Jan 31, 2011, 12:13 PM |

The wind howled, whipping snow around Richard as he pulled open the door to the storefront Chinese eatery. He entered quickly, pulling the door closed behind him so the wind would not catch it and barge in behind him like an unwelcome intruder. Taking a moment to stamp his feet clean of clinging snow, and to remove his hood and gloves, Richard made his way to the counter and grabbed a paper menu and a pencil from the countertop. Even though he knew what he was going to order – he always got the chicken in garlic sauce with a side of white rice on Thursday- he gave the menu a quick once over just to kill some time while the restaurant’s proprietor stood lazily from his chair, nestled cozily in a corner alongside a stainless steel prep table, and shuffled over. Richard circled his two items and handed the owner his order. As the proprietor wordlessly totaled the order on the register, Richard zipped open his winter coat and fished in his trouser pockets looking for his money clip. After seeing the amount pop up on the register, he pulled the clip from his left pocket, slipped out a ten from the thin wad of cash, and put it on the countertop. He then dug around in his trouser pockets some more and came out with two quarters and put them on the five dollar bill. At a loss for a second, he felt his coat’s pockets and heard some jingling from the flapped left pocket. He thrust hand inside and came out with an assortment of change, finally plopping one last quarter on the countertop. The proprietor smiled patiently as he round up the money and dropped it into the register. “Five minute,” he replied and shuffled off to the stove behind him.

Richard turned from the counter and made his way to one of the eight small melamine tables that made up the dining room. But for him the restaurant was empty of patrons – no surprise with the storm blowing in. He always took the same table - on the right side of the restaurant, midway along the wall - even if he had to wait for it to empty before beginning his meal (he often earned a quizzical glance from the proprietor as he would occasionally pick up his meal from one table and move to this all important spot – wasn’t perspective everything?). He also made sure to sit facing the broad storefront window, which had a flickering “Chen’s Chinese Food” orange neon sign hung near the top. He liked to look outside while he ate, especially on a day like today where there was quite a show to behold. As he watched, people shuffled back and forth along the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, bundled tight against the wind-driven snow.

Over the hiss and sizzle of his dinner being prepared in the kitchen, Richard could hear the low moan of the wind outside as it raced between snow-covered buildings. It made him shiver. Grateful to be out of the snow, for the lack of other patrons in the shop, and for the bright overhead lighting in the dropped ceiling that always suggested safety to him, Richard breathed a deep sigh of relief and began his post-workday unwinding.

Richard fished inside his jacket for his well-worn portable transistor radio and carefully extended the slightly bent antenna while placing it on his table. He gently turned it on by rolling the tiny toothed wheel on the top, careful to keep the volume down so as to not disturb the proprietor, as well as to conserve the two AA batteries inside. Over bursts of static, Richard heard the all-too-enthusiastic newsman warn of “deteriorating conditions” from the warm safety of his radio studio. Richard gazed outside as he remained hunched over his radio, noticing that the sky had turned from an ethereal white to a brooding gray, causing some streetlights to flicker on even though it was only mid afternoon. The snow was now coming down unrelentingly and visibility was dropping.

Richard jumped in his seat as the proprietor suddenly announced his meal was ready. He stood and quickly made his way over to the counter, grabbing the serving tray with his steaming food, while the proprietor wordlessly sunk back into his chair, as if he was some machine only spurred into action by the demands of his task-oriented programming.

Richard sat down at the table and mechanically began to mix his chicken with the white rice, his transistor radio whispering the news and traffic over the crackling static all the while. Like a wolf hastily devouring his kill, he used a plastic fork to shovel the food into his mouth. He didn’t even remove his winter coat, as if he expected some larger predator to suddenly force him to run from his meal without warning. The spicy chicken made his mouth burn, but Richard barely noticed as he stared out into the snow, noticing that shops on the other side of the street were slowly going dark as they closed early in anticipation of what his radio just termed “dangerous blizzard conditions”.

As he continued to gaze out onto the snowy streets, a figure clad in a black hoodie and jeans strolled in front of the eatery’s storefront window and glanced inside. As Richard watched, the figure, whose face was hid in the deep shadow of the hood that was pulled over the head and cinched tightly against the wind and snow, came to a halt. Suddenly, an open-palmed gloved hand went up and pounded on the window twice, commanding Richard’s attention. He watched as the figure hurried back and pulled open the eatery’s door and rushed inside, followed by a blast of cold wind and swirling snow eddies on the black and white tiled floor. The person came to a stop before Richard’s table and a gloved hand pulled down the snow-crusted hood, revealing a familiar smiling face with a black goatee. “Rich! What are you doing here? Ain’t it early for you?”

