Gray Metal Faces – September 1

The fourth Friday

“Showtime, folks.” Leaning forward, right forearm resting across the leg he’d propped onto a wooden bench, Daniel Jacobs spoke to the locker room behind him. “Cheerleaders are on after the Loggers Go Rolling to Victory Once More, then we’re on. Suit up.”

The Bark Bay High School marching band’s performance muffled past the room’s concrete walls, tee da-da tee da-da tee tee-tah, tee-DA tee-DA, as four teenage bodies, stiff from inactivity and boredom, began stirring. Dan had come to expect and tolerate long football rallies after seven years of teaching at the school, yet today’s had gone noticeably longer. He stood upright, scratched short curls of full black hair that made him look much younger than thirty-four, then turned with a yawn towards his students.

They had sat along two narrow wooden benches in a near corner, four large khaki sacks and one blue duffel, narrow and long, loosely assembled like kindling on the floor in front of them. tee-DA tee-DA. The teen closest to the corner stood and stretched, long lean limbs unfurling like a sail, his hands nearly reaching the overhead lights. The teen next to him remained seated, meaty hands scratching thin black wires of hair as he grumbled, inaudibly but with unmistakable profanity. Along the other bench, another teen tied long brown hair into a tight pony-tail behind her head, as the greasy-haired youth next to her yawned and wiped his hair off a forehead pocked with acne.

“You do know — ” the muffled voice as dark as the hair he continued to scratch — “there’s no way this is gonna work.” The pony-tailed teen frowned down at him.

Dan bent at the waist, picked up one of the khaki sacks. “Success is nothing but a measurement against criteria, my friend. And the sole criterion for today, is to have you and Rex fence a couple touches.” He opened the sack, reached a hand inside. “I give my spiel about practice next Tuesday, and we’re done.”

A groaning laugh emanated from beneath the hands. “Seems to me that, if six new people show up next practice, we’re done.”

“Double-J — ”

“It’s all right, Annie.” Dan waved in the teen’s direction. “No, we’re not going to have a full squad after today’s demo. It’s the first step, on a long journey.”

“You really don’t think we have time for more than one bout?” The question from Annie clearly a plaintiff volunteer.

Dan shook his head. “Stu gave us ten minutes for this demo, and I need a few of those to talk about the team, so the only bout we’ll have time for is between Rex and Double-J. I’ll direct; Annie, you and Rune will be judges. But I want everyone in uniform, even myself. We need to look like a team out there. Here ” with a flick of Dan’s wrist, he lifted a broad cloth of linen from the sack, tossed it towards Rex’s long arms – “try this one.”

Rex caught the object with his right hand, stretched it with his left. It was a waist-high jacket, all white, the torso covering the entire front and back, two arm-length sleeves dangling limply from its sides. The front extended down into a triangle covering the groin, ending at a narrow strip of plastic, its other end forming a loop at the legless bottom and connecting to the back. Rex nodded, flipped the jacket over, then pulled down on a zipper that ran the length of the rear.

“Hey, I got an idea!” The greasy-haired teen who called himself Rune approached Dan with an exuberant smile. “If we wanna put on a good show, how ‘bout we make this more dramatic?”

Thrusting his hand back into the sack, Dan shot back a glance full of suspicion. “Explain.”

“Y’ know how you’re always making fun of stage fencing, the stuff in the swashbuckler movies?” Rune’s face erupted in delight as he twisted his body and bounced into a crouch, right arm threatening Dan with an invisible weapon. “ON GUARD!” As if prompted, Rex dropped the jacket that had been tossed to him, challenged Rune with a stance of equally mock menace. With a giggly smile, Rune thrust his body forward, the weapon of his right arm flying at Rex, who blocked the blow and countered with his own sweeping attack, hyperbolically wide and high, more dramatic than effective. The two teens giggled as they continued their mock battle.

“Banks – ” Double-J had stopped scratching his hair, looked up at the two playful combatants with weary eyes – “you’re pretty much proving why we didn’t let you compete last year.”

Rune stopped, showing visible annoyance at being addressed by his last name, then faced Dan. “I dunno. You’re always telling us that stage fencing makes for a good show, but forget about it on the strip. Well, I dunno – since what we’re doing here is putting on a show, why not?”

Rex nodded. “Makes sense to me. Y’know, you already said this wasn’t gonna be a real bout, and if that’s the case, why not make it, you know, totally Errol Flynn.”

Before Dan could reply, Annie stepped between Rune and Rex. “I don’t like it. We need people who are interested in the sport, not theatrics. We don’t need any more Craig Evans’ on this team.”

Double-J, the only person in the room who remained seated, leaned back on the bench, tilted his forehead towards Annie. “Seems to me that for once, I gotta agree with Annie.” He pointed at Rune. “Her boyfriend – ”

“We’re not dating.” Double-J laughed at Annie’s retort, as Rune made his best effort not to blush.

“OK then!” Dan clapped his hands. “I can’t ask any of you to fence in a manner I teach against, it’s that simple. If we’re going to attract fencers, we’re going to do it with real fencing.” tee-DA tee-DA.

“Hey Coach?” To the majority of the Bark Bay High School student body, Dan Jacobs was Mr. Jacobs, English teacher. But during Tuesday after-school practices or weekend tournaments, he was just Coach, or more commonly, Coach Dan.

