Here we are again. In a fantasy book I haven’t published yet, these two young warriors are escaping an enemy, and they approach a bridge, and the leader yells out, “I’m gonna do it again!” The other one says, “You won’t be happy til you get us killed.” And then they both jump over the side of the bridge. Well, I’m gonna do it again. Here comes another blog blast. That’s what I’ve decided to call them. I’m gonna throw things around a little bit, put a kink in the chain. We’re gonna do the last five chapters of The Round Table, which was our last blog blast, and then we’re gonna start a series about the powerful women I’ve met who have had an effect on my life. It starts at 9:00 Friday night, and will be finished at 8:30 Sunday evening. I’ll release a blog every two and a half hours. So travel with me from Spanish swords, old lady gangsters, and red painted nails. Travel with me as I carry a bag of dice, watch a falling star, and end with Love.
Me and Crutch were never friends. To say that makes it seem like me and Crutch were never friends, but me and Crutch were never friends.
In seventh grade we hung out a little. I hung out with anybody who would talk to me back then and not be mean. Crutch was one of those.
We were both wildly unpopular, but I showered. He was tall for a seventh grader but skinny. Dirty blond hair that I’m not sure if it was the color dirty blond or just dirty. For some reason I always see him in green. No acne, but shiny face covered in oil. Man, in those days everybody is covered in a light sheen of oil.
So I guess the memory I have of Crutch in seventh grade is the science teacher is playing a video. John Mulaney, the brilliant stand-up comic, will tell you that when teachers play videos they do so because they had a hard night of drinking the night before. But I think teachers are heroes. I think teachers have heartbreaking, soul-wrenching jobs. My seventh grade science teacher had to see me and Crutch being picked on by the other kids. He had to watch the cool, unique things we did that the other kids didn’t accept. He had to laugh at the things we said and hear the other kids groan.
And there’s only so much a seventh grade science teacher can do when a rich kid with a powerful family balls up a sheet of paper, throws it across the room, and it bounces off the head of a kid like me. When that science teacher opens that balled up piece of paper, and the thing he reads is so cruel he won’t let the class hear it—or me read it—he’ll send that popular rich kid to the office. And that science teacher, he knows that popular kid is just gonna walk away. Because that kid’s powerful dad plays poker with that principal. This is one of the stories of a teacher, and there are so many more.
Every teacher will tell you stories complaining about their job. And then you ask them about the kids and their face changes. Their face changes and they start to talk about the kids in reverent voices.
So me and Crutch are watching a video that day, and if the reason we’re watching that video is because that seventh grade science teacher had a hard night of drinking the night before, then let’s not judge him. Because maybe he had that hard night of drinking because he’d seen too many crumpled up balls of paper.
Either way, it’s a video about science. The projector is clicking and steaming. Not steaming, I guess, hissing. Have you ever noticed how those old projectors would let off the predictable click, but they also have a hiss to them? Crutch is sitting next to me. He’s talking about his high school girlfriend and how beautiful she is. He’s talking about how popular she is and how big her tits are. He’s got folded up pages ripped out of magazines with beautiful women in clothes, beautiful clothes, and he’s pointing at these pages and at these women, licking his lips. He’s talking about how, “this is the outfit she wears when she comes over to fuck me. She looks like this, too, but she’s prettier.”
And Crutch starts describing sexual acts he’s performing with his sexy, scantily clad high school girlfriend. It’s all filth and lies, and I’m doing my best not to listen. But I need every friend I can get, so every now and then I look at him and mumble out “cool” or the occasional “oh man.”
Now comes the shitty part because Crutch, after telling me about the deviant sexual acts he does with this mystical sexual high school girlfriend he has, he starts asking me about girlfriends. He knows I’m dating Strawberry, and not even Shadow will make up a sex story about Strawberry. She’s just too sweet. She’s too important, too sacred.
I shake my head, mumble out a no. And he goes, “Man, you’ve never had sex with a high schooler? You’re such a loser.”
Now I’m back in Allenton. The high schoolers have gotten Junior drunk. Suddenly, I’m on X’s bed again. Suddenly, I can see the sway of Stranger’s breasts. She leans down and whispers in my ear, “Are you having fun, Junior?” I can feel her stolen ID in my pocket. I can hear Shush shushing.
I shake my head. “No, never had sex with a high schooler.”
“Well, you should fuck Strawberry. She’s not as sexy as my high school girl, but I bet she can suck pretty well.”
