Her fingers have lost feeling by the time she spins into a telephone kiosk at the far side of the park.
“ Mezhdunarodnyy zvonok,” she fumbles to the operator, who responds with implacable patience. “New York City.”
Benny picks up on the third ring.
“Call from Moskva,” says the operator, with difficulty. “Voman.”
“I’ll take it.” A pause. Rustling. “Beth?”
“You got it.” She leans against the side of the booth.
There is a long pause. “So,” he says in that irritating, smug drawl. “You did it.”
“I did.” She shifts the hard plastic receiver against her ear.
“You took Borgov. I knew you could. I knew we could take him.” She wants simultaneously to hug him and slug him in the face. Benny can get under her skin every time.
“He didn’t do knight to rook four.” She sounds colder than she feels. “He didn’t make any of the moves you thought.” There is a little pilot light of warmth in her gut. She needed to hear Benny’s voice. Hear Benny be Benny.
Benny pauses again. Leather creaks. “But you got him. King rook pawn?”
“Queen to king's bishop six. Sacrifice. Is Harry there?”
“Queen to king's bishop six, of course. Yeah, he fell asleep on my floor. We stayed up all night. Mike and Matt too.”
She twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “You can kiss them all thank-you from me when they wake up.”
“Beth, are you coming home?”
“I don’t know yet.” She grinds the toe of her shoe into the rough asphalt outside the booth. “I just wanted to play.”
“Are you sober?”
“Yes, asshole. As a judge. It worked.”
“You gotta come home. What else are you gonna do?”
“What do I do anywhere?”
She can hear him smile. “Just... be there, Beth, okay? I think you should come home, I wanna see you. Fly into New York, I’ll come pick you up. Let Townes take care of you, he’s still there, right?”
“Yes, he’s at the hotel. I’ll call you, Benny.”
“When I’m free, okay? I’ll call you.”
The receiver clicks solidly back into the cradle.
The hotel isn’t a long walk. She can remember most of the main boulevards the cab went along, and then see the building from almost a half mile away.
Townes is waiting in the bar. “Beth,” he says, standing up from the velvet banquette to enfold her in a hug. “You were wonderful.”
All of a sudden she’s close to tears. “I hoped…”
He pulls back to look at her face. “Are you OK?”
“I think I’m just tired.” She swipes at her eyes, tries a smile. “It’s been a long week.”
“I thought you checked out, didn’t you go to the airport? I was waiting for a cab myself.”
Just as abruptly, she isn’t sure she can leave. The hotel feels like a strange, upholstered womb, and in the park she had been so free, and they had called her name…
Townes is watching her carefully. “Beth?”
“Yes, I’m going to the airport,” she hears herself say. “We can share the cab.”
“So it’s this one?” says the driver in Russian to the man sitting in the passenger seat.
“Yes. Harmon,” says the other, in that half-swallowing way they have of saying her name. “Little girl walked on Borgov.” He glances back and adds something in Russian too thick for her to catch; the driver laughs.
Townes picks up something; he frowns, and lays a hand on her knee. “How long?” he says pointedly to the driver.
“Da, kak dolgo?” Beth adds innocently, in her best accent. She kneads her white beret between her fingers.
The driver fastens his attention on the road in a hurry. “ Dvadtsat' minut ,” he says to his gloves. “Very good Russian.”
“ Spasibo. ” She looks out the window at the grey Moscow suburbs, and pushes Townes’s hand off.
Booth, the State Department man, is waiting in a hard chair in what passes for a departure lounge, and he’s madder than three hatters.
“Where have you been?” he hisses before she’s within ten feet of him.
Beth remembers the way her mother, her first mother, used to be with people she considered beneath her notice. “I had things to do,” she says, tilting her head in a way she knows will infuriate him. “I am a champion. I don’t have to stay on your schedule.”
“You can’t be alone in this country!” A vein on Booth’s forehead is popping; he looks like he might really have a stroke. “They could have, could have taken you for questioning! You don’t know what trouble you could have caused!” He notices Townes, six feet behind her, and drops his voice in a hurry.
Beth doesn’t feel very much like letting this drop. “He’s alone,” she says in a hard tone, “and he’s fine. And so am I. I’m sitting next to Townes on this flight. You can do whatever you want.” She’d rebooked for this flight at the airport desk, with no idea how she would pay if they tried to charge her, but they seem to have changed her ticket without charge; the attendant was dazzled, and praised her chess and her Russian again and again.
“You’ll have to be debriefed,” Booth says in a flat tone. “In New York. You’ll have to come with me.”
“Am I under arrest?” Beth says sweetly.
“Then I will do no such thing. I’m going home to Kentucky.” She sweeps past him to the gate, with Townes scrambling along in her wake, carrying her bag and grinning.
Townes falls asleep two hours into the flight, after a glass of wine, but her eyes won’t close. She looks at his head, slumped against the window. His dark and beautiful head.
How does he do it? How can he… not care, about what he’s doing, about going against everyone? How can he want someone so much that he can do that?
There is a little wine left in his glass, on the tiny table. Red wine. Dark and thick. She can feel it spreading out across her tongue, evaporating. Feel it getting into her veins.
She won. They can’t take that away from her now. She beat Borgov. She won. Would it matter..?
They would bring her more. If she asked. Booth can’t see her, he’s eight rows back, still fuming.
She drops her head back against the seat. There’s metal not far under the thin, cheap plush. Six hours to go. She is thirsty.
She remembers the moment Cleo stood up from the banker’s lap.
“You’ve been too kind, gentlemen,” she says in her accented English, to their startlement, “but this young lady has worlds to conquer tomorrow.”
Beth is feeling lazily unwound; she’s still sitting across from the other man, what was it he did again?, with his hand on her thigh and a pleasant warmth pooling around and underneath it. But she sees the look in Cleo’s eyes; it’s intent and serious. She scrambles to her feet, stumbling on one of her heels. The man looks disappointed and dumbfounded.
She likes how Cleo says conquer . Accent on the second syllable.
He could have been okay. To have on top of her. Heavy and lulling. Warm.
Beth clears her throat. “Yes,” she says, hearing herself slur a little. “I have a match tomorrow. Good night, gentlemen.” She tries to bow; Cleo catches her halfway down and pinches her arm a little. She swallows a gasp.
Cleo bends down and takes off her high heels, snagging the half-bottle of red wine in her other hand. “We wish you good night,” she says, with one of her smiles that seems both easy and elusive. “Sirs.”
There is no one else in the elevator. Cleo is watching her, but her eyes are a blur under the heavy dark bangs. “So how many lies did yours tell?” she says. Her shoes knock together in her hand.
“Oh, many, I’m sure.” Beth bends down and takes off her own shoes. Her feet don’t hurt, but they don’t seem to be quite touching the floor. “Didn’t you want to stay?”
Cleo smiles. “Oh, we could have stayed, I’m sure. And they would have shown us the glories of the Champs-Élysées and the Avenue Montaigne. And what is in their shorts. Doesn’t it ever weary you?”
“Doesn’t what weary me?” Her tongue is thick. Cleo is still looking at her. She reaches for the bottle of wine, drinks from the neck.
“The predictability of men. Their belief that everything is to be had with money. I find myself so… weary sometimes.”
“I guess,” she says, feeling lost. The elevator door dings open. “This is my floor.”
Cleo holds her by the elbow as they stumble the length of the corridor to the door of her room. The strength of her fingers filters through the haze of pastis ; strong, but so small. She keeps expecting them to be longer than they are.
The door seems both bigger and less permanent than it once did. The key, oh yes, the key. She digs in her tiny purse, turns it with clumsy fingers. Cleo flits ahead of her into the room, dropping her shoes by the door.
Cleo eyes the velvet draperies, the upholstered chairs, with approval as Beth backs against the door to shut it. She takes another long sip of the wine.
“You should move to Paris,” she says, turning to Beth with flashing eyes. “You love the city, n’est-ce pas? You can be… alive here.”
“The lights,” Beth says. “And the cafes, and the clothes… Alive, yes. I’ve outgrown Kentucky. And I don’t like New York.” She should go to bed, she knows. “Can we order some drinks?”
“It’s your room.” But Cleo is already reaching for the phone. “Miniatures, no? And we should have some food sent up.” She orders in a torrent of rapid French; Beth makes out only the word “vodka”.
Cleo drops the phone and settles herself onto the plush couch, spreading her arms against its upholstered back. She rolls her eyes towards Beth, pulls her to sit beside herself. “Tell me about this Townes.”
“I’m not sure I’m drunk enough for that yet.” Beth shifts herself a little further away.
“That will be solved soon enough.” Cleo smiles. “Where did you meet him? It is a him, isn’t it?”
“Of course.” Beth jerks back, mouth agape.
“Does he play chess?”
“O f course. Where else would I meet a man? Kentucky, Las Vegas, Cincinnati. Chess everywhere.” She’s in danger of feeling maudlin. Pieces dance in her head. The polite knock on the door is a merciful interruption before the tears start to gather in her eyes.
Cleo smiles as the bellboy wheels in the trolley. “Perfectly timed. So, you must teach me to play. You are much more talented than Benny, so you will teach much the better. We will play with these.” She lifts the miniatures from the trolley and gestures towards the board on the table.
“With the bottles?” Beth laughs. “Cleo, come on.”
“You will drink when you take a piece from me.” Cleo’s eyes glitter with laughter. “It will make it more of a challenge for you. And this time I will not turn the board over.”
“Only if whiskey is the queen.”
Cleo laughs. “No, the rest of the pastis for the queen. The red wine, he is the king.”
They’re a dozen moves in when Cleo stands up from the table suddenly. “You should sleep, should you not?”
Beth is wrongfooted, nine years old again, always the wrong shape, the wrong place. “Cleo - what -”
Cleo moves around the table to her, kneels on the floor. “You are not just beautiful, Elizabeth, you are real.” Her hand, soft and gentle and tipped with red, is on Beth’s face. “Now it is time for me to teach you.”
Cleo’s mouth is hot and wet and sharp with alcohol; delicate, so delicate, so artful, where men had always thrust and dominated. Teasing, provoking, there and then not. Beth feels her own mouth open against Cleo’s; there is a hot rush between her legs. Cleo’s hands are in her hair, then roving her body, over her dress; Beth’s are still limp at her sides, helpless, overwhelmed.
Cleo breaks the kiss, with a last press of tongue, and regards Beth through sooty lashes, without saying anything. Beth stares at her, blank of thought. She looks at Cleo’s face, her body.
Why not ? flashes through her, like lightning. Cleo smiles, triumphant, and pulls her sweater over her own head. Her bra is filmy, elegant lace, black, so Paris, of course. She pulls Beth’s hand to her and slides it underneath, arching her back as Beth feels the nipple, risen against her fingertips. She squeezes experimentally; Cleo shivers and moans theatrically. She is so soft.
Cleo leans in closer and kisses Beth again, soft, hot, intense. Her hands are on the back of Beth’s dress, on the zip. “Let me teach you,” she says, as she slides it off Beth’s shoulders. “Let me show you how it can be.”
Beth lifts her hips from the chair as Cleo eases the dress down over them; she’s trembling. This isn’t like with the men from college; it isn’t like with Benny. For the men she was just there. A body and they wanted to have it. Wanted the obvious.
With Benny she understood, finally, what it was she was supposed to want . Why women would cut their eyes at men, linger, flirt. Why anyone would lie down with a man sober.
Cleo smooths her hair. Touches her breasts gently. Asks the question with her eyes. Beth closes her own and nods, and then Cleo’s hands are tugging at her panties. Plain white cotton. She doesn’t know why. Cleo’s will be black lace. She has to move her knees together so that Cleo can pull the panties down over them; they part themselves again when Cleo drops the fabric to the floor. She holds on tightly to the chair edge as Cleo shifts closer, lower.
Then Cleo’s mouth is on her and she almost yelps. None of them ever - ever - It’s like someone who knows what she’s always wanted, knows how she’s always wanted to be touched, made to feel. As though she’s doing it to herself. Maybe this is why Townes likes it with - “Oh,” she hears herself gasping, “oh, oh - !”
Cleo licks delicately, in circles, then more pointedly, up and down, her hands lightly tensed around Beth’s thighs and gently pushing them apart. Her fingers contract and relax, stroking, soothing. She glances up at Beth, her eyes avid, her mouth curled, and presses her tongue home, and Beth comes apart.
Her thighs are slick on the hard chair when she open her eyes again, and Cleo is smiling seductively, lips wet. She stands, unbuttons her slacks, and lets them fall. Her panties are black lace.
Beth reaches her hand out finally, shakily, wanting to give back, to come back to earth. Everything is blurred around the edges. Her body is buzzing with alcohol and release.
Cleo climbs onto the bed and kneels, facing her. She reaches behind herself and unfastens her bra, shimmies out of her panties, tosses both carelessly away. “You don’t have to be afraid,” she says, drawing Beth gently closer by the arm. “It is nothing you don’t know how to do. Lie down with me.”
Beth is still wearing her own bra. White cotton. It seems far too awkward to take it off now. Her legs are rubbery and strange. She crawls onto the bed and lies down shakily on one elbow. Cleo pulls her hand to between her own thighs. “Don’t be afraid,” she says, parting her knees and leaning back on her elbows. “You are beautiful. You know it. Show me.”
It’s so slippery, and feels so strange from this angle; the alcohol is weighing down her eyelids. She is truly drunk. She shouldn’t have gotten drunk. Cleo is moaning now, and arching her back, slipping her little glances of encouragement, until she closes her eyes and lets out a sharp little cry, and then another, and another.
“I told you,” she says, leaning over and kissing Beth, full and hard and deep. “You did magnificently. Tu es magnifique, my dear. Lie down.”
Beth’s head is heavy on the pillow. “Cleo… why did you do this?”
Cleo reaches out and switches off the lamp, but in the half-light Beth can see that her eyes are still open. “Because I wanted to. Because you are beautiful, and desirable, and I wanted to show you. To have you. And I knew that no man would have shown you.” She laughs. “You should sleep. Good night, Beth.”
Beth is half-asleep before any of the words can sink in, with her head a jumble of sensation and booze and Russian and openings and queen’s moves. When she jerks awake again, she knows it is hours later, and it’s a dizzy, still-drunk, spinning panic to find her dress, to the bathroom, to be clean, to not know.
Townes grunts, and opens his eyes, lifting his head from its awkwardly angled position against the window. “Oh Lord, I’m going to pay for that tomorrow,” he says, rubbing his stiff neck ruefully.
“Sleep well?” She forces a smile, putting down her magazine
“Too well, maybe,” he says, amazed. “Are we landing? Beth, didn’t you sleep at all?”
“I wasn’t tired,” she says, concentrating on the words on the back cover of Chess Review. “Too much excitement. Ready to escort me through the press?”
He smiles that smile that gets her in the gut every time, charming, shy, yet so sure of itself at the same time. “Of course, Madam Champion.”
He steps off ahead of her when they get to the gate, reaching back his hand through the cold air.
This chapter is indebted to agadmator's analysis of the final game between Borgov and Harmon; I am very very much not a chess prodigy.
