By Lazar Trubman
“I’m not particularly against telemarketers, but if they could only use a little more improvisation,” says Bill Stubbs setting out the chessmen for our usual Friday game. “It makes me feel sorry for our language!”
I don’t respond to that and help him with the setup.
Bill will be ninety-four next month, and if not for the arthritis, which makes his everyday existence torturous, he is a pretty healthy man. His mind is sharp, speech clear and his mouth is full of straight healthy teeth: what else could one wish for approaching the century mark? He gets a cold now and then and his blood pressure is a bit high, but it had been a bit high since he retired at the age of sixty, that is to say for the last thirty-four years. His 2005 Buick “Park Avenue”, which he drives only occasionally, is in perfect condition, and he keeps its service records in a special folder under the letter “B”. His neatness is staggering. Everything has its own box, folder, or shelf and cannot be moved or misplaced without his permission. He does his own shopping at the same “Safeway” and banks at the same branch of Bank of America for many years, where everyone greets him like a long-time acquaintance. At the supermarket, he always uses the help of a bag-boy and tips him two dollars only after his groceries are unloaded into the trunk in a certain order.
“I think this is management’s fault,” he continues to criticize the marketing business. “If they could only understand that there is a smart consumer on the other end of the line. Years ago it was different, but who remembers that, right?”
“I agree,” I say, “they’re just too annoying at times.”
“Don’t you think so?” he says wiping the rook with a light-green piece of cloth and placing it on the chessboard. “The last one especially: he was trying to sell me weightlifting equipment! Aren’t they aware of how old I am?”
“No, sir, not necessarily,” I must keep up the conversation.
Every Friday, before our game, he chooses a subject to reason about, and we sit on the wooden patio with scotches in our hands and a bowl of mixed nuts on the miniature table. It’s after six o’clock, the sun is still up, but a couple of ceiling fans attached to the wooden cover makes the way of spending our time together more or less tolerable.
“Queen’s Gambit: Queen E2 to E4!” he announces and slowly moves the Queen with his arthritis-deformed fingers: he always announces his moves and the chosen beginning. “Let’s see what you’ve got for me this time.”
“Queen E8 to E5,” I say after a sip of scotch.
“Hmm,” he says, also taking a sip, “you sure about that, aren’t you?” even though this is my usual answer for the last three years. “Well, then you leave me no choice but Knight B1 to C3.”
Every once in a while, a neighbor walks by and greets us with a nod:
“Another nice day in paradise, gentlemen, isn’t it?”
We support neighbor’s enthusiastic statement by slightly raising our glasses.
“I used to know all their names,” says Bill after the neighbor disappears around the corner. “Not anymore: we don’t see one another as often, I guess, and you know what they say about an old man’s memory, don’t you, Grigory?”
I think: do I want to live until his age? The thought is old, but the answer is always different.
“Your move,” I remind him, “don’t distract me with your smooth talk.”
It takes at least a couple of Friday evenings to finish our game, but I got used to it over the years. As I figured long ago, Bill doesn’t like to lose and usually shows his obvious dissatisfaction with himself only at our next meeting.
“I spent a great deal of time thinking about our last game and came to the conclusion that I really had a chance after your eighteenth move,” he says tasting his scotch, “but it’s easy to be smart afterwards, isn’t it, Grigory?”
I mix myself a drink and keep quiet.
“And my twentieth move could’ve been much stronger, don’t you think?”
I can’t be silent any longer.
“That was my secret fear,” I say, “but, thank God, somehow you missed it.”
“Well, then,” he says, and the previous game is forgotten.
At 6:30 p.m. comes Vergie, a Mexican woman who cooks for Bill since his wife died seven years ago. It took me a while to finally convince him that he wouldn’t survive without a hot daily meal. Vergie was recommended by one of the neighbors who himself used her sister’s services since he became a widower. She is in her sixties, maybe older – you never know with Mexican women. Walking by us, she always asks me about my health and disappears into the kitchen before I answer her polite question. Every Saturday, as they agreed upon a long time ago, she puts together a menu for the following week and leaves it on the kitchen table for Bill’s approval. Her meals always vary and she is a great cook.
