The band finished as Principal Stephens resumed his position behind the microphone stand. A tall man, Stephens never adjusted the height of the stand when addressing the students, preferring instead to lean down while keeping his eyes focused above him, his body contorted like a large seven. A moment later, his voice echoed across the court. “Let’s show that spirit tonight against the Academy, OK?” His fist pumped into the air above him, eliciting slightly more inspired applause by the prospect of eminent dismissal.
“All right. Well, before we conclude today’s assembly, there’s one more thing we have for you.” A groan rose from all corners of the bleachers.
“As you know, our fencing team had a tremendous” (his lips nearly touching the microphone as he bobbed down for emphasis) “season last year, with three competitors at the state tournament. Our fencing coach, Mr. Jacobs – ” Stephens located Dan, pointed in his direction – “you may know him better as our English instructor – he’s a volunteer who’s put in a lot of extra hours to make this team a success, and he’s asked for some time this afternoon to show you this fast-paced, exciting sport. So, without any further ado – your BARK BAY HIGH SCHOOL FENCING TEAM!” If Stephens was embarassed at the near silent response from the student body, he gave no indication.
Dan waved a salute towards Principal Stephens, and stepped forward to a smattering of applause and residual groaning. His team followed, walking swiftly along the north end, their stiff fencing jackets swishing audibly with each step. A few nervous giggles could be heard as the team approached half-court; a voice rose from the junior section – Hey, where’d you get those diapers? – followed by a wave of embarrassed laughter. The team members smiled resignedly at the familiar taunt, as Double-J looked up for the source of the voice. A burly body stood, waved his arms; Double-J recognized Karl, his greasy black hair forming the top edge of a triangle frame to his bearded face. Karl pointed down, Double-J responding by raising his hand to scratch his left temple, then lowering his index finger to his palm, followed by his ring finger and pinky, until only his middle was extended upward.
In the freshmen section, two young girls had been sleeping since the start of the assembly. The first had her head resting on her arms, folded across knees propped up from the row in front of her, the second girl’s head resting on her left shoulder.
An overweight boy in the sophomore section nudged a thinner boy next to him, then pointed to the next to last fencer in the line. “Hey, isn’t that Hugh?” The thin boy shrugged, as the other snapped his sausage fingers. “That’s right, they call him Rune now. Actually he calls himself Rune, he wants his friends to call him Rune, because he writes in his notebook with these fancy letters, he calls them Celtic Runes. You ever see his notebook?” He turned, saw the thin boy was resting his head on his hand, the skin of his cheek rumpled against his fist, his eyes staring with disinterest beyond the court.
As the team reached the center of the court, Dan circled behind the microphone stand, adjusting the height to raise the microphone to his face. “Thank you, Principal Stephens.” He quickly looked around at the sea of disinterested faces that surrounded him, remembering the advice of his youth group leader at temple. Never let your audience refuse to be engaged.
“Seniors!” He raised his hand toward the senior section, the murmuring response reluctant and wary. Dan had been teaching at Bark Bay long enough to know the reaction was perfect for what he’d planned. He lowered his hand, reached with his other towards the section off to the right. “Juniors — don’t tell me you can’t do better than that?” A smattering of applause, a few cheers, whistling; a half-hearted reaction, but one he could work with. He grabbed the microphone, tore it from the stand, twirled and faced the sophomore and freshmen. “Underclassmen, what do you have to say for yourselves?” The opportunity to show up the upperclassmen in any fashion was too tempting for the young teens to resist, their voices rising with their bodies. (The two sleeping girls remained still.) Dan turned to his right, pointed the microphone to the far end of the court. “EIGHTH GRADERS!” Pre-teen voices yelled in their surprised joy at being asked to participate.
Principal Stephens nodded approvingly as energy percolated throughout the stands. Even the players of the football team stood, applauded politely. Meanwhile, gathered around their coach at the center, the four young fencers huddled closely.
Double-J scratched the thin black wires of his hair. “This is embarrassing.”
“What?” Annie waved around her. “This?”
“No.” He pointed at Dan, who saw the motion, and winked, before raising the microphone to his lips.
“Your attention, your attention PLEASE!” His voice boomed across the loudspeakers, the clamor abating. “I now present, for your entertainment pleasure — a DUEL!”
An appreciative roar, mixed with laughter. Double-J bent at the waist, shaking his head, his moaning sigh I wanna puke somehow audible to the team at the center of the court amidst the din of the crowd.
Dan replaced the microphone on its stand, motioned for Rex to join him. The two walked a few yards towards the far end of the court, a few feet away from center; Dan pointed to one of the painted lines on the wood, pulled on Rex’ shoulder, the tall teen’s ear dropping to the middle-aged mouth. “This is your en garde line, OK?” Rex nodded, and Dan stepped away, back towards the team.
