Friday, March 23, 2012


Thanks so much to Nikki and Katelyn for publishing The Chess Teacher at The Vehicle!

                                The Chess Teacher
                                by MaryAnne Kolton

           Lisa lay on the sofa, crying for a long time.  Was this her fault?  Had she given him some sign?  Encouraged him in some way?  It was true she had thought he was cute.  Did he somehow  sense that and take it as some kind of an invitation to do what he did?


No one had asked Lisa if she wanted to go to Utica and live with complete strangers for the summer.  Her mother had sold her to the D’Angelo family.  Three hundred dollars for the entire summer.
 One of her mom’s best friends’ daughters.  A mother’s helper job.  Some babysitting, some keeping the kids busy when their mom, Sharon, was otherwise occupied.
  No one stopped to consider that it was to have been a special summer for Lisa and her friends  since they would be starting high school in the fall, splintering a group that had maintained an affinity since first grade.  Lisa pulled her long blonde ponytail to the front of her neck and examined a few split ends as they drove the last few boring miles to Utica.   
When they pulled into the apartment complex where the D’Angelos lived, Lisa tried again.
“Mom, I could take the bus home on the weekends.  What would be wrong with that?”
“Sharon and Gino might need you to babysit on the weekends.  That’s what’s wrong with that, plus there is no way you are taking a seventy-mile bus trip by yourself.  You’re fourteen years old.  It’s not like you’re doing this for free, Lisa.  Think of all the money you’ll have to spend on whatever you want when summer is over.”
“Yeah, three hundred dollars for my entire summer.  Big deal.”
“Well, you said you would do this and you can’t back out now.”
“No, Mom, you said I would do this, without even asking me if I wanted to.”
“Listen to me, Lisa.  Sharon is having a hard time right now.  She’s young, only eight years older than you.  Her mother is worried about her.  Three little ones under four – she has her hands full.  This is a good thing you can do.  You help her out and earn some money at the same time.  It’ll be fine.  Kids love you.”
“What about her husband?  He doesn’t help her?”  Lisa asked.
“Gino works with his father in the real estate development business.  Apparently, a very busy young man,” said her mother, her words trailing off at the end. 
Lisa could tell by her tone of voice that her mother didn’t approve of a man who spent more time at his business than he did with his family.
They pulled into a parking space in front of a two story, red brick building.  Wrought iron railings enclosed a small patio space in front of sliding glass doors outside the second floor apartments. 
“Okay, this is it.  Let’s get your things out of the car and I’ll help you get settled.”
Just as her mom popped the trunk, a dark-haired, heavy-set, young woman came bustling out the entrance door to the building.  She was barefooted, wearing gym shorts that had seen better days and a not quite white tank top.
“Oh, you’re here already.  How was your trip?  Let me help.”  She grabbed a suitcase and kept talking. 
“Lisa, aren’t you pretty!  I’m Sharon, you can just call me Sharon or Shar, okay?  I am so happy you’re here!  Things are kind of in chaos mode upstairs, so just ignore the mess.  And Mrs. Taylor.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.  Don’t even look at me.  I haven’t showered yet today and I know my hair’s a disaster.” 
She led the way up the stairs to the second floor apartment on the right.  The door across the hall was propped open and Lisa glanced inside.  An older man sat at a table in what looked like a library.  Walls of books surrounded him.  On the table was a chess set.  The man looked up.  Lisa was embarrassed to be caught peering into his apartment.
“Sorry,” she muttered, turning to follow her mom.
“No, wait,” said the man, “my name is Thomas O’Hara.  And who might you be?”
“I’m Lisa Taylor.  I’m living with the D’Angelos for the summer.”
Mr. O’Hara looked over the tops of his glasses at Lisa.  “Then you and I will have a chance to become good friends, Lisa.” he said.  
“Maybe,” she said and hurried into Sharon’s apartment.
 Lisa was surprised.  It was bigger than it looked from outside, but Sharon hadn’t been kidding about the mess.  
Children’s toys and books and stuff covered almost every inch of floor space in the living room.  There was a large playpen in one corner containing three small children clambering all over each other.  On the sofa, chairs, and tables were stacks and mountains of folded and unfolded clothes.
