April 10, 2011


The man’s fingers trembled as he held the cold cylinder to his temple. It had to be now. There was nothing left, here, at the end. Beads of sweat skittered down his forehead. His breath came shallow and rapid. Funny, how all the times he’d considered the unspeakable, he’d thought it would be easier; emotionless. Despair had drained away his feelings in the preceding months, yet now, in the end, they returned. Every suppressed fear, every joy denied the chance to bloom; they exploded in his head like a series of bombs. It hardly mattered. He had no other options, no escape. When you reached the end of your rope, all you had left was to hang. His finger tightened.

The things in life most worthy of our attention cannot be seen by the naked eye, only the naked heart. Yet many people miss them because their hearts are never bared. They keep their hearts safe, encased in the vain pleasures they use to craft an identity. I understand of course that complete vulnerability with everyone is impossible. It would be as indecent as walking around Boston without clothes on! Yet true emotional nakedness, the sort that allows you to see life’s hidden promise, cannot be found by simply baring one’s soul to another. We humans are far too proud to do something so vulnerable without harboring a secret pride in our boldness and ability to do so. In this way self disclosure can become a form of selfishness, and above all a naked heart must be humble. It is not in revealing our own hearts that true humility is found but in allowing our hearts to be undressed by the hands of another. That was one of the most important things Checks taught me, though at the time I did not know it. It takes a different perspective to achieve this understanding. For me, that perspective came from eyes at the level of the pavement.

It was a rainy day in August when I met him. The clouds were clinging to the tops of the low rise apartment buildings downtown as I made my way to the T. Not many people care for rain, but I’ve always enjoyed it. Clouds put a ceiling on the world. My inner city upbringing had accustomed me to ceilings, so much so that being under the empty blue sky made me nauseous. It’s been years, but I never quite got over that feeling; I still love the gloomy, washed out look of a rainy sunrise.

I found him just outside the stairs down to the tunnel. I’m not sure how long he’d been there because I’d never seen him before and never thought to ask. All the same, it looked as if he’d practically grown on the old bench like moss on the brick wall behind it. He was all hunched over, wrapped up in a dark, blue-green greatcoat, knees tucked up under his chin. At first I thought he was just a pile of old clothes. Then I saw bits of snowy white hair sticking out from between the collar and cap.

I might’ve kept right on going. I was late for work anyhow, and I’d seen homeless bums around the city my whole life. In fact I’d passed at least three on my way there. I stopped though. I don’t know why now, and I didn’t really know then. It was an action completely unexpected for a man of my position. I’d like to say it was charity, or compassion, or at least generosity, but that would be untrue. It was just something I did out of a sort of instinct, like when you immediately bend over to pick up a dropped nickel.

I walked over to the pile of coat with a beard. It didn’t move. “Excuse me, sir?” I said. “Sir?” I put a hand on one shoulder. His head shot up. “Huh? What? Whadya want? This bench privately owned or somethin’?” I stepped back, a little startled by his spitfire questions. I realized three things at that moment. The first was that I had no idea what to say to the man or why I had bothered him at all. The second was that I’d heard a faint snoring as I approached; something that didn’t register until too late. The third was that my socks were getting wet as water seeped into my wingtips from the puddle I unintentionally inhabited. “Er, nothing! I mean-” I stammered for an excuse. Then something underneath the bench caught my eye and a lie flashed into my head. “I just – wanted to tell you that you dropped your glasses. That’s all.” His stern look lessened a bit. “Have I?” A hand went to his pocket before he bent over to look. “Oh, thanks a lot. Can’t go losing these. Who knows when I’ll find another pair.” I tried not to let my surprise show when he put them on. They made the man look… distinguished. Almost familiar. The crack in one lens only slightly subtracted from the effect.

I caught myself staring and turned to walk away. As I did so, I heard the man call out. “Hey, kid! What’s your name?” I turned back for a second. “James!” I said, without thinking. Then I started down the steps to catch the train.

