Questionable Entusiasm – Gray Metal Faces, March 6A

“Pret – Allez.” Letting me take the middle this time, head cut then line change to four — parry misses but so’s my cut, I’m dead in the water as his counter lands on my arm. Suckered me into falling short, fell for it. Bastard — smart bastard, though. Admire him after handing him his ass.

The Bird pushed her salad away, the ceramic bowl skritch-ing across the plastic metal table top. She told Double-J that the team seemed to be — she shook her head, then said the only word she could think of was disappearing. People would show up for practice, but nobody seemed to care anymore. It was like, The Bird said, that the only reason people came to fencing practice, was that they couldn’t think of anything else to do on Tuesday afternoons.

Across the table, Double-J squinted. “Even Annie? Rex?”

The Bird shook her head. Some days, she said, they would be the only two who really fenced. Everyone else, they’d go through stretching and drills with Coach Dan, but then he’d tell the team to start sparring and then Annie and Rex would get started, with everyone else sitting in the corner and playing games, or talking. Coach Dan sometimes made them get up and spar, but lately he hadn’t even been doing that, he’d just — The Bird shook her head — let them be.

Double-J laid the remnant of his sandwich onto his plate. Continuing to chew sausage and bread within his right cheek, he spoke briskly out the left side of his mouth. “Hate t’ tell ya, but it’s been leading up to this for a while. Ever since end of last year — all those seniors graduated, they’d been on the team two, three years. Took a lot of that enthusiasm you’re talking about with them.”

But they’re just people, The Bird protested. It’s still fencing —

“Fencing?” Double-J swallowed, leaned back, an overhead light reflecting off a stream of grease on his black mustache. “You mean, that sport nobody cares about, except for enthusiastic geeks? The sport everyone thinks is elitist, only practiced at private schools like the Academy?” He grabbed a napkin from the table, lifted it half-way to his face then frowned, threw it down, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. “You really think fencing ever had a chance in a small town like Bark Bay? It’s a sport that generates zero revenue, and some pretty big overhead costs — jackets, masks, blades. And then you get into the electronics — body cords, blade wires and tips and springs, you’re lucky to get a good year out of any of those; cord reels, they’re always getting snagged up, ruining the wiring inside; lames with dead spots, those patches that never work; scoring machines get banged up from being tossed into the trunk of some coach’s sedan. There’s a reason Jacobs only has one machine, two reels, few lames and weapons, and why he don’t bring it out except a few — ”

The waitress glided past their table, asked without stopping if everything was OK. Double-J nodded at her with annoyance, yet then seemed almost pleased at the interruption. “So yeah — seems to me that fencing’s got the deck stacked against it. Place like the Academy, where they have more money than they know what to do with, they can afford all that overhead. But a public school, like BBHS — ” he leaned forward — “in this economy?”

Rex fences, The Bird replied. And Coach Dan, she continued, had kept the team going for four years.

Double-J nodded, pursing his lips. “You really like Jacobs, don’t you?” The slender teen sitting on the other side of the table did not move. “Huh. Seems to me, thinking back over the past few years, he’s always been more popular with the chicks on the team than the guys.”

The Bird’s face darkened, as she asked what Double-J was insinuating. He smiled, blinked. “Just an observation. But you do know, that he didn’t start the team out of the goodness of his heart?” Not seeing a response, he continued — “Ever hear him talk about Josef? His coach, from college?” The Bird shook his head. “That’s right, you’re new. Josef’s from the old country — Hungarian, Romanian, I dunno. Few years back he retires, Jacobs goes out for the party. Hadn’t been fencing since he blew his knees out in college, he and Josef hadn’t seen each other in a decade, but soon as he sees him the old man gets on his case, why the hell ain’t you coaching, don’t want to hear no excuses.”

The Bird asked why he was telling her this. Double-J smiled — “Because it’s time you knew the truth. Jacobs weren’t the one who came up with the idea for the team, and he’s not being motivated by altruism. It’s called a mid-life crisis, nothing but a desperate attempt to recapture his youth. Some guys buy a sports car so they can feel fast and powerful again — Jacobs, when Josef gets on him about coaching, he sees an opportunity to purge some of the regret he feels for the mistakes he’s made in his past.”

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