A cool fall breeze sounds the wind chimes of Benny’s childhood home one morning in 1948. If he paid as much attention to his music tutors as Tommy did, he would have memorized the exact pitch of each of the metal cylinders’ tintinnabulations when he found a yellowed piece of paper tucked underneath black’s king on the living room chess board.
On it was a puzzle: There is an opportunity for a mate in three. Do not move your queen. written in clear, concise script.
He found two.
Years later, he gets a serious case of déjà vu when he awakes to an empty apartment and an envelope placed on his kitchen table. Inside is a picture of him and Elizabeth Harmon with a note on the back that looked like it was written by a Founding Father, a brief compounding of two sentences, the first being Wish me luck. and the second being Back soon.
Both instances stir a certain bitterness in him, a sort of mournful anger that a small bird would feel if a parent pushed him off the nest, said “You’ll be fine,” and watched him plunge to his death. “Betrayal” and “abandonment” are frighteningly accurate words to describe the whole thing— dramatic, too, but you can’t blame a man scorned. The feeling should crush any remaining resistance against tossing both pieces of paper into a shredder so he can finally get his head back into openings and pawn structure and endgames.
But Benny Watts is a bit of a hoarder, so you’ll have to forgive him for his attachment to inanimate objects such as chess boards and old notes.
On the 20th of December, 1968, Elizabeth Harmon wins the Moscow Invitational, and on the 21st she is seen live on public broadcast playing against U.S.-president-elect Richard Nixon, soon after a brief game against president Johnson. Arthur and Hilton laugh at the twelve moves it takes to wipe out the soon-to-be Leader of the Free World as it plays on Benny’s beat up television.
Benny sets the game up on the nearest chess board, intending to beat the woman’s Spanish Ruy Lopez, and with three sets of eyes on the board it’s easy to work out that Nixon really should’ve just moved the king back after the knight capture.
They play out every variation they can before a reporter on T.V. asks a very specific question in a voice that stammers under Harmon’s gaze.
“Is it— it’s— doesn’t it get a little lonely? Being the only female grandmaster?”
“I’ve recently realized I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was,” Beth answers through the static of the T.V. “I grew up with chess, and made a lot of friends through it. Benny Watts actually trained me for a while—”
“The former U.S. champion?” a different reporter cuts her off.
“Yes,” she says, and for a second he swears that she’s looking directly at him with every ounce of grace and elegance that made her look so Elizabeth.
“I’m very grateful to him.”
A million emotions run through him at once, with a large fraction of them conflicting. A part of him wants to replay the interview sixty-four times in his head and a part of him wants to shut the damn thing off and throw it out with the garbage. There’s that same little bird being pushed off of a tree, now relieved and confused over being caught.
Because even with her naïve disregard for any rumor or scandal that the media can stir up about their time together, Beth had thanked Benny in front of the entire country. It feels like a turning point; at least, he hopes it does because if it isn’t then it could easily be the end of a chapter without Benny even knowing it, like a yellowed note and a puzzle that was far too easy to have been anything resembling a goodbye.
For a moment, there is an urge to load up on gas and drive to Kentucky to ask for a clarification, but they’re right on the cusp of figuring out how Nixon could’ve gotten his queen out, and Arthur and Hilton are grinning at him like schoolboys.
So, he gets his head back into openings and pawn structures and endgames, ignoring the faint flutter of his heart when she had said his name.
He waits for a call that never comes, and wonders if he’s still falling off a tree.
It’s the 24th of the 12th: Jolene’s eyes roam the beautifully signed check in her hands, her hold reminiscent of a mother reading a news article about her daughter’s victory in a kitchen one morning, however many lifetimes ago that was. The words Jolene DeWitt and Three-thousand dollars adorn the blanks that require them in elegantly italicized cursive that would put calligraphy students to shame at how naturally the letters looped into each other.
“I’ll say, cracker,” Jolene sets the expensive piece of paper down. “I forgot how much I hated your prissy-ass handwriting.”
“You wouldn’t say that about the dress, would you?”
“Is that what this is?” she pats the haphazardly wrapped box on her dining table.
“Figured I’ve got some catching up to do on Christmas gifts,” Beth sits perpendicular to her at the table, “It’s Dior.”
“Hm,” she says, “It’s no Chanel, but I’ll take it.”
“You’d look better in Dior, anyway.”
“Don’t matter,” Jolene teases, “Chanel’s got the fancier price tags.”
In spite of her ungrateful façade, Jolene looks at her with the same fondness of “It’s what family does; It’s what we are” from what felt like just yesterday. There’s been a sort of omnipresence to her since she confiscated Beth’s shovel and told her to stop digging. Beth attributes this permanent little corner of her mind for this woman to some deep regret that she hadn’t been scouring newspapers for the name ‘Jolene DeWitt’ all these years. It’s that same corner that shells out money for three-hundred-dollar dresses, that looks at her critically every time she stares at a specific shade of green for too long, that drives her out of Washington and straight to Louisville the second she had the freedom to do so.