Russian is courtesy of Google Translate; if there are any howlers in there, I apologise.
Chapter 2: Bright Lights
Moscow to New York to Kentucky. Beth hits the ground with a thud. She needs a new opening.
As mentioned in the story summary, this story is essentially Beth-centric, and I consider it gen, although it’ll touch on a number of relationships both het and same-sex. I will coredump my thoughts about Beth’s sexuality and romantic relationships in a journal post at some point; however, don’t assume that because I put femslash up front in Chapter 1, that this story is “about” Beth being gay, or indeed being straight. If it’s about anything, it’s about romantic relationships being neither the cause of, or solution to, Beth’s problems. I’ll update the pairing tags as we go along as needed. One romantic/sexual relationship that definitely won’t be in here is Borgov/Harmon; I’ll be exploring that relationship, but only platonically. So, a heads-up that this is probably not the place to look if you really want to see that particular pairing. I hope you’ll read nonetheless.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s in the early mornings that Alice likes to come to her, when the sheets are wrinkled and the light outside is cold, trailing streams of logic and disaster.
“You’re like a fractal,” she said, combing through Beth’s hair. “Infinite and complex. Hold still.”
Beth squirmed in the hard seat.
“This, though,” she said, threading her fingers through Beth’s bangs. “This is a tangent. We can’t have that. Hold still so I can turn you back into a sine.” She snipped carefully.
“Hold still, Beth. I want this to be even.”
Alice’s attention was always focused to a laser point. When she listened, when she was really there , when she set out to lick Beth into shape like a lioness, it felt infinitely real.
“ What, Beth. I’m concentrating.”
“The girls at school get their hair cut at the beauty parlor.”
“The girls at your school are no metric of anything. The girls at your school,” she said, tilting Beth’s head carefully, “live in a paradox of dependence which they can’t even see. I’m sure they do get their hair done at the beauty parlor, and I’m sure the dollars burn up in their mothers’ hands. I wish I’d never sent you to that school. Lift your chin a little.”
Beth obliges. The reddy strands fall on the embroidered left side of her dress.
“You listen to me, Beth,” said Alice, finishing up and beginning to brush the clippings off her shoulder, “most people live in a prison they can’t even see. They walk in and it looks like paradise, it looks so cozy, it looks like everything they ever wanted. And then they can never find the door. Some of us,” and she reached for the soft brush, “burn it down just to get out. Just to make sure we can never be weak and go back. But I know that prison, Beth, and we won’t go there. Did you read yet?”
“Let’s get your book, then. In a minute. Close your eyes.”
The brush was delicate across her eyelashes.
The flash when she first steps out of the hallway into the airport proper is blinding, disorienting. White. Then there are four more in close succession. She’s stopped dead, and Townes walks into her.
“Beth, what did you think of the Soviet Union?”
“Beth, how did it feel to beat Borgov?”
“Beth, how does it feel to be the champion?”
Of course. Of course. She hadn’t really thought they’d be here. Booth probably called ahead before the plane left. That asshole.
Beth steps to one side, out of the path of the startled fellow travelers who are still filtering past her, and tries on her best smile, angling her head just a little to the right. “Didn’t you all get your fill in Moscow?”
“Most of them probably didn’t get visas in time,” Townes murmurs, from behind her right ear. “Only the big nationals and internationals. Do you want to get out of this?”
“Why would I want to get out of this?” she says, from between exposed teeth.
“Beth, the Washington Post,” says the loudest-voiced of the group in front of her. “How does it feel to have beaten the world’s greatest chess player?”
“I think you’ll find,” she says, letting the edges of her voice thin to a point, “that I am now the world’s greatest chess player. Next.”
“Miss Harmon, Miss Harmon. Ladies’ Home Journal. May I ask who your gentleman companion is?”
Townes has been trying to look inconspicuous and supportive at the same time; Beth fastens her hand on his elbow and draws him gently forward. “This,” she says smoothly, “is D.L. Townes, a professional journalist and a fine competitive chess player. He has been a friend since we played chess on the Kentucky circuit together, and he was kind enough to act as my escort on occasion in Moscow. Next question.”
“Miss Harmon,” says the Ladies’ Home Journal reporter, “is Mr. Townes your boyfriend?”
Beth drops her smile. “Mr. Townes is a journalist, and was covering my matches in Moscow from a professional perspective. I’ll take no more questions of this kind. Next!”
“Miss Harmon, Miss Harmon. Beth. I’m from Newsweek magazine. What did you think about being in Russia?”
“I was treated kindly, and I was very glad to have the opportunity to play against their greatest chess players. However, I’m now very tired and jetlagged, and I would like to find a bed for the night. You gentlemen go on home.” Beth gives them her very best dazzling smile, and tugs at Townes’ hand; obligingly, he picks up both their cases again, and begins a steady tramp towards the exit.
“Those vultures,” she mutters under her breath.
“I think they went pretty easy on you, actually.” Townes is keeping his eyes fixed on the floor, but she can tell he’s alert. “You’re going to have to expect to be of huge interest now. Beating the best Russian player, and being in Moscow right now, and as a woman…”
“What does that have to do with it?” she snaps, wheeling on him.
“Beth, don’t take this out on me,” he says, with a steady look, but she can see a slow flush climbing. “You know you aren’t… usual. Anything that happens between us and Russia, it, well, it matters. You’re more important than you know. And if you won’t give them a story… they’ll make one up. You’ll have to tell them what to do with you, because they won’t know.”
“Oh, God,” she mutters, letting her shoulders slump. “As if the State Department wasn’t bad enough. Where are we going?”
“I have to get back to Lexington,” he says, rounding his shoulders apologetically. “To file my copy. I have a flight booked… Do you want to come with me?”
“No,” she says impulsively. “No, I have things to do in New York. I have people here. I’ll, I’ll get a room.”
“Okay.” He puts the suitcases down on either side with her, and stands considering her for a minute. “Shall I walk you to the cab rank?”
“No, I’ll be okay. Go get your flight.”
Townes leans in close and kisses her cheek, and she closes her eyes.
“Where to?” the driver asks, tapping fingerless-gloved hands on his wheel.
She’d meant to ask him for a hotel, she just about has the money, but on another impulse, she gives him Benny’s address.
“Okay, little lady,” he says, turning the key; the engine coughs rustily. “You want the scenic route?”
She’d thought New York City would be everything once. Compared to Kentucky; compared to a trailer in the ass end of nowhere. But somehow it’s all come to seem to her like an extension of Benny’s bare, pent-up basement; a promise that collapses as soon as it comes close. When she’d met Benny, in Vegas, he’d seemed so… assured. And then…
She won’t soon forget the way down to his thin plywood door; the way he shrank a little when he saw her looking around in disbelief. It’s well after midnight, and there’s no noise from inside. She knocks.
There’s a long, long silence, and then a shuffling noise from inside. She knocks again.
“All right, keep your hair on,” says Benny’s voice. “Who the hell is it? Suzanne?”
“No,” she says sharply.
Benny’s footsteps stop. “Then who is it?” he says, cruelly.
“Open the door, Benny. I came to see you like you wanted.”
Benny unlatches the door and pulls it back, blinking at the light in the hallway; he’s wearing loose pajama pants and an open shirt. “I don’t recall saying I wanted you to come call in the middle of the night.”
“Oh, grow up, Benny.” She pushes past him into the apartment; she’s feeling sharp and edgy, and she’s beginning to know why she came here.
Benny closes the door behind him; she turns to face him from the center of his meager living room. “Well. I’m not sure you had to wake me up so I could say it. But congratulations, Beth. You did it.”
“I know,” she says, stretching her arms above her head, feeling her dress move against her legs. “World champion.”
“You aren’t world champion.” Benny looks at the floor and crosses his arms across his pigeon chest. “That wasn’t a championship. It was an invitational.”
“You know as well as I do what it means.” She crosses to him. “You’re the only person who does.”
Benny bites his lip and looks towards the windows. “Beth…”
“Were you watching?”
“I saw you on the news when you came out, yes. A real scene.”
Beth puts a hand on his arm and slides one foot out of her shoe. “I came to see you, Benny,” she says, beseechingly.
Benny looks at her squarely; his lips are set. “And you came to stay, did you? Brought your suitcase?”
“Would it be so bad if I did?” She traces a finger down the pale line of his bare chest.
Benny bats her hand away hard; his eyes are snapping sparks. “So you just thought you’d drop by, huh, Beth? Save yourself the cost of the hotel, maybe work off some frustration, let me know who’s top dog from now on? Forget it.” He marches back to the door and holds it open. “You can get a cab on the street.”
He looks at her eyes as she moves closer; inhales. “Have you been drinking?”
She’s shaken. “No. Not a drop. That’s not why…”
“So you can fuck up your life sober too, huh? That’s great. Great. Good night, Beth.” He pushes her between the shoulderblades until she’s back in the hallway. “Call me when your head deflates.”
The door slams again.
She’d cried, finally, in another cab on the way to a cheap hotel. She has almost nothing in her bank account right now after Moscow; there’s a financial prize for the invitational, but it won’t be deposited for a few more days, and rubles don’t buy as many dollars as anyone would like.
(“What’s wrong, honey?” says the cab driver, and he sounds so like a radio ad for New York that she almost laughs. “Some no-good man been treatin’ you wrong?” She laughs again when she realises he’s right.)
When she finally opens the door at home, the air feels dusty and still. She drops her suitcase just inside the door, and wanders in, looking at the light slanting through the curtains she put up after taking down Alma’s nets.
She left dishes in the sink. The trash is still full of empty wine bottles, and it smells stale and sharp.
It’s late afternoon. Everything in the house is silent. A lawn mower is droning somewhere outside.
There are four tranquillizers upstairs in her bedside drawer. Under the false bottom of the drawer. She hid them there months ago. From who, she didn’t know.
Beth sighs, and rolls up her sleeves.
The next day she gets up at seven and makes coffee. There is no food. She studies the pamphlet with the games from the last world championship for two hours, laying them out on the board. Borgov played the Caro-Kann defense in his final match; took his knight to queen’s bishop three. Checkmate after three hours. Then she goes grocery shopping.
The phone is ringing when she gets back; she picks it up automatically.
“Call for Miss Elizabeth Harmon?”
“Miss Harmon, this is the White House. I’m Rob Mills, assistant to the Director of Communications for President Johnson, I’m holding Director Klein for you.”
“I’m not free!” Beth blurts, in panic, and hangs the phone up. Then she wishes she hadn’t.
The phone doesn’t ring again for several hours. She goes back to the chess.
The phone rings again when she’s eating scrambled eggs at the kitchen counter; she drops her fork and scrambles to the phone, all butterflies.
“Yes, this is she.” The voice isn’t the same one from before.
“Miss Harmon, this is Ben Blinkert calling from the U.S. State Department. We’d like you to come in for some debriefing on your trip to Moscow.”
Oh, God. She slumps against the wall. She should have known that toerag Booth wouldn’t be so easily shrugged off.
She fumbles. “Yes, yes, I’m here. Why… why do you need to debrief me? All I did was play chess, I had Booth, I mean, the man you sent with me. He was with me all the time. I just played chess.”
“Miss Harmon, we need you to come in for debriefing. Relations with Moscow are very complex, and you may have some critical information.”
“But I’m home in Kentucky,” she says, with rising panic. “I’m not… I flew home. I have to play chess. I have to go.”
“Miss Harmon - “
She bangs the phone down hurriedly, and then takes it off the hook.
The truth is, she has to think about money. She has to pay Jolene back, and pay her bills until the world championship, and buy food… The money from the invitational won’t last that long, not long enough. None of the other US competitors had to pay all their own travel. She needs a tournament. A tournament that pays.
There is nothing she wants to do less right now than go and play in one of the podunk tournaments with decent cash prizes. Annihilate high-school players while trying not to faint from boredom. But Jolene put her every cent into the Moscow trip. Her law school money. And she wants to look Jolene in the face, next time they see each other. And after Jolene is paid back, with interest... It's a long time until the next big tournament.
For a second, she wishes she were Harry, and could fall out of love with chess and go do something else, something she had to work at. Something where she wouldn’t want or need to be the best.
She goes out to buy Chess Review, and scan the tournament listings.
She has to train. The World Championship will play next year, and Borgov will be there. And he will have studied every one of her games in Moscow, and gone over them with the other Russians. But train how? With who? Who’s left to challenge her, in this country?
She knows the one person she should call. But she can’t call him. She can’t.
Her phone’s been off the hook for two days when she picks it up and dials the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Townes’s voice is warm and surprised when she gets him on the line. “Beth. Is everything okay? Did you not like my article, or something?”
“Your article?” She’d forgotten the reason the paper even sent him to Moscow.
“Yes, my article. I was kind of hoping it’d meet with your approval, more than some of the others.”
“I, uh, I didn’t read it yet.”
There is a solid silence on the other end of the line.
“But I will, I will, Townes, I will. I’m sorry. I haven’t read anything. I just couldn’t. I’ve been shut away studying chess, and trying - “ Trying to stay sober , she almost says; she bites it back. “Trying to figure out what next. I can’t bear the articles, they just write about my clothes, and how I look - “
His voice is a lot cooler. “Is that what you think I wrote?”
“No, I know, I know you didn’t. Please, I called because I need - “
“You need what?”
“I need - you to talk to me. To tell me what I should do next. How I get ready for the World Championship. I have to train, and I just - can we have dinner?”
Townes is silent; she holds her breath. She hears the snick of a lighter.
“Dinner in Lexington. Can we meet? Please, Townes. I’ll pay.”
Townes exhales. “Tomorrow night. Meet me at the offices? And I’m paying. Or the paper is, anyway. You’re a Kentucky icon. Another exclusive interview won’t hurt.”
There’s a pain low in her belly. “Thank you,” she says. “Tomorrow night. I’ll meet you. Thank you.”
The phone rings again as soon as she puts it down, and reflexively she snatches it back up. “Townes?”
“Miss Harmon.” The voice is cold and male. “This is Director Clint from the State Department. Russian desk. You’ve been avoiding our calls.”
The ache from her conversation with Townes turns straight into blinding panic. “Director! I, I haven’t been avoiding you, I just got back from New York, I’ve been so busy - “
He cuts her off. “Miss Harmon, are you an American patriot?”
It throws her. “Am I a - what?”
“Are you an American patriot? Do you believe in your country?”
“Of course, of course I do, that’s not why I - “
“Miss Harmon, you visited Moscow only with our support and backing. If you wish to be granted any more visas, you need to present yourself at the State Department for debriefing. We will not permit you to be a loose cannon. Too much is at stake. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” she says, cold. Her fingers curl against each other, the nails digging in.
“Good. I understand you’ve returned to Kentucky. Our agents will meet you at the State Capitol in two days’ time for debriefing. You need to make yourself available as long as we require. Do you understand?”
Please may they not send Booth. “I understand.”
“Thank you, Miss Harmon. Present yourself at nine a.m. sharp at the Capitol in two days’ time. Goodbye.”
Next time: Travel! Borgov! And the revenge of the State Department.
