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January 12, 2012 / 74

Checkers

“Put it over there. No. Not on the red one. On the black one,” Jimmy directed his sister in the fine points of the game.

Sally looked at the board, then at the round black plastic disk in her small hand. She leaned forward and made as if to put it on another red square and looked up at her brother. He made a face at her and she moved the piece a bit, and looked at him again. Seeing approval, she placed the piece.

“That’s right,” he said, approvingly. “We don’t use the red squares.” He reached out and picked-up a red checker, moved it two horizontal rows forward, and then waited. When nothing happened, he finally said, “Your turn.”

Sally picked-up a black piece and moved it two rows toward her brother, then set it down… on a black square.

Jimmy shoved the piece back one row. “You can only move one row at a time.”

Sally watched every move her brother made, but said nothing.

Jimmy picked up another red piece and jumped it over a red square to another black square, and took the black checker that had been on the diagonal. “I get to take this piece because it was beside where I moved to. Your turn.”

Sally smiled and without moving any of her black pieces, reached out and took two red ones off the board.

“Hey! You can’t do that!” Jimmy rescued the captured checkers and restored them to their former positions, almost, moving one of them a row closer toward the King’s Row on Sally’s side of the board. “And it’s still your turn.”

Sally looked at the board carefully, and then moved a black checker backwards.

“No. You can’t go backwards until you get a King.” Jimmy moved the offending piece back to its former position. “Still your turn.”

Without even looking at the board, Sally moved a piece so that it was right in front of one of Jimmy’s looming red pieces.

Jimmy smiled and quickly took a legal jump. “See. That’s not a very good move because I get to jump your checker and take it. It’s your move again.”

“Jimmy? Sally? It’s time to go, kids. Come on,” Janah, their mother said. “And you stayed clean! I’m so very proud of you! Thank you!”

Jimmy had started to get up when the jangling of the phone interrupted the day and the kids watched their mother answer it. He waited, unsure of what to do.

Janah’s voice was quiet. “Yes. We’re just heading out the door. Could we ride in the procession with you? Our car is so old and ratty. I’m not sure it will last all the way to the cemetery.”

Jimmy saw the tear form and run down his mother’s face. She caught it with a finger and squeegeed it away.

“Yes. I know,” she said, and then sighed. “If it’s not too much, we’d like to ride with you to the reception too.” She listened for a bit, then said, “I understand, and we appreciate it. Thank you. See you at the Church. Bye.”

Sally had been watching her brother carefully with her eyes squinted.

“Mom? Was that Grandpa?” Jimmy asked.

Janah drew in a deep breath and let it out. After a short pause she said, “No, honey. That was Mr. French. He’s going to let us ride in his nice car to the cemetery, and then back to the Church afterwards.”

“Will Grandpa be at the Church?”

“Yes, honey. Grandpa will be at the Church.”

“Oh. Ok. Mom, do you like Mr. French?”

Janah blinked at her son. “Well, I suppose I do. He’s a very nice man, and he really likes you two… but then, what’s not to like?” She forced a smile.

Jimmy nodded solemnly, then turned to Sally. “Come on, Squirt. Time to go.”

She rose with the semi-awkwardness of a four-year-old and stood waiting for someone to take her hand, or point and shove her in the required direction. Jimmy obliged by taking her hand and led her out the door to the car.

Janah stood and watched them. Jimmy had become such a responsible little man since his father died last year. In the six months after John’s death he and Grandpa had been inseparable, but then gradually Grandpa had weaned Jimmy off of his dependence. Grandpa had been a very wise man, and now he was gone too. When Jimmy was told that Grandpa was dead there was no reaction at all. It was as if he hadn’t yet realized what the news meant.

Sally was different. She was quiet and passive. Janah never knew what the child was thinking. Her pre-school teacher suggested that Sally was “perhaps a bit slow” but Janah knew better. Shallow people tended to miss depth in others, and Sally’s pre-school teacher was shallow. She hoped that Sally was too young to understand what was going on with the funeral.

Sally had been close to Grandpa too, but in a different way. She would stand for hours watching him, just watching him with those big brown eyes, and Grandpa had generally ignored the scrutiny. But every now and then Janah would catch him giving Sally a quick wink, or waggling his eyebrows at her, and then Sally would break into a huge grin before going back to watching. It was like the two shared some cosmic joke that no one else was in on.

When they were almost to the car, Sally pulled her arm out of Jimmy’s grasp and ran back to the house. Jimmy yelped,. “Hey! Come back here!” and set off in hot pursuit.

“Jimmy, wait!” Janah said, short and sharp.

Jimmy froze, fear on his face.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Janah said. “She probably just forgot her dog. She’ll be right back out, I’m sure.”

Jimmy looked relieved, and relaxed a bit. “Yeah. That’s it. She doesn’t have Gonzo.”

They waited, but Sally didn’t come right back out. “Go ahead and get in the car, hon,” Janah said to Jimmy. “I’ll get her.” She went to the door and opened it, and saw Sally standing by the checkerboard, just staring at it.

“Come on, hon. It’s time to go.”

Sally stared at the board for a few more seconds, then reached out and picked up a black checker. She carefully, and legally, jumped every single one of Jimmys’ red checkers, smiled, and then put the black checker back where it had been, and looked hard at Janah. Then she picked up her stuffed dog Gonzo, and ran out to the car.

Janah smiled. Then gave a little chuckle. Slow? She didn’t think so. She didn’t think she had anything to worry about when it came to little Sally.

At the Church there was an awkward moment when Jimmy asked questions about Grandpa. He was five and didn’t understand why Grandpa was taking a nap in Church. Janah shushed him, but Mr. French stepped in and led the boy outside.

Sally watched them with her usual blank expression, then she looked directly at her mother again, like she had at the house, then back through the door to Mr. French and Jimmy. Janah wondered what it meant, but was soon distracted by the services and then they were going to the gravesite.

“Janah, if there’s anything I can do for you guys, please let me know,” Rob French’s voice was sincere and concerned. “John was a friend of mine, and to lose both him and his Dad within a year, well, I can imagine how the kids must feel. I’d consider it a privilege if you’d let me come over a couple of times a week and spend some time with them. Jimmy’s getting to an age where he needs a male role model, and I’d be honored if you’d consider me to fill that slot.”

Janah smiled at him. “Thank you, Rob. I’ll give it some thought.” Rob had always been there with John. He’d taken them all out on his boat every summer, let them use his lake cabin up North, and driven them to the hospital when John had the accident. Rob had been their best friend, and had been there every time they needed him. And he loved the kids. Never once had he been anything less than a good friend and a gentleman.

She thought about the kids, and then about herself. It had been a year. She was beginning to think about dating again. She looked over at Rob. Strong, quiet, confident, kind… then she smiled to herself. Thinking about dating at a funeral? She glanced into the back seat at the kids. Jimmy was staring out the window, but not Sally. Sally was staring at her and smiling one of her special little smiles. The little, “We have a secret” smiles she used to give Grandpa.

She raised her eyebrows at Sally, and Sally winked. Only then did Sally go back to staring out the window. Janah sighed. It was going to be ok. And maybe she’d just give Rob a call later.

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