Wayne Irons was a tall man, long in the neck, broad in the shoulders and gut, and small at the feet, like an upside down triangle or an ice cream cone. He was the sort of man who seemed intimidating until he stood up and his spindle legs gave him away. His skin was the color of a scrubbed toddler after a hot bath or a high-school prom dress, pink and bright. Still, children were afraid of him (his height) and grown men ignored him (his complexion). The other students in his class were bored by him and he cared little for them too. Science was his master and his friend, his company and his mistress, his god.
This particular morning Wayne Irons was wearing galoshes and a raincoat. It was not raining, nor had it been, nor was it scheduled to be, but Wayne Irons was not wearing them for inclement weather outside. And as we have established, Wayne Irons cared little for the opinions of others regarding his person, his stature, or his clothing.
The galoshes were heavy and too large. The left one slipped up and down as he walked, his satchel under one arm and his lunch sack in his other hand. His limp slowed him and he stood on the corner of Beech and 34th to rest a minute, his left leg crooked at the knee. This stance felt most natural for him, even more natural than standing or sitting or lying down. He could still observe everything around him, above the heads of the crowd, while standing only on one leg. Most humans couldn’t do this for long, but he had adapted to his limitations, as all animals do. His own evolutionary process thrilled him. He considered himself a great testament to the truth
Wayne Irons was today visiting the city zoo which was just like every other day, but for one difference: he had been invited to tour the inside of the tropical exhibit, to see up close the animals he had studied for all his life. Invitations to anything were rare for Wayne Irons so it was not lost on him the exceeding good luck he had in procuring this one. It had not occurred to him that he neither tried nor cared for invitations to anything else, not parties, not holidays, not reunions. Being inside tropical exhibit at the city zoo was the pinnacle of all his years of study, the creme de le creme of his life’s work.
The walk to the city zoo was not long and Wayne Irons had walked it nearly every day of his life. He grew up in the same house in which he still lived, in the same bedroom in which he still slept. Wayne Irons was not a man who strayed far from his natural habitat and home. He was a man of consistent rhythms and knew his needs and his habits well. He considered daily visits to the zoo a need more than a habit, but understood others saw things differently. Being a good student of the evolutionary process meant being tolerant of the process in other lives and the bodies of others. He felt himself in an upper echelon of thought in this way. Human beings could be so intolerant of the simple biological needs and urges of others. Laws enacted, taxes attached, protests made, and elections fought—all of these because humanity couldn’t live with a greater understanding that all things eventually evolve or grow or change or die. It was a freeing way to live, Wayne Irons knew this to be true, as certain as he knew that someday he too would die because of an unseen limitation his adaptation would bring him too. “We are finite entities,” he would often say to himself, “But we are also capable of much more than we think.” He would usually say this before leaving his house in the morning or before doing something that frightened him in some way. He said it now, standing before the zoo gate, though he was not frightened so much as exhilarated. Certain he was wading into something deeper and more profound than he even knew.
It was early and the gate wasn’t unlocked yet (he knew it wouldn’t be), so he stood in front of it, resting on his right leg again, his left bent at the knee. The gate was rusting at the hinges and one side hung deeper than the other, so the O that was intended to connect the two gates at the middle was split. ZOO looked instead like zSo. It made Wayne Irons chuckle to himself and he decided he would begin to hunt for all the ways neglect made signs and words say something different than their intended word.
Neglect was another interest of Wayne Irons, to a lesser extent than science—although he would argue they were related. What we don’t need we neglect, he would say, and eventually we lose. He pointed to his left leg as evidence of this—its muscles atrophying and spider veins spreading from the back of his calf. His leg was eating itself alive. He found the process fascinating instead of disgusting. He was watching his own body turn into its best version of itself all on its own. He was eager for the day when doctors would amputate this appendage that had become strange to him in its neglect. Most doctors told him there was nothing wrong with his leg, it was all in his head, that if he would just begin to use it again, it would be fine. Wayne Irons knew better, though, the leg felt foreign to him and so he treated it like it was.
A zookeeper came to the gate to unlock it. Wayne Irons knew his name was Hopper or Harper or something, but usually gave very little indication that he knew or cared about the names of anyone. Names, he thought, were of little importance to the person. People were made of cells and blood and veins and organs—the same as animals—and we didn’t give names to all the animals. He nodded quickly at the man but did not meet his eyes and walked toward the tropical exhibit. To get there he had to go past the gorillas and the chimpanzees, humanity’s forefathers. He had little interest in gorillas and chimpanzees, but he did respect the process they had undergone to become what he was today and so he always slowed a bit at their enclosure to regard them and wonder what these exact gorillas and chimps might have become if they were not treated like the animals they were. In this way the zoo made him sad. It seemed to him a giant experiment in limitations. A bubble of possibilities that would never materialize. Glass walls and ceilings keeping the beings inside from expressing their true selves. He rarely lingered in the sadness, though, because the zoo was his only opportunity to be amongst the beings where he felt most himself.
