Life Expectancy Read online





  To Laura Albano,

  who has such a good heart.

  Strange brain, but good heart.

  But he that dares not grasp the thorn

  Should never crave the rose.

  —ANNE BRONTË, “The Narrow Way”

  Here’s a sigh to those who love me,

  And a smile to those who hate;

  And, whatever sky’s above me,

  Here’s a heart for every fate.

  —LORD BYRON, “To Thomas Moore”

  PART ONE

  * * *

  WELCOME TO THE WORLD, JIMMY TOCK

  1

  * * *

  On the night that I was born, my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made ten predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me.

  Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a pastry chef. He made éclairs and lemon tarts, not predictions.

  Some lives, conducted with grace, are beautiful arcs bridging this world to eternity. I am thirty years old and can’t for certain see the course of my life, but rather than a graceful arc, my passage seems to be a herky-jerky line from one crisis to another.

  I am a lummox, by which I do not mean stupid, only that I am biggish for my size and not always aware of where my feet are going.

  This truth is not offered in a spirit of self-deprecation or even humility. Apparently, being a lummox is part of my charm, an almost winsome trait, as you will see.

  No doubt I have now raised in your mind the question of what I intend to imply by “biggish for my size.” Autobiography is proving to be a trickier task than I first imagined.

  I am not as tall as people seem to think I am, in fact not tall at all by the standards of professional—or even of high school—basketball. I am neither plump nor as buff as an iron-pumping fitness fanatic. At most I am somewhat husky.

  Yet men taller and heavier than I am often call me “big guy.” My nickname in school was Moose. From childhood, I have heard people joke about how astronomical our grocery bills must be.

  The disconnect between my true size and many people’s perception of my dimensions has always mystified me.

  My wife, who is the linchpin of my life, claims that I have a presence much bigger than my physique. She says that people measure me by the impression I make on them.

  I find this notion ludicrous. It is bullshit born of love.

  If sometimes I make an outsized impression on people, it’s as likely as not because I fell on them. Or stepped on their feet.

  In Arizona, there is a place where a dropped ball appears to roll uphill in defiance of gravity. In truth, this effect is a trick of perspective in which elements of a highly unusual landscape conspire to deceive the eye.

  I suspect I am a similar freak of nature. Perhaps light reflects oddly from me or bends around me in a singular fashion, so I appear to be more of a hulk than I am.

  On the night I was born in Snow County Hospital, in the community of Snow Village, Colorado, my grandfather told a nurse that I would be twenty inches long and weigh eight pounds ten ounces.

  The nurse was startled by this prediction not because eight pounds ten is a huge newborn—many are larger—and not because my grandfather was a pastry chef who suddenly began acting as though he were a crystal-ball gazer. Four days previously he had suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak; yet from his bed in the intensive care unit, he began making prognostications in a clear voice, without slur or hesitation.

  He also told her that I would be born at 10:46 P.M. and that I would suffer from syndactyly.

  That is a word difficult to pronounce before a stroke, let alone after one.

  Syndactyly—as the observing nurse explained to my father—is a congenital defect in which two or more fingers or toes are joined. In serious cases, the bones of adjacent digits are fused to such an extent that two fingers share a single nail.

  Multiple surgeries are required to correct such a condition and to ensure that the afflicted child will grow into an adult capable of giving the F-you finger to anyone who sufficiently annoys him.

  In my case, the trouble was toes. Two were fused on the left foot, three on the right.

  My mother, Madelaine—whom my father affectionately calls Maddy or sometimes the Mad One—insists that they considered forgoing the surgery and, instead, christening me Flipper.

  Flipper was the name of a dolphin that once starred in a hit TV show—not surprisingly titled Flipper—in the late 1960s. My mother describes the program as “delightfully, wonderfully, hilariously stupid.” It went off the air a few years before I was born.

  Flipper, a male, was played by a trained dolphin named Suzi. This was most likely the first instance of transvestism on television.

  Actually, that’s not the right word because transvestism is a male dressing as a female for sexual gratification. Besides, Suzi—alias Flipper—didn’t wear clothes.

  So it was a program in which the female star always appeared nude and was sufficiently butch to pass for a male.

  Just two nights ago at dinner, over one of my mother’s infamous cheese-and-broccoli pies, she asked rhetorically if it was any wonder that such a dire collapse in broadcast standards, begun with Flipper, should lead to the boring freak-show shock that is contemporary television.

  Playing her game, my father said, “It actually began with Lassie. In every show, she was nude, too.”

  “Lassie was always played by male dogs,” my mother replied.

  “There you go,” Dad said, his point made.

  I escaped being named Flipper when successful surgeries restored my toes to the normal condition. In my case, the fusion involved only skin, not bones. The separation was a relatively simple procedure.

  Nevertheless, on that uncommonly stormy night, my grandfather’s prediction of syndactyly proved true.

  If I had been born on a night of unremarkable weather, family legend would have transformed it into an eerie calm, every leaf motionless in breathless air, night birds silent with expectation. The Tock family has a proud history of self-dramatization.

  Even allowing for exaggeration, the storm must have been violent enough to shake the Colorado mountains to their rocky foundations. The heavens cracked and flashed as if celestial armies were at war.

  Still in the womb, I remained unaware of all the thunderclaps. And once born, I was probably distracted by my strange feet.

  This was August 9, 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States.

  Nixon’s fall has no more to do with me than the fact that John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” was the number-one record in the country at the time. I mention it only to provide historical perspective.

  Nixon or no Nixon, what I find most important about August 9, 1974, is my birth—and my grandfather’s predictions. My sense of perspective has an egocentric taint.

  Perhaps more clearly than if I had been there, because of vivid pictures painted by numerous family stories of that night, I can see my father, Rudy Tock, walking back and forth from one end of County Hospital to the other, between the maternity ward and the ICU, between joy at the prospect of his son’s pending arrival and grief over his beloved father’s quickening slide into death.

  With blue vinyl-tile floor, pale-green wainscoting, pink walls, a yellow ceiling, and orange-and-white stork-patterned drapes, the expectant-fathers’ lounge churned with the negative energy of color overload. It would have served well as the nervous-making set for a nightmare about a children’s-show host who led a secret life as an ax murderer.

  The chain-smoking clown didn’t improve the ambience.

  Rudy stood birth watch with only one other man, not a local b