Alec Johnsson

The Prodigy

The minute hand creaks twelve, damps the noise.
   A Bösendorfer and a black velvet bench, the varnish of light balsa panels. The stage’s barrenness seems to put the lie to the pianist’s schedule. This could last the whole night. What if it did.
   She’s somewhere behind the stage door. There’s no telling what she could be doing in this final quiet dark moment before stepping out to the fraught audience, but there is some telling what she’s thinking. The performer who knows the piece and the audience who may or may not know the piece are on two different tracks of mind. For her there is no surprise, but there is expectation. She’s steeling herself, cherishing the brief privacy, the attention on her when she’s there and not even seen yet. What it must be to be her now.
   The knob clicks back, the door peals, the mystery ends. A squall of applause brims.
   She’s in a night-blue blazer over a large lilac collar, paper-rough and creased hard, and an ironed amethyst skirt hemmed at the knees, and silver lamé shoes, her brunette hair pulled back tight. She’s pale and tall, almost six feet, her entire being drawn and elastic, a testament to height, her face included—the lips and broad gray eyes giving the only hints of width—and her hands especially. Even so, her gloves have plastic knobs affixed to them, an extra inch for each finger for the particularly challenging pieces. She has no sheet music. Memory, then. Another state of mind foreign to most of the audience. She shows no reaction to their flattery, merely steps down-center, bows a quarter-way, hands clasped just under her navel, goes round to the bench, sits ramrod, and waits with tacit force for the applause to diminish and cease.
   For five seconds that seem slightly longer she savors the power, the tyranny, of deciding when to begin. Then she begins, forfeits to tempo. The chartreuse program gives the piece: Xenakis’ “Mists”, her first of three tonight. All before intermission is hers. Polyrhythms tinkle and cascade, ever forward, uncatchable.
   Daphne and Garance are four rows from the back of the proscenium, somehow, in their matching buff floppy hats with gesso ribbons and rhododendrons, Daphne a head above in ivy-print suit, Garance in burgundy blouse and maroon scarf. They watch politely enough. They owe it to Charlotte to sit up front, it wasn’t like they came late, but no matter. As long as they don’t see me ensconced as I am in the low dark balcony, my evening will be normal and pleasant. They’d have to recognize me too. Seeing is half the battle. So there’s some threat but not a great deal. All eyes are on Charlotte, ought to be. As on a crowded train, anyone who’d strain to look elsewhere in this hall would be damned as a creep. If caught. Which I won’t be. From here I can watch the wunderkind and her spectators. Their reactions and distractions and what they reveal about them fascinate me as much. Keep an eye on the two dachshund-lovers, too. But again, the risk. They’re smack in my twelve o’clock. If either of them by some synapse takes one glance at their three o’clock I’m in trouble and much as I hope those hats would not block their view. Unlikely, not impossible. A look can bring assurance and danger. I check periodically that they’re still focused on Charlotte and they are and I can relax but if there’s that accident of eye contact I’m in trouble and even then there’s the off-chance they saw me while I was watching Charlotte and I can’t know till I’m not sure when. But can they make me regret coming? No. I wouldn’t’ve changed my plans. I need this. And I’m not a little thrilled by the suspense anyhow. It’s liberating to not get caught. If I don’t, all else is moot. I’ll have done as I wanted and had a good night.
   And yet, here’s another issue, one known to every concertgoer: the silent war for the armrests. I’m fine on the left, but my right’s been monopolized by a real brute, a close-shaven jowly ginger-blonde man in a camo suede jacket, phenomenon of ugliness, aging sacs of salmon skin belying diamond-hard muscles. I ceded what space I had holding my applause for longer, now I can barely keep my elbow on the back corner. I pry for the edge and the sudden tensing of his flesh, subtle and shocking, tells me to fuck off. His gaze doesn’t break from Charlotte. He doesn’t miss a beat. He’s focused, calm, secure, dominant, fairly pissed, demanding of respect. Arm wrestling: a contest of pure strength. He can shut me down without making a scene and I can’t. He could punch the wind out of me and go straight back to watching and no one would protest for me and he knows it too, he seems the type who would, that’s probably his next move. And if I dare draw any attention—no, it’s not worth it. It’s an hour of my life. Best to enjoy the music.
   Uncatchable. Yes. The ephemeral piano note, a cipher by itself without the family of notes around it. Try to relish one pitch, miss the next twenty. Concrete and fleeting as a Newton’s cradle snap. In this piece, the notion is pronounced. Charlotte’s hands—no, not even, her fingers, they’re ten distinct beings on ten distinct tracks, ten tones, ten metronomes. I’ve lost grasp of all the polyrhythms already, the ever-folding veils and sand dunes of prime numbers, the pinpoint drops in the savannahs of silence, but I can tell from how precisely Charlotte’s playing that this piece is insane, would take years for a layman to memorize. Insane, yet so serene, tossing off meter like a used tissue, soaking us in the gestalt, the pleasant muddle of it all. Mists indeed. I’ve heard too many pieces merely approximate the sound or event they try to convey. The train ride in Gershwin, the bird calls in Messiaen, they’re the stuff of legend but not so realistic. Yet these arpeggios really do conjure the intended fog. I see why Charlotte picked it. I admire her curating perspicacity. The audience is lulled, swept in it. Not least Daphne and Garance. To my benefit.
