by Michael Weitz
Originally published in SQUARES Magazine, Volume 2 Number 7, Spring 2005
“You’re a chess player, huh?”
I felt the words more than heard them. For the past two months I’d been swimming through the tangles of the Queen’s Gambit Declined, a chess opening with an assortment of complicated variations, and I was a bit preoccupied with my studies.
“I said, you’re a chess player, huh?”
I heard it that time and it would be rude to ignore. There was nothing wrong with him making conversation. People tend to want to talk aboard airplanes and since I was in the window seat of our row, he was just being polite. I wondered if he was serious about the game of chess or someone who used to play as a kid.
“Hello,” I said as I looked up from my travel chess set. “Yes, I’m a chess player. How about you?”
“It’s been a while since I played,” he said. “Used to play all the time when I was a kid, though.”
“Maybe we can play a game or two,” he said. He stood and jammed a duffel bag into the overhead compartment. I smiled and started to put the miniature pieces away in preparation for takeoff. You know, trays in their upright positions and so forth.
I thought I had successfully dodged the impromptu challenge when he spoke again. “Joshy, have you ever heard of chess?”
Oh no. I glanced up from my ministrations and came face to face with a wide-eyed little boy too small to make the height requirement for most amusement park rides. He pushed his way past his father and climbed into the middle seat. Joshy, I presumed.
The boy’s hair was the color of honey and while his eyes were the fantasy blue of an artist’s palette, there was something cunning behind them. He had stains on his yellow t-shirt and pink smudges on his hands that told a sticky story.
As the engines whined and the plane backed away from the terminal, the father and son ignored me and discussed the excitement of flight. I took the opportunity to begin reading a mystery novel I’d brought along.
After 35 minutes Joshy was bored.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the boy’s body straighten out, his waist moving up from the cushion so his body formed a triangle with the seat. He remained rigid, staring up at the ceiling, then slowly, the way buildings are shown imploding on television, Joshy slid towards the floor.
His jeans bunched up around his knees and revealed once white tube socks now choked with dust and grime like a vacuum cleaner bag that no number of washings could save. Then Joshy’s t-shirt rode up and exposed his belly button along with several stains on his skin in a variety of Kool-Aid hues. Finally, his bottom slid off the edge of the chair and gravity pulled him faster until the seatbelt caught his forehead.
The father closed his magazine and said, “Joshy, sit up now and get something to drink.”
I glanced up from the paragraph I’d had to read four times and saw the flight attendants nearby with their drink carts. The father leaned out of his seat to get a better view of what the choices were and Joshy strained against his seatbelt by pushing with his head, and tried to force the buckle open. His eyes were squeezed shut and his face turned purple as he put all his might into pushing against the seatbelt.
Then he reached up and flipped open the buckle with his thumb.
Joshy flew forward like a slingshot and slammed into the seat in front of him. The woman sitting there turned around and fixed a nasty frown in between the seats that would have made any other child whither, but Joshy was oblivious. He giggled, crawled back up onto his own chair and wiggled himself against the seat back.
When the drink cart stopped at our row the father turned to Joshy and asked what he wanted.
“Coke!” the boy screamed.
I dropped my book and the woman sitting in front of Joshy flinched like a gun had just gone off. I closed my eyes and prayed Joshy’s father would think twice before giving the boy a shot of caffeine.
“I’ll have coffee,” I heard him say. “And a Coke for my son.”
He didn’t even hesitate. It was at that moment I knew God wasn’t a chess player.
I’d been working to expand my opening repertoire and asked only for some peace and quiet. Where better to study chess openings than on an airplane flight? Three and a half hours of uninterrupted chess submersion. Instead, Joshy and his modern-day father with a child rearing philosophy of Give-Them-Anything-They-Want, ended up sitting with me. Where was the 90-year-old couple who would have slept the entire trip?
When the flight attendant asked me what I’d like to drink I ordered up a whiskey on the rocks. I don’t even like whiskey, but it seemed necessary. I took the alcohol and twisted toward the window to read in peace.
But before I’d had three sips of the Tennessee mash, Joshy gulped down all of his soda, had lost any shyness he may have exhibited before and was climbing on me to peer out the window. I could feel his little hands dig into my shoulder as he balanced himself and I held my drink out to keep it from spilling.
“Joshy,” the father said, “sit back down in your seat, please.”
“I’m looking out the window,” Joshy replied.
“Look quick and then sit down.”
The guy didn’t even care his kid was crawling all over a complete stranger! I could have disciplined the boy myself, but even asking him to get off me might elicit a parental rage from the father. I would be accused of being a child hater and asked how I could deny a small boy the simple pleasure of looking out an airplane window. Who was I to tell this child, his child, to sit back down? What difference did it make that the boy was using me as a beanbag? What kind of beast was I?
