A pair of white-jacketed Squisito employees, arriving to set up tables and folding chairs for the upcoming meal, were promptly turned away as Coach Dan placed the equipment sacks on the dining room floor. Laura Hutchinson approached him with her smiling pearls – “Carl and I are looking forward to finally seeing Annie compete. We see her practice, but I imagine it’s just not the same as a – game, or battle, or whatever you call it.”
“Bout will work.” Coach Dan opened the sack containing the team’s fencing jackets. ‘Have to admit, I was surprised you agreed to this.” He cocked his head sideways. “Not many people are inclined to host sword fights in their dining room.”
“Oh, we’ve had worse, believe me.” Laura laughed, then sighed. “It’s important for us to see her, in this world. Annie’s always been a strong-willed child, but I’ve always been able to talk to her, make her come around to my point of view.” Coach Dan stopped, looked up at Laura, silently encouraging her to continue. “Ever since she’s been fencing, though – my opinion doesn’t seem to matter to her anymore.”
Coach Dan nodded. “One thing I’ve learned from Annie, is that the best way to get her to listen is to let her say what’s on her mind. She’s not one to listen to a lecture, or follow orders blindly. What she wants is – the best way I can describe it, is a conversation with the world.”
The hurried rhythm from the carpeted staircase announced the return of Annie, looking far different than she had earlier that evening, her holiday sweater having been exchanged with a long-sleeved collarless white shirt bearing on its sternum the blue Old English D trademarked by the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, her dress pants replaced with track pants purchased in a store whose prices elicited varying levels of derision and intimidation from her teammates, her loafers replaced with inexpensive athletic shoes representing her family’s refusal to spend lavishly on items with only temporary use, her jewelry left behind in her bedroom.
Coach Dan greeted her as her feet glided onto the marbled floor of the dining room. “You appear to be ready. So – ” his bearded head pivoting so as to land his vision on all of his students – “who’s our first challenger?”
Butch’s eyes got big as he looked quickly back and forth between his teammates. The Bird quickly turned away, Rune shook his head, Rex smiled and looked down on the floor, and Double-J did his best to ignore everyone in his room, his eyes examining the buffet line with exaggerated interest.
“If I may – ” Laura stepped into the middle of the dining room, the ceiling lights reflecting off the shining marbled surface and illuminating the pearls that smiled from her bosom – “I would like to see the ladies fence each other first.” She extended her arm towards The Bird, whose only response was a wide-eyed silence.
“This would be a good time,” Annie pulling up beside her mother, “for you to finally pick up a blade.”
“What’s this?” Standing next to The Bird, Carl Hutchinson sounded amused. “A member of the fencing team, who doesn’t actually fence?”
“In Europe, novice fencers do not touch a weapon at all in their first year.” Coach Dan’s voice had resumed its pedagogical command. He walked over to The Bird, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Of course that approach doesn’t go over well in the US, but we still must be cautious about introducing new challenges to my students. I’ll leave it to you, my friend – would you care to fence this evening?”
The Bird looked up at the bearded middle-aged teacher with a look of relieved appreciation. And told him she preferred not to fence. She then looked over with her dark eyes at Annie, who smiled in return.
The First Monday
The Bird looked up, surprise and a hint of fear evident in the width of her dark eyes. Annie extended her right hand out to her, palm down. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” The athletic teen then placed her lunch tray onto the grey metal table across from her dark-eyed friend.
Over the next few minutes, Annie’s offerings of polite, safe conversation topics went largely unrewarded, her inquiries on The Bird’s health, school work, and opinion regarding the culinary merit of the lasagna served that day being met with silent nods and the occasional monosyllabic utterance, yeah no OK I guess.
The Bird finally raised her dark eyes when Annie asked whether she was enjoying fencing. She replied that yes, it was about the only thing she actually enjoyed about school.
“That’s great,” Annie’s ponytail bobbing up and down as she nodded. “Your footwork’s coming along real well.”
The Bird replied that it was the dance lessons, like Annie had said one time at practice.
“You fence with your feet.” Annie took a bite of her lasagna, her nose curling in distaste. The Bird then asked how many years had the two of them taken classes at the Courthouse Studio? Annie swallowed, threw her head back – “Oh God. Dancing Poodles, don’t remind me!”
In a lilting mock voice, The Bird reminded Annie that Miss Daigle had been a Rockette; she felt the darkness in her eyes disappearing in her dawning smile.
“And she made sure to remind us of that, at least once a lesson, more often if we acted up.” Annie’s ponytail pranced behind her. “And oh – remember Miss Downey?”
The Bird leaned forward over the table, closed eyes that no longer seemed so dark, and burst with a laugh that startled the students sitting nearby.
