SOMEWHERE AROUND the age of eleven I became convinced my life would improve dramatically if I could get myself listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. For a time the book was a sort of bible for me. I most loved the section on oddities and human achievements: the world's fattest man, so big he had to be buried in a piano box, the Florida girl who lived in a coma for thirty-seven years and eleven days, the woman with the three hundred-pound tumor, the poor soul who hiccupped for sixty-nine years. They were all my heroes, my saints.
As a result, I spent more than a few years of my childhood with an eye toward excess. How many pancakes could I eat, how long I could hold my breath under water, how far I could walk on my hands. I collected every paperclip I could find in hopes of making a chain that would stretch two states over. Maybe it was a way to distinguish myself from my older brother. It could have been a desire to get away from the woods, from Arkansas, this place my parents had moved us, I don't know. But because of this inclination I went to bed some nights with an alarming stomachache or cramps in my feet, and, more importantly, I gained an intimate familiarity with the boundaries of failure, the lightness of the head just before fainting, the moment when muscles and willpower fail and the mind plays its most cunning tricks.
Now and then my mother grew tired of watching me stand around trying to catch stacks of quarters balanced on my elbows, or she'd have an urge to sit in peace in her own kitchen and talk on the telephone without my brother Cheston eavesdropping on her. If it was during the summer and we were not in school, she made my father take us off somewhere so she didn't have keep shooing us out the house and from beneath the windows.
Usually, what my father did was take us to the dump. We lived in the country, near the small town of Winslow, not far from one of the biggest landfills in Arkansas. He would sit in the truck reading Louis L'amour novels while Cheston and I dug among the hills of garbage for an hour or two, wading through the endless paper and torn trash bags and busted glass, turning over cast-off stoves and bathtubs and broken sheetrock, and kicking through the paint cans, carpet scraps, tires, old shoes, window frames, clothing, and lumber in search of something valuable.
We nearly always found something good, most often toys other children had grown tired of and thrown away. A number of my favorite childhood treasures came from the dump: the hockey stick, foreign and magical in its uselessness, the illicit lawn darts and BB guns. On a few lucky occasions we found a moldy Penthouse. We were not the only people there salvaging, but my brother and I had something of the mania of goldminers, thrashing around recklessly and holding up our prize once we'd found it, yelling out for the other to come look, always sure we'd struck it rich. Once we found a real pinball machine. It had only three legs, and the case was busted, but it worked when plugged in, and Cheston and I used our heavy cats-eye marbles for pinballs until the backboard started smoking and burnt out its circuit board.
On one of our visits to the dump, my brother found a pogostick, a gleaming silver pole with footrests and blue plastic tassels on the handles. We recognized it only as an artifact out of the past, something we'd seen on television, but we sensed with the intuition of children that it was one of those objects designed and built for nothing but exuberance. As we understood it, adults were not allowed such luxuries. Like stilts or a unicycle, a pogostick was a device utterly impractical for transportation. In fact, to think in those terms is to miss the point of such an invention completely, and to say it now only marks the distance between the child I was then and the man I am now.
Once we got the pogostick home, Cheston and I bounced around on it all afternoon, punching holes in the soft dirt around the house our father had built. The heavy spring inside the pogostick had rusted and the thing gave out a terrible squeal with every hop. We laughed and bounced as high as we could and landed badly and fell to the ground. When we got tired of hopping in the yard we left the pogostick outside with the pinball machine and all the other junk to rust in the summer thunderstorms.
Summers at that age meant doing exactly nothing for long stretches of time, and it has been so long ago that I did nothing I can hardly remember what it is like. Where we lived there were woods all around our house, and television seemed less irresistible than it seems now. There was little to do then, and it is true we were often bored. It was usual for me to spend an hour at the top of a tall tree, or half a day following a deer trail and splashing through leaves. I also read many books lying on my back on the floor of our living room with my feet up on the couch and eating peanut butter straight from the jar.
