“I headed down the alley between Brevard and Main Street, you know the one, and planned to cut him off on the other side.”
“Why didn’t you just go down Church Street?”
I bit my bottom lip. Lenny and I had lived in the same town, but he was a whole lot younger. He sat across from me, a chessboard between us. He was mousy and unintelligible, and the grey jumpsuit he wore sagged about his collar like a noose before the drop.
“Do you want to hear the story or not?” I asked.
“I headed down the alley, the one between Brevard and Main. I came out on Main and waited.”
“And how’d you know he was gonna come down Main?”
“Every Saturday he went in to grab a drink at Fat’s place.”
“And this man was givin’ it to your wife, you said?”
I looked Lenny in the eye then and told him without speaking he should check his tone.
“I had heard from a few people my wife was having an affair with him, yeah. It’s your move, by the way,” I said.
Lenny slid a pawn two spaces forward, I countered with a knight.
“How long has it been?” Lenny asked.
He shook his head and moved another pawn. I slid my bishop into it and collected it in my palm.
Looking around he said, “Is it necessary for them to walk around with shotguns all the damn time? Makes me nervous.”
I held back a mocking laugh, “This is death row, Lenny.”
Lenny made another move. He was fidgety and the bags beneath his eyes were full and squishy like a beached jellyfish.
“Anyway,” I said, “I smoked a cigarette while I waited. There were a few people milling about, coming out of the shops, heading somewhere for dinner in twos and fours. I started to consider turning around because honestly, I didn’t know what I was going to say.”
I paused to study the board. “But then I saw him and I no longer had a choice.”
“Well, sure you did,” Lenny said, “we all have a choice.”
“Are you listening or not? I’m trying to tell you something,” I said.
He held two hands up like a surrendering soldier, and I continued.
“He was clean cut and handsome. The educated, slim-waist type of fellow who thinks he’s better than everyone — a professor down at the college.”
Lenny nodded in understanding.
“I stubbed out my cigarette and as he passed I placed my hand on his shoulder and told him ‘I’d have a word with you,’ and he went to brush my hand away.”
A guard passed by the table and studied our chess board, and then moved on. Lenny moved a rook and I moved my queen three spaces on a diagonal.
“When we met eyes I think he understood that I was Georgia’s husband. At least, I think he did. He said, ‘Can I help you?’ and then I stood up to him, squaring my shoulders and making myself big. I was young. I was full of it. Only 23 and I had anger and ego running in my blood.”
“Five minutes!” a guard yelled out from the balcony overlooking the communal area.
“Five lousy minutes,” Lenny said, “five minutes to breathe before going back in that hole. I feel like a dog. You know what I mean?”
He pushed a pawn forward to attack my knight and I countered by moving a pawn forward to block its path.
“I understand …” I said, “Now the man stood in front of me but he did not square up. He was clean-shaven, with pressed slacks, fresh cologne on his neck. I looked down at his shoes. They were polished leather and I could see my reflection in them, could’ve used them to comb my hair.”
“What’d you do?” Lenny asked.
“I spit on them,” I said.
Lenny moved his queen, attempting to check my king. I countered.
“He took out a handkerchief and wiped his shoe clean and folded it and put it back in his pocket. A complete gentleman. For whatever reason, that infuriated me. ‘I must be going’ he said, and tried to push past me.”
Lenny wasn’t playing anymore, but listening.
“I said, ‘You know Georgia?’ and he replied, ‘There must be a misunderstanding,’ and then I pushed him. ‘I hear you know her well,’ I said.
Lenny’s eyes searched the room.
“I pushed him again, and this time he fell. He called out for help. I cocked my hand back and punched him in the nose, and it felt good. In that moment it felt like I was getting back something he’d taken from me, like I’d been given back the days when everything was fine — before I began to feel nervous about how quiet my wife had become — before I could see in her that she regretted throwing away her future with a good-for-nothing Southern boy in a good-for-nothing town. In that briefest of moments, when my fist met his face, the cage door was left open and out I stepped into the world that was real and vivid. So I did it again. And again. Until I was breathless. And then I came to and I was rising up from the concrete and he was no longer the person I’d seen before. People stood all about, watching me, their hands on their mouths. And then I realized I might’ve just killed a man, and I knew that those things I had wanted to protect, a life with Georgia, were as dead as yesterday and as out of reach as tomorrow.”
The guards began to find their positions to usher us back to our cells, and in a moment they would call for us to stand.
“You know, it’s funny, Lenny. I can’t remember the last time I cried or even, sometimes, the last time I took a shit. Sometimes, when I go searching for the memory of my wife, I can’t remember her smell, or her favorite dress, or something as simple as a laugh. Sometimes, I have to sift through these years like old polaroids just to see her face, the smiling one from our wedding day. But… I will never be able to forget how shiny that man’s shoes were, or the way those people looked at me, like I was a monster, or the way his blood felt on my hands.”
Lenny moved his queen to the left and looked away from me.
I considered the chess board. “I’ve been thinking on it for a while now, more than half my life, and with only a month to go before the big day, the only thing I can glean from those dead years that were nothing more than a slow burn, the only thing we have in here, you and I, to remind ourselves that everything is going to be okay, is that every person on earth is gonna die, some of us just happen to be counting down the days.”
“Alright, boys, let’s move,” a guard said in our direction.
Lenny stood and so did I. He gave me a look that said, “I wish I’d never asked.”
Aaron Wood is a husband, cook, student, and writer, currently working on a novel and collection of short stories.
Timothy Banks is a local artist who wrote and illustrated Monsters In Charleston and created the 2017 YALLFest poster.