The Great Chessini, by Sej Harman
The Great Chessini, by Sej Harman
He leaned through the swinging door into the dining room, where we’d just spread out our books and papers on the scarred and dull table, and whispered conspiratorially, “Come on in the kitchen. I’ve got something to show you. But you gotta be quiet and you can’t tell. Not anybody. You’ll laugh your asses off, ladies. You just gotta see this.” And grinning, he let the door swoosh shut.
Chess had just gotten home from school. He was in the eighth grade and practicing to become a “JD,”—a swaggering, acne-faced, juvenile delinquent. He’d never really make it, I’m telling you, because he was too scared of Pop to do anything really over the line; anything smelling of real trouble. That didn’t keep him from trying things on the edge, against the rules. Still, nothing illegal, nothing criminal. Just stupid, annoying, boy things to bedevil people, especially us—his sisters—and buttress his high-falutin’ sense of self. He needed something to make him feel big and important, I guess. He was in that stage in between boyhood and not-quite-manhood. At five-foot four and with a name like Chester, he’d become a hormone-fueled teen wannabee desperate to make his mark on the world.
Sniggering in his bravado, Chess stuck his head in once more, insisting, almost whining, “Come on, come on quick. It’s a trick I learned. You’ll love it, it’s funny. And you gotta see it today. Before Momma gets home from work. This afternoon. Hurry. Hurry.”
“I give up. Let’s go see what the little fart’s big trick is,” Penny groaned to her younger sisters, rolling her eyes as if Chess was just too much to bear. “Oo-oo-oh” she simpered as she pushed back her chair. “Bet it’s a real winner Chess-bo.” Penny’s sarcasm wasn’t lost on us two younger girls. Penny could cop an attitude easy, and she probably knew what Chess was up to, since she was already in tenth grade and, of course, knew ev-erything. There was no arguing with a girl who stuffed her bra with rolled-up nylon socks and pretended to be offended if anyone noticed—at least anyone in the family. And, besides, Bitsy and I knew Chess would worry us to death ’til he could show off. He was good at that; great, really. It was just easier to go ahead and get it over with so we could go back to our homework. Some people would call Bitsy and me nerds, I guess. We both actually liked school.
Me, I’m Petrona Victoria Charlotte (at least in my fantasies of being long-lost royalty adopted by a family of commoners). Sigh. I’m really plain old Sandra, but mostly I’m called Spider because of my skinny legs. I’m in the ninth grade, between Penny and Chess. Bitsy, rather Eliz-z-z-a-beth, who had dreams of her own and was eager to be included with us older kids, was in sixth grade; a little kid still in elementary school. She rarely had a clue about what Chess was carrying on about, but was eager for any spectacle us older kids could cook up. Made her feel like she belonged if she got to watch and laugh. And we all knew, if not consciously, whatever he was up to and however any of the rest of us might be involved, she would skate. She wouldn’t get blamed ’cause she was the youngest. Baby Bitsy. Bitsy Baby Bitsy. Nothing ever stuck to her!
So anyway, we dragged ourselves up from the dining table, where we did our homework each afternoon—you know the rule, “homework first, fun later”—and trudged through the swinging door into the kitchen. The almost blindingly bright kitchen. The high-gloss, shiny egg yolk yellow kitchen. I’m not kidding! Which is a whole ’nother story altogether.
Anyhow, we reluctantly entered the kitchen to see what Chess was up to, what grand new trick he was proposing that would make us “laugh our asses off.” There he was, standing on a chair, reaching into the cabinet over the counter where the box of wooden matches was kept. These were for the gas stove, and the matches were for lighting the broiler—usually for morning toast when Momma’d make a whole cookie sheet full, nine slices at a time, mostly for Chess. Momma kept the matches “hidden” so the little kids wouldn’t get them. Of course, we all knew where they were and often got them out and struck them. Momma was probably out of hiding places anyway and just said “to heck with it” and took a chance we wouldn’t go up in flames. We thought they made great little flaming arrows and, besides, the little lights were lovely.
Chess got the matches and, still on the chair, turned to his curious audience—a maestro on the dais. “Now, ya’ll, watch this. It’ll be stupendous. But stand back,” he said, fluffing his hands outward as if shooing squirrels away from the bird feeder. We dutifully took a couple of steps back, though this was difficult in the confines of the kitchen. The big protector continued in a false basso profundo: “It’s a trick I learned from the great Jerry Elrod. And not just anyone can do this. It can be very, very frightening. Be-e- careful. Be very careful,” he intoned somberly. “AND, be a-mazed!” With a flourish, Chess turned around, his back to us, and dropped his pants.
