THE WEIGHT OF THE UNIVERSE
O, gravity, weighing on my soul
Keeps bringing you round back to me
Like dirt to a stone
O, gravity, don’t you ever go to sleep
You might wake up one morning
Find her gone from your reach.
—Joe Bonamassa, Oh, Beautiful
“So, Mags, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Oh god, this is going to be good,” laughed Meteor Mags. “What’s on your mind, Captain Inquisitive?”
“Well, it’s just – you seem pretty human, you know?”
“Gee, thanks, dear. It’s part of my image.” Mags lit a cigarette and stood up. “Tarzi,” she said, exhaling, “is this about my tail?”
“Busted,” sighed Tarzi.
“Rekt! You are soooo easy to read sometimes.” Mags leaned back against the console, her skirts spilling over it. She curled her tail up and around her right wrist. She pet it lightly a few times with her left hand, taking care not to singe the fur with her cigarette.
“Hey, I mean it’s cool and all, it’s not like…”
Mags leaned forward and eyed Tarzi mischievously. “Are you saying you LIKE my tail, young man?”
“LOL yeah, I guess. But I mean, how do you get something like that? I mean are you part cat, or… Oh, bollocks, I don’t even know how that would work!” Tarzi fished about in his jacket pocket for a pack of smokes. Mags held out her pack to him.
“Before your imagination runs wild, dear, I am going to tell you a little secret. No one knows WHAT the fuck I am! Ha ha ha!” Mags shook her curls into place and stood up to look out the window. “You see, Tarzi, my mother was human, and so was my dad. Neither of them had tails. And frankly, it was not always the funnest thing in the world being the only girl in town with a tail!” Mags took a drag and looked out to the stars.
“See,” she continued, “the eggheads never figured out just what I am. They had their theories, but… well, I had them working on other things, and it just never got sorted.”
“You’re saying you hired scientists to figure out… what you are?”
“Not exactly. I hired them to create anti-gravity! The genetics was a bit of a sideline.”
Tarzi leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. “Anti-gravity?”
“Auntie Gravity! LOL. That’s what some of them called me, anyway. They were working on it for so frickin’ long, we were like family.”
Tarzi chuckled. “You totally look my dear old auntie, Mags.”
“Ha ha ha! I am sure I look nothing like her.” Mags turned and pointed her finger at Tarzi. “But YOU are old enough to be my nephew!”
“Don’t start with me!”
Tarzi leaned back and smiled. “Auntie! Face it, it’s your new nickname.”
Mags laughed ruefully. “You are so wrong. In so many ways! But listen, do you have any idea who really invented the GravGens?” Mags looked intently at Tarzi. “Or do you just know the official version?”
Tarzi met her gaze. He peered into her eyes, visible over the rims of her glasses as she leaned her head forward. Tarzi had not yet learned how to tell when she was pulling his leg or not. “Mags, if you invented the GravGens, what are we doing ripping off shipping lanes and selling fags to the poor blighters in the Belt? You should be bloody rich and retired by now!”
“How charmingly bourgeoisie of you! Can you imagine me sitting around all day on a pile of money with nothing to do?”
“Ha! I guess not. But…”
“Listen,” said Mags, glancing over the navigation panel. “We got a couple hours to kill before there’s any action. Why don’t we start at the beginning?”
“Damn right. So,” said Mags, taking her seat once more and kicking her boot heels up on the console, “once upon a time, in 1965, I had this idea to throw a party.” Patches mewed and jumped up into Mags’ lap.
“Okay wait,” Tarzi interrupted. “1965? That was like… Mags, just how old are you anyway?”
“You are NEVER going to get a girlfriend if you keep asking questions like that!”
“Sorry.” Tarzi rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Fact of the matter is, my darling nephew, I am a hell of a lot older than you think! Now shush and listen.” Mags brushed her bangs back from her face. “Auntie Mags is going to tell you a story about how I got the idea for the GravGens. And it starts in France, in 1965, when me and my dear friend Celina decided to throw a party at Gramma’s house. Once upon a time…”
FRANCE: July, 1965
“Hey, guys!” Meteor Mags skidded to a stop a meter from the four musicians. She turned the tip of her roller skate to the ground and stretched out her arms. “Welcome to France!”
The musicians looked up from their bags and gear on the landing strip. Mags stood before them in her custom leather skates that reached up to her knees. Above their polished black shine, her thigh-high socks alternated thick black bands with sets of smaller bands made from all the colors of the rainbow. Her black skirt shimmered lazily in the breeze. A rainbow-striped shirt exposed her mid-riff. It did little to hide the cascade of black stars tattooed over her arms and chest. The sun seemed to shine brighter behind her. The musicians turned their heads to look at each other. Who is this girl? And – does she have a tail?
