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short story

The Master

Maury and Ethel Fleischman moved from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Mercy, a small town on the far north coast of California, seven years ago when Maury was sixty-seven and Ethel was sixty-six. They had just moved to Miami two years earlier – Maury retiring from his job at an ad agency in Manhattan where he worked for forty years as a copywriter and content writer, and Ethel retiring from her job at the Bronx Zoo where she was a secretary for thirty-seven years.

They were loving their new life in their one-bedroom condominium a few blocks from the beach, the cold winters of New York a thing of the past, when their daughter Gloria, their only child, was about to give birth to her first child Naomi, and Ethel insisted on going to Mercy to be with Gloria before, during, and for a time after the birth. Maury was not keen on going to California – he loathed flying – but he had never been apart from Ethel for more than a day since they got married when he was twenty-two and she was twenty-one, so he went with her.

A few days after Naomi was born, Ethel said to Maury, “I want to stay here and help Gloria with Naomi.”

“For how long?” asked Maury, who missed balmy Fort Lauderdale.

“For the rest of my life,” said Ethel, knowing Mercy might as well have been Mars to Maury.

“The winters are cold here,” said Maury, gazing at his beloved. “Nor are the summers warm. There are frequent droughts and the cultural apex is a pub called Big Goose. Maybe Gloria and Oscar would like to move to Fort Lauderdale.”

“Maybe elephants can fly,” said Ethel, fondly remembering the elephants in the Bronx Zoo. “But I don’t think so.”

Divorce not an option, Maury and Ethel sold their condo in Florida and bought a small cottage on the outskirts of Mercy. Maury never complained about the move and threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of grandfather to Naomi and eventually to Colin. He and Ethel became regulars at the senior center, joined the one and only Jewish congregation in Mercy, the rabbi a woman named Sara Feinberg, a radical socialist feminist, and Maury, a chess master, volunteered to oversee the Chess Club at Mercy High.

*

Now seventy-four and at peace with the perpetually cold weather in Mercy, Maury plays chess every other day from two to three-thirty at Café Brava, a cheerful bakery café in the heart of Mercy, and on Wednesdays and Fridays after his stint in the café he walks up the hill to the high school to hang out with the five male and two female members of the Mercy High Chess Club.  

The club’s faculty advisor, Jacob Knight, runs the high school media lab and is a good but not great chess player. Club members Larry Montague and Karen Schwartzman can both beat Jacob with ease, so Jacob is grateful to have Maury on hand to mentor Larry and Karen, though Maury knows neither Larry nor Karen will ever be a chess master or even a near master.

“The thing they lack,” says Maury, playing chess with Albert Feinberg one afternoon in Café Brava, “is what my mentor Hiram Vogel called Third Level Vision. These kids, despite their good grades and high IQs, barely have Second Level Vision.”

“Define the levels, please,” says Albert, a burly software design consultant and husband of the radical socialist feminist rabbi.  

“Level One Vision is you know the rules of the game,” says Maury, taking Albert’s bishop and knowing the game is over save for a little more futzing around. “Level Two Vision is you see the pieces as both individuals and members of collectives, and you understand how your moves shift the course of the interaction. And Level Three Vision…” He arches his eyebrow. “Want to make a guess?”

Albert moves his castle to threaten Maury’s queen. “You’re clairvoyant?”

“No,” says Maury, moving his queen diagonally two squares. “Check. Level Three Vision is seeing the game as a manipulation of the collective symmetry.”

Albert frowns at the board. “And you just manipulated the collective symmetry to checkmate me.”

“Correct,” says Maury, nodding. “However, to knowingly manipulate the symmetry, which is in constant flux, that’s Level Four Vision. Seeing the symmetry is not the same as knowing how to shape the symmetry.”

“So when two people who know how to shape the symmetry play each other,” says Albert, moving a pawn forward to start a new game, “who wins?”

“The one with Level Five Vision,” says Maury, bringing forth his knight.

“How many levels are there?” asks Albert, wondering if Maury is pulling his leg.

“According to Hiram Vogel,” says Maury, waving to a passing friend, “there are seven levels of vision, each level corresponding to one of the seven chakras.”

“You’re kidding,” says Albert, moving out a second pawn.