They run around Jolene’s compact, art-deco apartment hidden in one of Old Louisville’s colorful buildings with its bright orange wallpaper and dark wooden furniture, looking for a radio station that’s playing something other than the Ray Conniff Singers’ greatest Christmas hits, and eating one of the richest chocolate cakes they’ve had within their lifetimes. One of many indulgences that their childhoods have deprived them of: good dessert.
Eventually, the radio catches a rogue signal from a local jazz station on top of Jolene’s fridge, and Dinah Washington pleading for her baby to come home becomes the backdrop to their Christmas Eve.
“You know,” Jolene starts, her fork scraping at the chocolate icing staining her plate, “I never thought I’d see the day your ass would be runnin’ around wearing every look in Louie’s shitty old copy of McCall’s.”
“God, Louie,” Beth recalls. A girl’s emerald-green eyes take form in her head alongside memories of Jolene waking her up in the middle of the night to shine a dull flashlight at a fashion magazine fraying at the seams underneath three layers of blankets from each of their beds. The girl, who was eleven when Beth was nine, would whisper names of brands and grumble at their own unflattering haircuts and clothing as they turned matte pages filled with illustrations and photos of the latest, most expensive styles.
But Louie, with her golden hair and eccentric eyes, left the dull Methuen home clutching at the hands of a lovely couple in under a year. Just another one of those girls that the pair tolerated enough before they left them behind with sour tastes in their mouths.
“You ever get back in touch with her?” Beth asks.
“Well, if she’s anything like us, she’s probably matching belts to dresses in Paris.”
“Or knee-deep in supermarket wine.”
“Beth,” she all but scolds.
“I’m kidding, Jolene,” she assures, “I’m fine now, really.”
Jolene’s eyes narrow for a terse, concerned second before she catches herself and maintains what Beth has taken the liberty of calling her ‘impartial lawyer face.’
“Turn that shit off. There’s something I want you to hear.”
Beth raises a brow at the order but complies, walking back up to the fridge and turning down the radio’s volume knob. Dinah’s song fades away to the sound of Jolene sifting through records in her living room. She leaves what little remains of her cake slice on the kitchen table and follows the other woman through the door, taking a seat on the dark couch and tucking her legs in underneath her.
“Y’know Rick…you remember Rick?” Jolene asks, crouched over next to the turn-table beside the television, pulling record after record out of a crate.
“The married man you’re fucking?”
“You mean the married man who’s in love with me.”
“The married man you’re involved with.”
Jolene spits out a laugh and rises from her squat, record in hand, “We gotta talk about your own involvements sometime, cracker. Ain’t fair, this disadvantage you got me at. Anyway…”
Music spills forth from the record player, a swanky jazz tune about fools falling in love with a swing to it that makes her want to get up and dance. “I found Rick in some jazz bar near the office once before we started our little scandal. God, the fucker’d kill me if he heard me call it some jazz bar, actually. ‘Cool Train’ the place was called. I could probably take you next time you’re around, the house-blend iced tea ain’t bad.”
“So, I see him over at the bar, yeah? And the man’s fucking crying over this kid, Frankie Lymon,” She holds up the record sleeve, the kid’s name written on the cover, “Front-man for these guys called The Teenagers. Started singing his ass off under a producer’s window at thirteen-years-old until the old man finally gave in and set them up with a record deal. He’s good, ain’t he?”
“He’s dead,” she says simply. “A real tragedy, really. The bigger boys turned him into a junkie, and the suits stole every dime he made outta this song after it topped the charts. Kid tried to get out of it too. Got into rehab and was ‘bout to make a comeback. Poor boy relapsed and was gone at twenty-four, just this spring.”
Frankie’s loud, bright voice belts another chorus, laced with a newly dark tone that purges whatever desire to dance Beth had when it started. She knits her brow at the look on Jolene’s face. She of all people should know that pity is the last thing orphans want to see when someone stares at them, but it’s looking dangerously close like that’s what she’s giving her.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I’m tellin’ you that the difference between you and Frankie over here is—”
“He’s dead and I’m not. What does it matter?”
“The difference is, Beth,” she sharpens her voice and reminds Beth that she's saving up for law school. “He was all alone out there. Him against the world and the world won ‘cause I told you, it’s fucked up. But you, Beth. You’ve got people tripping over themselves just to lend you a hand, people willing to drive across the country and buy tickets to Moscow apparently.”
Jolene stops the record and takes a seat next to her on the couch, a look that she’s never seen before plain on her face, “Tell me, Beth. Honest now. If I hadn’t shown up, would you have gone out to find me?”
Insecurity is not a look that suits Jolene. She said it herself once as they watched another girl drive away in a fancy car. Thus, whatever emotion that pierces through her eyes at this moment couldn’t be that, but looked like something just as vulnerable. Of course, to anyone else she would’ve looked as stern and steady as she always was. To someone who knows better they’d see beginnings of a waver in her posture, but to Beth she sees a brutal acceptance of the truth, and the truth was that the world forgot about Jolene DeWitt and left her in a Methuen home before she could even spell her name, and for a while, Beth gone and forgot about her, too.
But the heartbreak and anger usually born out of hard truths is nowhere to be found on Jolene’s stiff brow and round features. In a way that is uniquely her, she takes Beth’s faults and serves it to her like a slice of chocolate cake, to savor and swallow with solemn contentment.
