We pack into Kanschat’s mom’s minivan because she is the only mom willing to drive us to Santa Maria—a city of strip malls ringed with farmlands—so we can play in a tournament for a trading card game called Magic: The Gathering, as we do almost every Friday night.
Sitting shotgun is Kanschat the broad-shouldered, also called “I have a muffin” or “Muffin kid” if you don’t know him as we do, in which case you call him “Shit,” from “Can of Shit,” or “Cum Shot” or “Cum Shit.” Sometimes, while sleeping over at his house, we’d deliberately pour Dr. Pepper on the rug, or throw shoes at the ceiling fan, or get jacked up on sour powder candy called Raven’s Revenge, or put smoke bombs in Jordan’s ass and light them off, so it looked like he was farting pink smoke, and the Dr. Pepper would stain the rug, and Jordan and T-Holmes would start yelling: “Poop on me, Dad! Fart on me with your little cornhole, Dad!” and the shoes would hit the wall, and the fire alarm would go off and Kanschat’s parents would wake up, and Judith, Kanschat’s mom, would come in screaming, and Kanschat would scream louder, and we’d all get driven home in the middle of the night. Squeezed between me and the window is Lewis, or Louie or Lou, whose dad won a bunch of money on the stock market or something, so he had a TV the size of a wall you could walk inside and watch the playboy channel on if his parents were asleep.
At the other window is Logan, who was once asked by the cashier at Metro Comics if he preferred to be called Wolverine or Weapon X, and Logan said “neither,” because he didn’t fuck with lore, he was pure strategy, a math sage who was counting dictionary pages when he was nine months old and dividing when we were multiplying and had been playing Magic since he was like four, back when there was literally a set called “Ice Age.” We’d begged him, and he’d decided to come as a teacher and adviser of trades, as he knew a good card from a bad one like he was born knowing.
Jordan, also called Gordy or J-Dunn or Jew, who bleached the tips of hair and gelled it into a sort of wave, was the first to kiss or finger a girl. He sits in the back with Nick, or Pick, so-called by his brother, who wore either a green shag or furry trench coat and taught me how to steal his dad’s golf clubs, go out to the driveway, light diet coke cans on fire with spray-on glue, and run at them with the metal like Happy Gilmore, hitting them just right so that they would blow up in a flaming, sticky mess.
Kanschat’s mom merges onto the highway. We pass vineyards and fields left to rot. The Santa Ynez Valley lets you breathe when you’re young, but it starts to choke you when you reach about sixteen, which is of course a silly metaphor. Land cannot choke you, and I’m sure many come out okay if they can manage to blend into the landscape, but it does grow oppressive and toxic. As the cliché goes, and much like most peoples’ knowledge of the valley outside the valley, this information is neither here nor there.
I see a Red Lobster, and I know we’re in Santa Maria. Nick punches me in the back of the neck and I climb over the back seat and start to wail on his leg, but Kanschat’s mom screams at us, so we stop. T-Holmes, also know as thomes with the “th” pronounced, or Tom, his father’s too-thin son, sits in the back with Nick. T-Holmes has a wise and quiet exterior but is bone-wild at his core. He wears the same thing he’s been wearing for weeks: pink monkey pajamas torn at the knee, a silver shirt with a leopard-print collar, and a corduroy jacket pulled over all that. The jacket has bits of tape and nondescript smears on it, as T-Holmes would invite us to smear our dirty and food- covered hands all over him because he thought filth was funny. There are words like “wangflop” written on his sleeves in the same dry-erase marker that T-Holmes and Nick inhaled before the teacher would come in. “Wangflop” is a word I made up for when you pulled down your boxers to jack-off and your boner hits you in the belly, but it is also the name of the film we made during this period, wherein we shot video of ourselves pulled by bicycle on Razor scooters, and we’d crash into decorative rocks, the public school hedges, and piles of leaves at the dump. We used only the fast-forward and rewind function to edit, so the film was at times punctuated by the cobalt blue of a VHS tape fast-forwarded too far until it cut back to approximately fifteen-second clips of us doing something like testing out a bungee we’d set up in the oak tree out front, or simply fighting and really punching each other hard for about fifteen minutes on end.
I can watch this stuff today and find a startling level of self-awareness as I say things like “this is insane white trash” before jumping from the tree fort and grabbing a swing dangling sixteen feet off the ground. On T-Holmes’ jacket, there are also words like “Crabon,” which is a word of contested origin for when a man’s balls slap against a woman’s ass or thighs in porn.
