Life Expectancy Page 2


When he arrived at the I.C.U and found two nurses at his father's bedside, Rudy feared the worst. He knew that Josef was dying, yet his throat tightened and tears welled when he thought the end loomed.


To his surprise, he discovered Josef half sitting up in bed, hands clutching the side rails, excitedly repeating the predictions that he had already made to one of the nurses. "Twenty inches ... eight pounds ten ounces ... ten-forty-six tonight... syndactyly..."


When he saw his son, Josef pulled himself all the way into a sitting position, and one of the nurses raised the upper half of the bed to support him better.


He had not only regained his speech but also appeared to have overcome the partial paralysis that had followed his stroke. When he seized Rudy's right hand, his grip proved firm, even painful.


Astonished by this development, Rudy at first assumed that his father had experienced a miraculous recovery. Then, however, he recognized the desperation of a dying man with an important message to impart.


Josef's face was drawn, seemed almost shrunken, as if Death, in a sneak-thief mood, had begun days ago to steal the substance of him, ounce by ounce. By contrast his eyes appeared to be enormous. Fear sharpened his gaze when his eyes fixed on his son.


"Five days," said Josef, his hoarse voice raw with suffering, parched because he had been taking fluids only intravenously. "Five terrible days."


"Easy, Dad. Don't excite yourself," Rudy cautioned, but he saw that on the cardiac monitor, the illuminated graph of his father's heart activity revealed a fast yet regular pattern.


One of the nurses left to summon a doctor. The other stepped back from the bed, waiting to assist if the patient experienced a seizure.


First licking his cracked lips to wet the way for his whisper, he made his fifth prediction: "James. His name will be James, but no one will call him James ... or Jim. Everyone will call him Jimmy."


This startled Rudy. He and Maddy had chosen James if the baby was a boy, Jennifer if it was a girl, but they had not discussed their choices with anyone.


Josef could not have known. Yet he knew.


With increasing urgency, Josef declared, "Five days. You've got to warn him. Five terrible days."


"Easy, Dad," Rudy repeated. "You'll be okay."


His father, as pale as the cut face of a loaf of bread, grew paler, whiter than flour in a measuring cup. "Not okay. I'm dying."


"You aren't dying. Look at you. You're speaking. There's no paralysis. You're-"


"Dying," Josef insisted, his rough voice rising in volume. His pulse throbbed at his temples, and on the monitor it grew more rapid as he strained to break through his son's reassurances and to seize his attention. "Five dates. Write them down. Write them now. NOW!"


Confused, afraid that Josef's adamancy might trigger another stroke, Rudy mollified his father.


He borrowed a pen from the nurse. She didn't have any paper, and she wouldn't let him use the patient's chart that hung on the foot of the bed.


From his wallet, Rudy withdrew the first thing he found that offered a clean writing surface: a free pass to the very circus in which Beezo performed.


Rudy had received the pass a week ago from Huey Foster, a Snow Village police officer. They had been friends since childhood.


Huey, like Rudy, had wanted to be a pastry chef. He didn't have the talent for a career in baking. His muffins broke teeth. His lemon tarts offended the tongue.


When, by virtue of his law-enforcement job, Huey received freebies- passes to the circus, booklets of tickets for carnival rides at the county fair, sample boxes of bullets from various ammo manufacturers-he shared them with Rudy. In return, Rudy gave Huey'cookies that didn't sour the appetite, cakes that didn't displease the nose, pies and strudels that didn't induce regurgitation.


Red and black lettering, illustrated with elephants and lions, crowded the face of the circus pass. The reverse was blank. Unfolded, it measured three by five inches, the size of an index card.


As hard rain beat on a nearby window, drumming up a sound like many running feet, Josef clutched again at the railings, anchoring himself, as if he feared that he might float up and away. "Nineteen ninety-four. September fifteenth. A Thursday. Write it down."


Standing beside the bed, Rudy took dictation, using the precise printing with which he composed recipe cards: sept 15,1994, thurs.


Eyes wide and wild, like those of a rabbit in the thrall of a stalking coyote, Josef stared toward a point high on the wall opposite his bed. He seemed to see more than the wall, something beyond it. Perhaps the future.


"Warn him," the dying man said. "For God's sake, warn him."


Bewildered, Rudy said, "Warn who?"


"Jimmy. Your son, Jimmy, my grandson."


"He's not born yet."


