Los Angeles, 1971:
Craig curses at a white car that pulls in front of us outside the Knickerbocker Hotel. Craig looks good in a bitter, failed actor kind of way. That means it’s extra gross when he sneers at them. He’s also cursed with chronic perspiration. He told me they had to paint him with makeup over and over again on the set of Hula Hoop Massacre 3. Now he grows sweat stains around his armpits, around his thick neck whenever he yells at old men in LA traffic, which is often.
This old man doesn’t understand how much of a war crime it is to cut off the second lead from Alien Beach Party 2, Fun Daze, and My Girl, The Werewolf. The old man raises his tan, withered arm out the window and gently waves at Craig. Craig slams on his horn, and the old man obliviously leans his car into traffic—nearly causing a three-car-accident.
“Can you believe that a-hole?” Craig says through his perfect white horse teeth. He pulls both hands off the wheel to emphasize how big of an injustice it all is. “He pulled out right in front of me.”
“Classic king’s gambit open,” I say.
“What?” he says. It takes a second to snap out of his ape rage. “Oh, is that chess? Is that a chess move? You being smart?”
“I don’t know.” I blow my hair out of my eyes, but it falls right back into the same old spot. Craig hates that.
I get out and grab my suitcase from the back seat. It’s too big, but it’s the only luggage I have. They bought it for me, for when I have to go to my dad’s. Diane is my mom. She married this doofus six months ago. Craig is my step dad. He of the nice hair and growing teal Hawaiian sweat stains.
“I’ll be back tomorrow at seven,” he says.
“But the tournament’s done at four. What am I supposed to do ’til then?” I say. It’s not technically a tournament, but I’m not even going to attempt to get into that with him right now.
Craig spits out the window and puts his sunglasses on. My mom bought them for him when they “went away” to “wine country” last month. Craig reaches back and hands me a crumpled twenty.
“You’re seventeen. Jesus kid, figure it out.” He lights a cigarette. “Try not to call unless it’s an emergency,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll do my best.”
“Great,” he says, “Go get ’em, killer.”
Craig’s sedan peels into the green summer morning. My suitcase bumps against the curb when I try to pull it onto the sidewalk. The bushes outside The Knickerbocker push ragged branches through the iron grates that barely hold them in place. I bet they used to look nice when someone cared about them. Mr. Lazlo told us The Knickerbocker used to be a place where movie stars hung out. Jen said a bunch of them took weird drugs and killed themselves here, or whatever. I can kind of see why.
Jen and Kilby are already out front and mixing in with the other members of the Herman Steiner Chess Club. You can tell us apart from normal guests because we all have blue Herman Steiner blazers with little red Herman Steiner crests on them. Two maladjusted twelve-year-olds have a portable chess set out and are running through openings as fast as they can.
I was never like that, not even when Mr. Lazlo thought I was a prodigy. I remember when Mr. Lazlo first started tutoring me, trying to tell me about psychology and all that garbage. You know, you have to break your opponent’s ego, play with his emotions, play with your own emotions. All that crap. That’s all stupid, man.
It’s like Fischer said, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”
Outside the hotel, the younger kids see how far up the side of the building they can spit. The older ones check the clipboard to see who’s rooming with who. This one junior high kid launches a loogie like twelve feet in the air. It’s so big that it casts a shadow on the way back down. Kilby jingles his keys to let me know we’re rooming together. Miracles abound.
“Was that your dad?” he says. He points to the skid marks in the road. He’s fat, red, and his dad is some big-time studio executive who lets Kilby wear clip-on ties even though he’s seventeen years old.
“Step dad,” I say.
“Lazlo says Bobby Fischer probably isn’t going to be here ’til tomorrow,” Kilby says, sweating.
“That sucks,” I say.
Kilby drones about something stupid while I stare over his shoulder at Jen. She’s laughing a lot with Whitney Carlson. She’s looking at me too, and I just wish I was over there. Not even doing anything, just over there existing.
Jen shrugs her travel bag over her shoulder. She’s got a perfect part down the middle of her perfect hair. We made out last week at Skate America under the speakers while “Jet” by Paul McCartney played. It was the best moment of my life.
She’s tall and smokes—and both of those things, along with her tight jeans, and the fact that she kissed me, probably make her the sexiest person in the world. I still can’t look her in the eyes. She’s got perfect teeth. She’s terrifying.
