For as long as he could remember, Jerome Buckle wanted to be a king. “One day,” he told the moon, “I will be a king and I will promote you to the rank of sun.” He read every book about the dark and middle ages he could get his youthful hands on, supplied by his grandfather and, shortly, came to learn of chess. He felt instantly drawn to the aesthetics of the game and endeavoured to learn its peculiar mechanics, the better to extract its mysteries. He played game after game against his grandfather, losing every time. Even after perpetual defeat he refused to give up and one day he took his grandfather’s king, knocking it off the board with a triumphant “ha-ha!” His grandfather smiled and nodded stoically and congratulated the boy and then picked up the chess-piece and placed it gingerly back upon the board.
“That was very good. But you shouldn’t gloat if you win.”
“Don’t apologize either.”
On his eighth birthday he came to understand the futility of his desires; he would never be a king. President, he decided, would suffice. He wondered if they let presidents wear crowns…
A month after his birthday, his grandfather didn’t come home from work at the car plant at the usual time. Some hours later a woman came by who Jerome had never seen before, round-faced and cold-eyed. She curtly told him her grandfather was very ill and that he had to go to the hospital. “Cancer,” she said.
Three months later Jerome stood in the city hospital before his grandfather’s bed. He was confused. He didn’t recognize the person on the bed until they spoke.
“Jerome… come here.”
The stranger on the bed held out a long, withered hand. Beckoning. Death himself made corporeal. Jerome knew then that it was his grandfather, this shrunken husk of man, filled over with tubes, lips bluish, bloodless and crusted and even still couldn’t bring himself to move.
A month later he stood over his grandfather’s coffin, fighting back tears. Those tears turned to rain which he watched out the window of the orphanage that had become his new home. He didn’t like it there. No one knew or cared to play chess. Failing to find a worthy opponent he resolved to play himself and spent every sunset and rise at the tiny little desk set up for him in a chair far too large for his tiny frame, clinking the small wooden pieces of his grandfather’s chess set across the board with tactical precision and judicious forethought. He beat his late grandfather and he beat himself and shortly he had a new opponent in Catherine, the cold-eyed woman who had picked him up and driven him to the city hospital. He was told she was to be his guardian. When she walked through the door and knelt before him at his desk he was silent for nearly a minute before he turned and spoke.
“Do you know how to play chess?”
She said she did but that there was no time to play games and, obediently, he went. He followed her until they were at the door of her car and then took off running. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing be he didn’t care for the orphanage nor the woman who was to be his guard and keep.
She let up a howl. He paid no heed. By rise of sun he found himself in the park where his grandfather used to take him. Two old men moved to a table. They were playing chess. Their weathered faces palled by whorling puffs of smoke, eyes cheaply sunglassed against the midday glare. Buckle walked cautiously up behind the pair, like a hunter stalking prey, the sound of his sneakers muted by the gently swaying grass. Aromatic and teeming with a horde of things unseen, nameless and skittering.
Buckle froze behind the aged willow tree he was peaking round. He was confused why the old man with the orange cap, the shorter of the two, would be asking his opponent if he could play the game when it was clearly already underway.
“You play, kid?”
The old man inquired again, without turning. Buckle was momentarily taken aback. He considered turning and running, but the man’s kindly tone implored him to stay. Belatedly, he moved fully out and around the tree and stood before the table. Neither man, looked at him. They were focused on their game.
“Yeah. I’m not very good though.”
“Course not. You’re – what?”
“Polite for your age.”
“Try to be, sir. Looks like you’re winning.”
Finally, the man with the orange cap looked up at the boy and smiled faintly.
“I’d better. Running out of time.”
The old man with the orange cap paused considering his next words carefully.
“Cancer. You know what that is, kid?”
“Well, I got it.”
The man with the orange cap smiled wider, revealing crooked teeth, and puffed on his pipe, staring down his friend with triumphant expectation until the tall man shook his head.
“You wily sonnofabitch.”
“Damn it. Good game, Joe.”
Joe shook his friend hand and then looked to the kid.
“Hey Frankie, you mind giving up your seat?”
“Sure. Here kid, take a load off. I’m gonna go grab a coffee.”
Buckle took the tall man’s seat and folded his hands on his lap as the old man took a puff on his pipe and looked right and left and then back to the kid.
“Where are your parents?”
“They went out to eat.”
“They don’t mind you being out here?”
“You wouldn’t be lying, now would you?”
Buckle moved his leftmost pawn up a square as a bird swooped down from the sky and began pecking furiously at the ground. Shortly, the avian withdrew a long, thick, wriggling worm, took a few hops and fluttered off into the breeze.
The old man took his turn and then leaned back and followed the child’s eyes.
“My names Frank. Whats yours?”
“Jerome.” He was focused on the board, on the shimmering wooden forms. He imagined them alive and rattling steel and roaring as they trampled their foes beneath their ruthless, clattering heels.
They went back and forth, back and forth until at last the old man won. Buckle looked down at the table, ashamed of his inferiority.
“Hey, don’t look so glum. You gave me a run for my money.”
Buckle looked up and when he did he didn’t seen an aged-ruined man in the twilight of his life, but a mighty warrior, clad in shimmering male. He nodded to the old man. He was right. He had given him a run for his money. A storm began to brew and the willow whipped up a song whereupon the boy looked off into the gathering outer dark and thought of his grandfather.
“Mister, you think they play chess in heaven?”
The old man thought on that a moment and then shook his hoary head.
“Gods only play with dice.”