WEDNESDAY: The Savant

BY MATTHEW W. McFARLAND

This story was previously published as part of the collection, The Liar, and other Stories in 2013 through Createspace, Kindle Direct Publishing and various other outlets via Smashwords.com. Copyright is held by the author.

NO ONE had ever called Hector Gutierrez smart. He had no obvious talents. At school he had done OK — not an underachiever by any means, but not excelling in any particular sphere either. When he had been younger, he had been able to bash out a few chords on his father’s old beaten up guitar, but when he played, the frets buzzed and strings squeaked a little more than they should, and his singing voice was unremarkable. He hadn’t so much as looked at an instrument in years.

Hector worked in construction. He liked being outside, the simplicity of putting one brick on top of another, mixing mortar to the right consistency. He was good at it too. He had an eye for a straight line, and a strong wiry back with which to carry out his work. Most of the guys in his team were OK. They knew Hector and his two brothers well, knew that they were third generation Americans, and knew that they paid their fair share of taxes. There were still one or two that treated them like all the other “Mexicans.” Hector didn’t really care. Some people will never change. Ignorance is easier for them, forgetting how their country came into existence, forgetting their Norwegian-Swedish-Irish-Italian roots. For a lot of construction workers, irony is something their wives do to their shirts on Sunday mornings before church.

Fernando, the eldest of the three Gutierrez brothers, showed up just after 6:30 am every weekday in his battered old pick-up truck, with Esteban, the youngest brother already beside him. Esteban scooted over to let Hector in beside him, gesturing to the flask of coffee. Esteban’s wife had made coffee for them, every morning for the past six weeks, ever since pregnancy had begun to wake her as early as her husband.

The white truck was dusty inside and out, pockmarked with rust and all the usual scrapes and dents that come from building sites. Looking at it, it was hard to believe that Fernando owned a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible, cool mint green, all the way from the hooded headlights to the swooping tail fins. It was his pride and joy, and in complete contrast to the piece-of-shit pick-up he drove to work. Whilst Fernando could spend hours every weekend with his Cadillac, changing the oil, tinkering with carburettors and timings, polishing chrome, waxing, feeding leather and vinyl, the pick-up never received more than a spray of water across the windscreen to dislodge the dead flies, which baked into brittle husks on the glass. All it saw was just enough maintenance to run properly, not burning off too much gas, tires checked for pressure and tread every month or so.

Esteban had wound the passenger window down fully so as to smoke without bothering his brothers, and when Hector took his seat, he left it down to enjoy the crisp morning air. Even now, before seven in the morning, the sun was bright and the temperature had begun to climb. His arm hung out over the door, fingers tapping the metal of the car without rhythm.

Hector heard the articulated truck coming through the open window, but never saw it. The pick-up was tossed aside by the juggernaut as it barrelled through a red light. It twisted through the air, pirouetting across the road with a squeal as its tires slid, before digging in and flipping on to its roof with a shriek of metal scraping against asphalt. Gasoline spilled out of a jagged tear in the right hand side of the vehicle, and ignited within seconds as sparks met fuel. Esteban and Fernando died quickly, from injuries as a result of the impact and ferocity of the crash, rather than from the fire.

The first emergency responders on the scene found an unconscious Hector, prostrate on the sidewalk some 20 yards from the burning pick-up truck. Apart from a shallow scratch along his left temple, which, owing to the amount of blood in the human scalp looked a lot worse than it was, Hector was more or less unscathed.

An eminent psychiatrist, Dr Karl Straussman, later gave the following explanation
to a local newspaper: “What sometimes happens, is that after severe trauma — in Hector’s case a head injury sustained in a road traffic accident — the brain rewires itself.” Dr Straussman went on to say that “if a particular part of the brain becomes damaged for whatever reason, other parts of the brain take over, compensating, if you like, for the area that is injured. In very rare cases, this leads to the kind of behaviour we are seeing with Hector Gutierrez.”

