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Chapter Twelve

“No, wait.” If he were able, Larry would throw his arms up in horror as Sophiala approaches the piano bench to carry out her threat. “Not the trunk. Not yet. I’ll behave!”

Sophiala did not enroll Sigh Wellwright, born in 1987, in the Milwaukee Public School system because of his congenital deformity, the hands that would provoke the relentless taunts and blows of other schoolchildren.

She taught him the alphabet.

Age 3: Sigh Wellright begins reading from books Sophiala borrows from the children’s section of the neighborhood library.

Age 4: Sigh Wellwright becomes the Prodigy when, with one mangled and one bloated hand, he begins playing songs on an old upright left by a tenant evicted from the one-bedroom frame house Sophiala rents on North 16th Street. Instead of amusing himself with Tinkertoys and Tonka trucks, he teaches himself to read music by slicing with a machete of ardor through the thicket of primers that everywhere gave children too young to rebel their first real glimpse of powerlessness in the face of imperially imposed parental fiat: the endless tomes of instructional publications, John Thompson, Hanon, Schaum, Hal Leonard, Alfred.

Age 5: The Prodigy begins composing songs. While the melodies are not notable for their sophistication or maturity, they give evidence of an unerring sense of structure and sonority, a firm grasp of the principles of Western theory and harmony he would not take the trouble to study until much later, when he was under the tutelage of a mentor. Counterpoint is second nature to him, as though he were watching cartoons, eating Captain Crunch. These songs tugboat a freight of tears to Sophiala’s eyes, foreshadowing and then surpassing what she heard as a child, amplified by the skull’s lonely acoustics.

Age 8: The Prodigy listens to and then reads or flawlessly replicates Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the 48 preludes and fugues, chews and spits out on a golden platter of regurgitated memory all the two-part inventions and three-part sinfonias. Art Tatum, Bud Powell (the boy loved chording languidly through the progressions in Powell’s harmonically dense interpretation of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”), Chopin’s piano concertos and nocturnes, all the melancholy Pole’s waltzes and impromptus, Beethoven’s sonatas, Shubert’s late piano pieces, Schonberg (he loved the terse and fragmentary “Six Brief Piano Pieces”), Bartok, Mozart, the Prodigy plays them all, atonal or diatonic, without regard to genre or canonical precedence or historical before-and-after, Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner.

Age 11: The Prodigy continues writing and playing the piano but at his finagling insistence Sophiala, earning money as a seamstress, buys him the cream-colored Les Paul guitar he sees one day in the window of a pawnshop. He leaves it in its case like wine left to age and never opens it, resisting the temptation to taste the waiting ferment of those strings.

“You can hear her?” I ask Sophiala. I have no idea why but for now I downplay my sense of urgency. “Are you saying you can hear Sage talking?”

Larry’s eyes roll over to me and blink slowly. “She hears everything.”

“I hear it but I don’t know what that gal’s saying.”

“Halle shoma chetorey, khubam, merci, kheli mam noonam … does it sound like that?”

Sophiala nods. “A whole lot like that.”

Age 13: Sophiala raises and lowers hemlines and needles seams for an aristocratically brittle German woman, Grettle Stambermeir, whose husband decades ago had graduated from Julliard to become one of the school’s brighter rising stars, never standing on the highest summits of international renown but nonetheless carving out a stable career in his travels throughout Europe, winning more than his share of respectable prizes, earning fellowships and performing at the Flanders Festival in Brugge, the Holland Festival in Utrecht, concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic, recitals in Lyons, Sytasborg, Amsterdam, Magdeburg. This man takes the Prodigy under his elegantly feathered wing and, exploiting his extensive connections, enters the Prodigy in statewide competitions, facilitates venues, establishes his presence in conservatory-sponsored recitals and concerts in Milwaukee and Chicago, basks him in the light of local media coverage. The Prodigy is now poised on the cusp of something larger: Sophiala’s dream.

“It sound like that, but real slow, like she ain’t really sure what she saying,” Sophiala clarifies.

“Do you know where she is?” I ask.

