On the night that I was born, my paternal grand-father, 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
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.
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.
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
I find this notion ludicrous. It is bullshit born of love.
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.
also told her that I would be born at 10:46 p.m. and that I would suffer from
That is a word difficult to pronounce before a stroke, let alone
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.
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,
"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
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.
z 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
Rudy stood birth watch with only one other man, not a local
but a performer 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.
say there is no such thing as destiny, that what happens just happens, without
purpose or meaning. Konrad's surname would argue otherwise.
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
Evidently the aerialists kept their distance also because they had not
approved of one of their kind taking a clown for a husband. Every subculture and
ethnicity has its objects of bigotry.
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
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.
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.
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."
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?"
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."