Gray Metal Faces – September 12

The conversation was now focused on agendas, Gandy asking Dan to reveal his reason for starting the fencing team at the high school, while Dan tried to ascertain what was motivating Gandy’s increasingly probing questions. It occurred to him that she could well have asked the same questions of anyone who had entered Riverside Gymnastics, treated the information she gathered from these conversations as a form of market research, data on the needs and desires of her current and prospective customers. Or perhaps she was naturally curious, the diversity of human experience something she relished. Loneliness, perhaps, adult children with families of their own, her students and their parents a form of extended family.

So many possibilities. He suddenly felt compelled to explore sifting through them all, discover the agenda of this gentle yet mysterious woman. And the best way to do that, was to continue this conversation.

“It’s funny.” He smoothed the short curls of his black bearded chin, flecked with gray. “It wasn’t long after the team started, that I realized how much I missed the sport. How I regretted walking away after my injuries.” He twisted in his seat, pointed with his chin at the elderly gentleman in the front row. “One night that first fall, I was working with Rex, the boy your nephew knows. He was even skinnier then than he is now.”

The old man chuckled. “Hard to believe. Boy looks like a skeleton sprayed with white paint.”

“He’s remarkably strong, though, you’d be impressed. Rex was at our very first practice, and from the start I could tell he had a passion for the sport. That night, it must have been our third or fourth practice, it’s around four so we’re winding down, and Rex asks if he can stay a little longer. I didn’t have anything going on that evening, so I said sure. After everyone else leaves, I start working with him on the fundamentals — keeping distance, controlling tempo with his footwork, arm position. I notice he’s picking up everything really quick, and he’s hungry for more, so I show him how to set up an attack, disengages, parries. I get him to do disengages in flight, a really complex attack, and even that he’s getting — the first time’s an adventure, but you see the light turn on when he tries again, and by the third time, he’s got it. I can’t remember how many times in a row he executes the attack, but I’m getting tired, even if he isn’t. So I stop, look up at the clock — and it’s 5:3o. Rex apologizes, but I wave him off; all I can say is, Why did I ever leave this sport?

He quickly scanned the faces in the waiting room. The man wearing the baseball cap slowly nodded his head in silent appreciation, and the elderly couple grinned as if Dan were a cherished nephew. Gandy, however, was studying his face, looking for more information. Dan’s eyes grinned.

“Ten years, you said? It had been ten years since you’d last seen your coach?”

The music in the gym stopped. Dan glanced through the large window, saw excited young bodies forming a circle around their tired instructor. “Give or take a few years, yes.”

“And not all of those years were at Bark Bay, right?”

He turned to face her, as the other occupants of the room, losing interest in the conversation, fixed their gazes on the youthful activity in the gym. “Had several temporary jobs out of college. Small towns in Michigan, Indiana. Then three years in the St. Louis school district, only the first of which was pleasant.”

Gandy straightened the thin glasses on her nose. “Bark Bay’s a long way from St. Louis.”

“One of the reasons I came here.”

“Lot of people say that.” She sat taller in her chair. “Most of them are professionals — your doctors, lawyers, teachers like yourself. They’ve had some success, usually in some big city far from here, but it’s begun to wear on them. They’re tired, want to escape the rat race, and some of them are so desperate as to decide that a place in the middle of nowhere sounds pretty good to them. And they go to places like Bark Bay, and for a while it’s everything they thought they wanted — less noise, less rushing, less having to be on the go at all times.”

The man in the baseball cap rose from his chair, walked out of the waiting room; Gandy waved at him, returned her attention to Dan. “But after a few years, the novelty of their environment wears off. What seemed refreshing at first, upon further experience now seems just boring. Most of them decide that life they’d left behind looks pret-tydarngood to them, after all, and they wind up going right back to it.”

“Most, you say.” Dan’s left index finger pointed directly at Gandy’s right shoulder. “But not all. Some of the newcomers stay, after all.”

“Yes, some do.” The elderly couple walked past, exchanged a brief word with Gandy, who made no effort to hide her ambition to continue her conversation. “I’ve talked to a lot of them, tried to understand what made them different, what was it about them that made it possible for them to stay.” She leaned forward. “And you know what I’ve found?”

Mustering every ounce of sincerity within his spirit, Dan opened his arms wide, leaned back in his chair. “Please — tell me.”

“They — ”

The door to the waiting room slammed open a second before the sharp cry of UNCA DAN! cut through the room. THERE’S NO CLASS NEXT WEEK!

“No need to yell, Nassie.” The commanding tone of the school’s founder had returned to Gandy’s voice, as she addressed the three-foot-tall nuclear butterfly that had run into the room. “And please, this week could you remember to put your shoes on before you leave.”

Several parents had arrived, gathered their children in the coat room. Nassie talked excitedly with the other children, clearly enjoying herself too much to be anyone other than the last of her group to leave the building. Dan stood by a wall in the far corner of the coat room, observed Gandy as she talked, if only for a moment, to each of the parents. Part of her business model, Dan decided.

After reminding Nassie to put on her shoes — no, she couldn’t carry them to the car — Dan walked over to Gandy, as she wished the Mortensons (whose oldest daughter had been in his class the year before) a good evening. Seeing Dan, she sighed, waited a moment so that she and Dan could have the coat room to themselves.

“You’re a good man, Mr. Jacobs — Dan. Annie speaks highly of you, and I can’t think of any other person her age whose opinion I trust more.”

Dan tried to blush, gave up the effort when he realized how ridiculous he looked. “A lot of people feel that way about Annie.”

“Everyone in life is either running from something, or running toward something.” Dan had been confident Gandy wasn’t going to let him leave without completing her speech. “The people who leave, are the ones who’ll be fromming all their lives. Those who decide there’s something here in this little town they want to run towards — those are the ones who stay.

“So tell me — is this fencing team of yours, at the school. Will it keep you running?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Can I tell you after our first practice next week?”

Gandy extended her hand. “Have a good evening, Dan.”

“As do you, Gandy.” Releasing her hand, Dan finally herded Nassie out the door of the Riverside Gymnastics School.

Gray Metal Faces – September 11

“Hmmm.” Gandy contemplated his words like a judge deliberating a case. “So, you stopped fencing after hurting your knees?” Dan considered challenging the nature of her question, yet settled for a reluctant nod; the three-month membership at the St. Louis fencing club, and not finding any of his old magic, also didn’t seem worth mentioning. “Aren’t there other things you can do in fencing, besides competing? Coaching — aren’t there referees in your sport?”

“Of course, my friend!” He grinned, tilted his head, shrugged. “But — what can I say? I was young, frustrated that I couldn’t compete, not without pain. Felt like it was time for me to turn the page, move on to the next chapter in my life.”