As the subway glided towards the business district of town, my thoughts turned towards the many tasks facing me at present. I was the president and founder of a life insurance agency that had become quite successful in the past 5 years. Half a decade earlier, Foster Insurance had been little more than a localized company that met the needs of Boston and a few surrounding cities. I began Foster after working for two other agencies taught me I could do better on my own. I hadn’t realized how wealthy my entrepreneurial aspirations would make me. Now my company was recognized as one of the leading insurance agencies of New England.

The day passed by in the manner of all others, filled with calls, conferences and contracts, but mainly, more complications. Many businessmen of my stature delegated the majority of their work to employees, but I liked to have a hand in the company I founded. It was my child, and I wanted to keep a finger on its pulse. In the past two weeks however, things had been going wrong. Terribly wrong. The company’s stock value had plummeted, after a subtle decline over the past two months. I was losing customers and stockholders to the competitors I had worked for prior to Foster. And now there were complications regarding the Stackhouse incident…

As I was on my way home, I stepped off the train and saw the old man sitting on the bench. I’d all but forgotten he existed. He had apparently not forgotten me. As the crowds poured up the stairway, his eyes focused on me. I looked away, pretending not to notice. What had I been thinking, telling him my name? The problem with bums was once they had gotten you—

“James!” I winced as he called me, and couldn’t help glancing his way. He sat with a mat rolled out beside him on the bench. A checkerboard? My feet dragged me in his direction. “Have time for a game?” He said. Now this was new. I’d seen bums and panhandlers come up with all sorts of tricks and gimmicks to get money, but never this. “What do you want?” I asked. “My money? I don’t have any for you.”

The man shook his head. “No, no money involved. Just checkers.” I turned to go. “Sorry.” I said. “You have something better to do?” He spoke to my departing back. Then, just like before, I hesitated. There was something… I couldn’t ignore him. But could I trust him? He likely meant to distract me so that a cohort could mug me. Besides, what would be said if I, the president of a respectable business, were seen playing games with a worthless beggar? How could I even dare consider his offer? Yet I was doing just that. Why not? I thought to myself. It’s not like I have anything left to risk. Before I even realized my actions I had turned around and approached him again.

The morning’s rain had petered off into a steady drizzle. The bench was positioned under a short roof that jutted out from the side of the building, but your toes would get wet if you weren’t careful. Sliding my briefcase underneath, I sat on the other side of the bench, more interested in this stranger than a game of checkers.

He didn’t say anything at first, just moved a red piece on the board. I responded with a black one. A red piece moved. A black piece jumped it. Feeling like the whole situation was a little unreal; I let the game continue on in silence. When he was concentrating on the board I would occasionally snatch a glance up at him.

The stranger’s beard was spiky, like a cat soaked in bathwater. He still wore the same greatcoat and cracked spectacles, and a checkerboard cap was pulled over a mass of white hair. If he were better dressed he might have looked the part of an old sea captain. His smoky gray eyes were the most surprising. They had the look of a rainy sunrise.

“If you run a business as sloppily as you play checkers I don’t imagine it’ll last very long.” He quipped. I focused on the board for the first time and saw that red had two kings, and none of my black pieces had made it to the back row. With his pieces positioned to intercept my own, it was unlikely that I would be able to win.

Ignoring his comment, I asked, “How did you know I was a businessman?” The stranger looked me up and down with unnerving frankness. “You mean you wash windows or something?” I conceded his point. “Actually, I own the Foster Insurance agency. My name is James Foster, perhaps you’ve heard of me?” He just stared. I sighed. “What’s your name?”

“They call me Checks.”

“Oh, okay. Who does?”

“The others. On account of my hobby.”

“You seem pretty good. Have you been playing long?”

“Boy, I learned to play checkers when I was 6. I’ve had quite a while to improve.”

Inside I began to laugh at myself. Here I was, a wealthy businessman, sitting outside a subway station while fraternizing with a homeless bum. Had I really sunk so low? The curiosity of the situation was killing me, and I asked in exasperation, “Look man… Checks,” (It felt strange using his name.) “What do you want? What are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? I’m waiting.”

“For what?”

“My train. Been waiting sixty years for it. Should be along any day now. You read the newspapers?”

