A Lesson Not Taught

The Tuesday after the next

Coach Dan knew practicing just three days after Rex’s injury would be difficult for the team, but he also knew cancelling would only exacerbate the psychological wound that had been inflicted along with the gash to Rex’s arm. As his sneakered feet squeaked down the wide corridor to the cafeteria entrance that afternoon (late for the start of practice due to a mandatory faculty meeting), he wondered who would show today; obviously Annie (We are having practice this week right? was the message she’d left on his school voicemail), most likely Juan (not being at regionals he hadn’t witnessed Saturday’s tragedy), and . . . no other names came immediately to his mind. Both Butch and The Bird were distraught at seeing Rex injured so badly, blood streaming like water from a burst hose out the gash in his arm, turning his gray lame crimson. Coach Dan shook his head, shuddered; yes, this practice was as important for him as it was for the students on the team.

Reaching the end of the corridor, he walked left through the open cafeteria doors — and saw something he hadn’t expected to see this academic year, perhaps not ever for however long he would continue coaching the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

The students who still attended the school and had been at more than one fencing team practice the last three years — Coach Dan couldn’t be sure, but judging by the numbers this had to be all of them. Close to thirty students, many who hadn’t been to any practice that year, some who hadn’t been seen close to two. Coy, OK, Big and Little Paul — Micky, Zeph — of course Annie was there, standing next to Jimmy at the center of an uneven semicircle formed by past and present student fencers, even Butch and yes, The Bird, lingering outside the semicircle.

“Daniel.” He felt scores of eyes turning towards him like search lights at the sound of Jimmy’s voice. “You hear any more, ’bout that boy?”

“Nothing recent.” The semicircle morphed, forming around their coach. “He went home this morning, sure you all hear that.”

“Been sleeping a lot.” So great was his disbelief, Dan was certain he had mistaken the identity of the voice behind him. He spun, saw that he had not been mistaken after all as Double-J’s caustic gaze fell on him. “But he was up this afternoon, made him eat. Won’t be coming back to school this week, doctors orders, and — ” he uttered a solitary, scoffing laugh — “obviously, he ain’t gonna be fencing any time soon.”

Annie walked in front of Coach Dan, her brown pony-tail waving at Double-J behind her. “I talked to everyone, we’ve got meals planned for his family, next couple weeks.”

The volunteer fencing coach and seven-year high school English instructor at Bark Bay put his hands on Annie’s shoulders, nodding with approbation — “Thank you.” Then turning back towards the semicircle of students, he laid an arm across the back shoulders of Annie, who embraced her arms around his round stomach; sweeping his other arm into the air, Coach Dan called for attention.

“Most of you here today — came for a few reasons, all related to Rex. To find out what really happened on Saturday, to hear how he’s doing now — ” he waved the arm behind him, towards Double-J — “but most importantly of all, because you care for Rex, love him like the big brother he’s been to many of you.”

He felt mucus forming in his throat, covered his mouth and coughed, let his arm fall to the side. “What happened to Rex on Saturday, no words are adequate to describe. Accidents such as that are rare in fencing, but when they do happen they can be quite grisly, as those of us who were there can attest.”

He glanced to his left, saw the team’s equipment sacks, unopened, leaning against the short wall in front of the stage. “People ask me all the time — teachers, students, people in town — why I’m a fencing coach. And if I have the time, I give them the full story, from that time I met ol’ Josef — ” his emphasis drawing the appreciative giggle of recognition he expected — “but mostly there’s no time to get into all that, so I just say that being a fencing coach, allows me to see my students learn lessons I could never teach, insights I could never hope to provide in any classroom.” He caught the eyes of Butch, standing at the far left of the semicircle, and quickly but pointedly made his way across the sea of faces in front of him. “And I can see today, you’ve learned one of those lessons — that none of us are alone.” He felt Annie squeeze his stomach. “None of us, needs ever feel that we’re alone.”

A slow, sharp clapping of hands from the equipment sacks. Coach Dan turned, saw Double-J frowning. “Nice speech, Jacobs. But if you don’t mind — ” the burly teen stooped down, picked up a saber, lifted it along with his body up, the weapon pointing directly at his coach — “some of us would like to get ready for States.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 19]

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Questions at the Stairs

Try absense of blade this time. “Allez.” Here you go buddy, take that center while I shows yous my entire target area. Hesitates — hasn’t seen this before, doesn’t know what to do. Step forward, he backs up, matching my tempo, this is working perfectly. Attack, here comes the counter don’t flinch, EEEP EEEP. “Attack left, is tooch.” Awesome awesome, got it tied at 4. Not enough to make a noble comeback, going for the WIN.