Mags shook her mane of black curls, smiling her biggest smile and happily chomping on bubblegum. To the cab driver on the other side of the band, she said, “Hey, hang on a minute. I gotta talk to these guys.” The driver took one look at her and continued loading the bags into his car.
“Hey, I said cool it, cabbie!”
Just then, Celina rolled up besides Mags. She planted her skates firmly and elbowed Mags in the ribs. “Be nice!”
“Cut it out, convict!” laughed Mags, slapping at Celina’s arm.
“Tell them about the party!”
“Oh yeah! Monsieur Coltrane. Messieurs Jones, Tyner, and Garrison. Welcome to France! Will you come and play at our party?”
“Trane, who is this chick?” asked Tyner.
Coltrane set a bag back onto the concrete and slowly stood up. “Well, let’s find out. Hi. My name is John. Comment ca va?”
“Bien, merci,” beamed Mags. “It really is an honor to meet all of you. My name is Mags, and this is my best friend, Celina.”
Celina smiled and waved. “We’re huge fans,” she said.
“A pleasure,” said Coltrane. The members of the band nodded and smiled, still not sure what to think of the rainbow roller girl and her friend.
“Listen,” said Mags, “we know you have a couple free nights before the Antibes show. And I know you’d love to take the night off, but if you come and play for us tonight, you can all stay on my Gramma’s estate. You get your own rooms, we have a kitchen staff on call twenty-four hours a day, and, well, not to brag or anything, but it’s a pretty awesome pad!”
Coltrane rubbed his chin with his fingers, considering, and turned to look at his band mates. “Trane,” said Garrison, “we already have our rooms booked at the hotel.”
“Got a lot of shows to play, already, too,” said Jones.
“Don’t worry about the rooms, guys. Gramma owns that hotel. We will get them sorted. Believe me, the rooms at Gramma’s are…”
“Your gramma owns our hotel?”
Mags smiled. Celina added, “Did Mags mention we were offering to pay you for playing for us? In addition to putting you up for a couple days.”
“How much?” asked Tyner.
“Well, the girls and I pooled our money, and we came up with ten thousand dollars. Would that be enough?”
Trane squinted his eyes and appraised Mags for a moment, quietly.
“Guys, I got the nicest estate in France and it’s filled with jazz-crazed young ladies that are dying to throw a party for ya. You don’t gotta do anything you don’t want to do, and no one is going to hassle you.” Mags blew a bubble and popped it. “What do you say?”
The cabbie had grown impatient with this garish hippie who appeared to be stealing his passengers from him. Still loading bags into the car, he sternly told her, “Cesser d’importuner mes clients! J’étais ici en premier!”
Mags waved her hand in the air and did her best to answer. “Ne pas obtenir vos… vos culottes… vos culottes dans une torsion, chauffeur!”
The cabbie frowned and dropped the bags. He placed one hand on his hip and shook his finger at her. “Fermez votre bouche, hippie putain!”
“What did you just call me?” Mags asked furiously. “Aller… aller…” She stammered. Mags had never mastered French the way she had Spanish. “Aller avaler une bite! Vous abusez des chèvres à naître!
“Mags!” Celina interrupted. “We are making first impressions on visitors!”
“Oh yeah,” chuckled Mags. “Can you get this guy sorted, Celina? I am SO flying right now.”
“Me too,” laughed Celina. “Holy shit! I can hear the sun shining. Is it always like that?”
Mags drew a star in the air with the tip of her finger. “If it isn’t, it should be. It’s beautiful.”
Celina skated over to the cabbie and talked to him softly. The four musicians talked in quiet voices, with Coltrane listening and nodding. Jones looked towards Mags and asked her, “You’re talking about Margareta’s estate, right?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mags, gently swaying in her roller skates and watching the sky. “It’s only a short drive from here. Come check it out! If you hate it, we can send you back to the hotel. But you won’t hate it.”
She watched the musicians briefly discuss. Coltrane turned towards Mags and asked, “Would you be able to get fresh reeds for my horn before the festival dates?”
Mags laughed softly. “Mr. Coltrane, we’ll chop down a tree and build a new piano for Mr. Tyner if you want.”
Coltrane smiled. “Alright, then. You just hired yourself a quartet.” He held out his hand to Mags, who shook it and smiled.
If Meteor Mags seemed short-tempered with the cabbie, she was in an absolute rage earlier that morning. “Fuck,” she yelled, sweeping her notes and books and pencils off her desk and onto the floor in one angry motion. “Why can’t I GET this?” She kicked her desk. Her steel-toed boot lifted it off the floor and sent it crashing into the wall.