“You think you two will do it this weekend?” Kilby says, following my stare. I avert my gaze.
“Jesus man. Don’t be crass,” I say. “Maybe.”
“Yeah right,” he says. “Good luck, James Bond.”
He rubs my curly hair back and forth. It frizzes out even worse than usual. I hit Kilby in the arm. Mr. Lazlo gets us in a group, and we hustle into the shadow of the lobby. I have this one zit on the inside of my nose that hurts like hell, but I still can’t leave it alone. I think I’m going to name it Kilby.
I don’t want to give off the impression that I don’t like Mr. Lazlo. That’s not true. In fact, he’s about the only person who ever believed in me.
Three years ago, Mr. Lazlo’s yellow Volkswagen K70 crawled up our driveway. We had small glasses of lemonade, my parents sitting across the kitchen table treating chess not-at-all seriously. I hid in the hall, taking it all too seriously. I used to be real serious about everything.
“I don’t want him to be some kinda screwball,” dad said. He took a sip from his lemonade and made a face. “This doesn’t taste right.”
“Paul has so much natural ability. Let me assure you—” said Mr. Lazlo. He twisted his beard hairs whenever he spoke to my dad. A nervous twitch. My dad does that to people.
“I wish someone would assure me on this lemonade,” said my dad. His laugh flew across the table, and Mr. Lazlo flinched like it hit him in the face.
“He’ll be in great hands,” Mr. Lazlo said.
“We just want what’s best for Paul,” my mom said.
“What he needs is consistency!” said my dad. He dumped his drink in the sink. He grabbed for Mr. Lazlo’s cup. “You want me to take care of that for you?”
“No, thank you,” said Mr. Lazlo, and gulped it down. He made a face too. “Do you understand what it means for him to be ranked 1900 at thirteen years old?”
“That he has too much free time on his hands?” said dad, and smiled at mom.
She looked at the back of her hand.
“No, but seriously,” said dad.
“Many serious players never even reach that level,” said Mr. Lazlo. “Ever.”
“Dale,” said my mom.
“What?” said my dad.
“Please,” I said from the hallway.
“Fine,” said my dad.
Mr. Lazlo started coming Tuesday afternoons. He taught me some good opens, how to treat the middle game, where to take an endgame. Six months later, my parents divorced.
I have a rank of 1700 these days, comfortably not a genius. I try not to let Mr. Lazlo get too down about it though.
“It’s not like it’s anyone’s fault but my own,” I said one rainy Sunday at Fitzger’s. He was playing white again.
He pulled down his rook and cleaned house, two pawns and my bishop. I probably should have seen it coming, but whatever. I was lucky when I pulled out a draw ten moves later.
“It’s not anyone’s fault,” he said. “I think you’re improving, anyway.”
“Line ’em up again,” I say.
I’m black. I don’t mind being on the defensive one bit. Mr. Lazlo says it’s a habit I need to break.
Mr. Lazlo wears a wine colored suit with a bright yellow shirt underneath it. He’s fussing with a microphone and scratching his beard again. I try to get close to Jen, but some college kid with cool hair says something into her ear, and she starts giggling. He puts his hand on her back, and they sit at one of the card tables that have been arranged into a giant rectangle in the converted ballroom. It’s a coliseum for chess geeks.
Mr. Lazlo stands in the middle of the rectangle. It’s where Fischer will play. He clears his throat into the microphone. It’s attached to a portable speaker on his belt.
“I thank you all for attending the Tenth Annual Arthur Lazlo Memorial Chess Friendly,” Mr. Lazlo says. “My father would have been so happy to see chess in such high demand. From the very young, to our … more experienced players.”
He looks at a bunch of sour-faced old men that play in this lobby every week. There’s a couple of former masters, some ranked amateurs, whatever. Small fries.
“As you all know, no ranking will be altered at the end of this friendly. It’s all just for the joy of chess.”
The college guy is really talking Jen’s ear off about something, and they’re both smiling like it’s the best thing in the world. He’s good looking, like Craig is. I mean, he looks like the kind of guy who excuses himself to brush his teeth during a date.
“Don’t worry, you’ll all get a chance to play the great Bobby Fischer,” Mr. Lazlo says, “Half of you in the morning session, half in the afternoon. Two games, one hundred men. Each time, one versus fifty; Fischer versus the mob!”
