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”
* * *
WELCOME TO THE WORLD, JIMMY TOCK
* * *
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 but a p
erformer with the circus that was playing a one-week engagement in a meadow at the Halloway Farm. He called himself Beezo. Curiously, this proved not to be his clown name but one that he’d been born with: Konrad Beezo.
Some say there is no such thing as destiny, that what happens just happens, without purpose or meaning. Konrad’s surname would argue otherwise.
Beezo was married to Natalie, a trapeze artist and a member of a renowned aerialist family that qualified as circus royalty.
Neither of Natalie’s parents, none of her brothers and sisters, and none of her high-flying cousins had accompanied Beezo to the hospital. This was a performance night, and as always the show must go on.
As Beezo waited nervously for his wife to deliver, he muttered unkind judgments of his in-laws. “Self-satisfied,” he called them, and “devious.”
The clown’s perpetual glower, rough voice, and bitterness made Rudy uncomfortable.
Angry words plumed from him in exhalations of sour smoke: “duplicitous” and “scheming” and, poetically for a clown, “blithe spirits of the air, but treacherous when the ground is under them.”
Beezo was not in full costume. Furthermore, his stage clothes were in the Emmett Kelly sad-faced tradition rather than the bright polka-dot plumage of the average Ringling Brothers clown. He cut a strange figure nonetheless.
A bright plaid patch blazed across the seat of his baggy brown suit. The sleeves of his jacket were comically short. In one lapel bloomed a fake flower the diameter of a bread plate.
Before racing to the hospital with his wife, he had traded clown shoes for sneakers and had taken off his big round red rubber nose. White greasepaint still encircled his eyes, however, and his cheeks remained heavily rouged, and he wore a rumpled porkpie hat.
Beezo’s bloodshot eyes shone as scarlet as his painted cheeks, perhaps because of the acrid smoke wreathing his head, although Rudy suspected that strong drink might be involved as well.
In those days, smoking was permitted everywhere, even in many hospital waiting rooms. Expectant fathers traditionally gave out cigars by way of celebration.
When not at his dying father’s bedside, poor Rudy should have been able to take refuge in that lounge. His grief should have been mitigated by the joy of his pending parenthood.
Instead, both Maddy and Natalie were long in labor. Each time that Rudy returned from the ICU, waiting for him was the glowering, muttering, bloody-eyed clown, burning through pack after pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes.
As drumrolls of thunder shook the heavens, as reflections of lightning shuddered through the windows, Beezo made a stage of the maternity ward lounge. Restlessly circling the blue vinyl floor, from pink wall to pink wall, he smoked and fumed.
“Do you believe that snakes can fly, Rudy Tock? Of course you don’t. But snakes can fly. I’ve seen them high above the center ring. They’re well paid and applauded, these cobras, these diamondbacks, these copperheads, these hateful vipers.”
Poor Rudy responded to this vituperative rant with murmured consolation, clucks of the tongue, and sympathetic nods. He didn’t want to encourage Beezo, but he sensed that a failure to commiserate would make him a target for the clown’s anger.
Pausing at a storm-washed window, his painted face further patinated by the lightning-cast patterns of the streaming raindrops on the glass, Beezo said, “Which are you having, Rudy Tock—a son or daughter?”
Beezo consistently addressed Rudy by his first and last names, as if the two were one: Rudytock.
“They have a new ultrasound scanner here,” Rudy replied, “so they could tell us whether it’s a boy or girl, but we don’t want to know. We just care is the baby healthy, and it is.”
Beezo’s posture straightened, and he raised his head, thrusting his face toward the window as if to bask in the pulsing storm light. “I don’t need ultrasound to tell me what I know. Natalie is giving me a son. Now the Beezo name won’t die when I do. I’ll call him Punchinello, after one of the first and greatest of clowns.”
Punchinello Beezo, Rudy thought. Oh, the poor child.
“He will be the very greatest of our kind,” said Beezo, “the ultimate jester, harlequin, jackpudding. He will be acclaimed from coast to coast, on every continent.”
Although Rudy had just returned to the maternity ward from the ICU, he felt imprisoned by this clown whose dark energy seemed to swell each time the storm flashed in his feverish eyes.
“He will be not merely acclaimed but immortal.”
Rudy was hungry for news of Maddy’s condition and the progress of her labor. In those days, fathers were seldom admitted to delivery rooms to witness the birth of their children.
“He will be the circus star of his time, Rudy Tock, and everyone who sees him perform will know Konrad Beezo is his father, patriarch of clowns.”
The ward nurses who should have regularly visited the lounge to speak with the waiting husbands were making themselves less visible than usual. No doubt they were uncomfortable in the presence of this angry bozo.
“On my father’s grave, I swear my Punchinello will never be an aerialist,” Beezo declared.
The blast of thunder punctuating his vow was the first of two so powerful that the windowpanes vibrated like drumheads, and the lights—almost extinguished—throbbed dimly.
“What do acrobatics have to do with the truth of the human condition?” Beezo demanded.
“Nothing,” Rudy said at once, for he was not an aggressive man. Indeed, he was gentle and humble, not yet a pastry chef like his father, merely a baker who, on the verge of fatherhood, wished to avoid being severely beaten by a large clown.
“Comedy and tragedy, the very tools of the clown’s art—that is the essence of life,” Beezo declared.
“Comedy, tragedy, and the need for good bread,” Rudy said, making a little joke, including his own trade in the essence-of-life professions.
“‘Comedy, tragedy, and the need for good bread,’” Beezo repeated, perhaps expecting Dad to admit his quip had been inane.
“Hey,” Dad said, “that sounds just like me,” for the clown had spoken in a voice that might have passed for my father’s.
“‘Hey, that sounds just like me,’” Beezo mocked in Dad’s voice. Then he continued in his own rough growl: “I told you I’m talented, Rudy Tock. In more ways than you can imagine.”
Rudy thought he could feel his chilled heart beating slower, winding down under the influence of that wintry gaze.
“My boy will never be an aerialist. The hateful snakes will hiss. Oh, how they’ll hiss and thrash, but Punchinello will never be an aerialist!”
Another tsunami of thunder broke against the walls of the hospital, and again the lights were more than half drowned.
In that gloom, Rudy swore that the tip of Beezo’s cigarette in his right hand glowed brighter, brighter, although he held it at his side, as if some phantom presence were drawing on it with eager lips.
Rudy thought, but could not swear, that Beezo’s eyes briefly glowed as bright and red as the cigarette. This could not have been an inner light, of course, but a reflection of…something.
When the echoes of the thunder rolled away, the brownout passed. As the lights rose, so did Rudy rise from his chair.
He had only recently returned here, and although he had received no news about his wife, he was ready to flee back to the grim scene in the intensive care unit rather than experience a third doomsday peal and another dimming of lights in the company of Konrad Beezo.
When he arrived at the ICU 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.