“I see.” Gandy pulled her sweater closer. “So I take it, you weren’t in contact with your coach, until his retirement party.”

“Hadn’t spoken to him in a decade.” And not entirely Dan’s fault; Josef’s distrust for nearly every technological innovation that had appeared after his youth, especially those involving communications, posed a unique obstacle.

“I see. So one day, you have this conversation with a man you haven’t talked to in ten years — and the next day, you’re a fencing coach?” Dan felt the three other three members of the room lean a little closer towards him.

“Not that simple, no.” Of course it wasn’t; Dan had left that reunion weekend without any thought of actually taking up Josef’s challenge. Yet two days after his return to Bark Bay, a letter arrived at the Odd B. A handwritten letter, much like the one Dan had received the day before, and the dozens Josef had sent in between. Dan had been dumbfounded by that first letter, realizing Josef had either remembered his name or more likely had asked one of his other former students, had found out where Dan taught, had contacted the Bark Bay High School, had gotten his mailing address. Then sent him that letter, no salutation, three sentences all in capital letters – YOU START TEAM IN FALL. NEW SCHOOL YEAR. BE PATIENT, NO CHAMPION THIS YEAR – no signature.

Coaching? Dan wasn’t even sure if he knew the rules any longer. He’d decided to write a terse response back to Josef, when his phone started to ring. Stu Johnson, Bark Bay’s assistant principal and athletic director. Got this weird letter today from this guy, said he was an NCAA fencing coach. Tells me you’re starting a fencing team this fall? Dan let Stu continue talking, about the unexpected surplus in the athletic budget, the edict from the state’s educational department regarding support for non-revenue sports, what did he have in mind for starting the program? Sure, you can get back to me.

The following two weeks had been a blur. A call to the Academy, Dan had competed against a few of their alumni in college; he expected their fencing coach to give him some reason or other to dissuade him, but instead seemed on the verge of combustion as they talked, of course they had spare equipment available, so did State! More calls with Stu; a school district meeting, his first sense of suspicion (so you don’t have any previous coaching experience), but he had the support of Stu and his considerable clout. He told Dan exactly how much to ask for (the Academy coach had said he would need twenty five percent more, at a minimum, but Dan knew he was in no position to negotiate), what to say in his presentation to the board (you’re a club, not a team – that eliminates a lot of interference from the state), and by the week before school began that fall he had purchased seven used foils (two French grips and one pistol to share among the lefties, four righty pistols), five less than perfect but functional masks, a dozen soiled and torn back-zipper jackets of various sizes, four right-handed gloves and two for the lefties, two plastic chest guards, and, through the end of September anyway, half of the basketball court from 3 to 5 each Tuesday afternoon (they’d have to see about practice time once basketball tryouts began). And the town of Bark Bay, for the first time in its history, had a school with a fencing club.

Dan wasn’t sure at what point in that whirlwind of a fortnight he stopped going through the motions, started not only to believe that Josef’s and Stu’s idea was possible, but to actually want it. At some point he realized this was an opportunity to re-open the book of his fencing career, to turn what had ended with injury and frustration into a new story, one which he could control. No, he’d never coached before, but at least he didn’t need to fence competitively himself. The team, or club, may not succeed, but this time the power to determine success and failure rested solely with him – if he wanted it to end, it would end on his terms this time.

The letters from Josef came at a steady pace, at least one a month, and during the zenith of Myles’ career, sometimes weekly. Josef showed no interest in Dan’s cautious expectations, did not care about the school’s size, did not care that few other public high schools in their region had an organized club or team (YOU HAVE LUCK SCHOOL SUPPORT YOU, and on that point Dan wholeheartedly agreed). The impatience was always there, the insistence on perfection. Josef was the sole person to be displeased with Myles’ second-place finish last year, he wanted to know why both had settled for second best. It was important for Dan to expect success, and Josef demanded Dan devote his energies more to his coaching than his teaching. TEACH THE ENGLISH, IS YOUR JOB. COACH FENCE, MAKE WINNERS. Without ever having seen any Bark Bay fencers in action, Dan’s former coach was convinced none were living up to their potential, a failure he attributed directly to their coach, who did not expect enough from them.

The letter he’d just received was dominated by one question: WHO IS MAKING THE REPLACEMENT OF MYLES AT THE POSITION OF CAPTAIN? A series of additional questions followed, offered with no readily apparent organizing principle and showing the coach’s distinctive command of his second language. The letter contained all the exhortations from previous letters — he must continue the work he had begun four years ago, he shared a responsibility with all fencers to spread the tradition of their sport.

“Took a lot of meetings and phone calls, but we got the team up and running, managed to somehow keep it going those first two years.” The aluminum chair creaked under Dan’s weight as he turned in the direction of the man in the baseball cap. “Having Myles on the team, yeah that made some things easier. A lot easier. And now that he’s gone, to State, those old challenges have come back.”

“I still don’t understand something.” Dan returned his attention to Gandy’s inquisitive eyes. “If starting this fencing team was so difficult — and I believe you — and you had left the sport so long ago without ever intending on looking back — then why’d you do it? What would possess a man to give up so much of his free time? Excuse me for being so bold — ” her voice as unapologetic as a man taking back the power tool from the neighbor who’d borrowed it over a year ago — “but this fencing team has a lot more to do with you, than with your coach.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 10

Gandy had not finished her question before Dan had recalled the first of the personal letters he had received yesterday. The large, handwritten block letters on the envelope.

“My fencing coach from college — encouraged me to start a team at the school.”

Gandy pulled the sweater across her shoulders. “Encourage is what I do when I’m spotting a teenage girl  on her first dismount from the beam.”

“I’d first thought threatened, but that didn’t seem right. Perhaps challenged, then.” Dan’s memory returned to that reunion on campus six years ago, to celebrate his coach’s retirement (more of a transition in truth, as the college had finally eliminated his position after years of threats, and nobody believed his refusal to continue coaching as a volunteer). Josef Hadik, more frail in body than Dan had expected yet with a face as expressive as ever, was sitting at a large round table in the student union; Dan had approached, convinced Josef would not remember him, not after a lost decade of neglected communication.

He had been partly right. You teacher. Josef’s attention to detail had always been sharp. Where teach? A command, not a question. He’d sat up suddenly, leaned towards Dan. You coach? Dan remembered literally backpedaling, explaining he had just started a new job at this small school in the rural north – School has team? Josef’s words like a sharp thrust to Dan’s six, then disengaging under Dan’s response of no  – You start team. In fall, school year start. You — his  finger jabbed Dan’s chest —  start team. And then he sat down, turned his attention away from Dan like he was a fallen opponent. That had been their only conversation that weekend, and Dan had returned to Bark Bay certain that Josef would forget his challenge just as he had clearly forgotten his former student’s name.

