Fiction · 03/02/2011

Game Theory

Brendan’s son Kerry, now eleven, who pitched a perfect game in Little League at ten, a feat unheard of in Brendan’s or Brendan’s father’s or any of Brendan’s friends’ previous experience, is bent over the chessboard in the family room. He sits there for hours every day now, with no thought of baseball or anything else but chess, whether someone is there to play with him or not. Someone is there this afternoon, but it’s just his little sister, nine, scabby elbows on the table, boy haircut, fierce pale face, no grandmaster. She watches her brother, who sniffs incessantly, more like a cocaine habit than a cold, and scratches his head a lot. Brendan can’t be sure when Kerry would last have washed his hair.

Brendan is watching from the doorway and drinking Dr. Pepper, which he can’t bring himself to give up, thinking, as he usually does these days when he drinks Dr. Pepper, of the joke. Why does Dr. Pepper come in a bottle? Brendan must have been about Kerry’s age when he first heard that joke and didn’t get it. Because his wife died. The Dr. Pepper Brendan’s drinking comes in a can, not a bottle, but still, Brendan’s wife did die.

His children pretend not to see him, Melissa looking anywhere but the doorway, Kerry only at the board. It hurts his feelings, but he knows that’s their intention, thinks, hey, it’s the only chance they stand of amassing any power to themselves in this world, where acting like a girl if you’re a girl or pitching a perfect game if you’re a boy so gratifies the elders that you’d rather die than do it ever again. So he tries to forgive them for pretending not to see him. What child deserves the father he gets?

Kerry rests a finger on the tip of a bishop, tilts it this way and that, as though considering retracting his move, but Brendan knows he’s not considering anything, because he has lost his mind. The family room, like the whole house, is too big, big enough for the big family she wanted, big enough to shrink Kerry in it to a mindless unkempt smidgen of a chess machine oblivious of windows looking out on fresh air and exercise, oblivious of the crown molding Brendan labored over for weeks because she liked things nice and sometimes he tried to oblige, oblivious even of the flat-screen TV, the latest consolation prize. Melissa has not lost her mind; while Kerry tips his bishop and appears to calculate, Melissa’s mind proves it’s there by wandering, to the window, to the blank TV, to dead space, back to Kerry, with periodic sighs of disgust.

She says, “Just leave it!”

Kerry says, “Eat shit.”

Melissa says, “Why don’t you?” Normally she would come screaming to Brendan about that, but they’re pretending not to see him. Kerry’s eyes don’t come off his bishop.

And he’s not even any good. Brendan can barely tell a rook from a knight, but this much he knows. Kerry wins every time against his sister, but rarely against the friends he brings over. They beat him to a chess pulp and he sees them out and returns to the table and plays both white and black, removes all the pieces and stares at just the board, studies chess books that he takes out from the library, practices openings and endgames, annihilates his little sister. The next day the not-above-average eleven-year-olds return and trounce him but good.

Kerry removes his finger from the bishop, Melissa moves a pawn and Kerry swoops the bishop across the board to capture it. Melissa screams, like discovering a body in a movie. Her face goes red with blood while the scream lasts, then nothing but pale and cold again. She screams like that when she plays chess with Kerry, and she stomps around and swears and punches him, but she always plays with him again. They spend much more time together now. She never turns on the TV when he’s at the chessboard.

But Kerry only smiles with grim satisfaction. He puts the pawn with his other captures and arranges them in two neat rows, does not begin to appreciate what she’s doing for him. Or how it’s no triumph to beat a nine-year-old at chess. Or that this is not even the game he should be devoting himself to. Or the money spent on consolation prizes, or the hours mitering molding and mitering it again.

Brendan thinks, Fuck him. He thinks fuck his son.

He says, “No screaming in the house.”

Melissa stops the pretence of not knowing he’s there and points and screams, “He’s the one who said shit!”

“All right,” Brendan says. “That’s it. No more chess.”

“No way!” Kerry says.

“Play something else, I don’t care. Not chess.”

“What else are we supposed to play?” Melissa says. “He’s a chess dork.”

“Shut your ugly face,” Kerry says. He slaps her head and she punches his chest.

“I don’t give a shit,” Brendan says. “Play tic-tac-toe for all I care.”

They’re poised to shout or slap again, but they stop short in their fury to frown at him.

Brendan says, “What’s your problem?”

Kerry turns back to his chessmen and says, “I’m not playing anything with her.”

“Me neither,” Melissa says.

“You telling me you have some kind of problem with tic-tac-toe?”

Kerry sniffs and says, “I’m so sure.”

Melissa says, “I bet he does. He’s such a chess dork.”

“All right,” Brendan says. He slams his Dr. Pepper on the chessboard, sending droplets and a white rook flying, catches sight of the wastebasket by Kerry’s chair and kicks it over on the carpet: Kleenex, a black banana peel, sheets and sheets of chess notations in Kerry’s scrawl. He spreads one of these out on the floor, finds a pen in his pocket and draws four intersecting lines in a blank corner. He tells them, “Play.”

They stare down at it, and exchange a look.

Brendan says, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” What are video games doing to society? What kind of father has he been?

“You mean you don’t know how to play tic-tac-toe?” he says.

Kerry says, “I think I played it once.”

“Get down there,” he says. The children look at each other and slink to the floor. “No wait,” Brendan says. “Melissa, get out of there.” Melissa gets up and backs away and Brendan replaces her opposite Kerry. He tells Kerry, “You’re Os.”

Brendan puts down an X and holds the pen out for Kerry. “Do an O.”

“Whatever,” Kerry says. He does an O.

Melissa says, “I don’t get it.”

Brendan plays another X, Kerry fails to block him, and Brendan wins, simple as that.

Brendan says, “I win.”

Kerry says, “Whatever.” Then, “Let’s play again.”

Melissa says, “I want to play.”

Brendan starts again. Kerry is smart enough to block this time, but Brendan wins again anyway, diagonally. Melissa points at Kerry and laughs at him, and Brendan joins in.

Kerry takes another crumpled paper from the mess on the floor, spreads it out and draws more lines. “Now I go first,” he says, and he takes the Xs for himself. The best Brendan can do this time is a tie. But he doesn’t lose.

They play game after game. “What’s wrong?” Brendan says. “Can’t beat your old man?”

Melissa says, “You’re too good, Daddy. You’re amazing.” It’s the voice of years before, when the daddy could do anything. Brendan pretends she isn’t there.

Kerry sniffs some more, more like crying now, maybe. Waking up and smelling the coffee.

Kerry says, “Teach me, Dad.” The whine in it pierces down into something in Brendan and almost makes him relent, but the admiration numbs it. He doesn’t want to teach him. Thinks, it’s not so much knowing how to win as which game to play, my boy.

He slashes out a few more Xs and wins again. He’s on fire, for the first time in ages. He wins and ties and wins and ties and ties and ties. He cannot lose.

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Buzz Mauro’s stories and poems have appeared in Willow Springs, River Styx, Tar River Poetry, New Orleans Review, Poet Lore and other magazines. He lives in Annapolis and works as an actor and acting teacher in Washington, DC.