Good Game

by Trina Allen


Autumn had come late. A drought had sucked Raleigh and most of North Carolina dry. Sunburned brown, the parched grass and withered flowers had lost their will to live. Leaves still clung stubbornly to the trees, but they were shrunken shells ready to blow in the wind. The air felt as oppressive as my life had become.

I woke early, unable to sleep, jealous of Lauren’s quiet breathing and my dog’s snoring. Even the hum of the ceiling fan made me restless. Watching the blades turn, their shadows waxing and waning across the ceiling, I longed to turn over in bed. That simple act—now an impossible dream—might have brought the welcome release of sleep. Defeated, I reached up, grabbed the specially made bar on my headboard with both hands, and hauled myself upright with a small grunt. With considerable effort, and a somewhat louder grunt, I lifted myself into my waiting wheelchair and positioned my useless legs, all without interrupting Lauren’s sleep.

Rolling into the bathroom, I opened the medicine cabinet. Dozens of pill bottles—a virtual pharmacy—rested on the shelves. Whatever I needed to make it through the day—opiates, mood elevators, antidepressants—it was all there waiting for me. I opened the bottle of Oxycodone, poured a dozen of the white tablets into my hand and lifted it to my mouth.

“Son, you are stronger than this!”

I glanced in the mirror, searching for him. Only my reflection stared back at me, face knotted in misery. My jaws clenched shut. I couldn’t do it. No easy out with a drug-induced ride into Neverland. Not today.

Dumping all but one pill back, I held the bottle over the toilet bowl. Should I flush the rest? Save me from myself?

“Remember the purpose of the game, son.”

Startled, I dropped the bottle into the toilet bowl. Damn him! Reaching into toilet water is never the best way to start the day. After washing my hands, I slammed the cabinet door a little harder than I intended when putting the Oxycodone back. Peeking into the bedroom, I was relieved to see Lauren still asleep. She could sleep through anything.

Wheeling into my office, I scanned the shelves of books, trying to find something that would hold my attention. How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov or King’s Gambit. Both were too heavy for this early hour. Instead, I pulled Tess Gerritsen’s latest thriller off the shelf.

I was turning the first page when he appeared, wearing his favorite wrinkled shirt, his hair a silvery mass of curls. Dad walked over to my chessboard, a nice wooden set he’d gotten me as a teenager. He turned the board so that he would play black and gestured for me to join him.

My father had poured so much of his heart and soul into the game that the board must have absorbed some of his spirit. Because now, even though he’s gone, he can materialize and even talk to me about the game.

I wheeled my chair over to the board and adjusted my feet in the holders of my wheelchair, not thinking too much about why or how Dad was sitting across from me, just focusing on the game, instead. I opened with a pawn to e4. We each made seven moves, and then my father said, “Good game.” He shook my hand and smiled—the same sheepish smile he had always worn when he won a game. Then, he was gone.

I set the knight in my hand on the board, looking at wooden pieces positioned in the unfinished game. I moved the knight, hoping somehow that would make my father return. He didn’t. My thoughts drifted.

Twenty years ago, my sister Kathy had challenged me at this very chessboard. “I’ll beat the pants off you, stubble head, if you’re not too scared to play me.”

Wiping moisture from my eyes, I heard Lauren’s alarm clock go off down the hall—six o’clock. Rex whined. A black Lab mix, his brown eyes studied me. I patted his head. He didn’t lick my hand, nuzzle me, or beg to be fed, but continued to watch, waiting for a command.

My thoughts drifted again. I had been a cyclist in high school, looked at Lance Armstrong’s picture on my bedroom wall each night before I went to sleep. At age 18, I had biked 300 miles a week, rising before dawn and cycling until time for school. Then, each evening, I peddled the country roads beside the tobacco fields for several more hours. I knew Dad would be waiting up for me at home, ready to listen to details about my ride, while I gulped down warmed-over meat and potatoes. I remember those hours as some of the best of my life. Up until two years ago, I had continued biking. Chess consumed me now, as biking once did. I studied, practiced, and worked hard. If I lost a game, I challenged myself to do better next time. When I played a good game, the mental high was the same.