Hector woke up with a sensation not unlike a severe hangover. The room was too bright, his hearing seemed over sensitive and his mouth felt numbed and fuzzy from lack of hydration. The worst part, however, was the music, which was so loud that it stopped Hector from being able to string together anything resembling coherent thought. It took him a few minutes to realize that he was in a hospital, and to call a nurse with the button at his bedside.

“What happened?” said Hector. The nurse’s reply was all but drowned out by the music, a short refrain on piano, looped endlessly. Hector tried again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “the music. I can’t hear you.”

The nurse looked at him quizzically. This time he was able to read her lips. “Let me get a doctor,” she said.

When the physicians came, there was much scratching of heads and stroking of chins, before the decision was made to refer Hector to the neurology department. Hector made an important discovery, which took almost six weeks, through countless tests and dozens of consultations with myriad doctors: Neurology as a discipline is still in its infancy, and no-one in the field seems to be entirely certain about anything. All that they were able to tell Hector was that the auditory hallucinations he was experiencing were caused by a head injury sustained in the crash that killed his two brothers. They said that in time, the hallucinations might go away. Then again, they might not.

Hector began to attend therapy sessions, many of which focussed on simple tasks, repeated endlessly. He completed jigsaws and puzzles, and played various games that rely on hand-eye coordination, such as Ping-Pong. Other than an improvement in his service return, Hector failed to see the benefit of these activities, until one day he was shown into the music room.

At first Hector looked around for a guitar, but other than a battered ukulele with only two strings, there was nothing with which he was familiar, let alone proficient. Hector rapped the cymbals of a three-quarter size drum kit with his knuckles, and picked up a clarinet, examining the hinges of the keys as if he were some kind of expert. It all seemed like a huge waste of time, more pointless therapy. Pointless, that is, until he ran his nails along a child’s xylophone.

The notes exploded inside Hector’s head in technicolour splendour, and something previously unknown, yet somehow comfortably familiar came over him. For the first time in over a month, Hector’s mind went completely still, and the music in his head made sense.

Hector sat down at the piano in the far corner of the room with what should have been unwarranted confidence, and began to play. It was mesmerizing. The other patients and the therapists stood transfixed as his fingers moved effortlessly over the keyboard, his feet dancing on the pedals. All of the emotions Hector had kept bottled up since the crash came through his hands, the pain of losing his brothers, the struggle to understand what had happened to him, as well as a slightly darker hint of mania in the way his head moved in time to the music.

“Do you know what a savant is, Hector?” said Dr Strausmann. They sat together in his comfortable office, high above the city streets. There were multiple diplomas on the wall, and beside a signed basketball, a picture of the doctor, dwarfed by one of the most recognizable stars to ever grace the courts of the NBA.

“Someone who sees things before they happen? Like with a crystal ball?”

“Unfortunately, fortune tellers have misappropriated the term for themselves, but it actually means someone of great learning. I believe it comes from the French. Medicine has also, in its own way, taken the word for another use. I believe you are one of the foremost examples of what is known in psychological circles as sudden savant syndrome.”

“What does that mean, Doc?” said Hector. “I’m very confused by all of this, if truth be told.”

“Your injury has caused disinhibition of brain pathways, allowing your talent as a musician to come to the fore. Whatever was holding you back before, has been changed in some way by the damage to your brain.”

“So I’ve always been able to play piano like Mozart?”

“It’s not quite as simple as that. There are other people, just like you, who have suddenly acquired a hitherto unknown talent. Sometimes it can be a stroke, or a head injury like yourself, and there is even a famous case of a man, who after being struck by lightning, became the most wonderful painter.”

Hector stood in front of the mirror in his dressing room, a mirror which was surrounded by bare light bulbs, just like in old films. He wore the traditional jacket with tails, a crisp white shirt and silk bow tie. It was the first time in his life that he had been so well-dressed, to the point where he felt extremely uncomfortable at the sight of his own reflection.

Hector walked to the front of the stage, and in a loud, clear voice he said, “This performance is dedicated to my two brothers, whom I miss dearly, and to my nephew, Esteban, who will never know how wonderful his father was.”

A murmur went around the auditorium, as Hector walked to his place at the beautiful grand piano, centre stage. He sat, and adjusted the tails of his jacket, flexing his arms and fingers. A hush descended.

