Last Night at the Circle Cinema (5 page)

BOOK: Last Night at the Circle Cinema
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The wall of urinals revealed nothing, but in the stall, at the bottom of the toilet, was a small skull.

Not human. Just plastic, blue. The screams were louder up close and I needed—desperately—to find a way to silence them but as I stood there for what felt like way too long, I knew I had to pick the thing up. I zipped myself and then took a breath. Clenching my fist, I reached forward and—paused. If Bertucci was involved with the skull—and how could he not be—I figured there'd be wires to cut or switches to find to shut the screams off.

But as soon as I held the skull in my hand, it stopped. Mid-scream, the bathroom went from dimly lit horror factory to mellow palace of defecation. I put the skull back down and the scream came back—louder, it seemed. I held it, the skull was quiet. I put it down, same thing.

I held it under the faucet. It still screamed, this time like a drowning man, caught in the rapids. I tried flushing it, and it popped back up, scaring me again.

“Go to hell,” I told the skull and it screamed back at me from the toilet bowl.

I stood, hands on my hips, staring at the skull as it bobbed and screamed up at me.

“You win,” I said aloud and picked the skull up, not tentative this time. I brought it over to the sink and gave it a quick bath, dried it best I could with my shirt, and held it with me as I went back out into the Circle's dark underbelly.

Freud said that the way our minds react to a trauma is by repeating it, even though that's a paradox because who the hell wants to repeat something frightening? But it's kind of a defense mechanism. And there I was, repeating myself, going back into the dark and heading nowhere.

Only instead of feeling worse and more alone than ever, I had the bizarre skull in my hand, and it was quiet. And I wasn't exactly alone.

“You win, Bertucci.”



I'd never told anyone about my chess-playing past until the first snow last winter. Livvy trekked to my house only to ask me to drive her home. “I just needed a break from my parents,” she'd said, and I'd gotten the keys to my parents' Camry, digging them out from the back of the bread box where my mother had taken to hiding them once my father had “gone to the basement” where he kept his stash of Kilbeggan. My mom didn't know that my dad had another set of keys locked in his rusty cash box. My dad didn't know that I knew the code to that cash box, 1757, the same year displayed on every bottle of Kilbeggan. So we were all semi-delusional about how safe everyone was from themselves.

“So, where to?” I'd asked Livvy once she was buckled in safely.

“Anywhere. Home, I guess.” Her breath came out in cotton ball gasps, and she wasn't wearing enough clothing. I shed my jacket, took off the sweater I had underneath, and handed it to her. Without protesting, she accepted it and pulled it over her head while I wriggled back into my jacket.

“Heat's still broken,” I said as I backed out of the driveway. It was my mother's car originally, and she hadn't been feeling well lately, and that meant not working much which translated as no extra cash to throw at her rotting vehicle. At some point it would just give up completely and sit dead in the driveway.

“It's okay,” Livvy said. She turned to look out the window, her left hand was very close to the gearshift where my right hand was. “I found out about you,” she said without turning.

“Oh yeah?” I forced my voice to be even, though I was nervous. What had she found out? Browser history? Evidence of some prank I'd pulled at school? Counting the pills in my medicine cabinet?

“Oh yeah. Not that I was lurking or anything, but I found stuff about how you were ...” She moved her hand on top of mine, shifting through first gear at the red light through second and into fourth when we were on Apple Street, away from traffic. “... A chess prodigy. How come you never said anything?”

When I was nine years old, I was the fourth-ranked chess player in the Northeast. After school and on Saturdays, I played the old guys in Brookville Square, the ones who used to be good but had started to drink, or the one Russian homeless guy who taught me the Catalan Opening for when I played white. I was an anxious kid—always picking at my cuticles and making up reasons why I shouldn't leave the house. And our house had the charm and grace of an old marathon sock, so you knew something was off. But chess was structure and planning and theory, and the confines of it made it easy for me.

I shrugged. I pulled over because while I wanted to be the kind of guy who could drive with a beautiful girl's hand on mine in a gesture open to innumerable interpretations, I wasn't. I was the kind of guy who pulled over and asked about it.

