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Prodigies


ISSUE:  Summer 1988

Terry put his hands in his pockets and walked slowly along the concrete sidewalk, a line of cars to his left parked at the curb, his older brother Jay to his right. He was on his way home from the bus stop after his weekly appointment with the school psychiatrist. Terry knew many of the families in this neighborhood: they were mostly Italian and Roman Catholic, and the kids all went to St. Mary’s on Sundays.

Jay said, “I think he’s nuttier than you are,” and stuck his hands into his pockets. Jay was six-one and weighed 230 pounds. Before graduating last year, he had played center for his high school football team. He brooded as he trudged along, hunched over and sullen, his size accentuated by his brother’s smallness. Terry was five-eight and skinny. He played chess.

Terry took his hands out of his pockets, annoyed by Jay’s habit of imitating his stances and gestures.

Jay said, “Why do you have to be like this? You got everything going, but no . . .you get an ulcer, you’re moody. It’s not right for somebody’s 14. Fourteen and you go to a shrink.” He shook his head.

“What do you want from me?”

“Straighten up!”

Terry looked across the street, away from his brother. He wouldn’t be going to the shrink at all if his family—his mother and Jay—hadn’t insisted. They incorporated it into the family rules, a written document that had been growing in length since the death of his father two years ago. Now it was almost two pages long, single-spaced, every line a rule.

“You going to talk or what?” Jay asked. “How come you never talk to me anymore?”

“I talk to you.”

“So? What happened with the shrink? He really tell you this atheism thing’s okay?” He spit into the gutter. “He’s nuttier than you are.”

“You already said that.”

“I mean it.”

They were still several blocks from home, and Terry was tired of answering questions. The shrink had been pumping him for an hour. Why this and why that. Why do you feel dead inside? What do you mean, your body feels like it’s made out of lead? Why’s everything look dark to you? What’s your problem, Terry? What’s with you? Terry knew the shrink was trying to get him mad, and for a moment it had almost worked. When he realized what was up, he just frowned.

Jay caught him by the shoulder. “Just tell me this: Did he say to you “This atheism thing, it’s okay”?”

“You want to know what he said, Jay?” He started walking again and Jay followed, listening. “I said, “I don’t believe in God.” He said, “Is it because your father died?” I said, “I don’t think that has much to do with it.” He nodded. I shrugged. That’s it. That’s all that happened.”

“So, then, he didn’t say it’s okay.”

Terry closed his eyes.

Jay though awhile, and then added, “Well, I take it back. Maybe he’s not so nutty.”

When they passed Vinnie’s house, Vinnie’s father and mother were sitting on the stoop. The father pointed at Terry and spoke to Jay.

“You take care of your little brother,” he said, wagging his finger.

Jay smiled. “I’ll take care of him.” He put his hand on Terry’s shoulder.

When they were down the block, Teny said, “He always does that. He always tells somebody else how I’m going to be a big man, and I’m standing right there. Why doesn’t he ever tell me?”

“Cause he’s shy of you.”

“Shit.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“Why’s he shy?”

“Why’s he shy. Because he knows you’re hot stuff. You’re city chess champion—”

“In the fourteen-and-under class.”

“You got your picture in the—”

“All right!” Terry said. “That doesn’t mean I’m a freak.”

Jay stopped. “Who said that? Somebody call you that?”

Terry kept walking.

Jay caught up and held him by the shoulder. “Why you have to be like this?”

Terry didn’t answer.

When they reached their block, Jay said: “Will you try to cheer up before we get home, and make Mom feel better.”

“I’ll cheer up.”

“And don’t tell her the atheist stuff.”

“The shrink said I’m supposed to open up to you and Mom. I’m supposed to tell you what I feel.”

“Fine. But not this atheist crap. Mom’11 tear her hair out.”

“Okay. I won’t tell her.”

“Anything else, fine. Just not this no God stuff.”

“Anything else?”

“Anything. Really.”

“Should I tell her I been seeing a girl?”

“What girl? You didn’t tell me you been seeing a girl.”

“I’ve been walking her home from the park in the afternoons and hanging out at her house.”

“Just the two of you?”

“Her father’s home.”

“What’s her father doing home? Don’t he work?”

“He’s a teacher. He doesn’t work summers.”

