This is one of my first stories, inspired by and modeled on a J.D. Salinger short story. Although the setting and characters of both stories are similar, my tale has a different thrust. Like Salinger’s story, mine also ends in a dark place. I worked very hard on this one and it went through many revisions. I was proud to have it published in the literary journal Halfway Down the Stairs.
Mr Eugene Hooper had booked a large stateroom on the Adriatic Princess. It was big enough to accommodate him and his wife, Marsha, and their two young children. The nine-day cruise would take them from Venice, their port of embarkation, down the Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik and back up on the Italian side. A cruise was something of a splurge for the Hoopers who were by no means wealthy. It was a way of celebrating their fourteenth wedding anniversary while enjoying a special family vacation. As they were already going to be in Slovenia for the Junior World Chess Championship, a cruise on the Adriatic Sea was the logical choice. The only opposition to the plan came from Emily who would have preferred riding a pony for the rest of the summer. Her objection was overruled.
“Chrissy, would you please put that book down? I’ve already asked you twice,” said Marsha Hooper. Christopher noted that the tone of annoyance in her voice was not yet at a critical stage. Although only twelve-years-old, he had a keen ear for nuance.
“You asked me once before and only now repeated your request. Sorry, I’m just being precise about this,” replied her son. Mrs Hooper knew that he wasn’t being fresh, just maddeningly exact. Christopher was engrossed in Henk van der Aarde’s Advanced Guide to the Panov-Botvinnik Attack. He was an avid reader of books on the subject of chess and it was his third time through this particular volume. He was awkwardly curled up in one of the stateroom’s two easy chairs, in a way that couldn’t possibly be comfortable, but it didn’t seem to bother him.
“You need to take your sister to the children’s play area. Remember, it’s on deck eleven.”
“I know. We were there yesterday.”
“Maybe things will go a little better up there today,” said Mrs Hooper, a note of exasperation detectable in her voice. “And Emily, I want you to behave yourself this time. I mean really behave yourself. We didn’t bring you up to be a raving Visigoth.”
There had been an unpleasant scene in the play area the day before. As far as Mrs Hooper could make out, Emily had lost her temper playing with another girl her age, had taken that girl’s plastic purse, a treasured souvenir from Verona, and had flung it over the railing into the ocean. The girl, understandably, threw a hysterical fit. The play area supervisor later showed up at the Hooper’s stateroom and warned Mrs Hooper that, if Emily did anything like that again, she would be banned from deck eleven for the duration of the cruise.
“Christopher Aaron Hooper, if you don’t put that book down and get a move on I’m going to come over there and personally drag you out of that chair! D’ya hear me? Gene, please tell your son to obey his mother. It’s nearly eleven-thirty already.”
Marsha’s plea fell on unreceptive ears as Mr Hooper had nodded off twenty minutes before. He was sprawled out on the sofa, in boxer shorts and an undershirt, his head propped up by three pillows and one foot planted on the floor. A three-day-old International Tribune covered his ample belly.
With his mother’s temper getting uncomfortably near a volatile level, Christopher put his book aside and extricated himself from the easy chair. He was wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt that had ‘I (heart) Slovenia’ printed on it, and sandals. “Okay. I’ll take her up there, but I’m not going to stay. Is it okay if I meet you in the Lido Café for lunch at one?” He checked his oversized wristwatch. It looked like it was made for a boy twice his size.
“As long as you stay outside,” admonished his mother. “You spend far too much time indoors. And keep out of the sun.”
Emily appeared. She was a lively seven-year-old and endowed with the same generous mop of curly, sandy-brown hair as her brother. She wore an adorable cotton outfit, matching shirt and shorts, that was a pale pink with white trim. She had a bright red bow in her hair. On her feet she wore flaming orange crocs.
“You’re not going to wear those, are you?” asked Christopher, looking down at Emily’s hideous footwear.
“Yer not gonna wear those, are ya?” mimicked his sister, wagging her head from side to side. “I can wear whatever I want. Mamma said so. So there!”
“Fine,” said her brother, indicating an end to the discussion.
The children left the stateroom and made their way to the nearest elevator. After a short wait the doors opened. There was a single passenger inside the car, an older woman in a thin cotton wrap that revealed a bathing suit underneath. She carried a tapestry tote bag with a depiction of the Rialto Bridge on it, in frightening purples and yellows, and the words ‘Souvenir of Venice’ underneath. She was obviously on her way to the pool which was on the same deck as the play area. The woman smiled at the sight of the children. “Going up?” she asked. Christopher and Emily stepped into the car. After the doors closed and a brief silence, the woman turned towards Emily with a benign look, the kind of look that adults reserve exclusively for children, and chirped, “And who is this pretty little girl with the bow in her hair?”
