Home PageArchivesVolume no. 4Issue 2Fiction: Michael Kimball

‘Big Ray’ Excerpt

Michael Kimball

 
I need to say something about my father. I don’t feel good about this, but the first thing I think about when I think about my father is how fat he was.

*

My father got so big it was difficult for him to move his body. It was difficult for him to get up out of a chair and it was difficult for him to walk after he did get up out of a chair. If my father walked from his apartment to his pickup truck, he had to stop and catch his breath before he pulled himself up into the cab. My father got so fat it was even difficult for him to drive his pickup truck. His belly stuck out so far it pushed against the steering wheel, which made it difficult for him to turn the steering wheel as he drove around street corners. This problem was compounded by the fact that my father’s largeness pushed his arms so far away from the steering wheel he had to sit at an odd angle to reach the steering wheel with just one of his hands. Looking back, I can’t believe my father never killed himself or somebody else in a traffic accident.

*

My father was so fat he had to use a long-handled device with a clamp on the end of it to pull his shoes and boots over his feet. He used the same long-handled device or a broom handle he had fashioned with a hook on the end of it to reach anything up high. He had another stick with a kind of cup on the end of it. I’m not sure what that one was for.

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My father was so fat he also had various types of these devices in the shower. Even so, there were still parts of his body he could not reach.

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My father was so fat my arms didn’t go all the way around him when I tried to hug him. I have a wingspan of six feet, six inches and there was a big gap between my hands where they touched his back.

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My father wasn’t always so fat, but my first memories of him are of a big man. People called him Big Ray. When I was a kid, the nickname always seemed like a huge compliment. I would have loved to have been called Big Danny. Being big, getting bigger—that was all I was trying to do when I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he was reminded of how fat he was every time somebody called him Big Ray. My father must have hated that.

*

When my father was born, he weighed six pounds, twelve ounces. When my father was in the Marines, he weighed about 160 pounds. Not long before my father died, he told me he weighed over 500 pounds. Over the course of his lifetime, my father gained at least 493 pounds. Over the course of my lifetime, my father tripled in size.

*

My father also grew from his newborn length of 21” to 5’10” tall as a full-grown man. A couple of decades passed and then my father started to shrink as he gained more and more weight. All the extra pounds my father carried around with him started to compress his body and, not long before my father died, he was only about 5’6” tall and only when he tried to stand up really straight.

*

About 500 pounds is also the size of the largest kind of lion, a full-grown male. The size of my father could be terrifying. I think that partly defined our relationship.

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It is important to understand what my father looked like to understand what my father was like.

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My father was the oldest child in his family—besides his secret half-sister. Supposedly, this meant he had to do a lot of the work around the house, especially since his sister was sickly, especially when both of his parents had jobs. Apparently, my father had to fix many of the family meals when he was growing up and everybody else got to eat before he did. This is one of the reasons my mother offered for why my father ate so much as an adult. He was always hungry.

*

When I was a little boy, I remember thinking my father was the biggest man in the whole world. I would look at my skinny arms and skinny legs and find it difficult to imagine how I was ever going to grow up into that size of a person.

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Up until I was about six years old, I never saw another person who was any bigger than my father was and that felt like a kind of protection. Then one Saturday afternoon, I saw Andre the Giant wrestling on television. He could pick men up who were the size of my father and spin them over his head. After that, every time I looked at my father I felt kind of disappointed.

*

When I was a teenager, there were at least two times my father went on a diet and lost over one hundred pounds in just a few months. Once, it was a liquid diet that involved a lot of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry protein shakes. The other time, my father could only eat meat and vegetables and nobody else in the family was allowed to eat any of his food no matter how much there was. During these times when he dieted, my father could get so angry it was almost always scary whenever he was at home.

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My father could get angry if somebody sat in his chair of if somebody read the newspaper before he did.

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My father could get angry if somebody else ate the last piece of bread at dinner.

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Once, my father got angry with me because he thought I had mowed the lawn in the wrong direction.

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Another time, my father got angry with me because he thought my haircut was too short and I couldn’t explain why that was the current style.

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I have no explanation for this one, but there was this one time when my father got angry with me for looking out the window.

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When my father was at home, I often had no idea what to do or say.

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My father was so fat that even after he lost over one hundred pounds, he was still fat. I don’t remember my father ever being a normal-sized father. Also, both times my father lost all that weight, he gained it all back within a year, plus some extra pounds on top of that. Even during these two brief periods, my father was always at least twice as big as me, which always made me feel inadequate.

*

Once, when I was ten years old and my father was yelling at me, I called him fat. We all knew he was fat, but I don’t remember anybody else ever saying it to him. It was the first time I ever remember being mean to my father on purpose and he seemed to recognize what was happening. It made him angry in a way I had never seen before and I was surprised when my father didn’t even try to hit me. Instead, my father sent me out into the backyard and made me pull weeds until it was so dark I couldn’t see what I was doing. I still don’t understand why my father felt like that was a fitting punishment, but I felt a great sense of satisfaction as my hands got covered with grass stains and dirt.

*

That night, my mother came up to my bedroom and apologized for my father. Then she told me I shouldn’t call him fat. My mother told me she didn’t want me to make it any worse for myself than it already was. She told me it was easier to think of my father as heavy, but that just made him seem worse, even more overbearing, inescapable.

*

Sometimes, my father had to turn sideways to walk through doorways.