I wheeled into the bedroom.

“How are you this morning?” Lauren asked. “You got up early.”

“I couldn’t sleep,” I mumbled. Our relationship had been strained since the accident. I know she tries, but I can be pretty hard to live with. I was more comfortable with Rex.

“What time will you be home tonight?” There were worry lines around her mouth.

“Probably around five,” I answered, frowning. I knew she worried that I wasn’t working full time. Her teaching salary wasn’t enough to cover our expenses. Because of all my medical bills, we’d filed bankruptcy after my accident. We were still recovering.

Wheeling into the bathroom with Rex on my heels, I glanced in the mirror at a still-young-looking face below a full head of black hair. A few more wrinkles around my eyes, maybe. I flexed my arms, muscled more heavily now than ever in my cycling years. My stomach was a little flabbier, but I thought Lauren still found me attractive.

I removed my shirt and unzipped my pants. “Rex, pants.” Those were the first words I’d spoken to my dog this morning. I lifted myself up on the arms of my chair and Rex slowly eased the pants off. He was an 85-pound Lab-Shepherd mix with the gentle personality of a Lab and the build of a Shepherd.

“Washer.” I gestured to the shirt and pants on the floor. Rex obediently picked them up, and I knew he’d deposit both on top of the washing machine.

Tired, I rested for a moment in my wheelchair before wheeling over to the shower. In this bathroom, specially designed for my needs, my shower chair has metal bars that allow me to haul myself into it. Cabinets and faucets are all at my level, and anything else that I need, Rex can get for me.

“Bye, honey,” drifted from the living room.

I grunted a goodbye.

Once ready for work, I gestured toward the back door and said, “Rex, toilet,” the command for him to go outside and relieve himself. He obediently went to the back door, pushed the door handle down with his muzzle, and pulled the door open. A few minutes later, he returned ready to assist. I leaned over to him and clipped on his service dog harness.

A hand gesture, and Rex dropped my briefcase in my lap. My workday was about to begin. Wheeling to the door, Rex got there before I did. Again, he pulled the handle with his nose and opened the door. After I wheeled through, he closed it behind me.

I wheeled to my car and clicked the remote key that opened the door. The ramp descended, and Rex bounded in ahead of me. As I wheeled myself in, the dog never took his eyes off me, waiting. I lifted myself from my chair into the driver’s seat of my specially modified car. Looking at Rex sitting in the seat next to me, I knew I couldn’t survive without him. Still, I did not allow myself to pet him. I could not forget that it was a dog that took my legs.

I had been finishing a long Saturday afternoon bike ride, pleased with my time, when a Shepherd mix ran from a field directly toward my bike, barking. Ears up, head up, teeth bared. Its growl sent adrenaline coursing through my tired body. I reacted, pressed the brakes too hard. My body flipped over the handlebars, and I landed with a thud on the hot blacktopped road. That was my last ride.

Honking startled me from my thoughts. I swerved back into my lane, ignoring the driver’s finger in the SUV that I’d nearly run off the road. I merged with other commuters onto the freeway.

I pulled into a handicapped space at the testing company where I worked. A dead oak leaf made its solitary meandering journey to the curb, as I wheeled into the building.

Rex walked ahead of me, while I greeted my cube mates. When I wheeled up to my computer, he sat next to me, alternating between watching me and watching the door. I gave him a hand signal to lie down, settled in myself, and absently wheeled my chair back and forth while reading my e-mail.

Tired eyes burning from my early morning, I tried to focus. I had to send the test questions I was developing to the client by the end of the week. No use, my concentration was off.

I looked at my watch, almost time. I dreaded the call I had to make at 9:50. My sister, Kathy, was doing better the past few days, but she had checked herself into the hospital a week ago. She had been spiraling down out of a manic period with her bipolar depression. Her doctors were adjusting her meds, but that took time. She could receive phone calls in the psychiatric ward, but only at ten minutes before an hour. She was in classes the rest of the time. They kept her pretty busy.