“Mags!” Celina threw open the door to Mags’ room. “Take it easy, willie wagtail!”
Mags unclenched her fists at the sight of her friend. “This shit is driving me crazy, Celina! Why can’t I get it?”
“Alright now, take it easy.” Celina took Mags in her arms and hugged her. “What’s bothering you, Mags?”
“Gravity.” Mags hugged Celina back, resting her face on Celina’s shoulder.
“Oh, is that all?”
“Yeah,” chuckled Mags. “Just the weight of the universe is all.”
Celina looked over at the notes scattered across the floor. Celina was no slouch at math, but the equations in Mags’ handwriting meant nothing to her. “Is that calculus?” she asked.
“Ricci calculus, some of it. Mostly Lorentz equations and tensors. They aren’t getting me anywhere. Dad probably could have done them in his head.” Mags gathered up her papers and the scattered mess. “Wherever the answer is, it aint in here.”
“You’re trying to figure out how much the universe weighs?”
Mags laughed and shook her curls. “Ha! No. That would be too easy.” Her tail flicked this way and that, impatiently. “I’m trying to make it weigh anything I want.”
Celina looked at Mags for a moment, considering. Then she said, “The hotel called. The band is supposed to arrive at the airport this afternoon. Remember?”
Mags perked up. Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, yes! We gotta get ready to meet them!” She took Celina’s hand. “Help me pick out something to wear!”
“Let’s roller skate there!”
“Idea! Wow, the girls are going to be so excited if they come play here.” Mags threw open her wardrobe and started flipping through tops and skirts.
“Can you believe how big they’ve gotten? Cheri turns thirty this year, and little Mercedes is already twelve.”
Mags looked over her shoulder. “Twelve? Celina, I remember when we brought her in as a baby! Now she’s almost as old as I was when we met.”
“Yes, but not nearly as much trouble! Then again, who is?”
“Hey! Look who’s talking!” Mags threw everything with rainbows onto the bed. “Have you tried the new batch yet?”
“Oh, I haven’t,” said Celina. “But the girls assure me it’s the best batch yet.”
“Well, in that case,” Mags said with a wry smile, “we should go test some before the party. Let’s go!”
Celina had made friends with the cabbie and enlisted him, for a sizeable bonus, to drive the band to the estate. Mags and Celina skated home on their own, laughing at everything they saw. It was a good day to be alive.
The Coltrane Quartet, somewhat tired from their flight, talked quietly on the brief drive. They had heard of Margareta, of course, but nothing prepared them for the beauty of her estate. Flowering trees rose above the iron grates surrounding the garden. A breeze blew their petals over the car and across the street. “Magnolias,” said Coltrane, taking a deep breath.
“Can you believe this place?” said Garrison. He could catch only glimpses through the sections of iron grating in the brick wall surrounding the estate. He saw flashes of the mansion, barns, and sprawling complex of living quarters on the grounds.
“They say she’s got more money than God himself,” said Jones.
Tyner chuckled. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ll take this over a hotel any… oh, wow. Will you look at that?”
Having checked in with the guard at the gate, the cabbie came to a stop in a circular driveway at the main entrance to the mansion. There, across the circle from the mansion’s doors, a marble statue stood in a small alcove of trees. It portrayed a female pirate standing proudly with her saber drawn. Two marble pumas stood to either side of her, one surveying the landscape and one with its head lowered in a growl. A black granite fountain bubbled beside her. Magpies sang in the great magnolia trees whose branches arced gracefully around the display.
Getting out of the car, Coltrane walked over to the statue. He admired the sculpture, and the regal bearing of the woman. Coltrane leaned forward to read the inscription on the statue’s base. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head.
“Who is it, Trane?” asked Tyner, stretching his legs.
Coltrane walked back. “I don’t know, McCoy. All it says on the base is ‘pumas toujours.’”
“The hell does that mean?” asked Jones, scratching his head.
Just then, the doors to the mansion opened and two girls came down the stairs to help gather the bags. A third girl, not even a teenager yet, greeted the musicians. She dressed all in black from neck to toe. “Welcome to our home,” she said, with a slight bow. “My name is Mercedes.” She offered her hand in a business-like gesture to Coltrane and then to each member of the band. “Let us get your bags, sirs, and I will show you to your rooms. You must be famished.”
The serious young lady paid the cabbie. Despite his unhappiness earlier, he left quite pleased with the situation. He drove to the nearest bar, parked the car for the rest of the day, and proceeded to get drunker than he had ever been, before or since.
