Orderly Evidence

[A response to today’s prompt from the Daily Post:Sparkling or Still]

After thanking Clarisse for her interest and wishing her a pleasant evening, Dan Jacobs disconnected the call. He’d promised to call her back Monday morning, giving him three full days to consider her school’s offer. A very good offer, one he’d all but expected after their first conversation three months ago. But what surprised him, now that the offer was real, was how tempted he was to take it.

He scanned the room that served as the dining area in his tiny apartment, and blinked when realizing this evening was Thursday. The room was nearly immaculate, the tops of tables and counters empty and clean, chairs pushed in, not even a dustball visible on the floor. This wasn’t the way he remembered it looking towards the end of past weeks, when after several evenings of rushed meals before evening activities resulted in piles of dishes and cookware (some clean, some not), newspapers and mail (some junk, some not), jackets and scarves and gloves and shirts and other laundry all scattered across the room, as if he had just been ransacked by a frantic thief.

When had he become so organized? If this were Saturday morning, or Sunday afternoon, after he’d found an hour or two to restore order, the scene before him now would have been right and good. But to look like this, on a Thursday? This, he knew, was a statement.

After seven years of life in this quiet small town, he had changed. The energy and ambition of his youth, that drive he still felt, but he was losing the ability to express it. He might still yearn for an active life outside his tiny apartment — but he had grown comfortable moving at a slower pace, one which would keep him in his apartment more evenings than not.

The call he’d just had, the offer — that was his opportunity to move back to the more active life which he assumed was more his nature. But the orderly evidence of the room in front of him now suggested otherwise.

The Perch Sitter, Part 2

[Continuing my entry for this week’s writing challenge from The Daily Post, Overheard]

A girl with hair nearly as black as The Bird’s (although styled in a way that said thank you very much for noticing) pointed at Teri from across the table and said, in a horrified tone that grew soft only when she reached the adjective, that she’d heard that tall Indian boy was on the fencing team.

“You mean that one who lives in that trailer, on the county road?” Teri’s plastic lips curled in disgust. “That family lives off the state — where’s he getting the money for fencing clothes, or uniform, or whatever they call it?”

The school owns our equipment, The Bird yelled silently from her perch at the end of the table. And we call them jackets, you dumb bitch.

“And that John Johnson creep? He still on the team?” It was only when Teri abruptly corrected the faceless voice — “They call him Double-J” — that The Bird recognized the name.

A few more names were bounced around the table — Ketterling, Micky, Juan, none of whom The Bird remembered hearing about at practice the night before. Teri seemed amused — “God, so what you’re telling me is that in addition to being stuck up, the fencers are a bunch of losers and freaks?” — then suddenly waved a hand across the table, and all talking stopped immediately. The Bird scanned Teri’s face, saw she was staring intently past their table, a bemused smirk on her face, then looked in the direction Teri was staring.

The greasy-haired boy she remembered being called Rune (yes, that was one of the names just thrown out) had been walking past the table, but slowed as he felt nearly a dozen eyes staring at him. A worried, annoyed look came over his face. “Wh — ” his voice caught in his throat, and Teri laughed loudly, soon joined by the rest of the table.

Rune frowned, shook his head, and walked past the table. The Bird looked up at the analog clock in the cafeteria — one minute before first bell.

The Bird stood quickly, felt many eyes on the table turning towards her now, but she ignored them with the same ease with which they had ignored her until this moment, her silent departure from her perch, certain never to return.

The boy called Rune had nearly settled into the bench seat at a table on the far end of the cafeteria, across from another boy, the fat one from practice last night, when The Bird approached their table. Excuse me, she asked, but Rune did not acknowledge her. She tapped his shoulder, and he turned his acne-scarred face in her direction.

“Yeah?” His look of agitation faded as recognition crept onto his face.

I would like to sit here, The Bird said.