“Tell me — ” Gandy’s inquisitive voice calling Dan back to the present — “about this coach of yours.” It had been years since Dan had told the tale yet the words flowed from him easily, how Josef had emigrated (or escaped, as he often said) from Hungary in his early twenties, fresh from the national sabre team; after running a largely unprofitable fencing school in Detroit for five years, Josef began a modest yet successful career as a college fencing coach. By the time Dan had arrived on campus on a partial scholarship, Josef’s teams had won a dozen conference championships, had sent scores of fencers to regional NCAA tournaments, a few even reaching the nationals, never medaling.

“So you fenced?” The man in the baseball cap’s voice was tinged with wonder, as if he were asking if Dan  had found a cure for cancer. “In college?”

“Couple years.” Dan flexed his leg, grimaced. “Blew my left knee out junior year, and when I didn’t rehab properly, the right went as well.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 9

The fifth Saturday

“A fencing team?” The middle-aged man, nearly the same age as Dan but looking at least a decade older, blinked in confusion. “At the high school?” The man’s arm pointed in the general direction of the front door to the Riverside Gymnastics School.

Sitting in the back row of aluminum folding chairs of the Riverside viewing room, Dan nodded. “I get that reaction a lot, my friend. Perhaps a little less, after Myles joined the team, but you’re — ”

Myles?” Eyes widened in surprise under the shade of a baseball cap’s bill. “You mean, that kid who played quarterback, lead the basketball team in scoring, and pitched a few no-hitters a year? He fenced, too?”

“For a couple years, yes.” He fought the urge to remind him that Myles had graduated. “It’s technically a club, not a team. I usually call them a squad.”

“Is that so?” The man stared back at Dan, as if he’d just been told that aliens had stolen his pickup. Behind him, a large window looked out onto the vast floor of the gym, where over a dozen toddlers followed as best the desperate directions of their beleaguered yet pleasant instructor, a dated rendition of Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush playing over the gym’s loudspeakers. Seated a few seats to the side of the baseball-capped man in the front row, an elderly couple, the only other occupants of the room, had begun to pay attention to the conversation. The man, wearing an orange hunting cap covered with grease and dirt, cleared his throat — “My nephew knows a boy, he’s on the squad.”

“Ah!” Dan’s eyes conveyed a wordless invitation to continue.

“Ankiel. First name’s Ron, or something.”


The older man shrugged. “Guess so. Lives in that trailer, out on the county road.”

The woman next to him shuddered. “That’s one sad place. I deliver food there sometimes, for the Community Center. Don’t know how anyone can live like that.”

The opening of the door provided a welcome distraction. Dan twisted in his chair, saw a short woman, late forties-ish, an unbuttoned yellow and pink cardigan sweater clearly two sizes too big draped over her shoulders, armless sleeves hanging down her sides; her narrow glasses and immaculate light-brown hair gave Dan the impression of a studious, thoughtful person.

“And how is Gandy this evening?” The newcomer nodded in the direction of the elderly woman’s greeting.

Dan rose from his chair. “Ah yes, Miss Walker. Glad to meet you.” He extended his hand, was surprised by her grip.

“You must be Mr. Jacobs.” Dan was both surprised at her guess and annoyed at not having the opportunity to introduce himself on his own terms. “Gene and Stephanie said you’d be taking Nassie to class today.” His estimation of her quickly diminished.

“One of my students speaks highly of you.” Dan waved in the direction of the large window. “Annie Hutchinson.”

“Oh, Annie!” Gandy waved a hand in front of her bespectacled face. “She was one of my Tumble Bugs, before she could walk.” Suddenly her eyes grew wide with recognition. “Are you — Dan? Coach Dan? From the fencing team?”

He nodded, waved towards the window. “All those lessons Annie took here, she developed some valuable body control skills, really helps with her fencing. She teaches here, doesn’t she?”

“She helps out, when I’m short staff. And sometimes when I don’t, she’ll just come here and practice. Sometimes she brings that — what do they call that sword?”

“Foil, we call it a foil.” Dan blinked. “She brings her foil HERE?”

“Oh not when there’s a class, I’ve told her that. But in between classes, when the gym’s empty – ”

“On the floor, right?”

“Mostly – ”


Gandy cleared her throat, looked around at everyone else in the small room before resuming eye contact with Coach Dan. “Well, sometimes she gets on that balance beam, and – ”

Coach Dan turned from her, ran to the window. Off to the right, a row of balance beams, at different heights. None of them currently occupied. “Miss Walker — ”

“Oh please, call me Gandy.” Dan recalled Annie telling him about the nickname, created by her first granddaughter’s failed attempt to say the word grandmother.

“All right, fine.” He inhaled deeply, forcing himself to get the desperation out of his voice. “Please, let Annie know that foils should only be used at fencing practice.”

“I understand.” She pulled the walls of her sweater tight across her shoulders. “I actually don’t see as much of Annie ever since she started fencing. Last fall, I think it was.” She sat in the chair next to where Dan had been sitting; in the gym, exuberant child voices cried over the recording of This Old Man.

Coach Dan nodded, returning to his seat, his face and posture relaxed again. “Yes, that was about when she started. Practicing with the team, that is.”

“You know, when Annie told me she had joined the fencing club at school, I was amazed that Bark Bay even had a fencing team.”

Dan looked back at the baseball-capped man, who grinned in response. “We were just talking about that, how I get that a lot. Bark Bay’s one of the few public schools in the state that has a fencing team, or club. It’s more common in private schools, like the Academy.”

“And this is what – your team’s third year?” The man in the baseball cap seemed to have a renewed interest.

“Fourth, actually.”

“So, tell me — ” a playful smile crept onto Gandy’s face — “if fencing’s so rare in public schools – what on earth ever possessed you to start a team at Bark Bay?”

Gray Metal Faces – September 8

An hour later, Dan felt a wintry chill as he walked out to his car in the school parking lot. Typically deserted by this time on Friday, the lot was actually half full ahead of the evening’s football game, and Dan had to negotiate around several incoming cars on the way to his own. There was also more traffic than usual as he drove towards the center of Bark Bay; busy by the town’s standards, yet nothing like the congestion experienced during the summer tourist season. Left on Main Street, right on Bridge Street; the traffic lights would still operate fully until ten that evening, and then begin flashing yellow on the east-west roads, red for the north-south.