“Chess!” Penny, in loco parentis, spat this out in her most motherly tone, though she was having trouble keeping a straight face.
“Oh. Oh no. You’re in for it now, Chess. I know what you’re gonna do, I bet” I chimed in. At least he’d had enough presence of mind, or maybe modesty, to keep his tidy-whitees on. And they were clean, with no holes, thank god.
There we were, Chess’s audience: Penny, arms akimbo and face full of skepticism arguing with responsibility. Me, Spider, curious and giggling, and Bitsy, with Chess pointing at his butt and eager for fun.
Chess pulled his underwear tighter over his back end, lit the match, and bent over. Then, with the burning match at his backside, he said, “Jump back, ladies! It’s gonna blow!” and forced a fart. Immediately, the flame of the match shot out a couple of inches, before quickly going out.
The effect was instantaneous.
“Gah!” Penny strangled out, jumping back and nearly knocking over Bitsy, who screamed and burst out laughing, too, trying to cling to the back of Penny’s legs. As Chess peered back over his shoulder, grinning to beat the band, I, usually the motor-mouth who never shut up, was speechless.
Chess—the “fartin’ flamethrower”—roared with both power and glee! He struck a second match and repeated his new trick. This time Penny, stroking Bitsy’s head to calm her down, said, “Gross me out, you skinny-ass idiot. I hope you burn the tiny hairs off yo’ tiny behind!”
I wanted to know how it worked. “Why didn’t his fart blow the match out?” I asked, to no one in particular.
Chess didn’t really know, but, resuming his maestro pose, he explained oh so professorially, “Of course, anyone who knows anything about science knows it is methane, a gas that ignites before there’s enough force to blow out the match.” What did I know? Of course, he didn’t know anything about science either. He was just basking in the moment, jerking his sisters around with his stunt. Did it matter if his information might be only semi-factual? He certainly seemed to know more than we did—well, maybe not Penny who was taking tenth-grade General Science. And his antic posturing made for great showmanship: the Great Chessini’s amazing new trick! Chess had once again “bedazzled with bullshit” and reveled in his power.
As they—those time-honored but unknown sages—say, the third time’s the charm, and Chess was on a roll.
On his third try to produce a “flamin’ fart,” Chess dropped his voice dramatically, intoning nonsense words I’d heard him use before for another of his stunts, something about “frimmin on the jim jam.” This lead-in made the upcoming trick seem even more powerful, almost mysterious, and we got really quiet as he bent over once again, held his breath and lit the third match. It sparked into flame as he got red in the face and grunted. Nothing happened. He grunted again, turning redder. Alas, Chess, so to speak, had run out of gas.
By now the match had burned down to his fingertips. “Crap,” he yelped in pain and flung the match away—straight into the trashcan by the sink. Well, you can almost guess the rest. The trashcan quickly caught fire before any of us even realized what had happened.
Panic ensued. Bitsy screamed and grabbed Penny’s leg. Spellbound by the leaping flames, I watched as they climbed higher in the trashcan. Chess, who’d jumped down from the chair, was yelling, “get the hose, get the hose.” There was no hose in the kitchen, but I guess he wasn’t thinking straight now. Not that he had been all afternoon! Sucking his singed fingers and flailing around toward the flames with his other hand while trying to hold up his pants, he spotted a dishtowel on the towel bar by the sink and threw it over the flames. It promptly caught fire.
By this time Penny had disentangled herself from Bitsy and pushed her out of the kitchen into the hall, where she promptly sat down on the floor and wailed: “Momma, Momma. Momma.” Penny returned, yelling at Chess, still trying to get his pants back up, to “Put it out. No, not another towel, nitwit. Water. A towel is just more fuel. Put water in the trashcan, you dumb-ass! WATER!” The panic in her voice broke my own reverie, and I suddenly realized the fire had spread.
In seconds it had jumped to one of the curtain panels—blue and white plastic on either side of the window over the sink—and had raced across the valance to the other. Flames shrieked up the wall as the burning plastic dripped down to the sink or back into the trashcan. With nothing left to burn there, the curtain fire pretty much extinguished itself. We still had a problem, though. A BIG problem!
Flames had found a pathway along the ceiling above the sink and threatened to turn the corner toward the dining room. My own efforts to put them out with a long towel only fanned them. I was really scared, though I didn’t want to show it. And, thank god, I was pretty ineffective, flicking the towel from as far away as I could. I couldn’t cause enough wind to put out the flames or supply them with enough oxygen to make it spread. Chess, the big impresario, was near tears at my elbow and still holding onto his pants. He just kept saying, “Put it out. Put it OUT! Don’t let us burn up, please, PLEASE don’t let us burn up.” I wasn’t sure he if he was talking to me or praying.