“As you can see things have gotten out of hand here.”  Sharon said.  Then she grabbed Lisa and gave her a huge bear hug.  “I am so glad you’re here to help me.  Gino is constantly  telling me I need to pick up – get organized.  Sharon started piling some stacks of folded clothes into a basket and transferring them from the furniture to the kitchen table so they could all sit down.
“The kids.”  She jumped up and pulled them out of the pen, one at a time like puppies.
“Vincent.  He’s three and a half,” she said plopping him down in front of Lisa.  Dark eyes, plump cheeks and shy.
“And this is Maria, who’s two and a half.”  She balanced Maria on her right hip.  A tiny version of her mother with a mouth like a perfect valentine heart.
“And Bella, one year old, last week.  Bella she handed off to Lisa.  Precious and half-asleep.
Lisa’s mother stood up, smiled and touched the cheek of each of the children, saying, “Sharon, they are so beautiful!”  She got down on the floor and put her arms around the older children.  Vincent escaped her embrace to bring her a book and ask her to read to him  “Oh honey, I’d love to,” she said, “but it’s going to take longer getting back, what with the traffic and all, so I’d better get on the road.”  He looked at her as if he understood every word.  
“Besides, Lisa is here to play with you now.”
Just as Sharon began thanking Lisa’s mother, for what seemed like the tenth time, the apartment door opened and Gino was home. 
“Mrs. T,” he said, giving her a big hug, “good to see you.  Not since the wedding, huh?
He was dressed immaculately in a dark summer suit, pale pink shirt and geometric patterned tie in shades of lavender, blue and fuchsia.  Gino was tanned and muscled, more like someone who worked out and spent a lot of time outdoors.  When he looked toward Lisa and smiled, she felt her stomach turn into a cage full of butterflies.
“And Lisa?  I don’t think we’ve ever met.”  Gino gave Lisa, still holding the baby, a hug as well.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. D’Angelo.”
“No, no, stop right now with the Mr. D’Angelo.  It’s Gino.  We’re gonna be family this summer.”
He tossed a careless “Hey, babe,” over his shoulder to his wife, apparently saving his smiles for his children and company.  He hefted Vincent up in the air, and whirled him around.   Gino kissed his son on the forehead and sat him on the sofa.  Then he reached down and tousled Maria’s dark curly hair – she had attached herself to his right leg – and leaned over to give her a noisy kiss on the cheek.  He reached for Bella just as Lisa was about to hand her to him.  Their hands brushed briefly during the exchange and the contact made Lisa blush.  He’s so cute, she thought, then blushed again.
“Lisa,” said her mom, “come with me to the car, okay?”
Her mom took her hand as they started down the stairs.  Mr. O’Hara looked up and Lisa nodded and smiled.
Lisa introduced her mother to Mr. O’Hara.
“Do you play?”  He asked Lisa, passing his hand over the board in front of him.
“No, I don’t know anyone who does,” said Lisa.
            “Well now you know me,” he said, smiling at Lisa’s mom.
“He seems nice enough,” she said as they walked away.
When they got to the car, Lisa’s eyes were tearing up and she wrapped her arms around her mother.
“Just behave yourself, sweetie, be a good girl and help Sharon as much as you can.  You are the most organized young person I know.  It’s fate.  It’ll be fine.  You’ll call me every Saturday, right?”
“Oh, Mom, I’m not sure I want to do this.  I’m gonna miss you guys so much.”
“Don’t be silly.  Everything will be fine.  I love you.  Now go.”
Lisa went to the door and watched her mom drive around the circular flowerbed in the center of the parking lot and out to the road.  She was homesick already.
When she got back upstairs, Gino was still playing with the children.  He sure loves his kids, Lisa thought and smiled to see Gino down on his hands and knees with little Vincent struggling to stay seated on his dad’s back. 
Sharon was washing dishes.  Lisa offered, “I can do that if you want to take your shower or something.”   
“Oh, I don’t know, Lisa.  Housework was not supposed to be part of the deal.”
“No, I want to help you.  And I know how dumb it sounds, but I like doing housework” said Lisa.
