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Terry White
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lastmatch.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2010

Last Match in New Orleans

 

Terry White

 

When he asked at the desk for change for ten dollars, the young black woman said cheerily, “Don’t spend it all in one place.”  The man next to her at the computer smirked.   This was his first stay at the Drake Hotel, although he had played matches in San Francisco before.  He remembered the last one at a condo in Pacific Heights, and the memory was pleasant.

 

He took a leisurely stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf.  The sun was cheering despite its being early spring.  Back home there had been nothing but icy drizzle for weeks on end.  He realized he had been mildly depressed all this time.

 

He ignored the surge of shoppers crisscrossing his path.  He decided to watch the harbor seals cavort around the pilings or sunning themselves oblivious to the human beings tossing scraps of food.  He remembered a restaurant down there with a lot of glass and sunshine streaming through.  His appetite sharpened because the langostinos in their piquant sauce returned as a welcome olfactory memory.

 

A little way off from a crowd of Chinese-American children, he watched the seals twist their tapered bodies near the pier.  He was slightly repulsed by a dozen of them all packed together sunning on a pile of rocks supporting a buoy.  Their thick bodies were wedged together in a gelatinous mass where the eye could barely discern a snout here or a fin there. He forgot what families of seals were called. 

 

A young child’s crying nearby disturbed his reverie about the last match he had played.  It was the way she cried, not as bratty children cry for attention but mournful, too old a sound for such tiny lungs.  He turned away from the harbor breeze with its reek, and saw a young woman reaching down to grab the child by her hand.  The mother’s short chestnut hair was feathered off her head and fell across her face.  The light breeze was enough to lift it.

 

David was struck by the spectacle despite his desire to return to the chess game in his head.  He noticed two other children, an older boy, maybe six or seven, and another girl, who must be hers as well, clustered around the young woman’s legs.  She looked in her early twenties and she was obviously well along in her pregnancy. The older children looked on with blank stares while their youngest sibling cried.  The mother caught the child by the wrist and gently pulled her away from the curb.  Another breeze lifted her hair and David was struck by the sheer prettiness of her distressed face in profile.

 

She did not look poor.  The children were dressed well, a little unkempt, but not unusually so.  The mother’s clothes were neither fashionable nor worn for comfort, but he was never able to distinguish between expensive dishabille and a slovenly chic that aimed for that effect. 

 

The child’s crying revved to higher tones and he felt his space invaded as moan became screech, then climbed the scale toward dog whistle.  It made him feel a squirmy distress—he wasn’t sure why—so he left the jetty and headed for the shining restaurant. 

 

Waiting for the waiter, he wondered where the father of this family might be.  A good meal and a glass of pinoir would fix this darkening mood.    

 

He had never challenged Tommy V. on the sixty-percent share of the winnings.  After all, Tommy fronted the money and had the contacts.  They were supposed to split travel expenses, although it wasn’t the even-steven he promised.  David was no good at negotiating whereas Vacca had a natural bent for it.  You could drop this paunchy, florid-faced white man into the Lost Quarter of the Arabian Desert, and he would be bargaining with the toughest blue tribesman for a camel inside of fifteen minutes.  David easily imagined Vacca’s thick hairy fingers wiggling numbers into the palm of some nutbrown Toureg.

 

He called Tommy at the Renaissance Center downtown and said he would be staying at the Drake for a few days.  Tommy shrugged off his disappointment.  “It happens,” he said.   Excepting one seventy-five thousand dollar loss two years ago, he had made just short of a million in almost nine years, invested most of his forty percent in T-bills and money-market certificates.  The stock market was recovering from this past brutal year, but he was worried because his desire to play chess at this demanding level was waning.   He told Vacca never to book him unless very big money was at stake. 

 

When he reached the Drake, he saw the woman again with her brood trailing slightly behind at the same instant a maroon Escalade at a high rate of speed was approaching from the opposite direction.  David’s heart lurched, and his brain took a crazy snapshot, freezing it just as the mother reverse-clutched and snapped her two children’s arms back before the big car mowed them all down in the middle of the street. 

 

When time resumed, the car had passed with a contemptuous toot of its horn; they all stood on the median, mother and ducklings temporarily safe.   David thought, “The woman will get them all killed.” The Beefeater grimaced politely and nodded to David as he stepped past.  His lunch had been satisfying and he felt that a nap after his brisk walk and trolley ride would be a good thing.  He liked the décor of his room—the burnished old furniture, a handsome mahogany armoire, and the striped sheets and patterns of his curtains.  

 

He called Tommy V. and learned the match in New York was canceled because his opponent had a relapse of his thyroid cancer.  He told David to spend an extra day in town, take the Alcatraz tour, and come home.  He was lining up something promising in New Orleans.  David said he’d catch a later flight back to Dearborn, maybe Wednesday. 

 

The neighborhood where his foster parents had raised him was now an Arab enclave with ethnic restaurants, newspapers, and mosques.  David didn’t know anyone left from the time he had lived there.  The brownstones were still there and the maple trees lining the street looked the same in the fall, but the surrounding neighborhoods had flipped long ago and were now all black, showing the ravages of poverty and neglect like open sores; many abandoned or boarded up houses dotted both sides off the street.  Tommy mocked these “sentimental journeys” of his and David would flush with embarrassment.    

