Little Jackie Ashley moved to the apartment on La Brea Terrace in 1975 and he hated the new city and school and people and restaurants and church and smell and sounds and the way it felt. His new teacher didn’t read stories after recess and the new school was too far away to walk to and he couldn’t prove it but his new room felt smaller. The baseball team he joined was named the Yankees of all things and he had to soil himself with their jersey every Thursday afternoon and his suggestion they rebrand as the Cardinals was shot down. He told his parents, not without a hint of “I told you so” satisfaction, that he was right, he did hate this new city, he wasn’t getting used to it like they said he would, and the dog they promised they now had space for better get here before Christmas cause he really couldn’t take it anymore and at least with a dog he’d have a friend.
His father and mother had said they were trying the best they could.
He had gotten it into his head during the three day road trip to the apartment on La Brea Terrace that his new neighbor might have kids the same age as him that he could become best friends with. His old apartment had been across town from his best friend and he figured having your best friend right next door could really turn out to be convenient for both of them.
His parents had said that sounds like that’d be really fun.
So one day after school he dug his favorite football from the stack of unpacked boxes and walked across the hall to the door marked 2A. He knocked and waited and stared at the door and was about to walk away when the door swung open. Little Jackie looked up at Charlie Leigh. Charlie was tall but not any taller than Jackie’s dad and had very short hair and smooth cheeks and Jackie thought he looked like a very neat and orderly person.
“Hello,” Charlie said, “What do you want?”
Jackie introduced himself as his new neighbor and inquired if Charlie had any kids, with those Jackie’s age of particular interest, that might want to play with him today and become his best friend. Charlie didn’t, but he dug around in his house for a few moments and returned with a tiny Hot Wheels car, explaining he had found it the other day on the sidewalk and that Jackie could have it. He reluctantly took it and left, disappointed. “What’s the point of neighbors if you can’t play with them?” he told his mom as he slumped back into their new home.
Weeks passed and it turned out despite initial appearances the kids on the Yankees with him weren’t so bad after all and the bus ride to school gave him time do the homework he had forgotten to do the night before. And after attending the shortstop’s birthday party and successfully completing what was unanimously praised as the coolest flip on the trampoline he had begun to feel a little bit better about his new hometown, despite even its stubborn refusal to snow in the approaching wintertime.
It was under the red and green tree lights at his parent’s Christmas party that he saw Charlie Leigh again. He had gotten to invite two friends to the adult party and was showing the shortstop and first baseman Rowlf, the ten month old chocolate Lab and Christmas present, when he spied his neighbor alone by the Ruffles and dip. He slipped his way over to him.
“The Ruffles were my idea,” he told Charlie proudly. He had begun to forgive him for not having children that could be his best friend. “My parents were just gonna have that cheese thing over there but I said you gotta have chips at a party. And Ruffles are my favorite.”
Charlie nodded politely and smiled down at him. Jackie didn’t know it, but there was something about Nat King Cole’s mellow timber crooning over the stereo or maybe the fact that Charlie had already attended a Christmas party earlier at work so he had been consistently drinking since 3:30 in the afternoon that caused him to crouch down and whisper to Jackie something he hadn’t told anyone in the world: “I think I’m growing.”
Jackie replied that he, too, was growing and that had grown over a quarter of an inch since the move to their apartment on La Brea Terrace.
“Yeah, but you’re a kid, you’re supposed to. I’m done growing.”
“Not if you’re still growing.”
Jackie was right of course.
Over the last month Charlie had begun to notice a tangible difference in the way he perceived the world. He had gone to the doctor and been told that everyone’s height fluctuates within a matter of centimeters day to day. He had been told by family and friends that he looked thinner, fitter, better. In a slight panic that morning he had measured himself on the white door frame of his apartment at five feet eleven and one half inches, a half inch shorter than what it said on his driver’s license and a half inch taller than what he had thought he was.
“I think it’s cool,” Jackie said, “I wanna be really tall when I grow up.”
The shortstop called Jackie over to help find Rowlf, who under the Yankees’ watch had ran off into the winter night. He told Charlie goodbye and raced away.
Later he asked his parents when people stop growing. They explained the usual humdrum answer and quelled the last of Jackie’s suspicions. It was probably just the new neighbor’s adult joke on the little kid.
