Before any of my friends had driver’s licenses, I’d beg my parents to let my friend’s parents drive me to Monkey Head Games for Friday Night Magic. After they reluctantly granted me permission, I counted down, from weeks to days to hours to the minutes until I could wait outside for the carpool. Once in the car, I took note of the landmarks that indicated our approaching proximity to the store, each roadside sign a beacon for the tournament, and the impending release of my restrained craving for competitive play. For three or four glorious hours I effortlessly left all self consciousness at the door, and focused on the game, the object of my every waking thought.
Playing and trading in the ankle deep snack garbage of Monkey Head Games’ cramped backroom was the highlight of my teen years, and stoked the flames of my competitive spirit. Winning was always better than losing, but losing a close game was more acceptable than being forced to concede when the carpool arrived at 10:30pm.
My friends got driver’s licenses around the same time they got girlfriends, part time jobs and Warcraft accounts. I still needed permission granted by my parents, but now I was at the mercy of my friend’s changing lifestyles before we all split up and attended different colleges.
Following college graduation and the inevitable shrinking of the friend group, I rediscovered Friday Night Magic. Monkey Head Games doubled in size and transformed into The Brothers’ Grim in the years between my last time in attendance.
Playing Magic on Friday Night at The Brothers’ Grim in 2010 was nothing like playing Magic at Monkey Head Games in 2005. We drank alcohol, smoked weed, cursed loudly and made our own curfew. In the summer of 2010 I felt carefree; I enjoyed playing the game with an edgy new crowd of single fathers and molly dealers moonlighting as Best Buy showroom salesmen. In fall I openly admitted to sidestepping the reality of finding a job to play Friday Night Magic for the foreseeable future. I did not want to recover; I was getting good at Magic. My girlfriend could never understand.
In Winter I decided that I was a jobless slugabed that had progressed an inch in 5 years. I still loved the game, but the lifestyle was killing my self esteem. If I stayed at Grim, I would have become fat with comfort and arrogant with talent. I looked at Grim’s infamous employee, Dave. He was very fat and very rude to customers, but he had a fearsome army of Tyranids, and was the store’s best Starfighter. Lesser enthusiasts paid him to paint their models, but he was living at his parents house and approaching thirty, spending the very little he made at the store where he worked. He would probably live with his parents until they died, then inherit their house. Getting good at Magic was not going to help me reach my goals.
I felt guilty for enjoying myself because I had not earned that enjoyment, and was squandering my potential because I was addicted to the game. If I still believed in myself I needed to prove it by doing something new. When I moved out in 2011 I vowed never to return.
I went back on my promise last Friday. My two remaining friends were crossing paths for the first time in two years: Tom had returned from a teaching job in Korea, and Christian recently accepted a contract to work as a translator in Korea, and was leaving in a few weeks. I accepted their invitation to relive a Friday Night from 2010. After all, it would be the first and last time that the last of us would be together for many years.
“Why didn’t any of us get fat?” Christian pondered as he looked around the playroom, at the crowd of obese virgins.
“We value our dicks. Most of the patrons at the Brothers’ Grim do not value their dicks.” I responded.
The long term patrons at The Brothers’ Grim only value their own enjoyment, to the detriment of their future and their bodies. They spend their time consuming games and snacks in a comfortable position. They do not risk anything or challenge themselves.
My Grim friends from 2010 were slowly becoming unrecognizable, and seeing them brought me way back to the days when we’d go to Frank’s Dad’ s filthy house to eat junk food, smoke weed and play Magic. (Frank was a troubled kid with a young daughter out of wedlock. He moved from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn to Selden where he could calm down amid some ensuing legal troubles. He lived with his medical doctor father and infant daughter in a filthy shack off Middle Country Road. We were often rowdy very early into the mornings when his father had work. (There is so much more to this story.))
Now, Frank’s black hair was almost grey, he’d gained forty pounds, his arms were decorated in grey lightning bolt tattoos, and he had some fresh cigarette burns on his already scarred legs. Mikey gained twenty pounds, but was just as chatty. His new voice had been ground course from smoking a pack a day, and he was not balding gracefully. He said he was an entrepreneur.
The fat guys had become fatter. Dave tucked his black t-shirt into his jeans as a fashion statement, (he only wears black t-shirts) which, whether on purpose or by accident, showed everyone in the store the extent of his softly hanging protrusion. Others wore shirts that had not fit them for years.
We sat down to play, and the same feeling of excitement from 2010 and 2005 lit up inside of me. I tuned out all of my new problems and focused effortlessly. Mikey couldn’t stop himself from talking.
