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"That I'm a love god?"

"Guys who think they're love gods are arrogant twits. You ... you're a snuggle puppy, but if I'd died without telling you that, I wouldn't have had any regrets."

"If I'd died without hearing it, I'd have been okay, too."

"You know," she said, "parents and children and love come in some strange combinations. I mean, your parents can love you and you can know they love you, and you can love them, and still grow up so lonely that you feel... hollow."

I hadn't expected a revelation this serious. I knew it was a genuine revelation because I understood what her next words inevitably must be.

She said, "Love isn't enough. Your parents have to know how to relate

to you, and to each other. They have to want to be with you more than with anyone else. They have to love being home more than anywhere in the world, and they have to be more interested in you than in ..."

"Snakes and tornadoes," I suggested.

"God, I love them. They're nice, Jimmy, they really are, and they mean well. But they live inside themselves more than not, and they keep their doors closed. You see them mostly through windows."

The tremor in her voice grew as she spoke, and when she paused, I said, "You are a treasure, Lorrie Lynn."

"You grew up with everything I wanted so bad, everything that I dreamed of having. Your folks live for you and for each other, for family. So does Weena in her own way. It's bliss, Jimmy. And I'm so damned grateful that you all let me in."

Under her admirable toughness, under the armor of her beauty and her wit, my wife is a tender spirit and might have been a shy wallflower if she had not chosen, instead, to make herself into a survivor, and a survivor with style.

Under my less than tough exterior, I am mushy. Mucho mushy. I have been known to cry at the sight of roadkill.

Her words rendered me incapable of speech. If I had tried to talk, I would have teared up. Piloting the Explorer toward the crest, I dared not risk blurred vision.

Fortunately, she picked up her next thread of thought and, with firmer voice, continued to weave the conversation without me. "You can't know what a joy it's going to be for me, Jimmy, to raise our kids the way that you were raised, to give them the gift of Maddy and Rudy and Weena, to bring them up in a family so close that they can find in it the deepest meaning of their lives."

We were two or three switchbacks from the summit.

She said, "We've never discussed how many children we're going to have. Right now I'm thinking maybe five. What about you-are you thinking five?"

I found my voice. "I always thought three, but after that little speech, I'm thinking twenty."

"Let's make the decision five at a time."

"Deal," I said. "One almost out of the oven, four left to bake."

"Two girls and three boys," she wondered, "or three girls and two boys?

"Is that really our decision?"

"I believe we shape our own reality by positive thinking. I'm sure we could positive-think ourselves any combination we wanted, although for ideal balance we should have two girls, two boys, and one hermaphrodite."

"That might be taking balance too far."

"Oh, Jimmy, no kids will ever have been loved more than these are going to be loved."

"But they won't be spoiled," I said.

"Damn right they won't, the little brats. Their Great-Grandma Rowena can read them fairy tales. That'll keep them on the straight and narrow."

She talked and talked, and soon I saw that she had wisely talked us through the dread and the danger of the climb, to the top of the slope and Hawksbill Road.

We arrived on Hawksbill Road twenty feet in front of the parked Hummer. We churned across a recently compacted high curb of snow, onto the southbound lane, which had been scraped almost to the bare blacktop.

Immediately to the south of us, a highway department crew in two vehicles was carving a passage to town through the storm. A road grader on immense knobby tires, fitted with an angled plow, led the way, trailed by a truck spreading salt and cinders in its wake.

I followed the truck at a safe distance. A police escort could have gotten us to town no quicker in this mean weather.

The night sky hid behind the shedding snow, and the wind was revealed only by the white shrouds that it wound about itself and whirled, and flapped, and billowed.

Also unseen but not for long, the baby made known its impatience to be free from nine months of confinement. Lorrie's contractions had become regular. By her wristwatch, she timed them, and by her groans

and louder cries, I knew the intervals and willed the road crew to move faster.

Suffering people frequently curse their pain. For some reason we seem to believe that acute agony can be managed by injections of obscenities. Lorrie allowed not one such word to cross her lips that night.

