By Leo Apilash | Illustration by Val Bochkov
It was during my clandestine trip to the urologist when I first met Russell. I had spent the longest 24 hours of my life waiting until my appointment the next day. Sitting in the waiting room with me was a boy around 10 years old. I saw that his mother was busy chatting with the nurse at the front desk, and while I am loath to make small talk, I couldn’t help notice his ashen gray complexion and sunken eyes and gently asked if he was okay and wanted me to get his mother. He quietly looked up from his Highlights magazine, smiled politely like someone who regularly gets looks of pity, whispered, “I’m good, thank you” and went back to his picture search. I have fond memories of sitting in waiting rooms as a child searching for a sailboat or tennis racket in some beat up issue of Highlights—in fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a Highlights outside the confines of a doctor’s office waiting room.
“You’ll never find the carrot, it’s too small,” I extended as an olive branch of friendship. He immediately scooted over next to me and said, “Will you help me find it?”
After finding out I had something called prostatitis which, thank heavens, is not an STD, I was told I just needed to take a hot sitz bath whenever it acted up and it would go away in a day or two.
“‘Whenever it acts up?’ What does that mean, is this not a one-time thing?” I asked incredulously.
“Nope, this is yours forever and ever, thank you, come again.”
As I was leaving the office feeling sorry for myself but equally giddy at the no-STD diagnosis, I saw Russell (I asked his name when they called me in) still sitting in the waiting room. His mom was with him now and when he caught me coming out, he introduced me like we were old friends. I come to find out through various hints and cues from his mother that Russell had a rare form of bladder cancer and that he was in for his monthly checkup. These days he spent most of his time in the Albany Regional Cancer Center in the pediatric wing getting chemotherapy and generally feeling lousy. Russell had overheard his mom and me talking and asked if I would come visit him next week in the hospital so we could finish the picture search—how could I say no.
The following week when I arrived at the ward, Russell had just undergone a heavy dose of chemo and was a bit lethargic. I had just come from my Fiction Writing 201 course and had the beginnings of a short story I thought Russell might like. I also figured my reading it out loud would give him a chance to keep still and quiet without feeling self-conscious. The story was “The Incredible Growing Man”:
In the Beginning
They say the sky lit up the world over the day I was born, something to do with the auroras being supercharged from some unknown distant galactic wind causing them to extend down to the equator.
I came into this world as a normal, 7-pound, 8-ounce baby boy, a foot and a half long. My mom was only 4 months pregnant when she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency C-section. Doctors were amazed by my extraordinary normalness—despite the fact that I was born 5 months premature I did not show any signs of premature growth. Statistically I was exactly where a nine-month newborn should be in terms of physical development but somehow I had accelerated the growth process by over 50% of the normal gestation period. That first month of life I was poked, prodded, measured, monitored, tested and taxed morning, noon, and night on a motuweth frisas basis. The local news reporters crowded the maternity ward, peppering my parents with questions about diet, PEDs, vitamins, genes—someone wanted to know what music was playing during the moment of conception, did she have flat feet, did he ever have cancer. Cancer came up again and again. Was my unusual growth associated with cancer, was I one large tumor? Sad endings sell.
Truth was, doctors could find no plausible cause and effect to this singular event. In all of recorded history there was not a shred of evidence that such a miracle had ever occurred before. Sure, there had been plenty of premature births before, but none with the same fact pattern as my case—a perfectly formed human baby in four months—it just didn’t happen.
By 6 months I was 4 feet tall and walking. My mental development was still that of a 6-month-old but my physical stature was that of a 6-year-old. One Saturday afternoon my mom took me on a playdate with Alex Paper, a fellow newbie to the human race who lived across the street from us. I remember his mom Carol Paper as a soft, doughy woman who usually smelled of disinfectant and always had a Beatles Revolver mug in her beetled hands, a plume of steam precipitating just above the lip. She had a Zen quality about her that had a pacifying effect on my mother—a much-needed counterbalance in her life.