Livvy's turn to shrug. “I'm cold?” she sounded unsure. “I don't know. Doesn't it feel okay?”

“It does,” I said. I did not add,
But what does it mean?
“But so, yeah, I used to compete.”

“And then?” Livvy kept her hand on mine and I kept mine on the gear.

“And then I stopped.” I moved my hand out from under hers, and when she looked the tiniest bit wounded by this I touched her hair, which sort of spilled out from her flimsy crocheted hat, the kind of hat a grandma probably made and that someone—other girls—would only wear in front of that grandma to be nice, but that Livvy actually pulled off without incident.

“But if you were, you know, this chess star, why would you just—”

“Because I woke up one morning and it was no different than any other morning and I didn't feel like going to play and I didn't feel like reviewing strategies. There's this term,
, which is when you suspend a game with the intention of returning to it later on.”

“And was your break sort of an adjournment?” Livvy bit her lip as my fingers looped around her hair.

“I thought it was, at first.” Her hair felt like new grass, soft and fine and impossible not to want to touch or smell. “And then I just never went back.”

Livvy shifted around, knocking my hand out of her hair, wrestling something from her back pocket. She unfolded a piece of paper to show me a grainy picture of myself, little, three maybe, with my hands folded on a chessboard, my chin resting on my hands. “How cute are you?” She paused. “I mean, you still are, of course.”

“Of course,” I said. There's this old cliché in chess: planlessness is punished. And I knew right then that I was planless. In chess, you need the ability to evaluate your position and formulate a plan. I felt that I was often meticulous at planning certain things—a prank in which I filled the principal's office with so much popcorn she couldn't open the door—but with girls, I was lost. I lacked a plan for what to do with Livvy or even Ruby Benson, one of the ridiculously airbrushed twins who lived next to Codman and with whom I had hooked up on multiple occasions, never managing to formulate a plan beyond each time.

“You know Lissa Matthews?” Livvy asked. She breathed into the window and, in the steam, wrote
in script.

I scrambled for this life preserver. “Part-time eco group leader, field hockey filly, perpetual tan?”

Livvy nodded. “You left off ‘kind to animals' and ‘founder of Lost & Found & Found Again.'”

I hadn't forgotten the last part. I'd left it off because I could tell Livvy wanted me to disregard Lissa Matthews, which I did in many ways, as she was a semi-undistinguishable part of the sheep-lemming herd of which Codman was a sideliner. But she'd done one good thing by starting Lost & Found & Found Again, taking all of the unclaimed items each term and donating them to the local shelters so families had hoodies in various sizes, binders, textbooks, sneakers, sometimes even T-shirts with the tags still on. I liked the idea of finding homes for these misplaced items, the stray socks and gloves making their way onto someone who might appreciate them. “What about her?” The life preserver suddenly suspiciously like an anchor.

Livvy looked at me with her lovely mouth and parenthetical raised eyebrows.

“Oh. She and Codman?” I watched as Livvy nodded. Her lips twitched like she couldn't make up her mind about laughing or sobbing. It sort of hit me then that she wouldn't cry over me in that way. I knew I mattered to her, but at the same time I felt apart from the whole Brookville High scene. “And you care a lot or a little?” I adjusted and readjusted the rearview mirror as though I'd suddenly seen something of interest.

“It's not that I want to be Lissa. I don't. We used to be friends in seventh grade and, trust me, she isn't ... No. Wait. I am not going to be that girl.” She touched the steam-coated window again.

“What girl?”

“The girl who picks apart other girls because of some emotional thing. So, never mind. Yes, Codman and Lissa are supposedly an item now, whatever that entails. But.” She looked at her left hand, the one that'd started this, and I wondered if that was guilt.

“But.” I started the car again and felt a rush of energy building in me. The life preserver. “But ... that doesn't mean we can't spontaneously pick Codman up from his therapist's office, which is where he is on Friday afternoons at this time, and kidnap him and have the three of us do something.”

Livvy smiled.

