Life Expectancy Page 19


Over many dinners, over uncounted pots of coffee, we debated whether we would be wise to hunker down behind four walls, lock the doors and windows, and defend the homestead against all clowns and whatever other agents of chaos came calling.


Mom felt we should spend the day in a public space filled with people. Since there's nowhere in Snow Village where crowds gather around the clock, she proposed flying to Las Vegas and camping out in a casino for two circuits of the clock.


Dad preferred to be in the middle of an enormous field with a clear view for a mile in every direction.


Grandma warned that a meteorite, smashing down out of the sky, would be just as dangerous if we were in an open field as if we were at home with the doors locked or in Vegas.


"Nothing like that would happen in Vegas," Mom insisted, drawing


conviction from a mug of coffee half as big as her head. "Remember, the mob still runs the place. They have the situation controlled."


"The mob!" my father said exasperatedly. "Maddy, the mob can't control meteorites."


"I'm sure they can," my mother said. "They're very determined, ruthless, and clever."


"Definitely," Grandma agreed. "I read in a magazine that two thousand years ago, a spaceship landed in Sicily. Aliens interbred with the Sicilians-which is why they're so tough."


"What stupid magazine would publish such twaddle?" Dad asked.


Grandma replied, "Newsweek."


"Never in a million years would Newsweek publish such nonsense!"


"Well," Grandma assured him, "they did."


"You read it in one of your crazy tabloids."


"Newsweek"


Smiling, I drifted in the Delta as I listened.


Days passed, weeks, months, and it remained clear, as it had always been, that you can't scheme to defeat destiny.


The situation was complicated by the fact that we were pregnant.


Yes, I'm aware that some find it arrogant for a man to say "we," considering that he shares the pleasure of conception and the delight of parenthood but none of the pain between. The previous spring, my wife, who is the linchpin of my life, had happily announced to the family, "We're pregnant." Once she had given me license to use the plural pronoun, I embraced it.


Because we were able to deduce the date of conception, our family doctor had told us that the most likely forty-eight-hour window for delivery would be January 18 and 19.


We were at once convinced that our first child would enter the world on the day about which Grandpa Josef had long ago warned my father: Monday the nineteenth.


The stakes were suddenly so high that we wanted out of the game.


When you're playing poker with the devil, however, no one leaves the table before he does.


Although we all tried not to show it, we were scared to the extent that we needed no laxatives. As time swept us toward that rendezvous with the unknown, the hope and the strength that Lorrie and I took from family mattered more than ever.


My beloved wife is capable of jerking my chain"I'm in love with someone else"-and therefore I jerked yours.


Remember: I have learned the structure of story from a family that delights in narrative and understands in its bones the magical realism of life. I know the routines, the tricks; I might be clumsy in other ways, but in writing of my life, I will try my best not to get my head stuck in the bucket, and if the mouse-in-the-pants number comes up, I'm pretty sure I won't be booed out of the big top.


In other words, hold on. What looks tragic might be comic on second consideration, and what is comic might bring tears in time. Like life.


So, flashing back for a moment, there I stood in my parents' kitchen, that night in November of 1994, leaning against the counter to avoid putting weight on my cast bound leg, explaining to Lorrie that although I wasn't much to look at, although I might be dull and boring and talkative and unadventurous, I hoped she would be thrilled to marry me. And she said, "I'm in love with someone else."


I could have wished her a good life. I could have squeaked out of the kitchen with my walker, lurched up the stairs, taken refuge in my bedroom, and smothered myself to death with a pillow.


That would have meant never seeing her again in this life or in the next. I found that prospect intolerable.


Besides, I hadn't yet eaten enough pastries to be willing to trade this world for one in which the existence of sugar is not guaranteed by theologians.


Keeping my voice steady, determined to sound like a stoic loser who wouldn't think of smothering himself, I said, "Someone else?" "He's a baker," she said. "What are the odds-huh?" Snow Village was markedly smaller than New York City. If she loved another baker, surely I knew the guy. "I must know him," I said.


"You do. He's very talented. He creates pieces of Heaven in his kitchen. He's the best."


