Gray Metal Faces – October 10

The third Tuesday

Rain began to fall heavier under twilight skies made darker by a blanket of gray clouds. Focused on the road in front of him, Butch jumped reflexively as the car swung quickly in front of him, the vehicle’s tires squishing into the road’s gravelly soft shoulder.

Through the rain and dusk, Butch saw the car’s brake lights illuminate. He could not make out the license plate, but was sure he recognized the car’s shape — it was a coupe, the one that always sped through the Bark Bay High School parking lot immediately after the last bell for the day rang, sometimes sooner.

There was barely enough light for Butch to see the driver’s window roll down, followed by a head, covered with thin wires of long black hair, from which a voice commanded through the falling rain — “Get in.”

Now certain who was driving, Butch jogged up to the driver’s door, his feet splashig in shallow puddles, looked into the car and confirmed it was — him, the senior on the fencing team that greeted him that night two weeks ago, the team’s first practice of the year.

Butch stopped beside the door. The driver looked up at him, his long black moustache bristling with impatience. “Passenger side, dude. I’m not getting up to let you in.”

“You’re the — you were at fencing the other night.” Butch shuddered involuntarily in the cold rain.

The driver smiled, his eyes revealing that the warmth of his expression was to be temporary. “That’s right, from fencing.” He nodded in the direction of the passenger side. “I’ll give you a ride home, get in.”

“You’re, what was it, Mister — ”

The driver’s response dripped with annoyance. “Dude, I’m not a mister anything. Call me Double-J.”

“Oh! That’s right. Well thank you Mister Double-J — ”

Double-J rolled his eyes, threw his head back. “Holy Christ.”

“Sorry. Double-J — I just live up the street here, it’s only about a mile, I don’t need a ride.” Butch turned his head, sneezed, excused himself.

“Let’s review.” Double-J sighed resignedly as he looked up at Butch. “You’re walking on the side of a road with no sidewalk or lights. It’s dark, raining, and cold. You said your house is what, about a mile away?” Butch nodded, wiping his nose. “Well if you don’t mind my making an observation, you seem a little out of shape, so it seems to me you’re not going to jog.”

“I don’t like running.”

Double-J raised his eyebrows. “Well it’s good to know we have something in common. Now, consider this — as you probably noticed from the other day, I’m pretty opinionated, and outspoken.”

Butch sniffed. “Uh-huh.”

“You probably also noticed that our fencing team, or club or whatever the hell it is we’re calling it — there’s not many of us, here at the Double-B HS.”

Butch paused, stared down thoughtfully through the open car window at Double-J. “Bark Bay High School?”

“Hmmm. You see, being such a small group, we have to be careful about who we let in — seems to me, we can’t let any damned fool join the team, disrupt our chemistry, don’t you agree?”

Butch looked down thoughtfully again. “I — guess.”

“Right. And it seems to me, only a damned fool would walk another twenty minutes or so in the cold dark rain when he could ride in a warm car.” Double-J swung his right arm in the direction of the passenger seat next to him. “So — are you ready to get in already?”

The rain began to fall harder, thick drops pounding metallically on the roof of Double-J’s car, the road’s pavement erupting in splatters, shallow pools of brown water forming in the dirt and crumbled asphalt of the road’s soft shoulder.

Butch cleared his throat, and smiled with confidence as he looked down at Double-J. “I don’t want any fools on the fencing team either.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“And I know how foolish it might seem to turn down an offer for a ride, and continue walking in this rain.”

“You look cold.”

“I am cold. But I also know that some people would also consider it foolish to accept a ride from a stranger.”

Double-J looked up at Butch, and blinked.

Butch sneezed, rubbed his nose, continued. “Foolish to accept a ride from someone without knowing if he’s trustworthy. Without knowing if he’s really doing you a favor, or has some hidden agenda.”

Double-J smiled. “Parry-riposte. Touch right.”

“Like I said, I know some people would consider me foolish if I accepted a ride under those conditions. And like you just told me — you don’t want any fools on the fencing team.”

Double-J nodded, approvingly. “Your name’s Butch, right?” Butch nodded. “Butch — you’re cold and wet. If you get sick, you’ll miss fencing practice, and with you just starting out, seems to me you can’t afford to miss any practices. Given that, I’m no longer asking — I’m telling you, ordering you, to walk over to the passenger side of this car, open the door, and get in.”

Butch nodded. “Thank you,” he said, walking around the front of Double-J’s car, his feet squishing into the wet dirt of the soft shoulder.

