JULIAN

 

Pawn to King four. The opening move had been made, the time clock begun, and still only one man sat at the center-stage table. Had it not been for the repeated supplications by the tournament host, the match would have been forfeited.

The Grandmaster shifted irritably in his chair. It was an affront, he felt, unforgivable under the circumstances. For this, in fact, was not a tournament but an exhibition. He wished now he had declined the invitation. After all, what was there to gain? He checked the time, casting another impatient look at the nervous referee. This brand of theatrical "one-upmanship" was insolent, regardless of the upstart's reputation.

Yet the indignity of waiting for an unranked player, before a small but astute audience of chess enthusiasts, was not his prime vexation, for underscoring the Master's pique was a latent apprehensiveness about the match's outcome. His unpunctual opponent—a boy, a prodigy—had played eleven top-ranked players to date, and beaten them all. The games were unofficial; the U.S. Chess Federation had no record of them. But their contents, replete with unique positions and radical lines of play, were, nonetheless, being analyzed in clubs across the country. Julian Papp was well-known. So much so, that to refuse his challenge and keep one's credibility intact was becoming progressively harder.

The seconds ticked off. Perhaps the boy would no-show. From past accounts, arriving late was not among his characteristics. Concentration, uncanny skill, innovative moves—these traits were invariably cited—but tardiness, never. The crowd was already anxious. These exhibitions had brought prestige to their otherwise unheralded club. Julian Papp—sobriquet The Albino—had become their standard-bearer. Annihilating the local competition at the age of twelve, he had been awarded the honor of playing a visiting Grandmaster.

He had won!

In a similar match the following year, his victory was repeated, and thus the legend began. But his remained a strictly word-of-mouth fame, for when Julian was invited to compete in the more publicized major tournaments he declined, announcing that he would participate solely in exhibition play, and this only locally. Then, with a self-assured arrogance reminiscent of Paul Morphy, he issued an open challenge to any Grandmaster who was willing to meet him on home ground. Much to the delight of his chess club, the challenge was sometimes accepted—at first rather lightly by visiting Masters curious about the boy's talent, then later, as his winning record became nationally known, in earnest.

By tradition a single game was played. The challenger chose for White or Black. A draw precipitated a second game. Three draws and Julian conceded defeat—a concession he had never made during his entire eight years of competitive play.

Relief nuzzled into the Grandmaster's fidgety nerves. Time was running out. Failure to appear was admission of defeat, and though this was hardly the most satisfying means by which to achieve a win, certain statements by the vanquished implied it might be preferable to running the risk of losing. For rumored more indomitable than his caliber of play was the young man's eerie mien across the board. Its effect had been expressed in terms like "intimidating" and "unnerving"—and by those unused to being flustered. Whether this indeed were true, or merely the rationalization of wounded vanities, was perhaps a matter that should best be left untested.

The thirty-minute grace period was almost up. Beyond that, waiting out the hour was at the discretion of the player present. Judging by the huffy agitation in the Master's manner, it was unlikely he would prove to be magnanimous.

The audience stirred. At the side of the hall a door opened. With a steady, unhurried step, Mr. Julian Papp entered. He wore white; he was white: white sneakers, socks, pants, suspenders, long-sleeve shirt and tie, white hair, white skin—a pasty shade of corpselike pallor. In fact his skin color seemed to have no depth, but lay on the surface like an opaque mask: anemic, static, inhumanly expressionless. It was easier to keep one's face averted, for if one did brave a surreptitious glance, it was apprehended, caught and swallowed up by the case-hardened blue-black lenses that enshrouded the chess player's eyes. Invariably they drew focus—like twin black holes.

Having mounted the stage and crossed to his seat, Julian imperceptibly nodded, sat, and immediately answered the opening move with Pawn to Queen Bishop's four. The clock was punched, the tone established. Total silence reigned.