*

The first time my father beat me, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. He palmed the side of my head like it was a ball and threw my head toward the living room floor. My body followed my head down to the rough carpet. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I kept trying to get up, to stand up, to find some kind of balance, but my father kept pushing me down by my head and neck. It didn’t hurt that much, but it was disorienting, the lack of control I had over my little boy body.

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My father’s hands seemed so huge to me then—and so fast. I could not get away from them.

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Sometimes, I look at the hair on my arms and it makes me think of the hair on my father’s scary arms.

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Sometimes, my father would hold both of my wrists with his one hand while he slapped the side of my head with his other hand. I would try to get away from his slapping hand by moving sideways or ducking down. I would try to hide behind my own arms—try to keep my arms between us—but there wasn’t too much else I could do. I was too little and too skinny to do much else besides bob or try to cover up.

*

If I ever cried when my father hit me, he would ask me if I wanted him to give me something to really cry about. I didn’t, but I never answered him.

*

Sometimes, when I was angry with my father, I would go to this novelty shop that was in the mall and read the joke books, especially the ones with the Yo mama’s so fat jokes, which I would convert to Yo daddy’s so fat jokes as I read them. My plan was to memorize some of the fat jokes so I had comebacks for the times when I couldn’t take how much my father was picking on me. Knowing the fat jokes was a strange kind of comfort, but I was always too afraid to actually say any of them to his face.

*

Yo daddy’s so fat, when he walks out of the grocery store wearing a red coat, people yell Hey, Kool Aid. Yo daddy’s so fat, when he wears a yellow raincoat, people yell Taxi! Yo daddy’s so fat, he takes a bath at the car wash.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, he sweats mayonnaise. Yo daddy’s so fat, his blood type is spaghetti sauce.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, when he goes to the movies, he sits next to everybody. Yo daddy’s so fat, he gets group discounts.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, he shows up on radar. Yo daddy’s so fat, he’s got his own zip code.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, when he died, they had to take him out in two trips. Yo daddy’s so fat, he wakes up in sections.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, every time he turns around, it’s his birthday. Yo daddy’s so fat, he sat on a dollar and it broke into four quarters.

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Yo daddy’s so fat, when he walks, his butt claps. Yo daddy’s so fat, he broke a branch off the family tree.

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I wouldn’t have made fun of my father for being so fat if he hadn’t been so mean. It felt good to be mean back.

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Also, telling the jokes, even thinking the jokes, it still makes me feel better about my father. It is something beyond revenge.

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When I think of my father, it is with a mixture of fear and disgust. When I try to look at him in my mind, it makes me look away.

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I don’t understand my complicated feelings about my father. I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.

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Despite all the weight, my father was a good-looking man. People said so. It was the only thing that ever made me proud of him. My father took great care in how he looked. He always wore nice clothes and expensive cologne and different kinds of jewelry—big rings, thick bracelets, silver necklaces with cut-out coins for pendants. Also, he always combed his hair back in a certain way and he never went bald.

*

I don’t know what caused my father’s death, but there were a lot of things wrong with him. The most notable of my father’s various ailments were high blood pressure, type-two diabetes, and the fact that he was obese.

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The police officer who confirmed my father’s death guessed that he probably died from a heart attack. The police officer said it didn’t look like my father had struggled or been in a great amount of pain. He suggested my father’s death happened quickly. There was supposed to be some kind of consolation in that.

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Another possibility was that my father died from kidney failure, which might have resulted from the type-two diabetes and the high blood pressure. My father had a lot of symptoms associated with weak kidneys—including body swelling, confusion, fatigue, lethargy, and a kind of metallic taste in his mouth. My father’s doctor had already talked with him about kidney dialysis and he probably would have started the treatment if he had lived much longer.

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My father also had sores on the backs of his legs that wouldn’t heal—in part because my father usually sat on the living room floor with his legs out in front of him—but that probably didn’t kill him. It was probably just a symptom of poor circulation, which also caused his feet to swell so much that he often couldn’t wear any of his shoes. Sometimes, my father’s feet also got so dried out the skin cracked and then got infected. Those sores didn’t seem to heal either and my father’s doctor warned him they would eventually have to amputate his feet if he didn’t take care of them, but my father died before it ever came to that.

*

I’m glad my father didn’t have a heart attack or a stroke, almost die, and then end up in the hospital for days or weeks. That would have been worse.

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I wrote to the State of Michigan to request a copy of my father’s death certificate. Weeks later, I received it in the mail and was oddly anxious opening the envelope. In the section for Manner of Death, somebody wrote natural. In the section for the chain of events that directly caused the death, somebody wrote coronary atherosclerosis, which means his arteries were clogged with cholesterol, and then wrote diabetes mellitus, which is just a more formal phrasing for diabetes. Below that, there is a section for other significant conditions contributing to death. There, somebody wrote obesity, 500 lbs with a plus/minus sign next to it, which meant it was a guess, more or less. They did not perform an autopsy on my father to determine any of this for certain.

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I don’t know if it counts as a kind of suicide—to eat yourself to death.

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The death certificate notes that my father was pronounced dead on February 2nd, 2005, but it lists my father’s date of death as January 28th, 2005. There is something about that being noted in an official document that I find reassuring.
 

Michael Kimball hi-resMichael Kimball is the author of four novels, including “Dear Everybody,” “Us,” and, most recently, “Big Ray.” His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for “Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard).”

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