Life Expectancy Page 37


To the best of my knowledge, no pastry chef has ever had a memoir on the New York Times best-seller list. Celebrity tell-alls, hate-mongering political tracts, diet revelations about how to lose weight eating nothing but butter, and self-help books about getting filthy rich by adapting the code of the Samurai to business dealings seem to be what is wanted by contemporary readers.


Ego has not motivated me. If by some miracle the book were to be a success, everyone would still think that I am biggish for my size, a lummox. I am not a James, and if I wrote an entire library full of books, I still would not be one. I was born a Jimmy, and I will be a Jimmy when they lay me in my grave.


In part I wrote the book to tell my children how they got here, through what stormy seas, past what dangerous shoals. I want them to know what family means-and what it doesn't. I want them to know how loved they were, in case I don't live long enough to tell each of them a hundred thousand times.


In part I wrote it for my wife, to be sure she will know that without her, I might as well have died back there on the first of the five days. Each of us has his or her destiny, but sometimes two destinies twine, becoming so tightly braided that if Fate cuts one, she must cut both.


Also I wrote this to explain life to myself. The mystery. The humor, dark and light, that is the warp and weft of the weave. The absurdity. The terror. The hope. The joy, the grief. The God we never see except by indirection.


In this I have failed. I am less than four months short of my thirty-first birthday, have endured much, have piled up all these words, yet I can explain life no better now than I could have done when Charlene Coleman spared me the fate of Punchinello.


I can't explain the why of life, the patterns of its unfolding. I can't explain it-but, oh, how I love it.


And then, after seventeen months of peace and happiness, came the morning of the fifth day, April 16.


We were prepared in all the ways that experience had taught us to prepare, but we also knew that we could not properly prepare at all. The design can be imagined but not truly foreseen.


Because we lived by baker's hours and didn't want our kids to live by a different schedule, they were home-schooled. Their classes started at two o'clock in the morning and ended at eight, whereafter they had breakfast with us, played in sun or snow, and went to bed.


Their usual school was the table in the dining room, with occasional field trips to the table in the kitchen. Their mother served as their teacher, and served them well.


Annie had celebrated her seventh birthday the past January, with a kidney-shaped cake. In a few months, Lucy would be six, while Andy confidently cruised toward five. They loved learning and were demon students in the best sense of the adjective.


As usual on my special days, I stayed home from work. If I had thought it would have done any good to tether crocodiles around the house and board up all the windows, I would have done so. Instead, I helped the kids with their lessons for a while, then prepared breakfast.


We were at the kitchen table, halfway through our waffles with strawberries, when the doorbell rang.


Lucy went directly to the phone, put her hand on the receiver, and prepared to dial 911.


Annie took the car keys from the pegboard, opened the door between the kitchen and the laundry room, and opened the door between the laundry room and the garage, preparing the route for an escape by wheels.


Andy hurried into the half bath off the kitchen to pee, so he would then be ready for flight.


After accompanying me as far as the archway between the dining room and the living room, Lorrie gave me a quick kiss.


The doorbell rang again.


"It's mid month so it's probably just the newspaper boy," I said.


"Right."


Less in honor of the day than to conceal a shoulder holster, I was wearing a handsome tweed sport coat. In the foyer, I slipped a hand under the coat.


Through the tall French window beside the door, I could see the visitor on the porch. He smiled at me and held forth a silver box tied with red ribbon.


He appeared to be about ten years old, handsome, with jet-black hair and green eyes. His trimly tailored pants were of a metallic-silver material; the red shirt silk had sequined silver buttons. Over the shirt


he wore a sparkling silver jacket with silver-and-red buttons in a spiral pattern.


He looked as if he were in training to be an Elvis impersonator.


If ten-year-old boys were coming around to kill me, I might as well die and get it over with. I certainly wasn't going to shoot a little boy, regardless of his intentions.


When I opened the door, he asked, "Jimmy Tock?"


"That's me."


Holding out the box, smiling like a band mascot marching at the head of a Happiness Day parade, he said, "For you!"


"I don't want it."


The smile widened. "But it's for you!"


"No thanks."


The smile faltered. "From me to you\"


"It isn't from you. Who sent you with this?"


