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Excerpt

The Queen's Gambit

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ONE

BETH LEARNED OF HER MOTHER'S DEATH FROM A WOMAN WITH A clipboard.
The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The
photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood
Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was
clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: "Orphaned by
yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a
troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the
crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the
time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo
was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say."

In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a
tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to "even
their dispositions." Beth's disposition was all right, as far as
anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It
loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the
tense hours in the orphanage.

Mr. Fergussen gave them the pills in a little paper cup. Along with
the green one that evened the disposition, there were orange and
brown ones for building a strong body. The children had to line up
to get them.

The tallest girl was the black one, Jolene. She was twelve. On her
second day Beth stood behind her in Vitamin Line, and Jolene turned
to look down at her, scowling. "You a real orphan or a
bastard?"

Beth did not know what to say. She was frightened. They were at the
back of the line, and she was supposed to stand there until they
got up to the window where Mr. Fergussen stood. Beth had heard her
mother call her father a bastard, but she didn't know what it
meant.

"What's your name, girl?" Jolene asked.

"Beth."

"Your mother dead? What about your daddy?"

Beth stared at her. The words "mother" and "dead" were unbearable.
She wanted to run, but there was no place to run to.

"Your folks," Jolene said in a voice that was not unsympathetic,
"they dead?"

Beth could find nothing to say or do. She stood in line terrified,
waiting for the pills.

"You're all greedy cocksuckers!" It was Ralph in the Boys' Ward who
shouted that. She heard it because she was in the library and it
had a window facing Boys'. She had no mental image for
"cocksucker," and the word was strange. But she knew from the sound
of it they would wash his mouth out with soap. They'd done it to
her for "damn"--and Mother had said "Damn" all the time.

The barber made her sit absolutely still in the chair. "If you
move, you might just lose an ear." There was nothing jovial in his
voice. Beth sat as quietly as she could, but it was impossible to
keep completely still. It took him a very long time to cut her hair
into the bangs they all wore. She tried to occupy herself by
thinking of that word, "cocksucker." All she could picture was a
bird, like a woodpecker. But she felt that was wrong.

The janitor was fatter on one side than on the other. His name was
Shaibel. Mr. Shaibel. One day she was sent to the basement to clean
the blackboard erasers by clomping them together, and she found him
sitting on a metal stool near the furnace scowling over a
green-and-white checkerboard in front of him. But where the
checkers should be there were little plastic things in funny
shapes. Some were larger than others. There were more of the small
ones than any of the others. The janitor looked up at her. She left
in silence.

On Friday, everybody ate fish, Catholic or not. It came in squares,
breaded with a dark, brown, dry crust and covered with a thick
orange sauce, like bottled French dressing. The sauce was sweet and
terrible, but the fish beneath it was worse. The taste of it nearly
gagged her. But you had to eat every bite, or Mrs. Deardoriff would
be told about you and you wouldn't get adopted.

Some children got adopted right off. A six-year-old named Alice had
come in a month after Beth and was taken in three weeks by some
nice-looking people with an accent. They walked through the ward on
the day they came for Alice. Beth had wanted to throw her arms
around them because they looked happy to her, but she turned away
when they glanced at her. Other children had been there a long time
and knew they would never leave. They called themselves "lifers."
Beth wondered if she was a lifer.

Gym was bad, and volleyball was the worst. Beth could never hit the
ball right. She would slap at it fiercely or push at it with stiff
fingers. Once she hurt her finger so much that it swelled up
afterward. Most of the girls laughed and shouted when they played,
but Beth never did.

Jolene was the best player by far. It wasn't just that she was
older and taller; she always knew exactly what to do, and when the
ball came high over the net, she could station herself under it
without having to shout at the others to keep out of her way, and
then leap up and spike it down with a long, smooth movement of her
arm. The team that had Jolene always won.

The week after Beth hurt her finger, Jolene stopped her when gym
ended and the others were rushing back to the showers. "Lemme show
you something," Jolene said. She held her hands up with the long
fingers open and slightly flexed. "You do it like this." She bent
her elbows and pushed her hands up smoothly, cupping an imaginary
ball. "Try it."

Beth tried it, awkwardly at first. Jolene showed her again,
laughing. Beth tried a few more times and did it better. Then
Jolene got the ball and had Beth catch it with her fingertips.
After a few times it got to be easy.

"You work on that now, hear?" Jolene said and ran off to the
shower.

Beth worked on it over the next week, and after that she did not
mind volleyball at all. She did not become good at it, but it
wasn't something she was afraid of anymore.

Every Tuesday, Miss Graham sent Beth down after Arithmetic to do
the erasers. It was considered a privilege, and Beth was the best
student in the class, even though she was the youngest. She did not
like the basement. It smelled musty, and she was afraid of Mr.
Shaibel. But she wanted to know more about the game he played on
that board by himself.

One day she went over and stood near him, waiting for him to move a
piece. The one he was touching was the one with a horse's head on a
little pedestal. After a second he looked up at her with a frown of
irritation. "What do you want, child?" he said.

Normally she fled from any human encounter, especially with
grownups, but this time she did not back away. "What's that game
called?" she asked.

He stared at her. "You should be upstairs with the others."

She looked at him levelly; something about this man and the
steadiness with which he played his mysterious game helped her to
hold tightly to what she wanted. "I don't want to be with the
others," she said. "I want to know what game you're playing."