If you have a question, comment, or criticism, please leave it. I always, always respond to comments, because I live for them and appreciate the time it takes to make them, and because I love nothing more than to talk about characters with people. I anticipate at least another 3-4 parts to this story.
Chapter 3: Thin Smoke
Re-grounding. Beth throws herself on Townes' mercy, seeks a new challenge, and tries to get to know the Vasily under Borgov.
A few people commented on my last chapter about the plausibility of Beth’s issues with both finances and the State Dept. Firstly, big thanks to those people for their feedback, which was really helpful. I’ve given some thought to both the finances of a professional chess player and how Beth’s actions looked from outside; if you want to know why the Moscow invitational paid only moderately and the three things that happened in Moscow that changed the game for the State Department, you can read it here. However, there are some spoilers vis-a-vis this chapter, so you may want to leave it to the end.
Also, I intended to fulfil my “travel” promise with some international travel, but I couldn’t quite manage it this time around. Definitely coming up next though. The next chapter may be delayed - life is hard right now - but it'll come.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Townes leans across the table. “Did you see that?”
She’s laughing. “I did! His face! That wasn’t nice of you.”
“Ah, they don’t like me here anyway. I entertain on the paper’s account and then the Leader takes forever to settle the bills. They need to know when they have a celebrity to entertain.”
“I’m not a celebrity.”
“You’re not a good one anyway. I can’t believe you hung up on the White House.”
Beth moans and hides her hot face in her hands. “Neither can I. And they never called back. I just wasn’t ready! I couldn’t go to the White House. I just could not talk to somebody from the White House while standing in my kitchen.”
Townes sets the menu aside and leans on the table. “Are you ready? Wine?”
“No, thank you. Yes, I can order.”
Townes picked the restaurant, and it’s dark and smoky; she wouldn’t have liked to be here without him. There aren’t many women here, and none alone. She feels safe enough with him, though; he pulled out her chair when they got to the table, and when he was done telling the waitboy who she was, the kid was backing away faster than should have been possible, ducking and scraping.
Townes gestures at the luckless boy, who can’t be more than sixteen and looks terrified of approaching the table again. “So, Miss Harmon, how has it been to return to the United States?”
Beth feels the smile fading off her face. She has a sudden impulse to be honest. “It’s - I don’t know. Moscow was like - it was like another world. Like the one I’d always been born for. How I felt - when those women were outside - the way they’d say my name - “
Townes is studying her face seriously.
“But then - but then - I had to come home. What was there if I stayed? I speak a child’s Russian. Who would I talk to? What would I do all day? Who would I play with?” She attempts a smile; her face feels stiff with tension.
“And then you landed back here,” says Townes, pushing aside the menu to cover the back of her hand with his own. With his other, he makes a quick jerking motion to redirect the waiter.
“And then I landed back here. Yes.”
His brown eyes are serious and steady.
“Besides,” she says, narrowing her eyes at him, “I hear the fashion there is terrible,” and his eyes crease immediately.
“I read the article, you know,” she says, in a rush. “I’m sorry I didn’t look at it before. I forgot, you know, how good you are. They were always so bad, when they started writing about me… I stopped looking.”
“There are more things in the world worth being good at than chess, Beth.” He tightens his fingers around hers, for just a second.
“I know.” She ducks her eyes to her own place setting.
Townes takes out a cigarette and lights it, as the terrified waitboy puts some glasses down. “So how can I help? You said you wanted my help. Advice on how to manage your press?” He exhales.
“No, not my press. I need…” She gathers her courage, and forges on. “I need to know what to do now. I beat Borgov, but he’ll come back, he’ll study what I did, and I’m not the champion, yet. I need to get ready for the world championship, next year. And I don’t know how… I don’t know how to train. The Russians, they all work together. They went over every game together. But I don’t have anybody. And I don’t know how…”
Townes is studying her intently again; the cigarette is burning down between his fingers, the smoke stinging her throat. “Beth,” he says eventually, and God, how she hates the softness in his voice. “Why are you asking me ? I’m a third-rate chess player at best. I topped out long ago. I know that. You have better people to ask than me.”
Her throat is really hurting now. “No. I don’t. I need you to tell me what to do.” She swallows.
The silence hangs in the air for a long, heavy moment. Townes takes another drag.
“A coach,” he says eventually. “The best players, they have someone to coach them, to challenge them. You need a coach.”
She feels a sharp stab of disbelief. “A coach ?”
Townes doesn’t say anything, just keeps his eyes pinned on her.
She laughs, harshly. “Who, Townes? Who? I’ve beaten everyone in the US. Who can coach me?”
“It’s not about being the best.” Townes stubs his cigarette out sharply in the tin ashtray on the table. “It’s about having someone who can see what you can’t. Who can keep you focused, make you learn from your mistakes. You aren’t too good to learn, Beth. Don’t make that mistake.”
“But how - how - “ She swallows. “How do I find someone?”
“There are a lot of retired champions, in chess.” Townes forks a piece of his cooling omelette towards his mouth. “And talented people who never competed. All you have to do is do an interview, I can get you another one with Chess Review , they’ll be dying to talk to you. And say that you’re looking to find someone to work with you ahead of the world championship. They’ll be beating down your door.” He chews and swallows.
Beth looks down at her own food, untouched. “That’s not all,” she says suddenly.
Townes lets his fork rest, waits.
Beth lifts her water glass and swallows. The water is weightless on her tongue; no burn, no numbness, god, what wouldn't she give to not feel. “The State Department,” she says, when she sets it down. “They want to interrogate me. They keep calling…”
“The State Department?” Townes leans forward. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I guess I… they had that man with me in Moscow, Booth, I was supposed to stay with him all the time, and I, I wanted to be alone and walk in the park. And then I wouldn’t go with him in New York. But they won’t stop calling. And they said I have to come, tomorrow. And talk to them.” She draws her fork through the noodles on her plate.
“I think you just have to talk to them,” he says, lifting his own wine glass. “You didn’t do anything or see anything in Moscow. Tell them so. Just tell them.”
“I guess.” She swallows. “I hope.”
Her eyes open in the semidark, before her alarm. She glances at the clock; six a.m. Sighs.
Alice would have moved to another trailer. Changed her phone number. Just stared down any man from the State Department, in silence, until he gave up and went away. Or cuffed her.
Alma would have put on her best dress and her hat with the veil. Painted her face carefully. Cadged a cigarette from the State Department man, and lingered with it on her lip until he lit it for her. Folded her hands carefully on her knee, letting her skirt pull back a little from her ankles. Smiled with her heart in her mouth.
And what good did that do Alice? What good did it do Alma?
Beth gets up and begins to dress.
Borgov’s face is in front of her eyes, as it had been in Moscow. He’d always been a… a thing to her. An obstacle. Solid and immovable. As unreadable as a wall. As unbreakable.
Then she’d seen his face soften. His mouth curl. His words, in English.
“It’s your game. Take it.”
It’s still an hour until her cab comes. On impulse, she bolts upstairs for the card on which she wrote down the number of the Moscow hotel. It’s three p.m. in Moscow right now. Her fingers shaking, she dials.
“ Gostinitsa Metropol' Moskva, ” says a voice, flatly.
“ Zdravstvuyte, ” she says, through dry lips. “Hello. I need to speak with Vasily Borgov…”
“ Kakaya ?” says the voice, incredulously.
“Vasily Borgov. Ya Elizabeth Harmon. Liza Harmon. I stayed with you. Borgov stayed. I need to speak to Borgov. Ponimayesh '?”
“Liza Harmon,” says the voice, in another register altogether. “Liza Harmon! Amerikanski! Liza Harmon!”
Beth bites her lip and clenches her own hand around the receiver. “I need,” she says steadily, in English, “to speak to Borgov. You will find his number and give it me. Da ?”
“ Da , Miss Kharmon. I find. I find. Odna minuta .” The line buzzes. The minute hand of the clock creeps from 12 to 1 to 2.
She’s almost given up, her fingertips going numb around the Bakelite, when the attendant is back on the line and excitedly gabbling a number to her. She clicks the switchhook, redials.
“ Da, zdravstvuyte ,” says a pleasant voice. A woman’s voice. Her stomach twists sharply. “Allo?”
Beth swallows. “Who is this?” she says.
“ Ya ne ponimayu.” The woman sounds anxious and confused.
“ Kto ty ? Who are you?”
“Irina Borgova.” The woman sounds frightened. “What happens? Who you?”
Beth tastes bile in her mouth. She’d forgotten, again. Forgotten that Borgov is married. Has a wife. She remembers her now. Dark and still, composed, beside him, with her intricate braids and her neat outfits and her little son.
“I want to speak to Vasily,” she says in English. “ Ya khochu pogovorit' s Vasily. Do you understand?”
The woman - Borgov’s wife - drops the receiver; there is an angry stream of Russian, and then Borgov comes on the line, sounding cautious and reserved. “Allo?”
Beth swallows. “Borgov,” she says. “This is Beth Harmon.”
Borgov exhales into the mouthpiece. “Miss Kharmon.”
“Beth,” he agrees. There is a long, long silence.
“You speak English,” she says, feeling the silence stretch beyond endurance.
“I speak little English,” says the voice in her ear. She imagines his face, pressing the receiver to his ear, creased with concentration, while Irina bangs dishes and glares in the background. “I learn from traveling. And reading. You speak Russian.”
“I speak little Russian,” she says, feeling an absurd compulsion to imitate his speech pattern. “I take a class. I want to understand.”
There is another silence.
“Miss Kharmon,” he says, carefully, over the sound of an angry voice, “why you call me?”
“I wanted…” Beth hesitates, trying to form her impulse into words. “I wanted to speak to you as a person. Not over a board.”
Borgov takes a hesitant breath, pauses in the middle; she can hear him struggling, the rustle of his sigh in her ear. “I don’t understand.”
“I wanted…” she stumbles. “I wanted to speak to you. You are a great player. I’ve learned so much…”
“You are greatest player, Beth,” says Borgov, and his voice has softened. “I want to speak to you also. Not just chess.”
There is a pause.
“I must tell my wife why you call,” says Borgov, apologetically. “She will not understand.”
Beth sympathises; she is having a hard time understanding why she did this herself. “Tell her… tell her I wanted to ask you about a chess move. I wanted to ask you for advice on my endgame.”
“ Kto ne riskuyet, tot ne p'yet shampanskogo. ” Borgov laughs. “I tell her.”
“We will speak again, Miss Kharmon. Beth. Yes?”
Beth breathes in right to the bottom of her chest, feeling it free. “Yes,” she says. “I must go. Thank you, Borgov.”
The man from the State Department leans across the hardwood table, proffering the open packet. She shakes her head faintly. The man - he introduced himself as Brodsky - sticks the cigarette between his full lips, strikes a match, and exhales heavily. He’s perhaps mid-thirties, cleanshaven, dark and sallow, in his shirtsleeves and a plain dark tie. No accent. He bowed a little over her hand, as though he might kiss it, before he shook it.The smoke lies still and heavy in the air of the small, cushioned room.
“Well, Miss Harmon,” says Brodsky, affably, “you must be wondering why we came all this way to speak to you. I must congratulate you on your victory in Moscow, by the way. I understand that it was of huge significance.”
“Thank you,” she says from between stiff lips.
“As you know, our relations with Moscow are difficult and complex. But we want to maintain a peaceful world, Miss Harmon. And you gained a great deal of attention in Moscow. So we think you can help with that.” Brodsky smiles at her, and tilts his head, waiting for her acceptance. She grants it with a short nod.
“We’d like to record this conversation.” He produces a small tape recorder from the briefcase beside him, places it on the table. “Unless you have any objections?”
Beth clenches her hands a little tighter around each other in her lap. Tell the truth . “No objections.”
Brodsky depresses the Record button. “Thank you, Miss Harmon. Interview with Miss Elizabeth Harmon, third of December, 1968, in room B143 of the Kentucky State Capitol. It’s nine-seventeen a.m. Miss Harmon, why don’t you tell me about your recent trip to Moscow.”
Beth clears her throat. “I was invited to Moscow to compete in a chess invitational with their greatest players,” she says uncomfortably. “Because I’m U.S. Champion. They always invite the U.S. Champion to play in their invitational.”
“How did you fund your trip?” says Brodsky, twinkling his eyes at her. “It’s expensive to travel to the Soviet Union, isn’t it?”
Beth feels a stab of savage hatred. “Normally the Chess Federation helps to fund the trip,” she says pointedly. “For the prestige. Because the Soviet Union is the best in chess. But, well, they didn’t for me. So I used my own money. And I borrowed some.”
“Who was the money borrowed from?”
“Jolene. Jolene Harris. A friend. She lent me her savings.”
“How do you fund your travel normally?”
“From prizes I win. I’ve won every big tournament in the U.S. now. And some outside. Some of them paid well. And, well, before she died, Alma - I mean, my adopted mother, Mrs. Alma Wheatley, she had alimony from her ex-husband, so we both had money from that, and I supported us with chess.” Beth is beginning to feel her breathing come a little easier; her contempt for Brodsky helps.
“Who did you travel with, on your trip?” Brodsky is leaning back, at ease; he has a buff-colored cardboard file in front of him, but he hasn’t opened it.
“You know very well who,” Beth says coldly. “With your man, Booth, who was assigned to travel with me. I’m sure you have his report right there.”
“I have indeed reviewed Mr. Booth’s report.” Brodsky has let his easy smile fall away a little. “Do you expect to return to the Soviet Union?”
Beth crosses her left leg over her right and clasps her hands around her knee. She tries on Alma’s smile. “Yes, I would expect so. They are the best country in the world in chess, and that’s where I need to compete now. And the world championship is there next year. So I have to go.”
“Whom did you meet, when you were there?” He stubs his cigarette out in the table’s cut-glass ashtray, and picks up the pen lying beside the buff-colored file. All easy business.
Beth relaxes. They surely don’t suspect Townes of any inappropriate behavior. “Townes,” she says. “An old friend of mine, we used to play together. D.L. Townes. He came to Moscow as a journalist, to cover my matches, and we had dinner and talked, then flew back together.”
“And when you left Mr. Booth.” Brodsky is no longer smiling. “Whom did you go to meet, Miss Harmon?”
Beth feels her mouth fall open.
“Did someone approach you? Did you receive a message of any kind? Who were you meeting?”
Beth fumbles her tongue back into life. She’d never thought that they would - Booth, he was so paranoid about someone approaching her, slipping her messages, but she hadn’t thought that he would think -
“I didn’t meet anyone,” she says, almost desperately. “I just, I wanted to be free. I wanted to walk in the park, and there were people playing chess there… I didn’t.”
“You jumped out of a moving cab.” Brodsky’s voice has developed a hard edge. “You were gone for hours. You missed your flight. Why would you do all of that, unless you were meeting someone?”
Beth feels like a fish dragged out of her element by claws. “I - “
He leans back in his chair and regards her impassively.
“I didn’t meet anyone. Truly. Nobody contacted me, not Borgov, not anyone. I shouldn’t have done it, I guess, but I, well - I didn’t like Booth being with me all the time. I’m used to being alone. I thought he was exaggerating. He seemed so paranoid to me.” Beth knows her eyes are wide, and widens them just a little more on purpose. Both her mothers fought with what they had to hand.