Richard chewed and swallowed his last forkfull. “The yard let everyone go early because of the storm,” he replied as if it was obvious to all the world.

Lewis smiled, pulled out the chair opposite Richard and sat down. “That figures. Guess there’s no point keeping everyone on if you’re all bumbling out in the snow!” Lewis gave one of his characteristic full-throated laughs and pulled off his gloves, one of which was missing a finger tip. “Sucks to work outside during the winter, doesn’t it?”

“Like you would know,” kidded Richard.

“What do ya mean by that?” asked Lewis with mock outrage. “When not in some musty old hall, I spend most of my time in every God-forsaken park between here and the west side. Rain, sunshine...or snow,” he added while looking over his shoulder at the falling snow outside.

Outside of the shop, a cabbie was gesturing angrily from his driver’s side window at the stalled traffic, while his windshield wipers languidly tried to keep the glass free of snow in what was a hopeless battle.

“So what’ve you been up to?” asked Richard as he carefully scrapped together a small mound of white rice and chicken.

Lewis casually reached over and plucked a piece of chicken out of Richard’s plate and popped it into his mouth. “The usual. Wandering the streets, looking for some blitz action,” he replied while chewing.

“Didn’t you have an appointment with that job counselor today?” Richard enquired bemusedly.

“Job counselor…ha! Those guys are useless. They don’t know what’s important.” Lewis suddenly started to cough. “I should <cough> be the one finding <cough> those guys meaningful occupations!” he added between fits. “How the heck do you eat this spicy stuff?” He coughed some more, then wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his hoodie. “Don’t you have something to wash it down?”

“Yeah,” replied Richard. “Tap water back at my apartment.”

“I mean here,” replied Lewis.

“The water’s free out of my tap,” countered Richard.

Lewis shook his head. “Have something on me,” he answered as he got up and made his way to the counter. “Barkeep!” shouted Lewis, as he pounded on the table, laughing in Richard’s direction as he did so. Unperturbed, the proprietor stood from his corner with glacial slowness and moved to the counter. “One hot tea, please,” ordered Lewis.

“Ninety-five sense,” answered the proprietor as he moved to get a tall paper cup and fill it with a tea bag and hot water.

Lewis thrust his hand into his jean’s pocket and came up with a handful of change. After fingering through it for a few seconds, he looked over his shoulder. “Hey Rich, you got a dime?” After a few seconds of fumbling in his coat, rich tossed a shiny coin to Lewis. “Here you go,” Lewis said as he added the dime to his pile, put the change on the counter and took the cup of hot tea while the proprietor worked the register. “You like sugar?” Rich just shrugged. “I like sugar,” muttered Lewis as he opened a small packet he grabbed from a box on the counter and dumped the contents into the cup.

Lewis walked back to the table, carefully sipping the tea. “Much better,” he beamed at Richard as he sat down. “That’s the only type of ‘hot’ I like. That other stuff,” he gestured at the rice and chicken, “will rot your gut.”

“Quid pro quo.” Richard pushed the remaining rice and garlic chicken towards Lewis while he took the cup and carefully sipped some tea.

Lewis reached over and grabbed Richard’s small radio. “What’s this?”

“My window on the world,” replied Richard. “I like to listen to the news, especially on a day like today. Speaking about that…you weren’t out there today expecting to get some action, were you?

Lewis’ face lit-up, “Expecting? I got it…well, one guy, anyway. Some patzer tourist from…I don’t know, somewhere - not here - was lookin’ for a game. It wasn’t snowing that hard then.” Lewis took another piece of chicken and chewed it with a smile. “It was only for pocket change, but money is money. Fool tried to trap me with…,” Lewis starred at the ceiling for a second, “1. d4 Nf6 2. e4….”

“The Omega Gambit. It’s rubbish,” interjected Richard after slurping some tea and passing the cup back to Lewis.

“It certainly didn’t do him any good. Ten bucks in my pocket,” laughed Lewis.

Richard grunted in amusement. “Fool and his money.”

“Exactly. But I’m not complaining,” he added with a grin.

“Oh, that reminds me….” Richard reached into an interior coat pocket and came out with a tattered magazine that was folded in half. “Here. You can have this,” he said as he handed Lewis the magazine.

Lewis folded it open and looked at it. “Hey! Cool! A copy of New in Chess! Thanks man!” he beamed.

