The regulator clock on the kitchen wall had a distracting tick. For the first 49 seconds of a minute, it would go tick-tock, tick-tock. At the 50th, it would go tick-tick until the end of the minute. Sitting in the living room, poring over our maps, rolling dice, the ticking was impossible to ignore once I became aware of it. It was impossible to sleep on the couch in Monty’s living room, too.
That was OK, because we rarely slept even if we called it a sleepover. “All Night D&D-athon” is how Monty usually termed these get-togethers, with Mack and Seppi and Eric, which usually ended in Eric, who had named a dark elf for a G.I. Joe character or some stupid thing, losing his boots of speed or a sword of flames +2 versus undead. Monty, our dungeon master, would chop you down if you got too impressed with your character. He once put a curse on me in which I could only carry copper pieces. And we played with encumbrance rules.
Monty, a grade ahead of me, was my first big friend. The guy someone had to go through to get to me. I was scrawny and he was tall, and possessed of a profound sense of cosmic right and wrong. The eighth grade was lumped with the high school in our small town, and it was a given that you got hazed in your first year by anyone older than you. Monty once got between me and some lowlife upperclassman with smoking privileges and told him to knock it off. Yet when I went back a week later and said I was having trouble with one of my classmates, and wanted Monty to rough him up, he looked at me like I had B.O. “I’m not your hitman,” he said incredulously. “You work it out.”
Being so tall, of course he played basketball. Dungeons & Dragons usually went on hiatus during hoops season. In the spring, we’d be back on. Monty relished the control he had over our party, but actually hated being DM, or the judge in Marvel Super Heroes, another role-playing game we enjoyed. He had so many good characters wasted in passive participation, and just wanted to play them straight for once, rather than as supporting NPCs. (I tried DMing a Dragonlance module and was kicked off the duty about an hour in.)
Slipstream was the name of Monty’s “high-tech wonder” character in Marvel Super Heroes, and Tia-san was his fighter in D&D. I got excited when he first told me the name, thinking we’d be playing ninjas under the Oriental Adventures book published the year before. No, Monty said disdainfully. “We call that ‘Ornamental Adventures,’” Monty said, “because all it does it decorate a bookshelf.”
Monty’s shelves were lined with with science fiction paperbacks (he had a full run of the novelization of V). His closets were stacked with long white boxes full of exotic comic book series, which he ordered direct through the mail, all neatly poly-bagged and backed and filed. I got my comics from a convenience store and kept them in bread bags. One day I was at home, typing out a biography for a new superhero. This guy was supposed to be the nemesis of Toad, of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Why I thought Toad needed a nemesis, no idea. But I didn’t know Toad’s real name. I called Monty and asked him to look through the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition), because I knew he had it.
“OK,” he said, sighing. I heard him put down the phone and go to his closet. He picked the phone back up. “Mortimer Toynbee,” he said, pronouncing each syllable deliberately.
“Great. Wait, what’s his height?”
“God dammit.” More sounds of him retrieving the comic book. “Five-eight. Is that it?”
Monty was recognizably a basketball star and a very good student at a proud city school whose upper social stratification prized both. The role-playing game side of Monty’s persona demonstrated his resolute individuality, and that he truly didn’t give a shit what others thought of his tastes. This was in the late 1980s, when geeks were not as celebrated by popular culture as they are today (probably by the people who were the geeks then).
Monty would talk with me for hours about our characters, their origin stories and the practicality of their powers. I wanted to create a super-fast hero, a variant on D.P. 7’s the Blur, who spun like Marvel’s Human Top (my collection of Tales to Astonish always impressed Monty). However, I wanted him to spin individual body parts, like a finger or an arm, to create wild power stunts like drilling through a wall with his hand. That’s physically impossible. Monty instead came up with the scientific explanation that what actually took place was my hero’s limb or digit instead precessed around a fixed point, so tightly and at such high speed that it looked like it was spinning.
It was the kind of brilliant, pure bullshit explanation you’d find in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, but it worked. Monty said he came up with the idea in freshman physical science after hearing about the wobble in the Earth’s rotation that changes the North Star every 5,000 years.
My sophomore year, Monty left. He was admitted to our state’s prestigious public boarding school for science and mathematics students. I joked about him going off to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. “Really?” he said, with the suggestion we were now getting too old or cool for such references.
Just like my brother leaving for the same school a year before, I didn’t really know how much I missed Monty until he wasn’t around anymore. I still had plenty of friends, and problems of my own, and both kept me busy. I was now a starting right fielder, interested in girls, interested in getting the hell out of town myself. The last time I saw Monty was in his dormitory room during my brother’s senior year at Science & Math. He was as intense and reserved as ever, but still laughed vulnerably when I told him about Eric’s harebrained idea to get a P.O. box so he could order porn movies on VHS through the mail.
If the sentimental tone of this essay gives you the sense that it ends badly, it does. Monty committed suicide. It happened in the middle of January 1996. My mother told me about it the following April, a day very much like today. I remember lying on the floor of a new apartment in a new city, a blinding platinum sun directly out the window staring me in the face, as I asked Mom why she was only telling me now. She said I had been through enough emotional turbulence that telling me could only make things worse. (I had been fired from my job for screaming at an editor in January, just two days after Monty died. The next month I caused a wreck that totaled my pickup truck.) I wondered what could possibly be going wrong in Monty’s life that it could come to this end. But Monty had deep and unforgiving expectations, of himself and the world.
Last spring, a classmate of ours also took his life, alone in a hotel room. He, too, had the same markers of success as Monty. His life, too, skidded somewhere on a soft shoulder, and maybe they both wrenched the wheel in frustration, in the wrong direction.
“Well, thanks,” I said to Mom that day 21 years ago. “I can’t even cry.” And that was fine. Monty would have hated it if I did. Especially as I hadn’t seen him in ... six years? It was the first time I felt like I didn’t have a right to mourn someone. I’m still not sure that I do. But I think of him every day.
That’s because I moved back to my hometown in 2012, and bought a house not 1,000 feet from Monty’s. I pass it each day, on foot or in a car. The current owner has a foreign sedan in the carport and a couple of kayaks hanging from its ceiling. I’ve thought about it briefly, but I’ve never introduced myself to my neighbor or asked to go inside.
I want my most recent memories of that home always to be of Monty, and Mack, and Seppi, and yes, even Eric (who later was my college roommate). We’re clustered on the living room carpet. Tuff Turf is on HBO, strobe-lighting the darkened room. Mack announces that he’s checking for secret doors. Monty rolls d6 and groans at us to get on with it. His father’s ice cream is softening on the counter as the hot dishwasher runs underneath. And a broken clock on the wall is marking our time. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Tick-tick.