The last breeze from winter cut through the spring air and found its way inside Walter’s jacket sending a shiver through his old bones. He knew Frank had seen it. Frank saw everything. Walter was surprised he didn’t have some snarky…
“The beating I put on you last week got you shaking in your loafers now?”
There it was. Walter smiled and continued to place the chess pieces on the stone table that rose between the benches where they sat. Even with the silver canopy of clouds filtering the morning light each marble piece seemed to shine brightly. The pair of old friends began to set their pieces in a practiced rhythm, each click creating a beat to a song that only they could play.
The air crackled as another breeze kicked up a pile of dried leaves. Walter scanned the park. The city brimmed with life just outside its borders, but they were alone in the acres of trees and walkways with the exception of a man jogging around the pond that sat like a blue jewel in the park’s center. He was talking to a wire that hung from his left ear.
Frank picked up a pawn and tapped in down in a different square to start the game. Like a small starter’s pistol, the sound set off the beginning of their conversation. Walter enjoyed this game more than the one spread before them.
“What do you think about all this?” Walter asked jabbing a thumb toward the chain link fence that was being erected and encircled nearly half the park. A green plastic tarp was being secured to the sections of fence that had already been set in place.
The announcement had been on the front page of the newspaper that morning. City officials had commissioned some local artist to… Well they were not quite sure what he was going to do, but he needed absolute privacy to do it. The park would be closed for the next six weeks while he worked. It was all part of some downtown beautification initiative.
A low grunt of disgust was Frank’s initial answer. The frown he usually wore turned to a scowl, which deepened the sagging skin around his mouth. This new look turned the calm sea of skin covering his head into wave after wave of angry wrinkles that spread out across his forehead and crashed into the levies of his bushy grey eyebrows. His blue eyes stayed hidden beneath the safety of those eyebrows most days and only appeared when Frank was surprised or laughed.
Walter waited patiently knowing Frank would share more when he felt like it. He slid a pawn forward to prepare building a defense against Frank’s future onslaught.
“Modern art is a joke. These yahoos can’t paint. Can’t sculpt. They just throw a bunch of garbage together, call it art, and cash their check so they can buy fruity drinks and wear girl pants.”
This brief discourse on modern art made Walter chuckle. He watched Frank’s fingers twitch as he contemplated which strategy he wanted to employ. They stilled for a split second before plucking up a bishop and smashing it down in its new home.
Walter rubbed his chin as he studied the board and thought about his next move in their game of words. He reached for a knight and watched for the tiniest reaction from Frank, but his face was as unchanging as the stone upon which they played. Walter smiled at himself for such a foolish ploy as his hand glided to a different pawn and slid it forward two places.
“Ya never know. Maybe he will create a masterpiece that will be looked upon for generations.”
It was not quite a statement and not quite a question. Frank huffed again and clapped his queen down across the board without hesitation. Walter waited for more, but that was they last his grumpy friend chose to say on the subject.
The game play slowed as pieces began to spread across the board. Walter kept the conversation going, providing most of the dialogue. As pieces began to disappear the balance of power became clear. Frank had nearly double the number of pieces spectating as Walter.
Warm sunlight finally fell on the men as the clouds began to pull apart like cotton candy in the hands of child. Frank removed his coat and laid it beside him. Walter sensed a rare victory coming as their game progressed and took each piece with a growing sense of excitement.
Frank accepted the capture of each of his pieces with stoic resignation. All conversation stopped as the game neared its end. Walter saw that his victory was only three moves away and forced a smile to stay hidden for just a while longer. Frank’s fingers grabbed his remaining rook and for the first time all day gently placed it in the center of a black square. The silence only lasted for a second.
Walter stared in disbelief. He worked through the progression of his pieces and found no moves left to save him. His smile needed no help hiding this time.
“Frank! You sly fox. How did you do that?”
Frank stood and tossed his coat over his arm before replying. His voice grated like sandpaper.
“You’re like everyone else Walter. You’re too busy looking at the obvious to notice what’s most important.”
Frank made a sound that was probably his version of a laugh before strolling away with a slow burdened shuffle.
Walter called out after him.
“See you in six weeks?”
Frank raised his coat covered arm and gave a little waive.
