The view through the window wall at the study's rear is something sublime, something suffocating. There are two grown, well-educated men in the room, and neither can bear to look through the flaring glass for more than a few moments. In much the same way, they cannot bear to look at each other. Their gazes tend toward, and soften over, the intricately patterned maroon carpet beneath their feet.
“Kafkaesque is the word,” says the younger man.
“I’d say Lovecraftian,” offers the elder.
“Oh, you know what? Do you remember the rightmost panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights?”
A squinting glance through the glass. “Quite.”
Felt is the presence of another man, an ancient man, an oil man. He is a pair of lifeless black eyes bulging from a flat face etched with lines, immortalized in muted color and confined by a spotless, ornate golden frame. The word for him is severe, and it’s nearly as apt in death as it was in life.
The windowpane flashes overwhelming white for an instant. As it fades once more into an orange haze, the old house groans. Ice cubes rattle inside the pair of crystalline glasses which flank the empty bottle of whiskey on the elder’s desk. The cubans have yet to be sparked, but the aroma of smoke is overwhelming.
“There’s something I want to say to you, son, but I can’t seem to find the words.”
“I’m sure you’ll find them. There’s still time.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t. Not really.”
“So our chances of survival are slim. Don't you think we ought to hold out hope?”
“Not according to any astrophysicist worth his salt.”
“Surely things could have changed since Friday’s forecast?”
“Surely. However, the fact that there hasn’t been a forecast since Friday is not-so-good an omen.”
“Say, how about we set up a game of chess?”
“Yes - alright, Junior. Let’s do.”
Father and son approach a small table topped with a slick lacquered chess board. They shift the uncomfortably fashionable chairs ninety degrees, setting the game parallel to the window and ensuring that neither player’s focus will be too much disrupted by the spectacle outside. As they place fine pieces of ebony and ivory in their proper squares, Junior is reminded of his first lessons with father.
This is first and foremost a test of wit.
As Junior learned it, chess is a beautiful and historic game defined by mounting tension, rational response, and mutually assured destruction. In a game between masters, each move logically preempts not just the next move, but a long series of expected responses. How, then, is there such variation in the ultimate arrangement of the board? It has been argued that the unique features of a given match often result from a complex coalescence of player psychology.
Look sharp. Yield the central files, yield the game.
Junior makes the first move, advancing his ivory king pawn two squares. Senior develops an ebony knight, threatening the advanced pawn. They move instinctively, automatically. Throats clear, pieces clack on the board, eyes dart through potential lines of attack. The game clock is set, but its comforting tick cannot be heard over the howling Hellscape outside. Either way, time is running out.
Openings are small talk, forgone conclusions. A smile and nod while you prepare your attack in silence.
Junior sets up well, eyeing a strong diagonal. “I know you usually like it quiet, but, ah, circumstances being what they are, should we talk?”
“As you said, this may be our last opportunity.”
“True enough. What I mean is, is there something specific you want to talk about?”
“I want to talk about Mother.”
“In that case, I think we’d better just play.”
“Why won’t you talk about her?”
“Because if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not spend my last moments in misery.”
“No, come on. I don’t mean right now, I mean ever.”
Junior’s heart sinks, and his focus returns to the game. His light square bishop is hanging. In an average game, this is a small loss, but against his father, such imperfections are unacceptable. As the bishop is taken, there are beads of sweat forming on Junior’s brow and upper lip, signs of weakness. A little prayer that father won’t notice.
A decent player can survive. A good one can put together an attack. The greats know when to back off.
They are trading pieces now, ruthlessly clearing the board of cohesive formations until only a few pieces remain. As Senior gains the advantage, Junior regroups in his king side corner.
“Did you play chess with your father?”
“No, of course not. Empire to build, all that.” Senior lends a subtle tilt of the head toward the framed painting opposite the window. “On my ninth birthday, father sat me down and taught me the rules - the same ones I’ve taught to you. He said to me, son, you learn chess, you learn to make it in this world. After that, he left me to learn the game on my own, or play it with your aunts.”
“But what sort of a lesson is that?”
“How do you mean?”
“Chess is a game about deception.”
“Chess is a beautiful and historic-”
“Please. It’s nothing more and nothing less than one of the many pastimes men have invented so that they never have to engage in earnest conversation with one another.”
While each of Junior's assertive moves crack sharp against the surface of the board, Senior's slide. The older man moves with a confidence belonging to the incredibly wise and the incredibly foolish alone.
A father registers the faintest trace of disrespect in his son's tone. “You’re probably right. But if it is so, it’s not for no reason.”
“I’d think you’d want to be able to speak honestly with any man.”
“You never met my father.”
“I wonder if I've ever really met mine.” Junior takes a beat. “I will thank you, though, for making time to play chess with me every now and again. No matter how mad I was at you, I always looked forward to it.”
Bend, but don’t break.
The room is flooded with an incessant white light as the tremors become disruptive. Books wiggle out of place on the shelves and the whiskey bottle rolls off of the desk to shatter across the rug.
The game devolves into an endless chase, two opposing kings and two opposing knights moving from corner to corner, narrowly escaping clever traps. It occurs to both players that this could conceivably go on forever, but they carry on making moves. Suddenly, as the trembling grows stronger, the painting of the severe man comes free of its hooks and clangs out of sight behind the cabinet below, snapping the men out of their trance.
“I offer a draw,” says Junior, rising from the table and extending a sweaty palm.
Senior stands to meet his son’s hand. They shake for an awfully long time, until the long-coming meeting of their moistening eyes.
Senior takes a measured breath. “What a cruel trick it was that she left you those baby blues.”
Junior feels a frog in his throat and yanks his father toward him. They share a hug, a gesture not even thought of since early childhood, since Junior's mother was around as the go-between. If tears fall, they disappear into the cascade of sweat brought on by the light.
“I wish I could remember her, Dad. I’m sure she was lovely.”
“The thing I wanted to say to you. I’ve found the words. Your mother - she whispers them to me even now.”
“I love you.”
The game clock would expire, but its internal mechanisms have melted. A book shelf tips over onto the chess table, scattering the pieces over the floor. Pained are the wails of the old house. The study’s rear window splinters, sending a blinding whirl of shards into the room, cutting everything inside to ribbons and scorching whatever remains.
The father and son do not feel pain - only the smooth rise and fall of each other’s cherished last breaths.