Kinford Plack presses on the arms of his recliner, totters to a stand, and picks up his glass. With a shuffle befitting a man of his advanced years, he enters the kitchen and pours the contents of the glass, now just a few ice shards swimming in a pale brown liquid, on top of the mounded dishes in the sink. If you stood behind him, you would see the top two inches of his butt crack above the sagging waistline of his stained, baggy jeans that puddle on the floor atop his old, thin slippers. You might worry he would trip, and tell him to pull his pants up. But he won’t trip. Kinford knows the feel of the pants around his feet; he knows how to shuffle inside them and not get tangled on their edges. He’s fallen, of course, but never because of his pants.
His refrigerator is old and covered with photographs, most with curled edges starting to yellow. He couldn’t tell you who the people are – the young dark-haired girl in a blue prom dress, a middle-aged man hugging a German shepherd, four little girls dressed in red velvet sitting in front of a silver Christmas tree, but that doesn’t matter. The pictures were there when she was. A half-gallon of strawberry ice cream occupies the freezer section along with eight ice trays, two bins and an ice-maker. He puts four cubes in his glass.
A nearly empty bottle of Jameson sits on the cluttered counter next to his pill holders. His daughter gave him the containers on her last visit, showing him how each day was indicated by a red or blue letter, blue for a.m., red for p.m. as if he were an idiot. He had told her he could handle his own pills although he had to admit the large lettering was easier to see. He looks at them now. He thought it was Tuesday but the compartment with the red “T” has pills in it. So does the red “M,” but the red “W” is empty. He takes Thursday’s pills with a shot of whiskey, refills his glass, and shuffles back to his chair. He breathes deeply as he leans back and sets his glass on the marble end table so his hand can reach to rub the thin layer of skin covering his heart. The pains are strong today.
Kinford pushes the up arrow on his remote and flicks through the channels until he settles on KSN#32, the station his daughter calls the twenty-four hour “J.A.G.” channel. The episode is one he’s seen. He pushes the down arrow, scrolling back to ABC to see if the football game has started, then goes back to 32. His mind drifts, the “J.A.G.” soundtrack providing background for the disconnected images and half-formed thoughts dissolving into one another as his eyes roll back. If you were there, you’d see only white orbs like those of the shadow dwellers in Night of the Living Dead, and you would want to nudge him and tell him to close his eyes. The pain, at first, is part of his dream, then it strengthens and wakes him. He stares at the television and reaches for his glass.
On a shelf next to the marble table that holds his drink, a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, resplendent in a robe of painted green with long light brown hair curling over his arm and the beginnings of a smile on his handsome nose-less face, stands guard over a montage of photos. If Kinford thought about the statue, he would remember the accident—the lighting of the votive candle and quick involuntary jerk when the match scorched her finger, the statue tumbling, face first into the brick hearth. She had gasped in alarm, he would remember, quickly righted the saint, then picked up the nose and watched it turn to dust in her fingers. He had offered to buy a new one, but she had refused and the nose-less statue had been there since, looking like another victim of Michael Jackson’s surgeon. A woman arrives every week, hired by his daughter against his wishes, to dust, clean the floors and change the linens. You might wonder what she thinks of the shrine – the statue surrounded by black and white photos of a much younger Kinford, handsome in his dress white uniform, pride emanating from his face as he stands next to a beautiful dark-haired woman in an elegant wedding gown, its train pooled around her feet, her lips the same red as the roses she carries, even in black and white. You might wonder if the cleaning woman serviced other homes with similar shrines, but Kinford doesn’t wonder. He doesn’t notice the shrine any longer. It’s been there eleven years.
He turns back to ABC and watches the Budweiser Clydesdales pull a cart of beer down a winding country lane before he pushes himself to a stand, sets his glass on the counter and shuffles down the short hall to the bathroom. His daughter claims he wouldn’t get any exercise at all but for the heart pill that causes these frequent trips. Tired of her always being right, he had lied, claiming to spend fifteen minutes a day riding the rusty exercise bike she’d given him twenty years before. “How?” she asked. “It’s jammed behind the desk in the guest room.”
“I pull it out when I use it,” he claimed, aware of the implausibility of his response but unable to stop. “Then I put it back.”
“I could bring it down,” she offered. “You could ride it while you watch TV.”
Kinford braces himself against the wall with his right hand as he flushes the toilet with his left, and jiggles the handle in a futile attempt to silence the constant hiss of running water. As he straightens, the room spins and he reaches for the support of the blue scalloped sink, banging his knee on the cupboard below. He breathes deeply, steeling himself for the pain, and glances at the picture on the wall – an 8 x 10 cartoon of a smiling woman, “Eva” painted in bright colors across her cheerleader sweater, caught in mid-air a la Jordan while a featureless crowd cheers from the bleachers. “Cancer is a Slam Dunk,” is written across the bottom. Where did that come from, he wonders. Kinford looks around the room, puzzled by the blue and gold wallpaper, the mirror framed with shells, the bottle of lotion on the counter and the space outside the door. If you were there, you’d see the confusion and fear in his bloodshot eyes, then watch relief wash over them as his horizontal hold rights his world. He runs cold water across his hands, then dries them on a hand towel faintly patterned with seagulls.