The dramatic tension is ruined when the microphone begins to feedback, and Mr. Lazlo doesn’t know how to stop it. Some wet coughs from the old men join in. Eventually Mr. Lazlo flips the off switch and cups his thin hands together.
“Not that I think of you all as a mob, of course,” he shouts. “But yes, fifty matches at once, all timed. And to the winner—”
“When does Fischer get here?” a reporter in back says.
“Well, he’s not told us exactly, but he say that no one should ask him for pictures, autographs, or interviews,” Mr. Lazlo says. The audience begins to turn away. “He just wants it to be about chess! The reception will be in the—”
Fischer walks through the hotel doors, and the place erupts. He’s wearing a tan suit and wayfarers. He cuts through the lobby like there’s no one there; flashbulbs and cameras click like you imagine they do for Steve McQueen. God, he’s about the coolest guy in the world.
“James Bond,” Kilby says.
“Your breath smells horrible,” I say.
“Is it true your mom works for the Russians?” A reporter shouts at Fischer’s back.
Fischer jogs to the elevator while his driver blocks the reporter’s path. It’s a classic Steinitz Defense. There’s a lasting silence when the door shuts. The elevator ding unleashes a sudden torrent of conversation, and the room rings with fresh gossip.
“Wow,” says Kilby.
“Did you see him? Like a movie star or something,” Jen says. She walks up with the college guy still in tow. “This is Julian. He goes to Occidental.”
“You think anyone will give Fischer a run for his money?” Julian says. He shakes my hand. He smells really good. He holds my hand so I can’t return his strong grip. Jen must really like us all getting along so well. “I heard he hasn’t drawn in over a month.”
“Draws are for cowards,” I say.
“Still, it’d be quite the feat,” he says.
“Still, it’d be quite the feat for a coward,” I say.
“Julian says we can go up to his room,” Jen says. We get in the elevator behind a crowd still swirling in Fischer wake. “He brought cognac.”
“Great!” Kilby says.
“It’s from my family’s vineyard,” Julian says, “in France.”
Big whoop, I think.
Me and Kilby and Jen and a bunch of Julian’s college friends stay in his room and drink through dinner. We sit in a circle and shout about our favorite Gilligan’s Island episodes. Jen and I sit next to each other. We hold the bottle between us, laugh when the other person coughs a lung up after a big pull.
Julian puts on “Beggar’s Banquet,” and a couple people start dancing. They have marijuana cigarettes, but Julian says we should save ours for later. I’ve never smoked before, and that makes me nervous, but Jen seems into it. I feel the cognac buzz in my empty stomach. It makes Kilby’s jokes a lot funnier. Eventually, he starts dancing with a blonde girl, and it ends with them rolling around on the green shag carpet together.
Me and Kilby head down to the ballroom in a tiny brass service elevator that creaks when he gets in. I hold my breath most of the way down.
“I think Jen’s really into that guy, Julian,” he says.
“Yeah, thanks, Kilby,” I say.
“I just mean, their body language is off the charts.” He giggles and sways back and forth. “Off the charts,” he repeats to himself.
When we get to the lobby, he hits every button and jumps out before the door can shut. I do too, though my pants get stuck in the gate for one terrifying second. They rip at the bottom when I pull too hard. I told you; action was never my strong suit.
The tables have been pulled away from the ballroom, and the chandeliers cast specks of beautiful light all over the old people getting drunk. Mr. Lazlo used a big chunk of his money to hire the Paul Desmond quartet, and they’re all in the corner, smoking, drinking, and hacking away at the “Stray Cat Blues.”
My dad used to listen to Paul Desmond a lot when he played with Dave Brubeck, but that stopped when my dad moved in with Charlie, his personal trainer, because she said it made him seem old fashioned. That’s probably the one thing that me and Charlie agree on.
Mr. Lazlo pulls himself away from a troupe of fat men just as the piano player chops some really dissonant chords that don’t seem at all appropriate for the occasion.
“Are you boys having a good time?” he says.
“Ask us tomorrow morning, and we’ll let you know,” Kilby says.
He winks at Mr. Lazlo, who frowns and rubs his chin with the palm of his hand. The piano player settles down into a groove that actually sounds kind of nice. Jen and Julian float down the spiral staircase into the ballroom. She’s beaming, and he’s so nonchalant, like new Kennedys. Their energy spurs Paul Desmond into fits of hysteria all over again.
“Yeah, it’s OK,” I say.
