Quote From the Reverie
By Tom Foster
Keller Falls Park, Portland, OR
April 2nd, 1998
“It’s getting worse,” he said, sliding the crenellated piece across the board. His opponent at the moment, a pleasant fellow named Charles, nodded without speaking as he pushed his spectacles up on his nose slightly, studying the board with the practiced eye of a veteran. Charlie could have ended the game at any time, but he was a nice guy, more prone to lead a person on in order to teach them rather than squash them like so many of the pros that came to this park. Perhaps that was why Charlie was his favorite. Of course, it could have been that Charlie always remembered to bring him a mocha too.
“Things will get worse until they get better, and sometimes they won’t get better at all,” Charlie said, moving his queen forward two spaces, “Check.”
He noted the position of his king in regard to Charlie’s queen, the haughty-looking piece seeming as though it might be sneering at him. Shaking his head he banished that thought, that was taking the game just a little too far for his liking. He couldn’t help it though, each piece looked as though it might soon enough snicker or even outright laugh at him, further indication that he didn’t even belong on one of the boards at this area with even the least among the players. Charlie didn’t judge him though, he just asked him to move when another opponent wanted a turn. More often than not though, no one wanted to play Charlie. The guy was just too good.
“Well that’s reassuring, so I’m just screwed through and through.” Charlie raised his eyes slightly from the board, giving him a “don’t be ridiculous look” that he did so well. At the venerable age of sixty-nine Charlie Magdelier was quite good at simply giving pointed looks, no matter that he was perhaps a hundred pounds soaking wet and looked about as threatening as a closet full of stuffed bunnies. There was just something about the old man that demanded respect, an aura of some sort that Charlie never explained, mainly because he didn’t talk about his past much.
“Are you referring to the game or your life?” Giving Charlie a look of irritation didn’t lessen the man’s regard any, but it also didn’t faze him in any other way. Charlie only laughed or even smirked on rare occasions, and even then it didn’t last for more than a fleeting second, making some people wonder if the expression was more of a phantasm or a passing wisp of cloud that had shadowed the old man’s features. In his own estimation he figured that Charlie was just one of those old guys who’d learned how to exude confidence and thereby insure that whoever he dealt with felt it or was bludgeoned with it.
It was almost like being beaten to death with a child’s toy hammer.
“Come on, you know what I mean,” he said, moving his king in the only direction that was currently available, straight towards the left corner of the board, and soon enough into a real pickle. He had several of his pieces left, Charlie had everything but his pawns and his knights, but despite the odds being stacked in his favor, as far as the number of pieces went, he knew very well that Charlie would take every last one of his pieces before he could rally a comeback.
“Yes,” Charlie said, moving a single piece, not his queen he noticed, so that his king became even more hemmed in, “Unfortunately I do.” Rolling his eyes he then looked at Charlie, tired of the man’s supposedly uncaring attitude. He knew the older man cared, he knew that Charlie would miss tormenting him if he weren’t here. At the same time however he knew Charlie wouldn’t coddle him or tell him it was okay, that everything would even out in time. Charlie wasn’t like that.
“So then you know what I should do?” Charlie didn’t answer right away, staring intently at the board, as if he didn’t already have things all figured out. This game had been over after the first two moves, and one of them had involved sitting his ass down in the chair opposite the older man in the first place. Charlie was a genius when it came to chess, though for some reason he couldn’t apply that genius to life, finding no correlation between the real world and that which existed upon the ceramic board.
The intricately carved white and black plaster pieces were just that, pieces. Charlie lived his life according to different rules than the game, rules that didn’t factor in much strategy or even cunning. He lived his life simple, cut and dry as possible. How anyone could play chess for so many damned years, win awards even, and not see the similarities between the game and life was simply amazing. Too many times now he’d thought to himself that Charlie just didn’t want to see.
“I know what I would do, but you’re not me,” Charlie said, watching as he moved his king one space closer to the corner. Making a face of disinterest, one that was feigned, he looked back to Charlie, noting that the older man still appeared to be thinking. A young boy passed behind his older friend, his short stature making him almost as tall as Charlie was while seated. Something about the boy caught his attention just then, though he couldn’t say for sure what it was.
