Couples who play cribbage are notoriously competitive and it was certainly true of Mr. Carton and his beloved Charlene. On this particular Friday evening when the city was full of golden possibilities for cultured activity they decided going out was too much trouble, nowhere to park, the restaurants unbearably noisy and crammed with people whose company they didn’t enjoy. They stayed home and played cribbage instead.
This was a decision they both knew to be a minefield. The last game of any kind that they had played together, bridge at the Ryans, had been a disaster. Prior to the game, Mr. Carton had devised a crude method of cheating. It was simply a leveling of the field with the Ryans who were near professionals. Eyes down left meant hearts. Down right spades. Your heart is on your left below your eyes. Spades dig down. Mr. Carton would employ the strategy discretely so as not to render the Ryans suspicious.
Despite the stratagem’s simplicity, Charlene got confused and began bidding in a distracted manner and this flustered Mr. Carton into making horrible errors of his own which he blamed on the wine. He managed to contain his anger until they were in the car driving home, and then said things to Charlene he knew he would regret bitterly which he soon did.
So the agreement to play cribbage was taken as a kind of therapy, a dose of anti-venom to neutralize the bridge fallout. Charlene, Mr. Carton knew and was prepared, would use the game to punish him. He welcomed it. He had it coming.
The first game was peaceful. They murmured together over the pegs like two doves with a windfall of sunflower seeds. Charlene won the game and Mr. Carton started to hope that maybe that did it, that all was made well. If he had been thinking clearly, Mr. Carton would have been abruptly overcome with fatigue and needing his bed, but he decided that one more game wouldn’t hurt, a game that he would actually try to win.
In the second game Charlene’s little delays in playing, her hand poised over the board, which in the first game were exasperating but nothing out of the ordinary became extended, meditated and premeditated torture. She was determined to beat him. This last thought was revelatory. It implied that whenever he had won in the past, which mostly he did, she was letting him win. He wasn’t going to believe that, even as the evidence mounted. She was waxing his butt.
The rage which had overcome him in the car on the way home from the Ryans possessed him again. He could feel his face turning purple. His head was a soundtrack of mayhem, the board and table being flung to the side, the gunshot that splattered the wall with blood and brains.
It took a few days for the doctors to determine that Mr. Carton had not in fact had a heart attack. They kept him in the hospital for observation. When Charlene came to visit she was unspeakably cheerful.