My young adversary sat in his chair wearing a general's mien, certain - even cocksure, his battlefield laid out before him on the roundtable of Evergreen Nursing Home's recreation hall, a place my beloved State of Georgia has leased me for the good part of six years. Lord Bryan, as he is fondly referred to by my fellow inmates, has played his rook in line with my dear queen in hopes that I might be distracted by the sheer number of black chessmen still in service to me. With his finger off the ill-fated worrier he recoils slowly, as would the family dog with the yet to be cooked steak clenched freshly in his canines. His maneuver is not fatal but it will cause losses at every next move. I play on, my hand trembling at the touch of each piece. My mind however is keen, like a child but with the kind of patience only time can nurture.
"You win again, Mr. Wilson."
His avowal comes without a hint of begrudging, not one ounce of insecurity or resentment.
"Next Wednesday as always Mr. Wilson?"
I remind him of the appointment made weeks ago to see Dr. Winshaw, a fellow 40 years my junior who seems to take pride in the distance he can introduce foreign objects into my body without causing long term damage.
"But, Thursday will work fine for me Bryan, if your mom could see fit to drop you here after school."
He assures me he will be here Thursday 3:30 sharp and that I should prepare myself to taste the bitter fruit of defeat.
I peered out the door of my examination room down the long hallway to see if it had cleared from its earlier congestion. To my amazement, it had filled to where I could no longer see the room where Dr. Winshaw set waiting with the news of my expiration. Patients were being led by nurses; their johnny's opened to various degrees. Some struggled to keep the seam folded so as to keep their hallowed backside from being exposed; others gave up the cause though no one in the hall paid them any mind. There were gurneys with the sick and injured lying about them and orderlies steering them through the crowded hall making certain they adhered to traffic laws and proper hospital etiquette. Janitors stood sentry with their mops and buckets waiting for any blood spatter or stomach contents to land on the shiny tile causing a hazardous situation for commuters hurrying in the narrow corridors. Doctors walked with their eyes on clipboards, somehow avoiding collisions and mishaps. There were policeman, relatives, and wheel chairs being pushed. Some had bottles with tubes leading to the arm of the person in the chair. The air was alive with moans, screams, and voices that blended into a sonorous hum. There was joking and crying and people saying goodbye while others were being greeted.
I pulled the fold tight on the blue and white johnny being careful not to press hard on the wounded orifice Dr. Winshaw had explored just two hours before. I yielded to a janitor on his way to a food cart collision then merged into the lane that seemed to be moving at the steadier pace. With an arm concentrating on the split gown, I held the other forward as thought it were a battering ram, the strategy working so wonderfully I wondered why others had not thought of it.
Dr. Winshaw's office lay five doors ahead on the left. I was fortunate to see it in time to make my way against traffic, otherwise I would be forced to wait for the end of the hall and double back. He greeted me with a forced smile and a soft handshake. The framed accomplishments on his walls told me what he was about to report was to be more than a lucky guess. I sat in a soft vinyl chair feeling the cold plastic penetrate the wispy material of my hospital issue, the sensation making me long for the clothes I arrived in for I believe that in my healthiest state, the split johnny's would cause me to feel somewhat under the weather.
He was seated coolly across from me exuding all the confidence his profession afforded him. He spoke of cells and growths, vital organs and age. He used cars as an analogy; high miles, lack of maintenance, years of neglect. He was matter of fact showing no pity on my poor soul. But he was right – about the cigarettes and the booze, about the lack of exercise and doctors, and indeed I was at least 35 in car years. He read my test results like an autobiography, digging deep into my past as if we were lifelong friends.
"There are ways to extend your life but they are highly invasive and given your age and how far the cancer has progressed, I don't feel..."
"That it's worth it?" I interrupted.
"There are other ways of saying it – but yes."
"So how long?"
"A month. And that would be a gift."
The proclamation wasn't a surprise to me but the reality I felt was. I had just been told my death date, give or take a week; it was information I thought only God was privy to. Dr. Winshaw wasn't the ultimate being, nor was he a saint or even a bishop, but he wielded enough divine authority to inform me my time on this earth was about to come to a conclusion.
"There will be medication for you to help with the pain. I'll see to it that Evergreen is informed of your condition; they'll make the transition as comfortable as possible I'm sure."