   Before I know it the piece concludes, fades to niente. It took a dozen minutes. By some nuance—some emphatic finality that the truly skilled store in the final note—the audience detects this end, and breaks into applause. Considering it’s only her first piece it lasts for a while, but it’s more than earned. She waits for it to damp, eyes down, hands flush to the bench at her sides, feigning patience, hardly acknowledging the percussion of praise. The applause dims as if embarrassed by her refusal to appreciate it. I say as if because applause is meant to die, to be finite. Love can only drag for so long.
   And yet my love, being a father’s love, drags longer than the brute’s. So: status quo on the armrest.
   Next up is the Hawthorne movement of the Concord sonata. Ives is rather too herky-jerky and abstract for my taste—it seems a bolder ask for music, by itself, to evoke literature—but the piece flows neatly from the Xenakis. Where that was methodical, this is flighty. There is so much mystery to her sense of music. Tone clusters thrum, rumbling as an organ, perhaps even as the electronics of today’s radio hits. How uncanny for Ives to have concocted this on a piano, a string instrument in a way, a harp sliced in halves, encased in wood and strung up to keys. The pianists who can siphon such a tone can’t be many. The acoustics here are terrific, everything sounds gorgeous. Perfect pitch—another state of mind imaginable, describable, only to the savant. A gossamer wafer in a gulf, intangible as a cut of cinema—again, uncatchable. Each note on that Bösendorfer must be crystal, wire-taut, not a Hertz out of line, otherwise she wouldn’t lay a finger on it, she’d stop the whole recital for hours just to tune it. I know for a fact. It’s the same exact thing I’d do.
   I shouldn’t think too hard about the pieces, though. The way my ears work, I need at least a few listens to grasp the melodies. I’ve already forgotten most of the Xenakis and I can only guess I’ll soon forget this no matter how I focus. I need to reflect on how I’m feeling, see if I can articulate it.
   Watching her, pride and shame are warring in my soul.
   Pride that she’s living her potential. Shame at the history that led to this.
   I was a freshman in college, young, narcissistic, frustratedly virginal. I craved my intellectual pursuits, aimed to be philosopher and king, a thinker and a doer, the anthropologist of food and the chef. I wanted love, but children were too much labor, and a child like the one I was would’ve been more labor, for longer, with a greater chance it’d be for naught. Unless the child were a savant. But the odds of that were always low, there was too much risk. Still, I felt shame that my seed was going to waste. It wasn’t really that it would go into women and give them what they wanted. It was the chance my seed could produce something, be of some use, that struck me as so thrilling. I wanted to be a father without the children. Did I think this through, this paradox, this hypocrisy, foisting little retards on unsuspecting mothers? No, not at the time. Okay, a little, and I waved it off with some wishful thinking. It’s my genes, I thought, they won’t be the worst case. At least half will be savants like I was. And even if they’re not—well of course I could recall the therapy that got me out of my fug, got me to communicate, with pen and paper and some Mozart and Bach in the background, so by adolescence I was fluent. I’m convinced that could be done with just about any child, even the catatonic ones. Why not try it on them? Their parents give them up for doomed too rapidly, crosses to be borne by the genetically damned with god-fearing grace and silence. They couldn’t imagine what unknown greatness waits to be unlocked, hacked, in their minds, dismiss them as forever unqualified for life. I was tempted to shut up the naysayers, prove my theory. But I could never find love, and I didn’t even want to deal with children as a career. I knew if I did, I couldn’t single out just the savants, I’d have to confront the whole gamut, from the typical kids to the ones who would be failures. Maybe that was it, the classic excuse: I feared failure. So I prayed that the mothers wouldn’t fail, would know how to reach their children, get them to succeed, as my parents did. Because they wanted these kids more. The resources were there, it’s not like they were less available to this middle-class cohort than during my childhood. The failures, if they happened, whoever they were, whyever, they’d be on the mothers, they wouldn’t be on me.
   Or would they be.
   Charlotte’s my best success. Most turned out failures, but they’re too painful to think about. She’s my proof, all the proof I need. And Daphne and Garance were among the most traumatized, the most litigious of the parents when the whole thing broke. And from what I’ve heard, they did the most to undermine her growth, sent her to the wrong schools, the wrong summer camps, gaslighted her into thinking she’d be nothing, figure nothing out. Yet something in her voiced itself and shot through, the talent in her emerged and developed anyway, of its own accord and volition, it couldn’t be held back or denied, and here I am witnessing it in its full glory, surprising even me. It was all her. I didn’t have to do anything. She wasn’t the first musician, nor the first pianist—it’s an explicable field for a savant—but she’s no less brilliant for it.
   Does she need me? She’s already so much. What if I could make her even better, even more.
