Read The Four Fingers of Death Online

Authors: Rick Moody

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Four Fingers of Death (7 page)

BOOK: The Four Fingers of Death
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The guy named after the Cretaceous reptilian carnivore fixed his wild, staring eyes on me, at which point he noted that he too wrote a little bit, and this I had already surmised because who else goes to those events? Only persons with the
conversational pseudo-uremia
and the
aggravated hydrophobia with hygiene aversion
, who are meant to be prescribed rather strong antipsychotic medications.
“And what is it that you write?”
“I cut a few words out of a book or a series of books. I paste these words down.”
“Paste them down?”
“I paste them down. Collage. They’re very short pieces.”
“How short?”
“Sometimes just a word or two.”
“And where do you get
your
ideas?”
Here he fixed me with a look of such desolation and loss that I don’t quite know how to describe it. The look that said all that was good in the world was
false
.
“… It’s the words that have the ideas. I just assemble.”
He’d been to
graduate school
, I learned, that waiting room of the bereaved. He’d been a champion of information systems, of certain unpopular byways of study, of ideas that made his thesis advisers dislike him. And anyway he preferred not to go to class, nor to appear in daylight, where the violent rays of the sun would reveal his, as he described it,
dermal transparency
. And then when he had left school, his particular interest there being the palindromic writings of a certain Belgian linguist, he became a conceptual artist for a while. In this period he lived in appropriated housing in a certain eastern city.
This was long ago, he reminded me, an era of lawlessness when it was possible to live outside the economy without surveillance. Utilities could be made to work for you. For free! This was before, well before, legalized information-gathering on all citizens. Pages were still stapled and copied at the copy shop. Concerts were performed with actual instruments. Cable and digital communications were fraudulently obtained. While living in the squat, D. Tyrannosaurus adhered to a twenty-five-hour diurnal unit, so that as the weeks wore on, he was happily alert while everyone else was asleep. Having achieved the maximum in temporal estrangement, D. Tyrannosaurus was then brought temporarily into phase. Not long after, there was the experimental diet of seven meals a day of one hundred and fifty calories each. He e-mailed it to the authors of faddish approaches to weight loss, hoping to cash in. D., as he said I might call him henceforth, insisted on sitting down for each of his seven meals. He preferred to chew each bite of food forty-nine times, multiples being a key feature. Thereafter, for reasons he did not reveal, he passed a few years in the Big House, though of course he was innocent.
This portion of the conversation, the portion relating to the episodic and hard-to-follow life of D. Tyrannosaurus, took a long time, in part because there were many silences, bringing us flush against the evening blackout. I still had to walk back into the southern part of the city, largely controlled by unsavory gang types, and I was a little worried about the forty-five minutes it would take, even though darkness is a beautiful thing. I was about to make my escape, therefore, when D. asked if I played chess.
“Isn’t it late? For fun and games?”
“We can play on the clock. Anyway, I got a car.”
“A car?”
“I siphon off a bit of this or that when I have to.”
As the entire remainder of this introduction, and indeed my entire future as a writer, is entailed in the answer to this rather strange question from D.—
Do you play chess?
—the subject deserves another brief side trip into my past.
Yes, I, Montese Crandall, was once the second-best under-eighteen player of chess in the northwestern division of the country. As a young person, I had few other passions. It’s a certain kind of genius, the chess genius, and it is the kind of genius I once possessed. The kind that sees ahead, that sees combinations. The kind that plays a completely conservative game, culminating in the meting out of total destruction. When I was young and ugly and could not hit the ball with the bat, I wanted to play chess. I worked at it. I read up. I followed Paul Morphy’s games, likewise other grand masters’. I pored over Big Blue’s machinations, that hulking supercomputer.
Chess was not a thing that was indulged at my parents’ ashram, as you might imagine. In fact, chess was considered by my parents to be elitist, proto-fascist, and dependent on phallic aggrandizement, and, in its imperialist, hegemonic, phallic structures, unsuitable for children.
Therefore, I practiced chess in secret. Apart from women and men. Often I played by mail. At one time, I had a dozen games of chess going by mail, with people whom I met briefly in furtive chess-obsessed conversations out in the world, in the rare instances I was permitted access to the larger world. I hated that my chess longing was secret, profane, and that my board was a folding cardboard one that I hid under my bed. On the other hand, I loved my chess-playing brethren. I loved the chess-playing girls with their gigantic braces, their scoliosis, and those homemade dresses that featured jam stains.
My parents, they of the alternative lifestyles, asked, when they found my chessboard: How did we raise up a chess-obsessed child? Why a fascist prodigy? Why a child who won’t wear hemp products, even under duress, who won’t work in the bulk section at the food co-op, who wants nothing more than to analyze positions on the board and stare out the window? Next he will want his own pocket calculator! Next he will be designing so-called computer games for the so-called computer community where no one touches anyone else and pedophiles run free!
