Post Road Magazine #12

On the History of a Backgammon Board

Paul Yoon

Zakinthos

The clasp of the backgammon board wasn’t always broken. It was thin and silver, in the shape of a fleur-de-lis with a hole at its center where a small knob entered to keep the two wooden panels shut. Inside lay the checkers, also wooden, with mother-of-pearl inlays. The board itself, once unfolded, was the size of a placemat. It was given to her in Greece. I do not remember where. I hardly knew her then. She sent me a postcard with the town’s name but I have misplaced it. I want to say Zakinthos but perhaps I am imagining this. Perhaps zakinthos is a sound I think of when I see her hands planted in sand, her legs up in the air like two giraffe necks, mid-cartwheel, a red bikini.

She was with a friend. They passed a merchant with dark skin who repeated the word knickknacks while boasting his gold teeth. He lifted his ring-speckled fingers and swore he made the board and the checkers himself. Her friend, he bought it. Taught her: Backgammon is concerned with movement. All the checkers are a single unit directed towards an arrival. This unit pushes forward, retraces its steps, stretches, contracts. Along the way my checkers are your obstacles: a body of water, a ditch, a steep mountain passageway, a felled tree. They sat on a cliff watching sunset and light ripping waves.

She sacrificed a sweater and a book to make room for it in her rucksack. She worried, afraid the clasp might come undone and the checkers spill forth. Too many to keep track of. It was ridiculous, she knew, but she never fretted over something so much in her life. Later, she would notice the clasp had bent and she could no longer lock it in place. It had, however, remained closed, wedged into her clothes. She did not lose any of the checkers. She thought it a miracle.

They slept together in a tent. She changed for a morning swim while he waited outside. His shadow seeped through the blue synthetic dome and on to her chest. Whether he was facing her or away, impossible to tell. I do not know if they were lovers. Several months after they parted, he broke a foot while climbing and could not travel for some time. He wanted her to come visit.

I don’t have anyone to play with.

Do you have a board?

Yes, I bought one. It is new. Wait. Listen.

Through the telephone she heard his arm bend and then the tumble of dice.

A Boy with a Small Wooden Disc

She brought it with her to Belize, where we camped on the coast in a small town called Hopkins. She padded the inside with underwear so that the checkers wouldn’t rattle, tied the board with string. In the afternoons and in the early evenings, under the shade of a palm tree, we played with sand-peppered fingers. We swam often to rid the heat until we could not tell the difference between sweat and seawater.

At the house next door lived a fisherman and his family. Every morning the father bathed in the sea. His skin was dark and rough like coconut shells and he waded into water to scoop the ocean over his face and his short-cropped hair. Tourists paid him to take them out to sea, swimming as he fished. His wife was a large woman who wore paisley dresses, and once, without speaking, she showed me how to open a fallen coconut. She knelt and bent her knees before lifting her machete and hacking, her bare legs a row of knots the color of wet bricks. There is much pleasure in opening one and much of it is in the sound of the blade sinking into the husk: a sigh, a breath, the living.

Their son was five and smelled of the sun. Often, during the middle of a game, he leaned forward and pinched a checker—he called it a disc—and ran away, to his father, who turned the boy’s shoulders around and pushed him back towards the footprints he had made in the sand. The next day the boy brought his friends and they sat in a circle around us and some took the checkers for themselves, though they always returned them. They never touched the dice. Thought they resembled eyes. A game they had invented, I suppose, with its own logic. I once chased the boy, lifted him, how light he was, and he roared and raised his fists into air.

In the evening we walked along the coast with our feet in the oil dark water. I tripped on driftwood. Inside our tent we found our sleeping bags unrolled and a loaf of bread we had been saving in a plastic bag torn and shredded, the crumbs scattered over our clothes. Our passports open to reveal our miniature faces. Nothing had been stolen. The backgammon board lay untouched, still closed, its checkers all there. She counted. The dome of the tent we had uncovered for dry weather and so we watched stars through netting, expecting footsteps. We fell asleep eventually and the following morning, as she swam, I saw the boy’s father walk to his boat with a bucket and a sponge. I approached him and opened my palm.

I remember his hands, which were warm and dark, accepting my offering, and I remember her swimming parallel to the tides like a lost red fish. He watched her for a moment, then slipped the small wooden disc into his pocket.

I have a photograph of the boy: caught on the beach, running towards the sea.

The Geologist’s House

Thirty checkers. Twenty-nine checkers and a seashell. The verses to a song. What comes next? We were at a geologist’s house in Connecticut, a friend of hers who had wanted someone to care for his dogs while he visited relatives. The house stood in the middle of a hill. The backyard descended down to a pond. Out the front windows I had to look up to see the road, my car, the trunks of maple trees. On the dining table we pushed and jumped checkers, spilled dice. She insisted on using the seashell. It was the color of the sun and the size of a fingertip. I use it because I lost one. I don’t know where. It annoys me.

