Chess Board

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

A woman wonders what might have been

Chess Board

Margaret Miller was the only person I knew who disappeared. For awhile our sons played chess together in high school. Most of the other parents were into chess but Margaret and I went to support. “It’s too complicated for me,” she said, and I agreed. The knights moved this way, the pawns moved that way. You had to think moves ahead.

Saturday mornings they held the district matches and while the other parents sat engrossed on the sidelines, Margaret and I went for coffee. Even in old jeans and without makeup she was pretty. Her hair waved out and her eyes were that turquoise blue. But she didn’t flaunt it – just the opposite. Sometimes, I’d think if she fixed herself up, she’d be a movie star.

One day she sipped her coffee and said, “You have a nice life, Sissy.”

I laughed, frumpy me with four kids and Predictable Ed. We were mortgaged clear to our eyeballs eating macaroni and cheese.

“You have laughter and fun, and – something,” she said.  

“It’s something alright.” I grinned making a joke, keeping it light because I didn’t know her that well. They’d only moved in that year, a few streets over on James Street. Her son, Peter, was her only child. There was a Mr. Miller, too, but he didn’t come to the matches.

“Sometimes I want to disappear,” she said softly. I wasn’t sure I heard her, but she hunched across the table and her eyes pleaded into mine. “I’d walk down the street and never come back. Plan moves ahead like a chess board. I’d go this way and that and when everyone was looking over there – I’d be gone.”

Her eyes looked scared, raging, and crazy. I didn’t know what to say. Most of us had troubles and talked tough, sure, but then it blew over. So, I shrugged, making a joke, “I’ll come too. We’ll go to Bermuda.” Something to cheer her up, but her eyes got hard. They got narrow and bristling. Her laughter had that proper layer of distance – Peter’s mom and Brian’s mom having coffee.

That day I saw a desperation I’d never known. I saw terror and craziness and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t understand back then that people could be in pits they couldn’t get out of.  I thought, you know if it’s really bad she’ll tell me again, but she never did.

That year the chess team went to the national finals. George Anderson was the teacher in charge and to help make money for traveling expenses we had a rummage sale. We got bags of old clothes, furniture, books, all kinds of things. One bag was full of crazy scarves and wigs that looked like props from a play.

Margaret bought that bag for herself and whisked it into her car. As she slammed down the trunk our eyes met. It was right on the tip of my tongue to say something stupid like, “Are you planning to disappear?” But I didn’t.

Peter won every medal at the finals he possibly could. He had fierce dark eyes, and nobody beat him. I remember Margaret’s eyes and how proud she looked. But there was that odd gleam that made me afraid.

***

The next year my son didn’t want to play chess. He was driving by then and had a part time job. “You were so good at it,” I said.

Brian just looked at me, “I’m good, Mom, but I’ll never be Peter.” He wasn’t mad or jealous, just ran off to his job. After that I didn’t see Margaret much.

Once in awhile, I’d round my cart down the aisle at the grocery store and bump into her. One time she had eight cans of Grandma’s Peaches inside her cart. “I bought all they had,” she said. “They’re getting so hard to find.”

There was this smiling grandma on the label with glasses and her hair pulled back and she had this gleam in her eye. Sure enough when I checked down the canned fruit aisle there was this empty spot. The little sign read Grandma’s Peaches, but they were gone.

“Let’s meet for coffee.” Margaret would smile and I’d smile keeping that proper distance, that proper layer. Then I’d round my cart down the next aisle intending to call her, yes, we’ll do that. Sometimes I’d see her walking around the neighborhood in that old red shirt. She’d walk down to the end of the street and turn the corner. Once I thought to run catch her. Don’t stop, don’t think, just go – but I didn’t.

That year Peter graduated from high school and left for college. Two months later her husband reported her missing.

“She went for a walk and never came back,” George Anderson told me. He was still the coach of the chess team and his brother was on the police force. “She didn’t leave a note; there’s no evidence of foul play, she’s vanished.”

“What’s her husband like?” I asked.

George shrugged, “He only came to one match. He came in a separate car and stood on the sidelines. Margaret was off by herself. He looked exactly like Peter, the same eyes, the same expression. It was unmistakable that they were father and son. Anyway, Peter saw him there, made a bad move and lost and his father stalked off.”

“How could she disappear without a trace?”

George shook his head, “There’s always a trace. There’s always a wrong move or a slip. It’s like a chess board where all the pieces move in a certain pattern, except the police go in reverse. They’ll trace all the steps back until they find her.”

But they didn’t. No clue or evidence was ever found. Sometimes I’d round my cart down the canned fruit aisle and see Grandma’s Peaches and wish I’d run after her that day when she walked by.

Six months later her house on James Street exploded and Mr. Miller was killed. It was a huge fireball that rocked the whole neighborhood. Fire trucks came from all over. It was ruled a faulty gas leak, a horrible accident, not that he committed suicide.

The day after the house exploded, I rounded my grocery cart down the canned fruit aisle and there was this vacant spot, this empty gap. Every can of Grandma’s Peaches was gone.

***

It’s thirty years since all this happened. Just as I wasn’t able to see moves ahead on a chess board, I’ll never know what might have happened if I hadn’t made a joke that day but tried to help her. Maybe if I’d run after her, we could have had coffee. Maybe she would have opened up. I never mentioned the peaches or wigs, so maybe we came out even.

Peter Miller became a grandmaster in chess. He played in international circles and had a crowning match in Russia before he retired. He wrote a chess book that’s used to this day. George Anderson and I kept up with his progress.

And sometimes – especially now with the internet – it’s possible to trace the steps back. It’s possible to click on Peter Miller and bring up pictures of his world-famous match. And if you zoom in you see a woman in the background. She’s old with her hair pulled back and has on this crazy scarf. Her glasses have slipped, and you see her eyes. They’re enormously proud but a little bit crazy.

 


Submitted: April 26, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Suzanne Mays. All rights reserved.

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D Mays

Mon, April 27th, 2020 7:21am

D Mays

I liked this story. I taught my boys to play chess when they were five years old. They were on the chess team when the team won the Virginia state high school title. Good mysterious story.

Mon, April 27th, 2020 7:26am

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Reply

Thank you so much. You must be proud of your sons. It amazes me when people can think many moves ahead and play strategies. All the best in writing, Suzanne

Tue, April 28th, 2020 1:19pm

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