THE LAST GAME
John Kirby sits on the front porch of his daughter and son-in-law’s house, age-spotted hands clasped in his lap. Although it is an unseasonably warm fall day, he is wearing a brown suit, trousers held up by suspenders, a worn brown hat pulled snugly over his ears.
Every now and then, John leans over and spits into the brass spittoon on the floor beside his chair, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and then he clasps his hands again, twirling his thumbs forward, then backward; forward, backward, gazing toward the shining asphalt highway that runs in front of the house. An occasional car or pickup truck passes and he watches each vehicle slow, round the curve and continue up the hill and out of sight, gasoline fumes drifting through the air.
When a green Dodge rattles by, John snaps to attention. He doesn’t remember seeing it before. And that is unusual. He is familiar with most cars or trucks that pass by each day. As the Dodge rounds the curve, he detects another scent mixed with the gasoline fumes; a sweet, pleasant fragrance. As the gas fumes fade, the sweet smell lingers.
He throws his head back and sniffs the air. It smells like flowers, but where could they be? He looks at Marianna’s flower beds, but all the flowers and bushes are withered, parched. It has been a hot, dry summer; even the grass is brown and brittle.
“Where is it?” he says, “Where is that smell coming from?”
“Papa,” his daughter calls from the kitchen, “Did you say something?”
He stares at the highway, rotating his thumbs, forward, backward, forward, backward, brown eyes glazed.
His daughter is standing at the door, now, and he turns and stares at her: When did Marianna get so old? Why, her hair is completely white! He squints and turns back toward the gleaming highway where a grey Nash slows at the curve, accelerates and speeds up the hill and out of sight.
Marianna sighs and returns to the kitchen to check on her pies.
John removes his pipe from his coat pocket and taps it against the spittoon and then he removes a tin of Prince Albert from his other pocket and adds tobacco, little by little, to the bowl, packing each bit down with his thumb. He clenches the stem between his teeth and scratches a match, flame flickering as he holds it over the bowl of the pipe, wrinkled cheeks sinking in and poofing out.
He settles back, billows of smoke swirling around his face, and continues gazing at the shining asphalt highway. Nothing changes, nothing moves, the white day stills, sun fills the sky. The sweet fragrance wafts through the air again and John cranes his neck. Where on earth could it be coming from? He can’t identify the scent, but it’s strangely familiar.
The smoke from his pipe twists in the air and disappears. He sucks on the stem again and again, fumbling in his pockets. “Dang it!” His matches are in his bedroom. He considers going to get them, but his bedroom is so far away. Too far away.
It wasn’t so long ago that he would have thought nothing of hurrying to his room and grabbing his matches or even walking to town to visit with his old cronies. He used to walk to city hall every day—often twice a day—where he and his friends sat on a bench out front and exchanged the latest gossip. Sometimes they played dominos.
When did he stop walking to town? When did everything become so much trouble? There was a time when nothing was too much trouble. Visions of his boyhood flit through his mind: fishing with his father; swimming with his brothers and sisters; playing baseball. “That Johnny’s like lightning,” they used to say. He can almost feel himself sliding into home base.
A brown pickup truck roars past the house, rounds the curve and continues up the hill. John watches it until it becomes a brown speck and disappears. He seems to remember that same pickup going by just about this time yesterday. Yesterday. When Marianna’s hair was as black as coal, and she was so slim. Just like Ellen.
The thought of Ellen brings a sharp ache to his heart. John can see her now in her lacy white wedding gown, carrying a big bouquet of Lilacs, gliding down the aisle in that little country church to meet him that afternoon so long ago. He can almost feel himself as he was then: slim, tall, straight.
He tries to sit up straight, but that is impossible. He looks at his age-spotted hands, turning them over and gazing at his palms. He is unable to straighten his fingers. Must be the arthritis. Ellen always encouraged him to exercise them; to open and close his fists, regardless of the pain. He can almost feel her next to him, sewing in her lap, the soft glow of twilight settling over the yard.