The Perch Sitter, Part 1

[The latest weekly writing challenge from The Daily Post, Overheard, is about the guilty pleasure of eavesdropping. I’m so inspired by this prompt, I’m going to run with this for another day or two after today.]

“Ain’t she on the fencing team?” Terri scanned the faces of the other girls at the table. A flurry of voices erupted in discordant answer, the majority of the opinion that yes, there was a fencing team at Bark Bay High School and that yes, Annie Hutchinson (who they all knew wouldn’t want to be seen DEAD with any of them) was a member.

Sitting at the end of the long cafeteria table, outside the rectangle of conversation, The Bird remained silent, as usual. Last night had only been her first practice.

Terri had taken a small tube of ChapStick from her jacket, had finished saturating her lips, which glimmered plastically. “Figures.” She licked her plastic lips. “Fencing’s a sport for stuck-up people.”

A giggle rippled through the table. The Bird sat silently, looked up at the large analog clock above the kitchen wall. Six minutes until first bell. She heard a voice say that she saw them getting ready for practice last night, after school.

“Where?” Terri had taken out her ChapStick again, and after hearing that the practice was in the cafeteria, she pointed the tube down at the floor, her eyes wide. “HERE? In this smelly place?” Another ripple of giggling. “Well, stands to figure. Guess they’re too good to practice in the gym with the other teams.”

The Bird wanted to explain that no, Mr. Jacobs (the members of the team called him Coach Dan, but she wasn’t on the team so he was still Mr. Jacobs to her) told her last night that the gym was reserved for the basketball teams, and in fact he said he liked using the cafeteria, something about the pattern of the black and white floor tiles.

But The Bird knew she’d be ridiculed if she spoke, not only for admitting to practicing with the fencers but merely for the sake of saying anything at all. None of the girls at the table had ever invited her to speak, and she had witnessed, from her comfortably lonely perch at the end of the cafeteria table, how girls who violated the social protocol of the group were treated.

Besides, she found a certain liberty in being ignored. Better to let the conversation run its course, and learn what she could.

The Unlocking

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post is about finding a key that provides access to a previously inaccessible place ]

“Where’d you find that?” Acne cysts erupted on Rune’s face as he glared at The Bird with incredulous accusation.

I don’t know what you mean, the slender girl replied. The two teens were standing in the frost-crusty grass outside the gymnasium entrance of Bark Bay High School. She heard her soft voice grow nearly shrill as she demanded to know why Rune was so agitated.

The boy pointed to her right hand. “Your key.” The Bird looked down at her hand, and yes, there was a key, golden and gleaming and absurdly long, looking like something she’d seen in a comic book. She wanted to ask how she had found the key, but heard herself asking Rune what door the key would open.

“It’s not for a door.” She looked up and Rune was gone, Coach Dan was looking down at her with his short curly hair and beard and they weren’t outside anymore but in the cafeteria, the tables were unfolded and people were eating even though it was time for fencing practice, Annie was on a table practicing her footwork (advance advance retreat double-advance, lunge) but kids kept eating like she wasn’t there.

Whose key is it, The Bird asked, but Coach Dan frowned and shook his head. “The key doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s not even real. See?” The Bird looked down and the key wasn’t there, her hand was gone too and in its place was a glove, the glove from the fencing team bag, the one she wore at practice. Was her hand in the glove? She sent a mental command to her hand, if you’re there make a fist, and then she saw the fingers in the glove curl up and the thumb close on them, and The Bird heard herself saying Yes.

“Anyone seen the key?” Rex’s long thin body was standing next to The Bird, so she looked up and fifty miles up she saw him holding a squirrel, who was eating an acorn, not noticing that Rex was eating its tail. The Bird raised her hand, showed Rex her glove, but he looked away and swallowed the squirrel, whole, uncomplaining.

“He said it wasn’t real.” The Bird recognized Double-J’s gruff voice the instant before he appeared before her. “For once, Coach knows what he’s talking about.”

