Chapter 4.1W

“Is there a reason why the uniforms are all white?” asked Carla Hutchinson, as Coach Dan fastened the zipper in the back of Kassandra’s uniform.

“Tradition, more than anything,” he said. “It goes back to the days when fencing turned into a scored competition, instead of a blood sport. Back then there were foils with these little prongs at the end of them,” he said, holding up the tip of a foil to Carla, dabbing the plastic tip to help her visualize where the prongs sat. “They’d dip a piece of cotton in red paint, and put it at the end of the foil, where the prongs held it in place. When you hit your opponent — if I may,” he said, pointing his foil gently in the direction of Carla, who nodded to allow Coach Dan to touch her with its tip ” — some of the red paint was suppossed to get on your opponent’s uniform. Back then, you were required to wear white uniforms to make it easier to see when you got hit. Now electric scoring’s eliminated the need for wearing white, but by the time that came around white uniforms had become a long-standing tradition that nobody was willing to challenge.”

Carla’s eyes widened. “How interesting!”

“Of course, some guys figured out they could coat their uniforms to repel paint — that was fencing’s first cheating scandal.”

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Chapter 4.1V

“If I may,” said Carla Hutchinson, stepping into the middle of the dining room floor, the ceiling lights reflecting off the shining brown surface and illuminating the pearls that smiled from her bosom, “I would like to see the ladies fence each other first.”

Kassandra looked up to see Mrs. Hutchinson and her pearls smiling at her, then extending a hand in her direction. “You must not refuse.”

Kassandra smiled shyly, nodded, walked over to Coach Dan, standing above the equipment sacks, fishing through the sack of fencing tunics. “This will just be like practice,” said Coach Dan.

Kassandra stood still as Butch approached her slowly. Coach Dan cleared his throat.

Move your feet. Kassandra took a step back. Don’t stand still, keep moving.

Butch stepped forward, extended his right arm, pushed back from his back leg, his body coming forward in a lunge that had more power than grace. Kassandra moved her arm across her body, her foil connecting with Butch’s with force insufficient to prevent Butch from landing the tip of his foil lightly upon her chest.

Coach Dan called a halt, turned to Annie standing behind Butch. She shook her head.

No, said Kassandra. I felt the touch.

Wasn’t forceful enough, said Annie. Blade didn’t bend. Coach Dan nodded. Dangit, said Butch.

I see, said Kassandra, crouching back down into en garde position.

Chapter 4.1U

“You appear to be ready,” said Coach Dan as Annie descended from the bottom stair, landing on the white marble floor of the entry room. Walking back into the dining room, he asked “so who’s our first challenger?”

Butch’s eyes got big as he looked quickly back and forth between his teammates. Kassandra quickly turned away, Bernie shook his head, Rex smiled and looked down on the floor, and Double-J did his best to ignore everyone in his room, his back turned to them as he examined the buffet line with exaggerated interest.

Chapter 4.1T

The hurried rythym from the carpeted staircase announced the return of Annie, looking far different than she had earlier that evening, her holiday sweater having been exchanged with a long-sleeved collarless white shirt bearing on its sternum the blue Old English D trademarked by the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, her dress pants replaced with blue jeans purchased in a store whose prices elicited varying levels of derision and intimidation from her teammates, her loafers replaced with inexpensive athletic shoes representing her family’s refusal to spend lavishly on items with only temporary use, her jewelry left behind in her bedroom.

Chapter 4.1T

The hurried rythym from the carpeted staircase announced the return of Annie, looking far different than she had earlier that evening, her holiday sweater having been exchanged with a long-sleeved collarless white shirt bearing on its sternum the blue Old English D trademarked by the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, her dress pants replaced with blue jeans purchased in a store whose prices elicited varying levels of derision and intimidation from her teammates, her loafers replaced with inexpensive athletic shoes representing her family’s refusal to spend lavishly on items with only temporary use, her jewelry left behind in her bedroom.

Chapter 4.1S

Coach Dan cleared his throat. “I remember Annie’s first practice, last year in the fall. First practices are tough — the kids are interested, motivated even, but apprehensive, tentative — new equipment, new terminology, is this going to hurt. I had found that being a strong mentor helped newcomers ease up, feel comfortable. So there’s Annie, sitting next to two other freshmen, and I’m doing my best impersonation of King Arthur, offering these new knights seats at my Round Table.

“As I’m working my shpiel, I notice the two freshmen — can’t even remember their names now, they’re long gone — are starting to relax, the nervousness in their smile has evaporated. But Annie — her face has been expressionless the entire time. I can tell something’s bothering her, she doesn’t have that evervessence that I’d seen in her at school.

“So I press on, have the students stand, get in starting position — feet perpendicular, heels together.” Coach Dan waved with his hands in the direction of his feet, which he brought together at the heels, right foot pointing straight at Paula, the left pointed at 90 degrees to form an L. “Then — I hear Annie laugh. I’m still in King Arthur mode, so I keep going, walking the students through the en garde position,” he said, bringing his front foot forward and bending his knees into a crouch, “and when I look at Annie again, she’s back to being expressionless again. I have them advance and retreat a few times,” he said, shuffling back and forth a few times, “and Annie’s just going through the motions, while the other two are all into it.

