By John Biguenet
It was in late adolescence that my childhood friend Gregory first gave evidence of the unique talent that would doom him to the most pathetic of fates.
A shy and self-conscious young man, Greg must have discovered the earliest manifestations of his strange gift in the privacy of his room or, perhaps, in the steaming waters of his tub. I am sure that these signs—what we would later call "symptoms"—were so slight as to barely attract his attention. There may have been a certain slackness to his thigh, an inexplicably enlarged knuckle, a pattern of bright pigments emerging on the pale skin stretched across his breastbone, but nothing so extraordinary as to frighten him into the waiting room of a physician. Too, whatever happened to trouble his drowsing bath or daydreaming solitude would have waned in a few hours, leaving him unsure that he had really seen anything at all in the dresser mirror or beneath the cloudy water.
Eventually, curiosity and vague anxiety would have impelled Gregory to rub the erupting pores or poke the knob of bone protruding on the back of his hand. He would have been startled to see his manipulations affect the physical changes he was witnessing. Mesmerized as he watched himself attenuate his arm into a wing and twist his toes into talons, Gregory would not have noticed his fear yield to wonder. Hours later, turning his feathered face to the mirror, how he must have marveled at his miraculous transformation.
The change was not, as in literature or even as in film, instantaneous. Flesh and bone had to be worked into fresh relationships. Each piece had to be tooled. The latent memory of each ligament and tendon had to be massaged into oblivion. Then each aching new joint had to be rotated into each raw new socket. Bones had to be bent, the skull deformed, the skin hardened. It could take hours.
Once, after he had revealed to me his secret, I walked in on my friend in the process of changing into a dog. He seemed horribly disfigured and turned to me with the most pitiful and suppliant gaze I had ever encountered. I put my arms around his furry nape as he convulsed with the changes that wracked his body.
At the time, I thought it mere impulse that Greg had divulged the marvel of his transformations to me. But looking back, I see now that he intended to confess everything. Unwilling to confide in his parents, he really had no one else but me with whom to share his secret. Surely the urge to tell someone of the incredible things that were happening to his body must have nearly equaled the overwhelming urge to continue the strange experiments he was performing on himself.
At the same time, I sensed that his astounding gift was a source of shame for him. Gregory thought of his ability as simply a bad habit—one that he ought to overcome. He associated it, somehow, with his virginity. He confided to me his certainty that only a woman could cure him of the malleability that so afflicted his flesh and bones.
On the other hand, Greg lacked the malleability of imagination that might have allowed him to become what he appeared. No matter how extreme the transformation, he remained Gregory, a man, stuffed into a sack stitched in feathers or stretched over the long skeleton of a giraffe.
As summer progressed into the darker nights of autumn, the consequences of his adventures became increasingly worrisome. They were exactly the results anyone might engender by walking down the street in a gorilla costume. One might try to explain that it was just a joke, but to the terrified child whom the gorilla was attempting to calm, only a mumbled growl would seem to issue from the fierce, hairy mask. There was an enormous sense of the ridiculous surrounding these episodes—and a growing danger.
Regaining his original form took longer and longer. The flesh lacked its former resiliency. It sagged where it had been distended. It chafed where it had turned to scales. It erupted into boils where horns had sprouted.
Now the transformations lingered, at least in isolated patches on his body, beyond the weekends. For some days afterwards, feathers would rustle beneath the wool of his slacks whenever he crossed his legs, or the ridges of a serrated spine would spoil the line of his blazer.
Gregory began to refer to the restoration of his true form as recuperation: "I'm still healing from the last attack," he confessed to me one Friday over the phone. I was no doctor, but I fell into the same terminology. I found myself calling Greg's unique talent a "condition." But neither of us could imagine what therapy or surgery might alleviate his disease.
It was in these low days of worry and suffering that Gregory first pointed out Esperanza to me. We were in a café on Royal Street, sharing a newspaper and sipping coffee after classes at the university, when a tiny young woman, encumbered by swollen shopping bags and immense packages, lumbered through the narrow carriageway to the patio where we sat. Disgorging her purchases onto a table next to ours, she collapsed into an ancient wrought-iron chair. The bags, I noticed, were emblazoned with the crests of the most expensive boutiques in the French Quarter and the huge packages were bound in the delicate ribbons of the city's most exclusive shops. Taking a quarter from her change purse, she tapped on the edge of her table till a waiter scurried over to take her order.