Transition(?) He talks as if I'm starting a new job.
"Is there anything else I can do for you Mr. Wilson?"
His question was rhetorical I'm sure, like the sales clerk who just sold a $500.00 watch.
I assured him he's done quite enough and with my left hand clasping my gown, I shook the good doctors hand with my right and thanked him for his valuable time; he nodded giving me an accomplished, sympathetic visage and wished me well.
I boarded the senior bus for what was probably my last look outside the opaque walls of Evergreen. The pain that has gripped me these past few months reappeared as if given the go ahead to finish the job; how cruel this disease is that it possess not only my body but also my thoughts leaving little room for any subject except my mortality. As the bus entered the half circle drive, my mind did inquiry as to what I might do in the next life. I thought of the weatherman who collects his pay rain or shine; the doctor, life or death; I hope to find such a line of work my next time around.
Bryan, as promised was in the rec hall at 3:30, the chessboard pieces at attention awaiting further orders. It was eight months since he first came to the nursing home along with seven other Boy Scouts. The residents were a project for the young, something I might have found offensive if I were a cripple or deformed in some way, but as an old man with no breathing kin, I could forgive their charity. Six of the boys did their obligatory visits receiving the appropriate patch for time served. Bryan, however, took a liking to chess and me for reasons unknown and so continued coming to Evergreen; his intent shifting from humanitarian to affable competitor.
The pain of my liver being consumed stalked me as I took my seat opposite the fifteen-year-old boy with his eyes following me until I was seated.
"You o.k. Mr. Wilson?"
My smile was not a convincing answer, but I decided to leave the question at that.
"All right, if you feel up to it I'd like to move first. I've been playing on the web and seen some moves that'll have you dazed and confused "
I agreed, then spun the board so that the white chess pieces faced me, a ritual that had not been questioned by the young man until this day.
"Ya know, Mr. Wilson, we've been playing together since last October and each time the black chessmen face you, you spin the board so they're facing me."
I looked up at him with tired eyes and wait for a question.
"Ah, is there a special reason you do that, is it some sort of superstition? You beatin me with black magic Mr. Wilson?"
I had hoped his curiosity would force the inquiry. Dr. Winshaw told me I would be dead by the next new moon and I had not a sole to share that with. Bryan would be my tombstone, the epitaph I write he will hold within to do with as he pleased. Forgotten or perpetuated, it only mattered that I do not leave this life as I came into it; unknown. In my mind, for what it was worth, he would be my legacy.
"My daddy introduced me to the game of chess; he watched it being played on the railroad cars where he worked as a porter."
Bryan sat back in his chair when I began. He must have known an answer lurked in an old man's memoirs and so was curious enough to indulge me.
"In God's infallible wisdom he put a black baby boy, in the Deep South, around the early twenty's, and made him a prodigy to a game maybe fifty people in the whole State of Mississippi knew how to play and none of em of the Negro persuasion I assure you. It be like you Bryan, having the heavenly talent for playing the blues harp and singing slave songs; not much audience for either. But ya know, it didn't bother me; I didn't think nothin bout age or hate or any of that.
Daddy taught me bout the knight, the rook, the king and queen, the pawns-he showed me what each could do and what little strategy he learned watching it being played on the train. Once I learned what he could teach me, I started beatin him. It got so he'd sooner grease up his hands on that old beat up tractor of his then get beat by me.
I started teachin his buddies when they would come over to our cottage to cook up whatever game they killed. That was o.k. for a short while. I was teachin em and they seem to like the idea of playin the new game; it was like they was feelin smarter then the others cause they could play this game of chess. I'd have three, four matches goin at once-they played and ate and I got to do bout the only thing I was least bit good at, sides readin. After a while though, they got to where they'd be drunk halfway through a game, laughin and not payin attention. I think they just got tired of losin. Daddy told me I should try lettin someone else win once in a while, maybe folks would want to play with me more. But that didn't make much sense to me, losin on purpose.
The minister at our church heard about how I could play this new game and decided to make Wednesday's, chess night at the downstairs hall. He said it be good for members to get involved for reasons other than choir practice and bitchin bout things.
