Life Expectancy Page 18


"Hector or the bodybuilder?" my mother asked.


"Hector didn't have any tattoos, at least not in any place that was visible. But he had a pet monkey named Pancho."


My mother said, "Was Pancho also drinking beer?"


"The monkey wasn't there."


"Where was he?"


"Home with the family. He wasn't one of those monkeys that likes running around to gin mills. Pancho was family oriented."


Mom patted Dad on the shoulder. "That's my kind of monkey."


"So Hector, sitting on the bar stool, he cuts a ripe one-"


"At last," my father said.


"-and the bodybuilder takes offense at the smell. Hector tells him to buzz off, though he doesn't say buzz."


"How big was this Hector?" Lorrie wondered.


"I'd say about five feet seven, a hundred thirty pounds."


"He sure could have used the monkey for backup," Lorrie said.


"So the bodybuilder punches him twice, grabs him by the hair, and smashes his face into the bar three times. Hector falls off the stool, dead, and the bodybuilder orders another boilermaker spiked with two fresh eggs for the protein."


My father glowed with vindication. "So I was right. Passing gas didn't kill him. The drunken bodybuilder killed him."


"If he hadn't farted, he wouldn't have been killed," Grandma insisted.


Finishing her soup, Lorrie said, "So how did Harry Ramirez boil himself to death?"


Next came the entree-roast chicken with chestnut-and-sausage stuffing, polenta, and snap peas-followed by celery-root salad.


When, past midnight, Dad rolled in the dessert cart from the kitchen, Lorrie couldn't make up her mind between a tangerine cream tart and a slice of genoise; she took both. She sampled the co eur a la creme, the budino di ricotta, and the Mont Blanc aux marrons, then chose four items from the three-tiered cookie tray.


She ate a springerle cookie with intense concentration until she realized that everyone at the table had fallen silent. When she looked up, all of us were smiling at her.


"Delicious," she said.


We smiled.


"What?" she asked.


"Nothing, dear," my mother said. "It just seems like you've always been here."


Lorrie left at one in the morning, which was early for the Tock family but late for her. At nine in the morning, she had to teach two angry Hungarians to dance.


The angry Hungarians are a story unto themselves. I'll save them for another book if I live to write one.


At the front door, as I stood with the aid of a walker, Lorrie kissed me. This would have been the perfect end to the evening ... if she hadn't


kissed me just on the cheek and if my entire family had not been two feet away, watching and smiling and, in one case, indulging in too much lip-smacking.


Then she also kissed my grandmother, my mother, and my father, which didn't make me feel so special anymore.


She returned to me, kissed me on the cheek again, and that made me feel somewhat better.


When she breezed out of the house and into the night, she seemed to take most of the oxygen with her. In her absence, breathing hurt a little.


Dad was late leaving for work at the resort. He had delayed in order to see Lorrie off.


Before he left, he said, "Son, no self-respecting baker would let that one get away."


While Mom and Grandma cleared the dinner table and loaded the two dishwashers, I settled into a living-room armchair and leaned my head back against the spider-pattern antimacassar. With my stomach pleasantly full and my cast bound leg raised on a footstool, I felt beached.


I tried to read a mystery novel, one in a series about a private detective with neurofibromatosis, the disease made famous by the Elephant Man. He traveled from end to end of San Francisco in his investigations, always wearing a hooded cloak to conceal his deformed features. I couldn't get into the story.


With dinner cleanup completed, Grandma returned to the sofa and to her needlepoint. She had begun a centipede pillow.


Mom sat at the easel in her alcove and worked on a portrait of a collie whose owner wanted it portrayed in a checkered neck scarf and cowboy hat.


Considering my life and the dinner just enjoyed, I naturally gave some thought to eccentricity. As I write about the Tock clan, its members seem odd and singular. Which they are. Which is one reason why I love them.


Every family is eccentric in its own way, however, as is each human being. Like the Tocks, they have their tics.


Eccentric means off or aside from the ordinary, off or aside from what is considered normal. As a civilization, through consensus, we agree on what is normal, but this consensus is as wide as a river, not as narrow as the high wire above a big top.