"Almost. Two minutes. Warn him. Nineteen ninety-eight. January nineteenth. A Monday."


Transfixed by the ghastly expression on his father's face, Rudy stood with pen poised over paper.


"WRITE IT DOWN!" Josef roared. His mouth contorted so severely in the shout that his dry and peeling lower lip split. A crimson thread slowly unraveled down his chin.


"Nineteen ninety-eight," Rudy muttered as he wrote.


"January nineteenth," Josef repeated in a croak, his parched throat having been racked by the shout. "A Monday. Terrible day."


"Why?"


"Terrible, terrible."


"Why will it be terrible?" Rudy persisted.


"Two thousand two. December twenty-third. Another Monday."


Jotting down this third date, Rudy said, "Dad, this is weird. I don't understand."


Josef still held tight to both steel bedrails. Suddenly he shook them violently, with such uncanny strength that the railings seemed to be coming apart at their joints, raising a clatter that would have been loud in an ordinary hospital room but that was explosive in the usually hushed intensive care unit.


At first the observing nurse rushed forward, perhaps intending to calm the patient, but the electrifying combination of fury and terror that wrenched his pallid face caused her to hesitate. When waves of thunder broke against the hospital hard enough to shake dust off the acoustic ceiling tiles, the nurse retreated, almost as if she thought Josef himself had summoned that detonation.


"WRITE IT DOWN!" he demanded.


"I wrote, I wrote," Rudy assured him. "December 23, 2002, another Monday."


"Two thousand three," Josef said urgently. "The twenty-sixth of November. A Wednesday. The day before Thanksgiving."


After recording this fourth date on the back of the circus pass, just as his father stopped shaking the bedrails, Rudy looked up and saw a fresh emotion in Josef's face, in his eyes. The fury was gone, and the terror.


As tears welled, Josef said, "Poor Jimmy, poor Rudy."


"Dad?"


"Poor, poor Rudy. Poor Jimmy. Where is Rudy?"


"I'm Rudy, Dad. I'm right here."


Josef blinked, blinked, and flicked away the tears as yet another emotion gripped him, this one not easy to define. Some would have called it astonishment. Others would have said it was wonder of the pure variety that a baby might express at the first sight of any bright marvel.


After a moment, Rudy recognized it as a state rrtore profound than wonder. This was awe, the complete yielding of the mind to something grand and formidable.


His father's eyes shone with amazement. Across his face, expressions of delight and apprehension contested with each other.


Josef's increasingly raspy voice fell to a whisper: "Two thousand five."


His gaze remained fixed on another reality that apparently he found more convincing than he did this world in which he had lived for fifty-seven years.


Hand trembling now, but still printing legibly, Rudy recorded this fifth date-and waited.


"Ah," said Joseph, as if a startling secret had been revealed.


"Dad?"


"Not this, not this," Josef lamented.


"Dad, what's wrong?"


As curiosity outweighed her anxiety, the rattled nurse ventured closer to the bed.


A doctor entered the cubicle. "What's going on here?"


Josef said, "Don't trust the clown."


The physician looked mildly offended, assuming that the patient had just questioned his medical credentials.


Leaning over the bed, trying to redirect his father's attention from his otherworldly vision, Rudy said, "Dad, how do you know about the clown?"


"The sixteenth of April," said Josef.


"How do you know about the clown?"


"WRITE IT DOWN," Josef thundered even as the heavens crashed against the earth once more.


As the doctor went around to the other side of the bed, Rudy added april 16 after 2005 to the fifth line on the back of the circus pass. He also printed Saturday when his father spoke it.


The doctor put a hand under Josef's chin and turned his head to have a better look at his eyes.


"He isn't who you think he is," said Josef, not to the doctor but to his son.


"Who isn't?" Rudy asked.


"He isn't."


"Who's he?"


"Now, Josef," the physician chided, "you know me very well. I'm Dr. Pickett."


"Oh, the tragedy," Josef said, voice ripe with pity, as if he were not a pastry chef but a thespian upon the Shakespearean stage.


"What tragedy?" Rudy worried.


Producing an ophthalmoscope from a pocket of his white smock, Dr. Pickett disagreed: "No tragedy here. What I see is a remarkable recovery."


Breaking loose of the physician's chin grip, increasingly agitated, Josef said, "Kidneys!"


Bewildered, Rudy said, "Kidneys?"