The smile collapsed. "Mister, for God's sake, take the freakin' box. If I have to go back to the car with it, he'll beat the shit out of me."


At the curb stood a sparkling silver Mercedes limousine with red racing stripes and tinted windows.


"Who?" I asked. "Who will beat you?"


Instead of going pale, the boy's olive complexion turned taupe. "This is taking too long. He's going to want to know what we talked about. I'm not supposed to chat with you. Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me? Why are you being so mean?"


I accepted the box.


At once the boy broke into the band-mascot smile, saluted me, and said, "Prepare to be enchantedl"


No need to brood about where I'd heard that phrase before.


He turned on his heel-literally swiveled 180 degrees as smoothly as a pivot hinge-and crossed the porch to the stairs.


I noticed that he was wearing peculiar shoes, similar to ballet slippers, supple with thin soft soles. They were red.


With uncanny grace, he descended the steps and seemed to float rather than walk to the Mercedes. He got in the back of the limo and closed the door.


I couldn't get a glimpse of the driver or any other passengers.


The limousine drove away, and I took the gift-wrapped bomb into the house.


Sparkling intriguing, the box stood on the kitchen table.


I didn't actually believe it was a bomb, but Annie and Lucy were certain that it could be nothing else.


With smirky disdain for his sisters' powers of threat analysis, Andy said, "It's not a bomb. It's somebody's head cut off and stuffed in a box with a clue in his teeth."


No one could ever doubt that he was Weena's great-grandson by temperament if not by blood.


"That's stupid," Annie said. "A clue to what?"


"To a mystery."


"What mystery?"


"The mystery of who sent the head, dummy."


Annie sighed with theatrical exasperation and said, "If the guy who sent the head wants us to figure who sent it, why doesn't he just write his name on the thing?"


"On what thing?" Andy asked.


"On the thing, whatever it is, that's between the teeth of the stupid head," Annie clarified.


Solemnly, Lucy said, "If there's a head, I'm gonna barf."


"There's not a head in the box, sweetcakes," Lorrie promised. "And there's no bomb, either. They don't deliver bombs in flashy silver-and-red limousines."


"Who doesn't?" Andy asked.


"Nobody doesn't," Annie said.


Lorrie got a pair of scissors from a kitchen drawer and snipped the red ribbon.


Studying the box, I figured it was just about the perfect size to hold a head. Or a basketball. If I had to bet on one or the other, I'd put my money on the head.


As I was about to lift the lid from the box, Annie and Lucy put their hands over their ears. They were concerned more about the noise of an explosion than about the shrapnel.


Under the lid was a layer of folded white gift-wrapping tissue.


Having climbed onto a chair, kneeling there to get a better view, Andy warned me as I reached for the tissue paper, "Could be snakes."


Instead of snakes, packed into the box were banded packets of twenty-dollar bills.


"Wow, we're rich!" Andy declared.


"This isn't our money," Lorrie said.


"Then whose is it?" Annie wondered.


"I don't know," Lorrie said, "but it's bad money, for sure, and we can't keep it. I can smell the evil on it."


Sniffing at the treasure, Andy said, "I don't smell nothin'."


"All I smell is Andy's beans from yesterday dinner," Annie announced.


"Maybe it could be my money," Lucy suggested.


"Not as long as I'm your mother."


Together, the five of us took all the money out of the box and piled it on the table so we could smell it better.


There were twenty-five packets of twenty-dollar bills. Each packet contained a hundred bills. Fifty thousand bucks.


The box also contained an envelope. From the envelope, Lorrie extracted a plain white card with handwriting on one side.


She read the card and said, "Hmmm."


When she passed the card to me, the six eyes of three children followed it with intense interest.


Never before had I seen handwriting as meticulously scripted as this. The letters were bold, elegantly formed, flowing as precisely as if a machine had penned them: Please accept this as a token of my esteem and as proof of my sincerity. I request the honor of a most cordial meeting with you at seven o'clock this evening at the Halloway Farm. The precise location will be obvious upon your arrival.


The note was signed Vivacemente.


"This," I told the kids, "is evil money. I'm going to put it back into the box, and then we're all going to wash our hands with a lot of soap and water so hot it hurts a little."


