My 2-liter of Mountain Dew always seemed to run low just as the game heated up. The cards in my hand looked menacing: the elder goblin with a biting power of 8, the sandstorm with the ability to sting the skin of all opposing players, and, lurking at the very edge of my hand, the mute spell I could cast to silence all players for a full turn. The dining room table had seen a lot of action that night; just four hours prior, Gary’s family had concluded a lively Passover Seder. But there was nothing celebratory about the table then. It was a battleground, the mystic forest of Nanananana, the perfect setting for our weekly game of Magic: the Gathering.

Louisa reached past the bowl of Doritos and quickly rolled the four dice. Louisa was possibly the best Magic player in the county. Everyone in junior high wanted to play with her, but she had chosen us because we allowed her to bring along her little brother Abe and let him name everything in the game. She was proving herself to be a master again that Friday night. A roll of 24 allowed her to advance all of her trolls to the gates of the mystic castle of Barwf. Abe moved the small plastic troll figurines into place and arranged them into the shape of a butt.

Curtis had another sneezing fit, so he forfeited his turn to seek help from Gary’s mom. Gary, the final member of our weekly foursome, spun the mystic wheel of Steering Wheel. It landed on bankrupt, and suddenly it was down to me and Louisa. In his death throes, Gary cast one final invisibility spell on her. As she covered her eyes for fifteen seconds he made a series of mean faces at Abe, who had been taunting him and eating his homemade Chex mix all night. Abe coolly stood his ground.

Two hours later, Louisa and I were poised for one final battle along the banks of the mystic Ocean of Balonyenchee. I was jittery from the Pixy Stix and the Monster energy drinks, but also from the pressure. I knew that if I could beat Louisa, my name would be on the lips of everyone sitting at that one table by the cash register in the cafeteria on Monday. It was nearly two in the morning. Curtis had gone home hours ago, sneezing the whole way. Gary was up and watching the battle come to its climax, while Abe was asleep on the floor, a bag of beef jerky serving as his pillow. The game would end here.

In a turn that has now become legendary at Stuart Webster Junior High School, I used my army of vampires to turn Louisa’s soldiers against her, fought off a disease spell with a penicillin card, then licked the Cheeto dust off my fingers and went for the death blow. With my final ounce of energy, I slapped the pop-o-matic bubble and held my breath as the die danced inside. A six — and only a six — would defeat her last remaining character: Pooferts, the mystic dragon. All I could do was hope.

Gary shook me awake and told me I’d fainted. Even so, he was smiling wider even than that time we were chosen to start together in the final match of the MathOlympiad, and my heart leapt. Louisa gathered her belongings and, before walking out the door with a tired Abe by her side, vowed revenge. Leftover matzo bread never tasted sweeter than it did that glorious, victorious night.

My hands ached after two long hours of fumbling with the Rubik’s cube my Uncle Preston had given me earlier in the morning.

“When I first got that cube, it only took me twenty minutes to solve it. Your mother and I were in the back seat on the way to the Cape — we were about your age at the time — and I turned to her and said, ‘I thought these things were supposed to be a challenge.’” He let a chuckle slip out of that shit-eating grin he was so fond of producing before walking his loafer-footed self out to the dock for his evening cigar. If he wasn’t the best putt-ing coach I ever had, I would never have put up with his smug ass.

My patience for the plastic puzzle cube was fading, as was the evening sun over Narragansett Bay. The screened-in porch seemed like the loneliest place on earth right then. My mind wearily wandered to its favorite destination in those days, the memory of Diane LePerrier. Diane and her cute little butt sashaying out of my family’s front gate after our first barbeque of the summer, off to Connecticut for two long months of equestrian training and, no doubt, trysts with boarding school boys. Diane was a full year older than me, and the last thing she said to me before she walked out of my life that summer was, “If only you were a year older…the things we would do.” I could smell the barbequed beef on her breath there, on the porch, and my cheeks flushed.

A look down at the cube revealed that, in my heated reminiscence, I had inadvertently come close to solving the puzzle. Energized, I moved the red square over there, the blue square over to that other side, and the green square to the edge of that other side. Then I twisted it so that the yellow square went over with the yellows and the orange square with the oranges. There was only one red square left in the green part, and with one swift crank of the hand, I found myself holding a completed Rubik’s cube.

Later that summer, I mailed the completed cube along with a simple note that read, “I may only be 14, but can a 15-year-old do this?” And to this day, I know that if her family hadn’t moved to Bel Air later that summer, I would’ve gotten to second base with Diane LePerrier. Even Uncle Preston can’t say that.

The bus stopped. It was raining hard, and the ground was muddy. There were no paved roads anywhere in sight. Outside was a low, ranch-style building, the front door flanked by a pair of tiki torches. The driver opened the door, but did not utter a word. The boys and I looked at each other. One asked, “This our stop?” The bus driver stayed silent. “Do we get out here?” Again, nothing. Then a sharp-featured Anglican, name of Boswell, stood up, grabbed his suitcase, and shuffled toward the door. The rest of us followed.