   There’s an irony to how all this has resulted. She’s my daughter. Can I be her father?
   Soon enough her silence cues applause. The attention is rapt, constant. I halt my clapping quicker to dive for the armrest. I’ve had enough of hanging off the precipice, or else holding it in my lap, cramped, limp and dead. My neighbor, eyes still on Charlotte, folds his arms as the din peters back down. What a relief.
   She’s capping the act with Alkan’s Minor Étude No. 8 in G-sharp, the first movement of his famous, infamous, Concerto. She makes to start it. Then her body makes a slight turn, and her head a stronger turn, toward the humbled audience, breaking the fourth wall, stunningly. The arc of her gaze threads across me.
   “This is my favorite piece,” she says, pointing at the keys, arguing for it, on the offensive.
   She turns back, inspects her blazer, yanks at her collar for air, poises hands, breathes—kicks off.
   Dear Lord. This piece. It’s a more classical virtuoso showcase, yet it’s handily even more formidable than the prior two. The pretensions of the modern era have been embarrassed. The Ives had its slow junctures, its mercies for the fingersmith. This one doesn’t. It’s one fierce waltz measure dominoing into the next, wild arthritic chords bounding the whole length of the blacks and whites, spreading her arms to the ends of the spectrum and converging them from there, abundant, enthralling, overwhelming. This is full-on braggart mastery, more stultifying in its perfection than could ever be advertised. It’s clear now what Charlotte has done, stitching this triad together, forming this progress, this narrative. It’s riveting.
   A few minutes in, and I’m wiped out. I can’t focus on this, I’ll have to watch the recording. Can’t fall asleep, either. Too hazardous. I’ll need to bolt and dodge the mothers right when this act ends. I was debating whether to stay for the second act—the programs in all the laps have inserts of lyrics, their whites bookmarking the chartreuses like budding snow crocuses—but I really don’t need to. My gaze strays across the blooming garden, stops short of the mothers, returns to the stage. I’m fearing them less, I no longer need to look at them. I’ve come to think it a simple pragmatism, no more than, to choose not to look at them.
    I can’t neglect how her eyes weaved in my direction. She hadn’t done that yet, and she didn’t do the reverse, her gaze faced down on the return. They didn’t land on the balcony, but I can’t help myself willing the possibility that at some point when she takes her bow, she and I will make eye contact. And this I want. The lobby is a nonstarter, the mothers are sure to ambush her there, the bow is my one chance tonight if not for a long time after. I almost regret embedding myself in the dark like this, in my absurd fedora and coat. Surely she knows about me, has heard of me in her years. When did she learn? How often does she think of it, of me? There’s no doubt that her mothers and their allies have cast as damning a portrait of me as possible through her youth, but her perspective of what she’s learned is quite another matter. How would she react if she knew I was here, watching her? Can a man hope—
   The piece breezes by. The hammering final chord jolts me from my stupor. The audience breaks out, all lips beaming. Row by row they put down their purses and programs and rise. A few even whoop and cry “Brava!” I’m a gangly six feet eight, sticking out in any crowd, I’m torn on whether to stay seated. Ah. It’s worth the risk. I stuff the program in a pocket, stand up and join the throng, consumed with love and gratitude. Everything she’s getting is genuine. She maneuvers from the bench, faces the crowd and smiles—it’s the first time she’s smiled onstage, it’s shy, a precious half-inch broader on each end, yet all the more radiant for it—and bows the same quarter-way down, and again as the ovation keeps on, and clasps her hands in thanks. And with a swipe of her ponytail she heads brisk for the door—and backstage.
   She didn’t notice me. She couldn’t have.
   No matter. I’d be lucky to have gotten it.
   The audience persists. The performers often have encore bows, but I can’t take any more time. I move the goldenrod worsted scarf to my neck, avoid the eyes of the brute, flatten myself between the backs of the front row and the outturned elbows in the aisle, dash down the stairs and out the double doors, down the hall flanked by the names of wealthy patrons embossed in ecru on stained glass and tall windows on gliding vehicles and a scrum-film of livid nitrate snow still descending, and into the lobby. Cushioned brown benches. Glass case displays of the photos and programs I’d have been a century late for. A watchman at her desk drenched in the mundanity of her night, a stack of sheet music at her side, inky notes inscrutable to the untrained. A TV airing a simulcast of the stage. As I guessed Charlotte is back for a further vigorous lifting wave of affirmation. They record the Friday night recitals and post them online, I made the right choice not staying, and Charlotte’s work is preserved in the bargain. Did I even need to come tonight? All this way in a possible blizzard? No, don’t regret it, regret nothing, no use for any of that. I’m glad I came. I’m gratified.
    A student with a woodwind case comes in from the cold, crosses, ignoring the watchman, taps her wallet to a touchpad to unlock a door in a glass partition, goes through it and up the oaken stairs, a tapestry of some hunting scene glimpsable on the second floor, and out of sight. A cloistered campus world I can never access, must never intrude on. Charlotte’s world.
   Signs with arrows guide me around and down through a drab gray corridor to the men’s room.