I could not tolerate losing the love of my life and my rightful place in the bakers' hierarchy of Snow County. "Well, I'm sure he's a nice guy, you know, but the fact is that around these parts, only my dad's a better baker than me, and I'm closing on him fast." "There he is," she said. "Who?"


"The someone I'm in love with." "He's there now? Put him on the line." "Why?" "I want to find out if he even knows how to make a decent pdte sablee."


"What's that?"


"If he's such a hotshot, he'll know what it is. Listen, Lorrie, the world is full of guys who'll claim they have the stuff to be a baker to kings, but they're all talk. Make this guy put his muffins where his mouth is. Put him on the line."


"He's already on the line," she said. "That weird other Jimmy-the one that kept putting himself down, telling me how plain and dull and unworthy he was-I hope he's gone forever."


Oh.


"My Jimmy," she continued, "isn't a braggart, but he knows his worth. And my Jimmy will never stop till he gets what he wants."


"So," I said, no longer able to keep the tremor out of my voice, "will you marry your Jimmy?"


"You saved my life, didn't you?"


"But then you saved mine."


"Why would we have gone to all that trouble and then not get married?" she asked.


Two Saturdays before Christmas, we were wed.


My father stood as my best man.


Chilson Strawberry flew in from a bungee-jumping tour of New Zealand to be maid of honor. Looking at her, you would never have known that she once crashed face-first into a bridge abutment.


Lorrie's dad, Bailey, took a break from storm chasing to give the bride away. He arrived looking windblown, looked windblown in his rented tux, and left looking windblown, marked by his profession.


Alysa Hicks, Lorrie's mother, proved to be lovely and charming. She disappointed us, however, by arriving without a single snake.


In the three years following our wedding, I became a pastry chef. Lorrie changed careers from ballroom-dance instructor to website designer, so she could work baker's hours.


We bought a house. Nothing fancy. Two stories, two bedrooms, two baths. A place to start a life together.


We caught colds. Got well. Made plans. Made love. Had raccoon trouble. Played lots of pinochle with Mom and Dad.


And we got pregnant.


At noon Monday, January 12, after three hours of sleep, Lorrie woke with pain in the lower abdomen and groin. She lay for a while, timing the contractions. They were irregular and widely separated.


Because this was exactly one week prior to her most likely delivery date, she assumed that she was experiencing false labor.


She'd had a similar episode three days previously. We had gone to the hospital-and come home with the baby still in the oven.


The spasms were sufficiently painful to prevent her from falling back into sleep. Careful not to wake me, she slipped out of bed, took a bath, dressed, and went to the kitchen.


In spite of the periodic abdominal pain, she was hungry. At the kitchen table, reading a mystery that I had recommended, she ate a slice of chocolate cherry cake, then two slices of caraway kugelhopf.


For a few hours, the contractions did not become more painful or less irregular.


Beyond the windows, the white wings of the sky were molting. Snow descended silently and feathered the trees, the yard.


Lorrie gave little thought to the snow at first. In an ordinary January, snow fell as many days as not.


I woke shortly after four in the afternoon, showered, shaved, and went into the kitchen as the day slowly faded into an early winter twilight.


Still at the table, immersed in the final chapter of the mystery novel, Lorrie returned my kiss when I bent to her, taking her eyes from the page for only a moment.


Then: "Hey, pastry god, would you get me a slice of streusel?"


During her pregnancy, she had developed numerous food cravings, but at the top of the list were streusel coffee cake and various kinds of kugelhopf.


"This baby's going to be born speaking German," I predicted.


Before getting the cake, I glanced through the window in the back door and saw that about six inches of fresh powder covered the porch steps.


"Looks like the weatherman was wrong again," I said. "This is more than flurries."


Enchanted by the book, Lorrie had failed to notice that the lazy snowfall had turned into an intense if windless storm.


"Beautiful," she said of the ermine view. Then half a minute later, she stiffened in her chair. "Uh-oh."


As I began to slice the streusel, I thought her uh-oh referred to a tense development in the story that she was reading.


With a hiss, she sucked breath through her teeth, groaned, and let the book fall from her hands onto the table.


