The black king

The house has been quiet for more than a year. Parties, not wild but happy, used to distract the whole block, and several of the neighbors did not shy from joining in a celebration they knew nothing about or did not quite understand. The man in this house was an open neighbor. He did not have a history, nor did he seem to create any that could be seen from the street. Amiable and talkative when he stopped at a fence to say hello, and often seen carrying a face that was all smile, he was to some people eminently approachable, and to others plainly weird.

But women liked him. They liked him perhaps because he was conscious of not letting his eyes drop to their breasts and hips, or perhaps because, when he spoke, ordinary words would reveal an emotion.

The house was different. Unchanging. Weather and years had no effect on it. So, when he disappeared inside it, he was no longer a neighbor but a secret.

I don’t want to imply that the house was severe or gloomy. It was nothing like that. When he arrived, I think it was eight years ago, he stripped the ugly paint off it, planted evergreens front and back, and put startling pink azaleas in pots under the sills of the front window. On tables beside windows which faced the other street-the house is at a corner-he grew obconicas mainly, friendly flowers that I don’t like because when they are perfect they look artificial. From either street it was possible to see the rooms. They were sparsely furnished but painted in warm colors, and each of them differently. The picture of the house had been completed eight years ago and it never changed. A house should be a process, accumulating life. Parts of the garden should die, others flourish. Paintings, photos, tables and chairs, should move. Neglect should inspire unfitness of its looks, at least occasionally. And then, probably, there should be more than visitors. A family should scar it, graze the skin. A little mending and changing is good for a house. In this house, though, there was none of that. The house seemed inconsistent with the man. It had the rigidity of a silence intended to end argument and change. A picture of stability which could be happiness.

Through most of this time I never spoke to him. That was not willful. The opportunity never arose; though it could also be said I never made one. When we first met I was one of the team whose work would be to care for him during the last few months of his life.

“I’ve seen you”, he said and eyebrows lifted to form an irony.

“Yes, I live close by.”

“It must be strange. Is it allowed?”

“We talked it over. I don’t think there will be any problems.”

“If I’d known I could have invited you up for a meal”, he said, in that manner that was to become familiar, talking as though there were no more chances to do or to plan. For a moment I stumbled on the thought of objecting vigorously.

“You still can.”

He laughed, surprised to find he talked about himself in the past tense. “Yes, of course, though you may have to cook if I feel like shit.”

“I’m not that bad a cook, really. You may be disappointed.”

In the first half of the last year the house was noticeably closed. Window shutters locked a month at a stretch, the canary yellow car disappeared, and the grass, what small area of it there is, grew too long. He was in hospital while the burglars moved in.

I am told that when he was in hospital he was a different man completely. The place reminded him of his dependence on other people and the truth of his illness. Why would a perfectly able and competent person be in hospital? He hardened against the forms of help and incessant prodding and testing which are natural (or at least unavoidable) in hospitals, so that it seemed to the staff he was normally unfriendly, plaintive, and terse. They were glad to get rid of him when it was decided he could stay at home, or, rather, that there was nothing more that they could do for him.

In his house he could be difficult, too, but here at least there was time for him to explain what he wanted and didn’t want, and the team considered it part of its work to make these adjustments—within reason.

With some people the problem is an excessive willingness to be helped; these people want servants who will turn dying into a style of luxury. —That’s what I’m told.

In the first weeks he would allow us little more than to drive him to appointments with his doctors, for tests at the hospital, or to visit relatives. He was uncomfortable driving when he discovered his vision could suddenly blur. For a long while he relied on friends, those who were not afraid to visit or, rather, to wait through the long silences or bouts of crying that could erupt at almost any moment. If it was not plain fear that kept some away, the uncertainty of dealing with certain death restrained the rest from visiting. It was to provide relief for those people who had helped most that we were here.

Elizabeth was the first of us to notice his passion for chess. Among the books in his library was a section devoted to the game, and in the living room an old cabinet contained at least a dozen sets of men and boards.

“Everyone says that. Without fail, it is always the first thing you hear.”

“No, really, I think I know the rules, but I’m sure I’m no good at it”, Liz replied. “I like board games, though.”

“I like them less now.”

“What do you mean?”

“For some reason people always advise a new opponent they are really no good at the game”, he said, setting up the black pieces on his side of the board. “They think of it as an intellectual game. The mind goes on the line.”

