Fiction

Stump Louie

Lisa Halliday

Tomislaw Sztern’s father sent him to America with the advice that every human relationship from employment to love survives on exploitation. Sztern, now Tommy Sternlight, had been in vaudeville since arriving in New York in 1904, when thanks to a string of shrewd social maneuvers he landed a job in Albany sweeping up after performances at The Strand. Monday nights, when the theater was closed, he would usher young nobodies through a back door and “audition” them under the pretext that he was a professional talent scout with some legitimate sway; his father’s advice proved indispensable to recognizing, among the hopefuls with talent, those willing to work for peanuts. Children with inattentive parents, or no parents at all, required little compensation beyond the huge warmth of Sternlight’s hand on their shoulder, or his face beaming in their direction with munificence and pride. His first spectacular discovery—twin six-year-old blond girls who tap-danced as though they were on fire—won him some modest box-office percentages and, within a year, having delivered three equally sensational acts, Sternlight had his reputation as upstate New York’s premier eagle-eye for cheap talent. 

Thirty-seven years later, his career had stalled. Attendance was dwindling at the dance studio where he cultivated his young talent, and his last big hit—Rosemarie Pezzula, who roller-skated to classical music—had long outgrown the act and moved to Boston to marry an electrical engineer. Even if retirement were affordable, Sternlight knew too many aging impresarios who’d gone that route and prematurely taken a slide—become full-time lamenters on half-baked issues, barflies as self-righteously incensed as they were inert. Already it was too easy to pull a stool up alongside them, too easy to bemoan the decline of live musical entertainment in this country, too easy to shrug and reach for a handful of pistachios when asked what he intended to do about it. He had nothing to show for these evenings of intemperance but a splitting headache and the lingering nausea of remorse. 

Then the dance studio’s longtime accompanist had a stroke. She survived it but could no longer steady her hands to play, and implored Sternlight to give her son the job instead. He had just graduated from high school, she said, and played the piano beautifully. Sternlight took this for maternal hyperbole, but it turned out to be true. Little Luigi Palmieri played even the tuneless warm-up vamp as though it were Rhapsody in Blue and he were giving a concert for Gershwin; furthermore, unlike his predecessor, he didn’t need a metronome to keep time. The only problem was that he had a distracting habit: whenever he wasn’t playing, he closed his eyes and wiggled his hands in the air above the keyboard, as though only this could sustain his readiness to resume. “One would think,” Sternlight gently teased Luigi, at the end of his first week, “that piano would be hypnotized by now.” Luigi’s reply was to lower his hands to the keyboard where, still wiggling, they looked like two toy helicopters touching down and play: 


You’ve got me hypnotized 
I’m certainly mesmerized 
I thought I was wise 
Till I gazed in your beautiful eyes . . .


“Touché,” Sternlight said over the music.

The following afternoon, during Intermediate Tap, one of the girls asked Luigi if he knew “The Flat Foot Floogie.” He did.

And after class, while they changed their shoes:

“‘Slumming on Park Avenue’?”

“‘Leaning on a Lamp Post’?”

“‘When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano’?” 

A few bars of each of these Luigi played easily. 

“‘Hot Lips’?” said Sternlight.

The girls giggled. Luigi played.

“‘Minnie the Moocher’?”

The girls screamed. Luigi played.

“‘I’ma Jazz Vampire’?”

“‘Surabaya Johnny’?”

“‘Dardanella’?” 

“‘I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants in My Pants)’?”

Luigi knew them all, and the inexhaustible thrill of testing his jukebox genius began to detain Sternlight and his clientele, mesmerized, well beyond the end of lessons each day. When the girls told their friends at school that Sternlight’s Dance Studio had hired “a human Pianola,” matriculation went up thirty percent and Sternlight raised Luigi’s salary from thirty cents an hour to forty-five. As he tried to thank Sternlight for this boon, Luigi was betrayed by a terrible stutter. Sternlight knew from the kid’s mother that years of humiliation owing to the handicap had conditioned Luigi to go out of his way to avoid all unnecessary social interaction. But “Stump Louie,” as Sternlight had begun to call the game, was different. Luigi’s infinite repertoire had transformed him into a boy Orpheus. No minefield of consonants to worry about: he didn’t have to speak. Even his appearance had begun to change. He straightened up at the piano, smiled more, and his eyes glinted bright green, as though lit by tiny bulbs within. After the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1941 World Series and radio listeners statewide began to suffer from baseball withdrawal, Sternlight rang up a friend of a friend—the head of commercial broadcasting for radio station WABY—to propose something so audacious and harebrained that the men agreed it was irresistible. 


