The door sticks when he’s pulling it open for a long, horrible second, and then he’s blinking against the light and he’s real. He’s not dressed yet. What sweeps her from head to foot as he comes into view, despite all her resolve, despite everything, is the earnest desire to fling her arms around him and not let go.
She may have made a step towards him; at any rate, he steps back.
She hangs her head. “Hello, Benny.”
There’s a silence, a silence that tastes of embarrassment and anger and the afterburn of cheap wine, but then he lets out a sigh that seems to come from somewhere around his knees, and pushes the door wider.
His place smells stale, and there’s dust dancing in the beams penetrating down from street level. Beth seats herself carefully on the floor; he settles in one of the kitchen chairs. He scrubs his hand through his hair a few times, and looks her over shrewdly.
“No,” she says, reflexively, and then flushes. “Maybe. A little. I haven’t had a drink for hours.”
“It’s eight in the morning, Beth. That’s not much to be proud of.”
“You wanted me to come to you,” she says, feeling the blood still in her cheeks.
“I wanted you to come here and train with me. I don’t recall saying anything about wanting you to show up on my doorstep at all hours, wasted, looking for a fuck.”
Beth has nothing to say, so she says it. She looks at her shoes. She wore loafers, and the left toe is scuffed.
Benny studies her some more, then he sighs again and looks towards the dust dancing in the sunlight. “There’s cereal. Milk in the fridge. I’ll make coffee.”
She remembers where the bowls are, and gets out two. They’re all sugar cereals, of course. She pushes a bowl towards him when he sits down across from her with two mugs; he pushes one at her. They pass the milk.
Beth manages a few spoonsful, then her stomach rebels. She pushes the bowl away and warms her hands on the coffee.
Benny clears his throat. She dutifully looks up.
“So. What is it now?”
She opens her mouth, then closes it again. The feeling she’d woken up with, that the house was wrong , a nightmarescape, has faded, but something in her gut says that if she went back it would still be there. Something crouching in the house, growing, feeding off her.
“I wasn’t drunk last time,” she says suddenly. “When I came. Back from Moscow. I wasn’t drunk.”
Benny folds his arms across his chest. “Oh, well. That makes it so much better.”
She winces. His sarcasm strikes through her where she feels the weakest, somewhere below her ribs, her roiling stomach, like a lance. “I’m sorry, Benny. I thought…”
“You didn’t seem to be thinking much at all.”
“I wasn’t drinking then. I didn’t drink the whole time in Moscow, or when I came back. But then…”
Benny pushes his bowl aside and bangs his head sharply on the edge of the table; she jumps. “Tale of woe, yes. I’m sure.” He nods to her cup. “Drink it. Sober up.”
“You know how to sober someone up, don’t you?” she says, hiding her nerves in a sip. “I guess you have experience.”
He stands up suddenly and pushes his chair away; strides towards his tiny bathroom. “I gotta shower. Drink your goddamn coffee, get sober, and we’ll talk. There’s no sense in a drunk.” He turns to her in the door of the bathroom, back to the bathroom, turns again. His voice is hard. “And let’s get one thing clear up front: I’m not gonna fuck you.”
Some lingering ghost of wine darts back into Beth’s tongue. “Why not?” she says, snidely. “I’m good-looking enough for you, aren’t I? Doesn’t every man love the damsel in distress?”
Benny breathes in sharply, and bangs the bathroom door. Water runs.
When he comes out, with a towel loosely wrapped around his waist, she averts her eyes until he’s dug out a shirt and jeans, then deposited himself bonelessly back down in the chair across from her.
“Let’s try this again, shall we?” he says, taking a long slurp of his own now-cold coffee. “Why do I have the privilege of Beth Harmon, chess genius, showing up on my doorstep again?”
Beth swallows. Time for her own personal test, her match against the clock. “I was drunk. I… I’ve been drinking, and I didn’t know how to stop. And I woke up, and I was afraid, and… alone. So I came here.”
“So why me?” Benny crosses his arms across his chest again. “You had Townes right there in Kentucky, and a string of admirers and fans, I’m sure. Hell, you coulda called Harry, had him fix you up again. Why drag your ass to New York?”
Beth opens her mouth, then closes it again. All she can explain, all she can express, is that she knew he’d see her. Knew he’d know she was desperate and broken and lost, and that he’d let her in anyway. Eventually.
“I thought... “ she says haltingly, feeling the blood play in her cheeks, “I thought I didn’t need you any more.”
“I thought I had it. I was sober in Moscow, and it was all there, the world, and I could play the pieces in my mind, just like I used to when I was taking the pills… and I beat him. I thought I’d done it. But then I got back home, and I couldn’t…”
“I couldn’t hold onto it. I needed to train so I could beat him again, for real this time, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. And I got myself in a mess with the State Department. And then Salvioli, you remember him?, he invited me to Italy, and he offered me a drink…”
Benny exhales. “Jesus, Beth.”
“I know.” She drops her head.
“You fuck him too?”
