“Stack of Eleven” – short fiction

Author: Merit O’Hare ’12

On day six-hundred eighty-nine David met, in a chic bar near central Manhattan, the creator of the world’s largest toothpick mosaic (86.11 sq. feet)  as well as the man who had the largest collection of airplane sick bags (5,468, from 1,065 different airlines).  The record holder for Greatest Distance Walked with a Full Milk Bottle Balanced on the Head (80.96 miles in 23 hours, 35 minutes) was also there, though he kept his drink in his hand. 
                   Even amongst themselves, sipping cocktails at the bar and selecting, from a platter, some thoughtful little cucumber hors d’oeuvres, they couldn’t resist asking why—so, leaning close, a man who introduced himself as Paul admitted to David it had been curiosity, a desire to usher the body past stability, the desperation of no air no air no air as he held his breath (13 minutes, 42.5 seconds) that shook him from the monotony of a clerk’s desk job, of always living just comfortably enough.  The first breath, afterwards, that made him feel like he was rushing as a stranger back into his own body—as if he were a man returning after a long absence to wander the halls of his home, touching the doorknobs with awe. 
                  “When I was fourteen,” said the woman at David’s elbow, her hands resting cumbersomely on the bar, “I read about an Indian photographer who stopped cutting his fingernails.  They were each five feet long.  I thought, I can beat that.” 

It was obvious that the record for Most Fingers and Toes – Living Person was an accident of birth and therefore practically cheating, so the others turned their backs slightly when the boy with twenty-five tried to edge into the circle.   “I wanted to be different from my brothers,” said the man who could pull a small tractor using his earlobe.  “When you’re one of nine, what else can you do?”

                   At this point the director emerged from the back room to gather the next group for their photos.  The boy with twelve fingers and thirteen toes left, as did the man who had created an entire cityscape from kitchen utensils.  “Sometimes,” said Paul, fishing an olive from the bottom of his glass, “I do it without realizing it.  When I’m watching TV, when I’m reading the ingredients on the label of a can of soup—my wife has to tap me on the shoulder to remind me to breathe.” 

He turned to David, the only one who had been silent thus far besides the man who hadn’t spoken for seventy-three years (two months, eighteen days).  “And you?  Do you notice?”

                  It hadn’t been ambition or a religious experience—no dedication to a cause, no grief to assuage, no irrepressible drive to accumulate, amass.  The eleven porcelain plates he’d carried at chest level in his right hand for almost two years could have been anything, though David had to admit he liked the peacock-feather pattern on the rims and had also grown rather fond, like a doting uncle, of a chip in the gold-leaf on the edge of the seventh plate.  In reality he’d grown more exhausted of the question why than he had of carrying the plates.  His father had raged, tried threats, withdrawn David from school, and finally resorted to pretending both the plates and the body which had attached itself to them did not exist.  Andrea, younger than her older brother by thirteen years, liked to carry her picture books around the house in imitation.  After paying for a succession of psychologists, his mother sometimes sat at the kitchen table after the food had been cleared away with her head in her hands. 

It was not difficult to carry the plates.  Though David was right-handed, he adapted to living as a left-hander rather than switch the plates to his less-dominant hand.  His entry in the book would state that they weighed a total of eight pounds, thirteen-point-five ounces.  More personal information would or would not be included, based on space constraints:  that he’d grown up in Vermont, that he was an amateur astronomer, that he credited his experience working as a waiter the summer prior to his attempt as an important factor in his achievement. 

“Most of the time I don’t notice,” David replied, aware the director had returned to call his group into the photo room.  “For the first few days my arm ached.  I almost lost one from the top of the stack by turning a corner too quickly while driving.” 

That was, of course, before he’d given up driving.  Given up, too, cutting his own steak, typing quickly, eating popcorn with one hand while resting the other around his little sister’s shoulders during a movie.  There were endless adaptations to be made—small, unconsidered movements newly given weight and consequence.  When David slept, he slept with his right hand resting palm-up on his nightstand:  on cold winter nights it was the only part of himself he left exposed. 

They continued talking as they passed through the lobby, although the composition of the group shifted as people filed off into different rooms:  the man who had eaten the most watches (5) as well as the woman who had gone the longest amount of time without changing her clothes (eleven years, twenty-six days), joined David as he followed the director.  The Oldest Barefoot Water Skier (87 years old) drifted along in their wake, looking confused.

                  “It got to be an addiction for me,” said Christine, who also explained that since she never took off her clothes she simply showered with them on.  Judging from the distance the other record holders afforded her, Christine’s clothes retained the odor of eleven years’ worth of living despite her insistence that they were almost as clean as if they had been laundered daily.  “I never go swimming or stay outside in the sun very long,” she said, “in order to preserve them.  But once you’ve lived in a certain way for a while it becomes easier—and then it becomes unthinkable, to return to the way things were.”

–        – –

Reports concerning the period between 7:52 pm and 8:09 pm—when David left the lobby to have his picture taken—conflict.  Eyewitnesses attest that David entered the photography room by pushing the heavy wooden door open with his left hand, as per usual.  Constrained as he was by habit, how could it have been any other way? 

The world record officials, of course, denied any liability; the company in charge of book publication maintains that the tarp laid on the floor for the photography equipment was thoroughly adhered to the tile with a double layer of duct tape, and was furthermore pinned down with thumb tacks placed at equal increments along the edges of the tarp.  Headquarters suggested they had even hired a man whose sole job was to keep the edges of the tarp from flipping up, though the legal team in charge of the defense for the subsequent trial later retracted that statement. 

It was said the look on David’s face as he fell was either one of disbelief or of beatific martyrdom—that it was either a grimace of shock or the small smile of a man resigned to Fate.  Those waiting in the lobby insist that at the exact moment David tripped, a fistfight broke out between the man who could pull a small tractor with his earlobe and the man who could pull a train with his beard over which feat was more impressive.  Paul’s initial reaction, when he heard the crash of plates shattering, was to release the breath he’d been holding.  The man who ate watches swore under oath that the one he wore on his own wrist stopped for a second.   

                   Other details of the event and its aftermath prove equally as fragmentary.  It has since been discovered that an eighth-grader from Tucson, Arizona, intends to carry a stack of plates of roughly the same size and diameter for six-hundred ninety days or more.  The creator of the largest toothpick mosaic—an illustrious title by itself—went on to create the Most Intricate Oriental Rug by weaving together corn silk and human hair, while the owner of the most airplane sick bags (5,468, from 1,065 different airlines) auctioned off his entire collection on EBay, which proved more valuable (by two hundred dollars) than the toast scorched with an image of the Virgin Mary posted for sale the same day. 

                  At last report David still lives in Vermont, where other than an affinity for clearing the dishes from the table after dinner he exhibits no abnormality linked to his experience.  He tells interviewers he has a renewed appreciation for his ability to sleep with both hands under the covers.  The only narrative record of his fall is documented on page 193 of the memoir of the boy with twelve fingers and thirteen toes, which tells most readers what they have already imagined—that when David fell he tried to stop himself, first, with his left hand—that when he opened his eyes the plates he’d carried for almost two years were no longer recognizable as plates.  It mentions the color of the floor tiles and the angle of the folded-over tarp, the scientifically-calculated noise level in decibels of the plates as they broke.  The fact that when David, strangely empty-handed, stood up again, his right hand seemed to rise in the air of its own accord, like a spirit released from the body.

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