Photograph by Cliff Bryce click here to see more pics
I ain’t much of a sneak. I tend to mind my own business most of the time. But something about that old man provoked me. Maybe it was the way he glared at me through those gnarly eyebrows like he knew better. I ain’t dumb. I know lots of stuff. Just ask Miss Johnson. I bust through a whole mess of fractions before snobby Lexi Carter had a chance to draw that stupid little heart over the “i” in her name.
My mama works at the nursing home down the block from my house. I don’t get to see her much on account of my old man being in jail and all. So, when I can, I walk down and share a Coke with her. That’s where I first laid eyes on the old coot.
His name was Clyde Sullivan Jr. What the hell kinda name was Clyde anyway and what possessed Clyde Sr. to pass his misfortunes onto his lemon-faced son? Anyway, I was waitin’ for my mama’s shift to get over and popped a squat in the hall, when he came wanderin’ by with a wooden box tucked under his arm. He peered at me sideways and curled his upper lip, looking meaner than a rattler. Ol’ Clyde mumbled something under his breath, no doubt thinking he was clever. What he don’t know was that I got 20/20 hearing. That fool called me a ragamuffin and shook his head.
My smarts probably weren’t with me when I decided to follow the old bear, but I couldn’t help it; my feet started walking. For being a lopsided fart, that man walked faster than any other old person I knew, and I know plenty.
He didn’t seem to notice me truckin’ on behind him. Of course, grownups don’t tend to pay me no mind, anyhow. Boys like me just sort of blend in, I s’pose. My uncle calls me puny and even though I’m smaller than other twelve-year-olds, I sure as hell ain’t puny.
Clyde disappeared into the last room on the right, which stopped me cold. I didn’t much like going into patient’s rooms. That’s where most of ’em pass on. I learned a lot about death since my mama started workin’ here. The first week she’d come home with puffy eyes and a red face. She never said nothin’, but I knew she’d been cryin’. Nowadays, she just pours herself a bit more whisky and calls ’er good. No more tears. I guess whisky ain’t so bad.
I slid against the wall so’s Clyde couldn’t see me listening at the door.
“How ya doing, Earl?” Clyde said. “You’re looking pretty with that new haircut.”
I didn’t want to admit it, but I kinda liked ol’ Clyde’s voice--strong and deep. A true southern gentlemen.
“Whaddya say . . . how ’bout a game to get your heart a pumpin’.”
I leaned over some, just so’s I could catch me a better look. I thought it was a good idea, at the time, but I lost my balance and fell flat on my face. Clyde’s head whipped in my direction so fast; his face scrunched and wrinkled with them hairy ol’ brows drawn together. I thought for sure I was going to get a lickin’ from mama for bothering the patients, but that old man did something I never imagined.
“Can you play chess, son?” he said.
I stood to my feet and slapped my hands up and down on my worn blue jeans, not that I cared so much about a bit of dirt, but I didn’t want any bad luck sticking to my body—death germs and such.
“Well, do ya?” Clyde asked.
“What’s yer name?”
“Denny. Denny Warren, sir.”
“Grab yourself a chair, Denny Warren. Me and Earl are going to teach you the only game worth playin’?”
I looked over to Earl, propped up like a rag doll in his wheelchair. He stared straight ahead, wordless and unmoving. Death didn’t seem too far behind. I paused for a minute; I didn’t want to feel death that close. But as the sun shone through the window and cast shadows on Clyde’s wooden chess set, I knew I wanted to be nowhere else.