Greg seemed to take no notice of the hubbub. Slowly turning the pages of the Times-Picayune, he was engrossed, it appeared, in the small type of the stock exchange reports. It should have occurred to me that, having never played the market, my friend had no reason to peruse the financial section. In fact, the newspaper was merely a blind behind which Gregory savored the good fortune of our chance encounter with the woman he adored.
Though he had never met her, Gregory had somehow ferreted out her name and her family's history from those mutual acquaintances that so complicate life in a small city. Esperanza Obliga was the youngest of four daughters of a wealthy Nicaraguan family who had escaped their country after the Sandinista rebellion. Though reduced in circumstances, the family survived on their vast holdings in Brazil and in the Yucatan as well as on their accounts in Switzerland and Miami. Señor Obliga had been an intimate of the recently assassinated dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and therefore kept a low profile in the émigré community. "Despite her father's position in the government, Esperanza's heart, of course, was with the revolutionaries who overthrew the detested tyrant," Gregory assured me, though how he might have glimpsed the workings of her heart—having never so much as spoken to her—was beyond my powers of comprehension.
Personally, once we did meet her, I found Señorita Obliga a rather odd girl with her annoying habit of lapsing into trances in the middle of conversations. Gregory furiously defended her: "What do you expect, Francis, when you insist upon such tedious arguments? Even I find them a bit boring." Her pinched face with its huge black eyes and her small, tubercular frame reminded me, I suppose, of an albino bat. But Gregory worshiped her.
The slightest departure from the indifference with which Esperanza usually responded to my friend's embarrassing flattery would thrill him for days. Her smallest, patronizing gesture of gratitude for the costly presents he laid at her feet would send him back to the stores on another shopping spree that left him yet more deeply in debt. At last, though, even the love-besotted eyes of poor Greg began to see that Esperanza's tiny heart remained closed to him.
In a desperate final bid for her tenderness, he determined to employ the full resources of his metamorphic powers. He imagined over emptied mugs of beer—in which he more and more indulged—how he might dazzle the object of his affection with his transformations, and thus woo her.
I counseled my friend to find another way. If his desire insisted upon Esperanza Obliga, then he should write poems to her, join her church, go to work for her father. Over the last months, the transformations had grown steadily more debilitating; I worried about the medical consequences if Greg, in his fevered state of mind, should undertake a program of these dangerous changes.
Gregory took my advice—in part. When I next saw him, he clutched the catechism of the Obligas' church. Not only was he preparing for baptism, but he proudly announced that a friend of his family had secured a part-time position for him as personal secretary to Esperanza's father. Unfortunately, though, Gregory had no talent for poetry. He was grateful for my advice, but he remained convinced that only his special gift could reveal to the woman he loved the depth of his affection. When I tried to remind him of the dangers, he grew testy with me.
Seeing that it was pointless to continue my efforts at dissuasion, I agreed to assist my friend in the elaborate sequence of transformations he had planned. (I thought, if something went wrong, at least I could get him to a hospital.) To assuage my concern, he assured me that, once he had completed the first metamorphosis, his body would yield easily to the others. "It's just getting back to being human that's difficult," he admitted.
Gregory had prepared a script for me. I was to serve as a kind of narrator for Esperanza as my friend metamorphosed from eagle to gazelle to dolphin to pony and then back to Gregory. He had penned a rather awkward introduction and series of interludes in which he suggested, employing the hoariest of clichés, the relationship of these creatures to the emotions he felt for the young lady. "My heart soars like an eagle," he had written, "whenever I see you." A literature major at the university, I offered to revise his narrative, but Gregory declined. He trusted Esperanza to see his love for what it truly was.
Though of course I did not say so, I was terribly concerned about Greg's wounded pride and broken heart when Esperanza, if she even agreed to attend the little performance, reacted to his ridiculous sideshow act—as I had no doubt she would—with the condescending laugh she seemed to reserve for him. I felt certain no good could come of revealing his secret to Señorita Obliga.
