I studied music at Hulston College in my years before the Army, and I remember that in the fall semester of my senior year it was a surprise to all of us in the piano studio when we’d heard that the famous autistic piano player kid, Jeff something-or-other, was coming to Hulston to do a recital towards the end of the semester. He’d been on a million morning talkshows to play piano and promote “his” book, a best-seller ghostwritten by his dad, who was also his handler. The reason the visit was a surprise to us was because our only musical claim to fame was that our piano studio owned the highest male-to-female ratio of students in Hulston College, which had only until recently been known as Hulston Women’s College.
(Some old rich widow, an alumnus, died a couple years before I enrolled, and in her will she made a huge endowment towards creating a scholarship program for piano players—the Yzerman Fellowship—stipulating that the school could give out as many of them as they wanted as long as they were equally divided between male and female students. This was a miracle I guess, because everyone had expected her to leave the money to her cat or something. But either way, I was one of these scholarship students, and when you met people at parties and it somehow slipped out that you went to Hulston—dear God!—you told them you were an Yzerman Fellow just so they didn’t think you were a queer for going to what was still basically a women’s college. But I digress.)
If I remember correctly, the autistic kid was already onstage when Lisa, Aubrey, Tiller, Eddie and me entered the small recital hall and piled into the back row of plastic seats; we represented about half of the whole set of Yzerman pianists at Hulston, and that was the regular group I ran with back in those days. The hall, which was the former chapel, was pretty full—it didn’t take many to fill—because there were a lot of older people in the audience we hadn’t seen before, community people who didn’t have any connection to the College and just came to see a big-ticket performer. It was a Saturday and none of us wanted to be there, but our attendance to piano events was a scholarship requirement—God bless that Yzerman money—so we drank a bit before coming, because there’s nothing quite like going to a recital on a good buzz. Our buddy Pollacks, another Yzerman kid, was giving a piano composition recital a bit later anyway, so we were hunkering down for the long haul.
“How long is this supposed to go?” Eddie asked. He was clutching a football, looking very Heisman except for the huge winter coat he was wearing. We shrugged. Up onstage the autistic kid, Jeff, almost looked normal; I mean, he was sitting up straight and everything. But it was the eyes that gave it away, the big spaceman eyes, electric light blue sapphires that were focusing on things a million miles away. And it was his hair, too, a pale blonde disheveled mess of hay that looked like he had just gotten out of the pool, which actually would have been kind of fashionable if it weren’t for the fact that he was a retard and he didn’t style it that way on purpose. (Autism is retardation, right?)
The kid’s dad got up to lecture, an older guy who looked about my dad’s age, and while he introduced himself the rest of us in the back bullshitted about what we were going to do for Christmas break. Tiller was going to visit family in Georgia, and Aubrey—who was cute, by the way, except when she smiled—Aubrey was going to New York for Times’ Square on New Years. I didn’t hear what Eddie and Lisa said what they were going to do, because some bluehair in front of us kept turning around and going shush! to us. She probably had an autistic grandkid; we looked one seat over from her. Yep.
(I’m going home to Philly, I whispered.)
To show the audience just how fucked up the kid was—for dramatic effect, I imagine—Jeff’s dad asked him all sorts of easy questions that he couldn’t answer, like “What time does your watch read” and “What color is my hair,” and every time it was Jeff’s turn to answer he’d just rock back and forth a bit, pause, and his dad would ask again, and then Jeff would shake his head and stammer out an “I don’t know.” His dad asked him if he could see any women in the audience, and Jeff replied “I can’t remember.” God, I remembered thinking, that really tore at your heart, but then I turned my head and saw Aubrey starting to nod off next to me. She was Inuit (not that that had anything to do with her sleeping). She would send me a letter once during my first Iraq tour.
The kid started to play a couple pieces from memory, a Mozart and a Chopin, and of course he was ridiculously good. You just don’t get your autistic kid on Oprah unless they’re some kind of savant. He’d rock back and forth as he played, and sometimes he wasn’t even looking at his hands, those crazy eyes just staring off into the belly of the Steinway as he played, probably counting the number of vibrations each string made per second after the mallets struck them or some Rain Man bullshit like that. Two seats down I saw Tiller scowling a bit, and then I remembered that the Beethoven Jeff started to play was the same piece that Tiller was struggling with at the moment.