And so weeks passed and he came to like the shortstop even more than his old best friend and he took Rowlf on walks every day. He usually didn’t see Charlie. But there was something about him; he hadn’t acted like other adults act. He had leaned down and told him a secret. Something special. As months sped by he would catch glimpses of Charlie through the windows and doors and he seemed to always be anxious. One day he found himself walking up the steps just behind Charlie. His hair was longer and more unkempt and he had the dark fuzz adults get when they don’t shave for a few days.
“Did you grow anymore?”
The question startled Charlie and, without turning around, he slinked into 2A. Jackie thought he might’ve been taller than before, but it was hard to tell on the stairs.
One Sunday morning while his parents were drinking their coffee his father tossed the paper over to him. He said your friend’s in the paper, there. The headline read, “AREA MAN BEGINS GROWING AGAIN WITH NO EXPLANATION—THE 6’3 MAN CLAIMS HE WAS JUST 5’10 LAST DECEMBER.” He skimmed through the article till he found Charlie Leigh’s name. He really was growing, I guess, Jackie told his parents.
There was the day that he saw Charlie on the morning news show. A local man, the newscaster said, had grown five inches in the past few months. They showed a picture of Charlie that must have been taken a while ago because his hair was trimmed and his face was clean shaven. He was smiling and someone next to him had been cropped out of the frame. He had had his arm around them.
Jackie eagerly told his friends on the bus ride to school that he knew the man on the TV that morning, but no one remembered the segment.
After school he raced up and knocked on the door of 2A to tell Charlie that he had been on TV but no one answered. Peering in through the window, he could see lights were on.
“Charlie! Charlie! Did you know you were on TV today? I saw you!” he yelled; so loud his mom came out and dragged him inside. She told him to leave the poor man alone.
“I can’t now that he’s a celebrity,” he insisted. “We live next to a famous person. I know a famous person.”
Back when they lived at their old apartment he had seen Bradley Barrack eating a club sandwich and fries at the counter of Patty’s and played it very cool and simply nodded when his father told him who it was. Bradley Barrack had played Triple A ball for the California Angels until his knee gave out. But now, Charlie, his neighbor, his friend, was famous. He started watching the morning news every day.
Jackie began to become what one might generously call obsessed about the neighbor in apartment 2A. Through thorough observation, Jackie noticed that Charlie had started leaving his apartment less and less. Sometimes a man, who Jackie and the shortstop agreed must be his brother, would come bringing groceries and supplies. Charlie must have stopped going to work. His friends and him drew pictures of what they thought he must look like now. One million feet tall, the third baseman speculated. The shortstop pointed out that he wouldn’t fit in the apartment then and the third baseman reluctantly relented.
One night at dinner Jackie’s father so elegantly defined what was beginning to happen in apartment 2A as a “commotion” and his mother pursed her lips and nodded in agreement. Men in suits would visit the apartment. They strode in and out of Charlie’s home quickly past the little queue of reporters and gawkers that commotions always caused. And Jackie watched, eyes peering out through the blinds, waiting for a glimpse of his friend Charlie.
There were more articles in the newspaper and news stories and press conferences and reporters. None of the kids at school could deny that Jackie lived next to something famous.
Jackie was away at a week long summer camp when Charlie was whisked out of apartment 2A and the commotion ended. He returned to find an eerie quietness in Charlie’s old place and the forecourt in front of it and he surprised himself by crying at the thought of never seeing him again.
School ended and summer started and every now and then Jackie’s dad would update his family to Charlie’s predicament and read the little articles that would sometimes land in the paper. He was supposedly over seven feet now.
Altogether too soon, school started again but at least that meant baseball season began again too. It was around Thanksgiving break that Science discovered the reason Charlie had begun to grow. When his dad called him to watch the news report, Jackie came running. Charlie, their Charlie, Jackie’s Charlie, had apparently spent the better part of last year in an institution on another coast. The News proclaimed him to be much better now. And then they cut to an interview, and there was Charlie, towering over a little balding man. The balding man was smiling to the camera and waving, and Charlie’s hunched figure was bending over to shake his hand. The camera man struggled to keep both of their faces in frame. On his family’s small TV he couldn’t make out if Charlie still had that same anxious face. The segment ended and they moved on to the weather. Jackie asked his father what “much better” meant, and his father told him that it meant Charlie wouldn’t be growing anymore. After a moment, his father admitted that he didn’t know why he had said that. He didn’t know what it meant.
