Baffling brilliance

A man in early dementia plays chess in Washington Square, his son and his second wife watching out for him.

We ran to him, but there was no emergency. He’d won a game was all. He was still in a gloater’s ecstasy when we reached him. “Oh, God, yes,” he was saying. “Oh, man alive, does that feel good.”

“You sure put me in trouble, Roger,” Dwayne said. “One more, now? For tens?”

But my father wasn’t ready to leave aside the glory of the moment. “To hell with orgasms,” he mused, leaning into the table. “I’ll take a clean rook-ending any day. I mean, Jesus, Wade, what is it? What is it that makes it such a joy to beat a man at chess?”

“Music,” the hustler said. “Artistry and shit. Now, tens?”

The storm wind rose, and my father cocked his head to watch a flock of sycamore leaves swirling down. His fur collar stirred against his jaw.

“You like this coat?” Lucy asked me. “He saw it in the window at Barney’s. Eighteen hundred bucks.”

My father glanced at us with a halfway scowl and turned back to Dwayne.

“Fischer said, ‘Chess is life,’” announced my father.

Dwayne ran his tongue under his lip. “Fischer said all sorts of stuff,” he replied. “He said there were tiny Jews living in his teeth.”

“It’s better than life. In the world, there’s no such thing as a clean escape, if you follow me,” my father said.

— Wells Tower, “Executor of Important Energies,” in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, pp 74-75.

On the one hand, the voice is so lithe, so strong. On the other, I thought, Everyone thinks this is so great; are they putting me on? Even, for a moment: Is Wells Tower putting me on? All this sheer talent and exquisite craft and he’s writing yet another (and another) story about a sad man who doesn’t know how to live with his woman, falls apart in a seedy part of the world, and winds up in violence?


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