“Fur Elise is just a song that Ludwig wrote. Fur Elise is really long. Play every note! Ow ow ow, ow owww…” Ten-year-old Greg held the last note until the dog began to howl.
“Greg! That’s not practicing. Quit torturing Ludie and play it nice like you will in recital.” Greg’s mother, who was also his piano teacher, was busy in the kitchen. Ludwig, an ancient basset hound, had been asleep under the piano and when he stopped playing, Ludie plodded into the kitchen to beg a treat.
Greg looked out the brownstone window to watch a man sitting on the wall, studying a chess board and talking to himself. He was intrigued, so he took advantage of his mother’s momentary distraction and slipped out the front door.
The night was cool and smelled like rain, but the man didn’t seem to notice, although his thin hoodie wouldn’t be much protection if it did rain. “Who are you playing?” Greg sat down on the wall opposite the man. “Nobody.” He grunted.
“I like chess. It looks like fun!”
“It’s not as fun as it looks. You should stick to piano.” The man picked up another piece and muttered something under his breath, then put it down and started with a different piece.
“Can you teach me to play?”
“Sure. Be at the community center tomorrow at exactly ten o’clock and I’ll teach you all you need to know.”
“Greg! Get back in here and practice. Supper’s almost ready.” His mother stood on the stoop, brandishing her wooden spoon. Greg ran back inside to practice again.
The next morning, Greg went to the community center and looked for the man. Finally, he spotted him at a table in the corner, the chess board set up and ready for the lesson, so he went and stood by him. “I’m here for my lesson.”
“Who are you kid?”
“I’m Greg. You told me to be here at 10 o’clock, so here I am.”
The man seemed puzzled. “Yeah, I suppose I did. Sit down.”
Greg sat. The man held up a tall piece with a crown on top. “This is the king. The object of chess is to trap the other guy’s king. When he can’t move it anymore, the game is over.” He put the piece down on the board and moved it one space. “His highness can only move one space at a time, and he can’t move into danger.” He continued with each of the pieces, never looking up. Greg watched and listened as he told him the names of the pieces and showed him how each one could move.
“Greg!” It was his mother again, this time at the door to the center. “You don’t have time for games. You need to practice!”
“Can I come back tomorrow?”
The man thought for a moment. “No. I wasn’t here tomorrow.”
“You shouldn’t be talking to drunks,” his mother scolded as she whisked him back to piano practice. When she was satisfied with the piece, Greg went to the attic and dug out the old chess set that had been boxed up with his father’s things. He hid it under his underwear so she wouldn’t find it.
Every chance he got, Greg took the set out, repeating the names and moves that the man had shown him. He checked a book out of the library and learned to play, practicing every move in the book, until he felt like he was ready to play a real game.
Greg had seen a flier on the bulletin board at the center announcing a Chess Club meeting on Saturday. He hid the chess set in his backpack and told his mother he was going to the library.
As often as he could, Greg went to Chess Club and entered his first tournament when he was thirteen. He won easily and quickly rose through the ranks at the center. His mother finally gave up getting him to practice the piano and he spent all his free time playing chess.
In high school, when other boys his age were learning to drive and competing for the favors of high school girls, he ignored social interactions and immersed himself in chess, thinking and dreaming of the game. Greg entered his first city-wide tournament and won, marking him as a minor celebrity in the world of chess.
He began to make money from his victories and used his earnings to pay for a semester at City College, to study mathematics and computer science. After two semesters of failed classes, he left and went on the road, traveling from town to town, entering chess tournaments and hustling in city parks. Whenever he had enough money, he got a hotel room and ate in restaurants. When he didn’t, he slept in the park or a homeless shelter and ate in soup kitchens.
Greg’s life changed when he met Olivia. He was sitting under a tree in the city park, planning his next match when she leaped to catch a frisbee and landed in his lap. “Hey, handsome,” she said. “I didn’t see you there. Are you hurt?”
Olivia was tall, blonde and athletic and Greg had never been that close to a woman before. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he didn’t say anything. “Let’s get you off this grass,” she said, helping him up and leading him to a picnic table. She took a small light out of her purse and shined it in his eyes. Greg pulled away from her. “It’s okay. I’m a doctor, or at least I’m studying to be a doctor. I just want to make sure you don’t have a concussion.”
“I’m fine. You just startled me.”
She smiled and touched his hand. “I’m sorry I disturbed you. What are you studying?” Greg showed her the dogeared notebook he had been reading. “What are you, some kind of scientist?”
