David Evan Krebs
Willard's arrayed the pieces he's taken from me by point value. The ones I've captured are arrayed in some sort of probabilistic fractal distribution, I'm sure. Because there's order in everything, right?
"Willard!" I restrain an insult I haven't quite formed. Willard smirks at me, sensing it trying to get loose. But he doesn't say anything, because his mind's in games-before-humanity mode. Why he doesn't tire of this is beyond me—'I think it's clear by now that my chess skills, in their finer moments, amount to remembering most of the rules. But I guess he's not in it for the challenge.
I won't resign. I think he resents it when I do that. I'll just slowly adjust my perception antennae to dial in the right amount of chess, the right amount of attractive, hip café-goers, the right amount of ambient Tom Waits.
"Willard, listen to this."
He grunts in pseudo-reply. I don't think he should have to think about the game as much as he does, but maybe I've accidentally done something competent.
"I saw this guy painting at a booth the other day. Some of his work was on sale, and one piece caught my eye. A painting of a kid. A kid with a balloon, with an animal face on it. Some kind of chimera monkey-mantis-rhino. It was a pretty good painting. He was selling it at a discount, like he didn't like it—not his best work, he said. But I thought it was pretty good. But that's not the point. The point is, I don't think it was a painting. I mean it was a painting..."
Willard takes my king. Wait, no, that can't be right. It's my bishop. I castle, crafting my future turtle-fortress in my mind, a barrier for Will to blunt himself on while I take my time telling my story.
"So yeah, it was a painting, but. But also it was just so much him, the painter. I could practically see the balloon from the painting hovering over his head, haunting him, judging him, trying to bully him into seeing it. If he saw it, I'm sure it would gain tremendous power over him."
I stop and look at Willard intently, raising my eyebrows. I don't know if he doesn't respond because he's gotten used to me, or if he's just concentrating so hard he hasn't heard me. He's all scrunched up like chess players get. Not quite tunnel vision—'more like shrinky vision. Like the whole world has shrunk down and distorted into a perfect grid. Like he doesn't need to ignore anything to act like it isn't there—'he's pretty sure he's looking at everything already.
I'm not sure it matters if he hears me, at least not consciously. But maybe he'll dream about this later.
"So and the kid looks like him, like, a lot. I don't think he meant it to. I mean, the kid was this lanky redhead girl like nine years old, and he was like this little bear of a guy in his thirties. But I think it was him. Like, his fucking soul. Just something written across her details, something in the little titanium-white fleck of highlight on her pupils—'they were him.'"
I shift my feet around under the table, slip out of a shoe and roll some grit around against the worn floorboards until I lose it in a crack expanded over the years by innumerable wandering feet. I'm thinking about the look in the little girl's eyes, like the guy's soul was more in her than in him. But I don't say that out loud. Don't wanna look weird.
Willard takes my rook. That smarts, but it lets me put my last bishop somewhere inconvenient for him. Not threatening, but inconvenient. He'll have to dance for a few moves. I scoot the bishop very slowly, keep my hand on it awhile, pretend to think, then finally let it go.
"So I looked at this guy for a while, and then gave up, and just looked at the painting instead. I figured I'd learn more about him that way. And then it came to me: this painting, it was a bad idea. I swear this little girl, this balloon must've come to him in a vision, a dream, a deep-regression therapy session. It wasn't a painting—it was an accident, a mistake, a snafu. Like he just offloaded the thing before he'd digested it. Like this great, high-calorie confection of deep personal self-understanding had swirled up out of some microcosmic drain and he'd just been all like, 'Hey,that'd make a pretty cool painting.' And now here I was just staring at it in an outdoor booth... Willard."
He doesn't do anything. But I'm not sure I'm talking for him anymore, anyway, so I go on.
