Life Expectancy Page 17


My thoughts wove an incoherent narrative of hidden doors, candlelit tunnels, dead faces, gunshots, snake handlers, tornadoes, clowns ... Soon I must have been unconscious and dreaming, for I had become an aerialist, walking the high wire, using a long pole for balance, progressing tentatively and precariously toward a platform on which Lorrie waited.


When I glanced behind to see what distance I'd already traveled, I found Punchinello Beezo in pursuit of me. He carried a balancing pole, too, but each end of it terminated in a wickedly sharp blade. He was smiling, confident, and faster than I was. He said, "I could have been a star, Jimmy Tock. I could have been a star."


Occasionally I drifted up from big-top dreams and from secret passageways in my soul, and realized that I was being moved. Carried in a litter. Then strapped on a gurney in a rollicking ambulance.


When I tried to open my eyes but could not, I told myself that they were simply glued shut by dust and tears. I knew this to be a lie, but I took comfort from it, anyway.


Eventually someone said, "The leg can't be saved."


I didn't know if he was a person in a dream or a real doctor, but I responded in a voice that sounded like me if I had been a frog prince: "I need both legs. I'm a storm chaser."


Thereafter, I sank uncounted fathoms into an abyss where the dreams were too real to be dreams, where mysterious behemoths stood guard over me but always at the periphery of vision, and where the air smelled of cherry tart flambe.


Six weeks later, Lorrie Lynn Hicks came to dinner. "She looked prettier than pom mes a la Sevillane. Never at any meal previously had I spent so little time admiring the food on my plate.


Candles in ruby-red, cut-crystal chimneys cast soft trembling geometries on the silk moire walls and shimmering amber circles on the coffered mahogany ceiling.


She outshone the candlelight.


Over the appetizer-sesame-baked crab-my father said, "I've never known anyone whose mother is a snake handler."


"A lot of women take it up because it sounds fun," Lorrie said, "but it's a lot harder than they think. Eventually they give it up."


"But surely it's still fun," my mother said.


"Oh, yes! Snakes are great. They don't bark, claw the furniture, and you'll never have a rodent problem."


"And you don't have to walk them," Mom added.


"Well, you can if you want, but it freaks out the neighbors. Maddy, this crab is fabulous."


"How does a snake handler make money from it?" Dad wondered.


"Mom has developed three primary revenue streams. She provides a variety of snakes to movie and TV productions. There for a while, it seemed every music video used snakes."


My mother was delighted: "So she rents out the snakes."


Dad asked, "By the hour, the day, the week?"


"Usually by the day. Even a snake-heavy movie only needs them for maybe four, five days."


"There isn't a movie these days that wouldn't be improved by a lively bunch of snakes," Grandma Rowena declared. "Especially that last Dustin Hoffman thing."


"People who rent snakes by the hour," Lorrie said somberly, "are for the most part not reputable."


This intrigued me. "I've never heard of a disreputable snake-rental company."


"Oh, they're around, all right." Lorrie grimaced. "Very tacky outfits. They rent to individuals by the hour, no questions asked."


Dad, Mom, and I exchanged baffled looks, but Weena knew the score: "For erotic purposes."


Dad said, "Yuch," and Mom said, "Creepy," and I said, "Grandma, sometimes you scare me."


Lorrie wanted to make one thing clear: "My mother never rents snakes to individuals."


"When I was a child," Weena said, "Little Ned Yarnel, the boy next door, was bit by a rattlesnake."


"A free snake or a rented one?" Dad asked.


"Free. Little Ned didn't die but he got gangrene. They had to amputate-first a thumb and finger, then everything to the wrist."


"Jimmy, dear," Mom said, "I'm so glad we didn't have to cut your leg off."


"Me too."


Dad raised his wineglass. "Let's drink to our Jimmy not being an amputee."


After the toast, Weena said, "Little Ned grew up to be the only one-handed bow-and-arrow champion ever to compete in the Olympics."


Amazed, Lorrie said, "That isn't possible."


"Dear girl," Weena said, "if you think there were lots of one-handed Olympic bow-and-arrow champions, you can't know much about the sport."


"Of course, he didn't win gold," Dad clarified.


"A silver medal," Grandma admitted. "But he'd have won the gold if he'd had two eyes."