So why is it in your pocket, The Bird asked. He looked at her in rage, then ripped his down jacket, the key falling to the cafeteria floor as he disappeared.

The Bird reached down to pick up the key, but her hand passed through it. A hologram, she said.

“No it isn’t.” Suddenly Annie was in front of her, key held in her outstretched palms, like she was offering it to The Bird. “Take it.”

But it’s not mine, said The Bird. Coach Dan grabbed the key from Annie, pointed it at The Bird as he crouched down into en garde position. He advanced on her, and The Bird retreated. “The mistake you keep making — ” advance advance — “is thinking you need to find the door that will be opened by this key.” He extended his arm, and the gleaming key of gold bore down on her chest, her arms could not move to stop it. “But it’s not for that kind of lock.”

The key struck her chest, exploding in sunshine as it penetrated painlessly, and after Coach Dan and his hand and all her friends on the fencing team and the cafeteria all faded into the black of her subconscious as she opened her eyes to wake, The Bird saw a final image from her dream, the key turning slowly in her chest.

The Waiting Beta

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Waiting Room]

Rex extended his foil in a line running high above his vanquished opponents head. His arm was barely thicker than his foil; to Rune, standing at the end of the strip, the weapon and arm seemed like a telescope, projecting out of the observatory of Rex’s body.

Rex and his opponent completed their salute, and met briefly at the center of the strip to shake hands. A moment later, he joined Rune at the end of the strip.

“Know what I noticed during your bout?” As he spoke, Rune reached behind Rex, helped unclip him from the cord reel. Not knowing how to respond, Rex waited for Rune to continue.

“You never attacked.” As the reel pulled the cord into itself, Rune held the plug at the end, bending down and finally releasing when the plug was nearly at rest. “Everything you did was off a parry-riposte. I didn’t notice until you got the second touch, and I was like, that was a parry-riposte, same as the first one. Then I started looking for it, and after you got to four I was like, is he ever gonna attack himself? But you didn’t.”

Rex had folded the top of his long frame down towards his legs, retrieved his purple plastic water bottle from the floor, and was now unfolding his body. “Didn’t need to.” He flipped the gray cover of the bottle, drank swiftly. “Fenced Horty a few times, he’s real quick. Good blade work too. But he’s impatient, like a lot of fencers — likes to be the alpha, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure.” Rune’s nod was less an affirmation than an invitation for the tall teen to continue.

“Sometimes it pays to be the alpha dog, lead the conversation with your opponent. Other times it’s better to play the beta, let your opponent take the lead, wait for him to make the mistakes. I’ve tried going toe-to-toe with Horty before, and he usually outblades me when I play that game. What I learned, what you saw today — that was my beta game.” The wintery sunlight filtering through the gray windows seemed to find Rex’s broad smile. “And it worked.”

The Doppelganger’s Offer

[For today’s Daily Post prompt, Good Tidings, the challenge is to describe a meeting between the same person ten years apart, with the older self sharing the most challenging, most rewarding, and most fun things the younger has to look forward to.]

“It’s someplace in southern Ohio.” The young woman’s voice recited a town name Dan didn’t recognize. “They say it’s almost two hours from Cincinnati. Talked to one guy who’s from there, said there’s some ‘biggish’ towns that are closer, but I didn’t recognize any of the names he mentioned.”

“I see.” Dan sighed, collected his thoughts before responding further. He couldn’t help feeling, again, that this person seemed like decade-younger doppelganger of himself. Life-long city resident; education degree from a small liberal arts college (she even fenced, for crying out loud); five years of teaching in urban school systems; professional ambition still strong, but partially mitigated with frustration and stress. And an offer nearly identical to the one he’d received from Bark Bay a decade ago, a teaching position with a good possibility of tenure, in a community that supported education.

The details were different, but the situations were effectively the same: a good opportunity, in the middle of nowhere.