On this particular Saturday we were left alone in the double-size playpen just outside the entrance to the kitchen and out of sight. The usual accoutrement filled our surroundings: squishy letter blocks, large plastic keys, a stuffed zebra with both eyes intentionally plucked, and a handful of multicolored pacifiers. Alex was intensely engaged in sucking on a blue pacifier when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he was moving in what for me were unfamiliar ways. His eyes were large, his hands grasping the side of the playpen and his lips blue. With an instinct that would test off the psychological charts in my later years, I smacked him in the face as hard as I could with the heel of my right man-sized paw and dislodged the half-gnawed nipple from his larynx. The blood-curdling scream that followed brought the moms running, but they were not smart enough to do the calculus. When they eventually turned an accusing eye my way, I was already fully engaged in the zebra blessing me with undeserved innocence, and the story of my life-saving smack passed quietly into history. But this instinctual empathy for human suffering was a theme that would play out over and over again in my life.
“Whatya think?” I asked Russell when I reached the end.
“Oh my god, I want more, can I hear some more?”
“I don’t have any more just now, how about when I come to visit next week?”
His eyes were heavy and bordered by dark circles. I looked up to see his mother at the door leaning against the jamb; I couldn’t tell if she was smiling or on the verge of crying.
“Did you happen to hear my story?”
“I caught the tail end, yes, I thought it was very good.” She looked at Russell when she said this. “Are you supposed to be this mammoth infant?” she asked.
“No, nothing autobiographical here, just an idea that popped into my head. Russell seemed to like it though,” I glanced over at him but he was now sound asleep. “Looks like the chemo has tapped him,” I said without looking up at her. She had nothing to say in response.
I drove home from the hospital that afternoon feeling numb, a dull ringing in my ears. I’d never really known death up close before, or the prospect of death. My grandparents all lived to a ripe old age, but I was the last of three children so there was a large age gap that acted as a kind of shock absorber. There was an inevitability to it that took away the sting—they all died of natural causes, and hey, that’s just what grandparents do. We didn’t live close to them and corresponded very infrequently so when they died it was at a physical, emotional, psychological distance. At this particular time in my life only one of my grandparents had passed away, my grandmother Adele on my dad’s side, but as I look back now in hindsight I realize I only have vague memories of each of their deaths.
I was still in high school when Adele died. She was the youngest of the four of them when she passed, somewhere in her mid-70s. I remember sitting at the funeral wondering why I didn’t feel sadder. I loved her very much and had very fond memories of playing Scrabble with her in the dining room of their small apartment, or the time she taught me how to shuffle playing cards. Back at home after the funeral I was heading to my room to go sulk; I walked past the upstairs bathroom and heard my dad crying. I had never seen my father cry before and beyond all good taste I was compelled to open the door. He was sitting on the edge of the sink, hands on his knees, head sunk low and quietly crying. I walked to a spot in front of him and put my hand on his head. He reached up and gently squeezed my hand and kept on crying, not trying to hide his grief, finding some measure of comfort in my presence. We never spoke a word.
My mom’s father Mannie was next in line, but not for a number of years. He made it into his 90s but was shattered by dementia by the end. My older brother Mitch had taken care of him in his final years, actually living in the same apartment, and used to tell me horror stories of Mannie waking up in the middle of the night screaming, not knowing where he was, or recoiling in fear when Mitch would leave and then re-enter a room, unable to recognize him. At his funeral I had the opposite reaction to that at Adele’s; I was unable to control my emotions and had to walk out halfway through the proceedings for fear of being a distraction. I was blubbering and catching my breath the way a 5-year-old gets after crying too long—it was all very unexpected. Like with Adele, I loved him very dearly and had lovely memories of him from my childhood—him cheering me on at little league games or bringing us a dozen Dunkin Donuts every Sunday.
Sadly, I have no memory of Irving’s funeral, my grandfather on my dad’s side. I must have been there but for the life of me I cannot recall a thing. My final memories of Ike were spending time with him and my dad on those occasions when I was able to get down to Florida. We’d sit and watch TV together in his little apartment, or if he was feeling up for it, we’d take him to a local watering hole to go fishing. Not much different from the TV activity—he’d mostly sleep, occasionally waking up to chat about the weather or local news. Ike was always such a pleasure to be around, he had a very calm demeanor and a smoky scotch smell about him that gave him an air of nostalgia. It was inspiring and quite touching to watch my dad take such good care of him in his last few years of life. Emotions like that make more sense to me now that I’m getting older, but back when I was in college I had no frame of reference.
