By Steven Schwartz
Featured Art: Untitled (Seascape with Houses on Beach) by Unknown
I was worried. Thirty years had passed since I looked at the story. Every writer has a list of stories he carries around in his head, if only he were to put together that anthology of personally selected hits. To go back and pick one . . . well, a lot rested on it.
“In Miami, Last Winter,” by James Kaplan, was first published in Esquire in 1977. I came across it then—at twenty-six years old—and then again the following year when it was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 1978. The second—and last time—I read it I admired it even more, a sure test of a story’s staying power. You know the plot, you know the characters’ dilemmas, you know the story’s stakes, yet you’re still dazzled by its force to catch you up in its immediacy. Indeed every story works toward establishing a renewable present: the ability to make the reader experience its effects anew. In short, you fall helplessly under its spell once more.
Paul Stein, fifteen, the narrator, begins his account of an adolescent obsession with chess by introducing us to sixteen-year-old Harry Urbanic: “The first time I saw Harry Urbanic, he was hustling chess for quarters, standing with his arms spread, and his hands on the table at the corners of the board, his head flicking back and forth like a serpent about to strike.” It’s hard to pass up a first line like that. The lever yanks down, the stadium lights go on, the noise erupts, game on: literally in this case. Harry Urbanic (later we will learn that he is vaguely of Eastern European descent, from behind “the Iron Curtain” and has no parents to speak of) bangs down his chest pieces, playing multiple players “for quarters.” The story takes place before the triumph of machine over grandmaster, Deep Blue over Garry Kasparov in 1997, when the human brain was still king of the endgame. It’s replete with the towering names and historic moves of chess lore; the stale smells of cigarette smoke, too much coffee, and jittery adolescent boys pushing down the plungers on their clocks; and the game’s argot for winners and mostly losers: fish, patzer.
Paul’s childhood friend Artie first teaches him chess, and Paul soon dispatches him as an unworthy opponent, moving on to other conquests, the young and old who haunt the tournament halls. His reputation rises until he becomes a metropolitan champion. But then his downfall: he meets Irving Weinfeld, sixty years old, a “master past his prime,” now “fat, old, and bald” and “such an ugly old man.” Paul, distracted by the man’s wretched condition, sees in him his own unhappy future, bereft of true human connection. He loses the match and gives up chess. But years later in college, he walks by the House of Chess and notices that Harry Urbanic is scheduled to challenge fifty players simultaneously.
If the story followed the true pattern of the quest narrative, Paul would make his comeback, and in a battle royal overcome the mythic Harry Urbanic (who also plays checkers, poker, golf, and bridge for money and always wins). But that’s the movie version. The literary one is decidedly less triumphant. Paul loses. Afterward, in a coffee shop nearby, Harry informs Paul that the three ties—the “draws”—he could have also won, as he did all the other forty-seven games.
“You don’t mean to say you drew on purpose?” Paul says.
“Yeah, well, I can’t win ‘em all—doesn’t look right.”
More crushing, Paul learns that Harry was “carrying him” faking any significant opposition, and then Harry drops the hammer: “Listen pal, let me save you a lot of grief. You don’t have it. And even if you did, it wouldn’t be enough.”
A great short story has to rattle on the page. From its opening sentence it has to visibly shake the house; it has to bring all its emotions to the fore without a drop of fat; it has to pay off the promise of its opening gambit: in this case that Harry Urbanic will change the narrator’s life and do so without contrivance, sentimentality, predictability, or cheating. No tricks, as Raymond Carver once said. It also has to have a touch of the mythic and a good dose of the mysterious—we never learn the true meaning of the title. After wiping out Paul’s illusions about finding his identity and salvation in chess, Harry tells him: “Miami. You would not fucking believe what happened in Miami last wintuh.” We don’t know what happened in Miami “last wintuh.” We only know it matters in some profound coded way for Paul, and that he will have to become a full human being, no shortcuts. Once again, I was enthralled to find out how he would get there.
Steven Schwartz is the author of four books, including the novels Therapy and A Good Doctor’s Son. His fiction has received the Nelson Algren Award, the Colorado Book Award, and Sherwood Anderson Price, and two O. Henry Awards. He teaches creative writing at Colorado State University and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.
Originally published in NOR 6