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  • H.K. Slade

Dead Position

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

Note: In my family, an argument was something you either won or gave up on, and we didn't give up on a lot. The idea that you could learn something from someone with a different opinion didn't enter into my world as a possibility until I was well into adulthood. Even today, as a professional crisis negotiator, I can get sucked into that old mindset of not listening. All it takes is someone else who is so certain of their position that they can't admit the possibility that they might learn something new. The topic of social justice reform is one of those subjects that seems to draw this mindset in people. Though I steer away from writing about politics, when a the short story writing contest gave "Write dialogue between two people who can't hear what the other is saying," as a prompt, I knew exactly where to go with it.

“He’s terrified. You at least understand why, right?”

“No, James, I really can’t.”

On the table beside them, Vincent the Prodigy checkmated his opponent. They shook hands, Vincent made a quip at the vanquished player’s expense, and a new challenger took the empty seat. The process was as ruthless as natural selection.

James’s eyes never left his game. Focus. That was his watchword. “I find that hard to believe, Marty,” he said, and pulled his bishop back under the protection of his knight’s pawn.

Marty took a long pull from his water bottle. Back when they were kids, they’d played soccer from dawn till dusk in the withering summer heat with no more to drink then they could get out garden hose. Now, the man couldn’t finish a three-move opening gambit without hydrating. “You don’t seem to be working hard to see things from my point of view, either,” he murmured once his lips were wet.

“Fact is,” James said, ignoring the comment, “if I didn’t know you and you pulled me over, I’d be scared for my life.”

Marty smiled and pointed at him with a captured pawn. “If I pulled you over and didn’t know you, I’d be scared, too.”

“What would you have to be scared of?” James asked, his eyebrows knitting in consternation. “You have a gun.”

“And so might you. You’d know up front I have a gun, that I’m being filmed, that I’m a professional at work doing a job. You might be a sociopath who’s just murdered your wife. I don’t know. Can’t you see how that might be frightening?”

James casually moved his pawn as if exposing it purely by accident. Not wanting to give away the ploy, his kept his voice cool and level. “You say ‘professionals’ like it’s a complement. Those professionals kill people that look like me all the time.”

Marty took the pawn. “Really? All the time? I’ve been pulling over cars for eight years and I’ve never shot anyone.”

“Don’t you watch the news?” James asked. “Do you need me to tell you their names so you can remember them?” He pressed forward with his knight, slamming the piece down-thwap- like a dart landing in plywood. Several pieces jumped. “Check,” he said, his lips barely parting.

James waited for the board to settle, then slowly, deliberately took James’s knight with his queen. “How many slain police officers can you name?” he said, his voice cold.

“That’s not the same.”

“No, it’s not. Those cops you can’t name were doing their job when they were murdered. Because they were doing their job. Don’t you see why that’s different than a guy getting shot robbing a grocery store? If patients started killing dentists for finding cavities, wouldn’t that change how you looked at going into work Monday?

“Dentists don’t kill people because of the color of their skin.”

“Neither do I. You’ve known me for twenty years, Jimmy. Our kids play soccer together. Do you really think I’d shoot somebody because they don’t look the same as me?”

James pointed at the place on Marty’s chest where his badge would be if he were working. “People that wear the same uniform you wear do.”

“So, I’m judged by what one guy who looks like me did?” his said, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “You do understand the hypocrisy of that, don’t you?”

“My race and your job aren’t the same thing.”

“No, they are different, just like any two comparisons you’d care to make.”

James castled to his king’s side. He needed to buy time to finish setting up his secondary attack. “You can always take off that uniform,” he said.

“Really? How many cops besides me do you know? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a uniform or not. On duty or retired, on patrol or with your family. Dead or alive. You’re always a cop.”

“It’s not the same. I can’t put my son in a different jacket and think, ‘It’s okay now.’ You don’t have to have the talk with your kids about what to do when they get pulled over.”

Marty advanced his queenside rook and removed another one of James’s pawns from the board. “Of course I do,” he said and took another sip of water. “I tell them to keep their hands on the wheel and treat the officer with respect. ‘No, sir.’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ That sort of thing. If they don’t, I’ll hear about it and they’ll be hell to pay when they get home. Same thing I’m sure you tell Keenan and Kayla.”

“Yeah, except for them, the cost of getting it wrong means that they might not come home.”

“So, you tell Keenan that when he gets pulled over, there’s a good chance he’s going to be killed?” Marty scoffed. “I think I’m beginning to understand why he’s so terrified of police.”

Bishop took knight. As he was his habit when he was winning, James placed his piece and removed his opponent’s with a deft, one-handed sweep. “If I don’t tell them how the world works, what sort of parent am I?”

