Allan carefully set the chess pieces on the board, and watched, with a smile, as David walked the full coffee mugs over to their table. “You spill, you buy for a week.” David mouthed an obscenity, and Allan laughed. 42 years of friendship buys you certain permissions, leeway with the kinds of jokes you can tell.
The rest of the cafe was quiet, practically empty save for the two women behind the counter, and an older lady in the corner — older, even than Allan and David. “What’s her story, you think?” Allan asked, accepting his mug from David.
David shook his head, picking up one black piece and one white piece. “You know her story.”
“You ask her every day what her story is, and you end up chatting her up till the moon comes out.”
“And every day is different, except when I realize she’s crazy.”
“Sick isn’t crazy.”
“Now you’re talking crazy.”
“Allan, just pick a hand.” Allan tapped David’s right hand, revealing the white piece. “Great, you’re first again.”
“I haven’t been white in weeks.”
“Now who’s crazy.” David waited, took his sip. He was used to Allan taking his time. Used to be they’d play with their phones during their chess games. Lately they had less and less people to call, less news that was interesting or surprising. And now, because their retirement plans paid off so well, they didn’t have to check their accounts or job boards, either. Retirement was paying off, finally. “Make your move!”
Allan shifted his pawn forward, then stood up. “Hold on.”
“No, Allan, not again!” But David couldn’t stop him.
Every day, the same thing. He watched Allan walk over to the Older woman in the corner, chatting her up. She’d start by talking about her children – her non-existent children – then go into her lonely life in a small apartment blocks away. Allan would go on about his exciting life of fishing and exotic foods. The woman laughed, and David heard Allan say, “I swear, each fish has it’s own unique flavor!”
Soon he’d get to inviting her for dinner, and their game would be forgotten. David was nearly finished packing up the chess set when Allan shuffled back to their table.
“David, let’s put this one on hold.” Allan snagged his jacket, and sipped again from his mug. “I’ve got me a date with a pretty woman.”
David just nodded, shook his friend’s hand. He watched the two walk away outside. They’d do it all again tomorrow, and the next day. David was happy for them both, and envied the Love at First Sight experience they gained from each other every day. It hadn’t changed, ever since they were married all those years ago. Perhaps their sicknesses helped in that feeling, or maybe it was a small form of suffering they refused to acknowledge.
For his part, David carried on with his coffee and pulled out his book.
The next day started the same, and Allan even pulled the white pawn again, but when David looked over his shoulder there was no old lady. “Where’s Mary today?”
“Who?” Allan was genuinely perplexed.
“Nothing, I mean… nothing, your move.”
Allan appeared not to give it another thought. Their game that morning lasted two hours, and the next day abut the same. On the third day without Mary, David was so distracted he was Mated in seven moves, an uncommon occurrence for a guy who’d been playing for thirty years. “Say, Allan, have you seen a pretty old lady in here lately?”
“Don’t need to,” replied Allan. “Got one at home, don’t I?”
“Do you?” David was confused, since Allan could barely remember where he lived, but could describe his house inside and out without error if asked.
“We haven’t seen you come by in a while, why don’t you say hello?”
David scrambled to collect the board and finish his coffee, and walked Allan home with anticipation and more than a little anxiety. Entering Allan’s house was about a monthly occurrence for David. He didn’t like the way it smelled, but felt reassured whenever he saw the nurse’s car in the driveway that Allan was well taken care of.
It appeared the nurse had been there that morning, and Allan had somehow done some cleaning. Allan seemed to read his mind, saying, “You can thank Mary for that bit of it.” Mary then came down the stairs, and David lost his footing, sitting hard on the well-worn couch.
Mary was young again, in her thirties, and waving, without a word, to David. “Allan… what’s going on?” he asked, hardly able to get the words out, his mouth was so dry.
“Not what you expected to see, is it?” David’s jaw dropped to the floor when he saw that Allan, too, was young again.
When David caught up, becoming young again, the three ate a hearty meal, and repeated their “old person” ruse outside for many weeks, always returning to the wonder of Allan’s house to be young again for as long as it would last.
David tried to find out when this “crazy magic” had started, but Allan wouldn’t answer, and Mary stayed quiet. Things went on like this for weeks, until one day Allan’s heart gave up on his walk to the cafe.
David never saw Mary again, but once in a while the drapes in Allan’s house would waver, quickly, as though someone had been watching him walk by.