“Where are you going, then?” asks Alec, as they reach the factory.
“I got business in town,” she says. “You go in and work, I’ll pick you up afterwards. Mind Peter, okay? He’s new and he’s small. Marilyn needs him to make some money, so he can’t get fired. If you smell any drink on him, get him home and tell everyone that he’s sick. Okay?”
He blinks. She can tell that he’s worried about what she’s doing, where she’s going. But all he can do is nod and head into the factory.
Anthea fires up the scooter and bends her elbows. She narrows her eyes and speeds over the asphalt as cars pass her. Someone yells, but she doesn’t hear what they’re saying. She’s wearing a dress today, something she hasn’t done in years. It’s got stripes. A zipper on the back.
In town, she parks her scooter in the parking lot outside city hall. Inside, there’s tables in the foyer.
“Name?” asks a man.
“Anthea Daly,” she says. The man at the table studies a list and scratches off her name. “Your first game is at table four.”
“Why am I in the novice category?” she asks, studying his list.
He puts his pen on the list. “You’ve never competed before. So that’s where you start.”
“I’m no novice.”
“Well that remains to be seen. You had best hurry. We are starting.”
She sits across a teenager. “You’re old enough to be my mom.”
She takes off her helmet. “That’s impolite.”
He shrugs. “I’m the chess champion of Salton Lake High.”
“Well, chess champion of Salton Lake High,” she returns, “I hope you have a good day today.” There are twenty-three games going on at the same time, and all begin when the judges snap a clock.
As she plays, Anthea thinks about what it was like fifteen hundred years ago, when this game was invented. It wasn’t one person who did this. It wasn’t one person who brought us where we are now, she thinks. It was several people, maybe all at once, making little refinements, adjusting the course of the river shovel by shovel until suddenly you have this. She moves pieces across the boards, and the chess champion of Salton Lake High tries to counter her, but he’s done in eighteen moves. His king falls with a clack, and she looks around. It’s the first game that’s over.
“Fuck me,” he says.
“That’s impolite,” she returns, and stands up.
The next game is also against a novice, a grandmother from the retirement home who spends much of her time practicing. Anthea thinks about going easy on her, but she can’t make herself do it. The grandmother is slow, deliberate, but it doesn’t help her. She loses in twenty-three moves.
“It says here that you’re a novice,” a judge says to her.
“I’ve never competed before,” she explains.
The old man blinks. “What is your name again?” She tells him. “And where are you from?” She gives him her address. “Do you mind if we have you play an intermediate next?”
“Sure,” she says.
By mid-morning, she beats three different intermediate players. One falls in twelve moves, which is a record for her. The judges huddle around her games. Most of the other players do too.
“We may move you up to expert level,” says that same judge. “Are you okay with that, Miss?”
“Missus,” she replies. “I’m married. It’s just that I don’t wear a ring. I don’t like rings.”
“Oh?” he says.
“I’m married to a black man,” she tells him, and for the life of her, she doesn’t know why she says that. He doesn’t seem to care, and she almost wants to kiss him for that, but he doesn’t look like a man that’s been kissed very much. “I mean, it’s okay to put me into expert.”
“There are three expert players here,” he notes. “Simon Babes over there is our resident master, and our best player. You will start with the other two.” He points at an older black man in a cap, whose arms are crossed as he waits for someone to play him.
“Is he good?” she asks.
“Best in the county. He’s competed out of state and been quite successful. Good luck.”
As she plays the first expert player – a middle-aged school teacher wearing a red dress – everyone is watching. They are so close that she can hear their breathing. Outside, a peal of thunder rips at the sky as the next storm comes by, ready to fill up that river that she lives beside. The school teacher plays nicely, she thinks, but she’s done in less than fifty moves.
The second expert is a fourteen-year-old. “Hi, Jenny. You’re pretty good, but you’re going to lose.”
Anthea shrugs. “Since when do fourteen-year-olds play chess?”
“It’s better than drinking hooch and getting pregnant,” notes the girl with a grin.
