We were walking in the same direction, but going different places.
The old man carried a folded cloth sack, and I had my camera bag flung over one shoulder. He said hello first, and I reached out to shake his hand. His skin was mocha brown and paper thin—his body frail and his hair as white as a dove.
The afternoon was hot but the sun had passed its zenith, painting the pastel walls of Havana in warm yellow light. Side by side, we walked down Obispo, maneuvering around potholes and passing construction workers in dusty boots.
Teeth-rattling jackhammers stabbed the street and made it impossible for me to hear to the soft-spoken man. His lips danced in slow motion, his face moved—but the only noise came from the slamming sledgehammers and the old city shattering beneath a jolt of steel.
A few blocks later, the chaos lessened. I learned the man’s name—Hector—and that he spoke some English. He had no teeth—only grinning pink gums—and his eyes were clear and kind. His clothes were clean and pressed—slacks and a collared cotton shirt.
“My job?” answered Hector. “I am an accountant. But now I am . . .”
“Retired?” I asked.
“Si. I don’t work anymore.”
Hector’s pension totals nine dollars per month and he was eighty-one years old. Just then he was coming back from his son’s house and I was going back to my hotel.
“I am going to the park—to play chess. You want to come with me?” Hector asked.
I smiled at his invitation but hesitated a little, too. I had plans in an hour, and also, I am quite horrible at chess. Hector was inviting me to be humiliated.
In Parque Central, we straddled a concrete bench near the statue of José Martí, the martyr for Cuban independence. Hector unfolded the plastic canvas square from his bag and smoothed it out. The x and y axis were labeled with handwritten numbers and letters. The chess pieces tumbled from his bag.
He was letting me choose—white or black? As if such a choice had any bearing on the outcome of our game. I still hesitated, not wanting to choose—until Hector handed me the white king.
“Si, si,” and I began fumbling with the worn white pawns, lining them up for battle.
Hector made the first move, his far right pawn jumping a whole square towards my front line.
Already I was sweating—from the heat, yes, and from the pressure to perform in a game of chess worthy of a retired Cuban mathematician. I picked a random pawn and slid it forward.
Hector flicked his knight into the blank gap of the board. He was coming at me already. I felt the need to respond in kind, and so with some dramatic flourish, I danced my bishop diagonally, just beyond reach of his pawns.
“There,” I thought.
But then Hector simply moved another single pawn to the corner of my bishop, threatening to kill him at the next turn. I could only retreat.
Three minutes later, I had lost that bishop—along with my knight, a rook, and one unlucky pawn. Clearly, Hector realized that chess was not my game, but he played on, stoically, waiting for my next move.
Had I invited Hector for a different game—say, arm wrestling—I would have clearly vanquished the frail man. But what joy is winning a game without a fair fight? I had to play my best, even if this was chess.
I studied the board, trying to get my brain to think beyond the present. We were at an impasse. Every move I calculated led to an imaginary counter move from Hector. The best chess players foresee the consequences of a move several turns ahead, while I was focused entirely on revenge.
By now I had collected a single black pawn from Hector, while he had accumulated a little pile of prisoners. When he took my second bishop, I went after his bishop until I got him. It was a terrible strategy that quickly depleted my medieval army to an angry queen, a stalwart knight and three dizzy pawns, all swirling around my king.
Things became so bad, Hector began helping me. When I hopped my knight forward, he placed my hand back on the piece, then showed me how he could kill me in the next move. I returned my knight to some innocuous position and we played on.
Hector was teaching me—he didn’t want to slaughter me, but eventually, the time came to end the charade. Then things got hot for my king.
He said it plainly, in point of fact, but when I looked up, the old man was smiling back at me. Of all the possibilities on that vast game board, my king was confined to a single space, with nowhere to go. A move in any direction put me in the line of fire. And so I accepted the end and shook my opponent’s hand.
“Good game,” I said and Hector smiled. It was not a good game at all, for either of us, but now we were friends.
“Tomorrow? Same time?” He invited me back and I said yes, I would come.
But the next day at 4 o’clock, it was pouring rain, and the park was empty.