He was new to rural Michigan. Or rural anywhere.
He and his wife had moved into a newly designed, newly built residence up the hill from our more traditional salt box, the Red House.
Ken and Jackie had lived a Chicago apartment life all their marriage, through three children growing up, forever.
There was always someone to change the light bulbs, replace washers in the sink and fix what needed to be fixed. So the Michigan house was a brave new experience, and rural Michigan a bigger one. But they took to both. They loved the house.
They had had a great soft-spoken architect in Tom Hickey, a protégé of Harry Weese, who listened and never fell out with Ken.
(He was the first ever not to. Ken had fired the previous two. They liked him so much they later had him design a second house in Palm Springs.)
Ken seems to have made his fortune in wholesale of kitchen cabinets. In any case, he never talked about it. Some people can’t leave their careers behind, the source of their self-esteem. Whatever success Ken had with his business it did not float his ego or hold his interest.
I say wholesale because it was clear he didn’t have a lot of experience of or patience to smile at people across a counter.
But if it was business with a capital B he could wheel and deal and schmooze and shout with the best of them.
He must have sold the business well. He and Jackie were more than comfortable.
Every year Jackie would take different grandchildren around Europe or Africa, exposing them to art, Old Things, wild animal safaris and the best hotels. She thought it her role to open their eyes, and open them she did.
Ken had worked all his life, from poor kid in Brooklyn to retired man in Baroda, with a break for the army and Syracuse University where he majored, he said proudly, in English as a foreign language. Now he could lounge happily by the pool, vodka in hand. The only thing that got wet were his lips.
Ken loved cars, big new, fast ones. He loved to drive. He loved to sit in them, arm over the steering wheel, listening to the Cubs.
He and Jackie both got to love Michigan and came most weekends.
They fitted right in: threw parties (locals invited) drank vodka, served great food and big drinks. They enjoyed themselves and so did everyone else, They were great hosts.
There was, of course, a period of adjustment. During the first winter Jackie called the local builder in a panic. She had spotted bear tracks in the snow around the house.
The builder came over. Rabbits he said.
Strange sounds were reported. Local animals needed to be moved or dissuaded from returning. Raccoons were caught in Hav-A-Hart traps and deposited in woods many miles away. A motion activated water sprayer was installed to deter the feral peacocks that wandered through the neighborhood, their screeching terrifying Jackie. The pool, though not much used, needed protection from leaves, mosquitos and horse flies..
Even our dog, a benign but large Chesapeake Bay Retriever, caused Jackie to hit the central locking mechanism in a panic when she introduced herself by jumping up on their car door to say hello.
Most afternoons would find Ken and Jackie across the road in the garden of Byron and John, long-time residents and slightly more elderly neighbors. They had complimentary disabilities. John was practically blind and Byron equally deaf. Conversations were carried on not so much in words as booms. Byron would boom and everyone would of necessity boom back. It was as easy to hear them across the road inside our house as it was on the phone.
The four of them would sit under a portico designed by the same architect who designed Ken and Jackie’s house. Byron and John drank glass after glass of cheap wine from enormous bottles. Ken and Jackie drank very good vodka. Car after car would turn the corner, slow down. Drivers would honk and wave before powering up the hill.
It was leafy, bucolic: a pretty perfect way to spend late, later- in-life summer afternoons. They’d start around 4PM when the heat of the day had given up. They’d still be going in the generous Michigan light at 7 or even 8, Byron and Jackie talking lefty politics and books, Ken and John lobbing in ironic comments.
At some point Byron would help John, by now pie-eyed as well as blind, inside for “dinner”.
At the D&W, the local supermarket in Stevensville we once heard Ken’s commanding bass in the next aisle. As we turned we saw an employee pushing a cart and filling it at his direction. Ken walked ahead of his personal shopper, recently recruited at the cash registers, hands in pockets, calling out the products he wanted and looking distinctly pleased with himself.
As the years passed Ken, a big man, became bigger.
He had no interest in editing his appetites. Jackie seemed to have little influence. He enjoyed food, drink and cigarettes immensely and his body became a more immense with time.
He continued drinking, eating and smoking in spite of advice not to. Or perhaps because of it.
Ken didn’t like being told what to do or how to live.
Ever generous, in the doctor’s office he would light up, offering his pack to other patients until the outraged receptionist ordered him to stop.
As he became increasingly heavy he became less mobile, a hobbler. Several times neighbors had to come over and help lift him from his bath. Arthritis and kidney disease cramped his style. He began to live life sitting down.
One Saturday morning around 8 AM when we were still in bed we heard a car pull to a noisy stop on the gravel. A loud horn sounded impatiently. It was Ken in his newest new Mercedes.
I came down in my pajamas. He didn’t open the door, much less get out. He just rolled down the window and shoved a small library of car paraphernalia into my hands. They were the volumes of new car guff that manufacturers pack but few people ever bother to read after the first few pages and the first few days and the first few miles.
Cars, like the world, were becoming too complicated for Ken. Cars were for driving, for hitting the road, for sitting in with your elbow out the window, the wind in your hair. Cars were for and feeling good, not studying.
“Figure it out, Miller you understand this stuff”, leaving me the pile, and drove off.
Ken had a blind spot while driving: stop signs. He didn’t see them or acknowledge their importance. Soon nobody in the neighborhood would ride in his big Mercedes.
Eventually they told him they were going to take his license away. He would no longer be able to drive. His eyes were too bad.
So Ken decided that if they were going to take his license away, he would take himself away.
He stopped going to dialysis which bored him, and stopped taking his meds. If he couldn’t drive why go on?
If you can’t enjoy life, why live?
He called friends to say goodbye. We heard many had come to visit him at their other place in California.
There, surrounded by his family, ever a man of his word, Ken died.