Beth doesn’t answer her question.
Instead, she reaches toward her sister on the other end of the coach, closing and opening her hands like an overgrown child asking for affection. Jolene scooches and leans into Beth, and it’s her car in front of the orphanage all over again, except Jolene has the pride to not break down and cry into her shirt.
“How are you and Rick, anyway?” Beth pats at her coiled hair, eager to move on from talking about a dead kid.
“Well, if you tell a woman you’ve been screwing the black lady at work it’s not that hard to ask for a divorce,” she answers, “So, I’d say we’re doing just fine.”
“Yeah, he wrote to me this morning.”
“He writes you?”
“The man’s a romantic. It’s disgusting, really,” Jolene says, Beth laughs, “Told me there’s a protest up at Kentucky State next week. Gonna be drawing boards up against the guy you destroyed at the White House.”
“Don’t you read the news?”
“I play chess for a living.”
“Still, your game’s about warring sides, ain’t it? You gotta know about all the anti-war shit, Beth.” Jolene looks up to see Beth shaking her head, “God, alright, the guy’s basically against radicals, if you want it oversimplified.”
“I don’t want it oversimplified.”
“‘Course you don’t,” she untangles herself from their embrace and gets up, “Come on, I’ll tell you while we wash the dishes.”
Jolene has a talent for storytelling that reminds her of what little interaction she’s had with a certain limousine driver in Moscow. They both discussed subjects such as dead parents and violent protests with a grim yet undoubtedly funny cadence that builds a dilemma between laughing at their cleverness and grimacing at their brutality. After a riveting conversation about radical change and the politics of war and “Why you just gotta hate that damn president of ours,” Jolene tells Beth to come up to protest with her. She doesn’t offer politely; she says it like it’s the best and only move she can play in a game for the world championship title.
“I don’t know. I heard about how bloody those protests get.” Beth replies while drying off a plate.
“So, you do read the news.”
“I put CBS on while eating sometimes. Don’t really catch most of it,” she says. “The talking fills the silence.”
“Ah, you’re one of those dinner-and-a-show types,” Jolene rinses off a glass.
“I always did want to go see a play.”
“Then get your cracker-ass up to New York. Broadway’s just up there waiting for you.”
“I thought about it,” she says, noticing how Jolene doesn’t catch the weight of this admission, “After Washington, I was deciding between here and there. I chose here.”
“You telling me that you haven’t been home since your tournament?”
“Been living in hotel rooms and airplanes for weeks now, yeah.”
“Did you at least get the place cleaned up before you left?”
“Did you trust me not to?”
“I’d just hate to have to go out there and give your wardrobe a better home,” she teases. “Don’t want my new Chanel getting lonely after all.”
Eventually, after a few more hours of catching up, Beth hugs her sister goodbye and hails a cab back to her hotel, thoughts of New York at the forefront of her mind. She knows New York isn’t really what she’s thinking of, and the compulsion to slap herself for being so sentimental about a city of which she has only seen a slice of is strong. She wonders what the holidays are like in the bustling streets of the city, wonders if Alma’s belief about travelling on the 25th still applies, wonders if the snow there would somehow feel different on her skin than it did in Moscow or Lexington.
She wonders if Benny’s alone for the holidays.
On the extravagant Christmas Eve display at Rockefeller Center sits a seventy-foot evergreen decorated with shining lights and tinsel. Families ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at the glowing symbol of festivity as children lace up their ice skates and ball up freshly fallen snow in their mitted hands. A father wraps another layer around his pregnant wife who begs for another moment of walking amidst the smiling crowds as their daughter stares up at the looming centerpiece of the rectangular plaza. The buildings surrounding them scrape the cloudy night sky, and if you’d take a walk down the street, you’d see that tucked in between the high-end jewelers and boutiques of Rockefeller’s Diamond District, there is a nice little restaurant known for its impeccable ambience and live music. A French place packed to capacity with feasting families where Chess Grandmaster, Benjamin Watts sits across from renowned author and editor, Danny West, which just so happens to be his father’s pseudonym.
Any author whose novels have won awards for their ‘terrifying realism’ and ‘cold-hearted genius’ should be intimidating. Danny West, with his dizzying height and intense gaze behind thick, round spectacles, fits the bill. Anyone within his presence would be left compelled to do as he commands, without even knowing about the gory details of his writing career, an unspoken or else tied around their neck, as if someone’s threatening to pull the chair out from under them if they so much as think of crossing him.
You'd think Benny would live in fear, being the son of such a character, but if you ask him, he’s a pretty good guy.
Or at least as good as any Watts can be.
Every year their table is reserved under the name ‘Daniel Watts’, a testament to this whole shebang being a family thing. An even better testament to this being a family thing would be if half of Benny’s family was actually there.
Instead, his sister-in-law’s handbag sits in one of the empty chairs waiting to be occupied by the rest of their dinner party.
“Maybe they're shaking hands with the Kennedys out on the skating pond,” Benny says after his third pass through the list of red and white wine that he’s never learned how to pair with anything.
“Don’t even say that,” Daniel replies in the same arrogant drawl that runs in the family. “Sarah’s gonna keep ‘em out there ‘til next year.”