“Ah, don’t mention it,” smiled Richard. It’s from last August…I found it on the subway. There’s a good interview with Mike Chuckson in there….”

“Chuckson, eh?”

‘Yeah. Right after his win at the Open.”

“Thanks!” He stared at the cover thoughtfully. “You don’t want to keep it?” he asked.

Richard shook his head. “I’ve been through all the PGN already. I’m done with it.”

Lewis reached over and patted his friend on the shoulder. “As good as gold…,” he added as he carefully smoothed out the wrinkles on the cover before slipping it inside his hoodie.

Lewis turned around and thoughtfully looked out at the now ragging blizzard as the small radio crackled with drama-laden weather reports. “So, what have you got planned for the rest of the day? This city is gonna put out the ol’ ‘closed for business’ sign at any second,” he smirked.

Richard shrugged, his winter coat protesting with a “swooshing” sound that only cheap nylon can make. “I don’t know. Guess I’ll just make my way back to the apartment and get some games over the ‘net. I saved up for the club membership; might as well make some use out of it. Still think $25 was a rip-off….”

“Your computer working again? I'm gonna have to stop over one night.”

“Yeah. I scavenged a new hard drive from an old PC I found in a dumpster at the yard. Only 250 gigs, but it’s good enough for my purposes,” answered Richard. “I even found a decent 56K modem.”

“It won’t do you any good if the power goes out,” said Lewis, while pointing out at the storm.

“Well, in that case, all hope is lost anyway,” replied Richard with a smirk.

“Well…not all hope.” Lewis leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner. “I hear that Epstein is holding one of his tourneys….”

“Are you crazy?” interrupted Richard. “That’s on the other side of the city. We’ll never make it in this weather. The subway’s already shut down….”

“Come on. You know it’s worth it. It’s Epstein. There will be snacks and soda….”

“I just ate,” replied Richard.

“…and that basement of his is rather warm and comfortable,” continued Lewis, “Especially when all the tables are full of players. And they will be.”

“I do have heat in my pad, you know.”

“But do you have Chuckson up there?” asked Lewis.

Richard paused for a second. “Chuckson? FM Mike Chuckson? The…the guy on that magazine I just gave you? That Chuckson? He’s going to be there? Who says?” Richard asked incredulously.

Lewis smirked. “He’s gonna be there. You can count on it. An old friend of Epstein from what I hear.”

Richard stopped and considered this. “I ah…I ah don’t….”

“Oh, come on!” laughed Lewis. “It’s really only a few blocks. We can make it. And it’s not every day you get to play against someone worthy of our talent,” finished Lewis.

Richard rolled his eyes. “What makes you think an FM is gonna schlep all the way to an open tourney that’s held in the basement of the local chess club? And in this kind of weather!” Richard protested. “He’s not gonna show,” he added as if to reassure himself.

“Bullshit,” replied Lewis. “He’ll show. They’ll show. We’re all gonna show. Aren’t you?”

Richard just looked out at the storm through a window that was slowly becoming opaque due to clinging snow and ice. But for the streetlights, the falling snow would have been invisible as a dark faux nightfall descended on the city.

“Of course you are,” Lewis answered for Richard. "Hell, any woodpusher would. It’s what makes us…us!” Richard only glowered at him. “We’re the knights of old! Sworn to the quest!” he added with mock sincerity.

Richard set his jaw as if to protest, but finally answered with a resigned “Yeah. I guess.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get there. And if we don’t, well…there’s probably chess in heaven,” joked Lewis.

Suddenly the lights of the eatery blinked on and off. “Restaurant closing. Time to go,” announced the proprietor, his hand flicking the lights switch up and down.

“It’s decided,” announced Lewis, standing while slipping on his well-worn gloves.

Richard stood as well and grabbed his radio and retracted the antenna. “I guess I never did have a choice in the matter,” he replied.

“No. No you didn’t.” Pulling his hood up, Lewis suddenly intoned:

For fals Fortune hath pleyd a game atte ches with me, allas! the whyle! The trayteresse fals and ful of gyle, that al behoteth and no-thing halt….”

Richard inclined his head. “Huh?”

“Nothing. Just a little Chaucer.”

“You can’t find the time for a job, but you can find the time to study the classics?” laughed Richard.

“You know as well as I do that there is only one reason why I know that bit of poetry.” Lewis walked over to the door and pulled it open, gritting his teeth as the frigid air hit him like a wall. “Ready?”

Richard zipped up his coat, put on his gloves and pulled up his hood. “Ready.”

And both men stepped out into the storm.

*** 'A Snowy City' artwork by *duytter