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The Guinness Book of Meby Steven Church
The day the Book Fair came to school was charged with a static buzz of anticipation. I stood in the brick hallway of Hillcrest Elementary with the rest of my class, all of us bouncing around on our feet, chirping and twittering like finches at a feeder, waiting impatiently to be ushered into the room with the books.
I fingered the folded-up cash in my pocket and imagined the fantastical scene that awaited me — long tables piled high with colorful books of all shapes and sizes, all different authors and heroes — but always, always with my mind on the prize, the Guinness Book of World Records.
The tension was almost too much to take.
I stood there, shuffling around, and watched anxiously as the class ahead of mine filed out, their arms piled high with books, and I counted copies and made mental notes to see which titles were going fast. Dad had told my little brother Matt and me to "buy any book you want." But I already knew what book I wanted. There was no question about that. I wanted the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. No, I needed it.
They set the books up on the stage in the gym, under the lights, and they'd pulled the big curtains closed so we were surrounded with purple velvet baffling, and I felt like I was visiting some kind of sacred purple space. Inside the curtains, it smelled like new books — that clean paper, cloth, and glue smell — combined with musty cardboard, and the heady lilac perfume on the soft-skinned PTO ladies who worked the Book Fair.
When my class finally got its turn, we had to move around the book tables in an orderly, single-file fashion, patiently examining the different genres, subjects, and titles. I hated waiting in line. The hot stage lights burned overhead and I felt little beads of sweat rising from my forehead. I impatiently lingered over the biographies of presidents and sports heroes, keeping an eye on my goal.
The Guinness Books glowed yellow and bright, almost lurid under the stage lights. It nearly killed me to watch the other children pawing at my books. I was gripped with the fear that by the time I got around the table, past all the Encyclopedia Brown and Judy Blume, past the Hardy Boys and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Guinness Books would be gone. My heart began to race. I twisted my fingers into knots. Inside I was screaming, "Move!" while on the outside I squirmed and fidgeted, waiting my turn like a good boy. After much angst and sweat and internal screaming, I finally reached the books and clutched a copy to my chest, sniffing up the new-book aroma.
I'm convinced that they were just moments away from having to scrape me off the stage and call Dad at work to come get me. But I tend to exaggerate these sorts of things. I'm sure there was a box or two of the books under the table and, as soon as the table emptied, a new pile would appear. In any case I wasn't prepared to take that risk.
I couldn't bear the thought of missing a new edition. There wasn't much difference from one year to the next. Maybe a few new records or stats. Maybe a few new pictures. But that was enough for me. After school, when Matt was playing Atari or riding his bike in the yard, I'd disappear into my basement bedroom, pop in a cassette of the J. Geils Band or maybe some Styx, and study the book as if it was a sacred tome written on ancient parchment. I was one step away from wearing white gloves and turning the pages with tweezers.
The only other book I owned this thick and dense was the Church-issued Bible with my name embossed on the cover — and it just collected dust on my shelf. Not my Guinness Books. They grew tattered and dog-eared from overuse. I'd flip repeatedly to pictures of the World's Largest Pizza, the World's Smallest Horse, the World's Heaviest Twins, and a much younger Arnold Schwarzenegger in his beach-swinger Mr. Universe days. If they had made plastic action figures of the Guinness folks, I would have collected them and kept them lined up on a shelf in my bedroom.
I'd sometimes flex my own muscles in the bathroom mirror to imitate Arnold's Guinness pose. This was before his acting career took off, and in the photo he seems to be flexing on a sun-drenched beach, standing on a very small white towel in a tight bikini swimsuit. He's all shiny and lumpy, and with his fifty-eight-inch chest measurement, he's described by Guinness as "the most perfectly developed man in the history of the world."
More often than Arnold, I turned to Shridhar Chillal, the very serious man with the very serious fingernails curling up from his fingertips into long, bony loops. Though he may not have been the most perfectly developed man in the world, his fingernails were something to behold; and he was immortalized in the same pages as Arnold and poor Charles Osborne, the hiccup guy. He was right there next to the woman with the thirteen-inch waist, William Fuqua the Living Statue, and the man with the beard of bees cascading down his torso. He was famous.
God, I wanted to be like him.
I fixated on lots of records but especially loved the black-and-white photographs of record holders. The World's Heav-iest (not Fattest) Twins, Benny and Billy McCrary, dressed
the same and drove identical motorcycles — looking like two bearded June bugs riding a couple of fleas. Michael Barban posed on his pogo stick in a parking lot outside an apartment building. He bounced for a record eighteen hours on this pogo stick. Eighteen hours! The lists of names and accomplishments, the pictures of these people, filled my head until my skull was congested with Guinness.