"I'm staring at it and I'm a little bit sad, and a little afraid. Like he's let something out, and now it's in both of our personal spaces." I'm sitting up too straight. I slouch down a bit. "But its quivering psychic tension is just going to feed back on itself, shaking itself out of control so long as it's outside him where he can't resolve it. Like he's let this bizarro thing with an incomprehensible agenda out into free-floating psychic space where we all have to deal with it. Willard."
He grunts a little and shifts in his chair, pulls back a knight to deal with the bishop thing I did that I don't really understand but that looks pretty good to me. I push a pawn up. It just seems like a nonsense move, but when I watch other people play, all those little pawn moves seem fraught with significance, so I'm hedging that Willard will see it that way and overthink it.
I've pretty much told my story, don't really feel like talking anymore. I look out through the big sheet of plate glass at the night. I can't see into the dark side street that the dive abuts, but I can see smokers being cold at little outdoor tables. I half wish I were out there, but figure it would be a short-lived thrill, that Willard's intensity is probably engaging me in a way I don't understand.
I don't like this part, where we're just playing chess and I've got nothing to say. I'm shivering a bit from a chill my monologue put into me. I fantasize about turning the table over, resigning, pushing my king over with some kind of slow-motion, biblical drama that would rivet the whole café's eyes on us, on me—a grand forfeiture that would make me the winner in spirit and in popular appeal despite my loss in the tiny whole-world that Willard has made of the chessboard.
But that's just a fantasy. People aren't that sensitive, suggestible. It would take months of work to warm this place up to where it would indulge my fantasy gesture. It's just not practical.
We play out the game, and I feel like its length maybe hasn't been worth the price of admission. Though I am pretty fucking glad I got to tell someone about the balloon and the girl.
I let my turtle fall apart a bit faster than I might if I weren't done unburdening myself. I take a few more risks, do a few more things that look a bit like the bold moves I sometimes see other players make. A few of them look like they make Will think, but then he sees through them, smiles as he revels in my foibles.
Mate in zero. He extends a hand and I shake it, all smiles, like I'm a good loser rather than a happy no-longer-player. We shoot the shit a bit, he talks about his girlfriend, gets a text that makes his little bubble of perpetual anxiety ratchet up a few palpable notches. If he remembers my spiel, he doesn't mention it. He's gotta go, he'll catch me later, thanks for playing, man. Peace.
I get a refill on my caffeine (I forget what it was, so I pump something random), but my heart already feels like a bunny's, so I only sip it. The very cool people out the window look like they're in that Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, but from the other side of the glass. I get into watching them as a vignette, seeing the drama in their turned-away faces half-lit by the café's interior, appreciating the existential removal implied by the glare on the glass between me and them. Tom Waits' voice doesn't sound like music to me—just a substratum of vocal gravel under stray cymbals and piano notes.
Caffeine gets to my toes, and they're all out of my shoes, curled up on each other. I don't really wanna go outside, though I don't have much reason to be in here anymore, either. That window scene is starting to look a bit like the girl-balloon painting to me, like I've accidentally stared at the people and the glass and the smoke too much, invested something in them I shouldn't have. Like I've accidentally committed the error that painter did, doing with my eyes what he'd done with his brush, and now this window vignette has become something I'll struggle to cram back into my soul where I can work out its karma. It's a free-floating monster now, hovering over those nice, sweet, innocent people smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
Maybe the tension gets too much for me, 'cause I blip out for a sec, some memory or abstraction stealing my attention for a few critical moments. When I tune back in, the chimera I've stared into existence has dipped into some cognitive blind spot. I'm pretty sure I'm just looking at hipsters and smoke, now, that the rogue psychic complex has slipped my notice, become an unconscious bias skewing the Waits and smoke toward something they weren't a few minutes ago. I edge out of the booth, almost forgetting my shoes, and try to get comfortable with the fact that a little bit of my soul is now everybody's problem.
David has used various forms of art to cultivate meaning and movement in his life in the face of chronic illness from a young age. He lives quietly in Lawrence, KS with his fiancé'e, and generally strives to make each day better than the last.