I sighed mentally and pushed my head back so the kid could see the pillowy tops of the cumulus clouds.
“Hey, Joshy,” the father said. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s ask the nice man if he’ll play a game of chess. Do you know what chess is, Joshy?”
Every cell in my body puckered and then collapsed at the suggestion. In my mind I screamed until my skull cracked. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for teaching children the royal game of chess, but it’s something that requires a proper frame of mind. At that moment all I could think of was how Joshy belonged in a zoo. Joshy seemed untamable by his own parents and I certainly didn’t want the father using me or chess as a pacifier to keep his kid quiet.
The boy pushed off of me and sat in his seat. “Yea!” he said. “A game!”
I remained still, my head back on the seat, eyes closed. Maybe if I played ‘possum long enough they’d leave me alone.
No such luck.
“So? What do you say to a game on your little chess board there?” the father asked.
My mistake was that I feigned sleep. Opossums go all out and adopt the death grimace, a freakish baring of the teeth that makes them look as if they’d died a painful, poisonous death.
I knocked back the remainder of my whiskey and offered a teeth-baring grimace of my own. “Why not?” I said.
We lowered Joshy’s tray as it was between us and I set my board on it. When I removed the lid Joshy clapped his hands at the sight of the pieces. Once we had them in their starting position the father chuckled. “Now go easy on me,” he said. “I barely remember how the pieces move.”
“No problem,” I said and rotated the board so he played white. “You can go first.”
“Thanks. Okay, Joshy,” he said, pushing his King pawn forward, “in this game you have to really pay attention. So you watch very carefully.”
I brought my own King’s pawn to the middle of the board and looked sideways at Joshy. So far so good. Ten seconds into the game and he hadn’t moved. I took it as a good sign.
After three more moves the Knights and Bishops began to come into the game and these caught Joshy’s eye. They were bigger than the pawns and shaped differently. But it was the father who blundered when he called the Knight a horsey. “Watch how my horsey jumps over the other pieces, Joshy,” he said.
I rolled my eyes and looked out the window. They’re Knights! I wanted to say. And don’t even think about calling those castles either, I’d add, pointing to the Rooks. But I suppose it would have been snobbish to correct him in front of his son so I remained passive, a thin smile drawn across my face.
Suddenly Joshy reached out and snatched the Knight from the board. The piece disappeared in his little fist, my brain screamed “Sticky!” and my smile was erased.
“We need all the pieces to play the game, Joshy,” the father said mildly. “Put the horsey back on the board.”
“I’m looking at it,” the boy mumbled.
“That’s not very nice, son,” the father said. “We were playing a game and now we can’t. But okay, you look at it.”
My eyes were wide as I stared at the poor Knight, encased in Joshy’s grubby little hand. All I could think of was how to clean the lacquered wood. Was the syrupy substance staining the little boy’s hand transferring to the chess piece? Would the Knight come away with a rosy, strawberry-flavored mane?
The father saw the look on my face and mistook my concern for rage. “That’s enough, Joshy,” he said and reached into the boy’s hand.
“No!” Joshy cried.
“You’re making Daddy upset now, Joshy. Put the horsey back.”
The father wrenched the Knight away from his son’s grasp and Joshy kicked out with both feet. I got clipped in the left knee and recoiled to avoid further hostility. The real show, though, was on the aisle. Joshy’s left foot connected with his father’s tray and launched his cup of coffee into the main cabin.
Passengers who witnessed the outburst were quick to protect themselves. The woman across from Joshy’s father pushed herself onto the lap of the man sitting next to her. I suspected her sweater was dry-clean only. A man in the aisle on his way to the bathroom reached out to catch the cup as it came level with his eyes, but when he saw it was hot coffee he pulled his arms back and elbowed an old woman in the head.
Joshy’s father was the only one to be victimized by his son’s action. The cup turned upside down as it descended and the coffee splashed onto his left leg. He howled, jumped out of his seat and cracked his skull on the overhead luggage bin.
People whipped their heads around and some popped up from their seats like meerkats to see what the commotion was about. A flight attendant hurried up the aisle and asked what had happened.
The father took a deep breath and said, “It’s okay. It’s just coffee. We had a little accident.”
My eyes were locked on his right hand, which was balled into a fist. In the palm of that hand was the errant Knight from my travel chess set. If Joshy’s father squeezed any tighter the Knight would either puncture his skin or be crushed by his pent-up frustration and pain.
To his credit, and to my and other passengers’ dismay, the father sat calmly down and turned to his son. “Joshy,” he said, “that was a very bad thing to do. You hurt Daddy and spilled the coffee. Now you need to sit still in your seat.”
