Life Expectancy Page 32


At dawn, a nurse came to the lounge to tell me that Lorrie had awakened. The first thing she'd said to anyone was "Gimme Jimmy."


When I saw her awake, I would have cried but for the realization that tears would blur my vision. I was starving for the sight of her.


"Andy?" she asked.


"He's safe. He's fine."


"Annie, Lucy?"


"They're all okay. Safe."


"True?"


"Absolutely."


"Beezo?"


"Dead."


"Good," she said, and closed her eyes. "Good."


Later, she said, "What's the date?"


I almost didn't tell her the truth, but then I did. "December twenty-third."


"The day," she said.


"Obviously, Grandpa missed it by a few hours. He should have warned us about the twenty-second."


"Maybe."


"The worst is passed."


"For me," she said.


"For all of us."


"Maybe not for you."


"I'm fine."


"Don't let your guard down, Jimmy."


"Don't worry about me."


"Don't let your guard down for a minute."


My father went home to take a three-hour nap, promising to return with thick roast-beef sandwiches, olive salad, and an entire pistachio-almond polenta cake.


Later in the morning, when Dr. Cornell made his rounds, he pronounced himself pleased with Lorrie's progress. Those woods she hadn't been out of the previous night were still around her, but hour by hour there were fewer trees.


People with tragedies of their own had come and gone from the I.C.U lounge. The two of us were alone when Cornell sat down and asked me to take a seat, as well.


At once I knew that he had something to tell me that might explain why my grandfather had identified the twenty-third as the day to dread.


I thought of bullets puncturing intestines, ripping up kidneys, tearing through blood vessels, and I wondered what other damage might have been done. Suddenly I thought spine.


"Oh, God, no. She's paralyzed from the waist down, isn't she?"


Startled, Dr, Cornell said, "Good heavens, no. Anything like that I would have told you last night."


I would not allow myself to feel relief, because clearly he had something to tell me that wasn't news you celebrated with fine champagne.


"I understand that you and Lorrie have three children."


"Yeah. Annie. Lucy. Andy. Three."


"The oldest will soon be five?"


"Yeah. Annie. Our tomboy."


"Three kids under five-that's a handful."


"Especially when they won't share one closet monster."


"Is that Lorrie's ideal family?" he asked.


"They're darn good kids," I said, "but they're not ideal."


"I mean, the number."


"Well, she wants twenty," I said.


He stared at me as if he'd just noticed that I'd grown a second head during the night.


"That's partly a joke," I explained. "She'd settle for five, might like six or seven. Twenty-that was just an exaggeration she came up with to express how important family is to her."


"Jimmy, you know how fortunate Lorrie is to be alive?"


I nodded. "And I know she's going to be weak for a while, going to need lots of recuperation time, but don't worry about the kids. My folks and I can handle it. There won't be a strain on Lorrie."


"That's not the issue. Jimmy, the thing is ... Lorrie won't be having any more children. If that's going to be a blow to her, I don't want her knowing until she's on her feet again."


If I could have just Lorrie, Annie, Lucy, and Andy, I would thank God every morning and every night that I'd been given so much.


I didn't know for sure how she would take the news. She is practical, but she is a dreamer, too, a realist and a romantic at the same time.


"I had to remove one of her ovaries and a fallopian tube," he said.


"The other ovary is undamaged, but the trauma to the associated tube will inevitably result in scar tissue that'll close off the isthmus entirely."


"It can't be repaired someday?"


"I doubt it. Besides, she has just one kidney now. She shouldn't get pregnant again, anyway."


"I'll tell her. I'll know when the time is right."


"I did everything I could, Jimmy."


"I know. And I'm more grateful than I can ever put into words. You've got free baked goods for life."


After Dr. Cornell left and as the day wound on, I kept my guard up, waiting for whatever unspeakable horror my grandpa had foreseen, but wondered if Lorrie's sterility might be it. To me, that would be an abiding sadness, yes, but nothing worse; to her, however, it might qualify as tragedy.


As it turned out, we would not fully understand for several months why that twenty-third of December had been almost as terrible a day in our lives as had been the evening of the twenty-second.