“Miss Harmon, we were on the brink of nuclear war with the USSR not so long ago. They send agents to our shores every year. We don’t make a habit, here, of exaggerating.”
“I understand. I’m sorry.” Beth bites her lip.
“Have you spoken with anyone in the Soviet Union since your return?” Brodsky flips the file open, and clicks his pen.
Beth feels her blood freeze again. They can’t know. There’s no way they can know . “No. I haven’t.”
He jots something on the densely written first page, flips it closed, smiles, genial again. Beth thinks, sourly, that she knows why he was the one sent to speak to her. “I’m sorry if we’ve alarmed you, miss. I think you may not have realised what an object of interest you are to the Kremlin now. To have beaten their champion - well, no one has broken their domination of chess for decades, and the way the Moscow public responded to you, as I understand… it wouldn’t be surprising if someone there tried to reach out to you.”
“I understand,” Beth says, again. There is a stone forming in her chest.
“It’s also a tremendous opportunity for you.” Brodsky flips the file open, again, businesslike, and makes some notes on typed pages further in. “You’re a very intelligent woman. You and your observations during your trips may be of great assistance to us. Though I think that someone from the department should continue to accompany you on your future trips. For your safety.”
Beth pictures an endless line of Booths, and feels an upwelling of claustrophobia. “If you say so,” she says flatly.
“And it could form the basis for a career with us.” He’s closed the file, and is watching her again, from closer quarters across the table. “After chess.”
Beth feels as though the ground under her feet has suddenly lurched five feet to the right. “After… chess?” she manages, dumbfounded.
“Indeed.” Brodsky displays his white teeth again. “You’ll want to marry and have a family, I’m sure, but before that, there may be opportunities for you here. When you decide to step away from chess.”
Beth can’t summon a single thing to say.
“But for the moment, let’s focus on consolidating any insight from your trip. Anything that you may have noticed in the hotel, or in conversation between the Russians. I understand you speak some Russian.” He opens the file to a blank page, and looks at her expectantly. “Let’s start at the beginning.”
There’s a tournament in Ohio, the week after. The Somebody Memorial tournament, some rich businessman who loved chess, and decided to fund a prize to elevate the cause of state chess. She played it two years ago. Benny skipped it then.
She needs a car, she thinks, when she steps out of the cab at the community hall. She needs to learn to drive. Alma would never have dreamed of getting behind the wheel, and they’d rubbed along with cabs and trains. But if she’s going to move, to be free…
Then she’d better get on with winning this prize. She squares her shoulders.
She doesn’t have to introduce herself at the registration desk; no surprise. The high-school kids manning it can’t do enough for her. She has enough points now that she gets ranked straightaway against the highest-ranked players in the tournament. No one she knows is here.
The first two matches are deadly dull. A twenty-five-year-old, bucking for national master status, who seems to take her every move as a personal insult. She cleans his clock in eighteen moves. A high school kid who pours out a torrent of questions about Russia and Borgov from the moment they approach each other to the moment the clock starts, and resumes with hardly a breath after they shake hands.
Her third opponent doesn’t look any more than thirteen; he has dark, deepset eyes and his shirt collar is worn. He nods to her timidly over the scored wooden desk, and then opens with the Danish Gambit, pushing his pawns hard, his eyes hawk-trained on the board and alight with fervour. Beth feels like she’s been slapped awake; joy surges up, and once again there’s nothing but her, and the pieces, and their graceful dance in her mind. The kid misjudges his attack, can’t get his bishops out, and by the middlegame she has him squarely on the back foot, but he won’t give up, he won’t stop pushing. By the twentieth move, they have a few observers, and when she takes his queen there’s a small round of applause.
Beth laughs out loud with delight. “Congratulations,” she says to the kid. “That was the most fun I’ve had in weeks. You have so much potential… What was your name?”
The kid is blushing furiously. “Alec,” he says in a small voice. “Um, thank you, Miss Harmon. Alec Brskovska.”
Beth holds out her hand. “Alec. We’ll meet again. Well done.”
Her fourth and fifth opponents are much as usual. Workmanlike, solid chess. Like playing a much duller, less talented Borgov. She’s tired when the fifth opponent resigns. But she’s several hundred dollars the better, when she takes a cab back to the station. And she’s remembered something. That there are other Beth Harmons in the world, of a sort. Perhaps even someone who will one day do to her what she intends to do to Borgov.
Not today, though. She opens the cab window and breathes in the clear, bitter air.
There’s a letter on the mat when she opens the door in Lexington, elaborately handwritten, with international stamps. An invitation. To an exhibition match against the Italian champion. In Milan. Milan!
Finally. Something to do while she prepares for the world championship. Something to take her away from the dull Kentucky winter. To keep her from remembering how short a walk it is to the liquor store. Europe. People. Fashion. The world.
Her head is almost quiet when she lays it on the pillow. The pieces glide across the ceiling as she replays her match against Alec, taking his side, showing him how he could have won, if he’d misled her, used his knight at the right time. Then a police car slides down the street, with a few lonely whoops; the red and blue lights flash against the edge of her imaginary board, ruining the lines.
She remembers those red and blue revolving lights. The way the state troopers stared at her, impassive but prurient at the same time, as she stood there, intact, in her embroidered dress. Making her a thing. A story. She’d imagined then how they’d go home and tell their wives about it, how they saved a little girl that day, a little girl that was an orphan now, as their wives put the dinner plate in front of them.
“Poor little thing,” she imagined their wives would say, cosily, as they fetched a drink and patted their children’s heads. “I’d adopt her myself if I could.”
Next time: Tu Vuo' Fa' l'Americano ! And the return of some old friends.
Ponimayesh'? - You understand?
Ya ne ponimayu - I don’t understand
Kto ne riskuyet, tot ne p'yet shampanskogo - He who does not take risks, does not drink champagne; a Russian proverb meaning that you must take risks to achieve.
Most of the rest of the Russian is fairly obvious from context; please comment if you need a fuller glossary, and I’ll post one.
As linked at the start, you can read my discussion of Beth’s finances and the State Department’s POV here.
Chapter 4: Dark Water
Jolene, and Beth falls off the balance beam.
There’s a church about a block away. Not the one that Alma belonged to, the one she stopped going to after Allston left. The one she never took Beth to. A different one.
The bells have been chiming quietly since the stroke of midnight. Beth rolls over in bed and faces the far wall. The air in the room is chill.
Alice didn’t celebrate Christmas. When Beth was still going to school, the tissue-paper trees and egg-cup ornaments that came home with her went quietly into the trash. “Religion is a delusion,” she said the first time, “a psychological comfort blanket,” and Beth didn’t understand, but Alice’s face had the set look that meant that no explanation was going to make things any clearer, so she didn’t ask for one. After that, Beth used to crumple the things quietly in her pocket before she got home, and put them in the trash behind the trailer herself, and then there wasn’t any more school anyways. Alice made scrambled eggs on Christmas day, or baked potatoes. “It’s just another day,” she said, when she said anything at all.
Alma liked eggnog on Christmas eve. She mixed it fiery, and let Beth take a nip. She liked to watch sentimental movies, and after dinner she always fell asleep.
Beth moves her hand over her bare skin under the quilt. It’s been so long. Her own thigh, soft to her fingertips, fine sensitive hairs. Her belly, hollowing inwards from her hipbones. Her breasts, small and sensitive, the nipples drawing tight under her fingertips as she circles one.
Mrs. Deardorff liked to see them dance on Christmas. There would be carols in the chapel at dawn, before breakfast. The littlest ones would be swaying on their feet by the time the prayers were finished. After their meal, Mr. Fergussen would lead them to the hall. “We welcome our Lord,” Mrs. Deardorff would say, “by dancing, like the ladies I hope you will all grow to be.”
Benny behind her, teeth in the back of her neck, one hand wrapped around her thigh.
Step, turn, dip.
Cleo between her legs, avid wet mouth, small fingers pressing in.
Step, slide, point. One leg advancing into the other’s space.
Jolene’s sly, collusive smile, her strength, slippery but unbreakable. Townes smiling ruefully with a lock of hair falling into his eyes.Step, turn, bow. “Again, but faster.”
Her fingers are slick. Her breath quickens. Her body tightens. Around, in, forward.
Beth gets there first, and lays her purse on the table. The waitress bobs over, bored and rushed. “Just coffee,” she says, and the woman slops it over the edge of the cup as she pours, staining the paper doily. Beth drops a sugar cube in, and crumbles it against the cup with her spoon.
She feels Jolene before she sees her, a palpable warmth and a threat all rolled into one. She’s wearing sunglasses, and big round earrings. She sits down opposite Beth, that smile on her face.
“Who’da thought.” Jolene puts her own purse down on the table, and slowly draws the round glasses off. “You and me, drinking coffee together like ladies. Deardorff’d have a fit, if she could get her crippled self in here.”
“I’m not sure she’d want to come in here even if she could.”
“You got that right.” Jolene gestures at the waitress, who ignores her. “And I guess you’re a big deal now, Cracker. Can get your coffee on a silver salver in fancy hotels, you got a mind.”
“I wrote you a check.” Beth extracts the thin slip of paper from her purse. “For the whole thing, and ten percent interest. It’s all here.” She slides it across the table.
Jolene’s eyes narrow. “Bitch, you think I’m making money off your ass on this?”
Beth opens her mouth, then closes it again. “It seemed…” she stumbles, “...only fair. I mean, you invested in me. You risked your law school money. I just wanted to say thank you. For believing in me. For taking the risk.” She hides the rest of her confusion behind a sip of the gritty coffee, feeling the undiluted rush in her blood.
Jolene’s face softens into a grin. “What’s this risk shit? You’re the Michelangelo of chess, or so I heard from some arrogant white girl or other. No risk in putting your money on a Michelangelo.” She takes the folded paper from under Beth’s hand and gives it a smacking kiss, leaving a lipstick imprint. “This is going straight in the radical disobedience fund.”
“I can’t wait.”
“So what’s next, Big Deal? Hollywood? World domination? Marriage to some white-ass prince or other?” Jolene drops two sugar cubes into her own coffee and drinks two-thirds of it in one gulp.
Beth stirs the black sludge in her own cup, feeling a terrible need to keep her hands busy. “More chess. It isn’t over. I beat Borgov once, but those matches didn’t count, they weren’t formal competition. I have to beat him again this year. And I’m going to Italy. Next week.”
“Italy? Italy. Shiiiiiiiiit,” says Jolene, drawing out the vowel with relish. “You gonna love that.” She laughs.
Beth hides her smile behind the rim of her own cup.
“You gone all Susan Hayward again? ‘Cause I got to tell you, I got plans. I can’t be sitting around waiting for you to go damsel in distress. I have an establishment to take down.” Jolene studies her frankly across the table, her nails tapping staccato.
Beth surprises herself by reaching across the table and taking Jolene’s hand; Jolene startles, but she doesn’t look away. “I won’t,” Beth says, feeling the flush start to climb from the neck of her sweater. “I’m… I’m doing okay. I did it in Moscow. I can do this.”
There are fine lines of tension around Jolene’s eyes, and her mouth is set, but not hard. “You better. ‘Cause I told you, I got enough on my plate already. I’m not your savior. Nobody is.”
The waitress clomps by in her ill-fitting heels, and pauses by their table pointedly; Beth feels her flush intensify, and hastily pulls her hand back into her lap. “Just the check, please,” she says to her purse.
“Man, this coffee is bad,” says Jolene, swallowing the rest of it. “I’ll pick the place next time. Just ‘cause you don’t want to look like you up yourself doesn’t mean we gotta drink swill.”
Beth draws a rook in the scattered sugar on the table with quick rough strokes. “Did you bring your car?”
“Let’s go for a drive, then. And talk. Tell me about the radical plans. And your lover. And play me some music.” Beth can almost feel the sun on her skin already.
Jolene grins, and flashes the key in her hand. “It’s gonna blow your mind, white trash.”
Thirty minutes until her cab to the airport. She’s pacing in the hallway. Her suitcase is packed. The phone hasn’t rung for days.
There’s an itch in her blood, a nag in her mind.
Enough of it. The hell with it. She lifts the receiver and punches in Benny’s number.
It rings. Again. Hollow. On and on.
She clicks the receiver back in and dials again. It rings out.
It’s the first thing she sees when she steps out of the airport onto the chilly tarmac: the people . The furs. The clothes. She feels her whole self dilate as she breathes out. Now this is what she has always known she was made for. She leans back against the seat in the cab and lets herself soak in the dog-walkers, the men in suits, the women in dresses that make her fingers itch.
Salvioli, the Italian champion, is waiting for her at her hotel with a translator, and bows extravagantly over her hand when she offers it. She’s seen him at tournaments and invitationals before, although they haven’t really played; he wasn’t in Moscow. The Russians don’t invite the Italian champion.
“Good evening, Miss Harmon,” the translator says, in smooth English. “Mr Salvioli hopes your travel proceeded smoothly. Is there anything you need tonight?” Salvioli bows again, and adds something in Italian with a broad smile.
Beth withdraws her hand and tucks it awkwardly into the strap of her purse. “Thank you,” she says. “It was a long trip. I’m quite tired. But I appreciate Mr. Salvioli’s kindness.” The translator (young, dark, and dapper) turns in his direction and unleashes a stream of Italian; Salvioli smiles paternally.
Beth edges towards the elevator. “I think I’d like to go to my room for now.”
“Of course, Miss Harmon. Mr. Salvioli hopes you’ll spend tomorrow relaxing and will have dinner with him in the evening before your matches on Thursday.”
Beth slides the bolt on the door to her room behind her, and exhales. The room is plush and tasteful, like the suite they gave her in Paris, but more modern. She kicks off her shoes, throws herself on the bed, and takes a long, long breath.
Then she takes the small flat bottle of vodka she bought at Malpensa airport and pours it down the bathroom sink.
Walking the Via Montenapoleone the next day is like walking in another world, the one she always knew, somehow, was waiting for her, all those days when she and Alice ate cheese sandwiches, when she wore rough wool pinafores that didn’t fit and slept on lumpy mattresses with the sound of other children’s snores and cries. The rich leather goods, the jewelery. The shoes. The salesgirls smiling, holding the door for her. Bringing her what she wants, in halting English, smiling again. The men on the street who look her over from head to foot, and their inviting gestures. The women on the street, impossibly poised, whose looks are less charitable. The clouds of Italian and cigarette smoke and espresso.
If she wins the World Championship. When she wins it. She’ll never have to think about money again.
What then? What will she do, every night and every morning?
Ridiculously and impossibly, what she wants is Cleo. She keeps imagining that one of the dark heads she sees moving around her is Cleo’s sleek bob; that Cleo will appear out of nowhere, as she likes to do, and link her arm through Beth’s and tell her secret disparaging things about the women. That Cleo will pull her into one of the cafes and somehow order them two espressos in Italian and they can sit in a bubble of safety.That Cleo will lead Beth up to her own room, and stay with her, even. Cleo must have come to Milan to model before. Cleo would know the women’s secrets, and the men’s. She would know what to do.
