The German Board
a short story by John Williams
Have you ever seen something so delicate, so porcelain, so fragile, that it could dissipate when a finger is pressed to it like a thin layer of ash, yet so powerful and strong as to control one’s thoughts and emotions? I have had such an exhausting and frustrating opportunity and, by no conscious fault of my own, took advantage of it up to the point that I was able. This event (and I call it an event, for a mere coincidence thrust such an object of beauty into my presence) occurred many years ago when I was but twenty-one years of age, when most of you were still crawling across your carpeted floors and attaining nourishment, one way or another, from your maternal figures.
Like any other Saturday, I had labored viciously over the scolding coals, or what seemed to be so, that constituted Flemings Park. Back then I was getting paid about eight dollars per hour to cut and haul timber, or what was left of it, for the park had already grown barren. I stacked the lifeless corpses atop their siblings. The work was tiring and monotonous, but a stout pile of Andrew Jackson and his identical twins added enough momentum to continue the daily pendulum swing, just enough. Life did not pass me by though, oh, no, it certainly didn’t, for I spent my money sparingly and with much regard for its new depository, which most often was the feminine hand of Mr. Jacoby. Excluding the hands, his most interesting feature and that which was most prominent was his nose, which angled off at a much steeper incline with every visit I paid to his shop.
Well, Mr. Jacoby owned this petit brick house on the corner of Maple and Sparhawk, where that twenty-four-hour convenience store now stands. He remodeled its first floor to appear a bit more like a business, although it kept nearly all the qualities one looks for in a quaint, very personal establishment which, regardless of his attempts to make it appear quite the contrary, it remained. Inside this shop, Jacoby sold a variety of odds and ends, from pretty China dolls to antique books with weathered spines. Even through an inch of accumulated dust that drifted from one artifact to the next in some seemingly fixed routine, I could always find, under the glass shelf which would have been a suitable larceny deterrent if not for the missing side panel, my board.
As of yet, I have failed to mention my habit, my addiction even, although I’m sure you can make proper assumptions about that, and so I will not underestimate your keen sensibilities by burdening you with such malarkey.
Now, on this particular Saturday evening, once away from my outdoor sweatshop, I entered Mr. Jacoby’s shop, as was a tradition such an extreme that the proprietor would likely worry about my health if that little bell hanging from above the wooden door did not chime at quarter past nine. On an average day, I would linger about until that familiar nose, followed by the slightly cleft chin and oval bifocals, peered around the wall that separated the business from his home. I would finger the games, smile at the figurines and attempt to rationalize the existence of the elderly Ouji board which lost more of my respect with each visit. But that Saturday was no average day. Instead of wandering in my patient stupor, I walked with a purpose; I walked directly up to the board.
“You know every time you leave here I have to defog the glass, John. Save us both the heartache and effort.” I didn’t even rotate my head in the direction of the voice, for my eyes could not be lifted, could not be forced to glance even momentarily away from the target of my affection. A smile crossed my face with the same type of wicked expression that erupts upon a pleased child once the desired cookie is finally placed in his hand.
“I think I’ll buy her today, Jake.”
That infamous nose twitched just the slightest, and the bushy eyebrows, or perhaps the word should be singular because the hairless gap that usually exists on most was nearly nonexistent on him, rumpled across his forehead, reaching desperately for his desperately receding hairline. Waves of flesh formed beneath the moving brow and his cheeks sunk deep within his face. “You’re going to buy it, John? But…how?”
“I’ve been saving up for this, Jake, saving up for a long time. I never told you because I was waiting for that expression which you just gave me. Do you accept cash, friend.”
Once at my apartment, I shredded the wrapping out of wanton desire and passion, leaving shards of tissue paper and ribbon upon the floor for the feline, which I always planned on purchasing, to toy with indiscriminately. However, without the cat, and because I was so fully absorbed at my present activity, the paper remained untouched for many days.
Before actually touching the board, I fondled each piece individually, allowing my fingers the pleasure of detailing the crevices in the handcrafted marble, smooth, elegant and rather frigid in temperature, a sultry combination. I wondered at the absolute magnificence, the craftsmanship, for, as I mentioned, this was not mass-produced by machines but made singularly by an artist. After four years of pinching each coin until my knuckles whitened and snacking religiously on boxed macaroni and butter, I had acquired my most prized possession, or I might say it acquired me.
Each pawn glared at me while I slept, which wasn’t much during the first few days, for they knew, it turns out incorrectly, that they, in fact, owned me. Now you may ask yourself at this point in my narrative what the moral of the story might be or why I am even telling it, for nothing worth mentioning has really occurred. You have probably seen the board; I must have shown it to you all at some point, and even if I haven’t, you must have still seen it yourselves upon my mantel. Well, I’m sure you were greatly impressed, perhaps a minuscule bit jealous even, at the sight of it, but, although it may sound unbelievable, my acquisition of the illustrious piece is not the final reason for my telling of this story.
