I was playing loud jazz in J Street. It was Charlie Parker, I think, or maybe Thelonius Monk. It was bleeding through my earbuds into the static and oppressive silence of that horrible library. Nobody was around to hear it, though; the clock read 3:15 a.m. and by that time most reasonable people had gone home to bed.
A boy in a blue sweater sat opposite me, but he had a pair of heavy headphones on and kept gazing into his screen, which washed his face in a pale blue color. He was eating kale chips, which struck me as obscene at a time and place like this.
I felt my ears beginning to ache and so took my earbuds off. When I did, I noticed a stranger, even wilder kind of jazz coming from outside the library. It was on solo piano and had no discernible key or rhythm at all.
I tried to focus on Paradise Lost—I was on Book V, I remember—but the music continued to irritate me. I looked around at the soft blueness of the cushions and felt the total suspension of the air: nothing in that room moved except my eyes and the fingers of the other boy, tapping constantly on his keyboard. The rattling music of the piano went on and I walked out of that awful library to see what was going on.
On the second floor of Wilcox a man dressed all in white sat banging at the Steinway Grand. He wore a white double-breasted jacket and white cotton pants; on his head sat uncomfortably his tall toque blanche. His black leather shoes, which I saw working the pedals of the piano, at first blended with the dark lacquered wood, but every time he made a sudden change they shone menacingly from under the keyboard. The song he worked on indeed had no key, no rhythm, nothing that sounded at all good, but he pounded the keys like a madman, as if he had reached the end of a long, difficult piece and wanted to provide a suitable climax. He was sweating under his uniform and smelled like mint, or something a little more bitter than mint.
He told me he was Evan O’Donnell, head chef of Butler/Wilson. He looked weathered and cynical, like everyone who has worked at Princeton for ten years or more. His profession was as a chef, of course, but he liked to play piano on the side, sometimes appearing out of nowhere in the jazz clubs of New York and Philadelphia. There are only a few good clubs left, he said sadly; so many have shut their doors to the public forever. Jazz isn’t dead, don’t think it’s dead, it’s barely middle-aged, but these days you have to sneak into the best clubs through trap doors or fire escapes or dark underground tunnels: that’s where they’re playing real jazz. The ghosts of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman are down in those clubs, smoking the cigars of real jazz, he told me. You can get any drink you want and hear the best jazz in the world, if you want. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t have a fake, that I wouldn’t get into those clubs even if I liked jazz, which I didn’t, really. I would listen to it sometimes while doing homework. That was it.
I glanced up at the rough, paneled ceiling, at the pale lights that shone down into the room and blurred everything together. The guy with the blue sweater still sat in J Street, typing away despite the racket. Evan decided to change the topic. He wanted to discuss his professional life, the hard, glorious life of a chef. His biggest project these days, he said, was a big, major recipe, something that they’ve been working on since John Witherspoon and Alexander Hamilton came to campus and that would be ready, perhaps, after another twenty years of hard work by the best chefs in the world. Is it vegetarian? I asked. Don’t be a fucking idiot, he replied coolly. He was still playing the piano at this time, though calming down steadily. This recipe might not be perfection, he said, but it’s definitely the closest food has come so far to being truly sublime. It’s not going to be held back by vegetarianism or veganism or the goddamn Paleo diet or any gluten considerations, which are all purely human considerations and not worth the time of any chef with a modicum of self-respect.
The music kept going, settling into an anxious rhythm that no longer sounded anything like jazz.
Hey, why don’t you raise the lid a little? Evan called out over the musical racket. I grabbed the polished black wood of the lid and lifted it; instantly a cloud of white steam enveloped my face. Inside the piano bubbled the chef’s amazing soup, the broth dripping into the carpet, smelling of garlic and cloves and olive oil. In the roiling waves I saw red and pale yellow fish swimming in great schools, across bass strings and over the hammers lined up along the keyboard. The gleaming fish swung around the curve of the piano’s body and ducked to feast on the algae in bloom beneath the soundboard. Great chunks of meat drifted throughout: chicken, smoking beef, fowl, wolf meat, elephant tusks; along with bananas, Brussels sprouts and noodles; waves of oil, yellow and white, collided and parted and changed. As I looked I saw those wondrous fish chew through the suspended meat, wildly feasting on it and then suddenly dying in terrible spasms. In the space of a few seconds they decomposed: they shed their luminous colors and fell to pieces right before me, to be consumed by more and more fish. Broth flew violently into the air with every chord of Evan’s song.
I gazed for a long time into the soup, then at Evan’s worn red hands. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? he laughed. I looked back into the piano, with the chunks of bleeding meat buffeted by vegetables and fruit, that shitty soup that wasn’t even vegetarian. And I glanced back into J Street, where the kid with the blue sweater was gone, and around at the lonely, empty plastered walls of Wilcox, those walls on which the steam was already condensing.
Drink up! cried Evan in a wild, triumphant voice, and I knew that things, not just at Princeton but around the world, would soon get much worse for everyone.