Richard B. was a brilliant child, a smart adolescent, and is a mediocre adult.
His mother, a waitress, a pleasant, long-faced woman with unremitting cigarette breath whose intelligence has always been what Richard B.’s is today, birthed the boy, her only child, in a park sitting under an Oak tree. “When he was ready, he was ready,” she told the paramedic, “I couldn’t do anything to keep him inside me, and believe me, I tried.” She had gone to that park with the boy’s father, a misanthrope who treated each religion that he encountered with such impartiality that the truthfulness of their diverging, and competing, doctrines and liturgies, which he combined devoutly, was made trivial. He crossed himself before meals; prayed to Mecca before bedtime (he, in fact, prayed more towards Merzig than Mecca); rubbed Buddha’s belly before leaving his home through a doorframe which was affixed with a mezuzah; and exclaimed, joyously or despairingly, “Oh, Vishnu!”
They had arrived at that park, which was still named in honor of one of the Confederate’s lesser generals, to unwind. He would drink and she would watch, he describing with scientific precision each swig of Mogen David 20/20. But their jaunt was short. As proof of life’s inimitable timing, as soon as the man placed the bottle to his lips, the woman was no longer able to ignore the evidence of labor. It could be argued that the very sight of the father of her child preparing to drink himself into a stupor, in part for the sake of her vicariousness, awakened a maternal impulse that sent the baby slithering southwards; or that the child, in utero, knew somehow that was a good moment to emerge, to save himself if only once from an immense embarrassment. These are only theories, however. Either of them, among others, could be true. Regardless, into the world this twosome brought a child.
Initially, nature trounced nurture. The boy uttered monosyllabic sentences before his first birthday (“No!” “Up!” “Yes!” “Go!” “Now!”), and one morning, some years later, as his father lie asleep on the couch, the boy fumbled the television remote and discovered a Spanish language channel. When the man awoke, he heard his son mimicking phoneme for phoneme what he heard: “Dios mío, Dios mío, ¿ por qué me has abandonado?” The father, however, having adopted the superstitions and xenophobia of each religion he practiced, thought this was a sign of mysticism and that the language itself was pernicious. He changed the channel—a game show was always on—prayed to each of his gods and never mentioned the incident, not even to his wife who, it must be said, might’ve taken a more open-minded approach to the matter, might have. Nevertheless, soon thereafter, the boy began to show a proclivity for music, humming melodically as he patted rhythmically on whatever surface he was near. His parents agreed that he should learn an instrument. Because it was perfectly average, set at equidistance between the poshness of violin and the commonness of guitar, they choose piano. Interestingly, though, the boy showed no interest learning, or playing, anything other than Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. For hours, he’d play the composition until exhaustion, his fingers cramping, head falling downwards with drowsy bobs until it softly rested onto the piano keys with an oddly melodic thump.
He breezed through grade school, skipping first and fourth grades, and finishing his coursework for fifth grade in half a year. But it was also around this time when, perhaps, the creeping influence of nurture began to have an impact or that nature was running its shorter-than-expected course. Entering middle school he was still the brightest kid in school, though the disparity between he and his peers had begun to narrow. Before, unbeknownst to his father, he had learned Spanish by furtively watching Spanish language television. The boy could seamlessly transition between English and Spanish; sometimes, to entertainment himself, he would play a game in which he would speak to himself alternating between English and Spanish passages, then English and Spanish sentences before finally constructing sentences by alternating English and Spanish words. By the time he reached sixteen years old, however, he could no longer play this mind sport. Moreover, even speaking Spanish had become difficult. Where once he had spoken the language fluently, it became a task in which each thought had to be translated carefully in his head before he could utter a word. This was true of his musicianship, too. His playing of Moonlight Sonata became amateurish. He’d stop at points, unsure of what to do next, and when he was certain what notes to play his fingers would clumsily brush the incorrect keys while traveling to their correct positions.
By high school the boy’s peers had come even closer to matching his wits, not because they were becoming smarter, but because young Richard B. was becoming dumber. Even the erudition of his speech lessened and more and more began to resemble that of his coevals. His parents were unperturbed by this fact, however. They simply concluded that his decline towards normalcy was out of their hands, that nature had ordained it to be that way. “It would be wonderful to have a son who is a genius,” their thinking went, “We did have a genius son, but we love him regardless of how smart he is.” Of course, Richard B. could not accept this fact as casually as his parents. To the witness, Richard B.’s tale was simply peculiar, to the sufferer, tragic. So began the temper tantrums, the paroxysms of self-pity, declarations that everything was his parents’ fault, or his, that he’d kill himself before he became an imbecile, that he could once more be brilliant if he worked hard enough, or that all was lost no matter how much he tried. During these “fits,” as his mother called them, he would stamp his feet or jump up and down, his chest heaving, and eventually, whimpering, he’d collapse, pounding one of his fist on the floor.
