I’m watching Al’s fingers lift his chess knights in the day room of a maximum-security ward at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for the criminally insane. Al’s an older patient just out of seclusion. Pasty white cheeks, grey stubble, slack mouth, intense brown eyes, with lids that drop unexpectedly, and flutter, and open once again. His fingers hold a castle’s head, then release it. He moves to a pawn, lifts its top.
I’m still thinking. Should I let him win? Or would he go suspicious, and realize I’m not genuine? Then I’d lose his trust. And maybe arrive at a tense situation. People with paranoid schizophrenia can sense a liar faster than a heroin addict can push a needle. But if I win, it could really piss him off. Doesn’t seem likely though. Ray, the security staff assigned to me, says Al used to be a chess master. He’s beaten every chess player on the ward, both staff and patient. So, it shouldn’t be any problem to try as hard as I can.
I check out the wall behind my opponent. On it, a poster warns against unsafe sex. I glance over to Security Ray, who’s checking his phone. Ray’s supposed to protect me from any possible attack. But he can’t even remember my name. After three weeks, he still calls me Chris. My name is Larry.
“You’ve never worked with Al before, Chris?” said Ray.
“No, but I hear he’s a genius chess player.”
“Yes. He likes good competition.” Ray’s stocky, with a big belly, he lifts his face and grins. “You know, he’s a former lawyer. Very bright. Just don’t look him in the eye.”
“He’s here for sticking a fork in his mother’s left one,” Ray chuckles softly. “At an Easter family gathering, Al called out his Ma for staring at him in a daemonic fashion. The mother said she could look at him any way she wanted. So he pitched his fork.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Thanks for the information.”
“You’re welcome, Chris.” Ray grins.
I don’t want to correct him because I’m concentrating hard and I’ve already corrected him every work day he’s been with me. I’m fairly convinced that this is a purposeful mistake. I try not to think about it.
It’s about the seventh move in. Al’s turn. I anticipate my next one. One bishop can take Al’s knight. But could it be a trap? I glimpse sideways. Al’s pulling a pawn up, to guard his man. Then he pushes it back. It’s been seven minutes now. Still his go.
“How do you like being out of the seclusion room?” I ask.
Al does not reply. He sticks two pink fingers into his front shirt pocket. He moves his fingers around in there. Not sure exactly what he’s doing, right above his nipple.
“I don’t like a lot of chit chat,” he says. “You’re not related to that goddamn Princess Diana, are you?”
“No,” I say. “I’m not part of the royal family at all, unfortunately. That’s why I have to work here.”
Around me, pastel colours, broken by Al’s face trying to look into mine. Behind the pastels, a large man pounding his fist on the nursing room door. Al’s scrunching his neck around to take a look. I sit back, take a breath. If I realized fully where I was, became totally conscious, I’d be in trouble. Hyper consciousness brings a disconnect. That disconnect shoves anxiety. Anxiety is my nemesis.
So I’m keeping the scene to the level of a dream. Al’s a puppet, I’m playing chess with a muppet. I breathe again. But not too deeply. A staff in the plexiglass protected office gives the pounder patient the daily newspaper. There’s silence again.
Al touches his queen. He looks down at the power female. Al’s facial stubble comes up to his ears. Green and brown food stains cover his seventies- style thrift store shirt. His ample forehead bulges slightly as he lifts the queen up, then very carefully places her back down again. In the same place. I wonder about this guy as a lawyer. What the hell happened to him?
“Sounds like you’re not a big fan of the royal family yourself,” I say.
My job is to encourage, to bring people out of their inner world. I’m officially a psychologist here. I need to find out information. I have to know people first. My job: Push for disclosure, but primarily gain trust. Then the person feels he can talk honestly. That means I ask close-ended questions in a relaxed, casual voice.
“I don’t like the Queen much either,” I say.
“Why the hell don’t you look at me when you talk?” Al’s staring intently, leaning forward.
Ray looks up. But Al’s tone is questioning, not angry or suspicious. At least, that’s how I want to hear it. And between my gut feeling and my intellect there’s a space I’m trying to close.
“Well,” I say. Then I pause. I glance over at Ray, who nods. He’s a big guy, but could he get over here in time? I mean, the worst I’d get maybe a fist in the face? And the worst Al gets, back in seclusion. No chess for a month.
