An old man meets a friend to play a game.
Abraham Washington, a name to hang a hat on for certain. One President wasn’t good enough for his dead mama so she lumbered her bouncing baby boy with two. Not such a bouncing baby boy now. Far from it. He raised a hand to the brim of his battered old fedora to salute the car that let him cross the street. He was conscious of how slow he was, how his torturous footsteps were accompanied by the staccato beat of his walking stick as it pounded against the asphalt. More so than before he was aware of himself, and of his age. He could feel the dull ache in his bladder already, the insistent whine in his knees, a numb tingling in his fingers and hands. When had everything become so blurred and out of focus? It was like seeing the whole world through a smear of grease. You don’t notice these things. You don’t see age creep up on you until it’s too late. But what could you do about it if you could see the bastard coming anyway? I was never meant to live this long, Abraham thought to himself as he reached the opposite kerb at long last. Clambering up the step was like mounting a stallion – not that he’d ever done that – and his leg shook as he lifted it. His balance, even with one foot flat on the ground and his stick to support him, was precarious. He could fall at any moment, betrayed by gravity.
It was a hot day, but Abraham felt cold. He always felt cold now. His apartment was never warm enough, even when he had money to keep the heat on. He swaddled himself like a baby, wrapped in ancient wool and polyester, itchy gloves and three pairs of thick socks. Never enough. The chill was inside him. It was his blood, cooling slowly. That’s what he thought. He blinked up at the shining sun as he stopped to catch his breath. The green leaves shook in the breeze, but they looked pale and washed out to him. A group of girls watched him from a stoop as he started up again, a wheezing car chugging back to life by inches, and he couldn’t bear to look at them. They had skin like oil slicks spread over bodies fastened tight like a nut on a screw. The coiled energy of youth. But they were children, or felt like it a he passed them by, avoiding their bright, hard-edged stares. He’d never had kids; could never gauge how old any of them were, after so long. Any stirrings of desire he’d once had had long ago blown away like dust in the wind. Old bones, but not the only one anyone seemed to care about these days.
He reached his spot. Isaac was waiting for him. Bald as an egg with coke-bottle lenses, skin baked brown by the sun all year round, like Kojak without the lollipop. Instead, a stub of a brown cigarillo tucked between the fingers of his left hand. The pinky and ring finger were permanently curled over, twisted tight like snail shells. Abraham didn’t know why; never thought to ask. It occurred to him now though, to wonder at it. Slowly he lowered himself down onto the chair opposite. His knees cracked and he felt bolts of pain shoot up the back of his thighs into his buttocks and lower back. Well, never mind that. Got to sit down, or he’ll stiffen up like a corpse, and it’s too soon for that. Just. Isaac flicked him a grin. His teeth were stained brown from years of sucking in nicotine and he spoke with a filthy rasp that rattled through his squat chest. He always wore a shirt with the buttons undone too far, whatever time of year it was. Abraham, always cold: Isaac, always hot. A Jew and an African-American, here on the edge of Central Park. The closest place he knew to home. “You’re late,” Isaac said. He had a cup of coffee, something in a Starbucks cup. Abraham couldn’t stomach that shit. Hell, he couldn’t stomach much of anything now. Anything spicier than strained beets gave him indigestion for days.
“Takes me longer and longer to get here every day.”
“I noticed.” The board was already laid out. Isaac played black, Abraham white. A mild kind of joke. The discs were worn; black faded to grey like his hair, the white stained yellow like his friend’s nails. But the pieces felt good in Abraham’s hand. He ran one through his brown fingers, feeling the smoothness of the wood, the gentle pliability of it against his skin. He came here every day, but never grew tired of any of it. He could still smell the cut grass and, sitting here in the sunshine, his flesh began to feel warm. “You gonna move?” Isaac asked through a cloud of choking smoke. Abraham hadn’t smoked in years, but the smell of the tobacco brought back old memories. A reeking jazz bar in Harlem. The thrum of a double-bass in his hands. Drums pounding behind him. A girl, writhing like a she-devil, her lithe body twisting through the smoke to the rhythm of his instrument. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. That night, they met at the bar and drank cheap brandy, then fucked all night. A year later, he married her. Idly, he played with his battered old wedding band. He ought to get it cleaned. Soon. It’d have to be soon.
“Hey, Abe, I’m talkin’ here!”
He blinked and looked up. Then smiled slightly and moved his first piece. How many games had they played, down the years? A thousand? Ten thousand? Abraham had no brain for numbers, particularly. He’d been a musician when he was young, then a taxi driver, then a delivery man, then a busboy for a couple of rough years, then a little more driving and then…it all blurred into one after a while. A life spent, and for what? For games of checkers in the park. How many ways were there to play such a simple game? How many moves were left for them to make? Not many. Not for Abraham.