(a Steven lookalike)
I heard a squealing honk that sounded like an elderly woman in puberty. The source of the sound was the voice box of a 14 year old specimen named Steven. His pallid complexion disclosed no imperfections, though he held every other typical adolescent geek attribute imaginable: severe overbite being treated with braces, wire frame glasses, knobby elbows and crimped earlobes. The back of his head was an egg shaped shelf, and his short hair was scruffy and brown.
I was crushed by my Round 2 opponent, who I posited as Steven’s father. He was in his early-forties and resembled a potential version of an adult Steven, with a stronger build and gray hair. Father and son, playing Friday Night Magic together, I fantasized. That would have been the dream. A dad that shared my obsession and let me play past 10:30pm every Friday. Where would I be today, if I indulged, unimpeded, headfirst into my desires in 2005?
I sat at the same table as Steven for Round 3, and before we settled to play Steven showed me his Wolf tokens. “I’m going to carry these around with me until I get to use them!” he shouted.
“Nice,” I responded, deadpan. I secretly loved him.
My Round 3 opponent was a man hidden behind a thick beard, glasses, and a hat. A plump kid with soft skin and straight, greasy hair sat next to him, apologizing.
“I’m really sorry about that.”
My opponent did not answer. (I was crushing him.)
“I’ll make it up to you. I promise.”
No answer. (I won Game 1.)
“You said the small box. So I went into the small box. I didn’t know what you were saving it for, I’ll give you a Sol Ring. I’m sorry.”
“It’s Ok. It just makes you look really bad, that’s all,” my opponent replied brutally. He shuffled for Game 2.
“He traded a card you were saving?” I asked, to fill the silence and give him an opportunity to vent. My opponent did not answer. (I destroyed him in Game 2.)
With twenty minutes left in the round I wandered between the matches of my friends to check their progress. Steven was playing his match against an opponent in his mid thirties. They both had matching Super Mario Bros play mats.
Steven was still playing when the clock struck 10:30pm. The plump apologist stood in the doorway, and yelled towards the tournament tables.
“Steven, we have to go!” Everybody ignored him except for Steven and I.
Did this guy even play in the tournament? I wondered. Or did he lose Round 1 and drop?
Steven’s gaped in disbelief, his bottom jaw slacking open, his tongue hanging out of his transitional mouth. He threw his hands up, shocked, his eyes welling in utter disappointment. I smiled, winced, then covered my mouth. My emotions were so mixed up inside me that my outward expressions became confused jumbles.
“What?!” he screeched. His high pitched voice cracked further. “I’m in the middle of a game!”
The plump apologist remained in the doorway. His mouth was slightly open in disbelief, and though he showed no smile, I knew that he secretly enjoyed this.
Steven looked desperately in all directions. Would he find support in the fat crowd of indifferent nerds? (I was neither.) Should I step in, as a stranger looking out for the young and the weak, abused by the older brothers? Should I meddle in the natural order of growing up? Or should I allow Steven to freely exercise defiance, and at least finish his game?
I got choked up, overcome with emotion. I sat next to Tom. “Poor Steven,” he said.
My Round 2 opponent sat unmoved. He was not Steven’s Dad.
I smiled, and I covered my face, and I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t look away. My eyes went back and forth between the door and Steven’s game.
He brother stood there, growing impatient.
“Steven, concede the game!” Fucking blasphemy! I wanted to shove the brother out of the door. Push him to the ground. Give him a scare. Watch his curl in submission on the floor of the parking lot…..but I remained an aloof observer and did not interfere with the laws of nature.
Inside I rooted for Steven to do the right thing: finish the game.
Obviously Steven’s parents worked an exhausting week, and they didn’t want to drive somewhere so late. The tournament ended at midnight, and 10:30PM was a fair compromise since Steven couldn’t drive himself home. He’d probably lose by Round 2 anyway. Whether or not he was losing, Steven continued playing as he turned into a pumpkin.
“Steven give him the win!” The mean man demanded. When Steven ignored him and continued to play the thirty year old newb.
“Steven! We have to go!” What’s the rush? I wanted to say. The mean older brother stormed away to wait with his mom in the passenger seat. After losing Steven packed up his cards, excitedly talked to his opponent about wolf tokens. The man seemed very interested. His week’s highlight was over, and the chance to play again would not be his choice to make. Hang in there buddy.
I stayed until midnight then left with Tom and Christian. “Steven’s Dad was a dick,” Tom said as I sped up to a red light. “Dad? I thought that was his brother.”
But how far have I actually come? I’m back at the same store five years later, still living hand to mouth. How much do I have to show for my time? How much have I really changed? I’ve been attending The Brothers’ Grim since it was called Monkey Head Games in 2004. I hope Steven is nothing like me, but he will become himself. Who will I become? Maybe I’ll go back in a few years, when I can better answer that question.