Grandma Ellie was the last to go. My mom called to tell us she was in hospice and that we should fly down that night to say our final goodbyes. I just remember how frail she looked in those final hours, the husk of a once vibrant and loving grandmother. When we arrived she was too weak to talk, we all just marched into her hospital room one by one, told her how much we loved her, and tried to make it out of there before she caught us crying. Ellie’s lasting legacy was her home-cooked food—kugel and matzah brei and matzah ball soup and potato latkes and blintzes, it was all so good.
So why was I so emotionally tied up in what Russell was going through? I thought a lot about this question, and while I never found a convincing, rational explanation, I couldn’t escape the sensation that somehow I needed this, that it was a selfish catharsis for me and me alone. The closest analogy I could think of was when I’ve caught various women in my life crying for no apparent reason. My mom, my sister, and in my later life, my wife and daughters. When confronted with the question of why, they simply smile through the tears and say, “No reason, I just needed to cry.” That’s how I felt, I needed an emotional thump—positive or negative—to clarify an unknown, unasked question.
It was about three weeks later that I was finally able to visit Russell at the hospital again. I was anxious to see how he was doing, but I wanted to finish the next chapter in my story first. He seemed to enjoy the first chapter so much I couldn’t stand to disappoint him. I was informed by the desk nurse that he was in good spirits and was excited about my coming to visit today. I had asked his mother the previous day if it was okay for me to visit again and she sounded almost as excited as Russell. I had little information on the whereabouts of his father. I had never seen him at the hospital and I didn’t want to pry, but there was a clear appreciation of an “adult” male figure in the picture. Both Russell and his mom seemed to find solace and needed distraction from my visits, and I was more than happy to feed their hunger.
I barged in, “Hey big fel…,” and was immediately cut short by the unexpected presence of the resident male nurse with a stethoscope to Russell’s back. He glanced up at me and then past me into the distance while he listened intently to Russell’s innards. Russell tried to jump off the edge of the bed but was halted by the nurse and told to “sit still please.” Another 30 seconds of this and then the nurse gave Russ the go-ahead. He ran over and gave me a big hug and immediately launched into a flow of consciousness about the happenings since my last visit. From the various fragments I was able to glean that another cancer patient had moved in down the hall who was a year older than him and had an awesome comic book collection including something called Maus and some old-timey stuff from someone named Robert Crumb but his mom wouldn’t let him read those; doctors told him his cancer was moving in the right direction and that he might be back home by Christmas; his new math tutor was a beautiful blonde senior from his local high school and would I like him to set her up with me.
Once he finally settled down, he asked me if I had written the next chapter, which gave me the opportunity to reach into my backpack and pull out my marble notebook with a big flourish. “Here it is. Are you sure you’re ready for some Pulitzer prize-winning material,” but he was already fluffing pillows and getting situated in bed. “Okay, here goes…”
“Now Mr *, we think this is more than a fair offer—in exchange for covering all your son’s wardrobe expenses, you agree to have him wear our brand on all articles of clothing while in public. He is 11’7” after all and buying specially tailored clothes can be hard on a family’s finances.” My father didn’t really have an issue with the Spork Clothing company or their demand for exploiting his son, he just enjoyed exploring the depths they would sink, the cloying cobwebs they would weave, to kiss his ass. He was fully appreciative of the drain I had created on the family and welcomed the pecuniary pick-me-up. In fact, he had sponsors lined up for all manner of living expenses: the kind executives at HGTV agreed to build us a brand-new oversized house as long as they were permitted to come and film us (read: me) once a week for the next two years. They asked if I would kindly trash a portion of the house occasionally…sure, no problemo.
My daily diet of 15,000+ calories found numerous supporters; hell, even my toilet paper budget was taken care of by The Clean Assets Co. In short, once I passed the 8-foot mark at the age of 9, all our financial troubles vanished although the celebrity of it all did not last forever. The wow factor came in diminishing returns as I grew past the 20-foot mark. In order to supplement my dwindling sponsorship income I began searching for new employment. I played a tree on Broadway, the one Vladimir sits under as he waits for Godot. My visible growth spurts between scenes made for some interesting allegory, but the director thought it stretched the bounds of theatre-of-the-absurd so sent me packing.
