"Had the brass-face to come round me playing the Sodom and Gomorrah music!"
The old woman they said was his great-grandmother stood eyeing him from behind the locked iron gate to the basement of her house. She had ordered that he be brought to see her as soon as he arrived, if not the same day, then the one following. In either case, he was to visit her first, she'd said, before any of the other relatives, and certainly before "the old-miss-young" across the street at No. 258 Macon. And the visit was to last a full hour. She had insisted on that also.
Yet minutes had passed and she had made no move to open the gate and let him in. Nor had she spoken as yet, even though Hattie who had brought him over for the visit and was standing waiting behind him had politely greeted the woman and introduced him when she answered the bell.
"Hello, Mrs. Payne, it's Hattie," she'd said. "Hattie Carmichael? You might not recognize me it's been so long, so many years...And this is Sonny. His name's Sonny."
Not a word. Her rheumy, clouded-over eyes immediately latching onto his face, the woman hadn't said a word. Nor had she so much as glanced at Hattie.
He waited, puzzled, Hattie behind him, her height and bulk shielding him from the wind that had followed them into the bare front yard of the house. A late March wind that was behaving as if it were still the depths of winter. On the way over, it had buffeted them past the houses lining either side of the long street. They were row houses the like of which he had never seen before, all of them four stories tall under lowering, beetle-browed cornices, all of them hewn out of a dark, somber reddish-brown stone, and all with high stoops of a dozen or more steps slanting sharply down from the second story to the yard. Because of the raised, high-stepping stoops, the brown uniform houses made him think of an army goosestepping toward an enemy that was a mirror image of itself across the street.
Then there was the heavy wrought-iron basement gate under the side of each stoop, identical to the one rearing up just inches from his face. A dungeon gate with arrowhead bars like spears. He liked it. Liked also the marching houses. Castles. Something about them reminded him of the castles and fortresses he was good at drawing.
The woman he'd been told was his great-grandmother continued her silent scrutiny of him. For his part, he had already noted as much of her as he cared to, from the battered old-lady hat on top of her uncombed hair down to the none-too-clean housedress to be glimpsed under a long, shapeless cardigan that was as heavy as a coat hanging on her tall bony frame.
The few buttons left on the sweater were all in the wrong holes and there were food stains on it as well as on the dress.
Like a two-year-old, he thought, who didn't know how to dress or feed itself good.
Worse, there was her hand. You're not to stare Hattie was always admonishing him. This time he couldn't help it. There was nothing wrong with the woman's right hand. That was okay. But behind the tall bars of the gate, her left hand kept up a trembly dance at her side.
Did he really want someone like her for a relative?
"Is something wrong, Mrs. Payne?" Hattie's voice at his back. "Have you changed your mind? Should I maybe bring him back another day?"
A cut-eye. The woman finally acknowledged Hattie's presence with a single venomous cut-eye and returned her gaze to his face.
It came to Sonny then: the gate wouldn't open, the visit would not take place, so long as Hattie stood drawn up behind him as if waiting to barge into the house the moment he was admitted. She was not, it had been agreed, to be part of the visit. The man who had met them at the airport two days ago and driven them in his big, fast car to this strange place called Brooklyn -- his great-uncle Edgar the man had called himself -- had prevailed upon Hattie to let him visit the woman alone.
That's another thing the great-grandmother woman had insisted on. He was to be alone with her. Not even the man, who was her son, was to be present.
"You don't mind, do you?" the man had asked him. "A big boy like you."
"No," he had lied.
"I warn you, she's old and acts a little odd at times, but you're not to let it bother you. After all, she's family and blood."
"There're all kinds of family and blood's got nothing to do with it!" Hattie.
She had sounded to Sonny as if ready to take him and herself right back home on the plane that had brought them.
The man had hastily agreed with her.
Now she was saying to the woman, and she was no longer being polite, "All right, Mrs. Payne, I get the message. I'm leaving. But I'll be back for him in an hour, if not before. He's to meet his other great-grandmother this morning too, y'know. She's got as much right to him as anybody else around here!"
Then, bending down to hug him from behind, Hattie repeated the instructions she'd given him earlier: if there was a problem or he didn't like it or if anything happened to upset or frighten him he was to phone her and she'd come get him right away.
To prevent the woman from understanding, she had switched from English to French. Or what with Hattie passed for French. Terrible. Sonny hadn't realized just how terrible was the scrambled, make-do French she spoke until he started school.
Did he have the slip of paper with the number where they were staying in his pocket?
"Oui," he said; and deeply offended by the cutting look she'd been dealt, Hattie, his fathermothersisterbrother and all the "kin" he'd ever known, was gone.
The moment she turned out of the yard, the woman unlocked the dungeon gate.
