In Passing

“But the bigger question, the reason he was on the Facebook for the ninth time that day, was where was his wife? Was she at their house only 4.7 miles away, or was she in Paris studying macaron making?”

Illustration of a pawn chess piece

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When the doorbell rang, Henry was checking the Facebook. Again. His wife had posted a photograph that had him thinking. It was a picture of pastel-colored cookies. There were three, one on top of the other: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and a fourth, a green one angled against the cookie tower. Beneath the photo, a caption: “The art of macaron making … not to be confused with macaroon making.”

Henry had never tasted a green cookie. Was it pistachio? He wasn’t sure if such a thing existed, and he decided it shouldn’t. He cringed at the thought. But the bigger question, the reason he was on the Facebook for the ninth time that day, was where was his wife? Was she at their house only 4.7 miles away, or was she in Paris studying macaron making? And since when was she the type of woman to differentiate between a macaroon and a macaron?

Was she by herself? 

With a friend? 

With a man?

She wouldn’t be with a man, he decided. It wasn’t that kind of break, after all.

The doorbell rang again. Henry took a moment to think about who it might be. Nobody even knew that he had taken this condo on the edge of town, but Henry decided to answer the door anyway.

When he pressed his eye up against the peephole, Henry didn’t see anybody. And he was about to step away when he caught a shadow in his periphery. Then the bell rang again and Henry saw the top of a head.

It’s one of those little people, the ones featured in medical specials, Henry thought. And he’s standing too close to my door, that’s the reason I can’t see him properly. He’s probably selling something.

The doorbell rang again.

So, Henry opened it. He was ready to reject whatever sales pitch this little person began reciting.

But Henry quickly realized that it was not a little person, just a child. 

Henry and the boy stared at each other for a moment.

“Can George come out to play?” the boy finally asked.

His thick black-rimmed glasses rested low on his nose and his dark hair stuck straight up like it hadn’t been brushed since the last time he slept. There was a large gap in the front of his mouth where teeth ought to be.

“No,” said Henry.

“Why not?” asked the boy. He reached down and pulled up one of his tall lime green socks. He was wearing them with black, slide-on sandals. 

“Because there is nobody named George here,” Henry said.

“Did he go out?” the boy asked. “With his mom?”

“No.  George doesn’t live here. You must have the wrong door.”

This was a reasonable explanation. The units in the complex were all identical. The only appealing feature Henry had found in them was the fact that they were partially furnished and allowed a monthly lease. He was hopeful he wouldn’t be extending his initial commitment.

“Nope,” said the boy, “it says number twelve. This is where George lives. I live in thirty-six.”

The boy looked at Henry and pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. He poked his finger in his ear and wiggled it around for a moment.  

“I’ve been here before,” the boy added.

Henry stared at him.

“You sick?” the boy asked.

“No,” Henry said. “Do I look sick?”

“Your eyes look all sick and allergy,” the boy said.

“Oh, that. Yes. I have some allergies.”

Henry could just call his wife, he decided. Call her at the house and tell her he wanted to come back. He wanted to come home. 

“I have allergies too. I’m allergic to sun, broccoli, shoelaces and cat fur. What are you allergic to?”

“Allergic?” Henry repeated.

“What gave you the allergy eyes?”

“Oh, right.” Henry had never heard of a person being allergic to shoelaces. Perhaps it was only certain laces, made of certain fibers. Or perhaps, Henry considered, the child was lying. “Macaron cookies,” said Henry.

“That stinks.” The boy shook his head and blinked his eyes rapidly.  “I’d hate being allergic to cookies.”

He leaned to the right and looked past Henry into the condo. Henry stepped aside and peered over his own shoulder. There was nothing there.

“You got any pets?” the boy asked.

“Not currently,” said Henry.  

“No cats?”

“Never,” said Henry. “Why do you ask?”

“I thought maybe that’s why you have the allergy eyes. Being allergic to cats would be way better than being allergic to cookies.”

“It’s not all cookies,” said Henry. He could call Miriam and make her understand that he was devastated too. Just like she was. They were in this together.  

“I don’t trust cats,” the boy said.

“I thought you were a salesman, you know. When you rang the bell,” Henry said. “A small salesman.”

