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Strange Interview

By Patrick Benson
Copyright 2000 Patrick Benson
 A short story about the author's interview for a job during which the interviewer lost at his own game.
(The story is entirely true, except that the names have been changed.)


By November of 1950, Father's patience with me had run out:

" It's months since you got your degree," he charged, "and not once have you looked for a decent job. Yes, you play chess in that sleazy arcade and your winnings pay for clothes and dates I know, but that's hustling, not working. Wild Bill Wilcox, at Topmost Pubs, told me he has an opening for trainee editor, high school texts. An English major can handle that job, right? Right! So, you have an interview with him at six this evening. Yes, this evening!"

Consequently, at that hour, in an icy rain, I was knocking on the door of an old office building under the Third Avenue El. It was opened by a tall man of fifty or so with closely cropped white hair, thin lips, and a large, downward-slashing nose. In the dim light of the vestibule he looked remarkably like a bald eagle as deep-set eyes fixed me in a predaceous stare.

"Mr. Benson? Wilcox." He offered his hand. "My secretary is just driving up. We have dinner reservations at a pretty good Italian place on Third. Okay?"

Before I could answer, he had my arm and was steering me to a station wagon at the curb. "This is Leslie," he announced, pushing her, giggling, to the center of the front seat, and directing me to the passenger's side. He took the wheel, and off we went in a jackrabbit start. Wild Bill, I thought.

At the restaurant he asked for double martinis all around. When I countered with a request for club soda, he glanced at me quizzically, but said nothing.

Drinks had arrived and dinner ordered when he said that he had devised a game of strategy. Would I like to see it? Again he did not wait for a reply, but jumped up, strode out to the car, and brought back a wooden chest, about the size and shape of a shoebox, and a folding chessboard with ten by eight squares instead of the conventional eight by eight. This he opened in the center of the table and, from the chest, spilled out two sets of military toy pieces, one painted fire-engine red, the other cerulean blue. Arranging them like chess pieces on opposite sides of the open board, he fished a pack of index cards out of his pocket and began to read the rules:

"Game is called Castle because object is to capture the opponent's Castle. This piece." He held it up. As he continued reading it became obvious that his cannon, tank, plane, infantryman, made the same moves, respectively, as bishop, rook, knight, and pawn in chess. The only real departure from chess was the addition of a "bomber" on each wing which necessitated the extra squares.

Letting him drone on, I turned toward Leslie for my first good look at her. She was one of the loveliest Oriental girls I had ever seen, and close to my age, but she kept her eyes on Wilcox, who kept his hand on her knee.

Dinner arrived and we ate around the open board, the pieces still untouched, while the other diners craned their necks to watch. He finished the rules in time for dessert.

"Chocolate parfaits for everyone," he ordered, "and heavy on the Kahlua. Mr. Benson, are you ready for a game? Good. I'll take Blue. I move first." Well, moving first is a definite advantage in chess and he should have offered to toss a coin for it, but I decided to overlook his arrogance and let him win. As we played, customers seeing action crowded around our table. Wilcox, who had consumed three double martinis, almost all of the dinner Chianti, about four ounces of Kahlua, and was now working on a B&B digestif, lurched to his feet and winked broadly at the crowd.

"Oho, young feller, you do that do you? Well, watch this!" and he slammed down a blue tank. "Tell me, sir, do all you Princetonians drink nothing but club soda?" adding, in a stage whisper that could be heard out on the street, "Egad, sir, you must pee a lot!"

The laughter did not bother me; I was used to heckling by kibitzers at the arcade. But, when Leslie laughed in my face --- so much for forbearance! I sacrificed two infantrymen in succession, ripped open his defenses like a sardine can, and captured his Castle. Game over in ten moves.

"Student beats teacher, I think," shouted an onlooker. Wilcox, owl-eyed, stared, wobbled to his feet, and managed a courtly bow.

"Another game? I’ll keep Blue. My lucky color," he explained to his audience, dangling a blue silk handkerchief before them. They laughed again. He lost again, and another three games after that, playing Blue each time. By the last game, around closing time, he had sobered up somewhat. He put away his pieces, and tipped the waiter twenty dollars, a princely amount for those days.

Outside, in the frosty night, he held me in his eagle-eyed stare. "Well, young man, you can have the job if you want it."

"Editor? We never even discussed the work. Don't you need writing samples or references?"

"I’m a pretty good judge of people, sir. You beat me roundly at a game I invented. What more do I need?. . . I’ll teach you the business and you’ll do well. So? Settled? Good. Personnel will call you in the morning with the details. Can we drop you anywhere? No? Good night, then." He drove away with an arm around Leslie.

Naturally, I didn’t believe a promise made by a drunk, in front of a pretty girl, at two in the morning but, to my surprise, Personnel did call and offered me a position - trainee, they stressed – at double what I could make at the arcade. It too me no time to decide that , with a chance to see Leslie every day, I probably could put up with Wilcox’s antics, and accepted.

Shortly afterward, however, Leslie left the firm, moved into Wilcox’s house, and kept him sober for the next 35 years. I worked closely with him much of that time, but never once heard him mention the game Castle again.