The Ruy Lopez, by Joshua Willey
Everyone knew Doctor Powell smoked, and he knew they knew, but in observance of some obsolete punctilio, nobody talked about it. He had a spot he went on campus, out by the parking lot, so people would think he was just going to get something from his Bronco. When he stepped into the Student Union, where long tables were moved to the center of the room each Wednesday evening for the chess club, the scent of Marlboro on his cardigan was strong enough to overtake the janitorial bleach and Kurt Jandek’s CKY cologne.
“Just what do you think he thinks about while he’s puffing away back there?” Kurt asked Lotte, an exchange student who was also a rare cheerleading-chess club cross over.
“Hopefully not all his mistakes,” she said.
“I bet he’s just thinking about what’s for dinner.”
“No way.” Lotte looked gravely at him. “Secret smoking time is for more abstract thoughts.”
“Chicken pot pie or fish sticks,” Kurt said. For some reason, he imagined the man eating like a child. “Anyway, what do you know about abstract thoughts?” Lotte winked at him as she walked away.
Weston Baker was the club’s dominant player. At seventeen, he was already the sous chef at the town’s best restaurant, and he was all set to head for culinary school in New York after graduation. Along with cooking and chess, his only other real passions were smoking and driving, preferably simultaneously, and though they had never actually lit up together, there was a feeling of recognition between them, teacher and student, smokers in exile. Everyone called Weston Bean because of his striking resemblance to Mr. Bean, the nearly mute British comic character portrayed on television by Rowan Atkinson. His rival at the board, a smart kid named Tyler Hatfield, bore the nickname Fapple, though the origin of this metonym wasn’t at all clear. It sounded like apple. Lotte suggested an echo of Father Mapple, a name that sent Kurt into a web of research revealing not only Melville but Orson Wells. Tyler himself plead ignorance of all such etymology.
Fapple had a classic chess style. He studied openings, he never made mistakes, and seldom took big risks. He was a master of clock management. If the club was Top Gun, he would be the Iceman, but Bean would definitely be Maverick. His style was perplexing even to Doctor Powell. Often, he would throw away the game in some seemingly obvious blunder, but if he was on, the creativity of his approach was unstoppable. It took him to the State Championship, where everyone marveled at his use of the knights, which he favored heavily over the bishops. One would think this mode might be mirrored in the kitchen, but it wasn’t. With food, he was a master of control. With chess, he was a master of intuition.
The Student Union was nothing more than two doublewides with linoleum floors reflecting fluorescent lights and a particleboard trophy case with the school’s only football title (Regional, not State) beside the chess team’s runner-up prize from Nationals the previous year. They were the sleeper hit of the competition; a bunch of public school country kids from some middle-of-nowhere in the Great Basin, where a Friday night meet-up at the Walmart was a standard social outing, and everyone spent a lot of time in trucks parked in the woods. The modesty of the SU was compensated for, however, by a view of tall conifers and the mountains beyond. Even the highway, with its endless stream of big rigs and SUVs, was in some sense scenic, like a river without the water or the fish. Or with metal fish in a river of gasoline.
Doctor Powell sat beside Kurt and watched the endgame. Kurt was happily cruising toward a victory over the champ—although beating Bean was always a little anti-climactic, as you usually felt as though he had really beaten himself, given you the game more than you had taken it.
“What happened?” the Doc asked.
“He walked right into the fork with his rook here,” Kurt pointed amidst the wreckage and looked at Bean, who leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. The heating system rumbled on, filling the space with a warm, dusty smell as Fapple finished off Danny Kurtz, a jock who was trying to diversify his resume for college applications with a dash of something allegedly intellectual.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” Fapple said, eyebrows raised.
“Not anymore,” Danny hurried the pawn back and Fapple showed him what would have happened.
“Knowing his next move is just as important as knowing your own,” Powell told him. “More so the moves after that.”
Lotte had recently introduced the club to a variation on the game called Monster Chess, in which black plays normally, but white plays with only the king and the four central pawns and gets two moves every turn. Powell was reticent at first; it was against his conservative nature to see something as ancient as chess tinkered with in any way. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1996, he felt something change inside him; the world never looked the same again. Monster Chess won him over though, as its peculiar imbalances revealed the strengths and weaknesses of various tactics, and, as is often the case, the best way to learn rules is by observing the effects of breaking them. Lotte actually beat Powell the first time she attacked him with the monster, but after the first game he figured it out, and nobody could beat him since. Likewise, when he wielded the monster, he couldn’t be stopped. They took to ending practice with a few rounds of the game to cool off.