“Hiram opined,” says Maury, knowing already what his next six moves will be and what Albert’s next seven counter moves will be, “that the way a person plays chess is a reflection of the state of their karma.”

“How so?” asks Albert, already unhappy with how the game is unfolding.

“I have no idea,” says Maury, bringing out his other knight. “Hiram was an excellent chess player, but methinks he was something of a crackpot.”

*

This afternoon, a rainy day in October, Maury arrives at Room 12 of Mercy High and finds a handsome Mexican lad named Teo Macias in the mix with the seven regulars. Teo tells Maury he is sixteen, learned to play chess from his grandfather when he was little, and hasn’t played since he was eight.

“Speaking of eight,” says Maury, who immediately likes Teo, “you make eight players, which means I won’t play and instead will wander about watching the action and making intriguing suggestions. Why don’t we start you off playing Fred and that will give us an idea where to place you in our hierarchy of champions.”

“You talk just like my grandfather,” says Teo, laughing. “You’re funny but you’re serious, too. Somebody quick remind me how the horses move.”

“They are called knights, not horses,” corrects Karen Schwartzman, rolling her eyes. “And those aren’t castles, those are rooks.”

“Gosh I hope I can remember,” says Teo, winking at Maury.

“Why will Teo playing me give us an idea of how good he is?” asks Fred Holmquist, frowning at Maury. “Why not have him play Derek or Alan?”

“In the current rankings,” says Maury, pointing to the list of seven names descending the right side of the chalkboard – Larry Montague, Karen Schwartzman, Mimi Espinoza, Fred Holmquist, Derek Calder, Alan Farmer, Pablo Valdez – “you, Fred, are the fourth of seven. Dead center. But if you’d rather not play him…”

“No, that’s fine,” says Fred, nodding. “I just needed to understand why me or I’d be thinking about that instead of concentrating on the game.”

When the kids are spread out around the room playing – three minutes the maximum time allowed between moves – Maury notices how relaxed Teo is compared to the other kids, save for Larry who feels secure in his idea of himself as the best player in the club.

After a few minutes, Teo says quietly, “Checkmate.”

“Wait,” says Fred, frowning at the board. “Oh yeah. Wow. Okay.”

“Go again,” says Maury, moving from Alan and Mimi’s game to watch Fred and Teo play.

After several moves by each player, Teo looks up at Maury and asks, “Do we coach each other or… how does this work?”

“I might do a little coaching when I’m playing or watching,” says Maury, smiling at Teo, “but we usually wait until the game is over before we discuss what went on. Why do you ask?”

“I think I could help him,” says Teo, smiling at Fred. “Avoid my traps.”

“Tell me after the game,” says Fred, grimly. “Assuming you beat me again.”

“Okay,” says Teo, sitting back and waiting for Fred to make his move.

A few moves later, Fred takes Teo’s queen with his rook and Teo looks up at Maury again. “You don’t think this would be a good time to coach him?”

Maury shakes his head.

“Checkmate,” says Teo, moving his knight to a lethal and unassailable position.

“What the fuck?” says Fred glaring at the board. “How… oh shit. How could I have not seen that?”

“My grandfather would say the exciting prospect of taking my queen clouded your thinking,” says Teo, gazing earnestly at Fred. “But it might have just been my subtle genius.”

“You really haven’t played since you were eight?” asks Fred, who is a mellow loser and accustomed to losing to the top three in the club.

“Yeah, eight,” says Teo, nodding. “That’s when my grandfather died and we moved from the San Jose to Mercy. I got heavy into soccer and didn’t know anybody around here who played chess, so…”

“What made you want to start again?” asks Maury, noting the other games are nearly finished.

“I didn’t make varsity this year,” says Teo, shrugging, “and I didn’t want to play JV, so I thought I’d do this. See how I like it.”

“That’s nuts,” says Derek, tall and slender with thick-lensed glasses. “You were the star player last year. You were like all-league, weren’t you?”

Teo nods. “This year is different.”

“Well…” says Maury, his voice full of kindness, “the soccer team’s loss is our gain. Mimi? You want to play Teo?”

“Okay,” she says, speaking so quietly Maury only knows what she said by reading her lips.

