Gonzago the Boy Wonder

Originally published in Cambridge Book Review (Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000)

Gonzago is well-known around campus, in spite of the fact that he has only been enrolled for two weeks. His notoriety is mostly due to the fact that he came to Socorro many months before the beginning of the semester, rented an apartment off-campus, and began the slow process of moving his life from Georgia to New Mexico. Most of it was books, hundreds of books, all of them acquired and read over the years since he was 3 yrs old and his mother taught him to read by showing him street signs and billboards, telling him what the words were, sounding them out for him.

Gonzago remembers all this: he remembers the words as they formed in his brain, and the sounds of each part of each word, and how he could link several parts of words together to make more words, some real and some not, and the first time that he realized that Y could be both hard and soft. He especially remembers his first double-L word — “holly.” It was Christmas. Father brought home a plant with red flowers for Mother. Inside and all around the plant were strange leaves with needles at the edge, and red berries all around. It’s pretty, Mother, he said. What is it? She went to the chalkboard in the kitchen and called Gonzago to her side. She slowly drew out the letters on the board and asked him to read the word. Holy, he said. Mother underlined the two Ls in the center of the word. When you see two Ls like this, she told him, the vowel before them is shorter, so this O sounds like AH and not OH. So what is the word now? The word changed for him then. It actually altered itself on the board. It was no longer Holy, the word he had seen a thousand times on the cover of the family bible. Now it was Holly, something exotic and new to him. He ran back into the dining room where the new plant sat and stroked each pointed leaf, delicately caressed each needle, nudged each bright berry with his tiny fingers. Holly, holly, holly, he repeated to himself. He ran to his room, singing the word, lengthening the sound of the double Ls. He liked the way they felt in his mouth and tried to hold them there, but part of the pleasure of words is letting them free. He sat behind his desk and took out his notebook where he wrote down the special words he learned. This time he made elaborate letters for the word, with a drawing of the leaves and berries illuminating the page. When he was done, he showed it to his mother and she asked if he would make her one too. He dutifully returned to his desk, and this time produced a page even more beautiful than the first. Mother put it on the refrigerator, as mothers do, and the people who came over marveled at it and prophesied that little Emilio would someday be a great artist.

Two years later his grandfather picked him up from second grade and told him that his mother and father were gone. “They won’t be coming home any more,” he said. “You and me will live together now.” This was all Gonzago would learn about his parents until he was twelve.

That was a day in March, when spring was just coming to the valley. It was a time when the nights were clear of clouds and even under a full moon you could see the mist of the Milky Way, its diagonal slew across the sky. Gonzago would lie on his back, his head pointed due north, and watch the sky. He tracked its motion against the fixed landmarks of trees and the high hill to the south of the farm. His eyes marked quadrants in the sky, and grids within the quadrants. Gonzago mapped his portion of the sky in the spiral notebooks his grandfather would buy at the grocery store in town. He got the idea from a game his father left to him: Battleship. Objects in the night sky took on these coordinates. When a stray meteor would flash across the starfield, Gonzago would note its passage, A7 to J2 perhaps, with the time and date of each occurrence. When he first began this mapping, he knew that his grandfather did not approve, that a young boy lying alone under the night sky was not proper behavior. His grandfather still carried much of old Spain on his back, and you could smell the tradition on his breath. He did not believe his grandson should be so quiet and distant, his mind in the stars rather than on earth, and it troubled him greatly that the boy took no interest in learning about the farm. Oh, he could do the accounts, he was always good with numbers, and he didn’t seem to mind taking care of the chickens and doing other chores. In fact, he seemed to regard these with an attitude of maturity that astounded the old man. It was as if the boy knew what needed to be done, and did it without begrudging the labor. There was never any difficulty in getting the boy to do work. But if there was no work to be done, then the boy was at his desk doing figures, or sitting atop his bed reading, or on his back watching the sky. He did not play as other children play, and seemed never to sleep, but the old man knew this could not be the case. Still, the boy rose readily at dawn when it was time to milk the cows and feed the hens, and was still wide awake when he was told to turn out his lights. And there was more than one night that the old man walked down the hallway to find a glowing tent of blankets, the boy huddled underneath immersed in some book. On these nights, the old man never scolded him, never told the boy to put out the light and sleep; since his own son and daughter-in-law had left, he had not voiced one cross word to the boy, and in fact suffered the boy’s eccentricities as he had never suffered them in others.

Halfway through young Emilio’s third year of school, the state officials came around to every school in order to test the children, as part of a national survey to record intelligence levels in the children of the South. A month after the tests, Emilio’s teachers excitedly told his grandfather about the exceptional scores. The old man told them to do whatever they felt was best for the boy’s education, but that he would not be sent to a different school. The teachers loaned books and other items to the boy, allowed him to pursue his learning at his own pace (which was well-ahead of the other farm boys and small-town girls that populated his school). When the teachers wanted to put the boy in high school three years ahead of schedule, the old man demurred, citing age differences and the boy’s naturally delicate frame as reasons to keep him far from oversized football bullies and oversexed cheerleaders. But when they came for permission to put the boy on a TV show, answering questions about science, the old man accepted the offer. The grand prize was a college scholarship, something the old man could not pass up for the boy. Though he didn’t have a TV himself (he didn’t want the government intruding on his life) and had never seen a game show, the old man was certain that the boy would emerge victorious: there was simply nothing the kid did not know.

