When Rosalyn arrived to open the coffee shop on the last day of the year he was already sitting by the door, waiting – like always. She smiled and greeted him as she took out the keys and unlocked the door. Struggling to rise – cane in hand, portable chess set under one arm, a dusting of snow covering his hat and shoulders – he returned the smile and tipped his hat.
“Good morning, Flower.” He coughed and leaned against wall as she worked the locks.
“If it is a good morning…” she replied with a wink.
“…which I am hoping it is.” he finished, laughing at the break from their usual routine as Rosalyn raised her eyebrows.
“Well, well! Aren’t we in a good mood today?!” He just nodded in reply, then shrugged. Even though the coffee shop wouldn’t open for another twenty minutes she let him in. While she prepared everything for the day he limped over to his usual seat by the corner window, close to the counter. He’d been sitting there the day Rosalyn worked her first shift as a barista-in-training twelve years ago and she suspected he would sit there on her last day as manager as well. While running through the filter handles on the espresso machine, Rosalyn watched the old man open his chess set, carefully take out the carved stone chess pieces, chessmen he’d told her, and set them up on the board. Rosalyn didn’t know old he was – none of the staff did. He looked pretty much the same year by year: creased and weathered face, perpetually unshaven, long gray hair, keen gray-green eyes. He always smelled of pipe tobacco and vanilla, but she had never seen him smoke. The only thing about him that seemed to change was the wear and tear on his dark overcoat and big hat.
He had the same ritual every day, coming in early and setting up the black pieces on his side, waiting for someone to play with while he ordered cup after cup of lungo macchiato. Some days another of the regulars sat down for a game or two, some days Luke sat down with the old man after his shift ended, some days a stranger played with him. But most days there was no game. Rosalyn had tried playing him a few times, but it wasn’t her thing and they spent more time talking and teaching her the rules again than actually playing.
When everything was ready Rosalyn made a double lungo macchiato and set it beside the chess board before she opened for the day. As she went up to flip the sign from ‘closed’ to ‘open’ she saw a young woman in dark, sooty make-up and an expensive-looking white coat standing just outside, black umbrella held up against the light snow. The girl’s black lips parted in a big smile as the sign was turned and Rosalyn opened the door for her.
“Hi, sorry I’m late!” the girl said, folding the umbrella and shaking it before she stepped in, her tall black Dr. Martens boots dragging in more snow than the umbrella would have.
“Hello. That’s okay…” Rosalyn replied. “…I’m just opening now.” The girl nodded, unbuttoning her white overcoat to reveal a white blouse, white pencil skirt and wide black leather belt. Silver jewelry adorned her hands, neck and ears. The girl waved happily toward the old man he smiled and nodded in return.
“I’m just passing by, really. Could I get a white hot chocolate with extra cream, extra chocolate, extra vanilla?” While she waited for her hot chocolate, the girl browsed the cupcakes and cookies indecisively. “C four!” Rosalyn nearly dropped the milk can, but nodded and smiled as the girl pointed to a white chocolate and raspberry cupcake. “Oh, and one of those, please.” Over in the corner, the old man moved a white pawn two steps forward, then mirrored her move.
“Knight to f three – say could I get some whipped cream on top?” The girl beamed a smile and again the old man mirrored her move on the chess board, calling it out. “Knight c three then, let’s see you mirror that,” she said immediately.
“B6.” The man said before he had even moved any pieces on the board.
“Double fianchetto. Really? G three.” The girls winced and leaned closer to Rosalyn as she whispered: “He’s gonna lose, poor thing.”
“Just you wait and see. Bishop to b sev…”
“Bishop to g two,” the girl interrupted.
“G six – you castling?”
“Of course, and you’re doing the other bishop so…e three. I thought you would’ve gone for the hedgehog, not the fianchetto.”
The old man snorted. “And see you repeat how you beat Bob? No thanks. Are you coming to sit or could we have done this correspondence? Queen to c eight.”
“I’m waiting for my chocolate. Queen to e two and your turn to castle. Then e four and you’ve lost the middle.”