“Paul Desmond,” Mr. Lazlo says. “I can’t believe we got him!”
He motions to Paul Desmond, who’s taking a break from the saxophone to drink a tall glass of whiskey and ice. He drinks it all in one gulp, sucking air from the sides of the glass before dropping it on the table. He sees Mr. Lazlo looking, gives him a drunk salute. When he plays again, it’s pretty squeaky.
“What a player. I just wish he wouldn’t drink so much,” Mr. Lazlo says.
“Yeah, my dad used to love Paul Desmond,” I say.
“He looks like he’s going to be sick all over his saxophone,” Kilby says, who is also pretty drunk.
Jen sees us and comes over. She’s wearing a green dress that ends just above her knees. It fits in all the right places and is not good for my imagination.
“Hey Mr. Lazlo,” she says.
“Good evening, Jennifer,” Mr. Lazlo says. “That’s a beautiful dress. I remember—”
Jen pulls me aside. We stand next to a punch bowl that’s the size of an upside-down Volkswagen. My heart is in my chest when she touches my arm. Imagine the best smell in the world, then double it. That’s what I’m experiencing.
“I need you,” she whispers.
“We’re going to the roof,” she says.
“Right now?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Just you and me?” I say.
Paul Desmond hits a sour note and tries to slide out of it, but just makes it worse in the end. Mr. Lazlo makes a throat slashing gesture to the bartender and points to the stage. Jen looks at me like I’m brain dead, which is probably true.
“Uh, no. You, me, Julian and Kilby, and the gang, the Occidental kids. We’re having a seance.” She unlocks arms and walks to the elevator. “C’mon, they’re up there already. Kilby, come!”
Kilby stands at the end of a long buffet table. He shovels a mound of tapenade onto a plate and litters its base with stuffed mushrooms. He jogs toward us while balancing his plate with one hand.
“Yeah, coming,” he says, licking his fingers.
The top of the building is dominated by huge wooden scaffolding that supports a giant neon HOTEL KNICKERBOCKER. The Occidental kids lean against the wood frames smoking cigarettes, lounging easy, watching us like pumas in the dark.
Jen takes us between two electrical boxes that create a big green Stonehenge in the middle of the roof. She’s got candles set up all around in a circle, and a brand new Parker Brothers Ouija Board. The plastic planchette is still inside its packaging. Jen tears the plastic open with her teeth while me and Kilby, Julian, and some of the gang sit down.
“It’s good because it protects us from the wind,” Jen says. She spits the plastic bag out, and it rolls away in a draft. She reads from a dark blue book with a silver moon on its cover.
In 1936, ten years after magician Harry Houdini died, his wife, Bess, bereft and helpless without him, took over the Knickerbocker’s rooftop and sought for a tenth and final time to summon his spirit on Halloween—the anniversary of his death—with the help of numerous mediums.
“So who’s going first?” Kilby says. He’s found the blonde girl from the carpet earlier and brought her along for the ride.
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Shakespeare,” Julian says, sounding like a total dick.
“I’ll go,” Jen says.
She’s looking at Julian when she says it. Julian is looking off into the middle distance, probably trying to think of another great quote to wow us all with.
“Yeah, me too,” I say.
Jen arches her eyebrows in the witchy candlelight; she’s a terrible beauty—Yeats. Eat your heart out, Julian. We sit on our legs, side by side. She puts the planchette in the center of the board, and our hands touch. We breathe together. I wrack my brain for dead people to talk about.
“Can we talk to my dad?” I say.
Jen touches my hand and looks in my eyes. Technically, he’s not dead. He’s living in a condo in Arizona with Charlie. That seems close enough. I look to see if Kilby will say anything, but he’s too busy trying to teach his girl how to blow better spit bubbles.
“Of course,” Jen says. “What do you want to ask him?”
I can think of about a million things, and not one of them that I want to share in front of this group. Hey dad, are you happy now that you ruined everyone’s life? Hey dad, how’s the real estate business for dickheads?
“I just want to know if he’s happy now,” I say.
I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that I feel marks. Jen puts her other hand on top of mine and gives me a sad smile. Through a haze of marijuana smoke, I can feel Julian’s eyes burn in the back of my head. That feels just great.
“Dear Paul’s dad,” Jen says. “Have you found the peace in death that you sought in life?”
I start to nudge the plastic towards “yes,” but Jen stops me. She’s got my hand sandwiched between hers. It’s great, but not really conducive to fudging communication between me and my fake dead dad.
