Openings was first published in The PrePress Awards 1992-1993: A Sampler of Emerging Michigan Writers and is reproduced here with permission.
The sun reflects across the chess board from right to left, and our shadows, mine, those of the pieces, and those of two older men watching, lie fastened to Marion’s next move. There’s nothing I can do about the bishop. I felt like a brilliant Russian master earlier — shrewd, clever — but I’m 32 and dull.
The Bishop is lifted from the playing field without mercy. I move my rook and place both hands confidently, one on the other, atop my cane. I could win back a bishop if I could concentrate, but really, I’m to stupid just for thinking of it.
It won’t be long now. Look at that. God! He took the queen!
“You’re doing it again!” I blurt out.
Marion, loving the reaction I give him game after game, removes Her Majesty from the board and places her somewhere on his lap. His eyes roll back in glee.
“Damn you, Marion, stop playing with her.”
What a clown Marion is — watery cow’s eyes shaded by bushes of grey hair. He wears a forest of a moustache that spreads into waxed wings. He’s in his late sixties. He’s a volunteer I met at the hospital. He knows I’m no challenge but plays with me as if I were. It’s the soft spot in him.
“That’s it,” I say emphatically and yield the game. “If I can’t find someone worse at playing chess, I’ll never play again.”
“Why don’t you try more conservative openings, Eddy?” Marion says to me. “You always lead with your balls like that. It’s disgraceful, really. You charge out with your pieces.”
“Next time, Marion,” I say, and I snatch up his queen and kiss her. “Next time I’ll take your queen.”
Our audience is smiling at my bravado. I smile at them and bow. The one guy always wears green work shirts. I don’t recognize the other man. They are both old, though, and as I look around I notice for the first time that most of the players are old or a little geeked out like I am.
I take the last tepid sip of my espresso and stand erect. I show no disappointment. There is a rhythm to disappointment, an uneasy, uncaring motion. Disappointed people waver.
I turn toward the corner and hobble to the corner with my head held high, if nothing else. I couldn’t lose with more style if I were on two good legs.
At the corner I must wait for the bus. There’s the lingering scent of diesel fuel from our energy efficient busses, and the sun bakes us all — men, women, shrubs, endless signs, ungodly wires strung cat’s cradle across, above, and around us, and unbearable racket. I smile if I like the clothes people wear, their face, their attitude, their shape. I stand there thinking ahead to Janie. I might ask her out just to see her squirm.
“Why let a little thing like a game screw the piss out of a whole day?” I say to this lady in a florescent, frisbee-like hat who had been staring at me until I spoke. I suppose she thinks I’m strange because of my facial scars, the fact that I have a prosthesis, and because of what I’m saying out loud, but really, she’s the one in that hat.
I inch over to her and whisper, “If I’d opened differently, but nooo.” She moves a few yards down.
I always lose. I lose and Marion offers a little constructive discourse. As he prattles he always leans back in the chair, puts his hands into the tops of his pants, stares at the board and says I played “a hell of a game, but.” I hate that, but I always smile. Someday I’ll just tap him on the chest with my cane when he’s leaning back like that and Plop! over he’ll go. Actually, the old bastard would probably get up and stomp my butt so I won’t.
The morning of my accident I was angry and hung over. Milwaukee’s a big beer town and I was its primary customer. God, I had this excruciating headache. In group they tell me to try and piece things back together, so I try to remember what happened that day, what my life was like and everything.
I’d been listening to some woman on the radio talk about the loneliness of long distance swimming. “It’s lonely out there swimming around New York,” she’d said. Swimming in garbage no doubt.
Anyway, I remember thinking she must give talks all the time and that probably nobody took her seriously. I didn’t. It was her voice. Her voice was squeaky.
I’d liked what she had to say about swimming, though. She had it all down pat. She’d probably done too much thinking about it, living in the past like that, but still, it must have been lonely to train so much. I could tell she was more lonely looking back then she’d ever been as a swimmer.
