Checkers and King: Flash Fiction
Jonathan had been known as Checkers in this little Hoosier town since around the middle of the Great Depression. He didn’t go to school back then, so every day he played checkers in front of the barbershop with the old men of the town. When the weather was bad, they carried the board inside and continued the game.
Checkers never did have a family, but he always had a dog, usually a stray he picked up along the road between town and his place out in the Indiana countryside. If he was lucky, the dog would learn to chase up a rabbit or a covey of quail.
Over the years, he’d had seven dogs, each one carefully named, King, like in the game of checkers. There had been one bluetick coonhound, a German shepherd mix, a border collie, two beagles and a short haired bird dog. His current canine companion was a big redbone.
King rode in the passenger’s seat of the pickup truck with his head out the window and his long, floppy ears flowing straight back. The wind caught his lips and turned them into a broad smile. The man and his dog were never far apart. Checkers felt especially close to this version of King and knew the big dog would be his last.
On Saturday, the town was holding its annual checkers' tournament in the park. Checkers had never failed to participate and, to everyone’s delight, had never failed to take home the trophy. He had heard there was a new boy in town, a teenager who was going to take part in the competition. He was good, people said. He was very good, others agreed. He might give checkers a challenge, a few suggested. The boy might beat Checkers, one or two whispered.
The old man won game after game in the tournament. Between each one, King would approach Checkers and whine. Checkers would take a little time to scratch the dog and rub his belly with a shaky, wrinkled hand. He could tell the dog was ill, so he resolved to win the tournament quickly and pay a visit to the vet.
An Old Man and His Dog
That was until he met the teenage boy who was also winning every round. The old man and the boy faced off in a lengthy game of checkers that would be handed down for generations as oral history.
The boy moved. Checkers analyzed the boy’s choice, looked over at King to be sure he was comfortable, then turned back to the board. One by one, pieces were removed from the board. In the end, Checkers could not move. His only choice was to concede the game.
The teenage boy was shocked. He hadn’t expected to beat Checkers. He even looked over the board to see if there was a move they were missing. But Checkers had made the right call.
The people were sorry to see Checkers lose after all these years, yet they were happy to see the boy recognized for his skill. When the award ceremony was almost over, Checkers strode to the front and asked to be allowed to speak for a moment. He called the champion to his side.
“I want to recognize this young man, not only as the fine checkers player he is but also as a gentleman and sportsman. When he could have gloated about beating this old man at his own game, the boy was gracious, the epitome of a good winner.”
Checkers cleared his throat, looked at his feet as he shuffled them on the concrete floor, then continued. “From this day, my ninety-eighth birthday, and onward, I will be known in this town, not as Checkers, but as Jonathan. And you, young man, will be known to one and all, as Checkers. The crowd gasped as one.
Jonathan led King to the old pickup truck and lifted him onto the passenger seat. The man and his dog drove away from the park and went directly to the veterinary clinic.
Later, Jonathan recalled the veterinarian’s words. Cancer, she had said. Widespread, she had added. Jonathan didn’t have the money it would take to treat the dog’s illness. Even if he could have afforded the treatments, there were no guarantees and very little hope.
Jonathan made the dog as comfortable as he could. Now it was simply a matter of waiting. He brought water and food to his friend. He scratched behind his ears and rubbed his belly, but King was failing day by day. Finally, Jonathan sat on the floor beside King and closed his eyes.
The deputy knocked several times before twisting the doorknob. He had grown up in this county and was used to seeing Jonathan in town. No one had seen the old man for many days, so the deputy decided to investigate. The kitchen was clean and orderly. The living room was small with a recliner against one wall and a wood burning stove at the center of the opposite wall. The dog’s bed was next to the stove.
The deputy scanned several framed photos on the wall. Each one was of Jonathan and a dog. The seven photos told the man’s story that had stretched out over nearly a century. There were no pictures of Jonathan and a woman or of children and grandchildren, only of the man and his canine friends.
The officer’s gaze returned to the big redbone’s bed beside the stove. Jonathan and King lay side by side. For the second time in a matter of days, Jonathan had conceded the game.