I was lying there one afternoon reading, sucking peanut butter from my finger, when I heard the sounds of an argument from my parents' bedroom. I held still, listening, but could not hear anything definite over the box fan my parents turned up to muffle their voices. Luckily, Cheston had been listening in the closet and he told me later they were fighting because Rona Barker, our father's first wife, the woman who had given birth to Cheston and me, had written saying she would be passing through Arkansas in late August. She had asked to come see her sons, and our father had agreed without telling our mother.
My mother finally left their bedroom and stomped out of the house and tore up the dirt driveway in my father's Toronado. My father and I watched her go from the window, and then he looked down at me.
"Take your finger out of your mouth, Clayton," he said. "You'll make yourself buck-toothed."
Rona's impending visit would have been the only thing on my mind that summer if something else hadn't happened: one afternoon on the floor reading, I came across an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for pogostick jumping. Thomas Hudson, a dog-groomer from Toronto, had set a record for pogo-jumping a modest nineteen hours in 1972. The entry was only two sentences long, and at 147, 259 hops, Thomas Hudson hadn't even merited a photo.
The pogo-stick had been there rusting in the yard for a month, and my first hops on it hardly depressed the spring at all. I fell over once, twice. Then the spring gave, and with a terrible screech at each hop, I bounced around the yard. Down the road at some neighbor's house, a dog started barking, then another from further away. My brother poked his head from the front door.
"Why don't you cut it out?" he said.
"I'm in training," I told him, already out of breath. "I'm out to set a world record."
"Not in your lifetime, Baby Clayton."
He couldn't rattle me. A feat like the one I had in mind required dedication, mindless concentration, sturdy shoes. My plan was to work up to several hours a day, for longer and longer stretches. Then I just had to time myself at twenty hours and write off to the people at Guinness. By Fall, I'd be the only celebrity in my sixth grade.
My brother Cheston was endlessly curious about our mother and father, and about their lives before we were born. He often stood outside their bedroom window in the afternoons just so that he could eavesdrop. Though he was not a reader, he would stick his face in a book at the kitchen table to overhear our mother on the telephone with one of her relatives. And whenever he chanced on some key piece of information, he analyzed it aloud in our room, repeating it over and over, like a codebreaker savoring a recent clue.
He was the one who had told me that not long after I was born Rona spent time in a mental hospital and that when I was almost a year old she moved away with a friend, some woman she'd met there. Cheston was five by then, and before he turned six our father had met the woman we called Mother, the woman who raised us. It was hard for me to reconcile this messy past with the people I'd grown up knowing, my father quiet and doting and acting always as if he'd just been caught stepping in the flowerbed, and my mother, never far from the line where her humor wore away to exasperation, both of them oblivious to anything that mattered in the world of an eleven-year-old. And who was this Rona, this stranger who gave birth to me and fled? This woman I would be expected to love and would not recognize if I saw in my own home?
Nobody took me seriously in my attempt to break the pogostick record, not even after several three-hour runs, not after one five-hour session that ended with my mother striding up the driveway with an aspirin bottle clenched in her fist. But to my mind, their negligence was part of the plan, something I talked about at length in my imaginary interviews. "I asked my father to be timekeeper," I told the invisible reporters standing around my bathtub at night. "But he said he couldn't stand the suspense."
What he'd really said was he didn't want to waste an afternoon watching his youngest son bounce around the yard like an idiot. He asked me why didn't I try to set the record for cleaning my damned bedroom?
The day I picked to break the record was a Sunday in August. I woke early, the summer morning in its last hour of false-cool. As I walked up the long driveway and past the stand of oaks I watched the sun whiten the sky. Near the road I stood testing the air, the pogo stick held over my shoulder in a studied pose of quiet determination, my jeans loaded with Jungle Juice cartons and two peanut-butter and banana sandwiches already forming a soft ball in my pockets.
I noted the time and began. The spring groaned out, breaking the quiet morning, and immediately came the sound of dogs barking miles off. But soon the spring settled into a light chirp as I bounced up and down the driveway, my mind blank, my body one with the pogo stick
Around two that afternoon, Rona showed up. Twice that morning, Cheston had come out to tell me she was coming today and twice I'd ignored him. So he complained to our mother, who came up to the top of the driveway around noon and smoked a cigarette, something I'd never seen her do before.