“If the woman wants to stare at a Christmas tree for half an hour, she’s going to stare at a Christmas tree for half an hour.”
“God help the Watts men,” he says somewhat fondly. “All of us, slaves to our wives.”
The jazz band set up in one of the corners of the room overpowers the holiday cheer of 50th Street’s carol-singers, their saxophonist sounding out a rendition of some ‘40s Christmas hit that was as familiar as the pretentious cursive of the menu.
Benny reads through the entrees over and over again, unsettled by whatever blurry little memory the curve of the letter C’s and swirls of the letter S’s try to awaken in him.
Unbeknownst to both father and son, Daniel’s knitted brow looks down and ponders the menu the same way his son does one of Wexler’s puzzles, and Benny fiddles with his onyx ring the same way his father does the wedding band stubbornly worn on the wrong finger. The youngest Watts looks up from the confounding font of a Berlin chicken dish and stares pointedly at his father’s ring.
“Speaking of wives,” he starts. “Paige isn’t coming to dinner?”
“Please, Benjamin. We’re not even married.”
“Where is she?”
His father’s eyes lift briefly from whatever drink or dessert he’s been staring at and sees the faint bitterness on his son’s face. He averts his infamously deep gaze back to the illustration of a chocolate souffle, as if to brace himself for the incoming conversation.
“She’s gone to visit her sisters for the holidays.”
“Didn’t even spare us a glance, huh.”
“She comes to dinner, and my sons hate her. She happens to be absent, they complain,” he argues in a voice levelled by the practice that comes with leading a family of head-butting minds, “How exactly do I win with you two?”
“Dad, I’ve met her like, once,” Benny replies sharply, “I can’t hate someone I don’t even know.”
Daniel sighs, “If the woman wants to visit her sister for the holidays, she’s visiting her sister for the holidays.”
“Well, shit,” he swears. “God help the Watts men, alright.”
“Language, Benjamin,” he scolds. “Would you step outside and look for your brother? I’m tired of glaring at pictures of food instead of eating them.”
It has been said in Benny’s familial circle: Speak of the devil and Thomas Watts shall waltz in with his wife and daughter in tow, always fashionably late, and somehow right on time. His wife maneuvers the swell of her belly with practiced ease through chairs and tables and a child in a baby chair reaching for her with an innocent curiosity. They arrive at the table around the same time the previous saxophonist introduces a dark-skinned, low-voiced singer in a pretty dress that half the room averts their gaze from.
“Well, would you look at that!” Sarah says excitedly as she squeezes herself into a chair pulled out by her husband, “Dinner and a show. Isn’t this nice, Tommy?”
Sarah is from Wales. Tommy could try to think of a subtler way to tell people this, but he’s since learned an insistent bluntness proved more effective. Especially when strangers start going around introducing her as “Thomas’ wife, from Ireland,” after hearing her speak two whole sentences to them. Their daughter, Genevieve, fondly known as Jenny, lacks the burden of her mother’s misleading accent, born and raised in New York and more likely to stare ominously at you from a distance than make any conversation anyway.
Nevertheless, they all dress expensively, painting the exact picture that Benny’s father always seemed to envision for his family. Daniel has set a certain standard of literacy and luxury for these few-and-far-between gatherings, an expectation that compels Benny to acknowledge the fact that his shirts have more than two buttons and are meant to be worn with coats and ties (“Never thought I’d see the day,” his brother jibes, as if Benny hasn’t worn more dignified outfits to previous dinners). Everyone at the table has perfected this fickle balance between tacky and tasteful, pronouncing the names of foreign dishes with just enough fluency to not sound pompous. They all wear the image of intellectual privilege well.
But Benny wears it like a bluff in a poker game and the rest wear it like a second skin. It just so happens that he’s gotten pretty good at bluffing over the years. It’s a small difference unacknowledged by everyone except Benny that makes him lock away the part of himself that stares at a fork and thinks of an actual in-game fork, and awakens an ego that says “I belong everywhere.” and keeps him from fleeing to the nearest chess board when Sarah starts talking about the results of her needle game.
“It’s a boy this time,” she says. “Which probably means you shouldn’t be buying this one chequerboard-pattern dresses, Benny.”
“Why not? Kid might be into it.”
Tommy snorts out a laugh, his wineglass half-way to his mouth “God, I hope not. Bad enough losing every game to you back when we were kids, worse trying to keep up with my own daughter. This one isn’t getting anywhere near a chess board if I have a say in it.”
“Oh stop, Tommy. At least Jenny would have someone else to play with.”
“Might turn out better than her, too,” Benny adds.
“No one’s better than me,” Genevieve glares at him over a spoon full of soup.
“Now that just ain’t true, kid,” he points a spoon of his own at her, “You know if your parents let you compete, you’d learn a thing or two about humility.”
“I don’t think anyone wants to hear about humility from you, Benjamin,” his father jokes and the table laughs. “I do have to ask why you’re both so apprehensive of letting her compete. From what I’ve seen, she’s very talented.”
“Well, we try to be supportive of her talent, Mr. Watts, but any woman worth her salt must be educated,” Sarah muses in a soft yet clear voice well-fit for a mother. “I just fear that she would neglect her studies in favor of a career as a prodigy. The lessons she takes from Benjamin should be enough for now.”