By the time they had rolled up the boards and stowed them in the chess club locker, it was so dark that only their reflections were visible in the glass. Bean’s junker Malibu, with Kurt and Danny in back and Fapple riding shotgun, pulled up next to Doctor Powell near the highway onramp, and sure enough, a cigarette smoked in his mouth, just as one did in Bean’s. They tried to wave at the Doc, eager to express their approval of his transgression, but if he saw them at all he wouldn’t admit it, and turned south toward his cabin beyond the landfill, as they turned north, headed into town, the Malibu’s V8 so loud it set off car alarms as it rumbled by.
“There she goes!” Danny pointed at Lotte, hopping into a shiny BMW with Charlie Song. Charlie was the only son of the only Chinese couple in town and had the nicest stuff of any kid at school. At first, everyone was eager to hate him for his fineries, but he was such a nice, genuine guy, you couldn’t help but like him. His family hosted an exchange student every semester.
Just before the first of the five stoplights the highway hit crossing town, Fapple spied something on the side of the road and demanded Bean pull off.
“Uh oh,” Danny said, “you know what this means?”
“It means he better make me a nice pair of gloves or something, for all the carcass hauling I do for him,” Bean hollered as he lifted himself out of the Malibu’s deep bucket seat and popped the trunk. Fapple was enamored with roadkill. He learned how to skin and tan hides, and how to tell if meat was still good and butcher it. In one of Bean’s more successful extracurricular culinary adventures, he made great quantities of jerky out of some roadkill venison Fapple provided. This time, it was just a marmot—no good for meat.
“Maybe a hat,” Fapple said.
“Initially I thought he was doing this for the ladies, but now I’m not so sure,” Danny said, waving Bean’s cigarette smoke away with his Wade Rain cap.
“What sort of ladies are seduced by a man who knows his way around roadkill is the question.” Bean, having felt from an early age ill-equipped to compete for the attentions of the opposite sex, had thus far in his life not made courting an avenue of endeavor. A few times, his seeming lack of interest and dedication to his work and driving around smoking, which he also approached with a professional focus and energy, had accidentally gained him some feminine affection, but he was sure not to get used to it as he felt it wouldn’t last. As of yet, it hadn’t. He had dreams of arrival in Manhattan, where he would be not just another punk kid from a washed-out county, but a cowboy, as exotic to the city slickers there as Lotte was to the townies he worked with.
“Any man can go out and make some money and treat their lady right, but the man who can provide without leaving a footprint, now that’s a real ladies’ man.” Fapple wrapped the marmot in a piece of tarp and shut the trunk.
“Sounds like more of a man’s man to me,” Kurt said.
“Fapple’s the next guy on a buffalo,” Bean said.
“Anyway, you are still leaving a footprint, just a different kind.” Danny never thought about stuff like this before, and he furrowed his brow, having confused himself a little. Their town was divided between rednecks who drove the biggest vehicles possible and treated the landscape like a conquered domain, and hippies, like Fapple and his family, who rode bikes and made kombucha and imagined a mode of existence a little less dissonant, or at least dissonant in different ways. But after sharing a community long enough, the two sides began to cross-pollinate, each seeing the wisdom in the other. A Cascadia flag on a front porch could mean many things.
Fapple’s father was a dentist, twice divorced, who’s pride and joy was either his Corvette (a decidedly non-hippie machine to go with his non-hippie profession), which he kept in the garage and hardly drove for fear of aging it beyond the inevitable, existential aging caused by the passage of time, or his firm handshake, which he cultivated with various hand and forearm exercises: squeezing a tennis ball while doing paperwork at his desk, turning a baton with a weight hanging by a rope from its center, winding the rope around the baton until the weight touched his hands, then winding it back down. When he shook your hand, you knew he wasn’t cheating the exercises, was sticking to the routine, and he was sure to comment on the state of your grip as well, as if the social custom of shaking hands was deeply symbolic of one’s relationship with the whole of reality, and he reserved his respect for those able to hold on tight.
