A Short Story by David Bellin
For one sweet moment, Pinkie Auslander was more famous in the chess world than Bobby Fischer. To make sense of the events that brought this on I have to start aboard the El – trust me here – the El, for elevated, the stretch of subway line that bursts from an oppressive underground tunnel into the tranquilizing, low-rise landscape of one of New York City’s outer boroughs. Brooklyn in this case.
I’ll tell you how to spot a native: no change in expression when the El emerges into natural light. Watch, I wanted to tell them. Think Dorothy, think Toto, stepping from black-and-white into glorious technicolor. Well, there’s little to be gained from that. New Yorkers in every borough know when to play deaf, so the best I could do was nudge Pinkie sitting next to me and say, “I hear munchkins,” our private code for the scenery change, to which Pinkie would murmur, “What a world, what a world,” pretend to melt and lift his eyes from the pocket chessboard in his lap.
He’d favor me with his laugh, a rather wistful snuffling sound, and return instantly to nudging the dime-sized magnetic discs around with the little finger of his right hand. Even in chess tournaments with big wooden sets, he’d move his pawns that way in the opening, an almost timid touch, thus the nickname, Pinkie, and thus a long string of flattened opponents lulled by the seemingly unsure manner.
His appearance helped the deception. Short, thin to the point of seeming breakable, sparse sandy hair hanging limp on his forehead, a smile that seemed to apologize for its presence – all together, the least menacing opponent you could picture, except for those who discovered over the chessboard that a panther lurked inside.
The City College team discovered it in Pinkie’s freshman year, back in the days of annual Brooklyn-City matches. Playing first board, Pinkie faced Marc Marcus, a senior who defied chess stereotypes by resembling a young Brad Pitt. He made his usual late entrance into the hall, nodding with pretend absent-mindedness to the onlookers while managing to make eye contact with each of the half-a-dozen or so girls present.
He made a little salaam to Pinkie when he noticed his clock had not been started. Pinkie was playing white, giving him the first move, and he could have begun the game, causing Marcus’ clock to tick away some of his time. A late player runs that risk and Marcus usually shrugged with casual superiority at clock and board and made his answering move as he sat down, all in one fluid motion. So his salaam to Pinkie was a show of gratitude, slyly belied by the mocking smile that accompanied it.
Let me be fair here. Marcus could afford mockery; he actually played well. His game relied on traps and trickery, the strategems used by the chess hustlers of the city’s parks, but honed over the years of high school and college competition into a swift and aggressive style that inspired nervousness, even panic, in opponents. On this particular night, he could assume the pale and underweight freshman sitting opposite was the customary victim.
Pinkie fidgeted in his chair to confirm it, sending a tiny tingle of anticipation up my spine. I glanced from my position at fourth board to Alan Gershein at third and Bertie McCann at second and could see their mouths curl ever so slightly. They felt it, too.
For the team as a whole, this probably wasn’t going to be a Brooklyn College triumph. Alan, Bertie and I were expert-level players but over-matched against City, a Manhattan behemoth of a school in those days, with a much bigger pool of talent to draw from than our academic outpost in Brooklyn (if Mayberry had a college, we’d be it), so we looked to Pinkie to carry the banner for us.
Leading Marcus into a basic Ruy Lopez, a classic opening bristling with chances for the shallow traps and swindles Marcus favored, Pinkie feigned long periods of thought over his responses, using what seemed precious minutes on his clock. Then, in that tentative way, he would slide a bishop here or with lips tight, plant a knight there, always frustrating Marcus’ planned move.
Like an army that attacks too fast, Marcus’ pieces were over-extended. He needed to regroup. As he did, Pinkie’s long periods of thought vanished, along with his timid handling of the chessmen. He prodded Marcus along with swift pawn moves, unexpected stabs with his bishops and an ominous doubling of rooks on the king’s file.