One weekend a young couple moved into Apartment 2A across the hall despite Jackie’s attempts (along with the shortstop) to burn, and later, when the matches didn’t erupt into flames, bury, the “For Sale” sign. The new neighbors didn’t have any kids to play with either.
His family was putting off doing the dishes from their ham Christmas dinner by crowding around the set watching ABC’s Holiday Spectacular, when the host with slicked back hair and a powder blue suit announced two very special guests. He asked the studio audience for a thunderous round of applause and then introduced, for the first time officially and together, one all the way from New Delhi, India and the other from right here in the States, the tallest and shortest men in the world.
Jackie sat frozen as Charlie walked onto the gaudy set, barely noticing the person next to, or rather under him, racing to keep up with his long strides. His father, from behind the paper, asked if that was Charlie and Jackie shot back of course it was. The host mugged for the camera, delaying the introductions, towering over the little person and eyeing Charlie’s waist.
“Now, tell us, just how tall are you there, Charlie?”
Charlie smiled awkwardly out from behind the layers of shiny studio make-up. “I’m eight foot three inches, sir.”
“Sir! Charlie, everybody calls me Merv, call me Merv.”
Whenever Charlie spoke, Jackie had to lean into the tube, almost falling in, to hear him. His mother told him it was bad for his eyes to be so close.
The host went on, “Now, this card says here that only seventeen people in all of recorded history got to be over eight foot like you are—”
“Guess that makes me pretty lucky—”
“Right, it sure does, that’s a good way of looking at it son. But what I was gonna ask, is could you spare a foot or two for my friend Gul over here,” and he gestured to the short man sitting next to Charlie, and they both smiled lightly as the audience roared. After the interview, there was an awkward stunt game of basketball; the host and the short man versus Charlie, the joke being that Charlie let them win, and then Barbra Streisand came on and sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and then it was commercial.
Jackie had to wait two whole weeks for school to come back to ask everyone if they saw Charlie on the Holiday Spectacular, which they all did since everyone watched the Holiday Spectacular, and to tell them that his neighbor was the tallest man in the world.
In spring the latest news was that Charlie had turned down an offer to be on the Harlem Globetrotters and was instead a Jacuzzi brand hot tub salesman in Los Alamitos, which wasn’t labeled on the map that hung in Jackie’s room but his dad said was up along the 5 in Central California, where he was billed on the local ads as the biggest and best salesman in the world— and that he’d get you the biggest and best tub for the smallest price.
Jackie’s repeated attempts to convince his parents to take him there were denied, and fresh Charlie news evaporated, until an updated Guinness Book of World Records went up in the window of the bookstore on his way to the bus stop. It was vomit yellow and had a picture of the longest stretch limousine and lady with a beard on the cover, and he ran in and flipped through til he found Charlie, smiling Charlie, looming over a Guinness official and being presented with a certificate. And while the blurb under his name didn’t mention La Brea Terrace it did point out that all of his specially made clothes were made by Sears for him. He tore the page out of the book and pinned it on the wall above his desk. Sure enough, Charlie soon began appearing in Sears ads that aired during Magnum P.I. and featuring the tagline that if Sears could tailor a suit for Charlie they could meet anyone’s tailoring needs. The next week when Jackie went with his mom, there was a life-sized cutout of Charlie next to a display of polyester sweaters. He had her come back the next day and take a picture with him smiling up at the cardboard Charlie. Cardboard Charlie was smiling and looking back down at Jackie. He was also, thanks to a handy speech bubble, telling him that Sears brand Kenmore refrigerators were discounted up to 15% this month and this month only.
Jackie’s craving for glimpses of Charlie was sustained through the Sears ads on TV and an occasional article in one of his dad’s magazines. But rumors persisted that Charlie was still growing. Eventually the Sears ads began reusing the same older photos and eventually petered out. One of his father’s coworkers was from Los Alamitos and said that Charlie was no longer a hot tub salesman there. Charlie was disappearing from his life.