Bean’s father worked at a smoke shop across from the Grocery Outlet, but to Bean, he wasn’t so different from any other man; the fact of their shared blood failed to impress him. He saw the old man regularly in the shop though, and if it wasn’t too busy the two of them would step out to smoke together, the elder sometimes grabbing a couple of Monster energy drinks from the cooler, knowing his son was headed off toward a long night in a hot kitchen. There was a feeling of goodwill, even of something special when they first lit up, regarding each other and the new night, the highway cars, overhead gaggles of geese or jet streams, the distant sounds of train whistles or gunshots. But as the ashes grew longer, the silence between them grew proportionally louder; it seemed the very pavement was hinting that something was wrong. Bean knew, logically and emotionally, that in fact, everything was fine, just because he had nothing to say to this old broken-down cowboy who sired him didn’t mean their relationship was anything less than it should be. He didn’t spin into some identity crisis, and the old man, who was mostly just confused at the boy and everything else really, was happy enough to stand quietly with him. He could chew the fat with any bum who walked through the door. Still, there was this edge of tension they both felt in their bones.
Kurt got behind the wheel of the Malibu, assuring Bean he would be back at two, sober enough to drive him home, if that was where he still wanted to go.
“Anywhere I lay my head,” he yelled as he sped away. Bean went into the kitchen and turned the hockey game on the radio, talked to Gregor about the prep list, and got to work. Kurt and Danny drove to the Crater, an all-night diner, and set up another chess game as the first snow of the year began to fall.
Doctor Powell got home before his wife, a dental hygienist at Fapple’s father’s office, and lit a fire in the stove. He tossed a pile of junk mail on it and opened the remaining letter. It was from Jasbir, a man in Rajasthan he had never met, but the two had been playing chess by mail for over two decades. At one point, the Indian man had tried to come to the United States, where he had family in farming. A visit to Doctor Powell was high on the list of potential adventures. When he was unable to obtain a visa, the Powells considered a trip to the subcontinent. In the navy, Powell once furloughed a week in Karachi and the memory formed the height of his sense of the exotic, of the true vastness of the world, and of what could have been. But they were daunted first by expenses, then by ill health, and the window seemed to close. Powell enjoyed the specificity and purity of his long-distance chess relationship anyway. Sometimes moves were accompanied by a short note wishing happy holidays, a photograph of the Mehrangarh Fort, the occasional trinket, but this time it was just a queen-side castle. Powell went into the garage where a few boards were set up and made the move so he could consider his response. The opening was over, and the mid-game was on.
As a general practice, Powell first gave new players a general overview of the game: the rules, movements of the pieces, and objectives. He actively tried to avoid getting too abstract or theoretical right off the bat. Once a player was comfortable with the basic controls, he taught openings. Ninety percent of players never really move beyond this step. Openings were complicated, and at the beginner and intermediate stages, they usually set the course for the entire game; the final outcome would be clear after less than ten moves. The Ruy Lopez, a dominant professional offense, was his go-to. Lopez was a priest during the Spanish Inquisition, and so the opening was sometimes called the Spanish Torture. For black, he taught the Berlin Defense, also known as the Berlin Wall. He would bring in clips from the chess column in the New York Times. The club had become more popular in recent years, perhaps due to the ascendance of the young Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen. He liked to describe a good chess opening like breakfast or the first few hours of a day. If you started off on the right foot, in the right frame of mind, everything would flow from there.
When Bean got off work, he was not surprised to see no sign of Kurt and the Malibu. He pulled his collar tight and walked down through the park along the river. He loved cold weather and the sort of clean clarity he felt it inspired. He arrived at a somewhat hidden bench his friend Jeremiah, a hippie bum and sometime drug dealer, liked to hang out at, and was shocked to find him there with none other than Lotte.
“She’s tripping,” Jeremiah grinned.
“Sort of a cold night for that, wouldn’t you say?” Bean lit a cigarette, squinting. Though he would never begrudge anyone their own personal taste in pleasure or bliss-following or whatever you wanted to call it, he himself had never wanted to stray from the epicurean basics: a good steak, a good smoke, a warm bed, a bottle of whiskey when he got the blues.
“Well, l I only had a vial, and she was eager.” Lotte looked very happy but also quite remote, her eyes dark and oily in the light of distant bulbs reflecting off the river.
“There’s a little rave nearby. Wanna check it out?” It seemed like Jeremiah was always headed to a rave. “There’s a twelve-year-old DJ.”
“I’m washed,” Bean said, “don’t let Lotte lose her shit. Anyway, I heard about this ten-year-old DJ over in the valley; your preteen dinosaur has gotta be getting stale by now.” He walked over to the 7-11 where a few punks were hanging around the parking lot. Seeing Lotte tripping reminded him how little one can really assume about one’s fellows. He chuckled, realizing the world was ever larger than he previously believed. Kurt pulled up in the roaring Malibu and jumped out.