“Come on, Mom…Beth Harmon started when she was fifteen!” Jenny bemoans, and the name runs him over like a truck, “She graduated college. Didn’t she, Uncle Benny?”
The thing about a good bluff is you expect whatever your opponents’ expectations may be. You stare at your pair like you’ve got the royalest damn flush on the table and the fish shit their pants. The fresher faces fold, and bam: easy two hundred dollars. The thing about tonight’s particular bluff is that Benny was not expecting to hear that name tonight. He wasn’t expecting them to expect an answer to that question, and it’s even more astounding that he even has one.
“She…” he starts like he’s laying down one hell of a bet. “took classes in Russian at her local college, I think.”
“Really?” Tommy calls. If anyone knew this game, it would be him. He could never win at chess, but he could play a round of poker.
Benny stares at his brother, trying to figure out if the man was holding any cards at all, let alone the nuts.
He knocks, “Yeah.”
The cards go on the table. Tommy’s knowing smile looks like a royal flush, and if the conversation were an actual game, Benny would be down two hundred dollars.
But this wasn’t chess. He doesn’t give a shit about whatever metaphorical gamble he takes with these dinners. Poker was his living for a time; he can lose one game and still leave the table with heavier pockets. He could sit and eat Gratin Dauphinois and catch up with his family for another two hours with the name ‘Beth Harmon’ bouncing around in his head the whole time and still be Grandmaster Benny Watts.
It just kills him to be just Benjamin for a bit.
They finish dinner and say their goodbyes. He discusses Jenny’s next chess lesson with Sarah, and his dad gives his shoulder an affectionate squeeze before hopping into the car with Thomas and his family. Benny drives past snow-covered townhouses and shining animatronic snowmen to a home that an interviewer had fondly called ‘a cozy pisshole’ once.
He locks the metal door behind him and shucks out of the suit jacket and tie, throwing it in the general direction of the coat hanger, where the black leather duster and hat that he had foregone for the night are meticulously hung.
He wants to throw up everything about tonight. He wants to scrub the money out of his blood with the supermarket bargain soap in his rusty bathtub shower behind his flimsy curtains. He wants to strangle the part of Benny that steals petty cash out of the pockets of millionaires at the blackjack tables of Monte Carlo, the liar that insists “I belong everywhere.” He grips at the edges of the full-length mirror in his room, his hair fresh from the shower and dripping wet as he glares at that goddamn snake. “Sure as hell don’t belong there, you fuck.” He cusses at him, and immediately regrets talking to nobody in his cramped room.
But it’s tradition to Benny at this point, for every one of these Christmas dinners, to scrape whatever’s left of himself that hasn’t already been consumed by chess onto a silver platter and present it to his family to poke at and see if it lurches up to remind them “It’s me! Benjamin! Don’t worry, I’m still your son! I’m still your brother!” loud enough for them to realize it’s not just them he’s trying to convince.
And Benny would never say it out loud, but it’s fucking terrifying that the only part of him that he hasn’t related to chess, he’s connected to gambling. Even more so when Tommy calls his bluff in a nonexistent poker game that he’s built out of harmless brotherly banter, that he loses in the end, and once again that lying bastard in himself says he doesn’t care, reminds him that it really is nothing but brotherly banter, because Benny Watts is a graceful loser. Benny Watts does not break down in front of the mirror in his room because of one slip through a crack in the impenetrable wall that is Benny Watts. A crack in the shape of Beth Harmon.
But it’s all over and done. He combs his hair and throws on the nearest article of clothing before his mind can dip into the inevitable ‘Is this how Mom felt?’ question to which all of his existential crises lead.
Arthur and Hilton don’t have daughters to put to bed or book-signings to attend in the morning, so he walks back into the kitchen and picks up the phone at ten in the evening. He rearranges the board on his dinner table when no one picks up and calls again.
Hilton picks up on the second ring, “Hello?”
“You got plans Christmas morning?”
“You assume we ever have plans?”
Benny moves a king’s pawn up two squares. “Now, isn't that exactly what I like about you two?”
Christmas morning, 1968: Apollo 8 completes its final orbit around the moon and Nixon is about to get a tax deduction, or at least that’s what the papers were talking about. On a smaller scale, Beth’s cab pulls up to the Wheatley house for the first time since Moscow. All the while, children jump into their parents’ beds screaming excitedly about presents under their trees and in their stockings.
A sheet of snow and neglect covers the roof and rose beds of Beth’s childhood home. The chill that falls over her isn’t from the whisper of winter wind, but the sight of something that felt like she left behind years ago. They’re all still inside. Handfuls of little green pellets and what’s left of her last trip to the liquor store, untouched and organized in kitchen cupboards and medicine cabinets. Taunting. Tempting.
She misses the key slot once and doesn’t try again.
Phone calls had to be made, to the twins, to Harry, to the Federation to figure out where the hell she goes from here, but Frankie Lymon starts singing in her mind and the door knob felt like it was going to melt off her hand.
So, she leans her luggage against the front door and sits in her pretty patio furniture in her lovely white coat from Saint Laurent and beats down the dead woman who needed a tranquilizer.