The board may appear as the most beautiful one of its kind, and I thought the same thing myself, once. But now, with what my eyes have since been allowed the privilege of viewing, even if for only a fleeting moment, I cannot state in all honesty that it is truly the most grand in appearance and substance. Earlier, when I briefly mentioned that I had witnessed perfection, perhaps my syntax was different but my meaning remains the same, I did not have in my mind that you would assume it to be the board of which I have already spoken so well.
I can now see how that concept may pass your fancy, but it is decidedly not the truth. Once, for a few short minutes, I rested my mind’s eyes, not to mention my physical ones, upon another whose ultimate majesty has laid substantial structure to my whimsical image of beauty so as to leave a strikingly vivid portrayal dangling upon my constant thoughts even today.
After nearly two years of consistent usage and care, my board remained wholly unscathed. I did not permit a single flake of dust or debris to place its filthy presence upon the continually shined object. My life, or at least the basic meaning behind it, was absorbed by the oak sides, the marble, and the elevated top; that is until one other random Saturday, not quite as random as the first mentioned in that I had planned for it thoroughly.
Under my right arm, wrapped in many layers and boxed, my board hugged tightly to my side as I entered Jacoby’s shop. We usually completed around four games per night and, for the past few years, I had made it clear that my new board was the only one to be used. I was proud to lightly place it on his backroom table, unfolding the layers and scrutinizing each piece for any sign of wear, of which I only found once, on a black bishop, and thereafter polished each character daily. However, the events of this Saturday night rolled along at a very different pace, a far quicker one, for this was to be the day of reckoning, the day of epiphany, and I was never again to play opposite old Mr. Jacoby with the same zeal that I had just the evening before.
As the bell chimed my entrance, and the door creaked closed, the old man accosted me immediately, ranting about some object that I must at all costs see, apparently at that very moment. Grabbing my hanging left arm, he pulled me from the foyer viciously while I clenched my packaged board in order to secure and possibly save it from a cobwebby death upon his floor’s dull tiles. What could be so important as to risk destroying the friend, which old Jacoby knew to be my best?
Once my glare struck its appointed target, however, I no longer wondered about or questioned his intentions or methods. My eyes began to sting, for their lids opened wider than I would have thought possible, and my mandible lowered gently toward my chest until it reached a gaping point of unmovable height. Thump, thump, my heart beat, louder than I had ever felt it, and, in fact, I could actually hear its ring upon my desperate ears. My pulse leapt with the adrenaline of jogging many miles, as did my various bodily systems, which I could suddenly notice working within my frame. My head cocked toward my shoulder until it was a mere inches from connecting at the pinnea. A glow of near supernatural proportions (perhaps this observation is part of my problematic long-term memory, but I distinctly recall a heavenly aura nonetheless) radiated invisible beams that broke through my skin and consequently through my sternum until kissing my heart with a patter of soothing rapture.
Noticing my board still beneath my arm, I shoved it onto the glass counter, creating a slight screeching sound. Deaf to outside interference, I paid it no mind. My attention could not, even by natural disaster, be diverted. I had never seen such a chess set, such which defied reason, explanation, and logic. I would never have dreamily imagined looking upon a board beside my own with such emotion. I cannot properly explain the power that captured me, that entwined me in its intricate web of sophistication, grace, and perverse intimacy, except to say that I wished for nothing more in this world than to run my fingers along the board’s frame and lavish it with the attraction and attention it deserved.
“Its owner is returning for it soon. She just wanted to leave it in a safe place while she went about her day. It is a marvelous sight, is it not?”
The question remained unanswered, but he knew he needn’t make such a query again, for I didn’t even raise my stare to meet his. “She’s a foreign lady named Alena, judging by her accent, I’d say she’s from Germany. She knew of me through whatever channels and didn’t trust the security at her hotel so here it is. Such a wondrous piece of craftsmanship huh? John?” Then a bit more forcefully, “John!”
“Oh yes, Jake, I’m sorry,” I replied while my eyes still glued with magnificent strength on the board. “It…it certainly is wonderful. I’ve never quite seen one like it.”
“Neither have I, my boy, and I’ve probably seen thousands over the course of my lifetime.”
I cannot continue the narration of my story, for my allergies are beginning to affect me. My eyes are a bit swollen, and tears are forming on either side of the bridge of my nose.
So, in conclusion, the new board, which obviously still grasps at certain internal strings, was delicately plucked from my vision not twenty minutes after I arrived and, I assume, now resides somewhere in Europe, perhaps in Germany, as Jacoby believed.
I still use my chess set, for it is a wonderful set, a marvel truly, but it can never remotely compare to that of the other, the stranger, who entered my life so quickly, yet will not, despite all effort on my part, be dispelled from conscious thought. Do not contemplate my final decision, if that word can really be used, for I had few, if any, options. Perhaps I could have wrapped my unworthy paws around it and fled into the sparkling night air, or perhaps I could have trekked after it throughout Europe in desperate hopes of attaining one more glimpse. Luckily, I do not think of such things.
“The German Board” Copyright ©2001 by John Williams.
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No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.