Gray Metal Faces – October 6

“Oh!” The pleasant befuddlement that seemed permanently fixed on Butch’s face was replaced with the beginnings of understanding. “You must — really like this sport.”

Rex crossed his arms at the wrist, level with the waist, his foil’s blade extending down past his left foot. “Yeah. I enjoy fencing because of the culture. I enjoy the fact that my rivals are also my friends, that those I compete against want to see me succeed almost as much as they want to defeat me. There is a chivalry, a nobility among fencers that you just don’t see anywhere else.” Annie and Rune were standing next to Butch, the three of them looking up at the tall, slender teen who seemed as comfortable as a museum curator displaying a treasured holding. “We all want to win, want to advance as far as we can in this sport, but fencing’s about more than winning, or competing. Fencing — is about how you live your life.”

A loud noise; the four teens looked over at the source. At the far end of the cafeteria, Double-J walked away from Coach Dan, arms raised above his head, hung low and jerking quickly side to side as if he was trying to dismiss an unpleasant odor. A moment later his body slammed into one of the twin metal doors that lead out of the cafeteria; locked, it refused to give way, Double-J kicking at it angrily, SHIT!, before slamming his body into the other door, which opened quickly KA-KLAK and slammed KA-TASH into the narrow wall behind it, the echoes of Double-J’s profane growling audible until the door finally closed, kl-ik.

“Well then!” The three remaining teens had not noticed Coach Dan’s sneaker-soft arrival until his booming voice commanded their attention. “Rex, get the team lined up. Time for some more footwork.”

Advance. Advance advance. Retreat. Double advance. Retreat. Extend, lunge. Recover. Advance. Retreat. Double retreat. Advance. Extend, lunge. If this were Europe, you wouldn’t even touch a weapon until you did twelve months of footwork.

“Butch, hold on.” Annie walked toward the rotund teen, wearing the white fencing jacket (stained with irregular gray streaks of old perspiration) he had just tugged onto his body. She commanded Butch to lift his right arm, then reached to his armpit, poked two fingers through a large hole.

“Good eye, Annie.” Coach Dan waved towards the large khaki sacks that contained the team’s equipment. “Butch, that jacket’s not safe, go put a different one on.”

“Aw man.” Butch sounded genuinely disappointed. “This is the only one that fits me good.”

“Well.” Rune laughed at Annie’s correction, the two then making eye contact; Butch saw in their mutual glare an appreciation for each other he recognized in the way his second oldest brother, Nathaniel, would often look at his fiancé, Jen.

Coach Dan shook his head. “Sorry, safety first. There’s a couple other extra larges in there.” He walked in the direction of the sacks, taking Butch lightly by the arm.

“Think we can get this one repaired?” Butch sounded to Coach Dan like a toddler asking a parent to buy an ice cream to replace the one he had just dropped.

“I’ll see if I have time one evening this week.” They had reached the sacks, Coach Dan searching through the one containing the team’s jackets. “Can’t send it out for mending. No room in the budget.”

Annie was now beside them, as Butch began taking off his torn jacket. “Shame. Would be nice to get some respect.”

“It’s not about respect, my friend, it’s about money.” Coach Dan’s voice was cool, analytical. “Economy’s weak, school budget’s tight. Everybody’s feeling the pinch. Heck, I’m glad we still have money to send our equipment out for laundry once a month.”

“Huh.” Butch sounded impressed. “I guess we should count our roses.”

Coach Dan and Annie turned toward Butch with confused expressions. Butch stooped down, retrieved a new jacket from the sack, stood and looked quickly back and forth between them. “You know — stop, and count the roses.”

Annie shook the confusion from her face. “Smell. Smell the roses.”

“Or count your blessings.” Coach Dan hoped Butch would recognize the finality in his voice.

Butch nodded, as he put his right leg through the jacket’s crotch strap. “Exactly. It’s a finger of speech. It means that when you start thinking the world’s so bad, you have to stop and count the roses.”

