SevenMature

It’s the first nice Saturday in months and the park is full to bursting with people. As I sit on my bench the joggers jog by, the strollers stroll by, there are picnics of varying sizes going on all around me. I glance at them all but none hold by attention like the two gray-haired Italian men across from me.

I’ve been watching them play chess on one of those giant outdoor sets, the pieces nearly reaching their navels. They’ve been alternating between joking loudly with each other and studying their pieces intently. Every move has been greeted with cries of joy, admiration, mockery, but never silence. It’s fascinating.

The man in the brown tweed cap, open collared white business shirt and black slacks seems to have just won but I’m honestly not sure. His playing partner, wearing thick glasses, a yellow golf shirt and brown slacks, is either congratulating him on a game well won or well contested. They both look quite pleased; maybe it was a tie?

“Hey, you want to play a match?”

I look over my shoulder to see who Tweed Cap is asking but find nobody there. What, he didn’t mean me did he? People ignore me; they don’t offer to play games with me.

“You on the bench there, come over here,” Golf Shirt calls out, waving me over. Before I’m off the bench they start to set the board up, separating white and black like they used to do in the South; except these men are much gentler, placing the pieces with a little reverence.

“I’m Paul and this is Antony,” Golf Shirt tells me as I arrive at the white end of the board. “What’s your name?”

“I’m J,” I reply, looking uneasily at the pieces in front of me.

“J isn’t a name, it’s a letter of the alphabet,” Antony says with a raspy laugh. I smile politely.

“You know how to play chess?” Paul asks, his glasses making his eyes too big at this distance.

“No,” I admit, half-hoping that will be enough to get out of this.

“Ah, no problem, no problem,” Paul says. “I’ll help you out and Tony’ll go easy on you.”

“You never went easy on me when I was learning!”

“Oh hush Tony. All right J, these guys in the front row are called pawns. Don’t let their name fool you; how you make use of them is often the difference between winning and losing.”

“Got it.” I can tell I’m in over my head already.

“These two castle tower looking pieces on the ends, they’re called rooks,” Paul continues. “The horses beside them are knights, then those phallic buggers are called bishops. I’m catholic so I try not to read too much into that.”

I laugh for the first time in a long, long time. Maybe this will be all right - hell it might even be fun. I could use some clean, honest fun.

“Now these two royals in the middle are the key pieces J. The king and the queen,” he says, laying a wrinkled hand on each.

“So you use the king to protect the queen?” I ask, starting to really get into it.

“That’s mighty chivalrous of you!” Antony says.

“It is indeed, it is indeed,” Paul says with a smile. “No J, the queen is a very powerful piece, and losing her can be devastating, but the game isn’t decided until a king is captured.”

“So the queen has the real power,” I say, mind whirling, “but if the king falls the kingdom crumbles.”

“Yes, exactly it!” Paul says, looking a bit too proudly at his student. Suddenly I begin to worry that I’ll let him down by playing badly. “Now let me show you how each piece can move – don’t worry though, I’ll remind you as the game goes on.”

I watch closely as he ambles around the board, mimicking a pawn, then a rook, knight, bishop and lastly the royals. The knight is confusing but the rest seem pretty straightforward.

“Those are the basics, enough to get you started,” Paul says as he steps off the board. “We’ll go slow and talk about strategies and other nonsense when you’re ready for it.”

“Enough with all your jabbering!” Antony yells from across the board. “Lets play!”

“Oh settle down Tony, what’s the rush? Old geezer,” Paul mutters to me. “You ready to give it a shot?”

I look up at the sunlight bursting through the trees above us, listen to the birds and laughter all around us, and wonder what on earth I’m doing here. What would TJ or Karl think if they saw me now? Nobody would believe me if I said I spent a Saturday afternoon learning to play chess in the park. I guess this is just for me then.

“J?”

“Yeah, I’m ready.”

I roll up my sleeves, move onto the board and take hold of a pawn. “Good luck,” I say for no good reason. Antony motions impatiently for me to make a move. I smile again, amazed by my own happiness. I move the pawn forward two spaces.

And so we begin.

The End

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