“Do you need to get home? I don't want to impose my potentially criminal actions on you if your parents will mind.”

“My mother will not mind at all if I do,” Livvy said in her best
Cat in the Hat
voice. “In fact, my parents are away all weekend so if—and I'm not saying we have to, but if—we wind up at my house for forty-eight hours, it wouldn't be the end of the world.”

“Yes. Yes!” I said and slammed my hand down on the wheel, which of course made the horn blare and the car in front of me stop short so I also stopped short. The woman in the car ahead gave me the finger, but I just waved to her. “So here's the thing about planning. It's the process by which chess players take advantage of their position's advantages and try to minimize the drawbacks of the faults of that position.”

Livvy tried to follow along, riding the passenger seat of both my actual car and my theoretical train of thought as I swerved away from her house and the elegant Victorians around it toward the newer but still just-as-large houses on the other side of Main over to where Codman lived a few doors down from his therapist.

I could see that she minded the way I was driving, minded that Codman's attentions might be focused elsewhere, minded that her parents were away and minded that no matter what happened, you were stuck in your own skin in your own town, in your own life. But she did not put her hand on mine again.

“It doesn't matter, Livvy,” I told her. “What matters is the three of us. And escalators. And eating food in alphabetical order. That's what matters.”

For a second, Livvy looked worried, her mouth pulled down at the edges. Sometimes I think I scared her. Other times I think she liked being a little scared, that it pulled her from her comfortable house and her predictable existence. Then she puffed again and exhaled onto the window. Where she'd written “Lissa” showed up again, and she clapped her hands. “Yes. Friday night! Escalators! Codman. Us!”

In order to be successful in the game, planning must always be done with the existing characteristics of your position. You can't plan with what
be available. Only what you have. Harry Golombek had taught me that in his
Encyclopedia of Chess
. “It is most difficult ... when the position is evenly balanced,” he wrote, “and easiest when there is only one plan to satisfy the demands of the position.”

(Did I already have some of the plan in place then? Had it crystallized that fast?)

“I love that you have a plan, Bertucci,” Livvy said as we parked at Codman's house. We walked up the street, discussing how amusing it would be to pretend to be patients in the waiting room and then surprise Codman when he came out of the office.

“I love that you love that I have a plan, Livvy.” I was pretty sure right then that Livvy and I as a couple would never satisfy the demands of any position we were likely to find ourselves in. But Livvy and Codman—and yet Codman wasn't with her either. Neither of them knew where the keys were to the car, as it were. I walked along the sidewalk with Livvy to fetch Codman, to stitch the three of us back together again. I felt the cold creeping into my bones, the blank night spreading out around us.



“I am just a girl walking down a dark hallway on a stormy night in a closed-up theater being stupid and probably dangerous and obviously making a colossal mistake,” I said once I'd gone away from the gallery of tragically bad art and from Codman. He was probably singing to himself, old French punk songs he and Bertucci memorized. Bertucci was the one who'd had me listen to “Girls Talk,” that Elvis Costello song he had on vinyl. That one line asking if it was really murder or were they just pretending. In the Circle's dead air, the line ripped through me, giving me chills.

“How do you spell
?” I asked aloud. “B-E-R-T-U ... I'm not kidding, Bertucci. That's what this is. In case you think this is clever or funny. Well, forget it. No more. We're not playing for a mention in the fucking school paper.”

I didn't write for the school paper any longer—the last issue was published two weeks before, with Bertucci headlining—and besides, our actions would attract real legal consequences now. As it was, we were still invisible to the school.

“You think your mother would have approved?” I said aloud, but softly this time.

Bertucci's mother would have approved. She thought everything her son did was great, even the pranks that became school scandals. And he pranked her right up to the end too. I was over there every afternoon and a bunch of mornings with Bee, making sure she drank the protein shake Bertucci blended up for her—she was losing weight so fast, shrinking away into nothing. And I'd washed her a little, which Bertucci couldn't do, and his father wasn't around much except for puttering in the basement.

BOOK: Last Night at the Circle Cinema
3.8Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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