The first playtests were rough. I didn’t watch them; I was coloring art that I’d repurposed from Pyramid for use in the card game. However, I heard about how they went as I was passing through the larger upstairs room later that evening, looking for coffee, as the games were winding down. Dustin was there.
“It was a little rough,” he said, smirking. He had a pleasantly deep voice that could make the worst news seem amiable. “Some cards are way overpowered, especially when you think that you could have a lot of them in a deck. It’s the same problem Magic is having.”
“Oh, yeah. Their first batch of rare cards were far too powerful. I think they never thought people would spend hundreds of dollars to build a deck stocked with rare cards. But it’s happening.” He shrugged. “I heard they’re going to ban some early cards from official play—”
I took a half-step back. “What do you mean, ‘official’ play?”
“They’re having tournaments, now, with real money involved. They’re talking about ultimately wanting to see Magic played on the sports cable networks — like ESPN and whatnot, I guess.”
Three years later, ESPN2 would begin broadcasting Magic: The Gathering tournaments, for a while.
“And anyway,” Dustin went on, “you don’t want people with, like, four Black Lotus cards in tournament play. It’d ruin the game.”
Nineteen years later, in November of 2013, a Black Lotus card in pristine condition went for $27,000 at auction. That was more than my annual salary at the point when I was working on our game.
Steve seemed bullish about the playtest.
“I learned a lot,” he said, nodding vigorously.
“Are you going to keep the action tokens working the same way?” asked Dustin.
Steve smiled. “I think it could be improved, but yes, more or less.”
Dustin nodded, leaning back over towards me. “You coming home soon?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Still got some things to do.” And I did. I worked late, pushing myself to pull a better quality of art out of Photoshop, which was then and now the professional’s choice for digital graphics work. It had really taken off in the previous couple of years, new filters being discovered and written about in order to produce various digital effects. Still, there weren’t any tutorials at the time for colorizing art. I had to figure it out as I went along, and pass what I’d learned along to Jeff and soon to Rick once I’d learned something new.
My roommate — ex-roommate, I reminded myself — was a Photoshop junkie. Like me, he had a monstrous computer for the age, which he used to produce contract work for one client or another. He stayed on top of the tech, which was cool. He didn’t actually do much work, which was not.
There were times I very distantly missed my old roommate. I’d taken him and his girlfriend at the time to a comedy club, Austin’s Laff Stop — where Lizard and I had gone six years before, as freshmen at the university — to see the angriest, most honest comedian I had ever known, Bill Hicks, perform. Everything — nearly everything — he said was so true and horrible. For the second show of his I saw that week I made sure we grabbed a table right by the stage, where I literally had to crawl back up from underneath it, mopping tears from my face. It was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen. It turned out, sadly, there was a reason he was being so honest. Six months later, Bill Hicks would be dead from pancreatic cancer.
Good times with my roommate were great. Ultimately, though, I didn’t trust him, and it’s not entirely his fault. I didn’t trust most people — Andy and Mentor and Jeff, sure; Doug and Jim and Patch and Felicity, sure; Rick, of course; Suzanne and even Steve, in my own way. Beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. There were a couple of other people back then who I trusted, but who I’m not writing about now, though really that was probably it.
So moving in with archeologists was a real step for me.
“Whoa,” I said, walking into our house, squinting as if I’d been sprayed with crowd-clearing chemicals. Dustin had found a giant, three-bedroom place in south Austin, with a massive central living room sporting 1970s-era shag carpet. Radiating out from the brick fireplace, from one corner of the room, was a dampness in the carpet. We weren’t sure where it came from but it would not go away, that smell like a wet, dead dog. After a couple of weeks waiting for it to go away — we kept the doors and windows open; we stayed away from the third of the room that squished when stepped on — the landlord had promised to send some people by to take care of things.
Dustin and his girlfriend — fiancé, rather — were sitting on my couch on the far side of the room, fanning air away from their noses. The carpet had been pulled up and away for the fireplace, and an industrial blower was loudly shooting air underneath.
“IS THIS WORKING?” I asked.
“NO,” Dustin said. “WE’RE LETTING IT RUN ITS COURSE, THOUGH.”
They couldn’t find where the dampness was coming from, though they figured that drying it up would stop the smell.
“WHERE’S MELINDA?” I asked.
“TEN-DAY,” Dustin said. He and Melinda and the four or five of their friends who I’d met worked one of the few regular jobs still available for archeologists in mid-1990s Texas, processing survey certificates for strip-mining operations. Because there was a huge history of nomadic Native American life in and around Texas, and their seasonal paths took them back and forth across some of the richest deposits of lignite coal in the whole state, the mining company needed to have done a full survey of whatever land they planned to ruin by peeling up in order to extract the coal. And they needed a certificate to prove that they’d done the work, and the survey company only got paid after delivering the certificate, so there was pressure to turn the work around quickly. If an initial survey uncovered evidence that a plot of land seemed to host one of myriad perennial Native American campsites, a full survey needed to be done to verify that the site contained nothing of historical value — graves, especially. But the survey had to be done quickly, because that’s how the surveying company got paid. In order to do the work quickly, young archeologists were trucked out by the tent-load to spend ten days at a time scraping and digging, followed by four days off to decompress and to take a decent shower for a time. They called these “ten-days,” and that’s where our other roommate had gotten off to.
The whole thing was fascinating and stomach-turning and another real lesson in how the world worked. I retreated into my room, opening the window to keep away the dog smell, and settled into a deep brood.
I’d been angry for awhile, feeling betrayed by unnamable forces. It was not a conspiracy, it just was. Passing by a bait-and-tackle shop, I’d seen a t-shirt they had for sale: above a picture of a fishing lure were the words, “Bite me.”
What was I angry about? Hey, man — what do you got?
Earlier that day, I’d brought Rick in for a tour of the office before his first day at work. Coming in through the main entrance, we ran into Suzanne first. I introduced them.
“Um, hey,” Rick said, pointing at a small framed photo behind her. “Is that you?”
Suzanne smiled with a tightness that was her replacement for blushing. “Yes,” she said. “That’s me.” It was a photo of her dressed as Robin, from Batman — from The Dark Knight Returns, specifically, where Robin was a girl — sitting on a couch, petting a cat.
“Because that’s my cat,” Rick said. It turned out that the Halloween party that she and I had gone to — I’d dressed as the Joker — was at a large house where Rick had been one of many roommates. So, years later, a photo of his cat greeted him on his initial tour of his first post-school job.
“That’s wild,” I said. “You were there, Rick?”
“It was my house; I was there.”
“We were together at the time,” Suzanne explained, pointing back and forth between us.
“Ah,” said Rick. “Say no more.”
Later, Suzanne pulled me aside.
“He’s got a girlfriend,” I said.
“Do you want to get dinner?” she asked.
“Ah,” I said. “Sure. Not like I have plans.” I pressed my hand against my forehead. “The first playtest is tonight. Should probably be here for it.”
“So, tomorrow. When are you done?”
“I don’t know. Seven?”
“I’ll be gone by then,” she said. “Will you pick me up?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”
“You remember where I live now, right? I’m just around the block.” She’d moved to live in one of the apartment complexes close to work.
Later that day, Jeff asked me, “When are you gonna start dating again?”
I scoffed. “That is the furthest thing from my mind,” I said.
“I dunno, man. I mean, I’m happy being married, but if I were single I would totally be out there.”
“Doesn’t feel right,” I said. “Feel like this summer’s been so oppressive. I wanna wait until things have cooled down, I think, to be able to think about that. I need to cool down, somehow.”
“That’s for sure,” he said.
I glanced at my shirt. “Bite me,” it said.