The boy was Latino, or perhaps some other darker-skinned nationality, but he was a handsome-looking kid. He was clean cut, wearing a tank top and faded blue-jean shorts. Sandals, the type that strapped over the foot and behind the heel, adorned his feet, sans socks as some people seemed to enjoy. He’d never understood that, why anyone would wear socks with footwear that was designed to be worn in warm weather. It just didn’t make sense to him, and no doubt the boy had ever given it much thought.
For some reason the boy, even after he was well enough away to not even warrant another thought, stuck in his mind. Shaking his head he turned back to the game, noting that Charlie was still pondering the board. It wasn’t much of a game any longer, his last piece was on the verge of being driven into a corner he couldn’t get it out of. He didn’t care though, he rather enjoyed Charlie’s company more than the game.
He would never dare call the old man Charlie to his face though, it was always Charles. He’d tried it once and only once, and Charles had refused to speak to him for nearly a week because of it. The slight altercation had almost cost him a good friend, so it was with the utmost respect that while he thought of the man as Charlie, he still called him Charles.
“How are Terra and the kids?” More than the strange feeling about the Latino boy, this question caught him almost completely off guard. Charlie never asked about his home life, as though it were a subject best left between a man and woman. He didn’t answer at first, thinking that Charlie was just making conversation, but then, the old man rarely did that just for the sake of talking. He didn’t like people that jabbered on and on, he’d said as much in one of their discussions when they’d first met. Perhaps that was why they got along so well, he didn’t jabber like a monkey and neither did Charlie. Sometimes the silence was better company than any.
“They’re fine, the youngest is a pill sometimes, but I think they’ll turn out okay.” Charlie nodded, obviously still more engrossed with the game than the conversation. The old man knew he’d won, though for some reason he still pondered over the damned board, as though trying to help him find a way out of his predicament. This wasn’t the case and he knew it, Charlie just liked to consider every possible angle of the game before he committed to ending it. At one point he’d thought that Charlie might just like to be an asshole, but he’d learned different in the past couple of years.
“And your job, if that’s what you call it?” Somehow Charlie knew what he did, no matter that he hadn’t said a single word about it. When the discussion of work had come up during the beginning of their friendship he’d never lied, he worked overseas. Well, it wasn’t a complete truth, but it wasn’t a lie either.
The truth was, he killed people.
Charlie couldn’t possibly know that, not just by having talked to him. He kept his tone light, kept his words simple, and he didn’t speak about anything that might be incriminating, but still Charlie had known for some time now. Only twice had Charlie stated that he wasn’t stupid, and didn’t appreciate being treated that way. Since then he hadn’t tried to hide the fact of what he did, nor did he try to convince Charlie that his cause was just. He killed for his country and for the money they paid him, it was simple as that, no matter how complicated it got sometimes.
Like the dreams.
He’d started having them not long after he’d been selected for special ops at the young age of twenty-two, a prodigy among his peers and the favorite student of many teachers. His career in the Marines had begun right out of high school, a means to escape life at home, which in truth was a hell that he’d been eager to escape. The Marines had taken him in, given him a purpose, and eventually led him to the lovely young woman he now planned to marry, and her two sons. A pre-made family, as his stepfather had so kindly pointed out, was another stress factor that might well have pushed his nighttime reverie into something far more dark and sinister than it should have been.
It had been a mistake to tell his parents, or rather, his mother and his stepfather, about his dreams. Sigmund Freud would have had a heyday with the two raving alcoholics, or perhaps would have overdosed on cocaine much sooner than he could quit. Telling them had been like telling the wind, by the time he’d been out the door he’d been surprised that they hadn’t taken out an ad in the Columbian and tried to hire him a shrink.
They started out usually the same, no matter how much he tried to forget the basis for all of them. His father, his real father, had been a drunk, a cocaine abuser, and a terrible husband and father to boot. He’d not seen the bastard in a good amount of time, though according to his mother he looked just like the asshole. So in truth he saw the man all the time, but only in a reflection.