“Notice anything different?” he said. Bean studied the car, walked around it, and scratched his head.
“New tires! Thanks, man, I was way overdue.” He punched his friend in the arm. Kurt worked at a tire shop and had occasional access to killer deals. Nobody asked him if the boss was aware of these deals of not, and Kurt never mentioned one way or the other. The tire store also held an annual campaign in which they gave away free beef with tire purchases, and for a few months out of the year, Kurt seemed to throw big BBQs with a hundred bucks of meat on the grill about every week.
Cara, one of the punks, asked him for a smoke, and he held out his pack, then his lighter. She lived in a little shed behind some distant relative’s house in the old part of town. Nobody knew what happened to her parents, but there was an aura of tragedy around her that was as famous as it was magnetic. If you were lucky, she’d invite you back to her shed some time, and put on a record by a band you had never heard of, playing sounds you had never imagined, and you’d look out at the snow drifting every direction at once, and smoke cigarettes right there on the bed, which was really just a foam pad on the floor with a wool blanket over the top. Cara’s poverty and hard luck, the very things that confined her, that seemed to close so many doors when she peered into the future, also opened another set of doors most kids weren’t even aware of.
A small town in the middle of nowhere isn’t the type of place known to be fast-paced and ambitious, but people can be driven hard by most anything, even if it’s just football or chess or demolition. Cara was completely outside anything like this. She skipped tons of class and whenever Lotte, who was strangely close with her, asked why she didn’t show, she would just say she was sleeping or decided to go for a walk or was talking to a bum or got a one-day job helping an old man clean his garage. Cara and Lotte made the strangest pair in school. The quiet Swede was always perfectly turned out, walking with Charlie Song’s fancy headphones and a leather jacket that was the envy of the class for the way it fit her just right and seemed at once punk and fancy. She was a straight-A student, her lecture notes meticulous and beautiful, color-coordinated folders, and pencils sharpened to deadly points. Cara wore the same thing every day: the denim vest with the Black Flag, and Crass, and Dead Moon patches and the spike belt, the destroyed Converse, the jeans more safety pins than fabric. Nobody was sure how she graduated; maybe the teachers cut her some slack, or maybe the little work she did do was so quality that it tided her over, like a bear feasting before hibernating for the winter.
“There goes Order and Chaos,” Fapple always said when he saw the girls walking, sometimes hand-in-hand, across the dusty expanse between the school and the truck stop where upperclassmen often went for lunches of jojos and chicken strips.
“What are you up to?” Bean asked her as she twirled the newly lit cigarette around in her fingers.
“I’m open to suggestions,” she said.
“You play chess?” he asked.
“Nah. Lotte tried to teach me. No head for strategy.”
“If he can do it, you can.” Bean gestured at Kurt who was in the store buying a coffee. A cop pulled into the lot and got out of her cruiser.
“No school tomorrow, Weston,” she said.
“I just got off work, gotta unwind before bed.” Kurt came out with his coffee steaming in front of him.
“They’re out of donuts, Officer,” he smiled mischievously.
“Never heard that one before,” the cop said and went inside. The boys got in their car and drove off. Cara disappeared into the darkness down the street.
“What do you think Powell is doing right now?” Kurt asked.
“Sleeping, I reckon. Or watching Perry Mason reruns on cable.” Bean tried to picture him dozing on his couch. “Why are you so fucking curious about him?” he asked.
“Why not?” Kurt said, but the question sunk in, and he silently wondered at the root of his imaginings. Bean dropped him off and pulled into his mom’s driveway. There were still coals in the woodstove in his trailer, and he stoked it as he took his shoes off and put his feet up. He turned on the radio and found Art Bell talking to someone recently returned from a trip to the future. By the time they had finished describing just what they had found there, he was fast asleep.
He woke up around eight, the trailer cold. He pulled the sleeping bag tight around himself and peered out into the flat desert light, defensively, as if he had just landed on a distant planet. He could hear cattle lowing in a field nearby. Pulling on his boots he sprinted in his underwear through the snow and started his car, then went back inside and got dressed and threw some things in his backpack. He smoothed and straightened the sleeping bag and looked around the space for a moment. Exhaust from the Malibu drifted sluggishly across the cinder drive; the cattle looked on in a manner he felt encouraging.