“Pork chops this evening, Bill,” she says coming out of the kitchen half an hour later with a tray. “I hope it won’t be too heavy on your stomach.”
“Pork chops are fine,” says Bill.
“Call me when you’re ready for the ice cream,” reminds Vergie and retires back into the kitchen. She’s as quiet as a church mouse and as poor. Every now and then Bill helps her with her medical bills, or car payments, or her grandson’s insurance premiums, very unobtrusively, as if she were one of his daughters. “A day doesn’t go by without me asking dear God to keep him alive,” Vergie said once. “He is the main reason our family is still together.”
The game is off while Bill is eating, so I stretch myself in the chair and enjoy the pleasant Northern breeze. Cutting his meat into small pieces, he says:
“Vergie’s pork chops are by far the best I’ve eaten in many years. She told me that she marinates the meat for forty-eight hours before putting it on the grill. Forty-eight hours! Have you ever heard of such a thing, Grigory?”
“We do the same with lamb meat for a shish-kebab in my country,” I say, “but only twenty-four hours: it really depends on how old the animal is; an aged beef will most definitely require as much time, if not longer.” Then I fall silent because he is busy again with his pork chop: he doesn’t like to do two things at once, not that I know of.
My glass is empty.
“Get yourself another drink, Grigory,” he suggests. “Don’t wait for me.”
“It won’t help your situation,” I say meaning our chess game and leave the patio.
Vergie overheard our conversation and is waiting for me with the bottle of scotch in one hand and the measuring glass in the other. While I’m getting the ice from the freezer, she asks: “The same dose, Mr. Grigory?”
“Make it a bit milder, please.”
The sun had just fell off the horizon line and it’s getting darker by the minute. Back on the patio, I turn on the light above the chessboard and occupy my chair.
“Care for some ice cream, Grigory?” asks Bill sending the last piece of the pork chop into his mouth. “I bought the kind that has less fat for you, keeping in mind your heart, of course.”
“That is very thoughtful of you!” I say, really moved by his foresight.
“How’s your heart anyway?” asks Bill taking a sip of scotch. “Hopefully, it doesn’t bother you as often as before the surgery,” he pauses while considering another sip. “An old friend of mine had a bypass surgery in the late seventies – lived almost thirty years after that.”
“Some days are better than others,” I say.
For a while we just sip our drinks.
“I really feel fortunate having almost all my relatives in town,” says Bill suddenly, “even my children and grandchildren. At my age it’s the most important thing. Even my sons in California call every week despite the fact that they both are very busy with their jobs. Even their wives!” now he falls silent – obviously tired after a long sentence.
I silently agree with him.
“Not a birthday goes by without them inviting me to their homes, not a holiday,” he continues encouraged by my silent agreement. “And what do you think of the Sunday dinners once a month, which I invented a couple of years ago, if my memory serves me well? They never missed one!”
“It was a brilliant idea,” I support him, “keeps you in touch all the time.”
“I hope it’s not because I’m paying for the meal though.”
“What an ungrateful thought!” I object sincerely. “As far as I know, they always have a great time, especially the grandkids – just look at their happy faces when they laugh. I think they really appreciate your company, and money has nothing to do with that.”
Vergie comes out and takes away the tray.
“We’ll have some ice cream,” says Bill, “Grigory’s kind has less fat.”
She nods and leaves the patio.
“Your move,” I remind him. “Let’s concentrate on the game.”
“Knight C3 to E5,” he says after some time. “I need to develop my figures.”
“Very good,” I say, “very good.”
“Last year my son Richard was trying to convince me to buy a Japanese car,” he says while I am thinking on my next move. “And he almost succeeded, too…but it’s not easy for my generation to forget Pearl Harbor, you know!”
“Pawn B7 to B6,” I say and add indifferently, “Not my war, sorry.”
I try to picture his son Richard, a sixty-year-old man in a wheelchair, who lives in California. I met him and his tonelessly speaking wife at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, and we exchanged a few sentences.
“What are you up to, Grigory?” asks Bill and falls to deep thinking. His eyes are half-shut, and I have this strange feeling that he is asleep, but a minute later he says leaning back in his chair, “G2 to G3 – I’m not going to make the same mistake twice!”