“Go for it.” The words seemed to erupt reflexively from his mouth, were said with more conviction than he actually felt. “It’s not going to be easy — ” the memory of fresh savory bagels came to his mind —  “there’s a lot of things you take for granted now that just won’t be there. The slowness will drive you crazy at times, it’ll feel like you’re in a checkout line with a trainee cashier and a confused shopper.”

“Eew.”

“But there’s a tradeoff to that slower pace of life. Parents, they’ll be more likely to spend time with their kids, your students. And school politics, that’ll still be there, but it’s on a smaller scale, you can get your arms around it.”

“And the kids?” The voice sounded doubtful. “They any different?”

“Don’t believe what you hear. Small-town kids aren’t any smarter, or better behaved, or ambitious than the ones you work with now. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy — ” the part of him that hadn’t liked his tone earlier let down its guard — “but you’ll have a chance to teach in ways you can’t now.”

Rabbits

[Today’s NaBloPoMo Prompt is a question — do you enjoy growing old or do you fight against it?]

“Nah, go ‘head.” The tone of Rex’s voice perfectly expressed the passive annoyance of the car’s occupants, as Double-J pressed the cigarette lighter on his dashboard, an unlit cigarette dangling lightly between his lips.

The Bird asked Double-J if smoking ever made him run out of breath when fencing. Double-J took the cigarette from his mouth, and shot a glare up at The Bird’s reflection in his rear-view mirror. “What, you been talking to Annie?”

No, the slender girl replied. I just know my grandmother —

“Your grandmother fenced?” The Bird did not reply. “In case you haven’t noticed, ladybird, I only do saber, and saber matches are quick.” He waved the unlit cigarette with his right hand swiftly, nearly hitting Rex, uttering a terse whoosh with each wave. “And most tournaments, there’s only enough people in saber for one pool, then a couple DEs.”

tok. The handle of the cigarette lighter sprung from the dashboard. Double-J put the cigarette back into his mouth, grabbed the lighter, lit the cigarette end, placed the lighter back in the dashboard. Then took the lit cigarette out, and smiled sarcastically up at The Bird’s reflection. “And don’t get me started on what the doctors say. Seems to me, if we were really worried about living as long as possible we’d be better off eating like rabbits. Problem is, who wants to live like that? If we got a choice between a long, boring, vegetable-eating life — ” he pointed the lit cigarette at the rear-view mirror — “or enjoying life, regardless of the risk — well, I think you see what decision I’ve made.”

A Piece of Pizza Pie

[Switching to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge, Pie, for today’s entry]

“Would you like some pie?” Standing behind the green tablechothed table, the black man in the gray cook’s jacket lifted a round metal lid, revealing its contents to Butch on the other side of the table.

Butch looked down at the revealed serving plate, then looked up at the man, catching the name, JIMMY, inscribed on a patch sew on to his left breast. “Where’s the pie?”

Jimmy smiled. “It’s pizza.” Butch glanced down again and saw the tomato sauce, oozing white cheese, green sprinkles of spices, and a thick roll of crust along the perimeter.

“It’s Chicago style.” Butch recognized the voice of Paul Barnes, Rune’s father. “Deep dish, sometimes called it stuffed pizza back in college. Squisito’s the only place I know around here that makes it. You should try it — ” Paul tapped Butch’s amble belly — “looks like you’d appreciate it.”

“Oh!” Butch blinked, looked back at Jimmy. “So why’d you call it a pie?”

Jimmy raised his eyebrows and slowly opened his mouth, but Paul spoke first. “Doesn’t matter what the hell you call it, so long as it tastes good.”

“But it does matter.” The rotund teen glared back at the equally out-of-shape middle-aged man with uncharacteristic indignation. “You’re supposed to call things what they are, not like something else.”

“It’s just what they call it in Chicago.” Butch responded to Jimmy’s gentle explanation with a look of wild confusion.

“But we’re not in Chicago.”

“OK.” There was only a hint of humor in Paul’s indignant response, as he jerked his thumb without looking over at Jimmy. “So tell the man you’d like some PIZZA, and I’m sure he’ll know what you mean.”

