The board is set, white pieces in front of me, brown pieces in front of my dad, the red-and-white checkerboard that we have converted for chess looms large in my eyes. Dad has a cold beer poured into a glass beside him, and I have a glass of milk and a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Mom, Christian and Birgitte have been asleep for half an hour. I make the first move, King’s pawn forward two spaces.
Dad and I have been playing chess together on Saturday nights for about three years now, not every Saturday night, but most of them. I have never beaten him. Chess in Danish is “Skak,” and Dad will say “skak” when he puts me in check, and “skakmat” when he has beaten me. At 10 years old, I have been to Denmark three times, lived in a bunch of different places, but one thing I haven’t experienced yet is beating my dad at chess. My dad has answered with his King’s pawn.
“Your beer looks like lemonade,” I tell him.
“Oh yeah?” he says. “You wanna sip?”
Yesterday my brother and sister spent the night at Grannie and Gramps’ house while Mom, and Dad and I went out to dinner just for fun. Some fancy Italian place, I don’t know the name, but it had candles on each table inside of old oil lamps and they served their homemade salad dressing in wine bottles. We got a table beneath a stained glass picture of a pizza.
I told the waiter we were celebrating, and Mom and Dad both looked at me with confused faces, while the waiter said, “What’s the occasion?”
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “a few months ago I turned 10, and then last month we moved into this new house by my grandparents, and I did some counting in my head and I realized that this is the tenth different place I have lived and I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool, I am 10 years old and I have lived in 10 different houses, and I told that to Mom and Dad last night and here we are at this nice place.”
I smiled broadly at the waiter, Dad snorted and Mom shook her head and looked at her menu, and the waiter didn’t say anything to me at all, but asked if we all knew what we wanted to drink. I thought about what I said and realized I had made a mistake.
“Well, actually this is only the fourth house we have lived in, the other six places were apartments, so I haven’t lived in 10 different houses exactly, I didn’t mean that, but still that is 10 different places that I have lived and I’m 10, so it’s still pretty cool if you think about it.”
I heard someone at the table behind us snicker.
“Iced tea please, unsweetened with a lemon wedge please,” Mom said.
“Coffee, black,” Dad said.
I just sat there, wondering why no one was as impressed with the 10-homes-by-10-years-old thing. And they were all homes, even if they weren’t all houses.
“And for you young man?” the waiter said, staring at me.
I blinked; the waiter didn’t. “Lemonade.”
Now, looking at the chess board and getting offered a sip of Dad’s beer, I say, “Will it taste like that lemonade from the fancy place last night?”
Dad smirks. “I doubt it.” He hands me his glass.
I put my nose up to the rim of the glass and inhale deeply. Right away I know I am not interested.
“Ewww, nasty,” I say, scrunching up my nose and handing the glass back to Dad, who is chuckling at me. He takes the glass and then chugs what is left in it.
“How can you drink that stuff?” I ask. “It smelled like a skunk.”
He laughs again, wiping his chin and then looking at the chess board. He moves his Queen’s Knight out in front of his Queen’s Bishop’s pawn.
“You’ll like it when you’re older,” he says.
I shake my head quickly back and forth. “Blech. I doubt it.” I move my Queen’s pawn forward two.
“I don’t understand why the waiter didn’t think it’s cool that I’ve lived 10 places and I am 10. I mean, that has to be a world record or something, right?”
Dad hides behind the menu, while Mom reaches her hand over and puts my hand in hers.
“Honey, it’s not that it isn’t a cool story, I am sure that you think it is. But it’s just that, well, it doesn’t sound good to other people,” she said, stroking my fingers with her free hand.
I look at my lap. My napkin is about to slide off of me and end up in the floor, so I use my free hand to adjust it. I like it when Mommy strokes my fingers, and so I look back up at her and smile.
“Ok,” I say. Then I think for a second. “Why wouldn’t it sound good to other people?”
She continues to stroke my fingers, and the waiter comes back by with our drinks.
“Coffee sir. Iced tea for you ma’am, and lemonade for the little gentleman.”
I glare at the waiter, who seems slightly taken aback, but he recovers quickly enough to say, “Are you all ready to order?”
“Not yet,” my dad answers gruffly. “Give us a couple minutes.”
The waiter nods and looks at me, and in a second I scan my parents’ faces to make sure they aren’t looking directly at me. When I see that they aren’t, I stick my tongue just barely out of my mouth at the waiter and then wink. I am certain he has no idea what to think of me, and that makes me smile again.
