"What about this?" my father asked me, poised over his prized beer stein, with a sheet of labels bearing my name in hand. "Do you want this?"
"Yeah, I’ve always wanted that," I responded, showing a toothy grin and feigning my best interest. I knew it would make the proceedings that much worse if I let show any lack of interest.
It was my dad’s way of maintaining the family line, and preparing us for the inevitable: he was reserving all of his wordly goods for my sister and me, in anticipation of his eventual death.
"When I kick off," he used to say – he liked to use the expression, "kick off;" it brought a sense of levity to the serious subject of death, projecting a cavalier attitude on a topic that certainly scared the hell out of him.
"…You’ll want to be sure this is all straightened out."
When my father died, the division of property was the last thing we thought about – though I was dumbstruck by the note my mother left me, explaining that Dad thought I should have his fraternity ring – but perhaps he should be buried with it. Flummoxed, I chose wrong. I still have that ring, never worn.
Over the years, some of the trinkets came my way – items that, more often than not, I really had neither use nor desire for. At times, I would refuse. Others, I would acquiesce, filling my basement and closets with random bits of misplaced sentimentality.
Over the years, every trip home inevitably included some assessment of Dad’s property, with an eventual dispatch of goods. As I surveyed the bounty, the memories hit me in a rush, and I was surprised to find that even the items to which I had no personal attachment struck me with a profound melancholy – that just because these items had meant something to my father, I would have to tend to their wellbeing to keep him happy. Meanwhile, I was fighting my family's packrat gene. I had to get rid of this stuff, but I couldn’t bear to.
On my last trip home, I was given custody of the chess set. But not the marble set with the custom weighted pieces and hand-fitted felt bottoms. No, this was the electronic set – a brown plastic box, with its little pieces attached by pegs, and red lights on the sides, confirming the moves. And the computer played back! Imagine such a marvelous thing.
I turned on the switch and watched as the lights danced a jig that surely brought great pride to its Radio Shack creators. That the batteries still worked was a truer testimony to their skills.
I never really learned to play chess. I know how the pieces move, and the rules of the game. I even know how to castle, though I can’t say that I’ve ever actually done it. Though I’ve played the game, I don’t think I’ve ever won, and it’s safe to say that I’ve never truly learned to play.As a boy, my friends and I always found army men, crawly things, firecrackers, and footballs infinitely more appealing than a chess set. As a teen, it was guitars and girls that held my focus.
I sat on my back porch with the electronic chess set, moving pieces around randomly, and watching as the little computer buzzed and beeped, confirming my moves and (more frequently) denouncing them as illegal. I liked the simplicity of the thing, with its rudimentary nature that was once considered the pinnacle of technology when conceived.
I moved the pieces distractedly.
"Beep, buzz!" it said to me in response, as I watched the shadows play in the yard. A little squirrel approached the porch, eyeing me constantly, nervously, ready to dart for the cover of the too-tall grass.
The chess set in my lap beeped at my move, and as I gazed down to ascertain the cause of its alarm, a life-and-death drama played out at the limits of my peripheral vision. A red-tailed hawk had negotiated the heavy maple cover, and made a run for the squirrel, who fortunately had the agility of youth in his favor, and managed a scamper to the cover of the nearest tree.
The silent assassin was gone in an instant, leaving us three – its intended meal, another nearby squirrel, and me – catching our breath, gobsmacked and dumbfounded.
After the hawk’s pass, its intended victim – a red squirrel, just months old – found himself perched on the stunted outgrowth of a silver maple directly ahead of me. To the side, another squirrel – foraging partner to the first – was clinging onto the side of another tree, watching me, wide-eyed. The one ahead was calling out like I’d never heard – a pained, wheezing cry.
I looked back and forth between the two, processing the drama that had just unfolded. Finally, I managed the words.
"What the hell?" I asked the one to my side. I think he nodded.
In the wake of the attack of the Great Assassin, it was nearly a half an hour before order was restored to the yard. Eventually, the intended victim sought further cover, while his foraging friend returned to his squirrelsome business.
I recalled my misspent youth, when the rare lucky shot of an acorn slung from a discount store slingshot struck home on birdwing. The rush of guilt conjured the false belief that thrown bread chunks would instantly heal injuries.
Thinking I might have better luck this time with my recipient unwounded, I tossed a few nuts and watched the feast.
It seemed as though the squirrel had developed a healthy appetite in his post-traumatic state – having witnessed the near death and consumption of his brother in fur. Or perhaps he was simply obeying his genetic code, which had hardwired the command, "EAT!" into his pea-sized brain.
In either case, I watched as he worked though the assortment: peanuts, cashews, even the green one.