The tropical exhibit was partially under glass with rain-spritzers intermittently spraying down and partially outdoors with all sorts of vegetation and water pools spread around it and an arched cage ceiling above it. Wayne Irons loved the tropical climate. He had been told by the keeper to wear the galoshes and poncho today, but if he had his way he’d have gone in barefoot and undressed, his pink backside and belly blinding the eyes of zoo-goers. He felt both his most vulnerable and his most secure with these living things. He ought to feel like he was walking into an exhibit, but he felt like he was leaving the exhibit and walking into home.
Wayne Irons followed the keeper (whose name he did know was Le Grange, but to whom he would never address as such) into the enclosed space and walked into a wall of humidity. It was cooled by the spritzing of water and by the presence of vegetation, but the air was thick and heavy. He liked it because it felt safe and he hated it because it felt oppressive. He knew he would feel better outside with the birds, even if it was inside a cage.
The keeper brought Wayne Irons with him as he opened doors and fed animals and cleared out weeds from the tropical gardens. Wayne Irons did not speak and the keeper did not speak to him. Theirs was a silent parade through the motions of the morning. Wayne Irons did not offer to help and the keeper did not ask him to. Whenever they paused, Wayne Irons rested on his right leg and lifted his left, crooking it at the knee. The heat was beginning to grow oppressive and Wayne Irons did not mind the rain water so he shed his poncho and soon his galoshes, then his buttoned up shirt and his socks too. They were outside now, feeding the alligators. He could see the birds in another caged enclosure and he rolled his pant legs up.
The keeper had a bucket of small fish in his left hand and a bucket of grey shrimp in the other. The food looked delicious and Wayne Irons knew he would rather the shrimp than his own brown bagged lunch. He and the keeper were walking toward the flamingos now, and Wayne Irons felt his belly growing sweaty and full with expectancy.
The flamingos were, for Wayne Irons, the most perfect specimens of any animal. He had spent full days staring at them before. They were graceful and awkward, audacious alone and camouflaged together. They were social in the exact way he felt most unable to be. He longed to be like them. He longed to be them.
Wayne Irons had spent his life studying flamingos, their patterns, their prey, their preening habits. He stood for hours in front of the mirror in his bedroom at home mimicking their stance, their grace, and their coloring. He could not thank any god for giving him a body such as his, tall and rotund, leggy and pink, but he thanked evolution for making it clear that he would never be as fully human as he was flamingo. They were showy in a way he dreamed he could be if he could be one of them. He had begun evolving himself into a flamingo in his earliest memories, lifting his chin and craning his neck to impossible lengths. All of the children in school thought he was haughty, but he knew the truth: I am really a flamingo.
Wayne Irons was running into the flock now and they scattered at his presence. He knew why of course: they did not recognize him! He began to shed the last of his clothing, the undershirt, the pants, and the underwear beneath. He heard the shouts of the keeper behind him but he did not listen, he no longer comprehended the words. He waded farther in, slowly this time, pausing to let them see his pink skin and lifting his left leg to show them he was one of them. They scattered still to the perimeter of the shallow pool, squawking and making a show of their feathers. Wayne Irons knew he did not yet have feathers, but in time, he would adapt, they would see. He could be just like them.
The keeper threw the bucket of shrimp and fish into the pool and ran to the enclosure’s gate. The flock of birds half ran half flew to the pile of food near Wayne Irons and he felt the warm glow of acceptance. They wanted to be near him. They didn’t mind his presence. Wayne Irons threw back his head, stretched out his neck, and felt at once glorious and free.
Then Wayne Irons held his breath and dipped his head into the water around him looking for food like the rest of his flock. They were catching the shrimp quickly and swallowing them whole but Wayne Irons did not yet know how to fish under water with just his mouth while holding his breath. He knew he would learn though, if his flock would just give him enough time down there and leave a few shrimp for him to find.
It was ten minutes later when Le Grange came back with zoo security and a small crowd had gathered at the bird cage. A child in a red and yellow striped shirt and fraying shorts was standing there pointing in, “Look mama,” she said, “that man in there looks like a flamingo but he isn’t!” “Hush,” said her mother, as the man who looked like a flamingo with his head in the water buckled under the weight of his body and the lack of breath to his lungs. “We don’t talk about people in such a way.”
The man in the enclosure who looked like a flamingo but was not one sunk to his knees and then his belly and then collapsed completely, his head still under water, searching for food. The flamingos around looked for a moment and then walked away, disinterested in the giant pale, pink, naked body with a head of black hair. They stood together in another corner, on one leg each, preening their feathers with no thought for the man who thought he was a flamingo lying dead in their water pool.
Written in response to this article in the New Yorker.