It took her a while because of the trembly hand.
That done, she spoke for the first time. "Come out the cold, nuh!"
Inside, fearful but curious, he followed her down a long dim hallway that wasn't much warmer than outside. And that had a smell. The basement or ground floor of the woman's house had a dank, musty, stale-kitchen smell and there was so little light that for all his curiosity he couldn't see much of anything except shadows, large, unwelcoming shadows observing him on either side.
He kept close on the woman's heels.
As if to make up for the time lost waiting for Hattie to leave, she was moving at a stiff but urgent shuffle. Midway down the hall, a walled-in staircase loomed up to their right and, without bothering to check on him behind her, she started up the steps.
She climbed, one halting baby step at a time, while he hung back at the bottom, unable to see where to place his foot the darkness on the walled-in stairs was so dense.
"Come 'long, nuh!"
He scrambled blindly up. Yelling at him! Annoyed, he would've sneaked a look under her dress to get back at her had there been any light. It was wrong, but he would have done it anyway.
Upstairs, on the second floor, another long hall led back toward the front of the house. There was somewhat more light here, although it only served to reveal a shameful state of neglect and dirt everywhere. Cracked and peeling walls. Large turds of dust like tumbleweed. Overhead, the rusted pipes of a defunct sprinkler system lined what had once been a beautiful coffered ceiling. Underfoot, the filthy hall runner was worn clear through to the floorboards down its center.
He would tell Hattie on her: that she had yelled at him and that she kept her house no better than she kept herself.
Near the front of the hall, she came to a halt at the foot of a wide staircase leading to the two upper floors of the house. Then, abruptly: "Turn off the lights and the blasted radios up there!" The woman suddenly shouting like a drill sergeant up the dark and silent stairs. "You think I own Con Edison? Damn roomers! You's more trouble than profit!"
Before he could see the lights or hear the radios for himself, he was bounding after her over to an elaborately carved double door on their left. As was true of all the woodwork in the hall, the joined doors had clearly not been polished in years; nevertheless they were still handsome, stately, tall, reaching almost to the high ceiling, the kind of doors he'd seen only in a church.
These, the woman opened. Or rather, she made them disappear. With what seemed to him an abracadabra motion of her hands -- including the shaky one -- on the handles, she sent both halves of the great door rumbling out of sight.
Magic. True, he saw the metal track in the floor and the long slender pockets in either wall, yet it nonetheless seemed like something magical she alone had done.
He was suddenly less annoyed with her.
Through the wide doorway, the old woman ushered Sonny into a shuttered, airless living room filled to overflow with an assortment of shabby, mismatched furniture, none of it arranged in any order. A living room that had originally been a formal Victorian front parlor, although now it looked like a dark, dusty warehouse or a secondhand furniture store that hadn't had a sale in years.
Moving with even greater urgency, she led him through the clutter over to an old upright piano that had an unusually high front.
Out of everything in the room the piano alone stood dusted and polished.
There she stopped. "Take off yuh coat, nuh."
His new coat. Hattie had bought it for him only days ago with money from the check sent her by the man who had met them at the airport. After threatening for weeks to tear up both the check and the letter that had accompanied it and toss the pieces like so much poubelle, garbage, into the Seine, she had finally changed her mind and used the money to outfit him in everything new from head to toe.
"No need for you to go there looking like a pauper," she'd said.
He handed over the coat as well as his hat and gloves to the woman, who then pointed to his shoes, new also. He was to remove them too.
Why? He started to ask why only to see her stiffen. About to yell at him again.
He did as ordered.
The shoes off, she waved him up on the piano bench. He was not to sit though. Another wave directed him to stand. And when he did, when he stood up on the bench
in his socks, he found himself face-to-face on top of the piano with a large, framed photograph of a boy more or less his age. A primly posed, unsmiling boy a lesser shade of brownish-black than himself and all dressed up in an old-timey suit and high-topped shoes, his hair neatly parted on one side, his hands neatly clasped in his lap.
The boy in the photograph appeared to be seated at the same piano, his back to it, and on the stand behind lay a music book. Through the sepia cast of the picture, a large B could be seen on the music book's cover, followed by an A, a C, and ending with H.
The woman stood quietly, almost reverently, examining the photograph with him, until all of a sudden, without warning, she swung angrily away from it and was shouting again -- this time up at the cobwebbed ceiling -- "Had the brass-face to come round me playing the Sodom and Gomorrah music!"
Then, her voice normal again: "Sit," she said.
He quickly dropped down on the bench and she uncovered the keyboard.
"I don't know how to play," he said.
