Lois made a fatal mistake. Against Charlene's advice, she moved toward the closed door to the waiting room, believing that the sight of his infant son would quench Beezo's hot anger and ameliorate the intense grief from which his rage had flared.

Herself a refugee from an abusive husband, Charlene had little faith that the grace of fatherhood would temper the fury of any man who, even in a moment of profound loss, responded first and at once with rage and with threats of violence rather than with tears or shock, or denial. Besides, she remembered his hat, worn indoors with no regard for manners. Charlene sensed trouble coming, big trouble.

She retreated with me along the maternity ward's internal hall to the neonatal care unit. As that door was swinging shut behind us, she heard the gunshot that killed Dr. MacDonald.

This room contained rows of bassinets in which newborns were nestled, most dreaming, a few cooing, none yet crying. An enormous view window occupied the better part of one long wall, but no proud fathers or grandparents were currently standing on the other side of it.

With the infants were two creche nurses. They had heard the shouting, then the shot, and they were more receptive to Charlene's advice than Lois had been.

Presciently, Nurse Coleman assured them the gunman wouldn't hurt the babies but warned he would surely kill every member of the hospital staff that he could find.

Nevertheless, before fleeing, each nurse scooped up an infant-and fretted about those they were forced to leave behind. Frightened by a second shot, they followed Charlene through a door beside the view window, out of the maternity ward into the main corridor.

The three, with their charges, took refuge in a room where an elderly man slept on unaware.

A low-wattage night-light did little to press back the gloom, and the flickering storm at the window only made the shadows jitter with in sectile energy.

Quiet, hardly daring to breathe, the three nurses huddled together until Charlene heard sirens in the distance. This welcome wail drew her to the window, which provided a view of the parking lot in front of the hospital; she hoped to see police cars.

Instead, from that second-story room, she saw Beezo with his baby, crossing the rain-washed blacktop. He looked, she said, like a figure in a foul dream, scuttling and strange, like something you might see on the night that the world ended and cracks opened in the foundations of the earth to let loose the angry legions of the damned.

Charlene is a transplanted Mississippian and a Baptist whose soul is filled with the poetry of the South.

Beezo had parked at such a distance that through the screen of rain and under the yellow pall of the sodium-vapor lamps, the make, model, and true color of his car could not be discerned. Charlene watched him drive away, hoping the police would intercept him before he reached the nearby county road, but his taillights dwindled into the drizzling darkness.

With the threat removed, she returned to the delivery room just as Dad's thoughts were flashing from the Lindbergh baby tragedy to Rum-pelstiltskin to Tarzan raised by apes, in time to assure him that I had not been kidnapped by a homicidal clown.

Later my father would confirm that the minute of my birth, my length, and my weight precisely fulfilled the predictions made by my grandfather on his deathbed. His first proof, however, that the events in the intensive care unit were not just extraordinary but supernatural came when, as my mother held me, he folded back the receiving blanket, exposing my feet, and found that my toes were fused as Josef had predicted.

"Syndactyly," Dad said.

"It can be fixed," Charlene assured him. Then her eyes widened with surprise. "How do you know such a doctorish word?"

My father only repeated, "Syndactyly," as he gently, lovingly, and with amazement fingered my fused toes.

Syndactyly is not merely the name of the affliction with which I was born but also the theme of my life for thirty years now. Things often prove to be fused in unanticipated ways. Moments separated by many years are unexpectedly joined, as if the space-time continuum has been folded by some power with either a peculiar sense of humor or an agenda arguably worthwhile but so complex as to be mystifying. People unknown to one another discover that they are bonded by fate as completely as two toes sharing a single sheath of skin.

Surgeons repaired my feet so long ago that I have no slightest memory of the procedures. I walk, I run when I must, I dance but not well.

With all due respect for the memory of Dr. Ferris MacDonald, I never became a football hero and never wished to be one. My family has never had an interest in sports.

We are fans, instead, of puffs, eclairs, tarts, tortes, cakes, trifles, and fans as well of the infamous cheese-and-broccoli pies and the Reuben sandwiches and all the fabulous dishes of table-cracking weight that my mother produces. We will trade the thrills and glory of all the games and tournaments mankind has ever invented for a dinner together and for the conversation and the laughter that runs like a fast tide from the unfolding of our napkins to the final sip of coffee.