Putting down her fork to punctuate her astonishment, Lorrie said, "He was a cyclops?"


"No," my mother said, "he had two eyes. He just couldn't see out of one of them."


"But don't you need depth perception to be good-at something like the bow and arrow?" Lorrie wondered.


Proud of her childhood friend, Weena said, "Little Ned had something better than depth perception. He had spunk. Nothing could keep Little Ned down."


Picking up her fork again, taking the last morsel of crab from her plate, Lorrie said, "I'm fascinated to know if Little Ned might also have been a dwarf."


"What a peculiar but somehow charming idea," my mother said.


"Just peculiar in my book," Grandma disagreed. "Little Ned was six feet tall by his eleventh birthday, wound up six feet four-a big lug like our Jimmy."


No matter what my grandmother thinks, I am inches shorter than Little Ned. I probably weigh a lot less than he did, too-except if the comparison is limited to hand weight, in which case I would have a considerable advantage over him.


Comparing my own two legs, my left weighs more than the right by virtue of the two steel plates and the numerous screws that now hold the femur together, plus the single steel plate in the tibia. The leg required considerable vascular surgery, as well, but that didn't add an ounce.


At dinner there in early November 1994, the wound drains were no longer in place, which improved the way I smelled, but I still wore a fiberglass cast. I sat at the end of the table, stiff leg thrust out to one side, as if I hoped to trip Grandma.


Weena finished her crab, smacked her lips in the flamboyant manner that she believes is a right of anyone her age, and said, "You mentioned your mama makes snake money three ways."


Lorrie patted her wonderfully full lips on her napkin. "She also milks rattlesnakes."


Appalled, my dad said, "What kind of supermarket from hell would sell such stuff?"


"We had a cute little milk snake lived with us for a while," Mom told Lorrie. "His name was Earl, but I always thought Bernard would suit him better."


"He looked like a Ralph to me," Grandma Rowena disagreed.


"Earl was a male," Mom said, "or at least we always assumed so. If he'd been a female, should we have milked him? After all, if you don't milk a cow, it can end up in terrible distress."


The evening was off to a splendid start. I hardly had to say anything.


I looked at Dad. He smiled at me. I could tell he was having a wonderful time.


"There's not actually milk in a milk snake," Lorrie said. "None in a rattler, either. What my mother milks out of them is venom. She gets a grip behind the head and massages the poison glands. The venom squirts out of the fangs, which are hypodermic in rattlers, and into a collection beaker."


Because he considers the dining room to be a temple, Dad rarely puts an elbow on the table. He put one on it now, and rested his chin in his


hand, as though settling in for a long listen. "So your mother has a rattlesnake ranch."


"Ranch is too grand a word, Rudy. So is farm, for that matter. It's more of a garden with just the one crop."


My grandmother let out a satisfying belch and said, "Who does she sell this venom to-assassins, or maybe those pygmies with blowguns?"


"Drug companies need it to make antivenin. And it has a few other medical uses."


"You mentioned a third revenue stream," my father reminded her.


"My mother's a real ham," Lorrie said with affection. "So she takes party bookings. She has this fantastic act with the snakes."


"Who would book such an act?" my father wondered.


"Who wouldn't?" my mother asked, probably already thinking ahead to their anniversary party and Weena's birthday.


"Exactly," Lorrie said. "All kinds of corporate affairs like retirement parties, Christmas parties. Bar mitzvahs, the American Library Association, you name it."


Mom and Dad removed the appetizer plates. They served bowls of chicken corn soup with cheddar crisps on the side.


"I love corn," Grandma said, "but it gives me flatulence. I used to care, but I'm not obliged to anymore. The golden years rock."


Raising a toast not with wine but with his first spoonful of soup, Dad said, "Here's hoping that bugger won't weasel out of a trial. Here's hoping he fries."


The bugger, of course, was Punchinello Beezo. The following morning, he would attend a preliminary hearing to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial.


He had gunned down Lionel Davis, Honker, Crinkles, and Byron Met-calf, a longtime leader of the town's preservation society, whom he had tortured to obtain information about access to the passageways under the town square.


In addition, the explosions had killed two members of a cleaning


crew at work in the courthouse and a hobo assessing the treasures of a Dumpster behind the library. Martha Faye Jeeter, an elderly widow living in an apartment in the building next door to the courthouse, had also perished.


