The Pygmalion Syndrome - Other Stuff

Jan 08

3810 words

No Bet

Taral Wayne

© Taral Wayne. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.

“Jonathan Mundo, do I ask many favours from you?”

“I don’t think so, fruit.”

“Then why are you making such a row over this one?”

Jon stood one leg in a pair of tight leggings.  The other hung off the floor like a hairy pipe stem, ending in ugly clocked socks that might have been fashionable in Byeloruss still, or other such places that had tardily left the fallen Soviet Union.  Women found his small, rather sketchy frame one of his most appealing assets.  But Jon himself usually felt incomplete, as though his physique had been drawn in stick figure but never fleshed out with muscle and bulk.  Around other men he simply felt overshadowed, and rightly so.  Jon towered to a majestic five feet five inches in his clocked socks.

“It’s just that I feel silly dressing up like that  weather-beaten old jockey out by the other garage.  Why do you keep that thing anyway?”

“I like tacky culturata, okay?  And Wal-Mart didn’t have any pink flamingos.”  Gretchen indeed did like kitsch of all kinds.  Her own wardrobe illustrated the point nicely.  At the age of thirty-one she looked all of forty-seven in her winged rhinestone sun glasses, shocking pink matador tights, hob-nail boots, and a buttoned palmetto tree blouse that was nearly two sizes too small.  The effect was of another age, and only somewhat blemished by her royal purple page-boy bob.  Her smile was sixteen, her eyes pure sinful fun.

“No seriously,” said Jon.  Both legs were in his pants finally, but if anything he felt even less stable on two supports than one.  He had been much happier in his customary baggy jeans, that added the illusion of mass.  “I’ve been walking by that hunk of painted plaster for as long as I’ve known you.  You could probably replace it for under twenty bucks.  Or you could at least re-paint it some time, so it doesn’t look so disreputable.  Yet after all these years of disinterest, suddenly you take a fancy to dressing me up like it.  It doesn’t figure, fruit.”

“I couldn’t replace that lawn jockey for all the chips in Vegas.  Changing it in any way was out of the question too.  It had to remain just as it was.  No reason you’d know that though. “

“Well, that explains everything. “  He tilted his head to one side  in a way that meant skepticism.

“Besides… I think it would tickle.”

“Of course.  It would certainly tickle me if someone were to paint me all over.  Why not dress up as a plaster lawn jockey?”

Gretchen held out the jacket.  It was a bolero affair, cream coloured to match the tights, but with horizontal red stripes across the chest, and one red stripe per arm.  “The trouble with you Jon, is that you’re too rational.”

Yeah.  That’s my trouble, Jon thought.  I’m too rational.  So why am I letting myself be trussed up like a jockey in an old cartoon?  Gretchen was like that though.  It was true that she didn’t make many demands of Jon, but when she did, they were humdingers, and made sense only in that goofy mental universe compacted between her ears.  If Jon didn’t understand it, rarely did anyone else.

Take for instance the time Gretch asked him to bury the stuffed buffalo.  Was it enough to just back-hoe up the lawn, wrestle the huge furry monstrosity into the hole, and fill it with the same dirt that came out of it?  Not on your life.  It had to be dirt specially shipped from Montana, where Gretchen insisted the bear had once lived.  Moreover, she had been assured that the dirt was sanctified by a Blackfoot medicine man.  How was it to feel at home, otherwise?  That was peculiar enough, but hardly noteworthy in Gretchen’s books.  Take the time she asked Jon to drive all the way to Austin and drop a letter in the mail, which was in fact addressed to Jonathon Mundo.  When it arrived three days later, it contained only a thank you note, for delivering her mail!

At various times she had him carry a particular tin whistle made in 1910 with the instruction never to blow it, enter the amateur Highlands Games claiming her mother’s side of the family as his own, or wear only fireproof fabrics to eat barbecued chicken from a deli.

But the booby prize almost certainly belonged to the time Gretchen played “I Did It My Way” over and over again, almost a hundred times, until he was nearly certain he could hear Sinatra say “I buried Sammy”.  Half ready to believe it, Gretchen told him that Sinatra’s confession was dubbed in by a voice actor as a cover up.  The real Sammy Davis Jr. was alive and held on the same secret celebrity island as Janis Joplin, Dennis Wilson, John Belushi, John Candy, George Reeves, and Benny Hill.  (Naturally he asked if Elvis was there too, but Gretchen said only the really gullible believed that Elvis was still alive.)  Even if all that was true, he wanted to know what was the point in telling him about it?  Was he supposed to rescue them?  No, said Gretchen, it was only necessary to witness it for the Collective Unconscious.  Someday enough people would know the truth so that everyone would know without having to be told.

