The Game

Reading Time: 8 minutes

THE GAME— The invitation had come very late. Two weeks? Not even, he thought to himself. It was Wednesday and Mark was getting married on the following Saturday.

That was just like Mark – impulsive and last minute – even his nuptials were not immune to his wanton and lackadaisical approach to time. Luckily for Mark, he had the charm to overcome his perpetual tardiness. Thomas, though not repellent, lacked the charisma necessary to live free of the omnipresence of time. Unluckily for Thomas, Mark had consistently made them both late for more than half of their lives. Now, halfway across the country from one another, this was less common. The memories of the terrible situations that they had found themselves party to on account of Mark’s lack of temporal awareness still brought acute pangs of panic, and he began to sweat as he thumbed the invitation, glancing off into the distant remembrance of the past. If he was not careful, he would find himself late for his dinner with Holly. He wouldn’t have the words to explain, and the panic, sensing a foothold, gripped Thomas as tightly as an irrational feeling can.

Debilitated for only a few minutes Thomas still found himself twenty minutes early for the date with Holly. After Holly arrived twenty minutes late the panic that had been tightening its vice-grip for nearly an hour and a half loosened slightly. The appetizers and drinks were ordered and received by the couple in a more muted affair than their six-month relationship had hitherto produced. By the time the main course was half complete Thomas realized that the panic had only slackened a moment to allow it to dig deeper. Dessert was declined and apologetically Holly ended the evening, and the relationship before Thomas could even deliver the news that his oldest friend in the world was getting married in a week and a half. Returning home single was the expected thing to do, he thought to himself on the Metro ride home. 

The flight from Washington DC to Indianapolis takes less than two hours. Thomas had made the trip a dozen times in the past six years, duly visiting friends and family like any good prodigal son. His hometown, slightly more than an hour north of Indianapolis, straight up I-69 was like most rural Indiana towns, dying. Factories were replaced by warehouses, meaningful work by service jobs. This, combined with the natural attrition that comes from exposure to those fantastic Indiana winters the whole county suffered a massive decline over the past quarter of a century. It was Thursday, eight days post-Holly, and Thomas was beginning to feel his old self again. The drive up I-69 took longer than expected, and he arrived at the Holiday Inn at a quarter past nine. Laying his bags out on one of the two queen beds in the room, he washed up and lay on the other empty bed. This made him think of Holly. Despite traveling all day, he was wide awake, not ready for bed yet. His mind trying to unravel the currently most pressing mystery of his brief, twenty-seven years was not helping him fall asleep. Feeling mopey and a bit nostalgic, he headed out for the Saloon Tavern where he and Mark used to drink when they were kids.

The Saloon Tavern had not changed much in its eighty years. It was just as Thomas remembered it, only emptier. The two pool tables still had groups of blue-collar townies jawing at one another around them. A large, neon red jukebox in the corner still had a crowd of teenagers with fake ID’s congregating in front of it. Thomas smiled when he saw the kids sipping their cheap, cold beers quickly, looking around the bar guiltily, wary of some off-duty policeman walking in. The indifferent bartender had aged since Thomas last saw him. Pouring each beer like it was the greatest task ever imposed on a man, he lugubriously returned to a corner barstool that sat beside an ancient cash register that no longer worked. A traveling salesman sat at the stool next to him, complaining the whole time about the lack of pace in this bucolic bar. Finally, his second beer was delivered by a mumbling and apathetic barback, “Better late than never.”

The outsider, demonstrably upset at this treatment rattled off into his beer several curses that were unintelligible. At any rate, Thomas was not listening. The bartender’s murmuring had transported him back to a time when he was very angry with Mark. In between sips he wondered what had made him so angry. As he finished his beer, he remembered what had caused him such agitation – they had been late to prom. Thomas ordered another beer and to the chagrin of the traveling salesman it was promptly filled by the spiteful bartender. How long had Mark been with this girl? Two years? A twinge of sadness poked at his emotions as he began to sip the second drink. Once inseparable, time had accomplished what everything else had failed to do. This was a time for joy, though. He returned to the pleasant memory, his anger with Mark for making them late for the prom. When the limousine finally pulled up to the prom, Thomas lingered behind as Mark and his date exited. Mark popped his head back in and quipped with the line he was known for, “Better late than never.”

The two argued about this catchphrase throughout their friendship after that evening. Thomas was late in picking up his best friend because he had charmed the chauffeur to drive around for an additional thirty minutes. The extra two one-hundred-dollar bills that had passed from Thomas’s hand through the automatic window that separated the front and back of the limousine had also aided in Thomas’ quest for thirty-minutes of alone time with Shelia Baker. Thomas cut a furious figure as he stepped into the backseat of the car. The fire in his eyes was only partially contained when they moved off his friend and onto Shelia Baker. She fidgeted nervously. Obviously flush in the face, her bangs the only bit of hair still perfectly in place, the lipstick smudged and faded, she smiled bashfully at the newcomer. Thomas managed a smile but could not look either in the eye for the rest of the ride. As he nervously played with the top of the clear plastic clamshell that held his date’s corsage, Shelia Baker desperately tried put herself back together in the hopes that her friend Holly would not immediately and correctly conclude that she had given in even before the prom had begun. This would have been an unsuccessful endeavor had everything gone to plan.