Wait, the green one? I realized, with a touch of amusement, tempered with a trace of concern, that I’d thrown him a ginkgo biloba capsule, and he was having quite a time with it.
As I watched the squirrel eating a ginkgo biloba capsule on my back porch, I wondered at the attraction. I couldn’t help but think it was a bitter pill, and hardly appetizing to a seed-eater like my little furry friend.
Had the nutty treats clouded his sense of perception in the aftermath of the attack? Or maybe he was just a weird critter. In any case, he made fast work of it, sniffed around for errant crumbs, shot me a quick look, and went off on his way.
I turned the chess set off and went inside.
The next day, I stepped back out onto my porch to admire the day. I admit to a strange fascination with the herbal squirrel, and so I’d returned with a handful of nuts and yet another ginkgo biloba capsule.
I’d tried the herbal supplement – reported to enhance memory and focus – a few years ago. After not finding any benefit, I’d eventually thrown the capsules out. How one of them found its way into the bowl of nuts I’d taken outside is tribute to my carelessness, but also a serendipitous moment that has brought me great amusement.
I named him Frank.Just to see if it was a freak event, I set out another handful of nuts and the pièce de résistance: another capsule, and I’ll be Alice if he didn’t gobble it down just like the previous one. I stifled the occasional giggle while watching him, admiring his technique – he cracked open the capsule and delicately ate the green herbal goodness from the inside. I fingered the chess pieces absentmindedly, as I watched him finish. He shot me a wink and ran away, as I sat there agog for another 45 minutes.
I left the porch and went about my day, putting Frank and his dietary issues aside. I returned before sunset, to retrieve the chess set I’d left outside, with Frank nowhere in sight. I picked it up to find the white queen’s knight moved in front of the queen - a strange move, and illegal, to the best of my recollection. I turned on the machine, which confirmed my suspicions with a buzz, so I moved the piece back, and advanced queen’s pawn two spaces. I put it back on the porch, to see what would happen next.
Digging through the collection of Dad’s treasures I’d brought home, I was struck by the conjured memories, but also perplexed by the mess my house was about to become. A sense of guilt coerced me into believing I had to hold onto the things that had brought such joy to my dad: punchboards with winning tickets taped onto the side, some crazy red ashtray, a giant snifter filled with matchbooks, a mounted pheasant, and even a primitive wooden shelf, which was likely an eighth grade shop project.Perhaps I could rent a storage unit to house my guilt.
One effect of that errant gene coursing through my vessels is that I find it hard to finish. As a result, everything is half-done, and the job of putting away my new inheritances was one such undone effort. If I could take it away to charity, toss it in the trash, or even pack it all away in the basement, at least I’d have it over with. But this is not the way of my people. ‘Tis better to leave it out in full view, despite the fact that doing so still doesn't facilitate the decision-making process.
After pondering the dilemma of my growing inventory of memorabilia, I stepped outside to gaze upon my estate. I was scanning the grounds for my new friend, Frank, but to no avail, when I glanced down to the plastic chess set at my feet, where I discovered my move answered: black queen’s pawn advanced two spaces, echoing her white twin.
It was a better move than the previous phantom move, being both legal and legitimate. I felt a sense of satisfaction at the improvement, for just a few moments, then the what-the-fuckness of it all set in.
These weren’t the first such phantom moves exhibited by this chess set. When I was a boy, my father, who possessed an overactive belief in the infestation of his home by ghosts and gremlins, often claimed spiritual explanations for mundane events, and the chess-playing gremlin was a regular visitor. More likely, the gremlin was really my father himself, who was prone to odd late-night activity after indulging in a few too many cocktails.
As I stared at the black pawn, I revisited the gremlin theory, confident in the knowledge that cocktail-fueled exploits were not a factor.
The only obvious response was to make my next move, so I advanced another white pawn, set the board down on the porch, and stared at it expectantly, watching for any mysterious phantom movement. I waited until my lack of patience outweighed my curiosity, which wasn't long, then I scanned the yard for Frank. I had a handful of nuts for him, and yet another ginkgo capsule. The novelty of Frank’s ginkgo attraction had worn off a bit, but still I figured that if he liked them, they’re better off on his dinner plate than in my garbage.
With no Frank in sight, and no gremlins revealing their chess-playing prowess, I went inside and started making dinner. While the pork chops were frying, I ventured onto the web to find out a little more about the ginkgo biloba. I recognized the tree, having seen it in someone’s yard as a boy, while growing up in Toledo. I didn’t recall seeing any squirrels making special trips to dine on the leaves of that tree, but there’s a lot that I don’t remember squirrels doing – which didn’t preclude them from actually doing those things.