Even so, not one of us lives a perfectly normal, ordinary life in every regard. We are, after all, human beings, each of us unique to an extent that no member of any other species is different from others of its kind.


We have instinct but we are not ruled by it. We feel the pull of the mindless herd, the allure of the pack, but we resist the extreme effects of this influence-and when we do not, we drag our societies down into the bloody wreckage of failed Utopias, led by Hitler or Lenin, or Mao Tse-tung. And the wreckage reminds us that God gave us our individualism and that to surrender it is to follow a dark path.


When we fail to see the eccentricities in ourselves and to be amused by them, we become monsters of self-regard. Each in its own way, every family is as eccentric as mine. I guarantee it. Opening your eyes to this truth is to open your heart to humanity.


Read Dickens; he knew.


Those in my family don't wish to be anyone but who they are. They will not edit themselves to impress others.


They find meaning in their quiet faith, in one another, and in the little miracles of their daily lives. They don't need ideologies or philosophies to define themselves. They are defined by living, with all senses engaged, with hope, and with a laugh ever ready.


Almost from the moment I had met her in the library, I had known that Lorrie Lynn Hicks knew everything that Dickens knew, whether she had read him or not. Her beauty lay less in her physical appearance than in the fact that she wasn't a Freudian automaton and would never allow herself to be defined by those terms; she was nobody's victim, nobody's fool. She was motivated not by what others had done to her, not by envy, not by a conviction of moral superiority, but by life's possibilities.


I put aside the novel featuring the Elephant Man detective, and I levered myself up from the armchair, into the walker. The wheels squeaked faintly.


In the kitchen, I closed the door behind myself and went to the wall phone.


For a while I stood there, blotting my damp palms on my shirt. Trembling. This nervousness was less acute but more profound than anything I'd felt while under Punchinello's gun.


This was the trepidation of a climber who wishes to scale the world's highest mountain in record time, who knows that for a certain window of his life he will have the skills and the physical resources to achieve his dream, but who fears that bureaucrats or storms, or fate, will foil him until his window closes. And then who will he be, what will he become?


During the six weeks since the night of the clowns, we had spoken by phone many times. I had committed her number to memory.


I keyed in three digits, hung up.


My mouth had gone dry. I squeaked to a cabinet, got a drinking glass, squeaked to the sink. I drew chilled and filtered water from the special tap.


Eight ounces heavier but still with a dry mouth, I returned to the phone.


I keyed in five digits, hung up.


I didn't trust my voice. I practiced: "Hi, it's Jimmy."


Even I had given up calling myself James. When you realize you're fighting a fundamental law of the universe, it's best to surrender to nature.


"Hi, it's Jimmy. I'm sorry if I woke you."


My voice had grown shaky and had risen two octaves. I had not sounded like this since I was thirteen.


I cleared my throat, tried again, and might have passed for fifteen.


After keying six digits, I started to hang up. Then with reckless abandon, I punched in the seventh.


Lorrie answered on the first ring, as if she had been sitting by the phone.


"Hi, it's Jimmy," I said. "I'm sorry if I woke you."


"I only got home fifteen minutes ago. I'm not in bed yet."


"I had fun tonight."


"Me too," she said. "I love your family."


"Listen, this isn't something that should be done by phone, but if I don't do it, I won't sleep. I'll lie awake worrying that my window is closing and that I'm missing my last chance at the mountain."


"All right," she said, "but if you're going to be this cryptic, I better take notes so later I'll have a chance of puzzling out what the hell you were talking about. Okay, I've got pen and paper."


"First of all, I'm not much to look at."


"Who says?"


"Mirror, mirror, on the wall. And I'm a lummox."


"So you keep saying, but I haven't seen a whole lot of evidence of it- except in moments like this."


"I couldn't dance before I had these steel plates holding my leg together. Now I'll have about as much ballroom grace as Dr. Frankenstein's first made


"All you need is the right teacher. I once taught a blind couple to dance."


"And anyway, I'm a baker, and maybe one day a pastry chef, and that means I'll never be a millionaire."


"Do you want to be a millionaire?" she asked.