“Where’s he teach?”

“My school.”

“You know him?”

“Sure. That’s how I met his daughter.”

“Who is he? What’s he teach?”

Terry was silent for a moment. Then he said, “He’s my chess coach.”

“The molegnane!” Jay shouted.

Terry turned and stuck his finger in his brother’s chest. “Mr. Morris is black,” he said, “and I like Johnene a lot, his daughter.”

“Okay, okay,” Jay said. “I’m sorry I called him a molegnane. But you can’t be going out with no black girl. Forget it. Mom’d faint.”

“How do you know?” They were in front of their apartment, and Terry sat down on the stoop. Jay sat beside him. The first sporadic clacking and popping of firecrackers began as the sun approached the rooftops.

“They can’t wait.” Terry said. “Two days before the fourth, and it sounds like the fourth already.”

From behind him, Roseanna, their mother, threw open the screen on the living room window, which was even with the top of the stoop. She was small and thin and had short hair that made her look pixieish. “I thought I heard you guys.”

Jay brushed a caterpillar off his pants. “You got dinner ready yet?”

“Be ready in a minute, King Tut.” She closed the screen and disappeared into the apartment.

Jay said, “Let’s go up on the roof.”

“You tell Mom. I have to go to the bathroom.”

Jay led the way into the apartment, and Terry walked quickly through the darkened living room, without looking at the mantel where his mother kept his biggest chess trophies arranged neatly around an enlarged, laminated picture of him with the mayor. The picture was taken after he won the city championship for his age group. The trophies didn’t mean anything to Terry, but the checks that came with them meant a lot. The prize money for the city championship was $2,500, which was enough to get the transmission fixed in the car and pay off a third of the VISA bills. Upstairs, in his bedroom, next to his chess computer, he had a pad with all the family’s bills listed on one page, and on another page, all the money tournaments held within commuting distance of Brooklyn. So far this year, he had won four thousand dollars, and by the time the year was over he could win another four thousand. That would cut his family’s bills in half, and by the end of next year he could have them out of debt; that is, if he kept playing and winning, which he was sure he could do for the next couple of years before he turned 16 and the competition got tougher. Right now, as far as anybody knew, in his age group he was the best chess player in the city.

When he finished in the bathroom, he joined his mother and brother in the kitchen. Jay was standing by the stove, watching his mother bread the veal cutlets.

Roseanna looked up from her work and leaned over to kiss Terry on the forehead. “How’d it go?”

“Fine.”

“Is that all? Fine?”

Jay said, “We’re going up on the roof for a little bit, Ma. We’ll be right back.”

Roseanna tossed a cutlet onto a plate with a bright yellow flower pattern. “Are you guys arguing?”

Jay started for the door.

Terry said, “We’re not fighting. We just got some stuff to talk about.” He followed Jay, and before he closed the door, he looked back and saw his mother looking after him.

The stairway was dark and windowless. First they passed the door to their bedrooms; then they walked a long hallway which led to a flight of stairs, which led, in turn, to the roof. Terry had two recurring dreams that involved this last flight of stairs. In one, he wanted to get to the top of the steps, but couldn’t because he could only move two squares diagonally and one horizontally, the way the knight moves in chess. In the dream this made sense. In the other dream, he wanted to get to the top of the stairs again. This time he was at the foot of the stairs, with one hand on the banister. At the top, the door to the roof was just slightly open. There was a bright light behind the door, and a white sliver came through the crack and extended in a thin, straight line that seemed to divide the square landing into equal parts. A gentle tinkling came from behind the door, like wind chimes in a breeze. It sounded to Terry like the most wonderful music. But in this dream, too, Terry was stuck at the bottom of the stairs. His body was too heavy to move, and no matter how hard he tried, forcing and straining, he couldn’t climb that last flight leading to the roof. He struggled, but couldn’t climb even a single step. In some of the dreams, he’d hear something behind him in the dark, and he’d try to flip on a light switch as whatever it was behind him moved closer, but the switch would flip up and down, and the light wouldn’t come on. In those dreams, he wanted to climb the stairs so badly that even when he remembered the dream wide awake, he felt a kind of pang inside, a sadness that made him feel empty, as if his life were a blank, a zero. As if nothing worthwhile were ever going to happen to him.