“Yeah, go take a shower and do something with your hair,” Gino said.  “I’ve got the kids, so go.”
Sharon smiled at Lisa and went through the dining room to the hallway.  Lisa loaded the dishwasher and when it was full, she bent down, looked under the sink and found the liquid detergent.  When she stood up she turned toward the living room.  Gino was watching her. 
“Why don’t you come over here and tell me a little about yourself?”
“Um, if it’s okay I’d like to finish here first,” she said.
Gino smiled a lazy smile at her and said, “Sure it’s okay.  What ever you wanna do, Lisa, is okay with me.”
Lisa turned back to the sink, filled it with hot water, and started washing the dishes that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher.  For some reason she felt uncomfortable.  Her khaki shorts felt too short and her smooth, tanned legs too long.  She kept her back to Gino and worked until all the dishes were washed, the sinks scrubbed and the counters wiped down.
“Hey Lisa, c’mere a minute, will you?” called Sharon.  “I didn’t even show you your room.” 
Lisa walked through the dining room and into the hallway as she had seen Sharon do.  Sharon was there in the wide hall.  Her short, dark, curly hair, still damp, looked so pretty.  She wore a flowered summer sundress and sandals.
She took both of Lisa’s hands in hers and said, “Thank you so much.  It’s good that I get to fix myself up a little for when Gino is home.  C’mon let me show you the bedrooms.”
 Vincent and Maria shared a good size room that looked much like the living room.  Wall to wall toys.  Lisa would be across the hall with Bella.  Her  room was picked up and recently vacuumed.  A twin size bed with what looked like a new comforter had been placed against one wall.  There was still plenty of room for Bella’s crib, a changing table, a dresser and an old-fashioned rocking chair painted a soft sunset yellow.
“I hope this will be alright,” said Sharon.  She showed Lisa where Bella’s diapers and clothes were kept.  As they walked down the hallway, she pointed to the room next to Bella’s.  “This is Gino’s and my room.  Lisa caught a glimpse of a king size bed, ornate, expensive-looking furniture and clothes left scattered on the floor.  
“We’ll plan things out tomorrow.  I really have to start dinner now.”
They went back to the kitchen where Lisa insisted on helping.  She wasn’t much of cook, but she made the salad while Sharon made sausage, potatoes, peppers and onions for the adults.  Gino changed out of his work clothes into jeans and a tee shirt in the time it took Sharon and Lisa to get the kids and their food settled at the table.  Sharon reached for the hand of the child on either side of her and Gino took Vincent’s hand in his and reached for Lisa’s right hand.  As she put her hand in his he gave it a slight squeeze and winked at her.  His hand was warm.  As they said Grace, Lisa knew she was blushing yet again.
After dinner, Gino put her bags in Bella’s room while Lisa helped Sharon clean up.  He and Sharon got the kids ready for bed so Lisa could unpack and put things in the dresser and closet she shared with the baby.  Sharon came in to tell Lisa if she wanted to shower or take a bath before bed, the bathroom was all hers.
“There’s only the one bathroom, but I’m sure we’ll manage,” said Sharon.  “The towels are in the linen closet in the hall and if you need anything just holler.” 
She looks so tired,  thought Lisa. 
“What time do you get up?”  Lisa asked.
“Oh, I’m always up by five-thirty at the latest.  I make breakfast for Gino and try to have a cup of coffee before the kids wake up around six.”
“I’ll set the alarm for six then,” said Lisa yawning at the thought.
 As she was trying to fall asleep in the strange room in an unfamiliar bed, she could hear Gino talking loud.
“A house for God’s sake?  Don’t start with the house again.  This place is free.  Why should we get a house?  So you can have more rooms to make messes in?” 
The next morning Lisa woke to bright sun shining in through the windows in the baby’s room.  She jumped out of bed.  There was no clock in her room so she hadn’t set an alarm.  She assumed that Bella’s cries would wake her.  Lisa pulled on her shorts and peeked out the door.  She could hear Sharon in the kitchen with the kids.
Sharon, I am so sorry,” she said.  “There is no clock in Bella’s room.”  Sharon looked up from the floor where she had corralled the kids.