He crossed the bridge over the East River, upstream of the bay that had given the town its name during its long-forgotten days as a major lumber port. A gust of wind pushed his car left, nearly crossing the yellow painted divider; he corrected the vehicle without much effort. The East Bridge, as it was called, had become a perpetual source of frustration in Bark Bay; winter’s ice and snow made driving treacherous at times, while increased traffic volume in summer caused interminable delays, angry motorists making improper decisions in haste. An accident on the bridge had delayed Coach Dan several hours on his first visit to Bark Bay, nearly a decade ago, and upon moving to the town he’d taken an interest in the bridge’s history. Built over the East River late in the seventeenth century, it had been re-built several times, with increasingly better material. But the last rebuild had been over a quarter century upon Dan’s arrival, and a single lane in either direction had clearly become inadequate; everyone in town agreed the next rebuild had to meet the demands of the modern world.

The state’s department of transportation, however, had a different plan. A new bridge, a mile further upstream of the river, would effectively replace the East Bridge as the principal arterial route for the region. Bark Bay’s political and commercial leaders fought the proposal vehemently, the new bridge would effectively bypass the town, destroy our economy; state leaders responded with studies demonstrating the new bridge’s impact on Bark Bay’s summer tourism industry would be minimal. The Minimal Bridge, its detractors called it, as they pleaded with Lee Stephens, Bark Bay’s elderly state senator, to wield his still considerable clout against the plan.

The battle lines had been drawn, talking points in the debate memorized, by the time Coach Dan had settled in Bark Bay. Never particularly drawn to either side, he had taken a sardonic view of the ongoing controversy – both bridges, old and new, East and Minimal, had become ciphers, symbolic representations of the town’s uneasy relationship with modernity. If there wasn’t a debate over the bridge, the people of Bark Bay would have to find some other focus for their collective anxiety.

Coach Dan took the first right off the bridge, accelerated in the direction of the new bridge’s area. Land owned by the Hutchinson family, at least formerly. Carl Hutchinson – Annie’s father – insisted he had sold all that land to a developer, years ago. But rumor had it that Carl also planned to run against Stephens in next year’s election. Dan had never met Carl, knew of him only through Annie; she was evanescent and hard-working, respected and liked by everyone on the team. And she loved her parents. Seeking political office for personal gain seemed to Dan more Chicago than Bark Bay; could Carl Hutchinson really be so bold?

Five minutes and three stop signs later, he arrived at the Odyssey Condominiums, his home for the past four years. He pulled his five-year-old sedan into his reserved spot next to the middle building, “Odd B” as it was called. His was one of few single-resident units in the complex, and his living there for seven years was probably a record, his landlord had told him last month. Still have nice units at the new place. Other side of the river, closer to the school. And yes they were affordable, yes it would be convenient, but no thanks, he could not articulate exactly what but there was something about this complex, the Odd B in particular, that appealed to him. Unlike the young couples and upwardly mobile singles who were the primary demographic for the Odyssey, Coach Dan was not saving money for a home. He had found his comfort zone at the Odd B, had no intention of disrupting his routine.

Long sheets of plastic hung over the entrance, like unfurled sails on a still vessel; construction of a new, more secure entry door had begun last month, would be complete before the holidays. Dan swam his body through the plastic, unlocked and passed through the temporary door, the dust of wood and plaster filling his nose. He sneezed as he walked past the former location of the mailboxes, now just a shattered wall. Until the new mailroom was finished in October, the Odd B’s head custodian delivered mail to the units, sliding envelopes under doors as well as notices of packages, stored in the office.

Dan took the elevator to the third floor, turned right as soon as the doors opened, walked more purposefully than usual to his apartment door. He didn’t count the steps this time, but felt certain he had taken fewer than the usual 14 to B306. Late afternoon light slanted under the front door, except for a small patch of shadow in the middle. He thrust his key into the lock, turned and pushed the door to B306 open, and immediately looked down.

Three envelopes, just like the custodian’s text message had said. Each face down, none of them displaying the distinctive gloss of junk mail. He pounced down, deft fingers scooping up each envelope and turning them over as he stood, stepped forward, closed the door behind him without looking.

Yes, three pieces of personal mail. Two expected, the third unsurprising considering the source. Dan walked past the back of the couch that lay across the room at the front of his unit, then laid his briefcase atop one of the many loose piles of stacked papers on top of his dining table, the only piece of furniture that had stayed with him from his first apartment in Chicago, fifteen years ago.

Dan’s routine was to leave his mail unopened on the couch as he changed into his leisure clothes and prepared dinner, which he would eat while sorting through his mail and answering machine messages. But, three letters — he considered breaking with his routine, opening each of the letters now.

“Nah.” He tossed the letters on top of his briefcase. He would have more than enough time this evening, this weekend, to read through those letters. And decide upon his reply, because he knew without looking at their contents that each would require some response from him.

Gray Metal Faces – September 7

Double-J turned to the senior section, raised both arms, his foil pointed triumphantly high. The seniors cheered in appreciation, as Double-J, his face hidden behind the mask he still wore, stuck out his tongue derisively.

“Fencers, salute!” Dan’s exhortation was lost in the sound made by hundreds of teenagers rising from the wooden bleachers, eager to exit. Double-J turned and saw Rex already standing back at the starting position, his mask off and tucked under his left arm, foil in his right hand pointed down and towards him. Double-J quickly returned to his starting position, took off his mask, and holding it by the back strap in his left hand pointed his foil down and towards Rex.

As the two fencers made eye contact, Double-J noted the wry grin on Rex’s face, and gave a playful rise of his eyebrows in response. The two fencers then raised their foils to their chins, and extended their hilts to the other in salute, followed by perfunctory salutes at Dan, who bowed and motioned for the teens to meet at the center, where the two shook with their left hands with a shared look of mutual respect.

“Looks like we have a new captain this year.” Double-J spoke with a clarity, emphasis, and volume that conveyed a determination to be heard. Rex looked at Double-J with puzzlement, as Double-J turned grinning at their coach. And in that instant, Dan suddenly realized what game Double-J had been playing. Of all the fencers from last year, Double-J was the least likely to participate in today’s demonstration, Dan expecting the combatants to be Rex and Juan. But Juan had not shown up, and Double-J had. Now Dan understood why — the teen had an agenda, and his confident grin told Dan he had accomplished his goal.

Principal Stephens had resumed his position behind the microphone. “Thank you, Coach Jacobs, and let’s have another hand for the Bark Bay High School fencing team!” The stands were emptying quickly, and no applause returned, the student body’s attention having been lost like the sun disappearing behind a cloud. Dan turned to Stephens, mouthed the word practice. “Right, thank you Coach, the next fencing practice will be next . . . Tuesday, I believe?” Dan nodded. “Yes, Tuesday, 3 pm in the cafeteria.” Gathering the students’ attention seemed futile, yet Stephens pressed on. “If you liked what you saw today, please, be there next Tuesday. No experience is necessary, and Coach Jacobs is an excellent teacher.” After a final reminder of that evening’s football game, he formally dismissed the students, many having already left the court in a jostling rush.