Mercedes led the quartet into the mansion. Two ramps flanked the sides of the spacious foyer. “We had the stairs covered with ramps so Mags could skate up and down them,” she explained. “She hasn’t quite mastered getting up them yet, though I’m sure she will eventually.”
Up they went, into a long hallway. The musicians peered into rooms that each seemed larger and more lavish than the last. Windows let sunlight into every room, and skylights brightened the hallways.
Here and there, pairs of girls busied themselves with cleaning, moving things from room to room. They laughed and chatted as they worked. But, as the musicians walked past them, the voices turned to whispers. The girls watched the entourage pass in silence, some smiling, some looking away shyly. They ranged in ages from pre-teens to women in their thirties.
Coltrane cleared his throat nervously. The silent stares made the quartet a little uncomfortable. “Mercedes, how long have you – how long have you worked here at the estate?”
Mercedes continued her brisk walk but laughed. “Work here? Mr. Coltrane, I live here! We all do. I’ve lived here since I was a baby. But yes, working hard comes with the territory. We have quite a lot of work to do!”
“It’s a beautiful home,” offered Jones.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Jones. I am lucky to call it home. We all are. Ah, here we are.” Mercedes stopped and opened a door. “This and the next three rooms are all yours. Mags asked me to see that you were comfortable until she can give you the full tour in a little bit.” She left the door ajar. “You can come and go as you please. The gardens are lovely if you want to step outside or walk around. If you need anything, just ask any one of us, please.”
Mercedes excused herself to help with the party preparations, and the four musicians took a look around the room. Garrison plopped down on the chaise lounge and kicked off his shoes. “What a place! Did you see the Gauguin in the hallway?”
“No,” said Tyner, “but I saw the Steinway. What I didn’t see was a single boy or man! What is this place, anyway?”
Coltrane sat down on the bed and picked a pack of cigarettes off the night stand. He hadn’t smoked regularly in years, but it had been a long flight and he was tired. “It is… a home,” he said, “full of industrious young women. They started it after the war, from what I heard, taking in orphaned girls. Refugees.” Trane sparked a match and lit a cigarette.
“And they have their own school here, and a farm. It’s a small city, really.” Jones took the pack of cigarettes Coltrane offered him. “Now, does someone want to tell me how high that Mags girl is right now?”
Garrison said, “That girl – ha! Is she for real? She was flyin’, man!”
Just then, a string of Spanish curses reached their ears, followed by a series of thumps. “That must be her,” said Coltrane, exhaling a plume of smoke. “Hide the breakables!”
FRANCE: AUGUST, 1944
Meteor Mags stood with her gramma Margareta, surveying the piles of rubble.
“It used to be so beautiful,” Margareta said softly. “Now look at it.”
The estate that she and Magdalena had built with their fortune now lie in ruins. The war had not been kind to Europe. Mags had reunited with her Gramma for the first time since she was a child. She contacted Margareta through the French Resistance. The two of them had spent the summer leading up to the invasion of Normandy getting to know each other as, together, they destroyed railways, power stations, and telephone lines.
“What are we going to do, Gramma? We’ve got maybe ten francs between us. And just look!” Mags swept her arm across the decimated landscape. Bombs had carved great holes in the ground. Charred trees haunted crumbling buildings. In one skeletal grove of trees, a pile of broken marble surrounded a pedestal. A pair of marble boots, broken off at the shins, stood where a statue used to be.
“My mother,” said Margareta firmly, “never taught me to surrender.”
“Neither did mine,” said Mags.
Margareta smiled. “No, Mollie never was one to back down from a fight. Even if it was with me.”
Just then, Mags heard sobbing. She ran to one of the crumbling buildings. Inside, a girl not more than five years old huddled in the shade of some broken boards. She looked at Mags with wide, fearful eyes.
“Oh, you poor thing,” cried Mags. She crouched beside the girl and held out her hand, palm up. “Are you okay, dear? Comment ca va?”
The girl reached out wordlessly for Mags’ hand. She trembled as she touched it, and then flung herself into Mags’ arms.
Mags held the girl tightly and stood up. She turned towards Margareta, who now stood in the shattered doorway.
“Gramma,” she began. Mags remembered all too clearly the day her mother Mollie died in Spain. All the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness came back to her at once. She remembered escaping Spain in a horrified daze, all alone. A tear gathered in the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek.
“Gramma. There are so many of them. All over Europe! We can’t just abandon them.”
Margareta nodded. “What do you suggest we do, Maggie?”
“We have to rebuild the estate! We can bring them here and… and…” Mags held the girl, who squeezed her arms tightly around Mags’ neck.
“And make a home for them,” said Margareta.
“Yes!” Mags smiled through her tears. “A home,” she whispered. “Celina will help! I know she would.”
