Chapter 4.3L

Coach Dan wants us to see some good stage fencing Annie said.

What’s the point of that Double-J asked.

Don’t be so cynical. We’re going for free after all.

Double-J snorted, displeasure hurling through his nose like vomit. Would a boxer accept free tickets to a professional wrestling match?

Annie shrugged as they approached his coupe. Boxers could like pro wresting.

Only the stupid ones Double-J said, his keys clinking metallically in the cold as he retrieved them from his jacket.

Annie began to brush the inch of snow that had accumulated from the car’s windshield. What the hell are you doing asked Double-J, opening the driver’s side door. Just trying to help she replied. Double-J turned the ignition key, the coupe rattling awake, the windshield wipers then sweeping across the windshield, leaving arcs of snow in its wake that were only partly cleared during the return sweep. He called to Annie, his voice hurtling out from his mouth then veering to his left, through the open door, then taking a sharp turn forward, then across the front hood of the coupe to where Annie stood on the passenger side — All set.

I’ll get the back.

Jesus, will you get in the fucking car already?

Annie stared at him a moment, her view of him obscured through the streaks of snow on the windshield. She saw her reflection, noticed her mouth was open, her eyes surprised. She shook her head, composed herself, did a quick check of her reflection to verify she was bearing the proper coutenance, then turned her glance in the direction of Double-J’s eyes, and spoke.

If giving me a ride is such a pain in the ass, then I’ll ask Kassandra’s mother to take me home. But if you’re done with whatever the hell it is you’re trying to prove, I’d like to get going.

She saw him raise his eyebrows, pause, then nod quickly several times. Come here he called.

Annie walked around the front of the car, stomping snow from her shoes as she made her way to the open door. She saw Double-J grinning up at her.

Here you go he said, pulling a snow brush from the passenger seat and handing it to her.

Chapter 4.3K

Bus is leaving called Double-J. Annie turned the upper portion of her body towards him, held up the index finger of her right hand, then turned back to Butch and Kassandra. You’ll have to referee yourselves she said to them. Seeing Kassandra widening her eyes, she explained that she was getting a ride from Double-J, be sure to thank your Mom for your offer, and good luck with rehearsals.

Thanks said Kassandra. She’s pretty excited. She’s worked a lot with the actor playing Polonius.

That’s great said Annie, turning around fully and walking in the direction of Double-J, hand held on the waist-high horizontal release bar for the metal double-doors that lead out of the cafeteria.

So what’s the deal with Kassandra’s mother? asked Double-J.

She’s in that production of Hamlet we’re going to see next month.

Christ that’s right Double-J said as he opened the glass door leading into the parking lot. He turned his back a moment against the stiff wind whipping pellets of snow in the cold winter night air, then turned forward again. I forgot we were conscripted into going.

Annie ducked her head down as she walked forward, following Double-J’s footsteps. I don’t see what you’re complaining about. We’re getting to go for free.

That’s not — a gust of wind caught in his throat, forcing him to turn against the wind again — the point. I wouldn’t want to see Shakespeare if they paid me.

Coach Dan says there’ll be some good stage fencing.

Who cares? It’s fake, like saying you want to see a fight, and then you go watch a professional wrestling match.

He said Mr. Nestor —

Can we drop this? Double-J said, taking keys out of his jacket as he walked up to his coupe.

Chapter 4.3J

I’ll think about it said Annie, knees on the floor and stuffing the fencing jackets into the canvas sack.

What’s there to think about asked Double-J, standing above her hands on her hips. Coach has a teacher’s union meeting tonight, and with Bernie not being here you can’t bum a ride off his parents.

Annie looked past Double-J, motioned towards Kassandra and Butch. They’re on the other side of the river Double-J said. C’mon, get your stuff together, I’ll take you home.

Just a sec Annie said, nodding. She unflexed her knees quickly, rising sharply and with a bounce on her feet, then turned to where Kassandra and Butch were standing in their street clothes, all fencing equipment now having been put away, yet they faced each other in en garde position, arms extended with index and middle fingers held together and pointed at each other.

(Fencers ready) Annie called. Butch and Kassndra turned their smiles toward her. (Fence!) Butch stepped towards Kassandra (Not so big, only advance or retreat half a step at a time), took another smaller step forward, thrust his front leg forward and extended his arm (Extend first, then lunge), his pantomimic attack blocked by Kassandra (Keep your elbow in), who then retreated (Back leg goes first, then pull the front), Butch following her with another lunge (Arm first!) which was again parried by Kassandra, following this action by extending her arm with its imagined foil at Butch, a small lunge forward propelling the middle finger of her forward arm past Butch’s arm and landing squarely against his chest. (Halt! Attack right, parry-riposte left is Yes, touch left).