Coach Dan waved his four fencers together at the center of the floor, above the cartoon lumberjack. “Nice job out there. Good bout.” He looked at Rex. “You have fun out there?”

“I guess.” Rex seemed more nonplussed than usual. “Felt weird, having all those people watch us fence.”

“I thought it was really great!” Annie had stepped into the center of the circle, her face beaming. “People never came out to see us last year, even with Myles on the team. Really, it was nice to see some appreciation for our sport.”

Double-J’s snorting laugh attracted everyone’s attention. “You really think those clowns cared we were fencing? We coulda been wrestling in mud, gotten the same reaction. Seems to me, Jacobs did a good job today of manipulating that absurd senior-junior rivalry, and the crowd played along because they were bored, and not that bright. Kills me how easy it is to jerk these people around.”

“Excuse me?” The circle of fencers looked to their right, and then down. The voice who’d called them seemed impossibly short for anyone of high school age, and was nearly as broad as he was tall. He waved at the team with a nervous smile.

“Butch!” Rune nearly leapt from the circle, extending his hand toward the short, fat newcomer. “I was wondering if you’d ever take me up on my invitation.” Rune smiled broadly, happy to see his best friend from his earliest school days.

The boy, wearing blue slacks and a white dress shirt, shook Rune’s hand enthusiastically, then looked up at Dan. “Oh! I was wondering — ” he passed his right hand over the short tufts of tow on top of his head — “if there was a height requirement for being on the team?”

Dan stepped forward, extended his right arm, his head shaking. “Actually, those of your stature have a distinct advantage in a fencing bout — if you know what you’re doing.” He shook Butch’s hand, and winked.

Double-J shouldered his way past his coach, stood directly in front of Butch, his eyes bearing down into the newcomer. “Finally, someone shorter than me!” A collective laugh erupted from the team. “Interested in sabre, my friend?” Double-J brandished an invisible weapon, sliced its imaginary blade across the boy’s chest. Butch raised his eyebrows, opened his mouth slowly, was stopped by Dan rising a hand in Double-J’s direction. “Let’s stick with foil at the start. You need to learn the basics first — footwork, point control, right of way rules, that sort of thing.” Double-J shrugged — “That’s fine, for starters. Just lemme know when you’re ready to fence with a man’s weapon.”

Dan quickly laid a hand on Butch’s shoulder. “Butch, is that right?”

“Oh! Yeah, Butch. Not everyone calls me that, see, because that’s not my real name, it’s Benny — Benjamin, actually — my family calls me that, but my friends at school, well most people call me Butch. Even my teachers.”

Dan blinked. “Right. Butch. Just show up at our next practice — Tuesday at 3?”

Butch nodded. “Oh! Yes, sir!”

Dan grinned broadly. “You just call me Coach. Coach Dan, if you will. Show respect for the sport, and your teammates, and you’ll always have my support. Welcome to the team, Butch.”

Standing behind Dan, Rex pointed a slender finger past Butch. “Who’s your friend?” Six pairs of eyes followed the path of that finger, stopping at the sight of a slender girl standing several yards away, her straight hair dangling like black curtains down past her shoulders. Shallow eyes blinked as they met the team’s collective glaze.

“Oh!” Butch examined her a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t know you.” The girl backed two steps away.

Annie stepped past Butch briskly. “I do, I think.” The girl froze at Annie’s approach, appeared ready to back away running, yet stopped as she saw Annie pull up, raised her hands, palms forward. The girl nodded, as if giving permission for Annie to speak. “Aren’t you — Sandy?” Another nod.

“Sandy.” Dan stepped forward, in line with Annie’s right side. “Hello. Did you like the fencing bout?” Nod. “Interested in joining the team?” Nod. “Excellent. Pardon my directness, but you can speak, right?”

Pause. Nod.

Double-J walked up to Annie’s left. “Well, pardon my rudeness — but prove it.”

Annie raised a hand. “It’s OK. I’ve known Sandy a while, and she’s always been quiet. It’s how she is. I actually like her that way — she’s a welcome break from some people I know.” She threw a frown towards Double-J.

Sandy then said, in a voice barely above a whisper, that she only liked to talk when she had something important to say.

Dan clapped his hands. “Well, the good thing about fencing is, that talking during a bout is against the rules, and there’s nothing you could say anyway that’s more important than nailing your opponent. So, my friend, your preference is actually an advantage in fencing.”

A hint of a smile wafted across Sandy’s face.

Rune looked out over Annie’s shoulder. “Didn’t I see you stand up during the bout? In the freshmen section?” Nod. “Can I ask why?”

Sandy hesitated, and looked down, appearing to gather strength to speak. She said she didn’t understand why she’d stood. She said she just needed to stand. And asked if she really needed to give a reason.

“Of course not!” Dan stepped forward, at first cautiously, then two more brisk steps when he was sure Sandy would not run away from him. “All I care to know is whether you can be at practice next Tuesday at 3.” Nod. “Excellent.”

Placing a hand on Sandy’s tiny shoulder, Dan turned and waved for the other five students to gather around them. “Well, here we have it, my friends — the Bark Bay High School fencing team. We’re — small — ” he waited for the appreciative laugh — “but our sport has a long, proud tradition. Some come to this sport and become champions, but everyone learns valuable lessons about themselves. I won’t guarantee anything to any of you, but I do offer you this — as your coach, I will match the commitment you make to this sport, and to yourself.

“Agreed?” The team nodded somewhat in unison. “Excellent. See you all Tuesday.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 6

The bout resumed its familiar pattern, the rolling wave aggression of Double-J crashing onto Rex’s spidery defenses, neither fencer leaving enough of an opening to allow his opponent to score. After trading off-target hits (an attack landing on Rex’s bicep, a riposte clattering against Double-J’s mask), Dan stepped away from the microphone, addressed his students:  “We’re already past time. One more conversation, then I’m calling it.”

Rex nodded. “Understood.”

Double-J shook his head. “Whatever.”

Rune looked around the stands as he waited for the bout to continue. His eye caught a figure standing at court level, in front of the freshmen section. He peered at the figure closely, and recognized the girl he seen standing before.

Dan heard the crowd noise fading quickly, like an engine running out of fuel. This bout needed to end, now. He brought his palms together, his command to fence more an order than a request.

Double-J changed his strategy, running forward in a fleche attack similar to the one executed before by Rex, his tip aimed at his opponent’s left shoulder. The tall teen stepped to the side, swung his foil to parry the attack he expected — but did not arrive.  Double-J pulled his arm back when he saw the parry coming, reached his hand back behind his head, the blade making a tight circle that began on his right side and ended on his left, the red plastic tip sweeping around and landing on top of Rex’s right shoulder.