“You mean smell them,” Annie insisted.

“Of course.” Butch now sounded almost offended. “But how can you smell your roses unless you count them first?”

 

 

 

 

Gray Metal Faces – October 5

In the next rectangle over, Annie and Rune finished their bout. Butch watched as they saluted each other, came together at the center of the rectangle, and shook hands. There was a look of satisfaction in Rune’s face which Butch had never seen before, like his friend was sharing a secret with Annie, a silent communication which no one, not even Butch, was supposed to observe.

“How’s it going over there?” Annie’s eyes bright with excitement.

“Oh!” Butch lifted the mask off his face, reversing the motion Rex had shown him earlier. “It’s going well. There’s a lot to learn, though.” His vision caught the image of Coach Dan and Double-J continuing their conversation in the far corner of the cafeteria.

“We’re all learning something new about this sport.” Rex’s voice muffled behind his mask. “I’ve been doing this four years, and I still feel like I don’t know anything.”

“Oh! You started as a freshman?”

Rex lifted the mask, letting it rest on top of his head. His beaming face showed his delight in the opportunity to tell a favorite story. “It was three years ago – there was a flyer on the bulletin boad in the cafeteria line, big one, bright colors on a black background – had a large picture of an mustachioed actor thrusting a rapier at the camera. I heard someone behind me ask who that was, and I said that was Errol Flynn, in “Robin Hood,” thought everyone knew that. So I looked at the flyer, saw it was a notice of the fencing club, and I was stunned. Fencing? Here, at this school? You’re joking, right?

“You see, I had always been fascinated by fencing. Robin Hood was my earliest memory — Robin and the Sheriff dueling in the castle, their long shadows dancing on the castle walls behind them — then there was Zorro, Three Musketeers, Cyrano — these were my superheroes, because while they were all legends, they could still all be real. But, of course, only real in a world far different than this one.

“But now — a fencing team, at Bark Bay? Was this real? I went to my first practice fully expecting to be disappointed. I remember not talking to anyone, hanging out by myself in the remotest part of the gym, not wanting to be recognized, because this didn’t seem real, I didn’t want to be disappointed. Coach Dan finally saw me, invited me to suit up, and at first I said no but he wouldn’t let me walk away without at least trying. The first time I lifted a foil, nothing felt so right in my hands. It felt like my hand was made to lift that weapon.”

Gray Metal Faces – October 4

Extend the arm before lunging — let the arm pull you forward, don’t push the arm out from your legs. Lift the front foot from the toes, push from the back leg. Arm first!

“Hold on, my friend.” Somehow everyone in the room knew Dan was addressing Double-J, who removed his arm from Butch’s shoulder, pointed his chin at his coach, wordlessly giving him permission to continue. “I have some — business to discuss with you.”

“Team business?” Double-J offered his question in a manner that declared he would have no interest in any answer that was not an affirmative.

“Of course! Rex — ”  a stout arm raised palm-up towards the tall teen — “please work with our new friend Butch for a while.”

Butch?” Double-J glared at the rotund sophomore.

“Yessir. My name’s actually William, and my family calls me Billy, but my friends — ”

“You choose to be called Butch?”

Butch swallowed, a bead of sweat appearing under his short crop of flaxen hair. “Yes. Yes, Mister — Double-J.”

“Over here.” Rex was standing on one of the cafeteria floor’s white rectangles, two foils in his right hand, a fencing mask in his left and a second mask propped on the top of his head, its gray metal face staring up at the ceiling.

As Annie and Rune began sparring  along another white rectangle, with Dan and Double-J engaged in an animated conversation in a far corner, Rex handed a mask to Butch, who held it cautiously, as if it were a chainsaw  with its motor running. “Easiest way to put it on is like this — ” Rex pointed to his head — “with the handle sticking into the back of your neck.” Butch followed the instruction, felt how the opening of the mask lay comfortably on his scalp. “That’s it. Now, just pull out on the bib — ” Rex grabbed the stiff cloth under the bottom front of the mask, waited for Butch to do the same — “and then, down.”

