Hold the foil with the fingers, not your whole hand — it’s a weapon, not a baseball bat. Using the fingers helps you hit with the tip instead of the blade. Make your parries with the wrist rather than the arm, lead with the point and your blade will form a wall, a shield your opponent can’t get through.
Late afternoon sun reflected off the cafeteria floor as the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s first practice of the year came to an end. As Dan had assured Butch, he had his choice of rides home — he could ride in the coach’s sedan along with Rex (both lived on the other side of the East River from Butch’s home, but Dan showed no concern for the distance), or catch a ride with either Annie or Rune, both of whose parents would soon be arriving in the school parking lot.
The decision came easily for Butch. Because not only was Rune’s home closest to his, their friendship had played a large role in convincing him to join the team.
The outside air was still warm as the bottom curve of the sun dipped beneath the hills on the west bank of the East River. Jackets that had felt necessary in that morning’s chill were draped over arms and shoulders as Butch stood with Annie and Rune on the raised sidewalk outside the cafeteria.
Annie called to Dan, waiting in his sedan with the window rolled down. “You can get going if you want.”
Dan stroked the short curls of his black beard, flecked with gray. “You know I don’t — ”
Clarion horn announcing its arrival, the white Cadillac pulled into the parking lot, the car’s lights flashing at the moment they illuminated Annie. She raised her hand, waved, then turned to Rune as the Cadillac pulled up to the sidewalk.
“See you tomorrow?” Her right hand touched Rune’s left elbow; Butch thought he saw his friend’s body stiffen.
“I dunno.” Rune’s shoulders relaxed, a smile appearing on his greasy face. “I guess, yeah.”
Annie’s brown pony-tail seemed to prance behind her head as she took a half step towards Rune, and for a moment Butch expected her to throw her arms around his friend. Then she seemed to stop herself, backed away, opened the back door of the white Cadillac and, after a quick wave, slid into the interior of the massive vehicle.
The Cadillac doughnutted the parking lot, loose gravel spitting from its rear wheels, then exited. Butch shook his head. “Didn’t know they made cars that big.”
Rune shrugged. “You spend time with Annie and her family, you’ll see a lot of things you don’t see much around here.”
“So, do you — ”
“There she is!” Rune seemed overly relieved at the sight of his mother’s minivan, like a homesick boy being picked up from a negligent aunt’s house.
Dan’s sedan reversed into the parking lot as Rune pulled the minivan’s rear door handle, tugged the sliding door to the right. Over the years of their friendship, from their first meeting at the YMCA day camp their eighth summer, Butch had become accustomed to his friend’s mercurial moods, soaring balloons of happiness punctured by sudden bouts of sullenness, but in this moment he felt a wall rising, as black as the bituminous under their feet.
“Well hello!” The unmistakably cheerful voice of Jenna Banks sang from the driver’s seat. “How was practice?” Rune muttered inaudibly as he climbed into the van, moving to the far side.
“Hey Mrs. Banks!” Butch remained standing outside the van. “Could you give me a ride home?”
“Indeed!” She reached back, her hand falling short of the seat behind her. “Just — toss my bag, into the back.”
“Oh!” The maroon duffel felt heavier than it looked, though Butch still had no trouble moving it behind the seat. “What’s in here?”
“Some workout clothes. Just came from the gym.”
Butch lowered his body into the bucket seat. “You do gymnastics?” He looked over his right shoulder for a seat belt.
“Oh heavens no, indeed!” The van turned right, reversed, pulled forward toward the lot’s exit, the taillights of Dan’s sedan speeding away. “Riverside started an aerobics class last month, it’s really fun!” The profile of Jenna’s broad grin beamed back at Butch, who continued his seatbelt search.
“Mom’s always been into fitness.” Rune’s voice regaining its vigor. “How was class today?”
“Good!” Professor Jenna Banks was in her ninth year at State. “It’s on the door Butch, a little behind you.”
“Oh!” He grabbed for the seatbelt, which slipped out of his hands twice before he could secure it.
Jenna glanced up at the rearview mirror, caught Butch’s reflection. “I was so glad when Hugh told me you were going to be on the fencing team.”
“Rune.” Butch pointed to his friend. “We call him Rune now, Mrs. Banks.”
“It’s OK.” Rune smiled playfully. “Moms are exempt from using nicknames. Mrs. Goodman, she still calls you Billy, right?”
“Oh! That’s right.” Butch waved his right hand over his short crop of flaxen hair. “But I can still call you Rune, right?”
A right hand held into the air. “Always, buddy.” Butch slapped the hand, remembering the notebooks his friend had shown him back in junior high, the cryptic words in letters stretched over multiple lines on the sheet, like funhouse-mirror distortions of written language. They’re runes, his friend had explained, and within a few days as he showed the notebook with increasing pride to his small circle of friends, a name had been bestowed upon him, to his evident delight.
“You still have that notebook?” Butch pointed to Rune’s backpack, laying on the floor of the minivan in front of him. “The one with them runes?”