Butch opened the passenger door, bent forward and peered into the coupe. He had seen the interior behind Double-J’s head, but found his perception as a potential passenger had been altered now that he was fully authorized to enter the vehicle.

The interior of Double-J’s car was the most unusual thing Butch had ever seen. It was dark, there was no dome light, the dull illumination from the dashboard meters and gauges filling the front with a greenish-yellow haze. He saw brown leather, lots of it, on the seats, the inside of the door he had opened, the steering wheel — none of it ripped or stained or worn, no defect visible. The stereo was loud (Butch had seen Double-J turn the volume down just before opening his door), a rock song that Butch couldn’t exactly recognize (he had heard it before, launched from student car radios in the school parking lot over the past few years) rattling through the car, Butch feeling the notes from the bass line vibrating in the door that his hand was grasping.

He knew instantly that this was not like any of the cars his family had owned, or any other car he had ever ridden in.  His father leased from the dealership, a bright new sedan every two years, always clean, efficient, quiet. There was also the pickup, always the pickup, older even than Butch, kept out in the backyard most of the time, its lower half habitually splashed with mud, the body riddled with dents and rust holes, but always dependable, never failing to start, never failing to go anywhere, haul anything, perform whatever function was required of it. And there was his uncle’s Cadillac, brutally comfortable, Butch always feeling uneasy when riding in it, as if he were wearing jeans and a t-shirt to a funeral. No, Double-J’s car was much different than anything his parents, his grandparents, his uncles, his neighbors, had owned — Butch knew instantly that this car was not designed for efficiency, for work, for comfort, but rather for the pleasure of driving.

“Cool.” Butch threw his backpack onto the floor and climbed into the passenger seat.

Double-J pulled out onto the road before asking Butch where he lived.

“Smith Street. It’s like, two or three stoplights, on the right.”

“I know where Smith Street is.” He noticed Butch was looking around the interior of his car with wide-eyed appreciation, like a child on an amusement ride. “Seems to me, that’s two miles from here.”

“Oh! No, it’s only like a mile.” Butch’s voice sounded confident.

“Hmmm. You walk home from school a lot?”

“Sometimes, only when — ”

“How long does it take?”

Double-J could feel the confusion running through Butch’s mind. “Aw — about half, three-quarters of an hour, I think.”

The car stopped at a stoplight, the first they had come to since Butch had entered. “You mean to tell me you think it takes you almost 45 minutes to walk one mile?”

“Oh! Well I am pretty slow, on account of me being out of shape. My mom keeps telling me I need to lose some weight — ”

“The average human being walks at a speed of 2 to 3 miles per hour.” The stoplight turned green, and Double-J accelerated the coupe through the intersection. “If you’re making it to Smith Street in 45 minutes, seems to me you’re actually doing pretty well.”

“But — Smith Street’s only a mile away.”

It’s — two!” Double-J pounded the steering wheel twice, accentuating each word. “Two miles!”

“Are you sure?”

“What? You think — hold on.” Double-J turned suddenly into a parking lot that had come up to their right. Nearly abandoned, the parking lot allowed the coupe to turn fully, back onto the road they had been travelling, in the opposite direction.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to prove to you that it’s two miles from the school to Smith Street.” The stoplight they had just passed was now signaling yellow. Double-J accelerated, zipped through the intersection as the light turned red. “When we get back there, I want you to read my odometer. You can even write it down, if you want, I got some paper and a pen in the glove compartment.”

They reached the Bark Bay High School campus. Double-J pulled up to the closest entrance doors. After confirming that this was where Butch exited to begin his walks home, Double-J asked Butch to read his odometer.

“Seven, eight, two, oh, seven, point, three. You’ve driven 78 thousand miles with this car?”

“I’d have to have been driving since I was ten — which I was, just not legally. No, bought it used, two years ago.” Double-J accelerated the coupe out of the school parking lot. “So how old’s the car?” He scratched his chin. “Ten years.”

“That’s how old my dad’s car is!” Double-J had trouble comprehending the excitement in Butch’s voice. “But it doesn’t look like this, yours is in a lot better shape.”

“Thanks. I work on it myself, at the shop I work at.”

“You’ve got a job?”

“Yeah. Gotta do something valuable with my time.”

“But don’t you go to school too?”

Double-J turned quickly to Butch, flashing the most sardonic smile he could muster. “Like I said — gotta do something valuable with my time.”