Looking rested, Dad returned with the roast-beef sandwiches, olive salad, and an entire pistachio-almond polenta cake.


Later, during another short visit with Lorrie in the I.C.U, she said, "Punchinello's still out there."


"In a maximum-security prison. No need to worry about him."


"I'll worry a little anyway."


Weary, she closed her eyes.


I stood beside the bed, looking at her for a while, then said softly, "I'm so sorry."


She wasn't asleep, as I had thought. Without opening her eyes, she said, "Sorry for what?"


"For getting you into this."


"You didn't get me into anything. You saved my life."


"When you married me, my curse became yours."


Opening her eyes, fixing me with an intense stare, she said, "Listen up, muffin man. There's no curse. There's only life."


"But-"


"Did I say' listen up'?"


"Yes, ma'am."


"There's no curse. There's only life the way it is. And in my life, you're the greatest blessing I could have hoped for. You're my every prayer answered."


On a subsequent visit, when she was asleep, I gently slipped the cameo pendant around her neck, fastened the catch.


Delicate but indestructible. Beauty enduring. The profile of love everlasting.


On January 11, 2003, Lorrie was discharged from the hospital. For a while she stayed at my parents' house, next door to ours, where there would be more hands to help her.


She slept on a roll-away bed in Mom's art alcove, adjacent to the living room, under the watchful gaze of an unfinished portrait of Lumpy Dumpy, someone's pet turtle.


By Sunday, January 26, Lorrie had been on a regular diet long enough and with sufficient success that we deemed her ready for a holiday dinner, Tock style.


Never had our Christmas table been so heavily laden. Serious discussions were held as to the possibility of the table cracking under the burden of so many delectables. After calculations in which the kids contributed their unschooled but imaginative mathematics, we concluded that we were two dinner rolls shy of the weight required to trigger a collapse.


Eight of us gathered around the table for the postponed feast, the children boosted on pillows, the adults lifted higher by good wine.


Never had the Christmas candles painted our faces so warm, so bright. The children glowed like blithe spirits, and when I looked around at Mom, at Dad, at Grandma, at Lorrie, I felt that I was in the company of angels.


During soup, Grandma Rowena said, "The wine reminds me of the time Sparky Anderson uncorked a bottle of Merlot and found a severed finger in it."


The kids squealed as one, grossed out and delighted.


"Weena," my father warned, "that's not an appropriate story for the dinner table, especially not for the Christmas dinner table."


"Oh, on the contrary," said Grandma, "it's the most Christmasy story I know."


"There's nothing whatsoever Christmasy about it," Dad said exasperatedly.


Mom came to the defense of Grandma: "No, Rudy, she's right. It is a Christmasy story. There's a reindeer in it."


"And a fat guy with a white beard," Grandma added.


Lorrie said, "You know, I've still never heard the story about how Harry Ramirez boiled himself to death."


"That's a Christmasy story, too," my mother declared.


Dad groaned.


"Well, it is," Grandma agreed. "There's a midget in it."


Dad gaped at her. "What makes a midget Christmasy?"


"Haven't you ever heard of elves?" Grandma asked.


"Elves aren't the same as midgets."


"They are in my book," Grandma said.


"Mine, too," said Lucy.


"Midgets are people," Dad persisted. "Elves are fairies."


"Fairies are people, too," Grandma scolded him, "even if they do prefer going to bed with their own gender."


My mother remembered: "And wasn't the midget's name Chris Kringle?"


"No, Maddy dear," Grandma corrected, "he was Chris Pringle, with a


P."


"Boy, that's Christmasy enough for me," Lorrie said.


"This is nuts," Dad said.


Mom patted him on the shoulder and said, "Don't be such a Scrooge, dear."


"So," Grandma began, "Sparky Anderson pays eighteen dollars for this bottle of Merlot, which was a lot more money in those days than it is now."


"Everything's gotten so expensive," Mom said.


"Especially," Lorrie said, "if you want something with a severed finger in it."


The next of the five terrible days was ten months away, which that night-bright with tinsel, fragrant with roast turkey-seemed like forever.


