Fiction · 04/30/2014

Bigger Things

The Madison Square Garden jumbotron shows me looking up and almost falling over backwards. The crowd murmurs as I lean over the piles and piles of glistening bratwurst, the cheap plastic patriotic tablecloth in red, white, and blue — the sound of 20,000 people squirming, shifting in their seats.

They’ve come to see me eat 60 bratwursts in 12 minutes.

I try to avoid thinking of everything I’ve ever eaten; I try not to think of words like mechanically separated chicken and beef hearts, or the salty sweetness of animal blood, or spare ribs, oysters, hamburgers, donuts, fried chicken, rib eye, French fries, hardboiled eggs; the flushing sear of bile quickly rising, of partially chewed chunks of bratwurst surging between my fingers and pouring beneath my collar to stain my white MASTER GURGITATOR t-shirt, size XXXXL, stretched thin over heaving, sweating, dripping folds of flesh. I try not to think of the aftermath of these contests, when I sit on the toilet for hours and push out elephantesque coils of shit while clenching my fists. I try not to think of this being the end.

Before the competition, as I did my stretching exercises in my dressing room, I broke the news of my retirement to Miranda.

“Why even do this, then, Paul? What’s the point?” She asked after initially slapping me, which kind of turned me on.

“The record,” I said. “You know how important this is to me. It’s the pinnacle of my craft.”

She crossed her arms, her gray eyes sizzling. “Fine, but I want you to keep me on for the autobiography and memoir rights. I’ll have the papers drawn up right now. You can sign them afterwards.”

“Is that really necessary? Can’t we talk about — ”

“Paul, you know I can’t go back to representing people like Pauley Shore and Jenny McCarthy and Dustin Diamond and William Hung. I cannot — I will not go back to that.”

“I’ll sign the papers, if that’ll make you happy.”

She stepped into me, and rested her small head on my enormous breast. “You’re the best thing to ever happen to my career, Paul. I hope you know that. Despite all of my agent talk.” Then she gave me a peck on the cheek, and I almost had my first hard-on in recent memory.

The piles of bratwurst steam, perspire, and shine on the table before me while the Worldwide Eating Federation President, a pale, fidgety man named Randy Cooley, talks into a microphone, listing my numerous eating records, my multiple Yellow Mustard eating championship belts, but I zone out and his voice turns into blaring buzzes; the crowd roars and a loud horn sounds and I look up at the jumbotron, which suddenly counts down the time from twelve minutes.

11:57

I grab and bend three bratwursts, one after the other, and put them into my mouth, my jaw working like a machine press, my throat tugging, and then I grab three more and pull them down.

+

I’m 5-9, 365, give or take 10-20 lbs. for bowel movements, but I never say that last part in interviews. Kimmell, Jay, Ellen: they always ask the same questions.

Letterman: Were you big as a kid?

Me: Yeah, sure I was.

Letterman: As big as you are now?

Me: Well, obviously, I have…

Letterman: Did you get made fun of?

Me: Everyone gets made fun of.

Letterman: What about now? Do you still get made fun of?

Me: Yeah, I guess so.

Letterman: Do they call you a freak? A monster? A pig?

Me: Well, not —

Letterman: They call you a freak.

Me: I didn’t get to —

Letterman (to the camera): Stay tuned for weird human tricks right after the break!

But still, my Eating Your Fears self-help book is a New York Times bestseller. And the Mattel factory in China can’t make my bobblebellies fast enough (like a bobblehead — of my likeness — but with a belly section that rocks gently back and forth when touched).

My Twitter feed has 1.2 million followers.

#gopoundergo

#prayforpaul

#poundit

#eatforamerica

Miranda keeps telling me that fat is ‘in,’ and that I’m so wonderful, and that I’m a pioneer — I really am — but unless we continue expanding and diversifying my brand, we’ll plateau. She has deals in the works for soaps, plus-size shoes, steak knife collections. I think about the commercial I did the previous weekend for my own deodorant spray, where I sit on a large couch, topless, with showgirls spraying me, rubbing my chest and each other while I tell America to smell like a champion.

And I should probably tell Miranda about the National Health Front, or NHF: the militant animal-loving, environmentalist, new age vegan organization which has recently been sending me letters in increasingly aggressive tones, printed on recycled paper, such as:

Dear Paul,
You are ruining our country.
You are the embodiment of everything wrong with America.
You make us sick with your repulsive displays of excess.
Sincerely,
The National Health Front®

I try to read my fanmail personally. For each NHF letter, I receive five letters telling me what an inspiration I am, how people enjoy my representation of the American Dream, and how I fulfill manifest destiny with my stomach. I am a shining symbol to millions of people, a beacon on a hill, a rare glimpse of optimism in this sad, crumbling world.