There was junior high graduation and tryouts for the high school baseball team and an awkward trip to the bowling alley with the first baseman’s sister. There was his dad and him standing in the steamy bathroom putting bits of toilet paper on his cheeks after shaving the first time. There was driving the station wagon in the ice rink parking lot and the job interview for Albertson’s that he didn’t get. But there was always the World Record page taped on the wall, always a careful skimming of the Sunday paper, always an ear listening to the news in the other room.
It was after practice while walking Rowlf sophomore year that he found Charlie again, in a tiny picture on the curled corner of the cover of the National Enquirer in the checkout counter of 7-11. It said “World’s Tallest Man on the Run—And Taller Than Ever” in red italic letters above a grainy black & white photograph of what looked like a lanky man running down a small empty street surrounded by grass and nothing else. He bought the magazine, and flipped to the small story as Rowlf began to drag him along. It claimed that a farmer in Eastern Wyoming had been complaining of his crops disappearing for months when he finally bought a security camera and pointed it at his endless rows of potatoes. The camera captured a huge man, dressed in tattered, flapping clothes, come by in the dark of night and make off with his produce. The man, scaled by his tiny tool shed in the background, must have been fifteen feet tall, but he couldn’t have been, that can’t have been right, that’s impossible. The story was in the Enquirer after all. Nevertheless, the grainy picture of the giant went up below the World Record page. “Who else could it be?” Jackie questioned the shortstop as he stared down skeptically at the torn page.
It was difficult to track Charlie. Slowly but surely other reports began to creep through from the forested stretches of rural Wyoming. Not easily obtained unless you knew where to look. Farmers and ranchers and park rangers reported large footprints and fallen trees and swaths of produce gone. Kids, playing out near a creek near dusk, saw a figure loom above the trees. Representatives from the Shoshone and Arapaho Nations lodged official complaints with Wyoming State Legislature that a massive man had been living in the remote northern quadrant of the Wind River Reservation. A mailman, out on a dusty road before dawn, told the Casper Star-Tribune that he saw a man as tall as the Jackson Town Hall clock tower duck into a line of cottonwoods. In a letter to the editor, Jackie wrote that he believed the giant man to be Charlie Leigh, his neighbor from four years prior. The out of state letter from a high school senior was not printed.
The stories regained relevance. “The bigger he is the easier it is to find him,” the shortstop told Jackie one day, now a firm believer. More reports and sightings and evidence led to a man hunt. Pressure from the public led to flyers and posters and search parties and helicopters. Prom night the news broke that NASA had used satellite imagery to find evidence of the giant man’s camps. Photograph experts estimated the man they were hunting was approximately twenty feet tall.
As the nation began to realize they lived amongst a behemoth of a man, the story began to dominate the zeitgeist. Jackie watched helplessly from his parents’ flower-patterned couch as lines of flashlight-wielding good Samaritans marched together through the dense, forested hills of the Arapaho reservation. Within twelve hours Charlie was found on live television. He walked towards the mass of people, face and body covered in dirt and matted hair. The news cut quickly back to the anchors at the desk as he emerged from the shadows, nude. He stood over thirty feet tall.
For his best interest, it was decided he be taken to a secure and safe location at the discretion of the United States government. And so the nation lost its colossus within hours of finding him. But in the tiny news footage Jackie had recognized the naked man. The fugitive was his neighbor from Apartment 2A.
After witnessing live footage of a thirty foot tall man stagger towards them through their television tubes, people hungered for answers and did not wait to find them. A man in Salt Lake City identified an eighteen-wheeler driving down Route 15, that when inspected closely, revealed two giant fingers poking through some sort of air hole. To keep the hungry public at bay the government released his name, officially, as Charlie Leigh, ex-Sears spokesperson and Guinness World Record holder for tallest human to ever live. Jackie watched on as KTLA interviewed the brother he had once seen helping Charlie all those years ago.
“I just thought he needed to be left alone. What happened to him isn’t normal, it’s not supposed to happen. He needs help. I want them to help Charlie, not study him,” he was squinting into the sun setting behind the camera and raising his arms over his head in exasperation, causing his shirt to untuck and reveal his stomach. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”
Charlie was transported to a secure hangar in Mesquite, Nevada on the Arizona border. Two days later, under a black tent during a passing shower, sun shining brightly on the Arizona hills in the distance, FBI officials announced that they were taking very good care of Charlie, and emphasized he was not being held against his will. Then, silencing the crowd of reporters, Charlie himself walked out in a freshly pressed gigantic jumpsuit. The crowd stood motionless and the thousands of Americans watching in offices and schools and homes leaned closer to their humming screens.