Our first night we made sixteen chess boards outa extra tin from Bo Andrew's barn. We painted squares and I drew what all the pieces looked like and everyone got to do cutouts from cardboard. Some of the women even joked of makin biscuits in the shape of the chess pieces and playin on the kitchen table.
Reverend Jonathan was proud as a rooster for getting everyone together for a common cause, comparing himself to Yahweh uniting his flock and bringin em to the Promised Land. He never let an opportunity slip by to put his name alongside some bible figure. One time, at a catfish fry, he couldn't finish his plate so he gave his leftovers to my friends, Billy and Jimmy. Next Sunday, he compared his charity to Jesus and the loaves and fishes miracle. Nobody seemed to mind much though cus he was a real good speaker, he got the folks excited bout being where they was.
Well–anyway, pretty soon I was playin a whole bunch of matches, mostly teachin, but some of the members was getting real good and had me thinking more then a minute bout my next move. After a while, they was playin each other and I would walk round the tables like a college professor, case someone needed help or had a question. Even broke up a fight once though it was mostly just shovin.
Word was spreadin that a church full of blacks was learnin chess and some even said I was teachin em how to read, least the ones who couldn't. Well let me tell you son, in the early South there were two things that made white people nervous; a black man with a brain and black man who could use it.
Seems the town folks had a meetin and sent a fella over to the church with a proposition. We weren't used to such a thing back then, so we figured it would be somethin like; you niggers stop playin this game of chess and whatever else you're learnin or we'll torch your houses and hang a couple of ya for good measure. But this fella, who had pockmarked skin and was no taller than a seven-year-old I swear, made no threat of any kind.
Outta this meetin came the idea of having a celebrated chess match with this thirteen year old crackerjack against the town's grand master with the stakes being our Wednesday night meeting and that there be no more chess playin. They was pretty high on the fella I was gonna play cus there was no 'and if ya'll win' and we figured it be best if we didn't ask.
I wasn't scared one bit bout playin, but Reverend Jonathan thought he should give me a talk anyway telling me if I said no I'd be letting not only the church and all the black folks down, but I'd be letting God down too. Now God was the last one I wanted mad at me, even more than a bunch of jittery whites, so I assured him I'd do the good Lords work and make him and the rest of the folks proud.
It was a much-anticipated night for the confident town's people as they filled the street in front of City Hall. The ladies was dressed in their best church clothes and the men's was suited up as if they was bout to see a race at the Kentucky Derby. They smoked cigars and wore smooth hats on their proud heads and they was pleased as punch with their situation. A quartet played on the porch in front of Percy's Hardware and people sipped beer and drinks from stemmed glasses. Not much happenin in March so they played up our match like it was some sort of holiday they'd put a name to after I got my little black butt kicked. A mahogany table was placed in the middle of the street, a chair with cushions bound in fine leather faced the board on one side and a simple metal stool faced it opposite. A third chair, somewhat more comfortable than mine, had sand timers for the official who just happened to be Pastor Burgess Flint of the First Congregational Church and a fair chess player in his own right, I was told.
I took my seat on the ridged stool surrounded by a hushed crowd, just staring like they never seen a black kid before. Back then when a whole town of white people was huddled around a black man it meant the jury had come to a decision. The feelin I had sittin there was an unpleasant one at best. Reverend Jonathan and the rest could go no further then the sidewalk, still it's bout as close as ever seen the two colors sharing the same street.
The man I was to play appeared from the tall wooden doors of City Hall to the delight of the crowd. He waved with both arms as he walked down the granite steps actin every bit like a heavyweight champ. He wore a striped white shirt and suspenders to hold the gray pants around his belly, surely they would have landed to his ankles without their assistance.
When he reached the small dark table, the men sang out three "hip-hip-hooray's' and the ladies politely clapped as their eyes gazed on the one who would show those uppity nigger's their rightful place. I stood from my stool offering my hand, the gesture causing a momentary hush-I pulled it back, but kept my eyes on him. He had a large round head and lacked hair cept for his beard, which was full and dark with a streak of white runnin down the center of his chin. His green eyes looked past me as he acknowledged his audience, his short heavy arms gesturing for applause before he filled the rich lookin chair.
The chess pieces were finer than any others I had ever seen. They were carved in marble, like figurines you'd display in an elegant wood cabinet. Even the pawns took on a personality from their ornate carving-it was quite a sight.