He uses the maple buffet to steady himself, his left hand gliding along its surface, skillfully avoiding the array of framed photos, mail, and Knights of Columbus raffle tickets promising a 19” color television. In the kitchen, he takes a handful of cubes from the ice bin, then fills the remainder of the glass with the last of the Jameson. The players are lined up for the kick-off and Kinford watches the arc of the ball and the catch at the twenty-yard line before settling back in his chair and raising the glass to his lips. On the first play, Patrick Ramsey sends the ball soaring like a heat-seeking missile into the waiting hands of Laverneous Coles, putting the Redskins in touchdown territory and sending the boisterous fans into orbit. Kinford points to the television during the replay. “Watch,” he says as he turns to the couch. Finding it empty, he looks behind, past the kitchen and dining area, down the hall to the door. He turns to the sofa once more, his glance lingering, then he reaches for the glass.
At half-time, he goes to the pantry and pushes aside the bottles of cheap Chardonnay his daughter left on her last visit, until he finds the Jameson tucked behind a can of tomato juice. He carries the bottle to the kitchen, finds a spot for it on the counter, and opens the cabinet above, revealing an array of mismatched glasses, many showing the cloudy ravages of years of dishwasher soap and sea air. His daughter had tried, more than once, to rid the cabinet of its more unappealing tenants, but Kinford had insisted she leave it alone. “I need them when people come over,” he explained. His daughter said nothing. If you were there, she might take you aside and confide her doubts that anyone is coming over – ever. Since her mother’s funeral, there had been progressively fewer knocks at the door and a diminishing need for clean glasses. I love him, she’d say, but he is a difficult man to like. Surveying his cache, Kinford picks one he hasn’t used in a while and pours in four fingers of whiskey. He adds ice and returns to the recliner.
The cheering of the crowd wakes him and he watches as the audience jockeys for Leno’s hand. At the first commercial, he turns down the sound and carries his empty glass to the sink, setting it somewhat precariously on top of a frying pan white with congealed grease. He switches off the fluorescent tube illuminating the pile of dishes, leaving only the glow of the television to guide his way to the bedroom.
A convoy of blond children on brightly colored bicycles are preventing Kinford from crossing the narrow dirt road. Each time he tries, another bike rounds the bend, forcing him to pull his foot back. Then a rider stops--a freckle-faced boy, about ten, wearing a red striped T-shirt. He looks at Kinford and laughs. The child’s thumb reaches for the lever below the silver bell on his handlebar. Trinnngggg! The boy pedals away, leaving the road empty except for the sound. Trinnnggg! Kinford checks both directions and hesitantly steps onto the dirt. He’s halfway when the storm of color and noise barrels towards him. Trinnnggg! He tells his feet to run, to propel him across the road or back the way he came, but he can’t make them move. Looking down, he sees roots protruding from his soles, snaking into the dirt, attaching him firmly to the soil. Trinnnggg! He can see the grins on the children’s faces.
Kinford wakes covered with sweat, his heart beating rapidly. With a shaky hand, he reaches for a green ceramic bowl sitting amidst the tissues clustered on the night table, extracts a small white nitroglycerine tablet and places it beneath his tongue, willing it to take effect.
“Dad, where are you?” he hears his daughter ask.
“Dad?….Can you hear me?” Kinford nods slightly.
“You’d better call me the minute you get this message.”
When his grip on the blanket has eased, Kinford sits on the bed’s edge with his face in his hands, eyes closed, hoping to thwart the impending nausea. He takes several deep breaths before looking at the blinking light on the gray speaker mounted next to the bed. Another gift from his daughter – Kinford’s world reduced to two buttons, white or red. He pushes the white one.
“Where were you?” she demands.
“What were you doing out there? It’s freezing!”
“I was exercising.”
“Outside? What were you doing?”
“Marching in place,” he says, and listens to her long sigh.
“What are you going to do today?” she asks, just like every other day.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“There’s nothing to do.”
“Well, do something, Dad, don’t just do nothing.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Sometimes Kinford wished she wouldn’t call at all.
He eats his usual breakfast -- a banana followed by a handful of confetti-colored pills taken with a glass of orange juice -- and watches a middle-aged woman with red drugstore hair spin the wheel for her chance at the Bob Barker showcase. She gets 80 cents, ignores Kinford’s advice to stay put, and spins again – 25 cents. “Too greedy!” he admonishes. The showcase spot goes to a college boy who stops at 75. No longer interested in the outcome, Kinford retrieves his mail then settles on a stool at the counter with a Miller Lite. Along with the usual bills and pre-approved credit card offers are two letters from realtors and one from St. Lukes Catholic Church. He rips the realtors’ envelopes in half and tosses them into a plastic grocery bag. “Vultures,” he says. The envelope from the church contains a flyer announcing a bus trip to Atlantic City. He has no intention of going but clips it to his calendar where his daughter can see it.
