Kotov Syndrome

by Jack Frazier

            All tocsins chime when she stacks one rook atop the other; friends, now they are, drafting up the open file. Both players must envision pigs on the seventh! though, that phrase is likely nothing to them, since one is an Italian woman who only jousts with English (they call their knights cavalli, how about that?) and the scowling man strikes me as artless, and small. I blame my elderly intuition.

            The artless man retreats his knight to watch the C7 square. Good. It is, practically, a forced idea. The Italian woman grimaces, nonetheless, I think it is in that way we pique over our thwarted ambitions, but what do I know? She scoots her stool. Her parka’s zipper nudges her king. I think her name is Sara. This is my other game, the game no one improves at. I recall wind stabbing through my jumper, and when I shut the door, blood hurries, warms my fingertips. This is November. I can feel the geriatric grip of her hand, skin cold, thin bones, I can hear the meaningless noises we make between our words, our accents massaging them, but, no. The name won’t be summoned. Sara, and waves of inky blue, they swell up. It's lurking in there, the name that is almost Sara. Sara, and I push the letters in cursive, from left to right.

            A year ago, maybe two years ago, I don’t know, this is sometime in the Covid mess, my boys stopped calling me. If you have children, this happens. If it hasn’t happened, I’m sorry, but I’m telling the truth. Think about your own father. Do you phone him? Oh? How often? There, my point exactly! So, now I Uber to the club. Fridays. Six o’clock. I talk chess with Imran Hassan. Imran does “Dot Net” and looks thirty years my junior, but that cannot be the case, I cannot be that old, can I? Sometimes he invites me to Glover’s with his “Dot Net” friends, though some are “testers,” and some do both, but I can’t explain it more than this. We can tie one on, we joke, because neither of us know where that expression originates. We talk about Chicago sports, obviously, and we mostly agree on things except when he “ties” more than three “on,” and I can tell that if I am willing to go there, he will go there! 

            You should come. Even Masters play our club. Do you think it’s to prove their title isn’t some panjandrum? (I once spotted a GM, who waved meekly at me.) Playing them, it feels like their pieces abide different rules, like their pawns sneak extra squares when I’m adrift in calculation. After, they will tell me why they keep their hair buzzed, or why cryptocurrency is not a scam. Once I asked why the Sicilian is more in vogue than the Grunfeld, but they could not disguise their boredom. That’s okay. This is my Saint Bernard, I’ll tell them, and I’ll whip out my phone, and they’ll lean closer, stay a bit longer, ask the questions you have to ask in polite society. That’s my dirty trick.

            Sara is in a mess. The rooks have dismissed themselves. Her infrangible fortress, gone. Kings pulse through the diagonal voids of pawn gangs, and more glances are snatched at the timer. I look at the pieces and things are not clear. A draw? I think someone could be brave, though bravery tends to occur with more time on the clock. The artless man has taken to pointing his middle finger at squares to count out, much like a scholastic would, prospects of pawn promotion. Poor Sara, her mouth hangs agape, like she cannot reckon with what is happening. She must be thinking, how did my position collapse? I don’t want to lose to this idiot. Oh, hey, did you know Bobby Fischer hated the Jews? He discovered Be6!!, but I’m not lying about that. He said unforgivable things. Iceland rescued him, in the end, I think because he put Reykjavík on the map. That was nineteen-seventy-two. I saw him on Dick Cavett. He seemed kind, back then. Maybe he was.

            I wonder if Sara thinks of me as Bald French Man. It’s okay to not be sad about your children. The club is a pottery studio Shane McDonald rents on Fridays, but they still take customers. I love the smell of clay, I could drown in it and die. It’s pleasant to think that a non-member might sit across me, someone new. Julien still paints, he has a shop online. I’ll send you the link. Mostly they’re mountains.  We always lived in Chicago, though, so how does that happen? Sara and the artless man shake hands at their draw. Tomas, I don’t know about Tomas. He isn’t as online.

            Chess keeps me sharp, I tell Imran, which is the nice way of saying how frightened I am about losing my mind. It’s something to do, he replies, which sounds like the nice way of saying something else. Sometimes his hands disappear into his hair, and I try to tell a joke. I know I should just listen. I know that.

            I’m confessing some of this to my opponent. Oh, they’re going to convert, don’t you think? Hey, do you know what homes cost in Jackson Hole? My opponent has no clue, and he scratches the thin circle of hair at his crown as I describe to him the sky, what pastures are, the oily chocolate blotches that happen to be horses. You’ll never leave Chicago, I once convinced myself, but I am growing, Tomas. This is how ideas parade through me; castling long opens a potentially discovered rook attack, en passant reveals the bishop to skewer the queen, and I am tickled with light. That is when Emma comes, finally, Emma, like how our winds come from nothing at all, and I want to tell you boys everything while the light still dances.   

About the Author

Jack Frazier has been published in The Binnacle (at the University of Maine at Machias,) and Unfading Daydream. He enjoys writing literary fiction and literary horror. Living with epilepsy has influenced his work, though Jack typically avoids writing non-fiction.