   I occupy the lone stall, hang my coat and hat on the hook, dissemble, sit, release. The others use the urinals. I pay them no heed. No one knocks on my door, so there’s no queue, I can relax somewhat. I empty my mind, try my hardest to think of nothing, I find that’s the best way to relish the present and its recent store of memories. I see pastel red and scotch tape and the corners of old posters for campus events and meek dreary cement. Intimate cold and urban terrain sound seep in through a crack in the tinted transom, and the coarse snowy static of rushing water loads my ears. Daphne and Garance can’t reach me here. They can never take this evening, this fresh jubilation away from me. For a minute or so I see myself as my audience, an audience of one, not even—a cipher, an utter solipsist—and I exult in pride of my daughter, and the audience silently claps. I dare the hardest hearts to not shed a tear at this spectacle.
   Once everyone else has left, I flush the toilet, reclothe, attend to my hygiene, a thorough painstaking process. I dry my hands on the last of the paper towels, and push open the door to exit.
   To find Daphne’s bluff-calling stare deadlocked on me.
   Dachshund fur standing on her suit like dull needles in a closed iron maiden.
   “How … did you—?”
   “The lobby’s a whispering gallery,” she chimes. “I recognized that tune you like to hum.”
   Not what I asked. How did she track me here? Safe assumption? That said, it’s a much more critical detail. My cover was blown from the get-go. There was never any use trying to hide. The money I spent on the facelift was squandered. Did Garance notice me too, or did Daphne tell her? Eh. Who cares.
   “You know there’s still a restraining order on you,” she adds.
   Her eyelashes are kindling flint. Always the worse of the two. Then again she is the biological mother. No doubt she felt invaded. To her I’m a rapist. And in a sense I am. I knew this then. I’ve had to live with it.
   “I’m not who I was when I was eighteen—”
   “Spare me this argument, please.”
   That voice. That venomous growl, through clenched face and withering corneas. The stuff of Disney villains. Thank God I got all the piss out of me. I deserve to endure this, see for how long I can.
   “Am I evil? … Am I?”
   The rage in her face thaws just a bit. We’re alone in the hall, everyone else is upstairs, has been. I can make out a soprano and a string quintet tuning up.
   “It’s never mattered to me who you are, what matters to me is what you did. You lied to me, me and a dozen others, and I will always bear the burden of that lie and whenever I’m faced with your presence I’m disturbed and nothing you do can alter that. And Garance even more—and that’s just how it’s going to be in this lifetime—Jesus, is it too much to ask for you to leave well enough alone? Or do I have to be clearer?”
   I do admire her diction. Clipped, semi-theatrical. Even so I’ve caught a faux pas, rare from her:
   “I can leave you and Garance alone. It’s not you I’m here for anyhow. It’s she who you call a burden.”
   “Don’t go there, do not go there—”
   “Then what is this burden you refer to—?”
   “Raising her. … Have you raised a child? In these years? Are you—no, you’re not and you haven’t, you’re a father in DNA only, you can’t know what it’s like and I’m not about to start dwelling on the details with you but rest assured it absolutely qualified as a burden—”
   “You’d trade her for another, wouldn’t you? … Wouldn’t you?”
   A pause. I’ve knocked her on defense for once. She’s folding her arms, her oxblood pocketbook dangling from the crook in her elbow. It’s the first move she’s made below the neck.
   “Some question that is. If I answer no I’m a liar, if I answer yes I’m a cunt. … No, you know better, I’m not going to fall for that trap. Parents can’t be selfish. They can’t have the child and later on wish they’d aborted it, no, children are the priority, they need to be raised if not always loved. I’m sure you’d agree.”
   She sounds convincing. But I don’t buy it. I can’t.
   “ … Seeing her perform tonight … seeing who she’s become … surely that would ease the burden?”
   She cranes her head back, looks at me funny. She’s vulnerable, confused. Why?
   “ … Why wouldn’t it? I made the difference getting her on that stage. All my work’s paid off.”
   Now I’m flabbergasted. What an insult. And so oblivious. She can’t possibly think—
   “And you think I had nothing to do with that?”
   I know by the last word I’ve spoken too quickly. All at once the ice returns. Hard cracking devastating ice. Harder than ever before. The venom rumbles:
   “Do not—don’t you—this is not a debate—it is dead certain you had absolutely nothing to do with her!”
   Total denial. That’s the only explanation. There’s no reaching her, I’m a fool to have ever thought otherwise. No one could tell her the truth. Sure, another father could’ve given her a kid with a knack for music or another field, and I wouldn’t deny that myself. But he could never have given her Charlotte.
   She slings the pocketbook back on, out of patience, her eyes on me, relentless.
   “Can I at least introduce—?”
   “Not a fucking chance.”
   “She’s an adult of sound mind—”
   “It’s against every bone—”
   No need to finish the cliché. I’m spent and she can tell. It’s her victory, as usual.
   “They put the concerts online. You can watch Charley and the rest there. I’d rather not deal with the police if I don’t have to so you get one last warning. Once I turn around, wait till I vanish, count to fifty, then go back to where you came from, and don’t ever let me, Garance—or Charley—see you in this life again.”