I had a brief gig guarding Banksy to protect her anonymity but she didn’t pay very well and it did not seem the best use of my unique talents.
By age 22 I was over 100 feet tall and had had enough of the spotlight. I decided I would start swimming off the southern coast of Africa until I found an uncharted and unpopulated island I could use as a hideaway. I found one about 200 miles south of Madagascar, halfway between South Africa and Prince Edward Island. At 100 feet tall my hand was almost 10 feet from wrist to the tip of my middle finger. That size hand is capable of moving quite a lot of water—one full stroke took me 50 meters, which means I was able to cover a mile in 30 strokes. At that rate I was able to cover the 200 miles in just under 7 minutes. Occasionally I’d have to fight off a rogue shark or two, but a sharp smack with my hand on the water surface would temporarily stun them while I made my getaway.
Life on the island was just the catharsis I needed. The variety of fruit trees, coconut trees, and an ocean of fish at my hand-slapping disposal took care of my caloric needs. Beachfront surrounded the island with plenty of space for me to stretch out at night under the stars and enjoy the sleep of kings. When not foraging for food, I would spend my time exploring the island. Caves on the north end of the island were large enough for me to move around in freely. One early-morning spelunking expedition I happened upon an unusual sight: I had timed my visit to coincide with the return of a colony of bats from their nightly rounds. There must have been over ten thousand, clicking and chirping to find their resting place for the coming day. I witnessed them coming into the cave from a large hole toward the top of the cave and watched as they swooped down across the length and then seemingly disappear into the wall on the far north end. Upon closer examination I noticed the entrance to this back room was hidden by a large overhang of stalactites met by one large 20-meter-wide stalagmite—a large overbite had devoured the bats in a matter of minutes. Squeezing through the maw I stood up and was immediately transported to Gollum’s sanctuary—a dark and damp amphitheater with walls scaling 300 feet at the near end, gradually doubling in height by the far end. Thanks to some unknown bioluminescent covering the walls I estimated the full length of the cave at roughly two football fields. Speleothems of every variety populated the cave from floor to ceiling—dripstone and flowstone, frostwork and anthodites, popcorn, pearls, rafts. The colony of bats kept the ceiling in constant motion, but they were surprisingly sedate, nonplussed by my intrusion. As I was absorbing all this beauty and ugliness, a movement out of the corner of my eye broke the spell.
About 50 yards to the right of me in an unusually puckered section of the wall, a shadow was moving, slowly, intentionally, so as not to spook me. The dense luminescence in that corner painted a chiaroscuro silhouette of a bushveld animal. I could make out antlers and four strong, but thin, legs. It was looking straight at me, alert but not panicked. It decided I was not a threat, picked at a few blades of grass and then vaulted off into the dark shadows. Over the following two hours a parade of animals, objects, beings, diverse and wide ranging in every way proceeded across the wall of the cave. I was rooted to the ground, compelled to try and read, interpret, understand what I was seeing, convincing myself unsuccessfully that this was not a dream. Each image carried with it a distinctive sound that seemed to reverberate around the cave, coming at me from all directions. Without warning it came to an abrupt stop and the wall was blank. This lasted just long enough for me to lift my head for a breath of self-consciousness before a lone human figure appeared—not on the wall this time, but just to the left of me. I wanted to turn and look but for reasons I cannot explain, I continued to look toward the wall. A soft and gentle voice, a man’s voice, quietly asked,
“Be at ease, do you know who I am?”
“God?” I whispered in my head.
“No, just a man like you.”
“What do you want with me?” I asked, but quickly followed up with, “Why am I this way?”
“In time,” he said. “A more important question is, why are you here? Any ideas?”
I was silent.
“You are here, on this earth, in this universe, for the same reason as I, to pass along something of great importance,”
I was struggling to breathe, “What?” I choked.
“A spark ark-ark-ark” reverberating in a fugue, filling the cave, amplifying and canceling, getting louder and then receding; intense colors flashing, blending, blinding. Nauseous and head reeling I asked without asking, “What do I do with this information?” Just before I blacked out, I heard him say in full-throated laughter, “Chop wood, carry water.”
