Ptarmigan

a grouse with completely feathered feet

3/30/2004

Home of the (part 3 of 6; read part 1 and part 2 below)

Then one day, the woman who always gawked and dawdled at his storefront came in. She wore a red mask and carried a burlap bag. She cradled it like someone else's child. At first she stayed near the vestibule, eyeing the crystal unicorns in their dusty case. Business could have used some work. The lease was rising. Some of his most loyal customers were in custody. Their collections were deemed terrorist threats. Mostly they collected books, with the occasional purchase of figurines "tied in" to those books. The woman had smooth, pale hands and wore tall black galoshes that didn't fit nor become her, in his opinion. But then again it was raining. She could have just thrown them on. She was agitated. The failure mall--he hated the term, which was written into his lien--was build on the site of the old Union Station. Once, he cracked open the plasterboard covering a door in the back of his establishment, revealing most of the station intact, albeit unused. He fell asleep in the old waiting room, on a hard bench, underneath a DEPARTURES sign. It reminded him of childhood. When he woke up he didn't know where he was. The next week the plasterboard was sealed again. An inside job. He never figured out how that came to pass.

Can I help you? he asked the woman.

She was sheepish. She didn't acknowledge that he said anything at first, but instead fingered a synthetic jade Buddha on a shelf in the middle of the store. On the bottom of the Buddha was a disclaimer from the mayor's office: the statuette should not be used or construed as an actual deity. Federal compliance. He waited with his arms behind his back. He was hungry. The nearest non-Wal-mart restaurant was two miles away. He had a hotplate behind the counter that was currently cold. Suddenly she approached the counter, and took off her mask. Her eyes were blue and empirical.

Yes, she said, coming to, I'm wondering if you make purchases of collections.

It depends on the collection, he said. While he was thinking: I am wasting my time and dishonoring my lack of cash by even speaking to her. Is there a reason for this? Aside from the fact that she is the first person I've talked to today? Why are her eyes like that.

Well, I'll show you what I have then, she said. She set the burlap bag on the counter. Dust rabbits arose. She opened the bag, and with care she took out a chess board. And then each piece, the white pieces first.

The black queen is missing, she said. I apologize for that. I never had it. I inherited this from my mother. I'm sure the lack of a valuable piece will depreciate the entire ensemble.

He wanted to sit down from shock. Instead he said, let me look at this more closely.

Do you play, the woman said.

The man shook his head. Once, but... He swallowed. She was clearly disappointed. He opened a combination safe behind the counter and removed a magnifying glass, one he had used for his insect collection, before entymology had become obsolete. He took the white queen in his hand and peered at this queen. Her features were iconic but nuanced. A little pouty and come-hither. The piece was heavy, even though the material suggested lightness.

May I ask why you're selling this? he asked.

It's that--

She coughed.

The factory near my house is expanding operations. Claiming the rest of my block in a seizure. I need something for a bribe.

He knew she meant the black cat factory. No other factory was experiencing boom. He had visited it once as a teenager, when looking for a summer job, but didn't remember much about it. He fell into seeing the pieces. Sight made real things seem less realistic. The pieces were made of bone. The white pieces were a natural off-white. The black pieces were lacquered with a deep red stain. It might as well have been black. She raised her eyebrows at him when he didn't say anything for a long time. He hadn't played chess in years. Decades. Do you play, he asked her.

She shook her head. I never learned how. Other people learned around me. Her fingers twitched.

What's your name, he asked her.

Pepin, she said. He startled without exactly knowing why.

Well, Pepin, considering the craftsmanship, and the age of the pieces, I'm thinking that not only would this set make a handsome bribe, it might very well allow you to buy a factory.

She was breathless and said: Oh, I had hoped and hoped that this was the case!

However, I can't buy it myself.

She was crestfallen. Why not?

It's worth more than the entire store, Pepin. I can try to find a buyer for you, though. Out of the city, most likely.

She shuffled her feet. How do you know how old it is? And how old is it?

Early 18th century, late 17th. The pieces are in the French regency style. The flumes with the stylized heads at the top. They often used this style with ceramic. It was rare that someone could lathe and carve bone in such fine detail.

It must have been quite rare, Pepin said, folding her hands and pursing her lips. She was offended so easily!

He took one of the pawns and squinted at it. He didn't want to fetishize dead bone. The pawns had tiny child heads. Their eyes were wide.

And there's the fact, he added, pressing his word-luck, that all of these faces look so angry.