“It’s going to be a lot of work, Maggie. And we don’t have a franc to start with. Do you know what that means?”
“What?” asked Mags.
“It means, first, we find this young lady something to eat. And then…” Margareta cracked her knuckles and smiled. “And then, we find us a game of billiards.”
“Hey, you guys! Like your rooms? Oh, can I have one of those?” Mags stood in the doorway, her eyes sparkling as she spied the pack of smokes in Jones’ hand.
“Help yourself,” said Jones, offering the pack to her. Mags skated into the room and took a cigarette from the pack. Jones obligingly struck a match and lit it for her.
“Such a gentleman!” She puffed and blew little smoke rings. “So, do we have to take you back to the hotel? Or would you like to have some sandwiches in the kitchen?”
“Let’s eat!” said Tyner. The band all nodded their heads enthusiastically.
“Alright, follow me!” Mags spun and rolled out of the room. “Oh, you have to see something first!” She zipped down the hallway to the last door on the right.
The musicians joined her inside the room. They discovered a room full of hundreds of tuxedos, some hanging on mannequins, some on hangers in massive wardrobes. Mags rolled open a sliding, mirrored door to reveal dozens more hanging in a closet. “If you guys want a fresh suit for the show, you can pick out anything you want here, okay?”
Garrison laughed as he inspected a black suit with a red vest hung on a mannequin. “This one is just my size! Where did you get all these, Mags?”
“Let’s just say that when Gramma Margareta wants a suit, she buys the whole tuxedo factory! We teach the girls how to tailor them, and make a little cash selling them. Take one. Take two!”
“Take five,” said Tyner.
“Great song!” Mags happily whistled Paul Desmond’s melody. “Okay, but sandwiches first! Follow me.”
“Gramma’s into herbs,” Mags told her guests, showing them around the kitchen. She brushed her hands across bunches of rosemary, inhaling their crisp scent.
“Herbs for healing?” Coltrane asked.
“That’s right,” said Mags, waving. She enjoyed watching her hands glowing, flowing effortlessly though the air, trailing little sparkles behind them. “And food, too. Look, we just made this ghee, fresh today.” She pulled the lid off a large pot sitting on an unlit burner and wafted the scent towards her nose.
“Ghee?” asked Jones.
“Yeah, clarified butter. You heat it until the cream floats, skim off the cream, and use the oil to cook.”
“It’s Krishna food,” said Coltrane.
“Ding ding ding! Right you are, sir.” Mags opened another refrigerator. “I just have to warn you. You can have anything you want, but you see this big jar of pink lemonade?”
The musicians looked over and nodded.
“Don’t drink that unless you want to trip your fucking balls off, okay? We just made it this morning and it’s quite – electric!”
“Say what?” asked Tyner.
“LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide. We got the recipe from our friend in Switzerland.” Mags closed the door. “Just letting you know! We don’t want you blowing your circuits without consenting first. We believe in informed choice.”
Mags surveyed the shocked looks on their faces. “Ooooo-kay. Moving on, we have… Oh, look.” Mags clicked on the gas range and a flame burst into being. She stuck a little sausage on a fork and placed it into the fire. She swayed as if to some unheard music. “The gods of hunger demand sacrifices!”
“Offerings,” said Coltrane softly.
“Mhm.” Mags looked at him over the rim of her glasses. “Ablations.”
Coltrane nodded slowly, several times.
Mags popped the sausage, charred on the outside and still cool in the middle, into her mouth. “I can’t stand overcooked meat,” she said. She closed her eyes, chewing slowly. The musicians watched her for what seemed like several minutes, as she swayed in a trance.
“Mags,” said Coltrane. “Will you pray with me? Before the concert?”
Mags opened her eyes to fix her gaze on Coltrane. She furrowed her brow, then relaxed. “My mother had a favorite saying, Mr. Coltrane. ‘The only church that illumines is a burning church.’”
Mags looked him over, letting this sink in for a moment. “But,” she said, “I can see inside you, Mr. Coltrane. I’d be happy to pray with you.”
Coltrane smiled. “It isn’t about a church, Mags. It’s about the universal.”
“And that, my dear man, is why we will pray.” She set out a couple loaves of bread and four plates. “Come, we have a library in this wing where no one will interrupt us for a bit.” Mags skated towards the doorway to the hall. She turned. “Coming?”
Coltrane stood in thought for a moment. He smiled and said, “Mags, might I have a glass of that lemonade first?
It gave me an inner joy, an open-mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes, and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation. …In human evolution, it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.
“We have a wonderful collection of your albums, here, Mr. Coltrane.” Mags led Coltrane into her gramma’s library. Much smaller than the main library of the estate, this had been Margareta’s place to enjoy quiet moments.