Her wilting central nervous system gets a welcome jolt of pure anger. “Excuse me?”
“Well, you fucked me, and you fucked my ex-girlfriend, and I heard about that, by the way. You fuck Salvioli?”
“None of your fucking business,” she snaps back, emphasising the word just as he did. “And no. Who’s Suzanne, by the way?”
Benny looks something between smug and embarrassed. “A girl who was around for a while, and stop changing the subject. We’re on your screwed-up life right now.”
Beth feels the corner of her mouth twitch, and when she looks up, so is Benny’s.
“We can do mine later,” he adds, and his eyes are already crinkling before the first giggles leak out from behind her hand.
“Seriously, Beth,” he says, when she’s showered and managed to eat something and they’re walking in Union Square Park. “What are you doing here?”
Beth lets his familiar worn-hide smell wash over her; he’s pulled his hat down a little over his eyes. “I didn’t have anywhere else to come.”
Benny emits a short, dry chuckle. “If that don’t say it all.”
It’s cold, but not as cold as it was in Moscow; she remembered to bring a hat, and her fingers aren’t numb. They’re drifting towards the cheap folding tables set up by the park steps, all set up with boards; the pieces are flashing back and forth, a kind of music she can almost hear, presto, allegro.
Then she remembers Milan again and feels sick. She tightens her arm through Benny’s.
Benny is looking at the boards, and the clocks, and she can feel a magnetic pull, a kind of playful tension, creeping up his arm. “You wanna make a few bucks?” he says, with a wicked grin.
It’s twenty bucks, by the time they’re done, at a dollar a game. Ten minutes per game. Benny’s cleared seventeen. Some of the hustlers recognised her, but most of them still couldn’t resist the chance to play.
“Do you hustle tourists often?” she says, when they’re sitting on a bench eating hot dogs and the sun is starting to dip into the Hudson.
Benny looks affronted. “Most of those weren’t tourists. And no.”
“How come you live in that place, then?” she can’t help asking. “You could make plenty of money, if you tried. I could keep Alma and the house afloat from when I was sixteen.”
Benny laughs, with what sounds almost like affection. “This isn’t Lexington, kid. Do you know what I pay in rent? Besides,” and he looks around at the people flitting past, the green, “I have what I need. I don’t have to be in hock to those pay-per-play tournaments.”
“I guess.” Beth lets the faces wash over her. So busy, so different, so unceasing.
“So what now, genius?”
Beth pushes his hat down over his eyes. “You’re asking me?”
Benny splutters and jams it onto her head, wedging it over her eyes. “If you think I have your answers, you came a long way for not much.”
“What would you normally do?”
Benny gives her a look, tipping his hat back into place.
“Oh. Let’s go back to your place then.”
Benny raises an eyebrow.
She flushes. “To play! Let’s go back to yours to play. I’m cold.”
Beth pauses before she takes the arm he’s offering to her sardonically, and looks into the reddening sky. “Thanks for today, Benny, really,” she says, so quietly that she’s not sure she even wants him to hear.
Benny doesn’t say anything, but he slows his pace enough to let her look around at the vendors and the hustlers and the all-night diners.
“You never told me about Moscow,” he says, when they’re both propped by an elbow on his plywood table. "Shall we get out a board?"
Beth lets her head fall into the crook of her elbow and rests her eyes. "Do we even need one?"
"I guess not. My place, my pick. Pawn to king four.” He sets his cup down on the table with a thunk.
“Pawn to king four. You didn’t ask.”
“Pawn to king’s bishop four. I didn’t feel much like asking first time you came around.”
“The King’s Gambit, seriously? I’m taking it. I’m sorry. I really did want to see you.” She tucks his pawn away in her mind's eye. It's easier this way, just letting the words spool out with the moves, keeping her eyes shut and seeing them both across the board in her mind.
“Bishop to queen’s bishop four. You have a funny way of showing it.”
“Queen to king’s rook five. It was so strange out there. Everyone wanted a piece of it. A piece of me… Check.”
“King to king’s bishop one. Don’t go soft on me now, Harmon. It’s a weird place.”
“I loved it,” she says dreamily, eyes still closed. “The women waited outside for me every day, and they used to call my name… It was so strange, but I felt like I’d always been there. Like I’d come home. Pawn to queen’s knight four.”
“Bishop to queen’s knight five. It’s a trip all right.”
“Knight to king’s bishop three. I did think about staying. They really understand chess. I could have a good life there…”
Benny snorts. “Knight to king’s bishop three. Don’t think I’m letting your queen throw her weight around. Did you even look around the city?”
“I saw the park. And the hotel. Queen to king’s rook three.”
“You’re kidding yourself. As usual. Pawn to queen three.” Benny taps his fingers on the edge of the table.
“Knight to king’s rook four. Why?”
“Knight to king’s rook four. Wherever you go, kid, there you are. As you’re proving this very minute.”
“Queen to king’s knight four. You’re mean.”
“Knight to king’s bishop five. How was Milan, anyway?”
