When I get home, I toss my book bag in my room. I flop on my bed, trying to figure out how I can get even with that lying prick, Brad Murphy. Then I hear Betty and my father busting in the front door. They come in my room.
“Steeeven!” Betty shouts. “Why have you been suspended? What have you done?”
My father’s face is beet red. He glares at me, waiting for me to say something.
I try to defend myself. “It’s not all that bad. The other guys lied and Mr. Aguilar believed them, just because Brad Murphy is the student body president.”
My father points a finger at me, “Not that bad? The Vice-principal said you used a knife on the boy.”
They are both standing with their hands on their hips demanding an answer. I take a deep breath, “I didn’t use a knife. It was just my X-acto, and I only waved it at him. And besides, they jumped me, dad, I didn’t start it.”
Dad shakes his head. His eyes are practically bulging out of his head. “Well, isn’t that dandy,” he says. “You didn’t start it, but you did use the knife just the same. I don’t know what to do with you. One thing I do know, and that is you are grounded until I can get you back into that damned Special Ed class of yours.”
It’s a sunny Saturday morning when I wake up. The chess set is ready for play, but I have no interest today. Maybe I’ll take a ride down to the Redondo pier and see if anyone is catching any fish. Then I remember I’m grounded. Huh, good luck with that, dad.
I grab a granola bar and take off on my bike. A great day for riding, I fly down the ten downhill streets. The pier is almost as crowded as it was in the summer.
I slide off my bike and walk it through the crowd. There is a corndog stand next to Tony’s, and next to that a bicycle rack. I lock my Schwinn to the rack and make my way to the fishing pier.
Bench tables, where people can sit and eat or just enjoy the sun are spread along the open side of the pier. At the second table, I’m surprised to see a crowd of people surrounding someone at the table. I squeeze my way in and see two men sitting across from one another playing chess. What the heck, I can’t believe it. I never saw any chess players here before. I am just in time to see the geezer in army fatigues checkmate the other. Another guy slips into the place of the loser.
Mr. Fatigues gives me the eye, as he sets up the board. He’s funny looking with a leather visor almost buried in bushy gray hair. His mouth barely peeks out from a full mustache and beard. He wipes the sleeve of a raggedy coat over his mouth and nods at me. I feel like his eyes are saying something like – so you like chess, huh, Sonny boy.
For the next hour, I watch Mr. Fatigues knock off six players. People are gasping or clapping as he sets up and destroys each opponent. The latest loser walks away, shaking his head. No one takes his place.
There are only three spectators left, me, the woman, and one other man. The old geezer looks at me and says, “Want to try your luck?” All of a sudden, I am scared shitless. I shake my head hard and look to the two others.
Mr. Fatigues looks at me. “No risk, no reward, Sonny.”
I shake my head again, unable to say anything.
He turns to the woman. “Want to try your luck again, Sally?”
“Maybe next week,” she says.
He points at me. “Take a seat, Sonny.”
I look into his eyes. There is no way out. I take a seat. “My name is Steven.”
He nods. “I’m Stoner.” He sets up the board with the white pieces on my side. I wonder why I haven’t been given a choice.
“Let’s see what you know,” Stoner says.
I take a breath and reach to move my king’s pawn forward.
“Wait a minute, we aren’t playing yet. I said I wanted to see what you know. What’s the first rule of chess?”
I don’t know, so I say, “Move your king’s pawn forward.”
“That’s right, but what are you trying to accomplish?”
I think for a moment. “I’m trying to control the center of the board.”
He smiles. “Exactly. But, why are you trying to control the center?”
Now I’m in a fix, because I don’t know. “Uh, because it’s important.”
Stoner laughs. “Yeah, you’re right, it is important. So, show me how you can do that.”
I move my king’s pawn up two spaces, waiting for him to counter, but he doesn’t. “Aren’t you going to move?”
“No, not yet. I just want to see what your sequence is, before I spoil it.”
That makes me laugh. “You mean before you destroy me.” I move my queen pawn up two spaces next to my other pawn, then deploy both knights toward the middle, and slide the king’s bishop out of the back row.
Stoner smiles. “That’s good positioning, but it can easily be upset. Do you have a chess set at home?”
“Yes, I’ve made my own pieces.”
He looks at me, his eyebrows lifting. “Really, all 32 of them?”
“Yeah, I carved them out of balsa.”
He looks at Sally and the other guy, nodding his head. “Hear that?”
I sit a little straighter, thinking I’ve impressed him.
There is a gleam in his eye, as he scans my scabby face. “Did one of your balsa knights attack you?”
“Na, I had a little trouble after school, is all.”
He nods. “Yes, that can happen. He starts to clear the board. “Okay, when you get home, see if you can counter the moves you have shown here.”
Disappointed, I say, “Aren’t we going to play today?”
He smiles at me. “No, I’ve used up my time today and you need to find out why you are trying to control the center board.”
I nod, not about to argue. He lifts the board and pours the pieces into a coat pocket. He folds the board and stuffs it into another wide pocket. He stands and grabs a cane resting on the bench. He nods goodbye and lurches off, the cane making a tapping sound along the boardwalk.
I look at Sally. “Who is that guy?”
She shakes her head, “Just some old vet who is a hell of a chess player. But, he’s not the only one.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s another great player that comes on Wednesdays. He calls himself Mr. Dandy, and it really fits. It’s a little weird. He wears a tuxedo, like he’s going to some famous wedding or something. His chauffeur brings him in a limo every Wednesday morning at exactly 10:30. Like Stoner, nobody has beaten him.”
On my way home, I can’t stop thinking about Stoner and the other guy that comes on Wednesday. Maybe I’ll break out of jail and check him out next week.
- * *