As usual the bus is late and I stand on the corner for a long time. It’s uncomfortable. I balance my weight just so, or my leg shows. If I stand there in a certain way, I look perfectly natural, but I pay for it with neuralgia. It’s all in how I hold the cane and position my leg. I practiced in a tall mirror for a long time. It took weeks before I would even look at myself in a mirror, and at the beginning all I could do was look at myself naked. I was really into the disgust of the whole thing and it made me laugh when I felt like crying.
There’s an attractive student at the corner today and I move next to her. She’s probably an art student because she carries a big portfolio. She looks too whacked out to be employed, but who knows anymore. Her hair is shaved up to a few strands of purple and I wonder if she has anyone in her life that just holds her. She has what looks like fifteen earrings on her right ear.
“Nice hair,” I say and she takes a little step to her left.
I don’t talk to her anymore but I feel better taking a step in her direction, pressing her turf a little. “What are you looking at,” I say very loudly to this guy who’d been staring at us. “Haven’t you ever seen purple hair before?” He buries his head in his USA Today and walks off. I can’t stand guys like that. They can’t handle anything awkward but they’re always looking at me as if they’re my buddy.
I think about a guy I did like who lost his job and left for Arizona. We had a lot in common. He hardly knew anyone here in town. He sure didn’t know anyone in Arizona. He came to the club sometimes and just sat around drinking coffee on the corner. He didn’t fit in. And right here on the corner, just for him, I say, “I’m so god damn tired of not fitting in I could puke.”
That isolates me good, but I don’t care.
I think back and realize that all that guy had to do was try, but he didn’t. The guy didn’t even know how.
When he finally got on the road he was driving an old blue Royale 88. He probably got about two miles to the gallon. I felt sorry for him because that’s what I would have done.
He was about 55. He’d been a die maker. Can you imagine it? Age 55 and operating a piece of equipment that gets shut down? Probably one of the best die guys in the country. Maybe the best die guy in the world and they shut him down because a robot can do it without eating. That’s how it happened for him. Just that, losing a job, crippled him.
“How can people cope with all this shit!”
One day we left the club together and ended up having breakfast at Jack’s. He asked me to lend him money to get to Chicago. He said he had a cousin in Chicago who would give him $280 for his record collection. He’d wire me the money. His cousin had always wanted his records. He said $280 would be enough to get to Arizona. It would be warm there. God, he looked tired. You can see it in the eyes. Maybe it’s in the mouth. A beaten man can even be smiling, but you just know he’s finished. If you can’t see it, you’ve never been there.
I gave him $48. I gave it to him. That’s the most I ever gave somebody just to help them out. I couldn’t help myself. He turned into my brother or father right in front of me. He was like a long distance swimmer heading for the coast of Spain, leaving some time around six at night, a complete jar of Vaseline smeared all over his body.
I can see the image of a man in my mind — stroking black water — four in the morning. He’s running out of breath as he knew he would. His gut is wrenching because he knows he has done what he set out to do, but he concentrates and he pushes on, saying to himself maybe Spain, or Arizona. He fights his panic and refuses to think back. He repeats to himself, “I like this. I’m okay.”
Who knows how many miles in whatever precise direction he might actually have traveled. It doesn’t matter. He’s unable to tell the ocean from the sky, his numb hand from the numb ocean. He can see the glow of New York lights behind him and that’s all that exists. His legs trail stiff as unfed mules — arms numb as pumice. Rolling onto his back he feels the last welcome drop of ocean enter his ear — or maybe he turns off the radio, or has a major blowout on a desolate desert road if he’s in a car. That’s what I saw in this guy, but I can’t think about it. I think about suicide all the time. I have to quit doing it.
So what do I think about? A lost Bishop, a strand of purple hair, the hands of an old bastard as he stuffs them into his suspended trousers. I’m crazy in every direction. I gave $48 to a guy I’d never see again and now I’m practically willing to beg a girl who has fifteen holes in her ear.
I move away from all the people I’ve terrorized and wait for the bus alone. I think again about asking Janie out and try to figure out what she might be willing to do.