“I know it’s hard, but don’t nudge it,” she says. “Let him speak for himself.”
“OK,” I say.
We sit there for a long time. I imprint the feeling her hands make on mine into my brain forever. A breeze blows some of the candles out, and someone has a marijuana cough that won’t quit.
“Um,” Jen says. She touches my cheek. “Maybe he’s just not ready yet.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I say.
“Let’s try my Aunt Norma,” Julian says. “She was hilarious—wrote articles for the American Nazi Party in the thirties.”
An employee of the hotel walks up the stairwell and onto the roof. He sighs and lights a cigarette. He switches on his flashlight. Everyone bolts, exploding in every direction.
“Hey!” the guy says, chasing in every direction with the cigarette dangling. “You can’t be up here! Stop!”
In the confusion, the Ouija board gets kicked over, and the candles upended. Jen and I run down the stairwell, all the way down to the third floor. We stop and collapse into each other’s arms. The light is warm and yellow from the light fixtures that go down the long green hallway. From the heating grates, you can barely hear Paul Desmond sweetly echo the chorus of “Strange Meadow Lark.” We slump and sigh together.
“You know, my dad named me after this guy,” I say.
She looks down at my chest. When she looks up, she has tears in her eyes. She kisses me slow and a lot. I walk her to her room, and we kiss goodnight all over again.
I collapse into my bed, and Kilby shows up ten minutes later. We don’t talk. He falls right to sleep, snoring the snores of someone unburdened by conscience. When I say my head is swimming, I mean it. A crummy old air conditioner pushes the drapes into phantom shapes around the window. Somewhere in the hotel, Bobby Fischer lies awake working on openings. I live drunk in that kiss for hours ’til I fall asleep.
As part of our weekend, we’re supposed to get breakfast with Bobby Fischer, but no one is especially surprised when he doesn’t show. Jen and I get a seat in the corner of the dining room and share secret smiles over our food.
The hotel staff arranged it so all the chocolate and poppyseed muffins are playing each other on a chessboard. All the chocolate muffins get eaten first, so it looks like a route. A bad omen, as Fischer plays white today. We all play defense. I look at the spot where the king should be, but there’s only black crumbs and a torn piece of wax paper. Kilby spots us and makes his way diagonally through the round tables covered in white tablecloths, a classic Hodgson Attack.
We eat together. A natural trio, a fine team when Jen rolls her eyes at all the right parts of Kilby’s stories. Julian sits with some of his gang and watches our table. I can guess how he plays chess, waiting, probing for any weakness.
“We still on for next weekend?” Kilby says. He looks at Jen. “My dad got us tickets to the premiere of Dirty Harry.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I’m busy.”
My dad is coming to town, first time without Charlie in tow. Kilby knows because I told about it last week. He never remembers stuff like this, because he never remembers anything.
“What? C’mon man, Clint Eastwood. In the flesh. When else is that gonna happen?” Kilby says. “Tell your dad he can pick you up Saturday morning. He can come any old time.”
“What?” Jen says.
“Clint Eastwood,” Kilby says.
“Your dad’s coming?” Jen says. “Next week?”
“Um,” I say. “I was going to tell you.”
“Sure,” she says. “Right.”
“Jen,” I say. I don’t know what to say. I blurt out, “I still believe in magic.”
God, what does that mean? Jen stands up and grabs her orange juice. She looks like she’ll dump it on my head, but she puts the glass back down and looks over at Julian’s table. Now I’m the one staring at breakfast. The eggs I’ve been eating have an uncooked sheen that I didn’t notice before. I feel like I might barf.
“You know, you were a lot more interesting when your dad was dead,” Jen says. She gets up and walks away. Kilby takes some bacon off her plate.
“You finished?” he says.
She doesn’t turn around, doesn’t go to Julian’s table, she walks straight out. Julian and I follow her with our eyes, then he looks at me and smiles. Next to the crepe station, Mr. Lazlo turns on his microphone and clears his throat. He’s holding two pieces of paper in the other hand.
“The friendly starts in half an hour. Please check with me to see where and when you play. Good luck to everyone! I’ve never been so pr—”
“Can it, Janet!” somebody yells and everyone laughs.