Over the years, I have grown from twenty inches to six feet. My weight has increased from eight pounds ten ounces to one hundred eighty-eight pounds, which should prove my contention that I am at most husky, not as large as I appear to be to most people.

The fifth of my grandfather's ten predictions-that everyone would call me Jimmy-has also proved true.

Even on first meeting me, people seem to think that James is too formal to fit and that Jim is too earnest or otherwise inappropriate. Even if I introduce myself as James, and with emphasis, they at once begin addressing me as Jimmy, with complete comfort and familiarity, as though they have known me since my face was postpartum pink and my toes were fused.

As I make these tape recordings with the hope that I may survive to transcribe and edit them, I have lived through four of the five terrible days about which Grandpa Josef warned my father. They were terrible both in the same and in different ways, each day filled with the unexpected and with terror, some marked by tragedy, but they were days filled with much else, as well. Much else.

And now ... one more to go.

My dad, my mom, and I spent twenty years pretending that the accuracy of Josef's first five predictions did not necessarily mean that the next five would be fulfilled. My childhood and teenage years passed uneventfully, presenting no evidence whatsoever that my life was a yo-yo on the string of fate.

Nevertheless, as the first of those five days relentlessly approached- Thursday, September 15,1994-we worried.

Mom's coffee consumption went from ten cups a day to twenty.

She has a curious relationship with caffeine. Instead of fraying her nerves, the brew soothes them.

If she fails to drink her usual three cups during the morning, by noon she will be as fidgety as a frustrated fly buzzing against a windowpane. If she doesn't pour down eight by bedtime, she lies awake, so mentally active that she not only counts sheep by the thousand but also names them and develops an elaborate life story for each.

Dad believes that Maddy's topsy-turvy metabolism is a direct result of the fact that her father was a long-haul trucker who ate No-DOz caffeine tablets as if they were candy.

Maybe so, Mom sometimes answers my father, but what are you complaining about? When we were dating all you had to do was get five or six cheap coffees into me, and I was as pliable as a rubber band.

As September 15, 1994, drew near, my father's worry expressed itself in fallen cakes, curdled custard, rubbery pie crusts, and creme brulee that had a sandy texture. He could not concentrate on his recipes or his ovens.

I believe that I handled the anticipation reasonably well. In the last two days leading up to the first of those five ominous dates, I might have walked into more closed doors than usual, might have tripped more often than is customary for me when climbing the stairs. And I do admit to dropping a hammer on Grandma Rowena's foot while trying to hang a picture for her. But it was her foot, not her head, and the one instance when a trip led to a fall, I only tumbled down a single flight of steps and didn't break anything.

Our worry was kept somewhat in check by the fact that Grandpa Josef had given Dad five "terrible days" in my life, not just one. Obviously, regardless of how grim September 15 might be, I would not die on that day.

"Yes, but there's always the possibility of severed limbs and mutilation," Grandma Rowena cautioned. "And paralysis and brain damage."

She is a sweet woman, my maternal grandmother, but one with too sharp a sense of the fragility of life.

As a child, I had dreaded those occasions when she insisted on reading me to sleep. Even when she didn't revise the classic stories, which she often did, even when the Big Bad Wolf was defeated, as he should have been, Grandma paused at key points in the narrative to muse aloud on the many gruesome things that might have happened to the three little pigs if their defenses had not held or if their strategies had proved faulty. Being ground up for sausages was the least of it.

And so, less than six weeks after my twentieth birthday, came the first of my five ordeals.... PARUTftLQ

Might as Well Die If I Can't Fly


t nine o'clock on the evening of Wednesday, September 14, my parents and I met in their dining room to have as heavy a dinner as we might be able to stand up from without our knees buckling.

We were also gathered to discuss once more the wisest strategies for getting through the fateful day that lay just three hours ahead of me. We hoped that in a prepared and cautious state of mind, I might reach September 16 as unscathed as the three little pigs after their encounter with the wolf.

Grandma Rowena joined us to speak from the point of view of the wolf. That is, she would play the devil's advocate and relate to us what flaws she saw in our precautions.

As always, we took dinner on gold-rimmed Raynaud Limoges china, using sterling-silver flatware by Buccellati.

In spite of what the table setting suggests, my parents are not wealthy,

just securely middle class. Although my father makes a fine salary as a pastry chef, stock options and corporate jets don't come with his position.