 

Freed of the anxiety he always felt before a match, he found himself restless and unable to stay put inside his room.  Coming down in the elevator, he was undecided between a long taxi ride about the city or a stroll down to Market Street where the sex clubs advertised their wares in a glitzy miasma of neon.  The light was turning a golden color beyond the taller buildings.

 

He was waiting for the traffic signal to change when he became aware of her in the small crowd standing with him at the corner.  Then she was suddenly standing beside him with her children clutching at her hands and legs, all in preparation to cross the intersection.  David’s pulse rarely rose even in the heat of intense combat when he knew he was about to vanquish his opponent.  He flushed.  It was like watching a ballroom couple burst out of stately sarabande into a frenetic tango.  He face burned when she accidentally brushed his side.  He shivered and felt heat rising to his face.  When they crossed en masse, he lingered back to watch her move ahead with her children. 

 

The children were listless, standing around unlike before, but their willingness to be herded by their mother was offset by a stupefied calm that made them reluctant to budge and made her task all the harder.  David would soon be past her, and his heart began thumping ever louder as he approached.  She ducked quickly toward one well-dressed man in a suit with a hand out, palm up, and David realized with a shock she was begging. The man made a brusque gesture with his own hand and picked up his pace to move past her. 

 

David knew in the instant before she did it that she would turn to the next stranger, him, and make the same appeal. 

 

But he was wrong.  She flicked her eyes to his and cut them to a group of three women chattering amiably just behind him walking closer to the curb.  She was about to dash for them when David reached out his hand and caught her firmly by the upper arm.

 

“Wait,” he said.  “Please.”

 

He began fumbling in his wallet.  His tongue was thick. She stood there a foot from him, eyes downcast, shrunken in herself, cocooned in her own public humiliation.  Her unabashed sensuality caressed David with the warmth of her body scent.  Her breath was minty.

 

He struggled to open his wallet and when he did, he realized he had no money in it.  After his shower, he had forgotten to extract some of the bills he carried in his money pouch for taxi rides, meals, and tips. The money belt was sitting back in his room safe. 

 

“I left my money in my room,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I—”

 

She was gone like smoke.  She regrouped her children and moved off farther down the street.  David stood rooted to the sidewalk and watched her recede into the swarm of late-afternoon shoppers entering and leaving stores.  He felt as if he had been struck across the cheek with a whip.

 

He ran back to his hotel oblivious to everything but the anguish descending over him.  An older couple in the elevator slowly inched to the rear as if he were contaminated; he realized he was talking to himself. 

 

Back in his room, he stooped over the tiny safe in the closet and cursed as he overshot the last number.  Twirling again, he missed the three-number sequence and the tumbler refused to drop the bolt.  He tried again and a fourth time and still failed to open the safe.  He staggered backwards and kicked his foot against it, which shot molten pain up his leg. A litany of filthy words he never used poured from his mouth.  These were the same words hissed by an exasperated opponent he had defeated easily in mere minutes and stripped of fifty thousand dollars.  David’s demeanor never changed, and his calm never betrayed him; he didn’t flinch at the man’s unexpected vituperation because he wasn’t a coward and on his battlefield, he could afford to be generous to his enemy. 

 

He slept until four in the morning.   He awoke with a headache and his mouth was parched.  His clothes were still on and his shoes pinched his feet.  He felt nauseated and ashamed.  He was baffled by the abrupt descent into a state of mind he felt was uncanny and unnatural to him like peering into a dark, unfamiliar room. 

 

He got off the bed like an old man waking up in the middle of the night.  He bent over the safe and twirled the three numbers effortlessly and the door popped open.  He took out his money belt and felt its familiar heft.  He had sensitive hands.  He could tell the difference between a face card and a numbered one based on the extra weight of the paint.

 

He dressed and went downstairs past the main lobby desk where the same woman who made change for his ten was looking at her computer screen.  Still logy, he almost stumbled into the Beefeater.  Traffic was mostly taxis and limousines.  The streets were almost empty except for a woman jogging past in a yellow-and-black spandex outfit.  He watched her thigh muscles bunch beneath the shiny material and the bouncing stride of her run; her white running shoes made a slapping wish-wish against the pavement.  Her firm rump barely jiggled with the motion.  David remembered an ancient biology teacher back in Dearborn who said that anything in nature that’s yellow and black will sting you, or bite you, or try to eat you.

 

A breeze of pungent smells met him in the open air and made his skin prickle with gooseflesh.  Bile churned in his stomach, threatening to scorch its way up his esophagus.  He began walking left almost by instinct.  He ached to stand on the spot where she had stood before him, her children in a loose orbit around them both.  

 

He felt himself being tipping over a precipice like that scruffy, mentally ill man on the trolley yesterday, jibbering nonsense, wetting himself.  He returned to his room and ordered a sandwich named for a comedian with a name he didn’t recognize.  David’s ignorance of celebrities and popular culture was profound.  He devoted ten hours a day to his chess.  He once stunned Vacca by not knowing who Angelina Jolie was. He ate half the sourdough sandwich with Hollandaise dressing before he regurgitated.

 

He placed the Do Not Disturb sign on the latch.  He stayed up watching television nonstop until the bill that management sent up between three and four in the morning was slid under his door.  He waited for it, an albino insect making its nocturnal entrance each night on cue.  Until he saw it, he couldn’t get to sleep.  He ignored the phone.  Tommy V.