Very calmly, very slowly, Servant reaches into his pocket and pulls out his pocket knife. He holds it flat in his hand, and Crutch goes silent. With a flick, the blade is out. Crutch can’t stop staring at it.
Servant, “We’re done talking about Strawberry. We’re done talking about sucking and fucking. And if you ever look at Strawberry again…” Servant just stares at the blade. Crutch stares at the blade. It’s the Buck 110 that a year ago Shadow stole from a hardware store in Allenton, a huge blade. It clacked loud when it opened. “Well, we’re just never gonna talk about Strawberry again.”
“Yeah man, yeah, it’s cool.” The blade disappears. “No, it’s cool, man, really. My girlfriend, she’s not even that pretty compared to Strawberry. Sorry, I said Strawberry. I didn’t mean to. She’s just not even that pretty.”
Crutch raised his hand, asked to go to the bathroom. As I sit here I think about what he could have been thinking and what he could have been doing while he was sitting in that bathroom after seeing that knife.
Let’s jump forward a year. Now I am popular, friends with D. Dungeons and Dragons is my life and we all need dice, but nobody has any except me. McCart left an emptied out peanut butter jar full of dice at my house. They became mine, and he never asked for them. They’re the only dice we eighth graders have. Those of you who played Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s and 90s know, but I’ll tell the rest of you, I dropped those dice in a Crown Royal bag. And every morning I carried them in my backpack to Waynesville Middle School. No dice, no game. No game, no D.
So I dropped my bag off first hour science class, same teacher I think. And then I went out of the classroom to find D. I come back, class starts, I check my bag, and my dice are missing. My dice are gone.
Back then I sat next to a beautiful Korean girl. She was everything an eighth grade boy wants, except at this moment that eighth grade boy wants his dice back. I’m hissing that my dice have been stolen. I’m growling now, teeth grit. I look up and she’s staring at me.
“They stole them. Somebody stole them. I think it was Crutch. Maybe it was Fly. Somebody stole them,” I spit out.
That beautiful Korean girl touches my jaw gently with one hand. She lifts my steaming eyes to hers, and softly says, soft like when you would set the eyes of your lover close to you and blink and their eyelashes whisper against yours. Soft like the sound of a cotton ball hitting the floor. Soft like the sob of a girl who can see what’s coming. “Don’t hurt anybody, okay, Jesse?”
I’m so angry I can barely see. My vision is trembling. My body is trembling. I think I growled out, “What?”
And she said it again. I can see it again. I can see her face. I’ll never forget this face. I think I was in love with her at the time. “Just please,” she said. “Just please don’t let anybody get hurt.”
“I can’t promise anything,” I snapped.
She touched the other side of my jaw, cradling my face in her hands. “You can promise me. You can quietly, secretly promise me. I know what’s gonna happen. You can see what’s gonna happen, Jesse, or maybe you can’t, not yet. I know what those dice mean. I know what them being stolen means. Just promise me here quietly, secretly, that nobody’s gonna get hurt.”
She was touching me for the first time. That should have been enough to get me to promise her anything. But it wasn’t. I just shook my head. She took my face in her hands. She kissed my forehead and looked me in the eyes. I’ll never forget her eyes. And she said, “Please don’t hurt anyone.”
I tell Bump, do you remember him? Bigger than every other kid because he’s driving a car when he’s in eighth grade. A muscled and mean bully. Well, Bump is still playing Bumpy at my DnD games. D and Pretty Boy find out. Stretch and Spider find out. Everybody in the eighth grade finds out. All my friends and all the kids who are unpopular, they find out someone in Waynesville Middle School has stolen my dice out of my bag, and these dice have to be found by lunch.
Word is wildfire, and so is fear. My gamers break off in every direction and they all look. I got popular kids and bullies snatching the backpacks right off the shoulders of the unpopular kids, dumping their bags in the hallway, looking for my dice. Boys are being caught in the bathroom by my thugs. Every other boy, every boy outside of my gaming group, every boy who isn’t trying to bully people, and every boy who isn’t clearly avoiding being a suspect, is a potential thief. Kickstart, Walleye, Crutch, everybody. So many kids, and the ones who want to be friends with us, the ones who want to play our games, are slamming kids into lockers, stealing bags off of shoulders.
I didn’t involve myself. I kept myself as calm as possible. I walked through the rioting halls hands in pockets, moving from class to class uninvolved, while all around the school, in every corner and in every hall, the eighth grade boys were tearing each other to shreds.
