I played a little Dungeons and Dragons in high school. Worse, I was far more enamored of a super hero role playing game called Champions. At least D&D had some cultural weight to throw around, inspired as it was by the works of Tolkien and the ancient mythologies of the nordic world. But Champions was unabashed male fantasy full of violence and sex and corny and embarrasing soliloquies and posturing. I never had the intellect for D&D or the personality. Most of its adherents were today’s equivalent of code-writers and IT moles, emotionally retarded oddballs with remote senses of humor, an underworld of outcasts; I was just too mainstream an outcast for them.
There was another group of Champions fans like myself who played at the library spare room on Saturday mornings. Not especially brilliant people, or not fond of showing it by dropping references to famous algorhythms, anyway. Just a couple of nerdy guys like me, who laughed at stupid movies and ate burritos and made fart jokes. One of these was Kevin Crane, a skinny, stooping, funny looking kid with a head of tight curls who we all called brillo head and Cranium. There was nothing personal about it, everyone had their nickname. I was called Camel and Yazoom, and Yassin the Assassin. Some called Joe Knife-nose, and everyone had a go at mocking the british accent of Simon’s father. As for the Kealy brothers; the Patty o’ Furniture joke was quite popular and John probably received the most flak for being covered in a lush mane of body hair from toe to nostril. They were mostly upper middle class kids with professional parents, and there were a lot of things that we couldn’t do together, but my sisters and mother worked at the Winchell’s donuts down the street, and since I was able to get free donuts I had a special status not accorded to my peers.
Kevin’s mother had just divorced and was having a hard time adjusting to single life and so it wasn’t so odd that when one of the role-playing conventions came up in Dublin (CA), she offered to take us all and rent us out a room at the hotel where it was being held. I still find the fact that there were conventions for these games somewhat odd. What knowledge was meant to be gained there, what new skillset acquired, and what use were to be the connections made–all beyond me still. But it was a chance for us to play Champions day and night for an entire weekend, and nothing could have made us happier at the time, for we lived and breathed the stuff. There was me, Joe, Simon, the Kealy brothers (Pat and John), Will, and Kevin staying in a double room along with Kevin’s mother. She was to be billed in the parental pitch as chaperone. My mother was against the whole idea, of course. D&D was the devil’s game she claimed, and I could hardly blame her old world Catholic sensibilities for being offended by the images on the books associated with the game–red, scaly dragon’s erupting from the earth in a conical explosion of brimstone and fire. It was difficult to convince her that there was nothing inherently demonic about the game, that most of the characters were inspired by Christian crusader archetypes or that Champions, with its special emphasis on corny do-gooding, would hardly rate a footnote in the book of names come judgement day. She acquiesced; I think she thought I was already going to hell anyway, so it wasn’t worth putting up a big fuss. The first night wasn’t so great. The game salons were filled mostly with adults who perhaps found playing a superhero role playing game with teens a little too real for comfort. We were driven from from game to game; rebuffed at the gate by the downcast brows of the players or our characters killed off a few minutes into play by a deus ex machina bad guy bearing a super gizmo against which there was no defense.
Kevin’s mother went off to the bar. Looking back now, I think she was experimenting with being a single woman, far out of her neighborhood and community and was out to find what kind of action she could attract. We were all in the room, licking our wounds when she came back late and drunk. She seemed happy, and recounted how she had flirted with someone there for an hour or so, which must have made Kevin uncomfortable. We spread out our sleeping bags on the floor and went to sleep.
We all woke up early the next morning and left Kevin’s mother sound asleep on the bed. It was a much better day; there were more kids and the DM’s were somewhat more laid back and egalitarian in their dispensation of role playing justice. We played until late in the day and then together went back to the room. Kevin and I entered first. I was a little embarrased at the sight of his mother face down and spreadeagled, while the upper half of her body had upended over the side of the bed. In her drunken slumber, she had somehow wedged herself in the space between the bed and the wall. Kevin looked at me and rolled his eyes uncomfortably, “grab an arm,” he said wearily, “and lets roll her over.” I did as I was told without much hesitation or thought. But when we pulled her over, I was unable to make sense of what I saw. Her eyes were swollen shut, her lips huge and puffy–she looked like a movie boxer from a fight film–and there was a sliver of white bubbling paste oozing out of her mouth. Kevin cried out “My God, she’s choked!”. I didn’t understand what he meant, or what I was supposed to do with the information. John moved without hesitation, leaned over her and began CPR. I watched for a moment, in awe of how quickly he’d reacted, how heroic he was. She was refexively vomiting in his mouth, he said at one moment, gagging–I could see the white icor flowing out of the space between their lips. I didn’t know what to do and neither did Pat, Will or Joe and we all decided to go downstairs to get an ambulance. We told the woman at the check in counter what had happened. She looked at us somewhat incredulously, but called 911 for us anyway. I’m not surprised she didn’t quite believe us. I remember a little laugher somehow, giddiness from the excitement of the event, of being at the heart of something of literally life and death importance.
We ran back upstairs. John was still struggling with the CPR, Kevin was stompin through the room in tight circles, his hands clasped tight together. The paramedics finallly arrived, and we were asked to wait in the hallway. Kevin came out a few minutes later and told us quietly that he had gathered from the paramedics attitudes and commentary that she was dead. He began punching the walls and none of us knew how to comfort him or what to say. In fact, I still don’t know what I should have said. There was simply no way to make this situation bearable for him, his mother had died, in a hotel room after a night of drinking and he had found her deformed body. Will’s parents were called to come pick us up and by the time they arrived, the paramedics had revived her, though it was obvious that she was brain dead. We rode back with Will’s parents while Kevin went to the hospital with his mother, and the rest of us rode back to the Bay Area in silence. I remember being distinctly unmoved by the entire thing, or at least believing that I was. I felt guilty for not reacting more strongly, for not feeling anything, and so I assumed a sullen air in the car, which must have been pretty convincing because Will’s father kept asking if I was ok.
I remember telling my mother what had happened, reluctantly, when I arrived home early. I expected her to say something ridiculous; the devil’s game had taken a life. Was I satisfied now? She started to say something along those lines, but I think the shock of what I was telling her, of what I had been witness to stayed her hand. Even she realized that it was an incredible thing for a 15 year old to observe without adults present. To have all the responsibility for an adult’s life without being able to ask if we were doing things right. I remember, however, that she didn’t say much about it. She seemed to want me to forget about it almost immediately, and I did, though not for her benefit. A week or so later, Joe told me that Kevin and other family members had asked for his mother to be taken off life support and that she had died. I was asked if I wanted to go to the funeral, but I declined without giving it much thought. If I remember correctly, I didn’t see what purpose it would serve. I still don’t know how I feel about it. I know I’ll always remember the image of her face as Kevin and I turned her over, I’ll remember Kevin pacing, trying to imagine what he was going through; John, who was the butt of everyone’s jokes for being scrawny, for having a 5 o’ clock shadow in Freshman year, taking command so quickly. But I’m not sure I’ll ever know what I felt, or what I was supposed to feel.