“How can I help you, my friend?” Coach Dan tilted his head back to look up at Rex, the only student, past or present, who was taller than he.

“Y’know how you said you could, y’know, ride me home tonight, if I needed?”

Coach Dan blinked, snapped his fingers, forced himself not to correct Rex. “Yes, yes. I take it Double-J isn’t available.”

“Lefty needs me at the shop tonight.” Leaning forward from the bench, Double-J yawned. “Soon as we’re done doing whatever it is you think we should be doing.”

Coach Dan touched Rex on his right arm, pointed to the sacks in the center of the room. “Get everyone suited up.” Last year he relied on Myles, the captain, to prepare the team. But Myles had graduated, gone to State, and there was no captain yet. Barely a squad.

“So, Coach – ” an expectant look on Rex’s thin face – “that ride, is it, y’know, OK?”

“Of course!” Rex’s family lived in a trailer on the other side of town, but Coach Dan knew Rex’s bus route would get him there a full thirty minutes later than his younger sisters, and his mother was too sick to care for them on her own. The family lived on the edge of a knife, and Rex being home was important.

Home. He reflexively tapped the phone in the pocket of his red track pants, remembering the text he had received from his apartment complex’s custodian. Three letters had arrived today, were waiting for him at the Odd-B, not junk mail but clearly personal letters. Dan suspected the identity of one, with more than a touch of regret, but the other two? His mother? Or could Colleen really have sent him the offer already?

Dan shook his head, reached down into the khaki sack again. A moment later, he retrieved another white jacket, tossed it towards Double-J. “Try this one, hot-shot.”

The burly teen let the jacket land on his head, then fall to the floor. Double-J smoothed his wiry hair onto his scalp, then looked down at the jacket, his dark moustache twisting liking an enraged centipede as his mouth contorted in a contemptuous scowl. “You’re joking, right?”

“Not at all, my friend.” Dan’s terse response signaled his students that today would not be like practice, where he welcomed and encouraged open dialogue. “It’s the cleanest jacket we have that’s close to your size.” He raised his hands to the ceiling, a motion he often employed in the classroom to command attention. “I want us looking as sharp as possible for today’s demo. I don’t like to admit it any more than any of you — ” he nodded to Rex, then Double-J, finally to Annie and Rune — “but first impressions matter.” tee-DA tee-DA.

“We get it, Jacobs.” Double-J picked the jacket off the floor like it was a used towel. “Myles and his groupies graduated last year, so our team’s half the size it was. Seems to me, if we don’t recruit new members through this demo, Stu’s gonna drop what little funding we have.” Double-J thrust his right arm through the jacket’s sleeve. “But you do realize – ” his right leg stepping through the jacket’s bottom strap – “that most of the people out there haven’t bathed this week, so this fabricated demonstration of cleanliness might actually backfire?”

The other three students laughed, and Coach Dan responded with a smile and nod. A fluorescent light flickered and buzzed overhead. tee-DA tee-DA. A moment later, both Rex and Double-J were fully jacketed, the two other teens securing their back zippers.

Dan retrieved two additional jackets from the sack, as the marching band finished with a flourish, ta-tee-ta ta-tee-ta ta, TA! The fluorescent light flickered, buzzed. Dan retrieved his own jacket from the bench on which he had previously propped his leg, and stepped through its strap. Unlike the others, his had a covered zipper in the front, along his left side. Dan grunted with discomfort as he lifted the zipper up to his neck.

Double-J snorted. “Seems to me you gotta lay off the bagels and lox, Jacobs.”

“Would that I could find any in this town.” Dan walked stiffly over to the other khaki sack, larger and bulkier than the one containing the jackets, its contents seeming to groan as Dan opened it brusquely. “These should work.” Dan pulled out a mask, a large gray oval covering its face, a fabric bib at the bottom front and a metal handle protruding from the top of the back. “Might be a little big – ”

“We get it, Coach.” Double-J took the mask from Dan impatiently. “But it looks good. Guess we don’t want anyone to think our equipment actually gets used.”

Dan gestured for Rune to pick up the duffel bag. This contained the team’s weapons – about a dozen foils, blades thin and flexible, the circular hilts covered with visible dents and flaking chrome; three epees, with stiffer, triangular blades and larger hilts; and two sabres, with their flat blades and open hilt.

As he knelt down and looked over the foils with Rex, Double-J looked up in Dan’s direction. “I know what the answer is, but I’ll ask anyway – why have the two of us fence foil, when we don’t even compete with those weapons?”

Annie answered before Coach Dan could reply. “Because you really are our two best fencers. And besides, since none of us competes in epee, Rex would have a really unfair advantage – we’d have the same problem if we let you fence sabre.” Dan nodded in satisfied agreement, before reminding both Double-J and Rex to choose gloves.

The sound of applause rose from the gymnasium. Dan looked at his team members, all dressed in their jackets, Rex and Double-J with gloves, foils and masks. Four students – four. Four? Four. Micki had promised to be here, said she might even bring Coy, but she was late, and Dan knew that meant she wasn’t coming. Juan’s parents had abruptly refused, Big Paul had rejected by way of refusing to commit, Little Paul and OK hadn’t responded to any of the messages he’d left with their parents. Four.

“You guys look good.” He ran his right hand down the length of his jacketed torso, feeling for the first time that afternoon he was not just Dan Jacobs, or Mr. Jacobs, but also, and more importantly, Coach Dan. “Let’s go.”

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