A Little Chess Table, new from Jerzy Pilch

It was a sweltering August in the year 1962. I was ten years old, and I was at the apogee of all possibilities. After some dozen months of incessant soccer playing, I had become a consummate forward. In a thick journal with a green binding, which I had received for my birthday, I was writing a detective/romance novel. In the expectation of God knows what sort of mystery, I traipsed around after a certain oddly dressed female vacationer. Almost every night, I dreamed of great flights over the Earth and breath-taking landings in yellow grass. I was in love with Claudia Cardinale and—as befitted a true man—I didn’t give a fig about reciprocity on her part. Beginning in the fall, we were to be living in Cracow, and each day of that summer had the taste of final things.

Father placed an order with Master Sztwertnia for bookshelves that were to occupy one whole wall in the Cracow apartment, a hanging kitchen cabinet, and a special little table for playing chess.

“What do you mean, a little table for playing chess?” Mother wrung her hands. “A little table for chess? It’s a disgrace to order something like that. Master Sztwertnia is a serious craftsman! He isn’t going to make any freaks! What’s the point of a little chess table!” Mother screamed. “Can’t you play on a normal table?”

“No,” Father responded dully.

“You are Newton!” Mother raised her gaze to the heavens. “You are the great scientist Isaac Newton!”

Probably for the hundredth time, for there was no lack of opportunities, she cited the anecdote about Sir Isaac Newton, who, so they say, weary of constantly opening the door for the cat and her kittens as they sauntered back and forth, ordered two openings to be cut over the threshold—a large one for the cat and a smaller one for the kittens—“as if,” she choked, “as if the small cats couldn’t manage to pass through the large hole! Newton! A genuine Isaac Newton! And besides, when are you going to play that chess? When? Since you are never home.”

“On Sunday,” Father answered arrogantly, and Mother capitulated and glanced in the direction of Grandma Pech, as if seeking comfort and understanding. Every time Grandma heard about the little chess table she would shudder, as if it were a matter of deviltry in the strict sense; she didn’t cross herself, she didn’t make the sign of the cross, since we don’t do that on a daily basis; but she would wave it away in despair and immediately, from the spot where she happened to be standing at the moment, rush off, as if she were rushing into panicky flight that would take her as far as the eye could see, and after a few steps she would suddenly halt and glance furtively at the old man to see whether he had come to his senses, and seeing that he hadn’t come to his senses, she would lend her features an expression that said: Get thee hence, Satan!

Grandpa gave a faint smile, chuckled quietly, laughed in the depths of his soul. It wasn’t so much the little chess table that delighted him as the panic into which the women fell on account of this piece of equipment. But even he, after a certain time, lost his composure, became morose, drew Father aside, and tried to reason him:

“Think this over, Józef. Just think it over. I myself, as you know, adore chess, but why go overboard. We play chess, but we aren’t real chess players. All of us, almost all of us in this house, play chess, but our house is not a house of real chess players. To say nothing of a house of chess playing professionals, chess playing gamblers, or chess playing addicts. We play the way the Lord God commanded: on Sunday afternoons, on long winter evenings, on holidays. And we play with the sort of chess set He commanded, and on the sort of chess board that is pleasing to Him. Why do you want more, Józef? Why do you need this little chess table?”

“In order to play chess on it,” Father answered dully. “In order to play chess on it in Cracow. On Sunday afternoons. On long winter evenings and on holidays.”

“On holidays,” Grandpa responded, “I hope you will come visit us. And then we will play as we always have. I don’t understand you, Józef. Take, for example, beds. We all sleep in normal beds, all people in general sleep in normal beds: wooden, with straw pallets and mattresses, and under eiderdown. And that is how it should be. But you, Józef, with that little chess table of yours, you are behaving as if, for unknown reasons, you wished for yourself who knows what sort of bed. Air mattresses like at the swimming pool, silk bedspreads like in a brothel, and bamboo frames like in the Congo. Think this over, Józef. After all, this is, basically, deviltry.”

“No,” Father responded, “it isn’t the same thing. An air mattress is not a little chess table. The chess board glued to the table top isn’t a coverlet in a brothel. The Congo isn’t Cracow. The entire problem,” Father paled, and drops of sweat broke out on his forehead, “the entire problem stems from the confusion of concepts. The confusion of everything with everything else—that’s the deviltry. The muddling of everything with everything else—that’s demonism. There’s no point discussing it. I won’t give in.”