On the bus I flop my leg into the aisle. The leg makes a clicking noise when it becomes hyperextended. I look around to see if I know anyone. It’s late, about 10:15 a.m., and I think about skipping Jack’s restaurant but I know I won’t.
I’ve barely traveled a block and I know I’m going to do it. I’m going to buy Janie a flower at Percie’s and ask her out. Like Marion has said to me a hundred times, it’s my move.
* * *
There’s a lazy lock of hair on the right side of Janie’s head that mesmerizes the dish washer and Mike the busboy at Jack’s Restaurant. That hair is part of Janie’s style. She wears it like that all the time. Every day Mike and Bert come in and out of the kitchen hauling trays and buckets with their heads shaking. Everybody all up and down both aisles, men and women alike, know without any doubt those boys are thinking about her. She’s the most enterprising and finest looking woman on Eaton Ave. Even some of the old gals who wait tables in the restaurant, like Hazel, white women angry as everything, might like to slide a handful of questions up one of Janie’s ebony thighs and down the other.
Knowing that Janie is back there, cracking eggs with one hand, spilling yolks onto the hot iron — knowing about Janie keeps a lot of men coming back. Black men, white men, yellow men — they’ve all at one time or another wondered if they had a chance with Janie.
Janie is dark skinned, part Indian or Turkish or something. She’s brassy and exotic. Everybody likes Janie and nobody gets close to her but friends and family. Janie doesn’t take time for lovers as far as anyone I know can say.
High on the menu, for those who care to understand the politics at Jack’s, is Eggs-over-Miami. With Eggs-over-Miami Janie cuts a dollar size circle in toast and fries the egg right in the hole. That yolk shines just like the sun. She puts crisp fried hash-browns on the bottom of the plate with some parsley for trees. The customer gets sausage and coffee with that too. Sausage is like these ships far out to sea. Janie likes to make that, it’s her specialty. She says when she gets the money she’s going to head for Florida and cook on the ships or sell real estate. She’s going to have her own business selling homes or cooking in her own restaurant, or something. She’s very determined. Jack says to everybody that in the spring, when he starts his famous count down to retirement, he wants to make her the day manager right here. Jack still doesn’t get it.
Anyway, I get off the bus about three blocks up from Jack’s and go into Percie’s. It always smells like mothballs and Vick’s in here. It’s a dusty old pharmacy with a soda fountain and they sell a lot of things to elderly people. I think one of the owners was named Percie.
The store has two aisles right down the middle. On the right is the soda fountain and cash register. They stock candy, magazines and newspapers in front of the cash register. On the far wall is a pop machine and next to it is a flower display in a cooler. At the back wall you can get prescriptions filled. There’s a woman behind the till who has a white beehive on her head. A young kid is carrying boxes around and pretending to stock shelves. They have a couple of customers in the place but I don’t pay much attention to them.
I don’t have a lot of money with me as usual. After I get this little bouquet of yellow roses, and a few other things, I might have enough left for a matinee. There are some other flowers, some weird blue ones with baby’s breath, but pretty much all the arrangements look like they belong at funerals. I grab the yellow roses out of their vase and head for the check-out counter. On the way, I pick up an assortment pack of condoms.
The lady behind the counter is busy watching the rows of candy in front of her because there’s a congregation of skateboard freaks in there looking at magazines. She hasn’t been here when I’ve come in before. “Do you have a question?” she attempts to say, but really she has this parlor voice and I can’t hear her very well.
“Can I buy these roses without the vase?” I ask her. “I’m going to miss breakfast.”
She looks trustworthy to me so I put down a fist full of money. “You count the change,” I say to her. “I’ll keep an eye on the punkers.”
“Thank you,” she says.
I look at the stock boy who shrugs his shoulders at me. “Ever been to Milwaukee?” I ask him. It’s part of my new thing. I’m trying to learn to be friendly. That’s one of the things we talk about in group. He shakes his head no.
I hobble along Eaton Avenue to the restaurant and go in trying to keep my flowers down low. A lot of people look up when I come in. Normally, I get a booth in the back near the kitchen and hope Janie comes out to talk with me. Sometimes she’s busy studying for her real estate classes, but even then she might take a break or have me ask her questions out of her quiz book.
