The Game of Chess: An excerpt from the story

“Please, not again!”

David was so tired of poking and prodding, he almost cried when he heard a knock on the door.

The hellish ordeal started two weeks ago, when a sharp chest pain suddenly interrupted his peaceful repose and made him gasp for air, like a fish out of its pond.  During the ambulance ride, punctuated by the wailing siren and Zoe’s anxious cries, David reflected on the fact that somehow he didn’t think he was dying at that time, which he tried to communicate to the people around him so they would just leave him alone for a bit until the pain subsided.  This profound conviction was shaken a little, when a middle-aged and suitably grim cardiologist told him that he had a massive heart attack.  Three days later another middle-aged and grim cardiologist performed a bypass surgery, and since that time David had been cooped up in the hospital with tubes sticking out of him every which way.  Most of the time he was in a morphine induced slumber, but sometimes he found himself in that liminal state, when he just hovered on the edge between consciousness and sleep, being neither fully here nor there.  But no matter where David’s spirit was, his body was still present in this world, and therefore, there was always someone at the door, checking his temperature, recording his blood pressure, reinserting his catheters, drawing blood, making him cough, examining his sutures until he felt that the only reason for his existence is to be the object of constant medical attention.  Then again, what can you expect at the ripe age of 86?

Today was one of the good days, though.  Faye, his favorite nurse, was a petite Asian girl, exquisite like one of the tiny German porcelain statuettes Zoe kept in the family china.  She had a gentle touch and a beautiful smile, so David minded it much less when she was the one who had to poke him with the needles or check his catheters.  He felt that physical discomfort might be a fair price for the pure aesthetic pleasure of watching Faye efficiently perform her sometimes unsavory duties.  Still, he would have preferred to be left alone once in a while.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Bernstein!” she chimed in her high musical voice that always made him feel like she is one breath away from bursting into a song, “No needles, no procedures!  You have a visitor.”

She ushered a tall cadaverous man into David’s room and disappeared behind the door.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Bernstein.”  The visitor tried to shake David’s hand, but quickly reconsidered the gesture, assessing the amount of tubes and electronic equipment near the bed.  He was dressed in a somber black suit with a tasteful dark red tie.  “My name is Joe Brown of Brown, Little, Maxx and Black, L.L.C.  I am here in the capacity of legal executor of Mr. Robert Rubin’s will.  You were a close friend of the gentleman, I assume?”

“Robert?  Close friend, you said?” David slowly searched the depths of his befuddled memory for the name, coming up with nothing.  “I am afraid I can’t recall him, Mr. Brown.  Maybe I am not the right David Bernstein?  It’s a rather common name, I think.”

“Well, let me see.”  Mr. Brown nimbly scooted around the bed to the chair and comfortably plopped himself down. “You are David Aronovich Bernstein, born October 29, 1930 in Odessa, Ukraine.  Graduated from Lvov Polytechnic Institute in 1953 with a degree in mechanical engineering and were employed at the Lvov Bus Factory.  Am I right so far?”  David shook his head, speechless.

“I thought so.” Mr. Brown permitted himself a satisfactory smile.  “You and your family immigrated to the United States in 1975, where you worked as an engineer at ConEdison until you retired in 1999.  We are very thorough in our job, Mr. Bernstein.  Mistakes are extremely rare in our line of work.”

“OK, I admit, you got the right person.” David frowned at Mr. Brown, trying to concentrate on the lawyer’s face, but finding that impossible for some reason.  “However, I still don’t recall a Mr. Rubin, which is kind of strange, since he apparently made a bequest to me in his will.  Don’t you find it peculiar, Mr. Brown?”

“Do you play chess, Mr. Bernstein?” The question came as a surprise, which was exactly how it was intended.

“I… I do, or, rather did, as a matter of fact.  But I just don’t see how this is relevant to our conversation, Mr. Brown.”  David was uncomfortable and this bizarre business was making him very annoyed indeed.