The tension grew. We awaited Master Sztwiertnia as if the Second Coming of the Lord, who will judge the advocates and enemies of eccentricity. When, at long last, the drone of his dilapidated Willys resounded in the courtyard, when he himself appeared in the doorway in an ancient collarless shirt, in a worn out brown suit marked here and there with streaks of sawdust; when he sat down at the table in our huge kitchen, and when, after a discussion, or rather, after a cursory review of the structural details of the bookshelves, which were to cover the entire wall, and of the hanging kitchen cabinet; when, self-conscious and the object of the glares of Mother and Grandmother, Father removed from his breast pocket a folded piece of paper with a carefully sketched project for a little chess table—at this point, a terrible, explosion-pregnant quiet fell over the kitchen. The master carpenter placed the paper on the table, his silver head inclined ever lower, the women standing at the stove looked at my old man with disgust. It can’t be helped; since he didn’t want to listen to our warnings, since in spite of our admonitions he insisted on committing this prank, now he’ll get what’s coming to him. The master will give him a thorough chewing-out out on the spot, and tell him not to bother a serious professional with such caprices. Grandfather sat on the opposite side of the table and smiled cheerfully—for him, every solution was attractive from the narrational point of view. He had said his bit, given his warning—OK, he had a clean conscience, and now, somewhat excited and light of heart, he awaited a hell of a lark.

The master bent ever lower over the page, then he suddenly straightened up and said: “Wait, wait a minute.” And he reached into the side pocket of his jacket and extracted, first, a massive carpenter’s pencil and then—smiling apologetically—an equally massive case holding round glasses in a wire frame, and he put those glasses on his nose and looked at the drawing a good while longer, and he tapped it with his pencil, and it seemed to us all that he was definitively putting a nail in the misguided construction, and he tapped one more time and said: “Wait, wait a minute. One drawer will suffice, but it should be on the side.”

Jesus Christ! Master Sztwiertnia hadn’t put a nail in it, he had only pointed out a flaw in the construction.

Few, very few times in my life have I seen my old man completely happy. Three, perhaps four times. Once, when we were coming down from Partecznik and suddenly, as we came around the bend, our just finished house came into view on the opposing slope in the yellowish radiance of the sun that was setting over Czantoria—perhaps then he was happy. Perhaps he was happy when, a year before he died, he returned home from the hospital, opened the gate, went up the stairs, and life, so it seemed, was before him. Perhaps when, forty years earlier, at the parent-teachers meeting, Mr. Kogutko told him that I was the best mathematician in the class, he was happy, because he didn’t know yet that my career as a mathematical genius would end soon and hopelessly. Perhaps he was happy when, with superhuman effort in inhuman conditions, he completed work on his greatest invention: a machine that automatically watered balcony flower boxes. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. But then, when Master Sztwiertnia treated his project for a little chess table with dignity and curiosity, he was absolutely euphoric.

At first, like a student made self-conscious by unexpected recognition, he didn’t really know what to do. But he quickly overcame his triumphal abashment, and—not favoring either his female antagonists (who were suddenly intently focused on the tea kettle with sluggishly boiling water) or his his ally (which, immediately, judging by his euphoric countenance, Grandfather had become) with even a single glance—he launched upon detailed inquiries with Master Sztwiertnia.

One drawer for the figures and pawns will suffice, but it must be on the side, because that is both convenient, and it maintains the principle of impartiality. Chess is a game in which, before the beginning of the match, the pieces must not be kept on the side of any one of the players. Two drawers, one on each side—OK; but if there is one, then it must be in the middle. Sufficiently deep in order not to unsettle the balance; which is all to the good, since it will be firmly planted. And it won’t be necessary to pull it out the whole way; so that it will be possible to keep something important in its depths. For instance, photographs that you rarely look at or other paraphernalia intended for a man’s use. Sztwiertnia winked knowingly. Panicky hisses began to reach us immediately from the direction of the kitchen stove, but those were already a different sort of indignation. This was ritualistic indignation, and full, for that reason, of a peculiar relief. An indignation that was prepared, practiced, and even studied. An indignation expected by those who were going to feel indignant. An indignation that itself was anticipating its own venting. Not deprived of genuine excitement, but not sensational.

It was universally known that master Sztwiertnia was a rabid sex maniac and would shift every conversation, sentence, and situation in his favorite direction. The fact, however, that the master, in exploiting his uncommon talents, left signs of his obsession everywhere he could—this aroused genuine panic. Sztwiertnia had hands of gold, he could do practically everything, he dabbled in every craft and every art, he played numerous instruments, he also drew and painted magnificently. And it was well known that when you ordered from Sztwiertnia, for instance, a cabinet, it would be a cabinet slightly surpassing in beauty and solidity all the Kalwaria, Gdańsk, and other cabinets of the world; but it was also well known that, somewhere in its nooks and corners, the master—as if it were the author’s signature—would hide a troublesome detail, a lascivious ornament, an obscene bit. And that would not be some bare ass with a huge tit tossed off with his carpenter’s pencil. No way! The master would produce perfect mythological scenes, nudes worthy of Titian, Rubenesque shapes; he was realistic like Ingres, sensual like Renoir, perverse like Manet, distinctive—and particularly irremovable—like a Japanese woodcut. No need to add that, following the model of the old masters, Sztwiertnia often gave his nudes faces known to everyone in the neighborhood. The most notorious was the image of a muscular satyr with the head of Pastor Kalinowski embracing a buck-naked nymph, with the face of Ryfka Deresewicz, frozen in a spasm of absolute transport—oil on wood. The wood was the bottom of a huge feast table ordered by the parish for the Church House in commemoration of the founding of our church. The history of the origin of this masterpiece, its concealment, revelation, and destruction—this is a topic for another story.