“Oh.” The engine hummed as the car sped past the first stoplight. “Oh. I get it. I know what you mean. My dad, he keeps telling me I need to get my grades up, but between you and me, I don’t get it.”

“What’s your dad’s name?” There were several Goodman families in Bark Bay.

“Josh. Joshua Goodman.”

Double-J leaned forward, his eyes wide in surprise yet still focused on the headlight-splashed road in front of his car. “Reverend Goodman?”

“Yessir. First Baptist Church.”

The coupe stopped at the second stoplight. Double-J turned to his right, towards Butch in the passenger seat.

“So what’s the preacher’s son doing on the fencing team?”

Butch shrugged. “I dunno. Fencing, I guess.”

“Hmmm. Thought you Christians weren’t into games.”

“It’s not a game, it’s a sport.” Butch glanced quickly out the front of the car. “Light’s green.”

I don’t give a — ” Double-J stopped himself, looked quickly back, lowered his voice. “There’s nobody behind us. Look, I meant what I said just now, I don’t want anyone disrupting this team. We’ve worked too hard — ”

“Youth Group. Summer camp.”

“Yeah. That’s right.”

“The bonfire?”

“You remember me now.”

“You didn’t have a moustache back then.”

“And you weren’t so — you were a lot — thinner. Sorry.”

Headlights from a car approaching from the rear shown into the coupe. Double-J turned forward, accelerated through the intersection.

They did not speak as they passed the third stoplight, approached Smith Street. Double-J turned right, into the street, as Butch leaned forward and to his left, his head grazing Double-J’s shoulder.

“What — ”

“Nine, point, one.” Butch sat upright, turned to Double-J. “One point eight miles. You were right, almost two.”

“Which house — ”

“Third, on the left.”

Double-J gazed quickly up to his left, scanned the mailboxes, 18, 22, 30. There were interior lights illuminated at 30 Smith Street. No exterior lights, the garage door was closed, nobody outside. Double-J relaxed.

“Thank you for the ride, mis — Double-J.”

“You know, that’s like the fourth time you thanked me.”

The coupe turned into the driveway. No exterior lights coming on, no door opening.

Butch opened the passenger door, swung his left foot out — stopped, turned back to Double-J. “I know my father’s probably not your favorite person in the world.” Double-J shrugged. House doors remained shut. “My friend, Rune, he’s on the fencing team?”

“Yeah, I know Banks.”

“He and I, we’re best friends, since we was kids. Last year he told me all these stories, about how much fun he was having on the fencing team. The way he talked about fencing wasn’t like how he talked about anything else — I’d never seen him so — I guess the word I’m looking for is, comfortable.”

“Huh.”

Butch looked squarely into Double-J’s eyes. “So I wanted to give it a try. And tonight, at practice — that was hard, all that footwork that Coach Dan had us doing, adjusting my legs and my arm and telling me about balance –”

“It’ll get easier.”

Butch laughed. “I hope so. And I hope — that the two of us can find some way to get along. Because I can tell you’re a good fencer, and I can learn a lot from you.”

Double-J examined Butch in silence, the younger teen’s right leg still hanging outside the open passenger door. He remembered seeing Butch, at that summer camp — hadn’t known him by name, but knew he was Rev. Goodman’s son. He knew Butch wasn’t involved in the bonfire incident, and while he doubted this boy, now seated in the passenger seat of his car, could have been the snitch, he couldn’t rule it out either. Double-J had grown bored of the camp, but being sent home, expelled, banished? He hadn’t left on his own terms, and knowing that the young boy sitting across from him could have played a role in his public embarrassment . . .

“See you next Tuesday.”

“What happens next Tuesday?” Butch looked genuinely confused.

Double-J blinked. “Fencing. Remember, Coach Dan said we practice every Tuesday.”

“Oh! Today’s Tuesday?” Double-J closed his eyes, nodded. “Huh. Feels like Wednesday. Doesn’t it feel like Wednesday to you?”

“Good night, Butch.” He hadn’t been checking the exterior lights or doors — no changes.

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks for the ride.” Butch rolled out of Double-J’s car, turned and leaned in. “When’s the next practice?”

“Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?”

“And the one after that.”

“Oh. OK. Thanks for the ride!” Butch stood upright, stepped back, closed the passenger door.

Double-J looked behind him, put the coupe into reverse, quickly backed out of the driveway. He looked again back to the house — Butch had opened the garage door, was waving at Double-J, mouthing the words thank you — then felt his foot slam onto the accelerator, propelling the vehicle and he away.

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