The question’s irrelevancy was only slightly less startling than the idea of a literate tramp. Before I could stop myself I said, “You mean you do?” The insult didn’t seem to bother him. Checks just frowned and shrugged his shoulders. “When I can find ‘em. They tend to be a few days old by that time though.”

“Yes, I read the paper when I have time. Why do you ask?”

The man turned a checker piece slowly between his fingers as he answered. “Did you know, James, that the president of a real estate agency killed himself last week? Shot through the mouth. He was only fifty-seven years old. Lived over in Arlington.” I stiffened. “What’s your point, Checks?” I began to grow very uncomfortable. Why had he brought this up? He couldn’t possibly know about the complications involved.

“I compared some articles and found out that you’ve been in the paper recently too.” So Checks had heard about me after all. “It turns out this Gregory Stackhouse owned quite a bit of stock in Foster Insurance, did he not? In fact he was one of the original stockholders, and was able to advance his real estate career because of the money he made from your company.” My face began to go numb, but I snorted in derision. “What do you know about stocks and business, old man?”

“Not only that,” he continued, “But it was primarily through his funding early on that your company was ever able to get off the ground. By supporting your company in its early years, Stackhouse was able to ensure the success of his own. He was your crutch while you were his springboard. I wonder, what does that mean for you, now that he’s gone?”

As he said this, Checks jumped my last two pieces at once and won the game. I admit I hadn’t been paying much attention, or I might have fared better. At any rate, I was growing angry at this man’s presumptions. I decided I’d had enough. “I don’t owe you any explanations old man. You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about!” I said, bending to retrieve my briefcase. A grimy hand halted my shoulder. “You can’t leave yet James. You haven’t learned anything.” I looked over at him. “What? You won your game, I have things to do and can’t waste any more time.” Inside I cursed myself for having to make excuses to a deadbeat.

“James, do you want to know the true cause of your danger?”

Cause of my danger? The nerve! “Excuse me?” I asked, incredulous.

“You risked too much, too soon.” Checks said, waving a hand over the checkerboard. “In checkers, pieces which advance forward cannot be taken back. There are no mulligans. Because of this, it’s important to be cautious when deciding where to move. You have to seek a balance. Before anything can occur at all, it is necessary for both players to be willing to sacrifice some of their pieces. The game depends not on the pieces which advance first, but on the ones left in reserve.”

I ran a hand down my face. “You mean, what, exactly? I lost because you were able to crown two kings before I had made it to one.”

“No, that’s not why you lost. By the time I got those kings the end was already determined. You might have earned some yourself if things had played out a little differently. The reason you lost was because I chose to leave my back row in reserve. You advanced all at once, with everything you had, which allowed me to jump several pieces in one turn. Don’t you realize it, James? You’ve done the same thing in life! Risked everything you had with the focus of becoming a king, but you left yourself nothing to fall back on!”

Did he actually presume to give me business advice? How was it that he knew so much about me? My suspicion grew as I came to the only conclusion that made sense, ridiculous though it was. The stranger knew that Stackhouse’s heirs had inherited his stock in my agency. Because they were already well established in their own company, they had no concern for the welfare of Foster Insurance. And they were likely aware that we were losing money to our competitors. In essence, their inheritance was worthless. The only way they could hope to benefit from their old man’s demise would be to buy out Foster Insurance completely, forcing me either to accept their terms and allow them full ownership, or sell out to one of my competitors. Perhaps the only reason they wanted ownership was so that they could be the ones to sell the company. The only other choice I had was to declare bankruptcy.

Curse Stackhouse, the old fool! My company had been on hard times, but we might have recovered if he hadn’t shot himself. That was the death knell. What in heaven’s name had driven him to take his own life? He’d been wealthy, had everything a man could want, but had decided to end it all once he finally reached the top. His suicide had brought me down with him, and left me with nothing to fall back on. I was ruined.

My eyes skimmed over the checkerboard. If Check’s knew so much, there were only two reasons. He was either trying to blackmail me independently, or he was a plant hired by the Stackhouses to gain information from me. But in a manner as bizarre as this? It didn’t make any sense. Unless of course, Checks wasn’t really the tramp he appeared to be. My anger grew hot, and I jumped to my feet.

“Enough with the games old man! Who are you? What do you want!?”

