Gray Metal Faces – October 2

Retreat. Push back from the ball of your front foot, while lifting the hell and back foot just enough to clear the floor. Don’t jump back — keep your advances and retreats samll and quick, to keep your balance and allow you to change direction quickly.

Four pairs of sneakered feet continued to drill on the floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria. Stu had been surprised four years ago at Dan’s request to use the cafeteria for fencing practices, fully expecting an argument over a free afternoon in the already overbooked gym. No, give me the cafeteria! All we need is to have the tables and benches rolled up against the wall. We could even do it ourselves, sweep it too. Although such records were not kept at Bark Bay, Dan was certainly the first coach of any sport to prefer the polished linoleum of the cafeteria over the treated wood flooring of the gym.

The tiles — they’re perfect! The cafeteria floor was predominantly black, with long rectangles of white tiles arrayed in five rows and three columns, the roll-up tables and benches arranged around each rectangle. Dan had counted the one-foot white squares and confirmed his instinctual impression — at six wide and eight long, each of the fifteen white rectangles on the cafeteria floor was almost the exact width and half the length of a regulation fencing strip. And with eight squares of black tile separating each rectangle, he could comfortably (and more importantly, safely) hold up to five fencing bouts simultaneously. With a few strips of masking tape that could be easily removed at the end of practice, Dan had a nearly perfect environment for his fencing practices.

Large windows on the west side of the room let in the autumnal sun, which splashed diagonally across the floor and illuminated the east side of the large room, where the tables and benches were rolled up against the wall, visible and aromatic evidence of that day’s lunch menu evident in the dusty grime of their black wheels suspended in the air. The northern end of the floor ended in a short wall, the front of a small stage; large windows along the southern end, covered with metal grates after lunch, led to the kitchen. Above the kitchen windows on the southern wall was the cafeteria’s most notable feature — a large analog clock, a literal relic of an earlier time (the clock had been transferred from the town’s previous high school building when the current school was erected), its red second hand ticking audibly when the cafeteria was empty.

One of the two large metal doors on the southeast corner opened, KA-KLAK. A slender body wearing glasses that seemed costume-party large walked into the cafeteria. Dan raised his hand, stopping the team’s drill, then turned in the direction of the newcomer.

“Rex! Glad you could make it, my friend.” There was a hint of disappointment in Dan’s voice; Rex was one of only two seniors from last year’s team, and with Juan having already declared he was unlikely to participate much this year, Dan needed Rex to be not just a fencer, but a leader.

The smile on Rex’s face seemed forced, as if he were embarrassed to enjoy the greeting he’d received. “Sorry I’m late, coach.” A Wiffle-bat arm pointed in the general direction of the school’s office. “Got a note that I needed to call home.”

Dan’s brow furrowed in thought; practice had begun half an hour ago, and Rex was rarely late. “Everything OK?”

Rex removed his jacket, his thin frame resembling a coat hanger. “It’s fine — going to be fine. It’s just, you know, kind of complicated.”

“Only time you use the word complicated — ” Annie’s arms folded across her chest — “is when Family Services comes by.”

Shamed annoyance scowled across Rex’s face. “It’s going to be fine, like I said. Mr. Johnson, he just asks a bunch of questions — ”

“You really should call my family’s attorney.” The sound of her voice mixed with echoes of previous arguments. “He’s already said he’ll represent you and your family, get Family Services off your case. Pro bono.”

Standing to the side of the conversation, Butch nudged Rune, whispered in his ear — “What’s that mean?”

“I dunno.” A second later, as Annie and Rex continued their argument over her family’s attorney, Rune appeared to suddenly realize what Butch had asked. “Oh, yeah. Pro bono. For free. It’s Latin.”

“Oh!” Butch wondered if he should tell his coach that he didn’t speak Latin either.

Annie reluctantly abandoned the argument when it became evident that Rex no longer cared to engage her further on the topic. Dan recognized they had reached one of those awkward moments that occurred at least twice during each practice, the team becoming too distracted to focus on its current drill. Time for a change — Dan raised hands above his head — “Time for some tennis.”

Hold your weapon firmly, but don’t squeeze it, like you’re holding onto a small animal. Thumb goes over the top of the handle — rotate it to about 1 o’clock, or 11 for you lefties. Balance the handle on the index finger, just above the middle knuckle, use that finger as a fulcrum for lowering and raising your blade.

“Shouldn’t we get the ladder for this?” The tone of Rune’s voice made it clear that he’d rather dispense with the reason for getting the ladder.

“I think we know what we’re doing.” Squatting over one of the large khaki sacks that contained the fencing team’s equipment, Dan thrust his hand in, then lowered his head until his face was almost completely within the sack’s opening. With a sudden outburst of triumph, Dan stood quickly, his right arm rising to reveal his prize — a rope, thin and white, smooth and flexible. And, as Dan pulled on it three times, obviously very long.

Butch was about to ask what the rope was for when he saw a yellow tennis ball appear from the sack. It took him a second to realize the ball was attached to the rope, the thin white strand entering the top of the yellow orb, then exiting out its bottom. Dan reached back down into the sack, pulled out two quart-sized empty plastic beverage containers, then handed them to Rune with a command to fill them; the teen took the container, walked to the cafeteria’s water cooler with evident disdain for his task.

Dan caught Butch’s glance. “Target practice, my friend.” The middle-aged teacher pointed up at the fluorescent lights, suspended from the ceiling in banks of hanging gray standards. “We throw the ball over the top of a standard, let it carry one end of rope over with it. We then pull either end of the rope until the ball’s at chest height, for whoever’s doing the drill.” He held onto the rope several inches above the ball, let it swing in pendulum smoothness. “We tie a bottle of water to each end, so the ball doesn’t fly all over the place. All kinds of drills you can do with this — straight attacks, lunges, disengages, even parries.”

“Oh!” Butch followed the swinging path of the ball, as if hypnotized.

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