The stairs, made of thin plywood and covered with a carpet runner bald and frayed in more places than it was whole, creaked with the ache of age as Rex and Jimmy rushed to the second floor, hoping to catch a respite from the oniony breath and garage odors emanating from Lefty. They reached a landing, turned right, bounded up another flight of creaking stairs and reached the second floor of the Embassy Apartments. The second door on their right was open; Rex heard the sound of oil heating in a frying pan as he and Jimmy approached the doorway.
Jimmy stopped, knocked on the sill, above the latch. The response from inside was immediate and violent, as if the action at the door were anticipated with a perverse pleasure.
“JESUS! Goddam door’s OPEN, what more do you losers NEED? This ain’t friggin’ ANNIE’S house, ain’t got no damn BUTLER!”
Jimmy raised his voice to speak, before being cut off by Rex, who rushed him into the apartment, followed by his companions.
They walked into the main room of Double-J’s apartment, comprised of three rooms with what barely seemed enough floor space for two. They nearly tripped over an old but serviceable sofa that lay just inside the door. Along the far wall was the kitchen – sink, stove, half-sized refrigerator – a card table and two folding chairs nearby serving as the dining area. Past the kitchen were the bathroom and bedroom, from where they heard Double-J call out.
“You mind watching them steaks? Don’t want them to friggin’ burn.”
Rex walked over to the stove, saw the large frying pan he had heard in the hall. Inside the pan were four cube steaks, each the size of an oversized card deck, sizzling in a thin layer of oil. Rex realized that Double-J must have just started to cook, as the top sides were still red.
“Looking good.” Rex suddenly realized he’d sensed something different from the last time he had been to see Double-J in this apartment. It had been a few weeks ago, right after Double-J declared he was done with the fencing team, done with Bark Bay High School. Rex had gone to seen him, went up to the apartment, saw the spoiled food on the card table –
Rex’s eyes scanned the bare surface of the card table. He looked around more, saw the sink spotless except for the cracked porcelain, neatly stacked dishes dripping dry in the drainboard, the linoleum in front of the sink free of spills and crumbs. Rex turned toward the living area and – yes, saw the distinctive pattern of a vacuum cleaner’s path along the rug. The tall teen laughed – “You cleaned?”
“Of course.” Double-J’s voice grew louder as he walked out of the bedroom. “You’re guests, right?” His hair was longer, seemed more black and wiry than before. It frizzed from his head as if in agony, falling lightly on his shoulders, beard and moustache billowing around his mouth. Rex thought he had lost weight, but he was still rotund yet fit, more muscular than fat. He was wearing jeans – he always wore jeans, even to his grandfather’s funeral – a white t-shirt visible under an oversized gray sweat shirt, bearing the small shield of the Academy on the upper left breast.
Lefty pointed at the lad he considered his apprenctice – “Where’d you get that shirt?”
Double-J looked down quickly, then back up at Lefty. “I dunno. Picked it up somewhere, a while ago.”
Jimmy laughed. “Thought for a moment, you were gonna tell us you’d gone joined the Academy.”
Double-J snorted contemptuously. “If’n I had the money to go to the Academy, the last thing I’d do with it, is join the Academy. Had enough of one school already – don’t need to go to another school, get all ticked off again.”
“Huh.” Seeing Double-J extending his arm towards him, Rex began taking off his jacket. “Told me last week you weren’t dropping out.”
Double-J smiled, walked over to the frying pan. “I’m not -” picking up a spatula – “but I’ll get into all that after we eat.”
Lefty walked over to the stove, peered down at the steaks sizzling in the skillet. “Pretty fancy.”
“Not a big deal, really.” Double-J bent to open the door of the half-sized refrigerator. “Grocery store up the street, takes the meat they don’t sell over the weekend, put her on sale Monday. Got these for half-price.” He opened the small freezer drawer, retrieved a bag of green beans. “It’s really not that hard to eat well without paying an arm and a leg. You just have to pay attention.” He opened the bag, placed it on the counter next to the sink, opened a cupboard door, retrieved a plastic container. “Thing is, most people don’t pay attention. They just go along, doin’ whatever it is they’re told, don’t ever question whether the people who tell ’em what to do, know what the hell they were talking about. No, the only time they think about that, is when things go wrong, and they’re looking for someone to blame for their failure.”
He began pouring the frozen vegetables into the container, then stopped himself. Turned from the kitchen, looked at his three guests, made sure to make eye contact with each. “Know what I like about fencing?” He didn’t wait for a response. “In the end, you’re accountable for your own actions. You do all this training, listen to what your coaches say, take advice from your teammates – but when you get on the strip it’s all about you, what you can do out there, how you react to what you’re opponent’s doing. When you win, it’s because of what you did, and when you lose – hey, you’re teammates and coaches weren’t on the strip, it’s all on you. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s – pure.”
[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13B]