“There he is,” Jay said as they stepped onto the tarpaper roof. He was referring to Pigeon, the house painter who lived in the apartment below them, and spent most of his spare time on the roof, usually caring for his flock of pigeons, which he kept in a wire coop. Pigeon’s real name was William, and Terry liked him. He liked to see the flock being turned loose, the way they roared out of their cage like a blast of wind; and he liked the way Pigeon called to them and talked to them, with a gesture of his arm sending the signals to move them one way or another. For a while, when Terry was 13, he had come up here often, usually evenings after school, to share a joint with Pigeon and listen to him talk about Jesus Christ, which was Pigeon’s favorite subject. He believed Christ was coming back to save the world, and he believed it would happen soon. “Within my lifetime,” he’d say, and point to the sky. “He’s coming!”

Pigeon’s view of Christianity, though, was odd. He didn’t believe in sin and he didn’t believe in hell. “Forget all that Sunday school stuff,” he’d say. “Forget about what you should do and what you shouldn’t, and who’s right and who’s wrong. Christ is love! Christ is the light!” When he got really excited, he’d raise his hands to the sky, and his ten fingers would waver like the flickering flames of votive candles.

Jay didn’t like Pigeon. Last year he had caught them sharing a joint, and Pigeon had had to run downstairs and lock himself in his apartment and barricade the door to keep Jay from tearing his amis off—which is what Jay had been yelling: “I’m tearing your arms off, you freak! I’ll tear off your arms!” Eventually it all got straightened out when Terry promised never to smoke grass again and not to hang out with Pigeon. On those conditions—which became part of the family rules—Jay had allowed Pigeon’s arms to remain in place. But he still didn’t like him.

“Hey, Pigeon,” Jay said. “Would you mind letting me and Terry have the roof for a few minutes. We have to talk.”

Pigeon nodded, threw a handful of feed into the coop, and started for the door. He was wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of Jesus Christ on the front, Christ’s expanded heart rising out of this chest in flames, giving off streams of yellow light that flew outward and looked as though they might leap off the shirt. At the door, Pigeon said, “I’m done for now anyway,” and then disappeared down the stairs.

Jay shook his head.

“He’s okay,” Terry said. “I miss watching him fly the pigeons and listening to his crazy talk, if you want to know the truth.” He sat on the narrow roof cresting.

“Don’t sit there,” Jay said.

Terry slid down and sat on the tarpaper roof.

Jay sat beside him. “You can’t be dating no black girl. It’d kill Mom, and the whole family’d be nuts.”

“Don’t tell me that.” Terry closed his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re going to be like this.”

“It’s not me,” Jay said. “I got nothing against them. It’s Mom. You’re going to bring home a black girl? She’d go through the floor. You can’t do it. Plus, you know how the rest of the family feels about blacks. They’d spit on you. The whole neighborhood.”

“What about me?” Terry said. He stared at the pigeon coop.

“Well,” Jay started to get up. “I’m sorry. Honest, Terry. But you shouldn’t have started fooling around with a black girl. You should have known better.”

Terry said, “What about if I bring her over to meet Mom?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“ ‘Cause it’s not going to change anything. She’ll still be black.”

Terry was shaking a little bit, and he felt his stomach knotting up, but he got to his feet nonchalantly. “Well, I’m not listening to you. I don’t care what you say.”

“Do I have to bring up Dad again? Do I always have to do that?”

“Leave my father out of this.”

Jay’s face turned red. “Your father? What? He wasn’t my father too? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Your father lives on Ainslie Street.”

“You little bastard.” Jay picked him up by the collar and pinned him against the pigeon coop. “Nobody’s seen that son of a bitch since I was a baby. He don’t mean nothing to anybody, and you’re just bringing him up because you’re mad at me.”

“He’s still your father.”

Jay tightened his grip and pushed harder. “You’re going to do like I tell you,” he said. “Just like you promised Dad.” He backed up and let Terry go. Then he walked to the stairs with his hands in his pockets and nudged the door open with his shoulder. He went down without bothering to close the door behind him.

