An excerpt from some fiction I’m writing: Fresno, California.
Note: this is an excerpt from some fiction I’m writing. It’s a section of it. I really like it and wanted to share it.
Fresno, California. August 28, 2006. Monday.
Eric Stover pulled off of the highway and was waiting at an empty stoplight to turn left in the brutal Central Valley heat. On the 99 with the windows open, he could at least make believe that it wasn’t hot as hell. The light mercifully turned green and he floored it, hoping to find the Starbucks Coffee that the highway sign had said was left in a quarter of a mile on Ventura street. The air conditioning in his 1991 Integra — which also had a broken passenger high-beam and severely cracked rear bumper, but was otherwise in surprisingly excellent condition — stopped working just thirty five miles north of Irvine. He was surprised that it hadn’t gone out at least half a decade earlier. But his luck would run out on a hot day in August when he needed to be in Stockton hours ago.
The Starbucks was off to the left and with no shady parking spots in view, Eric Stover found the nearest one he could to the door and practically sprinted inside. Cool, commercial-grade air conditioning against a 90 plus degree day is always welcome. Like jumping into a freezing pool, it’s uncomfortable only until you get used to it. He felt all of the sweat in his hair and face freeze into icicles. Whatever he thought, freezing is a much better way to die than continuing to have every ounce of his 75%-water-by-volume slowly and uncomfortably extracted from his body. He had to get up to see his father. He had nearly convinced himself that his father wanted to see him. It was his mother’s decision. This break had the chance of ruining that, but it was no use having two dying family members in the same city.
As far as Eric Stover was concerned, Fresno was an honest-to-god flyover for everyone who wasn’t obsessed with farming strawberries or almonds, but the Central Valley disagreed and clearly had enough people with nothing to do at 1:30 on a Monday afternoon for every table to be taken and for the line to be six people long, all seemingly having coffee orders with enough adjectives to go fill a novel. He waited patiently, looking around, trying to decide if he was going to take his iced coffee and immediately get back on the road or sit and bask in the air conditioning a bit longer.
“A venti iced coffee, please. With as much ice as you can put in.”
“Four dollars and three cents. On a Visa. Thanks.”
In the far corner where the piercing sunlight stopped being so piercing and the attractive and over-engineered Seattle Coffee Shop ambiance started to fade was Sara Jane Eikens with what was one of three open seats in front of her small wood and marble chess set on her table that sat in front of her. She had been staring at Eric Stover ever since he walked in and now, with his coffee in hand, was simply waiting for him to realize the dire situation of seating in this Starbucks off of Ventura Street in Fresno, California and walk over. Eric Stover saw this and was startled at her eye contact and briefly considered just walking back to his car. But her stare was as captivating as it was frightening. It’s not polite to stare. He broke this petrifying moment of human connection by looking down at her chess board — that was better than immediately looking away. Sure, he knew how to play. Her stare followed him like a spy satellite as he walked over and sat down.
“I’m better at chess than you are.” As if she’d said it thousands of times and never been proven wrong. Which was true.
Eric quickly tried to determine if she was expecting a response. “Thanks for the seat.” He took a swig from his flimsy, lidless Starbucks cup. He forgot that it was that lid that provided the cup with all of it’s structural integrity.
“When did you play last?”
Highschool, Eric thought. His Dad had a chess board and the two of them occasionally met one of his Dad’s friends in a breakfast diner to play a quick game, back before he left. Eric had accidentally wound up at three chess club meetings in High School before he decided he didn’t want to be seen as a nerd. That would have been nine years ago, and even then, he wasn’t sure if he’d actually played a game. He must have. “A long time ago.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Eric Stover would never learn that this nineteen year old girl’s name was Sara Jane Eikens and that she was from Fresno and longed to get out. “I’ll show you a game. Thirty-seven moves. Someday you’ll have to think why I showed you this one. It’s famous.” She stared at him for a few last moments.
“White pawn to E4. A lot of people get hung up on their first move, but every game has to start somewhere. This is a safe choice. They’re all safe choices. You have to pick one if you’re going to get anywhere. But in the end, the opening move doesn’t matter. You can win against anyone with any single opening move. So pick one.