We all rush around Mr. Lazlo. By the time I get to the piece of paper, it’s torn and there’s sausage grease all over it. I find my and Kilby’s names’ smudged in the afternoon session. Jen and Julian play in the morning with the rest of the stronger players. Mr. Lazlo comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“I couldn’t help it,” he says. “It’s just the luck of the draw. When you play doesn’t really mean anything.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
The shades are pulled back on the windows that reach to the ceiling of the ballroom. The sun beats down hot on the boards. Mr. Lazlo spent money on a velvet rope, so there’s a spectator area consisting of a few rows of folding chairs off in a corner.
There’s some press, but mostly it’s just wives, and moms, and little brothers, and put out girlfriends. Each seat around the circle has a number taped on back; Jen’s is 27. I imagine optimal sightlines and try to position myself accordingly. When she walks in, she doesn’t even look at me.
“Wow,” Kilby says. “She looks great.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
Everyone sits around for twenty minutes before Fischer finally shows up. When he does, the air gets sucked out of the room. He’s wearing a different suit and sunglasses. Per request, the clocks start when he enters the circle. They all tick a little off.
When he plays, Fischer doesn’t walk in a circle, but zigs and zags between games—creating new lines of evil geometry. He walks fast. The chandelier lights dim at random. It’s satanic—like chalking a pentagram to access the power of grandmasters past. It looks cool as hell.
It puts most of the players on edge. Ten moves in, and Fischer already has twelve of fifty in checkmate. One by one, they empty their pieces into a box, and Fischer touches their hand before turning sharply to the next game.
Jen stands strong. She’s controlling the middle section of her board by hemming in Fischer’s bishop with her pawns. They form an impenetrable wall around Fischer’s favorite piece. He bites his thumbnails at her board, he tugs on his tie.
Unfortunately, Julian plays well too—and after 25 rounds both he and Jen are two of only ten players left. He catches her eye and they share a long, shitty smile together. Fischer stares at both of their boards, his brow furrowed as the games devolve into petty skirmishes.
Fischer has to bleed them for every pawn, yielding board space only when pried from his fingers. Julian goes to a vending machine and comes back with two Cokes. He puts one on Jen’s board and one on his own. Some people clap at the chivalry. Jen opens it and drinks half the can down in one gulp. She burps loud and moves a pawn. The crowd goes nuts.
Everyone loves them. The mothers of the twelve-year-olds lean forward and talk about what a dashing figure Julian cuts at the board. The guys think Jen’s a real firecracker. Fischer sweats through his blazer. Kilby hits my arm whenever Fischer’s pieces get pinned farther back.
With a pained face, Fischer extends his hand for a draw, first to Julian, then to Jen. Everyone else is eliminated. A round of applause showers the room. Fischer storms into an adjoining unit. He slams the door; it’s punctuated by a howl. Violent animal pain from the other side of the wall. It’s exactly how I feel.
One of the masters brings out a giant green wreath like we’ve all seen at some tournament victories, and not just a couple of dumb “friendly” draws. He puts the wreath around Jen and Julian. They smile as photographers flash picture after picture.
“What’re the two young lovers’ names?” a reporter asks. Everyone laughs.
“Two draws!” Kilby says. “Can you believe it?”
I need some air. I pass Mr. Lazlo on my way outside. He’s pulling on his beard, walks by like he doesn’t see me at all. A bunch of his kids trail behind him like demented seven dwarves.
“Wow,” Mr. Lazlo says. “Wow.”
I walk outside, and the hotel employee who busted up our party is smoking a cigarette. He’s fat and less scary in daylight.
“Can I get one of those?” I say, pointing to his cigarette.
“Sure, kid,” he says.
He lights it for me, and I cough like crazy. It burns the back of my throat. My eyes won’t stop watering. I bend over on the sidewalk, almost wretch. He looks at me nervous.
“A natural,” he says.
“Know where I can get a sandwich around here?” I gag.
“Chester’s, two blocks that way. Might want to put that out though,” he points to my cigarette. “No smoking allowed.”
I gladly step on it; he seems relieved.
Chester’s is a sandwich shop and arcade. They have one just like it a block from where I go to school. What they don’t have is a Bobby Fischer sitting alone in the corner booth looking miserable. That’s unique to this one. I walk up to the counter, try to order a beer for him, but the guy behind the counter just laughs at my age.
I order a cheese sandwich and two root beers. I give the guy my twenty dollar bill and get back fourteen bucks, two of it in quarters. I point to Fischer’s table and tell him to send the sandwich over there.