As was often the case, everything had not gone to plan, and the limousine arrived at Holly’s house 45 minutes later than scheduled. Shelia spared one moment of fixing herself to straighten Thomas’ boutonniere, and Mark smacked him on the behind as he exited the car. He was greeted by a gloating father who informed the young man, whom he disapproved of, that Holly had waited for thirty minutes before driving to the prom herself, alone. The emphasis he placed on the word, “alone” was cruel, authoritative and prophetic. What had been tragic for Thomas had proven to be a boon for Shelia. The extra alone time allowed her to recompose herself well enough to hide the reason for their tardiness, leaving just enough time to fix the slightly smashed boutonniere on her date. 

The third beer was proving to be more bitter than the first two, and if the intoxicating effects of the alcohol had not kicked in at that precise moment Thomas would have stopped drinking and remembering his senior prom at the same time. The bitterness faded into a nice buzz. He smiled, remembering that while Holly refused to speak to him at prom, quashing his hopes for that evening, she eventually forgave him when swayed by Mark’s confession to being the reason for the late arrival, two weeks after the fact. “Better late than never,” he said as he pushed Holly and Thomas together. Holly forgave Thomas, but they were never a couple again. A gush of beer came pouring through his left nostril as he began to laugh. The unexplained cachinnation and the nasally discharged beer riled up the outsider further and he made more disparaging remarks about shithole towns before leaving ten minutes later. 

While the salesman left without learning the reasons for the sudden explosion of beer and cackles, Thomas would have laughed all night at his realization that both exes on his mind currently were named, Holly. Thomas did not laugh all night though. He was prevented by an incredible woman who had walked into the bar just moments after he had managed to clean up after his messy epiphany. She was tall, thin and wearing a teasingly short denim skirt, high heels and a ribbed a-frame tank top. Her blonde hair seemed to flow like it was in a commercial, the backdraft from the bar blowing it gently about her lovely face. With eyes such a clear blue that they reflected the neon red of the jukebox, the green of the Jägermeister lamp and the dimly glowing desperation of the bar that has no particular color to speak of, she scanned the room. They alighted on Thomas, and within twenty minutes the two were leaving the bar for his hotel room.

For seven glorious hours Thomas and the woman alternated between making love and sleeping on that middling hotel bed. After a morning shower and a passionate goodbye that lasted another half a rotation around the clock the two departed ways, she out into the real world and Thomas into a slumber that only vacationers can have. It was eleven o’clock before he got out of bed and decided that he needed a second shower. With four hours still to go until the rehearsal, he decided that he could do some light work. His concentration was lax, and his mind drifted between Mark, the fiancée that he had not met yet, and Shelia Baker. It was Shelia who finally taught Thomas to challenge Mark and his nonsensical, better-late-than-never crap. From that time on Thomas never let one of Mark’s confident and self-serving mantras go without a thoughtful contradiction.

The first implementation of this new strategy left Mark puzzled and embarrassed. For a while it seemed so effective that Thomas wondered if his friend hadn’t been profoundly changed by the surprise attack. Gradually though there was the regression to the mean, and Thomas was presented with another chance for implementation. Mark recovered from this one, managing to refute the refutation and a game was born. As this became a game of charm and wit, Thomas often found himself on the losing side of the altercation, even when he would land a haymaker. After showing up extremely late for an exam and nearly flunking it by having insufficient time to finish, he slapped his friend on the back as they left the classroom. “Better late than never,” he chuckled. The two then got into a big argument with Thomas ultimately winning. Mark had no answer to the apocryphal tale of a poor woman receiving the pardon from the guillotine just as the executioner was picking up her head off the cobblestones of the plaza.  

Later in the school day Mark pulled Thomas aside in a serious manner. His solemnity drew a crowd and the two friends spoke in hush tones, restating the arguments from the beginning. Having heard enough he waved his finger in disapproval at Thomas. “Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.” He said, turning to the looky-loo’s who had gathered round to hear the disputation. “Now you’re getting your arguments from Alanis Morrissette,” he scoffed. “I thought better of you.” The gawkers erupted in laughter and song. Thomas was forced to concede defeat from the jaws of victory and sulked away to what approximated the tune of “Ironic.”He never quite convinced Mark that, “Better late than never” was not universally true. 

Thomas looked at his watch. He had dozed off and was now in danger of being late to the rehearsal. Changing as quickly as he could, he set off for the wedding venue. Even having been gone a decade he still knew the back roads to get him to the place as fast as possible. It would truly be ironic if I end up being late, he thought to himself. He was not late. Thomas arrived only three minutes before the rehearsal was set to begin. Since Mark and his fiancée were also running a little late, Thomas’ on-time arrival went unnoticed. Twenty minutes past the hour saw the pastor go out back for a cigarette. Thomas decided to step outside to make a phone call. As he exited the vestibule and into the parking lot a limousine pulled up and Mark jumped out of the back as it was still rolling. 

The jubilant Mark ran up to Thomas and embraced his friend, spinning him in a bear hug three times before releasing him. “Better late than never,” he beamed. “Thomas, I’d like to introduce you to my fiancée, the future Mrs. Mark Andrews.” As they were shaking hands Thomas could see his reflection in her eyes. They were so blue. Her blonde hair waved in the wind. She wasn’t wearing a short denim skirt, but she had the same high heels on. She flushed with embarrassment. 

“Better late than never,” echoed Thomas to his friend. The game had begun with a boom, growing ever more raucous before ending here with this silent and un-played check mate. Thomas smiled at Mr. and Mrs. Mark Andrews, realizing that life was indeed very much like an Alanis Morrissette song. “Better late than never,” he repeated in a Pyrrhic tone. 

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