“Black pawn to C5. The other player has the same 20 different options for a first move. From there the game gets difficult. The problem space that you have to consider grows with every move, at least until a point. There is a limit to the number of moves. And there are no draws. But right now, after these two moves, there are four hundred different ways this board could look. What does winning look like right now? How do you get from here to checkmate? White pawn to C3. Black pawn to D5. Five thousand possible ways this board can look now. The future of choice can paralyze. Do you even remember what the first moves were? White pawn takes D5.
She paused and took a sip from her nearly-empty venti iced tea that she had on the floor to the left of her.
“Was that a strategic move on Black’s part? Do you willingly give up things so that you can get ahead later? How? Or do you believe in some sort of law of averages — that if you give up some things in the beginning you’ll magically be in a better position to win later? Some players are obsessed with losing pieces in the beginning and will do anything they can to prevent it. Numbers and math can’t always tell you what to do.
“Black queen takes D5. See? Retribution. Black’s most powerful piece is now in play. What do you think of the previous move now? In only two moves you can take your queen out. There’s some value in that.
“White pawn to D4. There are nearly two hundred thousand different ways this board could look right now. From a measly two hundred to five thousand. That’s more possibilities than days you’ll be alive, by nearly an order of magnitude. What moves mattered to get us to here? Could you make them again? Obviously the black pawn had to move out so that the queen could leave, but what else? Was that pawn a response to the white pawn? Can you see that it doesn’t matter? Can you see that it’s a futile exercise trying to determine what moves, out of a truly large problem space, got you here? You’re here. Not there.
Sara Jane Eikens talked in a quick and calm voice. The sort of one you would expect to hear a speed-talking psychiatrist read a legal disclaimer. Warning, you may become depressed. Side effects may include death.
“White pawn to D4. Confront your enemy. Pursue what’s in front of you. Tease them. Don’t get mad, get even. It just might set you free. Black knight to F6. Knight to F3. You have that look in your eyes. You look like you’ve filed your taxes a few times. You’ve paid rent to a heartless landlord who has taken your entire security deposit for a broken garbage disposal. You look like you’ve had to sell your guitar to pay rent before and probably have some student loans looming over you and a small mountain of credit card debt as well. But here you are, in Fresno, sitting down at a Starbucks across from me showing signs of a perfectly normal life. You’re not flattened by your reality. You don’t seem crushed by your finances or your worthless degree, your sometimes questionable friends or your miniscule place in the universe. Humans are bipeds; we literally don’t take things anyway but standing up. We’re not as bad as we think we are. Computers can do the same things over and over again, but we’re the ones who understand why. We understand why digging hundreds of holes is character building. Bishop to G4. Bishop to E2. But entropy always increases. It’s a law of thermodynamics. Maybe, just maybe, things were better then, whenever then was. Focus! This board, right now, could look about nine million different ways. And this is just sixty four squares of eleven different pieces. You can win a chess game in nine moves. From where we are do you think either side can win in just the remaining two?
“Black pawn to E6. White pawn to H3. Just shuffling pieces around. It has to get done. Like paying rent. Being homeless sucks. You have to get pieces to where they are most valuable and sometimes that simply takes time. Embrace the process. To be fair though, all of these moves could be losing ones. White or black could be directly dooming themselves to failure. What do you think?
Eric Stover took another large sip of his iced coffee. He had gathered now that every question she was bound to ask required no response on his end. He was just trying to keep up.
“It’s a hard realization that everything you’ve ever done could be wrong. Black swaps queen and rook. But one of these players must win. The player with the fewest mistakes, the one that screws themself over the least, is by definition victorious. There are no ties in chess. Knight to C6. Problem space — entropy — does kill though. It can cause the brakes on the car behind you to go out pushing you onto the train tracks where an oncoming train strikes your car and kills you instantly. Consider it. Slowly, opportunities transform into a mountain of lost opportunities and that mountain will always, eventually, crush you. You can’t do everything and there are some things you can’t not do. Everyone has to wake up. Everyone has to go to work. Everyone has to pay their taxes. Everyone has dumb stupid shit happen to them and everyone at some point in their lives wonders what the fuck they’re doing and how they got here. That’s the mountain crumbling.
“Bishop to E3. Pawn takes D4. Pawn takes D4. Bishop to D4. That’s one of the most interesting things about chess. The problem space tapers off to that same roughly nine-million possible boards. We imposed rules to make the game friendlier and less morbid. If there wasn’t a fifty-move limit to games, chess could go on forever. Do you have forever to spend here?