By the time he started college any signs of genius had vanished. He had become completely, irrevocably average. But at this time, too, another oddity, more inexplicable than his childhood genius and later fall to mediocrity, appeared. During one of his “fits,” this one caused by his mistakenly using the word epigraph when referring to an epigram, Richard B. wished that the man who corrected his mistake—a kindly, corpulent English professor—vanish, specifically, that the man be teleported to the school’s dining hall so that he could “eat like a fat pig” as Richard B. thought. And, opening his eyes, it had happened. The man was gone; the professor returned minutes later, perplexed, unsure how he had turned up in the dining hall but sure that Richard B. must have caused it. He never spoke to the former genius again.
Rather than apprehension, though, which one might consider the normal reaction to such a discovery, Richard B. felt overjoyed by his newfound ability to teleport anyone anywhere. His mother, fearful that her son could not comprehend his power, was nevertheless happy he had finally shaken his depressiveness. His father, believing that gods never bestow gifts on unworthy people and, moreover, that getting rid of unwanted people was the highest of gifts, termed his son’s ability “the blessing.” Richard B.’s genius had been replaced by something more elusive, something which called upon mental faculties that could not be measured by fluidity with foreign languages, musicality, or an intelligent quotient. The ability he now had was singular. Geniuses exist, he told himself, other children had played Beethoven beautifully or taught themselves mastery of a second language, but who amongst them could move men by thought alone? What he possessed could not be explained by concepts like “smartness” or “stupidity.”
At first, he used his “blessing” sparingly, mostly to amuse himself, by sending his father to beer distilleries, for example. But, eventually, and understandably, even sending rude cashiers to abattoirs was not recompense for having lost his genius. Depression, once again, dogged him, and more and more he could no longer simply will these things into being, or control who and to where his capability was aimed, but he’d have to concentrate so intensely that each attempt was accompanied by convulsions and, on more than one occasion, his falling unconscious.
Admittedly, I had believed that, at best, Richard B.’s “blessing” was a fraud, akin to telekinesis or cryptozoology, a hardly plausible ruse, or at worst, that he was a psychotic. By his fifth visit to me, I still considered this to be the case, notwithstanding that witnesses—the English professor, his parents, and a slew of acquaintances and strangers who had angered Richard B.—had corroborated his claims. Reason made it impossible for me to believe otherwise. Then it happened. During our sixth visit, I, in a lapse of professional etiquette that I will never forget or forgive myself for, offhandedly suggested that Richard attempt to teleport me somewhere. “This,” I must have been thinking, “will prove this is a fraud.” For whom I believed this confirmation was needed, him or me, I am still unsure. Regardless, breaking his self-imposed prohibition against teleporting anyone else, a prohibition with which I had agreed, he sat up, bowed his head, resting his brow on his right knuckles, and began to shake and breathe heavily. He lifted his head; his mouth was open, his frailness evident, wispy eyebrows and withered fingers from which had grown broken, purple one-inch fingernails. Had I never met Richard B., I would have believed he was a man nearing sixty or seventy years old, not a young man yet to reach twenty-two. He looked as though death were approaching. Nevertheless, I didn’t direct him to stop. A rush, like when one seriously ponders the boundlessness of the universe and the fortuitousness of our existence, raced through me. I could feel my heart beating throughout my torso, from my pelvis to my clavicle. Then, I was a rodeo clown. Untrained, frightened I was running for my life as that braying beast bore down on me. I stumbled and fell, curling helplessly into the fetal position; it was closer and closer, its dirtied white horns angling for my back. I thought of my organs—my innocent lungs, defenseless kidneys, my powerless liver. I screamed … and was delivered back to my office where Richard B. had fallen into a coma.
Since, for moments that feel like epochs, I have been a firefighter, a chef, a Sherpa, among others, all of which take place without his conscious control. I am awed and terrified. Each time, I surmise, I’ve only been saved by his vision ending.
It’s happening once more. The image, my reality, is no longer holding but flickering in front of my eyes like cards being shuffled. I’m standing on a platform. A spotlight is fixed on me. Everything else is darkness. There’s a trapeze in my hand.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” the ringmaster blares, “the one, and only, ‘The Flying Shrink!’”