Kanschat’s mom drops us off, and we walk into the fluorescent light of KJG Games Group, squinting, still slightly afraid of the grown men who come to play here.
Thorton is here, sort of watching his kid and sort of playing Warcraft III at one of the frustratingly slow PCs, and “handing the turn over” to a twelve-year-old in a game of Yu-Gi-Oh! or Dragonball Z, games that are not Magic or like Magic in any way. We consider him a nerd, or at least a creature inhabiting a separate plane from our own, as it’s important to distinguish others as more pathetic than yourself in a world like this, where depression and low self-esteem are just around the corner, not to mention comments like “where are the girls,” something that could only ever be said in extreme jest, as to do anything else would be to violate the code we were all blatantly living by.
Our allies are here: Big Neal, the Hawaiian guy with a satisfyingly round gut and TVs in the headrests of his Escalade. He pronounces the card “Fiery Temper” in a funny way, and we think this is funny, and we imitate him but never in front of his face because he is about thirty-five years older than us and much stronger and after all an ally. Then there is The Fox, who accompanies Big Neal and is thin and pale and has a barely visible black mustache.
Our arch-nemesis is also here tonight: Micah. Micah, with the bags under his blank stare, who says “sure” in a condescending way every time you play a spell, which is actually the proper term for allowing a spell to resolve according to sanctioned tournament rules, but the way he says it makes you want to crush the bones in his fist when he offers you a clammy and limp-fisted handshake after destroying you on turn four. And by the register is Micah’s brother, who later went to Iraq and was in a quick pre-tournament game with the ponytailed manager of KJG Games Group.
In what seems a totally fucked trade with Big Neal is the creepy dude with the “Got Wine” hat and acne scars, whose cards were always poorly maintained, often left without proper sleeves, which was an insult to the game we came to play, a game of great strategy and complexity with card names like “Nightmare” and “Duress,” which allowed you take an instant, sorcery, artifact, or enchantment from your opponent’s hand and discard it. The most legendary card was one called “Black Lotus” and was worth something like sixteen grand as it was what we call “broken,” meaning if the entire game is a well-balanced machine, this card upsets this balance in some way or “breaks” the machine.
Logan plows through T-Holmes, The Fox, and Big Neal until he’s up against Micah in the finals. Micah is doing things other than glare, which is surprising and evidence that he probably feels the heat. Logan is playing a deck called “Madness,” which barely even has any rares but is fast as hell. You can have flying worms hitting for six on turn four. Micah’s deck is slow, and he is quickly and mercilessly ended in two games. His eyes water up a bit, and one of his pupils drifts toward the wall as he offers up his weak handshake and gets into an argument with his brother about how the game could have gone better. Logan just smiles and says “gg no re k thanks,” which is Battle.net shorthand for “good game, no rematch, okay, thanks,” when the digital clock strikes 9:30 p.m., which means Suvons Chinese Buffet will let us fill a takeout tray with as much food as we want for only three bucks.
Now, I want you to see this in slow motion: all these children, teenagers, and grown men who feel like they should have lived a separate life of potions, great shields, wizards and swords, at full sprint for the last egg rolls left in those shiny metal warmers. We sprint and shove each other and pile in Chow Mein, Kung Pao Chicken, and Fried Rice. We get our food and eat very fast after pushing Orange Chicken into our mouths and playing some final games just for fun. We oversee the last trades of the night, careful not to get ripped off by Micah or his brother who might die at war, until we are picked up by Kanschat’s mom, who then drops us off at Lewis’ because his dad’s got a TV the size of a wall that you can walk inside, and I will later find out that Suvons is eating me away inside, “hard,” a word we had for saying “in a big way,” like if you were asked “Are you going to the Garage tonight?” you could say “Hard,” meaning “I’m coming over, in a big way,” or perhaps more accurately, “I am coming over and I’m excited about it, but don’t have the syllables in me now.” After eating Suvons and Friday Night Magic, I am forced to Lewis’ strangely cushy toilet, hard, and spend all night shitting and vomiting into the waste basket at the same time, wherein I refuse to return to Suvons’ 9:30-load-yourself-deal, and split a box of Magic: The Gathering cards with Lewis in the morning to help with the recovery, and we tear each pack open with unbridled greed for the world and game.
*Cover image property of Decorah GamesXP.