I flipped open my cell phone and wheeled out into the hall. “Let me speak to Kathy, please.” When she came on, I was at a loss for words. I hadn’t thought about what I would say. “Do you need anything, sis?”

“I’m okay, David.” Her voice cracked.

My father’s words came to mind: Remember the purpose of the game. I cleared my throat and said, “Kathy, you have control of the board. It’s time to connect your rooks.”

“Thanks, David.” Her voice was still weak, but she sounded better.

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” As I hung up the phone, I rubbed my eyes. I had communicated everything that needed to be said in those two sentences. Rooks are the last pieces to be brought into play, ready for action only after the pawns and minor pieces control the center of the board and the queen performs both offensive and defensive tasks.

I sat back at my computer, but my thoughts wandered. Unable to concentrate on work, I checked my Internet chess games in progress. No one was online, probably all working hard, unlike me. I needed the competition a game could offer, so I set no lower limit to the rating of the player who could challenge me. Someone answered the challenge. Her rating was so low that I would gain no rating points by beating her and lose points from my rating if I lost. I played anyway.

I botched my opening in a few moves, but I put a direct threat against her queen with a bishop. She sacrificed her queen, but at that point she had such an overwhelming material and positional advantage, she checkmated me in less than 30 moves, even without her queen.

No point in staying at work. If I couldn’t even play a decent game of chess, I would be of no use here. I had a niggling thought that Lauren could be right about me. I wasn’t ready to work full time.

Rex and I drove into our subdivision early in the afternoon. The warm weather had lured the neighbors outside. I waved at Amy walking her dog. Pepper stopped, sniffed around, and marked a mailbox. High school kids milled about. Their now-empty bus made its way down the street, brakes squealing.

I turned onto my street, as two kids on bikes tore down the hill. I could almost feel the wind in my face, could breathe in the tarry smell of heated blacktop. Almost. Never again! I thought, wheeling my chair up my driveway. The happy sound of kids yelling in play accompanied me up the ramp. Ironically, I was still on two wheels.

Once home, Rex opened the door for me. I gave him the command to stop working. He walked to the closet containing his treats, rose up on his hind legs and danced. Rex looked at me, put his mouth on his bag of treats, and gingerly pulled it out of the cabinet. He looked ridiculous, trying to hide the bag in his teeth. I couldn’t help smiling. I let him help himself to a few biscuits.

I wheeled out on the deck with Rex beside me. He ran across the yard, a black blur. Then, we spent several minutes playing our version of catch. I threw the ball. He caught or chased it and barreled toward my wheelchair at top speed, then dropped the ball in my lap. When I tired of playing, he sat by my chair, happily chewing his ball.

I thought of another yard. A happier time. Kathy and I had sat at a picnic table playing chess with my father, whose patience seemed endless. I remembered one game in particular. I had just checkmated Kathy in seven moves. Heady with pride, when I challenged my father, I brought the lady out to d4, expecting to checkmate him.

Dad captured my queen easily with his rook, defeating me with my own arrogance. As I lay my king down in defeat, he smiled, the way he always did, shook my hand, and said, “Good game.”

I wheeled inside, opened the fridge, and brought a beer out to the deck table. I watched condensation form on the outside of the bottle. I took a long pull from the beer and sank back in my chair, letting the sun warm my face.

My father had passed away two months ago. Having recovered from a particularly aggressive cancer, he was left with nerve damage from the chemotherapy. Unable to walk, drive, lift his arms, or even use the bathroom, he simply gave up on life. His heart had stopped. Checkmate. End game. I wondered if I should join him.

Rex’s barking startled me back to the present. Lauren would be home from work in a half hour or so. I wheeled inside and opened a cabinet under the kitchen counter. I pulled out a bottle of vodka and took a swig. While it was still burning down my throat to my stomach, I drank another and another.

