The two months following my mother’s death felt longer than the sixteen years before it and the twenty-nine years since. The psychic wound was so raw, the trauma so unprecedented, that even the the most minute details permanently imprinted themselves into my memory.
I spent the night of her death at a paternal aunt’s house, where I cried myself to nightmare-haunted sleep.
The following day, I went back home to retrieve some fresh clothes and other essentials. It was the first time I’d been in the place since my mother’s accident and it was worse than I’d imagined it would be. There was a trail of russet-black stains on the floor and walls stretching from the front door up to the attic landing, where a congealed mass of matter marked the point of impact. The family dog had shit everywhere and our three cats were starved for both food and attention.
I grabbed what I could (including a half a loaf of bread my mom had baked the day before) and left as quickly as I could.
While my aunts and I were gathered on the street out front, my maternal grandmother rolled up with my mother’s sister and her husband. Even though they lived in the other side of the duplex, I hadn’t talked to them in a year, when my grandmother physically threw me out her back door and I brawled with my uncle on the front steps before the police arrived.
I was terrified. I had no idea how this was going to play out.
What happened was a teary group hug, after which my grandmother said “You will stay with us.”
So I did, camped out on a cot in her cluttered spare room. My mother’s sister pulled my grandfather’s old copies of The Earthsea Trilogy from his chest of fantasy paperbacks and suggested I read them to keep my mind off of things. When the restlessness and grief got too much to handle, I went on long pointless walks around the city.
They took me to the Jordan Marsh at the mall to buy proper funeral attire. While I was there, I spent the sympathy money my hospital co-workers raised for me on a copy of Phantasy Star for the Sega Master System, which instantly became my number one coping mechanism.
My father’s people drove me up to the VA hospital to see my dad, who was drying out under observation in the locked ward. His first words to me were “Andy, what happened?”
There were numerous appointments — with social workers, guidance counselors, doctors, and my first-ever visit to a dentist’s office. The Very Concerned People leaned on me hard to get some form of counseling, which I categorically refused.
I visited Lil Bro, who had remained at my aunt’s house and lobbied both my case worker and my grandmother to have him move in with me. It succeeded, mainly because of my grandmother’s dislike for my father’s people and the fact that I was already what the specialists termed a “parentified sibling.” (“Dad was a pal but you really raised me,” Lil Bro would tell me later in a rare moment of candid intra-Weiss affection.)
I returned to school, where I’d gone from a paste-eating pariah to an object of public pity. All the secrets I’d kept for years had become public knowledge, and I found myself crushed by the sheer volume of I’m-so-sorrys directed at me by well-meaning folks and former tormentors.
Returning to work was an easier adjustment, despite the fact that I’d closed my previous shift with phone call from the ER telling me my mom had been admitted. My grandmother was opposed to the notion of paying board, so I was suddenly flush with excess cash.
My Uncle Gary, who’d gifted me a huge chunk of his comics collection when he found Jesus a couple years before, had since found a way to reconcile his love of Marvel Comics with his devotion to the Messiah. He took Lil Bro and me to our first funnybook convention, where I binged on anime merch and the issue of Marvel Premiere starring Jack of Hearts. He also gave us a grand tour of various comic shops in and around Harvard Square — Newbury Comics in the Garage, the Million Year Picnic, and New England Comics.
Though all of this hung the terrifying uncertainty about What Was Going to Happen With Us. There was a part of me that held out hope that my dad would clean up his act and regain custody, but it wasn’t reflected in the arc of events and discussions surrounding them. It became increasingly clear that the current arrangement was how things would be going forward. In the end, I was forced (by my social worker and my grandmother) to sign legal paperwork accusing my father of neglect. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have a choice. It was a matter of deciding my own fate or having it decided for me.
My dad moved from the lock-up to the general psych wards and then to a halfway house in South Boston. Lil Bro and I spent time with him every Saturday, taking the 134 bus to meet him at Wellington Station and then tooling around Boston together for the afternoon. My brother and I used it as an opportunity to go funnybook shopping, which the old man wasn’t crazy about but at least gave us something to do for a while.
At the beginning, we hit the shops my uncle had pointed out to us in Cambridge, but soon found it was easier to swing by the New England Comics store in Malden instead. It was one stop from Wellington, and it meant we could get it out of the way quickly before heading into the city proper.
It was during our initial trek from the station to the store that I came across Excalibur Hobbies, my platonic ideal of a game store. It was a family run business, had a good deal of floor space, and had been around long enough to accumulate all manner of offbeat and out of print oddities. The owner was more interested in the historical military models and wargames that filled the back half of the shop, but the rest of the store was crammed with nearly every RPG boxed set, sourcebook, and supplement published since the late 1970s.
My dad barely had time to finish rolling his eyes before I settled on my first purchase, the Champions II & III supplements for the superhero RPG of the same name.
Champions was a staple for my gaming group, but I’d grown tired by the limitations and omissions of the core rulebook. Even with its hyper-flexibility, certain powers and other staples of the genre weren’t covered or given proper justice. The two supplements were aimed towards addressing those gaps, adding in things like sidekicks, vehicles, bases, and more complicated abilities like self-duplication. The Complete Strategist hadn’t had either in stock during my handful of visits, so they were an automatic buy upon encountering them in the wild.
For the rest of the afternoon, I kept pulling the books out of the brown paper bag and leafing through the best bits. Not even the week’s haul of new funnybook releases could compete with their allure.
The spell wasn’t broken until the bus back to Woburn pulled up to the station, when I realized I’d been completely ignoring my father. We only had a few hours to spend together every week, and I squandered it obsessing over ability scores and other bullshit. Now I wasn’t going to see him until the following Saturday, and I thought about how much we lost and how fucked up things had become and how I guilty I felt about about signing that damn statement.
It was a long ride back home.
My copies of Champions II & III were eventually sold, along with the 3rd edition core rulebook, to my pal Scott for a tenner I used to offset the cost of the super-comprehensive 4th edition Champions hardcover.
My trips to Excalibur waxed and waned with my interest in the hobby, with a final drop-off right around the 1996 presidential election. (The two events aren’t related, just that I remember unboxing one of my last Excalibur purchases while Steve Forbes droned on about the flat tax on Maura’s TV.) I swung by the place when some other business brought me to Malden a decade or so ago, and discovered the storefront now housed a spray-tan parlor.