Third hour, fifteen minutes before the end of class, and next is lunch. Nobody has found my dice yet. After second hour, boys started grabbing other boys and making them go to their lockers. Lockers were being searched. Bags were being searched. It was absolute bedlam. I’m standing back watching it all, watching hallway after hallway of the nightmare of the eighth grade. Girls are fleeing from class to class, and I’m just walking, walking through it all.
Nobody’s looking at me, but everybody knows that it is me. It’s my face snarling back at them from every boy attacking every other boy, my eyes steaming as they’re being questioned. And calmly I’m walking from class to class. I felt like a Don, like I should have a cigar in my hand. I felt like a Don the day after my daughter’s wedding when all the streets are filled with my men keeping promises. I had never felt more like a gangster in my entire life.
Can you see now? Do you see the black of it, the darkness of it, the pit of it? This is another one of those stories where I am not the hero. Boys are being victimized in my name, and I am not the hero. But I’ll admit to it. I’ll admit to it here to you. I’ll confess to it in my books and to my children. I’ll let my wife see the cigar smoke around my head as I tell you I was not always a good guy. In some places and at some times, Jesse Teller was not the victim. He was not the hero. Jesse Teller was the darkness of the world. Something would have to stop this. Some force for good would have to put an end to all of this, because I didn’t want to.
So now, like I said, fifteen minutes, a message comes out over the loud speaker. I’m in English. “Mrs. Pianist, can you please send Jesse Teller to Mr. Turner’s room?”
We’re gonna take a break here. I call this English teacher Mrs. Pianist. You have to hear why. She was an English teacher and one day I was trying to bond with her. She didn’t like me. I remember walking up to her desk. I don’t remember if it was before class or after class, or if I had just turned in a worksheet she’d given us and had a little time to kill. But across her giant steel desk I asked her, “You’re an English teacher. Are you a writer?”
She looked up at me as if I had asked the wrong question. She knew what I was about to say. And she knew what she was about to tell me.
When somebody points a gun at you, questions run through your mind. Are they actually gonna pull the trigger? Is this a bluff? Can I get to them before the bullet’s impact? Can I scream and yell at them and scare them away? Can I get to them with a knife after the shot, wounded and fighting for my life? On two separate occasions I’ve had guns pointed at me. One time the trigger was actually pulled and a misfire. The other time I talked my way out of it. I had a barrel pointed at Mrs. Pianist. I had a gun in my hand and I didn’t even know it. She knew she could not talk her way out of it. This bullet was gonna hit her and it was gonna wound her bad.
“No, Jesse. I’m not a writer. I did not want to be an English teacher. That’s just where I ended up.”
And the look on her face as I pulled the trigger. “What did you want to be?”
She lowered her head, looked up at me with a kind of sad pride and said, “I am a pianist. I played piano from the age of three until the age of twenty-four. I studied with private instructors and I studied in college at a music school with some of the greatest pianists in America. I,” she said with a great amount of pride and eyes welling with tears, “am a classically trained pianist. And I can play any piano piece that’s ever been written.” A tear did spill. And she was too proud to wipe it away.
I said, “What happened?” Second bullet. Second chamber emptied. I can almost smell the stench of gun powder in the air.
“I’m not a writer, Jesse.”
“I know. I know you’re not a writer. You’re a pianist. I’m sorry for calling you a writer.”
“No, Jesse, I cannot write piano music. I can only play it. I cannot create. There’s only so much you can do. There’s only so high you can climb. And my father did not see the point of me playing everyone else’s music if I wasn’t going to play my own.” She stared at me for a moment, just a moment longer. A second tear. And she asked with a strong but weak voice, a cracking but stern voice, “Will you go back to your desk now?”
Artist had been close through the entire conversation. He shifted out hard now. And he looked at her and said, “Dick and Jane.”
“Spot. Dick and Jane. It’s what you start with when you’re starting to read. You start with Dick and Jane. You start with Spot. If people have been reading you complicated classics, and then you try to read, you’re gonna think yourself a terrible reader because you can’t puzzle out Twain and his frog race. But if you start with Dick and Jane, then you know you’re not a bad reader.”
She locked eyes with him as the other eye started leaking tears. Her hands began to tremble, and I saw her fingers twitch like she was playing, like in her head as she was staring at me, she was seeing sheet music flying across my face. Her fingers twitched and her eyes grew in intensity. “What are you saying?” she said.