The coupe conveyed its silent occupants through the town, turning east on the county road, three point two miles past the Gulf station, a house seemingly far too large for its two occupants on the left, the windows dark. The Bird remembered her mother was filming in the city, would be home late — her mouth opening as awareness came to her.

Car tires crunched into the soft gravel of the driveway; hitting a hidden pothole, the car jerked down to the right, splashing the partly unfrozen contents underneath, then righted itself as the vehicle regained level ground. The front door, a second later.

The Bird thanked Double-J for the ride home; he peaked his right cheek, inhaled, kchk. “No problem. Good talking to ya.” Clearing her throat (which she rarely did), The Bird then suggested he come in for a while. She examined his face, saw the briefest glimmer of a smile, then a look of serenity proffered with a conviction that would, she thought, have pleased her thespian mother — “Awright. If that’s what you want.”

His slender passenter unlatched the coupe’ door, swung it open with a push of her right hand without looking. Caught Double-J’s gaze, smiled at him with her eyes. Waited for him to begin exiting, before swining her legs out of the coupe.

She walked swiftly up the front steps, flipped a switch to the left of the door, an overhead light beaming down on her. She turned, saw Double-J approach. Held up a hand. Her face hidden in the shadow formed by the light.

Double-J held his arms up, as if pleading. “What’s up?” So she told him about the afternoon she had called him, at the shop. How she didn’t think he would want to talk to her about the fencing team, how she’d assumed he was done with it. The burly teen nodded up at her — “That’s right.”

The Bird sighed, frowning. Said that’s what she thought, and why she’d assumed he wouldn’t want to meet with her. And nothing he’d said on the phone that afternoon, gave any indication he’d changed his mind. And then — her lips turned up — then, she said, he asked when her mother was bringing in her car for the new brake pads she’d ordered.

His eyes widened, head nodding down to the left. “Figgered since they’d come in — ”

I told you, she continued, that the earliest she could come in was Thursday. Because she was working in the city through Wednesday, would be home late each night. And after I said that, she added, he’d changed the subject back to the fencing team, and all of a sudden he was like sure, I’ll meet with you, but it had to be that day, Tuesday, or tonight, Wednesady. That you were working evenings, rest of the week.

Double-J dipped his head down, closed his eyes. And began to grin. Lifted his head — “I believe you are insinuating — ” opened his eyes, grin spreading — “that I have an ulterior motive.”

A cold brace of March wind whipped against The Bird’s face. Then said she was actually suggesting he was trying to get her to do what he’d wanted.

He nodded. Then raised his palms gently up at her, approached slowely. Lifted his right foot, placed it on the first step. “Seems to me, that all I’m trying to do — is go to that place you’ve always wanted to see me at.”

He waited, looking up at her. The Bird took her hands out of the coat pockets, said she had one more question — was there anything someone could say, anything somebody could do, that could change his mind about the fencing team, make him come back to practice, show up for the regional tournament at the end of the month.

Double-J was shaking his head before she could finish her question. “There ain’t nuthin’ there for me, no more.” And then his left foot raised, landed on the second step, The Bird waiting for him as he continued to ascend towards her.

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 18]

An Accidental Abonimation

Two Saturdays to come

“Can I help you?” The orderly’s question was more a command, intended to stop the young man who had been running down the white-tiled third floor of building G in County General Hospital. Double-J hustled past her, then suddenly stopped himself. Turned to face the orderly — “Room 221.” Without taking her wary eyes off the teen, the orderly pointed wordlessly behind her, thumb pointing to Double-J’s left.

A moment later he had swept into 221. Sitting on a chair, Annie looked up, raising a finger vertically across her lips. Coach Dan was standing directly behind her, his attention focused on the occupant of the hospital bed beneath him.

“Jesus!” Double-J raced up to the open side of the bed, nearly knocking over a portable tray stand. “Rex — ”

Coach Dan’s hand, extended across the bed and onto his right shoulder, stopped him. “Leave him be. He’s lost a lot of blood, needs the rest.”

Double-J nodded, gazed down on his friend. Rex’s face, turned slightly towards Coach Dan, looked calm but pale. His right arm, closest to Double-J, was not visible under a heavy wrapping of bandage. An IV tube, dangling from a stand next to Coach Dan, extended down to his left arm. Double-J sniffed, reached down with his left hand, which hovered over Rex’s forehead a moment, then waved down and met his right hand to squeeze the sleeping teen’s hand.

Annie stood. “Francis feels terrible.” Her voice weak, distant.

