Speaks, said the teacher. He speaks with an English accent.
You did your best to describe your mother, explaining that she was Italian, too, but that unlike your father, who spoke English better than Walter Cronkite, she had a heavy accent and coined her own distorted versions of common idiomatic expressions, turning “when worse comes to worst” into “bad that it goes,” and “don’t stand on ceremony” into “no make compliment,” and “I don’t give a damn” into “I no give a goop.” Some people find it charming, you said.
The teacher laughed and so did you.
You told the teacher about your grandmother, Nonnie, who had her own little room in a corner of the house (decorated with Japanese fans, smelling of lilac and mothballs), and the family dog, Pa’al (the apostrophe had been your idea), and how poorly behaved she was, how – to the amusement and horror of dinner guests – she’d climb on the dining room table after, and sometimes even during, the dessert course.
The teacher asked you about your brother. He wondered how you and George got along. You confessed that you fought a lot, you weren’t sure why, maybe because people were always comparing you or lumping you together – the Selgin Twins; the Selgin Boys – as if you were one and the same.
Which we aren’t, you said.
Of course you’re not, said the teacher.
You went on talking, with the teacher mostly asking questions and you answering them. Meanwhile the rain kept falling, pattering against the carriage house roof, dripping down from its eaves. There was a fancy wooden chessboard at the center of the table, its checkerboard pattern formed by alternating veneers of different woods. Seeing you admire it the teacher asked if you cared to play. You’d never played chess before.
It’s not hard, the teacher said. I’ll show you.
He showed you how to move the pieces. At first it seemed impossibly complicated, all those different pieces and so many ways to move them.
Take your time, the teacher instructed. This is one game that gets played between the moves.
By the third or fourth game it got easier, though it still took the teacher less than a dozen moves to checkmate your king. You played until it started to get dark outside and the rain fell less hard. It was time to go. The teacher let you borrow his umbrella.
As you stood ready to leave by the door, he said, I enjoyed our visit.
Me too, you said.
I’ll see what I can do about getting you into my class. You hadn’t even asked.
That’s all you’d remember, that and the smell of the stove and candle smoke and smoky tea, and of all the books filling the teacher’s shelves – a musty, vanilla-and-mushroom smell. And the sound of rain falling as you played chess.
You’d remember too how, as you walked home that day, things were different. The houses, the church steeple, the gasoline pumps at the Sunoco station, the cars splashing through puddles, the streams of smoke rising from people’s chimneys – they all looked the same. The town was the same town you’d spent most of your life in, where you rode your bike and waited for the school bus and watched the hat factories burn down one by one. Nothing had changed, really. Yet nothing would ever be quite the same.