I can testify that in ordinary times she is capable of treating a cut or a contusion with a verbal blue streak more astringent than iodine. Birth night was not an ordinary time.

She said that she didn't curse the pain because the baby, as it made its entrance, might think it wasn't wanted in the world.

That our child might be born with advanced language skills had not crossed my mind. I accepted her concern as legitimate-and loved her for it.

When groans and grunts and wordless cries did not satisfy her urge to express the effect of her pangs, she resorted for the baby's sake to words that described some of the world's beauty and bounty.

"Strawberries, sunflowers, seashells," she said, hissing out the sibilants with such vehemence that someone who spoke no English would have been convinced that she had wished pestilence, disease, and damnation on a hated enemy.

By the time that we reached town and then Snow County Hospital, Lorrie's water had not yet broken, but it seemed instead to be coming out of her through every pore. This labor, as surely as chopping wood or digging a trench, wrung rivers of sweat from her. She unzipped her parka, then stripped it off. She was soaked.

I parked at the emergency entrance, rushed inside, and returned in a minute with an orderly and a wheelchair.

The orderly, a freckled young man named Cory, thought Lorrie had descended into delirium when, trading Explorer for wheelchair, she snarled in rapid succession, "Geraniums, Coca-Cola, kittens, snow geese, Christmas cakes and cookies," with such fervency that she scared him.

On the way inside I explained to him about welcoming the baby to

the world by trading curses for words of beauty and bounty, but I think I only succeeded in making him a little afraid of me, too.

I couldn't accompany Lorrie directly to the maternity ward in part because I had to present our insurance card to the clerk at the admissions desk at the back of the ER waiting lounge. I kissed her, and she squeezed my hand hard enough to crack my knuckles and said, "Maybe not twenty."

A nurse joined the orderly, and together they wheeled Lorrie toward the elevators.

As they rolled her out of sight, I heard her say with singular intensity, "Crepes Suzette, dafouti, gateau a Vorange, souffle au chocolate."

I supposed that if our baby might be born with a command of English, it might also know French and might already anticipate a career as a pastry chef.

While the admissions clerk Xeroxed my insurance card and began to fill out two pounds of registration forms, I used her phone to call Huey Foster. He was my father's friend from childhood, the failed baker who had become a cop.

From Huey, Dad had received the free pass to the circus on the back of which he had written the five terrible days in my life. We didn't hold that against Huey.

He worked nights, and I caught him at the station house. When I told him about Konrad Beezo, fugitive murderer and would-be baby bandit, shackled to a tree in the woods about three to four hundred yards downhill and west of his parked Hummer, Huey said, "That's state trooper jurisdiction. I'll get 'em right on it. I'll go with 'em. After all these years, I want to personally put the cuffs on that crazy bastard."

Next I called my folks to tell them only that we were at the hospital and that Lorrie was in labor.

"I'm painting a potbelly pig," Mom said, "but that can wait. We'll be there quick as we can."

"It's not necessary for you to come in this weather."

"Sweetie, if it was raining scorpions and cow pies, we'd still come, though we wouldn't like it much. It'll take us a while because we first have to get Weena into her snowsuit. You know what an ordeal she'll make of that, but we'll be there."

I was still a relatively young man when the admissions clerk finished filling out forms for me to sign, and from her desk I went up to the maternity ward.

The expectant-fathers' lounge had been remodeled since the night that I gave my mother such a hard time being born. The flamboyance of cheerful clashing colors had been replaced by gray carpet, pale-gray walls, and black leatherette chairs, as though the hospital directors had reached a consensus that in the intervening twenty-four years, all the joy had gone out of parenthood.

The admissions clerk had phoned ahead to advise that I was en route. A nurse showed me to a lavatory, where I washed up according to instructions and changed into hospital greens; then I was taken to my wife.

Lorrie's water had not yet broken, but all the signs pointed to an impending birth. Therefore, and because no other pregnant women had been reckless enough to go into labor in a blizzard, she had been prepared quickly in her assigned room and conveyed to Delivery.

When I entered, a heavyset red-haired nurse was taking Lorrie's blood pressure, and Dr. Mello Melodeon, our physician, was listening to her heart through a stethoscope.