Charlie kneeled down awkwardly to a microphone hoisted high into the air and looked directly at one of the news cameras at the back, but not the one to the channel Jackie was watching on.
He blinked a few times and said:
“Hello, I’m Charlie. I didn’t mean to cause such a fuss. I didn’t know what to do. So I panicked and ran. But now I’m here, and I’ll be getting help, and they’ve been very reassuring. I trust these fellows completely. Sorry, again.”
And then commentators discussed the implications of a thirty foot man and what was to become of Charlie. Jackie told the story of the Christmas party all those years ago to anyone who would listen. Charlie was parodied on Saturday Night Live and joked about on the late night monologues of Johnny Carson. There were t-shirts and posters and stickers with Charlie’s face. Some, in bold font underneath, read “FREE CHARLIE.” Jackie watched SNL and the Tonight Show and had the posters and wore the t-shirts.
There was a fervor and fanatics and eventually something that the word “commotion” simply couldn’t do justice to outside the Mesquite facilities. There were throngs of worshippers and just as many demanding his execution. From what Jackie could make out from the TV news coverage and pictures in the paper, Charlie’s new home looked like a plain beige warehouse. In the background of most shots were of the Casablanca Resort and Casino, palm trees and fountain and neon-covered awning out of focus behind the throngs of people grasping for a look at the new thing that now walked among them. The facility was about a mile out behind the large sign advertising a $3 All-You-Can-Eat Thursday Afternoon Lobster Buffet.
Jackie, now with a definitive and accurate address of Charlie’s new residence, decided to mail him some letters. “He needs a friend, something to remind him of before, when everything was normal,” he told the shortstop on the way to the post office. “And I think he’d like to hear from me. He liked me.”
Rowlf curled up at his feet, Jackie sat at his desk beneath the window looking out on Charlie’s old apartment and wrote carefully that he still had the car he had given him and he plans to visit Mesquite and see him again. He never received any reply.
Jackie watched helplessly at the motionless monolith where Charlie was kept. The hoopla began to die down and within a month, and most Americans returned to their daily routines without a thought spared for Charlie. Jackie couldn’t understand.
The summer after graduation, Jackie convinced the shortstop to accompany him on a road trip east to Nevada where they stayed at the Casablanca, familiar from all the out of focus footage he’d watched. The world’s tallest man had faded into humdrum news there, except for a picture from that fateful interview with the casino in the background in a hallway leading to the men’s restroom. The people hunched over the slots and card tables rarely seemed to leave the faux-oasis decor of the casino. But Jackie ventured valiantly onward, sweating through his shirt and jeans toward the chicken wire fence bordering the institution.
Brainstorming during the drive on how they would gain access to Charlie had resulted in a plan of “winging it once they got there” which now left Jackie and the shortstop helpless, dejected and dehydrated. After three more days of searching for a way in, they gave up and began the schlep back home to La Brea Terrace.
The trip did however, become a sort of annual pilgrimage, and every year during college Jackie drove down to Mesquite to stand outside the facility with another three or four other fanatics. Jackie’s real life interactions with Charlie made him into a sort of legend with the crowd. He would recount the story of the Christmas party at a table in the hotel restaurant and pass around the toy car Charlie had given him. They would ask questions about all the strange things he saw while he lived next to Charlie and applauded his dedication in tracking him.
Scientists and those in the know had universally agreed that Charlie’s continued growth and apparent strength negated their original hypothesis and declared a new answer for his prolonged spurt. Charlie emerged briefly at a press conference for the new explanation with two thumbs up and a smile.
For the fifth anniversary of the discovery of Charlie’s rescue from the Wyoming reservation, KTLA had a special report on the local news. Because of the breaking news of a local fire in the hills above Pasadena the story was pushed to the end of the half hour. Jackie was interviewed, but his Christmas story was edited into just one sound bite in the broadcast: “He told me he was growing—” before abruptly cutting him off and moving on to a still of Charlie in the Holiday Spectacular. Jackie was credited as “Jack Ashley: Charlie Leigh’s Neighbor” although he had asked them to put friend.