Meanwhile, Benny trips over the suit jacket he’s left near the steps to his front door, barely feeling like himself when he is greeted by Wexler, Levertov, and a sealed brown box at their feet.
Benny stares at the mystery package, “Where the hell’d you get that?”
“Don’t look at us,” Hilton says over Arthur’s “It was here when we found it.”
They exchange a curious look for three long, drawn-out seconds, and then, in a moment of comedic synchronization perfected by those old black-and-white sitcoms, the three of them drop to the floor excitedly, with Benny immediately pulling out a switchblade comb from his back pocket and tearing at the tape at the box’s seams.
Bottles. A whole crate of bottles, which upon closer inspection are filled with vodka. Russian vodka. Benny turns a bottle in his hands, and they all seem to figure out who it’s from at the same time.
“Merry Christmas to us, then!” Hilton clasps his hands together.
“Yeah,” Benny says and picks up the box, trying desperately to ignore the possibility of the package’s sender buying a crate of her own and stepping aside to let his guests in. “Merry Christmas, guys.”
As Hilton sets up his latest puzzle in the kitchen, Beth castles black’s king on her outdoor chessboard, which is no different from a regular chessboard besides the fact that she can’t remember a time when she’s played on it indoors.
A bright red Toyota Corolla pulls up on her front lawn and the familiar smiles of Matt and Mike dressed in matching, horribly festive sweaters climb out of it. They simultaneously call, “Beth!” with Matthew’s voice lagging behind as usual. She’s not sure whether she wants to curl up into a ball in shame or run and leap into their arms in relief.
She does neither of these dramatics and settles for an exchange of season’s greetings and friendly hugs.
Mike gives her back a good pat before letting her go. “How long have you been home?”
Beth hesitates, something that she’s been doing more often in the recent weeks. Her eyes darting to the floor and back up to them before turning to sit back down.
“I actually haven’t been inside,” is as much as she can admit.
A ‘Why not?’ dies in the twins’ mouths.
“There’s a lot of wine in your cabinets, Beth.” Matt grimaces.
She should be ashamed, maybe even offended, but something about his unbridled, humor-laced honesty feels like exactly what she needs to hear.
“I’m honestly not surprised that you looked through my cabinets.”
“Mike said he was hungry!” Matt says just as Mike accuses him of the same thing.
With the mood briefly lightened, The brothers share the chair across from her with practiced ease (“Half an ass on, half an ass off,” as Mike had so tastefully put it once), and regale her with their tales from two weeks spent bringing in her mail. Apparently, something happened involving a cat and Mrs. Shirley from next door; the twins vaguely skirt around it with the expertise of children trying to get themselves out of a sticky situation. It’s reminiscent of the time when Beth was fifteen, and Matt had once had to explain to a peeved Alma why they had decided to dig a giant hole in the front yard. His speech had effectively boiled down to “We’ll fill it back in, but it was Beth’s fault, really.”
Matt and Mike wash away the temptation of inebriation with a wave of nostalgia. There’s always been something about them that made her feel like the rich suburban white kid that she would’ve been in a world without Methuen homes and chess. Somewhere between attending each other’s high school graduation lunches, flying to state opens together, and the Halloween Leaf Monster Scare of ’65, Matt and Mike became her very own Apple Pis.
She likes to think this ‘social club’ turned out better than Margaret’s.
“Anyway, we got back to the house, and then there was a bit of a home invasion—”
“A visitor! It was a visitor. No homes invaded, right, Matthew?” Mike elbows his brother and almost pushes him off what little space they share on their poor chair.
“Right, right, right. So, we took care of that,” Matt pushes back at Mike, “And then suddenly! Benny Watts was calling Harry Beltik who was calling us and—”
“And the point is, Beth…” Mike begins their conclusion as they both lean their elbows on the table, “…Are you okay?”
Beth squashes down the part of her that wants to say, “I’ll survive” or “I’m fine on my own,” because she’s found at this point that those automatic answers were just wholesale lies, and her friends deserve better than that. Hell, if you ask her, their friendship deserves a three-thousand-dollar check of its own, and she’d spoil them as much as she did herself if she could, but she couldn’t because, well…
“I wasn’t for a while,” she answers finally after a pondering moment.
They pause and listen to what little birdsong can be heard in the winter, acknowledging the weight of her confession. If you listen a little closer, you could hear Mrs. Shirley playing White Christmas over the picket fence. Matt moves the queen in front of him. Mike takes it back and corrects with a stronger move. Not the best one, but stronger nonetheless.
“I don’t think I am right now either, if I’m being honest,” Beth bites the inside of her cheek and plays her bishop. “I don’t think I can go back in there without throwing up.”
“Do you want help?” Matt offers.
“Yeah, it wouldn’t be the first time we snuck liquor out of somewhere.”
Beth snorts, “It’s Christmas morning. Don’t you have plans with Mrs. Mitchell?”
The look on their face reminds her of all the things that can happen in a year. Mike looks at her like it’s nothing good, and Matt taps at a captured piece with his mouth hanging open, looking for words to say and failing in the end.
“Tell you what, Beth,” Mike starts instead. “You don’t bring up our mom, and we don’t bring up yours.”
