Late one afternoon Howard and I were playing chess on the steps of the building where Howard and some
dopers and some members of a motorcycle gang lived together in relative peace. Harlen, the redneck wino,
was hanging out there as well for some unknown reason, slouching on the steps and drinking our beer. So,
there we were, on those steps in the dappled, tree-filtered sunlight. This is where we played chess. This is
where Howard beat me, consistently, and I hoped to learn enough to some day beat him.
A reasonably ugly young woman in truly vulgar cut-off jeans came out to discuss something in whispers with
Harlen, until they both got up and went quickly into the building, Harlen taking another beer with him. A few
minutes later she came out again and whispered something into Howard’s ear. He brushed her away like you
would a fly. I believe this is the same woman who one evening was in a heated debate with Harlen over which
is worse a lying fucker or a fucking liar. (Ultimately, they determined, and I think rightly, that fucking liars are
worse.) A few minutes later she came out again and whispered something into Howard’s ear. He told her he
“Come on…Howard!” she whined, “Why not?”
Howard ignored her while concentrating on a move, then squinted up at her and said, “Go away you
airhead.” She stomped off into the building, and we continued our game.
After a few minutes a big guy in a sleeveless denim jacket came thundering out, wiping his hands on a greasy
cloth and bellowing, “HOWARD!” Howard looked up.
“I heard you called my cunt an airhead!” the big guy bellowed.
“She is an airhead,” Howard said matter-of-factly, and returned to the game.
While he waited for me to move, the big guy continued to bellow. “I don’t like it, Howard. I don’t like anybody
calling my cunt an airhead.”
Howard ignored the guy and prepared to make his next move.
“Howard!” bellowed the big guy, “Are you listening to me, Howard?”
We looked at each other with raised eyebrows, every muscle straining in our effort not to burst into
The guy went back inside, but apparently decided he hadn’t said enough or maybe Howard didn’t understand
what he had said well enough, because he returned and stood behind us fuming. “Howard,” he barked, and
when Howard turned to face him he pointed at him and said, “it’s demeaning, Howard.”
Howard looked at him for a bit and then said, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s demeaning, Howard. It’s really demeaning.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to speak down to your…girlfriend.”
“I don’t mean her! It’s demeaning to ME, Howard.”
We looked at each other with raised eyebrows.
“I’m gonna go get a beer,” said Howard and got up and walked inside, with the big guy following him. I set the
chessboard aside and leaned back to take in the cool afternoon filtered sunlight on the steps. Harlen
reappeared and sat down next to me saying, “Why are you always hanging around here with us low-life’s
“Slim asked me that same question the other day,” I said.
Thankfully, Howard came out right then and said, “Let’s go in; there’s too much activity around here.” He
picked up the chess board like a pizza, and I picked up all the taken pieces in both hands and clutched them
to my chest.
So we went into that building and down the hall past a big beautiful old antebellum ballroom. The huge old
oak pocket doors to the room were half open so that I could admire the fine carvings on their massive panels.
Looking inside I saw the high ceiling, the large stone mantel, wonderful hand-carved molding covering every
available inch of the place. Lighting it all up like a daydream were floor to ceiling stained glass windows that
someone had made before the civil war. The floor was parquetry with a sundial effect. And inside there, laid
out as if it had undergone a carefully controlled explosion was an old Harley Davidson. All the parts had been
placed neatly around the block which sat in the center of the sunburst parquetry in the center of the floor.
Parts radiated out in every direction. Here and there were buckets with black liquid in them and newspapers
and rags soaking up oil and grease. Gears and chains and who knows what were all sitting there on top of
As I was standing there, chess pieces cupped in my hands, taking all of this in, a big guy who’d been on his
knees doing something in a corner, grunted, rose to his feet, and came over to block my view. “It’s a 1953
knucklehead,” he said in a challenging manner, “And I don’t want you even looking at it.”
OK” I agreed and started to walk away.
“I don’t want YOU even smelling it!” he shouted after me. When I looked back just to be sure he wasn’t
coming after me with a tire iron, I saw that he had stepped out into the hallway with a big wrench in one hand.
He shouted, “I don’t want you even THINKING about my scooter!”
Suddenly, before us, was the airhead. She was smiling sloppily and stumbled against the wall. “Hey,
Howard…” she said and crooked a finger at him.
“Let’s go out,” said Howard and turned around, still carrying the chess set like a pizza. “there’s too much
activity in here.”
So, we turned around and I was very careful not to look at the guy, who had returned to breaking down his
bike, or to even glance in that direction as we went by. As requested, I did not smell and I did not even think
about that guy’s bike.
Outside, we finished the chess game (which Howard won as usual) and finished the beer. We were leaning
back under the overhanging trees when Harlen came back out and told me something that I wish, to this very
day, he hadn’t. Meanwhile Howard had started setting up the board for another game under the street light.