She wears her new shoes when she meets Salvioli for dinner, late, as arranged; he and the translator are both waiting for her in the hotel bar, and both stand up as she approaches. Salvioli says something to the translator which sounds short and irritable, but the man’s face is as smooth as ever when he turns to Beth and says, “Miss Harmon, Mr. Salvioli thanks you for meeting him and wishes me to tell you that you look beautiful tonight.”
Beth smooths the dark blue dress down over her hips and sits carefully on the high stool, ignoring the sinking feeling in her stomach. “Thank you,” she says, feeling torn between addressing the small slight translator and the taller and slightly grim-faced Salvioli. She doesn’t even know the translator’s name.
Salvioli clicks his fingers at the waiter and makes a confident request, gesturing to all three of them; the waiter disappears behind the bar, but returns quickly with a tray of three fat short orange-tinted glasses. “You must allow us to offer you a Negroni,” says the translator, as Salvioli, restored suddenly to good humor, offers her the glass across the table. “It is a classic drink of my city. A wonderful mixture. Please try.”
Beth inhales; the bitter, orangey, wonderful scent of the drink hits her straight in the face. She can see the viscid slipperiness of the liquid as it sloshes at the edge of the glass. Hear the ice clinking. “Oh, no, I can’t accept the night before a game…”
“Please allow us to do you this courtesy,” the translator says, in his precise English, with a theatrical gesture of regret.
Beth takes the drink from Salvioli’s hand.
By dessert, her mind is fuzzy and her tongue is thick. The food tastes like cotton. Salvioli has disposed of at least a bottle of wine and he and the translator are working on another. The faces of the waitstaff keep swimming up suddenly, in their dark uniforms, against the dark velvety walls. Beth closes her eyes and pictures an enormous mouth, cavernous and dark. The ring of pale faces around the walls, the teeth. And the tongue, moving and ready to swallow.
The translator had started out by asking her courteous questions about her home and questions, relayed from Salvioli, about her match in Moscow, but now he and the translator are having what sounds like an argument in Italian, with much waving of hands and shouting. Beth pokes at what’s left on her plate, and takes another swallow of her wine. It doesn’t taste of anything.
What she wants… what she wants most in the world, right at this moment, is not to be here. Not to be sitting at this table with a man whose name she doesn’t know and another man she doesn’t understand. Not to feel that every moment in her life has somehow been this moment, this moment with men who don’t speak her language and places that aren’t her home. She would give so much, right now, for this table to be her pillow at home, or even in the Methuen home, with the sound of the other girls breathing in the dark. She’s alone, and she doesn’t know what to do, and the only man she’s ever really wanted didn’t want her...
“Miss Harmon,” says the translator, and Beth jerks her head up, startled. Salvioli is already signing the bill, and pulling on his immaculate jacket. “Perhaps you have finished your dinner? We thank you for your company.”
Beth coughs. “Yes,” she says, and fumbles for her pocketbook. “I should… Yes. Thank you for dinner.”
They are almost to the elevator when Salvioli speaks again, a few quiet, pointed words in the translator’s ear. The translator clears his throat. He seems sober, or close enough. “Miss Harmon,” he says, impassively. “I will retire for the evening, but Mr. Salvioli would like to offer you a nightcap, if you like. In his suite.”
Beth turns, stumbling a little on her new heels, and stares at Salvioli, as though she’s never seen him before.
He’s around thirty, maybe. He’s tall, and built solidly. His hair is dark and still thick. His eyes are nondescript enough. His lips are thin. He wears a dark suit, impeccably cut, and an open-necked white shirt out of which curls dark hair. His shoulders are solid. His arms -
Beth swallows, hard. “Thank you,” she says. “Please - please thank Mr. Salvioli for the evening, but I need, I need to lie down now. And rest, for our match tomorrow. Thank you.”
Her hand is shaking when she pushes the elevator button. When the doors start to close, cutting off her sight of them, both men are still looking at her, wearing polite smiles. “Buona notte , Miss Harmon,” says the translator, and the doors click shut.
The chess is mechanical. The reporters are a chattering mass. Salvioli is distant and dour. At least there is one language she can never forget how to speak.
She opens with the Queen’s Gambit. Salvioli plays the Slav Defence. Knight to queen three. Her head is full of noise and her palms are slick. But she keeps moving the pieces, pawn to king’s bishop five, capture his rook. He concedes after ninety-four minutes. Beth shakes his hand sharply twice, pauses to smile at the press cadre, and takes a brief break to vomit in the restroom before the reception.
The Italian press are noisy, but polite. Several of the questions relayed to her are about whether she likes Italy, and would she like to live there, and fishing for her to compliment the Italian game. Beth murmurs something about the wonderful fashion and the privilege of being invited to a friendly match, the wonderful history of Italian chess. Salvioli says something with a wide grin, and the press corps all laugh.
She’s in the cab to the airport, feeling the sweat dark and hot under her arms, when the pieces join up with an audible click .
Salvioli had been in Paris. He wasn’t invited to play, but he was there, watching, when she played Borgov. She remembers being introduced to him, remembers someone exclaiming, “...must meet the Italian champion…” as she stumbled through the reception. He was just a dark shape to her then, a feature of the nightmare she seemed to be in, another of the pairs of relentless eyes that had been skewering her since she sat down and locked gazes with Borgov.
Benny’s voice plays in her head: There’s a rumor you were drunk.
He knew. He must have known. He knew. And she took the bait.
As soon as the seatbelt light turns off, she hits her call bell, and the stewardess promptly appears, with a lipsticked rectangle of a smile. “Vino rosso , per favore,” she says, and pours the first one straight down her throat.
Next time: Benny, Borgov, and painful sobriety.
Author’s note: Yes, this is Paris-redux of a sort, but that’s not coincidental. Some lessons have yet to be learned. Stay with me.
Sorry for the delay in posting; life has been rough. On the plus side(?) it’s becoming clear this story is longer than I originally estimated. The pace of updates will slow, but I've mapped out all 11 anticipated chapters of this, so they will come.
I considered naming “Salvioli” after the actual Italian chess champion of 1968, but since I intended to commit a character assassination of sorts, that seemed hardly fair. Instead, champion “Luca Salvioli” is named in honour of the 1881 Milanese champion of one of the first Italian tournaments, Carlo Salvioli.
Chapter 5: Flammable Liquid
Beth is heading for the wall, unless she can get her knights unpinned.
So stupid. So stupid. So stupid. She turns by the window, back to the kitchen. Takes another swig. The TV blares a sitcom behind her; she turns the canned laughter up.
Why hadn’t she realised? So obvious . Why had she thought that nobody would see? That no-one would see the weakness, glaring out of her. That they wouldn’t do the obvious thing, to get what advantage they could.
She’d been so close to going upstairs with him. So close.
The red wine bottle is empty; she hurls it overhand towards the trash and digs the bottle of vodka out of the freezer. There’s a ricochet and a splintering noise somewhere behind her. The vodka doesn’t burn going down; she’s numb already, except for rising bile. The carpet under her bare feet feels like foam rubber. The electric lights are glaring and blurred.
What now? When everyone she plays will know, know that she can be gotten at, undermined. She has to be better than everybody. She has to be twice as good. Benny will know. Borgov. Townes. Jolene. Everyone.
It’s already over. She’s gone as far as she’ll ever go.
She should put the bottle back. She should go upstairs to bed. Take a pill from under the floorboard. Sleep, and think on this disaster tomorrow. Think how she can get back on track. But she can’t make it up the stairs; she can see Harry, and Jolene, in that bed. Alma.
Morphy. The pride and the sorrow of chess. “I think that is you.”
Beth blinks at her feet; they’re smeared with red. There’s a sharp grittiness under her soles against the linoleum; and, as she moves, the first twinges of pain. She reaches her hand down, and her fingers come away red.
Too much, just too much. She stumbles to the couch with the bottle. It’s blissfully cold. She rests her cheek against the cool glass, lets the bite sink into the bone above the eye.
The first thing she’s aware of is red. The second thing is the smell.
Her shirt is white, or was yesterday. Now it’s spattered with dark patches, winey patches, leading down from her chin. Almost all liquid; she didn’t eat yesterday. It’s soaked through to her bra. She groans, and retches helplessly over the arm of the couch; her shirt sticks painfully to her belly when she moves.
Her feet, when her stomach has ceased convulsing, announce themselves as baths of liquid fire, clotted with sharp grit. There’s blood smeared on the end of the couch where they were, and a red stain soaked into the carpet.
In her sleep. She threw up in her sleep. She could have died.
She moans out loud, sharply, when her feet touch the floor and pain shoots further up her leg. There are still pieces of glass in there; she can feel them. But she can’t go anywhere like this. She bites her lip hard as she picks her way across the floor to the foot of the stairs, but when her foot touches the floor the sounds leak out.
Just get to the bathroom. Just get there.
When she’s turned the shower on, she swings her stiff legs one by one over the edge of the tub and climbs in in her shirt and underwear. She stares at the glossy pink tile, and lets the red swirl away in the water.
Both her head and foot are still throbbing when she gets out of her cab outside the Herald-Leader and limps to the door.
I put the letters on my desk for you, Townes’s note had said. I had them forwarded from the Review’ s P.O. Box. Just ask someone on the newsdesk.
The emergency room visit and the stitches had cost eighty dollars.
“Good morning,” she says, thick-tongued, to the brightly lipsticked woman at the Herald-Leader ’s front desk. “Townes, I mean, Mr. Townes, he left some mail for me to collect on his desk. Harmon.”
“Miss Harmon!” the woman says in a voice that hurts Beth’s ears, and smiles cloyingly. “Of course, I’ll show you to his desk.”
The chatter of the bullpen is like an assault; Beth bites back a wave of nausea and follows the woman, deliberately not looking at the name on her desk. The noise falls off slightly as she walks through, as men with phones to their ears and cigarettes on their lip pause to contemplate her. She glares at her shoes and walks deliberately into the woman. “Could we hurry up, please? I have an appointment.”
Townes’s desk is vacant; his chair is neatly pushed in, some pens haphazardly dropped, a half-empty pack of cigarettes, a jacket hanging vacant on the chair. Beth breathes in just a little, and touches the empty shoulders. The envelopes are in a half-collapsed pile on the left side of the desk, at least a dozen, maybe more: Beth Harmon, ℅ Chess Review, P.O. Box 2902, New York, N.Y. 10090. Miss Elizabeth Harmon. Miss E. Harmon…
“Thanks,” she says flatly, and scoops the pile into a bag.
At home, she rips them open one by one, between sips. Dear Miss Harmon, I read your interview and felt I could be of some help. Dear Miss Harmon, please find enclosed my application for the position of. Miss Harmon, your tits are so I enclose a picture write back. Dear Beth, you clearly need my assistance, your play of late has not been. Miss Harmon, my experience in the field of chess is unparalleled and I have been coaching for.
Miss Harmon, you have yet to truly understand the Queen’s Gambit.
Beth pulls the letter closer to her face, and tries to focus.
You understand its classic potential and have used it to great effect, but you have yet to see some of its beauty. It stands on a pivot, from which it could turn any number of ways. In your hand it can be more than an opening.
I do not make you promises, but I wish to discuss working with you. I believe I can show you some possibilities.
Beth squints at the signature; it means nothing to her. There’s an address, in Cincinnati, and a phone number. Demyan Vladychenko.
The bishop keeps falling over. Beth pokes at it. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be behaving. Somehow it topples over again, and takes out one of the pawns on its way down. Pawn to king’s knight three. She giggles. King’s knight opens. Morphy defense. The knight feels sticky when she moves it; she swipes at the board with her sleeve, which seems to be wet.
Morphy only had to play until he was twenty-two. Two more years. She can do two more years. They can lay the wreath of laurel on her head, and she’ll play every night in Paris, until dawn, two grandmasters at once. Just win the championship, just play a few more years, and then she can do... She can do…
She’ll recreate that match with Borgov, in Mexico. She could have won. Where’s the pamphlet? Wait, she doesn’t need the pamphlet. She rolls onto her back and stares dreamily at the ceiling. Sicilian. Rossolimo attack. Queen to queen’s knight three. Fianchetto her bishop. The pieces are dancing for her. She has to stop him getting his pawn to queen’s rook four. Knight to queen’s knight seven. That’s where she lost. Let down by her knights…
Should have gotten the queen to queen’s knight six. Pinned him down by his rooks.
He moved everything with hardly a pause. Every piece before he started was precisely where he wanted it to be. And then he moved every one as though he had the whole game long ago, and could see what she would do, and was just waiting for her to do it. He saw everything, and she, just a speck…
Beth rolls to her feet and stumbles to the phone, blinking at the light in the hall.
“ Da, zdravstvuyte .” The right voice this time.
“Maybe you are a machine,” she says, and giggles drunkenly.
“ Chto vy?”
“You know. The game. In Mexico. You were like a computer. I think maybe you are a computer.” She rolls onto her back again. “I was playing the game again.”
“Miss Kharmon.” Borgov sounds cautious. “Hello.”
“Hello. I was replaying the game, and I wanted to ask you about it. Do you remember the pawn to queen’s rook four? Except to you it was queen’s rook five! That’s what’s so funny.” She giggles again. “It’s all different from the other side. That’s what I learned. It’s all different to you. Is it late where you are?”
Borgov laughs; she can feel him thawing over the thin wire she imagines suspended over the Atlantic. “Slower, Leezabeth. I not follow English so fast. You say, is it late?”
Beth winds the phone cord around her knuckles, letting his pronunciation of her name slide down her spine like a warm hand. “Yes. Is it late in Moscow? I loved it in Moscow.”
“It is morning here. Soon I take my son to the park. Is it late for you?”
She squints at the streetlight glow through the frosted glass above her front door. “I don’t know. I don’t feel tired. I was playing chess. Do you remember Mexico City?”
“I remember. An ugly city. I am pleased you like my city. V gostyákh khoroshó, a dóma lúchshe.” Borgov rustles and breathes out.
The warmth fades quickly; Beth feels a chill creeping up her bare arms from the floor. “Don’t you remember the chess?”
“There was much chess. I remember the chess. But not every game.” Now he sounds irritated. “We played a game there, I know. But it was long ago.”
“I thought you were a computer,” Beth says, and she can hear the way she slurs the last word, but it seems like much too much effort to get all the consonants in the right place. “Playing chess.”
“Ah, Leezabeth, I am not a computer,” says Borgov lightly. “But you, perhaps, have had much vodka tonight?”
“Not vodka. Vodka is too quick. I like wine. Maybe whiskey.” She stares at the pattern of tiles in the kitchen, unfocusing her left eye a little.
“The vodka is not always kind.”
“Wine is cruel too. It plays tricks.” It’s playing one now; Beth can feel her good mood ebbing away, the tears creeping up to start gathering behind her eyes. “Borgov,” she says suddenly, before they can get into her throat, “why do you do this?”
“Do - this?” He sounds lost.
“Why do you play? It’s all so - and I don’t know - why do you keep playing?”
“I don’t understand, Leezabeth.”
“I just don’t know - how to play. Why to play. When I beat you again - “
“You have not beaten me again yet.” Cold.