“Ok,” the boy said. “Will you tell George I came over? I’ve been here before.” 

“It’s only macaron cookies,” Henry said. 

“I’ll come back later. Maybe tomorrow,” the boy said. He waved his paw-like hand, turned around and walked down the path, kicking at the ground as he moved away from Henry and unit number twelve.

 

The next morning, Henry did not open his laptop. He did this intentionally, wanting to prove that he didn’t have to check on her. Instead, he walked out his front door. The chill air bit at his bare arms and he realized he ought to have worn a sweater, but he didn’t care. He walked toward his car and saw a large Canada goose standing in a grassy patch. 

The goose honked.  

“Shut up, goose,” Henry said.  

The goose took a few quick, waddling steps towards Henry. It cocked its head to one side. Henry glared at the goose then got into his car and drove to the grocery store.  

He wandered into the floral section and accidentally bought a plant he thought looked a lot like the ones Miriam scattered around their house. It was a stalky thing, leafy and green. Difficult to kill, the woman at the grocery store told him. Those words lingered in Henry’s mind, although Henry suspected she used this line to describe all the plants. She had no idea what they implied to Henry. After all, who was going to buy a plant that was easy to kill? And her pitch worked. He wanted something that was difficult to kill, that could live in extremity. That something like that might exist was a comfort to Henry. So, he bought the plant. He also grabbed a few cans of tuna fish and some tomato soup. He debated buying the low sodium, organic variety. The kind that Miriam bought. But he reached for the regular, high salt, high chemical, condensed. He liked the taste better, and there was nobody around forcing him to do otherwise.

When he got home, Henry set the plant on the kitchen counter, next to the laptop. Then he lifted it and carried it to the center of the island. Only after the plant was settled did Henry give in, open his computer and log into the Facebook. His wife hadn’t posted anything new, although many of her friends had liked or posted clever compliments on her cookie picture. When he scrolled below the macaron photo he saw the condolence messages posted by her friends, their friends, all those months ago. But he didn’t read them. He’d never really read them. There was nothing anybody could say that would be of any interest to Henry.

There was nothing in between. 

Cookies then condolences.

It made no sense to him. Henry snapped the computer shut.

 

That afternoon, when his doorbell rang again, Henry immediately knew who it was. He pushed his laptop, with the macaron picture that he’d been again trying to interpret, back and stood up. When he arrived at the peephole this time, knowing where to train his eye, he caught the boy’s head more quickly.

“Can George come out to play?” the boy asked.

“No,” Henry said.

“Why not?”

“George doesn’t live here. Why don’t you try some of those doors,” Henry suggested, pointing.

The boy stepped back. “It says number twelve,” he said. “This is where George lives.”

He looked at Henry as if it were Henry’s turn to speak, but Henry just stared back.

Finally, “Your glasses are dirty,” Henry said.

The boy reached up to his ear and pulled off the glasses. “Yup,” he said. He wiped the lenses with his shirt. “That won’t work,” Henry said. “You need water.” 

The boy spit on them and wiped with his shirt again.

“Not saliva,” said Henry. “Clean water. Do you know the difference?”

The boy looked up at Henry. “The difference between spit and faucet water?”

Henry nodded.

“Yup,” he said. “I do.” He nodded slowly. Then, “Can I use your sink?” the boy asked.

Henry knew of many reasons he should not let a stranger, even, or perhaps especially a child stranger, into his house. But the kid’s glasses were dirty. Grimy, even.

“Sure,” Henry said, “but be snappy.” He stepped aside and let the boy walk past. Henry pointed to the bathroom. “There,” he said.

The boy turned on the water and rubbed his fingers on the glass. He dried them on his shirt.

“Better,” he said.

But Henry saw smudges on them still. And those smudges grazed a memory in Henry’s mind he didn’t know was so near to the surface. Claire with her brown ponytail and turquoise reading glasses. She only wore them for doing her homework at the kitchen table. Henry would glance at her, head tilted over her book, finger marking a spot on the page and he remembered choking on the depth of the emotion he had for his perfect child. The magnitude of his luck in having her. He would be viscerally drawn to move towards her and lay his hand on her back or press his lips to the top of her head, just for the chance to breathe her in. Even now, the memory made him gasp.  