While we “Keystone Kops” firefighters were doing our best, Penny had gone into the hall, grabbed the phone by the chalkboard, and called the authorities: Momma. Penny would never have thought to call Daddy at his job. He would have expected us to cut the oxygen to the flames, knowing the fire would go out. Being unthinking and illogical were probably worse than burning up the curtains, and he’d be more upset that the fire was a consequence of our poor thinking. Besides, he had never much liked the kitchen curtains. Anyway, Penny got through to Momma’s office, thank goodness.
“Momma, come home quick…quickly! Chess set the kitchen on fire! The curtains. They’re on FIRE! We’ll all be dead by suppertime. Please come home NOW.” I could hear the rising panic in her voice as she said this, even as she tried to speak correctly and politely, as we’d been well taught.
By now, unbeknownst to Penny, the crisis was about over. The curtains were gone and the trashcan covered with another dishtowel, this time a very wet one, thanks to Bitsy’s quick thinking! SHE was the one who had kept yelling from the hall, “Water. Wet the towel. Water. Water!” And, while the top of the glaring yellow wall was badly blistered and streaked, the flames had not made it around the corner. They were out.
I was only partly panicked now and still fascinated by how quickly the curtains had gone up. They had just disappeared as they burned—no soot, no ash, nothing! And the plastic smelled funny, in a pleasant kind of way. Probably carcinogens straight up the nose, but who knew back then?
Sometime in the chaos and its aftermath, Chess had finally gotten his pants pulled up. And now the import of what he’d done began to set in. Mr. Wannabee-Big-and-Powerful Chess was scared to death. He didn’t know who to be more scared of; Momma, for messing up her kitchen, or Pop, for making such a poor decision and playing with matches. Or both, for endangering all of us and everything our parents owned. I almost felt sorry for him, though secretly giggled at the thought of what was to come.
The kitchen was a smelly mess; the wall around “the big event” drippy and sooty, the floor squishy and slippery. Chess, Bitsy, and I quietly retreated to the dining room and took up our regular places at the dining table. It almost seemed normal, like of course we would just return to our homework after a fire or any other emergency—take up right where we left off. But we were eerily quiet. No one had anything to say. We were still in a kind of shock and didn’t really know what to say. And no one wanted to be first to break the silence.
Penny came slowly through the swinging door from the kitchen, back from her rescue mission, her call for help. We turned, slowly, still silent and hardly daring to breathe. Penny looked kind of strange; off-kilter, somehow. Both upset and incredulous at the same time.
We waited, looking to her to tell us something, to ease our fears and restore normalcy. That was her job as the oldest and our protector, in charge by default. She was supposed to make things be all right. She stood there for what seemed like an eternity, making us suffer in anticipation for whatever she might do or say. Chess’s blue eyes seemed to grow bigger, even as he seemed to shrink with each passing second.
“‘Put it out. Put the damn fire out!’” That’s what she said, “Put the damn fire out, and I’ll get there when I get there.”
Silence all around.
“That’s ALL??” I finally asked. “That’s ALL Momma said, just ‘put the damn fire out’? I don’t believe you. Is she coming home? When will she be here?”
“She hung up on me.”
“Momma hung up on me!” Penny almost yelled this. “I can’t believe it! She sounded so calm. I’m telling her over the phone that our house is on fire and we could all burn the hell up, could all end up as 'crispy critters'…and she just says, ‘Put the damn fire out.’ Then she hangs up on me. Just HANGS UP!”
Of course, Momma was on the way home, and Chess was gonna get it this time. His fate was sealed and he awaited only the time of his execution. He was toast. But what was worse, in his own eyes I’m sure, was that he had failed. “The Great Chessini” had failed to astound us with his power. He was an imposter, a wizard behind the curtain after all. Just Chess, the wannabee who couldn’t a-MAZE even his own sisters! It would be a long, long while before he’d impress any of us ever again.
While the afternoon may not have turned out the way Chess had hoped, or any of us expected, his trick was not the failure it appeared. Our parents, wise in their own way, meted out no specific punishment for the great “fartin’ flamethrowin’” caper, except that we had to scrub the kitchen walls and clean up the physical aftermath. Momma and Pop probably chuckle to this day about the “afternoon of fear and panic” and the hard lessons it taught us about family rules, responsibility, and working together to solve a problem.
The seared window frame remained curtainless for several weeks in mute testimony to The Great Chessini’s “a-MAZING trick.”