After cancer had finally taken his wife, Max hoped it wouldn’t be long before something would take him, too. He made an off-hand comment to her the day before she died that he thought his own time was about up, and she calmly but firmly told him he wasn’t going anywhere until he finished his chores. He attributed this odd remark to her medication or maybe as a sign that her previously razor sharp mind was finally dulling. But who was he to judge that? Even during her year-and-a-half long illness, May had remained the stronger of the two and was the rock of their little household. In recent years he had grown more aware of his own limitations, but he still always managed to quip that although he knew the better part of his body was strewn over his 120 acres of farmland, he wasn’t sure where his mind had gone. Facing life without May for the first time in 68 years, his little joke didn’t seem so funny anymore.
The couple had three sons together. None of them wanted anything to do with the family farm (Max had often sardonically lamented that he wished he could have had a son stupid enough to want to take over), and they had all moved out of state. They got together after May’s funeral to discuss what to do with their dad, and the eldest son Barry invited Max to come live with his family in Indiana. Max politely declined that offer and rejected his second suggestion of the retirement home in Des Moines even more quickly than Barry imagined he would. But Max eventually saw the wisdom of the boys’ final idea of selling the farm ten miles north of Greene Center and moving to town.
Max liked the little two-bedroom house two blocks from downtown more than he thought he would. His main loop from the bedroom to the living room to the kitchen to the bathroom could be covered with minimal pain and effort on most days. Barry had purchased a new television and a satellite dish for Max so he could watch the farm programming on RFD and the Cubs on WGN. Barry had arranged for the grocery store to deliver every other week, so Max didn’t really need to get out of the house much if he couldn’t or didn’t want to. While he had settled into a tolerable existence, life was gray and spiritless without May.
The scattered, thin strips of tall grass between rows was evidence that Ed was paying more attention to his nine-year-old son Kenny than he was the mowing. Kenny was whipping tennis balls against the side of the brick house and fielding the rebounds. Kenny had just come to live with Ed a few weeks earlier when Ed’s ex-wife had to leave the country unexpectedly. Living the vagabond lifestyle of his ne’er-do-well mom had made Kenny cynical and withdrawn. He didn’t make friends easily and had gotten into a lot of trouble at the many schools to which his mom had dragged him. Ed was having trouble connecting with Kenny since he arrived, but he knew it would take some time to crack the veneer Kenny had manufactured to deflect the pain caused by his mother’s inadequate tutelage.
Ed had noticed that Max had been sitting out on his stoop in a lawn chair turned toward Kenny, seemingly enjoying the action. Ed was glad to see Max out of the house. He had met him a few weeks earlier, and, after talking to Barry right after he had moved his dad in, had been checking in with him occasionally just to see if everything was okay.
When one of Kenny’s errant throws went bounding into Max’s yard, Ed hoped the old man would not try to retrieve it. Ed was amazed when instead of trying to field the grounder, the old man reached out his cane with one hand, took a short, choppy swing at the bouncing ball, and whacked it on a hard line back toward Kenny. Kenny moved quickly to his left, lunged, and snagged the ball just before it hit the ground. Ed was pleased with Kenny’s fine play, and saw that Max was, too. He smiled broadly, raised his cane over his head and shook it in triumph, and said something that Kenny must have liked. Kenny laughed, then looked over his shoulder smiling at Ed as if to ask permission to go talk to Max. Ed nodded as he made a 90-degree turn with the mower and watched out of the corner of his eye as Max and Kenny talked. Just a few days earlier, Ed had spoken to Kenny’s teacher about his poor schoolwork and also his lack of friends, so he was amazed when Kenny kept talking to a total stranger.
Ed was pushing the mower into the garage when Kenny ran up to him excitedly and said that Max wanted to teach him to play dominoes and asked if he could go inside his house. Ed looked over at Max, who waved and said, smiling, “I’ll take good care of the boy!” Ed gave Kenny permission and raced back over to Max’s.
The two played dominoes until suppertime that day, and that began a ritual that both of them came to cherish. Almost every day after school, and at least a half a day on the weekends, the two got together for dominoes, Parcheesi, cards, short walks around the neighborhood or just sitting around watching TV. Ed would have preferred that Kenny had found a friend his age, or even shown more interest in doing things with him, but was glad to see his introverted son coming out of his shell a bit. Ed did not dismiss Kenny’s subsequent improved schoolwork, positive reports from his teacher and his generally improved mood as coincidence. And he was glad to see the brightness in Max’s previously sullen eyes on the occasions he dropped in on the pair, and enjoyed all the fine compliments that Max always had for his son.
Kenny was walking through a swirling, foggy brightness when he noticed the shape of a man moving toward him. His best judgement was that he should be scared, but he just wasn’t. Then he recognized Max’s wry, wrinkled grin and bony, stubbly chin, ran up to him, and hugged him hard around the waist.
“Hi, Max! Do you want to play some dominoes?”
“We can’t right now, Kenny. We need to go home now.”
Normally Kenny protested mildly when his time with Max was up, but not today. He just smiled, grabbed his thin hand, looked up at Max and started walking with him. But Max stopped, pointed in the opposite direction and said, “No, Kenny. You live that way, remember.”
Kenny watched as Max walked away. Just as he was about to fade from view, he stopped and held up his right hand. Kenny waved, turned, and walked the other way.
The warmth of that brief time with Max gave way to a dull throbbing in his head. And his left arm felt like someone had tried to twist it off. As he opened his eyes, he was still in a foggy brightness, but this was much more unpleasant. And a little frightening. But when he saw his dad’s face above his, he felt much safer even as the pain intensified.
“Dad. Wh…wh…?” He couldn’t finish the question.
“You’re in the hospital. You fell off the monkey bars at school a couple of days ago. You don’t remember?”
Kenny could only mouth the word “no.”
As he did, he glanced to the table to the right of his bed and noticed the old box of dominoes that he and Max had used for those many games at Max’s house. It was wrapped with a clumsy red ribbon and had an index card on the top.
“What’s that?” Kenny whispered.
Ed had placed the box near Kenny’s bed so it would be one of the first things he would see when he woke up, but wasn’t going to tell him that Max had suffered a stroke the day before and was lying in the room next door.
“Max wanted you to have it. He thought it would cheer you up.”
Max was right. Kenny creased a smile through the pain and then asked about the card. Ed picked it up and read it aloud.
“It says, ‘You’re the best chore I ever had.’”
That sounded strange to Ed, but he figured it meant something to Kenny. For Kenny, it just meant that Max was thinking about him.
“Max – he went home, Dad,” Kenny mumbled groggily. “Max went home.”
Ed didn’t understand that either, but was just glad that Kenny was saying anything at all.
And Kenny could hardly wait for that next game.
“Dad?” he strained. “Do you know how to play dominoes?”