It was a penetrating, stabbing cold, contracting his back muscles until they spasmed from fatigue.


“I don’t make mistakes,” DJ said. “I offer alternatives. And because society cannot accept disruptions to conformity, they tell me I’m mistaken.”

The Familiar

“Cut me some slack with the Mr. Chips routine,” said DJ. “If you won’t say it, Coach, I will. You started this fencing team because living here in Edwards was starting to drive you nuts. It’s OK, Coach, we understand, we’re itching to get out of here as well. Happens all the time — people move here, thinking they’re gonna get away from it all, and the slower pace of life is a welcome relief for a while, but then they realize that, guess what, they have gotten away from it all — everything! And then this town doesn’t look quaint and tranquil anymore, it’s quiet, boring, not like anything you’ve ever experienced before. But you’re not like most people who move here, you’ve got a good job, one you want to hold on to, one you don’t think you can beat somewhere else. But how can you stay here without driving yourself crazy? Why, you try to bring in something from your past, something that makes this world seem more like the one you came from. You’re making yourself a home with this fencing team, Coach — and that’s cool, because we love it, and we think you’re great. But please, don’t start with this pious stuff about doing it for us, because you’re doing it for yourself.”


Coach concluded each practice with the circle drill, where one fencer at circle center would face each member of the team, one at a time and for only one touch, as they stood along the perimeter. The personality of each fencer would become most clear at this time. Annie never moved first, whether at the center or perimeter — her game was to respond with the perfect counter-move to however her opponent attacked. DJ, on the other hand, moved aggressively, often lunging immediately, sometimes feinting first but always attacking first. Bernie would move to his opponent slowly, almost hesitantly. Butch waved his foil back and forth with anxious energy.


Call me DJ. Started with John Jacob, which became JJ, then Double-J, now DJ. I started fencing because let’s face it, all other sports suck, unless you like phonies and egomaniacs and scripted melodrama. There is a beautiful simplicity to fencing — it’s just you and your opponent, neither of you there to get your name in the paper or impress the cheerleaders or make your parents proud. Our motivations are pure, and the competition is art. I fence for myself, but my fencing makes the world a better place.


“What the hell happens to you during bouts?” asked the coach in exasperation. “It’s like you forget everything you’ve been working on in practice. You’re all arms and legs — you fence like you’ve got scorpions in your underwear.”

“It’s like this energy jolt, all through my body,” said Bernie. “I just want to throw myself out there, get it over with.”

“You know what that’s all about, buddy? It’s about believing in your training, trusting that if you stick to what you’ve learned, you’ll do OK. Don’t you trust me?”

“You? Coach? Of course I trust you, man. It’s that I don’t trust myself. I don’t think I can properly execute. I trust the messenger, and the message — I just can’t believe what I’m reading.”


“Sure I get nervous during bouts. But it’s not about losing, it’s about letting myself down. Don’t want to sound full of myself, but with my training, my coaching, I should win. When I don’t win, I feel like I’ve done something wrong, didn’t prepare properly, let up physically, didn’t look for my opponent’s weakness.”

“You really think you should win every bout?” Bernie asked.

A thoughtful pause from Annie. “Nobody’s perfect — there’s no way I could win every bout. But I can look back at every loss and know what I could have done, should have done, differently.


His answers to questions about why he had joined the fencing team were always vague, inarticulate — dunno, not sure, it’s just cool I guess — but sincere, because his motivations for joining the team weren’t even clear to him. But the pain of his disappointment now made his motivation clear. He had seen fencing as an opportunity, a chance to be good at something. But this turned out to be another lost opportunity, another avenue for frustration. He had hoped fencing would be an escape, but it had turned out to be another trap.


Annie smiled. “This is going to sound weird I know — but the part about fencing I like most is the footwork. I love dancing, have taken lessons all my life. I love everything about dancing — the conditioning, the artistry, choreography and the spontaneity working together. To take what I’ve learned about footwork, coordination, balance, and use it in a sport, a competition . . . fencing combines everything that I enjoy about life.”


“Billy’s great, man. Yeah, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he knows what his limits are, and he’s happy with that. He’ll never be able to figure things out on his own, but once you show him something, he never forgets it. You and I,” Bernie said, looking Annie straight in the eyes, “life for us is a puzzle, and we’re constantly trying to put the pieces in the right places. Billy, he doesn’t care. We figure things out, Billy let’s life figure itself out for him. That means he’s always going to be happy — life will be one series of pleasant discoveries for him.”