It wasn’t that he was actually stern or somber or baleful as some people thought, confronted with the unyielding flint of his face; it was that he was a quiet man even when young, and a slight gesture in him was a broad gesture in another…”
by brian doyle
It was my older brother Kevin who taught me to play chess. We sprawled on the nap of the old carpet, propped on our elbows, his legs behind him as long as a week. He didn’t explain theory or strategy or history or anything like that. We just played and he beat me again and again and again and again. I suppose you could say he beat me mercilessly, for never once did he let me replay a move, never once did he wink and allow something to happen, never once did he miss a move he knew I saw. When I made an egregious mistake he would silently take advantage of it and then continue to stare at the board, utterly absorbed in the geometry and narrative and currents and possibilities of the game. When I slowly began to make good moves and then, even more slowly, inventive and creative and devious ones, he would occasionally go so far as to cock an eyebrow at what I had startlingly accomplished; but that infinitesimal gesture, the subtle flicker of a tiny muscle over his left eye, was as far as he would go toward issuing praise. He was a quiet man even when young and you never met a man who was less fulsome or garrulous or logorrheic or profligate with the words that came out of his mouth. Yet he could and did express himself with wonderful clarity if you were so lucky as to be trained in reading the language of his body. I think he wanted me to learn the game by being in the game, by watching what he did and ascertaining why, by testing my own growing confidence and creativity against his, even though he was eight years older and the nature of my education was to be beaten again and again and again and again for weeks before I began to challenge him, here and there, and then to actually contest games, and then to press him hard, and then force him to the peak of his powers simply to fend me off, and finally I beat him. I wish now I could remember the day and the hour and the angle of light and who else was in the room and if he finally looked up from the board and smiled his slight wry smile which to me and our sister and brothers was a huge vast smile if you were so lucky as to understand the language of his body. It wasn’t that he was actually stern or somber or baleful as some people thought, confronted with the unyielding flint of his face; it was that he was a quiet man even when young, and a slight gesture in him was a broad gesture in another. I would guess that what happened that day was that it was late in the afternoon, in that last languorous hour before dinner, and we were sprawled on the nubby russet carpet, and probably it was summer, and soon he would be off to college and the Navy, and we had played a terrific swirling game, in which my bishops had slashed here and there with grim abandon, and while he grew absorbed in murderous plots against my reckless churchmen, my horsemen had quietly built a jail from which he could not escape, using his own pawns as tiny walls; and when one of my own pawns shyly shuffled forward a single space, and thus shivered the geometry of the board in such a way that my brother had no recourse but to surrender, there were a few long silent moments for which I cannot, even all these years later, find good words. We lay there staring at the board, and his legs went on forever, and both of us knew the weight and freight of the moment, and then maybe he looked up at me and smiled that slight wry smile, which to me was like a trumpet or a burst of song; and then we went to dinner.
(illustration: brian doyle)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.