Or at least that’s what they tell me at book-signings and meet-and-greets, but they don’t know about the insomnia, or about the severe erectile dysfunction. I want to enjoy life without expectations, maybe paint a little. Who knows? Maybe Miranda will join me, a fantasy I always tell her about (one of many), but usually she’ll just say, “Oh, Paul, you and your ideas,” and she’ll put her hands on her hips and look at me with squinted eyes.

I glance down in front of the stage, where Miranda stands with her hands together, wearing a smart-looking navy business suit and a gray blouse with a low neckline. From here, I can see down her blouse, almost all the — but she twirls her hand in a circular motion, which means I need to hurry up because I’m behind the pace, so I stuff more bratwurst into my mouth, pull them down — in and down, in and down, in and down — and I look up at the jumbotron, which shows my score on the left and the time remaining on the right.

9     ·     10:01

+

I keep having this dream where I’m climbing a ladder, but it’s the younger me, the nobody: I’m wearing my four yellow mustard World Eating Championship belts, but they keep sliding down, threatening to trip me, so I have to pull at them with one hand while clutching at the next rung with the other. Each rung disintegrates as I climb to the next, and eventually I’m at the top, looking down on Earth; the last three rungs evaporate; I’m falling; I hear a dull roar, growing louder as I fall, a crowd becoming visible beneath me, chanting something I can’t quite make out, and as I get closer, an Olympic-size swimming pool of dark thick redness materializes in the center of the crowd. With time slowing, just before I hit the pool, I realize the pool is filled with barbeque sauce. I catch my reflection in it right before I land — a reflection of my current self: the fatass, the eating champion — I try to yell and look up, and the crowd, armed with forks and bibs, chants: “Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul!” I wake up in a cold sweat to the pathetic caws of seagulls, or the calls of dolphins, or the mating calls of whales, or whatever crappy CD Miranda’s picked up that week to try to help me sleep more.

But it’s hard to sleep, especially after competitions, when my insides feel like they’re burning away, when my stretched stomach tugs with every breath.

So between trips to the bathroom, I watch reruns of Extreme Weight Loss, where the host — a short, muscular, overly-chipper, blue-eyed perfect man named Chris — fields letters from fat people all over the country who want him to help them shed their fat and return to normal lives. He trains them for a year, and at the end of the season, they have a big reveal of the new-and-improved, now-normal person. Miranda will flip when she discovers I’ve applied to be a contestant for the show’s next season.

Sometimes, when I watch the show, I’ll daydream about actually being selected. Chris will train me; he’ll motivate me as I flip tractor tires and run and do pushups.

“Paul, you can do this,” he’ll say.

“Can I?”

“I believe in you, buddy. I know you have this in you.”

“I don’t know, Chris.” The camera will zoom in on my pensive face. Cue piano music.

“Listen, buddy, you need to think of all the things you’ve done to yourself. Do you really want to go back to that life?” he’ll ask.

And I’ll think of my mother baking an apple pie and leaving it on the counter while she washes her hands, how she looked so surprised when she turned around to find an empty pie tin, apples and cinnamon dripping from my mouth.

I’ll think of my father working his going-nowhere car salesman job, and how he’d tell me I was meant for bigger things than he.

I’ll think of the Goodwill clothes that never fit, and how the kids at school would tell me when I was wearing what used to be one of their former shirts, and how they poked me with their index fingers at recess like I was a science experiment, and they would laugh and call me Fatzilla and Gorgon and Dickface and Cunt.

I’ll think of the first time I realized I had a gift, when I ate the class lizard when Ms. Foster wasn’t looking, and how my classmates cheered and hooted, how they slapped me on the back, how they accepted me for a moment, and how good it felt to belong.

And I’ll look up, with tears of reckoning on my face, nodding courageously and standing tall. “I can do this, Chris. I can.”

“Buddy, I know.”

And then I’ll step out of my fat as if it were a suit, the way snakes can shrug out of their old skin and leave it behind.

Miranda shouts, making the circular motion with both hands now, which looks kind of cute.

More bratwurst. In and down. My fingers stick to the spiced casings, and I suck the bratwurst off my chubby hands.

16     ·     08:32

+

I hear the commentators at the press table on the other side of the stage, Dan Patrick and Erin Andrews.

Dan: At this pace, EA, he’s going to come nowhere close to the new world record.

Erin: And in front of this huge, sellout crowd, that would be a major disappointment.

Dan: Not to mention a critical setback to his stellar career.

“Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul!” the crowd cheers, sensing my slow pace, trying to propel me.

30     ·     06:05

+

Miranda always tells me to eat angry, that I’m unstoppable if I connect to my subconscious, so I try it, I think of my father coming in my room after I ate the apple pie, with a belt around his hand, buckle out, and how he told me he loved me as he raised it over his head, but how we couldn’t afford to go wasting food, but to remember that I was meant for bigger things than him, raising the belt, again and again; I think of the look on my father’s face the day he became smaller than me.

