The old man, pumpkin-faced with silver strands of hair, leaned back and crossed his arms. As the espresso machine consumed the silence, I noticed three fingers on his left hand. “Mind if I watch?” I asked, hovering over the chess game.

“Go ahead,” he said; “I don’t own the bookstore.”

I’d seen the chess group before — more colorful than a writer’s group, but equally engulfed by their craft: war made lovely with the horse leaping over the enemy, the deadly queen, the king always hiding. The pawns march to the rules, to die unheralded. That’s about as profound as I can get about a game, although I know that the most enjoyable games are infinite, mysterious; and that the most dangerous games require one side to be unaware of being in a game.

I paused at the chocolate-cheese cake and the strawberry and blueberry tarts eyeing me from behind the glass. A towering guy with anti-styled hair, and a woman in a tiger-patterned top, sat near the chess game. I had seen the guy — you can’t miss someone so far above the bookshelves and toilet stalls. His head was everywhere. The woman had brought in a stack of pancakes from the Apollo Diner across the street; before placing the plate, she sprayed the table twice.

One of the players, who had been gazing at the chess pieces, turned toward me and said, “As soon as you came in, I knew it was you.”

“Me?” I asked, looking over my reading glasses.

“I need to ask you a question.”

I crossed my arms defensively and looked around, “I have to get a few things. Be right back.”

“I’ve been waiting, like, fifteen years. Take your time.”

I disappeared into the music department, hid behind a column and looked back. I hadn’t purchased music for so long and didn’t know what to buy. I went through the children’s area glowing with memory pictures, then stopped at the table with science fiction classics. Those books saw it all coming – robots and revolutions, miniaturization and globalism, the great swarms of human flesh under the grey drip of unholy skies. I bought some CDs and a book plus a geology set for my cousin’s kid. I returned to the café.

“Hey, Pilgrim, don’t remember me?” asked the younger chess player.

“Well, we all have doubles and triples out there, somewhere.”

He looked down into the design of the table; “Yeah, righto.”

“Do you remember that Star Trek episode where Spock has a goatee and is a bad dude?”

“No, not at all,” he said, glancing at a small hole in his shirt; “I was at a table and you were at a table. You had a cookie. A woman appeared, sat between us. She was a tulip of beauty. We got into a conversation. Remember her?”

“Oh wow. If you say what we discussed, I might recall –”

“Lao Tzu, the philosopher,” he said; “That was one thing.”

“It’s said he went off into the wilderness on a water buffalo.”

“We should all be so lucky,” he said, a finger over one eye, and nodding; “Don’t you own a trophy shop and teach yoga.”

“I do own a trophy shop and teach yoga.” The Beatles song Across the Universe played, while one of the employees picked up books on an empty table and added them to the others on the cart, to be deposited on the shelves.

“Those two things are mutually exclusive.”

“Many people do yoga. Everyone gets a trophy these days.”

He pretended to laugh but it was a large sniff. A teenager asked about the chess group and how he could get in on a game. His coldness transmitted across the room, though I wasn’t much surprised, a conversation re-sounding, vibrating atoms across memory and time, the failures of the palace of memory, the wheel of fate. The woman, I faintly recall, wore a blue satin dress and red sneakers, with a mixture of levity and mystery I’d seen in hard-boiled movies where some guy ends up in the river. This was long ago, but the imagery returned to me in inches. Plus, I felt some jealousy that night. The jealousy lingered, though the people attached to the jealousy had been forgotten, till that moment.

This is what I recall: The woman, entering the café, said, “I fired three people today. I need a large coffee. Then back to my McMansion.”

It’s not often that you feel yourself inside a happy folktale; the princess had a castle. As usual, I came off as old fashioned, like someone in an antiquarian bookstore. The fact of the other guy’s youth and long hair clinched the contest. Yes, I knew the bastard. He had participated in that refund we all want from the archaeological past.

I don’t know what I said or didn’t say, only that twenty minutes later she took out a cigarette and he followed her. In her red Mustang, rolling past the walls of windows, they went off like blessed people. After he waved, I looked up, to see the early pulse of Venus. It must have been hot, or the woman would have had the top down. Now I realize how much it appeared like a scene where the cool guy gets the girl, where others watch it unfold.