Dad has taken both of my Knights as well as my Queen’s Rook, but I have both of his Bishops, one of his Knights, and three pawns. He only has two of my pawns, so this is a close game. He is on his third beer, I have barely touched my milk, and my cookies are more interesting to Dad than they are to me.
“Are you gonna eat those?” he asks.
“Hmm?” I don’t look up from the board. While I haven’t yet mastered the art of looking more than one move ahead, I am trying really hard to do so, and I think that I can trade Queens with him if I play the next two moves correctly. I would like to trade Queens because Dad is very good with his Queen, moving her around the board to strategic places before I realize that I am in any danger. I don’t mind at all to lose my most powerful piece, if I can get rid of his at the same time.
“The cookies. You gonna eat them?”
“Ummmm, no probably not. I mean yes. I mean,” I look up from the board. “Sorry Daddy, concentrating. What did you say?”
He smiles. “Nevermind. You’re doing really well tonight. This is a good game.”
I smile at him. “You want one of my cookies?”
Now he leans back in his chair and gives a loud laugh, his eyes closing and his chest and belly bobbing up and down and I laugh too because I just realized what he asked me.
He wipes a tear from his eye as he leans forward, finishing his laugh and reaching for a cookie. “Let’s split ‘em son, ok?” and he smiles and takes the top cookie and hands it to me, then picks up the second cookie. With his other hand he picks up his glass of beer and raises it in the air.
“Cheers,” he says, a big-toothed grin spreading between his red cheeks, his large dimple caving in his cheek.
I lift my milk glass. “Cheers, Dad.” We both take a swig, and then each bite our cookies, crumbs falling on the chessboard between our brown and white pieces.
I like the background sounds you hear at restaurants: People talking, laughing, clinking glasses together, bumping their silverware against their plates. Dad hasn’t said much during dinner, just silently eating his spaghetti, rolling the noodles on his fork, stabbing the giant meatballs, keeping his mouth full. Mom has mostly been asking me about school, and her dinner, which looks to me like a pile of lumpy red sauce and nothing else, barely has a dent in it. I am on my third slice of pizza.
“Well,” I say, a piece of half-chewed pepperoni falling out of my mouth, “if I get at least third place in the social studies fair, then I move on to regionals.”
“But you haven’t even decided on a topic yet, silly boy,” Mom smiles as her spoon stirs the sauce. “Better figure out what you want to do your project on before you start re-arranging your trophy case.”
I laugh and look at Dad.
“How’s your spaghetti?” I ask shoving another bite of pizza in my mouth just as he is doing the same with his noodles. He nods enthusiastically at me, and gives me a thumbs up.
I smile and swallow, then a thought pops in my head and out of my mouth as a piece of cheese dangles from my chin.
“Hey I know, maybe I could do a project on living in 10 different places by the time I am 10 years old! I mean really guys, this has GOT to be a record, right?”
Dad rolls his eyes and Mom takes a sip of her tea, and then puts my left hand in her hand again, which makes it harder for me to pick up the next slice of pizza, but I manage.
“Honey, it is not a world record. I promise. Lots of people move several times in one year, and most of the time, when people move a lot, it is not for a good reason, unless they’re in the military, which obviously, we aren’t.”
With the slice halfway to my mouth, I stop, my tongue hanging out and ready to taste the pepperoni, which I am certain was derived from the very same perfection that is reflected in the stained glass hanging in the wall over my shoulder.
“Did we do something bad? Is that why we’ve had to move 10 times?”
Dad swallows, sets his fork down and it makes a tinkling sound when it bumps his coffee cup. “I need more coffee,” he says, looking around for the waiter.
“No, honey, we didn’t do anything bad. We just had to move a lot for work, and because your brother and sister were born, and other stuff.”
“Yeah, other stuff,” says Dad, still turning his head toward the kitchen, trying to catch a glimpse of our waiter.
“What? Am I wrong?” Mom says to him, letting go of my hand. I put my pizza back on my plate.
Dad has caught the eye of the waiter, lifts up his empty coffee cup and points to it, and the waiter nods and disappears into the kitchen.
“No, you’re not wrong,” Dad says and sighs. He taps his finger on his plate like he is making a decision, and then he slaps his leg. “I am just curious what you mean by ‘other stuff,’ because I certainly know why we moved again and again, but I wonder if you are willing to say it out loud.”
Mom crosses her arms, and I look back and forth between the two of them.
“We moved because we had to move, that’s all I meant,” she says.