"Clayton, what exactly are you out to prove?" she said.
"We've got this man made out of plastic who smokes cigarettes in our science class," I said. "When Ms. Coots puts a cigarette in his mouth it turns the cotton in his lungs black."
"I'm sure it does."
"I've only got twelve more hours to go."
She sucked on the cigarette. "You know your mother is coming. Why did you pick today, of all days?"
I told her as far as anybody cared to know, I thought she was my mother and Rona was a crazy liar. I told her I was going to get my picture in the Guinness Book of World Records and that I'd already bounced so much I could feel the bones inside my arms and legs, and I wasn't stopping for anybody.
"I don't think that thing's good for your insides," she said. "I'm concerned about your organs getting jiggled."
This was something to think about. Nobody had told me this was a possibility. I remembered that my stomach had been aching ever since I stuffed one of the peanut-butter and banana sandwich-balls into my mouth and ate it whole. It felt like concrete in my gut. My jaws were sore from being clenched to keep my teeth from clacking together, and I'd long forgotten what a solid, stable world felt like at all. I understood now that Thomas Hudson's achievement had not been about balance, skill, or even strength, but about facing the long hours of loneliness and fear. And what's more, I began to worry that what had kept him from making bounce number 147, 260 was the simple fact that he'd fallen over dead.
But my mother seemed happy with my answer, so she pitched down her cigarette, sniffed her breath in her palm, and left me to my hopping.
I'd bounced back toward the house a couple hours when Rona pulled into the driveway in an orange Vega with no hubcaps. The car came to a rest with the motor running and she sat looking at me for a time, as if she weren't sure if she'd found the right place, or if she might change her mind and drive away. She finally shut off the engine and stepped from the car, smoothing out a pale blue sundress. She was thin, with long red hair, and she wore large sunglasses that I thought were very much out of style for 1987. Cheston came out of the house wearing his church clothes, blue slacks and a white shirt with a sock tie, clothes he wouldn't normally get caught dead wearing. Rona held out her arms and Cheston walked over stiffly and she held him for a long time. My father walked out wearing the black western cowboy shirt he always wore for family portraits. He shook Rona's hand and the three of them stood near her car in the driveway.
My father waved me over, and I bounced a few hops in their direction.
"Get off that damn thing and come over here," my father said. Rona put a hand on his arm and walked up to where I bounced in place.
"Clayton, I don't guess you recognize me, do you?"
I bounced in a circle around her and she spun slowly to follow me.
"He does talk, doesn't he?" she said.
"Only when you want him to shut up," my father said.
"Why don't you just stop for a second, Son," Rona said. "Why don't you stop and let your mother give you a hug and say she's sorry a minute?"
I could see that her skin was pale and she was freckled, and I thought how I'd never seen an adult with freckles before. I can see her standing there like it was yesterday, her hands held out, the blue sundress, the bones of her face severe under the skin. It is the only memory I have of her, and in it she seems very beautiful to my young eyes, and fragile, too, though that feeling may be something I added later, after years of recollecting her image. But I knew even then, young as I was, that she was not just passing through, that she had driven down from God Knows Where to see us and that I ought to at least let her hold me in her arms.
She asked again, but I didn't stop hopping, and after a moment she put her hand to her mouth and walked back to her car, saying something soft to my father before she got in the car. She backed out of the driveway, half-turned in the driver's seat. My brother ran into the house, and my father walked heavily after him, preparing himself, I think, for whatever words he would have to speak to my mother inside. It came to me how little I knew of him, and how he and my mother and Rona were all strangers, the three of them worn and burdened with feelings and memories and regrets that my brother and I would now share.
And when the door shut after him and I was alone in the yard, I jumped from the pogo stick and let it fall. I stood there under the white sun looking up the driveway dizzy and trembling, my legs heavy as stone, the earth lurching beneath my shoes.