The woman with the dry-clean only outfit rolled her eyes. I’m with you, lady, I thought. This kid needs a swift kick in the…
“Well, how about we finish this game then?” the father said.
I nodded. “Okay.” What else could I do?
With the Knight replaced upon its proper square I began to mobilize my pieces in an all-out attack on my opponent’s King. I was able to centralize my Queen and double my Rooks. He, on the other hand, had misguidedly traded a Rook for a poorly placed Knight and left his King in a fairly unprotected position.
Defeating an opponent so completely did nothing to advance my knowledge of the game, but under the circumstances I felt justified to relish in my victory. After a three move combination his King would be dead, the game over. My win would not only be for me, but for the other passengers as well.
As I reached forward to push my Rook to the seventh rank, Joshy flopped himself like a fish; he bent in the middle then snapped straight. Both of his feet kicked up under his tray and bounced the small chess set up toward the ceiling.
32 pieces leapt into the air and for a moment, just a breath, hung suspended before tumbling to the floor of the plane. I felt the air rush out of my lungs and my shoulders sag in defeat. Not only had Joshy taken away my victory, he had destroyed the artistry of a beautiful combination. This boy was not just mischievous, he was malevolent.
“Joshy!” I heard the father say. “Why’d you do that?”
No apologies, no discipline, just a father trying to have a logical conversation with an illogical child.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Joshy said.
“Number one or number two?”
Great. At least they would leave so I could retrieve the chess pieces. I picked up a Queen and three pawns that had landed on Joshy’s tray.
“Okay,” the father said, “hurry up and finish and we’ll change your diaper.”
Diaper?? The kid had to be three years old, maybe even four. He had no business wearing a diaper! Monkeys wear diapers. His grandpa might wear a diaper, but not him.
Joshy squirmed in his seat and made a grunting sound that made me shiver. “Okay,” he said.
“Finished?” the father asked.
Joshy nodded. I held my breath. As soon as they went to the bathroom I planned to put a blanket over Joshy’s seat.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and bent over to gather the scattered chess pieces from the floor when Joshy stood up. Not knowing what I’d encounter so close to the seat of Joshy’s pants, I gulped air and grabbed pawns like a coin diver in Pago Pago before coming up for the sweet oxygen above.
But Joshy was still there. He stood close to the seat in front of him holding his hands up against the headrest with his feet apart. He looked like he’d been arrested and had assumed the position. Instead of being patted down though, Joshy had dropped his pants and his father was changing the boy’s diaper right there in the middle of Row 18!
A murmur rose up from the passengers and heads swiveled to look for the source of their olfactory discomfort. Nearby a baby began to cry and the plane’s air filtration units switched on.
This was too much! I looked for a flight attendant but my eyes teared up and my vision blurred. Why was the father changing his son’s diaper here?
As much as it pained me to do so, I left the remaining chess pieces on the floor, curled myself into a fetal position and turned away from the spectacle next to me. I breathed through a small pillow and looked out the window, trying to focus my attention on the tiny farms miles below.
Finally, the father finished his cleaning up duty and led Joshy to the bathroom. If he had just gone there first it would have saved us all the horrible imaginings of what Joshy must have eaten for breakfast.
Quickly I grabbed up the rest of my chess pieces from the floor. I soaked up the remaining drops of whiskey into a napkin and disinfected the poor Knight Joshy had handled then stowed them all in a small velvet bag they called home.
When the boy and his father returned they sat in their seats looking content. Did the father have any idea what he’d just subjected us all to? Had Joshy completely numbed him of societal boundaries? What was he thinking as he sat there?
“Well,” Joshy’s father said, and looked at me. “Want to play another game?”
Another game? We had yet to play one game! How about an apology for your son’s behavior? I thought. How about an explanation as to why it was necessary to change your son’s diaper—which is another story altogether—right here in the seat? Never had the game, the art, or the purity of chess been so maligned as by this father and son! As if kicking pieces into the air and leaving pink goo on them wasn’t bad enough, he wanted another go at it!
Where was the respect?
I shook my head. If I didn’t say something to him now, didn’t stop the monster in his tracks, who knew how many more victims he would claim? The injustice could not be allowed to continue.
I stood up, my passivity at an end. I looked at my fellow passengers and spoke so everyone could hear. “We have been very calm considering what you and Joshy have forced us all to suffer,” I said spreading my arms. Nearby passengers nodded and some turned in their seats to look at Joshy and his father. “I have quietly endured more than most would expect and now you want to play another game?! Chess is not a childish game of Pick-Up-Sticks!” More people turned to face me and I felt a rush of confidence. “Chess is an art! And while it is also a game, it’s a game that demands civility and a certain decorum. After what you just did here, something no one wanted to see (or smell), I will not play another game. I know where your hands have been!”