In her neighborhood, beauty was hard to find.
Celeste lived in an ugly part of Brooklyn in the 1980s because rent was cheap for large artist lofts with long leases. At night, it was a deserted no-man’s land. No trees or flowers grew along the grimy streets.
DUMBO was all industrial then—mills, workshops, and storage facilities with few full-time residents. The buildings formed brick canyons five or six stories tall, towering over the cobblestone roads. File cabinets were manufactured on the bottom floors of her building. Across the way, they printed wallpaper, and there was a custom framer and a doll factory around the corner.
A.I.R. was hand-painted on doors where a handful of artists lived and worked in lofts on upper floors. Celeste was an artist, too, or trying to be one. They all did something else to make a living because there was no money in art. Everybody knew that.
The reek of solvents, garbage, and paint permeated the air. Every few minutes, subway trains thundered across the Manhattan Bridge. Celeste compared it to the sound of the ocean surf. Constant noise pounded, clanked, or blared throughout the streets, ricocheting with such intensity it was impossible to locate the source of any particular sound.
Occasionally, Celeste heard a musician playing lovely refrains that sliced through the racket and caressed her ears. The tunes were often sad and echoed in the concrete walls of her loft long after the last note was played. Sometimes, they were light, joyful. Then they faded quickly.
She looked forward to the melodies. On days he didn’t play, she missed him. She was sure it was a man, but she couldn’t say why. There was clarity in the tone and an extension of the notes that sounded male. Celeste realized it was a clarinet. When she walked her dog, she varied the hour to better determine where the musician was playing. She became obsessed with finding him.
When she was in the third grade, Celeste chose to play the alto sax because her mother played as a teenager and said it was fun. Celeste also had a crush on Billy, the boy down the block who played the sax. It didn’t work out, neither with the sax, nor Billy. She was too short at ten years old to play the saxophone, and after a couple of weeks, she relented and accepted a clarinet instead. She played third clarinet in the orchestra, which was coincidentally seated near the saxophones. Billy, it turned out, wasn’t ready for girls.
She discovered an unforeseen bonus in playing the clarinet. She loved sitting in the center of the orchestra surrounded by the music. Celeste had no ambition to become a skilled musician but strived to be good enough to remain in the orchestra. Sometimes she didn’t play at all and let the mouthpiece rest on her lip, her fingers hovering over the holes. She reveled in the swelling sound as it swirled around her—violins, flutes, brass and timpani. Celeste felt she was swaddled in beautiful music.
One winter night, Celeste and her boyfriend, Ben, trudged home from the grocery store in a blizzard, a foot of snow on the ground and growing. They arrived at Front and Jay Street, which was perpendicular to the East River, and were hit with a blast of snow and wind that nearly blinded them.
“Is this all snow? It smells like smoke.” Celeste lowered her scarf to speak.
“It is smoke. See the flames in those windows?” Ben pointed to the third floor of the building across the street. It was the doll factory.
“There’s a fire call box down a bit.” He pulled the alarm as one of their neighbors rounded the corner from their building on Water Street.
“I smelled something and came to check it out. From my floor, I can see a red glow.”
“We just called it in.” Celeste looked up the hill. “I think I hear the firemen coming.” Red lights flashed and pulsed through the dense wall of falling snow.
The firemen and trucks arrived, setting to work with practiced efficiency. An hour later, they wandered home to warm up and put their food away. They could hear the power hoses dousing the building for hours, and loud rumbles they assumed were floors or walls collapsing. When the wind changed direction, they could smell an acrid burnt odor.
By morning, the snowstorm was over, and 20 inches lay on the ground. Celeste trekked to the corner. The fire was out. The street-facing brick wall of the building had collapsed exposing four floors of disfigured toy parts—doll heads, arms, legs, bodies, shoes, dollhouse furniture. Mounds of burned pastel-colored plastic were heaped on each floor and piled on the sidewalk. The cars parked on the street had become ice sculptures overnight. They wouldn’t be moving anytime soon. A charred smell radiated from the building.
A man in a wrinkled overcoat lingered on the sidewalk, gazing at the destruction, kicking at bits of plastic in the snow. His shoulders were slumped, and he rattled a ring of keys for which there were no doors.
“I’m sorry about your factory,” Celeste said. “The firemen got here quickly and did everything they could. It was a fast-moving fire.”
The man ignored her. She walked to the bodega and bought two coffees. He took one when she offered it and maintained his mute reflection, clutching the cup.
Celeste noticed an object on the edge of the second floor. It was slim and black amongst mounds of burnt fragments. She knew from its length it was a clarinet. The mouthpiece reed ligature, the barrel bands, and the complex assemblage of keys and finger hole rings sparkled in the sunshine where the snow had started to melt away. It must’ve been left there, near the front windows after he last played. Celeste wanted to thank him for the music, but she couldn’t find the right words.
He’d played so beautifully.