“But it’s not pizza, it’s pie.”

“Then have some f– ” Paul swallowed — “PIE!

Jimmy watched the argument with confusion on his face, his eyes darting between Butch and Paul like he was watching a tennis match between scuba divers.

Butch frowned. “I don’t want any pizza.” He looked back at Jimmy. “Is there any pie?”

Jimmy nearly dropped the metal cover on the table, then quickly escorted Butch to the dessert table.

Commitments

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: anything that includes “a speeding car, a phone call, and a crisp, bright morning.” OK then … ]

“When has he ever not been there?” Coach Dan forced a smile as he continued driving. “And he said he’d get Rex there by close of epee registration at 10:30 — Double-J’s not one to make commitments he doesn’t intend to keep.”

“Commitments? You mean, like being there for your teammates?” Not seeing a reaction from her coach, Annie resumed looking out the driver’s side window, and squinted as the autumn sunlight of the crisp, bright morning struck her face.

Sitting in the back seat between Rune on her left and Butch on her right, The Bird asked if foil always started before epee and sabre, and when Rune said yes, she asked why. Rune hummed, then his eyes brightened. “You know, probably because it was the first event in fencing. It’s tradition. There’s a lot of tradition in this sport, that’s why they still use so many French words.” Coach Dan glanced up at Rune’s reflection in the rear-view mirror, and smirked involuntarily.

Butch started to ask nervously if he needed to learn French, when a sharp metallic chirp erupted from the front seat. Annie fumbled through the pockets of her down jacket as the chirp repeated, and by the time she finally located her phone she was too desperate to answer to check the caller ID.

“Hello?” SEE YA. The voice from the speaker was loud enough for everyone to hear, and came a second before they heard the roar of the engine behind them, pebbles flying from the speeding car’s tires as it passed, then cut abruptly back into their lane, the rear fenders of Double-J’s coupe missing the front of Coach Dan’s sedan by inches. And as the coupe barreled away from them, a right hand rose from the driver’s side, a left from the passenger’s, and waved.

One

Sunday’s tournament in Canada was my first in over six months, but my experience was still very much like it had been in past competitions. Started nervous and tentative, and became even more so when I saw the youth and speed of my competitors. Responded by trying to go faster, which is always a mistake for me; my speed’s good enough for competition, but if I make it the basis for my approach, if I try to match the speed I see in my opponents, I’m not going to have success.

Coach tells me I’m better at being a thoughtful second in command, not an alpha dog. Let my opponents be the alphas; use my analytical skills to counter their speed.

Lost all six of my pool bouts, which really wasn’t that big of a surprise but, considering the lack of skill I saw in a couple of my opponents, a little disappointing. My coach (who had competed in a different event the day before at the same tournament) was with me the entire time, and kept telling me to get a better angle on my extensions — arm wider than my body, thumb rotated out.

Fortunately my opponent in the first DE didn’t have the speed I saw in the pools, so I was able to relax, and focus on coach’s advice. And as the bout progressed, I saw it working — I was hitting with my lunges and ripostes more than I was missing. A great bout with a fun opponent; we tied at 13, and got nailed with a remise off a missed a riposte. But this time, I kept myself from panicking; my approach in this bout had been working, and I wasn’t going to change with the bout on the line. Snuck in a disengage to even the score at 14; my opponent and I returned to our starting lines, and saluted each other. “Great bout,” I tell him. He agrees — and laughs when I follow with “But I’m going to get this next touch.”

We meet at the center (keep the arm wide), and I catch his lunge; I riposte, not sure whether I land it, and we hit each other with remises. The referee calls halt, and as I look at him I have no idea how he’ll call it. Guess my first riposte landed, because I get the touch.

So I get my one victory. And what make this more significant than the others, was my ability to implement my coach’s instructions. In other words, I learned something this weekend, something I can’t say that I did in my bouts earlier this year.