I want tell you about a summer pasttime that remains as clear and as sharp as a Kodak moment. If I had a picture of George Korasi sitting opposite me at the checkerboard, the image would tell the story of friendship and competition. You would see a lanky boy wearing leather sandals and lederhosen with a white tee shirt. I would be wearing shorts, some kind of jersey, and sneakers. We sat on my porch with our feet on the last of seven steps above the sidewalk. George and I lived in side-by-side, 3-family houses on W. Runyon Street in Newark.
From the end of June until the day after Labor Day when the new school year began, I had to fill endless hours with something. The coolness of an early summer morning was the best time to play checkers. Most mornings had a calm, just awakened, starting to stretch kind of feel. The kids on the block slept late, but 13-year-old year George, a Hungarian refugee, was up early and always came looking for me.
I heard George open the door in the back and start down the narrow, one-car wide driveway that separated our houses. His boney legs lurched side to side. His arms stretched out like airplane wings trying to balance a body ready to crash. He exhaled a gurgle of happiness when he reached the sidewalk.
— Hi, Georgie. I have the checkers and the board. You ready to play?
I yelled down from the space we called a porch. My mother had a wooden Adironack chair in the corner aside from the vestibule doors. The space wasn’t a real porch, not like my grandmother’s in Scranton with a long railing, a gilder, and a pull-down awning that kept out the sun. We called it a porch anyway and just pretended.
George gripped the bannister with his left hand and lifted one leg at a time over the concrete slab cemented into the sidewalk. The next six steps took a while, and I’ll not ask for a Kodak snapshot of the struggle. George was born with cerebral palsy and a joyful spirit. He kept his eyes on me waiting at the top. One foot dropped on to the first step, and he torqued his body upward a step at a time. As he climbed, he laughed a honking sound. He grinned when he reached the top step and saliva slipped from both sides of his mouth. High off the ground, George folded his legs as if he were a giraffe and dropped on to the landing.
Every checkers morning, George climbed those steps, and I waited for him to reach the checkerboard. As he climbed what seemed to be Everest in Newark, I wondered. I wondered if George was unhappy with his body. Did he know why Peter, his brother, had a regular one? How did George ask questions without using words? I understood his sounds, but we were only playing checkers. When he dreamed, did he have legs that ran with a horse’s gait? Did he want to kiss a girl? I did not know, I only wondered.
— Your move, Georgie, and I’m gonna beat you this time.
George let out a laugh and extended the shakey pointer finger of his right hand. He moved a black checker diagonally to an empty space.
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