She bites back a ‘What happened?’ and instead gives a “Fair enough.”
With none of them having anything better to do after missing each other dearly for so long, Beth takes them up on their offer and they spend the morning going over every nook and cranny she’s squeezed a bottle of anything into. They make good on their promise and say nothing about their mothers, the pills too, as well as the worrying amount of them hidden away in a home that hides so much more. Stories both sad and amusing told by stains left undefeated that contribute nothing to the property value of seven-thousand-dollars, but aren’t as easy to throw out as old vices.
And old vices were hard to throw out.
By lunch, Beth and Benny eat egg sandwiches two states away from each other. Beth’s eggs are scrambled on the pan and dashed with salt and pepper, while Benny silently hopes to whatever gods were up there that the food truck Hilton ordered their lunch from was up to health protocols.
By sunset, Benny sees his friends out the door, and Beth sits at the top most step of her front porch and nurses a coke.
“You should cut your hair again,” Mike ruffles her bob as he sits down in between her and his brother, holding a bottle of his own. “I kind of miss your fluffy bangs.”
“You are in no place to be telling me what to do with my hair, Mike.”
“Hey!” He presses the cold glass against her elbow, and she jumps with a laugh. “My hair is just fine alright.”
“How do you like the new car by the way?” Matt points out after a gulp. “Auntie Fey has a friend from Japan working for Toyota, sent us an early export.”
“What is with all my friends getting free cars?”
“You have other friends getting free cars?” Mike’s brows shoot up, and they laugh because they’re always laughing when they’re together, or at the very least they draw a permanent smile on Beth’s face until they have to take their leave.
Which they inevitably do, after an experimental game of two-on-one bughouse that goes nowhere fast and plans for a small get-together on New Year’s Eve. They say their goodbyes and exchange hugs one more time before walking down the lawn that she’s going to have to pay another kid to clean up.
“Oh—Beth!” Matt turns around before he can reach the curb, Mike stops along with him, “We found something in Mrs. Wheatley’s—”
“In one of the bedrooms,” Mike corrects before Matt could finish, “I know we made an agreement, but…”
“We left it on top of the mail pile.”
Beth stares at them, “What is it?”
The brothers exchange looks, bid her good night, and leave without another word about it, leaving Beth to find it for herself above the mound of letters from different people wanting different things and taped up boxes filled with packing peanuts and God-knows-what.
It’s a shoe box that she had dismissed as just another package while they had been cooking eggs earlier, but upon closer inspection she could see the creases on its blunted edges and the faded purple gingham pattern of the cover, the wear of time showing on the colored cardboard.
Taped into the middle of the cover is a blank, white card with nothing but one sentence written on it:
With love, from Mother.
Beth takes a breath, and then another, and another for good measure. Her fingers tremble at the edges of the box, and her heart wants to tear a hole in her chest.
She leaves it where it is and goes to take a shower.
Beth has trouble sleeping that night, and Benny doesn’t even make it to bed.
Instead, he sits alone in his kitchen and stares at a Soviet postcard, the phrase to Benny Watts, written in the back of it in a way that reminds him of Rockefeller Center’s Diamond District and Gratin Dauphinois and Beth Harmon.
It clicks from where exactly he recognized the menu’s calligraphy from last night.
He opens up a copy of his book, looking for a particular note written in neat, pretentious cursive by a woman some people would describe the same way.
And there it was, on the margins of page twenty-two: Where doubling pawns actually work.
Never before has Benny Watts glared at the sheer audacity of someone else’s handwriting to look so sickeningly pretty in the margins of his own book, but he did for Beth’s, which had the gall to sit there on top of the page number as if her name wasn’t the reason he’s felt so fucked up since last night’s dinner.
In a fit of petulant irritation, he clasps the book shut and frisbees it across the room, watching it bank on the wall and land on the suit jacket that he still hasn’t made any effort to pick up.
Common sense starts to kick back in after that melodramatic stunt. Throwing things at the height of one’s emotions always feels great until after you’ve done it, and yeah, Benny knows. He knows if the thought of her bothers him so much then he should just pick up the phone and get her out of his system, but Benny knows what it’s like to lose to Beth and has done so gracefully many times before, but there’s only so much losing a man can do before it starts to take a toll on his dignity.
So, he picks up his book, along with his jacket (begrudgingly), and thinks that should’ve been the last of it. It really should have been, but much to his utter dismay, Benny doesn’t control when enough is enough.
The week that follows is a montage of the universe having its fun with him, and if not that then he has officially gone crazy because he swears, she follows him everywhere he goes. She’s got articles in the papers and reruns of interviews on National Television. Every station on the radio that gives a sliver of a crap about chess is talking about her and how “There’s a woman in chess! A woman beat the Soviet world champion!” Levertov calls him up one afternoon and reads out a tabloid headline to him, BETH HARMON AND BENNY WATTS: UNLIKELY CHECKMATES??? He gets halfway through the first sentence before he hangs up on him and goes back to his game, which ended up being a variation of Beth’s win against Rudolf Ros in Cincinnati.