The stout man clasped his sausage like fingers together extending them till they sounded like a fist full of walnuts being cracked at once, then his eyes narrowed to the chessboard. Suddenly he rose up, like a float in a parade that just broke all it's moorings, finally turning his attention to me.
'Behold' he said, his right arm extending towards me. Just like that, a hundred pairs of eyes was lookin right through me.
'A nigger who commands a white army, what chance do they have with such a general? And me,' his hand was thumpin at his chest. 'Shall I take this nigger army into battle? What do you suppose the outcome would be?'
A low hum of confusion settled over the crowd til a voice rang out.
'A draw sir – you'll both lose'.
'Yes my good man, a draw! How could an all nigger force protect their king and what would become of a white man's army with a nigger general to lead them?'
A roar blanketed the air as he sat again, his eyes piercing threw mine. He spun the heavy marble board and said to me over the raucous noise, 'Ain't no nigger gonna beat a white man, always remember that boy. Don't ever forget your place in this world."
His face brightened as he addressed his people. 'Now it's as it should be. Let's get on with it!'
My opponent must have thought those words were new to me. Hate for black folks came in all shapes and sizes. On this night I believed they came from someone who needed an edge, he couldn't lose. In some ways there was as much at stake as the poor black boy sitting before him; at least I'm sure that's what ran through his mind.
That's what started me playing the black chessmen whenever possible. I had to prove, if only to myself, that what he told me that night wouldn't hold true. After that game, I made it my life's work to prove all of em wrong."
"Jesus, Mr. Wilson, I had no idea. "
Bryan looked past me as if distracted by the poor artwork that hung on the rec room walls.
"I couldn't imagine going through that at thirteen. Or being that good at one single thing; no wonder I can't touch you. And the chess game-what happened, or should I ask?"
"It took an hour and a half, including the three breaks my opponent needed to relieve his bladder, for me to call check-mate. Knocking over that white king made me feel ten foot tall."
"You beat him? You actually beat an older guy, and in front of all those people? Didn't they get pissed seeing their guy get beat by a black kid?"
"Oh, they were pissed all right. It was like I just stole a kiss from the mayors' daughter when it sunk in. I pushed through the shocked mob and made my way to the sidewalk. Pastor Jonathan, sensing the uneasiness to the loss, caught up with me and whispered 'Maybe you should have let him beat you.' As we made haste to our homes, with my back to them, I wondered the same thing."
"How'd they take it – I mean the town's people and what happened to the guy you beat?"
"That night our church burnt to the ground."
"Holy crap, they burnt your church cause of a chess game?"
"It never was about chess Bryan. It was a matter of showing us they was the top of the food chain. I lose, they take learnin from us. I win, they try and take our soul. And that ole boy I beat, he was on a train the next morning holding only one suitcase. I heard he moved to Kansas City to work at his brother's funeral home."
"They rebuild the church I hope?"
"No. Members found other churches. Reverend Jonathan went north to spread the Gospel like only he could. I was told he used his burning church in his preaching relating the experience to Nebuchednezzar or some such thing."
"So, did ya stop playin for a while, at least till things cooled off?
"I always thought God gave me the knowledge to play like I can, like I was pulled from the assembly line – figured it had to lead to something more than getting white people so pissed they start burnin churches down. Einstein's theories eventually led to a whole bunch of dead people but it didn't stop him from coming up with new theories. People couldn't get used to a black man being so good at a game we weren't supposed to even know how to play. I wasn't going to stop playing because a race of people didn't like seeing it. Probably should have. But I was a stubborn kid."
"Did ya figure it out?"
"What's that Lord Bryan?"
"Why you could play chess the way you can?"
""If you're asking if it's made a difference in this world, then no. Have I ever wondered why, have I ever asked? Yes"
An interruption from the double doors to the rec room appeared in the form of Nurse Grechen, a ripe little woman who worked her wing like a prison warden. She informed my company his mother was in the lobby and that I needed to start swallowing pills, compliments of Dr. Winshaw. I assured her Bryan would be along and she should take her ring of keys and start checking the other cells.
"I'm told my body's gonna be taken a much needed rest - guess this is gonna be our last game; according to Doc Winshaw, it's a pretty good guess I'm not gonna be around much longer."
"Are you dying?"