“Goddamn retard geniuses,” I heard him say. “Fuck!” The bluehair in front of us shushed him, then turning back and stroking the head of the little grandson boy next to her, who was rocking back and forth and probably counting the fibers in the sweater of the blonde girl sitting in front of him. As Jeff was running through some of the piece’s arpeggio runs, much to our horror a little line of drool bungeed down from his lip and landed somewhere on the keyboard of our Steinway. We all groaned. Everyone had to play on that piano at some time or another.
After he finished the Beethoven, everyone roared in applause—I clapped—and his dad began what I would call the “stupid pet tricks” portion of the recital. He had Jeff get up from the piano bench and sit on a chair on the opposite side of the stage while he played random notes for Jeff to listen to. He’d then ask Jeff what note he had just played, and Jeff would rocket them out there, A-flat, C, F, D-flat, because he had perfect pitch. And then all of us instantly hated him, because in the music world having perfect pitch was sort of like being born into money, and no matter how hard you tried, you were always going to be the bank president’s son who hung out with the kids of mill workers. (Well, that’s not always true. One of the guys in my platoon, Pfc. Williams, is a bank president’s son, and we just know him as “Stiffy”—something completely unrelated to his socioeconomic status, I assure you.)
Following the perfect-pitch display, Jeff went back to the piano, and his dad pulled a small portable radio out of a canvas tote bag. He flipped it on and it crackled with static, which gave Jeff the shakes so bad the kid started to hug himself, but soon Jeff’s dad found a radio station that was playing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which, ironically, used to be my father’s favorite song before Mom left to pursue her career. Jeff’s dad let the song go through the chorus and a verse before he flipped the radio off and told Jeff to play it. Jeff hit every note. Then he told Jeff to play it as if Mozart had written it. This got our attention. Jeff started playing, and somehow he managed to do it, and do it convincingly, adding all those delicate bounces and frills characteristic of Wolfgang. I finally admitted to myself that, yeah, the kid was better than I was.
The recital ended after a few more sickening talent displays and a couple sob-story moments where the dad talked about how hard all of it was; his wife had left him, sometimes he struggled to make rent, etc. When it was over we Yzerman kids wandered out of the hall as most of the audience members were mobbing Jeff and his dad with questions and even a couple autograph requests. I guess that’s what fame looked like. Lisa, a senior who’d later go on to teach gradeschool, said in her characteristically snobby way that while the recital was impressive, his performances “lacked soul.” Tiller ran downstairs, where the practice rooms were, and when he came up a couple minutes later I think I’d guessed correctly in assuming that he ran through the Beethoven just to make sure he could put more soul into the piece than the autistic kid had. Then all of us bashed on the Jeff some more for not playing with feeling, probably because we were trying to feel better about ourselves.
We saw Pollacks standing outside smoking a cigarette, so we went out to chat him up. It was about fifty degrees outside, warm for December, and the last of the streaks of ice on the pavement in front of the music building were melting away, the remnants from the freezing rain that had come through a couple days ago. Pollacks waved to us, but pointed out west where the sun was setting. We had a perfect view of it from the music building, which sat on a hill overlooking the soccer and football fields, and it was a sunset for the books, the clouds exploding reds and oranges against a mint blue sky. I wished I had a camera.
“You know,” Pollacks shouted, “I had never really thought about it, but think about how many people are looking at this sunset. I mean, everyone in the city should be seeing what we’re seeing.”
There was something profound and idiotic in his words, but he could have been right; I had normally thought of watching the sunset as being kind of a private moment. I sat down on the bench next to where Pollacks smoked and took in the view; it would later surprise me how similar the Iraqi sunsets were to the ones at home. Eddie jogged around the sidewalk holding his football, asking each one of us if we wanted to play catch, and when he asked me I made sure there was a condescending tone in my voice when I told him no. Aubrey said she would’ve except she had tiny hands—she couldn’t play Liszt, who had huge fingers, the bastard—and so she probably couldn’t catch a football. Tiller shook his head when Eddie asked, and then Lisa explained to the overeager freshman that no one was going to risk jamming their fingers a week before finals performances—though, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t mind not having to play accompaniments on the final juries for all of the school’s prissy goddamned singers. Eddie shrugged, laid down on the sidewalk and began flipping the ball to himself.