Dad looks directly at me and smiles a kind of crooked smile, and it looks to me like his eyes are not really seeing me but seeing something beyond me, like a memory or a reflection of a memory.
“Jørn Earl,” Dad says, tapping his fingers on the table, “just so you will really understand, half of the times we moved, well, we moved when you turned 2, and again when you were 4, and again when you were 6, and again when you were 8, and again this time because, well, your Grannie’s umbilical cord is still attached to your mother’s belly button and the two of them can’t be separated for too long or they will both snap into two separate human beings, and God forbid that should ever happen.”
“Your coffee, sir,” the waiter says. I didn’t even see him approaching, and when I look up at him he winks at me and then smiles.
“Thanks,” Dad says.
“Anything else? Dessert perhaps?”
“Ooo, ooo, ooo, they have brownies, Mom, can I have one, please, please, please?”
Mom’s face is red and she is looking at my dad like she might throw something at him and, though I really do want a brownie, I plead even more forcefully for one because I really don’t want them to fight in public and ruin a really nice dinner at such a fancy place.
“Yes,” she finally says looking down at me. “You can have a brownie.” Then, to the waiter, “Two brownies, please, and can we get a scoop of vanilla ice cream on each?”
“Certainly, ma’am. And for you sir?”
Dad is taking a sip from his coffee, looking at me or just past me.
“No, I’m good. Just the check, whenever.”
The Queen sacrifice move worked and we are definitely in an end game situation now. Dad has one Rook, and three pawns in front of his King where he castled, which seems like hours ago. I have two pawns in front of my King, and I, too, have one Rook left, but I also have two pawns further up the board, and Dad is going to have to keep a close eye on at least one of them to keep me from promoting to a Queen. I glance up at the clock above the stove, and it is almost midnight.
“You’re doing great,” Dad says, and then swallows a burp, putting his hand over his mouth. “Excuse me. Really, this is the best I can remember you ever playing.”
“Thanks,” I say, but quickly focus back on the board. I can’t let anything distract me, because if this really is the best game I’ve ever played then I have to see it through to victory. I feel like David facing Goliath, and when I give it some thought, I figure my physical size compared to my dad’s is probably pretty close to how David must’ve felt. Except I don’t actually want to kill Dad, just beat him, and beat him really good.
Dad moves his rook forward from the back rank to attack one of the pawns I have been pushing forward. It looks like he is going to be able to take that pawn without me saving it, so my shoulders droop a little as I consider what other options I might have.
Then, I see it.
He moved his rook off of the back rank. His king is stuck behind his own three pawns, and my rook is on a different file than his rook. Slowly, with sweat in my palm, I push my rook to the back rank and say, “check. I mean, skak.”
Dad smiles. He does the only thing he can do, and pulls his rook back to block me, but it is now a formality. My hand shaking, I move my rook to take his rook, and nothing stands between my piece and his King, nothing can take me, nothing can block me, and his King has absolutely nowhere to go.
“Skakmat?” I say, and then look up at him for confirmation.
He lets out a loud whoop and before I know it he has me up in his arms and we’re bouncing around the room like we used to when I was littler.
“You did it! You did it! You did it!” he screams. His breath smells horrible and I’m laughing and he is tossing me around in the air and I think I just might throw up but I can’t stop laughing anyway and then Mom comes around the corner.
“For Chrissake you two, it’s midnight!’ she says.
“He beat me!” Dad beams, setting me on my feet on the kitchen floor, and I stumble on down to my rump, dizzy from the spinning and still in a state of euphoric shock.
“Terrific,” Mom says under her breath, shaking her head and walking back down the hallway. She calls back to us, “Now shut up and go to bed, I have a damn headache.”
Dad turns to look down at me on the floor, and I look up at him with a tired smile, which he returns in kind.
He puts a finger up to his mouth to indicate we should both be quiet, and I nod. Then he smiles at me again, and lifting me up off the floor, he asks in a whisper, “Same time next week?”
“Sure,” I say and suddenly feel very sleepy. I haven’t stayed up this late since New Year’s Eve. Dad carries me into my room and puts me in bed.
“I like this house best of all 10 of ‘em,” I say, as he pulls the covers over me.
He smiles and shakes his head. “Go’ nat skat.”
“What’s that mean?” I ask.
He sighs. “Good night, sweetheart.”
Pulling the door closed as he walks out, Dad continues shaking his head until I can’t see him anymore. I think about that last chess move over and over, the way my dad looked at me when I said the magic word, the way joy can arrive without you noticing it was coming