Double-J grimaced at Dan’s approach. “He’s really fucking doing this, isn’t he?” Annie turned on him, her face wide with horror; Double-J glared back defiantly, his mind registering a sudden drop in the crowd’s volume. “What — ”
His face widened, hearing his voice over the speakers. He looked at Dan, his smirking head shaking, and Principal Stephens, who glared at him coldly. A look of delight then sprang onto the teen’s face, as he took a step closer to the microphone. “Well that’s some messed-up SHIT, ain’t it?” Another roar of laughter erupted, as Dan lead Double-J towards the near end of the court.
Placing his student along another line on the floor, Dan returned quickly to the microphone stand. “LADIES and GENTLEMEN, this afternoon I present to you a contest, a bout, a FIGHT between two of the best fencers this school has ever seen!” He waved his hand up, and to his right. “To my right, representing the JUNIORS” – he paused, waited for a cheer from the junior section, finally realizing the isolated clapping of hands was all he would receive – “is Rex Ankiel!” His face stiff, Rex lifted his foil towards the junior section, then brought his weapon down with an audible swoosh that generated some appreciative gasps.
“And to my left, representing our SENIORS – ” Dan swung towards the other end, this time not waiting for a response – “we have John Johnson, or, as may know him – Double J!” The burly teen rolled his eyes, as a piercing cry of FUCK YEAH! shot from where Karl had been sitting in the senior section.
Dan sensed he needed to regain the crowd’s focus. “I will be officiating today’s contest, aided by two other members of our team – Annie Hutchinson, and Rune Banks,” pointing to them as he called their names. At their coach’s direction, Rune positioned himself behind and to the right side of Rex, with Annie taking a similar position behind Double-J; as they got into position, Dan moved the microphone stand so that he could speak into it while standing nearly equidistant from the competitors. His voice shot into the microphone as if he were giving it a command – “Let’s get this battle underway. Fencers, salute!”
Visibly sighing, Double-J lifted his foil, the hilt reaching his chin, then perfunctorily brought his weapon forward and down. Rex extended his foil high over his head, and brought it swooshing down diagonally across and in front of his body, following through with a deep bow in Double-J’s direction. As if recoiling, Double-J tilted his head back, generating a low laugh from the senior section, then took his mask from its location under his left armpit, placed it quickly on top of his head, pulled down on the bib, the gray metal face covering the flesh of his own. A moment later, Rex’s mask was secured as well.
The teens extended their foils, red tips aimed at the other, and Dan pointed a hand, palm down, toward each. “Ready?” Rex nodded enthusiastically, Double-J offering a resigned shrug that generated a few chuckles. Dan smiled, the moment he had negotiated with Stu finally arriving, as he brought his palms together in front of his body — “Fence!”
The contrast between the two competitors became immediately apparent, Double-J charging forward aggressively, Rex stopping after one step and choosing to wait for his opponent to arrive. The burly teen’s foil flashed forward, the weapon’s blade catching a light from the ceiling, then colliding with Rex’s, the thin twins of metal clanging loudly across the court, drawing sounds of surprise from the crowd.
In the freshman section, the girl who had been sleeping with her head against the shoulder of her companion, woke with a start, her eyes quickly focusing on the center of the court.
Rex had taken a step backwards after blocking Double-J’s attack, but Double-J pursued, his second attack coming with an additional fury fueled from his previous failure. Rex deflected the attack again, this time responding not with a step back but an attack of his own, the red tip of his weapon flying forward and landing on the chest of Double-J’s jacket, the blade bending sharply into a low parabola.
Behind Rex, Rune raised his hand high and straight. What sounded almost like a shout of excitement came from the student body.
“Halt!” Dan’s cry cut across the large room an instant before it carried across the loudspeakers. “As referee, it’s my job to decide who initiated the attack.” He allowed his pedagogical instincts to take over. “In foil fencing, the person who attacks first has what we call right of way” (not enough time for the traffic intersection metaphor) “and the opponent needs to block the first attack before making their own attack. HERE, just now, the fencer on my left”– Dan motioned toward Double-J — “attacked first, but it may have been blocked by the fencer on my right” — pointing now to Rex. “In fencing, we call a block a parry. After the attempt to parry, the fencer on my right then attacked — in fencing, we call that a riposte,” Dan pausing between syllables, RE-POST. “It’s important to know this order of attacks, because the first hit stops the action. Now, it’s time to check with my judges. Judge to my left — ” pointing to Annie — “did the first attack land?”
“No,” Annie’s voice clear to all, requiring no amplification.
“I agree, the first attack was indeed blocked, or parried.” Dan turned toward Rune. “Judge to my left — the riposte, after the parry — was there a hit?”
Rune opened his mouth, closed it quickly, then nodded aggressively.
“And I confirm!” Dan raised his right arm, his left hand pointing palm-down toward Double-J. “We have a touch, from the left. The score is one” — pointing to Rex — “to zero.”
Light applause rose from the audience, with slightly more enthusiasm coming from the juniors.