Henry had a sudden and irresistible urge to clean this child’s glasses.

“Hang on a minute,” Henry said, reaching for and taking the glasses away from the boy. Henry walked down the hallway to his kitchen where he pulled open a cabinet door, pushed aside the ibuprofen and found what he wanted. Henry removed a lens wipe from a packet. When he turned, the boy was right behind him. 

“I thought you said you didn’t have any pets?” the boy asked.

“I don’t,” Henry said.

“What about that?” The boy pointed at the plant.  

“The plant?”

“Yup.”

“That’s a plant. Not a pet.” Henry wiped the lenses clean then did the frame.

“Is it alive?”

“Alive doesn’t make it a pet,” said Henry.

“I think, maybe. Maybe, it does.”

The wipe was almond colored when Henry returned the glasses to the boy.

“Wow,” the boy said, sliding them onto his face. “They’re brand new. It’s like I’m seeing rainbows. How’d you do that?”

“Lens wipes.” Henry held up the box. He began walking towards the door.

“You want to play?” the boy asked.

“No,” said Henry.

“Why not?” asked the boy.

“Because I’m an adult. I don’t play.”

“Okay,” the boy said. He turned to walk away but stopped and looked at Henry. “You know what?” he asked.   

“What?”

“You shouldn’t stare at those cookie pictures, if you’re allergic.”

“You were snooping on my computer,” Henry said.

“You can get a reaction that way. I know. It’s happened to me before.”

“Is that so,” said Henry.

“But with the shoelaces, not cookies. I was staring at them real hard, and I got itchy all over. My mom had to take me to the hospital because my throat started to shut up. I didn’t even touch them.”

“I was looking at a friend’s post on the Facebook, that’s all,” said Henry.

“Maybe we can play with your chess set next time,” said the boy.

“Next time?” asked Henry.  

“Are you any good?”

“Were you snooping in my living room?” asked Henry.

The boy shrugged. “My eyes just sort of saw it when I walked past.”

“I’m okay,” Henry said. “I don’t play as much as I used to.”

“Why not?” 

Henry thought about it. “I guess I don’t have anybody to play with.”

“Because of you being an adult?” the boy asked.

“Not exactly. I’ve been busy lately,” Henry said.

“Doing what?” 

“You ask a lot of questions,” Henry said.

“Ok,” said the boy. “Tell George I came over. Maybe we can all three of us do a chess tournament next time. If it’s ok with his mom.”

“Next time?” asked Henry, for the second time in not so many minutes. But the boy didn’t answer. He had already turned and started down the path, heading away from unit number twelve.

            

The next day Henry called Miriam. The phone rang six times before her pre-recorded voice came on, instructing Henry to leave a message. Henry’s eyes stung, he cleared his throat and got ready for the beep. But when it sounded, Henry couldn’t speak. He breathed heavily, and felt as if a boulder was being pressed into his chest. Henry remembered what the boy had said about his throat closing, and he hung up. He knew Miriam hated voicemail anyway and would see his name under her missed calls.

When the boy arrived that afternoon, he didn’t ask for George.  

“I guess you’re here to play chess,” Henry said.

“Yup,” the boy said nodding. “But your goose almost chased me away.”

“I don’t have a goose,” Henry said.

“He honked at me and started to hiss. I tossed him some leftover granola bar and he chased that. He looks like a mean goose.”

“He should have migrated south by now,” Henry said.

“I think he wants to be your pet,” the boy said. “Like a watchdog.”

Henry stepped aside and the boy walked in. They went into the living room and sat in wooden chairs that Henry had assembled years ago. Henry had found them discarded in the basement before he moved.

“This is a cool set,” said the boy. He picked up the king and examined it. “He’s taller than my king,” he said, placing it back on the board. He tapped the wooden top of each pawn.

“It was a gift,” said Henry.  

“From who?”

“It was a gift I gave,” said Henry.

“Who’d you give it to?” the boy asked.

“My daughter,” said Henry.

“Then you took it back?” the boy asked.

Henry cleared his throat. “She doesn’t really need it now. And it reminds me of her, so I like having it.”