I turned from the cake to the sight of her suddenly as pale as the snow-mantled world beyond the window.


"What's wrong?"


"I thought it was false labor again."


I went to the table. "When did it start?"


"About noon."


"Five hours ago? And you didn't wake me?"


"The pain was just in the lower abdomen and the groin, like before," she said. "But now..."


"Across the entire abdomen?"


"Yeah."


"All the way around your back?"


"Oh, yeah."


That specific topography of pain signified genuine labor.


I clutched, but only for a moment. Fear gave way to excitement as I considered my impending fatherhood.


Fear would have abided with me if I'd known that our house was being watched and that a sensitive surveillance device, planted in our kitchen, had just transmitted our conversation to a listener no more than two hundred yards away.


^26.


For or a woman carrying her first baby, the initial stage of labor lasts twelve hours on average. We had plenty of time. The hospital lay only six miles away.


"I'll pack the SUV," I said. "You finish the novel."


"Gimme the streusel."


"Should you eat during first-stage labor?"


"What're you talking about? I'm starved. I intend to eat all the way through the delivery."


After giving her the slice of streusel that I'd just cut, I went upstairs to fetch the bag that we had prepacked for her. I climbed the steps with caution and descended with something like paranoia. If there is ever a good time to fall and break a leg, this wasn't it.


During three years of marriage, I had become markedly less of a lummox than before we'd taken our vows. I seemed to have absorbed some of her grace as if by osmosis.


Nevertheless, I took no chances as I carried the suitcase into the garage and quickly loaded it in the back of our Ford Explorer.


We also had a 1986 Pontiac Trans Am. Candy-apple red with black interior. Lorrie looked fabulous in it.


After raising the automatic garage door a few inches to provide ventilation, I started the Explorer and left the engine running. I wanted the interior to be warm by the time that Lorrie got aboard.


Following a lesser storm four days previously, I'd put snow chains on the tires. I had decided to leave them on.


Now I felt prescient, competent, and in charge. I figured this was going to be a milk run, thanks to my foresight.


Under Lorrie's mellowing influence, I'd become an indefatigable optimist. Before the night was out, I'd pay a price for my optimism.


In the mud room between garage and kitchen, I kicked off my shoes and hurriedly put on ski boots. I snared my Gore-Tex/Thermolite parka from a wall hook and shrugged into it.


I took a similar parka into the kitchen for Lorrie and found her standing near the refrigerator, groaning.


"The pain's worse when I'm moving than when I'm standing still or sitting down," she said.


"Then all the moving you're going to do is out to the Explorer. At the hospital, we'll get you in a wheelchair."


After I'd assisted her into the front passenger's seat and got the safety harness around her, I returned to the mud room. I switched off the house lights. Pulled shut the door, locked it.


I had not forgotten the 9mm pistol. I just didn't think that I would need it.


My second of five terrible days was still a week in the future. Considering Grandpa Josef's track record, it didn't occur to me that he might have gotten the second date wrong-or that he might have predicted only five of six terrible days.


When I got behind the wheel of the Explorer, Lorrie said, "I love you more than all the streusel and kugelhopf'm the world."


I said right back at her: "I love you more than creme brulee and tarte aux limettes."


"Do you love me more than mungo-bean custard?" she asked.


"Twice as much."


"I'm a lucky woman." As the segmented garage door rumbled upward, Lorrie winced with a contraction. "I think it's a boy."


She had undergone an ultrasound scan to be sure the baby was healthy, but we hadn't wanted to know the gender. I'm all for modern technology, but not if it robs life of one of its sweetest surprises.


I pulled into the driveway and discovered that the storm had worked up a little wind. Though only a breeze, it harried the dense snow through the headlights, masking the night with billowing veils.


Our house stood along Hawksbill Road, two lanes of blacktop that link Snow Village itself with the resort of the same name. The resort, where Dad and I work, is a mile and a half to the north, and the outskirts of town lie five miles to the south.


At the moment, the highway was deserted in both directions. Only road crews, reckless fools, and the pregnant would be out in weather this bad.


Not many houses have been built along Hawksbill Road. For most of its length, the rocky and angular terrain flanking the highway is not conducive to construction.

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