Chapter 4.3I

“Still want to fence you tonight,” said Annie, turning to Double-J.

He kept his cigarette balanced between his lips as he spoke, leaning against the brick wall behind him, his left leg bent at the knee and foot propped against the wall. “Not interested,” he said, cigarette bouncing up and down as he spoke.

“Ah come on. We can do sabre if you want.”

Double-J looked down, his disinterest in the conversation as tangible as the winter chill.

A creak from the hinges announced that the door from the kitchen was opening. Annie turned, saw her silver-haired father lean outside, hand grasping the door knob. “Some of your friends are leaving, and your Coach wants to say something first,” he said.

Annie thanked him, said she would be there in a minute, her father nodding in reply and closing the door quickly, as if to protect his house from winter drafts. Annie took a step towards the door, paused, then turned to Double-J.

“You’re our best fencer,” she said. “Not only that, you make everyone else better. Every time you show up to practice, or show up to see our bouts in a tournament, you bring an energy, a focus, that we don’t have when you’re not there. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I just want you to know that what you do, and don’t do, has an impact on all of us.”

Double-J continued to look down. He shrugged.

“Just think about it,” Annie said, opening the door to the kitchen.

Chapter 4.3H

Annie shivered, her fencing jacket not providing nearly enough protection from winter’s chill. Almost reflexively, Jimmy bounced on his heels, and Double-J stomped his feet, the slush underneath splashing heavily.

“The truth for you,” said Jimmy, his smile disappearing into a respectful gaze in Annie’s direction, “is different than the truth for me.” Annie nodded slowly. “It’s not just skin color, or education, or money — that’s got a lot to do with it, but even the kids I went to school with, they and I was different. We talk about the same people, the same experiences, but we couldn’t agree on who or what was good and bad. Nah, peoples is all different, it’s like all of us have this little world in our mind, and the best we can do with each other is visit other worlds. But there’s no meeting of the minds like they talk about, all we can do is be a temporary guest, a visitor in somebody else’s world.” Jimmy lowered his head, raised his hand to his mouth to draw again on his cigarette. A light frosting of snow descended from above, resting wet and white on his head.

“You sound lonely,” Annie said. Jimmy shrugged. “Why’d you move out here?” asked Double-J.

Jimmy turned to him, smiling. “Air’s cleaner, for one thing,” he said, glancing down at his cigarette before tossing it down and extinguishing it against the bricks beneath his feet. “And I knew enough about the world to know that no matter where I went, people were going to ask me what it’s like to be black. Like the two of you just did. Thing is, out here in the country, the questions are easier to answer.” Annie noticed that Jimmy’s accent became more pronounced as he became agitated.

“So to answer your question about fencing, Miss Hutchinson. I don’t fence no more because I don’t want to — it’s that simple. And as for why I choose to stay here” he continued, turning now to Double-J, “this place, this ‘frozen north’ as you call it, that you’re so keen on getting away from — well, I’ve been out there, spent ten years in the Navy, saw the world through the lens of a periscope, and I’ve done seen all I wants to see.”

The metallic sound of a bowl bouncing on a formica counter came from the kitchen doorway. “I’d best be getting back,” Jimmy said, walking briskly past Double-J and Annie.

Chapter 4.3G

“Did you fence in college?” Annie asked.

Jimmy grinned, shook his head, “Didn’t go to college, Miss Hutchinson.” He brought his cigarette up to his mouth, inhaled deeply, the red glare at the tip drawing in and vaporizing the white paper. He brought his hand down, turned his head to the side twisting his mouth in the same direction, exhaled smoke behind him. “Fencing was something I did as a kid. Soon as I got done with school, I started working. Don’t have much time for games anymore.”

“You make time for the things you care about,” said Annie.

Double-J rolled his eyes, turned away from Annie, drew on his cigarette. Jimmy looked at her, still smiling, but noticeably more serious. Finally, he said, “May I speak honestly?”

“Of course. Say what’s on your mind, I’m not afraid of the truth.”

Jimmy laughed, shook his head.

Chapter 4.3F

“I’ll be back in a minute,” said the white-jacketed waiter, his dark skin barely visible in the night air.

Annie held up a hand to him, said “It’s OK,” then turned to Double-J. “You’re the only one I haven’t fenced yet.”

Double-J snorted. “There’s a reason for that,” he said, right arm levering up at the elbow to bring the cigarette to his mouth.

“I’m not letting you chicken out on me.”

“You call it what you want, I’m not taking part in this silly exhibition you’re putting on for your parents. Go ahead and fence Coach Dan, if you really want a bout. Or Jimmy,” he said, waving in the direction of the white-jacketed waiter. Annie turned to him and saw no sign of surprise, no reaction that indicated he found Double-J’s offer unusual. Jimmy exhaled slowly, smoke streaming from his nostrils like a dragon.