“Matches,” John mumbles, “I need to go get those matches.” He turns and taps his cane on the floor. “Marianna!”
He hears fast, heavy steps and Marianna appears at the screen door. “What is it, Papa? What’s the matter?”
What was the matter? He wanted something. But what was it?
“Yes, it’s time for the baseball game. Is that what you wanted?”
John had forgotten about the World Series. He had been looking forward to it for ages.
He grasps the handle of his cane in one hand and grabs the arm of the rocker with the other, waves of weakness washing over his body. A dull pain radiates from his chest to his arm as he pulls himself up, and he stands, unmoving, for a moment.
Marianna sighs and returns to the kitchen. “I’ll be so glad when that last game is over,” she mutters.
John leans on his cane and makes his way across the porch and into the living room. He stops and gazes at his velvet-backed rocker in the corner. “Damn!” he says, “That rocker belongs in front of that television set. How many times have I told Marianna?” He trudges across the room, grabs the back of the rocker and drags it across the floor, and then he plops down and stares at the blank screen. He has forgotten to turn it on. “Marianna!” Where is that girl? Doesn’t she know when her Papa calls she’s supposed to come?
He rises and makes his way to the television set and turns it on, twisting the volume to full blast. He sees the players in the field and returns to his rocker.
Marianna appears, carrying a laundry basket full of clothes. “Papa, will you please turn that thing down?”
The crowd howls and John moves to the edge of his chair: By god, those Dodgers just might win the game!
“Papa,” Marianna says, still holding the clothes basket, “I said, ‘Turn that thing down.’”
“No, I’m not going to turn it down!”
Marianna plunks the basket on the floor and places her hands on her hips. “He’s the most stubborn man I’ve ever seen,” she whispers, “He always was! Always!” She suddenly kicks the basket aside, hurries to the television and turns it down. “And something else, Papa,” she says, “You’re too close to the set.”
“I’m not moving. This is where I’m staying.”
Marianna trembles, face flushed. Before John knows what is happening, she grabs the back of the rocker and pulls, his feet scraping the floor as she drags the chair all the way back to the corner of the room.
He jumps up from his rocker, bushy eyebrows etched in a scowl. The nerve of that girl! He grabs his cane and lifts it high in the air. “I’ll give you a thrashing you won’t forget if you don’t give your Papa some respect!”
“You put that cane down.”
His son-in-law stands at the living room door, face pale. “You put that cane down right this minute,” Eddie says, moving cautiously across the room to Marianna’s side and putting his arm around her trembling shoulders.
John stares at Eddie. What is that Eddie Wentworth doing there? Marianna should not be having anything to do with him; he isn’t good enough for his daughter. The Kirby name means something in this town. His grandfather donated land for the Methodist church and the county court house, helped those in need. Those Wendworths are nothing but poor white trash!
“You get out of my house!” he yells, cane swooshing and whirling in the air.
“This is our house, Mr. Kirby,” Eddie says, “Remember? You moved in with us after Mrs. Kirby died.”
A sharp pain knifes through John’s chest, causing him to drop the cane. He stands for a moment, the pain subsiding, and then he lowers himself into his rocker and looks toward the kitchen where Eddie and Marianna are seated at the table, sipping iced tea. Now and then they look in his direction.
He tries to watch the ballgame, but his eyelids are heavy. He dozes through most of the game. Marianna wakes him for his evening meal, but he doesn’t have much of an appetite. Afterward, he craves a smoke. But he can’t remember where he put his pipe. Besides, his matches are too far away.
He dozes again in his rocker after supper. When he wakes with a start, “The $64,000 Question” is on television. Light from the kitchen shimmers through the doorway and he hears the whistle of a train as it chugs down the tracks behind the house. He looks around the shadowy room as though he has never seen it before, and then he gazes at the television screen. Dr. Joyce Brothers has just answered the $64,000 question and the audience is clapping and cheering.