PART FIVE


Just Like Pontius Pilate,


You Washed Your Hands of Me


Nine miles from Denver, the Rocky Mountain Federal Penitentiary, a maximum-security facility, stands atop a foothill stripped of trees and flattened into a plateau. The higher slopes behind it and the slopes below are thickly forested, but the grounds of the prison are barren, offering no obstacle if searchlights are needed, no cover for escapees trying to dodge gunfire from the guard towers.


No inmate has ever escaped from Rocky Mountain. The two ways they get out are on parole or dead.


The stone walls soar high, punctured only by barred windows too small for any man to squeeze through. The steeply pitched slate roof beetles over every rampart.


Above the main gate to the walled parking lot, carved in stone are the words truth * law * justice * punishment. From the look of the place and considering the class of hardened criminal housed therein, the word rehabilitation was probably not an inadvertent omission.


On that Wednesday, November 26, the fourth of my five fateful days, the lowering sky pressing down on the prison looked as bleak as any inmate's future. The icy wind bit to the bone.


Before we were admitted through the gate to the parking lot, the three of us had to get out of the Explorer while two efficient guards searched the vehicle inside and underneath for larger objectionable items such as suitcase bombs and rocket launchers.


"I'm scared," Lorrie admitted.


"You don't have to go in with us," I told her.


"Yeah. I do. Too much is riding on this. I've got to be there."


Approved for entry to the lot, we parked as near the walk-in gate as possible. The bitter wind turned even the shortest walk into an ordeal.


The staff had the privilege of a heated underground garage. This surface lot served visitors.


On the day before Thanksgiving, you might expect a stream of loved ones. Instead, there were nine empty spaces for every vehicle.


Considering that the prisoners were drawn from all over the Western states, perhaps the distance was too great for many of their relatives to visit regularly. Or perhaps their families didn't give a damn about them.


In some cases, of course, they had killed their families and couldn't reasonably expect holiday reunions.


Even in this sentimental season, I was unable to work up any sympathy for the lonely men in those drab cellblocks, their hearts heavy and their eyes turned longingly toward birds winging across the ashen sky beyond their mean windows. I've never understood the weird Hollywood mind-set that romanticizes convicts and prison life. Besides, most of these guys had TVs, subscriptions to Hustler, and access to whatever drugs they needed.


Inside the main entrance, in a short reception corridor staffed by three armed guards-one with a shotgun-we identified ourselves, produced photo IDs, and signed in. We passed through a metal detector and submitted to fluoroscopic examination. Ceiling-mounted cameras watched us.


A handsome German shepherd, trained to detect drugs, lay at his handler's feet, chin cushioned cutely on one paw. The dog raised his head, sniffed in our direction, and yawned.


Our stash of aspirin and antacids was insufficient provocation to cause him to spring to his feet, snarling. I wondered how he might respond to visitors with legitimate Prozac prescriptions.


At the end of the corridor, we were examined remotely by another camera. Then from the farther side, a guard opened another steel door to admit us to a holding chamber.


Because our visit had been arranged through Huey Foster and because of the unusual nature of our business, we were given VIP treatment. The assistant warden himself, accompanied by an armed guard, led us from the holding chamber to an elevator, up two floors, along a series of halls, and through two additional gates that released after reading his fingerprints when he pressed his right hand against a wall-mounted scanner.


Outside the conference room, we were required to take off our coats and hang them on a wall rack. We read a short list headlined rules of conduct posted beside the door.


Initially, only Lorrie and I went into the room, which measured approximately twenty feet by fifteen. Gray vinyl floor tiles, gray walls, low acoustic ceiling with fluorescent panels.


The sullen light of a dismal sky seemed barely able to penetrate the glass-and-wire-sandwich windows.


Centered in this space was an eight-foot-long conference table. On the farther side of the table stood a single chair; four chairs waited on the nearer side.


In the lone chair sat Punchinello Beezo, who did not yet know that he possessed the power either to grant our family a reprieve from tragedy or to condemn us to nearly unendurable suffering.


Welded to Punchinello's side of the table were two steel rings that had been wrapped with electrician's tape for sound attenuation. Each of his wrists had been chained to one of those rings. The length of these shackles allowed him to get up from his chair and stretch his legs in place, but didn't provide him with enough slack to move away from or around the table. The legs of the table were bolted to the floor.

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