Age 14: Poised there, the Prodigy is not unaware that he occupies that position as much by virtue of the power he exerts, as dark-skinned curiosity or exemplary noble savage, over the imaginations of white high-brow keepers of the cultural flame, as by his talent: one local critic and reviewer, echoing the tacit sentiments of his colleagues, desperate for an explanation, praises his playing as the startling injection of the exotic rhythmic sensibility into the blue-blooded veins of the classic repertoire. When the Prodigy tells Mr. Stambermeir that he is giving up the piano for the guitar, the man gasps. It is the first time the Prodigy has heard a person gasp, other than in movies. “What you might have been, what you are so close to becoming … this opportunity you turn your back on. Is it not fair to say your people do not receive such opportunities?” When he tells his grandmother the same, she falls to her knees, arms stretched over her head, a lightning rod summoning instantaneous death in jagged bolts from heaven.

“Can you tell me? Can you tell me where, Sophiala?” My nonchalance slips away beneath ball bearings of sweat that begin to roll down my face like a shopping cart with limping wheels over a supermarket floor. Anything, no matter how warped with improbability, any thump and wobble in Sage’s direction, is better than nothing at all. I would stock that shopping cart high with far-fetched products, the never-advertised merchandise hidden behind bright boxes on shelves containing the things we think we know or need, birds that speak, stew that thins or thickens time, music materializing from blood’s alchemical boil, old women filled with the visions that leapt in distilled form from the lips of Martin Luther King Junior or Malcom X or, though adulterated further, commodified and spoken too late, rushed from the lips John F. Kennedy, the juju magic Sage would surely approve of and find evidence for in the everyday magic you forget how to see: the dawn that dwarfs the sky as it climbs, the bee when it bumbles and scrawls the air with its second buzzing letter of the alphabet, the breath drawn in or released that’s more mysterious than all the arcane ceremonies of physics. “Can you tell me anything at all about where she might be?”

Sophiala, near the piano bench, brushes past Larry as she bends for the bag on the floor, and the dummy, fearing retribution, jumps on the Prodigy’s knee like a tambourine in the hands of a Pentecostal choralist. “I was fixing to ask if it you she done run away from, because I hear me a whole lotta feet moving, make me think of running. But it ain’t you. It’s feet all right, but I don’t know whose. Maybe it’s the sound of you tryin to run to her. Or maybe it’s like dancin.” Holding a hotplate she stands, her head an antenna tilting into hide-and-seek frequencies. She plugs the plate into an extension cord snaking from behind the piano, returning to the bag to remove a dish wearing a loose skirt of aluminum foil. “I would offer you some of this ham and macaroni and greens I made for Sigh’s supper, but I don’t know if it enough for two.”

Larry corrects her. “For three. You should know after all these years that ignoring me won’t make me go away.”

“I spect not. But them macaronis and ham and greens ain’t made of splinters, so you’ll likely be going hungry, like every other night.”

I tell Sophiala that I’m not hungry and thank her, hoping for an answer to my question, and a few minutes later I watch the Prodigy eat in a manner that seems absolutely detached and uninvolved, like a Buddisht who has attained culinary nirvana. For one so old her sense of precious time passing is disproportionately oblivious. Maybe this is the secret of her longevity. “Well now,” she says finally. “About where she is …”

Age 17: The Prodigy falls back into the obscurity he had barely emerged from, like a butterfly deciding at the last minute to forsake the prosaic world and return to a cocoon laden with creature comforts, satellite cable, 200 channels of premiere butterfly programming. After he abandons the piano, it takes a year for the combined thunder of Sophiala and Mr. Shambermeir to become the diminishing rumble of protest and plea that finally fades to a silence enabling the Prodigy to devote himself undividedly to the guitar. With no learning curve seeming to bridge the transition at all, the Prodigy picks up on the instrument where he left off with the piano. In the absorption that is a festival of trance admitting a single celebrant, he listens to Andre Segovia, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Robert Johnson, playing what they play. His fingers flick free in the classic style or pluck strings psychedelic with pick. He auditions a drummer and electric bassist, both 18, and chooses the name “Dead Prodigy” for the trio. For three months, they do nothing but practice in the drummer’s attic, a sauna of boxy humidity, then burst like a bomb of pepper in the mouth of the local scene, playing a peculiar hybrid of hip-hop, jazz and rock, appearing at block parties, high schools proms, in bars, taming the stage at a university music concert on the lakefront, entertaining crowds safaried atop the leopard of beer-spotted dust sleeping beneath the heat of Summerfest. He gains celebrity again, but one he seems able to live with.

