Early summer sun, dew darkens my baby blue slacks as I walk through the park. Such a quiet lisp, sneakers in grass! Snuck out without waking Natasha. Ha! The day has begun in fine fashion. It’s 8 a.m. Dunkin Donuts coffee courses through my veins. The lake is a blue plate and the chess pavilion is still empty. There is no way in hell I’m 70 years old. I almost, but not quite, start skipping.
Here is my Cubs bleacher cushion making sitting for hours on a stone bench bearable. Never could fatten out a cushion of my own. I have my favorite seat. Unencumbered view of Lake Michigan, right under the lip of the roof. One lonely sail way out, mile or so. I am sailing too, on the boat. I look to shore and see a short old man the size of a pea. He unfurls a plastic chess mat like a wise guy doing the tablecloth trick. His arm back and forth sets up each plastic piece with a violent slap.
Back ashore, I temper my ardor with the white bishop. It’s cracked, you see, held together with a scotch tape belt. Stupid kid speed chess players. Temper your ardor, I’d told him. Hah, he’d said, ardor. Ephram, he’d said, you’re a character. I said, Play with your own pieces, Superman. This character can’t afford more pieces. Stupid kid speed chess players. Ought to respect us old men. We are the bishops of the lakeshore. Slender, wiry. Surprising power when unfurled.
I could cut across the board when I was 25, in Riga. Drew with Tal. No shit. Magician let me sneak into an equal endgame. It was a 40 man simul, but I was proud. Only draw with 39 losses. Okay, he was blindfolded. But still. We shook hands after. I must be tired, he’d said, head in a cloud of smoke. Magician of Riga indeed. Sore fucking loser, that one. Great man but a real asshole.
That was me in my prime. I’m an old man now. Must wear a sailor’s cap to keep my nude pate from the cancer. Pants even in high heat, my old man legs unseemly. For many years, I stopped chess completely. Taught Russian and Mathematics at the University of Chicago. Natasha never completely forgave me for moving her from her parents. We made a life, though. We danced and drank and tore around Hyde Park in a little Alfa Romeo I saved up and bought. Oh boy, that is a fine woman right there going by. Such musculature. Oh, preserve your beauty through any means, you beautiful rollerblading Venus!
Time passes, sun crawls higher. I continuously adjust all my pieces in front of me until they are perfectly centered in their home squares. Oh yes, I think. I will be black. You can have 7 minutes to my 3. I imagine setting the digital clock. Ready, I think. His face a composite of all the punks. Careless kids with no respect for the game. Lunching businessmen who think their employee’s obsequy signals some sort of merit. Bring it, you sneering, leering suit!
Oh, king’s gambit. You think so, do you? I will use Fischer’s defense. He proved you unsound so many years ago! Spassky beat him that once but never again. Respect the game, sir! There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy. Sometimes all falls away. The lakeshore path empties, quiets. Willie’s trashtalking (“This is my HOUSE! You do NOT bring such FISH MOVES into my SACRED HOUSE!”), even that, that goes asymptotic. Those times I am 25 again and the pieces are gone it is just pure ideas and my short legs lazily tap, tap into the concrete bench metronomically, my heart beats a move at a time and my hand like magic extricates this horse from danger, turns up the pressure by degrees, tighter and tighter, your plans find no purchase in the face of my remorseless logic. It is not often I am like this. A few times a day. I play for those times alone.
Here comes Larry. Big black man like a bear, missing 2 fingers you don’t notice until after the game somehow. Closing handshake unfulfilling. He lumbers down the path like the decades-long alcoholic he is. Green sweatpants, white t-shirt, sack of pieces swinging in his whole, left hand. Larry, my friend, I say. He is amiable, unlike some drunks. God help us all if he could stop drinking. As is, he’s maybe 2100 USCF. Top 1 percent. Dried out, big Larry would be grandmaster, sure.
It’s that time, Larry says. Closer now, I see his bloody red eyes. His copper skin is aglow with a sweaty film. It’s time for you to learn, Ephram, Larry says. Yeah, yeah, I say. His hand, somehow both trembling and graceful, plucks his queen’s pawn between two fingers and sort of tosses it forward two squares. It’s as if to say, there you go, guy. I deign to play you. Ha, Larry, you are so much! He’s looking out to the lake, lighting up a Newport as I decide how to open. It’s just me and Larry out here, an ancient Latvian and a homeless black drunk savant in a sort of abstract combat invented by some Indian courtier a few millennia ago. There is some wind and no clouds. There is no time. My clock is ticking. It is 10 a.m., I have 9:36 seconds left on my clock, I am at North Avenue and Lakeshore in downtown Chicago on a beautiful June Tuesday. O.k. old man, no time for dreams, knight out in Queen’s Indian Defense. Let’s begin.
Part 2: Larry's Fire