   I watch duly as her suit and heels recede to the gray horizon.
   The corridor winds further behind me, a lurking black hole. I hear the noise of a rec room: sitcom laughter, vending machine whir, clack of billiard balls. A world echoing from even farther.
   Damn her to hell. Commanding me around while she wants nothing to do with me. Count to fifty my ass. If she doesn’t want to see me again, well, the feeling is mutual. But Charlotte? My daughter? When I’ve done nothing to harm her? When I probably in fact—?
   I can take my time walking to the stairs. Which I do. I need to gather my thoughts.
   I think about evolution, Darwinism. I think about it a lot generally, and I think about it yet again now. We’re wired to propagate the species, to produce babies so they’ll produce babies etcetera. Sumptuous sinewy genetically pristine babies down the line. We tell our children not to have sex till adulthood, if not till marriage, and ostensibly we do everything to hold them up to that standard, but we know they’ll have sex anyway and actually we want them to, want them to get practice, earn sexual value, maybe even get rid of the bad seed early, so if you’re a good obedient lad going to college a virgin, you may think you’re more mature than the rest but you have it backwards, they’re the more mature ones and you’re already behind, far behind, left to play a doomed game of catchup. Classic reverse psychology, and if it sounds hypocritical, it is. So who gets to have babies the easiest? The wealthy, the charismatic, the charlatans, the handsome airheads, the social sophisticates, the smooth-talkers, the ruthless users. They place marketing above intellect, govern the whole sphere of human relations without even realizing it, take for granted they’ll have their progeny, their legacy, to inherit and spread their ideas and culture no matter how toxic. But the savants, the ones with the greater gifts for man? They struggle to cohabitate with anyone, and their greatness atrophies and dies because no one wants them as babies, much less wants their babies. Too much risk. And thus our history is one of regression, crisis, sadism, and occasional halting advancement. Not even I wanted my sort for a child. But at least I learned that was the wrong attitude, and am honest enough to admit it. Hell if Daphne can.
   So really who is she to judge me.
   All this could just be my id talking, the cruel pessimistic me. But there is one truth I can’t escape no matter how fair I am to my nemeses. Daphne said it was the lying she can never forgive me for, the lie of omission, the thwarting of her expectations. Fine. But how exactly did she suffer? What did she lose? She didn’t get the normal daughter she fantasized, she got the prodigy. Did she think Charlotte was cursed, that I cursed her? God I’ll never get over how she thinks Charlotte is here because of her, no more than I could stomach calling her Charley. I reckon it’s yet another time-worn debate she was in no mood to have. To her Charlotte’s nature was a burden, still is, and the mother’s nurture saved her, when the fact is so blatantly vice versa. Still is. That’s the key. Same old evolution. She’s nothing if not a practical social beast, fearing the renaissance, fully biased toward the order of things as it’s suited her all her life. She wanted the nuclear wife who’d marry good and bear her nuclear grandkids. Still wants—her own Sapphism notwithstanding. So while most of her type would trade the prodigy for that wife in a heartbeat, with Charley, Daphne’s determined to get both. Delusional. She’s set herself up for a grand disappointment and the only pathetic defense she’ll have is to blame it once again on me. Her eyes cut through me and I’ve never met anyone else so blind. The only way to prove her wrong, as if she’d ever sanction it, would be to let me be the father, as much as I can be at this point, for however long Charlotte would permit, just for a day, that’s all I’d ask for, the bare minimum, to spend a day with my daughter doing as she likes. There’d be no need for any sort of nurture, I’d get the hell out of dodge and let her nature carry her wherever, and the day would be immaculate. And now I must confess: I do wish I’d had the chance to father a child myself, the proper way, to show unequivocally that, yes, it can be done. I regret copping out of it, coward I was. I wish I’d raised Charlotte more than anything.
   I trudge up the stairs recalling Daphne’s ultimatum. I should feel defeated, fatalistic. Once I leave the lobby it’s over, I can’t risk trying to see her again. I’d waited like a monk for years after my last attempt, waited for the right time, even after the surgery. I thought tonight would be the breakthrough, thought it’d be easier to reach her as an adult, but I’ve only made the matter more difficult, ludicrous, humiliating. Why am I surprised? This has been the case with all my kids, the successes and the rest, the ones who haven’t fallen off-grid. Somehow I’ve never not been caught. I’m familiar to the police in all the towns. None of the parents have been as tenacious as Daphne, to my relief, but I’d still have been lucky to get any water from those stones. And now Daphne can tell them about my new face. A royal fuckup. That’s what I am. And yet I feel … what’s the word … defiant. Yes. Defiant. Am I the one in denial? Disguising my pain with wrath? Perhaps. I’m aware of this much, this one undeniable fact: I have one more chance, one ace up the sleeve, one final hope against hope, in the few precious seconds I walk through the lobby, to get what I couldn’t while she performed. I’ll pick her from the crowd and look straight at her with the softest eyes, paternal eyes, and try to get her attention. It won’t be all in my control. I can only be subtle, I can only use my presence and the tread of my shoes. She’ll have to meet me halfway. But it won’t be impossible. I’ll do what I can. If her mothers notice they can’t hurt me any more than they have if I simply depart right after. She’ll know I saw her tonight for who she is. She’ll make of it what she will. And it’ll be my small, but meaningful, triumph.