Emily smiled angelically. Then she stuck out her tongue at the woman, at the same time making her eyes go cross-eyed. It was a trick she had newly acquired. The woman’s expression changed to indignation. She immediately looked straight ahead and pretended to study the elevator door, fidgeting with the handles of her bag. When the car reached deck eleven and the doors finally opened the woman stepped out first. Without looking back at the children she muttered, loud enough for them to hear, “What a beastly child!”
This was their sixth day aboard ship. Christopher had thoroughly explored the entire vessel by the second day out. He had his favorite spots, places where he could read in peace, where he wouldn’t be bothered by his pesky sister or by adult passengers pressing him for a match. Apparently word had gotten out that there was a Junior World Chess Champion on board. These adults secretly craved the satisfaction of beating a twelve-year-old ‘master’. They always lost when Christopher acceded to their entreaties and gave them a game. He himself got no satisfaction out of it; it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The upper decks were the most interesting, of course, as the public rooms and various activity venues were located on top. The lower decks were mostly staterooms, the passageways of which looked pretty much the same. Christopher had walked every single one of them. He especially enjoyed wandering the upper decks after dark, during the short bit of the evening he was allowed to experience before being sent to bed. He loved how the ship’s lights illuminated the water for just a few feet, with the impenetrable darkness beyond.
There was one particular deck chair out of the sun and wind on the uppermost deck that he favored. Happily, it was vacant at the moment. Christopher positioned himself comfortably on it, stretching out his thin legs and crossing them at the ankles. From where he sat he could watch the activity around the pool on the deck below, if he chose to do so. He himself had no desire at all to splash around with the mob of rowdy passengers who frolicked there. He opened his book and resumed the study of its contents. At the end of the chapter he was reading he closed the book and positioned it carefully in his lap, then bowed his head slightly and half-closed his eyes, at first engrossed in some tantalizing detail of the Panov-Botvinnik Attack. To anyone else observing him, it might have appeared that the boy was contemplating a Zen koan, so intense and concentrated was his expression. They wouldn’t have been far off the mark. Christopher took the opportunity to practice the advanced concentration exercise he had been taught. It involved following the breath and visualizing a point of perfect peace, untouched by the world. It amazed him that, through the power of his mind, he could remove himself from the distractions of his immediate surroundings. Out of the corner of his eye Christopher saw a man headed towards him and he immediately knew what was coming.
“Mind if I sit down?” said the man, not waiting for a reply and lowering himself into the adjoining deck chair. He was a rather plain looking man, in his mid-forties, with dark hair and glasses. He wore long trousers and a short-sleeved sport shirt. “I’m Brad Blakely, by the way.” He proffered his hand to Christopher. The boy shook his hand, but barely looked at him while doing so. He hated being disturbed in his private corner. “I write a column for Chess World. I hope you don’t mind me coming over. I watched you during the tournament in Maribor and was very impressed. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions?”
“Sure,” replied the boy laconically. He was used to being interrogated by adults.
“First of all, Chris, what…”
“Christopher. I prefer Christopher, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure. Sorry, Christopher. The biggest question in my mind, and for everybody else who has been following your career, is: how do you do it? I mean, is there a secret? How did you manage to play twelve simultaneous games—and win ten of them? And then you managed to beat every single competitor. That was amazing! So, what’s the deal?”
Christopher looked straight ahead as he answered the question, one which he had been asked many times before. “There are no secrets, really, but there are two things involved. One is a prodigious capacity for memory—which, I am told, I possess. Second, it’s a simple matter of concentration.”
“And how did you achieve that? Or is it also a natural gift?”
“I worked at it, actually. When I was seven I was taught the techniques of pranayama by a famous teacher in New York. I do the exercises regularly, especially before each match. I find it helps a great deal.”
“Pranayama? That sounds Indian.”
“You’re right. It is a system of breathing exercises that has been practiced for centuries—millennia, really.”
“Wow,” remarked Blakely, genuinely impressed with the boy’s knowledge and his ability to articulate. He had never met a ten-year-old with such a vocabulary. “How did you like Maribor? It’s quite an interesting town.”
“I found it rather disappointing. You could find evidence of its Hapsburg past all over the city, but nothing of real architectural interest. The river was pretty. I think the town is what you would call provincial. Did you know that Maribor’s original inhabitants were German-speaking?”
“Were they? I didn’t know that. All I heard when I was there was Slovenian—and I couldn’t make out one word of that.”
“It’s a place with a very messy history.”
“How do you know all that? I’m impressed.”
“Oh, I read up on it before we came. I always like to know all about the places we’re visiting.”
“I suppose you travel a lot.”
“I’ve been to four tournaments already this year, two in the States, one in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the one in Maribor. Some of it is fun. I don’t really like long airplane flights. And my parents always come along, of course, and my little sister. They can hardly leave her home alone.”
“I guess not.” Blakely had been scribbling in a small notebook the whole time. “What other interests do you have? I suppose you go to school when you’re not at tournaments.”