Rune frowned, shaking his head. “Stopped doing that, last year. Gets old, after a while.”
“Oh.” Butch bit his lower lip, as Jenna asked how he’d enjoyed fencing practice. “It was — good, I guess. Wasn’t what I expected. I mean, I didn’t actually use any swords, except the one time Rex showed me how to hold it, and that was only for a minute.”
“Weapons, Butch.” Rune sounded as if he were consciously imitating Coach Dan’s tone. “They’re called weapons, not swords. And yeah, I dunno but it seems, coach likes to emphasize other things, like footwork and balance, before he lets you start using them.”
“Oh.” The van stopped at a traffic signal. “Well anyway, I certainly liked it better than the other sports I’ve tried.”
Rune’s laugh was cold, humorless. “You’re not going to bring up Little League, are you?” It wasn’t until his second year that Butch figured out that throwing the ball too hard was not his teammates’ problem, but his own.
“Or junior high basketball, either.” Both of them had felt real good about making the team, even knowing it was a no-cut sport. During the first practice Butch felt like he knew what he was doing, but then after sitting the first two games the coach put Rune and him in five minutes into the third game, and upon hearing the referee’s whistle to resume playing Butch had forgotten everything learned in practice. It was by everyone’s account a disaster, and he’d felt relieved when the coach took me out.
“That’s what’s so different about fencing.” Rune know seemed more animated than his mother. “It’s the first sport I’ve tried where I’ve had any success. My parents, especially mom — ” his head twitched toward the driver’s seat — “have always wanted us kids involved in some sport, any sport. They gave me a break my freshman year in high school so I could concentrate on my classes, and around the time they started talking about cross country. Then all of a sudden Myles, superstar Myles, he took up fencing, which had just started at the school. The Bark Bay Beacon did a story about him and his new activity, and when I mentioned that it sounded interesting to me to my parents, they encouraged me to check it out.
“What I didn’t tell them at the time — hope you’re not to disappointed, mom — was that I chose fencing because it seemed like the easiest sport. My experiments with basketball and baseball had failed miserably, I had no interest in the brutality of football —
“No argument here.” Jenna lifted her right thumb upwards as she continued driving.
” — and I knew the track and cross country teams ran outside, and I didn’t want any part of THAT in the winter. I really had no idea what training was involved in fencing, but I did know the bouts lasted only a few minutes, which seemed a lot more desirable than the endless running in basketball or soccer.
“The day after getting their permission to ask about fencing, I went into Coach Dan’s classroom before lunch. I had taken his English class freshman year, and really enjoyed him. Hello Rune, he had this big grin on his face, like he knew the reason I’d come in to see him. I then asked him, is there any running in fencing?, and he said, Well you can run if you want, but since the strip’s only about 60 feet long you’re not going to get very far. I told him that I meant training, and he said he needed me to be in shape, so yeah, he was going to ask his team to run a little. And when I asked him if it was inside or outside running, he frowned and told me to show up to practice next Tuesday.”
“Didn’t you compete in a tournament last spring?” Jenna looking at her son’s reflection in the rearview. “Tell Butch about that experience.”
Rune brushed greasy hair off his forehead. “I dunno. It was fun, I guess. I mean, I didn’t get into fencing to kick butt — I fence because I enjoy it. Competition is a part of fencing, and most of the time I enjoy winning more than losing, but I guess it’s the stuff that goes on before and after the bout that I enjoy more than anything else. Hanging out with the team, rooting them on, finding out what fencers from other schools are up to. When I fence, I want to enjoy myself — focusing on the outcome ruins the fun. I just want to be myself, not something somebody thinks I should be.”
“Didn’t you say you won some bouts at that tournament?” More certainty than usual in Butch’s voice.
Rune held up his index finger. “Just one. Lost about a half-dozen others, my indicator was so bad I didn’t make the cuts for the DEs.” His voice became as dark as the creeping dusk outside. “I hate losing, and can’t figure out why I keep losing. Coach keeps telling me to stick with practice and training, the results will come. But it’s been almost a year, haven’t even won a practice bout. I don’t understand, I was doing so well at that tournament, thought I should be challenging for a medal by now. But that’s all changed, and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.”
He leaned back in his seat, head tilted back. “Honestly, there’s times I dunno if I’m cut out for this sport. Thought this would be different than the others I tried — baseball, basketball — but it’s turning out to be more of the same, just with different equipment.”
“Oh.” Jenna had pulled the minivan into the driveway of the Goodman’s home, but Butch did not want Rune’s words to be the last he heard before leaving. “Well, Mr. Jacobs is a really good coach, I’m sure he’ll be able to help you get better.”
Rune exhaled sharply through his nose, “Guess we’ll find out, if either of us is up for the task.”
After an appreciative goodbye to both Rune and Mrs. Banks, Butch was inside his home. The first floor was quiet, his mother routinely napping at this time, father not home yet, siblings in their rooms; the television in the living room would not, by family rule, be turned on for another two hours. Butch took off his jacket, removed his shoes, then began to wash pots and pans, the first of his many chores that evening.