Saturday, May 2, 2015

Freeheart Park.

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of a dozen people would gather at Freeheart Park for a weekly chess tournament. This was nothing official, nor was it meant to be professional in any sense of the word. These players, whom came from all walks of life, simply played for the fun of it. There was Greer, the butcher from downtown; Renaldo, whom made a small fortune in the internet bubble; even a little old retired woman named Vera came to play a few rounds -- she was no slouch! The group had never really changed size over the years that it met, week in and week out. When one player would move on to a different place or pass away, someone new always seemed to fill the void. There was the occasional week where one or two players might not be able to make it. Yet, more often than not, everyone managed to come the majority of the time.

One of the more quirky characters whom came to play chess was Piotr. He was the newest member of the group. With his stubbled chin and shaggy hair, he wasn't exactly the most presentable member of the bunch. Somehow, he always managed to look like he just woke up. Greer wasn't too fond of how he dressed and would poke fun at him, in a jovial manner of course. Piotr was in on the joke and played along. This week was no different. Greer made his usual silly comments about Piotr's wrinkled t-shirt and jeans, then proceeded to place his chessmen on the board.

Freeheart Park was the perfect place for friends to play chess. Within the park were tables that had a checkerboard pattern built right into the surface. They had been there for as long as the weekly players could remember. In fact, none of the members could recall a time when those tables weren't present. Strangely enough, the tables always seemed to be spotless. Not an ounce of moss nor algae ever grew on them. As the weekly play began, Piotr's mind drifted to this very topic.

"Say, does anyone know how long these tables have been here? I've been coming for five, maybe six years now."

Hagen, a retired boxer, chimed in.

"Been coming to play over ten years. They was here always."

Piotr looked to Vera. Surely she would have an answer.

"You've been coming to play for over twenty-five years. Are you sure these chess tables have always been here? Who put them in?"

Vera had a gigantic pair of eyeglasses that seemed to shield her entire forehead from the sun. The lenses were as thick as a brick of cheese. She lowered the frames from her eyes and let them hang loose around her neck.

"I don't have any earthly clue, son. Ask Lemon."

Lemon was short for Clementine. She'd been with the group the longest -- nearly forty years. She started attending while just a teenager, fresh from graduating high school. She wasn't the oldest or the youngest member of the dozen, but she was definitely the one whom had been playing chess the longest. Despite her middle age, she had rank over the other members. They respected her seasoned authority.

Brushing her fading blonde hair out of her face, Lemon gazed at Piotr with tired eyes and spoke.

"Some things are better left unknown."

This didn't sit right with Piotr, but he swallowed the answer and proceeded to play. By the end of the afternoon, he'd lost two games to Renaldo, but won one against group member Erik, an actuary. Piotr remarked to the group defiantly upon winning finally.

"Guess he didn't see that loss coming."

Erik shook Piotr's hand and disappeared into the quickly diminishing sunlight. As such, the other players began to pack their things and call the afternoon over. The setting sun was their cue to wrap up and head for home.

As Piotr walked back to his apartment, he noticed that Lemon was briskly walking behind him. She called out Piotr's name and asked for him to wait. Pausing for a moment, he adjusted his hands in his pockets. She made him nervous, but not in a fearful or upsetting manner. Instead, her wise nature was daunting to contend with. He felt inadequate.

"Mind if I walk this way with you for a bit? I wanted to talk."

"By all means. The sidewalk is big enough for two."

Lemon wore a bright orange sun dress with a tiny white daisy pattern. Even though she was in her mid fifties, the years had been kind to her. She wore that lovely dress with the flair and fancifulness of a spry college student.

"You've been coming to the chess matches for nearly six years now, is that right?"

Responding affirmatively, Piotr let her continue.

"This is my thirty-eighth year of attending these weekly matches. Just think of that number. Some people are born and die in that span of time. Children are given life. Wedding vows are spoken. Houses are built. In thirty-eight years, a life can be lived."

Piotr was somewhat startled at Lemon's words.

"In that time, I've seen many people come and go from the group. Some find new careers in other cities. Some pass on, unfortunately. Yet, the cast of characters has always revolved. When one goes, another comes on board. Have you ever found that to be the slightest bit strange?"

For the first time, Piotr considered the terms of his membership with clarity. Indeed, it was slightly peculiar that twelve people always seemed to play chess together. Much less, twelve complete strangers that just somehow manage to fit together.

"Piotr, what do you do during the week... when you're not playing chess?"

"I work down at the harbor, pulling containers off ships."

"Which harbor, exactly?"

Oddly, he couldn't think of the harbor's name, nor which direction it was.

"You know... the one down there on the other side of the city, near the uh... the... um..."

Lemon touched Piotr's right forearm and pulled his hand from his pocket. She placed his frigid hand to her chest.


An aberrant posture engulfed Piotr suddenly; one that he had never experienced before. As his fingertips danced along her pale, freckled skin, he could feel tiny explosions erupting upon contact. A tidal wave of feelings washed over his mind. Visions of a time he seemed to know came back with a vengeance -- passionate days in the sun with a girl named Francine, a wedding filled with beautiful flowers and friends, nights spent making love under the stars. And then... a sense of great loss. Images of wires and tubes, freezing in a strange bed, doctors with their piercing flashlights, a stinging ache in his stomach. After that... nothing. Only a feeling of nothingness was left behind.

Piotr awoke from his trance light state, only to see that Lemon had somehow developed a cheerful glow in her cheeks. She seemed to look more alive than ever. Her blonde hair, just a few moments ago waning, had flourished with a vibrant hue he had never seen before.

"I have to go soon Piotr. There's a new life for me waiting out there. I've been here for so long that I'm not sure what to do. Tell me I'll be alright."

Piotr grasped Lemon and drew her close. His hands washed through her golden locks as Lemon's face pressed to his. Thankfully, Piotr suddenly had the answer to his question from earlier. Just how long had those tables been there in Freeheart Park? Undoubtedly, he should have asked -- why were those tables there at all?

"I'll take care of the others. We'll have fun Lemon, I promise. You'll do just fine."

Tearfully, Lemon kissed his cheek and pulled away.

"You might be here a long time, but don't give up hope. You'll know when it's time to stop playing. You'll know."

As she walked into the hazy orange glow of the setting sun, Lemon turned the corner around the next block. Piotr walked steadily behind her towards his apartment and looked around the bend... but she was gone.

"Thanks, Clementine."


The following week seemed to go by in a blur. No sooner had Lemon walked away did Piotr find himself setting up for another round of chess. As Renaldo, Erik, Greer, Vera, Hagen and the others took their positions at the various chess tables, Piotr glanced at the empty spot left by Lemon. He smiled as he placed his first pawn towards the center of the board.

"Mind if I join you for a game? I'm new to this, but I'm a quick study... promise."

A young woman with deep auburn hair took a seat across from Piotr. Her eyes were the deepest shade of emerald green. Piotr looked on in amazement, with nary a word escaping his lips.

"I'm Francine. Do you play often?"

Composing himself, Piotr extended his hand. As she took his palm and shook delicately, he mustered a sentence.

"I've been playing for a while, but I'll take it easy on you."

Francine softly squeezed his hand and smiled the most gorgeous grin that had ever been cast in the entire universe. Piotr didn't want to let go.


He gathered himself once again.

"I'm glad you came."

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