“Calm down James, have a seat.”

“Do you work for the Stackhouses? Is that what this is about? I knew you looked familiar!”

“No, I have nothing to do with—”

“You’re trying to blackmail me, aren’t you? How do you know so much? What, did you think a stupid game of checkers—”

“This isn’t about business at all James!”

“…Would be enough to get the information you want out of me? Because if you think for one second that I’m going to—”

James! This is about life and death!”

Shut up!

Suddenly the old man was lying flat on the pavement. My fist hung in the space his head had occupied a second before. Lungs heaving, I felt my stomach turn to lead. Had I just…? I looked around frantically, but there was no one near enough at the moment to have seen.

Part of me wanted to run. To grab my briefcase and flee the whole crazy situation. But the other part of me, my human side, knew there was no way I could leave him there. Not after what I’d done.

I bent down and helped him up on one elbow, apologizing as I did so. “I— I’m sorry, I have no idea what came over me. But, you shouldn’t provoke people like that. It’s not your place.” What was I doing making it out to be his fault?

His lower lip was puffed and split. Blood dribbled down his rain soaked skin and dripped off his chin. He ran the back of a hand across his mouth as he answered. “Forget it. Worse ‘n this has happened to me before. I should have been clearer. Now help me up, boy.” I got him back onto the bench and took a seat. We both tried to wipe away the rain water from our coats and faces. I wished I’d had a bandage or something, but he quickly produced a bandana from among his person and held it to his lip.

“Heh, heh. You’ve got quite an arm son.” He chuckled. I attempted a weak grin and failed. My anger spent, I was willing at least to sit and listen to what this strange old man had to say. Then I remembered something.

“Wait, what was it you said about life and death? Please, tell me what’s going on.”

“When I was explaining the game of checkers, did you think I was talking about your business venture?”

“You mean you weren’t?”

“No, James. This is much more important than that.”

More important than my career? My livelihood? What could be more important than that? Of course, I could hardly expect a homeless vagrant to understand. Then again, he did seem to know more than I’d originally thought. I let him continue.

“Young man, there are two sides to this life, just like the two sides to a checker board. You progress in one direction only, from birth to death. Hopefully you’ll live a long life and make it far, but we all must reach the end eventually.”

“Okay,” I interrupted. “But what does this have to do with me? I’m not dying anytime soon!”

Checks put his bandana away and leaned forward, elbows on knees. Steepling his fingers together he tapped his lips, saying nothing. I followed his gaze and saw his checkered cap lying upside down in a puddle. I retrieved it for him. He thanked me, pulling it over his tangled hair, seemingly oblivious to the fresh streams of water that ran down his temples.

“James,” he said, “That anger you displayed earlier, that wasn’t… natural, for you, was it?”

I felt ashamed. “Look, I really am sorry. I have no idea how—”

“Answer the question, James.”

“No. No sir, it wasn’t.”

“Then what caused it? Am I really that insulting?”

“No, it wasn’t your fault Checks. I’m… Lately things have been… It’s my company. You wouldn’t understand. Well, maybe you would. I don’t know what to do anymore. Now that Stackhouse is dead his heirs are sure to screw everything up. I may lose all I have. Everything I’ve worked so hard for. I’m at the end of my rope.”

“So the despair has developed into rage then, has it? I didn’t cause your anger; I merely provided the opportunity for you to release what was already there.” Once again he was sounding like a lot more than the beggar I took him for. “Yet just now, when you got my hat, you showed kindness. And this morning you stopped to pick up my glasses. What motivated those actions?”

“Well, I think penitence mostly, and instinct.”

“Was that all?”

“And maybe a little charity.”

“Then you admit you are a being driven by some moral code. Capable of both good and evil actions.”

“I guess so. Most people understand there’s a difference between right and wrong.”

“Hmm… I wonder then, if…”

His voice trailed off. We sat in silence again, listening to the sound of the rain mixed with the noise of the city. The crowds of the late afternoon had dwindled down, most people having found shelter from the storm. It wasn’t dark yet, but the streetlamps had come on, casting an orange shine across the pavement. The subway train rumbled past a number of times as we sat there, and I lost all track of time. It was one of the most peaceful moments I have ever felt.