“Ice cream, gentlemen!” announces Vergie placing the tray on the table. “I used apricot preserve this time instead of raspberries and some sliced almonds.”
“Apricot is fine,” says Bill. “Isn’t it, Grigory?”
This is usually our second break and after that we only have time for a few more moves. I like to watch Bill when he eats his ice cream, always half spoon at the time, without taking his eyes away from the bowl. It’s quite dark already, and I say – meaning our chess game, “Your last move opened quite a few possibilities for next Friday, sir.”
“You think so?” he asks filling up his spoon. “I think so, too.”
“You’re getting better and better every week.”
“Instead of getting worse, you mean?”
“Your ability to see the disposition so clearly is staggering! One can only wish…”
“I’ve heard this before,” he interrupts. “You’re becoming a politician, Grigory.”
He puts aside his spoon and rests. By this time he gets so tired that he might suddenly fall asleep for a few minutes. I don’t bother him and enjoy the nice, quiet evening. Our game becomes less important – it’s the company now that’s priceless. Coming back from his short nap, he looks blindly around and apologizes:
“An age thing, I guess: my body cannot keep up with my mind anymore. Sorry.”
“Well, then,” I say. “Bishop C8 to B7 – and we can stop right here, unless…”
“Agreed,” he says, and I move aside the small table with the chessboard on it.
Soon we’re done with the ice cream, and Vergie takes away our bowls and glasses.
“Have you been writing lately, Grigory?” asks Bill adjusting his armchair to a more comfortable position. “Your last short story kept me in a state of tension for a while. Do you really think that a young man can force himself to die just because his life seems suddenly senseless?”
“It was a relief for everybody that he did,” I say. “I hope it was.”
“It took me some time to get used to your style though,” he says and falls silent again. I wait for him to continue. “The way you commit your thoughts to paper is different, the way your characters act…” He is silent again, and the pause is longer now. I hear the dishwasher working; then Vergie’s soft singing. An idyllic evening, like all of them actually. I glance at my watch: 8:45 p.m.
A few moments later, Vergie is done with the dishes.
“Your pills are ready and I warmed a glass of water for you.”
“Thank you, dear,” says Bill, “you’ve been very helpful as always.”
She wishes us good night and walks to her car. Why do I always think about her with a strange sense of regret, as if she is wasting her life preparing meals for a ninety-four-year-old man twice a day six days a week?
“I am not exactly a religious person,” Bill interrupts my thoughts, “but the day Vergie stepped onto my porch was probably the most important one of my life as a widower. God, I guess, is not a bad fella after all.”
“Not in my dictionary, no,” I agree.
“I don’t have any plans for the weekend,” he says, “unless my kids will surprise me with another treat. Why don’t you come again tomorrow or Sunday, Grigory, – we can watch a game or just chat about something.”
“Sunday perhaps,” I say, “but I can’t promise.”
He uses his cane to get off the chair, stands still for a moment, thin, round-shouldered, heavy breathing; then walks slowly towards the bathroom.
“My memory betrays me often nowadays,” he says stopping at the open door. “I’m afraid I can’t trust myself any longer and that creates a lot of confusion between me and my kids and grandkids…”
“Things I remember are not necessarily things they have told me,” he explains avoiding my eyes. “That’s why I could be wrong assuring you that nothing has been scheduled for this weekend. On the contrary…”
“I would’ve called anyway!”
“You better be ready next Friday – I’ll kick your butt finally,” he says and laughs. His laugh is weak and squeaky, as if somebody is tearing to pieces a thin sheet of paper inside his throat.
It is still hot inside my car; I turn on the air conditioner and drive off.
The way I spent my Sunday mornings has changed dramatically since the bypass surgery two years ago: I wake up around six o’clock, walk my usual two miles; then work for a few minutes with five-pound weights: an exercise which supposedly will make my heart muscle stronger. It’s not any different this Sunday. The phone rings in the middle of my shaving.
“Good morning!” I say placing aside the razor.
“Good morning, Grigory, Bill Stubbs here. I completely forgot at what time you were supposed to be at my house; I’m sure it’s not in the afternoon, because, as you probably are aware, I always spend my Sunday afternoon getting ready for the next week, and that could take a few hours: everything I do nowadays I do very slow…”
“I don’t recall promising anything,” I say drying my face with a towel, “but I guess I can spend a couple of hours in the company of an old drunk.”