“Please, Benny, don’t. Pawn to queen’s bishop three. I made a mistake.”
“Wasn’t the first, now, was it? I know you almost fucked him. Pawn to king’s knight four.”
“He knew. I didn’t think anyone would figure it out. I was stupid. Knight to king’s bishop three.”
“Knight again? You rely on your knights to get you out of a lot of trouble. Rook to king’s knight one.”
“And you always defend. Pawn to queen’s knight four.”
Both of them contemplate the cheap wood grain in silence for a few seconds.
“Queen to king’s knight four. You were right about the Russians, you know.”
“Of course I was right about the Russians, Beth. I went to Moscow before you did. Queen to king’s bishop three. What exactly was I right about?”
“The way they play as a team. Knight to king’s knight one. I heard them, they holed up together, talking about weaknesses in my game… trying to figure out how to beat me.”
“Bishop to king’s bishop four. But you got them anyway, I guess.”
“Queen to king’s bishop three. I was glad you called. Even if you didn’t guess what he was going to do.”
“Knight to queen’s bishop three. You sure didn’t show it at the time. Do you want some coffee?”
“No, thanks. Bishop to queen’s bishop four. You have some, though.”
“So what have we learned in your city-hopping adventures? Knight to queen five.”
Beth’s lip twitches again, hidden against her arm. “Not to run away from the State Department, mostly. Queen to queen’s knight seven.”
“You’re kidding. You ditched that guy? Oh, I would have loved to see his face. Reckless, Miss Harmon, reckless. Bishop to queen six.”
“Are you going to mate me or what? Bishop to king’s knight eight. Your rook is mine."
“I thought that was how you got in all this trouble in the first place. Pawn to king five. Are you gonna be ready for him next time?”
“Queen to queen’s rook eight. Better watch yourself. I don’t know. I’ve been trying… Townes said I should get a coach.”
“King to king two. Don't get cocky. Are you gonna do that?”
“Knight to queen’s rook three. I don’t know, Benny. I don’t know.”
“Knight to king’s knight seven. Hey! Make your own coffee. You better figure it out.”
He left his door open when he went to bed and she went to lie down on the blow-up mattress.
“Beth,” he says very softly, around six in the morning, when the light is starting to come down slantways into the room.
“Mmmm.” She turns over on the mattress, with a thin petulant squeak.
“Beth, you can stay for a few days, but…”
She schools herself to look at the shafts of light hitting the end of the mattress and not his hand hanging off the end of the bed. “But?”
“But this isn’t gonna work. You know that, right? You can stay here for a while, but you can’t hide here.”
She swallows; she’d known, all through the day and the evening, that even as they joked and competed and he made her mugs of tea and didn’t go near the beer in his refrigerator that the time was running out, that the sand was falling through the pinch in the glass and she’d never get it back. “I know.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to help. Hell, you know I… It’s not that.”
“But I don’t have it, Beth. Whatever you need… I don’t have it here. You have to find it somewhere else.” His bed creaks; he’s rolled over on his back, she guesses, staring at his patched ceiling. “Maybe you need to call those folks with the twelve steps, your church… I don’t know. But it’s not me.”
Beth closes her eyes and breathes into the faint light. “I’ll call the airport in the morning.”
The dust drifts down in silence.
It’s different the other way, this time. She buys a book at the airport kiosk, a thriller. She finishes it two hours later in the airport lounge and tosses it in the trash in irritation. She stands in duty-free for nearly twenty minutes, but all she comes out with is a lipstick and a bottle of perfume. The rows of heavy glass, shaped, like jewels. She pauses in front of the tobacco for a long, long time, but she still can’t really bring herself to like the smell.
The spring sun is pouring down in banners when she walks the tarmac to the plane.
When the air hostess finishes her spiel about welcoming you back to Cincinnati, Beth is already out of her seat. In her fist is the piece of paper Benny gave her, torn from the paper, wrapped around the black queen from his second-best set. (He won't miss it for at least a day.)
It’s early evening when the cab pulls up outside the house. Her borders are overgrown, and Mr. Bankforth, who is trimming his lawn, is making his opinion of her neighborly ways clear from his glances.
Beth pushes aside the small pile of mail on the mat, sets her bag down, and goes to open the window.
She looks at the torn scrap of paper, and its phone numbers. Then she dials the Herald-Leader again, before Townes finishes for the day.
“Beth.” His voice is as warm and surprised as ever; it wraps around her like a blanket. “How are you? I called a few days ago.”
“I was out of town. I just got back from New York.”
“Sounds great. How was Milan? I saw some articles.”
“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. Townes, can you come over tonight? Please.”
“I have some stories I need to put to bed - “
“Townes.” She wills her voice not to break. “Please. I really need you to come.”
“Okay, I’ll come, but Beth, what - ? Do you need help, should I call someone..?”
“Just you, please. I have to…” She swallows, and steels herself. “I have to tell you something.”
Next time: Sad revelations, more trouble with politics, and more Jolene.