“Who was she?” I asked, resting some books on the café table.

On the walls behind him were posters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sappho with a lyre alongside a column, as well as candy stacked up on a shelf. I wondered where his chess partner had gone, as well as the onlookers.

“I thought you didn’t remember.”

Stiffness settled into my neck. I circled my head; “Was this ten, fifteen, years ago?”

“A few more years than you say,” he said; “I’m Albert Fudge. I wish she’d gone off with you.”

“I hope you both didn’t stab each other or something,” I replied, then realizing I wasn’t being funny, added, “I’m Robert Bannon.” I put my hand out to shake Albert’s hand, but he looked toward the giraffe-like lights in the parking lot with his gloved raised, as if making a benediction.

“Wait, the old man is returning to the chessboard,” Albert said. The old man settled into the chair and cracked his fingers. I felt my teeth grind as I focused on the old man with three fingers. I felt guilt about nothing, about particles in the wasteland of memory. As if waiting for her return, Albert looked at the windows, for an answer, to see why life goes haywire. The giraffe-like lights in the parking lot emerged one by one — a magical aura.

The darkness against the windows made the store cocoon-like, warm (when the customers exit, they step into the funeral silence).

I pulled on my ear, “Albert, what happened?”

“Listen, man, you have to admit you met her. I wish I could say sorry for cutting in line,” Albert said, “But I can’t. I was first in line.”

“Those who are first in line are last in line.”

“You’re quoting the Bible? Don’t do that.” He took a long breath that showed we were all born in the sea. The old man, with three fingers on one hand, took off his glasses and patted Albert on the shoulder. He handed around some ginger candies, all spicy and heat-emitting. The old man pushed one into his mouth so that even his absent fingers got gulped too.

“Did I tell you ‘bout the time I blew up a tank at the Battle of the Bulge?” said the old man; “I ran in front of the behemoth and oh boy did I blow it up. Kaboom! With a name like Mumford Levi and the SS out and about, did I have a choice, huh?”

“You were very courageous, Mumford.”

“Say, I was a few inches taller then.”

“You mean you shrank?” asked Albert.

“Not where it counts, Nancy-boy.”

“I’m ready to make my move,” said Albert, his tongue out, with a fierce look of determination and a hint of resignation.

“What are you making dentures or something?” said the old man; “Move, you fuck.”

“Okay, local hero. I’ll move when I want.”

“And don’t think you can get away with the Sicilian Defense. I’ll eat that up like raviolis.”

Albert moved one of the pieces and looked away. Mumford stared so intently that the chess pieces were more real than anything alive. As he pushed the black queen, Mumford hummed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The tall onlooker reacted in a crying voice, while the leopard woman moved her lips like the priestess of the Oracle at Delphi.

“Something tells me,” the leopard woman said, then sprayed her hands with cleaner and followed that up with moisturizer.

The espresso machine coughed a few times. I suddenly became wired and looked around, for the store had emptied of its emptiness.

“I come here most nights,” said Albert, looking amused, looking up, but with a body sinking in the chair a little; “And it’s impossible to win.”

The old man, Mumford, knocked over the opposing king with his coffee mug. I smiled. I headed toward the café’s exit, passing the army of coffee mugs, chocolates and fertile bodies on magazine covers. I turned around and brought my voice up, “You should see someone about your memories, Albert.”

“I could’ve done a lot of things. It wasn’t even her house.”

“What’s with the black glove? Are you Michael Jackson or something?”

“Don’t you know anything? He wore a white glove.”

Albert sat with arms and legs crossed, with a slight sway. I wanted to say that he should be happy to be alive, but that seemed to be the thing that would make him unhappy.


In the last few years, Richard has had stories in The Raven’s Perch Magazine, DASH and Coneflower Cafe (the last recommended his story for a Pushcart Prize). He also writes about the ancient world and more for a few online publications (The Collector, Ancient Origins, Popular Archaeology).