano an orchestral instrument. The Monk’s pull.

“His push and his pulling a sound out of the piano in a way others could not—the unpredictable,” her grandfather said.

She layered herself in the Monk’s repeating octave and triplets, the Monk’s fingers inside it and outside it, the Monk’s tonepoem inside it and outside it, the austere and sober sound, his fingers dancing all over the keyboard expressing his fertile imagination and then the pause.

The deep silent pause. His fingernail clicking an ivory-white key.

She layered herself in the knowledge that Monk’s wife Nellie cut his fingernails in the kitchen of Minton’s and on other days when he did not play.

Nellie began to juice. Juiced Monk bananas and oranges and strawberries and lemons. Juiced him to cleanse the drugs, the empty stares, the memory loss. Juiced him pears and coconuts and pineapples and kiwis. Juiced him blackberries and blueberries and a hint of vanilla. The noise of the Hamilton juicer drove Monk crazy.

In the end, Nellie juiced Thelonious and his friends and the Monk moved out, moved in with Nica. His fairy godmother, his benefactress, his patroness. Moved out across the Hudson to Weehawken, New Jersey, at 63 Kingswood Road on the second floor. Moved into Nica’s home with one hundred cats roaming downstairs. In the end for two years Monk dressed every day in a suit and tie and lay on his bed in silence. Lay indifferent. Lay on top of a bed in permanent retreat. Lay close to heaven. Lay across from his New York City with hands crossed at his groin. A piano twenty feet away that he refused to play.

In the end, Nellie was grateful to Nica who paid the bills. In the end Timemagazine implied, Nica, a white woman was the black man’s salvation. In the end, in the closet at 2:40 a.m., at the end of the party she knew every man needed a woman like Nellie who juiced. Her grandfather had her grandmother. Her grandmother had been juicing her grandfather for forty years.

In the end, she listened to the Monk fade, his run slow down, his shift in mood, his euphoria and depression, his frenetic fingers, and his volatile soul die down at the end of the song when the morning light burst and froze the time together in the closet with the Monk as the most celebrated time of her ten-year-old life. In the end, she layered the threads of her childhood as a blanket of innocence and love. She closed her eyes, curled into a ball, and fell into a deep sleep.