Gray Metal Faces – December 1

The Third Friday

Double-J lunged, right arm extending while at the same moment his wrist flexed deftly under Rex’s attempted parry, the burly teen’s right foot landing flat on the tiled floor as his attack landed on Rex’s chest, a second before the tip of his “weapon” broke off, falling to the floor in a shower of crumbs.

Annie and Rune, standing to the side of the combatants, laughed heartily. “My touch!” Double-J’s accentuated his cry by holding a long, thin loaf of French bread toward the ceiling.

Rex grinned as he pointed with his intact loaf to the floor at what had once been at the end of Double-J’s weapon. “But it appears I now have you at a disadvantage.”

“Not for long!” Double-J then quickly grabbed the end of Rex’ loaf, brought it to his mouth, tore off a bite, his three teammates laughing as he chewed with mock triumph on his face.

The doorbell rang. Annie hurried out of the dining room of her family’s home (the oldest and largest in Bark Bay), walked quickly into the foyer, opened the large oaken front door. Coach Dan walked in, stomping snow off his boots, and handed a wine bottle to Annie, who thanked him for coming. He shook his head as he sat on a long wooden bench to remove his boots – “My friend, it’s you I should be thanking, for hosting this party tonight. I’m sure the team will appreciate this.”

Annie nodded. “My parents love hosting Christmas – I mean, holiday parties.” Her eyes widened. “Did you hear, about the Academy?” Coach Dan shook his head wordlessly. “My brother, he told me they named JanHar the fencing captain today!”

“Jane?” Coach Dan nodded. “Excellent choice.”

Annie took Coach Dan’s large brown jacket, hung it within a large closet nearby. “Surprised me, actually, since she’s a senior. They usually pick a junior, so they can be captain three years.” Most Academy students attended the optional college prep year.

“Yet another advantage” – Coach Dan rose to his feet, a bemused smile on his face – “of that college prep year.”

The sound of slippered feet skimming across the hardwood floor approached, followed by the entrance of tall thin man, hair graying professorially along his temples, age lines gracefully accenting his brow, blue eyes sparkling, his smiling mouth opening a window to perfectly white teeth. Carl Hutchinson, Annie’s father, extended his arm toward Coach Dan – “How’s the weather out there?”

After the two men exchanged greetings, Annie held the bottle of wine to her father. “He brought us a gift, Father.” Reading the label quickly – “Muscato, an excellent choice” – Carl Hutchinson tucked the bottle into his left arm.

Annie touched her coach on his left elbow. “Rune and his parents are already here, so’s Rex and Double-J.”

Coach Dan frowned. “Was hoping for a bigger turnout.”

Annie took her phone from her pocket. “OK texted me a few minutes ago, said she couldn’t make it. Butch said he couldn’t get a ride, but I called The Bird’s mom, she’s picking him up, should be here soon. Haven’t heard from Micki or Coy yet. Juan’s a no, of course.” Her coach nodded, as Annie led him and her father away from the foyer.

Coach Dan blinked as his eyes encountered the brilliant lighting of the large dining room, hundreds of tiny holiday bulbs strung along the crown molding near the ceiling, the tiny points of light amplifying the large crystal chandelier hovering above the center. Double-J and Rex had resumed their duel with the bread loaves, crumbs now freely scattered across the marbled floor.

Rex stopped as he saw Annie’s father enter. “No please, resume,” Carl Hutchinson’s smile underscoring his laughing command.

Coach Dan stepped forward, his face contorted with mock exasperation. “How many times must I tell you – use French foils, not French bread!” Laughter and smiles erupted as he took the director’s position between the two teens – “Fencers ready!” Double-J and Rex quickly responded by crouching down and aiming their loaves at each other. “Let’s eat – I mean, fence!”

Double-J lunged wildly at Rex, who jumped back from the broken and jagged tip of his opponent’s freshly-baked weapon. Rex raised his floury foil, the parry sounding hollowly against Double-J’s meal-time menace, and followed with a yeasty thrust that landed on Double-J’s chest, a split-second before his loaf split, collapsing near the center; great were the crumbs that fell to the waiting floor.

Heeled shoes clacked the tiled floor, at first a distant sound more tactile than audible, then rising in volume to the same level as the laughter in the dining room, finally emerging as sharp sounds commanding attention as a middle-aged woman, wearing a green evening dress the color of fresh pine needles, adorned with a long string of ivory pearls stretching down just below her neckline, entered the room. She was followed by a man wearing a charcoal gray sports jacket and a neon yellow tie (the jacket and tie creating a sartorial clash so glaring as to seem intentional), and a woman wearing a red sweater decorated with snowmen wearing green scarves.

“Dear! Such a mess!” Laura Hutchinson tutted with mock exaggeration as she gazed at the bread crumbs on the floor. She turned quickly towards the kitchen as the man and woman behind her, entered the dining room.

“Carl, those portraits in the study are extraordinary!” Jenna Banks, mother of Rune and associate professor of linguistics at State, pointed behind her right shoulder. “Those came from Hill Street Studio?”

Carl Hutchinson nodded. “That young man Boynton shows some promise.”