Given Gretchen’s history of oddball notions and eccentric requests, it didn’t come as very much of a surprise that evening when she phoned and asked if he’d care to masquerade as a jockey.

“I really have better things to do with my time, Gretch.”

“No you don’t.  I know you.  Thursday night you only watch The Discovery Channel, marinate the stewing beef for your orange peel-chili con carne for the weekend, phone your ex and tell her you’ll be late with the support, and run on your treadmill for twenty minutes.”

“You know me too well, then,” he groaned.   “But why dress me up as a jockey?”

“You know that old plaster jockey out back, the one by the old garage?”

“Yeah, the garage with the dusty ’47 Kaiser that hasn’t been driven since about then.  Not to mention the mechanical gypsy fortune teller in the busted cage.  And those barrels of worn printer’s fonts for German.  And the steam driven lawn mower and hedge trimmer your Dad never perfected.  What’s so special about that jockey?  Why not dress me up as the gypsy instead?”

“You know very well you look silly in a dress with a polka dot bandana,” answered a cross Gretchen.

“Yes of course.  I almost forgot.”

“Be here in an hour then, love?”

“Sure, fruit.”

Jon had only dated Gretchen Overly for a few weeks, several years back.  He’d met her on the rebound.  That the boyfriend before him had disappeared was as much as he could find out about it.  Just what about Jon she saw in him, he was never sure either.  She said something about looking for a substitute who was the right size and shape, and prattled on in such an absurd way in general that Jon decided that the better part of valour was to not think about it.  Of course, it hadn’t worked out.  She lost patience with his four-square qualities, and whenever he had enough of her his head would spin.  But they remained friends for all of that, so long as she didn’t phone more often than, say, once or twice a month.  More often than that was likely to cause his clutch to slip.

The drive to Overly Hall was the matter of only a fifteen minute drive.  If one had a car.  Jon took the University bus to Morninglory Lane, walked the ten blocks to the end, and arrived with about five minutes to spare.  Overly Hall was a grandiloquently named frame house of more modest proportions than the name suggested, but of authentically Gothic vintage and style.  One turret leaned inward and the smaller one in the back leaned out.  Gingerbread filigree had broken off here and there over the decades, leaving gaps like missing teeth.  But otherwise the hall was in adequate repair.  If it was a matter of comfort or real need, Gretchen saw to it that one of her many men friends saw to it.  There was a comparatively new garage built at the head of the driveway, with a faded green Hyundai about the size of a telephone booth parked in front of it.  It hadn’t been moved in all the time Jon had come here, but apparently it was in working order.  Once the driveway had led alongside the Hall to the old garage in the back.  Gretchen had said that it was easier to have a new one built, than to empty out the old one.

Fabled as the treasures inside the old garage were, the jockey placed as guardian of its doors was a rather ordinary example of plaster molding and slapdash painting.  It was a little larger than usual, Jon suspected, rising to just over his waist.  But then Jon wasn’t a very tall man to begin with.  The paint had faded some, not that it had been very colourful to begin with.  White breeches and jacket, red stripes, red cap, and black boots.  It didn’t seem ever to have been painted to be black rider, so far as Jon could tell. When Jon first visited, the jockey had seemed new.  It had stood where it was ever since, though, and white plaster showed here and there where six or seven year’s worth of blows and scrapes had chipped the paint.

His response when Gretchen showed him the racing togs was a natural one.  “I don’t get it.  Why do you want me to wear these things?  Aren’t they exactly like the clothes painted on the jockey outside?”

“Well of course they are.  It took me a long time to find the right silks.  If they weren’t, what would be the point?” she answered.

“What is the point?”

“What’s the point, the man asks?”  Gretchen grinned from ear to ear.  “The point is to look like my dear jockey out back, what did you think?”

“I don’t know, fruit.  Sometimes it just seems like a mistake to think around you.  It always leads to confusion.”  He held up the silks, one piece at a time, and made up his mind that this was one of those times he wasn’t going to get a straight answer, and that the shortest line between no point and no point was to do whatever Gretchen asked.

Small as he was, Jon didn’t find it easy getting into the costume.  It was tight-fitting from the start.  He could hardly bend his knees once in the breeches, and goose stepped around the room trying them on.   The boots, once Gretch had helped him into them, were too stiff at the ankle, and made his difficulties worse.   “Are you sure it’s the right size?” he protested.

“A jockey doesn’t have to move around you know.  He sits in the saddle.  He pulls on the reins and kicks with his heels, and the horse does all the work.  Did you think he dances a Fandango while doing tricks with a yo-yo?  The suit has to be tight to be streamlined.”