Walter looked at the board once more. He still could not figure out where he had gone wrong. Minutes passed before he shook his head and began to collect the pieces.
Spring had risen to its full glory on the morning that Walter made his way to the park carrying his chess set in it’s walnut case. Birds hopped from branch to branch filling the air with Sleeping Beauty’s song. Flowers bloomed and mixed with the scent of coffee that permeated downtown.
Walter was amazed at the myriad of activities taking place throughout the park as he neared the entrance. The chain link fence that had surrounded the grounds for the past six weeks was now gone. Families sat on blankets eating while a man combed through the grass with a metal detector. Some boys tossed a red Frisbee near the pond. Not too far away an older woman with a camera was taking pictures of tree. Couples strolled along the walkways that spread out like a web stopping at random to look at the flowers that had begun to blossom.
A small crowd gathered around something a few steps from the entrance into the park. Walter assumed that it was the new piece of art and strolled over to have a look. He slid into an opening vacated by two teenagers holding hands completing the half circle of curious people.
A flat bronze plaque, the size of a coffee table, lay imbedded in a square of cement. Small gasps marked the moment each person finished reading the words engraved on it.
This park holds a masterpiece.
Whoever finds it, may keep it forever.
Walter smiled. This was just the kind of thing Frank would hate. Win or lose, at least he would enjoy an interesting conversation during today’s game.
When Walter arrived at the table he found Frank already sitting on his bench staring at the people that dotted the park like a Jackson Pollock painting. After sitting down he placed the wooden case on the table and began to pull out the pieces. Frank continued to stare at the people around them.
Walter assumed Frank would return his attention to the table once all of the pieces were set out, but the soft click of the case being closed did nothing to pull his eyes from what held them. Because Frank had used the white pieces the last time they played, giving him the first move, Walter began ordering the tiny white warriors in their proper places along his side of the board. He finished quickly and began setting the black pieces as he waited for Frank to return from wherever his thoughts had taken him.
Though his pawn made no sound as Walter slid it forward, Frank suddenly turned and began to study the board. His fingers performed an aerial ballet while he pondered his first move. Walter was eager to know his friend’s thoughts and did not wait for Frank to move before asking, “So… what do you think of the new ‘art’?”
Frank’s fingers danced over to the knight and plucked it off the board. He spoke before setting it down on the chosen square.
He plopped the rook down and turned to once more to the people crawling over the park.
“You can’t be serious… It’s a joke!”
Frank turned back to look at Walter. His soft blue eyes were barely visible behind the now built in squint and bushy eyebrows.
“It’s the silliest thing I’ve seen in a world that grows sillier by the day.” Walter continued. “What’s the point of creating a beautiful work of art and then hiding it so no one can see it? And even if someone finds it, then they’re gonna take it and still no one would see it. It’s asinine.”
Walter picked up another pawn and moved it forward. He secretly wondered if Frank had said that just to mess with him, but shook off the idea as soon as he remembered that Frank didn’t have a sense of humor.
Instead of his usual finger twitch, Frank folded his hands in his lap. His sigh had a note of sadness in it. He turned to look at the people again.
“What do you see when you look out there?”
Walter followed Frank’s gaze. People milled about. Some were clearly searching for something, while others simply enjoyed a small escape from city life.
“I see people searching for something that isn’t there. I see sheep. And somewhere a wolf is watching and laughing at them.”
Frank shook his head.
“You never learn Walt. Still looking at the obvious and missing the most important things.”
Walter should have been angry, but he wasn’t. His curiosity trumped every other emotion that tried to rise in him.
“What am I missing Frank? Tell me.”
Frank looked at his friend once more. His eyebrows lifted revealing the fullness of what had been hidden for so long. Walter saw no malice in his eyes, just two pools of joy that slowly spread down to the corners of his mouth.
“I believe you are correct when you say that the artist did not create a work of art, but that does not mean that a masterpiece is not present. Some people may search in vain, but not all. Those who find it will be able to keep it forever without hindering anyone else from the same opportunity. The masterpiece has been here all along in the way the wind weaves through the grass. It is the way a child’s laughs tickles the heart. It is in each tree, flower, and wrinkle of water. The artist did something truly special. Which is harder to do, create something new for people to label beautiful or help them see the beauty that has been there all along?”
Copyright © 2013 Adam Drake