“Powerhouse” — Eudora Welty

“Powerhouse” by Eudora Welty

Powerhouse is playing!

He’s here on tour from the city–“Powerhouse and His Keyboard”– “Powerhouse and His Tasmanians”–think of the things he calls himself! There’s no one in the world like him. You can’t tell what he is. “Nigger man”?–he looks more Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian, fanatic, devil. He has pale gray eyes, heavy lids, maybe horny like a lizard’s, but big glowing eyes when they’re open. He has African feet of the greatest size, stomping, both together, on each side of the pedals. He’s not coal black– beverage colored–looks like a preacher when his mouth is shut, but then it opens–vast and obscene. And his mouth is going every minute: like a monkey’s when it looks for something. Improvising, coming on a light and childish melody–smooch–he loves it with his mouth.

Is it possible that he could be this! When you have him there performing for you, that’s what you feel. You know people on a stage–and people of a darker race–so likely to be marvelous, frightening.

This is a white dance. Powerhouse is not a show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not crazy–he’s in a trance; he’s a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. Big arched eyebrows that never stop traveling, like a Jew’s–wandering-Jew eyebrows. When he plays he beats down piano and seat and wears them away. He is in motion every moment–what could be more obscene? There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds–you’ve heard him on records–but still you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.

Powerhouse is so monstrous he sends everybody into oblivion. When any group, any performers, come to town, don’t people always come out and hover near, leaning inward about them, to learn what it is? What is it? Listen. Remember how it was with the acrobats. Watch them carefully, hear the least word, especially what they say to one another, in another language–don’t let them escape you; it’s the only time for hallucination, the last time. They can’t stay. They’ll be somewhere else this time tomorrow.

Powerhouse has as much as possible done by signals. Everybody, laughing as if to hide a weakness, will sooner or later hand him up a written request. Powerhouse reads each one, studying with a secret face: that is the face which looks like a mask–anybody’s; there is a moment when he makes a decision. Then a light slides under his eyelids, and he says, “92!” or some combination of figures–never a name. Before a number the band is all frantic, misbehaving, pushing, like children in a schoolroom, and he is the teacher getting silence. His hands over the keys, he says sternly, “You-all ready? You-all ready to do some serious walking?”–waits–then, STAMP. Quiet. STAMP, for the second time This is absolute. Then a set of rhythmic kicks against the floor to communicate the tempo. Then, O Lord! say the distended eyes from beyond the boundary of the trumpets, Hello and good-bye, and they are all down the first note like a waterfall. Continue reading ““Powerhouse” — Eudora Welty”