In August of 1993, something terrible happens.

The band plays at a small but well-known bar on Farewell Avenue in Milwaukee called O’ Reillys Irish Inn. Dead Prodigy begins the set at 10:00 pm. By 1:00 pm, the set is over. The Prodigy drops his beloved Les Paul on the bandstand at the edge of the small dance floor and leaves O’ Reillys, eventually returning home. He refuses to place his hands on an instrument for another two years, and when he resumes playing the piano, he will only practice scales and technical exercises, or compose songs he refuses to play.

Silence like a choir of laryngitis for a decade.

During this time, the Prodigy also refuses to speak, and thus Larry is born, the silence deflecting into a wooden mockery of sound.

It was Sugar Boy who designed and assembled Larry to the Prodigy’s precise written specifications.

This is where the story ends for me, his and hers, the whispered history I grew up with thumbed to calendar’s end. Beyond a welter of conjecture so contradictory, preposterous or fantastic that it trivializes these chronicles that must be true because they transcend even the civilized insanities of invention, no one has dared presume to recount what might have happened that night.

All I know is that he was 17 then and now he’s 29.

Sophiala says, “I can’t say with no certain sense where your gal is. But it’s a big clock there, a lot of peoples.” Now she unplugs the hotplate and puts it in the bag, begins moving about the room. She stoops to pick up a bulky purse by the door with a shawl folded neatly atop it. “Sigh, you got to carry me in the car on home. I got to get up early in the morning. Miss Flowers gone be over to pick up them trampy dresses she keep telling me to take up shorter and shorter.”

“Where did you say this so-called tramp lives again?” Larry asks slyly.

“Wait, Sophiala. What kind of clock? What people?”

She hangs by her spine in the stoop. “I don’t know all that. All I know is, I seed a clock, maybe like that one called Ben where them people is even paler than here, which is more pale than I ever found any need for.”

The Prodigy stands, placing Larry flat on his back on the bench while he belts his robe. In these doodles of movement I read the disappearing ink of almost-illegible Pekinese. Then Larry is fitted onto the fingered bulb of his left hand again, a petty dictator securely sprawled on his throne. As the Prodigy walks across the room, his green felt slippers hit the floor like a dog’s tongue drumming against the sidewalk on a dogday afternoon. He picks up Sophiala’s bag and only then does she straighten.

“Come along for the ride,” Larry invites me. “I think the big guy here might want a little company on the ride back.”

Sophiala opens her eyes wide at this remark.

As we stand at the door, Sophiala turns to peer at the room. “Always look at whatever you about to leave. When this here door closed, that room’ll disappear.”

I think about this seriously. Why not give the thought its due? The notion of radical subjectivity was apparently good enough to engage the intellectual caprices of the good bishop Berkeley and a school of philosophers similarly inclined to such doom. “What happens when you come back?” I ask, and not rhetorically. “When you open the door, the room’s still here.”

Sophiala looks at me they way she looked at the room. Her eyes are weary diplomas, and with dulled patience, as though teaching for the thousandth time the simplest of facts to a dullard, she elevates the thinker’s terminus to graduation. “When you come back to something you left, it re-exist again. That’s why you got to look at it good and memorize what you see. Cause when you come back to it, it done changed in the meantime. Sometime a little, sometime a lot, but it ain’t never the same. So look good and long before it become what it ain’t never been.”

The tiny shard of truth buried in this conundrum for an instant pierces my frame of reference and I shudder as though my shadow has stepped back into me, exchanging places, so that I become my shadow’s shadow, and for this reason I do not, I dare not look back.

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