He knew in part where the dreams came from, it more than explained why he woke up some nights in a cold sweat, only to be told to go back to sleep by his fiancée. She didn’t have a lot of sympathy for what she called his “night terrors”, professing that it kept her awake and made it difficult to wake up in the morning. That was true love for you, it meant never having to tell the one you loved you were sorry, or even comfort them when it was needed.
In his dreams, the faces of those he’d killed in the last few years came back to him, appearing out of nowhere within moments that should have been memory, but were much more. For a young man of his age, he’d seen far too many disturbing things to be normal, and he was bound to see more since he was still active. At the current moment he was technically on leave, though he could be recalled at any time. The two cell phones he carried on him at all time were easy enough to distinguish between, especially when certain numbers came up. In his left pocket was his civilian phone, still accessible by his handlers and superiors and by Terra, while in the right pocket was his other phone, the one that meant he needed to get his ass moving even before he hit the SEND button. With either one he knew it was wise to answer, no matter if it was business or if it was Terra. His fiancée didn’t like to be ignored, nor kept waiting. Yet for all her faults he still loved her somehow.
The constant rush of water finally got his attention as he looked behind him, grimacing slightly as he turned back to Charlie. Still with his eyes on the board, the old man moved a bishop forward, sliding it the one space that was currently allowable. He had to wonder just what Charlie was trying to do with this game, humiliate or teach him. Maybe it was both.
“I don’t know how you can concentrate in a place like this,” he said, looking back to the ever-flowing curtains of water that fell and burbled over the massive stone slabs that made up Keller Fountains Park. It was an impressive sight really, but the rushing of water and the crashing of its falls into the pools at the bottom were enough to drive all thoughts of concentration from his mind.
“It’s peaceful. You of all people should know how to keep distractions at bay.” Charlie did not look at him as he spoke, keeping his eyes only upon the board, as though the game were one of such great importance that even a single glance away might ruin it. There was no intensity upon the old man’s lined face, though for some reason he couldn’t help but believe that Charlie felt a great deal more about this game than he had any of the others they’d ever played.
The two of them met regularly upon this spot when he could afford the time, which was more often than not on Tuesdays, at roughly ten in the morning. Charlie said he liked it then, most people were at work and the traffic that did present itself wasn’t too heavy or too loud. He didn’t know about that last part, but the park was relaxing in a way.
“I’m afraid you don’t have much of a chance left,” Charlie said, rubbing his lightly bearded chin between thumb and forefinger as he kept his eyes still upon the board. He snorted, thinking that this was an understatement, but Charlie didn’t laugh along with him. As he looked at the old man he could see as Charlie squinted his eyes , as though he’d found something troubling within the game that he couldn’t understand. Shaking it off he moved his king again, rolling his eyes as Charlie sighed, sounding extremely disappointed as he began to study the board once more.
“You move too soon,” he said, his voice tinged with regret, “Sometimes the best actions are taken after at least moderate consideration.”
He snorted gain, cocking an eyebrow as he spoke, “The game is pretty much over Charles.” He almost slipped, almost called the man Charlie, but he’d caught at least.
Charlie shook his head, seeming even more disappointed as he spoke, “I’m afraid the game hasn’t even started yet my friend, but it will soon.”
Sitting up just a bit he closed his eyes, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with his thumb as he replied, “I don’t know what board you’re looking at Charles but on this one I’m down to one piece, the least mobile and most important piece. This game is pretty much over.”
Charlie nodded, “This one is, I’ll agree to that.”
He didn’t even know how to respond to that, but he shook his head as though to dismiss the strangeness that had come over him, as well as Charlie it would appear. Clapping his hands briskly together to rid them of any clinging dust or dirt he sighed, waiting for Charlie to make his move. What he didn’t expect was the old man to suddenly lean across the board, taking his left cheek in hand as he looked him directly in the eye.
“You don’t understand yet my young friend, but you will unfortunately one of these days. Your dreams are not just dreams, and those you’ve killed are not just memories. They wait for you on the other side of that river, and they’ll welcome you when the time is right. You have a penance to pay young man, and a debt to collect on. Remember the quote to your dream, and you’ll know how to answer when they ask you that one question.” He couldn’t move, it was as though Charlie had the strength of ten men in that moment, holding him as effortlessly as he might hold a child.
