Magic Duels at Bailey Tweten Elementary
We got into a lot of duels at Bailey Tweten Elementary School. The boys did, at least, the girls wouldn’t touch any scrap of boy-culture so they were spared our gladiatorial codes of honor. Whenever there was a dispute, the participants drew their Magic: The Gathering decks and played a regulation game. 60-cards, one-card subtractive mulligans, selection from sets in standard only. This was all very important to a fifth grader.
We got into fights more often than kids at my old school, and if I had to guess, I’d say it was because everyone was always itching for a duel. Even if you didn’t win, even if your deck was a twenty-five cent collection of rejects from better players, you still always wanted a fight. In fact, I think there was some sort of macho thing for the people who knew they’d be licked from the beginning, staring down their defeat with a smirk and a shuffle of their tattered cards. Maybe it’s for the attention they got when everyone in the area crowded around as the game started (even a few girls at first, before they figured out what was going on). Or maybe it was because, whenever a poor kid with nothing but common trash-cards beat some upper cruster with a copy of the deck that won the Grand Prix, it was the talk of the school. It only happened maybe once a week, which made it an extreme rarity when you consider how many games took place. But there was always some chance it could be you.
I heard that, at first, there was a rule that the conflict had to arise naturally in the elementary school’s social ecosystem. Who had dibs on a certain girl (even though these relationships never went beyond a lot of unverified stories), say, or whether Chris cheated off Tommy on that math test. When this got into “he-said, he-said” territory, whoever won the game won the right to history. To test out how far it would go I played devil’s advocate when Willy was complaining about the cafeteria food in my first week at the school. Inevitably he challenged me to a duel and when I won, not only did he never utter a negative word about the food again, but no one else did either (at least not within my earshot).
I asked around once where the tradition came from. Aside from a few anecdotes that I’ve judged to be myths, the only answer is that it’s just the way that things have always been. That can’t be right, but people believed it so fervently that it became hard to argue with it. After only a few days at that school, it seemed like something like primordial, an instinct so basic that you can’t really think around it. My memories of a school where disputes were solved with yelling and fistfights and tattling felt like fantasy.
The kids who ordinarily wouldn’t be into magic at least needed to have a deck and know the rules on instinct. The ones who would ordinarily be interested became absolute fanatics. Ziggy Tombers would have been obsessed with it at any other school, but at Bailey Tweten Elementary, he was whatever is beyond obsession. He was absorbed by it. If it stopped existing he’d have nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing printed on his notebooks or t-shirts or backpack. Maybe he’d simply stop existing along with it.
At any other school he’d be a pariah even in the nerd crowd, but at ours he was nearly a god. A petty god, a wrathful god, the kind of god you only worshiped when you knew he was listening. His parents were loaded enough to indulge his habit, and he rattled off the price tag every time he brought out a new deck. Two hundred dollars, three hundred, the highest he ever claimed to go was five thousand. It was a lie, of course, but you couldn’t call him out on it. If you tried, he’d challenge you to a game, and when he won the lie became truth.
He bent the unspoken rules as far as they would go. “All the money in your wallet is mine,” he’d say, and if you said no, he’d take out his deck and start shuffling. He tried challenging a teacher once, to change a grade on a math test, and seemed genuinely surprised when the teacher laughed him off. No problem, he just challenged some poor sap to sneak into the classroom and doctor the grade book. The first two got caught, but the third one made it.
I hung out with the rest of the boys for maybe the first month at Bailey Tweten Elementary before realizing Magic wasn’t for me. I never got the rules straight, and anyway the whole system of dueling, while fascinating from a distance, was harsh and mean and disgusting when any conversation had good odds of ending in a Magic duel.
So instead I hung around with the girls. Particularly the girls in the enriched classes, the ones who traded fantasy paperbacks and treated homework as a past time. Sometimes I got the shifty feeling of being a gender-traitor, but then I’d see Jeff Flatequel eat a plastic spork because Ziggy beat him in the first three turns, and I’d realize I was doing okay for myself.
I naturally gravitated toward Dorothy Harvith over time. She was a pleasant girl who was intensely moderate in every respect. She liked school but didn’t go overboard on studying. She ran cross country and track without ever getting too competitive. She conducted her relationship with me with that same subdued attitude. We were fond of each other, held hands and chatted on the phone without it ever becoming anything that made your heart race. When my native gender was ruled by obsession, a little moderation was a nice break.