“Oh!” Butch was amazed at how easily the mask slid into place, covering his face in a small iron cage. His ears covered, he heard the sound of his voice and even his breathing within the closed space more acutely than he could remember or possibly imagine. Everything he saw was blurred by the beehive screen in front of his eyes, but nothing seemed distorted. The sensation of the mask over his face was slightly claustrophobic, yet also highly comforting; Butch felt protected in a way he had never experienced before.

Rex laid the foils on the floor, put his hands on the side of Butch’s mask. “Just need a little adjustment — hold still.” Rex pushed down on the mask, the bottom of the oval cage sliding from in front of Butch’s mouth to beneath his chin. “In addition to being safer, that’ll make it easier to talk. And breathe.”

“Oh!” The claustrophobic feeling subsided, without diminishing the protective sensation provided by having this gray shield so close to his face.

Rex reached down, picked up the foils, handed one to Butch. “Rune tells me you’re right-handed.”

“Huh? Oh! Yeah. I guess.”

Rex took a few steps back, his back foot nearly outside their white rectangle. “First, let’s get en garde.” Following commands, Butch put his right foot forward, toes pointed at Rex, then bent his knees and held his right arm forward, like he was feeding a skittish animal. Rex nodded, held his right palm up to Butch, walked over. “Couple things. Keep your weapon arm closer to your body — ” he pulled Butch’s elbow inward — “makes it easier to defend yourself. And your back arm.” Nearly a foot taller and noticeably slimmer, Rex moved behind Butch, grabbed his left wrist. “Needs to be all the way back, out of the way.” He pulled Butch’s arm back, and nudged his left foot back with his toe. “Getting your rear leg back will help with keeping your arm out of your target area. Do that in a competition and you lose a point, I’ve seen people lose bouts because of this.”

Gray Metal Faces – October 3

KA-KLAK. Butch instantly recognized the burly figure now striding through the double metal doors from Friday’s demo. His name was unusual, but what it was he couldn’t remember; this dark-haired dynamo had certainly left an impression though. Let me know when you wanna fence with a real man’s weapon. All conversation in the large cafeteria stopped as the newcomer approached, then pointed at Butch, his black moustache drawing a dark line under his eyes.

“New kid, right?” Butch nodded. “Hey Annie, get him geared up, I’ll work with him.” He extended his hand like he was about to stab Butch. “Call me Double-J. Stands for John Johnston, a name so boring you gotta have a good nickname.” Butch reached without looking for the hand, his eyes fixed on Double-J. “Problem was, never liked the sound of JJ since the first time I remember hearing it, and by the age of eight, realized that no matter how I objected that was gonna stick to me like a facial birthmark. But then this one day that summer, my uncle called me JJ, and when I tell him not to call me that, he says, well we’ve got to do something about that double J in your name. And it seemed to me, that sounded so much more original, creative than any other nickname I’d ever heard, for me or anyone else, that’s when I decided that being Double-J was what I needed to be called.”

“Double-J.” Butch spoke the name like he was trying on a jacket he wasn’t sure he would like.

“Good to meet you.”

“My name’s — ”

“Jesus, COACH!” Double-J had abruptly stepped over, in front of Dan. “Not those damn tennis balls again?” He snatched the rope from Dan’s hands, grabbed the yellow ball in his right hand, walked over and held it up to Butch. “These things are useless. They can’t fight back. You don’t need to worry about making mistakes, because there’s no consequence if you fail. They lull you into a false sense of accomplishment. They don’t teach you any skill that will be useful in a bout. Seems to me, this isn’t any kind of practice for fencing — it’s a game.”

He tossed the ball and its attached rope back to Dan, put his right arm around Butch’s shoulder, pointed to Annie with his left. “Listen, don’t listen to the ballerina here. How many bouts have you actually won?” Annie folded her arms across her chest. “This game is about quickness and aggression. It’s combat, not a dance. It’s up to you, but you can either choose to look good like the princess over here, or actually win bouts. Your choice.”