Janie likes to joke around. She’ll tell me my hair is greasy and needs trimming or something. She’ll try to get me to do my nails or maybe she’ll look under the table all the time like I have my leg on backwards. She asks me what am I doing in the restaurant when I don’t have a job? but I know she doesn’t mean it. She likes me. She might give me a little something to taste test. She tries stuff out on me all the time. I think she might be a good listener.
“Going to a funeral?” Jack asks, unsmiling, as I walk in. He stares at my flowers and then back at the paper he’s reading. It’s his way of joking around, but I don’t want to play.
“I’ll tell you in a little bit,” I say, and look to the far back where the clock and the pass window are. “Are you still serving breakfast?”
The counter area is almost full and there are four or five booths with business people in them. They look like they’re from somewhere else because they wear their suit coats while they eat. Most of the locals leave them at the office or hang them on hooks in the front. I don’t think anyone who actually lives in the neighborhood owns a decent sport coat. Most of these people wear outdated frames, too.
Jack’s is in a long narrow building that has a counter on one side, tables in the middle and booths on the other. It’s old and needs paint. There are probably a million restaurants like Jack’s in the country. I know they had them in Medford and Milwaukee. They all have stainless steel, formica counters, and glass pie cases. The menus are always an instant print color and shabby. The salt and pepper shakers are plugged. These are the kind of restaurants yuppies leave when they have to take a dump.
I grab the only available booth in the back section. I can feel the springs sag in the center. I tap the table top with my fingers and rest my cane against the seat. I lay the flowers on the table and figure that when my water comes I’ll just drink a little of it and stuff the roses in there. Meanwhile my brain is racing, trying to come up with some place to ask Janie. I can’t think of anything but the movies, or maybe the zoo, which is very small, but everybody goes to the movies and the zoo. Life’s too short.
From where I sit I can see into the kitchen. Bonnie is back there talking, probably to Hazel or Janie. All of a sudden I’m getting nervous. I can see the corner of Janie’s head through the window now, and Bert comes out of the kitchen door with a tray of clean glasses. He starts stacking them by the waitress station as Hazel comes through the swinging door, backwards, carrying a huge tray stacked with omelets and hot cakes for a four top in the center section. Bonnie is right behind her.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Bonnie says and rushes by. I don’t think she respects me very much because she never uses my name, but it doesn’t matter.
I think about Janie being back there all by herself, or mostly by herself, and get out of the booth. I still don’t know where the hell I’m going to ask her to go with me, but I’m headed back there with my cane and flowers.
There’s a little counter space in front of the kitchen door where they stack glasses and hide silverware. The coffee makers are back there too and for the first time I step around behind. There’s a lot of stuff hidden under the small counter. Ketchup, purses, place mats, extra napkin holders and what not, but I don’t have time to take it all in.
I push open the kitchen door and take a step inside. To my left there’s a sink. Straight ahead, maybe 15 feet, there’s a back door to the alley and to my right I look at Janie through a stack of plates stacked in rows on an open stainless steel rack. The kitchen doesn’t look much cleaner than the front of the restaurant. It’s hot in the kitchen and Janie is sweating like crazy. As she cooks she has a hair net on that makes her look a little bit like an old spinster. She’s an upset spinster, it looks like.
For some reason I thought she was always in the back whistling or singing. When she comes up front she’s very cheerful.
She looks up at me and there’s a distance in her eyes that says she doesn’t know who I am, but I know different.
“You can’t be coming back up in here, Eddy” she says to me very matter-of-factly. “Jack see you come back here?”
She says this and goes back to cleaning her grill with a wide metal spatula. I watch her for a moment as if she were someone I didn’t know. I turn toward the door but turn back to her again.
“I brought you these,” I say, and hold the flowers out to her. “I came in here to ask you to the opera but I changed my mind.”
Janie stares at me and at the flowers. She tries to keep a straight face, but she can’t do it. Her head is shaking back and forth a little bit and she steps away from the grill. She takes the hair net from her head.
