Gray Metal Faces – November 1

The second Saturday

Arms folded, impatience growing on his face like mold on bread, Double-J leaned against the fender of his car, parked in what passed for the driveway to Rex’s trailer. Most of the ground was solid in the early November cold, but turned easily to mud from the friction of tires or multiple footsteps. More concerned about mud’s annoyance rather than its impact on his appearance, Double-J resolved to remain stationary, let his boots rest on the hardened soil, rather than pace.

Rex’s sister opened the door (again), stuck out her head and called to Double-J that her brother would be out shortly (again). Double-J smiled and turned down her offer to come inside (again).

Rex helped ease his mother down into bed. Her shower that morning had gone well until she lost hold of Rex’s hand and slipped on the bathroom floor. A fall would certainly have incapacitated her, would have forced Rex to miss today’s scrimmage. But she had caught herself on the sink, did not fall but had twisted something in her back. She just needed to get back into bed, take her medicine, Rex’s sister could look after her today, call the ambulance if necessary.

Her grimace gave way to an anxious smile as Rex lowered her head onto the pillow.

“Is today the state tournament?” she asked.

“No, Mother. This isn’t even a tournament. Just a scrimmage, at the Academy.”

She closed her eyes. “Did you eat a good breakfast today?”

“Yes Mother.” A lie – he hadn’t eaten at all, had been too busy taking care of her. But telling the truth would only make it more difficult for him to leave.

“Do you have your fencing equipment?”

Unexpected question. Pause. “It’s at the school.” Not a lie. He did not have his own equipment, he used whatever equipment the school and Coach Dan could arrange for him. But there was no need, or time, to go to that level of detail.

Rex turned, faced the bedroom door, called to his sister. “Is . . . there anyone here for me yet?” Figuring that was the surest way to prompt his sister without causing her mother to ask questions, words such as friend, waiting, or Double-J surely leading to further conversation.

“Yes.” Pause. “He just pulled in.”

“Gottta go, mom.” His mother smiled, blew him a kiss. “Good luck today,” her voice trailing weakly as he left.

After gently closing the bedroom door, Rex rushed into the kitchen, looked at the clock above the sink, mouthed a silent profanity, reached over and threw open the refrigerator door. His sister, standing next to the kitchen table, coughed, Rex turning to see her holding a brown paper lunch bag in his direction.

Rex closed the refrigerator, grabbed the bag from his sister, bent over and kissed her gently on the cheek, then bolted out the front door of the trailer.

Double-J pushed from his ass off his car fender, “Jesus, let’s go.” “We might be going solo after all, don’t know if we’re going to make it before Coach leaves.”

“I’d still like to try.” Rex opened the passenger door, got in the car. A moment later Double-J was backing hurriedly out of the Ankiel driveway, onto the county road.

A moment after he hit his comfortable driving speed (70 on a 45), Double-J flicked his glance right. “Mind telling me why it’s so important for you to compete in foil today?”

“I like foil.” Rex inspected the contents of the bag (a banana, a carton of milk, and two slices of bread wrapped in plastic film, peanut butter smears visible). “Keeps me sharp, gets me warmed up for epee.”

Double-J laughed derisively. “Told Coach I’m done with foil. That’s why I said I’d meet up with you guys when the sabre starts at 11.”

Rex peeled the banana, broke off the top half of the fruit with his hand, and shoved it into the right side of his mouth, then spoke out of the left side between furtive chews and swallows. “So . . . wuh ahr . . . yoo dwy . . . win do skoo?”

“Just dropping you off.” Double-J sneezed. “Got to see my old man about something this morning.”

Rex spoke through the remaining half of the banana that he had shoveled into his mouth. “Smank . . . yoo.” Double-J grunted a half-smile in reply.

Rex rustled through the bag, pulled out the milk carton, opened it, tilted his head back as he drank. A white stream ran down his left cheek, which he wiped with the sleeve of his jacket. Swallowed, cleared his throat. “Do we know if Francis will be there?”

Double-J snorted. “Better be. Looking forward to humiliating him. Again.”

“Thought he beat you at States last year?”

“Yeah.” Double-J stroked the length of his black moustache. “But remember how he said I wouldn’t get to double-digits with him? Couldn’t you feel him sweat when I tied him at 12? He had to work to beat me by two. Jamie said Pine was complaining about not having enough break time. So yeah, he beat me, but I gave him more than he expected, wore him out, kept him from winning States. So yeah, I humiliated him. And I plan to do it again today, by beating him this time.”

“Hope that guy who beat me last spring is there.” Rex couldn’t remember his name.

“Be nice to get some revenge.”

Rex turned to him suddenly. “Who said anything about revenge? I want to face him because he’s a good fencer, a good competitor. I want to challenge myself by facing the best there is out there. That guy got all the way to the epee finals last year – facing him will give me an idea of whether my training’s paying off?”

