Mr. Bloom decided to buy the chess set the year his grandson William turned three. He phoned his daughter to inform her.
“I think he’s a little young dad,” she said sounding distracted and Mr. Bloom knew she was. He both knew that it wasn’t easy to raise a child and that he himself had never actually done it.
“I think he would like to learn. You used to play.”
“I never played, Dad,” she said with a heavy punctuating sigh. “You taught me how the pieces move, when I was like… seven, and we might have played once. It wasn’t a fun game then. I doubt Liam will enjoy it. He’s only three.”
“I know that. But I think it’s a good thing to know. Kings and Queens played chess. It was the sport of a gentleman. It teaches character.”
“Liam doesn’t need to be taught character. He’s only three. He needs to be taught the word No. He needs to know he can’t have everything he wants. He needs to stop throwing temper tantrums and he needs to stay out of my drawer and stop pulling apart my pantyhose, okay? That’s what Liam needs. Listen Dad, I have to run.”
“Of course, Clarissa. My apologies for keeping you.”
“Don’t say it like that, Dad.”
“Like I think you are a burden. I don’t think you are a burden.” Mr. Bloom listened for the fifth time about how busy Clarissa was and how her husband, Zack, was working overtime and how Liam was sucking every last minute of peace out of their life. He nodded and then realized, foolishly, she couldn’t see him. “I’ll get the set, and then if he likes it, we’ll play. If not, it’s fine.”
“That’s fine, Dad. I gotta run. Bye.” Mr. Bloom heard the phone rustle, the yelp of his grandson in the background and then nothing. He wondered why in movies there was always an immediate dial tone.
He bought the chess set at the shop on Tompkins Street in the city. It had been many years since he had been down there and he spent the rest of the day retracing old routes. He stopped by the bench in the park that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He thought about his wife and reasoned that it was 9 years and not the 7 that he had originally thought that she had been gone. This struck Mr. Bloom as a startling idea.
When he returned home he set up the chess set. It was marble and cost more money than he could afford. He debated bringing it back and getting a cheaper wood set but once it was out of the box, the idea of going back down to the city seemed exhausting. Instead he lifted each heavy piece out of its foam tray and unwrapped the bubble wrap. Mr. Bloom set them with a satisfying click against the board. He lined up the pawns first, white facing the reddish-pink marble that stood in for the black pieces. Mr. Bloom straightened them so they lined up neatly. He frowned. He didn’t like the reddish-pink marble. He preferred the standard black and white. Mr. Bloom unwrapped the knights, rooks, bishops, king and queen. When all the pieces were set up and facing each other he leaned back in the seat.
The phone rang, suddenly and just once. He looked it at, waiting, but it was then quiet on its cradle. His daughter wanted him to get a cell phone but Mr. Bloom never saw the point as he didn’t go often go anywhere.
When it rang again it woke him from his sleep. He wiped his face, feeling the rough whiskers and struggled to get out of his checked armchair. His arms felt weak. The phone jangled from its spot on the wall, screaming for attention, demanding to be acknowledged. Mr. Bloom, pulled the phone off the hook, dropped it, struggled with the cord to get it back up and then accidentally spoke into the wrong end before turning it around.
“Hello?” He said clearing his voice. “Hello.”
There was no answer. Mr. Bloom said hello again. There was a click and something that sounded like a rushing noise. The lines must be crossed, Mr. Bloom reasoned. “Hello?”
“The game begins.”
“Hello? Who is this?”
“The game begins. E4.”
“Margaret?” Mr. Bloom said, just once, in little more than a whisper. The static on the phone rose to a harsh buzzing and then, a series of clicks and then nothing. Mr. Bloom coughed and placed the phone gently back on its cradle.
The kitchen was untidy, as was often the case since his wife was gone. Mr. Bloom noticed the crumbs on the counter, the stains from yesterday’s teacup. There was still a drip from the faucet that patted out a steady rhythm. He made his way back to the living room and looked at the set.
The white pawn was moved to the E4 space. Mr. Bloom reached down toward the set, his fingers dangling over his own pawn. Tentatively he slid his own pawn to E5. He stared at the board but nothing happened.
When the phone rang again, Mr. Bloom was still standing over the board. He shuffled back into the kitchen and picked up the phone.
“Dad, it’s me. Listen, real quick, I just wanted to remind you that Liam’s birthday party is on Saturday.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah and the weather isn’t supposed to be great so if you can’t make it, it’s fine. I don’t want you troubling yourself.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“Okay, well, whatever you need let me know. Did you eat tonight?”
Mr. Bloom looked around the kitchen again. He eyed the crumbs. “Yes,” he said as he decided it was true. “I ate.”
“Alright. I’ll talk to you later. Again, no worries about the party. I don’t want you wearing yourself out.”
“Alright, bye.” There was a click and more silence.
The following morning the white knight sat on C3. Mr. Bloom sat across from the board. He moved his knight out and wondered when he had become such a copycat player. He used to be much stronger than this. But it had been years since he played. He thought of his old combinations. He wondered if it was too late for Fool’s Mate or if he could even remember the Traxler Variation opening. Mr. Bloom stared at the board and made his move. The clock ticked loudly.
Mr. Bloom closed his eyes and when he opened them the white queen was out on the board. He was surprised to see her so soon. His rook was now placed on the side of the board, having been taken. Mr. Bloom took a pawn opening up a passage way for his bishop. He licked his lips. It was all coming back to him.
The game last days. Or hours. Mr. Bloom recalled the sun setting at some point, and he recalled waking up in the armchair, his back stiff. He recalled the phone ringing again but he didn’t get it in time. He stared at the board and wondered if he could force a perpetual check, moving his King back and forth from one check to another. He was going to lose but at least a perpetual check ended in a draw. He wondered what that meant here. In tournaments that meant half a point for each player. But he had a feeling it would mean something quite different in this game.
He shifted in his seat and moved the king. The white queen slid up the board soundlessly. He was in check again. He moved his king back to its original spot. The queen didn’t follow. Mr. Bloom would not be able to pull off a perpetual check. The white rook moved to h7 eliminating the second rank. There was no where to move his king. He was not in check but he had only one square to move to that wouldn’t put him in check. Mr. Bloom reached his hand over the piece and noticed that it was shaking. The tremor in his fingertips moved its way up his hand. Glancing at the window, and watching the light creep through this closed blinds, he wondered if he took his pill this morning. He slid his king into the only spot.
White countered with a pawn putting his king in checkmate. It was over. He had lost. Mr. Bloom laid his king down on his side, in the formal show of concession. The phone rang, as he expected it would. He picked it up on the 5th ring and said “You win.”
“Dad?” his daughter’s voice sounded funny.
“I said, you win,” Mr. Bloom responded.
“Dad, it’s me. Is everything alright?”
“Oh, Clarissa. Of course. Yes dear everything is fine.” Mr. Bloom said glancing back at the chessboard. “Everything is just fine.”
“Listen Dad, I need to talk to you,” his daughter began but there was a knock at the door, which Mr. Bloom had been expecting as he had expected the phone to ring.
“I’ll have to call you back,” he said to his daughter. He pulled the phone away from his ear, noting how thin his daughter’s voice sounded coming out of that machine and placed it gently, as if not to hurt her, back on its cradle.
Mr. Bloom lifted the peephole cover and looked out into the hall. He put his other hand against the lock and with some struggle and a barely audible whimper slid the deadbolt out. He kept his eye against the peephole even as he turned the knob, a small tear forming, knowing that what he saw standing in the hallway in front of his door, was the end.