I felt rather freakish as a child. Years of sickness as a toddler made me thin and weak, but when I began to recover, I grew at a rapid pace, until at age ten I inhabited a 5'7", 160-pound frame that just seemed too large for my personality. I felt awkward, clumsy, and totally misfit for childhood. In Guinness I found people who had become heroes and freaks by both accident and intention, and I could tell that nobody really knew what to make of them either. They didn't fit into easy categories of understanding. They couldn't be casually dismissed or embraced.
I was taller than most of my teachers and figured to be at least as smart as a couple of them. They never seemed to understand me and often ended up moving my desk into the hall. When I was out in public, adults regularly confused me for a teenager. I played Little League baseball and the coaches had to order special uniforms. When I played football the officials made me wear strips of white athletic tape on my shoulders to mark me as overweight. I was also required to produce identification to get the child's price at the movie theater. My dad had to bribe the amusement park employees so they'd let me play in the plastic ball pit with Matt. Though just eighteen months younger, he was always half my size, always handsome and charming and secure in his identity.
Not me. My body was an accident that set me apart from my friends, my brother, and myself. None of it was my fault really. I didn't intend to be an enormous child, didn't intend to be freakish and bookish. My rapid growth couldn't be predicted or avoided. It just happened. But people have told me, in confidence, after a few drinks, that I used to frighten them.
Lisping and swaying from alcohol, they will say (somewhat accusingly with a finger wagging at me) that I was big and scary, and that I bullied them or teased them unmercifully in elementary school. Most of these incidents are conveniently absent from my memory.
As much as I want to, I can't make excuses by telling them that I always felt somehow smaller than the other children, or at least different. This doesn't mean much. They probably felt the same way for different reasons. But in the pages of Guinness I found people famous for their big bodies, notorious for their scars and marks, forgiven for their excesses, men like Robert Earl Hughes, who weighed 378 pounds at the age of ten and was buried in a coffin the size of a piano case, hoisted by a steel crane into his grave. I was normal compared to him.
Each of them attained a heroic immortal status. Most of these Guinness folks weren't pop stars or beauty queens or anything like Arnold. They weren't wealthy or powerful. They might've even been good-hearted bullies in school like me. They too might have been misunderstood and scribbled portraits of possible selves in the margins of their schoolbooks, imagining their inevitable ascendance to the rank of World Record Holder, consistently ignoring the teacher's homework instructions and acting up, acting out, acting bad. To me they were flawed heroes and thus seemed more real, more believable, and more human.
Children often stare at me today, and I imagine that my son, Malcolm, will soon do the same — in much the way I stared in awe at my father. Dad seemed almost otherworldly — mainly because of his size. Part of the reason I get stares is my own fault — the buzz-cut hair, earrings, and jagged scar on my right cheek. But most of it is my present size — six feet, four inches, 260 pounds. Not huge any longer, not giant — probably a little overweight. Every now and then a kid at the grocery store will still look up at me and, right in front of his father, say, "He's bigger than you, isn't he, Dad?"
Malcolm likes to treat my body like a jungle gym or some other kind of climbing apparatus. He wants to hang from my arms, wants to be lifted up in my hands and tumbled around in the air. Sometimes he will pitch his body in ways that suggest he has either no regard for his own safety or complete trust in my ability to protect him. Sometimes I barely catch him before he hits the floor.
I know how he feels, though. There is something both monstrous and heroic, both freakish and fascinating, about a person so much bigger than you, five times your size sometimes. That's how my father always seemed to me. We'd go to the swimming pool in the summer, and Matt and I would take turns climbing on his back and riding him around like some kind of trained whale. His skin was cool and fish-slippery, and he would dive down beneath the noisy surface with one of us hanging from his neck and cruise the silent pool bottom for a few seconds before breaching again.
Matt would say that I make too much of my size. He'd tell me that I think too much, that I make myself crazy with it, and he'd be right. I make too much of everything. That's why I'm telling this story. Sometimes I feel like my memories are this rangy, wily herd of miniature horses, a roiling, knee-high sea of hides and rumps and tawny manes, and my job is to run around the edges, jabbing at the little beasts with an electrified steel prod, trying to keep them all moving in the same direction. Every now and then one of them gets loose, and I follow it for a while, crossing horizon lines, trying to bring it back into the fold. Sometimes I just watch it go.
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Church
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