They play. Anthea studies the girl as she plays. She’s pretty. Sure of herself. The game is evenly-played, until Jenny makes a mistake. Then it’s a gradual erosion of her forces, piece after piece, like a waterfall, until there’s nothing left for her to do but to drop her king. She gets up and extends her hand. “Didn’t think that would happen.”
Anthea shakes her hand. “Keep playing, okay?”
Simon Babes still has his arms crossed as she sits at his table. There is a crowd around them. A murmur of excitement.
“I know you,” he says, a deep gravelly voice. “Joan’s girl. The oldest one. Your dad went and killed himself, remember? Of course you do. Joan’s a good girl. Doesn’t talk about you. What did you do to her?”
“We’re here to play this game,” she says, indicating the board. “Aren’t we?”
He chuckles. “We’re all playing a game, that’s right. What sin did you commit? I remember you as a sweet girl. You remember that too?”
She stares at him. “I sure do.” And she takes the first move. Simon Babes uncurls him arms and takes his first, too. Then they’re in a world together, two souls contending with each other as outside a storm grows and sweeps over the town. It’s the lateness of summer that makes it happen, she thinks, all this shaking of the sky, all this filling of the river. I’m going to get soaked on the ride back to the factory, she thinks.
Simon Babes grumbles as he plays, as though he’s singing. They play even. They play good. “Used to play with my wife,” he says at one point. “Until she didn’t know how to play anymore. After that, she forgot her name. Forgot mine, too. Glory back then was the few moments when she remembered what we were to each other. Lest we forget.”
“You still talk to my mom?” she finds herself asking.
“Why you ask that in the middle of a game?”
She makes a move. “Just because.”
He counters everything she does. It’s almost, she thinks, like he’s in her head, understanding her because he knew her daddy and still knows her mommy. Maybe he knows her brothers and sisters. He knows her, she thinks, when no one really does, because years ago she went to that shack next to that river, and there she got forgotten. Like people just stopped remembering her. But not this man. He knows. He remembers, and he’s turning her on herself, understanding what she’s going to do, taking away the power of her being no one, of nothing – of her being the surprise that comes out of the storm, to fill the river right up to its banks.
“I still talk to your mom,” he confirms, later, as the board dwindles and the murmurs around them increase. “She bakes for me sometimes. I’ve sat on her porch and drank beer. More than you’ve done.”
“I’m not invited,” she says.
He nods, as though that makes sense. “Then you need an invitation, don’t you?”
After that, the moves are fast. A rhythm strikes up, there in the floor of city hall as the storm rages outside. Anthea flips her pieces across the board, knowing that she can lose – knowing it, but not really believing it. She’s pushed back, cornered, hemmed in. But she keeps going, because for all that she is, all that she’s becomes, she’s still something. She’s still someone. And she, lonely as she is, is positive that she’s capable of love, because everyone is, and everyone, as empty as they might be, does what they do because of love – and nothing less. She believes that as she plays, and wants inside to yell at the world that here she is, present and still around, not vanished from the world after all, not sin-bound and disgraceful, but something else for which maybe there are no words. No, she thinks, no words for me, but she’ll take this feeling, this whipping rising unbelievable wonder that comes over her at times like these. I’m glorious too, she thinks to herself, a simple girl who lives in a shack down by the river, the river that is flowing now as she is, whipping its way with a force that the land has seldom seen.
She scarcely realizes it when Simon Babes puts down his king, so focused was she on her next move. “You win. Hear me?” But she doesn’t, and he has to reach across and put a hand on hers. It’s the most gentle thing she’s ever felt. “Girl, listen. Anthea. You win. And I’ll tell you something,” he says. She looks up. “In all my years, I’ve never been beaten like that. I should have won. I had you. But you found a way through it, and I don’t know how you did that. And one other thing I should say. I remember you, girl. I remember you as the sweetest child, especially after your dad did what he did to himself. I don’t know how you stood that, and took care of your family like that, and poor Joan who took to the drink – the way she took to the drink, just like that. I know it was hard, but you were there, and I saw you. Was at the funeral for your daddy, and I saw you. Was glad that Joan had you, and then one day you were gone, and I figure I know why.”