The gap outside my head grows, the parting between myself and Al across the chessboard. A sea of black and white squares, multilayered like an Escher drawing. Al’s kind of merged into the drawing too, and the room behind him, and Ray, leaning backwards in his chair, watching us closely, merges in with us, too. I see so many patterns, so many possibilities, in just the next movements. Billions. I lift my Queen. I hold her carefully. Then I, too, put her back down on her square.
“It isn’t considered polite in my culture for people to look each other straight in the eye,” I say.
Al rubs his face. He rubs and lifts his upper lip, holds it high. About three teeth remain in his head, even with the superb dental service at this hospital.
“I thought you had some kind of strategy,” he says. “To knock me off my game.”
“I’m not really the competitive type,” I say. “Win or lose, it’s all the same to me.”
In fact, I hate playing most games. Soccer, baseball, tennis. Any outdoor activity where there’s an opponent. I like to hike, canoe, swim. But even on a team, I don’t feel right. Even with my team here at work. There’s always dominance. Everyone trying to out status the other. That’s why I do well with the patients. They’ve been dominated, persecuted and stigmatized. Or else they feel they have been. By the government, their parents, by the devil himself. What could be worse status than being a mother forker?
Al looks at me. “Where did you learn to play chess?” he says.
“I just picked it up,” I say.
Al nods at me. “Some of your moves… they’re genius.”
“Oh” I give him a sideways glance, check out his face. He’s looking at me directly. “I hear you’re the best chess player in the hospital, Al”
“Maybe, but you, you rival Fischer.”
He’s sitting forward in his chair. “If I can beat you,” he says, “I’ll be champion of the world.”
He puts his finger on another pawn. “I must be extremely careful.” He lightly taps his bishop. Then he sighs, picks up his queen, raises the piece far above my men and places her down slowly like a moon lander.
“ I think it’s checkmate,” he says.
“Wow,” I say. “I never saw that coming.”
Al’s forehead squinches. “Well, if you’re as good as Fischer…” He stops. His fingers hover above the Queen again, as if he plans to pluck her. He lifts his head very close to mine. I move back some.
“If you’re as good as Fischer, how come you didn’t see that move?”
It’s a good question. My anxiety pushes up. I try to avoid it by thinking. Let brain overcome mental breakup, confusion. Maybe Al’s playing a parallel game, just like me with my communications strategy. Where did equating my playing with Fischer’s come from?
I take a look over at Ray. He’s leaning over with his thumb under his chin, watching closely. I part my hands, lift them, palms up.
“Well, I can’t tell the future,” I say. “When I play, I really don’t know what’s going to happen next…” I pause. “I’m no chess master.”
“No, not any more, obviously,” says Al. He looks at me. “You know, I used to be a lawyer. Wore a suit. But now I’m a criminally insane mental patient. I wear this shirt.”
He looks down, points at his chest. Then he grins. It’s a big half watermelon beam, showing his three remaining teeth once again.
“Yes,” I say. “Things can change over time. No one knows.”
I pull my chair back.
Al nods, stands up, poker faced again. He puts two fingers in his shirt pocket, moves them around. “I know why you won’t face me in the eyes.”
And I discover myself staring right into his. Al’s being completely straight, talking as one honest man to another. Now I know what’s with the two pocket fingers. They’re forks.
Al looks right through me. No smile. No winks. His eyes are deep and blue. “Where did you learn to play chess?” he says. Then he chuckles into his beard, turns, walks off towards the Nursing Office window.
“Let me back in please.”
Ray heaves himself up and strolls over to the big ward entrance door. It’s a door that will take four hours to burn through, if there’s a fire. He electronically fobs it open for Al. “Hope you had a good game,” he says.
“Yeah,” Al walks onto the ward, looks back at Ray. “I’m still the world champion.”
I stand up, start to put the remaining chess pieces back into the box.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Ray. “That was pretty intense.”
He’s a big guy in his blue padded security officer uniform. As I head for the door he talks nonstop.
“You know, I was mistaken about your name. I’m sorry I called you Chris, I thought you looked like a Chris. You had that Chris look. I mean, not Jesus Chris.” He laughs. “Just that new guy look. Like you were breaking yourself in. But now I know your real name, it’s Lawrence, isn’t that right?”
I turn and face him. He grins, like he’s discovered something completely unexpected.
“Most people call me Larry.” I say, as Ray unlocks the door, and sets me free.