“Stop.  I wanted you to sleep in today.  I know yesterday was hard with the trip and everything being so new.  Grab some toast or cereal or whatever.  Just make your self at home and we’ll talk.  Do you drink coffee?  There’s some in the pot or we can make fresh.”
Lisa collected a bowl, a spoon, cereal, milk and orange juice and brought it to the table.
“Thanks, Sharon, but is there an alarm I can use while I’m here?” 
Sharon was giving Bella a bottle.  Vincent was coloring on a big piece of paper and  Maria was sucking her thumb and clutching a blanket.  Lisa looked at the rooster clock over the sink and saw that it was almost nine o’clock. 
“Where should I start?”  Lisa asked.
“You know, Lis, I’ve been thinking about that,”  Sharon answered.
She looked around as she said,  “This kitchen has never been cleaner.  I hate doing housework.  Can you tell?  I’d much rather spend my day with the kids, so I wondered how you’d feel about getting this place organized for me and keeping it clean.  I’ll take care of the kids.  We’ll just work together and figure out who does what as we go along.  Do you hate the idea?”
Lisa thought about what she had heard last night. 
“Not at all.  I’m a freak, I know, but I love to clean and sort and put things in order.  You can ask my mom.  But you need to show me about the kids so I can watch them when you’re shopping or out with friends.”
“That’s a laugh.  I don’t know if I have any friends left and I haven’t been shopping in forever.” 
Lisa felt bad for her then.  She was too nice and so young to be so tied down.
  “I could start in the living room, if you want.  I’ll make a list of things we need, like bins for toys and stuff.  Can we go out later and get them?  Or wait.  I’ll make the list and you can go out by yourself and get what we need.  How’s that?” 
“Out by myself?  Sounds like heaven!”  Sharon crawled over to the table, dragged Lisa out of her chair to the floor and hugged her hard.  “We are going to be such good friends,” she said.  “I just know we are.” 
She took Bella to her room to put her down for a nap and then called Vincent and Maria so she could dress them.  They held hands as they toddled toward their room.
Lisa looked over at the mess in the living room and mentally put things in baskets and plastic bins.  She pulled a piece of paper from a notepad on the fridge and looked in kitchen drawers until she found a pencil. 
While Sharon was out getting groceries and the things on Lisa’s list, Maria fell asleep on
the carpet and Vincent “helped” Lisa clean the kitchen.  Then they folded laundry and put it away.  He was a good little boy and had the longest eyelashes and most beautiful eyes she had ever seen.  He looks just like his dad, Lisa thought.
When Sharon came home, she gave Maria and Vincent lunch and put them down for naps.  Lisa brought the groceries upstairs and then started sorting toys and books into containers.  Bella woke up and her mom went to get her changed, bathed and dressed.  Lisa dusted and vacuumed the now well-ordered living room. 
“Is one person really supposed to be able to do all this by herself?”  Lisa asked Sharon.
“I guess so, but I’ve never been able to.  That’s why it’s so great you’re here.”
Sharon and Lisa both got cleaned up and then took the kids for a walk.
“Mr. O’Hara, the man across from you?  He seems nice,” said Lisa.
“Yeah, he is.  I feel sorry for him though,” said Sharon.  “He spends so much time alone.  His wife died almost five years ago.  They never had any children and most of his friends have either moved away or died.  Sometimes I make extra for dinner and take it to him.  He’s really nice to talk to,” she said, eyes lowered, looking down at the top of Bella’s head.  “He used to be a teacher.  He reads to the kids when I bring them over.  They love him.”
“But then who does he play chess with?”
“Well, that’s the funny thing,” said Sharon, as she pulled Bella’s sunbonnet down toward her face, “He and his wife traveled a lot during the summers and after he retired.  He knows people all over the world.  He plays chess with some of them by mail.  No one ever comes by, that I’ve seen.”
As they crossed a busy street, Lisa made sure she held Vincent’s small hand tightly in hers.
“He could just play with them on the computer,” said Lisa.
“I know, but he says this is the way they’ve always played.  He makes a move then mails it to whoever he’s playing with and waits for them to mail their next move to him.  Sometimes he’s got three or four games going at once.  Why?  Do you know how to play?”