Mimi is sixteen and one of the most beautiful girls in Mercy. She is also by far the shyest person at Mercy High. She fares a little better against Teo than Fred, but not much, so for the last game of the day, Maury has Karen play Teo.

Their game is a long one and still undecided when the janitor arrives and says, “School closing in five minutes and then I gotta clean in here. Sorry.”

Teo tips his king over and offers his hand to Karen. “Well played.”

Karen blushes and shakes Teo’s hand. “You were better than I thought you’d be. I thought you were just a jock.”

“And I thought you were just a hot brainless babe,” says Teo, smiling at her. “How wrong I was.”

*

That night Maury and Ethel go to Gloria and Oscar’s for supper as they often do, and after Naomi and Colin get in bed and Maury tells them a funny good night story, he joins the grownups in the living room for apple pie.

“How’s the chess club doing?” asks Oscar, forty-four and devilishly handsome, a Mercy native and foreman of a roofing crew – his father Mexican, his mother Nicaraguan.

“We have a new member as of today,” says Maury, taking his customary seat in the rocking chair by the fire. “Teo Macias. Much better than he pretends to be and delightfully sophisticated. If he hadn’t told me he was sixteen I would have guessed twenty, but then what would he be doing in high school?”

“I know Teo,” says Oscar, growing somber. “He’s one of the best soccer players there’s ever been around here, and there’s been some great ones, believe me.”

“So how come he didn’t make the varsity team this year?” asks Maury, frowning. “If he’s that good.”

“Oh he’s that good,” says Oscar, nodding. “He’s unbelievable. But the Ramirez boys… well, it’s complicated. There are five of them. Brothers and cousins. Three seniors and two juniors, and they’re all very good players. None as good as Teo, but there are five of them and the coach… well, he chose the five over the one. He wants to win, so that’s what he decided.”

“I don’t understand,” says Maury, shaking his head. “Why can’t they all be on the team? Eleven players on a team, right?”

Oscar nods. “Yes, but if Teo was on the team, he would be the star, you know, and he would play a position that one of the Ramirez boys would play if Teo was not on the team. So if Teo was given that position, none of the Ramirez boys would play and they might…” He shrugs painfully. “They might even hurt Teo. It’s not right, but that’s life around here. Soccer is the most important thing to most of the men and boys. We are the best team or almost the best team in our division every year. When I was on the team we won the championship two of my three years on varsity. And if the Ramirez boys don’t play, then other boys won’t play, so…”

“But it’s so unfair,” says Maury, aching in sympathy for Teo. “To be that good and not get to play? That’s terrible.”

“So what else is new?” says Ethel, looking at Maury. “How many times were you passed over for promotions you deserved? How many times did people with less talent and experience get promoted over you?”

“A few times,” says Maury, shrugging.

Ten times,” says Ethel, remembering how Maury suffered through those terrible betrayals. “At least.”

“This is what I’m talking about,” says Oscar, pointing at Ethel. “It isn’t fair. But it’s the way it is, you know? When I played in college…” He smiles at Gloria. “Where I met your wonderful daughter, there was a guy on the football team, you know, American football, and he was like Hercules. Ferocious linebacker. A one-man wrecking crew. But he protested the war. Protested racial inequality. Coach would hardly play him, and when he tried out for pro teams, you know, as good as he was they wouldn’t touch him.”

“When I tried out for plays in college,” says Gloria, a beautiful gal who aspired to be an actress and is now a Second Grade teacher, “the best actors almost never got cast. Had nothing to do with talent, and I wasn’t about to do what you had to do to get the parts, so…”

“That’s life,” says Ethel, nodding emphatically. “The trick is not taking it personally.” She smiles lovingly at Maury. “You often compare life to a chess game. So now Teo can’t play varsity. What’s his next move gonna be?”

“If he gets into college and they have a soccer team,” says Oscar, smiling hopefully, “maybe he can be a walk-on. Get noticed by the pros that way. He’s that good. He’s not only a great athlete, he’s a genius the way he sees the field, the way he moves without the ball, the way he finds the open man. And the choices he makes? Oh man, when he gets the ball in the open field, we all just hold our breaths and watch amazed, you know?”

*

Walking up the hill from town for the next meeting of the chess club, Maury is joined by Teo, rain about to fall.

