Dennis would volunteer to teach me how to play chess, but I had the attention span of a goldfish back then. I tried to learn by watching them play, and it always seemed easy at the beginning, but as the game wore on, it became more difficult to follow. You had to anticipate and plan several moves ahead, and I struggled with that concept.
Dennis would notice the bewildered look on my face when a game ended and say something like, "What the heck are they teaching you down there at Roman, son? If you would just concentrate a little, you'll understand."
While they were playing, Mike and Dennis would often tell me and my brother Mark funny stories about the guys they hung out with. Their nicknames alone made you laugh: Head, Mole, Nit, Gob, Gumby, Clang, and Shan, just to name a few. Because a lot of these nicknames were derived from an evident physical characteristic, I would laugh at the sight of them as they entered the room. "What are you laughing at?" Head would demand. "Nothing," I'd reply sheepishly as I wiped the grin off my face and tried to avert my eyes.
After their chess matches ended, we would watch reruns of Highway Patrol through the haze of our burning Marlboros on a 12-inch, black-and-white TV. We would often talk into the early morning hours about sports, music, politics, or life in general. It was a crazy summer, so there was plenty to talk about: The Sixers lost the NBA Championship to Portland, Son of Sam was still terrorizing New York along with a massive blackout, Star Wars premiered, and Elvis died.
Quite a few times that summer, I remember Dennis heading home as the darkness was giving way to dawn.
I didn't see Dennis too often after that summer. The guys from my brother's crew were turning 21, so they started hanging out at the local bars. Drinking quarts of Bud and playing chess in our basement bedroom had started to lose its appeal.
As the years went by, any time I saw or heard anything related to chess, I would think of Dennis and Mike playing until the wee hours that summer. A few years ago, I gave Mike a new chess set for Christmas. And this past summer, I thought about those games of chess in the basement again as I read about the 40th anniversary of the Fischer-Spassky match.
Mike's text message to me a few weeks ago caught me off guard. I read it several times but still couldn't believe it: "Dennis McCauley died yesterday. Heart attack."
Life's complexities often remind me of a game of chess. It all seems so simple in the beginning, when you're still young, but it grows more difficult as time goes by, as you try to anticipate and plan for what might happen.
Shortly after hearing the news about Dennis, I looked up at the twilight sky as it slowly darkened above me, and I could still hear his voice: "If you would just concentrate a little, you'll understand." Unfortunately, when I think about Dennis, those games of chess, and life in general, there's still quite a bit that I don't understand.
Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.