I called Rex and checked my reflection in the bathroom. My eyes were a little red, but looking at the computer screen all day could have caused that. I brushed my teeth and splashed some water on my face. I had difficulty lowering myself onto the toilet and back into my chair. Realizing I was already buzzed, I grabbed another beer from the fridge.

Rex greeted Lauren at the door, wagging his tail, jumping in excitement.

“How are you, honey?” I asked, rather proud that I hadn’t slurred my words.

“Tough day. Some kid called in a bomb threat, so we spent an hour outside, while they cleared the school building.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” I said, wheeling my chair over to her. As she bent down to kiss me, I thought, You really don’t know what a tough day is, until you spend it on two wheels.

After eating a light dinner of chicken salad, we both sat at the table with a glass of wine.

“When do you think you’ll go back to a full-time schedule?” Lauren asked.

“I don’t know. When I’m ready.” How dare she ask? She was too wrapped up in teaching her fifth grade students to care about me anyway.

“I just wondered how you are doing.”

“My father pa … passed away. How do you think I’m doing?” I wheeled angrily back from the table, annoyed at myself for slurring my words.

“I know honey, but it’s been two months. Wouldn’t you feel better if you are working more, instead of being home alone?”

“No, I … I’m not ready.”

Lauren’s eyes darted toward mine. “I’m worried about you. You drink too much.” She pushed her chair away from the table, folded her hands, and said, “I really think you should go back to work full time.”

I felt nauseous. Acid burned in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know if I couldwork full time. I said, “You never cared about me, just how much income I can bring in. Admit it.”

“You’re wrong, David. I love you.”

“If you’re so worried about money, why don’t you try something besides teaching? Your salary is pathetic.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.

Lauren gave me the look and slammed the door to the spare bedroom. I heard the door lock.

I drank another couple of shots. Too angry to sleep, I knocked on the spare-room door.

“Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t even want to look at you when you’re drinking like this.”

Lying in bed, I knew I’d never get to sleep. I wondered when Lauren and I had stopped communicating. “Rex, beer.”

My faithful companion came back with a can in his teeth. I pulled myself up by grabbing the bar on the headboard and drank down the beer.

I woke up at three o’clock, cramped and cold, remembering Lauren and I had fought again. When I woke up next, my head was pounding. I rolled into the bathroom and vomited, which was difficult. Only someone in a wheelchair can appreciate the intricacies.

I resolved to quit drinking so much. I would also apologize to Lauren for getting so angry. Maybe I could repair the damage.


#

Saturday morning after our talk, things were tense, but patched, at least. I had tried to explain to Lauren that I wasn’t angry with her. What I couldn’t tell her is that I was angry with everyone: our neighbors, my coworkers, anyone who can walk.

Lauren left to do errands. Alone in the house, I tried to read the paper, but I couldn’t concentrate. Not in the mood for chess, I called Rex over, and we took a drive.

Bright sun sliced my eyes as I drove past fields of stubbly hay. Gradually, the air became less oppressive, cooler. Rex hung his head out the window, his ears blowing in the wind as dark clouds rolled overhead. Lightning struck a jagged white incision in the gray. Rain pelted the windshield and ran in rivulets, before it was captured by the wipers. Breathing in the clean smell of summer: ragweed, fresh mowed hay, and clover, I quickly rolled up the windows, but not before Rex’s head was soaked. I pulled the car under the partial protection of a row of tall cedars, just as lightning cracked again. I used the jacket I kept in the car to rub Rex dry. Thunder rumbled. Rex wagged his tail and pulled at the jacket in a pseudo tug of war. I continued stroking his neck, watching rain fall across a field and a corn silo darken with moisture. A pair of black birds dove into the corn stalks, hungry for whatever life the rain brought out.

Rex barked.

As I looked into his brown eyes and scratched behind his ears, I swear I heard my father say, “Good game.”

End.

Publication Information
“Good Game.” Go Read Your Lunch online journal (2013). Short story was a finalist for the 2011 Eric Hoffer Award.