“He should.” Double-J released his grip, glared up at Coach Dan. “Cutting a guy — ”

“It was an accident.” Coach Dan wasn’t sure how much Annie had told him when she called. “Just a cut to the arm, nothing vicious. Rex caught him with a strong parry, too strong, Francis’ blade broke on impact. No way to stop his momentum, and the broken blade . . . ” The volunteer fencing coach at Bark Bay High School sighed, nodding in the direction of Rex’s bandaged arm.

“He’ll be OK.” Stepping beside her coach, Annie seemed to regain her strength. “It was — there was blood all over the place, but they’ve sewn up the wound.”

Coach Dan almost smiled, raised a hand to Annie’s shoulder. “Your tourniquet — while everyone else was freaking out, you raced in there. They say what you did, saved his arm.”

The teen showed no sign of satisfaction. “They’ll keep him a couple days, make sure there’s no infection. Soonest he could go home’s Monday.”

Double-J nodded, looked down again at Rex, the only person at Bark Bay High School he could unreservedly call his friend. He could hear Rex breathing, shallow and labored — and realized how unusual that was. Rex was quiet, if he wasn’t in your field of vision you could easily forget he was around. Double-J shouldn’t hear him breathing, shouldn’t be seeing this person lying helpless in a hospital bed. Rex shouldn’t be here, neither should he; Rex should be back in his family’s trailer, he at Lefty’s shop. Their presence in this antispetic room was an abomination.

Double-J thrust his left hand down, striking the bed next to Rex’s pillow. Grabbing the bed’s rail with his right hand, closed his eyes as he leaned over — and with an effort that looked like he was squeezing tears from his eyes, wept.

Across the bed, Coach Dan and Annie were paralyzed at the sound of Double-J’s wail, EEEEH – EEEEH – EEEH – EEEH. Neither could remember seeing him this vulnerable. Annie took a step to her left, towards the other side of the bed — but stopped as she saw Double-J lift his face.

No trace of sorrow. Face red and wet with rage.

“My fault.” He exhaled, lungs rattling. “Shouldn’t have given him my equipment. He weren’t ready for saber — ”

“He would have been, if I’d been around.” Coach Dan shook his head. “Jimmy could have worked with him, instead of running the team.”

“No, it’s me.” Annie patting her chest. “Should have been his strip coach, instead of hanging out with my friends.”

“No.” Both Coach Dan and Annie could tell Double-J was restraining from his customary vulgarity. “It was me, who doomed him.” The burly teen stood upright, wiped the wetness off his face. Shook his head, the thin black wires of his hair waving in the dim hospital light. “Nothing more I can do here. I’m going to his trailer, stay with his family ’till he can come home.”

Annie raised her hand. “I can — ”

“No you can’t.” And without looking back, Double-J raced out of the room like man escaping prison.

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 17]

Ruinous Sleep

Reach into the bag — “Allez.” Set the point in line, let him take the center. He pauses — good. Goes for my blade, misses my disengage but keeps coming, lunge, EEEP EEEP. Dammit, got him on the edge not the point, ref calls it right we’re done; right hand extends out, he’s giving it to me! Other guy’s arguing about the point but the ref’s not agreeing, dunno if he doesn’t know the rule or didn’t see how I hit, but I’ll take it.

A quarter mile from the Pizza Place, Double-J steered his coupe left, towards the center of the town which he and The Bird called, with more resignation than satisfaction, home. By this early evening hour, the streets of Bark Bay were mostly deserted, the majority of businesses and even most of the restaurants and gas stations closed, sidewalks empty of pedestrians, isolated vehicles crawling along the roads like stray animals. For The Bird it was a familiar scene, especially in winter, but experiencing it with Double-J inspired her to speak, saying it looked like the entire town was sleeping.

“Good.” He wiped his black mustache with the back of his right hand. “If they knew any better, they’d stay that way. They’d do less damage, and it’d make it easier to put them out of their misery.”

The Bird was accustomed to Double-J’s bombast, and while this latest statement was hardly uncharacteristic, she decided a challenge was necessary, asking if he was actually proposing murder. The sound that came in response seemed a combination of sneeze, cough, and growl. “Not worth the effort. ‘Sides, would make them martyrs. No, better let them all die quietly, be killed by their own ineptitude. Implode, rather than explode.”

Even Rex? Her bold question surprised even The Bird.

From behind the steering wheel, Double-J’s eyes narrowed, lips drawing back. Her latest question had clearly upset him, a fact which demonstrated to The Bird that she was moving in the right direction.