“I’m a writer,” Artist said. “I started with a story about a purple hippopotamus. I’m gonna go back to my chair now.”
Mrs. Pianist let out the lightest sob. And in a very stern, very resolute voice, she said, “Thank you, Jesse Teller.” She wiped her eyes, and I went back to my chair. Before I reached the desk I had shifted and had no idea about that conversation. I didn’t remember it at all. I didn’t remember it until tonight, sitting here looking at these two big dogs crashed out, looking at my wife’s face as she concentrates on what she’s typing as I dictate what I’m feeling. I don’t know what Smear Lord of Ire gave Mrs. Pianist that day. And I don’t know if she went home, sat at her piano and started plinking out Dick and Jane. This is just a story I accidentally discovered about Smear. Something he’s kept close.
Bekah said that the next year they had to hire a new English teacher. Maybe that means nothing. Or maybe Dick and Jane turned into War and Peace.
I walk into Turner’s room. And standing directly in front of the door with a terrified look on his face is Crutch. I slam the door behind me. It echoes down the hall. Stops the heart of every kid in every eighth grade class. And Crutch jumps and takes two steps back.
“Jesse,” Mr. Turner said.
I step around Crutch until I can see Mr. Turner’s desk. He’s set up in the corner. He’s got all these gadgets on his windowsill and they move in weird ways. The weather prediction, sunlight catchers that twirl when the sun shines on them. He’s in his chair and he’s leaned back. His feet are resting on his desk. I step into the middle of the class amongst the desks. My eyes shift from Turner to Crutch and back.
“How’s your day going?” Turner asks.
“Active. I’m having a very active day.”
“I heard. You know, Jesse, I found a bag of dice.” And Turner threw my Crown Royal bag onto his desk. There’s only one thing that sounds like a Crown Royal bag full of dice being dropped on a desk and that’s a Crown Royal bag full of dice being dropped on a desk. My hungry eyes land on it. I need that bag in fifteen minutes.
I shift from Turner, whose face is slightly filled with mirth, slowly to Crutch, who is holding himself up on the crutches he has to carry himself with because of the broken leg he got weeks ago. Crutch has been suspect number one all day, because he was the only one in the room with my bag when it was unattended before first hour science. Everyone knows and has known all day that Crutch is the one who stole these dice. And he’s been shoved up against the wall, his crutches taken away from him, all day long. His crutches have been kicked out from under him. Crutch has had a rough morning.
See this is the thing. These dice are not safe to own. If you’ve stolen these dice, as soon as you leave the school you get rid of them. My guys knew they had until the end of seventh hour to find these dice, or whoever had them would throw them away and we’d never see them again. Plausible deniability, I don’t have your bag of dice, trumps culpability, I’m the one who stole them in the first place. Every hour that went by, the fever pitch rose. Every hour that went by, my guys were getting more and more desperate. And every hour that went by in school the day my dice were stolen, everything was getting uglier and uglier.
As my eyes lock up on Crutch, his bottom lip begins to quiver. Turner said, “Crutch found them for us.” It was the us that caught my attention.
“I bet he did. Where’d you find them?”
Crutch is panicking now.
“Jesse, look at me. Keep your eyes on me,” Turner said. “It doesn’t matter where Crutch found them. He brought them to me. Wasn’t that kind of him?”
We needed a force of light to move against the Don of the eighth grade. Right then, as I stood in the middle of the class, I was looking at it.
“Either way,” Turner said. “It doesn’t matter where they’ve been. It doesn’t matter who stole them and who found them. None of that matters at all, does it, Jesse?”
“Is that how we’re gonna play this?” I said.
“Yes, Jesse. None of it matters. And no one will ask any questions after this conversation. Will they?”
“Yeah, okay,” Shadow said with a shrug. I know everyone but Turner, and maybe him too, could smell the stink of gasoline in the room.
“Crutch is a hero. I think you should thank Crutch for finding your dice.”
My eyes still locked on Turner, unwavering, hard. But this is Mr. Turner. He was a wrestler in high school, an engineer in the military. He hasn’t lost a fiber of muscle in his body since his prime. He’s got fiery red hair and he’s not afraid of a street rat from Milwaukee, he’s not afraid of X’s packmate or Billy’s Boy. He just smiles at me.
“You think I should thank Crutch?”
Turner nodded. “I think every boy in the eighth grade should thank Crutch.”
