“You never liked to play chess with me,” she says.
The board lies on a tray across her bed. Pillows prop her up slightly, just enough to see the pieces.
She reaches out a wrinkled hand, skin both pale and blotched brown, like the flesh of an apple left out too long. She grabs a rook that she carved, perhaps twenty-five years ago, from purpleheart wood. Today she remembers how it moves.
“I know how much you love it, Mom,” I say, the word still feeling awkward in my mouth. It took me weeks to even say it.
We play until the end of visiting hours. She frowns as a nurse comes in. She weakly tries to push him away as he hooks her oxygen mask back over her face, clasping the straps behind her head within the milkweed-seed wisps of her hair.
I walk out of her room and toward the door of St. Agatha’s hospice.
“You have to sign out, ma’am,” calls the registration nurse after me.
The log book is open, with the heading, “Patient: Ella Reilly.”
I sign Katherine Reilly, the only name on the list going back every Sunday for pages.
I’ve hidden the case in a park a few blocks away. A few cherries are blooming, but a chilling drizzle drives away any strolling couples.
I press the button on the front of the case to return.
I tuck the case back under the bench in my garage shop. Then I get inside my Corolla and drive.
There’s one other place I go on Sundays.
It isn’t raining here, now. The sun shines with vernal tenderness through the willows onto a pair of monument stones, dated only months apart. I place butter-yellow mums on my dearest James’s grave, the one on the right. Kay, our daughter, buried in the other, never cared for flowers.
She injured her back when a Land Rover drove her into a ditch on her way to the coffee shop. She was taking an extra shift to pay us rent, which I imposed when she refused to sign up for classes at the community college.
The doctor gave her pills, which ran out. She found more, then she took too many.
James always blamed me for the gulf between us and our daughter. He left me after Kay’s funeral, but his heart gave out before the divorce was final, whether from grief or stress or coincidence.
I wish I could take my case back to one or any moment during that time, to pull them back to me. Or, if not that, just to have them again as I push them from me — an arm’s length away is closer than six feet deep. But the past is Hermetically sealed, even to my machine.
I’ve already purchased the bare plot to the right of James, but I won’t need it for twenty-eight years. Now I’m saving up for the Catholic rest home in town, the best in the county, since I will have no one to tend to me but myself, and only on Sundays.
I drive back to my shop. Small blocks of exotic wood lie scattered on the workbench. I reach for a piece of purpleheart I rounded on the lathe, then hesitate. Instead, I select ebony. I pick up a gouge and carve.
Slivers of the past fall away with each splinter. Soon I think of nothing but the piece hidden in the grain and, after a while, I finish the crenellated parapet of a rook.
“What’s this?” she asks as I hand her the box. It’s wide, long, and thin, like a box of chocolates.
“A gift, Mom,” I say. “Open it.”
She pulls the ribbon and lifts the top. Laid out in four rows is the chess set I’ve made over the past month, of ebony and olivewood. She picks up the kings of each color.
“They’re beautiful, Kay,” she says.
She smiles, eyes beaming, and it warms my heart.
“You made these?” she asks.
I nod, with a strangely proud smile spreading across my face. But her eyebrows draw together in suspicion. She turns her eyes up and left, as if she’s trying to call something elusive to mind.
She looks at me, and I see something change in her.
She puts the pieces back in the box and places it aside, then leans out and places a pale hand on my own. She looks into my eyes, and I into hers. I see the peanut-brown of her irises, not the forest-floor hue of Kay’s, and I know she sees the same because within her eyes shines a spark of recognition. A spark that fades into sorrow.
“You’re so good to visit me,” she says, voice breaking. “All we’ve got is each other.”