“You can fix yourself a “Bloody Mary” – it’s still breakfast time.”
Half an hour later I knock on his door and let myself in.
Bill is already in his armchair, with a glass of orange juice in one hand and a cell phone in the other; catching sight of me, he puts the glass on the portable table and says, “The world is running away from me at the speed of light, and there is not one damned thing I can do about that!”
“You’re not alone, believe me,” I admit.
“Fix yourself a “Bloody Mary”, he says. “I bought some tomato juice last week.”
While I am in the kitchen, he turns on the TV.
“I keep thinking about the character in your story, Grigory,” he says as I occupy the chair next to the window, “the one who becomes so afraid of his confessions to the KGB Major, that he suddenly dies in the middle of the day,” a short pause to stabilize his breathing, “He was a very young man, thirty or so…”
“It happens,” I say. “His previous life had expired and he didn’t know how to start a new one…”
“Dorothy usually calls me before noon on Sunday,” he interrupts. “It’s been like that since my Frances died, but not today. I wander if something happened to her.” Dorothy is Bill’s daughter, a retired schoolteacher who finally enjoys her life after thirty years of hard, ungrateful work.
“It’s not even eleven,” I calm him down. “She’s got time.”
“Before noon usually,” repeats Bill, as if I missed this part of the sentence. “It always pleasantly surprises me. As you know, she’s been a single woman for some time, and I am glad that my company could make her existence more bearable. Even though we disagree on a few things, we get along pretty darn good. She’s had some bad luck with men, because she’s too honest, too forgiving. Honesty and forgiveness are less and less desirable in today’s world, don’t you agree, Grigory? In my day that was the way of life…not anymore, I guess.”
“She seems to be quite satisfied with her retirement,” I feel obligated to say something. “And – who knows – maybe this is how she wants to live her life: free and independent. After all, it’s not easy to adjust yourself to someone else’s habits when you’re over sixty.”
He doesn’t respond to this, clicks through a few TV channels, surprised by the speed with which one picture replaces another. From the outside he looks like a five-year-old kid who is left alone in the house and for whom everything is as though for the first time: remote control, TV, strange figures, strange language – the whole world around him. Finally, he finds the right channel, and we watch a baseball game for a while. It’s so quiet in Bill’s house that even the familiar commentator’s voice sounds alien.
“I understand,” he says as soon as the commercial comes up, “it’s her own life and she is probably visiting one of her colleagues or went to a movie theater… It’s her own life, I understand,” he keeps repeating the same sentence, which shows how unsure he is of his reasoning, “but it’s almost midday,” he turns the TV off and adds angrily, “Her forgetfulness is unforgivable! She is my daughter, for God’s sake!”
His sudden anger is rather unusual.
“Listen to yourself,” I say. “Just a minute ago she was a perfect daughter – and suddenly she is a betrayer, who deserves to be punished… And then again: why are you so sure that she enjoys your company? You’re not the easiest man to be around…”
“Talking about yourself, Grigory?”
“Oh no, I usually have a reason: chess, for example, but mostly free booze.”
He laughs weakly. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
“You should get used to the thought that old age is pretty much a lonely existence.”
“Not in my case, no sir!” he disagrees. “Call it luck, but all my kids and grandkids enjoy being around me. Take Terry, Dorothy’s son: he drops by every time he is in the area, and not just for a minute; sometimes, he ends up spending an hour with me, talking about his new business, asking for advice…”
“Well, that’s good to know!”
“And money – yes! But I never charge him any interest and always give him as much time as he needs to pay back the principal!”
I let his remark go and finish my drink.
Our conversation took an undesirable path, and just to put an end to it, he dials Dorothy’s number, gets a message and dials the number again. This time she answers the phone and they talk for a while. All I hear are short phrases, which make very little sense. Suddenly a grimace distorts Bill’s wrinkled face.
“Whose birthday, Lisa’s?”
