Cleveland SOHO Media

"A Promising Young Man"
by Emily Smith

I still can't get over the constant noise. It never stops. Car horns, police cars, people yelling. The only noises I heard back home at night were the insects and animals. Nature. A real nice place if that's your jug of water. But somehow, that open space suffocated the breath out of me. Until I stepped on that bus headed for New York City, my mom was convinced I'd marry Beth, raise a family and build fences the rest of my life. To me, that's no life. Not living at all. I'd say I wanted to get out of Indiana the moment I picked up "The Catcher in the Rye." Before that, it never occurred to me that I could pack a bag and hop on a train to New York City like Holden.

I didn't find Salinger in the library or a bookstore in my small home town. My buddies and I had to drive up to Indianapolis to the decent bookstores that carried the writers we were after: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Faulkner, Baldwin. Those guys. The guys that wrote about a different kind of truth I knew nothing about.

When I finally graduated - the class of 1956 - it only took me a week to wrap things up with work and Beth and buy my bus ticket. Mu buddy Jack was on board as the planning fleshed out, but when push came to shove, when I went to but the ticket, he backed out. I guess it was too much for him. It was scary to go it alone, but I had to.

Mom and dad brushed me off as a kid with a crazy imagination. "Sure you're going to New York City, Tim. Send us a postcard when you get there." But I did. I got that ticket and I kissed my mom goodbye and I shook my dad's hand. "Well, good luck, I guess son," he said as the driver put my suitcase underneath the bus.

"Your room is always here, Timmy," my mom cried as we rolled away. I pushed my arm through the window crack and waved goodbye. I don't think a blow to my stomach could've taken that smile off my face.

I didn't sleep much on that ride east. I was too eager and anxious. When I finally saw the skyline, a weight lifted off my shoulders and I felt like I could fly the rest of the way. I was ready to start living.

I've been here almost a month now and I was lucky enough to find an apartment and work that first week. Thankfully they're both in the same building so I don't have to take city transportation. I still can't get the hang of what's where. I'm learning, but I get lost an awful lot.

I live on the corner of West 10th street and Bleecker in the Village. I love it! There's a bookstore at the bottom of my building called "The Great Escape." I kept hanging out there and complaining about not finding a job. One day the owner, Allan, he says: "Well as much as you're here kid, why don't you work for me?"

I still can't believe I'm working in a bookstore in New York. I'm supposed to be at the shop at nine this morning, so I leave a few minutes early and walk to the post box to drop a letter to my folks. I try to get a letter to them every week so they know how I'm doing. I haven't received one from them yet. I'm hopeful they'll come around.

I walk into the shop and find Allan smoking a cigarette and reading the Voice. The bell dings as I shut the door behind me.

"Morning," I say, maybe a little too chipper, cause then he says: "Shit, Tim, ain't nothing awake till you walk in here." He doesn't look up from the paper. I laugh. "You want me to grab coffee?"

"Yeah, take a couple quarters from the register." He still doesn't look up. I cross the street to Julie's Cafe. It's a bright June morning and the Village is waking up. Summer classes at Columbia started last week and Julie's is full of students - intellectuals drinking coffee and talking. I keep from staring, but I'm intrigued. Allan suggested I apply at Columbia in the fall. I told him I'd think about it. I'd love to enter the university world, talking and learning, but I don't yet know what I want to do. All I could think of in high school was New York. Getting here was enough of something to keep my mind focused. I get two coffees and walk back to the bookstore. Allan is just as I left him.

"Julie's is full of students." "Any cute girls?" "Well, yeah. Hell yeah," I say.

For the first time this morning, Allan looks up, elbows still resting on the counter. He smiles. "I love this time of year."

I bring him his coffee and then sit in an armchair by the front window. Allan shuts the Voice and moves to the other chair across from me. "So what'd you do last night?" "I finished that Notes of a Native Son." He smiles. "Ah...and?"

"You were right, it was incredible." Allan doesn't say a thing, keeps looking at me, smiling. I keep going. "To be honest, I'd never seen a negro till New York. They weren't in my parts growing up."

"What'd you think of the second essay, or was it the third, Many Thousands Gone?" "You know what got me? 'The story of a people is never a pretty story.' That's got nothing to do with 'white people are to blame,' or 'this is right and this is wrong.' It puts everybody in the same basket. 'The story of a people is never a pretty story'." "When I read that book, I think 'now there's common sense.' Why can't a book like that fall into the hands of people that can make policy and enforce laws? I think it'd be impossible for them to read it and not agree." He takes a sip and then sits his coffee on the table to get a cigarette from his shirt pocket. "But then I realize, Tim, that that's the paradox. These people in power like Eisenhower say that inequality is wrong and things should change, but nothing changes."

"He's changing things, don't you think?" Allan takes a drag and turns around to look out the front window. "You said there were cute girls across the street?"

"Yeah," I say. "Go check it out, I got the store." "No shipments are due today. And there's a good article on page four of the Voice if you're interested."

I don't know how he finishes a book in the first place. Allan leaves and I sit a few more minutes, enjoying the pleasant morning. As I move to get up, a guy enters the store. He looks rough, like he's been up all night. Maybe had a few too many, even. Rough.