The surprise move elicited a subdued exclamation from the remaining interest among the student body. Coach Dan’s command to halt came simultaneously with an excited yell from Double-J. Annie’s arm shot upward, as Rex let his shoulders and head droop forward.

“Attack from my left!” Dan’s voice exploded into the microphone, shot forth from the loudspeakers. He pointed to Annie, who confirmed the valid touch, then announced the final score of three to his left, two on the right. “Double-J is the winner of our short exhibition bout!”


Gray Metal Faces – September 5

The clamor raised by Double-J’s exhortations had subsided to a murmur, as the two teens covered their faces once more and crouched into en garde position. Dan pointed to both with his hands palm done – “Ready” — 

And in that still moment, his two students waiting for his command to resume their bout, Dan felt the awareness of his situation suddenly magnify. If he believed that humans had a spirit, he would have believed it had exited his body, casting its vision beyond this bout, above the assembled student body, outside the basketball court and the high school building, continuing to ascend and expand until finally settling above the town of Bark Bay. The quiet village he had discovered by accident on a summer vacation, far both in distance and temperment from the bustling Chicago neighborhoods of his youth, the buzzing intellectuals he knew from college, the upwardly mobile communities of his first teaching jobs. None of his previous experiences had prepared him for life in Bark Bay, a place which appealed to none of his younger ambitions. If they had the right, his partents would have forbidden him to move there, had to settle instead for warnings, all of which turned out to be largely although not entirely accurate — There’s none of the high culture you like, museums and theaters. There’s no good restaruants. There’s no temples, you’ll be the only Jew for miles!

Dan knew he should return to the moment, bring his hands together and call for the resumption of the bout; decided instead to pause, let his spirit or awareness or whatever it was he was feeling remain a moment longer in its impossible location, hovering above the town where he’d lived for seven years. His mother’s voice from a phone call months, maybe years earelier — Is Bark Bay your home now? His answer had been awkward, Yeah I guess maybe, not because he felt uncomfortable but rather because it had never occurred to him to think of any place as home. Chicago, perhaps, it being the land of his youth, but his family had moved so often, always upgrading to nicer and bigger houses as his late father’s wealth increased, never staying in any one place long enough for him to form an emotional attachment. Certainly not any of the colleges he attended, or the cities and suburbs where he had taught after graduation. Making friends was never a problem for Dan, and wherever he went he would find a way to make himself a member of the community. A much harder task at Bark Bay, for sure, given that many people in town had seen him not as a stranger, but a foreigner. Yet even here, in this land so distant and different from any place he had ever lived, he had become an active participant.

As he was right now, returning to the moment at hand, his palms coming together and voice giving the command, “Fence.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 4

Dan waved Rex and Double-J back to their starting positions, then commanded them to resume their bout. The contrast in their styles became immediately apparent once more, Double-J rushing forward, Rex waiting patiently. To Dan, Double-J fenced as if driven by a force of nature, his repeated attacks against his opponent like a ocean’s surf crashing onto shore, his blade attacking in waves of fury, receding only to gather strength for the next crashing wave. It was the a strategy typical for sabre, the weapon of choice for Double-J, while Rex’s approach was in turn standard for his weapon, epee — cautious and patient, waiting for his opponent to misjudge in distance or temp, or to leave a target undefended; the strategy of the spider, immobile and seemingly lifeless yet always conscious of the web of its defenses, ever ready to pounce on a mistake. The two teen’s body types even seemed to match to their competitive styles, Double-J a short compact ball of energy, Rex’s long thin limbs conveying a spidery presence.

“Halt.” Dan didn’t consult either of his judges, the attacks from both fencers clearly landing off target. Neither was making a proper adjustment to foil, their weapon for this demonstration bout; Double-J landed three consecutive hits with the edge of his blade, and Rex’s ripostes were striking mask and arms.

“In foil, only touches with the point of the blade count, and the target area is limited to the torso – no arms, legs, or head.”  Dan was speaking as much as a coach to the two fencers as he was a teacher to the assembled student body, who, judging by the uncomfortable murmur he heard, was losing interest quickly after the series of off-target hits. Dan glanced over at Principal Stephens, who held up four fingers. Dan then called the competitors to en garde, and peered through the gray metal of their masks to make eye contact with both teens, his commanding glare delivering a silent command: Clean it up.

“Fence.” Once more Double-J advanced briskly, the point of his blade aimed at Rex’s left. Rex waited, gave ground, but on his second step spun his foil under and around Double-J’s, and lunged forward. Without attempting to parry, Double-J completed his attack, his voice exploding into an excited YELL as his point landed on Rex’s shoulder.

In the freshmen section, the sleeping girl who had woken stood. Her motion caught Rune’s attention as he raised his hand, followed by Annie; Dan halted the action, retrieved the microphone from its stand. “We have an attack from my left, and a counter-attack from my right — no parry, from either side.”  He pointed at Annie, standing behind Double-J. “The attack from the left has right of way — does it land?”


“I agree. The counter-attack from the right does not have priority, even if it had landed first.  That makes our score one for the left — ” waving at Double-J — “and one for the right– ” now at Rex. A lone pair of hands in the crowd clapped, then another, not joined by a third; Dan waved his students back to their starting lines, anxious to show their audience more action.

From behind his starting line, Rex pointed playfully at Double-J. “I’d have had you by now in epee.”

Double-J snorted. “If this was sabre, you’d be begging me to finish you off.”

Dan issued the order to resume the bout. Again Double-J advanced, noticeably slower this time, and began to employ one of his favorite tactics: twirling his weapon, the red plastic tip on the blade’s point tracing a large, slow, hypnotic circle. Rex was familiar with this tactic, knew from experience to keep his attention focused on Double-J’s target, to ignore the blade’s distraction.

Rex allowed Double-J to advance, until the tip of the circling blade crossed the plane of his tip; with a quick squeeze of his fingers, Rex flexed his blade, making it clang loudly against Double-J’s. A gasp of surprised excitement escaped from the crowd. Double-J twitched his head, hummed in audible curiosity, and resumed twirling his blade, faster this time and making no effort to avoid Rex’s flicking blow; another gasp from the crowd, louder this time, served as a cue to repeat the actions, twirl-twirl CLANG, twirl-twirl-twirl CLANG, twirl-CLANG, each metallic collision eliciting further gasps of appreciation.

Dan smiled. “Thank you, boys.”