"Why should kidneys be so damned important?" Josef demanded. "It's absurd, it's all absurd!"


Rudy felt his heart sink at this, for it seemed that his dad's brief clarity of mind had begun to give way to babble.


Asserting control of his patient again by once more gripping his chin, Dr. Pickett switched on the ophthalmoscope and directed the light in Josef's right eye.


As though that narrow beam were a piercing needle and his life were a balloon, Josef Tock let out an explosive breath and slumped back upon his pillow, dead.


With all the techniques and instruments available to a well-equipped hospital, attempts at resuscitation were made, but to no avail. Josef had moved on and wasn't coming back.


And I, James Henry Tock, arrived. The time on my grandfather's death certificate matches that on my birth certificate-10:46 p.m.


Bereaved, Rudy understandably lingered at Josef's bedside. He had not forgotten his wife, but grief immobilized him.


Five minutes later, he received word from a nurse that Maddy had experienced a crisis in her labor and that he must go at once to her side.


Alarmed by the prospect of losing his father and his wife in the same hour, Dad fled the intensive care unit.


As he tells it, the halls of our modest county hospital had become a white labyrinth, and at least twice he made wrong turns. Too impatient to wait for the elevator, he raced down the stairs from the third floor to the ground level before realizing that he'd passed the second floor, on which the maternity ward was located.


Dad arrived in the expectant-fathers' waiting lounge to the crack of a pistol as Konrad Beezo shot his wife's doctor.


For an instant, Dad thought Beezo had used a clown gun, some trick


firearm that squirted red ink. The doctor dropped to the floor, however, not with comic flair but with hideous finality, and the smell of blood plumed thick, too real.


Beezo turned to Dad and raised the pistol.


In spite of the rumpled porkpie hat and the short-sleeved coat and the bright patch on the seat of his pants, in spite of the white greasepaint and the rouged cheeks, nothing about Konrad Beezo was clownish at that moment. His eyes were those of a jungle cat, and it was easy to imagine that the teeth bared in his snarl were tiger fangs. He loomed, the embodiment of murderous dementia, demonic.


Dad thought that he, too, would be shot, but Beezo said, "Stay out of my way, Rudy Tock. I have no quarrel with you. You're not an aerialist."


Beezo shouldered through the door between the lounge and the maternity ward, slammed it shut behind him.


Dad knelt beside the doctor-and discovered that a breath of life remained in him. The wounded man tried to speak, could not. Blood had pooled in his throat, and he gagged.


Gently elevating the physician's head, shoving old magazines under it to brace the man at an angle that allowed him to breathe, Dad shouted for help as the swelling storm rocked the night with doomsday peals of thunder.


Dr. Ferris MacDonald had been Maddy's physician. He had also been called upon to treat Natalie Beezo when, unexpectedly, she had been brought to the hospital in labor.


Mortally wounded, he seemed more bewildered than frightened. Able to clear his throat and breathe now, he told my father, "She died during delivery, but it wasn't my fault."


For a terrifying moment, my dad thought Maddy had died.


Dr. MacDonald realized this, for his last words were "Not Maddy. The clown's wife. Maddy... is alive. I'm so sorry, Rudy."


Ferris MacDonald died with my father's hand upon his heart.


As the thunder rolled toward a far horizon, Dad heard another gunshot from beyond the door through which Konrad Beezo had vanished.


Maddy lay somewhere behind that door-a woman left helpless by a difficult labor. I was back there, too-an infant who was not yet enough of a lummox to defend himself.


My father, then a baker, had never been a man of action; nor did he become one when, a few years later, he graduated to the status of pastry chef. He is of average height and weight, not physically weak but not born for the boxing ring, either. He had to that point led a charmed life, without serious want, without any strife.


Nevertheless, fear for his wife and his child cast him into a strange, cold panic marked more by calculation than by hysteria. Without a weapon or a plan, but suddenly with the heart of a lion, he opened that door and went after Beezo.


Although his imagination spun a thousand bloody scenarios in mere seconds, he says that he did not anticipate what was about to happen, and of course he could not foresee how the events of that night would reverberate through the next thirty years with such terrible and astonishing consequences in his life and mine.


At Snow County Hospital, in the expectant-fathers' waiting room, the inner door opens to a short corridor with a supply room to the left and a bathroom to the right. Fluorescent ceiling panels, white walls, and a white ceramic-tile floor imply impeccable antibacterial procedures.

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