"Pork chops and applesauce, mighty good taste." It’s a phrase I’ll always remember from my youth, as a young Peter Brady was trying to learn to be a better actor, so he walked around the house for the entire episode, imitating the voice of James Cagney. You can’t say the line without the accent, and I couldn’t even talk about pork chops without at least a casual mention of applesauce.
They fried; I ate. I walked back to the porch to find Frank, enjoying his own dinner.
"Hey, Frank," I said. I think he waved back.
He didn’t skitter. He worked his way through the pile of nuts, finishing with the green ginkgo capsule in the fashion that I’d grown accustomed to. Then, with a lick of the forepaws and a wipe of the face, he looked up at me blankly. I looked back, not knowing what else one should do.
Then he walked slowly toward me, feeling his way gingerly to the edge of the chess set, where he sat back on his widening haunches, carefully considered the arrangement before him, then reached out a tiny paw and moved black king’s pawn.
It was Frank! Frank had been moving the chess pieces around, and as unlikely as it was for a squirrel to take the time out of his rodent-focused agenda to manipulate the little pieces, it was even more odd to find that he was making legitimate moves.
Time had stopped. Frank the ginkgo-eating, chess-playing squirrel had rocked my grip on reality, and I took a moment to remind myself to breathe. Like the time I jumped out of a plane into thin air, I took a breath and acquainted myself with this new reality.
There was nothing to do but make the next move. If I ever knew any chess strategy, it fell by the wayside at that moment. If I had been Bobby Fischer, I’d have forgotten the rules. I was randomly moving pieces, awestruck by the fact that I was playing a game of chess with a squirrel in my backyard. I sat and watched as he carefully considered the board. He carefully considered it. Holy crack-packet, what next?The game ended in a stalemate, and Frank went off his way. I sat and stared, re-evaluating my reality.
I waited for Frank the next day on the porch, and as I picked up the set, I noticed tiny little grimy pawprints over all the pieces. At that moment, Frank poked his furry head over the edge of the porch and walked directly to my feet. I sat on the porch and placed the set between us.
After an hour of intense play, I was disillusioned to find the white pieces far outnumbered by black. A few short moves later, I had suffered perhaps man’s first intellectual loss to a rodent. At least he didn’t say, "checkmate."
I was waiting for the victory dance, unable to discern the difference between this freak of nature and the parodies that had influenced my youth, like Alvin and Chip ‘n Dale. I comprehended that those were not squirrels, but chipmunks, but when you’re dealing with a chess-playing rodent, it’s hardly the time to split hairs.
Instead, he looked around a little bit, sniffed at the porch, and went off his squirrelly way.
"See ya, Frank," I said as he left, and went inside the house. Later, I snuck outside and removed the batteries from the set.
We played every night for the next week, over a bowl of mixed nuts, and a ginkgo for Frank-o. He didn’t seem to care for that joke, but lacking the skill of vocalization, he wasn’t able to express his sentiment – yet.
I noticed with amusement that with all the sedentary play and nut-eating, Frank’s backside was growing roughly at the same pace as his intellect, and considering that he was beating me daily at chess, his furry ass was getting huge. Not surprisingly, he didn’t find the humor in that, either.
It had become ridiculous. If Frank had ever had a modicum of civility, it was gone for good. He was beating me regularly, and enjoying it to no end. I started avoiding him, which was presumably an easy task – I had only to avoid the outdoors.
I was napping on the couch when I woke to the sound of scratching – and there he was, tapping a little hairy foot in a clear display of impatience.
Busted for the attempted evasion, and also annoyed at the intrusion, I took a moment before the thought set in: how had he gotten inside?
Little squirrelly knickknacks started showing up in my house – nuts and twigs were hidden everywhere amongst the piles of my father’s possessions, and what looked to be a wad of black fuzz in the corner, fashioned into some sort of a nest. A closer inspection revealed the fuzz as the reincarnation of my former favorite – the Van Halen T-shirt.
Frank had become unbearable – a snippy little bitch who was taking over my life: dominating me in chess, lounging his fat ass all over the place, and filling my house with unwanted junk.
Then he drank my last beer.
I pushed aside some trinkets on the dinner table and reflected on the summer I’d had. The amassed junk was tribute to my losing battle against genetics, but I’d witnessed the power of nature, and somehow taught a mangy rodent to play chess, and also to espouse the worst of human qualities: pride, gluttony, sloth, and a few more sins I couldn’t quite place.
It was a fantastic summer, despite the tribulations, and I relished the meal ahead, as a victory lap and final statement to my furry little friend.
Frank chops and applesauce. Mighty good taste.