For 40 minutes, Hector played to absolute silence, save for one lady in the third row, who wept as quietly as she could. His music was dazzling in its complexity, and in the depth of emotion it conveyed. Hector seemed to bare his grieving soul to the world. It was truly beautiful, and went down as one of the most remarkable solo piano recitals in history.

There was a standing ovation, and rapturous applause. As Hector backed away, bowing amid huge embarrassment, the leather soles of his new shoes slipped on the polished floorboards of the stage, and Hector slithered down the small wooden staircase leading off to the backstage area. On the way down, his head connected with each of the four steps, and he finished, crumpled in an unconscious heap at the bottom. There was a gasp from the audience, who had only seen the initial slip. Those in the front few rows had just been able to hear the thump of his body on the boards above the applause.

When Hector regained consciousness, the first thing he noticed was the silence. The music that had accompanied every waking hour of his life since the accident no longer ran in loops around his brain. It was the kind of calm one gets only in remote places, away from the hustle and bustle of city life, traffic noises, and jetliners overhead.

The production manager looked down at Hector, who had been placed on an old leather couch in his dressing room. Someone had loosened his bow tie and removed his jacket.

“Are you ok, Mr Gutierrez?” he asked.

“I think so,” said Hector.

“You slipped and fell. You’re going to have a nasty bump on the back of your head tomorrow.” He offered Hector a glass of water and some painkillers. “Also, there are about a hundred people out there waiting to talk to you, and shake your hand, and get an autograph. Your performance was sensational.”

“Thank you,” said Hector. “What do I need to do?”

“We have a room all set up for you here, and it’s traditional that you play for the theatre staff, so if you don’t mind?”

“No of course not,” said Hector, sitting up gingerly. He left his bow tie hanging around his neck, but shrugged his arms back into the jacket, which seemed to comfort himsomehow. He spent the next 30 minutes in a daze, as face after face appeared in front of him, with wide smiles, or serious nods, extolling the virtues of his performance. Finally, a space was cleared for him to approach the baby grand sitting in a corner of the function room.

Hector took his place, flexing his arms and fingers. As his fingers pressed the keys, he played not delicate chords, but a mish-mash of notes, which brought a laugh from the audience, who thought he was joking. The look of panic on Hector’s face, however, quickly made them realize there was something terribly wrong.

“I’m sorry,” said Hector, “my head.” He left quickly, waving away autograph hunters and well-wishers. He found a telephone and called his neurologist.

“I can’t be sure, Hector,” said Dr Straussman, “but it seems likely that the further trauma to your brain incurred in your fall has again rewired your brain.”

“Perhaps it is for the best.”

“I don’t know, Hector. It seems like a waste of a prodigious talent to me. Not to mention a very interesting case on my part.”

“Yes, but talent that was never really mine in the first place. I didn’t deserve it. My brothers and I have always had a saying: ‘You must earn the things worth having in this life.’ In my experience, nothing of any value is easy to come by.”

In the newspapers the next morning, only a line or two was given over to Hector’s fall, and subsequent ill health at the after-party. Many, many columns inches were devoted, however, to his brilliance. Like many other famous cultural events, the number of people who claimed in later years to have been present at Hector Gutierrez’s one and only solo recital would have filled the original venue 10 times over.

2 comments

  1. Walter Giersbach

    A really nice story, Matthew, but I’m a sucker for medical and psychological things that lead to sudden behavioral changes. A little slow beginning, but the wrap made it all worthwhile.

  2. Michael Joll

    I had no problem with the opening of this story. Too often we readers find ourselves pitched headlong into a terrible mess of a story without any background to either the event(s) leading to the crise du jour, or to the internal characters of the person(s) involved. Some ‘W5 plus How’ at the beginning, I welcome.

    What I did object to was the tired cliche of the bump on the head which cures, or restores, the protagonist to his or her original state. A popular thesis 50 plus years ago in black and white B movies, whether medically likely or merely scientific bunk, this tired conjuror’s card trick has mercifully been euthanized in more modern times.

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