A steward came by and asked if they wanted to order any drinks. “Do you want something?” Blakely asked. “ A soda maybe?”
“No, thank you very much,” replied the boy. Blakely ordered a whiskey sour for himself. The steward continued on his way.
“I go to a special school for gifted children in Manhattan. They let me pursue whatever interests me, and if I need to be away for a while it’s no problem. So far, besides chess of course, I like to read—history mostly; I like mathematics a lot and I’m pretty good at languages. Oh, and I’ve been studying astronomy. Nothing too involved so far. I like being on this ship; at night we can see the stars so much better than on land. I’m trying to get my sister interested in it. My dad gave me a really neat telescope and we can pick out some of the constellations. Did you know that there are eighty-eight of them? The ancient Greeks only identified forty-eight.”
“You know a lot more about it than I do,” observed Blakely with a short laugh. The longer he conversed with this kid, the dumber he felt. “And chess? How did you become interested in that?”
“As early as I can remember I was fascinated with the game. My father plays a little and he had a set in the apartment. My pranayama teacher tells me that I was a chess master in a former life. It’s possible, but I don’t really know.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “There is one other important skill my teacher taught me; he calls it vairagya.”
“Beg pardon?” asked Blakely, somewhat perplexed. “I’ve never heard that term.”
“Vairagya—it’s Sanskrit for what we call disengagement or detachment. When I play a game I can completely block out any other input, internal and external. It’s related to the concentration skill, only it’s more comprehensive. I find it useful in everyday life too. Even when my sister annoys me I can stay detached by just doing a simple mental exercise. I have learned that by not reacting to things I can have a very peaceful life.”
“A peaceful life? Sounds good. I should try it sometime,” replied Blakely, not quite sure he really understood what the boy meant. “But don’t you allow yourself to get excited about things now and then?”
“Emotions cloud the mind. I generally avoid them.” Christopher, his book in hand, got up abruptly. “It was nice talking to you, Mr Blakely. I have to go.”
“But I have some more questions. Sure you can’t hang around a few minutes longer?”
“I really have to go. Sorry. I have to meet my parents and my sister for lunch.” Christopher turned on his heels and walked off. He wanted to avoid shaking hands with the man again; his hand felt clammy.
That evening the family opted for dinner at the Adria Grill, the fanciest restaurant on board. It was the Hooper’s actual wedding anniversary day. Emily and Christopher were required to dress up a bit and be on their best behavior. That was no problem for the boy who was always a paragon of good manners, but Emily was sorely tested. All went well until dessert. Emily’s favorite ice cream flavor, chocolate chip, was not available, and she let the whole restaurant know how unhappy she was about this calamity. Mr Hooper was so engrossed in the enticing options of the dessert menu that he didn’t notice anything amiss. Marsha did her best to pacify her obstreperous daughter. Christopher, who rarely ate dessert anyway, excused himself from the table. He was eager to remove himself from the escalating family drama.
They were still at sea, headed for Bari, their next port of call. It was a moonless night, ideal for star gazing, and Christopher got permission for Emily to go out on deck with him. He wanted to show her a few celestial constellations, especially Lyra whose principal star, Vega, was the brightest in the sky. Emily was only mildly interested, but she agreed to go along out of sheer boredom. And it meant she could stay up later than her usual bedtime. The best place to look at the stars, Christopher discovered, was on Promenade Deck, at the stern, where the lifeboat davits provided a shield from the lights on deck. There was no one else around when they got there.
Emily was not very cooperative. “Just because Daddy gave you that telerscope you think you’re so smart. Well, I don’t care about your stupid consterlation and your stupid Lyra. Lyra, shmyra, lyra, shmyra…” She continued her annoying little chant while squeezing herself through the railing to the outer side of the lifeboat.
“Em, don’t go over there—there’s no railing on that side,” admonished Christopher as he adjusted the focus of the telescope.
She did turn around, but this time she attempted to climb over the railing to get back on the deck proper. On the way over the top she exclaimed triumphantly, “Look, I can slide on my butt! Lyra, shmyra, ly………………”
Emily made no sound whatsoever as she went over the side, not the slightest scream. That surprised Christopher because he knew Emily to be a prodigious screamer. She must have been frozen with fear to find herself suddenly in midair. The boy closed his eyes and breathed deeply, practicing one of his exercises. When he had found his special mental space he imagined what it would be like to fall into the chilly Adriatic. Emily was a good swimmer and would probably rise to the surface after the initial plunge—if she weren’t sucked under by the propellers. She would be able to see the stern of the Adriatic Princess as it glided away. How pretty the boat would look, its lights shining on every deck, from every porthole, the white foam crashing and churning in the wake of the ship as it sailed on into the inky blackness of the night. Christopher stood by the railing for a long while, imagining lots of things. When it got too chilly he went in.
If his parents were not in their stateroom he was sure he would find them in the casino, losing money as usual.