Marcus’ change of expression was a beautiful thing to watch. Have you ever seen a lunar eclipse? The way the light inexorably slips away until only a thin smile of moon survives? Then you know Marcus’ face as he turned over his king and offered the traditional handshake to Pinkie.
Credit Marcus for making it a firm handshake and for turning the pinched smile friendly, although some jaw muscles were visibly quivering. “Tomorrow,” he said with casual menace, sauntering out, winking at the onlookers as if he knew some amusing secret.
By the fourth and last night, the saunter was gone, the confidence crushed, the match lost. Alan, Bertie and I had been so inspired by the first board results, and the City players so discouraged, that we managed to draw most of our games, even win a couple, and we sneaked into a one-game margin of victory.
Victories in college chess leave you as giddy inwardly as I’m sure winning a Super Bowl does for NFL players, but forget the brass bands and cheerleaders and ticker tape parades. A smattering of applause, a foot-high statuette of some suspiciously greenish metal and a paragraph in the school newspaper is all you get for college matches, even with a memorable triumph like this one.
Not that it bothered Pinkie or me as we journeyed home on the El that night. The fleeting glory is intoxicating but it’s not why we play. We play because we must. Once the game summons you with its beautiful mysteries, the true chess player is mesmerized, addicted for life.
Some more than others, of course. Most of us apply enough willpower to call a girl for a date, plan careers and families and keep the game at the level of a demanding hobby. The hardcore few, however, think and breathe chess every conscious hour and probably the unconscious ones, too. Bobby Fischer spoke for all the Pinkie Auslanders of the world when he said, “Chess is life.”
Keep that in mind when I tell you about the curve leading to the Ocean Parkway station. Trains were forced to inch along and often stop entirely for several minutes as traffic backed up. We were used to it and even enjoyed it when the train stopped at the right spot: outside the Parkway Chess Club. It occupied the second floor of a converted hat factory – a gym took up the first floor – and its wide plate-glass windows gave a fine, eye-level view of rows of tables and elderly men bent over the boards. The pair who normally sat at the nearest table had earned nicknames from us – Curly, for a hairless and shiny scalp, and Meerschaum, for the ancient clay pipe perpetually clenched in his teeth. Conveniently, the club used large, pressed-wood boards from the World War One years, along with that era’s over-sized Regency pieces, the ones carved into slender spirals and bulbous bases that looked like medieval cities, big enough so that we could make out a game’s position from our trackside perch.
The players were far from master level, often dozing, and Pinkie and I would indulge in some sophomoric chuckling at the old geezers’ amateur moves. On this night, though, Pinkie gasped.
“No, no, no, NO!” he called out at the unhearing Curly, whose hand hovered over a rook. “The knight, the KNIGHT!” Pinkie’s eyes were transfixed, his body growing rigid with tension.
“He’s okay,” I hurriedly explained to nearby passengers who had begun a nervous shrinking away. “We just finished a four-day chess tournament and he’s unwinding.” They relaxed, assuming – not unreasonably – that chess players were eccentric but harmless.
In truth, Pinkie was not unwinding, quite the opposite. He scrabbled furiously at window latches encased in solid rust. I put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “These old windows never open,” I said. “Let it be.”
He pulled my hand away and charged blindly past me into the aisle, making a dash for the door at the end of the car. I guessed what he intended and pounded after him. A stocky form rose to block my way, breathing a whiff of pepperoni in my face. “You’re bigger than he is, buddy. Pick on someone your own size.”
“We’re not fighting,” I yelled. “He’s got this obsession – like, like an epileptic fit. I’m trying to help him.”
The man let go and followed me to the end of the car. If you ever rode the old subway lines, you remember the platform between cars, a tiny open-air passageway with just a pair of slender railings to guard against a fall to the tracks.
Pinkie was already leaning out over the railings. “The knight, the knight!” he shrieked again at Curly. “He’s staring at the wrong side of the board,” Pinkie called back to me when he felt my hand on his arm. “The KNIGHT!” he screamed once more and, when there was no notice, he did something unthinkable: he reached in his jacket and threw his precious pocket set against the club window.