My name is Lorrie Tock. I'm not the goddess Jimmy said I am. For one thing, I've got a pinched nose. For another thing, my teeth are so straight and symmetrical that they don't look real.


And no matter how meticulous the surgeon has been, once you've been shot in the gut-well, when you wear a bikini, you turn heads but not always for the same reason that Miss America does.


Jimmy would have you believe that I am as tough as one of those acid-for-blood bugs in the Alien movies. That is an exaggeration, though it's a major mistake to piss me off.


On the night that I was born, no one made predictions about my future, and thank God for that. My father was chasing a tornado in Kansas, and my mother had recently decided that snakes would be better company than he was.


I have to take over this story for reasons that will become clear and


that you might already have deduced. If you let me take your hand, metaphorically speaking, we'll get through this together.


So... Near twilight, under a fiery sky, we took the kids next door to stay with Jimmy's parents. Rudy and Maddy were in the living room when we arrived, taking practice swings with the Louisville Sluggers they had bought in 1998.


Immediately after us, six of the most trusted neighbors on the block came to visit, ostensibly for an evening of cards, though all of them had brought baseball bats.


"We play an aggressive game of bridge," Maddy said.


Jimmy and I hugged the kids, kissed them good-bye, kissed them again, but tried not to make such a big deal of it that we might scare them.


After returning to our house, we dressed as seemed suitable for a "most cordial meeting." In preparation for the fifth of the five days, we had added to our wardrobes. We had shoulder holsters, pistols, two little cannisters of pepper spray for each of us.


Jimmy made a pitch for me to wait with the kids while he went alone to meet with the aerialist, but I presented a convincing case for accompanying him: "You remember what happened to Punchinello's testicles? If you try to keep me from going with you, you'll discover that Punch got off easy."


We were mutually agreed that going to Huey Foster and bringing in the cops would be a bad idea.


For one thing, Vivacemente had done nothing wrong thus far. We would have a difficult time convincing a jury that a gift of fifty thousand bucks in cash constituted a threatening gesture.


Besides, we worried that whatever Vivacemente's intentions, he would clam up in front of cops and later would go after whatever he wanted more discreetly. Even alerted by his first approach, we would most likely be blindsided. Better that everything remained out in the open between us.


The weather was surprisingly mild for an April evening in high-country Colorado. That doesn't tell you much, because sometimes in April, below freezing is considered mild. To Jimmy, facts are like recipe ingredients, so he would research the temperature in the Snow County Gazette before he wrote about it. Me, I'd guess it was maybe fifty degrees.


When we arrived at Halloway Farm, we debated where Vivacemente expected to meet with us. We decided that the giant red-and-white circus tent might be the place.


In this large flat meadow, adjacent to the highway, the circus had set up for business that week in August 1974, when Jimmy had been born. Since then, they had played no return engagement, most likely because they figured that ticket sales would be adversely impacted by the fact that during their previous visit, one of their clowns had killed two much-loved locals.


Neither Jimmy nor I had heard anything about the circus coming to town here in April. For sure, the kids hadn't heard about it, or they would have been in full didja mode: Didja gets tickets, didja, didja?


Andy would have begun having clown-in-the-closet dreams again. Me, too, probably.


On second look, we realized that the entire circus wasn't here. An operation of their size involved scores of trucks, motor homes, massive portable generators, and other vehicles. Lined up along the lane to the distant Halloway farmhouse were just four Peterbilts, a VIP bus, and the limousine in which the costumed boy had delivered the fifty thousand smackers.


Emblazoned on the flank of each huge silver truck, festive red lettering announced VIVACE MENTE In small but still bold lettering:


BIG TOP! BIG SHOW! BIG FUN!


"Big deal," I said.


Jimmy frowned. "Big trouble."


66_


Only the single enormous tent awaited Jimmy and me. No smaller tents for the customary array of lesser attractions, no animal cages, no roach wagons offering hot dogs, snow cones, popcorn.


Standing alone, the big top made a greater impression than if it had been at the center of the usual bustling medieval fair.


Four poles marked the high ridge line of the tent. Atop each, in the glow of a spotlight, flew a red flag with a silver circle at its center. In each circle were an italicized red V followed by an exclamation point.

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