Short Story a Week #1: Grandpa Pembroke’s Greatest Treasure

A little pre-story reading, first.  Yes, I’m totally almost two days behind.  Yes, I’m still also two weeks behind, more or less.  No, I did not account for how stressful these past two weeks would be; what, do you think I have a crystal ball or something?  I’d have won the lottery if that were the case (and totally made it so the people who matter to me are debt-free and living comfortably, as well as making my life a little less crazy).  However, because of that I have two stories (the second one will be arriving tomorrow, during the day), and a bonus something-or-other because I still feel guilty for some reason.  Maybe because I’m already well on my way as a writer to ignoring deadlines as they fly past, glaring at me for my lack of good work ethic.

This first short story, titled Grandpa Pembroke’s Greatest Treasure, started off as an idea about a chess set.  It gradually evolved into what it is, and it has become rather dear to me.  I’m fairly certain the inspiration is my stepmother’s father, Tibor Zalavary (whose name I hope I’ve not butchered, since I only really knew him as Mr. Zalavary).  He was one of the first people I ever played chess with, and I still remember how he schooled me every single time.  He also introduced me to The Pink Panther, as portrayed by Peter Sellers, and I will always treasure the memory of sitting in his living room, the smell of cigarette ash in the air, laughing to the point of tears with someone I wish I could have gotten to know better.  As such, I hope this story does his memory justice.

Grandpa Pembroke’s Greatest Treasure

Just this past weekend, on a particularly bright and sunny day that angered me to no end because it did no justice to the overall sadness everyone in my family was feeling, I was reminded how the passing of a loved one evokes some of the most unexpected memories.

Grandpa Pembroke, my mum’s father, passed away in his sleep, quietly, only two weeks prior, which doctors tried telling me was a blessing in disguise.  The words lung cancer had been, and still sort of remain, taboo within the confines of my home, but I suppose on some level it’s true he passed away peacefully in his sleep.

It was important for me to meet with his greasy, unpleasant lawyer, Saul Williams, who had a habit of making me uncomfortable every time I’d ever seen him by wiping his sweaty brow with the same hand he’d immediately offer for a handshake.  He did so, and had me sit in his dimly-lit basement office, which he insisted was the cornerstone of the lawfirm even if his colleagues viewed him as something to be hidden away from public view.  Without a word, he pushed a box across his desk toward me, offering only a dour little half-smile.  When I opened the box, I knew why; my granddad had left me his chess set.  Anyone who knew him knew well the importance of that set, though it was hardly a proper collection of pieces by any standard now.

Back in 1930, Grandpa Pembroke boarded a tremendous boat with similar tradesmen from what was Czechoslovakia.  Thinking back on it, everything sounds terribly cliché.  He had only so little money to his name, the dream of starting new in the United States—where he believed the only thing standing between a man and his place under the sun was good, old-fashioned hard work—and a certain energy about him.  His friends brought that up at the funeral a lot.  How he always seemed very much on, like he could accomplish anything at any time.  And with a smile.  He always had a big, toothy grin, even at the worst of times.

The journey was a long one, and so the men passed the time however they could.  A little over halfway to the States, and a story I’d heard many times when I was younger, my grandfather encountered a man who was betting on chess.  Most of the people were fairly poor, and so to have a chess board seemed oddly luxurious.  Its owner at the time was playing, and mercilessly outwitting others, for money.  Or, when my grandfather told the story, the man was liberating the others of their pieces, their dignity, and their hard-earned savings.  For whatever reason, he decided to take the challenge.  His terms, however, were if he won he could have the chess set.

Granddad was always a very clever man.  He may have been unfamiliar with all the rules, but he picked them up as the game progressed.  To say he won by luck seems almost insulting, but he got his chess set and treasured it from that point on.  [Add history]

As time went on, it became more uniquely his.  One of the black knights became difficult to identify when its horse-shaped head cracked and fell off.  Several of the pawns were lost in the scuffle of moving to new homes, and were replaced by hand-carved pieces when Granddad could find the time; small pieces of wood, not quite the right colors for the game, with marbles fixed to their tops.  A salt shaker pilfered from The Sunnier Side diner, an establishment my grandfather frequented after many a long day at work in the Pittsburgh steel mills, replaced one of the white bishops.

No matter what state the set was in, Grandpa Pembroke always managed to school me.  I learned the Fool’s Mate when we first started playing.  He had various strategies with names like Napoleon’s Finest Hour or The Wise Old Man Stands Tall.  Some of them were expert strategies, I’d later learn, he had renamed.  The others?  Well, some of those strategies must have been his own creations, as no amount of searching revealed anything similar used by the pros.

Saul mentioned something about how a chess set like that, with its unique flair, could probably net me some nice walking around money.  I wasn’t even a little interested, so I boxed it back up.  On the way back to my car, I found myself thinking about how it would be nice to share this with someone, some day.  When I got home, I told myself, I would ask my wife to sit down and play a game or two.  Maybe watch one of the Peter Sellers-era “Pink Panther” movies.

Just like when I played chess with Grandpa Pembroke.

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