“Rex — ” Double-J ran his tongue across the bottom of his mustache — “his family, they’re victims. Been punished all their lives by this town’s hypocrisy. We’ll help you, but only if you can prove — ” he jumped on the coupe’s brake pedal, nearly passing a red light — “The churches, all those charity organizations, they ain’t nothing but tax dodges. Helping people like Rex’s family, this town has no interest in paying what it takes to do that.” The traffic light turned green, Double-J revving the coupe forward. “Rex and his family, are examples of how this town can grind people down to ruin. When they’re awake.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 16]

Development

Double-J lifted his mask, revealing a face red with rage and exertion. Waved at Rex with his unarmed hand — “Stay out. Don’t want you getting mixed up in this.”

The tall freshman paused in confusion, shoulder’s sagging in relief as Coach Dan’s voice carried across the cafeteria. “Reffing’s good experience. Let him direct, correct if he makes a mistake.”

Myles spread his arms, palms up, saber dangling from between the middle and index fingers of his right hand. Pointed his forehead at Double-J — “You wouldn’t want to interrupt this lad’s development, do you?” Double-J’s grunt of disgust accentuated the sharp pull of his mask, covering his face.

The bout continued, neither fencer paying much attention to Rex’s calls. Double-J used his advantage in bladework, parrying most attacks that came at him, scoring on ripostes. But while Myles was less experienced, he was the far superior athlete — faster, stronger, longer, able to leap and lung to a degree his foe simply couldn’t match. And, as became evident after the first few exchanges, more focused, better able to control his emotions. Each attack that came through his defense, each riposte that did not land, caused Double-J to growl, scowling visibly behind his gray metal face. Myles responded to his mistakes with curiosity (now isn’t that interesting), humor (that would have worked, if you were using a dagger), even what seemed at times gratitude (dude, thanks for not letting me score with slop). And as his enthusiasm grew, so too did Myles’ skill — at the same time as Double-J’s frustration, and lack of conditioning, caused him to begin surrendering more touches than he scored.

Having returned from a spar with a sophomore, Juan Kwon walked up behind Rex. “What’s the score?”

Rex blinked. “I didn’t — ”

“Eight – six.” Myles pointed across the makeshift strip. “He’s up — for now.” Double-J had been leaning forward, hands on knees, but at his opponent’s words stood erect, then crouched into en garde position.

“Fence.” At Rex’s command, Double-J charged forward, Myles letting him reach the center and then springing straight up, weapon arm flying forward, the thin metal of his blade whipping in an arc that swept down until it landed, with a sound that was a little bit tink and a lot more tunk, directly on top of Double-J’s mask.

“Halt.” Remembering Coach Dan’s instructions, Rex paused, recreating the action in his head before speaking. “Preparation, no attack on the right. Attack left — ” right arm pointed straight at Double-J, left hand raising towards Myles — “tooch.”

“Finish up, my friends.” Walking across a patch of sunlight reflecting off the cafeteria floor, Coach Dan pointed up at the large analog clock on the southern wall. “Polishing the floors tonight — gotta be out in five.”

Myles had already returned to en garde. “To nine, then.” At Rex’s command, Myles raced to the center this time, his exhausted opponent ceding the position, waiting to parry. A flinch towards the head — Double-J did not move — Myles brought his arm down, flinched again to the head, then began to bring his arm down again before deftly jabbing forward, blade crashing into mask.

“Eight all!” Myles pranced back to his starting line, gyrating in celebration as he did after racing into the end zone or drilling a three-pointer, not noticing until he had crouched back down into en garde that he no longer had an opponent. For Double-J had plowed past Rex and Juan, was in the process of tearing off his equipment, paying no attention to Coach Dan’s calm firm voice as he reached the team’s equipment sacks, threw down his gear, and left the cafeteria in a storm of profanity.

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 15C]

Friends and Enemies

“Edge weapon.” Stepping towards his starting line at the makeshift strip, Myles looked down at the blade of his saber with amusement. “How charmingly inprecise.” Lifted his gaze, catching Double-J’s eyes — “Johnson, you DO know that the only reason saber is still considered a legitimate competition weapon, is to keep the Russians from leaving the FIE?”

“This ain’t Russia.” Double-J extended his right arm up and out, the saber he held forming a line that extended from his shoulder to a point on the ceiling above and past  Myles’ head.  “And this ain’t one of those stupid point weapons.” He brought his weapon down swiftly, blade audibly cutting the distance between the two teens. “Seems to me, saber’s the closest thing we got in this sport, to a weapon a person would actually use in the real world.”