 “No, I don’t think I could sit still long enough to play a game of chess.  It takes like hours, doesn’t it?  I like to keep busy.” 
“He’s kind of quiet, Lis, but if you ever need anything when we’re not around, don’t be afraid to ask him.  He’s almost always home and his door is usually open.”  Here her voice dropped almost to a whisper, “But listen, please don’t say anything to Gino about me taking the kids to Mr. O’Hara’s, okay?  Gino says he doesn’t trust him.  He thinks the kids and I should stay away from him.”
“Why?  He seems okay.”
“That’s just Gino.  He’s very protective of me and the kids.”
They walked the children through the park on the way back to the apartment, taking turns carrying Maria.  Sharon asked Lisa if she missed having her friends around.  Lisa explained they were keeping in touch by texting, tweeting and emails, but she stilled missed seeing them and was jealous of all the time they were spending together.
“We’ll have to see about getting you home a couple weekends this summer,”  said Sharon.
“That would be great!”
“This is such a gift, Lisa, that you said you’d come help me.  Look at all you got done in one day.  Gino will be so happy when he sees the living room.  He hates to come home to a messy house.  You should see his parent’s house.  It’s like nobody lives there,”  she laughed.
The kids were tired and cranky by the time they got back.  Lisa suggested that she feed them and get them ready for bed so Gino and Sharon could have dinner alone.
“I don’t know, he likes the kids to be around when he comes home,” said Sharon.  “And what about you, you have to eat.”
“I’ll eat with the kids.  If you just tell me what to make for them, I can feed them.  Bella already had a bath today, right?  So it’s just Vincent and Maria.  I can do them, easy.  Then Gino can play with them while you finish making dinner.  I’ll put them to bed and you guys can eat.”  God, thought Lisa, how does she do this every day by herself?  If Gino wanted to spend time with his children when he came home, he could give them a bath and help Sharon out.  Of course, Lisa would never say this to Sharon and for sure not to Gino.
Everything went just as they’d planned.  Sharon was glowing about the spur of the moment, romantic dinner for twoAlthough Gino had not been thrilled that the kids weren’t going to eat with them, he calmed down when he saw the living room.  He put his arm around Lisa’s shoulders like he was going to give her a hug, but Lisa stepped away, saying she wanted to give Bella her bottle and put her to bed.  He isn’t very nice to his wife.  It’s like he ignores her most of the time, thought Lisa.  She was in Bella’s room, rocking the baby to sleep, when she heard Gino say, “I want my children at the table from now on!  We eat as a family in this house.”  Poor Sharon.
The next morning Lisa woke at six when the clock radio Sharon got for her went off.  She was on her way to the bathroom when she bumped into Gino in the hall.  He was dressed for work and smelled really good.
“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty,” he whispered to her.
“Hi,” she said and ducked into the bathroom and locked the door.  She took her shower and dressed for the day.
He was still there when she went into the kitchen.  She had thought about asking Sharon if she could work on Gino’s and her bedroom and do some more laundry for her today, but Gino was  at the table.  She didn’t like to ask in front of him. He was reading the paper and feeding Cheerios to Maria and Vincent.  Sharon wore an old tee shirt and sweat pants and was making breakfast for her husband. 
“Hey, Lisa.  There is really no reason for you to get up this early, babe.  Are you gonna stay up or do you want to climb back in bed for a while?”  
Lisa said she’d stay up and got herself a cup of coffee, which she drank standing in the doorway.
“I was thinking I might go clothes shopping while the kids take their naps this afternoon. 
What do you say?”    
“Great.  I was just gonna do some cleaning and laundry today.”
“Okay then.  We’re all set.  Want some breakfast?”
“Not just yet,” said Lisa.  How ‘bout if I go and get Bella and give her a bath?”
“Perfect, then you and I can have breakfast when Gino leaves.”
Sharon turned back to the stove and Gino looked over the paper at Lisa and gave her a big smile.
“So you girls got this all worked out, huh?”
“Mostly,” said Lisa. 