“No reason for you to worry, if you’re good at it.”

“I suppose not”, he said with some anger.

“Well, we can just play. You don’t have to talk about it”, Liz said.

In the middle-game he started to talk again, looking at the board. “If I castle, plant a knight in front of this position, and play safely, the defence works itself out. I wouldn’t need to force a win. Draws can be very satisfying. It’s not at all like life; there’s too much art in it.”

“Competitive, too”, Liz offered, struggling with his cryptic messages.

“With you, unfair competition.”

“I’m easy!”

“All of you together, it’s unfair.”

We learned not to be so rigid in our scheduling and we let him arrange us around him, realising that eagerness to help could destroy the will. It was unfair.

But this, like everything in the last few months, also changed. At first, he wouldn’t allow us to do the laundry. He persisted with this ban longer than anything else, for reasons that must have been quite irrational because he didn’t mind at all that we did the ironing. In the meantime, we restored the house when he wasn’t looking, repaired the garden, and potted plants. The picture of the house got better as he deteriorated.

He never forgot about the washing completely. His body would not allow him to forget. During long periods of diarrhoea he lost weight into his bedclothes and trousers; and when the problem wasn’t diarrhoea he would be throwing up every meal. We became adept with buckets and towels. That was easy enough. It was much harder to cope with his embarrassment and sense of degradation. When he felt this most acutely it wasn’t strange he wouldn’t talk to us, answering with shrugs, grimaces, and nods, instead of words. Moods fluctuated with his body, though, and when he felt better, he talked more.

Twice he asked to speak to meetings of volunteers and it was during these meetings we heard what he thought about us.

“I hate every one of the people, every one of those volunteers who come into my house”, he said. “I hate seeing my clothes neatly pressed. I hate having the bed made for me. I hate hearing questions like ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ ‘Do you think you will be able to have some dinner tonight?’ ‘Would you like to see your mother tomorrow?’ So I swear and curse. I think that if I hate everything that is happening to me enough, if I am angry enough, it will all go away. Stupid. What’s amazing is that these people decide they are not going to give up on me. Anger makes me feel better. It keeps me going.”

At the start of summer his mother arranged a birthday party, gathering all the reluctant, complaining family at the house. She wanted us to be there, too.

It seemed to me the more light came into the house the worse he looked, the easier it was to see those purple blotches which had appeared on his face.  —No, not really the light. It was seeing more of his family made me realise how divisive and frightening illness could be. Mother watched everyone keenly, afraid that at any moment someone would let a taboo word loose like a bullet in the air. Sister hugged him too quickly, and careful not to let her lips touch his face. Elder brother’s wife and child had conveniently found other duties with a mother-in-law. All this healthy prejudice and fear made him look ill.

I winced with embarrassment whenever someone took up their duty to make conversation.

His cousin, Tom, arrived like a change of weather, strode into the living room with a large, brown-papered parcel, and larger smile, planted himself on the sofa, and kissed the thin, sick man on the lips-leaving some of his smile there.

“Sorry about the paper.”

“Oh, god, not another one.”

“Who did you say was the chess player?”

“John. Over there”, he said, looking at me.

“Good. I’ll beat him first then.”

“Not if I have anything to do with it”, I said, accepting the challenge.

The brown paper tore open, revealing a new chess board and heavy, wood box.

“That’s the last thing he needs”, the elder brother moaned.

“Yeah, I know, aren’t they wonderful?” Tom replied, opening the box and taking out two of the pieces. “Come on, we’ll set them up on the table in there.”

Tom and I played chess, on the table with the obconicas. Brothers and sister talked, I thought too eagerly, with Liz and Mary, the two women on the team. Perhaps they thought if the conversation with the women lapsed they would have to speak with the men. With the women they could simply be grateful, but the men were another matter. They would have to ask, “Why are you doing this?” or “What are you really doing this for?” Tom, though, felt no need to avoid any of us.

“He told me you live near here.”

“Yep. Just down the street a bit.”

“You didn’t know him before?”

“No. We’d never met.”

“Well, he likes you. I mean he likes you more than the others. Not that he isn’t grateful to all of you, but he likes you the most.”

“I don’t understand that at all.”

“He says you say what you think and you wouldn’t let him win at this”, Tom said, nodding at the board.