“HA!” Myles rocked his hand back and forth, the blade of the saber he was holding waving like a solitary strand of uncooked spaghetti. “What the hell could anyone do with this thing? Break up a robbery?”

Coach Dan’s chuckle was faint yet distinctive under the current of conversations among the team. He lifted his chin, arms still folded and body leaning against the short stage wall — “You love birds want a ref?”

Myles turned and nodded, but Double-J’s voice shot out — “Nah. This’ll be quick.” Myles glanced back at his opponent, smirked, and after a salute more obligatory than sincere, put on his fencing mask as Double-J did the same.

The two teens crouched down, right arms bent forward; Myles slapped his thigh with his left hand, and the two teens stepped toward each other aggressively. Myles slashed towards Double-J’s head; two thin blades of steel collided, the crisp sound catching the attention of the other team members. The blades slid off each other, hitting the other fencer in the mask.

“YA!” Double-J’s left arm bolted in the air like a victory flag.

“Nah, that’s mine.” Myles stepped back, raised his left hand, brought his blade down and past his open palm. “My attack landed, before your parry.”

“My parry.” Double-J pointed the tip of his saber directly at Myles’ chest. “Can’t talk your way outta this.”

Rex!” At the sound of his coach’s commanding voice, the freshman (not only the tallest in his class, but already close to being the tallest at the entire school) jogged over from the canvas sacks that carried the team’s equipment. Coach Dan unfolded his arms, pushed his body off from the wall, spoke in a hushed but direct tone with his student.

Without further discussion, Myles and Double-J returned to their starting lines, charged at each other again at Myles’ command. Double-J’s metal wing slashed at Myles arm, Myles following the attack with his own. As if in unison, both competitors raised their arms, exclaiming.

“His attack.” Juan had approached the combatants, pointed at Double-J.

“Missed,” Myles shaking his head. “Knew he was going to be short, so I countered.” Pointing to the sophomore — “his remise came after the counter.”

Double-J yelled, the force of his exclamation almost as startling as its vulgarity. His point threatened Myles’ chest once again — “Not LETTING you STEAL this from me!”

From behind his gray metal mask, a frown could be seen to grow on Myles’ lips. Lifting his left hand gently like a man retrieving his wallet in front of a nervous mugger, the starting point guard who had lead the boys’ basketball team to last year’s Division Three semi-finals grabbed the bottom of the mask’s cloth bib, pulled it slowly up and away from under his chin until his face, now smiling, was visible, the mask coming to rest like a turtle on top of his head. “Johnson — you DO know this is supposed to be a friendly — ”

“There’s no FRIENDS in fencing!” Double-J gave no indication he would even consider removing his mask. “The very MOMENT you get on strip and point a weapon at me, you’re the ENEMY!”

“Excuse me?” Three sets of eyes turned towards the soft voice coming from the elongated body approaching them. Rex had been, along with Double-J, one of three students to attend the first practice in October, and while that third student had long since left and been forgotten, the freshman and sophomore had developed a close friendship, one that strengthened as the team’s membership had exploded after Myles’ arrival. “Coach Dan — ” a slender pipe extended behind Rex — “he asked me, to be your ref?” His voice rose with each word, the inflection changing from declarative to inquisitive, as if he were suddenly questioning the reason for his arrival.

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 15B]

Silent Manipulations

“Allez.” Meet at center, parry the head cut, riposte counter-parried, his riposte’s short. Back up, try to get him to overcommit. He’s on to me, staying back. Feint to the arm, doesn’t bite. Step forward, watch — comes under, nips the hand. Dammit. 4-2, need to change my game with this guy.

The Bird wasn’t sure if she should walk beside or behind Double-J on the way to his car. She had trouble reading his emotions, detected neither the anger or frustration she had expected after the confrontation with the two men, no relief either nor embarrassment. In the cold dark of this March evening, he seemed as distant as he’d been when they’d walked out of the Pizza Place.

She walked up to the passenger door, waited. He reached over to the driver’s door handle — “It’s unlocked” — then swung his door open. The Bird had been in Double-J’s car before, usually when being driven home along with another fencing team member (typically Rex, sometimes Butch), but now as she opened the passenger door and folded her body into the seat it came to her that she’d never been alone with him in this car, and this would also be the first time she’d ride in the front seat.

Fastened her seatbelt, noting  Double-J made no attempt to even acknowledge his own. When he turned the ignition (immediately reaching over and turning down the volume of his audio deck), she noted how the entire dashboard erupted in a sea of green and red lights, like the Christmas trees in family homes she would visit with her mother over the holidays. The music was loud but melodious, the performance unfamiliar but unmistakably blues, the sound enticingly exotic. Frpm this new front-seat perspective, the interior of Double-J’s car seemed like the control panel of a spaceship, ready to take her to unexplored worlds.