Mello is as solid as any football fullback, as personable as a popular tavern owner whose charm keeps the bar stools filled, and a mensch. Judging by his fine name, his skin the color of raisins, his relaxed manner, and his mellifluous voice, you might think he had once been a Jamaican Rastafarian who had traded dreadlocks and reggae for a career in medicine. Instead, he'd been born in Atlanta and came from a family of professional gospel singers.

Finished with the stethoscope, he said, "Jimmy, how come when Rachel makes your chocolate apple lattice tart, it doesn't taste like yours?"

Rachel was his wife.

I said, "Where'd she get the recipe?"

"The resort gives it out if you ask. We ate at the restaurant out there last week."

"She should have asked me. That's the original resort recipe, but I've modified it. Mainly, I've added a tablespoon of vanilla and another of nutmeg."

"The nutmeg I understand, but vanilla in a chocolate tart?"

"That's the secret," I guaranteed him.

"Yoo-hoo, I'm here," Lorrie reminded us.

I took her hand. "And you're not snarling about crepes Suzette and dafouti."

"Because of an even more beautiful word," she said. "Epidural. Isn't that a beautiful word?"

"So let me get this straight-you just add vanilla to the filling?" Mello asked.

"It's not in the filling. It's in the dough."

"In the dough," he repeated, nodding sagely.

Lorrie said, "Anybody want a website designed? That's what I do. I design websites. And make babies."

"Website design is interesting, dear," Mello Melodeon assured her, "but it'll never be as interesting as what Jimmy does. You can't eat a website."

"You can't eat a baby, either," she said, "but I'd rather have one than a chocolate apple lattice tart."

"I don't see why you can't have both," Mello said, "although not simultaneously."

Grimacing, clutching two handfuls of the sheet that was draped over her, she said, "I need more epidural."

"As your doctor, I'll make that determination. It's to relieve the pain, not eliminate it entirely."

To me, she said, "I knew we should have gotten a real doctor."

To me, Mello said, "So do you add the vanilla to the ingredients the same time you add the cocoa?"

"No. That's too early. Add it right before the egg yolks."

"Before the egg yolks," he repeated, impressed by this culinary tactic.

And so the conversation went until Lorrie's water broke. Then she was unquestionably the center of attention.

Lorrie and I had agreed: no video camera. She thought filming the blessed event would be tacky. I thought it would be beyond my mechanical abilities.

Nevertheless, I wanted to be present in part to share the joy and to welcome our firstborn, but also to prove to Grandma Rowena that I would not pass out, fall on my face, and break my nose, as she insisted that I would.

No sooner had Lorrie's water broken, however, than a nurse in squeaky shoes entered the delivery room as if with a chorus of mice, to announce there was an important telephone call for me. Captain Huey Foster, of the Snow Village Police Department, urgently needed to speak with me.

"I'll be back in a minute," I told Lorrie. "Hold everything."

"Yeah, right."

I took the call on the phone at the nurses' station. "What's up, Huey?"

"He's gone."


"Who do you think? Beezo."

"He can't be gone. You haven't found the right tree."

"Excuse me, Jimmy, but I'd bet you my left ass cheek there's not more than one tree out there decorated with a tow cable and a torn-up coat with sheepskin lining."

Add up all the times my heart had sunk that night, and you were at the depth of the Titanic.

"He couldn't use his hands," I said. "They were behind him. I had him trussed up tight. What the hell did he do-chew his way out of the coat?"

"Almost looks like it."

The black Hummer had been parked along Hawksbill Road exactly where I had told them to look for it.

"By the way," Huey said, "we already learned it was stolen twelve days ago in Las Vegas."

A police search team had descended through the woods, following the Explorer's original trail. When they discovered that Beezo had escaped, they had considered calling in a bloodhound team; but the weather argued against it.

"He won't get far in this cold without a coat," Huey predicted. "After the spring thaw, we'll find him as dead as the dinosaurs."

"Not this one," I said shakily. "This one is ... different. He's like the clown in a jack-in-the-box, he just keeps popping up."

"He ain't supernatural."