The damp air grew chill as the temperature faded with daylight. I noticed a vent in the ground a few feet along the wall. As trains rolled past it would let out streams of hot air for a few moments. Checks and I looked at each other. Then we stood up and dragged the bench so that it was positioned over this source of warmth. By this time I no longer felt uncomfortable or precarious in the strange man’s presence. It was oddly reassuring. We were quiet a little while longer. Then Checks spoke.

“Why didn’t you pull the trigger?”

I stared at him, and managed the breath to whisper, “How do you know about that?”

“Don’t worry. I haven’t been spying on you or anything. But after studying you during this time we’ve spent together, and knowing your current dilemma, it wasn’t that far a jump to make. For men in your position, suicide often seems like the only option. It’s the same reason Stackhouse was driven to his end.”

“How can you say that? He had everything a man could dream of! I’ve been left with nothing. Nothing!”

“Everything, nothing, what’s the difference, James? Both of your situations left you lonely and miserable. Despair is the primary cause of suicide. Does it matter where it comes from?”

I was silent.

“So why couldn’t you go through with it? What held you back?”

I spread a hand across my aching eyes. This was too much. The previous night I had planned to kill myself. But I didn’t pull the trigger. Now, nearly twenty four hours later, I was telling my story to a complete stranger.

“Because no matter how hopeless my life has gotten, I was more scared to die than to live.” I said. “I guess I’m not quite ready to reach the end of the checkerboard.”

Checks grunted. “That’s what I was talking about, boy. You were prepared to risk your whole life, but you realized that you had lost your back row. Once you step across that line, what do you have to depend on?”

I clasped my hands in my lap. Suddenly feeling very weary, I said, “Checks, you’re looking at a man who has absolutely nothing left in this world. I went to work this morning trying to forget what I’d nearly done last night. Trying to live as if life were perfectly normal. But I can’t fool myself, even if everyone else thinks I’m fine. They don’t know yet that Foster Insurance is only a few days away from financial ruin. When I stepped off the T today I was determined to go home and finish what I couldn’t do yesterday. I have no friends, and little family to speak of. It’s not like I’d be missed.”

Checks sighed. “And you, James, are looking at a man who was once in your exact position. I used to play the stock market you know, back when I was younger. I excelled at predicting the patterns of the economy, and it made me rich. Then one day I made a terrible mistake. I held out on my shares longer than necessary when I should have sold them. I lost everything. The only difference between us is that I did what you could not. I killed myself.”

“You did what? Then how…?”

“Don’t be mistaken. It’s not because I was stronger than you that I succeeded. It’s because I was weaker. Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to die.”

“What happened?”

“Like you, I had become distanced from the people of society. I found out that it’s very lonely at the top. After my financial destitution, I snapped. Went crazy. I was diagnosed with clinical insanity and institutionalized for two years. Four months into my time there, I tried to end it. Locking myself in a bathroom, I managed to strangle myself with a belt. I died. But that wasn’t the end of me. One second I was blacking out on the floor. The next, I was floating up near the ceiling, looking down at my body.”

I sat in rapt attention as the man went on with his tale. As he spoke, his gruff voice got quieter. He was remembering. I wondered if he had entirely forgotten my presence.

“I’m not quite sure what happened after that. I drifted away for a time, into a strange and wonderful place. It seems unbelievable now, but that land, it was far more real than this life had ever felt. Like I was waking up for the first time, and this had all been simply a dream I’d had while there... Then I was back on earth, watching as a team of medics laid me on a table. I heard them saying that I was dead. They put some things on my chest and mouth. There was a tremendous tugging sensation and I was back inside my body, waking up. No... Not waking up. I was back here, back inside the dream.”

The sounds of the night disappeared as I listened to Check’s words. His story was incredible!

“I had always assumed this world was all there is.” He went on, “But what if there’s more to it than that? What if you find out that once you reach the end of your life, you don’t cease to exist, but your existence merely takes another form?” He took a black checker piece from the board and moved it from one end to the other. Then he flipped it over, showing the crown. “Like a checker piece once it is kinged, you reach the end, but it’s not the end of you. I died and found out the truth, but I was brought back. It’s like I moved backwards a few spaces on the checkerboard.” He slid the king to the center of the board.