A fireplace sat unlit, but full of candles. Two Victrola cabinets and a collection of smaller Gramophones sat by several crates of 78 rpm records. A sheet in the corner of the room covered what must have been a snooker table. Racks of pool cues alternated with shelves of books all along the walls. Coltrane realized this was the first room on the estate he had seen with no windows.
Mags gestured towards a pair of plush red chairs on a large rug by the fireplace. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you. And please, call me John.” Coltrane took off his shoes and sat cross-legged on a large blue pillow on the rug.
“John.” Mags smiled. She unlaced her roller skates and pulled them off. Coltrane saw the bands of black and rainbows extended all the way to the tips of her toes. Mags wiggled her toes and said, “How fun are these?”
“Mags,” asked Coltrane, “Do you believe in a higher power?”
“John,” asked Mags, “who else would we be praying to?”
Coltrane smiled. Mags got down on the floor beside him on one of the pillows, kneeling.
“Can we say it silently?”
Coltrane nodded, and closed his eyes. “Our father, who art in heaven,” he began silently to himself. “Om namah Shivayah. Om Shakti sri para adi Shakthi. Hallowed be thy name.”
Coltrane asked for strength for his mates for the three days of concerts ahead of them. He said thanks for the opportunity to bring his music to so many people. He said thanks for his strange new friend Mags. Coltrane said a blessing, quietly, for all the girls of the estate. He asked for guidance tonight. “Not my will be done. But thine. Forever. Amen.”
Coltrane repeated his mantras for some time. Without his realizing it, time slipped away from him. He forgot he was even saying them. A glowing white light formed a sphere around his body, but he hardly noticed. In the silence, he could hear the universe singing.
Then, he realized it was Mags. “I know,” she sang softly. “I know. Yes, mama wanted me to tell you that.” She laughed. “How she thought you didn’t know was beyond me. But I promised.”
“Mags?” whispered Coltrane.
He felt her grip his hand. “John,” she said. “John. It’s my great-gramma, Magdalena.”
Coltrane did not open his eyes. He had no need. In the blackness before him, he clearly saw the figure of the woman whose marble statue he had admired earlier. She smiled at him, but fiercely, like a big cat surveying her domain. “I see her, Mags.”
“You do?” Mags squeezed his hand tighter. “Great-gramma,” she said, “this is my new friend John. He and his friends are going to play for us tonight. Can you stay and hear them?”
Both Mags and Coltrane saw the ghostly woman shake her head. Then, she drew in the air with her finger. She traced a sine wave in the air, three troughs and three peaks. It floated in the air before her, glowing a pale blue light. She traced a second sine wave in the air with her other hand. It glowed pale red, suspended in the air.
Tears rolled down Mags’ cheeks as she watched. Her great-gramma gestured like a conductor, and the sine waves moved towards each other. As they began to overlap, they broke into shades of purples and waves of more complex shapes. And then, they vanished.
“What does it mean?” Coltrane asked softly. “It looks like sound?”
“I don’t know,” whispered Mags. “Great-gramma?”
The figure of Magdalena held up her hands and drew a heart in the space before her. It glowed red in the black expanse. “I love you too, great-gramma,” whispered Mags. She sniffed as the figure faded slowly from sight.
Mags and Coltrane sat in silence for a moment. They opened their eyes and turned to each other. Mags’ cheeks were wet with tears. “There’s so much I wanted to say to her!”
“It’s okay, Mags,” said Coltrane. “I got the feeling she already knows.”
Mags laughed and wiped away her tears. “You are so right.” She sniffed. “It’s just that I like to tell her anyway.”
Coltrane put his arm around her and hugged her gently. “Tonight, Mags…”
“Tonight,” said Coltrane, “we will play something special for your great-gramma. Something we’ve never played for anyone before.”
A wide smile broke out across Mags’ face. She threw her arms around the startled saxophonist. “John! You are the sweetest man on Earth! Thank you so much for coming tonight.” Mags kissed his cheek.
She stood up and offered her hand. Coltrane took it and pulled himself up beside her.
“This is a special night, John.”
“Yes, yes it is.”
Coltrane began to chant slowly, aum. Aum. Aaauuummm. Mags joined him. The vibrations seemed to emanate from them in ripples, in soothing waves. How long they chanted, neither of them could later say.
Christ that the Vedas ordained, and the rituals taught by the scriptures
All these am I, and the offering made to the ghosts of the fathers
Herbs of healing and food, the mantrum, the clarified butter
I, the ablation, and I, the flame into which it is offered
I am the sire of the world, and this world’s mother and grand-sire
I am he who awards to each one the fruits of his action
I make all things clean
I am Om.