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.

Gray Metal Faces – October 1

The first Tuesday

Feet shoulder width apart. Front pointing forward, back foot perpendicular, heels in line. Bend the knees, half squat. Front forearm parallel to ground, elbow bent hand-width away from body.

“Annie, please tell me what Rune’s doing wrong.” Coach Dan, standing on a line made by the border between white and black tiles on the Bark Bay High School cafeteria floor, followed his command by waving a hand from Annie (standing along the line to Coach Dan’s right) towards Rune, standing a few feet away on a rectangle of white tile, the greasy-haired teen’s body still in the en garde position he had been demonstrating to Butch (standing along the line to Coach Dan’s left), bewildered annoyance creeping onto his face.

Annie stepped forward and coughed, then examined Rune’s stance. “Well . . . his front elbow’s really too far from his body, and he’s leaning forward.”

“It’s all in the back arm, my friend.” Coach Dan walked behind Rune, whose eyes followed the coach as his body remained still, like some would-be hero immobilized by a villain’s paralysis ray in one of the cheesy sci-fi movies he enjoyed watching. Grabbing the boy’s back arm, which was extended high above his head as if he had been asking permission to go to the bathroom, Coach Dan brought it down in line with the shoulder, pointed straight back. He then bent the elbow, pointed the forearm up, then forced Bernie’s wrist to bend down, fingers pointed back at his body. “Keep the wrist limp,” Coach Dan’s voice calm but commanding as he walked back to his previous position. “Don’t let your back arm become a distraction, but don’t let it be a hindrance either. You can’t use it to block — ” he looked quickly down at Butch — “that would be a penalty. But you do need it to help keep your body in balance.

He clapped his meaty hands, the sound echoing in the large, nearly empty cafeteria. “Annie, please demonstrate.”

The athletic teen walked over to the position held by Rune, who backed away both embarrassed are relieved. She turned her body to face her coach and new teammate, attending his first ever fencing practice. Butch noted where she planted her right foot — her toes pointed in line with her body instead of twisted inward line Rune’s had been, heel slightly forward of her shoulder. She shifted the heel of her back foot about a step and a half behind the front, Rune noting her heels in line with each other, where Rune had several inches of space between his heels. Her feet, Butch imagined, seemed to form a perfect right angle, an unnatural position for the human body, yet somehow Annie seemed comfortable, relaxed.

Annie then extended her right arm forward, elbow bent slightly and close to her body, forearm tilted up so that her hand was slightly below chest level. She brought her left arm behind her, elbow bent deeply so that her forearm leaned toward her body, her limp wrist nearly touching her shoulder.

She then bent her knees, her upper body lowering in a smooth motion like a car on a hydraulic lift; she only came down a few inches, stopping several inches before reaching a full squat, but Butch saw the dramatic impact it had on her appearance. Annie seemed to instantly become a different person, no longer the pleasant girl who had been solicitously helpful to him earlier that afternoon (try this jacket, step through the strap first then put your arms in — other arm, the zipper goes in back — wait, you’re putting it on inside-out), but an aggressor, a human weapon, coiled and anxious for someone to give her a reason to unleash her attack. Although she was merely extending her index and middle fingers together in mock imitation of a threat, Butch easily envisioned a sword extending threateningly from her hand. She bounced in her crouch, and catching Butch’s gaze, winked at him; her knees seemed to be on springs, her body stored with a martial energy that waited to be released, up through her arm, into her invisible weapon, charging into the tip of her blade and finally releasing, striking her opponent, hitting, scoring.

“Oh!” Butch’s face as round as his hushed utterance, his short crop of blond hair seeming to stand on edge.

“That’s the en garde position, my friend.” Coach Dan clapped Butch on his shoulder. “Give it a try, show me what you got.”

“Oh!” Butch blinked, looked up at his new coach. “Wait — don’t you ‘on guard’ instead?”