When the sound of his brother’s footsteps faded away, Terry went to the edge of the roof and looked over. His knees were trembling. It was getting late, and firecrackers were going off all around the neighborhood. The huge blasts of cherry bombs and ash cans and M16s punctuated the machine-gun rattle of exploding packs of firecrackers. Occasionally the sky would light up with the colored flares of Roman candles. Terry told himself it didn’t matter that he couldn’t see Johnene. Nothing mattered. “What do I care,” he said aloud, and he breathed deeply, his bottom lip still trembling a little.

The street lights had come on a while ago, and now the lights were on in all the apartments. Up and down the block, people were coming out to their stoops, escaping the heat of their homes. Terry watched the people and the lights, and he listened to the fireworks and watched for the bright flashes and flares. It felt strangely like watching a movie. He hardly seemed to be there at all. The people moved around as if they were on a screen, and he felt as though he were in a movie theatre where the air was thick as water. On the corner, someone walked out from under the light of a street lamp and into a shadow, and the movement reminded Terry of a chess piece moving from a white to a black square. He squinted, and he could make all the pockets of light and shadow throughout the neighborhood become squares on a huge chess board. He imagined all the movement he saw as if it were in accordance with the game’s rules; and thinking about chess made him feel comfortable, as it always had, ever since he played his first game with his father when he was five years old.

When Terry played chess, time stopped and the world disappeared. There was nothing but the game. Often he wished that his father could come back for just one night, so he could show him how good he had become. His father was himself an expert chess player who had won several city tournaments. Terry had never won a game against him. It was in the year after his father’s death that his talents really developed. Sick, in the hospital, only a few weeks away from dying, Terry’s father had sent everyone out of the room and motioned Terry to sit on the bed alongside him.

“What’s going on?” Terry said.

His father said, “I have something for you,” and he took a box wrapped in aluminum foil out from under the sheets.

Terry unwrapped the package and found the chess computer. At the time, it was the best computer on the market. He cried when he opened it, because he knew that his father had given it to him to replace him as a chess partner when he was gone. His father had held him in his arms for a long time then, until a nurse interrupted them. After his father died, Terry played the computer every chance he got. Now it never beat him anymore. Never.

Below him, on the street, there was a loud crash and the sound of glass breaking. He looked down and saw a kid his own age running away from a shattered milk bottle.

Then he heard his mother’s voice. She spoke softly and he could tell she was standing behind him in the open doorway. “Your dinner’s like ice.”

He hesitated a second before acknowledging her. The noise from the city below him kept growing—firecrackers, people, cars, distant sirens—but it all seemed oddly one-dimensional, movie-like. The loud noise felt like a great quiet, and the light seemed dull and unmoving, like the light in an old picture or a painting.

“I’m coming,” he said, and he joined his mother by the door, putting his arm around her waist. He leaned against her and they walked down the stairs.

* * * * * * *

Johnene’s father was a funny-looking man. His body parts seemed all out of proportion. He had spindly legs that disappeared into a pot belly. His arms were fat, his neck thin, and his head oversized. The man was constantly in motion, usually laughing. Just looking at him made Terry giggle. At the moment, he was laughing in anticipation of the ending of a story he was telling Terry. Terry grinned like a moron, waiting to hear what was so funny. This was dangerous because often what Mr. Morris found funny was a pure mystery to everyone else. But Terry was listening intently, as usual, and waiting for the punch line.

Mr. Morris was standing in front of a sink full of soapy water, about to wash the dishes, and Terry was sitting at the kitchen table, which he had just helped clear. Johnene had run upstairs for a minute. When he finally quit laughing, Mr. Morris ended his story, waving a spoon at Terry as if he were conducting an orchestra, droplets of thick, red spaghetti sauce flying up onto the ceiling. Terry laughed, though once again he wasn’t sure what was so funny.

Johnene came hurrying down the stairs and into the kitchen carrying a boxed chess set under her arm. She was a tiny, wiry girl, with short hair cropped close to her head, and skin the color of milk chocolate. “Come on,” she said to Terry. She was wearing jeans and a bright red blouse.

Mr. Morris said, “Where you going? Terry and I were in the middle of a conversation, weren’t we Terry?”

Terry nodded. “Your Dad was just telling me a story.”

This threw Mr. Morris into a new fit of laughter.

Johnene frowned. “Are you going to teach me, or what?” She held up the chess set.