“I got these too,” I tell her and put the pack of rubbers on the shelf. “Like I said, though, I changed my mind.”
Janie covers her laughing with both hands and looks back and forth at the rubbers and the flowers. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen her speechless. It makes me happy.
“Damn, child,” she says. “You sick.”
“I know,” I tell her. “But I’m addicted to opera — baritone, contralto. Anyway, I changed my mind.”
“No. I mean you. You sick,” she says laughing at me.
“I knew what you meant,” I say, and turn to go.
The kitchen door swings open and I get hit right in the shoulder. It’s Bonnie. She tells me right away that I can’t be in the kitchen.
“It’s okay, girl,” Janie says to her, rolling her eyes about my foolishness, and Bonnie goes out to wait on the paying customers.
“You can’t stand over there,” Janie says. She motions for me to sit on a stool which is against the wall to her left.
“Put that cap up on your damn head,” she says to me, and at the same time she puts her own net on and goes back to scraping the grill. She does this as if she were stalling for something to say, and then she looks at me, turns back toward the steel shelves, picks up the box of rubbers and throws them to me.
“I might go to an opera or whatever, have some coffee with you, something like that, but we won’t be needing these. You understand?” She says this very clearly.
“I already knew that,” I say.
* * *
Marion is perplexed at my opening and, to be honest, so am I. I open with a Pawn to King’s four — Knight to King’s Bishop three. I advance slowly and build my pieces just like the book said to do.
“What is this?” he says, and motions to the guy in the green shirt to get him a refill. He leans into the game with a new intensity and when a few of the old-timers see this, they gradually come closer. I feel good today — very good.
“Marion,” I ask, deliberately. “What do you think I should have for lunch, with a certain young lady?”
“Don’t bother me,” he says without looking up. His hand waves at me as if I were a fly incessantly buzzing around his head.
“Sicilian Defense,” one of the old men says. They deliberate.
Marion doesn’t answer me.
“I think I’ll have a big bowl of pea soup and some pasta,” I say.
Marion is developing a strategy. He has the help of some good players and I caution them with the tap of my cane to mind their business. They nod and recline. One guy, smoking a pipe, nods to me and winks. I wink back.
The board is tense, interlocked. Our men are extended into each other’s ranks but for the first time I feel calm, and he, the Monroe Avenue Chess Club third place champion for two years in a row (Marion is always mentioning his title), is sweating.
“It’s not that warm out here, Marion,” I say to him. “Could someone please bring Marion some water?” I say to the audience of four or five gentlemen. I can see that we’ve all come to some new understanding. “Marion looks a little overheated this morning.”
“Very funny,” Marion says to me. “The pimple gets a young thing to eat some soup with him and, puff, instant big mouth.” Then it happens. He risks his queen to gain a position on my king.
I take her immediately and dance her off the table into my lap. I roll my eyes. I make kissing noises. I scratch my zipper with my thumbnail.
“You did it,” the old guy in the green shirt says. The pipe smoker winks again. They’re swept up in my exuberance, not realizing that I am about to lose the game but don’t, for the first time, care.
“It’s nothing,” Marion says with confidence. He has a pleasant sway of the fingers, very confident, like the gestures of a conductor in rapture. “The game is still fresh.”
“Yes, the game,” I tell him, “but Her Majesty…” I say this wistfully, with regret in my voice, as if delivering a poem right there on the street, “…Her Majesty and I have better things to do.”
I drop my rubbers onto the table and turn toward the curb. All the old men are laughing behind me. One calls out that the game isn’t finished. He doesn’t get it, but Marion does, and he claps for me.
In the afternoon I’ll meet Janie for cherry Cokes at Percie’s. She’ll tell me about Florida and how the black woman has had to fight her way up from a place below the mule, and I’ll tell her how eight months ago, trying to outrun a killer hangover, I slid my Sportster down a street in Milwaukee, was in a coma for six weeks, and woke up here, cold, as if I’d been pulled from a deep well, to lie on a plastic covered bed in rehab.