“You fence?” asked Annie, hoping she was gauging his reaction correctly.

“Back when I was your age,” Jimmy said. “I know — must have been a long time ago, yes.”

“Where? I mean, I assume it wasn’t any place — local. Oh God,” she said, drawing back and raising a hand to her forehead, “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Double-J uttered a groaning laugh. Jimmy smiled, shook his head. “You’re not the first person to assume I’m not from around here. Probably won’t be the last either. It’s OK, Miss Hutchinson, and you’re right, it wasn’t any place local. The school I went to in Philadelphia had a fencing team. I did it a couple years.”

“Weapon?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Foil, like everyone else. Best event was sabre, like Mr. Johnson here.”

“Christ, call me Double-J.”

Chapter 4.3E

Annie stabbed her gaze at Coach Dan, who shrugged and looked over at Butch and Bernie, who shook their heads in unison.

“He’s leaving.” Annie turned behind her, in the direction of Kassandra’s voice, and asked “He left?”

“No,” Kassandra said. She pointed in the direction of the kitchen.

“He’s in the kitchen?”

“I think he went outside. To smoke. With — the . . . waiter, or whatever he was.”

Annie walked hurriedly through the doorway, across the kitchen, past the rear door into the cold winter night, the noise from the hinges barely stopping before she heard a mocking “Little chilly to be wearing just your fencing jacket” coming from Double-J to her right.

She turned, saw Double-J leaning against the brick wall just outside the doorway, a cigarette dangling between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, held out from his body, the elbow propped against his left hand as he held it across his body. Next to him stood the waiter, white jacket lightly stained from the evening meal’s sauces and seasonings. He held his cigarette between his lips, the red glare of the lit end illuminating his face in the darkness.

The Iliad

I wasn’t ready for “The Iliad” when I first read it as a freshman in college. My intellect was still very adolescent, too easily captivated by the exploits of gods and heroes (a certain Rick Riordan fan had I been born a few decades later) to appreciate the deeper significance of epic. I was stubborn as well, and my paper on fate — an embarassing screed about how the gods were the ones controlling all the action, a silly argument which only received a passing grade due to the dilligence of my research — was proof that the effort of reading Homer’s work was lost on me.

Many years later, after reading hundreds more books and sharpening my critical skills, I can appreciate “The Iliad” for the complex work that it is, a work that can’t be adequately analyzed in a blog post. But individual moments, of which there are so many, can and should be celebrated.

Book Eighteen contains a moving lament from Thetis, the sea-goddess mother of Achilles. Greece’s most powerful warrior Achilles had withdrawn from the assault on Troy back in Book One, and in his absence his dear friend Patrocolus is killed. Thetis knows her son will respond by rejoining the battle, an act that will lead to his violent death (unlike other Homeric heroes, Achilles is given the choice to go back home and live a long peaceful life without honor, or rejoin the battle and perish in glory in the land of Ilium). Achilles has called out to her from his sorrow, and as she prepares to leave her sisters Thetis cries (text below copied from the Richmond Lattimore translation):

Ah me, my sorrow, the bitterness in this best of child-bearing,
since I gave birth to a son who was without fault and powerful,
conspicuous among heroes; and he shot up like a young tree,
and I nurtured him, like a tree grown in the pride of the orchard.
I sent him away with the curved ships into the land of Ilion
to fight with the Trojans; but I shall never again receive him
won home again to his country and into the house of Peleus.
Yet while I see him live and he looks on the sunlight, he has
sorrows, and though I go to him I can do nothing to help him.
Yet I shall go, to look on my dear son, and to listen
to the sorrow that has come to him as he stays back from the fighting.

Perhaps I needed to have children of my own before I could appreciate passages like this, appreciate both the love and sorrow expressed, appeciate how one cannot live without the other. For whatever reason, I can now read “The Iliad” and see beyond the battle, recognize a part of myself in the thoughts and feelings expressed by the humans and the oh-so-human gods.

Chapter 4.3D

Annie turned to Rex, raised a salute towards him, then turned to the members of the dining party. Saw her father, saluted him. Did not see her mother.

Annie put on her mask, crouched down into en garde position, and did something she had not done that evening, something she had not expected to happen, something she certainly felt surprised her coach, something she suspected disapointed her father. She lost. Quickly, decisively, Rex landing his first hit with a lazy lunge that was hardly more than a feint, his second coming off a riposte from her attack that was so poorly planned, so totally telegraphed, that Annie did not recognize her own actions, as if it were Butch or Kassandra or some other novice fencer rather than herself.

“You must be tired,” her silver-haired father called as she shook hands with Rex. Her pony-tail whipped behind her head as she turned to her father and said, “I’m not tired. Where’s Double-J?”