I’m angry now, in and down, I want that record, in and down, and I want to impress the crowd, I want their cheers to pulse through my veins, I want their applause to lift me like a balloon over the stadium one final time.

My stomach stretches.

Miranda opens her mouth halfway, as if she’s impressed, so I eat even faster.

47     ·     03:44

+

Around the three minute mark, I push it. I’m not even chewing anymore, just gumming it, sucking the casing off and mashing the meat before jerking my head back to swallow.

Erin: Wow, Dan, look at him go!

Dan: Just when we counted him down and out. Looks like Paul the Pounder is picking up the pace, EA.

Erin: At this rate, he’ll not only set the new world record, but he could be on his way to obliterating the old one.

Dan: This could be a truly epic eating feat of cosmic proportions. A beautiful thing.

I sweat from the stage lights and take a quick sip of water, spitting it on the stage; water takes up space.

49.

50.

Miranda cheers, clapping, getting into it, which is a big turn on. I imagine her in lingerie, playing with bratwurst —

There’s movement in the crowd, in the middle of the front section, where three people push their way through: two guys and a girl in electric green shirts that say ‘NHF®’ in large block letters.

Miranda turns and beckons security with her hand, two security guys in black come over, hulking; she points at the NHF extremists in green, who are three rows closer now, and the record is close, so close….

53.

54.

55.

The crowd takes up the chant again, drumming in my chest, sweat dripping from my nose, my ears, my eyelids, my lips, baptizing the bratwurst before I slip them up into my mouth and swallow them, my heart thrashing.

“Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul! Pound it, Paul!”

59     ·     01:36

+

When I reach 61, the arena explodes in deafening thunder, confetti rains down from the ceiling, people dance, high-fiving each other in pure and utter madness, but I’m not finished yet. They’ll show replays of this for years.

62.

63.

64.

The NHF activists wrestle with the security guards at the bottom of the stage. One of the NHF guys maces a security guard, who stumbles backwards, and then the NHF trio advances towards me from stage left, holding large bags of dark red liquid; I remember hearing about their latest tactics against fast food, when they threw bags of animal blood at drive-thru employees while screaming ‘meat is murder.’

…which kind of defeats the point, doesn’t it? Because didn’t they take the blood from dead animals? Or am I just —

Focus. In and down. In and down.

66.

67.

One minute left. I want this day to stand forever.

The maced security guard kneels on the stage, clawing at his eyes, while the other guard lunges for the tallest NHF activist.

Miranda is cowering behind a row of seats, her Blackberry to her ear.

68.

69.

Thirty seconds.

70.

71.

Something pops and ruptures deep within me, my stomach pushes through my abdomen, my gut is on fire, my skin is lightning, my heart slams against the sides of my neck, and—

72.

The tall skinny NHF guy raises his hand, pulls it back, and hurls a large bag of liquid red at me, and as it hurtles in the air —

Miranda screams, her hands over her face, but I can’t tell if she’s screaming at my stomach poking through my abdomen, pressing pink against my white t-shirt, or —

A security guard tazes the other NHF guy, who falls onto the stage and convulses and foams at the mouth —

Animal blood drips down my legs, sloshing into my plus-size crocks, and I slip as the other security guard tries to help me stand; I almost fall —

I scan the crowd, now silent, and they look at the disaster on stage, they look stunned, disgusted — like they always do after my competitions, even though they cheer and applaud the entire time —

“Miranda,” I say.

Slipping noises come from the stage as the other guard holds the NHF guy’s head to protect him from injury while he jerks and convulses and froths. The tall NHF guy, the ringleader, looks lost after throwing his blood bag, looks paused between one place and another. The NHF girl kneels, crying, cradling her bag of blood to her chest, confetti matted in her hair, confetti sticking to the stage, sticking to anything with sweat or blood on it —

My feet squeak as I slip backwards, and the security guard grunts as I land on him, and I’m on my back, my chest heaving, and thinking about all the things I want to say —

Miranda is at my side, waving some papers and a pen in front of me, the words blurring, and I want to make a joke about glancing down her blouse, to lighten the mood a little —

The arena sounds so quiet, I hear sirens, or bells, or whistles, or drums —

“Miranda,” I begin. “Listen — ”

I want to tell her how I’ve always had a crush on her, about how I hate myself, how I’ll give this all up if she’ll run away with me, how I don’t even like bratwurst, how I’m retiring and how I’ll transform into a better me, how I’ll change, how I’ll step out of my old self, out of —

72     ·     00:00

+++

Travis J. Pike is the Fiction Fellow at Wichita State University, where he is also pursuing his MFA. His work is forthcoming in Swamp Biscuits and Tea.