“Mindplay” by Matt Posek
Fingers drumming the table. Face, a scowl. The image of impatient rage.
I was sitting down in the cafe, fingers tapping away the seconds of an increasing delay. In front of me was a set chessboard, my phone and a latte. I picked up the latte and sipped. It was lukewarm and getting colder. I set the mug down, my mood worsened for trying it. My phone showed no new messages and mocked me with the time. Forty seven minutes after the hour.
Why am I still here? It’s not like I’m not used to being stood up… But this is different. It wasn’t a date, romantically at least. It’s a chess match. Something neither of us take lightly… Right?
I was pissed, there was no denying that. The barely suppressed rage that was evident on my face, keeping the tables around me empty. A scowl planted on my face as I went from phone to watch to latte back to tapping the table. The baristas trying to ignore the dark cloud at the corner in the store.
Should I say something? Give him a piece of my mind? If that asshole won’t even reply to my texts, I’d be well within my rights to yell at him.
I began to picture my tirade when he came.
“Where have you been?! I wanted to get started an hour ago and now you decide to show up? When it was convenient for you?! The tournament’s coming up! I can’t afford to let it slip away! Neither can you!”
Wrapped up in my vision of righteous rage, I failed to notice the figure coming towards me was Arthur. Still didn’t until he scrapped the chair back and fell into his seat. In my defense, he was wearing sunglasses, despite the dim lighting. I made a quick appraisal of him.
He looks like shit.
“You look like shit,” I said, not incorrectly. His hair splayed all over, stained shirt and jeans, erratic as his hair. Didn’t even bother to shave. Unusual. “What, did you sleep outside?”
“Hello to you, too,” Arthur replied, laying a mug on the table and a glass of water. He kept the glasses on. “You texted like a dozen times and I came here as fast as I could.” He pulled out a couple of pills. “So spare me the criticism.” The pills went down with a long swig of water, quickly followed by coffee. “Thank God for ibuprofen and caffeine.”
He was drinking? So what, a hangover kept him from answering?
“Long night or something?”
“No, I just enjoy making people think I’m hungover,” Arthur snapped. “I had a few demons to work through. But what do you care? You’re clearly pissed you had to wait on me. Let’s get started.”
Wait, why is he upset?
I didn’t say anything to that.
What is there to say? He’s in the wrong here, yet I’m the one feeling like I need to apologize. Why is that?
Wasn’t I going to say something?
We started the game with me as white. One of the privileges afforded the first to show. I opened with a standard queen’s pawn to the center. Arthur responded in kind. Progress was slow as Arthur made each move deliberate, burrow furrowed in concentration. His reactions were dulled, no doubt a result of the hangover. He glared down at the board, but whether it was frustration or focus, I couldn’t tell. I could hear his teeth grind louder as I continued to take his pieces. The game went to me, but as Arthur surrendered, he growled: “This doesn’t count.” He turned his glare to me. “This was just a warm up.”
The second game was more of a fight. Arthur went aggressive, starting to trade as soon as he took his first piece, giving me no respite from his attack. I surrendered after my last defense crumbled away.
This is what I came for. Got to practice against these kinds of strategies. Good to see you’re finally taking this seriously.
The next game, I went with a king’s knight open. We fought for each space, setting up tight defences while probing for openings, readying for the attack. When the time came for the pounce, I saw my bishop had an opening to his queen.
How did I miss that? Was it because he moved that pawn? Is there a downside to this?
There wasn’t and I felt giddy. I made the trade quickly.
He’ll ask for a move back. That’s fine. As long as he knows what could’ve happened.
But Arthur didn’t react as I expected. He studied the board for a long moment, sunglasses guarding his eyes. He strummed at his bottom lip.
Is he going to play on? Granted, this is practice for a tourney, but…
He sighed, pulling away from the table, and leaned back in his chair.
“It’s moments of thoughtlessness that come back to bite you, huh?” Arthur said.
It wasn’t a real question, just a thought made real.
“Just one slip up and it’s all fucked.” Arthur looked out the window as he left me stew over that.
So what, is he surrendering here or…
“Uh… I mean, the game isn’t decided here. We can keep playing…”
What if he isn’t talking about the game?
Arthur scoffed at me, harsh and condescending. He kept his eyes the window.
Honestly, what the fuck is up with this guy? Drops vague statements, loses without grace. Leaves me to wait an hour for his ass. Get on his case.
“Ted and I broke up last night,” Arthur said.
Oh, fuck me.
Anger abated as he pulled off his sunglasses, revealing red eyes. He rubbed his eyes and went to the table.