Marty set both his hands on the table, palms open, and drew in a very long, audible breath. James used the time to polish a speck off his glasses with the tiny, microfiber towel he kept in his pocket for just such purposes. He studied the board, satisfied by how his attack was developing.

Grady, one of the old timers who hung around the park and spectated as much as he played, leaned over the bench and said, “Sicilian Defense, eh Dr. Moore?”

“You know me, Grady.” While there were no written rules to playing in the park, it was considered poor etiquette to interrupt somebody else’s game. James’s tone and Marty’s expression successfully conspired to reminded Grady of this. The old man mimed zippering his mouth closed and turned away.

“Look,” Marty said and resumed the game. “Can we at least agree that there are times where a police officer has to use deadly force?”

“No, we cannot.”

“Okay, when someone starts shooting up a crowd at a concert, what do you propose we do about it?”

“How often does that happen?”

Marty chuckled humorlessly. “How often does someone with a gun threaten to shoot a store clerk? Or their wife? Or their neighbor? It happens every damned day. More often than police shoot people by, like, a thousand times. Who else is going to handle that other than the police? That’s the real difference I’m talking about. If you go into work Monday and you shoot one of your patients…” He removed another pawn from the board. “Well, for one thing, that means you’re not a very good dentist. Two, it’s fair to assume you’ve done something wrong. When I go into work Monday, I may have to shoot someone because my job requires me to use a gun to stop the people everyone else gets to run from.”

“Then how come those people are so often black?”

“You remember back in high school, the track team? How come none of the sprinters were white? Or the majority of the kids in advanced English were girls? Was it because Coach Tomlin and Mrs. Greer were racist and sexist? Or was it because the people who ran fastest and read the most just happen to fit a particular demographic? Because things don’t always line up with statistics.”

“They do if you take a large enough sample group. That’s literally how you get statistics.”

“Do you think I drive around looking for a certain type of person to pull over so we can keep the stats up? Truth is, I don’t know the race or even the gender of most of the people I’m pulling over until I get to the window. I stop them because of their behavior.”

“I’ve been pulled over twice by the same cop for having my tail light out. You can’t tell me I’m the only car on the road with a tail light out.”

Marty’s lip curled up in smile. “Wait, is it actually out? Please tell me you’re not driving around with a taillight out and then acting indignant that you got stopped for it.”

James reached for his queen’s side rook, but it wasn’t there. He advanced his knight to fill the gap instead. “That’s not the point,” he protested. “That cop could have pulled anybody else over, but he pulled me. Twice”

“How do you know what he did the rest of his shift? Taillights could be his personal crusade. Maybe he’s pulled every car with a busted tail light in the whole state. Unless you spend all day with that officer, you’ll never know.”

Straightening up from hunching over the board, James felt his neck pop. Saturday morning chess had always been relaxing, a little oasis in a week spent fixing teeth and managing the complicated relationships that kept a small office running. Why was his back suddenly so tight? “So, you think I should just give him the benefit of the doubt?”

“Is that so much to ask? Just assume he’s a good guy until proven otherwise?

James slid a rook up the side of the board to support his last bishop. “Then why can’t he just assume I’m a good guy?”

“Because if you’re not, he’s dead,” Marty answered.


Silence. Marty studied the board so long that James began to wonder if he’d missed a move. Had he gotten that wound up? He hated playing with a timer, but if they were going to have these intense discussions, he might have to start bringing his. He was just about to say something when Marty called it. “Stalemate.”

“What?” James looked the board over. “Dead position? How did that happen?”

“Humph. I don’t know.” Marty pulled his jacket from the back of his chair, grabbed his water bottle, and stood up to leave. “I’ve got to go pick up Bridget and the kids anyway.”

“Yeah. We’ll give it another try next week.”

“Maybe." The look in his eyes said that wasn't likely to happen. "Take it easy, James. Tell Tiffany I said howdy.”

“You, too, Marty. Remember that Gabe is due for a cleaning. I’ve got time Wednesday if you’re free.”

After he left, James sat at the table, replacing pieces and playing the game again in reverse. To draw was one thing, but he was too good a player to end up in a stalemate by accident.

“That was one ugly game, Dr. Moore.”

“Thank you, Grady. I was just sitting here saying a quiet little prayer that the good Lord would send someone along to tell me that. And here you are. Hallelujah. I don’t suppose you can tell me why I played so poorly?”

“That’s easy,” the old man said. “You didn’t have a bad opening, but neither one of you was paying any attention to what was happening on the other side of the board. You both were all tied up in your own strategies and didn’t notice that the other player was basically in the same predicament you were.”

James stopped replacing pieces. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It can’t be that simple, can it?” Replacing his glasses, he stood up, walked around the table, and looked at the board from Marty’s side.



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