“That’s a bad move,” Isaac told him. His eyes shone with glee behind his glasses. He always said that. Abraham just smiled gently at him. He rested his hands on the top of his cane, all knuckles and paper-think skin now, like he could see his bones rattling around inside of him. He waited his turn. Isaac thought long and hard, as if the fate of the world hung in the balance. His twisted fingers hovered over half a dozen different pieces before he returned to the first one and inched it towards Abraham’s waiting ranks of flat-headed soldiers. Abraham liked to imagine that they were all old friends like he and Isaac, playing out the same battles over and over, enjoying the familiar steps like a barely-remembered dance from their youth.
They went back and forth like that for a little while, Abraham hardly paying attention at all, just enjoying the sun as it warmed his body slowly like he was a basking lizard, soaking up the heat into his wrinkled old skin – not so far form the truth really – forgetting his troubles. Isaac pondered every move. To Abraham, he seemed to move like a lightning bolt, even with the long pauses between snatching his pieces up and purposefully redeploying them. He was a little younger. He didn’t know by how much. They’d never discussed it, just like they’d never discussed the Jewish man’s curled fingers, or the tell-tale tanline on the ring finger. He’d never seen him wear a ring there in all the years he’d known him, but he didn’t know why that was.
“You’re playing like shit today, Abe,” Isaac told him. He slurped his coffee noisily, then lit another cigarillo with a match. The rank small of sulphur wafted across the table between them. He never used an ashtray, just dropped ash on the wooden table and occasionally swept it off onto the floor. Pigeons pecked around their feet.
Abraham just shrugged and made another bad move. He was fairly sure he was going to lose. He lost a lot of the time. Did they used to keep score? Maybe. It had never mattered before, and it sure as shit didn’t matter now. Back and forth, black and white – or grey and yellow, anyway – slowly his little army got eaten up, piece by piece. He could feel a bubble in his chest; the fluid pooling inside him, choking him to death, day by day, hour by hour. He wanted to cough, to spit a gobbet of black-red phlegm onto the path by his side, scare away the birds, but he held it in. Not today. His hands shook as he gripped his stick, controlling the body that was betraying him even as he sat there.
Isaac kinged a piece and cackled triumphantly. Now the game was as good as over. His warrior, newly-flushed with promotion, was set to run rampant across the board, and another was coming in his wake too. Marines chasing down tribesmen in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or wherever it was now. Heat-seeking missiles against sand-choked AK47s and a lot of guts. Except Abraham’s boys didn’t have guts. They hardly put up a fight at all. He watched them impassively, as one by one they fell prey to Isaac’s blitzkrieg. Each time he laughed, as if any of it mattered.
“Good game, buddy,” he announced with a smack of his lips as the last ivory man gave up the fight and laid down his arms. Abraham nodded very slowly. His sometime enemy picked up his pieces and began to put then back in their starting positions. “Another game?”
Abraham watched the board through rheumy eyes. He breathed in slowly, agonisingly. His whole body seemed to shake, but if Isaac noticed, he didn’t show it. Finally, he shook his head.
He tapped his cane against the ground. “Isaac,” he said in a voice that ground against his throat like sandpaper, “I’m dying.”
“We’re all dying, pal,” he replied without looking up as he rearranged his pieces.
“No. I been to the doctor. He says I got cancer.”
“What?” Isaac’s hand poised mid-grab.
“Yeah. He gave me a couple weeks. I shoulda gone months ago.”
Isaac said nothing, just slumped back on his stool. For years, they’d shared nothing more than these moments in the park. Both men knew, without speaking about it, that it was all they each had left. Abraham’s wife had died a decade ago, leaving him alone. No kids to look out for him, not much money in the bank. Just a life winding down. If it hadn’t been the cancer, it would’ve been something else. Heart attack, stroke, a bad fall, or just old age, stretching his skin so thin over his old bones that the blood couldn’t pump its way around anymore. Whatever.
“What you gonna do?” Isaac asked. His voice sounded strange.
“Die, Isaac. I’m gonna die. And soon. I came here for one last game.”
Men like them, they shouldn’t outlive their wives. It wasn’t supposed to work that way. For generations, men found wives, fathered sons and daughters and then went off to die in wars. The wives had the children to live for, then the grandchildren. They didn’t have anything though. They were just old dusty boxes of people, still with the moving parts until the hinges wore out and then rusted closed forever.
“One last game,” Isaac said slowly.
Abraham didn’t think he had the strength to play again. That’s why he wanted to go home, to rest. To shiver in the cold and wait for the shadows to rise and finally pull him down into nothingness. But then, what difference did it make? He was no less sick there. “Maybe we could play another game, you know.”
Isaac nodded and continued placing his pieces. Abraham joined him, moving glacially by comparison. Silently they began to play again.