   I emerge from behind the partition, looking down the lobby. A dozen or so folks mill about in duos and trios. The exit is across from the watchman, a diagonal walk. I glide toward it.
   I note the concave ceiling, spearing soundwaves from an Art Nouveau floral design mildewed by time. Daphne and Garance are distant, backs turned, distracted by another fellow middle-aged woman. Pole position. They’re next to the TV. The quintet’s playing without the soprano.
   And there’s Charlotte. Next to the door.
   Looking at me dead-on.
   Wide-eyed. Lips parted a centimeter.
   Some friend of hers is in front of her talking. Easy to presume the friend thinks Charlotte’s gaze is just casually straying, it’s natural, it’s expected, Charlotte would freak her out to lock eyes on nothing but her for inordinate minutes. I’m not creating too much of a diversion.
   I hardly had to do anything. Still I ought to capitalize.
   Not too harsh, with no change in my pace, I give her the same grin she gave the audience, with a slight nod and a tip of my brim, a top-o’-the-evening just a tad more than perfunctory.
   She holds the eye contact as I approach, conspicuous, then mimics the grin, and waves with two fingers of her right hand, knobs removed, and breaks the gaze to answer her friend.
   It was only a few seconds. It didn’t feel longer. It was all I needed. The weight is off my back.
   Two pairs of double doors spread-eagle at my touch.
   There’s a faint drizzle, the snow is grayer, the wind more insistent but not yet face-skinning. Inexplicably the traffic is thicker, and the park bounded by the low flintstone wall to the left is teeming with college potheads, the homeless, and the bolder and tardier of the shopaholics. I see the corner pub at the other end of the crosswalk, dark-paneled, homely and coffin-narrow. I had a good satiating dinner, but I’m never against a drink or dessert, in fact the moment calls for it. Barring Daphne’s intervention it was a good evening, well worth the expense and trouble. I skip down the lime balustrade, over, across, and in. The voices, the warmth, and the scent of frying grease wrap me in their vise, a world away from the sacrosanct monastic conservatory. The tables at the front window and the long line of claret velvet booths are occupied, but half the stools at the bar are open. I sit there and ask for a strong ale and the dessert menu and get both promptly in exchange for a credit card. I know I’ll soon have to confront whether to build on my small dark victory, and if so how, or to take whatever comfort it provides and quit while I’m ahead, but I don’t need to do that too soon, I’ve got a luxury of time, I can take the rest of this night to relax and empty my head. The ale is the brown of the walnut counter and wainscot, with a tall froth, bitter hops, chocolatey notes and a sharp pear aftertaste. My first gulp is large but I’ll savor the rest slow. I let my mind wander to holistic, business matters. I ponder making burgers with seal meat and how they’d go with watercress and cicada paste, I make mental plans to expand the franchise to this and that other suburb, I predict the next supply chain hiccups and food shortages to impact the menu—can’t see how it won’t be seafood, likely oysters and salmon. Into this zen moment, the usual fretting creeps. I have my daily regrets of changing my name while keeping the initials, my momentary fears that some crusading muckraker will discover my old identity and history, that one of the mothers or cops will finally blow the whistle, and my business will take the body blow. Should I have gotten more surgery, a referral to someplace better? Jesus. I know what I have to get: a grip. I should only worry about all this if I have to. At any rate, even today, the worst might be survivable.
   “Same thing he’s having.”
   A low husky voice behind me, amplified through the din. I turn clockwise on my stool.
   Charlotte.
   Looking at me again, eyes wider, with the same barely-there grin. Elbow on the counter, head tilted, hand tufting her hair. Torso leaning forward, the buttons of her blazer and the top one of her shirt freed, the other arm holding herself, ankles crossed. The other side of her. The offstage side.
   “I saw you were heading here. … Do you mind?”
   I should be elated. I’m shocked. My victory’s largening, paying off faster than I imagined it would. What am I supposed to do? How to capitalize on this? I realize it’s my first time being a father. I’ve gotten what I’ve been chasing for years, had every reason to think I’d lost for good, and now I have it and don’t know how to act. I’m the ouroboros biting its tail. I have to improvise. I figure most new fathers do.
   “ … N-no. Of course not.”
   The ale is slapped before her, a pool of froth in the leather coaster. She lifts her head and drinks, not as much as my gulp but still impressive. She doesn’t change her posture otherwise.
   “Do you live here?”
   I tell her. My town’s fifty miles off.
   “Spending the night here?”
   I give her my hotel.
   “Mom and Ma are staying over the river. We’ll be fine. … I told them I was seeing friends.”