Gretchen fastened the blouse up to the last button.  For a moment Jon was afraid he couldn’t breathe, but with the silk groaning and squeaking he labored a breath in and out and in again.  As long as he didn’t try that Fandango, and pass out, he thought he’d be fine.  Uncomfortable, but fine…

“Alright, fruit, what next?  Did you want to take photos or something?”

“It’s like you can read my mind, sweetie.  Something, yes.  But I have some things to get first.  Then we have to go out back before we lose the light.”

Down the hall, Gretchen bounded up stairs two at a time.  Jon could hear her gathering up clutter in first one room, then another.  In the meantime, he caught sight of himself in the parlour mirror.   He waddled over, planting both boots squarely in front of the old Edwardian glass to admire himself.  Jon cut a handsome figure, to his surprise.  Used to thinking of himself as freakishly thin, he discovered that in his racing silks he was slender, supple, elegant even… As long as he didn’t try to move, the illusion was convincing.  In fact it was too convincing for his taste.  For a moment he had the disturbing sense that he was the jockey outside.  Jon backed away from the mirror in an ungainly hurry.

Gretchen’s spiked heels were already clattering on the way downstairs.

“Ready?” she asked.  Her arms were full with paper shopping bags, and old bellows camera, and a scuttle of charcoal.

* * *

Out back of the Hall, the light was beginning to fade.  “Should still be enough time,” observed Gretchen as she scattered her possessions on the crab grass.  “I just have to set up the Hibachi.  She returned from the garage a moment later with a grill that had possibly spent some considerable time on the lake bottom since it had charred any dogs or hamburgers.  “Why don’t you stand next to him while I set up?” she said.

Jon felt oddly uncomfortable next to the half size jockey.  Big Jon and Little Jon, so to speak.  While Gretchen emptied her bags and sorted out the contents, Jon noticed what he had never noticed before about the plaster figure.  It had a wart or mole painted on its jaw near the ear.  Jon reflexively rubbed the mole on his own jaw, a little closer to his mouth but otherwise similar.  The jockey also had an expression of subdued surprise, as though it hadn’t entirely time to register on its face.  Jon wondered for the first time who made this very unstandard lawn ornament.

Gretchen had arranged her things to her satisfaction, it seemed.   She was sitting cross-legged, shoes off, before the Hibachi.  “Are you ready?”

“For what am I ready for?” he answered.  “I thought you had a camera and were just going to take pictures.  What are those things?”

“These are Wally’s.”  She lit the Hibachi casually with a 1940’s Zippo, and threw a pair of clocked socks on the grill.  “I might take a picture later.  We’ll see if I want one.”

“Aren’t those mine?” Jon asked.

“They were, but Wally has more need of them just now.”  Gretchen poked them around on the blackened bars until they began to smoke alarmingly.  Only moments before they must have caught on fire outright, she sprinkled what looked like flour or cornstarch over them and upended a partially full bottle of yellow fluid.  The fire went out instantly, and sent up a huge puff of odorous smoke that smelled pretty much like –

“Horse piss,” said Gretchen, actively wafting it in Jon’s direction.  “You don’t know how long I’ve been keeping that in the refrigerator.”

“I can guess,” Jon said, wrinkling his nose.  “Do you have to do that, fruit?  It’s gross.”

“No doubt it is, love, but its sympathetic magic… or maybe symbolic magic.  In any case, I’ve got a hunch it will work.  Now stop distracting me, or maybe it will begin raining road apples.  Or something worse.”

Jon watched mystified as Gretchen worked.  He comprehended that she cut up an old photograph of his, then tossed it on the smouldering mess.  He followed her too when she reassembled a dozen or so torn squares of paper and taped them together into a photo of man he hadn’t seen before.  A man with a mole on his jaw, Jon noticed.  What he couldn’t work out was the purpose behind any of it.  And when Gretchen laid a scrap of silk over the taped photograph, and placed a mirror upside down over both, it was too far off the scale of meaningful activity for Jon to make anything of it at all.

While she worked, Gretchen sang.  It wasn’t a tune, exactly.  It reminded Jon of Curly’s tuneless tropes from The Three Stooges.

“…metrion, digery-doo and tyler too, marsie dotes, doesey dotes and little lambsie-divey, I givee you, you givee me and the merry-go-round goes round and round, I tell you once, I tell you twice… “ she sang.   Then abruptly she asked, “How you feeling, Jon?  I think this is working.”

Jon couldn’t answer.   He had been feeling more uncomfortable by Gretchen’s mumbo jumbo by the moment, but suddenly he realized it was more than that.  The costume had been tight to start with, but had been growing gradually more and more constricting.  He actually couldn’t move, not a twitch.  When he struggled against his bonds it was as though the silk was an unyielding shell.  It no longer even felt like material.  It was rough and abrasive, more like… well… like stone.  His muscles, he realized, were no longer his to command, and slowly the struggle ebbed out of him.  He could not even try to move.