“I know who you are,” I say.
I sit down in Fischer’s booth and hand him a root beer. He looks at me wild-eyed, like he might bolt for the door with my root beer in hand.
“Don’t worry, I won’t mention it if you don’t,” I say.
“OK,” he says.
I take a long drink of mine. I take some change out and drop it on the table. Fischer drums his fingers.
“You like pinball?” I say.
He looks up at me, then at the machine. He nods, and we go over and play. It’s space themed, so on the backbox there’s a cartoon of a hot lady astronaut about to get eaten by a giant green alien.
“You ever had a girlfriend?” I say.
He hits a triple score bumper, and the whole machine flashes, goes into fits. A plastic comet knocks against glass inside the machine.
“Um,” he says.
“Jeez, how old are you?” I say. “You never had a girlfriend?”
“How old are you?” he says.
“Seventeen,” I say.
“Well when I was your age, I’d been a grandmaster for two years,” he says. He turns back to the pinball machine and tries to keep playing, but his ball stalls. He slaps the machine like it did something really wrong to him.
“OK. The girl I’m talking about, she wasn’t my girlfriend per se,” I say. “I bet she could have been, though. If it had worked out.”
Fischer takes a swig.
“So?” he says.
“I don’t know. I guess, I don’t even really know her that well,” I say. “Plus, I think she just fell in love with some asshole freshman from Occidental college.”
“Oh those two,” he says. He looks even more miserable. Those draws take a toll on him. They add up over the years. I can relate.
I say, “It’s funny. Three years ago I wouldn’t have cared at all about any of this. The chess was the important thing. Now I don’t even think I want to play you. No offense.”
“None taken,” he says.
We walk out of the arcade and onto the street. I still have ten dollars, so I grab some hot dogs for the walk back. Fischer never offers to pay for anything. He gets two hot dogs for himself. Between that and the sandwich, I feel a little green.
“You know the Benoni Defence?” he says. He stuffs the end of the first dog in his mouth.
The modern Benoni Defense lines up a bunch of pawns on the queen’s side. It pushes black to make moves they don’t want to, makes everything real cramped and sweaty, closes up the game, forces it into live or die from the start. It forces a game into a win or lose for both players, no draws. In a way, it’s a suicide attack.
“Yeah,” I say.
“You know what it means? Benoni?” Fischer says. “It’s Hebrew. Son of sorrow. It’s from Reinganum’s book. 1825.”
Fischer pulls out a little manual from his pocket, barely a pamphlet. It’s been folded every which way. He takes off his sunglasses and reads.
Whenever I felt in a sorrowful mood and wanted to take refuge from melancholy, I sat over a chessboard, for one or two hours according to circumstances. Thus this book came into being, and its name, Ben-Oni, “Son of Sadness,” should indicate its origin.
“That’s a hell of a name,” I say.
“It’s the truth,” he says.
“So you’re saying I should play?” I say.
“I’m saying no matter what you do, that sadness is going to find you. Might as well use it for something,” he says.
He finishes his second hot dog, and we enter the hotel in silence.
The drapes are back in place per Fischer’s request, and the afternoon session starts more subdued than the morning’s. Most of the observers eat cake with Jen and Julian in the dining room, but eventually they trickle in—or don’t. The older players stay in the bar, licking their wounds and drinking free Lowenbrau. Nothing changes for Fischer, who storms into the room with purpose, exactly the same as before.
When he gets to my board, he impassively moves his queen’s pawn two spaces forward. He doesn’t place the piece, just flicks it across the table so it stands straight up on the board by itself, like telekinesis. I see his moves, recognize what he’s initiating. I can oblige. Jen and Julian come in with a couple of their moony-faced friends. Mr. Lazlo walks behind them with a colossal piece of cake, and they all sit down together to smile at me.
I skip my knight out to F6, just in front of my pawns, and Fischer sees it out of his peripheral vision. He walks over and flicks a second pawn next to his first.
Here it is, the suicide play. The Benoni Defense. I look at Fischer, and he smiles at me; I smile back. We both know someone has to win. He walks to the other side of the room and knocks a guy’s bishop clear off the table.
Kilby is checkmated by Fischer in his tenth move. He doesn’t seem too upset, but gets food on Fischer’s hand when they shake. It isn’t until the fifteenth that people realize what’s happening on my board. Fischer and I have been slugging it out for an hour, and somehow, I’m getting the better of him.
