A Partial History of Lost Causes (Excerpt)
I began playing chess Saturdays in Harvard Square, against the old wizened men who charge you a dollar to lose to them. I did not grow up to be a chess prodigy—or any other kind, for that matter. But I find something compelling in its choreography, the way one move implies the next. The kings are an apt metaphor for human beings: utterly constrained by the rules of the game, defenseless against bombardment from all sides, able only to temporarily dodge disaster by moving one step in any direction.
The chess men emerged without comment in early March, sitting in the stoic steam of their coffees, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them and become alive again. The chess men came back before the street performers—the live statues that locked and unlocked themselves for loose change, silvery-black-skinned men who beat on overturned plastic buckets, wild-eyed prophets who described in lurid detail the end of the world. The chess men came back before the academic tours of ambitious young people started to create big traffic blocks, before the college students stripped down to only their unnatural tans and fanned languidly across the Square, before all of Cambridge roused itself sufficiently to once again protest the foreign policy disaster of the moment. My favorite opponent was a man named Lars, who stationed himself at the chess sets with such fierce commitment that I’d forget that he could, if he wanted to, get up and walk away. The first day I met him he took one look at me and said, “You look like somebody who feels sorrier for yourself than is strictly necessary.”
I’d been out wandering, as I often was in those days. It was two years after I’d gotten my results, and I was halfway through my dissertation on trilingual wordplay in Ada, or Ardor. I liked the bitter cold the best; it narrowed the meandering, self-indulgent courses of my mind into a focused dissatisfaction with what was right in front of me. And this, I’ll be the first to admit, was an improvement.
I sat down and Lars promptly decimated me at chess, then told me exactly what was wrong with my game and with me, more generally. After that, we were friends.
Lars told me a lot of other things, eventually, though there was no way that all of it was true. He’d been born in Stockholm, he said, the son of shipping magnates, descended from Swedish royalty. His family had lost everything during the embargoes of 1979. He’d been homeless in Philadelphia, spent a year in Hong Kong, been dishonorably discharged from the Swedish military for reasons he would not discuss. There were conflicts in his stories, mysteries, great gaping holes in time and space—but Lars did not respond to challenges on these fronts, except by starting to beat me faster when I asked nosy questions. So I learned not to. Lars lived off of bluffs, wild claims that were never, ever verifiable. He’d worked in a mine on the Black Sea, he said. He’d jumped trains in Moldova, he’d learned to recite the Qu’ran from Pakistani immigrants in London. And who could say with absolute certainty that he had not?
There’s an intimacy in listening to somebody’s lies, I’ve always thought – you learn more about someone from the things they wish were true than from the things that actually are. Sometimes, though, there were intentional provocations – allusions to bastard children, assassination attempts, that sort of thing. Or, worse, advice. Analyses. Witty aphorisms. “You know what your problem is?” he asked me more than once. And even though I always told him that I did know what my problem was – that it had been revealed to me via the best genetic testing science could offer – he invariably gave his own interpretation. “Too much thinking,” or “Not enough sex,” or “Not enough thinking about sex,” he would say. These assessments were typically followed by instructive tales from his own life, where having sex or avoiding thinking saved the day.
The last time I saw him before he stopped talking, Lars told me about being shot at in Turkey. It was the end of March, the time of year in New England when you feel yourself regaining the will to live. The sky was a weak white, and the people floated through Harvard Square like brightly-colored aquarium fish of all different shapes and origins. I’d bought us both coffees. Lars put five sugars in his, then sent me back into the coffee shop for more. When I returned and looked disapproving he said, “You know what your problem is? You’re afraid to have any fun.”
“I have fun,” I said, taking a sip of coffee and spilling some on my coat. The board between us was still a blank slate. There were limitless ways for either of us to win or lose, although we could both be pretty sure which way it would go. “I have all kinds of fun,” I said. “Fun such as you could not imagine.”
“I’ll bet,” he said. “You look just like the kind of girl with a secret life of fun.” I opened by advancing my king’s knight. Lars mirrored me.
“You can’t even imagine the fun,” I said. “You don’t even want to.”
“I, however,” he said, “have had a life full of adventure. I have narrowly cheated death many times. I have earned the right to a little sugar in my coffee now and then.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Did I ever happen to mention the time I was almost killed in Turkey?”
I was not allowed to ask him what he’d been doing in Turkey in the first place; this would be viewed as unforgivably intrusive and rude. The rules of the game were long established.
“It was a few hours outside Ankara,” he told me. There was a flurry of pawn movement, the debut introduction of the bishops. Lars’ attitude toward chess was the same as his general attitude toward life: you can’t be squeamish about it. You have to embrace it, fuck with it a little, see what it will do to you. Excessive calculation leads to paralysis, which leads to death.
“Wait, when was this?” I said. I knew this would irritate him. Irritating Lars was a tactic of mine. I advanced my bishop’s pawn and planned to advance my queen’s pawn next, in order to consolidate a pawn center and finally, for once, perhaps, drive Lars away.
“The seventies. Who can remember exactly? Before you were born.”
“Please.” He made a face and introduced his queen. It was early for her, though the move was technically aboveboard. She wasn’t vulnerable to attack, and he was only trying to maintain his hold on the center. I flattered myself that this meant that he was worried. “It is not classy for a woman to admit her age,” he said.
I squinted at the board. Lars had folded his king protectively behind his queen and her knight. In the center of the board, my bishop and pawns were lined up as before a firing squad.
“Anyway,” Lars said. “I was with a friend. A woman friend.” Most of Lars’ stories featured a woman friend—always different, like Bond girls, entering the narration long enough to be seductive and saved and exiting without a fuss. Lars told me again and again how beautiful he was in his youth. When I knew him he had streaked and matted grey hair and always dressed in plaid, but there was a certain impish quality to his blue eyes that I suppose somebody could have found attractive once—although I don’t pretend to be an expert on these things. Of all the stories Lars told me, the ones about his beauty are the ones I think he most wanted to be true.
