My mother called me last night. I was preparing to visit a friend, and had chosen to wear a dress she’d given me, a silky flowing dress, very elegant, something she had worn often. It was a coffee brown, a perfect match to a coat I wear for work that she gave me before she died. It took me years to wear the coat, because it was too expensive, too consciously classic, for me to feel comfortable in it. And it was brown, my least favorite color, the color of my school uniform from the old days in Ireland. When I finally put it on, a few months ago, I was surprised at how good it felt, the expensive material soft and almost suede-like, though it was not made from any form of animal product. It was warm, and it fit me perfectly. So there I was, dressed in a coffee-brown, silk dress and my elegant coat, planning to visit a friend, and as I was trying to pass through the door, my phone rang. I fumbled to reach it, pockets, purse, backback. But I couldn’t find it, and it went to voicemail, and then I heard my mother’s voice. She was narrating a chess game. “Pawn to b3” she said. “Knight takes d7.” I threw my purse down, tore off my coat, ripped open my backback, desperate to find the phone. But every time I thought I’d found it it was something else, a book, a stapler, a turtle paperweight, my dog’s leash. And my mother’s voice droned on, part Tennessee accent, “nahn,” she said, “fahv.” Part Irish. “Tomahto,” she said. Not tomaydo.
And then the phone clicked off, and she was gone.
The chess game was good, though. I could see all the pieces, see the skewers and pins and forks. Color-coded lines mapped out the game, the best moves, the potential mates three or four moves down the line. It reminded me of a chess computer game my friend and I have been playing. I always liked chess, though for years I knew nothing more than the basic moves and how to castle, but my friend has taught a fair few people how to play, and last week he bought a chess set for the work release program where he works so the inmates can play. He’ll teach them, patient and thorough as he always is, and maybe some of them will learn something beyond the basic moves, will be caught up in the intricacy and challenge of it and pledge to work to become better.
My friend taught his nephew, who became state champion in high school and is now a more consistent and thoughtful player than he is. It’s a race these days, to see if my friend can improve his game enough to beat his nephew regularly, and as he’s learned so have I.
But why my mother? I’m unsettled today, thinking of how clear her voice was as she spoke those words that would have meant nothing to her. I was so desperate to talk to her, and then she disappeared, and I woke into a world dominated by chess sets. Then they floated away, and only the gray morning light remained, my sleeping dogs pinning me to the bed, and my hand reaching for a phone that doesn’t exist.