Coach Dan glanced away, then back at Butch. “It — we say en garde. It’s a French term.”

“Many words in fencing are French.” Rune had stepped in front of Annie, who had come out of her crouch. “Like foil, it comes from the French word for blade — ”

“Flower.” Annie’s narrowed eyes forbade Rune from challenging her.

“Oh!” The look of wonder on Butch’s face gave way to concern. “I — I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”

Coach Dan stepped in front of the short, fat student who had been waiting in the cafeteria when Annie and Dan had arrived with the team’s equipment. “Neither do I, my friend. Other than a few words, which any of us — ” he turned to Annie and Rune, waited for them both to nod — “will be glad to teach you.

“But, for now — ” Coach Dan stepped back, his hands releasing from Butch’s shoulders — “show me a good — on guard — position.”

Advance. Lift the front foot, toes first, then lift the heel just off the floor; push from the back foot, bring the front foot forward, land the heel first, then the toes. Don’t raise the front heel too high; pretend your pushing a quarter along the floor. Lift the back foot, bring it forward, land it. Retreat. Lift the back foot, push backwards from the front foot, land the back foot, lift the heel of the front, bring it back.

“Shake it out, shake it out.” Coach Dan stood upright, extended his right leg and shook it, as if to drop a coin that had fallen into his pants from a hole in his pocket. Annie, Rune, and Butch, forming a loose line several feet behind their coach as he walked them through the footwork drill, looked at each other with shared relief.

“That was intense!” Butch leaned forward, placed his hands on his knees.

“Well, get ready, ‘cuz there’s gonna be more.” Rune’s voice filled with resignation. “Lot more.”

“You get used to it, really.” Annie hardly seemed tired.

Butch looked up at her. “You look — I don’t know, so graceful when you do that. I almost tripped over myself a few times.” Annie nodded, her face full of I know. “You looked like a dancer!”

“HA!” Annie threw her head back, her brown pony-tail reaching down the length of her back. “It’s all those classes my parents took me to when I was a kid. What was it — ” she tiled eyes upward a moment — “ballet at 6, that lasted about three months. I did tap for a few years, that was fun. And oh yes, hula — there’s some pictures of me in a grass skirt that I never want you to see!”

“Didn’t you do gymnastics, too?” Rune waved a hand through hair slick with grease.

“Oh yes, I’ve been going to Gandy’s gym at Riverside for as long as I can remember. Still go there once a week, to work out, not on the team, haven’t been for a couple years. Definitely helps with the fencing — the footwork, the balance. When you’re watching a bout, it kinda looks like all arm motions, weapons clanging against each other, but the reality is, you fence with your feet.”

Coach Dan had seemed ready to move on to the next drill, but backed away, turned towards the equipment sacks. “Oh!” Butch stood upright, held his palms up, his eyes questioning Annie. “So, if you do all that — what made you do fencing?”

Annie looked up at the ceiling, the calm look on her face suggesting she was not so much searching for an answer but rather waiting for the most appropriate words to convey what she already knew. “When I fence, I use the best parts of me. I use my intellect and creativity to come up with a strategy to defeat my opponent, my athleticism and agility when executing that strategy, my balance and poise to maintain control throughout the bout, my conditioning and perseverance to stay on top of my game at all times. Fencing requires me to use all my best qualities.

“All those lessons my parents took me to when I was a kid — ballet, gymnastics, swimming — helped me prepare for the physical demands of fencing, and my music lessons, and the chess and debate clubs I joined, all that prepared me for the mental demands of the sport. And yes, all of it was preparation, because while I enjoyed all the activity — I couldn’t get enough, and will always love my parents for taking me to all those lessons — I would end all of my lessons feeling there was something missing, as if I had appreciated a good meal but felt a spice or ingredient was missing that I couldn’t identify. It was not until I started fencing that I finally felt satisfied, that I’d found an activity that could challenge me enough to keep me interested, keep me from looking for new challenges.