“I thought you could tell me,” she says, a little girl. A mistake. A rounding error. “I thought if I knew how you did it…”
“Miss Kharmon. I think you should sleep.”
“You should sleep. Do you not have a friend? You should take care. Where is your father?”
“Vasily,” she says desperately, “tell your wife - she doesn’t have to. Tell your wife…”
“I will manage my wife. You should go to sleep, Miss Kharmon.” Click.
Demyan Vladychenko is at least fifty, and short. He’s dark and peppered with gray. And when she opens the door, he shoulders his way in without waiting for an invitation and deposits himself on her couch with a scowl.
Beth stands with her mouth slightly open for a few seconds, not troubling to try and hide it. By the time she’s turned to face him, she’s arranged her face into a skeptical expression that feels pretty good.
Vladychenko isn’t embarrassed, but he seems to recognise that there’s some sort of formula he hasn’t quite followed. “Miss Harmon,” he says, slightly awkwardly. “My thanks for the invitation to your home.” There are hints of Borgov in his voice, but only hints. He prods her couch with one finger and then rests his fists on his spread thighs like a boxer.
Beth raises one eyebrow and lets the tension stretch a little. “Can I offer you a drink?” she says, when she’s sure she’s judged it right.
“Black tea. Yes. Always black. With sugar.” He’s now studying her chess trophies, completely unembarrassed.
Fine. One cup of tea, and she can get him out. She didn’t have high hopes for this anyway. She fumbles for the plastic jar on the kitchen counter, and dry-swallows two aspirin while the tea is steeping. Sugar in both, her best cups; Alma would have died before she’d have put forward anything else, and somehow with a guest she always feels Alma hovering, bending her knees straight-backed as she puts a cup on the table and smiling her hostess smile.
“So,” she says when she’s seated across from him. “You wrote to me about my chess game.”
“Your game, yes.” He’s watching her alertly. “You have the true feel for the game, but too many blind spots. You cannot go further without help.”
This is almost funny. Beth feels her lip twitch despite herself. “Is that so.”
“It is so,” Demyan says, with the air of issuing a final ruling.
“May I ask who you are exactly, Demyan?” she says sweetly. “Am I saying your name correctly? I don’t recall seeing it on the list of world champions.”
“No, you do not,” he says, his face creasing in another scowl. “I do not play their games. Do not ask me about my rating, or those silly championships. I play . I show you how to play. That is what I do.”
“That is a large amount to take on faith.”
“Take faith or not. It makes no difference to me. We play together, or we do not.” He sets his cup down roughly, and she enjoys seeing him wince as a little hot tea runs over his hand.
“You said,” she says, feeling irresistably drawn to ask this much, “that I didn’t understand the Queen’s Gambit.”
“I said. And you do not.”
“What, exactly, do I not understand?”
“You think it is a move. An opening.”
Beth’s headache is intensifying; he’s talking such obvious garbage, and yet his self-possession is so strong she can’t shake it off. “Of course it’s a move,” she says, “I’ve played it a million times myself. As an opening. It’s been an opening for hundreds of years...”
“No. It is not.”
“What is it, then?” she says, irked beyond belief, longing to swat him like a fly.
“It is a door. It swings on a pivot, and opens to possibilities.” Vladychenko stirs his tea, once again unmoved.
“I beat the world champion in Moscow a few months ago. Using the Queen’s Gambit.”
He waves a hand. “I did not watch that game.”
Beth stands up abruptly. “I think we’re finished, Mr. Vladychenko, don’t you?”
He pauses with the cup halfway to his lip. “No, I do not. You have not listened.”
Beth walks in sharp stiff steps to the front door and holds it open. “Thank you for coming all this way, but I don’t think we would work well together. Goodbye.”
He creases his face at her again for a long moment, but then he sets his cup on the side table, straightens his crumpled white shirt, and walks out. (Leaving his teaspoon on the couch, some inner part of her notes.)
Beth swings the door shut behind him with a satisfying crash, and goes to look in the refrigerator for a drink.
When she wakes it’s with a jerk, facedown on her own kitchen counter. It’s after one in the morning by the kitchen clock, and the hairs are standing up on her arms.
She can see it; the straight flat road, the sunlight, hands on the wheel, a sudden jerk. Fire. Pain.
It’s late. It’s too late. She isn’t getting anywhere, and it’s all slipping away. Time is slipping away. She knows it, really. It’s all slipping away…
The straight flat road. The bridge. The swerve. The railing.
This house has been so many things to her. When she was a kid it was the landscape of her dreams, the better ones. The ones about what other little girls had, the ones who went home to a mother and a father and were tucked in and read stories to. When she came home with Alma it was a different kind of dream, the one where everything seems normal but is just a little wrong. Then it was their haven, the two of them, the place where Alma would play and Beth would play and they would both fall asleep to the soundtrack of sitcoms. And then…
The straight flat road. The hands on the wheel. The crash.
Beth gets up shakily, and begins to hunt for her purse. She packs a bag, in a state of frozen dread, her hands methodically putting underwear and pants and skirts and blouses in one by one. She wraps her toothpaste in a plastic bag and digs a wad of cash out of the folds of the couch. She calls a cab company.
The airport is deathly silent at this hour. The duty-free is closed. It’s nearly three hours until the first flight; she spends them sitting in a plastic chair in the departure lounge, staring at the travel posters until their meaning unravels in strings of letters and colours. When her flight is called, she unfolds her limbs stiffly and presses her forehead against the cool of the window, watching the ground staff move the stairs and buzz past in their bright jackets, taking comfort in their reality, their loud voices and bad backs and wives and overtime problems.
She clutches her carry-on at the other end all the way to another cab rank, and watches the bridges rise up on the horizon like ancient monoliths. She closes her eyes and imagines being rooted all the way down into the earth, concrete and steel, huge and immovable…
The light is falling full and golden on the street by the time she raps on his door again, with her heart in her mouth.
Shuffling. A cough. “What?”
“Benny,” she says, low and honest. “Please. I’m here. It’s Beth.”
V gostyákh khoroshó, a dóma lúchshe - A Russian proverb; it’s good to visit, but it’s better to be home.
If anybody's reading and wants me to continue, now is definitely a good time to let me know! All feedback is appreciated as though it consisted of golden retriever puppies.
Chapter 6: Dry Dust
Beth and Benny, sitting in a park.
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.
Beth and Benny are playing the Immortal Game of 1851 between Anderssen and Kieseritzky. Benny plays white. If you were wondering, white sacrifices multiple pieces to hold black to a checkmate with only three pieces left. It’s notated using descriptive notation, as Beth and Benny would have used in 1968-9.
Chapter 7: Pooled Blood
Melting the ice; rebuilding.
Mexico City, 1966
Alma drew the curtains together when she came out of the bathroom in her robe, and then twisted the knob of the pinkly-shaded lamp by the dressing table. She turned her back before she began to wriggle into her underwear under the robe; she still never gets totally undressed in front of Beth. (Her best underwear, too, Beth noted sourly, the shell pink.) Beth supposed it made sense; they had been adult and nearly adult when they came together, and for all that Alma was truly Mother now, some things couldn’t be substituted.
Beth turned on the Anglepoise lamp on the table nearest her armchair and bent it down over her book, with pointed movements.
“Did you find new insights for your endgame today?” Alma wore a half-smile even as she shuffled to the closet in her feathered mules to fetch her slip.
Beth turned a page, keeping her eyes fixed on it. “Apparently.”
“Darling, please, don’t be like that. I want you to be happy. I want me to be happy, too. You liked the show, didn’t you? You had fun with Manuel.” She shed her robe on the stool, and began to pull her slip over her head, with effortful grunts. One curler came a little loose; she pushed it back into place absentmindedly before straightening the slip and sitting back down. “Call down for a drink, we can have one together. It’s a happy night.” She leaned into the mirror and hummed as she began to pull the curlers out.
Beth picked up the phone on the side table. “ - A margarita, for 603? No, make it two. Thank you.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” Alma patted the end of the bed nearest her dressing table. “Please, tell me about your day.”
Beth closed Five Modern Endgames with a slight sigh and left it on the table. She perched on the bed. “I played Morgan-Jones, you were there for that. I took a walk around the hotel earlier. Analysed some of the matches between Tal and Botvinnik. Botvinnik has this scientific attacking strategy… I was taking notes.”
“I worry about you, is all.” Alma pushed the skin at the corners of her cheeks up with her fingers, held it there for a moment, sighed, and let it drop. “You’re still a young girl, and I want you to have all the experiences a young girl should have. Falling in love, dancing until dawn, feeling a man’s arms around you…” She tossed her head back, and laughed like a woman in a play. “I feel like a girl again.”
Beth crossed her hands across her lap, like a charm. “I’m glad.”
Alma reached for her discarded stockings, pulled one as high as the knee, and made a face as she saw the long run descending from the top. “Whoops. Guess I went a little hard on these ones last night.” She tossed the balled-up nylon towards the laundry bag, and shook out a fresh pair from the drawer. Beth watched the soft frail beige fabric being drawn up, over the mottled blue of protruding veins and the the dark finger-bruises on the thigh. “There’s just something about a man. The smell, and the size… they’re so real. ”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Where do you even do it? The car?”
Alma slapped half-heartedly at Beth’s leg, but her smile had only brightened. “Elizabeth, that is no way to speak to me.”
“Sorry, Mother ,” said Beth, poking at the quilted bedspread. “Do we have to have the talk about birth control?”
“Stop teasing your mother. Is that margarita here yet?”
“You can hear the door as well as me. Unless your hearing is going, at your advanced age.”
“Beth.” Alma sighed, and began to dust powder onto her skin. “Let me have this. I waited long enough.”
“So is that what it feels like, to be with the right man? Like being a girl again?” Beth rested her chin on her knees, and watched Alma’s black eyes in the mirror as she edged them with kohl.
“I suppose that’s the closest. Like being alive in every part of you. Like knowing why you were born. Or not knowing, and not caring.” Alma finished the line above her eye and blinked carefully before setting the pencil down. “Six nights now. A whole week, and maybe more... That’s something, isn’t it? That has to be something.”
“What will happen tomorrow night?” Beth let her gaze wander towards the window, to her book and her chessboard still on the end table.
“Who knows until then?” Alma fixed her gaze to the ceiling as she angled her mascara wand carefully. “When I die,” she said, curling them up meticulously, “I want to know I really lived. I’ve spent so much of my life not living. That I felt the blood rush in my veins, and I took a chance…”
Beth was bored. “Isn’t there something more to take chances on than a man?”
“I suppose. For you. But I never found anything that felt like it.”
“Well.” Beth deliberately looked away from the ghost of a hand on Alma’s leg, thick fingers, spread grip. “I hope he turns out to be worth it, Mother.”
“Oh, there’s my drink, honey. Get the door.”
Beth’s life seems to have been altogether too full of awkward doorstep moments lately.
“Thanks for coming,” she says to Townes, awkwardly.
Townes has got a hand on the back of his neck, and is shifting from foot to foot. “If you need me, Beth, I’m here. I promise.”
She smiles lopsidedly. “I know. ...Aren’t you going to come in?”
“Uh, of course.” He ducks his head and enters the house, and his smell, tobacco and leather and something fine and green, moves past her like a wave, a physical thing. “But I need to… can I use your phone?”
Something twists and knots itself in Beth’s stomach as she watches him dial a number hurriedly from memory. He turns around towards her as he lifts the receiver to his ear, and she retreats in a rush to the door of the kitchen and turns her back. He’s holding his hand over the mouthpiece, but she can hear just enough: “a friend… won’t make dinner… explain later… I’ll tell you tonight, okay? Me too. Bye.”
“I hope,” she says when he turns around, feeling her cheeks stiff, “that I’m not causing you trouble at home.” She feels a flash of bitter joy when his mouth tightens.
“It’s fine,” he says, roughly.
“Townes,” she says, already tasting regret, “I’m sorry. That was…”
He brushes it off physically, a flick of the hand. “It’s fine.”
There is another painful silence, until Beth feels she might burst.
“Townes,” she says, feeling the traitorous tears already creeping up, “I asked you to come because I have to… I have to…”
“Beth, Beth, it’s okay, come on. Sit down.” He guides her to the couch. “You can tell me.” He’s across from her, only a foot away. His hair is falling over one eye; his dark eyes, so intent.
Beth sucks in a breath, up and up, hoping some ghost of courage, of Alice and Jolene and even brave, lost Alma, is beside her and within her. “You remember when I went to Paris?” she asks, clutching two handfuls of her skirt and twisting them equidistantly until they form a rope. “And lost to Borgov, and the articles they wrote about it? What they said?”
“I remember.” Townes looks puzzled; this evidently isn’t what he was expecting. “There was a lot of analysis, of the strengths of your game, and his.”
“Do you remember what they didn’t say?” She’s twisted the fabric as far as it will go; she lets go and starts to twist the other way.
Townes is lost. “What they didn’t say?”
“How I went on a bender the night before. How I was hungover. I know there were rumors. You must have heard them.” Beth’s eyes are burning, hot and heavy; she won’t let herself close them, but she can’t look at him square either. From the corner of her eye she can see his hands, loose and helpless in his lap.
He exhales. “I might have heard something, I guess, but I didn’t really think much of it. Is that what you wanted to tell me? That you lost to Borgov because you got drunk?”
It’s on the tip of Beth’s tongue to blurt out, what else she did that night in Paris; how he isn’t the only one who can do things -
She bites her lip to blood. “It’s more than that. I can’t… When I start drinking, I can’t stop. I couldn’t stop that night in Paris, and for weeks afterwards. I stopped before Moscow, but then when I went to Milan, they offered me a drink. And I took it. And then…”
Townes reaches one of his hands across to her lap, and takes hers. Beth lets her eyes close and the wetness come, waiting for the noise, the pain, the eruption -
“So,” he says. His voice is as warm, as perfect, as ever. “You drink too much.”
“I drink too much,” she repeats, and when the words come out of her mouth, they shudder and set, like jelly, hard and heavy but clear; she’s been carrying them around for so long. Now she can put them down. She feels her shoulders ease back.
Beth feels her jaw drop; she cuffs him loosely on the arm. “Excuse me? I say this to you, and that’s what I get?”
He sobers up rapidly. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I thought it was going to be some kind of problem I could never understand, something only a genius like you would struggle with, and I was thinking, how could I even know what to say… and it was just funny, for a second. Beth, you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last.”
She squeezes his hand, without words. Nods.
“So New York. Not pleasure?”
“I was drinking so much. Everything seemed to be slipping away… I ran to Benny.”
“And he sent you right back.” His eye is assessing.
“I guess.” She looks towards her kitchen. “But he was right too. I couldn’t stay. And I’ve been so afraid to tell you… I was afraid everyone knows, in chess. And it all started to feel hopeless.”
“How can I help, then? What did you hope I’d say?”
Beth chokes on a sob. “That you knew how I could stop. That you’d know the words to say, the spell, like you know what I should say to the reporters…” Like a child, the hope still hasn’t completely died.
