House Rules by Salvatore Difalco

Tim Peters passes time in an isolation unit near the Canada-USA border by trying to get better at chess.

Image generated with OpenAI
I play chess with Sam A in the isolation unit. Sam A looks like a linebacker, but he's smart. Sam B, who looks like a tub of shit, doesn't play chess. Sam B is a prick, but that's another story. I learned to play chess at Lackawanna Elementary. Mr. Oddi, the science teacher, taught me the moves and beat me thirty times in a row before I finally beat him. Then he never beat me again. I became the best chess player at Lackawanna Elementary. Other kids called me Bobby, after Bobby Fischer. I started playing in tournaments and did okay. Then my old man got busted for drug trafficking and I had other things to worry about besides chess.

When Sam A found out I could play, he challenged me and I like that. Pricks like Sam B ignore me most of the time or treat me with disgust, like I'm less than human. But Sam A is a good head and a good chess player, real good. We've played about twenty times. I haven't beat him yet. He has tricks, he's fucking tricky. But I'm learning. I'll beat him one day. I have time.

One afternoon, Sam A and I sit down to play in the isolation unit. He teaches me a new variation of the Sicilian Defense. I try it on him as black but he crushes me. "Be more patient with your attack, Bobby," he tells me. He kids me by calling me Bobby. My name is Tim Peters. But no one has called me Tim for a long time. "Defend first," Sam A says, "only then attack - when your position is secure." We play again. This time I take white and he defends with the Sicilian. He quickly ties me up in knots. I can't make a move. "This is called zugzwang, Bobby," he says with a smile. "I know what it's called," I say, and I do.

The joke about the name Bobby goes back to when I crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada, and told the customs people that my name was Bobby Fischer and that my father was in jail and my mother had abandoned me. They bought the name - maybe they didn't know who Bobby Fischer was, being Canadians - but had no clue what to do with me. I had no identification and although I was fourteen I didn't look older than twelve. And I pretended to be dyslexic and slow. Eventually, they placed me in a foster home in Niagara Falls, Ontario, with the Richardsons, a nice, square family.

Of course, that didn't last. They stuck me in a vocational institute called NTEC, that in addition to work-training programs for disadvantaged youth also offered schooling for fucked up kids. And I mean fucked up. Within a few days I got into a tangle with a dude called Josh, a smelly, three-hundred-pound weirdo who grabbed the tuna sandwich off my tray in the cafeteria and started eating it. That wasn't going to fly. You don't mess with people's food. I wasn't taking it from a fat fuck like Josh. Anyway, I broke his nose. His mother demanded the police press charges. They did. Assault causing bodily harm.

Then the cops and authorities starting connecting some dots and figured out my name wasn't Bobby Fischer. When they discovered I was actually Tim Peters, of Lackawanna, all bets were off. They sent me to the Peninsula Youth Centre in Fenwick, north of Niagara Falls, to await processing and possible extradition back the the US. They placed me in an isolation unit away from the other kids. Guess they were paranoid.

My first night there, Sam B and this gorilla called Johnny restrained me hard in my cell for no fucking reason. Put a pretty good beating on me, careful not to mess with my face. I got the message. Don't fuck with these guys. Follow the house rules. Keep your head down. Speak as little as possible. Talking's never good anyway. I figured this was my reality until the trial, and then I had no idea what would happen.

I was lucky, though. Sam A soon showed up with a chessboard. He was running a combo chess and anger management program. I guess the idea was to play chess with us and at the same time provide counseling or get to the root of our issues. At first I kept mum about my business and Sam A didn't pry too hard. He was smooth. We played chess whenever he was on shift until I became fully invested in beating him. I thought I was close. He asked about my anger issues. I told him I wasn't an angry person, normally. I didn't like conflict. But I had a breaking point.

My days proceed with a drab monotony that, after a few months, starts playing with my mind, as much as I try to block out everything that's happened in the past year. Sam A eventually asks about my mother. Takes longer for me to respond to this. In time I tell him she was a strong woman who'd put up with a lot of shit from my old man - and me. But she could push too far sometimes. She wouldn't let up, you know - sometimes. Not that I didn't love her. I loved her a lot. She was my mamma. And I know she loved me.

"How do you feel about it now?" Sam A asks one day at the chessboard. I tell him I don't know. "You don't know?" he says. I shake my head. It was a moment of madness. She'd truly pushed me too far, and I lost it. "One thing I want to know," Sam A says. "Detectives found the hammer hanging back on its hook in the basement workroom."

"Yeah," I explain. "Mamma told me to always put things back in their place after I used them." Sam A swallows. "It's your move," I say.

9 comments:

  1. Wow. A chess game within a chess game to get at another crazy situation. The end was brilliant. I did not see it coming. You are on the outside looking in here, because though it is first person, he has no ability to reflect on himself…so we do. Fantastic job!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very intriguing character established in short order...and with one subtle reveal, the entire mood of the story darkens by an order of magnitude. Nicely done!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great ending, very much caught me by surprise. I know that was your intent, but you did it really well. There were clues, but I'd guess most readers will miss them. The character is well-defined; I've taught a few students like him, in real life and they are both intriguing and hide their dangerousness extremely well. You nailed that.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gritty and well-paced. I appreciate the “what happens next” ending. Maybe Tim’s defense with his mother didn’t work so he had to go on the attack.
    —David Henson

    ReplyDelete
  5. The queen is the most powerful piece in chess, and so I love how you have created a chess playing protagonist with mother issues.
    As the story moves forward, it also unfolds backwards, as both the young man’s life and the murder are revealed.
    Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I was really enjoying Bobby/Tim all the way, and didn't see that end coming at all! I'm not even a chess player, just some casual games in my youth, but you didn't lose me with the chess, had me hooked on this character all the way through, and then took it up another notch at the very end. And the hammer itself ... nice touch!

    ReplyDelete
  7. As others have said this is a deftly paced story with a really strong and compelling narrative voice. The chess as a backdrop to managing the trials of his own life is well done and the chilling reveal at the end is superb.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I didn't see that coming.
    Mr. Mirth

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wow, the ending of this story took me by surprise. I gleaned by Salvatore’s nuanced and clever writing that “Bobby” was in some trouble, but we are led to blithely believe that it concerns immigration problems or youthful rowdiness of just being on the loose at the age of 14. When in the closing paragraphs it is revealed that bobby bludgeoned his mother to death with a hammer – and then obligingly replaced the implement in its proper place, it comes like a cold bolt through the chest. Clever diversionary tactics, Salvatore; good job!

    ReplyDelete