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.


One Little Pill

In the end, Celine supposed, all love stories ended in tragedy. 

She brushed a piece of lint off the sleeve of her black Chanel suit, grateful that the day was cool. The long sleeves covered the fading bruises on her arms. She peered one last time into the mirror to satisfy herself that her cosmetics covered the discoloration under her left eye. Perfect. She was ready to receive her guests.

Really, the viewing and funeral had been taxing enough, and the long ride to the family mausoleum ghastly. All those people offered such banal words of comfort; she, of course, received them graciously.

When the Hollander woman appeared—in church, no less—with her vulgar mink coat and too tight, too short dress and caterwauled like a beast, it had been an absolute circus.

“You killed him! You killed my Matthew!” she bellowed. Thank goodness Mr. Bishop and Mr. Davis had immediately and quite firmly shown her the door. Celine reminded herself to slip a substantial tip to the undertaker and his assistant for their efficiency. Celine believed in rewarding service well done.

At the time Celine had clutched her pearls and leaned back against James, who caught her arm and murmured soothing words into her ear. “Don’t worry, Moms, she’s gone now. Dad was an idiot. A rotten idiot.”

“He was your father, darling,” she said.

Matthew died because the arteries to his heart were more than eighty percent blocked. After forty years of red meat, alcohol, cigars, and women who were far too young for him, his blood was like wet cement. He was one week from an operation to replace three of his heart valves when a massive coronary struck him down. That was the decree of his doctor. Who was she to argue?

If only he’d been able to get to his nitroglycerin pills in time, he might have been able to call out for help. But no, he thrashed in his bed gurgling and choking and begging, his face turning from red to blue to purple as he choked for air. In the morning the tiny white pills lay scattered on the floor, and the bottle lay in the middle of the rug. It had been over in less than five minutes.

Her bedroom was down the hall, too far away for her to hear or help, Celine explained to Matthew’s doctor when he came personally that morning to fill out the death certificate. Though she was completely serene, she delicately dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. He patted her back and said she mustn’t blame herself.

She thanked him with all due sincerity. Matthew deserved far worse.

In the recesses of her dark heart Celine had always known Matthew had married her for her parents’ old money prestige, but even understanding that, she had loved him once. He was handsome and witty, and she had lovely memories of their honeymoon in Paris when he charmed her with his French, his appreciation of Monet and Matisse, his knowledge of the city. He had seemed charming and sophisticated then, so much so that she’d overlooked his arrogance, his rudeness to waiters and those he thought beneath him.

His temper. The temper he let loose with increasing frequency as the years passed. She’d grown tired of wearing long sleeves in summer and extra make up to cover the damage, but she was too proud to admit she’d made a mistake. He wanted her connections, and she enjoyed living in splendor. Everything in life came at a price.

Eventually his other women didn’t bother her in the least as long as they kept him out of her bed. She didn’t care about his rudeness or drinking as long as he directed it away from her. She would go and soothe the hurt feelings Matthew left in his wake. His deliberate cruelty was another thing entirely. She began to make a tally of every incident, every outrage, but Celine had allowed a tough shell to form around her heart. She was also patient.

Three years ago Matthew had deliberately run over her favorite cat, Montgomery, as the old fellow lay sunning himself in the driveway. Though infuriated, Celine said nothing. She had Montgomery cremated and enshrined his ashes in a sterling silver urn that she kept in her bedroom.

After Matthew’s own cremation, she collected his remains from Mr. Bishop and told the undertaker she needed to spend one last evening with her husband before he was forever entombed. Celine dumped his remains in the trash, and returned Montgomery’s silver urn over to the undertaker the next morning. She mixed in some cat liter to balance the weight.

Now Celine took a cleansing breath as she descended the marble stairs to greet her guests. It felt like a celebration.

She nodded sagely when Matthew’s law partner said, “My God, we just played eighteen holes at Merion the day before he died. He seemed fine, better than fine. But I guess you never know. The doc says if he could have gotten to those pills . . . ” His voice trailed off in a haze of scotch and regret. Matthew’s beloved Bunnahabhain 25. Celine never cared for scotch.

Celine nodded solemnly. It was such a small thing, that one little pill.