I had been thinking about the future a lot since I only had one semester left. I think I only got the Yzerman money out of blind luck—I didn’t really want to go to college in the first place, so winning the award felt like an accident, or a miracle—so I was going to end up with a degree in music performance that I didn’t particularly deserve. I didn’t belong in a music school anyway, where being “edgy” meant saying you preferred Beethoven to Mozart; where I grew up back in Philadelphia, being “edgy” was more like carrying a knife and threatening to use it. Dad had suggested graduate school over one of our talks on the phone; he had done graduate school back in the day to parlay getting shipped off to Vietnam. I had spent quite a bit of time down at the recruiter’s office lately, but I didn’t tell my dad that just yet because I knew he’d make me have second thoughts. Still, I knew even back then that there was just no way I could have stomached grad school.
Tiller was still going off about autistic-savants. He said he didn’t trust anyone who was gifted, because Nature had spoiled them rotten and that they could “sit on their asses and just do as they pleased while everyone else had to fucking work.” Lisa got after him once he started calling Jeff a “snot-nosed retard” over and over again. Tiller was not a very good piano player—though he’d gotten better recently—and I got the sense he was one of those kids who had gotten roughed up early, who would have a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life because he couldn’t take it easy, and I felt bad for him because of that. He just wanted to make it, like the rest of us. But most of us weren’t autistic, gifted, whatever; we had no in. Tiller was going to kick around Hulston a couple extra years after his Yzerman Fellowship ran out, but the moment he graduated he fell out of touch with everybody.
Now, Pollacks, there was a guy with talent. On top of virtuoso playing he had a knack for writing nice tunes, so he was minoring in music composition since Hulston didn’t offer it as a major. I had tried writing music a couple times, finding chords I’d like and splicing them together, and I’d get real excited, like maybe this was the birth of something great, that I was unleashing the hidden prodigy from within, but then I would try to stretch out the genius of my one chord change over five minutes and then I realized my music was always going to lack the life and the direction of a real masterpiece. Then one time I sat in on Pollacks as he composed on the piano, and it was like watching fireworks—he’d sit there and tinker with chords and lines until all of a sudden they would explode with life and color and you knew that something deeper was happening, something vivid and powerful, but also a little bit temporary, because he wouldn’t write half of what he played into his music.
It kind of reminded me of this sunset, actually. Sort of.
Pollacks lit another cigarette, and I remember wondering why he was going to smoke up his suit thirty minutes before his family was going to come hear him perform his compositions. I wondered why he wasn’t warming up right then, since he was the most serious of us at what he did, and a little bit of my hero-worship for him was getting tarnished. Some guys like Eddie played piano just so they could have something they could use to pick up girls. Nothing wrong with that; Liszt did that and still was magnificent. But if any one of us Yzerman kids was going to get famous—for real famous—it would be Pollacks. Pollacks had perfect pitch. Not that that was everything; but it was still something. When he last wrote me, though, he mentioned that he was having trouble getting into good graduate schools because admissions committees were a bit wary of a degree from Hulston College.
The rest of the audience poured out of the doors and a few of them pointed at the sky. A couple of sax players we knew wandered by the front of the building, piss-drunk, on their way to someplace or another, and I was thinking I would be drunk all the time too if I had to play saxophone. There was no bigger waste of life than playing sax, excepting maybe playing bassoon. One of sax boys called for the ball from Eddie, who sat up and launched it as hard as he could for no apparent reason. The pigskin was like a bullet going through the air, a blur, and it hit the drunk in the chest, knocking him down, the ball tumbling down the hill towards the football field’s bleachers. The other sax player chased after it a bit before falling on his ass on his way down the slope and starting to roll. We laughed pretty good at that.
I saw Jeff and his dad leaving the music building through the side door. The dad had the canvas bag slung over his shoulder, and was trying to zip up Jeff’s coat as Jeff was swinging his arms back and forth as if in an effort to make the task more difficult. I had seen on one of the nighttime interview shows how Jeff would occasionally have an angry outburst, since I guess autistic kids always suffered from sensory overload and that real life was sort of like a constant state of trauma for them. Or something like that. I remembered Tiller had seen that TV special with me.
We all watched from a distance as Jeff’s dad had to assist Jeff to their silver sedan, at times prodding Jeff’s legs so he would keep moving. Jeff didn’t seem to have a care in the world. Suddenly they stopped, with a jerk, and the dad leaned over to look at something on Jeff’s slacks; and then when Jeff turned towards us we saw that he had peed himself. He didn’t ever change his expression, or even act like he knew we were watching him. And then I realized that Jeff was as old as I was. I had been staring right at him during the whole recital but it took me until now to recognize that he wasn’t just a kid. He was in his twenties. And then it hit me, that, somewhere along the way, without paying attention, I had gotten all grown up too, and sitting on that bench, I felt kind of silly without really being able to say why.