It was clear what the studied hisses of the women signified and what they concerned. Bad enough that there was to be a little chess table, but now with pornography inside it to boot. But the Master, who adored reactions full of more or less feigned indignation, this time didn’t even twitch.

“Wait, wait a minute.” On his pale countenance appeared what seemed to be a truly erotic flush. “Wait, wait a minute. It isn’t fitting that the chessboard be glued onto the tabletop. I’ll say more, Mr. Engineer, it isn’t fitting either that it be glued in, recessed. That is, it must be recessed, but it can’t be any chessboard taken from some sort of factory-made chess sets. It must be an original chessboard. And we will have to make it, cut sixty-four squares, half with dark veneer, half colorless. Or it would be even better if we make the dark squares of walnut, or even better, black oak, and the white of sycamore. This will harmonize with the pine and be elegant. Wait! Wait a minute!”


Wait, wait a minute. Toward the end of August, Master Sztwiertnia appeared with the finished miracle under his arm. He set it down carefully in our courtyard covered with field stones and began to unwrap it from under numerous layers of The Workers’ Tribune. The removal of the successive veils ought to have been like the baring of a body, like a striptease, but it wasn’t. That is, on the one hand it was something more, on the other something less. More, because the solicitude with which Sztwiertnia removed the subsequent sheets of The Workers’ Tribune was some sort of hyper-solicitude and hyper-tenderness. With such extreme delicacy one doesn’t disrobe a woman, with such extreme delicacy one doesn’t even dismantle an atomic bomb. Less, because the languor of the Master’s movements also flowed from the fact that he was drunk as a lord—a sensation in itself, since Sztwiertnia practically didn’t drink at all.

Finally, the incomprehensible architecture was made visible, finally there spread before us the view of a cathedral in the desert, of a statue extracted from the swamps, of a fresco unveiled from under layers of Roman plasters, and slowly we approached its curves, symmetries, and radiance, and nobody knew what to say, for none of us had known such beauty and such selflessness before. And no one knew that such a thing existed, that it even could exist. Even the women had delight in their eyes, because you could feel that, without the help of God, it was impossible to bring something like that into existence. And then we began to touch it, test it, push and pull the drawer, count the squares; to examine what sort of luster the chessboard had when looked at an angle. And we examined Master Sztwiertnia’s masterpiece more and more conscientiously, more and more carefully did we follow its turns, leaps, and perspectives, and then we just stopped pretending that we were looking at it for the beauty of the construction, for the color, for the play of lights. Ever more impatiently and entirely openly and—that’s right—shamelessly did we investigate it, inch by inch, in search of the seal of love, which, on an object that perverse, must have been infinitely perverse. We pulled out the drawer and examined the bottom and the underside of the drawer, and the bay for the drawer, and we looked under the tabletop and everywhere. And there wasn’t anything anywhere, and we glanced with uncertainty at the Master, who stood near by and smoked Extra Strongs. We looked at him in the hope that he would give us some hint, if only the path leading to the erotic miniature, which perhaps it would be necessary to study through a magnifying glass, but those would be studies well worth the trouble. The Master, however, didn’t say anything, smoked, reeled slightly, came to, and once he had come to, and once he had finished smoking, he shook his head and said: “There isn’t anything there; that little table is the very essence of screwing in and of itself.”


Everything was now ready—the hanging kitchen cabinet, the bookshelves that were to fill an entire wall—and innumerable boxes stood in the courtyard in a covered spot, where, supposedly, even after the war there had stood an ancient coach, and where its scattered and corroded specter still roamed. Services, sets of knives and forks, towels, three wedding presents that hadn’t been opened in ten years, a vacuum cleaner, photograph albums, books, a floor lamp, an exceptionally beautiful étagère, a gigantic couch, an even larger armchair (a present from the bishop), pieces of crystal, a Capital City radio, several bales of material for window curtains—all this was supposed to fit into the two Cracow rooms, in which we would finally start living like human beings.

Translated by David Frick

Fresh off the boat, My First Suicide, by Jerzy Pilch

More Jerzy Pilch on Little Star here


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