"Hi," I say. I give him a warm smile to try and push some optimism past his thick stubble. "Hey there, kid," he says, smiling back. "Anything I can help you with?"

"Just walking. I stayed with a girl last night and slipped out this morning, so I thought I'd walk around a bit before heading back to my part of town. I like the Village." He walks over and sits down where Allan had been sitting. He points at a chess board on the table between us. "You know how to play?"

"Yeah, my dad taught me. He used to let me win when I was real little, but once I caught on and figured it out, I could tell he was trying but he never could beat me for real." The guy smiles and extends his hand. "I'm Bob." I shake it. "Tim." We both scoot our chairs closer to the chess board and put the pieces back to a starting position. From previous play it's obvious that white is on his side and black on mine, so that's how we set it up.

"You can go first," I say. Again, he laughs. "I like you kid." I don't know what he thinks is so funny, but I like him too. He moves a rook and continues to stare at the board. I move my king's knight out. "So where you from, kid, cause I know it's not here." If I should be, I'm not offended. "Indiana."

He moves out a neighboring rook and I recall a few games that began like this with my dad, how it went. I envision the possible moves and then put a rook out one square next to my knight. I already see how this'll play out; hope I don't ruin his mood once its over. "How long have you been here?" "Bout a month." He moves. "You like it?" I move. "I'm in love with the city." He smiles and takes out a pack of cigarettes. "You want one kid?" "No thanks, I don't smoke." "How old are you, kid?" I clear my throat. "Eighteen."

"Well, Tim, you're 18 years old. You're a man. And you now live in New York City. I think it's time you had a cigarette." He holds one out. I take it put it to my lips. He strikes a match and I hold the cigarette with my forefinger and thumb. I lean into the flame. I suck in and I feel the smoke go into my mouth. He leans back. "Now inhale."

I open my throat to suck down the smoke, and as my lungs expand they begin to feel like they're on fire - like the tissue is melting away. I blow out as fast as I can and begin coughing, hard. Bob busts with laughter. I get up and hurry to the bathroom, still coughing, and get water from the faucet. After a few handfuls my throat starts to feel better. I turn off the water and return to the storefront where Bob is whipping tears from his face. "I'm sorry, kid. Guess smoking just isn't for everybody."

I'm incredibly embarrassed and somewhat angry that he didn't warn me how it would be. But I should've figured that smoke wouldn't be too pleasant a thing going into my body. "Your turn," he says. I make my move. "How old are you?" "I'm 26." He makes a move. "Don't know how I'm here already." "That's not old." I move. "So why'd you come to the city, kid?" He moves. "Wait, let me guess. You want to be a writer." I laugh. "No. I'll leave that to the greats. I just like reading them." I move. He leans forward, looking at the board. Doesn't say a thing. He moves. I move. He moves. I move. It's playing out just as I saw it from back at the second move. He moves. I move.

It's his turn, about five moves left before I take his king. He looks up, a straight face. Can he see it too? "It's your turn," I say. He looks down at the board and back up to me. "A promising young man should go into politics so that he can go on promising for the rest of his life." He stands and extends his right hand. I stand, and we shake. I'm speechless. I didn't know other people could foresee a game, like me. I tried to explain it to my dad, but he couldn't understand.

Without saying another word, Bob turns and leaves. I watch through the window as he crosses the street and Allan walks past him on his way back. Allan stops in his tracks and turns to look at Bob, who continues walking down the block, head down. Allan rushes into the store. "Did you talk to him? Was he in here? Do you know who that is?" I'm still analyzing what just happened. "That was Robert Byrne," Allan says. "Who?" "Robert Byrne! One of the best chess players of all time." "I just played him." Allan laughs and walks nonchalantly over to where Bob was sitting and falls into the chair. "You just played Robert Byrne at chess?" "I did. And I beat him." "Oh come on, Tim. You expect me to believe that?" "I did. Look at the board. I don't know how he did it, but he saw ahead the five moves that were going to play out and then he stood, shook my hand, and left. He knew I'd beaten him." "No possible way you beat him." "Listen," I say, "I played Bob, and I won." "Bob? He let you call him Bob?" "Yeah, that's how he introduced himself." "Wow, I can't believe you met Robert Byrne!" "Is he really a famous chess player?" I've never played with anybody but my dad. I hadn't realized there were contests, or, for that matter, such drastic gaps in skill level. "Yeah, look him up," Allan says. "I'm sure you can find some articles on him over at the library archives."

When my shift ends, I take a bus to the New York Public library. After a few failed searches, I find information on Bob. Quite a bit, actually. I read how he played at the Olympiads for the United States in 1952. I study his wins and specific moves. I'm fascinated. I stare in amazement at pictures of the same guy who had been sitting across from me earlier that morning. I stay there well into the night, not wanting to part with this information, my link to assurance. It's one thing not to realize something, but it's an entirely different matter to know the thing and not do anything about it. A librarian taps me on the shoulder. "Sorry, but we're closing, sir." I gather my things and leave. As I push through the library doors into the night, a gust blows. I turn my back to the wind and look ahead, cars rushing past. The lights are beautiful and bright with promise.