I was nearly 250 feet tall when another institution came calling.
The dossier dropped on the table before me was stamped Top Secret in boxy red letters. My fingers were too big to open the file so tall, dark, and ugly gave me the elevator speech: “Here’s how we think you can best serve your country son—are you familiar with oil well caps?”
“We will drop you in 50 klicks north of the oil fields, you will proceed by foot to the Ghawar oil field where you will use your giant hands to place caps on as many wells as possible as quickly as possible. The caps will be waiting for you when you arrive. We have taken the liberty of developing asbestos gloves and asbestos-lined shoes, all custom fit, and, given the prohibitive cost to build you an oxygen mask, a 50-foot heat-resistant snorkel. Unless there are any questions you ship out this evening, twenty-one hundred hours.”
“Okay then, good luck and godspeed.”
“What is it son? Speak up.”
“How do you plan on getting me to the Middle East, I won’t fit on any plane that I’m aware of?”
Without hesitation, “Aircraft carrier, an eleven-hundred-foot Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, the biggest damn ship in the fleet.”
“No killing—saving, in fact.”
That was all I needed to hear, I was going to war for my country and didn’t have to kill a soul. I took on my last assignment as my height moved passed the 1,000-foot mark. This last project came to me in a dream—I was a child building a sand castle by the ocean’s edge, I had been at it a long while and the structure was quite ornate. Drip castles lined the top of the fortification walls that surrounded the central courtyard, an oversized rook in each corner with cockles as window proxies. Translucent sand dollars were evenly spaced along the front wall facing the ocean, each highlighted with finely sparkled sand you can only find about 10 feet off the shoreline after the tide has run out, about 2 feet down. Thanks to a recent birthday I had multiple buckets of varying shapes, sizes, dimensions to build the central edifice; Seussian in all respects with parapets and battlements erupting out of the ground at exaggerated angles, stacked towers interwoven by staircases that would make Escher smile. And in front of it all, as every good castlemaker knows, was a large moat and drawbridge. As the tide came in, the moat performed its duties admirably, taking up the onrush and redirecting the surplus around the sides and back of the castle walls. Under each of the four walls there was a strategically placed aqueduct to help the inhabitants adequately hydrate.
It was this visual that gave me the idea that would literally move mountains. I read about the drought-stricken regions of east Africa and came to the government with a plan of my own, I would change the course of the Blue Nile by shifting the land around it, redirecting the river to provide sustenance and life to these desiccated villages. My ingenuity and success in carrying out the mission earned me the Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize—it was a fitting end to my Army career.
When I finally looked up, he was deep in thought, and I waited. “He doesn’t have a name?”
“No, I never gave him one. Do you think I should?”
“I don’t know. I mean, yeah, maybe, I don’t know. How does anyone call him?”
“He’s got a name, I just never refer to it, gives him an air of mystery, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I think it does too!” he said slowly, eyes looking thoughtfully into the distance.
I again caught his mother eavesdropping on our story. She was sitting out in the hallway and I could see her arm from where I was. “Whatda think Mrs. *?” The “Mrs.” was just a guess and said more out of habit than anything else, mostly because I felt like a 10-year-old boy 99 percent of the time, and quite honestly, still do to this very day.
“Just wonderful Leo, and I agree with Russell, I like the fact that we don’t know his name.”
As I was packing up to go, Russell leaned in and whispered so his mother couldn’t hear, “Did you ever know anybody who died?”
“What? Why would you ask me that?”
“I don’t know, I think about it a lot now. Have you?”
“Yeah actually, my grandmother died when I was a little older than you.”
“How’d she die?”
“Just old age I think.”
“Do you miss her?”
“I did, terribly, when it happened. To be honest I hadn’t really thought about it since.” A pinprick of guilt ran up my spine.
“Will you miss me?”
“You mean 80 years from now when you’re old and gray? Yeah, sure, I guess, although I might be a bit demented myself at that point and might not even know who you are.” We both had a laugh at that one—he stopped laughing a lot quicker than I did.