Curly and Meerschaum rose, mystified, then alarmed. They waved Pinkie off, Meerschaum yanking his pipe away so he could mouth, “Go back! Go back!”
Pinkie retreated three steps and drew in a deep breath. Reassured, I let go of his arm and the stocky man, who had grabbed the other arm, did the same. Pinkie nodded peacefully, lunged at the railings as if they were parallel bars and vaulted to the tracks. He clambered across the few feet of rail bed and over the wooden barrier that girded it, got an arm and a leg wrapped around one of the iron support beams that rose from the ground, much like a chimp on a tree, and screamed again, “The knight! The knight! You’ve got a checkmate in four!”
Both players peered at the board, puzzled. Pinkie shouted a move, the words instantly lost in the clank-and-rattle of the train jolting forward, starting around the curve. Pinkie slipped from sight, still shouting.
I sprinted to the middle of the car and plastered myself against the exit door. We had five blocks to go. “Move, move, move,” I whispered to the clattering train, slapping at the door in frustration, while the stocky man patted my head.
“He’ll be okay,” he said encouragingly. “Your little buddy had a good grip. He’s okay.” The pepperoni effluence wrapped around me, assuring me rescuers would be there for Pinkie by the time I returned. This will be understandable if you live in New York, that paradoxical hub of indifferent rudeness – I’ll smell any way I wanna smell – and instant help in a crisis.
It was no surprise then to find a fire crew already assembled in the ten minutes it took me to scramble off the train and back to Pinkie. Police officers were there, too, guiding an ambulance to the curb and herding onlookers into a little knot where they shouted support. I wormed my way through to tell an officer who I was and identify Pinkie for him.
“Those old guys are putting me on, aren’t they?” he asked as he wrote things down. He jerked his pen at the door of the chess club where Curly and Meerschaum stared up at Pinkie. “Your pal didn’t actually climb out to show them a chess move? It was some kind of fraternity stunt like you dopey kids do, right”
“No. It was a chess move. The fellow playing white was looking at a rook when a knight move would have given a mate in four – “
He held his notepad like a stop sign. “Never mind. Just give me his phone number so we can tell his family. You guys are all certifiably nuts. You probably think your friend’s a hero.”
I was secretly admitting the truth of that when Pinkie’s grip gave way and he slid down the beam, his head bouncing on the metal until waiting firemen grabbed him and eased him to the ground.
Curly and Meerschaum were at my side by then, recognizing me as Pinkie’s subway friend. They introduced themselves as Mr. Baum and Mr. Rosselini, so I’ll stop with the nicknames because they were well-spoken and courtly gentlemen, with expressions as worried as mine at the sight of Pinkie’s limp and unconscious form being wheeled to the ambulance.
“Come,” Mr. Rosselini said, leading us around the corner to a museum-ready Packard sedan. He and Mr. Baum insisted they would drive me to the hospital, a gesture of true generosity and concern but also, just maybe, an opportunity to learn that four-move mate. I couldn’t blame them.
This was confirmed by “One moment” from Mr. Baum as we passed the hospital gift shop. He came out with a pocket chess set. “For your friend,” he said innocently.
Pinkie was breathing well, a good sign, a nurse told us in the waiting room, but going through tests for concussion damage and broken bones. With nothing better to do, we recreated the game position on the pocket board and searched restlessly for the mating combination until Pinkie’s parents arrived. They looked around frantically, then settled on me, eyes accusing. You’re his best friend, their looks said, why didn’t you stop this?
I explained, thankful for the grandfatherly presence of Mr. Baum and Mr. Rosselini and their nods of confirmation at the story’s more irrational moments. About halfway through, the angry looks faded. The Auslanders knew their son, after all, and cooled down to disgruntled sighs by the time I finished.
