Two wealthy American widowers sat at an outside table at Caffé Florian in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, playing chess and drinking spritzes. Cass was mounting a Sicilian Defense, an opening he had recently learned in honor of the country he planned to visit, but he was faltering in the middle game.
“Look at that puddle!” he said, partly to distract Pauly, his opponent. “There’s water coming up out of that drain.”
“Pay attention,” Pauly said, advancing his queen. “If you had bothered to read the guidebook I sent you, you would know that this whole place is built on stilts and that’s just the overflow from the Grand Canal.”
“The overflow? If I had known that this was a flood zone I wouldn’t have agreed to come here.”
They were old college roommates who had rediscovered each other at an alumni function after their wives died. Now, with time and money on their hands, they traveled to a different European city each year and played chess at cafes in the late afternoon following visits to local museums. They hadn’t been the best of friends in college, and they weren’t exactly the best of friends now, but they both loved to travel and to play chess, so they agreed to put up with each other for two weeks every summer.
The sun dropped below the Procuratie Nuove, casting long shadows on the puddles rising from the drains on the opposite side of the square.
“Are you sure — ?”
Cass rescued his king and watched the puddles form a small pond that soon became a moderately-sized lake. The orchestra stopped playing and the waiters started moving tables and chairs into the main restaurant.
“Maybe we should—”
“Mate in three.”
“What? No way!” Cass forgot all about the lake and studied the board, determined to find a way out.
The flood inched its way across the square and over to their table. Soon they were up to their ankles in dirty water. Pauly waved off a waiter who made a last attempt to retrieve their table and chairs, leaving them as the only people remaining in the square, two shadows at dusk.
“We have to stop,” Cass finally said, realizing that his king was doomed.
“Do you resign?”
The water was up to their knees and swirling in eddies.
“Of course not! But maybe we should postpone this game until later.”
“So you do resign.”
It made no difference as the flood waters reached the top of the table and washed away the chess board and pieces. The two men continued bickering as they treaded water until Cass spotted an empty gondola floating aimlessly through the square. He swam out to the boat, climbed in, and went back to pick up Pauly.
Their voices could be heard echoing in the streets of Venice — “Checkmate!” “Draw!” “Checkmate!” “Draw!” — all the way back to the hotel.