“Okay,” I said. “Carry on.” I swiped one of Lars’ pawns out of sheer spite.
“So we find this lovely river, hours outside the city. We think, a nice place to have a picnic, have a little rest, you understand.”
“I understand,” I said. The pawn capture, I saw now, had been a mistake. I’d opened up a diagonal onto my king. Lars was hemming me in with his usual bored calculation, letting me make my own mistakes.
“We are thinking to lie down for a while and get to know each other a little better,” he said. Lars took my pawn with his knight. I took his offending knight with my knight, who was prompty captured by Lars’ queen.
“Yes,” I said. “I get it.” I castled. Lars sacrified a bishop, breaking up my pawn center.
“We are going to fuck in the grass.”
“Okay,” I said. “I know.” I don’t know if it was a translation issue or some kind of elaborate cross-cultural mockery, but Lars always treated me as though I had no idea what he was getting at—and he was always getting at something. “For Christ’s sake,” I would say, “my brain hasn’t melted yet. You will probably be the first to know when it does.” “What do you know?” he would respond. “You’ve spent your whole life at university. When’s the last time you were with a man?” And this would usually end the conversation.
“And so, we are in the grass. The river is so blue. An insane green blue such as we do not find in nature. What is this called?”
“Turquoise, maybe. Aquamarine. Cerulean.”
“You have more words than you need,” he said. He said this to me once a day, at least.
“Maybe,” I said.
“And so we fuck like muskrats,” Lars said grandly.
“What?” He frowned at me, his bushy grey eyebrows twitching.
“I think you—fuck—like rabbits. You know. Copiously and in public?”
He frowned. “In Sweden, this is a problem with muskrats.”
“Okay,” I said. “Anyway.”
“And it was lovely,” he roared. “We hear much about the politics of the Kurdish people, but not so much about the beauty of their women.”
“This is true,” I said. Lars swung his queen regally toward my cowering king. She was imperious, immune. I scowled.
“And when we rise—this is many hours later—Sinbil jumps. Something has landed at her feet, making puffs of dust. ‘Lars,’ she says, ‘I think somebody is throwing rocks at us?’”
“You, of course, know they are not rocks.”
“Of course I know they are not rocks. ‘Sinbil, I say, ‘those are not rocks. Run!’” Lars took my bishop with his queen. “Zig-zag, I tell her! Zig and zag your way up the hill! Check your king, by the way.”
I moved my king into the rook’s old spot, where he huddled, looking fragile and deposed. I yawned, which is my cover for everything.
“The hill which had taken us a half an hour to pick down, suddenly we are atop of it after only moments. This is what being shot at will do to you.”
I stared into my coffee and tried to discern what percentage of Lars’ statements, in this case, were bullshit. In my experience, Lars was an unusual breed of liar. He half-believed his own lies, but he wasn’t an outright lunatic, much as it pained me to admit this. He didn’t lie for gain, either, or to manipulate others, or for self-promotion. He lied, it seemed to me, to make his life larger. He started with a true thing, and then he exploded it—blew it up in all directions, made it crazier and more colorful and more disastrous. He told things not the way they had happened, but the way they should have happened.
“We make it to the car only just in time,” he continued. “I swear at those bastards in Turkish. We race away back toward the city, but it takes us hours. Just think, if one of us had been shot, we would have been really, really dead before we reach civilization. The rental car company says, oh yes, there are thieves in the hills, did we not tell you not to take the car out to the hills without your bodyguard? But I know better.”
He was starting to coast, which meant that he’d seen exactly how he was going to win. He always relaxed a little bit at that point. His talk, which never stopped or wavered, grew even more abundant and luxurious. He smiled. He asked rhetorical questions.
“What do you think I knew? Well, I knew that this was an unlikely explanation. Why would the thieves have been after us, two lowly travelers of modest means, not even Americans? Why would they be waiting out in the hills if they had not followed us there first? Why not just stay in the city and steal money the easy way?”
I looked longingly at my own queen, rendered impotent by all the material that I’d never managed to properly launch—a knight, a castle, the black bishop. All wasted.
“No, all that was far too simple, too suspicious. Thieves? Please. Do not insult me.” He lowered his voice. “It was Turkish intelligence.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, stalling for time even though I knew that this kind of talk was mostly useless. “What would Turkish intelligence want with you? What would anyone want with you, except your passport?”
“Shh,” he said, looking at me sternly. “You think they do not have agents here, even now? They tried to kill me once. Are you trying get me murdered? This is not an honorable way to try to avoid losing. Check your king, again, by the way.”
Lars’ queen had taken a straggling pawn, and I moved my king back to his previous square. Lars advanced his knight for backup, which seemed, at that point, excessive. I brought my own knight over to the action, but it was far too late. The queen could not be taken; she stalked my king with an attention that felt like mockery. Then a waiting bishop swept in from nowhere and took my very last defending pawn. I knocked over my own king.
“Okay,” I said. “That’s it.”
“An object lesson in what happens once the pawn wall in front of the castled king is breached,” Lars sniffed. “But next time, next time. You are getting better. I was fearful for several moments.” He always said this, too. It was annoying. I would truly love to beat Lars at chess before I die.
Jennifer duBois was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1983. She earned a B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University and an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She recently completed a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where she is currently the Nancy Packer Lecturer in Continuing Studies. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Playboy, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Florida Review, The Northwest Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, FiveChapters and elsewhere.
This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket. It is from the Book, “A Partial History Of Lost Causes,” by Jennifer DuBois. Copyright © 2012 by Jennifer DuBois. Reprinted by arrangement with The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
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