He couldn’t understand, but for some reason this felt right, no matter that that world around him seemed to disappear for a moment, flickering in and out of existence as his eyes remained locked upon Charlie’s.
“What,” he licked his lips, breathing hard as he spoke again, “What question?” Charlie smiled broadly, revealing a sudden shark’s grin that was far out of place with his old, wizened features. His eyes were still the warm, gentle orbs that he could remember, but as Charlie opened his mouth to speak again the terror that ran down his spine in icy spikes of dread froze him in place, unable to move as the old man grated out the words.
“Why is the blade like the dance?” He frowned, not understanding in that moment as Charlie’s hand was taken away from his cheek in that second, only to come crashing back with enough force to snap his head to the left, his neck creaking audibly as he fell to the right, and-
-landed with a hard thud on the floor of his apartment, disoriented and covered in sweat. He blinked rapidly, not understanding fully how he’d come to be where he now found himself, his feet and legs tangled together in the blankets that had come down with him.
“Hey!” a small, tired voice called from the top of the bed, “Give back those covers!” There was no mistaking who the voice belonged to, nor was he surprised as Terra suddenly leaned over the bed, trying to yank back the covers from around his legs as her eyes remained mostly closed. Her lips were set in a frown as she tried to figure out the tangle, growing more impatient by the moment. He told her to wait as firmly as he could, though she continued to try and get him out herself. She just wanted the blankets, he knew that she didn’t care why he was suddenly on the floor. Despite claiming to love him, a claim that was not entirely untrue, Terra was a very selfish person, and as such didn’t translate well when she was still mostly asleep.
“Why’re you up anyway?” she mumbled as he finally kicked away the blankets, allowing her to pull them over herself as she turned away, curling up on her side of the bed again. “You woke me up.” He rolled his eyes, folding into a seated position as his muscles twitched slightly, his abs and legs trembling as he put his head in his hands, unable to stop shaking for several moments as the dream that had woke him faded gradually, until it was nothing more than a wisp of fanciful thinking.
“I just had a bad dream, that’s all,” he said, “I’m going to go downstairs and get a glass of water.” Terra just mumbled something in reply that might have been “Don’t wake the boys” but he wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter, she was almost back asleep as soon as he reached the door, clad only in his underwear and a t-shirt. Unlike Terra he didn’t like sleeping in the nude, it gave him strange dreams. That thought almost made him laugh as he made his way quietly down the stairs, using the wooden handrail to keep his balance.
Upon reaching the kitchen he managed to find a clean glass in the left cupboard above the sink, though it was rather lonely in its space, since Terra didn’t really enjoy doing the dishes, which meant that it was usually up to him. There were so many qualities about her that others had told him were lacking, but he still couldn’t deny that he loved her. She didn’t clean, she didn’t cook, she didn’t always tell him positive, uplifting things that might have been more polite than the usual verbal barrage of insults and demands, but he still loved her somehow. A large part of him figured it was the sex, the mind-blowing, always creative sex that they had almost every night. It wasn’t the most important part of their relationship, but it was definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects.
Filling his glass he looked to his left, seeing the side of the refrigerator with its multitude of magnets, school papers and other items that such appliances seemed to accumulate with kids in the house. For all that she wasn’t, Terra was still a proud mom at most times, when she wasn’t stoned or drunk out of her mind at least. A note was hung there amidst the school papers, one that was written in his own handwriting. He left himself notes now and then, though this one was among the few that stayed up for any length of time, one that he would pay attention to. As he read it though a sudden shudder ran down his spine, causing him to drop the glass in his hand into the sink, where it struck the jumble of dishes and silverware before it broke.
Don’t Forget, the header read, with an orange tabby holding up a single digit with a red ribbon tied around it. Below this was his writing, Chess with Charlie, Portland, ten o’ clock. So gripped was he by dread in that moment that he didn’t even notice as Terra called down to him, demanding to know what had just broke. He couldn’t answer her, couldn’t even breathe in that moment. But he hadn’t the damndest idea why.