“That’s cool,” said the boy. “I’d never get rid of a set like this though.  I like how the pieces are fat and heavy.” 

The boy played first and moved his pawn to e4. Henry bit his inner cheek. It was a good open, but was it luck or skill? Henry decided to find out and he moved his pawn to e5.

The boy didn’t hesitate and moved his pawn to f4. His little legs didn’t reach the carpet and they swung back and forth.  

Henry was curious to see what kind of player the boy was. Henry captured his pawn with a move to f4.  

The boy’s nose was running and he rubbed it with the back of his hand. He picked up a pawn with his germy little fingers. The boy moved his piece to g4. Henry quickly captured that pawn too, moving his own piece onto g3.

“Hey,” said the boy. “You’re cheating.” He looked Henry straight in the eyes.

“Mmmm … You don’t know this rule?” said Henry.

The boy shook his head.

“It’s called en passant.”

“In passing,” said the boy.  

“That’s very good,” said Henry. “I captured the pawn attempting to pass by me as if it had only moved one spot instead of two.”

“Ok,” said the boy, examining the chessboard. “You sure this is legal?”

“Certain,” said Henry.  

“Can you show me again?” the boy asked.

“Sure,” said Henry. He returned the pieces to their original spaces on the board.

“You moved your pawn here,” Henry said, lifting the white piece and moving it two spaces forward on the board. “But if you had moved it here,” he pointed to the square behind where the pawn now rested, “my pawn could have captured it. The en passant rule says that I can still take it. I just move my pawn to this square and remove your pawn.”

“En passant,” the boy repeated. “Doesn’t seem fair to take my piece when it’s not even in that spot.”

“It’s not fair,” said Henry. “But it is a legal move.”

The boy nodded and sniffed his nose.

“Let me get you some tissues,” Henry offered.

“That’s ok,” the boy said, reaching for his bishop.

Henry decided he’d have to disinfect the set when the boy went home anyway, and he let it go.

He now had a decision to make. Should he let the boy win? Henry wasn’t in the habit of crushing small spirits, and he didn’t like watching children cry. However, it might be embarrassing to lose to a child who was not his own.  

These were the things Miriam was good at advising him on. She understood the nuance of situations that Henry couldn’t decipher. When Claire was young and Henry was just teaching her the game, Miriam told Henry to let her win. Initially, Henry bristled against this on principle. But he quickly found he enjoyed Claire’s glee, the way she giggled when she announced checkmate, far more than any joy victory could bring him. As she grew older and more skillful, Henry challenged her but still always let her win. When Claire was around 12, Miriam told him to stop doing that. She’d catch on soon. But Henry couldn’t. So, he’d take a victory occasionally but allowed her to put his king in checkmate the majority of their games.  

Until the day when Claire said, “Daddy, you have to stop.”

“Stop what?” Henry said.

“It’s condescending,” she’d said. “You’re insulting me. I’m not a baby. I want a fair fight.”

So, Henry started playing real chess. And over the last ten years, Claire had come close to beating Henry many times, but she’d never gotten to announce checkmate. Henry so wished he’d let her win the last time they’d played. But of course, he’d had no way of knowing that would be the last game they shared. 

Now, Henry couldn’t call Miriam and ask her what to do. And since this boy was nearly a stranger, Henry was even more confused.  

Henry said, “How old are you?” 

“Eight and a half,” said the boy. Henry thought that was still firmly in the let them win age range. Henry moved his knight.   

“And where did you learn to play chess?” Henry asked.

“Hospital,” said the boy. 

“The hospital?” Henry repeated.  

“Yup,” said the boy, taking his turn.

What a terrible place to learn chess, Henry thought, moving again. The hospital. He remembered the phone call that brought Miriam and him there, the silent drive, the stark linoleum corridor with the swinging doors at the end, the glow of the blue-white light, and the permeating scent of ammonia. 

“My mom’s there now,” the boy said, reaching towards the board.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Henry said. “I hope she gets better soon.”

“She’s not sick,” said the boy.

Henry remembered the look on Miriam’s face. The silent tears. Her lack of presence. It was as if she had turned into shell and the real Miriam had disappeared, dissolved into a dark tunnel.