The yellow-tied man next to Jenna snorted. “So why’s he still here?” Paul Banks, Rune’s father, and perhaps the most prominent accountant in Bark Bay, spoke as was his custom in a voice that made clear he neither expected nor wanted an answer. Indeed, he seemed surprised, perhaps even offended, when Carl Hutchinson replied that the young man had applied for a scholarship to an art school in New York.

Paul Banks shrugged. “Why not Chicago? There’s great art in Chicago, and I think that fits his style more, based on what I saw in the study.”

If Carl Hutchinson was impressed by Paul’s comment, he did not reveal it. “I believe the lad just prefers New York.”

Paul Banks shook his head, snorted. “Well, I wish him well. But Chicago’s the place he needs to be.”

Carl Hutchinson nodded. “You were in Chicago for what, fifteen years?”

“Sixteen.” Paul Banks smiled briefly before walking over to the counter where the drinks waited in tall bottles, nearly colliding with a man in a chef’s jacket, the white of its linen contrasting sharply against the man’s skin, as he walked in from the kitchen, broom and dustpan in hand, followed by Laura. The man walked over to Rex and Double-J, still engaged in their breadstick battle, and paused. Rex saw him first, stared a moment, then held up a hand to Double-J, who stopped and turned to see the man kneeling over the bread crumbs that bore witness to their dinner-party duel.

The room was silent, everyone watching the man as he swept the floor, then rose to return to the kitchen. Rex walked over to the long food table, picked up a plate, and held it at waist level, directly under his chin, as he began eating the weapon which he had so recently wielded. As Rex took his first bite, Double-J raised his eyebrows and, turning to the others in the room,     presented the blunted end of his floury foil. “Anyone want this?”

An awkward pause, then Carl Hutchinson laughed and stepped forward, motioning for Double-J to place the breadstick remnant on a side table. Carl then turned, raised his arms palms open towards his guests, and addressed his guests with a commanding voice that echoed his enameled smile.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming this evening. Annie – ” nodding his head in his daughter’s direction – ” asked me back in November if we could host a – ” now nodding to Coach Dan, and saying with emphasis – “holiday party, for her fencing team, Pamela and I not only couldn’t say no,” the exaggerated emphasis and nod back to Annie prompting a murmur of crowd laughter, “but we were overjoyed by the opportunity. Festive parties at this time of year are a tradition that reaches back to antiquity, and is nearly universal among all human cultures. Whether it’s called Saturnalia, or Christmas, or – ” nodding back to Coach Dan, then lowering his voice inquisitively – “is it Hanukah, or Chanukah?”

Dan blinked. “Either will do, my friend. And while Hanukah’s association with the winter solstice is a historical coincidence, it nevertheless provides an opportunity to provide light that will cut through the darkness of the season, and announce the triumph ascendancy of the sun.”

“Hear hear.” The yellow-tied Paul Banks, standing by the bar table, raised a glass tumbler of scotch and soda toward the ceiling.

“So please, enjoy!” Carl Hutchinson swept his long arms across the wide dining room, catching Coach Dan’s attention as he walked by. “I think what you’re doing is extraordinary. Three years ago I’d have put the odds of a fencing team succeeding at Bark Bay High as slightly less likely than jai alai becoming a varsity sport.”

Coach Dan laughed. “To be honest, I’d have agreed. I knew this idea was a long shot, but I gotta say, the kids made it work.”

“Oh please, spare me the coach speak! Annie tells me how many hours you put into this, the equipment you buy, the transportation to tournaments. You’re the one – ” Carl Hutchinson jabbed his index finger squarely into Coach Dan’s chest – “who makes this team what it is.”

Coach Dan smiled, closed his eyes, nodded at Carl.

“Just as you’re also responsible for Annie’s success so far.”

Coach Dan waved off this last bit of praise, then caught Annie’s eye and waved her over. “You –are the one working your tail off in practice.”

Annie smiled.

The first Tuesday

“Walk it off,” Coach Dan’s routine signal for the ending footwork drills. Rex, Butch, Rune and The Bird shuffled their tired legs toward the east end of the cafeteria, where their coats and other personal affects lay on the black tiled floor. Annie, however, stretched briefly, then crouched back down into en garde position, repeating the sequence they had just learned: double advance, then a retreat followed by a “revance” – a step back and then a push forward from the rear leg, extend-lunge.

Coach Dan caught her eye, waved in the direction of the other students. “Get some rest, before sparring starts.”

“I’m not tired.” Annie continued the drill, her focus intensified in defiance of her coach’s advice.

“You’re working your tail off.” She gave no indication of having heard her coach. “Must – “

“Hey Coach?” Dan spun in the direction of Rex’s voice, eyebrows raised. “You know, that – ” the teen’s voice grew soft – “thing, we talked about last week.”

Coach Dan scratched the short black curls of his beard a moment. “You know – ” his voice even softer – “the offer?”

“Yes, yes.” Coach Dan snapped fingers above his head.

Annie came out of her stance. “What offer?”

The volunteer coach of the Bark Bay High School fencing team raised two palms in her direction. “For now, this has to be a conversation between Rex and me, my friend.” He spoke quietly, his words intended for her alone, and she saw in his face a touch of apology, and a promise to be more open with her in the future.

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