I turn my eyes to Crutch. “Thank you, Crutch. Thank you for finding the dice, wherever they may have been.”
Crutch’s face opened up in a smile. “Yeah, Jesse, I found them for you. I know how important your games are. I found them for you.”
I looked back at Turner. “Can I have my dice, now?”
Turner said to me with a big smile, he was enjoying this part, “How do I know these are yours?”
The class laughed. Crutch didn’t. Neither did I.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“I’ve been playing DnD for most of my life. You know how many dice I’ve seen? I got a group, my group has dice.” He sighed. “In my life, Jesse, I must’ve seen,” he crossed his mighty arms over his chest, “thousands of dice. People can buy dice anywhere. I can’t even imagine how many Dungeons and Dragons dice are in the Waynesville-St. Robert area. These dice could belong to anybody we walk past in the street,” Turner said with a chuckle. People in the class were giggling around me as well. “I’m sorry, Jesse. I just can’t assume that these are your dice.”
Crutch giggled and my eyes whipped in his direction. His giggle crumbled instantly and I looked back at Turner. I took two steps forward, leaned in, still close to the middle of the room, in no way threatening.
“My dice are in a Crown Royal bag. I bet you’ve never seen that before.” Me and Turner laughed at that.
“I’m gonna look at some of these dice, a handful of dice, and you’re gonna describe them,” Turner said. He reached his hand in my dice bag and moved his fingers around, clacking dice for way too long as he smiled. And now I was smiling, too. “I’m gonna have to ask you to tell me about some of these dice that are so important to you. I’m sure if you love them so much you can detail out all, oh my guess would be, thirty-five of them?”
“I don’t have time to describe thirty-five dice. I need those in ten minutes. But how about I start yelling out descriptions and you give me the ones I do name off? I take those to my game at the lunch table and I come back to your class after lunch and I tell you about every single one of the others.”
Turner smiled at me and looked down at the dice in his hands. He looked back at me with a grin. “You could do that? You could describe every die in this bag?”
The smile died on my face as I stared into his eyes. “You know I can.”
His face grew serious. “Yeah, yeah, I know you can.”
So I described a couple of dice to Turner. He dropped them back in the bag and tossed it back on his desk. There’s only one thing that sounds like a Crown Royal bag full of dice dropping on a desk. When I grabbed the bag he looked at me and smiled. “They’re all there. I want to hear you say it.”
“They’re all here.”
“Can you stop tearing apart the eighth grade now?”
I looked at him. “Yeah, yeah, I think I will.”
I started to turn around, turn away, Turner said, “Jesse, this can’t happen again.”
I looked at Turner over my shoulder. “I’m sure it won’t.” I walked past Crutch with a nod, and I went back to Pianist’s class for the last five minutes.
You’re a teacher. You have heard that one of the most popular kids in school’s DnD dice have been stolen. You can’t quell the violence in the hallway. You know it’s happening all over the school. Ear to the ground, you know who has that bag of dice. And you know, just like they do, there is no safe way to give them back. If you’re that teacher, and you care about that bag of dice, and you care about that dumb stealing kid who just wanted a piece of what that lifestyle could offer, you end up in a class laughing with an angry street rat, and you have just saved all the boys in eighth grade from the darkness that would hit between sixth hour and seventh.
Maybe Servant is a hero in this chapter. Servant and his Buck 110 and his defense of Strawberry.
Maybe Artist, Dick and Jane, are heroes in this chapter. But there is one thing that no one reading this book can deny. Mr. Turner, the eighth grade teacher of geology and pre-algebra in Waynesville Middle School, is the hero of this story.
I reconnected with him a few years ago. He was very quiet. I told him how important he was. I told him that the only reason I’m a writer of fantasy is because of him. I thanked him for the strength he gave me to beat the last bully in my life. And not long after that, I announced I was working on my autobiography. He said, “I’ll read that. You’ve got the chops.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that saying. But from a man like Turner, it’s all I needed to hear. But I needed to hear it so badly.
So I wrote a chapter about Mr. Turner of Waynesville Middle School, because Jesse Teller ignored every assignment and every reading after he became friends with D. And there is no way imaginable that Jesse Teller did not fail eighth grade. But miraculously, somehow, some way, I moved on into high school after failing every eighth grade class. Somebody spoke up for me. There was a teacher, an advocate at that school, who spoke up for me. I don’t know who it was. Only they do.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 3: The Keep.