Word got around quick that I was the first kid in our class to have the sort of girlfriend where both partners are willing to admit the relationship whenever you ask them. Most boys in our grade were in the process of transitioning from treating each girl as patient zero for cooties to some unattainable sex object, so I was roundly treated with a mix of envy and disgust. No one likes getting nasty looks in the hallway or getting called a “prissy queer” (which, in context, made no sense at all). But it wasn’t anything I couldn’t shake off until the last day of school.
Teachers had given up on actual education weeks ago, so in Spanish class we just watched The Smurfs 2 with what I think were supposed to be Spanish subtitles, but the teacher put on Hebrew ones instead. All around me, pairs of boys were trying to settle as many feuds as possible before the school year ended, handling the cards so fast you’d think they were doing tricks instead of playing a game. I switched between watching the movie and the game, each with a sort of detached humor, when Ziggy rammed his desk against into. When I got over the shock of his sudden appearance, I looked up to see him shuffling cards.
“Dorothy is my girlfriend,” he said matter-of-factly, beaming at having thought of it. Directly challenging a girl to a magic duel was taboo, of course, but he’d found a way to get a girl through a boy. Genius, really.
I’d stopped bringing a deck to school after I swore off Magic, so I asked around for a spare. I got nothing until Johnny Asp offered to, “Make you one real quick.” I knew well enough to sift through the one he gave me. It was all land or, in layman’s terms, unplayable. I took it anyway. Even with a decent deck, I was doomed to lose.
Ziggy could have finished me off in a minute, but he toyed with me instead, let me see his army grow until his cardstock army flooded his desk and began to advance onto mine. When he finally realized I wouldn’t do a thing but keep drawing and playing useless card after useless card, he attacked with everything and made a big deal about how many times over he’d killed me.
After class he grabbed me by the hair on the back of my head. I’d hit my growth spurt early, while he was still bone-thin and shrimpy, so I could have shaken him off easily. But the rules of Magic were stronger than brute force, and I had no choice but to stumble along as he led me to Dorothy’s locker. She looked somewhere between amused and concerned at the scene. I tried not to meet her eyes.
“You’re my girlfriend now,” Ziggy said, swelling with pride.
“I don’t think I am,” said Dorothy, breaking into that confused giggle that only elementary school girls can do.
“No, I m said Ziggy. “I beat this little turd in Magic.” (He shook the hair he’d grabbed as he said it, and I had no choice but to nod my head along with him). “So you’re my girlfriend now.”
“It’s true,” I said, still unable to meet her eyes. “I’m really sorry. I’ll get a better deck and learn to really play the game and win you back, I promise.”
She doubled over in high, sweet laughter, holding her stomach and almost collapsing to her knees. Ziggy rushed forward to plug up her giggling mouth with his, and Dorothy slugged him with hardly a glance up from her laughter. She kept it up, only getting louder, as Ziggy collapsed onto the linoleum, clutching his bleeding nose and weeping.
I got him some toilet paper to clog up his nose and told him everything would be all right. Ziggy’s crying and Dorothy’s laughter got softer together, so I was never really sure which one ended first.
Ziggy sort of stopped existed after that. Maybe he had a few good duels over the summer, but in the fall, three neighborhood fifth grade classes elementary schools became one massive sixth grade class at the centralized middle school. Suddenly the world was too big to rule with one stupid game. I found guys I liked hanging around with and Dorothy and I fell into different crowds. It’s only natural, I guess. It probably wouldn’t have hurt much at all if there hadn’t been that one moment on the last day of school that made our courtship seem like something with meaning behind it.
Magic is still around in middle school, but it’s a subculture of marginal nerds. There are as many girls who play it as boys now, though not many of either. I hang around with them sometimes, partly out of an odd nostalgia, but mostly to see if I can spot Ziggy. He’s never there. He still goes to our school, but you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t looking for him. I feel like I should apologize, even though I know I did nothing wrong. The world would’ve moved on no matter what had happened on the last day of fifth grade. Still, it moved on without him, and there’s no way that can’t hurt at least a little bit.