Against the wall of the geologist’s bedroom: a painting of the oracle at Delphi seated on a stool and holding a bowl, supplicant, her feet as long as claws. Apollo beside her. Beside it hung framed diagrams of plate tectonics, the shifting of this earth. There is science in every story. She turned to her side, lifted a leg over mine, pressed her hand against my heart. I smelled her breath, deep with citrus. I would like to speak to gods. Ask them where I lost it. She was drifting. The dogs, two of them, had been lying on the floor but now raised their heads and trotted out the room. There was a time when I would have left her if she wanted. There was also a time when I would have fought to stay.

Twenty-eight checkers, a seashell, and a stone.

Mother in Suit and Turtleneck Sweater

The Baltic Sea. A snowless winter. Her father owned land in Mecklenburg, Germany. His childhood home, he wanted to retire there eventually. His wife protested by filling the farmhouse with glossy fashion magazines from Berlin. A tall and slim woman who wore suits and turtleneck sweaters. I saw them once. I didn’t know what they were doing. Too young. I kept staring at the bottoms of my mother’s feet. They were pale. Unlined. I wanted feet like hers. I wanted to touch them. On the beach she slipped a sneaker off and pushed down her socks. She lifted her

leg like a flamingo and showed me the sole of her right foot. I had seen it so many times before, dry and calloused, hard as wood, the foot of one who spent their childhood running away from shoes. I tapped my thumb against her heel then counted the ravines through her skin as she balanced herself against my shoulder. It had rained in the early morning and the sea showed it, grey and full against a chalk-colored sky.

She fought with her mother often. She would scream the word Mama and her mother would stand still with her arms across her chest, as though she had just finished shivering. When I met her, I saw she did not wear a wedding band. She threw it out the window of a car years ago while driving, then changed her mind and returned to where she guessed the ring lay. She never found it.

She used to watch us play backgammon after her husband retired for the evening. We set up the board on the coffee table and sat cross-legged on the floor. She remained standing, circling us, holding the stem of a wineglass. She pointed down at one of my checkers, left alone. No good. She’ll get you. On her next roll. She did. I returned the checker to where it started. Her mother shook her head. You are at the beginning.

In this way the game presents a paradox: you are moving towards a destination yet there exists the possibility of running in circles, in constant genesis, perpetually on the verge of finishing.

The next time she noticed the clasp.

I could fix it.

It’s okay, Mama.

Let me try.

We emptied the board. Gathered the checkers and the seashell and stacked them in small towers at the end of the table. And then her mother, with the butt of a knife, began to hammer the clasp.

Stop.

I’m straightening it.

Stop.

Her mother sighed, sipped wine. Pushed the board across the table, harder than she intended, I am sure. It fell and bounced, once, on the floor.

They surprised me: covered their mouths, pale-eyed accidental laughter.

A Woman with a Cigarette

The French woman knew her mother and invited us to her house. Her husband was away, she said and emphasized the words by lifting her right hand, tossing air, her fingers clenched in a tight claw like the cast of a hand rather than of flesh and bone. She had been born with this condition. Her right hand motionless. Stone fingers. Between them she slipped a cigarette. Her hair: copper under the floor lamp, long and split down the middle of her head. In the living room a photograph of her husband. He was handsome with arrogant eyes and he did not look at the camera lens. Again, she made her gesture, lifted her hand, this time towards the picture.

He’s in Venice.

How lovely.

Oh fuck you.

She apologized, then left us for the evening.

Later, when I could not sleep, I walked down the hall that led to the kitchen. The light was on. Beside the table the woman sat with the backgammon board. She was playing against herself, swiveling the board so that she did not have to leave her chair. Smoke from her burning cigarette curved up towards the hanging lamp like a white-foamed river. I saw her scoop the dice and position them in the dips between the knuckles of the hand that held the cigarette. It is difficult to describe her face in that moment. It was the look of peace or forgetting. Perhaps both. She parted her lips, blew, and smoke ballooned. Then slowly, as though holding a jug, she turned her wrist and poured.

Delphi

Eventually she returned to Greece. Walked to the beach every morning. First: cold water swim. Then: what she called drawing circles in the air with her toes and fingertips. Cartwheels. For her circulation. Footprints, handprints, inscribed up and down the coast, without body until the tide came to claim them. I asked whether she would look for the merchant, replace the checker she had lost, fix the clasp, or buy a new board. Through the telephone I heard her exhale. Voices. Engines. Wrong city. Laughter. Have to go, talk soon, bye. The click of her tongue. •

Paul Yoon currently lives in Boston where he is completing a collection of short stories and a novel. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review, Small Spiral Notebook, and One Story.

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