But the worst thing was that he was now looking straight into Gretchen’s eyes.  Even sitting with legs crossed and the smouldering Hibachi in front of her, Jon should have been able to look across over her head.

The jockey next to him was now his size exactly! 

Jon could only see it out of the corner of his eye, however, unable to direct his gaze anywhere but straight ahead.  He was staring at Gretchen’s chin, no longer at eye level. And wasn’t the jockey actually an inch or two taller than before?  Clearly it was taller than Jon, and growing.   No… Jon was shrinking.

“Wally?” said Gretchen.  She wasn’t talking to Jon, but to the jockey.  Gretch unwound her long legs and stood, brushing sugar cubes and feathery plumes from her lap.  She stood toe to toe with the painted figure.  It was now nearly her height.  “Wall?” she said again.  The jockey moved, ever so slightly.

Jon, though, couldn’t see it.  He still faced forward, staring vainly over the Hibachi in the general direction of the back porch.  He could just see Gretchen at the edge of his vision,  towering over him.  He was sure he must only be about as high as Gretchen’s waist.  That didn’t matter anymore though.  Inside Jon felt terrible things happening.  Sinews that were once supple were becoming rigid, organs that had pulsed with life grew solid, there was a chalky taste in his mouth.  Beat by beat, his heart fell silent.

Two sets of waists stood in front of him suddenly.  They had to bend down so Jon could see their faces.  “Jon, I’d like you to meet Wally.  Wally, Jon.”

The man looking in Jon’s face was chillingly familiar.  Dark haired, pleasant round face, a small mole on his jaw.  He didn’t have to wear the cap in his hand to be recognized as the former plaster jockey from in front of the old garage.

“I’m afraid I’ve played a bit of a nasty trick on you, but I had good reason,” continued Gretchen.  “Do you remember way back when we first met?  I had just broken up with my boyfriend and was looking for someone new?  Well this was him.  Wally was my boyfriend before I met you.”

“Hiya.” Said Wally.  “I’ve seen a lot of you, even if you didn’t really see me.  I suppose you’ll be seeing a lot of me while I don’t look at you now.  Hee, hee.”  I don’t like your sense of humour, Jon thought.

“The thing is, Wally and I had a silly fight.  I thought he was seeing another girl, and looked up a horrible curse in one of my old books from New Orleans.  You know, the ones I showed you that were like two hundred years old and written in Caijun French?”

Jon did indeed remember the books, bound in alligator skin.  They oozed a sinister character even to his skeptical prejudices.

“I was so angry that I cast one that night, without thinking it through.  It turned out that the girl was a vet he worked with at the track.  She was already married.  The joke was on me, but the spell cast anyway, and Wally… well… “

“What happened to me is exactly what just happened to you, old sport.  I froze up after the last race, before I could even get out of my silks.”  Wally had found a toothpick in his pocket and was chewing it contentedly.  “Mind you, it didn’t seem like a very funny joke at the time. “

Gretchen squeezed his arm.  “Not to me either, love.  I went over the book again and again, but I could only find one way to undo the transformation.   Someone to trade places.  You, Jon.”

“There’s a remarkable likeness.  I think he was even an half inch shorter than I am,” said Wally.  “He’d have done well in my game.”

“At first I thought it would be an easy matter to switch you for Wally, but for some reason the spell didn’t work as it should.  I explained everything to Wally, knowing he’d understand.  After that it was a matter of working out one detail after another.  Why didn’t the old ingredients work?  How could I update them?  Would horse clippings work for horse feathers, or perhaps I should use the bristles from a curry comb instead?  Turned out artificial feathers from a joke shop called the Horse Laff was the substitute I needed.  It’s all in the symbolism, you see.  It was the last piece in the puzzle.  I worked it out then rang you up!  It was a long while preparing the switch, but see how well everything worked in the end?”

Gretchen bent down and embraced Jon around the waist.  She gave him a peck on the forehead and lifted him up to turn him to face away from the garage.  “Thanks a bunch, love.  And bye, bye.”

“Gee, Gretch,” said the ex-lawn ornament.  “That’s a bit rough on the guy.  I know.  I’ve been in his boots.   Even though the time went by in a sort of dream, I could see and hear, and it was still years.  How long is it going to be for this guy?”

“Oh, I don’t know Wall.  I’d have to find someone just like him… or like you… to take his place.  I hadn’t planned on looking.”

“What reason for it?” asked Wally.

 “None at all, I guess.  Unless…  suppose I found you with that vet of yours again, and it wasn’t strictly professional this time?  In that case, my love, how much would you want to bet on it?”

Wally gave Gretchen a calculating look.  “No bet, sweetheart.  No bet.”

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