Black Meets White
It was a regular afternoon. The Wednesday scene had already found its way inside the small café. The air was misty, somewhat damp from the almost continuous stream of coffee from the machine. Sterling, sitting at his usual spot, breathed in the caffeinated air and a partial smile crept to his lips.
He was more or less comfortable in this scene, where the only conversation stemmed from the waitress who had by now learned he wanted black coffee, period. Other than that, no one heeded an old man who enjoyed chess. He played and time passed.
The bell above the door chimed, barely lulling the conversations as the people paused to look. Sterling did not. He continued to play his chess and sip his coffee. His hand poised above a bishop, insecurity meant to ease the invisible opponent’s nerves, then a quick movement of a pawn to trick — he paused, cocky, then slipped into different shoes. He lost his smile, adopted a frown, fingers went to swivel the board.
At that moment, he felt the air in his vicinity move. Expecting a refill, the old man looked to his coffee cup. Dark liquid glimmered in the light. He looked up. A young boy sat opposite him with blonde tousled hair and eyes hidden beneath shaggy bangs. His pinched lips opened.
“Mind if I play?”
Sterling did not know if it was a rhetorical question or an awkward attempt at sincerity. The boy did not look up, did not wait for a yes or no. Pale hands simply picked up the white rook and moved.
“I don’t play with others.” Sterling sat back in his chair.
“Then how do you play?”
Sterling swiveled the board slightly.
“You play both sides by yourself?
“How does that work?”
Sterling looked to the entrance of the café, hoping the boy’s mother would walk in and collect him, but no one came through the door. “If I let you play, will you stop asking so many questions?”
The boy smiled and the game continued.
“Checkmate.” The word fell to the black and white board seeming to bend the white pieces into resignation. The black queen stood tall, the white king lay on its side. Sterling took in the boy. His eyes displayed a fragility only inflicted by a sudden loss and a constant hardship. Something was brewing inside the boy’s body. “Want to play again?” The boy looked up, green eyes meeting the piercing blue orbs of the old man for the first time. Sterling’s breath caught, his mind thrown backward. Forest green eyes beneath closed lids, cold skin paled by canary yellow.
“My name’s Bryant.” A white knight moved forward, exposing itself.
Dragged back, Sterling barely remembered to answer. “Sterling.” A black rook stuck to the edges of his comrades, waiting. Again, a white piece opened itself to be taken, but the black pieces only lurked on the front lines. Cold calculation vs. raw motivation.
From somewhere on the boy’s person, a cell phone vibrated. Bryant shattered inward, a hand jerked to answer but it moved to his throat scratching at it as if it were throbbing. He smiled, face becoming red. A white pawn moved forward, shaking as it left its queen’s side. Sterling paused, calculating his opponent and himself. The cell phone went off again, slamming the boy’s eyes onto Sterling’s.
A whisper, a smile behind a yellow rose. Sterling clutched his heart, eyes still transfixed beyond the boy. Distantly, he saw a cell phone open. He could hear talking but the words did not make sense. A delicate hand holding his, green flecks sparkling behind dark eyelashes.
“Goodbye, Sterling.” Sterling saw the boy’s body leave, but lyrical tones haunted him, squeezed his heart in their clutch. He gasped, unheard.
Imagine the waitress’s distress when finally her oldest customer not only wanted black coffee but also tea. Her face crinkled in concentration as if possibly coming back for refills was now going to be impossible. Sterling watched her turn away, a mug in his own hand, and a lone glass of tea across the table. It was…weird. Sterling blinked when his thoughts mirrored the words of the boy. Their first chess game had quickly evolved into another and another, the boy kept coming back. Each time the conversation progressed and each time the boy had ordered tea. Sterling looked down at his coffee mug, smiling. His reflection smiled back, a distorted image of an already crippled man. He gripped the cup, hands going white.
The bell above the door chimed, a few seconds later Bryant sat down, automatically reaching for the tea. Halfway to his lips, he stopped, raised an eyebrow. Sterling merely shrugged, arranging the pieces.
Two glasses sat empty by the table’s edge, a pitcher stood by a third, amber liquid glowing in the sunlight. Nearby, a pot of coffee steamed, exhaling from its heat.
“I never used to be this way, ya know.”
“Like…?” Sterling hung the words on purpose, never expecting Bryant to jump.
“I hate my father,” Bryant’s head dropped.
“Ah.” Finality. Arthritis-stricken hands picked up a black pawn. Bryant had noticed Sterling’s hands before. The disease so common in the older generation twisted each finger at a different joint. Purple veins popped out, mimicking the colors of death. Bryant shivered while Sterling placed the pawn before its lighter counterpart.