“So I have them get back to start,” Coach Dan now bringing his heels back together, “and Annie’s laughing again. I look at her, and say, you seem to be enjoying yourself. And she looks back at me, apologizes, and says, it’s like ballet. So I ask if she’d taken dance lessons, and that’s when that brilliant personality of hers finally came out. And when we started the footwork drills again, she now seemed fully engaged.

“One thing I’ve learned from Annie,” he said, “is that the best way to get her to listen is to let her say what’s on her mind. She’s not one to listen to a lecture, or give orders. What she wants is — the best way I can describe it, is a conversation with the world.”

Chapter 4.1R

Paula Hutchinson turned with her smiling pearls to Coach Dan as he placed the equipment sacks on the dining room floor. “Carl and I are looking forward to finally seeing her compete. We see her practice, but I imagine it’s just not the same as a — ” she threw her hands in the air — “game, or battle, or whatever you call it.”

Bout will work,” said Coach Dan. “I’m surprised you agreed to this. Not many people are interested in hosting a fencing tournament in their home.”

“I did try to talk her out of it. But when she gets an idea in her head, it’s hard for her to let go of it. She’s always been a strong-willed child, but I could always talk to her, make her come around. Ever since she’s been fencing, though — my opinion doesn’t seem to matter to her anymore.”

Coach Dan turned to her, began to speak.

Annie looked up at the brackets for the eliminiation, and shook her head. I’ve got Francis in the first round.

You were going to face him at some point today, said Coach Dan beside her.

Annie walked away. I was terrible in the prelims today. There’s no way I should have lost to Gary.

Annie! She turned, saw Coach Sarah from the Academy rush towards her. I saw your mother last night at the theater. Annie nodded. Is she all right?

Annie nodded in confusion. She looked — I’m sorry, but she looked terrible.

Annie laughed. She’s just tired, that’s all. She’s been working a lot with my father’s campaign staff, getting ready to kick off the campaign after the holidays.

Are you sure? My God, she was so pale, so thin, how much weight has she lost, has she been to a doctor?

My mother, Annie said firmly, just needs some sleep. She does NOT need a doctor.

Chapter 4.1Q

Rex shook his head, smiling. “I don’t think anyone here’s ready for this.”

“What do you mean?” Annie retorted. “You all listened to what I said, and wore your sneakers and jeans.”

“But you’re in your evening dress,” said Carl Hutchinson.

“Not for much longer,” she exclaimed, running past Coach Dan, out of the dining room, past the entryway, up the stairs, a determined look on her face similar to what one might see on a man pouncing up the stairs of city hall to protest a parking ticket.

Chapter 4.1P

Paul Scott lowered his glass, and with a quick nod to silver-haired Carl Hutchinson, who had maintained his cool unsmiling reserve throughout Paul’s speech, raised his glass and drank, the Scotch flowing quickly past his mouth, down through his yellow-tied throat. He finished his drink, and was quickly escorted to the side of the room by Pamela Scott, a look of concerned disdain on her face.

Annie walked quickly into the center of the suddenly quiet room. “I have a surprise for everyone,” she announced, a quick glance at Coach Dan declaring her intention. “Since our families are here this evening and many haven’t seen us compete, I think we should put on a little demonstration.” She turned quickly to gauge her teammates’ reactions, as Coach Dan walked over to the entry room. Rex rolled his smiling eyes and laughed, Kassandra immediately looked away as if wounded by Annie’s glance, Butch’s eyes grew large with curiosity, Bernie shook his head, and Double-J turned away immediately, waving his right hand dismissively in her direction.

“Demonstration?” asked Annie’s mother, pearls smiling on her evening gown.

“Sounds more like a challenge to me,” replied silver-haired Carl Hutchinson.

“Yes! A challenge,” exclaimed Annie, as Rex laughed out loud at the sight of Coach Dan carrying the familiar sacks of the team’s fencing equipment into the dining room. “I challenge every one of you — to a duel!”

Chapter 4.1O

Paul Scott’s yellow tie was now a slashing sword, swinging from side to side as if he were warding off any attempt to bring him down from his soap-box.

“I used to believe,” he said, raising the tumbler of Scotch on the rocks in his right hand to the ceiling, “that our politicians should be honest, and competent. Like there are two jars, one labeled Integrity and the other, Efficiency, and the leaders we elect to public office should take equally from both.

“But I’ve learned over the years that it simply isn’t going to happen, that there’s no way anyone who drinks from both can hope to ever get elected. That’s not how our system works. The best we can hope for is a politician who drinks from at least one, who is either corrupt but efficient, or honest but incompetent.

“Fischer, he’s been the most dangerous combination, not having drunk from either jar. He’s a corrupt boob.

“You, my friend,” he said, now raising his class in the direction of Carl Hutchinson, “– I haven’t figured out which one you are yet. But you seem both clever enough to know that you need to drink from one of the jars, and wise enough to know that you can’t drink from both. And so, this spring, you will have my enthusiastic vote.”