Stiffening in his chair, the Grandmaster sucked in his disgruntlement and directed his gaze toward the sun-shielded eyes of the anomalous Julian Papp—whose dark glasses proved impenetrable. Discomfiture suddenly threatening, the Grandmaster's scrutiny returned to the board. He deliberated long and hard:

2. Nf3

Instantly Julian answered:

2...........e6

Thus the pattern of play was set. Every plodding move by the Master was to receive a lightning reply. It was an effective tactic, particularly in combination with Julian's remarkable appearance—which his opponent seemed determined to ignore.

3. d4

3...........cxd4

The pawn was snatched with a startling covetousness. It was as if the boy in white were reclaiming a portion of himself. His moves were reflexes. Then, after each, he returned to a cataleptic calm.

The match continued. For the benefit of the spectators, each move was reproduced on a video screen erected at the back of the stage. On move twenty-four the Grandmaster blundered. Awareness of this, like an electric shock, went rippling through the crowd. Julian's retort was instantaneous, implacable. And though the game was far from lost, White's position was seriously weakened.

Then a change came over Julian, a subtle movement. With his hands resting on either chair arm, his thumbs commenced to beat an irregular time.

Wind breathing soft gentle meadowscents and meadowcolors walking (touch me touch me) passing through the air molecules of air pulsebeat footfall time adrift (she) yes (touch me hold my hand) the meadow smiling as we walking floating reaching touch to touching palm to palm two palm prints pressing lines whose fates conjoined inscribe the way so clear so clear so clear

It lasted only seconds, then it stopped. Those familiar with Julian's play recognized the motion. He had always done it. This seemingly involuntary tapping was popularly thought to be triggered by fluctuations in the mental rigors exacted by the game. It was not, however, a reliable barometer of how a given match was going, for as often as not the thumbs started up without anything overt happening. And since Julian himself offered no explanation, his fans simply shrugged off the quirk, as they did so many of their champion's idiosyncrasies.

By the fortieth move, White's earlier mistake was beginning to take its toll. Julian had kept up his high-pressure pace, and also—more than ever before—his interludes of tapping. Increasingly aware of the precariousness of his position, the Grandmaster seized on the inaudible thumbs as the cause of his predicament. When next they resumed—at move forty-two—he complained to the referee.

"Would you kindly ask my opponent to desist from that interminable pounding?"

With White's position nearly hopeless, the referee was not surprised, believing, as did all those present, that the Master should resign. Nonetheless, he obliged.

"Mr. Papp?… Mr. Papp?"

the air molecules of air pulsebeat time adrift (she) yes (touch me hold my hand) the meadow smiling…

yes (touch me hold my hand) the meadow…

the meadow…

the meadow!

The twitching in his thumbs crept up his arms. His shoulders quaked, as did his head, his legs. He clenched the chair as if to squelch the tremors. Suddenly a birdlike cry erupted from his lungs.

"Mr. Papp!"

A violent spasm sent Julian rocking. His chair tilted back. It balanced nervously on end for a second, wavered, then crashed to the floor. Crowd members rushed to the stage.

"Loosen his clothing!"

"Take off his shoes!"

Julian's face had turned blue.

"Stick something between his teeth!"

He seemed to be gagging.

"Watch that he doesn't swallow his tongue!"

His chest heaved for air.

"Give him some room. Back up. Everybody back up!"

"Shouldn't we hold him down?"

"No, call a doctor."

"But look at him!"

And while the people sought ways to be helpful, the spasms continued: mindless, grotesque, irrepressible.

Then it was over. What seemed to have gone on forever had, in fact, scarcely lasted a minute. Stunned and bewildered, Julian's senses staggered their way back to consciousness. What happened?

He was desperate to know. The horror-struck faces suspended above him provided a sobering clue. For the rest, he would have to rely on the competence of his physician, who would later determine he had suffered a brief "grand mal seizure." Diagnosis: Epilepsy—Temporal Lobe.

 

My hair won't grow...

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