He fumbles inside his jacket pocket and extracts a notebook and pencil; Beth laughs herself, through another sob, as he flips his notebook open and poises his pencil above it, assuming his serious reporting face. “Let’s do our research then, Miss Harmon. How did you stop before?”
“Before Moscow?” Beth lets go of his other hand to wipe her eyes, and lets herself really think about it for the first time. “My friend came to me, Jolene, she stayed with me. And I didn’t want her to see me drunk, and I didn’t feel so… It was easier.” She snorts as he diligently jots a few lines.
“And when you started again?” He poises his pencil and looks at her seriously.
“I felt so… alone,” she says, the words dragged out of her from somewhere dark and unwilling. “I didn’t understand anyone there, they were all so beautiful, and, and sophisticated… and it wasn’t going well here, not really. I’ve been so afraid...” She draws her knees up and hides her forehead against them.
“That I might win,” she says, muffled, against her knees. “What do I do if I can’t beat him again? And what do I do if I can? What do I do after that?”
Townes looks at her steadily.
“I played this boy, years ago,” she says, remembering Georgi, his solemn tie and his world of straight lines where hers had always curved. “In Mexico. He said he’d be world champion by the time he was eighteen, but he couldn’t imagine a world after that. What he would do the next day, and for the rest of his life. And I think sometimes I can’t either. What do I have to live for, after that, if I beat him? Why would I get up in the morning and not just drink all day? Or worse..." She rests her cheek against her knees and stares into her jaunty pink kitchen, her dusty tile and wilted flowers.
Townes clears his throat; she looks at him, heart in her mouth.
“My mother used to read me the story of the Snow Queen, when I was a boy,” he says, reaching out gently to brush her hair back behind her ear. “She was beautiful, but she couldn’t help but make everything cold, all she could see was puzzles, and she wanted to put them back together… I always thought she must have been so lonely.”
Beth stares. “Townes…”
“I’m just saying… you don’t have to live in that world, Beth. I came when you called. Your friend Jolene, she came to you. You can have more than the puzzles. It doesn’t have to be so cold…”
“You could bring him here some time,” Beth says suddenly. “He. You know. Who you called. I’m sorry. I’d like to…”
He snorts, lightly, and starts to pull his arms out of his sleeves. “Sure. Maybe one day. Thanks.”
Beth lets him settle the jacket around her shoulders, and turns up the corners of her mouth in a fragile smile.
The phone rings when she’s cleaning the kitchen in the morning, and concentrating very hard on the smell of cut grass from the open window and not the smell from the trash.
“Miss Elizabeth Harmon?” Another officious male voice.
Beth feels her heart sink. “Yes, this is she.”
“This is Darius Mendelsohn of the Russia desk at State. I’ve been assigned to support you. We’d like to start briefing you ahead of your upcoming trip to Moscow.”
“But isn’t it a little early?” she says, hurriedly. “It’s weeks until we go yet.”
“We expect the security challenges to be greater on this trip. We’d really like to get started sooner.” There’s the creak of Mendelsohn leaning back in his chair, and then, she swears, the crack of chewing gum.
“I’m very busy with preparing for the championship,” Beth says, in a headlong rush. “Maybe we can talk in a few weeks? Goodbye."
When her heart rate has slowed down again, she looks at the telephone in its cradle ruefully, and then leaves it hanging at the end of its long cord.
Jolene steps in through the door and blinks. “You have a party in here?”
Beth brushes past her hurriedly and moves to open the living room window. “I’m sorry. It’s clearing.”
“How about some coffee, then, Michelangelo?” Jolene settles herself on the couch and spreads her arms along the back. “I had to listen to this bitch all day, about how desegregation was ruining America, and where will it end. Some client’s wife. I’d ask you for something stronger, but smells like you drank it already.”
Beth swallows. “I can do coffee.”
“Black, with sugar. Thanks.” Jolene spreads her thighs in her cotton dress and taps her polished nails on them.
Beth busies herself in the kitchen; the meditative ritual of setting the water to boil, the spooning of grounds, the stirring. The chink of two cups into the ring of their saucers. The heaped spoon of tea-brown granules. She breathes in and out to the rhythm.
Jolene reaches her hand to the coffee as Beth offers it to her, greedily. “I was gonna tell you what Alan said about it all. Can you believe it, his name is Alan? Could he even have a whiter senior partner name? But now I’m thinking you already got something on your mind.” She stirs with precise movements.
Beth settles herself in the armchair opposite and sets her cup down. “I guess I do.”
“So.” Jolene lifts the cup to her lips, and then regards her over the rim. “You did it again.”
Beth sips her own coffee, then sets it down; she won’t hide behind it, not again. “I did, yes. I drank. I got drunk. I screwed up.” She meets Jolene’s eyes squarely.
“And now you back here. Damseling at me.” Jolene’s gaze is curious; nothing more.
Beth breathes. In; out. “Not this time. I didn’t call you here to save me. I know it won’t work.”
“But you called me here for something.” Jolene looks bored suddenly, and irritated. She stirs her coffee and picks at the nails of one hand with the other.
“I just - I wanted to be honest with you. You deserve that,” Beth says, feeling the shame close and warm around her heart. “I know it doesn’t fix anything, but - “
Jolene laughs. “Like I didn’t know already. I’ve known you since you were nine years old, Cracker. You think I don’t know when you go off on one, and why?”
“It’s more than I know,” Beth says frankly, her body all relief. “It’s like I can never see it coming, til it comes… I always think it’ll be different this time, I’ll have one, and that’s all I need…”
Jolene makes a little exasperated sound in the back of her throat, and shifts sideways on the couch. “Okay, you told me. How ‘bout we talk about something else for once? Maybe it’d do you some good to think about something other than yourself and your world domination shit. You ever think about that?” She looks slyly sideways at Beth, that look that always means she’s got something in her back pocket.
Beth feels an honest laugh bubbling up. “If anyone can do it, it’s you.”
“I added some major detail to the radical plan. There’s another lawyer up in California, in Bakersfield, and he’s filed some test cases in state court, on housing issues, schooling. I got some plans for how we can replicate that down here, really push the boundaries. It’s gonna take some capital…” Jolene looks at Beth suddenly, as though she’s never seen her before. “Or maybe we should talk about your shit. What are you gonna do with the money?”
Beth stumbles in the middle of a sip. “The money?”
“Yeah. All the money. When you win world champion.” Jolene narrows her eyes at her. “It’s a lot of money, right? A lot.”
The coffee she just swallowed is scalding its way into her stomach. “I guess,” she says, swallowing it back and reaching for a napkin. “I never really thought about that part. The money.”
Jolene’s laugh is almost a bark. “Yeah, I bet you didn’t. Jesus, Cracker. You’re gonna sit on your ass and pity yourself some more, aren’t you. Find a way to piss it all away. Did you ever think about how much that pisses me off? That the money is all a game to you. That you don’t have a fucking clue what you’re going to do with thousands and thousands of dollars.”
“You have it,” says Beth, on an impulse that feels right, in the moment. “You can use it. I don’t need it. You have it.”
“Yeah, right.” Jolene drains her cup with a lavish slurp. “Like I’m letting you off that easy.”
Beth watches her pull her skirts together and reach for her purse, all dismay. “You’re leaving?”
“I think I better, yeah.” Jolene avoids her eyes as she roots for her car key. “I’m thinking I’ve been here long enough.”
Beth walks her to the door, in silence; Jolene shrugs her purse up to her shoulder and looks straight at Beth, her face set and serious. “Get a grip, Cracker,” she says, and turns on her heel.
Beth closes the door.
Next: Time to get serious about chess, and a close encounter in a bathroom stall.
Chapter 8: Burnt Flesh
A swallowing of pride, a loss of belonging, and an ill-advised inferno.
Morehead, Kentucky, 1955
Beth sensed it before she reached the trailer; she’s never quite been able to put into words the “how”. But walking down the beaten-dirt path towards it, bookbag jouncing on her hip, it’s there. It’s there in the trailer door that isn’t fully closed, the darkness at the bedroom window, the scratch across the siding of the trailer that is just barely visible in the afternoon light. All of them adding up to a slowness in her steps, until they’re dragging as though through molasses. A deepening pit in her stomach.
Alice was head-down in the bedroom closet when Beth tentatively opened the trailer door. She kept her thumb over the latch as she closed it behind her, until it had clicked into place with only the faintest sound.
Alice heard it, though. There was a thud as she tossed something out of the closet and it bounced off the trailer wall. Her voice was perfectly steady and balanced on the point of a needle when she said, “Beth?”
Beth eased her bookbag off her shoulder and pushed it quietly under the couch with her foot. “Yes, Mama?”
“Beth, come here and look at this, please.”
Alice was pointing at a cardboard box, a brown one, filled with papers, some white, some pink, some green. Most of them were printed and much folded.
Beth looked at them. She let them fill her senses. She kept looking.
“ Look at them.” Alice’s voice held just the slightest note of tremor. “You see it, don’t you? You see what they are.”
Beth fumbled sideways for Alice’s leg, and then crept her hand up it until she encountered Alice’s on her hip. She curled her fingers around Alice’s and squeezed, listening for the answering squeeze, the easing of tension. But Alice’s fingers felt like the steel wire in the suspension bridge upstate. Beth felt a chill.
“I see it, Mama,” she said quietly.
“I knew you would. I could hear them earlier. I could hear it. We’ll have to take them now.” Alice worked her arms around the box, grimacing, then hefted it from her knees. “We have to get the matches. Go out back.”
Beth went to the kitchen and dug the long-stemmed matches out of the drawer with the forks and spoons. Alice kept the knives in a separate cupboard, since January. The three blunt dinner knives, and the one sharp one. She cracked the box and put her nose to it, breathing in the comforting sulfur smell.
Alice was stiffly carrying the box through their cramped kitchen/den and to the trailer door, holding it as far from her body as the weight would allow. She stepped down from the trailer onto the concrete block by the door, and walked along the path through the crushed weeds to where the neighbors had once gathered to cook sausage links and fry bacon on a grill. She tipped the papers onto the bare, blackened spot, and began to pile twigs and sticks on top of them.
Beth kept her fingers locked around the matches, poised by the trailer door.
When Alice had weighed the papers down to her satisfaction, she turned back toward the trailer. She was just in through the door, and reaching her hand towards Beth, when she stiffened, like a hunting dog after a squirrel. “Your bookbag,” she said.
Beth could scarcely breathe. “Mom…”
“Get your bookbag. It’s here, isn’t it?”
“Mom,” said Beth, through barely parted lips. “Please.”
Alice leveled her gaze, as cold and steady as a weapon, and Beth flinched. “You bring contamination into my home,” she said, her voice just a single key higher. “You bring in filth , full of their disgusting ideas, and you expect me to tolerate it? Get me your bookbag. Now.”
Not daring to move, Beth hooked her foot through the strap of the bag, and slowly drew it out from under the couch.
Alice scooped it up with one hand. “Good,” she said. “We won’t be trapped into this again. Let’s go.”
Beth followed her down the dirt path, watching the bag swing from Alice’s hand. Two pencils. An eraser. The shiny, new, stiff-spined copy of A Home for Sandy , with the puppy on the cover, and the little girl in the blue-checked dress and ribbon. She had been going to read it tonight, in bed, or with Alice if Alice were in a good mood. The card that Susan Dodson had made her, just pencil on a piece of cheap folded paper, that said “your so prity can i sitt with you tomoriw?”
Alice dropped the bookbag by the pyre, and then opened the matchbox. She touched the first flame to the corner of a green sheet of paper, and then lit a piece on the other site, white, densely covered with looped handwriting Beth couldn’t read. “The lies,” she said, almost to herself. “They cover them with lies and snakes, and they think they can keep truth in them, and they want us to keep them in our houses…” She touched the match to a third paper, and then dropped it as it smoked up to her fingers.
Beth stood still as the burning edged inward from three directions, and then stepped back as the flames licked around one stick with a crack.
Alice lifted the bookbag and upended it into the middle of the pile.
It seemed like a long time later when Beth came back to herself. Alice was still watching the flames, with a breathing air of satisfaction, even as they started to dip and die back. The sun was low on the horizon, and Beth’s bare arms were beginning to stipple with goosebumps.
Alice wrapped her arms around herself, and hugged tightly. “Good,” she said. “That was good. You’re a good girl, Beth. No more of that place, though. It isn’t safe. They’re sending missiles, incendiary packages, home with you. It’s prison propaganda. It won’t divide, but it’s not a prime. I can’t make it add up.”
Beth looked at the embers. She could still see most of one of her pencils, half-charred, under a pile of ashes. “Yes, mama.”
Alice pulled Beth in with the reach of her long arms, pressed Beth’s face against her belly in her yellow cotton dress. Her arms were tight and real and strong and they smelled of smoke and salt flesh. “You’re my good girl, Bethy. I don’t know what I’d do without you. How I’d know what was real. I love you.”
Beth closed her eyes and squeezed back, her heart a swirl of joy and relief and safety over a gnawing drag of hunger. And pride, that her thin white sticks of arms could anchor everything that was Alice to the earth, could make the world real for her again. “I love you, mom.”
There’s no way around it. No one else. She has to call. Has to.
Beth paces the kitchen. Tries hard not to think about how simple a few slugs of vodka would make everything. She can’t, and she has to, and that’s all there is to it.
If only Alma had never gotten a phone in the first place. If only Beth had had the sense to rip the cursed thing out of the wall, when it became her house. If only.
She’d crept into the back of the church hall, the one they told her when she called the number on Benny’s small crumpled piece of paper. Someone was speaking behind a lectern at the front, and people of all ages and shapes were eager or sheepish or uneasy in a circle of wooden chairs. She sat out beyond the circle in a broken pew, and when the man at the front had invited the circle to stand up and speak, she’d fled.
They all looked so ordinary , she’d thought. Ordinary and flat and colourless.
Just pick the handset up. Just one number. Just one.
She has the letter still, with the number written on it, even though she’s been staring at it so long that she’s long since memorised the string of digits.
The phone’s in her hand. She can do this. Beth dials in the three-digit Cincinnati code, and then in a headlong burst, the whole ten.
Buzzing. Click. A gruff man’s voice. “Da.”
Beth swallows bile and saliva and her own pride. “Mr. Vladychenko?”
“Who is this?” says the voice irritably.
“Mr. Vladychenko, it’s Beth Harmon. The chess player.”
He snorts, an outgust of breath that crashes down the line and into Beth’s ear. “Oh, the chess player. Miss Harmon. How do you do, Miss Harmon?” He drags just a little on her surname; she can hear the ghost of Borgov’s kh.
Beth swallows again. “Um. Mr. Vladychenko. I wanted to say that… I think perhaps I was hasty at our last meeting.”
He exhales. “Oh, you do.”
“Yes. I, well, it wasn’t a good day for me, and I wasn’t ready to listen to you. And I thought maybe I could come to you this time, and we could talk about my chess.” Beth holds her breath.
A long pause. “You don’t want Demyan. You want someone to tell you, you are already immortal. Is that not so?”
Beth is still breathing. After everything, she’s still breathing, in and out. Her heart is slowing to a gallop. “No. That’s not what I need. I need someone… to make me stronger. I need help with my chess. For the world championship.”
