I open the Red Badge of Courage and take a look through the first chapter. I don’t get it. Even when I study the words real hard, some of them don’t make sense. There is a big list at the bottom of every page that tries to explain the meaning of the stupid words that the writer is using. Words like “keer” and “sech” and “kilt,” that aren’t even English words. After awhile, I finally get it that people in those Civil War days didn’t talk the way we do now.
It takes me about two hours to get through the first chapter. Even though I’m really tired, I think I have an idea of what’s going on. These soldiers belong to the Union Army and they are all waiting for the battle to start. And a boy called Henry Fleming has joined up and is stuck into this regiment. Henry is all excited about the glory of war and how great it will be to go into battle for his country. But I don’t get that because the soldiers are fighting the Confederate guys who are also American soldiers. And even Henry’s Mom seems to want him to go, because she tells him not to do any “shirkin.” I looked up that word in the glossary and it means that he always has to be brave and do his duty by killing the enemy soldiers. I wonder if my Mom would ever want me to go to war like Henry’s Mom.
I toss the book on the table and crap out on the bed. I don’t even know if I’ve really learned anything. Now I see why Mrs. Fredericks wants me to get help with the reading. If it’s going to take two hours to read every chapter, it’ll wear me out and I’ll probably be way behind. I don’t know what to do. Maybe Betty will help. She was an eighth grader once. I lift the phone and dial her number hoping she won’t be at work or school. She doesn’t answer. I think about asking Dad. What a joke. The last time I asked Dad to help me with scheduling classes, he kept pointing at the form and said, “Right there in front of your eyes it says, Electives. Can’t you see?”
When I wake up Wednesday morning, I stare at my chess board and remember about Mr. Dandy, the guy Sally said plays chess at the pier on Wednesday. I could go and see him now. All I have to worry about is Dad coming home early for lunch and finding me breaking the grounded rule. It’s chancy, but I’m going to do it. I hop on my bike and fly down the streets leading to the pier.
After locking my bike at the rack, I start toward the tables. Two weird looking guys pass in front of me. The one looks like a limo driver all dressed in black with a floppy cap. The other is dressed in a gray suit coat with funny tails in the back. His pants are black with a gray stripe down the side, and his shoes are black and white and have some kind of sock covering the laces. He wears a black hat with a round top. This must be the Mr. Dandy Sally talked about.
People are staring at them, and Mr. Dandy keeps turning toward them, tipping his hat, like he’s some kind of celebrity. They walk to the second table facing the ocean and the chauffeur guy sets out a chessboard and all the pieces.
I hurry to squeeze into the circle of watchers. Mr. Dandy takes a seat at the board. He unbuttons his coat and stretches his arms out in front of him. A pair of ruby-colored cufflinks pop out at the end of his sleeves. His shirt is white with fancy ruffles down the front. Mr. Dandy looks around the circle nodding to some of the watchers. His ink black eyes stop on mine.
“Want to try your luck, sonny?” he says, pointing at me.
I feel like crawling under the table. “Na … no.”
“Come on. I tell you what; I’ll spot you a knight and a bishop to start.
I’m still a little scared, but I think about it. The crowd is encouraging me. “Go ahead,” Sally says, “What have you got to lose?”
I start to analyze what advantage the two pieces would give me. Only 3 points each, a total of 6 points. I shake my head again.
Mr. Dandy laughs. “I tell you what; I’ll give you odds of a queen and a knight.”
The watchers go “Ooh!”
“Go ahead, kid, you can take him,” someone calls out.
I’m surprised. That would give me a huge advantage. But I realize he’s trapped me into playing. There’s no way I can back out now. It would make me look like a chicken shit.
Mr. Dandy nods. “Good lad.” He points at the seat.
“Hmm, okay,” I say.
Taking the two black pieces out of play, he turns the board and offers me white.
I move out my king’s pawn and he moves out his knight. This is going to be easy. I create a strong center and develop four pieces while he’s moved only a pawn and a bishop. I think he is scared because I’ve got such a big advantage. A few more moves and he hasn’t even castled and I have. For such a great player he hasn’t shown me dick.
I shove a pawn into his territory, pressing my advantage. He ignores my move. Then he starts chasing my knight around with a bishop until he finally captures it. I’ve lost the knight, but am in a strong center position. I’m not feeling scared, because I’m still way ahead in points. Next thing I know, his bishop has captured my other knight. Crap. I force the bishop back by advancing a pawn from in front of my king. Then I realize I’ve broken down the defensive front of my king.
It goes downhill from there. He sends a wedge of pawns up the king’s side. I bring out my queen and begin picking them off. Before I know it, he’s bottled up my queen. Three moves later, he nails her with his knight.
I feel stupid, but I manage to capture the knight with one of my pawns.
He moves his bishop. “Check!” he says.
“What? That’s not check.”
He points one finger at his rook at the other end of the file. I turn red, but he hasn’t got me yet. I move my king out of harm’s way. He brings up his bishop, trapping me in the corner.
“Checkmate,” he says, smirking.
The crowd cheers.
“Fuck!” I shout. I am so scorched.
Mr. Dandy shakes his head. “Here at the Wednesday Chess Foundation, we don’t curse. We just say, “Nice game.”
I nod and try to slip away.
Sally collars me. “Don’t feel bad kid, he does it to everybody. Maybe you should practice a little more.”
“No shit,” I say.