“I was never much for being smack in the middle of it, you know.” The girl giggled at that.
“I know! That’s how you’ve survived. So far, anyway.”
The old man grunted and moved his other knight forward. “Cheeky bitch.” Rosalyn couldn’t believe her ears but the young girl didn’t react in the slightest. When she met Rosalyn’s gaze she winked.
“I’ve been called much worse in my time, girl – don’t you worry.”
“Knight to c six. Rosalyn love, could I get a refill?” He leaned back in his seat and emptied his coffee. Rosalyn had already loaded the machine – she knew him well by now, even if he’d never revealed his name. The one time Rosalyn decided to ask him he smiled wickedly and winked at her. Then he said ‘you can keep calling me sir – I like the way you say it.’ She never did after that.
Before handing the girl the white chocolate and cupcake Rosalyn pulled the old man’s macchiato. Then she followed the girl to the table. As the young woman sat down she pushed a center pawn forward one step. The old man moved his other knight, to the back of the center of the board.
“And I’m pushing center while you’re moving backward,” the girl said as she moved her bishop up through the gap left by her pawn. “Still think you’re gonna win this, boy?”
He fell silent and looked at the board as Rosalyn took his empty cup and put the new one next to him.
“Oh! Thank you Flower.” He put his hand on her arm and gave it a squeeze as he smiled up at her. There was a sadness in his eyes that sent shivers down her spine. She stroked his hand gently and he nodded softly at her before he let her go, drawing breath sharply and returning his attention to the board. He met the gaze of the young woman in front of him and shook his head. “No. As a matter of fact, I do not.” The girl looked wary, staring at him silently – not a trace left of her smile. Rosalyn watched as he turned his attention back to the chessmen, seemingly oblivious to the change in the girl. After what seemed like several minutes he moved the knight again, over to the right, and the girl instantly pushed her left – queen’s side, Rosalyn recalled – knight up into the center. The next few moves played out like that – him casually taking his time, sipping his coffee and studying the board while the girl picked pieces off her cupcake, waiting for his move; her looking dead serious and moving instantly. Neither of them spoke. Rosalyn tried to watch discreetly, so as not to disturb, but she guessed she could’ve beenn standing right next to them and neither would have noticed.
Some people passed by outside – a few of them even looking ion through the windows – but no one entered. A bit strange, Rosalyn thought. It would be awhile until business picked up, but she usually had some customers by now. Over by the table the game seemed to be picking up. The girl took a knight the old man moved up into the center, he returned the favor, she took his second knight with her bishop and immediately lost it to his. The things slowed down again as the girl started taking her time. The old man leaned back into his seat, twirling his cane lazily between thumb and forefinger as he sipped his coffee. He looked over at Rosalyn and smiled. She still thought he looked sad and she wondered if he really was losing, or if something else bothered him.
The girl finally moved a pawn over into black’s half of the board and now it was the old man’s turn to react instantly. Without really looking at the board he moved his king forward. Again the young woman took a long time before making her move – something down in the right corner of the board that Rosalyn couldn’t make out. After a moments hesitation black advanced his remaining bishop. The girl smirked and pushed a pawn two steps forward, creating a diagonal line up to the center. The old man moved his queen and the girl pushed up a rook. Then things slowed to a stand-still.
Several minutes went by without any action over by the chess board and without any customers coming through the door. Rosalyn didn’t really have anything to do but watch the girl’s cupcake be reduced to crumbs, so she went over to the table.
“Can I get you anything else, miss?” Rosalyn said as she put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. The girl jerked away and Rosalyn shivered. It felt as if someone had just poured icy water over her.
“No!” The girl straightened her blouse, turned to Rosalyn and smiled sheepishly. “Thank you, Rosalyn – I’m fine.”
“Your move.” The old man had taken the opportunity to shift one of his rooks. The girl frowned and looked back to the board.
“What did you…oh.” Rosalyn couldn’t move. She felt dizzy. Someone touched her arm.