“Name a song, Albany! Name a song! Pick your key, sing five words for us, and little Louie Palmer here’ll play the rest! Not a page of sheet music in sight, folks. Nothing in the studio but Louie and a shiny new Marshall & Wendell baby grand. So come on, Albany! Tell Tommy what you want to hear! If Louie can’t play it, we’ll pack up and go home! You’ve got thirty minutes to pick up the phone and tump Louie!”

The prize for stumping Louie—for naming a song Luigi couldn’t play at least five bars of by heart—was an all-expenses-paid weekend trip for two to Niagara Falls. For a minute and a half, Sternlight, Luigi, a volunteer production crew, and a provisional studio audience of station janitors waited in silence. Someone coughed. Luigi sat wiggling on the bench of a battered old upright full of chipped keys. Finally, one of two telephones on a podium next to Sternlight rang, and through some trick of wiring an elderly female voice was audible both on the soundstage and over the air. “Hello, Tommy. ‘Blue Hawaii,’ please. It was my husband’s favorite.”

Sternlight smiled and rolled his eyes while Louie pressed a finger to one key, then another, waited for the volume to fade out before proceeding with the next, and at last allowed the song to unfurl. The lady on the line sniffed and laughed, blew her nose, and hummed along precariously at the chorus. She was still praising Luigi for his fluency when the second phone rang and a man asked to hear “Carolina Moon.” Luigi played, and the caller sang along in a vibrato-laden bass. Two more listeners called up in quick succession, and though they both named songs written at least ten years before Luigi was born, he played through each of them efficiently, as though he had somewhere to be, or soup cooling in the green room, and then sat back to wait, wiggling, for the next test. One more, mouthed Sternlight, tapping his watch, and while the last caller prefaced his request with a story about having heard “I Say It’s Spinach” for the first time on a date with a girl with a lisp, Sternlight’s eyes widened, imploring Luigi for some clue that “Spinach” rang a bell. Luigi nodded. Hurriedly, Sternlight fished a pen out of his jacket pocket and wrote something on his palm: WAIT. Squinting, bewildered, Luigi obeyed, wiggling his fingers soundlessly above the gap-toothed keyboard, while Sternlight let their inaugural audience hold its breath. At last, Sternlight cued Luigi with a grand, victorious flourish, and the boy sailed through “I Say It’s Spinach” as though it were “Happy Birthday” and he were playing it on the kazoo.

They did the show again the following Sunday and, to the amazement of everyone except Sternlight, whose enterprising mind had already shut out the possibility that his star’s musical omniscience was anything but absolute, Luigi again survived the half hour unstumped. A third and fourth show followed, each half an hour long and ending on the same score: Louie Palmer, 5, Radioland, 0. They moved the show to the stage of The Strand and sold tickets to a live audience. Marshall & Wendell doubled its investment and donated an actual baby grand. A consulting team of WABY producers suggested that to add a little variety to the program Louie be allowed to ask up to three questions, such as: who composed the song, who originally recorded the song, and whether the song was written for a film or a Broadway show. Luigi was encouraged to ask the questions even if he already knew the answers. He never did. He didn’t need clues, and he wasn’t about to risk stuttering on the air for the sake of a little dramatic effect. So there was just a brief, suspenseful moment of static after each request while Louie Palmer consulted the limitless songbook that was his brain. 

Once there was a pause of several worrisome seconds before anything happened, but, as it turned out, Luigi was just expecting a sneeze. A spate of them came and went, and using the last as his downbeat Luigi rolled out “Sleepy Lagoon.” Like many, it was a request made less in the interest of stumping Louie than in the indulgence of the caller’s mood—in this case, the memory of a wife who’d just died. As Luigi obliged, playing the old chestnut softly, the widower on the other end of the line began to cry. When the song was over, the second phone rang and rang, but Sternlight let the man’s sobs wrack the airwaves for another minute and a half. Ratings soared, and the station collected a small fortune in advertising revenue. Based on the number of calls it received during episode four, WABY estimated that Stump Louie’s listenership had quadrupled. The public’s conviction, ridiculous but predictable, that anyone equipped with a Marshall & Wendell might play the piano as well as Louie Palmer, inundated the manufacturer with more orders than it was able to fill. Six flush corporations began to bid: leading purveyors of linens, insurance, canned food, refrigerators, light fixtures, and real estate—companies already established outside the tri-city area and looking to expand. But, wary of a dead-in-the-water investment, they insisted unilaterally that before talking numbers they see something in writing from the kid. 

“They want him to sign a contract?” Sternlight asked incredulously. 

The head of corporate sponsorship held up his hands. 

“He’s a kid, for Christ’s sake!” said Sternlight. “He wants to make us happy! He wants to be revered! And even if he does have it in him to swindle us, what good’s a piece of paper going to do? What’ll it say? That if he knows the song he has to play it? How’s anyone going to know whether he knows a song or not? Look. If we offer him ten dollars a show he’ll be making fifty times what I used to pay him. You think a kid who’s never seen the other side of Mechanicville is going to throw that away?” 