A few weeks later the school told the old man that they had been contacted by some California people who wanted to meet young Emilio. These people flew to Georgia for a visit, rented a car and got lost for three hours in the next county, but finally made it for an afternoon glass of iced tea at the Gonzago farm. These people produced a television show out in Hollywood, a game show they called it. People answered questions, solved puzzles, made lots of money. One of the men wore a shiny suit, which amused the old man: shiny suits were cheap suits, his papa had told him, worn by cheap men who want to look important. There is lots of money to be made, the man in the shiny suit said. The old man nodded and looked out at his grandson, who sat on an old tree stump staring out at the horizon. The old man wondered what the boy was looking at. He squinted toward the distant sky and saw the dim rising of Venus. He’s like a clock, the old man wondered. His future would need security. There was no certainty that a grandfather would always be around for the boy. What do we need to do? He asked the man in the shiny suit. The man smiled and said they would take care of everything. Before the end of the summer, the boy had won nearly $200,000 in prize money, several scholarships, and of course national fame. Magazines featured him on their covers, reporters competed to interview him, there were even offers of movies and television shows. These were all unnecessary, and so the old man politely refused most offers. A few were accepted, the ones that would ensure visibility and of course the ones most financially rewarding. The boy’s personality was naturally charming, and his insistance that he be called by his last name rather than his first gained much attention, amused many people that he would exhibit such a grown-up tendency, and resulted in his catchy nickname, Gonzago the Boy Wonder.


Without omen or portent the sun rises, having little choice in the matter, on the parapets of Verkmann Tower. Light pushes against the glass windows along the third story, but does not pass through the glass, coated with a special chemical configured by former chem major Brad the Burn Connor. The Burn had earned his nickname from so many chem lab accidents, his hands scarred forever from fire or chemical reaction, his eyebrows permanently reduced to scrub-brush swaths of dark Irish hair. The Burn devised this clear substance that reflects light. Impossible, you say? Well, it’s on the windows, and the sunlight brutishly assaults the panes but is foiled by the stuff. The Burn went on to work for one of the big labs, doing stuff that he couldn’t tell anyone about, which was just fine since he had no one to tell. His light-blocking for the crew of Verkmann was in payment of a favor they had done for him, some clever hack that allowed the Burn to leave the hallowed halls of Tech without having taken his required communications course. That was a devil the Burn could never subdue; outside of the subtleties of bond and ion, the Burn was without voice, possessing few means to commune with his fellow humans. Nowadays they would call it a speech disorder, but the plain honest truth was that the mere smell of another person would raise his pulse a dozen beats and cause his skin to flush, then his throat would tighten and the words catch in his mouth. Stuttering, some might call it. But so severe that the Burn simply could not talk F2F with any human being. He made his way through college using e-mail and Post-it notes to exchange words with his profs, and made few friends other than the monks at the Tower.

All the insects hover over their terms. The senior Cs retired an hour or so earlier, when the last vestiges of life had slipped into the darkness. Many of the Cs are in senior year and sleep is a precious commodity… They collect it like jewels, grabbing each little bit they can. No need to pull an all-nighter when an all-nighter is not needed. Having satisfied their ritual duty and enjoyed some hours of empire-building, most of them prefer to join lovers or fantasies beneath the warm covers of res-bought blankets. The insects of course always remain: were it permissible, many of them would never leave the comforting glow of their terminal faces. They would all live here in the hive, with cots strewn about for sleeping near the terminals, a supply of junk food from the five vending machines located in the building, Chinese food delivered from 6 to midnight, pizza even more frequent, venturing out occasionally to complete a required exam or to see the yearly showing of Forbidden Planet at the Tin Can, one of the many rituals of spring that follows the yearly celebration of St. Pat’s, where dionysian splendor and bacchanalian excess are the norm rather than the exception, the genesis of many campus legends.

Gonzago is frowning at his terminal screen as if it has begun speaking Arabic at him, reciting the ninety-nine-name names of Allah knowable by humans. The Angels of course have hoarded their own secrets, just like the Fortran hackers who grow beards now and live underneath the suit-filled hallways of corporate America, coding the databases that track airline flights and make sure the trains run on time. The novitiate, who is also known as Frank, returns from a short sojourn down the Tower stairs to the all-night Coke machine, whose contents are displayed visually on a color monitor on the third floor. This ingenious method was refined over the years so that the exact number of cans were monitored at all times, thus saving you a trip down the three flights of Corps of Engineers designed stairs to find that yr favorite root beer is in fact out of stock. Frank stares at the code on the screen as Gonzago pages through it. Curious, he pulls up a chair next to the new initiate in the hallowed Way of C.

What the hell’ve you found there? Frank says. His Kentuckian origins are always betrayed when he swears, in spite of his efforts to sound as non-regional as an Indianan.