We walked up to the door of the building we now took to be the barracks. There was a note pinned to it that read “UNPACK. SHAVE. WAIT.” Lorenzo, a chatty latino from upstate New York, joked, “What, no flowers?” We all laughed.

Inside the barracks were two rows of bunk beds with two large trunks at the foot of each bed. Our names were spray-painted on top of each trunk marking where we were supposed to sleep. On top of each pillow sat an electric razor already plugged into the wall. We unpacked, per instructions, and humbly shaved each others heads. Milty and I partnered up for the shave. Milty was small, maybe 115 pounds, very pale, with long, straw colored hair. Before I cut off his locks, he could have easily been mistaken for a woman. Afterwards, even though he was still small, I could see that this was no woman. Milty’s stone colored eyes told me that this was a soldier I could count on. Might even save my life one day.

“Haven’t had my hair cut in over a year. Feels like I lost a friend,” Milty lamented.

“You ain’t lost a friend,” I said, and squeezed his shoulder. He furrow his brow and looked at me like I was crazy.

I heard the last electric shaver get turned off. Everyone’s head was shaved. The only thing left to do was wait. Tufts of hair swirled across the floor.

We heard a crash. The front door of our barracks flew open, kicked in hard by a man in a Mountie hat. He stood in the doorway, silhouetted against the thunder and lightning. He took two steps in, looked at Lorenzo, who was standing to his right, and punched him square in the face, knocking him out instantly. Then he said:

“ALL RIGHT FAGGLERS, YOU DONE SHAVING EACH OTHERS’ PUSSIES YET?”

Silence.

“MY OH MY, YOU MUST BE DEAF IF YOU CAN’T HEAR A SINGLE FUCKING THING I JUST SAID. YOU GOT DICKS IN YOUR EARS?!”

“No sir!”

“WHAT WAS THAT?! SOUNDED LIKE A GAY, SHIT-COVERED CHIPMUNK JUST FARTED! I SAID, ARE YOU ASS-CHEESERS DEAF?”

“NO SIR!” we shouted.

“GOOD. NOW DROP AND GIVE ME A THOUSAND PUSH-UPS.”

We dropped to the floor and got to it. I could see fear on everyone’s face, and heck, I could feel it on my own face, too. I looked over to Milty. He was counting “36…37…38…” and sweat was dripping off his nose. He didn’t look scared. He was just staring right at the ground, right through the ground, hard enough it made me think that maybe he could see straight through to the other side of the world. I stared at the ground, too, and started counting. I remember thinking to myself when I reached push-up number 200, “This is already hell and its not even half as bad as its going to get.” But something inside told me that there was no way I would ever quit. I was a soldier.

I awoke this morning a little sweaty, a bit greasy. My silk boxers were all bunched up in my junk underneath the rough cotton hotel blanket. It was silky-edged, and I turned over to find that I was sharing it with a girl, a guy, and another girl. The girls were smart-looking. One of them was still wearing her librarian glasses, the other’s hair was pinned up in a tight bun. The dude was my brother Owen. Never worked a day in his life, but the boy could sure enough gather us some tail.
My head was pounding. Too many shots of heroin last night. I looked over at the needle bucket, which is where I usually keep my hypodermic needles when I’m on the road. All my dang needles were empty, and they were supposed to last me all the way to Providence. I found the hotel pen and wrote on my hand, “Refill Bucket,” so that Janet, my manager, won’t think that I am on drugs. The pen went in the bucket so that I wouldn’t forget to steal it.
I tried to slip back into my corduroy pants, but it turns out they were Owen’s. Checking his pockets, I saw that he had some needles, but they were all used up, so I threw them in the bucket, too. I couldn’t find my corduroy pants, and Owen’s were a little too tight, but they got me out to the breakfast room where I munched on some continental breakfast. On my way out, I grabbed a half-bunch of bananas for Owen and the girls so they could get their days off to a good start.
No one was awake when I got back. I took my trusty sax out of its hardcase and blew out some hardy notes to rouse everyone. The girls got up and looked damn sexy in their frilly undies, and then they got all hurried when they noticed what time it was because the library was opening soon and they had to be there to look up books for people in the community. Before they left, they planted big fat kisses on each one of us. As they walked out the door, they told us to come by the Suffolk County Library next time we were on Long Island. I patted each of them on the butt as they left and put a nickel in their hands for the bus.
Owen turned on the TV and we watched morning shows for a while. Janet came by to tell us the bus was leaving for Hartford in an hour, and we told her to “cool her jets.” I grabbed my sax and wailed on it for a bit while Owen played drums on the overturned ice bucket. I got tired, so I showered and put all my other corduroy pants in my duffel bag. When Janet came back, me and Owen were ready to hit the road again, just two brothers living that classic jazz lifestyle.