Gregory had chosen to start the performance as an eagle because it required the most preparation; in fact, he thought it might take him three or four hours. That afternoon I locked him in the small campus theater we had reserved from the drama department; I had overcome the objections of the departmental secretary by assuring her that we were rehearsing scenes to be performed in an English class on the theater of the Middle Ages. Then at seven o'clock, as Greg had previously arranged, I picked up Esperanza and drove her to the university. It was obvious from our conversation in the car that she had agreed to come only out of curiosity. Gregory had given her no hint as to what she might expect, but he promised her a spectacle that would remain unmatched in her lifetime. I assured her that he had not exaggerated.
Having shown Esperanza to the specific seat that Greg had chosen for her, I climbed the steps to the stage and peeked behind the mangy velvet curtain. Gregory, beautifully transformed into a magnificent bird, nested on the floor. I crossed to the edge of the stage, and, standing on its apron where I could reach the curtain's drawlines, I took the script from my pocket and began to read aloud.
When I had reached the end of Gregory's cliché-ridden introduction, I hauled on the rope in my hand and parted the curtain. Waddling forward on claws that scrabbled along the wooden planks of the stage, the eagle squawked a contorted call into the darkened auditorium where Esperanza sat. I think the feathered throat was trying to say, "It's me—Gregory." But, to be honest, it sounded more like the rasping caw of a crow. I squinted into the spotlights, which I had turned on before we began, trying to see Esperanza's reaction. I could barely make out her form in the silent hall. Dragging his wings behind him, Gregory retreated, and I closed the curtain.
A bit nervous, I read the next passage too quickly. The grace of the gazelle, to which Gregory alluded in the narration as an image of Esperanza's beauty, was absent from the hairy beast with twisted horns that pawed the stage when, a few minutes later, I parted the curtain for the second transformation. Obviously rushed in its creation, the animal seemed a crude approximation of so lithe a creature. Greg had needed more time; in fact, a few feathers still clung to his hindquarters.
I knew that the third transformation was the simplest, so I hurriedly closed the curtain on the crude gazelle and began to recite a homage to the idyllic life of the dolphin, a life of love beneath the waves. I must admit that I embroidered Gregory's prose with some of my own rhetorical inventions. Hearing my revisions, Greg interrupted me with a string of high-pitched barks. I drew open the curtain to reveal a pair of intelligent eyes regarding me above a silver snout. Dragging himself forward on his pectoral fins and slapping his flat tail against the stage, Gregory seemed on the verge of speaking, but the squeals that issued from his ridged jaws explained nothing. Once again, I closed the curtain.
Esperanza, infuriated at having wasted half an hour on such a ridiculous menagerie, made clear her utter lack of belief that these creatures could be manifestations of the awkward boy who plagued her with his incessant fawning.
Storming up the aisle, Esperanza interrupted my speech about the relationship of horses to love. Pushing past my feeble efforts to stop her, she tore open the curtain. Over her scrawny shoulder, I saw Gregory trying to cover his nakedness with his still-webbed hands. Pitiful under the harsh light of the single bulb that illuminated the backstage, he recklessly tugged upon his arms and legs, grasped his jaw in both hands to elongate his chin, flicked the top of his ears into points. Before the amazed and dumbstruck Esperanza, Gregory completed his performance, finally turning his long, sleek neck to the tiny girl and licking her outstretched palm.
Clapping her hands and giggling furiously, Esperanza leapt upon the dappled back of the little pony and, driving her heels into its haunches, whipped it round the bare stage with her belt. The pathetic whinnying at each lash punctuated the clopping of its unshod hooves against the worn wooden flooring.
A month later, the young couple was married in one of the most extravagant ceremonies the city had ever witnessed. That evening, while the reception roared on in the ballroom below, the new Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Kunstler ascended in an ornate elevator, whose carpet had been littered with red rose petals, to the bridal suite atop the hotel.
And what became of Gregory, my friend? He prays in Esperanza's church, which forbids divorce. He works for his father-in-law, shamefully funneling arms and money to right-wing regimes in Central America. And late into the night, his wife makes him sit on the bathroom floor, where she pulls his fingers and rubs his flesh raw in the vain hope of reawakening the marvelous talent that disappeared—as Gregory had once guessed that it might—in her bony arms on their wedding night.
Taken from French Quarter Fiction: The Newest Stories of America's Oldest Bohemia, with permission from Light of New Orleans Publishing and HarperCollins Publishers.