“Why do I fence?” She smiled with satisfaction, her pony-tail dancing behind her head as she nodded toward Butch, a faint sheen of sweat reflecting the light from the overhead fluorescents. “Because when I fence, I feel complete.”

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”

Gray Metal Faces – September 15

The fifth Monday

In his last action as Mr. Jacobs for today, Dan laid his soft leather briefcase on top of the wooden desk in room 121 of Bark Bay High School. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the westward facing walls, reflected off the clear plastic of a hardcover book (a novel, borrowed from the city library on a friend’s recommendation) and landed on the edge of his bearded left cheek, as he gathered a short stack of papers, along with the novel, and placed them into the briefcase.

“Heading out?” Gracie Hempstead, calculus teacher and one of the few members of the Bark Bay staff younger than Dan, stood unsmiling in the doorway, right hand on the frame, to the room that had been Dan’s de facto office for the last seven years. Dan finished packing his briefcase with slightly greater vigor, grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, then walked with Gracie into the tiled hallway of the school’s South Wing, pulling his jacket onto both sleeves (smoothly negotiating the exchange of the briefcase between his hands) within a dozen steps.

Dan noticed Gracie’s gait was noticeably less energetic, and when he looked over at her decided her body language seemed deliberately subdued, as if she were challenging him to notice. “Everything OK?”

She pointed to the glass doors, now twenty feet in front of them. Her steely gaze commanding Dan to not speak further until they had exited the building.

Gracie began walking faster as soon as they passed the glass doors into the warm afternoon air, but her movements were fueled not with her typical sprightful exuberance, but a much darker, anxious energy. “Yolana says she wants to move. Says she can’t find work, now that the summer job at the motel’s done.” They had reached her yellow hatchback; her hand jabbed into a jacket pocket, then another, finally pulling out a set of keys.

Dan’s car was three spaces away to the right; he walked over to the passenger side of the hatchback, placed a hand on the roof. “She’s from where, Dallas?”

Gracie scowled, opened her door without looking. “Austin.”

“And she’s been here what, since January?” Gracie had convinced Yolana to move over the holidays; Dan had helped unload her van.

“If she can keep busy, it would get her mind off all the other shit that she has to put up with. But when she’s home alone all day, she can’t help dwelling on how miserable she is.”

“She’s a hairdresser, right?” Bark Bay had only one salon. “Has she tried looking for work in the city?”

Gracie folded her arms across the top of the driver’s doorside, rested her chin on them with a sigh. “That’s an hour away.”

“There’s all kinds of people who commute — “

“Dan, you’re a sweetheart. You mean well, but — if this was just about a job, we could work through this. But with everything else . . . ” She shook her head, let her arms fall to her side.

Dan drummed the rooftop with his fingertips. “Anything I can do?”

The twenty-nine-year-old daughter of two university professors, their middle child and only daughter, sniffed loudly, brushed sandy strands of brown hair from her forehead. And blinked, refusing to cry. “You free for coffee tomorrow? After work?”

“Of cour — ” Dan shut his mouth suddenly, eyes widening as the part of his mind that maintained his personal calendar called his attention. “Sorry, no. First fencing practice.”

“Awesome!” Her voice regained its vigor. “I saw the demo Friday, that was incredible! You really got the students involved.”

“The team did all the work. Me, all I did was talk. How about Wednesday, for coffee?”

“Sounds good.” She opened the car door, looked up at Dan again. “Good luck with the team tomorrow!” Dan stepped away from the car, waved as Gracie started the engine, had his back turned by the time she had backed away from her parking spot.

Gray Metal Faces – September 14

If this conversation were to resume, Dan was determined to navigate away from the shoals of crankish opinion. “I heard — some poor kid — missed a field goal?”

Jerry followed obediently, describing the ending of State’s football game yesterday with a level of detail that would have impressed the average journalist. Dan listened with polite disinterest, registered an occassional huh or OK, punctuated with a well-timed wow, to confirm his engagement. The two continued running in the mid-morning sun, following the lead runners as part of the informal, nameless group of fitness enthusiasts that criss-crossed through the narrow streets of Bark Bay every Sunday morning, weather permitting or not.