The afternoon I arrived unannounced at the hospital I was told by the nurse on duty that Russell had died the previous morning. Turns out the cancer had metastasized into his…blah, blah, blah…dead was dead. I had pictured this scene a hundred different ways over the past few months, and each scenario ended with me crying uncontrollably and being consoled by Russell’s loving mother. But it didn’t happen that way. It was such a shock and so unexpected, particularly given his last prognosis, that I felt blindsided. Crying uncontrollably felt too understated and inauthentic. Without thinking, I walked up to his hospital room and found his mother there sitting on Russell’s bed with his backpack in her lap. She wasn’t crying or doing much of anything really. Just staring, helpless, empty. I turned to leave so as not to disturb her when she called to me.
“Leo. Please come in, it’s okay. I’m sorry I didn’t call; I know he meant a lot to you.”
Her eyes were thick, heavy with swollen tear ducts, dark circles from lack of sleep.
“I’m so sorry. I…I don’t know what to say. There is nothing I can say that…”
“It’s okay.” Pause. “The end came quick.” Pause. “There was no pain and he died in his sleep.”
Somewhat abruptly she asked me if I ever finished my story.
“Yes, I handed it in last night.”
“I would very much like to hear it, if that’s okay.”
“Are…are you sure? You sure you wouldn’t rather be alone?”
“Alone is the last thing I want to be. Please, I very much want to hear how it ends.”
So I pulled out the story, sat next to her on the bed, and read.
Time to Fly
I had finally reached a size so large that I needed my own continent to avoid doing damage to populated regions. I agreed with the UN’s decision and moved to Antarctica but in short order this proved to be a disaster; my mass was influencing tides and weather around the globe. A casual sneeze caused an ice shelf to calve off, creating havoc in the southern shipping lanes.
It was time for me to leave Earth.
I had a fully evolved ecosystem living on me by this time and had established a sustainable atmosphere to protect me out in space. I said goodbye to my parents and friends and the good people of Earth and then…left.
I drifted aimlessly throughout the solar system for a few millennia, playing cat and mouse with Neptune, tracing the orbit of Pluto for a while, enjoying the kaleidoscopic shifting shapes and shadows that envelop Venus. It wasn’t until the year 10082 that I finally found something of value to do with myself. A string of cause and effect traced back to the beginning of time had unleashed a comet from the bowels of the asteroid belt that, like the ancient Kraken, was descending upon humankind with a steely, remorseless resolve intent on wreaking unimaginable havoc and despair. From my vantage point it was clear I was not moving fast enough and at the right trajectory to intercept it in time, but I was now large enough and understood the physics of my home court well enough to be an influence. With a monumental effort I flexed my magnetic field and manipulated the missile a few inches off course. By the time it reached Earth it had slid just enough to skip off the atmosphere leaving a beautiful, harmless cataract of falling stars in its wake.
I continued to drift in space, growing ever larger, attracting more and more debris. I remained within the sun’s grasp, keeping vigilance over my home planet for as long as possible but my increased gravity was beginning to influence the orbits of the planets and I realized the best thing I could do for my kin was to leave the solar system.
I was well beyond the Oort cloud when fusion ignited in my belly and I became a star. The next few billion years were relatively uneventful, I kept growing, absorbing smaller stars as I drifted through the heavens. One…day, if you like…I started to feel a bit queasy; maybe the last quasar I ate was rotten. This internal pressure increased over time to the point where I thought I was going to explode…and then I did. I shed my outer shell in seconds and the rest of me collapsed inward, forming a supermassive black hole attracting a galaxy-worth of matter around me. Matter and energy were being consumed at a fantastic rate, I had never been so hungry in all my existence; more and more piled up along the event horizon until, without warning, I jettisoned a magnificent burst of energy out into deep space.
On an obscure planet in an unknown solar system in the
galaxy that I had become, a child was born prematurely.
We sat silent for a very long time. I didn’t know what to say but I also knew I couldn’t, or didn’t want to, leave. Very slowly and by imperceptible degrees she started to cry. A deep, solemn cry that had been held in check since the day Russell first received the diagnosis. I stayed quiet, stood up, walked in front her, and gently put my hand on top of her head. She reached up, placed her hand on top of mine and we stayed that way for all eternity.
 Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov, page 67