She ignored this and reaching around him from behind opened the panels in the piano's high front. To his astonishment, there inside the piano, in its innards, stood a long roll of white paper, paper whiter and cleaner than anything he had seen so far in the house. Instead of the usual cat's cradle of strings and the little felt-tipped hammers that even he knew was what made the music when you struck the keys, there was something that looked like a giant roll of papier hygiénique. What was toilet paper doing inside a piano? All the more puzzling, someone had taken a razor blade and made any number of little cuts and nicks all over it.
Before he could find his tongue, more magic: the giant roll of white paper began to move. The woman pressed a switch to the left of the keyboard and the paper began moving. In the same instant, keys to the left and right of where he sat, the yellowed ivory ones as well as the faded black keys, began moving at random, sinking down and then rising, rapidly sinking and rising entirely on their own. And music, music as tall and stately and ecclesiastic as the doors the woman had made vanish, came pouring forth.
Sonny looked up at her dumbstruck and she touched him. Bending over him, enveloping him in what Hattie would have called a B.O. smell mixed together with the damp mustiness of her basement, she took his hands in both of hers. The woman's fluttering left hand closing around his. The feel of it! Scared, repelled, he tried pulling away.
Maintaining her grip, she then did two things that in the next few minutes would make him forget for the time being the scary feel of her hand. First, she slowly spread his fingers and arched them slightly. This done, she then began guiding his hands to where the keys left and right were sinking down, trying to reach them and place his fingers on as many of them as possible in the fraction of a second before they rose again.
For the longest time she repeatedly steered his hands back and forth across the keyboard, showing him how the game was played, while the huge sheet of paper with its hieroglyphics of cuts and nicks scrolled majestically down before his eyes, and the music soared.
Finally she released his hands, stood up from over him, said, "All right now, you's to play till I say stop," and went and sat down nearby.
He was suddenly on his own. At first, he missed all of the keys. They would fall and rise before he even came close. He wasn't fast enough, alert enough, and his fingers were too short. It was a frustrating scramble that made him want to bring his fist like a sledgehammer down on the keyboard or throw himself on the floor and kick and rage as if he were a baby again. Until gradually, ever so slowly as he kept at it, his eyes grew more alert to the slightest movement on either side of him and his fingers became faster in tracking his eyes to the spot. Eventually he was reaching some of the keys just as they began to descend and pressing them down completely. He was the one causing them to sink before they quickly rose again. It was all his doing! So that while it remained a game, he convinced himself that he was actually playing. He, Sonny Carmichael Payne, was the one creating the lofty music and not just some oversize roll of papier hygiénique.
As for the keys he missed, which was most of them, he was enjoying himself too much to care.
What did the woman think of his playing? He paused to look over at her. She was seated in a sagging, overstuffed armchair that looked as if a generation of feral cats had used its padded legs as a scratching post, the upholstery in shreds. Under her hat which she hadn't taken off (nor had she removed the sweater that was as heavy as a coat), her eyes were closed. Had she nodded off? Hattie did that sometimes. He caught, though, the hint of a smile. The forbidding woman smiling? Her right hand clamped down hard on its ungovernable twin to keep it quiet in her lap, she was listening to the music with what he could swear was the trace of a smile on her aged, fallen face.
Perhaps he might get to like her a little, he thought. Her magic. Her special piano. Her games. All that might help him to overlook not only the slovenly state of both her and her house, but her habit of shouting at persons unseen, as well as at him. He might also get used to the way she talked. Her English was different from Hattie's.
As for that hand of hers...he might even get used to that. After all, look at his nounou, his sitter, old Madame Molineaux, who minded him the nights that Hattie worked. Didn't she have a funny thing she did with her head? For as long as he could remember, Madame Molineaux's ancient head had always kept up a little nervous side-to-side motion she couldn't help. Her head going side to side like the pendulum of an old-fashioned clock. Because of it, she always appeared to be saying non, non, non to everything, non, non, non even when she meant oui.
He hardly noticed it anymore he was so used to it.
Nor was Madame Molineaux all that clean. Wasn't Hattie always complaining that the way she kept her apartment, which was next door to theirs, was enough to turn your stomach?
He turned back to the dancing keyboard. This time, to help him out and to make the game more fun, he reached up to the top of the piano. He grew his arm to twice its length and easily hauled down the prim, old-timey boy in the picture to sit beside him on the bench. He unclasped the neatly folded hands, crooked the fingers slightly as the woman had done with his, and after quickly showing him what to do, put him to work chasing down the keys to the right of the keyboard.
He would concentrate on those to the left.
Wait'll he told Hattie he had learned to play the piano on his very first try!
Copyright © 2000 by Paule Marshall
The Fisher King
The Fisher King -- a moving story of jazz, love, family conflict, and the artists' struggles in society -- offers hope in the healing and redemptive power of one memorable boy.