“What are you saying?” she asks. “I won. Right?”
“Right. You won,” he says, standing up and extending his hand. “I just want you to know that I never forgot you, sweet girl that you were. I figured that maybe I’d let you win today when I saw you whipping all these fine other players. That you needed a win. We all need a win, girl. But I determined to not let that be when you sat down and I saw you again, and remembered. I figured to give you a game that you would not soon forget, but it’s me that’s going to remember this one. I’m glad to see you again, girl. I am.”
Anthea’s eyes water, and she scarcely knows why. Scarcely remembers how to extend her hand and take the gentle grip of this old man. He comes around the table and puts his arms around her, like this is something that she’s done before but she’s forgotten all about. She holds him back.
They give her a prize, a cheque for two hundred dollars. A trophy. Outside, the rain is really coming down, lightning and thunder like it’s never going to end. She puts on her helmet. Then her goggles. The black scooter whips through the rain on the way to the factory. Now and then, cars pass her. As they do, she yells at them, or maybe it’s singing. Or maybe it’s lighting, and then it’s thunder. Raindrops peel at her, this way and that. And she moves through it all, soaked to the skin, there on the road, in this the present existence we all share.
“Out of respect, I didn’t bring any drink,” says Marilyn. Peter is sitting in a rocking chair in the shack, reading a book. “Look at him, all bookish these days.”
“What are you reading, Peter?” asks Anthea, as they play a game at the table.
“Romance novel,” he says, a small grin. “Never thought they’d be so good.”
Marilyn rolls her eyes and makes a move. “He’s replaced the drink with these books. Buys them for a dime each in town. Goes through three a day. I don’t know if it’s better or worse.”
“It’s better,” says Anthea, and Marilyn nods.
When the game’s over, they go to the river. It’s full. In the evening light, it roars along its course. Anthea has three chairs by the bank now. They sit and watch the river run.
“What do you think he’s doing now?” asks Marilyn.
Anthea wants to put her feet in the river, to feel the mud down there. The river was always there, she thinks. Just before, it was under the mud, but now it’s chosen to come up for air. And here it is.
“Alec?” she says. “Maybe he went to the coast. Or to the forest. Or the mountains. Maybe he’s working in the mines or driving truck.”
“He didn’t say where he was going?”
Anthea shakes her head. “No, he didn’t.”
“And you don’t care that he’s gone?”
“I don’t mind that he’s not here.”
“That’s not an answer, Anthea! He’s your husband.”
She looks at her friend – her one and only friend, as Peter struggles to read his romance novel in the declining light. She takes her friend’s hand and holds it, gentle as she can.
A week later, Anthea gets an invitation to play in a tournament across the state. She calculates how long it’s going to take to get there on her scooter. Books a hotel room in the big city, where she figures she’ll walk around and see the sights first.
The evening after she gets her invitation, she finds herself on her scooter. It’s not easy to follow the river along the road, but she manages it for a long while, goggles on, helmet bouncing along the gravel driveways. The scooter hums – it’s not fast, but it just keeps going, all the time, all along the way. She’s grateful for that.
But in time the river finds its way away from her, and the road picks a different direction. She can hear the water. She knows it’s there. But she can’t see it anymore. The gravel gives way to asphalt, and she picks up speed.
Ahead, there’s the forest, and in it a line – a line that’s meant to be crossed. What is that line made of, she wonders? Is it memories? Expectations? Hardships? Maybe it’s all of those things, she thinks, as she rides with the wind. But whatever it’s made of, it’s simply meant to be crossed, and as she does cross it, it reveals itself to be nothing much of anything, just a whisper, a twist of the air, a shadow of the light.
When she gets to the house, she parks the scooter across the road. Takes off her helmet and goggles. She walks up the lawn and glances at the tree stump, the one that’s been weathered. It’s still the early evening. No call for turning on the lights. No reason for closing up the windows against the cold air that’s going to come this early fall night.
The porch groans as she walks on it. She can hear voices. Children. It’s like an invitation, she thinks. And that’s exactly what it is, she figures, as she stands there and knocks on the door.