“It’s your turn” the boy said.  

“Right,” said Henry, looking at the board. “Why is your mother at the hospital, then?”

“Cause of my brother. He’s maybe gonna die. They’re trying to fix him.”

“That’s terrible,” Henry said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah. Me too,” said the boy.   

Henry could still see Claire in his mind. He remembered seeing and touching her that final time. He was supposed to identify her body. To confirm that his only child was dead. He’d been alone because Miriam was slumped down in the hallway, no longer crying, unable to move. A nurse had sat next to her and held her hand while she stared at nothing. The nurse told Henry to go ahead. So, Henry did. And when he saw Claire she was pale and grey and already cold. Yet somehow, she was still as exquisite and pure as she’d been on the day she was born. The thought of leaving her there was impossible, incomprehensible and Henry had begun to shiver and sweat all at once. If he’d been physically able, he would have lifted her off the bed and cradled her, carried her out of that frigid room with him. Even like that, he would have kept her forever.

“Doctors can do amazing things,” Henry said. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat. “I’ll bet your brother will be just fine,” Henry said. He didn’t really mean it, but it was the only thing he could think to offer.

“Maybe,” the boy said.

Henry had not made a final decision about letting the boy win, yet the child announced, “Checkmate.”

“Checkmate?” Henry repeated.

Had Henry let him win? His attention had surely slipped. Henry examined the placement of the pieces still on the board. He noted the pieces that had been removed.

Checkmate indeed.

He’d definitely gone easy on the kid. And he was distracted. But Henry felt a surge of relief in his stomach that the boy had won. 

The boy stuck out his hand to shake Henry’s. “Good game,” he said. “Thanks for teaching me that move. I’m going to use that all the time.” 

Henry shook his hand. It was small and warm and something about the way it fit so entirely inside Henry’s palm clutched at Henry.

“You’re welcome,” said Henry. “You’re a good player. We’ll do it again.”

The boy nodded. 

After the boy left, Henry texted Miriam. I’m so sorry, he wrote. He was sorry for everything, even the parts that were not his fault. He was sorry he hadn’t made more cups of hot tea, brought her more boxes of tissues and sat quietly by her side in the weeks after. He was deeply sorry for cleaning out Claire’s room, donating those boxes to goodwill and planning that vacation. Even though he had been following the advice of a book on grief, a stupid book he’d bought online, he was very, very sorry.

Henry held the phone in his hand and watched the little dots dance across the bottom of the screen. Henry knew this meant she was replying. But then the dots disappeared, and the text screen remained blank. 

Henry threw his phone against the wall.

 

The boy did not ring Henry’s doorbell again. After three days Henry noticed that he had never righted the chess pieces after his last game. He began moving each piece to its correct square. Quickly, Henry noticed that something was wrong. Something was missing.  

The black king. It was gone. Henry scanned the floor. He peeked beneath the sofa. He stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said aloud.

 

A few days later, Henry decided he had to do something. He could wait no longer. He walked out his front door. He noticed the goose.  

“You’ve missed migration,” Henry said. “You don’t belong here. You need to move on.” Henry motioned towards the sky and the goose stared at Henry. His tall neck was midnight bright against the grey day. He honked. Henry set his jaw and pressed his eyes into slits. He took a few steps towards the goose. Something rustled in the distance and Henry saw another goose fretting in the shrubbery. Both geese moved towards Henry. The bigger one began to hiss, the smaller one honked rapidly. “I live here,” Henry shouted. “Get used to it, geese.” Henry backed away a few paces before turning to trot down his path.

            

Henry rang the doorbell on unit number thirty-six. He heard a voice call out, “I’ll be right there.”

When she opened the door, Henry averted his eyes to hide his surprise. She was a hairless woman. He looked down, then back at her quickly, just to confirm. Indeed, she was bald with pale, sunken cheeks. Sick people made Henry feel nauseated. He looked at his feet again.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked.

“I’m looking for somebody,” Henry said.

“Anyone in particular?” she asked.

 “I’m looking for … ” and suddenly Henry realized he didn’t know the boy’s name. He wondered what was the matter with him. He had never asked the boy his name. He decided it must be the situation with Miriam. Had he really never even asked the child for his name?