No, the head of corporate sponsorship said, he didn’t, but neither did he think it would be long before Luigi would wise up to the value of his indispensability and refuse to play without a percentage share. The studio stood to make an unprecedented thousand dollars per show. Sternlight’s commission was twenty percent. If the Marshall & Wendell boom was any indication, the sponsors would double their quarterly returns with one spot. But without a contract Luigi held all the cards, and the sponsors had made it clear that if he decided to pla them hey wouldn’t be willing to renegotiate. Never mind the slipperiness of his talent: luck, divinity—whatever the magic, and whether it would run out—this was a contingency Stump Louie’s potential sponsors were ready to accept. But only at a fixed rate, and with some serious assurance the magician was willing to perform. 

Sternlight arrived the next morning at the station with a wan-looking Luigi in tow. No one in the conference room had ever seen Louie Palmer anywhere other than on the great stage of The Strand, and here, under harsher light, following Sternlight with his eyes on the taller man’s heels, he looked frail and vulnerable. He stood next to Sternlight at the end of a long table lined with executives. Waiting for him there were a piece of paper, a pen, a pitcher of water, and a glass. Sternlight looked thoughtfully at these for a moment and then reached around Luigi to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. He inspected the fingernails of his other hand as he spoke. “Louie,” Sternlight said. “Son.” Luigi’s eyes widened at the word. “How old are you?” Luigi stared at the water. “Seventeen?” Luigi shook his head. “Eighteen?” Luigi nodded. “And how long have you been playing the piano?” Luigi said nothing. “All your life, right?” Luigi shrugged. “And has anyone ever asked you to play a song you didn’t know?” Luigi shook his head, no. That was true. “Well. That’s a pretty special gift you got there, isn’t it Lou?” Luigi nodded. “And you take that gift of yours pretty seriously, don’t you Lou?” Yes, Luigi nodded, he did. “And consequently you make a lot of people happy, you know that? You take their minds off their problems. Not a small thing in this world, Lou. Not a small thing. In fact . . . it’s pretty special.” Luigi nodded again, flushing, as Sternlight repeated himself: “Pretty special, Lou. Pretty damn special.” He gave Luigi’s shoulder an encouraging shake and a squeeze. Luigi was nodding incessantly now. 

“And even if you do get stumped,” Sternlight added, releasing Luigi to pour himself a glass of water. “Even if it happens this afternoon . . . well . . . that’s okay, Lou. That’s okay. Nobody’s perfect. We’ll know you did the best you could.” 

The heavyweights caved, and Louie’s listeners multiplied week after week. No one wanted to miss the historic moment when somebody would stump the seemingly unstumpable Louie Palmer. Sunday afternoons from two-thirty to three the streets of Luigi’s hometown were evacuated but for a few whirling leaves. Those who didn’t own a radio gathered in friends’ houses, beauty parlors, barbershops, and bars. During episode four, when it was announced that Louie would have a weekly hour-long slot, the nuns at St. Anthony’s in Troy pawned an effigy and purchased a radio for the rectory. During episode seven, when it was announced that Louie would be playing on Wednesdays and Saturdays as well, the pleasure in the prolonged anticipation of Louie Palmer’s dethronement took a perverse turn. Was there any song Louie Palmer didn’t know? How long could this go on? An interview published in the Times Union quoted Sternlight inviting skeptics to see for themselves that the show wasn’t rigged. “Maybe the kid is a Martian, but I’m no Orson Welles. What you hear every week is done in front of a live audience, and if anybody out there needs to see it with his own eyes, well, be my guest. And don’t ask, because I haven’t the faintest idea how he does it. I don’t think he knows himself.” 

When Luigi was six, so that he might aspire to become a composer, his father undertook to teach him the fundamentals of piano-playing (keys, scales, chords, chord progressions) and the “rules” (rhythm and tonality)—because, his father explained, like Michelangelo (invoked by a postcard of the Medici Chapel clothespinned to the music scroll), devi conoscere perfettamente le regole. Only when you know the rules backwards and forwards should you proceed to break them. Learning the rules backwards and forwards meant playing nothing but scales and chords and chord progressions, up and down and up and down the keyboard for three hours every afternoon after school, plus six hours on Saturday, so that Luigi’s hands became so nimble and automatic that the right sharps and flats would pull on his fingers like magnets. Partly because his father had a fatal heart attack before he had explained how much longer the strict diet of fundamentals was to go on, and partly because the mindless activity went some way toward anesthetizing Luigi’s ensuing grief, Luigi played nothing but scales and chords and chord progressions for another four and a half years. His mother finally retaliated by replacing the piano with a radio that would always be on, and it wasn’t long before Luigi realized that he had only to hear a song once and he was programmed to play it. 