Terry got up and slid his chair back under the table.

Johnene said to her father, “We’re going out to the courtyard.”

“The courtyard?” Mr. Morris grinned. “You’re going out to the courtyard to play chess, uh huh. You think I’m senile, girl?”

“Dad,” Johnene said. “Don’t embarrass me.”

Mr. Morris put on a straight face. “I’m sorry dear.” He turned to Terry, his hand over his mouth, straining to sound serious. He couldn’t, however, keep from laughing. He said, “You just watch how much you teach her, son!”

When Terry and Johnene left the kitchen, Mr. Morris was laughing so hard he had to hold onto the sink for support.

“That man’s crazy,” Johnene said as they stepped out into the courtyard. The courtyard was a tiny roofless space between two buildings, enclosed by brick walls. Actually, it was shaped more like an alley than a courtyard. When Johnene and her father first moved into the apartment, the space was piled high with years of junk. But Johnene had liked the texture of the red brick walls, and with her father’s help she had cleaned up the junk, scrubbed the inner walls and floor, and put in benches and a small table, and rows of plants along the walls. Together they had turned the space into a courtyard. Now it was Johnene’s favorite place.

Terry set up the chess pieces on the table. “I don’t think he’s crazy,” he said. “I think he’s great.”

Johnene was sitting on the bench against the wall, watching Terry. “He likes you too,” she said. “He thinks you’re great.”

“Maybe I’ll get him for English next year.”

“That’d be cool.”

Terry finished setting up the pieces. He turned to Johnene and caught her looking solemnly at the ground. “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t answer.

He sat alongside her. “What is it?”

“My mother.” She made a face. “I talked to her last night. She’s moved in with her new boyfriend.”

Terry said, “You knew she was going to, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know why I let it bother me.”

Terry saw that her eyes were watery, and he touched her hand. Her skin felt soft and warm, and as soon as he touched her, his heart speeded up and his throat tightened.

Johnene leaned close to him and he put his arm around her. Together they leaned back against the brick wall. First Terry kissed her lightly on the forehead, and then Johnene leaned away from him and said, “I thought you were never going to get around to kissing me.” Terry felt feathery all over. He felt so light, he thought he might float away. He moved closer to Johnene and touched his lips to hers, and then they were pressing into each other, their tongues meeting and touching, their hands grasping each other’s bodies, squeezing and holding as if they were trying to pull themselves into each other. This kept up until the light started to fade above them, and Terry’s legs and back and arms were sore from so much hard wrestling. He felt sure Johnene must feel the same way. When he finally pulled himself away from her, he touched his fingers to his lips, half expecting to find them blistered.

They were sitting on the floor now, having gone through every possible position on the bench. Their clothing was disheveled, and every button and zipper between the two of them was unsnapped and undone. Terry said, “Wow, Johnene. I really think you’re great.”

Johnene pointed at the darkening sky. For the past hour, fireworks had been going off all over the city, and now it was beginning to sound like a war was going on outside the little courtyard. “Don’t you have to be home before dark? Isn’t that one of your “family rules”?”

Terry nodded.

“Won’t your brother be mad?”

He thought for a moment, and then said, “He’ll just have to understand.” He put his arm around Johnene. Overhead, a flickering street lamp came on, filling the courtyard with a bouncy, wavering light. Terry and Johnene moved back into a corner, and Terry watched the light in the courtyard while he held Johnene close to his chest. The light seemed to be moving like water, rippling and flowing all around them. He said to Johnene, “Look at the way the light moves like water,” and Johnene said, “It looks like a river,” and rear-ranged herself in his arms so that her cheek was touching the bare skin of his neck, and at that touch something moved inside Terry. It felt as though something within him had turned over in its sleep.

Johnene said, “Look at the chess set.”

Terry looked at the board and pieces where they sat on the table in the center of the courtyard, the lamp light washing away the crisp lines of the squares. “What about it?” he asked.

“Look at the way the light makes the pieces move.”

It was dark out now, and the air was full of whistling and explosions, and every few minutes the sky above the courtyard lit up with brightly colored flares. Terry looked hard at the chess set until he saw how the light came down like rain and made the pieces on the chess board dance. Inside him, whatever it was that had moved before, moved again.

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