“Are you okay Flower?” The old man stroked her arm and took her hand in his. Rosalyn nodded.
“Yeah, I’m alright. She blinked and shook her head – a shiver went through her. As he released her, the old man watched his opponent move her knight back.
“Still think I’m going to lose?” he said and pushed a pawn forward. The girl took it and he reciprocated immediately. Rosalyn saw that a line had opened between two of their power pieces. Rooks, she reminded herself. The woman pushed her second rook in line with them and the old man attacked. Three moves later and the young woman lost her queen. Rosalyn furrowed her brow. It was obvious even to her that the young girl could take the black queen now and even the score, but she didn’t. She held her hand over the board, moved it from piece to piece, thinking. Minutes passed.
“You got me. Right, Sport?” The old man just shrugged. The girl leaned back, closed her hand and looked at the old man. Rosalyn didn’t dare move – barely even breathe.
“If I take the queen you’re up a rook to my knight and you check. If I take the rook, you’re up a queen to my rook, and you check.” The two just sat there looking at each other in silence, both of them smirking. It felt like ages before anything happened.
“I’ll take the rook,” she moved her piece and picked his up in the same move. The old man kept his eyes on hers. “Go on, check me.” The old man shook his head, picked up his pawn and took her bishop, blocking the path between his queen and her king. Rosalyn watched as the girl studied the board in silence for a few moments. Slowly, she reached for her king – tipping it over instead of moving it. The old man just kept smirking.
“This has been played before?” The man nodded. “How did I not know?”
“You were busy. It was during the war.” The girl nodded, then smiled widely.
“It was good playing against you. This isn’t over you know.” She stood up and put out her hand. The old man stood up, leaning on his cane, and took the young woman’s hand in in his.
“I know.” He leaned forward, bringing her small pale hand up to his lips and kissed it. “Until next time.” The girl giggled.
“Until next time. I’ll get you then.”
“That’s what you said last time.” They both smiled and the woman winked at him as she put her coat back on and took up her umbrella.
“Take care of yourself, mister Morphy.” The girl waved and stepped out of the coffee shop, opened her umbrella and disappeared down the street. The old man sat back down and finished his macchiato. Rosalyn went up to him, smiling.
“I take it you won?” The man nodded.
“Yes, Flower. Yes I did.” He laughed and tapped his cane against the side of the board. He took a deep breath, held it, and released it with a deep sigh. “It’s sure been a good morning, Rosalyn.” He got up, still smiling, and started putting on his overcoat.
“Are you leaving? Already?!”
“No, Rosalyn – finally.” He took her in his arms and gave her a long, firm hug. There were tears in his eyes when he released her.
“Will you take care of this for me?” He tapped the chess board with his cane. “Don’t let Luke take it home, though. Keep it in the shop.”
“You’re not taking it with you?”
“I won’t need it.” He walked slowly, but with a confidence and an ease Rosalyn hadn’t seen before during all the years of him coming to the coffee shop. She followed him to the door, holding it open for him like she usually did.
“Mister Morphy, is it?” He just smiled by way of reply. “Have a good day, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” He embraced her again and gave her a kiss on the cheek.”
“No Flower, you won’t.” He blinked away some tears. Her eyes were tearing up as well now. “Some day. Perhaps.” He turned and walked down the steps, pulling his collar up against the snow as he crossed the street. Rosalyn watched until he disappeared out of sight, then she went back inside.
She went back to the table and took his empty cup. On the seat lay a single red rose and a handwritten plain white card. She put the cup down and picked up the card, a very old black and white photo was pinned to it, showing. Her hands were shaking.
So this is good bye, finally. Don’t get me wrong, these years have been wonderful – but all good things must come to an end. Though I doubt it, with a bit of luck I might see you again. I’d like that. The chess set once belonged to a famous man – it should net you quite a bit of money, should you choose to sell it.I hope you keep it, though. Learn to play.
You are a wonderful woman, and I cannot count the times I wished I had met you when I was younger. Who knows, maybe one day I will, eh?
I hope you saw me leave happy.