“In a minute you will, Mr. Bernstein.” The lawyer’s beady eyes securely held David’s muddled gaze, as if trying to transmit some vital information to him without actually speaking.  “Mr. Rubin was a Candidate Master, like yourself, I believe.  He played chess all his life.  As a matter of fact, death caught him in the middle of the game.”

“Wait!” David suddenly captured the tail of a fleeting memory.  “I remember now.  I did know Bob Rubin, although I never actually met him in person.  A long time ago I played a few games with him by mail.  I couldn’t always go to the chess competitions, but at that time it was possible to still pass the necessary levels playing games via letter exchange.  He lived in Tallinn, right?  Oh, God, it was such a long time ago!  I must remember to tell my children about it, they will love it.”  David unexpectedly felt a burst of energy and fumbled with the controls of his bed trying to lift himself to a more comfortable position.  “May I ask how he died?”

“It was a heart attack.”

The words cut through David’s foggy brain like a knife through a fresh loaf of bread.  “You don’t say,” he mumbled, trying to avoid thinking about his own very close brush with death.  “Poor Bob.”

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Bernstein,” said Mr. Brown, sounding contrite.  “I shouldn’t have upset you.  Would you like to see what Mr. Rubin had left for you?  It might cheer you up.”   The lawyer produced an old shoebox from his bag and put it on a bedside table.

“Yes, yes, of course,” David took the box in his hands and examined it carefully.  It was very old, held together with strips of clear scotch tape, and definitely not made in the US.  “Let’s see what it is.  I am actually extremely surprised that Bob would leave anything to me.  I mean, I’ve never even seen the man.”

He lifted the fragile lid and peered inside.  He saw an old chess set and a few yellowed letters in the envelopes that brought a whole lifetime of memories back.  He would’ve recognized those square envelopes anywhere.  Only in the USSR would people write the address before their name, with the zip code in a separate section at the bottom.  The whimsical pictures on the left side were so pale with age they were barely recognizable, but if you looked carefully, you could still make them out.  Bewildered, David picked up the first envelope with a picture of a biker tearing through a sketchy forest and carefully took out the letter.  And just like that, he was back in time of the five-year plans, survivor optimism, communism right around the corner and post-war hunger.

November 2, 1952

Hello, Robert.

My name is David Bernstein, and I am very grateful to you for agreeing to play a Candidate Master game with me by mail.  Due to my class load, I am temporarily unable to travel, so this is the only chance for me to get the necessary points.  I am 22 years old and studying to be a mechanical engineer at the Lvov Polytechnic Institute.  I have a sister named Irina, who is 15 years old. I’ve played chess with my father since I was 10.  I’ve been a member of Lvov Chess School for the past 3 years, which helped me to refine my game.  I hope you will enjoy playing with me!

Responding to your first move to e4, I’ll go to e5.

David.

David dropped the letter back into the box.  “Well, my writing style has improved markedly since that time, I can assure you.” He smiled sheepishly and looked at Mr. Brown, a little discombobulated.  “I just can’t believe Bob saved them,” he said, shaking his head.  “I wonder why he did it…”

Mr. Brown’s sharp eyes never left David’s face while he was reading the letter.  “I don’t know the answer, of course,” he finally admitted.  “I was thinking, Mr. Bernstein, would you like to recreate the game with me?”

“What, right now?” David was puzzled by the suggestion, but at the same time he felt the familiar tingling in his fingertips.  This always happened to him before the game.  He used to think his brain was charging his whole body with energy by sending electrical currents everywhere.  He joked once that this was probably how one might feel if plugged into an outlet.  “Are you a chess player as well, Mr. Brown?”

“I’ve been known to play a game or two in my time,” modestly answered Mr. Brown.

“Well, in that case I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer you an anything stimulating in my present state of alertness,” said David.

“Don’t worry about it!” hastened Mr. Brown.  “We won’t actually be playing a new game, right?  Merely recreating the one you played with Mr. Rubin.  We have your moves in the letters, of course, so all we will have to do is to come up with countermoves.”  He smiled unexpectedly.  “Could be therapeutic.”