“Get along, little doggies,” he yelled at them, revving the engine as he drove away. He stopped for coffee and gas at Arco and then drove to the gym and went into the sauna. It was empty save for someone in the steamy far corner.
“Der Bean,” a voice said.
“Who dat?” Bean said.
“Herr Müller.” It was the high school German teacher, a born-again eighties rocker with hairband lyrics tattooed all over him. Despite every attempt to dislike the guy for his right-wing Christian fundamentalism, Müller was pretty mellow with it all and so matter-of-fact with his discussion of how the church saved him, Bean liked him, and sent out something compliments of the chef when the Herr, as they called him, brought his equally wrecked-and-born-again wife for a weekly meal at the restaurant. The teacher he was hired to replace was let go after writing a series of allegedly smutty letters to a senior who had just come out of the closet. The senior did one of those coffee shop singer-songwriter routines, which seemed all the more bizarre in such a hick town, and the teacher attended every one and was always front and center and applauding; that got everyone talking. When the principal got her hands on the letters, though nobody knew how, the Frau was out, and the Herr was in.
“I didn’t know you liked the schwitz?” Bean said.
“You know, back in the eighties,” a lot of Herr’s stories started like this, “the schwitz was like the only time I could really be honest with myself. Sitting here in the dark sweating with nothing but your thoughts, it’s how I realized I was on the wrong path.”
“Well, I hope it can have that effect on us all,” Bean said, spooning some more water over the coals.
“Are you unsure about your path?”
“Sure, if I think about it.”
“You prefer not to?”
“Yeah, I’m Bartleby.”
“Nevermind.” Outside, winter had arrived in full. Bean walked out to find Fapple engaged in testing some studded bicycle tires.
“The next big thing!” Fapple yelled a moment before turning too fast and eating shit. He smiled as he got up. “You gotta get in on the ground floor.”
“Ground floor, indeed,” Bean said. “Enjoy your motor oil snow cone.” He drove to school, flicking his cigarette behind an ambulance parked out front on his way in. There was a crowd gathered in the hall. Kurt Jandek was looking in from the edge.
“What’s all this, did they finally cancel Home Ec?” Bean peered around.
“Dude, it’s Lotte. She like went crazy or something, started screaming in first period.” Kurt’s capacity for genuine concern was surprising to Bean, and then his own surprise was even more surprising. The paramedics took Lotte out wrapped in a blanket, Cara trailing behind arguing that she should go with them, likely not aware of the cigarette butt behind her ear. Charlie was slouching sadly behind her tapping his phone, presumably alerting more responsible parties, if there were any. Powell came out of the staff room and tried to disperse the crowd.
“Where’s Tyler?” he asked Bean.
“Who is Tyler?” Kurt said.
“He’s riding his snow bike to school,” Bean said. “Is Lotte alright?”
“Everyone needs a little freak out now and then.” Powell sighed and put his hand on Bean’s shoulder. “Why do you boys call him Fapple anyway?”
“Nobody knows,” Kurt said.
“Speak of the devil.” Bean pointed to the front door.
“And why do they call you Bean?” Powell asked.
“Your real name’s not Bean?” Kurt said.
“It’s Weston,” Bean said.
“Oh yeah, you look like a Weston. It’s a good solid name.”
“Tyler, I can’t run the club tomorrow; will you sup it?” Powell asked.
“Sure thing, boss,” Fapple said.
“Give Danny a rematch too.”
After they had all disappeared into classrooms, Powell went outside and had a few deep breathes of that cold, new winter air before sneaking out back for his smoke break. As he crunches around between the trailers and mobile homes and ducks beneath a low hanging pine branch, he tells himself, like always, it’s the last time, but like a pawn crossing the board approaching the endgame, he knows if he can just make a few more moves, he’ll turn into a queen.
Joshua Willey was born in Oakland, California and studied literature at Reed College. Some of his work has appeared in Adbusters, Hobart, Wasafiri, and Newfound. When not reading and writing, he works on a ranch.
Interview with Josh Willey
- Fifteen years.
- No, I’m a news analyst.
- Playing chess in high school in a small town.
- W.G. Sebald, Elizabeth Bishop, Liz Harris, Matthew Porterfield, and David Berman.
- You can find my work in Medium, Hobart, and Storie Press, and also follow my Tumblr.
- Read and write every day. Read your work aloud and listen to someone else read it to you. Try to follow the work, not lead it.