Nicely handled, I was telling myself, a conceit cut short by the door opening violently. A scowling woman with a Hospital Administration badge demanded to know which one of us was going to speak to the reporters and TV crews jamming the parking lot.
Once again I was telling the story, smart enough to bring along my backup duo of Mr. Baum and Mr. Rosselini. We blinked and stammered for a while under the barrage of questions then warmed to the spotlight and chattered away, a lot of the chatter mine, expounding on chess as an art form, its great players artists driven by blind passion like Van Gogh, let’s say, or Tschaikowsky or F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t mention Pinkie Auslander. The inference was theirs to make, the best I could do for my friend.
The Auslanders had chosen to stay inside rather than take part in a public airing of their son’s folly, and we found them in an argument with the nurse when we returned to the waiting room.
“Him?” Mrs. Auslander almost screeched, waving at me. “My son wants to see him, not his own parents?”
“We need to follow the patient’s wishes,” the nurse answered. “Also, if two men he calls Curly and Meerschaum are here, he wants them to come along.”
“He’s delirious!” said Mr. Auslander. “Definitely delirious. Do you people know what you’re doing?”
“No sir, he’s rational,” I said. With some embarrassment, I added, “He means Mr. Baum and Mr. Rosselini.
They understood instantly and instead of irritation at the names, pointed to each other, laughing. I liked them both even more.
The nurse stayed with us in Pinkie’s room, carefully watching him. A fez-like wrapping of white cloth and gauze encased his head and a cast held his left arm rigid against his chest. He nodded impatiently at our questions about how he felt, was he in pain, could we bring him anything. “Pieces. Board,” he rasped.
Mr. Baum pulled the set from his pocket, set up the position and Pinkie whispered the moves of the mating sequence. The key was a startling knight sacrifice, something I never would have seen although I pretended nonchalance. My two elderly companions gazed in disbelief at the board, then at Pinkie, whose grin of satisfaction stayed in place as his head lolled to one side and his eyes closed.
“That’s enough,” the nurse said. “We’ll let him sleep now.”
“Is he badly hurt?” I asked.
“A shoulder sprain and a mild concussion. He’ll have some dizziness, some headache and disorientation for a while. He’s lucky. Head traumas from a fall like his can be fatal.”
I led Mr. Baum and Mr. Rosselini past the waiting room door, guiltily leaving it to the nurse to tell the Auslanders they missed the chance to see their son.
On the hospital steps, we stopped as if hearing some cosmic signal, glancing at the stars, at each other.
“Fatal,” said Mr. Rosselini, giving voice to what we’d all been thinking.
The word, so bluntly spoken by the nurse and so obviously truthful, had jarred us, igniting self-reflection that we’d been avoiding. In the clear night air, away from the mind-numbing hospital setting, the quixotic charm of Pinkie’s recklessness had to be weighed against its tragic potential.
“Did he think about it?” Mr. Baum asked. “I mean, is it worth risking your life over a chess combination?”
The question was clearly rhetorical but Mr. Rosselini gave the predictable response.
“How brilliant is the combination?”
Appreciative chuckles followed but low and brief. We walked in silence to the car, each of us contemplating the foolish and the sublime, and the porous shield in between.
David Bellin is a retired advertising executive, the winner of a CLIO statuette, the ad world’s “Oscar.” He and his wife live in the vineyard and dairy farm countryside of New York State’s Finger Lakes.
He’s the author of The Children’s War (“Arresting first novel…a satisfying novel that illuminates compassionate souls on both sides of a terrible struggle” – Publisher’s Weekly; “Contemporary fiction with something substantive to say” – Library Journal), Sherman’s Chaplain (A gem of a book…a great story” – Reader Views; “Very enjoyable, enlightening, thought-provoking” – Civil War News), and The Marble King and Other Stories (“enticing and beautifully written…reminiscent of John Cheever (and) Flannery O’Connor” – San Francisco Review; “Delightful economy of style drawing you in to form your own conclusions” – Dundee Observer)