My mother earns a modest income working part-time from home, painting pet portraits on commission: mostly cats and dogs, but also rabbits, parakeets, and once a r^nilk snake that came to pose and didn't want to leave.

Their small Victorian house would be called humble if it weren't so cozy that it feels sumptuous. The ceilings are not high and the proportions of the rooms are not grand, but they have been furnished with great care and with an eye to comfort

You can't blame Earl for taking refuge behind the living-room sofa, under the claw-foot tub in the upstairs bath, in a clothes hamper, in the pantry potato basket, and elsewhere during the three interesting weeks that he adopted us. Earl was the milk snake, and the home from which he'd come was a sterile place with stainless-steel-and-black-leather furniture, abstract art, and cactuses for house plants.

Of all the charming corners in this small house where you might read a book, listen to music, or gaze out a many-paned window at a be-jeweled winter day, none is as welcoming as the dining room. This is because to the Tock family, food-and the conviviality that marks our every meal-is the hub that turns the spokes that spin the wheel of life.

Therefore, the luxury of Limoges and Buccellati.

Considering that we are incapable of pulling up a chair to any dinner with less than five courses and that we regard the first four, in which we fully indulge, as mere preparation for the fifth, it is miraculous that none of us is overweight.

Dad once discovered that his best wool suit had grown tight in the waist. He merely skipped lunch three days, and the pants were then loose on him.

Mom's caffeine tolerance is not the most significant curiosity regarding our unusual relationship to food. Both sides of the family, the Tock

side and the Greenwich side (Greenwich being my mother's maiden name), have metabolisms as efficient as that of a hummingbird, a creature which can eat three times its body weight each day and remain light enough to fly.

Mom once suggested that she and my father had been instantly attracted to each other in part because of a subliminal perception that they were metabolic royalty.

The dining room features a coffered mahogany ceiling, mahogany wainscoting, and a mahogany floor. Silk moire walls and a Persian carpet soften all the wood.

There is a blown-glass chandelier with pendant crystals, but dinner is always served by candlelight.

On this special night in September of 1994, the candles were numerous and squat, set in small but not shallow cut-crystal bowls, some clear and others ruby-red, which fractured the light into soft prismatic patterns on the linen tablecloth, on the walls, and on our faces. Candles were placed not only on the table but also on the sideboards.

Had you glanced in through a window, you might have thought not that we were at dinner but that we were conducting a seance, with food provided to keep us entertained until at last the ghosts showed up.

Although my parents had prepared my favorite dishes, I tried not to think of it as the condemned man's last meal.

Five properly presented courses cannot be eaten on the same schedule as a McDonald's Happy Meal, especially not with carefully chosen wines. We were prepared for a long evening together.

Dad is the head pastry chef for the world-famous Snow Village Resort, a position he inherited from his father, Josef. Because all breads and pastries must be fresh each day, he goes to work at one o'clock in the morning at least five and often six days a week. By eight, with the baking for the entire day complete, he comes home for breakfast with Mom, then sleeps until three in the afternoon.

That September, I also worked those hours because I had been an apprentice baker for two years at the same resort. The Tock family believes in nepotism.

Dad says it's not really nepotism if your talent is real. Give me a good oven, and I am a wicked competitor.

Funny, but I am never clumsy in a kitchen. When baking, I am Gene Kelly, I am Fred Astaire, I am grace personified.

Dad would be going from our late dinner to work, but I would not. In preparation for the first of the five days in Grandpa Josef's prediction, I had taken a week's vacation.

Our starter course was sou bourek, an Armenian dish. Numerous paper-thin layers of pasta are separated by equally thin layers of butter and cheese, finished with a golden crust.

I still lived with my folks in those days, so Dad said, "You should stay home from midnight to midnight. Hide out. Nap, read, watch a little TV."

"Then what'll happen," Grandma Rowena imagined, "is that he'll fall down the stairs and break his neck."

"Don't use the stairs," Mom advised. "Stay in your room, honey. I can bring your meals to you."

"So then the house will burn down," Rowena said.

"Now, Weena, the house won't burn down," Dad assured her. "The electrical wiring is sound, the furnace is brand new, both fireplace chimneys were recently cleaned, there's a grounded lightning rod on the roof, and Jimmy doesn't play with matches."