“Very well, then – ” Coach Dan lifted his hand off The Bird’s shoulder, pointed now at Butch – “how about our other newcomer?”
“Oh!” Butch looked around him, eyes wide in exaggerated surprise, as the room percolated with laughter. A moment later, he had agreed to compete against Annie, the two teens rummaging through the sack of uniforms.
With Rune’s assistance, Butch squeezed himself into the fencing tunic, his body stretching the faded white linen like icing expanding a pastry bag. Carl Hutchinson came up to Coach Dan as he fastened the zipper in the back of Butch’s jacket. “Is there a reason why the uniforms are all white?”
“Tradition, more than anything.” He finished with the zipper, slapped Butch lightly on the back. “Goes back to the days when fencing turned into a scored competition, instead of a blood sport. Back then there were foils with these little prongs at the end of them.” He picked up a nearby foil, held up its tip to Carl and tapped the plastic end to help him visualize where the prongs sat. “They’d dip a piece of cotton in red paint, and put it at the end of the foil, where the prongs held it in place. When you hit your opponent – if I may,” pointing his foil gently in the direction of Carl, who nodded to allow Coach Dan to touch him with its tip – “some of the red paint was supposed to get on your opponent’s uniform. Back then, you were required to wear white uniforms to make it easier to see when you got hit. Electronic scoring’s eliminated the need for wearing white, but by the time that came around white uniforms had become a long-standing tradition that nobody was willing to challenge.”
Carl’s eyes widened. “How interesting!”
“Of course, back when they were still using paint some fencers figured out they could coat their uniforms to repel paint – that was fencing’s first cheating scandal.”
Butch grabbed a fencing mask, stood across from Annie in the dining room, scrunched the mask over his head, dropped his foil kak-klang on the marbled floor, excused himself, twisted his mask until it was in position, picked up his foil, crouched down into en garde position, located the tip of his foil with his eyes, then pointed it in the direction of Annie.
She stood facing him, her legs together, feet perpendicular to each other, mask not on her head but cradled under her left arm, the right arm holding her foil, pointed down directly in front of her right foot. On her face was a smile more polite than patient.
Annie cleared her throat. Butch stood up, pointed his foil down, the opaque gray metal of his mask unable to conceal the confusion on his face. Annie rolled her eyes, smiled, then swiftly extended her right arm into the air, the foil in her hand rising, the blade extending from her arm in a line that extended to a point on the ceiling above Butch’s head.
Annie cleared her throat again.
“Oh!” said Butch, suddenly reaching up for his mask, his left hand grasping the handle on the back, the right hand reaching for a grasping point on the front as it continued to hold his foil, which then fell from his hand. Butch tried to catch it with his foot before the handle fell on the floor kang, his foot the kicking the blade which scuttled across the marble klik klik skree towards Annie. Distracted by the foil, Butch dropped his mask KUNK.
Annie stood still, foil still extended in salute, her smiling lips now curled up into her mouth, her ribs vibrating with an embarrassed laugh.
Butch reached down for his mask, accidentally kicking it bu-bunk. “I’m really sorry,” he said, finally grabbing the mask.
A white-jacketed Squisito employee hurried in from the kitchen, anxiety on his face. Carl Hutchinson turned to him, smiled, held up his hand. “No worries,” then turned to Coach Dan. “We’ll start the bout before young master Goodman manages to impale himself.”
Rex assisted Butch with gathering his equipment, and with an audible exhale accompanied with an embarrassed smile Butch turned to Annie, still waiting, still holding her salute, still politely smiling, ponytail still at attention. Butch extended his arm to return her salute – his blade striking the base of the chandelier, ting. The room percolated with murmured laughter as Annie finally lowered her weapon arm, brought the hilt of her foil in front of her chin, then extended her weapon forward and down with an audible whoosh. Butch mimicked her actions with the deliberate slowness of a driver decelerating five miles below the speed limit after receiving a speeding ticket.
The Second Tuesday
“Butch, hold on.” Annie walked up to the rotund teen, then commanded him to lift his right arm; she reached to his armpit and poked two fingers through a large hole in his fencing jacket.
Coach Dan approached the two teens. “Good eye, Annie. Butch, that jacket’s not safe, go put a different one on.” He waved in the direction of the canvas sacks that stored their equipment.
“Aw man.” Butch sounded genuinely disappointed. “This is the only one that fits me good.”
Coach Dan shook his head. “Sorry, safety first. There’s a couple other extra larges in there.” He walked in the direction of the sakes, 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.”
“And count your blessings,” Coach Dan added.
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?”
After completing his salute, Butch placed his foil on the floor before sliding the mask over his head. He then picked up his weapon and crouched down in the direction of Annie, who was waiting for him in en garde position.