“A child,” Henry said. “The little boy who lives here. He has dark hair and is about this tall.” Henry held up his hand to mid-chest. 

“There are no children here,” she said. “I’m here alone.” 

“He had sticky fingers and smudged glasses,” Henry went on. “He doesn’t comb his hair.”

“I know what a child is,” the woman said. “I raised three of them. But there are none here.”

“He is a reasonably competent chess opponent,” Henry added.

“I think you have the wrong unit,” the woman suggested. Henry looked at the number on the doorframe. “No, this is unit thirty-six. This is where he lives.”

 Or lived,” the woman said. “I just moved in yesterday.”

“I think he has my king,” Henry said.

“Your king?” the woman repeated.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Henry said. “You don’t look like you’re feeling well.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

Henry glanced at her for a moment before closing his eyes. Everything began spinning around him. The woman spoke, but her voice was distant, as if she were murmuring under water. Henry had a desperate urge to be back at home. His real home with Miriam, where things like this didn’t happen.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “Do you need to sit down?” She reached out and touched his arm. Henry stepped away. “I’m not contagious,” she said, shaking her head. “I was making a joke when I asked why you thought I was unwell. A bad joke, apparently.” The woman lifted both hands and rested them on her bald head. Henry looked at her then. Her eyes were filling with tears. Henry was making this sick woman cry. He looked directly at her head. It was well-shaped, Henry thought. He ran his fingers through his own, thinning hair.

“I know you’re not contagious,” Henry said. He cleared his throat.

“I’m living here while I get treatment,” she said, rubbing her fingers under her eyes. “This place gives a discount to patients who need an extended stay situation.”

“This was rude of me,” Henry shook his head. “That boy accidentally took a piece of my chess set. My king. You can’t play chess without the king,” Henry said.

“That is true,” the woman said.

“He may have stolen it.  It might not have been an accident at all.”

The woman nodded her head. “He probably stole it,” she agreed. “Most children have thievish tendencies.”

Something about the way she said this made Henry laugh. There was a hint of mischief in her eyes, too. “But he was a nice kid,” Henry finally said, shaking his head. “Even if he stole it, I could tell he was a good boy.” 

“Maybe,” the woman nodded. 

Henry turned to leave but suddenly paused. “If you need anything, I’m in unit number twelve.”

The woman smiled, and that smile softened her eyes in such a way that Henry almost didn’t mind her bald head. It was no longer her most defining feature. 

“Thank you,” she said.  

Henry stared at her for a moment longer than was comfortable before waving goodbye.

Tomorrow, Henry would go to the store where he’d buy a few cans of chicken noodle soup, and a box of crackers. Sick people food. He’d select a few magazines that Miriam always read when she had a cold. Then he’d ring her doorbell, hand her the bag of groceries and ask for her name. He’d learn it was Elsie and he’d tell her his name was Henry. Elsie would invite him inside, but he would decline. He would remind her that he lived in unit number twelve, if she ever needed anything.  

But he didn’t know any of that yet. For now, Henry began walking down the path. He realized that he never asked the woman her name and he vowed to do better with introductions. He saw that there was no car in her driveway and wondered how she got around. There must be prescription medication she needed. How did she pick that up? While Henry was thinking about all these things, it began to snow.  

“Those geese better get moving,” Henry said aloud. Winter had definitely arrived. Maybe they’d be gone when he got back to his unit. He’d have to check. Snowflakes tickled Henry’s nose and cheeks. Quickly, white patches clung to the grass, lacing a doily over all the yards Henry passed. Henry tilted his chin towards the sky, opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue so that he could taste the icy cold. He considered the mystery of how countless snowflakes fell from the sky, yet no two were identical. It was a mystery he had pondered for years, ever since he was a child, yet another thing he’d never understand. And Henry decided that maybe that was okay. Maybe that was just the way it had to be. 

Featured image: Shutterstock, Alexander_P

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Comments

  1. I enjoyed this story, Ms. Wheeler. It was told in an interesting, descriptive way with a wide range of emotions conveyed in a thought provoking manner. It doesn’t have a traditional conclusion, yet has a good one nonetheless.

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