“Hello, my name is Jimmy Pop and I’m a dumb white guy,
I’m not old or new but middle school, fifth grade like junior high.”
— The Bloodhound Gang, “Fire Water Burn”
1984. My uncle leaves a party. I ask my Mom where he went.
“To play Dungeons & Dragons,” she says. I ask her what that is.
“A game like Conan,” she tells me, barely, I think, understanding herself. “Your uncle’s the Dungeon Master. He decides what monsters the heroes fight.”
1985. On a trip to Barbarian Books and Comics, my father buys me a set of polyhedral dice, cast in translucent red plastic. To me, they look like magic gems.
1989. My friend Jeff and I are rapt in front of the secondhand EGA monitor. We are being asked to make the most important choice of our lives.
We pick thief, and give him a little bit of magic. Just like that guy in the books I found in the back of Barbarian.
1994. Wheaton Plaza, the food court, half mall and half strip. We’re deep in the midst of planning our great fantasy novel, about a city at the center of time. We start to talk about how to make a roleplaying game out of Dune, and Jeff passes something amazing across the table to me.
I’ve seen it before, of course. Ads in the back of comic books. Maybe when I helped my uncle move, and he gave me his Uncanny X-Men comics. I open it, and there’s a girl, there, dark hair and a bandanna. The heading says “thief.”
1994. Barbarian Books has moved into an abandoned Photon Battlefield.1 The D&D books are in the back, now. But there’s something else. Different. Softcover, green marble, with a single red rose.
I open it, and fumble around. There are a lot of dark-haired girls. And then I’m reading, flipping, and there’s a kind of vampire for every book I’ve read. For Interview with Vampire. For The Dracula Tape. For Doctor Strange.
I spend the entire night trying to recreate the art in my precious hardcover sketchbook.
And when I sleep, I see the city. No longer Lankhmar of the shattered temples nor Imryrr in its opium dreams. I see wet asphalt and grainy reflections and the stain of blood.
Jeff doesn’t even recall that book the next day.
2000. Elkton Hall, the University of Maryland. In the underground garden of a mafia boss, Marek the thief-mage triggers a trapped door. The ornate pipework fountain behind him bellows steam and rises, revealing itself to be the apparatus on the back of a gigantic robot.
“You bastard,” Marek says, or maybe Jeff does. He and Mike put down tiny d6s to show where they’re standing on the map. I put down the red d20 my father gave me so many years ago.
“That’s where he is,” I smile.
2005. My apartment, after she left. After I made her leave. It’s dark, and we can hear the Georgia Avenue traffic. Jeff and Angela and I are crouched around a red-foil book, exploring rain-slick streets not so different from the one outside. Tori Amos is on the stereo.
“Who was she?” Angela says, as Frankie the waitress, hungry young vampire and terrifying lost girl.
Her only friend, London, smokes his cigarette. Jeff shows us he’s doing that by sucking on the end of a Pepperidge Farm Pirouette.
“She played bass,” London says. Frankie’s eyes don’t leave London’s. Angela’s don’t leave Jeff’s. He coughs. “She had dark hair.”
2007. DC, anywhere. Pick a spot and I’m there, saying goodbye to someone, something. Those books, green marble and red foil and always with the roses, they’re leading me away. I kiss Jeff. I kiss Angela. I stare at Hope a long moment and I don’t kiss her. I pack two dark-haired cats in the back of a rented SUV and I drive away from everything I knew and towards everything I’ve been imagining.
2008. I don’t measure time in years anymore. I measured it in word counts, and now books.
My uncle’s just died. I’m stuck in an Atlanta suburb but I spend a lot of time on the phone. My Mom reminisces about how he and my Dad used to play in the woods, calling each other Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
2010. Books have given way to stories, features, something called “sprints.” Every day I walk through a dusty warehouse past the original proof for that old green book cover.
I go home, I mess with the necessities of life, and then with my partners. And we sit down side by side to work.
I’m writing my own little book about fantasy roleplaying, and the concept art’s coming in. Fighter, magic-user, combat scene… I leaf through it.
There’s a woman with a bandanna over one eye, dark hair flowing behind her shoulders. She’s got a reckless grin on her face and a knife with three eyeballs skewered on it.
I crop, it, clean it, and I do the only next thing. I send it to Jeff.
- A Lazer Tag arena by any other name. ↩