“Pablo told me you’re a master,” says Teo, smiling at Maury. “My grandfather was a master. He played Bobby Fischer one time. Did okay. Bobby won of course, but at the end of the game he said to my grandfather, ‘Nice try.’ Pretty cool, huh?”

Very cool,” says Maury, who has studied many of Bobby’s games as one might study passages from The Bible. “Did your grandfather say what it was like playing against Bobby?”

“He said he could tell Bobby was seeing things my grandfather would never be able to see. As if Bobby could see the future.” Teo nods. “That happens to me sometimes when I’m playing soccer. I see what’s going to happen before it happens, assuming I do what I intend to do. You know?”

“I do know,” says Maury, putting his hand on Teo’s shoulder. “That’s what Bobby Fischer was seeing. Everything that might happen as the result of the move he was about to make. Everything.”

“I think so,” says Teo, as they approach Room 12. “What my grandfather called impeccable anticipation. And speaking of everything, thanks for letting me join the club.”

“Happy to have you,” says Maury, bowing in thanks as Teo holds the door open for him.

 *

At the next three meetings of the chess club Teo plays Karen three times, the games are all close until the end, and Teo loses every time. And the three times Teo plays Larry, those games are close, too, and Larry wins every time.

So brilliantly does Teo manipulate the symmetry of each game, only Maury is aware that Teo is losing on purpose.

   *

“The most incredible thing to me,” says Maury, speaking on the phone to his friend Karl who lives in Queens and is also a chess master, “is how convincingly he loses. The last several exchanges seem entirely plausible to his opponents because Teo is playing at exactly their level, so when he loses, it really seems like their choices determined the outcome, but they didn’t. They couldn’t do what he does in a million years. And neither could I. Oh I can lose on purpose, but when I do, it’s obvious.”

“Do you know why he’s doing it?” asks Karl, a retired psychoanalyst.

“I think he wants to belong,” says Maury, knowing Teo loves the comradery of the little gang of shy people. “And he’s afraid if he beats them, they won’t stay open to him, won’t want to be his friend. I told you about him not being allowed to play on the soccer team because he’s too good. Well I think maybe he’s afraid of being too good for the chess club. I don’t know. Have you ever tried to lose on purpose and make it seem like you’re trying as hard as you can to win?”

“Sure,” says Karl, laughing. “Every time you ever beat me it was because I let you. And you never suspected.”

“I never did,” says Maury, laughing. “God, I miss you Karl. Miss our games on Sunday. You sure you don’t want to move out here? What’s Queens got that Mercy doesn’t have? Besides everything?”

“I would move there in a minute,” says Karl, who is seventy-nine and sick of the city, “but Linda would never live anywhere without good deli, and by good I mean the real thing. So it’s stay here or move to Florida or Los Angeles, and hurricanes and alligators and freeways do not appeal, so here we stay.”

“Give her a hug for me,” says Maury, closing his eyes and imagining Karl and Linda sitting in the living room with him and Ethel, all of them laughing until they cry.

“Hug Ethel for me,” says Karl, fighting his tears. “By the way, have you played this kid yet? Teo?”

“Not yet,” says Maury, opening his eyes. “I’m actually afraid to.”

“Don’t be afraid,” says Karl, their connection breaking up. “And let me know what happens.”

*

The next meeting of the chess club provides an ideal opportunity for Maury to play with Teo – Mimi home with a sore throat, only seven members present.

 Maury and Teo sit opposite each other at a small table far from the others, Teo playing black, Maury white

Teo smiles at Maury and says, “Now go easy on me.”

“I will not go easy on you,” says Maury, shaking his head. “I will play the only way I know how to play, which is to do whatever I can to win.”

“You think of it as a duel,” says Teo, speaking quietly. “My grandfather taught me to think of it as a dance.”

*

The next morning, a Saturday, before going to shul, Maury calls Karl in Queens where it’s three hours later.

“Well,” says Karl, expectantly. “Tell me.”

“We played to a draw,” says Maury, excitedly. “Not once, but twice. It was beyond belief how he synched his play with mine. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Not even close.”

“He’s a master,” says Karl, breathlessly.

“After the second game, I asked him, ‘Could you have beaten me? Please tell me the truth.’”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Never. I would never do that to you.’”

fin

Something Marcia and Todd cello piano duet

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