I won my share of tournaments. I even won tournaments in which I had to play several games at a time. I once won a tournament in which I had to play several games on the clock. These tournaments were mostly against amateurs from the desolate towns of my youth. Then, at sixteen, in a statewide tournament, I played against a naturalized Indian, originally from Hyderabad. His name was Sashi, and his parents were in the movie business. He was a vain, self-centered Brahman, and I wanted to humiliate him badly. This was not my reaction to other boys, that I wanted to humiliate them, but Sashi believed he was the best at everything. I have a vivid recollection of his boasting of his sword-fighting lessons, which he needed in order to prepare for his vocation as a leading Bollywood man. Probably Sashi is still working, now that Bollywood is exporting so many of its films to our own web market. Perhaps Sashi plays some kind of emir or pasha, or perhaps he is some kind of malefic drug kingpin trying to thwart the comely Indian lovers.
Let me convey the idiocy of this particular game of chess. It was the rare instance where I used an unusual opening, namely the so-called Creepy-Crawling opening of 1A3. I hypothesized that if I gave Sashi, the swashbuckler, the middle of the board, he would make mistakes of pride and hubris. He would do too much adventuring in the early development of queen and bishops, et cetera. It was his global-village mania that made him overwhelmingly vulnerable. From what I’d learned of his games, Sashi couldn’t contain himself. As a further psychological tactic, I made conversation between moves about the extremely large bosoms of women in Bollywood musicals and how lucky he was going to be to consort with them. There would be, I said, women with bosoms waiting for him in airports and in fast-food restaurants, and how was he going to deal with all of these women and all of these demands, at which point he took E5 and D5(!), having not failed to perceive the opportunity. What developed was a huge sucking hole on my king’s side, as though my forces had been all washed out to sea, after which I chased him back and forth across the middle of the board, while his bishops danced in toward my despondent governess, and the rooks, whom I intended to liberate early on with my Creepy-Crawling opening, were liberated to do nothing but fail. I went for the draw, but there was no draw to be had. I was crushed by that snake charmer, and he went on to be a regional powerhouse, before renouncing chess for his professional acting career, or so I imagine.
I retreated to baseball cards.
Like Paul Morphy, grandest of grand masters, who still played the odd game in the period when he believed that government agents were controlling the international chess federations, or like Bobby Fischer, who was still playing chess privately while expressing the idea that the Jews controlled international commerce, I believed I could in fact play and whip D. Tyrannosaurus, collage artist, without much problem. Unorthodox chess openings, as you may know, are in the
DSM-VIII
, along with, e.g.,
waitstaff, habitual harassment thereof
, and while these disorders are not covered by all insurers, they do get us closer to an idea of how psychology works. The Creepy-Crawling opening, the Shy opening, the Garbage Formation (where the knight is pinned down uselessly at A3), these can be treatable tendencies, and god knows I could have used a therapeutic intervention after my witless opening against Sashi.
At Ho Chi Minh, D. stood over a couple of kids with a board, at one of the nearby tables. A candle guttered beside them, and the pieces seemed grander somehow, more expressionist, in this shadowy illumination. We were getting to the end of electrical twilight. D. threatened the kids, with his imposing height and his severe face, persuading these striplings to surrender to us the board and its men. It was at this point that I generously volunteered to play the game blindfolded, if only we could find a stylish and effective textile for the purpose. Eventually, we tied two crimson napkins end to end and affixed this suggestion of a blindfold over my eyes. I promise I didn’t
need
to cheat, to look under the lip of my eye diaper, because D. Tyrannosaurus was such a haphazard player that it was unclear that he comprehended the most basic movements. He began with a ridiculous opening, as I had with Sashi. Amost immediately, I could feel him drumming with his long, bony fingers on the tabletop, as if to make up for his disorderly play. I concentrated on this and other ambiences while sporting my crimson blindfold. There was the snorting of the cappuccino maker; there was the relentless braying from the sound system. A couple to our left was arguing. Somewhere across the room, a young woman sniffled, perhaps in some state of grief. I could hear fingers on computer keys; I could hear what was clearly a one-sided telephone conversation about bariatric resectioning. A wind was blowing up outside, broadcasting widely the dust and detritus of the post-imperial desert. While I was listening to these pleasant sound emanations, I took command of files E and F, easy enough to do even blindfolded.
D. began attempting to push his pawn on the G file all the way to the other end, as if I wouldn’t possibly notice, but I overcame this strategy and, somewhat anticlimactically, I mated him in eleven moves. I didn’t lose a man.
“Bad luck!” I said. Removing the fashion accessory.
D. gazed at the board disconsolately. He shook his head. “Been playing for thirty years. It doesn’t show. Well, let me drive you back.”
We stepped outside the café into that most compelling and dazzling moment of modern life. The moment when the electricity utterly failed. As you may have gathered, Rio Blanco was one of those places where the night sky reached out and struck dumb the citizenry, rendered it puny and insubstantial. The sun dipped behind the mountains, and there was the enormity of the Milky Way, the rioting of nebulae. I can’t tell you the number of days that I have lain in the empty roads at three or four in the morning, watching cascades of shooting stars.
The city lights went off in the distant zones first. Each night about ten P.M. First, the southern quarter of town, where all the good Mexican and Colombian and Venezuelan food was, and then the downtown, where the empty skyscrapers languished, neglected. Then the bohemian neighborhood, near the community college, where we stood. Then the blackout swept east, into the districts with the fences and walls and barbed wire, all the way up into the foothills, until, in a minute or so, the two of us stood in total darkness.
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