Game Theory

She sat on a bench in the Public Gardens, legs tucked beneath her. It was too cold for the swan boats, so tourists weren’t crowding around with their squawking children to ride the ridiculous boats in a circle around the water. As if the Boston experience wasn’t complete without sitting in a crowded boat with a bunch of loud, sticky children and fat, stinking adults.


Bobby worked a swan boat last summer, and he used to mimic the tourists. “’Ooh, Martha, get a picture of little Tyler waving,’” he’d say. “’Peter, don’t cry, and Mommy will get you another ice cream.’” He made fun of them, but somehow never sounded mean. She didn’t know how he managed to pull off that trick. “They’re just people,” he’d say. “Didn’t your folks ever take you to parks?”


She’d get a flash of her mother in her red capris and tight tee shirts and her father in his jeans with his stomach jutting over the top and his collection of horrid Hawaiian shirts. Her mother’s hair was almost white at the ends, and it darkened to black at the roots. Her father had a tattoo of a snake and a sword on his bicep. They never went anywhere, but she did. In her mind. She told Bobby that.

He said she was like him: a traveler without papers. She wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded interesting.

When she wasn’t working, she liked to sit on the grass at the Public Gardens and watch him. He looked golden in the sun.

Bobby would smile and give his “Welcome to Boston” spiel to the tourists and act so polite with his “Yes, ma’ams and no sirs, and I’d be glad to recommend a good, cheap restaurant.”


Often a big spender would even slip him a dollar or two. “Thanks, he’d say. I’m working my way through, MIT.” Sometimes it was Tufts or BU or Northeastern–not Harvard because he said that turned people off.


Most days she worked at Great Rocks in Cambridge, selling overpriced, polished stone jewelry and knick knacks to hipsters. It was easy work, and she could fake the talk. She had cultivated a faint British accent. When people asked her where she was from, she always smiled and said, “All over, really.” She had gotten invited to a lot of parties that way.

Bobby was the only one who saw through her act, but he liked it, probably because they were two of a kind. He moved in with her that first night when they met at an almost-end-of-the-year MIT frat party. Chi Piss-Off or Delta Up-Yours. It was easy to crash those parties. You just had to show up if you were a girl, and she had a fake BU ID. Bobby didn’t need to crash. He was the man who handed out party favors in little cello bags to those with the means to afford them.

“Tell me your thoughts about game theory,” he said with that big white smile.

“I’ll tell you mind if you tell me yours.” She could always throw off trite lines.

“I don’t know much about game theory, but I know a player when I see her.”                       

They left the party and walked down Bay State Road. It had been one of those cool spring nights, and he offered her his jacket. He seemed so gallant. No guy ever treated her like Bobby. She told him things she hadn’t told anyone. She said she was only a year short of her own degree when she left Philadelphia and wanted to see the world, but she only had enough money to get to Boston. It was cheaper than New York and farther from her parents. She felt a longing to do something, but didn’t know what. It was like she was tied by some invisible tether and needed to break free.


He said he was a student of life, and they’d break free together.

She so wanted to believe in him. But now she understood happiness was just a short, dazzling flight until you crashed back into the dirt.

She should have known that Bobby was a golden bird, and she was a crow.


That summer her boss promoted her to store manager and offered her the apartment over the shop at reduced rent. “It’s a little noisy with all the college kids, but the neighborhood’s great. You’re a hard worker. You got a future.”


She put down her payment and gave notice to her current landlord, who didn’t care as long as he got his last month’s rent check. She figured she’d surprise Bobby. They had a good life. She paid rent; he paid for food and extras. She just had to find the right moment because she didn’t want him to think she was being too pushy, but for the first time in her life she felt content. He was the missing part of her. He gave her a necklace he said he made in an art class. It was two entwined brass circles on a simple chain. “It’s not much,” he said, “but I almost burned off my fingers making it. I wanted to give it to someone I really cared for.” She swore never to take it off, even though somewhere in her mind it registered that he had no burn scars.


She didn’t question his love until she saw his cell phone. It was an accident. He was in the shower, and she pushed a button and saw another golden bird, a fiancé named Bryn. She wished she hadn’t looked, but it was like trying to unspill ink. The blot was there.


Did he know? Maybe he wanted her to see. She told herself it didn’t matter, that he really loved her, but she felt the lie mocking her when they lay together at night. She wanted to talk to him about the golden bird and the new apartment, but she didn’t. She couldn’t get the words out. Sometimes when he went out, she wondered if he’d call her from the airport and tell her he wasn’t coming back, and she’d touch his things: his clothes, his grungy backpack, trying to hold on to him.


Two weeks before they were supposed to move he didn’t come home.


Three days later, it hit the news. “Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III was identified as the shooting victim in Thursday nights’ East Cambridge robbery-homicide. He was shot at point blank range with a .9 mm semi-automatic, and the police are asking for your help in identifying the killer.” They showed his Yale University graduation picture because he’d been shot in the head three times. The police said it looked like a drug-related killing. They found some cello bags of cocaine under the body.

There were no witnesses, and no one connected Robert Richfield Ford Jensen III to the girl who lived in the tiny South Boston apartment on the edge of respectability.

She wasn’t sure what was worse: that he never told her who he was, or that he was planning to leave her at the end of the summer. His parents flew his body back home to Colorado for a private burial. The police never did find a suspect; all they got was a bunch of half-assed descriptions of a thin black male in a baggy tracksuit. She heard they picked up a couple of guys just to keep the parents happy but had to let them go.

The whole thing almost made her cry.


She gave away that tracksuit to Goodwill and dropped the necklace and the .9 mm semi-automatic into the Charles River a month later.


She’d stolen the gun from her father before she left home because a girl needs protection from the wrong type of guy, even if he looks golden. She also threw away Bobby’s grungy backpack, but kept the twenty-two thousand she found sewn into its lining. She was going to flush the rest of the cello bags down the toilet, but instead tucked them into the pockets of an old pair of jeans she threw in the bottom of the laundry hamper. Those bags might come in useful once the fall semester was underway. Rich kids were always looking to get high.


The new apartment wasn’t too large, but it had a washer and dryer, and she could look out and see the red bricks of Harvard rising up just beyond her. Cambridge was trendy, and she liked hearing the noise and chatter below. Maybe she’d take some extension classes or an on-line course or two. Maybe she’d get her degree. Lots of people were getting their degrees these days.

She had a nest egg now.


3 thoughts on “Game Theory

  1. hjcain says:

    Cold Blooded as usual.

    • sarahcain78 says:

      Von Neuman’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior imagined human interactions as a series of moves and counter moves aimed at maximizing payoff. In other words, never underestimate your opponent. S

  2. louietoo5203 says:

    Creepy. Didn’t see the ending coming at all.

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