“Who won the ballgame?” he says, “Who won the world series?”
“The last game is tomorrow,” Eddie replies from the shadows.
He gives Eddie a stern look. “The last game was today. I guess I ought to know.”
Eddie and Marianna exchange looks. Eddie shakes his head.
The pain in his chest is sharper, now, and it takes all the energy he can muster to heave himself from his rocker: Fresh air. That’s what I need. He walks slowly past Marianna and Eddie, cane tapping softly. As he opens the screen door he gets a whiff of that scent again. He moves toward his chair on the front porch and sits down. “Where on earth are those flowers?”
He can hear them whispering in the living room again. “What flowers are you talking about, Papa?” Marianna calls.
John gazes out into the dimming evening light. It is like a shadowed room, trees dark and silent, the highway sinking beneath the advancing tide of night. He places his gnarled fingers on the dome of his head and touches the few remaining strands of white hair, remembering how Ellen loved his thick, wavy hair. “My curly-headed love,” she used to say, ruffling his hair as she moved quickly past his chair. So many times she did that; so many other things she did and said. Why does a person only appreciate it when he no longer has it? Why didn’t he tell Ellen how much she meant to him?
Memories waft through his mind like the whirling of the leaves: Ellen, cuddling Marianna as a baby, the tiny face so like hers; the touch of her soft, cool hand on his brow when he was ill; watching her and Marianna in the buggy on their way to church those bright Sunday mornings. Why did he never go with them? Those picnics on Sunday afternoons and the canoe rides afterward, water like shimmering glass, picnickers on the banks. The summers seemed endless then, the summers, days and years he thought would never end.
Shadows drift in the gathering darkness; leaves in the trees fluttering in the light breeze. Twilight settles over the yard and a mockingbird begins his song. Signs of autumn are in the air. Soon it will be winter. John shivers. He rises and looks out into the dark night where brittle leaves sweep past the porch in waves, swirling, whirling like the years.
He steps into the living room and makes his way toward his bedroom at the back of the house. Why did they put my bedroom so far away? There is never a time when I’m not tired, even when I get up in the mornings. Shadows from the television set flicker on the wall and he can hear the evening news as he leaves the living room.
His bedroom is dark, but he doesn’t bother turning on the light. He drops to his bed with a sigh and dreads having to get undressed. Everything is an effort. Why bother? He lies back onto the feather bed and scarcely has the energy to pull the covers over his thin, frail body. He wishes the last game had not been today. What is there to look forward to now?
The scent is all around him, now, so the flowers must be right here in his room; Marianna must have put them here today. Why hadn’t he thought of that? And why hadn’t she told him?
He tries to sit up, but he’s tired. And so cold. He shivers. As he reaches for more cover, the pain slices through him again. He gasps and struggles, trying to call out to Marianna. It’s like one of those dreams he used to have when he was a child. He always woke up from those dreams, though, and surely he will wake up now. The pain hits again and again and he struggles, fingers clawing the air. His eyes are open but he’s unable to see. He struggles, less violently now, hesitates and then gives in, leaden arms dropping to the bed. He feels strangely peaceful as he sinks into the velvet darkness:
He is running in the fields; the green, lush grass heaven to his bare feet. He can hear his brothers’ shouts as they chase him, but he’s way ahead of them, as usual. The birds are chirping, and the familiar sweetness of the flowers wafts through the air. Lilacs, Ellen’s favorites. They are everywhere: along the fence row, in the field, in the bushes, along the path. Far in the distance he sees her running toward him. Her black hair is loose and floating around her shoulders and she is wearing that white, filmy dress he always loved. He tries to call out to her, but he is unable to make a sound. She smiles as she meets him and he suddenly knows she has known all along; she knows all the things he wanted to say to her and never did. He takes her smooth, white hand in his and they run swiftly through the dew-covered grass toward home.