“I play chess. I’m trying to become a grandmaster. I write all of my strategies in this book.”
“It looks like fun. Will you teach me to play?” She waved to her friends. “I’ll catch you later. I’m going to learn to play chess.”
Greg took the chess set out of his backpack and set it up on the picnic table. Olivia picked up a knight. “This looks like a horse!” She pranced it around the board, snickering and snorting like the horses people rode in the park.
“Get serious! That piece is called a knight.” He told her the names of all the pieces and showed her how they could move.
After an hour, Olivia lay her head down on the table. “I’m famished. Aren’t you hungry?”
“I suppose I’m a little hungry. I hadn’t thought about food.”
She jumped up. “Come on, I’ll buy you the best hot dog in town.” Greg packed up his chess set and followed her to a food truck.
Olivia told him about medical school. She described her first day in anatomy class and fell into fits of laughter when she recalled her first look at a male corpse. Greg didn’t know what to say. He’d never met anyone like Olivia.
When the sun went down, she said. “I need to go home. I have class tomorrow. Where do you live?”
“I just got into town. I haven’t even looked for a place yet,” he lied.
“Then you can crash at my place. Don’t say no, just follow me.” She took his hand and led him toward her apartment building. “You’ll have to ignore the mess. I’m between roommates and I haven’t had time to clean.” She opened the door to reveal a cluttered studio apartment with a small table covered with books and a closet-sized kitchen.
Greg put his backpack down and sat on one corner of the couch. “Thank you. I promise I won’t be any trouble. I’ll look for a place tomorrow.”
“You can stay here until you find a place, but you have to tell me something first.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What is your name? I can’t very well tell my mother that a nameless man spent the night in my apartment. Think of the scandal!”
“My name is Greg, Greg Nilsson.”
“Pleased to meet you, Greg. I’m Olivia McKinley.”
She showed him the bathroom and laid out towels for him to use. “You shower first while I straighten up in here.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a warm shower. The last shelter he stayed in didn’t bother to provide hot water and most of his baths lately had been splashed from the sink in park restrooms. He stood under the falling water and stayed for as long as he felt he could without wearing out his welcome. Finally, he turned the water off, dried his hair and wrapped the towel around his waist.
“Sorry, I took so long. The shower felt so good.”
“I was beginning to think that you got sucked down the drain,” Olivia said. She looked at him and poked her finger into his ribs. “Hm, I think you’ve got the start of an ab there.”
Olivia showered, and Greg sorted through his few clothes, trying to find the cleanest shorts and shirt. When he looked up, Olivia was standing in the bathroom doorway, a towel wrapped around her hair and another wrapped around her body, barely concealing her breasts.
“I’m afraid I’ve only got a single pull-out bed. We can share it or one of us can sleep on the floor.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor. I don’t want to put you out of your bed,” Greg said. “A pillow and a blanket will be enough.” Olivia gave them to him and disappeared into the bathroom to finish her bedtime routine. When she came out, Greg brushed his teeth and rinsed out a few clothes, putting them over the shower rod to dry. She was asleep when he tiptoed out and crawled under his blanket.
Olivia left for class early the next morning. Greg found a note on the refrigerator. “Milk is in the fridge and cereal on the table. Help yourself. Will I see you this evening?”
Greg checked his clothes. They were dry enough to wear, so he dressed and had breakfast. To pay for his room, he picked up, washed dishes and made Olivia’s bed. He let himself out, making sure to lock the door and headed for the park to hustle a little money.
When he had won $50, he went to the grocery store near Olivia’s place and bought a loaf of Italian bread, cold cuts, mustard and a bottle of wine. Olivia wasn’t home yet, so he sat by the door and fell asleep. About an hour later, she tapped his shoulder. “I’m sorry, you should have a key.” She unlocked the door and they went inside.
“Aren’t you a sweetie,” she said when she saw the apartment. “I’m going to have to keep you around.”
Greg unpacked the groceries and made sandwiches. He found two wine glasses and poured one for each of them. Olivia had already curled up on the bed, so he gave her a sandwich and a glass of wine. “I figured you can’t go wrong with sandwiches.” He sat on the other end of the bed and relished his meal; two in one day was a treat.
Olivia finished her sandwich and sat down at the table. I’ve got some homework to do tonight. Feel free to crash on the bed and I’ll take the floor if I ever get to sleep.”
Greg watched for a while but drifted off. In the middle of the night, he woke to find Olivia curled up next to him. She stirred and opened her eyes. “Do you mind?” Greg didn’t know what to say.