   And on cue, I see Daphne and Garance outside on the corner, seeking their ride, breathing coarse mist and tightening their lapels. What if they see us? Now there’s danger for her as well. The window isn’t one-way and there isn’t enough frost yet. They look in our vicinity but not quite at us. Are we deep enough in this pub? Charlotte isn’t turning to look. I’m doing a decent job hiding my anxiety.
   “So you know who I am.”
   She half-laughs. “I knew right away. Your surgeon did a good job. Not great, though.”
   She’s seen old photos of me, from news clippings. “And your Mom and Ma have told you … ”
   “Only the earful.”
   Their cab pulls up, a checkered vehicle. Garance gets in first. Daphne takes one last look, forever circumspect, forever paranoid, at the park, into the pub, at the building behind her schooling her daughter, then follows her spouse. The door closes. The cab slides off. We’re safe.
   “I’ve composed a piece for you. A saraband in F-sharp Mixo. I’d like to play it for you at some point.”
   Has she really? The curiosities keep coming. I can forget the mothers now. How to respond.
   “Charlotte, that’s … rather the gift. And from such a splendid talent. I’d be honored to hear it—”
   “It’s not done yet. Needs a polish. But once it’s ready you’ll know.”
   “All in due time.” I don’t want to appear too awestruck. “ … Have you eaten?”
   She crooks her neck at me with whimsy. “I have. And I’ll pay for my drink.” She sees the dessert menu in my numb static grip. “Think I could have a look at that?”
   She scans it over, hands it back. It’s hard to tell if she’s hungry or not. She seems to have something substantial simmering in her mouth, cooking in the ale. I go first:
   “I know what I did could be called unforgiveable. … I’ve had to learn to be better without the pardon. It’s not that no one’s given it to me, it’s that it can’t be earned, you can’t try to atone. If you do anything for atonement and not out of some unselfconscious nobility, it’s insincere, it’s hollow. It’s an impossible dance. You can’t know where you are in it. … I came here tonight for me. I didn’t expect—”
   “That’s enough. My beef is with Mom and Ma, and all their talk of how you ‘affected’ me. Pure bigotry. … I accepted what I was born as a long time ago. Happened to be a net gain anyhow.”
   I can’t describe my relief. Even more than the dedication, those words seem a greater music, the music of the spheres. My vindication is complete. Do I need the other children anymore? Do I deserve this?
   She’s looking in the bar mirror, eyes glazed. Not unlike with her friend, she’s more enmeshed in our talk than she’d be with the eye contact. She’s all ears, true to her musicianship. I don’t reply, not yet, she has more to say to me, it’s obvious. She needs one more sip of ale in the oven. Then—
   “This isn’t restaurant talk but I couldn’t care less. I played with my shit in kindergarten art class. I called all the teachers by their first names, tugged all the boys by their sex. I lit my bedroom on fire just to watch it burn and shattered glass with my shriek whenever I got pissed. Mom and Ma sent me to a teen girls’ boot camp and they sent me home in a week, must’ve been their record. That’s why they hate you. … I have no patience for authority. My mind is awash in depraved revenge fantasies, if I told you you’d be floored. The same impulse is there, the same rage, it’s just that I’m maturer, I’ve—well, I wouldn’t say I’ve kept it in check—but I’ve learned to channel it productively. Music, for one. That’s what Mom and Ma couldn’t figure out till I was fifteen. You can’t just use discipline. I aced all my tests, always spoke articulately, graduated as valedictorian two years early. My piano skills haven’t changed since I was eight, that’s all in my nature. You have to guide your child, not suppress her. There’s pain that builds and pain that breaks. At their best they tried both, they negotiated. Mom, Daphne, she’s the more, shall we say, authoritarian of the pair … not that Ma is anything to sneeze at. Perhaps they think if they give you an inch … ”
   She has Daphne’s way of letting the bromide trail off. I’m not so unsettled though.
   A pause. A sip. Then she looks back at me. Gaze flat and forward, all emotions on the surface.
   “I need my own opinion of you, unfiltered. I’m sick of hearing about you. I need memories of you. Whether they’ll be happy is beside the point. I’m coming in neutral, blank slate, nothing rosy. I could decide everyone was right about you: a liar, a loser, a bastard, a dick, a stalker. Or not. I honestly don’t know yet, I’m feeling fifty-fifty. But it’s worth the shot. And either way, you will hear the saraband. My promise. ... I know this much: I know you’re not evil. There’s a difference between what’s evil and what’s … merely inappropriate. Which can be learned from. I’d know. And that’s all the more proof you’re part of who I am. Mom and Ma are, too, but naturally they pretend they were everything, that you had no role in my life—”
   Oh crap. I see the interruption, the ambush, in advance. A man from her five o’clock, swarthy chunk-shouldered hulk in plaid and denims, mop of auburn hair shaved to the scalp over the left ear, smirking, leering glassy eyes on her. The type with only one thought on the brain on Friday night. Can’t he see she’s in the middle of a rather significant catharsis. Could the world give less of a shit for me.
   He paws the back of her neck. She one-eighties on the stool and does an “Oh hey” and I’m about ready to tell him to fuck off when she leans forward—and takes his kiss.