They passed the digital clock in front of a bank; 9:38, a little more than half an hour into their hourish run.  A right on the next street, up a hill, cross the street to turn left, then a familiar scent of gas, oil and grease came to Dan before his vision caught Lefty’s Garage coming up on their right. Cars parked in front of the closed garage doors with no apparent sense of organization, like toys quickly abandoned in a sandbox by frenetic children. Double-J — the teen worked at the garage, seemed to spend more time at the shop than he did at school. Lefty was Double-J’s foster parent, but Dan had heard the teen had moved out, into an apartment of his own. Ever defiant and disdainful of authority, Double-J would resent the questions Dan would feel obligated to ask at practice on Tuesday. If Double-J shows up. They passed the garage, and Dan spit into the bushes.

“Another — one.” Jerry was now pointing to their left, across the street, Dan recognizing the towering (by Bark Bay standards) of the Episcopal church, before quickly snapping his head down, glaring at the road in front of them.

“My buddy’s — getting married — there.” Hoping for a coincidence, Dan asked Jerry who is friend was. “Wayne — Lafleur. He’s — ” Jerry stumbled, nimbly regained his stride — “plumber. You — know him?”

“Yeah.” Dan continued glaring at the road in front of them. “Good man.”

“He’s marrying — ” Jerry’s breath caught in his throat, exhaustion beginning to gain control.

“Katie.” He saw Jerry pull up, waved and kept running. “Katie Jasinsky.” The wedding would be at the end of October — Dan knew the date, because the invitation had been the second of the three personal letters he had received on Friday.

A square envelope, bulky, his address and the return scripted with calligraphic perfection; he’d turned it over, lifted the flap carefully, the glue releasing its bond. He bent the flap back, pulled out the contents: a reply card with a return envelope, postage paid, fitted behind a single sheet of card stock, a simple border at its edges, a dozen lines of scripted text at the center. The honor of your presence . . .

In many ways the announcement was not surprising, because wasn’t Katie just the latest in a long line of women who had come in and out of his adult life? Katie, a local girl, born and raised in Bark Bay, who would either die of old age in Bark Bay, or a broken heart would kill her much sooner if she moved away. Wayne was a plumber, had his own business –- he would stay.

Dan, though — Katie was not shy about expressing her reservations. You’re not going to want to stay in town, are you? — not a qestion, a prediction. He’d tried to deflect, “I don’t know what I’m having for dinner tonight, how should I know what I’ll be doing in five years?” Katie wouldn’t relent.

You’re too ambitious to stay.

“Everybody has ambitions, Katie. You have your business.”

But some ambitions can be met in town, others can’t. I know I can make a living with cake decoration in Bark Bay, there’s always going to be birthday parties, graduations, weddings, and everyone’s going to want a little something different, it’ll never get old. But teaching – my aunt was a teacher, I remember her talking about how little things changed year to year. Are you still going to want to teach English at Bark Bay High School five years from now?

He passed under the shadow of a tree, broad leaves already golden, and quickly looked up, made sure he was still following the leaders. You’re not like my aunt, Dan – you’re curious, you like to challenge yourself as much as you like to challenge others. How long before you run out of challenges at Bark Bay? He knew he couldn’t argue the point further, just as surely as he knew Wayne would be a far better match for Katie than he. But Dan couldn’t just shrug this off, Katie wasn’t like Gina or Cam or the nameless faces he remembered, the fun times while it lasted, over when the time stopped being fun. Katie was different – not in any specific quality that she had, but in the fact that yes, he had been avoiding the word but couldn’t live in denial any longer, he had loved her, and while part of him wanted her to run to Wayne, to leave him with his independence –

“Hey Coach!”  Dan looked up at the shout, located the voice. Teenage girl, red hair, slightly overweight.. He waved — “OK! See you at practice Tuesday?”