Demyan is silent for two beats, a faint scratching noise audible. Writing something? “We meet one time. Not at my place, we go to coffee place. I bring the board. We talk one time, and you listen this time. And maybe, we play a game. Yes?”
“Okay. Yes. Okay.” Beth is already wondering what board he will bring. Will it be decades old, fine wood or stone, the pieces worn smooth from years of slick fingers? Cheap cardboard and plastic? Hand carved?
“I give you address. Good place in Cincinnati. You be there tomorrow at noon. Yes?”
“Okay. You got a pencil? I give you the address.”
Beth fumbles for the pad on the kitchen counter.
That night seems darker and colder; a chill seems to have leached back into the air, even as it keeps carrying her inexorably towards the date that’s been etched into her memory since she beat Benny in Ohio, in that crappy university lecture hall.
For once, she doesn’t want to look at a board. A movie doesn’t help; it’s just chatter, bouncing emptily off the walls.
It’s still early enough; he might be awake. Beth dials. The right voice again.
“Borgov, it’s Beth.”
“Miss Kharmon.” Borgov sounds looser and more at ease tonight. “ Dobryy vecher. Good evening. How are you?”
Beth feels lighter. “ Dobryy vecher. We could speak Russian. I need to practice. Ya plokho govoryu po russki. ”
“Your Russian is not so bad. I need to practice English. I will answer your Russian. Your night, it was good? When we spoke. The time. You were, what is the word... P'yanyy. ” Borgov laughs.
Beth feels her heart sink back into her shoes. “Borgov. Please. Ya prosil tebya. That was…”
“You like the drink. Vino. As you said. What do I say wrong?” Borgov sounds confused.
Beth grits her teeth. “Please. Borgov. I want to talk about the championship. I’ll see you. Uvidimsya v Moskve. ”
“Yes, in Moskva. Moscow. My home, my city. I will be pleased to see you. The chess is long and hard. I will be proud to play you, Leezabeth.”
Beth smiles down the phone, in fierce triumph. At last.
“And you will fit Moscow. Krasivaya zhenshchina. All the zhenshchiny. You make the city bright.” Borgov laughs again; she hears something that sounds suspiciously like ice clinking.
“Please. Borgov. Ya khochu pogovorit' o shakhmatakh. Just chess. I want to talk to you about the chess.”
“Why you not want to hear you are beautiful? It is all… legkiy. Easy. For a beautiful woman. Everyone want you. All easy…” Borgov trails off; his breathing has deepened.
Beth’s, on the other hand, has become tight shallow puffs of rage. “I don’t want to hear it,” she says tightly. “Ever. You understand me? Ever.”
He sighs. “ Ya vas ne ponimayu , Leezabeth.”
Beth slams the receiver back into the cradle.
The board is already set up in front of Vladychenko when she slips onto the high stool beside him. The cafe is a lively din around him, chinking cups, steam, and conversation, but he is moving pieces slowly and methodically on the board, on both sides.
The board is just a board, wooden pieces, mass produced, just like the first one she bought with her pocket money in Lexington. Beth feels the disappointment sink in; already she’s beginning to wish she hadn’t come.
“I thought - “ she begins.
He holds up a single finger.
“I wanted to - “
The finger again.
“I can’t just sit - “
“No talking.” He methodically shifts a black knight to queen’s rook three.
“You can’t seriously expect me to - “
Beth huffs out her breath hard. It would be easy, so easy, to lift her purse and walk away from this madman, this surly, rude, obnoxious stranger who presumes to think he could show her something about chess she doesn’t already know. But what then?
Demyan shifts white’s bishop to queen’s knight two and looks at her pointedly. Almost against her will, her hand steals to the black queen, proudly isolated on queen one, and shifts her forward.
Demyan moves a pawn forward.
Beth shifts her rook to king one.
He shifts his queen forward by two.
Beth shifts her pawn forward to queen’s bishop five.
She slouches in her seat, irritated almost beyond measure. “Oh, so you’re the only one who gets to talk?”
“If you will not listen, we will do this without talking. Stop and go back.”
“Or I will show you what will happen to you.”
“So show me.” Beth rolls her eyes, and shifts to catch a waiter’s eye.
“I will not. Stop and go back.”
With bad grace, she shifts the pawn backwards a square.
“What was in your heart when you moved the pawn?”
Beth actually stutters. “What was in my what?”
“Your heart. Tell me your move.”
“Are you crazy? This is actually crazy, isn’t it. I’m sitting with a crazy person. What was in my heart was strengthening my attack against you. Strengthening my position.”
“And what was in my heart?”
“Probably that you wanted to win. And maybe moving that pawn on the right out. How should I know?”
“Now look at the board. Look until you see it.”
Beth stares at the pieces, fuming quietly, until they diffuse themselves into messy spots. How dare he, patronising her, and holding that goddamn finger up to her, and -
Her jaw drops open. “Oh,” she says, very quietly.
“You see it?”
“Yes.” It’s all there, the advantage she’d be giving him, the way his pieces can spread outwards, over time, from that concentration of power, the fatal chink in the armour she’d given him, to gain a short advantage -
“Good. Now tell me again, what was in your heart.”
“I wanted an advantage. I thought - “
“You thought you would show me. You thought Demyan would not see. You thought garbage.”
Beth stares at the pieces, shamed, her cheeks boiling.
“Now. Again. Change it.”
She moves the pawn at queen four instead; he shifts his knight in response.
“You do not know yourself. You do not know the pieces. I am just an old man,” and he glances at her for the first time, with a flash of mirth - “no world champion, but I know the pieces. And they know me.”
“Why aren’t you a champion?” she asks, moving her knight back to queen’s knight one, ready to reposition him, to fine-tune his attack. “If you can play like this, if you can see it all - why didn’t you use it?”
He shifts his own rook sideways towards his king. “Because I did not need it.”
“But why would you not - “
“Because I did not need it!” His voice echoes, for a second, above the chatter and the steam; the waiter glances in their direction, then turns back to his coffeepot.
“Why should I do this with you?” Beth says, in an undertone into which she funnels as much skepticism as she can. “If you never became a champion, if you didn’t even compete -”
He closes his fist over his queen and glares. “I did not compete because I did not compete. You accept that, or we go no further.”
“Why should I even want to go further?” Beth says, and now her voice is the one that’s rising. “You bring me here, and on the strength of one game you think you can make me - “
Demyan’s fist crashes down on the board, and the pieces jump and skitter, the positions destroyed; one of the black rooks tumbles over the edge of the bar and onto the linoleum floor behind. Beth jumps; both her hands fly instinctively to her throat.
“You are fine chess player, Miss Harmon,” he says quietly, “and so I tolerate things from you. I can make you know yourself, and the pieces, how they will know you, and come to your call… but this is the deal. This is how we play. You want to play with me, we play. You don’t want to, I pack my board and go home, and you go to Moscow and good luck.”
Beth squeezes her eyes closed. She’s come this far. She beat Borgov on her own, she beat Benny, she’s beaten them all. She doesn’t need this man and his patronising and his conditions and his cheap board. She can leave, and go home…
And get up again tomorrow. In the quiet. And sit down at her board again, alone.
She’s come this far. She meets Demyan’s eye and nods.
“Good. We will play. Now fetch the rook.”
Her face burning, Beth gestures to one of the waiters behind the bar, and asks him without words to retrieve the piece from the floor. He passes it to her cheerily, wiping spilled dark liquid from it with his apron; she swallows.
“Good. We will begin again.” Demyan picks up the white queen and begins to re-set the board.
Beth resists the urge to spit violently onto the centre of it, and picks up the black king.
There’s a spring open tournament, in Connecticut, at the weekend, with a decent prize pot that makes it worth the flight. And after the session with Demyan - which spilled into a second game, and then a third, until the waiters’ brows were drawing together and she was jolting with caffeine and adrenaline - she feels somewhat bruised, and in need of a bath of amateur chess.
The morning flight is as smooth as silk. She doesn’t expect any issues, and it’s not until she’s done registering and politely fending off their questions that she runs into one, literally. His back is to her, surveying the tables being set up, and her thoughts are so largely preoccupied with the bathroom and with taking off her heels that she doesn’t register the hat, the familiar dark leather back of him, until she stumbles over her case and her shoulder hits his.
“Oh, excuse me,” she says reflexively, blushing already.
He’s half-turned to catch her, but when he hears her voice, his hands drop away. “...Beth?”
“Hello.” She could wish for this patterned carpet to swallow her up already. “I didn’t think you’d come to this one.”
He shrugs, with a sheepish half-smile. “I didn’t have anything to do this weekend, and… you know. Rent was due.”
“Oh. Yes.” She drops her gaze.
“Not that you’d know what that’s like, I guess,” he says, with a little more edge.
“Benny, I didn’t come here to fight with you,” she says, very low.
He sighs. “I guess not. So. You know. How’ve you been?”
“Sober, since that’s obviously what you’re asking,” she says, almost happy, almost relishing the chance to strike a few sparks off him. “I haven’t had a drink since I saw you.”
He shrugs his hands into his pockets, clearly ill at ease. “Good. That’s good. So, you, uh, find someone to talk to?”
“I called those people. I went to their meeting. It - I - well, I’m working on it.” Beth swallows; this particular road is not one she especially wants to go down with him.
“That bad, huh. Great. I can see that you’re really trying,” he says, snidely.
Beth sighs. “You made it really clear that you didn’t want to be my keeper, so how about we talk about something else?”
Benny digs his hands deeper into his pockets and hunches his shoulders. “Fine. Let’s. You see Harry lately?”
“He’s busy being an engineer.”
“In other words, he’s no use to you.” Benny laughs harshly. “Jeez, Harmon. Sometimes I forget how cold you can be.”
The cold is with her, all around her, when she hears him form the word; Beth shrugs it off, reaches for Townes’ words. “Benny, come on. I’m doing my best. I’m grateful for… I really didn’t come to fight. Can’t we just… be pleased to see each other, and play?”
Benny nods to the competition board, which the high school volunteers are pinning names to as they speak. “We got drawn on opposite sides, so… I guess it’s you and me as the big show again.”
“How cocky,” she says dryly. “So sure you’ll beat everyone else before we’ve even started. How do you know there isn’t another Harmon out there?” She sweeps her arm across the carpeted hall, abuzz with tables.
Benny grins, his real grin. “Jesus, I hope not. One’s more than enough for me.”
Six matches down; the usual high school and college prodigies, the semi-pros trying to get a foothold, the dogged, the genuinely talented, the not quite talented enough. Beth plays little games with herself, leaving a flank deliberately open, seeing how far she can push it before she has to mount a determined attack. Her favourites are the ones who can hardly believe she’s been so obvious, who push their advantage immediately, who are willing to exploit every chink she’ll give them. Four of the six are too overawed to push it; they play it safe, tentative pawn and knight advances, unable to believe that she doesn’t have a hammer-blow up her sleeve.
Then it’s her and Benny, as she’d known it would be, from the moment she saw him here.
He walks to her, to where she’s sitting with a semi-circle of fascinated kids behind her, with that half-grin on his face; Beth feels her own answering, and she stands. They shake hands, hard, fast, intimate and knowing. She’s drawn white, and she can feel his relish of that from across the table.
Then he flips the slide on her clock and everything is poetry.
She moves her knight out for the Grunfeld defence, on a whim; he answers with his. They engage pawns. He castles. He takes her pawn bait at queen’s bishop four; she swallows his pawn with her queen in retaliation. All is silent but the slide-and-click of the clocks and the breathing of fifty spellbound people.
He fianchettos his queen’s bishop. Beth resists the obvious response, and checks his advance somewhat with a castling. There’s an intake of breath; they think he has her. Think that black is going to take white, that the U.S. Champion is going to be beaten by her challenger, here in this hotel auditorium in Connecticut.
She gives up her queen; he fists it, rather than placing it by the side of the board, with a quirk of the mouth that says he remembers, and this is payback. He moves his knight in. He thinks that she might actually give this up to him.
But he hasn’t seen her coming. His queen is trapped. He’s beginning to see, finally; her bishop, her knight, her rook, all still coming, his king undefended and alone.
The grin crosses his whole face now, ear to ear. He picks up the king and offers it to her. The circle of onlookers breaks into breathless applause.
Beth’s breathing is coming fast and short; her body is warm and limp. Benny reaches across the table for her hand again and meets her eyes, and a spark leaps the gap.
When she’s conscious again, her back is against the hard chipboard of the bathroom stall and both her hands are buried under his black shirt.
Benny makes a muffled noise into her mouth and fists both his hands into her full skirt, tugging it up and back.
Beth wrestles her mouth away and gasps breathlessly. “You utter - utter - bastard - “
“Shut up,” he says, low and harsh into her neck, and Beth melts hard against him, everything in her center flowing and liquid, her legs rubber as they spread themselves of their own accord in her heels and Benny’s hard hand slides down one thigh, hitching it up. Beth’s head tips back of its own accord and Benny’s mouth is there, at her throat, sucking urgently.
“Is this - “ he says in ragged half-breaths, and she tugs his hair and says “Don’t - talk - “
With one corner of her mind, Beth hears the bathroom door swing open and somebody or other intake their breath sharply, then the door is closed again and really it doesn’t matter, nothing matters at all, except that Benny’s belt buckle is pressing into her along with Benny , and she might actually die if it isn’t further inside her, now now now -
Benny’s mouth is moving lower across the neckline of her dress, ragged and discoordinated, and she says “Ah - ah - “ and lifts her other leg helplessly, and he has her by a hand under both thighs, pressed against this cheap flimsy wall, and everything in the world will be absolutely fine so long as he doesn’t stop
and her hands are fumbling his belt buckle, the zipper of his black jeans, encountering the cotton of his underwear, tugging that down and Benny Benny Benny, soft and hard and jerk and pulse and tremble and he’s tugging too, his hands are moving, and he pulls her close and her legs clench around him and oh
and he’s moving, hard and fast and she can see his teeth gritted, the sweat on his face and the tremble in his legs and she’s so slick and he’s beginning to lose it already and it’s - not - enough -
and he’s buried in her neck and groaning ragged and loose while his hips jerk haphazardly against hers, and really?
Benny shifts his hands out from under her legs, and her heels land on the floor on either side of him, awkward and sticky and still strung with tension. He looks at the floor while he tucks himself back in and zips his pants and rebuckles, and then he looks her in the eye and clears his throat.
“Uh. Thank you.”
Beth feels nothing, absolutely nothing, so much as a crystalline, full-bodied outrage. “ Thank you?”
Benny hesitantly straightens and re-tucks his shirt, with a deer in headlights materialising in his eyes. “Uh. Yes?”
Beth stomps hard on his foot with one heel, feeling gratification spike up her still-sprung spine as he yelps, and stalks out of the bathroom.
Next time: An unfortunate reunion, a battle of wills, a sad meeting of the mothers.
Ya plokho govoryu po russki - I don't speak good Russian
Krasivaya zhenshchina - Beautiful women
Ya khochu pogovorit' o shakhmatakh - I just want to talk about chess
Ya vas ne ponimayu - I don't understand you