Eight is a heavy toll in human life, but considering the extent of the destruction, scores of victims might have been expected. Lives were spared because the explosions were two stories underground, and some of the force vented into the subterranean tunnels. The library, the mansion, and the bank imploded, crashing down into their cellars and subcellars as though brought to ruin by the precise formulations of a demolitions expert.


The courthouse largely imploded, as well, but its bell tower toppled into the building next door, bringing sudden fury into the quiet life of the Widow Jeeter.


Her two cats also were squashed. Some citizens of Snow Village seemed to be angrier about this outrage than about either the human or the architectural losses.


Punchinello had expressed regret that hundreds hadn't died. He told police that if he could do it all over again, he would add packages of napalm to ensure a firestorm that would devastate many square blocks.


Portions of the street and the park subsided into Cornelius Snow's secret passageways. My fine black sporty coupe with yellow racing stripes had been swallowed by one of these sinkholes.


Remember when I said that I hadn't met a young woman whom I could love as much as I loved that seven-year-old Dodge Daytona Shelby Z? Funny thing-I didn't mourn the loss of it, not for a minute.


Although Lorrie would have looked good in the Shelby Z, she would look even better in a 1986 Pontiac Trans Am, not black but maybe red or silver, a color to match her exuberant spirit. Or a 1988 Chevy Camaro IROC-Z convertible.


My problem, however, was one that any young baker on a bread-and-cake wage could appreciate. There were men in the world who,


upon getting one look at her, would buy Lorrie a Rolls-Royce for every day of the week. And not all of them would look like trolls.


"You don't think they'll send the bugger to some asylum and let him off the hook?" Dad asked.


"He doesn't want that himself," I said. "He's saying he knew exactly what he was doing, and it was all about revenge."


"He's crazy in his way," Lorrie said. "But he knows right from wrong as sure as I do. Maddy, Rudy-this soup is fantastic even if it causes flatulence."


Grandma Rowena had a relevant story: "Hector Sanchez, lived over near Bright Falls, killed himself with a fart."


The rationalist in my father was stirred by Grandma's assertion. "Weena, that's just not possible."


"Hector worked in the hair-oil industry," Grandma recalled. "He had beautiful hair but not much common sense. This was fifty-six years ago, back in '38, before the war."


"Even then it wasn't possible," Dad declared.


"You weren't even born yet, Maddy, neither, so don't tell me what wasn't possible. I saw it with my own eyes."


"You've never mentioned this before," Dad said, suspecting a fabrication but not ready to make the accusation. "Jimmy, has she ever mentioned this before?"


"No," I confirmed. "I remember Grandma telling us about a Harry Ramirez who boiled himself to death, but not this Hector Sanchez."


"Maddy, do you remember ever hearing this before?"


"No, honey," my mother admitted, "but what does that prove? I'm sure it just slipped Mother's mind until now."


"Seeing a man fart himself to death doesn't just slip your mind." To Lorrie, Dad said, "I'm sorry, dear. Our table talk isn't usually this low."


"You don't know what low is until you're eating canned ravioli while listening to stories about snake cankers and the smell of a tornado that's sucked up the contents of a sewage-processing plant."


Impatiently, Grandma said, "Hector Sanchez never slipped my mind. This is just the first time we've been in a conversation where the subject came up naturally."


"What was Hector's job in the hair-oil industry?" Mom asked.


"If he blew himself up with a fart fifty-six years ago," Dad said, "who cares what he did in hair oil?"


"I'm sure his family cared," Weena said. "It put food on their table. Anyway, he didn't blow himself up. That isn't possible."


"Case closed," my father said triumphantly.


"I turned twenty-one, and my husband, Sam, took me to a tavern for the first time. We were in a booth. Hector was on a bar stool. I ordered a Pink Squirrel. Do you like Pink Squirrels, Lorrie?"


Lorrie said yes, and Dad said, "You're driving me so crazy with this, I'm seeing pink squirrels right now, crawling on the ceiling."


"Hector was drinking beer with lime slices, sitting just one stool away from this bodybuilder. He had biceps the size of hams and the prettiest tattoo of a snarling bulldog on his arm."

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