Double-J abruptly ended the circling, extended arm and weapon directly at Rex and lunged, Rex parrying  as he shuffled a step back. Double-J stepped forward, lunged again; Rex attempted to bind instead of parry, but the force of the attack was strong enough to make him lose his balance. Double-J lunged again; Annie raised her arm.

Dan called halt, but before he could ask Annie for her judgment Rex raised his hand, stepped to the microphone, lifted the front of his mask, leaned down —  “A touch, a touch, I do confess.”

A sharp, appreciative laugh rose above the crowd’s murmur. Dan leaned in to the microphone as Rex stepped away. “I see my colleague, Mrs. Guthrie, appears pleased that someone was paying attention during her Hamlet lessons last year.” An awkward giggle rose from the crowd.

Dan announced the score as the combatants returned to their lines. The bout resumed, Double-J once again charging yet this time met with an aggressive step forward from Rex — the two teens stopped, Double-J hesitating for the first time in the bout, then Rex extended his arm and ran forward, a cry of surprise erupting from the audience. Double-J stepped to his left as Rex ran towards him, weapons jabbing as their bodies passed, both Annie and Rune raising their hands.

“Halt! Running attack from my right — ” Dan deciding not to introduce the term fleche —  “no parry, counter-attack on my left.” He pointed to Rune, who nodded. “Touch left!”

The formerly sleeping freshmen girl walked down three rows of bleachers.

“We are at two touches apiece, and, I believe — ” Dan looked at the principal, who nodded while pointing to his watch — “that we’re out of time. We have a draw then, and let’s hear it for our two competitors, Rex and Double-J!” He backed away from the microphone, clapping loudly, accompanied by Rune and Annie and then, with gradual acceptance, the student body.

Dan nodded at Rex, and was about to call both fencers to salute each other when he saw Double-J approach the microphone, his mask removed and determination on his sweat-stained face. He grabbed the stand, tilted it towards him.

“Hold on!” Spit sprayed onto the microphone. “SENIORS!” His finger jabbed accusingly at their section. ” You don’t want to see this end in a goddam TIE, do you?” A chorus of laughter, followed by a piercing cry of HELL NO! He glared at Dan, fire in his eyes, pointed — “This bout isn’t over yet! We’re at 2 touches apiece, and I’m not leaving until one of us gets a third!”

A cheer of laughing approval rose from the crowd, energized by the novelty of the most recent challenge. Double-J stepped back, raised both hands in the air, foil extended toward the ceiling, a smile of triumph on his face. He then jogged to the senior section, waving his arms up, the students now giddy and on their feet, a rhythmic chant of duh-bul-jay, dub-bul-jay beginning to rise.

Rex turned to Rune, both looking to the other for a suggestion on what to do next, and neither finding any help. Dan looked at Annie and spoke, and when she held a hand behind her ear and pointed to the crowd with her other hand, he walked up to her, leaned down and ordered her to remind him to kill Double-J at the next practice.

Dan returned to the microphone, only to see Rex already leaning over it and, raising his foil towards the junior section, shouted, “Double-J, I accept your challenge!” A roar of approval came from all sections of the student body.

Dan looked over at the principal, who smiled wryly in return. Dan shrugged; the principal looked at his watch, then lifted his head and nodded, extending two fingers.

Dan waved Rex away from the microphone. The chant of du-bul-jay from the seniors had grown louder, more coordinated after the roar from Rex’s pronouncement. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Dan announced, “we have time for one last touch!” The crowd shouted its approval, even the seniors stopping their chant to participate.

The combatants retrieved their gear, returned to their lines. Double-J turned to Rex, pointed his foil forward. Rex responded with a flamboyant bow, right leg extending back as he leaned forward, then suddenly stood upright and whooshed his foil in front of him.

Gray Metal Faces – September 3

The band finished as Principal Stephens resumed his position behind the microphone stand. A tall man, Stephens never adjusted the height of the stand when addressing the students, preferring instead to lean down while keeping his eyes focused above him, his body contorted like a large seven. A moment later, his voice echoed across the court. “Let’s show that spirit tonight against the Academy, OK?” His fist pumped into the air above him, eliciting slightly more inspired applause by the prospect of eminent dismissal.

“All right. Well, before we conclude today’s assembly, there’s one more thing we have for you.” A groan rose from all corners of the bleachers.

“As you know, our fencing team had a tremendous” (his lips nearly touching the microphone as he bobbed down for emphasis) “season last year, with three competitors at the state tournament. Our fencing coach, Mr. Jacobs – ” Stephens located Dan, pointed in his direction – “you may know him better as our English instructor – he’s a volunteer who’s put in a lot of extra hours to make this team a success, and he’s asked for some time this afternoon to show you this fast-paced, exciting sport. So, without any further ado – your BARK BAY HIGH SCHOOL FENCING TEAM!” If Stephens was embarassed at the near silent response from the student body, he gave no indication.

Dan waved a salute towards Principal Stephens, and stepped forward to a smattering of applause and residual groaning. His team followed, walking swiftly along the north end, their stiff fencing jackets swishing audibly with each step. A few nervous giggles could be heard as the team approached half-court; a voice rose from the junior section – Hey, where’d you get those diapers? – followed by a wave of embarrassed laughter. The team members smiled resignedly at the familiar taunt, as Double-J looked up for the source of the voice. A burly body stood, waved his arms; Double-J recognized Karl, his greasy black hair forming the top edge of a triangle frame to his bearded face. Karl pointed down, Double-J responding by raising his hand to scratch his left temple, then lowering his index finger to his palm, followed by his ring finger and pinky, until only his middle was extended upward.

In the freshmen section, two young girls had been sleeping since the start of the assembly. The first had her head resting on her arms, folded across knees propped up from the row in front of her, the second girl’s head resting on her left shoulder.

An overweight boy in the sophomore section nudged a thinner boy next to him, then pointed to the next to last fencer in the line. “Hey, isn’t that Hugh?” The thin boy shrugged, as the other snapped his sausage fingers. “That’s right, they call him Rune now. Actually he calls himself Rune, he wants his friends to call him Rune, because he writes in his notebook with these fancy letters, he calls them Celtic Runes. You ever see his notebook?” He turned, saw the thin boy was resting his head on his hand, the skin of his cheek rumpled against his fist, his eyes staring with disinterest beyond the court.

As the team reached the center of the court, Dan circled behind the microphone stand, adjusting the height to raise the microphone to his face. “Thank you, Principal Stephens.” He quickly looked around at the sea of disinterested faces that surrounded him, remembering the advice of his youth group leader at temple. Never let your audience refuse to be engaged.