That afternoon, the ice enters Wilkamen Bay in slabs, floating past the redwood porch without fanfare as Kinford nods in his recliner behind the sliding glass door. If you were there, you’d see the first arrivals’ journey end at the dock wall, then watch the others fill available space, creating a white mosaic as far as the eye can see. You might think it was a truly amazing and beautiful thing, or you might see only cold, hear only quiet. The blinding light of the sun on its surface draws Kinford from sleep, and he stares from his upholstered perch. She hated the ice, he remembers. She was happiest when the beach town was alive, when cool evening breezes invited deck sitting over an evening cocktail, and the air was full of laughter and smells of barbecue. When winter came, she would withdraw into the house, entertaining herself with the latest novel from the public library, tucked into a corner of the sofa while he watched whatever ball was moving across the screen. She was saddest when the ice floated in, heightening her sense of solitude, making her feel like a vacationer who failed to return home. Kinford had been ambivalent about the ice. Now he looks at it with disdain. In the kitchen, he fills a glass half full of Jameson, adds ice, and returns to the door. Standing in the white glare, he raises his glass in a toast, empties it, and blocks out both the brightness and the memories with a pull on the drapery cord.
By dark, the Jameson bottle is near empty and Kinford looks with panic at the clock. In his rolodex, oversized with the names and numbers written in large letters by his daughter, he flips to “L.”
“ Lou, it’s Kinford.”
“Kinford, how are you?”
“Good, Lou. Good. Hey, could your boy make a delivery?”
“Of course. How many?”
“Two. Two should do it.”
“He’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Thanks, Lou. Appreciate it.”
While he waits, he browses the containers his daughter left in the refrigerator, finally removing a green one labeled Friday. Inside he finds a big slice of meatloaf, ketchup oozed down its side, along with a portion of soft, slippery green beans. He scrapes the beans into the trashcan by the sink and, with a white plastic fork from the counter, begins eating the cold meat. When the doorbell rings, he sets it aside and pulls three twenties from a drawer.
“Good evening, Mr. Plack.”
Kinford nods and exchanges the money for the brown bag in the young man’s hand.
“I hope you have a pleasant evening, Mr. Plack.”
Kinford nods again and shuts the door. The phone rings as he enters the kitchen.
“Dad, how did you like the chicken?”
“Wait a minute,” he says, pushing aside a stack of newspapers, and depositing the brown bag in their place. “Okay, what?”
“I asked if you liked the chicken.”
“What chicken? I’m eating meatloaf.”
“The meatloaf is for Friday. The chicken was for today.” Kinford picks up the green container and stares at the label with squinted eyes.
“I know, but I felt like meatloaf,” he claims.
“Oh. Well, did you like the beans? I made them with herb butter.”
“Yes. They were wonderful.”
When she’s gone back to the life she has without him, Kinford searches the stack of papers for the morning’s edition. With a magnifier, he checks the date – Tuesday – then he looks at his pills. The red container is full but so is the blue. He must have forgotten them this morning. Two at a time, they enter his esophagus and surf on the waves of whiskey that follow.
The meatloaf gone, Kinford selects a clean glass, this one insulated plastic with red-nosed reindeer bouncing between the layers, and fills it with the remainder of the bottle. With freshened drink, he returns to the recliner. He gasps as he settles back. His hand makes small comforting circles over his chest as he watches Vanna turn letters, then his head drops against the cushion and his lashes flicker until his sightless eyes stare at nothing.
He’s ready when the game begins, bladder empty, glass full. The ‘Skins’ win the toss and elect to receive. When a yellow flag is thrown on the first play and a huddle of refs, coaches, and players gather at the field’s edge in heated dispute, Kinford’s thoughts drift and soon take him away from the TV. He is awakened by the voice of a former athlete-turned announcer exclaiming, “Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we have a tied game here! Would you have thought coming into this game, the ‘Skins’ would have needed to pull this team into overtime?” the voice asks Kinford, who stares blankly in reply. The ice has melted behind the reindeer and Kinford is pushing himself from the chair when he realizes the reading light is on over the sofa. He turns to the dark-haired woman tucked into the corner, her sock-encased feet protruding from the green, white and gold crocheted afghan covering her lap, her gaze focused intently on the book she holds, its title obscured by her pale fingers.
“I didn’t expect you tonight,” he tells her. “I know how you hate the ice.”
If you were there, you’d see the smile on his face as he settles back in the chair and returns to the screen.