Gray Metal Faces – September 16

An hour later, Dan had returned to his apartment at the Odd-B. The mailroom renovation now in its second month, Dan had developed the habit of glancing down at the floor immediately inside his doorway upon entering; there was nothing waiting for him on this day, but his mind was instantly drawn to the third of the letters he had received the preceding Friday — one he had yet to open.

He walked into the small kitchen area, where a rectangular wooden table, the only furniture that had remained in his possession since his first apartment in St. Louis, was laden with disheveled piles of paper. He had cleared a spot on the table for the large manila envelope from Friday, his address and the return, MAINE CENTRAL SCHOOL BOARD, printed in capital block letters on computer labels. Colleen put me in their system already. He tore open the top of the envelope, tore out the single sheet of twenty-pound paper, turned it over, skipped past the salutation, read the first line. We would like to formally extend . . .

They didn’t want to wait after all, their offer was for this year, not next. Morgenstern, the school’s fencing coach for the past twenty years, would retire next spring; Dan would be assistant coach for the year, take over the next. A good salary, at a school twenty minutes from Skokie, close enough to the town where he grew up to be familiar but distant enough to not be suffocating; teaching the subjects he wanted, taking over a fencing team with a long tradition, with an ideal transition period as well. If Dan had been asked to describe his ideal job offer, it would probably have not equaled this opportunity.

Colleen’s voice over the telephone buzzed into his memory. Dammit, we’ve given you time, Daniel! How much more time do you need?

They’ll never build that bridge. It would be the death of this town.

I know you’re not comfortable making a move right now. But if you stay in your comfort zone, you’re going to miss out on some wonderful opportunities in life. This is one of those opportunities, Daniel. Don’t let it just – go.

He would be back in Illinois, just north of Chicago. Katie had asked him several times if he missed his home town, never accepting his pat “yes and no” response; the closest he’d come to expressing regret would be a jocular complaint about having to take vacation days on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then Katie would challenge him – she really was different, she had an independence, an intellect, a moxiethey probably needed teachers back in Skokie, too. He’d dismiss her arguments with a wave, saying he wouldn’t be comfortable just be another another face in the crowd.

And for years he had been comfortable as a wanderer, never staying in one place too long. Seven years in Bark Bay – nearly twice as long as he’d stayed in any one place since leaving home for college – this wasn’t a coincidence. Fencing had something to do with that, but so had Katie. But Katie was engaged now, to Wayne. Katie would stay in Bark Bay, decorate cakes, start a family, host Thanksgiving for her grandchildren, would die in Bark Bay after a long, happy life. Katie belonged here.

And Dan – he could belong here, should he choose. Many Jews lived in small American towns, as his grandfather would remind him. We are a strong people, Poppa would say, leaning forward for emphasis. We adopt to our surroundings, blending in without losing our identity.

Adapt, that was the key word. It meant survival, yes, that was Poppa’s point of emphasis. From generation to generation, do not let the light go out. But rooted in that word, that concept, was also the concept of change. The Judaism of his youth, from the north side of Chicago – that was not the Judaism he had found in Missouri, was not the Judaism of his friends from Israel, was not the Judaism of the small community he visited during High Holy Days.

It wasn’t just religion, although he had begun to realize that being a good Jew mattered more to him than he would have cared to admit even a few years ago. Sh’ma Yisrael, yes there was that. But there was more – politics, music, art. Fencing.

Laying on top of another pile on the table was a fencing glove, part of the equipment he had brought back with him after Friday’s practice (good luck trying to find a janitor to unlock the storage room that late in the week). Dan picked up the glove, stared at it. He realized he had been attempting all his adult life to be the same person he had been in his youth, had been determined to hold on to what mattered most to him. And those aspects of him could survive, yes – but only if he changed, adapted to his surroundings. He could live in Bark Bay, could still be a Jew, a teacher, a fencing coach – but not the same Jew, the same intellect, the same fencer, he had been in his youth.

He put down the fencing glove, and walked back into the living room of his apartment. He looked at the telephone, inert on the table, a quiet instrument sitting ready to be transformed into a portal to a different world. If he waited long enough Colleen would call again, demanding an answer to the job opening she had arranged on his behalf.

Dan Jacobs, English instructor at Bark Bay High School, coach of the Bark Bay fencing team – Coach Dan picked up the telephone, pushed a button until Colleen’s number displayed on the small screen, pressed Talk. He held the receiver to his ear, heard the distant ringing on the other end. A moment later Colleen would answer, and she would certainly ask if he were ready to make a decision. But he had no intention of making a decision this night; all he wanted was to listen to Colleen, but more importantly, to feel the battle of the conflicting thoughts in his own mind, the impulses to accept the offer or remain battling like two bold fencers, blades dancing between them, their gray metal faces expressionless and powerful.

End of “September”

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