There was a Master’s degree and a journalism program and a part time job with the local paper. There was another intern named Denise and a spontaneous drive to a solar farm in Palmdale that was closed by the time they arrived so that they didn’t get the story but they did meet each other. There were more stories and late nights together and longer trips and then there was a small wedding on the fourth floor conference room of the Beverly Hills Hyatt and a flight to Hawaii. But there was always Charlie Leigh in the back of his mind.
Jack was honeymooning at the Royal Hawaiian on Waikiki beach, drinking coffee in the lobby when he read in the paper that Charlie was going to be giving a prime time live interview. He had rushed back into their suite and telephoned the steakhouse to try and move their reservation to another night. The two of them ordered room service and Denise sat in their bed and watched as Jack stared at the television’s grainy videotaped footage of the facilities outside the Casablanca.
A reporter walked into frame, the dry desert wind whipping his thinning silver hair into his eyes, and began to speak to the American public.
“When the nation last saw Charlie Leigh, he was thirty feet tall and hidden away in these plain warehouses here. But he continued to grow. Boy oh boy, has he continued to grow. Leading scientists and doctors cannot yet explain this growth, but that hasn’t stopped Charlie. He has become taller than thought humanly possible. His competition has shifted from Wadlow the Alton Giant to the great blue whales of the ocean and the giant dinosaurs that once wondered this earth. Within the coming week, because of Charlie’s size, he is being moved to a new facility. Charlie, the United States government, and your friends here at CBS thought that this was the time to update the nation, and the world, to his conditions, and, maybe, just as importantly, what he has to say and think about all of this. Tonight, we bring you an exclusive interview and tour of the top secret facilities with the world’s largest man, Charlie Leigh.”
Jack sat huddled on the foot of the bed, his wife’s feet absentmindedly petting his back. Outside their window was the black swath that was the Pacific ocean. Jack leaned in and turned the volume up over the beating of the waves.
“Charlie lives here,” the reporter was saying, “and has for the past six years.”
The camera was panning what could have been an empty airplane hangar. There was a thick swath of mattress padding in the center and a clanky projector that sprayed a black and white movie from what must have been the forties onto one of the walls. The camera finally settled on the corner of the room and, sitting cross legged on the floor, head almost touching the ceiling, Charlie, looking a little bored.
The first thing Jack realized was that the room was not a hangar—it was much too large for that. Charlie looked like a man trying to fit into a cardboard box. The reporter announced that he was almost one hundred and fifty feet tall.
For the interview, the camera was perched in one corner and then zoomed in across the cavernous space to the reporter, suspended by a pulley system and a harness that made his suit bunch up, so that he could be close to Charlie’s face. He was as tall as his nose. Out of force of habit, after he asked each question he motioned the mic to Charlie.
Charlie’s face had been freshly shaven and washed, but Jack recoiled slightly at the sight of his pores, which the reporter could swing over and fit his finger into.
“Tell us, what is a typical day for Charlie Leigh, the biggest living thing to ever exist?”
Charlie flicked his eyes around his bedroom and began, what must have seemed quietly to him but booming to the television audience, “They hooked up this projector, and they get five to six movies in here a day. Some classics, but most aren’t that good. The ones with Lauren Bacall, now that’s a good day. We just had To Have and Have Not the other month.”
“Don’t you get a little cramped in here?”
“Well, sure, that’s why they diverted some of that river a little south of here and made me a sort of swimming pool. But mainly that’s why they’re moving me. It was easier when I was shorter. I think they always figured I’d stop growing at some point. Or up and die or something. But I just keep growing. So they’re moving me to the open air. They’ve shown me pictures. It looks real nice and roomy; maybe a little hot.”
The reporter swallowed and narrowed his eyes as he asked the next question: “Do you like it here, Charlie?”
After a thoughtful pause his booming voice became a little quieter: “Not all that much. But I’m one hundred and forty seven feet tall. Where else am I gonna go?”
And so Charlie was moved 290 miles to an open air compound in Round Mountain in a highly publicized and televised quasi-parade of tanks and Humvees and helicopters all twirling around him as he walked calmly and briskly to his new home. He wore a giant blue jumpsuit that had been specially made by NASA to protect him from the harsh Nevada sun and wick away his sweat so that it didn’t need to be washed very often.