He looked at her more closely. Then he shrugged. "It's called
chess."

A bare light bulb hung from a black cord between Mr. Shaibel and
the furnace. Beth was careful not to let the shadow of her head
fall on the board. It was Sunday morning. They were having chapel
upstairs in the library, and she had held up her hand for
permission to go to the bathroom and then come down here. She had
been standmg, watching the janitor play chess, for ten minutes.
Neither of them had spoken, but he seemed to accept her
presence.

He would stare at the pieces for minutes at a time, motionless,
looking at them as though he hated them, and then reach out over
his belly, pick one up by its top with his fingertips, hold it for
a moment as though holding a dead mouse by the tail and set it on
another square. He did not look up at Beth.

Beth stood with the black shadow of her head on the concrete floor
at her feet and watched the board, not taking her eyes from it,
watching every move.

She had learned to save her tranquilizers until night. That helped
her sleep. She would put the oblong pill in her mouth when Mr.
Fergussen handed it to her, get it under her tongue, take a sip of
the canned orange juice that came with the pill, swallow, and then
when Mr. Fergussen had gone on to the next child, take the pill
from her mouth and slip it into the pocket of her middy blouse. The
pill had a hard coating and did not soften in the time it sat under
her tongue.

For the first two months she had slept very little. She tried to,
lying still with her eyes tightly shut. But she would hear the
girls in the other beds cough or turn or mutter, or a night orderly
would walk down the corridor and the shadow would cross her bed and
she would see it, even with her eyes closed. A distant phone would
ring, or a toilet would flush. But worst of all was when she heard
voices talking at the desk at the end of the corridor. No matter
how softly the orderly spoke to the night attendant, no matter how
pleasantly, Beth immediately found herself tense and fully awake.
Her stomach contracted, she tasted vinegar in her mouth; and sleep
would be out of the question for that night.

Now she would snuggle up in bed, allowing herself to feel the
tension in her stomach with a thrill, knowing it would soon leave
her. She waited there in the dark, alone, monitoring herself,
waiting for the turmoil in her to peak. Then she swallowed the two
pills and lay back until the ease began to spread through her body
like the waves of a warm sea.

"Will you teach me?"

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a
movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing
"Bringing in the Sheaves."

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the
effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: "I want to
learn to play chess."

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black
pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square
at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded
his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. "I don't
play strangers."

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned
and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

"I'm not a stranger," she said to him two days later. "I live
here." Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its
pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. "You can teach
me. I already know some of it, from watching."

"Girls don't play chess." Mr. Shaibel's voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not
touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already
labeled a cannon in her imagination. "This one moves up and down or
back and forth. All the way, if there's space to move in.

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with
what looked like a slashed lemon on top. "And this one?"

Her heart leapt. "On the diagonals."

You could save up pills by taking only one at night and keeping the
other. Beth put the extras in her toothbrush holder, where nobody
would ever look. She just had to make sure to dry the toothbrush as
much as she could with a paper towel after she used it, or else not
use it at all and rub her teeth clean with a finger.

That night for the first time she took three pills, one after the
other. Little prickles went across the hairs on the back of her
neck; she had discovered something important. She let the glow
spread all over her, lying on her cot in her faded blue pajamas in
the worst place in the Girls' Ward, near the door to the corridor
and across from the bathroom. Something in her life was solved: she
knew about the chess pieces and how they moved and captured, and
she knew how to make herself feel good in the stomach and in the
tense joints of her arms and legs, with the pills the orphanage
gave her.

"Okay, child," Mr. Shaibel said. "We can play chess now. I play
White."

She had the erasers. It was after Arithmetic, and Geography was in
ten minutes. "I don't have much time," she said. She had learned
all the moves last Sunday, during the hour that chapel allowed her
to be in the basement. No one ever missed her at chapel, as long as
she checked in, because of the group of girls that came from
Children's, across town. But Geography was different. She was
terrified of Mr. Schell, even though she was at the top of the
class.

The janitor's voice was flat. "Now or never," he said.

"I have Geography . . ."

"Now or never."

She thought only a second before deciding. She had seen an old milk
crate behind the furnace. She dragged it to the other end of the
board, seated herself and said, "Move."

He beat her with what she was to learn later was called the
Scholar's Mate, after four moves. It was quick, but not quick
enough to keep her from being fifteen minutes late for Geography.
She said she'd been in the bathroom.

Mr. Schell stood at the desk with his hands on his hips. He
surveyed the class. "Have any of you young ladies seen this young
lady in the ladies'?"

There were subdued giggles. No hands were raised, not even
Jolene's, although Beth had lied for her twice.

"And how many of you ladies were in the ladies' before
class?"

There were more giggles and three hands.

"And did any of you see Beth there? Washing her pretty little
hands, perhaps?"

There was no response. Mr. Schell turned back to the board, where
he had been listing the exports of Argentina, and added the word
"silver." For a moment Beth thought it was done with. But then he
spoke, with his back to the class. "Five demerits," he
said.

Excerpted from THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT © Copyright 2003 by
Walter Tevis. Reprinted with permission by Vintage, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

 


The Queen's Gambit
by by Walter Tevis

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1400030609
  • ISBN-13: 9781400030606