It was an afternoon late in August when Mia first saw him, counting her steps in even numbers as she walked. “Two, four, six, eight, ten…” Heat was bouncing off the roads and pirouetting off in the air. Instead of taking her usual way home, she decided to walk through the square and see if the leaves had turned. Counting, “eighteen, twenty, twenty-two,” under her breath she looked around at the benches which were scattered about. There was a bench supporting a young mom, her baby in a car seat and her eyes glued to a phone. There was a bench that held a teenage boy, slouching and smoking a cigarette. Mia coughed and walked on.
Then she saw him. An old man sitting by himself at a picnic table. A chess board sat in front of him. He was holding half a sandwich in his hand, chewing it methodically. A whole sandwich was lying across from him.
“Hm, weird,” thought Mia. “There’s nobody else with him.”
She went home and did homework. The next day, out of curiosity, she went through the square and he was sitting at the same table, doing the same thing. Every day for the rest of the week, she went by, just to see him sitting by himself with a chessboard and sandwich in front of him. On Monday of the next week she decided to ask him about it.
She walked up, he looked at her. His eyes were blue, and very obviously dulled by sorrow.
“Hello,” she said, smiling.
“Hi,” he said.
“I’ve seen you sitting here every day with no chess partner. Do you want someone to play with?” asked Mia.
The old man thought for a moment and then nodded his approval and she sat down. Her side was white, so she made the opening move. An hour later, he won the game. He looked up at her, sadly amused,
“Good game,” he said.
“Yep! Good game,” she said, smiling. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay, I can come back for another game if you’d like,” she offered.
“I’d like that,” he said.
Mia got up and left.
The next day she arrived at their picnic table, bringing the sunshine with her,
“I realized that I never told you my name. It's Mia,” she said.
“Bob,” he said.
She was white again. He won again.
After the game was over she asked, “Bob, why do you always have a whole sandwich that you never eat?”
Bob looked off into the grey sky for a moment and then answered, “It’s my wife’s.”
“Oh,” said Mia, feeling a sudden urge of skepticism towards him. “Where is she?”
Bob sighed. “She’s not here anymore.”
“Oh.” They were silent for a moment before Mia asked, “Did you play chess with her?”
Bob nodded and they said no more. After a few minutes, she left him alone with his memories.
For the next few days, Mia had too much homework to do to go through the square and play chess with Bob.
When she finally did make it back to the square he was sitting there, the same as always — whole sandwich sitting across from him, chewing on his.
“I thought I had scared you off,” was how he greeted her.
Mia laughed, “Nope. I was busy. Ready for our game?”
She made the opening move and said, “I was thinking. Maybe, would you like to talk about your wife?”
Bob sighed, “Yes.” There was a moment of silence, and Mia could see him struggling to bundle up his emotions so he could speak.
After a few minutes he began, “Her name was Anna. When I first met her, all I could see in the world were her big green eyes. They always laughed. We were teenagers then.” Bob stopped and sighed. Mia could see tears in his eyes.
“Hold on,” she said. “Do you like hot chocolate?”
Bob nodded. Mia stood and ran through the hard packed snow to a coffee shop across the street and bought two cups of hot chocolate.
When she got back and handed Bob his cup, he looked surprised. “That’s something she would do.”
Mia sat down. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Bob studied her for a second, then said, “I want to tell you.”
Mia leaned back, holding her hot chocolate in both hands, blowing into the lid.
Bob just sat there, staring into nothing.
Mia spoke in a quiet, prodding voice, “What was she like?”
A dreamy smile crept its way onto Bobs face as he said, “She loved to laugh. She was the most alive person you’ll ever see. Most people like her love attention, but she didn’t. She was always somewhere in the background with one or two hurting people, giving them extra smiles because they’d lost theirs,” he stopped for a minute or two.
“What else?” asked Mia.
“She was always leaving behind evidence that she was alive,” Bob sighed.
“What sort of evidence?”
“Old tea bags that she meant to use a second time but never did because she forgot, wild flowers stuck in glass jars, spiders trapped in containers waiting for me to kill them, bobby pins in my tackle box, everywhere she went she’d leave a part of her behind, the same went for people, she never went into a room of people, without leaving an impression on their hearts, and she never even realized it,” said Bob. “She was one of the rare people who cared.”
Mia wanted to cry. “How did you meet her?”
“At a school dance that I didn’t want to be at, my buddies dragged me along,” Bob chuckled, “I asked her to dance every dance and she did. We’ve been in love ever since.”
“Did you have any children?” asked Mia.
Bob said, “No, we couldn’t. But she always head a steady stream of neighborhood children coming in and out for cookies and help with homework.”
“You must have loved her very much,” said Mia.
“Yes. Looking back, I’m scared I didn’t tell her enough. I was so conscious of it every day that I thought she was too. I should have told her every day that I loved her,” he said.
Mia thought for a minute. “I’m sure she knew.”
She beat him at the game this time.
When she got up to leave, she asked, “Do you like libraries? It’s getting colder. Maybe we can start playing out games in the library now.”
Bob was clearly shocked. “That’s where we always played in the winter and on rainy days. You’re very much like Anna.”
“Great, see you at the library tomorrow then,” Mia said and left. She was starting to wonder why she even cared for Bob. He was so stuck on Anna that he didn’t notice the rest of the world. He probably hadn’t noticed it since the day he had met her fifty or so years ago.
They met at the library from then on.
Bob always talked of Anna. Mia always listened. Bob would eat his sandwich and Mia would sit next to the other one. One day she was about to move Anna’s sandwich when Bob started and said,
“No! That’s hers! What do you think you’re doing?”
Mia was startled. “Just going to move the sandwich.”
Bob looked at her scrutinizingly. “Just don’t eat it. It’s her sandwich.”
Mia blurted out, “I think you need to stop being so sentimental.”
“What?” Bob asked.
“Look at you! You have no life apart from the memory of your dead wife. You still make her a sandwich every day. You come here to play chess. The only reason you let me play chess with you is because I remind you of her. Do you ever think of anything else?” she said, not sure why she was so upset.
Bob looked hurt. “I know.”
They were quiet.
The Bob said, “Okay, I’m not going to play with you anymore.”
He stood and walked away, leaving the chess board and sandwich with Mia. She was too mad at him, and mad at herself for being mad to get up and follow him. After a few minutes she gathered up the chess board and pieces, threw the sandwich away, and left.
The next day he was not there, nor for the next several days.
Mia was full of regret for hurting the old man’s feelings. She hadn’t shown him any of the respect due to her elders. She wanted to look for him, but had no idea how. Every day she would go to the library, hoping that he’d be there, but he never was.
One bright sunny day she left school to find him waiting for her outside.
“One’s for you,” he said. “Hope you like chocolate.”
Mia smiled and took it. “Thanks.”
They walked and ate their ice cream in silence.
“I’m sorry, Bob,” she said. “I had no right to be so disrespectful.”
Bob smiled. “You were right though, young lady.”
“What have you been doing?” she asked.
“Golfing,” he said.
“Want to play chess?”
“No,” said Bob. “We’re going fishing."