And it’s fine, he thinks, that’s just fine, because whether he likes it or not Beth’s a goddamn celebrity now and people are going to talk about her whenever they want, but then he finds one of her fucking scarves while digging through his bedroom for a book and for a second he considers lighting a match to the damn thing.
By New Year’s Eve, Benny decides he’s had enough.
He counts the year down in a packed dive bar in 8th Avenue near the Corduroy Club on 38th street surrounded by men who would probably be fighting a war if they weren’t busy making out with each other, and they must all be fucking wasted because by the time golden confetti starts falling from the ceiling, everyone is screaming “Happy New Year!” in varying cadences of speech, Levertov is kissing Wexler, and Benny is getting hit on by some guy in an incredibly shiny shirt.
“He’s taken, dumbass!” Hilton slurs the word ‘dumbass’ and pushes the poor guy away before dragging the three of them out and into the cold night of 1969.
Levertov is cackling two decibels louder than usual at nothing in particular and Hilton’s throwing up in an alleyway, but Benny? Benny felt sober as a judge, as Alma would say.
The universe puts a phone booth in his path, right at the nearest street corner, and after watching his best friends suck face in public for the first time, he decides he probably wants a New Year’s kiss of his own more than he cares to admit, which he never will and thus will never attain. Still, he pats Hilton on the back once before walking down the street with a resolve one wouldn’t think someone who just got kicked out of a bar would have.
Contrary to Benny’s belief, he was in fact, not sober and misses the coin slot twice before dropping the quarter, picking it back up, missing one more time and finally getting it in.
The phone rings.
Harry Beltik, of all people, picks up the phone, his voice battling with the Rolling Stones blaring like they refuse to stay in the background.
“—Music down, Beth! Please!? Matt could you- Thank you! Hello?”
‘What the hell am I doing?’ a muted thought tries to scream once it dawns on him that he is not in the ideal state to be calling Beth’s place in the middle of the night, an even worse one to be dealing with Beltik, for whichever of the multitude of reasons he would be answering Beth’s phone.
“Hey, this is Benny?” he starts anyway.
“No. Betty Dotts,” he rolls his eyes. “Where’s Beth?”
“I’ll uh—ow—hell was that for?” he says. Benny tries not to imagine Beth pinching Harry’s arm, or Beth poking at Harry’s side or Beth doing anything at all to Harry, “Oh, could you go get Beth?”
Another voice, which was not Beth’s, says something he doesn’t catch.
“Tell her Benny Watts is on the phone,” he says, “And turn the music down a little more.”
In the awkward pause that always comes with passing the phone to someone else filled by Mick Jagger’s muffled belting, Benny sorts through all the things he wants to say and everything he shouldn’t, finding the lines between professional, personal, and pathetic and struggling to place what he wants to get out of this phone call. On one hand, he’s a chess player who wants to know anything and everything about every game she played in Moscow and all the games she plans to play next. On the other, he’s pissed at himself for picking up the phone in the first place, in a state of mind that he has thoroughly discouraged Beth to be in (Hypocrisy points go to Benny Watts!), but in all honesty, his foot tapping incessantly and his pulse ringing in his ears insist he just wants to hear her voice again.
There’s the familiar clatter of someone else picking up the phone, and Benny can’t help holding his breath.
“Hello,” she all but breathes into the receiver, and it’s like the music on her side of the country lowers itself down just to give way to her voice.
Benny stares at his reflection on the glass of the phone booth. If he had anything to say, it’s gone now.
“Why hello, Beth,” he says instead, settling for what he knows.
She laughs. It’s soft and brief, and settles in his stomach like a fine chocolate souffle. “Why hello, Benny.”
“Sounds like a hell of a night over there.”
“Just have a few friends over, it’s the worst time of year to be alone after all.”
“I’ve been sober for months,” she says with a sort of urgency that betrays her usual coolness, “I—just thought you’d want to know.”
The relief of hearing this hits him like a brick through a window, with all the unexpectedness of Wish me Luck. Back soon and all the sincerity of To Benny Watts. It’s one of those things he doesn’t know he needs to hear until someone says it and it has him scrambling for anything to say.
“Benny, are you okay?” Beth asks, with the familiar tone of impatience masked with concern.
“Yeah, Yeah, I am. Just calling ‘cause, uh,” he starts. One must note that the words ‘uh’ and ‘uhm’ are traditionally not in the Watts vocabulary, and if you ever hear Benny saying it, you might mistake it for a confident ‘ah,’ to be followed by something very clever.
Tonight is just a very rare exception.
Against every expectation this week that led Benny to believe phone calls to Kentucky bring no good, a small, elated laugh bubbles out of him, catching them both off-guard.
He shakes his head. “Happy new year, Beth.”
There’s a worrying pause, and then a laugh that feels like a New Year’s kiss in and of itself.
“Happy New Year, Benny.”
He hangs up the phone and wonders how long the call was because suddenly, Moscow and Christmas and those five weeks in his apartment feel like an eternity ago. A tender piece of contentment makes a home in the center of his chest, like the satisfaction of shutting a book after reading its last page and the curiosity over whether the author has the guts to write a sequel.
As he walks out of the see-through booth and rejoins his friends, he feels the most like himself since Christmas Eve.
They walk back to Benny’s apartment singing Auld Lang Syne.