“You must be tired,” silver-haired Carl Hutchinson called to her daughter, who responded with a dismissive shake of her brown pony-tail – “I’m not tired. Where’s Double-J?”
Annie stabbed her gaze at Coach Dan, who shrugged and looked over at Butch and Rune, shaking their heads in unison. The Bird’s soft voice announced that Double-J was outside; Annie spun quickly, startling the slender girl – “He left?”
The Bird told her no, and pointed toward the swinging half-doors at the far end of the dining room. “He’s in the kitchen?”
“No,” Rex’s voice commanding her attention. “He said he was going outside, for a smoke.”
In an aggressive walk, Annie pushed through the swinging doors, across the kitchen, past the rear door into the cold winter night, the noise from the hinges barely stopping before she heard Double-J’s mocking voice to her right – “Little chilly to be wearing just your fencing jacket.”
She turned, saw Double-J leaning against the brick wall just outside the doorway, a cigarette dangling between the index and middle fingers of his right hand, held out from his body, the elbow propped against his left hand as he held it across his body. Next to him stood one of the Squisito employees, white jacket lightly stained from the evening meal’s sauces and seasonings. He held his cigarette between his lips, the red glare of the lit end shining in the darkness. The pale kitchen light that reflected off Double-J’s white face and displayed his sarcastic grin seemed to be absorbed by the other man’s dark skin, obscuring his expression from her.
“Excuse me.” The Squisito employee (Jimmy, Annie remembering the name tag she had read earlier) took a step towards the door, only to be stopped by Annie – “It’s OK.” She then turned to Double-J. “You’re the only one I haven’t fenced yet.”
Double-J snorted. “There’s a reason for that,” his right arm levering up at the elbow to bring the cigarette to his mouth.
“I’m not letting you chicken out on me.”
“Call it what you want, I’m not taking part in this silly exhibition you’re putting on for your parents. Go ahead and fence Coach Dan, if you really want a bout.” He raised his dark eyebrows – “Or Jimmy.” Annie looked over, finding enough light to see no sign of surprise in his face, no reaction that indicated he found Double-J’s offer unusual. Jimmy exhaled slowly, twin streams of smoke exiting his nostrils like a dragon.
“You fence?” Annie hoped she gauged his reaction correctly.
“Back in the day.” Jimmy’s tone was coldly analytical. “Long time ago.”
“Where? I mean, I assume it wasn’t any place – local. Oh God,” she drew back, raising a hand to her forehead, “I didn’t mean to say that.”
Double-J uttered a groaning laugh. Jimmy smiled, shook his head. “You’re not the first person to assume I’m not from around here. Probably won’t be the last either. It’s OK, Miss Hutchinson, and you’re right, it weren’t no place local. The parochial school I went to in New Orleans had a fencing team. I played around, couple years.”
Jimmy shrugged. “Foil, like everyone else. Little epee too. Was best at saber, like our friend Mr. Johnson over here.”
“Christ, call me Double-J.”
Annie had regained her composure. “You didn’t fence in college?”
Jimmy grinned, shook his head. “Didn’t go to no college, Miss Hutchinson.” He brought his cigarette up to his mouth, inhaled deeply, the red glare at the tip drawing in and vaporizing the white paper. He brought his hand down, turned his head to the side twisting his mouth in the same direction, exhaled smoke behind him. “Fencing was something I did as a kid. Soon as I got done with school, I started working. Don’t have much time for games no more.”
She couldn’t leave that statement unchallenged. “You make time for the things you care about.”
Double-J rolled his eyes, turned away from Annie, drew on his cigarette. Jimmy looked at her, still smiling, but noticeably more serious. “All right then. No, I didn’t care enough about the sport to continue.”
“Or stay in New Orleans.” Double-J’s sudden question caught Jimmy by surprise, for a moment. He drew on his cigarette.
“Spent ten years in the Navy,” smoke puffing from his mouth as Jimmy spoke. “And even though all I saw of the world was what I could see through a periscope, I saw enough to know where I wanted to be, what I was looking for when I got out, could go anywhere I wanted.”
“And you chose Bark Bay because . . . ” Annie’s voice trailing off commanded Jimmy to answer, which he did with a shrug – “Bugs. Wanted to go some place that didn’t have no bugs. They all over the place in New Orleans, but here, most of them die off from the cold.” The metallic sound of a bowl bouncing on a formica counter came from the kitchen doorway; Jimmy threw down his cigarette, stomped and twisted his foot down on it – “I’d best be getting back” – then walked briskly past Double-J and Annie.
The door had yet to close behind Jimmy when Annie turned to Double-J – “Still want to fence you tonight.”
Cigarette balanced between his lips, he leaned against the brick wall behind him, left leg bent at the knee and foot propped against the wall. “Not interested,” cigarette bouncing up and down as he spoke.
