Playing the Game

a short story by John Timm

The actuarial office is exactly 6.1 miles from the house via the 405 Freeway. When the 405 is backed up (it often is), the distance is 7.2 miles on surface streets. Travel time using either option is difficult to calculate with the same exactitude, given such random variables as traffic accidents and weather. Still, a pattern has developed over the past eighteen years that allows me to predict closely (within 45 seconds) where I will be at any given time once I leave my driveway at precisely 7:30 a.m. There are certain markers along the freeway that permit this: mile posts, billboards. exit ramps. Likewise, on the surface streets there are intersections and traffic signals, a Target, a Ross, a Michel’s, a Von’s, seventeen strip malls, nine fast food restaurants (including one that is presently closed) three car washes, a railroad crossing (which introduces a random variable into the equation) and a fire department (another random variable).

Today at 7:35 a.m., I am stopped at the corner of Sawtelle and Sepulveda, in the left driving lane, second car back from the stop light. At this hour, the light remains red for 25 seconds. It is .8 miles to the freeway entrance ramp. It requires a left turn, and experience has taught me to be prepared, hence my left lane position. The radio is tuned to its customary place on the dial, and I’m listening to Traffic and Weather on the Fives. Regularity and consistency have their comforts.

The car in front of me is familiar. California 6DMW935, a 2007 grey Honda Civic, purchased in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The lone occupant has a husband (or male companion), three children and two dogs. (This assumes that the family decals on the rear window belong to the driver, and if so, have been updated regularly). While I admit I’ve not done an actual calculation on paper, there is a high degree of probability I will follow this same vehicle three out of every eleven travel days.

To my right in the curb lane is the green and white Peerless Laundry Company van (PLC 1706). It’s slightly ahead of its usual daily pace, normally parked until 7:37 a.m. in the Pep Boys lot back at Sepulveda and Franklin.

At Sepulveda and Barman, I see Marvin in the curb lane, awaiting his opportunity (Marv would never call it his “chance”) to move into the left lane in order to make the same left turn as I onto the freeway. We exchange our ritual morning greeting, a quick flourish of the hand (my right, his left) as we focus intently on the road ahead. I am ninety-five percent confident that Marv and I will enter the freeway ramp in tandem at 7:39 a.m., exiting together, at 7:51 a.m. onto San Vicente Boulevard. With only one long block to go (.2 miles), we’ll be parked in our designated places (Row 3, stalls 15 and 16) two minutes thereafter and will enter the building at 7:53 a.m., as duly recorded by the Simplex Time Recorder. If the 7:35 a.m. radio traffic report demands an all-street routing, we will arrive at the lot with at 7:59 a.m. with just one minute to spare. Neither of us has ever arrived late.

Marv has been my co-worker for seventeen of the last eighteen years. We both joined the firm on our birthdays, a coincidence we often discuss, and since his birthday is exactly thirty days after mine, it’s easy to remember.

We take our daily lunch together in the cafeteria, as we have over these seventeen years, and it’s there we play the game, seated at our regular table. Marv and I agree in advance on the same entree in order to finish eating by the appointed starting time, 12:20 p.m.

It’s a game of our own invention. We didn’t know what to call it at first, but on Marv’s second anniversary at the office (March 17, 1997) we gave it the name What If? I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. Here’s how we play. On alternate days, one of us is the guessmaster (the title was my idea). As guessmaster, we have to bring with us the name of an occupation, along with a job description, education and skill requirements, tools or devices employed and any licenses, if required. The guesser (I’ll give Marv credit for that one) has three minutes, no more, no less (we employ a digital timer), to come up with the exact name of the position. If he does, the guessmaster must buy lunch the following day. If not, the guesser must buy lunch the following day for the guessmaster. Simple game, simple rules. Over time, Marv and I stand virtually even, the tally swinging back and forth day to day, week to week, month to month. We often joke it’s the law of averages at work more than any special talent on the part ofeither of us.

But the game doesn’t end there. Officially it does, yes, but Marv and I spend the balance of the lunch hour (until 12:59 p.m.) discussing the relative merits and disadvantages of the position of the day.

Continue reading this story at Beacon.


John Timm teaches communications and foreign languages at a university in the Phoenix area. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Perspective Literary Magazine, Story Shack, 300 Days of Sun, Romance Notes, Luso-Brazilian Review and elsewhere.

Image courtesy of quicksandala, via

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