Jack had, after a long distance instructional telephone call with Denise’s brother, gotten him to set up his home video camera in front of the television so that he wouldn’t miss a second of the march while he flew home from Hawaii. The footage was barely watchable, but it provided Jack with a glimpse of the awesome spectacle that was the giant man in motion. He squinted at the sun and took deep breaths and was careful not to step on any of the Army. It eclipsed the recent M*A*S*H finale but fell short of the moon landing broadcast as one of the most watched events in television’s short history.
Charlie had reentered the global conversation and was more prominent than he had ever been. The shortstop found Jack’s phone number and called him one evening, interrupting after dinner reading.
“Can you believe it Jackie? That’s your Charlie all over my TV. It’s crazy. I was just telling my wife about staying over at your house and peeking through the blinds all day and imagining what was inside. I had forgotten all about it.”
The shortstop was doing alright for himself and had a little boy on the way and was working as a Market Research Engineer in Santa Monica and really that wasn’t too far away from Jack and Denise so they planned to get together for lunch one weekend.
The news, newly twenty-four-hour and desperate for new heads to talk over the same clips of Charlie stomping through the desert, asked Jackie to talk about Charlie before he became famous. In the green room of a television studio in Los Angeles he was sitting next to an older lady who had been Charlie’s babysitter twenty-five years ago. As they waited, sipping iced tea that a production assistant whisked into their hands, she told him Charlie was a normal kid. A little shy maybe, but normal.
Jack nodded and said, “Wow.”
His on air interviews proved to be a success, and an agent contacted him about a book deal. A prominent biographer had been spending years writing his own book about Charlie’s life, with interviews with Charlie himself and special access to the facilities in Mesquite and Round Mountain. This publisher wanted their own Charlie book in 9 months, before the other would be finished. Denise softly smiled, saying “I suppose this is what you always wanted” and he quit the sports desk of the Los Angeles Daily News with the advance and began diligently researching and writing.
Jack holed himself up in their little bottom half of the duplex and dug out all his old newspaper clippings and Charlie memorabilia. The advance ran out after a third trip to Round Mountain, and so he and Denise drove out to Bakersfield where her brother was a successful dentist and stayed in his guest room.
Soon enough Jack was back, squished into a throng of tourists all craning their necks up at the sky and Charlie’s face. The government had converted the old Round Mountain gold mine pit into a new sort of home for Charlie. He’d spend a couple hours each day waving and smiling for pictures and adjusting his head so the onlookers had some shade. If they were lucky he’d do a little hop and shake everyone up and knock the ones not bracing themselves onto the dust. Then he’d walk over to an old drive in movie theater the government had refurbished and they’d show some more public domain movies and, if the crowd wanted, they could watch them too.
Jack got some half-baked interviews with some of Charlie’s security guards and a couple of the doctors who’d flown in at one point to diagnose him. He drove through the night up to the Wind River reservation to interview people who’d seen him there. He saw some of the small caves where Charlie had spent long, cold nights. He saw the stumps of trees he pushed down to burn or make shelter with. He interviewed a farmer who said Charlie had stolen one of his cows. He saw the Dubois Motel 6 room where Charlie’s brother had hid out, trying to protect him. He saw the sterile grocery store where he had tried to stockpile food for his brother. Denise’s brother helped cover the research expenses.
Back in Bakersfield he received word that the official biography was being delayed because the author thought more time was needed to accurately portray Charlie’s legacy. Charlie had also continued growing. Now, on a clear day and if he was standing at the top of the mine, residents of Reno, Nevada and the Lake Tahoe area could just make out the top of Charlie’s head, a blurry little ball, just Southeast of North Shoshone peak. Over two million people came out to the middle of nowhere to have an up close look at Charlie that first year, on par with Yellowstone National Park and Dollywood.
Jack collected his facts and anecdotes and interviews and typed them up into a lengthy manuscript that Denise would proofread in the evenings. There was only time for two rough drafts with the approaching deadlines. The publisher suggested Jack include his personal connection to Charlie and advertised the book as such. Jack and Denise pored over the mock book jacket when it came in the mail. It consisted of a picture looking up at Charlie taken during his march to Round Mountain and famous since it was also used on the cover Time. Jack had lobbied for a lesser-known image but the publisher wanted instant recognition. Below, the title read: An Exclusive & Intimate Portrait of Charlie Leigh, World’s Largest Man by his confidant and neighbor, Jack Ashley.