"Not particularly. I'd be worried all the time about how not to lose the money. I should want to be a millionaire, I guess. Some people say I don't have enough ambition."


"Who?"


"What?"


"Who says you don't have enough ambition?"


"Probably everybody. Another thing, I'm not much of a traveller.


Most people want to see the world, but I'm a homebody. I think you can see the whole world in one square mile, if you know how to look. I'm never going to have great adventures in China or the Republic of Tonga."


"Where's the Republic of Tonga?"


"I don't have a clue. I'll never see Tonga. I'll probably never see Paris or London, either. Some people would say that's tragic."


"Who?"


In a rush of self-judgment, I said, "And I am utterly without sophistication."


"Not utterly."


"Some people think so."


"Them again," she said.


"Who?"


""Some people,"" she said.


"We live in one of the most famous ski resorts in the world," I plunged on, "and I don't ski. Never cared to learn."


"Is that a crime?"


"It reveals a lack of adventurousness."


"Some people absolutely must have adventure," she said.


"Not me. And everyone's into hiking, running marathons, pumping iron. I'll never be in that loop. I like books, long dinners full of talk, long walks full of talk. You can't talk going fifty miles an hour down a ski slope. You can't talk when you're running a marathon. Some people say I talk too much."


"They're very opinionated, aren't they?"


"Who?"


""Some people." Do you care what anyone thinks of you, outside your family?"


"Not really. And that's strange, don't you think? I mean, only sociopathic maniacs don't care what anyone thinks of them."


"Do you think you're a sociopathic maniac?" she asked.


"Maybe I could be."


"I don't think you could be," she disagreed.


"You're probably right. You have to be adventurous to be a good sociopathic maniac. You have to like danger and change and taking risks, and none of that's me. I'm dull. I'm boring."


"And this is what you called to tell me-that you're a dull, boring, talkative, unadventurous, failed sociopath?"


"Well, yes, but all that's preamble."


"To what?"


"To something I shouldn't ask over the telephone, something I should ask in person, something that I'm probably asking way too soon, but I've worked myself up into this weird terrifying conviction that if I don't ask you tonight, I'll be foiled by fate or storms, and my window of opportunity will close, so the question is ... Lorrie Lynn Hicks, will you marry me?"


I thought her silence meant she was speechless with surprise, and then I thought it meant she was teasing me, and then I thought it might mean something darker, and then she said, "I'm in love-with someone else."


PART THREE


Welcome to the World,


Annie Tock


The events of September 15, 1994when a significant portion of the town square was blown up- encouraged me to take seriously the rest of Grandpa Josef's predictions.


I survived the first of my five "terrible days." But survival came at a price.


Being in your early twenties with a leg full of metal and an occasional limp might be romantic if you're carrying around shrapnel acquired while serving with the Marines. There is no glory in being shot while struggling with a clown for possession of a pistol.


Even if he's a failed clown and a bank robber, he's still enough of a clown to rob your story of heroics. And render it absurd.


People say things like So you got the gun away from him, but did he manage to hold on to the seltzer bottle?


During the preceding eight or ten months, we brooded about and planned for the second day in the list of five, which came more than three years after the first: Monday, January 19,1998.


As part of my preparations, I had bought a 9mm pistol. I don't much like guns, but I'm even less fond of being defenseless.


I discouraged my family from putting their lives on the line by tying my fate to theirs. Nevertheless, Mom, Dad, and Grandma insisted they would be with me all twenty-four hours of the fateful day.


Their primary argument seemed to be that Punchinello Beezo would not have taken me hostage in the library if he'd also had to take the three of them hostage with me. Safety in numbers.


My response was that he would have shot the three of them dead and taken just me hostage.


This elicited from them the weakest possible counter argument but they always felt that they won the debate with their forcibly expressed interjections: "Nonsense! Fiddlesticks! Baloney! Phoo! Pool Poppycock! Bah! Twaddle! Don't be silly! My eye! In your hat! That's pure applesauce!"


You can't really argue with my family. They are like the mighty Mississippi River: They just keep rollin', and pretty soon you find yourself in the Delta, drifting along, dazed by the sunshine and the lazy movement of the water.

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