—John Coltrane, Om
“Citizens of La Plaza Margareta,” Celina addressed the crowd. “Tonight we have the pleasure of presenting to you the leading band in the new sound of modern music, a band that has virtually redefined the word jazz. Won’t you please join me in welcoming…” Celina waved her arm, and a gentle spotlight fell on the band. “The John Coltrane Quartet.”
The small concert hall broke into thunderous applause. More than one hundred and fifty women and girls had joined the party and filled the hall. It boasted a large wooden dance floor, enough space to dance freely. The hard-working young women who had stared so silently at the musicians earlier now greeted them loudly.
A small serving bar in one of the back corners stocked water and refreshments. The lemonade, Mags had told Coltrane, was off-limits to anyone under sixteen, but the party was open to all. Two women sat quietly near the bar, each breastfeeding a child. A few girls lounged on the couches flanking the bar. But near the stage, the girls had donned psychedelic clothing, everything from go-go outfits to bathing suits. One wore an astronaut helmet. One wore nothing but day-glow paint. All of them cheered loudly for the band.
Garrison began bowing a single bass note long before the applause faded away. Coltrane stepped forward, looking into the smiling faces, and nodded appreciatively. He held the tenor saxophone to his mouth and began to blow in unison with Garrison’s bowing. His cheeks puffed and he began to sweat as seconds stretched into a minute, then two, without a single break in the note. He breathed in through his nose, forcing air through the reeds at the same time. Jones began a series of light rolls on the cymbals, louder, then softer, then louder.
The girls stood transfixed by the drone. Some of them began to sway, lifting their hands towards the ceiling. Then, without a pause, Coltrane played the melody to Afro Blue at a smoldering pace over the drone. Once, twice, and then, with a sharp crack of the snare drum by Jones, the band launched into the tune with a vengeance.
A cheer, and the girls began dancing wildly. Coltrane stepped back as Tyner took the first chorus. Tyner looked at the dancing crowd and smiled. His fingers flew over the keys in a blur. His left hand relentlessly pounded a cluster of bass notes. His right hand told stories.
Celina found Mags in the middle of the dance floor and joined her. Their bodies swayed together to the driving swing beat. Celina and Mags had danced together for more than twenty years now. Coming up as dancers during World War Two, they had quickly learned to stick together. Though they could not be in a safer place at the moment, having each other’s back was the only thing that had kept them alive more than once.
Mags swung her hips and pumped her hands in the air. “Celina,” she thought. “My dear Celina.” Mags closed her eyes and let the music wash over her. “So free,” she thought. Each instrument became a color, and the notes broke up the colors into kaleidoscopic shapes. The cymbals shimmered. The bass undulated. The piano poured like a waterfall, carving gullies in the ever-changing patterns.
Coltrane began his choruses with a high, wailing note. He sustained its tension and then shattered it. A stream of arpeggios cascaded from the bell of his horn. Faster and faster he ran through the arpeggios, altering them, twisting them out of shape, turning them inside out. With his eyes closed, Coltrane bent forward, hunching over his horn. His fingers clicked the keys faster than the eyes could follow. Then, he locked onto a single note and began to blow fiercely.
The note screamed and began to shimmer with overtones. Trane heard the overtones, as if someone else was playing them, and he merely stood witness to the event. All around him, the overtones broke into chords, chords he had never heard before.
“Yes!” someone shouted. Whistles and calls rose from the group. “Go! Go! Go!”
Trane returned to his arpeggios. Only this time, he over-blew all of them. Celina heard the sound of a baby crying, and stars being born. She heard every bird on earth singing at once. She flung her head wildly, tossing her mane this and way and that. Celina heard the air bursting into flame. She heard lions roaring.
Then the melody came back crisp and clear, and the band brought the tune to a thundering close. The women clapped and cheered. Coltrane took a moment to wipe his brow and adjust his mouthpiece. He approached the edge of the stage.
“Thank you,” he said. As the wave of applause faded, he repeated, “Thank you.” He introduced the band, one by one, to fresh rounds of cheering. “Tonight we’d like to play for you something we never played in concert before. We’ve been waiting for just the right moment to play it. And that moment is now, here, with all of you. We hope you like it.”
He nodded and stepped back from the edge. And with that, in a glimmering wash of cymbals, Coltrane began the opening melody to Acknowledgment.
Mags opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling of the concert hall, but she didn’t see any of it. Instead she saw a void. A pair of lights appeared as she stared, swaying to the music. One of the lights began to send out a pulse. Concentric circles, like ripples, spread out beyond the field of Mags’ vision. Steady, steady, in time with the music.