He saw her smile with the unmistakable air of insincerity. “Later, Coach.”

Fencing –- he thought of his conversation with Gandy, as he continued running. He would never have started Bark Bay’s fencing team, or club as it was, absent of Josef’s challenge. But he’d chosen to take up the challenge, it had been his choice to wrestle with the athletic department, get the funding he needed,  make time available for his students, his fencers.

His fencers? An odd choice of word, like they belong to me. Coaching the fencing team had certainly given him a jolt, a thrust of energy to his teaching career that was always threatened with stagnation in a small town like Bark Bay. And with Myles the previous two years the team had flourished, had enjoyed success he hadn’t hoped to imagine.

But Dan knew that had been an unusual stroke of good fortune, a warm week in the middle of winter. Myles was an outstanding all-around athlete, who felt the team sports at Bark Bay High didn’t allow him to fully express his individual ability. Fencing for him was a novelty, an experiment – not his passion.

Dan knew that if fencing were to survive at Bark Bay, it needed to be more than a curiosity. He needed a core group of fencers who were committed to the sport, who got their motivation from within themselves. As much as he enjoyed being the center of attention for fencing at Bark Bay, Dan knew that the team couldn’t be all about him.

He felt himself getting depressed, a feeling that always made him uncomfortable. He needed to escape the memory of Katie, her departure from his life. Of course he’d go to her wedding – but that didn’t mean he was going to send his reply any time soon.

Gray Metal Faces – September 13

The fifth Sunday

“Hey.” Dan slowed the pace of his running shoes padding the cracked and crumbling bituminous of Briggs Road, allowed the runner behind him to pull up beside him. As Jerry appeared on his left, Dan realized it was the first time since the start of the run that morning that he’d chosen to engage in conversation.

He was typically more engaging on these weekly runs, meeting with the informal group of Bark Bay residents every Sunday morning, 9 or a little after, at the BB Convenience Store (Coffee Junction, the only coffee shop in town, being closed on Sundays). Dan enjoyed talking with friends both old and new as teh group waited for any late arrivals, beginning their run any time between quarter and half past the hour. Most of the local political information he’d acquired over the years had come during these informal meetings.

“Did you — catch the — game yes — terday?” The syllables of Jerry’s question coming between gasps of air.

“Nah.” Dan wiped his face with the palm of his right hand, sweat streaking into his black beard. Skies were clear this morning, temperature comfortably cool, ground wet from last night’s hard rain. He avoided a puddle on his right, kept pace. “Busy.” He looked ahead, saw Wendy and Bernice were at least a dozen yards back; snapped his head back quickly, saw the closest runners were equally far back. Not a coincidence.

“Huh.” Dan sensed Jerry abandoning the subject of yesterday’s game, the topic passing like the mailboxes they raced by. A large building, all white, came up on their right.

“We did — last week — not the — same route.” Jerry sounding like a man whose body would soon quit responding to his recreational desire.

“We try to — mix it up. Every month or — so.”

Jerry extended his right arm, almost touching Dan’s chest, as his finger pointed to the white building. “Wonder which — church that — ”

“Methodist.”

“Parking — lots full — today.”

Shrugging would have thrown off Dan’s gait. “Today’s their big day.”

“Hate churches.” Jerry’s voice had regained its vigor. “Don’t care who they are — Methodist, Baptist — Catholic — Jehova’s Witness, all the — same, you ask me. Cause all — the wars — in the world.” Dan felt a slap on his bicep. “You must — think so — too, right?”

Dan frowned, not attempting to hide his disapproval. “There’s good and bad  — everywhere, my friend. Don’t be so quick — to paint with broad strokes.”

They approached a large section of decripit road, Dan swerving off to the soft shoulder on the right, Jerry into the center of the road. Dan picked up his pace, giving Jerry the opportunity to hang back, wait for the group behind them to catch up. But Jerry matched his pace, was soon beside him again.