“He killed my mom. Well — okay not killed as in murder. As in gave her no reason to live,” his voice fell on murder. Accusation?
White moved forward, uncaring hands placing the king in a trap. Bryant realized it a second too late; his fingers had left the piece. The old man’s turn surprised him, Bryant’s king stood. Safe. Encouragement? Bryant took a black rook as he spoke, shattering whatever Sterling’s attempt had been, “I googled you.”
“You googled me.” Another statement.
“Yeah. I wasn’t expecting much, maybe a birth announcement at most, but you’ve got quite a lot of internet pages.”
“Really?” Finally, an audible question mark.
“Yup. I didn’t know you were famous back in the day.”
Sterling looked at Bryant, searching for the reason for this conversation. “That was a long time ago.” It was meant to stop the conversation, but Bryant pressed onward.
“Then I found something else.” There was no answer from across the table. “Did you love her?”
“Did you? It said you two were serious. Were you going to marry her?” Bryant looked with eager eyes to Sterling who sat rigid in his chair; he didn’t see the old man’s face grow pale or his hand clenching the coffee cup. He only heard the silence and it was in his way. “Were you going to marry Grace?”
Sterling flinched as the one-syllable flew from across the table. Bryant saw the old man’s expression and he realized his mistake.
The old man shook his head, cutting him off. He opened his mouth to speak but found the words would not come. Instead, his fingers slid the board away from his body, pride burning a hole in the veil of friendship between them. Sterling looked out the window as Bryant slipped from the corner booth, leaving the chess game unfinished, the old man to his internal imprisonment. Sterling barely heard the bell chime as his body shook, long overdue spasms of an aching body. Grace smiled to him beyond the glass, her white halo dulling the pain raking through his body.
Regrets tainted the air of the white-walled room making each breath a sharp pain, an endless throb. Sterling watched the yellow dress walk away, heard the disappearing footsteps. At one moment in time he had been on cloud nine, and now? Plummeting. Flying faster than the comets, passing up the stars. Crashlanding. Six feet under.
Days passed before Bryant finally came to see Sterling, his nerve failing every time his nostrils filled with the sterility of the building. His small frame shook as the nurse lead him to the end of the hallway where a tan door waited. Bryant tried to remain strong but each step was heavier, trying to root him to the past. Ghosts streamed past him, medics wheeling his mom’s body to the ER.
“It’s not her fault, Cheryl. Don’t blame this on her! This is about you and me!” Bryant’s father yelled from inside the closed doors. His office chair creaked as he got up, probably coming face to face with his spouse of ten years.
“What about Bryant, David? What about your son?” She hissed the words, venom seeming to bare its ugly teeth on the word “son.” Bryant’s body swelled with guilt, mind backtracking to something he could have done.
“Leave him out of this. Right now does not concern him. We need-“
“Leave him OUT OF THIS? He. Is. Our. Son. I can’t believe — I should have left long before this.” Bryant heard footsteps come towards the door and he quickly hid. He watched his mom stomp past him, tears streaming down her tired face. She grabbed the keys from the table before slamming the door behind her. He didn’t call out, didn’t tell her he loved her one last time.
Bryant hadn’t noticed he’d stopped walking until the nurse gently cleared her throat. The boy stepped forward and the nurse opened the door.
Sterling laid there, skin almost as pale as the standardized hospital sheets, an oxygen mask pressed to his face. Bryant inhaled at the same time the machine breathed for Sterling. Bryant carefully stepped forward as Sterling placed the oxygen mask at his side.
“Sterling.” Both voices trembled with sadness, sickness, and regret. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked about her.” Bryant went on, still standing far away from the metal bed on which Sterling’s body lay, seemingly breakable by the simplest movement.
“It’s, okay,” Sterling exhaled, breath rattling his lungs. “Come here, Bryant.” The boy did as he was told, tentatively coming to stand before Sterling. The old man’s eyes blazed, anticipating. “Go ahead, sit down.” Bryant did. Sterling closed his eyes then opened them. “I don’t know where to begin, Bryant. My life has been…well, interesting.”
“What happened between you two?” Bryant’s voice was soft, cautious of causing another of Sterling’s attacks. The old man’s mouth twisted into a miserable resemblance of a smile. His eyes fogged with memories of old.
Sterling stared at himself in the mirror. He was dressed to the nines. Armani covered him from hatted head to polished toe. It was his younger years, handsomer days. Sterling was twenty-nine and full of fire or “some new-fangled spunk” as the columnists had written. Each script his electric voice graced was destined to become a hit. He had so far carried even the toughest to swallow plots to the top and he wasn’t about to stop now.