“I’ll get you home.” Double-J twisted, black bristles of his mustache flying past his right shoulder as he looked back.

She had to know, so she asked him why he’d told the men to wait until Friday. Double-J continued reversing the coupe — “like I said, that’s when I get paid.”

She hoped she’d judged his character correctly as she explained that she had seen how he’d paid in cash for his meal that evening, observed him taking out his roll of bills with a flourish, noticed how he’d made no attempt to conceal from her how much he’d been carrying. He had more than enough cash on hand, she explained, to pay the men the money they thought was theirs. He could have ended their dispute this evening, but had chosen to delay the resolution, for a reason which didn’t make sense to her.

He contorted his face gently as she spoke, seeming almost pleased at her observations, like a teacher relishing in a thoughtful student’s challenge. So she then asked, again, what was it about this Friday that made it different than this evening.

Double-J hmmpfed, mouth closed. “That’s what I like about you, Kassie.” She found it odd that while he had been the first person to call her The Bird, he never used that name when addressing her. “You come up with your own answers, rather than asking questions. Tell people what you see, ‘stead of asking what you should be looking at. Only time you ask a question . . . ” his voice trailed off as he glanced over at her with expectant eyes.

Is when someone knows something I don’t, she said. Or, she added, if someone’s holding back information.

Responding to the force of the driver’s hands and feet, Double-J’s coupe began travelling forward, away from the parking lot and onto Ridge Street. “Henry’s at the Embassy, every Friday.” She remembered the name, the guy who had made the beer run. “Has dinner with his uncle, two doors down from me. If those two clowns show up, I’ll just go over, tell Henry to give them the beer money he collected Saturday.”

The Bird asked what would happen if Henry hadn’t collected money at the party; Double-J’s frown seemed more like a smile hiding under his mustache. “Then that’ll be his problem. And his uncle’s the kinda guy whose got some money and don’t want no problems, first sign of any trouble he’ll likely throw money at them, just to make ’em go away.”

His passenger was beginning to understand. And you didn’t tell those two that Henry would pay them on Friday, she explained — because you wanted to manipulate them, without their realizing.

She saw him lean back in the driver’s seat, arms fully extended as hands cluthed the steering wheel at eight and four, satisfaction beaming from his  mustachioed face. “It’s like being on strip. Setting up your opponent, getting them to do what you want them to do. Same in the real world too — people are easy to control, once you figure out how to push their buttons.” He sighed. “It’s — awesome.”

Twenty-five months ago

Who’s next?” Myles Glossurio’s commanding voice bounced off the concrete walls of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, as eleven pairs of teenaged legs shuffled around him. “Barksdale? Slovich?” No matter the sport, no matter their year or position on the team, no matter their outside relationship to him — during practice, Myles referred to every teammate by their last name.

“Double-J — ” the sophomore looked up with his clean-shaven face as Juan Kwon addressed him — “think it’s about time you showed our captain what it’s like to fence saber.”

Gahd!” Myles’ athletic body walked confidently over to the team’s equipment sacks. “Last time I picked up saber was at the Academy, last month.” He looked over at Coach Dan, arms folded as he leaned against the short wall that served as the front of the cafeteria’s stage. “Who was that guy I beat?”

Coach Dan blinked. “Jamie.”

“Yoder?” Coach Dan nodded in response. “Ha! Dad played in the minors, topped out at Double A.” The golden arm of the school’s All-State quarterback pointed at Double-J. “Gear up, Johnson.”

“Call me Double-J.” He could not control wincing as his adolescent voice cracked. Myles stopped himself, glared back with amused eyes — “Feisty!”

Double-J snarled as he hustled over to the wall where he had left his gear. Picking up mask, glove and weapon, a moment later he positioned himself at the far end of the makeshift strip at the center of the large floor.

 [“Gray Metal Faces,” March 14 and 15A]

An Expensive Loaner

“Yeah.” Rex’s inflection rose with the awareness of what his friend was asking. “You coming?”

Double-J frowned, black mustache curling above his lips. “Nah. Stuff to do.” No conviction in his voice. “Be at Midland, week after.” Coach Dan had already told the team they wouldn’t be competing at Midland.

Jimmy waved an arm towards Rex. “Slim here, says he gonna try’n qualify for saber at states.”