“Checks, that’s amazing. I can’t believe you went through that! What happened to you after your release from the mental institution?” I asked.

“I regained my senses after about four more months. They kept me under strict surveillance for another sixteen, afraid I would try to kill myself again. When they determined that I was no longer a threat to others or myself, I was let go. But I couldn’t return to the society that had broken me. The things I learned in those two years, and the years that I was dead, they changed me. I know the world for what it is now: a dream in the minds of souls that sleep in eternity.”

“What do you mean ‘years’ that you were dead? You couldn’t have possibly been dead more than half an hour!”

“That’s the tricky part. Time is different there. I know terrestrially speaking it couldn’t have been long, but life in that far country felt timeless. Like I’d always been there. In fact, from that point of view, it was coming back to life that felt like dying. Do you still want to die, James?”

“I don’t think I ever really wanted to. It’s just that I’ve completely lost all hope of succeeding. I am out of options and didn’t think I had a choice. There’s no one I can go to who’ll support me. I was so scared. I still am.”

He reached over and put a hand on my shoulder. Another subway train passed below us and his beard lifted slightly in the waft. “I know exactly how you feel. But what do you mean by hope? How do you define success?”

“I guess I’m not really sure anymore. I’ve built my whole life into this company, if I lose it now… I was uncertain enough about life. Now you’ve got me doubting what I know about death! But what about you? If you are such an economic genius, what on earth are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for the truth, boy. I never found it while chasing wealth and prosperity. I think it’s because the truth is grittier than that. My chances of finding it are better down here, at the level of the concrete. That’s why I’ve decided to remain homeless. It’s not long before I have a second deadline with death, and I want to make sure I’m ready this time.”

“I don’t understand. If you know life after death is so much better, why haven’t you tried to get back there again?”

“I can’t shake the feeling that I was sent back to earth because I wasn’t ready to die yet. I don’t want to take that risk until I’m certain where my pieces are. In the meantime, I’ve made it a mission to find people like you and warn them. This reality may be a dream of the next one, but if it weren’t important, why would we be here? There must be something in this dream we’re supposed to do first.”

I laughed, “This has got to be the craziest conversation I’ve ever had! You sound so certain about all of this. If I hadn’t come so close to death myself, I’m not sure I’d believe you. The idea is certainly comforting though. It’s funny, I feel like the less I fear death, the less I have to fear what happens in life.” As I was talking, Checks had been setting up another game of checkers. He looked up sharply now. “Yes!” he said, “You’re getting it! That’s it exactly! Now examine the board again. What do you notice about the placement of the pieces?”

“You mean that they are all on the black spaces?”

“Precisely. Only half of the space on a checkerboard is used, the squares we play on. The other squares still exist, and are necessary for the game, but they are never inhabited by pieces.
What if we found out that life is the same way? Can you be so sure that things don’t fill up the empty spaces we can’t see? They could be entirely surrounding us, making life possible, necessary for existence, but we wouldn’t know it. We can only observe the world we inhabit, but that doesn’t detract from the possibility of other realities.”

I grinned. “Are you sure you’re not crazy, old man?” He punched me in the arm good naturedly. Then his face grew somber. “What are you planning to do now, James Foster?” I looked up at the full moon over our heads as I answered. “I’m not really sure, Checks. Whatever happens to Foster Insurance, I don’t think I can go back to life as it’s always been. Not after what I’ve learned. Last night I thought that if my company failed I wouldn’t have anything to live for. Now I realize there are more important things than that. I need to find out the truth; discover why I’m here.”

“And where do you plan on searching?” Checks asked. I shrugged, “I don’t know. Guess I’ll find out tomorrow. Right now, I want a rematch at that game of checkers!” He smiled and adjusted his cap. “Boy, if you think you can beat me, you’ve still got a lot to learn!”

1 comment:

Lady Jane said...

Wow, that is a lot to take in. How did you come up with this story? It was really riveting and it covers so much about life and death. I was stuck to the words until the very end. Great job.