“Hey, that living room looks fantastic.” he said.  “Now if only my wife here can keep it that way.” 
It was on the tip of Lisa’s tongue to tell him he could pick up the toys once in awhile, but instead she said, “I’m gonna get Bella.”
Lisa and Sharon lingered over breakfast after Gino left.  Lisa had started a load of towels  and was playing with the children while Sharon showered and got ready to go out.  Lisa asked Sharon about cleaning and organizing the master bedroom and she had agreed it could use some work.
“Just don’t touch anything of Gino’s, okay?  He doesn’t like anybody messing with his things.” 
Sharon warmed leftover pasta for the two older children, while Lisa gave Bella some baby applesauce and her bottle.  Sharon left and Lisa put all the kids down for their nap.
She gathered the cleaning supplies and the vacuum and started in on Sharon and Gino’s room.  She stripped the sheets off the bed, remade it with clean sheets from the linen closet and had just started dusting when she heard the front door open.  It was way too soon for Sharon to be back.  Lisa stepped into the hallway just as Gino appeared.
“Hey, Lisa, I thought I’d stop by and see how things were going,” he smiled, coming close to her.  Lisa backed away from him but he grabbed her arm before she could get to her room.  He ran his fingers through her hair and let his fingers trace around her neck to the top of her breasts. 
Lisa was stunned by his actions.  She pushed his hand away and said, “Sharon should be back any minute and I’ve got stuff to do.” 
Gino laughed.  He grabbed her upper arms and pulled her to him, attempting to kiss her as she twisted her head away from him.  
“No, Gino.  No way.  Please leave me alone.”  Lisa was terrified and her eyes filled with tears.
“You’re a little tease, you know that don’t you, Lisa?”  He held her away from him, at arm length, letting his eyes play over her body.  His face was ugly now, dark eyes hard with anger.  “You prance around in those shorts and tight tee shirts and expect me not to notice?”  He grabbed her wrists.
Lisa was crying now and fighting to pull away from him, but he had hold of her and was  forcing her toward his bedroom. 
“Daddy?  Are you home from work?”  Vincent was standing in the doorway of  his room.  Gino stepped quickly away from Lisa.
“Yeah, buddy.  Just for a minute.  I forgot some papers I need for work.  Come give me a hug and get back in bed.” 
Gino leaned toward Lisa and whispered fiercely in her ear, “Not a word about this.  Do you hear me?”  Lisa nodded her frightened assent.  “No one will believe you anyway,” he said grinning at her.
He leaned over Vincent, hugged him once, patted him on the bottom and said, “Go finish your nap, son.  I’ll see you at dinner.”  The little boy did as he was told.
Gino turned and left and Lisa went into the living room, threw herself on the sofa and sobbed.  She so wanted to call her mom and tell her what happened and ask her to come and get her.  And yet she was afraid to.  What if he was right and no one did believe her?  What if Sharon thought she did tease Gino into coming after her?  She couldn’t go back in the bedroom.  She was afraid to be by herself.  She opened the door to the hall and there was Mr. O’Hara sitting at his chess table.
“Lisa,” he said without looking up, “I’ve been thinking.  Would you like to learn how to play chess?”
“Oh yes,” she said, sobs catching in her throat.
“You should come every day for a bit.  I don’t think Sharon would mind.  We could leave both doors open so you can listen for the children.  This is a good time for you when they are  taking their naps, yes?”
Lisa looked back toward the D’Angelos’ bedroom.  “Yes,” she murmured.
“Well then, why don’t you have a seat and we can have our first lesson.”
 Lisa was so grateful for the older man’s company she was afraid she might cry again.  She crossed the hall and sat down at the chess table.
Mr. O’Hara looked for a long moment through his open doorway, across the hallway and into the D’Angelos’ apartment.
“The King, of course, appears to be the most important piece, Lisa, but he is also the weakest.  Do you understand?”
Lisa looked up at him and whispered,  “I think so.  Maybe”
“Not to worry.  We will talk more about his shortcomings as we progress.  Let’s begin."
            Mr. O’Hara said not a word about her swollen red eyes and her messy hair.  He started by naming the individual pieces on the board for her and telling her how each one moved.

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