   A rapid-burst lip-lock. Self-evident in meaning.
   “I’ve never seen you here before,” the guy says.
   “I’m … meeting with my dad. His choice of place. Dad, this is my boyfriend Otto.”
   “Pleasure to meet you, sir.”
   “ … You as well.”
   We shake hands. My instinct rings an alarm. Something’s off about him. He’s not unhandsome. But beneath that not-unhandsomeness, in the structure of his face, I can’t help but detect—no
   He’s the son of that meathead who I battled over the armrest.
   He can’t be. But he is.
   Un-fucking-believable.
   “ … I’m not butting in?”
   “No, no. We can hang out. You don’t mind, right, Dad?”
   Fucking hell. I’m trapped. One minute ago my night was resurrected, now I’m flailing.
   “Not at all. I could get to know you.”
   “Awesome.” Flecks of jaundice in his irises. “I just gotta use the john real quick.”
   He goes in back. Her eyes follow him with lucid lust. Did I just say that? Is she really letting him interfere with her first ever meeting with her father? Oh, right, she’s the same social klutz I was at her age. She may not understand. That or she’s taking all this in stride. I pray he gets stuck in there.
   “We’ve been together a year,” she gushes. “He’s a year ahead of me, he’s a black MIDI composer, you know those impossible pieces, so many notes you can’t even read ‘em, only a computer can … ”
   Oh yes, I know the genre. A nihilist’s innovation. The favored music of the sort of brainless whining doomsayers constantly asserting to all in earshot that the species has peaked, we’ve done everything we can and there’s nowhere new for man to go, nothing more to discover, nothing left to do but surrender to the machine. Balderdash. How could she fall for such a cloying fad.
   “ … his stuff’s incredible. We’re gonna do a live tour of his pieces, coast to coast, me and a dozen other pianists. Everyone’s helping him out with this, everyone thinks he’s brilliant. We got a grant from the school, Mom and Ma matched it, his whole family’s chipped in. Only makes him more ambitious—he’s talking about taking it to Europe now. Not impossible. But we’d need more funding.”
   You’ve got to be kidding—
   That’s it. I’ve hit bottom. Every organ in me crushed. She threw the grenade underhand. If she hadn’t come to this tonight, she’d have brought it up eventually, the cynic in me should’ve seen it on the horizon. The reunion comes with a price tag. A subsidy for the boyfriend and the next phase in music. I could not be more offended. And now that I’ve come this far—I can’t let her go. I don’t have a choice.
   “I’ve got some cash to spare,” I say between drinks. “I’ll talk with the bank Monday.”
   Her eyes shift to mock humility. “Oh no—I didn’t mean—”
   “Say no more. … I’d be glad to help you and him out, it’s the least I can do. … I’ll want to listen to his stuff, of course … but the concept sounds promising.”
   At that, uncharacteristic, she smiles wide like a girl half her age, and bounds on her stool, triumphant.
   She finishes her ale and pats my shoulder. “Now I gotta use the ladies’ room. I’ll give him the news.”
   And goes to do just that.
   Might as well. Nothing like a solitary ale-steeped sulk to purge the weary soul.
   I’ve got to hand it to Daphne. Her victory is total. She got the prodigy and the wife after all, and well before I knew it. My only solace is the prodigy came from me, at least I’m confirmed in that. But how could Charlotte ever think she needs to be the wife too? To navigate the world outside the conservatory, to keep her atypical self locked in there? Why can’t she just be the prodigy wherever she goes? That would be the truthful way, the honorable way, with the highest risk and highest reward. Instead she’s the bat between the birds and the beasts, two-faced, worse than a hypocrite, a traitor. And even if the wife is a lie, a guise, it’s part of her, Daphne’s sewn it in and there’s no ripping it out now. Daphne probably thought Charley needed to be the wife to become the prodigy. Insane. And yet, even so, I have one more point to concede to her tonight, she has this dead-right at least: Children must be raised if not always loved. Well now it’s my turn to raise Charlotte, to smother the wife and save the prodigy. To the extent I can. I’ll have to put on a guise myself. I can’t be brusque about it. Whatever I do can only be subtle, under the radar. It’ll take years, it’ll be slow, difficult, painful. It’ll likely fail. But I have to try. However it turns out, she’ll still be the best I’ll ever have.
   She and Otto return muttering, agitated with glee. A host meets them, tells them a front table is open. She waves me over. I take my ale, stuck to its coaster, and pass through the crowd, past yapping laughing façades with their own private sordid struggles beneath. We take our seats. I order the blackberry dacquoise, she the panna cotta, he the tiramisu. We push our chairs in close and prop our elbows on the walnut, and as we talk I watch the matrix of snow, the flawless skeins, tint the window and layer on the macadam, and I watch Charlotte’s reflection layer on that, and I reflect on what I’ve made.
   My bed. My daughter. My prison.
 

tiffany jolowicz Monday on Michigan Island, Yesterday, the Day Before, Two Thousand Years