“Heard that.” Nodding, Double-J retreated back to the rear room of the apartment — “hold on” — sounds of scuffing within a closet like a man moving into a new home, the three guests remaining in the small living area. Rex scanned the bare walls, searching and not finding any object to draw his attention.

“Ya, here you go.” The scuffling stopped, and a moment later Double-J returned, carrying a gray oval fencing mask, a silvery lame with sleeves that hung down just above the floor, and the distinctive thin flat blade and curved handle of a saber. Seeing Rex shake his head, the burly teen extended his arms defiantly.

Rex looked down at the equipment with reluctance, as if the offer were a practical joke. “I can’t — ”

“Not like I’m gonna be needin’ these, til Midland.” Several minutes later, Double-J escorted his guests from his apartment at the Embassy, Rex unable to prevent himself from realizing he was now in temporary possession of equipment that cost more than his family’s weekly grocery bill.

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13H]

The Next Visitors

Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, but stopped at the sound of Lefty’s soft but commanding voice. “How long you been working at my shop?”

Surprise flashed on Double-J’s face, was immediately replaced with a disinterested frown. “Dunno. Three, four years.”

Lefty’s five-three-year-old face stared down at the bare floor in front of his chair. “‘member why I let you start working there?”

Double-J laughed sarcastically. “‘cuz I knew more about cars than – ”

“Your daddy brung you.” Lefty’s voice cracked as his tone raised, his face continuing to look down. “Done tol’ me, Lefty, I got to find a way to keep this boy busy. He ain’t the type to be content sittin’ around watching TV or nothin’. He gets restless, then he goes out and gits himself in trouble. And I does what I can for him, but with me being in the service and his mother working in the city, we can’t watch him all the time.”

Rex stared at Lefty, saw tears on his cheeks. He suddenly realized the older man’s breath no longer smelled of onions, the odors of the dirt and grime of the shop didn’t emanate from him like they had before.

“Yo’ daddy, he asked me if I seen you work on engines, and I says yes, he pretty good. And he says he knew you was underage, but I tells ‘im I could keep you in the back, make sure nobody seen you, and if they did I’d pretend to run you off.

“And yo’ daddy thanked me, and he a good man and all but what I didn’t tell him then, still haven’t, is that I didn’t do it for him. I did it for you.” He raised his head, right index finger jabbing at Double-J, tears now dripping from his chin. “I’d known youse from a kid, know what kind of heart you had, knew that everything they was saying about you being a bad boy, a trouble-maker, they was all wrong about you. And anything I could do – to keep attention away from you –”

Lefty looked down at the floor, rubbed his eyes. Rex shifted in his chair, as Jimmy reached out and placed a hand gently on Lefty’s shoulder. Double-J sat silently. A car door closed on the street below, the sound echoing in the cold.

Lefty looked up again at Double-J. “All you needed was time.” Jimmy drew back his hand. “Time to figger things out for yerself, time away from all the people who thought they was helping you, trying to guide you. That’s why I gave you a job.

“Now I look at you, see what you doing,” Lefty’s voice cracking like ice in a tumbler. “Skipping school, talkin’ back to your coach. Now you got the three of us coming to visit you, try to talk some sense into you. And I knows what gonna happen – you gonna kick us out t’night, tell us to mind our own business, and we’ll leave, but some day soon more people are going to come visit you, and they won’t be like us, won’t be your friends, your – family. And what you’ll do is, you’ll also tell them to go away and mind their own business, but the difference is that for them, what you do is their business, and when you sends ’em away they’ll come back, and one of those times when they come back, they won’t leave until you leave with them.”

Lefty looked directly at Double-J, his eyes and face clear now, voice firm. “Thought I could help your daddy, help keep you out of trouble. But I done failed.”

A gust of wind whipped outside, rattling the windows of Double-J’s apartment. Double-J cleared his throat. “Lefty – this has nothing to do with you. You’ve been great, gave me a good job, so yeah, I guess I owe you for that. But I can’t return to school, go back to the fencing team, just on your account. If I go back, I’d be saying that Jacobs was right in what he did, and I can’t let him get away with that. Don’t worry, I’m not going to let any trouble come to you – if I have to stop working at the shop, I’ll do it. If I have to get a GED, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure nobody sees you as failure – just so long as it doesn’t require me to accept failure myself.”

“All right, then.” Rex rose suddenly as he spoke, as if his chair were suddenly electrified. “Jimmy, Lefty – we’ve done what we can, it’s time to go.” He turned towards Double-J, who remained sitting, listening intently. “Double-J, just think about something. As abrasive as you can be, especially during practice, we all miss you – me, Annie, Rune and Butch, Kassie. Without you, we’re simply not as good, either as a team or individually, as we are when you’re around. You push us, force everyone to do better, and I’d like to think we’ve made you a better fencer as well.”