“The same ideas. The entropy. The rules. The lost opportunities and their byproducts. They all, because of these sixty-four squares, made your iced coffee. They make supercolliders and vaccines and books. But by the same logic, there’s nothing that says a bomb couldn’t hit this city and turn every single patron in here to dust. Not that it makes a difference. If there was no move limit, the game would end when the universe ends. Infinity and nothing have a lot more in common than they’d ever care to admit.
Sara Jane Eikens paused just long enough to take another sip of her iced tea.
“Everything converge on failure. Attempted or brought on by the seemingly infinite. Pawn to A3. Bishop to A5. Knight to C3. Queen to D6. Everyone wants to make only the winnings moves. There is no such thing. They don’t understand that sometimes making a move in a vague direction is a perfectly acceptable thing. Knight to B5. Queen to E7. Knight to E5. Bishop takes E2. King takes E2. The king is an interesting piece. It can only move one space at a time. Isn’t it odd that the winning move is to remove a player of one of their most useless tactical pieces? Isn’t it more realistic to take away the piece with the most freedom, the one that can generate the most entropy? Swap queen and rook. Rook to C1. Rook to C16. Bishop to G5. Bishop to B6. Rook to F6.
“Now eighteen moves in. Who do you think is going to win? Do you remember any of the moves before this? Do you remember anything at all that’s gotten us here? Do you even remember how many people there were in front of you in line when you first walked in? Can you even identify the winning moves in retrospect?
“Pawn takes F6. Knight to C4. Rook to D8. Knight takes B6. Pawn takes B6. I still find it strange how a knight can move awkwardly around the board and sneak up on other pieces only to have a pawn take it’s life. That is a terrifying parallel with life itself.
“Rook to D1. Pawn to F5. King to F3. The king being out in the open is perhaps the beginning of the end. It can only move one square at a time. The only thing ever gained from merely incremental steps is making it more convenient for death to put you out of your misery. King to F6. Pawn to D5. Rook takes D5. Rook takes D5. A give and take. What do you do when taking a piece deliberately puts you into the line of another? That move may be less attractive, sure. But it’s strategy.
“Pawn takes D5. Pawn to B3. Queen to H8. King to B6. Rook to G8. Do you know how computers play chess? Do you know how they deal with the excruciating pain of near infinite options? King to C5. Pawn to D3. Knight to D6. The problem space is almost too difficult to brute force, even with a rule of fifty moves. We have to limit ourselves. Success — winning — mandates a certain frame of mind. Computers know how many options there are. They can sort of see how many moves are immediately destined for failure. But they can’t be exhaustive. So how do you teach a computer strategy? How do you tell it what’s good and what’s bad? Given an infinite amount of time, nothing can truly understand all of the choices it could have made, let alone rate them in order of worst to best. Even a supercomputer. When we try to get computers to solve human problems, they end up becoming more human, not more machine. At some point the math falls inbetween the lines of code and human perfection and imperfection breaks through. Maybe that is our greatest programming triumph.
Eric Stover took another gulp of coffee being careful that the ice cubes didn’t slide out of the cup and onto his face.
“Pawn to F4. Knight to B7. Knight to E5. King to D5. Pawn to F3. Pawn to G3.
“It really is the ranking that’s the problem. What weight do you give the next move? What about the one after that? If you give up three moves and three pieces to win on the fourth, is that successful? How are you certain that the risk is worth it? If it isn’t, how do you expect to recover? The success case is winning. But it’s easier said than done.
Sara Jane Eikens reached down and took the final swig from her iced tea.
“Knight to D3. Rook to C7. Rook to E8. Knight to D6. Rook to E1. Queen to H2. Knight to F2. Knight to F7. Queen to G7. Knight to G5. Queen to H6. Rook to H7. Checkmate.
Sara Jane Eikens took out a small leather bag and put the pieces in it, and then placed it and the board into her backpack, got up, and walked out without saying another word. Eric Stover sat for a few minutes because he simply wasn’t sure what to think. He finished his iced coffee, stood up, walked straight to his car and stopped at a gas station just before hopping on the 5 and drove straight to Stockton in silence just in time to catch his father turning off the baseball game in his hospital room before going to bed.