“Ah come on. We can do saber if you want.”
Double-J looked down, his disinterest in the conversation as tangible as the winter chill.
A creak from the hinges announced that the door from the kitchen was opening. Annie turned, saw her silver-haired father lean outside, hand grasping the door knob. “Tables are ready – we’re ready to start dinner.”
Annie thanked him, said she would be there in a minute, her father nodding in reply and closing the door quickly, as if to protect his house from winter drafts. Annie took a step towards the door, paused, then turned to Double-J.
“You’re our best fencer. Not only that, you make everyone else better. Every time you show up to practice, or show up at a tournament, you bring an energy, a focus, that we don’t have when you’re not there. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I just want you to know that what you do, and don’t do, has an impact on all of us.”
Double-J continued to look down. He shrugged.
Annie grunted – “Just think about it” – and opened the door to the kitchen.
The Third Tuesday
“I’ll think about it.” Annie, knees on the cafeteria floor, continued stuffing fencing jackets into the canvas sack.
“What’s there to think about?” Standing above her with hands on hips, Double-J gave no indication of wanting to help Annie. “Coach has a teacher’s union meeting tonight, and with Rune not being here you can’t bum a ride off his parents.”
Annie looked past Double-J, waved towards The Bird and Butch; without looking, she could feel his dismissive scowl. “They’re on the other side of the river. C’mon, get your stuff together, I’ll take you home.”
She unflexed her knees quickly, rising sharply and with a bounce on her feet, then turned to where The Bird and Butch were standing in their street clothes, all fencing equipment now stowed in their respective sacks. She approached the two younger teens, and seeing The Bird’s widening eyes, explained she was getting a ride from Double-J. “Be sure to thank your Mom for her offer, and tell her good luck with rehearsals.”
The Bird thanked her, quickly adding that her mother was pretty excited to be working again with some of her old acting friends.
“That’s great.” Annie turned around fully, walked in the direction of Double-J, waiting at the metal double-doors that lead out of the cafeteria, his hand on the waist-high horizontal release bar.
“So what’s the deal with The Bird’s mother?” Double-J opened the door with a loud ka-klack.
“She’s in that production of Hamlet we’re going to see next month.” She followed him out into the hallway leading to the school’s rear entrance.
“Christ, that’s right.” Double-J shoved open one of the four glass doors leading to the narrow entryway, then turned his back and pushed open an exit door, stiff wind whipping pellets of snow in the cold winter night air. “Forgot we were conscripted into going.”
Annie ducked her head down as she walked forward, following Double-J’s footsteps. “Don’t see what you’re complaining about. We’re getting to go for free.”
“That’s not” – a gust of wind caught in his throat, forcing him to turn against the wind – “the point. Wouldn’t want to see Hamlet if they paid me.”
“Coach Dan says – ” she paused to recover from a sudden wind-induced intake of cold air – “some good stage fencing.”
“Who cares?” Reaching his coupe, he dug his hand into a coat pocket. “It’s fake, like saying you want to see a fight, and then you go watch a pro wrestling match.”
“He said Mr. Nestor – ”
“Can we drop this?” Double-J retrieved keys from his jacket, jammed one into the lock like it was a silver dagger. He opened his door, then stopped as he noticed Annie brushing the snow that had accumulated on the windshield – “What the hell are you doing?”
“Just trying to help.” She continued brushing.
Double-J scoffed, sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition, the coupe rattling awake, the windshield wipers then sweeping across the windshield and nearly hitting Annie, arcs of snow left in the mechanical wake that were only partly cleared during the return sweep. His guttural voice hurtled from his mouth, then veered left through the open door, took a sharp turn forward and across the front hood of the coupe, to where Annie stood on the passenger side – “All set.”
“I’ll get the back.”
“Jesus, will you get in the fucking car already?”
Annie stared at him a moment, her view of him obscured through the streaks of snow on the windshield. She saw her reflection, noticed her mouth was open, her eyes surprised. She shook her head, composed herself, did a quick check of her reflection to verify she was bearing the proper countenance, then turned her glance in the direction of Double-J’s eyes.
“In case you forgot, it was your idea to give me a ride. But hey, if you decide it’s too much of a pain in the ass for you, I can go ask The Bird’s mother to take me home. Otherwise, if you’re done with whatever the hell it is you’re trying to prove, I’d like to finish the job I started, so we can get going. Got it?”
She saw him raise his eyebrows, pause, then nod quickly several times. “Come here.”
Annie walked around the front of the car, stomping snow from her shoes as she made her way to the open door. She saw Double-J grinning up at her.
“Here you go.” He pulled a snow brush from the passenger seat, and handed it to her.