Double-J nodded slowly.

“I’m – disappointed you decided not to be on the fencing team any more. Don’t think it’s the best decision, either for yourself, certainly not for the team. I know you’ve got problems with Coach Dan, and Annie, but when haven’t you had problems with them, and when haven’t the three of you been able to work things out. I don’t know why this time it has to be different, but I can tell there’s no turning back for you now. It’s just – the only word for it is sad, I’m sad you’ve decided to turn your back on all of us, sad you don’t care about the fact that we had a great team – have a great team. Just not as great without you.”

Rex turned swiftly towards Jimmy and Lefty. “Let’s go, guys.”

“Hold on.” Double-J stood, the sofa cushion underneath him not fully straightening as his weight lifted. He pointed at Rex — “you got regionals, end of the month, right?”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13G]

Caught in the Current

“Shouldn’t waste yer time.” The guitar slipped off the sofa’s cushion, Double-J catching its neck before it fell to the apartment floor. A car engine roared to life outside. “Kids with any smarts, move outta this town soon as they graduate. Come back for the holidays, summer vacations. Kids who stay, not only don’t they have the means to leave, don’t have the smarts to figure out what they want out of life.” He raised the guitar to his lap, brought his right hand over the strings, as if prepared to resume playing. “Just drift along without a plan, lettin’ the stream of life take ’em wherever. Gives ’em the impression they’re going forward, when all they’s actually doing, is getting dragged along with the current.”

“But you ain’t like that.” Jimmy seemed to rise in his seat. “Known you long enough, t’ know you got your eyes wide open. Know you got ambitions that should be taking you far ‘way from here.” His hands rubbed together — “Know you smart enough, t’ know what you doin’ now, ain’t gonna get you nowhere. Smart enough t’ know, that buckin’ the stream just give you a sense you fightin’, you winnin’, when all the time you just bein’ pushed along by the current, jus’ like ev-rone else.”

Sitting on a metal chair at the far end of the small room, Rex examined the participants in the emerging debate. The thin black wires of Double-J’s hair and mustache seemed even more disshevled than usual, as if charged with static; the teen’s face was placid but his eyes were narrowed, focused on the middle-aged businessman sitting just a few feet in front of him. Jimmy crossed his arms, exhaled deeply through his nose, bearing a patience that would remain until a satisfactory answer was provided. Rex had known Double-J long enough to know what the nature of that answer would be; Jimmy, though, while not a stranger was still too much of an unknown quantity for Rex to judge how he’d receive that answer.

Double-J blinked. “Don’t gotta worry about me.” Rex nodded, and in the three seconds that followed, he saw Jimmy Saunders perform three actions he had not previously demonstrated in front of any members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

First, Jimmy rose abruptly from his chair.

Second, he glowered down at Double-J, looking as if he were about to challenge him to a fight.

Third – and this was the most surprising thing to Rex – this soft-spoken volunteer fencing cach, owner of the most successful catering business in the region, a man both respected and respectful within their community — Jimmy Saunders told Double-J, in terms that could not be possibly misconstrued, that he was full of shit.

“Can you just look at you-self?” Spittle flew from Jimmy’s lips, sailed over Double-J’s head. “Livin’ in a dead-end apartment, workin’ a dead-end job — ” he turned sharply towards Lefty — “no ‘fense.” The lead mechanic smiled, turned away, Jimmy taking the cue to focus again on the apartment’s teen tenant. “Dropped outta high school, quit doin’ a sport you love to prove some kinda damn point. Act like you so proud, but what you gotta show for all that pride?”

Double-J squeezed his face, hands remaining at his sides. “That what you think? That my life’s just one big mistake, after another?”

Jimmy’s face softened, seeming to contemplate whether he wanted to speak the words on his mind. Then — “Yeah. That’s what I think.”

“All right then!” The teen rose, his head rising only to the level of Jimmy’s shoulders. “But what I know, is that they’re my mistakes, and I’d rather make my own mistakes, than accept anybody else’s lies.” Double-J stepped back, addressed the other three occupants in the room. “If you think anything you’re gonna say this evening, is gonna persuade me to go back to that damn school, get me back on the fencing team again – I’m telling you now, there’s nothing you can do to change my mind, so I suggest you stop trying, save yourself the energy. Because I’ve made my decisions, and if they’re wrong I really don’t care, because at least I’ll know they’re my decisions.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13F]