He eyed himself in the mirror, carefully tugging his canary yellow tie into place. Tonight was his night, the night. From his breast pocket, he pulled out a velvet case and eased it open. Inside a diamond winked back at him in the dimly lit hotel lights. Smiling, he pocketed the stone once again.
The limo pulled up in front of the finest restaurant in Chicago. Sterling spoke a few words to the driver, handed him a tip, and slipped into the chilly air. Before him, his breath formed tiny clouds. Cars honked on nearby streets, people shuffled along the sidewalks; inhaling Chicago, he walked inside.
Grace was waiting for him at their usual table; a yellow dress lightly clinging to her slender form, brown hair cascading down her back in simple ringlets. Sterling’s breath caught when her green eyes found him; she smiled, lips slightly breaking to show white teeth. He almost dropped to his knee right there.
“Grace,” he breathed before their lips met. They parted seconds later as Sterling sat opposite her. The waiter came bringing first the champagne, then their meal. Conversation easily passed from Sterling to Grace until dessert plates were being removed.
“So. How did the audition go?” Sterling watched the waiter disappear before flicking his eyes back to Grace. She smiled awkwardly.
“I, well…Sterling.” Dark eyelashes fluttered and her fingers went to her bracelet. Grace smiled again. “It went really well. I got the part.”
Sterling sat back into the plush chair unsure of what to say. His heart beat beneath the weight in his breast pocket. It was now much heavier. “How long will you be in France?”
“Awhile, Sterling. Nothing is set in stone yet, they want to experiment.”
“Where does this leave us?” He didn’t want to ask, he wanted to congratulate her, tell her they could make it work. Dodging bullets had never been his forte.
“Is it a cliché to say we can make it work?” Her words mirrored his thoughts, but Grace’s eyes looked past Sterling to the impending future. He saw the success she was anticipating; his Grace was lost.
“Make it work into what?”
“Sterling, we’re so young and this is my big break. There were so many actresses auditioning for this part and I got it!” Her voice filled with a fever, quickening with the thought of the kill. “I thought you’d be happy.”
His world crumbled with those words.
“I am happy Grace. But what about us? I can’t go with you, my work’s here. And that leaves…long distance?” He sat forward now, hand running through his hair. He wanted her to choose him, though he wasn’t sure that he would do the same. “How often does that work?”
“Sterling, what are you saying?”
“I think you know what I’m saying. You had your mind made up before you came here tonight.” Across the table, Grace’s eyebrows burrowed together. Her lips tightened.
“You want me to choose you, don’t you? Over my career.” Her voice was low, deadly. Her green eyes focused on his with a cold intensity.
“Yes.” It was all he could say, eyes pleading with her. “Grace, I want you to ma-“
“I’m sorry Sterling. I love you, I do. But I can’t. I knew one day our careers would take us away from each other but I’d always believed we could rise above it. But I can’t give this up. So we either make the long-distance work or…” She dropped off there, voice finally wavering with bitter sadness.
Sterling froze. His mind was not deluded; it knew it would not work out between them now. But his heart screamed yes, yes they could make it work. His mouth remained silent, confused as to which organ to obey. They sat there, Grace and him, for a long time. Minutes ticked away with a blistering slowness, a scorching pain.
“Goodbye, Sterling.” Finally, she left him, taking his silence for a no.
“Marry me,” he whispered to her disappearing shadow.
It was never the same for Sterling. He always ached, always wondered what he could have done differently. Years passed and soon his depression bled into his work, his fire died.
He gracefully bowed out.
Bryant returned to the café a few weeks after Sterling passed. His own life had completed a one-eighty in that time; a new baby sister, a new house, his mom’s things had all finally been packed away. The only thing that remained of her was him. He gently opened the glass door shrugging off the old memories; a familiar bell announced him. The back booth was unoccupied as if the crowd still expected Sterling to walk in at any moment and take up his usual space. Bryant looked back at the door, imagining how Sterling would have made his entrance. Eyes down, shuffling? No. Elegant, poised, full of pride. The boy walked on, sitting down in front of the chessboard. The sun shone on it from the window making the dust particles visible. The pieces almost seemed to dance in that light, moving in old patterns.
Bryant was unsurprised when a glass was set down beside him but was when an envelope was set next to it.
“Sterling left that here for you.” It was the first time the waitress had spoken to him other than taking his order. She smiled before walking away. The boy’s fingers opened the paper. Lying in the yellowed envelope was the black king, its figure worn with the memories of past players. Its power amplified now that it was not standing in the queen’s shadow.