My wife told me we'd be going to Brackenridge Park on Wednesday evening because Sid had hired a clown. Our Wednesday evenings at Brackenridge Park had been a regular event over previous summers. Bess's mother would pick Junior up from school, and Bess herself would come home from work, and we would all meet at the park to watch Sid run and to cheer him on. Every Wednesday runners from all over San Antonio would meet to run two miles through the woodland surrounding the park between half past six and seven; and Sid was always amongst them. For innumerable reasons we had fallen out of the habit this year, although Sid was still there every week, and this time he'd hired a clown.
'Why has he hired a clown?' I asked.
'To keep the kids entertained,' Bess told me.
It seemed as good a reason as any, so I didn't give it any further thought.
Sid is probably the closest I have to a father-in-law. My wife's biological father is still alive, but the two of them have had a chequered history. He separated from Bess's mother a couple of years after the birth of their two children, and eventually ended up getting remarried to Johnny Cash's cousin. My wife still speaks to him, although they've never really been what you would call close. Bess's elder brother on the other hand won't even acknowledge the fellow's existence. I met him once, but the last couple of years have not been kind. He didn't understand who I was, and he didn't even seem to recognise his own daughter. He has good days and bad days, and that was one of the latter.
Sid isn't really my father-in-law. Aside from the above, he and Bess's mother never married, and to be honest I'm not even sure quite what shape their relationship has taken over the years and I'm not inclined to pry. What is certain is that he has been a good friend to the family, and that everyone thinks he's great. My wife has a theory that she was initially coaxed into running as a pastime in the hope that it would soak up some of the excess energy which made her such a lively child. Whilst it's debatable whether this actually worked, it instilled in her a lifelong appreciation of running, and by association a generally high standard of health. Sid took Bess under his wing when she was about eight and got her running regular marathons, and he did the same for her brother who memorably aced the full 26.2 miles in three hours and ten seconds at the age of ten, beating Sid's own personal best of three hours and twenty-nine seconds. Sid, now into his seventies, continues to run, having been a runner all his life, and has been known to finish the two mile Brackenridge Park circuit in thirteen minutes.
I first encountered Sid three years ago when I came to live here. It was a memorable experience, although we barely exchanged a word when we first met one afternoon at the IHOP restaurant on Broadway. Being from rural Warwickshire in England, I don't have a wide experience of Jewish people beyond a few isolated individuals and whatever I've picked up from the media. Whilst I'm aware that this will probably sound ridiculous to some, just as it now does to me, I never imagined that Texas would have any sort of significant Jewish population, but it turns out that it does. The only reason this makes any difference at all is because this made Sid appear quite exotic to my eyes, as I suppose I may also have done to his. He seemed characteristically Texan in most respects, improbably tall and with a tendency to deliver slow, thoughtful sentences punctuated by lengthy, possibly contemplative pauses. Contrary to the image fostered by all those John Wayne films, there is gentle quality to the stereotypically huge Texan male, and it is a quality one might not have any good reason to anticipate; but as I have found again and again, nothing in this state is ever quite as it may appear from the other side of the border. Hollywood Texans will be brash and demonstrative, but the reality is that most of the year is far too hot for such nonsense, and I've yet to meet any significant quota of Texans so insecure that they feel a need to live up to the bullish stereotype.
Sid has therefore been the most characteristically Texan man I've thus far met in many respects, and he's also Jewish, which makes him immediately interesting and exotic from my point of view; although it's difficult to quite say why this should be without my worrying that it will sound a bit weird. Never mind.
We arrived at the park, myself, my wife, and Junior. We fed the ducks, and then wandered around to the trestle tables set up for the runners who, finishing the two miles, would soon come along for water or soda or something to eat. There weren't too many people yet, but there were some younger children and the clown.
'Sid hired Daisy Bee!' my wife exclaimed, incredulous.
'What language are you talking?'
She indicated the woman in the face paint and huge red shoes presently bending colourful balloons into animal shapes. 'That's Daisy Bee. She costs a fortune. We hired her for your second birthday, do you remember?'
My wife now glanced back at her son, who didn't remember and so shook his head. I didn't remember either, all of this having been before my time.
'She costs a fortune?'
'Like a couple of hundred dollars, but she's very good.'
We took to a bench as the first of the runners arrived, exhausted but happy to have crossed the finish line. The notion that Sid had splashed out on a top of the range clown just for the random entertainment of what was presently only a handful of children began to seem a little thin, and particularly given all the hot-dogs presently being barbecued, and the big, square birthday cake on the table.
It had been Sid's birthday the week before, but it seemed he had decided to celebrate tonight, here and in the park. Being Sid, this was a detail he had neglected to mention. Always the man of mystery.
More and more runners arrived, swelling slowly to a crowd. We looked over towards the finish line hoping to see Sid - head and shoulders above everyone else - just as it had been when our Wednesday evening at the park had been a regular fixture. It was getting dark, and although we couldn't see him, his name bobbed up from the hubbub of conversation.
Daisy Bee was now making balloon parasols, shrieking away to a growing flock of giggling children. 'I don't know what he looks like,' she told one of the runners as she worked the balloons. 'All I know is some guy called Sid hired me.'
The sound of the crowd swelled on a moment of excitement. Sid had been spotted. We looked over towards the trees and saw a tall man. Somebody had stuck a large novelty pimp hat upon his head, all floppy dayglo felt and feathers. He came towards the tables at his usual leisurely post-athletic pace to a wave of applause. It was like being backstage at a rock concert, but with running as the medium which had brought us together. Everyone loves Sid, I thought to myself.
By the time we'd made our way through his crowd of fans and admirers, he'd already swapped his flamboyant hat for an elaborate Daisy Bee creation, something like a papal mitre in coloured balloons.
'Mr. Burton,' Sid smiled and observed the usual lengthy pause before concluding the greeting. 'Glad you all could make it.'
'Happy birthday, Sid,' we told him.
We talked a while amongst the chaos of backs slapped and cake passed across shoulders on paper plates. Sid introduced us to Mark, his nephew who had come all the way from Memphis to be here this evening; and he introduced us to everybody else as his family; and I'd never really considered it before, but I guess we were.
Everyone loves Sid.