“Training?” Double-J’s tone was incredulous, as if Rex had just told him he was an alien.

“Yeah, training. With tennis balls, you know, like Coach Dan told us to do. Hanging from the ceiling, I also have my sister toss me balls, and I poke them in mid-air.”

“So when have you been able to afford so many tennis balls?”

Rex was silent. Double-J could feel the angered embarrassment of his stare.

“Sorry.” Rex turned to face the road, then rummaged through the brown sack for his sandwich.

Five minutes later, Double-J pulled into the school parking lot, where Coach Dan’s sedan was the only vehicle, the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team gathered around it.

Double-J stopped the car, kept the motor running. Rex opened the passenger door, unfolded his body from the vehicle, stood and closed the door. Coach Dan approached the car, waving towards the driver’s side. Rex turned to see Double-J roll his eyes upward, then lower the window.

Rex walked towards the team as Coach Dan leaned onto and into Double-J’s car. Rex nodded to Annie and Rune. “Ready for the scrimmage?”

“Absolutely!” Annie’s voice as crisp as the chill in the late autumn air. “Been waiting a while for this. Been getting antsy in all these practices.” Rune simply nodded.

Rex turned to Butch. “It’s good that you’re coming. I learned a lot by watching my first couple of tournaments.”

“Oh!” Butch adjusted the wool cap on his head. “Are there going to be other schools there?”

“Just us and the Academy.” For the first time that morning, Rex felt his body relax. “But there’s not gonna be any scoreboard, no ‘Home’ and ‘Visitors’. No sideline, no benches. When we get there, we’ll find a place along the edge of the court, plop our stuff down, and just hang out there all morning, until we’re done.”

“Oh! So, nobody’s keeping score?” It was difficult to tell if Butch was confused or disappointed.

“Sure, the referee’s will record the number of hits scored by each fencer in every bout. We’ll do five-touch bouts, like we do in practice, until everybody’s faced each other. Then everyone’s ranked, by wins and number of touches – the referees will post the rankings on a bulletin board. Then it’s a single-elimination tournament, with these bouts going to 15 touches each.

“But it’s all individual results.” Rex waved his hands in front of his body. “Nobody’s keeping a team score.”

“Not officially, anyway.” Annie with a confident smile. “Trust me, we’re keeping track of how we’re doing against the Academy, and though they’d never admit it, the Academy has an eye on us.”

“Should have seen it when Rex beat the Academy’s top epee guy last spring,” Rune’s eyes growing big as he recalled the story to Butch. “Guy completely lost it – wouldn’t shake Rex’ hand, threw his mask against the wall, had to be escorted out the door by his coach.”

“He was a senior, too,” Annie eager to add the delicious detail. “They all thought he’d take the gold. It was a big upset when Rex beat him – nobody thought he’d end his Academy fencing career with a loss.”

“Yeah, what a shame.” Rex’s maintained a stoic face matching his nonplussed tone for a moment longer before breaking into a gluttonous grin, causing everyone else to laugh out loud.

Tires crunching loose gravel on tarmac. A blue sedan pulled into the school parking lot, pulled up beside Coach Dan’s car. The passenger side opened, and The Bird stepped out. The driver side window lowered, and out from the car came the face of who everyone on the team recognized as Save-Anna, the star of the Stop-N-Save department store commercials.

Coach Dan greeted her with a nod. “How are you, Mrs. Wernick?”

“Oh please, Daniel” said the woman who still looked like Save-Anna. “Call me Janet.”

“How’d your audition go the other night?”

“Very well, of course. Looks like I’ll be playing Gertrude once again.”

“I’ll be sure to come to opening night.”

The woman who was once just Save-Anna but was now also The Bird’s mother, Mrs. Wernick, and Janet, waved to Coach Dan. She called to her daughter to have fun, then pulled away in her car.

Coach Dan called The Bird over, opened his passenger door. “You and Butch, ride with me. Rune, Annie, probably best if you ride up with Double-J and Rex.” He held up three fingers, pointed to himself, then held up four and pointed to Double-J, whose shrug feigned indifference.

Annie opened the back door of Double-J’s car, and turned away with a disgusted laugh. Without looking in her direction, Double-J pointed to a nearby trash can as he opened the driver side door. Five minutes later, Double-J’s car left the school parking lot, with Annie, sitting behind Rex on the passenger side, leaving her window opened.

Rex turned in his seat to face Annie and Rune. “Either of you doing epee today? Sabre?” They both shook their heads.

“You guys are playing it too safe.” Double-J glared at the rear-view mirror, made no effort to hide his disapproval. “You keep listening to Jacobs, you’re never going to get anywhere.”

Annie stared into the reflection of Double-J’s eyes in the mirror. “It’s over an hour to the Academy, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Your point?”

“That should give you enough time to figure out something worth listening to.”

Double-J laughed, and turned his attention to the road in front of him.

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