The boundaries of his “magic,” as it was so readily perceived by Louie Palmer’s fans, are what made being Louie Palmer, for Luigi Palmieri, unbearable. 

He didn’t know Tchaikovsky’s No. 1 in B-flat Minor. He didn’t know any of the Forgotten Songs by Debussy. He could play the third movement of Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, but only below tempo, and certainly not without looking at the music. And then there was Beethoven’s great “Emperor,” of which he’d never played a note. An anonymous fan letter surmised that making love to Louie Palmer must be like making love to “all the music in the world.” These last six words, at once such a gross exaggeration of Luigi’s actual capacity and the perfect articulation of what he aspired to be, looped daylong in his head. On the bus home, while he changed his clothes, washed his face, lay in bed—over and over and over they played like a record skipping. All the music in the world, the supposed stuff of his supremacy—it was an ungraspable idea, the whim of some daydreamer contending with her sexual frustration on heavily perfumed stationery, but his unworthiness of the concept tormented him all the same. 

Occasionally there would be a bullying call from someone with whom Luigi had gone to school. “Hey Louie! Louie Palmer! It’s Joey Scaramuzzo, remember me?” Luigi’s new name was repeated wondrously, as though its very articulation awoke fond memories of camaraderie in the schoolyard. “Howsabout ‘Paris Makes Me Horny’?” And in the background a gang of hangers-on tittered. These moments so unnerved Luigi for their bitter whiff of the old antipathy that a couple of times he let loose a note before the song had even been named. Head down, fingers wiggling, he held his breath until the actual order came through, then launched the song off that premature stroke, even if it meant playing the whole thing in some outrageous key. 

And yet he knew that the fundamental appeal of Stump Louie was not the irresistibility of trying to depose its star. It was the idea that a human among us, a kid no less, could sit down at a piano and play whatever we want to hear. So not even Louie Palmer’s fiercest antagonists were trying all that hard to think outside the limited soundtracks of their nostalgia. No one was home ransacking his record collection to find the winning obscurity. Sternlight’s ingenious rule, which he repeated at the start of each show, was that the second someone stumps Louie Palmer, Stump Louie goes off the air. No one, not even Joey Scaramuzzo, really wanted that to happen. 

Of course it occurred to Luigi to pull the plug by pretending to have been stumped. He’d even practiced in front of a mirror. You got me! he could say the next time someone asked to hear something plausibly obscure. I’m stumped! But only once, after three shots of his late father’s grappa, was he able to get through all five words without the g or sttripping him up, and still he imagined that no nonlethal amount of alcohol would alleviate the anxiety of trying to put one over on all of Greater Albany on the air. And then there was his psychological contract with Sternlight, whose surrogate paternity he wasn’t quite ready to give up. And the phantom lovers, better than no lovers at all, whose desire to make love to him was conditional on his knowing every song in the world. And the likelihood that his life would go back to normal soon enough. At his most introspective he was even able to admit that presiding over every other reason to be Louie Palmer was something new to him: pride. 

On the first Sunday in December someone called up and asked to hear a song Luigi didn’t know. Maybe she was pulling his leg, and had asked to hear a song that didn’t exist. It doesn’t matter. It was the last request of the day, and Sternlight had already held up his palm ordering Luigi to WAIT, so for half a minute or more everyone remained oblivious to the catastrophe. Only Luigi knew—Luigi and perhaps the piano, with its gleaming enormous silence. What he’d imagined would be his liberation loomed monstrously now, as empty futures do. Dramatized by Sternlight into something like evangelism, Stump Louie had converted even its star into a sucker for the illusion. And yet it was a fantasy that would, after all, endure, because before Sternlight could cue Luigi to play, the show was interrupted by an announcement of what had happened that morning in Hawaii. The crashing mood in the theater, the stupefaction and clamor for more information buried the song request. In deference to war coverage Stump Louie was suspended—first temporarily, then permanently, when its sponsors declared ballgames the more reliable investment. 

Five years later, Sternlight was still alive to produce and preside as Master of Ceremonies over one of the world’s first serially televised variety shows. Broadcast live from Schenectady on Friday nights, just before the weekly boxing fights on WRGB, each episode began with a riff between Sternlight, who’d taken up ventriloquism, and a querulous doll named Bernard. Chesterfields and Lucky Strike rivaled each other for prime sponsorship spots. Water-cooled lights dripped onto the stage. The cast included several of Sternlight’s former stage protégées, but it was an unknown named Eleanor DeLuke who debuted at the piano. Louie Palmer had been drafted into the navy in 1942 and, somewhere off the Solomon Islands the following year, he was killed.

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