It is intermission at a coffeehouse in a small town south of the city. Everything here is for sale: aging paperbacks and cracked teacups and homemade jelly (rosehip and rhubarb-blueberry) and dusty shoes (pinch-hitter wingtips, cleats) and Oriental fans like frozen pancakes in thirty speckled carnival colors.
The game before them is simple. Checkers. Black and red. Boy and Girl.
“Smoke before fire,” she says. “You go first.”
When he advances a lone black checker in her direction, she gasps as though he’d made a master’s move from which she’d never recover.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Nothing. Joke,” she says. Two moves later, she messes up – places her red in front of his black – and waits to be trounced. Go on, she thinks. Jump me. She buries her head in the crook of her elbow, cringing. She peeks out of her folded arms to watch the move. More theatrics lost on him. He doesn’t jump.
“Some rulebooks say you have to jump, if you can,” she said. “Else it’s illegal.”
“I’ve never played that way,” he says. “Anyway, I didn’t see it.”
It is raining outside and she has arrived in this small town on business. Tomorrow morning she will talk to a dozen doctors about inhalers for asthmatics. She will wear her lavender skirt suit. But tonight she doesn’t worry about her asthma pitch because he has driven two hours — after one chance encounter at a conference in California and countless emails — to pick her up in his wife’s green minivan at the airport.
There are no kisses. They talked at dinner about the regional hospital, the new anti-wheeze medications. She teases him about his twang. When she said she’d never heard bluegrass live, he brought her here.
She suggests checkers so she can look at his shoulders. Since the conference, she’d been thinking about those shoulders, how they were the widest part of his body. He now wears a blue oxford cloth shirt over a John Spencer Blues Explosion T-shirt and looks older than she remembers. His shoulders don’t seem so broad. She wants to contemplate as they play when he whispered into her hair to complain how the guitar strings sounded like rubber bands. Did that man really just sing a song about the circus? She’d asked. When he asked if she wanted a bite of his buttermilk pie, they’d shared the same fork in a habit of couples. As though they could have been married to anyone, to each other, even.
Instead of checking him out, she has gotten into the game. She is winning. On her fifth move, she double-jumps him.
“Don’t you let me win, ” she says. She plucks up the checkers.
“I wouldn’t,” he says. “You won’t win. If I can help it.” She knows he says this because he’s guessed, correctly, that she wants banter. Can he play? Does he want her? Her friend Marlene told her you could tell how a man was in bed by his sense of humor: Punster? Overanalyzes everything. Legs n’ eggs jokes? Raunchy backseat action on sticky leather seats. Forwarded emails? Missionary, three times a week. No muff. Wry, self-deprecating statements? Secretly wants to be pegged.
But, she wanted to ask Marlene now, what if the guy has no sense of humor at all?
“You know,” she says. “One of my friends tells me humor is a window into your soul.”
She has five of his checkers, aligned one atop the other, a smokestack. One flick of a fingertip would send them sprawling.
“So how’s my soul look?” He stares at the checkerboard. He does not cock his head coyly to look at her. He keeps unmoved the line of men in the back row.
It is her turn and there are several options, so she does not answer. She makes her move and takes another one of his checkers from the board. She glances at their stacks, red and black, her six to his one.
“If you hate this game,” she says, “we can stop.”
He shakes his head. “It’s too late.”
His hand is curled into a fist against his cheek as he gazes at the board. It distorts his face, and she realizes that, in fact, he does hate checkers. She realizes this with the same frustration she’ll feel later, when she returns to her hotel room to find she’d left the bathroom faucet running. Already it has overflowed onto tiles, seeped into the carpet, through the edges of bathtub caulk and into the room below. The horrid prick of misstep will fill her, as it does now, when she frees her grasp from his hand to unlock the door of her room and hears the sound of water flowing as she steps onto the soaking rug. After a few unsuccessful kisses, she will realize, as the rug ruins their shoes, that he never wanted to be there with her. He will call the front desk before he leaves, and she, marooned in her rented room, will deal with the ruination.
“You should have said something,” she says.
“It’s fine,” he says. “We can play.”
If she felt she had any claim on him, any at all, she’d have said, “Yes, we can play. But do you want to play?” He’d have become agitated at her analysis of his semantics.
“King me,” he says.
She kings him, then kings him on the next turn, and then the next. Her stack of six dwindles to three.
He removes the first of the black checkers in the back row, for a double-jump move she hadn’t seen. By the time she moves in for her first and only king, it is surrounded by immovable, un-kingable red men.
She sees what is about to happen.
“There are no self-jumps in checkers,” she says. “I can’t move. What does this mean?”
He moves in for another double jump. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “King me.”
“Is it a draw?”
The bluegrass band begins its second set and he looks up at her, a tight smile framing his face. “It doesn’t matter. Win or no win. Let’s go hear some music.”
“Enough circus songs for the night,” she says. “Why don’t we just leave?”
They stand up and she searches for the umbrella he’d lent her. They do not bother to reset the checkerboard.
He drives her along the dark country road, toward her hotel room in the city. She fumbles with the radio dial and finds comfort in the groan of the windshield wipers and the static twang of the talk show preacher on the A.M. band that fills the silence between them.