“Man,” Lisa said. “Takes any doubt out of my mind that the dad’s taking the easy road and milking him for money.”
“Fuck him,” Tiller said, and then he started shouting at Jeff. “Yeah, fucker? Piss yourself? Go fucking cry!”
The father and son ignored Tiller, if they could even hear him. Jeff’s dad maneuvered his son into the front seat of the sedan, getting a roll of paper towels out and drying off Jeff’s legs. We didn’t really know where Tiller’s outbursts came from until later, when he had his junior recital late the next semester and his family came, including his (surprise!) mentally disabled younger brother, who sat in the front row and made squealing noises all through Tiller’s Beethoven; and we knew that little brother Jacob was never going to be on Oprah, because he wasn’t the kind of mentally disabled that gave kids special powers.
It was sad.
Eddie got the ball back from the sax guys, and Tiller began jogging out a route, ready to play catch. The silver sedan rolled away. I tried to push what just happened out of my mind as Aubrey came and sat next to me on the bench. She was cute in that Inuit sort of way, except every time she smiled you were reminded that orthodontia wasn’t too high on the Inuits’ cultural priorities. But it wasn’t really the smile that was bothering me; I was starting to get fatalistic about my romantic career, knowing I’d be gone in six months and probably slogging it around the globe with the Army for three years while she was busy taking scale exams and going to parties.
But she bumped her leg up against mine flirtatiously, and it cheered me up. The rest of us watched the sky as it melted away, and Eddie and Tiller tossed the ball at each other as if everything was fine.
All of that was a few years ago. It seems strange to me to think about the Hulston years, because on some days it feels like maybe they didn’t really happen; at bare minimum, my time at college could only be considered a four-year-long holiday. This week we were searching for the mujahideen who made the improved explosive device that detonated and killed Pfc. Newman on Monday outside an Iraqi police station. I had met Newman once; he seemed like a good kid. It really feels like a lifetime later that I am kicking down doors in Fallujah—or maybe two lifetimes, as this is now my second tour.
On Wednesday morning we had gotten a reliable tip on a house that sat the corner of one of Fallujah’s dangerous crossroads, but when my unit raided it that evening we didn’t find anyone home. We checked around for booby traps, and then for bombmaking materials, but we didn’t find any; after a little more investigating, we concluded that we had probably just sacked a regular civilian’s residence.
The sky outside was turning to dusk when we were told to wrap it up and roll out. While SSgt. Baker and Pfc. Williams were taking a last look around—the last two of my good friends still in Iraq—I noticed an old upright piano in the corner, and I poked at a couple of keys with the muzzle of my rifle; as the barrel bounced off of the ivories, a warbled tone came out of the upright, immediately signifying that it hadn’t been tuned in years, if it had ever been tuned at all. I sat down my rifle and began to play anyhow, first some Jerry Lee Lewis, but then something from my Hulston days, some Rachmaninoff, and even through the tinny chords I think you could tell something beautiful was down there, hiding beneath rusty harmonies. It sounded awful, but it sounded great. Baker and Williams came to see what I was doing, watched me, and told me they didn’t know I could play. They didn’t know a lot about my life before the Army; no one did.
And then, I don’t know what started it, but Williams laughed, and kept laughing, and then Baker started laughing too, and finally I began to laugh with them so hard I had to stop playing. Tears were rolling down my face I was laughing so hard.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: those were not your regular garden-variety ha-ha laughs. Those were the kind of laughs that came from the dark side of you, the laughs that knew nighttime was coming and that the insurgents would be active soon, the I-know-we-could-be-dead-soon laughs. Maybe you could call them the laughs of knowing your insignificance; I don’t know. I just know that the regular kind of laughing doesn’t happen over here very much. Not as much as it used to.
Yet as the low Mesopotamian sun still streamed through the open window and the piano’s dying notes still vibrated in the walls, we stood there laughing anyway, like idiot-savants oblivious to the world around us. It reminded me of a memory from my second life, of that moment on the bench when Aubrey gave me an imperfect smile as I watched the way the light was reflecting off the clouds; I was just sitting there, trying to decide whether it was kind of sad or kind of funny how I had started to figure everything out—how that, no matter how much we practiced, it was beginning to look like none of us were ever going to be more famous than a given sunset, because people were suckers for the sight of a little radiance bleeding into the color-violent horizon.