Then, the second light began to send out waves, too. Where they met the first set of waves, a strange pattern began to form. “They cancel each other out,” Mags whispered. She found Celina’s hand in hers and squeezed. “No, there they make each other stronger.”
Coltrane began to sing. “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
Mags heard Celina singing next to her, “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
The women of La Plaza Margareta picked up the melodious chant. Together they sang as one, “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
Then, Mags realized what her great-gramma was trying to tell her. Two sets of waves. When they were both weak, in troughs, they remained weak. When one was at a peak and one at a trough, they cancelled each other out. And, all the places where both were in-between created a gloriously complex pattern. This pattern was neither the first wave nor the second, but something entirely unique.
Mags focused her mind on the lights. She concentrated on making them pulse at different speeds. By manipulating one or both, she could dial in different interference patterns. She lost herself in the patterns until she felt like she was flying. “Nothing,” she whispered. “I don’t weigh anything at all.”
Mags imagined she rose into the air, higher than the concert hall, high above the estate. The stars came into view, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “You,” she said. “You and me. Together.”
She reached out her hand towards the nearest constellation and touched it with her fingertips. “Mine.”
She heard Celina again and felt her hand. Mags opened her eyes. “Celina! I got it!” She threw her arms around her friend. “I finally got it.”
“Well, don’t give it to me,” Celina laughed.
“No, silly. Not that.” Mags whispered, “Gravity.” She kissed Celina’s cheek. “I love you so much, Celina.”
“I love you too, Mags. You little wagtail!”
“Don’t start, convict!”
The two of them danced in the center of the gathering, and all around them the women of La Plaza Margareta danced joyously to the music. How long the concert lasted, no one could ever quite recall, though several of the girls would later swear Mags’ feet did not touch the ground again for the rest of the night.
I’ll continue to look for truth in music as I see it, and I’ll draw on all the sources I can, all the areas of music, all the things there are in the world around us to inspire me. It takes many people to effect a complete change in any system.
—John Coltrane: September, 1965 interview, Esquire magazine
Patches purred lazily in Mags’ lap. She flicked the tip of her tail as Mags scratched around her ears.
“So I don’t get it, Mags,” said Tarzi. “What do these shimmering hallucinations have to do with gravity?”
“Well, imagine rain falling on a puddle. One drop at a time is easy enough to imagine. But think how quickly it gets complex when more drops start hitting the surface.”
“Okay, I can see that,” said Tarzi.
“That’s an interference pattern. Now imagine gravity as a wave form.”
“Isn’t gravity caused by mass?”
“Now you are asking the important questions, dear!” Mags took off her glasses and rubbed one of the lenses with her skirt. “That night, I realized if we could create two sources of gravity waves, we could dial in their waveforms, and determine the interference pattern. By adjusting the waveforms, we can pick any gravity we want, expressed as the strength of the resulting interference pattern.”
Mags placed her glasses back on. “That much of the theoretical problem was easy. The hard part was working out how to generate these waves without using some massive object. Otherwise, our GravGens would have to be the size of a planet to generate that much gravitational force on a ship, or in a warehouse, or a mining operation.”
“So, how did you manage that?” Tarzi asked.
A green light began flashing on the console, and Mags sat up. “We’ll have to save that story for another day, dear! That cargo ship we’ve been waiting for is moving into position.”
“Time to rock and roll!” said Tarzi. “But what happened to Coltrane and the guys?”
“What a wonderful man he was,” sighed Mags. “He and Alice had a son the very next month, and they sent us such a beautiful photo of them together. You know, two days after our party, at the festival, they gave their only public performance of A Love Supreme. Well, the only one the history books remember.”
Mags winked at Tarzi. “But we know it was really the second,” she continued. “You should check out the recording from the festival. For a long time, no one had anything but a partial recording. We got them sorted on that, though.”
Tarzi got up, checked his laser pistol, and sat down beside her at the console. “You still haven’t told me why your name isn’t on the GravGens. I mean, everybody knows the company that makes them is…”
“No time for that, now, Tarzi. Here comes the cargo ship!”
Mags watched with glee as her prey came into view. It was true, she thought. She had lost the patent rights to the GravGens years ago, much of her Gramma’s fortune had been lost, and here she was now: ripping off warehouses and cargo ships to make a buck. It reminded her more than a little of 1944. But, Mags knew she didn’t really need the money. She just liked her job. In fact, she loved it. She supremely loved it, and that was all that mattered.
Liner notes to Coltrane Live at Antibes 1965.
1965 tour dates, performance descriptions, interviews, and historical notes from The John Coltrane Reference by Lewis Porter.
John Coltrane: Divine Wind by Howard Mandel.