Anger's an emotion, Pepin said. Her face grew red.

The man held out his hands. It was no criticism. I swear.

Pepin's shoulder's sagged. I apologize, she said. Of course. If you could find a buyer... She trailed off.

I can certainly try, he said, setting the pawn down. He had forgotten many of his favorite openings. Not the moves themselves, which were easy enough to memorize, but their temperments. I'd like to borrow the set overnight, he said. To take photographs for potential buyers. It's standard.

Her eyes grew dim. Out of the question, she said. Pepin scooped the pieces back into the bag. She left the board, since they both knew it was probably worthless.

Call on me if you find anyone. She gave her number and turned away. He was too stunned by her teeter totter moods to say anything, except: if you want a truer sale, then try to find the black queen. She didn't appear to hear him. The black queen might have been irretreivable. He locked the front door and retreated to the cot in the back room. He lay there for a few hours, saying Pepin, Pepin. He imagined her hovering over him. He couldn't make himself come all the same. Erotic satisfaction could not be achieved by looking at a blurry photocopy of a photograph of a naked woman. He rose eventually. He unlocked the door again. Open for business. Not that it mattered. In a few hours, business hours were over. He could hear the cold drag races down on lower Sassafras. The drag races were free. The failure mall locked him in for the evening. He was supposed to have access codes for free passage, but the lords changed the codes with great ease and regularity. Even if he could leave, where could he go. He didn't have martial papers. He wondered what it must have been like to raise a family in the Assyrian Empire. Surely someone in the Assyrian empire felt love, it wasn't 24/7 beheadings. Maybe it was. Children had to work or die. What must have love been like when no one would remember you and no one would write about love. Because no one could read or write, practically. He used to be Catholic until the Church changed their mass back to Latin, and cosponsored the drag races with the Pentecostals, and founded the Benevolent Union of Saint Antonin. Any one of those changes pushed him. He didn't know any way to push back. Figurines never pushed.

Every other Thursday they would have an execution at the drag race. Or an excommunication. A killing one bird with two stones kind of deal. He remembered how youth used to be different. Races were different. There were no sensory cowls to follow the coverage and feel crashes. He went to a drag race with his uncle when he was 9 or 10. In some ways things were not much better then. His uncle had worked at Hammermill and had lost two fingers and a thumb in a paper cutter. The noise was noisy. Few had jobs. He, young, had bought a button of his favorite car, #8. A black car with red trim. He didn't know why this was his favorite. It made as much sense to him as driving so fast that one needed a parachute to slow down. His uncle died of a brain tumor ten years later, before everything started happening. That didn't make much sense either. He went to high school in the basement of Erie's cathedral. On the way to the cafeteria he could pass by the dead bishop crypt. A windowless, pious room filled with minor dioscesan relics. The school excelled at football and harboring pedophiles. Academics was a distant third. He wore his clipon tie on the first day of school. His mother picked it out for him. Their family eschewed vacations so that they could earn enough indulence for the cathedral school. That first day, the clouds from the paper mill took a wrong turn and the city smelled like brokendown fish. Within ten minutes of school a senior ripped off his tie. He joined the chess club, which provided him a small measure of exquisite carnage. Other castoffs would hide in the boiler room and play. No one was sure whether those victories meant anything, because at some point, they had to go home again, eat supper, and start homeroom in the morning.

As he slept that night, night slept next to him. He could hear the sound of worms eating books across the city. He ate usual ramen that night, which didn't sit well. He would have been old enough for Social Security, if there was such a thing as security for his non-winning ilk. He didn't know where the worms or the books came from. Before sleeping he encrypted a description of the chess set, through a Senegalese server. Precautions had to be made. In the morning, one prospect was insistent. He double checked his library and made sure there were no worms there. He called Pepin and arranged a meeting. She didn't want to meet at the store again. He entertained the thought that perhaps she was a spy. Ridiculous. But then again he was desperate for contact. She had to work that day. Presque Isle, she suggested. The last remaining public beach. All right. Tomorrow. Wonderful. See you then. See you. That night he dreamed of vomiting chess pieces. The tiny faces of the chess pieces also vomited out smaller chess pieces. And so on. At the appointed time, he met with Pepin at the appointed place. Old Lighthouse Beach. The lighthouse was uprooted some time ago. The hole was covered. Tall walls separated this beach from the others, which were used for either private residential and/or military purposes. He wore a sky blue tie. She had no way of seeing the tie because of the containment suit, but it made him feel better. Egyptian peacekeepers landed here less than five years before. They didn't get far. The gun towers towered over them. They gleamed even though there was no sunlight. War kites soared above them. The winds lacerated. The beach was empty. Past the breakwalls, the flotillas held guard on the lake. People who wanted supreme protection lived there. One had to have means to live there, of course. The flotillas had no libraries. On the beach, Pepin was pensive. She said things to imply that he was pensive too.