“I don’t beat him anyway.”

“You will, though… You know he uses the game to keep watch on himself.”

“No?”

“He doesn’t care about the Kaposi’s and the rest of it. Well, that’s not right: he does care. He just doesn’t want to go off his head as well. He couldn’t stand that. He’s afraid he won’t be able to think.”

“Oh, I see.”

“He’s got a nickname for you.”

“Does he?”

“Yeh.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Guess.”

“I’ve no idea.”

“The black king. That’s what he calls you. Silly, isn’t it?”

“I hope so.”

“Well, you’re not doing too well today. I’m going to win, I think.”

“It does look bad for me.”

“So why are you doing this?”

“Helping, here?” I asked, to make sure I would answer the right question.

“Of course.”

“Lots of reasons. Just to help, for a start. Then, so he will know he’s not alone, I suppose.”

“What about you, though? What do you get out of it? And if you say ‘satisfaction’ I’ll hit you.”

“No … To tell the truth I don’t know yet.”

From its first days everyone thought that summer would be particularly hot and mulled over hot synonyms like an incantation. Scorch, blaze, and the rest.

A week after the birthday party another heat began. Mary telephoned one morning and waited at the gate for me as I ran down the street. We may have committed some indiscretion, or maybe one of the family had trusted a neighbor. It was just as likely that gossip and guessing had, for once, converged on the truth and spread like fire to the surrounding houses. On the footpath a great slash of red paint spilt from a can underlined the four letters of my neighbor’s new name, written with a thick, bold brush. I was astonished and Mary was crying. “That’s not all”, she said.

“What else!? What else could the bastards do?”

She took one hand from her face to point at the letterbox which was filthy with excreta.

“Does he know?”

“He can see from the window, John.”

“Please, you go inside, Mary. I’ll get rid of this.”

For a moment I thought of cleaning it, but really I wanted to kill, and might have except there was no one to lay my hands on. I settled for a sledgehammer, taking a swing at the box to knock it off the fence in one blow. There was nothing to do about the paint. Hosing down turned the red slash into a red blur, but the word was already dry and could not be moved. It stood screaming on the footpath for days and was never removed entirely.

There were more important things to worry about. Our friend joked about the shit. “You know, you are too quick to condemn my neighbors. It could have been a very agile dog, or that big cat a couple of doors down.” Or he joked about my sledgehammer. “I’m lucky I still have a house the way you people behave!” I think it was resignation that released this humor on us, turning everything terrible into laughter. Weeks of humid, breathless heat, which I enjoyed, suffocated him. “It’s all right”, he said, “this heat now and no hell later will suit me fine.” He flatly refused to return to hospital. No one there would understand his new jokes.

He died the night of the promised change, just to show that life really can imitate the weather. Tom tells me that Liz made all the calls when it was clear he would not last. Tom knocked on my door and said I’d better come. He didn’t need to say why. I knew it would be like that.

Large, cool drops of rain crashed on my glasses and shirt as we ran down the street. The house, which had been sealed tight against the heat all day, was uncomfortably still and warm. As soon as he entered, Tom cried out, “Oh, for god’s sake, open the bloody windows!” It was dark, too, and I stood, sweating, in the shadows of the hall that led to the bedroom. Now, I thought, if only the doctor and nurse will not come. I wished for them not to come so there would be no more injections and orders, no more parody of medicine. I stood outside his door and wished he would die. Liz went from window to window, almost in a panic, as though opening them would save him. I hoped and wished and knew that nothing would.

“Richard, it’s me—Tom. Do you want anything? Johnno’s here. Do you want to see him?”

Tom put out his arm to call me into the room. It was Tom calling, though, not the man in the bed. Except that his ribs moved under the single, light sheet, he was dead already, and I doubt he could hear Tom spluttering about a game and that the black king was here.

I sat behind Tom on Richard’s bed. I put my arms around Tom’s arms and chest to stop his fidgeting and prodding. While he sobbed, I closed my eyes and wished again.

Then, while the house cooled, before the others came, there were no more questions, only answers.

Originally published in Outrage, September 1988, and then in Imaging AIDS, Artists Against AIDS Exhibition, 1989, and Fruit: An Anthology of Australian Gay Writing, edited by Gary Dunne, 1994