“We were in the car back from dinner. It was already a sour night, he didn’t like the place we went to. Did like the wine glasses, though. Think that was what started it or something small like that. It just escalated from there and I’m sure we both just saw red as we shouted at one another. Said he was just like my ex-wife Carol and then, then he just snapped.
“Said it was over. He said he wanted me out and started pushing me out the door. I fought back but, and let’s be real, I wasn’t the one who hit the gym regularly. He practically tossed my ass out the door and slammed it as I hit the ground. But I wasn’t done.”
“SoSo whatat did you do?”
“I did the only thing I could think of, pound and shout at the door. Did that for maybe half an hour before security finally came in and manhandled me off the complex. But, as they carried me, I went past his window and I saw him looking out the window. And when our eyes met, he just… had this look to him. And I knew, right there, I knew it was over. Everything we had, gone. I… I didn’t know how to deal with that…”
A pause built up as I processed everything that was just suddenly laid on me.
Damn it. I gotta say something.
“So you went to find a bottle?”
A joke? Risky. Will he mind?
“I went to find a lot of bottles,” he said. “I got so drunk last night, it’s a miracle I’m even here, breathing, forget chess.”
I breathed out a chuckle.
What else is there I can say?
“You guys dated for, what, a year, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, something like that,” Arthur said.
“Well…” Nice. Starting something off that I can’t seem to finish. “These things happen.” Arthur scoffed. He went back to looking out the window.
God, I wonder if he’s been crying all night. Looks like it.
“Well, that’s shit. It’s all shit and I’m sure you feel like that, too. Don’t let it get to you.” He didn’t say anything, just kept looking out the window.
We need to keep practicing. If he’s not going to say anything…
“Look, let’s start up a new game and we can keep talking about it while…”
“I don’t want to play another,” Arthur said.
Fuck. I really don’t want to have this conversation right now.
“I get that you’re out of it and have other things you’d rather do, but the tournament is a week away. We need all the practice we can get. Don’t forget this is your, our livelihood here. Besides, it wasn’t like the two of you were perfect together.”
“What?” Arthur snapped to me with sudden focus.
“Well think about it, the two of you argued constantly. If it wasn’t the meal you had, it was the lack of time you spent cleaning. You’ve got to see bickering like that ain’t normal.”
“What would you know about it?” He asked. “What did you care about our fighting? What do you care about right now? Me or the damn game?”
“Don’t blow it that way, Arthur.”
“Well, now I’m beginning to wonder, Kevin. What’s at the top of your list, me or the tournament?”
Great, he’s set to be pissed at me. Why did he come today? Do I really care about his problems?
The thought held onto me, rung in me like some deep bell so that I couldn’t think of anything else. That kept me quiet and the longer the silence lasted, the worse the situation became. I felt helpless, something I rarely felt while sitting at a chess board.
The connection brought me back to the game. I started to count the moves I would need for the win.
Look at it all, black and white. Every piece and move available to be seen and plotted out. Everything is here, all the information is present. Why can’t I play anything else like chess? Why are all the pitfalls hidden in life when they’re so easily seen on a flat board?
I was out of my element.
I pulled myself out of my head to look at Arthur. He was glaring, waiting.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could manage. “I’m sorry.”
“I shouldn’t have bothered coming,” Arthur growled, grabbing his cup and sunglasses. “I should’ve know you’re only good for practice.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean outside of chess, you’re good for fuck all, Kevin.”
I felt a tightness in my throat. That hurt. I had been told that before by others. I hadn’t expected to hear that again, least of all from Arthur. And then the anger came back.
“So what did you come here for?” I spat back. “Did you come because you really wanted to? Felt like you owed it to me? Or did you come here for pity and cry on my shoulder?”
“I came to meet a friend I thought had an ounce of empathy,” Arthur replied.
“Like I wasn’t sorry for you? Are you calling me a sociopath or what?”
“You were sorry for me?”
“Yes, I was sorry for you! I felt bad! I’m human, of course I can relate!”
“So why is it you always went back to the chess board?”
“What does that have to do…”
“Let me ask you,” Arthur said, cutting me off. “During this whole thing, what was it you thought about most: me, the game or that you have no fucking clue as to what’s going on outside of your head?”
I was struck blind, deaf and dumb. I wasn’t ready for it, ready to be cut to the core like that. All I could do is stare at him as he rose from the table.
“Just what I thought,” he said. “You’re a good chess partner, Kevin, and a shit friend.”
You idiot, stop him. He can’t just leave like that.
“Arthur,” I said. I didn’t say anything else.
What can I say?
“I’ll see you at the preliminaries,” he said and walked out the door. I watched until he was out of sight and went back to the board.
From the ashes of defeat, Arthur pulled a victory.
My mouth went sour. I packed away the board and left. I needed to stop staring at so much black and white.
I need to get out of my head.