Lisa is Terry’s wife, also a schoolteacher. Unfortunately, I cannot hear Dorothy’s answer; I leave the room to boil some water for coffee. What’s obvious is the fact that today is Lisa’s birthday and Bill wasn’t invited. I hope I missed something, because this kind of news might easily destroy Bill’s theory about luck forever. I come back with my coffee, ask: “So, how’s Dorothy? I hope…”
“Strange,” Bill interrupts impatiently, “they were in my house on Thursday, Terry and Lisa…they could’ve reminded me…very strange and very confusing, because I never intrude upon…”
“How about we finish yesterday’s game, old timer?” I offer. “Your last few moves were somewhat unpredictable, and, to tell you the truth, pushed me off my comfortable path a bit…”
“If I am a burden to them,” continues Bill ignoring my proposal, “they should’ve told me long time ago. I am a grown man, I would’ve understood… But they didn’t!” he raises his voice and falls silent. His face is white; his frail chest is moving up and down with dangerous speed.
“You want to hear my opinion?” I ask casually, afraid that this sudden agitation could simply kill the old man. “Don’t take it seriously! To reason soberly: what happened? They forgot to invite you to Lisa’s birthday…alright, they didn’t forget, the decision was well-considered. So what! Maybe they decided to give you some rest on Sunday. You are assuming the worst…”
“They were in my house on Thursday, Grigory, not a month ago!” he speaks much slower than usual. “Concerning Dorothy: I called her this morning and asked her to help me with my recycling: I missed last week’s pick-up time. And she readily agreed… but not a word about the upcoming birthday!”
Now I am really worried, but prefer to keep quiet, sip my coffee, and look outside the window: almost midday, hot, birds twittering in the roadside orange trees. Truthfully, I don’t feel that today’s incident could be a real danger, real death.
“It’s peaceful and sad in my soul, Grigory,” says Bill and pauses as though demanding my attention. “Peaceful – because I lived a long and productive life, raised my kids hopefully the right way, loved my two wives. I was at war but I was an engineer so I didn’t kill anybody, and the shadow of guilt doesn’t wake me up in the middle of the night,” he pauses again in order to accumulate enough strength for the next sentence. “I could’ve been a better husband and a better father I presume, but that, unfortunately, cannot be changed. Sad…sad – because I suddenly realize that this world can easily survive without my stupid neatness, crumpled thoughts and laughable confidence that I am needed by all my relatives…”
“That’s a very frivolous assumption, sir!”
“My life has just expired, Grigory, and it’s too late for me to even think of a new one,” another pause, now to suppress his tears. “Why don’t you fix me a scotch, my friend? I know, it’s too early for that and probably not wise, but I’m willing to make an exception. Fix one for yourself, too – a milder one that is,” his laugh is still weak, but I feel relieved nonetheless.
“Three pieces of ice as usual?” I ask standing up.
“Neat this time: you die only twice, right?”
“No argument here, old timer!”
“And get me a few slices of cheese: my stomach might not agree with an early drink without food.”
In the kitchen I mix two drinks, slice the cheese and think: never before has he allowed himself a scotch in the middle of the day, not even when he was much younger, and never before without ice…
I run back into the living-room, but too late unfortunately: his hands lie peacefully on his knees, his body is straight, but his head is thrown back and it seems that he just fell asleep with his mouth open, in a manner of an idiot; he was probably trying to write me a note but didn’t have enough time – his pencil is on the floor, same as his notebook.
“What a pity,” I think and dial 9-1-1.
About the Author:
Lazarus J. Trubman came to America as a political refugee from a small town in the ancient land of Transylvania, which for years had been forcefully attached to the Soviet Empire, after experiencing firsthand the hospitality of the Committee of State Security, KGB in common parlance. After obtaining degree in philology and linguistics, he worked as a critic for a literary magazine and later taught literature and writing at a local college. In 1990, after three unsuccessful attempts, he finally boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bounded for New York. He settled in Tucson, Arizona, where for 25 years he taught languages and Russian literature. In 2016, after retiring from teaching, he moved to North Carolina to dedicate the rest of his time to writing.
Lazar J. Trubman has been writing professionally since 1983, publishing – when allowed by the censorship – two collections of short stories and a novel “It Won’t Hurt”. Another novel, “Adaptation to the Past”, had been published in 2012.
Married, three grown children.