I take one of his rooks when he makes a boneheaded mistake in the corner, and from there I wrestle control of the center squares. Fischer takes off his sunglasses and rubs the bridge of his nose, he complains about the lights again; he doesn’t smile at me anymore.
There are more gasps when I take his queen in the twenty-third move. Whispered words travel through the hotel, and even sour old drunks stand in the hallway, craning their pale necks and spilling gin on their pants. Kilby leans back as Mr. Lazlo leans in to see the game. He slides the rest of Mr. Lazlo’s cake over with his foot, and stands up eating it. He points Mr. Lazlo’s fork at me.
“Hell yeah, Paul,” he says, spitting cake everywhere.
I checkmate Fischer in the thirty-third move. He finishes by beating everyone else at the table in a huff. When the last match finishes, he’s gone 97-1-2. Fischer stalks back into his room. I’m alone at the board, his king still tipped to me.
The place explodes. I’m put in a thicket of sweaty congratulations. I lift my hands over my head, and men with thick framed glasses hold their chins and study the list of our moves like it’s foreign policy. Jen heads off to Julian’s room with the rest of the Occidental crew, but everyone else surges toward the boards. They come for me, and I am carried away. I even get my own wreath. I wonder where all the wreaths are coming from.
Kilby’s dad shows up first, with his driver and Kilby’s new stepmom. Kilby offers me a ride, but I tell him that I’ll just see him next weekend. Kilby’s dad tells Kilby he looks like hell, and what’d he do all weekend, anyway? They vanish in a cloud of cologne.
Jen comes out with Julian. She’s wearing her wreath. Julian tries to get her to ride in the gang’s van back to Occidental, but she says she has to wait for her dad. A buzz starts on the roof. You can feel the hotel lights turn on before you see it happen. Julian sniffs sharply when he walks past us, gets in the van, and drives away.
The same hotel employee comes out for another smoke break, eyes me and Jen alone on the sidewalk, and walks across the street to buy a paper. Jen stands closer and touches my green wreath. She’s got a wreath, and I’ve got a wreath.
“Congratulations,” she says.
“Congratulations to you,” I say.
She pets hers; the buzz of the hotel lights are pretty loud now. They’re palpable.
“Thanks,” she says and looks at mine, “but I guess it doesn’t mean as much now, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I really liked you,” she says.
“Me too,” I say. “Why do you think I said all that stuff? Some of it was true, anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says.
Her dad’s car arrives. It’s real beat up, and it coughs out a cloud of black smoke on a couple of lost tourists. He waves to us from the street.
“Ok, well,” I say. “See you around.”
She hugs me and our wreaths get tangled together for a second. Jen’s dad puts his hands up when two cars start honking behind him. She gets the strands undone and walks toward the car. She puts the wreath in the back and turns around.
“Yeah, anything is possible,” she says. “I mean, you’re the one who still believes in magic.”
The radio gets turned all the way up before they get past the end of the block. I’m the only one left. I spend two more dollars at Chester’s on cheese sandwiches and Coke.
I put the wreath on the stool next to me. When the place starts to fill up, the waiter tells me to put it behind the counter. I play pinball for one lonely hour, then two.
Craig comes in and tells me he’s been honking for the last five minutes, and do I realize what a little inconvenience I am becoming? When I grab the wreath, it’s been hit by an exploding bottle of whipped cream. I don’t let Craig see, and get it all over his interior when I sit with it in the backseat.
“You know you can sit up here,” he says.
The traffic isn’t too bad out to Crenshaw; most of it goes in the opposite direction toward the city. I look in the cars as they stand gridlocked in the other lane and imagine a million different Saturday nights.
“So did you win?” Craig asks when we pull in the driveway. He nods at my wreath. We park under the carport. I get out, leave the ailing laurel in the car. Craig stands in the shadows next to the garage by himself and looks in the back.
“Does the wreath mean you won something?” he says.
About the Author: Ian R. Jacoby is an MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco and an overnight librarian. His written work can be seen in Volume One Magazine, The Golden Record Poetry Broadcast, and NOTA. He is a current Zivic fellow and working on his first novel, The Sunset People, which is mostly about civil war reenactors in West Virginia. He played in an indie rock band called Laarks that was signed to Absolutely Kosher Records (Pinback, The Mountain Goats) and toured the US a few times. Laarks received a mediocre Pitchfork review.