"I look at it like checkin into a place where I know more people and the halls don't smell like a train carrying ammonia just derailed."
"I never had anyone die on me before... Except for our shepherd Pickles, he was hit by a car. Dad cried the whole time he buried him."
The moist shine in his eyes was tempered by a young man's ego.
"You named a German Shepherd Pickles?"
"My parents own a deli, remember?"
"That poor animal mighta thrown himself under that car with a name like Pickles."
"It was mom's idea."
"Well, I don't want you cryin over my sorry butt. I've lived a long time and found the experience to be quite educational, if not a bit tryin at times."
"What happened to Mrs. Wilson?"
The question was asked in the way a policeman would wonder where I was last night around 10:00. My answer some months back was satisfactory, I thought, as it had been to those who have inquired over the years. His inquisitive nature to chess, to those who pass time here at Evergreen, to life from an old man's perspective makes me wonder why I'm surprised at the question he has posed to me once again.
"Life" I said, "the actual part of living on this great green earth is a gift. People, however, the ones we must share it with, can be cruel, downright monstrous at times. Hard to stand upright you're whole damn life."
"She didn't die in a car accident did she?"
"No son. I found her hung from a tree in our back yard. General consensus of the locals was suicide. Mrs. Wilson and I was deeply in love – was gonna start a family. I knew she wouldn't leave that for anything."
I struggled to swallow the dryness in my mouth.
"I'm – I'm sorry, Mr. Wilson. I'm sorry I don't have words for you. I'm..."
His eyes didn't leave the floor as the rec room fell silent for us amongst the afternoon bustle.
"Federals re-opened her murder, some years later."
His head finally lifted to meet my yellow gaze.
"They find em, the ones who killed her?"
Our conversation is as far as I have traveled on the subject of my wife. I have limited my thoughts of her to memories of our courtship and the time we had before I found her. If God's plan for me was to have my heart ripped out so that I might dig deep in myself and find forgiveness, then I have failed. My hate has been put in proper perspective and I have decided to leave the pardoning for him.
A minute had passed or maybe it was two, as Bryan waited – tolerant of an old man's lapses.
"Mind if I give you some advice Bryan? Consider it a gift to a dying man."
"Yes Mr. Wilson; please"
"Ya got a kind heart spending time with some lonely old people."
"I like being here; with you and the others" his voice trailing off.
"I just want to say, don't ever be ashamed of who you are. You're a good lookin white kid with a family that cares and you have a kind heart; all that's like getting twenty points on the spread. Use what the good Lord gave you and don't take it for granted. Basketball players are born to be tall, that don't make em good.
And son – don't ever let hate take control. I chewed on it for years and got real thirsty, wasted a lot of time."
I raised and took the young man's soft grip.
"One more thing Bryan. When ya shake a man's hand, let em know ya mean it; simple things, like the pawn-they matter.
"Yes, sir Mr.Wilson"
"Ya been a real friend. Now if you don't mind your momma's waitin and I need to take something to lessen the hurt inside."
"Congressman? The speakers on line two."
"Hello Bryan? Yeah, I just wanted to congratulate you. It was a fine bill and now we can call it law."
"Thank you, Jeff. I think the country will be just a little better because of this vote".
"Agreed Bryan, and again congratulations."
Bryan Stallworth stood from his desk and spun towards the wall where a framed letter given to him nineteen years ago at Theodore Wilson's funeral hung by itself.
"Your life was relevant Mr. Wilson."
He spoke to his reflection in the glass and for a moment imagined his old friend smiling behind the words he had read so many times before.
October 5, 1965
Dear Mr. Theodore Wilson,
With Congratulations and gratitude, I am humbled to honor someone who personifies the very embodiment of what it is to be an American.
Your fortitude, tenacity, and bravery against odds most people will never and could ever know, have put you on the summit of the chess world, an accomplishment only a handful have achieved – and never by an American, I might add.
Before we can truly call ours a civilized nation, we must tear down those walls that separate whites and black. We will someday attain that goal by having outstanding people like you face prejudice with steadfast tenacity and not allow hatred to get in the way of equality. Again, congratulations.
Lyndon B. Johnson
President of the United States
Author Notes: Wrote this a few years ago; figured I share it. Thanks for taking the time to read it