Charlie news had been relegated to the same thing every week: he grew a little more. Jack would exasperatedly tell Denise over his typewriter, “It’s amazing how fast the world got used to a man the size of Godzilla.”
“What are we supposed to differently?” she asked peeking up over one of his drafts.
He didn’t know, but it felt like something, at least.
Jack’s book was published just after Charlie reached 250 feet. It was a moderate success and he was sent away on an international book tour. He told the Christmas party story throughout the country and most of Europe and some of Asia. He stayed in nice, three star hotels, and Denise was able to join him for Italy and Greece during a two-week vacation. He was able to send the dentist-in-law what he owed and they moved back into a duplex the same month the official biography was released. Jack read it through in one night and told Denise in an early morning review, that, considering his limitations, his book did hold a candle to the new bestseller.
The competing book was titled The Weather Up Here: The Official Biography of Charlie Leigh and it had firsthand accounts of life inside the apartment in 2A and the lawyers and doctors and agents and experts who came to see him. It told of the lonely nights in Los Alamitos where he didn’t know anyone and how Charlie’s brother snuck him onto the reservation in a U-Haul. Despite knowing he wouldn’t be, he was nevertheless a little disappointed to find he hadn’t been mentioned. To Jack it didn’t feel intimate or personal; only like the author was interested. He had known Charlie. He told Denise as he flipped through the pages again that he felt like it was his story to tell.
Jack parlayed his success into more biography deals. A lot of ghostwriting memoirs; mostly athletes, even some of his baseball heroes growing up. He visited Round Mountain every few months and signed copies of his book in the Charlie-themed novelty gift shops that had sprung up in the town. His first email from his first computer was sent to join a fan run Charlie newsletter. He regularly booked tours and interviews where he would explain in detail Charlie’s life to people in other countries. He considered applying to medical school so as to be more knowledgeable about the science behind Charlie’s condition.
Charlie continued growing. Whole swaths of farmland were devoted to keeping him replenished. There were those that argued the government was devoting too much land, food and money to keeping him alive. There were those who argued he could kill everyone if he wanted, and the government should take him out for safety’s sake. But mostly Charlie sat in his empty gold mine and watched old movies, snoring so loudly the hotels in Round Mountain had to soundproof their walls.
The Weather Up Here was adapted into a well-received movie that featured some pioneering special effects that made Russell Crowe 300 feet tall and an elaborate helicopter and searchlight filled chase sequence through the Wyoming forest. The film changed his brother into a romantic interest who came to see him every day in Round Mountain but was still respectfully praised for keeping the spirit of his story true to life. Jack was interviewed on the film for a featurette included on the DVD that talked about its historical accuracy.
Denise forwarded him an email that Charlie’s apartment complex on La Brea Terrace had been turned into a museum. He drove down alone the next weekend. He didn’t put anything in the suggested fifteen dollar entrance fee box because he had once lived there. It wasn’t too crowded, a few older couples and a family milling around. He wandered into Charlie’s apartment, recreated to look like it had in the seventies when he had holed himself up inside. It looked like a normal apartment, not at all what his friends and he had imagined. He ignored most of the plaques. He leaned down and looked out the window, out across the hall to where his room used to be; where he would peek out through the blinds and stare inside. Jack’s old apartment had became a cafe that served deli meat sandwiches and cans of soda, and through his old window an employee on break picked at a salad in a clear plastic box. He signed the six copies of his book in the gift shop and drove home.
Charlie kept growing until he didn’t fit in Nevada anymore.
Nowadays he sits in the Pacific moving carefully so that the waves stay small. His colossal body blocks out the sun a few hours early in Southern California. His skin has become tanned and leathery and his hair has grown out in straggly clumps that mat together and bob with the sea. He eats giant protein packages a United Nations task force splashes down in front of him and sleeps sitting up for a few hours every night. He said that he lost feeling in his toes but doesn’t speak that much anymore. Whenever Jack wants to see him all he has to do is go outside and look up.