Dunno, Gonzago answers. I was nosing through /usr/src when I came across a misc directory. Since that’s not usually there, I cd’d into it and found this compressed file. I can tell by the structure that it’s code, but I’ve never seen any coding like this.

It’s not C, says Frank.

No, Gonzago mumbles. Is it Lisp? Does Lisp look like this?

Frank hmmms for a minute. Lisp looks like this, he says. But this is not Lisp.

Do you recognize it at all?

Frank shakes his head, leans back in his chair and studies the screen. He gets this look on his face — his mother says he looks as if he’s bitten into an orange only to discover it’s grapefruit. He turns quickly to another terminal and begins tapping the keys.

What’re you doing? Gonzago asks him.

Sending e-mail to RF. He should take a look at this.

Gonzago begins paging through the code again. Maybe it’s some kind of new code, he offers. Or maybe it’s encrypted.

Frank seems not to hear him. Make sure you get a copy of this in your home directory, he tells Gonzago. We don’t want it to disappear overnight.

Gonzago nods and exits out of his reading. He cp’s the file a few times in his home directory, burying a few copies in case someone comes through looking for them. He quickly breaks one copy into five unequal parts and names them after the first five astronauts to land on the moon so he knows in which order to stick them back together later. He tells Frank that he’s done with the copying and sits back in his chair.

I’m telling RF you think it’s encrypted, Frank says.

RF doesn’t know me, Gonzago tells him.

Everybody knows you, man, Frank answers. You’re the kid from TV.

* * *

The first televised appearance of Gonzago the Boy Wonder was in 1974 on WRBL television out of Columbus, Georgia. Gonzago had been selected with a number of other precociously intelligent Southern children to appear on a trivia game show that would be broadcast state-wide every Sunday afternoon. His ability to answer even the most obscure questions, as well as his rapid computational abilities, gave Gonzago an edge over his contemporaries. He went through four quick months of games, answering only one question incorrectly, defeating the other children as surprisingly as the 1969 Mets had taken the World Series.

His extraordinary skills caught the attention of Merv Griffin Productions, the absolute lords and masters of all things gaming on TV. Merv’s people knew that a 10-yr-old boy genius was good for ratings: people loved watching smart kids answer questions. Merv’s people could make millions from advertisers while promoting education at the same time. So they took a jet to Atlanta, rented a car and tried to find their way along the narrow highways and dirt roads that made up rural Georgia in the mid-70s. Their navigation was made difficult by two things: the outdated road map they were using (it didn’t even show I-45) and their inability to understand the drawl of the people who lived in the Flint River valley. Like the river itself, these people speak in a slow, rambling drawl, rarely staying on topic and frequently explaining the smallest detail with a great deal of narrative and description. Getting directions from an old man at a gas station outside of Reynolds, Merv’s people learned that a forgotten Civil War battle had been fought near here, that the river ferry was the last in existence in the state, and that the Florida panther had made its final home in the woods that lined the river as it snaked its way through the South of the South. It got them physically no closer to their geographic goal than the map they were constantly folding and unfolding, but it did prepare their minds for meeting Emilio de Jesus Gonzago, the ancient farmer who was paternal grandfather to their quarry, a 10-yr-old boy who knew more about history than many of the people who made it.

When they finally arrived at the farm, they found the boy himself sitting on the front steps of the large white house. He held a black-covered book tightly in his small hands and kept staring at the pages before him even as Merv’s people walked across the front yard to greet him. It was not until the suit-and-tie adults stopped and asked if he was Emilio that the boy looked up from his reading. He turned and shouted, Grandpa! And resumed reading his book. The old man came to the door carrying a Scooby Doo glass with orange Tang inside. He handed the glass to the boy, told him to go sit by the tree and offered Merv’s people some iced tea. They all said yes, the driving had left them thirsty, and the old man told them all to sit on the porch while he got the tea. He soon returned with several more Scooby Doo glasses, a bucket of ice and a one gallon milk jug filled with a dark brown somewhat viscous liquid. He packed each glass with ice, using his hand to force the chunks into the glass. After filling each glass with tea, he reached to a bush that grew near the porch and broke off leaves, placing one in each glass. Fresh mint, he told them. They each graciously accepted a glass and took a sip. None of them were prepared for the incredibly sweet and viscous liquid that oozed over their tongues and down their throats. The caffeine in the tea leeched instantly into their bodies via the open pores of their parched tongues. Merv’s people sat up straight as if a bolt of lightning had been shot up each of their corporate TV asses. The old man smiled to see the effect his tea had on strangers. You’re here to put the boy on TV, he said to them. They nodded, momentarily speechless as their brains adjusted to this new energy level. All I need to tell you is that he does nothing against God, the old man said sternly. Nothing at all, and nothing for free. He looked at each of them and grinned broadly. He’s got a future ahead of him, he said, and I don’t. I have to make sure his life is paid for in full before I leave this world. One of the men wore a shiny blue suit; he spoke for them all, he said, and I assure you Mr. Gonzago we have the best interests of your grandson in mind.