Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ghost Chess

Once upon a time in the early 2000's, I was bartending at Les's Lounge in Urbana, Illinois. Those of you who know Les's can pause now to wipe a nostalgic tear from your eye. Those who don't will have to accept my condolences for the gaping absence in your lives thus far, a sizeable hole shaped conspicuously like the world's strangest hybrid between a country music train-tracks roadhouse and a miles-past-its-prime 70's swinger nest.

The bar was lined with the finest padded red pleather, to protect the precious elbows of the discerning clientele. The jukebox was loaded with David Allan Coe and Faith Hill, but also (confoundingly) Depeche Mode's Violator.

As you read that last sentence and took a break to muse on the nature of Violator as one of the best albums of all times, know that I was right here, doing it too. Spooky.


The Lounge opened at 9am, an important attribute that distinguished it from most of the other boozemongers in town. Business was the opposite of brisk during the mornings, but I always assumed it was mostly a public service meant to keep those people off the roads during the traffic-heavy workday morning commute.

I wasn't typically a daytime bartender; I worked a couple night shifts a week, but when the day-shift slinger took a week's vacation one summer, I jumped at the chance to pick up the extra (easy) hours. Push a mop around, wipe down the bar, pop something interesting on the big-screen and kick back. If I was lucky, I'd pour maybe ten drinks in the entire 8-hour shift. It was the very definition of a ghost bar.

How appropriate it was, then, the day that a strange figure I'd never seen before came in the front door around 9:30am. He was tall and wiry, with glasses and a long, graying beard. I'd place him in his late 50s, but in that sun-dried leathery way that makes it impossible to accurately guess a man's age. He was dressed in an old-timey railroad worker's outfit. I'm not kidding around here; he had a neckerchief. I don't remember if he was accompanied by an eerie white mist, but in all probability it was there.

Like this, except not a kid's costume. Note that they really only MAKE these clothes as cute kid's costumes these days.

He sat down at the bar and ordered a Budweiser in a bottle. After quietly drinking about half of the beer, he spied a chessboard sitting on a shelf beside the TV. A few of our evening regular patrons enjoyed playing a few rounds over drinks, and had decided to just leave a dedicated board at the bar for convenience.

"Do you play?" he asked, pointing at the board with a moderately grimy, oil-stained finger.

"I'm no pro, but I can play", I responded.

We set up the pieces, laid out our opening gambits, and I was promptly annihilated by the fourth or fifth move. He laughed and pointed out what I'd done wrong, and what I could have done to avoid defeat. Any twinge of defiant resentment I might have normally felt when receiving hindsight advice from a triumphant conqueror was wholly overridden by a lingering uneasiness that this man was in all probability here to collect me for passage to the netherworld on his spectral locomotive, likely parked semi-transparently just outside the door. I needed to listen carefully to his advice, because movies had taught me that the unspoken stakes of the games of chess I was playing almost certainly involved my soul.

Over the course of the next five or six games, I learned some things. I learned that the man's name was Lazarus, but that friends called him Lazar - pronounced like the ray gun. I learned from Lazar's advice that the only defense is a good offense, and that playing chess reactively was only prolonging the inevitable. I learned that Lazar hadn't played chess and enjoyed beers in "a very long time". I of course inferred that to mean at least a century. By game seven I actually beat Lazar - and for the first time that day, felt as though my immortal soul was secure. At least, as secure as it had been when I'd woken up that morning.

Seven games and three beers after walking into the lounge, Lazar gathered his things, shook my hand, and walked out the door. I assume he climbed aboard his phantom train and chugged away into the mist - I wasn't brave enough to confirm it, for fear that I might be spontaneously converted into fuel, human coal for Lazar's wailing engine rocketing along the railroad of the damned.


The next day I attempted to ask the morning regulars about Lazar - these people had been sitting in the same bar stools for ten years, surely they'd seen this guy before. Surely they'd at least remember the neckerchief. They looked at me blankly before shuffling off to the video slot machines in the other room. Nobody had seen a skinny beardy railroad man or heard the name Lazar ever before.

So when the Ankerhaus opens, know this: we will have chess sets available. We will pour you fine brews while you challenge your friends to a test of strategic mettle. You can even challenge me, but stand warned: I have been trained in the game by the restless dead. In the movies, this type of schooling leaves a man marked, and consequently the Ankerhaus Pub makes no guarantees as to the safety of your soul should you lose to me.

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