Olivia gave him a key. “I’ll see you tonight. I’m cooking. How does pasta sound?”
“Fine, I guess. I’m going to look for a place today.”
Greg straightened up and headed toward the park. For the first time since he was ten, he thought about something other than chess. He stopped to read a sign in the grocery store window, “HELP WANTED.” He went inside and when he came out, for the first time in his life, he had a paying job.
They enjoyed Olivia’s pasta and the leftover wine and went to bed together. Early in the morning, she taught him how to make love.
Olivia finished the school year and took a summer job at a nearby clinic. Greg worked in the grocery store and never once thought of chess. Then, one day, he saw a flier in the window. “Chess Grandmaster Sergei Popov will take on all challengers at the library, Saturday at 10 a.m.” The old passion stirred.
When he told Olivia he wanted to play the Grandmaster, she went to watch him play. Greg beat Popov, who invited him to play the next day in another library. Soon, he was playing in every challenge and tournament in the city and only saw Olivia at night. They still made love, but chess filled his dreams.
In the fall, Olivia’s classes started again, and Popov invited him to tour upstate. Greg packed clothes and chess gear and went with Popov. They stayed a different hotel every night and Greg lost track of the days.
At night, Greg practiced and perfected a strategy he had named Nilsson’s Mate. If it succeeded, he would soon be a Grandmaster. When he was satisfied, he had a glass of wine and practiced it over and over, taking his bishop, thrusting through the imaginary line of battle again and again to put his opponent’s king in check. He felt a surge of power, the room seemed to go dark, and he fell to the bed, basking in the afterglow. He woke to find the hotel room empty. Popov’s bags were gone, and he was left with his backpack, his chess set and a change of clothes.
He dressed and went to the hotel desk. “Did Grandmaster Popov leave a message for me?”
“Grandmaster Popov hasn’t checked in. He isn’t expected until tonight.”
Greg went to the last place he had played with Popov, only to be told that he wasn’t scheduled to play for two more days. “It’s right here on the sign,” the man pointed. “Grandmaster Popov will take on all challengers at the community center, Saturday at 10 a.m. Today is Thursday.”
He slept in a shelter for the night and went back to the center the next morning to leave a message for Popov. The center was closed. On the front was a sign, “Center closed every Wednesday.”
It took Greg a week to confirm his suspicions. He was traveling back in time. Each night when he went to sleep, he woke up two days earlier. He tried staying awake all night so the travel wouldn’t happen, but that failed. Always, when morning came it was two days earlier.
Greg wanted to go back to Olivia’s, where things had seemed right. Each morning when he woke up, he made his way closer to the city and Olivia. Sometimes he picked up a little money hustling so he could get a hotel room. He learned to pay for the room as he checked in because once he was nearly arrested for failing to pay for the previous night.
Weeks later, he arrived at Olivia’s apartment. He hoped she would be glad to see him because he hadn’t called her in at least two months.
She was gone, but he used his key to unlock the apartment. The bed was made, and his clothes still hung in the closet. When she got home, Olivia was surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you so soon. Did you decide to pass on the trip with Popov?”
“I wanted to see you. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too, but you’ve only been gone two days.” That night they made love as they had before Popov. Greg woke the next morning and Olivia was gone. He heard the shower running and a man’s voice singing. Olivia had a boyfriend! He hid in the closet when the man came out of the bathroom, and when he saw him, he knew. He was looking at Greg Nilsson, who left Olivia’s apartment in August to go on tour with Sergei Popov.
The other Greg grabbed his backpack and went out the door, locking it behind him. Greg got his things and left too.
He wandered from place to place, playing in tournaments, this time as the champion taking on all challengers; hustling for cash in parks, and teaching one-day lessons in city libraries. When he could find a quiet place to sleep, he retraced his actions on the night his world had been turned inside out. He repeated what he could remember, practicing Nilsson’s Mate with a rhythm, like making love, until he was empty. Nothing helped. Always, the next morning, he had gone back two days.
He lost track of the days and seasons and couldn’t remember how many years it had been since he had lived a normal life. One rainy spring evening, he wandered into an old brownstone neighborhood. He sat down on a wall and watched a young boy practicing the piano. When the familiar tune stopped, the boy came outside and sat on the wall next to him. “Who are you playing?” he asked.
“Nobody.” Greg grunted.
“I like chess. It looks like fun!”
“It’s not as fun as it looks. You should stick to piano.” Greg picked up another piece and, under his breath he muttered, “I wish I had.”