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A Bill, a Bill and a Can of Beans

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My friend had an old basset hound named Florence. She was a little thing, but she ruled the house. If Florence didn't get what she wanted, she could howl like the Big Bad Wolf until the rafters shook. So, every day Florence had this thing. She had to eat a can of green beans. Seriously. Every single day, for years. And if she didn't get it, well, you can guess what happened. A case of beans is a small price to pay to keep a roof over your head.


Then one day, Florence waited while they dished the beans into her bowl. She sniffed. Then walked away. Forever after, it was no more green beans. How do you figure?


Well, the damnedest thing happened to me with the new year. Last year, I liked chess. I loved chess, always did. This year, screw chess. Don't much care for it, don't see the point in it. I pulled a Florence.


I've always loved chess. My dad taught me at an early age, and always trying to impress him, I took right to it. He was a barbershop player, with a solid game, nothing fancy, and I'm only a little bit better. But good or bad, I've always had a taste for the game. I think it's the puzzle aspect of it that intrigued me, but no more. Now I've walked away from my can of green beans, so to speak.


I don't think they ever learned why Florence careened from the beans, but the reason I digressed from the chess (sorry) is Bill. Actually, Bill and Bill. Two Bills. And now there are no Bills, and I miss them both. Send me the Bill!


You see, last year I was chessing fine. To be good at chess, you have to find good opponents. I had those, and they both were named Bill. Bill F and Bill S. Bill F and I played weekly on the phone. Bill S and I played over the computer and OTB ("over the board," or in person). Every week I took them on. This was chess! These guys were tough sons of Florences.


Bill F came from Wexford, Ireland, site of a famous 1798 rebellion against British rule. He was a sharpie, a Federal Reserve regulator who in retirement began a second career as a professor of English, teaching what he really loved. He never talked about himself, he had no interest in that. We were friends for at least a dozen years and I only found out about his Federal Reserve career after he died. When he went on dialysis about five years ago, he took up backgammon to pass the time. He quickly became a prize player, earning hundreds in tournaments.


Years ago, when I'd only just met him, he bought me a chess book, Logical Chess Move by Move, by Irving Chernoff. He said he'd gone through it just once and took second place in a state tournament. It is a simple, elegant book that, sure enough, elevated my game from where it had been stuck since probably barbershop days. I showed my gratitude by turning all of this knowledge back on Bill, and he and I would fight tooth and nail week by week, every Friday, for years. After our games he'd say I was a tough man. When he passed from kidney failure and cancer, he never uttered a peep. That was Bill. He insisted there be no funeral, no ceremony at all. That was perfectly, shockingly Bill.


Last year we went for a couple of weeks without playing, then went back at it for a session. I said, How are you, Bill? He said, I'll tell you over lunch. We met for lunch, like we always did, with our wives, sharing the latest this and that. He looked frail but told us nothing out of the ordinary. A couple of days later I received a short email from him saying he could not play on Friday because he started hospice and had discontinued dialysis. He wrote, I will be dead in two weeks. The email was maybe 100 words. Of course, after I caught my breath I called him. I even recorded it because I knew it would be the last time we'd ever speak together. I don't remember what we said and I don't have the stones to open the recording.


It was only seconds afterward that the phone rang. It was the perfect person for that moment, my friend Kathleen. She's just wise. Irritating sometimes too, but she can say a lot worse about me. I wasn't going to say anything, but she could tell something was up and coaxed it out of me. And with her Irish background, this is what she told me: that Bill was giving it to me straight, in the Irish way, with no blarney, only the unvarnished truth for a friend. It was a gift, she said. Some friends know just what to say.


I was not a young man when I met Bill, in my early 40s. Yet still he influenced me and helped me grow. Some of him rubbed off on me. He helped steel me for what I've yet to face with a degenerative illness.


Bill S started a chess club, years ago. This was right around Memorial Day, I remember. I showed up at a community center meeting room and found a dozen guys waiting: a surprising turnout for chess these days. My dad was there, and so was his barbershop partner, my uncle, was founding the chess club with Bill. Well, we played through the summer, and by football season, there were three of us left. Bill was so good that people dropped like flies. The only ones left by the end of summer were the big, slow flies who are so dumb they don't know they're past their sell-by date. There was me, and there was Tom. Me, I'm simply stubborn. Tom didn't even want to play, he just showed up because he's a nice guy.


You see, Bill and I were both quadriplegics who love chess. Problem is, when two paraplegics sit around a chessboard, unless they have Jedi powers, you can come back again a couple of hours later and not miss any of the action. So good old Tom with his heart of gold, besides being a good conversationalist, remained member of the club and pretended to like playing. Bill administered punishment as always in his modest, self-effacing way, and I took my beatings like a man.


Bill was five years older than me, a public utilities engineer who was a star middle linebacker in school. He was diagnosed with ALS almost 15 years ago. He and his wife Chris flew on the rollercoaster of life together, and talk about tough. In the decade that we were friends, he had about a dozen death scares. He possessed a superhuman cool and fortitude. He was incredible that way.


With a lot of my closest friends there's never enough time to discuss everything we want to. So it was with Bill. Owing to our circumstances, we really couldn't spend time alone ? not even on the phone, come to think of it. But eventually, my wife and I found a flat-panel computer screen at a garage sale for five bucks, that we hooked up to my laptop so that it had two screens. I do everything by either voice recognition or by mouth stick, so Bill and I began to play sometimes by ourselves, leaving Tom with his Tuesday nights free. (He showed up most nights anyway, because he's a good friend.) We still didn't have much time alone because people would keep popping in to say hi or and hang out. There was never enough time, never enough, but it was all good.


So finally one of those near-death experiences took him. His leg became too painful to sit up, and though he tried to get it back, he never could. It know it sucked lying for an entire summer in bed, but typical Bill, not a cross word. So much so that I was in shock hearing that he passed.


A lot of people turned out for his wake. I met his family and Chris's too. Unlike every other wake I've been to, I didn't hear the word 'sorry' a hundred times or even once at all. Nobody said they were sorry at his wake. Fuck, I'm sorry. It's still hard to think about.


Now I am biting back my bitterness. You get to that age where people around you start dropping. I'm drinking too much. As for chess, I've played one game and I won. Big deal. I'm not looking for sympathy, only, I guess, getting things off my chest.


But of course you have to come to the same conclusion. Your depressed, and you don't care. But then you've got to realize that you have life yet and they don't. And it's almost like honor their spirit by maximizing your time on this great spinning ball. I light a candle on Fridays when Bill F and I would play. When I come to a chess puzzle on Reddit, I'll stop and try to figure it out like Bill S liked to do. So while I'm not quite back to eating my can of green beans yet, I know that moping won't bring my boys back again, and in fact they'd kick my ass right now for wallowing on.


Today I looked at a couple of our old games. I noticed something funny. Bill S and I got to be such even players that our skill ratings were always neck and neck. Sometimes he'd be up a few points, sometimes I would, like a teeter-totter. So, our last game is unfinished and is still online, like a dropped glass that will never reach the floor. I notice that Bill's rating seven points higher than mine, a slim margin. In the game, I'm destroying him, up three pieces and sure to close it out in about 10 moves, which would make me the new ratings king of the hill. And that's when I stopped hearing from him, in late November. Little did I know, being as ultra-competitive as he was, that he did the only thing he could do to beat me: he died. Now Bill is forever the ratings champ. That son of a Florence!


So yeah, I can see maybe getting back into it later this year. Maybe, probably. Meanwhile?


Two Bills and a Bassett hound walk into a bar and order a can of green beans. The bartender looks up from his chessboard and says, Is this a joke?

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