For example, she said: Don't worry, the turrets can't hear us. On account of the wind.

And: Even if someone accosts us, and I'm not saying they will, we can pretend we're lovers. Having an affair. We might have to pay a fine, but we won't be stoned.

Wonderful, he replied. He tried not to think of their meeting as a date. He couldn't help it, though. He thought, maybe she's the black queen. Did you come here often before everything started happening? he asked, wanting his talk to be as small as doormice.

She laughed. That's complicated. I work at a Wal-Mart, she said.

Who doesn't, he said, suddenly sullen. It was hard, with the wind, smoke, and sand, to actually complete thoughts.

She grabbed his hand. No, what I mean is, I know how to cut corners, squirrel away, range free without persecution. But listen. At the bowling alley, I'm trying to teach one of the robots to play chess. How great is that. I have two robots but one is slightly newer and therefore smarter than the other. It has potential. I've taken it home.

He didn't know tedium and non-sequitirs could be so thrilling. He couldn't feel her skin on account of their mittens, which were retrofitted oven mitts.

Let me tell you about the potential buyer, he said. It's a woman not far from here. Cambridge Springs. 30 miles south of here.

He knew that the greatest tournament ever on American soil took place in Cambridge Springs. 1904. A long time ago. Many grandmasters played at that tournment. He didn't want to bore Pepin with the details. Cambridge Springs was halfway between New York and Chicago. A refueling stop for the bullet trains. None of the sulfuric springs were left. His handling fee would be worth the entire inventory of his store.

Who is this woman?

She is a collector of chess sets. I've dealt with her in the past. Incredibly reliable, A plus plus plus.

The woman in question--he wasn't really even sure whether she was a woman--demanded that he tell Pepin this.

How much will she offer?

Like I said, enough to buy a factory. Anything. Live in the flotilla if you want. A sky fortress. Health insurance. Fairy dust money.

Pepin moved towards the green surf. Salamander water danced along her galoshes. I worry about what's inside of me sometimes, she said. Whether I'm a dauschund in a world of giraffes. She then stopped and stared at a point in the sand. As if she wanted to turn it into glass. He stood next to her and wanted to kiss her. He leaned towards her, and smelled her perfume, which was a man's cologne.

Pepin?

No, she said, pressing her fists against her temples. I've changed my mind. I don't want to lose you!

It wasn't entirely clear who she was speaking to. It clearly wasn't him, however. She ran up the beach head back to the road, towards his kidney bean car. A far cry from black #8. Town criers told him it was his own fault for not succeeding. She didn't have a car. Buses were infrequent. He'd still give her a lift if she wanted one. They could smooth over their differences. He could moor her, buy her coffee from a vending machine. He tried to follow. She was fast. He smelled cinder and powderkeg. At the road, she turned around to say: I'm sorry, but the chess set is not for sale.

What? Why? No, you can't leave-- You cannot leave me.

I want to learn how to play, she said. That's all. I'm sorry. She hesitated, then told him that she lived on the peninsula once, and she needed to root around the old stomping ground, so she'd better be going.

She crossed the road and entered a trailhead opposite the beach shore that he hadn't noticed before. A thicket with a narrow sidewalk running through it. A straight line into the peninsula. He tried to remember the trail--he had lived in Erie his entire life--and couldn't for the life of him. He was about to follow her when he started laughing and said to himself, fuck it, she's a loon, she's a dauschund. He sat down on a mossy picnic table, shaking his head. He was a little sad at how softly and quickly--when his life was in danger of rupturing with change-- everything turned back to the way it already was. He knew he would never talk to her again. He remembered watching videos in biology class about Africa. When a person in the rain forest had an infection, that person would let maggots crawl into the wound and eat the infected tissue. Then they would fly away once flies. She disappeared, towards marshes and miseries. The trees were leafless and scarred with knives' marks and acid initials. Then he realized she never asked for his name, not once.



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(to be continued...)

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