“Seniors!” He raised his hand toward the senior section, the murmuring response reluctant and wary. Dan had been teaching at Bark Bay long enough to know the reaction was perfect for what he’d planned. He lowered his hand, reached with his other towards the section off to the right. “Juniors — don’t tell me you can’t do better than that?” A smattering of applause, a few cheers, whistling; a half-hearted reaction, but one he could work with. He grabbed the microphone, tore it from the stand, twirled and faced the sophomore and freshmen. “Underclassmen, what do you have to say for yourselves?” The opportunity to show up the upperclassmen in any fashion was too tempting for the young teens to resist, their voices rising with their bodies. (The two sleeping girls remained still.) Dan turned to his right, pointed the microphone to the far end of the court. “EIGHTH GRADERS!” Pre-teen voices yelled in their surprised joy at being asked to participate.

Principal Stephens nodded approvingly as energy percolated throughout the stands. Even the players of the football team stood, applauded politely. Meanwhile, gathered around their coach at the center, the four young fencers huddled closely.

Double-J scratched the thin black wires of his hair. “This is embarrassing.”

“What?” Annie waved around her. “This?”

“No.” He pointed at Dan, who saw the motion, and winked, before raising the microphone to his lips.

“Your attention, your attention PLEASE!” His voice boomed across the loudspeakers, the clamor abating. “I now present, for your entertainment pleasure — a DUEL!”

An appreciative roar, mixed with laughter. Double-J bent at the waist, shaking his head, his moaning sigh I wanna puke somehow audible to the team at the center of the court amidst the din of the crowd.

Dan replaced the microphone on its stand, motioned for Rex to join him. The two walked a few yards towards the far end of the court, a few feet away from center; Dan pointed to one of the painted lines on the wood, pulled on Rex’ shoulder, the tall teen’s ear dropping to the middle-aged mouth. “This is your en garde line, OK?” Rex nodded, and Dan stepped away, back towards the team.

Double-J grimaced at Dan’s approach. “He’s really fucking doing this, isn’t he?” Annie turned on him, her face wide with horror; Double-J glared back defiantly, his mind registering a sudden drop in the crowd’s volume. “What — ”

His face widened, hearing his voice over the speakers. He looked at Dan, his smirking head shaking, and Principal Stephens, who glared at him coldly. A look of delight then sprang onto the teen’s face, as he took a step closer to the microphone. “Well that’s some messed-up SHIT, ain’t it?” Another roar of laughter erupted, as Dan lead Double-J towards the near end of the court.

Placing his student along another line on the floor, Dan returned quickly to the microphone stand. “LADIES and GENTLEMEN, this afternoon I present to you a contest, a bout, a FIGHT between two of the best fencers this school has ever seen!” He waved his hand up, and to his right. “To my right, representing the JUNIORS” – he paused, waited for a cheer from the junior section, finally realizing the isolated clapping of hands was all he would receive – “is Rex Ankiel!” His face stiff, Rex lifted his foil towards the junior section, then brought his weapon down with an audible swoosh that generated some appreciative gasps.

“And to my left, representing our SENIORS – ” Dan swung towards the other end, this time not waiting for a response – “we have John Johnson, or, as may know him – Double J!” The burly teen rolled his eyes, as a piercing cry of FUCK YEAH! shot from where Karl had been sitting in the senior section.

Dan sensed he needed to regain the crowd’s focus. “I will be officiating today’s contest, aided by two other members of our team – Annie Hutchinson, and Rune Banks,” pointing to them as he called their names. At their coach’s direction, Rune positioned himself behind and to the right side of Rex, with Annie taking a similar position behind Double-J; as they got into position, Dan moved the microphone stand so that he could speak into it while standing nearly equidistant from the competitors. His voice shot into the microphone as if he were giving it a command – “Let’s get this battle underway. Fencers, salute!”

Visibly sighing, Double-J lifted his foil, the hilt reaching his chin, then perfunctorily brought his weapon forward and down. Rex extended his foil high over his head, and brought it swooshing down diagonally across and in front of his body, following through with a deep bow in Double-J’s direction. As if recoiling, Double-J tilted his head back, generating a low laugh from the senior section, then took his mask from its location under his left armpit, placed it quickly on top of his head, pulled down on the bib, the gray metal face covering the flesh of his own. A moment later, Rex’s mask was secured as well.

The teens extended their foils, red tips aimed at the other, and Dan pointed a hand, palm down, toward each. “Ready?” Rex nodded enthusiastically, Double-J offering a resigned shrug that generated a few chuckles. Dan smiled, the moment he had negotiated with Stu finally arriving, as he brought his palms together in front of his body — “Fence!”

The contrast between the two competitors became immediately apparent, Double-J charging forward aggressively, Rex stopping after one step and choosing to wait for his opponent to arrive. The burly teen’s foil flashed forward, the weapon’s blade catching a light from the ceiling, then colliding with Rex’s, the thin twins of metal clanging loudly across the court, drawing sounds of surprise from the crowd.

In the freshman section, the girl who had been sleeping with her head against the shoulder of her companion, woke with a start, her eyes quickly focusing on the center of the court.

Rex had taken a step backwards after blocking Double-J’s attack, but Double-J pursued, his second attack coming with an additional fury fueled from his previous failure. Rex deflected the attack again, this time responding not with a step back but an attack of his own, the red tip of his weapon flying forward and landing on the chest of Double-J’s jacket, the blade bending sharply into a low parabola.

Behind Rex, Rune raised his hand high and straight. What sounded almost like a shout of excitement came from the student body.

“Halt!” Dan’s cry cut across the large room an instant before it carried across the loudspeakers. “As referee, it’s my job to decide who initiated the attack.” He allowed his pedagogical instincts to take over. “In foil fencing, the person who attacks first has what we call right of way” (not enough time for the traffic intersection metaphor) “and the opponent needs to block the first attack before making their own attack. HERE, just now, the fencer on my left”– Dan motioned toward Double-J — “attacked first, but it may have been blocked by the fencer on my right” — pointing now to Rex. “In fencing, we call a block a parry. After the attempt to parry, the fencer on my right then attacked — in fencing, we call that a riposte,” Dan pausing between syllables, RE-POST. “It’s important to know this order of attacks, because the first hit stops the action. Now, it’s time to check with my judges. Judge to my left — ” pointing to Annie — “did the first attack land?”

“No,” Annie’s voice clear to all, requiring no amplification.

“I agree, the first attack was indeed blocked, or parried.” Dan turned toward Rune. “Judge to my left — the riposte, after the parry — was there a hit?”

Rune opened his mouth, closed it quickly, then nodded aggressively.

“And I confirm!” Dan raised his right arm, his left hand pointing palm-down toward Double-J. “We have a touch, from the left. The score is one” — pointing to Rex — “to zero.”

Light applause rose from the audience, with slightly more enthusiasm coming from the juniors.